Maybe everybody kinda feels on some level that they are special, that they aren’t just anyone, that the rules of the world don’t really apply to them. After all, we’re all the main characters of our own stories, we all count on some great plot twist to lift us up…
I think this kind of hubris is even more present among intelligent people. We’re used to feeling a bit superior, we feel we can outsmart any problem that comes our way. We’d look at the sad twists of fate in someone else’s life, and we’d think “that can’t happen to me, I’d never be that careless…”. And that’s of course stupid pride…
For always Death comes in. The Great Equalizer that touches us all, no matter how smart or arrogant we may be. Only the most foolish ever thought they could outsmart it, and none ever succeeded. Everybody knows that everybody dies…
And yet, nothing quite prepares you for the pain when it happens, and all these certitudes fade away to the irrational.
Delphine’s parting was not even sudden. The illness was eating her away, little by little, in front of my very eyes. You’d think I’d have time to make peace, to ready myself… But somehow it never felt real. I mean… I knew, but I guess you can’t really comprehend it, not until you go back to an empty apartment, filled with your pictures and memories of someone who isn’t there. Until you reach out to the side of the bed where she ought to be in the middle of the night. Until you find yourself talking to her and there’s no answer… And what help is being smart then? Nothing can prepare you for the terrifying emptiness of this silence.
The moment of death is nothing, it’s just one second like any other. The hard part is what comes next. The lack. The life without.
I just couldn’t accept it. I couldn’t bring myself to accept she was gone. That was simply too unfair. She was so young. We still had so much to do. We had come too far, fought too many battles to let this one defeat us.
Just like I beat all the obstacles that life had put on my way, just like I used my abilities to fight and make my place in the world, I’d somehow destroy this enemy too. I had no other choice. Life without her was simply not an option. She was as much a part of me as any of my organs.
“Us smart girls find a way…”
Thas was her motto, and I would make true to it. I’d find a way to defeat death, to bring her back, to keep her with me… Even a shred of her would suffice. Anything to break these unbearable silences, to see a little motion in her images, anything to talk to her again…
I’m no biology wonder, I can’t resurrect dead bodies. But I dabble in writing, and it can be quite immersive. I started to imagine her answers if she had been there, her reactions, her activities… It wasn’t too hard, since I knew her so well. At first I just played this in my mind, but soon I found myself writing all of it down, pages and pages of imaginary conversations, a little journal in which a memory of her lived on.
It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. Just like I had explored Hogwarts next to Harry Potter and his friends, I went through life next to this ghost version of Delphine. I drew pictures, imagined our daily life, kept adding more details, fleshing her out every day.
I’ve sometimes found that the characters I was writing took on a kind of life of their own and became quite independent of my will. They followed their own personality, and would even sometimes surprise me. But it was nowhere near real interaction, and a very selfish part of me wanted more. Wanted to have a talk with her where I wasn’t typing her part and putting words in her mouth. Longed for a way for this character to… somehow… write itself?
That didn’t even seem too far out. Computers had reached mind boggling capabilities. They could simulate entire universes. Surely there was a way to simulate one little human brain. All that was needed, really, was enough computing power, and some data to base the copy on.
As I kept thinking about this crazy idea, it seemed more and more doable. All this information was already in my brain. I knew how she’d react to any situation, I knew the pitch of her voice, the tiny details of her facial expressions. I knew what made her laugh, what made her think or what made her mad… Surely I could teach all of this to a computer, and have it talk to me as she would.
Where would I get a machine adequately powerful and adapted to store a human brain, though? You’d need to replicate the behavior of so many neurons… It seemed really specific. As motivated as I was, I couldn’t exactly invent a new kind of computers.
That’s when it dawned on me. There was already a computing system able to do this job. It had, in fact, been doing this precise job for a while now. And maybe the reason it was efficient at it was that it was made of neurons itself. What better to simulate a human brain than another human brain?
Wasn’t that what I had been doing all along? Running simulations of minds, see how they would respond to some inputs and predict the outcome… Isn’t that what all authors do, emulate the brains of their characters? Hadn’t I been mimicking the mind of Delphine somewhere inside my own to write down all of these pages? Her brain was a device that decided how she would behave and react to anything. Wasn’t a part of my neurons computing exactly that?
It reminded me of a phrase I had read in a book not so long ago. The character was explaining that he could imagine the reaction of his friends in their voice, and it was as if there was “a copy of them living in his head“. Maybe, on some level, it was more literal than he imagined. Don’t we all hear the voices of our friends? Can’t we predict their reactions ? And how are we doing that if not by emulating a copy of the computational device that is their brain? Don’t we all harbour replicas of their minds within us? Wasn’t it what generated what I was writing on paper?
The simplest solution might just have been to get these resources where they already existed. I was starting to contemplate the possibility to put some kind of electrodes in my brain to leverage this computing power when a terrifying realization dawned on me. What if these replicas were somehow sentient?
If a robot acted exactly like your friend, all the time, you could never tell the difference… How would you know if it was conscious? A character imitating them wouldn’t be so different… It would be only text, but then what if this friend was a pen pal you could only interact with through mail? They lived abroad, and these ghost copies lived in my head…
Sure, technically, they were nothing but parts of my brain… But couldn’t a part of my brain be conscious? After all, I was nothing more than a bunch of neurons that were self-aware. How many of them would it take to make a person? I would still be me without a few of them. We all lose neurons all the time. So how far could it go before it stopped being me? This was like… an existential version of the ship of Theseus…
Consciousness is a specter, where pets were just less self-aware than humans. So what about a small human brain? Or 90% of a brain? If I split it in two, would the parts be conscious? And, more importantly, could the subset of neurons simulating Delphine be conscious too?
How could I ever be certain that this part of my brain, this embryonary version of a character’s mind, didn’t have some kind of self awareness, feelings, fears… Was I just… creating and destroying conscious beings every time I emulated them, every time I wrote them, every time I predicted about how she would act…
Suddenly a horrifying image came to my mind, and I was too afraid to even try and dismiss it. I pictured her face distorted by terror in the face of the unknown. And in the same voice I always heard her speak inside my head, broken in tears, she begged:
“Please… I don’t want to die…”
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