Braid

Atom’s head thwacked into something hard which generated a percussive metallic rattle. He squinted in pain and rubbed the bump which was forming at the base of his skull. He was sweaty. The patina of cold pizza coated the inside of his mouth.

Peering out from under his desk he saw darkness. Quickly his eyes adjusted. Even in the middle of the night the lab was illuminated by hundreds of indicator LEDs. They peeked out from to humming equipment scattered throughout the space. The red, blue, orange and green pulsing light made it look like an alien landing was in progress.

The room was empty so Atom swore loudly as he crawled out from under his desk. The pain lingered long enough to make its point. As his eyes pulled focus on his phone he saw it was 4am. He tried on a groggy half-smile. He had three blissfully quiet hours before anyone would be arriving for work. This was when he wrote the best code. No distractions.

For three months Atom had been sleeping under his desk. The Zuckerburg Neuroscience Institute catered to the eccentric behavior of its employees, but Atom was pushing the envelope. Prioring to moving into The Institute he shared a home with 7 hackers in Palo Alto. They kicked him out for being “too old”. At least that’s what he had been telling people.

Atom settled into his Herman Miller chair and jiggled the mouse to wake the three large screens. His workstation cost $7500, but he used it mostly for editing text. He clicked on gchat and pinged his friend Mia. She was three hours later in Boston and was an early riser:

Atom: I’m up

Mia: Can’t get enough?

Atom: I’ve almost got it. Give me 24 hours.

Mia: You said that 3 weeks ago!

Atom: This time it’s real. If I can double the graph size one more time, I can prove it.

Mia: Prove what?

Atom: You will be the first to know.

Mia: Do they know you are using half their computer time?

Atom: I hope not. I have to run.

Mia: Good luck.

Atom switched away from chat to an array of text windows. They contained remote command prompts for a dozen machines. He had several text editors opened to reveal thousands of lines of code. The code was drawn in a dozen different colors according to its purpose.

Atom’s cube was adjacent to a two story glass window which looked into a courtyard containing a mature Japanese maple. Impressive considering The Institute was only 6 years old. The tree must have been planted fully grown. At night it was dramatically lit from below.

Intermixed with the office cubicles were lab benches containing traditional science equipment: flasks, test tubes, pipettes, electronic scales, centrifuges, shake trays, microscopes, specialized refrigerators and freezers, warming drawers, fume hoods plus many contraptions and devices whose names he did not know.

Atom was in the theory group at ZNI. He personally had no use for any of the equipment. However he chose this location because being around the other employees stimulated his thinking. He didn’t want to be surrounded by programmer’s like himself who just typed all day. He preferred the bustle of real science and the sound of real human voices.

Atom was known for being peripatetic by day. Drifting from colleague to colleague showing genuine interest in their work. Leading people into sprawling conversations about their research and its implications. At night he was the opposite. He sat transfixed at his workstation. Distilling the ideas from day into code one line at a time.

For three uninterrupted hours he stared intently at his screens and typed in rapid bursts. Every twenty minutes or so the lights turned off in the lab. Atom worked in darkness until he thought to casually raise his hand in the air signaling to the sensors someone was in fact present. Occasionally his eyes would widen and the hint of a grin would appears. Once in awhile he’d lean back in his chair, arms behind his head, surveying what he was creating.

When the first early-bird colleagues drifted into the lab he stood up, stretched, and headed down the wide stone steps to the cafe. The single large cafe served the entire building. It was the social hub of The Institute. A tall pyramid of clean ZNI mugs awaited him along with an endless supply of free trade coffee. Atom grabbed a cup of Ethiopian and slunk into a booth.

Raj strode into the cafe at exactly 7:30. He made eye contact with the woman behind the counter. She had a streak of purple in her otherwise black hair. She gestured to a plate with a single slice of wheat toast. He nodded and grabbed the plate, made his way through the coffee line and joined Atom in the booth.

“You look a little chewed up,” chirped Raj. “When are are you going find a place to live?”

“I have a place to live. I’m doing fine living here. Better than fine.”

“What happened anyway? I thought you loved that house? Kevin spoke highly of you. He said you were a blast to have around.”

“I don’t know,” Atom sighed, “one day I came home and my stuff was sitting on the front porch.”

“I heard you slept with Kevin’s girlfriend?”

“Accidentally.”

“So are you getting anything done on my project? On the project you are being paid to work on?”

Atom’s smile faded. “Yes, I’m making progress. However you know I can’t put this down. And, if you’ll hear me out, I think I’ve done it.”

“You’re a genius, even by ZNI standards, but I can’t cover for you forever,” Raj placed his elbows on the table and leaned in closer to Atom, “They are going to notice the machine hours soon. How many have you used?”

Atom groaned. “A few thousand here, a few thousand there. Nothing too bad. But I’m ready for a full scale test.”

Raj seemed to briefly choke on his toast.

“It worked Raj. Everything checks out. All I need are more nodes. More memory.”

Raj pushed his empty plate away. He stared intently at Atom. “Explain to me again how you are getting these results, alone, when we have 40 research groups with several hundred top researchers who are stumped?”

Atom rubbed his face. His hand slid up to his forehead then he ran his fingers through his hair and down the back of his head. Finally he scratched the back of his neck. “We’ve spent six years trying to model cognition in these antiseptic virtual environments. A virtual room with synthetic black and white fiducials. A virtual anechoic chamber with fake chirping sounds. Endless other virtual rooms with endless types of synthetic shapes.” Atom narrowed his eyes. “How long are we able to mimic a real brain? A few milliseconds?”

“Sedgewick’s lab reported twelve. Twelve milliseconds.” Raj offered hopefully.

Atom ignored him. “When I first came to The Institute I was blown away by the resources, the people. Unlimited funding from Mark. We have the best scientists doing the research and a steady stream of start-up defectors to write the code. I could have pointed to a dozen labs here who seemed like they were on cusp of a breakthrough. Fast forward to today, 6 years later, and I’m losing my mind. Every year we hit these artificial milestones, processing more data or determining synaptic connections in greater details.. But it never produces results. It’s all going too slowly.

“The guys in the house and I would stay up till 3 or 4 in the morning batting around ideas. I’d take them problems from the lab and we’d solve them, or at least come with great ideas towards how to solve them. Sure we didn’t do all the math, it wasn’t rigorous, but the ideas we generated rivaled anything being done by the book.

“When I was kicked out of the house I felt like my half my brain had been removed. Something snapped. I couldn’t go back to the old way. I took the best ideas from the house and implemented them them during these last three months, mostly at night. They work Raj.”

“Atom,” Raj slowly shook his head and squinted, “we’ve been through this. Your big idea is to model several brains instead of one?”

“I’m starting with five.”

“Five? How is that breakthrough?” Raj asked patiently.

“Our mistake,” Atom took two patient sips of his coffee, “has been obsessing about single brains. A single brain is nothing without an environment, and an environment is not very interesting unless it contains other brains.”

“Sure,” Raj nodded, “I agree that makes things more interesting. But what can you do with a complex environment with many brains if you cannot understand any one of them?”

“My goal is still to understand each one individually. But what I’m showing is the distributed cognition, the thought process which takes place between individuals, is every bit as real as what’s going on inside our heads. I believe this external process is identical to to what’s going on inside our heads. We can study the external one and learn everything”

Raj waited a few beats, blinked once and slowly said “Identical?”

“Identical. I’m not just talking about group cognition, I’m talking about breaking down the notion of an individual into something smaller. Some sub-entity. People’s cognitive processes naturally and additively intertwine because we are built from intertwined parts to begin with. The skull is an arbitrary and mostly irrelevant boundary. We are made of these, these threads, and they combine hierarchically into ropes and braids, then further into grander structures. They combine within individuals and between individuals. They’ve been there this whole time, we just haven’t been looking for them. Take this room, there are at least a dozen researchers in here now talking or think. Unfocus your eyes. Ignore the boundaries. It’s like one big human soup.”

Through narrowed eyes Raj said slowly “I thought they were braids?”

“Exactly.”