Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 20

As soon as Liam left my hotel room and the door clicked shut, Madeline spun around, eyes wide.

“Sorry to make you stand in the corner,” I said, stuffing my netscreen back in my backpack. “I just didn’t think having an audience would be smart right then.”

“I’m glad you told him after all,” Madeline murmured. “I see what you meant now, about him feeling betrayed if you didn’t. It would have been so much worse if you’d kept it from him any longer.”

“As long as he keeps his end of the promise and doesn’t go telling anyone else,” I muttered. “Liam is so volatile, I never know what he’s gonna do.” I crossed the room to stuff some old fashioned pens and notebook paper into my backpack also. I was the only one who needed to go to Capitol University, but overprotective Liam insisted on coming with me. Since Liam needed to work on the Commune with Francis and Larissa, they were coming too—much to Francis’s irritation.

“It’s safer to talk in the pub, and Rebecca will be perfectly safe on a university campus. For heaven’s sake, Liam,” were his exact words. He’d sent the comm to both of us.

“He’s right, Liam. I’ll be fine.”

“You know where you’d be fine? Dublin,” Liam had shot back.

Francis sent Liam Halpert’s direct comm address after that, and Liam had disabled the holograph feature for the call so that Halpert’s secretary could not see that he wasn’t his father. He left a message that Liam Kelly of General Specs would like to meet with the senator at his earliest convenience, suggesting lunch the following day. The four of us finally agreed to meet up again in the lobby downstairs in a few minutes to head to Capitol University library. The three of them would try to find a soundproof study room to work on the Commune, while I dug up whatever I could to at least give me a starting point on the neuroscience of morality and free will. That wasn’t daunting at all.

“Do you think Liam might be right?” Madeline murmured to me. “About John Doe?”

I shook my head slowly. “I don’t… think so. But then again, John Doe really hasn’t told me anything useful so far. All he’s done is try to get me to leave…” My handheld vibrated, and I picked it up, expecting Liam. I frowned.

“What is it?” Madeline asked.

“It’s Julie…” I shook my head. “That’s weird. She said Yolanda had to go back home suddenly because of some family emergency. So if I want to come to the beach to join them after all, I can.”

“So… you got your wish then?”

“No, I didn’t wish for that!” I felt a slight twinge of guilt, though. Hadn’t I? “I just wanted her to leave, I didn’t want it to be because of a family emergency…”

“Will you go meet up with them now, though? To be with Andy?”

I shook my head, biting my lip. “I wish I could, but I can’t now. Liam’s downstairs waiting for me.” I wrote Julie back quickly, saying I was sorry and to let me know when they found out the status of Yolanda’s emergency—slightly assuaging my conscience. Then I crossed the room and planted a kiss on Madeline’s metallic forehead. “I’ll see you tonight.”

“Comm me if anything happens!” she piped.

Liam, Larissa, Francis and I took a hovercar to the university campus. Something in me breathed deeper once we arrived: like the campus in Dublin, it was open and spacious, and felt like the grounds of an old countryside manor in the midst of the hubbub and overwhelming technology of the rest of San Jose. The occasional hovercar passed overhead even on the campus, and there was the odd bot here or there. But mostly there were human students, wearing that same air of purpose and anticipation I loved so much in Dublin.

“Oh, how lovely!” breathed Larissa, “don’t you just wish you could pick all these flowers, Becca, and take them home with us? Or back to the hotel, anyway?” She skipped over to a hedge of rosebushes, breathing in their scent. “Don’t they just make you feel like springtime and infinite possibilities?”

Francis blinked at her, deadpan. Then he glanced at me. “Is she on any sort of medication?”

Trying not to laugh, Liam tapped the A.E. chip in his temple. From the way his eyes scanned up, down, and around, I didn’t think he was reading a comm. Also, he had a little bit of green in his mostly blue eyes that caught the sunlight. I’d never noticed before—I guess I’d never wanted to look that deeply while he might catch me at it.

Francis caught me at it, though. He rolled his eyes, like he knew exactly what I was thinking. I flushed. Then he glanced back at Larissa.

“She’s going to burst into song at any minute, isn’t she? Please tell me there won’t be a flash mob, and I won’t find myself thrust into a musical.”

“That’s my idea of heaven!” cried Larissa, skipping back over to us. “I can just burst into song, and everyone around me spontaneously knows all the words, and all the steps!”

“Funny. That’s how I imagine hell,” Francis deadpanned.

Ignoring them, Liam announced, “Okay, we’re right by the Modern Languages and Social Sciences buildings, and the library is thataway.” He fully extended his right arm eastward, like a traffic cop.

I enabled my own A.E. chip for the moment, and pulled up a map of the campus also.

“Looks like the library is a few buildings down from Psych,” I said, following behind him with one eye while I scanned the map with the other. It was a little disorienting. I’d never, for instance, try to descend stairs that way.

“Yeah, but all you need is the library, right?”

“Well…” I had an idea, and did a quick search while we walked. When I didn’t reply right away, Liam glanced back at me.

“Don’t run into a tree,” he said, and explained to Francis and Larissa, “Rebecca can’t comm and walk at the same time.”

“I’m thrilled to learn of Rebecca’s every delightful quirk,” Francis replied dryly.

“Oh, hush! You needn’t be so rude,” Larissa scolded him, and I could hear her merry smack on his shoulder.

My vision returned to reality, and Liam’s eyes widened at me, as if to say, You’re not really going to leave me alone with these two, are you?

I bit back a smile. Aloud, I told him, “Ok, I’m going to Physics, meet you in the library afterwards. There’s a Quantum Mechanics professor with office hours today.”

“Again, you’ll have access to way more information than she could ever memorize in the library, unless she’s a bot…”

“She might be a bot,” I pointed out. “Plus, this isn’t something I’ve ever studied before. I don’t even know where to start. I figured I could cut my research down by hours if I can just get her to summarize what I need to know, or at least point me in the right direction. I’ll meet up with you after.”

“All right. Be careful,” Liam said dubiously. “Which professor? In case I need to come find you?”

“You two are pathetic,” Francis commented.

“I think it’s sweet! He’s concerned about her!” piped Larissa.

I told Liam, “Her name is Professor Reddy, and I won’t be gone an hour!”

Professor Reddy was a bot, it turned out. She was tall and lithe, with an articulated spine—not boxy, like Madeline. She was silver, though, and had strangely human almond-shaped eyes in her face. No nose, no hair, and a mouth with rounded edges of metal to pass for lips.

“Hello,” she said, her voice far more musical than I had expected. It was slightly creepy. The almond eyes scanned my face. “I do not recognize you from any of my classes.”

Of course, she’d have a perfect memory. “I’m not in any of your classes,” I admitted. “I’m visiting. I just had a few questions for you on—well—how does quantum physics make free will possible? ” I swallowed, suddenly realizing what a tall order that was for a girl who had almost no background in the subject.

“That question is a fallacy,” Professor Reddy informed me. “You assume that it does.”

“Doesn’t it?”

“There are many theories and few facts,” was her reply. “May I assume from your absence in my classes that you do not have a background in physics?”

“That’s correct,” I nodded, enabling my A.E. chip to record what she said.

“All right. Briefly: Newtonian, or macroscopic physics, is essentially deterministic. You have heard of the thought experiment of Laplace’s Demon?” I shook my head, and she said, “In the experiment, the demon has infinite intelligence, knows all the laws of physics, and has infinite computing capability. It also knows the exact state of every particle of the universe at a given moment. If it has all this, then according to Newtonian physics, it ought to be able to perfectly predict both the past and the future. The idea is, given all knowledge of all possible influences upon any particular particle, there is only one thing that particle can possibly do, and only one thing it can possibly have done to bring it to its present state. This is equally true of every particle in the universe, including those of your own human brain. Therefore, according to Newtonian physics, there is no free will.”

“But quantum physics introduces uncertainty,” I pointed out.

The bot nodded. “It may. When unobserved, quantum particles proceed deterministically as well—but as a wave of possible positions, not as individual particles. Once observed, the wave coalesces into a particle. There are two theories of this: in the Multiverse theory, every possible state of each particle in the universe actually occurs in some alternate universe. Thus, determinism is preserved, even down to quantum particles—although the uncertainty of which path the particle will choose in any one universe persists.

“Then there is the Copenhagen interpretation, in which quantum physics is truly non-deterministic. When the wave becomes a single particle, it is called the collapse of the wave function—all those other possible futures vanish. So this does introduce uncertainty at the quantum level. Some say human thought must be a quantum system, meaning that there is a certain amount of information that even Laplace’s Demon could not know, because it is unknowable. Are you with me so far?”

I nodded. She had a remarkably calm and teacherly manner about her—not exactly empathic, the way Madeline seemed to be, but Professor Reddy was certainly modeled after the best qualities in human teachers. I’d had teacher bots before, and they’d never bothered me then. So I wasn’t sure why I felt so anxious to get out of her office.

Professor Reddy went on, “However much indeterminism may exist at the quantum level, though, when you take a step back, all of these possible states merge together into a larger state. I presume you have seen stippled drawings which seem nonsensical up close, but when you step back, they form recognizable patterns and images?” I nodded again, and she said, “A stray dot here or there will not make much difference to the overall image, correct? It is the same way when many possible microstates coalesce into the macrostate. There are laws that govern the macroscopic world that can never touch tiny particles, and it is from these laws that emergent properties occur.”

“Like what?” I shook my head, wondering how this related to free will.

“Like hiking, for instance,” she said. “Does hiking exist?”

I blinked at her. “Suuure… but it’s an activity. It doesn’t ‘exist’ in the sense that I can point to it.”

“Exactly. But in a microscopic world, would the concept even make sense?”

“No, because you have to have a body and a trail in order to do it,” I said.

The bot nodded. “And both your body and the mountain trail itself are comprised of quantum particles, none of which could ‘go hiking’ in any meaningful sense individually. It’s therefore an ‘emergent’ idea. And while each individual particle in both your body and the trail can, in principle, be anywhere in the universe at any given moment, the chances of any individual particle being on the other side of the galaxy from you are infinitesimally small. In the aggregate, those probabilities are essentially averaged out. So despite the uncertainty at the quantum level, you can reasonably expect to have feet tomorrow, and to have a mountain tomorrow, should you wish to go hiking.”

“I’m sorry, but how does this relate to free will?” My head was starting to hurt.

“Because the human brain—and for that matter, my brain too—are both also macroscopic structures, in which the randomness at the quantum level has been averaged out. Your desires and values are not properties that belong to the individual particles of your brain any more than hiking is a property that belongs to the individual properties of the particles of your feet—they, too, are emergent properties that exist only when the possible states of every particle of your brain coalesce together. Which means they are, for all intents and purposes, governed by Newtonian, deterministic laws.”

Was she saying what I thought she was saying? “So… from what we know, if we want to use quantum physics to explain free will…”

“If ‘free will’ means a real choice to do this or that, not predetermined by any other preceding event in the universe, then at the quantum level, it exists, if the Copenhagen interpretation is correct. And there’s of course a chance that every participating particle in your brain may simultaneously line up to generate a thought completely independent of external macroscopic influences. But the chances are so small as to be negligible.”

“But we do have free will,” I blurted. “How can you explain that?” I knew I was being rude, but I was being rude to a bot, so did it really matter? I brushed the thought aside, though—I’d been hanging around Liam too much.

“I would argue that free will is merely an illusion. Or perhaps the possibility of it technically exists, but in practice it never manifests,” said the patient Professor Reddy. “Your every choice is exactly what it must be. Really,” she gave me a gruesome smile, “you are no different than I am.”

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