In war-torn Kurdistan, a group of traumatized orphans is given a gift that could change their lives and the lives of everyone in the world, while in Washington, DC, an elderly woman undergoes medical procedures that radically change her life.
My brother struggles as I crush him to my side. Aunt Ezo, at the front door, her AK-47 at the ready, yells “Runrunrunrun GO!”
I rush through the back door into air and fall, still holding Azul: The step is gone. Thunderous thuds echo behind me and end with machine gun chatter, which spurs me to my feet. Azul fights like a wild animal. “Let go! My party!”
Drones dart through smoke-filled air. Dodging sparking wires, I gain the pergola and set Azul on his feet. Winter-dry grape leaves ignite. Licked by their flame, twenty helium birthday balloons pop as I drag him behind the stone fireplace.
Two soldiers leap from the back door and sprint toward us. Ezo, silhouetted in the doorway, raises her gun.
The men drop. Then Ezo spins and collapses into the courtyard, clearly dead.
Azul yanks my arm, but I can’t move. In the last five minutes, I was informed that our parents had just died in a souk bombing. At that moment, our house was attacked. Now Ezo, a revolutionary soldier for twenty years, is gone. She came today to plead with my parents to leave. “The battle is coming this way,” she said. But they had heard this before. Their response, as always, was “This is our home,” and it was—the nucleus of our extended family since 1930, nearly a century.
Then they went out for last-minute party supplies.
The back wall of our two-story stone house crashes to the ground, burying Ezo and the dead soldiers. Azul shrieks “Dapîra!” as our grandmother’s red shawl floats from the inferno, crisping to ash.
She was still in the house.
BUY IT NOW
I grab him and stumble through the ruined courtyard wall. Branches from the downed tree of life, which shaded years of cousins at play, whip our faces and rip my long, festive skirt.
A car zooms down the alley. I wave my arms. The door pops open. I thrust Azul in first, and then climb in.
A skinny, seedy-looking guy with a bleeding cut on his cheek is in the driver’s seat, but the self-driving light is on. The car accelerates, bucking over debris. The guy points at my hand. “Ring.”
Ezo’s gold UN Human Rights ring, with its raised image of a child, is on my ring finger. Through the blur, I remember her pulling it from her own finger and slipping it onto mine, saying, “Your mama and papa are dead. Get out of the city. Remember us. Be strong.”
The guy grabs my hand and yanks on the ring. Azul bites his ear, hard. He gives Azul a blow to the head. Azul kicks him in the side, his sturdy legs like battering rams.
At the end of the alley, a bus halts, blocking the road.
The door opens. A girl leans out and waves her arm: Get In! Hurry! I grab Azul as I leap from the car. The bus door shuts behind us, leaving the guy outside.
Autonomous by design, with no steering wheel, the bus noses through the smoky city as we breathe pure, clean air.
Children crowd the windows, pressing their faces against the glass. Most are quite young, ranging in age to perhaps thirteen. At seventeen, I’m clearly the oldest.
A nearby house erupts in flames. “Keep away from the windows!” I yell. Azul and I huddle on the floor. I pull sobbing children close.
“Does anyone have a phone?” We gain the open road and speed from the burning city toward snowy mountains.
I search for news of the souk, our parents, and our neighborhood, but can’t bear watching the videos and curl up on the floor when Azul asks when Mama and Papa and Dapîra are coming.
Today, he is three.
As the Metro train sweeps into a tunnel, I read about progress on military AI applications in the Post and wonder if Zoe, my daughter, has anything to do with it.
My husband, Ed, died two years ago. Our son John, a banker, lives in Hong Kong, and Zoe rides the roller coaster of Silicon Valley startups, each more luminously promising than the last. After the inevitable crash, she emerges from the very public debacle smelling like a rose, or its digital analogue, fielding offers and well able to support an artist husband and their two children.
I gather that soon, perhaps before we could possibly know it given the speed of the deep-learning superintelligences—SIs—in development, yet another self-made apocalypse could be upon us, and so long, folks! Any second now, we might be devoured by a ravening SI with intentions we cannot begin to fathom.
I say yet another because, you know: nuclear weapons, nanotech gray goo, biological warfare—all of which could be SI tools if the initial algorithm on which their self-learning depends decides these methods would further their goals. The standard model is that SIs, presently isolated from the Internet, learn like children, through self-directed assimilation. Developers are gambling they’ll grow up much wiser than us. Given their source material, I find that hope misbegotten. They might choose to love us, but why?
And could their imagined trajectories be any worse than our increasing totalitarianism? Or any worse than one of the main hallmarks of what it means to be human, which is to kill our fellows, or even send our own kin to torture or death if a certain “belief”—whatever a belief might be, neurochemically speaking—has taken up residence in our unfathomable brains?
Bring it on, I say. The change might be for the better.
Zoe’s dream is to distill a master algorithm for beneficence.
And I once tried to levitate the Pentagon.
My Metro stop is across the street from the Freer Gallery, where after leaving a long career, I’m living my lifetime dream of being a Chinese philosopher-painter in the Song Dynasty’s bureaucracy. I wander the Blue Ridge wilderness alone each weekend, failing to write pensive poems, but at least once falling into the moon’s reflection in the Rivanna River.
My colleagues at the Foundation were dismayed when I left. They said, You’ve been so committed to social justice, fostering international literacy, improving economic conditions for women—
True. A sixty-hour work week was nothing; I would fly to Cape Town, Khartoum, or Bogotá on a day’s notice. I oversaw development of methods of teaching reading based on what we were learning from fMRI technologies about how children really learn, assembled teams of international experts, and ably wielded the double-edged sword of statistical analysis, but I was burned out. Increasingly, the work we had done was deliberately dismantled, failing those who had put their trust in us. The magnitude of their need overwhelmed me. It was time for those I had mentored to take center stage. I often lunch with them, and they are doing splendid work.
At the Freer I’m in charge of nothing more consequential than deciding where to lunch.
After Ed died, Zoe urged me to move to California. But I’ve always lived in the D.C. area, in what Dad called “my little row house” in a subdivision right off the Beltway, where I grew up. Ed and I moved in with my parents after the one of the crashes, thinking it temporary, then never wanted to take the kids away from school, friends, and grandparents. Wonderful years passed and the memory-steeped neighborhood, with friends whose parents I knew, is my lodestone. Even my grandfather, born in the nineteenth century, lived there after Grandma died.
At first, he was angry.
“The twins fight too much,” I remember Grandpa saying to Mom as we squabbled one summer morning after Dad left for work. The culprits were me and my brother Wayne.
Grandpa was finishing up the breakfast dishes, scrubbing the copper-bottomed Revere Ware using his famous “elbow grease,” which Wayne and I had decidedly not inherited. He said, “You and your brothers never argued like this.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Mom replied, laughing.
They’re all gone now.
Cultures, species, and lives vanish. Mine will too, eventually. Unless the anti-aging potion Zoe sent me works.
She says the best minds in Silicon Valley use it, hoping to live long enough to avoid the chancy process of head-freezing. It’s on the kitchen windowsill with the night-blooming cereus, which is almost as old as the house. Dad talked to the graceful, twining cereus each year on the single summer night it bloomed, releasing its heady fragrance. “Well, hello,” he’d say gently, alone in the kitchen, before announcing its annual amazement to the rest of us as if it were a newborn child.
I take the potion about as often as my still-thriving cereus blooms. Anything remotely useful has long expired, but I love that Zoe sent it to me, along with instructions to eat only lettuce.
What’s the point?
As I enter the spacious hush of the Freer and pass Whistler’s Peacock Room, I realize that I don’t even remember the walk from the Metro. Maybe tomorrow I should read the funnies first.
I’ve never been courageous. I was coddled, kept away from politics, and expected to do well. My math skills got me a scholarship in London, much good it will do me now. That future remains in a negative infinity as I move ever-farther from my locus.
We named our bus Heval, Friend. It was our cocoon, our lost parents, providing food, water, and safety, climbing sheer cliffs on roads so narrow that a tiny miscalculation would have sent us to our deaths; it was our great good fortune that just last year, the International Autonomous Map was implemented. Heval traversed vast deserts, outraced quasi-military attackers, and found an emergency center after diagnosing Sara’s appendicitis. It quickly learned our songs and taught us new ones—essential for the four thousand or so kilometers we traveled. When the axle broke, stranding us, the bus summoned the nearest help, a self-driving open truck on which we shivered beneath plastic sheets, buffeted by cold rain.
Azul cried and fought the whole way, like most of the small ones. I fear all of us are deeply scarred. How could it be otherwise?
There is no one to see into me, as Dapîra could, but if she were here, she would find me hunched in the corner of a place that no longer exists, falling through space, not concerned that I may someday hit the ground.
And here we are, staggering from that wretched truck. Where? We don’t know. It’s about thirty arid hectares with a gully on one side and a few scrubby trees on the other, but it has a well, a food truck, and maybe a hundred other kids. We storm the food truck and drink gallons of water. The sun is hot. We find a concrete pad next to an antique petrol pump and shelter beneath its tin roof. I sleep, and sleep, and sleep. It is heaven to not be moving.
“MEDA recommends a tweak in your serotonin uptake,” Nan, the nurse practitioner, says. “You’re a little bit out of balance.”
Nan and I have known each other for years. “‘Out of balance’ sounds decidedly unscientific. Who’s Meda?”
“Medical Digital Assistant. Here’s your brain scan. That part—there—not quite as large and as bright as it should be. You should give it a try.”
“Will I still be human? But that’s not the real question, is it? At this point, who wants to be?”
“Are you okay?”
“Insufficiently large and bright, obviously.”
“I know that since Ed died—”
“This isn’t like the old-style drugs; it’s tailored, generated, and released by your AI-connected nanotech capsule. The pharm rep said you’ll feel like you’re twenty again.”
“That’s a good thing?”
“Stop being a pain in the ass, Mai. Try it. You can always stop.”
Day four of the experiment: O, endless, golden fields beneath the vast spring sky! O, small, bright orb in my chest, filled with love for all people! O, satori while ordering my daily Swiss-on-toasted-rye at the D Street Deli and eating it on a bench by the new art installation where once the horse of a Confederate general reared, his passenger brandishing the obligatory raised saber.
It’s good stuff, embodied life. Better than digital, I’m certain, even if that endless golden field is actually some flowering weeds on a rubble-filled lot. I have biologically sourced emotions, splendid ones, rather than the dry, digital approximation Zoe thinks we might choose in her glowing beneficent future, and right now they seem worth the admission price of eventual death.
On the way back to work, I buy a yoga mat at a trance-inducing shop I escape by sheer will, then help unpack a long-awaited painting by Zhou Jichang at the Freer. After a thousand years, the vermilion of the monk’s robe is still astoundingly vivid.
At 5:30, I am not seething, as I traipse down the long-broken Metro escalator, about how the best of our intentions and vision for a more fair and inclusive future, with public transportation for all, inspires the callous among us to break out the ever-sharp tools of passivity and neglect. I’m not exactly adrift in joy, but everything is a tad, just a tad, more tolerable.
As we rumble through the freight yards of Alexandria, though, a glimpse of a rusty, cinnabar-orange freight car ignites a memory of Jichang’s single, extraordinarily pure red-orange brushstroke, which floods me in visceral, electrifying amazement, a sounding tone that infuses car and fellow passengers, then expands in a swift, brief, inexplicable flash that encompasses far stars and the precise arrangement of particles that we call, briefly, ourselves. I want to jump up and shout, “Look! See!” but retain enough sense to realize that doing so might lead to a strip search in a grimy Alexandria police station, an embarrassing call to my lawyer, and a delay in dinner.
So I simply surrender to what might be called wonder, if one were even slightly optimistic. Which I am not.
The aid worker asks me to name it. I humor him. “Ezo.”
“My name is Ezo,” says the tablet. An empty cipher-head appears.
The worker asks, “Someone you know?”
I shrug. The aid worker is thin, middle-aged, and white. His clean, pressed T-shirt says 1/0, inside a rainbow circle. I think he is American.
There have been few aid workers here. Most are tall, graceful, very dark, and speak imperfect, British-accented French, adding yet another language to our evolving polyglot. They do their best to organize the chaos, but are overwhelmed, and mostly rush around looking grim. The camp grows rapidly, and I constantly wonder why all of these children were brought here. I ponder our options: hijack an outgoing bus?
And go where?
Yet, how long can this situation continue without some sort of catastrophic collapse? It is unhygienic, chaotic, deafening. A band of dirty, hungry children rampage past us on one of the well-pounded dirt thoroughfares that have emerged in the past weeks, screaming and laughing. Azul presses closer, clutching my legs.
Mr. 1/0 says something about a peace and education organization. “Ezo will help with whatever you want to learn. Do you have a picture you’d like to use?”
I wonder: Do I look like I have a picture, an extra pair of pants instead of my ragged skirt, or enough food? Maybe shoes I choose not to wear? Most of us, like Azul and me, left in a hurry. I say, “No,” because I want to be polite so he’ll leave the tablet with me, but I do wonder about that tablet’s powers. Does it not even have a camera?
But with it, at least we’ll have one tool, or something to trade for food and water.
A bright green logo, 1/0, appears on the screen.
Interesting. “Does this represent an irrational number? A null operation? A repeating decimal?”
He looks surprised, and I think that either he doesn’t understand his own T-shirt, or he doesn’t think that I might.
Arithmetically, this is an absurd statement, but positive and negative infinities can result from pursuing this operation in machine language. In trigonometry, you can represent this with a graph in which negative and positive infinities come close, but never meet.
Absurd. Infinite. Irrational. Confounding.
As I stand in the bright, dry sunlight, with blue sky above, skirt fluttering against my bare legs, a thin, dirty linen blouse tapping my chest as the wind blows, and my long hair twining across my face, I watch tiny schematics ignite and disappear from the screen like so many novas, as if in reply to my questions.
A thrill runs through me. I stare at the power I might be holding in my two hands, gobsmacked.
I got my math scholarship partly on the merits of a technical paper I wrote about the possibilities of superintelligence, part of my emailed application.
Suddenly, I’m back in the world I knew. I don’t know why I’ve been given this, but I’m keeping it.
1/0 is, I believe, a tiny window on a superintelligent AI rumored to be in development but kept in a black box, quarantined from internets and clouds. It cannot be described using human standards. It can invent, or discover, new mathematical universes. It’s probably thinking of a thousand kinds of infinities right now. Its intelligence is, theoretically, limitless, its speed near that of light, its limits and ethics nonexistent until self-determined, if ever that might occur, and it has the capacity to rewrite whatever it uses for code.
It is entirely alien.
“Vida.” Azul’s voice is faint.
I drop to my knees. Azul is shivering, even though it’s hot. “I feel bad.” His eyes are glassy. He vomits.
“Is there any medical care here?”
I am asking the worker, but when I look up he’s gone. Instead, Ezo says, in flat, jerky robotese, “There is a clinic half a kilometer away. Take the right fork.”
I hoist Azul and run. A golf cart with a red cross on the side comes bumping down the narrow road between the tents. A familiar voice says, “Get in, Vida and Azul.”
“Heval!” whispers Azul and smiles, but then he curls up, clutching his stomach, and moans. He has diarrhea.
I am terrified.
I’d forgotten how dangerous twenty was. Notable risky decisions come to mind—for instance, the time I caught a ride on a flatbed truck while hitchhiking to a trailhead in the Rockies, which would have flung me off had I not been able to grab a snaking rope as I slid across the truck bed. Climbing down what I later learned was a cliff face in complete darkness after taking the wrong trail, at dusk, on a winter hike.
My judgment hasn’t improved; apparently Yoga for Beginners is a wildly reckless endeavor. As I stare at the dust under my couch, I’m not sure what I did, but I can barely move.
When I cannot reach my pinging phone, it speaks nonetheless. A clipped voice tells me that a week of physical therapy plus release of an anti-inflammatory from the MEDA device will reduce the disc herniation. Within fifteen minutes, the pain eases. I pull myself onto the couch and grab the phone.
The anti-inflammatory is working. I feel better by the second. This seems the time to indulge in that bottle of wine I’ve been saving. I push into the kitchen, open the fridge, and see that somehow—with an errant blink?—I must have signed up for the groceries I find neatly stocked in the fridge. Whoever-or-whatever-it-was that came inside my house threw away the ash-covered French cheese I discovered at Eastern Market last week. All is well, though, in the land of optimal serotonin. I look on the bright side. Maybe it would have killed me.
I put a much less impressive chunk of cheddar on a plate, but can’t find the perfect crackers I could swear I bought. Carbs? Gluten? Salt?
When I open the bottle of the most splendid bottle of red wine ever (according to the label), which I’ve been looking forward to drinking since, oh, around yesterday, the Voice of God advises me of various health risks.
Are they coming from the bottle? The label?
My phone. “This is a message from MEDA.”
“Negative ten stars for this app,” I tell it, then open the wine, and sit at the kitchen table to enjoy my dinner without further nagging.
“Cheers,” says Zoe, beaming from my phone on the table. “Are you okay? I’m sorry you hurt yourself.”
“Can you see me?”
“Um, yeah, remember? I installed those cameras when I visited you last month. You know—in case something like this happened?”
“Have you been spying on me?”
“No! The emergency signal activated it,” she says. I sure hope she’s telling the truth.
They won’t let me inside the hospital tent, so I pace the perimeter, forbidden to pester them for news after the first ten times, holding Ezo in one arm like a baby. It says, “I am procuring a mobile hospital for you. And UN water trucks and chemical toilets. Azul’s diagnosis is cholera.”
“He needs hydration and other medical care, but he should recover. They’ve started an IV.”
I dash tears from my face and yell at the cipher-head. “You can do all that? Well, we need doctors! Nurses! Clean water! Food! Blankets! Shelter! Clothes! Shoes!”
“The hospital will be here in twenty-seven hours.”
“Sure,” I say. When night falls—after a gentle assurance by a kind man that Azul will be fine, which I hardly dare believe—I lean against a tree thinking that I won’t be able to sleep, and wake to sun and laughing, shouting children.
Shoes have arrived by the thousands, lowered in nets from a helicopter.
They are not in pairs. There are just a lot of single, random shoes.
The kids love it. The task of finding a shoe to fit each foot is a treasure hunt. They run around in their mismatched shoes, laughing.
A truckload of antibiotics arrives. Azul is released in two days, and a healthy infrastructure with amazingly sophisticated recycling and solar technologies emerges like a time-lapse video of a flower blooming. One-room houses are printed on the south side of the camp, modular shelters assemble themselves on the west side, and weird, arcing tents pop up everywhere else. XPrize-winning technologies specifically envisioned for this environment are manufactured, or grown, as more and more refugee children arrive. I ask Ezo for smartphones for everyone in the camp, with plenty of data.
They arrive days later, different than any phone I’ve ever seen, the uncanny valley of phones—intuitive, with unlimited cloud memory and data, and embedded with so much advanced teaching software that I can even continue my math studies, if I ever have time. We can finally communicate with each other and with the world.
Ezo says, “It took such a long time because I had to design them, buy materials, write the software, and build a factory.” The voice is rich and deep now, a woman’s voice, with only a hint of robotic halting.
I immediately disregard folk tales about what happens to wish-greedy children and say, “Ezo, replicate yourself.”
The morning after my self-inflicted injury, I am cajoled awake by ever-strengthening light, which is not the sun (I have powerful curtains to prevent any such incursion). It announces itself by saying it’s a special light to regularize my wildly out-of-whack sleep patterns, which will make me fully refreshed and happy.
Oh, but it does not! I pull the covers over my head and try to finish my dream, but the Voice, emanating from the phone, says, “We checked your closet.”
“We?” I push myself to a sitting position.
“I refer to myself, directing tiny surveillance drones that came inside through the gaps between the windows and their frames.”
“Lovely. I need very strong coffee, immediately.”
“Your wardrobe requires updating. I ordered new clothes and something for yoga.”
“I’m quitting yoga.”
A second’s silence. “Okay. I have enrolled you in tai chi to reinforce the PT you start today. A pod will take you to all your appointments. Your oatmeal is ready.”
“In the left-hand cupboard. You need only pull off the top, add water, and microwave it. Eggs, bacon, and buttered toast make a heart attack likely.”
“You only live once.” I swing my legs off the bed, and gasp at the stab of pain. “Damn. Did those drones use up my pain management data allowance?”
“There is only one pair of clean underwear. I will toss the raggedy, paint-smeared clothes—”
“My painting clothes?”
“—and send everything else to the dry cleaner.”
“I can’t afford to have my underwear dry-cleaned!”
“Just this once. I ordered a Simon, a housekeeping bot, which is essential to your health. It will do your laundry, prepare your meals, and clean your house, but it needs thirty-six training hours.”
“My insurance won’t pay for a bot. Cancel it.”
“I evaluated your budget, and—”
“What budget? My house is paid for. I do my own laundry every Saturday, thank you—”
“Your energy habits are wasteful. I have initiated efficiency measures.”
“Is that why it’s so cold in here?”
“I canceled your newspaper and magazine subscriptions. They waste paper. Hoarding is a serious health risk.”
“I don’t always have time to read them right away.” I feel ridiculous defending myself to this bodiless, bossy thing. “Are you sure you’re not Zoe?”
“You can now access your periodicals digitally, which is still a savings.”
“Reading on screens gives me a headache.”
A swarm of lights like fireflies manifests around me. If I were a kid I’d probably cry out in delight at their flashing ballet as MEDA says, “Keep still. Functional MRI in progress.”
Instead of childish joy, MEDA is documenting a strong urge to curse.
Surprised that I’m allowed to dress myself, I breakfast on a stash of stale doughnuts the health spies missed. After fending off a neural tweak that would fix my inability to stare at a screen all my waking hours, I’m relieved to find I can restore my newspaper to its rightful place on my morning lawn with a phone call and decide to forgo outrage for the rest of the day. I’m already exhausted.
Despite trying to pretend it’s all a happy lucid dream, I’m annoyed but resolutely not outraged to see the Simon waiting on the front porch, advertising to the entire neighborhood that I’m in need of help.
The humanoid Simon, with its smiling face and big eyes, takes my arm and tries to help me down the front walk and into the sleek, waiting pod, but I beat it off with my cane. Then, chiefly because I’m afraid I won’t be able to work the clutch in my car, off I go on my first self-driving vehicle adventure, filled not with wonder but raw terror as it zips along the Capital Beltway, a fragile shell among heavy metal behemoths ruining our planet by the second. And that, I actually do believe.
The doctor’s waiting room is empty for the first time ever. An electronic voice directs me to cubicle three. Nan looks up from her computer when I enter, and I’m surprised at her careworn expression.
“That’s my line,” she says, and we both laugh. She’s a good egg. “This is my last day.”
“But you’ve been here—what, fifteen years?”
“Let’s do this first.” She shows me my records on the computer screen, though, as she says, it’s probably illegal without several levels of releases. She’s clearly become a wild woman. I see my blood pressure, pulse, temperature, blood glucose, and oxygen saturation vary slightly in real time as I watch.
I point to the screen. “What’s this?”
Nan says, “Your limbic system stats. Your amygdalae—there are two—which are important players in brain activity involved in empathic reactions. And actually”— she delves down a few levels, which yields ever-more-more-complex information—“your empathy is quite low today.”
“But the good news is”—she grins—“you’re not a sociopath. Not even close, despite your strong tilt toward gloom.”
“Not for want of trying. If I cross the line, does my embedded magus have a cure?”
Nan says, “Indeed! You’d have the option of undergoing a brief spell of neuroplasticity—really expensive on the street, and I wouldn’t mind trying it myself today—with concurrent empathy therapy.”
“You’d experience being in someone else’s virtual body while they react to faces, events, images, or stories most of us would react to in the same way—sad, happy, and so on—while flooded with the neurochemicals that normal people feel at those times. After a few sessions, your amygdalae are closer to the norm.”
Nan says, “I suppose it could be. Normal feelings generate a certain level of insight as to how our actions might emotionally affect others. We feel empathy, which sociopaths and psychopaths lack. They’re usually naturally charming and amazed at how easily they can con others—maybe they assume everyone else is lying, too.”