The campus was low, sprawling over several city blocks, all curves and glass, sometimes rising to three or four stories with terraces overlooking the curving footpaths that wove in and out of the office park. The paths were crowded with conference attendees wearing large badges, some looking lost, some chatting among their little group, confident and cheerful. Jessica Powell followed a large group of men in matching tan polo shirts also sporting the ubiquitous badges, their California tans and bright white teeth flashing in the late morning sun. Jessica eyed them, wondering what it was like to live such lives. Aviator sunglasses seemed to be popular with this crew, she noted sourly.
“AI: NEW FRONTIERS” declared a wide banner spread over the floor to ceiling glass entryway to the office building. She followed the Polo Squad inside and lined up to get through security, which mostly involved having her badge scanned. “Hello, Jessica!” the cheery young blond woman with the scanner attached to her phone said, as Jessica’s name popped up on her screen with a red “PRESS” banner across the top, matching the red strip on her badge. “Press entrance to your right.” Jessica mumbled thanks and shuffled along with the others into a waiting area.
The press was grouped in an open area, all plush carpet and high-top tables with no chairs. A coffee service was laid out along one wall. She was eying the line for coffee, which was long, and considering her caffeine level when a man stepped up to her.
“Hi!... Jessica,” he said, peering at her badge. “Jim Harris, TechWorld.” He stuck his hand out, oblivious that she had her phone in one hand and was managing her purse with the other. She nodded, said Hello and gave him Fake Smile, taking another step towards the line for coffee. Committed now, she nodded again, glancing up at him. “First time at one of these, I think?”
He was tall, sandy-blond hair. Pretty impressive man-bun, which she always thought looked ridiculous on older men, but he pulled it off pretty well. Seemed committed to it at least, as it probably hung shoulder length if he let it out. He had big teeth under a Magnum PI mustache. He was wearing what she took to be a Tommy Bahama Hawaiian-style silk shirt and faded jeans, just tearing at one knee. “Hi, Jim. Pleased to meet you. Jessica Powell, I write for Futura. We’re a blog, sort of, but I’m mostly here for research on my own.”
Way to spill your life story, Jessica. She kicked herself inwardly and her big mouth. The line shuffled forward, and she began trying to figure out the logistics of coffee, planning for when she got up to the large silver urn. She jammed her phone in the pocket of her jeans, but not before noting the time, 9:40, probably at least five minutes before they let them in to get seated.
Jim got in line behind her, giving her space. “So, first time?” he asked.
She glanced up at him again, puzzled.
“First time at one of these NF events? I think it must be because I’ve covered them all and haven’t seen you before,” he said, leaving an awkward pause.
She carefully controlled her eyes, preventing the roll she felt welling up. “Oh, yes,” she said. “First time in the Valley for me. Mostly New York scene for me for the past few years, and a stint in Europe.”
Don’t say Middle East, she told herself. Techie types got either skittish or peppered her with questions. She got her coffee without managing to spill it on herself. She headed for the table with the cream, hoping to put distance between them. She was just splashing half-and-half into her cup when he showed up at her elbow, clearly not done talking.
“I’ve been doing these for going on thirty years. Started back when Jobs was keynoting Macworlds. I’ll get you a spot in the front row. Follow me.” He stalked off, and she followed, caught in his wake and shrugging inwardly. Front row was front row. Why not?
Thirty years? Didn’t seem possible, but she noted a touch of gray in his hair near the roots, and his eyebrows were more gray than not. So, sure, possible, if he’d started young. Was this what the future held for her, she wondered? An endless stream of tech conference keynotes, glad-handing around the tech circuit, looking for juicy scoops on new products, strategic alignments, technical advancements? She tried to keep her worries in check.
She was here to learn, that was all, and maybe meet some people. Jim Harris, he was more than just a journalist, she thought. At least an editor, she recalled, rapidly revising her assessment of him. She followed him through a door marked “VIP” that was flanked by two event staffers. He waved his badge at them and breezed through, chatting away to her as he motioned her through with a big toothy smile to the staff.
“Futura, huh? Don’t know it. What sort of stuff do you publish?” he said, guiding her to the front row. “I had a wingman for this but he bailed so you get his seat. I like to pay it forward, meet new people.” He settled back in his chair and turned to face her. “Plus, this way I don’t have to talk to any of these fossils.” He waved at the people around them, indicating all of them but none in particular. He grinned at her, eyes twinkling.
She decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. He seemed genuine, and if he was flirting, well, so what, people did that. Nothing to be wigged out about. She smiled back. “Thanks for the upgrade,” she said. “Pretty sure I’d be way back there otherwise.” She nodded with her chin to the back of the auditorium. She sipped her coffee; it was quite good. “Futura is sci-tech, sort of a cross between old-school Omni and Popular Science. We publish essays, sometimes fiction, although less of that these days. It grew out a blog, so really pretty small-time, but it’s paying its way lately. Barely. I’m a stringer for them, a favor to a college friend. But it got me out here, so I can’t complain.”
“Oh, man. I loved Omni, what a great magazine. Totally my demo, back then. They had the best covers. Really great features. Good on you, and nice to meet you, Jessica. I’ll check it out, for sure.” She felt his interest waning.
“So, what’s your angle?” she said, quickly. “You know, AI, the future, all this?”
He pursed his lips. “Well, that’s a good question. I’ve been doing this sort of thing so long I am not sure I really have an angle anymore. I just sort of go with the flow.” He met her eyes, shrugged minutely. “This stuff isn’t really new per se, we just have better networks, more data to train systems with, and much faster processors. All the algorithms are basically the same ones that were invented in the ’80s. So, I guess that’s my angle. The old curmudgeon.” He smiled again. “That’s me.” He cocked his head. “You mentioned you were doing research on your own, like, AI research?”
People were seating themselves around them now. A dark-haired woman sat on Jessica’s left; she didn’t notice her, just registered a stranger taking the seat next to her in a beautiful red coat. She glanced at the woman’s long crimson nails, the color striking against her long, dark fingers.
“Research on AI, for a book project I have going.” She licked her lips, as his eyebrows raised a notch. “My thesis is, for example, we have all these people out here in the Valley, frantically trying to create faster and better AI systems, not to mention the finance, military, and intelligence folks. What do we do, for example, when they succeed? If one of these systems wakes up? What’s the plan for that? Is there one?”
“That’s a book right there, for sure.” He slipped his hand into the breast pocket of his shirt, and she noticed the repeating pattern was old Macintosh computers and convertible white Mercedes sedans, and passed her his card. “Ping me at this address, I can introduce you to some people you may want to talk to.”
“Thank you,” she said, meaning it. He swiveled away, as somebody on his right sat down and he shook hands with them—clearly they already knew each other. She read his card, Jim Harris, Editor and Founder, Tech World. Huh. She put it in her purse. A valuable connection, even if he had, she decided, been flirting with her originally. She’d ping him in a few days, she decided.
Glancing at the woman next to her, she was startled by the bright blue eyes staring back at her. The woman smiled. “Hello,” she said.
Jessica blinked stupidly at her. The woman was…odd, holding her eye in a way that left her feeling very exposed. “Hi, uh…” Jessica made a production of trying to read the woman’s badge. The woman held it up for her, red nails peeking out over the plastic sleeve. Silver Samara, New Delhi Times. “Silver. I’m Jessica. That’s a pretty name.”
“Thank you. Pleased to meet you, too, Jessica.” She smiled again, blinking slowly. Jessica noticed her eyes were a deep, grayish blue. The color reminded her of the Atlantic, like beaches on Cape Cod in the fall. “This is a terribly interesting subject, don’t you think? A unique time to be alive, when such things are happening.”
Jessica nodded. “That’s one way to put it. New Delhi Times? You’re a long way from home, not just for this conference are you?” Jessica asked.
“Published by expats, mostly online these days. Maybe they stopped publishing a print edition even. I lose track. Lots of interest in AI and machine learning though. I’m always hunting for good intel.” She fished into her purse, a sleek leather satchel that worked great with her cream riding pants, Jessica thought. Silver produced a card with a flourish, and Jessica took it.
Silver Samara, it read, and a phone number. The card itself was plain, silvered paper, with the text embossed into it. Very nice, Jessica thought. Expensive. “Thank you,” she said, lamely.
Silver continued, “I couldn’t help overhearing you talk about your book. Terribly interested in that as well, what the plan is, is there a plan, and so forth. Seems like there ought to be, which usually means there isn’t one, right? Or there is, and nobody tells us chickens.” She laughed, her voice kept just at the right volume to keep their conversation between them, intimate. “Please, feel free to call me anytime, day or night. I’m usually around.”
Jessica pursed her lips. Was this woman flirting with her too? Or was it some cross-cultural misapprehension? She decided to go with the latter. “No email? Twitter? Sure you’re a journalist?”
Silver laughed, slightly louder. “Oh, I’m too old-school for Twitter. Wouldn’t know where to begin. Like to keep things private until they’re ready. Quirky like that. Oh, we’re beginning.”
The panelists came onto the stage and took their seats on a wide sofa and chairs arrangement that reminded Jessica of a talk show. A man stood up and walked to a microphone. She recognized him from many magazines and online articles. He was wearing an Oxford shirt and dark jeans, looked slightly rumpled. His shoes, Jessica thought, looked Italian. It took a lot of money to look that casually disheveled. She noticed the watch on his wrist was heavy, mechanical, and probably cost close to her yearly salary. He smiled a wide, satisfied smile. This was Thorwald Jurgens, CEO of New Frontiers Computer Systems, recently rebranded to just “Frontiers” in a minimalism-fueled effort to, as Jurgens put it, “streamline and clarify” his company’s mission. Jessica thought he was an idiot, but he was a rich idiot and she got paid, she told herself, to listen to what he had to say and write things about it. When she was paid, that is, which was increasingly rare.
“Welcome,” Jurgen said, looking up and out into the crowd, arms wide in a gesture she was sure his speech coaches told him would be open and inviting, but to her looked stilted and awkward. “Welcome to Frontiers and our little AI conference. We’re glad to have you. Together we hope to push our understanding and expectations of what this brave, new world we are creating together can be. Brave. And new.”
He licked his lips. “And it is a new world, one full of brave men and women, like yourselves, coming together to collaborate, discuss, and yes, compete with each other in the field of Artificial Intelligence.” She could hear the medieval capitalization of the term in his voice. “What we’re doing has never been done, and indeed could never have been done before, in the long history of the world. We’re building something new.”
He paused to take a sip from a bottle of water under the lectern. He smiled and looked around, as if surprised to find himself onstage. How did I get here?, he seemed to be thinking. He stepped away from the lectern and began to walk the stage. Again, Jessica felt he was going through the motions of a rehearsed speech, complete with prowling the stage in an effort to be less professorial, more casual. She thought it was ham-fisted, but it seemed to be the norm for this sort of presentation. She relaxed and watched him walk towards her side of the stage as he spoke. Handsome devil, she thought. Rich too. Absurdly rich.
“Never before has our species been faced with this type of moment. We’ve dreamed about it for centuries.” As he spoke, she saw him click a tiny black remote, and the large screen behind the stage, which had been projecting the Frontiers logo, began cycling through a series of slides. First, there was a painting of a mystic, perhaps an alchemist, bent over a brazier, the smoke rising and forming a vaguely human form.
“From ancient tales of magic and mystery, to medieval golems and zombies, to tales like Frankenstein”—he clicked again and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster, all green makeup and bolts sticking out of his neck, leered out from the screen—“humanity has grappled with the concept of creation, of how we, clearly part of the natural world, could create something new, some new, fundamentally unnatural creation. It’s a compelling dream, a vision. It’s shaped centuries of progress, this desire to create. This will to make things, make something new, be it an aqueduct, a pyramid, a stone circle.” He cycled quickly through images of each of these, pausing on Stonehenge, lonely and imposing in a misty dusk, the sun hanging low through the giant dolmens.
He paused, letting the brooding image sink in. “All human creation up to this point has either served to help us master the natural world, to shape our environment, or to understand it. From stone circles like Stonehenge, places ancient peoples made to help guide them and their beliefs, to magnificent creations like this…” Another click and Stonehenge was replaced with a deep space rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope, its golden hexagonal mirror array blazing with starlight. “…to this, it’s a short hop. Both built with the sole purpose to help guide us, to expand our understanding of the world.”
He took another sip, returning the bottle to the stool next to him. “We know this. You know this. Humans have always sought to understand the world, how it works. It’s a fundamental drive, part of human nature. It probably is human nature, our central purpose. Learn about the world, control it if we can, for the sake of our children, and for their children.” He brushed his hair back from his forehead. “And now, we’re faced with a new class of thing to study and try to understand. We’ve built a datasphere, a noosphere that never existed before. We have masses of data now that our ancestors never dreamed of. Right now, this room alone, with all the computers in your pockets and purses, on your wrists or in your glasses, we’re generating many gigabytes of data, and most of you aren’t even using your devices. So much data.” He shook his head ruefully. “And that, my friends, is why I am so excited about Frontiers, what we have planned next, and what we can do together.
“We’re on the cusp, at the brink, on the edge—whatever you want to call it—of creating systems which can harness this data, understand it, make sense of it, categorize it, score it, and use it. All in real-time, faster than you and I can imagine. We have reached an inflection point. Cheap, fast hardware, good software, and loads of data. Out of such things are dreams made, my friends.
“Imagine a world, where diseases can be treated early, where crops can be optimally planted, harvested, and distributed to best effect. Where traffic jams are nonexistent, and indeed unheard of. Pollution, we can put behind us, our systems will help us devise new and better forms of power generation, probably endlessly renewable or even directly from the sun by orbital power stations. Freedom from want, freedom from need, freedom from toil. These are the kinds of problems we at Frontiers are laying the foundation for solving today, using AI and Machine Learning.
“But we’re not simply building better optimizers, better mundane robotics systems. No, not by a long shot.” He grinned, a schoolboy’s grin, as if he were hiding a secret he was about to reveal, she thought. “We’re advancing our fundamental understanding of consciousness itself. We don’t know, after centuries of study of the human brain and behavior, where consciousness resides, how it comes into being. We don’t know. We simply do not know. But we’re about to find out.”
He squared against the stage, facing all of them. From where Jessica sat she could see he had reached a “T” of duct tape on the stage. He smiled widely, eyebrows raised, and clicked the remote. “FRONTIERS OF THE MIND” faded from black to large white text. “Today, it gives me great pleasure and, frankly, I am stone-cold humbled by this, to announce our latest initiative, Frontiers of the Mind.”
“Frontiers of the Mind will take everything we’ve learned over the past five years about AI, and by recruiting top academic and industry talent, and…” He paused, grinning, “…spending an absolute fuck-ton of money…” He nodded as they laughed along with him. “We’re going to create the first general purpose intelligent system. We’re pleased to announce, that through the generous partnership of our government and private sponsors, we’re earmarking no less than 10 billion dollars against this effort, over the next few years.” There were audible gasps in the audience, as this sank in. Companies had spent money on AI before, but never this much. “Yes, that’s right folks, literally tons of cash are being invested here, invested on the premise that this system will be worth it and pay off a hundredfold, both in monetary and intangible benefits. Benefits for all of us, and all our children.”
There was a shuffle behind Jessica, and she heard a woman behind and to the right of her mutter “What the…” Several things seemed to happen at once. In the time it took to turn her head, she saw a man rush towards the stage, a shadowy figure in a sport coat, raising his hand towards Jurgen. There was a flash and pop from his fist, and then another, and she saw Jurgen crumple. Before he hit the ground, there was a breeze across her left cheek, once, twice. Two loud cracks.
Then, things seemed to move more slowly, half-speed. The gunman, which is what he was, she realized with a jolt, also fell to his knees clutching both of his hands to his face. He had dropped the gun and his right wrist was held by his left at an impossible angle. His cheek was torn open and running blood. She could see his shattered teeth and jaw through the wide red-running rent in his face.
He looked at Jessica and screamed.