Shinsei's 'office' through those double doors turned out to be quite the opposite of what he was expecting. In his mind, as he had imagined it lying in bed the previous night, he would have been opening those doors onto a labyrinthine corridor network full of bleeping access panels and doors that denied access to the unworthy. There would have been offices, smooth-panelled and white just like the cabins he'd lived in, just big enough for one person. Maybe a desk to put a few things on, but otherwise nothing but vertical surface for his Angel to pretend it was projecting data onto. Though the job came with the grandiose title of 'Neuroscientist', he supposed he would have the same cubicle-bound data analysing job of all scientists; well separated from the robots that performed any actual experiments.
Rather, it was one huge room that greeted him. The walls were white and smooth, the same plastic that the whole ship used, but that's where the similarities ended. Raised on a pedestal in the centre of the room was a single chair, comfortable-looking but rendered unnerving by its surroundings. Something complicated hovered near the top of the headrest, from which cables flowed like a waterfall into the floor. All of them were neatly tied and labelled in both English and Japanese. The whole apparatus was understated in a way that subtly drew the eye to it, reminding the viewer that it was much more expensive than they could ever afford, and also much more complicated than they could ever understand.
These same cables rose out of the floor again towards the edges of the walls and at free-standing consoles, where they flowed into boxes that controlled giant viewing-screens and blinking touch-panels. There must have been hundreds of screens, all at heights and positions that seemed entirely random to Illuminated's newest recruit, but must surely make sense to someone.
“Impressive, isn't it?”
Shinsei jumped, and immediately felt self-conscious for doing so. “Damnit, Shinsei!” he reminded himself, “be professional!”
He turned, and met the gaze of a man almost as wide as he was tall, and bearing a grin that seemed somehow wider still.
“You'd be Shinsei Hikarigawa, right?” the man asked.
“Er… yes. Sir?”
“Easy on the 'sir', kid. My name's Tom. Follow me, I'll get you sorted out.”
“It looks like I'm going to be your mentor,” Tom continued as Shinsei followed him across the room.
“It's kind of like being your boss, I suppose, but… friendlier.”
Shinsei sighed with relief.
“Oh? What kind of boss were you expecting?” asked Tom.
“Well, I was sort of… I was worried that the guy in the black suit would be my boss, and I'd have offended him on my first day.”
“Guy in the black suit?” Tom paused. “Oh. Oh, him. Yeah, sorry about that. He's some toy that the corporate bunch are loving at the moment.”
“He's a toy?”
“Yeah. Hologram. He's not real. It's an image they force your Angel to show you, bypassing the request function. Like what happens when the fire alarm goes.”
“Oh. It's very realistic. Wait, hang on, I shook his hand!”
“Yeah, they fake the touch too. It's new tech. They haven't put it on general release yet – they're saying it's still experimental, but I reckon it'll suddenly be ready as soon as the porn industry ponies up the cash for it.”
That was not the best of thoughts to be putting in a 15-year-old boy's head before expecting him to pay attention, and Shinsei tried very hard to push it to the back of his mind as he and Tom reached two chairs at the corner of the room.
Shinsei sat opposite his mentor, and the viewscreen on the low table between them flashed awake.
“I should warn you,” Tom said, “you're already kinda' famous around here.”
“Famous?” he asked, quickly turning to see if any of the other scientists he'd seen while crossing the room were looking at him. They were.
“You graduated with some of the highest scores on the Ship in neurology and in network systems, and on top of that, to have Captain van der Kierchoff's personal recommendation too – no-one's ever seen that happen before!”
“Captain van- oh,” Shinsei said, and sighed. How did Johann always get away with pulling strings like that?
“You didn't know?”
“No,” said Shinsei, deciding not to disclose that he was friends with the Captain's son.
“Well, I'm sure no-one's going to come and ask for your autograph,” Tom said with a chuckle. “But if you wonder why we're throwing you in at the deep end, that's why!
“Now, don't worry,” he continued, noting the look of alarm that briefly flashed across Shinsei's face when he mentioned the 'deep end'. “The first few days will just be orientation, getting to know people and what we do, yeah? And I might as well start now, and explain what this room is all about, and what you'll be working on.”
“First off, you're probably wondering why there are all these screens about the place,” said Tom. “Well, we don't use the Angel systems a lot for work here. Of course, you're free to have yours on and do whatever you like with it, but for our main job, you won't be needing it. Now it's not that we're low-tech – I'm sure you know, Illuminated practically invented Angels way back when. It's pretty much that we're too high-tech. Our big project chucks out and consumes so much data that it'd just overload the Ether network, so we built our own. Most of the cables you'll see around the room do the same job as the Ether, just within a small local network, and a thousand times the data rate.
“Now,” he continued, waving a hand across the table. The viewscreen switched from outputting a flat muted grey to a blue-white schematic of the human brain. “Here's the brain, yeah? Yours, mine, generic human brain. Here's where your Angel sits.” A tiny red dot appeared on the screen next to the brain stem, with tinier filaments extending out of it. When a filament touched another area of the brain, that area turned purple. “The purple areas you can see represent areas that the Angel maps into, has I/O to.”
“Input-Output,” Tom explained. “It can read and write data to clumps of neurons.” His finger stabbed at each of the purple areas in turn. “Visual cortex. Audio cortex. Hippocampus – that's short-term memory, though I expect you already know that.
“Now the Angels have arrays of electrodes, at the end of each line, which mesh with the existing neurons, right? So we can insert impulses to make you think you can see and hear things, and we can measure and cause depletion patterns of neurotransmitter vesicles in the hippocampus, and that gives the Angel I/O to your short-term memory – it knows what you're thinking, and can remind you of things. Understand?”
“Yes,” said Shinsei after a brief pause – not for the information to sink in, but just because he hadn't been expecting Tom to ever stop talking. And, true to form, the older man immediately continued.
“Well, that's the limit of what Angels do at the moment. It's pretty simple stuff, really – we just interface with the bits of the brain that we understand in what are fairly simple ways.
“The idea of going further, better integration, has always stalled shortly after this point. We just don't understand long-term memory, or autonomous functions, that kind of thing very well. We can't reduce their function down to some simple set of things we can interact with.
“But what we could do is a full block read – that is, we stretch the Angel out so that it can read from every area of the brain rather than tiny little areas. And if we can read that, we don't need to understand what each tiny bit does at the start – we can just induce external stimuli in the person, watch what changes in the brain, and try to improve our understanding from that. And of course, in doing so, we pretty much have a functioning model of a human brain represented as data. A copy, in fact.
“Now people have thought about this for hundreds of years, yeah? Not a new idea. But there's not been the processing power, or the storage, available for that kind of thing. The number of neurons in the brain is simply so vast, there's no way we could store it all.
“But, and this is not something that can ever leave these four walls, some very advanced computers were developed for these Ships, the Celestial Fleet. Way back, before you were born and almost before I was. They're very advanced processors that run programmable processing networks connected to huge storage banks. Most of them are monitoring parts of the ship right now – it turns out those processor networks are remarkably good at predicting and counteracting problems in complex systems. The other computers? We have them. Turns out, their internal architecture is very similar to what we have in our brain, that's why we call them Neural Nets. They have billions of tiny software neurons strung out in complex patterns. And that architecture is pretty efficient at storing the entire sum of what's in our heads.
“So that's why we're doing this research now, we've finally got the hardware available that can cope with the data. We're calling it the same thing that they called it when they dreamt up the idea centuries ago.”
Tom reached over the table to shake the boy's hand.
“Welcome to the Consciousness Upload project, Shinsei.”
To be continued…