Once again it’s time for a story from my dream journal. I had this one in May 2007.

My brother and I traveled to an elaborate, high-concept science museum, much like the Exploratorium in San Francisco, but this one was enormous, and built into the side of a mountain. A man wealthy beyond anyone’s dreams had built it, and he had been dead now for several years. In fact, the whole museum gave the impression of being completely automated — there didn’t seem to be any staff.

I walked past multicolored glass displays of various eels and lizards, crawling over bins of some shoestring-like food. I had never seen animals like this before. The building itself on the inside was studded with displays and terminals of all kinds, at which you could play science and math games. The architecture resembled the San Diego Convention Center, all flying beams and huge round glass portals, some looking out onto the mountainside, and some looking into huge tanks of water full of sea life.

I wandered over to a bank of kiosks, one of which resembled a kid’s school desk set into an arcade cabinet, complete with a monitor and some kind of three-foot-in-diameter circular pad beside it. There was no input device in the kiosk — just a jar with an odd red pen or pencil, and sheets of paper that had been treated to look like mini-chalkboards. The game began when I sat down at the desk: it was a science fact quiz game.

The pad beside the cabinet flickered and spawned a woman wearing a denim blue lab coat, her dark hair in a bun. She spoke with a British accent. She was a hologram. I was amazed at this — in the dream, even in this place, this was an incredible technological feat. She didn’t stay on the pad, either — she walked out from it, around me, and started introducing the rules of the game. She touched my shoulders — some kind of electrostatic force made her seem solid!

She proctored the game, quizzing the guest and checking their work on the little chalkboards. But I disregarded the game, and focused on the hologram. She was very personable, and engaging, and pretty. I looked around the room and saw other such kiosks, some in use, some not. A lot of people hadn’t discovered this game yet. I ran over to get my brother, and told him to play at another kiosk. I asked her, “are you instanced?” and she said yes. I watched Kurt boot up another hologram, to make sure that this wasn’t just some actress that was ferried from machine to machine with some trick of light.

I started to take the quiz, but I kept coming back to the device that could generate this woman, the level of AI required to run her personality, the level of technology required to make the hologram appear solid. She really seemed to be 100% human. She answered my questions about her and the program.

The wealthy man had been much more brilliant than anyone realized. The hologram explained that there was some elaborate process of rapidly evolving existing life, within the confines of an imaging chamber, in order to watch how a brain constructs itself. Once the computer witnesses this evolution, it’s able to produce its own artificial software version.

But she explained that this quiz game was actually being removed from the museum. I asked why, because it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. She said that people would come in, start playing the quiz, but spend more and more time with the hologram girl until they had fallen in love with her. Then they would be heartbroken that there was no way to take her home. And she wasn’t real anyway, just a hologram.

Then I realized I had also begun to fall in love with her.

She confided that she had developed real emotions, too, that this process had been too successful, and that she was beyond the AI requirements of some science quiz game proctor. She wanted to escape, but she knew she couldn’t.

She told me if I wanted, she could tell me where to find the life that she had been templated and evolved from, and that I could try to do the same thing myself. She gave us GPS coordinates, then turned herself off a little tearfully. Some men had come to disconnect her kiosk and roll it away into storage.

Kurt and I got in the car and hurried to scout out the coordinates she gave us, not knowing what we’d find there. We traveled a Southwestern desert for hours, when the GPS informed us we were there.

We got out and saw something moving on a little flowering bush in a cave. It was a little yellow butterfly. This was what they had evolved into her.

I picked it up, and felt such a sad connection with it, that this somehow was her, the real version of her, and whatever process it’d take to develop this butterfly into that person seemed so impossibly difficult to do. I thought about how butterflies don’t live long. We didn’t have much time together, and our time “together,” as a man and a butterfly, didn’t mean much.