El Cerrito Hills, California Late June, 2020
Three weeks later
“Julie and Sean are engaged!” Anna exclaims bouncing into a rustic Adirondack chair.
“We are,” Sean announces with a tone of pride. The happy couple crosses the threshold to the back patio.
Carrying an elegant stainless-steel ice bucket embossed with a golden vine, Sean finds a spot near my bistro table and plops it down. He grabs a bottle of Dom Perignon. “Let’s toast to the hostess.”
“No,” I counter. It’s just like Sean to pre-empt a toast at my house. “First let’s toast to the fiancé’s!”
“That too. Let’s toast to life. It’s bloody fucking good to be alive!” Sean bellows, aiming the bottle away from us while popping the cork.
Sean has a good point. It’s a shocking reminder that each of us had either been shot at or narrowly missed being the victim of America’s violent culture—in areas considered the most peaceful and privileged. “I’ll go get flutes,” I suggest.
“No flutes necessary,” Anna advises. “They diminish the flavor and aromas of excellent champagne.”
“These wine glasses are perfect.” Sean pours the sparkling wine into four of my Pinot Noir glasses and we raise them to the vacant air, without clinking.
After our socially distant toast, I say, “This sofa has you two lovebirds’ names on it!” My hands gesture toward the new wicker loveseat, with its bright tangerine-colored cushions that match my bistro umbrella.
Julie is all smiles, holding out her left hand. The diamond solitaire dances in the afternoon sunlight. She tilts the ring, letting the light reflect against its brilliant gemstone. “It’s vintage, an old European cut to match the necklace,” she says while tapping the stone at her collar.
In contrast to the overall casual attire for the evening; Anna in a white button-down shirt and jeans, me in khaki pants with a sleeveless top and Sean in black jeans and simple tee; Julie appears ready for the stylish wedding she’s planning. She wore a tight black sheath dress matched with a black straw sunhat; her makeup perfect; her red hair spilling out from beneath the bold bonnet.
“The ring’s gorgeous! Congratulations you guys. Is there a date set?” I ask.
“We hope to make it happen within the next year,” Sean turned and appeared to be admiring the far-reaching view from my backyard, from downtown Oakland, across the bay to Mount Tamalpais. “We’re playing out this pandemic.”
Julie nestled into the loveseat, fluffing up a pillow behind her. “We’ve at least decided where we’ll get married.”
“Where?” I ask.
“At Stinson Beach. We met there,” Julie answers.
“Beautiful spot,” I say.
We’re sitting in my backyard, with classical music drifting from inside my house. The gentle evening breeze pushes a light fog across the bay and Golden Gate, playing with the trees in the hills.
“The ambiance here reminds me of a Tuscany Vineyard.” Anna’s almond eyes sweep the yard. I had draped white string lights across the terrace, hidden between jasmines and Japanese maples. They illuminate a path to the assortment of hors d’oeuvres on the bistro table.
Julie floats across the patio and piles a plate with food. “Wow, this spread looks amazing!”
“Thanks. The arugula, rosemary and mint came from my garden.” I had whipped up a large salad with goat cheese, walnuts and sliced pears. Then surrounded it with olives, French bread, cheese and other finger foods garnished with herbs.
“Where’s George and Tyler, Caryss?” Julie asks.
“On a backpacking trip, father and son,” I answer, while sipping the fine champagne.
“Pierre and Jared are with them, Grandfather and grandson,” says Anna. “They texted and said they hiked eight miles and then went kayaking.”
“It’s great to hear such activities are happening—especially for the kids who had every spring rite of passage pulled out from under their feet,” Julie said.
“But we also have to remind them it’s not the end of the world,” I say.
“Tell that to the university students I’ve been lecturing. They seem to think an asteroid dropped on them.” Sean shakes his head, then takes a bite of a crab-and-avocado toast.
“Well, you did tell them their research projects suck or are so destructive they’ll cause human extinction,” Julie mentions. “So, they probably feel the weight of the world on their shoulders.”
“No, I just told them that I almost got murdered for pulling my software code out of aggressive military use of technology,” Sean responded.
“Sean… how did the Stanford lecture go?” Anna asks.
“I thought I failed until a handful of students contacted me and said they’re switching gears, into sustainable projects. And I’ve refined the message for other universities—”
“Others?” I felt my jaw drop open in pleasant surprise.
Julie places her wineglass down and raises her hands, counting down on her fingers; “He’s been a traveling advisor to San Jose State, Santa Clara University, Cal—”
“I’m going across America, on a mission,” Sean interrupted. “I’ll be going to M.I.T., Harvard and others.” He rises from the loveseat and strides with intent across the patio. Then he rambles on, “Apart from warning of the dangers of DoD or DARPA funding, I’m working with labs on research to discover Earth-friendly methods of processing ores for the recovery of rare earth metals—”
“He’s using his mining background for this,” Julie announces.
I pour us each a glass of Pinot Noir, then compliment Sean, “I love what you’re doing. Thank you, for our kid’s sake and the social good of the world.”
“What’s your overall message to the schools?” Anna asked.
Sean inhales the wine slowly, swirls, then takes another sniff. “In a nutshell… that finding ways to kill people has been a poor creative outlet for inventors. It’s misguided science.”
“Excellent! Time to fund something else,” I chime in. “Like how about conservation technologies? Medical equipment?”
Anna laughs, sounding incredulous. “It’s not like we’re not investing in those areas, Caryss.”
“But too much goes into making robotic warfare or AI bots that trot around people’s privacy,” I refute. “It’s not protecting us obviously—I mean, MacDonald workers across America are expected to wear freaking dog diapers as masks while flipping burgers.”
“For Christ’s sake! I worked at MacDonald’s as a kid. That could be anyone’s son or daughter working through college,” Sean roared with a tone of disgust.
The ruby-red Pinot Noir was smooth, with a taste of sweet cherries. I savored the feel of it sliding down my throat. “Something’s strange with all this hacking and attacking,” I mutter. “And the lack of proper masks wearing is like a political theatre act.”
A brisk breeze chased white-crusted waves across the blue expanse of the bay, half in sunlight, half in shadow. The translucent shading casts a soothing effect on my mind.
Sean speared olives with rosemary and garlic on a toothpick, popping them into his mouth. “What a scene… the black guy in Michigan wrongly accused of shoplifting after facial recognition software confused him for someone else.”
“Makes me wonder if artificial intelligence is racist.” I ponder.
“All machine learning has an unconscious prejudice,” Sean explains. “We program hardware on human data. Humans by nature have implicit biases. America is a country born on slavery and war—hence racism is as insidious a cultural disease as militarism. So, we see the rise of racist killer robots.”
“It’s scary hearing this from someone who majored—and has a successful career— in computer science with a focus on artificial intelligence,” Anna said while balancing a glass of wine and a plate of food.
“That’s what happens when you’re almost murdered by military and intelligence officials.” Sean pauses, then finds his voice again. “It’s enough to turn anyone away from technology used in warfare.”
“I tried to warn you long ago to get out of—”
“Caryssa, stop!” Sean raises his hands in protest. His voice shows anger, trembling with a trace of anguish. His eyes reflect a pain that goes deeper than the physical discomfort of gunshot wounds. His best friend betrayed him; I remind myself.
“I’m sorry, Sean.” I know my simple apology is lame, but I leave it at that.
“It’s okay… I just….”
Sean’s voice trails off and he’s unable to finish. “You don’t need to say more,” I suggest, to redeem my bad timing of words. “We realize you lost the trust of a friend.”
Sean ran his hands through his thick, inky hair. “Yes, thank you. My best friend could have killed me; my career put me in danger. Oh fuck, I need more wine, anyone else?” Sean asked while tipping the bottle toward his glass.
“Someone has to drive us back to either Sausalito or Los Altos Hills, and I’ve had three glasses already,” Julie warns.
“You’re welcome to stay here,” I offer. “I’ve disinfected the bathrooms and will again. There are four bedrooms in my house. It’s safer than anyone driving after drinking.”
“I’m sipping water the rest of the night, so I can drive you two lovebirds to Julie’s place,” Anna suggests. “Tie a nice wine-buzz on Sean, you deserve it.”
We chuckled in good humor. “I still can’t believe Chris Helm would do that to you, Sean,” Julie said. “I remember meeting him at your party. He was friendly, a gentleman passing us drinks in the hot tub, laughing at our jokes while we laughed at his. Why—”
“Power and money!” I declare. “Silicon Valley controls the world’s information today.”
Sean gives me a quizzical look, then nods. “Carissa’s right, Jules. Chris got caught up in the valley’s dance of power. Money grabbed him by the balls and wouldn’t let go.” Sean glanced at the bay, now twinkling in the dusk illuminated by lights from the city. “We were buddies and business partners.”
“Business can kill a friendship,” I said, wincing again at my words. It’s so much more than that. I reflect upon our shared past in Silicon Valley—promoting technology as ubiquitous as it valuable. A shared past coming together with our violent present.
“And bullets can kill the bond beyond business,” Sean answers. It seems there’s more he wants to say, and we remain silent a moment, waiting. That’s when I notice his eyes are gleaming with tears.
I wish I could hug him. Screw the virus. As if opening a curtain, revealing this final political act for the diversion it is to our nations bigger issues hiding behind the stage, I stood, put my arms out to Sean and waited. That simple act turned into a group hug. Human touch is a beautiful thing.
After a few beats of the eclectic music in the background, Sean continues, “He’s the one that handed me the Young Faculty Award twenty years ago when I was a grad student at Stanford. He was already with DARPA back then and was pissed when I pulled out of funding.”
“He… Chris is also big in venture capital for the CIA, right?” I ask.
“Yes.” Sean takes a swig of water, and I see his hands are shaking. Is this conversation therapeutic for him, or tearing him apart?
As if hearing my thoughts, Julie takes Sean’s hand in hers, “I think we need to stop talking about Chris.”
“If it’s not too painful, can I ask who the other two guys are that shot you? “Anna asks.
His back straight, arms crossed, face frozen, Sean hesitates. Julie steps in again, “I think we need to change the topic—”
“No hon,” Sean interrupts. “This is good for me. In fact, it’s reiterating my decision.” Sean gets excited.
“Decision?” I ask.
“He’s selling his house,” Julie announces.
“You’re selling your Los Altos Hills home?” Anna exclaims. “Wow, that’s huge!”
“Yes… and I’ll be helping to fund universities away from DoD money into—”
“Oh my God, you’re an American hero, Sean!” I jump up and grab the bottle of wine, ready to pour us another toast.
“Let me finish describing the other two guys that shot me,” Sean insists. “One is President Crown’s right-hand man for his arms deals in Saudi Arabia, Ahmad bin Talden. The other guy, Jeff Snead, spearheads efforts for the United States to develop its lead in unsettling futuristic technologies using AI in military combat missions. Crown ordered them to come after my software for use on their platforms.”
We sit in silence, each absorbed in the growing recognition of corruption in our nation. Power in the age of lies.
“Then we had President Crown’s little sword dancing ceremony in Saudi Arabia,” I declare. Perhaps the song Dance of Knights playing prompted me to mention such a geopolitical theater act.
“He dances with bloody-jawed wolves,” Sean comments as he grabs bottled waters from my metal tub and passes one to each of us. “The three men who tried to sink their jagged teeth into me are Crown’s military power brokers.”
“Our Presidents and Congress? None of them are innocent as far as I can see,” I contend, remembering the atrocities from the past two decades.
“It’s the paranoid empire,” Anna declares. “War has always been systemic racism against black, brown, yellow, or ‘other’ people over there somewhere—enslaving the world for resources.”
Sean cleared his throat. “That’s what I meant by biased software code used for racist killer robots. DARPA is programming soldiers’ brains, so they have no remorse.”
“Frightening,” I said.
“Anyway, back to what I was saying earlier,” Sean says. “Do we even want to be recognized by facial recognition software? Why give these technologies so much power over humanity? The conference I mentioned happened before the virus broke out. There’s a deeper problem brewing—”
“Oh Merde Sean,” Anna utters. “Are you implying a conspiracy claiming people are social distancing and wearing masks so that facial recognition technology works—”
“No conspiracy theory… Just a message about the secretive corporate warriors keeping us at war, here and abroad. People are murdering each other over technology supremacy.”
“Hey, you’re speaking my language, Sean, go on, please!” I said.
Julie sat staring at her ring, “I’m just going to focus on planning our wedding and forget the world has gone nuts or that technology is controlling us.” Her lighthearted comment reminded me of the carefree conversation surrounded by the beauty of my backyard—so indicative of the ubiquitous juxtaposition of America the beautiful, America the camouflaged beast.
Resting his feet on the wicker ottoman, Sean, the workaholic software executive, summed it up; “It’s simple; First, software took over the world. Now AI is overtaking software. Next, like a little PAC-Man, the AI will gobble up humanity until there’s nothing left of us humans.” Then, with a chomping-like gesture, Sean minces his fingers together.
Maybe it’s the wine or classical music. I feel poetic. “Remember that quotation about knowledge by the British poet and satirist, Lord Byron—”
“Yes!” answered Anna. It didn’t surprise me the painter could identify a poet’s words. “It’s; ’They say that knowledge is power. I used to think so, but now know they mean money.’”