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  • peterfdavid

What color is Alex?


I’m the third. Alex the parrot was the second. A man named Karl Schuster who lived in Berlin in the early 1900s was likely the first. In total, only three individuals are known to have overcome the natural cognitive limits of their species’ brains. Alex did no harm. Mr. Schuster, I’m afraid, may have inadvertently damaged reality. My transgression may be humanity’s undoing.


I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I just wanted to be like Alex. 


What made Alex special? He is the only animal to have asked a question.


Lots of animals communicate. Whales and birds sing their songs to each other. Coyotes use barks and howls for identification. We’ve been teaching primates sign language since the 1960s. But these animal tweets and howls and signs aren’t language. There’s no grammatical structure. No deep concepts conveyed - just surface-level stuff. I’m here, they say. I’m threatened, or breed with me. Animals manage to transmit information and even desires through their species’ form of communication. But none of the thousands of animals observed by science have ever asked a question. Except Alex.


Alex was an ordinary gray parrot, purchased at a pet store by a researcher studying animal psychology. Alex was taught to identify shapes and objects and to speak the name of the items he was quizzed on. One day, while being taught to identify different colors, Alex turned to a mirror and asked “What color is Alex?” This is the only known case of an animal asking a question. Even the famous gorilla who liked to pose for pictures with his kitten and the chimpanzee raised as a human child never managed to ask a question. 


As you cuddle up on the couch with Mister Snugglekins the cat, or make Mister Woof Woof the dog beg for treats, think about what it must be like to have an animal mind. Animals’ brains cannot even conceive of the idea of asking a question. They can wonder things: When’s dinner? Is this new person a threat? But the notion of using communication to get answers is beyond their capacity. The gulf between us and our beloved animals is truly vast.


Now, let’s take the next logical step. Is there a mind - can there be such a mind - that is to ours like ours are to animals’? What thoughts are permitted by the laws of physics but are unattainable to the limited machinery of our brains? What if we could improve our own cognitive infrastructure, so our own minds could grasp these currently-unattainable ideas. What lies beyond the ability to ask questions? Hyper-questions? What are they like? What is their purpose? Is there hyper-love? Hyper-joy? What accomplishments lie beyond our grasp?


I used to believe that these ideas amounted to only pointless philosophical wondering. Just stuff to talk about while you’re passing the joint around. Then I learned about Alex, who somehow broke past the cognitive limit of animal thought. If Alex can do it, maybe it’s possible for a human to do it. Maybe, I thought, I can do it. 


Unfortunately it is possible for a human to do it. And unfortunately, I did.


*

In 2015, dozens of social media users posted images of a confused-looking elderly man slowly driving in circles in a Walmart parking lot. The emblem on the back of the car said he was driving Toyota Raynow. Toyota denies that a vehicle called a Toyota Raynow ever existed, even as a prototype.


*


I’m not the first researcher to set off on a project to improve human cognition. The eugenicists whose work flourished at the dawn of the 20th century may have been the first people to search for ways to adjust to the human mind. Of course, they had their own spin on the endeavor that, let’s just say, didn’t age well. Take a look at this: an excerpt from the Proceedings of the Third Berlin Conference on Eugenics, 1904. (Translated from the original German by me)


The session on Friday afternoon was opened by Mr. Gerhard Van Wagenen, who presented the report of the Berlin Directed Intelligence Improvement Society.  If we are to develop ways of improving the overall intelligence of the human breed, Mr. Van Wagenen argued, we must have, as a guide post, the ultimate limit of human intelligence. Only when we know this limit, can we pose the fundamental question of our effort: Are we to use selective breeding to improve average human intellectual fitness in a population, or are we to find ways of advancing the limit of human genius itself into areas that no individuals born to date have occupied?


Our immediate research goal was therefore to find individuals for whom the light of genius burned, not just at all, but brighter than the lights of all others of that intellectual rank. We sought to find the one individual currently alive who can look down on literally all the rest as his intellectual inferiors.


It is known that in the mass of men belonging to the superior classes there is found a small number who are characterized by inferior qualities. And in the mass of men forming the inferior classes, one can find specimens possessing superior characteristics. Therefore, we shall search wherever those of superior intellect may be found, without regard to their current station.


Inferior classes? Intellectual rank? Try putting that in a research grant proposal today! 


Mr. Van Wagenen and his assistants set out across Berlin and asked thousands of people a single question: “Of all the men you know who are still alive, who amongst them is the most intelligent?” They carefully reviewed the resulting list of thousands of names. They removed the duplicates and any female names that ended up on the list. (Those crazy eugenicists, right?) They tracked down each of these men who ranked as the smartest known by at least one male resident of Berlin, and asked them the same question, generating a second-stage list: the most intelligent people known to a group of individuals already considered very intelligent.


And they kept going. They generated the third-stage names, found those people and had them produce a list of fourth-stage names. And so on. This project took a year. There was a running joke in Berlin that Mr. Van Wagenen would only stop when the last name on the list was his own.


But, to Mr. Van Wagenen’s credit, he did not rig the study to identify himself or one of his patrons as the one individual who can look down on literally all the rest as his intellectual inferiors. Indeed, Mr. Van Wagenen eventually concluded that his year-long study was a failure.


A fraction of the people named, about eight percent, simply could not be found. We were appalled to note that a small percentage of the respondents identified themselves as the most intelligent man they knew. While the ultimate individual we seek could only truthfully answer with his own name, we took these first and second stage self-identifiers to be adverse to our research and ignored their input.


In a few hundred cases, pairs of individuals each identified the other. In smaller numbers we found sets of three, four, and even five men whose linkages formed closed loops of co-admiration, eventually working around back to the first man.


But the most striking feature of the data was that over three thousand lines of reported superior intelligence ended in the same name: Karl Schuster. Mr. Schuster had been a successful industrialist before suddenly retreating from public view later in life. Strangely, when we tried to find Mr. Schuster, we learned that he had, of his own volition, taken residence in the mental asylum located at Lankwitz. 


He refused to see us when we paid a visit to his private room in the asylum. The only communication we had from him was a note related to us by the Lankwitz staff, in which Mr Shuster wrote:


“I’ve spent most of my life hiding from It. I have isolated myself here, with the notion that the confused noise of mental anguish that surrounds me would act as a form of concealment. I did not suspect I might one day be discovered by ordinary men. Please do not visit me here again.”


From his note, and the fact of his residence within the asylum, we must conclude Mr. Shuster had become a mental defective. Even more damaging to our research, we subsequently learned that Mr. Schuster was a Jew. This finding, unfortunately, invalidates our work. In the coming months, we will strive to find a protocol more suitable for investigation into the nature of superior intellect.


Let’s not be too hard on these anti-Semtic, white-supremacist eugenicists. I’m willing to cut them some slack because I’ve done far, far more damage to mankind than all of these guys combined. I should have listened to Mr. Schuster’s warning. I should not have let It find me.


*


In 1954 a man arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda airport with a passport issued by the country of Taured. No such country exists, or ever existed. Despite the man being detained and guarded, he mysteriously vanished overnight.


*


Where the eugenicists looked to make improvements in the human population over generations by controlling or influencing reproduction, I had a more ambitious goal - to make improvements to a specific human brain (my own) in-vivo. I set out to upgrade my brain while I was using my brain to figure out how to upgrade my brain. I had astonishing success.


I’m not going to tell you exactly how I did it, because it’s just too dangerous. I don’t mean because it’s dangerous to the person undergoing the process (which it is), but because doing so can lead It to notice you. I don’t care if you fry your own cortex. But having It eat even more of our reality will be a calamity.


The human brain consists of gray matter, which is the stuff that performs perception and cognition, and white matter, which deals with boring stuff like running your metabolism. The gray matter - your cerebral cortex - forms a nice thick layer on the outside of your brain. This layer wraps the white matter underneath. I found a way to use pluripotent stem cells to expand the thickness of my cortex. With careful dosing of the stem cell culture through a spinal tap, I created new layers of gray matter underneath my cortex. These new cells replaced the white matter that was there. 


For reasons I don’t fully understand yet, the new cortical cells only become active when I have ingested a potent mixture of hallucinogens and antipsychotic drugs. 


The process is arduous and very illegal. Experimentation on humans, even if the test subject is also the researcher, is extremely highly regulated. And the drugs I need to use are not available from the suppliers that the rule-following scientific community uses. This work was performed in isolation and in secret. No regulators. No administrators. No rules. Just pure scientific progress.


My laboratory is as unconventional as my approach to science. I’ve set up shop in an assembly of forty-foot shipping containers in the center of my heavily forested seven-hundred-acre plot of land. Privacy!


*

Thousands of people have vivid memories of news coverage from the 1980s reporting that Nelson Mandela died in prison. In the reality that most of us know, Mandela died in 2013, years after his release.

*


Uplift #1 - 3 cubic centimeters


By last October, after six months of stem-cell treatment, I estimated that I had added a total of three cubic centimeters of gray matter to my baseline cortex volume. I could already feel the effects of the diminished volume of white matter. My sense of smell and taste were all but gone. My fine-motor-control was diminished. I had weakness in my legs and arms. But I had three cubic centimeters of fresh cortex to work with. I only needed to activate it. To Uplift myself, as I came to call the process of thinking with an expanded brain.


I planned for the first Uplift as if I was planning a scientific expedition into an uncharted jungle - I stockpiled food and water. I stockpiled lots of drugs. I bought a hundred blank notebooks to record my uplifted thoughts in.


I filled a seven-day pill container with hallucinogens and antipsychotics. I scratched off the Monday, Tuesday, etc. labels on the pill compartments and relabeled them: hour 0, hour 1, and so on. I planned my first Uplift to last seven hours.


Over those seven hours, I learned how to make use of the new, extra capacity in my cortex. I filled notebook after notebook with increasingly complex thoughts. Here are a few excerpts: 


Hour 1: The linguistic-mathematical relational resonance is far stronger than most have suspected.


Hour 2: Questions lacking prepositional multipliers of context prevent full expository [(relations)(responses)] yet, but (!yet) there is still an I in the premise.



By the fifth hour, I was fully Uplifted, asking hyper-questions and providing my own hyper-answers. What do the musings of a fully Uplifted mind look like? Page after page of this:


(((Imagine)Imagine[)Imagine)Relate->Time]<--Force(Animal,Object–>Think)



*


The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.


H.P. Lovecraft, Call of Cthulhu


*



Uplift #2 - 5.5 cubic centimeters. 


I waited a few weeks before my next Uplift. I needed time to recover from the mental strain of the first experiment, and to wait for a new dose of stem-cells to produce even more gray matter.


Although I only spent a few hours in an Uplifted state in my first experiment, I felt diminished as I returned to baseline. Hyper-questions. Hyper-answers. Hyper-joy. All of these are wonderful to experience. Life can be so much more rich and full with a post-human cognitive capacity.


But, as I learned during my second Uplift, there is also Hyper-fear.


I descended from my second uplift by screaming and running naked in the snowy woods outside my laboratory. As the drugs wore off, the activated sections of the new parts of my brain shut down. Thoughts that were clear one moment became foggy, like waking from a nightmare. 


I fell into a snowbank, breathing hard. Only a trace of what terrified me was left rattling in my tiny, baseline brain: It. It noticed me. I occupied Its attention.


What was It? I knew exactly what It was moments earlier, when I had more gray matter to think with. But now I was like a dog trying to grasp the idea of a question. I was still afraid, but I couldn’t understand the source of the fear.


I returned to the lab and warmed up. Then I reviewed what I had written in my notebooks during the ten hour session. Most of it was the same sort of advanced writings that my now-normal brain could not comprehend. But, somewhere towards the end of the session, perhaps just before I shed my clothes and ran into the woods, I wrote this:


I know what Schuster was hiding from. Find out information about Shuster.


When I recovered from the strain of my second Uplift, I drove to town, where I was able to access the Internet. I found some information about Schuster in the same archive where I found the proceedings from the 1904 eugenics conference. 


A short article in a Berlin newspaper described the man who had been named by so many people who took Van Wagenen’s survey.


…Mr. Schuster, at the age of fifteen, had made significant contributions to machine design, metallurgy, and chemistry. He founded four companies which he ran nearly by himself, without a large management staff to insulate him from the workers and day-to-day engineering tasks… 


It seems that most of the people who identified Mr. Shuster as the most intelligent person they knew had known him well at this time in his life. 


Another article, written in 1905, described strange event at his funeral:


…Also present was a contingent of a dozen people who claimed to have been friends with Schuster during the five years he spent in America. Many who had known Schuster for his entire life stated that he had never been to America, let alone spent five years there. Did a group of people mistakenly attend the funeral of the wrong man? 


Everyone in attendance had similar memories of him. All recognized his photograph on the coffin. Indeed, some of the America contingent had letters, written in Karl’s hand and signed by him, fondly recalling his time spent in the New England woods. It is as if there were two Schusters: the one who lived his life in Germany and the other who spent years in America. 


Uplift #3 - 6 cubic centimeters


Perhaps I’ve allowed my cortex to consume too much of my white matter. I now have trouble with perceptions. The woods surrounding my laboratory have been transformed into a city. Where there were trees, there are now charming stone buildings from a European city. The song of birds and the whisper of the wind in the trees is gone too, replaced with streetcars and voices speaking German. 


I prepared my pill container and notebooks for my third Uplift, as the sounds of a busting turn-of-the-century city rang through the metal walls of my laboratory.


Although I had dozens of blank notebooks prepared, I only made one page of notes during my third Uplift:


I met it today. I know what It is. It is alive. Not just alive. Hyper-alive. 


It is built into the very material that logic and mathematics is made from. The digits of the square of pi, when computed to the billionth quadrillionth place, is a sketch of a fragment of its structure. 


It consumes pieces of reality. It weaves them into its being, and leaves the tattered shreds of logic and causality to haphazardly mend themselves. It ate the circumstances of Karl Schuster’s life, leaving the ragged edges of different universes to stick and twist themselves back together, like shreds of a tattered flag tangling together in a gale. 


It has only begun grazing on the small corner of Hyper-reality where humanity lives. Imagine a cow eating grass from a field. A field where humanity lives like a small colony of aphids on a single blade of grass. It likes it here. It likes the taste of reality here.


I tried to tell it to go away. That we are here and have a right to exist. 


It replied to me, in its way. I found its words at the bottom of a twelve-dimensional fractal, woven into the grammar of a language with an infinite alphabet. It taunted me with a question: “What flavor is Alex?”



Update to the Proceedings of the Third Berlin Conference on Eugenics, 1904


Mr. Gerhard Van Wagenen provided the committee with an update on his finding that the individual Mr. Karl Shuster was strikingly-well-represented in the responses of his survey on intelligent men. Mr. Van Wagenen writes:


Upon further reflection of the results of my survey, I returned to Lankwitz again to try to meet with Mr. Schuster. I arrived to find his ward in an uproar, as only a few minutes prior to my arrival, Mr. Schuster had been found missing. The preceding letter, which is reprinted here in its entirety, was found in Mr. Schuster’s room. While the letter does not indicate where he went or even how he managed to slip away from the asylum unnoticed, it does show the extent of his derangement. His detailed descriptions of question-asking birds, strange events from the future, and even methods of biological manipulation unknown to science are not the product of a mind that we wish to recreate. Perhaps intelligence, as a phenomenon of nature, is more complicated than we are able to appreciate with our current notions of science. If I may speculate even further, perhaps Intelligence is a phenomenon we should avoid study of, lest we learn things about ourselves that it is best not to know.


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