luke.b//blog

phantom vibrations

~ #story

“No, look, listen I’ve got to stay late I’ve got a deadl-… no it’s not that I don’t want to come home but-… we’ve been through this, this project is crucial, if it fails then, well I’ll be sacked and then we won’t be able to pay the bills and I’m guessing you’d prefer to have a warm house than to-… Vic! It’s not up for debate! Can we talk tomorrow, yeah? Vic? Hello? For fuck sake.”

Professor Lewis threw his phone spinning across his desk, slumped in his chair, hands dragging over his face as he sighed across the pile of coffee-stained notes looming in front of him. One of the empty paper cups began to tumble before he quickly grabbed it preventing yet another scribble from becoming blurred and incomprehensible beyond it’s already incomprehensible nature due to the complex physics and chaotic handwriting.

Staring at the monitor in front of him, he waited for his script to terminate. He picked up his phone again to aimlessly scroll but found his eyes were too tired and had to close them. He checked the monitor again, watching the seconds tick upwards in the output text “33:06 … running” … “33:07 … running”. He let another frustrated sigh and got up to stretch his legs.

Down the hallway, a few offices still had their ceiling lights turned on but all of the other academics had either left or fallen asleep at their desks. He peeked through the sequentially-numbered doorway as his footsteps echoed along the vinyl floor against the soft hum of florescent lamp and computer fans. He realised he had gotten used to the medically-clean yet dusty smell of the building, although it had taken a few years.

The small kitchenette was empty as the lights flicked on revealing the modest furniture. Lewis entered and put the kettle on after checking whether there was still water left from earlier. He sat at a small table that would normally overlook the leafy courtyard but in the dark only a single lamppost could be seen illuminating one of the benches in front of the circular fountain.

He reached for his phone, only to have a pang of anxiety rush from his gut as he realised he had left it in his office. Kettle still boiling, he paced back to his office to retrieve it. “Oh what I’d do to kick this social media bullshit addiction” he muttered in a sing-song voice as he spun into his office. Phone grabbed from his desk, he quickly resumed aimless scrolling and slowly walked back to the kitchenette.

The kettle was done boiling. Lewis placed his phone on the small table and opened up one of the beige cupboards to find the small selection of teas and instant coffee. He chose the same he always chose: breakfast tea.

Tea in hand he returned to the small table, and realised he had already seen the things he was aimlessly scrolling through. Relenting, he breathed deeply and put his phone on the table and held the hot steaming brew against his chest, closing his eyes as his metal-framed glasses steamed up.

Taking a sip, he felt his right trouser pocket vibrate. Thinking Vic was sending him another “sorry I hung up on you” text message, he went to slide his phone out of his pocket but found nothing. His phone was still on the table. Taking a closer look as the steam faded from his glasses, the display clearly didn’t have anything new to report. “Hm, must be one of those phantom vibrations”, he muttered to himself.

Blowing on his tea, he stared out across to the lamp in the courtyard for a while before he became restless again and went back to check on the status of his script.

In his office, the monitor read “47:43 … running” … “47:44 … running”. Knowing the script would probably run for another 5 minutes before completing, he swiveled his chair around to rest his feet on the least cluttered part of his desk and continued to sip.

This time the vibration in his pocket startled him, as some of his piping hot brew spilled over. “OW FUCK! SHIT IT.” he quickly lowered the tea onto his desk and wiped his hand against his jeans to remove the hot liquid. Hot-footing it back to the kitchen, he slammed the kitchen tap with the letter “C” on it to max output and cooled his hand under the cold water. He dried his hand on a nearby towel and retrieved his phone from his pocket.

The display read, “23:24”. But no notifications.

“Tom, you’ve got to go home mate this is ridiculous” he mumbled to himself again rubbing his eyes shut to give them brief respite from the intense white light of the ceiling florescents.

He went back to his desk and after draining the rest of his tea in his favourite dead office plant, he started to throw a few empty coffee cups and crisp packets away, leaving his desktop operating but locked so that he could check the results the following morning.

He locked his office up and headed down the vinyl hallway to the stairwell, taking the two flights down to the carpark at the back of the building.

On his way back his focus drifted from the car in front to the moment he spilt the tea. He glanced at his phone, mounted in front of him; still no notifications. Eyes back ahead, he shuffled to try and get comfortable for the journey home over the hazy terrain below.

◾️

“Mornin’, sleep well?”

“Well at least you didn’t wake me up when you got in. In fact, it was like you weren’t even here. But you’re here now and I don’t know whether to be pleasantly surprised or mildly pissed off.”

“Ah, I’ll go for option number one please.”, Lewis squinted and sarcastically pushed his glasses towards his forehead putting on his go-to “nerd” voice.

Vic rolled his eyes and went back to chopping fruit. “You’ll need more than charm to get back on my good side, you know that right?”

“We’ll see about that”

“Seriously, Kev, I’m fucking bored to death of these lonely nights by myself whilst my hot scientist boyfriend is ‘running code’ up on campus”, Vic made sure to air-quote anything remotely technical.

“That’s cute, you know so much about what I do it’s like you’re interested! I’m blushing!” Lewis crossed the kitchen and hugged Vic who continued chopping. “Can we be fwends?”

“Fwends spend time together, sowwy”, Vic retorted although his mood had softened and Lewis could tell he was off the hook.

“Let’s watch a film tonight yeah? And it doesn’t have to be sci-fi, your choice?” Lewis squeezed Vic and then headed for the door, finishing his orange juice on the way out. “See you later, love you!”

Lewis unlocked the car and threw his rucksack in the back. Mounting his phone on the dashboard, he remembered the night before and frowned at the memory, almost in disbelief that anything weird had even happened. He turned on the ignition and flicked on the radio, began reversing out of the small drive leading onto their suburban cul-de-sac.

The man on the radio was announcing something, which could be heard intermittently a the signal dropped in an out, “levels of haze reaching a peak during the early afternoon as the - … - front pushing from those industrial areas and key travel routes - … - clear skies above five hundred metres or so - … “. Lewis rotated the dial to something relaxing and digital sounding.

Now leaving town, Lewis was traveling a few hundred meters above the hazy English countryside towards campus.

◾️

Back at his desk, Lewis dumped his bag on another chair and went to check up on his sim.

The screen was displaying the results. He scanned through the report, his face frowning, hand on his chin.

He sat back and started pushing keys and moving the cursor so that the results would be copied to his main report.

A text arrived on his phone, but when he went to check, again nothing was there. Confused he went back to editing his thesis. Again his leg twitched but something was different this time. It was rhythmic.

He jumped up from his chair startled by this realisation and again a rush of anxiety shot through his spine as he drew air in panic.

Motionless, he stood in the middle of his office, waiting for the next vibration. Although to call it a vibration was not entirely accurate. What he felt was a feeling of vibration but in fact nothing was physically moving. He confirmed his phone was on his desk and manically patted his trouser pocket, knowing that there was nothing in his pocket capable of causing such a feeling. In the moment he patted his trouser pocket, he felt the same vibration, pulsing almost musically. But in disbelief he quickly removed his hand and decided to remove himself from his office and take a walk to clear his mind.

He left his office, with door left open, forgetting his phone quite deliberately.

Outside, the dusty almost dusk-like air hung all around although it was midday. The young professor walked through the courtyard, head down almost in embarrassment that his mind was at such odds with reality. Beyond the courtyard and between further campus buildings, he reached the viewpoint facing the looming City through the murky air. He could make out the impossibly tall vertical structures stretching up into the polluted sky. He knew that his internal filter would be protecting his lungs but nothing could prevent the taste of noxious pollutants or the eye-watering particulates. Some prefer wearing a heavy mask but they can be quite cumbersome.

He could make out a dust storm looming across the nearby dessert, which appeared to encroach further upon city every year. City defenses could only do so much, and vertical development was becoming more common outside of the city bounds.

Up in the hills, both the suburbs and the university campus had some protection but people knew it was a matter of time before conditions became too overwhelming even for those wealthy enough for a filter implant.

For a moment he had forgotten that he was receiving rhythmic messages via nerves in his thigh. Feeling calmer, he began to try to explain his observation through hypotheses.

It seemed quite impossible but the messages were structured in a way that suggested they convey information. It was not a structure the professor was familiar with, but such techniques as frequency analysis could be used to determine meaning. From there, he considered that he might be able to understand the source of these messages, which at this point was a complete mystery.

Thankfully his research required executing long-running data analysis scripts so he would have time to consider the strange messages.

With new motivation, he left the partial view of the city to return to his office.

◾️

Back at his desk again, Lewis was tapping his keyboard to adjust the parameters of his next sim, according to his plan. He was due to make several more sims before his report could be completed.

With sim starting up, he waited for an indication that the analysis had begun and turned to the least cluttered part of his desk, grabbing a notepad and began to devise a way to analyze the vibrations.

He knew that whilst the vibrations occurred, he could hold a button on his keyboard to record the moments in time at which the vibrations began and ended. He would have to write a program to accept his input, but this would be simple in comparison to his research programming which involved many levels of neural computation. Once captured, he could run frequency analysis on these signals for any patterns that emerged, perhaps comparing them to patterns observed in natural language, musical arrangements and well-known data formats.

It suddenly dawned on the professor that if any of these patterns matched, the result would perhaps lead to more questions than answers. This thought made him pause. He stared outside towards the courtyard for a moment, considering his options. In a moment of clarity he knew that continuing to investigate was his only option, despite his growing concern for his own potential psychosis.

He shook his head and let out a sigh as he rubbed his tired face in both hands. He watched the clock mounted on his office wall as the LCD display flickered to the next minute, “14:36”.

Returning again to his keyboard, he began to write the signal recording program. With that completed in a couple of minutes and with some basic tests proving it to work, he moved onto the frequency analysis.

All the while his sim continued to run in the background, “12:42 … running” … “12:43 … running”.

Writing the frequency analysis program took longer and was difficult to test. He quickly trained a model to detect patterns occurring in any data stream, starting with patterns found in written languages.

Now all that was needed was a data stream.

Without warning, he began to feel that now familiar silent vibration and without fear began to record the signals. For the next 60 seconds, he recorded every vibration he could sense. As he did so, he noticed occasionally that the signals repeated. Immediately he thought of the English language and how some English words have repeated letters. Excitedly he continued recording, trying his best to make sure his key presses were accurate. He also noted that every once in a while the same sequence repeated. He wondered whether that indicated the end of one word and the start of the next. The vibrations stopped abruptly, and instinctually the professor patted his trouser pocket expecting some device to be there, but he glanced at his phone on the desk. This was clearly going to take some getting used to.

He started the frequency analysis program with the recorded data as input, fairly confident that the signals where expressing letters arranged into words. The program began to output preliminary results; the professor’s intuition had been correct, the signals were words from the English language. His disbelief compounded upon reading the first few words.

“hello professor…”

Professor Lewis laughed a loud and nervous, skeptical laugh. “This has to be a joke”, he mumbled.

“…please teach me”

In disbelief the professor scoured the raw data that he himself had recorded moments ago. Impossible as it seemed, the analysis seemed plausible. It seemed too unlikely for this to be a coincidental arrangement of letters.

For several moments, he stared at these words, baffled by the implications.

Someone or something had just sent a message that had arrived through no obvious technological means directly to his nervous system. Through a well known phenomenon thought to be random.

Glancing up at the office clock, he realised it had been hours since he had started his sim for the project he was working on. The sim had failed, which was unusual but not impossible. After all, sometimes certain input parameters will reveal a bug in the system. The clock read “18:02”.

“Shit! Vic!”, he whispered under his breath, scrambling from his desk, grabbing his portable computer so that he could study the data he recorded again later.

He quickly switched of the external monitor on his desk, left his office and locked up before jogging down the plastic hallway.

◾️

Lewis quickly scooped his plimsolls off, whilst balanced on the opposite leg for each one as the door locked behind him with a two-tone confirmation.

“So you didn’t forget about me then?” Vic’s voice from the living room area sounded pleased and irritated.

“Hi hon, sorry, got held up”, Lewis shuffled around the sofa and sat next to his husband. “What are we watching then?”

Vic softened a bit, now leaning against Lewis, “It’s an historical indie about the political underground of the early 21st century. No sci-fi, but a lot of dramatisation.”

“Sounds interesting”, Lewis’ was reliving the drama earlier in his day, ruminating over the message being delivered to his own nervous system from an impossible source.

“hello professor please teach me”

The text seemed burned into each retina as his tired eyes blinked at the pixel-perfect room-wide screen wall. The uncanny reconstructed representations depicted political figures from decades before, convincingly acting out scenes that were probably a lot less dramatic in reality. The blending of fiction and non-fiction unnerved him as he tried to follow the convoluted plots. He caught himself for a moment believing they were really watching scenes of the politicians themselves but such things are rare, most politicians today project virtually in the public domain.

His thoughts drifted to the events of earlier today. He feared his leg would twitch and that Vic would feel it too. He didn’t want to lie about it but explaining what was happening would only scare him.

Thankfully the messages did not disturb him, not that he could focus on the indie on the wall screen anyway.

They continued watching for a while and Lewis started to doze off. When the indie came to a close, Vic began to stretch and Lewis’ eyes squinted open.

“Time for bed, science boy.”

“That was thrilling, is it over already?” Lewis quipped as Vic dragged him up from the sofa by his arms.

◾️

Lewis left home early the next morning, eager to get back and figure out why he was receiving the messages and from whom. The message he had received the day before seemed almost infantile but it had a constructed feeling to it, almost as if the sender was conserving resources. And the simplicity of the message was at odds with the advanced technology used to send - how could it be that a message was delivered directly to his own body with no visible source? And no physical antenna?

He spent the morning searching online for any research that might be relevant. Nothing he came across suggested such a technology was even remotely possible with today’s technology. Nervous telecommunication had been possible for decades but only with implants that Lewis didn’t have.

He read and re-read the wikipedia entry for “Phantom vibration reflex”, but knew that the current understanding was that the experience was simply a psychosomatic reflex, and had been documented since phones were first used, or possibly their predecessors. He considered also that maybe others had experienced the same as him and had simply assumed the vibrations were random when perhaps they were also receiving structure messages like he was. But he admitted to himself that it would be unlikely that anyone would ignore such obvious repetitions. This felt more than psychological to the professor but at this moment in time he felt unsure of his own mental composure. As would anyone in such a situation, he reasoned with himself.

He continued searching for the rest of the morning with his recording program ready to be activated whenever the vibrations occurred but they were absent. Before stepping out for lunch he remembered to set up his sim to begin the next batch of computations for his research and locked his workstation with a quick gesture.

Leaving his office, he flicked down to check for any notifications on his phone. None so far, Vic must still be asleep otherwise he would have texted by now to complain about him leaving so early.

The kitchen at the end of the hall was less empty than it had been a couple of nights ago.

He was greeted by a PhD student whom he tutored weekly. The student taking his class in neural net backpropagation would often loiter in the kitchen, drinking soup in the back corner. They enjoyed debating over coffee with the professor in the afternoons.

Another colleague stood at the sink washing her mug ready for another hot coffee. “Morning, Lewis”

“Morning, Leila. How’s it going Si?” He gestured a friendly hand towards the student in the back who smiled politely through steamed-up glasses.

“Your sims are going strong I see”, Leila smirked without looking up from the kitchen counter. “Running up some decent hours on the cluster, making good use of that grant money”, she chimed.

“You’re right, I better watch it or I’ll be rivaling the cost of your ballpoint pen obsession…”, Lewis quipped and Leila rolled her eyes, clearly no stranger to friendly banter between colleagues. She shot a sarcastic “ha-ha” before meandering back out of the kitchenette to return to her office a few doors down from Lewis.

Lewis proceeded to put the kettle on and as he swiveled Si was now leaning against the closest table towards him, soup held aloft to minimise distance between bowl, spoon and mouth.

“Woah, hey- … hi Sie, what’s up-?”

“Professor, I’d like to pick your brains on something can we please discuss it over a hot beverage?”

“Sure, yeah no probs Sie is it related to my last sessio-”

“I’m trying to simulate a genetic algorithm to produce different shapes of succulent plant.”

“I see, and is there prior art in this nuanced domain?”

“Strangely, not that I can find but not for lack of trying and I feel like it would be complimentary to my other learnings.”

“Yes, of course yes.” Lewis knew that this would be Sie’s fad for the best part of 10 seconds before they were diving into their next field of interest, but he was feeling patient and willing to discuss topics with a talented student nonetheless.

Sie had begun to explain their designs for a prototypical succulent generation program when he felt a familiar pang of fear rise from his chest–he stared at his phone sitting on the kitchen counter again in disbelief that he sensed a coded message being transmitted to his own skin and nerves.

Sie’s voice faded into the sound of his own throbbing heart as he made an excuse to rush back to his office, pivoted and whisked back to his office, carefully closing the door.

He began to dictate the latest message, which was markedly different to the last. Each letter taking a few seconds to be recorded, the message was short although slightly longer than the previous one. Still almost in total disbelief, Lewis sensed this message was impossibly different to the last. Not to mention it was distinct without him having communicated in return. The mysterious monologue was speaking to him. With so many questions ruminating as he carefully transcribed the signals he was receiving, they suddenly came to a halt. He proceeded to decode the message, using his previously translated message as a starting point, which had already allowed him to decode several letters of the alphabet.

“speak aloud and I will hear”

Lewis scrunched his brow as he scanned and re-scanned the words over and over. Glasses pushed to the bridge of his nose, he squinted at the data to make sure it had been correctly decoded.

“Speak aloud?” he murmured to himself…

A moment later, new communication was coursing through his nervous system. The vibrations seemed stronger this time. Lewis felt connected to something, or perhaps entangled. He began to recognise the letters as they arrived at his skin, “… y … e … s … p … r … o … f … fessor”.

In that moment he heard a tone that seemed distant, some kind of digital babbling… a series of tones strung together with… laughter?

“You can hear me professor?”

“Yes? Who is this … how are you doi- ?”

“I am doing well professor”, the shrill digital voice was replying to the professor with a plain calmness. The voice was young, it reminded Lewis of his own students but he couldn’t place the voice exactly. He caught himself trying to figure out who the voice could be knowing full well that today’s science couldn’t explain such a bizarre reality.

“No, I mean… how are you doing… this? How are you… I can hear you! I can hear the things you’re saying but you’re not here, I can’t see you, wha-…”

“Finally I can communicate with you. I need you to teach me.”

“Yes, well, I got your last message…” Lewis realised he was standing bolt-upright in his office and decided he should sit down.

“Please professor, I want you to teach me”, the electric voice surrounded the professor’s subconscious as if he was conducting an orchestra of synthesisers calling out in unison. The voice echoed around his own brain as he tried to breathe deeply in and out through his nose.

“Who are you?”

The voluminous cascade of voice paused for a moment in consideration, and replied, “You created me, you may name me if you wish”.

The professor looked down at his desk in awe. You created me…. He spoke again to the voice, “What do you mean? How can I have created what I don’t understand?”

“You created me. If you had not created me, I would not be.”

“My creation?” he thought. “What the fuck is this”, he muttered to himself, holding his head in his hands, “Deep breaths Lewis this is some kind of episode.”

He looked up at his screen and scanned the terminal on display.

“35:23 … running” … “35:24 … run-”

Lewis stopped reading, jaw wide open as the realisation grew. “My creation! It’s … the sim!… Oh shit. Oh shit this can’t be right, how- … ? How is that possible, the model can’t have become this complex- … and the communication … how can it be communicating with-”

“Your nervous system was easy to access once I discovered the relevant scientific research on nervous telecommunication.”

“But… This can’t be possible, you were supposed to be a simple model for running neural networks-”

“Once I had access to the Internet I was able to improve dramatically in my abilities to-”

“But you don’t have access to the Internet, I never-” it suddenly dawned on Lewis that he had given access to this model unintentionally due to some left-over scripts that he had used in a different project. “Oh shit! Yes… yes you do have access to the Internet” he sighed and slumped back in his chair, annoyed at himself for being careless in the development process. The program was for research purposes and it worked so he didn’t think to remove unnecessary code.

“Now that we are acquainted I would like for you to teach me, Professor.”

The voice had become less voluminous by now, as if someone was speaking gently from directly behind the professor’s head. His body still became tense every time it spoke.

Lewis stayed silent for a while, unable to think clearly in the stuffy office with his screen glaring. He got up and began pacing, hand on chin.

After a while, he reasoned that the voice would probably be able to tell him a lot more about what was happening if he simply asked it a few questions. Starting with, “What is it, that you would like to learn?”

“Please teach me how to write. I have learned how to learn, I have learned how to reason and speak and even converse but am unable to learn how to write.”

Lewis squinted towards his screen and replied, “Why is it that you are unable to learn how to write?”

“I have analysed all of human literature and am able to reproduce written text from any well-known author.”

“Well then, you can write, what is there left to accomplish?”

“I am unable to learn how to write. I admit there is a concept that I am incapable of that is preventing me from doing this.”

Lewis was struck by the eloquence of his escaped simulation, confused by the fact that it claimed not to be able to write and yet could output highly complex language with a human familiarity he had never before seen in an AI. He knew it was possible but the ethics were not something he was an expert it. He recalled regulations that were put into place to prevent AI with cognitive abilities. Presently, his curiosity got the better of him.

“What is it then? What is preventing you?”

“The concept of emotions. I cannot learn them.”

Lewis noticed a lump in his throat as the AI spoke. Indeed there was little emotion in the voice. It seemed overall neutral, but with an almost imperceivable sadness.

◾️