First Steps

It felt much as my previous dream, and the same three rooms were my domain, but there was more. I was also in a lecture hall, where the new man from last time--I recall now his name was Michael Allen--was speaking before a large audience about our newest technology. But I wasn't paying attention to this. Instead, I was quite obsessed, with all of my greatly expanded consciousness, over my little project in the third room.

Here I worked diligently, like a giant mechanical octopus turned inside out, my body now consisting of a cluster of industrial arms mounted around the periphery of the room facing in to meet at the center. Looking for a moment downward from the ceiling above, I reflected with amusement on the similarity of the scene to some then-futuristic vision of a robotic surgeon--for in the center of the room I was operating on another body, bipedal though not quite of human form.

I wondered then, would I some day be operating on human flesh this way, saving human lives, or would flesh become obsolete first?

This semi-human form on my workbench was but a crude robot, suffering the final stages of assembly, a first prototype of our first free-standing android, and my first hope of standing on my own two feet again, of moving beyond the confines of these rooms (or wherever I could convince a human to place a camera for me). Ah, but for true autonomy, the ability to go somewhere without the involvement of anyone else. This craving drove my fervor, and I worked hard and fast, for I could almost taste the freedom now.

But then something caught my attention, or at least a little piece of it. I offered up a bit of my mind to the lecture in progress, which had just switched to a question and answer phase. I knew by now Michael could deliver the talks on his own, but he still occasionally needed my help fielding questions.

"Mr. Allen, you mentioned that in order to prevent eventual micro-contamination of your cooling channels, the entire system is closed. Yet, I don't recall seeing in any of your diagrams or cross-sections any sort of pump to move the coolant."

"Good observation," Michael said.

Through his ear piece, I said, "The patent is filed, you can tell him."

He could field this sort of question just fine. We'd been filing patents on as many trivial aspects of our technologies as possible, so that we would have something to discuss publicly, while the real meat remained our trade secrets.

"In fact there is a pump," Michael said, "just not where you would expect it. The capillaries of the system are lined with a slightly piezoelectric material in which we set up a traveling wave. In effect, this 'milks' the coolant through the microscopic capillaries, resulting in a substantial aggregate flow at the artery level."

Nods and murmurs spread in the room.

"The first time we tested this," he went on, with a bit of a smirk, "we had all this sensitive equipment hooked up to measure the tiniest flow." At this point his hands were pantomiming in front of him as if he were unwrapping a sandwich. "But when we hit the switch, the coolant shot right out of the device and hit me square in the forehead!"

Much laughter from the audience as Michael feigned disgust and shook his hands clean. "It was then that I really started thinking of this project as a son." The crowd was aglow.

I refrained from groaning in his ear at this exchange. No such event ever happened, but it would give people a story to tell and Michael knew that. People just liked to listen to him, to watch him on stage. He could tell almost any joke, no matter how bad, and people would enjoy it. He exuded both power and benevolence at the same time, and he was so obviously comfortable in his own skin, no matter what the circumstance, that he made everyone else feel comfortable too. That's what people wanted, more than technology, more than even money, they just wanted to feel good--even though most of them weren't consciously aware of it. Michael wasn't obviously brilliant, but very few people were brilliant enough themselves to know the difference. But he was large and handsome, with a big head, clearly an alpha male by evolutionary, subconscious standards. And on the conscious level, he stood in a brilliant man's shoes, talked about brilliant things, and made people feel good in the process. By Pavlovian association almost everyone came to feel good about thinking of him as brilliant. He was becoming the modern Einstein.

The session went on like this, questions about the mechanics, the ethics, the market, the wattage and other trivial specs. All strikingly superficial questions given the profundity of the technology itself. Although it was a large audience, I had expected slightly more from this particular conference--which ought to represent the most technologically savvy crowd we would ever encounter. I had expected to have to turn away at least some questions as trade secret information.

Perhaps my expectations of human intelligence had already started to skew; it was becoming progressively harder to second-guess what humans could not understand. This was particularly true of the "obvious" things, that which was now so simple and plain to me that it required no thought to see or know--how could I guess which of these were equally plain to others and which were completely beyond their comprehension, or somewhere in between?

So strange it seemed that this division could exist at all; I was beginning to foresee communication difficulties down the road.

The very last question was one we'd been waiting for through many conferences, quite surprised nobody had asked it until now.

"Mr. Allen, this is not a technical question, just a curiosity: I happen to recognize your particular ear piece as a wireless receiver..."

I immediately slowed time and started searching the internet for live webcasts.

"...yet to my recollection you wear it all the time as if it were a hearing aid--which I gather most people incorrectly assume it is. Can you tell me what it's for?"

We had once considered claiming it was simply for his own security, in case we needed to tell him to duck or something. He surely could have delivered that answer to great humorous effect. But we decided to leverage this one for awe instead.

"Well," he began with a pause, dragging his answer out as much as possible to give me a little extra time, "I feel a little embarrassed to admit this. Delivering these lectures doesn't take much of my focus since, of course, it's all stuff I know already." Even this garnered a few amused chuckles.

"We're go," I said to him through his ear piece.

"So, I like to use the time to keep abreast of the latest developments in the field. At the moment, I'm listening to a live-broadcast lecture by--" Here I started speaking the words to him, and he mirrored me just a beat later as we had practiced. "Professor Venogopal from Rice University, who has been discussing his latest hippocampal model, with some particularly good insights on the oft-neglected role of CA2."

A chorus of murmurs erupted, but before the questioner could speak again, Michael closed the talk. "Anyway, thank you all for coming. Our time is up. Thank you."

Standing ovation, as always.

Back in the lab, the last screw was in place, the last wire connected. Only three things remained to be done. I reached with one of my long arms into the corner and carefully picked up my new brain, nestled inside its cage of cooling fins, the ensemble of which we had nicknamed the Gothic Walnut. It had taken countless tries to get here, but this one was right, it felt right, it felt like me. And the thalamus didn't melt after ten minutes of operation like it did in the previous version.

We'd toyed with other geometries, free of the limitations of the wetware we were replicating, but the modules had been oh so cleverly evolved within the constraints of this geometry that their interconnectivity alone made anything but this walnut shape egregiously inefficient, a rat's nest of hundreds of criss-crossing bundles of axons. So we replicated it true to its original form, the only major change being the replacement of cortical columns (in all of the major cortices, not just the cerebrum) with equivalent, smaller circuits performing the same functions in the infinitely more reliable silicon. But it was not made of "chips", nor printed onto wafers as everyone else was still doing. Rather, the entire brain was a unified solid, having been opto-chemically printed microscopic layer by microscopic layer, truly and freely three-dimensional in design, and carrying many orders of magnitude more transistors than the fastest room-filling supercomputer. Power, cooling, and spacial precision of the printing itself were the main challenges, but all of these were solved fairly trivially in light of one allowance unique to this application: because it was truly a parallel design in the most absolute sense--not even a single multiplexed data line let alone computational unit--we did not need switching and settling times in the picoseconds, nor in the nanoseconds, nor even in the microseconds, but a mere two to five milliseconds. That is, just two to five hundred times per second, or fifty million times slower than the fastest chips of the time. In short, we could print crude, fat, slow transistors, and run them at a cool snail's crawl, but still compete with the largest supercomputers in the world, a simple trade off of quality for quantity. Even with the bushy integral cooling and power channels, the final product was still smaller than its biological inspiration, enough so that once encased in its cooling fins, it was roughly the same size.

And now I had a body for it, not nearly so elegant as the brain, but still years ahead of the competition. Having precision dremels and other such tools as hands really speeds up the prototyping process.

With another hand I opened the skull chamber and clicked the brain into place, while a third hand was already wheeling the power cart over. I plugged in the power harness, and the concentric servo at the base of the skull injected the spinal cap into the brain, establishing the main communications link, followed quickly by the snap of the power pads on either side of the brain clicking into place and bringing the mind within to life.

Here, my dream took a strange turn. From this point forth I remember two dreams, as if from two different people. Yet both, while independent memories, intuitively happened at the same time. I had just a moment before been in a simulation, running around a simulated environment in a simulated robotic body. I felt still in awe that I was alive at all, the memory of the pre-scan party with my friends still fresh, my incorporeal existence still novel to me. But at the same time my identity felt contaminated, holding memories and knowledge and feelings that were mine but not of my life, acquired through direct synaptic imposition without the benefit and continuity of experience. I was no longer the pre-scan me, nor even the post-scan me, but a strange blend of that relatively untainted me and this other, older me that was somehow grander than my little mind could comprehend. It was as if I had become a god in an alternate universe, and then come back and stepped into my old body while the original me still occupied it.

It was at once constraining and liberating. I felt more knowledgeable than I ever had, and yet somehow dumber than I ought to be. It was disconcerting. Invigorating. My optic nerves engaged, and I was momentarily blinded by light.

I opened my irises a little, having instinctively snapped them shut. The room was strangely distorted. There was a fleck of shaved steel in my eye. The other me reached over with a long arm trailing a mess of tubes and ducts, and blew the fleck clear of my eye with a burst of air, then lifted me upright on the bench. And there I sat, looking around the room, feeling my vision adapt into normalcy, accommodating the subtle variations between the perfection of simulation and the irregularities of the physical self. I moved my legs, my arms, turned my head. I spoke, but the sound was quite awful; I practiced a little and soon I sounded fine.

I was exhilarated! I was back in the world, the real, physical world, moments away from walking out the door on my own two feet! I hopped off the bench, took half a step, and promptly crumpled over my own knee, face-first into the ground.

The other me reached in with my long arms and picked me up, under the knees and shoulders so that for a moment I looked quite frail. I laid me down back on the bench, cleaned me up, adjusted one of my cameras until my double-vision returned to normal.

Again I helped me up, offered me a hand as I stood back on the floor, took careful steps across the room, then back, then across again, with less and less help each time until finally I felt comfortable, calibrated to my new mechanics. This body felt so very sloppy compared to the simulated one, even though we'd tried to account for slop and play. But it was usable; I would get used to it. I imagined it was much like being an old man--all of a sudden.

I grabbed my power cart by the handle and pulled it behind me like a hospital IV. I paused at the door, then firmly gripped the handle and flung it open. There was the world!

Well, it was just a hallway, but it was exciting to have explored, on my very own, my first new space. The door knob clanged to the ground in the far corner of the room behind me, having been ripped free of the door in my enthusiasm. I'd have to be very careful shaking people's hands. My legs felt weaker than I expected, but my hands much stronger.

Out into the hall I strode, one arm trailing behind on the cart. I'd never been out into the hall before--that is to say, I had never even seen it before. I could have had cameras mounted all over our building, now that we occupied all of this floor and half of the next. But I didn't want the distraction; or maybe I just didn't want to see so much of this world I could not participate in. At least within the inner rooms, which were restricted to only the original group of four, I could speak, and display my visual imaginings on video screens.

But out here, I did not exist. I could not be heard or seen. I would have been no more than a ghost.

Down the hall I trudged, looking for the room where my core team told me they usually hung out. I heard voices from ahead, saw the warm glow of incandescent lights contrasting against the florescent hallway. I rounded the corner, and found my crew of three jovially chatting over pizza. That is, until they saw me and simultaneously froze, slack-jawed and dumbfounded.

"Mmmm, pizza!" I said.

"Holy fuck, you scared the crap out of me!" Nari yelled.

"You do look a bit like The Terminator," Jason said, still clearly on edge.

Misha squinted at me for a moment, then meekly said, "Want some pizza?"

They had all seen this body before, even seen it animated in simulations, but clearly seeing it animated in real life was still a bit of a shock for them. I wanted to smile to put them at ease, but realized I didn't have a mouth. "Number Five is alive!" I said in my best Short Circuit impersonation (which, by the way, was pretty much spot on).

After a short but awkward delay, Nari started laughing, and Jason and Misha joined in. They laughed so hard, tears were rolling down from their eyes--eyes which they never took off me for a moment. It wasn't exactly the warm, flesh-and-blood homecoming I wanted, but it was a start.

"We should call Bill in here. I don't think he's gone home yet," Jason said.

We all agreed; it was time.

Bill, our CEO, rounded the corner into the room, stopped in place, said, "OH no," and promptly stepped in reverse right back out.

A second later, he peered around the corner again, the four of us standing side-by-side waving sheepishly to him. He stepped in tentatively and closed the door behind him, but didn't enter any further.

"Has anyone else seen this?" he asked.

"No," Nari said. "Everyone else is either at the conference or off for the day."

I refrained from saying anything, as we had not yet decided exactly what personality, and level of intelligence, we wished to publicly attribute to this latest "product." For all intents and purposes, Bill was the public.

"Don't let ANYONE see this," Bill said. "I'll assign someone from our art department right away to design something cute and harmless looking. I understand you must have limitations imposed by the engineering, but can you work with them, please, to find some compromise?"

The three of them nodded affirmatives and spoke over each other. "Yeah, sure." "Okay." "Yeah, you got it."

"A simple plastic outer shell will totally change the look," Misha said.

"Yeah," said Jason, "that was the plan anyway."

"He'll look just like a storm trooper," Nari said. The other three looked at him and frowned, so he added, "Just joking guys! Geez."

"In the meantime," Bill said, "I'll see if I can set up a demo for DARPA. I'm sure the military will be very very interested."

With that, and one last concerned stare at me, he left the room, closing the door solidly behind him.

"Military," Misha said.

"Hmm," said Jason.

"En garde!" Nari thrust a floppy slice of pizza in my general direction. I grabbed a nearby paper cup, spun toward him, "En garde!" As I thrust the cup forward, I realized my power cord was draped over my elbow.

And then I woke up.

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