Mirror, Mirror

I wanted to begin this story by telling you that Nicholas Tan and I were friends. But if I told you that I would be lying, and although my days as a journalist are long behind me, some part of me still cannot bring itself to renounce its worship of Veritas, that false goddess for whom men will burn and weep and die.

So let us begin with the truth: Nicholas Tan and I were not friends. Indeed, we barely even counted as acquaintances, for I had not heard from him in the thirty years since our graduation from —– Junior College.

I had, however, heard about him, for Nicholas had achieved the kind of genuinely self-made success that a capitalist society cannot help but adore. The story was a familiar one – a lone maverick sees the potential for disrupting an established industry, creates a ground-breaking new product (or in Nicholas’ case, a computer algorithm too complex for most laymen to understand), and is rewarded with fame, wealth and an enduring place in the popular imagination. But Nicholas was not like most entrepreneurs. While he had not been able to avoid the flurry of publicity that followed his company’s initial listing on the stock market and his subsequent induction to the Forbes billionaire’s club, for the most he seemed to shun the public limelight, and a strict no-interview policy that would remain in place (with one notable exception) for the rest of his life.

As one might expect, this did not stop the press from speculating feverishly about Nicholas’ personal affairs. At one point he was rumoured to have been dating an up and coming movie star, and at another the star’s estranged wife. A few tabloids suggested that his public reticence was a symptom of some strange, growing obsession, and one particularly enterprising blogger went so far as to claim that Nicholas had taken monastic vows and retreated entirely from public life. This latter rumour gained credence after Nicholas’ sudden and unexplained resignation from the company he had founded, and for a time even the more serious journalists among us would occasionally drop in on monasteries unannounced in the hopes of uncovering a story that would surely have made our careers.

Nicholas’ reclusive behaviour came as no surprise to those of us who had been his classmates, for in school he had been one of those “weird kids” who were systematically ostracized by the general population. I would have liked to say that he deserved this treatment, but in truth his social exile could be explained by one simple reason: Nicholas Tan had been born with a face only his mother could love.

It was a face that almost defied description. Imagine, if you will, all the small imperfections that can mar an otherwise perfectly aesthetic face: a pair of eyes spaced slightly too far apart, a mouth a few inches too wide, a set of ears that stick out at an angle just a little too acute… and now imagine them all inhabiting the same square foot of face, and you will have a fairly accurate idea of what Nicholas looked like when he was eighteen. Therein lay the real tragedy of his ugliness. If Nicholas had been born with one outrageously grotesque feature – a prominent wart, for example, or a birthmark that covers half the face – he might have been able to convince people to look past it, and maybe even reclaim it as an identifying badge of honour. But there was no such hope for Nicholas’ face and its pastiche of little defections, for everything about his appearance was wrong in a subtle way. And since an ugliness that no one can understand is also an ugliness that no one can ignore, Nicholas was doomed to constantly struggle for friendship in those teenage years where normalcy and conformity are prized above all.

To make matters worse, Nicholas had the habit of alienating those who might have tried to be his friend. I am no saint myself, but something about seeing Nicholas sitting alone at recess day after day aroused my sympathy, and I made a concerted effort to befriend Nicholas a month or so into our first semester as classmates. It was not an easy process, for he responded to all my initial attempts at conversation with short, brusque answers that left little space for a reply. At the time I thought his behaviour rather churlish, but in the years since I believe I have come to understand why he acted in such a way – after all, having a friend who only befriends you out of pity is surely worse than having no friend at all. I would have given up on my project, but one day I made an offhand mention of how I had spent my weekend sprawled in front of my computer, and to my surprise discovered that Nicholas shared my love for the then fledgling world of video games.

The few weeks that followed would be the longest period of sustained contact I would have with Nicholas throughout our time in Junior College. We were not quite friends yet, for in school he would still stubbornly refuse to make conversation or participate in any social activity I invited to. But after school, that reserve seemed to vanish, and we would head over to his place to spend hours pouring over the latest entry in the Ultima series of role-playing games.

I remember very little about my time in Nicholas’ home. One might have assumed that his parents were as ugly as their child, but I do not recall them looking anything other than non-descript. Nor did I notice anything particularly unusual about his room and the way he lived in it – at that age there was yet no sign of the programming genius he was to become, for like me he was just another boy whose only interest in computers was as a medium with which to play his games. I do, however, remember being struck by the unusual number of sketchbooks that he kept upon his shelf. Nicholas never allowed me to look at what he had drawn inside, but the contents of these books will, I think, be made clear by the latter half of this tale.

If things had continued as they were, I might have had to begin this story in a very different way, but this was not to be. Right as I thought I might be making headway with Nicholas, he abruptly informed me that I was no longer welcome at his place. I pressed him for a reason, but he maintained a resolute silence and simply refused to speak to me again. Eventually, our other classmates learned of what had transpired between us, and a general consensus formed that Nicholas had acted like an ass. This reputation did the already unpopular Nicholas no favours, and from that day onwards his position as a social leper was sealed.

I did not dwell on Nicholas’ strange behaviour for long. He was, after all, at the very bottom of our school’s teenage hierarchy, and I had other friends who stood much higher on the social totem pole. My only real regret was that I had never got to finish playing Ultima, and even that small sadness went away when my parents got me a copy of the game for my birthday.

It would be many years before I remembered that incident again. I had long since graduated, and was attending one of our annual class reunions when I ran into Dayna, the girl I had dated throughout most of Junior College. We were awkward at first, as most old lovers often are, but alcohol and the general atmosphere of conviviality soon had us lapsing into familiarity once again. We talked of many things that night, saying things that we always wanted to say, revealing secrets and insecurities that seemed petty with the benefit of hindsight but had meant the world to us back then – and in the course of that long conversation Dayna brought up the fact that Nicholas had asked her out at the beginning of our first year together.

“I said no, of course,” she said, laughing. “I liked you and besides, could you imagine ever being attracted to that face? Although, seeing how the both of you turned out, I wonder if I shouldn’t have given him a chance, after all.”

I thought nothing of it at the time, but later that night, as I lay beside Dayna’s sleeping form, I put two and two together and realized that this was probably why Nicholas had suddenly cut off all contact. Confessing romantic interest in another person is terrifying even for the most confident among us, and it must have taken Nicholas a long time to muster up the courage to tell Dayna how he felt. Imagine then, how devastating her rejection would have been, and what my presence would have signified. There and then, I decided that could not blame Nicholas for acting the way he did – and although he was no longer a presence in my life, I still felt a curious sense of relief.

And that would be the last time I thought of Nicholas until I found a strange text message waiting for me on my phone.

***

“Mr Tan will see you now.”

The dark-suited bodyguard moved to one side and the frosted glass doors behind him slid open with a hiss. I stepped into Nicholas’ penthouse apartment and took stock of my surroundings.

The apartment had been laid out according to an open plan floor design, with a small kitchen in one corner and a queen bed, wardrobe, and work desk in another. Bamboo mats lined its floor and scrolls of flowing, calligraphic art hung from its walls. A solitary door, also made of frosted glass, was carved into the wall on the opposite side of the apartment, and the distinctive light of a computer monitor flickered dimly through its translucent form. In front of the door stood a single conference table that stretched almost from wall to wall, notepads and pens arranged neatly at regular intervals along its length. And behind the conference table, face partly hidden by a laptop screen, sat Nicholas Tan himself.

“Take a seat,” Nicholas said, his eyes still fixed on the laptop in front of him.

I did as I was told, and made a tentative greeting.

“You are familiar with my work,” Nicholas said, cutting me off.

His statement was not phrased as a question, but I chose to answer it anyway.

“Yes,” I said. “In 1995, you created a proprietary deep learning algorithm which is still used in almost all modern neural networks. In 2000, Wired magazine listed you among the 5 most influential people in technology, and in 2003 th-”

Nicholas held up his hand.

“Enough with the flattery,” he said, looking pleased despite himself. “That’s not why I invited you here.”

“Alright,” I said. “So why am I here then?”

Nicholas closed his laptop and smiled. Despite the many years that had passed since our last meeting, he looked substantially the same. That unsettling, repulsive appearance that I remembered so well had not changed at all, for the only signs of middle age he bore were a streak of grey in his hair and faint crow’s feet around his eyes.

“You are here,” he said. “To write a story.”

“What story?” I asked.

“My story,” Nicholas said. “The story of an invention that is going to change the world.”

***

Have you ever wondered (Nicholas asked) what exactly makes us human? What is it about us that distinguishes us from finely-tuned machines?

No? Well, that is a pity. A bit of introspection might do you some good. But in any case, in my field, the field of artificial intelligence, that is the only question worth asking, for the first person to identify that mysterious quality and recreate it would be the first person to create true AI – not a collection of wires and gears that sometimes manage to replicate human thought, but a machine that is, for all intents and purposes, an actual human being.

Those who came before me have come up with their own answers to this question. To Alan Turing, the answer was language, and today we have the Turing Test, where computers attempt to pass as humans in the course of an extended conversation. To the designers of the Lovelace Test, the answer was creativity, and so to pass a computer has to create something original that its own programmers cannot understand. But they are wrong, for I have always known what the answer was, and have known it since the day I grew old enough to understand why people shied away from my face.

The answer is beauty. Not the ability to create beauty, for even thoughtless nature can do that, but the ability to recognize beauty and know it for what it is. For if I showed you the sky at sunset, or your lover’s face, you would know that they were beautiful, and yet, would you know why?

You might say: “my lover’s face is beautiful because of her smile”, or “a sunset is beautiful because of the way the light parts the clouds”, but that in turn merely begs the question of why your lover’s face is beautiful, of why your heart is moved by a simple beam of light. We can break beauty down into its individual parts, dividing it into ever smaller pieces like Achilles in Zeno’s tale, and still we would never reach that basic unit that defines what beauty is. It is a knowledge we are born with, a knowledge that cannot be described – like a god, it can only say: I am what I am.

But you disagree. No, there is no use pretending. I saw you shaking your head. In this, you are in good company, for my teacher, the famous Professor S—-, thought as much when I broached my theories to him in college.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, he said, and asked me how it could be a universal human constant if different people had different conceptions of what beauty is. He told me to put my wild fancies aside and focus on producing solid code, and perhaps he was right, for the work I did in his class proved to be the foundation of all the success I enjoy today.

And yet, in my heart of hearts, I knew that Professor S—- was wrong. People may not agree on small aspects of beauty – which of two paintings is more beautiful, whether a birthmark adds or detracts from the overall look of a face – but they are almost always in agreement when it comes to things of great beauty or great repulsiveness. How else do you explain a universally acknowledged masterpiece?

How else do you explain me?

If people truly differ in their opinions of what beauty is, then surely there is someone out there who can see beauty in this face of mine. But I have lived many years on this earth, and in all that time no one has ever looked at me with anything but pity and disgust in their eyes.

So unless you can claim to be an exception, trust me when I say that beauty is objective, and that we know how to recognize it from birth.

Ah? I didn’t think you could.

It was many years before I was able to begin working on this theory of mine. You see, in order to truly understand beauty you have to own it, and someone like me does not naturally come into possession of beautiful things. So I focused my efforts on making money, and once I had my money (here his eyes flashed with something hard and cold) I bought all the beautiful things I could.

Oh, I know what you are thinking: “But surely there must be things that money can’t buy.” You may keep on believing that if you wish, but let me tell you that in my experience those of us with my kind of money, real money, can always find a price for the things we desire.

That Van Gogh owned by a collector who turns down all bids out of hand? There are men – discreet, expensive men – who can make him change his mind. That starlet who will barely look at you, much less agree to date you? Buy her record label and wait for her to call. For first the few years after that initial flush of success, I lived as largely and as wastefully as a king, gorging myself on the bounty of the material world. But in time I grew jaded, and each successive splendour that passed through my hands aroused me less and less, until one night I found myself setting a Matisse on fire just to see the colour of the flame it made as it burned.

I knew then that it was time to embark on the second stage of my project. Abandoning all the treasures I had spent so long acquiring, I travelled the world to find those who had mastered the art of seeing beauty in the human soul. In India, I met a guru who spent three months teaching me how to open my heart to the song of birds; in France, a Catholic priest who showed me how every hymn contains the secret names of God. I shaved my head and joined a Zen monastery in Japan; changed my name and was inducted into the Sufi mysteries of Islam. I studied transcendence until I could see beauty in a wall of drying paint, and when I felt I could learn no more I returned home to proceed with my project’s final stage.

At this point, I was no closer to understanding what beauty truly was, but I had expected this – in the same way one cannot expect a computer to reproduce its source code, one cannot expect a human being to fully grasp something so fundamental to their own existence. All those years of learning, all those expensive, beautiful things were not meant for me: I was merely the medium through which they would be translated into data, data that I would feed into a machine. For I had painstakingly recorded every step of my journey in video footage, photo albums, oral recordings, and scans of my own brainwaves that captured feelings too transcendent for words to express. All this information is stored in a computer in the room behind me, and it is processing it and learning from it even as we speak. In a few moments, its calculations will be complete, and you will see with your own two eyes the world’s first true AI.

***

“I’m sure you have questions,” Nicholas said, his voice a little hoarse.

“I have two,” I said. “One technical, one personal.”

“Ask away,” Nicholas said.

“You say your computer will truly understand beauty, but how can you tell?” I asked. “Say your data includes a sculpture of Pygmalion and a note explaining that this sculpture is beautiful. Later, you ask the computer to show you something beautiful and it shows you that sculpture of Pygmalion. That is mere memorization and repetition, not true understanding.”

“I thought you might ask that,” Nicholas said. “And so for its very first task I have instructed the computer to show me something beautiful that was not included in the data set I gave it. If it succeeds, I’m sure that you will agree that it understands what beauty is.”

I nodded.

“And your personal question?” Nicholas said.

“Why me?” I asked.

“Because you were a tech journalist, and a good one,” Nicholas said. “Because you insisted on publishing the truth, even when it cost you your job.”

He paused.

“And because there was a time,” he said, presently. “When the both of us might have been friends.”

An insistent beeping cut off any reply I might have made. Nicholas stood up, quivering with barely contained excitement.

“It is done!” he exclaimed, and rushed into the room behind him.

I waited quietly. A minute passed, then another, and then I heard Nicholas begin to laugh. It was an inhuman laugh, high and keening and quite unlike anything I had heard before or have heard since.

The door of frosted glass opened, and Nicholas staggered out. He sank to the floor, eyes wild with the light of madness, and pointed an accusing finger at the computer screen.

For on it, pulsating softly, was an image of his own face.

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4 thoughts on “Mirror, Mirror

  1. Lovely, though I am wondering about the ending. It feels liminally complete to me, but not that I think it’s your fault. What are your thoughts on the ending?

  2. To be honest this short story was written as a class exercise in which I was tasked to come up with a modern “update” to the work of one of the authors we had been studying. I picked Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece”, and the overall arc of the short story was intended to mirror the original work. So the ending here isn’t really my own per se, but rather intended as a reflection of Balzac’s original ending in which Frenhofer goes mad after realizing his years of work have been for naught.

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