Mask in the snow

The Confession of Lily Brandt

 

I’ve never written anything like this before. In fact, I don’t write much of anything, unless it’s a research paper. I don’t really know how something like this should go, so I’m going to begin, as I would a scientific paper, with the objectives of the following narrative, of which there are two.


First and foremost, this is my confession. As part of an agreement between my legal counsel, the District Attorney’s office, and Judge Emile Spicer of the First District Federal Court of Boston, I’ve been ordered to render a full confession in writing, describing the nature and extent of my crimes.


The second objective of the narrative goes beyond the purpose outlined by Judge Spicer. My hope is that it serves as both a warning to future scientists and as a historical account of this exciting time in science. I cannot give a full confession without conveying the following truth: I remain ambivalent about the things we’ve done.


Though we broke rules and did others harm, our work has moved neurology and bio-interfacing far ahead of where it would be otherwise. If we’d worked within the framework of Harvard or MIT, Erik Hu would be celebrating a Nobel Prize in the near future. I’m certain of it.


From an ethical standpoint though, no institution would have touched the project, and this is the delicate moral dilemma of modern scientific research. We hurt people, yes. But how many more will benefit from the knowledge we’ve gained while walking in uncharted grounds?


Also, it cannot be forgotten that the science was not our only motivation. We benefited financially, much to the detriment of our clients. That is my greatest regret.


I was never supposed to end up in jail. The idea of it was so far from my mind that it wasn’t even a consideration. I was, and remain, a top student, a great mathematician, and one of my generation’s best programmers. I’ve won awards, competitions, and scholarships at every level in my education. The proudest day of my life was when I received notice of my acceptance to MIT. This is not the path of the average felon.


In high school I was routed toward a specialized curriculum for ‘gifted students,’ and though it was great to be challenged academically, in essence, I was ostracized. By junior year, I was in the virtual classroom the entirety of most days; it was the only way the school could offer the courses I wanted to take. But apart from one senior, Ahmed Russad, who was in my advanced computer science course, I was the only person in the room.


By senior year, I only left for lunch, AP English, PE, and Civics. So I wasn’t exactly the most popular girl in school. Mercifully, bullies left me alone, probably because I wasn’t even high enough on the social ladder to bother harassing.


When I arrived in Cambridge the following year, things were very different. MIT boys were different too. They noticed skinny little hacker girls with loose jeans and a sideways hat. They talked to me, and they thought it was cool that I got their nerdy math jokes and knew more about particle physics than sports or pop music. It was like a homecoming of sorts. MIT was the happiest time of my life.


I’d never even kissed a guy before I got to MIT. By the end of my Freshman year, I’d gone through six different boyfriends, and it wasn’t that I had bad taste. They were all great guys. I just knew I had my pick, so I got picky.


The last guy I was with was a senior named Warren, who was working on his AI thesis paper, helping to advance development of the Norris system with Professor Dodds. If that wasn’t impressive enough, he’d won two of the six hacking contests my first semester.


In February, a local startup sponsored a contest of their own, offering a very generous cash prize and a paid summer internship. Because of the lure of such a great prize, I figured enough people would enter that I wouldn’t feel humiliated when the older, better programmers bested me. So I entered, figuring I had nothing to lose.


Only seven of the school’s best hackers entered, and as soon as I saw my competition, I wanted to run back to my dorm room and hide in the closet. It was rare for a freshman to win, and even rarer for a girl. But I stayed nonetheless, and to everyone’s shock, including my own, I won. And not only did I win the cash and the job, but also the attention of Warren, who asked me out on the spot.


Things were so great socially that I began to relax in my classes a little. I got the first B of my life that spring. I was going to parties with an older crowd, and I continued to see Warren all the way through the following summer.


That fall, Warren stayed in Boston. He found work as a systems engineer with a medical research firm affiliated with Mass General. We were growing apart as he started to hang out with his work friends and I was still in school. He invited me to this house party in Somerville; I suppose it was one of those last-ditch efforts to see if there was anything left in our relationship.


There wasn’t. If not for Warren, I’d have been the youngest person at this party by seven years, and I was horribly underdressed. I could tell right away that he felt awkward about having me there, and I felt awkward being there. It was so embarrassing. I ran off to the bathroom right away to take off my hat and see if anything could be done about my hair.


It was like high school all over again, but instead of cheerleaders and football players, this time the cool people were doctors, lawyers, and young professionals. There was even a professor from Harvard. I felt like a fool, and Warren was no help at all. He just left me to fend for myself.


We’d been there about an hour, and every minute of it was torture. I asked Warren to take me back to Cambridge three times to no avail. Finally, I decided that I wanted a bit of fresh air, so I retreated through the kitchen to this tiny porch in the back. As I stepped out onto the old wooden balcony, I noticed I wasn’t alone. There was this Asian guy sitting in one of the two plastic chairs smoking a cigarette, looking out into the cool evening as though he didn’t have a care in the world—relaxed in a way that very few people travelling in such circles ever touch.


“I’m Hu,” he said, looking up at me and inviting me to sit.


I didn’t know it at the time, but he liked to do that—to introduce himself by his last name, which almost always turned into a ridiculous, impromptu comedy skit as the person tried to figure out that Hu was his name.


“You’re Who?” I answered, shrugging my shoulders as I sat beside him. “Okay, I guess that makes me Betty Lou, Who.”


“That’s funny,” he said, squinting a bit as he looked out into the Cambridge night. He took a drag from the cigarette and turned his head to blow the smoke away from me. “You don’t want to be at this party with all these smug assholes, do you, Betty Lou?”


“I don’t think I’d have worded it that way.”


“But, yes,” he said, nodding as he asked, “Where do you go to school? Harvard?”


“MIT,” I answered.


He smiled at me and was half laughing. “You don’t just go to MIT—a girl like you? Are you kidding? You own the place.”


I should have known then and there that Hu was trouble. It wasn’t love at first sight, but he was so confident, so charismatic, and so funny that by the time we got up to go back to the party an hour later, I was madly in love with Erik Hu. And he did that to everyone in almost every room he entered.

 

He could’ve had any girl at that party; he could’ve had any girl in Boston. To this day, I have no idea why he chose to ask me out that night. It wasn’t about the project either. He couldn’t have known I was capable of helping him. He didn’t find that out until later. I don’t even think he’d conceived of it then.


Everything about the first eight months we spent together was great. He was so fun. I don’t know how he got invited to every big party in town, but he did. He was on every publicist’s call list, and they invited him to every party, every event, and every function they threw.


He didn’t bring me along at first; he told me I wasn’t ready. “You have to try, Lily. You can’t just show up to these things and be yourself. You have to learn how to dress, how to carry yourself, and how to work a room.”


Of course, I was offended at first, but again, it was Hu. He could convince me of anything, and he made a good case. He sent me articles and books to read, all based in science—psychology, body language, social Darwinism, things like that. I read about ways to make friends, how to carry myself, how to dress, how to remember names and faces, how to read people, and how to build the illusion of social significance.


“It just feels so fake,” I told him one night over dinner. “It’s not really me.”


“They don’t know that, Lily,” was all he said, and like so many other things with Hu, his answer was so simple, and made so much sense, that I just did what he asked.


After a few dry runs at some of the city’s more selective nightclubs, Hu declared me ready. I received a package one afternoon from Neiman Marcus with a stunning evening gown, shoes, a diamond necklace, and a matching pair of earrings; it must have cost him a small fortune. I made the greatest mistake of my life that day. I decided that I’d never ask Hu about money.


We owned the room that night. It was a charity auction for a medical research foundation one of the Celtics supported. By the end of the night, I was on a first name basis with half the Celtics, the Lieutenant Governor, and almost every important socialite in Boston. That was how Hu made friends in politics, in sports, in entertainment, and all over the city’s hospitals.


It sounds almost unbelievable, but for the first two months we dated, I didn’t know what he did. I thought he was some sort of medical consultant or administrator, because of the money and the social circle, and his email was a Harvard Medical School address. It took me a long time to get an answer out of him. He was so good at directing the conversation away from any topic he wanted to avoid.


“I’m a third-year med student,” he finally told me, when I insisted on an answer. “I’m in medical school, Lily. I’m training to be a neurologist.”


“But all these parties, and everybody knows you? How do you balance it all?” I asked him. “You don’t leave any time to study.”


I can still remember his face—the scrunched-up eyebrows mixed with a sort of derisive laughter. “I don’t need to study, Lil. I know all that stuff already.”


We didn’t hang out with his fellow med students much, because most of them were too busy with classes to do anything else. But when I finally got a chance to ask one of his classmates about Hu, she laughed in the same dismissive way he had.


“He knows more about medicine than half the professors, Lily, and I’ve never even seen him look at a file,” she said. “He’s that guy, you know, the one everyone hates because he doesn’t even have to try. That’s Hu, all right. It’s just way too easy for him.”


The moment everything changed was obvious, as obvious as a car turning off the highway: your path is straight and in one direction for so long that a turn like that makes an impression—the sound of the wheels on the road changes as the vehicle decelerates, the rest of the traffic continues on, passing you by, and everything slows down. The game changes.


We were having dinner in the North End. The wine in the chicken piccata was sweet, and the meat was perfect. Hu said, “Lily, I was wondering if you could do me a favor,” and it almost took my breath away. There was a hint of desperation in his voice that scared me.


“I’m looking for someone who can handle a very difficult programming task—a hacker, Lily.”


“What do you need a hacker for, Erik? You’re a med student,” I answered.


“I’m working on a research project—something lucrative and cutting-edge. But the degree of difficulty couldn’t be higher. I need the best of the best, and I need to be able to trust them. Who’s the best hacker you know, Lily?”


To this day, I don’t know whether he was working me or whether he truly thought me to be incapable, but I took offense.


“I’m the best hacker I know, Hu. What do you need?”


“I want to hack into a processor that serves as an intermediary. It’s running around ten million distinct relays per second, each with its own specific coding that needs to maintain the proper timing—probably to the nanosecond. I need someone to be able to write a program that governs both input and output, and there’s no margin for error, because the processor this chip interfaces with is like no computer you’ve worked with before.”


“Why’s that, Erik?”


“Because it’s biological—a human brain, Lily.”


If it had been anyone but Hu, I’d never have listened to such an outrageous idea.


 “Are you out of your mind?”


“No, Lily; as long as we get the coding right there’s no danger at all. We’ve been using simpler implants for years—with Parkinson’s, with epilepsy—real basic organic neurological disorders. This type of chip is just a bit more complex, because it’s designed for a more complex disorder.”


“Which is?”


“Schizophrenia. Dr. Dalton has over two hundred patients in a pilot project. The results have been incredible. It’s just like other neural implants—a simple placement and then the nano-filaments can be deployed remotely. Then it’s just a matter of re-writing the control programming.”


“Why would you want to do that, Erik? What possible benefit could there be to that?”


“The potential for this chip is limitless, Lily. It could be used to treat so many neurological disorders it’s staggering. We’re so close. All we need is someone to figure out how to speak the right language.”


“But you can’t be thinking about trying this on people, Erik?”


“Well, not first, obviously. We’re going to test it on rats, and pigs. If I can get a monkey, I’ll get us a monkey.”


There was a knot in my throat, and I knew it was wrong. I couldn’t believe he was asking me to do such a thing. But it was Hu, so I kept listening.


“I could find someone else if you’re uncomfortable, Lily.”


I shook my head.


“Do you think you can read that many relays? We’re talking tens of millions in real time.”


“I’d need to look at the chip’s original programming. I’d have to know how it writes for the schizophrenia patients. But then what, Erik? What if I can hack this chip? What will you make it do?”


“I’m a neurologist, Lily. I’m going to use it to fix broken brains.”


When he described the project in those terms, outlining the ways he could use these adjuncts to help suffering people, it didn’t seem so wrong to hack a brain.

 

The original coding was incredible. I had to turn numerical values into a wiring diagram for a brain. There was nothing physical to which I could refer, only a general idea of a direction and a set of over ten million figures that all led to different parts on a 3D map. It took me weeks just to figure out how the basic coding worked.


I hardly slept or ate. I missed classes. The whole time, I kept wondering what kept me going. Now, I think it was more than just proving myself to Hu: I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. There were only a few people in the whole world who could.


Two months after our North End dinner, Erik and I were standing in a research lab, deep within the bowels of MGH, hovering over a mildly sedated rat with its skull removed and its brain exposed. It was midnight.


“Dr. Frankenstein, I presume?” I said to Hu before we began.


“Lily,” he said in a heavy tone. “This night is going to change everything. It’s going to change the world.”


A few moments later, the program that I had written was interacting in real time with the living mind of a common rat. Erik was right. Nothing would ever be the same.


Our first human subject was a fifty-three-year-old father of three with terminal pancreatic cancer. Every oncologist in Boston had failed to slow the advance of his aggressive malignancy. He was in debilitating pain.


I was terrified.


“You let me worry about the neurology,” Hu said. “Just code what I tell you to code, and the rest will take care of itself.”


His name was Mark Giragosian, and he sat on the exam table looking at me, his eyes pleading as though he could see through the silence to my reluctant heart. Such a moral quandary.


“I don’t want my children to see me in pain,” he said, trying to put me at ease. “I only have a few months, Lily. I don’t want to spend it in a cloudy drug-induced haze either. I’ll be gone soon. I want them to remember me—the real me.”


Then Erik looked over at me as if to say, ‘See, Lily, we are the good guys.’ And we were that day.


Hu took me out to dinner to celebrate, and to prepare me. “They aren’t all going to be like that, Lil. If we’re going to keep pursuing this, we’re going to need funding.”


“Like a grant, Hu?” I asked, knowing better than to expect it to be that simple.


“I need funding too,” he said.


I didn’t know it at the time, but he hadn’t paid the interest on his loans in months, and Hu was just weeks away from being thrown out of Harvard. He had other loans too, from less scrupulous creditors than banks. Until that moment, I just thought he came from money; he thought he was going toward it. This was the point of no return. I could’ve walked away with a clean conscience then and there.


But it was Hu, and he could see it in my eyes: I was teetering on the edge. All it took was a smile and a little push. “We’re going to do some really special things, Lily. You and me.”


Hu graduated medical school early the following year, taking a little pressure off. We were still scared of being found out, but at least no one could accuse him of practicing without a license anymore.


I was spending so much time working for him that I considered dropping out of MIT midway through my junior year. “Not a chance, Lily,” Hu told me. “Just keep at it and you’ll be done in a year. In the meantime, we’re paying off all your loans.”


Hu worked with two categories of people. We called the cash customers ‘clients,’ and they had no neurological pathology. The sick people were designated ‘patients,’ many of whom got treatment pro bono.


I felt good about the patients we were helping. Like Mr. Giragosian, most of the people we saw were in great need. We did a lot of good. But the paying clients made me sick, both from fear of getting caught and from the sense that I was violating every moral fiber in my being.


Through his many social contacts, Hu had built a network of deep-pocketed customers, willing to pay a hefty price in exchange for a brief period of neurological exploration. Hu used scans to research which buttons to push, and he could pretty much direct me to push them all with very few limitations.


I almost quit after we made a house call to a hard-partying friend of Hu’s from Weston. When the session was over, she looked up at me and asked, “Have you tried it yet, Lily dear?” I shook my head. “You simply must. God, I thought heroin felt good.”


In essence that’s what we were doing, overloading the brain’s reward systems, pumping people’s brains so full of dopamine that they drifted into some pleasure-filled netherworld, like a fiery orgasm that lasted as long as we kept our fingers on the button. It felt so dirty taking that money. But Hu kept assuring me.


“It’s only for a little while longer, Lil. Once I’m out of debt, we can get a venture capital firm involved and take this thing legit. It’s way cheaper than street drugs, and there are no side-effects or social costs. We could rid the world of drugs and make a fortune doing it.”


I knew better though. There’s always a cost.


In the spring of my junior year, Erik introduced me to Eileen Tsu. He’d met her through a Chinese honor society at Harvard. She was twenty years old and already had gray hairs coming in around her ears. I could tell by the way she carried herself that she was hanging on way too tight. She was the type of girl who studied sixteen hours a day and it still wasn’t enough.


She clenched her teeth when she wasn’t talking to me, and she started crying, “I just need someone to help me relax—for like a few minutes. I just can’t stop, and I can’t sleep, Lily. I can’t breathe.”


I’d have done her a real service by convincing her to drop out of Harvard. I could hear my voice uttering the words, ‘It’s all just a stupid game, Eileen. You don’t have to play. Get on a plane. Move to San Diego, work in a coffee shop, and sit on the beach. None of it really matters.’


I didn’t say it though. I took her money and hacked into the neural implant Hu’d placed two weeks prior. She was like a different person when we were done.


“That was better than sex,” she said as I nodded. “Not that I’d know these days. I’m so wound up no guy would get within fifty feet of me.”


“You don’t need to be here, Eileen,” I said. “Maybe this place isn’t right for you.”


She looked at me like I was the crazy one, “That’s so easy for people like you and Erik to say, Lily. I can’t let my parents down; they’ve worked so hard for me.”


Eileen became one of our regulars. Her father kept her in money as long as she kept up her grades. She’d come to see us two or three times a week, and it appeared to be helping her. After eight weeks, she looked like a whole different person. She smiled, and her face had a glow about it.


Things had become so routine with Eileen that Hu broke protocol that morning. He had a lunch meeting with a venture capital guy.


“I’ll be right across the river if you need anything, Lily.”


It seemed like we’d been doing it forever by then, and nothing had ever gone wrong. Nobody knows why; it may have been totally unrelated and just bad luck that it happened then. Eileen started seizing.


You can’t really appreciate how long a minute is until someone is dying in front of you. Erik didn’t pick up at first. I had to call three times.


“How long?” he asked, his voice cold and calm.


“A minute,” my frantic voice came back.


“Calm down and patch me through to your glasses, Lily. I’ll talk you through this.”


I connected him; he was stepping away from the lunch table so he could talk. He asked me to look down at Eileen so he could get a visual on his tablet. I don’t think he liked what he saw.


“Go over to the drug box, Lily. The code is 514. Open it.”


Eileen continued to convulse on the table.


“There should be an auto-injector in the top drawer. I need you to take that out and remove the cap. Got it?”


“Yes, I got it.” He could see my hands shaking on the video stream.


“Okay, Lily, stay calm,” Erik said. “Go into the second drawer and pull out a vial with a blue top. Make sure it says Ativan on the label. When you have it, load it in the auto-injector.”


“Okay,” I said. “Now what?”


“Set the dial to three and press it to her left upper arm. Make sure you hold it tight to her skin. If she pulls away when you depress the button, she won’t get the drug.”


She was writhing around, but I managed to keep the thing on long enough to get the drug into her system. It didn’t help.


“Look up at the monitor, and pull up a scan for me, Lily,” Erik said; I could hear it in his voice, he was nervous now too.


There was a long pause as I tried to keep steady so he could get a good look at the screen.


“Call 911,” he said. “Get her to MGH. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”


I had this sick feeling in my stomach the whole ambulance ride. The paramedic kept yelling at me, trying to get me to explain what was going on. It was like a blur, and then I was standing before this doctor in the ER watching Eileen still twitching and convulsing. She was making this horrible noise every time she tensed up, like a sick animal in agonizing pain.


I’ll never forget the look on that young doctor’s face; I could see the question in his eyes: ‘What have you done?’


Then he told me that I needed to tell him everything or Eileen might die. They were drawing up meds for her.


“I gave her three of Ativan from an auto-injector,” I said.


“And who told you to do that?” the doctor asked.


“Dr. Erik Hu. She’s his patient.”


The doctor shook his head. “Go sit in the waiting room,” he said. “Some people will have questions for you.”


Before I walked out, I told him everything—about the implants, the hacking, about Hu—everything. “I hope that will help you to save her.”


He scowled at me, “Me too. Now get out of my sight.”


Hu never showed up at the hospital, but the police did. I went right from the ER to jail. It was a cold reality when it finally set in—all the things we’d done.


I haven’t spoken with Erik since that day. I don’t suppose that conversation would do either of us much good.


In all, Erik implanted over two hundred neural implants into perfectly healthy brains. He did at least twice that number on people with varying pathologies as part of his practice. I estimate that in the months we were operating, I hacked into the neural implants of Hu’s patients over four thousand times. I don’t know the exact total, but the prosecution alleges we took in 1.2 million dollars, and I have no reason to argue with that sum; it sounds about right.


The greatest joy I’ve ever known in my life was the moment my lawyer told me that Eileen was going to be okay. I’ve never cried like I did then. I’m grateful to all the doctors and medical professionals who helped her.


Erik and I played with fire, and we were lucky that nothing burned down. But that’s not going to stop this technology from coming. It’s here now and spreading, and no volume of water will stop it from propagating like wildfire.


If there are lessons to be learned from us, I hope our data serves that purpose; just as I hope this account will serve as a warning to other scientists: do it the right way. Please.


Yours,


Lily Brandt