Home > Slush Pile > Slush Pile 2: Sandbox

Slush Pile 2: Sandbox


Here’s the part 2 to my previous slush pile post.  This one is titled Sandbox, and looks at the universe-in-a-box idea from the other side.

***

Miriam wanted some time to herself.

Her work had only been an unending source of frustration, from broken computer programs to the introductory physics class she had to teach this semester, from her administrative duties to the endless grant writing to the silence of the committee that was deciding whether or not she would get tenure. She had had enough.

She told her husband she was going hiking, and that she needed some time to breathe and ignore her ever-growing mountain of responsibilities.

She had told him where she was going, of course. In the unlikely event that something did manage to go awry, it would be good for everyone to know where she was.

After a pleasant drive to the base of the mountain, she went off through the pine trees with her backpack and her hiking boots. For a while, the fresh spring air and the occasional animal near the trail were enough to draw her away from her worries.

One of the steeper switchbacks brought her thoughts back to research. The competition for computing time, the paper deadlines, the faculty meetings… research was never quite what she had always wanted it to be. The knowledge of how the universe worked, in every detail, had been the lure. The carrot, dangled in front of her nose, always just a little bit beyond her reach. Undergrad was the start, with the pat answers that could be found in all of the homework sets. Past that, graduate work transitioned from classes to actual research, poking at matters where pat answers were nowhere to be found and the experts disagreed on what they did know. Much time was spent writing papers and trying to figure out why her computer programs crashed or gave bizarre answers. Years spent as a post-doctoral scholar, with ever-increasing amounts of time spent writing grant proposals and less and less on fundamental research. Then came the professorship, where the trend continued, with more time spent managing post-docs and keeping track of students and trying to publish enough papers to merit tenure.

She had considered leaving the halls of academia for a “real job.” She could get paid almost twice as much for working less hard, but that was tantamount to admitting defeat. And that carrot was tantalizing…

Unfortunately, her inner turmoil distracted her from where she was putting her feet. She tripped over a rock that protruded into the path, lost her balance, and fell down over the edge. Now her focus was on the other rocks that would surely leave a bruise, the bushes that whipped her as she tumbled past, desperately trying to grab something to slow her descent.

Then she stopped.

She had expected to crash into a leafy bush at best, and a tree trunk at worst. Instead, she just… stopped, with no sense of impact or acceleration. Turning around to face back down the mountain, she realized that if she had fallen any further, she would have hit a particularly piercing boulder. That interaction would not have ended well for her spine. She could not figure it out – there was no bush to slow her impact, no net, no mattress, nothing to stop her from serious injury.

“Ow.” On the other hand, minor injury was very much present. She pulled a stick out of her hair, and refrained from trying to point it at every place where her clothing or skin was torn. She tossed the stick aside, then looked around to see where she had fallen.

She could not see far down the mountain because there was a single rough boulder blocking her view. Miriam realized that if she had continued falling, she would have hit it. Hard. Moss or no, that could have broken bones, or worse.

The analytic part of her mind observed that the adrenaline was making her shake as she pulled herself out of the brush and back to the path. She dropped her pack on the dirt, and started brushing herself off.

The rest of her focused on a single question. “What just happened here?”

“I can answer that question.”

Miriam nearly jumped out of her hiking boots. She had not heard anyone, or seen anyone coming around the nearest turns in the switchback. “You startled me…” she started to say as she turned towards the speaker.

Then she stopped breathing. What she presumed to be the source of the androgynous voice was a dimly glowing… something. It was as tall as she was, but it had three legs. From the way they were distributed, that was the number it had started with. They were evenly arranged around a central body, with a trio of matching arms. Its skin was a glowing dull gray. A set of small black orbs protruded slightly from the tapering part of its upper body, hinting at eyes. Its legs and a portion of the grey body were wrapped in a reddish-brown fabric.

“What the hell?” She had not hit her head hard enough to justify this kind of hallucination.

The creature bowed slightly on one of its three knees. “Hell is not involved.”

Miriam felt her natural skepticism stepping in. Her eyebrows rose to the point that her bangs hid them. “What, are you some sort of guardian angel then?”

“No.”

They stood together in silence for a moment, staring at each other. Miriam assumed it was staring. The darkly glinting orbs she interpreted as eyes did not blink.

“You did prevent me from hitting that boulder.”

“Yes.”

“And you’re… what, an alien?”

“I could be referred to as an extraterrestrial, although that is neither entirely accurate nor complete.”

Miriam found a convenient bit of fallen log to one side of the trail, and took a seat. “I think you should start from the beginning.”

The alien shifted in a way that she interpreted as turning to continue to face her, although she could not decide exactly which part of its upper body counted as a face. “The beginning is somewhat ill-defined. It is easier to state why I am here. I would like to apologize for the inconvenience.”

Miriam blinked. The alien did not. “What.”

“I said, I am here to apologize for the inconvenience.”

“I think you’re going to have to explain why crossing interplanetary distances was worth it to help out, and then apologize to, a random person in the middle of nowhere.” She told herself that this was either something very strange indeed, or a prank worse than crop circles.

“Of course. To be more precise, I am apologizing for creating your universe without adequate care or oversight.”

“You did what.”

The alien made another bizarre bow. “This will take a little time to explain. First, are you familiar with your own world’s methods of simulating the universe on large scales?”

“I’m an astrophysicist. I do that for a living. Set up a computer to run the appropriate physics in a virtual box as big as you like. And I do this on the largest scales, big enough that the box has millions of galaxies in it. But you can’t use all the real physics, or put in all the small details, where star systems are small details. Even the best supercomputers can only handle so many calculations.”

“Imagine, if you will, a method of doing such simulations in a more realistic manner. We shall include all known physics at once, from the movements of the dark matter that makes up most of the mass in the universe, to the galaxies that form where dark matter has collapsed into clumps, to stars and planets, to the details of quantum mechanics and particle theory on the smallest of possible scales.”

Miriam felt her eyebrows jump again. “That would take an absurd amount of computational power.”

“It does. Not so much as you might think, since we use a technique called miniaturization. Rather than producing virtual worlds as data inside of a machine, this creates a universe in full, shrunk to a scale many times smaller that the larger natural universe in which it is embedded. We have many such simulations.”

“That would be impressive.” She let a hint of sarcasm drift into her tone. “But why run simulations like that?”

“For the same reasons you do,” the alien replied. “We can’t solve the equations exactly, so we are essentially using our model universes to run many experiments to see what would happen.”

“So we’re all living in the Matrix. Great,” she said, pausing to dig out some water from her backpack.

“Not precisely,” the alien responded. “In this case, there is no way to plug in. You exist entirely within the simulation.”

Miriam worked the cap off of her partially crushed water bottle. “If you can’t plug in, how are you here?”

“What you are talking to now is actually an artificial intelligence operating a holographic projection into your universe. The projection is actually a small local modification of your simulation, which produces only light and sound waves. That is the reason for my apparent glow.”

“Really? So I could just…” Having taken the cap off, she splashed a bit of water at the alien. As it said, the water went right through, wetting some dirt but leaving the alien entirely dry. “Okay, I’m impressed. But I’ve still got questions.”

It seemed to be patiently waiting for her to speak again, entirely nonplussed. But with alien body language, it was difficult to say. “So, why are you apologizing? If you’re implying that you’re God and you created the universe, I’ve got no objections to existing.”

“I said I was an artificial intelligence. I was programmed by the person who created this simulation, and given some of his personality attributes. The similarity ends there.”

“Fine. You’re an angel,” Miriam said dryly. “What’s the problem?”

“I am here to apologize because my creator is unable to enter the simulation himself. The differences in scale are utterly insurmountable. It is not possible to shrink him down and put him in here. It is also not possible for him, within his lifetime, to independently visit every member of every sentient species in your universe.”

Every sentient species. There could be billions or more different races of alien, and this… AI claimed to be talking to all of them. “How many different… wait, you said every member of every species, too, right?”

“That is correct.”

Miriam set her bottle aside in favor of digging through her backpack for her cell phone. It was cracked from the fall, but she still had reception. “Do you mind if I make a call?”

“Feel free to do so. I am able to continue our conversation at your leisure.”

“Thanks,” she said, and selected out a familiar number. The pickup was nearly instantaneous. “Hey, Jay, it’s Miriam. You got a funny gray-skinned alien with three legs?”

“And wearing a red toga. You’ve got one, too?”

“Yeah. I think there’s one visiting everybody. Talk more when I get back?”

“And compare notes for sure. You got it.”

“Okay. See you soon.”

“Bye.”

Jay was probably as eager to get some answers from his personal hologram as she was. She put the phone away, and spent a minute swirling the water in her bottle.

“Now that I’m pretty sure I’m not crazy,” she said, “Why are you apologizing for creating the universe?”

“Your universe was created unintentionally.”

Miriam choked on the water she was drinking. After the coughing subsided, she said, “Well, that explains a lot. We’re the kid nobody wanted.”

“You are essentially correct. This universe was intended to be a sandbox, a useful simulation for testing a few ideas. However, the presence of life was a mistake. As a result of an error, your creator is directly responsible for all sentient beings who exist in this universe. Under our laws, he is guilty of more counts of gross negligence and negligent manslaughter over the past billions of years in your universe than there are people currently living on your planet. I and the other artificial intelligences that have been inserted into this simulation are part of his attempt at compensating for what he has done.”

“Great,” Miriam said. “Hold on. You control the details of this simulation enough to have an AI control a three-dimension avatar. And you say you’re here on behalf of your creator to clean up his mess. What are you going to do? How much can you change? How precise is your control? Was adjusting the simulation how you kept me from crashing into that boulder back there?”

“To answer you last question first, yes.” The alien bowed again, then gestured with the arm nearest to her. “That is the most important part of my task here. First, I will state that I am prohibited from interfering in any way that is harmful or to do something to anyone without their explicit permission, except to prevent greater harm.”

Miriam looked at it through narrowed eyes. “What are you going to change?”

The alien hologram paused, as if thinking. “Please permit me to at first give an analogy. You would consider any parent who neglected a child to be incompetent, and remove that child from their care. We are attempting to correct this now. But you would also protect that child from its siblings or peers if they attempted to cause that child harm, correct?”

“Yes,” she replied. “I think I see where this is going.” She took another drink, then stashed the bottle. As she stood, and started walking down the trail, she asked, “What are you going to change, exactly?”

“Any motion of any physical object which can be readily projected to cause serious injury or death of any individual in the near future will be halted. We will also mitigate predictable natural disasters such as tsunamis and hurricanes.”   The alien followed her, its three-legged gait marking a peculiar counterpoint to her bipedal one.

“What happens if I point a gun at someone?”

“The gun will not fire. It also will not fire if you point it at yourself. Knives and other attempts at direct injury will be blocked. Any explosive that has humans or other sentient beings within its likely blast radius will not fire. Car crashes and other similar accidents will be mitigated to prevent injury.”

“God, that’s a lot of power.”

“No,” the alien said vehemently, drawing all three arms back in towards its body. “That is exactly what we want to avoid. We are not gods. We are not perfect, and we cannot prevent all harm. Most of your diseases and poisons are too complex for us to easily stop in a systematic way without extensive study and work with you. But we…”

“Can you change people?”

“No.”

“Why not? If you can make people stop killing each other, why can’t you make them stop wanting to?”

The alien slumped back a moment. “It is not so simple. We have not spent the many years necessary to fully understanding your species’ particular brain. Making a controlled change with known effects is beyond our current capabilities. There is also the question of whether it is ethical to make such a change without the person’s consent.”

Miriam was both relieved and disappointed. “Even so,” she continued, “You’re the closest thing to a god we’ve got.”

“In the sense that we have never found any omnipotent being, yes. We have only as much control over the physical laws of our universe as you do over those of yours.”

“Why now? Why not contact us before… this? Before however many children have starved and been beaten and died? Before the Holocaust? Before the Holodomor? Before Native Americans or Aboriginals or countless other indigenous groups were killed by invaders and their diseases? What took you so damn long?”

The alien sounded almost apologetic. “My creator’s error was not noticed until the simulation had been running for nearly fourteen billion years in its own internal time. We also needed time. We contacted the most socially advanced groups in your universe, for beta testing of our first harm-reduction program. Any flaws that could harm people are unacceptable.”

“Why not pause the simulation until you were reading to implement it?”

“We did. But we had no way to test it fully other than within your universe. Its initial implementation on your planet is going smoothly.”

“So I see.” Miriam thought this over she went around another sharp turn in the trail. “If you can pause the sim, why not just pause it forever?”

“We see no difference between that action and simply destroying the simulation. No one would die, but you would also not have the opportunity to live, which is equally immoral.”

“I can’t argue with that.” They walked on in silence for a while, Miriam listening to the wind in the trees. Her mind felt that way, a million thoughts blowing around in disarray. “Is your implementation really going that smoothly? I’d think some people won’t react very well to having an alien suddenly pop up next to them. Aside from the heart attacks, a lot of people will start yelling about demons and evil spirits and the end of the world.”

“You make an excellent point, which we have already taken into consideration,” the alien replied from behind her. “For those whom we expect will tolerate the shock, and with sufficient education to accept it, we have chose the most direct route possible. However, for those less well informed, we have instead chosen to use a human hologram that they will find trustworthy.”

Miriam glanced back at the alien. The dark, unmoving eyes were impossible to interpret. “Please tell me you’re not showing up in front of the fundies and calling yourself Jesus. Or Mohammed, or Buddha, or Ahura Mazda, or Zeus, or whatever.”

“That would be unethical.” The alien’s tone of voice seems very firm at this point. “We refuse to lie or practice deception, as that sets a troublesome precedent for our interactions. Furthermore, that would render the information we present to different individuals inconsistent.” After a pause, the alien added, “I concede that this renders many of our individual contacts likely to result in hostility regardless of what we do.”

“I thought you said that implementation was going smoothly.”

“Yes, though that is true only for the technical sense. Contact is going roughly as we expected. We can project how individuals are likely to react based on their past histories and known psychology. However, knowing exactly what they would do would require running a complete simulation of the person. That would compound the problem by creating even more people within yet another simulation.”

“I get it.” Then she sighed. “You know that this renders my entire field of study irrelevant? You already know exactly how our universe works, and there’s no point in looking any more.”

“That is not entirely true,” the alien replied. “While we fully intend to provide a complete description of physics as implemented in your universe, it will be important that your scientists continue to monitor your experiments. If there is a problem with any changes we make to the simulation, that will be one possible early indicator.”

“Great.” Miriam sighed. “At least we now we can check our answers. See how well we did.”

On her way back down, she mulled over the sudden changes that would be sure to follow this revelation. To culture, religion, social structures, science, politics…

She had little more to say to the alien following her as she hiked back to the parking area. She passed a few flustered groups of hikers, each having a confused back-and-forth with a copy of her companion. She sent a few sympathetic words their way, but kept on going.

The alien stayed outside her car as she got in. Before she closed the door, she asked, “Since you’re just a hologram, you’ll just pop up again when I’m home, right?”

“In essence. However, I am already there, speaking with your husband.”

“Right… one other question for now. Why the whole rigmarole with talking to people? Why not read our brains, since you have all the data on them anyway?”

“As I mentioned, we do not yet have a sufficient knowledge of your nervous systems. Besides which, that kind of direct link is complex and must be made on an individual basis. From our time working with members of many different species in our own universe, we have generally found that the most efficient method of finding out what someone is thinking is to ask, and then listen to the answer.”

“You make a good point.” The she closed the door, and turned the key in the ignition.

Then she turned it again, while the engine made some small noises in protest.

Miriam leaned her head against the wheel. She thought about calling for a tow truck, but realized that they were almost certainly distracted by recent events. She ached from her fall and her heightened frustration with her academic posting. Given all the sudden changes that happened now, at least whatever job she ended up with in the future was sure to be interesting…

Then the voice that had startled her earlier that day startled her again. “If you consent, I can take you home directly.”

She looked at the alien, whose three-dimensional image was now awkwardly occupying her passenger seat. “Sure, why not, since you’re responsible for all this anyway.”

The instant she finished her sentence, her car was sitting at an angle in her driveway. “Holy sh-“

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