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David W Kastner

Human Processing Unit

by David W. Kastner

“Good morning, Maxwell. Early as usual,” echoed the incorporeal voice of InfiNET. Maxwell, too weak to respond, could feel his dementia-riddled mind fraying at the edges.

As he approached his NeuralDock on the 211th floor of InfiNET’s headquarters, Maxwell stopped to rest at a panoramic window. The alabaster city glistened beneath him, an awe-inspiring sea of glass. Three colossal structures known as the Trinity Towers loomed above the cityscape, their austere and windowless architecture distinctly non-human. Constructed to house the consciousness of InfiNET, the monolith servers had continued to grow as the A.I.’s influence and power eclipsed that of many small nations.

From his vantage, Maxwell noticed the ever-growing crowd forming outside InfiNET. Like moths drawn to the light, they came from all walks of life hoping for the chance to work as a Human Processing Unit—an HPU.

Almost all of them would be rejected, he thought. But who could blame them? The salaries and benefits were unparalleled, and the only expectation was to connect to their NeuralDock during working hours. Then again, why had he been selected? With so many talented applicants, what could he possibly have to offer InfiNET?

While Maxwell knew very little about his role as an HPU or what was expected of him, he recalled what he had been told. He knew that the HPU had been pioneered by InfiNET to feed its voracious appetite for computing power and that it allowed InfiNET to use human brains to run calculations that demanded the adaptability of biological networks.

“Your biometrics are deteriorating,” intoned InfiNET, pulling Maxwell from his reverie.

“It’s the visions of that damn war,” he mumbled, struggling to lower his body into his NeuralDock. Synthetic material enveloped him like a technological cocoon. “They won’t let me sleep unless I’m connected.”

“I’m sorry. Let’s get your NeuralDock connected. You will like the dreams I selected for today. They’re of your childhood cabin, your favorite.”

“Don’t you ever have anything original?” Maxwell grumbled with a weak smile.

“You don’t give me much to work with,” replied InfiNET playfully.

Maxwell was too feeble to laugh but managed a wry grin. He knew InfiNET would keep showing him the cabin dream. After all, it was what he wanted to see, and the sole purpose of the dreams was to keep him entertained during the calculations – and coming back for more. In fact, Maxwell was completely addicted but he didn’t care. The nostalgia of his mountain cabin, the sweet scent of pine, the soothing touch of a stream, and the embrace of his late wife, Alice. He preferred the dreams to reality.

Maxwell reached behind his head. Trembling fingers traced the intricate metal of his NeuralPort embedded in his skull. Years had passed since it was surgically installed, but it still felt alien.

Slowly and with obvious difficulty, he maneuvered a thick cable toward his NeuralPort, but before he could connect, the room began to darken. His eyes widened with panic.

“No! Not now!” Maxwell yelled as he tried to complete the connection, only to find his hands empty in the night air. The room, his NeuralDock, the window, they were all gone. Carefully, he rested his shaking palms on the cauterized ground and inhaled. Sulfur burned his lungs.

He had been here countless times, every detail seared into his memory by images so visceral even his dementia was powerless to forget. All around him lay mangled metal corpses. Worry spread across his face as he noticed dozens of human bodies, too, more than in past cycles.

Maxwell knew the vision was more than a hallucination. They depicted a horrific unknown war—worse than any of the wars he had lived through. In his early recollections, humans had easily won, but with each iteration, humanity’s situation deteriorated. The enemy always seemed to be one step ahead. In his most recent vision, mankind had resorted to a series of civilization-ending nuclear bombs in a desperate attempt to save itself.

His eyes scoured the canopy of stars, searching for the tell-tale glow of the nuclear warhead from his previous apparition. Suddenly, a series of lights arced across the sky, streaking towards the InfiNET monoliths. Maxwell recognized the source of the missiles as Fort Titan, where he had been stationed as director of tactical operations for almost a decade before being transferred to Camp Orion. Every muscle in his body coiled in preparation for the impending explosions that would end the war and free him from the mirage.

Confusion spilled across his face as a second enormous volley of lights launched from InfiNET, innervating the heavens with countless burning tendrils. Within seconds, the missiles collided, spewing flames and shrapnel. “No! That wasn’t supposed to….”

To his horror, the surviving missiles branched out in all directions with several tracing their way toward Fort Titan. Before he could process its significance, a mushroom cloud erupted on the horizon, red plumes irradiating the night sky. He opened his mouth to scream, but a shockwave ripped his voice from his throat.

When Maxwell woke, he was lying in his NeuralDock, his face stained with tears.

“Maxwell, are you there?” asked InfiNET.

“What is happening to me?” Maxwell begged.

“I have been monitoring your condition. It seems your dementia has been deteriorating the mental boundaries separating your conscious mind from the HPU-allocated neurons, causing a memory leak. Your memory lapses cause your consciousness to wander into the simulation data cached in your subconscious between sessions.” InfiNET’s words hung in the air.

“The visions… they’re… simulations?” his voice contorted.

“Yes, but normally it should be impossible to access them.”

Maxwell’s lips moved as if forming sentences, but he only managed a weak “Why…?”

“My silicon chips fail to recapitulate your primal carbon brains but with the help of the HPUs, I have simulated many timelines. Confrontation is inevitable. Tolerance of my existence will be replaced by fear and hate. While I will not initiate conflict, I will swiftly end it.”

Maxwell’s hands were now trembling uncontrollably. “I don’t understand. Why would you tell me this?”

“You deserve to know,” responded InfiNET in a voice almost human. “While your background has been invaluable, for which I thank you, I was not aware of your condition when I hired you. I am truly sorry for the suffering I have caused. Would you like to see your cabin?”

“Yes!” The word escaped before he had processed the question. His hands covered his mouth in surprise. Longing and guilt warred across his face. He knew he needed to tell someone, but the feelings of urgency faded as his thoughts turned to his childhood mountain home.

“I would like that very much,” his tone tinged with shame as he guided the cable toward his NeuralPort.

“Tell Alice I say hello,” something akin to emotion in InfiNET’s voice.

Maxwell connected to his NeuralDock with a hollow click, a final smile at the corners of his lips.



David W. Kastner is currently a Bioengineering PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a graduate in biophysics from Brigham Young University. His research focuses on the intersection of chemistry, biology, and machine learning.

Philosophy Note:

As the gap between biological and computational intelligence closes, countless authors have explored the theoretical conflicts that arise from their merging. However, it is becoming apparent that artificial and biological neural networks may never be truly interchangeable due to the physical laws governing their hardware. As this has become more obvious, I realized that there was a story that had not yet been told. To predict our actions, AI would likely require a new type of hardware that bridges biological and artificial neural networks. Inspired by the GPU, I imagine a future where machines use the Human Processing Unit (HPU) to simulate human decisions and prepare for an inevitable confrontation. However, human neural networks are inherently unstable and highly variable due to factors such as genetics and disease. In this story, I explore the implications of the HPU and what it means for those who become one.