The Problem with Immortality
I Was Going to Live Forever
I breathed. I blinked, opening my eyes wide. I started to rub them out of habit, but they didn’t itch. Cyborg eyes didn’t itch. They registered irritation. I noticed it without it feeling unpleasant. I laughed.
“How do you feel?” Dr. Andrews asked. “Are you all right?”
“Fine. I’m not tired. You know how when you wake up, you want to hit the snooze bar and sleep for five more minutes?” I shrugged. “Wide awake.”
Dr. Andrews made a note on his tablet. “We may want to adjust that.”
A nurse offered me her hand. Gingerly, I tried to stand up. I clasped her hand but not too tightly. Andrews laughed now. “You’d have to try really hard to hurt her. The system is aligned to your old body. You’re no stronger and no weaker than you were before.”
I smiled. I felt myself smile! “Can I get stronger?”
“Well, no. Your muscles are what they are. You can make yourself stronger if you get new motors in your joints. To make them bigger you’ll need to an overhaul, to replace the muscles.”
“All right, never mind.” I was standing.
“Tell me your name.”
I read it more than I remembered it. “John Patrick Walker.”
“Where are you from?”
“I was born in Philadelphia.” I blinked. “It’s all there. It’s clearer than before. I could tell you where I was born, where I grew up, and everywhere I lived after that, down to the street addresses and zip codes. I forgot about that time I slept on my friend Steve’s floor.”
“Please don’t get distracted. Every word you say is making history.”
“What are you worried about? I’m recording it all.”
Andrews looked at his assistant. “Memories aren’t supposed to be perfect. We want to work on that.”
I took his assistant and spun her in a circle, my favorite waltz move. She shrieked.
“Come on! This is fun!”
“I haven’t walked in three years. I haven’t danced in eight. Give me a break!”
His assistant looked beside her herself. She was trying to hold on to her note pad with one hand while I tried to dance with it. She couldn’t pay attention while I kept moving her from side to side.
Andrews grabbed another assistant. “Get coordination. Motor function. Until he lets go of Dr. isaacs you need to fill in!”
“Mr. Walker, I’m trying to work,” Dr. Isaacs said.
“Fine.” I let her go and grabbed Andrews. “Come on, doc, let’s cut a rug.”
Andrews wriggled free. “Nonsense!”
I stumbled back. The cyborg body didn’t react quite as quickly as my body did. I almost fell. I felt more dizzy. The gyroscope or inner ear or whatever it used to keep my balance overcompensated left, then right, then got its act together. I felt motors whizzing all over my body to lift me back up. I wasn’t Fred Astaire, yet. But I was going to live forever.
We ran through system checks and stress tests. Then there were controlled interviews with the media. Very few questions, and they had been screened. I only talked to one reporter at a time to keep the stress level to a minimum. My emotional processors stayed in the green the whole time.
The last meeting of the day was with my family. My wife died a few years ago, and I didn’t have any close relatives other than my sister Emmy and her family. They were waiting outside. Doctors Andrews and Isaacs stood by nervously and checked readings. Intimacy carried a whole new set of issues besides being clumsy. I insisted that the media stay outside, in case I made a fool of myself.
I took a breath. It didn’t help my stress; there was no vagus nerve to stimulate. The programming got the idea and my perceived stress level did start to come down. Weird. “Okay. Let’s go,” I said.
Emmy and everyone came in. I smiled and waved. “Hey guys.” I missed having my heart pound nervously. Emmy and Dave almost came to a stop. The kids stayed close. They looked like they were on good behavior practice. I waved them closer. “Come on in. I’m not some kind of super-robot. They made me just as strong as I used to be.”
“Johnny?” Emmy asked.
“Uncle John?” little Maddie asked.
“Hey there, sugarplum.” Memories came back. Real memories. . The first time I held her. Her second birthday. When I saw her last year, after her second grade graduation. They were like ticking through files, flipping a stack of pictures, rather than the usual cloud of memories you get with a human brain.
Emmy came over and hugged me. I hugged her back, gently. The motors were responding better. Over her shoulder, I saw Dr. Andrews give me a subtle thumbs-up. Maddie and Dave came over and we had a group hug. It would make the cover of every newspaper and magazine in the world.
It didn’t feel as good as a regular hug. The synthetic skin didn’t have the nerve endings in the right places.
“Uncle John?” Maddie asked.
I crouched in front of her. Awesome. “Yes?”
“You look like a robot.”
Emmy covered her mouth. Dave said, “Honey, we talked about this…”
I froze for a second. Literally. System subprocess enabled. I said, “We’re all machines, kiddo. I was an organic machine, and now I’m in here.”
“You’re making funny noises.”
I hiccupped again. I was angry, sad and happy to be there all at the same time, and my brain was having trouble with the mixed feelings. I hoped it looked like I was just collecting my thoughts.
Subprocess enabled. I could move again. “Those are tiny motors in my muscles.”
“Are you happy?” Maddie asked.
“Not yet I’m not,” came out of my mouth.
“What?” Emmy cried.
I shook my head roughly. “It’s all right. Sorry. I’m just happy to be alive, to see all of you.” Later, Andrews would explain that the processor wasn’t used to lying just yet.
I didn’t sleep. We didn’t know how to program sleep, let alone dreams. I hoped that the mind would create the chaos of dreaming on its own, but random thoughts in a computer just look like static. The best we could do was recreate those hypnotic hazes that you get in a screen saver. They were lovely to look at. In the end I got bored and went back to work.
Dr. Andrews went home. Dr. Isaacs, as the second on the ladder, naturally wound up pulling the night shift. She was there when I blurted the word, “Viagra.”
Isaacs looked up. “What did you say?”
“Did you know you can buy Viagra for half retail?”
“Mr. Walker, is this another joke?”
“I can lose weight without dieting too.”
Heads turned around the room. I didn’t know what was happening. The words just came out of my mouth without conscious thought. It was like someone reached their hand inside my neck and worked my mouth like a ventriloquist dummy.
“I want to make $20,000 a year surfing the internet.”
“Oh my God, no.”
I gripped the sides of my head and banged it against my desk. I focused every thought that I could on what I had to say. Peripheral messaging disabled. Override primary data stream. “Jesus Christ, I’ve been hacked!”
“Mr. Walker, stop it! Your skull is stronger than bone but your brain’s one of a kind. I would take weeks to repair.”
I bit down as hard as I could on my finger. The pain alarm – it didn’t actually hurt – overrode my conscious thoughts, so that I could say, “You need to knock me out. Minimal program rate. I can feel it spreading.” Now I was thinking of gambling, coupons, travel deals, and…
Oh dear God. Political ads. I was screaming as they hit the knockout switch.
Reboot. Primary functions enabled. I woke up again. Well, returned to reality, anyway. My internal clock told me it was two days later.
The entire Project Immortal team sat around the room. Some of them looked like they hadn’t gotten much sleep. “Welcome back, Dr. Isaacs said. Dr. Andrews just smiled.
“Is it over?” I asked.
Dr. Isaacs answered, “Yes. We cleaned out every trace of corrupted code. Unlike a regular computer, we couldn’t just do a core dump and start over. Not without memory loss.”
“It must have come in through the wireless antenna in my spine,” I said. “I hadn’t even tried to access the internet yet.”
“We’re still sorting out what happened. In the meantime, the antenna is disconnected,” Andrews said.
I chuckled. That had been my only “super power.” Now I was only human.
The North Side of Happy
Months later, I was out for a walk with Emmy on the grounds at the program. I still hadn’t gone back into the outside world yet. I was still only one of a kind, so I was a curiosity. Being hounded by reporters wasn’t as much fun as I thought it would be. Emmy was one of a handful of visitors they let come in.
“Can I ask you something?” Emmy asked.
“Has any of it been worth it?”
I sighed. I had to admit, the emotional emulators were getting better. “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I worry sometimes that I’m not really thinking. That I’m running what someone else thinks I should be thinking. The firmware and the software are taking their best guess at what I would’ve thought.” I couldn’t shudder. I couldn’t do it physically, let alone emotionally, yet. “Sometimes I feel like I’m an imitation of who John Patrick Walker would’ve been. If he’d gotten a new body.”
“You don’t sound too sad about it.”
“I’m programmed for self-preservation. We all are.”
“Are you happy?”
“Yup.” I snorted. I hated how simple that answer was. “I used to have gray areas. Now I literally have a happiness variable inside my head. It runs through all the different factors that normally would have created mixed feelings, and it comes out with an answer. I’m 53.44% happy. Program result is gray.”
“Just on the north side of the happy meter.”
We walked for a while. Birds chirped in the trees. I saw Dr. Isaacs sparing time for a smoke on the other side of the gardens. I was with my favorite person in the world, in a place that was peaceful and beautiful, that was safely tucked away from the press, rabble and prying eyes. It was a beautiful, pleasant cage. I was the newest endangered species.
“I appreciate the blue skies and green grass every day. I live for our walks. I tried racquetball last week.”
“How did that go?”
“It was fun. They haven’t gotten adrenaline right and there’s no sweat or exhaustion. I had a great time, though.”
“It’s probably the only action you’ve had since…”
“Since my transplant?”
“That’s a good way to say it.”
“Y’know, it’s funny. I used to love things that were in order. Fine classical music. I hated messes. Now I live for them. Everything inside me is in order. Everything is orderly. Things have to be orderly inside a computer, otherwise you get system faults.”
“How’s the work on the sex program?”
“I have the parts in case they figure out a way, but let’s be real. They had a hard time getting my muscles to work right. Can you imagine trying to get a boner to work like it should?”
“Forget like it should. Hard-on: activate!”
I laughed. Laughing was my favorite program. It always sounded the same, though. I was working on that.
“Of course a hacker would have a field day with that one. I’d be getting boners in front of the Queen of England.”
“Is she scheduled to visit?”
“Next week.” I’d already seen two other heads of state, and the Dalai Lama.
50% happy held pretty steady through the end of the first year. Trying to be human made me feel sadder. I kept running into the ways that I wasn’t. Spontaneity. Vices. Chaos. Flaws. Change. My body was the product of the best efforts of 300 engineers and scientists, the best value bidder we’d selected, standing on the shoulders of two hundred years of research. A human body was built by eight million years of natural selection, and that was if you only went as far back as the apes. Naturally, there were things we’d missed.
I was happiest in my work. Tweaking the programs and making them run better made me feel better. It felt good to add shades of feeling that we had missed the first time around. I read case studies on people with brain injuries who had lost touch certain emotions, to understand psychologically what had happened to me. Unlike a human, understanding didn’t bring comfort. Information came in. Information was processed. There was no learning curve, no ache of discovery. I knew something or I didn’t. I wrote a new program so that I would feel the pleasure of discovery.
A year to the day after my transplant, I made the decision to let go.
When I told Emmy, her chin trembled. I rubbed her back to comfort her. Most people had to fight not to recoil from my mechanical touch. Emmy was used to it. “Are you sure?” she asked.
“Yeah. It’s been a good experiment, but I don’t want to live like this. It isn’t living.”
“You… um… overrode the self-preservation programming.”
“I have administrative privileges.”
“Jesus Christ,” Emmy choked.
I hugged her. “And that is exactly what I’m doing it. I miss that. I miss the tears and the rages and all the weird stuff. I miss bad habits like Dr. Isaacs’ smoking. Someone had a cold last week. I wanted to sit next to them and write an infection simulation.”
“You think you’ll find that in heaven?”
“Yeah. That’s one thing I figured out. Machines don’t have heavens. People do.”
“I get that.”
“Will you help me?”
She nodded. “What do you need me to do?”
I handed her a note. “Read this to me. It’s a code. It’ll launch a program that wipes my hard drive.”
“Why don’t you let Andrews and Isaacs do that?”
“I don’t trust them. I think some of them want to make copies of my brain to run experiments.”
Emmy grimaced. “You think they would?”
“Fine, fine. I don’t want to hear any more. I’ll do it.”
“Okay.” Normally I would have taken a nervous breath. “Read it. Goodbye, Em.”
“Love you, Johnny.” Emmy unfolded the note. “’Remember me and smile, for it’s better to forget than remember me and cry.’” She looked up. “Doctor Seuss,” she said.
The cyborg moved from Johnny’s standing posture to a default, standing-straight posture. The motors whined to a halt. Its eyelids shut. Its mouth closed. The cooling system shut down last, and the breath left its body.