Friday, October 29, 2010

Boltzmann's Brain

Perhaps the collision with dust particles pierced through the Quantum Core, causing memory malfunctions. Maybe it’s another one of those mysteries in space travel, like the Pioneer anomaly. Whatever it was that wreaked havoc upon my fleet of probes, it may not matter anymore. Today is my last day to save the mission.

“What am I?” “Who am I?” Those were some of the decoded thoughts that streamed in from the probe’s quantum consciousness core. “Why am I here?” “Help me...” The visualizor displays them on my screen. I can feel the anguish. I am responding, furiously sending bursts of replies, “I am here! I can hear you!”

My *quantangled signals reaches through to the other end--lightyears away, but the probe’s deciphering systems are unable to decode the messages. That component was damaged from the mishap.

Back at mission control, I only have a few hours left. Perhaps I could still get that “handshake”--it’s all I need to save this mission.

I scanned through the past log files looking for clues. But it only brought back memories of the project: The world watched as we launched a fleet of hundreds of swarm-linked probes aimed towards the Gliese 581 system. Each one was fitted with the latest technology--energy source, propulsion, quantum computers, and so on...we thought we had it made. A fleet of probes ensured better chances of reaching the destination. But the probability of making it through interstellar space proved far lesser than anticipated.

As soon as the fleet sped to a tiny fraction of the speed of light, something terrible happened. Experts speculate that it was an unlucky encounter with interstellar dust clouds. On impact, the micron-sized dust particles ripped apart the probes travelling at such velocities.

One by one, our probes went offline, until only one sentient probe remains. This particular one is called “Gentre”. He is damaged, but still cognitively functional.

Cognitively functional?

Yes. Each probe housed a synthetic mind modelled from a real person’s connectome. To emulate it, a volunteer’s brain had to be scanned--and then the rest was just **quantumputational neuroscience. The idea was that, if flesh and blood of mankind was too fragile to make it to the stars, then perhaps a sliver of humanity’s essence could make it to extrasolar worlds. But it had to be a massless human “soul” emulated by sheer quantum computation.

Gentre had compound eyes all around his casing. He had a constant full view all around him. He cannot see any part of the shell enclosing him. And not seeing any part of himself gave Gentre an illusion that he has no physical body. He is, to himself--pure consciousness floating in space. [The design was due to a research on quantum metapsychology, in line with a related study on the quantum effects upon an emergent mind travelling at a tiny fraction of the speed of light.]

After the damage, Gentre could no longer decode all incoming signals from mission control. Then he started focusing on retrieving memories from the psyche which he was synthesized from. He relentlessly searched for his own soul.

Back here at mission control, the loss of 99% of the fleet was too devastating to continue with the project. Funding was halted. Resources were allocated to other missions to explore other habitable exoplanets.

Through it all, I persevered. I continued monitoring Gentre even without pay. For years, I worked tirelessly at the exocommunications facility, which is now old, outdated, and scheduled to be shut down--tonight. I tried everything to find the right algorithm to send via our quantangled systems, hoping that Gentre would be able to decode it and respond.

Until my perseverance turned against me. Passion destroyed my life. My wife divorced me. I was too obsessed with this project. My children grew up without me. Still I refused to give up despite the stern warnings from friends and colleagues. They moved on to new exciting missions, but I declined invitations to join them.

I had to see through Gentre all the way to another star.


My ruminations were suddenly interrupted by flashes of images on the screen. The visualizor deciphered something unusual from Gentre’s thoughts. It began when Gentre happened to focus on the trio of stars making up Orion’s belt. Visions suddenly came flooding through Gentre’s mind. The alignment of the stars evoked encoded memories. Gentre glimpsed the memory of three kids, and a beautiful wife--they were all stargazing together on one special night.

The constellation pattern acted as stimuli to activate fragments of associated memories from the volunteer’s past experiences. In those brief flashes of synthetic memories--Gentre grasped a piece of human soul. He held onto it, as long as he can, as if it was his own.

During those moments, his joy cannot be described. The visualizors can decipher thoughts (turning them into images and sounds) but not emotions.

I can feel them.

But in the next few minutes, as the probe continued to move away, the patterns started getting skewed. As the stars shifted from view, and the familiar constellation pattern disappeared, so too did the memories fade away. The visualizor faded to black and fell silent.

Gentre reverted back into limbo. I sobbed at the thought of him being trapped like someone who suffered from a debilitating stroke--conscious and fully aware, but unable to move any part of his body. Like a ghost in a malfunctioning machine. Gentre is like a “Boltzmann’s Brain” floating in space. He thinks, yet he is a paralyzed entity. Conscious, but has no memory. Aware, but has no soul.


Your access is now revoked.” I was startled by an android with a loud metallic voice.

Please step out of the facility immediately.” I was jostled away from the lab. The robots have arrived. They began disassembling all the old equipments in the lab.

If only I could, I would "turn off" Gentre--to end his misery. Yet I couldn't do even that. I am helpless. I screamed and wept on the way out of the lab. My cries echoed through the corridors. But nobody was there to hear me.

The mission is over. Now I have no reason to live; a failed old man that I am. No one has the slightest idea what I will do next after I exit this facility.

I stepped out of the gate and into the darkness, barely hearing the sentry droid's monotonous voice that bid me a cold farewell, “Goodnight, Dr. Gentre.


*Quantangled = Quantum Entangled
**Quantumputational = Quantum Computational

Context: How to get Off World

Friday, October 1, 2010

Life is a Pattern

"Life is a pattern." He whispered in an epiphany of realization as he gazed at the patchwork of visualizations covering the entire walls of his control room. Inside the room was an amazing view of a menagerie of digitally rendered extrasolar planets, exomoons and hypothetical microbes and extremophiles that may thrive on the planetary environments. This was a facility doing research on Planetary Science and Astrobiology.

The control room tapped a powerful cloud computing grid with a database that tracked thousands of extrasolar systems. Parameters for the simulations are updated by planet-hunting teams from around the world. Information such as planetary mass, type of planet, distance from the host star, orbital period, chemical make-up, atmospheric density and so on, were fed into a powerful AI software running in the cloud. It's aim was to virtually "find" exolife even before it was discovered in the real world. It was the largest open collaboration of Astronomers, Astrobiologists and Astrophysicists ever set up, and backed up by the leading Computer Scientists.

Throughout the years of manning the control room, Dalro had garnered insights to come up with ideas that might revolutionize the ways to search other forms of life. The secret, he thought was to view life in a new way. He was certain that his idea would expand the methods to detect life into other platforms beyond the water-based or carbon-based forms that we know of. He rubbed his hands together excitedly as he decided that he was going to start writing an ArXiv paper. He was going to tell the whole world about it.

Suddenly, he was startled by his manager who barged into the room as he spoke hurriedly, "Dalro, a new planet has been spotted....nothing like it that's ever been found in history..."

"That's great! But...why do you look so...grim? Are you okay?"

It was odd, very different than the usual when his boss informs him of new exoplanet discoveries. Instead of the bright sparkle in his eyes, it was glazed, sullen.

He quickly proceeded, "...please run a simulation of how it would affect the planets in our solar system..."

"What?! Did we just find a new planet in our solar system?"

"Yes...and, no. The planet is now within our solar system but it came from somewhere else. As we speak, a rogue planet--a Planemo is barreling it's way toward our Sun. Amateur Astronomers just detected it after it showed signs of its presence. The parameters are being fed into the grid in real-time. Start the process now and feed the results back to the global network. Please hurry, we don't have much time..."

Dalro hammered on the keyboards and directed all computing resources to this job. In a few minutes, the walls were filled with a view as if from a spaceship's cockpit looking down at the solar system. The 'hypervelocity' Planemo was travelling so fast, way too fast.

For the next few minutes, the simulation showed what would happen--most of the planets would be disturbed from their orbits. The massive planemo would miss Pluto but disturb the Kuiper belt scattering thousands of rocks. It would graze close to Neptune, and hemmorhage Uranus, and distort the rings of Saturn. As it wobbles Jupiter, several moons would be yanked out. Then he gasped as he saw the spheriod rock dig deeper in the solar system. Earth and it's moon would be flung from orbit in a slingshot effect--out into interstellar space.

The alarm sounded in the background. Everyone was rushing, and leaving the facility. The commotion was now starting to stir other countries around the world. The earth was shaking.

Dalro was now alone in the room. He stood watching the simulated view of the Earth as it made its way out into the cold, dark empty space. The simulation halted into a jittery if reaching an uncomputable end.

Dalro closed his eyes. Images of all his loved ones flashing in his mind, fading with images of Earth--frozen in mid-chaos.

"Life is a pattern..." he whispered as he began to shiver. The temperature was dropping too fast. Darkness fell. Then silence.