Future Tense

“Dream Soft, Dream Big”

A new short story about science, startups, and a cultish online community.

A woman reading a book with a pi symbol on the cover sleeps in a chair. Various symbols float around her.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.

BECKER NGUYEN (NARRATION): Complete the sequence—the wheel, the printing press, the transistor … what’s next? What if I tell you the next revolutionary invention may already exist, but instead of being powered by coal or electricity, it’s powered purely by the most nebulous parts of our minds?

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I’m Becker Nguyen. On today’s episode of Static Shock: how one man discovered something extraordinary about our dreams that could save the world, and what happened next that made it all seem like a nightmare.

(Introduction music.)

KATIA ZAHORSKI: It all started with the B-minus I got in computational neurobiology.

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NGUYEN (NARRATION): Five years ago, Katia Zahorski was an undergraduate in New York majoring in biology.

ZAHORSKI: It was first semester of junior year, and I was your typical pre-med overachiever—wanted to be a doctor for as long as I remember. Straight A’s from elementary school to college. Until neurobio.

It was just … (sighs) something about math and coding applied to processes in the brain. It was all doable separately but made no sense combined. I went to every office hours session and the TAs basically held my hand through each homework problem, but the exams might as well’ve been in Latin. I probably should have dropped it, but I thought I would magically triumph if I spent more time and effort on it. That had always worked so far.

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NGUYEN: Did it work this time?

ZAHORSKI: Not even close. My grade was in the C range, but they took pity on me because I tried so hard and gave me a B-minus. Even now I couldn’t tell you a single thing I learned. I think I’ve blocked it from my memory.

NGUYEN: As an aside, I just want our listeners to know that one B isn’t going to disqualify you from medical school.

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ZAHORSKI: Right. (Laughs.) Don’t freak out like I did, kids!

Everyone else told me it was no big deal—my other grades were fine and I had decent extracurriculars. On the surface I knew that, but that B-minus broke something inside me. I tried as hard as I could, and it wasn’t enough. My train of thought was: What if I’m just not cut out to be a doctor? To handle life?

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I was supposed to take the MCAT in a few months. I had a very detailed plan with the chapters of this and that book I would read every day and when to take practice tests, et cetera, but then I just didn’t do any of it. You know one of those—just like, a weird fugue state you’re in, where every day you say, OK, I’m totally going to study tonight, but then you end up on the internet the whole night. And then you tell yourself, I’ll definitely study tomorrow. But the next day is exactly the same. And the next. Like Groundhog Day.

NGUYEN: Did you ever take the MCAT?

ZAHORSKI: Nope. I knew I would flunk it without studying. I told myself, it’s OK, I need some more time, I’ll just take it in a month. And then it became Oh, I’ll get a job, study in my spare time, then take it next year.

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I was doing the bare minimum to get by in classes, but I stopped feeling upset about it. What’s another B? Most of my days were cat videos and online personality quizzes. What flavor of Jell-O best describes you? Which endangered lizard is your alter ego?

Thinking back on it now, I may have been depressed, but I didn’t know it at the time. I thought depression was people who are suicidal or can’t get out of bed, but I was doing online quizzes in my bed for hours, that’s totally different. And I was going to most classes, so I can’t possibly be depressed, right? I would joke with my friends that I was getting senioritis early, and they would laugh with me.

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NGUYEN: A common misconception about mental health is that each disorder has some key sign. Depression encompasses a spectrum of symptoms. It’s not necessarily one thing.

ZAHORSKI: Exactly, I wish I knew that back then. Of course, part of me knew it wasn’t healthy, but it was overridden by the rest of me that desperately wanted to pretend everything was fine. And that’s when I got an email for a sleep study with cash compensation. My brain was like, Oh, a way to waste my time and contribute to science! Perfect!

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NGUYEN (NARRATION): The study was designed by Drew Haskins, professor of neuroscience at Columbia University.

DREW HASKINS (RECORDED): I was trying to find out whether sleep improves mathematical ability and recall.

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NGUYEN (NARRATION): That’s him in a BBC documentary, describing the precursor to Katia’s experiment.

HASKINS (RECORDED): It was a relatively large-scale study for its kind, with the goal of replicating earlier results. Participants were asked to work on many math problems of varying difficulties, ranging from simple addition to problems only solvable by computers, before bedtime. While they slept, we tracked brain activity using MRIs. In the morning, they did the problems again and filled out a survey about their sleep quality.

NGUYEN (NARRATION): Sleep did have a slight positive effect on their performance, and brain scans indicated that areas related to consolidating information were active during REM sleep, the phase of the night when we dream.

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HASKINS (RECORDED): We published the paper and thought we were done. However, just out of curiosity, we had asked on the survey what the students dreamed about. Most of them had ordinary dreams. But in a tiny handful of cases, students reported dreaming partial pieces of solutions to the most difficult problems they were shown. Only those problems elicited any response from their brains.

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NGYUEN (NARRATION): Science is full of serendipitous discoveries: vaccines, the microwave oven, and super glue are just a few examples of inventions partially due to chance. But luck is only one ingredient of the recipe. What separates those who have a fortuitous discovery and those who don’t is the recognition that something novel is lurking in front of your eyes and the courage to dive into the unknown.

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HASKINS (RECORDED): The students who dreamed of solution pieces didn’t have anything unusual in their scans. Most normal researchers would’ve probably regarded this as spurious data and forgotten about it. But I couldn’t let it go. A few days later, believe it or not, I had a dream where people solved problems while sleeping. I woke up and thought, This is completely crazy, but could there be something there?

For a follow-up study, I needed many participants and tons of funding. No government funds something this outlandish, so I begged for money from all the connections I knew. I would start with “I want to do an experiment on harnessing collective brainpower to solve hard problems.” They would be excited until I explained the dream part. Then they would hang up. (Laughs.)

NGUYEN (NARRATION): Finally, an investor friend loaned him half a million dollars.

HASKINS (RECORDED): I looked for volunteers everywhere, as many as possible. A scientific experiment would split the participants into groups, give each one different types of problems or no problems at all for a control. But I knew from the first study that the useful dreams were vanishingly rare, and I didn’t have enough people. So I gave all the participants the same moonshot problem: finding the prime factors of a very large number, which a computer science organization had posted a million-dollar reward for.

NGUYEN (NARRATION): We’ll get back to that in a bit.

HASKINS (RECORDED): It was a giant leap of faith, for sure.

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NGUYEN (NARRATION): As you probably guessed, this was the study that Katia joined. Haskins put this number in a picture and asked participants to look at it whenever they have spare time and for five minutes before bed, and then log their dreams the following day, for a whole month.

ZAHORSKI: They gave us a bunch of random numbers to look at every day, 1, 3, 5, 0 … I don’t remember the rest. And we had to log our dreams every morning. Nothing out of the ordinary happened to me—I definitely didn’t dream answers. At the end I got $10, which I thought was lame for a whole month of work, but whatever. I forgot about it and went on to my next distraction.

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NGUYEN (NARRATION): After months of hard work extracting useful information from fragments of numbers, Haskins got his result. He found the solution from 50,000 people’s dreams.

ELAINE HONG: Yes, it was mind-blowing.

NGUYEN (NARRATION): That’s Elaine Hong, professor of computational biology at Harvard University.

HONG: I’ve known Drew for 20-some years—he’s one of the pioneers of in vivo optical brain imaging, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, won lots of awards. Very respected in his field. When I heard through the grapevine that he was doing some kind of computing-using dreams experiment, I thought, Poor guy, he’s got terminal career disease.

NGUYEN: Is that a thing?

HONG: It’s an unofficial term for when respected academics get these crazy, unscientific ideas in their later life. Linus Pauling, for example, won two Nobel Prizes and was absolutely brilliant but thought vitamin C could cure all illnesses. But in this case, Drew’s idea actually worked.

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NGUYEN: How does it work, in nontechnical terms?

HONG: No one knows why some of us apparently dream fragments of solutions to problems we can’t solve when we’re awake. But we know the general idea of how Drew assembled the solution. He used to do this demo where he would slide a square with a bunch of random blue dots into a big, clear box.

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(Recording plays. Sliding sound.)

HONG: And then he would slide in another square with red dots (sliding sound), then green (sliding sound). Suddenly, you see the Mona Lisa. (Gasps and applause.)

A similar thing happens in Dream Computing. Each person sees snatches of numbers and images that make no sense, but when you superimpose them the right way—they form the solution.

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NGUYEN: And why is factoring a number useful?

HONG: A lot of modern cryptography rests upon factoring huge numbers. But it’s not just that. What Drew did was far beyond the capacity of any supercomputer in the world. With the same computing power, we can potentially predict natural disasters accurately or design better medicine. Save millions of lives.

NGUYEN (NARRATION): Haskins’ result was announced to great fanfare. This time, investors took notice. Haskins got an undisclosed amount of capital, and his startup was born. The board wanted a trendy name, but as founder, CEO, and CTO, Haskins insisted on DreamSoft, a callback to a certain tech giant. He saw the company growing into a global conglomerate of advanced technologies at the interdisciplinary border of neuroscience and computing. The media coverage was intense.

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(Sound bites of newscasts.)

VOICE No. 1: —a new company called—

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VOICE No. 1/ No. 2: —DreamSoft—

VOICE No. 3: —with the motto Dream Soft, Dream Big—

VOICE No. 4: Imagine solving our hardest problems in one fell swoop. Curing cancer. Eliminating poverty. Work that might take centuries of scientific progress that will now only take days. This is the magic of Dream Computing.

VOICE No. 5: The Industrial Revolution. The Digital Age. And now, the Dawn of Dreams.

(Fade into typing sound.)

NGUYEN (NARRATION): While this was going on, Katia graduated college and found an office job at a shipping company.

ZAHORSKI: Found a job is a kind way of putting it. I basically sleepwalked through senior year. My parents were so worried they called up a family friend to give me a job.

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And, um, it was the most terrible dead-end job. I got all the stuff no one else wanted to do, like chasing down people who didn’t make payments and merging a million spreadsheets with different formats. Literally pounding sand. I knew I should be trying to better myself—study for the MCATs, look for another job, heck, even get a fun hobby—but every day after work I would just collapse on my bed and binge television.

NGUYEN: And when did you hear about DreamSoft?

ZAHORSKI: About a year after I started working. At first, I had no idea it came from the sleep study I did. I just saw one of those commercials that were everywhere.

(Commercial plays.)

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WOMAN: I never thought my dreams could come true like this.

VOICE: Dream Soft.

VOICE/ZAHORSKI: Dream Big. (ZAHORSKI laughs.)

ZAHORSKI: I signed up after a few of my tech-trendy friends talked about it on social media. And when the app showed me how it worked, I was like, wait a minute

NGUYEN: This is when you realized—

ZAHORSKI: That it was the same guy who made the study I did, yeah. I looked it up and found out it solved this impossible math problem by crowdsourcing all our dreams, and now he’s paying everyone to solve more problems. It blew my mind. I was struck by this sudden lightning feeling, like, this is fate. This is my calling, to become a Dreamer. Capital D.

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NGUYEN: How did being a Dreamer work, exactly?

ZAHORSKI: The app shows you a Dream Image that encodes a problem into colorful noise, like the numbers I saw before but now it looks like a Magic Eye picture. It reminds you throughout the day to look at the image during breaks, then for five minutes before sleep. Every morning you wake up and you have to type everything you remember into the app, like a dream diary. It gives you a sleep quality score and encouragement. You’ll level up in no time!

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NGUYEN (NARRATION): DreamSoft had a hierarchical compensation structure. It paid a small amount of money for every dream that provided useful information for them—what they called a Utility Dream—with the exact number based on Dream quality. Those with especially good and frequent Dreams leveled up, and their base payouts increased.

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ZAHORSKI: There were six levels, each comprising of the top 10 percent of the previous level. And the last level was the Elite Dreamers. They were rumored to be making six figures or more by just Dreaming, and DreamSoft takes care of their whole life, gives them housing and meals and everything.

Joining the Elite Dreamers became an overwhelming obsession of mine. I read tons of advice articles, watched all the Haskins interviews, joined the fan forums—the whole shebang. And I got really good at switching tabs when someone walked by at work. (Laughs.)

NGUYEN: What were the forums like?

ZAHORSKI: Um, probably like every other forum—lots of drama. The background of the forum was your assigned Dream Image, obviously, so you can look at it as much as possible. Every day there were at least 20 new threads from people who registered just to tell us it was definitely a scam, dreams don’t mean anything. Then there were 20 new threads on how this proves God exists, or that our minds were made by aliens to do their math for them or something. The core community was sort of divided into two groups: the people really interested in technical stuff like how they extracted data from dreams, and then the people who just wanted to be part of a community. We would talk about basically everything.

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NGUYEN: Was this you? CherryDreams5, 11,000 posts?

ZAHORSKI: Oh, my gosh. Don’t read any posts, they’re so embarrassing—

NGUYEN: No worries. (Laughs.) I won’t. But tell us about what you wrote.

ZAHORSKI: A lot about my life, obsessive daily updates on my dreams, that kind of stuff. It felt good to tell my secrets to strangers-turned-friends. One of my most popular threads was a confession about how I was doing nothing with my life and was so afraid to face that until I found DreamSoft. So many people said they were in the same boat and cheered me on. I literally cried for an hour.

At the same time, there was a darker side to it. I’m not proud of it, but I definitely became a fanatic. Drew Haskins was my hero. I would attack people who dared to question Dream Computing. And I would always brag about being in the original study, as if that gave me more credibility. (Laughs.)

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NGUYEN: And how were your dreams?

ZAHORSKI: That’s the funny part. Most days I didn’t even dream, and when I did, they were just normal weird lowercase dreams. I used to get so frustrated every morning, like, why is my subconscious obsessed with flying dogs and people I knew in college?

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I only had two Utility Dreams for sure. The first one, I was rewatching a Drew Haskins video for the thousandth time and I must have fallen asleep. The thing where he stuck glass slabs into a box? The box morphed into the Dream Image, and a corner of it started vibrating. Then I woke up. I was a hundred percent sure this was a Utility Dream because of course I had read thousands of reports of them from other people and internalized exactly what they were like.

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NGUYEN: How much were you compensated?

ZAHORSKI: $2.50. (Laughs.) But I knew the whole reward structure, so I wasn’t surprised. Mostly I was really excited. I thought I unlocked something inside me, and I was going to become an Elite Dreamer in no time. Everyone on the forum cheered me on, of course. I felt like I had won the Olympics or something.

My claim to fame was my really useful Dream the next night, which got me a little over $100 and a spot on the weekly leaderboard for my level. I became a minor forum celebrity—people were telling me I have so much potential, I should go all in, quit my job, and pursue Dreaming full time.

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NGUYEN: How did full-time Dreaming work?

ZAHORSKI: No one actually knows what they’re doing, of course. The general consensus was derived from the lucid dreaming community: a lot of meditation on the Dream Image, focusing on your inner state, trying to sleep and dream and wake with intent. That’s what the Elite Dreamers do all day.

NGUYEN: And people actually quit their jobs to pursue this?

ZAHORSKI: Oh, yeah, way more people than there should be. Just that thread, where I was complaining about my life, had replies from hundreds of people like that who thought they were liberating themselves from their pointless work and life. Of course, my parents thought it was a horrible idea. I promised them I wouldn’t quit my job while secretly thinking I would prove them wrong on making money from Dreaming.

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But the next day I didn’t Dream. And the next. I was sleeping later and later, refreshing the forum every minute. Once I fell asleep holding up my tablet and it smashed my nose hard enough to bleed. The app would tell me every morning that my sleep quality was absolutely terrible.

NGUYEN: That doesn’t sound sustainable.

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ZAHORSKI: Definitely not. I was dead tired all the time and so addicted to the whole thing. Who knows how long it would have gone on for had I not gotten the sleep paralysis episode a month later.

NGUYEN (NARRATION): Sleep paralysis is a condition where a part of your brain would wake up but your motor systems would still be asleep, so you feel trapped in your body. Scientists aren’t sure what exactly causes them.

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NGUYEN: Did you ever have them before that night?

ZAHORSKI: Sometimes, in college, back when my sleep was all messed up from late nights doing homework. But I hadn’t had one in years, and this was orders of magnitude worse. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe—strangers from the forum would dart in and out of view, staring at me while I was pinned like an insect. Then there was a growing buzz in my ear while I kept falling through the bed over and over in an infinite loop. And as the sound got louder and louder, the loop got faster and faster and I thought, oh god, this is it. Then the sound exploded in a pop, and I jerked awake.

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NGUYEN: How did you feel?

ZAHORSKI: So relieved. Glad to be alive. I think my brain decided I needed a reboot and did the most horrible thing possible to scare me. It was 6 a.m., and I sat up in bed thinking, What am I doing with my life? I’m stuck in a dead-end job, spending all my time on a pointless forum defending someone who doesn’t even know I exist, making $100 after months of work.

So I quit cold turkey. I deleted the app and erased my browser history. Even then, every 10 minutes I would find myself automatically opening a new tab and typing in the forum address, like I was programmed to do it, which was frightening.

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NGUYEN: Did you tell people on the forum why you were quitting?

ZAHORSKI: I thought about it, but I was worried that they would try to persuade me to come back. I knew how persuasive the posters were. The friendly people would have said stuff like, Oh, sleep paralysis is a completely unrelated coincidence, you’re assigning significance to an event that has none, which is a logical fallacy. And the meaner people would have attacked me for being a hypocrite. I was the No. 1 DreamSoft fanatic—how could I suddenly quit? So I just stopped posting. It was hard, especially when I saw that lots of people were asking where I was. Eventually I banned the URL from all of my devices, and that was that.

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NGUYEN: A week after that, DreamSoft held a press conference to announce that it had modeled the folding of a protein responsible for proper blood clotting. It was a small step toward possible improvement in coagulant medication.

ZAHORSKI: I got mad when I saw that, like DreamSoft had exploited me and many others for its success. They get the glory, and we get basically nothing. And when I got a fancy video camera for Christmas—from my aunt who was probably trying to give me a hobby—I just thought, Why don’t I make an anti-DreamSoft video?

I did a search online and found a bunch of anti-DreamSoft videos, but they were all from conspiracy theorists or people who clearly didn’t understand the technology. I knew how to make the perfect arguments. It was the one thing that I had been preparing for, though I didn’t know it.

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NGUYEN: In Katia’s video, she’s sitting on her bed and talking straight into the camera.

ZAHORSKI (RECORDED): I used to be the No. 1 DreamSoft fan.

ZAHORSKI: I read an article that spontaneous-looking videos are more likely to go viral than polished ones, so I made sure to appear casual. Yeah, I realize the irony.

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ZAHORSKI (RECORDED): It just felt so awful! I’ve never had sleep paralysis like that. What is repetitive viewing of the Dream Image doing to our brains? What are we really solving? For all we know, Haskins could be using us to hack into his ex-wife’s emails!

NGUYEN: How many views did you get at first?

ZAHORSKI: Like 200, all from me. (Laughs.) I posted it on social media and got a handful from my friends, and that was it. I forgot about it after three days.

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NGUYEN: But, two months later:

(News clip plays.)

NEWSCASTER: Jordan Schmitz, one of the so-called Elite Dreamers paid by the company DreamSoft to produce dreams useful for solving mathematical problems, was found dead in his apartment at age 26. What appears to be a suicide note on his social blamed it on the company.

VOICE-OVER: I was an artist. Now every day I stare at a meaningless picture. I can’t change my routine because it would mess with my dreams. I told DreamSoft I wanted to take a break, to dream normally again, but they wouldn’t let me. I’m too useful. The money’s useless. What’s the point of living like this?

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NEWSCASTER: Recently, criticism of DreamSoft has popped up all over the internet. This one, from a successful so-called Dreamer who was on the leaderboard:

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ZAHORSKI (RECORDED): It just felt so awful! I’ve never had sleep paralysis like that …

ZAHORSKI: I woke up to a ton of hate mail, which I was confused by until I found the news clip. And then I thought, Oh no, the forum! They figured out who I was.

I must’ve spent 30 minutes staring at my computer screen after unblocking the forum, with the URL already typed in, before I was brave enough to press Enter. I was the only topic they were talking about. People were analyzing all my posts, saying that I was a troll insidiously pretending to be a DreamSoft fan but bringing down their reputation by being super aggressive and hostile. Saying how pathetic it was that the media made it seem like I was really successful when I only had two Utility Dreams after months of trying. That I was either extremely incompetent or a plant. They called me every bad word. Things like …

ZAHORSKI (READING): You only got sleep paralysis because you’re fat as (bleep), you (bleep). Hope you get incurable cancer as karma.

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NGUYEN: Wow, this one is both a DreamSoft true believer and really cruel.

ZAHORSKI: Yeah, they’re all like that. Some were pretty creative, I have to admit. If only they spent that energy on productive outlets. And the hate from random people was bad, but the worst part was people I thought were my friends said things like “I always knew something was wrong with her” and “I was just pretending to be friendly so I could figure out who she was working for.” Before all that, they were encouraging me to study for the MCATs again and try online dating. We were planning a meetup in person.

I spent many nights wondering if they felt peer pressured into disavowing me or if they genuinely hated me after the video, and I still don’t know. Some of them had my personal email, and I didn’t get a single message from them, good or bad. They must have given my information to other people, because I was getting tons of harassment and had to delete my email. Rape threats, death threats, everything. I had to shut down every social account.

NGUYEN (NARRATION): At the same time, the bad PR firestorm only raged larger. Investors became concerned about the slow rate of results. With a user base of 20 million people and after many months of dreams, DreamSoft only produced a single scientific result that didn’t make any money. Haskins laid out an ambitious schedule of milestones for new solutions that flew by without being fulfilled.

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ARJUN SINHA: We were stumped by all the cheating.

NGUYEN (NARRATION): That’s Arjun Sinha, former machine learning engineer at DreamSoft.

SINHA: People would lie about having a Utility Dream and report random data to get money. We wrote algorithms to remove spurious reports. But then people started cheating in groups, and we had a hard time detecting that.

NGUYEN: Do you think it could have been solved with better algorithms?

SINHA: Maybe. But at that time, everything at DreamSoft was going to (bleep), pardon me. People were suing us for sleep problems, Congress wanted to hold a hearing to see if we should be legislated, and Haskins had become even more of a power-tripping maniac.

NGUYEN: Can you tell us some of the things he did or said?

SINHA: Oh, all kinds. Any time something didn’t meet one of his impossible deadlines he would call us lazy SOBs, use slurs, throw stuff against the wall. Everyone was afraid of the weekly meeting. I stayed as long as I did because the idea is amazing and potentially world-changing. I just wish that someone else was in charge of it.

NGUYEN (NARRATION): The final nail in the coffin came two months later. An anonymous employee leaked secretly filmed footage of one of the weekly meetings.

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HASKINS (RECORDED): I am so (bleep)ing tired of people giving fake results! (Loud thud.) I had much better data from the first experiment! Now we’re taking (bleep) from every (bleep)ing (bleep) that wants us to treat them like special snowflakes. Guess what, the (bleep)s in China and India are working 24/7 to replicate my results. Once they get it to work, it’s over. They have so many (bleep)s over there it’s trivial to get results, they’ll (bleep) them if they dare to (bleep) around on their reports. You know that’s going to happen, right? We’re all (bleep)ed.

SINHA: I don’t know who leaked the footage, but I wish I had thought of filming earlier. Would have saved a lot of us months of misery.

NGUYEN: Do you think Haskins actually believed in the mission of the company? That he could deliver on his promises?

SINHA: Oh yeah, 100 percent. He would yell at us to hurry up and figure out these “trivial” problems because we’re the ones holding up the solution to cancer and whatnot.

NGUYEN: How did he feel about exploiting 20 million people’s time and energy?

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SINHA: He obviously didn’t see it that way. He always said, the whole world would shut up and Dream every day for free if they really understood Dream Computing’s true potential. But people aren’t nodes of a computing cluster, and he either didn’t understand that or willfully ignored reality.

NGUYEN (NARRATION): If there’s one thing Haskins was right about, it was being (bleep)ed. #QuitDreaming went viral and people deleted their apps en masse. Investors demanded that Haskins resign. He went on leave, and DreamSoft bled money and users until it ceased to exist.

(Transition music.)

NGUYEN (NARRATION): It’s been almost a year since the spectacular collapse of DreamSoft. Some companies are trying to do what DreamSoft did, including, yes, some in China and India. But so far, no one has come close to its level of success. Haskins’ algorithm for extracting data from dreams is largely proprietary, and he disappeared from the public after leaving DreamSoft. So this is the end of Dream Computing, for now.

As for Katia, I’ll let her finish her story.

ZAHORSKI: The DreamSoft nightmare became emblematic of the internet in general, for me. Letting random people all over the world beam stuff straight into your head, staring at a bright screen like a zombie, trying 20 strategies a day to get noticed, screaming your darkest secrets into an infinite void just for 10 clicks. I couldn’t stand it anymore after the harassment, so I quit the internet completely. I rediscovered a lot of fun things I used to do before my addiction, like baking cookies and reading books. And one day my friend passed along a job posting for a new medical analytics company and I thought, Why not? Anything’s better than what I’m doing.

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So I crammed statistics and data science for a few weeks—thankfully I didn’t completely forget my math classes from college, unlike neurobio—then interviewed and got a job with them. Now I make mathematical models to predict patient outcomes based on their files. I like it. I may not be a doctor, but it feels like I’m making a difference.

NGUYEN: Looking back on it now, how do you feel about DreamSoft’s collapse?

ZAHORSKI: Some of my co-workers call me the DreamSoft slayer (laughs), but, come on, that company was going down in flames regardless of what I did. It reminds me of ambitious people I knew in college: They wanted to make a startup from some cool new idea of theirs without considering the larger consequences, because they’ll just figure it out as they go. Well, sometimes they figure it out, and sometimes they don’t.

I do wonder how the world would be different if we all cooperated and Dreamed in a healthy manner. But why would God or whoever give us this magical ability then make us so flawed and selfish?

NGUYEN: So you think it was maybe a … glitch in the Matrix?

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ZAHORSKI: Ha! Well, until they actually invent mind reading and strap us down to make us Dream, right?

(Ending music.)

NGUYEN (NARRATION): Thanks to Katia Zahorski, Elaine Hong, and Arjun Sinha. And thank you for listening. Until next time, I’m Becker Nguyen, and this is Static Shock.

(End of episode.)

Read a response essay by Kristin E.G. Sanders, an expert on sleep and problem-solving.

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How to Pay Reparations: a Documentary,” by Tochi Onyebuchi
The State Machine,” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne”
The Suicide of Our Troubles,” by Karl Schroeder

And read 14 more Future Tense Fiction tales in our anthology, Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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