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0 Comments | Feb 16, 2017

Everything Old

artificial_intelligence_benefits_riskWho could have imagined that the universities would be the first to go? Anyplace where you went to learn how to think. The trades turned out to be much harder though. They can make you a competent contract attorney or psychiatrist in fifteen minutes, but if you want to learn plumbing or welding, you still have to go spend a year or more in a trade school, just like back in the day. When the technology first started to emerge in the late twenty sixties, it was driven by the work of Columbia neurobiology researchers Pelton and Yamaguchi, who had collaborated decades earlier on identifying specific sites in the human brain where learning occurred, research that had subsequently earned the pair Nobel Prizes in medicine. With the benefit of hindsight, it seemed ironic to many that the primary long-term consequence of the research would be the undoing of the vast global network of education that had made their research possible in the first place. I am reminded of this history as I sit here in front of the TV watching an ad for the newest commercial incarnation of the technology, the Prentice Remote Implant (PRI), a technology I had had a hand in creating.

I joined Prentice NeuroScience straight out of engineering grad school, back in the days when you learned things by the now-quaint method of studying them for extended periods of time in a structured setting. The company was still a start-up in those days, forty-seven ambitious biotech and neurology experts who had managed—after five years of late nights and several hundred million in private equity money—to commercialize Pelton and Yamaguchi’s work. Our initial proof-of-concept product was the Spanish implant. It was about the size and shape of a large grain of basmati rice. Injected into the upper bicep using a garden-variety pneumatic Medi-jector, the transport capsule quickly dissolved, allowing the migratory nano-memory chips encased inside to make their way through the bloodstream and into the brain, where they then made a beeline for the hippocampus and the anterior cingulate cortex, known since the late twentieth century to be the primary centers of learning and cognition in the human brain. Once in place, a nifty bit of hard-to-explain nano-cellular bonding magic took place, following which, whatever knowledge had been programmed into the implant became a permanent part of the recipient’s brain, available for use precisely the same as any other knowledge the recipient possessed. Times varied with client age, health, and other variables, but generally the knowledge was uploaded and functional about twelve hours after insertion. Twelve hours and you possessed the functional equivalent of four years of Spanish instruction.

Prentice had, with my help and that of a couple hundred other engineers and scientists, over the next twenty years or so, employed the same basic technology to make available modules in thirty other languages, a variety of types of mathematics, science, and chemistry, and a whole host of fields of study—one hundred thirty-seven of them by the time I retired, now eight years ago. Like any new and patented technology, the initial price of an implant was right up there, though the twelve thousand dollar price tag was deemed more than competitive versus the cost of several years learning the same material at a leading university, never mind the enormous time saved. Of course the price fell over the years, particularly with the advent of various marketing innovations like the ability to purchase entire degree programs modeled on those available at leading Ivy League universities. For about a fifth the cost of a four-year degree at Princeton or Harvard, you could obtain the equivalent knowledge of, say, a Bachelors degree in math or physics with one visit to a Prentice center and a good night’s sleep. Which is when things started going south for the universities. The combination of the much reduced initial price, combined with no longer needing to spend four years of hard work or foregoing the income that could be earned in that time, was a mortal wound that had resulted in the endowments of nearly all of the country’s top tier universities falling by half or more since introduction of the technology. And that was all before the introduction of the Prentice Remote Implant.

About halfway through my career at Prentice, some genius had come to the realization that rather than have to inject nano chips in transport capsules for every individual course or subject, it would be a nifty improvement if one set of reusable high-density memory chips could be designed that included remote wireless addressability. That way, the customer would require only one injection, following which new course materials, or for that matter entire books—books one was more interested in having read than in actually reading—could be uploaded in a matter of seconds with no more difficulty than downloading a film onto your TV. Which meant that instead of needing to visit a Prentice Center you needed only to log onto your computer and select whichever knowledge modules you desired. This technology allowed for other marketing innovations as well, most notably the ability to rent knowledge that you only required for a brief period, like, say, the duration of a job interview. By the time I was ready to retire from Prentice, the technology was sufficiently advanced that universities had been left with little choice but to enter into knowledge licensing agreements with Prentice as the only way to staunch the hemorrhaging of cash they had heretofore been experiencing. University trustees hated it, but what choice did they have?

The Prentice commercial had come to an end and I was just getting back into an old movie about time traveling tourists. The chief protagonist—conveniently invincible, thanks to the arbitrary rules of the film—was just emerging with a couple dozen soldiers from the front of a landing craft at the Normandy invasion in World War 2. The instant the front gate of the craft slammed open and into the surf, the first wave of men all (save for the tourist) fell dead from a wall of automatic weapon fire from the cliffs above Omaha Beach. As he stood, shell-shocked in the blood-red surf of the French coast, my front doorbell rang. Irritated at the interruption and at the tourist’s implausible invincibility, I paused the film and rose to get the door.

“Jason!” came the voice from the other side before I could even reach for the doorknob. “Open up, man! I have beer.”

I pulled the door open to find Chris Spence standing in the hallway holding up a large bag and smiling broadly. “And not that synthetic shit either,” he said. “This is from my uncle in Oregon. Actual beer made with actual hops and malt and whatever, grown in the ground the way the beer gods intended. You gonna let me in or what?” I stood to one side and made a sweeping gesture with my free hand.

Chris was seventeen years my junior and had started working in my R&D group at Prentice about six years prior to my retirement. Despite the age difference, we had hit it off almost immediately and been fast friends ever since. We visited regularly and he updated me on the latest goings-on at the company. He walked in, set the bag on my kitchen counter, and reached inside, extracting two large dark-brown bottles. Most of the mass-market beer these days was purely synthetic product, and it was a rare treat indeed to come across a batch of the real thing. He placed the remaining bottles in the refrigerator and then went straight for my gadget drawer, expertly located the bottle opener, popped both bottles, and handed one in my direction.

“Good news?” I asked. “Are we celebrating something?”

Chris took a seat on the sofa and made a face indicating that we were, in fact, decidedly not celebrating anything.

“Okay,” I said. “What are we not celebrating then?”

Chris and I had, since my retirement, gotten together at least once or twice a week and talked freely about everything that was taking place at Prentice, including things I knew to be proprietary and for which he have could easily gotten into trouble if it became known he was sharing them with a former employee, even a high-ranking one. Nevertheless he still shared.

“You want the bad news first, or the really bad news?”

“That’s not very encouraging,” I said. “There’s no good news?”

“This,” he said, holding his bottle up, “this is the good news.”

“Oh excellent. Well in that case maybe you’d better ease me into it with just the regular bad news first.”

“Hmmm, let’s see. How to put this delicately?” Chris said, taking a swig from his beer bottle. “Looks like PKD is in the shitter for good.”

If this was Chris’s idea of only moderately bad news, I couldn’t wait to hear the really bad stuff. PKD had been Prentice’s signature developmental project for going on ten years. In that decade, the project—which had begun about three years before I retired—had consumed something like nine and a half billion dollars in developmental money. Having pretty much perfected and cornered the market on the remote uploading of knowledge into the human brain, Prentice had struggled during my final five years with the company to identify a new line of products that would allow the company to continue to grow in the manner to which the market had become accustomed in its preceding decades. What they latched onto was an idea straight out of science fiction, though it seemed to company executives to be a not very great stretch at all, at least based on the knowledge implantation we had been successfully doing for a long time already. About a hundred years ago, an oddly prescient science fiction writer named Philip K. Dick (hence the project’s acronym) wrote a short story entitled “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale.” This story had been subsequently made into a film entitled “Total Recall,” remade several times in fact. The basic idea was that if we could implant knowledge contained in books and classroom lectures, could we not also implant experiential knowledge, false memories, essentially making Dick’s vision of synthetic experience a reality. It had been taken as a foregone conclusion that if the idea could be made to work, the market for it would appear more or less spontaneously. In the three years of work that had gone into the new program before my retirement, the only thing that had definitively been accomplished was achieving the realization that the challenge was far more technologically immense than anyone at the company had appreciated at the outset.

“Are you kidding me? They’re pulling the plug?” I asked incredulously. Nine billion dollars was an eye-watering sum to be flushing down the toilet, never mind the hit to the stock price that would doubtless result when news of such a mammoth shut-down became public. The company had done its best to keep the work secret, but with little else dramatic in the pipeline and the company’s sales of regular implants limited to the licensing of new content, the stock had languished in recent years. Though retired now, I had as much at stake in the stock’s performance as anyone who had worked at the company, since a large chunk of the company’s employee retirement program was in stock. Even more important to guys like Chris was the very real likelihood of significant layoffs if Prentice elected not to continue PKD development.

“It’s not official yet,” he said, “but I can tell you there are a lot of unhappy vibes floating around Building D and a whole lot fewer new engineering candidates being interviewed these days.”

“But your team is okay, right?” I asked. Chris was a director in the marketing group that sought out and procured licenses on new knowledge content for PRI. If the Dick project (as it was salaciously known around the building) was, in fact, about to go defunct, Chris’s role, it seemed, would only increase in importance.

“Yeah, worst I’m likely to see is a budget cut, but what else is new?” He replied, rising from the couch. He walked slowly back into the kitchen and extracted another beer from the refrigerator, motioning with his chin in my direction.

I shook my head, raising my still half-full bottle. “So,” I said, “if the crash and burn of the company’s flagship development project is just the sort-of bad news, what, pray tell, is the really bad news?”

“Remind me how long ago the company began selling PRI,” he said, retaking his spot on the sofa.

“Well, in my dotage I tend to forget details like that,” I replied smiling, “but my recollection is that it was something like eighteen years ago. Not including the trials, just the actual product.”

“Sounds about right. And any guesses as to how many customers have bought PRI and undergone the implant procedure?”

“You got me there, I’m afraid. But plenty while I was there. Plenty more, no doubt, since I left. Millions for sure.”

“Plenty is right, my slow-drinking friend,” Chris said. “I looked it up a couple of days ago. December of last year we passed the forty-five-million-install milestone. Forty-five million implants of the addressable chip set, and an average of twelve individual subject modules sold per customer. Average price of about twelve grand for the implant and five hundred to a thousand per knowledge module.”

He had an increasingly distressed look on his face that caused me to pause in sipping my beer. Chris was a consistently good-humored sort of guy and it was a face I’d seen only rarely in the past.

“So that’s a wild success by any objective financial assessment,” I said. “Is there an issue with the product?”

“Oh,” he said, taking an immense draught from the bottle. “There’s an issue.” His bottle was quickly empty again, and he rose once more to fetch another from the fridge. This time when he gestured my way, I nodded as well, unsure what was coming. Before closing the refrigerator door, he reached inside the bag that he’d brought the beer in and pulled out a thin document—ten, maybe fifteen—pages, stapled together at the corner. He walked back to the couch, handed me the beer, and dropped the document on the coffee table between us.

“Anybody finds out I showed you this—hell, if they even thought I’d taken it out of the building—I’d be suddenly and unceremoniously retired right there along side of you. Only difference is I’d sure as hell not have a retirement plan in my hand, and I probably would have a lawsuit deeply inserted in my ass.”

I did not reach immediately for the document, but I could see, in addition to the Prentice company logo and a large red ‘CONFIDENTIAL’ stamp, the official-looking initials of both the FDA and NIH. I took a long drink from my fresh beer.

“Should I read it?” I asked, “or would you rather just summarize it for me?”

“That,” he said, nodding toward the untouched document, “is the executive summary. The whole report is about an inch and a half thick, single-spaced, double-sided.”

“And…” I said.

“It’s a year-long study, conducted by the National Institute of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, a study focused on neurological disorders of one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three random individuals in the U.S. Over the past five years, all of these individuals have demonstrated symptoms of profoundly degraded mental function not unlike Alzheimer’s, but different in some important ways.”

I sat listening, but did not respond.

“Important difference number one: Although the primary manifestation of the condition is loss of memory, unlike Alzheimer’s there is no accompanying physical debilitation of any discernible kind. Also unlike Alzheimer’s, this condition is frighteningly fast. From initial onset to total memory loss averages something like six months. After that, you’re functionally a two-year-old. Except that a two-year-old knows their name.”

“And you’re telling me all this because …” There was only one possible reason he was telling me this, but I needed to hear him say it out loud.

“Of the seventeen hundred and ninety-three patients in the study, fifteen hundred and forty-seven of them had the Prentice PRI implanted at some point in the past fifteen years.”

I stared down at the paper, still lying on the coffee table. “Jesus …”

“Jesus H. Christ is more like it,” Chris replied. “And that’s not even the best part.”

“It gets better?”

“Part of the report was a time study. How long from the date of the PRI install until the onset of symptoms.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “Linear as can be?”

“Not perfect, but pretty damned compelling. Symptoms start at around ten years for some, by fifteen years for most.”

“And when you say memory loss, you don’t just mean loss of the PRI modules that were uploaded.”

“I do not,” he said. “We are talking about full-blown irreversible loss of everything in your head—knowledge, language, recognition of friends and family, what year it is, everything by the end.”

I leaned forward and picked up the report, flipping quickly through the pages. Lots of charts and graphs. A half page executive summary at the beginning that said pretty much what Chris had just said. I laid it back on the coffee table and emitted a heavy sigh.

“They’re still selling it,” I said. “There was a commercial on right before you showed up.”

Chris said nothing for a very long moment.

“They’re going to try to bury this thing,” I continued. It was a statement, not a question. The loss of the company’s premier product line, and the tsunami of resulting law suits, would surely be the end of Prentice NeuroScience, and the end of something like seventeen thousand careers. Oh, and the end of the retirement benefits of another nine thousand people like me, most of whose benefits were in Prentice stock and none of whom would learn of the urgent need to sell before word got out and the shares crashed.

“Okay,” Chris said. “I totally don’t know what I should do here.”

Chris was a straight shooter and an ethical guy. He just needed a push. “You waiting for me to tell you to take the report public? I can’t tell you to do that. But here’s the thing. It’s going to get out. Somehow. If what that report says is even half true,” I glanced down at the paper, “then your Prentice days are done anyway. Or they soon will be.”

He did not address my statement right away. “You will, needless to say, sell all of whatever retirement stock you have,” he said peremptorily. Most of my retirement nest egg was in company shares, which I had, for the past several years, been liquidating only as I needed them.

“Oh, you bet your sweet ass I will,” I replied, mustering a wan smile. “Just because the company is going away doesn’t mean my bills are.”

“Figures. My shares aren’t even vested yet,” he said.

“You know,” I replied, “the report can go public without your name attached to it. It’s not like you have to go on the news and do interviews or anything.”

“That’s a numbered copy,” he said. “My numbered copy.”

“Okay, so you make a copy, white out the number, mail it to your favorite news outlet, and return the numbered copy.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Can’t help but feel like I’d be the one lighting the fuse though.”

“Did I mention that they’re still advertising the thing?”

“Yeah … yeah, you mentioned it.” He leaned forward and picked up the report, folded it in half and stuffed it into his coat pocket. “I suppose there’s at least one piece of semi-good news in all this.”

“Oh yeah?” I said. “What’s that?”

“You and I never did the procedure. Never did PRI. We may die broke but at least we’ll still have our marbles.”

“Yeah,” I said, “at least there’s that.” I hoped that the ever-so-slight delay in my response was not discernible to Chris. He and I, in our several years of working closely together, had often talked about availing ourselves of our company’s main product, but, in fact, most Prentice employees had not used it, mainly because no employee discounts had ever been offered and most staff did not make sufficient money to afford the retail price of the PRI implant and procedure. Many on the executive team had used it, but once you got down into the ranks of middle and lower level management, it was, for most, an item too expensive for consideration. And as far as I knew, Chris was one of the many who had never used it, despite having invested years of his life working on the product line.

What Chris did not know was that I, in fact, had. As part of the developmental team, now nearly twenty years past, I had undergone the PRI procedure and had, as well, downloaded something like a dozen of the various knowledge modules, including French, Latin, quantum physics, and even a philosophy module that had later been discontinued (turned out not very many people were interested in knowing about philosophy).

Chris also did not know, though he might have discerned it if he had known the right questions to ask, that I was already experiencing some of the effects talked about in his report. Surprisingly little of the content of my downloaded modules remained, though I could still manage a bit of conversational French. But there had been numerous instances in recent months in which I had had to think a long time to recall my ATM PIN number and various other everyday things. I had simply chalked these up to age, only now Chris had given me an entirely new perspective on what was happening to me.

*     *          *          *

Six months on from the day of our discussion about the report, and yeah, it got out all right, though I still can’t say for sure who was responsible. Chris has been by many times since, but he’s never owned up to being the one who released it—plausible deniability and all that, I suppose. Stock, of course, is in the crapper, and only about one in five of the original employees are still there, Chris mercifully being one of them. All new PRI sales have ground to a halt, of course, though there is still money being made downloading existing knowledge modules. Plenty of government investigating going on, but the closest thing to a working theory anybody has at this point is that it’s something about the raw PRI implant that causes the memory degradation more so than the downloads, which is the only reason Prentice is still being allowed to sell them. Still, with the dramatic crash in revenue and the mounting volume of class action lawsuits, there is clearly no future for the company.

There’s a theory making the rounds that PRI-related memory loss can be compensated for by downloading new material, though I don’t really understand this logic since all that’s available for download are academic materials, not everyday knowledge or historical memories of your own life. My own degradation continues, but fortunately at a slower rate than for many others. No idea why, but I’m not complaining. I’m still driving and so far I haven’t forgotten my way home. The problems are not with everyday short-term memory, like forgetting why you drove to the grocery store. But still, the last time Chris stopped by, he had to remind me what his name was, which hurt—a lot, not only because I’d forgotten, but because I had to admit to him at that point that I’d lied to him and had, in fact, undergone the procedure all those years ago.

It’s weird the things that remain and those that are fading away. Nearly everything that’s more than five years in the past is gone—my mother’s face, the name of my first girlfriend. Sometimes my memory feels like a candle flickering in a breeze. That name or number you’ve known for decades that’s right on the tip of your tongue, or that dream that seemed so vivid but that you can’t remember for the life of you once you’ve awakened. I’ve thought about the option of trying new downloads, something to fill the slowly expanding voids. But there’s no module for my life—my time playing high school football, my first job interview, my first kiss. I have a lot of photos, but I don’t look at them much any more. It hurts to see a picture of myself with other people and not recognize the faces. Even my own younger face looks like a stranger to me now. I suppose if there’s an upside in all of this, it’s that I will also eventually forget that I played a role in causing this to happen to millions of other people. Is that fair though? Should I be allowed the gift of forgetting in that case? Debatable, I suppose, but out of my hands in any event. Nothing left for me now but to sit and watch another movie. I’m sure I’ve already seen it a dozen times, but it’s all buried back there in the haze now, so I guess it’s true what they say—at some point, everything old is new again.

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