Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 29

I blinked at Liam. “I’m sorry. What?”

He sighed again, shooting an irritated glance back at Francis, who was still rubbing his hands together in glee.

“You do realize this is bad news, right?” Liam snapped at him.

“Wait wait wait,” I held up a hand. “Halpert is a bot?” I said it again, with emphasis, “Halpert is a bot? As in… he is one. Like Madeline. He’s a bot.”

“And so are all his board members,” Liam sighed. “Look, we’ve got to check out and get to the station, we don’t have much time. I’ll go downstairs and check us out, and we’ll explain more once we’re on board.”

“What’s in Geneva?” For some reason, of all things, the concern that flashed through my mind was what I’d tell my mom. After she’d accused me of using this investigation as an excuse to gallivant all over the world because ‘Rebecca does what Rebecca wants,’ wouldn’t a sudden trip to Geneva after dropping out of school seem to confirm all her suspicions?

“Ramses Youssef,” was Liam’s answer. He was halfway out the door already, dragging Francis behind him by the overcoat. “Their creator.”

An hour later, we found a private compartment on the Quantum Track and closed the sliding glass door after stowing our luggage. Liam sat beside me, Francis on the seat opposite us. He reclined on the seat, arms folded behind his head like a lounging cat.

“All right,” I demanded, glaring at Francis’s outstretched form, “convince me they’re bots.”

Francis sat upright, leaning toward me across the seat so suddenly that I leaned back to maintain my personal space. His green eyes danced, and he said very fast, “Clue number one: they’re all stuck in the uncanny valley.”

I glanced at Liam, then back at Francis, who smirked as if waiting for me to ask him. “Fine, I’ll bite. What’s the uncanny valley?”

“Their eyes never seemed to focus quite the way a human’s eyes might, and their expressions create a slight cognitive dissonance in the observer: the disconnect between expectation and reality. Uncanny valley is a term referring to the graph that plots the continuum of human verisimilitude on one axis, and human reactions on the other—that is, human revulsion increases as the machines look increasingly human. I suspected that if any uncanniness existed, it would be so minute as to be virtually undetectable via holograph; I’d have to see them in person to tell. I knew at the first glance that they couldn’t possibly be human. Still, for your benefit, I’ll enumerate my other reasons.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said.

Francis went on, missing my sarcasm, “Clue number two: they didn’t eat. They could, of course, but it’s not very efficient for that generation of humanoid bots to get their protons from food, and it can clog up their systems over time, so if they were bots, I knew they’d make some excuse to avoid eating if they could. Protons from acid are much more efficient. Clue number three: they didn’t sweat, even though I programmed the thermostat to ninety degrees inside our conference room—”

My mouth fell open. “You did?”

He nodded. “Yes, I hacked into their thermostat last night to make sure I had access but I still had to find the physical unit—”

“That’s what he did when he ‘went to the bathroom,’” Liam told me, using air quotes. He pushed his feet against the opposite seat, folding his arms across his chest.

I turned back to Francis. “That’s why it was so hot in there?”

Francis nodded at me, grinning. “Human bots of the HCl generation couldn’t sweat. I had to make it hot enough that all of us would, just for contrast. Notice they were all dry as a bone, though?”

I opened my mouth and closed it again, but Francis didn’t wait for my reply. He went on, “Clue number four: no physiologic response to emotion. Even sociopaths will display anger, excitement, or some tells of adrenaline when they find out they’re being lied to. I expected them to see through our false identities, of course: any human with an A.E. chip who wanted to search us could have determined pretty quickly that we weren’t who we said we were. But there should have been some emotional response to this information; specifically pupil dilation and shallower breathing. Yet not one of the six displayed any of the human physiologic signs of emotion: not a raised voice, not a shortened respiration, not a pupil dilation, not a muscle twitch. They might feel emotion, but they don’t show it like a human would.”

My head spun. “So… you wanted them to figure out we weren’t who we said we were?”

Francis ignored the question. He was on a roll.

“Clue number five,” he went on, “Rasputin positively ID’ed you. I expected them to know we weren’t who we said we were, but in order to know our real identities, he’d have had to scan your face like a photo and search it on the labyrinth, which human A.E. chips lack the capability to do—as I trust you know.”

“I… thought he might have seen a picture of me from my dad’s desk once or something,” I said faintly. “They did used to work together. I would have been a lot younger than I am now, but still.”

Francis’s brow sank and he glowered at me. “Okay, maybe. But that’s hardly necessary to carry my point.”

I shook my head. “It still seems like a pretty big leap…”

“No,” Francis cut me off, jabbing his finger in the air, “those are the confirmatory bits of evidence that fill in an already clear picture.” With a self-satisfied flourish, he gestured to Liam. “You want to tell her the rest?”

I might’ve made a guttural noise of disgust, and I saw Liam’s mouth twitch before settling back into the seriousness of the moment. I turned to face him, my own arms folded across my chest in a mirror of his posture. I guess he relented, uncrossing his arms and resting his hands on the seat beside him.

“We had Odessa do more digging while you were gone yesterday,” he said. “Corroboration of all six men’s stories ended twenty years ago, as you knew—but there had to be something else linking them together. We found one name that recurred for all of them.”

“Ramses Youssef,” I guessed, and Liam nodded.

“So we had Odessa investigate him, and found that he was a programmer at that time in computational neuroscience. He was at the forefront of the development of that generation of humanoid bots, and he was also very politically active in pushing for widespread acceptance of his work. Just after the Council of Synthetic Reason ruled that humanoid bots were illegal, he went underground. Officially his record seemed to end there, but there were hints that he kept on with his work in secret. We’re pretty sure he currently lives in Geneva, under the pseudonym Sol Huckabee.”

“Pretty sure?”

“We think he wanted to cut all ties for some reason, and needed to disappear,” Liam told me. “It wasn’t easy to find even that much. If Huckabee isn’t Youssef himself, then he’s someone who was closely connected with him.”

“So why didn’t you just assume this Youssef gave humanoid bots to the men on Halpert’s council, or else gave them the blueprints so they could make their own?” I asked. “Why assume that they are the bots themselves?”

“Because,” Francis sat up, sounding exasperated now, “if that were the case, why would there be no record of the existence of Halpert or the board members before twenty years ago? We’d be able to trace them to something, even if it were totally different from their public personas. But no, once you dig below their superficial back stories, you find nada.” He held up a hand with the fingers and thumb closed together in the form of a zero. “Nothing. Zilch. They apparently sprang into existence as fully grown adults with highly specialized skills and immediately began their methodical climb to the top of their respective fields, which every one of them achieved in record time. What would be the relevance of each of them having a humanoid bot at home, like a pet? Wouldn’t that sort of beg the question of what happened to them before twenty years ago, and how their connection to Youssef linked them to one another? Isn’t it fascinating that each of them seems specially suited to taking his unique mountain of influence—politics, law, media, business, medicine, and education? Every one of them at the top of his game, without rival, and yet banded together to make decisions jointly. Given that, combined with the clues I just listed for you, I dare you to postulate an alternate theory that suits the facts better!”

Francis leaned forward incrementally as he said this until I was flattened against the seat behind me. Liam planted a hand on Francis’s chest and pushed him back to his own seat.

“All right, you’ve made your point,” he said dryly. Then he looked back at me. “I had the same reaction yesterday, but he predicted the clues that would be present if his theory were correct. He was so sure it would be that he convinced me to pack last night and look up the first Quantum Track to Geneva after the meeting ended, just in case. The only reason I didn’t tell you to pack last night too was because I honestly didn’t think he’d turn out to be correct, and I didn’t want to explain all that to you if he wasn’t, and prejudice your perspective before you met them. Plus, you’re pretty low maintenance, I figured it wouldn’t take you that long to pack anyway,” he added with a lopsided grin. “And it didn’t.”

I took a deep breath. “What am I gonna tell Mom?” I murmured, more to myself than to him. “I have to give her some explanation for why I’m heading to Geneva…”

Liam shrugged. “Do you usually give her that many details? Can’t you just tell her this is where the clues point and you have to follow them?”

I waffled my head. “I guess,” I conceded. I hadn’t actually called her since we’d arrived in San Jose anyway; the only contact we’d had were the brief comms we’d sent in which she asked if I was back in Dublin yet, and I told her I’d dropped out of school. All she cared about was my whereabouts and safety; she didn’t ask a lot of other questions. Liam was probably right; I wouldn’t need to go into much detail. She’d be too busy lecturing me on how I was throwing my life away to care about the whys of where I was at any given moment.

Nobody said anything else for a long while, and I suddenly realized how tired I was. I hadn’t slept very well the night before, and I’d apparently been running on adrenaline all morning. The movement of the Quantum Track lulled me; right about when we began skimming the top of the ocean, I closed my eyes. That didn’t last long, though: Francis apparently also dropped off to sleep, and started snoring like a water buffalo. I opened one eye, and exchanged a disgusted look with Liam, who glanced from Francis to my face and shook with silent mirth. He gestured to the sliding glass door and slid it open gently to keep from waking Francis. I slipped out behind him, and followed him to the compartment opposite where Francis slept. Liam sat down opposite me, and I rested my head on the glass. I closed my eyes, but a few minutes later opened them again, and glanced back at Liam. I found him looking back at me.

“Do you think this was it?” I asked. “What John Doe was going to tell me? The thing my father and your brother died for?”

He hesitated for a moment, as if considering. But then he nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I think it is.”

“They threatened to tell people, you think?”

Liam shrugged. “Maybe they didn’t have to. It’s not the sort of thing you can find out about and just sit on, you know?”

I nodded. I did know. At last I said, “So Halpert’s challenge was all a ruse, then.” Liam didn’t seem surprised by this, but I went on, “The whole idea of a widespread collaboration, trying to develop creativity for bots: synthetic creativity has to already exist. They have to have it themselves. Unless there’s some mastermind behind them telling them what to do every step of the way…”

Liam nodded. “I think Youssef probably developed it twenty years ago or more, but because politics wouldn’t allow it at the time, he had to keep it under wraps until public opinion could be sufficiently swayed to reintroduce it. We’re there now.”

“So you think they seeded the information to the labyrinth somehow, so that De Vries and whoever else could find it?”

“That’s exactly what I think.” Liam shifted, resting his arm on the windowsill and his chin on his fist. “It was an incredibly complex problem, and yet they cracked it in a matter of weeks. That’s awfully suspect. And as you say, the only way the board could possibly do their jobs is if they had the capacity for creativity already. The technology had to exist. It was just too unpopular to make that public knowledge, until Halpert’s challenge made it the hottest thing going.”

“So why now?” I asked. “What’s the point of suddenly taking old technology and making it widespread?”

Liam took a deep breath, and faced me. The reflected sunlight made his eyes seem to match the color of the water. “Well, if I had to guess… I’d say it goes back to their core purposes. Let’s say Justice Wallenberg’s purpose is to ensure law and order. He’ll do that much better with bots under him than with humans, because humans are fallible. If Rasputin’s purpose is to ensure the health of the human race, he’ll be able to fulfill that purpose much better if everybody in the medical profession is a bot, for the same reason. People get tired. They make mistakes. They’re fallible.”

“But most professions have already been taken over by the bots,” I pointed out.

Liam shook his head. “Only the ones that don’t require creativity. If it’s a step-by-step procedural solution to an already identified problem, yes, bots are ideal for that. But to be able to solve new problems, they need creativity on the level of what a human has—without the weakness of humans. Wallenberg and Rasputin and the others are totally focused on their core purposes, to the exclusion of all else, though,” he went on. “That’s the very nature of core purposes. So they’re not going to get into the politics of how to get an army of creative bots working under them. Halpert, on the other hand…”

“…is programmed to further the cause of the bots,” I finished.

“And maintain peace at the same time,” Liam nodded. “I think that’s why they’re his board, and not the other way around. Youssef realized the public wouldn’t accept the challenge until they’d been indoctrinated to do so, using all of the primary pillars of influence in society. Someone was very clever in putting creative S.R. bots in each of those positions of influence… and then biding his time.”

I shuddered. “Do you think it’s safe for us to visit this Youssef?”

Liam didn’t look too sure, but he nodded. “As far as what Odessa could find, it seems he really did retire, and then vanished so completely that we can’t even be sure he is Sol Huckabee, and it took us every trick in our repertoire to find out that much. He clearly doesn’t want to be associated with his former research. That leads me to believe he regrets it.”

I pursed my lips. “Have you told M yet?”

Liam nodded. “We told her before the meeting yesterday what Francis suspected, and where we’d go if it turned out he was right. I commed her after the meeting and told her he was.”

“What did she say?”

Liam gave a short, almost guilty laugh. “She wanted to make sure you hadn’t been with us at the meeting, actually.”

I scowled. “What?”

“I know. It’s weird, I don’t know why she cares so much.”

“Is she going to meet us in Geneva?”

“She’ll try,” he said, “but I asked permission to get Dr Yin, Nilesh, and Larissa involved.”

“Oh, so she’s fine with them, but not me?” I muttered. “Why, just because I’m an undergrad?”

“That…” he trailed off.

“What else?” I demanded.

He paused, wincing. “I guess she found out about all your other hobbies, too. Acting, singing, writing…”

“So what?”

Liam held up his hands. “Don’t shoot the messenger! She just doesn’t think you could possibly be all that good if you’re not passionate about your work, and she assumes if you have that many interests, you couldn’t be. But that’s only because she hasn’t met you,” Liam consoled me. “She doesn’t know how smart you are. Once she meets you, I’m sure you’ll win her over.”

I gave him a half smile, deflating against the window again. “Not like I’m doing any of those things anymore, anyway.”

“You’re not writing?”

“When would I have had the chance recently?” He watched me, and I met his eyes. “What?”

He shrugged. “I’ve never even read your stuff. Or seen you act, or heard you sing…”

“And you never will,” I said firmly.

He tilted his head to the side. “Why?”

It was a genuine question, and I realized the reason seemed dated now: Liam used to make fun of me for anything and everything when we’d been back in the lab in Dublin. But now, things were different. I didn’t think he’d laugh now.

“I don’t think you’d like what I write,” I said finally. “And I can’t see you being the type to get into musicals.”

“That doesn’t matter. I’d like it because it’s you.”

It was such a sweet thing to say that it disarmed me. He looked right at me when he said it, too. I dropped my eyes, suddenly embarrassed.

“Okay,” I said at last. “I’ll invite you next time I perform.” It seemed like an easy enough promise to make, anyway—who knew when that would be.

“Good.” He grinned at me. “Can I read your book?”

I squirmed. “Maybe someday. When it doesn’t suck.”

He laughed softly. “I’ll take what I can get.”

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