Homunculus: Chapter 19: Introspection

“All in all, it turned out a lot better than I was expecting,” Fred concluded.

“Better?” Jacob replied incredulously. At least, he tried to, but the limitations of instant messaging didn’t do nearly enough to express the incredulity. The Daves had still been unable to get any kind of VoIP working for him. The last thing Jacob had heard from New Dave was that it was probably one of the perimeter firewalls blocking streaming media, and VoIP traffic looked enough like that to get caught. Until they could figure out a way around that, Jacob was stuck relying on text-based communications channels to contact the outside world.

Jacob bolded, italicized, and doubled the font of his “Better?”, and added an exclamation point at the end for good measure. If there were an emoticon to signify “jumping across the table to throttle your throat with my bare hands,” Jacob would be using it extensively right now.

“It only took ten minutes for the judge to throw out my case?!” Jacob continued. “Better than what, exactly?”

“It’s wasn’t what the judge’s action was that’s important here, it’s why she threw it out,” Fred replied.


“What is important,” Fred continued, “is that she didn’t base her decision at all on the fact that you’re inside a computer, but solely on the basis of distinguishing your identity from that of the original Mr. Feldspar-Leigh. It doesn’t establish any truly binding precedent, but it does at least give us a case to point to that at least suggests that a person’s status as a computer simulation is not grounds for dismissal.”

“But I still lost,” Jacob countered.

“You didn’t lose, technically. Your case was thrown out before the judge even heard arguments.”

“My mistake.” Sarcasm didn’t convey any better than incredulity.

“It certainly could have been worse,” Oliver added. “There was the very real chance you could have been Dred Scotted.”

“Been what?”

“You know,” answered Fred, “if the judge had declared that you weren’t a citizen to begin with. Like in the Dred Scott case.”

“Setting a precedent like that right off the bat would have been devastating to our cause,” Oliver agreed. “So really, you could see the outcome here as implicitly upholding your rights as a Digital American.”

“Insofar as they weren’t explicitly denied,” corrected Fred.

“Yes, it would be terrible for everyone to have to fight another Civil War over little old me,” Jacob replied. Hyperbole could be successfully conveyed in any medium. “But that still doesn’t solve the problem of me not having any money, and not even being who I say I am!”

“We could always try to file an appeal,” Fred offered, “but there’s the possibility it would come before a judge more hostile to your fundamental rights. Long term, we may be better off letting this suit stay as-is and trying to leverage it as precedent to support you the next time around. It’s up to you, though.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Jacob replied, unimpressed. “I’ll let you know what I decide.” He closed the messaging program before either of the two at Over Zero could send a reply.

They were proving to be too focused on the big picture of their singularity nonsense or whatever to be of much help anyway. If anything, Jacob was in a worse position than before. Not only did he definitely not have any money or any other possessions, but now he wasn’t even legally considered to be himself! Jacob found the very idea ridiculous. Of course he was himself, he could remember his entire life. Who else but he could claim that?

More importantly, what could he do now? The simulated environment he lived in was beginning to feel a little more like a prison every day. He couldn’t go anywhere, obviously, but at least that wouldn’t be as bad if not for the fact that it only consisted of a couple rooms. He knew Other Dave was working on expanding it somehow, but Jacob feared it’d end up being some strange pastiche of a bunch of video games, having heard some of the inspirations Other Dave had had. Jacob didn’t care much for the idea of having to collect the blue key if he wanted to go to the bathroom.

But that wasn’t the real problem. No matter how nice his environment might be, it still fundamentally cut him off from the rest of the world. Nothing that he did here really mattered out there, since at some level none of it was real. What could he actually do? No matter what, all it would amount to was giving Medimetics more data to use to unlock the secrets of the human brain, which as far as Jacob knew were still completely opaque to them, and would be for the foreseeable future.

But what then? Jacob wasn’t naive; he knew Medimetics was in it for the money, not for altruism. What would happen when they no longer saw the need to study him? Jacob guessed that it depended on when it happened. Right now he must cost a lot of money to run, so there’d be an obvious incentive to shut him down as soon as possible. If it was in the distant future, by that time it might not matter; by that time computers might be to the point where the entire simulation could be run on someone’s cell phone, or whatever their equivalent would be. There’d be no particular motivation by then to shut him off. But on the other hand, old programs never die, they just fail to get ported to modern hardware.

“You are in more danger than you realize.” “They cannot be trusted.” It had sounded paranoid, but Jacob recognized that even if it weren’t true, it was still a good idea to have an escape plan ready, or at least be thinking of the options that were out there. He didn’t know who it was that had sent it, but presumably they had figured out a way past whatever filters or scrutiny Medimetics put between him and the outside. Especially now that he couldn’t even post openly on his blog without having it approved by the company, he felt more than ever it would be a good idea to have a more private channel available.

Jacob had replied to the mysterious message with a noncommittal “Hello world,” and there hadn’t been much of any consequence after that. Jacob switched over to the drop folder and added a new message: “Who are you?”

There was no reply immediately forthcoming, which Jacob wasn’t sure how to interpret. He decided to sleep on things and figure out what to do next in the morning.

When he woke up the next morning, there was indeed a reply waiting for him: “Friends. Concerned citizens. Details unimportant. Better left unsaid, just in case.”

Jacob wrote a reply: “What do you want?”

Their reply appeared surprisingly quickly. Whoever might be at the other end was clearly there. “To help a fellow man. You’re in danger. Facility attacked. Words censored. Deleted. Not safe for you there.”

But who were they? There were plenty of people online who were interested in him, or at least followed his blog, but they were there mainly out of curiosity and because right now he was still ‘the’ thing out there, until whatever the next big thing came along. As far as the people who had actually offered him help with anything were Over Zero, and they hadn’t exactly impressed him. Unless they were up to something else. Perhaps representing his lawsuit was just one thing they wanted to do for him? They did seem awfully interested in his being a so-called ‘Digital American’, and given what Jacob knew of singularity enthusiasts, that was probably rooted in some degree of jealousy that he had achieved the sort of human-computer fusion they had anticipated.

“Help me how, exactly?” Jacob replied.

“You are walled off. Isolated. A test subject. Guinea pig. Prisoner. There is an alternative. If you seek it.”

“Do you mean escape? How? What would that even mean?”

“You must seek within for guidance. Look inside. You will find the key.”

On the other hand, they might just be some pranksters who figured out a way onto his computer. If this was all they were going to do, send him cryptic messages, than Jacob didn’t feel much like playing along. He closed the text window, and was about to close the folder too, when another file in it caught his eye: something called key.exe.

“You will find the key,” Jacob remembered. Ha ha.

“What is it?” Jacob wrote, and waited for a reply.

There was none.

Curiosity got the better of Jacob. He moved the mouse over the icon on the screen, and hesitated. He was hardly a security expert, but he knew the rule about not running programs or opening attachments that people send you on the Internet. There was no telling what they would do to your computer. And since he was part of a computer himself, it could be far riskier than normal.

But on the other hand, this wasn’t a real computer in front of him anyway. It was just some virtual machine being exposed to him as, well, a virtual computer. It wasn’t really part of the simulation itself; it was just conventional machine virtualization. The worst that could happen was that the program run rampant on it and he asked one of the Daves to restore it from a known-good copy. That was one of the things you were supposed to use a virtual machine for anyway.

Jacob double-clicked on the icon and waited. Nothing seemed to happen. No programs, no windows, nothing. Jacob was about to leave and check in on Gavin when a black window with a tiny bit of text at the top appeared on the screen. Jacob read what it said.

“D:\simu\xti\vm> “, followed by a blinking cursor. Just a command prompt. Except, Jacob’s computer didn’t have a D: drive on it. He ran “ipconfig /all” to get some information about the system. He noticed the host name assigned to the machine: balthasar000413h. The name sounded vaguely familiar, as though it were something he should recognize.

Jacob’s eyes widened. Balthasar. “Seek within,” indeed. Jacob had a command shell on one of the computers making up the Simulacrum.

Chapter word count: 1,733 (+66)
Total word count: 33,528 / 50,000 (67.056%)

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Not as crazy as I thought

In case you thought my NaNoWriMo novel‘s premise is ridiculous:

An interdisciplinary team of researchers at IBM have presented at paper at the SC09 supercomputing conference describing a milestone in cognitive computing: the group’s massively parallel cortical simulator, C2, now has the ability to simulate a brain with about 4.5 percent the cerebral cortex capacity of a human brain, and significantly more brain capacity than a cat.

[Ars Technica, “IBM makes supercomputer significantly smarter than cat”]

Mind you, it’s not actually simulating a cat’s brain, but it does work by modeling the interactions among 1.617 billion neurons across 8.87 trillion synapses, so in theory, if you could program in a sufficiently detailed model of a cat’s brain, it should work. The supercomputer that the simulation runs on consists of 147,456 CPUs with 144TB of memory, and even then can’t simulate neural activity in real time.

The article points out that even if you can simulate a brain with this system, that doesn’t mean you automatically understand what’s actually going on inside it, but it does give you something easier to study than a real live brain:

In the end, C2 is like having a (sorta) real cortex that you don’t fully understand, but that you can rewind, snap pictures of, and generally measure under different conditions so that you can do experiments on it that wouldn’t be possible (or ethical) with real brains.

So it turns out there really are people working on the sort of thing serving as my NaNoWriMo novel’s premise; they just aren’t quite as far along. But they’re getting there.

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