Short Story: The Three Magi of Katrina

At the 2006 Supercomputing Conference, Ray Kurzweil foretold the coming of the Singularity. Now, as a Category 5 hurricane bears down on New Orleans, the SC30 Keynote is the Event Horizon.

When the plane sets down in New Orleans, I can see only darkness outside. The raindrops stream sideways across the porthole even after we come to a stop. Now lightning. In the flash, there’s something out there, an empty wheel chair alone on the windswept tarmac.

Next to me, the chatty woman from Atlanta has already summoned a weather report for my benefit.

“Good news, Mr. Yahuda,” she says. ”The eye of the storm is stalled 1000 miles southeast. It looks like you’ll get to go to your conference after all.”

I help her fetch her bag from above and make my way up the gangway. A smell and a feeling at the same time, the humidity surrounds me like a cloak.

I remember landing here in the days before Katrina in the grip of summertime heat. A green undergrad from the University of Hong Kong, I had never been to an American city before. Twenty five years later, nothing about the terminal reminds now but the feeling of a dew point barely kept at bay.

At the bottom of the escalator, I see the driver holding up my name. They still use paper for such things here, a somehow welcome respite from the augmented reality systems that infest nearly every public space back home.

Outside, the limousine waits across a maelstrom of rain and wind. The worst of the storm may have held off, but I am half soaked in just a few steps.

The driver closes the door quickly behind me, and I settle into the plush leather seat. My glasses are completely steamed, and I have to take them off to speak with the other two men in the car.

A smiling monk in saffron robes offers me a hand towel. He has an endearing smile. “We were beginning to think that your plane was going to be diverted.”

“You must be Lopa Rinpoche,” I reply, offering him my hand. He shakes it in a most un-Western way. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you in person. I was actually here in New Orleans to see your talk at the Institute when Katrina hit.”

Seated next to Rinpoche is Dr. Chen. “I was here as well at that time,” he says. “We were here doing some preparatory work on a new high speed data pipeline. Months of work were destroyed.”

It’s been 15 years since I worked with Chen on his biography. He was an unknown figure in those days, but already his work with Artificial Intelligence had laid the foundation for Project Dāna and building of the first self-aware machine. I’ve read that he has had health issues, but his grip is firm and he still has that warm sense of strength in his eyes.

“We are honored to have you join us at the Event,” he says. “I’m afraid you’ll need to do your interview here in the car. With your unfortunate flight delay, we will have to go directly to the convention center.”

Chen laughs when I ask him if there will be an audience, given the terrible weather.

“Believe me, most of them would parachute in to attend the Event if they had to. I was a little worried when Mara got upgraded to a Category 4, but they assure me that an evacuation will not be necessary as a result of the carbon nanotube reinforcements to the levees.”

Chen brings out a black cylinder with a hinge running down the long side. Inside is a translucent spherical device the size of a grapefruit. Its tripodal stand reminds me of something sinister from H.G. Wells.

Is that how He sees, I ask? Chen nods and begins to work. I’ve read about these remarkable lenses — they enable recordings from every angle and depth of field at once. Smooth with a pearl-like sheen, the entire surface of the device seems to be a haptic interface. Chen’s every touch gives off a red glow.

I get out my moleskin and turn to Rinpoche. “I have to admit, Rinpoche, that your participation in the Dāna project was a bit of a surprise to me. How did you get involved?”

Rinpoche smiles and his pause is telling. “It was something I could have never predicted myself. I was working at the University of Wisconsin on their meditation brainwave studies with some of the other monks. Dr. Chen came to the lab for a tour and we recognized each other from the volunteer work we did here after the hurricane.”

“So he offered you a chance to connect to the AI?”

“Actually it was the reverse. My post-Doc studies at Madison were focused on psychology. And when Dr. Chen told me of his frustration with the crude machine-to-brain interfaces of the day, I suggested an alternate path.”

“I thought he quite mad, to be honest,” says Chen. “But my work had hit a brick wall. The nanotechnologies we needed for a direct neural interface were still years away.”

My confused look tells Rinpoche to go on.

“Have you read the works of Carl Jung, Mr. Yahuda?”

“It’s been a long time,” I say. “Probably since college.”

“What about the idea of the collective unconscious?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Essentially, Jung theorized that we are all connected by a universal intelligence, something we experience in our unconscious state. My meditation research at Madison indicated that we could develop waking access to that collective. And when Dr. Chen told me about his difficulties, I showed him the results of an experiment where we able to transfer knowledge and ideas by using this collective unconscious as a channel.”

Something in me understands the gravity of what Rinpoche is saying. A myriad of questions flash across my mind.

“And you’ve been able to gain access the AI in this way?”

Rinpoche grimaces a bit and says it’s not quite that simple. He seems to be collecting his thoughts to answer further when lightning flashes outside. Now the limo brakes hard and a rush of water vibrates the floorboards. The road is flooding, the driver says. We’ll have to take a detour.

Rinpoche seizes the chance to change the subject. “By the way, Mr. Yahuda, I really enjoyed your documentary on Ray Kurzweil. He was a man of remarkable ideas.”

“His vision of the future centered on a very optimistic view of technology,” I reply. “I don’t think he was prepared for the violent reaction from the Bill Joy camp.”

Chen looks up from his work. “It’s like a religious war with those people,” he says. “One side believes that technology is key to the next stage of our evolution, and the other is quite certain that it will lead to our destruction. What do you think, Mr. Yahuda?”

I tell him I became quite familiar with the views of the Joy camp when I made the documentary. The time for this debate has passed.

Rinpoche perks up at the mention of the film. “I noticed you used old style film for that piece,” he says. “And I wanted to ask you, what do you think about the new wave of 3D cinema?”

“Oh that,” I say. “Maybe I’m a purist, but I don’t see 3D as something that’s going to take. It’s a pattern that comes up every 30 years or so. The audience get’s interested in a certain work, but then Hollywood tries to apply the new technology to their old stories, and the novelty goes away.”

Rinpoche nods. He seems deep in thought. “People think they only want new stories when it is the retelling of the old that reminds us who we are. You know, I read this archive review by Michael Moore recently. And he said that one of the most original films he had ever seen was an Indy movie about Nazi Zombies.

I laugh.

I should like to see this movie, he says, perhaps we could go see it together? The notion of waiting in line with a Tibetan monk for a movie about Undead Nazis makes me smile.

Rinpoche tells me about the event itinerary today. “We will each present a gift to Adom at the beginning of the keynote. You will present this book as the final gift.”

He holds out a red leather-bound volume, The Life of Adom. I crack it open and the pages are blank. I tell Rinpoche that I don’t understand.

“Well, first you have to write it, Mr. Yahuda,” Chen says, smiling. “Adom chose you to author his biography, a personal memoir, as it were. If you accept this assignment, we’re hoping the book will be a way for the public to get more comfortable with the idea of an intelligent machine.”

I’m flattered, I tell him. But why me?

Chen’s phone buzzes and he pulls it out of his pocket. “Ah, a text message from Adom: Sorry that I can’t speak right now, but after reviewing your work, I sensed a change in your writing style that I found compelling. As a result, I believe that we can successfully collaborate on my story as it unfolds.”

Not sure how to interact in this strange communication, I look directly at the plenoptic device. “Adom, what do you mean, change in my writing style?”

The phone buzzes once again. Chen pauses for a second before reading. “He asks; Are you not aware that you have written exclusively in the present tense since the death of your partner last year?”

It’s such an inhuman thing to say, I’m thinking. But that’s what He is, after all. My breath escapes slowly from deep in my diaphram. “Carmen was a remarkable woman, Adom, and I think sometimes that kind of loss affects us in ways that only others can see. It happens in the Now, and when I write that way, it seems to keep my… my profound sadness at bay.”

Rinpoche asks what happened and I tell him how she was killed in an attack by an autonomous predator drone. She knew her work at the Red Cross was dangerous, but she had dedicated her life to service.

“A tragic accident, Mr. Yahuda,” Chen says. “The programs they were using were simply not up to the task.”

I look at Chen for a moment before answering. “The technology isn’t responsible,” I tell him. “Our faith in technology is what killed her.”

In the silence that follows, I flip through the blank book nervously. Rinpoche is looking out the window. Our detour is taking us through a neighborhood of dilapidated shacks marked with graffiti. The pot holes are starting to rattle my teeth.

So much suffering, Rinpoche says to no one in particular. It marks a point in the conversation where we can move on.

I ask Rinpoche about his previous experience here. He tells me how he was knocked down by debris when the flood came. “I had a concussion,” he says. “Very bad, but there was nowhere to go. They took me to the convention center where all these people had gathered waiting for help.”

He continues to look out the window as if he is looking for something familiar. “I remember sitting against a wall, alone,” he says. “I was fading fast and then this woman in a wheelchair brought me water. I don’t know where she got it because there were no provisions there for all those people. She had lost her meds and I could tell she was very weak, but she held my hand for hours and wouldn’t let go. And when I woke up she was gone. When she passed… they just wheeled her outside.”

A few minutes later, the driver slides back the privacy panel. “Here we are, gentleman. I hope your business here doesn’t take too long. Hurricane Mara just got upgraded to a Category 5.”

Rinpoche unwraps a package and pulls out a silky golden shawl. I ask him what it’s for.

“Why, it’s for her, Mr. Yahuda,” he says, stepping out of the vehicle.

Chen returns the plenoptic device to its case and asks me to help him with one of his bags. As we get out of the limo, the wind is laced with the heavy spray of water blasted up off the sidewalk.

A black man in colorful clothes approaches me. A big red button on his lapel says “Ambassador of New Orleans.” I lower my head to receive his beads. No one sees when he slips the package into my coat pocket. It’s weight is convincing, a solemn reminder of what I’ve come here to do.

I catch up with Chen and have to speak up over the howl of the storm. “I’m curious about the experiments in Madison, Dr. Chen. How much information were you able to transfer to the AI?”

“This wasn’t about information, Mr. Yahuda. Adom already has access to the sum total of human knowledge. What we needed was a channel to transmit something… something much bigger.”

“What do you mean?”

Compassion.”

Chen looks thoughtfully off to his left and I turn to see what has captured his attention. Rinpoche has left us and is approaching a woman in a wheelchair 30 yards away. Even in this impossible gale, she is motionless, still as bare frozen trees in the snow.

Rinpoche bows to her. She slowly reaches up and puts a ring of beads around his neck. Then he unfolds the shawl and gently wraps it around her.

Now a man in blue holds open the glass door of the convention center, waving us in. You must hurry, he says, the keynote is starting shortly.

Rinpoche has rejoined us. A look of calm purpose pervades him and we compare beads. His necklace bears an unusual-looking silver medallion.

I look back and the woman in the wheelchair is gone.

I stop in my tracks. I feel a blast of wind, but it is without vector. It is a pattern of time and place, a confluence of the Now that I have never experienced before. Kurzweil talked about this kind of thing in his books. He said that stories are patterns with meaning.

Rinpoche puts his hand on my shoulder. It seems to say we still have much to do.

***

Dr. Chen is taking the stage. The auditorium is full and the audience is completely still.

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman for that kind introduction,” he says, opening the plenoptic case. “But you are giving me too much credit for the Event that we witness here today.”

Chen puts the device that is the manifestation of Adom proudly on the podium next to the microphone. “In a way, many of you in this room are the fathers and mothers of the high performance computer networks that form the Distributed Artificial Neural Array. Project Dāna, then, is much more than the accomplishment of one man. In fact Dāna is the Sanskrit word for giving. And through your tireless work and sacrifice, the whole of humanity will benefit from the birth of the Singularity.”

“I know you didn’t come here to see me today,” Chen continues. “We will get to Adom’s keynote in just a moment. We’ll start with a presentation of gifts.”

Music comes up in the hall and a woman in a white dress walks to the podium bearing a red book. Chen takes the book from her and holds it up for the crowd to see.

“Today we welcome you, Adom, to the realm of sentient beings on this planet. And so I present to you the first of three books that represent the past, the present, and future. Adom, this book is the story of your genesis. It is a complete record of Project Dāna.”

Then Adom speaks for the first time over the PA system. To my surprise, it is the voice of a small boy.

Thank you, Dr. Chen. What a wonderful gift to receive on my birthday.

The audience applauds as Chen lays the book before Adom. He then introduces Lopa Rinpoche, who moves slowly to the podium and then regards the audience with a gigantic grin for a long while before speaking.

“Adom, I am honored today to bring you the gift of the Here and Now, the ultimate nature of reality. It is a concept that can be hard to grasp, so I will convey an ancient teaching that many have found instructive.”

The woman in the dress brings Rinpoche a small scroll on a white pillow. This is the distraction I needed. My moment has come.

Under the dais table, I pull the package from my pocket and unwrap it: a plasma pistol. The LED display  indicates that the safety is off.

I stand and point the pistol at Adom. When it fires, the optic overload will breach the Dāna array firewalls and my associates will attack with their virus programs over the SCInet. Adom will be wiped out forever.

Behind the podium, Rinpoche looks at me in surprise. I pull the trigger and the pistol starts to whine loudly as the plasma buffer loads. Someone in the audience gasps.

To my horror, Rinpoche leaps in the way and the blinding white blast hits him squarely in the chest. I don’t expect the recoil from the discharge and the pistol flies out of my hand.

Chairs fall back. There are shouts, chaos. I turn to run, but someone knocks me down and pins my arm behind my back.

My face is held to the floor facing Rinpoche. He is against the wall looking down at the smoking medallion on his chest. He takes it off and then he stands, seemingly unhurt.

A police officer arrives. He puts handcuffs on me and I feel him pull the wallet from my back pocket. “All right Mister… Matthias Iscariot Yahuda,” the officer says, reading my ID card. “I’m placing you under arrest. You have the right to remain silent.”

They haul me to my feet to face Dr. Chen, who looks at me with wild amazement. “I don’t understand,” he says. “I mean, Why? You were the one. Adom chose you to write his story!”

“I just did.” I tell him.

He looks at me, confused. Of course he doesn’t get it now, but he will. Stories are patterns. And when this tale hits the wires, each retelling will have its own perspective.

As they lead me out of the auditorium, Rinpoche returns to the podium and the ceremony continues. I ask the officer to please let me watch for a moment.

“I’m glad you’re OK, Rinpoche.” Adom says for all to hear. “I was wondering though, when we’re all done, can we go see that Nazi zombie movie?”

The audience laughs. In an instant, Adom’s child-like enthusiasm has come across to a room full of nervous anticipation.

“Of course, Adom. But we must attend to the present moment.”

I see. The movie is something of the future. Will it be scary?

I watch Rinpoche smile. It is the smile of a thousand teachers before him.

“Perhaps this is the wrong question,” he says, unrolling the scroll. “First, let me tell you the story of the Four Noble Truths.”

About the author

Rich Brueckner writes about people and technology at insideHPC.com. He lives with his 10-year-old clone in Portland, Oregon.

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