||Modified image of Judith Shea's "Post-Balzac" from The Hirshhorn Sculpture Gardens, Washington, DC. Photo by Brian Nelson.
|Chapter 4: The Race
|Alexandria, VA and Washington, DC
|Phase I Deadline – 14 months, 20 days
“Nanocomputers will be smaller than synapses, and assembler built wires will be thinner than the brain’s axons and dendrites. It seems that a structure similar to the brain will fit in less than a cubic centimeter…[and will be] over ten million times faster than the human brain….Every ten seconds, [this] system completes as much design work as a human engineer working eight hours a day for a year (now worth tens of thousands of dollars). In an hour, it completes the work of centuries. For all its activity, the system works in a silence broken only by the rush of cooling water.”
—K . Eric Drexler, 1986
“Genetics. I’m telling you, Hopkins has got to get Bartlett to put more resources into genetics. That’s the only way to stay ahead,” Jane said.
Eddie glanced at Berney and Eric incredulously. “You’re crazy. A.I. is how you stay ahead and how you win.” Eddie took a big gulp of his beer to punctuate his declaration, then looked at Jane sharply, ready for her retort.
Jane threw up her hands. “Oh, for Christ’ sake!” she began. “You never listen to me? Berney, please tell el gordito here that without biology as a model, artificial-fucking-intelligence wouldn’t exist.”
"Don’t look at me,” Berney said. “I just take care of the LAN.” Eric suppressed a laugh. Jane, he thought, so uninhibited with her expletives. The result of growing up an army brat and her father wanting a boy.
In the face of Berney’s retreat, Jane turned to Eric for support. But before he could speak, Eddie interjected: “Oh, Hill’s just gonna say we are both wrong and that nanotech is the only way to win, aren’t you? We all want the funding for our own field.
But Eric shook his head. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said dramatically. “Eddie’s right. The key to winning is getting the A.I. systems to do the work for us—for all of us.”
“Ah, ha! See?” Eddie exclaimed, “Thank you, Dr. Hill,” then, turning to Jane, he said, “You see, my redneck Amazonian, even the nanotech guy says A.I. is the way to go. Think about it. The next generation of AI systems will do more genetics in an hour than you do in a month. That’s the beauty of it.” He paused. “And to think, I’ve been doing my own thinking all these years like a fool.”
Jane gave Eric a snotty little wiggle with her nose, then in case her meaning was unclear, raised her index finger. “It will never be the same,” she said.
The four of them sat around a pitcher of beer at the Chart House in Alexandria, directly across the river from the lab. Eric looked around the table at each of them. They were the post-docs, the lower decks, the grunts. Expendable. They all knew it. NUBs like them came and went all the time. And every one of them poured everything they could into the Replication Project in the hopes they would survive another purging. It didn’t make sense to get too close to people because every month you had to prepare yourself for the shame of being fired, had to prepare yourself to say goodbye. This, Eric realized, was somehow exactly why they had been so quick to band together.
Eddie Lee was a computer nerd and proud of it. Short and pudgy, he wore Spider Man ties and eyeglasses that bent light—100 megahertz of pure geek. For him, having to work with cognitive systems on the A.I. team was like making a child live in FAO Schwartz. He was in a permanent state of diversion—always meddling, joking, and playing around. Korean-American, he had been adopted by Irish-American parents, last name Lee. He was always explaining that. “Really, I’m Irish.”
Eric liked him tremendously. He had a playfulness to his banter, always teasing. That’s why he could say things like Amazonian redneck and get away with it. There was always something about how he said it, a smile, a wink, an invisible suffix, just kidding.
But Eric was the most fond of Jane. They ate lunch or took breaks together almost every day. She was hilarious. But it was more than the expletives and the military jargon (clusterfuck, TARFU, smelling apple pie), it was what she talked about. As soon as she left the lab her entire vocabulary switched from one full of karyotypes, direct sequencing, and retroviral infections to one full of head gaskets, draft beers, and pornography. A girl who you could talk to like a boy—no man-topic was off limits.
It was all there in their first meeting:
During his second week at the lab, she had ducked into his cube. “Hey, I know you don’t know me, but I need a big favor.”
There she suddenly was, all six feet of her. Short blonde hair and no make-up. He sized her up. Pretty, yet somehow still a bit awkward in her skin. Dressed with a hodge-podge of influences—completely utilitarian. Expensive running shoes, camo pants, A&F t-shirt, and Eric caught a glimpse of a stud on her tongue. She looked toned, very fit, almost tough. He would later learn she was a total body nazi: marathons, triathlons, you name it.
“That depends on what the favor is,” Eric said.
“Here, this is Olex’s cell phone number. I’m leaving town for the weekend and I have to get out of the building without him seeing me. Call him for me and find out where he is. Make up a story. Tell him you need supplies or something; anything. If he sees me leaving, I’m dead.”
“Ah,” Eric said, pulling out his phone. “You’re in luck. I have a trick for you.” He thumbed in a few commands on his phone. Then he held up the display to show her. “Olex is up on Connecticut Avenue, north of Woodley Park. He must be at home.”
“Wait, Olex’s phone is encrypted. You’re GPSing people without their permission?
Eric gave her a knowing smile.
“That’s illegal,” she said, obviously shocked, “and super-illegal on base.”
Eric’s smile vanished. If she told the marines, he’d be in serious trouble.
“Very cool,” she said with a big grin. She’d been playing him.
Eric exhaled and laughed. “Technically, I’m GPSing his phone’s IP address, not the phone.”
She gave him a “yeah, right, buddy”-kinda look. “Call it want you want, it’s totally illegal.” Then she smiled again. “But you’re awesome and you’ve saved me.” Then she punched him in the arm as if they were two guys in a locker room, threw her weekend bag over her shoulder and was out the door.
An ally against Olex was a friend for life.
The friendship between the four of them had taken a little longer. It had come together on the Fourth of July, two days before their first big walk-through. They were working late and were all distraught, frustrated and exhausted. “Let’s go to the fireworks,” Eddie said, much more dare than invitation. “Yer crazy,” Berney said. “What happened to staying here all night to write the pseudocode?”
“I can’t concentrate anymore,” Eric said sitting back and stretching his arms. “It’s settled then,” Eddie said, “come on, they’re gonna start in twenty minutes.” Jane laughed and shook her head. “There is absolutely no way in hell we can go, so just forget it.”
Fifteen minutes later the four of them were dashing toward the Lincoln Memorial, still hoping to make the Mall by full dark. The night was oppressively humid, and within minutes they were drenched in their own sweat. As they shuffled through the park with the buried giant they each gave their responses to the question that Eddie had posed: If you could design anything you wanted after replication, what would it be?
Berney: “Meat. I would program assemblers to make meat. Then my wife could get off my back. It’s unbelievable. Whenever I order anything made with the minutest molecule of an animal tissue she starts singing that Smiths song, Meat is Murder. It’s ridiculous.”
“I’d make mini-fabricators,” Eric said, “shoebox size, that only made Twinkies and I’d have them airdropped over Ethiopia, Somalia, wherever, on little parachutes. And in one fell swoop Twinkie the Kid and I would end world hunger.”
“Thank you Ms. America,” Eddie said. “By the way, that’s the worst answer I’ve ever heard!”
“And wouldn’t rice be a better food staple,” Berney said.
“My turn,” Jane said, “I’d make a cure for Alzheimer’s.”
“Oh, no, I can’t believe it! You too? Isn’t the world overpopulated enough?”
“Right here, Eddie,” she said gripping her right breast. “My old man had Alzheimer’s. It ain’t pretty.”
“Okay, fine, whatever, but I’m gonna make the world’s greatest virtual sex machine and become filthy rich,” he said, pointing his thumb at his chest. “It’ll have a sensory suit and I’ll project different images on the eye and directly stimulate the brain…people will forget about food and sleep and other people…it’ll be great.”
“A sex machine, how original,” Eric said, “and James Brown will do the theme song.”
“YEEEEOOOOOW! That’s right!”
They crossed Independence Avenue. The crowd was thick. They shouted back and forth to each other as they pushed their way to the Lincoln Memorial. But there was no space, no place for them to get a view of the Monument.
As the fireworks began they found themselves on the lip of the reflecting pool, teetering between the water and the wall of people. But the view was still blocked by the overhanging trees. “Well, this sucks,” Berney observed.
Suddenly Eric felt a shove from behind and in he went, thigh deep in unpleasantly warm water, his sneakers sinking into mud before hitting the cement bottom. “Motherfu…” he turned and saw Jane with her hands on her hips laughing—obviously very proud of herself—then she jumped in after him. “The view is much better,” she cried back to the shore. And it was. Berney and Eddie shrugged at each other and hopped in.
A group of teenagers pointed and laughed, then joined in. That was all it took. Soon there were scores of people standing in the water, circumnavigated by paranoid ducks, their quacking inaudible over the boom of fireworks and music.
Eric would remember that they were the best fireworks he had ever seen…there with his friends…feeding off the euphoria of the crowd…the symbolism of the Washington Monument celebrated in kaleidoscope color…the music—Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man—so loud it fibrillated his heart. All of God’s colors were reflected in the water around them. Near the end he had caught a glimpse of each of his colleagues, the perspiration on their faces, the way their wet shirts were sucked to their skin, and the proud way they all looked to the sky. A bond had been made.
At the Chart House, they ordered another pitcher of beer and Jane got some hot wings. Berney began to sing. “And that ham that you fancifully slice…is MURDER.”
Eddie continued to exult the benefits of artificial intelligence and how he was sure the powers that be would see the light. While Eddie talked, Eric glanced at Jane. She gave him a knowing smile. Sometimes, like when they had both had a few beers, he felt there was a little non-platonic tension between them.
Eric was pretty sure anyway. But he was so bad at that, he could never tell if girls liked him or if they were just being friendly. And then there was Eddie. Jane and Eddie bickered, teased, and taunted each other so much that he figured they had to be in love.
For Eric, the trouble began at the Labor Day party when Jane had shed her overalls for a black cocktail dress. She had been suddenly gorgeous. Transformed. A diamond in the rough.
That’s when he started to think about her. He knew he had to watch himself with things like this. Not only because he was a twenty-eight-year-old male—programmed by three and a half billion years of evolution to pass on his genetic material, to replicate—but because of the Hill mind. Thanks to old Monty he had inherited the latest release of that famous brain. A mind that liked to constantly explore, to push limits, to try new things, to say why not? This meant, of course, that the same characteristics that made the Hill mind ideal for science would get you into trouble when applied to different areas. It was a mind that would—when presented with a forbidden prize, for example—figure out how to fool you if you gave it enough time.
When at last Eddie finished his diatribe, Jane came back to the issue that had been in the back of all their minds. “You know, I don’t really care who gets the next round of grants. All I want is to win…to do it before they do. That’s all that really matters. I mean, Jesus, did you know they are working on an airborne virus?”
“Yeah, I also heard they got pictures of that terrorist entering the compound,” Berney added, “Mohammad Habash.”
“Super,” Jane said. “They would sell to anybody for the money.”
Eddie took the opportunity to launch into his impersonation of the Admiral Bartlett’s southern drawl: “I wanchya’ll to imagine fur a moment wakin’ up one mornin’ to find that a group of terrorists not only has the world’s most lethal biological weapons, but the ability to deliver them anywhere they want. I’m talkin' about a major shift in the balance uh power, here.”
But no one laughed at the rendition. The room had changed. Before they do. Them.
The race. The Replication Project was a race; a 21st century competition between nation-states, capitalist buccaneers, and corporate pirates, all scouring the invisible oceans of the microscopic in search of power and fortune. At first Eric had thought the outcome would be measured in stock earnings, oligopolies, and untapped markets. After all, there were thousands of companies trying to engineer everything from auto-cleaning teeth to spider silk lactating goats (for making body armor). But Eric was learning that the economic incentives were just a sugar coating for the power politics, and, specifically in their case, the battle for the endangered American hegemony. Worldwide, there were nearly forty teams—both private and public—in pursuit of Self-Replication. They kept track of most of them by monitoring the stream of applications into the U.S. Patent Office—sometimes at the rate of five or six a week from a single team. At the lab they had weekly status reports: meetings to discuss the progress of the global effort, in order that they might copy and steal (leverage was Admiral Bartlett’s word for it) from the other teams. After all, this was not like Los Alamos, where feed materials were scarce; where few could enter the contest. Replication was pure intellectual property. A hobbyist in his garage could conceivably figure out a problem that had confounded a team at Pfizer for half a decade.
And so the race was on.
But the competition that concerned them the most was the one they knew the least about—one that did not submit patent requests and whose scientists did not publish their results.
It was the one that Admiral Bartlett mentioned every time he spoke. His closing to every staff meeting was a paraphrase from the week prior: “I know this is the best group of scientists in the world. Still, I cannot stress enough how important it is that ya’ll work as hard and as diligently as possible.
“If China beats us—if they master this technology before we do—before we can develop defenses and countermeasures, the consequences could be…and I don’t use the word lightly, disastrous. It is one of the great ironies that the same technology that can eradicate disease and pollution can create weapons more powerful than any yet imagined.”
Bartlett was also constantly reminding them of recent history, reminding them why it was so important. US-Sino relations had been deteriorating for almost a decade when U.S. intelligence services began to come across transfers of advanced technology from China to nations that sponsored terrorism. China insisted that the technology was not reaching terrorists groups. It had been big news for a few weeks, but when no new terrorist strikes materialized the issue soon fell off the radar. Then in November of 2014, the NSA announced it had conclusive evidence that Beijing had sold over ten million dollars in missile guidance technology to Harakat ul-Mujahidin, a Pakistani militant group with ties to a the Saudi terrorists that had downed two Army helicopters in Saudi Arabia with Chinese technology. Public outrage over the transfer led to a major split between the two superpowers. The Chinese, who perceived many of the United State’s anti-terrorist activities as a ruse to assert its military might around the globe, began denouncing the U.S. claims as “twenty first century gunboat diplomacy.” What followed were several months of economic and diplomatic volleys between the two nations. The White House repealed China’s most-favored-nation trading status and became suddenly very vocal about Beijing’s human rights abuses and emigration policy. As international trade between the two countries plummeted, China, in turn, began raising trade barriers and even seized several U.S. businesses that, it claimed, were operating illegally. Finally, as more and more details of the missile transfer became public, China itself was placed on the State Department’s State-Sponsored Terrorism list. Then, at the beginning of 2016, China, reeling from a sharp economic slowdown, placed hardliner Hu Yat-sen at the head of the communist party. Shortly after becoming general secretary, Hu, in open defiance of Washington, famously stated that China would sell whatever technologies it wanted, whenever it wanted, to whomever it wanted. The major U.S. papers reflected that relations between the two countries had reached a low point not seen since the Korean War.
Under this backdrop the replication race was raging.
Jane felt it was the only thing that mattered, and she was right. Even before the diplomatic meltdown, China had been one of the front-runners in molecular engineering and artificial intelligence, and the Hu administration had reportedly tripled their budget since taking office. At the lab, Eric had only a vague notion of what the U.S. intelligence apparatus was up to, but he could tell that they were taking it very seriously. It became increasingly clear that there was a major spy game operating in tandem with the team’s research, and not just in China, but in every place advanced research was taking place. There were references to disinformation campaigns, satellite photos, operatives, and arranged accidents. Often times they were briefed on things that could not possibly be public: A helotoxin spill at the Swedish Royal Institute that never made the papers, assembler project plans from GE, even the occasional update on China—one copy in English, the original in Mandarin.
Each member of the project had a counterpart in China. John Lee Ho, Nobel Laureate, was Bill Hopkins’s counterpart—the Heisenberg to their Oppenheimer. It was hard for Bill, Eric later learned, because Lee Ho and he had been friends. Ho had studied in the States, and Bill was now certain that his friend did not agree with the goals of his government’s project. Wenxiu Zhoa was Jack’s counterpart. Eric, too, imagined his counterpart, as he knew Jane, Berney, and Eddie surely imagined theirs. Eric saw a young guy, like himself, someone who had a gift for assembler design. Sometimes he used the image of this man to drive him when he was burned out, during late nights at the lab, when his brain was fried, when his knee had swelled up like a grapefruit from standing at the Potentiostat-Galvanostat all day, numbed up on ibuprofen, when he didn’t think he could work another minute. The specter of this man, this indefatigable nanosite weaponeer, spurred him to perfection, to more efficient designs, to faster speeds, his nanoarms moving at 60, then 65, then 70 million operations a second. Ever smaller, and hence, ever faster. Eric would not be beat. Like the speed of a bumblebee’s wing is to a man’s arm, so would his nanoarms be to a bumblebee’s.
Admiral Bartlett assured them that their counterparts and their overlords were thieves, robbing university libraries for the doctoral theses of chemical engineers, geneticists, and computer scientists. Eric figured they had already ‘leveraged’ his journal articles and his thesis from the Stanford Library. The Chinesewere standing on the shoulders of giants, Admiral Bartlett liked to remind them.
As they sat and drank Eddie talked on about the sophistication of the Tangshan program—the city in Eastern China where the lab was located. Eric absentmindedly arranged a stack of coasters into familiar molecules: vitamin C, butane, caffeine. He thought about what they were doing: gossiping. And about the security posters the Marines posted everywhere on base: every office, lab room, break room and bathroom. A cartoon of a man whispering to a pretty woman (who might or might not be Asian) and behind them in a doorway, a marine with a billy club on his hip and a bulldog scowl on his face. SECURITY IS COMMON SENSE. DON’T TAKE CHANCES. Avoid loose talk. Safeguard classified information. Report security violations at once. Prompt action may prevent a minor situation from becoming a serious one. Don’t write about classified information in letters or e-mail. DON’T BE CARELESS. MAKE SURE YOU ARE SECURE.
Loose talk. That’s what going out for drinks was all about. “They have a seed,” Eric said, giving in and sharing what he had overheard.
The table grew quiet.
Eddie exhaled. “Oh, really,” he said, trying to sound unimpressed.
“Well, that’s fucking great,” Jane said. ”They are way ahead of us then.” It was half statement, half question. “Then the next step is a full replicator.”
“It’s still a wet application.” Eric said trying to soften the drama. “They are still confined to vats of chemicals. The assemblers have to wash up against the seed to know what to do. It is great for manufacturing, but it could be another three years until they could use it as weapon.”
“Well, if you’ll recall,” Eddie said, “four months ago we thought it would take them two years to get a seed.” He finished his beer in a long draught. “Might as well drink up,” he said with a big smile. “Enjoy life while it lasts. The future will be here sooner rather than later.”
THIS IS THE END OF THE SAMPLE.
WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO ?