Ryan Tobin


It's not every day that I wake up in a different year from when I went to bed. I wholly expect it to happen on days like December 31st. So you can understand my shock when, instead of seeing May 9th 2002 on the calendar, I saw May 9th, 2029. Sometimes you can just tell it's going to be a bad day.

In fact, something was telling me it was going to be a very bad day.

As I rolled out of bed and landed with my feet squarely on the floor, I suddenly got the feeling that something wasn't quite right. A moment's thought made me realize that, in my three years of College, I've never before rolled out of bed and not landed on the mounds and piles of clutter—books, clothes, and musical instruments—which always surround my bed. I also realized that my entire room was clutter-free. I shrugged off this oddity; I had cleaned my room in the past, and there was a possibility, although remote, that I had cleaned it last night (whenever that was).

My morning routine continued with the hunger pangs I usually feel just after waking up. I decided to dress and go to Farinon for a quick bite of food. Noticing that I was already dressed, I headed outside and down Hart Street towards Farinon. Something seemed out of place, almost surreal; I couldn't say what it was exactly. At this point my mind woke up and began to defend itself. "Tobin," it told me, "there's nothing wrong with the world. You probably just had too much to drink last night." I continued on my trek.

The Farinon Food Court seemed normal to me. The food tasted awful, which was strangely reassuring. In fact, everything was reassuring. The texture of the carpet, the uncomfortable chairs, the wobbly tables, and surly yet charming staff seemed to give me a sense of comfort. I reminded myself that, while our eyes often deceive us, it is rare when all of our senses are fooled.

My quiet calm was broken when I noticed, in the corner of my eye, a small flashing yellow light. I tried to turn to look at it, but it stayed in the corner of my eye.1 I thought to myself, "What's the meaning of this thing?" Suddenly, a voice whispered to me, "Your VAST is starting; would you like to attend?"

A strange chill ran through my body; the kind of chill you get when you know something is critically wrong. I had felt this chill before: when the Easton Police pulled me over, when I realized I had played a wrong note during my big solo in high school, when I realized I was 20 minutes late for an hour exam.

"Yes," I said out loud. "I think I had better."

In the next instant, I was seated in an uncomfortable chair in Pardee, surrounded by my classmates, as usual.2 We were waiting for our professor to walk in. Everything seemed normal to me. It was as if it were my junior year, spring semester, all over again. While I was thinking, the professor must have walked in, because she began talking.

"Good afternoon," she began, "hope you're all feeling well today. If you didn't download the reading last night, please download it now." 3 A few students seemed to space out for a few seconds; their faces then turned thoughtful. "As you know, today's discussion will be about the definition of humanity.4 Today, of course, carbon-based life forms will be voting on the legal status of computers. Geoff, your assignment was to find out how this election will work." 5

One of the students spoke up and addressed the class. "Today's election, of course, is a Constitutional one; the American People will be voting on the repeal of the 37th Amendment."

The professor interrupted, "Could you explain the 37th Amendment? It is key to this whole debate."

Geoff again spoke up. "The 37th Amendment was passed in 2019, under pressure from the Neo-Luddite movement.6 It reserves the right of governance—the ability to hold elective office and to vote—to beings that have a carbon-based substrate.7 The machines have now stated that, as conscious beings, they too deserve the right to vote and hold political office. In fact, they claim that they are so far advanced that they ought to be the only ones involved in the process of governing."

The professor commented, "Okay, that's a good introduction to the issue. The machines have claimed that their civil rights are being violated, that we, as carbon-based life forms, have denied them their rights on the basis of a distinction between us that is no more relevant than race or gender was in the past. Dave, I asked you to research the arguments against the amendment. What did you find out?"

Another student addressed the class. "There are two main arguments against the amendment. The first is that it is essentially impossible to define a conscious entity that is not carbon based. One computer might support multiple personalities or many computers might collaborate to support one personality. And computers can be physically merged and split. So the one person, one vote principle simply couldn’t be extended to machines. The second argument is that currently over 99% of computing capacity is non-human and if that trend continues, there will be far more of them than there are of us. If we give them the vote, can we really trust them to look out for our welfare when they are the majority?" I shifted in my seat uncomfortably.

Our professor looked pleased. "Thank you, Dave. Hal, I asked you to research the arguments for the amendment. How would you respond to Dave?"

Hal spoke to the class. "The main argument for the amendment is that computers are conscious entities and are no different from us in any way that matters. It is impossible to distinguish between a human personality and a virtual one. They think and feel just the way we do. In fact, many humans already have intimate relationships with virtual personalities that they claim are in every way as satisfying as those between two humans. Even though we originally conceived of computers as our servants, that relationship has changed and we should give machines a role in governing themselves. There is no evidence that carbon-based life is superior—" 8

"I hate to cut you off," said the professor, "but it's time for the vote. I hope you all consider this debate in your decision."

A voice whispered in my ear: "The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania requests your vote on the issue of passage of the 48th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Would you like to hear the proposed amendment?"

"No," I said. "I know what it is. I don't want it. I vote no."

The voice again spoke to me: "Your vote against the passage of the 48th Amendment has been recorded. Please wait for the election results." There was a pause of about a minute. I don't think I breathed. "I'm sorry," said the voice, "but most humans do not agree with you. 74% voted in favor of passage."

I looked up to our professor. She seemed stoic. I asked, "How did the election work so fast? How did the MOSHes, without all of these implants, how did their votes get recorded?" 9

The professor looked at me strangely, and shook her head. "MOSHes? I don't think there are any left; who would want to live without the implants? Planet Earth may be our physical home, but it's no place to live." 10