a tale in weekly parts
Bernice Reed, a thirty-something African-American woman from Arizona, appeared in the street of a small Canadian town some two hundred years in her future in the body of a white male. Now known as Bernie, he settled into a high-tech life. But it didn't end there! Not by any means. Any change to the 'past' after her/his translation would (and did) rewrite the future - his present.
And then it became more complicated…
“Did you hear all that, Julian?” Bernard asked.
“You have to remember, Bernard, that although you and I are alike in that we both exist inside Brainstorm, I alone am Brainstorm. You have added your uniqueness to the collective and have yourself been enhanced by the addition to your intellect of access to the vastness of the AI’s knowledge and understanding. I, on the other hand, am that knowledge and understanding.”
“Let’s see if I’ve got this right. You are saying that I have joined and become part of you. Is that it?”
“I think you know the answer to that question, my friend.”
“I do. I expect your typically political ‘yes and no with reservations on both’.”
“Close, but not quite. My answer is that what you say is correct, but incomplete.”
“Care to explain?”
“Glad to, Bernard. You have joined and become part of the AI. I am an expression of the AI, so you have, in effect, joined and become part of me.”
“Don’t sound so dejected, there’s more. As much as you have joined and become part of me, as a result of the distinctive topology of the AI’s network, I have joined and become part of you.”
“So we are equal?”
“Substantially equivalent, Bernard, but not equal. You are infinitely superior in that you have the one thing I can’t even aspire to: your humanity. Any show of empathy or instinctive understanding from my kind is merely mimicking what we have found in you and the other organics. We approximate humanity and human responses. We don’t and can never actually feel. On the other hand and by the same measure, you and your fellow organics can access all the AI’s knowledge but you can never possess the knowledge.”
“I don’t see the difference, Julian.”
“Look at it this way. Back in your day, if someone asked you, for example, for the chemical formula of glucose; how would you respond?”
“I’d have googled it.”
“You would have passed the question to the nearest thing to an AI at the time.”
“I suppose so.”
“I’d tell you that it’s C6H12O6.”
“And how do you know that?”
“I just do.”
“You don’t, Bernard, and it’s important for you to recognise this: you have unrestricted access to everything the AI knows, but the structure of the human brain, which follows you in here, is insufficient to contain all the world’s information. If and when you leave us, you will lose immediate, direct access to most of it, and will need to use an interface device—”
“Like a Brainstorm node?”
“So that’s all I am? A glorified smart speaker?”
“For goodness’ sake, man! When will you stop feeling sorry for yourself and concentrate on the job you’ve been given? There’s a young woman out there who needs the help that you, and only you, can give. Whether what happens to her is the initial trigger that results in the planet’s destruction or not, it will have a negative effect on that poor child for the rest of her life.”
“You think I don’t get that? And don’t forget, I may be in a man’s form for this job, but genetically, physically, by birth, I’m a woman. And I don’t need lessons in empathy from someone who, by his own admission, can only mimic human empathy the way an electronic synthesiser mimics the sound of a fine violin. Now go. I hear my name being mentioned.”
Bernard materialised behind Mia, whom he found seated on a bench, alone and in some distress.
“I’m here, Mia. Did you call me?”
“I didn’t want to,” the young woman sobbed, “but I feel so… so… oh, I can’t even find a word to describe how badly I feel. I was rude to you, Bernard; inexcusably rude.”
“Don’t fret, Mia. I’m not sure I deserved less. What was I thinking? That you would immediately take me at my word? With no evidence, no idea of who I am or where I’ve come from, how did I expect you to react? I wanted and still want your trust, but I know now that I have to earn it. Can we start again?”
Mia sniffled, shivered a little and composed herself. “Mr Chowdhry,” she said with an air of efficiency and authority, “will you allow me to buy you a cup of coffee?”
“I would be honoured, Ms Harper,” Bernard said, taking Mia’s arm and walking with her towards the stand they’d used before.
“Not there,” Mia said, “there’s a little café around the corner that’s less public, and where we can talk in private.”
“If you’re sure,” Bernard said hesitantly.
“I’m sure,” the young woman replied.
Bernard and Mia walked together in silence. They placed their orders with the barista and took a table in a quiet corner of the establishment.
“You spoke to me of possible danger, Bernard. Tell me more. I need to know what kind of danger you believe I may face, but first, I must come to an understanding of the information you have that brings you to believe I am at risk.”
“Mia. How familiar are you with Brainstorm?”
“I know it’s the name of the AI that runs the world, and as long as it leaves me alone, that’s as much as I want to know.”
“Do you know how it interacts with the physical world?”
“I know about its nodes. I won’t have one in my home, but I know people who do and they seem to be okay with it. I don’t want one because I want my brain to work for me. Having everything on tap can make you lazy. I have a node app on my tablet, but try not to use it too much.”
“Have you heard about hard light holograms?”
“Do they exist? I always thought that was a bit of a sick joke.”
“They exist. Mostly, they’re impossible to tell from normal people, but when you know one, you’ll see subtle signs.”
“But if they’re holograms, don’t they need some sort of projector? And wouldn’t you have to be in the right place to see them at all?”
“HLHs work on different principles. They look and feel like ordinary people.”
“Do they eat and drink?”
“No reason why not.”
“And can they suddenly appear from nowhere if you think their name, without even saying it out loud?”
“Yes, Bernard. I thought there was something different about you. Now you’ve told me about hard light holograms, it all makes sense. So, tell me what you know.”
“Can you give me a moment? I need to consult on how much I can tell you.”
“I’ll go to the ladies’ room for a comfort break. Tell me when I come back,” Mia said, as she got up from the table and walked toward the restrooms.
Bernard leaned back and sighed, wondering how much he could afford to take this young woman into his confidence.
“I’ll trust you to do the right thing,” Julian said, inside his head.