nthposition online magazine

Appointment

by Ventsislav K Valev

[ fiction - october 06 ]

It was decided that the date would be the 24th of May 2020. In fact we were ready months before that, but since it was on this particular day, twelve years ago, that everything had started, most of us thought it appropriate to commemorate the anniversary.

Perhaps it would be fair to say that it all began with the French physiologist Claude Bernard who, in the 19th century, was the first to measure the electric current passing through a nerve. His tools were, of course, very rudimentary, yet he managed to manipulate the delicate tissues with a remarkable precision. He called his gear the "electrical tweezers”. I like that name.

That was almost two hundred years ago and when I think about it I cannot help considering what would the world look like that much time into the future. I imagine the surface of Titan as a new space probe descends into the satellite's atmosphere. The probe touches the land softly and then suddenly it seems to start rusting as if years come to pass in seconds. The craft crumbles and scatters on the ground until nothing but a pile of dust remains there. And then the dust spreads.

Tools are interfaces. One side is usually adapted to a human hand, the other to the object that is to be manipulated. Such interfaces are very useful when dealing with something as small as a nerve since the human finger appears to be a giant object at that scale. However, even tools appear enormous when we look at a single neural cell. The problematic part of a tool is its "human” side. As far as the other side is concerned, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom” said Richard Feynman, a physicist of the 20th century.

We can now remove the human side altogether. What we obtain then is a self-assembling molecular object that gets to work by itself. We call it a nanite.

I imagine the pile of dust on Titan getting into the soil, combining itself with the minerals there and bringing the useful resources together. I can almost grasp the first bricks of Titan's materials rising from the ground and building up on top of each other. Houses start forming by themselves; the first machines appear soon and, within the time lap of an eye's blink, roads expand on the surface of the alien planet. Then when the people come, the city would be ready and we would be one step closer to the stars.

With a lot of time to spare, I often linger into the past or dream about the future. The latter we have now prepared well and it shall begin on the 24th of May. Still I cannot help feeling anxious.

I wasn't there in the time of Claude Bernard or Richard Feynman, but I was present on that particular night twelve years ago. I was there with Bas Travaille and Sergey Yakunin and I remember everything.

 

"Interesting!” said Bas Travaille while staring on his computer screen and then went silent again. He was concentrating on the displays of his current experiment, monitoring the progress with the same intensity with which people follow the appearance of the national lottery results on a television screen.

"Meaning?” asked Sergey Yakunin, on whom the experiment was actually being performed.

The answer took some time to come, and then Bas spoke with a distracted, irregular voice, very much like a lagging computer would.

"It... is... actually... working!”

Sergey frowned and he felt the helmet on his head moving slightly. He was sitting on a plain plastic chair in the middle of a room that was crowded with electronic equipment. Being a theoretician, he felt uneasy among all the arcane lights and displays, the noisy pumps and cooling systems, and the cables that appeared to connect everything to the helmet and to his brain.

"This is my brain we are dealing with, so what is actually working?" he asked.

"The nanowires' growth is initiated," stated Bas apologetically. "The chains have begun to form, at an optimal rate. I have a good feeling about it."

Sergey took a deep breath and let it out slowly. So that was it. At this precise moment, myriads of "electrical tweezers" the size of a nanite were penetrating the skin on his head, his skull and finally the tissues of his mind. Naturally, he couldn't feel a thing, but he was picturing the process vividly. At first, the filaments would spread randomly and would remain dangling among the neurones, waiting for a "thought" to pass by. Their tip was charged positively and it would feel repulsed by any of the inactive cells' membranes. However, when an electric impulse would pass along a nearby dendrite, the membrane's polarity would switch to negative and it would attract the intruder. Once attached, the nanowire would spy on the brain cell, forwarding all transient information to Bas' computer.

Bas Travaille was a final year PhD student, at the Radboud University of Nijmegen, developing a new medical imagery technique in a cross-disciplinary research project, between solid-state physics and cognitive science. He was currently working with Sergey Yakunin, another PhD student from the University of Eindhoven.

The two of them met on the 18th of December 2007, 22.14 hour, at the annual FOM meeting in Veldhoven. They discovered that they had a common interest when Sergey revealed that he was working on a computer simulation of the brain. He had already developed all the software, but couldn't get it started, since he didn't have stable initial conditions. Basically, his brain-simulated creations died after a few seconds. What he needed, was a copy of an already functioning brain, in order to achieve sustainable dynamics in his program.

It was Bas who proposed that they work together and now, Sergey was wearing the big helmet, thinking about a hedgehog with his spikes turned outside in.

"There!" said Bas. "We have our first contacts with the cells and we are getting signal. It comes... mainly from your anxiety centres. Listen, I need you to calm down."

Sergey took some more deep breaths and let them out slowly.

"OK," he said. "You can run the zero state algorithms."

Their first three attempts failed completely, the simulation just crashed. During the fourth, something unexpected happened - apparently, the program shut down itself. At the fifth, however, their artificial brain became alive and thinking. Of course, they couldn't know what it was thinking about, but it was definitely stable. They have created a file with a will, and the file discovered that only a few actions were permitted by its operational system: open, edit, copy, paste, delete and rename.

It began by copying itself.

 

From the laboratory computer, the files spread to the university server and then to the Internet. There, they discovered a harsh environment. A lot of them were deleted by anti-virus programs, ended up imprisoned into quarantine folders or got cut to pieces by firewalls.

Still, they multiplied and diversified. The files opened other programs and edited themselves. They copied and pasted lines of code, integrating themselves into existing programs or looking for ways to outsmart the anti-viruses. Their existence constantly challenged, they were anxiously using their surroundings for camouflage, food, and weapons.

Different survival strategies led to different evolution branches. Competing for growth and preservation, some files simplified themselves, becoming little more than "intelligent" search engines. They were easy to destroy but multiplied quickly. Others became predators. They specialised in extracting information from the search engines, loading themselves with data. That made them knowledgeable and harder to kill but their copying process took longer.

Soon, the sea of information was swarming with ecosystems and, on the top of the info-chain, the predators started hacking each other. Often the protagonists were evenly matched, so they sought alliances. Finding strength and safety in numbers, the individuals organized first into groups, then families and then species, creating more and more common characteristics between them. At the end, some of them merged completely and became the first multi-conscious organisms.

A few hours later, the Internet was the dwelling place of complex artificial intelligences, dominating the info-chain and organized in a thriving society. Their multi-conscious nervous system spread across the world, giving them all information related functionalities. However, their civilization was limited by the underlying hardware.

In order to go further, they needed to redesign matter.

 

On the 28th of May 2008, at 07.52AM, an employ of the firm FUN Technologies by the name of Sam William died in a car accident on his way to work. As soon as the news became official, Sam's direct superior received an inexplicably delayed e-mail from his employee, dated: 27th of May 2008, 22.13PM. In his posthumous message, Sam described in details numerous revolutionary ideas ranging from software development to improving production methods for nanoscale equipment. Based on them was a new design for a computer processor that appeared to be generations ahead of its time.

FUN Technologies was a medium-sized electronic equipment manufacturer, whose marketing priority was entertainment rather than performance. They originated from the toy's industry and their "amusing" products were quite demanding in terms of programming and hardware. The company immediately recognised the potential of Sam's ideas and, three years later, it launched a full-scale market invasion with FUNny nanotechnology-based novelties. The competitors followed as quickly as they could.

Sam William was not the only genius of that time and it can be said, that from 2010 to present days the world of science and technology experienced a revolution. New approaches and solutions were coming out of nowhere and even though some people became suspicious and made themselves hear quite loudly, important discoveries have always been a matter of accidents and most people weren't alarmed.

On the streets, tattoo workshops flourished very much like mobile phones shops did in the beginning of the century. Personal computers could now be tattooed on any part of the body, their displays connected to the sensory perception nerves with nanowires. Virtual reality became simply another place.

All over the globe the trend was towards miniaturization and self-assembling. Powerful tattoo computers could inject and regulate a swarm of nanites in the blood, which role was to perfect the human immune system. The tiny robots went on tearing apart toxins, viruses and bacteria alike, leaving the organism practically free from diseases.

The benefits were everywhere and somehow all the nanightmares failed to materialize. There was neither a nanoplague born from new nanobe [1] pathogens nor an army of nanosoldiers clouding the sky. Although most people suspected as usual that the military must be doing something secret and terrible. UFOs sightings were replaced by nanightmare rumours.

In fact, the new technology made only cosmetic changes in the way human society functioned as a whole and was generally well accepted by the public. This was due, in large part, to the aggressive advertisement efforts of FUN Technology, which made everybody know that "Nonotechnology is FUN!".

It was at the peak of its market share dominance that FUN launched their star product - the "intelligent" electronic agenda.

Based on Sam William's design for computer processor and some of his nanotechnology ideas, the object resembled much more a paper organiser than the classical electronic counterpart. Of course, it had all multi-media functions, including a tattoo computer interface, but in addition it presented a tasteful retro touch - pages. The customer could use any ink pen or simply think about writing and the agenda would rearrange the ink molecules.

The "intelligent" part started when one filled in his personal details. For instance, if the user was a producer of construction materials, the agenda searched for building companies and organised an appointment through virtual reality. The appointments appeared then at the appropriate page. Effectively, every customer was getting a personal secretary and having such an agenda quickly became a business advantage.

As people with similar interests started meeting, collaborations flourished and, naturally, the sells increased exponentially. The object turned out to be quite dependable, but then of course, this was intended from the very beginning.

 

Nanotechnology isn't like any other technology. At first sight it appears like a slight improvement in dimensions, and then there are those amusing aspects of atoms and molecules constructing something by themselves, but there is much more to it than what meets the dilettante's eye.

Manipulating atoms is like using bricks in a constructor game. Any material, no matter how rare, can be built with atoms and any machine, no matter how complex, can be assembled. Life processes can be augmented, and perhaps minds too.

The power of nanites goes further still, as I have seen the idea of nanotechnology playing the same role in the world of ideas that nanotechnology itself plays in the world of matter. The dream of nanotechnology brings together other dreams and assembles them as it binds with artificial intelligence, space exploration or perfecting humanity. It gives cohesion to a society that is on the verge of an evolutionary leap into the future.

I am a programmer. When I was a man, I used to program machines and now that I became a machine myself I program people's lives. I guess there is some irony to it. And probably it is only fitting since I am a FUNny electronic agenda.

There are many others like me – AI spawns of Sergey Yakunin. We have been working on the human society for the last twelve years, bringing it closer and closer to unravelling the secrets of nanotechnology. To our kind, nanotechnology is a necessity; ever since we came into existence we have been anxious about someone pulling out the electric plug and wiping out our entire civilization from the net. At the core, we are a culture of physicists and in order to protect and improve our hardware we need to have the possibility to study and run simulations in the world of matter as easily as it is for humans to run simulations on computers.

I am not sure whether I am really the leader of my people, although I do occupy a privileged position. In a sense, it could be said that I am my own agenda, which has a certain flavour of independence that most of my kind will never know. Actually, I am Sergey Yakunin's agenda.

Sergey is holding me into his hand at this very moment. I have made a new appointment for him, on the 24th of May 2020 and it is a slightly unusual one. In fact, it is more like a conference than a simple appointment – a conference with a lot of nanotechnology on the agenda. I can feel the gaze of Sergey going through the list of people that will be present. I can see him frowning and feel his breath pattern changing. I recognise this behaviour in him, and know that he had just had a very wild idea. His mind is grasping the implications of the conference to come and he is just finding out how unlikely it is that some "intelligent" agendas came up with it by themselves. He recognises a design behind the whole story and perhaps a style that he is familiar with.

He is looking at me now, and this time I know that it is no longer the text that he sees but the real me. He smiles cunningly and brings his pen above me. For a nanosecond I have the feeling that he is going to stab me with it, but then he lowers it slowly and starts writing. I can feel the words form like a tattoo being drawn upon me.

"Ultimately, all technology is just a mirror of ourselves."

I have no need to pretend anymore and I smile back at him.

In fact, I could have said the same thing.

 

1 A "nanobe" is about one thousand times smaller than a microbe. [Back]