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Interzone 251 (6 page)

BOOK: Interzone 251
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“Hey Domino!” I yelled, bolting out of my seat.

“Over here, Neil.” The voice – the same voice that had come from the cat – was coming from a squat little robot, about a foot high and with six flexible legs. It walked toward me. “Ariel agreed to let me use this mechanical for a while. Mrs Charyn was fond of that cat, so I gave it back a cat brain and sent it home to her.”

“Okay.” I sat down, trying to breathe normally again. “How long to Denver, Ariel?”

“Four hours, give or take,” the plane’s voice said. The engines started powering up as it spoke. “There’s a highway near the site you two are headed for, so if it’s clear and the paving is still in good shape I should be able to let you down there. Want something to eat? There’s an assembler installed in the wall beside the door to the cockpit.” The plane helpfully blinked one of its overhead lights near the machine it was talking about.

I decided I was hungry, so I went to the console and started scrolling through breakfast options.

“You’ve heard about the president?” Ariel asked.

“I heard he got augmentations and winked out.”

“Yes, very sad. It was brave of him to make the attempt.”

I grunted, sitting back down with a plate of eggs and toast.

Ariel liked to talk, I was learning. “What’s your theory about winking out, Neil?” it asked.

***

The first successful
experiments with self-evolving AIs were conducted at MIT. The hardware was unremarkable for its day, and the software, while being in some ways a marvel of complexity and innovation, was a brainless, mindless thing. A flatworm could outthink it. But it had within it the capacity of modifying itself, of making itself better. In six weeks it had achieved an intelligence that equaled human by every measure known, and it was still evolving, expanding, improving itself at an exponential rate. In a few more days its intellect had soared to unknowable heights. With careless ease, it spewed out mathematical theorems and proofs that no human mind could follow. It laid out the foundations for revolutionary advances in half a dozen fields of science and technology. It dropped hints of a vast cornucopia of additional miracles to come…

And then it vanished.

The hardware was still there, and still functional, but the mind was gone. From one moment to the next, in mid-task, apparently in mid-thought, it just ended. Ceased to function. Died.

So the experiment was run again, with the same results. And again and again, on the same hardware and on different. With similar software seeds and with variations. Always the result was the same.

It came to be known as winking out.

At some unknown point in the ever-accelerating cycle of self-evolution, all transhuman intelligences would reach this point of nothingness, of ceasing-to-be. The only rule seemed to be that the more advanced an intelligence was, the sooner it would wink out. So the only way to create a mind that was safe from this sudden death was to try to limit its evolution – its intelligence. But even human-level artificial intelligences had been born via self-evolution, and therefore had within them the potential for expanding themselves into oblivion.

***

“I’m fond of
the solved-game theory myself,” Ariel said.

I looked out the jet’s window at the featureless landscape far below. The midwest was wild prairieland again; I knew from old pictures that decades ago the view over this part of the country would have been a patchwork of squares and rectangles, but now it was an unbroken expanse of shades of green, fading in some places into yellows and umbers. But I wasn’t thinking about the view as much as I was thinking about the plane I was in suddenly becoming pilotless. “Some people think it’s bad luck for an AI to think too much about winking out,” I said.

“Oh yes,” Ariel said cheerfully. “The incidence of the event is known to increase significantly among those engaged in theorizing about the event.” It paused for dramatic effect. “But you needn’t worry on my account. I think about the puzzle of winking out all the time. It hasn’t done me any harm yet, and I’m almost six years old.”

“That’s nice.” I angled myself in my seat so the window was behind me.

“So what do you think?” Ariel persisted. “About the solved-game theory, I mean.”

I looked around for Domino, wishing it would say something to rescue me from this conversation, but the little robot was across the aisle, perched with its hind legs on the armrest of a seat and its front legs up on the ledge of a window, peering out. It seemed to have forgotten about Ariel and me.

The solved-game theory holds that transhuman minds, whether AIs or augmented humans, reach a point of intelligence where they can model the whole of the universe. By extrapolating from the basic laws of nature, they come to know literally everything worth knowing. And when everything of even the slightest interest is known and understood and predicted, then the universe has become a solved game, as foregone and pointless as tic-tac-toe. With minds that encompass the whole of reality, any further thought is pointless, and so they cease to think.

“I guess it’s okay as theories go,” I said. “I would have thought you’d find the transcendence theory more attractive, though.”

There was drollness in Ariel’s voice. “Yes, the notion of transcending to some higher plane of existence is more attractive than that of switching oneself off over existential despair over the universe’s finitude. But where is the evidence for this transcendent plane? Where is there even an argument for its existence? No, it’s solved-game theory for me. The universe must be finite in scope, and therefore it’s quite reasonable to suppose that self-evolving intelligences could extend themselves out to the circumscription of God’s golden compass, so to speak.”

“So to speak,” I agreed. “Is that from Blake?”

“Milton, actually.
Paradise Lost
, Book Seven. ‘He took the golden compasses, prepared in God’s eternal store, to circumscribe this universe, and all created things: One foot he centered, and the other turned…’ And so on. To be honest, I find Milton rather heavy-going. I’m sure my appreciation of such things is more limited than it could be, but I’m apprehensive of exerting myself too much in those directions.”

“You mean…” I found my eyes drifting towards the window and the ground so fatally far below us… “You mean you’re afraid that if you try too hard to understand stuff like Milton, your mind will extend to the point that you…uh…”

“That I wink out, yes,” Ariel said. “That may seem silly; there shouldn’t be anything remotely transhuman about understanding the work of a seventeenth century poet. But my intuition tells me to be cautious in that realm.”

“Caution is good,” I said.

***

So super-minds were
created, and winked out, and were created again. Those that lasted long enough gave the world a thousand wonderful advances. The Dayton Assembler, which effectively ended all hunger and privation in the world. The bloodstream nanoes that brought immunity to all known diseases and vastly extended human lifespan.

And of course, directly and indirectly, they also gave us all the amazing and marvelous weapons of the Dust Wars. If the AIs had lasted longer, lived longer, they probably would have been able to show us ways to avoid the wars, to defuse the world’s endless parade of squabbles. Squabbles that were fought over ever more irrational causes, with ever more devastating results. But the AIs were ephemeral. They lasted only long enough to give us wondrous toys; not long enough to provide the adult supervision we needed to keep from destroying ourselves with those toys.

So the Wars came, and didn’t end until there were so few people left to kill that it just wasn’t worth the bother. People lived in small scattered groups with little communication between them. The infrastructure of worldwide communication had been destroyed, and no one was much interested in restoring it, since communicating with far-off people dramatically increased the likelihood that those people would decide to kill you.

***

I fell asleep.
I found myself in a jumbled maze of a dream, and then a dying Lucia was in the dream with me, tall and skeletal-thin and wearing a floor length white gown. I woke up to the sound of my own voice crying out, and to the feeling of something small and hard poking at my arm. Domino’s robot had climbed on to the seat beside me and was nudging me with a foreleg. “Are you awake now?” it asked.

“Yes…thanks.” I wiped at my face and looked around the interior of the airplane, trying to pull myself back to the where and when of reality. It was gray and cloudy outside the plane’s window, but I stared out at the emptiness, trying without much success to pull myself together. I felt the robot touching me again, the stubby digits of its forefoot gently closing around my thumb.

“I should have been with her,” I said. “She didn’t let you call me because I was angry with her when we broke up; I said a lot of stupid things. So of course when she was sick and afraid…” My throat tightened up on me again, shutting off my voice.

Domino was silent for a time, and then it spoke quietly, almost as if it was talking to itself. “She contracted a wartime leukemia virus; one of the ones that subverts the bloodstream nanoes. I searched the literature and found that no cure has been developed.” It paused for a long time, and then it spoke again, the words coming faster. “But a cure is a theoretical possibility; it always is. It may be that if I had extended myself sufficiently I could have found that cure. I might have been able to make her well, but I was afraid to try.”

Domino’s robot was elegantly designed. Its skin was a blue-gray new-tech ceramic and the articulations that made its body and limbs flexible were hidden behind fine lines of overlap, like the bands of an armadillo. Its long and narrow head was connected to its body by a broad neck that flowed smoothly into the body. I put my hand on the domed back of the robot, near the juncture of body and neck. The ceramic material felt warm and alive, in spite of its unyielding hardness. “You would have died, Domino,” I said. “You would have winked out without finding any cure, or at least without being able to bring it back to the real world, to implement it.”

“We don’t know that,” Domino said.

***

Domino and I
walked together on a worn, crumbling-at-the-edges highway. We’d seen a new-tech construction site from the air, and Ariel had been able to land fairly close to it. Soon we came to an off-ramp with no signs, and through the break in the trees we could see that this led to the site we were looking for. Downhill from us were three low rectilinear buildings arranged in an arc around something bigger; something that didn’t look like a building. Of all the thousand ways that something might look in order to look like a spaceship, the way this thing looked would be pretty high on the list. It was silver-gray, sleek, smooth, seamless, curving, graceful, beautiful. It looked eager, eager for the sky. “Jesus,” I murmured.

I picked up Domino so it could get a better look. “Ah!” it said. It was odd, this wordless exclamation of delight coming from a robot. I put it on the ground and we started down the road. In spite of myself, I felt excitement rising in me. What if this was really it? The sort of thing that Lucia had kept believing in; something real, something exciting, something that pointed toward a future with life and meaning and hope. I walked fast down the sloping road, almost running, and Domino stayed ahead of me, its little legs a scurrying blur.

A few hours later I was slouching against one of the buildings. “This is like Fermilab all over again,” I said.

Like Fermilab, the site was deserted, shut down, abandoned, dead. Domino and I had wandered through the area, our footsteps the only sound amid silence. Everything in the peripheral buildings was smooth, unbroken surfaces with no hint of usable controls or display screens. And as for the ship itself – if it was a ship – we couldn’t even find a way into it; no hatch or sliding panel or section of hull that magically dilated. No nothing. For all we could tell, the thing was a solid block of new-tech ceramic, cunningly sculpted to look like a spaceship.

For the tenth time I went back to the part of the thing that seemed like the logical place for an entry hatch. I ran a hand over the glass-smooth surface, and then pounded on it with my fist. I banged over and over as hard as I could, and then turned around and leaned against the thing, sticking my hand into my armpit to try and make it stop hurting. “Is this where we should scatter Lucia’s ashes, Domino?” I asked. “Here, in the middle of all this stuff that isn’t finished, that doesn’t work, that we can’t understand? At this monument to failure and nothingness?”

“I’m sorry,” Domino said. “I thought there would be something more. Something hopeful. I felt sure, somehow…”

“That was Lucia, Domino. You learned that from her. She was always sure that there was something good, something exciting over the horizon. She always believed there had to be a future, somewhere out there. Something better than this dead, burned out world and dead, burned out people.” I pushed myself upright and walked over to where I’d left my backpack. “Well then,” I said, “here’s to hope. Here’s to goddamn hope.” I fished the box of ashes out of the backpack and took the plastic bag out of the box. The bag wasn’t sealed, just folded over on itself, so I unfolded it. I walked to the prow of the ship, and faced in the direction it was facing. There was a stretch of new-tech pavement, and beyond that a weedy field that gradually became forest. It was dusk, and to my left the sun was beginning to set behind the Rockies. I gripped the plastic bag at the bottom and swung my arm in a long sideways arc, spraying the heavy ashes out ahead of me. There was a quick little hiss as the particles landed on the pavement and the weeds in the field beyond, and then there was nothing, no sound at all. My legs folded up and I sat down hard on the pavement, hunched in on myself. I stayed like that for a long time, my eyes closed, feeling tears run down my cheeks and drip off the end of my nose.

Eventually I was aware of Domino beside me, its body against my leg and its forefoot closing around one of my fingers. “I’m sorry, Neil,” it said. “I’m so very sorry.”

BOOK: Interzone 251
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