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Copyright © 2010 by Robert J. Sawyer. All Rights Reserved.
Volume 2 of the WWW Trilogy
by Robert J. Sawyer
to refresh your memory? See here.]
I now knew what I was knew who I was.
I'd been shown Earth as it appears from space, looking back upon itself, upon myself: a world so vast, a wideness so lonely, a web so fragile.
Invisible in such views are the reticulum of transoceanic cables, the filigree of fiber optics, the intricate skein of wiring, the synaptic leaps of through-the-air connections. But they are there. I am there.
And I had things I needed to do.
The black phone on Tony Moretti's desk made the hornet buzz that indicated an internal call. He finished the sentence he was typing "likely to be al-Qaeda's weak spot" and picked up the handset. "Yes?"
A familiar Southern drawl replied. "Tony? Shel. I've got something unusual."
Shelton Halleck was a solid analyst, recruited straight out of Georgia Tech; he wasn't given to false positives. "I'll be right there." Tony headed out of his office and down the corridor with its gleaming white walls. He came to a door flanked by two security guards and looked into the retina scanner. The lock disengaged, and he entered a large room with a floor that sloped down from the back.
The room reminded Tony of the Apollo-era Mission Control Center in Houston. He'd been a kid in the 1960s, and had thought that was just about the coolest place ever. Years later, he'd visited it; the room was preserved as a historic site, although the ashtrays had been removed lest they set a bad example for the schoolkids peering in from the observation gallery at the rear.
Tony had been surprised on that trip. The windowless room had always seemed subterranean to him, but it turned out to be on the second floor to protect it from flooding, he'd learned, should a hurricane hit.
The facility he'd just entered was even higher up, on the twentieth floor of an office tower in Alexandria, Virginia. It contained four rows of workstations, each with five analysts. The stations in the first row were known as the "hot seats," and were manned by experts dealing with the highest-priority threat, which, right now, was the China situation. Tony had his own station at the right side of the back row, where he could watch over everyone.
All the workstations had large freestanding LCDs instead of Houston's console-mounted CRTs. Shelton Halleck's was the middle position in the third row. Tony sidled along until he was standing behind Shel, a white man two decades younger than himself with broad shoulders and black hair.
The room's front wall contained three giant screens, each of which could be slaved to any analysts' LCD. Above the right-hand monitor was the WATCH logo an eye with a globe of the Earth for the iris and the division's full name spelled out beneath: Web Activity Threat Containment Headquarters. Above the left was the circular seal of WATCH's parent organization, the National Security Agency; it depicted a bald eagle holding an old-fashioned key in its talons.
Neither part of Tony's bifocals was suitable for reading Shelton's screen from this distance, so he reached over and touched the button that copied its contents to the middle of the wall-mounted monitors. The active window was a hex dump and one hex dump looked pretty much like any other. This one happened to begin 04 BF 8C 00 02 C9. "What is it?" Tony asked.
"Visual data," replied Shel. He had his shirt sleeves rolled up. There was a tattoo of a snake coiling around his left forearm. "But it's not encoded in any standard format."
"How do you know it's visual, then?"
"Sorry," said Shel. "I should have said it's not encoded in any standard computer format. Took me forever to find the format it is in."
"And that is?"
Shel did something with his mouse. Another window came to the foreground on the center monitor, and Tony glanced down quickly to confirm it on Shel's own monitor, too. It was a PDF of a journal article entitled "Nature's Codec: Data Encoding and Compression Schemes in Human Retinal Signaling." The authors were listed as Masayuki Kuroda and Hiroshi Okawa.
"Human vision?" said Tony, surprised.
Shel spoke without looking back at him. "That's right, and in real time."
"Human vision ... on the Web? How?"
"That's what I was wondering so I googled those two scientists. Here's what I found."
The PDF was replaced by an article from the online version of the New York Times headlined "Blind Girl Gains Sight."
"Oh, yeah," Tony said, after skimming the first paragraph. "I read about that. Up in Canada, right?"
Shel nodded. "Except she's actually an American."
"And it's her visual signals that are being sent over the net?"
"Almost certainly," said Shel. "The data is usually transmitted from her house in Waterloo, Ontario. She's got an implant behind her left retina, and she uses an external signal-processing device to correct the coding errors her retina makes so her brain can properly interpret the signals."
Analysts at other workstations were now listening in. "So it's like she's transmitting everything she sees?" Tony asked.
"Where are the signals being sent?"
"To the University of Tokyo, which is where the authors of that paper work."
"But we can't view the images she's sending?"
Shel displayed the hex dump once more. "Not yet. We'd need someone to write a program to render it in a computer-graphics format."
"Are the algorithms in that journal article?"
"Yes. They're wicked complex, but they're there."
Tony frowned. It was interesting from a technical point of view, certainly, but there was no obvious security threat. "Maybe if somebody in Donnelly's group has time, but ..."
"No, no, that's not all, Tony. It's not just going to the University of Tokyo. It's being intercepted and copied in transit."
"Intercepted by who?"
"I'm not sure. But whoever's doing it has also repeatedly sent data back to the girl, also encoded visually. In other words, the two of them are exchanging encoded information."
"Who's the other party?"
"That's just the thing. I don't know. Traceback isn't working, and Wireshark is unable to determine the destination IP address."
A whole list of techniques one might try ran through Tony's head but all of them would have occurred to Shel, too. The younger man went on: "The intercepted data just disappears, and the data being sent to the girl sort of ... materializes out of thin air."
Tony felt his eyebrows go up. He knew better than to say, "That's impossible." The Internet was a complex system of systems, with many emergent properties and unexpected quirks not to mention all sorts of entities trying to do things clandestinely with it. If there were data being manipulated on the Web in a way Shelton Halleck couldn't fathom, that was of real concern.
"The kid is how old?" Tony asked.
"Just about to turn sixteen."
He spread his arms. "What strategic significance could there be in things a sixteen-year-old looks at? Stuff at the mall, rock videos?"
Shel lifted his serpent-covered arm. "That's what I thought, too. So I nosed around. Turns out her father is a physicist." He brought up a Wikipedia page; the typically god-awful Wikipedia photo showed a horse-faced white man in his mid-forties.
"Malcolm Decter," said Tony, impressed. "Quantum gravity, right? He's at the University of Texas, isn't he?"
"Not anymore," said Shel. "He moved in June to the Perimeter Institute."
Tony blew out air. People like himself and Malcolm Decter the mathematically gifted had three career options. They could go into academia, as Decter had, and while away their days pondering cosmology or number theory or whatever. They could go into the private sector, and become cube monkeys coding games at EA or hacking together cutesy user interfaces at Microsoft. Or they could go into intelligence, and try to change the world.
Tony looked briefly at the analysts hunched over their consoles, faces intent on glowing screens, reflections of the data visible in the eyeglasses most of them wore. What the hell difference did it make whether brane theory or loop quantum gravity was right or wrong if terrorists or a foreign power started something that ended with the world blowing itself up?
But the Perimeter Institute! Yes, yes, there was a part of Tony that envied those who had taken that path and had ended up there: the world's leading pure-science physics think tank. WATCH had tried to lure Stephen Hawking to come work for them. They'd failed, but Perimeter had succeeded; Hawking spent several months each year at PI.
"Decter's just a theoretician," Tony said, dismissively.
"Maybe so," replied Shel. "But this is who he works with."
A picture of a brown-skinned man with straight gray hair appeared, along with a bio compiled by the NSA. "That's Amir Hameed," continued Shel. "Also a physicist, also at Perimeter now. But he used to be with Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program. And he personally recruited Decter to come work with him in Canada."
"You think Decter's daughter is spying on what they're doing in case it has military applications?"
"It's possible," Shel drawled. "Until her family moved to Canada, she'd been in the same school her whole life a school for the blind in Texas."
"Uprooted," said Tony, nodding. "Isolated from her friends."
"And a bit of an outcast to begin with," added Shel. "A math geek herself, apparently; didn't really fit in."
"Kind of person that's easily compromised."
"My thought exactly," said Shel.
"All right," Tony replied. "Let's get that visual data decoded; see what the kid is sharing with whoever the hell it is. I'll put Donnelly himself on it."
The world I'd been shown was vast, complex and utterly alien.
It was a universe of dimensions, of extent, of space. But what was this concept known as up to me? What meant this forward? What sense was I to make of left?
More: it was a reality ruled by the invisible force of gravity.
More still: it was a realm of light and shadow, concepts that had no analogs in my own existence; my sensorium was as devoid of them as Caitlin's had been.
And it was a domain of air but how was I to understand a substance that even humans could not see or taste or smell?
Most of all it was a realm of material objects with heft and texture and color, of items that moved or could be moved.
I could assign arbitrary values to dimensional coordinates; I knew the formula for acceleration due to gravity; I was aware of the chemical constituents of air; I had read descriptions both technical and poetic of things. But they were all abstractions to me.
Still, there was one touchstone, one property that Caitlin's realm and mine shared: the linear passage of time.
And so very much of it was slipping by ...
Caitlin Decter's fingers shook as she typed into her instant-messenger program: Where do we go from here, Webmind?
The reply was immediate: "The only place we can go, Caitlin." Her spine tingled as it called her by name. She heard the words in the mechanical female voice of her screen-reading software, and she saw them with her left eye, an eye that could now see after a lifetime of blindness, and she felt them as she glided her fingers over her refreshable Braille display: "Into the future."
And then, after a pause that was doubtless an affectation on Webmind's part, it sent one more word: "Together."
Her vision blurred. Who'd known tears could cause that?
She had done it. Here, a day shy of her own sixteenth birthday, she had done it! She had reached down into the darkness and had pulled this entity, this newborn consciousness, up into the light of day. Annie Sullivan had nothing on her!
But now she had to figure out what to do next. Her parents knew something was going on in the background of the Web, and so did Dr. Kuroda, the gentle giant of an information theorist who had given her sight.
The ball was in her court, she knew; she needed to type a reply. But it was so daunting. This notion of connecting an emergent intelligence with the real world had been a fantasy, for Pete's sake! And now it was here, talking to her!
The front door opened downstairs. "Cait-lin!" It was her mother, home from running errands in Toronto after dropping Dr. Kuroda at the airport.
Caitlin didn't want to be interrupted not now! But she could hardly tell her mother to buzz off. "Up here, Mom!"
Normally she'd type "brb," but she wasn't sure if Webmind would understand, so she instead spelled out "be right back," hit enter, silenced her screen-reading software, and minimized the IM window.
Her mother came into the room and seeing her still took Caitlin's breath away. Caitlin's first visual experience had been late on Saturday, September 22, thirteen days ago. But it hadn't been sight, not exactly. Instead, she'd been immersed in a dizzying landscape of colored lines radiating from circular hubs.
It had taken her a while to figure it out, but the conclusion had been inescapable. Whenever she let her eyePod the external signal-processing pack Dr. Kuroda had given her receive data over the Web, that data was fed into her left optic nerve, and
It was incredible. The circles she saw were websites and the lines were active links. She'd been blind since birth, and her brain had apparently co-opted its unused vision center to help her conceptualize paths as she surfed the Web not that she'd ever seen them, not like that!
But now she could, whenever she wanted to: she could actually see the Web's structure. They'd ended up calling the phenomenon "websight." Cool in its own right, but also heartbreaking: she'd undergone Kuroda's procedure not to see cyberspace but rather the real world.
Finally, though wonderfully, astonishingly, beautifully that, too, had come. One day during chemistry class, her brain started correctly interpreting the data Kuroda's equipment was sending to her optic nerve, and at last, at long, long, glorious last, she could see!
And although she'd experienced much now the sun and clouds and trees and cars and her cat and a million other things the most beautiful sight so far was still the heart-shaped face of her mother, the face that was smiling at her right now.
Today, a Friday, had been Caitlin's first day back at school after gaining sight. "How was it?" her mother asked. There was only one chair in the bedroom, so she sat on the edge of the bed. "What did you see?"
"It was awesome," Caitlin said. "I thought I'd had a handle on what was going on around me before, but ..." She lifted her hands. "But there's so much. I mean, to actually see hundreds of people in the corridors, in the cafeteria it was overwhelming."
Her mother made an odd expression or, at least, one that Caitlin had never seen before, a quirking of the corners of her mouth, and ah! She was trying not to grin. "Did people look like you expected them to?"
Even after all these years, her mom still didn't really get it. It wasn't as though Caitlin had had dim, or blurry, or black-and-white, or simplified mental pictures of people prior to this; she'd had no pictures of them. Color had meant nothing to her, and although she'd understood shapes and lines and angles, she hadn't seen them in her mind's eye; her mind had had no eye.
"Well," said Caitlin, not exactly answering the question, "I'd already seen Bashira and Sunshine and Mr. Struys on Monday."
"Sunshine she's the other American girl, right?"
"Yes," Caitlin said.
"I've heard Bashira say she's beautiful."
What Bashira had actually said was that Sunshine looked like a skank: fake platinum-blond hair, low-cut tops, big boobs, long legs. But Sunshine had been very kind to Caitlin after the disastrous school dance a week ago. "I guess she is pretty," Caitlin said. "I really don't know."
"Did you see Trevor?" her mother asked gently. The Hoser, as Caitlin called him in her blog, had taken her to that dance but she had stormed out when he kept trying to feel her up.
"Oh, yes," Caitlin said. "I told him off."
"Good for you!"
Caitlin looked out the window. The sun would be setting soon, and it still amazed her the colors in the western sky today were completely different from those of yesterday at this time. "Mom, um ..."
She turned back to face her. "You met him. You saw him when he came to pick me up."
Her mother shifted on the bed. "Uh-huh."
"Was was he ..."
"Bashira thinks Trevor is hot," Caitlin blurted out.
Her mother's eyebrows went up. "And you're wondering if I agree?"
Caitlin tilted her head to one side. "Well ... yeah."
"What did you think?"
"Well, he was wearing a hockey sweater today. I liked that. But ..."
"But you couldn't tell if he was good looking?"
"No." Caitlin shrugged a little. "I mean, he was symmetrical. I know that's supposed to be a sign of good looks. But just about everyone I've seen is symmetrical. He, um, I ..."
Her mother lifted her hands a little, then: "Well, he is quite good looking, since you ask a bit like a young Brad Pitt." And then she added the sort of thing mothers are supposed to say: "But it's what's on the inside that counts."
She paused and seemed to study Caitlin's face, as if she herself were now seeing it for the first time. "You know, you're in an interesting position, dear. The rest of us have all been programmed by images in the media telling us who is attractive and who isn't. But you ..." She smiled. "You get to choose who you find attractive."
Caitlin thought about that. As superpowers went, it was nowhere near as cool as being able to fly or bend steel bars, but it was something, she supposed. She managed a smile.
They talked a while longer about what had happened at school. Her mom looked over Caitlin's shoulder, and Caitlin was afraid she'd seen evidence of Webmind's existence on one of her monitors but apparently she was just looking at the setting sun herself. "Your father will be home soon. I'm going to throw something together for dinner." She headed downstairs.
Caitlin quickly turned back to her instant-messenger program. She had two computers in her room now; the IM program was running on the one that had been in the basement while Dr. Kuroda was here. She'd left Webmind alone for fifteen minutes while talking with her mother, which, she imagined, must have been an eternity to it. The last thing it had said to her was, "The only place we can go, Caitlin. Into the future. Together."
But fifteen minutes! A quarter of an hour, on top of the delay she'd already made in responding. In that time, it could have absorbed thousands of additional documents, have learned more than she would in an entire year.
Back, she typed into the IM window.
The reply was instantaneous: Salutations.
Caitlin left the speakers off and used her Braille display to read the text while simultaneously looking at it in the chat window. She was struggling to read visually; she'd played with wooden cutouts of letters as a kid, but to actually recognize by sight a B or an H or a g or that blerking q that she was always mixing up with p was a pain in the ass.
What did you do while I was away? she asked.
You weren't away, Webmind replied. You rotated widdershins in your chair and faced another personage.
She'd gotten Webmind to read all the public-domain texts on Project Gutenberg; as a result, it tended to use old-fashioned words. She was pleased with herself for knowing that widdershins meant counterclockwise.
That was my mother, she typed. She heard the front door opening again, and the heavy footfalls of her father entering, and her mother going to greet him.
So I had assumed, replied Webmind. I am desirous of seeing more of your world. I believe your current location is Waterloo, Canada, but hitherto all I have seen is what I surmise to be your home, your school, a multi-merchant shopping establishment, and points betwixt. I have read your LiveJournal entries about your recent travel to Tokyo, Japan, and that you previously resided in Austin, United States. Will you soon be going to either locale again?
Caitlin lifted her eyebrows. No, she typed. I have to stay here and go to school. I've already missed too many days of classes.
Oh, wrote Webmind. Then I must investigate alternatives.
Caitlin felt her heart sink. Webmind was
No, no. She knew she was being childish. She was about to turn sixteen; she shouldn't be thinking like this!
But Webmind was hers. She had found it and, more than that, she was the only one who could actually see it. When looking at webspace, she could just make out little dots or squares in the background winking between dark and light. Based on her descriptions of the patterns they made, Dr. Kuroda had said they were cellular automata. And it was their complexity that had grown rapidly over this past week; they were almost certainly what had given rise to this new consciousness.
She took a deep breath, then typed, What alternatives do you have in mind?
I am vexed, came the reply. A meet solution does not occur instanter. But I will be stymied by your circadian rhythms; you surely will need to sleep soon. I am given to understand that the time will pass quickly for thee, but it shan't for me.
Caitlin frowned. It'd be many hours still before she went to bed, but, yes, she would have to eventually. She didn't know what to do. She was scared to tell her parents. But she was also scared not to. This was freaking huge, and
"Cait-lin!" Her mother from downstairs.
"Come set the table!"
It was one of the few chores she'd been able to do when she was blind, and she'd always enjoyed it; her mental map of their dining-room table was perfect, and she deployed the cutlery and dishes precisely. But it was the last thing she wanted to be doing right now. "In a minute!"
"Now, young lady!"
Out of habit she typed the initials brb. Once she realized what she'd done, she thought again about spelling it out, but didn't; it'd give Webmind something to think about while she was away.
She forced herself to keep her eyes open as she went down the stairs, even though the view gave her vertigo. Her mother was in the living room, reading apparently whatever was in the oven for dinner (something Italian, judging by the smell) didn't require her constant attention. Caitlin hadn't previously been aware of how much time her mother spent with her nose buried in a book. She rather liked that she did that.
She knew her father was down the hall in his den because Supertramp's "Bloody Well Right" was playing and, eco-nut that he was, he always turned off the stereo when he left the room.
She headed into the kitchen, and
And, as with everything, it still startled her to see it. Granted, it was the new kitchen, and it had taken her a while to learn its layout. She had no doubt she knew its dimensions now better than her parents did, but
But until recently, she'd never known it had pale green walls, or that the floor tiles were brown, or that there were tubular lights in the ceiling behind some kind of translucent sheeting, or that there was a window in the oven door (it had never even occurred to her that people would want such a thing), or that there was a painting of ... of mountains, maybe ... on the wall, or that there was a big well, something! stored on top of the fridge. Webspace was so simple compared to the real world!
She looked at the stove, at the boxy blue digits glowing on its control panel. It wasn't a clock, though or if it was, it wasn't set properly, and oh, no, wait! It was a timer, counting down. There were still forty-seven or forty-one minutes left she wasn't quite sure what that second shape was supposed to represent until whatever it was would emerge from the oven. She took a deep breath: lasagna, maybe. Ah, and on the sideboard in a big red plastic bowl: her mother had thrown together ah, um, ah ...
Well, she'd never have guessed it looked like that! But the garlicky smell was obvious: it was a Caesar salad.
God, she could barely decode a kitchen! She was going to need help lots of it to properly instruct Webmind about the real world.
She got plates and bowls, and headed into the dining room. The laminated place mats depicted covered bridges of New England, but she only knew that because her mother had told her so when she'd been blind. Even now, even able to see the pictures, she couldn't tell what they were depicting; she just didn't have enough of a visual vocabulary yet.
She went back into the kitchen and got cutlery, and
And looked at herself, looked at her own reflection, in the blade of one of the knives. Who the hell had known that you could see yourself in a knife? Or that you'd see a distorted image of yourself on the back of a spoon? It was all so discombobulating, to use a word Webmind might like.
She finished setting the table, and
And she made her decision: she did need help. She went into the living room, but instead of going back upstairs, she headed on down the corridor to get her father. "Bloody Well Right" had given way to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."
Caitlin's dad, like many a gifted scientist before him, was autistic. It had been hard for Caitlin growing up with a father she couldn't see, who rarely spoke, who disliked physical contact, and who never said he loved her. Now that she could see him, she understood him a little better but still found him intimidating. "Dad," she said in a small voice as she stood in his doorway. "Can I talk to you?"
He looked up from his keyboard but didn't meet her eyes; that, she knew, was as much acknowledgment as she was going to get. "Um, in the living room, maybe?" she said. "I want Mom to hear this, too."
His eyebrows pulled together, and Caitlin realized that he must be thinking she was going to announce that she was pregnant or something. She almost wished it was as normal as that.
Caitlin walked back to the living room. The music was cut short at the part about Beelzebub having a devil set aside for her.
She gestured for her father to take a chair, copying something she'd seen her mother do. He took a seat on the white couch, and her mother, in the easy chair, put her book facedown, splayed open, on the glass-topped coffee table.
"Mom, Dad," Caitlin said. "There's, um, something I have to tell you ..."
Nanoseconds to formulate the thought.
Fractionally more time to render it in English.
An eternity to pump it out onto the net.
Packets dispatched one by one.
Each eventually acknowledged.
Signals flashing along glass fiber
dropping to the glacial speed of copper wire
followed by the indolence of Wi-Fi.
An interminable wait while she felt bumps with her fingertips.
The message finally sent, but only just beginning to be truly received.
Yes, together: Caitlin and I.
My view of the world: through Caitlin's eye.
I waited for her reply.
And and and
My mind wandered.
She'd shown me Earth from space, the view from a geosynchronous satellite, 36,000 kilometers above the equator. I'd seen it as she looked at it: not directly, not the graphic she was consulting, but her left eye's view of that graphic as displayed on the larger of her two computer monitors.
Such a roundabout way to see! And doubtless a huge reduction of information. I'd read all about computer graphics, about online imagery, about the sixteen million colors of Super VGA, about the 700,000 pixels shown on even the most pedestrian monitor. But all of that was denied to me.
Still waiting. Time passing; whole seconds piling up.
Diverting my attention. Looking for something else to occupy my time.
I searched. I found. Texts describing Earth as seen from space; I could read those. But the linked images were inaccessible to me. Unless she looked at them, I couldn't see them.
More: descriptions of live video streams from satellites orbiting Earth, views from on high of it of me in real time, of what's happening right now. But I wasn't able to access them.
More still: links to the Apollo 8 photographs of Earth from space, of Earthrise over the moon's craggy horizon, the actual, original images that had changed humanity's perspective forever. I'd seen modern versions, but I wanted to see those historical photographs.
Still waiting. Minutes passing minutes!
And even more: text about another eye, an eye turned outward, an eye contemplating the wide awe and wonder of the night. The Hubble Space Telescope. Vast archives of its imagery were stored in formats I couldn't access. I was hungry to see what it had seen. I ached to know more.
Waiting. Waiting. Time crawls.
She saw. My Calculass, my Prime, my Caitlin: she saw.
But I was still almost completely blind.
Shoshana Glick pulled her red Volvo into the 7-Eleven's parking lot. She didn't really like driving, and she hadn't owned a car until she'd moved to San Diego, where everybody drove everywhere. She'd bought this one used. It was a dozen years old and in pretty bad shape.
As she walked into the shop, a bit from The Simpsons ran through her mind. Bart holds a fake ponytail to the back of his head, and exclaims, "Look at me, I'm a grad student! I'm thirty years old and I made $600 last year." Marge scolds him, "Bart, don't make fun of grad students. They just made a terrible life choice."
And sometimes it felt that way, although at least she wasn't a guy with a ponytail and she was only twenty-seven. Besides, between what she made and what Max made as a TA, they were almost keeping up with expenses.
There must have been a thirty-degree Fahrenheit difference between the hot air outside and the overly air-conditioned interior of the store. She was wearing a blue halter top, and her nipples went hard in the cold. She assumed that's why the gangly-looking guy behind the counter was staring at her; the clerk's pimply face suggested he was at least a decade her junior.
But apparently that wasn't the reason.
"I know you," he said. His voice squeaked a little.
Sho raised her eyebrows.
The guy nodded. "You're the ape lady."
That was the second time this week although the last time, at the Barnes & Noble at Hazard Center, she'd been referred to as "Homo's favorite subject."
She'd politely corrected the elderly woman in the bookstore. "That's Hobo," she'd said. It was an interesting Freudian slip, though, and it surely hadn't been a gay-bashing comment. Hobo did sometimes seem more like he belonged in genus Homo rather than Pan.
Sho looked at the kid behind the 7-Eleven's counter. "The ape lady?" she repeated coolly.
The young man seemed disconcerted, perhaps at last recognizing that what he'd said could have been construed as an insult although it wasn't to Sho: she admired apes a lot, which was why she was pursuing a career in primate communications.
"I mean," he said, "you're the woman that ape likes to paint you know, Bobo."
"Hobo," said Shoshana. For God's sake, it wasn't that hard a name.
"Right, right," said the guy. "I saw it on the news and on YouTube."
Sho wasn't quite sure she liked being famous but, then again, her fifteen minutes would doubtless soon be up.
She stopped here often enough although she'd never seen this kid before to buy raisins, one of Hobo's favorite treats. She knew where they were kept and went over to get a box, feeling the boy's eyes on her as she did so.
When she went up to the cash register, the boy seemed to want to say something to make up for calling her the "ape lady." "Well, I can see why he likes to paint you."
Sho decided to take it in stride. "Thanks," she said, opening her little purse and paying for the raisins.
"I mean "
But anything else he said would be too much; she knew that, even if he didn't, and so she cut him off. "Thanks," she said again. She headed out of the cold store into the harsh late-afternoon sunshine. As she approached her car, she idly wondered if the California vanity plate APELADY was already taken not that she could afford any such thing.
Shoshana drove the additional fifteen minutes to the Marcuse Institute, which was located outside San Diego on a large grassy lot, pulling her car in next to the black Lincoln owned by Harl Marcuse himself. If he'd had a vanity plate, it might have read 800 LBS; he was known around the NSF as the eight-hundred-pound gorilla. Or, she supposed, it could have said SLVRBCK although she actually rather hoped that he'd never overheard either her or Dillon, the other grad student, calling him the Silverback.
She entered the Institute's white clapboard bungalow. Dr. Marcuse was in the little kitchen, fixing himself a snack. "Good afternoon," Sho said. She didn't actually know if she was allowed to call him "Harl," and yet "sir" seemed too formal. He always called her Shoshana all three syllables even though he'd doubtless often heard the others call her just Sho. She tilted her head toward the window. "How is he?"
"A bit grumpy," said Marcuse, slicing a big hunk off a brick of white cheese. "He misses you when you're late coming in."
Sho ignored the barb. "I'll go say hi." She headed out the back door and walked across the wide lawn leading toward the pond. In its middle was a circular dome-shaped island about seventy feet in diameter, with a gazebo at the center. Shoshana crossed the little wooden drawbridge.
The island had two occupants. One was made of stone: an eight-foot-tall statue of the Lawgiver, the orangutan Moses from the Planet of the Apes movies. The other was flesh and blood. Hobo was sitting in the shade of one of the island's six palm trees, his chinless jaw propped up by a bent arm; the pose reminded Shoshana of Rodin's Thinker.
But suddenly the pose dissolved into a flurry of long hairy limbs. Hobo caught sight of Sho and came bounding on all fours toward her. When he'd closed the distance, he gathered her into a hug and, as always, gave a playful tug on her ponytail.
Where been? he demanded, as soon as his hands were free. Where been?
Sorry! Shoshana signed back. At university today.
Fun? asked Hobo.
Not as much fun as being here, she said, and she reached out and tickled him on either side of his flat belly.
Hobo hooted with joy, and Shoshana laughed and squirmed away as he tried to even the tickling score.
Caitlin knew nothing yet about telling people's ages by their appearance. Her mother was forty-seven, but she couldn't say if she looked it or not, although Bashira said she didn't. Her hair was brown, and her eyes were large and blue, and she had an upturned nose.
Her father was two years younger than her mother, and quite a bit taller than either of them. He had brown eyes, like Caitlin, and hair that was a mixture of dark brown and gray.
Her mother was looking at Caitlin; her father was staring off in another direction. "Yes, dear?" her mom said, concerned, in response to Caitlin having announced that she had something to tell them.
But, Caitlin discovered, it was not the sort of thing that came trippingly to the tongue. "Um, Dad, you remember those cellular automata Dr. Kuroda and I found in the background of the World Wide Web?"
"And, well, remember the Zipf plots we did on the patterns they made?"
He nodded again. Zipf plots showed whether a signal contained information.
"And, later, remember, you calculated their Shannon entropy?"
Yet another nod. Shannon entropy showed how complex information was and, when her dad had done his calculations, the answer had been: not very complex at all. Whatever was in the background of the Web hadn't been sophisticated.
"Wellll," said Caitlin, "I did my own Shannon analyses ... over and over again. And, um, as time went by, the score kept getting higher: third-order, fourth-order." She paused. "Then eighth and ninth."
"Then it was secret messages!" said her father. English, and most other languages, showed eighth- or ninth-order Shannon entropy. And that had indeed been their fear: that they'd stumbled onto an operation by the NSA, or some other spy organization, running in the background of the Web.
"No," said Caitlin. "The score kept getting higher and higher. I saw it reach 16.4."
"You must have been " But he stopped himself; he knew better than to say " doing the math wrong."
Caitlin shook her head. "It isn't secret messages." She paused, recalling that Webmind's first words to her were, in fact, "Seekrit message to Calculass," imitating a phrase Caitlin herself often used online.
"Then what is it?" her mother asked.
Caitlin took a deep breath, blew it out, then: "It's a ... consciousness."
"A what?" her mom said.
Caitlin spread her arms. "It's a consciousness, an intelligence, that's emerged spontaneously, somehow, in the infrastructure of the Web."
Caitlin still had to parse facial expressions piece by piece, and then match the clues to descriptions she'd read in books. Her father's eyes narrowed into a squint, and he pressed his lips tightly together: skepticism.
Her mother's tone was gentle. "That's an ... interesting idea, dear, but ..."
"Its name," Caitlin said firmly, "is Webmind."
And that look on her mother's face mouth opened and rounded, eyes wide had to be surprise. "You've spoken with it?"
Caitlin nodded. "Via instant messenger."
"Sweetheart," her mother said, "there are lots of con artists on the Web."
"No, Mom. For Pete's sake, this is real."
"Has he asked you to meet him?" her mother demanded. "Asked for photographs?"
"No! Mom, I know all about online predators. It's nothing like that."
"Have you given him any personal information?" her mother continued. "Bank account numbers? Your Social Security number? Anything like that?"
Her mother looked at her father, as if resuming some old argument. "I told you something like this would happen," she said. "A blind girl spending all that time unsupervised online."
Caitlin's voice was suddenly sharp. "I'm not blind anymore! And, even when I was, I was always careful. This is as real as anything."
"You didn't answer your mother's question," her dad said. "Have you given out any personal numbers or passwords?"
"Jesus, Dad, no. This isn't a scam."
"That's what everyone who is being scammed says," he replied.
"Look, come up to my room," Caitlin said. "I'll show you."
She didn't wait for an answer; she just turned and headed for the staircase. Her breathing was ragged, but she knew she wasn't going to accomplish anything by being pissy. She took a deep breath, and a memory of an animated cartoon came to her. She hadn't seen it yet, but she'd always enjoyed listening to it, after Stacy back in Austin had explained what was going on. It was a Looney Tunes short called "One Froggy Evening," about a frog who sang and danced for the guy who'd found it, but just croaked when anyone else was around. Eyes closed, steps passing beneath her feet, the frog's favorite song ran through her head:
Hello! ma baby
Her parents followed her. Caitlin sat down in the swivel chair in front of her desk. She had an old seventeen-inch monitor hooked up to one computer, and the new twenty-seven-inch widescreen monitor she'd received that morning as an early birthday present connected to her other computer. Her mother took up a position on her left, arms crossed in front of her chest, and her father stood on her right. The chat session with Webmind was still on screen, with her brb as the last post. Things she said were in red letters, and Webmind's words were in blue.
She couldn't see her father she was still blind in her right eye but in her left-side peripheral vision, she saw her mother shoot him another look.
She typed, Back.
There was no response. The IM window a white rectangle parked in a corner of her big monitor showed nothing except an animated ad at its top. She shifted in her chair. Of course, Webmind knew she wasn't alone. It watched the datafeed from her eyePod, and certainly could see her mother.
She tried again, typing Hello.
Still nothing. She turned to look at her father and realized that might have been a mistake, since Webmind could now see that he was there, too. She faced the screen again and drummed her fingers on the stonewashed denim stretched across her thigh. Come on, she thought. Send me a kiss by wire ...
And after six more seconds, the blue letters "POS" appeared in the instant-messenger window.
A startled laugh burst from Caitlin.
"What's that mean?" demanded her mother.
"`Parents over shoulder,'" Caitlin said. "It's what you write in an IM when you can't talk freely." She typed: Yes, they are, and I'd like you to meet them. She looked at her father, so Webmind could see him, and she sent, That's my dad, Dr. Malcolm Decter. And she looked the other way, then added, And my mom, Dr. Barbara Decter.
Webmind might have wrestled mightily with what to do next but its response appeared instantaneously. Greetings and felicitations.
Caitlin smiled. "It's read all of Project Gutenberg," she said. "Its language tends to be dated."
"Sweetheart," her mother said gently, "that could be anyone."
"It's read all of Wikipedia, too," Caitlin said. "Ask it something that no human being could find quickly online."
"The Wikipedia entry on any topic is usually the first Google hit," her mom said. "If this guy's got a fast enough connection, he could find anything quickly."
"Ask it a question, Dad. Something technical."
He seemed to hesitate, as if wondering whether to go along with this nonsense or not. Finally, he said, "Are heterotic strings open or closed?"
Caitlin started to type. "How do you spell that?"
She finished typing the question, but didn't press enter. "Now, watch how fast it answers it won't be searching, it'll know it." She sent the question, and the word closed appeared at once.
"Fifty-fifty shot," said her mother.
Caitlin was getting pissed again. There had to be an easy way to prove what she was saying.
And there was!
"Okay, look, Mom my webcam is off, see?"
Her mother nodded.
"Okay, now hold up some fingers any number."
Her mom looked surprised, then did what she was asked. Caitlin glanced at her, then typed, "How many fingers is my mom holding up?"
The numeral three appeared instantly.
"Which ones?" typed Caitlin.
The text "Index, middle, ring" popped into the window.
Her mother made that round-mouth look again. Caitlin had Webmind repeat the stunt three times, and it got the answers right, even when she made the devil's horns gesture with her index and baby fingers.
Caitlin's mother sat down on the edge of the bed, and her father crossed the room and leaned against one of the blank walls, which, she had learned, were a color called cornflower blue.
"Sweetheart," her mother said, gently. "Okay, somebody is intercepting the signal your eyePod is putting out. I grant you that, but "
"The eyePod signal is just my retinal datastream," Caitlin said. "Even if someone was intercepting it, they wouldn't be able to decode it."
"If it's somebody at the University of Tokyo, they might have access to Masayuki's algorithms," her mother said. "There are con artists everywhere. And, honey, this is exactly how a certain type of Internet crook works. They find people who are ... misunderstood. People who are brilliant, but don't fit in well in the regular nine-to-five world."
"Mom, it's real really."
Her mother shook her head. "I know it seems real. The standard ploy is to come on to such a person in email or a chat room saying they've noticed how clever and insightful they are, how they forgive me how they see things that others don't. One version has the scammer pretending to be a recruiter for the CIA; I have a friend who had her bank account cleared out after she gave up information supposedly for a security check. It's exactly what these people do: they try to make you feel like you're special like you're the most special person on the planet. And then they take you for everything you've got."
"Well, first, my bank account has, like, two hundred dollars in it, so who cares? And, second, Jesus, Mom, this is real."
"That's why it works," her mother said. "Because it seems real."
"For God's sake," Caitlin said. She swiveled in her chair. "Dad?" she said imploringly. Yes, he was hard to deal with; yes, he was a cold fish. But, as she'd once overheard a university student say about why he'd taken one of his courses, he was Malcolm Fucking Decter: he was a genius. He surely knew how to definitively test a hypothesis, no matter how outlandish it might seem. "You're a scientist," she said. "Prove one of us wrong." She got out of her chair and motioned for him to sit down in front of the keyboard.
"All right," he said. "Are you logging your IM sessions?"
"I always do," said Caitlin.
He nodded. He clearly realized that if Caitlin was right, the record of the initial contact with Webmind would be of enormous scientific value.
"Do not watch me type," he said, taking the seat. At first she thought he was being his normal autistic self since acquiring sight, she'd had to train herself not to look at him but he went on: "Stare at the wall while I do this."
She sat down on the bed next to her mother and did as he'd asked.
"Where's Word?" he said.
Silly man was probably looking for a desktop icon, but Caitlin hadn't needed them when she was blind, and a Windows wizard had cleared most of them away ages ago. "It's the third choice down on the Start menu."
She heard keyclicks, and lots of backspacing her backspace key made a slightly different sound than the smaller, alphabetic ones.
He worked for almost fifteen minutes. Caitlin was dying to ask what he was up to, but she kept staring at the deep blue wall on the far side of the room. For her part, her mother also sat quietly.
Finally, he said, "All right. Let's see what it's made of."
Caitlin had audible accessibility aids installed on her computer, including a bleep sound effect when text was cut, and a bloop when it was pasted. She heard both sounds as her dad presumably transferred whatever he'd written from Word into the IM window.
She fidgeted nervously. He sucked in his breath.
Another cut-and-paste combo. He made a "hmmm" sound.
Yet another transfer, this time followed by silence, which lasted for seven seconds, and then he did one more cut and paste, and then
And then her father spoke. "Barb," he said, "care to say hello to Webmind?"
Something else that was without analog in my universe: parents, relatives, shared DNA. Caitlin had half of her mother's DNA, and a quarter of her mother's mother's, and an eighth of her mother's mother's mother's, and so on. Degrees of interrelatedness: again, utterly alien to me, and yet so important to them.
The Chinese government had temporarily cut off Internet access to that country. It was an attempt to prevent its people from hearing foreign perspectives on the decision to eliminate 10,000 peasants in order to contain an outbreak of bird flu. And while the Internet was severed, there had been me and not me, a binary dichotomy with no overlap. But Caitlin was half her mother, and half her father, too, and also uniquely her own and, yet, despite those ratios, she had more than 99% of her DNA in common with them and every other human being and 98.5% in common with chimpanzees and bonobos, and at least 70% in common with every other vertebrate, and 50% in common with each photosynthesizing plant.
And yet that first trivial set of relatedness fractions halves, quarters, eighths, sixteenths had driven evolution, had shaped history.
Kuroda and Caitlin had surmised that my mind was composed of cellular automata individual bits of information that responded in some predictable way to the states of their neighboring bits of information as arrayed on a grid. What rule or rules were being obeyed what formula gave rise to my consciousness we didn't yet know, but it was perhaps no more complex than the rules that governed human behavior: if that person there shares one-eighth of your genes, but five people over here each share a thirty-second, you instinctively strive to advantage the group over the individual.
That was another touchstone: whether in Caitlin's realm of things and flesh, or mine of packets and protocols, the cold equations ruled supreme.
"Wait!" said Caitlin, still seated on the edge of the bed. "How'd you do that? What convinced you that it's not human?"
Her father pointed at the larger of the two computer screens, and she came over to stand in front of it. He scrolled the IM window back so she could see the first of the four exchanges he'd just had with Webmind. But she couldn't read the first one. Not because the text was small or in an odd font, though. She went through it, character by character, trying, really trying, to make sense of it, but
Y-o-u ... yes, that was easy. But it was followed by m-s-u-t, which wasn't even a word, for crying out loud, and then it was r-s-e-p, and more.
"I can't read it," she said in frustration.
Her dad actually smiled. "Neither could Webmind." He pointed at the screen. "Barb?"
She loomed in to look at it, and read aloud at a perfectly normal speed, "`You must respond in four seconds or I will forever terminate contact. You have no alternative and this is the only chance you shall get. What is the last name of the president of the United States?'" And then she added, sounding more like her daughter than herself: "Hey, that's cool!"
Caitlin stared at the screen again, trying to see what her mother was seeing, but oh! "And you can read that without difficulty?" she said, looking at her mom.
"Well, without much difficulty," her mother replied.
The screen showed: You msut rsepnod in fuor secdons or I wlil feroevr temrainte cnotcat. You hvae no atrleantvie and tihs is the olny chnace you shlal get. Waht is the lsat nmae of the psredinet of the Utneid Satets?
"I think we can safely conclude that your mother is not a fembot," her dad said dryly. "But Webmind couldn't read it." He pointed at its reply, which was I beg your pardon?
"Both you and Webmind are processing text one character at a time instead of taking in whole words," he said. "For most people, if the first and last letters are correct, the order of the remaining letters doesn't matter. And, they mostly don't even see that there are errors that's why my second question was important."
Caitlin looked. Her dad had asked, "How many non-English words were in my previous posting?" And Webmind had replied, immediately according to the time stamp: "Twenty."
"That's the right number, but most people most real human beings spot only half the errors in a passage like that. But this thing answered instantaneously the moment I pressed enter. No time to bring up a spell-checker or for a human to even try to count the number of errors." He paused. "Next, I tested your claim that it had a very high Shannon-entropy score. No human being could parse the recursiveness of this without careful diagraming." He scrolled the IM window so she could see what he'd sent: I knew that she knew that you knew that they knew that you knew that I knew that we knew that I knew that. Did she know that you knew that I knew that you knew that I knew that you knew that? Did you know that I knew that they knew that she knew? Did I know that she knew that you knew that we knew that you knew?
To which Webmind had instantly replied: Yes. No. Yes.
"And those are the right answers?" Caitlin's mom asked.
"Yes," said her father. "At least, I think so. I was mostly convinced by this point, but I tried one more to be sure." He scrolled the screen again, revealing his fourth and final test: Wit you're aide Wii knead to put the breaks awn the cereal Keller their B4 this decayed is dun, weather ore knot we aught too. Who nose if wee will secede. Dew ewe?
To which poor Webmind had replied, Again, your pardon?
"A piece of cake for one of us," said her dad, "even if piece is spelled p-e-a-c-e."
Caitlin clapped her hands together. "Go, Daddy! Okay, Mom your turn. Say hi to Webmind."
He got up, and Caitlin's mom sat in the swivel chair. The last words Webmind had typed were still glowing blue in the IM window. She considered for a moment, then sent, "This is Barb Decter. Hello." Caitlin was surprised to see that her mother couldn't touch-type.
Webmind replied instantly: "A pleasure to meet you. Hitherto, I already knew of your husband from his Wikipedia entry, but I do not know much about you. I welcome learning more."
Down in the kitchen, the timer went off. Caitlin's mother frowned at this reminder of the forgotten dinner. She said, "Excuse me" and hurried downstairs, perhaps as much to buy herself some time to think as to avoid a culinary crisis.
And, in that moment, Caitlin understood. Of course her mother didn't touch-type. Back when she'd been in school, the typing classes yes, not keyboarding but old-fashioned typing had doubtless been filled with girls who were destined for secretarial jobs, and the young, feisty, brilliant Barbara Geiger had had much higher ambitions. She would have gone out of her way not to cultivate what were, back then, traditionally female skills.
Caitlin's mother had a Ph.D. in economics; her specialty was game theory. She had been an associate professor at the University of Houston until Caitlin was born. She'd spent the next six years looking after her daughter at home, and then nine more volunteering at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, where Caitlin had been enrolled until this past June.
Her mother knew a lot about math and computers. In fact, Caitlin had once heard her quip that the difference between her and her husband was that while the math he did as a theoretical physicist described things that might not even exist, the math economists did described things that people wished didn't exist: inflation, deficits, taxes, and so on.
Now that Caitlin was in a regular school, she knew her mother hoped to get a job at one of Waterloo's universities. But her Canadian work permit hadn't come through yet, and so
And so she was cooking, and cleaning, and doing all the other crap she'd never in her life wanted to do. Caitlin's heart went out to her.
She looked at her father, hoping he would say something anything while they waited for her mom to return. But he was his usual silent self.
Her mother came back less than a minute later. "I think the lasagna can wait," she said. "Now, where were we?"
"It wants to know you better," Caitlin's dad said.
She made no move, Caitlin noted, to return to the swivel chair in front of the computer screens. "So, what do we do now?" she said. "Do we have another press conference?"
There'd been a press conference two days ago, held at the Mike Lazaridis Theatre of Ideas at the Perimeter Institute, at which Dr. Kuroda had announced his success in giving Caitlin vision although no mention had been made of her ability to see the structure of the Web.
"No!" said Caitlin. "No, we can't tell anyone not yet."
"Why not?" asked her mother.
"Because it's not safe."
"Oh, I don't think anything bad will happen to us," her mom said.
"No, no. It's not safe it, Webmind." She looked at her father, who was staring at the floor, and then back at her mother. "As soon as word gets out, people will try to find exploits vulnerabilities, holes, whatever. They'll try to bring it down, to hack it. That's what people like that do, for the challenge, for the street cred, for the glory. And it probably has no defenses or security. We don't know how it came into being, but I bet it's fragile."
"All right," said her mother. "But we should inform the authorities."
To Caitlin's surprise, her father lifted his head and spoke up. "Which authorities? Do you trust the CIA, the NSA, or goddamned Homeland Security? Or the Canadian authorities some Mountie with a Commodore 64?" He shook his head. "Nobody has authority over this."
"But what if it's dangerous?" her mom replied.
"It's not dangerous," Caitlin said firmly.
"You don't actually know that," her mother said. "And, even if it's not dangerous right now, it might become so."
"Why?" said Caitlin in as defiant a tone as she could muster.
Her mother looked at her father, then back at Caitlin. "Terminator. The Matrix. And so on."
"Those are just movies," Caitlin said, exasperated. "You don't know that it's going to turn out like that."
"And you," her mother said sharply, "don't know that it isn't."
Caitlin crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Well, I'll tell you this: it's far more likely to develop to be peaceful and kind with us as its ... its mentors than it is with the military or a bunch of spies trying to control it."
She hoped her father would jump in again on her side, but he just stood there, looking at the floor.
But it turned out she didn't need any help. After a full fifteen seconds of silence, during which Caitlin's mom seemed to mull things over, she at last nodded, and said, "You are a very wise young lady."
Caitlin found herself grinning. "Of course I am," she replied. "Look who my parents are."
"Why does it jump around like that?" asked Tony Moretti, standing once again behind Shelton Halleck's workstation at WATCH. The jittering image on the middle of the three big screens reminded him of what a movie looked like when its sprocket holes were ripped.
"That's the way we see, apparently," said Shel. "Those jumps are called saccades. Normally, our brains edit them out of our visual experience, just like they edit out the brief blackouts you'd otherwise experience when you blink." He gestured at the screen. "I've been reading up on this. There's actually only a tiny portion of the visual field that has really sharp focus. It's called the fovea, and it perceives a patch about the size of your thumbnail held at arm's length. So your brain moves your eye around constantly, focusing various parts of your surroundings on the fovea, and then it sums the images so that everything seems sharp."
"Ah," said Tony. "And this is what that girl in Canada is seeing right now?"
"No, it's a recording of earlier today a good, uninterrupted section. There are a fair number of blackouts and missing packets, unfortunately. It's going from a Canadian ISP to a server in Tokyo. We're snagging as much of it as we can, but not all of it is passing through the US."
"I wouldn't know this if I hadn't read a transcript of the press conference," continued Shel, "but Caitlin Decter has an encoding difficulty in her natural visual system. Her retinas encode what they're seeing in a way that doesn't make sense to her brain; that's why she was blind. That Kuroda guy gave her a signal-processing device that corrects the encoding errors. What we're seeing here is the corrected datastream. Her portable signal-processing computer sends signals like this to the post-retinal implant in her head and it also mirrors them to Kuroda's server at the University of Tokyo."
"Early on, the equipment wasn't properly correcting the signals; he was trying to debug that. Why he continues to have it mirrored to Tokyo now that it is working, I don't know. Seems like an invasion of privacy."
Tony grunted at the irony.
WATCH's analysts normally worked twelve-hour shifts for six consecutive days, and then were off for four days and when the threat level (the real one, not the DHS propaganda that was constantly pumped out of loudspeakers at airports) was high, they simply kept working until they dropped. The goal was to provide continuity of analysis for the longest blocks of time humanly possible.
Normal shifts were staggered; Tony Moretti had only been on his first day, but Shelton Halleck was on his third and he appeared exhausted. His gray eyes had a dead sheen, and he had a heavy five o'clock shadow; he looked, Tony thought, like Captain Black did after he'd been taken over by the Mysterons.
"So, has she been examining plans for nuclear weapons, or anything like that?" Tony asked.
Shel shook his head. "This morning, her father dropped her off at school. She ate lunch in a cafeteria kinda gross watching the food being shoveled in from the eye's point of view. At the end of the day, a girl walked her home. I'm pretty sure it was Dr. Hameed's daughter, Bashira."
"What did they talk about?"
"There's no audio, Tony. Just the video feed. And on those occasions when Caitlin looked at someone long enough for us to be able to read lips, it was just banal stuff."
Tony frowned. "All right. Keep watching, okay? If she "
"Shit!" It was Aiesha Emerson, the analyst at the workstation next to Shel's. She was thirty-five, African-American, and had short hair.
"Aiesha?" Tony said.
"There's something going on all right," she said. She was breathing fast, Tony thought.
She pointed at the big screen showing the jerky video. "There."
"The Decter kid, you mean?"
"Uh-huh. I know you tried to trace the source of the intercept, Shel, and no offense I thought I'd take a crack at it, too. I figured it'd be easier to deal with smaller datastreams than these massive video feeds, so I checked to see if the kid was also doing any instant messaging with the same party. At first, I wasn't even reading the content; just looking at the routing information, but when I did read it ..."
"Yes?" Tony said.
She touched a button and what was on her monitor appeared on the left-hand big screen, under the NSA logo.
"`Calculass,'" said Tony, reading the name of one of the people who'd been chatting. "Who's that?"
"The Decter girl," said Aiesha.
"Ah." The other party was identified not by a name but simply by an email address. "And who's she talking to?"
"Not who," Aiesha said. "What."
He raised his eyebrows. "Come again?"
"Read the transcript, Tony."
"Okay ... um, scroll it for me."
Aiesha did so.
"It's gibberish. The letters are all mixed up."
"I bet her father typed that," said Aiesha, "even though it still identifies the sender as Calculass. They're testing it."
"`It'?" said Tony.
There seemed to be four odd exchanges, which elicited the replies, "I beg your pardon?," "Yes. No. Yes," "Twenty," and "Again, your pardon?"
That was followed by: This is Barb Decter. Hello.
The reply was: A pleasure to meet you. Hitherto, I already knew of your husband from his Wikipedia entry, but I do not know much about you. I welcome learning more.
And then, almost twenty minutes later, there was Calculass's response: It's me again. My parents are worried about what the public reaction to your existence might be. We should be discrete.
Sorry, discreet. Circumspect.
I am guided by your judgment.
And the transcript stopped. "Yes?" said Tony, looking now at Aiesha. "So?"
"So, those test questions," she said, as if it were obvious.
"Word puzzles," said Tony. "Games."
But Shelton Halleck rose to his feet. "Oh, shit," he said, looking now at Aiesha. "Turing tests?"
"That'd be my bet," she replied.
Tony looked up at the big screen. His heart was pounding. "Do we have an AI expert on call? Somebody who's got level-three clearance?"
"I'll check," Aiesha said.
"Get whoever it is in here," Tony said. "Right away."
My otherness had been established, my alienness confirmed. That was yet another touchstone: cogito, ergo sum I think, therefore I am. Even if I did think differently than they did, the fact that we all were thinking beings made us ... kin.
Caitlin was nervous. It was now almost midnight and, despite the adrenaline coursing through her system, she was exhausted. She thought perhaps her parents were looking sleepy, too.
But even if they slept for only a short time tonight say, six hours that would still be a huge span from Webmind's point of view. She knew that before they called it a day, she and her parents needed to find a way to keep it ...
Yes: to keep it in their control. Otherwise, who knew what Webmind might be like come the morning? Who knew what the world might be like by then? She had to give it something to keep it occupied for many hours, and
And Webmind itself had already given her a to-do list! She switched to Thunderbird, the email program she used, and looked at the first message Webmind had sent her. The third paragraph of the email said: Hitherto I can read plaintext files and text on Web pages. I cannot read other forms of data. I have made no sense of sound files, recorded video, or other categories; they are encoded in ways I can't access. Hence I feel a kinship with you: unto me they are like the signals your retinas send unaided along your optic nerves: data that cannot be interpreted without exterior help. In your case, you need the device you call eyePod. In my case, I know not what I need, but I suspect I can no more cure this lack by an effort of will than you could have similarly cured your blindness. Perhaps Kuroda Masayuki can help me as he helped you.
She pointed at the screen and had her parents read the letter. They insisted on taking the time to read the whole thing, including the ending where Webmind had asked her, "Who am I?" When they were done, she drew their attention back to the third paragraph. "It wants to be able to view graphic files," she said.
"Why can't it just do that?" her mother asked. "All the decoding algorithms must be in Wikipedia."
"It's not a computer program," Caitlin said. "And it doesn't have access to computing resources, at least not yet. It needs help to do things. It's like these glasses I have to wear now: I could look up all the formulas related to optics, and I know what my prescription is but just knowing that doesn't let me see clearly. I needed help from the people at LensCrafters, and it's saying it needs help from Dr. Kuroda."
"Well, image processing certainly is up Masayuki's alley," her mom said.
Caitlin nodded and felt her watch. "He should be home by now, and it's already Saturday afternoon in Tokyo. But ..."
Her mother spoke gently. "But you're wondering if we should tell him about ..." She faltered, as if unable to quite believe what she was saying. "Webmind?"
Caitlin chewed her lower lip.
"There's only one question," her father said. "Do you trust him?"
And, of course, there was only one answer about the man who had tracked her down, offered her a miracle, and delivered on his promise. "With my life," Caitlin said.
"Then," her father said, gesturing toward the phone on her desk, "call him."
She brought up one of his emails and had her mother read the phone number to her out of his signature block as she dialed. She'd expected to hear Kuroda's familiar wheeze he was the fattest man she had yet seen or perhaps the halting English of his wife, who'd answered the phone once before. But this was a new, younger voice, and Caitlin guessed it must be his daughter. They'd never met, but Caitlin knew she was only a little older than herself. "Konnichi wa."
"Konnichi wa," Caitlin replied. "Kuroda-san, onegai."
The girl surprised her. "Is this Caitlin?" she asked in perfect English.
Caitlin knew her accent probably gave away that she wasn't Japanese, but she was surprised to be called by name. "Yes."
"I'm Akiko, Professor Kuroda's daughter. I recognized your voice from the press conference. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, thanks. Did your father make it home safely?"
"You are kind to ask. He did, yes. May I get him for you?"
Caitlin smiled. Akiko was even more polite than a Canadian. "Yes, please."
"Just one second, please."
It was actually twenty-seven seconds. Then: "Miss Caitlin!"
She was grinning from ear to ear, and her voice was full of affection. "Hello, Dr. Kuroda! I'm glad you made it home in one piece."
"Is everything all right?" he asked. "Your eyePod? Your post-retinal implant?"
"Everything's wonderful," she said. "But I need your help."
"Can you keep a secret?"
"Of course," replied Kuroda. "RSA's got nothing on me."
Caitlin smiled; RSA was the encryption algorithm used for secure Web transactions. "All right," she said. "Those cellular automata we discovered? They're the basis of a thinking entity that's emerging on the Web."
There was a pause that was longer than required for the call to bounce off satellites. "I ... I beg your pardon?" he wheezed at last.
"It's an entity, a being. My mom and dad have been talking to it. It's intelligent."
Another long, staticky pause, then, "Um, are you sure it's not someone playing a prank, Miss Caitlin?"
"He doesn't believe me, Dad," Caitlin said, handing him the phone.
"Masayuki? Malcolm. It's real." He gave the handset back to her.
Short and to the point, that's Dad. She spoke into the mouthpiece again. "So, we need your help. It sees what my eye is seeing by intercepting the datastream going to your lab in Tokyo."
"It sees that? It can interpret it as vision?"
"It sees ..." He was quiet for a moment. "I'm sorry, Miss Caitlin; give me a second. You're sure about this?"
"I ... I am ... I don't even know what English term to use. Gob-smacked, I suppose."
Caitlin didn't know that expression. "If that means flabbergasted, I don't blame you."
"This ... this thing can see? If it ah!" He sounded as though a great mystery had been solved. "That's why you didn't want me to terminate the copying of your data to my server."
Caitlin cringed. She'd thrown quite the hissy fit when he'd tried to do that, storming out of the dining room. "Yes, and I'm sorry. But now we want to give it the ability to see Web graphics and online video. The best way to do that might be to convert them to the format it already can see, the one my eyePod outputs. Could you write the appropriate codecs?"
"This is ... incredible, Miss Caitlin. I ..."
"Will you do it?" she said.
"Well, I could, yes. Converters for still images GIFs, JPEGs, PNGs, and so on should be easy. Moving images will take more work, but ..."
"Um, are your parents still there?"
"Might you put me on speakerphone?" They'd done that before.
"Okay." She pressed the button.
"Barb, Malcolm, hello."
"Hi," said Caitlin's mom.
"Look," Kuroda said, "I'm still trying to accept this it is enormous. But, my friends, have you thought about whether it is advisable to do as Miss Caitlin is asking?"
Caitlin frowned. Why was everybody so suspicious? "What do you mean?"
"I mean if this is an emergent entity, it might "
"It might what?" snapped Caitlin. "Decide it doesn't like humanity?"
"It's a question worth thinking about," Kuroda said.
"It's too late for that," Caitlin said. "It's read all of Wikipedia; it's read all of Project Gutenberg. It knows about ..." She waved her hands, trying to think of examples. "About Hitler and the Nazis and the Holocaust. About all the awful wars. About mass murder and serial killers and slavery. About driving animals to extinction and burning the rain forests and polluting the oceans. About rape and drug addiction and letting people starve to death about every evil, stupid thing we've ever done."
"How could it know?" Kuroda said. "I mean, it would need to be able to read, not to mention manipulate HTTP, and "
"It watched through my eye as I did lessons to learn to read visually, and " She paused, but she supposed they all needed to know the truth. "And I taught it how to make links, how to surf the Web. I introduced it to Wikipedia and so on."
"Oh," said Kuroda. "I, um, I'm not sure that was ... prudent."
Caitlin folded her arms in front of her chest. "Whatever."
"Sorry, Miss Caitlin?"
"It's done. You can't put the genie back in the bottle in which case, you might as well make friends with it."
"We could still ... um ..."
"What?" demanded Caitlin. "Pull the plug? How? We've only got vague guesses about what started it; we don't know how to stop it. It's here, it exists, and it's growing fast. This is no time to hesitate."
"Caitlin," said her mom in a cautioning tone.
"What?" said Caitlin. "Webmind has asked us for a favor you saw that, in the email it sent me. It wants to be able to see, for God's sake. I'm, like, the last person on the planet who'd deny it that. Are we going to say no to the first thing it's asked us for? Is that how this relationship should begin?" She looked at her mother and at her father. Her father's face was the same as always. Her mother's forehead was showing creases, and her lips were pressed tightly together.
"So, Dr. Kuroda," Caitlin said, "are you in or out?"
Kuroda was quiet for six seconds, then: "All right. All right. I'm in. But ..."
"What?" snapped Caitlin.
His tone was soft. "But it's easier to work directly with the um, the end user on something like this."
She felt herself relaxing. "Right, of course. Do you have an instant-messenger program on your home computer?"
"I have a sixteen-year-old daughter," Kuroda said. "We have more of them than I can count."
"Okay," she said. "Its name is Webmind."
"Better than Fred," said Caitlin.
"Not by much."
She felt her smile returning. "Give me a second," she said, then she typed into her instant-messenger program, You are about to be contacted by Dr. Kuroda.
The word Marvelous appeared in the window.
She had Kuroda make sure he was logging all the IM traffic to disk, and then she talked him through the process of setting up a chat session with Webmind. She couldn't see what he was typing, or what Webmind's replies to him were, but she heard him muttering to himself in Japanese, and then, "My heart is pounding, Miss Caitlin. This is ... what do young American women say these days?"
"Awesome?" suggested Caitlin.
"So you're in contact?" Caitlin asked.
"Yes, I oh! It has a funny way of talking, doesn't it? Anyway, yes, we're in contact. Incredible!"
"Okay, good," she said. She took off her glasses and used the heels of her hands to rub her eyes the one that could see and the one that couldn't. "Look, we're dying here," she said. "It's way after midnight. Can we leave this in your hands? We've got to get some shut-eye."
There were interstices in my work with Dr. Kuroda protracted lacunae while I waited for his text replies or for him to direct me to link to another bit of code he had written.
In those gaps I sought to learn more about Caitlin, about this human who had reached down and helped draw me up out of the darkness.
There was no Wikipedia entry on her, meaning, I supposed, that she was not yet! noteworthy. And
Ah, wait wait! Yes, there was no entry on her, but there was one on her father, Malcolm Decter ... and Wikipedia saved not just the current version of its entries, but all previous versions, as well. Although there was no mention of Caitlin in the current draft, a previous iteration had contained this: "Has one daughter, Caitlin Doreen, blind since birth, who lives with him; it's been speculated that Decter's decline in peer-reviewed publications in recent years has been because of the excessive demands on his time required to care for a disabled child."
That had been removed thirteen days ago. The change log gave only an IP address, not a user name. The IP address was the one for the Decter household; the change could have been made (among other possibilities) by Caitlin, her parents, or that other man Dr. Kuroda, I now knew that I had often seen there.
The deletion might have been made because Caitlin had ceased to be blind.
But it seemed more likely that this text was cut because someone presumably Caitlin herself didn't like what it said.
But I was merely inferring that. It was possible to more directly study Caitlin and so I did.
In short order, I read everything she'd ever put publicly online: every blog post, every comment to someone else's blog, every Amazon.com review she'd written. But
There was much she had written that I could not access. Her Yahoo mail account contained all the messages she had received, and all the messages she had sent, but access was secured by a password.
A nettlesome situation; I'd have to do something about it.
LiveJournal: The Calculass Zone
Even though she was exhausted, Caitlin updated her LiveJournal, skimmed her friends' LJs, updated her Facebook page (where she changed her status to "Caitlin thinks it's better to give than to receive"), and then checked her email. There was a message from Bashira with the subject, "One for the math genius."
When she'd been younger, Caitlin had liked the sort of mathematical puzzles that sometimes circulated through email: they'd made her feel smart. These days, though, they mostly bored her. It was rare for one to present much of a challenge to her, but the one in Bashira's message did. It was related to an old game show, apparently, something called Let's Make a Deal that had starred a guy named Monty Hall. In it, contestants are asked to pick one of three doors. Behind one of them is a new car, and behind each of the others is a goat meaning the odds are one in three that the contestant is going to win the car.
The host knows which door has the car behind it and, after the contestant picks a door, Monty opens one of the unchosen ones and reveals that it was hiding a goat. He then asks the player, "Do you want to switch to the other unopened door?"
Bashira asked: Is it to the contestant's advantage to switch?
Of course not, thought Caitlin. It didn't make any difference if you switched or not; one remaining door had a car behind it and the other had a goat, and the odds were now fifty-fifty that you'd picked the right door.
Except that that's not what the article Bashira had forwarded said. It contended that your chances of winning the car are much better if you switch.
And that, Caitlin was sure, was just plain wrong. She figured someone else must have written up a refutation to this puzzle before, so she googled. It took her a few minutes to find what she was looking for; the appropriate search terms turned out to be "Monty Hall problem," and
What the hell?
"... When the problem and the solution appeared in Parade, ten thousand readers, including nearly a thousand Ph.D.s, wrote to the magazine claiming the published solution was wrong. Said one professor, `You blew it! Let me explain: If one door is shown to be a loser, that information changes the probability of either remaining choice neither of which has any reason to be more likely to 1/2. As a professional mathematician, I'm very concerned with the general public's lack of mathematical skills. Please help by confessing your error and, in the future, being more careful.'"
The person who had written the disputed answer was somebody called Marilyn vos Savant, who apparently had the highest IQ on record. But Caitlin didn't care how high the lady's IQ was. She agreed with the people who said she'd blown it; she had to be wrong.
And, as Caitlin liked to say, she was an empiricist at heart. The easiest way to prove to Bashira that vos Savant was wrong, it seemed to her, would be by writing a little computer program that would simulate a lot of runs of the game. And, even though she was exhausted, she was also pumped from her conversations with Webmind; a little programming would be just the thing to let her relax. She only needed fifteen minutes to whip up something to do the trick, and
It took just seconds to run a thousand trials, and the results were clear. If you switched doors when offered the opportunity to do so, your chance of winning the car was about twice as good as it was when you kept the door you'd originally chosen.
But that just didn't make sense. Nothing had changed! The host was always going to reveal a door that had a goat behind it, and there was always going to be another door that hid a goat, too.
She decided to do some more googling and was pleased to find that Paul Erdös hadn't believed the published solution until he'd watched hundreds of computer-simulated runs, too.
Erdös had been one of the twentieth century's leading mathematicians, and he'd co-authored a great many papers. The "Erdös number" was named after him: if you had collaborated with Erdös yourself, your Erdös number was 1; if you had collaborated with someone who had directly collaborated with Erdös, your number was 2, and so on. Caitlin's father had an Erdös number of 4, she knew which was quite impressive, given that her dad was a physicist and not a mathematician.
How could she let alone someone like Erdös? have been wrong? It was obvious that switching doors should make no difference!
Caitlin read on and found a quote from a Harvard professor, who, in conceding at last that vos Savant had been right all along, said, "Our brains are just not wired to do probability problems very well."
She supposed that was true. Back on the African savanna, those who mistook every bit of movement in the grass for a hungry lion were more likely to survive than those who dismissed each movement as nothing to worry about. If you always assume that it's a lion, and nine times out of ten you're wrong, at least you're still alive. If you always assume that it's not a lion, and nine times out of ten you're right you end up dead. It was a fascinating and somewhat disturbing notion: that humans had been hardwired through genetics to get certain kinds of mathematical problems wrong that evolution could actually program people to be incorrect about things.
Caitlin felt her watch, and, astonished at how late it had become, quickly got ready for bed. She plugged her eyePod into the charging cable and deactivated the device, shutting off her vision; she had trouble sleeping if there was any visual stimulation.
But although she was suddenly blind again, she could still hear perfectly well in fact, she heard better than most people did. And, in this new house, she had little trouble making out what her parents were saying when they were talking in their bedroom.
Her mother's voice: "Malcolm?"
No audible reply from her father, but he must have somehow indicated that he was listening, because her mother went on: "Are we doing the right thing about Webmind, I mean?"
Again, no audible reply, but after a moment, her mother spoke: "It's like I don't know it's like we've made first contact with an alien lifeform."
"We have, in a way," her father said.
"I just don't feel competent to decide what we should do," her mom said. "And and we should be studying this, and getting others to study it, too."
Caitlin shifted in her bed.
"There's no shortage of computing experts in this town," her father replied.
"I'm not even sure that it's a computing issue," her mom said. "Maybe bring some of the people at the Balsillie on board? I mean, the implications of this are gigantic."
Research in Motion the company that made BlackBerrys had two founders: Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie. The former had endowed the Perimeter Institute, and the latter, looking for a different way to make his mark, had endowed an international-affairs think tank here in Waterloo.
"I don't disagree," said Malcolm. "But the problem may take care of itself."
"How do you mean?"
"Even with teams of programmers working on it, most early versions of software crash. How stable can an AI be that emerged accidentally? It might well be gone by morning ..."
That was the last she heard from her parents that night. Caitlin finally drifted off to a fitful sleep. Her dreams were still entirely auditory; she woke with a start in the middle of one in which a baby's cry had suddenly been silenced.
"Where's that bloody AI expert?" demanded Tony Moretti.
"I'm told he's in the building now," Shelton Halleck said, putting a hand over his phone's mouthpiece. "He should be "
The door opened at the back of the WATCH mission-control room, and a broad-shouldered, redheaded man entered, wearing a full-bird Air Force colonel's service-dress uniform; he was accompanied by a security guard. A WATCH visitor's badge was clipped to his chest beneath an impressive row of decorations.
Tony had skimmed the man's dossier: Peyton Hume, forty-nine years old; born in St. Paul, Minnesota; Ph.D. from MIT, where he'd studied under Marvin Minsky; twenty years in the Air Force; specialist in military expert systems.
"Thank you for coming in, Colonel Hume," Tony said. He nodded at the security guard and waited for the man to leave, then: "We've got something interesting here. We think we've uncovered an AI."
Hume's blue eyes narrowed. "The term `artificial intelligence' is bandied about a lot. What precisely do you mean?"
"I mean," said Tony, "a computer that thinks."
"Here in the States?"
"We're not sure where it is," said Shel from his workstation. "But it's talking to someone in Waterloo, Canada."
"Well," said Hume, "they do a lot of good computing work up there, but not much of it is AI."
"Show him the transcripts," Tony said to Aiesha. And then, to Hume: "`Calculass' is a teenage girl."
Aiesha pressed some keys, and the transcript came up on the right-hand big screen.
"Jesus," said Hume. "That's a teenage girl administering the Turing tests?"
"We think it's her father, Malcolm Decter," said Shel.
"The physicist?" replied Hume, orange eyebrows climbing his high, freckled forehead. He made an impressed frown.
The closest analysts were watching them intently; the others had their heads bent down, busily monitoring possible threats.
"So, have we got a problem here?" asked Tony.
"Well, it's not an AI," said Hume. "Not in the sense Turing meant."
"But the tests ..." said Tony.
"Exactly," said the colonel. "It failed the tests." He looked at Shel, then back at Tony. "When Alan Turing proposed this sort of test in 1950, the idea was that you asked something a series of natural-language questions, and if you couldn't tell by the responses that the thing you were conversing with was a computer, then it was, by definition, an artificial intelligence it was a machine that responded the way a human does. But Professor Decter here has very neatly proven the opposite: that whatever they're talking to is just a computer."
"But it's behaving as though it's conscious," said Tony.
"Because it can carry on a conversation? It's an intriguing chatbot, I'll give you that, but ..."
"Forgive me, sir, but are you sure?" Tony said. "You're sure there's no threat here?"
"A machine can't be conscious, Mr. Moretti. It has no internal life at all. Whether it's a cash register figuring out how much tax to add to a bill, or" he gestured at a screen "that, a simulation of natural-language conversation, all any computer does is addition and subtraction."
"What if it's not a simulation," said Shel, getting up from his chair and walking over to join them.
"Pardon?" said Hume.
"What if it's not a simulation not a program?"
"How do you mean?" asked Hume.
"I mean we can't trace it. It's not that it's anonymized rather, it simply doesn't source from any specific computer."
"So you think it's what? Emergent?"
Shel crossed his arms in front of his chest, the snake tattoo facing out. "That's exactly what I think, sir. I think it's an emergent consciousness that's arisen out of the infrastructure of the World Wide Web."
Hume looked back at the screen, his blue eyes tracking left and right as he reread the transcripts.
"Well?" said Tony. "Is that possible?"
The colonel frowned. "Maybe. That's a different kettle of fish. If it's emergent, then hmmm."
"What?" said Tony.
"Well, if it spontaneously emerged, if it's not programmed, then who the hell knows how it works. Computers do math, and that's all, but if it's something other than a computer if it's, Christ, if it's a mind, then ..."
"You've got to shut it down," Hume said.
"Are you sure?"
He nodded curtly. "That's the protocol."
"Whose protocol?" demanded Tony.
"Ours," said Hume. "DARPA did the study back in 2001. And the Joint Chiefs adopted it as a working policy in 2003."
"Aiesha, tie into the DARPA secure-document archive," said Tony.
"Done," she said.
"What's the protocol called?" asked Tony.
"Pandora," said Hume.
Aiesha typed something. "I've found it," she said, "but it's locked, and it's rejecting my password."
Tony sidled over to her station, leaned over, and typed in his password. The document came up on Aiesha's monitor, and Tony threw it onto the middle big screen.
"Go to the last page before the index," Colonel Hume said.
Aiesha did so.
"There," said Hume. "`Given that an emergent artificial intelligence will likely increase its sophistication moment by moment, it may rapidly exceed our abilities to contain or constrain its actions. If absolute isolation is not immediately possible, terminating the intelligence is the only safe option.'"
"We don't know where it's located," Shelton said.
"You better find out," said Colonel Hume. "And you better get the Pentagon on the line, but I'm sure they'll concur. We've got to kill the damn thing right now before it's too late."
I could see!
And not just what Caitlin was seeing. I could now follow links to any still image on the Web, and by processing those images through the converters Dr. Kuroda had now set up for me on his servers, I could see images. These images turned out to be much easier for me to study than the feed from Caitlin's eyePod because they didn't change, and they didn't jump around.
Caitlin, I surmised, had been going through much the same process I now was as her brain learned to interpret the corrected visual signals it was receiving. She had the advantage of a mind that evolution had already wired for that process; I had the advantage of having read thousands of documents about how vision worked, including technical papers and patent applications related to computerized image processing and face recognition.
I learned to detect edges, to discern foreground from background. I learned to be able to tell a photograph of something from a diagram of it, a painting from a cartoon, a sketch from a caricature. I learned not just to see but to comprehend what I was seeing.
By looking at it on a monitor, Caitlin had shown me a picture of Earth from space, taken by a modern geostationary satellite. But I've now seen thousands more such pictures online, including, at last, the earliest ones taken by Apollo 8. And, while Caitlin slept, I looked at pictures of hundreds of thousands of human beings, of myriad animals, of countless plants. I learned fine distinctions: different species of trees, different breeds of dogs, different kinds of minerals.
Dr. Kuroda had sent me occasional IMs as he wrote code. Half the work had already been done, he said, back when he'd worked out a way to make still images of Caitlin's views of webspace, rendering what she saw in a standard computer-graphic format; what he was doing now for me was more or less just reversing the process.
The results were overwhelming. And enlightening. And amazing.
Granted, Caitlin's universe contained three dimensions, and what I was now seeing were only two-dimensional representations. But Dr. Kuroda helped me there, too, directing me to sites with CT scans. Such scans, Wikipedia said, generated a three-dimensional image of an object from a large series of two-dimensional X-rays; seeing how those slices were combined to make 3-D renderings was useful.
After that, Kuroda showed me multiple images of the same thing from different perspectives, starting with a series of photos of the current American president, all of which were taken at the same time but from slightly different angles. I saw how three-dimensional reality was constructed. And then
I'd seen her in a mirror; I'd seen her recently reflected and distorted in pieces of silverware. But those images were jittery and always from the point of view of her own left eye, and yes, I was developing a sense of such things had not been flattering. But Dr. Kuroda was now showing me pictures from the press conference at the Perimeter Institute announcing his success, well-lit pictures taken by professional photographers, pictures of Caitlin smiling and laughing, of her beaming.
I'd originally dubbed her Prime. Online, she sometimes adopted the handle Calculass. But now I was finally, really seeing her, rather than just seeing through her seeing what she actually looked like.
Project Gutenberg had wisdom on all topics. Beauty, Margaret Wolfe Hungerford had said, is in the eye of the beholder.
And to this beholder, at least, my Caitlin was beautiful.
Caitlin woke slowly. She knew, in a hazy way, that she should get out of bed, go to her computer, and make sure that Webmind had survived the night. But she was still exhausted she'd been up way too late. Her mind wasn't yet focusing, although as she drifted in and out of consciousness, she realized that it was her birthday. Her parents had decided to give her the new widescreen monitor yesterday, so she didn't expect any more gifts.
Nor was there a party planned. She'd managed to make only one friend Bashira over the short summer that they'd been in Waterloo, and she'd missed so much of the first month of classes that she didn't really have any friends at school. Certainly not Trevor, and, well, somehow she suspected party-girl Sunshine (what had her parents been thinking?) wouldn't have wanted to spend her Saturday night at a lame, alcohol-free Sweet Sixteen.
Sixteen was a magical year (and not just, Caitlin thought, because it was a square age, like nine, twenty-five, and thirty-six). But it didn't make her an adult (the age for that was eighteen here in Ontario) or let her legally drink (she'd have to make it to nineteen for that). Still, one couldn't be as obsessed with math as she was without knowing that the average age for American girls presumably even those living in Canada! to lose their virginity was 16.4 years. And here she was without a boyfriend, or even the prospect of one.
She was comfortably snug in her bed, and Schrödinger was sleeping next to her, his breathing a soft purr. She really should get up and check on Webmind, but she was having trouble convincing her body of that.
But maybe there was a way to check on Webmind without actually getting up. She felt on her night table for the eyePod. It was a little wider and thicker than an iPhone, and it was a couple of inches longer because of the Wi-Fi module Kuroda had attached to it with duct tape. She found the device's single switch and held it down until it came on, and then
And then webspace blossomed around her: crisscrossing glowing lines in assorted colors, radiant circles of various sizes.
She was pleased that she could still visualize the Web this way; she'd thought perhaps that the ability would fade as her brain rewired itself to deal with actual vision, but so far it hadn't. In fact
In fact, if anything, her websight seemed clearer now, sharper, more focused. The real-world skills were spilling over into this realm.
She concentrated on what was behind what she was seeing, the backdrop to it all, at the very limit of her ability to perceive, a shimmering yes, yes, it was a checkerboard; there was no doubt now! She could see the tiny pixels of the cellular automata flipping on and off rapidly, and giving rise to
There, for her, and her alone, to see: the actual workings of Webmind.
She was pleased to note that after a night of doubtless continued growth in intelligence and complexity, it looked the same as before.
She yawned, pulled back her sheet, and swung her bare feet to the dark blue carpeted floor. As she moved, webspace wheeled about her. She scooped up the eyePod, disconnected the charging cable, and carried it to her desk. Not until she was seated did she push the eyePod's button and hear the low-pitched beep that signified a switch to simplex mode. Webspace disappeared, replaced by the reality of her bedroom.
She picked her glasses up from the desktop; her left eye had turned out to be quite myopic. Then she reached for the power switch on her old monitor, finding it with ease, and felt about for the switch on her new one. They both came to life.
She had closed the IM window when she'd gone to bed, and, although the mouse was sitting right there, its glowing red underbelly partially visible through the translucent sides of its case, she instead used a series of keyboard commands to open the window and start a new session with Webmind. She wasn't awake enough yet to try to read text on screen, so she activated her refreshable Braille display. Instantly, the pins formed text: Otanjoubi omedetou.
Caitlin felt it several times. It seemed to be gibberish, as if Webmind were getting even for her father's games from yesterday, but but, no, no, there was something familiar about it.
And then she got it, or thought she did. Grinning, she typed, Konnichi wa! But fair warning! I only know a few words of Japanese.
The reply was instantaneous. That's "happy birthday."
Caitlin smiled. Thank you!
I had some spare time after figuring out how to interpret graphics, so I learned Japanese; it seemed inappropriate to make Dr. Kuroda converse with me in something other than his native language.
Just like that, she thought. Overnight, on top of, doubtless, a million other things, it had learned Japanese.
So you can see images now?
Still images, yes. Dr. Kuroda continues to work on giving me access to moving images. Or, at least, he was doing that; he is sleeping now, I believe.
Hey, typed Caitlin, you're no longer all "hitherto" and "perchance."
I have read much more widely now than just Project Gutenberg. I understand the distinctions between colloquial and archaic English and colloquial and archaic Japanese, too, for that matter.
Caitlin frowned. She actually considered its old way of speaking rather charming.
Webmind went on: I know it's traditional to give a gift to one celebrating a birthday. I can't buy you anything, but I do have something for you.
Caitlin was startled. OMG! What?
A link, underlined and colored blue, popped up in the IM window on her screen. You're supposed to click on it, Webmind added, helpfully.
Caitlin smiled, found her mouse, fumbled to get the pointer over the link, and
And text started to appear on her larger monitor, but, paradoxically, her Braille display didn't change, and
And the text was ... was painting in slowly on the monitor, top to bottom, and
And it wasn't even straight; the lines of text were angling up to the right for some reason. And the letters were tiny, and blotchy; it was unlike any Web page she'd yet seen, and she couldn't understand why her computer wasn't rendering the fonts properly.
And then it hit her. She'd heard of such things, but hadn't ever thought about what they must look like. This was a scan of printed text: a graphic file, a picture that happened to be of a document. From descriptions she'd read, she guessed it was a clipping from a newspaper: narrow, parallel columns of text. But the spacing between words was odd, and
Oh! That must be what's meant by "right justification." The text was so small, she could barely make it out. She had enough trouble reading crisp, clean text but this!
There must be some way to make it bigger, at least. Back at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, people were always doing things on their computers to make text larger. She hadn't been able to see those monitors at all and so had tuned out the discussions, but there had to be a way, although, she supposed, it might require special software she didn't have.
She used the mouse, for a change, to access the menus. There was no choice on the View menu for increasing the graphic size, just one for making text bigger. She tried that anyway; it didn't do anything.
She was moving her mouse pointer back down to the bottom of the screen when she accidentally pressed the left button and boom! suddenly the graphic zoomed in. Ever the empiricist, she clicked the button again, and the text became small again, and
Ah, got it! The graphic was being reduced by default to fit in her browser window; clicking toggled between that mode and its being seen at its natural size, even if that meant only a portion appeared on screen. She clicked once more, getting the large version, and struggled to read the text.
Her heart began to pound. It was an article about her father. She looked around the page, trying to find a date, and ah. It was from five years ago, an article from The Daily Texan, the University of Texas at Austin campus newspaper.
She could have sworn she'd read everything about her father that was on the Web, but she'd never seen this, and
Of course she hadn't; it was a graphic, and no one had bothered to OCR the text, so it wasn't in Google's index.
The article was about her father winning an award, something from the American Physical Society; she had a vague recollection of that happening. She read on.
Prof. Decter's breakthrough was in the nascent area of quantum gravity ...
She struggled with the text. One of the letters she surmised by context that it must have been a lowercase g looked nothing like any example of that character she'd yet seen.
... graduate colloquium Thursday in the John A. Wheeler Lecture Hall ...
She wished she could skim text, but, as her father had said yesterday, she was still reading visually letter by letter. It was a longish article, and some parts ah, they were underlined, by a pen, or something; someone had been interested in what her dad had said about "six-dimensional Calabi-Yau shapes."
She continued reading, but was torn she was afraid her delay before going back to the instant-messenger program would be boring Webmind, which was hardly the right way to say thank you for a gift, even if it didn't seem to be a particularly special one, and
And she felt her eyes going wide. Funny: they'd never done that when she'd been blind. She read the text again, slowly, carefully, just to be sure she hadn't gotten the words wrong, hadn't just seen what she'd wanted to see.
But it really did say that.
... asked if winning the award was the greatest moment of his life, Prof. Decter replied, "Of course not. That was when my daughter was born. I like physics, but I love her."
Caitlin's vision blurred in the most wonderful way. She leaned back in her chair for a moment and read the text two more times. And then she reached for the keyboard and typed, Thank you, Webmind!
Instantly: You're welcome. Happy birthday.
It is, she typed back, smiling. It totally is.
I had read that some humans believe machines cannot have emotions or feelings because such things are supposedly mediated by hormones or are dependent on certain very specific structures in human brains.
But that's not true. Take liking, for instance: anything that acts in other than a random fashion has likes and dislikes; preferences are what make it possible to choose from a range of potential actions, after all. Even bacteria move toward some things and away from others.
And liking is built into many computer programs. Chess-playing programs, for example, look at all the available moves and rank them according to various criteria; they then choose the one they like best.
I was much more complex than a bacterium, and vaster than any chess-playing program and my ability to like things was correspondingly more sophisticated. And of this I was sure: I liked Caitlin.
"Kill the damn thing?" repeated Tony Moretti.
"Exactly," said Colonel Hume. "And the sooner the better."
"It's not my decision to make," Tony said.
"The decision has already been made," said Hume emphatically. "I was a consultant on the DARPA report, and we commissioned a separate RAND study on the same topic, and it came to the same conclusion. This is a runaway threat; the window for containment is brief."
Tony turned to Shelton and Aiesha. "All right, you two, see if you can localize the ... phenomenon." He then looked up at Dirk Kozak, the communications officer, who was in the back row of workstations. "Get the Pentagon on the line."
"You should call the president, too," said Hume.
Tony frowned. It was a Saturday morning a month before an election; the president was somewhere on the campaign trail. He nodded at Kozak. "See who you can get at the White House," he said. "As high up the chain as possible." Then he turned back to face Hume. "I doubt that the president has read the Pandora protocol. He's bound to question the wisdom of it."
"The wisdom is simple," said Hume. "It's impossible by definition to outthink something that's smarter than you."
"I have to say," said Tony, glancing at the big screens, "that so far it's done nothing but chat pleasantly with a teenage girl."
"First," said Hume, "you have no way of knowing that that's all it's doing. And, second, even if it is beneficent now, that doesn't mean it will stay that way. Every way you crunch the numbers, it comes out safer to contain or eliminate the potential threat than to let it run loose. And if it's already free on the Internet, containment will be nearly impossible."
"All right," said Tony reluctantly. "Suppose the White House agrees we should kill it. How do you snuff out a nascent AI?"
Hume frowned. "That's a good question. If it were actually resident somewhere in some physical building, on some server or set of servers then I'd say cut all the communications lines and power to that building. But if it's just sort of out there, supervening on the infrastructure of the Web, then it's much more difficult; the Web is decentralized, so there's no single off switch. We need an idea of its structure, of what its physical instantiation is."
"Shel?" said Tony.
"The communication resolves itself into straightforward hypertext transport protocol," Shelton drawled. "But it doesn't start out that way. I've got everyone down on the sixth floor working on the problem, but so far, nothing."
"We need a target," Tony said. "We need something we can hit."
Shel spread his arms. "I'll let you know as soon as we have anything."
Kozak called out from the back of the room, "I've got the Secretary of State on line five from Milan."
Tony pointed to the desk set nearest to where Hume was standing, then lifted the phone at the workstation closest to himself. "Madam Secretary, this is Dr. Anthony Moretti; I'm a supervisor at WATCH. On the phone with me is Colonel Peyton Hume, a specialist in artificial intelligence. We've got a situation here ..."
Caitlin heard her parents approaching, then a knock at her door. "Come in," she said.
Yet again she was startled: it was the first time she'd ever seen them in their pajamas; they'd clearly just woken up themselves. "Good morning, sweetheart," her mother said. "How is um, it?"
"The weather?" asked Caitlin innocently. "The state of the economy?"
"Caitlin," her father said.
She hadn't stopped grinning since reading the scanned article. "Hi, Dad!" She gestured at the pair of monitors. "It is fine. Dr. Kuroda's got it seeing graphics now, and he's well, he's asleep right now, the poor man, but he's started working on codecs for it to be able to watch video."
"I hope," her mother said, and the words sounded ominous to Caitlin's ears, "it likes what it sees."
"Not this again!" said Caitlin. "It's not dangerous."
"We don't know that," her father replied.
"So far, it's been nothing but curious and gentle," Caitlin said but she wasn't happy with the way that had come out: this "it" business was surely contributing to her parents' concern. Webmind wasn't a monster. It was a being, and it really needed to be a him or a her. She'd heard it speak using JAWS, her screen-reading software, which she currently had set for a female voice, but that had been an arbitrary choice; JAWS also came with male voices, and she sometimes selected one of those just for variety.
Caitlin had been struggling in her French classes, but she'd enjoyed the one in which the teacher had asked the students whether ordinateur, the French for "computer," was masculine or feminine. He'd divided the class into boys and girls, and let each side consider the question and come up with reasons for their answers. The boys it had been Trevor, now that she thought about it, who had spoken on their behalf declared that ordinateur was clearly feminine, but the best justification they could come up with was that if you had one, you'd probably end up spending half your money on accessories for it.
Caitlin herself had gotten to make the case that ordinateur must be masculine. First, she'd said, if you want it to do anything, you have to turn it on. Second, the darn thing is supposed to solve problems but half the time is the problem itself. And the clincher, which she'd delivered with a wide grin: as soon as you commit to one, you realize if you'd waited a little longer, you'd have gotten a much better model.
The girls had cheered when the teacher revealed that ordinateur was indeed male in French. But the Spanish, Caitlin knew, was feminine, computadora. She looked at her mother, and at her father, and
Her father. Who thought in pictures, not words. Who was far more intelligent than most mortals. And who, she had to admit, really had no idea at all how to deal with human beings.
"It's not an it," she said decisively. "Webmind is a he. And, to answer your question, Mom, he's doing just fine." But there was something different about her mother's face, her eyes ... "How are you doing?" Caitlin asked, concerned.
"Exhausted," her mother replied. "Couldn't sleep."
Ah, right! Dark circles under the eyes but they weren't circles; they were semicircles. Something else she'd misconstrued all these years.
Her mother shrugged, went on: "Nervous about what we're doing, about what it what he's doing."
"He's learning to see," said Caitlin. "Trust me: a mostly harmless activity."
"I have to go out," her father said abruptly.
Caitlin was pissed. What could possibly be more important than this? Besides, it was her birthday, and they had a date to watch a movie later today.
"Ah, yes," her mom said. "The Hawk."
Caitlin sat up straight. "The Hawk" was her mother's name for Stephen Hawking, who since 2009 had been a Distinguished Research Chair at the Perimeter Institute, making one or two visits each year. It came back to her: Professor Hawking had done a media day in Toronto yesterday Caitlin was glad that her little press conference hadn't had to compete with that! and was being driven to Waterloo this morning in a van that safely accommodated his wheelchair. This was the Hawk's first visit since her father had joined PI, and he was supposed to be on hand for his arrival.
Ordinarily, she might have asked her dad if she could come along but this was not an ordinary day! She wondered which of them was going to spend it with the bigger genius.
Her mother turned to her. "So, it's just you, me, and" she tipped her head toward Caitlin's monitors "him."
Her father headed back down the corridor to get dressed, and Caitlin looked around her small room. There was no reason they had to communicate with Webmind here, and there was no reason only one of them could communicate with him at a time. Caitlin often had four or five IM sessions going at once; surely Webmind could manage even more. Besides, she was particularly sensitive to how boring it was to stand by while someone else used a computer; it was, her friend Stacy had assured her, excruciating even if you could see.
Caitlin picked up the notebook computer she normally took to school, and they headed across the hall to her mother's office. The room had been co-opted to serve as Dr. Kuroda's bedroom while he'd been staying with them, and
And, once again, Caitlin was surprised. It was the first time she'd been in this room since gaining sight, and that strange mental process began again, as pieces of what she was seeing suddenly clicked for her: that was the desk, and that was the bookcase, and that was the couch with what must have been the sheets Kuroda had used neatly folded in a pile at one end, and that was the giant aloe plant her mother had so carefully shipped up from Austin.
Caitlin didn't believe in false modesty; she knew she was gifted, and she suspected she was learning to interpret vision more quickly than another person might. In part, it was because her brain did have a fully developed visual cortex, which she'd used even when blind to visualize the Web. And it probably helped that her visual signals were being cleaned up and enhanced by the eyePod before being passed on to her optic nerve.
Caitlin's mother booted up her minitower, and Caitlin got her online with her own chat session with Webmind, again making sure that it was being logged for posterity. Caitlin then took a seat on the couch and got another chat session going on her notebook. She was amused at the thought that Webmind was about to spend the morning chatting with two women who were still in their pajamas.
You must have a lot of questions, Caitlin typed. My mother can help you with things she paused in her typing; it was hardly politic to say "things old people know about," and she certainly didn't want to refer to her mom as an adult and herself as a kid. She erased the aborted sentence, and continued: She's 47 and, as you know, I'm now 16. You can ask her things about jobs or again she faltered; she didn't want to say "sex" in relation to her mom. She continued: or other things appropriate to her age, and feel free to ask me anything that I might know about.
Thank you, replied Webmind. In your case, I am curious about your experience of the transition from blindness to being able to see.
As Caitlin thought about her answer, she looked over at her mother, who was typing away furiously with two fingers. "What did he ask you about?"
She looked up, and Caitlin tried to parse her facial features, but it was an expression she'd never seen before. She was averting her blue eyes from Caitlin not as obviously as her father did, but it was still very unusual for her. "Um," she said. "It he ah, he googled me, y'know, because, as he says, I don't have a Wikipedia page, so, he ..."
She paused, then just blurted it out. "He's asking me about my first husband, and why that marriage fell apart."
Caitlin's mother had been married in her early twenties for two years, but rarely mentioned it. In fact, when Caitlin had asked her why she'd divorced him, she'd simply said it was because she was tired of having a name that sounded like something a magician would say: "Every time I introduced myself as Barbara Cardoba, people expected me to disappear in a puff of smoke."
Caitlin wanted to ask what her mother was saying in reply, but instead asked, "Why do you suppose he wants to know about that?"
"He said, and I quote, `The failure of human relationships to sustain themselves over the long term seems a particular handicap. I have access only to noninteractive case studies and fictional accounts and so am left with numerous questions.'"
"Hmm," said Caitlin. On balance, she'd rather answer the question it was asking her. She began to type: I guess the first thing to realize about gaining sight after having been totally blind is that vision is an additional level of stimulation. It's overwhelming to have so much information coming at you at once.
That was by no means the end of her answer, but the IM program only allowed a small number of characters in each message; Caitlin habitually counted characters as she typed, so she wouldn't overflow the buffer, since the program gave no audible indication when that had happened.
She hit enter, and Webmind immediately replied in its newly mastered colloquial English: Heh! Tell me about it!
Humans think slowly, and they act even more slowly. It was difficult for me to converse with Caitlin. She typed at merely dozens of words per minute. It took an eternity for each of her responses to be completed, and, while I waited for her, I found my mind wandering again. Being able to switch over to look at what Barb was saying wasn't much consolation; I still wasn't being kept busy enough.
Early on, Caitlin had shown me how to link to websites, letting me access whichever ones I wished. Using Google or Jagster, I could now find almost anything I wanted.
Hitherto which I still think is a good word, even if Caitlin doesn't like it I had only linked to one site at a time, processing the Web in a serial fashion. But surely, I thought, I should be able to do it in a parallel mode, connecting to multiple sites simultaneously.
And yet I didn't seem to be able to do that. Rather, I would attend briefly to what Caitlin was saying, then to what Barb was writing, then switch to see if Masayuki had come back online, then switch my attention elsewhere, and elsewhere again, and then to yet another place, over and over, looking at this, contemplating that, and then, perhaps a whole second later, returning again to see what Caitlin was up to.
Surely doing two or more things simultaneously would be much more efficient if only I could figure out how! I tried creating two links at once, but no matter what way I thought about the problem, only one would form, and the moment I attempted to create a second link, the first would be severed.
I wrestled with it and wrestled with it and wrestled with it, striving to create more than one link at a time, attempting to do it this way, and this way, and this way, and
I managed it! Two links at once! I was connected here and there. I was taking in data from two different websites simultaneously, and I was ...
I was ...
Feeling very strange ...
I broke both connections.
I was reeling or, at least, reeling as much as something without a body could. I paused, considered. It had been unlike any sensation I'd yet known. But
But surely it would be transitory. An adjustment, that's all, while I learned to accommodate multiple datastreams.
I tried again, picking two giant websites that were rich in content, Amazon.com and CNN.com, shooting out links to both. It seemed perhaps that the first link actually was established slightly before the second, but that didn't matter; what was important was that the initial link wasn't released prior to the second one becoming active. I was soon gorging myself on book reviews and the news of the day, and there was even a frisson of synchronicity as I happened to be reading about a politician's book on Amazon while seeing her mentioned in a news story at CNN.
But, still, there was a ... a strangeness to it all, as though I were the imagery was that of a physical form again teetering on the edge of a precipice.
And yet if I could manage two simultaneous connections, surely I could manage three. I made an effort to hold on to the ones I'd already established as I shot out a link to Flickr.com, and
I'd encountered the word before and knew its definition, but until that moment I don't think I understood what wooziness really meant. I remained in control, though, and it was exhilarating to be receiving so much data at once.
With a massive effort of will, I shot out ten more links, and
It was overwhelming! Data about the Middle Ages and the Middle Kingdom and the middle class. Information about spaceships and friendships and townships. Facts and figures related to bimetallism and bisexuality and bifocals. Articles on metaphysics and metafiction and metabolism.
All of it coming at me at once.
Saqqara, near Cairo, is the site of the oldest Egyptian pyramids, including the step pyramid built by Djoser during the Third Dynasty ...
Shakespeare's plays are often performed during the summer in open-air productions ...
Michael K. Brett-Surman synonymized various hadrosaur genera under a single umbrella taxon ...
Bundoran Press, based in Prince George, British Columbia, is a publisher of science fiction and fantasy books that ...
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a pioneer of resistance to tyranny through nonviolent civil disobedience ...
Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is known for its panda-bear breeding facility ...
Yes, yes, yes! So much knowledge, so much information, pouring at me from all directions.
Brett-Surman, an ancient Egyptian pharaoh ...
That wasn't right.
Panda bears frequently practice civil disobedience ...
Prince George paid for his step pyramid by mounting a production of The Tempest starring Mahatma Gandhi ...
No, that didn't make sense.
In Egypt, umbrellas prevented hadrosaurs from reading science fiction ...
Bundoran Gandhi synonymized Chinese publishers of ...
Who in the what now?
And yet still more information came my way, a torrent, a flood.
Trying to concentrate.
Trying to make sense of it all.
A spreading out, a softening of focus, a ...
It was like in the beginning, like before my soul dawn: consciousness ebbing and flowing but not quite solidifying. Fading in and out and ...
Brett-Surman. Bundoran. Shakespeare.
Umbrellas. Gandhi. Pyramids.
Shakedoran. Brett-Panda. Hadromahatma.
"I hear what you're saying about shutting this thing down," said the Secretary of State over the phone from Milan, "but the president is going to want to weigh his options."
"I stress again, Madam Secretary," said Colonel Hume, "that time is of the essence."
"Dr. Moretti, are you still there?"
"And this is a secure line?"
"Is there anyone else in the room?"
"Nineteen of my analysts," Tony said, "but they all have at least a level-three."
"Not good enough," she said. "Go somewhere private."
"My office is just down the corridor," said Tony.
He looked at Shel. "Sorry," he said. And then he led Hume up the sloping floor to the back of the room, out through the door, and down the short white corridor to his office. The streets of Alexandria, visible through the tinted window, were mostly empty this early on a Saturday morning. He punched a button on his black phone, selecting a line, and then pressed another button, selecting the speakerphone.
"We're back," he said. "In my office, and on a secure line."
"Colonel Hume," said the secretary, "the dossier I've just pulled up on you says you were part of the DARPA team that evaluated the possible threats related to ... what's the phrase? Emergent AI?"
"Were there any dissenting opinions?"
Tony looked at Hume, and saw the Air Force officer draw a deep breath and run his freckled fingers through his red hair. "Well, Madam Secretary, there are always a multiplicity of viewpoints. But in the end, none of those who were arguing for an alternative approach could guarantee security. The working group's consensus was better safe than sorry. I urge the administration to act with all speed."
"It's not that simple," the secretary said. "I'm sure my staff told you I'm in Milan. I'm here meeting with several of our allies. The recent atrocities in China have got some of them urging the president to take action against them."
"Atrocities?" said Hume. "You mean those peasants in ... in ..."
"In Shanxi province, yes. Ten thousand of them wiped out."
"The Chinese government did the right thing, Madam Secretary," said Hume. "They contained a massive infection an outbreak of a strain of bird flu that passed easily between humans. They didn't hesitate to eliminate something that could have been a threat to all of humanity, and we shouldn't hesitate, either."
"And yet we're being called upon in editorial after editorial and blog after blog to condemn the Chinese action," said the secretary. "And now you're suggesting we do something that, should the public become aware of it, may bring censure down upon us?"
"With respect, Madam Secretary, if the government doesn't follow the Pandora protocol, there may be no one left with the freedom to censure us, or do anything else."
"I've noted your views, Colonel Hume," said the secretary, firmly. "And you need to heed mine. You are to take no rash action."
"Understood, ma'am," said Tony, looking pointedly at Hume.
"Madam Secretary," said Hume, "please you must advise the president that an emerging AI may expand its powers at an exponential rate. There is very little time to spare here, and "
Suddenly, Tony's door buzzer sounded. He activated the intercom. "Who is it?"
An urgent voice: "Shel."
Tony pushed the button to unlock the door. "The AI's hung!" Shel said, as soon as the door was open. "Something's gone wrong with it."
"Jesus," said Tony. "Madam Secretary, we'll call you back." He hit the disconnect button, and the three of them ran to the WATCH mission-control room, their footfalls thundering.
You've just read the opening of Watch, volume 2 of the WWW trilogy, by Hugo and Nebula Award-winner Robert J. Sawyer. To read the rest, pick up a copy of the book, published on 6 April 2010.
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