“If it’s somebody at the University of Tokyo, they might have access to Masayuki’s algorithms,” her mother said. “There are con artists
And, honey, this is
how a certain type of Internet crook works. They find people who are . . . misunderstood. People who are brilliant, but don’t fit in well in the regular nine-to-five world.”
Her mother shook her head. “I know it
real. The standard ploy is to come on to such a person in email or a chat room saying they’ve noticed how clever and insightful they are, how they—forgive me—how they see things that others don’t. One version has the scammer pretending to be a recruiter for the CIA; I have a friend who had her bank account cleared out after she gave up information supposedly for a security check. It’s exactly what these people do: they try to make you feel like you’re special—like you’re the most special person on the planet. And then they take you for everything you’ve got.”
“Well, first, my bank account has, like, two hundred dollars in it, so who cares? And, second, Jesus, Mom, this is
“That’s why it works,” her mother said. “Because it
“For God’s sake,” Caitlin said. She swiveled in her chair. “Dad?” she said imploringly. Yes, he was hard to deal with; yes, he was a cold fish. But, as she’d once overheard a university student say about why he’d taken one of his courses, he
Malcolm Fucking Decter: he was a genius. He surely knew how to definitively test a hypothesis, no matter how outlandish it might seem. “You’re a scientist,” she said. “Prove one of us wrong.” She got out of her chair and motioned for him to sit down in front of the keyboard.
“All right,” he said. “Are you logging your IM sessions?”
“I always do,” said Caitlin.
He nodded. He clearly realized that if Caitlin was right, the record of the initial contact with Webmind would be of enormous scientific value.
“Do not watch me type,” he said, taking the seat. At first she thought he was being his normal autistic self—since acquiring sight, she’d had to train herself
to look at him—but he went on: “Stare at the wall while I do this.”
She sat down on the bed next to her mother and did as he’d asked.
“Where’s Word?” he said.
Silly man was probably looking for a desktop icon, but Caitlin hadn’t needed them when she was blind, and a Windows wizard had cleared most of them away ages ago. “It’s the third choice down on the Start menu.”
She heard keyclicks, and lots of backspacing—her backspace key made a slightly different sound than the smaller, alphabetic ones.
He worked for almost fifteen minutes. Caitlin was dying to ask what he was up to, but she kept staring at the deep blue wall on the far side of the room. For her part, her mother also sat quietly.
Finally, he said, “All right. Let’s see what it’s made of.”
Caitlin had audible accessibility aids installed on her computer, including a
sound effect when text was cut, and a
when it was pasted. She heard both sounds as her dad presumably transferred whatever he’d written from Word into the IM window.
She fidgeted nervously. He sucked in his breath.
Another cut-and-paste combo. He made a
Yet another transfer, this time followed by silence, which lasted for seven seconds, and then he did one more cut and paste, and then—
And then her father spoke. “Barb,” he said, “care to say hello to Webmind?”
Something else that was without analog in my universe:
relatives, shared DNA. Caitlin had half of her mother’s DNA, and a quarter of her mother’s mother’s, and an eighth of her mother’s mother’s mother’s, and so on. Degrees of interrelatedness: again, utterly alien to me, and yet so important to them.
The Chinese government had temporarily cut off Internet access to that country. It was an attempt to prevent its people from hearing foreign perspectives on the decision to eliminate 10,000 peasants in order to contain an outbreak of bird flu. And while the Internet was severed, there had been
a binary dichotomy with no overlap. But Caitlin was half her mother, and half her father, too, and also uniquely her own—and, yet, despite those ratios, she had more than 99% of her DNA in common with them and every other human being—and 98.5% in common with chimpanzees and bonobos, and at least 70% in common with every other vertebrate, and 50% in common with each photosynthesizing plant.
And yet that first trivial set of relatedness fractions—halves, quarters, eighths, sixteenths—had driven evolution, had shaped history.
Kuroda and Caitlin had surmised that my mind was composed of cellular automata—individual bits of information that responded in some predictable way to the states of their neighboring bits of information as arrayed on a grid. What rule or rules were being obeyed—what formula gave rise to my consciousness—we didn’t yet know, but it was perhaps no more complex than the rules that governed human behavior: if that person there shares one-eighth of your genes, but five people over here each share a thirty-second, you instinctively strive to advantage the group over the individual.
That was another touchstone: whether in Caitlin’s realm of things and flesh, or mine of packets and protocols, the cold equations ruled supreme.
“Wait!” said Caitlin, still seated on the edge of the bed. “How’d you do that? What convinced you that it’s
Her father pointed at the larger of the two computer screens, and she came over to stand in front of it. He scrolled the IM window back so she could see the first of the four exchanges he’d just had with Webmind. But she
read the first one. Not because the text was small or in an odd font, though. She went through it, character by character, trying, really trying, to make sense of it, but—
Y-o-u . . .
yes, that was easy. But it was followed by
which wasn’t even a word, for crying out loud, and then it was
“I can’t read it,” she said in frustration.
Her dad actually smiled. “Neither could Webmind.” He pointed at the screen. “Barb?”
She loomed in to look at it, and read aloud at a perfectly normal speed, “ ‘You must respond in four seconds or I will forever terminate contact. You have no alternative and this is the only chance you shall get. What is the last name of the president of the United States?’ ” And then she added, sounding more like her daughter than herself: “Hey, that’s cool!”
Caitlin stared at the screen again, trying to see what her mother was seeing, but—oh! “And you can read that without difficulty?” she said, looking at her mom.
difficulty,” her mother replied.
The screen showed:
You msut rsepnod in fuor secdons or I wlil feroevr temrainte cnotcat. You hvae no atrleantvie and tihs is the olny chnace you shlal get. Waht is the lsat nmae of the psredinet of the Utneid Satets?
“I think we can safely conclude that your mother is not a fembot,” her dad said dryly. “But Webmind couldn’t read it.” He pointed at its reply, which was
I beg your pardon?
“Both you and Webmind are processing text one character at a time instead of taking in whole words,” he said. “For most people, if the first and last letters are correct, the order of the remaining letters doesn’t matter. And, they mostly don’t even see that there
errors—that’s why my second question was important.”
Caitlin looked. Her dad had asked, “How many non-English words were in my previous posting?” And Webmind had replied, immediately according to the time stamp: “Twenty.”
“That’s the right number, but most people—most real human beings—spot only half the errors in a passage like that. But this thing answered instantaneously—the moment I pressed enter. No time to bring up a spell-checker or for a human to even try to count the number of errors.” He paused. “Next, I tested your claim that it had a very high Shannon-entropy score. No human being could parse the recursiveness of this without careful diagraming.” He scrolled the IM window so she could see what he’d sent:
I knew that she knew that you knew that they knew that you knew that I knew that we knew that I knew that.
Did she know that you knew that I knew that you knew that I knew that you knew that?
Did you know that I knew that they knew that she knew?
Did I know that she knew that you knew that we knew that you knew?
To which Webmind had instantly replied:
Yes. No. Yes.
“And those are the right answers?” Caitlin’s mom asked.
“Yes,” said her father. “At least, I think so. I was mostly convinced by this point, but I tried one more to be sure.” He scrolled the screen again, revealing his fourth and final test:
Wit you’re aide Wii knead to put the breaks awn the cereal Keller their B4 this decayed is dun, weather ore knot we aught too. Who nose if wee will secede. Dew ewe?
To which poor Webmind had replied,
Again, your pardon?
“A piece of cake for one of us,” said her dad, “even if piece is spelled p-e-a-c-e.”
Caitlin clapped her hands together. “Go, Daddy! Okay, Mom—your turn. Say hi to Webmind.”
He got up, and Caitlin’s mom sat in the swivel chair. The last words Webmind had typed were still glowing blue in the IM window. She considered for a moment, then sent, “This is Barb Decter. Hello.” Caitlin was surprised to see that her mother couldn’t touch-type.
Webmind replied instantly: “A pleasure to meet you. Hitherto, I already knew of your husband from his Wikipedia entry, but I do not know much about you. I welcome learning more.”
Down in the kitchen, the timer went off. Caitlin’s mother frowned at this reminder of the forgotten dinner. She said, “Excuse me” and hurried downstairs, perhaps as much to buy herself some time to think as to avoid a culinary crisis.
And, in that moment, Caitlin understood.
her mother didn’t touch-type. Back when she’d been in school, the typing classes—yes, not
—had doubtless been filled with girls who were destined for secretarial jobs, and the young, feisty, brilliant Barbara Geiger had had much higher ambitions. She would have gone out of her way
to cultivate what were, back then, traditionally female skills.
Caitlin’s mother had a Ph.D. in economics; her specialty was game theory. She had been an associate professor at the University of Houston until Caitlin was born. She’d spent the next six years looking after her daughter at home, and then nine more volunteering at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, where Caitlin had been enrolled until this past June.
Her mother knew a lot about math and computers. In fact, Caitlin had once heard her quip that the difference between her and her husband was that while the math he did as a theoretical physicist described things that might not even exist, the math economists did described things that people wished
exist: inflation, deficits, taxes, and so on.
Now that Caitlin was in a regular school, she knew her mother hoped to get a job at one of Waterloo’s universities. But her Canadian work permit hadn’t come through yet, and so—
And so she was cooking, and cleaning, and doing all the other crap she’d never in her life wanted to do. Caitlin’s heart went out to her.
She looked at her father, hoping he would say something—
—while they waited for her mom to return. But he was his usual silent self.
Her mother came back less than a minute later. “I think the lasagna can wait,” she said. “Now, where were we?”
“It wants to know you better,” Caitlin’s dad said.
She made no move, Caitlin noted, to return to the swivel chair in front of the computer screens. “So, what do we do now?” she said. “Do we have another press conference?”
There’d been a press conference two days ago, held at the Mike Lazaridis Theatre of Ideas at the Perimeter Institute, at which Dr. Kuroda had announced his success in giving Caitlin vision—although no mention had been made of her ability to see the structure of the Web.
“No!” said Caitlin. “No, we can’t tell anyone—not yet.”
“Why not?” asked her mother.
“Because it’s not safe.”
“Oh, I don’t think anything bad will happen to us,” her mom said.
not safe—it, Webmind.” She looked at her father, who was staring at the floor, and then back at her mother. “As soon as word gets out, people will try to find exploits—vulnerabilities, holes, whatever. They’ll try to bring it down, to hack it. That’s what people like that do, for the challenge, for the street cred, for the
And it probably has no defenses or security. We don’t know how it came into being, but I bet it’s fragile.”
“All right,” said her mother. “But we should inform the authorities.”
To Caitlin’s surprise, her father lifted his head and spoke up. “Which authorities? Do you trust the CIA, the NSA, or goddamned Homeland Security? Or the Canadian authorities—some Mountie with a Commodore 64?” He shook his head. “Nobody has authority over this.”
“But what if it’s dangerous?” her mom replied.
“It’s not dangerous,” Caitlin said firmly.
“You don’t actually know that,” her mother said. “And, even if it’s not dangerous
it might become so.”