Is reality nothing more than a computer simulation? Some physicists seem to think so according to a report in the BBC (http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160901-we-might-live-in-a-computer-program-but-it-may-not-matter). I played with this theme in one of my short stories many years ago (“What Price to Live the Dream”) asking the philosophical question of whether it matters whether we live in life in a perfect virtual reality or reality itself, and whether a virtual reality indistinguishable from reality may not be preferable under certain circumstances. (My conclusion–spoiler alert–is that giving up one’s life for the chance at happiness in a perfectly rendered virtual reality is preferable to a life of regret in the real world. But then again, I also posited that microbes living in a god’s privates also view their universe as a wondrous, miraculous place from the point of view of their subjective reality in another short story, “Mergs,” so my view of reality may be a bit skewed.)
At any rate, if our universe is indeed a computer program, I need to hack the code–or at least find the damned reset button! As to the chance for happiness in a virtual reality or an unfulfilled life in the real world (whatever that means), I’ll still opt for door number one.
Since I’m taking (yet another) break from real work on a paper that is driving me nuts, I may as well give a preview of What Price to Live the Dream? It will at least waste a few more minutes. Then I’ll hit the fridge and scrounge around for something to occupy me for a few minutes more before going back to MS Word. **SIGH**
(C) 1990, 2011 Victor D. Lopez
Ken was tired, despondent and none too sober. He’d learnt only a few hours before that the Phoenix Project of which he was the lead scientist was about to be scrapped, that funding would not be renewed by Congress for the current fiscal year to the intelligence agency for which he worked. He saw the last 15 years of his life, years in which he’d been entirely absorbed in working on this most carefully guarded project and which had borne success beyond his most optimistic hopes, rush by him in a swirling haze. His life’s work was dissolving before his eyes like an early morning mist burnt away by the unforgiving rising sun of a new day (and a new Washington administration unfriendly to risky, high-priced covert projects).
The Phoenix project had been his life. He had conceived it while an undergraduate student at MIT and it had taken on a life of its own until it became his rason d’etre. He used his considerable powers of persuasion, and political connections (being the son of a senior senator certainly had not hindered his efforts, and he had not been shy about enlisting his father as an ally from the start), to convince the intelligence agency that his project was both feasible and of unparalleled value as an intelligence tool, and much too dangerous to be developed by private industry. All three assertions were undeniably true. Unfortunately for Dr. Kenneth Leyans, having cast his lot with the government, he was now precluded from pursuing his project through the private sector despite the fact that the cost of further research and development from this point on would be relatively modest. The pointed success he had achieved, to date would make many technology companies and most foreign governments literally kill to get their hands on his work, and would make him to only an instant billionaire, but a guaranteed Nobel laureate.
Simply put, the Phoenix project represented quantum leaps in computer technology and nanotechnology that allowed for a symbiotic melding between humans and computers. Dr. Leyans had succeeded in creating a device which could read and store any person’s complete memories from birth and download them into a computer’s memory, where they would be stored and could be enhanced, manipulated and made to interact with the real, computer-enhanced and computer-generated virtual memories of thousands of other people. Any person interfacing with the system can be made to relive his past from any given point with such accuracy as to make it indistinguishable from reality. Any past experience could now be relived in minutest detail. But the system was far more than a virtual memory generator. A subject interacting with the system still retained the free will to change past events by making different decisions from those made in his or her past, thereby affecting a change in all that followed from that moment in time onward. Decisions great and small that define our lives and its intrinsic quality could be revised. Doors closed by past choices, destinations forever unreachable in life after taking the wrong fork in the road leading to the wrong career, the wrong friendship, the wrong mate, could all be potentially revised.
At a fundamental level, we are little more than the sum of our life’s choices. With the benefit of hindsight we can judge the wisdom of our decisions and congratulate ourselves for our successes or lick the wounds of our failures. If we are wise, we learn from both. But no amount of introspection can alter the course of events that flow from crucial decisions made. Words spoken in anger cannot be taken back. A bullet fired from a gun cannot be recalled. A priceless crystal vase once dropped and shattered cannot be reassembled. Life offers no rewind button and the detritus we leave in our wake as the remnants of our broken dreams, broken words, broken hearts and broken souls is all too often beyond repair.
But the Phoenix Project had the potential to change that. The system’s many applications would include entertainment and it would add a powerful new tool for the treatment of mental illness. But it is the value to any government as an intelligence tool that Dr. Leyans had stressed when seeking government funding of his research: It would provide a valuable training and debriefing tool for agents and for the military, allowing subjects to re-live previous assignments or computer generated new ones; the entire memories of captured terrorists, enemy agents or dangerous criminals could be read into the computer and examined or changed by it so as to yield important information which could not be withheld. Agents’ reactions to specific events, such as interrogation under torture, could be examined so as to best determine their likely reactions in the field. It might even be possible to re-program captured foreign agents, terrorists and other enemy combatants at will so that they could be used to sow misinformation, gather information and otherwise disrupt the plans of enemies of the state–something not yet achieved by the system, but certainly well within its theoretical limits and a possibility well worth exploring.
Unfortunately, not every bug had yet been satisfactorily worked out. The system’s Achilles heel, and the trigger for the withdrawal of funding, was that the link between it and a subject once established could not be safely severed. Such attempts invariably led to one of two unacceptable results: death or madness. A person’s memories could be downloaded safely into the system without any ill effects; all that was required was the massive storage and processing power of a network of linked supercomputers and the wearing of a helmet with hypersensitive sensor receptors able to intercept and translate normal brain waves into data downloadable to the network. The average download time for a subject was a mere 10-12 hours of connect time under sedation. But for the system to directly interface with the brain in an active manner, setting up the parameters of the memories to be relived or hypothetical present setting to be infused, a more complicated procedure was required. In order to facilitate the symbiotic linkup to the Phoenix Project, an esoteric mixture of biochemical and nanotechnology agents needs to be consumed within four hours of the linkup. The biochemical agents strengthen the brain’s normal electrochemical reactions and enhance the body’s circulatory system, while the nanotechnology agents are carried through the blood to the brain, where they attach to individual neurons and act as miniature receptors to translate and convey impulses from the computer directly to the brain. The combination of the biochemical and nanotechnology agents makes it possible for a subject to receive data directly from the system safely. Unfortunately, once the link is disturbed, dire consequences result for reasons that Dr. Leyans and his team did not yet understand.
Convinced that the failure of the tests on the chimpanzee and gorilla subjects was related to the creatures’ inability to cope with the stress of the procedure due to their limited mental capacity and their inability to understand what was happening to them, three volunteers from the Phoenix Projects took it upon themselves to perform unauthorized tests on humans. Without the knowledge or consent of Dr. Leyans, three volunteers agreed to simultaneously interface with the system. They knew they would only get one shot at it and, aware of the high risk to themselves but confident in the success they would achieve, they wanted to have multiple positive results to strengthen the argument for further human trials. Of the three test volunteers, two died upon the severance of the symbiotic link between the subject and the system, and the third suffered severe psychosis requiring her to be institutionalized; the well-meaning volunteers in a single act confirmed the failed results on the simian test subjects and simultaneously dealt a death blow to the project.
Ken had been torn between the grief and guilt he felt for his colleagues and the frustration and anger at the untimely demise of the project so close to achieving complete success. The link‑up had been successful in all three cases; he had the complete record of their brain responses to their trips back in time into their own past, and all seemed normal until the link was severed and the attempt was made to bring them out of their virtual reality. The new generation mainframes which he had developed contained voluminous amounts of data on each of the psychic “voyages” undertaken by the project volunteers. While it would take years of close scrutiny to fully analyze such data and to yield conclusive results, there was little doubt from the preliminary findings that the experiments had been successful, other than for the recurring fatal flaw.
Yet, despite these unquestionable triumphs, the Senate Oversight Committee had decided to scrap the project. The computer equipment would certainly be put to some use, and he was assured of getting credit for that part of the project; but the Phoenix Project was effectively dead. All research relating to it would be branded top secret and filed away beyond the reach of espionage or the Freedom of Information Act.
But all was not lost. His father’s warning had purchased him a grace period of perhaps a day, or at least the better part of it. No guards were likely to storm his lab at 2:00 A.M., at any rate. Ken smiled; there was something to be said for red tape, after all.
There was nothing for him to do at the moment but wait. He’d called his best friend over an hour ago, and knew that he would soon be arriving. He had not given him any specifics over the phone, but had told him that he needed to see him immediately on an urgent matter. He smiled again faintly, conjuring a vision of poor Dan rushing out of the house in his pajamas, making the four-hour trip up from Albany to the Suffolk County facilities in what he knew would be record time. He felt some guilt about putting his friend through that; but it was necessary, and he knew the other would understand.
Ken sipped slowly from his large snifter–brandy, real Napoleon; he kept several bottles in the lab for important occasions, such as the celebration of new breakthroughs with his team (champagne, he felt, was better suited for World Series winners and senior proms); he certainly was not in a celebratory mood, but what the hell, crossroads counted, too.
A loud buzzer erupted in the lab, destroying the hypnotic humming of the computers. He arose slowly, self consciously attempting not to stagger perceptibly, and walked towards the intercom to be greeted by an emotionless voice.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Dr. Leyans, but there is a man here by the name of Daniel Lantz who claims you’ve sent for him.”
“That’s right, Sergeant, I have. Please escort him in.”
“Sir, he lacks appropriate clearance. I cannot allow him into the compound.”
“I’m clearing him now, Sergeant,” Ken retorted, not attempting to hide his annoyance. “Let him in at once.”
“But sir,” the Sergeant began, “I have strict orders that no one is to be admitted without proper clearance without the express authorization of General Worthing.” The man was insistent, but a tone of nervous annoyance was also detectable in his voice. Waking the general at 0215 hours was not something he cared to do; neither did he wish to incur the ire of the head of a project as important as this must be, judging by all the extensive security surrounding it–security and secrecy unlike anything he’d seen in his twenty five years of service.
“Sergeant,” Ken interrupted impatiently, “I am the head of this project, not General Worthing. His sole responsibility is the same as yours, to ensure my safety and to secure myproject. Mr. Lantz has information I need immediately that is crucial to that which is your duty to guard. If you delay me for one more minute, I promise you that both you and General Worthing can kiss your careers good-bye. Am I making myself perfectly clear?”
“Yes sir,” came the somewhat muffled response.
“Please escort Mr. Lantz to the lab immediately. Thank you.” With that, Ken turned towards the locked vault-like steel doors and punched in the access code to open them. He felt a little ashamed of his heavy-handed treatment of Sergeant Ellis, a man he had grown to know and like; but he simply did not have time to be diplomatic or overly concerned over a man’s hurt feelings, not when his life depended on what would transpire within the next few hours.
As soon as the door opened, an M.P. immediately came to attention on the outside as Dr. Leyans walked out to meet his friend. a moment later, he saw Dan being escorted by a somber Sergeant.
“Thank you, Sergeant,” Ken said with a thin smile, “And don’t worry, the surveillance tape of our conversation is on the record and I take full responsibility for Mr. Lantz’s presence here.”
“That you do, sir” the Sergeant retorted, stiffly doing an about-face and heading away at a brisk pace.
“Thanks for coming, Dan,” Ken began, turning to his friend and giving him a quick embrace. “I’m sorry to put you through this; you’ll get a full explanation in a minute.” With that, Ken signaled his friend to precede him inside. After both men had entered, Ken again punched in a code and the door slid shut, closing with a final clanging sound which sent a slight shiver down Dan’s spine.
“What the hell is this all about?” Dan demanded no sooner than the door was sealed, nervous anticipation and concern clearly detectable in his tone.
“That is a long and complicated story. But I’ll try to keep it brief. Please, come in and make yourself comfortable; this will take a while.” Both men moved towards a table in the corner of the expansive laboratory. As they walked, the immensity of the place with its myriad electronic equipment began to sink in for Dan. He let out an unconscious, low whistle. “God, what is this place?” he asked with a tone that clearly evidenced his surprise, curiosity and awe. He recognized some of the equipment immediately, namely mainframes and the ubiquitous video display terminals. Yet, most of the electronic paraphernalia was completely foreign to him. For the most part it consisted of monolithic metal structures with LED read‑outs and flashing lights; the enormous lab was well lit, almost painfully so, with white halogen light bouncing off the myriad chrome counter tops and milk-white high gloss laminated cabinet surfaces. The facility was spotless, anesthetized to the point of completely eradicating all odors; only the faint scent of ozone could be sensed, barely perceptible. Even the sounds seemed clean–merely white noise, a soothing hum at an almost subliminal level. The general effect, after the initial disorientation caused mostly by an almost overwhelming sense of immenseness, made Dan uneasy in a way he could not have explained were he even fully aware of it.
“This, dear friend, is the end result of my life’s work. You know what I have been working on for the past 15 years, but only in a superficial way. Until a few hours ago, this place stood for hope, a self-made vehicle for redemption. Now …” Ken’s voice trailed off to a nearly inaudible whimper.”Now, it is a tomb.”
“What the blazes do you mean? What is this place, and what the bloody hell are you talking about?”
Ken sighed, inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly, mechanically reaching for another snifter for his friend and pouring out a generous serving of the precious brandy, groping for words and a place to begin what he knew would be an explanation difficult to accept.
“I haven’t told you exactly what it is that I have been working on because it is classified information, and because, even if it were not, it could be dangerous for you to know it.”
“I can see it’s heavy-duty stuff. This damned place is a fortress.” I had no idea this lab was still operational.
“To put it simply, I am working on a project which has made it possible to relive one’s past. I can synthesize memories from brain impulses, translate them into code which the computer can manipulate and inject it back into the brain so that the subject actually relives them.”
“That’s . . . fantastic,” Dan interrupted excitedly. “Does it really work?”
“Yes and no. I have incontrovertible evidence that the process works, but the biochemical changes necessary to effectuate the process in conjunction with the physical symbiotic link‑up to the computer is not reversible at this time.”
“What do you mean by ‘not reversible’“?
Ken shuddered almost imperceptibly and answered in a low tone: “I mean you can’t cut the link without some . . . unacceptable consequences.”
“You mean that anyone who gets hooked up to your machine can’t come out of the . . . thedream?”
“Basically, yes. Although your characterization of the experience as a dream is inaccurate. The programming is so complex that the person linked with the system literally relives past experiences, or whatever scenario, real or imagined, we inject. You can think of it as a dream, but a dream so very real that it is indistinguishable from reality. The effect is not some blurry, black and white fleeting representation, as with most dreams, but a true life experience. Every nuance of taste, smell, touch, sound and sight are re-experienced; every feeling and thought relived.”
“God,” Dan interrupted. Can you imagine what people would pay to relive a particularly pleasant experience at will? To be with a loved one long dead? To recapture lost youth? This has to be among the greatest inventions of our time. Programmable dreams and truly attainable fantasies!”
“Yes, the potential uses of my invention are many, including the obvious commercial ones. But it’s all a moot point now.”
“What do you mean?”
“My father has just informed me that funding for this program has been cut. I expect the prototype will be dismantled by tomorrow.”
“But why?” Dan asked in disbelief. “Just because you haven’t perfected it yet? I know you said that once a person gets hooked up to the system he can’t be disconnected, but that must be something you could eventually fix . . .”
“It’s not just that, Dan. I’ve lost three colleagues who voluntarily underwent the link-up. The Senate simply felt it is too dangerous to be allowed to continue. Also, the climate has changed in Washington. Pricey research is out–especially when requested by an intelligence agency known for its black ops. The deaths of my staff members was simply the last straw that those opposed to the project needed to finally destroy it. I can’t really fully blame them. In the wrong hands, the Phoenix Project could be potentially more dangerous than nuclear weapons.”
“You should never have gone to the government with this. You could have developed it in any major university, or even through private industry.”
“No, I needed my dad’s clout to even get the government to listen to my crackpot notions. And no corporation on earth could have provided the enormous capital needed for research and development. At any rate, that’s all immaterial now. The real reason I asked you to come is that I have made a decision that I need to speak with you about before I can carry it out.”
“I know you well enough to know that I’m probably not going to like this,” Dan said, picking up his snifter, swirling the amber liquid slowly, absent‑mindedly, and downing half of its content in a single gulp. It could have been brandy, vodka or kerosene; Dan would not have noticed the difference. He was preparing himself for whatever it was that Ken had brought him here for. He cleared his mind of everything and concentrated on his friend, waiting to do whatever was asked of him. Ken refreshed their drinks saying “This is your final one. I need you clear headed. Clarity for me is of secondary importance at this time.” He smiled at Ken, then sat back in his chair, warming his brandy in his hand and exhaling a soft sigh as he resumed speaking.
“Let me tell you straight out why I asked you to come, and we’ll take it from there. I must link up with the system tonight, while it is still possible, and I need you to assist me with the process.”
“Are you absolutely out of your mind!” Dan spat out immediately, enraged because he knew that Ken was deadly serious and would not be easily dissuaded; extreme stubbornness is one among many characteristics they both shared. He would do anything that Ken asked, regardless of the risk or price asked of him–anything, that is, except help him to commit suicide, no matter how bloody important or worthwhile the cause.
“Relax, Dan. Please her me out. I don’t expect to have your help unless I can convince you that it is the right thing to do.”
“Forget it. I’m not buying any utilitarian argument about the need for sacrifice for the sake of science. The answer is no. Period.”
“You’re jumping to conclusions. Please hear me out; I must link up to the system, but not for any altruistic reason. I must do it for me, not for science, country, humanity or any other idealistic reason. I began work on the project purely out of selfishness, and that is the same force that drives me into what I must do tonight. It is what is best for me, and that is why you will help me.”
“That’s all I ask,” Ken said, smiling softly and taking another sip from his snifter. “Do you remember Linda?”
“Your high school sweetheart? Of course I remember her.”
“Do you remember why we broke up?”
“Sure I do; you thought you were getting too emotionally attached, that both of you were in love at the wrong time, and that continuing to see each other would interfere with your education. You broke it off, never saw her again and learned that she was married some years later, when you were starting your senior year at MIT.”
“That’s right. You also know that it was the worst mistake of my life.”
“Yeah,” Dan uttered, his voice nearly inaudible. “You’re the most brilliant moron I’ve ever known.” They had spent many hours rehashing that decision over the years. Ken had never been the same since he’d learned of Linda’s marriage, since that door was forever closed for him. She now lived in California, three thousand miles away, with a caring, decent man she would never truly love despite having borne him three sons. Ken had not married and never would; he was an idealist who could never settle, as Linda had, and much too honest with himself to even hope that he might change. Regret had nearly driven him to despair until he had launched himself head-on into his work. In it, Dan had thought that his friend had found if not a substitute for love, at least a meaningful escape from the unbearable reality of his loneliness and regret. Throughout the past ten years, Ken had been too busy for pain or emptiness and had seemed content. Dan had known better than to breach that subject during that time, and had finally nearly convinced himself that Ken had exorcized his ghosts. Until this very moment, when the import of his friend’s motivation throughout the past ten years became all too clear. His heart sank, and he fought keep in check the powerful emotions percolating to the surface.
“You can’t go back, Ken. You can’t throw away your life for a dream. You can’t give up everything to live a lie.”
“You know me better than anyone on earth. You are my best friend and probably the only reason that I made it through my graduate studies and the years before I conceived of the project. But you’ve got to understand the simple fact that life without Linda is literally not worth living for me. Regret is the cruelest disease; it gnaws away at you from the inside until there is nothing left but a hollow shell, and the echoes of painful memories. You know, it’s funny; no matter how many times you say you’ve hit bottom, that you can’t sink any lower, that there is simply no more pain you can possibly feel, you’re proven wrong. There’s always more. It can always get worse, and almost invariably does.”
“But your invention is not the answer. You can’t find happiness in a dream, because a part of you will always know it is a dream. You can’t cheat fate, at least not in that way. If Linda is still that important, then damn it, let her know that; there may still be a way. Marriage, especially an imperfect one, is not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle; you can always . . .”
“No, Dan,” Ken interrupted gently, feeling his friend’s frustration, but drawing strength and a calmness that surprised even him from his determination. “Even if I could, I would not break up that family and hurt her husband or her kids; I could no more do that than I could suffer the death of an innocent person to save my own life or the life of a loved one. If I could, I would be unworthy of her love, and if she could accept me under those circumstances, she would be unworthy of mine. There is no other answer, and you know that too, dear friend.”
Dan could not reply. He knew that Ken was essentially right, but he would have said or done anything to dissuade his friend. Unfortunately, he also knew that once Ken made up his mind, something he never did lightly, there was no power on earth that could make him change it.
“You just can’t throw away your life, Ken. Nobody is worth that, not even Linda. It’s one thing to take a chance for the sake of science; I can accept that.” Dan’s tone softened, seeing the pain that his allusion to his dead colleagues had immediately caused; he had struck a responsive chord and he had every intention of exploiting if it could save his friend from himself. “The sacrifices your colleagues made were not in vain; they knew the risk and willingly took it. Their sacrifice is no less noble for being rash and unwise.”
“I would never have allowed it had I known of it. Jason, Sandra and George were brilliant scientists and good, decent human beings. The project wasn’t anywhere ready for human experimentation.” Ken’s eyes glistened as his voice grew hushed and husky. “I would give anything to bring them back, to ease their family’s pain. The risk, when it was time to take it, was always meant to be mine alone.”
“But the point is, they took that risk for all the right reasons. I’m sure they sensed that a breakthrough was needed very soon to allow the project to continue, to prevent what has happened from coming to pass. But you are willing to take the same risk for all the wrong reasons, knowing that you will die. You’ve taken on the whole damned project for the wrong reason; you can’t change the past. We have to accept our mistakes, learn from them and move on. You’ve been brooding for over twenty years about something you fundamentally cannot change and are too damned stubborn, proud and weak to accept that simple fact.”
“You probably right about that. I am guilty of pride, the original sin. But you’ve got to understand, Dan, that there is simply no other choice left to me; if it is between pride and despair, I’d rather burn for pride. I can’t give up; I just can’t. Not while there’s the slightest chance that I can set things right without hurting anyone, except possibly myself.”
Dan sighed. He knew he was getting nowhere, but he could no more give up than Ken; stubbornness was a trait they both shared, a trait they recognized as a flaw yet carried proudly like a banner upon their psyches.
“Look,” Dan started, trying a different approach. “Even assuming your damned machine works, what is the point of living out a dream until they shut it off? What will it prove or accomplish? How is that any different from blowing your brains out, the second thinly veiled option to which you alluded a moment ago?”
“It’s very different. First of all, you keep thinking that I will be living a dream. That is a false assumption and belittles what the system can deliver. Second, you falsely assume that the system will be shut down within a matter of hours; it won’t be if I’m attached to it and they know that shutting it down will kill me. That’s essentially what I need you for, counselor. I trust you can keep the matter in the courts with a temporary restraining order and perhaps even get a permanent injunction against the government pulling the plug. A shutdown, and my subsequent death, probably won’t occur for years, and perhaps not at all.” He smiled wryly at his friend and continued in an almost playful tone, “You’d fight like hell to see to see to that as if my life depended on it.”
“You’re a sly bastard. But you’d have to convince me that this ungodly machine of yours can do more than provide you with a pleasant, deadly dream before you can count on my help.”
“Actually, I don’t. I can kick you out right now and hook myself to it with the absolute certainty that you’d wake some poor judge or other to work your magic from your cell phone before you got to your car, and before the nasty old agency people pull the plug and hide my cause of death.” Ken was smiling broadly now, knowing he’d won, and enjoying the dour look on Dan’s face. “Nevertheless,” he continued in a more serious tone, “I will convince you. I owe you that, and I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life wondering what you might have done to prevent this. You’ve got to know that this is right for me, that I have thoroughly thought this out for many years, and that it will definitely bring me the second chance without which I cannot and will not live.”
“Fine, Ken. You can start by telling me how what you hope to achieve is not simply a dream, and why I’m wrong in saying that.”
“Easy enough. Remember what I said before, that the system has the ability to make the host relive memories in the slightest detail so that they seem real, and that it can inject variables to change those memories, or even completely computer-generated ones? It can also, as I’ve said, contain the complete memories of multiple people. The subject can either be aware that he is living a virtual reality, or he can be ignorant of that fact.”
“You mean that the person can either know that he is dreaming or not know. O.K., what difference does that make?”
“First of all, it’s not a dream. That should be abundantly clear by now, but I’ll still clarify it further in a moment. As to the difference it makes, that’s obvious. If I were aware that I was living a computer generated quasi reality, I could not accept it, and my ultimate death would have been a truly meaningless sacrifice. The point is, I would not be aware of that. It would be real, as real as our present existence is to both of us. After all, how do you objectively know that you are now alive? How do you know that you are not the figment of some sleeping being’s overactive imagination? And, more importantly, what the hell difference does it make?”
“OK., let’s assume arguendo, that you can swoosh yourself back to high school, not remember that you did so, since you would not have the knowledge of everything that has transpired from that time until now in your memories of that time, and manipulate the computer into letting you fall back in love with Linda. Granted, you may not know it’s not real at that point, but you do now; you know you would be living a lie. What is the point beyond merely hedonistic self-indulgence or intellectual masturbation?”
“I know what you’re saying, and I’ll admit there’s a grain of truth to your argument, but fundamentally you’re wrong. The existence I will live will be in part a lie; the reactions of people I have met in the past and continue to meet in the future while linked to the computer will look, dress and react in accordance with my previous experiences with them enhanced by the artificial intelligence of the computer’s own programming. Since their memories or consciousnesses have not been captured by the system, the system will merely extrapolate from what it gleans from my recollections and generate their actions based upon that limited data. Father McMullen will always be a saint in my alternate reality, and Ben Munsen will always be the miscreant he was in sixth grade—unless the computer’s AI decides otherwise. People will react largely as I expect them to. But I won’t know that, so it won’t matter. Also, the computer will randomly generate new individuals for me to meet and interact with, drawing from its massive database of personalities and from the collective memories of the hundred or so people who have linked up with the system to voluntarily download information. If my usual neighborhood gets too boring, or my old friends too predictable, I’ll probably decide to move, as I would in real-life, which will be fine, since I’ll be exposed to an almost limitless number of computer generated people no matter where I go in my mind’s eye.”
“That’s fine as far as casual acquaintances, colleagues and maybe even friends. But what about Linda? Won’t you find her incredibly predictable after a while and grow weary of her? What if you decide you can’t stand her after all? Wouldn’t that be poetic justice!”
“Linda is a special case. Her entire memories are in the computer, along with mine. In the early stages of the project, we developed a safe means of downloading memories into the system; as I’ve already told you, we found a relatively simple process to capture the electromagnetic impulses of the brain and translate them into machine code. The danger comes only in establishing a two-way linkup with the system to access the shared memoriesBso far, that’s been a one-way trip for us.
“How did you get Linda’s memories downloaded?”
“She, along with hundreds of mostly student volunteers, agreed to take part in an MIT project that formed the foundation of my PhD work. Volunteers were paid a stipend to lie for 12 hours on a comfy couch connected with my then- experimental neural interface, with a low-dose Valium drip to prevent discomfort and speed up the subjective time for the participants.”
“So, you see,” Ken continued, “whatever reality we find ourselves in, she will react in accordance with her own stored self’, without any alteration by the computer. Her ‘mind’ will react along with mine, growing and changing in accordance to our interrelationship, our environment and our individual and shared new experiences. She may still meet and marry her current husband, or we may grow to hate each other, but if we do, it will be genuine, just as it would have been had we stayed on our set course some twelve years ago. And that is a chance I will take.”
“What makes you think that you won’t do exactly what you did before, that you won’t make precisely the same mistake again?”
“I just know I won’t. And I’ve loaded the deck just a trifle to ensure that.”
“What you mean, Ken, is that you’ve programmed the machine to give you what you want; you will ‘go back’ in time, know that you must follow through with Linda, and find that she has the exact same feelings you so wish her to have. Which brings me to back to my original point, that you are throwing away your life to pursue intellectual masturbation, to live the dream through a dream. Damn it, Ken, can’t you see that what you are engaging in a meaningless wish-fulfillment?”
“Stop trying so desperately to convince me, and yourself, that I’m wrong. Listen to what I am saying with your heart and mind; get out of the ‘adversarial mode’ and back into the ‘friendship mode’ counselor.”
“I’m trying. Believe me, I’m really trying to understand.”
And I’m trying just as hard to make you understand. Your understanding and approval is very important to me; although I know you realize I’ll do what I have to without either, if necessary.”
I know, I know,” Dan replied softly, beginning to resign himself to the irresistible force of his friend’s determination.”
“Anyway, what you implied a moment ago is not accurate. I will not reprogram the system to bring about or even facilitate any given result. All I will do is program one single thought into my mind which should trigger the right course.”
“And what might that be?”
“Simple. Twenty years ago, the last time that Linda and I got together and I broke it off, I reached what has become for me the most crucial crossroad of my life: a moment in which I was torn between wanting to hold her, to tell her that I loved her desperately and completely and that all would be well, and needing to run out of the apartment and keep running, never looking back. I chose the latter course. If only I’d stayed a few minutes more, looked for another instant at her warm brown eyes, and saw, really saw, her understanding face with the tears gently rolling down her cheeks, I know I would not have been able to follow through. I would have followed my heart and held her, kissed her, and poured out my heart to her. All I will do to the system is to program the thought that I must stay with her for a little longer, and kiss her one last time.”
“And that will do it?”
“And what if you’re wrong? What if you stay five minutes longer, kiss her one last time and then get up and run away, just like the last time?”
“Damn it, what if you do? Then what?”
“Then my ghosts will have been set free. I will be twice damned and will prove myself unworthy of that second chance. And I will most likely go on to live out the rest of my virtual life with the same pain and regrets as my real one. Who knows, perhaps I’ll go on to work on this project, overflowing with regret, and do it all over again. How do you know I haven’t already, and that this is not the umpteenth iteration of an endless loop? It doesn’t really matter what the outcome is; if there were only a one in a trillion chance of it working, I’d sell my soul to try.”
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