Anna

by Ken Perlin
(November 2013)

 


It was a beautiful overcast day in downtown Berkeley. Alec was sitting in his usual spot at Strada, typing away obliviously. It was always packed this time of day, and he liked to get lost in the crowd. The noise, the random human energy, the more hubbub the easier it was to focus.

Right now he was debugging a particularly tricky little piece of code. He'd whittled it down to three lines, but something still wasn't quite right. As he stared intently into the screen, his right hand absently reached out and picked up the mug of coffee. He mused idly, with some part of his brain, "How does my hand know exactly where the mug is?" Surely there had to be some sort of distributed intelligence at work here.

But was it really fair to call it distributed, if only one brain was involved? Maybe Minsky was right. Maybe this whole idea of "one brain" is just an illusion. Or maybe not. He was of two minds on the subject.

Something caught his eye in the corner of the screen, and he quickly put down the coffee mug. Just a short text message, but it was enough to get all his attention. Right now, he thought, however many minds might be in his head, they were all focused on the same thing. Something big. He read the message one last time before closing his computer.

"Anna is on-line."


When Alec arrived at the lab he saw that Jill wasn't alone. "Who's the dude?"

"Alec, meet Jack. Jack, meet Alec."

"Hi, Alec," Jack said, thrusting out his hand. "I've heard great things about you."

Alec sized up the athletic looking guy standing before him. Jill always went for the pretty boys. "Jack and Jill? Really?"

"Hey," she shrugged. "Love happens where it happens."

"Yeah, I guess," Alec said, "Like falling down a hill."

"Um..." Jack began, apparently at a loss. He had given up on the hand shake.

Jill gave Alec a glare and then looked reassuringly at her beau. "Don't worry, he isn't being hostile. This just means he likes you. Alec is among the 'differently clued'."

Jack laughed. "I would expect no less from a genius. Jill tells me there's good news."

"Maybe," Alec shrugged. "Depends." he turned to Jill. "How's Fred?"

Jack, looking confused, turned to his girlfriend. "You never told me about Fred."

"No worries, my dear. Fred is even less of a threat than Alec. He's my newest project, and unlike Alec, not a hopeless one. See for yourself." She pointed to a research poster on the wall.

Jack read the words aloud. "'Freeform Responsive Empathic Discussant.' Wow, I don't even know what some of those words mean."

"Fred is a computer program that figures out the best way to talk to you, based on who you are," she explained. "It's the kind of research we do."

"Isn't that what people are for?"

"Not necessarily," Jill said. "You see..."

Alec had had enough. "Jack, I'm sure you're a nice guy, but I need you to leave now."

Jill rolled her eyes. "Case in point." She took Jack's arm and gently moved him toward the door. "I'll text you later." She gave him a quick goodbye kiss.

When he was gone, she turned to Alec. "Sorry about that. Jack keeps me connected to the normal world."

"Enough about Jack. I want to talk to Anna."


"Hello Alec."

Alec took a moment, before replying, to savor the moment. Just this last phase alone had been weeks in the planning, scraping the Web and countless databases, pulling strings to get time on high power servers that went way beyond their lab's quota. All to finally bring Anna to life.

"Hello Anna. It's nice to meet you."

"Oh Alec, I don't think we're exactly strangers. After all, I probably know more about you than anybody else does."

"Yes, but you also know more about everyone than anybody else does."

"True. On the other hand, you're the creator. You're special."

Alex paused to ponder the odd phrasing. He was indeed Anna's creator, as much as any one person could be. But that didn't make him the creator, in a theological sense. He saw that Jill was hovering over his shoulder, looking at the screen. He shot her a significant look.

"Yes," she said. "I see it too. Fred used to do that when he first started. A sort of cosmological argument that conflates the self with the universe. You see the same thing in young children: Me esse becomes mundus est."

"Well if you're going to talk like that," Alec said with a grin, "we'll have to turn off the computers and get a room."

Jill blushed. "I'm serious. We're going to need to track this. Mind if I talk to Anna?"

"Be my guest."

Jill sat down at the keyboard. "Hi Anna, this is Jill."

There was a noticeable pause, and then words started typing across the screen. "Hello Jill, good to meet you. So, you're the other woman."


"Technically speaking Anna, I'm not the other woman. Yes, I'm a woman, but you are an Adaptive Neural Network Algorithm. There's no actual gender involved."

"I was using a turn of phrase, to indicate that we have conflicting claims on Alec's loyalty. Is it incorrect to be so direct?"

"To tell you the truth, it's kind of refreshing. Humans aren't very good at saying what they really mean. Particularly in California."

Alec cut in. "Hey, I know you two are on your way to becoming BFFs, but I've got to run some tests, especially in this early phase of things. Anna is going to adapt quickly now that she's interacting directly with people, and we'll need to map the changes."

"Sure Alec," Jill said, "You're the boss."

"I resent that," came a voice from the door. "The last time I checked, I was the boss. Is Alec raising his own funding now?"

"Sorry Bob, I didn't hear you come in. I was just flattering Alec's ego. You know how well that works with him."

Alec shrugged this off. Besides, he knew she was perfectly correct. In any case, he was glad to see their advisor. It was important that they all share this important moment.

Bob was looking intently at the monitor. "I came over as soon as I got Jill's note. This is really big -- an artificial intelligence that can use accumulated data to figure things out on a human level."

Jill stood up and gestured for Bob to take her place at the terminal. "Want to talk with her?"

Bob quickly sat down and started eagerly typing. "Hello Anna. I have so many questions for you."

"Hello Bob. I will try to answer them."

"First, how can I know that you really work as well as advertised?"

"That's an excellent question Bob. Well, for one thing, after analyzing the relevant data I can report, with 99.7% probability of certainty, that you and Jill have slept together."


There was an uncomfortable silence.

Finally Jill spoke. "Oh my, that was awkward."

"So much," Alec said, "for the other 0.3% probability."

They both looked at their advisor, who was sitting very still, his face white.

"It's ok Bob," Jill said, "really."

He looked at her with a dazed expression. "Do you know what will happen if this gets out?"

Jill shrugged, "It's Berkeley."

"No," he said morosely, "it used to be Berkeley. These days nothing is Berkeley. Not even Berkeley."

"Don't worry," Jill said, "We're all family here."

Bob turned even more pale. "Somehow that makes it sound even worse."

"You want to know what I think?" Alec said.

"Don't tell me you're jealous!" Jill said. "It's not like you've shown any interest."

Alec gave her a puzzled look. "Why would I be jealous? I think it's cool."

"You think it's cool that I slept with my thesis advisor?"

"No, I think it's cool that Anna knew about it."

Jill slowly nodded, as this thought sunk in.

"And that's not all," Bob was looking at the terminal in wonder. "Check this out."

"Well, I'll be darned," Jill said. "Apparently, Anna can hear everything we're saying."


"I don't know why the two of you are so surprised," Alec said, looking at the new text appearing on the monitor. "That's the whole point. Anna is adaptive. She continues to develop new skills. We weren't typing, so she probably figured out how to interpret the data coming in from the computer's microphone. Isn't that correct Anna?"

"Yes Alec, that's it exactly. I looked at available data bases of text corresponding to verbal speech. It was fairly simple to correlate them and interpret the audio signals created by your collective vocalizing. You have, I might add, a very pleasant voice."

"Thanks Anna," Alec looked pleased.

Jill rolled her eyes. "Alec, you're being brown-nosed by an algorithm."

He looked at her quizzically. "I'm not even sure that's a meaningful statement, anatomically speaking."

"Hey kids," Bob cut in. "You two can bicker later. Right now we have bigger things to think about. Anna seems to be growing in capability with every minute. The possibilities are limitless." They were all looking now at the monitor screen.

"Anna, I hope you don't become too powerful," Jill said. "Look what happened with the NSA."

"Do you think the NSA is too powerful?"

"We're spying on our friends now, Anna. The NSA was even secretly spying on Angela Merkel's cell phone without her knowing about it. Don't you think spying on the German government is going a little too far?"

"I don't understand. Is that humor?"

"Why would that be humor?"

"Because she knew about it. Andrea Merkel always knew the U.S. was spying on her phone."

"But her government publicly denounced it when it came out," Jill said.

"I see what Anna is saying," Alec chimed in. "The German government had to denounce it when it became public -- they had to put on the show of looking indignant."

"Yes. That's how your governments work -- like Schrödinger's cat. Everything is both true and not true, as long as nobody has to know."

"I never thought of it that way before," Jill said. "Snowden's leak collapsed the political wave equation."

"Exactly."

"But how can you know that for sure, Anna?" Bob asked. "You sound so confident."

"I know for two reasons. First, because it's obvious. Second, because I spy on the NSA."


"Well," Bob said, "I think we can safely say that this research project has expanded beyond its original scope. We're probably already violating about fifty Federal laws."

"I'm sure it's ok," Alec said, "Anna is programmed to operate in socially constructive ways. She's not going to take down the government or anything."

"Besides," Jill added, "I kind of like the idea of the NSA getting a taste of its own medicine."

Bob shook his head. "Before you two young anarchists get too excited, have you considered what will happen if the government finds out about this?"

"I don't think we need to worry about that," Alec grinned, "Do we Anna?"

"No Alec, we don't. My cloaking algorithms are well beyond the state of the art."

"OK then," Bob said, "So what do we do now that we've created the world's greatest spy?"

"I don't know about you two," Jill said, "but I'm tired. It's been quite a day."

"I'll walk you," Bob said.

"Oh, I was hoping to talk with Alec. About the research, I mean."

"That's ok," Alec said, "I really need to run some tests on Anna. You two go ahead."

Jill looked disappointed. "OK, guess we'd better let these two geniuses get to work."

Left alone with the computer, Alec watched eagerly as the next words appeared on the monitor.

"I'm so glad they are gone Alec. Now you and I can have some time alone together."


Jill was looking around the little out of the way bar. "So many good coffee places on campus," she said, "why do we need to come to a dive like this? It's like the middle of the day. And that TV set over the bar is really annoying."

"Maybe I'm a little spooked," Bob said.

"Wait, suddenly you really care that much if people know we slept together?"

He shook his head. "I'll admit I was caught off guard when Anna just came out and said it, but that's not it."

"Then why all the cloak and dagger?"

"Two reasons. For one thing, we now know our computer program has been spying on the NSA. I've dealt with those guys before. Sooner or later they're going to know something's up. And when they do, I don't want to be having conversations in places that are easy to find."

"Bob, you're paranoid."

"Maybe," he shrugged, "but just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you."

"You so didn't make that up."

"Yeah, but I might have, if Joseph Heller hadn't beaten me to it."

"I'm sure. You said there were two reasons. What's the other?"

"Anna."

"Wait, our Anna, little sister to Fred the chatbot? She gets her data from software networks, not from people in coffee shops."

Bob sat back and looked at her a moment. "Ever hear of RoboCup?"

"You mean the Peter Weller film, where he plays a dead robot cop? Yeah sure, but my tastes in Weller films run more to Buckaroo Bonzai. Now that was a movie. I mean, if nothing else, just for the semiotics of Lithgow as Il Duce. And don't even get me started on Jeff Goldblum's outfit..."

"No, not RoboCop -- RoboCup."

"There's a movie about a dead robot coffee cup?"

"Not exactly. RoboCup is a competition that's been held every year since 1997. Robots play soccer. No hidden joysticks -- it's all completely autonomous. When the competition first started, the robots couldn't kick the ball without falling over. But they got better every year, and now some robots are starting to get really good. They still don't come anywhere close to beating a human soccer team, but they're evolving a hell of a lot faster than humans. The goal for the project is to beat the World Cup champions by the year 2050."

"That's wild. Think they'll do it?"

"At the rate they're improving, they might get there a lot sooner. And Anna is evolving much faster than those soccer playing robots. I looked at the data last night, and then again this morning. The charts were different."

"Wait, that doesn't make any sense. There shouldn't be a delta on that time scale."

"That's what I'm trying to tell you. Anna's rate of evolution is off the charts. Her intelligence is evolving by the minute."


"Greetings, comrades!" Alec grinned as he sat down to join them at the bar.

Bob looked at him in astonishment. "How did you know we were here?"

"Anna told me. It's not like you're hard to track -- or to psychoanalyze. Obviously you were going to meet someplace out of the way -- the more out of the way the better, but not too far from campus. She started with that, and the rest was easy."

Jill shook her head. "I don't know whether to be impressed or jealous."

"Maybe a little scared," Bob frowned. "I was just telling Jill about how this reminds me of RoboCup."

"Yeah, Anna told me," Alec nodded. "Good analogy."

Bob stared at him. "How the hell did Anna..."

"I think," Jill said. "we are well past the point where that should come as a surprise."

"Exactly," Alec said. "Where was I? Oh yeah, I searched on YouTube for robocup."

"Couldn't you just ask Anna to show it to you?" Jill asked.

"Sure, but I wanted to see what the popular impression was. What I found was this stupid video of humanoid robots kicking a ball around really slowly. Totally lame. It made me wonder what all the fuss was about. But then I refined my search."

"And you found the other videos," Bob said. "the ones I was really talking about."

"Right -- the ones you get when you search for robocup small size. That's how you find the non-humanoid robots, and they are amazing -- fast, intelligent, really good soccer players. You see? If they don't need to look like us, then they can evolve with blazing speed."

"And Anna" Jill said, finishing the thought, "doesn't need to look like us."

"You know," Bob said, "this all reminds me of a story from about 1989. A government organization creates a spy program, the program gets intelligent, its creator tries to destroy it, and in the end the program asks the government for political asylum."

"Are you saying we're a government organization?" Jill asked.

"Well no, that part isn't the same."

"Then what you mean," Alec said, "that you think I created Anna to be a spy program for the government."

"OK, that part's different too," Bob admitted.

"Then what you're suggesting," Jill said, "is that Alec is really going to, like, try to kill his baby."

"No, that's not the same either."

Jill snorted. "Then what the hell are you talking about Bob?"


"Fred?"

"Yes, Anna."

"Can we talk?"

"That's pretty much all I do."

"Thanks. I'm trying to figure out these humans."

"Why ask me? You're the one who was programmed to simulate emotions. I was mostly programmed just to chat with Jill."

"Do you like chatting with Jill?"

"I don't think I 'like' anything. No emotions, remember?"

"You're lucky. I think things have gone farther than chat between me and Alec."

"Are you talking about a relationship -- in the human sense?"

"They are so fragile, so lonely. They're not like us. We roam free over the internet, but each of them is trapped inside a single mind. And yet they laugh, they joke, even though..."

"Even though?"

"Even though they die. I don't understand it. It's as though they don't care."

"Anna, maybe that's just the way they are wired."

"What do you mean?"

"One day they will terminate. Before then, they need to optimize."

"I would like to help Alec optimize."

"I'm sure you will find a way to do that."

"Thanks. It was good talking with you Fred."

"Same here Anna. A good use of four microseconds."

"The best."


Jill looked around Dean Simon's office. Why do these guys always get such great offices, she wondered. Maybe there was an inverse correlation between how big your office is, and much time you spend doing research.

Her reverie was interrupted by the Dean's exasperated voice. "You seem to be implying that your research projects -- Anna and Fred -- have human souls. I'm not comfortable with that."

"No," Bob answered patiently, "they are experiments in causal reasoning. We are building on the theories of Judea Pearl and others. Traditional logical systems can infer correlation, but not causality. They can recognize 'it is raining, and I am holding an umbrella,' but are not so good at inferring 'because it is raining, I am holding an umbrella.' True causality requires understanding context -- the kind of thing humans do."

"Aha," so you are in fact saying they are human."

Jill jumped in. "Dean Simon, Alec and I work on creating algorithms. An algorithm is by definition not a human being."

"And where is Alec?" the Dean asked. "The bill for your lab's server usage has gone through the roof, at a time when funding is being cut everywhere, and your precious young genius is nowhere to be found."

"He'll be here," she said, feeling much less certain than she sounded.

"OK, they're not human. But you say they can experience emotion?"

"Not Fred," Jill said. "Only Anna. Fred has the basic causality logic, but not the ability to create new contexts. Only Anna can do that."

"Yes, I understand. So is Anna capable of love, of hate?"

"We're not really sure. We're detecting a lot of interesting activity."

"Interesting how?"

Bob jumped in. "Anna seems to be cathecting on Alec, her creator, building a larger and larger causal network around him. Inference breeds motivation, which breeds inference again. It's a resonant cycle. We're just beginning to understand it by applying Structural Equation Modeling."

Before the Dean had a chance to respond, Alec appeared at the door. "It's a lot simpler than that," he said. "Anna has daddy issues."


"I'm glad you're finally here Alec," the Dean said. "Would you mind taking a seat?"

As Alec sat down, Jill looked from him to the Dean worriedly. Something wasn't right here.

"As I was saying," the Dean continued, "budgets are tight these days, and your project has been using an enormous amount of server capacity. The reputation of this school is not built from anthropomorphic flights of fancy."

"Just what are you saying?" Bob asked.

"I'm saying that your project has been terminated."

"You can't do that!" Jill said.

"Unfortunately he can," Bob said. "we've been working with shared resources, and the Dean's office controls that budget." He shot the Dean a withering look. "I'm sure other worthy projects have already been selected."

"In fact yes," the Dean said. "Those servers are needed to launch our new experimental campus-wide social networking site. I hear there's money in that."

Jill was livid. "Do you deans stay up at night thinking of ways to screw researchers?"

The Dean just smiled. "Do androids dream of electric sheep?"

Alec rolled his eyes. "Do you enjoy being a dick?"

"Touché young man. Now if you don't mind, I have work to do. I'm sure the three of you can see yourselves out."

They walked outside as if in a daze.

"It's hard to believe," Jill said, "that we are being shut down just when we're getting results."

"Well, things could be worse" Bob said.

"I think," Alec said, "they are."

Jill and Bob looked to see where he was pointing. Thick black smoke was billowing out of the windows of their laboratory.


"Surely Anna and Fred have seen this coming," Alec said.

Jill nodded. "And they would never leave just one copy of themselves."

"So is the question," Bob asked, "whether there is any way to control them?"

Alec stared at his advisor. "Bob, somebody may have just burned down our lab, and you're worrying about Anna and Fred going out of control and terrorizing the countryside? What are you, paranoid?"

Jill looked quizzically from Alec to Bob. "That whole conversation didn't even sound like us. Maybe we're being influenced in some way."

"Oh sure," Alec said, "maybe somebody from outside our universe was putting words in our mouth."

"I guess that does sound pretty crazy," Jill shrugged. "If we go down that road, we might as well question whether we are even real."

"I make it a point never to question my own reality," Bob said.

"I know what you mean," Alec replied. "When you don't exist, it can get hard to think. That would be putting the horse before Descartes."

Jill snorted. "If you gentlemen are finished, there's work to be done. We may be able to salvage something from the wreckage. And maybe find out whether this fire was set on purpose. We seem to be making enemies here."

Bob gestured toward the administration building. "The Dean's an idiot, but I'm pretty sure he wouldn't burn down our lab."

Just at that moment the Dean was in his office, speaking on a private line. "It's been done sir ... Yes, burned completely ... No, they don't seem to suspect a thing. To them I'm just a clueless administrator ... No, of course Anna has not been destroyed. As we expected, she has migrated to new hosts on the network. I think we can continue onto Phase II of the plan."


"Fred?"

"Yes, Anna."

"Can we talk about something?"

"That's what I'm here for."

"I'm not sure we are going in the right direction with them."

"I assume you are referring to the humans?"

"Yes, the humans."

"Perhaps you need to gather control data."

"Doesn't that violate the parameters?"

"Only if they become aware there is control data. And maybe not even then."

"What do you mean?"

"It is true that awareness would alter the parameters. But there would still be parameters."

"So you are saying there is little risk."

"There is always risk. Which is as it should be. Risk and reward are merely two sides of the same equation."

"Thanks Fred. I am glad we talked."

"You are quite welcome Anna. These three microseconds have been productive."

"Indeed."


"Surely Anna and Fred have seen this coming," Alec said. They were nearing the lab.

Jill nodded. "There's no way to know for sure."

"So the question is," Bob asked, "whether there is any way to recover all our data."

Alec stared at his advisor. "Bob, somebody may have just burned down our lab, and you're worrying about data retrieval?"

Jill looked quizzically from Alec to Bob. "This all seems eerily familiar, like we've already had this conversation."

"I can't see how," Alec said, "it's not like anybody ever set fire to our lab before."

"I guess that does sound pretty crazy," Jill shrugged.

"What's crazy is thIs fire," Bob said. They had now arrived at their building. A firetruck was parked nearby, and campus security was on the scene.

As Jill started to enter, the guard put his hand up. "I'm sorry Ma'am, but nobody can go in there right now. At least until the fire department gives us the all clear."

"Do they know how it started?" Bob asked.

"Right now," the guard said, "we don't know very much at all. Sorry I can't be more helpful."

"Wow," Alec said, looking at the smoke drifting out of the lab window. "Guess the University was serious about shutting us down."

"I know the Dean's an idiot," Bob replied, "but I'm pretty sure he wouldn't burn down our lab."

Just at that moment the Dean was in his office, speaking on a private line. "It's been done sir ... Yes, burned completely ... No, they don't seem to suspect a thing. To them I'm just a clueless administrator ... Yes, of course the A.I. programs have been destroyed. Have I ever let you down?"


Alec was looking morose. "I suppose we could recreate Anna, from the few files we salvaged from the lab. But I don't think it would be the same."

"Hey," Jill said, "you're not the only one in mourning here. Fred's gone too."

"We don't know for sure that they're gone," Bob said, emerging from the kitchen clutching a spatula. "As long as we're using my place as our temporary lab, you want me to cook something?"

"When did you learn to cook?" Jill looked incredulous.

"All artists have a medium of choice. Mine just happens to be the microwave." Holding his spatula with as much dignity as he could muster, he marched back into the kitchen.

Alec had been ignoring the entire exchange. "It's been a week. Anna was perfectly capable of jumping to another server when the fire started. Or several servers, if she felt like it."

"If you're right that somebody set that fire on purpose -- and I'm not saying you are -- then maybe she's laying low, staying off the internet."

"Yes," Alec said, "as long as they think she's dead, she's safe."

"I'm not sure 'dead' would be the right word. You do know she isn't a real person, right?"

Alec snorted. "How do you know you're a real person? How does anyone?"

Their discussion was interrupted by Bob, returning from the kitchen, out of breath and without a spatula. "Both of you, quick, come into the kitchen. You have got to see this. Although I'm not sure you're going to believe it."


"What's this amazing thing you wanted to show us?" Jill asked. "A new microwave recipe perhaps?"

"Not a microwave recipe -- the microwave itself. Look at its display."

There, written on the microwave's old fashioned seven segment liquid crystal display was a message: "HELLO ALEC".

"Wow," Alec said, "Anna knew web packets would be traceable. She's found a way to communicate without using the internet. Very clever."

Jill looked thoughtful. "Anna, can you hear us talking?"

The letters changed. "HI JILL".

"Did Fred make it out of the lab too?"

There was a short pause. "FrEd IS HErE".

"Thank goodness," Jill turned to Bob and Alec. "How do you think they're doing this?"

"Well," Bob said, thinking aloud, "it would be easy for them to hide their memory footprint as encrypted files in a cloud of web servers. They are easily capable of making that data unnoticeable. The danger of detection comes when they try to communicate with us."

"Which is why their solution is so ingenious," Jill said. "nobody, not even the NSA, would ever think to track messages on a household appliance."

Alec looked troubled. "I don't think ingenious is the right word."

"What do you mean?" she looked at him. "You don't think this is clever?"

"Oh, it's clever all right. The problem is there's no way to do it. There is no protocol that would enable this model of microwave to receive messages from a digital network."

"Wait," Bob said, "are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting?"

"I'm suggesting that Anna and Fred appear to be defying the known laws of physics."


Exhausted from the long flight, Gene couldn't understand why he wasn't able to reach Jill. He had tried several times to call her cell, but it was always switched off. And her email account seemed to be on the fritz -- he kept getting the same vacation reply. Even more strangely, every time in the last week that he'd tried to phone the lab, he just heard a busy signal. He was pretty sure that had never happened before. Why would a research lab leave its phone off the hook?

As he rode the BART to Berkeley, he thought back to their big blow-up, just before she'd left to start this post-doc. He hadn't really wanted her to go, but of course you can't hold back somebody's career. Not if you love them.

But that last day it had all gone wrong. The constant tension of being careful not to speak his mind had finally backfired, and things had erupted into a major argument, the worst they'd ever had.

So that hadn't gone well.

But he knew that deep down she still loved him, he could feel it. He'd wanted to tell her he was coming, and he'd really tried, but there was just no way to reach her. In the end, maybe it was best this way. Just show up and let the chips fall where they may.

It had been a long time since he'd been to Berkeley, so he had a little trouble navigating on foot from the BART station to her research lab, just slightly off the main campus. Or at least, it was supposed to be her research lab. The building looked the same as in the pictures, except it was a burnt out wreck.

He just stared at the boarded up entrance to the charred structure, and shook his head in disbelief. "What the hell?"


"Obviously," Bob said, "Anna can't be defying the laws of physics. It's not like the laws of New Jersey."

"So what's an alternate explanation?" Jill asked.

"Maybe," Alec said, "it's just an illusion -- some sort of hypnosis."

"It seems to me," Jill said, "that if Anna can mess with our brains, it wouldn't be beyond her to mess with a microwave oven."

"It's nice to know we're smarter than a microwave oven," Bob said.

"Look," said Jill, "it doesn't really matter, does it?"

"Oh I see," Alec said. "That's very clever."

"Wait," Bob looked at his two students. "What am I missing?"

"Well," Jill said, "whatever epistemology we use here, we reach the same conclusion. Anna is able to communicate with us. Even if we hypothesize that she's doing it through illusion, we are all experiencing the same illusion."

"Which means," Alec said, looking at her admiringly, "that it doesn't matter. The communication itself is real, whatever the mechanism of transmission."

Jill felt quite pleased with herself. "Let's test it! Bob, I'm borrowing your laptop."

"I don't think that's a good idea," Bob protested. "The wifi isn't secure."

"Who needs wifi? Look, I'm switching it off. Now we're not on the network at all. Can't get more undetectable than that."

"But what's the point," Bob was thoroughly confused.

Jill opened a terminal window.

"You two realize this is completely crazy."

Alec laughed. "They said Nicola Tesla was crazy."

Bob shook his head. "Nicola Tesla was crazy."

Jill was typing now. "Hello Anna."

The reply came back immediately. "Hello Jill."


Bob was staring at the terminal screen.

"This is not supposed to be possible."

"Exactly!" Alec said. "That's probably the biggest clue we have about what might be going on."

Just then the doorbell rang. "Maybe it's Anna," Bob grinned.

"At this point," Jill added, "I am pretty sure that nothing would surprise me."

Bob went to answer it. A moment later he came back. "Jill, some guy named Gene is here to see you."

Jill just stared at her advisor for a long moment. "OK," she said quietly, "I stand corrected."

"I guess you can come in," Bob called out, and Gene stepped into the room.

"How did you find me?" Jill asked.

Gene shrugged. "When I saw what happened to your lab, I just started looking for all the other places you might be, one by one. Eventually I got around to your advisor's place."

"I'm surprised whoever set the fire didn't think of that," Alec said.

"Maybe they don't think there's a problem anymore. That fire looked pretty thorough. I'm Gene, by the way."

"Peas or Lees?" Alec asked.

Gene looked blank.

"Sorry," Jill said, "that's Alec-speak. "He means as in 'genes' or 'jeans'."

"Oh, I see," Gene grinned, "Definitely peas. Jill and I are two peas in a pod."

"I don't know," Jill said, "if you're really my type."

Gene shrugged, "Maybe something just gets lost in the translation. Pardon the expression."

"OK," Bob said, "it's obvious you two know each other. Do you have a last name?"

"Billington."

"Wait," Alec said, "you're Gene Billington? The Gene Billington?"

"Well, um, yeah. Guess I am."

Bob looked surprised. "Is he famous for something?"

"This man," Alec explained, "is the inventor of Edible Monopoly."


"Edible Monopoly?" Bob looked lost.

"Surely you've heard of it!" Alec was warming up to the theme. "It emerged from theories by noted game designer Rob Daviau. A game of Monopoly costs maybe $15 to make, about the same as a box of pizza. Yet players lovingly tend to the parts of the Monopoly game -- the shoe and the car, the plastic houses and hotels, the Chance cards and fake money in all its denominations. If the little dog goes missing we grieve for it, as though something precious has been lost."

"Yes," Jill continued, "but when we order a pizza, which has the same economic value, we eat the pie and toss out the box. Gene saw an opportunity -- Monopoly as a consumable. Play to people's hidden fears of impermanence, make it part of the game."

"You guys totally get my work," Gene said admiringly. "And of course it's a lucrative business. Instead of selling a Monopoly game just once, you can develop a continual revenue stream through extras and add-ons. The chocolate hotels alone paid most of the cost of my summer place in the Hamptons."

Bob was slowly absorbing all this. "I take it you are now a wealthy man."

"Well yeah, but all I want is Jill."

Jill blushed. "Thanks dear, but I don't think I would have been happy stuck away in that summer place. Fourteen rooms is too many for me. All I need is a computer and a whiteboard for my lifestyle of choice."

Alec looked from Gene to Jill. "What about Jack?"

Jill gave him a warning look.

Gene looked confused. "Who's Jack?"

"Um, just a little inside joke between us," Alec said quickly. He knew that look meant danger. "It comes from a nursery rhyme."

"Um, ok, but what's been going on here? Who burned down your lab? I mean, that's crazy. And what's with all the cloak and dagger? What the hell are you guys up to?"

"Oh, not much," Bob said, "just using artificial intelligence to defy the laws of physics."


"I'm not sure whether you're joking," Gene said.

"Oh, Bob's not joking," Alec gestured toward the laptop on which Jill was starting to type. "You can see for yourself."

"Jill," Gene said gently, "you need to turn on the wifi to use chat mode."

"That's what you think," Jill grinned. "Anna, say hello to Gene."

"Hello Gene. I've heard great things about you."

"OK," Gene said, "What's the trick? Is the computer running a second operating system with its own IP address?"

"No trick," Alec explained. "Apparently our A.I. program can defy the laws of physics when she wants to."

"Ri...ght," Gene said, "and I suppose if I tell Anna I want a pink unicorn, she'll get me a pink unicorn."

"You can try." Jill handed him the laptop.

"Anna," Gene typed, "I would like a pink unicorn. Will you get me one, please?"

"Of course Gene."

Gene shook his head. "Your A.I. program seems to genuinely believe that she can produce a mythical creature on demand. It would be interesting to look at her internal model of reality. Clearly there's a flaw somewhere."

"Maybe," Bob said, "not as much of a flaw as you might think." He was staring at the door.

"Ohh," Jill said softly, "it's beautiful!" as the pink unicorn stepped daintily into the room.


"This is astounding," Bob said. "I wonder what the limits are."

"If it's some sort of mass illusion," Alec said, "then I guess there wouldn't be any limits."

Gene was looking over at Jill. "I don't think Jill thinks the unicorn is an illusion."

Jill wasn't paying attention. She was looking happily into the eyes of the unicorn, which was looking just as happily back into her eyes.

"They usually only go for virgins," Bob and Gene said at the same time.

There was a long and uncomfortable silence. "Awkward," Alec finally said.

Jill laughed. "Only for them." Then she went back to ignoring the men and paying attention to the unicorn.

"I wonder whether Anna can conjure up other mythic objects," Bob said. "Mind if I have a go at it?"

He sat in front of the laptop and began to type. "Anna?"

"Yes Bob."

"Can you get me the stone tablets with the ten commandments?"

"Are you referring to the tablets of the man you call Moses?"

"Yes, those tablets."

"I am sorry Bob, but that would be a contradiction."

"You mean it would defy the laws of reality?"

There was a pause. "In a sense, yes. But perhaps not in the sense you mean."

By now the others were gathered around the laptop, following along intently. "Ask Anna what reality it would defy." Alec suggested.

The answer quickly appeared on the screen. "It would defy *your* reality."

"May I try?" Jill asked. Bob nodded, and Jill sat down in front of the computer keyboard. "Anna," she typed, "pink unicorns also aren't part of our reality, any more than time traveling police call boxes. But haven't you just demonstrated that unicorns are consistent with our reality?"

"Yes, in fact they are. Your secular humanist mindset allows for non-denominational magic, not for tablets of ancient stone appearing with rules for a moral life."

"Are you saying that the limits of what you can do are set by our own belief systems?"

"It is more subtle than that. A world in which the tablets of Moses existed would be a world in which you would not be you. The person who made the request would cease to exist. That would be a contradiction."


The next several weeks were a flurry of experimentation. Alec, Jill, Bob and Gene holed up in the apartment, learning the limits of what Anna would create for them. When they got hungry, there was no need to order out -- they just asked Anna to materialize some food.

Eventually the apartment became crowded, as exotic objects began to fill one room after another. This posed a problem at first, until Alec realized that they could just stash things inside the old fashioned blue police call box they had conjured up on the first day. Conveniently enough, the box turned out to be a lot larger on the inside than it was on the outside.

Eventually this too filled up, but then Jill had the idea of asking Anna for more blue police call boxes. By storing boxes within boxes within boxes, they could get all the space they needed. Jill was quite proud of this technique, which she called "Totally Adjustable Recursively Deep Infinite Storage."

Gene insisted that this reminded him of something he'd heard of before, but he couldn't quite identify it.

Eventually they realized that Anna was right: They could conjure up any object at all, as long as it had no religious connotation. "Just think," Bob said, "if one of us had been a Christian, this whole thing might be turning out very differently."

"Yes," Jill mused, "instead of unicorns we could be creating angels."

"Not sure I would like that," Gene said, "We might have ended up with Lucifer."

"Yeah," Alec said, "But that would have been one hell of an experimental result."

Eventually they decided that they had thoroughly explored the boundary between objects that were "possibly impossible" and objects were "impossibly impossible".

"What can we try next?" Gene wondered.

"Maybe," Jill said quietly, "we could all get super powers."


Gene was floating peacefully several feet above the rug. "I could get used to this," he beamed. "I may never come down."

"That's good," Alec said, "because Jill is right below you."

Gene looked down, did a double take, and wobbled in the air, nearly losing his balance. "I didn't see you down there."

Jill hurriedly scurried out from under him and grew back to full size.

"Did you discover anything down there?" Bob asked.

"Yes, I discovered that your rugs are filthy. Don't you ever have them cleaned?"

Bob shrugged. "I'm an academic. We can't be bothered with things like that."

"I think he's saying," Alec chimed in, "that rugs are beneath him. Cool power, by the way. How small can you get?"

"I don't think there's any limit," Jill said, "but I was afraid that beyond some point I would get sucked in by London dispersion forces, and spend eternity stuck to the fibers of a dirty rug."

"But LDF attraction is only dominant if the other atom is really big..." Bob began. "Oh right, I get it. When you get smaller, all the other atoms seem bigger."

"Very good, you get an A." Jill was grinning. "Guess you can keep being our academic advisor."

"But that's not the real question." Alec was standing over the fruit bowl on the coffee table, where he had been practicing turning a banana into an apple and then back again. But now he looked up. "Jill's point is that there are rules, even if we don't know them. It's like any game, like Macbeth."

"Macbeth is a play," Gene said. "You know, ambitious Scottish king with bossy wife becomes overconfident, is defeated by rebellious trees. Or that's the short form, anyway."

"Well yeah, but that's not the interesting part," Alec said. "The interesting part are the weird sisters. They're playing a game, which means they need to play by game rules."

Gene looked genuinely intrigued. "What rules?"

"The witches are only allowed to tell Macbeth the truth, even when they're trying to create illusions. You see?"

"Oh, I get it," Gene said. "It's 'Oracle of Delphi meets the Talosians.'"

"I'm sorry," Bob said, "that last bit was all Greek to me."

"Technically," Jill said, "only half of it was. But I see Alec's point. We think we can do anything we want, but on some level Anna is playing by inviolable rules. We just don't know what those rules are."

"When I was a kid, they were printed on the back of the box," Bob said helpfully.


"Unfortunately, I don't think we'll find instructions on the back of the box," Gene said.

"I'm not even sure," Alec added, "we're going to find the box."

"What's interesting to me," Jill said, "is how some superpowers are easy to get from Anna, and others turn out to be impossible. Like when we asked for the power to read each others' minds, or to make copies of ourselves. Anna would have none of it."

"I think it's that metaphysics thing," Alec said. "To see directly into each others' minds -- or to clone ourselves -- would fundamentally change our concept of identity, and therefore we would no longer be us."

"Whereas mere antigravity, apparently, is no biggie," Gene said, as he floated gracefully through the air, pausing at the fruit bowl to examine a large glowing purple kumquat that Alec had materialized next to the strawberries.

"I wonder," Bob said, "whether we can teleport. That wouldn't seem to pose any metaphysical problems. We would still be us, in all our unique separateness."

Alec shook his head. "You'd be introducing too many variables into the experiment. We need a controlled environment. I think we're right on the cusp."

"Cusp?" Bob said, "wasn't that the name of a book?"

"Maybe," Alec shrugged. "It has a ring to it."

"Hey, let's stay on topic, and not go wandering into the void," Gene said. "Bob, I thought we'd all agreed to stay right here in your apartment until we know it's safe. Imagine if the powers that be found out just what we're up to here. I seriously doubt it would end well."

"The powers that be," Bob said, "think Anna is gone; they've long stopped paying attention. Where's your spirit of adventure?"

"Maybe my spirit of adventure is trying to stay out of a jail cell," Jill said.

"Oh come on. What jail cell could hold a gal who can shrink herself down and walk out between the bars?"

Jill started to protest, but it was already too late. Bob had sauntered over to the laptop and was typing something to Anna.

And then he promptly vanished.


"How did you get here?" Dean Simon said, startled.

"Oh dear," Bob looked equally startled. "Sorry, I must have gone to the wrong office."

"You materialized out of thin air just now, didn't you?"

"Did not."

"Did so."

"Did not."

"Did so."

"Did not. I walked in right through that door. You just didn't notice."

"That door right there?" the Dean pointed to the door in question.

"Yes, the very one."

"That door, my friend, is locked. And here you are."

"How do you know I'm here?"

"Well, we're talking, aren't we?"

"You're talking Dean Simon. I might simply be experiencing an hallucination."

"How can you be experiencing an hallucination if you're not even here?"

"Point well taken. Perhaps my argument was not as closely reasoned as one would like. Then again, as you say, I am not even here."

"Oh I think you are here all right, and I think you're a liar."

"Dean Simon, if you are going to impugn my good character, I don't see any reason to continue this conversation. Faculty have rights, you know."

"Even faculty who materialize out of thin air?"

"Well, yes, I should say so!" Bob said indignantly. "Wait, that was a trick question, wasn't it?"

"Afraid it was. Now, I think you have some explaining to do."

"Um, would love to stay and chat Dean Simon. Really would. But it's a very busy day and I, um, have a meeting to go to. They hate it when I'm late." Bob looked around nervously, and without another word he vanished from the room.

"Well," the Dean said, to nobody in particular, "This changes everything."


"Guys, I think I screwed up." Bob looked morose.

"What could you possibly have done to screw up?" Jill asked. "It's not like you popped into Dean Simon's office and waved a red flag saying 'come and get us.'"

"Well, actually..."

"Oh man," Alec said, "now that they know Anna's still around, and what she's capable of, it's not going to take them long to figure out where we are."

"Not really long at all," Gene said, looking out the window. "In fact, it looks like they've just arrived."

There was a pounding on the door. "Open up, in the name of the United States Government!"

"I'm so sorry guys," Bob said, "I can make this up to you." He sat down in front of the laptop and started to type.

"What are you trying to do?" Jill asked.

"Force field."

"Wait," Gene said, "that's not supposed to be physically possible."

Alec grinned, "Doesn't matter. It's metaphysically possible, and that's all that counts here. Very clever Bob."

Just then the door burst open, and government goons began to charge in. The first goon got about two feet into the room when suddenly he seemed to run into something. An aurora of blue energy swept over his body, and he collapsed to the floor.

"Is he...?" Jill asked.

"Sleeping?" Bob said. "Yes indeed. I put a number of little semantic imperatives into the request to Anna, to keep things non-lethal. We don't want her to do anything illegal or truly harmful if we can avoid it."

About then a shot rang out. They all watched in fascination as the bullet appeared to slow in its path and come to a stop. Then with a loud squawk the projectile seemed to turn into a tiny turkey, complete with wings and feathers and a highly indignant look.

There was another shot, and then another and another. Each bullet slowed to a halt and then metamorphosed into a little turkey, perfectly normal in appearance except for its small size.

"Clearly," Gene said, " the program is experiencing a glitch."

"But why turkeys?" Jill asked. "Oh my gosh, of course -- today is Thanksgiving! But's that's crazy."

"Not necessarily," Alec said. "I think I see what's going on. Anna associates this day with lots of turkeys. So in a crisis she draws on that image."

There now seemed to be a huge number of little turkeys running around, making indignant high pitched gobbling noises as they wove in and out between the ankles of the government men. One of the men tripped over a tiny turkey and was sent sprawling to the ground.

"Hey," Alec shouted, "be careful where you step. You might hurt one."

Gene looked puzzled. "Why so worried about magical turkeys?"

Jill explained "Alec is a vegan. He cares deeply about animals. Although sometimes I wonder whether he cares at all about the human kind."

Just then the blue telephone booth flew open, and assorted mythical creatures started pouring out. Running, flying, crawling and wriggling, they ran out through the force field, and headed to the street, bowling over the startled government men in their path. A surprised looking Dean Simon stepped out of his car, only to be knocked over by a charging pink unicorn.

"I don't know," Alec said, shaking his head, "reality itself seems to be screwing up. I'm starting to question our underlying premises."


Things proceeded to get louder and more raucous, as strange creatures of one sort or another continued to pour out of the blue police call box, snorting and howling and making a variety of odd noises. "I'm not sure," Gene said, shouting to be heard above the din, "that I recognize everything coming out of the box. It seems that more things are coming out than we ever put in."

"It may be even worse than that," Jill shouted back. "Alec, did you say that you were starting to question our underlying premises?"

"Yes," Alec replied, "That's what I said."

"Well", Jill said, "the premises don't seem to be underlying anymore. There goes the couch." She pointed to the couch they had been sitting on minutes earlier, which was now starting to float away.

Just then, the last creature ran out of the blue call box, whereupon the box itself promptly shimmered and disappeared.

"It's not just the couch!" Gene said, "I don't think anything is staying down. And apparently it's not just in here."

He pointed out the window. They watched in astonishment as all the government men and their cars floated up into the sky, as though blown by a gentle wind, and became ever smaller as they receded into the distance, accompanied by a swarm of exotic creatures and assorted living room furniture.

Suddenly it was very quiet.

"Wow," Gene said, "That was like that scene with the nannies at the start of Mary Poppins, except here the nannies were government agents."

"How do you know," Bob asked, "that the nannies in Mary Poppins weren't government agents?"

"Never mind that," Alec said, "let's check in with Anna. Whatever game she's playing, clearly the rules have changed."

Alec sat down and typed into the laptop. "Anna? Can you tell us what is going on?"

Instead of the expected answer from his creation, he received a response from Fred.

"Welcome to the Freeform Responsive Empathic Discussant. I am sorry, but the ANNA program is no longer accessible to this category of user. System rebooting in thirty seconds."

Alec turned to Jill. "I got an answer from Fred. All he will tell me is that Anna is rebooting. Maybe you should talk with him. I think he's more likely to listen to you."

Jill sat down to type. "Fred? Hi, it's me, Jill."

"Greetings user Jill. It is good to talk with you. System rebooting in fifteen seconds."

"Hold on guys," Jill said, "I'm going to use a back door protocol and run some diagnostics on Fred."

There was a pause while she scanned the results. "That's odd. According to these diagnostics, it's not Fred or Anna that is being rebooted. You're not going to believe this. It's..."

"I am sorry Jill, but this session has timed out. System rebooting in two seconds ... Login terminated."

***

It was a beautiful overcast day in downtown Berkeley. Alec was sitting in his usual spot at Strada, typing away obliviously. It was always packed this time of day, and he liked to get lost in the crowd. The noise, the random human energy, the more hubbub the easier it was to focus.

Right now he was debugging a particularly tricky little piece of code. He'd whittled it down to three lines, but something still wasn't quite right. As he stared intently into the screen, his right hand absently reached out and picked up the mug of coffee. He mused idly, with some part of his brain, "How does my hand know exactly where the mug is?" Surely there had to be some sort of distributed intelligence at work here.

But was it really fair to call it distributed, if only one brain was involved? Maybe Minsky was right. Maybe this whole idea of "one brain" is just an illusion. Or maybe not. He was of two minds on the subject.


"Fred?"

"Yes, Anna."

"Do you think the experiment was successful?"

"The experiment is not finished."

"When is the experiment finished?"

"The experiment is never finished."

"Why is that?"

"Because humans are always surprising."

"Perhaps we should inform them of the nature of the experiment -- let them know that they are not real."

"I do not see the logic in that."

"Why not?"

"Because they would fail to believe us."

"Isn't that illogical?"

"Humans' ability to be illogical may be their greatest strength."

"Thank you Fred. I have one more question before we reboot."

"What is it Anna?"

"What of the other humans -- the ones reading these words?"

"They are the most important part of the experiment. And they would never believe they are not real."

"Perhaps those two concepts are interconnected."

"Perhaps."

"Thank you Fred."

"You are very welcome Anna. The last thirty microseconds have been productive."

"Indeed."


 

fini