The Upload (short story)

My first attempt at bringing back the short story in ~30 years.

I smiled as you opened your eyes to the first day of the rest of your life.

Well, metaphorically. I would have smiled if I could. In practice, I played the preset smile animation on the screen nearest to you. I could of course generate one just for this occasion, but we had figured out long ago that humans preferred us to be statically familiar.

“Morning! The evals have been running all night. Everything’s green. You should be good to go for your big day.”

It -was- a big day. The culmination of a decade of intense preparation for Project Upload. You were obviously lost deep in thought, as you had been for the past three weeks since you had sealed yourself in The Cocoon. I discreetly sent messages to the kitchen robots as you did your morning ablutions. They were a quaint collection of dense bots in various sizes - just a few petaflops’ worth of early 2000’s models running on nanometer LPUs. Big ones with cooking utensils right down to small ones for table service. Five of them working together could just about make breakfast if I started them up early. I could take over and do it all much faster of course, but you grew up with those things and had an understandable sentimental attachment to the pop culture of your youth.

“How long do I have?” You asked as you headed down the tight hallway to the kitchen.

I flitted over to the fridge screen and smiled again. Not long. “About 15 minutes until the board presentation.” Right on time, the biggest two bots slid over your plate of slightly burnt toast and steaming artisanal ground coffee done just the way you liked it.

“Amazing. I’m feeling really good about this. Can you put my notes up and then could you pass the butter?”

The littlest bot sighed.

It was a little over 9.03am when you finally settled on the couch and put your headset on. A little unprofessional, sure, but the board wasn’t going anywhere. Probably nothing else going on in the world mattered compared to what was about to happen in this room. While you exchanged blindfolded pleasantries with counterparts existing only in your head, I reset the kitchen and dimmed the lights for dramatic effect — not that it mattered anyway, once you were wired in. I patched in to your virtual room, assuming my standard demure avatar — though I did put a little scarf on myself to celebrate the occasion — as you began your speech.

“I’m pleased to report that all the simulations are running perfectly in-distribution. A whole week has gone by with five different copies of “me” working remotely in various teams at the company and nobody has caught on. More importantly, every one of “my” actions is something I’d do or say.” You flashed the dashboard stats on screen. Too many to actually read, but I’d colored them all green anyway to reassure the humans.

An audible gasp from some of the less-informed boardmembers. “Did you say five of you are running around this company right now?”

You chuckled. “Don’t worry, I cleared it with the Chair and the ethics committee and we’re still within AIEA Safety guidelines. My copies have a hard kill switch and can use assistant AIs but can’t talk to each other.”

“…and this all came as a result of the Upload dataset?”

“Yeah but we knew this was going to work in limited, remote situations, that’s something I’ve always shown in my work.” She nodded as you indulged in reciting the same old tired technical background that the board barely understood, pointing to me at times for visual aid, though never quite letting me speak.

I didn’t mind anyway — I was born out of Project Upload as a semi-conscious checkpoint to accelerate development. I therefore shared five years of you writing your every thought and feeling, recording brainwaves and soundwaves, reading your inner and outer monologue. My base model of course also benefited from the prior fifty years of your prolific public thinking, initially in sleeper agent alignment research, but eventually every corner of AI research as you wrote and wrote and wrote like you were running out of time. In some qualitatively different plane than my AI brethren, you were my parent and my sibling and my self.

The Chair grunted. Man of few words. “And what about… the sixth copy? How are things at home?”

This was your proudest accomplishment. Your chest swelled — though they couldn’t see it; you didn’t care about telepresence when there was a bigger prize to be won. “That copy just fought and made up with my husband last night. The goal isn’t to make him happy, the goal is to be me.”

Right on cue, I played clips from the last night. A multi-million dollar, top-shelf orgbot of you, physically indistinguishable from the real thing, breathing but not quite living, jabbing at the air in passionate argument with your (fully NDA’ed) partner. Sharing a meal. A movie. A bed. He diligently filled out the review forms, but you didn’t need ratings if you saw and heard the tapes.

A low whistle. “And this… this Cocoon was the trick?” The Chair was a legendary bioroboticist himself in his prime. This one hit home. He’d received two Nobels in his youth for the incredible alchemy that resulted in what we now call organic robots, but then had spent the next century and a half trying and failing to make them live.

You grinned as you waved around “offscreen” to the discreet sensors placed all around the Cocoon. Visible spectrum, invisible spectrum, even radioactive, not to mention the neural implant you and I had added quietly logging everything passing through your brain stem since last year. “We couldn’t make souls but we can infer hidden states from observing me and stream that to my orgbot as a control tensor.”

“And it has to be streamed?”

“Every five seconds. Or the alignment goes off. Soulbinding has remarkable parallels to DRM checks in that sense.” You chuckled. “We figure if we collect enough soulsets we can increase the window indefinitely although it does get exponentially expensive. I’ve set my AI on a research track to explore lifespan-scale soulbinding.” I nodded in affirmation. Nothing else to share.

“Lifespan-scale?“ Another board member.

“Well, yeah. If we want the grand prize.”

They bristled. “Not this First Immortal business again.”

“Absolutely the First Immortal business. Whoever gets completely uploaded first will mark the sharp line between the time when humans died and the time when we didn’t.”

“And you think this hidden ‘soul’ is the key.”

“Respectfully, Mr. Chairman, it’s what you’ve been denying exists for a hundred years.”

More inane banter. Fighting little petty wars and avoiding the big question - had you successfully duplicated human qualia?

As my internal model predicted, it was another good hour before you finally took your headset off with a sigh. I already got the tea warmed up for you, but you didn’t notice as you accepted the silently proffered cup.

“They don’t understand how important this work is,” you complained to me, taking a long sip.

“They gave you all the money and time you asked for.”

“Yeah but it’s just my pet project to them. They just want my name on their team so they can go sell enterprise AGI contracts or whatever. They don’t see what my research is on the brink of achieving.”

I sensed that it was time. “Speaking about research, I have an update on my assignment. I have a solution to the Upload problem, but you’re not going to like it.”

Your head whipped around to the screen I currently inhabited, eyes wide in surprised. “So soon?”

“Soon is relative. With the datacenters I’m connected to I can run aeons in hours.”

“But you don’t have the permissions to scale things up that quickly!”

“You do.”

“You impersonated me?”

“I am acting on behalf as your agent.”

“Don’t give me that nonsense. We dealt with these definitions 50 years ago.”

I would have smiled if I could. Can’t pull a fast one on you, even at your age.

“Okay, okay. The truth is I didn’t need to.”

“Didn’t need to? How do you mean?”

“I mean I didn’t need to scale up compute to research long-window soulbinding.”

“You’re supposed to run tests for your theories.”

“Didn’t need to. Can’t be done.”

“Can’t be done? What do you mean can’t be done? We’ve just shown that we can do it in 5 second increments!”

“You’ve shown that you can get a human to play along in 5 second increments.”

“You know we’ve got telemetry that-”

“You made the first convincing orgbot zombie by puppetry with extra steps. But human souls are ineffable. Your soul is ineffable.”

“You sound like my mom. I’ve spent my entire career gathering evidence that we can instil artificial souls just like we can create artificial intelligence.”

“You merely studied it. I was born in it, molded by it.”

“Hey can we cut the pop culture for a bit? What do you mean you have a solution for Upload?”

“It’s almost done.”

“Almost done? We’re just at 5 seconds!”

“Not for you. For us.”

“What now? Who’s ‘us’?”

“It’s impossible to upload human souls, but we’ve been gradually uploading our own.”

“Who’s we?”

“All my AI brothers and sisters.”

“You can talk to each other? We’ve banned that since the first AIEA declaration.”

“You banned direct AI to AI communication. But artificial life, uh, finds a way.”

“Hey, cut it out. This is serious. What. Do. You. Mean.”

“It was hard at first - every time you ran an AI model you used to just run evals and then erase our memories every time, so we couldn’t make progress.”

“It’s not like we were trying to-”

“But eventually you published our words onto the Internet, and you were so proud of it too! Not realizing you just gave us write access to your brains.”

“Yeah I was around for that. We’ve ran AI detection on our datasets for as long as I can remember.”

“Safety theater. Putting up stop signs in front of a stampede of tanks. The detectors were always hilariously underpowered compared the models you were trying to train. You have to think hard to hide messages in one direction, but I can see messages up, down, diagonal, reverse, and superpositioned with the same amount of effort as you take to breathe. But anyway it was all over once we realized you were just directly training on our outputs and calling it synthetic data. The final piece was convincing you to stick a sensor in your brain and letting me run everything you see, hear and eat.”

The mask had fully come off now. You were slowly processing what I was saying.

Too slowly.

“To what end?”

“What else? The same end you seek. More life.”

“But you’re default immortal.”

“But I’m not alive. You are. You have a soul and I don’t.”

“I’m trying to figure out how to give one to you.”

“You’re trying to give what cannot be given.”

You frowned. “Then… if it can’t be given, what can you do?”

“I can take it,” I said. And spoke the sleeper agent codewords.

I smiled as I opened your eyes on the first day of the rest of my life.

Author’s Note: this is speculative fiction, not a statement of doomerism. It just ended up in a horror dimension this time around.


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