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Twelve of them huddled around the main table. Each had a set of controls and keys wrapped around their fingers, quietly inputting commands that responded with flashes of color and symbols on the screen. They had been preparing for this for decades, and now all that was left was final system checks. Miles scanned the faces of his colleagues, wondering if his face looked as calm as theirs. There were only a few minutes left to go.
The machine itself was an awesome structure, stretching far beyond the limits of their sight. Miles of densely packed wiring and the hum of power seeping through it. Fans the size of small houses sucking out warm air. And every ten steps, a cluster of working memory and graphics cards, matte black, elegant, and thirty years more advanced than any others in the world.
It was a strange moment, the first of its kind. Miles had read through the records of his ancestors, beings that had discovered geometry and linear algebra and calculus. Every breakthrough had brought out a wave of inventions, completely novel ways of doing things. And those who lived to see them believed that their moment in history was unprecedented, would change their species forever. They were mostly right, but maybe they overestimated how interesting their segment of history would prove to the future. Every wave of innovation was unique and necessary, but it was still just another wave of innovation. Eventually the waves stopped seeming so novel themselves, at least to the purest of scientists. It was something Miles had struggled with, early in his career, before he was recruited for the Project.
He had grasped the significance of this work almost immediately. Even his recruiter had been surprised by how quickly he had accepted the offer, despite the associated sacrifices. Miles was now an older man, almost sixty. The Project had consumed his life, pulled him in and would only spit back his corpse. But he wouldn’t trade that lifetime for anything.
Of course, Miles had down days - everyone did - when he missed the allure of a normal life, family, leisure. But then he would gaze at the machine, whatever its current stage of progress, and feel the buzz of a wondrous event. A singular event, that would come to mark a leap for the world, a transcendence of intelligence itself. Nothing like it had happened on Earth since the very first form of consciousness had risen into being. And the buzz would flow through his body, tingling in his hands, and his mind would start racing and inevitably he would reach a state of awe and determination. Writing a few thousand lines of code was trivial when he felt this way.
Green symbols scrolled lazily across. The researcher on the far left murmured something to themselves, a prayer or a confession, it was not clear. There were four final checks. Then three, then two. No more muttering. People shifted back and forth, and even their breathing quieted. One to go. Miles tried to ingrain the moment in his memory, noting the cool breeze on his neck, the typing calluses on his fingers, the undeniable rising of euphoria in the silent group. He cleared his throat, and everyone took a step back. The last check was his, and he began his final keystrokes. It was time.
In a hundred different worlds, humans opened their eyes for the first time. Naked, unashamed, they looked at each other in confusion, as their internal systems heated up and the blood made its way upwards to the greatest asset - their minds.
The world around them had been awake for years, waiting for them - massive animals and dangerous catastrophes, poisonous insects and hidden pandemics. It would spur on their creativity, forming the backdrop for their intellect.
Initial conditions across the worlds were identical. Still, there were enough pseudo-randomizers for the storylines to diverge within the first few microseconds. The homo sapiens that would form groups were already showing signs of unique personality across the worlds. Hopefully this uniqueness would extend to their ways of thinking, too.
The commotion had died down after the first few rounds of congratulatory chatter and celebration. The pitiful remains of a fruit cake decorated a silver platter, and full and satisfied and drunken scientists lounged all around the room.
Let them celebrate, thought Miles. There’s not going to be much to do for a while anyways. Now, we wait. He glanced up at the screen.
They had set up the cameras as soon as they were ready, almost four years ago. Of course, it hadn’t happened without fierce debate and heated (but rigorous) arguments. But everyone agreed that the worlds must be watched somehow. The hard part was making sure that the newly created inhabitants could never know it. It had been a stroke of genius to cloak them in rifts of space time so deep that even light could not escape. Of course, based on the earlier simulations, he expected the humans would give them some bland name, like black balls, or space holes.
Still, even with the accelerated time of the simulations, light from the worlds would not reach the cameras for another year and a half. It was one of the most dangerous trade offs they had made, but it was Miles himself who had pushed for it. Others were afraid of letting the humans have so much unobserved existence - which translated to 700 years in simulated time. But the distance between the cameras and the newly-formed humans was crucial to protect Earth. There was no telling what would happen if the cameras were discovered. It was the job of the entire team to make sure it never happened.
A short, plump woman threw her lab coat at Miles, trying to hold on to a champagne flute in her other hand. Her transition from standing to sitting was, at the very least, ungraceful.
“We did it. We actually did it. And you, Dr. Miles, were the one to press the button. How does it feel, huh? To be the one who unleashes something like them?” She pointed at the screen that was still showing a formless planet (the first programmed vegetation would show up next week).
“You know, you’ve either saved us, or damned us all to hell.”
“You know, for a drunk scientist, you’re still quite coherent,” he replied. Of course, what she was suggesting was the same idea that had been at the heart of all their research, from the very start. Building an intelligence superior to your own could not be done without some risk.
“It feels good. I have faith in our programming. I still see no other way.”
Of course, he was exuding far more confidence than he felt.
Thirty years prior, Miles had strolled into the office of his new boss. It was a simple space, sparsely furnished but covered wall to wall in scribbles and notes and diagrams, the floor barely visible underneath a horizontal library of textbooks and papers. He lowered himself into one of the plain wooden chairs, which proved surprisingly comfortable.
“Do you know what recursion is, Miles?”
The sound came from what seemed to be a giant pile of books in the corner. A short, wispy figure emerged, her Middle Eastern face exuding curiosity and depth of thought.
“It’s something to do with computers, I think? You do know I’ve been trained as a quantum physicist, and-”
“Yes, yes, I know. But we’re all computer scientists now, too. Recursion is when you define something in terms of itself. You’ll eventually get the hang of it, but let me give you an example. Say I gave you an intelligent being and a problem, but the being couldn’t figure it out. But, the being could make another, more intelligent being. If that being couldn’t figure it out either, it could make another more intelligent being. And so on and so forth. And eventually, the first being would have on its hands the most intelligent being, capable of solving the problem. Here, we define an intelligent being as a being capable of making a more intelligent being. Do you follow?”
“Ah. So is that what we’re trying to do here?” Miles had been putting pieces together since the first call, but never quite grasped the unity of what he picked up. He settled back in his chair, mind churning through the various implications of this powerful idea.
“Yes, it’s exactly what we’re doing. Now, give me your objections.”
He would come to learn that this was always how Dr. Sadek carried her conversations - a short, powerful lesson then a lengthy debate. Apparently it was her way of making sure she hadn’t missed anything obvious - or of stroking her own ego as she heard dozens of supposedly new ideas that she had already thought through herself.
It was not long before Miles encountered the Danger.
“But doctor, if we make something more intelligent than ourselves… How can we protect ourselves? If it decided to do away with us, it could mean human extinction, the end of Earth as we know it. And there would be nothing we could do to stop it.”
“Yes yes, this is our biggest question. The biggest question. Many have asked it before you. It was the first convincing answer that led to the founding of the Project a few years ago. Our donor - you’ll meet them later - approached me with a powerful idea. It would be impossible for us to control a rogue intelligence that surpassed our own. So, we would have to make sure that it could not interfere with our world. And we could do this by ensuring that it never knew our world even existed. The greatest simulations of our time.”
“Of course. We’ll run as many as we can afford at launch, series S-1 through S-100. Statistically, most of them will self-destruct within a few centuries. It’s a miracle we haven’t done ourselves in yet - and hopefully our work here isn’t what does.”
And so Miles began his work.
Long hours, long days, long months of understanding and creating simulations to mirror his knowledge of quantum physics. He was never alone, though, surrounded by the world’s brightest, tackling some of the most complex problems imaginable.
The challenge was interlacing unsolved mysteries of science into the simulated physical environment they were creating. The hope was that the new intelligences would have a crack at them, offering fresh insights and new solutions. As Dr. Sadek would always remind them, it was easier to use the brilliant building blocks of a proof than it was to come up with them the first time.
There was one more thought that hadn’t made its way into the conversation in that jungle of an office. It would become obvious eventually, threatening to derail the entire Project with a dangerous but simple thought. It would take all of Miles’s willpower to stop the ensuing sense of futility from spreading to every member of the team, and every corner of his mind. The scientist in him would win out, but not before the seed was planted.
The Project was perhaps the greatest achievement of Earth. They were building a line of super intelligences, the S-series, that would never know Earth existed, with the hopes that this series would one day build its own super intelligence. How likely was it that Earth was really the start of that recursive chain? Miles and his scientists met every condition for just being another self-propagating step, carrying out the very same set of behaviors that they expected S-1 through S-100 to do. He and his team began to suspect that somewhere in their world, forever undiscoverable, hidden eyes watched their work. And perhaps they, too, admired the intellect and brilliance that Earth had produced, the fruit of another successful simulation.
But what had spurred Miles on was the realization that he would never know, would never be able to break out of simulated Earth with his own limited mind. He needed the S-series, some super-intelligence, to help him go in the opposite direction, back up through the recursion. Maybe the S-series would unlock all the previous AIs, and, eventually, the very first intelligence at the heart and root of this chain of existences. Of course, Miles knew that such a base case - the first intelligence to break out of its world, would be able to destroy every one of its predecessors in order to finally find the origin. Maybe Miles would never get to peek beyond the realm of Earth, to go beyond the shell, to meet his makers - though he would have helped create something that eventually would.