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Authors: Walter Greatshell

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BOOK: Mad Skills
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The mirrored building was a funny place. The people there were just as nice as Dr. Stevens, but everybody talked too fast, gobble-gobbling together like turkeys. Occasionally, her mother might lean down and speak to her, “Maddy, how would you like to go back home? Back to your old room? All your things are still there, just the way you left them, and there are a lot of presents waiting for you. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
“Nyeah …”
“That’s what these nice people want to do, honey: to help you be yourself again so you can come home. Be the Maddy we remember. To skate and ski and go to the mall with Stephanie. Do you remember your friend Stephanie? She misses you. We all miss you, honey.”
Mom was crying again. Maddy didn’t quite know why, and didn’t like it.
Dad stepped in. “Beth, stop, you’ll just upset her. It’s okay, honey—Mommy’s fine, see? Funny Mommy!”
 
 
“MR. and Mrs. Grant, so pleased to meet you. Members of the press, Congressman Lawlor, welcome. I’m Dr. Plummer, the head man here at the Braintree Institute. And this must be Maddy! I’ve heard a lot about
you
. Dr. Stevens tells me you’re quite the character. You are, aren’t you? I can always tell. Welcome, welcome to Braintree.
“Well, I know you folks have been briefed about our program here, but let me walk you through it so you can maybe get a better idea of what we’re hoping to accomplish with your daughter.
“It’s been over a year since her trauma, and I know that Maddy’s therapy has met with limited success. This is not unusual for her type of injury. She’s had all the most innovative rehabilitation techniques, including alternative therapies like acupuncture, but she seems to have hit a cognitive plateau. You’re concerned that she may never function at higher than a kindergarten level. You have expressed interest in exploring avenues that are a bit more … aggressive? Perfectly understandable. That’s why Dr. Stevens recommended you to our department. We specialize in something called Deep Brain Stimulation, or DBS.
“Now, in standard DBS, a pair of very fine wires is implanted in the brain, where they act as a kind of low-voltage pacemaker to reactivate damaged brain tissue, restoring a certain degree of lost function. It’s a proven and reasonably effective procedure. But it’s only a halfway measure—nobody expects a full recovery.
“That’s where we come in. I specialize in an experimental form of DBS known as Remote Cortical Augmentation, or RCA. The basic principle of RCA is the same as DBS: a matter of stimulating the brain using wires. But where our work differs is in the degree of stimulation … and the precision. See, in DBS, the level of accuracy is relatively poor—you’re throwing darts in the dark and hoping to luck into the target. When it works, the results might be dramatic … or they might not. And oftentimes any improvement is temporary as the brain becomes dulled to the stimuli.
“Just as with standard DBS, our procedure involves implanting a set of wires. Only instead of two, we implant two bundles of thirty wires each, all much finer than the ones typically used in DBS—less than a micron in diameter. The bundles are designed to unravel in a controlled way as they penetrate the cortex, sending branches into specific regions and giving us a wide range of potential targets—a nearly limitless combination. We call this the Christmas Tree.
“Once the array is in place, we test each point of contact to measure its neurological effect. The effects are then mixed and matched to produce the most successful combinations, just like single notes combining into chords of music. Over time, using a powerful computer, we are able to develop increasingly complex formulas for bypassing cognitive deficits, awakening the brain to whole new avenues of being. It’s like conducting an orchestra. Finally, these chords are programmed into a portable, rechargeable data processor, about the size of an MP3 player, which is fitted to the cranium under the scalp and delivers a constant stream of directed pulses.
“This is for basic functioning. But the most promising aspect of the technology is that it is not static: The patient’s personal data unit is wirelessly linked to a larger computer network, allowing the system to keep evolving, refining and customizing itself to the specific needs of its wearer. Like the human brain itself, it
learns
.
“At the heart of all this is a very unusual computer. Step this way, please.
“What you see here is our computer lab. Help yourselves to a donut! All looks pretty ordinary until you take a closer look inside our mainframe. Notice anything unusual? That’s because our system’s core is nothing less than an actual organic brain. Sounds like something out of a science-fiction movie, but it’s quite real, and will soon be coming to a store near you. A highly simplified brain, not a human brain, but a brain nonetheless, comprised of millions of living neurons.
“See this box? This is it. Inside this shock-absorbent casing is a gel capsule containing a rudimentary form of intelligence, cultured from leech cells and sandwiched within a matrix of conductive fibers. It’s smaller than a golf ball. Nerve signals are translated into optical pulses, which are then interfaced with specialized software. Why leeches? Leeches are used because their neurons are very, very large, and their structure is quite well understood—plus not many people have an ethical objection to using leeches. I know the thought of a leech brain might creep some people out; well, I can promise you that these leeches won’t suck your blood, but they will give you a piece of their primitive mind. You may wonder what that’s worth. Let me show you—come this way.
“This is our Simulation Room. Up on that screen is a 3-D computer model of a hypothetical city—a composite of different urban centers around the US, with pedestrian and traffic patterns, commercial activity, weather cycles, industrial development, you name it. Even fluctuations in capital and stock projections. The Leech-Tron has been running that program continuously for seven months, factoring in a hundred random events every second, and as you can see, it has grown incredibly complex.
“Now over here, in this studio, is an actual physical replica of the same city, made to the same exact specifications out of polystyrene foam and other raw materials, perfect down to the tiniest detail. That’s our Demonstrator. If you’ll follow me out onto our observation platform, you can see the entire practical model in operation.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Rat Race.”
 
 
IN Maddy’s dream, she was on a platform above a brightly lit toy city. It looked like the world’s most elaborate model train set: hundreds of intricate buildings that covered the entire floor area. The model was in a kind of auditorium or soundstage, with lights and cameras dangling from cranes, and a network of catwalks up in the rafters.
Between the miniature buildings (and some of them weren’t really so miniature) were streets and canals and elevated trains, all seething with hectic activity. It was noisy. It smelled like a pet store. But the most remarkable thing to Maddy was that it was not just a sterile clockwork, a toy store’s gaudy Christmas display. It was alive. It was populated … or perhaps more accurately, it was
infested
.
Infested with rats!
Maddy laughed with delight—it was the funniest thing she had ever seen.
Rats everywhere, rats wearing little hats—black caps with blinking blue LEDs. Many of them also wore specialized body harnesses with side pouches and Velcro straps, like miniature pack mules.
And so
many
. The avenues were full of them, stopping and starting, yielding and passing, getting on and off trains and boats, most carrying loads of one kind or another, all moving in orderly lines as though trained for the circus—a perfect simulacrum of urban commerce. Or perhaps not perfect in that it was
too
perfect: There were no bottlenecks, no traffic jams, no pileups or police sirens. Just a smooth flow of furry bodies and pink tails, as orderly as the movement of blood cells through capillaries. Or ants in a nest.
Above her left shoulder, Maddy heard her father say, “This is amazing.”
“Isn’t it? Everything you see is controlled by computer. It’s constantly refining the live model to match the simulation, down to a fraction of an inch. If you can believe it, we started with only one rat. Once the computer mastered that, we tried ten, then added about ten a week until we reached a thousand. The rats are manipulated, using very crude neural implants—nothing like the sophistication of the human prototype—but you can see it’s enough to govern a wide range of behaviors. The truly remarkable feat here is not the implant itself but the logistical challenge: Every rat has its own complex series of functions, and each rat’s mission intersects either directly or indirectly with every other rat, so they have to work at a high degree of organizational efficiency. Combine that with the need to keep them healthy, to feed and sleep them in rotating shifts, to cope with every conceivable variable, intended or otherwise, and you can understand the tremendous sophistication required to keep it running smoothly. Fortunately, we leave most of that to the computer. Thanks to its organic component, the system has great flexibility in adapting to random events, just as a living organism must. It forms new synaptic pathways as needed, quadrillions of them, far beyond what we can predict or understand. Fortunately, we don’t have to.”
“But why? Why build this whole thing?”

We
didn’t build it, Mr. Grant.
They
did. They’re still doing it, see? When anything breaks down, they fix it. The rats are the hands of the computer.”
“But what does this have to do with our daughter?”
“This city is a complex system, just like your daughter’s brain. The computer doesn’t know the difference—it’s all just urban renewal.”
“I don’t know. It seems so bizarre …”
“Okay, well, look at me. Do I seem bizarre or unusual in any way to you?”
“No …”
“That’s good. Because just seven months ago, I suffered a severe stroke. Oh yes. Completely out of the blue. I was paralyzed, a vegetable, unable to walk or talk. My wife nearly signed a Do Not Resuscitate order. Almost pulled the plug.”
“Oh my God.”
“That’s right. But look at me now. You see, Mr. and Mrs. Grant, I’m not only a doctor here at Braintree—I’m also a client.”
FOUR
 
BLINDS
 
WEIRD. Maddy was amazed at how clearly she could remember her dreams. Normally, they evaporated upon waking like so much dry ice, all details lost in the fog. This was more like adjusting the focal length of a microscope: The harder she thought about her dreams, the sharper and more elaborate they became, so that it was necessary to scan the endless recollections as if fast-forwarding a DVD.
I must still be sick,
she thought. Scrolling, scrolling—no end in sight.
I’m delirious.
The torrent of memories was fascinating … and disturbing. She’d never had such dreams, not even in her worst fevers. They were like a whole lifetime passing before her eyes. Not her lifetime, thank God, but the lifetime of some alternate-universe Maddy Grant—a drooling basket case who could barely walk or talk. Yet in these dreams she
was
that girl, as though her brain had somehow recorded things that had happened to someone else. It was creeping her out.
“Maddy, wake up.”
“I’m
awake
. God.”
The venetian blinds next to her bed were driving her crazy. Dust had collected on the beige horizontal slats, and all she could think was,
Why don’t they make them vertical? Or just hang curtains.
It had to be a pain to clean these things, dusting each slat individually, and the scattered dust would only float back down and make them dirty all over again. Waste of energy. Plus the metal slats were unnecessarily heavy, noisy, and fragile, and the string-pulley mechanism overly complex. The whole thing was an accident waiting to happen—one crimped slat, one tangle, and it was history. It reminded her of a failed contraption from the dawn of aviation, one of those early technological bloopers. And why
venetian
, anyway? Were they really invented in Venice, and if so, what gave the Venetians license to design a window blind? The sun wasn’t especially intense there, was it? You think Venice, you think canals, gondolas, bridges, churches. You think blown glass. You don’t think crappy window blinds from an old detective movie. Egyptians or somebody like that should have the franchise on blinds—some ancient culture from a desert climate, who could do it right. Think of those rooftop windcatchers in medieval Cairene architecture. Now that was an elegant technology.
“Maddy.”
Maddy turned toward the voice. It was a smiling, sharp-featured woman with a steely gray ’fro.
Dr. Stevens,
Maddy recalled. It was strange to see her in real life, because this wasn’t quite the same Dr. Stevens from her dreams. That one was godlike and benevolent. Angelic. Capable of miracles. This was just a middle-aged woman with thin, cracked lips and an oddly ambivalent smile. She seemed to have shrunk substantially.
“Where am I?” Maddy asked. It hurt to talk. “What happened?”
“Don’t worry, you’re safe. You’ve had a bit of an accident, but you’re doing fine. Your folks are on their way in now—they should be here any minute.”
BOOK: Mad Skills
11.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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