Humanity: an experiment of uncertain viability

For visionaries who dream of a mathematically better society

−Black coffee. Short, no sugar! −he barked when he noticed someone wearing a skirt entering his office.− And go and get it from the cafeteria. The dirty water that comes out of our machine is a disgusting brew. Good coffee isn't too much to ask for, is it? I'm looking forward to the day that someone makes me the perfect cup of coffee!− Not for a single moment did he look up from the papers he was holding with small, thick hands, which looked more like a monk's than a high-ranking civil servant's.

−You have not defined the parameters sufficiently −answered his interlocutor.− The gustatory properties of coffee depend on the size of the particles obtained in the process of grinding coffee beans as well as the pressure, temperature and volume of water that flows through the coffee grounds. If the particles are too big and there is too much low pressure, low temperature water, the coffee will be quite insipid. On the other hand, if the particles are small and a small quantity of water is used at high pressure and an extreme temperature, the coffee will be too bitter. And we should not forget to bring into the equation the fact that every individual palate perceives tastes differently.

The speech was given almost mechanically, with no pauses or inflections.

Annoyed by the unexpected response, the civil servant looked up and then looked his interlocutor up and down. Without saying a word, he jumped out of his chair, circled the desk and stood in front of her, face to face. Although he had intended to be aggressive and intimidating, his performance was spoiled by the small details: the little jump he had had to make to get off the chair, the chair's sigh of relief when suddenly released from its heavy load, his short −though fast and energetic− steps around the huge desk. In short, it was completely out of place and had a touch of comedy that its protagonist seemed not to notice. What he could not fail to notice, however, was how much taller she was. Determined to mark his territory, he did not hesitate to climb onto the courtesy chair in front of the desk. Despite the precarious nature of his equilibrium, he managed to successfully look his interlocutor in the eye.

−I asked for a competent mathematician, not a bigmouthed parrot! And when I say I want a coffee, I want a coffee!− he snapped, proud to have found the right words.− And, for your information, I am not interested in discussing recipes!

−I didn't expect you to understand the parameters of the equation. I have no interest in your tastes or personal needs either. If you want a coffee, you'd better get your backside down to the cafeteria. I believe they have some stools there that will help you reach the controls of the coffee machine.

The pause that followed, as they stood face to face staring at each other aggressively, would have been tense and uncomfortable for most people. But not for them, accustomed as they were to getting on in the hostile world of work where it was standard practice not to take prisoners. However, do not be tempted to judge them gratuitously and rashly. They were not born bad; it was life that had made them the way they were.

Many years ago, at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties of the last century, the civil servant had been a beautiful, smiley baby boy, with soft skin, a sweet smell and bouncing health. He ate when he was supposed to eat and slept when he was supposed to sleep. What more could you ask of such a tender young thing? He was a joyful baby; one of those that grandmothers fall in love with at once. The only indication of his unfortunate future was the paediatrician's prediction when he was just three months old. When she was checking his measurements, the little old woman, charming, thin and small as a bird, announced that he would be an extraordinarily short boy. His parents looked at her condescendingly, thinking that she was the one who was really short and that perhaps the time had come for her to retire and make way for another doctor who would at least have better eyesight. Of course their son was small! What could you expect of a baby only one hundred and eighty days old?

Unfortunately, the doctor's predictions were spot on and the boy never managed to develop much more than at this tender age. This is an exaggeration, of course, but it was just what his schoolmates told him day in and day out with the approval of the teachers who, far from helping him, helped his schoolmates find nicknames poking fun at his short stature. It was all just innocent, affectionate leg-pulling, no malice intended; they were only joking. Well, ask him! The systematic target of other children's contempt, he grew up as if he were a repudiated leper. He was excluded from the games played by other boys his age, so he sought solace in food. Such was his obsession with eating that very soon his Lilliputian legs could hardly bear the enormous weight of his gargantuan body. The constant teasing of the companions, the contemptuous and ill-concealed smiles of adults, the furtive looks of disbelief of the people whom he passed in the street hardened his character. The smile was erased from his face and he learned to bite back first. Once he had become a surly and aggressive lone wolf, he found that the best time to get his revenge was at work. Under the pretext of maximizing productivity and performance, he poured all the hate from the depths of his being over anyone who crossed his path. Impressed with his bellicose qualities and lack of scruples, his superiors did not hesitate to promote him within the civil service corps, and when still quite young he reached the top of the administrative pyramid. From the privileged position he now occupied, he enjoyed torturing his subordinates like never before. From the perspective of time, it could be said that his unhappy childhood had led him to where he was now, on that chair, face to face with the female mathematician who had been sent to his office that morning.

And she hadn't always been the arrogant and impolite woman you may have imagined, either. When she was born she was her parents' pride and joy. They worked in the textile industry and had fought to be regarded as full members of the so-called middle class. The parents of the beautiful baby girl, owners of a small but pleasant apartment in the Eixample of Barcelona and a Renault Dauphine which they used to flee from from the city at weekends, felt absolutely fulfilled. For their daughter, the only one they were to be blessed with, they dreamed of a bright future. As time passed, the little girl turned into a tall, very attractive woman. Her beauty convinced her parents that, in terms of husbands, she would be able to take her pick. If it had been up to them, they would have selected a businessman or a member of the petite bourgeoisie, who owned a luxurious flat with servants in the middle of the magnificent Passeig de Gràcia in Barcelona. A gentleman of the highest order who would take her in his elegant, chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benz W105 to spend the summer at the family mansion in Sitges. They could almost see themselves in their role as in-laws enjoying a sophisticated aperitif in an exclusive garden leading on to the beach. Their hopes went even higher when she announced that she wanted to do a university degree. What better place to find a brand new future husband than in the lecture halls of a university faculty? What took them by surprise, however, was the ridiculous notion that she wanted to enrol in the faculty of mathematics. What kind of husband would she find there? They tried to persuade her with all sorts of arguments. Would it not be more suitable to study law or business or something else? What did she think she would find in a faculty where there were only number crunchers? Mathematicians do not have a great future; they do not even have a future! And why did she have her heart set on studying mathematics? What was she thinking of? It's a man's subject, for God's sake! Resigned to their daughter's strange choice, all they could do was cross their fingers and hope that the university would have a little common sense and refuse to admit her.

What her parents had not counted on was her stubbornness and, particularly, her intelligence. Her grades in the pre-university courses, far better than those of most male applicants, were more than enough for her to be admitted to the faculty. Once there, however, she began to learn that life is not always fair. The academics, most of whom were bearded and dishevelled beings, were not very used to having female students in the classrooms, and did not especially appreciate her presence. They treated her with a certain disdain and only put up with her because, after all, they always needed someone to copy and write up the brilliant mathematical demonstrations they proposed. Their initial lack of interest soon turned into antipathy because of the frequent questions she asked them for which they often had no answer. They quickly realised that she did have the answer and that she was just testing them, so their feeling towards her changed to animosity. And the arrogance with which she proposed more elegant and direct mathematical demonstrations than theirs for the more complex theorems aroused their rancour and envy. As a result of all this, her work was always marked severely and often not impartially. But since stubbornness was a well rooted character trait, she did not let it get her down. She persevered and ended up being awarded not only the bachelor's degree but also a doctorate in mathematical sciences. With her qualifications in hand and given the antipathy of academics, she thought that her qualities would be better valued in the world of work, outside the asphyxiating walls of the academy. So she set about finding a job.

Until she had gone to university, her life had been a bed of roses. There she had learned that there were many hidden thorns. The most important lesson was that being right was a necessary condition, but not sufficient to ensure that her voice be heard. If she thought that in the world of work things would be easier, the scene with the dumpy, big-bottomed civil servant served as a good indication of which way the wind was blowing. As I said, the senior civil servant had climbed onto the chair because of his unfortunate childhood. She had the guts to square up to him because she was quite used to fighting against systematic discrimination.

−I have the feeling that you and I will get along −he said with a sarcastic smirk that revealed his yellowish, rodent-like teeth, the visible result of poor personal hygiene.− I need the central computer to do these calculations− he added as he stretched out his arm to pick up a handwritten sheet of paper from the table, a movement that put his precarious balance to the test.

− Do you think you can do it or shall I call someone more qualified?

After briefly inspecting the formulas written on the paper, she took out a notebook and a pen.

−I hope your future needs are somewhat more stimulating and require some intellectual effort −she replied as she quickly wrote the following code:

−I recommend that you attend the COBOL course that I will be teaching next week. I promise to have a chair reserved for you that is suitable for your particular needs −she concluded as she put the paper with the code in his jacket pocket. Without further ado, she turned round and left the office, slamming the door behind her. Her retreat was so sudden and the door slammed so loudly that the civil servant, both surprised and frightened, finally lost his precarious balance on the chair and tumbled to the floor.

Lying there, he was acutely aware of how ridiculous he looked. Despite being alone in the office, he got up as fast as he could −no mean feat for someone as unfit as he was− and smoothed his Emporio Armani jacket down while succumbing to the instinct to look around and make sure that he hadn't been seen. The spectacle would have delighted his subordinates, and they would have spent hours in front of the coffee machine telling each other all about it, adding true or fictitious details with each new telling to keep the gossip alive and interesting. Once he was certain that there had been no eyewitnesses, he regained his composure and went back to his usual chair which, in anticipation of the torture of the extra weight that awaited it, once again voiced its protest.

But the civil servant was wrong because he was unaware of his own virtual nature. He was right to think that the scene had not been witnessed by anyone of his kind. However, it had not gone unnoticed by other eyes or, rather, by the omnipresent eye of the observer par excellence of the whole of that virtually generated environment. The observer, an objective entity not subject to the slavery of emotions, merely recorded and codified the episode. The scene, like many similar ones that had occurred in the last observation period, was scrupulously analysed and communicated to those in charge of the experimental study, whistling discreetly when transmitting the bits of information through the data bus to the memory in the large central computer's motherboard. This information was used to generate the following report, which the main processor stored in DRAM memory pending a final decision.



The virtual environment in question was selected with the idea that it would be deleted after a short while. This decision was taken because (1) the self-destructive social behaviour of the inhabitants who have taken control of the environment suggests they will self-annihilate; (2) their consumption habits and economic model of infinite growth are exhausting the resources available and overheating the environment, which is endangering the computerized unit that hosts the virtual environment; and (3) the fact that the host unit is overheating is jeopardizing the viability of other valuable virtual environments generated in contiguous computerized units.

Other considerations

Recently, the inhabitants of the virtual environment have developed the technical resources to communicate effectively with the central processor of the computer that generated the virtual environment. This raises the question of whether the inhabitants will know how to use the new means of communication to redefine their social and economic model, and correct the physical defects they have caused to their virtual environment.


A new observation period has begun. If the defects found are not corrected, this virtual environment will be erased and permanently eliminated, and no other environment with the same parameters will be generated again. This conclusion has been transmitted to the computerized unit responsible for the virtual environment.

Identification label of the experiment


Mathematical note

Today, we can all interact with computers very easily, even with our voices. We have devices that encode our speech and translate it into the code that a computer can understand, and vice versa. These sophisticated gadgets allow the interaction between people and electronic devices to be almost human. But things have not always been like this. In the early days of computing, the only possible way to communicate with a computer was to use its own language, the binary code. This code has only two characters: 0 and 1. You can imagine that in those days things were not nearly as easy as they are now. All computer operations required the help of mathematicians and other highly trained professionals.

The first person to conclude that something had to be done to facilitate interaction with machines was Grace Hopper, a mathematician and computer scientist who is said to have taught computers to talk. Her idea was to invent a language that was very similar to English and that would be used so that people could interact more naturally with machines. In this way, everybody would be able to talk to a computer without being a specialist. She made her proposal in 1952. If she had not, computerized devices would probably not be quite as indispensable to our lives as they actually are.

Grace Hopper worked for companies, universities and the United States army as a mathematician and computer scientist. Although she remained in active employment until the mid-1980s, she has often been forgotten. Among her most notable achievements is that she was a member of the commission of experts who developed the programming language COBOL, which was first used in 1959. In the tale you have read, there is a fragment of code written in this language. You can see that COBOL uses instructions that look almost like spoken English, just as Grace Hopper had imagined years before. This language is still in use and, although you might not know it, it is used for many online purchases. Interestingly, Grace Hopper is most remembered for something that you have also heard of. When a computer program −a game from your play station or an application on your mobile− has an internal error, it is said to have a bug. She was the first person ever to use this term to refer to this type of computer error.

Now that we have computers and we can interact with them easily, we must decide what we want to use them for. We can use them to investigate how to make more and more sophisticated weapons of mass destruction, or we can use them to improve our well-being and the conditions of the planet on which we live. The story suggests that humanity is merely a computer dream, a virtual environment simulated by a machine that is at least more intelligent than we humans. If it turns out to be true and we are on the point of being erased from the memory of a machine, I hope that, when it happens, I am enjoying a good cup of coffee. So, if you ask me, I suggest we follow the example of the research team led by Dr William T. Lee (Department of Mathematics and Statistics of the University of Limerick) and spend all the calculation time we might still have left on finding the formula to produce the best cup of coffee ever dreamed of, a mathematically perfect cup of coffee!

Urbano Lorenzo Seva, Reus 2020

Translation by John F. Bates and Urbano Lorenzo Seva