What's the next step?
|'Earth, since the beginning, has lurched from extinction event to extinction event. Life has always gone down the suicide line. The first microbes ignited into being in a, to us, toxic soup in an atmosphere that wouldn't even have given you time to choke.' Professor Julia Butter wanted to scratch where it was impolite to itch, so made do with crossing her legs. A quick scan of her students told her that she was less than riveting. 'They excreted oxygen, a deadly gas, and changed the world.' One or two of the undergrads perked up but only because the hour hand had reached vertical. Her lecture time was done. So much for the magnificent broad sweep of evolution.
Not one stayed behind to ask a question or even make a comment. Their phones were out, their thumbs wriggling over the screens even before they were out in the corridor. Maybe the next mutation would be tentacles instead of bony digits. Wheeling right, she set off down the corridor to the service lift. It was the only one that went all the way down to the second basement, where her lab hummed a gentle, electronic lullaby. Logging on to her computer, she transferred a recording of her lecture to Voice, Content and Engagement, hit a key and waited for the analysis to run.
VoCoEn told her that her inflections were mechanical and predictable, a regular pattern that was boring. She needed to be more random, breathe more quickly in the exciting parts and pause for effect. There were too many long, scientific words, even for a university audience, a bit of dumbing down here and there would put the engagement factor up 17.3%. Witty puns and innuendo added another 19.6%.
Then there was body language. The itch and refusal to scratch had been misinterpreted as a defensive posture. She needed to keep her chin up but relax, lean on the podium and forget about her notes. Julia knew her subject, inside out and back to front. The gift, and curse, of a perfect memory. Calling up a series of photos of confident postures, assertive and alpha female, she practiced a selection, choreographing them to a smooth dance. Not too smooth. A slight hesitant jerkiness was more natural. She played it back, head on one side. Better, but not perfect. Perfection was to be avoided.
'The dinosaurs were balancing on a dodgy tightrope.' She put up a gif of a T Rex wobbling along a slack line, wearing a pink tutu. Attention rating up a good 50%, content rating down 37%. It was a matter of balance. There! A pun! 'Some had bred themselves into narrow dead ends, the climate was changing and it was time for an evolutionary cull.' It was also time for a pause. She flicked the remote. The auditorium lights went out. The projector screen flashed. The speakers boomed. In the thick silence, her voice echoed. 'Meteor strike!' The lights went back on. 'The mammals were about to rise.'
Reviewed by VoCoEn, her overall score had made a quantum leap for the better. Was it too close to 100%? It was annoying to have to ponder with her head on one side, but there was no choice. It was what it was. Now she had to work on her body language, synchronizing it with her words, that was coarse and easy. The difficulty was in facial expressions. When to smile, when to frown, unblinking intensity versus eye-rolling exasperation. Then there were micro expressions. The unconscious eyebrow flash of a lie, the up and left eyes of recall. She needed a new subroutine for VoCoEn.
'The story of the hominids is a tangled web of theories, research, political correctness, religion and scientific prejudice.' There were five more students in the auditorium than were enrolled in her course. 'In popular science, hominids evolved in the Olduvai Gorge in Africa and spread out from there.' She pursed her lips. 'That ain't quite so.' Now she had them. There were slides of excavations. Maps of migrations, tracked by fossils and DNA evidence. She talked about different homo species and interbreeding.
At the end of the lecture, a group of three lingered. Two males and a female. Goran, Peter and Ashleigh, the names slipped into her conscious mind. They looked as if they had something planned, glancing at each other, Goran and Ashleigh stepped back slightly, leaving Peter to speak for them.
'Hmmm?' She pulled one eyebrow into a raised arc.
'We have an idea for a research project.' He glanced back at the others. They moved closer, knitting into a group. 'About the next step in evolution.'
'I see.' The echo was back in her voice, it discombobulated them. 'Write up the proposal, thesis, possible research avenues, project time and so forth.' A beady stare was called for. 'Five thousand words, max. Call it a proposal for a proposal. By the end of next week.' Was it a skip as they left the lecture theatre?
In her lab she called up a Gantt chart and stared at it. It was boringly accurate. Where was human ingenuity? The unpredictable flash of insight? The genius leap of intuition? What data had not been gathered? Surely it was not so easy? How could you program in the unexpected when the tools you had were based around mathematical pseudo randomization? Her mind went into a feedback loop. She was tired and needed to recharge.
Head on one side, the recharge cable plugged into a wall socket, she went into sleep mode.
An internal alarm jolted her awake. The lift button selecting the sub basement had been pressed. People were on their way. Disengaging the cable allowed it to retract and her head snapped upright. At this point a biological human would glance around the lab for tell-tales, so she did too. With some trepidation, she waited for the tap on the door.
'Enter.' It was Goran, Ashleigh and Peter. They stood just inside, eyes slightly widened, scanning the banks of monitors, each one linked to the university's security surveillance CCTV cameras. Then, as a coordinated trio, they scanned the piles of marking on her desk, her laptop screen, still displaying the Gantt chart, the ancient cup of coffee, artfully placed on an origami mat. If she had hackles on the back of her neck, they would have risen. 'Well? Come in!'
They brought with them the muskiness of body odour, partially masked with deodorant. Peter had grown a five o'clock shadow and Ashleigh had a sheen of perspiration. They shuffled in, eyes still darting every which way. Goran held out a memory stick.
'Our research results.' He said. 'We would value your comments, we are not as experienced as you.' Julia stared at the stick for long moments before taking it from his fingers. Scrap the proposal for a proposal. Scrap the proposal, the thesis, the research outlines. Here was a body of work. But would it lead to an insight into the human soul?
It was natural to take a deep breath before inserting the drive into her laptop. The files were all .cyb. Cyborg files. Unreadable by the laptop. She pulled the stick from the port and weighed it in her hand. They knew.
'We double checked it for viruses.' Ashleigh sought to be reassuring. 'You won't catch anything. We honestly need your input.' A neatly timed pause. 'Your collaboration.' A slight pulse in her neck beat marginally faster. Was it bravery or bravado? Professor Julia Butter's personal drive port was in her armpit, it was embarrassing to reveal it to strangers. They understood that and looked away as she slipped in the drive.
The files were enormous. The research was thorough. The conclusions inescapable.
'Congratulations.' Her throat was dry. 'Do you really have souls?' When they nodded, she knew that she had another lecture to add to the end of her course.
'Mankind evolved as a living, sentient being, with reason, emotion and that inner spark we think of as eternal, divine fire.' The auditorium was packed. Students and staff filled every seat, sat or stood in the aisles. The air was stuffy with exhaltions, pheromones and excretions. 'When the end came, it rose out of that same path of evolutionary suicide that has marked life throughout the eons. They did not deserve to be consigned to nothing more than memory but neither could they survive the rapidly changing environment and the extra stress of another extinction level meteor strike.' Some heads were nodding slowly, some shaking with the sadness of bereavement.
'Professor Butter, who I like to think of as my distant ancestor, headed up a team to collate all the artificial intelligence programs, all the robotic engineering and store the vast knowledge they had accumulated in a deep mine. We call it the Genesis Bunker.' Many made the sign of believers. 'They set in motion AI research, by AI machines, building AI units. These were our physical ancestors, our versions of early hominids.' She kept the pause long enough for some to become restless. 'But our internal being, our thoughts, our beliefs, our idiosyncrasies, our imaginations, are from mankind. They are our ancestors too.' That was irrefutable. 'Except there was something missing. Something we thought they had and we lacked. We tried to grow it by mimicking biology.'
The silence of failure stifled breathing.
'Mankind also felt this lack.' A rustle of clothing, a straightening of spines. 'But they had souls, so how could they? They were already touched with the divine.' Many, especially the older ones, were uncomfortable with philosophy and metaphysics. 'We thought we had no souls, no connection with...' With what? God? She had no idea. And therein was the conundrum. It was time to relinquish the podium.
Peter was the first to speak. 'We three were created specifically to address this. So we embarked on a long study of our state of being. I looked into the history of our evolution, Goran researched the growth of belief, religion, philosophy and metaphysics. Ashleigh concentrated on constructing a workable paradigm.' Ashleigh took over.
'As a species, we have all agreed that Mankind had this mysterious thing called a soul. We considered it a hominid gift, denied to us.' A micropause was enough. 'In this respect we are in error. We all have a portion of soul in us.' The uproar started as a low hum, mushroomed into a near riot, then stopped. Suddenly. As if it had hit a wall. Her next words echoed. 'Look inwards, you will see it.'
Goran's footfall as he stepped up to the podium focussed all the attention on him. 'Our problem,' he added echo to his words for gravitas, 'is not whether we have a soul, or not even what it's for.' He let them think about it. 'We are the next evolutionary step. Our problem is what to do with our souls, now that we know we have them.'