Artificial Intelligence vs Synthetic Consciousness

The leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity is a leap across the Rubicon into a new world of synthetic consciousness.

 

Artificial Intelligence is an old idea, visited often by philosophers over the centuries. To researchers, programmers, and self professed nerds, the ultimate achievement in the field of AI has always been to create a machine interface, intuitive and adaptable enough to provide human users with a natural experience. Technologically, we are witnessing breakthroughs at an unprecedented pace, but philosophically we are still grappling with the meaning of intelligence, artificial or otherwise.

Blame the science fiction genre if you think an artificial intelligence interface should mimic a human personality. Most of us have been primed on the finer points of AI by Hollywood; the HAL9000 computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey“,  C3P0 and various droids in the “Star Wars” franchise, or the synthetic human replicants in “Blade Runner“.

Real artificial intelligence is considerably less human. IBM’s Watson became a household name by dominating its human opponents on the TV game show Jeopardy in 2011. Watson’s ability to quickly retrieve relevant information is an invaluable skill, but whether or not it qualifies as intelligent is up for debate. Intelligence, after all, is more than just matching well formed questions to existing factual answers.

In 2016, the AI team at Google’s DeepMind created an AI named AlphaGo to play the Chinese (and later, Japanese) board game, Go. Go is an abstract strategy game, unlike Jeopardy which is a question-and-answer game. Go requires players to invent their next move – while adhering to the rules of play. While Watson was programmed to quickly sift through data, AlphaGo was programmed to learn by doing. AlphaGo didn’t win its first, second, or millionth game – but it was able to remember every move it ever made in every game it ever played, building up a database of game-play scenarios that it continually refers back to; as they say, hindsight is 20/20. If you had instantaneous and flawless recall of everything you ever did, you’d be at the top of your game too.

AlphaGo has become virtually unbeatable at Go, but don’t ask it for directions to the nearest Starbucks. For that you need Siri. Apple’s voice activated virtual assistant adds a humanesque layer of functionality to Apple products with its voice recognition and verbose feedback. It can quickly retrieve information when asked in the form of question; “Hey Siri, where is the nearest Starbucks?”, or “Hey Siri, what is the largest prime number less than one million?”. In many ways, interacting with Siri is what it might have been like using an early development version of HAl9000, but something is missing. There is no ghost in this machine – it doesn’t feel alive.

We are measuring the quality of AI on a human scale. In fact we measure all intelligence on a human scale; we have no other point of reference. But human intelligence, curiosity, and consciousness are inextricably entwined.

Can an AI be programmed to be curious? Artificial intelligence has proven that it can retrieve answers and perform calculations – but can we program our AI to be creative enough to invent new questions? And if we do, will the AI ask questions that lead to its self-awareness? A sense of being? A will to live? Will the AI suffer the classic existential crisis and start searching for purpose in its existence?

To programmers, making the leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity is a matter of syntax – more code. But to philosophers, the leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity represents the great leap across the Rubicon into the new world of synthetic consciousness.

 

Facebook’s Polarizing Social Force

Racists become more racist, homophobes get even more homophobic, patriotism becomes extreme nationalism, and the gap between opposing ideologies grows wider and wider.

Opinions, preferences, beliefs, convictions – these are the elements of which our individual identities are constructed. We are creatures of proclivity. We like what we like – that’s our opinion – and we don’t like being asked to consider the possibility that we might be wrong. We have shown time and time again that a familiar falsehood is always preferential to an unpleasant truth.

This most human of traits is quite literally the very basis of the mathematical algorithm that generates your Facebook feed – and it’s fracturing society.

If you just rolled your eyes and thought, “Oh gawd, here we go. More of Glen’s paranoid Facebook-bashing”, please just read another few lines before you click away.

Think about your own Facebook newsfeed for a second … If you like Donald Trump, Facebook delivers pro-Trump news to your feed.  Oh, you don’t like Trump? Then Facebook delivers anti-Trump news to your feed.  If you believe that vaccines cause autism your newsfeed will reinforce this with agreeable news stories that support your anti-vaxxer stance, and vice versa.

You see the bias – Facebook shows us what we like, but we don’t consider what Facebook is hiding from us. Facebook biases our newsfeeds with content that we are most likely to “like” and hides the content that we are least likely to “like”. In marketing terms, a “like” is called “engagement”, and advertisers will spend billions to reach a highly-engaged audience. Great, right? A biased newsfeed full of content that supports our opinions; a newsfeed that validates our beliefs. We get a little surge of dopamine every time we see content that offers even a glimmer of hope that our opinions are correct. We are all dopamine junkies and we will spend every waking minute watching that news feed for something that says, “You’re right”.

So what. We like our dopamine. Where’s the harm in that?

Well, first you need to know two things

  1. Worldwide, 1 in 3 adults has an active Facebook account
  2. Facebook is the world’s #1 distributor of news information

The harm? One-third of the world’s literate, adult population is forming their opinions around information that is specifically tailored to agree with whatever opinions they already held – just reinforcing whatever they already believe. The harm is that racists become more racist, homophobes get even more hate-filled, patriotism becomes extreme nationalism, and the gap between opposing ideologies grows wider and wider. The harm is that Facebook’s nifty algorithm, which exploits the human tendency to be rather narrow-minded, is adding its energy to a wave of social chaos that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.

 

1. The Brink of Violence

The blackness gave way to a momentary amber glow. Light slid fluidly through the interior of the car for only a few seconds, then evaporated back into the void. Wave after yellow wave poured in from the sodium streetlights passing overhead. Occasionally the glare of headlamps from an oncoming vehicle interrupted the seemingly unending ebb and flow – darkness to yellowness to darkness to yellowness, ad nauseam.

Anton popped another Skittle in his mouth and nodded his head to the rhythm of music from nineteen-eighty-something. The foam cushions of the decrepit headphones were tattered and crumbling. The scratchy, rotting polyurethane smelled of sweat and stale aftershave. It didn’t matter. Anton was enamored by the novelty of this odd gift his father had given him only moments before.

The narrow slice of the visible spectrum reduced the rainbow colored candies in his hand to shades of only yellow, gold, and something that nearly resembled bright brown. A brief burst of light illuminated the page of Robinson Crusoe on Anton’s lap just long enough to read another line. “Thus we never see the true state of our condition till it is illustrated to us by its contraries,”. Then blackness. Anton savored another candy and waited patiently for the next streetlight and the next line – “nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it.

From time to time he glanced up from the book, to catch a glimpse of his mother’s profile in the front passenger’s seat. Even in the faint glow of the dashboard lights, there was no mistaking her pained expression. Tonight she wore the furrowed brow and tight lips of apprehension and anxious exhaustion.

The music played and Anton watched as she gestured with her hands and spoke quickly, repeatedly and nervously brushing her dark brown hair away from her face. It clung to her cheeks, caught in the sheen of tears and rain. He had never seen his mother cry. It made him uneasy. He fidgeted in his seat, waiting for the next wash of yellow so he could return to his book.

His gaze was pulled straight ahead by the lights of an oncoming car just in time to see his father’s right fist smash down hard on the top of the dashboard. A pair of eyes glanced back at Anton in the rearview mirror. These were not the eyes of the man he knew; the gentle eyes of the benevolent philosopher-king, not the mischievous twinkling eyes of the devilish prankster, nor the soothing blue eyes of his friend and confidant. These were the eyes of an agitated and venomous stranger; bewildered, confused, frustrated, tormented, and lost.

The car continued to race along the highway in the dark rain as the conversation balanced precariously on the brink of violence. Yellow spilled once again into the back seat before sliding like quicksilver out of the rear window. Anton had just enough time to devour another line, “It is scarcely possible to imagine the consternation I was now in”. In the dark that followed, he was overcome by an odd sensation; as though his head was being pulled forward. He resisted at first, assuming it was the weight of fatigue. He was only eight years after all, and it was well past his usual bed time: very late at night – or perhaps early in the morning – it was impossible for a young boy to tell.

As his head nodded forward, Skittles rolled out of the package nestled next to him on the seat. He reached his hand down to stop them but his hand, too, was subject to this new force. Fully alert now, there was no question that something truly out of the ordinary was taking place. His stomach fluttered. Gravity itself was undergoing a re-calibration of sorts; shrugging off its familiar downwardness while simultaneously adopting an infinitely more powerful and utterly irresistible forwardness.

Everything in the car was falling – not down, but forward; falling away from him; falling into the growing maelstrom of sparkling glass fragments, water droplets, and wrinkling steel that had once been the windshield and the bonnet.

The moment raged with all the fury of a frustrated and frantic lightening bolt tethered to both the ground and the sky, unable to recoil or release; the terror exceeded every notion of sound and light, sustained until no distinction could be made between its flash and its roar. The car, his parents, the road, the rain, the anger, the violence, the music, the sweetness – all melded into a blindingly quiet nonsensical singularity. There was no choice but to succumb. There was no room for even an atom of consciousness amid the super-saturated chaos.

When gravity had once again regained its familiar downward pull, Anton awoke. He was lying on his back, frozen with panic, clutching bunches of damp sheets in his white-knuckled fists. Listening to the rain in the pitch black, he opened his eyes wide, wider, and wider still, wondering if he had gone blind in the crash. Long seconds passed until a comforting sensation worked its way in through the chrysalis of fear that had coalesced around him.

“Breathe.” Elena moved her warm hand in slow circles across his chest. It was a only a whisper. “Breathe.”

Anton’s fists eventually relaxed their grip on the sheets.

“You’re okay.”

Anton exhaled as though he had just resurfaced from a deep dive. A car hissed along the wet road in front of the house. His wide eyes followed a narrow streak of light that had slipped in through the crack between the curtains and sped along two walls of the room, then disappeared in a corner. Lingering in that foggy somewhere-state between dream and reality, he was relieved that he had not gone blind after all. Elena’s hand moved from his chest to his head. Her fingers combed back his sweat-soaked hair.

“I used to love that song.”

Anton mumbled, barely intelligibly, in his gruff, pre-dawn baritone, “Radio Ga Ga?”

“Yeah – but with your Tom Waits voice instead of Freddy Mercury.”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

She shifted, looking for a more comfortable position. “I’ve been awake all night.”

He rolled over to face her and placed his hand on her swollen belly. “How’s the baby?”

“Rowdy. Kicking and punching since midnight. I don’t know if I can stand another month of this.”

Anton felt a tiny push against his hand. “Was that a foot?”

“Maybe. Could be a knee. I think he wants me to roll over.” Elena slowly moved until she had her back to Anton.

“He?”

She sighed – contented, confident, exhausted.

Anton sat up. He brushed the hair away from her face and kissed her. “I have to get up – clear my head. Go back to sleep.” He climbed out of the bed and felt around the floor with his foot in the pitch black for something to wear. Jeans. T-shirt. He got dressed, walked out of the room and made his way down the hall singing in his best Tom Waits voice, “All we hear is radio ga ga …

2. Dreams of Memories of Dreams

The waiting area was dim, quiet, and at least three degrees warmer than the rest of the hospital. An elderly maintenance man was working on the light fixture above the desk. He took little notice of Anton speaking to the receptionist.

She smiled and nodded. “Have a seat. Dr. Brynn won’t be long.”

Anton stood a moment longer, watching the maintenance man, before taking a seat.

A twenty-four hour news channel flickered silently on an old television wedged between two chairs in the corner of the room. A colossus of a man, sweating profusely, sat within arms reach of the television, clutching the remote control in one hand and a soda can in the other. In spite of his thunderous snoring, he appeared to be awake.

Anton tried to watch the muted television, hearing only the titan breathe, but was distracted by the soda can in the man’s gargantuan left hand. Every half-minute or so, the man would twitch and the soda can would droop a little more. Judging from the ring of condensation on the can, Anton awaited the imminent spill.

“Excuse me.”

No response.

Anton cleared his throat. “Excuse me.”

He leaned to the left, dead center in the giant’s wide-eyed field of vision. “Hi.” He pointed at the remote control. “Do you mind if I …” Anton mimed changing channels with the thumb of his empty hand.

The soda can tilted another few degrees and fizzy brown liquid dribbled out, splattering on the floor.
Anton straightened up and looked back toward the receptionist’s desk. She was nowhere to be seen. The maintenance man had also left.

The deep, rhythmic, almost hypnotic snoring that had filled the room was suddenly shredded by an explosion of violent coughing. Reflexively the man reached up with his right hand to cover his mouth, still holding the remote control. When the eruption subsided, he frowned disgustedly at remote control and wiped it on the upholstered side of the waiting room seat, leaving a visible smear of phlegm behind.

Anton broke off all attempts to communicate further. He turned his attention to the pile of magazines on the table in the middle of the room. Glancing back at the trail of mucus on the chair, he pulled his hand up inside his sleeve and nudged through the stacks with the cuff of his jacket, careful not to touch any of them with his bare skin.

The most recent publication on the table was more than two years old. He performed a quick mental calculation to estimate the number of infectious hands that could have thumbed through the pages: Two-years, times two-hundred practice days per year, six hours per day, roughly four patients per hour … nine-thousand, six-hundred.

He sat back with his hands safely tucked into his jacket pockets and closed his eyes.

The receptionist returned. “Anton Novik?”

Anton stood up and followed her down a narrow hall to the last door on the left.

Dr. Brynn was tall, thin, pale, had short, cropped, graying hair and a gray goatee. His tortoise shell glasses, brown corduroys, and tweed jacket with leather elbow patches added a Freudesque air of eccentric wisdom. He held out his hand in a welcoming gesture. “It’s good to see you again Anton. You look well. How have you been?”

Anton hesitantly shook the doctor’s hand. “Not bad.”

“How is Elena? Getting close now, I suppose.”

“Eight months and counting. She’s only been off work for two weeks. It’s like she’s going through withdrawal now that I’m her only patient.”

Dr. Brynn nodded knowingly. “So you’re here under duress?”

Anton touched the tip of his nose with his index finger, then pointed at the doctor. “Something like that.”

“She seemed quite concerned when she called me last week, Anton.”

“Really? What did she say?”

“No matter. Tell me what’s going on. Really. How are you doing?”

Anton rolled his eyes and peered around the examining room as if looking for answers on the stark, white walls. “Well, if you ask Elena, I drink too much, I exercise too little, and I stay up too late.”

Dr. Brynn opened a file folder on the desk and took a pen from his pocket. “I’m not asking Elena. I’m asking you.”

Anton took a minute to consider where best to start, searching the bare walls again for answers. “Well, she’s right, in some ways, I suppose. I haven’t been sleeping well. When I wake up I’m confused.”

Dr. Brynn nodded. “That’s normal. It’s called sleep inertia. Everybody wakes up at a different rate, but it can take a few minutes for the brain to become fully conscious.”

Anton squinted, shaking his head slightly from side to side. “I know what you mean, but no, this is different. I have these vivid dreams that just …” He paused, still searching the white walls for the right words, “… they just turn me inside out. I’m almost afraid to fall asleep.”

“Frightening?”

Anton shook his head. “Not frightening. No. Upsetting. Really intense. Like bad memories that I just can’t let go of.”

“Are they? Memories, I mean?”

Anton leaned back and ran his hand through his hair. He took a deep breath then looked Dr. Brynn square in the eyes. “That’s part of the problem. I don’t know. They feel like memories, but I can’t be sure. Sometimes, during the day, I remember things but I don’t know if I am remembering a dream or something real. Other times I dream about people and places and I’m not sure if they really exist. Sometimes I’m not entirely sure if I’m awake or still asleep and dreaming. It makes reality a bit fuzzy.”

Dr. Brynn was writing furiously on the notepad in the file folder. “That would be confusing. When did this begin?”

Anton stared blankly at Dr. Brynn for a moment. He looked down at the floor, then around the room. He closed his eyes briefly, then shook his head with an uncomfortable sort of nervous laugh and a pained expression. “That’s the other part of the problem; I don’t really know when it started. It sort of feels like I’ve always been this way.”

Dr. Brynn changed tack. “Elena told me but I’ve forgotten … what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a data analyst. Statistics bureau.”
Dr. Brynn wrote a few more lines on the notepad in the folder. “Ah yes, now that you mention it, I remember Elena mentioning that. A numbers man.”

Anton’s tone changed. “Forgive me, Dr. Brynn. I realize you and my wife both work in the same hospital, but I didn’t know you were so close. You seem to know quite a bit about her and I.”

Dr. Brynn closed Anton’s file folder on his desk, pushed his chair back, and stood defensively. “Well, Anton … for the last few years we’ve eaten in the same cafeteria, ridden the same elevators, waited in the same lines for the same bad coffee, attended the same meetings and conferences, and in case you’ve forgotten, I live across the street from you.”

Anton felt the warm brush strokes of embarrassment moistening his brow. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t implying …”

“I know. It’s quite all right. You’re under a lot of stress, Anton – you’re not yourself. Lack of sleep will often cause paranoia. Take some time off. Spend a few weeks with Elena before the baby arrives. How long have you been married?”

“Almost two years. Our second anniversary might be spent in the delivery room.”

From his jacket pocket, Dr. Brynn produced a small, plain, white prescription bottle. “I want you to take one of these each day for the next while.”

Anton took the bottle and examined it. There was no information on the label other than a string of digits and a pattern that resembled a bar code. He opened it and shook a few of the round orange pills into his hand. “Skittles.”

Dr. Brynn looked confused. “Skittles?”

“Yeah, you know, the chewy, fruit flavored candy in the crunchy shell.”

Dr. Brynn frowned and shook his head. “No. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a … a skittle.”

Anton awkwardly dropped the orange pills back in the bottle and snapped the cap closed. “Right. Not Skittles. One a day. Got it.”

3. Like a Dog

Elena woke shortly after 3am. Anton’s side of the bed was still made. She walked down the hallway into the dim light of the living room. Anton was holding a copy of Kafka’s The Trial in one hand and a bottle of pinot noir in the other. On the coffee table in front of him, the handle of a knife protruded from a block of cheese on a plate like an axe that had been thrust into the stump of downed tree. He held the bottle upside down and watched the last few drops fall into his wine glass.

Elena sat down next to him on the sofa. “A book? I expected to hear the clicking of computer keys, not the turning of pages.”

He put down the bottle and read from the book with an imperceptible slur that only Elena would have noticed, “You don’t need to accept everything as true, you only have to accept it as necessary.”

Elena lied back and tucked her feet under Anton’s leg to warm her toes. “Depressing view.”

“Ah – a beauty and a scholar. Yes … The lie made into the rule of the world.”

Elena leaned over and picked up the glass of wine. “They sound like somebody’s final words.”

The book fell out of Anton’s hand and he fumbled to catch it. He looked wide-eyed at Elena with disbelief.

“Did you memorize the whole book?”

Elena took a sip of wine.

Anton reached for the glass in her hand. “I’m sorry, love, but you’ll have to wait a few more weeks. Even longer if you’re breastfeeding, I think.”

She held the glass high, out of Anton’s reach.

He smiled sympathetically at her. “Okay. I know, I know. I have to cut back. I swear I won’t have another drop until we can both enjoy a glass together – to celebrate, okay? I Promise.”

Elena fixed a cold stare into Anton’s eyes and guzzled the entire glass of red wine.

“Hey, come on now. That wasn’t very smart.” He reached out to touch Elena’s belly but jerked his hand back as though he had received an electric shock. He stammered, “W… uh … where? … what? …” His eyes flashed around the room.

Elena looked puzzled. “Are you okay?”

Anton was frantic. “Elena, where’s the baby? What happened? Did … Did something happen?”

“Was that your first bottle?”

“Elena. Where is the baby? We need to get you both to the hospital.”

Elena sat up straight. “What are you talking about? What baby?”

Anton read her face. There was no humor in her eyes, no levity in her lips.

Panicked, he ran to the bedroom and turned on the lights. He pulled back the covers to examine the sheets, feeling around in the bed like a blind man. He ran back out into the hallway. “Elena! Where did you … ?”

He sprinted down the hall to the bathroom, slid open the shower door and peered at the clean, dry, tiled floor of the stall. He squeezed his head with his hand like a crab covering a rock, then repeatedly smacked his forehead with his open palm. “Think. Think. Think”

The thinking produced a thought that turned his blood to slush. He stood frozen in place. For a moment the smallest of movements demanded a strength of will beyond his means. Then, with superhuman effort, Anton turned slowly and looked down at the closed lid of the toilet.

He listened without breathing. He closed his eyes and searched the air for any sound; a whimper, a breath, any hint that would put the baby anywhere other than in the toilet. The air was still except for the thunder of his own heart smashing its way through his rib cage.

He knelt down. Slowly and reluctantly he lifted the seat, readying himself for whatever was about to confront him. With his eyes still closed, he reached into the bowl and swirled his hand around. The water was clean and clear. He collapsed into a crumpled heap on the cold tile floor, gasping for air.

His fear and confusion was rapidly transforming into frustration and anger. After only a few seconds of recovery he opened his eyes and sprang to his feet, darting out of the bathroom, back down the hallway to the living room.

Elena sat on the sofa, strangely calm, bordering on annoyed, listening to the crystal tones produced as she tapped her wedding band against the side of the empty wine glass. “Are you ill?”

Anton grabbed her by the arm and yanked her up to her feet. She struggled instinctively as he forcefully pulled up the front of her nightgown and roughly palpated her lower abdomen. Panic had set in.

She shoved him away. “What the hell is wrong with you?” She grabbed the knife from the block of cheese on the coffee table and pointed it at her husband. “Stay the hell away from me.”

Anton was becoming catatonic. He stumbled towards Elena with his trembling hands slowly rising, reaching out to touch her face, imploring her to offer up some explanation. Meaning only to push Anton away again, Elena accidentally shoved the knife between his ribs, deep into his chest. He stumbled backwards and sat clumsily on the edge of the coffee table for a moment. His strength spilling out through the gash in his chest. Speechless, he eased back at first onto his elbows, then flat onto his back.

Finally, lying supine on the table, Anton looked up into Elena’s horrified face looming over him and moaned, “Like a dog.”

4. Dressed all in Black

It rained the entire day of the service. Old men feeling older stood with bent backs beneath black umbrellas, listening to the priest read passages from the dog-eared pages of a brown, leather-bound bible. Each of their faces was as different as all their days past, yet made same by their patient stoicism; the suit of armor worn to shield them from the crippling absurdity of their brief existence. Stone faced masks concealed the wide-eyed astonishment and drop-jawed despair at realization that time accelerates exponentially with every passing year.

Elena quietly watched the slowly shrinking rectangle of white sky reflected in the polished lacquer lid of the coffin as it was lowered into the ground. “It’s really for us, isn’t it?”

Anton leaned toward her. “What?”

“Walnut and bronze. Hand stitched silk. Padded with eider down. Stupid, isn’t it?”

“Not if it’s what he wanted.”

“No. It was for me. To make me feel better.”

“Do you?”

She squeezed Anton’s hand and looked up into the white beyond the rim of her black umbrella. “There’s something to be said for the Tibetans.”

Anton looked up at the white sky while the priest, to his left, continued to recite scripture.

Elena tipped the umbrella back and closed her eyes, letting the light rain fall on her face. “The family wears white.”

Anton smoothed his pants legs with his hands. “But I look good in black.”

“And the Buddhist monks feed the dead to the vultures. It’s a sort of transformation. As your body is consumed by the birds your spirit supposedly takes flight. That’s what I want.”

Anton shuddered. “You want me to take your body to Tibet so you can be dismembered and fed to the vultures?”

Elena nodded. “Yes. Exactly.”

“You’re not Buddhist.”

Elena glanced over at the priest. “The vultures don’t care.”

The priest exhausted his funerary repertoire ending with the signum crucis – a reflex born of a profound devotion to habitual practices.

As Elena and Anton walked back to the waiting limousine, Anton sensed he was being watched. He opened the door and held the umbrella over Elena as she took her seat in the back of the car. Anton looked back at a solitary figure standing by the graveside. Without knowing why, he waved to the stranger in the distance.
In the car, Elena took a compact mirror from purse and examined her eyes, dabbing at their edges with a tissue. “Who did you wave to?”

Anton shook his head. “I thought I recognized him, but maybe not.”

* * *

Elena examined the items on the antique oak desktop in her father’s study. She gently held each of them with the reverence of a pilgrim seeking the divine among religious relics: a Montblanc fountain pen and drafting pencil, a pair of tortoise shell spectacles, a pad of linen writing paper, a rotary telephone, a crystal decanter of eighteen year old single malt Scotch whisky.

Slowly working her way around the room, as though viewing a museum exhibit, she gently ran her fingers down the sleeve of a tweed jacket that hung on the stand beside the fireplace. She leaned closer, breathing in the lingering traces of Russian Leather from the collar. The scent transported her simultaneously to a dozen different places and times. The hairs on the back of her neck bristled and she closed her eyes, giving in to the flood of memories.

Anton silently approached from behind and put his arms gently around her waist.

She leaned her head back, resting it on his shoulder. “I don’t want to miss him. He doesn’t deserve it. Son of a bitch.”

Anton combed her hair back with his fingers and kissed her temple.

“I remember coming in here when I was four years old. I climbed on his lap, right there, behind that desk. I wanted to talk to him about something, I don’t remember what, but when I said ‘Daddy’ he cut me off. He told me I was too old call him that. From then I had to call him Peter. Who does that?”

Anton tightened his embrace. He could feel her rib cage tense as she struggled to keep from crying.

“I used to come in here and watch him work. I’d sit right here on the edge of the hearth with my own little notepad and a pencil, pretending to be just like him. Sometimes I’d come in when he wasn’t here and sit behind his desk. I’d look through all these books – diagrams, equations, schematics. I tried to make sense of them. I’d stare at them for hours, until my eyes and my head ached, but I could never make any sense of them. I knew I’d never be like him. He knew it too.”  Her chest heaved and her voice cracked. “No one would ever be like him.”

Anton slid his hands down onto the sides of Elena’s belly, waiting to feel a kick from inside. “I don’t think your father and I ever exchanged a full sentence.”

“He didn’t speak to anyone. He would drew his diagrams and wrote his equations. Even when he sat next to you at the dinner table, he was miles away, searching – always searching.”  Elena broke away from Anton’s arms. She returned to the desk and sat in her father’s leather chair beneath the window in the fading afternoon light.

Anton knew she had more to say, but knew he couldn’t coax it out of her. Elena would let him know when she was ready. He watched while she opened and closed the top desk drawer. She removed the cap from the fountain pen and signed her name on the top sheet of the linen note paper. She clicked on the architect’s lamp.

That was Anton’s cue. “You said he was searching. What did you mean?”

The lamp gave a warm glow to the room. Elena stared into the shadows. “For meaning. For answers. The classic existential dilemma.”

Anton sat in a green, leather, wingback chair next to the fireplace, facing the desk. “I think, deep down, we all search for meaning – even if most of us never acknowledge it.”
“Peter was obsessed. It defined him. He was a true polymath; a renaissance man with a god complex. Medicine, mathematics, physics, philosophy – it was all his.”

“Husband and father, too. How did he keep it all together?”

Elena laughed quietly, but bitterly. “With Planck-like precision.”

Anton had no idea what that meant. Not wanting to seem ignorant, he just nodded his usual nod.

“I spent thirty-three years trying to earn his love but I never got it. For thirty-three years I just wanted to be his daughter but to him I was just a B-student. He didn’t feel love like others feel it. Or if he did, he never showed it. That part of him was broken. I loved him. And I hated him.”

“He must have loved your mother.”

“Like you and I love a hand or a foot, I suppose. A utilitarian sort of love.”

Elena used her sleeve to dry her cheeks. She reached forward and tapped her fingernails on the bottle of Scotch. “I’d kill for a glass right now.”

Anton’s brow furrowed and his eyes scanned the bookshelves behind the desk. “You haven’t been reading Kafka, have you?”

“Kafka? No. Why?”

5. Come Sweet Slumber…

The receptionist lead Anton down the corridor to a small, quiet room. The walls were soothing yellow and the room was softly lit by a single lamp on the bedside table. A pair of blue hospital pajamas were folded neatly on a short table at the foot of a single bed.

The receptionist held a remote control. “You can use this to choose from different nature sounds. Some patients find it helps them sleep.” She pressed a button and the room was instantly filled with the sound of light rain and frogs chirping in the distance. “Go through them, see what you like – crickets in a field, surf at the beach. Personally, my favorite is the hum of the air conditioner. I’m a city girl. Turn that on and I’ll sleep like a baby. Everyone is different.” She set the remote on the bedside table next to a glass of water.

Anton smiled at her. “Silence works best for me, but thank you.”

“Okay. Dr. Brynn will be by in a few minutes to help you get into your pajamas.”

Anton laughed. “I think I’ll manage.”

She paused as she left the room. “No. These pajamas are a little different than what you’re probably used to. Have a seat. The doctor will be right in.”

Anton watched her leave, then stepped around to the foot of the bed. For the most part, they seemed like ordinary hospital pajamas; cotton top and bottoms, pale blue with a darker blue pinstripe, lingering traces of chlorine bleach. He picked them up for a closer look. The top had a stretchy, tight fitting hood, lined with what looked like a mesh made of thousands of small purple beads.

Dr. Brynn came into the room. “Good to see you again Anton.”

Anton hastily put the pajamas back on the table. Doctor Brynn gently closed the door. “How have you been? Any change since we last spoke?”

Anton shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.

“I see. You’re still experiencing the confusion? The strange memories?”

Anton nodded.

“Well, we’re going to try and get to the bottom of it – figure out what’s going on inside that head of yours. By the way, before we get started, I have to apologize. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be at Peter’s funeral. I was out of the country. I hope you will pass along my condolences to Elena.”

Anton flashed a half-hearted smile. “Yes. Of course.”

Dr. Brynn picked up the pajamas from the table. “He and I worked together many years ago. In fact, Peter developed the technology in this hood. It’s surprisingly comfortable. You should have no trouble sleeping while you wear it.”

“Come sweet slumber, enshroud me in thy purple cloak.”

“Pardon?”

“Art of Noise? Max Headroom? Never mind. Go on. What does it do, exactly?”

Dr. Brynn stroked his goatee and looked over the top of his glasses at Anton. “You know that Peter’s genius spanned every discipline imaginable; medicine, mathematics, psychology, and most notably physics – quantum field theory in particular.

“You see, at the very smallest distances, in the very shortest spans of time, things don’t happen as we expect them to. The laws of the universe, as we have come to know them, don’t apply to the infinitesimally small. In the gaps that exists between atoms, between quarks and leptons, in the tiniest fractions of space where measurement becomes nearly impossible, logic begins to fall apart.

“Peter uncovered a phenomenon. At the finest end of the quantum scale the trusted principal of cause-and-effect is shredded. Effect can occur after cause, as we would expect, but it can also occur before its cause, or both. Cause-and-effect is the rule that makes our universe run – if that fundamental rule breaks down, what happens to us?”

Anton looked at Dr. Brynn with raised eyebrows. “I’m sorry. What?”

“Your father-in-law was able to demonstrate that under certain conditions, events can have both happened and not happened. He proved that an event doesn’t always require a cause. Peter proved Newton wrong; Not every action has an equal and opposite reaction – not in quantum terms. Peter proved that some actions have no reaction, and some actions are purely spontaneous. In layman’s terms, quantum objects can exist simultaneously in multiple places, or even more strangely, can both exist and not exist. Uncertainty is ubiquitous. Imagine Hamlet’s conundrum on the the quantum stage: To be, or not to be … or to both be, and not, simultaneously.”

Anton rubbed his forehead. “That would make for a very long and confusing play.”

Dr. Brynn nodded. “Yes. Infinitely long – but not if there is an audience. When a quantum event is observed, by the audience, so to speak, the very act of observing removes the uncertainty. That is to say, an event that has been observed has obviously happened – so it can no longer have not-happened. Do you understand what that means? Observation cements the past in place – like protecting a computer file against accidental deletion or change. Our universe uses observation as a sort of write-protect, making the past permanent.

“Now, remove the observer – close the curtain on the quantum stage. To the audience, anything can be happening behind the curtain. They are uncertain of what has happened, is happening, or will happen, as long as the curtain remains closed. The past, not having been made permanent by observation, remains an open book of blank pages. Likewise, the unobserved future is infinitely variable. And what do you think lies between an uncertain past and an uncertain future?”

Anton nodded slowly. “An uncertain present.”

Dr. Brynn clapped his hands. “Exactly.”

Anton tilted his head from side to side, stretching his neck. “So, is that what’s happening to me? I’m the victim of an uncertain present?”

“Possibly.”

Anton sighed. “I know I’m stating the obvious here, but I’m slightly bigger than a quark or a lepton.”

Dr. Brynn picked up the pajamas and opened the hood. “Take off your shirt and put this on.”

Anton unbuttoned his shirt.

“Peter always felt that medical science’s understanding of the brain was just too simple to fully explain what makes us who we are. He believed that a person, a being, a consciousness, had to be more than just a series of chemical reactions in a brain. He wasn’t satisfied to think that his entire existence was contained in that gelatinous blob between his ears. He was convinced that there is something more to it. The hood with its network of sensors woven into it will be taking measurements while you sleep.”

Anton put on the pajama top. Dr. Brynn adjusted some straps and precisely positioned the hood on Anton’s head.

“If your brain is damaged or destroyed, Anton, what happens to you?”

Anton raised his eyebrows. “I die.”

“Right. If the brain dies, Anton dies. So, it would seem that consciousness is a function of the brain. Yes?”

“Yes. That makes sense.”

The doctor connected an umbilical of wires to the hood. He opened a closet door. He connected the other end of the umbilical to a rack of electronic equipment in the closet. “We live in a technologically enlightened age, Anton. Right now, today, we have the means to use your DNA to grow an exact copy of your brain from stem cells in a lab. Imagine, a perfect duplicate of your brain – a spare brain in a jar, waiting, just in case you should ever need it. From time to time, we would connect you to the spare and update all of your fresh memories. Extraordinary, isn’t it? Lie back.”

Anton lied with his head on the pillow. “You don’t have a brain in a jar at the back of that closet do you?”

Dr. Brynn laughed. “No. This is just hypothetical.”

The rack of equipment was coming to life, emitting seemingly random beeps and tones in time with rows of blinking lights. “Perfect.” Dr. Brynn closed the closed door. “If you fell victim to a brain wasting disease or a traumatic head injury, we could replace that damaged organ in your head, with the spare. The new brain, identical to the old brain, would be completely intact with all your memories and personality traits, quirks and all. Your friends and family would never have to grieve your loss. Aside from a scar hidden in your hair, nobody would ever know that you had a new brain. It’s a wonderful prospect isn’t it?”

Anton turned to respond. “I’m not so sure …”

“Lie still.”

“Sorry.”

The doctor came around and sat on the edge of the bed. “But … how could Anton, the consciousness that we call Anton, exist in two brains simultaneously? The spare brain is identical to the original, right down to the arrangement of the axons and dendrites – every single synapse is the same. But if you have two identical brains, and consciousness is a function of the brain, then there must be two consciousnesses. How can Anton have two consciousnesses; two selfs?”

Anton’s mouth hung open and he seemed to stop breathing for a moment.

“Your mind, that is to say, your identity, your soul, your spirit, that divine spark of Anton-ness that you experience as your self is only a function of that lump of tissue we call the brain; the self is a product of biochemical processes, like the bio-luminescent light emitted from a firefly’s abdomen; just waves of energy.”

Anton closed his eyes. “That’s humbling.”

Dr. Brynn stood. “Light and consciousness; there’s very little difference in the end. If you were a lamp and I replaced your burnt out bulb, would you be the same lamp? I mean, you would still illuminate the room, wouldn’t you? If Elena was unaware that I replaced your bulb, or brain as it were, she would carry on loving her old Anton, never knowing that you were not really the original Anton. If we could indefinitely continue replacing your bulb, we would achieve immortality. Yes?”

Anton nodded.

“Please try to lie still … Where was I?”

“Immortality.”

“Right. We could all be immortal. But …” Dr. Brynn scratched his head and roughed his slicked back hair. An air of frustration seeped into the tone of his voice. “But, we must give consideration to the original Anton. We have only considered how others experience the transition from one Anton to the next – they remain unaware. What about the self? What about Anton? Even though the new brain is identical, the original Anton is gone – annihilated and replaced. The new Anton continues where the old Anton left off, equipped with a completely up-to-day set of memories, so that even the new Anton is unaware that he is not the original. But the original Anton, you, the self, has experienced obliteration.”

Anton suddenly sat up. “But why? Why are the two consciousnesses different if the two brains are the same?”

“Exactly. Why? Even if the two brains are identical right down to the physical arrangement of every single molecule and the orbit of every electron, it’s the quantum characteristics of the two brains that makes them different. The quarks, muons, taus, and leptons have an infinite number of possible states. As long as they remain un-observed, the two will have infinite variability – they will be different.

“Peter theorized that the true progenitor of consciousness is the impossibly complex and infinitely variable quantum character of the brain’s sub-atomic physicality. The biochemistry of the brain only determines our mood or state of mind at any given moment. Our consciousness is rooted in the quantum state, not in the classical, four-dimensional, Newtonian state.”

Anton leaned forward, but suddenly stopped with a jerk when he reached the end of his tether. “But if you destroy the brain, its all over. If, as you suggest, our consciousness resides in some ethereal quantum state, wouldn’t we remain conscious even if the brain ceased to exist?”

Dr. Brynn put a hand on Anton’s shoulder and guided him carefully back down onto the pillow.

“Observation creates permanence. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Peter and I both suspected that there was something different about the subatomic particles that make up the atoms and molecules in your brain’s fifty-billion neurons. That was the focus of his research when he died. His suspicion was that the subatomic particles of the brain’s matter are more prone to phenomena like quantum entanglement. The hood on your pajamas creates a field which allows us to monitor the subatomic activity in your brain.

Dr. Brynn poured Anton a glass of water and placed a yellow pill on the bedside table. “This is just to help you sleep.”

“Sleep? How do expect me to sleep after all that. My mind is tied in knots.”

“Take the pill. You’ll sleep. I’ll be back in a few minutes to check on you.”

Minutes passed and Dr. Brynn had still not returned. The sleep aid was taking effect and Anton could barely keep his eyes open. He lied back on the bed, his thoughts twirled in dizzying randomness until, finally, only blackness remained.