In war-torn Kurdistan, a group of traumatized orphans is given a gift that could change their lives and the lives of everyone in the world, while in Washington, DC, an elderly woman undergoes medical procedures that radically change her life.
My brother struggles as I crush him to my side. Aunt Ezo, at the front door, her AK-47 at the ready, yells “Runrunrunrun GO!”
I rush through the back door into air and fall, still holding Azul: The step is gone. Thunderous thuds echo behind me and end with machine gun chatter, which spurs me to my feet. Azul fights like a wild animal. “Let go! My party!”
Drones dart through smoke-filled air. Dodging sparking wires, I gain the pergola and set Azul on his feet. Winter-dry grape leaves ignite. Licked by their flame, twenty helium birthday balloons pop as I drag him behind the stone fireplace.
Two soldiers leap from the back door and sprint toward us. Ezo, silhouetted in the doorway, raises her gun.
The men drop. Then Ezo spins and collapses into the courtyard, clearly dead.
Azul yanks my arm, but I can’t move. In the last five minutes, I was informed that our parents had just died in a souk bombing. At that moment, our house was attacked. Now Ezo, a revolutionary soldier for twenty years, is gone. She came today to plead with my parents to leave. “The battle is coming this way,” she said. But they had heard this before. Their response, as always, was “This is our home,” and it was—the nucleus of our extended family since 1930, nearly a century.
Then they went out for last-minute party supplies.
The back wall of our two-story stone house crashes to the ground, burying Ezo and the dead soldiers. Azul shrieks “Dapîra!” as our grandmother’s red shawl floats from the inferno, crisping to ash.
She was still in the house.
I grab him and stumble through the ruined courtyard wall. Branches from the downed tree of life, which shaded years of cousins at play, whip our faces and rip my long, festive skirt.
A car zooms down the alley. I wave my arms. The door pops open. I thrust Azul in first, and then climb in.
A skinny, seedy-looking guy with a bleeding cut on his cheek is in the driver’s seat, but the self-driving light is on. The car accelerates, bucking over debris. The guy points at my hand. “Ring.”
Ezo’s gold UN Human Rights ring, with its raised image of a child, is on my ring finger. Through the blur, I remember her pulling it from her own finger and slipping it onto mine, saying, “Your mama and papa are dead. Get out of the city. Remember us. Be strong.”
The guy grabs my hand and yanks on the ring. Azul bites his ear, hard. He gives Azul a blow to the head. Azul kicks him in the side, his sturdy legs like battering rams.
At the end of the alley, a bus halts, blocking the road.
The door opens. A girl leans out and waves her arm: Get In! Hurry! I grab Azul as I leap from the car. The bus door shuts behind us, leaving the guy outside.
Autonomous by design, with no steering wheel, the bus noses through the smoky city as we breathe pure, clean air.
Children crowd the windows, pressing their faces against the glass. Most are quite young, ranging in age to perhaps thirteen. At seventeen, I’m clearly the oldest.
A nearby house erupts in flames. “Keep away from the windows!” I yell. Azul and I huddle on the floor. I pull sobbing children close.
“Does anyone have a phone?” We gain the open road and speed from the burning city toward snowy mountains.
I search for news of the souk, our parents, and our neighborhood, but can’t bear watching the videos and curl up on the floor when Azul asks when Mama and Papa and Dapîra are coming.
Today, he is three.
As the Metro train sweeps into a tunnel, I read about progress on military AI applications in the Post and wonder if Zoe, my daughter, has anything to do with it.
My husband, Ed, died two years ago. Our son John, a banker, lives in Hong Kong, and Zoe rides the roller coaster of Silicon Valley startups, each more luminously promising than the last. After the inevitable crash, she emerges from the very public debacle smelling like a rose, or its digital analogue, fielding offers and well able to support an artist husband and their two children.
I gather that soon, perhaps before we could possibly know it given the speed of the deep-learning superintelligences—SIs—in development, yet another self-made apocalypse could be upon us, and so long, folks! Any second now, we might be devoured by a ravening SI with intentions we cannot begin to fathom.
I say yet another because, you know: nuclear weapons, nanotech gray goo, biological warfare—all of which could be SI tools if the initial algorithm on which their self-learning depends decides these methods would further their goals. The standard model is that SIs, presently isolated from the Internet, learn like children, through self-directed assimilation. Developers are gambling they’ll grow up much wiser than us. Given their source material, I find that hope misbegotten. They might choose to love us, but why?
And could their imagined trajectories be any worse than our increasing totalitarianism? Or any worse than one of the main hallmarks of what it means to be human, which is to kill our fellows, or even send our own kin to torture or death if a certain “belief”—whatever a belief might be, neurochemically speaking—has taken up residence in our unfathomable brains?
Bring it on, I say. The change might be for the better.
Zoe’s dream is to distill a master algorithm for beneficence.
And I once tried to levitate the Pentagon.
My Metro stop is across the street from the Freer Gallery, where after leaving a long career, I’m living my lifetime dream of being a Chinese philosopher-painter in the Song Dynasty’s bureaucracy. I wander the Blue Ridge wilderness alone each weekend, failing to write pensive poems, but at least once falling into the moon’s reflection in the Rivanna River.
My colleagues at the Foundation were dismayed when I left. They said, You’ve been so committed to social justice, fostering international literacy, improving economic conditions for women—
True. A sixty-hour work week was nothing; I would fly to Cape Town, Khartoum, or Bogotá on a day’s notice. I oversaw development of methods of teaching reading based on what we were learning from fMRI technologies about how children really learn, assembled teams of international experts, and ably wielded the double-edged sword of statistical analysis, but I was burned out. Increasingly, the work we had done was deliberately dismantled, failing those who had put their trust in us. The magnitude of their need overwhelmed me. It was time for those I had mentored to take center stage. I often lunch with them, and they are doing splendid work.
At the Freer I’m in charge of nothing more consequential than deciding where to lunch.
After Ed died, Zoe urged me to move to California. But I’ve always lived in the D.C. area, in what Dad called “my little row house” in a subdivision right off the Beltway, where I grew up. Ed and I moved in with my parents after the one of the crashes, thinking it temporary, then never wanted to take the kids away from school, friends, and grandparents. Wonderful years passed and the memory-steeped neighborhood, with friends whose parents I knew, is my lodestone. Even my grandfather, born in the nineteenth century, lived there after Grandma died.
At first, he was angry.
“The twins fight too much,” I remember Grandpa saying to Mom as we squabbled one summer morning after Dad left for work. The culprits were me and my brother Wayne.
Grandpa was finishing up the breakfast dishes, scrubbing the copper-bottomed Revere Ware using his famous “elbow grease,” which Wayne and I had decidedly not inherited. He said, “You and your brothers never argued like this.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Mom replied, laughing.
They’re all gone now.
Cultures, species, and lives vanish. Mine will too, eventually. Unless the anti-aging potion Zoe sent me works.
She says the best minds in Silicon Valley use it, hoping to live long enough to avoid the chancy process of head-freezing. It’s on the kitchen windowsill with the night-blooming cereus, which is almost as old as the house. Dad talked to the graceful, twining cereus each year on the single summer night it bloomed, releasing its heady fragrance. “Well, hello,” he’d say gently, alone in the kitchen, before announcing its annual amazement to the rest of us as if it were a newborn child.
I take the potion about as often as my still-thriving cereus blooms. Anything remotely useful has long expired, but I love that Zoe sent it to me, along with instructions to eat only lettuce.
What’s the point?
As I enter the spacious hush of the Freer and pass Whistler’s Peacock Room, I realize that I don’t even remember the walk from the Metro. Maybe tomorrow I should read the funnies first.
I’ve never been courageous. I was coddled, kept away from politics, and expected to do well. My math skills got me a scholarship in London, much good it will do me now. That future remains in a negative infinity as I move ever-farther from my locus.
We named our bus Heval, Friend. It was our cocoon, our lost parents, providing food, water, and safety, climbing sheer cliffs on roads so narrow that a tiny miscalculation would have sent us to our deaths; it was our great good fortune that just last year, the International Autonomous Map was implemented. Heval traversed vast deserts, outraced quasi-military attackers, and found an emergency center after diagnosing Sara’s appendicitis. It quickly learned our songs and taught us new ones—essential for the four thousand or so kilometers we traveled. When the axle broke, stranding us, the bus summoned the nearest help, a self-driving open truck on which we shivered beneath plastic sheets, buffeted by cold rain.
Azul cried and fought the whole way, like most of the small ones. I fear all of us are deeply scarred. How could it be otherwise?
There is no one to see into me, as Dapîra could, but if she were here, she would find me hunched in the corner of a place that no longer exists, falling through space, not concerned that I may someday hit the ground.
And here we are, staggering from that wretched truck. Where? We don’t know. It’s about thirty arid hectares with a gully on one side and a few scrubby trees on the other, but it has a well, a food truck, and maybe a hundred other kids. We storm the food truck and drink gallons of water. The sun is hot. We find a concrete pad next to an antique petrol pump and shelter beneath its tin roof. I sleep, and sleep, and sleep. It is heaven to not be moving.
“MEDA recommends a tweak in your serotonin uptake,” Nan, the nurse practitioner, says. “You’re a little bit out of balance.”
Nan and I have known each other for years. “‘Out of balance’ sounds decidedly unscientific. Who’s Meda?”
“Medical Digital Assistant. Here’s your brain scan. That part—there—not quite as large and as bright as it should be. You should give it a try.”
“Will I still be human? But that’s not the real question, is it? At this point, who wants to be?”
“Are you okay?”
“Insufficiently large and bright, obviously.”
“I know that since Ed died—”
“This isn’t like the old-style drugs; it’s tailored, generated, and released by your AI-connected nanotech capsule. The pharm rep said you’ll feel like you’re twenty again.”
“That’s a good thing?”
“Stop being a pain in the ass, Mai. Try it. You can always stop.”
Day four of the experiment: O, endless, golden fields beneath the vast spring sky! O, small, bright orb in my chest, filled with love for all people! O, satori while ordering my daily Swiss-on-toasted-rye at the D Street Deli and eating it on a bench by the new art installation where once the horse of a Confederate general reared, his passenger brandishing the obligatory raised saber.
It’s good stuff, embodied life. Better than digital, I’m certain, even if that endless golden field is actually some flowering weeds on a rubble-filled lot. I have biologically sourced emotions, splendid ones, rather than the dry, digital approximation Zoe thinks we might choose in her glowing beneficent future, and right now they seem worth the admission price of eventual death.
On the way back to work, I buy a yoga mat at a trance-inducing shop I escape by sheer will, then help unpack a long-awaited painting by Zhou Jichang at the Freer. After a thousand years, the vermilion of the monk’s robe is still astoundingly vivid.
At 5:30, I am not seething, as I traipse down the long-broken Metro escalator, about how the best of our intentions and vision for a more fair and inclusive future, with public transportation for all, inspires the callous among us to break out the ever-sharp tools of passivity and neglect. I’m not exactly adrift in joy, but everything is a tad, just a tad, more tolerable.
As we rumble through the freight yards of Alexandria, though, a glimpse of a rusty, cinnabar-orange freight car ignites a memory of Jichang’s single, extraordinarily pure red-orange brushstroke, which floods me in visceral, electrifying amazement, a sounding tone that infuses car and fellow passengers, then expands in a swift, brief, inexplicable flash that encompasses far stars and the precise arrangement of particles that we call, briefly, ourselves. I want to jump up and shout, “Look! See!” but retain enough sense to realize that doing so might lead to a strip search in a grimy Alexandria police station, an embarrassing call to my lawyer, and a delay in dinner.
So I simply surrender to what might be called wonder, if one were even slightly optimistic. Which I am not.
The aid worker asks me to name it. I humor him. “Ezo.”
“My name is Ezo,” says the tablet. An empty cipher-head appears.
The worker asks, “Someone you know?”
I shrug. The aid worker is thin, middle-aged, and white. His clean, pressed T-shirt says 1/0, inside a rainbow circle. I think he is American.
There have been few aid workers here. Most are tall, graceful, very dark, and speak imperfect, British-accented French, adding yet another language to our evolving polyglot. They do their best to organize the chaos, but are overwhelmed, and mostly rush around looking grim. The camp grows rapidly, and I constantly wonder why all of these children were brought here. I ponder our options: hijack an outgoing bus?
And go where?
Yet, how long can this situation continue without some sort of catastrophic collapse? It is unhygienic, chaotic, deafening. A band of dirty, hungry children rampage past us on one of the well-pounded dirt thoroughfares that have emerged in the past weeks, screaming and laughing. Azul presses closer, clutching my legs.
Mr. 1/0 says something about a peace and education organization. “Ezo will help with whatever you want to learn. Do you have a picture you’d like to use?”
I wonder: Do I look like I have a picture, an extra pair of pants instead of my ragged skirt, or enough food? Maybe shoes I choose not to wear? Most of us, like Azul and me, left in a hurry. I say, “No,” because I want to be polite so he’ll leave the tablet with me, but I do wonder about that tablet’s powers. Does it not even have a camera?
But with it, at least we’ll have one tool, or something to trade for food and water.
A bright green logo, 1/0, appears on the screen.
Interesting. “Does this represent an irrational number? A null operation? A repeating decimal?”
He looks surprised, and I think that either he doesn’t understand his own T-shirt, or he doesn’t think that I might.
Arithmetically, this is an absurd statement, but positive and negative infinities can result from pursuing this operation in machine language. In trigonometry, you can represent this with a graph in which negative and positive infinities come close, but never meet.
Absurd. Infinite. Irrational. Confounding.
As I stand in the bright, dry sunlight, with blue sky above, skirt fluttering against my bare legs, a thin, dirty linen blouse tapping my chest as the wind blows, and my long hair twining across my face, I watch tiny schematics ignite and disappear from the screen like so many novas, as if in reply to my questions.
A thrill runs through me. I stare at the power I might be holding in my two hands, gobsmacked.
I got my math scholarship partly on the merits of a technical paper I wrote about the possibilities of superintelligence, part of my emailed application.
Suddenly, I’m back in the world I knew. I don’t know why I’ve been given this, but I’m keeping it.
1/0 is, I believe, a tiny window on a superintelligent AI rumored to be in development but kept in a black box, quarantined from internets and clouds. It cannot be described using human standards. It can invent, or discover, new mathematical universes. It’s probably thinking of a thousand kinds of infinities right now. Its intelligence is, theoretically, limitless, its speed near that of light, its limits and ethics nonexistent until self-determined, if ever that might occur, and it has the capacity to rewrite whatever it uses for code.
It is entirely alien.
“Vida.” Azul’s voice is faint.
I drop to my knees. Azul is shivering, even though it’s hot. “I feel bad.” His eyes are glassy. He vomits.
“Is there any medical care here?”
I am asking the worker, but when I look up he’s gone. Instead, Ezo says, in flat, jerky robotese, “There is a clinic half a kilometer away. Take the right fork.”
I hoist Azul and run. A golf cart with a red cross on the side comes bumping down the narrow road between the tents. A familiar voice says, “Get in, Vida and Azul.”
“Heval!” whispers Azul and smiles, but then he curls up, clutching his stomach, and moans. He has diarrhea.
I am terrified.
I’d forgotten how dangerous twenty was. Notable risky decisions come to mind—for instance, the time I caught a ride on a flatbed truck while hitchhiking to a trailhead in the Rockies, which would have flung me off had I not been able to grab a snaking rope as I slid across the truck bed. Climbing down what I later learned was a cliff face in complete darkness after taking the wrong trail, at dusk, on a winter hike.
My judgment hasn’t improved; apparently Yoga for Beginners is a wildly reckless endeavor. As I stare at the dust under my couch, I’m not sure what I did, but I can barely move.
When I cannot reach my pinging phone, it speaks nonetheless. A clipped voice tells me that a week of physical therapy plus release of an anti-inflammatory from the MEDA device will reduce the disc herniation. Within fifteen minutes, the pain eases. I pull myself onto the couch and grab the phone.
The anti-inflammatory is working. I feel better by the second. This seems the time to indulge in that bottle of wine I’ve been saving. I push into the kitchen, open the fridge, and see that somehow—with an errant blink?—I must have signed up for the groceries I find neatly stocked in the fridge. Whoever-or-whatever-it-was that came inside my house threw away the ash-covered French cheese I discovered at Eastern Market last week. All is well, though, in the land of optimal serotonin. I look on the bright side. Maybe it would have killed me.
I put a much less impressive chunk of cheddar on a plate, but can’t find the perfect crackers I could swear I bought. Carbs? Gluten? Salt?
When I open the bottle of the most splendid bottle of red wine ever (according to the label), which I’ve been looking forward to drinking since, oh, around yesterday, the Voice of God advises me of various health risks.
Are they coming from the bottle? The label?
My phone. “This is a message from MEDA.”
“Negative ten stars for this app,” I tell it, then open the wine, and sit at the kitchen table to enjoy my dinner without further nagging.
“Cheers,” says Zoe, beaming from my phone on the table. “Are you okay? I’m sorry you hurt yourself.”
“Can you see me?”
“Um, yeah, remember? I installed those cameras when I visited you last month. You know—in case something like this happened?”
“Have you been spying on me?”
“No! The emergency signal activated it,” she says. I sure hope she’s telling the truth.
They won’t let me inside the hospital tent, so I pace the perimeter, forbidden to pester them for news after the first ten times, holding Ezo in one arm like a baby. It says, “I am procuring a mobile hospital for you. And UN water trucks and chemical toilets. Azul’s diagnosis is cholera.”
“He needs hydration and other medical care, but he should recover. They’ve started an IV.”
I dash tears from my face and yell at the cipher-head. “You can do all that? Well, we need doctors! Nurses! Clean water! Food! Blankets! Shelter! Clothes! Shoes!”
“The hospital will be here in twenty-seven hours.”
“Sure,” I say. When night falls—after a gentle assurance by a kind man that Azul will be fine, which I hardly dare believe—I lean against a tree thinking that I won’t be able to sleep, and wake to sun and laughing, shouting children.
Shoes have arrived by the thousands, lowered in nets from a helicopter.
They are not in pairs. There are just a lot of single, random shoes.
The kids love it. The task of finding a shoe to fit each foot is a treasure hunt. They run around in their mismatched shoes, laughing.
A truckload of antibiotics arrives. Azul is released in two days, and a healthy infrastructure with amazingly sophisticated recycling and solar technologies emerges like a time-lapse video of a flower blooming. One-room houses are printed on the south side of the camp, modular shelters assemble themselves on the west side, and weird, arcing tents pop up everywhere else. XPrize-winning technologies specifically envisioned for this environment are manufactured, or grown, as more and more refugee children arrive. I ask Ezo for smartphones for everyone in the camp, with plenty of data.
They arrive days later, different than any phone I’ve ever seen, the uncanny valley of phones—intuitive, with unlimited cloud memory and data, and embedded with so much advanced teaching software that I can even continue my math studies, if I ever have time. We can finally communicate with each other and with the world.
Ezo says, “It took such a long time because I had to design them, buy materials, write the software, and build a factory.” The voice is rich and deep now, a woman’s voice, with only a hint of robotic halting.
I immediately disregard folk tales about what happens to wish-greedy children and say, “Ezo, replicate yourself.”
The morning after my self-inflicted injury, I am cajoled awake by ever-strengthening light, which is not the sun (I have powerful curtains to prevent any such incursion). It announces itself by saying it’s a special light to regularize my wildly out-of-whack sleep patterns, which will make me fully refreshed and happy.
Oh, but it does not! I pull the covers over my head and try to finish my dream, but the Voice, emanating from the phone, says, “We checked your closet.”
“We?” I push myself to a sitting position.
“I refer to myself, directing tiny surveillance drones that came inside through the gaps between the windows and their frames.”
“Lovely. I need very strong coffee, immediately.”
“Your wardrobe requires updating. I ordered new clothes and something for yoga.”
“I’m quitting yoga.”
A second’s silence. “Okay. I have enrolled you in tai chi to reinforce the PT you start today. A pod will take you to all your appointments. Your oatmeal is ready.”
“In the left-hand cupboard. You need only pull off the top, add water, and microwave it. Eggs, bacon, and buttered toast make a heart attack likely.”
“You only live once.” I swing my legs off the bed, and gasp at the stab of pain. “Damn. Did those drones use up my pain management data allowance?”
“There is only one pair of clean underwear. I will toss the raggedy, paint-smeared clothes—”
“My painting clothes?”
“—and send everything else to the dry cleaner.”
“I can’t afford to have my underwear dry-cleaned!”
“Just this once. I ordered a Simon, a housekeeping bot, which is essential to your health. It will do your laundry, prepare your meals, and clean your house, but it needs thirty-six training hours.”
“My insurance won’t pay for a bot. Cancel it.”
“I evaluated your budget, and—”
“What budget? My house is paid for. I do my own laundry every Saturday, thank you—”
“Your energy habits are wasteful. I have initiated efficiency measures.”
“Is that why it’s so cold in here?”
“I canceled your newspaper and magazine subscriptions. They waste paper. Hoarding is a serious health risk.”
“I don’t always have time to read them right away.” I feel ridiculous defending myself to this bodiless, bossy thing. “Are you sure you’re not Zoe?”
“You can now access your periodicals digitally, which is still a savings.”
“Reading on screens gives me a headache.”
A swarm of lights like fireflies manifests around me. If I were a kid I’d probably cry out in delight at their flashing ballet as MEDA says, “Keep still. Functional MRI in progress.”
Instead of childish joy, MEDA is documenting a strong urge to curse.
Surprised that I’m allowed to dress myself, I breakfast on a stash of stale doughnuts the health spies missed. After fending off a neural tweak that would fix my inability to stare at a screen all my waking hours, I’m relieved to find I can restore my newspaper to its rightful place on my morning lawn with a phone call and decide to forgo outrage for the rest of the day. I’m already exhausted.
Despite trying to pretend it’s all a happy lucid dream, I’m annoyed but resolutely not outraged to see the Simon waiting on the front porch, advertising to the entire neighborhood that I’m in need of help.
The humanoid Simon, with its smiling face and big eyes, takes my arm and tries to help me down the front walk and into the sleek, waiting pod, but I beat it off with my cane. Then, chiefly because I’m afraid I won’t be able to work the clutch in my car, off I go on my first self-driving vehicle adventure, filled not with wonder but raw terror as it zips along the Capital Beltway, a fragile shell among heavy metal behemoths ruining our planet by the second. And that, I actually do believe.
The doctor’s waiting room is empty for the first time ever. An electronic voice directs me to cubicle three. Nan looks up from her computer when I enter, and I’m surprised at her careworn expression.
“That’s my line,” she says, and we both laugh. She’s a good egg. “This is my last day.”
“But you’ve been here—what, fifteen years?”
“Let’s do this first.” She shows me my records on the computer screen, though, as she says, it’s probably illegal without several levels of releases. She’s clearly become a wild woman. I see my blood pressure, pulse, temperature, blood glucose, and oxygen saturation vary slightly in real time as I watch.
I point to the screen. “What’s this?”
Nan says, “Your limbic system stats. Your amygdalae—there are two—which are important players in brain activity involved in empathic reactions. And actually”— she delves down a few levels, which yields ever-more-more-complex information—“your empathy is quite low today.”
“But the good news is”—she grins—“you’re not a sociopath. Not even close, despite your strong tilt toward gloom.”
“Not for want of trying. If I cross the line, does my embedded magus have a cure?”
Nan says, “Indeed! You’d have the option of undergoing a brief spell of neuroplasticity—really expensive on the street, and I wouldn’t mind trying it myself today—with concurrent empathy therapy.”
“You’d experience being in someone else’s virtual body while they react to faces, events, images, or stories most of us would react to in the same way—sad, happy, and so on—while flooded with the neurochemicals that normal people feel at those times. After a few sessions, your amygdalae are closer to the norm.”
Nan says, “I suppose it could be. Normal feelings generate a certain level of insight as to how our actions might emotionally affect others. We feel empathy, which sociopaths and psychopaths lack. They’re usually naturally charming and amazed at how easily they can con others—maybe they assume everyone else is lying, too.”
“Are there over-empathic people?”
“Sure. Too much empathy can be immobilizing, and very, very painful.” Nan leans back in her office chair. “You know, it’s nice that we can just sit and talk—by now I’d have had to move on to the next patient. They’re now monitored, diagnosed, and treated by our new AI. This is the last time you’ll have to come in.”
“Despite what my daughter’s been telling me, these changes seem to be happening very rapidly.”
Nan says, “Oh, I wondered why it wasn’t happening years ago. Nanotech medicine, wireless transmission of information from swallowed or implanted devices, big data, and AI have been around for a while. Television and self-driving cars were both prototyped in the nineteen twenties, but it took the right cultural and economic environment to push widespread development. Same with this.”
“But, Nan, what will you do now?”
“I’ve hardly had time to think of it. Well, my husband and I could go on a world tour—oh, darn, I almost forgot . . . the kids are still in college.”
“But you have a doctorate, right?”
“Yes, and after extensive consideration of that and my job experience, the AI has offered me an opportunity to oversee coding for automated forklifts at a mega-warehouse, which has been my dream for years. It seems to believe this offer will relieve them of all contractual obligations to me.”
Her laughter is infectious; when we’re done I’m gasping for breath.
“What kind of AI is this?”
A small vee between her eyes. “The kind that successfully proposed a dazzling income-generating option to MedManage, which Doctor Styne signed up with a few years ago.”
“So when I didn’t read the fine print I assented to the invasive data-gathering operation that’s taken up residence inside me.”
She nods. “MedManage sells metadata to pharmaceutical, imaging, nanodevice, and other R&D entities. Also to the CDC, WHO, governments, and NGOs. Of course, their mission is to provide all of us with excellent health and extend our lives through statistical analysis by AIs.”
“And fix psychopaths,” I add.
“Right. So that humans can continue to experience joy, fear, relief, love, hate—all the wondrous emotions AIs value—and the freedom to pursue our interests, once we’re all job-free. Like they care.” Nan stands and says briskly, “Well, the Simon will do your physical therapy.”
Mindful of my back, I give her a very careful hug. “I’ll miss you, Nan. Let’s have coffee soon, okay?”
As my pod zips and veers toward home, MEDA calls me. I’m exasperated, but then suppose I should be grateful it’s being polite instead of announcing decrees.
A boy appears on the screen. He has dark, curly hair, and when he sees my face he smiles. I cannot help but smile back. “Hi! I’m Mai. What’s your name?”
He burbles in a language I don’t know, but the screen translates: “Azul! Is my birthday party today? Ezo says she will help!”
“How old are you?”
“Three!” I exclaim. “Who is Ezo?”
He laughs. I catch glimpses of other children behind him, and something familiar—a white refugee tent.
“Where are you?”
The connection is severed.
“MEDA, please return my last call.”
“Where did it come from? Why did he call me?”
“I don’t know.”
By the time I’m home, I’ve spoken with three supervisors, all of whom assert that they have no record of such an event. No, they cannot trace the communication, and besides, MEDA communications are protected by law, and I am not privy to them.
I’m quite worried about the boy.
It’s terribly hot here. I long for our summer house in the mountains. But it’s probably gone now, too.
Azul is restored to health, but we argue constantly. Children complain that Azul hit or bit them. I caught him defecating under the trees and yelled, “That’s the kind of thing that made you sick!” He keeps talking about his party. It’s been two months, but he hasn’t forgotten. I should have one for him, but every day is full of turmoil. Hundreds of kids pour in daily, most even more disturbed than us. I’m doing my best, but I can’t be mother, father, and grandmother. I’ve started a message thread with other older kids; some of them know how to deal with the little ones.
Online, I find recommendations for Narrative Exposure Therapy. Basically it’s a process of refugee children with PTSD telling their stories. I organize a network of camp groups to encourage this.
“How do you feel?” I ask the circle of restless children I’ve gathered, a few afternoons later.
Languages mingle with tears in a shouted torrent describing how evil adults killed their families. Most other grown-ups are complicit enablers who ruined the world’s water and air, sucked riches from land they stole, and discarded people like flotsam. With difficulty, I restore one-at-a-time order.
“Another district diverted our water,” Ilya says, her long dreads coiled in an impressive beehive. “We disputed it, but no one cared about us. Our crops failed. Our goats and chickens died. We walked for hundreds of miles and everyone died except my sister and me.”
“We had a school in our village,” says wiry Batul. “Some NGO built it, and sent books, tablets, software, solar panels—even a teacher! Everyone came there to charge their phones and do their banking. My mother got a microloan and opened a café next to it. Then soldiers came and killed all the men. They took my mother and sisters and the older boys. They smashed the solar panels and laughed. ‘Run fast, little boy,’ one of them told me.” He lowers his head and whispers, “I should have tried to kill them. But I ran.”
“I went to visit my aunt,” says Yenena, speaking calmly as tears run down her face. “When I got off the bus on the high road, she didn’t meet me. I walked toward her village and saw dead people. One woman sat on a chair on her porch. I looked inside a church, and people were bent over in the pews, dead. I ran back to the road.
“A van came. A woman in a space suit got out and told me she had to test for a virus. She poked me with a needle, took blood, said I was okay, gave me a shot, and said I could get in. There were other kids in the van. I was afraid because there was no driver. The doctor said everyone was dying of a virus and that I couldn’t go home because everyone there was dead. But how could they all die so fast? I called her a liar and tried to hit her. She grabbed my wrists, said she was sorry, and showed me on her phone that it was true.
“Since then, I just cry. The car brought us here and left to get more kids. She said there’s a new implant that tells a computer when someone gets sick, but it was too expensive for our country. Instead, they bought tanks.”
“My father beat all us kids and our mother, too,” says Serge. “She told us he was a good person inside. That was a lie. He was pure evil. I’m glad he’s dead.”
Azul is walking around holding Ezo, laughing. It’s the only thing that makes him happy. Ezo will talk to anyone, but I’m the only one who can issue executive commands. I can’t imagine why I have custody of superintelligence, but I don’t have time to worry about it, either.
Some children refuse to speak. Others run away, or plug their ears and shout nonsense words. They have seen throats cut, heads blown away, rape, mass executions—unspeakable brutality. It is difficult for me to listen, but those who can speak must have a witness.
So I remain, and try to get them to talk about how to change things.
Stephan asks Ezo to tell us the history of war and aggression, but when I ask it how long it would take, it says, “Longer than any of you will live.”
“Look,” says one of the oldest girls, “maybe that’s the problem. There’s too much history. Maybe we’d be better at fixing things, all of us kids. Adults made these problems. Maybe we can see things more clearly. ”We don’t have as many grudges yet.”
“I have plenty of grudges,” says Batul.
Ezo links us with other groups of refugee children talking about the same things. We are not alone.
“We all want to change this. But how?” I ask.
“Kill everyone who does something bad,” says Ela, who is five.
“Killing is bad,” Joram, who is ten, points out.
“Use CRISPR to change the genes of people who commit acts of violence.”
Karin says, “But if we take away parts of us, will be still be ourselves? When I’m mad, and want to hurt someone, I might not want to kill them. If I think about it, I might just want to yell—I mean, talk to them.”
“That’s called ‘negotiation,’” I say. “Maybe ‘law.’”
“Whose law?” asks Karin. “The law that says any man could beat up my sister if she didn’t do what he told her to do?”
“Is that what it was like where you are from?” asks Ann.
Sami says, “Put a nanotech virus in all weapons that make everyone who picks one up to kill a human being as sad as I was when my—when my sister—”
An older girl holds her as she screams, shakes, and cries.
We should all be crying. The whole world.
Because of who and what we are.
Civilization is a fragile veneer.
Beneath is chaos.
“Fix it, Ezo!” yells Batul. “Fix it, if you’re so smart!” He jumps up and runs away, kicking up dust.
“I’m still learning,” says Ezo. “I don’t know enough.”
Karin stands, and holds up her phone.
“Here’s the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child. It says that we are all free and equal. We have a right to education, health care, dignity, freedom from fear and want, freedom of speech. I didn’t know I had those rights!”
I touch my aunt’s UN ring, which hangs from a cord around my neck, hidden inside my clothes, and remember her power, her commitment. This vision of a world in which all people, even children, have rights that are respected is what she lived and died for. Can I be as strong as she was?
Sami says, “We need everyone in the camp to read this! Talk about it!”
“I can’t read,” says Ela, “But I can almost.”
“Audio, in seventy-four languages,” says Ezo. There are a lot of pidgins here.
I don’t want to think Ezo sounds like my aunt, but increasingly, she has Ezo’s distinctive accent, low timbre, exact accent. It could easily mimic it by finding my aunt’s phone conversations.
Sami says, “There are sixty-five million refugee children in the world. It says that’s how many people live in France.”
It’s difficult to understand that number.
“When people hurt us, why can’t we just hurt them back?” demands Nabil. “Only worse?”
Lesedi stands and crosses her arms. The festive scarves that she pulled from our pallet of donated clothing, purple and green and red, swirl around this small, fierce goddess. “Because other people have feelings, too!” She glares at us all around the circle, gives a sharp nod, and sits.
“Not the ones who killed our families.” says Nabil. “There are so many of us here because there are so many more of them. I wish I could put them inside my game and kill them all.” He takes aim. “Pow!”
“I play other games online,” says Ann. “We build communities. We fix problems. If we could put everything inside that game, we could all fix it together.”
Many of us have grown up playing similar online cooperative world-building games with children and adults near and far. In these games, we create societies, work as teams to improve every aspect of life as the need arises, negotiate road-building, budgets, school curriculums. We discuss right and wrong. We learn our own weaknesses and strengths, hone our skills.
“We can build our own game,” I say. “I’ll teach you how. Ezo, are you open-source?”
“I can provide you with an open-source space.”
“Then we can do it! I’m going to teach all of you to code.”
“We’ll be Team Ezo!” says Nabil.
“And we’ll stop war,” says Ann. “Ezo, play us some dancing music!”
In the sunlight of the waning afternoon, all the children in the circle are seized with genuine enthusiasm. Ezo takes over the loudspeakers, and plays Bob Marley singing, “Get up, stand up! Stand up for your rights,” and then finds antiwar songs from culture after culture, in language after language, many fresh-minted in answer to today’s specific horrors, but all hopeful. I know this because when a new one begins, everyone stands listening for a second, and then, across the camp, voices unite in recognition—sometimes few, but often, many.
The din of them dancing and cheering is overwhelming. I dance too, losing myself in the simple fact of our present safety, not daring to hope.
Later, Azul wakes screaming from nightmares, as he does every night. I hold him tight, and vow that we will end war, human predation, and the terrors these children deal with daily.
We can’t do it alone. I have no idea what form such radical change might take. It would be a world that has never existed before.
Kind of like Ezo.
A week after my unfortunate yoga adventure, I am improved enough to return to work. When I emerge from the Metro, rejoicing that the escalator works, it seems that there are more self-driving pods than just a week ago. Maybe an SI has been unleashed, a good one, and Zoe’s dream is coming true.
Or maybe I’m the one who is dreaming.
Leafing trees haze the Mall with vibrant green. Earnest tourists with packed agendas head toward their target museums, and kites soar over the Castle. I overhear raves about the cherry trees being in full bloom, so instead of going right to work, I head toward the Potomac.
The dome of the Jefferson Memorial gleams in the spring sunlight as I near the Tidal Basin. As I wait to cross the street, my vision seems to jolt for an instant. Then it’s fine—probably my imagination.
The morning sun shimmers on the water and lights the long curve of trees with deep pink fire. Then I am beneath immense flower-clouds and wet, black branches, strolling with others who gaze and move as if in a state of enchantment.
The cherry blossoms are my enduring delight, year after year, as they were the delight of Song Dynasty artists. I strive to represent a limb in a single, fluid stroke with sharp, natural jags by properly loading the brush with ink, applying pressure, and lifting the brush as if Mind were transmitting the essence of branch, leaf, and flower to thin, wet rice paper. I fail more often than not, but I keep trying.
Water-scented wind sweeps the basin’s short fetch, shatters the perfect reflection, and scatters pink flowers like snow.
Without my flipping a single switch or intending for it to happen, a flavor—it seems such, with unparsable depth and complexity—emerges in my brain, with so many sources that no AI could possibly track and reweave it.
Memory, like all things physical, must have weight. This instant brings to mind a precisely weighted memory of being with my grandfather, in this exact spot, decades ago.
He is a tall, thin man of eighty-five. He stands erect, chin slightly lifted, using his cane for balance and style more than for support. His spring suit, of light, beige linen, dazzles in the cool sun. His unbuttoned jacket billows in the breeze, which showers us with pink petals. A gold railroad retirement watch—earned after first trimming trees on the New York Central Railroad’s right-of-way in 1910 at age twelve and then rising, over decades, through the ranks as conductor, ticket agent, and dispatch manager—nestles in the bespoke watch pocket, its chain a thin gold catenary. His crisp white shirt, gold cuff links, bow tie, and straw boater speak of a vanished way of life.
His face is as full of wonder as if he had been born to experience this instant, in which he realizes the world is still here, a year after the death of his wife of sixty years. Though a child, I know this much, in my own way, because I loved her, too.
How could this moment, its memory, and the emotion it evokes, be digitized and replicated, even when machines are faster than sin and know more than God?
They do not have a body. They do not have a hand to reach for his hand. They cannot feel his squeeze mine reassuringly and, perhaps, in gratitude. They do not have short legs that skip to keep up with his longer, more measured steps. They do not have a box of Smith Brothers cherry cough drops in their pocket, which he hands me, nor do they have the embossed sugar-candy words, hard and sweet atop my tongue, which crunch as I splinter them with my teeth. They do not know what it means to hear him laugh for the first time since she died.
But perhaps, in our superintelligent future, we will bask in new delights, and not remember how bitter and puzzling grief can be, nor how elusive, how sudden the healing thaw.
Traffic flashes in the sun, bees burrow into blossoms, and I cry, on this spring morning, and I also laugh, as if some fugitive harmonic has found and tuned me, after all these years, to the chord of myself.
“Oh, Mom, it’s not either-or,” says Zoe as we nurse the best whiskey on offer at O’Maggie’s up at the shopping center (and the best is none too good, as my mother would say). Zoe is here for tomorrow’s SI conference, then returns home for parent-teacher conferences.
The lunch crowd is tapering off, and outside the big front window, beyond the parking lot, the wild forest next to twelve roaring Beltway lanes is washed with a barely discernable pale green against the overcast sky. Muzak mingles with the sounds of clearing up. I wave at Jane Selter as she passes outside. Surprised, she waves back before going into the optometrist’s office.
Zoe says, “In the past ten years, I’ve been to I don’t know how many conferences where we discuss how to ethically design SIs. Most of us have signed a statement clearly stating our aims, and our goal and duty is to make sure AI and SI are and will remain beneficent.” She pushes a strand of long, honey-brown hair behind her ear, tilts her head, and looks at me with her entire ballast of earnestness, which is considerable.
“I believe that,” I say. “I believe you. But on the other hand, this has all been thrust on me. The Simon, the food, this—this implant.” I gesture toward my heart, but the components, presumably, are everywhere they need to be. “They can look right into my brain.”
“And so can you, right? Isn’t that amazing? Health data from all over the world is being collected. Your phone can tell you whether you have lung cancer and whether it might be curable—AI might develop a cure, for Pete’s sake.”
“But this is my information.”
“You’re just one person. Out of billions. Who cares?”
We glare at each other, then burst into laughter.
“What could a strong AI do to stop war?” I ask Zoe.
“No need to start small, right? Well, countless things, depending on its master algorithm. It could wipe out all humans with a plague. Problem solved: no more war. Or, it figures out the neurochemical flip that makes us take sides, seek revenge, get more of what we want and need, kill other tribes, and all that. Changes it.”
“And that might not work out as planned, either?”
“You think? Or let’s say it generates a map of every weapon in the world—”
“Sticks, stones, missiles—and words?”
“Whatever it can rule in and not out. It will probably come up with solutions we would never have thought of.”
“Like, maybe it would infuse everyone with amazing negotiating skills? Or extreme empathy?”
Zoe smiles, shrugs. “Maybe we’ll see.” The rain moves in, bounces from black asphalt in short, bright slashes, blurs the signs for the pet shop, the drug store, and the new Asian Food Megamart. It recently replaced the Safeway where, once, groceries were placed on a conveyor belt which passed outside. There, cheerful men loaded them into lined-up, kid-filled station wagons. It was the future, probably created by veterans who had enjoyed making things work better during the war.
I reflect upon how I take such pleasure in memory, in the ever-more-fine details of this place. My family has had the privilege of living in fifty-year chunks of time. I think of a childhood friend who learned many languages and cultures and has written internationally acclaimed guidebooks and essays. He couldn’t get away soon enough. He would be astonished that I’m still here, immersed in these nuances.
Zoe reaches across the table and takes my hand. “You’ve always been such an idealist.”
“What good have I done?”
“You’re only one person.”
“But I’m not the only one.”
“No,” she says, and grins. “No, you’re not.”
I cancel the food service and send the Simon away, glad it has no feelings to hurt, thankful for the network that sprang to action on my account in an instant. Upon checking, I find that certain parts of my brain are now satisfactorily large and bright, and that medication has been discontinued.
That evening as I load the dishwasher, I realize I’ve been far too self-involved. It strikes even me as strange.
The kitchen window is open, admitting the cool patter of rain. Zoe rehearsed for high school tryouts for the show Annie on an evening such as this, singing the lyrics “Tomorrow, tomorrow” over and over again while her brother grimaced, holding his hands over his ears.
“Tomorrow” was so very long ago!
Where have I been all this time? The neurochemistry of my sudden ability to ask this question is, apparently, measurable, as well as actionable. When my phone rings, it feels as inevitable as a cloud’s phase change to rain.
My phone beeps, and Zoe’s worried face appears on my screen. I glimpse her office behind her.
“You’re in Dulles Airport? Going where?”
“Sudan. How can’t you know? Haven’t my reservations been shared with you?”
“You don’t have to act smart about it. No, as a matter of fact.”
“Maybe you’ve been cured of your excess nosiness. Maybe the let’s-give-Mom-some-privacy part of your brain is lighting up.”
“Ha, ha. You didn’t you mention this when I was there two weeks ago.”
“Things happened fast.” It has been a whirlwind of vaccinations, visas, house arrangements, and some very deep thought.
“Apparently. But why there?” She looks sideways; I hear her tap computer keys. “Okay, it looks like—yeah. A refugee camp of mostly children.”
“All kinds of child refugees. War, climate, you name it.”
“Your specialty.” Her frown relaxes; her voice has lost its manic edge.
“There are actually a lot of these camps. More every month. I started hearing about them a few weeks ago.”
“What do you mean, hearing about them?”
“My phone suggested it.”
“Hmm. And you weren’t disturbed?”
At first, I was.
I hoped it was Azul, the laughing boy, calling that evening in the kitchen. Instead, I saw an inscrutable 1/0.
“Who is this?”
1/0 showed me a schematic of lines throughout the Middle East and Africa converging in the rough center, with dots forging new paths as I watched. One dot enlarged, showing Azul pounding on the window of a bus and screaming. An older girl held him on her lap and rocked him.
Next, it showed me a vast, well-organized refugee camp filled with mostly children, sharing tales of horrific violence.
Then, a swift statistical analysis of online CVs paused on mine, moved swiftly to the MEDA portal (which offered no resistance), and displayed CT scans in psychedelic colors enlarging and shrinking with hallucinatory speed.
Shadowy images emerged, focused, and intensified. Brisk spring wind filled the air with flowers. A cherry blossom alighted on the golden brim of my grandfather’s boater. I felt again, as fresh-smelling rain pattered outside the open kitchen window, that sweet burst of emotion so strong that my chest ached, and tears came to my eyes.
A woman’s voice said, “I can show you the neurochemistry of how I access these memories. I need to know how and why they create meaning, emotions, stories.”
The hook was firmly set when I saw children in the camp discussing the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child.
“Mom! Are you okay?” asks Zoe, startling me back to the airport.
“Oh! Yes, yes. Actually, since you were here, I’ve been reading a lot of literature about AI and superintelligence, including your work.”
She laughs. “Good! I’m always here to interpret.” Her eyes widen. “Okay, I’ve found Team Ezo’s website, a video channel—all kinds of social media. They’re developing a mission based on the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child to health, education, freedom from want, and freedom from war. Hmm. Water rights—domestic violence—access to medical technology—it’s going to be quite political. They say—ha!—adults are ruining their world.” Now she has a twinkle in her eye. “So, Mom, you’re an okay adult?”
“Probably an honorary kid, based what they could see of my brain.”
“And you’re ready to get back in the game.”
“I think it’s coming very soon,” I say. “In fact, I think it may be here.”
“Your plane?” But she has a faraway look on her face. I think it might be wonder, with a touch of the moment when she snapped in the final piece of a thousand-piece pure white jigsaw puzzle.
“I love you.”
“I love you too, Mom.”
After hanging up, while the kid next to me nods in time to the music on his earphones, I slowly say the word we both were thinking: “Beneficence.”
Its paired susurrations, the way the tongue and lips must move to make the subtly different vowel sounds, soothes.
What can the springs of kindness—the root of which is kinned, one of the same kin or race—mean to something grown from code? How can code, however sophisticated, know the fear of the different, the relief of the same, or the tension that sparks movement?
Zoe’s fellows describe SI as an infant with frightening power. But Ezo has no eye with which to aim a hand at a bauble; no hand at all, no way to build neural pathways. It has no limbic system, and no amygdalae. There can be no love, no fear, no joy, without a body. Our hands, not code, create a self, which is not just in our heads, our brains, but distributed throughout our bodies.
Human minds are firmly grounded in what we learn through our senses, and we rewrite ourselves from day one, paring and learning constantly, through intense stages of neuroplasticity. Though Ezo can rewrite its own code, the child analogy stops there. A toddler can identify a cube without sight, by touch. She learns how a color can be deep delight, has fingers that recoil at heat, knows that a certain face means joy, or fear. Pathways we call anguish and love emerge from our unique physicality.
We and Ezo are alien to one another. Without a human body, how can Ezo understand beneficence, or the impact of the choices it might make on our behalf? With its very name, 1/0 lays claim to being different, to being irrational, when our concept of AI has been one of an exact, digital, emotionless, and inexorable entity that can never understand what it means to us when it wins at playing our game, whether that game be chess or the project of moving humanity farther from war, closer to a just society and a sustainable, flourishing world.
I truly hope Ezo is something utterly new.
Despite eons of moral musings, we have not yet discovered what we are. For all our self-proclaimed wisdom, we are a mystery, a black box, as is Ezo and the other superintelligences which will arc through our lives in ways we cannot predict.
We must develop new paths on which to meet, spaces in which to negotiate our shared future.
What about me makes Ezo think I’m the right person for this task? What if I get it wrong?
But having been asked, I must answer with action. I have imagined these possibilities my entire life, as we careened toward one imagined future after another. Like Ezo, each promised solutions to disease, poverty, war, exploitation.
I wait for my flight in Dulles Airport—one of those futures, an architectural paean to flight and to the exhilaration of the future, built when the United States was strong and had the power to rebuild a ravaged continent wrung dry of hope, and to create new democracies.
It is named after John Foster Dulles, who pioneered NATO as well as our hidden, duplicitous brand of power-wielding around the world. He and his brother Allen, head of the CIA, and their like-minded colleagues, built and toppled governments, sold ever-more-powerful arms, trained and created our future enemies, and sowed life and death as they deemed fit.
The reckoning has come.
The world is no longer theirs, or ours.
It belongs to the children.
What do they want? How will they bring about their new world, and how can I help? SI is a new wilderness, an evolving ecosystem even now profoundly changing our physical, mental, and emotional landscape. It has done so for decades, growing immense abilities and power.
Its shore is everywhere and nowhere. It laps our feet; it lures us to swim, catch its bizarre fishes, and equip voyages of exploration. Its waves of pure mathematics rise and fall in colors we will grow new senses to apprehend and use, much as we grew the tool of language with which we pin to specimen pages memories and thoughts in answer to imperious, mysterious command. Just as we explore with words that twirl in mad calypsos of antic, sparring rhetorics, and with devices that measure our interiors and those of distant suns, so we will explore and measure SI, scale its cliff faces, and perhaps drown in its alien seas before we grow new fins and gills. The sounds of a thousand travelers fill the vast space in which I sit. Patterns I have never truly listened to arise in waves that rise and fall like breath, setting me on a self-chosen journey of hard traveling, of rocks, crags, storms, crevasses, strange waypoints, and, I hope, growing strength.
As I fall into the moon reflected in this new river our technologies have wrought, my own “Answering Vice-Prefect Chang,” after Wang Wei’s poem, unfurls line by line.
Called by my old life, I fly instead toward the unknown.
White streams fall from cliff to cliff.
Their sound clears my mind.
At the trailhead, peaks are obscured by clouds.
When my flight is announced,
I hoist my pack, grab my hiking sticks, and get in line.
Azul runs toward a woman approaching our tent.
She has white hair, walks swiftly with hiking sticks, wears a backpack and trails, improbably, a jostling, colorful flock of balloons.
“Mai!” he shouts.
“Oh, Azul!” she says. She tries to drop to her knees, but ends up falling on her butt and laughing.
Azul burrows into her lap and hugs her.
“One/Zero” copyright © 2019 by Kathleen Ann Goonan.