… to Dust

I am haunted tonight by a link sent to me by my friend and coworker Eugene Jen. I had decided earlier this evening not to mention it here, because I thought it might have the same rather harrowing effect on some readers that it has had on me. But that left me still having to write this evening’s post, and try as I might I couldn’t deflect my thoughts. So if you don’t want to read a disturbing item, just amuse yourself in some other way tonight, perhaps by browsing our fascinating archives. waka waka waka will be back to its usual cheery self again tomorrow, I promise.

This story is about the death of one Chris McKinstry, a troubled but brilliant computer scientist and AI researcher, who founded a project called Mindpixel, and who lived in Santiago, Chile, where he worked as an operator for the Very Large Telescope. Mindpixel was an effort to create an enormous database of human-verified facts as the substrate for a massive neural network. Thousands of people had contributed by assigning true/false values to one-line statments. (You can see a large list of such statements, with their calculated truth values, here.) Mindpixel had recently lost its free server, and a reinstallation was planned for a server in France.

Last Friday, January 20th, Chris announced in an online forum that he had decided to die, and that he had already taken enough drugs to induce lethal liver failure. He did not say where he was, other than that he was in a cafe. He was known to be in Santiago. He said he would keep typing until he couldn’t any more, which he did, with waning coherence. Meanwhile the readers of the website responded quickly, at first with some disbelief, but soon with growing anxiety as they tried to persuade him to get help. His online friends worked desperately to locate him before it was too late – no easy task from a distant continent, and their effort was in vain.

The last few entries are from later days, and include links to local newspaper accounts of how his body was found. You can read the whole thread here.

Among Chris’s last statements:

Oh and BTW, the mind is a maximum hypersurface and thought a trajectory on it and the amygdala and hippocampus are Hopf maps of it. No one knew this before me, and it seems no one care. So be it. My time will come in a hundred or a thousand years when the idea again returns.

How do we live with the fact of death? How do we go blithely about our business without being overwhelmed by the immensity of the abyss that awaits us? What occurs in us when we witness an arranged death, when we watch as one of our brothers or sisters steps knowingly, or is dragged, into that void?

What happens inside us when we try to ask ourselves these questions?

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