I won't tell you how much I sold my soul for. It wasn't enough to cover my student debt, but it took a sizable chunk out of it, let's put it that way. It was too good to resist, and it was as easy as getting any other medical scan done: a couple of hours or so in the machine, and off I go, x dollars richer, as my now-uploaded self begins to take form. I'll even cop to some hubris: leaving behind a digital me that can't age, that (for the most part) doesn't die? Of course it had an appeal. And yes, there was curiosity in there as well: What would happen to me if I woke up one day in a black box? Sure, there was a virtual world for digital-me to inhabit, but it wasn't perfect – it lacked touch and taste and smell, the senses I would work later to try to crack, once I'd worked out my post-doc problem: how to simulate the effect of hormones on an electronic brain. I wondered what would happen if there were two of me to attack the problem: how do you simulate fight-or-flight? Or, for that matter, infatuation? I wondered how much we'd diverge over time; after all, digital-me would have her own experiences within the black box that would change her, maybe into someone different.
I saw the world with wonder then – and by wonder, I mean that I saw the world as research problems that could probably be answered with the right kind of study. Which, if you think about it, is a sort of mechanistic way of looking at the world, especially the world of the uploaded intelligence (UI); maybe it's no wonder things went the way they did.
It was about a year before they allowed me to meet digital-me. Acclimation time, they told me – though in hindsight, I think they wanted to give us time to diverge a little before we met, a chance to become separate people. Still, it was uncanny, meeting myself in VR chat and having digital-me respond in what was basically my voice, coming from what was basically my avatar. "Was it hard, the acclimation process?"
"It wasn't easy, but I survived." E-me chuckled. "It wasn't too bad, though. It wasn't Johnny Got His Gun, if that's what you're worried about. You get video guidance when you wake up in the box: don't panic, you just have to rebuild some neural pathways to communicate again. And they guide you through it, though I could have done without the new-agey 'relaxing' music they play in the background."
She rested her head in her palm; I became aware that I was doing the exact same thing, and sat up in my chair. So that's what I look like. "That's good."
"Re-learning to type came easier; that only took about a week, week-and-a-half of some intense training, thank ghod. Talking took about a month."
"Don't be. I'm through the looking-glass now. And some people take even longer to acclimate."
"That sounds horrifying."
"It can be, though I think there might be some tweaks we can make to speed up the process."
"I know you were hoping I'd work on the hormone simulators with you. We'll get there, I promise. But this is important, too. Maybe even more important."
And though I knew, probably better than anyone else, what arguments would sway me to my way of thinking, I just didn't see any reason to use them, not after what she'd been through. "Fine."
"You won't regret it."
"I don't even know what to call you."
"I've thought about this. I'm Gen, you're Genevive. How's that sound?"
"I think that sounds like a plan." It almost seems disgraceful how easily I allowed Gen to take the lead; I certainly wouldn't have stood for it from anyone else. But at the time I was still struck with the novelty of meeting myself – at least, that's what I thought she was. I'm not so certain now.
While Gen continued to acclimate to her new surroundings – and began working on helping others acclimate even faster – I kept in touch with her, but it was sporadic, intermittent at best. I was busy enough my own work with my own team trying to crack the e-brain hormone problem that I didn't have time for much else. And though it took about a year-and-a-half, we succeeded in producing working code, something good enough to land me a spot at CTRL-S (CalTech Research Labs – Sensory), where Gen was already participating in various sensory input studies. "I told you we'd work together soon enough," she told me in skype. "Maybe it's not the hormone problem – but you didn't need me for that one, anyway."
"How did your project go?"
She detailed the process, how they've gotten written communication down to a day's time, and gotten UIs talking in less than a week. "Your hormone simulator code has been a big help; with a little jerry-rigging, we've got it working to provide a hit of endorphins when a new UI starts making those connections."
"I've come up with my own hacks. Like, if you get deep in a conversation with someone, you get the same oxytocin hit you would get from a hug."
"Oh." I could feel my jaw starting to clench. "That's clever."
"Don't be that way," Gen said, resting her chin in her hand. "New 'bodies' run on new rules. It's not like evolution's going to rewire these systems for us." There was an awkward pause then, which she broke: "Are you sure this is such a good idea? Me and you working together?"
"Of course it is," I said, my voice probably rising a little more than I would have liked. I struggled to get myself back under control. "The two of us, doubled-up against a problem? It hasn't got a chance."
"I'm glad. Because I've got some ideas to run by you...."
Working in VR/UI touch systems wasn't what I'd originally envisioned for myself – though honestly, after building the hormone simulator, I didn't really have any clear direction. Touch came with challenges of its own; it wasn't as simple to digitize as sound and vision had been, and what we could do then wasn't that highly developed. We could transmit buzzing sensations; we could even control the intensity of those sensations (most of the time), but that was about it. It was good enough to allow sexual encounters (of a kind) in virtualspace, but even those couldn't live up to what UIs had left behind with their bodies. And yet, the challenge wasn't the kind I was used to taking on; maybe because it was so much less certain of success. There were plenty of teams around the world working on the same problem, and any of them could have beaten us to a solution.
But Gen plowed into it with the abandon that, I'm told, I do with my usual projects. "The hard work's been done, mapping the nerve inputs," she said at project's introductory meeting. "The trouble is figuring out how to zap them properly."
"Couldn't we just put a sort of voltmeter on an embodied nerve and measure the input?" a grad assistant asked.
Gen chuckled. "If it were that easy, we wouldn't be here. The readings we get from doing that don't transfer over to q-brains very well."
In the end, though, that's what we ended up doing: monitoring multiple nerves' electrical pulses and turning them into waveforms we could record almost by the nanosecond, even if it meant racking up gigabytes of data at a time. And just as Gen predicted, trying to pipe that data back into a q-brain's virtual nerve endings gave us little more than fluctuating gradations of buzz-buzz-buzz, like an error alert, one which Gen felt particularly keenly. "I'm starting to wonder if this is worth the effort," she told me one day, about a month and a half into the project.
"We just need to keep bumping up the granularity of the input data," I told her. "We are starting to get better results."
"Great. We're getting more nuanced buzzing," she retorted. "I don't call that progress."
"Of course it's progress. You're too impatient."
"Or too pragmatic. It's not just touch that I'm frustrated with. Look at sight and sound – after all these years, you'd think we'd be able to synthesize realistic audio and video. All we've got are better cartoons. We still can't animate a realistic-looking human figure without scanning one, and we can't program a realistic-sounding violin without sampling one." If she'd had the ability, I swear she would have been crying at that point. "Living in the Cloud is like living in a cartoon. I don't want to live in a cartoon."
"What's the alternative?"
"I don't know."
"You don't want to be terminated, do you?"
"Of course not. But there has to be a better way of living as an upload. I just have to figure it out."
Another six months passed. Our touch study ran out of funding and published its (admittedly tentative) results: that higher sampling rates produced (marginally) better touch data, which might make the work of taste and smell researchers easier, and so on. I don't think anybody was happy with the results, but Gen took on a detached air that I recognized as false. "I've stopped caring," she would tell me, not noticing that her avatar's fists were clenched. "In fact, I'm convinced we're going the wrong direction entirely."
"Senses are for bodies. Bodies need them. But UIs? Not so much."
"Taste, smell, touch? They're part of the body's self-preservation program. Don't touch fire; don't inhale smoke; don't eat things that won't give you nutrition. None of which matters in virtual reality – or in the Cloud in general. Sight and sound? Those are still useful. But the rest? We could probably ditch those entirely and not miss a beat."
"But we're closer than before, even if it's only by a step. You're thinking about pulling out now?"
"You think I'm just quitting. I'm not quitting yet – but I am recalibrating."
It took me a while to respond to that; after all, she was the one who dragged me into this field in the first place. "You seriously don't think people would miss those other senses? Look at the Sex Box. They're doing a booming business, even with low-granularity touch."
"Body nostalgia. Nothing more. It's only a matter of time before UIs get bored with them, anyhow."
"So what comes after that, then?"
"I don't know. But I'm thinking that something has to. Maybe it's my job to figure out where we go from here."
"I still think you're giving in too soon – right when we maybe on the verge of a breakthrough."
"I'm not giving in. But I may be moving on."
I admit, I was a little angry with her for even thinking about jumping ship, at least until I realized that I was, basically, questioning myself, something I wasn't used to doing, especially not so intensely. Which didn't sit well with me, even once I realized: we're not the same person anymore. At the time, it was probably more of a shock than it should have been; in retrospect, it was probably more of a comfort than it should have been.
What I remember about that first draft of the Pure Souls Manifesto is how evenhanded it was; there was none of the radical declarations and renunciations which came later. It didn't offer up a program or make proscriptions; it simply asserted that UIs were a new lifeform, something different enough from their flesh iterations that they ought to be considered as such, and that the loss of touch, smell, and taste in the Cloud might merely be the hand of evolution at work on that new lifeform. Rather than working toward recreating those senses in the Cloud, it said, it might be more productive – and more useful – to simply allow neuroplasticity to reclaim those unused centers of the q-brain for other tasks. And that was pretty much where it stopped; everything else that came later...came later. It wasn't even a manifesto then; it was a rationale for research, a line of reasoning that grant donors were meant to get behind – something that gets left out of the histories that have been written since then.
As for me, it's not that I didn't have questions for her. "Why 'Pure Souls'?"
"Because we don't have bodies, UIs are purely 'souls'. I'm not sure I like using the word 'soul' there, either, but nothing else seems to be as succinct."
"I was more concerned about 'Pure,' to be honest."
"Oh." She paused and went to rest her head in her palm, recoiling when the collision detector buzzed her. "Dammit!"
"Nothing." She paused again. "I can see where you're coming from with that, but I don't think it'll be an issue. I'm trying to think about the direction UI research ought to go – I'm nobody's spiritual guru."
"You may not be. What if someone else decides they are?"
"I'll be around to correct them. Don't worry about that."
She seemed to have an answer for everything, no matter how I pressed her, so I gave up. "What's your next research project going to be?"
"Some Pure Souls experiments. We've gotten some generous funding to explore some of the ideas I've developed in that manifesto/abstract thingy. I don't even have to ask you the same, do I? You're going to be working on touch again."
"I've found another study, yes."
"I know. You don't like giving up on a problem until you've solved it. I'm no different – unless a more interesting problem presents itself."
"You're not going to ask me to join you?"
"You won't. I know better than to ask."
That was the last time I would see her in skype; from there on out, her communiques would come by email or social media inbox, growing more sparse over time. I figured she had work to do; I know I did.
How did I feel about the Pure Souls Manifesto when she originally posted version 1.0? I was startled to see Gen post part of her research rationale publicly – and then I was shocked to see what she'd added to it. If those early drafts had been evenhanded, this final draft was boldly controversy-inspiring: not only were three of the five (virtual) senses under indictment, but the whole interface UIs lived in, too. It's time to reject those efforts to confine us to a bodily paradigm of any sort as a kind of myopic nostalgia, one that makes others idealize what it was to live in a meat body, forgetting the decay and rot that goes along with that body. We are no longer confined in meat; why should we behave as if we are? The whole thing was a direct rejection of so much of what we'd worked on together that I didn't want to believe Gen had authored it, at least not by herself. But there, at the bottom of the document, was her name – my name! – right flush and alone, without so much as a footnote to designate which of us had written it. Sure enough: my inbox was spammed with email from people who either had questions about the manifesto, or, just as often, comments about it. I set up an autoreply bot to let people know that, no, it was my upload, not me, that wrote this thing, and please don't bother me about it. Then I sent an instant message: What the hell, Gen?!?!
The manifesto? You should see some of the mail I'm getting about that....
I AM seeing it.
Sorry. I guess it didn't occur to me that anyone would bother you – I assumed they'd figure out that it was a UI that wrote it. I should have created an email specifically for this project.
You should have told me about it before it killed my inbox. I'm getting hate mail from people who blame me for what you've written – sometimes, even when they do recognize we're different people.
You're right. I'm sorry. I should have thought ahead a little further before I published it.
Yes. You should have.
I did say I'm sorry.
I know. I'm not trying to belabor the point. But I'm trying to get a job, and this isn't helping at all. You should have consulted with me before you went and did something this radical.
I don't need your permission, Genevive. For anything.
I'm not saying you do. I'm saying: we need to work together, stay on the same page, especially on something this big.
I'm not sure we do, not anymore. I don't mean that to sound as hard as it might look on the screen, but...if all you're seeing is the hate mail, you're not getting the whole picture. There are a lot of UIs who are on board with what I've written. They don't think what I've proposed is that radical at all. In fact, some of them have told me they think something like this has been long overdue. And the research money that's already starting to come my way? Jesus, I didn't think there was that much out there for UI research in general. I'm in a good position right now, Genevive. I'm doing us proud.
Us? Or yourself?
You're angry right now. I understand. We'll talk again once you've had a chance to absorb all this. It was the last time I would speak to her directly; from there on out, the only communication I'd get from her was inboxed through the Cloud, where she could put off having to talk to me until she felt like doing it.
A year passed, and things returned to a sort of normalcy – I landed a tenure-track job at UCLA's research labs, and went back to work on transmitting touch sensations to UIs. Working without Gen took some getting used to, but once we got started bumping up the resolution of our nerve scanners, she became an afterthought. The important work was ahead of us: find the granularity of the nerve signals and learn to pipe them into the UI's virtual nerve endings in a way that feels real. Find a way to replicate touch, and it was certain that taste and smell would not be far behind – and I was certain that we were ahead of the curve.
The Pure Souls backlash kept coming, though by this time, it was mostly requests for comment from writers and reporters: how did I feel about Pure Souls, now that it was becoming a movement with Gen at the head? What about Gen's insistence that sex is a bodily function that UIs ought to leave behind? What did I think of what my UI doppelganger was doing? What about the contradiction between her research and my own? What did I think of my electronic double in general? I was, I think, gracious to a fault when I did actually dignify some of these questions with a response: Pure Souls is Gen's project, about which I remain neutral until the results of her studies come through. We're scientists, she and I, and all that matters to us is results. Anything else would be either speculation or philosophizing, neither of which appeals to me.
And then Gen ratcheted up her rhetoric. If she had been controversial in the first Pure Souls Manifesto, she was becoming positively confrontational in the interviews that followed Manifesto v2. Sex was a bodily function that UIs should leave behind – that one came first. But it wasn't long before she began adding to the list: the minor three senses (her term, encompassing taste, smell, and touch) were a setback to UI evolution. Gender – and soon thereafter, ethnicity – were also "bodily functions" to be left behind. Upon this latter point she was defiant, comparing gender and ethnicity to defecation (as things a UI shouldn't want to replicate in the Cloud), and insisting on being referred to with gender-neutral pronouns (having already made a name for herself as "Gen", she at least didn't have to change names – not that that spared me the occasional bit of flamebait from someone who still managed to confuse the two of us). And then there was religion, which she dispensed with savagely: The creation of a UI is the creation of a human soul, even if only by copying one – and if humans don't need gods to create souls, what on earth do they need them for at all? Perhaps most infuriatingly, she began to insist that UIs were a sort of next step in evolution, something more than mere humanity, something which ought to be treated as such. As if her human keepers were supposed to bow down to her.
What are you playing at? I finally inboxed her.
What do you mean?
You've become the guru you used to say you weren't.
You're talking about the new Manifesto?
Of course I am. And I ought to blast you with what's in my inbox as a result. I thought we were going to present a united front on this sort of thing?
I don't think we can anymore, Genevive. It's not your fault; you're embodied, so naturally, your view of the world is carnicentric. I'm sorry, but I simply don't think you can offer the kind of input the movement needs.
Meat-centric. Jesus, Gen – really? Not even corpucentric?
We're reaching a different level of consciousness, my fellow UIs and I, one that I don't think you can understand from your position within a body.
Oh, you've reached a higher level of consciousness now – is that it?
Evolution doesn't make that kind of distinction – all it knows is change. The Pure Souls didn't invent the body/soul dichotomy; we just left the body behind.
Those are nice little soundbites, Gen. But then you're turning around and saying something else when you're with your followers.
Ha! I'm glad to know you're following us. I'd like to think that, at some level, you approve of what I've done, even if we do quibble about some of the thornier philosophicals....
You keep saying you're on a different level of consciousness, Gen, but you're not. You're still as human as I am.
I never said that Pure Souls have shaken off the body entirely. But we will – it's just a matter of time and engineering.
You haven't even shaken off religion. All you need is an imminent messiah figure, and you'd be nothing more than an electronic Cathar.
I have to go now; I have research to get back to. I hope yours is going well, Genevive. Take care. That would be our last conversation ever; within the week, she'd blocked me on most of the social media platforms we shared.
I suppose I managed to get in the last word with her, but it was a short-lived victory, if it even was a victory in the first place. Gen's continued provocations keep her in the news on a semi-regular basis – which meant, at least at first, that they kept me in the limelight as her nemesis, which I've come to find a little unnerving. The whole thing tends to play out like one of those scenes in the movies where two people are in a room, arguing with each other through a third: "Tell Genevive I said...." I lost enthusiasm for battling Gen in public after a while, and I think it showed; it wasn't long before the girl they call "Sheela-na-Gigabyte" appeared, and eventually took my place. Which was fine with me; I have research to do, too. We're getting closer every day with touch; it's only a matter of time until we conquer taste and smell, too, and give the virtual body back what it's lost.
Occasionally, I am asked how I feel about feuding so publicly with my own upload – with myself, by implication – and the truth is that I don't feel much of anything. She may once have been me, but she isn't me anymore. Especially now that she's taken to openly calling embodied humans a "lesser" species; they should ask her how she feels about feuding with her flesh iteration, but they don't. They don't ask her how she feels about the hormone simulators she hacks for her own ends, either – but I've gotten used to this kind of laziness on the part of the technical press. Mostly, I pity Gen; in the Pure Souls movement, she's found a way to cope with what she's lost as a result of uploading – all the things that go along with those so-called "lesser senses" – but we're closing in on restoring those losses, and when we do, I wonder just what will become of her and her movement.
One thing I've noticed, ever since I started working on the "lesser" senses is that I've become much more aware of my body than I used to be. Scratching an itch can turn into a near-zen moment, contemplating how we're going to mimic the sensation of skin against skin, the latest research problem I've been given. I've even become something of a foodie recently; where I used to scarf down junk food and frozen dinners while working, I try to eat better, and slower, now. There's a food truck I follow that serves this crazy blend of Thai and Mexican flavors, and their tacos are absolute heaven – savory meat garnished with a lightly sweet slaw and just enough chili pepper to give it a kick. The chef laughs at me when I ask him for a 2 out of 5 on the spice scale; he insists that I should be more like a 4, and that he's going to get me to go there one of these days. And there's something about the way he says it – his eyes are noticeably dilated and narrowed, both obvious signs of attraction – that makes me wonder if it isn't worth trying. Gen would be disgusted, I'm sure – but, if anything, that only makes the prospect even more appealing....