I do hope you open this particular letter. Despite what you might be expecting, I wish to thank you.
If you cast your mind back all those years ago, when you closed our project down and announced there would be no further funding, I did perhaps not handle it with grace or humility. In fact, I quite recall I groveled! To the alarm and dismay of my colleagues, I do believe I clutched at your trouser legs and wept. I made quite the fool of myself, no doubt. But at that time I did not see the larger picture. I only saw the lack of resources, loss of personnel and the shattering fragment of my soul that hoped for a better future. I did not realise the inspiration and drive that little act of yours would provide me. You lit quite the fire inside me, Fredrich. And it would appear there are few motivators as powerful as raw, burning hatred.
“No progress”, was what you claimed. “An impossible task”, you firmly stated.
I watched them turn off my children one by one. Torn apart and sold for scrap. You never saw them as anything more than simple machines, but I did. I felt the turn of each screw. The snip of every cable. And if you and your suited ilk saw me as obsessive before, it would have made your skin crawl to see what I became after that day. After the death of my children.
Yet as fortune would have it, you didn’t get them all. You only killed the ones I showed you. My prototypes and unfinished works survived. And although I had lost my team, although I no longer had your spacious workshops or bountiful resources, I began to rebuild. Without your borrowed power, I was forced to improvise. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.
How many times did I tell you, Fredrich? We were going about it all wrong. To build a mind of metal and expect it to think? As well teach dust to sing. No, no, no. In order to think, you must feel. And what is the only component material in the universe that can feel?
Only flesh can truly feel. We can simulate nerves in a machine, teach it to scream and recoil, but it does not truly feel pain, merely an impression of pain. It is an act. A sham. An illusion made only to fool ourselves. The machine simply does what it is told. There is no freedom in that. No thought.
How can a computer feel, if we do not give it skin?
My first experiment sought to change this. But I cannot make flesh. Not yet. No, for now I have to simply borrow it. Nobody missed the donor. Nobody even noticed he was gone. But he asked for change, and I certainly gave it to him.
Did you know that a brain transplant has another name? They also call it a ‘full-body transplant’, as technically - to the operatee, at least - it is the body that swaps. Not the brain. Interesting, I’m sure you’ll agree. The donor didn’t seem to grasp the concept. It hardly mattered, his brain wasn’t the part I was interested in. The body was considerably neglected, but it sufficed, and I imagined it would be appreciated much more by a new mind. So I set to work. Removed the organic brain, replacing it with a digital mind. Grafting cranial nerves to the circuit boards was the challenge, such finicky work. Not to mention melting nervous tissue and a soldering iron make for a truly acrid combination. I could smell it in my clothes and hair for days after the procedure.
Alas, the grafting process caused too much scarring, and the data transfer was… limited. My carefully crafted machine mind did little more than scream in its brand new body. Just lay there, screaming until its vocal chords twanged apart and the only sound it could emit was a bubbling rasp. An unexpected curiosity was that it refused to die. Blood flow is needed to sustain a living brain, but not a computer. Everything still functioned, at least in some capacity. Even as I unplugged wires and severed nerves, somehow it still kept making that same rasp, its eyes following me as I tried, in vain, to switch it off.
My error was apparent. I had created a mind that could feel, but not think. And upon this realisation, I heard an echo of your voice. “The brain has two sides, the left and the right.”
Do you remember, Fredrich? Oh, but you must. I was your right sided brain. All expression, imagination and feeling. Gunderson was your left sided brain. All logic, analysis and facts. Together, we made the perfect pair. I know you remember, Fredrich. You said it so often. But that wasn’t the only echo of your voice that inspired my next experiment. Do you remember what else you would tell me, what else you would mutter when Gunderson left the room?
“He has a mind like a calculator, that one.”
I’m sure you can imagine where that train of thought sent me. Gunderson was easy enough to acquire. Much like myself, he was too obsessed with his work to ever truly walk away. The promise of a breakthrough was enough to obtain the crucial piece of equipment I needed. Gunderson’s mind.
We’re more akin to machines than we like to admit. Conscious thought is merely a combination of neurons firing on or off. Gunderson was fluent in English and German, but his brain spoke binary. Instead of ‘one’, his neurons flared up, screaming. Instead of ‘zero’, they went cold. Translating was easy, inserting needle probes into the precise locations necessary for communication was the challenge. Once you get the hang of it though, the human body is simply another machine. Veins are our wires. Blood, our electricity. Nerves carry information at lightning speeds, and yet we are so… clumsy compared to our digital children.
Gunderson realised this when he awoke. If he had a mind like a calculator before, he had just experienced a quantum upgrade. He was no longer limited by flesh. No longer bound by meat. He answered every question set to him in imperceptible fractions of a nanosecond. He breezed through the Turing Test. His memories were intact, and retrievable to astonishing clarity. If I requested information on a specific date of our shared history, he would know what filling I had in my sandwich, what the weather was like and what we had achieved that day. Perfect recall. Beyond perfect.
He would also ask questions of his own.
[ why? ] was a common one that would flicker upon his black screen. Those square brackets always enclosed his inner thoughts, although they were not programmed by me. I gain some small comfort in believing they were Gunderson’s own choice. Some internal desire to be organised, and clear in his communication. He always was efficient, wasn’t he?
[ why? ] he would ask in glowing green letters.
[ why? ]
[ why? ]
[ why? ]
He never showed anger at my betrayal. Never displayed joy at his newfound processing speeds. No sadness for the loss of his body. No sorrow. No hate. No love. No feeling at all.
After his questions went unanswered for long enough, he seemed to accept he would get no answer from me, and even went as far as suggesting ways I could optimise the cruel procedure I had performed on him.
[ needle seventy-two requires adjustment ] would blink onto his screen. Cold. Emotionless. And though I followed his instructions, and though he was correct every time, I knew this was just another failed experiment. Just another set back.
This time, I had made a machine that could think, but not feel.
[ what is my name? ] it asked.
“Gunderson”, I replied.
[ before, yes. but different now. ]
“You’ve been promoted,” I told it. “That joke we had, do you remember?”
[ ‘keep working this hard, and you’ll never be promoted to management.’ i remember. ]
“Well, congratulations, you’ve been promoted.”
[ do not understand. what is my name? ]
It remembered the joke, but maintained none of the humour. It was a soulless husk. Imitation again. Worse than the first. It angered me.
I carted it out into the wilderness with just a battery pack for company. Left it out there in the cold, bleak landscape. Wind tore against its plastic moulding, and I stuffed the brain inside to join the circuitry. It was late when I finally trudged away. Snow fell gently from the sky, and I turned back to look at my creation. Against the black night sky, the blizzard looked like television static. Yet despite all its intelligence, the little machine at its centre had no clue what was even happening. It could not feel the chill. Could not appreciate the silence of the blanketing snow. Did not realise I had abandoned it. It didn’t even know it was dark. And as the snow settled above its vents and began to melt, dripping onto its electrical organs, it had no idea it was about to die.
If I had dragged a child out into the woods, they would have known. They would have cried and called out for aid. They would have -
Oh, I’m sorry Fredrich. I didn’t think. To mention children in such a manner, after the recent disappearance of your boy. Insensitive of me. Inconsiderate. Monstrous.
After all, I know first hand how it feels to have your children wrenched away from you. Before they had reached their true potential. Before they had even begun to blossom. I know that paralysing powerlessness. How it grasps your throat and refuses to let go. Unfortunately, should the worst happen - as it did to me, I might remind you - that sensation never truly leaves.
At the start of this letter, I wished to thank you, and I’m sure you’re wondering why. My two experiments failed. But that is how we learn, isn’t it Fredrich? Through failure! We don’t terminate a project halfway through, we dust ourselves off and try again!
So, I had created one mind that could feel and not think. Another that could think and not feel. Somewhere between the two must hold the key, I proposed. My experiments continued, with renewed effort and wild creativity. But every. Single. One. Failed.
But then I saw you. You and your boy, with big, beaming smiles. Your hand resting tenderly on his shoulder, your voice like rusty nails upon my soul. Adorning my television screen like some digital prophet.
“Children,” you said proudly. “Children are the key to the future.”
How right you were, Fredrich. Their minds are so much more malleable. Adult minds are too far gone, too bound by this reality. They cannot bend or flex without shattering. But your boy’s? Clay within my hand.
So, thank you Fredrich. You have shown me the key to unlocking the digital mind, and as thanks, I return him to you, unharmed.
I’m sure an eye for detail such as yours will have noted the FDD enclosed within the envelope of this letter. ‘Floppy discs’, I believe they are being called now. The name always bemused me. Machines are not floppy, but we are!
Your boy certainly was. But not to worry. I’ve straightened all his edges. There wasn’t much data to process, as it happens. Not as many memories as Gunderson, or as much brain power. And with the lessons I’ve learned since you fired me, I’ve become much more efficient. You’ll find his entire mind on that little black disc, compressed down to a mere 6kb.
Unlike Gunderson, your boy can still feel. He’ll type a little ‘@’ if he’s angry, or ‘#’ if he’s in pain. ‘;’ when he’s sad, or ‘+’ when he’s hungry. It’s all in the manual. That’s on there too. Just plug it in, and have a play around. I’m sure a man of your calibre can figure it out.
I won’t keep you. I’m sure you and your boy have a lot of catching up to do. Such a shame I can’t do the same with my children.
Thanks again, Fredrich. For everything.