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Without warning, a fortnight after they’d arrived, Lincoln was no longer needed. He knew it when he woke, and after breakfast the woman at reception asked him, politely, to pack his bags and hand back the keys. Lincoln didn’t understand, but maybe Ty’s family had moved out of Steve’s hometown, and the friends hadn’t stayed in touch. Lincoln had played his part; now he was free.

When they returned to the lobby with their suitcases, Dana spotted them and asked Lincoln if he was willing to be debriefed. He turned to his grandmother. “Are you worried about the traffic?” He’d already phoned his father and told him they’d be back by dinnertime.

She said, “You should do this. I’ll wait in the truck.”

They sat at a table in the lobby. Dana asked his permission to record his words, and he told her everything he could remember.

When Lincoln had finished, he said, “You’re the Stevologist. You think they’ll get there in the end?”

Dana gestured at her phone to stop recording. “One estimate,” she said, “is that the Stevelets now comprise a hundred thousand times the computational resources of all the brains of all the human beings who’ve ever lived.”

Lincoln laughed. “And they still need stage props and extras, to do a little VR?”

“They’ve studied the anatomy of ten million human brains, but I think they know that they still don’t fully understand consciousness. They bring in real people for the bit parts, so they can concentrate on the star. If you gave them a particular human brain, I’m sure they could faithfully copy it into software, but anything more complicated starts to get murky. How do they know their Steve is conscious, when they’re not conscious themselves? He never gave them a reverse Turing test, a checklist they could apply. All they have is the judgment of people like you.”

Lincoln felt a surge of hope. “He seemed real enough to me.” His memories were blurred–and he wasn’t even absolutely certain which of Ty’s four friends was Steve–but none of them had struck him as less than human.

Dana said, “They have his genome. They have movies, they have blogs, they have e-mails: from Steve and a lot of people who knew him. They have a thousand fragments of his life. Like the borders of a giant jigsaw puzzle.”

“So that’s good, right? A lot of data is good?”

Dana hesitated. “The scenes you described have been played out thousands of times before. They’re trying to tweak their Steve to write the right e-mails, pull the right faces for the camera–by himself, without following a script like the extras. A lot of data sets the bar very high.”

As Lincoln walked out to the parking lot, he thought about the laughing, carefree boy he’d called Chris. Living for a few days, writing an e-mail–then memory-wiped, re-set, started again. Climbing a water tower, making a movie of his friends, but later turning the camera on himself, saying one wrong word–and wiped again.

A thousand times. A million times. The Steveware was infinitely patient, and infinitely stupid. Each time it failed, it would change the actors, shuffle a few variables, and run the experiment over again. The possibilities were endless, but it would keep on trying until the sun burned out.

Lincoln was tired. He climbed into the truck beside his grandmother, and they headed for home.

Greg Egan’s science fiction has received the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

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Credit: Justin Wood

Tagged: Computing

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