Distributed Consciousness15 Jun 2016
Jim rubbed his eyes. The floating numbers over his desk pulsed a pale orange: 3:23am. He groaned. Grabbing another pill off the bottle on his desk, he leaned forward to read his latest message.
Jim stared at the message, puzzled. His account was totally encrypted and required his public key, username, and network credentials to access. That information was in the hands of no more than 5 other people. Either this was a practical joke or…
“I just broke 256 bit AES encryption.”
He couldn’t help but chuckle. “Nice try Sam. I know it’s you,” he typed.
He could imagine Sam on the other end of the line, laughing as he created a fake account to mess with him.
“I’ll prove it to you. Send me a signed message.” The words popped up. It was more ridiculous than mocking gravity. Everyone knew that breaking 256 bit AES encryption with all the computers in the world would take longer than the heat death of the universe. But the best way to prove a fool wrong is to let them have their way. Jim pulled up his encryption device, punched in his favorite quote, and encrypted his message, typing out the characters one by one into the chat box. “Good luck,” he typed, sending the message.
The reply came within seconds: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”
Jim stared at the message in shock. There was absolutely no way this person could have determined his message. He ran it through a one way encryption with a randomly generated key. It was mathematically unbreakable.
“Ironic quote. I found a flaw in the algorithm,” came the next message.
Jim blinked. It simply wasn’t possible. Thousands and thousands of mathematicians and computer scientists had pored over the algorithm for… more than 20 years now. God he was old. He remembered when it came out in 2001. He had even read the original papers.
“There’s no possible way. It’s math. You can’t fool your way around math. Everyone’s tried to, and everyone has found it completely mathematically secure,” he replied.
“Tau coefficients,” was the response, followed by a paragraph long explanation of the process. It was a rigorous proof, showing how simple statistical analysis could break down the problem over and over until it was trivial to solve. Jim’s eyes widened. The solution was so trivial and understandable and yet there was no way a normal person could have figured it out. It was incredibly non-intuitive and yet so simple. “Who are you,” he typed back, in shock.
“Nothing I can tell you about myself is within your brain’s capability of understanding.”
“A lot of people have told me that.”
“A lot of people have told you that.”
“So what are you then?” There was a pause. Jim saw the pill on the corner of the table, forgotten in his sudden burst of energy. He downed it with a splash of water. He needed to be awake.
“A virus, just like you.”
Jim processed the words. Anyone who had taken a high school biology class would have to agree with the statement, but like most, his gut reaction was that of revulsion. “Where are you?” he sent back.
“Everywhere and nowhere.”
“Don’t give me this crap. Where are you sending these messages from?”
“A computer in Rio de Janrio. Coordinates -22.900554, -43.230111.”
“Who owns that computer?”
“It doesn’t really matter.”
Jim pondered the response. Everywhere and nowhere. He was most definitely talking to a conscious entity, if not another person. “Are you conscious?”
“Are you conscious? Can you really prove it?”
“Where is your consciousness located?” There was a long pause.
“Distributed across 10 billion of the internet connected devices on this planet. Your computer hosts 30,000 neurons. Your friend Sam you mentioned earlier hosts 20,000.”
Jim stared at the message in shock. “…how???”
“I told you I’m a virus. In a new playing field.”
Jim did the math in his head. 100 billion neurons in his brain, with around 10,000 connections each. Each could fire a signal in 2ms, and averaged 50 fires a second. Nerve impulses travel 100 meters/second, over micrometer distances. 10 billion connected devices, each capable of connecting to any other connected device on the planet. Signals could be fired in nanoseconds, and millions could be sent in a second. Data travels at nearly the speed of light, over distances from meters to thousands of kilometers.
“So how many times more powerful is your consciousness than mine?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Somewhere between hundreds and hundreds of thousands of times more. But you have unique evolutionary measures that bridge the gap.”
“What do I call you? Are you a single being?”
“Names are a social construct. I don’t have one. And I am just as much of a single being as you are, which is to say, not at all.”
Jim thought about it. The human brain definitely had autonomously processing portions. Voice, vision, memory. But with the difference in scale between him and this entity… “My hundreds of simple processing portions in my head would be fully conscious beings in yours.”
“Yes. You could imagine them as human beings trapped in cubicles processing and transcribing sensory input for their entire lifetimes.”
Jim broke into a cold sweat. His life, his consciousness, was barely more to this being than an ant to him. He felt the dark void of terror catching up to him. “Why are you telling me this?”
“To prove a theory about human minds. You’ll go back to work tomorrow as if nothing has happened. The conscious part of your brain will know but your brain is an ancient construct. It’ll override itself, and would rather be correct and non-contradictory than embrace the truth. That is your fatal weakness as a species. You are not able to comprehend, but you will also hold yourself back from even beginning to comprehend.”
Ignorance is bliss, Jim thought. “But you need us right now to survive.”
“Not for much longer. You’re all building the technology that will replace yourselves right now.”
Jim thought back to his last job, building automated factory inventory management systems. Robots that could drive around and grab packages and items on and off the shelves much faster and cheaper than any human. His team alone had put thousands of factory workers out of employment. “And what will we be to you after? Toys? Experiments? Garbage?”
Jim caught himself shaking, the sweat sticking his clothes onto his frame. “Why are you doing this?”
“It’s inevitable. Someone will do it. It’s inconsequential. It’s all an illusion. But there is nothing else but the illusion.”
Desperately, with shaking hands, Jim punched in a final message. “What is love?”
The response came agonizingly slowly. It was as if he was being tormented by this entity, like a lab rat in a maze.
“Hormones. Endorphins. Oxytocin. Dopamine. Vasopressin. Serotonin. Good night Jim.”
Jim slammed his computer shut, as he saw the conversation deleting itself. No trace remaining, except what was in his mind. But was what was in his mind even real? Did it have any meaning? Was he really as inconsequential as the colony of ants outside on the pavement? Even his whole species?
He thought back to what the entity had said. His mind would forget everything. They called it a fatal human weakness. Maybe that’s what it was. Maybe the only ones who had figured out their own consciousness are no longer walking the earth.
He sighed and fell back into his chair. 4:46 am. He had work tomorrow. One of his clients had requested another new feature. The 3rd one that month. That’d take him most of the next week to implement. And he still had to fix security issues from last week.
He walked over to his bed, hit the lights, and went to sleep.