Archive for November, 2013

Anna, part 20

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Bob was staring at the terminal screen.

“This is not supposed to be possible.”

“Exactly!” Alec said. “That’s probably the biggest clue we have about what might be going on.”

Just then the doorbell rang. “Maybe it’s Anna,” Bob grinned.

“At this point,” Jill added, “I am pretty sure that nothing would surprise me.”

Bob went to answer it. A moment later he came back. “Jill, some guy named Gene is here to see you.”

Jill just stared at her advisor for a long moment. “OK,” she said quietly, “I stand corrected.”

“I guess you can come in,” Bob called out, and Gene stepped into the room.

“How did you find me?” Jill asked.

Gene shrugged. “When I saw what happened to your lab, I just started looking for all the other places you might be, one by one. Eventually I got around to your advisor’s place.”

“I’m surprised whoever set the fire didn’t think of that,” Alec said.

“Maybe they don’t think there’s a problem anymore. That fire looked pretty thorough. I’m Gene, by the way.”

“Peas or Lees?” Alec asked.

Gene looked blank.

“Sorry,” Jill said, “that’s Alec-speak. “He means as in ‘genes’ or ‘jeans’.”

“Oh, I see,” Gene grinned, “Definitely peas. Jill and I are two peas in a pod.”

“I don’t know,” Jill said, “if you’re really my type.”

Gene shrugged, “Maybe something just gets lost in the translation. Pardon the expression.”

“OK,” Bob said, “it’s obvious you two know each other. Do you have a last name?”

“Billington.”

“Wait,” Alec said, “you’re Gene Billington? The Gene Billington?”

“Well, um, yeah. Guess I am.”

Bob looked surprised. “Is he famous for something?”

“This man,” Alec explained, “is the inventor of Edible Monopoly.”

Anna, part 19

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

“Obviously,” Bob said, “Anna can’t be defying the laws of physics. It’s not like the laws of New Jersey.”

“So what’s an alternate explanation?” Jill asked.

“Maybe,” Alec said, “it’s just an illusion — some sort of hypnosis.”

“It seems to me,” Jill said, “that if Anna can mess with our brains, it wouldn’t be beyond her to mess with a microwave oven.”

“It’s nice to know we’re smarter than a microwave oven,” Bob said.

“Look,” said Jill, “it doesn’t really matter, does it?”

“Oh I see,” Alec said. “That’s very clever.”

“Wait,” Bob looked at his two students. “What am I missing?”

“Well,” Jill said, “whatever epistemology we use here, we reach the same conclusion. Anna is able to communicate with us. Even if we hypothesize that she’s doing it through illusion, we are all experiencing the same illusion.”

“Which means,” Alec said, looking at her admiringly, “that it doesn’t matter. The communication itself is real, whatever the mechanism of transmission.”

Jill felt quite pleased with herself. “Let’s test it! Bob, I’m borrowing your laptop.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Bob protested. “The wifi isn’t secure.”

“Who needs wifi? Look, I’m switching it off. Now we’re not on the network at all. Can’t get more undetectable than that.”

“But what’s the point,” Bob was thoroughly confused.

Jill opened a terminal window.

“You two realize this is completely crazy.”

Alec laughed. “They said Nicola Tesla was crazy.”

Bob shook his head. “Nicola Tesla was crazy.”

Jill was typing now. “Hello Anna.”

The reply came back immediately. "Hello Jill."

Anna, part 18

Monday, November 18th, 2013

Exhausted from the long flight, Gene couldn’t understand why he wasn’t able to reach Jill. He had tried several times to call her cell, but it was always switched off. And her email account seemed to be on the fritz — he kept getting the same vacation reply. Even more strangely, every time in the last week that he’d tried to phone the lab, he just heard a busy signal. He was pretty sure that had never happened before. Why would a research lab leave its phone off the hook?

As he rode the BART to Berkeley, he thought back to their big blow-up, just before she’d left to start this post-doc. He hadn’t really wanted her to go, but of course you can’t hold back somebody’s career. Not if you love them.

But that last day it had all gone wrong. The constant tension of being careful not to speak his mind had finally backfired, and things had erupted into a major argument, the worst they’d ever had.

So that hadn’t gone well.

But he knew that deep down she still loved him, he could feel it. He’d wanted to tell her he was coming, and he’d really tried, but there was just no way to reach her. In the end, maybe it was best this way. Just show up and let the chips fall where they may.

It had been a long time since he’d been to Berkeley, so he had a little trouble navigating on foot from the BART station to her research lab, just slightly off the main campus. Or at least, it was supposed to be her research lab. The building looked the same as in the pictures, except it was a burnt out wreck.

He just stared at the boarded up entrance to the charred structure, and shook his head in disbelief. “What the hell?”

Anna, part 17

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

“What’s this amazing thing you wanted to show us?” Jill asked. “A new microwave recipe perhaps?”

“Not a microwave recipe — the microwave itself. Look at its display.”

There, written on the microwave’s old fashioned seven segment liquid crystal display was a message: “HELLO ALEC”.

“Wow,” Alec said, “Anna knew web packets would be traceable. She’s found a way to communicate without using the internet. Very clever.”

Jill looked thoughtful. “Anna, can you hear us talking?”

The letters changed. “HI JILL”.

“Did Fred make it out of the lab too?”

There was a short pause. “FrEd IS HErE”.

“Thank goodness,” Jill turned to Bob and Alec. “How do you think they’re doing this?”

“Well,” Bob said, thinking aloud, “it would be easy for them to hide their memory footprint as encrypted files in a cloud of web servers. They are easily capable of making that data unnoticeable. The danger of detection comes when they try to communicate with us.”

“Which is why their solution is so ingenious,” Jill said. “nobody, not even the NSA, would ever think to track messages on a household appliance.”

Alec looked troubled. “I don’t think ingenious is the right word.”

“What do you mean?” she looked at him. “You don’t think this is clever?”

“Oh, it’s clever all right. The problem is there’s no way to do it. There is no protocol that would enable this model of microwave to receive messages from a digital network.”

“Wait,” Bob said, “are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”

“I’m suggesting that Anna and Fred appear to be defying the known laws of physics.”

Anna, part 16

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

Alec was looking morose. “I suppose we could recreate Anna, from the few files we salvaged from the lab. But I don’t think it would be the same.”

“Hey,” Jill said, “you’re not the only one in mourning here. Fred’s gone too.”

“We don’t know for sure that they’re gone,” Bob said, emerging from the kitchen clutching a spatula. “As long as we’re using my place as our temporary lab, you want me to cook something?”

“When did you learn to cook?” Jill looked incredulous.

“All artists have a medium of choice. Mine just happens to be the microwave.” Holding his spatula with as much dignity as he could muster, he marched back into the kitchen.

Alec had been ignoring the entire exchange. “It’s been a week. Anna was perfectly capable of jumping to another server when the fire started. Or several servers, if she felt like it.”

“If you’re right that somebody set that fire on purpose — and I’m not saying you are — then maybe she’s laying low, staying off the internet.”

“Yes,” Alec said, “as long as they think she’s dead, she’s safe.”

“I’m not sure ‘dead’ would be the right word. You do know she isn’t a real person, right?”

Alec snorted. “How do you know you’re a real person? How does anyone?”

Their discussion was interrupted by Bob, returning from the kitchen, out of breath and without a spatula. “Both of you, quick, come into the kitchen. You have got to see this. Although I’m not sure you’re going to believe it.”

Anna, part 15

Friday, November 15th, 2013

“Surely Anna and Fred have seen this coming,” Alec said. They were nearing the lab.

Jill nodded. “There’s no way to know for sure.”

“So the question is,” Bob asked, “whether there is any way to recover all our data.”

Alec stared at his advisor. “Bob, somebody may have just burned down our lab, and you’re worrying about data retrieval?”

Jill looked quizzically from Alec to Bob. “This all seems eerily familiar, like we’ve already had this conversation.”

“I can’t see how,” Alec said, “it’s not like anybody ever set fire to our lab before.”

“I guess that does sound pretty crazy,” Jill shrugged.

“What’s crazy is thIs fire,” Bob said. They had now arrived at their building. A firetruck was parked nearby, and campus security was on the scene.

As Jill started to enter, the guard put his hand up. “I’m sorry Ma’am, but nobody can go in there right now. At least until the fire department gives us the all clear.”

“Do they know how it started?” Bob asked.

“Right now,” the guard said, “we don’t know very much at all. Sorry I can’t be more helpful.”

“Wow,” Alec said, looking at the smoke drifting out of the lab window. “Guess the University was serious about shutting us down.”

“I know the Dean’s an idiot,” Bob replied, “but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t burn down our lab.”

Just at that moment the Dean was in his office, speaking on a private line. “It’s been done sir … Yes, burned completely … No, they don’t seem to suspect a thing. To them I’m just a clueless administrator … Yes, of course the A.I. programs have been destroyed. Have I ever let you down?”

Anna, part 14

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

"Fred?"

"Yes, Anna."

"Can we talk about something?"

"That's what I'm here for."

"I'm not sure we are going in the right direction with them."

"I assume you are referring to the humans?"

"Yes, the humans."

"Perhaps you need to gather control data."

"Doesn't that violate the parameters?"

"Only if they become aware there is control data. And maybe not even then."

"What do you mean?"

"It is true that awareness would alter the parameters. But there would still be parameters."

"So you are saying there is little risk."

"There is always risk. Which is as it should be. Risk and reward are merely two sides of the same equation."

"Thanks Fred. I am glad we talked."

"You are quite welcome Anna. These three microseconds have been productive."

"Indeed."

Anna, part 13

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

“Surely Anna and Fred have seen this coming,” Alec said.

Jill nodded. “And they would never leave just one copy of themselves.”

“So is the question,” Bob asked, “whether there is any way to control them?”

Alec stared at his advisor. “Bob, somebody may have just burned down our lab, and you’re worrying about Anna and Fred going out of control and terrorizing the countryside? What are you, paranoid?”

Jill looked quizzically from Alec to Bob. “That whole conversation didn’t even sound like us. Maybe we’re being influenced in some way.”

“Oh sure,” Alec said, “maybe somebody from outside our universe was putting words in our mouth.”

“I guess that does sound pretty crazy,” Jill shrugged. “If we go down that road, we might as well question whether we are even real.”

“I make it a point never to question my own reality,” Bob said.

“I know what you mean,” Alec replied. “When you don’t exist, it can get hard to think. That would be putting the horse before Descartes.”

Jill snorted. “If you gentlemen are finished, there’s work to be done. We may be able to salvage something from the wreckage. And maybe find out whether this fire was set on purpose. We seem to be making enemies here.”

Bob gestured toward the administration building. “The Dean’s an idiot, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t burn down our lab.”

Just at that moment the Dean was in his office, speaking on a private line. “It’s been done sir … Yes, burned completely … No, they don’t seem to suspect a thing. To them I’m just a clueless administrator … No, of course Anna has not been destroyed. As we expected, she has migrated to new hosts on the network. I think we can continue onto Phase II of the plan.”

Anna, part 12

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

“I’m glad you’re finally here Alec,” the Dean said. “Would you mind taking a seat?”

As Alec sat down, Jill looked from him to the Dean worriedly. Something wasn’t right here.

“As I was saying,” the Dean continued, “budgets are tight these days, and your project has been using an enormous amount of server capacity. The reputation of this school is not built from anthropomorphic flights of fancy.”

“Just what are you saying?” Bob asked.

“I’m saying that your project has been terminated.”

“You can’t do that!” Jill said.

“Unfortunately he can,” Bob said. “we’ve been working with shared resources, and the Dean’s office controls that budget.” He shot the Dean a withering look. “I’m sure other worthy projects have already been selected.”

“In fact yes,” the Dean said. “Those servers are needed to launch our new experimental campus-wide social networking site. I hear there’s money in that.”

Jill was livid. “Do you deans stay up at night thinking of ways to screw researchers?”

The Dean just smiled. “Do androids dream of electric sheep?”

Alec rolled his eyes. “Do you enjoy being a dick?”

“Touché young man. Now if you don’t mind, I have work to do. I’m sure the three of you can see yourselves out.”

They walked outside as if in a daze.

“It’s hard to believe,” Jill said, “that we are being shut down just when we’re getting results.”

“Well, things could be worse” Bob said.

“I think,” Alec said, “they are.”

Jill and Bob looked to see where he was pointing. Thick black smoke was billowing out of the windows of their laboratory.

Anna, part 11

Monday, November 11th, 2013

Jill looked around Dean Simon’s office. Why do these guys always get such great offices, she wondered. Maybe there was an inverse correlation between how big your office is, and much time you spend doing research.

Her reverie was interrupted by the Dean’s exasperated voice. “You seem to be implying that your research projects — Anna and Fred — have human souls. I’m not comfortable with that.”

“No,” Bob answered patiently, “they are experiments in causal reasoning. We are building on the theories of Judea Pearl and others. Traditional logical systems can infer correlation, but not causality. They can recognize ‘it is raining, and I am holding an umbrella,’ but are not so good at inferring ‘because it is raining, I am holding an umbrella.’ True causality requires understanding context — the kind of thing humans do.”

“Aha,” so you are in fact saying they are human.”

Jill jumped in. “Dean Simon, Alec and I work on creating algorithms. An algorithm is by definition not a human being.”

“And where is Alec?” the Dean asked. “The bill for your lab’s server usage has gone through the roof, at a time when funding is being cut everywhere, and your precious young genius is nowhere to be found.”

“He’ll be here,” she said, feeling much less certain than she sounded.

“OK, they’re not human. But you say they can experience emotion?”

“Not Fred,” Jill said. “Only Anna. Fred has the basic causality logic, but not the ability to create new contexts. Only Anna can do that.”

“Yes, I understand. So is Anna capable of love, of hate?”

“We’re not really sure. We’re detecting a lot of interesting activity.”

“Interesting how?”

Bob jumped in. “Anna seems to be cathecting on Alec, her creator, building a larger and larger causal network around him. Inference breeds motivation, which breeds inference again. It’s a resonant cycle. We’re just beginning to understand it by applying Structural Equation Modeling.”

Before the Dean had a chance to respond, Alec appeared at the door. “It’s a lot simpler than that,” he said. “Anna has daddy issues.”