Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 7

I walked to the lab the next morning, a Friday, with a sense of dread in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t want to examine the emotion too closely—all I knew was I wished there was a way I could avoid seeing Liam today. Every time I thought of him, the image of him looking down at me at the sink last night replayed in my head, along with a sense of dread. If I could get to the point where I didn’t think that moment had been a big deal, where I didn’t relive it like a video clip on repeat, then I could see him… I just needed to stay away from him until then.

Except I couldn’t. He was my boss, and I had to see him in approximately three minutes.

I’ll just pretend it didn’t happen, I decided. Andy. Think about Andy.

I climbed the stairs and took a deep breath outside the lab, pushing the door open.

Nobody was there. Momentarily confused, I blinked and began peering around towering bookcases atop black work benches. All the lights were on, but it was too early for the coffee break… “Hello?” I called.

Nilesh stuck his head out from the back room, where Liam’s work bench was. “We’re all back here,” he said. He sounded somber.

Wary, I dropped my backpack at my work station and made my way over to him. Nilesh, Dr. Yin, Geneve, Jerry, and Larissa all stood around Liam, who ignored them all. He didn’t look up at my approach either—he typed frantically, while everyone behind him exchanged glances of sympathy. It looked as if someone had just died, and everyone else knew that he was in denial.

“Liam?” I asked tentatively. Still he ignored me. Larissa tiptoed to my side instead, which was a bit odd, since we rarely spoke to each other.

“His locus has been black-listed by the labyrinth,” she whispered to me. “Everything is gone.”

I blinked at her. “I don’t understand.”

A howl erupted from Liam, and he pounded the black-top table. “CollaboratorXXI got pulled too!” he shouted, “they’re all gone! Every last one of them!”

Larissa looked at Liam sympathetically. “Last night he posted an update to the collaboration he was telling us all about,” she whispered. “Something about a call to action for studying the nature of free will. I guess within the hour of that post, his entire locus got pulled! He assumed it was a glitch at first, and tried to re-upload all the posts, but he couldn’t—it’s all gone!”

I shook my head. “How is that possible?”

Larissa tucked her red hair severely behind her ears, making them stick out. Behind her glasses, her eyes were wide, and she bit her lip. “He knew the names of the biggest supporting researchers from memory, and most of them had their own loci as well. He tried to go there and re-post his manifesto and everything about the collaboration so far. But all of those have been pulled too, apparently.”

“But… that can’t be,” I whispered again, glancing at Liam. He held his head in his hands, taking deep, measured breaths. “What about Odessa? Can’t she find out what’s going on?”

“Odessa is a research bot,” Nilesh pointed out, joining us on my other side. He, too, spoke in a low voice, as if we were mourners at a funeral. “She only has access to what she can find on the labyrinth. Apparently there’s nothing to find.”

“What does this mean?” I whispered.

“It means,” Liam roared, “that they’re on to us!”

“Who?”

“Halpert and his board, who do you think? When you search now on the progress of creativity for Synthetic Reasoning, literally the only thing you can find are those predicting a utopian world in which all human suffering has been completely eliminated and everyone is free to enjoy unlimited leisure! They’ve silenced every dissenting voice on the labyrinth!” He pounded the black top table again so hard that a few loose-leaf pages stacked on the bookshelf above him fluttered to the ground.

I pulled out my handheld interface and searched. The top hit was a holographic replay of another address from Halpert. I hit play.

“…bots won’t need sleep, and won’t get tired, the way humans do,” he was saying. “They won’t make mistakes. Imagine—an army of these types of bots, as intelligent and creative as the smartest humans, but without the common human foibles that hinder progress. In the next twenty years, just imagine! We’ll have cured life-threatening diseases, and perhaps solved the problem of aging. We’ll have solved the problem of clean water for the entire planet. We’ve already colonized Mars and the moon, but what if we can even explore galaxies light-years away? What if we can travel at the speed of light? What if we can unify quantum physics and Newtonian physics—if we can have the machines solve the problems for us? We will essentially live in a world protected by a benevolent god…”

“Shut that off!” Liam raged.

I stopped the hologram, and Halpert’s image disappeared.

“Every voice on the labyrinth has become an echo chamber!” Liam thundered. “Anybody with a different idea will think he’s the only one in the world now, and therefore he must be crazy to doubt the powers-that-be!”

I flashed back to the dinner table when I was fifteen: Dad gesticulating at the interface reporting the news, as he howled, “It’s all a pack of lies! This is censorship! This is against everything that the Global Republic is supposed to stand for!”

“But… isn’t that censorship?” I asked, tentative.

“You’re damn right it is!” Liam shouted.

I glanced at Larissa. Her eyes were squeezed tightly shut. “What’s the matter?” I asked her. When she didn’t reply, I nudged her. “Larissa?”

“Oh!” She jumped a little. “Sorry. I was…” she cleared her throat in lieu of ending her sentence, smoothing her hair self-consciously.

Nilesh supplied on her behalf, “She was imagining that she was a world-famous hacker, rushing in to save the day and assuring Liam that his locus would be up again by mid-morning. Right Riss?” He bumped his shoulder into hers, and Larissa’s cheeks grew pink.

This was why Larissa and I had never been friends, truth be told—I thought she was a little weird. We’d all catch her from time to time, whispering to herself about how she was a secret agent, or a big film star, or that she’d just won the Nobel prize. I wasn’t sure if it was escapism or some kind of self-motivational tactic, but I assumed she thought nobody could hear her. Or else she got so lost in her own world that she forgot anybody else was around in this one. Nilesh apparently found Larissa’s little Walter Mitty-esque escapades endearing, though.

Turning back to Liam, I said, “Can you… I don’t know, comm your labyrinth host, find out if it was all just a mistake?”

He gave me a bitter smile, and I read in it that he’d already done that and more.

“We can all comm our senators,” Larissa’s eyes widened enthusiastically. “Tell them about the suppression of free speech—!”

Dr. Yin, a very short woman with close cropped, graying black hair, grabbed my elbow and pulled me aside as Liam and Nilesh told Larissa why the senators would not care, would not even listen. “They’re all in his pocket—” Liam was saying. But then Dr. Yin arrested my attention.

“Liam said he’d talked to you about designing a human experiment to identify the nature of free will last night,” she said in a low voice. “Any ideas how you’ll do it?”

I cleared my throat. “I… was thinking we’d recruit people who had been through five or more years of therapy,” I whispered back, “so that they could succinctly identify their core motivations—that would be analogous to the core purpose of the bots—and also their deepest unmet desires. Then we’d design Artificial Experience scenarios in which their desires could come true, but only if they violate their core motivations. Take VMI images the whole time to see what brain areas are involved, and pre- and post-blood draws to identify neuropeptides to see if there’s a consistent structural or biochemical basis for overriding core purpose.”

“Except we’ll be all on our own.” Liam had apparently overheard this: he brushed past me on his way to the kitchenette. He spoke in a flat tone that did not seem to belong to him. “Only us and those whose comm addresses we memorize to help us. And no funding either, I’m sure.”

“Well, maybe that will be enough!” I called after him, hands on my hips.

He turned, halfway to the kitchenette. “All right, Rebecca. Let’s say you find out exactly what part of the brain and what neuropeptides are involved in free will, and we can figure out how to effectively block it. And let’s say Nilesh, Larissa, Dr. Yin and I can take that and translate your discovery into silicon and wire, or even better: a software upgrade available to all bots across the labyrinth. Do you think that upgrade will remain available long enough for a single bot to download it? Do you think there’s even one chance in a million that it will ever see the light of day?”

Tears of frustration pricked at the corners of my eyes. “Well, I don’t know what you want me to do, then!”

“I don’t know either!” he roared, turning his back on me again and stomping off to the kitchenette.

I stood there staring after him, wanting to yell as Dr. Yin patted my back. “Just give him a few hours to calm down,” she whispered, soothing. “He’ll have a brand new scheme and with it, a much better attitude by the end of the day. Count on him for that—Liam’s never down for long.”

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