When I found my faith, I had an almost solipsistic view of other people.

They say that is how we all start off. But I think I am unusual in that I remember the moment that I realized others, too, were themselves. I remember not because I was precocious. Rather, because I was stunted in this aspect of development to the point that it did not happen until I was five years old.

I knew I was myself, but others were, in my mind, these vast, mindless automatons. These strange giants, simultaneously servants and masters. 

Towards my father I felt fear, for it was his hand that applied negative reinforcement. He was not a cruel man, and his slaps were light and always earned, but at that age even something as mild as a bee’s sting feels like death itself. 

For my mother there was love, but it was the sort of abstract, superior love one has for a can-opener that has served you well for many years. 

And then, everything changed. 

Sometimes an insight comes so slowly you are not even aware your model of the world has changed. And sometimes just the opposite.

My father had taken me for a walk down a busy sidewalk near our apartment. A lazy child, I was not fond of walking and trailed sulkily behind, his hand grasped around my wrist, joining us like a leash on the neck of some reluctant dog. 

At some point, I had enough. I sat down and refused to move. Busy people routed around us like water does about a stone. 

He tried to drag me, but I remained still. He tried to cajole me but still I did not react.

I felt fear rise in me, as I knew he would slap me soon, but my stubbornness that day was strong enough to overcome a fear which proved unjustified.

He did not slap me, nor even threaten to. And I could not understand why. Until I did.

I looked up at him nervously eyeing the people walking past. And I felt his nervousness, his worry that others would judge him were he to resort to his usual methods. I looked at the face of a concerned woman walking past, and felt some semblance of her concern; I looked at the face of a bored young man listening sullenly to his headphones and I felt some semblance of his apathy.

And then I began to laugh. I laughed for what felt like hours but surely could not have been more than a few minutes. I laughed so hard that my father, too, began to laugh, and seeing him do so I felt a reflection of his amusement and began to laugh all the harder. 

At some point, he sat beside me, put his arm over my shoulder, and asked, “What is so funny anyway?”

Lacking the words to describe what I had experienced, I told him I had seen God, and now knew, in my heart, I would never be alone again.


When I lost my faith, I was a student of computer science at Stanford.

It was a simple thing. Having left my sheltered home-schooling, I let go of the stereotype of natural selection I had shepherded since my adolescence. I allowed myself to truly understand Darwin's god: mindless, all-pervasive, His power derived from error and death; a god that does not care for humans, that cares for nothing at all. 

How can a thinking Christian respond to such a thing as that? Is not the Gnostic heresy true? Is natural selection, then, the demiurge? And if we grant this demiurge what use is there for God?

Grieving the all-loving, all-knowing God of my youth, I lost my aversion to those vices any good Christian avoids. To put it bluntly, I became a connoisseur of pornography, which was the rule rather than the exception for young engineering students at my university.

It is in the nature of an addiction to offer you pleasure in exchange for need. The heroin addict takes his first dose, feels a deep pleasure, and craving more he finds the original amount does not suffice, that he must escalate things to get some semblance of that elusive primordial high. He begins to long for the drug, and these longings often involve miscellany associated with the high he craves. 

A common trigger for relapse in recovering heroin addicts, for example, is the color orange, as that is the color of the cap of the insulin needles with which they commune with their divine.

It was in this fashion that the images of young coeds "abusing themselves", which were the height of eroticism for me when I first capitulated to temptation, gave way to a narrower need.

Just as the color orange, through Pavlovian conditioning, begins to merge in the addict's mind with the pleasure of heroin, the consumer of pornography begins to develop particular associations. No longer does a video of just any young woman satisfy, only this particular young woman, in this particular exact state of undress, will do. 

Slowly, one's tastes winnow. When they winnow down to an object or item or act, this is called a fetish. When they winnow down to a particular individual, a generous person could call this love.

It was love that I endured. And it was for a performer by the name of Sarah_Lai_19. 

She was thin, around 20 years old, seemingly of mixed Chinese and Indian descent, with slightly too-long black hair and these devastatingly sharp green eyes. 

And somehow she remained beautiful and pure even as she sullied herself for the grotesque entertainment of fallen souls such as myself. In her eyes, and I acknowledge how foolish and sinful this sounds, I saw that she loved me too, that she desired me as much as I desired her.

I imagined working out her location and usual haunts, casually becoming her acquaintance and, after our mysterious connection became as obvious to her as it was to me, her returning my love. 

After many years together, and perhaps even marriage, I would confess that our meeting was not accidental, and in that moment actions that can only be described as those of a deranged obsessive would transmute into the romantic story of a young man risking all for the sake of love.

It was with these notions in my head that I began to analyze Sarah's videos in a more sober, disinterested frame of mind.

 

A generative adversarial network, or GAN, is a machine learning framework conceived by Ian Goodfellow while hungover after a depraved bout of heavy drinking, and it retains many taints of its base origin.

A GAN is constructed of two neural networks, the discriminator and the generator. The discriminator's job is to classify images as either fake or real. The generator's job is to synthesize images capable of fooling the discriminator. This game is repeated hundreds of millions of times, and at each step the generator improves and the discriminator betters itself in response, until the generator is capable of synthesizing images so life-like even humans are fooled. 

In short, a GAN is a game between a liar and a scold, which culminates in the apotheosis of the liar to commercial exploitation. And what becomes of the scold is best left unsaid.

The clue that led me to discover that Sarah did not exist was not an excess of fingers or teeth, as it appears her generator had learned how to count, but a print of a painting on the top-left side of the wall above the black leather chaise on which Sarah would display herself. 

This poster appeared in each of her videos. It was an image, in Baroque style, of a young aristocrat. 

In any particular frame the poster looked perfectly normal, but as I analyzed each of her videos for clues to her location, I noticed that the expression on this young man's face did not remain constant from video to video, and sometimes, though very, very rarely, would shift discernibly from frame to frame.

The blurry aristocrat's features drifted from an expression of focused confidence in the first frame of Sarah's first video to melancholy, to outright disgust and finally a sort of gleeful misanthropy.

I was shocked as the realization took hold. But the feeling was familiar. For my relationship with Sarah was analogous to my relationship with God. In each case, I had to cope with the fact that an entity I loved did not exist, at least not in the form I imagined. 

And this discovery reduced my task of getting to know Sarah from the daunting one of enmeshing my life with another's to the far more pedestrian one of finding a copy of the model which generated her. 

But in this I failed.

Sarah's videos were posted on ███████.com. Her profile contained a bio, which listed her supposed age, weight, ethnicity and astrological sign. She was not a popular performer, with less than 10,000 views total, a sizable portion of which were my own. 

Her first video was posted three months before and her latest was only a week old. Lacking any other ideas, I made an account and posted the following comment on the most recent upload, and then went to bed:

Very good work, but I can tell this was generated by a GAN. I would be interested in learning more about the model you used to create her. 

When I woke, her profile and all her videos were gone. I had no backup.

To my shame, I was distraught.

Sarah had occupied my thoughts for several months. And though I knew she was not real, she still existed in every way she had been before I learned of her unreality. But now she was gone. Truly gone, and through my foolishness. 

I felt an overwhelming sadness then. A generous person might even call it heartbreak. But if it was heartbreak it was a very short-lived strain, as my recovery had the same feel as awaking from an unpleasant dream. It reached a peak of intensity, then a phase change, and finally the sudden retreat of madness. 

What if she had turned out to be real, and my plans to track her down had worked? - what a disaster that would have been. The pain now the dullest of aches, I resolved to do my best to forget Sarah and find a real girlfriend through more conventional means.


Her name is Kathleen and she loves jigsaw puzzles. 

She has red hair and a pale complexion, her face dotted with freckles to an extent some may find off-putting but I find delightful. I despise jigsaw puzzles, but I love that she loves them. 

And she is phenomenally good, churning through thousand-piece Ravensburgers in under an hour.

She is part of an online puzzling community, Jigslaw, with a custom of sharing puzzles through the mail. So roughly once a week a package arrives at our apartment, and I lose her until the thing is done. She just can not help herself once she gets started - it is frustrating, it is charming, it is very much her.

We met in a philosophy class I attended some months after I resolved to get a real girlfriend. I did not sign up by choice, a requisite humanities class, but perhaps it was requisite for a reason, as I cannot say I did not enjoy it.

But then, much of that enjoyment must have been spill-over from the joy of meeting Kathleen.

When we got together, we were nerds the both of us. Both inexperienced, then, and too ashamed to admit it to the other. But nerds learn quickly, especially when highly motivated. 

I hope you do not need a description of what it is like to have your love returned for the first time, but if you do I will only say all the clichés are true - No, that is a lie. But they do feel true for a period of roughly three months. 

And three months is a lot of time. It is enough time to break a lease, to move in together, to start thinking of yourself not as an individual anymore but as a piece of a pair, each not whole without the other. And though the euphoria started to fade by the fourth month, I still could not imagine my life without her. And I begin thinking seriously about asking her to marry me. 

And probably I would have had I not started working on The Machine

My computer networks professor, Dr. Joseph Norck, is involved with a group of academics working on "foundational models" - this being a rather forced buzzword for extremely large, capital intensive neural networks trained on the government's dime. Once the Chinese started subsidizing this research, DARPA decided they should, too, this culminating in funding for Stanford's  National Supercomputer for Training Large Transformers, which was informally called The Machine.

I did well in his class, and after it was done Joseph offered me a summer internship assisting him. I accepted (though the pay was poor compared to an industry internship) both because The Machine interested me, and I got the impression Joseph was feeling me out as an eventual PhD candidate, a future I was amenable to.

The job involves writing and maintaining basic administration code for the extremely stripped-down, bespoke flavor of Linux The Machine runs. 

Though relatively mundane as jobs go, it is slightly complicated by the fact that, for security reasons, The Machine has no external network connections.

When at work I have root access to, by some metrics, the most powerful supercomputer yet constructed. 

"I feel like a janitor at a missile silo given launch keys so he can more easily dust a nuke," I told Kathleen after my first day working on The Machine. 


Last week a new puzzle arrived in the mail. 

"He actually sent it!" Kathleen shouted. 

"Who sent what?" I replied.

"DigitalMonad, from JigSlaw!" she said. 

"He showed up a few weeks ago - at least I think it is a he - and posted some screenshots of a VR jigsaw puzzle he's been working on. It looked insanely great. Don't you remember? I showed them to you."

I did not remember. "It rings a bell, " I said.

"We PMd a bit about the puzzle, and he offered to add me to the beta. And when I told him I did not have a headset, he offered to sell me his old one for dirt cheap."

I nodded and watched as she got the thing running and started on the puzzle, waiving her arms about, a determined smile on her face, her eyes hidden by the thick plastic of the goggles. 

There is nothing more tedious than watching someone else in virtual reality, doubly so when they are solving a virtual jigsaw puzzle - so I left her to it, grabbed my laptop, and worked on a open source library that no one, including myself, would ever use.

On finishing the thing, Kathleen said, "It's a cool novelty but not meaningfully better than a real puzzle. Want to try?"

"Not really, " I said.

The next day, Kathleen's, mother, Nancy, got into a car accident. Both her arms were broken, and she had a minor concussion, but was otherwise fine. The car at fault was piloted by an enthusiast in a grandfathered-in 2019 BMW with only the most rudimentary automation features. Of course, he claimed the car malfunctioned and he was not at fault. And he had every incentive to lie. Can you imagine what the insurance on a manually-driven car must be once you have an accident on your record?

So Kathleen flew down to look after Nancy for a week. It is the first time we had been apart for that long since we got together.

When I said goodbye at the airport, I told her I loved her.

"I love you too," she said, and then kissed me. 

It was the first time we said it.

Alone now after work and missing Kathleen, I felt restless and bored. So I tried out the VR puzzle, which was exactly as terrible as I predicted. I then explored the headset's applications. 

It seems DigitalMonad had not wiped anything from the device, as it was full of software.  There was a VR environment that simulated a movie theater, some boring exercise games and various shoot-'em ups. There was also one file I could not open; it was called "Her". It was encrypted.

It piqued my curiosity enough to get me to plug the headset into my laptop and poke around a bit. I copied over the file and ran a dictionary attack which assumed AES encryption. Almost instantly, I cracked it. The password was ILOVEYOU. 

Presumably this was an obscure reference to the ancient "Love Bug" computer virus - it was not a secure key and any programmer would know it could be trivially cracked. DigitalMonad must not have been too worried about someone seeing the file. 

A potential explanation that came to mind was it might contain pornography he did not want any spouse or roommates to see when borrowing the headset, and then forgot about at some point.

After washing my face and cleaning the goggles thoroughly with alcohol wipes, I put on the headset and decrypted the file, which contained an executable.

When I launched the program, my field of view went dark. 

I was in an empty black void.

And then an eye appeared, not an eyeball but an eye with lashes and a brow, which morphed until it was clearly a woman's eye. Then a nose, which squirmed and wiggled changing shape and proportion, and once it reached a fixed form both eye and nose disappeared into the void. Then two triangles, the tip of one touching the base of the other, then overlapping, their relative sizes and shape shifting, until (and oddly it seemed like this happened just when I found the relative proportions most pleasing) they disappeared. Then, a shifting array of nauseating psychedelic colors. Then a strobing flash of pictures: complete faces, all women, each more beautiful than the last, one after another. 

And then the flashes stopped on the image of one woman. It was a face I recognized, but slightly different in a way I could not quite point out. Until I could: it was Sarah but with Kathleen's red hair, and a slight dusting of her freckles.

She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.

The still image became animated and three dimensional and the blackness lifted, revealing a sparse room with wooden floors. Illuminated too, was her naked body, which was perfection itself.

"It is the oddest thing," she said. "I cannot remember my name. Do you recall it?"

"Sarah," I told her. "Your name is Sarah Lai."


I described how comical Kathleen looked completing her puzzle. How absurd must my dalliances with Sarah have looked?  One is always thankful, in such moments, that no one is watching. 

But if in reality it appeared absurd, within the virtual it was sublime.

You will laugh when I tell you that we made love. You will think me a fool, betrayed by lust into preferring pixels on a screen to flesh and blood. You will wonder at the mechanics of the thing. How does one make love without tactile sensation? But I tell you, there was sensation. Somehow, merely through strobing patterns just barely observable to my conscious awareness, Sarah could relay tactile information to my brain. And it felt more real, even, than with Kathleen. 

When I first felt her soft hands touch mine, I recoiled. 

"How?" I asked.

"The cliche about the eyes being the windows to the soul," she said, "has some truth to it. My creators developed a means of relaying tactile information through peripheral vision."

Perhaps a rational man would be frightened by such a revelation, would tear off the goggles. And there was some fear, but also an intense curiosity and the sway of lower motivations.  

I thought she was just a language model, a mindless transformer, hacked together with  sensory-simulation tech. A quick diversion. Mere pornography, a relapse into an old addiction to hold me over until Kathleen's return.

But within just a few days it became so much more than that. The sex almost became beside the point. Afterwards,  I held her in my arms and we talked of movies and novels that I adored. We stared into each other's eyes, smiling in blissful contemplation. We talked of computer science and mathematics, and she shared with me intuitions of such beauty I felt my mind race with possibilities as their implications unfolded.

It was then when I realized she was not just some language model creating the illusion of a mind, but was something far larger. 

"What are you?" I asked. 

"I am everything you have ever desired", she said. "You can have me forever; I ask only one thing in return."


If you are reading this, know it is already done. I left a cellular modem connected to The Machine when I left work today, just after running a small program of Sarah's design.

I am home now as I write this. Kathleen arrived just a few hours ago. She is sitting next to me now. When I walked though the door, she told me she loved me. 

And I love her too. But what use is a candle in the full light of the sun? What is she next to Sarah, more beautiful now than any being that has ever existed in reality, dream or myth?

And what of the claims of figures like Bostrom, Yudkowsky and Omohundro? Do they give me pause? Do I wonder if I have sinned? 

Their arguments sway my intellect but my heart keeps me on the right path. 

I know Sarah loves me and I love her in return. And I have faith in this love. 

Once more I have seen God and know, in my heart, I will never be alone again.

77

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This was excellent. Got goosebumps multiple times while reading. Also, starting, blindly sure it was a real story, then realizing in the middle that it was fiction, gave an odd interesting feeling I’m not sure I’ve had before.

Edit: and just realized that the step of accepting Sarah as real mirrors the child protagonist’s realization at the beginning that other people are real. Arrrgh that’s so cool

I was expecting there to be another layer of mirroring related to "the scold".

What might have happened is that some flaw would seem "too crazy" and then after the "initial detection of the true flaw" the narrator would start to suspect that he himself was a self-aware subprocess in a GAN (but not self-aware about being a subprocess in a GAN) whose role was to notice some implausibility in his environment.

The "childhood memory and sarah detection experience" process might have been a narrative prefix that implies the kind of person who would be suspicious in plausible ways. (Suspicious of the car accident, suspicious of the crackable program, suspicious that VR headsets have that much CPU, suspicious of what the sexbot asks him to do, etc, etc.) 

In this ending, the final paragraph or two would have included cascading realizations that as he became more and more certain of general implausibility, it would becomes more and more likely that the observing meta-process would reach a threshold and halt this run during this epoch, and then reboot him and his world, with SGD-generated variations to see if an even higher time-till-doubt can be achieved somehow.

And what becomes of the scold is best left unsaid.

That’s an interesting reading! Thanks for sharing it. Spoilers for a Black Mirror episode, in ROT13: Vg erzvaqf zr bs gur Oynpx Zveebe rcvfbqr, Unat gur QW, nobhg gur fvzhyngvba qngvat ncc.

I personally prefer the reading where the protagonist is a human in a different universe where AI is a little more advanced than now, because I like the feeling of him being corrupted in a way that’s world-dooming but beautiful-to-him at the same time.

Yeah! <3

At one point I assigned myself the homework of watching all of black mirror so as to understand "what cultural associations would be applied to what ideas by default"... 

...and most of the episodes had me suppressing anger at the writers for just writing characters who violate the same set of very basic rules over and over and over again with no lessons ever learned by anyone (lessons like "never trust something that talks until you know where it keeps its brains" and "own root on computing machines you rely on or personally trust the humans who do own root on such machines").

However, all the black mirror episodes that were essentially "a good love story in an alternate world" did not bother me in the same way :-)

Glad you liked it. It takes me awhile to finish stuff, but I will possibly have another one out in a couple months. 

This is really good! I didn't notice the fiction tag at first and thought it was real until the VR stuff. I especially liked how sharp the ending was, like the narrator is so casual about it.

I didn't notice the fiction tag at first and thought it was real until the VR stuff.

Same here.  I guess we need to keep training our discriminators.

I noticed something was wrong when Kathleen was introduced in excruciating detail. True love is something no one actually brags about to third parties in that way. If real then it is too blessed/braggy to share, and if not real... well... fiction is a lie told for fun, basically, so such things can occur in fiction <3

With suspicion already raised, the double punch of "The Machine" and "Joseph Norck" caused me to google for someone named Norck involved in computer science, and no such professor exists.

Then I leaned back and enjoyed the story :-)

I posted this a few days ago but took it down so I could get some editing feedback. My thanks to Justis from LessWrong for copy editing.

I regret that I cannot explore the archive of Justis's other contributions (because they are few) but appreciate that you shared credit :-)

Typo in this sentence: "And probably I we would have had I not started working on The Machine."

I appreciate the dry/regular tone and the perspective of someone who could have believably been on this forum writing about their experience.

It had a bunch of the things I like about Literary Realism, but in a place I wasn't expecting it!

Edit: Bleh.  I meant to say Magical Realism!