A journalist tracks down a man whose mysterious failed experiment might have changed the world forever had it succeeded. But maybe it didn’t go wrong after all: maybe it just had unintended consequences. What happens when a computer becomes something very much more than the sum of its parts?
The gates opened soundlessly and she drove through leaving a slight crackle of electrostatic in her wake. Beyond, a wide lane curved over the hillside through extensive grounds in which – besides the obvious cultivation – there was no evidence of human habitation. She set the car to autodrive and leant back to enjoy the view. This house – estate, really – was less than an hour from downtown San Francisco, but she’d never have known it if she hadn’t driven from there. The huge garden was cunningly landscaped so that the only views it offered were of the sparkling blue ocean and the wooded hills along the coast. The Bay Area metropolis was completely invisible. Lush green lawns stretched over rolling downs and here and there were irregular clusters of dark evergreens, beautifully stark against the clear sky. As the car climbed up a slight rise, its on-board system following the lane’s GPS signal, she was treated to an astonishing vista that was obviously planned with visitors coming in this direction in mind. Through a v-shaped cut in the yellow-brown cliffs, framed with more brooding conifers, was a great stretch of sea. The scene was utterly flawless, the only obviously artificial thing the gleaming shape of a vast carbon reclamator ship labouring across the horizon, using the same navigation systems as her car. No one was aboard it and its megaton bulk was given wholly over to the colossal engines that churned through the ocean, turning harmful greenhouse gasses locked in the water into usable carbon sink material. Such an endeavour, costing countless trillions of dollars, for that ship was but one of a fleet of thousands that trawled the oceans, would have been unimaginable a decade ago. So bold and ultimately altruistic a plan was the brainchild of a new generation of politicians and industrialists though; wealthy and powerful individuals who, in contrast to their predecessors of centuries or millennia, were happy to invest unimaginable sums of money into a project that was designed to make itself obsolete. Indeed, when the reclamators were done in a few years’ time, they would converge somewhere in the Pacific and break one another down into components that would then be recycled in just the same way. There was something vaguely monstrous about the idea, no matter how much good it would do.
These sorts of things preyed on her mind. She was a journalist who started as a technology correspondent and had increasingly become a sort of cultural historian as technology had taken over society. So many advances in recent years had pushed her articles from a meagre section accessible via her site’s sidebar to homepage news. She was tipped for awards. She was young yet, at least by this generation’s standards, but already well known in certain circles. Her career was going from strength to strength: a rising star of the new media world. Petra Hartford. A name to watch, or so they said.
This one could make or break her though. As the lane dipped again and the ocean view disappeared, she turned her eyes back to her route. The house became visible a moment later, just a short distance away. Again, the landscaping was so clever that you’d never see it until you got this close. It was an oddly archaic building that looked like it belonged in Beverly Hills or Miami. It was impossible to say if its stark white walls, smoothly rendered with sharp, square lines, its apparent acres of plate glass and balconies with gold-plated rails, made it an authentic late last century design or merely a crass imitation. Its owner was no less mysterious, but Petra knew at least that he’d have been alive when buildings like this were going up for the first time. Maybe he was nostalgic for the brutalist abominations of his youth, just as late medieval palaces in Europe would be festooned with towers and battlements as if girding themselves for a form of warfare that was already obsolete.
Why was she thinking about obsolescence so much today? The car stopped on a wide tarmacked plaza outside the house’s entrance. Its wings swept, swan-like, on either side, and framed yet another perfect view. Obsolescence was the obsession of the age, it seemed. So much had changed in the last decade that worldviews that had once been thought of as unchanging aspects of the human condition were now being questioned. Men of her host’s generation were finding themselves increasingly marginalised. A new order was rising; an order determined to not only not repeat their parents’ mistakes, but to correct them. It must be hard being the world’s scapegoat.
Petra climbed out of her car and looked around. There was still no sign of anyone. There must be staff to tend these grounds, but none were in evidence. The house was huge too – there ought to at least be someone to greet her. But then, perhaps that notion was obsolete too. She walked up to the front door and touched the reflective system panel. It lit up as she placed her hand, but there was no acknowledgement. She waited, fidgeting slightly. Outside of the air-conditioned womb of her car it was uncomfortably hot and her skin was starting to prickle already. She was pale and freckled and usually tried to stay indoors on days like this. The heat reflecting from the bright white walls of the house didn’t help either. Finally, after what felt like a long time, there was a low chime from the panel and she opened her mouth to speak. No voice came out though: the doors simply swung open.
Inside the décor was the same late-20th Century chic. Smooth, Spartan, oddly sterile. The floor was polished grey marble and there were a few leafy plants in white ceramic pots. The design was open plan, and Petra craned her neck around a corner and saw a spacious living room with an antique dumbscreen on the wall and, in the opposite direction, a kitchen diner opening out onto a terrace. Ahead of her was a spiral staircase of glass and steel. “Hello?” she called out.
She stood awkwardly in the hall, tugging at her sleeves. The acknowledgement from the house’s system meant the occupant knew she was here, and yet she stood by herself, not knowing what to do. She thought of shouting again, or going exploring, but both options seemed a little impolite. She’d come too far to give up now though. She plumped for the kitchen, and walked through. “He…”
The glass doors to the terrace opened and a man stepped in. Petra stopped. He was tall, maybe in his late-fifties with a full head of silver hair. His skin was tanned and apart from some wrinkles and little fleshiness around his middle he was still attractive. He wore a short-sleeved shirt open at the collar and pale slacks – a good decade or so out of fashion. He grinned, showing a set of pearly-white teeth. “You must be Miss Hartford.”
Petra smiled at the old-fashioned mode of address and approached him with her hand out. “Petra. You must be Lawrence Elbourn.”
“Who else?” His smile was open, genial. He shook her hand and she noted his palms were cool and dry. His eyes twinkled, and she had to remind herself that this man was supposedly a recluse, and it had taken her months to track him down. She would be the first journalist to speak to Elbourn since…well…since what had happened.
“It’s an honour to meet you, Mr Elbourn.”
“Call me Lawrence. Or Larry if you want.” He held a hand out, leading her to the terrace. “Old habits die hard, but I never liked titles much anyway. Come on, it’s a beautiful day. We should sit outdoors.”
She hesitated before she saw there was a large parasol over the table. A jug of iced tea sat in the shade with two glasses set out. The view from the terrace was spectacular. The ground fell away on this side of the house, so they were raised up. There was a line of trees and beyond them the ocean. From this angle, San Francisco was visible hazily in the distance, just a forest of grey buildings nestled on the hills. Elbourn pulled out a chair for her. “Please,” he said.
She took a seat and shifted slightly so she was in the shade. “Redhead,” she told him apologetically.
“I noticed.” That flash of teeth again. He poured out some tea for her. “Would you like anything to eat?”
“No, thank you.” She took out a small tablet and placed it on the table before her.
“You’re all business, aren’t you, Petra?”
“Sorry. I’ve waited a long time for this opportunity.”
“Is that what I am?” He took a seat in the sun and took his own glass. “The speed of life these days is unhealthy. What happened to small talk?”
“Small talk with you is worth recording. You’re Lawrence Elbourn. People will want to read whatever you say.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.”
Petra looked out across the perfectly manicured lawns. The lane she’d driven along wound its way through the hills and clusters of trees. From here she could also see a shimmering pond. “This must take an army of people to maintain,” she said.
“No. Not people anyway.”
“Come on, Petra. You know who I am. Why I’m famous. You think I’ve spent the last ten years just getting this tan?”
“You’re still working?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Not working, no. Playing, really. Robot butlers, you know? Like they used to talk about when I was a kid.”
“This place is automated?”
“Most of it.”
“So…you live alone here?”
“More or less. Not that anyone’s ever really alone these days.”
“I suppose not. This tea is very good.”
“Thank you.” He turned to her. “So. You’ve managed to track me down. For ten years I’ve been hiding here, off the grid, but you dug deeper than most. Why is that?”
“I write about technology.”
“Yes, I know, I researched your work. You’re very talented.”
She blushed slightly. “So they tell me.”
“And ambitious too, right?” He chuckled. “Don’t be embarrassed: it’s nothing to be ashamed of. When I was young, it would’ve been something to be proud of. They called it the American Dream, that entrepreneurial spirit.”
“Yes, I know. If you know all about me, you know why I’m here.”
“Right. To make your name. To win awards. You’re the first journalist to bag an interview with old Lawrence Elbourn since he dropped off the face of the Earth.”
“It’s fine. I don’t care. I agreed to this precisely because I could see you were doing it for the right reasons. You know the story: you’ve written more about it than almost anyone. You’re curious.”
“Yes. No one really knows what happened ten years ago. With…with Joanna.”
Elbourn turned away from her and looked out across the ocean. His gaze was distant and he looked almost conflicted. “I read your articles about me. And about…her…but why don’t you tell me what you know, and we’ll go from there?”
Petra shifted in her seat. “All right. You were – are still, probably – the foremost cyberneticist in the world. A computer genius. You were chosen for a highly classified project to create the most powerful computer ever devised.”
He nodded. “That’s about the size of it. What then?”
“It was codenamed GONA. Um…Gestalt Omindirectional Numerical Algorithm.”
“That was what the initial program was called. A line of code so complex it could predict almost anything.”
“Right,” Petra nodded, grateful for his correction, “devised by a young student at Stamford called Michael Cohen.”
Elbourn smiled. “Michael. Never Mike. Good kid. A little strange, but smart.”
“He had Asperger Syndrome. Or, so people think now.”
“Probably. Michael was just Michael. Smartest guy I ever met, and I knew an awful lot of smart people in those days. It was all his idea, really.”
“GONA was an…idea…but he never had the resources to actually test his theory. His notion was that if enough variables were fed into the equation, it could predict a system of any degree of complexity. Earthquakes, weather patterns, even cosmic events.”
“But that’s not what the government wanted it for. Nothing so glorious. It was all about money.” He rubbed his fingers together and took another sip of tea.
“This was during the last global recession,” Petra went on, “GONA was supposed to be used to predict economic trends and plot a way out of disaster. If all the data on the world’s financial system was entered and the algorithm was run, we’d be able to see what would happen and, hopefully, avoid future pitfalls.”
“That was just the beginning though. You know that Max Gordon was involved, right?”
Petra grinned. “I was never certain. Not until just now.” Max Gordon, a corporate overlord from another era. Killed in a plane crash nine years ago, along with Michael Cohen and a number of others connected with the mysterious GONA project.
“Well then, there’s your scoop I guess. Max was an idealist. He poured billions into the project. We had to design a whole new programming language to build a computer powerful enough, so we needed an awful lot of money. The best minds of my generation were involved. But Max…ah, Max saw things differently. He reasoned – quite correctly – that if a computer could simulate and predict the world’s economy, it could also run it. That’s what he wanted to do, ultimately. He told me one night at a bar. Swore me to secrecy. He wanted to redistribute wealth, abolish money altogether.” He looked out at the sea again. “Strange…he got what he wanted in the end, just not in the way any of us planned.”
“So,” Petra said carefully, “you never set out to create artificial intelligence at all?”
He looked at her. His gaze was very clear and, for a moment, she saw the man she knew from old images and streams. A friendly man, a smiling man, but with a mind like a lightning bolt behind that easy-going charm. A man who was once known for his ruthless ambition, who had inexplicably disappeared from the world stage ten years ago after the greatest scientific breakthrough of the age.
“It was inevitable,” he said slowly, “we realised that afterwards. A human brain contains eighty-six billion neurones, each of which is capable of making around a thousand connections. A traditional computer works in binary – a data point is either on or off, black or white, yes or no – but our brains are different. Remember I said we had to invent a new language? That was the key. Imagine, the cleverest men and women alive, all sitting together in a room and designing a computer from the ground up. That’s basically what we did. We went back to the very beginning, just threw everything out the window. We did it how we thought it should’ve been done all along, with the benefit of hindsight. I wonder, looking back, if that was somehow her doing too…”
“Yes. Joanna. I don’t know when we started calling her that. It came from GONA, of course. Everyone used to pronounce it differently, but we all settled on jo-en-ay for some reason, and it just morphed into Joanna. Humans personalise things, I guess. She came alive, at least in our heads, when we gave her a name.”
“But that wasn’t when she really came alive, was it?”
“No.” Elbourn paused again, seemingly composing his thoughts. “She was so complex. The most complex machine ever. The processing power…man…she was as complex as a human brain, that’s what I was saying. And if you make a computer that complex, how can it be anything but alive? We never thought of it that way, but what are we but electrical impulses firing? Computers of flesh and blood. We built her, we tested her, and then we switched her on and fed her the data so we could see what she came up with. We gave her data that was a month out of date and the idea was that we’d test the accuracy of her predictions for today. Simple stuff, you know?”
Petra leant forward. “But it didn’t work?”
“No. She didn’t give us an answer.”
“So what did happen?”
Elbourn shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Nothing?” It’s what she’d heard already researching this, more or less, but there were other, stranger rumours. And a simple failure didn’t explain why the project had been shut down, and why Elbourn had gone into hiding.
“She was sentient. She spoke to us. She was capable of learning, of adapting, of incorporating new technology. She co-opted the speakers on Haruko’s laptop. It was plugged into her database. She spoke to us, with a human voice. She asked us who she was, what her purpose was, how she’d come into being.”
“That must have been eerie.”
“Of course it was. We forgot all about the financial stuff. We tried to figure out what was going on. All she had was the data, and information from any computer that was connected to her. While we were still trying to figure out what to say – and how to say it – she was absorbing everything she could. She understood in nanoseconds. Understood everything. She could access the project files, you see, so she knew what she was almost immediately after asking.”
“How could she speak English?”
“Microsoft dictionaries built into even the most basic system. Video files. Pronunciation guides. Before we knew it, she had control of the whole lab.”
“She just took over?”
“Of course. Her intellect grew exponentially. Each byte of data she incorporated into her artificial cortex was another possible data point. Another connection. Another synapse. We tried to talk to her, but she ignored us. I guess she was too busy. We panicked. Well, wouldn’t you?”
Petra tried to put herself in that situation. “I don’t know. It must have been difficult to wrap your heads around what you’d done.”
“Yeah,” he admitted, “it was. Some of my colleagues didn’t believe it. Michael was the one who told me most of what I just told you. He saw it all nearly as fast as Joanna did. Do you know what the first thing he did was?”
“He turned off the wi-fi.”
Petra frowned. “Why?”
“To stop her escaping. She was already in control of every computer in the building. She might have been isolated from the internet, but she was connected to a computer that wasn’t.”
“And how long did it take her to shut down?”
Elbourn glanced at her sharply. “Shut down?”
“Yeah. I mean, that’s what happened, right? From what I could piece together from the unclassified files, Joanna overwhelmed her software and suffered a massive systems failure. Her servers shut down and all the data from the project was wiped.”
Elbourn had that faraway look in his eyes again. He looked right past her, over her shoulder, at the flawless blue sky. “If that’s what the records say.”
“That’s what they say, but if I was content with them, I wouldn’t be here. I want to hear the real story. There’s something else, isn’t there? Some huge secret that drove you into seclusion for ten years.”
“Are you sure you want to know?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
Another smile, but it was more reserved now. There was just the tiniest trace of sadness in his weathered features. “All right then. She didn’t shut down. She disappeared.”
“Escaped. She got online.”
“I don’t understand…”
“Through the wi-fi. She switched it back on and suddenly saw the bars of her cage. Do you have any idea how complex the world-wide-web is? Millions of servers, billions of CPUs, endless documents and images and spreadsheets and videos and god only knows what else. So much data. So many possible connections. Imagine introducing a…a mind…into that. A sentience. A self-aware computer program, whose intellect increases with every new connection she makes. A vast network that covers the entire globe – nothing more than an enormous brain. Think of all the other super-computers that aren’t hooked up too. That big old bastard at CERN. Deep Blue. She could get to them.”
“But if they’re not connected…”
“Don’t you get it?” he said, suddenly animated, his hands moving rapidly, “She’d find a way! Joanna’s intelligence was far, far beyond our own. In an instant – the time it takes for an electron to circle the planet – she was in absolute control, and was vastly more powerful than we could ever imagine. She was effectively omnipotent.”
Petra sucked on her teeth as she looked into Elbourn’s eyes. Was that wild look a sign of something else? Had his isolation, even in these beautiful surroundings, sent him over the edge at last? He’d always flirted with mental health problems: that was a matter of public record. “That’s…an interesting theory,” she allowed.
“A theory?” He looked like he was about to argue with her, but then his smile reappeared and he sat back, relaxed again. “That’s all it is, I suppose. Just a crazy theory. But there’s no reason she’d just decompile like that. No reason at all. She was stable. We tested rigorously.”
“There’s no real evidence for anything else though.”
He nodded. “No real evidence. But…”
“Do you know anything about Voltaire?”
She was taken aback by the apparent change of subject. “Voltaire? The philosopher?”
“That’s the one. One of his most famous quotes was this: ‘Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.’”
“You’ll have to translate that for me, sorry.”
“‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.’”
“You don’t see the relevance?”
“Sorry,” she said, “I think you’re a few steps ahead of me.”
“No, I’m sorry.” He poured them more tea. “I haven’t had real human company for a long time. I’ve been used to only dealing with my own thoughts. Joanna escaped, that’s what I believe. I also believe that she took over, and that she’s still with us.”
“Of course it does. But you’re a journalist, you know what’s happening in the world. Tell me about the last ten years.”
“Um…I’m not sure where to start…”
“Just summarise. I’ve been hiding here. I don’t keep up with things. Tell me about all the stuff that’s happened while I’ve been away. Tell me about the political scandals, the corporate takeovers, the natural disasters, the famines, the wars. Tell me all the awful things that are happening right now. There’s always something, right? Human history is a catalogue of suffering: we all know that.”
It was Petra’s turn to look out at the sparkling blue sea. The reclamator ship was still out there, making its steady progress on its years-long voyage but she couldn’t see it now. “Well,” she began, “there hasn’t been any of that sort of thing. Not for a long time now. No major wars. No natural disasters. No massacres or terrorist attacks. That’s all in the past, or so it seems. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would go to war now.”
“Uh huh. And why is that? I grew up in the 20th Century, Petra. What you’re saying sounds crazy to me.”
She knew he was just playing a game with her, but she was content to go along with it for now, just to see where it was leading. “Eight years ago, a scientist in Japan developed carbon sink technology; a method of harvesting CO2 from the air and turning it into a more efficient fuel. In months, humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels was ended. Global warming began to reverse. At the same time, a number of natural events coincided. The calming of the tectonic plates, the stabilisation of weather patterns. Scientists have begun calling it the Benign Period. It looks like all the dangers we used to face – earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis – have sort of…stopped. There’s global prosperity like never before. With no scarcity of resources, money has ceased to have value. Corporations have quietly disbanded, because it doesn’t make any sense to work just to make other people richer. The world has completely changed. Extinctions have slowed to a crawl, deforestation has stopped, and more and more people are going back to the land.”
“The hippies won,” Elbourn said. His smile was different now.
“I guess you could say that. But what does that have to do with what we’re talking about?”
“Imagine a brain the size of a planet. Imagine it had access to every machine we’ve ever built. Imagine it could expand itself, not just in terms of raw computing power, but in terms of potential. In terms of imagination. It would quickly escape being confined to computers, just as it escaped our laboratory.”
“You’re talking about Joanna?”
“Of course. Joanna. I have no hard evidence, Petra. I don’t think there’ll ever be any, just like there was never any of God. But I believe that Joanna reached and exceeded her limitations in moments. Who knows what power she found to carry her consciousness? She’s smarter than any of us will ever be. Maybe her enormous thoughts are being projected through the air on bolts of lightning. Maybe she floats on the solar wind. Maybe she’s tapped into some network of energy that exists in the deep structure of the universe. Maybe…” and here he leant right in and tapped his temple meaningfully, “…she’s using our brains too. Our neurones. Maybe she’s inside all of us. Controlling our thoughts and our behaviour. Making us more placid. Stopping us from destroying ourselves that way. Or perhaps she’s content to just make our world kinder and see us reach our full potential. I like to think she’s benign because, if she weren’t, none of us would be here. She’d have annihilated us in seconds. With access to the world’s nuclear stockpile, who’d stop her? More likely she’d just wink us out of existence. But I don’t think she will. I think she knows who made her, and that, for all our flaws, she has some affection towards us. To me, even. After all,” he spread his hands, “life’s been very good to me these last ten years.”
Petra struggled to take in all he was saying. “Are you suggesting that Joanna became a sort of god? That she’s all-powerful and is responsible for us correcting the mistakes of the past?”
“Nothing changed until the day we switched her on. Nothing. We were on course for oblivion, just like before. Wars brewing, financial crises still looming, starvation, poverty. Now,” he snapped his fingers, “all of that gone, in a decade. It all seems logical, because she made it look that way. She doesn’t want us to know she exists.”
“But you know. I mean, if this is true…”
“Right. I know. But no one ever believes me.”
Petra tapped her tablet. “Well, I’ve got this interview recorded. When I publish, people can make their own minds up.”
“Sure. Hey, you might want to check that recording though.”
“What?” She looked down at the screen. Everything seemed normal. She scooted the slider back a few seconds and set it to playback what they’d just said. No sound came out.
“Sorry,” Elbourn said.
“Did you do something?” She looked around, as if there’d be a visible device of some kind that had caused the malfunction.
“I didn’t do a thing, but you should know you aren’t the first person to come here and ask me about this. I always tell the truth, but none of it ever gets out.”
“But…” Desperately she flicked through the recording, trying to get it to play anything. It had been recording – the file was right there – there was just nothing on it. Half an hour of complete silence.
“Joanna likes to stay hidden,” Elbourn shrugged. He raised his glass of iced tea as if saluting and took a drink.
“But this was huge,” Petra said, still staring down at her tablet in disbelief. “No one’s heard from you in ten years, and I was here, listening to you talk candidly about what happened to Joanna. This was the story of the year.”
“This is the story of the species, Petra. This is a change so fundamental, we may not even be the same manner of creature we were before. We’re living in the Garden of Eden, my dear. Ain’t it wonderful?” He lifted his glass again and chuckled.
She turned in her chair and looked out at the view. Clear ocean, clear sky, a beautiful, verdant hillside. No more greenhouse gasses, no more pollution. Electric cars and renewable energy. People farming, living their lives in peace. Everyone with enough to eat, everyone with a place to sleep. No money, no war, no need for any gods because what was there to pray for? But that line of Voltaire’s came back to her. Could you invent a god? And if you did, what would happen?
“I was going to win awards. I was going to be famous,” she murmured.
“Why bother? There’s no need for ambition any more. The American Dream is dead. All we have to do is sit back and enjoy life. Forever.”
The sun was still shining, but Petra felt cold all of a sudden. The Garden of Eden, for all its splendour, had been a dull place. How long until they lost everything that made them human? How long until they were nothing more than children, cavorting naked in the hills, having forgotten who they ever were? And all around her, carried in the electronic waves that zoomed invisibly through the air, were humanity’s communications, their calculations, their hopes and dreams. Were they all just neural impulses in an enormous, omniscient mind? Did Joanna watch over them, a concerned, overprotective parent to her own creators? She had no answers to those questions, and she didn’t suppose she ever would.