While the city sleeps...
The english civil service is not the most glamorous of professions. The popular image of the government departments of Whitehall is of pedantic paper pushers overly fond of red tape, and perhaps for once there is some truth in the popular image. My own job, project manager (2nd class) at the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) vetting grant applications, is relatively interesting. Nevertheless, I welcomed the diversion that Professor Heimdorff's proposal provided.
It was fairly clear from the start that we weren't going to give him a grant. Although a professional academic, Heimdorff had clearly never learnt the art of getting funding. His application started with the rather too bold "I am writing to help you. Help me to help you." Much of what followed was overly technical, or at least over my head. Mixed in were prophetic passages, wild claims and philosophical discursions. It ended by saying that everything would be much clearer if the DTI just sent someone round to his lab. That much, I believed. Normally such a mess would be rejected straight off. However a glance at Professor Heimdorff's pedigree showed that he could not be dismissed as a nut. The plain dates and accomplishments on his CV showed a man of undoubtable brilliance. He started university aged 16, and got a first class degree in computer science. A masters and a PhD in artificial intelligence quickly followed, as did research jobs, a post at Cambridge university and exemption from normal lecturing duties to allow him to concentrate on research. In between he'd found time to write a program that won the world computer chess masters for three years running. A little inquiry revealed that he was supposed to be working on the development of computer systems modelling the human brain (although his grant application was for something quite different) and that others in his field believed he should be taken seriously. It was enough to convince my superior to authorise a couple of days out of the office.
On the train out of London, I reread the application. It began rather pompously; "...a new development with incredible implications... revolutionise city planning... an end to urban problems" and similar phrases more in keeping with a political manifesto. The proposed project (and funding required) was similarly grandiose - Heimdorff was asking for helicopters, sophisticated digital cameras, a fleet of vehicles, more research assistants and lots of computers.
After this introduction, the Professor switched to discussing consciousness. "For centuries scientists and philosophers have been searching for the seat of consciousness. We know it comes from our brains, and is a quality we share with the more advanced animals, but beyond this, all is speculation. The advent of computers posed the question, Could a machine be conscious? (and its' reciprocal, Are our brains just very impressive machines?). There has been a lot of debate, much of it heated, on this subject. The only objective answer remains the famous Turing Test." I looked up the famous Turing Test. Roughly speaking, it can be summed up as, `If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, we may as well call it a duck.' It was proposed by the British mathematician Alan Turing back in 1950 and we're still nowhere near a computer that could beat it.
"Perhaps a more productive line of questioning is what, and where is consciousness?" the proposal continued, " It doesn't reside in the individual cells of our brains, nor in the brain as a whole when the heart stops beating. Perhaps consciousness is not in the crude matter in our heads, but the way the cells are wired together and the patterns of chemicals and electricity that flow across them. That it is the patterns, swirling interlinked standing waves of thought, which make up consciousness. There is nothing in these patterns themselves to suggest they are unique to animal flesh."
Why he was writing to the DTI rather than the usual scientific funding bodies was not clear. I would later find out from his assistant that he had done so - and been rejected. It was not surprising that he didn't mention this to us. Apparently the professor normally delegated such 'paperwork' tasks to assistants who were actually better at them. However, realising that his current funding requests were extraordinary, he had deemed the job important enough to do himself. The assistant explained this to me with a touch of bitterness. If funding was discontinued, it would be her job that would go first.
Heimdorff's lab was a little disappointing. It had a dozen PCs, but no technology that was out of the usual. The professor turned out to be a small wiry man but with enough energy for a large man if not several. He introduced me to his research assistant, who I was pleasantly surprised to find was a very attractive brunette, then got straight to business.
"What we have here," he said, ushering me over to one of the computers, "Is an ultra high definition CAT scan of part of the human brain."
I nodded. The main part of the screen was given over to a multicoloured display on which colours pulsed and changed in complex and impossible to follow ways.
"This recording has been slowed down considerably," the professor continued, "For the last year we have been analysing such scans mathematically, looking for some key to understanding consciousness. We were looking for something that could be reproduced in a machine. We did not, I should say, have any success in this."
"However several months ago I made a quite incredible discovery. Look at this Mr Johnson." He pointed to the next computer and hit a button. A pattern of moving colours simpler but similar to the previous one played across the screen. Sections of screen oozed and pulsed. Intricate geometric forms appeared from time to time, then melted away again, leaving spirals and eddies behind. Both displays were, in some unidentifiable way, biological.
"It is much less smooth than the human recording, but you can see that they are of the same nature, no?"
Heimdorff looked at me slyly and smiled. It was his big moment. "This is not from a human brain Mr Johnson, nor any living animal. It is a graphical display of population changes from an area of London."
"The complexity of a large city is unimaginable. So many systems interacting. We only have accurate records for population movements, but there is also the day to day flow of people around the city, for work, shopping, to see friends. And it's all interlinked. New shops open so more people go there, traffic grows and other people decide to move house, the shops begin to lose business. The level of recursion and feedback is almost infinite."
His hands made delicate birdlike movements as he became more excited.
"We have looked at hundreds of sets of data, and always we find the patterns associated with conscious thought. Thought is a dance of energy; the brain is only the stage. Here, we have found another stage. People talk of the heart and arteries of a city, but these things are actually lobes and nerves."
He paused to push his glasses further up the bridge of his nose, "London, Mr Johnson, is alive. As alive as you or me, although not in the same way, and it thinks. We cannot begin to imagine what form those thoughts take, or what they are about. Certainly not about us. To it, we are mere messengers in its nerves. It pushes us around, but I doubt it is even aware that we exist at all. As to how intelligent the city is, I can only guess. It is obviously slow. A single thought could take days or even weeks to cross its mind in the form of crowds and car flows. However, that does not necessarily mean it is dumb. It's mental capacity could well outstrip our own."
"This find was obviously far more important than my previous work. Everything has been dropped to work on this, but we don't have nearly enough information. That's why the funding is needed, to collect and collate data. But the results could change everything. The implications already for our ideas on life and thought are huge, but imagine if we actually had some understanding of this thing! I doubt we'll ever be able to talk to it, but we could stimulate it, control it. There are experiments, you know, where electrodes are put into animal brains. It is not as cruel as it sounds - the brain itself does not have any feeling. By sending current in the right place, the animal can be fed thoughts and feelings."
I was astounded. If Heimdorff were to be believed, the implications were indeed enormous. Any normal man would have spent a lifetime checking his findings and examining his results. This professor had already leapt on to taming the city and breaking it to his will.
"A thought in this case might be expressed in terms of increased business or less slums. You see? We could remake London properly. That is why I need the fleet of trucks, to try starting thoughts and following what happens."
He looked at me intently. He assumed I believed his theories already.
We didn't give Professor Heimdorff any funding in the end. Whether he was crazy or not, it was a matter for academic bodies. He would have to convince them. Perhaps it would be better if there is no funding. It could be dangerous to try and control such a mind when we have yet to learn how to control our own. As for myself, I think of him when I travel home from work. I look at the cars around me and the pedestrians flowing along streets that are always altering. I look at them, and I think of the shapes that crawled across his computer screen. What does the city think of? Are there also friends, dreams, love and hate? And on and above; the structuring of cities into countries. The larger and more complex structures. A city is itself a small part of society as a whole, which in turn is only part of the systems of the natural world. "This proves, of course, that talk of souls and spiritual feelings is a load of rubbish" Heimdorff had said, but I cannot agree. Still, I am from time to time haunted by a doubt that makes me shiver. Maybe it is the city that has a soul. What if God created the world for it and not us?
© Daniel Winterstein 1998-2008
This is a personal