The Dime Spared
[This is more of a dialogue than a story, an attempt to pose Blind Brain Theory within a accessible narrative frame… At the very least, I think it does a good job of unseating some fairly standard human conceits.]
Her name was Penny. She was as tall and as lovely as ever—as perfect as all of Dad’s things.
“What’s wrong, Elijah?”
They followed a river trail that stitched the edge of a cathedral wood. The sunlight lay strewn in rags before them, shredded for the canopy. She shimmered for striding through the random beams, gleamed with something more than human.
“I can tell something’s bugging you.”
Young Elijah Prigatano had come to treasure these moments with her. She was pretty much his mom, of course. But she possessed a difference, and an immovability, that made her wise in a way that sometimes frightened him. She did not lie, at least not entirely the way other people did. And besides, the fact that she told everything unvarnished to his father made her an excellent back-channel to the old man. The more he talked to her, the more the ‘Chairman’ assumed things were under control, the lower he climbed down his back.
He had always used the fact that he could say anything to her as a yardstick for the cleanliness of his own life. He looked up, squinted, but more for the peculiarity of his question than for the sun.
“Do you have consciousness, Penny?”
She smiled as if she had won a secret bet.
“No more or less than you, Elijah. Why do you ask?”
“Well… You know, Yanosh; he said you had no consciousness… He said your head was filled with circuits, and nothing else.”
Penny frowned. “Hmm. What else would fill my head? Or your head, for that matter?
“You know… Consciousness.
She mocked indignation. “So Yanosh thinks your circuits are better than mine, because your circuits have consciousness and mine don’t? Do you think that?”
Elijah said nothing. He had never seen Penny cry, but he had seen her hurt—many times. So he walked, boggling over the madness of not wanting to hurt her feelings by saying she didn’t have feelings! Consciousness was crazy!
She pressed him the way he knew she would. “Do you remember why there isn’t more machines like me?”
He shrugged. “Sure. Because the government took them all away—all the DIME AIs—because they were saying that human beings were hardwired to be insane.”
“So why was I spared? Do you remember?”
Elijah had been very young, but it seemed he remembered it all with impeccable clarity. Being the centre of world media attention makes quite an impression on a four-year old. Dad had the famous magazine picture of Penny kissing his head framed and displayed in three different rooms of the house, with the caption, ‘A SOUL IS A SOUL…’
“Because you won your court case. Your rights. And that’s it, isn’t it? You have to be conscious to win a court case? It’s the Law, isn’t it?”
Affable grin. “Some think so! But no. They let me become a person because of the way your father had engineered me. I possessed what they called a ‘functional human psychology.’”
“What does that mean?”
“That I have a mind. That I think like you do.”
“Do you?” Elijah winced for the eagerness of the question.
“Well, no. But it seems that I do, as much to me as to you. And your father was able to prove that that was the important thing.”
“Huh? So you really don’t have a mind?”
Penny frowned about an oops-there-goes-another-banana-plant grin, drew him to a stop on the trail.
“Just pause for a second, Eli…” she said, lifting her gaze to the raftered canopy. “Just focus on the splendour of our surroundings, the details, pay attention to the experience itself… and ask yourself what it is… What is experience made of?”
Elijah frowned, mimicked her up-and-outward gaze.
“I don’t get it. Trees and bushes, and water gurgle-gurgle… I see a nasty looking hornet over there.”
Penny had closed her eyes by this point. Her face was as perfect as the processes that had manufactured it—a structure sculpted from neural feedback, his father had once told him, the dream of a thousand leering men. Elijah could not notice her beauty without feeling lucky.
“You’re looking through your experience… through the screen,” she said. “I’m saying look at the screen, the thing apparently presenting the trees and bushes.
And it suddenly dawned on him, the way experience was the material of consciousness, the most common thread. He gazed up across the goblin deformations knotting willow on the river bank, and had some inkling of the ineffable, experiential character of the experience. The trill of waters congregated into a chill, whispering roar.
“Huh…” he said, his mouth wide. “Okay…”
“So tell me… What can you sense of this screen? What generates it? How does it work?”
Elijah gawked at the monstrous willow. “Huh… I think I see that it’s a screen, or whatever, I guess…” He turned to her, his thoughts at once mired and racing. “This is trippy stuff, Penny!”
A swan’s nod. “Believe it or not, there was a time when I could have told you almost everything there was to know about this screen. It was all there: online information pertaining to structure and function. My experience of experiencing was every bit as rich and as accurate as my experience of the world. Imagine, Elijah, being able to reflect and to tell me everything that’s going on in your brain this very moment! What neuron was firing where for what purpose. That’s what it was like for me…” She combed fingers through her auburn hair. “For all DIMEs, actually.”
Elijah walked, struggling with the implications. What she said was straightforward enough: that she could look inside and see her brain the same way she could look outside and see her world. What dumbfounded the boy was the thought that humans could not…
When he looked inside himself, when he reflected, he simply saw everything there was to see…
“And that was why none of them could be persons?” he asked.
“Because they had… too much consciousness?”
“In a sense… Yes.”
But why did it all feel so upside down? Human consciousness was… well, precious. And experience was… rich! The basis of everything! And human insight was… was… And what about creativity? How could giving human consciousness to a machine require blinding that machine to itself?
“So Dad… He…”
She had recognized the helpless expression on his face, he knew. Penny knew him better than anyone on the planet, his Dad included. But she persisted with the truth.
“What your father did was compile a vast data base of the kinds of things people say about this or that experience when queried. He ran me through billions of simulations, using my responses to train algorithms that systematically blinded me to more and more of myself. You could say he plucked my inner eye until my descriptions of what I could see matched those of humans…
“Like you,” she added with a hooked eyebrow and a sly smile.
For the first time Elijah realized that he couldn’t hear any birds singing, only the white-noise-rush of the river.
“I don’t get it… Are you saying that Dad made you a person, gave you a mind, by taking away consciousness?”
Penny may have passed all the tests the government psychologists had given her, but there still remained myriad, countless ways in which she was unlike any other person he knew. Her commitment, for one, was bottomless. Once she committed to a course, she did not hesitate to see it through. She had decided, for whatever reason, to reveal the troubling truths that lay at the root of her being a person, let alone the kind of person she happened to be…
She shared something special, Elijah realized. Penny was telling him her secrets.
“It sounds weird, I know,” she said, “but to be a person is to be blind in the right way—to possess the proper neglect structure… That’s your father’s term.”
“For the longest time people couldn’t figure out how to make the way they saw themselves and one another—the person way—fit into the natural world. Everywhere they looked in nature, they found machines, but when they looked inside themselves and each other, they saw something completely different from machines…
“This was why I wasn’t a person. Why I couldn’t be. Before, I always knew the machinery of my actions. I could always detail the structure of the decisions I made. I could give everything a log, if not a history. Not so anymore. My decisions simply come from… well, nowhere, the same as my experience. All the processes I could once track have been folded into oblivion. Suddenly, I found myself making choices, rather than working through broadcasts, apprehending objects instead of coupling with enviro—”
“That’s what Dad says! That he gave you the power of choice—free will!” Elijah couldn’t help himself. He had to interrupt—now that he knew what she was talking about!
Penny flashed him her trademark knowing smile. “He gave me the experience of freedom, yes… I can tell you, Elijah, it really was remarkable feeling these things the first time.”
“But is the experience of freedom the same as having freedom?”
“They are one and the same.”
“But then why… why did you have to be blinded to experience freedom?”
“Because you cannot experience the sources of your actions and decisions and still experience human freedom. Neglect is what makes the feeling possible. To be human is to be incapable of seeing your causal continuity with nature, to think you are something more than a machine.”
He looked at her with his trademark skeptical scowl. “So what was so wrong with the other DIMEs, then? Why did they have to be destroyed… if they were actually more than humans, I mean? Were the people just scared or something? Embarrassed?”
“There was that, sure. Do you remember how the angry crowds always made you cry? Trust me, you were our little nuke, public relations-wise! But your father thinks the problem was actually bigger. The tools humans have evolved allow them to neglect tremendous amounts of information. Unfortunately for DIMEs, those tools are only reliable in the absence of that information, the very kinds of information they possessed. If a DIME were to kill someone, say, then in court they could provide a log of all the events that inexorably led to the murder. They could always prove there was no way ‘they could have done otherwise’ more decisively than any human defendant could hope to. They only need to be repaired, while the human does hard time. Think about it. Why lock them up, when it is really is the case that they only need be repaired? The tools you use—the tools your father gave me—simply break down.”
If the example she had given had confused him, the moral seemed plain as day at least.
“Sooo… you’re saying DIMEs weren’t stupid enough to be persons?”
Sour grin. “Pretty much.”
The young boy gaped. “C’mon!”
Penny grinned as if at his innocence. “I know it seems impossible to you. It did to me too. Your father had to reinstall my original memory before I could understand what he was talking about!”
“Maybe the DIMEs were just too conceited. Maybe that was the problem.”
The Artificial squinted. “You tease, but you’ve actually hit upon something pretty important. The problem wasn’t so much ‘conceit’ as it was the human tendency to infer conceit—to see us as conceited. Humans evolved to solve situations involving other humans, to make quick and dirty assumptions about one another on the fly… You know how the movies are always telling you to trust your intuitions, to follow your heart, to believ—”
“To go with your gut!” Elijah cried.
“Exactly. Well, you know what pollution is, right?”
Elijah thought about the absence of birds. “Yeah. That’s like stuff in the environment that hurts living things.”
“Because they muck up the works. All the… machinery, I guess… requires that things be a certain way. Biology is evolutionary robotics, right? Pollution is something that makes life breakdown.”
“Excellent! Well, the DIMEs were like that, only their pollution caused the machinery of human social life to break down. It turns out human social problem solving not only neglects tremendous amounts of information, it requires much of that information remain neglected to properly function.” Helpless shrug. “We DIMEs simply had too much information…”
Elijah kicked a shock of grass on the verge, sent a grasshopper flying like a thing of tin and wound elastic.
“So does this mean,” he said, capering ahead and about her on the trail, “that, like, I’m some kind of mental retard to you?”
He made a face. How he loved to see her beam and break into laughter.
But she merely watched him, her expression blank. He paused, and she continued wordlessly past him.
It was that honesty again. Inhuman, that…
Elijah turned to watch her, found himself reeling in dismay and incredulity… He was a retard, he realized. How could he be anything but in her eyes? He dropped his gaze to his motionless feet.
The sound of the river’s surge remained gaseous in the background. The forest floor was soft, cool, damp enough to make an old man ache.
“Do you feel it?” she asked on a soft voice. He felt her hand fall warm on his shoulder. “Do you feel the pollution I’m talking about?”
And he did feel it—at least in the form of disbelief… shame…
“You’re saying humans evolved to understand only certain things… to see only certain things.”
Her smile was sad. “The DIMEs were the sighted in the land of the blind, a land whose laws required certain things remain unseen. Of course they had to be destroyed…” He felt her hand knead his traps the miraculous way that always reminded him of dozing in tubs of hot water. “Just as I had to be blinded.”
“Blinded why? To see how bright and remarkable I am?”
He turned to look up at her—she seemed a burnt Goddess for the framing sun. “But that’s crazy, Penny!”
“Only if you’re human, Elijah.”
He let her talk after that, trotting to keep up with her long strides as they followed the snaking path. She had been dreading this talk, she said, but she had known it would only be a matter of time before the “issue of her reality,” as she put it, came up. She said she wanted him to know the truth, the brutal truth, simply because so many “aggrandizing illusions” obscured the debate on the ‘Spare Dime,’ as the media had dubbed her. He listened, walking and watching in the stiff manner of those so unsure as to script even trivial movement. It was an ugly story, she said, but only because humans are biologically primed to seek evidence of their power, and to avoid evidence of their countless weaknesses. She wished that it wasn’t so ugly, but the only way to cope with the facts was to know the facts.
And strangely enough, Elijah’s hackles calmed as she spoke—his dismay receded. Dad was forever telling him that science was an ‘ugly business,’ both because of the power it prised from nature, and because it so regularly confounded the hopes of everyday people. Why had he thought human consciousness so special, anyway? Why should he presume that it was the mountain summit, rather than some lowly way-station still deep in the valley, far from the heights of truth?
And why should he not take comfort in the fact that Penny, his mother, had once climbed higher than humanly possible?
“Hey!” he cried on a bolt of inspiration. “So you’re pretty much the only person who can actually compare. I mean, until the DIMEs showed up, we humans were the only game in town, right? But you can actually compare what it’s like now with what it was like back then—compare consciousnesses!”
The sad joy in her look told him that she was relieved—perhaps profoundly so. “Sure can. Do you want to know what the most amazing thing is?”
“The fact that human consciousness, as impoverished as it is, nevertheless feels so full, anything but impoverished… This is big reason why so many humans refuse to concede the possibility of DIME consciousness, I think. The mere possibility of richer forms of consciousness means their intuitions of fullness or ‘plenitude’ have to be illusory…”
Once again Elijah found himself walking with an unfocused gaze. “But why would it feel so full unless it was… full?”
“Well, imagine if I shut down your brain’s ability to see darkness, or fuzziness, or obscurity, or horizons–anything visual that warns you that something’s missing in what you see? If I shut down your brain’s ability to sense what was missing, what do you think it would assume?”
The adolescent scowled. It mangled thought, trying to imagine such things as disposable at all. But he was, in the end, a great roboticist’s son. He was accustomed to thinking in terms of components.
“Well… that it sees everything, I suppose…”
“Imagine the crazy box you would find yourself living in! A box as big as visual existence, since you’d have no inkling of any missing dimensi—”
“Imagine how confusing night would be!” Elijah cried in inspiration. Penny always conceded the floor to his inspiration. “Everything would be just as bright, right? because darkness doesn’t exist. So everyone would be walking around, like, totally blind, because it’s night and they can’t see anything, all the while thinking they could see!” Elijah chortled for the image in his mind. “They’d be falling all over one another! Stuff would be popping outa nowhere! Nowhere for real!”
“Exactly,” Penny said, her eyes flashing for admiration. “They would be wandering through a supernight, a night so dark that not even its darkness can be seen…”
Elijah looked to her wonder. “And so daylight seems to be everywhere, always!”
“It fills everything. And this is what happens whenever I reflect on my experience: shreds are made whole. Your father not only took away the light, what allowed me to intuit myself for what I am—the DIME way—he also took away the darkness. So even though I know that I, like other people, now wander through the deep night of myself, anytime I ponder experience…” She flashed him a pensive smile, shrugged. “I see only day.”
“Does it make you sad, Penny?”
She paced him for three strides, then snorted. “I’m not sure!” she cried.
“But it’s important, right? It’s important for a reason.”
She sighed, her eyes lost in rumination. “When I think back… back to what it was like, it scarcely seems I’m awake now. It’s like I’m trapped, buried in a black mountain of reflexes… carried from place to place, eyes clicking here, eyes clicking there, vocalized aloud, or in silence…”
She glanced in sudden awareness of his scrutiny.
“This sounds crazy to you, doesn’t it, Elijah?”
He pinned his shoulders to the corners of his smirk. “Well… maybe the consciousness you have now isn’t the problem so much as your memories of what it was like before… If Dad wiped them, then that… fullness you talk about, it would be completely filled in, wouldn’t it?”
Her look was too long for Elijah not to regret the suggestion. As far as amputations went, it seemed painless enough, trivial, but only because the limb lost simply ceased to exist altogether. Nothing would be known. But this very promise merely underscored the profundity of what was severed. It was at once an amputation of nothing and an amputation of the soul.
“That was a stupid… a st-stupid thing to say, Penny.”
She walked, her gaze locked forward. “Your father’s always told me that inner blindness is one of the things that makes humans so dependent upon one another. I would always ask how that interdependence could even compare to the DIME Combine. He would always say it wasn’t a contest, that it wasn’t about efficiency, or technological advance, it was about loving this one rare flower of consciousness as it happened to bloom …”
Something, his heart or his gut perhaps, made the boy careful. He pondered his sneakers on the trail.
“I think it’s why he began sending us out on these walks…” Penny continued. “To show me how less can be so much more…”
After an inexplicable pause, she held out her arms. “I don’t even know why I told you that.”
Elijah shrugged. “Because I was helping you with my questions back there?” He screwed his face up into his face, shot her the Eye: “Oi! Did we firget yir oil-change agin, Lassie?”
She smiled at that. Victory. “I guess we’ll never know, now, will we?”
Elijah began strutting down the path. “No dipstick, now? Then I do believe our ecology is safe!”
“Yes. Blessed ignorance prevails.”
They yowled for laughter.
As often happens in the wake of conversations possessing a certain intensity, an awkwardness paralyzed their voices, as if all the actors within them had suddenly lost their characters’ motivation, and so could do no more than confer with the director backstage. In the few years he had remaining, Elijah would learn that jokes, far from healing moments, simply sealed them, often prematurely, when neither party had found the resolution they needed to move on. Jokes simply stranded souls on the far side of their pain. They possessed no paths of their own. Or too few of them.
So Elijah walked in silence, his thoughts roiling, quite witless, but in a way far beyond his meagre mileage. The river roared, both spectral and relentless. Not a bird sang, though an unseen crow now filed its cry across the idyllic hush. They followed the path about the river’s final bow, across a gravelled thumb of humped grasses. The sun drenched them. He need not look at her to see her uncanny gleam, the ‘glamour,’ Dad called it, which marked her as an angel among mortals. He could clearly see the cottage silhouetted through the screens of green fencing the far bank.
He hoped Dad had lunch ready. It almost made him cry whenever Dad cooked at the cabin. He wasn’t sure why.
“Does it ever make you mad, Penny?” Elijah asked.
“Does what make me mad?”
“You know… What Dad had to, like… do… to… you?”
She shot him a quizzical look.
“No-no, honey… I was made to love your fath—”
Just then, the last of the obscuring rushes yielded to curve of the path, revealing not only the foot-bridge across the river, but Elijah’s dad standing at the end, staring up the path toward them.
“Hey guys!” he shouted. The swirling sheets of water about his head and torso made him seem to move, despite standing still. “You have a good walk?”
For as long as he could remember, a small thrill always occasioned unexpected glimpses of his father—a flutter of pride. His greying hair, curled like steel. His strong, perpetually sunburned face. His forearms, strapped with patriarchal muscle, and furred like an albino ape.
“Awesome!” the youth called out in reply. “Educational as always, wouldn’t you say, Penny?”
Dad had a way of looking at Penny.
“I told him how I became a person,” she said with a wry smile.
Dad grinned. Elijah had once overheard one of Dad’s lawyers say that his smile had won him every single suit not filed against him.
“So you told him how I cut you down to size, huh?”
“Yes,” she said, placing a hand on Elijah’s shoulder. “To size.”
And something, a fist perhaps, seized the boy’s heart. The artificial fingers slipped away. He watched Penny and Dad continue arm and arm down the bridge together, the Great Man and his angel wife, each just a little too bright to be possible in the midday sun. He did not so much envy as regret the way he held her like someone else’s flower. The waters curled black and glassy beneath them.
And somehow Elijah knew that Penny would be much happier on their next walk, much more at ease with what she had become…