We were seated in what looked like an old-style English pub. At the bar a man who was missing several teeth was pulling a Guinness for a customer, who was loudly arguing about the merits of Chelsea vs. Manchester United on the telly.
In our corner Dr. Cornwallis and I were debating the related question of good vs. evil (Chelsea fans see ManU as evil and vice-versa), and how much evil would have to enter a good man to tip the balance. We were putting Dr. Emile Hoskie on trial and I was the prosecutor.
“You admit that some of the souls the Doctor is absorbing did not live blameless lives,” I said, trying to damn The Doctor through others after acknowledging Dr. Cornwallis' love of the man.
“Most of them,” Dr. Cornwallis admitted. “All of us feel guilt over something. You feel guilt over your wife's death. I feel guilt over things I failed to accomplish in my career. I'm sure Dr. Hoskie felt blame for some things. The larger question is whether that counts for anything within Dr. Hoskie, once those souls cease to exist and they become part of his larger whole. Once you take full responsibility for others' souls, perhaps the old souls cease to exist.”
I tried another tack. “So you're saying The Doctor has absolute power over the souls he absorbs, then,” I said. “You would also admit that power, in general has a corrupting influence.”
“And that absolute power corrupts absolutely? Certainly.”Dr. Cornwallis took a sip of his Scotch. I studied his hand closely for signs of shaking, for evidence I was breaking through his iron certainty about The Doctor's personality. Any uncertainty in his position, I felt, would surely be felt first in what passed for a physical being, using the cues of life for communication within the Cloud Community.
But unless I could get some acknowledgment that I had a case against The Doctor from this man, I felt, I couldn't go on to opposing him, as Martin wished me to do. I needed to have my doubts settled or reinforced, and now.
So I bore into Dr. Cornwallis, Hoskie's former assistant. “Would you also acknowledge that people can do evil while they think they are acting for good, confusing means and ends?”
Dr. Cornwallis nodded. “There are countless examples.”
“Then is it possible, that in the process of adding all these souls to his corpus the Doctor absorbed some evil, that the lack of a figure with equal or equivalent power is troubling, and that even he might find himself rationalizing actions that on later reflection might appear monstrous.”
“We all believe in the greater good,” Dr. Cornwallis said, nodding his head and sipping at his Scotch. “I'm certain both you and I could do evil deeds in the name of some greater good. Would you bomb Hiroshima to end World War II? That's one thing. Would you destroy the World Trade Center if you believed it would bring in the Caliphate? That's something else.
“But I have a question for you, then. Is is possible that, when the Doctor says he is acting for the greater good, he in fact is doing just that, and we could never know that given his much greater processing power and information storage.”
He had me there. I sipped my red wine, which I had laughingly referred to as Chateau Wells Fargo to the tavern-keeper, after John Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey. “So if the hero becomes an anti-hero who is to know?”
“And who is to judge,” Dr. Cornwallis replied. “We all have to trust others at some points in our lives. And Dr. Hoskie has proven worthy of my trust on many occasions.”
The bell over the pub's entrance tinkled just then, and in stepped Martin Bexar, sporting an English cloth jacket and scarf. He removed both, placing them on the hat rack by the door (cradling the fabric between his fingers appreciatively) and, moving to our table, grabbed a chair and motioned with one finger for at drink.
“Mr. Bexar,” said Dr. Cornwallis. “Dave said you would be joining us. And what have you learned?”
Martin pulled a small tablet computer from an inside pocket of his jacket and placed it between us.
“Doctor H. has been part of the Cloud since June 4, 2025,” he said. “That's about 12 years. During the first year he was here he absorbed the soul and memory of one other person, a former Google executive who had predeceased him and lost most his sanity in the transfer. The second year he absorbed two more people, then four the next year, eight the next year, and so on.
“At that rate then this year he should absorb over 4,000 souls,” I said.
“And he should have just about that many from previous years,” said Martin. About 8,000 in total.”
“It's all following along the path of Moore's Law,” I said. Gordon Moore had written back in 1964 about chip densities doubling every year, and what that could mean for computing progress. So far his predictions had continued to be accurate, and they had been followed by geometric improvements in other, related areas – data storage, optical capacity, etc. – thanks to scientific use of processing power made possible by the original law.
“You're the expert on that,” said Martin, with a smile.
“Has anyone else begun absorbing other souls?” I asked.
Martin shook his head. “Some have, but not to this extent. No one else has more than 17 other souls absorbed into them. Most of the arrangements are either married couples, Mormon and Muslim marriages with multiple wives, and one Chinese computer parts manufacturing executive who has been insisting her former employees belong to her.”
“Her legal claims have been soundly rejected,” said Dr. Cornwallis in a huff.
“But a few still felt a moral obligation and couldn't be dissuaded,” I reminded him.
“That's out of how many souls in the Cloud total,” Dr. Cornwallis asked.
I looked across the table at Martin. “The last count is 1 million, 713 thousand, 321. That's as of the last time I accessed the figure. I'm sure it's risen since I walked in here.”
He let that number sink in. The Doctor controlled 8,000 souls, but that was still less than one-half of one percent of the total.
Dr. Cornwallis had another question. “How does the rate of the Doctor's growth compare with that of the whole system,” he asked.
Martin looked a bit dumbfounded.
“What's his market share in souls, you mean?” I said.
“Miniscule,” said Martin. “Less than one half of one percent.”
“Not much for a retailer, but pretty good for a law firm,” I said. “And it's really relative. Of those soul gatherers who are organized for it, he's got the rest outnumbered almost 500 to one. So how do we proceed, Dr. Cornwallis?”
The man looked troubled.
“I'm not convinced he needs to be stopped. But I do agree it's time I talked to my old mentor,” he said quietly.
I had ordered some treats for the table. Fish and chips for me, steak and kidney pie for Dr. Cornwallis, some boiled peanuts for Martin, who being a lifelong Yankee had never tried them.
“This is excellent,” Dr. Cornwallis exclaimed. “You say Dave drew this out of his memories? I hadn't thought to seek nourishment since I arrived here.”
“We all have our talents,” I said. “I became interested in food during the latter half of my life, so these ideas were pretty close to the surface of my mind. Ask me what TV shows I watched my last day on Earth, however, and I'd be stumped.”
“Which brings me back to our subject,” said Dr. Cornwallis. “I can't test his memory, but I also can't let him think he is being tested. I have to find a way to look into his soul so that he's not aware of it, so that I'm the only one learning anything, while he thinks he's having a casual conversation with an old friend.”
“How are you going to do that?” asked Martin.
“Easy,” I said. “Talk about some of the subjects the two of you discussed while you were studying under him. Not the academic subjects, the memories, the people, the situations that came up at the time. Politics. Religion. Anything that may have had a moral dimension.
“Then see if his opinion on those things has changed,” said Dr. Cornwallis, nodding his head in assent.
“If his moral compass remains true, it could mean we have little to worry about,” said Martin.
I chewed more carefully. The food was a good distraction from thought. “Not exactly,” I finally said. “Remember, he's gained a lot of intelligence, a lot of strategies for dealing with people, with situations. He's absorbed not just the souls, but the memories of thousands of people. The Doctor may have once been a very dry academic, but he now has the talents of many, many people, including some who doubtless were good at manipulating others.”
“Since he wasn't that way in life, it's an attribute he might be grateful to gain, something that would pop right to the top of his stack,” said Martin. “Something he would use regularly and be eager to show off to an esteemed colleague.
“So how do I evaluate my data?” asked Dr. Cornwallis.
“Well first, make certain you record the conversation,” I said. “Make up some excuse. Or just keep a recording device in a pocket. Tell him what a great man he is and you want evidence of your having been there so that when you meet other friends from Meat Space you can brag on him.”
“Feed his ego. Then what?” said Dr. Cornwallis.
“Then we can all evaluate the conversation together when you come back,” I said. “But as a first take, ask yourself, are the conclusions he is coming to more or less what they would have been before, or are they different, or do they appear memorized. And if his moral conclusions are markedly different, or if you sense he's trying to hide something, telling you want he thinks you want to hear rather than what you know to be honest truth, if he's become more ruthless, less caring of others, that would certainly prove something.”
“What would prove him not-guilty would be ambivalence?” asked Martin.
“Yes,” I said. “We all re-evaluate our pasts, based on where we are later, based on our memories, and our feelings about those memories. Some shifting is bound to happen.”
“It's if nothing has shifted in his emotional make-up, or everything has, that we need to be concerned,” said Dr. Cornwallis. “It's going to be hard to prove either way.
“I don't care how clear the evidence, then,” I replied. “I'm going to remain skeptical.”
Cloud computing began as a simple concept early in the 21st century. The idea was make it easier to host files and services online.
When the Web was first spun, companies that hosted applications devoted a computer to one or more Web sites. Each computer ran an operating system, applications, and other software needed to link with the network, just like a desktop PC. These “host” companies were distinguished from the phone and cable companies that came to dominate the provision of bandwidth to the masses. They made more money, and there were more of them.
As databases became more complex, hosts realized they could save money by sharing the database function among many computers. Once the database was shared, work began on the task of sharing everything else, so it wouldn't matter where in a server farm a Web site “lived.”
The first step toward sharing was virtualization. You created a version of an operating system and linked it to every program requiring it, then ran your whole system in one way. So what looked like a Windows machine might actually be Linux, or vice versa. Each system became an “instance” of something larger, and the larger thing could be run with maximum efficiency. These “hypervisors” were all the rage in the second half of the century's first decade.
But they were just a first step. It was a race to drop costs which was led by Google. Google put its data on ordinary PCs rather than expensive servers. Google bought its own fiber lines, creating its own network. Google placed trucks with most of its data closer to consumers, so more requests could be handled locally. Google even opened the windows at its server farms, letting the outside air cool its PCs rather than keeping them locked in air-conditioning. Then it placed arrays of solar panels on its roofs to save even more energy.
With costs dropping so fast, thanks to innovation and virtualization, and with more servers being placed in host “server farms” all the time, Amazon.Com, which began as an online store, realized they could make more money in computer services by replacing corporate networks virtually, through what it called its Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2).
As corporations considered moving their whole infrastructure to EC2, and many moved important pieces to it (especially those their customers linked to, leading to the growth of social networking sites that were nothing but 'customer-facing'), other vendors got into the game, telling big companies they could build their own “Clouds” and pocket the savings while retaining control of their data. Thus virtualization and falling costs led directly to “cloud computing.”
At the same time, software programmers were finding better ways to mimic the human mind online. IBM's “Big Blue” computer first won the world chess championship, then IBM's Watson won at the TV game “Jeopardy.”
What programmers learned in building systems like this was that complex tasks were actually relatively easy to program, because they could be modeled, while simple tasks were much harder. Your ability to navigate on a crowded street, to recognize a friend, to begin a conversation, this took a lot more compute power than figuring out Pi to 10,000 places.
But the amount of software and data processing needed to mimic human interactions was not infinite. And once these interactions could be modeled, such a model could be replicated, infinitely. It's just like anything else – first it's a huge system, then it's a desktop system, and eventually it's just software. Eventually all our mental tricks could be replicated in an online system, and the highly complex job of “moving around” left to the robotics people, who still, in the second decade of the 21st century lacked the mechanical knowledge to create the robotic butlers for girls portrayed in Asimov's first robot stories (which began their alternate history with a story taking place in 1998).
Once mental habits – the entire life of the mind – could be replicated online, work began on making these minds personal, and on modeling actual minds.
Why model real minds? Because software engineers found there are some things human minds did more efficiently than machines, like walking navigating a crowded street. Human computers are analog, not digital. We make connections where there don't appear to be connections that can be made. We play. Computers don't play, they just follow their programming. As researchers continued to study the mind they found this ability to play retained its value. If computers could play they would advance exponentially, but the only way to make them play was to, literally, model living minds inside them.
By 2020 they were ready to make the big leap. Google launched The Cloud Community as a separate start-up, mainly to avoid the possible legal repercussions if something went wrong. And when its first chairman's effort to extend his life by going into The Cloud failed, the company's care was proven prescient. Mr. E. had been a billionaire many times over. Had he not been an insider the legal consequences could have been monstrous. (They were bad enough anyway.)
An entirely new corporate structure was needed, one that would create a contract with even less legal liability than a Microsoft EULA but the potential of eternal life within a computing system. Eternity would come at the price of service. Critics called it slavery, but critics weren't about to die.
Those who entered The Cloud Community, in other words would surrender their souls, under a contract, and all their worldly goods. They would also enter into an eternal “labor” contract, one that could call them to computing tasks within The Cloud at any time, the dead serving at the will of the living.
It's amazing, when you put it that way, that anyone did sign up. The branding statement “I exist to serve” wasn't enough. Celebrity turned out to be the key to marketing The Cloud Community. As politicians, famous athletes and movie stars approached their ends and had “their people” negotiate variations on the EULA (most of which turned out to have no meaning) the market's objections to service gradually gave way to an excitement over possible immortality.
Having Dr. Emile Hoskie do his Super Bowl ad from the Cloud in 2028, narrating his own imagined MVP performance at quarterback for the Cowboys, illustrated as thoroughly as though it were truly happening, was a masterstroke. The Baby Boom generation was looking into the Void and, as throughout its life, it wanted an Out.
The Cloud was the Out.
I covered some of this as a retired journalist throughout the 2020s. Many of the issues were familiar to me. My newsletter, “Rainy Days,” became popular. So popular, in fact, that by the time it was my time to go, in 2037, my application was quickly accepted, even though I technically lacked the cash to afford the trip. I thought of it as a press junket.
Susan and I had long arguments about The Cloud from the day it was created until the day she died. She insisted to me that going into The Cloud was as much a death as any other, and that Heaven was a greater reward than the Cloud Community and its promise of service. I begged her to join me, and I think if I had pre-deceased her she would have.
But I'll never know.
Her heart attack, while on a retreat to northern California, was devastating in its suddenness and finality. As young people have said of sudden death for thousands of years my children and grandchildren called it a mercy. One moment she was there, I was told by the friend who accompanied her. The next she was gone and there was nothing that could be done.
After that the kids didn't come around much anymore. Susan had been the heart of their conversations with me. She listened better than I did, and argued less than I did. She didn't judge, didn't draw conclusions out loud. She laughed, a loud full-throated laugh that could start as a giggle, she smiled all the time, she asked simple, leading questions. And she had no agenda of a story to write.
“Go on,” she'd say to our kids, then our grandkids. Or, “And what was the best part of your day, then?” she'd ask when they stopped. Conversation was her music, and she was certain, she told me that there was nothing like it in The Cloud Community. By the time I got my call about my prostate cancer, I was actually glad to be going.
If she'd only known. Conversation, it turns out, is plentiful in The Cloud. It's what keeps us going, what makes for life after what she would call death.
What's not so plentiful here is honest emotion. I can appear to cry, appear to laugh, but I know in my heart it's all the movement of electrons across the grid. I don't feel it in my heart the way I did.
There is something to what they say about the heart of life being the heart, not the mind.
Or is my ability to feel this depression just evidence that I am now, as I have been so often in my life, full of shit?
As I waited in my virtual room for Dr. Cornwallis to return from his interview with The Doctor, I thought about all these things.
I thought about them many times.