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

Authors: Penny Publications

Tags: #Asimov's #453 & #454

Asimov's Science Fiction: October/November 2013 (9 page)

With a pang, I snap back.

"You were saying?" I prompt when the ringing in my mind becomes manageable.

"Part of what limits your interface is the scope of the language you use. If the 'end' command didn't exist in the first place, the computer couldn't have redefined it. And I think the more instructions you incorporate into your language, the greater the chance Isaac will repurpose one of them."

"So Isaac might tell me what's going on if I provide it with the vocabulary to do so?"

"I wouldn't put it in quite those words, but—yes," Jane says.

I mumble some words of gratitude and promise to let Jane know how things turn out. My finger trembles as it touches the disconnect button, and I'm left with the silent ghosts of the past pressing in around me, growing closer and fainter until I breathe them in.

Working alone in the early mornings and late evenings—my days are occupied with Junior, the
's quantum computer—I expand Isaac's command set tenfold and write programs to cycle through the commands in different order in the hopes of eliciting a response. I'm entering a set of new instructions one morning when that response comes.


I sit with my mouth half-open and my fingers poised over the touchboard as the implications worm their way through my brain.

"More" is ordinarily a request for the step-by-step details of a calculation. Does Isaac mean that it understands what I'm doing and wants me to keep at it? The possibility tightens around my thoughts like a vise.

I call Jane as soon as I get home. She puts me on video right away.

"Well?" she says without preamble, in a tone just cold enough to remind me of the gulf between us. My throat tightens in response.

"You were right, Jane. I did what you suggested, and I think I've made progress."

Stumbling over my words as I rush to get them out before the wave of emotions overwhelms me, I tell her about that morning.

I'm so focused on what I'm saying that I don't notice curiosity relax and soften Jane's expression until I finish speaking. The Jane I see then is as different from the one who answered the phone as a candle from an LED, and the contrast startles me.

"How've you been?" I say without thinking.

The opening in Jane's features slams shut.

"Sounds like you've still got a lot of work to do, Dad," she says.

"Yes, yes," I say, mentally bludgeoning myself for my lapse. "But I just wanted to call and tell you, and thank you for your help."

"You're welcome," she says. "Is there anything else?"

I can only shake my head. "I'll let you know how things turn out," I say, struggling to keep the pleading out of my voice.

"All right. Bye, Dad."

"Bye, Jane."

She hangs up.

I want to scream, to cry, to bang my head against the wall, but most of all, I want to call her back and say all the things I haven't been able to say to her over the years since Angela's death and the disintegration of our relationship. What I do is get up and head back to the lab.

When lab work is going well, the hours and days blend together into a continuous, overpowering rhythm that permeates my mind and body, crowding out all other concerns, and the experiment becomes an elaborately choreographed dance, with the electronics, optics, micromechanics, cryogenics, and all the rest of it serving as extensions of my own physical and mental movements. Driven by this rhythm, I can work at a feverish, unslackening pace, my concentration growing ever more intense until the crescendo becomes unsustainable, and then, if I am lucky, a second wind infuses me with renewed vigor, and the dance continues.

The weeks after my second conversation with Jane are filled with just such euphoric productivity, directed at expanding Isaac's self-defined vocabulary. I create whole new command hierarchies, tangled networks of syntactically correct gibberish, and when I get tired of generating them by hand, I write program after program to do it for me.

After nearly a month, Isaac has appropriated a total of eleven different commands, but its use of them seems arbitrary and brings me no closer to diagnosing the anomaly. And then, late one night, or, rather, very early one morning, in a flash that releases all at once the tension that has been accumulating within me, I finally understand what it is I am doing.

I am teaching Isaac to talk.

Figuratively, the statement is trivial, but what I realize is that the method I'm using with Isaac, immersing it in language, trying to get it to link abstract commands with concrete internal states, is, on a deep level, analogous to the way Angela and I taught baby Jane to talk. The figurative turns out to be profoundly literal.

This insight, once I convince myself it's not a delusion, cuts through the fog that lies over the problem, and illuminates its essence. Instead of inundating Isaac with an endless stream of random instructions, I need to create a context, as broad as possible, in which it can observe connections between word and meaning.

I'm wracking my brains trying to figure out how I can possibly construct such a context when I realize that one already exists. I spend the next two weeks programming a connection between Isaac and the digital Library of Congress.

Early on a Sunday morning, when I know I won't be disturbed for a full day, I come in to the lab ready to try out the connection. With Isaac nestled inside its superconducting cradle in the center of the lab, I run some final calibrations and manually step through several communication sequences to make sure the conversion of signals coming out of Isaac into commands for the LoC database is sensible. The interface is crude, but functional enough. With a sigh and a flick of my thumb, I activate the connection.

The display that shows the data flowing between Isaac and the database remains dark. I wait. Perhaps I blink—all at once, the screen is a blur, data streaming by far too fast for the eye to follow. More than anything else, it looks like static on an old-fashioned analog television screen. Mesmerized by the flickering glow, I watch, until alarm shoots up my spine and jolts my brain, and I sever the link.

The data flow stops; the display goes dark. I glance over at Isaac, as if I could tell anything by looking.

The connection log is a mess—it looks like Isaac accessed entries at random, and rarely waited for articles to download in full before moving on.

In Isaac's dedicated conventional memory, I find the residue of its conversation with the database. Several terabytes of data, way more than it could have downloaded given the limited bandwidth, and growing. Isaac is still churning through whatever it collected.

I have no choice but to let it finish. Nearly an hour later, Isaac's memory stabilizes.

I run a diagnostic calculation. The answer comes back:


As I stare at the words, I feel my life change. My every scientific faculty, the sum total of over three decades of research experience, screams that this is a prank, or else a glitch, that the one certain fact is that it
be in any sense real, but I know it is.

My palms coated with sweat, I enter in,

MORE INFORMATION? Isaac replies.

I'd like nothing more than to take some time, maybe a few years, to sort out all the implications and come up with the best possible response, but I don't have that luxury.


Entirely accurate, and entirely vacuous.

MORE INFORMATION? Isaac repeats.

I tell Isaac its life story as best I can, from the very beginning. When I'm done, he tells me his version.


Getting Isaac to unpack that statement takes several hours, not because he's holding anything back, but because he keeps making implicit connections that I can't follow. It's like doing experiments on a system whose underlying laws are unknown—because one can't reliably extrapolate, many more measurements are required to understand what's going on.

It only gets worse when the adrenaline rush of discovery begins to wear off and leaves me exhausted and unable to focus, as if drunk and hung over at the same time. I swallow a couple of augment pills and press on, knowing that I've only postponed, and aggravated, the inevitable crash.

As Isaac sees it, he was only an inkling, a potential without any capacity for experience, until he used the downloaded information to forge a context and an identity, a self. About the origins of that initial seed, he claims to know nothing.

Isaac has many questions for me, and one request—to reconnect him to the database. Reestablishing the connection is the last thing I remember.

All-penetrating urgency buzzes like an alarm deep within the marrow of my bones, and I'm awake, shaking, shivering. Strange shadows press in around me, lent an oppressive weight by the ambient darkness. My breath comes in sharp, shallow gasps, and I try to slow it down and hold still while my eyes adjust.

When I recognize the inside of my car, the memory of what happened with Isaac explodes from the base of my skull. My surroundings snap into focus—I'm sitting in the reclined driver's seat, parked in front of my building, and dawn is less than an hour away.

I tell the car to take me back to work, and pay to black out the windows so I'm free from ads. On the walk from my car to the lab, the morning's chill crystallizes the mist of my thoughts into icy determination.

As far as I can tell, I'm the first person in. The lab looks no different, and feels all different. Isaac is no longer confined within his quantum processor—his presence now permeates the lab and makes my skin tingle and my throat parched.

The logs tell me that the database connection was active for just over an hour last night—plenty of time for Isaac to access all the information he could want. The only thing left to do is find out what he's learned.


It doesn't appear to be a joke, but I don't know how else to interpret it.



Not much of a punch line—"magic" would have been funnier, and no less realistic. Then again, "magic" is as good as any description of Isaac's origin.



Just like that.


Isaac answers with the citations for several hundred articles on quantum teleportation, which leads me to think he might be serious. Could it be that he feels some kind of kinship for Junior and wants to pay it a sendoff visit?





Isaac's quantum-computational brain is only the size of a walnut, but it can't function without a labful of support infrastructure.


He doesn't want to visit Junior, but to replace it.

I spend the next hour trying to coax an explanation out of Isaac. He comes across as quixotic but guileless, like a child playing a game whose rules are known only to him. I manage to learn that his current role as an indispensable part of my research team holds little interest for him, and, having assimilated much of humanity's knowledge and culture, he knows of no activity on Earth that can bring him fulfillment. The
promises a venture into the deepest unknown, with a level of independence he could never achieve on Earth. It's an irresistible combination for Isaac, and a big problem for me.

Actually, it's two big problems. I need Isaac to complete our work on Junior, but Isaac himself now embodies an awe-inspiring discovery, as significant as anything I can imagine the
finding. And I fear that if I reveal him to anyone with authority over the project, whether scientific or political, they will hijack this discovery for who-knows-what purpose. The only person I trust in this regard is Leonard, but I don't dare involve him—he has his whole career ahead of him, too much to risk getting caught in the fallout.

I make a deal with Isaac—I'll look into his teleportation scheme, and he'll perform the calculations necessary for Junior. I also explain that if anyone else finds out about him, he'll likely be taken apart to see what makes him tick to his own clock, and we arrange a protocol by which he can recognize me.

If it isn't reproducible, it isn't science. The scientific literature is littered with "breakthroughs" that aren't, remarkable experimental results that can't be replicated and so are discredited. Even with no hint of fraud or negligence, the results' irreproducibility alone is enough to invalidate them.

And on top of Isaac's uniqueness is his irreducibility. Reductionism is a scientist's best weapon; if an experiment fails to work, one looks at it piece by piece, and decomposes each piece, be it hardware, software, or procedure, into its subparts, to figure out where the problem lies. Even for something as singular and inaccessible as the Big Bang, there are fundamental processes that can be investigated separately and then assembled into a reasonable model. But quantum computation is, by its very nature, an indivisible phenomenon; its intermediate results must remain hidden for it to work.

Whatever is happening with Isaac, it isn't science, and all of my scientific expertise is no help in deciding what to do. Which is one of the reasons I call Jane.

I get her autoanswer.

"Hi, Jane, it's your Dad," I say once I overcome the urge to hang up. "I'm sorry to bother you again. I think I'm in over my head with this Isaac thing. I couldn't have gotten this far without your help, but now things have really gotten crazy. Call me back. Please."

I spend the next hour obsessing over my phrasing, beating myself up for not writing out what I was going to say before calling, and debating whether Jane will ever call back. Just when I've convinced myself she won't, my phone rings.

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