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Future Tense: My Office Mate

Future Tense, one of the revolving features on this page, presents stories and essays from the intersection of computational science and technological speculation, their boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what will and could be.

I became a biocomputational zombie for science...and for love.
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moldy liquid

You’d be surprised what poor equipment the profs have in our CS department. Until quite recently, my office mate Harry’s computer was a primeval beige box lurking beneath his desk. Moreover, it had taken to making an irritating whine, and the techs didn’t want to bother with it.

One rainy Tuesday during his office hour, Harry snapped. He interrupted a conversation with an earnest student by jumping to his feet, yelling a curse, and savagely kicking the computer. The whine stopped; the machine was dead. Frightened and bewildered, the student left.

"Now they’ll have to replace this clunker," said Harry. "And you keep your trap shut, Fletcher."

"What if the student talks?"

"Nobody listens to them."

In a few days, a new computer appeared on Harry’s desk, an elegant new model the size of a sandwich, with a wafer-thin display propped up like a portrait frame.

Although my office mate is a brilliant man, he’s a thumb-fingered klutz. For firmly held reasons of principle, he wanted to tweak the settings of his lovely new machine to make it use a reverse Polish notation command-line interface; this had to do with the massive digital archiving project on which he was forever working. The new machine demurred at adopting reverse Polish. Harry downloaded some freeware patches, intending to teach the device a lesson. You can guess how that worked out.

The techs took Harry’s dead sandwich back to their lair, wiped its memory, and reinstalled the operating system. Once again its peppy screen shone atop his desk. But now Harry sulked, not wanting to use it.

"This is about my soul," he told me. "I’ve spent, what, 30 years creating a software replica of myself. Everything I’ve written: my email messages, my photos, and a lot of my conversations—and, yes, I’m taping this, Fletcher. A rich compost of Harry data. It’s ready to germinate, ready to come to life. But these brittle machines thwart my immortality at every turn."

"My entire wetware database is flowing into every one of these slime mold cells. They like reverse Polish."

"You’d just be modeling yourself as a super chatbot, Harry. In the real world, we all die." I paused, thinking about Harry’s attractive woman friend of many years. "It’s a shame you never married Velma. You two could have had kids. Biology is the easy path to self-replication."

"You’re not married either," said Harry, glaring at me. "And Velma says what you said, too." As if reaching a momentous decision, he snatched the shapely sandwich computer off his desk and put it on mine. "Very well then! I’ll make my desk into a stinky bio farm."

Sure enough, when I came into the office on Monday, I found Harry’s desk encumbered with a small biological laboratory. Harry and his woman friend Velma were leaning over it, fitting a data cable into a socket in the side of a Petri dish that sat beneath a bell jar.

"Hi Fletch," said Velma brightly. She was a terminally cheerful genomics professor with curly hair. "Harry wants me to help him reproduce as a slime mold."

"How romantic," I said. "Do you think it’ll work?"

"Biocomputation has blossomed this year," said Velma. "The Durban-Krush mitochondrial protocols have solved our input/output problems."

"A cell’s as much a universal computer as any of our department’s junk-boxes," put in Harry. "And just look at this! My entire wetware database is flowing into every one of these slime-mold cells. They like reverse Polish. I’m overwriting their junk DNA."

"We prefer to speak of sequences that code for obsolete or unactivated functional activity," said Velma, making a playful professor face.

"Like Harry’s sense of empathy?" I suggested.

Velma laughed. "I’m waiting for him to code me into the slime mold with him."

A week later, Harry was having conversations out loud with the mold culture on his desk. Intrigued by the activity, one of our techs had interfaced a sound card to Harry’s culture, still in its Petri dish. When Harry was talking to it, I couldn’t readily tell which of the voices was the real him.

The week after that, I noticed the slime mold colonies had formed themselves into a pattern of nested scrolls, with fruiting bodies atop some of the ridges. Velma was in the office a lot, excitedly discussing a joint paper she was writing with Harry.

"Not exactly a wedding," I joked. "But still."

When Velma left, Harry gave me a frown. "You don’t ever plan to get on my wavelength, do you, Fletch? You’ll always be picking at me."

"So? Not everyone has to be the same."

"By now I would have thought you’d want to join me. You’re the younger man. I need for you to extend my research." He was leaning over his desk, lifting up the bell jar to fiddle with his culture.

"I’ve got my own career," I said, shaking my head. "But, of course, I admit there’s genius in your work."

"Your work now," said Harry. "Yours." He darted forward and blew a puff of spores into my face. In moments the mold had reprogrammed my wetware. I became a full-on emulation of Harry.

And—I swear—Velma will soon be mine.

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