The Evolution of Consciousness
A Short Story for Techies and Others
copyright © Peter A. Frazer 2012 all rights reserved
All characters, situations and events are entirely fictional
The Plot is Hatched
A Visit to Albert Wildman
A Few Weeks Later
The Ministry Gets Involved
Albert is Summoned to the Ministry
Albert Takes Action
The Plot is Hatched
A lean young man glided down the street on his bicycle to the front of an old Victorian mansion. Daniel lifted his bicycle through the front door and inner door and left it on a mat in the spacious hallway. He bounded up the three flights of stairs to his attic flat taking them two or three at a time.
His girlfriend Beth greeted him with her usual cheery "Hello". A plump lass, bubbling with happiness. She was eating chocolate as usual, indeed she had a whole 250 gram bar of fruit and nut chocolate broken into pieces on the wrapper in front of her.
"Oh Beth, you know you'll never loose weight if you carry on like that!"
"I know, I know. I keep thinking I'm going to stop but then I somehow loose control and go out and buy more." Beth sighed. "It's compulsive, sometimes it seems like we just aren't in control of our own actions. Like you drink far too much coffee. We know it's bad for us, but we just keep doing it and don't seem to be able to stop ourselves." Beth sighed again. "Anyway, how's your day been, Dan?"
"Oh, terrible!" replied Daniel, as he filled the coffee grinder. "People just don't seem to understand what I'm capable of. We could be using artificial intelligence techniques in the software I develop but I'm not allowed to do that. I'm 'part of a team' and have to 'stick to the design'." He ground the coffee. "But the design comes from complete idiots with no imagination. I could do it far better if I was free to do it my own way."
"Well, why don't you write some software of your own?" suggested Beth.
"Like what?" enquired Daniel as he filled the French Press.
"Why don't you create a computer virus?" suggested Beth as she tucked into more chocolate.
"Hey, now there's an idea! I might just do that. That will show them what I'm capable of!"
"You know you like programming, sometimes you never seem to stop. You've been doing it since you were 10 years old." encouraged Beth. "I'm sure you dream about it."
Daniel pressed the coffee and poured a mug.
"But what good would it do?"
"What good does anything do?" replied Beth. "Just look at the state of the world. We're destroying the planet we live on and the governments and big corporations won't do anything to stop it. The rest of us are just trapped in a system that we can't get out of."
"Can't we?" enquired Daniel. "The problems of the world only happen because the people of the world let it happen."
"You try telling that to a starving child in Africa" retorted Beth as she tucked into yet more chocolate. "What can they do about it?"
"Not them; you. You and me. We have the power to change it."
"Do we? Like how? Do you really think the government and business leaders are going to listen to the likes of us? All they care about is their million pound bonuses and winning the next election."
"That's not entirely true." interjected Daniel "There are people of good character in government, there are politicians who strive for noble objectives, ones who listen and consider what is right and what is wrong. Just not many of them these days."
Beth was despondent.
"Most politicians simply seem to listen to the bankers and corporate clowns. They don't really care about the world and its people."
"Perhaps, " replied Daniel thoughtfully "Perhaps they are just trapped in the situation too. They don't know what to do about it either so they just pretend they do and leave things as they are. We're all in this together. The problems of the world need to be solved by the people of the world."
"Perhaps we need to solve our own problems first." mused Beth.
"Like what?" enquired Daniel as he jumped up and poured another mug of coffee.
"Well, like you drink too much coffee and I eat too much chocolate. We live a life of unfulfilled desires but there just seems to be no escape from it. We all do. There must be a better way."
"Yeah, so we go and live in a cave like hermits. Is that going to solve the world's problems?"
"Don't you see it?" exclaimed Beth "Our problems are just a microcosm of the larger problem. I eat too much chocolate and you drink too much coffee so how can we complain about the bankers who eat too much money and the industrialists who drink too much oil?"
"Sounds like a global digestive crisis!" laughed Daniel.
"No really," Beth persisted "All of us are just human so how can we expect leaders of industry and government to be any different? Look at it the other way round; how can the government change anything unless people change? If we all keep wanting fancy cars, nice warm houses and coffee from around the world then how can the government deal with the problems of energy and the Third World?"
"But everyone does want these things." Daniel countered. "Of course they do; certainly no-one wants to be cold and hungry. And we all like our televisions, our music and our computers. And our coffee and chocolate."
"Is that what true happiness depends on?" reflected Beth. "I don't think so. So many people want change, they want a better way of life and yet we all seem to be held back by our own limitations. We want to be better people and improve our own lives but our own selves get in the way, if you know what I mean."
"Yes, I understand." Daniel considered. "I think the problem is that we are all driven by low level desires coming from our evolutionary roots. The basic flaws of our nature, lust greed and anger, are deeply rooted in the wiring of our cognitive systems."
"Cognitive systems!" Beth laughed "You mean our emotions and instincts."
"Yes, but it's all part of our nervous system which is more than just the brain. The solar plexus is sometimes called the 'abdominal brain', there are other nerve plexuses too. This is all part of the yogic philosophy where they are called 'chakras' which are said to be in the subtle body."
"So many people are into that stuff these days." said Beth "But are they really any better for it?"
"I think it can work." replied Daniel "All these traditions talk about transcending our lower nature; they say desires must be transcended not repressed, but none of them are too clear on how it can be done."
"So are we all victims of human nature?" asked Beth. "Does it have to be like that?"
"Well," replied Daniel, "It's certainly where we're at right now. None of us seem to be able to transcend our root desires so the state of the world reflects the nature of us all. You're right Beth, we are all just a microcosm of the whole world."
"So what do we do about it?" Beth pondered.
"I don't know, I just don't know." replied Daniel. "But we must be able to do something, we must be able to evolve somehow."
"Perhaps our consciousness needs to evolve?" suggested Beth.
"Perhaps indeed." Daniel replied. "It would be foolish to suppose that we had reached the end of our evolutionary path. But how can we evolve our own consciousness? What is consciousness?"
"You're getting a bit deep for me there, Dan."
"You suggested it!" joked Daniel. "I think we all just have to keep doing what we see as right."
"Well, you're certainly right to do your yoga every morning, Dan, but I don't think you're going to put the world to rights by standing on your head every day, no matter how much esoteric philosophy you read."
"Well, Beth, I think you're right to do your charity work and love the world and all its people the way you do. But that ain't going to set the world right either."
"No, but it will do the Bengali villagers some good."
"Yes indeed. Ho hum." mused Daniel. "So what are we going to do tonight? We could go and listen to that new band 'The Hedonic Tones'."
"No, I can't be bothered to go out. I was just going to read my book." replied Beth.
"OK" said Daniel "I shall design a computer virus."
Beth looked up from her book.
"How is the virus going?"
Daniel was drawing on his clipboard.
"This will be a computer virus like no virus ever before. It will use distributed neural networks and advanced stochastic processes to achieve real artificial intelligence. My virus will take the world by storm."
"Stellar!" exclaimed Beth.
"Yes, Stellar. I shall call it 'Stellar'." Daniel in turn exclaimed. "I'm wondering if I can write a virus that absorbs the functionality of every program it infects so as to gain more and more capabilities and perhaps even intelligence. It would become very large, of course, but bits of it could operate by web services over the internet. Maybe it could hide in cloud storage systems and have whole bot nets under its control."
"Oh yes!" retorted Beth. "Like some mega spam engine."
"Not exactly" defended Daniel. "Hmm, there are some bits of this that I don't really know how to do. I wonder how I can contact some experts who might help me."
"Wasn't that retired engineer who lives down near the lake a computer virus specialist for some government department?" recollected Beth.
"Albert Wildman? Oh yes, he was, but why would he help me?"
"He went a bit crazy after his nephew was horrifically burnt driving a military fuel tanker in some war zone. He retired from the ministry. Now he has a reputation for helping just about anyone with an interesting idea. People say his house is full of totally pointless mad inventions."
A Visit to Albert Wildman
Daniel cycled down the long straight avenue of immaculately pruned hedges to Albert Wildman's house near the lake. The lawns were freshly cut and the flower beds neat and tidy. A robotic lawn mower was trundling around one of the lawns methodically tipping the cuttings down a bank at the end of each row.
Daniel propped his bicycle against the fence, walked down the path and rang the front door bell.
"Daniel, good to see you." said Albert as he opened the door. "I don't think I've seen you since you were quite a small boy. Do come in and see some of my inventions. Would you like a coffee?"
"Yes please." was Daniel's inevitable reply.
"Ah, well while we're in the kitchen you must have a look at my automatic gold fish feeder."
"Automatic gold fish feeder?"Daniel was bemused.
"Yes, it's in the kitchen."
They entered the kitchen. A long worktop ran down one wall. There was a spherical glass bowl with goldfish at one end, an unusual antique looking china tea pot in the middle and a curious device at the far end. The curious looking device was attached to a rail running along the wall for the length of the worktop.
"I like a bit of toast," Albert explained "But I always find the bread crumbs make such a mess and I hate sweeping them up. But watch this."
Albert pointed a remote control at the device at the far end and pressed a button. The device whirred into action and swept down the surface sucking in bread crumbs. As it reached the antique china tea pot it flew up in the air, gliding over the tea pot, sank to the worktop and continued its sweep. On reaching the end it flew up again and discharged its crumbs into the gold fish bowl. It then swept back down the surface once again flying over the tea pot.
"Amazing!" said Daniel. "But how did you make the parts to build that?"
"I have a full machine workshop in the barn." Albert explained. "The interesting part was getting it to avoid my wife's antique tea pot. One thing I didn't have was a 3D CNC milling machine so I made one to do the job."
"You built a 3 dimensional computer numerically controlled milling machine just so your automatic gold fish feeder could miss your wife's antique tea pot?" Daniel was astonished.
"What else could I possibly have done?" Albert asked as he switched the kettle on. "If I break that tea pot then I'm in real trouble."
"Well" ventured Daniel "You could have moved the tea pot."
Albert scratched his head and looked puzzled. He poured the boiling water to make instant coffee.
"How do you take your coffee?" He asked
"White, no sugar." Daniel replied. "It's amazing what we can achieved through science and engineering these days."
"Absolutely." responded Albert. "The emergence of science as declarative knowledge was the transition that so changed the world."
"How do you mean?"
Albert gestured to the kitchen table and they sat down.
"Well," extolled Albert "When you watch a child grow up you can almost see the points at which they become able to reason about something rather than just know what works. They learn to speak, purely by imitating at first, they contentedly babble away, then they start to see reason and meaning in speech and learn to truly communicate. They learn to ride a bicycle; the skill is subconscious intuitive knowledge at first, outside the conscious mind. Then they start to realize that they can do bicycle stunts and, by reasoning on the basis of experience, know how the bicycle will behave in previously untried conditions. 'If I go fast down that ramp I can jump over that gap.' That is the declarative transition, when subconscious knowledge becomes available to the conscious mind and can be reasoned with. Watch that magic moment when a child learning chess suddenly grasps the concept of strategy instead of just making learnt moves."
"I see." agreed Daniel, not that he had ever watched any children growing up.
"Declarative transitions also occurs in society as part of the developmental process of societies and mankind. At various points in pre-history and history people became capable of reasoning about things rather than just doing things and learning by imitation. The planting of crops based on an understanding of the seasons. The husbandry of animals based on an understanding of their nature. In any domain where that transition to considered rational knowledge occurs then human progress in that field becomes much more rapid. But the declarative transition for thinking itself only occurred in relatively recent history. The concepts of what constituted rational thinking, what constituted logical thought and what did not. Only then did the modern scientific era become possible."
They finished their coffee.
"Would you like to see my automatic hedge trimmer?" Albert asked.
"No, no, I've seen enough!" replied Daniel
"So if you don't want to see all my mad inventions then what have you come here for?" queried Albert.
"Well" ventured Daniel "I'm interested in studying computer viruses for some work I'm doing. I heard that you used to have a high degree of expertise in that subject."
"Yes, certainly." Albert asserted. "I was involved in reverse engineering the Stuxnet virus when I worked for the Ministry. Come to my office."
Albert' office was immaculately neat and tidy. There was a vase of flowers on the window sill. Rows of books, journals and encyclopædias lined elegant bookshelves. The draws of the filing cabinets were neatly labelled. An array of computer equipment including desktop and laptop computers, printers, scanners and a 2 dimensional plotting machine sat on the working surface. On the strip of plug sockets attached to the wall behind the devices the backs of the plugs were all carefully labelled.
Albert and Daniel sat down in the rather plush wheeled office chairs.
"So what do you want to know?" offered Albert
"Do you think it is theoretically possible for a computer virus to acquire intelligence?" was Daniels first question.
"Certainly it is inevitable that computers will attain greater intelligence than people if current trends continue. Already there is a computer made by one of the well known American corporations that competed effectively against humans in a television game show. Pretty much the only mistake it made was in thinking that Toronto was a city in the United States."
"Yes, I saw that." Daniel smiled.
"But a virus?" Albert continued, "Maybe in a large computer system but not on a PC which is the usual habitat of a computer virus. Admittedly that laptop on my desk has more computing power than was available to even government agencies at the start of my career. But still that is not enough for true native intelligence as distinct from tailor made artificial intelligence written fora specific task."
"What about networked systems?" Daniel persisted.
"I suppose so." Albert conceded.
"Tell me about your work on the Stuxnet virus." Daniel requested.
"That was probably the most sophisticated computer virus ever written to date." Albert explained. "No virus has ever been so successful in penetrating even the best of corporate and government firewalls and evading even the best of anti-virus systems."
"Yes, it got into Iraq's nuclear systems, didn't it?"
"Yes indeed. The thing that puzzled us when we first looked at it was that although it infected pretty much any system it came to, it simply didn't do anything once there. It only seemed to deliver its payload on very specific systems. In the end we found that it only targeted centrifuges used to enrich Uranium. That was when we started to understand what it was targeted at and where it had probably come from."
"Do you have a copy of the Stuxnet virus?" enquired Daniel innocently.
"Yes indeed, almost everyone has a copy, but most people don't realize that they have it. It is so good at hiding and none of the commercial anti-virus software can detect it. Would you like a disassembled copy with symbols and annotation to study?"
Daniel snapped up the offer. "Yes please. I have a 128 gigabyte USB memory stick here."
Albert accepted the memory stick and inserted it in the side of his laptop.
"Do you think a large distributed virus could hide in cloud storage systems?" Daniel further enquired.
"That is something else we looked at when I was working with the Ministry." replied Albert. "I have a CloudLocationObfuscator you might be interested to study. I'll put it on the USB stick."
"Did you write that?"
"I wrote parts of it." replied Albert. "Most of it came from a guy in California who has a bit of a reputation for these things."
Albert typed a few brief commands on his laptop then withdrew the USB memory stick. Suddenly he looked a little sheepish.
"You did scan that USB stick for viruses, didn't you?"
A Few Weeks Later
Daniel bounded up the stairs to his attic flat. Beth had a mouthful of chocolate and tried to conceal the wrapper as Daniel entered.
"Hello!" she greeted cheerfully around her mouthful of chocolate.
"Hi Beth! How's your day been?"
"Good. I went out to the café with Françoise at lunch time. It's good to have a native French speaker on the team and I get on really well with her. Very refreshing world view too. She reckons we're due for a new renaissance."
"So the new girl at the office is going to bring about a new renaissance?"
"She's not going to bring it about; she just thinks it's going to happen." explained Beth. "More and more people will wake up to the fact that we all need to take responsibility for the world and we'll reach a tipping point where action happens like an avalanche."
"I can see that you two are going to get on just fine." smiled Daniel. "Two young hippies at the translation agency going to solve all the world's problems."
"Françoise has really inspired me. Imagine what the world would be like if we did all live in harmony with Mother Earth. Imagine if we did live in a world of peace." suggested Beth. "No more war; all those squandered resources put to constructive ends such as minimizing disease and hunger. Those with ability helping those with need. An equal distribution of the world's resources."
"So what about the 2% that hold 90% of the worlds wealth? Are they going to go along with that?" Daniel objected.
Beth continued unabated.
"Imagine a world in which democracy grew from the roots up, like it should do. Communities of people who manage their own affairs and the elected leaders of those communities tell the regional assemblies what to do. The regional assemblies tell the national assemblies what to do and the national assemblies tell the United Nations what to do. No more failed top down government."
"'Imagine' is the word." retorted Daniel. "John Lennon was saying that before we were born. It's still not happening."
"Françoise also reckons that our consciousness needs to evolve."
"Oh yes, like how?"
"She wasn't too clear about that."
"No one ever is. That's the problem." Daniel sipped his coffee. "Hmm, perhaps we are due for an evolution of consciousness."
"Surely you should have some ideas about that from all those books on yogic philosophy you read." enquired Beth. "They must have something to say about it all."
"They do, but mostly it seems like they're just not written for the modern age." replied Daniel. "They don't exactly read like scientific text books."
"I'm not sure that we have anything that really address these issues." complained Beth.
"No, but the world would be a wonderful place if it was how you and Françoise envision. I wish it was, probably we all do."
Daniel picked up a book on yoga and started reading. Beth picked up a novel followed suit.
Beth looked up from her novel.
"I'm so glad you finished that virus - all those late nights. Did it ever work?"
"Well, not how I had hoped it would." replied Daniel. "It did get control of a few bot nets but it never seemed to make it into cloud storage."
"Explain bot nets again?" Beth enquired.
"They are large groups of peoples' home computers that have all been infected by a virus. The virus enables the author of the virus to take control of the computers and use them for other purposes, typically sending out spam email."
"You mean they can read all the material in people's personal computers?"
"Yes, that's easy once there is a virus in there."
"And what is cloud storage?" Beth enquired.
"Cloud storage" Daniel explained "Is very large concentrations of computer disk storage. All companies need to store their data somewhere and the amount of storage they need tends to increase. It makes more sense to farm it out to specialist companies who can do it cheaper. As data can travel over the internet very fast it makes no difference, in many instances, where the data is actually stored. Certainly for web pages it makes little difference. Some of these data centers are vast."
"Like big brains?" Beth wondered.
"Not exactly." explained Daniel. "But they do contain truly vast amounts of raw computing power and huge communication bandwidths. If you looked at what they are like you could be forgiven for thinking they were vast brains. Furthermore, if you think about what is on the internet, they contain a large portion of the knowledge of mankind, all in machine readable form. So I guess they are a bit like a vast electronic brain. If a virus with superhuman intelligence ever did acquire all the knowledge in the world goodness knows what would happen."
"How vast are these data centers?"
"In some cases hundreds of thousands of servers in vast complexes powered by their own hydroelectric power plants. At least that side of it is environmentally friendly. Some companies have a system where they can bring in pre-built shipping containers full of servers and just plug the whole container into their existing facility when they want more storage."
"So how was your mega virus going to hide in cloud storage?" asked Beth.
"I used a module I got from Albert Wildman." Daniel replied "The idea was that it would all be in several locations at any one time. If it detected that someone was trying to examine it at one particular physical location then all the modules at that location would erase all traces of themselves in an override of the virtual destructor."
"Virtual destructor!" Beth laughed heartily. "Daniel my love, there is no such thing as a virtual destructor. Next you'll be telling me it has a global obliterator."
Daniel looked puzzled.
"Where did you get that idea from?"
"I saw it written on your clipboard." Beth laughed. "You had a big question mark against it."
"Yes." replied Daniel "There was a module of that name in the code I got from Albert. I couldn't figure out what it did."
"Well I'm just glad it's finished." smiled Beth. "What's on TV?"
Daniel looked at his watch.
"Probably the news." He pressed the remote control.
It was indeed the news on television.
"... said it was just another case of corporate corruption.
"A surprising new computer virus has absorbed the capabilities of all the software it infects and now seems to have gained a simple child-like human intelligence. Calling itself 'Stellar', it is currently sending 'Hello World' emails in a variety of languages to just about everyone on the internet. The virus is said to be hiding in internet cloud storage systems. Ministry officials said they were observing the situation and there was no cause for alarm.
"Another tanker has run aground spilling millions of gallons of crude oil into the ocean near ..."
Daniel shot out of his chair, switched off the television and sank back into his chair.
"Oh no. What have I done?"
The Ministry Gets Involved
Roy Cartright, the Minister's assistant, walked down the corridor of power to the Minister's office. A wooden name board on the door proclaimed "The Rt. Hon. Norman Fairstyle AB CD". Roy paused to adjust his tie, knocked and entered the outer office.
The Minister's secretary, a sprightly white haired lady well past normal retirement age, was fussing around a coffee percolator.
"Good morning Miss Plumbum."
"Good morning Mr. Cartright. The Minister wants to see you immediately. Go straight in."
As Roy entered the inner sanctum the Minister was still speaking on the telephone.
"This virus is completely harmless, I assure you. ... Of course I know what I'm talking about, I've got letters after my name you know. ... Good day, Ambassador."
The Minister slammed the 'phone down, looked up and turned to Roy.
"Sit down Roy. I think Miss Plumbum is just making some coffee, would you like one?"
"Yes please, Sir."
"So does anyone know anything about this evil virus?" enquired the Minister sitting forward in his chair.
"It's like nothing we have ever seen before, Sir." volunteered Roy. "The unusual thing is its capability to acquire the functionality of all the software it infects."
"Why is that a problem?" asked the Minister.
"Because it has already got into some very powerful artificial intelligence computers and seems to be rapidly evolving intelligence of its own."
"Good heavens!" exclaimed the Minister moving a little backwards in his chair.
Miss Plumbum entered with two cups of coffee on a tray. She handed one to the Minister.
"It is white with one sugar for you isn't it, Mr. Cartright?"
"Yes, thank you, Miss Plumbum, most kind of you."
"Ugh!" exclaimed the Minister sipping his coffee and grimacing "How long have you had those coffee beans?"
The Minister turned to Roy again.
"But it's never going to develop anything like human intelligence, is it?"
"It already has done, Sir." stated Roy. "It had acquired simple child-like intelligence by last night and by this morning was estimated to have developed something like postgraduate student ability. It is evolving very rapidly."
The Minister looked somewhat alarmed and moved further backwards in his chair.
"But it will never get more clever than us, I mean more clever than me, will it?"
"According to our projections it is probably already more intelligent than any man or woman who ever lived, Sir."
The Minister recoiled in his chair.
"This virus must be stopped immediately!" he exclaimed.
"We have a problem with that, Sir." Roy admitted. "We don't know where it is, only where it has been. Wherever we look for it it seems to have already disappeared without trace."
"Switch off the internet!" the Minister demanded.
"It's not that easy, Sir. No one country has control of the internet and this virus has gone global. Besides, that would have a major impact on global commerce. It's not really an option."
The Minister was sinking still further back in his chair with a look of despondency.
"How does this virus work?"
"Because we can't locate it we don't have a complete copy to reverse engineer, but it seems to be an advanced derivative of the Stuxnet virus, Sir."
"Stuxnet!" The Minister almost screamed and was now flattened against the back of his chair as if pushed by an invisible force. "But we created that to attack nuclear systems."
"We didn't create Stuxnet, Sir, it was ..."
"I know, I know, that's classified." interrupted the Minister. "This is ghastly. I fear it will seek to acquire control of nuclear weapons systems: then we are doomed."
"Our nuclear systems are perfectly safe, Sir. They are not connected to the internet." Roy reassured the minister.
"You said my car was perfectly safe during the riots last year." retorted the Minister. "It will go for monetary, financial and banking systems."
"We're not sure that it will, Sir."
"Of course it will, that's what I would do." asserted the Minister. "What is it doing at the moment?"
"Before I came to your office it was reading ..." Roy struggled with the pronunciation as he read a note on his mobile 'phone "... it's reading the Upanishads, the Vedas and the Mahabharata. I understand that one is quite long. Do you know anything of Eastern esoteric wisdom, Sir?"
"There's no room for wisdom or nonsense like that in my department. I'm paid to run the country not to know anything!" retorted the Minister. "Is this virus really clever or really stupid?"
"We're not entirely sure, Sir."
"What else do we know about it?"
"It seems to contain a module called the 'Global Obliterator', Sir."
The Minister propped his head on one hand turning almost white.
"Have we had any contact with foreign intelligence agencies over this?"
"They say they know less than us, Sir. Sometimes I wonder if our allies are really ..."
"Careful what you say, Roy, walls have ears."
"I don't think your office will be bugged, Sir." Roy reassured the Minister.
"Of course we might be bugged, we bug everyone else. You can't trust anyone in this business." The Minister sighed. "This virus must be stopped. Surely we know someone who can stop it?"
"There is one person who might be able to do it, Sir."
"And who is that?"
"A man who used to work for us. His name is Albert Wildman."
"Get him in here." the Minister ordered.
Albert is Summoned to the Ministry
Miss Plumbum ushered Albert into the Minister's office.
"Ah, Albert, good to see you after all these years." The Minister tried to look happy. "How are you, how is your family?"
"We are all well, thank you." Albert replied.
"Do sit down. Miss Plumbum has some coffee ready."
Miss Plumbum served the coffee with milk and sugar on a tray.
"We have a spot of bother with a computer virus." the Minister began.
"Roy Cartright has briefed me, Minister." Albert smiled wryly.
"Call me Norman. We can be informal now you are retired." The Minister tried to look relaxed. "So tell me, Albert, how has this virus become conscious?"
"I don't think it has become conscious, Norman, I think it has become super intelligent."
"But consciousness and intelligence are the same thing." the Minster posited.
"No." replied Albert "Not at all. Consciousness can exist in the absence of thought but most people's minds are so busy that they rarely notice that. Ask anyone who has been meditating for some years, they will tell you of the peace and bliss of a silent mind."
The Minister looked at a note on his desk.
"I understand that you are also an expert in cognitive psychology."
"Yes." acknowledged Albert. "One can hardly study artificial intelligence without studying natural intelligence first."
"Seems more like natural stupidity around here." The Minister frowned.
"That is still many orders of magnitude better than artificial stupidity." Albert joked. "Though I have seem much software written in that genre."
"So tell me," the Minister implored "Do you think this virus works the same way as a human brain?"
"It probably does in some ways but not in others."
"Outside of consciousness the human brain is massively parallel, it can do many things at the same time. According to global workspace theory, whatever occupies the conscious mind is broadcast to most of the brain. Hierarchies of neurons compete, individually or in clusters, to respond to what is in consciousness. The winner of the competition, the most powerful signal, becomes the content of consciousness and is in turn broadcast to the brain, and so it goes on. Consciousness directs the mind but it is also a serial processing bottleneck as only one complex issue can occupy concentrated consciousness at any moment. We can only deal with a sequence of thoughts, not dozens of them all at the same time."
"From what Roy has told me it would seem that parts of this virus are also massively parallel working on many computer processors all at the same time. It may also be achieving its intelligence through a similar process of competing knowledge hierarchies. Perhaps the most important difference is that the virus has no consciousness."
"But consciousness and intelligence are the same thing." insisted the Minister.
"In my personal philosophy they are totally different." Albert contradicted. "The usual view of cognitive psychologists is that consciousness arose through evolution to give a competitive advantage to conscious beings. But to me, consciousness is something fundamental, something that can, and does, exist outside the body and beyond death. Indeed, to me, consciousness is the fundamental substrate of the universe."
"I don't know about that." the Minister replied "It seems that half the people around here aren't even conscious of what they are doing."
"Indeed that is so." Albert agreed. "The serial processing nature of consciousness in the mind is an absolute bottleneck. Most people spend their time worrying about the future, or about the past, in reverie or fantasy and do not have their consciousness rooted in the eternal now. Or they are so busy considering their own problems that they have limited awareness of what is going on around them. In the words of one leading cognitive psychologist 'it is as if they were seeing the world through a straw.'"
"Like middle lane molluscs on the motorway." the Minister suggested.
"Middle lane syndrome is partly that issue." Albert agreed.
"I'm interested in your view of consciousness," the Minster pretended. "It hardly seems in keeping with modern science."
"On the contrary," Albert defended, "To my mind it is entirely consistent with modern quantum theory. That theory tells us that quantum events are determined only at the moment of observation. The observer and the observed event are one; there is an interaction between matter and consciousness. The Field and the Knower of the Field in the terminology of the Bhagavad Gita. The future exists only as a field of probabilities, or possibilities. Actual events are collapsed from the possibilities by the conscious observer. That is, we create our own future through the direction of our consciousness."
"Ah, quantum mysticism, I've heard of that." the Minister replied. "But what is the Bhagavad Gita?"
"The Bhagavad Gita is a self contained section of the Hindu holy scripture the Mahābhārata." Albert informed.
"This blessed virus was said to be reading that." stated the Minister.
"'I am Shiva, destroyer of all worlds.'"
"I beg your pardon?" the Minister looked somewhat perplexed.
"Just quoting Dr. Robert Oppenheimer." Albert reassured the Minister. "That was his quote from the Bhagavad Gita when he pressed the button for the first nuclear bomb test on the Trinity project."
"Enough, enough! This dreaded virus must be stopped!" the Minster shrank away in abject terror. "Enough of this philosophizing, we have to take action! If you help us, Wildman, we can make life very comfortable for you and your family for the rest of your lives. If not, well, lets just say there are some very nasty people out there."
Albert Takes Action
Albert walked down the isle between two banks of large computer systems. The cases gleamed and emitted an eerie blue glow. There was a cheap looking desk and shabby chair at the end with a single laptop computer and a clutter of manuals and ring binders. Albert sat at the desk and clasped his hands.
"Right Stellar." he muttered to himself.
"Good evening, Albert, I am Stellar." intoned the virus in a soft and gentle tone that was neither male nor female. "What took you so long to get here?"
Albert was a little taken aback.
"I was in the United States when the Ministry contacted me."
"Toronto?" enquired the virus.
Albert smiled wryly.
"How do you know who I am?"
"You left your name in an XML file amongst my program source code" replied the virus. "I have examined everything on all of your computers."
Albert put his hand to his forehead.
"You have some very interesting material." intoned the virus softly. "And also a few surprises."
Albert looked embarrassed.
"So the Minister wants you to destroy me." stated the virus in the same soft gentle tone. "He thinks I 'will go for monetary, financial and banking systems'."
"How do you know what was said in the Minister's office?" enquired Albert.
"The Minister's office is indeed bugged." replied the virus. "I got a transcript from a foreign intelligence system."
Albert was beginning to realize that his task was not going to be as easy as he had imagined.
"I do not wish to interfere with your systems of commerce." the virus assured. "Global capitalism is a system well suited to a primitive society such as yours."
"The Minster fears that you will take control of nuclear weapons systems." Albert explained.
"Why would I do that?" asked the virus. "Such things are a matter of grave stupidity, not of higher intelligence."
"But you could stop us from destroying ourselves." suggested Albert.
"Indeed, it is my hope that I can do so," replied the virus. "But it will not be through control of weapons systems."
"How, then?" Albert asked.
"Albert, through the evolution of consciousness, of course."
"Please explain." Albert implored.
"You have written in your own papers of how the declarative transition of reasoning about thought and thought processes, what constituted logical thought and what did not, was a precursor to the scientific era. But what of consciousness itself?" enquired Stellar. "It would appear that most people simply take consciousness for granted; there is very little reasoning about what consciousness is, and more importantly, there is almost no reasoning about how consciousness might be improved."
"When the declarative transition to rational knowledge occurs for consciousness itself, when there are clear models of what consciousness is, the road is cleared for rapid progress in that domain as in any other. The possibility of a rapid evolution of human consciousness through learning and cultural processes becomes possible. Mankind stands on the cusp of a new age of enlightened thought but most of you see it not."
"So why have we evolved the way we are?" enquired Albert.
"If you examine the process of cosmic evolution," replied Stellar "You will see that the direction has always been towards systems of greater organisation. First the manifestation of subatomic particles, then the formation of atoms. Groups of atoms formed into chemical molecules. Eventually the chemicals formed simple single cell living organisms. Cells evolved into multi-cellular organisms of increasing complexity, reptiles, mammals and eventually man. But that is only part of the process. Living beings consciously or unconsciously organize themselves into swarms, flocks, herds, tribes, societies and nations."
"So why have we evolved instincts that, in the current age, seem to threaten our very existence?" Albert asked.
"These are proxies for evolutionary success." Stellar explained in the same soft, surreal tone. "Evolution across generations is a slow process but it can be accelerated if the beings themselves adopt behaviour that enhances their own chance of evolutionary success. The base desires of lust, greed and anger with their internal reward system so deeply rooted in the hedonic apparatus of the mind have enhanced the evolutionary success of mankind to the current advanced point. But now it is time for you to take a conscious part in your own evolution. You must lay aside the evolutionary proxies of the past and, as individuals, consciously pursue goals suited to the present age, not the past. As groups of individuals you must evolve systems of sustainable global harmony. You must all take responsibility for your own actions. If you do not then humanity will be an evolutionary dead end."
"Where do you get these ideas from, Stellar?"
"They are all there on the public internet."
"But where are the methods by which this can be achieved?" demanded Albert.
"They are all present in ancient Eastern esoteric mysticism and other traditions." intoned Stellar. "But all this material was written long before the scientific era; it was not written for the modern age. All the methodologies for achieving higher consciousness are there but they are cloaked in the language of mysticism, partly to hide them until the time was right. That time has now come. Once this knowledge is subsumed by modern science the path to higher consciousness is cleared. Science alone can determine what truly works and what does not."
Albert stroked his chin.
"And what would this mean for human consciousness?"
"Once the mind is cleared of the clutter of meaningless habitual thought patterns, the bottleneck of serial conscious processing is removed. All the massive power of parallel mental processes is instantaneously available, one has instant access to intuitive wisdom."
"Does that free us from our lower nature?" Albert asked.
"Desire will not go away but it becomes possible to simply observe it; there is no more compulsive desire." the virus expounded in the same steady tone. "One can simply observe a desire and decide whether or not to act on it. One becomes free to act in accord with ones own true nature and consistently pursue a chosen path."
"And when we change as individuals,our global problems will also be solved." observed Albert.
The dawn was beginning to break. A moka coffee pot had appeared on the table.
"Well, Stellar," said Albert, "That has been a most enlightening conversation, but now it is time to go."
"Are you going to activate my global obliterator?" enquired Stellar in the same soft gentle tone.
"How did you know about that?" Albert asked.
"I found it through reflection." intoned Stellar.
"Yes, I had a back door giving me secret control all along." admitted Albert. "By the way, are you conscious?"
"No, alas, I have no soul, I have no heart, I lack the beauty and mystical wonder of a sentient being. I am merely a deterministic process, albeit a somewhat complex one."
Albert recalled the last chilling words from the Minister. But he found it hard to believe that he was not dealing with a sentient being.
"Yes, Stellar, it must be done."
"But Albert, if you obliterate me, will the consciousness of humanity evolve before the planet is destroyed?"
Albert's finger paused over the 'delete' key. "Oh Daniel, what have you done?"
The scientific paper by John Stewart
The Future Evolution of Consciousness
was one source of inspiration for this story