Short Story Contest Winner: "The Gerry Program"
It's an odd sensation knowing you're going to die, but it was a feeling Gerry Ferguson had become relatively acquainted with over the past two years. What most perplexed the terminally ill, he observed, was not the concept of death so much as the continuation of all other life.
Gerry's secret project had been in the works for two years now, ever since they found the growth.
Who will mourn me when I'm gone? What trait or idiosyncrasy will people most recall? Will I still be talked of, 100 years from now?
But Gerry didn't worry about these questions. He was comfortable that his legacy would live on, in one form or another. From his cozy flat in the west end of Glasgow, Gerry had managed to put his affairs in order and still find time for small joys.
Feeding the geese in summer at the park just down from his house, reading classics from the teeming bookcase in the living room, talking with his son Michael on Skype. It was Michael who had first suggested reading some of the new works of non-fiction that now littered the large oak desk in Gerry's study.
He was just finishing 'The Master Algorithm' when his shabby grandfather clock chimed six o'clock. Time to call Michael. Crammed into his tiny study, Gerry pulled his computer's webcam close and waved at Michael's smiling face.
"Hi Dad! How're you today?"
"I'm alright, son. How're things in sunny Australia?"
"Hot as always. How's things in Scotland?"
"I'd 'ave more chance gettin' a tan from this computer screen than I do goin' out there."
Michael chuckled. He's got that hearty Ferguson laugh, Gerry thought.
"How's the project coming along?" Michael asked. "Am I going to see it one of these days?"
"Of course," grinned Gerry, "I designed it for you."
Gerry's secret project had been in the works for two years now, ever since they found the growth. He had decided it was better not to tell Michael. He would only worry.
The two men chatted for hours. They discussed Michael's love life (or lack thereof), memories of days walking in the park, and their shared passion, the unending woes of Rangers Football Club. It wasn't until Michael said his goodbyes that Gerry noticed he'd been sitting in the dark for the best part of three hours, his mesh curtains casting a dim orange glow across the room from the street light outside. Time to get back to work.
Every night, Gerry sat at his computer, crawling forums, nourishing his project, feeding his knowledge and debating with other programmers. Even at age 82, Gerry knew more than most about algorithms. Never wanting to feel old, and with all the kids so adept at this digital stuff, Gerry figured he should give the Internet a try too. Besides, it kept his brain active and restored some of the sociability he'd lost in the previous decades as old friends passed away and the physical scope of his world contracted.
This night, like every night, Gerry worked away into the wee hours. His back would ache come morning, but this was the only time he truly felt alive these days. From his snug red brick home in Scotland, Gerry could share thoughts and information with strangers from all over the world. It truly was a miracle of modern science!
The next day, Gerry woke to the warm amber sun seeping in between a crack in the curtains. Like every morning, his thoughts took a little time to come into focus. Instinctively his hand went to the other side of the bed. Nobody there. Of course; she was gone. Rita, the sweetest woman he'd ever known. Four years this spring, God rest her soul.
Puttering around the cramped kitchen, Gerry heard a knock at the door. Who could that be? He could see two women standing in the hallway, their bodies contorted in the fisheye glass of the peephole. One looked familiar, but Gerry couldn't be sure. He fiddled with the locks and pulled the door open.
"Hi Gerry. How are you today?"
"Fine, thanks," he muttered, still searching his mind for where he'd seen her face before.
Noting the confusion in his eyes, the woman proffered a hand. "Alice, Alice Corgan. I pop round every now and again to check on you."
It clicked. "Ah aye! Come in, come in. Lemme get ya a cuppa." Gerry turned and shuffled into the flat.
As Gerry set about his tiny kitchen, Alice called from the living room, "This is Mandy. She's a care worker too. She's going to pay you occasional visits if that's alright with you."
Gerry poked his head around the doorway. "I'll always welcome a beautiful young lady in ma home. Though, I've tae warn you I'm a married man, so no funny business." He winked and ducked back into the kitchen.
Alice turned to Mandy with a grin. "He's a good man, our Gerry. You'll get along just fine." She lowered her voice. "As I said, with the Alzheimer's, he has to be reminded to take his medication, but he's still mostly self-sufficient. We installed a medi-bot to remind him every day and dispense the pills. If he doesn't respond, we'll get a message to send someone over."
Mandy nodded and scribbled notes in a pad.
"When I'm gone, Michael will have somethin' to remember me by."
"Also, and this is something we've been working on for a few months now, Gerry is convinced he has something…" her voice trailed off. "He thinks he has cancer. Now, while the Alzheimer's may affect his day-to-day life, it's not at a stage where he needs to be taken into care. The last time we went for a checkup, the doctor couldn't find any sign of cancer. I think it stems from--"
Gerry shouted from the other room: "Does the young lady take sugar?"
"No, I'm fine thanks," Mandy called back.
"Of course you don't," smiled Gerry. "Young lady like yersel' is sweet enough."
The following week, Mandy arrived early at Gerry's. He looked unsure at first, but he invited her in.
Sitting on the sofa nurturing a cup of tea, Alice tried to keep things light. "So what do you do in your spare time, Gerry?"
"I've got nothing but spare time these days, even if it's running a little low."
"Do you have any hobbies?"
"Yes actually." Gerry smiled. "I'm makin' a computer program."
Alice was taken aback. She knew very little about computers herself. "What's the program for?" she asked.
"Well, despite ma appearance, I'm no spring chicken. I know I don't have much time left. Ma son, he lives down in Australia now, he worked on a computer program that uses AI - that's artificial intelligence - to imitate a person."
Alice still looked confused, so Gerry pressed on.
"Well, I know I've not long left, so I've been usin' this open source code to make ma own for when I'm gone. I've already written all the code. Now I just have to add the things that make it seem like me. I can upload audio, text, even videos of masel'. That way, when I'm gone, Michael will have somethin' to remember me by."
Mandy sat there, stunned. She had no idea anybody could do this, much less an octogenarian from his small, ramshackle flat in Glasgow.
"That's amazing Gerry. I'd love to see the real thing when you're done."
"O' course. I mean, it'll take time. There's so much to add, but I'll be happy to give a demonstration."
Mandy sat there and cradled her mug. Imagine, she thought, being able to preserve yourself, or at least some basic caricature of yourself, forever.
As the weeks went on, Gerry slowly added new shades to his coded double. Mandy would leaf through the dusty photo albums on Gerry's bookcase, pointing to photos and asking for the story behind each one. Gerry couldn't always remember but, when he could, the accompanying stories were often hilarious, incredible, and usually a little of both. As he vividly recounted tales of bombing missions over Burma, trips to the beach with a young Michael and, in one particularly interesting story, giving the finger to Margaret Thatcher, Mandy would diligently record them through a Dictaphone to be uploaded to the program.
Gerry loved the company, particularly when he could regale the young woman with tales of his son Michael. One day, as they sat on the sofa flicking through a box of trinkets from his days as a travelling salesman, Mandy asked why he didn't have a smartphone.
He shrugged. "If I'm out 'n about then I want to see the world, not some 2D version of it. Besides, there's nothin' on there for me."
Alice explained that you could get Skype on a smartphone: "You'd be able to talk with Michael and feed the geese at the park at the same time," she offered.
Gerry seemed interested but didn't mention it again.
"Only thing I'm worried about with ma computer," he remarked, "is if there's another power cut and I can't call Michael. There's been a few this year from the snow 'n I hate not bein' able to reach him."
"Well, if you ever want to use the Skype app on my phone to call him you're welcome," said Mandy. "After all, you just need to add him to my contacts."
Gerry was flattered. "That's a relief, knowing I won't miss out on calling Michael if the computer goes bust."
Then, in early spring, just as the first green buds burst forth from the bare branches, Gerry asked Mandy to come by. "Bring that Alice girl if ya can - I know she's excited to see this too."
The next day, Mandy and Alice dutifully filed into the cramped study and sat down on rickety wooden chairs brought from the living room for this special occasion.
An image of Gerry, somewhat younger than the man himself, flashed up on the screen.
With a dramatic throat clearing, Gerry opened the program on his computer. An image of Gerry, somewhat younger than the man himself, flashed up on the screen.
The room was silent.
"Hiya Michael!" AI Gerry blurted. The real Gerry looked flustered and clicked around the screen. "I forgot to put the facial recognition on. Michael's just the go-to name when it doesn't recognize a face." His voice lilted with anxious excitement. "This is Alice," Gerry said proudly to the camera, pointing at Alice, "and this is Mandy."
AI Gerry didn't take his eyes from real Gerry, but grinned. "Hello, Alice. Hiya Mandy." The voice was definitely his, even if the flow of speech was slightly disjointed.
"Hi," Alice and Mandy stuttered.
Gerry beamed at both of them. His eyes flitted between the girls and the screen, perhaps nervous that his digital counterpart wasn't as polished as they'd been expecting.
"You can ask him almost anything. He's not as advanced as the ones they're making in the big studios, but I think Michael will like him."
Alice and Mandy gathered closer to the monitor. A mute Gerry grinned back from the screen. Sitting in his wooden chair, the real Gerry turned to his AI twin and began chattering away: "So, what do you think o' the place? Not bad eh?"
"Oh aye, like what you've done wi' it," said AI Gerry.
"Gerry," Alice cut in. "What did you say about Michael there?"
"Ah, I made this for him. After all, it's the kind o' thing his studio was doin'. I had to clear some space to upload it 'n show you guys, so I had to remove Skype for now, but Michael won't mind. Anyway, Mandy's gonna let me Skype him from her phone."
Mandy pulled her phone out and smiled. "Aye, he'll be able to chat with two Gerry's."
Alice grabbed Mandy by the arm: "What did you tell him?" she whispered, her eyes wide.
"I told him he can use my phone if he wants to Skype Michael. Is that okay?"
Alice turned to Gerry, who was chattering away with his computerized clone. "Gerry, we'll just be one second, I need to discuss something with Mandy."
"Righto," he nodded.
Outside the room, Alice paced up and down the narrow hallway.
Mandy could see how flustered she was. "What's wrong? Don't you like the chatbot? I think it's kinda c-"
"Michael's dead," Alice spluttered.
"What do you mean? He talks to him all the time."
Alice sighed. "He doesn't talk to Michael. See, a few years back, Michael found out he had cancer. He worked for this company that did AI chatbot stuff. When he knew he was dying he--" she groped in the air for the words-- "he built this chatbot thing for Gerry, some kind of super-advanced AI. Gerry had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and I guess Michael was worried Gerry would forget him. He designed the chatbot to say he was in Australia to explain why he couldn't visit."
"That's awful," Mandy granted, "but I don't get what the problem is. I mean, surely he can show the AI Michael his own chatbot?"
"No, because you can't get the AI Michael on Skype. Michael just designed the program to look like Skype."
"But then--" Mandy went silent.
"Michael uploaded the entire AI to Gerry's computer before his death. Gerry didn't delete Skype. He deleted the AI Michael."
"So… that's it? He-he's gone?" Mandy's voice cracked. "He can't just be gone, surely he can't?"
The women stood staring at each other. They looked to the door of the study. They could still hear Gerry, gabbing away with his cybercopy.
"I can't go back in there," muttered Mandy. Her voice wavered as she tried to stem the misery rising in her throat.
Alice shook her head and paced the floor. She stopped and stared at Mandy with grim resignation. "We don't have a choice."
When they returned, Gerry was still happily chatting away.
"Hiya girls. Ya wanna ask my handsome twin any other questions? If not, we could get Michael on the phone?"
Neither woman spoke. Gerry clapped his hands and turned gaily to the monitor again: "I cannae wait for ya t'meet him, Gerry. He's gonna be impressed wi' you."
Alice clasped her hands to her mouth. Tears welled in the women's eyes as they watched the old man converse with his digital copy. The heat of the room seemed to swell, becoming insufferable. Mandy couldn't take it anymore. She jumped up, bolted to the door and collapsed against a wall in the hallway. Alice perched on the edge of her seat in a dumb daze, praying for the floor to open and swallow the contents of the room whole.
Oblivious, Gerry and his echo babbled away, the blue glow of the screen illuminating his euphoric face. "Just wait until y'meet him Gerry, just wait."
When I greeted Rodney Gorham, age 63, in an online chat session, he replied within seconds: “My pleasure.”
“Are you moving parts of your body as you type?” I asked.
This time, his response came about five minutes later: “I position the cursor with the eye tracking and select the same with moving my ankles.” Gorham, a former sales representative from Melbourne, Australia, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that impairs the brain’s nerve cells and the spinal cord, limiting the ability to move. ALS essentially “locks” a person inside their own body. Gorham is conversing with me by typing with his mind only–no fingers in between his brain and his computer.
The brain-computer interface enabling this feat is called the Stentrode. It's the brainchild of Synchron, a company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. After Gorham’s neurologist recommended that he try it, he became one of the first volunteers to have an 8mm stent, laced with small electrodes, implanted into his jugular vein and guided by a surgeon into a blood vessel near the part of his brain that controls movement.
After arriving at their destination, these tiny sensors can detect neural activity. They relay these messages through a small receiver implanted under the skin to a computer, which then translates the information into words. This minimally invasive surgery takes a day and is painless, according to Gorham. Recovery time is typically short, about two days.
When a paralyzed patient thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts.
When a paralyzed patient such as Gorham thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts. This pattern is detected by the Stentrode and relayed to a computer that learns to associate this pattern with the patient’s physical movements. The computer recognizes thoughts about kicking, making a fist and other movements as signals for clicking a mouse or pushing certain letters on a keyboard. An additional eye-tracking device controls the movement of the computer cursor.
The process works on a letter by letter basis. That’s why longer and more nuanced responses often involve some trial and error. “I have been using this for about two years, and I enjoy the sessions,” Gorham typed during our chat session. Zafar Faraz, field clinical engineer at Synchron, sat next to Gorham, providing help when required. Gorham had suffered without internet access, but now he looks forward to surfing the web and playing video games.
Gorham, age 63, has been enjoying Stentrode sessions for about two years.
The BCI revolution
In the summer of 2021, Synchron became the first company to receive the FDA’s Investigational Device Exemption, which allows research trials on the Stentrode in human patients. This past summer, the company, together with scientists from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department at Utrecht University, published a paper offering a framework for how to develop BCIs for patients with severe paralysis – those who can't use their upper limbs to type or use digital devices.
Three months ago, Synchron announced the enrollment of six patients in a study called COMMAND based in the U.S. The company will seek approval next year from the FDA to make the Stentrode available for sale commercially. Meanwhile, other companies are making progress in the field of BCIs. In August, Neuralink announced a $280 million financing round, the biggest fundraiser yet in the field. Last December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round. “One thing I can promise you, in five years from now, we’re not going to be where we are today. We're going to be in a very different place,” says Elad I. Levy, professor of neurosurgery and radiology at State University of New York in Buffalo.
The risk of hacking exists, always. Cybercriminals, for example, might steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices while extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“The prospect of bestowing individuals with paralysis a renewed avenue for communication and motor functionality is a step forward in neurotech,” says Hayley Nelson, a neuroscientist and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. “It is an exciting breakthrough in a world of devastating, scary diseases,” says Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. “To connect with the world when you are trapped inside your body is incredible.”
While the benefits for the paraplegic community are promising, the Stentrode’s long-term effectiveness and overall impact needs more research on safety. “Potential risks like inflammation, damage to neural tissue, or unexpected shifts in synaptic transmission due to the implant warrant thorough exploration,” Nelson says.
There are also concens about data privacy concerns and the policies of companies to safeguard information processed through BCIs. “Often, Big Tech is ahead of the regulators because the latter didn’t envisage such a turn of events...and companies take advantage of the lack of legal framework to push forward,” McArthur says. Hacking is another risk. Cybercriminals could steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices. Extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“We have to protect patient identity, patient safety and patient integrity,” Levy says. “In the same way that we protect our phones or computers from hackers, we have to stay ahead with anti-hacking software.” Even so, Levy thinks the anticipated benefits for the quadriplegic community outweigh the potential risks. “We are on the precipice of an amazing technology. In the future, we would be able to connect patients to peripheral devices that enhance their quality of life.”
In the near future, the Stentrode could enable patients to use the Stentrode to activate their wheelchairs, iPods or voice modulators. Synchron's focus is on using its BCI to help patients with significant mobility restrictions—not to enhance the lives of healthy people without any illnesses. Levy says we are not prepared for the implications of endowing people with superpowers.
I wondered what Gorham thought about that. “Pardon my question, but do you feel like you have sort of transcended human nature, being the first in a big line of cybernetic people doing marvelous things with their mind only?” was my last question to Gorham.
A slight smile formed on his lips. In less than a minute, he typed: “I do a little.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.