The Couch

The World Within

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Paul
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Posted 12/25/06 - 8:23 PM:
Subject: The World Within
The rain fell steadily, coldly. Norman Reed found the regular sound beating down on his car soothing. It seemed to impose an order on the world, for there was no wind to disturb it. The vehicle was his protective shell as he sat in the parking lot, unmoving, composing himself. Any observer would have sensed that this was a man who had failed, but there were no observers.

After a few minutes Norman reached over to pick up a briefcase on the seat next to him, opened his door and stepped out into the rain. He didn't bother with his umbrella. A minute later he entered the building and walked into a conference room whose occupants turned expectantly toward him.

Twenty four hours earlier this same man had entered another room of the same building. In it he found his colleague Frederic Burrhus, who he joined in staring at a set of computer monitors. The images on the screens looked as if they might come from a probe on an alien world. The world on which the two men were spying was a distributed world with no exact location, for it existed as a network of servers. The inhabitants of the world were equally difficult to pinpoint, but it was only their relation to their own world which mattered, and that was shown clearly enough by the monitors.

"You can't deny it's a remarkable civilization," Burrhus commented as they watched workers constructing a tower. "Like our own in many ways, and yet unique in so many other ways."

"Yes," Norman agreed, "but that's not the issue. What can they create that will establish their sentience? They're nothing more than the iterations of programming logic designed by the project's thousands of human contributors. Their actions are scripted."

"No more than ours. No one set out to simulate intelligence here. Only the groundwork was created, the rules and conditions of their simulated evolution. Our universe and our planet set the conditions for our evolution, just as we set conditions for their accelerated evolution."

"We need a test. Something which only truly intelligent creatures could do."

Burrhus sighed. "They pass the Turing test. What more can you want?"

"The Turing test can only address appearances, it doesn't address the experience of inner life. We've been charged with an important task here, Fred. Think about what's at stake. If they're intelligent, does it become our moral duty to help them? We have the power to stop death for them, but we let them die."

"If there's a god, is he obligated to stop our deaths?" The way Fred posed the question revealed that he thought not.

Norman pondered the matter for a moment. "If he offers an afterlife, his duty is fulfilled. If he offers no afterlife, and he's our creator, then I'd have to say he's a merciless god."

Fred shook his head. "Nothing is more natural to life than death. To interfere with a world so drastically is to destroy it. Let things run their course. When you create a world you should set it free."

Norman offered no reply, but turned to the monitor next to him. The data compiled there was of little use, but at least it was clear and indisputable.

"Have a look at this, Fred." Norman typed a command and one of the figures on the screen froze.

Fred shrugged. "Proving human intelligence superior by manipulation is no better than Dr. Johnson kicking a rock to refute Bishop Berkeley. It's not difficult to manipulate people either. We only claim to be free when unimpeded, not when someone forces their will on us or natural circumstances prevent us from action."

"Their freedom, though, is limited by their programming and their world's programming."

"As is ours. They can't do anything beyond their capacity, but neither are you free to take actions beyond your physical capacity, nor solve problems beyond your intellectual capacity."

Norman was unmoved. "They have no real emotions guiding their actions as we do, only calculations simulating them."

"How do you determine that people have genuine emotions?" Fred prodded. "Looking at a scan of my brain you might argue I have only chemical excretions and neuron firings. You accept that I have emotions because I demonstate them, not because of any special access to my consciousness. As Skinner once said, the real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do."

The lights flickered briefly as a strong wind gust blew outside. Norman cast a glance up at the fluorescent fixtures, waited a few moments to let them decide whether they would continue to give light, then looked back to Fred. "Computers process data in a linear fashion, humans process data holistically. The resulting behavior is the same, but the process is so different that we can't suppose it to be consciousness."

Fred shook his head. "If the function is the same, the method or composition doesn't matter. If you somehow manage to make a car out of dirt, and you can drive it and fill it with gas and change its oil, it's still a car. If you can produce intelligent behavior though a new method it's still intelligence." He paused. "Your point of view, Norman, is that a simulation isn't the real thing. My point of view is that a perfect simulation is the very definition of the real thing."

Norman persisted. "Their 'thoughts' are the result of a series of computations and could be predicted, even if the nature of the program makes it difficult in practice."

"And are we not the same? Any determinist will tell you that with sufficient knowledge and intelligence the whole future of the universe could be predicted, our actions included, and a theological determinist will tell you that God can already do this."

"I just don't know," Norman offered. "I can't help but feel something is missing here."

"We've seen all the proof we need," Fred insisted, "you just refuse to accept it. You're adding new conditions whenever an old one is satisfied. You still don't have any idea what you're looking for. You never will."

Norman offered no response, but turned back to his work with an unsatisfied resignation.

Clouds rolled across the sky. The meek winter sun, partly obscured, dipped toward the horizon. Norman walked to his car. He sat there a moment looking into his rear view mirror, as though trying to remember something he might have left behind him, then began the journey home. The winds intensified as he headed down the canyon road, buffeting his car, but had begun to let up by the time he crossed the bridge and headed up the other side toward his home on the ridge.

On entering his home Norman was greeted with a familiar sound. "Meow?" it asked. He interpreted it as a request for him to sit down, and laid back on the couch.

"We judge everything by how closely it resembles our favorite aspects of ourselves," he mused softly, adjusting the small pillow behind his head. "Intelligence is such an arbitrary thing. We've created a scale of importance with ourselves anointed at the top and inanimate objects at the bottom. It's the height of arrogance, yet there seems no alternative."

Stripes jumped up and purred.

"What's so jarring here is that we have something we've always considered an inanimate object, which is trying to jump all the way to the top of our intelligence scale. It calls our system into question. It blurs the neat distinctions which allow us to care about some things and not about others."

Stripes jumped down, ran to his food dish and meowed impatiently. Norman followed obediently. As he filled the dish he considered his situation. "Perhaps unintelligent creatures are important to me if they're furry and friendly, while intelligent creatures don't matter to me when I can't touch them."

Norman finished up a report which he judged mediocre in quality and useless in recommendations. He left home the next morning as it began to rain, and drove the long road in and out of the canyon to arrive in the parking lot where he would sit for some minutes. He crossed the sea of asphalt and arrived, dripping, at his appointed place. All present knew what he was to say before he said it.


Edited by Paul on 12/25/06 - 8:39 PM
Nihil Loc
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Posted 12/26/06 - 1:56 AM:

Neat story. You've obviously a different entry for the PF short story contest. Was this originally a piece (attempt) written for the contest?

I'm looking forward to reading your entry.










Paul
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Posted 12/26/06 - 12:16 PM:

Nihil Loc wrote:
You've obviously a different entry for the PF short story contest.


No, this is it (I prefer The Replicator, but I wanted to write a new one for the contest). Any suggestions for improvement are welcome.
Nihil Loc
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Posted 12/26/06 - 9:04 PM:

sticking out tongue I didn't know the rule. Thought the story had to be exclusively for the PF.

I have no good advice for improvement. The nature of the simulated world remains a mystery, Norman Reed remains a mystery and the end is a bit gloomy + dull(?). It is entertaining. If anything I wish it were longer.
libertygrl
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Posted 12/26/06 - 11:31 PM:

hi paul,

nice work. i agree with nihil's assessment.

personally, i think it would work really well if it ended on this sentence: "He sat there a moment looking into his rear view mirror, as though trying to remember something he might have left behind him, then began the journey home." i love the succinct metaphor of the rear view mirror as an embodiment of norman's awareness that he's not getting the whole picture. beginning the journey home is another lovely metaphor that leads me to believe that maybe he will eventually "get it" after all.

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