Read WWW 2: Watch Online

Authors: Robert J Sawyer

WWW 2: Watch (7 page)

BOOK: WWW 2: Watch
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Caitlin cringed. She’d thrown quite the hissy fit when he’d tried to do that, storming out of the dining room. “Yes, and I’m sorry. But now we want to give it the ability to see Web graphics and online video. The best way to do that might be to convert them to the format it already can see, the one my eyePod outputs. Could you write the appropriate codecs?”
“This is . . . incredible, Miss Caitlin. I . . .”
“Will you do it?” she said.
“Well, I
yes. Converters for still images—GIFs, JPEGs, PNGs, and so on—should be easy. Moving images will take more work, but . . .”
“Um, are your parents still there?”
“Might you put me on speakerphone?” They’d done that before.
“Okay.” She pressed the button.
“Barb, Malcolm, hello.”
“Hi,” said Caitlin’s mom.
“Look,” Kuroda said, “I’m still trying to accept this—it is enormous. But, my friends, have you thought about whether it is advisable to do as Miss Caitlin is asking?”
Caitlin frowned. Why was everybody so suspicious? “What do you mean?”
“I mean if this is an emergent entity, it might—”
“It might what?” snapped Caitlin. “Decide it doesn’t like humanity?”
“It’s a question worth thinking about,” Kuroda said.
“It’s too late for that,” Caitlin said. “It’s read all of Wikipedia; it’s read all of Project Gutenberg. It knows about . . .” She waved her hands, trying to think of examples. “About Hitler and the Nazis and the Holocaust. About all the awful wars. About mass murder and serial killers and slavery. About driving animals to extinction and burning the rain forests and polluting the oceans. About rape and drug addiction and letting people starve to death—about every evil, stupid thing we’ve ever done.”
“How could it know?” Kuroda said. “I mean, it would need to be able to
not to mention manipulate HTTP, and—”
“It watched through my eye as I did lessons to learn to read visually, and—” She paused, but she supposed they all needed to know the truth. “And I taught it how to make links, how to surf the Web. I introduced it to Wikipedia and so on.”
“Oh,” said Kuroda. “I, um, I’m not sure that was . . . prudent.”
Caitlin folded her arms in front of her chest. “Whatever.”
“Sorry, Miss Caitlin?”
You can’t put the genie back in the bottle—in which case, you might as well make friends with it.”
“We could still . . . um . . .”
“What?” demanded Caitlin. “Pull the plug?
We’ve only got vague guesses about what
it; we don’t know how to
it. It’s here, it exists, and it’s growing
This is no time to hesitate.”
“Caitlin,” said her mom in a cautioning tone.
“What?” said Caitlin. “Webmind has asked us for a favor—you saw that, in the email it sent me. It wants to be able to
for God’s sake. I’m, like, the last person on the planet who’d deny it
Are we going to say no to the first thing it’s asked us for? Is
how this relationship should begin?” She looked at her mother and at her father. Her father’s face was the same as always. Her mother’s forehead was showing creases, and her lips were pressed tightly together.
“So, Dr. Kuroda,” Caitlin said, “are you in or out?”
Kuroda was quiet for six seconds, then: “All right. All right. I’m in. But . . .”
snapped Caitlin.
His tone was soft. “But it’s easier to work directly with the—um, the end user—on something like this.”
She felt herself relaxing. “Right, of course. Do you have an instant-messenger program on your home computer?”
“I have a sixteen-year-old daughter,” Kuroda said. “We have more of them than I can count.”
“Okay,” she said. “Its name is Webmind.”
“Better than Fred,” said Caitlin.
“Not by much.”
She felt her smile returning. “Give me a second,” she said, then she typed into her instant-messenger program,
You are about to be contacted by Dr. Kuroda.
The word
appeared in the window.
She had Kuroda make sure he was logging all the IM traffic to disk, and then she talked him through the process of setting up a chat session with Webmind. She couldn’t see what he was typing, or what Webmind’s replies to him were, but she heard him muttering to himself in Japanese, and then, “My heart is pounding, Miss Caitlin. This is . . . what do young American women say these days?”
“Awesome?” suggested Caitlin.
“So you’re in contact?” Caitlin asked.
“Yes, I—oh! It has a funny way of talking, doesn’t it? Anyway, yes, we’re in contact. Incredible!”
“Okay, good,” she said. She took off her glasses and used the heels of her hands to rub her eyes—the one that could see and the one that couldn’t. “Look, we’re dying here,” she said. “It’s way after midnight. Can we leave this in your hands? We’ve got to get some shut-eye.”
There were interstices in my work with Dr. Kuroda—protracted lacunae while I waited for his text replies or for him to direct me to link to another bit of code he had written.
In those gaps I sought to learn more about Caitlin, about this human who had reached down and helped draw me up out of the darkness.
There was no Wikipedia entry on her, meaning, I supposed, that she was not—yet!—noteworthy. And—
Ah, wait—wait! Yes, there was no entry on her, but there was one on her father, Malcolm Decter . . . and Wikipedia saved not just the current version of its entries, but all previous versions, as well. Although there was no mention of Caitlin in the current draft, a previous iteration had contained this: “Has one daughter, Caitlin Doreen, blind since birth, who lives with him; it’s been speculated that Decter’s decline in peer-reviewed publications in recent years has been because of the excessive demands on his time required to care for a disabled child.”
That had been removed thirteen days ago. The change log gave only an IP address, not a user name. The IP address was the one for the Decter household; the change could have been made (among other possibilities) by Caitlin, her parents, or that other man—Dr. Kuroda, I now knew—that I had often seen there.
The deletion might have been made because Caitlin had ceased to be blind.
But . . .
But it seemed more likely that this text was cut because someone—presumably Caitlin herself—didn’t
what it said.
But I was merely inferring that. It was possible to more directly study Caitlin—and so I did.
In short order, I read everything she’d ever put publicly online: every blog post, every comment to someone else’s blog, every
review she’d written. But—
There was much she had written that I could
access. Her Yahoo mail account contained all the messages she had received, and all the messages she had sent, but access was secured by a password.
A nettlesome situation; I’d have to do something about it.
The Calculass Zone
Changing of the Guard
Saturday 6 October, 00:55 EST
Lee Amodeo, “Nightfall”
I got a feeling I’m going to be pretty scarce for the next little while, folks. Things they be a-happenin’. It’s all good—miraculous, even—but gotta keep it on the DL. Suffice it to say that I told my parents something el mucho grande tonight, and they didn’t freak. Hope other people take it as well as they did . . .
Even though she was exhausted, Caitlin updated her LiveJournal, skimmed her friends’ LJs, updated her Facebook page (where she changed her status to “Caitlin thinks it’s better to give than to receive”), and then checked her email. There was a message from Bashira with the subject, “One for the math genius.”
When she’d been younger, Caitlin had liked the sort of mathematical puzzles that sometimes circulated through email: they’d made her feel smart. These days, though, they mostly bored her. It was rare for one to present much of a challenge to her, but the one in Bashira’s message did. It was related to an old game show, apparently, something called
Let’s Make a Deal
that had starred a guy named Monty Hall. In it, contestants are asked to pick one of three doors. Behind one of them is a new car, and behind each of the others is a goat—meaning the odds are one in three that the contestant is going to win the car.
The host knows which door has the car behind it and, after the contestant picks a door, Monty opens one of the unchosen ones and reveals that it was hiding a goat. He then asks the player, “Do you want to switch to the other unopened door?”
Bashira asked:
Is it to the contestant’s advantage to switch?
Of course not,
thought Caitlin. It didn’t make any difference if you switched or not; one remaining door had a car behind it and the other had a goat, and the odds were now fifty-fifty that you’d picked the right door.
Except that
not what the article Bashira had forwarded said. It contended that your chances of winning the car are much better if you switch.
And that, Caitlin was sure, was just plain
She figured someone else must have written up a refutation to this puzzle before, so she googled. It took her a few minutes to find what she was looking for; the appropriate search terms turned out to be “Monty Hall problem,” and—
What the hell?
“. . . When the problem and the solution appeared in
ten thousand readers, including nearly a thousand Ph.D.s, wrote to the magazine claiming the published solution was wrong. Said one professor, ‘You blew it! Let me explain: If one door is shown to be a loser, that information changes the probability of either remaining choice—neither of which has any reason to be more likely—to 1/2. As a professional mathematician, I’m very concerned with the general public’s lack of mathematical skills. Please help by confessing your error and, in the future, being more careful.’ ”
The person who had written the disputed answer was somebody called Marilyn vos Savant, who apparently had the highest IQ on record. But Caitlin didn’t care
high the lady’s IQ was. She agreed with the people who said she’d blown it; she
to be wrong.
And, as Caitlin liked to say, she was an empiricist at heart. The easiest way to prove to Bashira that vos Savant was wrong, it seemed to her, would be by writing a little computer program that would simulate a lot of runs of the game. And, even though she was exhausted, she was also pumped from her conversations with Webmind; a little programming would be just the thing to let her relax. She only needed fifteen minutes to whip up something to do the trick, and—
Holy crap.
It took just seconds to run a thousand trials, and the results were clear. If you switched doors when offered the opportunity to do so, your chance of winning the car was about twice as good as it was when you kept the door you’d originally chosen.
But that just didn’t make
Nothing had changed! The host was always going to reveal a door that had a goat behind it, and there was always going to be another door that hid a goat, too.
She decided to do some more googling—and was pleased to find that Paul Erdös hadn’t believed the published solution until he’d watched hundreds of computer-simulated runs, too.
Erdös had been one of the twentieth century’s leading mathematicians, and he’d co-authored a great many papers. The “Erdös number” was named after him: if you had collaborated with Erdös yourself, your Erdös number was 1; if you had collaborated with someone who had directly collaborated with Erdös, your number was 2, and so on. Caitlin’s father had an Erdös number of 4, she knew—which was quite impressive, given that her dad was a physicist and not a mathematician.
How could she—let alone someone like Erdös?—have been wrong? It was
that switching doors should make no difference!
Caitlin read on and found a quote from a Harvard professor, who, in conceding at last that vos Savant had been right all along, said, “Our brains are just not wired to do probability problems very well.”
She supposed that was true. Back on the African savanna, those who mistook every bit of movement in the grass for a hungry lion were more likely to survive than those who dismissed each movement as nothing to worry about. If you always assume that it’s a lion, and nine times out of ten you’re wrong, at least you’re still alive. If you always assume that it’s
a lion, and nine times out of ten you’re right—you end up dead. It was a fascinating and somewhat disturbing notion: that humans had been hardwired through genetics to get certain kinds of mathematical problems wrong—that evolution could actually program people to be incorrect about things.
Caitlin felt her watch, and, astonished at how late it had become, quickly got ready for bed. She plugged her eyePod into the charging cable and deactivated the device, shutting off her vision; she had trouble sleeping if there was any visual stimulation.
But although she was suddenly blind again, she could still hear perfectly well—in fact, she heard better than most people did. And, in this new house, she had little trouble making out what her parents were saying when they were talking in their bedroom.
Her mother’s voice: “Malcolm?”
No audible reply from her father, but he must have somehow indicated that he was listening, because her mother went on: “Are we doing the right thing—about Webmind, I mean?”
BOOK: WWW 2: Watch
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