Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Thirteen – The Outer Limits

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“They have flying cars.” Dex sounded a bit miffed. “Flying cars but no Unified Field Theory? Where do they get the antigrav from? Or is it all maglev?”

“They can’t have independent grav fields, they’re moving too close to the buildings,” Lang said. “My money is on maglev. That or microthrusters, given the comparative refinement of their nanotech they might have perfected smaller engines than we’ve got.”

“They’re actually not flying, they’re driving on hardlight constructs,” Sean said. All three spacers turned to stare at him incredulously. He rolled his eyes. “I’m kidding, there’s no fucking way to sustain that kind of energy output. It’s microthrusters and extremely low weight plastics.”

Lang snorted and went back to watching the hive of activity in the distance. Even through the basic telescopic sights they had available it was easy to pick out the cars moving up, down and in every direction with eerie, almost insectoid choreography. He’d discounted the idea of a traffic control AI before. Now he saw why Aubrey and Sean had jobs.

“We’re going to have to go around. Or figure out some way to blend with traffic,” Priss said. “If we try and go through they’re going to pick us out in a heartbeat.”

“Get the AIs working on it. Network them if you have to.”

Priss and Dex shared a look, then Dex leaned in close and dropped his tone. “Listen, I know we probably shouldn’t discuss this in depth with the prisoners in the van but… we’ve only got two liters of electrolytes left in supply. We can cut some of the supplemental dietary sources off from the Terrans but then we’ll need to procure a new food supply for them and… well, we’d probably have to do that in the next day or so anyhow. They eat a lot.”

“Your point is we’re starting to tap out on the AIs.”

“We’ve worked them very hard the past few days,” Priss pointed out. Nodding out the window toward the city she added, “We might be able to pick up some supplies in there. Just a suggestion, but if it takes us more than forty eight hours longer to get off planet we’re looking at serious food shortages. And I don’t know what that means when crossed with the Terran nanotech. It could wind up shutting down. We know the consequences of that.”

They would die. And that would be on him, because he’d declared them prisoners of war.

“Okay. See if you can network the AIs and have them run some kind of probabilistic analysis. I’ll go forward a bit, see if I can get a better feel for what it’s like on the fringes of that city. Dex will help you keep an eye on the prisoners.” He gave her a meaningful look. “And, even though this is technically what they do, don’t let them help you, okay? For the sake of information security if nothing else.”

Priss sighed. “Alright, boss. Because you asked nicely.”

Aubrey and Priss sat with their legs dangling off the back of the van. Priss was tinkering with the AIs, Aubrey was watching. It was interesting to watch someone try and recreate the software she worked with day in and day out without any idea what the basic structure was. With the right training, the other woman probably could have done Aubrey’s job, although not with the equipment she was using. It wasn’t clear what trick let the spacer AI work so much more efficiently than what was typical on Earth but it still lacked the sensor inputs to properly formulate the situation in the streets. She figured Priss had come to the same conclusion about the time she threw her hands up in the air, clearing her holodisplay.

“Trouble?” Aubrey asked.

“Lang’s expectations are too high,” Priss muttered. “I think he knows that. But he’s a pilot – he likes to know he can go places, even if he doesn’t ever plan on actually going there. So here I am, trying to plot a course with hardware that was never meant for it.”

Which brought up something Aubrey had been wondering about. “Why do you need electrolytes for your AI to work?”

Priss started a bit. “Heard that, did you?”

“I’m just curious, because it sounded like you could make better models than what you’re doing if you had more of it.” She pointed at the space Priss’ holodisplay had been a second ago. “And as a professional, let me tell you what you’ve got there isn’t going to cut it.”

“Thanks,” Priss replied dryly. “But you’ve probably already realized it’s a data problem, not a processing problem. I can’t think of a way to balance the necessities of probabilities and anticipate traffic flow without a satellite network or something.”

Which was exactly what Aubrey had concluded. But there was one weird thing she’d said. “Both you and Lang mentioned probabilities. Why? That’s practically all AI does, right? Balance probabilities based on algorithms?”

Priss rested her feet on the van’s bumper, pulled her knees up and folded her arms over them, then laid her head down on them, looking at her sideways. The effect was avian and unsettling. “What do you know about the limitations of AI?”

“Well, I don’t know the math of it,” Aubrey said. “But as I understand it there’s something to do with the statistical modeling of reality and precision of data input.”

“Close enough. Basically, in spacer school, the AI primer points to two problems, known as the Framing Problem and the Cause and Effect Problem.” Priss pointed to the side of the vehicle. “For example, what is that?”

Aubrey followed the line of her hand and frowned. “The door of the van?”

“How long did it take you to decide that’s what I meant?”

“I’m sorry?”

“I could have been asking about any number of things.” Priss straightened up a bit and ticked them on her fingers. “The handle of the door. The door latch. The metal the door is made of. The color of the door. But you immediately framed the question and provided an answer. An AI can’t do that on its own. It either needs every possible contingency accounted for by the programmer or a way to get feedback from its user to frame the problem.”

“So it can understand what it sees.”

Priss nodded. “That’s your precision of data input. Second example.” She stuck a foot out and pushed the door with her foot, swinging it back and forth. “Why did the door move?”

For a split second Aubrey felt the unnaturally still, narrow eyed expression she always saw on Lang when he thought no one was look settle on her face. It was unsettling and she shook it off, trying to decide how to answer.

“It’s not a trick question,” Priss said, amused.

“You pushed it with your foot.”

“That’s something an AI can’t conclude. They see the world as probabilities. As my foot gets closer to the door,” she stretched her foot out towards said door again, “an AI’s models predict that the door moving becomes more and more likely but they fundamentally can’t conclude that the door moves because of my foot. The mathematical language for that doesn’t exist, at least not yet.”

“Okay, I get it. I think.” She poked the door herself and considered. “How does that tie to electrolytes?”

“Because our AIs have a workaround to the problem. They can be tied to an end user and use subliminal messaging to frame problems and determine causes using the human subconscious. In short, they’re really hybrids of AI and the human mind.” She held up the small box Aubrey had always assumed was a holodisplay tied in to a master AI in one of their crates. “By tying this into my brain I make the AI three thousand times more efficient and able to tackle communications and analytical problems it couldn’t handle otherwise. The catch is, it requires a lot of extra nerve activity supported by some electrolytes not found in the typical human diet. Some of our food and drink stores make sure those levels stay high.”

“What happens if they run low?”

“Then the AI’s attempts at messaging our subconscious won’t work.”

Aubrey shook her head and laughed. “I can’t believe you guys think medical nanotech is weird but you’re okay with plugging a computer into your brain. What if it shorts out?”

“We worked all the biofeedback issues out a long time ago,” Priss said, opening her holodisplay back up and going back to work.

Aubrey sighed and looked around, figuring it was time to compare notes with Sean again. But neither he nor Dex were anywhere to be found.

Through the carbine scope the outskirts of the city appeared more drab than Lang had been expecting. There wasn’t much plant life, the buildings were low compared to the busier central districts and there wasn’t much in the way of vehicle traffic. There were more people on self-propelled transport or on foot than he’d expected. Most of all, a surprising number of people were not at some place of work. Maybe it was a weekend or holiday. Supposedly the colonial calendar used by the Triad worlds was the same as the Earth calendar but, after two hundred years, who could tell. They might not even be using twelve month years anymore.

The oddest thing was how much plant life there was in a ring around the city. They were in the middle of the desert and he wasn’t a terraformer but the ring of hearty scrub brush and twiggy shrubs around the outskirts didn’t seem quite right. Perhaps the Terrans had been busy with a little planetary remodeling of their own.

“It wouldn’t be that weird if you just walked up.”

With a sigh, Lang lowered the scope and found Sean standing a few steps away. Just beyond him was Dex, looking bemused. “What can I do for you, Mr. Wilson?”

“I know you need to go into town soon,” Sean said. “I want to come with you.”

“What possible reason could you give that would make that a wise move for us?” Lang shook his head. “In case you’ve forgotten our previous conversation-”

“You need a fucking ID linked to a fucking account to buy or sell anything, asshole.” Sean folded his arms. “How are you going to get supplies without any of that shit?”

Lang and  Dex exchanged quick glances that confirmed what he was thinking. “Sean, when Dex searched you we didn’t find any ID.”

Sean rolled his eyes. “Because it’s integrated with the medinano systems. Why bother with something I could lose?”

Of course it was. Nothing could ever be easy. Dex’s expression told him he hadn’t known this ahead of time. And Sean wasn’t saying why he wanted to go into town with them. His sanctimonious sapiens ass was learning. “We’ll consider it.”

And he would. But mostly he was going to be considering how to keep tabs on Sean while in a strange city, dealing with identifications and accounts and information infrastructures they still knew very little about.