The Last Move
Leslie Wrinkle never thought he'd live to see this day. Though only 55, he’d already gone through two open heart surgeries, he had a pump replacing his faulty heart, and was on a queue for a new liver. In addition, being crippled waist down by a congenital disorder, he had had to cope daily with terrible pains for as long as he could remember. State-of-the-art nanoelectrodes had been implanted in his lower nervous system to counteract the frantic discharges his lower body would send up as redundant reminders of its decayed condition, but they hardly alleviated his plight. The pains had diminished, but did not altogether disappear; and although no real, physical pain could have lingered under the surgical precision of the nanoimplants’ backfire, his brain retained it in ghost form as if unwilling to part with its lifelong companion. He had always looked alarmingly pale and frail-looking, but disease had so ravaged his gaunt frame that the merest glance at his haggard countenance immediately suggested a terminal condition.
His mind, however, was a different matter entirely.
Albeit his domed forehead and piercing, domineering grey eyes exuded intelligence even to a casual onlooker, one could never surmise that they hid one of the finest brains Nature had ever manufactured; a brain that stood out even against the stellar background of Her gallery of previous geniuses, and maybe even outshone it. A child-prodigy, Leslie could solve basic differential equations by the age of 5, speak five languages before he was 7; he graduated summa cum laude from Princeton when he was 14, and had three PhD´s before turning 18: in Physics from Harvard, Computer Science from MIT, and Neurobiology from Cornell. Born the fourth son of a poor working-class family in the suburbs of Boston, Leslie´s parents soon realized that raising such a sickly and brilliant child was well out of their depth: they handed him in adoption to a childless couple of enlightened, wealthy aristocrats, who provided for the expensive health care and rich cultural background he craved and needed. He went on to make such an unprecedented array of singlehanded groundbreaking contributions both to pure and applied science that the Nobel prize and the Fields medal he earned before 30 hardly seemed a suitable recognition for his talents. Indeed, Leslie was widely regarded as the greatest polymath since da Vinci, and that in these modern times, when everyone thought that being a polymath was no longer possible. Many went as far as saying that old Leonardo actually had some catching up to do with Leslie Wrinkle.
This was a particularly fine moment for Leslie, definitely the triumph of a lifetime, even in a triumph-studded lifetime such as his. He savored it with unmixed pleasure, his past glories and pains forgotten for the time being. After 25 years spent on cutting-edge neural and artificial intelligence research, three years ago his government sponsored team had finally released the first prototype of what were aptly called the Savant machines. A seemingly endless series of unsuccessful attempts by many universities and institutes around the world, following Leslie’s seminal insights published in a now classic series of papers, aroused public skepticism as to whether such a daunting proposal could ever be carried out, even by the legendary Leslie Wrinkle. After the first display of what the prototype could do, however, everybody´s misgivings soon melted away, giving rise to a wave of unbridled enthusiasm and to a bout of unparalleled media frenzy. Not long after his scientific peers had acknowledged the capabilities of the new machine, his place as "the father of the Savant computer" was carved in stone and in history, despite the fact that he was “only” one in the soon-to-be-forgotten team of over ten thousand researchers who contributed their talents to the project. Yet none could seriously dispute the fact that without Leslie´s supreme genius, relentless ambition and obsessive dedication, the project would have floundered long ago in the technical, scientific and financial nightmare it turned out to be. His impeccable credentials and charisma, not less than the powerful symbolism of such a powerful mind trapped in a ruined body, were also instrumental in the endless fund-raisers necessary to see the outrageously expensive endeavor through its conclusion.
Despite a full release of the schematics, on that first year following the first prototype, without Leslie’s direct intervention only three other institutes managed to build a Savant. But after the hype generated by the first success, young researchers flooded in from all areas, and funding was virtually endless. Then by the end of the second year two independent teams announced economically feasible production of Savants. One of them was under the research wing of the world’s leading computing company. Costs plummeted. Six months ago, the world's first commercial Savant, suggestively dubbed Spock, was launched, aimed at governments and large corporations. Soon Savant computers could be found on every major company and government branch all around the globe, dealing with data that months before only a handful of trained specialists could make sense of, crunching an year’s effort into weeks. And home-affordable Savants were announced by the end of next year, using arrays of Savants to design and optimize the neural pathways, while cutting costs by a tenfold. Leslie’s brainchild was definitely learning to walk.
Leslie’s team still had one card to play. Having at their disposal the best and brightest, they now rushed to complete what Leslie knew would be his last move, even if the disease spared him.
Now, four years after the first release, they were announcing the second generation of Savants. Being over a hundred times more powerful than his younger brother, it also had a new feature. Whereas all previous Savants had to be manually fed with raw data, the input of which might consume three days in a row, the new model could be directly fed with brainwaves. Quite literally, it read your mind.
Getting past the ethics committee required skill of a different sort. A steady flow of data with the necessary resolution could only be obtained by a direct implant of microlectrode arrays on the cortex. Of course, they had already implanted dozens of monkeys, and the technique was perfected to the point that the postoperative period was nonexistent. Yet with humans it was a different story. It was always a different story. After two months the debate had given no signs of abating, when Leslie stormed one of the committees reunion in his wheelchair. He argued rather forcefully that as long as this was an ethical debate, it might be a propos to bring to light certain curious details that had captured his attention about the money sources of the project and its curious handling by a number of participants in that very committee. He went on to reassure them about his willingness to neglect such minor bureaucratic caveats for the greater good, provided that the august members gathered therein would but approve his pledge to be the first human subject to have his mind read by the Savant.
The committee was rather understanding and unanimously voted for the go. At any rate, Leslie’s ghastly appearance made it plain to all that he had not much to lose.
And so it was that Leslie Wrinkle became the first man to have the entirety of his mind read by a computer. It had been done before, but not to this extent. With monkeys you could never be sure of what was going on, for there was only limited feedback. With humans, noninvasive techniques provided limited resolution, and then again you had to keep subjects on noise free environments, restricting both the recordable events and their lengths.
The first time they switched the reading on, two days after the operation, the ominous climate in the room dissipated to a large extent in a matter of minutes, for that was the time the new Savant took to churn out meaningful patterns out of the raw data being fed from more than a hundred thousand microelectrodes. Yes, it had already been fed data from thousands of monkeys brainscans, and it was the most powerful information processing device ever built, but no one quite expected things to run so perfectly, so quickly. In a matter of hours it could read Leslie's thoughts aloud for everyone to hear. Privacy was the least of his concerns.
Leslie made a point of leaving the reader continuously online. Not only for the data recording. It was fascinating, nay, positively dazzling, to be able to be directly fed masses of information by thought alone. For the mind-melding was a two-way street. Virtually any machinery to which the Savant had access was now under Leslie’s control. Issuing reports and orders had never been easier, at the mere thought a draft appeared on screen. Tasks that had hitherto demanded hours could now be accomplished in seconds. And he could oversee the project with unprecedented efficiency, the Savant itself being his best assistant. Or was it the contrary?
It was a few days into this bewildering new rhythm - bewildering, that is, to the external observer - that he first sensed it. It must have been going on unnoticed for quite a while, however, for he immediately acknowledged it for what it was. Upon questioning the Savant about it, Leslie felt a quiet, reassuring voice in his mind, as if softly telling him that “everything would be all right”. The amazing aspect about this internal dialogue is that it felt rather like a monologue! Thinking about objectively, it was easy to realize that the voice and the feeling were clearly not his own, yet they felt so close and intimate that they felt like his own.
Having a machine read your thoughts was already a mouthful, but nothing could have prepared him for what was to come. Thinking of something you could never have thought; "remembering" the answers to questions, much like would happen with an ordinary memory, but for the fact that these were not really his memories, and sometimes yielded their significance only after some effort . The Savant could present him with a myriad of stimuli through the electrodes, and soon every nuance of them was as familiar as if he had had them forever. As he learned more about and grew confident with this new level of relationship, the intensity of the sensations increased, and it became hard to distinguish when an idea was genuinely his own or presented by the Savant. Sometimes it was like having another mind on your mind, in other occasions the distinction was blurred and the mind-melding almost complete. But many times there came the intimation of a mind so great it had to partly shut itself not to overwhelm his own. And that the Savant did with surpassing mastery. Always feeding just the right amount of pertinent information, in just the right manner. Now guiding, the next moment allowing itself to be guided, like a dance master who so unobtrusively teaches the pupil that the latter will feel self-taught. The Savant also adapted to mood variations as well, but not only that. Leslie began to feel more and more well disposed, and in excellent spirits most of the time. His nights of sleep too, were more recharging, he slept less and didn't feel that customary grogginess upon awakening. The aches and pains, his lifelong companions, gradually receded and went away without much ado. His periods of mental disposition and acuity were enlarged and intensified.
After a few months the Savant had seen enough of Leslie's memories and neural workings that it could simulate his actions and thoughts to minute details, performing with such perfection as to be indistinguishable from the “real” Leslie . Now the discussion arose of whether Leslie's essence had now been immortalized in the Savant’s memories, or only when that information was being actively processed, or whether the real Leslie was the real Leslie. Leslie of course, being an adamant pragmatist, merely laughed away such a conundrum, all too glad to go beyond his disease-ridden flesh carriage into new fields of experience.
Now, there was nothing the human operators could do for the Savant it couldn't do for itself, and a tenfold better. But there was one thing they had the Savant didn't. That imponderable asset which arises, not with scholarship or technical expertise, but alone by being on this earth long: life experience. This synthesis, this sum total of a lifetime, was about the last thing the Savant couldn't acquire by itself. But now it had Leslie.
Leslie Wrinkle did never think he'd live to see this day. He arranged himself in his wheelchair, and prepared to speak for the world to hear.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he started. "today we announce the first of a new breed of Savant computers. Savant computers, or greater than human intelligence machines, are now becoming commonplace. Soon anyone will be able to afford a Savant a thousand times more powerful than today's machines. What is most remarkable about this new breed of Savants, however is not its power, or its cost, which remained very much steady thanks to developments by the Savant itself. No, what is most remarkable about this new breed of Savants is...you" he said, gazing piercingly at the camera.
"Yes, you. For what this new breed of machines brings about is the necessary intelligence to accommodate itself snugly in your very mind. Through a surgical process implanting an array of micro-electrodes in my cortex, I have become the first permanent user of what is known as a brain-machine interface. This device has allowed the Savant, not only to have full access to all my mental activities, conscious and unconscious, allowing me to directly input or retrieve information in its immensely vast database with a mere thought, but also to send direct feedback to my brain. This means that not only I can request it anything with a mere thought, the answer comes through this very same medium, in not too different a fashion than recalling something or having an idea."
"Not only that, I've also allowed the Savant to directly interfere with many of my brain’s underlying unconscious processes. The result was a tenfold increase in my cognitive capabilities. Not only I am able to think clearer, better and for longer time. I sleep less and yet feel more rested, I have no cravings for deleterious activities and my humor has improved considerably, as my colleagues and subordinates can attest. And in the process, the Savant came to know me better than is humanly feasible to any of us, being able to simulate a virtually perfect copy of my brain outputs under any conceivable circumstance. In addition, the Savant is able to simulate any conceivable sensation, and a myriad of hitherto inconceivable ones, on a range of scales so vast as to be unimaginable."
"Now, some of you might be alarmed with this, and maybe even claim that this is no longer Leslie Wrinkle speaking. Some of you might claim that this apparent sublation of our personalities by some machine is to be dreaded, not desired. But this is not sublation, rather the opposite. I have outgrown myself, my limitations, and yet I remain myself. Aye, I am myself more than never. Not the cramped version of me that Nature could afford, but rather my truest version, a version in accordance with my true potential. Most of us go about our lives intuitively sensing a potential which lies untapped, but which seems forever inaccessible, lost in the trivialities and mistakes of our daily lives. Through the Savant I have become able to realize that potential, to become what I was meant to be. When melded with the Savant I am much more than me, a super-group of that entity you once knew as Leslie Wrinkle."
"Here is a machine that is able to purvey us with perfect bliss. It is also able to perform any task we can even conceive, and a good deal more we simply can't, with far greater efficiency than we ever could. Anything we can do, the Savant can do better, thus freeing us from any reasonable argument against surrendering to that total bliss. What religion once promised, the Savant has now fulfilled."
"Many of you might see this as voluntary death. How many of us do not voluntarily indulge in disruptive, deleterious behavior while acting under a genetic or acquired hedonistic imperative? My comrades, this is merely that very same hedonistic imperative under which we all live, taken to the highest degree, and freed from its fetters. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever as to why natural feelings ought to be in any manner superior to artificially induced ones."
"My fellow humans, this is my last move. And it will soon be the last of most, if not all, of you as well. Those of you whom might wish to consult me henceforth, please refer to the Savant for a copy of myself, so bright, vivid and indistinguishable from my own consciousness. Off I go into oblivious bliss, to enjoy what might be left of existence in this ruined carriage. And maybe even beyond, if it be true that I live as a machine-borne consciousness. Farewell!"
And with that Leslie Wrinkle left his befuddled audience, too bewildered to follow him.