Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 21

I practically fled from Professor Reddy’s office, stumbling down the hallway when a comm appeared across my retinas—I’d forgotten to disable my A.E. chip again when I left. It was from Liam.

“We’re in the glass conference room in the far corner of the second story of the library,” he wrote. “Come find us when you’re done.”

I stared at his comm for a minute. How could I tell him that Professor Reddy told me there was no such thing as free will? That even we didn’t really have it?

And why did the very idea make me want to hyperventilate?

Instead of replying, I disabled the A.E. chip and started toward the library when my handheld vibrated, insistent on a response. I gave an exasperated sigh until I saw that it wasn’t Liam this time—it was Mom.

“I assume you’re back in Dublin, and back in class?” it read. “You never told me you arrived safely. I’ve been worried. Call me. Love, Mom.”

I stopped dead in my tracks, closed my eyes, and let out an audible moan.

Class. I’d completely forgotten to tell my professors anything. I’d just been no-showing… for exams, for rehearsals, for classes… If I didn’t do something fast, I’d fail the semester and destroy my GPA.

A wooden bench sat in the hallway outside another professor’s office, and I sat down, taking a few deep breaths as I organized my thoughts. I needed to take care of the school situation before I said anything to Mom. I didn’t want to tell her I’d withdrawn until I actually had, and now that I remembered, I didn’t want that hanging over me.

I enabled the A.E. chip on my temple again, because it would be faster to mentally compose the comms I needed to send. I wrote first to the Registrar with my official withdrawal, asking for any paperwork I needed to complete to make it official. I read it over once, took a deep breath, and thought, “Send.”

Another deep breath. I’ll be back next semester, I assured myself. My GPA wasn’t the most important issue right now anyway, nor was my degree… and yet, I felt like I needed a moment of silence. It was a big step.

Next I composed comms to Henry, the director of “The Tempest”, who had probably already figured out I wasn’t coming back when I’d no-showed for three rehearsals now. I was surprised he hadn’t commed me already to find out what was keeping me. Maybe he was still just waiting, since I’d told him before I’d left that I’d be back soon.

I really wanted to play Miranda, too, I sighed as I composed the message, telling him to re-cast my role. I just loved playing the lead, no matter what the show was. I wondered what that said about me.

Then I wrote Dr. Yin, with a much less formal withdrawal, since she knew exactly what I was doing and why. I knew she’d sign any paperwork the Registrar required on my behalf, but I asked her to do so all the same.

Then I composed very carefully worded emails to each of the professors whose exams I had missed, begging them to register my grades as Incomplete rather than Fail. I explained that I had been in San Jose… for… what excuse could I give? I rapped my fingernails on my knee. Family emergency? No… it had to do with family, but since Dad died six years ago, it could hardly be considered an emergency… research for my senior thesis? That’s not a good reason to miss class, either…

A comm appeared directly on my retinas. Liam. “Bec? You still in office hours? It’s been a long time…”

I let out a little harrumph and dismissed it. I’d get to him later.

Suddenly another comm appeared on my retinas: Julie this time. “So I guess Yolanda’s family is just fine! She commed Andy when she arrived back home, and said her mom never even sent the message and had no idea what she was talking about. Weird, huh?”

I stared at the comm for a second, with an odd feeling in the pit of my stomach.

So who did send it? I wondered. The idea that it could be John Doe was absurd, of course. But then again, hadn’t he been the one to send the comm to Dr. Yin, saying I needed to go back to Dublin? And who sent the comm to Ivan, for that matter, telling him that if Andy pursued me, he wouldn’t be refused?

I couldn’t deny the feeling that I—my desires—were somehow responsible for Yolanda’s mystery comm, also. But I didn’t send it, so how could I be responsible?

I couldn’t think about that right now. I’d deal with it later.

I opened the comm to my Abnormal Psych professor and wrote, “I needed to come to San Jose on some urgent family business, and I’ve found it requires my continued presence here for the time being.” It was true enough, and it also didn’t invite further questions. I added a few more lines, begging his forbearance. I sent it, and then tweaked it for the other professors whose exams I had also missed.

After I’d sent off the last one, I felt a sort of emptiness. Despite all that had happened, despite the fact that I knew this was the only decision I could possibly make, it wasn’t the life I had planned. It was 180 degrees from the life I had planned, in fact.

How did any of this happen?

I composed a comm to Mom next. “I’m still in San Jose, actually. Things took an interesting turn here, and I had to drop out of school after all. Just for the semester. I’ll go back as soon as I can. I’m sorry I didn’t update you earlier. I love you.” I closed my eyes but could still see the message in my mind’s eye when I thought, “Send.”

I couldn’t have sat there for more than a minute before I saw the incoming holograph call. Mom, of course. I had the A.E. eyepiece in my bag and could take the call if I wanted to, but I didn’t think I could deal with her irate questions at the moment. Decline, I thought.

Another comm appeared. Liam again. “Hello???”

This is why I never enable the A.E. chip, I thought with annoyance, tapping my temple to turn it off. Something about having comms and calls appear on my very retinas felt so dreadfully invasive—as if I wasn’t even in control of my own body, even though I had the ability to turn the feature on and off. I would never understand how most people left it on all the time.

Once the A.E. chip was off again, I pulled my handheld out of my pocket and wrote to Liam, “I’m alive, calm down. I’ll be there when I can.”

A few seconds later, the screen blinked. “Well, if you don’t update me for hours, I start imagining you getting kidnapped seven ways from Sunday. Sue me.”

I scoffed out loud, but a tiny smile tugged at the corners of my lips anyway. I still wasn’t quite used to this character trait of his. Some small part of me found it kind of endearing… a very small part. I wrote, “We’re on a university campus, Liam. I’m fine. You’re so paranoid.”

“Yes, we’ve established this,” he wrote back, “and I accept my flaws. What did you find out?”

I didn’t want to try to compose my findings, or my subsequent musings in a comm, but he clearly wasn’t going to leave me alone for long. I’d have to just go tell him in person. With a twinge of dread, I enabled the A.E. chip one more time just to pull up the map so that I could find my way back to the library. I wasn’t very good at directions.

But between the physics building and the library, I saw one labeled, “Philosophy.”

I couldn’t explain why, but I felt drawn to it. Maybe I was preordained to go there, I thought, with a humorless little laugh. Maybe there was no point to anything I was doing, because what would be would be, no matter what I did. Or maybe instead, my preordained choices would ‘make a difference,’ if anything could truly be said to make a difference, but only because they were already woven into the tapestry of the universe from the foundation of time…

On my way to the Philosophy building, I searched the labyrinth and found a professor also hosting office hours, who happened to be a dual chair in psychology. I made my way to his office, praying that he wasn’t another bot.

“Enter,” called a husky voice, and I pushed open the old fashioned wooden door with clouded glass bearing his name in black letters. The man sitting before me—he was definitely man and not bot—had thinning salt and pepper hair, an oversized gut, and loose skin about his neck and above his eyelids. But he smiled when he saw me, spreading a kind of fatherly glow to all who entered his domain. A wave of relief hit me; I hadn’t known exactly how much I’d hoped for someone older and wiser to guide me until that moment.

“Sir,” I began, as he gestured for me to sit in the upholstered chair across from him, beside the warm orange light of an incandescent bulb. “My name is Rebecca Cordeaux. I’m a neuroscience major.” I didn’t need to tell him in what school.

“Ah, so you’re here for psychology and not philosophy, then. Which class are you in?”

I opened my mouth and closed it again, deciding in a split second not to lie. “In—well, I’m visiting, sir. I’d just hoped I might be able to ask you a few questions, for… for a project I’m working on. I wondered what you can tell me about… free will. I mean, what is it? What do we know about it?”

Professor Willit tilted his head to the side, inspecting my face. “Is this an academic question, or a personal one?”

“Both,” I admitted.

He nodded. “Philosophers have struggled with this question throughout the ages, of course. But the definition comes down to this: free will is when an agent has the ability to both recognize a choice between at least two alternatives, and is not coerced by any external force, but can choose between them of its own volition.”

“But according to Professor Reddy, every choice is predetermined,” I blurted. “Do you believe that?”

Right at that moment, another comm appeared on my retinas—I’d forgotten to disable the A.E. chip again after using it for the maps. “Bec, seriously? Are you dead, or are you trying to drive me crazy?” I dismissed it, and tapped my temple to turn it off.

Professor Willit considered my question. “Well, yes and no,” he said. “If what she means by ‘predetermined’ is that our choices are a result of our past experiences and our character, then largely, yes. But I would argue that there is a distinct difference between being predictable and being coerced. Do I have a choice about whether or not to pick up this letter opener and throw it through my window right now?” He demonstrated, gesturing at the window. “Sure. But my character, my experiences, and my emotions are such that I won’t make that choice, because I have no good reason to do so. No one makes that choice for me; I make it for myself, but I am influenced by the whole of my history in making it.”

“So you’re saying that free will arises automatically from having a choice between at least two alternatives. Even if you’re essentially… programmed to make one choice over another. By your history.”

Professor Willit’s eyes sharpened at the word programmed. “Correct…” he said slowly. I had the sense that he was trying to guess my meaning. Then he ventured, “This doesn’t only apply to humans, though.”

My heart skipped a beat. “What do you mean?”

“Well, take companion bots, for instance,” he said. “They are programmed with social and moral ‘rules,’ as well as the core program of protecting the interests of the person to whom they are given as a companion. But what happens when these two things come into conflict? If the moral rule dictates one thing, but protecting the interest of her master dictates another, this sets up a choice, doesn’t it?”

For some reason, Julie’s comm sprung to mind again when he said that. “Her mom never even sent the message. Weird, huh?”

“But there are if/then statements in companion bot programming that determine which rule to follow when they come in conflict,” I pointed out. “So that isn’t truly free will, because the choice is coerced by their programmer.”

Professor Willit shrugged. “You may be correct. I’m not a programmer. But…” he leaned forward, conspiratorially, “If I may say so, if Halpert has his way and the bots acquire emotion, then they will have a true dichotomy: the choice between following their programming, and following their desires.” He watched me very hard as he sat back in his chair again. “Which they choose at that point will be anybody’s guess.”

“So… let me switch over to cognitive neuroscience, for a second,” I added. “This may be a stupid question, but are there… specific parts of the brain that deal with free will?”

“You mean so that we can override it?”

I nodded, and the professor tilted his head to the side, regarding me with a somber expression. “I wish I could help you. I really do.”

My heart sank. “What do you mean?”

He shook his head. “There are several parts of the brain associated with free choice, to be sure: decisions in the anterior cingulate cortex, timing of decisions in the supplementary motor area, and whether or not to act in the first place in the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex… but alas, Rebecca. The fact that we know which parts of the brain make free will decisions does not mean that we can eliminate free will by creating lesions in those areas. Quite the contrary: lesions in the prefrontal cortex tend to lead to socially inappropriate or immoral behavior. Rather than imposing an absolute mandate, such a lesion would exclude morality altogether.”

I deflated. “But—there must be a way!”

Professor Willit shook his head. “If there is, it will not be found by imitating the human brain. One can eliminate all restraint by damaging the brain, but we cannot impose moral behavior without the free choice of whether or not to obey it, once emotion gets involved. We use brain structures in the manifestation of our free will, but the reason free will is there in the first place does not appear to reside in the brain itself. I’m afraid you are seeking a scientific answer to a fundamentally spiritual question.”

The conversation was clearly over. I mumbled my thanks, and slung my backpack over one shoulder as I left Professor Willit’s office.

Once in the hallway, I closed my eyes, resting the back of my head against his door like I couldn’t bear the weight of it anymore.

“Then we’re all doomed,” I whispered.

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