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Przekrój
One day, Jan Radecki, a doctoral student in neuroscience, discovers the opportunity to apply for a grant ...
2020-01-22 09:00:00
short story

The Central University canteen was situated exactly halfway on the shortest path between the Faculty of Mathematics and the Department of Neuroscience. The meeting that was about to take place could in all likelihood have been predicted. And then prevented. That’s not what happened.

Read in 17 minutes

Jan Radecki, a neuroscientist, noticed his mathematician colleague Antoni Mikulicz at the buffet. He immediately lowered his gaze and began piling his plates onto the tray, getting ready to leave. Unfortunately, when he took his next, brief glance around, their eyes accidentally met. His colleague beamed a wide smile and began moving towards him.

It was too late.

The next moment, Mikulicz was at Radecki’s table, sat down opposite him, opened his laptop and, without a word, showed him the screen, blue at the bottom, white at the top. His smiling, unshaven face framed with black, curly hair poked out from behind the black casing.

This ritual recurred with tiresome repetitiveness – only the screen content changed.

Jan narrowed his eyes, staring alternately at the white and blue parts. A few seconds passed, but he still didn’t know what he was looking at. He cleared his throat a few times and asked: “What is it?”

“The probability density function of the results of the random number generator I told you about last time,” said the mathematician in a single breath.

Radecki made a wise face and nodded, and Mikulicz continued: “Completely homogeneous. For the entire range.”

“Is that good?”

“It’s perfect.”

He scrolled down on the screen. Some rows of numbers appeared.

“This is just the beginning. Great performance results. I’m saving memory at every step, so it’s suitable for embedded systems. What’s more…”

“That’s excellent, excellent,” interrupted Radecki, because he’d heard this story many times before. “And what’s next? Publication? A patent?”

He knew the answer to that question too.

“No.” His colleague surprised him. “I’m not publishing anything. I applied to the Ministry of War for a grant. Two months ago. I’m expecting an answer in another two, and by that time, I’ll have prepared the documentation and developed the test results.”

“What grant’s that?” asked Radecki, suddenly animated.

“The Ministry of War has allocated millions – unfortunately, the exact amount is a secret – to the creation of innovative solutions that, and I quote: ‘will revolutionize socio-technological interpersonal relationships’ or… or something like that. The main thing is, the money’s there. Everyone from our department has already submitted something.”

Silence fell.

“Right. Good luck. I have to go.” Radecki roused himself suddenly, stood up and picked up his tray.

Antoni didn’t reply, just nodded. He sat staring at his laptop screen.

The neuroscientist was dying to sit down at his desk and open up a search engine.

***

Jan Radecki often walked past the Ministry of War building, brutalist and oppressive, but that day was the first time he’d been inside. He passed through the scrupulous checks at the entrance, then wandered along the marble corridors for a long time before he found himself outside the room to which he’d been invited. As a result, he was more than 15 minutes late. He hadn’t managed to revise the key theses, nor the answers to the questions he most expected. He was nervous, he felt unprepared, but at the same time, he didn’t want to wait a moment longer; he pushed the handle of the heavy door.

At the end of the huge, dark room, several grey-haired men in uniform sat behind a table covered with a green tablecloth. They were all smoking cigarettes and checking documents. The smoke covered their faces. The wooden parquet flooring squeaked with Jan’s every step. It took him an absurdly long time to reach the chair in front of the table. When he finally got there, he sat down and put his laptop bag on his lap.

“Jan Radecki, MSc, PhD student in the Department of Neuroscience at Central University. Project Eleos,” the committee member sitting in the middle read from a sheet of paper.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Certificate eight-a, fourteen-zero, and criminal record certificate.”

The neuroscientist jumped up from his chair, the bag fell to the floor with a bang. The echo travelled around the room and the whole committee instantly looked up.

“You have nothing to fear, citizen,” said the man who had greeted him. “Nothing’s happening yet. Committee composition,” he read from the piece of paper: “secret, secret, Major Eugeniusz Kowalczuk, absent, then secret and secret. We have a few questions for you.”

Radecki’s documents were passed from hand to hand and each member looked at them before he was asked the first question: “Can your device be adjusted from the outside?” asked someone from the right wing of the table.

“It is possible, but that wasn’t the idea…”

“That’s enough,” interrupted someone on the left. “Can it work in transceiver mode or is communication one-way?”

“I’m envisioning this function for diagnostic and testing purposes, but…”

“Thank you.” The questioner didn’t wait for the end of the answer.

“I also have a question,” said someone sitting closer to the centre abruptly. “Can the implantee turn off the device?”

“No, I wouldn’t envision so, that would clash with the whole idea, however…”

“Will the user feel the device’s presence?” Another question from the right, but Radecki couldn’t tell if it was the same person as before.

“No. All they will feel” – this time he didn’t allow himself to be interrupted – “is more positive emotions.”

After a while, the man who had welcomed Radecki said: “Are there any more questions?”

Silence fell.

“We know everything,” he continued. “We’ll be in touch. Dismissed.”

***

Jan slowly finished his lunch and looked around the canteen impatiently. This time, he wanted the face of his mathematician colleague to appear in the crowd. The dilemmas that would torment his soul had respected his disbelief and tormented only his body. He didn’t want to talk about them with anyone from the department, or connected to it, and this group included all his friends. He had a feeling of physical anxiety.

Antoni Mikulicz appeared at the buffet. To make sure he didn’t miss him, Radecki started waving. The mathematician immediately beamed and came over. Sitting down, he opened his laptop and showed the screen, half-blue and half-white, but the neuroscientist took the initiative.

“Have you ever heard of mirror neurons?”

Mikulicz looked at his colleague inquiringly and simply mumbled: “Yes, I have, in a podcast I think…”

Radecki, unwilling to wait for the topic to develop naturally, interrupted his colleague: “Listen. These neurons are responsible, among other things, for empathy and interpreting intentions, they’re found… well, that doesn’t matter, I’ll cut to the chase. I’ve managed to adapt a receiver to them, and I’ve coordinated it with an old neural amplifier, so that it turns on at the slightest agitation. I’ve implanted it in fifteen rats, and guess what happened.”

“How did you get the funding for that?” asked Mikulicz, speaking like a true scientist.

“Never mind, damn it!” said Radecki. “What does that have to do with… The thing is, after a day, they stopped biting each other. Completely. Peace descended on the cage. They even started to help each other. The level of stress hormones fell by seventy percent.”

“Well… great. Do you want me to do you some statistics for publication? No problem, but…”

“I don’t want statistics.” Radecki was getting more and more annoyed. “Listen. I’ve shown in a computer model, for the time being, that the same can be applied to humans. Imagine, no one will hurt anyone else, because they’ll be more empathetic, they’ll automatically feel their fear. Or even pain! Like properly morally formed individuals. They will do no evil!”

“Yeah, but… if they’re to do no evil, then you must first define evil, or define good – I was listening to a great podcast, I’ll send you the name later, they were saying that’s a very difficult task…”

“I’m not going to define ‘good’!” Radecki shouted. Fortunately, the canteen was almost empty. “I’m not going to define anything, I’m just going to increase empathy – and emotional intelligence too, I envisage – to the optimal level. Imagine,” he continued calmly, “that you could give everyone the same optimal physical strength. Everyone would be equally strong. Do you understand? Everyone has strength and understands how to use it, but some have more and some have less. It’s the same with empathy. Everyone has mirror neurons, they’re independent of the cultural or social definitions of good and evil.”

“Okay,” continued the mathematician. “What about surgeons? After all, they have to… cut people up, but for their own good. Wouldn’t excess empathy get in their way?”

“That’s a good question. We have to run some more… tests,” said Radecki hesitantly.

Silence fell. Mikulicz leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling. Radecki looked at him expectantly.

“Now I understand. It’s really… interesting.” The mathematician broke off for a moment, and then roused himself. “Are you looking for money? Crowdfunding maybe?”

“No. I applied for the Ministry of War grant you were talking about. But now I’m having second thoughts…”

The mathematician frowned.

“Have you submitted it? Are you waiting for a response?”

“I’ve already had one. I’ve been for the first stage, I haven’t had the results yet. I think I did well, and I wanted to prepare for the next stage. But I also have doubts, I wanted to discuss the main assumptions with someone…”

“You got through? Well, congratulations… Congratulations. You can handle all your doubts, a scientist like you. I must get back to work. Bye.”

Antoni Mikulicz slammed the laptop shut, rose quickly and left the canteen without another word.

***

Faculty life trundled on at a calm, slow pace, and Radecki, weighed down by current affairs, teaching, conference preparation and the fifteen abstracts he needed to send, gradually regained his composure and balance. There had been no reply from the Ministry.

May arrived and Radecki’s shoulders were additionally burdened with preparation for the final exams of the spring term. One evening, as he was leaving the faculty and wondering how he could quickly acquire 2000 test questions for the third-year students, two blokes appeared in front of him; they had no characteristic features, except that they were bald, and much taller and broader than him.

“Please come with us,” said the one on the right.

They were completely identical.

“But… my abstract deadline…” said the neuroscientist feebly.

“We insist,” said the other man.

The three of them walked towards a car parked nearby. They squeezed into the back seat with Radecki in the middle and set off with a screech of the tyres.

“Mr Radecki, MSc,” said the fourth passenger sitting next to the driver, “nice to see you again.”

Jan recognized him as the officer who had chaired the committee at the Ministry of War.

“Good evening,” he said shakily.

The serious bloke seated on the right – the neuroscientist was now particularly aware of the breadth of his captors – handed him a folder with a red seal saying ‘SECRET’ on the cover.

“Mr Radecki. Your application has been accepted. The folder contains the details and a few suggestions from us. In about twenty-five minutes we will be entering the grounds of the Bielany-Tyniec Landscape Park. Before the second turn coming out of the city, there is a small car park where you can buy grilled sausages during the day. If you do not accept the offer, we will say goodbye there and we will never hear from each other again.” The officer turned, looked Radecki in the eye and said: “You have time to read the documentation and make a decision.”

The driver slowed down slightly, and Radecki started reading using the light from his phone. Each paragraph sent more shivers down his spine.

***

A medical discharge note arrived at the Central University HR department. Should the HR manager decide to do a little snooping, there would be no mention in any records of the facility from which it had been issued. Subsequently, a letter was sent to the dean. He burned it immediately after reading. Meanwhile, at the Secret Centre of the Ministry of War, work was being carried out around the clock.

Jan Radecki, the manager of the project – which had been given a new name: ‘Erinyes’ – was leaving another endless meeting. This time it was a public relations agency that was close to the government. The revolutionary solution that was being developed at the Centre required the adequate preparation of society. Radecki looked through his notes. He copied out the steps from the dashes: social media campaigns; plot correction in several series; and finally, a few crimes that would trigger people’s need for radical action for the sake of security. For more advanced recipients, they were preparing a slightly modified or annotated reissue of the books of well-known living philosophers and one new one, the author deceased fifteen years ago – a comment in the margin: ‘Claim that it was found in the author’s notes’. The publication of several scientific articles had been scheduled. The first person to be implanted with an emplant – an empathy-enhancing implant – was trending fashion influencer Fupo.

Meanwhile, military censorship was checking whether the marketing materials mentioned the amendments that the Ministry of War had made to Mr Radecki MSc’s original project. The public could not find out that the services would be able to remotely regulate empathy intensity, locally and globally, and would be able to read very detailed reports on the operation of each specimen. According to the specifications, the implant was supposed to stimulate the punishment centre if someone ignored the prompts of their mirror neurons. In addition, officers of the so-called Forces were completely exempt from implantation. The next stage, for which Radecki was to prepare an estimate ASAP, was an implant working in the opposite direction: reducing empathy. But there was no funding for that yet.

The chairman of the committee – after signing several statements, Radecki had finally learned his name – Colonel Gołębiewski, was now supervising the work in person. He usually visited the neuroscientist unannounced and asked in a strong, soldier’s voice: “How’s it going, Mr Radecki?”

“Perfect, colonel,” the project manager responded, with the smile and certainty he had learned at the university from conversations with the head of the department.

“Perfect!” replied the colonel with a broad smile, patting him firmly on the shoulder.

But Radecki had nothing to smile about. The technical problems were accumulating, and although he had all the resources of the Ministry of War at his disposal, there was no guarantee that that was enough. The deadlines were approaching inexorably. He had a feeling of moral unease, but he had no time to focus on that.

He set off down the corridor. He was late for the programming team meeting, but after that, around 6pm, he could finally sit down at his laptop in peace.

***

Despite the meticulous preparation, news of the government project sparked an avalanche of comments. People were talking about emplants in pubs and universities, on the streets and in their living rooms, there were hundreds of opinions and – as usual in such cases – they were generally contradictory. Everyone was discussing the potential effects of the device, both physical and mental. That year, the ski jumping went practically unnoticed. However, the PR experts were also busy, working double time, sending hundreds of emails, calling meetings and organizing calls around the clock. Bots were producing tens of thousands of comments and deleting just as many others. The unquestionable authorities focused on the positive side of the project, but they also casually mentioned the severe side effects of non-empathetic conduct: there were warnings of extremely strong, almost physical feelings of guilt. The scales of public opinion slowly began to tilt in favour of the government. A few more women and children had to die than expected, but Radecki was still extremely impressed by the agency’s masterful skill. He maintained that PR agencies are the only institutions with political connections that actually do their job. And that the last creative people on Earth would be those in the marketing sector.

The immortal day was sunny but cool, most of the leaves had turned yellow. Across the country, a day off work was decreed, excluding the health services. According to media reports, officially, one hundred percent of the population had already had the small metal capsule stitched under the skin just behind the right ear. The emplants were ready for activation. At 12pm, in front of the president, generals, Colonel Gołębiewski and several bishops, Jan Radecki pressed the enter button. The screen went blank, then an error message appeared, but the IT guy at the next desk (“weird, it’s working on mine”) added a few lines of code and the second time, the system started. Hardly anyone noticed the cock-up. One of the bishops even asked: “Is that it?”

That was it. The people gathered on the squares and in the streets counted down in unison once, then again, and when they reached zero, a cheer rose and they threw themselves into each other’s arms. Within a few days, the level of crime (except for tax evasion) fell to zero, stress levels nosedived and stock indices soared. Relationships ceased to be violent. Nobody lasted to the ‘safe word’ stage. Over the next few weeks, the economy experienced very positive changes, pollution decreased, and the economy of capitalist exploitation came to an end. Half the psychotherapists lost their jobs and had to retrain.

***

Jan Radecki, PhD, returned to his alma mater. He quickly discovered that the head of the department had become a much nicer man – he no longer called even the most stubborn doctoral students in for tough conversations, and he didn’t ask anyone how their thesis was coming along. An unprecedented atmosphere of relaxation and well-being prevailed at the department. For the first two days, colleagues congratulated the famous neuroscientist, but quite perfunctorily, before swiftly getting back to business. Overwhelmed by the new situation, it was a few days before he went to the canteen.

He sat at a table, but no one approached him or spoke to him. Surprisingly, a lot of people were gathered around Antoni Mikulicz, who was giving Jan dirty looks.

“Watch out for him,” a colleague from the department of geoinformatics whispered in his ear.

These signals didn’t bother Radecki, he put them down to the slightly withdrawn mathematician’s social ineptitude. When most people had returned to their classes, he sat down at his colleague’s table.

“Congratulations, Dr Radecki,” said Mikulicz curtly. He tried to get up, but Radecki gestured for him to stop and, a little confused, said: “First of all, I wanted to thank you, because I used your random number generator in the system. You’ll be receiving a payment and you’ll maintain copyright…”

“I don’t care about that. I’m publishing the code as open source.”

“So what’s up?”

Mikulicz sat back down, was silent for a moment, then took a few deep breaths and began to speak at the speed of a machine gun: “Don’t you get it? It’s violence! You’ve forced people into this unnatural behaviour, you’ve made zombies of them! It’s unlawful and unethical. Who are you?! Who the fuck are you to prescribe something like this?! Even now, I feel such, such…” – to emphasize his condition, he hit his sternum with his fist – “…such a vague uncomfortable feeling in my chest!” Radecki smiled. It caught Mikulicz off guard, but a moment later, his face was filled with even more fury. He opened his mouth for another tirade, but the neuroscientist spoke first.

“Don’t worry. Just wait. Let me show you something.” He took his laptop out of his bag and turned it on.

Antoni Mikulicz was a man who valued dry numbers above passionate speeches, so he lapsed into silence and waited, his arms crossed and an angry look on his face.

The neuroscientist spoke and tapped the keyboard, somewhat less efficiently than the IT guy: “We encountered several problems during the work. It’s difficult to pick up signals of activity for human neurons, especially mirror neurons. The dimensions of the implant described in the specifications severely limit the battery capacity. The software is full of errors. In addition, the internet connection keeps cutting out. I’m now generating an aggregation of the reports that the emplants send to the central server.” He pressed enter. “Ready.”

He turned the laptop towards his colleague. This time, Radecki’s screen was half-blue and half-white.

“Do you know what this is?”

“A function?”

“Yes! The probability density function of the results of the random number generator. Homogeneous for the entire range. Antoni, the emplant is just a small capsule made of a material harmless to the human body, and your generator routed through a Chinese server that sends random values and maintains a fictitious operation. And let it stay that way for the time being.”

“So… it doesn’t work at all? But everyone became… different. They became good!”

“So it would seem.”

“And what if they find out that the emplant is a lie?”

“Shhh!” Radecki put his finger to his lips. “Don’t say that out loud.”

 

Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster

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