Willessa Nadath stared at the calendar with slightly bloodshot brown eyes, as if by sheer force of will she could prevent the next month from arriving, when the Artificial Person Experiment would de-funded due to lack of success. It should not have been this difficult, she thought for what felt like the hundredth time.
All we had to do was copy the full functionality of a human brain from biological jellyware into computer hardware — and three years ago, in 2032, we felt we had both the relevant data on the brain, and the appropriate degree of miniaturization of neural processors, needed to begin the effort. Yet after a little more than two years of construction and debugging by the hardware group, and seven months of running power and software through it, the mentality of the resulting artificial brain consistently scores only at the “clever animal” level. IBM’s decades-old “Watson” software easily does better at understanding human language use. What are we missing?
A clock silently and relentlessly updated its numerical display, one second at a time, on a wall covered with brainstorming notes. The calendar might not advance the date until midnight arrived, and she probably should have been reviewing those notes yet again (even though most of them were months old), but “right now” was well past quitting time, and she was tired — and the rest of the software team had already left, so no one was around to comment about her staring at the calendar.
She could tell herself to stop, of course. She wasn’t in charge of the overall Experiment, but she was certainly in charge of herself. Since you are not in charge overall, even if you did think of The Answer you would have to go through channels to get someone who could do something with it, to actually do something with it. Even if The Answer was as simple as the Douglas Adams’ classic of “42”, the channels could not be bypassed.
On the other hand, with the hardware functioning properly, the load of finding The Answer naturally fell upon the software people, including experts in genetic algorithms, such as herself. And so here she was in the office, staying late.
Probably every project in History had both its proponents and its detractors. A great many people had completely understood how valuable could be a mind that thought a million times faster than a human, when it came to solving problems. The world of the 2030s was full of huge problems that needed urgent solutions. From the no-longer-in-doubt and unstoppable decline in world oil production to the synthetic fertilizer production/distribution that depended on it; from the rising sea levels and expanding deserts known to be caused by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to vast amounts of methane — a much worse greenhouse gas — being released from warming tundra lands, the world desperately needed solutions that could be agreed-upon by the majority of special political interests. There was much hope that a super-fast thinker could find such solutions.
Willessa finally pushed downward on her modest desk, raising her slim body from the comfortable office chair (it was better than getting no arm-muscle exercise). Within a minute she had left the office and was walking down some stairs toward a building exit. I need something to take my mind off this problem for a while. Sex? Chocolate? Sex with Chocolate? Since the genetic engineers had perfected immunizations against AIDS and quite a list of other social diseases, and contraceptive technologies were also better than ever (such as the so-called “Fallopian Corks” she’d had installed), social mores against casual sex were at a record low. Hmmmm….
The most vocal detractors of the Artificial Person Experiment had come from what some thought was one of the most unlikely of sources: opponents of abortion. One might think that in a world of eight-and-a-half billion mouths-to-feed, with the death-from-starvation rate on the rise, people would stop insisting that yet another mouth-to-feed must get born, just because a woman happened to be pregnant. But no! — to the opponents of abortion, every unborn human was a person simply because it was human, and nothing else mattered at all.
Any of at least three Events might have made at least some abortion opponents change their minds, by proving that “human DNA” was irrelevant to the concept of “person”. But the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence still hadn’t found anyone Out There with whom to communicate. Dolphin intelligence was still being disputed in the scientific community, regarding whether or not they qualified as persons. And the A.P.E. was failing to succeed at creating something that should quite-literally “ape” the human mind — except for being lots faster — so complete had been the copying of the brain’s functional jellyware.
One result of that failure was that most of the initial fear and hatred exhibited by abortion opponents, toward the APE, had turned into jeers. Walking through the protesters picketing the Experiment’s laboratory building was no longer risky, but it was humiliating. Willessa tuned them out as best she could, as she made her way toward her commute-mobile.
“Only a human can be a person!”
“Machines can never be persons!”
“You can’t succeed because we’re right and you’re wrong! Nyaaah! Nyaaah! Nyaaah!” — that from a child perhaps ten years of age. Such sheer prejudice about the concept of “person”, being foisted upon the next generation, was almost as disheartening as the failing Experiment. There were much more important things toward which young minds, heirs to the future, should be directed.
One of her co-workers, Josh Jeffries (whom everyone called “JJ”, naturally), had commented, “Much as I wish we could start colonizing some of those Earth-like worlds that NASA has found, if any of them are already inhabited, those idiots would turn us into slavers and plunderers like the Spaniards who explored the Americas — and probably start an interstellar war if we encountered aliens with decent technology. I hope the advanced aliens keep going undetected!”
Another result of the failure-so-far of the APE was devastating, because it was the abortion opponents who had spearheaded the defunding of the Experiment. Even though they kept losing on Big Issues, they still had enough political clout to interfere with research that threatened the foundations of their arguments. The funding cut-off was only a week away….
Willessa unlocked and entered her vehicle. Modern commuter cars were quite small and not especially aerodynamic, but extraordinarily tough. Large runaway trucks had been known to plow through roadways clogged with commuter cars, sending them rolling about like tenpins, yet their occupants normally completely escaped injury. By design, of course. The spherical roll-cage was not likely to be improved-upon any time soon — and what commuter car needed fancy aerodynamics when congested traffic, in the cities of a world of eight-and-a-half billion, almost never exceeded 50 kph?
Flying cars existed, and lots of people wished they owned one, but fundamental economics kept them mostly out of reach. It simply took much more energy to get a heavier-than-air vehicle moving aloft than on the ground, and energy prices were at a record high. The first nuclear fusion power plants were still under construction, but might start coming on-line within the next year. If energy prices finally started to go down, then perhaps a flying car could be in Willessa’s future — provided that the problem with the APE was solved, and she still had a job.
“Beatricia, let’s go home,” stated the weary woman, and the safety-strap system quickly moved from the “retracted” to the “engaged” position. Then the car began — and would complete — the journey under computer control. Its command system was almost foolproof, partly because voice recognition was involved, and partly because each vehicle’s owner was expected to give the car a four-syllable (or longer) name that would just about never be used in casual conversations. Every command to a vehicle began by stating its name, of course.
“To JJ, what are you doing this evening?” Most clothing was full of electronics, and the phrasing of that question sufficed to send off an audio email. A reply quickly arrived at her ear-piece.
“I’m plotting ways to get my hands on you. Let me try the simplest way first. How would you like a massage? You looked like you needed one, an hour ago.”
“Deal, if you can get to my place in 30 minutes, because that’s about when I expect Beety to bring me there. Otherwise I’m calling Rico.” Rico was a neighbor and thus within easy reach of the itch she wanted scratched, and JJ knew it. “Beety” was short for “Beatricia”, but wouldn’t trigger any command-responses. It was normal to use a shortened name when talking about a vehicle.
“On my way! See you!”
Wilessa smiled. JJ’s specialty was neural nets, and she liked him more than Rico, a handyman, but she hoped JJ didn’t know that.
JJ was waiting when she arrived at her apartment in the darkening twilight. He was not tall, dark, and handsome, but he also wasn’t short, albino, and ugly. He was medium-sized and brown-haired and physically fit. “I brought some nice massage oil with me,” he offered.
“No need. I’ve already decided what I want you to use.”
A few minutes later her bed was covered with towels, and she stretched nude upon them, her blond hair halo-ing her head. “Remember you can’t do my inside until I say you’ve done enough to my outside.” Her bottle of chocolate syrup was opened a moment later, and JJ began applying it. Its sublime fragrance quickly filled the room. Ahhhhh….
“This could take a while, if you really are in as bad a state as I thought earlier. Do you mind if I turn on the TV? The distraction will bolster my self-control, so I don’t spontaneously switch from ‘rub’ mode to ‘ravish’ mode.”
“OK, so long as you keep rubbing.” Ooooooh…. JJ’s favorite was the Unusual News Channel, and Willessa generally liked it, too. In the early days of the Artificial Person Experiment, it had been a major piece of Unusual News, but that wasn’t why she liked it. The sheer variety of minor-but-oddball events was simply never boring, unlike other news channels that repeated the same major-news events all day long. On the other hand, she didn’t go out of her way to watch it, because there were so many TV channels available. The On Demand channels especially made it easy to find some other non-boring thing to watch….
“–racton’s Haunted House mystery has been solved, investigators claim. Whenever the wind blows a mere ten kph, the sides of the three-story structure receive enough force to distort the building slightly, but not enough for the occupants to feel it. Nevertheless, the distortion can make various boards creak, as the wind strengthens and lessens.”
“Do you hate changing diapers? Try a Diaper-Bot! Just place your infant on the cushiony platform, and the Diaper-Bot does the rest, with great care. Since the machine is not affected by odor, it can take its time and do the job perfectly. Always!”
That was a commercial, of course. The normal format was two news blurbs followed by a short commercial. You were practically guaranteed to miss part of a news item if you walked away during the commercial time. Other channels might give you enough time to cook dinner before the commercials ended, but not the Unusual News Channel.
“Anthropologists using robotic birds report they have successfully been able to study the Stone-Age tribe that lives on North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean, and are the only people on Earth who have continued to resist contact attempts from the outside world. They kill all outsiders who approach their island and don’t get away fast enough. While the rest of the world has basically been content to leave them alone, for decades anthropologists have wanted to know why they are so unfriendly. Well, at the moment the anthropologists still don’t know why, but they say they have acquired enough samples of the tribes-people using their language to begin translation work.”
“Yesterday Cypress became the 73rd nation to send someone into orbit. As is normal today, the space vehicle was a scramjet/rocket combination, built from plans available on-line, mostly using 3D printing. Officials were quoted as saying that building a space ship has become downright cheap these days, but they sure wish the cost of fuel would drop.”
“Using the URT Mark 12 Telepresence ‘Bot is such an immersive experience that 100% of our customers occasionally walk one into a restroom, having forgot that what they should have done was disconnect their real bodies from the virtual-reality interface. So, if you want the best telepresence experience, remember that You Are There with the URT Mark 12!”
No specific commercial was repeated more than once a day. If some company wanted to advertise its product more than once a day, it had to provide different commercials for the time slots it bought. The policy did seem to help keep the channel non-boring.
“In the city of Volgograd, Russia, a reclusive multi-millionaire named Dimitri Karandozov had apparently not personally contacted anyone in the eight years since his wife died during the childbirth of his son, Mikhail, and so police finally forced entry into his mansion. They found the place to be spotless, containing a variety of working utility-bots, including repair-bots that kept the other ‘bots running, and the child is in good physical health thanks to nanny-bots. However, Karandozov himself appears to have committed suicide not long after his wife died. Records show that the mansion has received regular automated deliveries of baby food and diapers and other things, like cleaning supplies and ‘bot-parts, while all the bills, like the electric bill, had been paid automatically.”
“NASA’s Vacuum Cleaner project, which uses a big superconducting magnet to attract space junk, has reached the ten-ton milestone. The material will be processed for re-use in orbit, officials say, because it cost thousands of dollars per kilogram to get it up there in the first place, and there is no need to do that twice. When asked about all the non-magnetic debris in orbit, they said, ‘We have a plan that can work, but not before international cooperation is secured. We can’t say more about it at this time.’ Rumors, however, hint that some sort of particle-beam device could be involved, and fears must be allayed regarding its potential as a weapon.”
Another commercial began. “Hah!” exclaimed JJ. “I bet I know what it is. If they can shoot a piece of fiberglass with an electron beam, it will acquire a static-electric charge, and can be attracted by an opposite static-electric charge, much like they are using that magnet now to attract pieces of iron and steel.”
“Keep rubbing, please.” Privately, though, with part of her mind, Willessa disagreed with him somewhat. In outer space electrons could leave an object as easily as they arrived. A proton beam, though, had penetrating power, so the static charges might stay embedded…. The thought trailed off as the rest of her mind took over with Ahhhhhh, and an occasional Ooooooh….
The commercial ended. “Administrators of the Quadruple Rainbow Contest announced that they have validated their 990th contest entry, and so only ten entries remain to be received before the judging of the best picture can begin. So far it has taken six years for the entries to arrive, because the natural phenomenon is quite rare.”
“This Thirty-Minute-Mark Trivia Tidbit brings you some information about plutonium, which is one of the deadliest substances on Earth. If you ingest a microscopic amount it can kill you slowly, because it is radioactive and can cause cancer. If you ingest a larger amount it will kill you quickly, because it is chemically toxic, like, say, arsenic is toxic. If there is a larger quantity that is merely close to you, it can kill you in a few weeks or months through radiation poisoning. And if you are within a kilometer of a ‘critical mass’ of the stuff, a nuclear explosion can kill you just about instantly. So, if you ever have reason to think that there is even a tiny amount of plutonium in your area, please report it to Homeland Security. Thank you!”
“Do you need to delete an embarrassing blog post from the Internet, because you were drunk and raving when you wrote it, and then it went viral? We can’t help you do that with old posts, but if you install CopyLeash today, we can ensure you will be able to have full control over all your future posts. That is, CopyLeash ensures that any copies made of what you originally post are digitally leashed to it, so that if you delete or even edit the original, the copies get deleted or edited, too!”
“The city of Louisville, Kentucky, is planning to host a second major sports team. Officials say that the new team will be part of the next baseball league expansion, and will be called the ‘Rulers’, in honor of the same King Louis XVI after which the city is named. When asked about possible name-confusion with the existing eleven-year-old basketball franchise team, also called the ‘Rulers’, the officials stated that, ‘We specifically want people to associate one name, regardless of the sport, with Louisville. It will actually be less confusing, easier to remember, because, in the long run, no matter which sport you might be talking about, the Louisville team will be the Rulers.’ That caused the crowd of locals to start cheering, but of course it remains to be seen how well the city’s teams will actually do in the long run.”
The next day started out with Willessa feeling refreshed and chipper — thoroughly de-stressed. She also had an idea, which she explained at the morning brainstorming meeting.
“Let’s borrow one of the newer telepresence ‘bots and let the brain control it during the boot process. Perhaps having a body it can manipulate, while simultaneously experiencing all those extra sensory sources, will make a difference. Certainly it will have to write some brand-new programs, compared to what it’s done before.”
All the researchers knew that the human brain is a self-programming computer, a fact that could be easily explained to non-experts in terms of “habits”. One could think about the habit of brushing the teeth after each meal as a computer program that the brain automatically executed after each meal. Since a human brain is fully self-programming, it could break habits (erase programs) as well as create them.
There was absolutely no doubt that the APE needed to be a self-programming computer, too. Yet, so far, it had been unable to write programs that were equivalent to the programs that human brains wrote for themselves as they learned speech and other things.
In the discussion period that followed the brainstorming, Pierre D’antrie, a tall, dark and pudgy specialist in fuzzy logic, said, “I also like the idea of hooking up a telepresence ‘bot. But we need to make sure it doesn’t get damaged while the brain tests the programs it writes. Any ideas on how to do that?”
JJ got the first response in. “A variant on that problem relates to the sense of proprioception. The APE brain will need information regarding the motions it puts the TP-bot through, and I’m pretty sure that even the latest models don’t offer proprioception feedback to human users. We might have to buy one instead of borrow one, so we can modify it. On the plus side, though, TP-bots do offer users the sense of touch, and the combination of the senses of touch and proprioception will make for faster learning of how to control a body without damaging it.”
“Put it in a padded room full of objects made of foam,” offered Marigold Thashler, a busty red-headed expert in holographic memory storage, whom most men would chase if she hadn’t been married and faithful. “That should let it flounder around safely, and also interact with things.”
“We need to do more than that,” stated Clancy Robishen, on the short side but a logician and the team leader. “It needs to be able to see someone else interacting with things, so it can copy the correct way to do it. That also means some of those objects need to be more substantial than if made of foam. It wouldn’t be able to sit the ‘bot down in a chair, for example, unless the chair was sturdy. Padding the chair is fine, though.”
Reasonable funding requests had always been granted. The upcoming shut-off of funding did not affect the existing situation. So, only three days later (partly because industrial-robot-limbs routinely offered proprioception-type feedback to their control units, and the components were easily added to a TP-bot)….
“Resetting neural-net node-connection strengths to minimum,” stated JJ, as he began his part of the checklist for preparing the APE brain for the latest test. All the self-configuring it had done in the last test needed to be erased, so it could start from scratch. After all, human brains started from scratch, too. The biggest difference was that the APE brain was thoroughly fitted with diagnostic sensors, all accessible from the team’s workstations.
Marigold: “Breaking holographic memory-cell connections.” Human brains had a powerful ability to remember things, and an artificial brain powered by electricity needed to be equivalently robust, even if a black-out occurred. But that same robust-ness meant that only active erasure could work to eliminate old data from prior failed experiments….
Pierre: “Maintaining all neural-processor logic nodes in deactivated status; all grouping-metadata has been erased.” While human consciousness acted as if it had a single central logic unit, each neuron in an organic brain could act like a logic node — and the available data, acquired from the study of many injured human brains, indicated that consciousness employed more than just one specific group of neurons. A brain could compensate for, and consciousness recover from, many traumatic injuries thanks to re-purpose-able neural cells, from one group to another.
Clancy: “Quantum randomness filaments are nominal in sporadic noise-generation.” The classic Bell Inequality experiments had revealed a loophole in Causality: A truly random event by-definition had no Cause. Meanwhile, Evolution had devised “neural sensitivity” to quantum randomness, and given brains ways to mostly ignore random neuron firings — plus a way to use them: Random jumps escape predators better than predictable jumps! More-complex brains could do more things with odd data, so, just like a human, an Artificial Person needed to sense quantum randomness, to enable Free Will….
Willessa: “Connections between brain and TP-bot are nominal. Core bootstrap algorithms are ready.” They routinely activated the APE brain in stages, somewhat equivalent to how a human brain developed, its limbic system first. There had been some unresolved debates regarding the fact that the APE brain didn’t have anything attached, like a heart, which needed to be supervised by its “low-brain”. But why should controlling or not-controlling something with the low-brain affect the overall outcome of the Experiment? Today, though, the low-brain was going to be controlling the balancing system of the TP-bot.
If genetic algorithms had a fundamental problem, it was that they were always associated with a goal. They could cause a piece of software to be given random edits near-endlessly, until the goal was achieved (though in actuality the details of the process were much more efficient than only employing pure randomness, and goals tended to reached after some thousands of code-revisions). But the goal always had to be defined. How do you define the goal of “become a person”?
Thinking about The Answer to that question was what tended to keep Willessa at the office late. Lacking that Answer, a large number of mini-goals had been defined — and several new ones had been added for today’s test, because of the TP-bot. The hope was that an overall person would emerge as a sort of “gestalt” as all the mini-goals were achieved, after which it could use its free will to specify its own goals. So far, though, it hadn’t worked.
Ten minutes after the boot-strapping process was begun, all the mini-goals had been reached, and the initial evidence pointed toward another failure. If there was one advantage to working with a brain that operated a million times faster than a human brain, it was that little time was wasted in arriving at an end-result.
“Damn!” — a unanimous sentiment, that, but voiced by Pierre.
Another ten minutes passed, and the failure was verified. The APE brain exhibited no more of personhood than did an octopus (even though that animal was one of the smartest in the sea). Gloom descended upon the office both figuratively and literally, since all had stayed a bit late, and the sun was now below the horizon.
One more wasted mind, although at least it was only an animal-level mind they could erase for another attempt. But until they could figure out what they were missing….
And that really annoying kid was outside again, with the other protesters. “You can’t succeed because we’re right and you’re wrong! Nyaaah! Nyaaah! Nyaaah!”
While preparing dinner at home, her earpiece softly sounded a message as a phone connection began.
“To Willessa, did you catch the latest Thirty-Minute-Mark Trivia Tidbit?” It was JJ, of course.
“It was about how sperm whales were seriously endangered because their bodies produce a lot of special oil that is extremely good for lubricating fine machinery. The thing that saved them was the discovery of a desert plant, the jojoba bush, that could be farmed and that produced a very similar oil in its seeds. Well, I was thinking about getting some jojoba oil to try out with your next massage, what with your body being a very fine machine and all…”
She laughed. “Nice try, lover-boy, but tonight I’m not in the mood. Bye for now.” Besides, not all plant oils were created equal. Some were great, like peanut oil, but some were downright nasty, like oil from poison ivy. She hoped JJ would do some homework before mentioning jojoba oil again.
A modest wait followed dinner, during which she watched a game show, and then she started on her thrice-a-week exercise regimen. Gotta keep the fine machine working fine, she thought, grinning.
A wolf looked down at her baby body with slavering jaws and hungry eyes, but before he could bite, the snarling alpha male crashed into him. Somehow she knew she would be safe, and it never occurred to her to wonder why. But time passed quickly and she learned to run with the wolves, a member of the pack, even though she knew she was different from the others. Sometimes in the distance she could see humans with a dog, and she disdained them, because what they had felt … inferior … to what she had. Even so, seeing them, comparing them to her own situation, gave her a sense of understanding. The wolves knew all about the several-humans-and-occasional-dog situation, and it was simply a matter of balance that there should be a several-wolves-and-one-human situation.
Yet there was also a sense of fascination and curiosity about that other situation. What were those strange dens here and there in the woods, that the humans occupied? One day the pack found one that had no fresh scents, and investigated. There was an opening, about a body-length off the ground, through which a wolf might jump, and so they did, with herself last. But her jumps had always been awkward — that’s why she went last — and she bumped into something on the way through. Several things seemed to happen at once. She noticed that the wolves in the human den were making clicking and whirring and buzzing sounds, and their fur had turned shiny like the Moon, and glistened as if oiled. She also could not stop her clumsy motion into the den, and as soon as she was through there was a loud noise behind her that immediately caught her attention — she could see that the opening was now closed. Frightened, she began to howl — except she, too, was making clicking and whirring and buzzing sounds.
Willessa woke with a start, sweating. What was that all about?? She was well aware that dreams often included some sort of message from the subconscious mind. She also knew she needed to record it quickly, and did so, managing to get most of it typed into her computer before the memory faded.
Part of the dream, the last part, was obviously related to that stuff about “fine machines” the previous evening. But what did growing up with wolves have to do with anything? Some research was obviously in order, but right now she needed to shower and wolf down breakfast and go to the office.
At the morning brainstorming session there was a silence that stretched uncomfortably. Finally, Willessa decided to say something. “You know, in these meetings we’re supposed to throw out ideas no matter how wild and bizarre, just in case one of them might actually be relevant. Well, I had this crazy dream, and there’s something nagging me about it, like my own low-brain is trying to tell me something, and just maybe it will turn out to be relevant …”
There were no objections, so she sent copies of her dream-file to the others and after a pause, so the others could read it, said, “I’m wondering whether or not the “me” in the dream is actually the APE brain, and that we are the wolves.”
JJ quickly spoke up, “I think it’s something else. There’s an Unusual News Channel item that I’m pretty sure you saw four or five days ago. Does the name Mikhail Karandozov ring a bell? The news about him has gotten more interesting in the last day or two.”
Willessa didn’t recall the name, but JJ wasn’t the only one who watched that channel more often than herself. “He’s the Russian millionaire kid who was raised by robots!” exclaimed Marigold. And now Willessa remembered. Marigold continued, “They say he doesn’t know how to speak — he was never exposed to language because the TV in the mansion was never turned on after his father died. Also, we all know that robots are mostly built to respond to speech; extremely few are ever built to use it — when they communicate between themselves they mostly use infrared or microwaves, not audio.”
“The most recent news I heard,” said JJ, “was that the kid might never be able to learn to speak.”
“Wait a minute,” interjected Clancy. “If we are trying to match that kid with the APE brain, the situations are not entirely comparable. We do expose the brain to human language; we just don’t know why it doesn’t learn it.”
“Well,” replied JJ, “the news announcer said that some psychologist had talked about a ‘window of opportunity’ for learning language — hey! Could that be the window slamming shut in your dream, Willessa?”
“Explaining the dream doesn’t matter now,” stated Clancy, “because if humans really have a window of opportunity for language, and we copied it into the APE brain, then we need to know all about it. So we could have Relevance, and, yes, I’m saying that with a capital ‘R’. We need to find out everything about how and why a normal healthy human brain can fail to be able to learn language. Get crackin’, folks! We have a deadline to beat!”
Pierre found the key phrase, “feral child”, that loosed an avalanche of Relevance from the Internet search engines, which led everyone to begin studying different data-chunks. Electronicized civilization had spread so far across the globe, connecting people, that it was almost impossible for a baby to have a chance of being raised by animals these days. While most people knew about Romulus and Remus and Tarzan and Mowgli, it had been decades since the last instance of a genuine feral child had been in the news — none of the researchers could remember having ever heard the key phrase before. More, the popular legends didn’t have all the facts right….
“It seems that there are degrees of ‘feral-ness’, related to how old a youngster was before beginning to be raised by animals,” began Pierre, after the group re-assembled for another meeting. “The older the child before the animals took charge, the more exposure to language there had been, and the easier it is for those children to basically finish learning language, when they return from the wild, even if they spent years out there.”
Willessa added, “There really is a window of opportunity for learning language, but the cut-off point isn’t known precisely, partly because different people develop differently, and partly because it would be unethical to gather data by deliberately failing to provide young children with the mental stimulation they need in order to develop language. The estimated cut-off for someone like Mikhail, who apparently never had significant exposure, is somewhere around seven years — and he is eight.”
“The brains of the most-feral children don’t develop the same way as other children,” said Marigold. “It’s not like part of the brain atrophies; it is more like a portion of it never grows in the first place. That means we may still have a problem, because the APE brain has been modeled on ordinary humans that already know language.”
“Not necessarily,” responded JJ. “We’ve only provided the raw capacity. The connections between individual units of that capacity still need to form, equivalently to how they grow in human brains. Another way to look at it, a sort of overview, is to think of that growth as an ‘adaptation’, like if you grew up in the Andes Mountains, your lung capacity would be greater, and your red-blood-cell count higher, than if you grew up at sea-level. Most any young human has the potential to grow high-altitude adaptations, just like most have the potential for their brains to grow to process language. The APE brain can’t grow basic hardware, but it can do the equivalent of growing data-processing connections.”
“Have you ever heard about Koko the gorilla?” asked Clancy. “She was able to learn sign language about as well as a human toddler, so even gorillas have the potential — and she was raised much like a young human child. But she died of old age more than a decade ago, and was never famous like a movie star, so most folks don’t know anything about Koko. I happen to know because my grandparents were friends with one of the researchers who worked with her.”
“But what does that have to do with the APE brain?” asked Pierre. “Are you thinking that experiments could be done with gorilla babies, to find out how much mental stimulation it takes to learn language?”
“No, I’m thinking of something more generic. The ability to handle language is necessarily tied to the ability to manipulate abstract symbols in a creative way. That latter ability is fundamental to all sorts of artistry, and is one of the key things that distinguishes persons from clever animals. When we look at the archaeological/paleontological record, we find that evidence of human artistry only goes back 50 to 70 thousand years, while anatomically modern humans have existed for perhaps 200 thousand years –and non-artistic implements, tools, have existed for more than 2 million years. The evidence that Koko could learn language, even if it was only at toddler level, implies that hominins with as much or more brainpower than gorillas have had that potential for a long long time, but it never got actualized until comparatively recently.”
“You’re saying that even humans didn’t qualify as people until 60-odd thousand years ago!” exclaimed JJ. “We were just a bunch of clever animals before then!”
“Well, actually, my grandparents told me years ago,” replied Clancy. But now that I know about feral children, in addition to knowing about Koko, it makes logical sense. At one time every human was raised by clever animals — their parents. They all were feral!”
“So, what happened 60-odd thousand years ago?” asked Marigold. “Were we visited by aliens and Uplifted?” She was referring to a popular series of science fiction movies based on the classic novels of David Brin.
“No, that sort of Uplift involves genetic engineering”, stated Pierre. “We already had the biological potential, Nature over Nurture. All we needed was to learn language, Nurture over Nature, just like we want the APE brain to learn language. But we might have been able to bootstrap ourselves, because we were clever animals that kept inventing new or better tools, and discovering things like medicinal herbs. The total amount of stuff for each generation to learn kept accumulating, and they might have had to invent words, if not language, to identify and reference all those different things.”
JJ enthused, “So the process started out slow, more than 2 million years ago, but the mental stimulation being given to youngsters reached a kind of ‘critical mass’ 60-odd thousand years ago, and that’s when we became people! Cool!”
“But how do we apply this to the APE brain?” asked Marigold.
“I think I know!” exclaimed Willessa. “We’ve been cutting it too much slack! That is, we haven’t really been cramming information into it faster than it can handle the data — but that is basically what happens with every human infant. That physical adaptation stuff JJ mentioned a while ago is the result of the brain’s effort to keep up with the flood of arriving information. We need to set things up so that the APE brain is forced to find ways to process the data — we shouldn’t coddle it — and the first thing we need to do is reduce its clock speed.”
“What? Why?”, asked Clancy.
“I did a little calculating a few minutes ago. We know that humans have maybe a 7-year window of opportunity for learning language, and we know the APE brain is a million times faster. Well, one millionth of 7 years is less than 4 minutes, and for 8 years it is…” she started giggling, “4.2 minutes –I’ll explain the humor later. Anyway, the APE brain basically creates sub-optimal data-processing pathways in that time, and is sort-of ‘set in its ways’ after that, its mind no better than a clever animal. All because we didn’t cram data into it fast enough, during the window of opportunity!”
“Well, as long as we can speed up the brain’s clock again afterward, OK. How long do you need to modify the relevant genetic-algorithm goals?”
“I think we will be able to start an hour or two after lunch.”
At the end of the day there was a minor argument about a completely different subject.
Clancy: “It would be unprofessional!”
Pierre: “It would be undignified!”
Marigold: “It would be childish!”
Willessa: “You wouldn’t dare!”
JJ: “It will be oh-so-emotionally-satisfying!” He opened the door to the outside of the building, and lifted the bullhorn. “Today we are pleased to announce the electronic birth of a mind named ‘Art’, that the Artificial Person Experiment has achieved complete success. Because we were right and you were wrong! Nyaaah! Nyaaah! Nyaaah!”