Short story: « Project Utopia »

🇫🇷 Cette histoire n’est disponible qu’en anglais.
This story is only available in English

Sylvain took a deep breath and knocked on the door. « Come in! » said the voice inside. He pushed it opened.

« Ah. Sylvain. Very well. Please, close the door behind you and get seated! »

He did as he was told. As he turned to close the door, he winced slightly as the faint smell of sweat that permeated the room entered his nostrils. He forced his expression to go back to normal, turned back and sat down on the chair that was offered to him.

Jean Colbert was a fat bald mustached man, who wore a white polo shirt with short sleeves but was nevertheless clearly suffering from the summer heat a bit more than the rest of the staff of the lab. He was also the sponsor of Sylvain’s project. He had laboriously gotten up as Sylvain had opened the room, and his chair had badly creaked as he had sat back down on it.

« Happy new year, young man ! How are you doing? »

« Happy new year, sir! Er… I’m doing well, thank you… How are you? »

He was wondering why he had been called, and this awkward attempt at small talk wasn’t exactly reassuring.

« I’m fine, I’m fine I guess… But I’ve been better. » He crossed his hands and put them down on his desk, looking at Sylvain straight in the eyes. « Look Sylvain. I’m sorry to say… You’re going to have to shut down Project Utopia. »

« What? » Sylvain’s voice was suddenly high-pitched. « What do you mean ‘shut down’? »

« I’m sure you understand perfectly what I mean. They’re cutting the funding of all the projects in this university by half. Choices had to be made. Project Utopia was not selected. »

« But… But we’re just starting to get results! »

Telling that Project Utopia was his life’s work… Would be kind of exaggerated, but it had been the project Sylvain had been working on since the start of his PhD. He had planned on writing a thesis out of it. Heck, he had kind of planned on building a career on it.

« This is the most ambitious project this university has ever seen, sir! You know it is! And the simulations are working! »

Colbert sighed.

« You say the simulations are working, Sylvain. But nobody believes it. »

« But… I can show you! I can show you everything! You’ve seen the calculations! The algorithms! I can bring you the source code for everything! »

He could feel his voice growing increasingly desperate, but he couldn’t help it. He had to fight for this. He had to!

« That would take months for me to review. Come on Sylvain. Let’s talk results, all right? »

He opened his drawer and put out a bunch of paper sheets, which Sylvain recognized. It was a printout of his latest report… But a lot of it was circled, highlighted, and some big red question marks were visible on the margins.

« Look. I have here the last data you sent me, just before the Christmas holidays. December 22nd, 1999. That’s the last one, right? Let’s go through it together, okay? »

« Sure. » He could feel that this was not going to go well. But he still had to try.

« So. The goal of the project Utopia, that you’re leading, is to simulate a future Earth, to try to anticipate future events and trends in the world, and see what we can learn from it. Is that a good summary? »

« Yes, sir. »

« Your theoretical paper on interpolating past data to predict future events was extremely promising, which is why I sponsored you, and why this university gave you access to its supercomputer, which you’ve been using extensively and almost exclusively for the past last year. »

« Well, yes, due to the large size of data and the number of calculations needed, the process is extremely resource-intensive… »

« Which is why the faculty’s electricity bill has tripled in the same time. »

« Well, once again, our huge dataset— »

« What I’m trying to tell you, Sylvain, » interrupted Colbert, « is that Utopia has cost the university a lot of money. So the dean and the administrators, came to see me while you were away on your Christmas holidays, to see what kind of predictions your project was making. So I had to get your project code, build it, and run it for them to see. »

Sylvain was getting paler. They had tested Utopia, on an unfinished development build, without him?

« The dean, the administrators, and honestly, even I… were quite underwhelmed Sylvain. Frankly, I’ve been hoping that you’d have refined your code to remove the most ludicrous predictions made, but it’s been getting worse and worse! »

He couldn’t let that pass.

« With all due respect, sir, I strongly disagree! First of all, of course an hastily built version that was never meant to be shown was buggy! But still! We haven’t had any kind of breakage in the automated test suite recently, so Utopia should be working mostly fine! We’ve simulated everything up to the year 2018 and the results are consistent and make sense! »

« Make sense? You call that making sense? »

As Colbert’s voice was getting louder, he was getting redder and sweatier. Sylvain, unused to seeing the man agitated, was taken aback.

« Sylvain! Please! Get real! Look at what your project, supposed to predict accurately the future of the Earth, pretends is going to happen! »

Sylvain bit his lips. The project was going great, he knew it!

« First stop, 2001! » continued Colbert. « You say that terrorists are going to blow up the twin towers of the New York World Trade Center! That’s… already quite an interesting scenario, but then you say that the terrorists are not going to blow it up by using a bomb of some sort, but by crashing planes into them? You’ve watched to many action movies!  »

« Sir. The movies I like have nothing to do with all this, and if you would… »

« Second stop! 2007! Apparently, Apple is supposed to change the world forever… by releasing a cellphone? »

« Sir, it makes sense if you look at more than the summarized data. See— »

« Third stop! 2016! You say Donald Trump becomes president of the United States of America! »

« Well, sir, he is a rich man with a lot of media power, and it’s not that unthinkable if you take the precedent of Ronald Reagan… »

« Exactly! This is the problem! When your algorithm is not making absolutely ludicrous claims, it seems to be repeating patterns from things that have happened previously! Stop and think about it for a second, Sylvain. It  doesn’t make any sense. Look, you’ve even predicted that his opponent would be Hillary Clinton. Another glaring pattern repetition. Come on! »

Colbert put so much energy in these last two words that he began coughing, which in turn made him sweat even more.

Sylvain felt… knocked out. He was hot, and the room was smelly. But he still tried again when Colbert had stopped coughing and wiping his face with a handkerchief

« Sir. The whole point of the project is to make predictions. You’re cherry-picking a few things that don’t look right in an ocean of data points. If you open up the data beyond the summaries, you’ll see how the prediction process came to these results. I’ll admit there may be mistakes, but… »

« These mistakes made the whole project look bad, Sylvain. » said Colbert in a voice that had become more tired. « Your predictions also included that, and that made the dean Mr. Gallagher laugh so hard he had to sit down, that Pluto would ‘stop being a planet’. What is it going to do, explode? And I’m sorry Sylvain, I tried to get the full detail on the prediction on that one, but it didn’t work. I got an error. And when he was done laughing, the dean looked very serious when he asked me if this was how I was using my department’s money. »

Sylvain put his hand over his face. So this was the crux of the matter. Colbert had been humiliated in front of his bosses, and he had decided that it would not happen again.

« I’ll admit that, even if I don’t believe in it, I like the idea that Illinois senator Obama could become president though… » continued Colbert wistfully. « But well, you have it. Too many weird claims, Sylvain, and not a lot of things we can build on. »

« But sir, there is a lot we can learn just by keeping fine-tuning the simulation! Even if the exact specifics are not correct, we could try to see patterns! Events that are repeating themselves! »

« This is the job of the historians, Sylvain. Yours was to predict the future. I’m really sorry. »

He didn’t seem sorry.

« I firmly believe in my work, sir. » uttered Sylvain, his cheeks now as flushed as Colbert’s. « My predictions are correct. If you could set up another meeting with the dean, this time I’ll have a demo version ready, and… »

He stopped as Colbert raised the palm of his hand towards him.

« You won’t have the time for that. Your access to the supercomputer will be revoked in a few days. Back up your project files, then move on. I’ve told Patrick you’d be available to work with him on the new machine learning program soon. Again, Sylvain, I’m really sorry. »

He still didn’t seem sorry. In fact, now that he had delivered the news, it seemed to Sylvain like his face had relaxed a bit. Like he had just removed a band-aid, and it had not hurt as much as he had expected.

It was too much. It was too sudden. Sylvain wanted to protest, to answer, but his throat was sore and the words seemed caught in it. He was on the verge of tears. He looked down, to hide it.

He failed. Colbert cleared his throat, trying to break the awkward silence that had installed itself as Sylvain had stopped speaking.

« Go home, Sylvain. You’ve overworked yourself. This was a moonshot anyway, and it was good of you to try. »

Still looking down, Sylvain got up.

« Thank you sir. Goodbye, sir. »

He left the room without looking back.


When Sylvain came to work the next day, he was still depressed. He had believed his work could make a difference. Sure, making a simulation of the whole world was difficult, and even if it was quite realist at some times, other times it didn’t make a lot of sense… Of course, he knew that himself, but he had thought everyone else knew it too.

Predicting the weather was already difficult, so of course by only looking at a few data points, things were always going to seem weird! They had to look at the full picture! If only he had been able to give context during the presentation…

He sighed.

It was over. No point in ruminating.

Only six days before he lost access to the project.

Since no one was going to be expecting anything from it anymore…, perhaps he could play a little bit with it before moving on?

A little side-project, just for fun…

Interfering with the simulation would be fun. Injecting some unexpected events… Let’s see…

Oh. A good idea! What if he wrote in some kind event that happened on a global scale and changed everything in the simulation!

He sat down, and spent half an hour writing the basic code for his idea. It was simple. It should give interesting results.

He booted the simulation, executed his new code inside it, and enjoyed a lot watching as the simulation progressed and as the global mayhem unfolded! Adding that virus was a great idea! Utopia 0.12.22b-COVID ver was a lot of fun!

It was not really academic work anymore, but maybe he’d have the time to simulate a global nuclear war scenario before the week ended!