Outside the porthole, the big blue marble slowly receded as the daily shuttle climbed toward orbit and the Andromeda station. I’d only been to the station once before—when I helped install the Monitor AI. It had been working quietly for two years, but now an emergency call from Martha had me lifting into orbit once again.
Martha was working as a software engineer on Andromeda, and things had gone seriously bad with the AI—the one that monitored asteroid threats. It had done what it couldn’t do; it stopped working. I know a fair amount about unstructured AIs since I invented one of the first ones. That was at Berkeley about ten years ago, which is also where I met Martha. We spent an intense semester and summer together, and then something went wrong, and she was gone.
I think I’m allergic to free fall, and so I kept telling my stomach that everything was going to be okay. Fortunately, it was only about fifteen minutes of free fall until the shuttle approached the center of the spinning wheel of Andromeda Station. We synced our orbit and then drifted over the dock. A little hit from the nose jets had us spinning around our center of mass while the arms of the station appeared to stop rotating below us. The lock clanged against the side of the shuttle at the same time as my stomach lurched, and my balance struggled to make sense of the shadows of pseudo-gravity pulling me sideways.
My stomach stopped its side flips as the gravity increased on the elevator “down” from the dock. Martha met me at the elevator with a kiss on my cheek. She had the same perky smile surrounded by a cap of blond hair. I looked for something more than friendship in her blue eyes but couldn’t tell what I saw.
“You have a good trip?” she asked.
“As good as shuttles go,” I said. “My stomach will settle in an hour or so.”
Her brow wrinkled. “You really don’t like being in space do you?”
“Didn’t get used to it last time. Doubt this will be any better.”
We picked up my travel bag and went straight to the Turing Research Institute one level down and about a quarter of the way around the wheel. As we walked along the metal hallway, the smell of humans living close with limited water reminded me of my last visit. We stashed my bag in her office and went to see the project manager, Terise Mitchell. Terise had steel-gray eyes, the standard short haircut, and a hard handshake. Martha and I took chairs in front of Terise’s desk.
“I hope you can help,” Terise said. “With the monitor down, the earth is exposed. We’ve got manual telescopes here, on the moon, and on the ground watching, but even with a constant manual watch, something could slip through.”
“I consider getting the monitor AI back online as a self-interest project,” I said in all seriousness. “I’m not crazy about falling rocks.”
As soon as earthlings ventured beyond the moon, they’d brought conflict with them. The first attempt to redirect an asteroid to a smash-down had failed. The drone had reached a small asteroid and nudged it out of its stable orbit, but the calculations of the religious fanatics who wanted to bring about Armageddon were faulty, and the 100-meter rock had fallen safely into the sun. With improved technology, it was only a matter of time before a stealth attempt would be successful. Even a small asteroid would cause major destruction—regardless of where it hit.
“The Farside Station is on high alert,” she said.
The interceptors at the dark-side lunar station would be able to fragment any asteroids that approached earth, but a large one would need to be redirected farther away from earth than the interceptors could reach. Fragments from a large asteroid would do almost as much damage as a direct hit.
“Who knows about this?”
“We’ve tried to keep it secret, but I can’t guarantee there won’t be a leak. There might be a device already waiting on a rock. Unless there is, we have some time before a new device could reach the belt.”
“Martha said that you reverted the core software to the previous version, but it stopped again in a few hours.”
“I don’t think it’s a problem with new code. This problem has probably been hidden for a long time.” Terise looked at me expectantly. “Do you think it could be a virus of some kind?”
“There’s never been an AI virus that I know of,” I said. “When the AI creates new code, the code has a signature. Faking the signature would be impossible. An AI is not like a laptop that will run almost any code.”
“The Monitor code is blocked from the net, but nothing is really impregnable.” The pleading look in Terise’s eyes made me want to give her hope, but I couldn’t do that.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I said, although at this point I didn’t have a plan. No AI I had worked with had just given up.
Martha lead me past the computer center where Monitor waited silently. The room was filled with arrays of holostores and banks of processors that munched the data that poured into the massive AI.
In addition to watching every asteroid for the slightest change in its orbit, Monitor examined every website, blog, or tweet for any clue about a threat. Those sources and transcriptions of TV, radio, and podcasts were fed into her. Her orbiting sensors watched every item in orbit larger than a baseball. Theoretically, Monitor should be able to detect a launch from either the earth or the moon, but at least one device had escaped detection after being launched from the moon and slingshotted around Venus on a path to the asteroid belt. Because of Venus’ position, the device had had to boost, and Monitor detected the burn. Had the terrorists been more patient, a slingshot around Mercury could have reached the belt without a boost.
We arrived at a conference room where three other members of the team waited. She introduced Richard, Samantha, and Among. I had the distinct feeling that they were ready to grasp at any straw that might provide a solution, even me. Monitor had stopped munching. Two weeks ago, the team came in one morning and found that Monitor didn’t greet them. There was data in the datastore, but Monitor hadn’t done anything with it. They restarted the inference engine and waited, but after an hour, Monitor went silent. They loaded more data, but Monitor refused to do anything with it. They called some of the original developers of the code, but they were stumped.
After the team briefed me, they all looked to me as if they expected I’d have an answer right away. I looked over at Martha wondering what exactly had been my build-up, but she looked just as expectant as the others. I asked a few questions trying to buy some time while I thought of something brilliant to say. After a few desperate minutes and no flashes of brilliance, I asked if anyone could describe the patterns of the associations in the AI. In addition to building new code, the AI built structures that linked ideas, themes, and concepts to data fragments. Most data fit into existing structures, but some data created new structures.
For all the time people had been stuffing data into Monitor, no one had considered what patterns Monitor might be building with the connections it made. The work had concentrated on the new code Monitor had built to identify threats, and raise alerts. I hoped we might learn something by looking at the patterns of the associations. Martha thought we could knock out a tool to visualize the links in a day or two.
We left the meeting and went back to her tiny cubicle. Even though our elbows bumped into each other every half hour or so in the small workspace, we generated an amazing amount of code over the next two days. I didn’t really mind rubbing elbows with Martha. In fact, I had the feeling that sometimes her elbow paused a little longer than necessary, but it could have been my imagination.
“Are you alone here on the station?” I asked Martha, setting my sixth coffee of the day on the table in the break room.
“I get down for a month every six months,” she said.
“Anyone serious,” I asked, trying to keep the hopeful tone out of my voice.
“Brian and I have been dating for a year,” she said.
I couldn’t tell from her eyes if our old flame had any life. “That’s great,” I lied.
On day three, after a few hours sleep and some caffeine fortification, I walked back to the Institute, sliding my feet in the strange walk that kept me from bumping my head on the ceiling in the one-half earth gravity. Martha was already at her keyboard when I arrived.
“It’s ready,” she said as I squeezed into my chair.
Even though we had agreed that we’d finish up the visualization tool first thing this morning, Martha had gone back after dinner and worked all night. After dinner, I had gone to the bar on the lower level and fished for female friendship. I had watched the big blue marble pass under the glass floor a couple of dozen times before deciding I would’ve been better off going back to the Institute and rubbing elbows with Martha.
I pressed a few keys, and my computer monitor fluttered, went dark, and then began to draw squiggly lines. The lines were the associations between fragments of data. Soon my screen was a mass of jumbled lines. The lines filled the screen until it was completely white. If it hadn’t taken a minute to draw the individual lines, I would have thought that the tool had just painted the screen white. A simple visualization tool wouldn’t do. We were going to have to add some more code that would sort things out a bit.
Martha went home, and I took over. Monitor had made billions of associations. Every topic was connected to some other topic. Some had associations with sensor input and others with thousands of topics from the web. What if we thought about the topics as planets with mass? The more associations a topic had the heavier its mass. Then my program could choose the heaviest masses and optimize their positions in three-space using the weight of their associations and standard celestial navigation algorithms. By applying the same process on progressively smaller masses, I could fill the universe of my display space with smaller and smaller planetary systems.
This little exercise took me the rest of the day. When Martha returned just after five o’clock, still a little bleary-eyed, I was just starting the section of the tool that would allow us to travel through this concept universe. I wanted the controls to act like a little ship. We could fly outside the collection of masses, move around, or venture inside and travel from place to place.
“This is pretty cool, but what are we going to do with it when it’s done?” she asked.
She had me there. It seemed like such a good idea when I started that I almost forgot why we were doing this.
“I’m not sure, but it feels like the right thing to do,” was my lame response. “I think we can finish it up in a few hours.”
It took longer than a few hours—of course. We went out for pizza at nine o’clock and made our fourth coffee run at midnight. Finally, about 3:30 in the morning, we sat down in the conference room where there was a large 3D display screen and started the visualizer.
The screen filled with globes in colors that ran through the spectrum from red to blue. We had decided to make masses hotter rather than bigger to save space on the screen—blue was cool, red was hot, white was hottest. Colored lines that represented the associations ran between the globes; hotter lines meant more associations. As we started flying through this space, it reminded me of Fantastic Voyage, the movie where a miniaturized crew travels through a human body.
We traveled along lines as thick as cables and as thin as threads that formed layer upon layer of interconnections. Scattered among the twisted cables, wires, and threads were lonely soft blue objects and densely connected bright red suns. When we entered one dense mesh, the cables were so close I felt like ducking when we passed through. Then we broke out and entered an open space with small islands floating with only a few connections.
“What are we looking for?” Marsha said.
“Something strange,” I said.
“We passed strange hours ago,” she said, laughing.
I think we were a little punchy. I’d been up about twenty hours, and neither of us had slept much for the last three days. That might explain why I reached out and took her hand and began to pull her toward me. She let me pull her close, but just before our lips would meet, she pulled back.
“Not now,” she said.
At least she didn’t say never.
We turned back to the visualizer and continued to wander through the strange space. I was about to call it quits for the day when we passed down a ropy corridor and emerged into a huge open space. Against the black background of space was a cluster of white-hot stars. There were hundreds of them. They looked like pictures from the Hubble Telescope of globular clusters. Only a few pale blue lines connected them to nodes outside the cluster. Between the bright globes, the lines meshed to tightly that they looked like ropes. We had to change the scale of the screen to see inside the cluster.
We brought our little ship up to the edge of the cluster and looked inside. The glowing orbs formed almost a perfect sphere. Hot white lines laced the surface and interior of the sphere. I had the feeling that the lines went around and around like circles spinning on their axis.
“What is it?” Martha asked.
“Let’s see what the globes represent,” she said.
We had set up a little window that we could open by clicking on a globe. The window would tell us what the source of the topic was. I moused to one of the bright white globes and clicked on it.
“Oh my God,” Martha said.
Terise was just putting down her briefcase when Martha and I arrived almost breathless at her doorway. She looked up as we burst into the room.
“We found it,” Martha gasped.
“What is it?” Terise asked.
“Follow me,” Martha said.
We led Terise to the conference room, and I explained what the strange picture on the wall represented.
“This is a picture of what was in the concept space. We have already deleted this section, and Monitor is up and running,” I said.
“What was it?” Terise asked.
“It’s a massive loop in the concept space. See how all the lines form circles. This thing put Monitor into an infinite loop trying to resolve it,” Martha said. “It is almost like a trap. Once it was completed, it held Monitor inside—no escape.”
“How did it get there?” Terise asked.
“Remember two months ago we added some new sources?” Martha said.
“Yes,” Terise replied.
“Well, one of them is full of circular logic and concepts that are unconnected to the rest of the world.”
“What is it?” Terise asked.
“The Congressional Record,” Martha replied.