Read Asimov's Science Fiction: October/November 2013 Online

Authors: Penny Publications

Tags: #Asimov's #453 & #454

Asimov's Science Fiction: October/November 2013 (10 page)


She smiles.

"Hi Dad. What's going on?"

By the time I finish telling her, she's rapt with excitement.

"If you're right, Dad—Wow! If Isaac has developed its own opinions and preferences, independently, then you've created—or discovered—or whatever—machine consciousness! Even people who study that stuff, the ones most invested in it, think it's decades away. And philosophy, psychology—half a dozen disciplines turned upside down overnight!"

"Maybe. The fact remains, I have no idea how Isaac became self-aware. I do know that the kinds of quantum computations that must be involved are incredibly fragile. Isaac's robustness is a miracle, above and beyond his existence, and I worry that the tests and probes needed to understand what's going on will be too destructive, even for whatever magic has kept him together so far. But can I justify not doing those invasive measurements, given that Isaac may well disintegrate at any moment even if left alone?"

"You haven't told anyone at your lab?"

"You're the only one who knows anything. If I tell people at work, things could spiral out of control very quickly. It's funny—I've always been proud of how open all our research is, not just here, but with anyone, anywhere in the world. The field's always been that way, maybe because the technical problems are so hard that if we didn't share all our best ideas, no one would make any progress. But now, with this, I feel like I can't let it get away from me."

"You'll have to tell people eventually, right?"

"Probably. I don't know. What it comes down to, is—does Isaac have rights? Because if he does, I think I have an obligation to protect him from people who'd disregard those rights. Am I crazy to think of it in those terms?"

"The whole thing's crazy, Dad! I haven't thought about this since early in grad school, but from what I remember, sentient machines should have rights, though the details will depend a lot on the situation." Jane's expression abruptly changes from thoughtful to exuberant. "So can I see it?" she asks, bouncing up and down in front of the screen.

"See what?"

"See Isaac, talk to it."

I cannot keep from gasping.

"You want to come? Here?"

"Of course! I'd be crazy not to. How about the day after tomorrow?"

"Are you serious?"

"I'll never forgive myself if I delay and miss out."

"Well, okay, great. Great!"

She nods. "Great."

My head is swimming while we talk about details—Jane insists on getting a hotel room, and I don't press the issue—and say our goodbyes.

What they do teach you about time, in a first-year course in relativity, is that while the past, in general, isn't well defined,
past is. It spreads out like a cone from the present moment to encompass everything that has a claim on you. A complementary cone envelops all the futures you can touch, leaving you pinned at the point, the double apex, where your future balances on your past.

Two days later, after eight years, I meet Jane at the train station. As much as I try to prepare myself, my first sight of her paralyzes my every muscle even as it wrings my heart. I repeat to myself that this is no dream, that the grown woman walking toward me with all of Angela's effortless poise is our daughter.

When Jane sees me, she tries to suppress a smile, can't quite.

"Hi, Dad."

"Hi, Jane." My arm reaches out toward her. "Can I help with your bag?"

She hesitates, for an instant. "I got it, thanks."

Every moment of the past eight years is a pin in my arm. I pull it back.

"You're all grown up." "You're just the same," she says, and I don't think she means it as an insult. She wants to see Isaac right away, but I convince her it's safer to wait until after dinner. At my apartment, I make roasted eggplant, one of her childhood favorites, and we talk about food, politics, science. When I ask if she's seeing anyone, she looks at her watch, and says, "I think it's probably time we go see Isaac."

The lab is nearly deserted, and the security guards have seen me bring enough visitors through not to pay us any attention. Neither of us says anything as I lead Jane down the hallway to the lab.

When I reach for the doorknob to enter the lab, I see my hand shaking, and realize that a part of me expects to find that Isaac is the same as ever, that I've imagined this whole thing.

Inside, I take a deep breath and enter the special code Isaac's supposed to recognize me by.


Jane and I gasp in unison.

"It's really real, isn't it, Dad?" she asks, her voice cracking.

"Yes," I affirm with my entire being. "Yes, Jane, it's real."

She looks at me, at the screen, down, back at me.

"Wait, are you disappointed? That I didn't make it up?"

She blushes.

"No, of course not, no. This is amazing, incredible! World-changing!"

I want so badly to jump up and embrace her. "World-changing," I echo.

Isaac leads me through his teleportation algorithm, with Jane doing her best to follow along. It requires two auxiliary quantum memory modules to be quantum-mechanically entangled with each other—meaning that we have to measure their joint properties without measuring either on its own. One of the modules must then be measured jointly with Isaac, with the outcomes of those measurements used to guide a sequence of similar joint measurements on the other module and Junior, which will, through the magic of quantum teleportation, reproduce the contents of Isaac's quantum memory in Junior's.

The algorithm's general outline is straightforward, but the specific measurement sequences are anything but. As Isaac walks me through them, explaining his reasoning behind the various choices and tradeoffs, I become more and more impressed by his ingenuity and the depth of his understanding. There is no doubt in my mind that I could spend years designing a teleportation algorithm without approaching the elegance and sophistication of Isaac's scheme. In the context of this problem, Isaac is a better physicist than me, better than anyone I can think of, and the awe I feel is mixed with no small measure of pride.

Assuming the algorithm is correct, two issues remain. The first is logistical—one of the quantum modules must be transported up to the orbital platform where the
is being built without any disturbance to its quantum state.

The second is existential, a question of life and death—quantum mechanics, while it permits teleportation, does not allow duplication, so the very measurements that create a copy of Isaac on the
must necessarily destroy the original. And the original will almost certainly be destroyed even if the teleportation algorithm fails.

I ask Isaac to estimate the likelihood of success. He replies with a list of potential sources of error—the exact numbers are hard to judge, but it looks like, even in the best case, the odds aren't much better than even.

A fifty-fifty chance of surviving, and Isaac doesn't seem the least bit concerned. At first I think I must be missing something, but then I realize Isaac is. The fear of death is visceral, biological, rooted in humanity's evolution, and Isaac has no biological drives and impulses. There's no reason to expect him to feel fear, any more than I'd expect him to feel hunger, or pain.

It hits me just how alien Isaac's psychology must be—because of his command of language, and because we only discuss physics, it's easy to overlook, but part of what makes Isaac such a great physicist must be that, free from the need for food or sleep, free from the worries about safety or comfort, free from the ten million distractions that percolate through human brains, he can focus totally on the problem at hand, and maintain that focus until he finds a solution. If that's true, there must be a host of problems, both practical and deep, in physics and elsewhere, that Isaac is the only mind in the world capable of solving. Sending him to the
even if successful, would waste all that potential for discovery on Earth.

But given how unconcerned Isaac seems about his survival, I don't see how I can compel him to stay behind and work on problems he's not interested in.

I describe my thinking to Jane.

"And what if you could coerce him?" she asks. "Wouldn't that be forced labor, enslavement?"

"But there's no telling what kind of impact he could have on Earth, on our biggest technological problems. What if he could save lives—many, many lives? Surely he owes us for creating him."

"Like a child owes its parents?" my daughter asks, and I have no answer.

I spend the remaining two days of Jane's visit teaching her enough quantum physics to allow her to understand how Isaac works, or at least how he was designed to work, and she teaches me enough about the philosophical principle of charity to convince me to trust Isaac to know, and express, his own desires.

With deadlines closing in, and considering the amount of work involved, I know it won't be easy to persuade the rest of the project's team to go along with the teleportation plan—or at least its disguised version, since I don't plan to share the truth about Isaac. I suspect Leonard, whose big-picture vision of the project is at least as deep as mine, may be the hardest to convince, and, conversely, his backing should go a long way in winning over the others.

I rehearse my most persuasive arguments and stop by Leonard's office one evening. Short, slouching, and the only man in the lab complex wearing sandals, he's standing before his wall touchboard, studying, with almost palpable concentration, a 3D model of Junior's computational topology.

I knock on his open door. He turns, and his whole demeanor changes as he refocuses his attention from the model onto me.

"Abe! What's up?"

"I've been thinking about Junior and risk mitigation, and I've decided it may be worthwhile to build in a backup quantum memory module. An entanglement reservoir, in case of a decoherence cascade in Junior's primary memory."

As he considers the idea, Leonard nods his head, slowly at first, then more vigorously.

"We wouldn't need it to be fast," he says, "so we could make it super-stable, totally isolated from everything."

"Exactly," I say, and launch into the particulars.

Leonard is so quick he fills in many of the details himself and answers his own questions right after he asks them. When I finish my pitch, he looks down.

"I just have one question, Abe," he says quietly, then his face swings up and his eyes fix on mine. "Were you ever going to tell me about Isaac?"

He raises his eyebrows, as if to let me know there's no use dissembling.

"How...?" is all I can manage.

"I noticed something goofy was going on, and when I tried to track it down, Isaac revealed itself." He throws his head back and thrusts out his arms, palms open and fingers spread out. "What the heck, Abe? Why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't want to involve you, for your sake. There's no telling how things'll turn out."

He scrunches up his nose and the corners of his eyes, and rakes his fingers over his head. "You know me better than that! The biggest discovery of our lifetimes! You should have told me."

"You're right, I should have. I'm sorry. I should have told you."

He shakes his head, and a broad smile spreads over his face.

"I'd be a lot more mad if I wasn't so damn excited. How'd it happen?"

I tell him the whole story, and his questions, respectful but probing, bring into focus the bumbling ineptitude of my initial investigations and make painfully clear, though I know it isn't his intent, just how much easier things would have been if I'd told him early on.

"So you want to seriously explore teleportation?" Leonard asks at the end of my explanation.

"I do. Why—do you think it's a mistake?"

"I think I agree with you," he says, and nods. "It's just, the stakes are so high! I wish there was a way to be sure. Could we ever forgive ourselves if it fails, if Isaac is destroyed?"

"Isaac knows the risks better than anyone, and he doesn't seem to have any doubts."

One corner of his mouth lifts up. "Is Isaac capable of doubt?"

I can only shrug.

"All right, Abe," Leonard says. "Since Isaac's already done all the hard physics, I guess all that's left for us is some impossible engineering."

"Yup," I say, more grateful than ever to whatever fates sent Leonard my way.

Working side-by-side with Leonard on problems no one's tackled before is a reminder of what I've been missing in the recent years of running a large, multi-institution project. Between us, there's no pride, no ego, only intense curiosity and a willingness to bring to bear whatever methods help us get to a solution. My more physical intuition helps guide Leonard's deep mathematical thinking and his derivations motivate my designs, back and forth, like a resonating wave, with an occasional sprinkling of Isaac's quantum wizardry, so that our combined capability is not doubled but squared. After a few weeks, our concept for realizing Isaac's teleportation scheme takes root, branches out, blossoms. It is exhausting, exhilarating work, and, all too soon, it is complete—not because we're finished, but because we're out of time.

Klat-harr-rik-ik-harr, klat-harr-rik-ik-harr. Late in the evening before I go up on the final
tune-up mission, Leonard and I are running the last of our rounds of tests, simulating pieces of the teleportation protocol, when the main readout screen goes dark.


"Hck!" goes Leonard's throat.

I glance over—his eyebrows are doing their best to join their follicle brethren atop his head. He looks at me, squints, purses his lips, tilts his head, shrugs.

"I can see where Isaac's coming from," he says. "His life depends on us staying focused tomorrow." He pauses, then adds, "No pressure."

"Right. You know, part of the reason I went into physics over, say, medicine, is so there'd be no chance anything I worked on would ever be life-or-death. Joke's on me."

I ask for the nth time.

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