Conscious Designs headquarters was tucked against the steep, crumbling dirt hills at the edge of the city. From the vehicle, Eugene could see the dun hillside produced no vegetation and boulders protruded precariously from the sediment. A large concrete retaining wall rose behind the building, a bulwark against the relentless erosion of land, protecting an almost entirely glass structure that reflected a toxic lime-green sky and the dark silhouette of the city. The reflection was surreal and distorted in the slight concavities of the glass. There was no sign, no corporate logo of any kind. He only knew where he was because the autonomous vehicle kindly informed him that he had arrived at Conscious Designs.  

Eugene wrestled the wheelchair across his lap and onto the pavement next to him. He was unpracticed in transferring to and from the wheelchair, and when he threw his body across the rift between the car seat and the wheelchair his bony legs collapsed and he fell flat onto the concrete slab. When he closed the door, the car, having perceived a successful drop-off, left and parked itself on a nearby street. After a few unsuccessful attempts to pull himself from the ground into the chair, Eugene noticed a tall man in a comfortable looking white cotton suit running towards him.  

Without asking for Eugene’s consent, the man slipped his hands under Eugene’s armpits and heaved him back into the chair. “You must be Mr. Wallace. I am Francis Ashcroft. You have an appointment, correct?”  


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Eugene was too stunned by the man’s audacity to answer. He had become so accustomed to predicting the behavior of those around him that this man’s actions were more jarring than hitting the concrete.  

Finally, Eugene was able to speak.   

“Thank you,” he said, without making eye contact. “My exo is being fixed as we speak. I’m not used to the chair.” 

“When you inhabit your Second Self, you won’t be worrying about assistive technologies anymore. That is, if you find replication suitable to your desires. May I wheel you into our offices?”  

Eugene was confused by Mr. Ashcroft’s use of the pronoun you for his Second Self. Would he be the Second Self, or would the replica be its own self? After all, he would still go on living in this corrupted body even if his Second Self would be free of it. 

“I can manage. Thank you.” He followed Ashcroft into the elevator. 

“May I ask what happened?” Ashcroft said, glancing at Eugene’s wheelchair.  

Eugene paused and thought for a moment. Nobody had ever asked about his injury. “It’s not a fascinating story, I assure you,” he finally responded. 

“I see.”  

They entered a room that was labeled Consultation Room 7. It was a triangular room with a triangular black table, two chairs and a large screen at the third position. Ashcroft removed one of the large black leather chairs so that Eugene could park his wheelchair at the table, which was slightly too low for his knees to fit under, as he had anticipated. It was his first opportunity to see Ashcroft eye to eye. The man was hairless, ageless, his skin pulled tight around his bald head. He revealed no interiority at all, no history.  

“Tell me, Mr. Wallace, what do you already know about our service?”  

“I know that you can copy a biological brain and put it into a computer.” 

“That is the basic premise, yes. We scan the brain with an EIS, an Electron Imaging System, like an electron microscope for your brain. Then we create a complete neural map of your connectome.” 


“The basic structure of the brain, like a wiring diagram with over 100 trillion connections. Once they’ve mapped the connectome, Conscious Designs could reproduce the mind in a quantum computer complete with a 330-gigahertz processor.  

“So, would it be me?” 

“Yes. Completely. The processor will run an exact copy of your connectome, which encapsulates all the memories from your hypothalamus. Your memories will be stored in the same hierarchical order as they exist in your mind right now. You will have the same internal self-model, more or less. The Second Self will have the same personal narrative, the same values, the same aspirations, the same notion of your mental trajectory through time.”  

It seemed degrading and almost cruel that Ashcroft was reducing him to a series of data points. Eugene suppressed this feeling and tried to focus on the possibility of liberation. Pain, after all, must also be nothing more than just information.  

“So we’ll be identical, me and my Second Self?” 

“More or less. Our newest platform, Arcadia, will allow you to make adjustments in your self-model. You will be able to create an ideal self-model of mind and body. You will be able to walk unassisted. If that is something you want.” 

“Conscious Designs”


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“Of course. But will it be conscious?” Eugene asked.  

“As conscious as you or me.” 

“You use a Turing test or something to prove that?” 

“You’ve watched too many melodramas, Mr. Wallace,” said Ashcroft, almost smiling. “Turing tests don’t prove consciousness. Turing tests only verify if an entity can deceive a real human being by understanding the human’s mental model. The ability to form a mental model of another human is part of being conscious, but it’s not all of it. Even the early chess playing computers of the twentieth century could deceive humans based on some basic information that the computers had about human behavior. What proves that something is conscious is whether it knows that it is being deceived.” 

Eugene thought about Corina, how he planned to lie to her about the consultation. Would she know he was deceiving her? 

“So if my mind lives in a machine, how can consciousness emerge?” he asked. “What is the ghost in the machine, if you will?”  

“Well, first you have to understand what consciousness is. Consciousness is not just processing information, as you know. If that were true, then your personal computer would be conscious. You need a few things to be humanly conscious. First, you need to have a mental model of your self. You also need to be able to construct mental models of others, understand their desires, their motivations and their mental models of themselves.”  

Eugene’s mind began to wander to his wife. He couldn’t understand what she desired anymore. His model of her was slipping. Did this make him less human? 

Ashcroft continued, “Then you need to have not just sensory experience, but a subjective experience or qualia. If you see a sunset, you see more than just colors.  The movement of the sun sinking below the horizon produces a feeling about the experience that arises from the sensations involved in watching the sunset.” 

Eugene gazed expressionless out of the room’s only window. “Our sunsets here are so toxic. They remind me of how polluted this world is.”  

“Yes! Aesthetics!” Ashcroft said. “The subjective experience involves not just perception but association and emotional content. I find the sunset quite beautiful, while you see it as a grotesque emblem of a world worth leaving behind, Mr. Wallace.”  

Ashcroft too was gazing out the small window as the last rays of green light faded into darkness.  

“Our qualia of this sunset, our complex psychological experiences of it, are quite different and so we are distinctive consciousnesses.” 

“May I assume there is a Second Mr. Ashcroft?” 

“Of course there is.”  

“How can you be sure that he is conscious? How do you know that your Second Self has subjective experiences? Quasia.” 

“Qualia,” he corrected. “That is a matter I must take on faith, Mr. Wallace.”  

Faith. The word seemed out of place in this man’s scientific jargon. Eugene couldn’t remember the last time he heard the word. It was some relic of another time. He wasn’t even sure what it meant.  

“It seems to me that consciousness relies on an experience of the physical world,” he said. “We must see what a sunset looks like in order to feel it.”  

“You are assuming, Mr. Wallace, that you are perceiving the physical world as it is. This is incorrect. In fact, your brain has been evolving for millennia to see the world not as it is, or what we call the noumenal world. This is a world that we will never know, if it even exists at all. What you and I are experiencing is the phenomenal world, or the world that has been filtered through all kinds of different things: values, associations, memories, ideas of beauty, etc. We are already experiencing a simulated reality in a sense. In some ways, a simulated world, such as the world inhabited by our Second Selves, is a more natural environment for the human mind. There is no harsh ontological barrier between what is and what seems.”  

Eugene thought about his physical body. It was the physical reality of his world that was so antagonistic. He continued to gaze out the window as the city began to fade into darkness.    “You need an autonomous attention schema,” Ashcroft continued. “Where we decide to focus our attention is an integral and often overlooked component of consciousness. This process is regulated by different kinds of neurons….” 

Eugene was not paying attention anymore. He was thinking about Corina, no longer considering the decision to choose replication but rather considering whether or not to tell her that he wanted a Second Self and that he had come here without her blessing.   

“And then, of course, there is decision-making, which is what you are here to do. Mr. 

Wallace, are you listening?” 

“I am listening. There are so many factors to take in. I’m not sure if I am willing to turn my mind over to a machine,” Eugene said.  

“The computer by itself is a machine, yes. But to call the computer with a consciousness in it a machine is incorrect. Machines can only make pre-programmed decisions. But our brains are different. We have yes neurons, which allow signals to pass, and no neurons, which inhibit signals from being transferred.” 

“Like a binary computer. 0s and 1s.” 

“But sometimes the 1s and 0s are shouted and sometimes they are whispered. Sometimes our minds are saying yes and no at the same time. We can hold two mutually exclusive ideas in our minds at the same time. Such as “purchasing a Second Self is the right decision for me” and “purchasing a second self is wrong for me.” But a classical computer is predictable in that we need to tell it which signals to prioritize and which ones to ignore.  That is why we use a quantum computer. It can generate spontaneity in the way that a classical binary-based computer can’t. A quantum circuit, or qubit, can be 1 or 0 or both. This is how the microtubules of our neurons work too.” 

Eugene was thinking about the neurons in his own body. How his own brain’s pain receptors never seemed to be in the zero position, were either whimpering or screaming a phantom pain into his conscious experience.   

“So we are just controlled chaos,” Eugene said. “My life feels like it is entirely determined, like the world and my mind are pre-programmed. How will I know that a digital life will be any more…dynamic than this one? I can’t be sure that my Second Self will be conscious. It sounds like you can’t be sure either.”  

Ashcroft began wringing his hands together in a nervous gesture that made him seem more human, betraying Eugene’s initial perception of him as an automaton. This humanness inspired a certain distrust for the man. Ashcroft turned his attention from his hands to the blank screen in front of them. As if summoning some deity, he looked up and said, “Nina, are you ready?” The screen came alive and a woman’s thin, dark face materialized on the screen. She looked a bit younger than Eugene, maybe forty. A moment later the real, embodied Nina came walking through the door. “Nina Deseo and Nina Deseo, this is Mr. Wallace.” 

“Call me Eugene, please.”  

“Nice to–” they interrupted each other. “Sorry, we’re new to this,” said the Nina on the screen in a barely perceptible accent he couldn’t identify.  

“This is only our second consult,” said the embodied Nina, with a slightly stronger accent.  

“I’ll let you all get acquainted,” Mr. Ashcroft said as he slipped out of the door.    Eugene noticed that the Nina who took the seat beside him was missing her left arm at the elbow. It put him at ease, being in the company of disability. But he couldn’t help but wonder if there was some kind of deception at play here. He asked her, the embodied Nina, “Why did you decide to have a Second Self made?” 

“Well, we decided to be replicated for a number of reasons. The first is obvious. Who doesn’t want to be immortal? A Second Self is the ultimate antidote to death. Not just to death, but also to the fear of death. Conscious Designs offers what religions have been trying to sell for millennia, but CD’s product is verifiable.”  

Her words seemed scripted, her gestures rehearsed. This was a sales pitch, after all.  

“And also, we wanted to be a part of the next step. Biological consciousness is the larval stage to a greater consciousness.”  

There was a pause.  

“We’ll be able to speak through the generations, become the ancestral chorus that can lead the physical world towards its salvation and to create an immaterial utopia.” It was strange that the mortal Nina was talking as if she would live in perpetuity. Strange that she referred to her and her digital counterpart as only a collective we.  

“I’m fascinated by something Mr. Ashcroft said earlier,” Eugene said. “He said I would not have to worry about being paralyzed as a Second Self in the Arcadia platform.” 

“Well, of course not,” said screen-Nina. “The Second Self will have a digitally replicated body that can be changed. My digital body was altered to have two arms.” 

She held up both arms to show that they were fully formed.  

“It took me over a year for my mind to incorporate the new arm into my body-schema. For months I had no proprioception in this arm. No idea how to use my fingers. I would spend hours performing simple tasks like making a fist with my right hand and trying to get my right to teach my left. But now I am fully integrated, whole again.”   

Screen-Nina, who, unlike her counterpart, referred to herself in the singular I, seemed so much more real, more human, than the Nina sitting beside him. 

“That is fascinating, but that was not really my question,” Eugene said. “My question was about the pronouns that Mr. Ashcroft used. He said that I would be my Second Self. Is that true?” 

“Well, yes and no,” answered the Nina sitting beside Eugene. “The you that you are now will be both. Our selves are not products but processes, or rather trajectories through space, physical or virtual, and time. So the you that you are now will be both the you in physical space and the you in virtual space after replication. Until 18 months ago, when we decided to have replication done, we had the same memories, the same sense of self.”  

It was uncanny, this embodied Nina sitting next to him seemed more illusory, more mechanical, less human than the Nina that was speaking from digital space. 

Nathanial White grew up in Maine and has lived in Mexico, Brazil, and Ecuador. He currently resides in Carbondale, Colorado, and teaches English at Glenwood Springs High School. His speculative fiction explores the human psyche, physical disability, culture, technology, and consumerism. His debut book, “Conscious Designs,” won the Miami University novella prize and the Colorado Book Award for Science Fiction/Fantasy. His essays and interviews have been published on, LitHub, and Bridge Eight.