Do you need electricity for your dreams?

Monday, October 26th, 2009

I started writing this short story in May last year, and never really quite knew how to finish it. Back in July and August this year I was travelling for a few weeks, and when I got back home, I rediscovered this almost finished story. Those of you who know me personally, will understand this story’s significance, especially considering most of it was written last year.

Do you need electricity for your dreams?

Chapter 1

“Professor, do you need electricity for your dreams?”

It was a woman’s voice, warm, soft, and soothing.

That familiar question, which he’d only heard in his dreams, roused Professor Lazarus from his sleep. He was on an express train to Paris, the sunny French countryside flashing past. He’d just dozed off.

Everything around him was as usual. Other passengers were reading, chatting, or just looking out the window.

While his dreams reflected his inner turmoil, the world outside continued on as normal.

Since the car accident two years earlier, Lazarus had been having strange dreams, and he had no idea what they were trying to tell him.

Chapter 2

Rhineheart stood up as Lazarus stepped into his office. Lazarus had a greying goatee and a thin flap of hair that was carefully combed to cover his substantial bald spot.

“Thank you for coming in to see me Professor,” said Rhineheart, smiling broadly as he reached out to shake the Professor’s hand.

“I’m really pleased to have the opportunity to finally talk with you,” he continued.

Lazarus’ grip was firm and confident; it was the handshake of a confident and successful man.

Rhineheart’s eyes were drawn to a large scar on the top of Lazarus’ head, which was visible through the awful comb over. Lazarus noticed Rhineheart’s gaze.

“A little memento from a close encounter with death,” Lazarus explained. “I’d rather have the scar than the alternative – I could have ended up as a cadaver in one of your operating theatres.”

Rhineheart smiled, somewhat amused at Lazarus’ candour.

“Indeed,” he replied. “I heard about the accident; I’m very pleased you made it through.”

Lazarus sat down in a chair facing Rhineheart’s desk.

“So Mr Rhineheart, thank you for your concern, but why have you called me here? What’s this offer I won’t be able to refuse?”

Rhineheart sat down, and assumed a more business-like demeanour.

“We’re working on something I think you may be interested in; it’s a very exciting new product, which I think, will benefit from your experience.”

Rhineheart picked a small computer chip from a small plastic box sitting on his desk and handed it to the Professor.

“This is revision 16 of the T553 chip; it’s a rather special piece of equipment.”

Rhineheart paused for dramatic effect.

“It produces consciousness.”

“Excuse me?” exclaimed Lazarus, incredulously. “That’s impossible.”

“Well, I would beg to differ Professor, it’s entirely possible,” retorted Rhineheart.

“With this chip we can now create machines that are just as self aware as me – or you. We can create machines that think, that feel, that love, and that can even dream.”

Rhineheart gave the chip to Lazarus, who gingerly held it between his thumb and fore finger.

Lazarus examined it carefully, even though he wasn’t sure what he was looking for.

“Don’t you mean that you’ve created a simulation that just behaves as through it is conscious?” he asked.

Rhineheart shook his head: “We’re fairly sure that we’ve created true consciousness.”

“How do you know?”

“Well, we’re running trials, which let’s just say, have shown a lot of promise. And that’s why we’re keen to work with you – an expert in philosophy. I want you to help us confirm that we’ve created real, living consciousness.”

Lazarus stroked his goatee.

“Well that’s a very interesting project, though I have to say upfront, I don’t believe that machine consciousness is possible. What are you planning to use this chip for? Sex toys? Soldiers?”

A smile appeared on Rhineheart’s lips.

“What do we all want more than anything else?”

Lazarus shrugged his shoulders. “Happiness?” he ventured, with a slight hint of cynicism in his voice.

“Of course we want happiness, but in order to be happy, we first of all need to be, we need life, and God help us, we all want more than we’re given. This chip can help cheat death, perhaps forever. This could be single greatest invention ever produced by mankind.

Rhineheart paused to breathe.

“No doubt you’ve been watching the advances in neuroinformatics from your position as philosopher.”

Lazarus nodded.

“Well as you would know,” continued Rhineheart, “For the past 20 years we’ve been able to decode memories directly from the brain, and for the past decade we’ve even been able to decode memories from cadaver brains, even several hours after death.

“What you won’t know, and it’s still a commercial secret, is that one year ago one of our research teams developed technology that is able to decode neural patterns that define aspects of personality such as the way we respond to certain stimuli, how we feel, what our tendencies are, etc, etc, etc.

“Put it all together, and what do you get?”

Lazarus looked at him blankly, not quite sure what to say.

“Well, let me tell you Professor, what you get is life, you get the ability to prolong life indefinitely.”

“And what makes all of this so perfect, is that once we have the human mind, and all it entails, on a silicon chip, we can back it up, and back it up, and back it up, and none of us ever needs to die. You get the holy grail of consumer services, immortality.”

Lazarus shook his head doubtfully.

“There are so many ifs in this project, and then you have to wonder whether the human race is ready for such an innovation, even if it is possible. Should we be playing God?.”

Rhineheart stood up and leaned over the table.

“Professor, let me ask you a simple question, if you were facing imminent death, and you were given another chance at life, wouldn’t you take it?”

“No, I probably wouldn’t, I wouldn’t try to prolong my life by becoming a machine.”

Rhineheart gazed at the Professor for several minutes. It was a gaze of a father looking at much loved child, which made Lazarus very uncomfortable.

“That’s fine Professor, perhaps I can’t convince you of the nobility of our work, but perhaps I can convince you of our desire to have you on our team.”

Rhineheart slid a piece of paper across the table, which Lazarus gingerly picked up.

“This is a lot of money,” Lazarus exclaimed.

“Well, let’s put it this way, we value your experience – people like you don’t come along very often.”

“You know I’ll spend my time trying to prove that this technology doesn’t work.”

Rhineheart smiled.

“That is precisely why you’re perfect for this job.”

Chapter three

Rhineheart escorted Lazarus down a hall to a small, dimly lit room that simply contained three chairs, with two of the chairs facing the third.

A young woman holding a clip board sat in third chair.

A light hanging over each of the chairs made the room look like the set of a game show. Lazarus sensed there were people watching from behind the glass panels on the longest wall of the room.

Rhineheart directed Lazarus to one of chairs.

“I know this will seem a little crazy, but it’s a HR technique where new recruits are interviewed together and asked questions designed to understand their personality type. Please take a seat.”

Lazarus sat down.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot to introduce you,” exclaimed Rhineheart. “This is Sally, she’ll be conducting this test. For the purpose of the test, we’ll call you Subject A. No names at this stage please.”

“Nice to meet you Sally,” said Lazarus.

“Nice to meet you too,” replied Sally.

“Now, if you can excuse me for a moment,” said Rhineheart,” I’ll go and bring the other new recruit.”

Lazarus watched Rhineheart leave the room, and then turned to Sally.

“Have you worked here long?” he asked her.

“It’s better if we don’t speak until we’ve finished the test,” Sally replied curtly.

A few minutes later Rhineheart appeared with another man, who Lazarus noticed was about the same age as him.

“Sally, this is Subject B,” said Rhineheart by way of introduction, and then directed the man to the second chair.

Sally turned so she could face both men.

“I’d like to ask both of you a series of questions. I’d like Subject A to answer the first question first, and Subject B to answer the second question first, and then for you both to alternate answering the questions until we’re finished.

“Some of these questions may be surprising, but please rest assured that confidentiality will be kept; we just need you to answer each question honestly with the first answer that pops into your mind. I’ll start now.”

“Subject A, do you love your wife?

“That’s rather personal,” replied Lazarus, “but yes I do have a good relationship with my wife, I enjoy her company, and we’ve been together a long time – she’s made my life wonderful.”

“Subject B, please,” prompted Sally.

“Of course I do, I wouldn’t be with my wife if I didn’t love her, isn’t that why you marry someone?”

Sally made some notes, and then she looked to Subject B, and asked:

“Tell me about a situation where you did something wrong in order to protect someone you love.”

Subject B paused before answering.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in that situation; fortunately. But if I faced that situation, I would weigh up the cost of the wrong action up against the benefit of protecting the person I loved.”

“And you, Subject A?”

“Yes, yes, I have. And I can’t tell you what I did, but I did something to protect a very close friend, which was wrong, but in the great scheme of things, it was something I needed to do. Is that enough detail to answer your question?”

“What do you mean?”

“I betrayed my friend’s trust, and then I lied to him to protect him.”

“Don’t you mean you were lying to protect yourself?”

Lazarus looked uncomfortable.

“Yes, you could look at it that way.”

Sally made a note, and then turned to Subject A.

“OK. Subject A, tell me about the last dream that you can remember.”

Lazarus thought carefully. Since his accident, his dreams had become much more lucid, and more symbolic, than the dream fragments he could recall from before he had the accident.

“I dreamt that I was standing on a wharf in a sheltered bay in the early morning. A yellow sun was rising on the horizon, and a cool breeze blew from across the sea. A woman dressed in white gown appeared and gave me a Lotus flower, and that’s all I can really remember.”

“How did you feel when you woke up?”

“I felt refreshed, happy, even.”

“And what about you Subject B, tell me about the last dream that you had.”

“To be honest I don’t remember my dreams; I wouldn’t even be able to tell you the last time I had a dream. Usually I dream about things that worry me at work.”

“That’s fine,” replied Sally. “Thank you gentlemen, I now have enough information to complete my report.”

Chapter 3

Rhineheart burst into his boss’s office.

Roger looked up from his computer; a bemused smile on his face.

“So, tell me how he go did go?”

“I think you’re right Roger, this generation really works. We’ve just run a test with Sally, and she couldn’t pick the T553 chip. Hopefully, we’re not going to produce any more zombies that seem conscious, but aren’t.”

Roger nodded in agreement.

“So it’s looking good right, the patient is functioning normally at home and at work; friends, family, colleagues haven’t picked up that there are any issues, he’s passed the Turing test – and there’s evidence that he has an inner life. We’re very close now, very close.”

“There’s just one more test he needs to pass, and then he can go back to his new life – his rebirth.”

Chapter 4

“Thank you for agreeing to see me doctor,” said Lazarus as he slipped into his neurosurgeon’s office.

“Sure, happy to, I’m always happy to see a patient that I’ve brought back from the dead so to speak – you’ve made an excellent recovery,” replied Doctor Green.

“You said that if I ever had any questions about the accident, and the operation, that I should come.”

“Absolutely, so tell me, what’s on your mind?”

“You might think I’m crazy doctor, but tell me, was there anything extraordinary about the operation?”

“Anything more extraordinary than saving the life of someone who had received the massive injuries that you’d suffered?”

“Actually, yes.”

“In the two years since the accident I’ve written three research papers and had them published in leading journals; that’s more than I’ve had published in the previous twenty years.”

“Somehow I can just think much more clearly and faster than I ever have.

“Maybe just coming so close to death you’ve learnt to live better, to seize the day,” the Doctor Green counted.

“It’s something more than that. I’ve been offered a job by the Refurb Corporation, and I probably shouldn’t be telling this to you, but they’re working on project to extend human life. They’ve got a chip they think is conscious, and they think they can transfer consciousness to that chip.”

Lazarus paused, looking for a reaction from the doctor.

“And how do you think it might be connected with the accident?”

“I’m wondering Doctor whether I actually survived the accident. Doctor, did I die?”

The doctor leant back in his chair and put his hands behind his head.

“Did it occur to you that I’m probably the last person you should be asking that kind of question? Let’s say, hypothetically, that if it were true, wouldn’t I be part of the conspiracy, and wouldn’t I just lie to you?”

Lazarus said nothing, not sure what to think.

“But let’s say for a moment that you did die, and let’s say that Refurb used your cadaver to test out one of their chips, wouldn’t you just appreciate every extra minute of life that you’ve received. Just look at everything you’ve accomplished in the past two years.”

“But if I did die, I’m no longer me, I’m a machine with someone else’s memories, programmed to think it’s me. The real me died two years ago.”

“Life, my dear Dr Lazarus, real or manufactured, is the most precious thing that any of us can be given. Doesn’t the fact that you’re worrying about whether you may or may not be real, prove that in fact you are real? I’m no philosopher, but isn’t the ultimate test of life, whether you feel alive?”

“I guess you have a point. I do experience a subjective sense of existence, one that seems to be not too different to the experience I remember before my accident.”

“Lazarus, I am going to give you just one more piece of advice. Forget about Refurb, and go home to your wife and children, and live your life like a man who knows just how precious each moment is. If your suspicions are true, I’m sure you’ll pass any test they throw at you with flying colours. That’s all I can say.”

Chapter 5

Lazarus arrived home late that night, and went straight to the master bedroom. His wife was asleep in bed. Lazarus knelt down next to the bed, and gazed at his wife, watching her gentle breathing. Tears trickled down his cheek. After all these years, he finally knew what it meant to be living.

He took his wife’s hand in his, and whispered “I love you.”