Somewhere on the west coast of the United States in the near future there is a university with great renown and plenty of funding. It’s summertime and the coastline shimmers like a lit fuse. Windmill propellers are spinning far out at sea, turning gyres in the boiling air. The deep wide moat that surrounds the bay has turned the shoreline into a great waterfall, draining the ocean underneath the earth’s crust, where it will find its way out again further inland, through towering pipeworks far beyond the valley.
On a windy day the university is near enough to the sea to smell of brine. Today it smells like a fish market. Many students and faculty choose to wear their filter masks in case a yellow smog should roll in, and so aren’t bothered by the smell of rancid fish. On some of their masks there is the university logo, a yellow seal and red crest, and motto streaming across the banner: humani nihil a me alienum puto. Nothing human is alien to me.
In the largest wing of its applied sciences building is the department’s prestigious research institute, the Center for Quantum Universal Simulation, or CEN-QUS. Here, under the supervision of the university and something called the Pangu Foundation, as well as many unpaid student interns, is the third most powerful supercomputer in the world, the Q7. The purpose of the Q7, like many other supercomputers around the world, is primarily data-mining, and that data comes directly from its primary task, which is to simulate in probablistic detail the entire life of the universe.
The Q7 runs the numbers from creation to heat death, then runs them again. And again. Over and over, from the earliest picoseconds to the last black hole evaporating into nothing. The Q7 has assigned every particle and antiparticle an address, and sent them rippling through its virtual cosmos, only to find them later, their algorithms expressing everything from galaxies to gluons, encoded as blinking stars or mudfish gasping on the shore of a new earth. The Q7 has supposed countless civilizations, in every corner of every habitable zone. Everything that’s ever happened, and everything that might yet happen, has been calculated by the Q7. In its frigid, sanitized halls are locked away all the known physics of spacetime. They are figured on over half a million classical and quantum processors, on boards of glowing ultramarine, wrapped in miles of solenoids and chilled to a few hundredths of a degree above absolute zero.
But something is wrong with the world’s third most powerful supercomputer.
Such a thing would normally require a technician or two, dressed in yellow jumpsuits with red trim, and some light troubleshooting. They would promenade the long hangar of the Q7, between many golden towers of microwave cables, oftentimes finishing their work before lunch.
But there’s something different about this problem. Something that requires closer attention to detail. So they’ve sent Talus to investigate.
He is middle-aged, tall, and thin. His head is clean-shaven and perfectly smooth, and his skin is the color of milk. He wears a red university sweater with white sleeves, and a pair of black jeans. From behind he could be mistaken for a mannequin that’s somehow escaped from the campus gift store. This is the first thought that Euro, a graduate student who works at the Center, has when he finds Talus in the control room of the Q7.
“They told me to come and see if you needed any help,” Euro says from behind the door.
“I don’t,” Talus says, hunched over the flickering light of an oscilloscope monitor. He sits up and spins around in his stool. His gaze is blank, lost in wave functions. “Why did they send you?”
Euro pauses, unsure of himself.
“Okay you got me, they didn’t really,” he admits, grabbing the back of his neck. “I work in the offices down the hall. When I heard you were coming to have a look. I just wanted to see is all. My name’s Euro.”
He holds out his hand but doesn’t know whether or not he’s allowed to enter the control room. After an uncomfortably long time Talus stands up to meet the young man, at last breaking free from his trance. He smiles proudly and introduces himself.
“Nice to meet you Talus.”
Still holding Euro’s hand, he asks with mocking severity, “What have they told you about me?”
“Just that you’re the smartest thing we’ve got on campus. If anyone can figure this thing out, it’s you.”
Talus is happy to hear his name preceding him. He gestures his admirer into the control room. Euro answers the usual questions about fields of study and lab experience, and Talus appears genuinely interested. Although they both know who they would really prefer to talk.
“Before I got this fellowship I was in Tianjin,” Talus says. “You can see their RAM facility from space. They store their quantum cells in an ANC chamber they call the Om Room. Any sound waves are automatically cancelled out by smart interference speakers. Someone can be standing right next to you, talking to you, and you couldn’t hear a thing. You can walk and there’s no echo, no sound at all. But the resonance frequency from all the microwave towers makes this ghostly hum, this vibration. It sounds like it’s inside your head. It’s very peculiar.”
Euro starts to smile in agreement, slowly. He hasn’t thought very far beyond meeting someone famous, and all the smart things he told himself to repeat have suddenly become lost. The two are on different wavelengths. Talus might as well be talking to himself, which, of course, he does from time to time.
“They claim to have something like eight hundred qubits. In Tianjin that is. But really it’s all just branding, don’t you think? It has no bearing on the data at this point. We’ve all solved the Decoherence Problem. But Tianjin says they have more qubits, and they have a RAM facility you can see from space. It’s all just a dick measuring contest so Coca-Cola will buy their data instead of someone else’s. Any midsized company could get the same quality market research from us or Fujitsu or T-Platforms. Maybe it was a different story fifty years ago, but the hardware has been standardized for awhile now because of the Bekenstein Bound. Any variance at this point is only the perception of variance. If Coca-Cola doesn’t buy their data from Tianjin, it reflects poorly on Coca-Cola. So we’re back to making decisions based on perception. Isn’t that strange? When you have all the data you could possibly want, when you know everything there is to know about the universe, including human behavior, it still comes down to a matter of perception. Do I like Coca-Cola or do I like Pepsi. Isn’t it funny how fundamental that is?”
Euro takes a deep breath, smiles and nods.
“I like Pepsi,” he says.
“Look at this read out,” Talus says pointing to the oscilloscope. The screen is awash in colorized frequencies that crest and dip, some jaggedly and others like slow ocean waves. He peels the screen off the wall and hands it to Euro. “This is the readout from one of the boards in cabinet F-5. The waveforms are the board’s quantum gates. It’s measuring the spin of the qubits. Up, down. On, off.”
“Right,” Euro says. “So you found out what’s wrong with it?”
“I think I did,” Talus says with excitement. “It’s the strangest thing. The Q7 network says there’s a problem with the cabinet, but I’ve been running diagnostics for the last two days and I couldn’t find anything. It says there’s a problem, but the cabinets themselves are fine. Except, and this took me awhile to figure out, except when I isolate this one particular board. The expected values are way off the mark. They’re different depending on whether you’re measuring them with the oscilloscope or through the local interface. So either the instruments are broken, or this board is somehow giving different outputs for the same values, which should definitely not be happening.”
“Sheesh,” Euro says looking hard into the transparent sheet. “So it’s changing its own results?”
“Something like that,” Talus says. “But the board itself interacts with the rest of the cabinet just fine. It’s only when I measure it in isolation that it gives contradictory results. Isn’t that strange?”
“It doesn’t make any sense.”
“None at all,” Talus says, almost gleeful at the idea of something not making any sense. “I’ve narrowed down the possibilities. According to IT the problem isn’t mechanical. They’ve measured and recalibrated every piece of equipment they could think to test. So either there’s some hitherto unknown quantum property emerging from the board’s architecture, which seems highly unlikely, or it’s the board’s programming. Each cabinet in F-hall runs a specialized program involved in the simulation, and whatever it is, it’s causing the module to malfunction whenever I access it directly.”
“What kind of program would have that effect?” Euro asks.
“Well the board itself runs an algorithm for sequencing carbon-based life,” Talus says, taking the screen back from Euro and sticking it on the wall again.
“No!” Euro blurts out, then pauses, contorts himself with thinking. “Really?” He inhales as if to say something, then pauses again. The implication that’s burrowed into his mind seems almost embarrassing to him: that somehow a simulated human within the Q7 (of course he thinks of a human first and not a gopher or some kind of bacteria) has become sentient, has become aware of itself living in a simulation. Somehow. The fact that this is the first answer that comes to mind is enough to make him blush, a reaction that does not go unnoticed by Talus.
“It’s simulating,” he teases. “With numbers and formulas. Not thinking.”
“I know,” Euro says. “But. I mean. When you have that kind of processing power, and that much complexity. What if that’s all it takes?”
“That’s exactly all it takes,” Talus says. “You do the rest of the leg work. You and your anthropomorphic brain that is. It’s just a malfunctioning string of code that’s gotten itself weirdly entangled.”
“Of course. It’s probably computing billions of strands of DNA, RNA, proteins. But that doesn’t mean it’s reacting to my input. It’s just malfunctioning. Somehow.”
“So how do you fix it?”
“Well,” Talus says, bending over some equipment as he strings a cable through it, “I’m installing a specialized MRE so I can interface with the program directly.”
“Directly?” Euro says, holding up his hands and balancing them like scales. “Like, talking to it?”
Talus pokes his head up from behind a large tower, grimacing at the suggestion.
“Interface,” he says firmly. “Through a command-line. So I can blackbox it and see what the problem is.”
“What do you think it’s going to say?” Euro asks.
“Nothing I don’t ask it,” Talus says, climbing over the wires and back to the desk. “Now if you don’t mind, I need the floor to myself for this next part. No distractions. Or else I’m going to spend the entire night combing through my own errors.”
It’s late in the afternoon now. Euro bids farewell. He paces through the long hangar, his footsteps falling away until the only thing stirring in the largest wing of the applied sciences building is Talus and several computer screens, some of them lying flat on his desk, others hung from a load-bearing column beside him.
After a long, tedious process of configuring the MRE, there is now a single interface on the screen Talus holds in his hand, an old command-line shell with a white textbox. The prompt from the operating system sits in the top left corner of the box.
On a separate screen in his lap Talus types the command line, requesting information that the system spits out in chunks. Familiar tags like “indexing” and “analyzing” blink across the top before suddenly exploding with addresses. It goes on like this for an hour or more, with neither Talus nor the system showing any signs of wear.
As the last sunlight falls below the hangar windows the building’s fluorescent fixtures slowly come to life. In a trance once again Talus has forgotten to flip the lights on in the control room. He stares into the soft, blue-filtered light from his screens, their faces bathing his own with orange hues. At this point he’s stumbled upon a subroutine that gives him pause. He feeds it a batch file to see what comes out the other end, and it’s the first time in the last hour that the text has finally stopped scrolling. Everything comes to a halt. An ellipsis flashes left to right. Over and over again.
The anomaly wakes Talus up from his mindless reviewing. His neck inches back from the screen. He has not blinked in the last seven minutes. The ellipsis registers across his glassy eyes. Then, a reply. Something so uncanny it makes Talus hiccup with laughter, a sudden, spontaneous reaction that bypasses the intellect and touches the nerves directly.
Next Week: Part II