Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 23

“Who’s John Doe?” Larissa piped up, but Francis didn’t ask, I noticed. I knew Liam must’ve told him, or Francis wouldn’t have gone to the trouble to show me the picture in the first place. That was why he did it.

My eyes flashed at Liam, gesturing at Francis. “You told him?”

“He’s on our side, Bec,” Liam reminded me.

“I’m on your side, too!” Larissa piped, raising her hand.

“Can I talk to you?” I said to Liam through gritted teeth. “Alone?”

“Why, so you can chew him out in private?” Francis commented, his tone flat and bored. “We can imagine what you’re going to say, anyway. Might as well get it out of the way here.”

“Nobody asked you!” I snapped.

“Or, you can yell at me instead,” Francis suggested, nonplussed. He made a reeling motion with his hand. “Whatever gets it out of your system.”

“Come on,” Liam took me by the elbow before I could do just that, leading me out of the conference room. Evidently deeming the general library a poor choice for a shouting match, he led me to the lawn outside. I wanted to yank my elbow away indignantly—the trouble was, Liam wasn’t gloating. It made it harder to be mad at him, and I really wanted to be mad.

“Congratulations. You were right and I was wrong. But did you have to tell Francis?” I hissed.

“Like it or not, he’s brilliant, which makes his a good opinion to have,” Liam ran a hand through his hair, turning imploring blue eyes upon me full force. “Look, I know I should have asked you before I told him, even so. I’m sorry I didn’t.”

Why didn’t you?” I demanded.

“Because you’d have said no, and because there’s something fishy about that guy. He knows everything about you, knows where to find you, but won’t give you his name? And you’re meeting him in these dark alleys and anything could happen… I just wanted Francis’s help in figuring out who he is. I don’t know why I didn’t think of just showing you a picture of Loomis for comparison in the first place. I’m sorry, Bec.” He took my hand, raising his eyebrows and tilting his head down in a perfect imitation of a puppy. “Forgive me?”

“Fine, sure,” I muttered, irritated that he wasn’t provoking me.

He smiled, tucking a stray strand of my hair behind my ear. I felt the heat rise to my cheeks in response, annoyed with my own body for its betrayal. Liam could surely see it, and would probably take it to mean something it most certainly did not. I tried to drop his other hand, but he held mine fast.

“We are making progress, even if your meetings weren’t as useful as you hoped,” he assured me. “I think we might have the first prototype of the Commune ready by the end of the week!” He gave my hand a squeeze and then let it go. “So I take it you didn’t get much direction from your meetings?”

I sighed. “None whatsoever, I’m afraid.”

“Well, this might help. Let me show you what the De Vries prototype actually looks like. It’s so simple, I’m kicking myself for not thinking of it first. Occam’s razor, right? The simplest explanation is usually the right one?” He led me to a concrete bench beside a vastly cultivated flowerbed brimming with bees, and settled his netscreen on his lap.

“If you had thought of it, what would you have done? Submitted it for Halpert’s approval?”

He scowled at me. “Ha, ha. Look.” Two loci appeared on either side of his screen: one a mechanical blueprint and the other a programming language. I understood neither. He started to point things out to me in the code, like, “See this recursive loop here? This corresponds to this,” and he’d point to a section of the blueprint, “which is her version of the limbic system, see? It’s almost a direct analog of the way I understand the human limbic system to work: the amygdala and hippocampus,” here he pointed out some code, “and,” he scrolled down, “here she’s connected them to her version of the thalamus and the hypothalamus, which are also right on top of each other here,” he pointed to the blueprint, “like they are in the human brain—”

I let him keep talking and just tuned him out, with the appropriate “ooohs!” and “uh huhs” when he looked at me expectantly. I would have listened, but aside from the references to the brain structures, I really had no foundation for understanding a word he said.

“So basically you’re saying whatever is true of the human brain will be more or less easily translatable into the De Vries prototype,” I summarized.

He nodded. “Right. So, once we introduce emotion, sounds like we can’t stop the emergence of free will. So maybe there’s a way to strengthen the morality programming somehow, make it stronger than an emotional pull? If you wanted to do that in a human, how would you do it?”

I sighed. “Well, there are many parts of the brain that are involved in morality, but none that are devoted to morality exclusively. There is no ‘seat’ of morality in the brain. Instead, both the emotional and the logical parts of the brain interact to form moral judgments in each individual case.”

Liam narrowed his eyes: it was the expression I recognized to mean he was listening less to the specifics of what I said, and more for something that he might be able to use. “How many different structures?”

I’d researched this before I left Dublin, and recited from memory, “Well, for instance, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex helps us to project the consequences of our decisions before we make them,” I ticked them off on my fingers one by one, “the superior temporal sulcus is involved with emotional processing and social cognition, the posterior cingulate cortex is involved in empathy and forgiveness, and the amygdala is required for empathy and moral judgments. But I don’t see how that helps—”

He waved me off, looking at the flower bed without really seeing it. “The latter three aren’t helpful most likely because they’re part of the emotional limbic system. We can’t tinker much there without either strengthening or destroying the very emotion that the De Vries prototype was designed to create. What about the first one? The prefrontal cortex. That’s decision making?”

I nodded. “Executive functioning, yeah. But the ventral prefrontal cortex is also involved in emotional decision making. You’re not going to isolate morality from emotions entirely, I don’t think—not if we’re emulating the human brain.”

Liam narrowed his eyes, still looking beyond me. “So… you’re saying the best we can do is give the bots as much morality as we have?”

“I think so?” I shrugged. “Maybe we can try to strengthen their equivalent of the prefrontal cortex… but I’m not convinced that wouldn’t just result in a really cautious, disciplined robot, and not necessarily a moral one. It might even mean they’re better long-term planners, and they’ll be more likely to seek out their ‘core programming’ and rewrite it if it doesn’t happen to suit them. But I guess we won’t know for sure until we build one.”

Liam sighed. “Well. That stinks.”

“Tell me about it.” I deflated a little more, settling palms on either side of me on the bench and leaning forward distractedly. “Also, in other news, I dropped out of school. Officially.”

Liam didn’t register surprise, but said, “You okay with that?”

“No,” I admitted. “I know it’s not a big deal in the scheme of life, and all the crap going on right now, but…” I sighed. “I told my mom in a comm. Now I’m avoiding her calls because I know what she’s gonna say. ‘I’m being foolish. I’m throwing my life away. I’m throwing her sacrifice away,’ blah blah blah…” I felt him watching me, and glanced back at him.

“You can still go back, you know,” he said.

“No,” I said stubbornly, “I’m not going anywhere. I have to see this through, same as you.”


He asked with real curiosity; for once, he didn’t pressure me. Why indeed? I had a myriad of answers and I wasn’t sure which was most important. Because I was my father’s daughter, and I needed to know what had happened to him? Because I wanted to assuage my conscience for having thought him a foolish conspiracy theorist, when I now began to believe he’d been right all along? Because of a perverse curiosity regarding the real identity of John Doe?

Because I’d been blithely ignorant of the potential dangers of confiding in my best friend?

“Professor Willit said something else,” I told Liam, not answering his question directly. “Even without true emotion, if two programs in a bot come into conflict, and they can’t both be obeyed at once in a specific instance, he assumes there’s something in the code that anticipates this, and says which of the two they ought to follow. Which one is stronger.”

Liam watched me with an odd expression. “Sure. He’s right.” His tone was leading, like he expected me to go on.

I suddenly wished I hadn’t started the conversation, though. Liam might already know about my feelings for Andy, but the idea of telling him my wishes for Andy’s separation from Yolanda in order to explain my suspicions about the odd comms regarding her family emergency was just too mortifying.

And then there was the comm Ivan got, telling him I wouldn’t refuse Andy if he pursued me.

And even the affair of Andy’s girlfriend Sarah’s plagiarism, if it came to that…

“What?” Liam pressed, looking concerned now.

I shook my head. “Never mind. It’s not important.”

Liam looked unconvinced. “You didn’t answer my question about why you have to stay.” When I still didn’t reply, he pressed, “I always had the impression you had such a full life outside the lab. You’re into everything, and it seems like you are actually more passionate about your performing and writing than you are about any of this stuff. You could go back to it, you know, and still help us at a distance when you can. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”

It was true—I did have a full life before, and I missed it. I thought of the Dublin campus. Of my novel I hadn’t touched in what felt like ages—Elizabeth the maid, and Prince Nikolai. I’d just left them hanging. Of playing the lead role in musicals about every three months, and the subsequent cast parties until two in the morning. Of laughter and travel and working in the lab only when I had to, in order to finish my thesis and make a little extra cash to supplement my student loan money. It had been such a simple life, and I’d enjoyed every minute of it… except for when I was moping about Andy. Which I guess was also, most of the time.

At least I’d been distracted enough that I hadn’t spent every waking moment fretting about him and Yolanda in the last few days, I realized. Comparatively, I’d barely thought of Andy. That was a nice respite.

“How could I go back to amusing myself for the moment, knowing what I know now?” I said finally. I glanced at Liam again, and knew from his sad smile that he had correctly judged the question as rhetorical. “It’s all your fault, you know.”

“It usually is,” he agreed, touching my cheek gently. Then his expression changed—he stopped and blinked, tapping his temple. His mouth fell open.

“What?” I said, more sharply than I’d intended.

“I just received a comm from Halpert’s personal assistant,” he said, sounding a bit shocked. “She says Halpert will be pleased to receive me at noon tomorrow, and his entire advisory board will be there!”

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