SFWRITER.COM > Novels > Watch > Opening Chapters
Copyright © 2010 by Robert J. Sawyer. All Rights Reserved.
Volume 2 of the WWW Trilogy
by Robert J. Sawyer
[Want to read a synopsis of Volume 1, Wake, first
to refresh your memory? See here.]
I read that one company is importing all of
Wikipedia into its artificial-intelligence projects. This means
when the killer robots come, you'll have me to thank. At least
they'll have a fine knowledge of Elizabethan poetry.
Founder of Wikipedia
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
More: it was a reality ruled by the invisible force of
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
Most of all it was a realm of material objects with heft
and texture and color, of items that moved or could
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,
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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 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
Oh, wrote Webmind. Then I must investigate
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,
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"Right, right," said the guy. "I saw it on the news and on
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.
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
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
"And, well, remember the Zipf plots we did on the patterns they
He nodded again. Zipf plots showed whether a signal contained
"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
"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 ...
"A what?" her mom said.
Caitlin spread her arms. "It's a consciousness, an intelligence,
that's emerged spontaneously, somehow, in the infrastructure of
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
"No, Mom. For Pete's sake, this is real."
"Has he asked you to meet him?" her mother demanded. "Asked for
"No! Mom, I know all about online predators. It's nothing like
"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
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
"Look, come up to my room," Caitlin said. "I'll show
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
Hello! ma honey
Hello! ma ragtime gal
Send me a kiss by wire
Baby, ma heart's on fire!
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
And then her father spoke. "Barb," he said, "care to say hello
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
Sorry, discreet. Circumspect.
I am guided by your judgment.
And the transcript stopped. "Yes?" said Tony, looking now at
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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,
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,
The girl surprised her. "Is this Caitlin?" she asked in perfect
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.
"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
"Is everything all right?" he asked. "Your eyePod? Your
"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
"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
"Masayuki? Malcolm. It's real." He gave the handset back to
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
"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
"I mean if this is an emergent entity, it might "
"It might what?" snapped Caitlin. "Decide it doesn't like
"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,
"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
"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
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
But it seemed more likely that this text was cut because someone
presumably Caitlin herself didn't like what
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
Title: Changing of the Guard
Date: Saturday 6 October, 00:55 EST
Music: Lee Amodeo, "Nightfall"
I got a feeling I'm going to be pretty scarce for the next little
while, folks. Things they be a-happenin'. It's all good
miraculous, even but gotta keep it on the DL. Suffice it
to say that I told my parents something el mucho grande tonight,
and they didn't freak. Hope other people take it as well as they
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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, if anything, her websight seemed clearer now, sharper,
more focused. The real-world skills were spilling over into this
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
There, for her, and her alone, to see: the actual workings of
She was pleased to note that after a night of doubtless continued
growth in intelligence and complexity, it looked the same as
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:
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
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
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
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
Caitlin frowned. She actually considered its old way of speaking
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
... 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
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
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,
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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,
"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
"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
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,
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,
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
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
"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
"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,
"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
"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
"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,
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
"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
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.
Copyright © 2010 by Robert J. Sawyer. All rights reserved.
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