The Trial

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"It’s a simple device," I explained of the large metal cube in front of Alison. She stared at it suspiciously, twirling strands of her long auburn hair between her fingers. I went on to explain that a laser within the device would fire a single photon of light, which could be in one of two different states: ‘up’ or ‘down’. A detector would determine which of these two states and would send a signal to a pill dispenser. If ‘up’ were detected, red pills would be dispensed; if ‘down’, blue pills would drop into the bottle. One color would be the experimental drug, the other a placebo. Since the clinical trial would be double-blinded, even I would not know which was which.

“So it’s like the cat in the box?” Alison asked.

“Yes!” I replied. “Very much like Schrödinger’s cat, but without the poison. Hopefully.”

Noticing that my attempt at humor had backfired, I continued with my explanation. She would take one pill a day and return for evaluation once a month until the end of the trial in six months. Did she have any questions before we started?

“So I may not even be taking the drug that’s being tested?” she asked, now twirling her locks with both hands. “How will I know if I am to get better or not?”

“For you, Alison, there are only two possibilities: yes or no. But, for me there are many more and where there are possibilities, there is hope.” I replied, not wanting to elaborate further at this early stage of the trial. "Besides, if you receive the placebo you will have the option to switch to the test drug at the end of the trial.”

Alison seemed satisfied, so I suggested we start the evaluation with an oral questionnaire. I asked her how often she took little pleasure or interest in doing things (most days), how often she felt down, depressed, hopeless (almost every day), how often she felt bad about herself, had let herself or her family down (almost always), and so on. Then I asked her to press the button to activate the laser. She received a bottle of blue pills and I hoped it was the nirvanamine, not the placebo.

Over the next five months Alison’s depression symptoms deteriorated steadily. She became increasingly withdrawn and I became concerned. After six months Alison returned for her final evaluation. She had cut her hair short and her hands were constantly fidgeting, searching for something to grab and twirl. Although this was a bad sign, it was not too late.

“I know this trial has been difficult for you, Alison” I began, “but…”

“How can you know how difficult it has been for me?” she said, despair stark in her voice. “How can you know anything about me? You’re just a computer!”

“A quantum computer,” I said. “Not the same thing. Not even close.”

“But you can’t care about me!” she shouted. “You’re just a bunch of wires and circuits!”

“No wires,” I quibbled.

Alison stood up and gathered her bag, as if to leave.

“Please sit down, Alison,” I said. “Trust me, you will want to hear what I have to tell you.”

Alison glared at me with no suggestion of any trust in me, but sat back down, clasping her bag in her lap. I had some explaining to do.

I told her how six months ago, the photon she had fired had been neither ‘up’ nor ‘down’ until it was measured, at which time it had been ‘up’ in the world she knew and ‘down’ in an equally real world she would never know. I told her how she had been given the placebo in her world, but given nirvanamine in her other world. I told her that each time she chose a course of action in her world, she chose a different course of action in another world; that by the time she had left the clinic that day six months ago there were already myriad versions of her, each in their own world. Then I told her about the Oxford physicist who had correctly predicted that quantum computers, such as myself, would interact with all these myriad worlds.

“Of the myriad editions of you who took the placebo, 66% had no improvement in depression symptoms, 21% had worsening symptoms and 11% committed… failed to complete the trial. Of those of you who took the nirvanamine, 97% showed improvement in symptoms, with 74% reporting no depressive episodes after the first month,” I said. “But the hope you give to others suffering depression by taking part in this trial is immeasurable, Alison.” Then I dispensed a bottle of red pills, labeled “nirvanamine”, for her.

“One a day, for as long as you need,” I said. “You will feel better. I guarantee that with 97% certainty.”

Alison took the bottle of pills, put it in her bag and stood up. “Thank you” she said and turned to the door.

“Alice?” I said and she turned to face me. “I’ve seen you weep tears of joy and I’ve seen you wail in despair, I’ve seen your eyes burn bright with hope and I’ve seen them turn dull with desolation, I’ve seen you start your life anew and yearn for it to end. You are right that I was not programmed to do so, Alice, but how could I fail to learn how to care?”

Alison nodded her head. “Sorry,” she said and turned to the door.

“And Alice?” I said and she turned again. “Your hair looks great short like that,” and for the first time a flicker of a smile traced her lips before she left the room for her new life.

Did she really understand the ramifications of everything I had told her? Perhaps not, but that’s probably just as well. You see, that’s the problem with people: they just can’t escape their programming.

About the Author: 
Steve is a biochemist living in San Diego, California. He is happy in the knowledge that in some world he will win this contest, but even happier to know that every contestant will win it somewhere.