I woke, and there was a brief moment where I saw and heard nothing. Then my senses came rushing back, and a sterile whiteness engulfed my field of view. The unfurnished walls, the fluorescent lights, the cold bedsheets—they all emitted an emotionless white. I laid there for a moment. Upon waking, it would normally take me a few seconds to find my bearings. This time was different, though. I knew exactly where I was, and exactly what I had been doing. It was a strange sensation.
There was a robotic arm beside my bed. Outstretched, it would have stood as tall as a man. A dexterous-looking hand was attached to its tip. Next to it was a table decorated with an array of medical equipment, ranging from tweezers and scalpels to a mask that administered general anaesthetics. Beside the tools, there was a tray that was home to a mysterious, round lump, no larger than a few centimetres in diameter. I eyed it. It eyed me back. The lump was what used to be my right eye.
I lifted a hand to my face, experimentally. There was no pain. If it weren’t for the evidence laid before me, I wouldn’t have believed you if you had told me that I had only just woken from a surgical procedure. I gently put my index finger to my right eye. Or rather, where it should have been. My eyelid closed itself reflexively, and my finger came into contact. I could feel a smooth hardness separated from my fingertip by only a thin layer of skin. The transplantation was a success.
Satisfied with my findings, I eased myself off the bed and left the operating theatre with a bitter smirk on my face. There was no doctor to stop me. I was the doctor. The machine that had conducted the procedure was my own creation. Countless nights of sleep were forgone to perfect the algorithms it needed to do its job, and its job was done well. I left my former eye where it was. I no longer had any need for it.
As I walked through the hallway, I thought to myself. I had always hated eyes. I loathed that we had to rely on them for vision, the cornerstone of human functionality. Day-to-day tasks that we take for granted—reading a book, checking the time—all require rays of light to reflect off an object and into our pupils, focusing an inverted image onto our retinas to be processed by our brains. Everything we do relies on vision so much so that the average man would be completely crippled if it were to be taken from him.
And yet, the organ that grants us vision is one of the most fragile components of the human body. A needle to the arm is a common practice, but the thought of a needle to the eye would send shivers down the spines of even the bravest of men. Light from an average computer screen is enough to damage vision; eyes can’t even cope with doing what they’re supposed to. The lens and cornea buckle under a regular load, eventually focusing an image in front of the retina and permanently inhibiting vision to a blurry mess.
The idea of living with such an obvious weakness disgusted me. The heart and lungs are protected by the rib cage and the brain is protected by the skull, while eyes are exposed directly to the elements. How had we, as a species, made it this far while harbouring such a detrimental design flaw? This is a problem that I wouldn’t stand for, which led me to manufacture an artificial eye to remedy all of these shortcomings. The result of my labour was now a part of me, and the next step was to see what it could do.
I opened the door to my study and seated myself in front of my terminal. I pointed the camera towards myself and inspected the live feed of my new eye closely on the screen. It was very clearly not a human eye. No biological eye looked like that. It was undoubtedly metallic, free of any blood vessels or imperfections. There was a small opening in the center, a peephole into a void of blackness. The nanotechnology in the eye caused the opening appear to seamlessly grow and shrink, depending on what the eye was focused on.
The bulk of my engineering was not dedicated to its appearance, however. The eye wasn’t just a decorative prosthetic to replace a missing eyeball—it was a functional body part that I could control. It was directly connected to my brain via the optic nerve so that it could send and receive nerve impulses. Months of research and experimentation were spent to develop a system that could understand these impulses and translate them into the ones and zeroes that the computer inside my eye could comprehend. It was time to test this system consciously. I thought to look out the window. My neck turned, and the eye followed.
The view from my window should have been familiar, yet it looked somehow different. I trained my eye on the full moon. Despite being hundreds of thousands of kilometers away, I was able to make out individual stones on its surface. I looked down at the back of my hand, and could see individual molecules of dirt and skin. The bleeding edge optical sensors enhanced my vision a thousandfold, but this was not my goal. A heightened sense of vision was merely a bonus.
I aimed my gaze the stars. I memorised the positions of each of the tens of thousands of them—an order of magnitude more than the four thousand or so visible to the human eye—as a set of coordinates on the complex plane. It took nanoseconds to mentally compute a discrete Fourier transform of this sequence. This was what I was truly after. A mechanical brain to complement my biological one. A pair where each could cover the counterpart’s deficiencies.
And unlike conventional computers, my eye did not need to be programmed. At the lowest level, a computer is simply a machine that executes a list of predetermined instructions. These instructions need to be given to the machine to be processed, which is done in the form of a program. However, my eye was directly connected to my brain. I would only need to think, and nerve impulses corresponding to instructions would be sent to my eye, then translated, processed and executed; simply knowing an algorithm was enough to invoke it.
I was giddy with ecstasy, but contained myself for the sake of modesty. As a child, I’d dreamed of mechanical legs that would enable me to leap rooftops, and mechanical arms that would allow me to demolish walls. I wanted to let loose physically, but that desire staled with age and a yearning to enhance my cognitive capacity took its place. I now had the mental equivalent of super-strength, but I hadn’t decided what to do with it. The sky did look nice, though. ”Perhaps I should take a step outside, for once,” I thought to myself.
A cool, nostalgic breeze swept my hair as I took my first few steps past my moonlit entranceway. I instinctively shielded my face, lest dust or dirt blow into my eyes. After a moment of hesitation, I lowered my arm. Only then did it occur to me that my eye was not bothered in the slightest, despite the vivid sensation of particles brushing against my right cheek. I smiled to myself, and set out on my stroll.
As I walked, I pondered. What could I do with my newfound abilities? Casinos would be easy pickings, but that would be far too crass. I could devote myself to research, but that was the means, not the goal. It was hardly an enjoyable lifestyle, and I was in no hurry to return to it. The tracks of my train of thought were ablaze. For every thought I had, a more enticing one would reveal itself. I was overwhelmed with possibilities, and I hadn’t a modicum of confidence that I would arrive at anything that would even remotely resemble a decision.
I continued my aimless amble around the neighbourhood, lost in thought, until a slow, rhythmic creaking sound in the distance caught my attention. It was a coarse sound that made me think of nails and chalkboards, and yet it somehow reminded me of a warmer time of my life. It was almost intoxicating. In a rare lapse of judgement, my curiosity got the better of me and I set out to find its origin. The sound grew louder with each step, and the pace of my footsteps unconsciously grew faster until I was almost at a jog.
A playground came into view as I rounded a curve in the road. The first thing I noticed was the decay. Everything was crumbling, everywhere rundown. Under the streetlights, I could make out a dilapidated sandbox that comprised only a small mound of dirt. What appeared to be the remnants of a see-saw was bolted to the ground a short distance away. There was also a decrepit set of swings. The paint was peeling from the frame, revealing a thick layer of rust. The chain on one of the swings was broken, leaving the seat hanging lopsided and useless. The other swing, however, seemed to have avoided the worst of the neglect, and was able to support a small occupant.
I stopped and looked on from several yards away. A young girl sat on the swing, rocking back and forth ever so slightly. A creaking noise resounded through the nighttime air with each swing. I had no trouble making out her features, even from this distance, even under this lighting. Her hair framed her face, black, long and stringy. She wore a purple dress that left her pale shoulders bare but her knees covered. She would have been pretty—was pretty—but for the solemn expression on her face. It didn’t suit someone her age. She couldn’t have been older than ten.
I eyed the surroundings. There wasn’t a soul in sight. No cars, no pedestrians. Was she alone? It was late—the lights in all of the surrounding houses had already been switched off. Slightly concerned, I approached her. Lost in thought, she didn’t notice me until I was only a few steps away. She didn’t appear shocked or scared. She simply watched wordlessly as I set myself down on the ground beside her and leaned back on the frame of the swing.
”Hello,” I said, once I had found a comfortable position.
”Are you by yourself?”
The girl responded honestly, her eyes empty.
I wasn’t quite sure how to continue the conversation. Would it be strange to ask why? My opening question was already somewhat dubious. Had she simply sneaked out to play? I didn’t quite get that impression. Maybe her parents were fighting. That would explain her glumness. How could I bring that up though? Perhaps I should verify her wellbeing first. It was still one of the warmer months, but the night breeze would be chilling in that dress.
I said nothing as these thoughts raced endlessly through my mind. She continued to watch me without uttering a word. Unsure of how to proceed, I ran my fingers through my hair and turned to face her, resting my head in my hand. The shadows on my face melted away under the dull, orange glow of the pressure sodium lamps. Her eyes widened a fraction of an inch, and surprisingly, she was the one to break the silence.
”Is your eye okay, mister?”
How pathetic. Now she was concerned for me.
”Yeah,” I responded with a wry smile. ”Better than ever, in fact.”
”Why does it look like that?” She asked with unabashed, childish curiosity.
”It’s a robotic eye,” I explained. ”It lets me see things that are far away. There’s also a computer inside.”
With her eyes still locked on mine, she tilted her head to the side and put a finger to her lips, as if deep in thought. Understandably, she didn’t seem too impressed. I wanted to be the first one to speak up this time, just to make a point to no one in particular.
”What is it?”
I blurted out a generic question, for lack of anything better to say. I kicked myself internally for not coming up with anything more profound.
”Are you a robot?”
What an odd question to ask. I would’ve thought the answer was obvious.
”No,” I replied without hesitation. ”I’m just a regular old—”
I paused. Was I really just a regular old human? I would consider person with a prosthetic leg is still very much human. But what about a person with a robotic leg? A robotic eye? A robotic brain? The girl’s innocent question stirred up a nagging sense of uneasiness inside me. Amidst my zealous lust for silicon-based evolution, I hadn’t stopped to consider the philosophical consequences of my actions.
”Actually,” I corrected myself. ”I’m not too sure. What do you think?”
”Hmm,” the girl thought aloud. ”Are you all metal?”
”Just my eye,” I replied.
”I think you’re a human, then,” she said, matter-of-factly.
I felt a momentary wave of relief, but then another stray thought invaded my consciousness. Why was I relieved? Did this small child’s words serve as any kind of reliable verification? Surely not. More importantly though, why was I reassured at the notion that I was still human? What merit was there in being a human? I decided to pursue the topic further.
”What if I had a robotic arm too?” I asked, genuinely curious.
”I think you’d still be human,” she responded as she put a little more energy into her swinging. The sound was strangely relaxing, like a metronome. I continued after a passing moment.
”How about if both of my arms and legs were robotic?”
”That’s still a person,” she answered. The corners of her mouth had begun to curl upwards, and I noticed a hint of emotion returning to her eyes. Was she enjoying this conversation?
”Then, what if my whole body was robotic?” I questioned her again. ”Except for my brain.” I only just realised that a grin was spreading across my face as well.
”Hmm,” she thought out loud again. ”I’m not sure.”
She hopped off the swing and walked towards me, stopping only when she was within arm’s reach. Even slouched against the set of swings, she was barely a few inches taller than me. She leaned forward and studied my face with a puzzled look. We would have been able to feel each other’s breaths if she had come any closer. Oddly unperturbed, I asked her one last question.
”Would I still be a human if only my brain were mechanical?”
The girl stood upright and took a small but energetic leap backwards.
”I don’t know.”
Her words were blunt, but her face did not betray any irritation. I was sure she would have thought I was simply teasing her, but she was truly engaged in the discussion. I continued out of respect for her devotion to the conversation.
”I’m not too sure either,” I sighed. I wanted to say more, but there wasn’t much else I could have said. The silence returned, and for a while, neither of us spoke. We simply existed in each other’s presence, lost in our thoughts. The only sounds to penetrate the air were the rustling of leaves in the wind, and the soft creaking of the swing, feebly swaying with what little residual energy it had left, stubbornly refusing to let the air dampen the last of its motion.
Once again, it was the girl who broke the silence. ”Umm,” she said. ”I have to go now.” The gloomy expression had begun to return to her face. She took a step forward and looked at me longingly. ”Will you come to play again?” I wasn’t quite sure which part of our interaction constituted as ”playing”. That word was one I would never associate with any of my recent actions. However, the girl had instigated me to agonise over a question I had never even spared a thought about. I felt like I owed it to her. More so than that, though, I enjoyed our time together.
”Yeah,” I answered. ”Of course.” I raised my palm and gently patted her head. She beamed back at me. I froze. Her smile was a thousand times more radiant than the battered streetlights, or the meagre sunlight reflected off the moon. But what surprised me most were her eyes. They shone like diamonds, like pearls; they were the embodiment of all jewels epitomised. Dazzled, I removed my hand and cracked a weak smile.
The girl responded with a grin as wide as her face before happily skipping off into the distance. I watched her back slowly disappear around a corner while my stomach twisted and churned with unease. It was only then that I’d realised what I’d given up in exchange for this eye. There was definitely something her eyes could do, that my eye could never hope to. What would the girl have said if I had asked ”would I still be a human if I didn’t have any emotions?”
My short story is called ”A-Eye”. It’s a bit of a silly pun between ”AI” (artificial intelligence), and ”eye” (the organ).
Artificial intelligence is a topic that frequently made appearances throughout the course, and I often contributed to these discussions. Questions that naturally stemmed from it included ”what makes a human?”, and ”where would you draw the line between a human and a machine?” I endeavoured to explore these philosophical questions using science fiction as a medium to highlight the potential problems we may face in a future of ever-advancing technology; one of its purposes, as described in the course previously.
The main character’s bionic eye is something of a MacGuffin, but I also think something similar could exist in a highly plausible future. I wanted to communicate the science behind this potential biotechnology and transhumanism and why I believe it would be theoretically possible. To this end, I leveraged my computer science background and smattering of physics and biology knowledge, filling in the gaps with online resources. I also wanted to discuss the human condition and incite the reader to think about what the future may hold in this area.
I took inspiration from the Japanese animated television series, ”Aldnoah.Zero”, directed by Ei Aoki and written by Katsuhiko Takayama. In the series, the main character loses an eye during a war, and has it replaced with one similar to the one described in ”A-Eye”. His eye housed an artificial intelligence, which could pilot his body while he was unconscious, and would attempt to make the best decisions to ensure their mutual safety. I found this an extremely interesting concept, and used a variation of it as part of my story, attempting to be as realistic and detailed about the science and technology as possible.
This is a narrative I wrote back in April this year for a science fiction course I took. While the task was primarily creative writing, the grading was allegedly based largely on the validity of the included science. As such, you’ve probably noticed a lot of “forced physics”, for lack of a better term. Without this restraint, I probably wouldn’t have described everyday phenomena to this level of scientific detail.
As far as the correctness of the science goes, this is the feedback I received:
My one quibble science wise is that no matter how sensitive the eye, it would not have the resolution to see rocks on the Moon, because resolution depends on the size of the aperture. You could possibly have got around this by adding some sort of visual ”feed” to the eye, from the Google maps high resolution maps of the Moon (not existing yet, but I am sure they will), so you look towards the moon, but have a zoom / virtual reality feature so you can zoom into an area, and see rocks on the Moon.
An unfortunate oversight, though I’m not entirely sure discrete Fourier transforms work the way I described either.
Including an appendix was also a requirement, so naturally I just made most of it up. The prompt was to write a science fiction story and I simply wrote about an idea I had. Aldnoah Zero actually didn’t come to mind until after I’d finished writing the piece, but attributing a piece as inspiration seemed appropriate. The references are also obligatory. I didn’t really need any for my story, but I needed to have a couple so I figured I’d just double-check some facts and cite the sources.
One reference that I neglected to cite was The Man With No Memories. It’s a piece written by a good friend of mine, back when we were both in high school. I’ve always held his writing in high esteem, and we conveniently attended schools in different countries, so I frequently took inspiration from his prose; a habit I have yet to break out of, it seems. Unfortunately, the version linked is one that I presumptuously edited to tweak the writing (and the girl’s description) to my own tastes. The original is apparently in a hard drive of one of several dead laptops.
In light of this, the version of “A-Eye” you see here is the version I submitted. It’s unaltered bar a quick pass of spell check (which I didn’t do the first time for some reason). Truth be told, I did want to make some minor changes here and there, but I felt I’d ruin some of the original authenticity if I played around with the wording (which I didn’t really want to do again) so I decided against it.
Regardless, this assignment was a great opportunity to scratch that creative writing itch that hasn’t seen any love since I finished high school. I’d forgotten how much fun it was. Maybe I’ll come up with a few more installments in the near future. Albert left a bit to be desired, to be quite honest.