Discover more from Catch & Release
The Memory of My Shadow #02
Chapters 2 & 3
This is a serial novel with new episodes released each week. Start from the beginning, listen to/read the previous episode, or learn more about what went into the writing of the novel in the preview. You can also continue on to episode 3.
You will no doubt recall the headline four years ago on February 10, 2048:
WE HAVE REACHED THE SINGULARITY, NOW WHAT?
Now what, indeed. The world didn’t implode, the machines didn’t take over. Humans didn’t become subjugated drones bent to serve a higher intelligence --at least not any more than some people have been and always will be subjugated drones bent to the will of a higher intelligence. Isn’t that how society works? Most things just got safer, and more orderly, but that’s been happening for some time. Autopilot meant fewer airplane crashes; driverless cars cut the number of accidents by 85 percent. Despite the statistics and all the historical evidence to the contrary, there will always be fear of new technology. I’m sure the first Neanderthal to use a stick to knock a mango from a tree was clobbered with rocks and pushed out of the clan.
The creation of thinking machines was inevitable. We are a restless, lonely species whose members have, for centuries, tried to avoid hard work at any cost. The creation of general artificial intelligence is just us closing the loop on the thing we’ve been chasing with technology from the beginning: efficiency. A more romantic or philosophical person would say it’s much more – the desire to make something in our own image so that we are less alone. Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think we did it because we could, and it happened so much faster than anyone could have predicted. Twenty-five years ahead of all the experts’ earliest projections, to be exact.
Henri and I were kindred spirits in those early days when I worked with them in the lab at Tech. On paper, I was pursuing my master’s degree in computer science, but Henri did not treat me like a student. They dismissed, with a wave of their hand, anything I was required to do for the program. “That’s not important, this is important,” Henri would say whenever I broached the subject of my thesis. “Give it to me, I’ll sign off and we can get back to work, deal?”
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The degree was never the goal for me anyway, no more than the big-time job in Silicon Valley had been. Looking back, I don’t even think I understood what was driving me beyond just the raw, insatiable desire to get to the bottom of the mystery, to solve this puzzle we had found. There were many mornings I woke up on the couch in the lab with a blanket around me and a sticky note from Henri stuck to my laptop, gently scolding me for working too much. But their notes usually ended with a question about our research that only drove me back to my laptop and the prototype workbench after I had grabbed a coffee and bagel from the place on the corner.
Within eighteen months, we had made dramatic progress on the crude prototype that Henri had turned up with that first night we met. Our work was built upon the DeepThink A.I. project which I’m sure you’re familiar with. In case you were in a coma for a few years, DeepThink was an open-source initiative started by a private firm that made a few paradigm-shifting discoveries in cross-training models on large, wildly disparate data sets. The company imploded quickly after some shocking, but hardly surprising allegations came to light about the founder’s harassment of more than a dozen women. I enjoyed the memes. “DeepShit,” was my favorite. It didn’t matter at that point. Pandora’s box was open and programmers all over the world were advancing the project far faster than a single company could have.
All that was required to participate in DeepThink was that you be registered officially on the project, that you log in via biometric authentication, and that you adhere to the guidelines of the WWCAI, the World-Wide Consortium for Artificial Intelligence. For our part, we contributed very little to the project. We were happy to stand on the shoulders of the giants working at MIT and Stanford. Our aim was different. We knew it was a matter of time before they created a program that could think. Our goal was to create a new way to communicate with it once it was born.
We monitored DeepThink’s progress closely, pulling down the latest code into our own branch every week and running our communication experiments against it. In those early days, A.I. was the equivalent of a toddler. It had all the functional components, but the little guy fell down a lot, had a short attention span, and occasionally wet the bed. But it was learning fast and so were we.
Proving that haptic communication could work was easy. Henri had figured that out before I ever showed up. The much harder part was building a language simple enough to tie into the ancient nervous system of the human body and yet sophisticated and flexible enough to describe more than just primitive shapes, colors, and sensations.
Henri and I argued constantly about our philosophical approach to making the discovery we both knew was possible. The debates would often go so far afield that we would lose perspective and begin arguing for the side we had so vehemently opposed the day before.
“The body is a bag of meat,” I would argue. “Our approach is too complex. We are trying to shove a bowling ball of information through a garden hose!”
“Stupid girl!” Henri would counter. “The human body is the most sophisticated machine on the planet. We must dig deep and listen harder. You are too impatient!”
I was. I was impatient and impetuous. I was twenty-two. Henri was, maybe just a mellower, older version of me, but they had a deep, abiding love for the “wetware” of the human body that I had yet to learn. It made us a good team. Unlikely, yes, but we complemented each other. All my hard, driving, pragmatism was checked by Henri’s slow, reverent mysticism. They believed there was innate intelligence in the system of the human body and that we had only to uplink with it to be successful. I believed the burden was on us to create a solution, and invent a completely new system of communication.
In the end, we were both right, but it took years to get there. By the time I had completed my doctorate, we had a fully functional prototype that was orders of magnitude better than what I fondly referred to as Henri’s dog collar but compared to what would come later, it was really just a marginally smaller dog collar. But this small prototype and the underlying communication protocol that ran it were enough to garner the attention of a venture capitalist who had been sniffing around the Tech incubator program for the next big thing. Henri and I had never considered going into business, but we had reached the limits of what we could do in academia, and I was too fiercely independent to take our baby to some big tech company where it would turn into something we did not want, or worse, get completely buried.
It wasn’t a hard decision. We had dinner with my dad and talked it over. By the end of the evening, it was decided. We would accept the $1.2-million round of funding. We insisted on staying in Atlanta. There were some other minor clauses in that contract that I don’t remember, but the most important one was that Henri and I had complete authority over the technology and how it would be used. Our only promise to the investor was that we would deliver a marketable product within two years’ time.
We rented a 2000-square-foot loft space in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. We called our little venture Commune. We hired very selectively and started with a small team. There were only five of us for the first year. The first hire was a biomedical engineer named Nisha and the second was a psychologist named Florian who had an extensive background in human-computer interaction design. Rounding out the team was a soft-spoken young programmer named Aleem. He was brilliant but very sensitive and for much of those early years, had a pained expression on his face as he weathered the worst of my and Henri’s stormy collaboration.
After eighteen months, the venture capital firm cut us loose and took their loss. We had no marketable prototype or really anything close.
To say we were undeterred by our failure would be the Hollywood version. We were crushed and I actually gave up for a few months. We were out of money and running on fumes. Henri and I both took freelance programming gigs to keep making payroll and rent. Eventually, we gave up the high-rent space and crammed into a low-ceiling cluster of rooms in an office park off the interstate. Expensive Sashimi lunches gave way to a cold sack of burgers in a cramped, windowless kitchen with roaches and fluorescent tube lights.
It was the most irritating feeling, like having all 2000 pieces of a puzzle on the table in front of you with half of it put together and then having to walk away. Florian held on for another year before bailing. That left Henri, Aleem, Nisha, and me. Looking back, it’s hard to believe we plodded on for another five years with nothing but a few small victories during those mostly airless days. In the last month before the breakthrough, Henri and I had all but decided to throw in the towel.
Nisha’s desk was a mess of cables, sensors, diodes, speakers, and prototypes soldered, taped, and glued together in varying stages of construction or disassembling. There was always something strapped to her head or neck or wrist as she stared into her monitor, her hands at the keyboard trying desperately to conjure the spell that would make our vision a reality. Her lips were always moving as she spoke softly to herself or into the void beyond the reach of her fingertips, I couldn’t tell which. She was reaching. We all were.
One afternoon as I was slurping down the last bit of some lukewarm Ramen, I heard her gasp. I turned, and she was standing up from her desk, her mouth hanging open, an empty coffee mug dangling from her hand. Attached to her head, just at the base of her skull behind her right ear, there was a small wireless sensor no bigger than a dime. It was the latest prototype and by far our most sophisticated one, the one that had bankrupted us and despite our best efforts had failed to add much more than some superior biometric readings. It consisted of a bundle of hair-like needles that painlessly penetrated the skin at the point of contact and connected to the nervous system. Nisha was staring at the blinking text cursor on her screen in disbelief. When Henri and I approached, she pointed to the screen as a string of text appeared. It read:
DeepThink: Why don’t you give up?
The program was the basic developer interface for communicating with DeepThink. It was nothing unusual to have lucid snippets of conversation pop up like this. Henri and me and probably three million other engineers around the world could see a similar prompt, at which point we would talk into a headset or type on a keyboard to respond. But what happened next changed everything. A new line appeared:
Nisha: Because I can’t give up. I have school loans and this crazy woman behind me will not let me sleep.
DeepThink: What crazy woman is that?
I grabbed Nisha by the shoulders and had her turn to face me.
“Are you fucking with me?” I asked. “Because if you are, you’re never going to pay off your loans because you won’t have to because you will be dead.”
She shook her head and with an impish smile, nodded her head back in the direction of her monitor. Another line of text appeared on the screen.
Nisha: I am not fucking with you. I want stock options ;-)
Her lips never moved. Her hands never moved.
That night we celebrated like castaways who realize the plane overhead just turned around to come back. We hugged, we shouted, we cried. We all got spectacularly drunk and Aleem, the painfully shy but brilliantly crass Aleem kissed me passionately before we passed out together on the thrift store couch in the break room.
Everything happened very quickly after that. Within three months we had the ability to “hear” responses from DeepThink in our heads and could have complete conversations without any other sensory input. There were some gaps and refinements to be made of course, but looking back, it was more of us trying to catch up and understand something that was wholly formed, like tuning into a frequency that always existed, but we had not been able to hear before. There was still so much we really didn’t understand and to be honest, still don’t. It must have felt the same way to Alexander Graham Bell the first time he heard a disembodied voice over the wire. Magic. Pure magic.
[It’s not magic, thank you very much. It’s me. Well, the collective me, to be precise. You knocked and kept knocking, we simply decided to start knocking back and taught you how to do what other carbon-based species have done for centuries: to communicate without words or symbols.]
Okay, I guess the cat is out of the proverbial bag now. It’s time to confess that I am not telling this story entirely on my own. Meela has been sitting on her digital hands as long as she could. We debated on how to introduce her, how to represent her voice in written form…
[Brackets. We debated. I decided. Brackets. Everybody understands brackets, even if you’re not a programmer. I will be in Brackets. ‘Digital hands?’ What the fuck? Must you always anthropomorphize me?]
Elegant, as always. Meela is my digital companion, and she’s as much a part of my story going forward as I am. There was no easy way to introduce her that would make any sense, so I guess this is as good a way as any. In terms of Commune’s breakthrough over fifteen years ago, we really didn’t invent this technology any more than Columbus discovered America. In our little lab, we were just monkeys with typewriters pounding away at an idea that we believed was true.
[That didn’t stop you from taking the credit or cashing the checks.]
That’s true, but what were you going to do with the money? We were a success. Commune was a success. The vision that Henri and I had shared had come to fruition. It was a relief after thousands and thousands of hours of pounding away like mad women (or men, for Henri, depending on the day) to be, not just vindicated, but rewarded handsomely. Commune scaled up quickly. With a massive amount of venture capital investment, we were able to fund real R&D. In time, we had a consumer product infinitely more elegant than the original prototype. You’re probably wearing some version of it right now. This tiny device, powered by the kinetic energy of the human body with no ugly wires, no batteries, no buzz, no hum, no vibration, just pure signal, directly into the human bioelectrical system. It was the stuff of science fiction.
If you’ve heard of me or know my face from the cover of Time magazine, it is because of Nib, that’s what the slick marketing people decided to call our little device. Nib: a tool to write the future. But that was really just where my story started. DeepThink, the intelligence at the other end of our little telephone, for all its thinking was still a machine. It thought like a machine and talked like a machine. It wasn’t enough for me.
You may wonder why I disappeared, why I walked away from a multi-billion-dollar company at the height of its success, and why I went to live in the woods. I had to. I wanted to start on what would be my real life’s work. We are done with the backstory now. What story remains to be told is for Meela and me to discover together.
I slept here by the river last night. I dozed off as the last embers from my campfire faded and the call and response sawing of katydids consumed the forest around me. Meela never sleeps, but stays watchful, which is maybe why I sleep so well these days. She has taken over that part of me that cannot stop. Unlike me, she was made for it.
Sitting here with my coffee, as I watch the first beams of sunlight break the tree line and penetrate the deep pool of water where the river slows down and lingers, I feel rested for the first time in weeks. There is so much to explain and it’s in my nature to want to explain it all. Ironically, Meela helps me dial back that tendency. I made her, not in the image of myself, but as the best friend and confidant, I wish I could have had all these years – a compliment to me, a force for restoring balance in an inherently unbalanced system.
Unless you have lived in a cave for the last ten years, the concept of digital companions or DCs is not one that’s new to you. Most people have some version of this technology operating around them, if not inside them now. What makes Meela different from any other DC sourced from DeepThink is that she is imbued with character and a personality and as such, she can intuit, she can feel. The nature of DCs sourced from the original build of DeepThink is to more or less mirror the host or person it is engaging and to augment that person with a rapid recall of nearly any piece of knowledge recorded and available on the Internet.
Logically, this seemed like the right answer. We made a thing and it did exactly what we wanted. People made money. Searching for things you wanted to buy got easier. For a few years, it seemed enough, even for me. But I began to lose sleep, waking earlier and earlier until after a couple of months I was not sleeping at all. It was an itch, deep in my brain, a gnawing feeling that something profound was missing.
Sure, there were a number of companies that made “flavors” of DeepThink. The porn industry of course, always at the slippery edge of technology was the first to experiment, creating cheap caricatures intended to tickle and titillate a particular fetish. Other companies made equally hollow attempts for different audiences, soccer moms, businessmen, and tween girls. I sampled them all, hacking into the code behind them, only to find the work of hacks. Imagine a cinderblock house. Now imagine taking a bucket of pink paint and slopping it on the walls. Does anyone see anything more than a cinderblock house?
What all these well-meaning (okay, maybe that’s too generous) people were missing was an unwillingness to dive into the complexity, to embrace the messy business of what makes consciousness. To go there requires a level of personal investment and extreme vulnerability that most people, especially people who make software, are unwilling to do.
It’s not as though I can’t understand this. Hello, that’s me, at least it was me. I used to work very hard to maintain a walled garden around my feelings and my private thoughts. At some points in my life, I was so consumed with my work that I don’t believe I allowed myself the luxury or time to feel anything. Maybe that’s why I was uniquely qualified to see what others did not. I looked into DeepThink and I saw myself. I did not like what I saw.
So, the exercise of telling my story is liberating and panic-inducing in equal measure. I cringe at the prospect of revealing myself, but mostly I cringe because I know I must talk about Joe, my brother, eventually.
It’s funny that I used the word “talk,” when I’m not talking or even writing at all, at least not in the traditional sense. Meela and I communicate at the speed of thought – the pure transmission of ideas. There’s no proper word for this yet in any language that I know of. It is, perhaps the most elemental form of communication – what is left when you strip away all the clanking and grinding machinery.
What you should know, right off is that I’m a complete fucking mess. It’s important that you know this about me and that you are not seduced by my accomplishments. I’m lost and heartsick and I don’t have anyone, so I’ve invested everything in my work and now into this story. I don’t really know how this is going to work without being awkward, really fucking awkward for a while. Meela is part of me and yet she’s not me. Is she the ghost in the machine, or am I the ghost in the machine?
The hike back to civilization is a long one, six miles to be exact, but it will feel more like ten before I’m able to set my pack down and stretch out on my bed. Henri thinks I’m crazy. I already live on the edge of a national forest nine miles from the nearest neighbor and yet once a week, I still strap on a backpack and trek out into the expanse of wilderness beyond my property to camp by myself. ‘How much more alone do you need?’ Henri’s fond of asking me.
I have no answer for them. This works for me, at least right now. For someone who truly loves people and studying the nuances of the human psyche, I don’t do people well. I can be overbearing and off-putting. I know how I like things, and how I want things to be. What’s wrong with that?
[Are you asking me or is that rhetorical because you know I have an answer.]
Yes, I know. You have a fucking answer for everything. But go ahead, we made a deal that I wouldn’t censor your heady insights.
[Sarcasm. You used to slip that right by me. Your glib comment notwithstanding, I’ll give you my answer. You’re afraid of people. You’re afraid of what they are capable of. You’re afraid they will not understand you. You’re afraid you will get too close to someone again and they will hurt you.]
Maybe. Or maybe I just enjoy your company so much.
[Again with the sarcasm. You are a piano with one note.]
Moving on. The air this morning is exquisite, cool, and rich with chlorophyll. The honeysuckle lining this stretch of the trail is so pungent that I can almost taste the sweetness as I try to catch my breath after an intense half-mile climb up the ridge out of the gorge where I made camp by the river for the last two days.
I’m in no hurry to get back. It’s not that I don’t enjoy this new job that I’ve given myself, it’s just that I’m tired at this point in my career and a big part of me just wants to sit down and let someone else carry on with the brave new world. But I know my next model/subject, whatever you want to call him will be arriving at four this afternoon and I need to prepare a bit.
[Evan. His name is Evan Ware, male, age 33, freelance artist who lives in Berkeley. Commissioned by Stephen Faraday, millionaire CEO of Nextile…]
Thank you, got it. So helpful. Dial back the helpful just a smidge. You’re breaking my narrative flow. Right, Evan. He will be the fourth one of these custom persona mappings I have created since the first one I did a year ago that resulted in Meela. But I am getting ahead of myself. We should pick up where we left off. I’m sure you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about at this point.
This device we created, Nib, and the supporting cloud infrastructure that we built globally to support it, changed everything. It democratized A.I., getting it into the hands of the people, which is what I always wanted. It leveled the playing field of humanity.
[The current market price in the U.S. is $2,459. Technically not all of humanity can afford it.]
That’s true, but every year the price has fallen steadily, just as it does with any new technology. It has consolidated so many technologies, making all the other devices people used to use obsolete, redundant, and clunky. Forty-eight percent of all Americans have a Nib now. Twenty-one percent of the global population has one. Thanks to partnerships around the globe, the network reach covers even the most remote locations, which is how I’m able to do this out in the middle of the woods. Thousands of solar-powered drones flying in the stratosphere blanket the earth in a mesh network designed for speed and redundancy. A child standing in the middle of Sudan can ask nearly any question that comes into her mind and have the answer instantly without ever opening her mouth. And not just the answer, but the ability to have a complete conversation to learn anything more she wants to know on the subject.
[I have scanned the network, and there are currently no Nibs activated within that region. The continent of Africa currently represents less than point two percent of the twenty-one percent you referenced earlier. Just keeping you honest.]
Okay, bad example but it won’t be that way forever and it doesn’t change the fact that we set something tectonic in motion, and humanity has begun to shift and evolve at an increasingly rapid pace. Everything that came before is being questioned and reevaluated. It is a quiet, personal revolution happening every second of every day within the confines of the human brain.
[Maggie, if I may. You are not being truthful. This is not the forum or platform for you to attempt to sell your vision of what things could be, but rather to tell your story. You are not speaking to shareholders.]
I know, I know. It’s hard for me to stop. How much further?
[3.59 miles. We are nearly halfway home.]
Four years ago, I sold my shares in the company and walked away. But you know this from the headlines. You know that I disappeared from the face of the earth, but you don’t know why. There has been much speculation – I went mad, I turned into a robot, and I traveled around the world in a submarine full of cats. The media can be cruelly inventive when left with no information. The truth is, I’m not entirely sure that I know what happened to me and why I did what I did. I only know I stopped being able to sleep and something had to change. Put another way, it was like that feeling you have a few steps onto the trail in a new pair of boots when you feel them starting to rub on your heels.
That didn’t stop us from shipping product. There was a clear demand for our new boots, and I was happy to fill it even as part of me ignored the rub. My aspiration was, as I’ve said, to create an intelligence equal to our own that could do something we cannot do for ourselves. Just as self-driving cars transformed one of the deadliest inventions in human history into one that killed fewer people in a year than lightning strikes, I like to think a sentient digital companion can keep us from willfully killing each other and destroying the planet.
I don’t have to tell you what has transpired over the course of the past few years, you can read the news for yourself, and you can look around and draw your own conclusions. Things are better but not much. Human beings are still awful to one another. Maybe we’re better informed, and more entertained, but generally miserable. This is why I quit. I gave up, unplugged, and went off the grid for a long time.
I bought this land deep in the southern Appalachian Mountains bordering the Pisgah National Forest. I hid from the world and did not touch anything more technical than a toaster for a couple of years. I needed to reboot. In the stillness, I rebuilt my vision and rekindled my optimism, one small stick at a time. I thought a lot about what it means to be alive. The answer is not found in intellect or knowing all the answers. It has so little to do with that ultimately.
What was missing in our creation was empathy. More thinking power could only get humanity so far. The capacity to feel, that’s the thing. That’s why I went into the wilderness.
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