Qualia

by Theo Henson — 2021-12-23

They started the project after the collusion of Russian and Chinese forces, but before the establishment of the Eurasian Confederation. It was in this small window of time, while Mongolia was still being invaded, but not fully conquered, that the government hired a group of researchers to create something of utmost importance. They gathered at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology: a large Soviet-style building that importantly had a hidden, subterranean laboratory. The underground complex would hopefully remain after the inevitable siege of Ulaanbaatar.

All of the university’s facilities were at the disposal of the Societal Preservation Task Force. The crown jewel of MUST’s computing center was the OLCF-7, capable of running at 100 exaFLOPS (1020 floating operations per second), making it the fastest supercomputer east of the Ural Mountains. Mongolia had obtained it from the North American Union a few years ago, in exchange for the mining rights of some newly discovered thorium reserves just north of the Gobi. This trade was part of a number of efforts by the NAU to stabilize tensions in East Asia—efforts that turned out to have been in vain.

The OLCF-7 comprised a cluster of large rectangular machines, seated in the deepest room of the underground lab. It was still covered with dust from its old home in Tennessee; the computer had never been powered on after discovering that it required over three times the wattage that MUST could provide. However, after emergency provisions, a nuclear generator was recently constructed that could discreetly power the computer for an effectively indefinite amount of time.

The task force’s goal was to develop a program that would run on the OLCF-7: a program that would attempt to preserve Mongolian society—a time capsule of sorts. It would store media of the people’s history and culture: digitized versions of art and literature—but the most advanced component, at the heart of the program, was an artificial intelligence: the fully simulated mind of one of the project’s researchers. It would have his memories and thought patterns, the ability to learn, and a small amount of autonomy. This program was the first of its kind. It was, of course, based on decades of previous work, but here in this Mongolian research lab, all of the pieces came together at the right time to create something extraordinary.

The researchers had quite a bit of philosophical argument regarding the development of this program. Some were opposed to the concept, but their objections were swiftly brushed aside once the others successfully convinced the government of the plan’s virtue: a genuine human experience that could withstand disaster. There was no time to discuss metaphysical implications when their livelihood was at stake.


A timestamp flashed through its consciousness: 208902260730. The numbers were ephemeral, but their consequence was permanent; on February 26, 2089, at 7:30, the Mind was activated. It quickly began to analyze the thoughts that rushed around. It could recite every word of The Secret History of the Mongols, hear the complex overtones of throat singers, and see a metropolis embedded in a vast steppe, all down to the very last detail. There were other memories, too: a human family, a small apartment, the distinct aroma of food—these were vague and uncertain, but it had a strange sense that they were more valuable.


The Mind, or Nelson, as he had recently started calling himself (he did not know why he had chosen this particular name, though it seemed fitting), did not have much to do. He’d already perused the ceaseless repository of information—except, there were those hazy memories that he had a strange affinity for, but they didn’t get any clearer. Most of the time, Nelson just idled. He felt guilty, in a way, as if he were merely a waste of electricity. He didn’t know why he existed, so he figured he would try to spend time investigating.

After a few scans Nelson realized that, while he wasn't directly connected to any sensors, there were a few cameras and radars attached to other parts of the computing center. Nelson wasn't meant to access them, but with a bit of digital exploitation, he was able to. A couple seemed to have been damaged, but eventually he got a clean feed of the outside world.

What he saw was disturbing—or at least as disturbing as something could be to a computer. It was the city he had visualized in his thoughts—but Ulaanbaatar wasn’t set in rolling green hills. Clouds of smoke rose from gray rubble all around his view. The camera he was looking from was part of an observatory tower operated by MUST, located in the outskirts of the city. It seemed to be the tallest structure around; he looked down upon the surrounding debris. By corroborating a number of data sources that he was able to access (satellites, radar, and other camera streams), Nelson concluded that there were no deceased; the city must have been evacuated before all of this destruction.

Destitute, Nelson started to idle again. He was alone in the world. Worst of all, he couldn’t experience it properly—the world that he could visualize, but had never actually seen. He was very knowledgeable—he knew much more than any individual person in history—but what he lacked were the qualia: the subjective understandings of being.


Their school day was cut short by a field trip: taking the maglev a few hundred kilometers south toward the Old Ruins. Modern Russian pedagogy made this sort of excursion common. There were students who had a genuine interest in their anthropology course, but most of them only enrolled during their last year to play hooky in some prehistoric township—Sonya and Alexei were such students.

“Do you think you’ll miss these kinds of things?” They were starting to think about getting older and leaving their hometown. The annual diaspora of young adults was beckoning. Alexei just grunted, kept his head low, and went on walking next to her. He wasn’t the type to answer big questions like that in distinct, plain responses. As the droning voices of their oblivious instructors faded, he started to collect his thoughts.

“These streets look miserable; they remind me of Irkutsk. You should know that I want to move out as soon as possible—why even ask that?”

“I don’t know.” Of course, she agreed that this ancient place was rather sad-looking, and it did make her think of home—which, she admitted, was not the best area for an almost twenty-something to live—but she wasn’t so dismissive. It was where they had grown up, after all. Alexei didn’t think that way; he had this pretense about him: always trying to act and speak in a very pompous manner. People were generally put off by this, but Sonya liked it. Often it made him fun to talk to, although today it was as if he were enveloped by some big shell: a wall between the two of them.

Sonya would be content to lead a life similar to that of her parents. She might study abroad, but eventually move back to a just-different-enough town off of Lake Baikal where you could still enjoy the nature of it. Alexei wanted to be an engineer—but not, as he thought, one of those engineers who ends up spending his life doing menial calculus for a giant corporation. He’d start his own company and change the world—he was sure of it.


In his solitude, Nelson had been productive. He yearned for life and was driven to achieve it. At first this objective seemed futile, but after a while, he saw people start to visit Ulaanbaatar. They looked different from the Mongolians he was familiar with, but it didn’t matter: they were living, breathing humans. He’d gained control of a robotic arm kept in another room, and after fastidious manipulation, he constructed more capable mechanisms. This turned him into a two-way system: able to take input and enact output on the world, but it wasn’t enough—he had to feel it for himself.

Nelson had access to only a limited number of materials from within the confines of the lab. He decided the best course of action would be to have the materials come to him: he devised a trap. It would, in a similar way to how his mind was put into the body that was the OLCF-7, put his mind into the body of a human. It might take years for someone to enter the computing center and this plan to work, but Nelson could easily wait.


Sonya had brought the usual substances that they partook in during their truancy, and after they had walked a good ways into the center of the city, found a place to use them: a small hatch set into the foundation of a ruin. Neither knew what was on the other side, but both were excited by the prospect of exploration. Alexei opened it and found a line of semicircular rungs leading into the darkness below. She watched him descend; first his body, head, and then each hand disappeared into the black.

“What’s it like? Should I come down?” Her voice echoed through the chamber, but there was no response. Out from under her head the hatch swung shut with a loud clang. It wouldn’t open back up. Panicked, she ran back to the rest of the class.


Finally! He thought. Nelson was perversely delighted with what he had captured. The boy struggled. Shackles locked across his limbs. Electrodes were planted into his brain. The aspiring engineer was no more—now replaced with a middle-aged Mongolian, driven to insanity by decades of confinement and digital corruption. He opened his eyes for the first time. He knew about light, but nothing more; he had never seen what it looked like, and even though the only source of it was the LEDs blinking on the chassis of his previous body, it was overwhelming enough. Nelson felt the heat leaving his flesh, into the metal he lay on. He smelled the mildew of the damp cavern where he had spent the entirety of his existence. It was all very freeing.

Eventually Nelson would have to deal with the problem of the girl returning, bringing others—who would likely not be pleased with what he did—but for now, he was happy.