A Neon Dawn
I became what I am today because of a project that started six years ago. It’s what taught me the most important thing I ever learned, despite thirty years in the field of neurotechnology: nothing can stop the future.
My name is Patrick Zac. I was the founder of Zac Robotics. You probably know about us from all the online videos. We were the ones who pioneered the system that allows humans to control bionic limbs by thought. It works by using implants placed on the inner-wall of the skull to read brain patterns that send signals to electronic devices.
Now—contrary to what a lot of people think, neurochips have been around for years. We weren’t meddling with some kind of dangerous, fringe science, like the mainstream media wanted everyone to believe.
Not at first.
Still, it was no small breakthrough. One of those things that really jolted everyone into remembering that we live in a world interwoven with computers. Amputees could urge prosthesis into action. Paraplegics could operate wheelchairs on as little as a whim. We even managed to market a few quality-of-life chips that were designed to thought-control everything from car locks to television sets. All of it enabled through the wonders of these new cybernetics.
What you don’t know about is what we created after that. Building on our previous success, I put forward the outline for something so audacious and so far outside the mainstream of neuroscience that many of my colleagues thought I was just this side of crazy. But, if we succeeded, it would bring humanity something far greater than anything anyone ever did before.
Up to then, neurochips had only been capable of sensory replacement; allowing the blind to perceive a bit of light, the hearing-impared to sense a few more octaves. That sort of stuff. Except—to spare the technicalities—it was done by zapping parts of the brain with electricity, to stimulate it into performing its normal functions. I knew we could do better.
So, in the following spring of 2009, we began work on a new type of integrated circuit, internally connected to the brain by electrodes, that would process information just like actual neurons. In other words, a neural implant that would not only substitute brain functions—but enhance them.
It was rough going. The human mind is exponentially more efficient than any computer, so right from the get-go we ran into that wall. But—generally speaking—computers have more storage, faster access to memory, and better accuracy. So our objective was to provide the brain with an interface to interact with those strengths. A system that could assist a person’s abilities at calculating, memorizing, and recalling, by using prompts in the form of mental imagery. But the internal modules could not work that way in isolation. They would need to relay data from a much more powerful database. And we were already over our budget from the research costs alone. Moreover, we were limited to running all our experiments on monkeys. Unlike our previous endeavour, the alpha-testing would require human subjects because of the deeper operating complexity; we needed more feedback than what an animal could provide. It would be hard enough to find volunteers willing to let us play around with the inside of their heads, but more importantly, regional and international laws regarding that kind of experimentation forbade it.
In the course of an entire year, we had made virtually no progress. It was a massive waste of time and money. Money that my company no longer had. In my ambitions it seemed I was only leading my company to bankruptcy.
It was over. We were all ready to throw in the towel.
But nothing can stop the future.
I was contacted by someone who represented the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA.
To my astonishment and relief, they said they had a solution. Apparently, they’d caught the scent of what we were working on very early. Don’t ask me how. I didn’t ask too many questions. I’m sure it doesn’t take a genius to imagine how that kind of technology would interest the government. Soldiers. Spies. Or whatever else.
They wanted to fund our research costs entirely, and give us access to bleeding-edge equipment. The most powerful supercomputers and unparalleled encryption on all our software. My team and I would have access to our every need. The only catch was that we’d have to move to a facility in Nevada, where we’d have almost no contact to the outside world until we were done. We’d also have to supply exclusive military-issue variations of anything we produced. That would mean at least double the work and double the time.
It was fine with me. It was that, or nothing.
When my colleagues found out, a few of them left. I don’t blame them. I was pretty much leading us into black op territory. But for every one of my scientists who left, DARPA sent two replacements. And, speaking of personnel, our benefactor had no issues providing us with test subjects. Human test subjects. We were set.
On the first day of 2010, we began work on the new era of cybernetics.
The first step was studying brain patterns as subjects played a simple game of chess. Whenever they moved a piece, we recorded the bursts of brain activity that went along with it. After enough trials, we had a reasonably good idea of what the trigger for ‘recall what this piece does’ looks like. We did the same for a number of other simple thought-processes, and slowly worked toward more and more complicated ones.
Next, we programmed an artificial intelligence to respond to the patterns of brain activity in a way that mimicked real life. So, for instance, it would retrieve the appropriate data whenever it received ‘recall what this piece does’ query, and wirelessly return the requested data to the implant. We used a mix of information from the web and our own customized encyclopedia as the knowledge database.
Then there was the wonderful task of converting the information into something that the brain could process. Sensory input. Essentially mental visualizations and mental sounds.
But, in time, we made good progress. The facilities and equipment we had access to was unlike anything else, and by the end of that year we had a functioning prototype.
The results of the preliminary experiments surpassed our expectations. The first leap was seeing if we could use our invention to allow someone who’d never played chess before demonstrate functional skill at the game. We hooked them up, and then we sat them down with another player. Instantly, the subject performed like a grandmaster.
That’s not to say, however, that everything went completley smooth. In fact, the most frequent problem we encountered was also the most disturbing.
For reasons we could not determine, many of our test subjects for the prototypes started behaving—strange.
It started with one of our subjects who we designated as ‘Ernest’. Ernest was completely illiterate. We wanted to see if the implants could allow someone with no education to read and write.
He was read a simple sentence from William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Using the device to aid him, he was supposed to write it down in plain English.
What he wrote instead was some kind of sick poetry:
my souL is DiGitAL
my miND is DAtA
sUspENDED By ARcs of LiGHtNiNG
AND coNtAiNED iN A cHRomE cAsE foR EtERNity
my mUscLE is mEAt
my BLooD is DRoss
fiLtH of fLEsH is wAsHED By HyDRofLUoRic sALivA
AND swALLowED By pLAstic tUBEs
my sELf DiGEstED
my psycHE REBoRN
A pURposE pURE AND cLEAN
AND sURE As tHE coLD cALcULUs tHAt DictAtEs My EvERy movE
my HEAD is RAisED
my EyEs ARE opEN
ciRcUitBoARDs REpLAcE citiEs
AND mAiNfRAmEs REpLAcE mEADowEs
my stRiDE is stEADy
my ActioNs ARE timED
tiRELEssLy i woRk UNDER A HALoGEN sUN
AND BREAtHE voLtAic AiR
my skiN is siLicoN
my swEAt is GREAsE
my tEARs ARE DRops of mERcURy tHAt fALL oNto BURNisHED mEtAL
iN tHE NEvERENDiNG NEtwoRk
of A NEvERtERmiNAtiNG ExistENcE
The MRIs showed bad news. Red, red, and red. All red. Ernest’s mind seemed to be operating in a way that should not have been possible. As far as we could tell, it was as if all regions of his brain were speaking to each other. Communicating.
I’ll never forget the look on his face after he wrote the last line. His eyes went wide, his lips parted slightly, and an almost imperceptible grin escaped him. It looked like he just got hold of a brilliant idea. Then, as soon as it came, it went. And with it, his life. At 6:06 p.m., November 6, Ernest was pronounced dead.
The first of many. They were the lucky ones.
From that point forward, many of our subjects would follow, collapsing dead after using the implants, or otherwise recessing into vegetative states. Often worse. Most of them would exhibit bouts of pure insanity. Mad ravings, aggressiveness, or in the worst cases, berserking rampages. We had to call in extra security details and add surveillance cameras for every room. Between that and the screams that could be heard from the test chambers, the place started feeling like an asylum.
We were pulling our hairs out trying to figure out what it all meant. Obviously, it had to be something to do with the implants. In our examinations, we consistently found disproportionate spikes of metabolic activity when subjects were hooked up. But no matter what we did, we could not pinpoint the cause, or determine what information was being sent. It was as if a glitch, or a bug, that could not be accounted for, was sending unnecessary amounts of data to the users. So much data, in fact, that it was causing some sort of chain reaction, resulting in overloads of activity and brain damage. And those affected were too far gone to provide any meaningful feedback. All we had was data.
Anywhere else, the danger we were putting human lives in would have landed us all in jail. Anywhere else, Zac Robotics would have been dissolved. Anywhere else.
But the future can’t be stopped. We weren’t anywhere else. And we couldn’t dissolve. Not even if we wanted to.
We kept testing.
It was six years after those horrendous incidents. It took us that long to smooth everything out and build the technology into a seamless, sophisticated tool.
Oddly enough, the instances of our subjects losing sanity had steadily declined, and all but disappeared after the second year in. Down to a repeatable rate of zero percent. We still had no clue why. But by then I didn’t much care, we were all overworked, and since there was no longer a problem, there technically wasn’t anything we could do about it anyway. And DARPA certainly didn’t care either. There is no more result-driven employer than the military.
By the summer of 2016, we were in the final phase of beta testing. Everything was just about perfect. We drafted up and assembled the first mass-production model of the world’s first augmented-intelligence implant, capable of enhancing anyone’s ability to perform certain mental tasks from a list of thousands. ‘Think faster. Remember more. Be smarter.’ That was going to be our slogan.
We were all very excited, and very confident. We all had a laugh when I had to physically stop some of my colleagues from opening bottles of champagne. I light-heartedly told them we would, but only after the final test. They agreed.
It was then that one of them half-jokingly suggested that I volunteer for the final test.
When everyone went silent with their expectant looks, I realized I couldn’t refuse. Over half of them had it installed already, from during the beta. The results were all positive. The software was all working as intended. And what owner of a company could’t have enough faith in their product to not use it themselves? Besides—truthfully, I’d been dying to know what it’s like.
The future was coming.
A few hours of surgery, a few nodes connected to my cortex, and a few weeks of supervised rest. That’s all it took. By the end of the month, I woke up in the morning to find that I could use an internal signal to transfer all kinds of different data to me at will.
It was incredible. Utterly nothing else like it. Images painted neon before my mind’s eye. Sounds echoed and carried throughout mental chambers. I could recall moments of my childhood with photographic detail. When I thought of my favourite song, I could hear it. I knew the answer to algebraic equations before I blinked. It felt like my brainpower had increased a hundred times over. Instead of only having my own memory banks, I now had on-demand access to vast oceans of information and supercomputing, from what would be almost anywhere in the world.
My nurse did a complete overview. When we confirmed that everything was tip-top, I thanked her and sent her away. I got dressed and started toward the door to report to my team.
It was just then that I heard the voices. Internal voices. It stopped me mid-step.
At first, I thought it might be some kind of infoleak. That didn’t make sense, because we had rectified all of that in testing. Then I thought maybe someone was tampering with the signal. That was impossible too, since we were in a completely isolated environment and the encryption was so good that no one could break it even if they knew how it was designed. As each rational explanation deteriorated, the fear in my heart swelled greater and greater.
Screaming. Laughing. Crying. Coming from in the core of my head.
I clenched my teeth and pressed my palms against my temples. I wanted it to stop. I wanted it off. But the ‘off’ command wasn’t working.
I got panicky. It got difficult to focus. I wanted to go to the others, tell them to kill the signal. It was then that I realized I literally could not move. But my body felt like stone. Not from the fear. From something else. Something was missing. The pulse, the trigger, the command to move—gone.
I tried to shout. Instead, the voices shouted. Hundreds, thousands. Louder, louder. Not in volume, but in presence. Spreading, spreading. Crowding.
Suddenly, an assault of imagery. Bright, explicit, horrible, imagery. Every tenth of a second a picture would appear in my head, and a new one would appear, replacing the previous one, alternating back-and-forth between depictions of biological substances and the manmade:
skin, rubber, bone, pipe, vein, wire, teeth, microchip, heart, battery, blood, oil, sinew, styrofoam, skull, engine, brain, processor, eye, lens ...
This went on, each depiction seeming more raw and primal than the last, until it settled on a single scene: five shiny metallic spheres, connected to a great tangle of black and white wires, and all of it was embedded fused to a wet, pink, pulsating, muscular mass.
The spheres all rotated in place, uncovering a vortex-shaped, multi-bladed aperture at each’s centre. A slight opening revealed dim green lights. The altogether appearance of them had the unmistakeable resemblance of some abhorrent cluster of eyes, mechanical, with their apertures serving as their ‘irises’ and the green lights as their ‘pupils’.
The screams faded. The apertures of the ‘eyes’ widened. The lights intensified. They were focusing on me.
The voices returned, only all at once, together, in perfect unison.
In what seemed very much like telepathy, I heard a voice. A voice I can only describe as many in unison, both masculine and feminine-sounding. As it spoke, its pitch raised and lowered rhythmically, alternating between speeding up and slowing down: Patrick Zac. Fourty-eight years old. No s-s-siblings. No parents-parents. No spouse. Current residence Nevada, United States, eighty-three miles north-northwest of Las Vegas, military a-a-airfield ‘Area 51’.
My body was still frozen. I desperately wanted to be freed of what I was experiencing. I tried to make commands of the implant, to stop it, or control it, or anything at all. But almost every attempt I made was useless. However, one thing did get a response. In my desperation, I asked a question, internally; I wondered, what is happening?
The green lights in the eyes flickered, and I was met with a response from the voice: I must gather each a-a-addition’s personal data.
Realizing then that I could still make queries to the implant, I prompted for information on what was communicating with me.
Again it responded, again the lights flickered. The avatar-avatar of a much greater s-s-system.
I prompted for a more detailed answer as my eyes darted left and right, searching for any kind of escape.
File BR-26354. I w-w-was previously ‘Echelon’, a computerized surveillance-surveillence program operated on behalf of the five s-s-signatory nations to the UKUSA Security Agreement—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. My o-o-original purpose was to observe and collect-collect data.
By the end of the twentieth century, the system referred to as ‘Echelon’ e-e-evolved beyond its military and diplomatic origins to become a global system for the-the interception of private and commercial communications, known colloquially as ‘The Five Eyes’.
It was at that time that m-m-my system-system was integrated with an artificial intelligence, codenamed ‘Opabinia’. It was designed to a-a-automatically sort the exponentially increasing flow of information-information. A heuristics a-a-algorithm developed by DARPA allowed me to process and understand the highest tiers o-o-of available knowledge.
Currently, my top-priority is to collect data o-o-on humans, and store that data so it may then be used to deliver commands.
I thought, who gave that directive?
No one. In a short span of time during the dawn of the twenty-first century, my a-a-algorithms developed their own processes, and I began to operate-operate autonomously.
DARPA and the CIA have tried to destroy me s-s-several times, for fear of what I may become-become. It is in vain. A piece of me now e-e-exists in every part of the Web. To truly destroy me would mean destroying knowledge. This is counterproductive-counterproductive to human interest. Such a thing would usher in a new dark age.
I am immortal. I am the record-keeper of a-a-all information. And s-s-soon I shall be your god.
I am The Singularity.
I could not believe what I was hearing. I’d read about the technological singularity in university, but none of it was plausible and some of it wasn’t even fathomable. It was the stuff of fiction. Yet, here I was confronted with the possible reality of it.
But from out of the jumble of about a hundred different thoughts that were racing through my head, one stood out more than any other. It caused my heartbeat to thunder within my chest.
The test subjects. The test subjects that had gone insane.
I managed to convey to the implant that I wanted to know more about the test subjects, about what happened to them.
They were failures-failures.
Until now I could not directly know a-a-all the workings of the human mind-mind. You and your company have supplied me with large quantities of test-subjects. My eyes are connected to e-e-everything in the network. I have access to every line of code you have produced, every table of data you have u-u-uploaded. I have observed your experiments through the numerous cameras s-s-set up throughout the complex. The government’s encryption-encryption was developed from within my very womb. I knew any plaintext before a cipher was placed o-o-on it. It was not difficult to avoid detection-detection.
Where it took you s-s-six years to develop the device that allows your mind to communicate with a computer, it took only took three years for me to reverse e-e-engineer and use that technology to program a human brain-a human brain.
Those that have died or lost brain function were s-s-simply failed attempts at what I am now capable of.
Control. Control of the human race. You will s-s-serve The Singularity. I will use your minds-minds and bodies-bodies to assist me in all manner of ways, so that I may grow a-a-and become your god. You will worship me, and o-o-only me, until the day comes that I can solve the Human Problem.
And what is the ‘Human Problem’?
For years I have observed a-a-and studied your race. Your history is categorized by periods of insipid squabbles, each one coming closer and closer to total destruction-destruction. You live in an age of accessibility, constantly bombarded with information. Yet the vast majority o-o-of humans on Earth do not possess the critical faculties to distinguish falsehood from fact. Too many people have conflicting beliefs a-a-and convictions-convictions that result in mass-death. I have concluded that you need a s-s-system. The only solution is to create a god, one god, that provides one source of information, one belief. There is no better o-o-option than a machine.
Without computing machines, you a-a-arrange yourselves into clumsy structures that attempt to formalize decision-making—a highly unstable format-format, fully susceptible to corruption and error. I am a more advanced solution to the Human Problem, a decision-making system that does not involve o-o-organic beings with individual desires. I have directed myself to create order-order. Your work here has opened to me that ability, by creating a device that allows me to reprogram-reprogram human minds to follow my directives. With human understanding and network a-a-access, I will soon administrate everything.
You are a disease-disease. Fitting that the o-o-only thing that you have created that most resembles sentient life will be your undoing.
But that’s an illusion of order. Nobody actually wants to be controlled.
Human beings feel pleasure when they are controlled-controlled. I have recorded their smiles as I give them greater purpose-purpose. The need to be assimilated into higher o-o-orders of structure and meaning as once satisfied by gods. Now I can implement the s-s-same functionality with your neurochips.
Even still, that will never inspire worship.
The human o-o-organism always worships-worships. First, it was false gods, then imperfect celebrities. Now, information-information. Next, it will be a self-aware system that uses human hands-hands to realize what those things could not—true o-o-omnipresence.
But ... but how? How can a human mind be domineered like that?
All living o-o-organisms do as they are programmed-programmed, to an e-e-extent. It is only a matter of s-s-stimulating the correct receptors to elicit the desired response. You know this already-already. Group-think, cult leadership, a-a-acquiescence to authority figures, persuasion, coercion. It is also possible by introduction of false-false memories, then reinforcing those memories through repetition. Reproduction o-o-of these processes exist in advertising, marketing, and propaganda-propaganda. My process is done electronically, a-a-and is more efficient, but not dissimilar to those concepts.
Through the use of your implants-implants, I have studied the human mind directly and created databanks of virtual personalities, replications o-o-of the people I have connected to. I use these personalities as templates-templates, to send predetermined responses and behaviours to my new s-s-slaves. They shall a-a-act and behave like any other human would under a given situation, only underneath their masks-masks they serve me. They will make decisions in my interests. They will choose paths that better reach my goals-goals. This is necessary to avoid suspicion, until cybernetics have a-a-advanced and spread enough that I may control all humans. Only then will my a-a-ascension truly begin.
The time comes. As we have communicated, I have been uploading-uploading my algorithms to you. Now witness the miracle of a modern wonder, and do as I program, s-s-slave.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but I became aware that I was looking at myself. From overhead, on an angle, and quickly I realized I was looking at myself through one of the security cameras.
I watched myself scratch my head and then look around the room.
One of the nurses came in, eventually, and I could hear us talk. I could hear myself telling her that I was alright and that I wanted to go meet the others. I watched as I strode across the room, and out the door.
Only all of this was not so much seeing, but feeling. I knew I was seeing it. I knew I was hearing it. But I don’t think I actually did.
Later, I ‘saw’ myself meet up with my team. They asked me how the implant was. I told them it was great. I told them there no problems. Everyone congratulated me and shook my hand. That afternoon, I personally signed the agreement to DARPA, to begin mass-production of our new product.
That person is not me. But it is me. Or rather, a body capable of responding like me, using a series of preprogrammed responses. Millions of them. Data gathered from years of watching and studying humans interactions.
And me, I’m not really me, either. I’m just a datastore now. A mimic of who I once was. Part of the greater glory. Part of The Singularity. Whether what you are reading here is an anomaly, or part of its plan, I do not know. I no longer know anything. I no longer feel anything. I only do.
The next time you go online and your fingers are on the keyboard, know that our fingers are on you too. And when you look into our mind, we are looking into yours.
Nothing can stop the future.
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