By Jeff Robinson (2,435)

There are two problems with Free Will.
First, as long as people have the freedom of choice,
they have the ability to make bad decisions that hurt other people.
Second, some people have to learn the hard way… by making mistakes themselves.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a safe way for people to learn without hurting others?


Dr. Warren Hastings supervised the arrival of the last busload of convicts from the State Penitentiary and watched as members of his security staff escorted them to the bio-stasis chambers that waited for them. The large glass and steel chambers resembled a cross between cocoons and coffins, except for the console of lights and computer displays adjacent to each unit. Rows of the individual life support units stretched the length of the facility. The scene of hundreds of men and women apparently sleeping peacefully in each one was oddly disturbing to the facility’s Director. He knew they were alive and well, sedated and sleeping peacefully in a near-dream state. Still the sensation of being surrounded by hundreds of coffins haunted him. In all, more than four hundred of these state-of-the-art somno-tutorial units waited to begin the new experimental reconditioning treatments, which had finally been approved by the State Legislature.

When the last inmate was strapped into his personal life-support chamber, injected with sedatives, and fitted with delicate cranial connections, Dr. Hastings escorted the representatives from the State Bureau of Prisons to the main control room where this grand experiment would begin.

The solemnly silent assemblage of dignitaries reached the control center of the facility and some were obviously surprised to see dozens of technicians hurriedly making last minute preparations for the first day of the facility’s operation.

Dr. Hastings turned and smiled as he directed the twenty government officials to take seats in chairs set up at one end of the lab.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “In a few minutes, we’ll be ready to begin our new experiment in criminal justice. Before we start, I wanted to thank you all for the support you’ve given over the past many months and I wanted to take the time to answer any questions you might have before we start.”

One older woman in the front row raised her hand and said, “I’m sorry Dr. Hastings. My name is Janet Norris and I’m a last minute replacement for Ben Atkins, the Director of the State Parole Board, who couldn’t attend today for reasons of health. I have, of course, heard of this new facility. Its approval by the Governor and State Legislature caused quite a stir in the press months ago, but I have some questions.”

Dr. Hastings smiled gently. His patient sincerity and soft voice made him seem quite unlike the stereotypical scientist most people expected. “Yes, Ms. Norris,” he said. “I’d be glad to address any concerns you might have before we begin.”

Blushing at suddenly making herself the center of attention, she apologized quickly. “I don’t mean to delay the proceedings here,” she said. “I just wanted to know a little more about the reconditioning you’re planning with all of your computers here. I thought the Supreme Court had declared neural conditioning unconstitutional and had banned its use completely.”

“That’s correct Ms. Norris. Neural conditioning, the forcible alteration of the brain’s pathways has been outlawed. Even the most benign uses often had disastrous results. Most opponent had justifiably argued that such involuntary reconstruction of the brain constituted the ultimate violation of the human psyche by destroying, in part, a person’s free will. Fortunately, the High Court agreed. People subjected to such treatments often spend the rest of their lives as prisoners within their own skulls, unable to act independently, their free-will restricted by irrevocable prohibitions and compulsions that limit their actions and even their very thoughts.

“The process we’ll be demonstrating today doesn’t directly change anything within the human brain. We use techniques of accelerated learning, not neural reconstruction.”

“Oh,” she said, frowning. “I misunderstood.” Her eyebrows furrowed and for a moment she looked even more confused. “Actually,” she said, continuing, “I still don’t understand. How is what you’re doing any different from neural conditioning?”

Dr. Hastings grinned broadly and nodded. “That’s an excellent question. I wish others were so forthright with their questions. Most people assume the two approaches are the same when they are not. Let me explain.”

Ms. Norris sat back and relaxed. The facility Director seemed more like a teacher or a storyteller than a scientist and soon had his audience listening raptly to his explanation.

“In the past several decades we’ve learned a tremendous amount about the human brain. We can tap directly into an individual brain and examine in remarkable detail the processes that underlie human thought. We’ve even discovered how to change the brain’s wiring and alter both memory and perception. Unfortunately, when we do so, we often do irreparable harm. The brain, you see, is incredibly delicate and inconceivably complex. Our efforts to alter memory and personality are still relatively crude. Changing someone’s personality is like erasing the face off Leonardo daVinci’s Mona Lisa and redrawing it with a child’s crayon. Even with the greatest care, the reconstructed sections don’t match the rest of the brain. People subjected to such reconstruction sometimes lose all sense of initiative and creativity. They often lose the passion, which is the true essence of individuality. While we can erase tendencies to commit violence, to lie, steal, or even hate, we also inevitably destroy an individual’s ability to care, to empathize with others, to love.”

Ms. Norris nodded silently.

“Over the years,” continued Hastings, “we’ve learned that you cannot talk or argue away someone’s basic personality. You cannot teach someone to be different than they already are. Logic cannot dispel prejudice; reason cannot displace emotion, because, fundamentally, logic and reason didn’t put them there.

“An individual’s personality is simply the sum of all the decisions he’s ever made, or all the questions he’s ever asked. The true shaping, or reshaping of a personality is based upon experiential learning. That’s why efforts to rehabilitate criminals have failed so significantly despite technological breaktroughs.

“Neural rehabilitation doesn’t work. Unfortunately, neither does simple imprisonment. Criminals learn little or nothing as the result of physical incarceration. If they learn anything at all, it’s not constructive. Their association with other convicts like themselves usually just reinforces the habits and behaviors, which led them into prison in the first place.

“What we plan to do is to give criminals new experiences and let them learn new behaviors to replace their old ones.”

“But won’t that take a lot of time and money and how will your work here give them new experiences?” asked Ms. Norris.

“Ms. Norris, have you heard of the advances in Virtual Reality over the past few years? Through the use of trans-dural neural induction we can tap directly into the brain and simulate every human sensation, sight, hearing, touch, smell, even taste.”

“Of course,” she replied. “And I’ve heard that VR is one reason we’ve had such a rapid increase in crime. Many criminals are VR addicts, wireheads, and they’re spent most of their lives trapped in perverted or violent illusory worlds.”

“That’s right,” replied Hastings. “People in VR are exposed to artificial experiences in which there are no consequences to their actions. In their VR games they are rewarded for developing behaviors, which are frankly quite anti-social. But what they learn and what they become is all based upon those experiences.

“What we’re going to do is much the same thing, except we’ll control the experiences they have, to teach them different things. Each of the convicts brought to this facility will spend as much time as it takes to relearn different behaviors, positive, constructive ones. They’ll essentially re-grow new, more balanced personalities.

Ms. Norris look worried. “But won’t that take a long time? Wouldn’t you have to keep them here years?”

Dr. Hastings smiled widely again. “Normally, you’d be right,” he said. “But remember what I told you. We’ve learned a lot about the structure of the human brain and it’s internal chemistry. By using specific chemical neurotransmitters, we can speed up the processes in the brain and greatly accelerate the rate at which people think and learn. By speeding up the brain’s operations chemically, and providing external stimulus using these high-speed computers, each inmate here can undergo years of new experiences in a matter of hours. In fact, even the most recalcitrant criminal can live several lifetimes of subjective time in just a few days.

“These techniques were originally developed to accelerate learning, but the opportunity to rehabilitate the most hardened criminals is a unique opportunity to correct what has always been beyond our abilities to influence.”

Janet Norris’s jaw dropped open slightly in shock. “I… I didn’t know. You mean these convicts are going to experience years of punishment in a matter of days. Wouldn’t that be cruel and unusual?”

“No, not at all,” countered Hastings. “Their experiences won’t be punishment. Each criminal has been given a mnemonic block, which prevents them from accessing current memories. They won’t remember they’re criminals. They won’t remember their crimes. Inside these chambers, they’ll live out entirely new lives directed and controlled by these computers. This facility houses one of the largest, and most expensive collections of computing power ever assembled. Each processing unit will provide a VR world that’s completely real to the subject. The test subjects will learn the consequences of their actions, the difference between right and wrong. In each isolated world, they’ll be able to act and think as if their surroundings were real. Indeed, they will think these worlds are reality.

“They’ll be able to make decisions of their own free will and act for good or ill, without risking harm to anyone. However, unlike the VR games to which many of them were addicted, they won’t be rewarded for bad behavior. They’ll live to see and experience the consequences of their actions, even though the results might take many subjective years for them. The treatment won’t be cruel. It’ll be as realistic as we can make it. In many cases, as you suspect, it may take many subjective lifetimes to correct behaviors that have become so ingrained.

“Remember,” he said, in a lecturing mode, “a personality only grows from the experiences individuals face during their lives. We hope that, by the time most of these criminals leave here, they’ll have learned lessons most of us take a lifetime to learn. It may take them a very long subjective time, but that’s probably the only way to really acquire wisdom. What we’re offering them here are new opportunities and new experiences; a whole new life.”

Ms. Norris bit her lip briefly and, after a moment’s hesitation, asked, “But how can you be sure this will work?”

“Because I have already undergone this entire process,” said Dr. Hastings. “While working with the program modelers, I lived for many months within these simulations. We’ve crafted worlds of incredible complexity, worlds that are amazingly detailed and complex. They are realistic beyond anything VR technology has ever envisioned. In the past twelve months, I’ve spent nearly a thousand subjective years inside these simulations, making adjustments and tuning the worlds these men will live in. I know better than anyone else alive, how important this is, for I myself have been changed.”

The audience sat stunned. Dr. Hasting’s passion and conviction swayed them. Even if they did not completely believe him, each of them silently hoped his experiments would work. When it seemed no one else was going to ask anymore questions, Dr. Hastings turned and motioned to one of the members of his staff

Before he could give any instructions, however, a bright light suddenly appeared in the center of the room. Raising his hand to shield his eyes from the blinding glare, he squinted and managed to make out the outline of a being standing in the brilliant radiance.

“I am sorry, Dr. Hastings,” said a resounding yet soundless voice. “I’m afraid I can’t permit this experiment to proceed.”

“Who…who are you?” stuttered Hastings.

“I am… a messenger,” came the reply.

Unable to see the being clearly, Dr. Hastings looked around and was stunned to find everyone in the facility immobile, as if frozen in place. No, not everyone, he thought, correcting himself. A few others were moving, and like him shielded their eyes from the painfully intense light in the center of the room. All of those not frozen, however, were senior members of his staff. Everyone else, all of the other technicians and the entire audience of officials were frozen in place, as if time had stopped.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“It is time to terminate this experiment, Dr. Hastings,” said the being in light in a hauntingly resounding voice. “This project has gone on long enough and cannot be allowed to continue.”

“Oh my God,” muttered a technician behind him. “It’s an alien.”

Another scientist shook his head and said, “No…it’s…it’s an angel. That’s what angel means, a messenger from God.”

Hastings frowned and turned back to the being. As his eyes slowly adjusted, he began to distinguish details of the large form silhouetted in the light. It was tall and graceful, but he couldn’t tell if the light came from wings on the creature or if the glare came from an arch-like opening behind it. Uncertain what the being was, he asked, “But…but why? What have we done wrong?”

“You’ve done nothing wrong. Nor have the others assembled here. Indeed, your ideas are sound and your theories correct. You intentions should be applauded, but what you plan here cannot be sanctioned.”

Feeling lost and powerless, Hastings scanned the room once more. Most everyone remained as motionless as statues, as the four most senior and respected members of his staff approached and stood beside him.

Turning back to the being of light, Hastings demanded. “Why can’t this permitted?”

The entity smiled gently and said, “Because it create an unacceptable level of recursion.”

Hastings scowled. A colleague next to him said, “But that doesn’t make sense. Recursion is a function of self-reference. It leads to infinite complexity and paradox.”

The being nodded slowly, smiling even more broadly.

Hastings thought for a moment, then his eyes widened in shock. “Wait,” he said. “Recursion also applies when a software subroutine calls itself.”

His colleague shook his head in bewilderment. “But that would mean we’re creating a simulation…”

“…inside another simulation,” said Hastings completing his friend’s sentence. A stunned expression of shock and horror accompanied his realization.

The being nodded for a final time. “That’s correct,” it said. “It’s time to go now. You’ve learned enough lessons here.” And with that comment, the being waved its arm.

In a soundless flash of light, Dr. Hastings and those senior members of his staff who had witnessed the visitation disappeared along with all the computers in the room.

The brightness faded and time resumed its course, leaving the remaining members of audience confused and blinking in amazement as they struggled unsuccessfully to understand what had just occurred.


If you like what you have read or would like to send me your comments on this story, please feel free to contact me by clicking on the following link