the human abstraction

short stories collection - a compilation of my short stories.


How much effort would you expend to abstract man?

Abstraction. It is a wonderful word, for me. When i was much younger, i used to work on everything from designing kernels for big software companies to running high-level robotic interfaces. Abstraction. We were indoctrinated since children about the dogma that everything could be abstracted, that we needn’t know the details as long as we knew the input and output along with edge cases. And we designed our systems that way, a towering edifice of logic.

Yet, I was not satisfied. Computers were the easy abstraction, we built them after-all. Once we reached the limits of von Neumann architecture and sat at the awkward intersection between the macro and the quantum world, there was senescence. And this bother us all; after all, we were used to the high-flying, fast-paced world of technology moving ever forward.

A century ago, a president of the USA declared that they would pump money into solving the ultimate computation device: the brain. It was all back-slapping and champagne for the first couple years as new technologies were rolled out and a vast sea of data was unleashed. Yet, there was no real abstraction, no development of a concrete theory of the mind. When I met someone, knowing their parameters—genome, environmental exposure, etc.—would not help me decipher what they would do next. That was deeply disturbing to me. And many others.

We began in earnest one day after a conference in San Diego several decades back. It started off as a pie-in-the-sky project with goals approaching Apollo, yet our challenge was orders of magnitude more daunting, for we barely knew what we would find in the end and how it would help us. Yes, the human abstraction was an obsession that grew day-by-day to consume entire departments and funding agencies.

You see, the thought of people as something other than a computational I/O, a set of well-designed biological relays, slowly started to fade from our minds. It happened first with C. elegans. The original work of Brenner and colleagues to elucidate every neuron paid off 70 years later, when a simulation of the entire worms nervous system and other organ systems was complete. It could predict with nearly 90% accuracy what a particular worm would do given you knew its genetic composition and environmental parameters. It was a triumph.

Then followed several other model organisms, including the heroic project, MELSTAR, that completely modeled D. mel. That was thirty years on. People could smell it. We were getting close to mammals. And then we would have a new form of computing, one that could bridge the precision of the past with the creativity and adaptability of natural beings. People talked about technological singularity, of creating computers smarter than man. But this was not our aim. And it never became a reality—we feared that event so much that great care was taken to handicap every new algorithm or newly designed circuit to prevent that possibility.

We entered the 22nd century with the expectation that by the 23rd century we would have solved humanity. That we would be able to abstract people. Given a sample of someone’s DNA, a record of their life’s movements (easily obtainable via phone and other records), and several other parameters, we would be able to predict both what they would do and in the near future when computing power had caught up, when they would do it. An old movie, The Matrix i believe it was called, was constantly referenced, many claiming they foresaw a day in the near future when we’d start taking subjects to enslave. But we didn’t need hosts, just parameters.

Somewhere around the early half of the 22nd century, we solved the avian, rodent and non-human primate brains, nearly simultaneously. A team at Stanford-Berkeley (Stanford had completed its hostile take-over of its nearby neighbor several decades back) help show that the interactions and eventual social hierarchy of several littermate mice could be modeled completely. Teams at Tokyo University, Peking University, and several Max Planck institutes then followed with the non-human primate. The avian simulation came out of a Harvard-MIT collaboration.

And so, here we are. Today. The first simulation of a human mind has been run…and failed. For reasons unknown to us, it failed to predict the output of patient 1. Everything had been synced, the patient was continually hooked up to allow real-time monitoring of blood content, relative neurotransmitter counts (microdialysis and voltammetry had advanced quite a bit), brain region-specific mRNA expression levels, and a host of other parameters. We had every possible parameter about patient 1’s life as well: their precise location every 10 seconds since birth, exactly who they interacted with, what they ate, who they slept with (and when)...everything. Short of measuring the activity of every cell in their body, a feat we still couldn’t accomplish even with the monumental improvements in fMRI and other imaging modalities, there was nothing more we could do. No more arguments could be passed to the program.

But there is hope. The simulation still had the same personality as patient 1. That was cause for celebration: for now, when i meet a person on the street, all it would take is a couple of their parameters, and we could skip the unnecessary social interactions; months or years of shared time; and heated, angry conversations. The human abstraction would be complete and then we could known the inputs needed to achieve a specified output. Wonderful.

bahanonu [at]

more articles to enjoy:

27 december 2008 | short story

The pair looked out across the gorgeous vista, the golden plans below waiting to be harvested, the mountains in the distance yearning [...]to be explored, the hidden structures and stories aching to be discovered. The sky was auburn green; owing to the transition between ecosystems as the planet was terraformed. The suits were itchy, their bright white exterior blinding those foolish enough to stare at them. They reminded him of the astronaut suits they used to see from the late 20th century photos.

Possibly the best short, it focuses on the attack by an unknown entity on an alien city. The fear, anticipation and rapidly switching perspective were an experiment in a new style for me. I think it paid off.

James J. Polk
06 August 2012 | designs

James Polk was an extraordinary president who accomplished a lot in on[...]ly one term. For this reason he is my favorite president and this is a poster to that.

neuroscience and biology technologies
30 november 2014 | neuroscience

Earlier this year I created a webpage to list various labs, websites, and other resources related to neuroscience and biotechnology. Decide[...]d to expand on this and create a living document of various technologies currently used in neuroscience.

bio42: notes
12 may 2013 | teaching

<p>While teaching bio42 (cell biology and animal physiology) I created weekly notes to help students in my section study [...]and focus on the important materials presented in the class. I built off of the latex boilerplate that I have been improving over time to create weekly notes. This highlights why I love <a href='' target='_blank'>LaTeX</a> so much, especially for larger projects that are heavily linked&mdash;it allows easy annotation, indexing, creation of new document styles, and other related processes rapidly and consistently. Plus, separating content and style is always a plus and images stay uncoupled from a propriety source (e.g. Word files). </p> <p>I really love the resulting notes and student feedback was quite positive. I thought sharing them might be useful for others in the future. The source latex files and raw images can be sent upon request (I'm considering making a Github repository in the future). I'll briefly talk about the document below and certain decisions that were made to get it to its current state. </p>
©2006-2018 | biafra ahanonu | updated 31 january 2018
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