Good Bye Mr MunshiProfessor David Munshi struggled to fit the last of his many framed diplomas into the cardboard box which had kindly been provided by his former employer, Dartmouth College. He pushed aside his Newton’s cradle, a gift he had received many years ago from some organization he’d forgotten the name of, to fit in the oversized frame. He sighed out of frustration, wondering why he even wanted to keep them. Why would an old man need a framed piece of paper telling him what field he was once relevant in? He tried to imagine himself looking at it in a year or two. Would he feel pride, perhaps confidence, by being reminded of his lifelong occupation? Or would he grieve for it? It was too early to decide, he thought. He would need to keep the damn thing. He would need to keep it all for a while, at least until he grounded himself in his new life as a retiree.
Munshi sat back in his old chair and looked around the room. The shelves were empty. He had been taking home a couple of books every night to avoid needing to carry them all in one go. The computer, he’d be happy to leave behind. It was one of those highly secured ones that was constantly being monitored and backed up. David didn’t like it at all. “Let me finish my thoughts before you read them,” he would say to anyone who would listen. To most people it was second nature and they would dismiss it as the words of an old man fighting back against his own age.
The one thing David would miss about his office was the view. From his window he would watch campus life unfold. He enjoyed watching the students go from blind innocence to adults – or at least something like it.
There was knock at the door. It was one of the janitors, Clay. “Do you need any help with your things, Dr. Munshi?”
“Thank you, Mr. Clay.” David nodded towards the cardboard box on his table with the framed diplomas only halfway inside.
“We could send it to your house, if you want.”
“That’s all right, it’s just the one box.”
Clay picked up the box, and they both left the office. They moved through the corridors in silence, out through the main door and across the yard towards the parking lot. Clay carefully packed the cardboard box into the trunk of the car; then he cleared his throat. “You could still get one, you know. It usually takes a while.”
David managed to look confused. He wasn’t at all, but he didn’t want to acknowledge what he knew was coming. “The Nobel prize,” said Clay. “It usually takes a while.”
There it was, the one reason he’d held off from retiring for so long. David was well into his seventies and he was only now letting go. “Of course. Thank you, Mr. Clay.”
Life goes faster when you are old. Time is measured against the years you’ve already spent in this world. When you have lived seventy years one extra year doesn’t seem that long. It’s just another lap around the sun, four seasons swiftly replacing each other. When you are young a year can seem like an eternity. Munshi could remember being a child hearing about some upcoming movie or video game. It’s coming out in six months? My god, how will I ever survive? Time is precious yet we so often want it go faster. We waste it hoping that life will somehow be better later on. However, Munshi couldn’t remember what it was like being really young, before one grasped the concept of time passing. Was I fully present then? Perhaps it was the only time in my life I wasn’t waiting for something to change. I simply was.
David realized he was lost in his own thoughts. How long had the young man from the newspapers been patiently waiting for his answer? David looked around his living room; the new furniture he had bought last year still looked dull. It was the lighting, wasn’t it?
“Do you want to take a break?” asked the young man on his couch. His name was Andrew Mackrell and he was trying his best to find a story among Munshi’s scattered thoughts.
“No, let’s continue. You were asking about Simon Jarrett.”
“You mentioned that bringing him back to life led to the development of artificial intuition – that he was your motivation to basically change the world of robotics. Could you elaborate?”
David sighed as he recognized the quotation. It was from an interview made over thirty years ago. Those words had hounded him through every interview since.
“Look, it’s a good story. It was almost turned into a movie at one point. But the truth is that Simon was simply the first person that made me truly consider what a neurograph was. We were making these scans, not really thinking about what it was...”
“With your partner, Dr. Berg?”
“Yes, Paul and I thought of it like information, which it technically is, but the wording does it disservice. It’s like saying humans are just machines or matter is simply waves. Reducing a concept, a holistic entity like that fails to acknowledge the complex mechanisms that enables it to exist in the context of human perception.”
Mr. Mackrell had stopped taking notes with his small digital pad. David had lost him somewhere along the way.
“What is your expertise, Mr. Mackrell?”
“Your particular strand of journalism. Do you often write about artificial intelligence?”
“I write human interest stories.”
“You mean those stories about people saving cats or running a soup kitchen?”
“We can’t all be writing about science, Dr. Munshi. I’m not here to write about your work, I’m here to write about you. I want to know what makes you tick, what made you devote your life to robotics.”
David felt his pride fall away. Mr. Mackrell didn’t understand who he was neither did he have any preconceived notions of what his supposed narrative was. He was looking for it using old quotations uttered decades ago. Maybe this was his opportunity to set it straight.
“Curiosity, Mr. Mackrell. Just like any other scientist. I’m not the angst-filled doctor desperately looking for a way to bring back his long lost friend that many seems to think I am. It’s true that Simon was my first test subject. He died. And it was sad, but not life changing. The work Paul and I did in Toronto was extensive and there were many steps between the first neurograph and the development of artificial intuition.”
Mr. Mackrell was thrown. He went back to his notes. “So, your work has been constant? No surprises.”
“No surprises.” David sounded confident.
“What about the death of your partner, Dr. Berg?”
“I don’t want to talk about Paul.” David was surprised how loud he sounded. Was he offended or just frustrated?
“You were life-long-” began Mr. Mackrell.
“Work has been constant. Life hasn’t.”
David felt out of place, uncomfortable, simply by being himself. He looked around the room, his own living room, he couldn’t come to terms with his own choice of furniture. He couldn’t understand why he would accept to do this interview. Who was this David who thought this was a good idea, who was this person who thought leaving his job would make him happy?
“Would you bring back Paul if you could?”
“What?” David sounded baffled.
“You were saying that your work wasn’t fueled by the need to bring back Simon Jarrett, I was thinking maybe you had such thoughts about Paul?”
David wasn’t angry. He was perplexed by Mr. Mackrell’s rambling thoughts and how they were able to trigger a torrent of memories and unresolved feelings – but still be so utterly stupid.
“You can’t bring back the dead.”
“I know that,” tried Mr. Mackrell, “I was thinking of putting his brain scan into a computer or a robot. Wouldn’t something like that be possible – in theory?”
“In it’s truest sense? No. There is no way to build a human, for we are a process, a continuation within the greater context of a living world. You are not just your mind, but your body and the experiences of the two, in a certain time, in a certain place. Could we make a machine think it’s Simon, or Paul? Perhaps. But it wouldn’t be them.”
Mackrell thumbed through his notes, peering at the wording, looking concerned. “I’m confused, the post-humanist proponents seems confident that this is where we are headed. That we would replace our organic bodies with circuitry.”
“There are many people in this world who fool themselves with promises which can’t be fulfilled.”
Mackrell was clearly struggling.
David sighed. “If you somehow were able to activate a neuroscan in a way that it would continue to project the subject’s subjective experience and feed it back we could possibly sustain an intelligence that thinks it is Simon or whoever. The problem is that the mind is simply not the whole human. Think what would happen when he realizes that he no longer has the body that he identifies with and that he is in a place or a time that doesn’t fit with his continuing timeline. If he didn’t go mad on the spot, he would simply have to surrender to the fact that he is something completely new. He wouldn’t be human, he would be a new entity thinking he was Simon.”
Mackrell looked out of sorts; no doubt trying to concoct some sort of story he could hand over to his editor. It looked like he was failing. “Is there something like good enough?”
“In terms of being human?”
Munshi was surprised to find himself at a loss. He wanted to confidently argue that being a little bit human was like being a little bit pregnant. It just didn’t work.
“What if Simon or Paul, stuck in a robot shell, claimed to be happy. Would that mean nothing?”
Munshi sat quiet for a while. Rare memories of Paul expressing joy rushed through him. Mackrell continued to fumble with his uneducated thoughts:
“I realize he wouldn’t be strictly human, but if he said he was happy and you accepted him as a being. Sympathy doesn’t stop at our own species. I would say I love my wife very much. I don’t think a technicality such as not being human would ever stop me from caring, you know? It’s not just my wife being what she is, it’s what we have between us. Perhaps not everything worth preserving or transferring comes from within, but is constantly created and maintained in moments. If that was still a possibility, I don’t think it would matter to me what she was.”
Munshi smiled, surprised by the young mans emotional ranting, but he wasn’t convinced it added anything to his perspective. However, there was something new in the conversation. He started to enjoy it. He wanted to encourage the young man’s train of thought, but it was a sensitive example to explore. “And what if you had already seen your wife die? Would you accept a new version of her?”
“I… I think I would.”
“You don’t think it would be selfish to replace her? She wouldn’t be the real her.”
“In body she wouldn’t, but as long as her mind was sound, I think it wouldn’t be selfish. We would be happy. Even if it wasn’t her, it would be us. Does that make sense?”
Munshi smiled, holding back a laugh.
“Is that a childish way of looking at it?” asked Mackrell.
“No. Not at all. It just shows how complicated it all is.”
Mackrell sighed and scrolled through his notes again. He shook his head ruefully.
“Is there anything else, Mr. Mackrell?” asked Munshi.
“No. I think I might have just enough to make an article.”
“A short one, maybe?”
Mackrell laughed and nodded. They shook hands and Mackrell left.
Munshi paced around his house excited for a few minutes and then finally grabbed a pencil and a piece of paper from his printer. He started writing: Good Enough - The Limits of Being Human, by Dr. David Munshi
He looked at it on the page for a while, feeling the rush of excitement of going to work on something new. Then he remembered Paul Berg and that he was dead and that he himself was old, without a laboratory.
David let out a breath, then tossed the paper into the trash can.