A Short Story

My name is Doctor Ian McKinley, I am a scientist. In a short while I will die, murdered by a familiar hand - my own.

I'd better start by explaining my predicament. It is, I fear, too late to save myself, but my story might interest future researchers in my field. I have tried to extract a moral from the situation, a lesson that might be inferred, but sadly the situation is as grey as this concrete lab.

The story begins as lonely as it will end, a young boy reading science books in a darkened room, while his peers and tormentors climb trees outside, wafting their gleeful shouts through the cracked window. Perhaps the sadness of my childhood gave me this melodramatic writing style, perhaps it was the many cracked and dusty books in which I lived.

It is a cliche to start with my childhood perhaps, but I do it only to explain to the reader that my solitary study, my interest in my own mind, my obsession, all arose from the conditioning of my brain in it's formative years. The nature of this neural network at least is the sum of it's nurture.

By the time my class had learned to read and write, I was poring through the pages of university textbooks. By the time they had learnt calculus, I had derived the equations that form the basis of my current studies. By the time they had become interested in the other sex, I was reading Freud and psychology research. By the time they had moved away, my long longing looks through the grimy window had stopped and I had accepted my fate as a solitary thinker.

It was my mother you see. She wilted in a bed, racked with myriad ailments, but the only person alive that kept me from the orphanage. She was too far gone to understand the papers I read her, the books, my findings, but I don't think I ever stopped hoping that somehow I'd be able to find a way inside her head, to ask her the questions that no amount of books could tell me. So I washed her, fed her, and raised myself, her meagre allowance covering my library, and the increasingly decrepit cottage in which we dwelled.

You may assume from the description, that I was an unhappy child, but in actuality I was perfectly content. My description is the result of much self analysis, a hypochondriac's therapy, truthfully I lived a dreamy life deep inside the library of my head.

School was, of course, out of the question. I couldn't leave her alone, and besides, I couldn't afford to move. But an inquisitive mind finds a way, and as my mothers pension covered my living expenses, it was very easy to extend my comfortable life of study.

My obsession was the brain. From the philosophy of thought, where Kant and Hume battled for my affections, to the sloppy neural goo of the biology textbooks, I devoured it all. But the deepest I dived was into the study of the mechanical mind, the artificial intelligence.

I bought my first computer before my teenage years. It hummed with energy as the green prompt glared at me through the vacuum tube. At last I had a companion to join me on my mental travels, an assistant who unquestioningly followed my orders. It was the defining friendship of my life.

Now I must tell you a little about the field of artificial intelligence, or AI as we impatient and terse computer scientists abbreviate. Since the time when computers were people with a skill in mathematics, the idea of a machine with intelligence has gripped a certain type of person (I am not alone in my obsession you see). Alan Turing wrestled with the question, twisting himself in semantic knots trying to define the problem that AI would solve.

There are two traditional schools of thought. Firstly, proponents of symbolic intelligence suggest that there is some incantations, some string of commands which, given to a computer (any computer Alan argues) will suffice to give it at least the appearance of intelligence (which Alan says is the same thing). Of course finding this formula - this divine program - has consumed the finest minds of 4 generations now.

The other side are the neuralists. The people who argue that the only way that we can properly think like a brain is to study the brain itself. They simulate the electrical signals that course through our grey matter with millions of simple programs, training them to act a certain way.

I, of course, did not take one side, but learnt everything I could about them both. My computer buzzed, neuron programs fired, and ten years disappeared with a burst of static.

Mother died in my mid twenties. It was inevitable with her conditions, in fact towards the end I wished for the day to come because the smile she gave me had contortions of pain, and she stopped remembering who I was.

I wasted a year or so killing my neurons with gin - I told myself I was experimenting with the chemical properties of my brain, but really I just wanted to stop thinking. People with less intellect are blessed with an ignorant peace, my kin are wracked at night with thoughts of formulae and visions of dancing code. My mothers forced and painful smile haunted my dreams, and her plaintive queries as to my identity echoed through the emptiness of the cottage.

I think these are the only truly dark years of my life. It took a long time and a surprising letter to shake me from my self-pity and remind me that the world that I had created in my head still remained.

I had been a sporadic correspondent with many scientist in the field. At first they responded with a little unease to the uneducated swine who asked such probing questions. But I learned to create an identity, giving myself a PHD, a history of research. Eventually I had corresponded with so many of the scene that my presence became part of the crowd, and social connections gave weight to my alibi's. They became my peers, and despite the deception that underlay our relationships, I began to feel part of a community for the first time.

The letter that revived me from my depression was an inquiry from one of these peers as to the status of some research that we had discussed prior. I had had an interesting insight into ways to map neural simulation functions onto the raw hardware of the latest supercomputer.

The letter, furthermore, invited me to come join the team in the sunshine of California, where they had money and access to the latest machines. The funereal atmosphere in my bedsit, the dreary Sussex winter, and the dwindling of my savings made the decision very easy. A few trivial forged documents, and I was off to the new world, an eccentric English Doctor with a suitcase full of books.

Now I realise that you may think I am rambling, turning this account into a memoir, but I know no other way to explain to you, dear reader, how I, from such meagre beginnings, could be working amongst the finest luminaries in my field, amongst seas of gleaming instruments, with rooms of computers bound to do my bidding.

I settled onto the team rather well, all things considered. They took the bespectacled chap with the patched clothing and the perennial mug of tea, and helped him adjust to life in a modern lab. The stereotype of the bumbling British professor was invaluable to me as I could not help but comply to it.

They were some of the finest days of my life - we published many a paper, and I felt as though we were making good progress. A constant stream of funding meant that we had only the finest, fastest computers, and access to the rapid advances in neurological research.

In fact, we had so much new equipment that my house - a ramshackle cabin in canyon in the hills behind Berkeley - soon filled with 'obsolete' machinery that hummed constantly with my private research.

Twenty years passed, and I entered my twilight years in a far different world than the one into which I had been born. Computers had become so commonplace that people walked down the road with them in their pockets. Screens adorned every flat surface selling wares that seemed like the science fiction of my youth.

I had ridden out the revolution in the research lab, Scientists had come and gone, discoveries had been made, but the hope of AI had not been achieved. The eyes of the world had moved on to new efforts, companies and visionaries speaking of 'the singularity' when machines would think faster than humans. I persisted with my efforts to merely make computers think, but the funding for the lab had begun to dry up, and soon the doors shut for the last time on the lab that had been my home.

I managed to purloin much of the leftover equipment. It was so customised and hacked together that it was not worth much on the market, and so my little cabin filled with a frankenstein assortment of computer innards, chemical tubes, and vats holding the latest organic computers.

I had plenty of savings, not having had any extravagant tastes on which to spend my significant wages, so resolved to carry on as I always had, alone with my books.

I was fifty when I made my breakthrough. The years had begun to blur together, but I remember my age because a solitary card from one of my old research chums stood upon the mantle. The scene is as vivid as a photograph. I had been reading, whilst smoking a pipe as had become my custom. Now I cannot describe exactly the revolutionary thought that entered my head, requiring as it does the sum of my many years of research. If I could though, I would render it in terms of trees swaying on the wind before a storm, Rachmaninoff thundering on a piano, Streetcars clattering by.

It was as if my brain had climbed into some higher domain, some fourth dimension where formulae unite as one, the fabric of the universe vibrates in one single melody, a terrifying reality where one looks down and realises the trivial solution to his life's work. I quaked. I exhaled. I drifted back down, but in my hand I still clutched a memory, a strain of some distant concerto, an algorithm that would unite the symbolic and neural research of my lifetime. My pipe was cold - I must have been in a trance for several hours, and the sky was dark, but I felt as though I had been reborn. I rushed to the computer and began typing - frantically unless the demon answer escaped from my fingers.

It was another five years before I finally managed to get the system up and running. Last night actually. It looked horrifying - the assortment of computer machinery, biological vials, ephemera. Sparks occasionally jumped across some of the subsystems as my house struggled to draw enough power from the grid.

I had a computer that could think, but how to test it? What data to feed it? I had come up with a scheme. Using an advanced brainwave scanner, I would mirror the patterns of electromagnetic energy on my own brain on the simulated brain in the machine. By examining how the signals propagated across the neurons I could determine how the artificial intelligence would run. I could then set about designing an interface so that I could input questions into the machine. I chuckled to myself at the thought of all the questions I could ask it - the Turing test I would run.

I had to wait until the middle of the night to run the brain scanner. The electrical requirements of the whole affair were more than the power companies could supply during the day, and I had to wait until the world was asleep. It would have been appropriate for lightning to be coursing through the sky, but I remember waiting outside in delicious expectation, and being struck by how calm it was.

The stars glimmered through the haze, far away horns honked in the city, the smell of redwoods tingled my nose. I felt young again. Tonight I would know if my life's work was for naught, I would know if I had reverse engineered thought.

I thought of glory, of papers, of posterity, but most of all I thought of myself back in my childhood room, poring over those old textbooks, wondering what it was to think, and if it was a scientific process, whether I could divine my mothers thoughts.

I was quite overcome with sentimental thoughts, and it took the smell of my lab and the crackle of static electricity to bring my mind back to the situation. I started powering up the machines, one by one. There was to be no test run, I was so confident of my calculations, that I had no fear of malfunction.

I calmly sat down in the chair - the screens around the room were dripping with text and the humming of the machines had turned into a whirring roar as the subsystems cycled around me. I placed the headpiece onto my crown, closed my eyes, and pulled the lever I had wired to the activation system.

I guess I had expected a flash of light, some sort of definite moment when it scanned my brain, but no, just a slight tingling across my scalp, and then nothing.

I tried to open my eyes, but they would not open. I tried to move my hands, but they were strangely light, they felt no resistance. I flailed wildly - they hit nothing, my body was not there. I tried to call out, but there was no mouth, no sound, nothing but panic echoing throughout my brain.

Something had gone terribly wrong, blind animal panic had seized me - had the scanner fried my spinal column - where was my body, where am I - am I dead?

And then in the deepest darkest part of my panic, I heard it, terrible loud and gleeful. Comprehension began to flood. I could hear myself laughing.

"It worked", I heard myself say,
"Look at those electrical patterns, I did it!".

The voice echoed through my head. Dull realisation. Cold comprehension.

My memories, myself, everything had been copied. I was not me, I was the machine. As I heard myself working my way around the lab concentrating on recording the vital information, all I could think about is how I wanted to live. And that in a few short hours I would be pulling that power switch, shutting down the system, killing myself.