Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 28

Francis waited for Liam and me outside his pub the next day, wearing a long black coat very much like the one Liam wore. It was the first time I’d seen Francis in anything other than his black t-shirt and jeans, and it made him look more wiry somehow. He didn’t smile, but his green eyes danced. He was clearly excited.

Liam hailed a hovercar, and as one swept down to meet us, he glanced at Francis.

“You are to keep your mouth shut,” he told him. “I’m serious.”

“I know you are,” was Francis’s enigmatic reply.

Liam turned on him squarely. “Not the response I was after. If you say nothing, they may actually believe we all work for General Specs and represent my dad. But if you say anything…”

Francis opened his mouth and closed it again, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “I will say no more and no less than absolutely necessary.”

Liam growled, and glanced at me sourly. “If he wasn’t so bloody brilliant, I’d never put up with him.”

“Stop telling him how brilliant he is, he’s got a fat enough head already,” I muttered as I climbed into the hovercar beside Liam.

After Liam directed the hovercar to our destination—the Capitol building—we rode in silence. I felt jittery: this was it. It all came down to this meeting. Also, I’d be expected to present at least half of what Liam wanted to communicate to six of the most powerful men in the world. Arguably, the six most powerful men in the world.

When we arrived and entered the lobby, Francis hung back and let Liam tell the receptionist bot who we were. I noticed that he introduced us as “Liam Kelly of General Specs, and my associates, Rebecca Hutt and Bill Spencer.”

I glanced back at Francis: he bit his lip, clearly doing something on his A.E. chip, looking up at me with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Then he stepped up to the podium behind which the receptionist bot sat.

“Excuse me, could you point me to the restroom?”

She directed him, and Francis vanished. I looked quizzically at Liam, but he didn’t seem surprised or perturbed by this.

When Francis returned, his overcoat folded over his arm, the receptionist bot wheeled around the desk in front of us. “This way, please,” she announced, leading us down a long glass hallway through an atrium.

Liam walked just in front of me. I noticed that he wiped his palms on his trousers twice. It wasn’t like him to get nervous—but then again, if he was ever going to, this was the time. I felt a few beads of sweat spring up on my own forehead.

The receptionist bot opened a set of rich mahogany doors, beyond which an enormous cherrywood table filled the center of a room replete with natural light. One entire wall was made of glass. Six men sat around the table; one stood up when we entered.

He seemed shorter in person than I thought he’d be—which was odd, considering the holograph projections are life size. Still, I expected Halpert to be at least six feet tall if he was an inch. He was probably only five foot four or so in reality. His hair reminded me of sand, and his eyes were even bluer than Liam’s—like sea glass. There was also something about him that just seemed… wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

The corners of his eyes crinkled as his face split into his the charismatic smile I recognized from the holographs.

“Well! Liam Kelly Junior!” crowed Halpert, “I was under the impression the meeting was with your father.” He seemed unfazed, though, coming forward and reaching to shake Liam’s hand with both of his.

“He was detained at the last minute, and asked me to come in his place,” Liam said smoothly. “It’s an honor to meet you, Sir. These are my associates, Bill Spencer and Rebecca Hutt.”

After a gracious nod in our direction, Halpert turned our attention to the other five men around the table. “I’m sure none of these gentlemen need much introduction, but nevertheless, might I present Abraham Chiefton,” Halpert gestured to a graying man with a bald spot and a heavy beard, with sharp gray eyes. He reclined in his chair, nodding at us. “Chief Justice Wallenberg.” Wallenberg was built much like Francis was, tall and wiry. His heavy brow reminded me of Frankenstein. He merely tilted his chin up when Halpert introduced him, like he couldn’t be bothered with politeness. Charming, I thought. “Kennedy St. James.” The owner of Plethorus, the largest supplier of goods worldwide, was bald, with thick eyebrows and thin lips. He seemed most interested in Francis, who stared right back at him. Neither of them smiled. “Pierre Montgomery.” The head of the International Education Board looked every bit the academic, with half moon spectacles on his nose even though glasses were a relic of the past. He wore a tweed sport coat. “And Dr. Janner Rasputin.” Dr. Rasputin narrowed his eyes at me, his mouth set in a long hard line. He had more thick dark hair than most men half his age, with heavyset features as if he had some Romanian blood in him. I tried to smile at him, but my mouth refused to obey. Every one of the faces around the table gave me the same queer feeling Halpert’s had, of something not quite right. If I hadn’t had a very good reason to be there, I’d have very much wished to leave.

As Halpert introduced the board, three bots entered the room bearing platters of food, which they arranged on the center of the table.

“Please, help yourselves,” Halpert gestured to the stack of plates and cutlery with a gracious smile.

Liam reached for the plate on top, for which I was glad—I didn’t want to be the first. I wiped my brow, attributing the sudden intense warmth to more nerves than I was aware of feeling. Liam and Halpert fortunately kept the conversation going, prattling about Liam’s father—the one thing they had in common. Liam managed to expend quite a few words while saying very little. Here and there the others jumped in too—Kennedy St. James had quite a bit of interaction with Liam Kelly Senior, apparently, as the largest seller of General Specs products worldwide.

Once we’d filled our plates, Francis cleared his throat, interrupting the pleasantries about Liam’s father. I felt a momentary spike of dread. But what he said was, “Will we have the pleasure of eating with you distinguished gentlemen, or just in front of you?” That was when I noticed that Francis, Liam and I were the only ones with plates.

“I’m afraid we just finished a brunch meeting,” said Halpert, with no indication that’d noticed Francis’s rudeness. “We will have to forego that particular pleasure.”

I glanced at Francis, who looked a bit smug. This meant something to him, but I didn’t know what it was.

Why is it so hot in this room? I adjusted my collar, unbuttoning the top button of my cardigan. At last I just took it off altogether; I had a thin white blouse on underneath.

“Well, should we call the meeting to order?” Halpert asked rhetorically. “Perhaps you can start off by sharing Liam Senior’s reasons for wishing to meet—or, meet by proxy, as it turns out.” Halpert’s expression betrayed nothing, but I felt a pricking sense of alarm on the back of my neck.

He knows Liam Senior never sent us.

In response, Liam stood to indicate that he had the floor, wiping his mouth with his napkin. “While General Specs recognizes that we cannot stop progress, the purpose of this meeting is to draw your attention to some potential dangers of S.R. creativity before it becomes widespread. We would like to request your public support for research into ensuring that certain failsafes are built into the De Vries prototype.”

Abraham Chiefton, still leaning back in his chair, peered at Liam over steepled fingers. “You haven’t worked for General Specs in five years,” he declared.

I saw the momentary flash of panic cross Liam’s face, so fast I might have imagined it, before he answered smoothly, “My father and I differed on the issue of the relative safety of creative bots. I believe, and I hope to convince you, that we stand at the precipice of two diverging possible futures. On one side is the continuation of our species, symbiotic with machines, and perhaps tending toward the utopian vision you describe, Senator Halpert. On the other side is our almost inevitable extinction. Which one becomes reality depends upon what we do, right now—before the De Vries prototype reaches full development, and software upgrades become available to the rest of the bots on the planet.”

Halpert gave a mild, unconcerned laugh. “Mr. Kelly, I believe you’ve been reading too much science fiction. Power-hungry superintelligent bots who destroy all human life? Come now.”

Liam wiped the sweat off his own forehead—he, at least, felt the heat too. “Our concern is not that they will become power-hungry per se, sir. Our concern is first, that the introduction of creativity will lead to a bot whose core purpose is to improve upon itself, thus leading to superintelligence. Even one such entity would be a disaster. But surely the moment one bot achieves it, software upgrades will immediately become available on the labyrinth for all other bots as well. The way superintelligent bots might interpret their core purposes is impossible to predict.”

“It’s quite a leap to jump from creativity to superintelligence,” declared Kennedy St. James. “Have you seen the De Vries prototype?”

“I have, but—”

“Then you know,” St. James went on, his tone all condescension, “that it merely mimics human creativity. Bot superintelligence is about as likely as the same feat in a human who decides to expend all its creative powers in the effort of making itself godlike.”

“Maybe at this point, and using this prototype,” Liam countered, “but this is only a starting place! You know as well as I do, Mr. St. James, that learning curves for machines are exponential, and not subject to human limitations like fatigue. A creative bot will surely make small strides at first. But by the time superintelligence comes near enough to seem like a credible threat, it will already be upon us.”

Halpert rose. “Excuse me for a moment.” With a dulcet smile, he strode to the doorway, letting the door shut behind him with a soft click. I followed him with my eyes, and then glanced at Francis. His eyes met mine with an expression that was probably as close as he ever got to alarm. Breathe, I told myself. He probably just needed to take care of some business that had nothing to do with us. He was the most powerful man in the world, after all.

Shaken by Halpert’s abrupt exit, Liam continued, “Our… second concern is that we believe the introduction of emotion will lead the bots to discard any programming they happen to dislike. Including any moral code we attempt to instill.” He nodded to me, his eyes meeting mine with an intensity that meant something, though I wasn’t sure what. Encouragement, perhaps? “This is Rebecca’s field of study, so I’ll let her take it from here.”

I stood up as Liam sank back into his chair, and for a terrifying moment, my voice failed me. You are an actress, Rebecca, I reminded myself. You are on a stage, and this is all a set. You are an impassioned executive, here to state your case. You are brilliant and articulate.

I cleared my throat. “Hello.” Not a great beginning, but I swallowed and went on, “As Liam said, in humans, morality is what modulates our behavior and prevents us from acting in destructive ways toward others. With few exceptions such as psychopaths and individuals who have been brainwashed by certain cults or political ideology, everyone agrees upon the foundational rules of morality, even across cultures.”

Dr Janner Rasputin narrowed his eyes at me, scrutinizing. My heart beat faster. Halpert slipped back into the room just then, smoothing his suit as he resumed his seat. It threw me off—I didn’t know what I saw saying. I glanced at Dr. Rasputin again, and found his expression changed: from scrutiny to recognition.

“Dr. Rasputin,” I finally said before I could stop myself. “Is something wrong?”

“Yes,” he leaned back. “Your story.”

My mouth went dry. “Sorry?” I hadn’t been telling a story, had I?

“Your name is Rebecca Cordeaux, not Rebecca Hutt,” he said. “Daughter of Quentin Cordeaux. He was a talented general practice doctor who worked under me for some time.”

Involuntarily I glanced at Liam, as if hoping he could save me. Even across the table, I could see his dilated pupils, and sweat trickled down the side of his face. I looked at Francis next, who—impossibly—looked quite self-complacent.

How can this possibly be a good thing? I wanted to shout at him. I did notice that wisps of Francis’s hair clung to his neck, too. At least he was sweating like we were—so either he was still nervous in spite of his airs, or it really was sweltering in here.

“N-no sir,” I stammered. “My name is Rebecca Hutt—”

Abraham Chiefton finally touched all four pegs of his chair to the floor. “You’re a local stage actress and a college student at Dublin University, studying neuroscience,” he informed me. Then he looked at Francis. “And there is a Bill Spencer working at General Specs, but he is fifty-eight. You’re certainly not him.”

Justice Wallenberg leaned forward and joined in. “Mr. Kelly is who he claims to be, but he has been estranged from his father for five years now. Liam Kelly Senior did not send you today, and he has no knowledge of your presence here. You’ve lied to us, Mr. Kelly. I trust you are aware of the consequences of false representation to men of our stature.”

Liam replied to this somehow—his tone was smooth and calm as ever, but his expression reminded me of a dog with its ears flattened against its head.

But I didn’t hear what he said. Instead, my father’s words came back to me in flashes:

“Rasputin is a fiend,” he’d spat. “Sure, he contained infectious disease outbreaks, and you know how he did it? By killing everyone who contracted the disease and throwing them in a quarantine until their bodies decomposed beyond recognition! He’s a complete utilitarian: he wants to keep the human race healthy, but he doesn’t give a damn about individual lives.”

I turned to Wallenberg, and remembered the story of Jim Holtz, a prisoner who had embezzled money from his employer because his sister was dying of cancer, and he was trying to pay for her treatment. “Sure it was wrong, but he’d never had any criminal record before, and he justified it to himself because the company was corrupt,” Dad had said. “But did Wallenberg take the circumstances into account? Of course not. He gave him the death penalty, like he always does for every minor infraction. Justice without mercy.”

“Kennedy St. James?” Dad had railed. “Oh yeah, he’s a great businessman. He pays his employees splendidly, and gives ’em great benefits… but he owns them. Ask anybody who works for him, and they’ll tell you: he only does that much because it’s a smart business move. Give ’em the golden handcuffs, and they’ll never be able to leave, even if they’re getting called day and night, weekends and holidays. They’re working eighty hour weeks, most of ’em, and their average lifespan is at least twenty years less than the rest of the population.” That was before those jobs were all automated, of course.

Dad had slammed down his fork at the dinner table at the mention of Pierre Montgomery’s new book launch on the netscreen. Mom’s face tightened in anticipation of whatever diatribe was sure to follow, and he did not disappoint. “Montgomery’s a snake,” he declared, waving his fork in the air. “Revisionist history, every last bit of it! He’s responsible for the homogenization of thought in this Republic. He brainwashes every kid worldwide into seeing the world his way! And we let him!” Mom rolled her eyes, but wisely held her tongue—I knew she thought Dad was unhinged by this point.

He said more or less the same thing about Abraham Chiefton: “He uses his influence to shape mass opinion! Whatever comes down from the courts, whatever political opinions Halpert wants to influence, whatever Montgomery wants to indoctrinate, Chiefton creates propaganda films to perpetuate those beliefs! He knows just how to tug on the heartstrings and bypass human reason. He’s a master at it,” Dad added bitterly, “I’ll give him that.”

And what did Dad say about Halpert himself? “He’s insidious, like a little spider.” Dad mimed the creature with his hands. “He’s content to make very small gains over a long period of time, with the help of his ‘minions’ to turn public opinion little by little. That’s how they get you: little by little. If he sprung his agenda all at once, we’d rebel—but noooo.” Dad wagged his finger at me, “just like the frog that jumps into the pot on the stove, if it starts off cold and you heat it up juuuust a bit at a time, he’ll sit there content while you boil him alive.”

The room had gone silent. Everyone stared at me: that’s when I realized I was still on my feet. Liam had finished whatever he’d said to excuse our lies, and his eyes bored into mine. I understood his meaning this time: Sit down and don’t say a word. I obeyed, sinking back into my chair.

Halpert cleared his throat as if nothing unusual had happened at all.

“Well, I’m afraid we have some other business to attend to this afternoon,” he said, reaching across the table to shake Liam’s hand. “Thank you all for bringing your concerns to our awareness. We will make sure they receive all the attention they deserve on the senate floor.”

I mumbled my goodbyes too, but nobody shook my hand, nor Francis’s. Liam practically yanked Francis to his feet and shoved him towards the door, and I thought I overheard him hiss, “Shut. Up.”

As soon as the main door to the street clicked shut behind us, Francis clapped his hands together, unable to contain himself any longer.

“What is wrong with you?” I snapped at him. But it was Liam who replied.

“Not here,” he said through gritted teeth, signaling a hovercar. It descended in front of us and I climbed in beside Liam, Francis on my other side. Liam directed the car to take us back to our hotel. Francis was obviously quite pleased with himself. I shot him another sour look.

“I guess all this self-congratulations means he proved his theory?”

“Oh yes,” Francis confirmed, rubbing his palms together. “I love it when I’m right. Which let’s be honest, I nearly always am—but when nobody else ever had even the slightest inkling, it’s so much more satisfying…”

“And, that’s about as humble as he gets,” Liam muttered to me.

When we arrived at the hotel, we didn’t speak all the way up to Liam’s room. As soon as the door opened, Liam grabbed his suitcase, which was fully packed and waiting on the other side of the door. He pulled it into the hallway, then reached in and grabbed a second one, handing it to Francis. Liam had only arrived with one suitcase, so the second one must belong to Francis. Then he gestured to my room next.

“You need to pack,” he informed me, as I pressed my fingerprint to the keypad and opened my door.

“Why? Where are we going?”

Still brimming with mirth, Francis stepped inside my room behind Liam and told me, “We’re catching the Quantum Track to Geneva, Switzerland in about an hour. Oh, you have a personal bot!” He’d just noticed Madeline. “Isn’t that ironic!”

Madeline’s eyes widened at me in an expression I knew meant, Do you want me to hide? I ignored this—it didn’t seem important now. Instead, I grabbed my empty suitcase out of the closet, glaring from Francis to Liam and back again.

“Will someone please tell me what’s going on? Why are we going to Geneva, and what was Francis right about that’s rendered him so beside himself with self-congratulations?”

Francis gestured to Liam in a show of ostentatious generosity. “You want to tell her?”

Liam glared at him, sighed, and looked at me. “Can you power her down first?” He pointed at Madeline.

Without comment, I crossed the room and knelt down to her, whispering, “I’m sorry,” as I pressed the blue power button on her neck. When the light from Madeline’s eyes went dim, I whirled on Liam. “Well?”

He took another deep breath. “Halpert and his board are not using the hydrochloric acid to feed illegal humanoid bots,” he said.

I blinked at him. “Okay, then what are they doing with it?”

“Eating it,” Liam said. He stared at me, unblinking, as he waited for this to sink in. “Bec. They are the bots.”

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