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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Impatient Gold Digger: A Science Fiction Story

The Impatient Gold Digger: A Science Fiction Story When beautiful young Wanda Wilkins, age 24, married the billionaire Barry Sampson, age 105, Wanda thought she had secured for herself riches beyond her wildest dreams. Barry was known to be in poor health, and few expected him to live more than another year or two. Wanda told herself: I hate this old goat, but if I just play along for a few years, I'll end up inheriting most of his money.

One day Wanda accompanied Barry to the doctor's office to hear the results of his latest medical tests. The doctor's face was grim.

“You've had a great long run, Barry,” said the doctor, “but it looks like your time is finally running out. You have advanced cancer of the liver, kidneys, and stomach.”

“My, that's so tragic,” said Wanda, play acting to the best of her abilities. “How long does my husband have to live?”

“About four months,” said the doctor.

Wanda took out her handkerchief, and did her best to fake some tears, while she started to think about the countless millions she would soon inherit.

“I'm going to fight this,” said Barry.

“That's fine, darling,” said Wanda. “Do your best.”

A few weeks later Wanda found out that when Barry said he was going to fight death, he wasn't kidding. Barry brought Wanda to meet some doctors he had hired at a local clinic that specialized in radical approaches to life extension.

“Barry, you said you wanted us to pull out all the stops to save your life,” said Dr. Carlin, “and that's what we're going to do. We're going to try something that no one has ever done before. In a few months, your brain will be removed from your body, and immediately hooked up to a special machine that will keep it alive outside of your body. Using electrodes, we will hook up your brain to a special computer interface that will be able to understand your thoughts. Everything in your body other than your brain will be thrown away, but your brain will live on, perhaps for many decades of additional life. This is the most ambitious life extension project ever attempted.”

“That sounds great,” said Barry.

“My God, that's the most bizarre scheme I've ever heard of,” said Wanda, hardly able to hide her horror at the idea. “Are you saying my husband's brain will live on, even though the rest of his body is dead?”

“Exactly,” said Dr. Carlin.

Wanda tried to persuade her husband not to try the strange plan, but Barry could not be convinced. He went for several weeks to the clinic, where they put a skull cap on his head, and trained the computer in be able to interpret his thoughts.

Finally the day of the operation came. Wanda couldn't stand to watch the procedure. She was told to come in to the clinic to see the results of the operation.

Wanda was guided to a lab where she saw a glass container filled with fluid and a brain. The brain was connected to wires, which led to a computer. The computer had a camera, a microphone, and a monitor.

Wanda was disgusted by the sight. On the computer monitor, she saw some words. The words read:

HELLO, WANDA. I CAN SEE YOU. THIS IS YOUR HUSBAND BARRY.

Wanda looked at the monitor and the computer, not knowing what to think.

“Barry, can you hear me?” she asked.

The computer monitor now displayed a new message:

YES, WANDA. I CAN HEAR YOU. I'M DOING FINE. HOW ARE YOU?

“I know it seems hard to believe,” said Dr. Carlin. “But your husband is still alive. Even though the rest of his body is gone, we have preserved his brain. So his consciousness lives on. He can in a sense see with the camera we have provided, which is connected to the computer that is connected to his brain. And he can in a sense hear with the microphone we have provided, which is connected to the computer that is connected to his brain. And he can in a sense speak with the monitor we have provided, which is connected to the computer that is connected to his brain.”

“How long can he survive like this?” asked Wanda.

“Oh, the good news is that he can keep living like this indefinitely,” said Dr. Carlin enthusiastically. “Perhaps for another 50 years.”

“Fifty years?” said Wanda. “Fifty freaking years?”

Wanda was thoroughly revolted, and stormed out of the life extension clinic. After using every curse word in the book, she finally came up with a plan to get her husband's money.

frustrated woman


Her plan was simple: she filed a legal suit, petitioning the court to declare her husband legally dead.

The legal hearing was a contentious one. Dr. Carlin argued that Barry was very much still alive, on the grounds that he could still respond to stimuli such as the sound of a voice.

But the decisive point in the hearing came when Wanda's lawyers asked about the software that was used to communicate between Barry's brain and the computer connected to it. Dr. Carlin admitted that the software used artificial intelligence software to “flesh out” the electrical impulses coming from Barry's brain. Wanda's lawyers argued that this artificial intelligence software was basically a kind of artificial chatbot that was making up the answers itself after getting some vague electrical signals that could be interpreted in different ways.

“So when that computer says, HELLO, I'M BARRY, I SEE YOU,” asked Wanda's lawyer, “it may really be the computer software that's talking more than Barry himself, correct?”

“Well, maybe,” said Dr. Carlin, an answer that made Wanda smile.

“And when the computer monitor next to Barry's brain gives a message saying it recognizes you,” asked Wanda's lawyers, “that may be facial recognition software in your computer rather than Barry actually recognizing someone, correct?”

“Perhaps,” said Dr. Carlin.

Finally the judge issued a ruling. He ruled that Barry Sampson should be considered to have legally died at the moment that his brain was separated from his body. The judge ruled that appearances of personality from the brain-computer hookup were mainly artifacts of computer software rather than artifacts of consciousness in Barry's brain.

Armed with the judge's ruling, Wanda walked into the life extension clinic, and approached Barry's brain on the shelf. The computer monitor connected to the brain flashed a message:

HELLO, WANDA, HOW ARE YOU TODAY?

“Shut up, hubby,” said Wanda. “You're legally dead.”

Wanda disconnected the wires from Barry's brain, and placed the brain in a jar of formaldehyde. To this day that jar with Barry's brain sits on the book shelf of a professor of biological ethics at Columbia University.