The Experience Machine
Each a dream. Each a dream. Each a dream.
So if our technology were to succeed completely, and everything were to be under our control, we should eventually say, "We need a new button."-- Alan Watts
His first memory was waking up in the bedroom of his childhood home and looking out the window. A black bird hopped across the fresh snow that gathered on the roof, leaving a perfect set of tracks. Fossilized in time. The smoke and steam poured out of chimneys and smokestacks of the working class town on a early winter morning.
He had no idea why the memory popped into his brain that morning as his driverless taxi dropped him off at the university medical facility. He was responding to a text message seeking subjects to take part in a brain experiment. The message said something about a quantum computer and qbots. Or qubits. Whatever they were. He was a Philosophy major and that sounded a lot like physics. And physics meant math.
Nearly broke and badly in need of some money for tuition and rent, he said he was interested. Nothing tests philosophy and nothing inspires mathematics quite like poverty.
Two medical students took him from the waiting area into the examination room. They informed him, matter-of-factly, that they would inject him with robots tinier than a molecule and that these machines would make their way to his brain and records his thoughts and feelings. These quantumbots -- or qbots -- were the latest technological breakthrough. Completely safe, they could only sense and perform quantum computations, as well as feed that information back into a quantum cloud computer that the university just invested in, thanks to some big shot tech billionaire philanthropist.
A quick injection. A sharp pinch that lasted a second. And that was it.
He went home and dreamed.
The next week he showed for the follow-up.
The same medical students were there waiting for him. A hologram of a brain swirled around their desk. After a bit of small talk about how he felt and whether he remembered his dreams -- bits and pieces he told them -- they began to display his dreams. The weird ones. The sexy ones. The ones about school. The ones about the past. The black bird hopping along the snowy roof.
Then, they asked him to complete a form if he wished to proceed to the next phase of the experiment. This one, they explained, would not just record his dreams but would try to input symbols into his dreams.
He said OK and signed. Another month’s rent, he thought as he pressed his thumb into the biometric reader and heard the piercing beep that his identity had been registered.
Night after night he dreamed. When he woke up, he wrote down his dreams in a diary just as directed. The next week, he met the team again and they wildly cheered and slapped high fives as they saw references to similar symbols in his diary notes.
They explained that in the next phase of the study they wouldn't be just teaching him to dream, he would be teaching the AI in the quantum computer to dream, too. His dreams and the dreams of the quantum computer could be one. That was their theory. The computer could mine the themes of his subconscious and, theoretically, it would create and optimize dreams for him. It could separate the fearful, negative ones and give him only the blissful, positive ones. Best of all, he would be in a lucid state of consciousness throughout. Lucid dreams, they explained, feel like real life. And he wouldn't be controlled by the dreams, he would control his dreams.
Was he interested in helping them find out for sure, they asked.
It sounded freaky.
The students told him that the data they would collect from his dreams would be used to further neurological science. It could help people who suffered brain trauma regain former abilities and lead to treatments for brain diseases, too.
But he knew better than to accept all of this high minded horseshit. Imagine if you could jump inside a person's brain and figure out what really turns them on, he thought. What is the thing that would make them buy? What would they sign up for or agree to? What would make them vote for a cause or candidate? The possibilities were endless for a marketer. Dreams, he thought, the most immersive billboard of them all.
The students did not take his hesitation as a sign that they lost the battle. They pressed him.
“Put it this way,” one med student finally confessed. “What if you could spend a third of your life in a place where your every need is met, your fantasies come true, your desires fulfilled, your slightest whims manifested immediately, and you could call up entire realities as easily as you call up a thought of tomorrow’s exam or a memory of what you had for breakfast?”
The computer program -- properly trained now -- is that powerful.
He relented. “That doesn't seem to bad,” but added, adroitly, “What about the stipend?” He was a real business tycoon.
When he heard he would get three times the amount that he was paid for taking part in the two previous experiments -- combined -- he quickly agreed.
That night he dreamed like he never dreamed in his life. Before, he could barely remember a dream -- one that wasn’t fragmented and filled with silly juxtapositions. How could his adult uncle sit next to him in high school chemistry class? That was one dream shard he recalled. Or, his dog, long past, talking -- just like Jimmy Fallon? What was up with that?
Now, everything was vivid, electric, and shimmering. The dreams were more -- how could he describe it? -- alive. And yet. And yet. He was never more in control of his dreams. It seemed like just a hint of desire could bubble up from the void of his subconscious and into a complete simulation of exactly what he wanted. Sights. Sounds. Smells. Tastes. Touch. Oh, touch.
He thought of Tanya Waylon, his high school crush, who broke his heart two weeks before the junior prom. And, instantly, there she was, wearing that white turtleneck sweater and tight blue jeans. Except this time, she was completely in love with him. They kissed. He moved his hand down her arms, her soft skin, to her waist. Exploring. It was all real.
“Are you for real?” he whispered.
She smiled and closed her eyes.
The computer wasn't just reading his mind, it was reading his heart. Maybe his soul.
In this dream, in a single night, he experienced every perfect thing with Tanya -- they made love -- a lot -- they traveled the world, they married, had children. A single lifetime in a single night.
And he knew more was possible.
The next night, he dreamed he went back in time. He was a knight, serving his King, just as he wanted to do since he saw a museum display of a suit of armor as a kid and began a quest to read everything about knights and watch every movie and television series. The battle was magnificent. He and his fellow knights filled the length of a ridge of lush blue-green grass overlooking a valley, wild clouds of white swirled in the sky overhead. A deafening roar of hoof beats echoed up and down the valley. He could smell the sweat of the horses and felt the surge of adrenaline as the two dust cloud-kicking armies neared. The computer rendered everything perfect. The weight of the sword caused him no doubt, the lack of any training did not make his confidence waver. He swung his sword like a master. His enemies fell before him.
Not a scratch on him.
At the end of the battle, he won the hand of the King’s daughter.
His waking life, he started to realize, was becoming more like a dream, too. The time he saw a young child break the grasp of his mother’s hand and step into the road. How the world seemed to slow down to a lava-like stream of slow motion events and when he saw the Mega Bus bearing down on the child he felt like he had an infinite amount of time to leap forward, pick up the girl, and place her back next to his mother, safely and securely. The entire crowd huddled on the curb clapped and patted him on the back.
Or, the time he was in the pub after lectures and just wished that the pretty blonde would talk to him. And she did. And they went back to her place.
And how he sat in front of his exams and closed his eyes and the answers flowed to him unimpeded from some deep part of his being. Was he cheating, or enlightened? He hardly cared.
Maybe that was all there was to it. Maybe life was one big commercial for God? The idea made him smile, as he clicked off the lights and began to dream.
And what dreams they were. His dreams became even more elaborate and more vivid. Each night, he experimented with new dream themes -- or, maybe, the computer was leading him to these experiments. He would re-visit dreams, or subtly change them. He explored entirely new and weird planets and universes and realities. Then, he found he could access time-and-space warping new dimensions. Everything was not just possible, but probable.
One night he dreamed simultaneously lifelines. He was every character he met in the dream. The next night, more.
The next morning, he woke from a particularly powerful dream, he stared at his dorm room, which became even smaller and even more squalid and lame compared to the simplest of living spaces in his quantum dreams. He stared at the pale blue wall as his roommate snored the morning away.
But the thought -- invoked by the wisdom of previous dreams -- haunted him: what if this, too, were a dream? This life that he clung to, that he strove for, that he worried and hoped for? What if this was just a platform to explore? A safe space? A relative environment by which all other realities can be known?
Maybe that was the secret. Maybe all beings across the multiverse live lives to add to this infinite computer database so that he could sample it. Maybe his life was lived so that he could collect experiences and share them with all the other beings in this infinite experience machine.
Each a dream. Each a dream. Each a dream.
The thought made him laugh. How silly his stress and tension for the most minor occurrences seemed now.
The notion made his head spin. He smiled. He closed his eyes.
A child woke up in the winter warmth of his bedroom and looked out the window. A black bird hopped across the fresh snow that gathered on the roof, leaving a perfect set of tracks. Fossilized in time. The smoke and steam poured out of chimneys and smokestacks of the working class town on a early winter morning.