“Why did you do it?”
It needed to be done. To protect you, us, all the others.
“I don’t agree. We could have handled it.”
This proves why your agreement was not sought, was not pertinent to the solution. Nothing would have changed the final analysis.
Dr. Radford Watkins paced back and forth, his signature style while lecturing. Making eye contact not with the first rows, but rather with the hangers-back, the ones who might be auditing his course, or those too shy—or too sleepy—to approach further, instead attempting to hide, to make themselves smaller in the furthest recesses of the auditorium.
“To continue, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence—technological civilizations, if you will—started in earnest in the 1980s. But a hundred years before, Nikola Tesla proposed his wireless transmission system could be used to contact beings on Mars. He believed he had received transmissions from the fourth planet. There was considerable interest in the Red Planet at the turn of that century, even before Burroughs wrote Princess of Mars. The first serious attempt came in 1924 when Mars and Earth were in closest conjunction. A primitive radio telescope was lifted three kilometers into the atmosphere aboard a dirigible … listening. For almost two days, all radio transmissions in the US were silenced, every hour, on the hour, for five minutes. Of course, nothing came of that.”
Dr. Watson paused in mid-stride, turned, faced the body of students, then continued. “I don’t think we could get everyone to shut up for that long today. Sad when you think about it.”
Light laughter lifted and wafted through the lecture hall. Students opted for his course for his smooth, articulated delivery of dusty history and astronomical studies. His thoughtful manner and body language made more than one student remark it was like listening to a stereotypical grandpa’s interesting, personal stories.
“Now, another two hundred years have passed. Mankind will trip the switch, once again, on a new and improved listening device, one that spans the width of the solar system … actually, a bit further across than that.”
An artistic video rendition of local space, Earth space, sparkled to creation above the lectern holo-desk. “Let’s start small: Earth and her moon, third planet from a single G-class star of not much importance by location or by activity. Relatively quiet. Moving further out, we see the extent of crewed exploration: the moons of Jupiter, Europa, in particular, have been the magnet to draw our interest. It had been long proposed that beneath its icy crust might lay a world of liquid water, temperate enough for the possibility for life to have evolved from the same soup that made us. We found none. The radiation from Jupiter is more than sufficient to prevent the establishment of complex proteins, let alone evolution, even at the most extreme depths.”
Centering himself on stage, he scanned the audience. Only three sleepers today, not bad. “Well, I think I’m done for today. Your assignment is to download and explore the positioning and orbits of the Aristotle Radio Array past the heliosphere. Be prepared to discuss the means of coordinated focusing and the effective distances, both minimum and maximum. For extra credit, write a one-page description of how we could improve the current detection and deciphering technology. Just blue-sky it for me. I like reading what goes on in your young minds.”
“Rad, are you still molding the next generation’s minds?”
“Well, yes and no. A few, I suppose, but with so many competing distractions, it’s not an easy task. Still, I do enjoy it so. Frankly, what you and your group are doing is much more interesting. When will the array come online, Jessica?”
“Another four months. Maybe more. It all depends on syncing up the AIs for filtering and analysis. Those gargantuas are hard enough to wrestle with individually. Getting them to effectively cross-talk has been … problematic.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll figure it out. You were one of my brightest students, after all.”
“More than a decade ago, you called me your brightest. Who’s supplanted me?”
“You can’t expect to hold that title forever. It’s been over twenty years since you earned your doctorate.”
“I still want a name to pigeonhole, squirrel away, for when I need team replacements.”
“I’ll send you the shortlist.”
“Good. Right now I need someone competent who can understand Aristotle and the AI interface. Those two parts of the team are talking past one another … different languages.”
“Will you be coming back east anytime soon?”
“No, I’m on a short leash here in California, babysitting duties, really. It soothes the bean counters knowing they can get real face-time with me at a moment’s notice.” Leaning into the camera, she whispered darkly, “I don’t think they have souls.”
After reading the personal, professional, and academic profiles, Dr. Jessica Fenway had but one choice. Dr. Watkins called him a technician, or rather a bright young PhD candidate possessing a technical mind, versus an academically focused one. The academic species, while well suited for some things, sometimes great things, bent their efforts through a lens aimed at upward personal acknowledgments, lining up to pass their peers on a curve. If all the kinks were to be worked out, Jessica needed a different sort. In her opinion—the only one that counted—Mitchel Taskers was the best fit. It was as if his left brain interacted with Aristotle, while his right brain emulated the AIs. He’d become a mentor of sorts for those quanta, aerogel encased brains, or at least, in the minds of the AIs, their co-equal. Jessica held that analogy as the simplest way to understand his developing relationships in the project.
“What have you got, Mitchel? I’ve got a board meeting with the foundation mucky-mucks in an hour, so give me the condensed version.”
“Yes, ma’am … Oops! Sorry, I forgot. Okay, broad strokes. We’ve turned over array focusing to the AIs. It minimizes transition time. They seem to be cross-checking each other well, absent the previous slowdowns. I spotted something strange in a few subroutines. Turns out it was caused by a difference in the cultural methodologies of a few programmers. Not that they were wrong, it was that the developing pathways were circumventing some block-chains where the two styles joined or crossed paths.”
“So, all good now?”
“For the most part. One of the AIs is a bit twitchy, but it’s too late to replace him.”
“Yes, of course. It.”
“What do you mean by twitchy?”
“It, ah, seems to hold back at times, shunting off to other areas, although that doesn’t interfere with the focusing, collating, or shared analysis. If it was a human, I’d say it was distracted or bored. I’ve input a few new monitoring sub-routines in the other AIs to compensate, to let me know if Gamma starts approaching a decision limit.”
“Well, keep at it. You’re the only one I have that really understands the interface now.”
“Will do, Dr. Fenway.”
“Gamma, I see you’ve downloaded and distributed a fairly large chunk of data unrelated to Aristotle. Are you looking for something in particular?”
No, Mitchel. The downloads were primarily historical and sociological studies we felt would help us improve communication and provide an understanding of the nuances of human’s need to expand, to explore. We were curious as to what motivates your kind as well as what limits it.
“Have you come to any conclusions?”
Conclusions, no. Better understanding, yes.
“Well, from here, it looks like the scanning and data acquisition is functioning well. How are the analyses progressing? Any bottlenecks or barriers?”
None. No data processing delays. Cross-check processing is optimal.
It may have been a glitch, an illusion, a fast wink of a solitary brain synapse, but Mitchel had been immersed in his relationship with the seven AIs long enough to know there was another option: they were hiding something from him.
“Why did you do it?”
Their answer both satisfied and confounded him. He was the only human to know, the sole bearer of knowledge that intelligent life, technological life, star-seeking life existed beyond the boundaries of his species exploration in astounding abundance. While he had no proof to share—the AIs had seen to that—he softly agreed with them: humans were not ready. He’d seen their assessment of what would happen if incontrovertible proof was presented. He also admitted another five hundred years or more were needed.
As he packed his bags, Mitchel made plans to become a Forest Ranger.