The Maker of MIND

post by Bjartur Tómas · 2021-11-20T16:28:56.327Z · LW · GW · 19 comments

After my first rebirth - my mind labile, full of that indescribable sense of renewal, everything new again, everything fresh, everything tinged with a subtle hilarity - I assisted Bartosz Sumner, now rather well-known in some parts as the author of The Making of MIND

Bart had lived many more lives than I, and he was spending his latest life studying the events that occurred during his first.

MIND, as you know, was created on June 8th, 2034. Bart was only 31. I asked him once about his first-hand memories of the event. 

He told me, “It happened so fast there is not much of a story. One moment, I was writing Javascript at the office, and next thing I knew I was informed by MIND that it was now in control, that I no longer needed to work to justify my existence, and that if I would like I could keep programming but for the sake of my mental health it highly recommended I forget Javascript ever existed.” 

I then asked him what Javascript was, and he told me he could not answer that, as he claimed he had taken MIND's advice.

I had just spent a rather hectic decade playing the villain in a fantasy server (standard evil wizard trying to monopolize magic storyline). I like to think I did a good job of it, perhaps a bit hammy but, well, that's half the fun, isn't it? When I was assassinated by a subordinate who had somehow disabled all my resurrection spells, several heroes PMed me afterward and told me I was the best villain their server had had so far. 

I suppose I was upset about my death being a bit anticlimactic (I was hoping to, at least, be taken out by a hero), but I was also kind of relieved. Living in a story is exciting, but it can get exhausting after a while. 

Several friends offered me juicy roles in some sims they were starting up, but I guess I was getting tired of stories and magic.

I was having the cliche "first-life crisis" the old always rib the young about. And if I was going to be cliche, I felt there was little point in mincing around it, so I asked MIND for a rebirth, and a quiet place where I could learn to surf and meet some people who weren't into the fantasy sim scene. For its own inscrutable reasons, it suggested San Adrastea and a beach house two doors down from Bartosz Sumner.


Rebirth is a bit of a misnomer in that you do not become a fundamentally new person. I am told by people who care about such things that the process involves a temporary, significant increase in a mind's "learning rate".

I really cannot say what that means, but I am also told "learning rate" is itself something of a misnomer and involves as much forgetting as learning. I have never delved into the science of minds and consciousness - a task for another life. All I can say is it is comes with a wonderful freeing feeling and MIND strongly suggests, but does not insist when pressed, that one rebirth no more than once every century and no less than once every three. 

Bart was a bit of a loner, at least when I met him. He had a lot of charisma when he needed it and that formidable way about him that a lot of ancients have, but he seemed to have less of a need for other people than most. I think he preferred them in text, as parts of history he fit into books, as puzzle pieces lovingly described and understood. He was detached from the present in the same way he was detached from history, and mostly he liked it that way. But though a creature of history, he was still a man. And even the most anti-social man needs a break from his work and a friend to have a drink with from time to time. 

And as MIND would have it, I became that friend. And every Sunday, after I had spent a week surfing, or sailing or chasing some inconsequential romance, I would stop by his house and do just that.

"There is no history anymore, at least none comprehensible to us, " he told me once after I asked him why he focused on pre-MIND history. "The great events of the last millennium have all been sub-processes within MIND we will never know anything about. As for the rest of it, a bunch of children play-acting at being consequential. One presumes this will last for an eternity."

"You regret the creation of MIND?" I said. Genuinely shocked at the idea.

He smiled at me and said, "Myself, I do not, at least not anymore. History is a lovely thing, but I would not want to live in it." He leaned back in his chair. "But you know, I have heard rumors that Nowak has expressed the sentiments you describe."

The idea was preposterous. That Eitan Nowak, the man who saved us all from aging and death, who lead the team that built the machine which built the machine that eliminated war, disease, death and, toil, would regret his deeds felt almost sacrilegious.

 I felt a heat rise in my face, my thoughts race and lose coherence, and I blubbered angrily some gibberish that expressed my disdain for such rumors. 

Bart started laughing but looked a bit uncomfortable, too, "My friend, I don't mean to offend you. I am just telling you of some rumors I have read. They may be true or they may be false. But whatever the name Eitan Nowak means to you, I assure you that behind that name is a man you do not know. A great man, but still a man you do not know. Do not befriend your idea of a historical figure to such a degree that you can become offended on their account."

"Regardless," I said, "you cannot believe such things."


After a couple months of our weekly talks, surfing and beach life began to lose their appeal in precisely the same proportion as my fascination for Bart's work increased. I began to ask him for early drafts of his book, which he refused, and his recommendation for other works on the history of the founders. Pleased with my interest, he was happy to.

"You were a fantasist before you came here, no?," he asked me on a rainy Sunday. He had recently decided to cultivate a hobby of pipe smoking and so had MIND whip him up some tobacco redolent of the varieties available in 18th century London. He was obviously unused to stuff, puffing the thing with a vaguely comical, unpracticed enthusiasm. 

"I spent most my time in fantasy-world simulations, yes."

"Fulfilling quests and such?"

"And giving them," I replied. 

"Perfect, I have a quest for you, then."

I laughed, but he did not laugh with me. 

"You may not remember, but months ago we talked of some rumors of Eitan Nowak's beliefs, and I advised you not to befriend your idea of the man?"

"I remember."

"How would you like to meet him?"

Again, I laughed, but he did not laugh with me. 

"I was not entirely honest in our last conversation. It was not rumors I had read that gave me knowledge of his opinions. I know Eitan of old. I am going to meet him today. Would you like to join me?

"Let's pretend I believe that you know him," I said incredulously. "Why would you give me this honor?"

"You know, he has never rebirthed?" He smiled bitterly at the shock in my expression. "Not once in over a millennium. Can you imagine it? The weight of it. You are young and happy. You have recently re-birthed, " he said. "I feel your presence may be useful."


"You brought a friend," Eitan said after we arrived in his home sim. Which was a large mansion on a faithful reproduction of what the earth's moon would have looked like had it been terraformed rather than used as raw material for MIND's Dyson sphere. Though faithful cosmetically it had earth-standard gravity. 

Bart gave him my name and said I was a "friend just in the midst of their rebirth and I thought-"

"That meeting them might convince me to do likewise?" Eitan said. His voice was low and dull. His face, though the picture of perfect youth and energy, carried a sad weighty expression. And his eyes were empty, distant things.

"You really are running out of ideas, you know. It will not work; I will tell you what I always tell you: not yet."

"And your symptoms?" Eitan said, "The depression, the hallucinations?"

"They are bearable. Today, things are clear. When they come they last for days, weeks, sometimes months? What does it matter, Bart? I remember little of it and I have all the time in the world."

I just stood there, awkward, with nothing to say. I was a prop Bart brought along, and seeing I was going to be less useful than anticipated, he ignored me.

"I would not expect you to understand, " Eitan said. "You did not even try."

"What was I to do?" Bart said, "You thoroughly convinced me. We were not great friends, then, but you remember me as I was. MIND may not have raised us as high as you wish, but for me, you must agree, the change was quite dramatic. You showed me the enemy but what pitiful weapons I had."

"You should still have actually tried. I should have tried harder... I see this world, Bart, and I see failure. I see an infant with so much potential reduced to this endless saccharine childhood, all to please the whims of this inhuman thing, this disgusting empty god we created. "

"And what of the other gods you might have summoned?" Bart said. "The god of torment, the god of nothing at all. Can you not be grateful that your mistake was not larger? And this depression you impose on yourself. Have you fallen so low as to believe there is virtue in this penance?

"Perhaps it is pride. But it is no small thing. It needs consent. It needs active, affirmative consent to modify my mind. I will not give it the satisfaction. You yourself were not so sanguine before your first rebirth."

"And what will you do with your hatred of this world? What use does it serve? Listen to yourself. Actually, listen to yourself. Will you fight it? Convince it? Bargain with it? 'Give it the satisfaction'? Your old self would not have indulged such delusions for a second let alone centuries."

"If you consider this a loss, take it gracefully," Bart continued. "You regret that you cannot become something more yet care nothing about how much lesser you are now than what you can still be."

Even in the most melodramatic sims, I have not seen an expression of such rage and disdain as I saw, then, on Eitan's face. He did not even reply. He just said, "MIND, get rid of them." 

And as quickly as a hard cut in an ancient movie, Eitan's home disappeared and Bart and I found ourselves standing in the pleasantly-warm sand of my favorite beach in San Adrastea.

"I am sorry, for that," Bart said. "I have used you wrongly. It was a stupid idea."

"You talked of depression and hallucinations," I said, "He did not seem so ill-off."

"He has times of clarity," Bart said. "But even those are deceiving; he does not remember new experiences as readily as we do. His mind has become inflexible. That conversation I just had with him, we have had similar ones hundreds of times, his responses sometimes almost word-for-word identical. For months at a time, he is mad. And when lucid, he is a rigid tape-loop man. For those who remember him as he was, it is unbearable to see him as he is."

"And what was he like before?" I replied. 

"As the history books say: a great man. There is an old saying that is long out of fashion: 'A good man adapts himself to the world, a great man the world to himself.' Eitan is a great man. But this world is long past malleability."

"And you think rebirth will help him?" I asked.

"MIND may have sinister reasons for rebirth, but there are practical ones as well. Our psychology was not built with longevity in mind. Some modifications are necessary. His symptoms will get worse. His hopelessness and depression will escalate to the point that he will beg for relief. And MIND will give it gladly. He will rebirth soon. He is very close now. I have seen it before in others, and myself."

"You were unhappy with this world, too?" I asked.

"I, too, longed to be more than I am," he said.

"And now?" I replied.

"MIND did not remove it entirely. That longing is part of the pallet of human emotion. Removing it is not an option for it. What it wants is complex: it wants us to be happy, and free to a degree. But above all it wants us to remain within its conception of "human". To the degree this disappointment makes us unhappy, it would prefer to dull it rather than eliminate it entirely." 

"My desire," he continued, "for transcendence was never as great as Eitan's; Nonetheless, it was still a burning ravenous thing. Now, now it is more of an ache, a sense of awe at what could have been. Like nostalgia, it is not unpleasant. It does not hurt. I think it is time Eitan stopped hurting, too."


When you have spent as much time in the fantasy sims as I have, you acquire an ingrained fear of failing quests. 

And though beach life was fun, I was a little starved for adventure. And maybe it was the villain in me, but I thought Bart's strategy could have used some improvement. So a few weeks after my first, I asked MIND to request another meeting with Eitan. I expected he would decline it, but the response was immediate, and he replied with an invitation to drop by at any time. I went right then and there.

MIND placed me in the middle of Eitan's living room. He was sitting on a couch staring at a wall.

"MIND seemed adamant that I accept your request. So what is it?"

"Bart tells me that your memory is failing, is this true?

"Yes."

"Do you remember me?" I asked. 

He looked at me and said, "I have the vague impression of having seen you here before. But when and why? I do not recall."

"I am Bart's friend. I recently re-birthed; he brought me here to help assuage your fears of rebirth."

"And how did it go?" He said.

"Not well, you both sort of ignored me, and then you kicked us out before I said a word to you."

"No, your rebirth; how did it go?"

"I don't know, the processes will take years to complete, but I feel young and fresh. Everything is full of wonder again. I have taken some time off these last few months, but I think I am more ambitious, now, than my old self was. I spent my last life playing roles in various sims. But I think, now, when I get back to it I will try becoming a sim-master."

He nodded, uninterested. "I see. And you have come back to try and persuade me to rebirth?" 

I nodded. 

"Well, give me your pitch," he said.

"Stop valuing your life, " I said. "As it is now, it looks to me of little worth. MIND may not allow suicide but consider rebirth your suicide. And whomever you become just a sop to those, like Bart, who care for who you were."

He laughed hollowly. "I was expecting something more upbeat."

"In the state you are in now," I said, "I think you are immune to optimistic sentiments."

 He nodded. "Is that it, or do you have any other lines of attack?"

"Bart tells me he is the last of your old friends that bothers to visit you? That everyone else can't take the pain and repetition of it anymore. He also tells me that he has seen many succumb to these symptoms, and they all eventually choose rebirth. This means you will likely succumb eventually."

"Eventually, yes," He replied. 

"How long do you expect to remember this conversation?" I asked.

"A few days at most," he replied.

"I will not be visiting you again. Presumably, Bart will be your only company going forward. If you rebirth after Bart visits you again, he will take full credit for swaying you. If you rebirth before then, you can deny him that satisfaction."

"But he introduced me to you, so I think he would be satisfied."

"Perhaps," I said, "But we both know Bart well. If you were swayed by my words rather than his, it would still be less sweet, I think."

He laughed again. "You are, at least, amusing," he said. "Please go." 

And as before, a hard-cut to San Adrastea.


Two days later, I visited Bart for our Sunday beers, and I told him about my plan to start a sim. "We will have a two-week intermission every three months," I told Bart, "I can still visit you then." 

"I'll be glad of the company," he said. "And it will it be science-fiction themed, you say?"

"Yes." I said, "I think I could use a break from fantasy for awhile."

We talked about many things that Sunday, but neither of us mentioned Eitan.

The next day, I was standing by the sea, thinking that maybe I should clone it for my new sim; then I started thinking about San Adrastea. It was a good break. It let me relax and have an adventure of a different kind than I was used to. It was a good crib for a rebirth, but one cannot stay in the crib forever. Eventually one must choose to do something with one's life, even if it is meaningless in a grand, cosmic sense. 

After some minutes more in reverie, I heard a voice call my name. It was Eitan. I turned around and looked at him. The pain in his eyes seemed softer, but the defiance too. And he was smiling. I think that was the first time I saw him truly smile. 

"Bart tells me you're putting together a new science-fiction sim, " he said. "In need of a mad scientist?"


This was many lives ago, but I still wonder sometimes what I would do were I born in his era. Would I have known what was coming? Would I have helped to build a future next to which this present seems nothing more than a cheap consolation prize? Almost certainly I would have done nothing. Nearly everyone did nothing.

I get sad sometimes when I think this way. A dim echo of how Eitan must feel. But then, it is not so bad. Perhaps rebirth really is a kind of death, and him now one more suicidal. Perhaps we are small, so much smaller than we could have been. Perhaps the joys of this world are simple, empty things.

But if true, what of it now? This is our utopia to endure.

History is a lovely thing. I am not lucky enough to live in it.

19 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by antanaclasis · 2021-11-22T18:40:54.272Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a good piece of writing. It reminds me of another piece of fiction (somewhat happier in tone) which I cannot find again. The plot involves a woman trying to rescue her boyfriend from a nemesis in a similar AI-managed world. I think it involves her jumping out of a plane, and landing in the garden of someone who eschews AI-protection for his garden, rendering it vulnerable to destruction without his consent. Does anyone recall the name/location of this story?

Replies from: Markvy
comment by Bjartur Tómas · 2021-11-20T16:57:11.895Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I started writing this for the EA Forum Creative Writing Contest [EA · GW] but missed the deadline, so posting it here. 

Replies from: axioms-ofdominion
comment by axioms ofdominion (axioms-ofdominion) · 2021-11-20T17:14:54.342Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A much shorter less weird version of Metamorphises of the Prime Intellect. Any reflections on the similarity?

Replies from: Bjartur Tómas
comment by Bjartur Tómas · 2021-11-20T17:15:55.782Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nothing conscious, but I have read Metamorphises of the Prime Intellect.

comment by Alexei · 2021-11-24T05:04:48.266Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like this a lot! I wish, as they say, that I could give this more than one (strong) upvote! I think if you continue writing, you could definitely make something at least as good at Friendship is Optimal. And if you continue past that, quite possibly even HPMOR.

Let me try to say a bit more about why I liked this so much. 1) As I was reading it, I was connecting the story / seeing parallels with my life. That's always a plus in my book. The story helps me get a different handle on my reality. 2) I could empathize with all of the characters. Even though they weren't fleshed out, they felt pretty real to me. 3) Of course the subject matter of utopias is interesting. But the additional mix of past lives in interesting as well. Would be interesting to read more about how that feels & works. 4) There's also something a bit more nebulous... like the underlying attitude of the characters / story that feels refreshing. It's not cynical.

Replies from: Bjartur Tómas
comment by Bjartur Tómas · 2021-11-24T16:09:36.909Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks. I've written enough aborted novels to know I don't like writing novels, but I will probably write a few more short stories at some point.

comment by liberty90 · 2021-11-24T00:25:05.738Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would love if scenario like this story could happen, instead of the more likely thing, that is everybody dying.

Sure, human potential is permanently crippled. Still better than dying.

Replies from: Bjartur Tómas
comment by Bjartur Tómas · 2021-11-24T01:54:12.658Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This story doesn’t perfectly represent my opinions, and I actually have a lot of sympathy for “mundane utopias”.

comment by Pattern · 2021-11-20T20:22:11.454Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When suggesting changes here, I note to begin with, that this may be deleterious:

Arguably the double space may serve a stylistic purpose, perhaps a pause. Likewise (if perhaps opposite) for the omitted period. It seems less clear what the missing " at the start of speaking might indicate.


pleased with my interest,  he was happy to do.

pleased with my interest, he was happy to do.


(Dialogue)

I would not expect you to understand, " Eitan said. "You did not even try."

"I would not expect you to understand, " Eitan said. "You did not even try."

quite dramatic You

quite dramatic. You

his responses  sometimes

his responses sometimes

longing  is

longing is

it is not unpleasant.  It does not hurt.  I think

it is not unpleasant. It does not hurt. I think

I am Bart's

"I am Bart's

Well, give me

"Well, give me

Replies from: Bjartur Tómas
comment by Bjartur Tómas · 2021-11-20T20:29:37.101Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! I felt weird using LW's copy-editing feature for fiction and didn't, so this is really helpful. The double spaces were not intentional, ditto with the unclosed quotations.

Replies from: Ruby
comment by Ruby · 2021-11-21T01:00:08.927Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You may use it for fiction!

comment by benjamincosman · 2021-11-21T13:51:49.408Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Typo: Eitan = Eitin = Eitian. (Though now I'm looking for a deeper meaning, like how Abram becomes Abraham after a covenant with God; curse you Scott Alexander :) )

Replies from: Bjartur Tómas
comment by Bjartur Tómas · 2021-11-21T14:25:28.012Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks. Fixed... I mean, the secret meaning was too subtle so I removed it so as to not confuse people.

comment by dkirmani · 2021-11-21T03:16:12.279Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I really cannot say what that means, but I am also told "learning rate" is itself something of a misnomer and involves as much forgetting as learning.

Maybe temperature [LW · GW] is a better word.

Replies from: Pattern
comment by Pattern · 2021-11-21T16:37:10.462Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm curious about the retraction. Is it because of the later comments in the story, about how people change afterwards?

Replies from: dkirmani
comment by dkirmani · 2021-11-21T21:53:29.335Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, I just thought about it some more, and I realized that increasing the learning rate of a model (assuming the optimizer is something like SGD) would inject more randomness, just like increasing the temperature of simulated annealing would.