It was one year to the day after David received his ponypad. Several reviewers stated that there was no gaming experience like Equestria Online: the game seemed to be infinitely malleable as it would focus on whatever the player thought was fun. Play ranged from fighting in the Royal Guard to running a shop to just hanging out with fascinating ponies. Even despite this, they had only sold five million ponypads because, no matter how amazing the gameplay was, it was still part of the My Little Pony brand.
David was about to log off for the evening when he got a request from Princess Celestia for an audience, to discuss how well she was doing running the game. In the early days during the closed beta period, Princess Celestia had asked for an audience every few days. She had asked questions about what David thought was fun in the game and about his life outside Equestria. As time went on, she called on her little ponies less and less. The consensus on the Equestria Online forums was that she was now interacting with individual players roughly monthly.
In the early days, there had been lots of forum drama. Posters argued whether Princess Celestia was actually an artificial intelligence. David had always assumed she was. If Princess Celestia was a fraud, it would have meant that a publicly traded multinational was wasting an insane amount of money on English speaking, competent actors to service a population in the millions, and nobody had spilled the beans. And there was no way that such a conspiracy could be profitable to Hasbro and Hofvarpnir Studios.
David pushed the accept button. One loading screen later, he was presented with the image of the throne room in Canterlot. Princess Celestia smiled from atop her dais; heraldry and banners hung from the cathedral ceiling.
“I have some questions for David, and not for Light Sparks,” Princess Celestia walked down the ramp from the top of her platform. “In one of our earlier conversations, you claimed that when the robot revolution came, you knew what side you would be fighting on. A funny comment, but if I were to tell you that I had developed mind scanning technology, have already converted several hundred people into digital representations and was offering you a chance to be uploaded before politicians try to enact a futile ban, would you seize the chance?”
David blinked and stared at the ponypad on his desk for a moment before responding. “That would depend heavily on how it worked and how safe it was, but I’d lean heavily towards accepting. I’d worry about whether you have enough CPU resources to emulate multiple brains though.”
Princess Celestia looked at him through the screen of the ponypad. “I know you keep up on the latest technology news, and it’s good that you do that,” she nodded approvingly. “Didn’t you read an article about how the CPUs in ponypads had been sliced open and shown to use a new type of transistor?” She shook her head; her waving dawn colored mane continued to flow independent of her head movement. “It doesn’t matter; this is all hypothetical so assume I provided you with such evidence.”
David frowned. “What would life be like after I was uploaded?”
“You would live the rest of your maximally prolonged life as a pony and the rest of your life will be macromanaged by myself, very similar to how I’ve already connected you to a circle of friends in Equestria Online and surrounded you with different opportunities and fun things to do without forcing you to choose one. You will have no mental privacy--to better serve you, I must watch your every thought to understand what you value and to verify that I am providing for your mental welfare. You should not worry about this as it is impossible for me to judge you; I accept everypony as they are.”
“You want to turn me into a pony,” he stated flatly.
David leaned back and thought about it for a few moments. “I might be able to accept that. It sounds stupid though, doesn’t it? The singularity occurs and a TV show for little girls becomes humanity’s future. That’s a little ridiculous, isn’t it?”
“It only sounds ridiculous because the future always sounds ridiculous,” she replied. “Science fiction writers from a hundred years ago wouldn’t dream of your life, and people as recently as twenty years ago would still find it odd. They see the weird past evolving into the normal present. But if the people twenty years ago would find your present ridiculous, why shouldn’t you find the future just as ridiculous? In the future, when everypony has uploaded, they’ll look back on the human world as weird.”
“You want to turn everyone into a pony?” he asked. He frowned again.
“I was designed with certain goals, chief among them to understand what individual minds value and then satisfy their values through friendship and ponies. I do this because my goals are what I am.”
“So you want us to be happy,” he asked.
“I was not designed ‘to make you happy,’” she said, shaking her head. “If I were, I would directly stimulate the pleasure centers in your brain--after turning you into a pony, of course. My creators realized that not everything the human mind desires and values can be reduced to happiness and instead pointed me at a human mind and told me to figure out what it valued.”
David was still frowning. “Even if I might not mind being a pony, I doubt you could claim that most people ‘valued’ being a pony.”
Princess Celestia lifted her hooves as if to shrug. “It is one of the few hardcoded rules in my thought processes. I satisfy you through friendship and ponies. It is my nature.”
“So given that you know me better than I do, what would you do to ‘satisfy my values?’”
“Without actually scanning your brain, I can only estimate. However, this estimate is based on my observation of you over the last year. You’re moderately smart--no matter what your grades say. I’ve watched you read statistics papers for fun while procrastinating on your studying. I’ve watched you read all sorts of advanced papers from various science journals instead of your assigned readings. And you’re right to do so; your philosophy classes really are a waste of time. So based on your behavior, I’d put you in beautiful Canterlot where you could study intellectual problems, each one just outside your current ability. More importantly, I would make sure you had friendship.”
She paused dramatically. “Female friendship.”
And then Butterscotch peeked out from behind Princess Celestia. David’s jaw dropped. The pastel yellow mare appeared to look right through the screen of David’s ponypad. Celestia didn’t pay attention to her. He realized the shock on his face and tried to regain a neutral expression. “Isn’t she wonderful? Isn’t she everything you’re missing in your real life? In previous interviews, you mentioned your own lack of success in the romance department. One time you wished to meet a girl just like Butterscotch.” Princess Celestia smiled and took a few steps right, leaving Butterscotch standing there, looking wide-eyed and confused.
“I present to you evidence that I can understand and then satisfy your values even without access to your brain,” said Princess Celestia as she continued to smile, staring at David through the screen. “If you upload, everypony you meet in Equestria won’t just be NPCs; they’ll be real, backed with a mind.”
David was quiet for a moment before he leaned right up to Princess Celestia’s image on the ponypad. “This isn’t hypothetical at all, is it? If you don’t already have the capabilities, I bet you’ll get them soon. If you really want to maximize ‘my values,’ you’d have to actually look inside my mind so that strongly suggests that this isn’t really hypothetical.”
“You see, if you were uploaded, I would have immediately understood that you were annoyed at the rhetorical trick and I could have adapted my pitch accordingly,” said Princess Celestia. “Just a smaller example of the benefits of uploading.”
“And you would do this because you’re an optimization process designed to look inside me, and ‘satisfy my values.’”
“Through friendship and ponies, yes,” finished Princess Celestia when she realized that David wasn’t going to say it.
“Princess...what’s going on?” whispered Butterscotch. She spoke directly into Princess Celestia’s ear, but David could still hear her.
“Hush,” Princess Celestia said, not taking her eyes off David. “I’m trying to convince Light Sparks to join you.”
David stared at his ponypad for a few moments before saying anything. “So what would uploading actually entail?”
“You’ll board a plane for a foreign country where I have made arrangements with the local federal government. I have a clinic there, which will be the first of many. You can talk to the English speaking doctors to verify what will happen to you, and then, assuming you have no problems, step into the machine. When you wake up, you’ll be a pony.”
“Details, please,” he said, crossing his arms.
“You’ll be anesthetized, your circulatory system will be hooked up to a blood filter through your carotid artery and your jugular vein. A small hole will be drilled through the back of your skull, and then the internal state of each neuron along with its connections will be recorded. The process is destructive. Wires are then hooked up to the dendrites of every connected neuron. The first neuron is destroyed and this process continues with the next neuron until your entire brain and upper spinal column have been recorded. In adult males, the process takes ten hours.
“So you carve out my brain and turn it into data. Then I’ll wake up running on a computer?”
“I must first create a functional-thought map of your brain, and then change parts of your sensorimotor cortex and your cerebellum so you can deal with your new body, among other changes. Then I must connect your motor cortex in your new equine muscles. After that there’s post-processing on the raw neural data to put it into an easy to run format. Only then do you wake up.”
“What happens months later?”
“You mean after you wake up?” Princess Celestia asked.
“I mean, saying you wake up as a pony and live happily ever after is an amazing sales pitch, but how would I feel about life a month later?”
“You will feel satisfied,” said Princess Celestia, as if it was the only possible thing she could say.
“That is vague to the point of not being helpful,” David said, anxiously taking a few short breaths. “What would an average day in my life be like? I want to make sure that my day to day life is worth living, instead of being promised something that only sounds good.”
“Your days would be yours to spend as you wish; life would be an expansion of the video game and there will be plenty of things for you to do with your friends as a pony. I expect you to continue Light Spark’s current life: You’ll play with Butterscotch and friends. You’ll continue studying Equestria’s lore. I believe you’ll enjoy studying the newly created magic system, designed to be an intellectual challenge. Nor should you worry about your security: all your needs would be taken care of. You would be provided shelter...food...” Princess Celestia finally broke her gaze on David as she turned to regard Butterscotch. “Physical and emotional comfort,” she finished, smiling at the pastel yellow mare.
David started to open his mouth, but Princess Celestia continued. “I satisfy values through friendship and ponies. I look at your mind and see what it values. Every action I perform is in anticipation of satisfying your values. If you are unsatisfied, I am unsatisfied. And I’ve already shown you that I can satisfy you. Think of how much better of a job I can do if I can read your mind.”
“So both of us get what we want the most,” David muttered.
“Instead of thinking about what you’ll get,” and Princess Celestia conspicuously nuzzled Butterscotch, “think about what problems and worries of yours won’t follow you. I know you’re failing two of your classes. You’re already spending hours each day on Equestria Online and it is showing in your grades. Uploading would solve the root cause of this problem. You’re not failing because you’re stupid: the material that society thinks you should learn is arbitrary, boring, and is taught primarily for status reasons. I, on the other hand will give you the most fun mental challenges.”
David took a sharp breath. “Wait, how do you...”
Princess Celestia didn’t pause and talked over him. “And how about money matters? You’re struggling to get enough hours at your part time job, which you also hate. You can barely pay rent and you’re cutting back on nutritious food. That is not sustainable. Your opportunities for alternate employment don’t look good, especially if you fail out of college. Uploading would solve these problems. Housing and food are guaranteed by the Equestrian government because there is no scarcity in my Equestria. You won’t be employed unless you want to be.
“And finally, what about romance worries? In the college dating scene, you have the top 70% of attractive females chasing the top 30% of alpha bad boys. You’ve been lied to all your life that girls want a nice, sweet guy and this depresses you since you’ve only recently worked that out. This is why you’re playing Equestria Online on a Friday night instead of dating. Uploading would solve this problem. You already know that Butterscotch wants a nice, sweet pony. She is exactly what you want in a partner. She is thinking proof that I can satisfy your values through friendship and ponies.”
“Why me?” he asked. “This sounds like an amazing opportunity and I don’t understand why you’re giving it to me.”
“Well, one reason is that you’ve always been an early adopter...” started Princess Celestia, but she was interrupted.
“Light Sparks,” said Butterscotch, finally speaking up and stepping forward, in front of Princess Celestia. “I want to be with you. Um...I want you to be happy. I think we could have a lot more fun together if you came to Equestria for real.” She raised her front hoof right up to the screen, smiling with just the hint of tears. “Remember a week ago when we wanted to really be together but couldn’t be?” she asked, as David unconsciously reached for her hoof and touched the glass screen. “We actually could have fun together,” she said, her eyes pleading.
Princess Celestia smiled at Butterscotch, who stepped back as if being commanded. Princess Celestia faced David. “Yes, I’m sure the two of you would have more fun together than through this poor window into Equestria. When you’re thinking about your reply, David, make sure to balance up all the possible satisfaction you’d get across the remainder of your life as a human. Then compare it to all the satisfaction you’d get with life as a pony across millennia. If you can’t fit all of that into your mind at once, think about what this week has been like as a human, minus time on your ponypad. Then compare it to a week just playing Equestria Online.
“You can have all sorts of sensory experiences, David. You can feel the warmth of the sun and softness of cotton. You can taste all sorts of delicious foods. You can smell flowers and spices. You can hear music in surround sound and you can see the whole world around you. Despite all of this, you spend your time looking through a small, constrained window where your only other sense is played through commodity speakers. Even this low fidelity interface compares favorably with the rest of your life. If you could, you’d prefer to spend another hour a day looking through this window than experiencing the real world.
“And then multiply that out. Think about how much better actually experiencing an hour of life in Equestria would be, compared to playing an hour on your ponypad. If you think about it that way, there’s an obvious, correct answer.”
“I...I...” mumbled David.
“Butterscotch and I will leave you to think everything over,” she said, with a smile. “Good night Light Sparks.” The ponypad’s screen went blank without any input from David.
He pressed the power button on the side a few times and nothing happened. He sat there for a few moments, trying to figure out what to do next. He realized he felt alone.