Factoring humanity, p.2
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       Factoring Humanity, p.2

           Robert J. Sawyer
 

  Kyle stared at the pair of lenses.

  Cheetah repeated the punch line: “Mais oui! Higgs boson! Quark!”

  “I don’t get it,” said Kyle.

  “A Higgs boson is a particle with zero charge and no intrinsic spin; a quark is a fundamental constituent of protons and neutrons.”

  “I know what they are, for Pete’s sake. But I don’t see why the joke is funny.”

  “It’s a pun. Mais oui!—that’s French for ‘but yes!’—Mais oui! Higgs boson! Quark!” Cheetah paused for a beat. “Mary Higgins Clark.” Another pause. “She’s a famous mystery writer.”

  Kyle sighed. “Cheetah, that’s too elaborate. For a pun to work, the listener has to get it in a flash. It’s no good if you have to explain it.”

  Cheetah was quiet for a moment. “Oh,” he said at last. “I’ve disappointed you again, haven’t I?”

  “I wouldn’t say that,” said Kyle. “Not exactly.”

  Cheetah was an APE—a computer simulation designed to Approximate Psychological Experiences; he aped humanity. Kyle had long been a proponent of the strong-artificial-intelligence principle: the brain was nothing more than an organic computer, and the mind was simply the software running on that computer. When he’d first taken this stance publicly, in the late 1990s, it had seemed reasonable. Computing capabilities were doubling every eighteen months; soon enough, there would be computers with greater storage capacity and more interconnections than the human brain had. Surely once that point was reached, the human mind could be duplicated on a computer.

  The only trouble was that that point had by now been attained. Indeed, most estimates said that computers had exceeded the human brain in information-processing capability and degree of complexity four or five years previously.

  And still Cheetah couldn’t distinguish a funny joke from a lousy one.

  “If I don’t disappoint you,” said Cheetah’s voice, “then what’s wrong?”

  Kyle looked around his lab; its inner and outer walls were curved following the contours of Mullin Hall, but there were no windows; the ceiling was high, and covered with lighting panels behind metal grids. “Nothing.”

  “Don’t kid a kidder,” said Cheetah. “You spent months teaching me to recognize faces, no matter what their expression. I’m still not very good at it, but I can tell who you are at a glance—and I know how to read your moods. You’re upset over something.”

  Kyle pursed his lips, considering whether he wanted to answer. Everything Cheetah did was by dint of sheer computational power; Kyle certainly felt no obligation to reply.

  And yet—

  And yet no one else had come into the lab so far today. Kyle hadn’t been able to sleep at all last night after he’d left the house—he still thought of it as “the house,” not “Heather’s house”—and he’d come in early. Everything was silent, except for the hum from equipment and the overhead fluorescent lights, and Cheetah’s utterings in his deep and rather nasal voice. Kyle would have to adjust the vocal routine at some point; the attempt to give Cheetah natural-sounding respiratory asperity had resulted in an irritating mimicry of real speech. As with so much about the APE, the differences between it and real humans were all the more obvious for the earnestness of the attempt.

  No, he certainly didn’t have to reply to Cheetah.

  But maybe he wanted to reply. After all, who else could he discuss the matter with?

  “Initiate privacy locking,” said Kyle. “You are not to relay the following conversation to anyone, or make any inquiries pursuant to it. Understood?”

  “Yes,” said Cheetah. The final “s” was protracted, thanks to the vocoder problem. There was silence between them. Finally, Cheetah prodded Kyle. “What was it you wished to discuss?”

  Where to begin? Christ, he wasn’t even sure why he was doing this. But he couldn’t talk about it with anyone else—he couldn’t risk gossip getting around. He remembered what happened to Stone Bentley, over in Anthropology: accused by a female student of sexual harassment five years ago; fully exonerated by a tribunal; even the student eventually recanted the accusation. And still he’d been passed over for the associate deanship, and to this day, Kyle overheard the occasional whispered remark from other faculty members or students. No, he would not subject himself to that.

  “It’s nothing, really,” said Kyle. He shuffled across the room and poured himself a cup of the now-ready coffee.

  “No, please,” said Cheetah. “Tell me.”

  Kyle managed a wan smile. He knew Cheetah wasn’t really curious. He himself had programmed the algorithm that aped curiosity: when a person appears to be reluctant to go on, become insistent.

  Still, he did need to talk to someone about it. He had enough trouble sleeping without this weighing on him.

  “My daughter is mad at me.”

  “Rebecca,” supplied Cheetah. Another algorithm; imply intimacy to increase openness.

  “Rebecca, yes. She says—she says . . .” He trailed off.

  “What?” The nasal twang made Cheetah’s voice sound all the more solicitous.

  “She says I molested her.”

  “In what way?”

  Kyle exhaled noisily. No real human would have to ask that question. Christ, this was stupid . . .

  “In what way?” asked Cheetah again, no doubt after his clock indicated it was time to prod once more.

  “Sexually,” said Kyle softly

  The microphone on Cheetah’s console was very sensitive; doubtless he heard. Still, he was quiet for a time—a programmed affectation. “Oh,” he said at last.

  Kyle could see lights winking on the console; Cheetah was accessing the World Wide Web, quickly researching this topic.

  “You’re not to tell anyone,” said Kyle sharply

  “I understand,” said Cheetah. “Did you do what you are accused of?”

  Kyle felt anger growing within him. “Of course not.”

  “Can you prove that?”

  “What the fuck kind of question is that?”

  “A salient one,” said Cheetah. “I assume Rebecca has no actual evidence of your guilt.”

  “Of course not.”

  “And one presumes you have no evidence of your innocence.”

  “Well, no.”

  “Then it is her word against yours.”

  “A man is innocent until he’s proven guilty,” said Kyle. Cheetah’s console played the first four notes from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. No one had bothered to program realistic laughter yet—Cheetah’s malfunctioning sense of humor hardly required it—and the music served as a place-holder. “I’m supposed to be the naïve one, Dr. Graves. If you are not guilty, why would she make the accusation?”

  Kyle had no answer for that.

  Cheetah waited his programmed time, then tried again. “If you are not guilty why—”

  “Shut up,” said Kyle.

  3

  Heather wasn’t teaching any courses during the summer session, thank God. She’d tossed and turned all night after Becky’s visit and hadn’t managed to get out of bed until 11:00 AM.

  How do you go on from something like this, she wondered.

  Mary had died sixteen months ago.

  No, thought Heather. No—face it head-on. Mary had committed suicide sixteen months ago. They’d never known why Becky had been living at home back then; it had been she who had found her sister’s body

  How do you go on?

  What do you do next?

  The year Becky was born, Bill Cosby had lost his son Ennis. Heather, with a newborn sucking at her breast, and a two-year-old bundle of energy racing around the house, had been moved to write a note to Cosby, in care of CBS, expressing sympathy. As a mother, she knew nothing could be more devastating than the loss of a child. Tens of thousands wrote such notes, of course. Cosby—or his staff, at any rate—had replied, thanking her for the concern.

  Somehow, Bill Cosby had gone on.

  At the same time, another father was in the ne
ws every night: Fred Goldman, father of Ron Goldman, the man killed alongside Nicole Brown Simpson. Fred was furious with O.J. Simpson, the person he was convinced had slaughtered his boy. Fred’s anger was palpable, exploding from the TV set. The Goldman family published a book, His Name Is Ron. Heather had even gone to meet them when they’d autographed copies at the Chapters superstore down by the university. She knew, of course, that the book would be remaindered a few months later, like all the other flotsam tied into the Simpson trial, but she bought a copy anyway, getting Fred to sign it—showing her support, one parent to another.

  Somehow, Fred Goldman had gone on.

  When Mary had killed herself, Heather had looked to see if the Goldman book was still among their collection. It was indeed, standing on a living-room shelf, next to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, another hardcover Heather had broken the budget for at about the same time. Heather had taken down the Goldman book and opened it. There were pictures of Fred in it, but all of them were happy, family shots—not the face she remembered, the one seething with fury, all of it directed at Simpson.

  When your child takes his or her own life, where do you direct the anger? At whom do you aim it?

  The answer is no one. You internalize it—and it eats you up from the inside, bit by bit, day by day.

  And the answer is everyone. You lash out, at your husband, your other child, your coworkers.

  Oh, yes. You go on. But you’re never the same.

  But now—

  Now, if Becky was right—

  If Becky was right, there was someone to aim the anger at.

  Kyle. Becky’s father; Heather’s estranged husband.

  As she walked south along St. George Street, she thought about that framed alien radio message on their living-room wall. Heather was a psychologist; she’d spent the last decade trying to decipher the alien messages, trying to plumb the alien mind. She knew that particular message better than anyone else on the planet did—she’d published two papers about it—and yet she still had no idea what it really said; she didn’t really know it at all.

  Heather had known Kyle for almost a quarter of a century.

  But did she really know him at all?

  She tried to clear her mind, tried to set aside the shock of the night before.

  The sun was bright that afternoon. She squinted against it and wondered again about the aliens who were sending the messages. If nothing else, sunlight like this was something humans shared with the Centaurs—no one knew what the aliens looked like, of course, but political cartoonists had taken to drawing them like their namesakes from Greek mythology. Alpha Centauri A was almost an exact twin for Earth’s sun: both were spectral-class G2V, both had a temperature of 5800 Kelvin—so both shone down on their planets with the same yellow-white light. Yes, cooler, smaller Alpha Centauri B might add an orange hue when it, too, was visible in the sky—but there would be times when only A would be up—and at those times, the Centaurs and the humans would have looked out on identically illuminated landscapes.

  She continued on down the street, heading to her office.

  We go on, she thought. We go on.

  The next morning—Saturday, July 22—Kyle rode the subway four stops past his usual destination of St. George station, all the way to Osgoode.

  Becky’s boyfriend Zack Malkus worked as a clerk at a book-shop on Queen Street West. That much Kyle remembered from what little Becky had said to him over the past year. Which bookshop Kyle didn’t know—but there weren’t many left. During his high-school years, Kyle had often ventured down to Queen on a Saturday afternoon, looking for new science fiction at Bakka, new comics at The Silver Snail, and out-of-print works at the dozen or so used bookstores that had lined the street back then.

  But independent bookstores had been having a hard time. Most had either relocated to less-trendy areas, where the rent was more modest, or had simply gone out of business. These days, Queen Street West was home mostly to trendy cafés and bistros, although the rococo headquarters of one of Canada’s broadcasting empires was located near the subway exit at University Avenue. There couldn’t be more than three or four bookstores left, so Kyle decided to simply try them all.

  He began with venerable Pages, on the north side. He looked around—unlike Becky, Zack was in university, so he presumably probably did work on weekends, rather than during the week. But there was no sign of Zack’s blond, rangy form. Still, Kyle went up to the cashier, a stunning East Indian woman with eight earrings. “Hello,” he said.

  She smiled at him.

  “Does Zack Malkus work here?”

  “We’ve got a Zack Barboni,” she said.

  Kyle felt his eyes widening slightly When he’d been a kid, everyone had had normal names—David, Robert, John, Peter. The only Zack he’d ever heard of was the bumbling Zachary Smith on the old TV series Lost in Space. Now it seemed that every kid he ran into was a Zack or an Odin or a Wing.

  “No, that’s not him,” said Kyle. “Thanks anyway.”

  He continued west. Panhandlers hit him up for donations along the way; there’d been a time in his youth when panhandlers were so rare in Toronto that he could never bring himself to say no. But they’d become plentiful in downtown, although they always solicited with studied Canadian politeness. Kyle had perfected the straight-ahead Torontonian gaze: jaw set, never meeting the eyes of a beggar, but still making his head swing through a tiny arc of “no” to each request; it would be rude, after all, to completely ignore someone who was talking to you.

  Toronto the Good, he thought, recalling an old advertising slogan. Although the beggars today were a mixed group, many were Native Canadians—what Kyle’s father still called “Indians.” In fact, Kyle couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a Native Canadian anywhere except begging on a street corner, although there were doubtless still many on reservations someplace. Several years ago, he’d had a couple of Natives in one of his classes, sent there on a now-defunct government program, but he couldn’t think of a single U of T faculty member—even, ironically, in Native Studies—who was a Canadian aborigine.

  Kyle continued on until he came to Bakka. The store had started on Queen West in 1972, had moved away a quarter-century later, and now was back, not far from its original location. Kyle felt sure he’d have remembered—and that Becky would have mentioned it—if Zack worked there. Still . . .

  Painted on the shop’s plate-glass front window was the derivation of the store’s name:

  Bakka: noun, myth.; in Fremen legend the weeper who mourns for all mankind.

  Bakka must be working overtime these days, thought Kyle.

  He entered the store and spoke to the bearded, elfin man behind the counter. But no Zack Malkus worked there, either.

  Kyle continued to search. He was wearing a Tilley safari shirt and blue jeans—not much different from what he wore while teaching.

  The next store was about a block farther along, on the south side of the street. Kyle waited for a red-and-white streetcar—recently converted to maglev travel—to hum quietly past, then made his way across.

  This store was much more upscale than Bakka; someone had recently put a lot of money into renovating the old brownstone building that housed it, and the stone facade had been sand-blasted clean; most people drove skimmers these days, but many of the buildings still carried the grime of decades of automobile exhaust.

  A chime sounded as Kyle entered. A dozen or so patrons were in the shop. Perhaps in response to the chime, a clerk appeared from behind a dark wooden bookcase.

  It was Zack.

  “Mis—Mister Graves,” he said.

  “Hello, Zack.”

  “What are you doing here?” He said it with venom, as if any reference to Kyle was distasteful.

  “I need to talk to you.”

  Dismissively: “I’m working.”

  “I can see that. When’s your break?”

  “Not until noon.”

  Kyle did not look at his watch. “I’ll
wait.”

  “But—”

  “I have to talk to you, Zack. You owe me that much.”

  The boy pursed his lips, thinking. Then he nodded.

  Kyle did wait. Normally he liked browsing in bookshops—especially the kind with real paper volumes—but he was too nervous to concentrate today. He spent some time looking at an old copy of Colombo’s Canadian Quotations, reading what people had said about family life. Colombo contended that the most famous Canadian quotation of all was McLuhan’s “The medium is the message.” That was likely true, but one that was uttered more frequently, even if it wasn’t uniquely Canadian, was “My children hate me.”

  There was still some time to kill. Kyle left the store. Next door was a poster shop. He went in and looked around; it was decorated all in chrome and black enamel. There were lots of Robert Bateman wildlife paintings. Some Group of Seven stuff. A series of prints by Jean-Pierre Normand. Photo portraits of current pop-music stars. Old movie posters—from Citizen Kane to The Fall of the Jedi. Hundreds of holoposters of landscapes and spacescapes and seascapes.

  And Dali—Kyle had always liked Dali. There was “Persistence of Memory”—the one with the melting watches. And “The Sacrament of the Last Supper.” And—

  Say, that one would be great for his students. “Christus Hypercubus.” It had been years since he’d seen it anywhere, and it sure would liven up the lab.

  He’d doubtless take some flak for hanging a picture with religious overtones, but what the heck. Kyle found the slot that had rolled-up copies of the poster in it and took one up to the cashier, a small Eastern European man.

  “Thirty-five ninety-five,” said the clerk. “Plus plus plus.” Plus PST, GST, and NST—Canadians were the most taxed people in the world.

 
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