Viv spent nearly an hour choosing her body.
She considered going as her eight year-old self. She would stand eye-to-eye with her father in his hospital bed, shedding tears and crying: please don't go, daddy. But that was too obvious. It would offend him.
He became data coursing through a network, able to embody any form, to outlive physical decay.
She considered her eighteen year-old self. She would lean over him, scrawny and tall, her lips trembling with anger: you're being selfish, dad. But that would lead to shouting.
She considered every form, even reviving people from the past: her mother, her grandfather, her little sister Mary. How would her father react to Mary walking in? He would think himself dead. She could whisper a message to him: Stay alive, dad. God commands it.
In the end, Viv chose the look of her last days as a biological person. Thirty-one years old, her auburn hair cut short, her black eyes full of longing. She watched the body print in silicon over robotic armature.
When it blinked to life, Viv stood in front of a mirror. Her face was appropriately somber, her mind in sync with her new muscles. Without thinking, she stretched her arms, arched her body, twirled on her tiptoes. She had forgotten the pleasure of sensation.
"I should do this…" The voice resonated through her. She could not help but smile. "I should do this more often… often… often." Every repetition thrilled her with sound. She began to sing an old favorite: "Times have changed… and we've often…"
But she stopped herself. This was not a day for singing.
Viv clothed her body in a blue dress, packed her tablet in a briefcase, stood in front of the mirror one last time. "I'll be there in five," she said aloud, though she did not need to.
A man's voice answered in her mind: I'm not coming.
There's no point, said the voice. We know what he'll say.
"We have to try."
I won't see him dying, Viv.
The clenching of her jaw felt like the old days. Her brother made a habit of last-minute decisions, without concern for how they affected other people, most often her.
She remembered the day he became an everperson. It was soon after their mother's death. They were supposed to visit their father in mourning, but Gabe disappeared without explanation. Viv took the full burden of solace on herself. She sat with her father in a small room, with an old Persian rug and stale furniture. His mustache was beginning to gray, his eyes beginning to wrinkle. "She's with your sister now," he said. "Your mom and Mary, I can…" He leaned in to whisper, "I can almost hear them, at night, laughing on the other side. They tell me to wait… they tell me to wait." Viv nodded for him, pretending to believe, wishing she could.
Gabe did not return her calls that evening. The next day, she began to worry. The day after, she began to look. He made no effort to hide, he simply neglected to tell her the new plan.
Gabe had taken the money from his inheritance, and booked himself an everence. It was something new back then. Viv did not understand the science, but she knew it was a destructive process. His physical brain was destroyed by lasers that scanned it neuron by neuron, creating a digital replica. He became data coursing through a network, able to embody any form, to outlive physical decay. He became an everperson.
It took three days to complete. Viv went to the facility, a converted warehouse by the Bay Bridge. She watched the new Gabe being printed over robotic armature, taking the form of his last biological self, to help with the transition. When he blinked to life, she did not know if he would be the same person, or an imperfect copy of an imperfect copy. But Gabe was totally oblivious to the pain he caused her by disappearing in that way. No robot, she thought, could be so callous.
When Viv made her own decision to everize, she deliberated for weeks, thinking through the consequences and conversations to come. Afterwards, she sat with her father in that same small room, with the Persian rug older, the furniture staler, a new cat purring at his feet.
"But it's suicide," he said.
"It's the opposite, dad. It's eternal life."
"You'd be a robot. You wouldn't be you."
"Gabe's the same as he ever was," she noted the resentment in her voice. "He's just not… physical, until he wants to be."
Her father exhaled an Arabic phrase he was using more often in his old age. La hawla wa la quwata illa billah. She had never learned his native tongue, but she looked up the phrase to understand him better. It meant something like: there is no power except in God. It was a sigh of resignation.
"Vivian," he said eventually, "Your soul is not your brain. Your soul lives on. If you kill yourself, you... it's unforgivable. Don't you want to see mom in heaven? Mary? Me?"
She wanted to believe. She wanted painfully. But when she spoke, it was barely a whisper. "I don't think that will happen, dad."
Fewer biological people meant little need for hospitals, or doctors. It would close soon.
It was the first she had ever confessed to him about God or Heaven. In as steady a voice as he could manage, her father said: "You're an adult, Viv. You do what you think is best."
She came to visit sometimes, as an everperson. He could not tell at first. But as the years went by, as his eyes wrinkled, and his hair grayed, he noticed that Viv never aged. One day he stopped talking to her. Another she stopped coming.
Now he was waiting out the last days of his life alone in a hospital bed. Viv did not want to say goodbye. It seemed such a waste.
You don't have to, Gabe spoke into her mind. Get him to sign, say anything, say it's for selling the house. Once we have full power of attorney, we can decide for him.
"It's not right." She noticed herself speaking aloud on the hoverbus. Nine nervous faces turned to her.
It's not right, she continued in her mind. Dad never forced us to pray, never forced us to —
That was mom.
But he loved her. He never changed her mind, he raised us to question, and he quietly believed. He has every right to live his way, just like we did.
To live. Not to die... When he's an everperson, he'll thank us.
That gave her pause. It might be true. She remembered her first moments as an everperson, suddenly linked to countless other minds, waking to the full expanse of human knowledge like sunlight through an open window, breathless and unexpected.
Still, she said, it's not right.
So you want him to die?
I want to convince him.
And what if you don't? There was panic in his voice. Gabe steadied himself. You brought your tablet, Viv. You know what it's for. Get him to sign.
And what if I don't?
I'll figure something out, with or without you. I won't let him die, Viv. Not this day and age.
Viv kept quiet the rest of her way there. She played memories in her mind, of every conversation she ever had with her father, every time he read her a verse or taught her a parable. She looked for a way to convince him, some doubt, some chink in his armor of belief. But she got distracted by the world outside.
It was strange to pass for a time through physical space. It took longer than she expected. Now watching the sunlight refract through the hoverbus window, she was mesmerized. Every sensation felt more real, more vivid than her memory. "I should do this more often," she said aloud.
The hospital smelled like death. It had fallen into disrepair since her mother's illness. Fewer biological people meant little need for hospitals, or doctors. It would close soon, she thought. Her footsteps echoed through the halls, along with the sounds of old televisions playing old films to keep the patients company.
The room she entered had no sound, except the whirring machines. No light, except an eerie glow filtering through the curtains. The figure on the bed was her father, his breathing strained, his skin cracked like the desert. She closed the door behind her.
When her father turned, she saw a flicker of joy in his eyes. It disappeared.
"La hawla wa la… I thought it was her."
"I am her."
He winced. "She died some twenty years ago."
Viv sat next to him. The machines whirred around them, keeping his body alive another day, or hour, or minute. "It doesn't look good, dad."
"You broke a promise."
He held her gaze. "I did?"
"You said we'd see the bats in Australia."
"You were scared of bats."
"And you said they were cute in Oz, the giant bats, like upside down puppies chewing bananas."
He smiled, but that was a long time ago. "Your mom was alive then… Gabe… You were alive…"
"I'm alive now, dad. Look at me. I'm Viv. Vivian Fatema. Your daughter. Half mom, half you. I'm the same person I was."
His eyes shifted. She sensed he wanted to believe. She held his hand and squeezed it. She felt him squeezing back. "I want you to stay, dad."
"There's nothing for me here."
"You don't love me, Viv. You're a robot."
His hand let go. "You're there… I don't know where. I have a lot to answer for, Viv. I pray. I pray every day, five times a day, sometimes more. I pray that God forgive you for what you did, forgive me for my part, forgive Gabriel... I wish I could stay, love, but… Everyone I love is on the other side."
It hurt her to say the next words: "It's not real, dad."
"Of course you'd say that." He turned his body away from her.
She listened to his breathing.
"I love you," she said.
"You don't love me, Viv. You're a robot."
She lowered her head against the bed. She kneeled for countless breaths. It took all her strength to stand up again.
Viv took her briefcase, pulled out her tablet. She stood tapping at the screen for some time. The clenching of her jaw felt like the old days.
"Before I go, I need you to sign something. It's a power of attorney for the house. We can't sell it without you."
"You're selling the house?"
She shrugged. "It's no use to a robot."
His bony finger signed the screen without reading it. She kissed his forehead goodbye.
"Viv?" She stopped. "Before you go, could you open the curtains?"
She did. Her last image of him was a frail old body gazing at the moving clouds.
On the hoverbus home, Viv turned against the window outside. She pressed the briefcase to her like a hug, her mechanical heart thumping against it. Every heartbeat brought a memory back of her biological life. "I should do this more…" She whispered to herself, not caring who might hear. The sunset turned violet.
You made him sign. Gabe sounded like triumph.
You did the right thing.
Let me see.
She pulled out her tablet and, with a touch, uploaded the file.
Where's my name? Gabe asked. I only see your name.
"I changed it."
What do you mean you "changed it"?
"I changed my mind last minute, Gabe. I didn't think to tell you."
That's funny, sis. Very funny.
"It's not funny at all, Gabe. It's dead serious. I have power of attorney. I'm going to bury him next to mom and Mary."
No… There's no way.
"It's my choice now."
I can't watch him go, Viv. I can't. Don't be selfish.
"I'll miss him." She felt a pain in her chest. "I'll miss him too." Her voice was different now. "But it's what he wanted."
Gabe left her. She heard nothing but her thoughts. Unbearable thoughts.
Viv turned to the darkening world outside. She found her reflection instead, her reflection in tears. She saw her father's eyes.
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.