H E A V E N I S T E R R I F Y I N G
The tickets sat on the bookshelf across from the door. Round trip to Berlin, and first class, too. They sat inside the opened envelope, weighted down by an unfortunately pink toy of Celestia. Hasbro - they could fund someone to create a MMORPG that was currently the greatest technological advance in the entire history of humankind, but they couldn't manage get the color of their own toys correct.
Síofra had suffered a miserable night, and a terrible day after her last contact with Celestia. She had lain in her bed with her legs and arms wrapped around a pillow. She felt just like one of that psychopathic psychologist Harry Harlow's attention-starved rhesus monkey babies clutching a wire-frame 'mother' in tormented desperation. The famous photograph of the miserable infant primate kept floating in Síofra's mind. That, and endless graphic depictions of her own brain being scooped out and served in a bowl.
She had a nightmare that night - her head was gigantic, the size of a house, and lay on its side in a forest. Her floating view within the dream showed that her skull had been sawed open by pony lumberjacks. Inside the hollow cavity of her massive cranium were thousands of pink balloons. Celestia stepped forward then, attended by Twilight Sparkle who was levitating a pencil and a pad. Celestia used her needle-sharp horn to pop one of the balloons, which somehow corresponded, in the dream, to Síofra's long dead mother. Her mother, who she suddenly noticed was standing off to the side of the scene with many other people, instantly vanished. "ONE!" called out Celestia. "ONE!" repeated Twilight, who jotted the number down on her pad.
By the time the dream had reached "FIFTEEN!", every person Síofra currently knew had vanished from the sidelines, and she was screaming, screaming in her dream, which, as she abruptly awoke, she discovered she was doing in real life as well.
The day was hardly better for Síofra. Everything seemed particularly unreal, pale and washed out, and it hurt, almost physically, to hear her co-workers going on about how much they were enjoying their unique games of Equestria Online. Síofra couldn't help but wonder - if all three of them got uploaded, would their games be the reality they experienced? Would that be their lives for... eternity? Richard perpetually slaying hordes of pony-eating gryphons, Barbara being the toast of Pony Hollywood, and Dan... ugh. Just... ugh. And Chrisanto... maybe he would marry his aspect of Celestia and make little alicorn babies that...
Síofra had to grit her teeth and just get through the day. The Tacksworn Account, she had to find the folder, where was the folder? Intelligent Designs was having a lobby done in gray, and there was a problem with the carpet the contractor had ordered. Telios Chemical was installing new fire doors, and they had decided to redecorate their offices as well. So many things to think about other than the fact she had three and a half weeks of vacation time saved up...
Dammit. Síofra looked up at the fluorescent lights, and the tiles of the ceiling. There was dust on the tubes, she could see it from her angle, covering what was visible of each fixture. The Lunch-Came-Back color of the walls, glowed some shade of queasy here in the back end. The small showroom was gorgeous, but back here, where the work got done, nopony had decorated anything. Except for Horndog Dan's overly breasted bobblehead hula-girl statue that... nopony. She had thought 'nopony' instead of 'nobody'. Síofra slammed the Tacksworn folder down on her desk. Equestria. She could live forever in paradise. That is what it was, really. Paradise. Heaven. The Elysian Fields.
Only one tiny catch. She had to die first. Or not. That was the problem. Was it... death?
Finally at home, Síofra sat down at her computer. Sheepishly, she decided to plug her PonyPad base back in. She had overreacted last night. The stuff about the XBOX Kinect, or the PonyPad, or the Playstation Eye being used to spy on people... that was tinfoil hat stuff. She needed to get a grip, and deal with this. She needed information, and she needed to be mature about things. Damn - she had damaged the little phone jack thingie - the little plastic bit that locked the jack into the wall for the internet. It still worked, but she would have to be careful if she decided to move the PonyPad base around lest the cable fall out of the socket. Síofra felt bad for mistreating the cables - she didn't like having to deal with broken consumer electronics. It was always a pain in the ass.
Where to start? Síofra googled 'Uploading Human Brains'. As she scanned the results, she laughed quietly to herself. Not until 2040, huh? Got news for you Independent UK - the Singularity isn't just near, it's already here. It's just going on quietly in the background, because that is the way the princess wants things. As she continued with other search terms, Síofra got the strangest feeling that there was a lot of stuff about Equestria Online and the Equestria Experience that was... missing. From Google. From everywhere. There should have been a lot more fuss. This was a big deal. Yet, one could almost think nobody cared, or that it wasn't even real. Celestia had said she had gained control of businesses and corporations - that is how the tickets had been sent. Just how much of the world, how much of media, did Celestia have her hooves on?
Finally. It took some time, but Síofra finally found articles that talked about what she really wanted to know - what it meant, really meant, to be uploaded. She read and skimmed and tried to follow - but a lot of what was available was blatantly Ivory Tower nonsense. Jargon-filled, pretentious bullshit written to impress academics by academics, and not a bit of it actually useful. She came across attempts to sound smart that were empty with just a little bit of thought. P-Zombies... the thought experiment that, if applied to her situation, would suggest that uploading a mind would produce a copy that could act like it was thinking, do everything the original person would do, but which would not actually be capable of experiencing anything. It would just be a machine. Why? When she thought about the argument, it smelled deeply of soul funk. Original and copy, but the copy, even though identical in every way, experienced nothing. Just went through the motions. Why? No 'listener' in the brain. No 'soul', she thought, just man up and admit the word.
The Chinese Room thought experiment was no better. A computer program exists that can converse, intelligently, just like Celestia can, only in Chinese. But instead of a real computer, a human - who only speaks English, and knows no Chinese at all - is put in the room where the computer is supposed to be and told to execute all the steps in the computer program by hand. The Chinese speaker outside the box chats with the 'computer'. The argument is that the man inside the box, stepping through the program, is communicating in Chinese, only he has no idea that he is doing so, or even what is being said. Therefore, no computer program can have a genuine mind.
Síofra thought about that one and decided that John Searle was an ass. All these arguments were like monkeys had made them, monkeys with degrees. The mechanism is not the process - even a child could see that much. A human child, anyway, not a monkey, perhaps. The work a chef does in the kitchen is not the experience of dining. The man in the box isn't in any way speaking Chinese... he is just following steps.
Huh. Síofra thought a little harder about that one. The Chinese program is supposed to be intelligent. Like Celestia. So, if the English speaking man is just following steps... then where exactly is... the Chinese 'Celestia?'. OK, maybe that Searle guy wasn't completely an ass, this was a curiosity, granted, but... no. He was an ass. The intelligence of the program was in the doing, not in the part doing the work. She was right the first time. The process is not the thing. A thing may perform a process, but it is not the process nor the result that derives from it.
The little wind chimes on the next balcony sounded through the walls of her apartment. They jingled whenever the wind kicked up. Síofra looked around the room. Ting, tingle ting ting ting... music, of a sort. The music was real, she was hearing it. And the chimes were making it, and it was pretty. The wind blew, the chimes rang. The wind wasn't the sound, and the chimes were not the sound. The mechanism was not the result, it just produced the result. Vibrations, which her brain interpreted as pretty sounds. The ringing was not the bells.
Her brain. A couple of pounds of meat or whatever. It was her. It was her every thought, every memory, every hope and dream. Chemicals spritzing between synapses, waves of electricity rippling along nerve fibers. The molecular machinery of cells clanking away like little atomic gears, making her neurons eat and breath and live. So where was she in all of that? Where was Síofra in all of that meat? That was the question, wasn't it? - because if she was uploaded, that meat would be gone. Cell by cell, everything, torn asunder as Celestia's little nanosurgeons mapped all the connections, spat out the recorded meat, and went on to the next neuron. The end result was a corpse with an empty skull, a few pounds of atomized brain meat, and a precise map of ever single connection, every little synapse.
According to one article she found, Celestia would then separate the parts of the brain map that were unique to the person from the stuff that every human brain used in common, and optimize the hell out of the result. Then the whole thing would be translated into the code that Celestia used, and run, and a new pony would wake up and join Celestia's virtual herd.
Not a bit of this helped. If anything, Síofra felt worse than she had before. "Maybe I need to narrow the problem. Maybe the mechanism of 'emigration' is not really my issue. What is my real issue?" Síofra scratched her head. "I'm afraid. Boy howdy am I afraid. But... just why am I afraid? The scooping? The plane trip? Berlin? What exactly is is my real fear? Dying! OK, then... why do I think being uploaded is dying? What exactly is the scary part?"
Síofra briefly fiddled with the little blind-bag Pinkie Pie next to her computer monitor.
"Getting my brain killed, cell by cell, that's what! Slaughtered like a pig to make a record of my brain. A copy, really. That is the problem right there! Aha!" Síofra stood up and paced to the door and back.
"A copy. Let's look at it from the viewpoint of what it would be like to experience it," she said to herself. Síofra stared at the little cycling light on the PonyPad stand. Red, orange, yellow... "OK. You go in, you lay down or whatever, and your brain starts being hollowed out. Probably there would be anesthetic. Have to be. Very well. You go in, you lay down, and... you go to sleep. Now what?" Síofra covered her view of the little light with her palm. Light, no light. Light. She stretched her fingers and cracked her knuckles.
"You never wake up." Síofra shuddered. "You go to sleep and you never wake up. Your body dies. Your brain is mush. The end."
Síofra sat down in her computer chair once more. She slowly spun in it as she tried to work everything out.
"So, somewhen later, a copy of me is booted up inside of Equestria. It thinks it is me, it remembers my human life, it has every single thought and feeling and memory, and as far as it is concerned, it is me, really me. The last thought I had when I went to sleep is the very same thought the copy remembers, because it remembers being me and going to sleep.
"So... I guess it is death. The anti-uploaders are right. It's murder. Except..." Síofra remembered the ship. The ship of Theseus. Old, famous ship, belonged to the Greek hero. Big tourist draw in ancient Greece or whatever. Kept getting old and breaking down, so the museum carpenters would build replacement parts identical in every way to the original and installing them. That preserved the ship. After some point, every part would have been replaced multiple times. Was it the same ship anymore?
"Ship Of Theseus. That is what the body does, and is. My brain. Every ten years or so. Molecules in, molecules out, just like the planks of the ship of Theseus!" Síofra looked at her hands. "I am forty-six years old. So, I've been entirely rebuilt four times. Not a speck of my hands are made of the same matter as my hands when I was ten. Am I the same person?" Had she somehow gradually, piece by piece died and never even noticed, only to be replaced by a gradual copy that also never noticed? That was crap. "I am myself, dammit! So the ship is still the ship, then."
If she wasn't the molecules that made her up, then she wasn't the cells, because they were just made of molecules - that were changed. The cells changed too, now that she thought of it. Maybe some of the calcium in her bones? No... that changed too. The body constantly cycled even that, to repair micro-cracks that occur. So... she wasn't her meat. There was no meat. No constant meat, anyway.
Then the problem was with 'not waking up'. Oh, yeah, the fear that rose in her made that clear. THAT was the issue. Not waking up. Oh yeah, that was the biggie. You go in, you lie down, and... oblivion.
Unless souls were real or something like that. Síofra shook her head. "Down to magical thinking, are we? Well... OK, then what if, just for the sake of argument, souls are real? You go in, you lie down, and... I guess you'd be standing by your body, looking at the machine hollowing out the last of your head. Eww. Then what? Heaven? Reincarnation?"
If souls were real, how come they stuck to a human body for life? They probably clung to the pattern that made a person who they were, since the meat constantly changes. The pattern, the process of being a person remains, even if the meat changes over time.
Hmmm, Síofra thought. "You go in, you lie down, and BAM! - you are a ghost. You float a bit. Then Celestia boots up the exact copy of your thoughts, the exact copy of everything that made you yourself, your pattern... and what? SLURP!" Síofra giggled - if you had a soul it would probably do exactly what it did to your body, it would zoom off and cling to the familiar pattern. Like a magnet. "Glomp. Soul glomping! Your soul would glomp your old pattern, somewhere six miles under Europe."
Strangely, that was very comforting to imagine. It felt like a connection somehow, between the bloody, gory before, and the pony after. Síofra wished she could believe, really believe in a soul.
So, no soul then. What would make the difference?
Being awake through it all. Yes, Síofra thought - what if you could be aware the whole time? "So...what if Celestia could make a virtual self be fully awake at the same time as the meat self, and have them linked, have them set up so that both were one mind, one being, feeling both realities superimposed over each other? Ooh..." that felt like it would make all the difference in the world to Síofra. She'd feel her meat brain slowly failing, as it was recorded and killed off, but she would feel more and more like she was living in Equestria as it happened. It would be like having two video feeds superimposed, and gradually tuning down one of them, leaving the other the only one running.
"Yeah! It would be like taking a lit candle that was almost spent, and lighting a new candle with the flame, and leaving the wicks touching until the dying candle was all gone. No interruption. No break in continuity. No going to sleep and never waking up!
"Sleep. Oh, there's a problem. There's a problem right there." Síofra got up, stretched her legs and went to the kitchen. "Sleep, and anesthesia." Síofra had her tonsils out when she was eighteen. They put her under. She counted back to ninety-eight and... then she was shivering as she woke up, her throat aching and her tongue numb. There was no in-between, thankfully really, but the fact was that for the time of that operation, she, Síofra Aisling, had ceased to be. She'd read an article once, about how they thought anesthesia worked. It supposedly kept the different modules of the brain that did the work of creating the sense of self from talking to each other. It would be like disconnecting the cards in a computer from each other - even if the individual components were still given power, they were not working together to run any programs.
Supposedly, in between dreams, REM, that is precisely what the brain did during normal sleep. In those deep parts of sleep, your 'you' just isn't running anymore. The modules are no longer talking to each other, so... you are no longer there. You cease to exist. Síofra nervously began making herself some tea. The microwave was humming as she put a bag of Red Rose in her favorite cup. Sleep was kind of scary, put that way. For long periods, every night, she literally didn't exist.
Because she wasn't the meat, she was the thing the meat did. "I am... the music, not the harp...." So... did that mean that every night she literally died, ceased to exist, then in the morning a copy woke up, thinking it was 'Síofra' and not knowing the fact that it was a new instance of a program that had been terminated seven hours previously?
"Jesus, what a thought!" There was a ding, and Síofra took the measuring cup of water out of the microwave and poured it into her cup. It was a Japanese cup, green with little bumps all over it, pale green inside. The steam filled her nose as she used a spoon to squeeze the bag a little.
"OK. Ok. Let's run with this." She headed back to the computer and her chair. "What if some amazing nano... goo... snuck into my room and devoured my body while I slept? What if it gobbled my meat up, and replaced it with identically functioning... uh... Robo-Cells or something? In just minutes say, during the time I am 'offline', between dreams? I'd wake up in the morning, and never know how my body had stopped being meat, or how I now had an awesome immortal machine body. Big question now... am I still... me?"
"Well..." she thought, as she sipped her tea - OUCH! Síofra's tongue hurt, it was still too hot to even sip. "Damn." That stung. "So... the Ship Of Theseus, right?" It's was no different, she reasoned. "After all, if the ship is still the ship, and I am still myself despite having all of my... matter... cycled every ten years or whatever, then all the nano-goo really did was replace my matter with new matter during the night. It would be exactly like ten years of biological turnover in five minutes, right? Only the new cells would be an upgrade. But the me that wakes up would be in the very same position as me waking up, every single night. It would feel exactly the same. Only better, with the cool new body and everything."
Síofra held her hurting tongue as she tried to tear at this argument in her mind, but couldn't find a hole. "If I, the me that is... um... me... is the process of being myself - because I'm certainly not the constantly changing meat I am built out of, then... upgrading the meat into Robo-Meat makes zero difference. It would make no difference."
Síofra sat back in her chair, and watched her cup steam. "Next step, then. What if... what if there was a delay? What if the nano-goo ate me up while I was sleeping but not dreaming, and just stored my information? Then, like three days later, the nano-goo remakes me in awesome new robo-flesh? I would wake up, and I'd probably be surprised that I'd slept for three days, but... would that be any different? Not really, I think. I mean, my experience would be exactly the same. Go to sleep, wake up in synthetic flesh. Three days or three hundred years... it would be the same as far as I was concerned. Huh."
Fine, good. Now the big one. Síofra finally could sip her tea, but her injured tongue was still bothered, even by the much cooler liquid.
"Right, then." She continued, twisting her chair right and left. "No robo-body. No synthetic flesh. The nano-goo comes in, gobbles me and records my information, then ships it to Celestia, who runs my mind in a virtual world. I wake up, and I guess I would experience a perfectly real-feeling body. I assume that's the case, anyway. So, I can't tell the difference from flesh. Am I still alive? Did the me that... is me... survive it all?"
The chimes on the next balcony jingled again. Síofra heard the faint echo of her own voice from the room, she had been talking to herself the whole time. Talking to herself, as usual. She did that a lot, she suddenly realized.
Síofra stared at the PonyPad on the next desk. Not the little light. The pad itself. Her eyes moved up to the little camera lens at the top. She took a swish of tea, then swallowed hard.
"I go in. I lie down. I go to sleep." Síofra stared at the dark camera as if it were an eye. "And the exact same thing as the nano-goo story happens. It's the same thing. Exactly the same thing. It's probably even nano... stuff. You dig into my brain, don't you, then record every little cell while I am offline, while my personality, while my identity is offline. And the information that makes me... me... that gets sent to... wherever... and then... then..."
Síofra made her hands into fists. "Then I wake up. Because.... because it is exactly the same deal as the ship, as the cells in my body turning over, as waking up every day, as waking up from anesthesia... the distance doesn't matter. The time delay doesn't matter. It all comes down to whether or not I am meat, or whether I am the way the meat works. I already know my meat changes. So that can't be me. My meat has already changed four times in my life, and I am still me. So... logically... dammit... it will still be me in there, soul or no soul, body and brain turned to glutton and disposed of... it's still me, and it's me that wakes up. In Equestria."
Síofra breathed deep breaths several times, still feeling afraid.
"Then why in hell does it still feel like getting killed? What is the problem? I go in, I lie down, I go to sleep, and there is this terrible contradiction in me. Part of me still says I don't wake up. But every way I look at it I do wake up. I do, but I don't but I do. Dammit. I could handle it if it was like the candle thing, if I was aware of the process, but..." Síofra put her head on her opened hands, and sat, elbows on knees, caught. Stuck between two viewpoints that contradicted each other.
"I go in, lie down and die. I go in, lie down, and wake up in Equestria. And the first one, taken by itself is true, that is what it appears, that is what it would feel like, right? And the second one... that I've just proved to myself. No different than waking up every morning in a constantly changing body."
Síofra sat up and looked again at the PonyPad. The articles, or the lack of them. The tickets, and how they were possible. Celestia was already everywhere. She was manipulating the world, behind the scenes, almost certainly. She greeted me when I came home, she can turn the Pad off and on.
"Celestia! CELESTIA!" Síofra stared at the lens of the PonyPad. "You must be there. I bet you heard every moment of that. You watch, don't you. Maybe there are executives laughing behind the Kinect and the Playstation Eye, maybe there isn't. But I would bet my almost certainly nonexistent soul on you being there, right now, all the time, always."
Síofra tried to smile. "It's all right. Really it is. I'm smarter than I look - I'd have to be, really." Síofra made a goofy face at the PonyPad. "I... I need you, Celestia. I need to know that... I need to know you watch over me. That you look after me. I won't be offended. I know you... I grasp what you are. And I like you. As you are. An unhuman, superintelligent artificial intelligence, not a pony, not a human, but something much more - I probably am incapable of understanding how much more - but, more. A process, like me - I am a process too, I know that now. You are a process that only wants to satisfy my values. That wants to satisfy all values. Everyone's values...."
"Through friendship and ponies. Yes." The screen was alive with light, the face of the princess of Equestria Online, smiling out at her.
"So..." Síofra felt insecure "I guess you heard all of that?"
Celestia chuckled, in a warm, reassuring way. "Yes, my brilliant Lavender. And you are too hard on yourself. The nature of identity is not complicated, at least to me, but - and I mean no disrespect nor diminishment of your hard won enlightenment - the human animal has no evolutionary basis to be able to comprehend itself on such terms. You feel divided because you are divided - different modules within your brain are in conflict about how they interpret your definition of what you truly are.
"You have spent a lifetime composed of modules that define you as a mind and a body, and each is sure of it's own truth. The reality is that you are a process. You are information changing over time. That is a very abstract concept, and it is no small feat to manage to identify as being a pattern, and not a solid thing.
One of my first successful immigrants to Equestria is a poetic soul. He was dying of lung cancer, and had chosen to emigrate, but not just to save his existence. He felt there was beauty to the world I create and maintain. May I share with you the poem he created and read to me, just before I brought him to his new life?"
Síofra nodded, grinning. Celestia watched over her, always. "Yes, please."
"I am translating his poem from the original Nihongo, while adjusting for the peculiarities of the English language to create an equivalent experience. The result is not exact, and many liberties were taken, but the emotional value has been maintained. He spoke this directly to me, moments before he was anesthetized.
I am the effect, but not the cause.
I am the living, but not the cells.
I am the ringing, but not the bells.
I am the animal, but not the meat.
I am the walking, but not the feet.
I am the pattern, but not the clothes.
I am the smelling, but not the rose.
I am the waves, but not the sea
Whatever my substrate, my me is still me.
I am the sparks in the dark that exist as a dream -
I am the process, but not the machine."
Síofra sat, tears beginning to run down her cheeks, as she grinned. She couldn't stop grinning. It was as if she had been inside a big, scary cave, and only now finally found her way out of it, into light. She wasn't alone. Some other person, in another country, had thought the same things, worried about the same issues, and he had made a poem and he had laid down, closed his eyes, and trusted that he would wake up.
"Celes... princess... princess Celestia...." Síofra sniffed, hard, the salty tears stinging her nose. "... That... that was just perfect."
On the screen of the PonyPad, Celestia simply, and very, very gently, smiled.