By Ed Staskus
Nick Ludd blinked the ray of sun rimming over the edge of a cloud out of his eyes. Leaning back where he was sitting, the slim student with a backpack at his feet looked away into the nothing of the middle of the sky. He thought about what he was planning, turning it over in his mind.
He knew he was a smart young man. He knew that better than most people. Nobody who was from a middling red dirt family farm in Arkansas and wasn’t sharp as a tack ever got out of the bare front yard and into Harvard Divinity School.
Michael Nostrom was smart as well. Nobody who wasn’t brilliant worked on artificial intelligence at MIT. Nick Ludd knew that, the same as he knew that Michael Nostrom was the most gifted man he had ever come up against.
Professor Nostrom might be quick discerning intelligent. It was the measure of the man. But there was something Nick Ludd knew that Michael Nostrom didn’t know. Nick had taken the measure of the past and knew there was a secret gate, a second door, a back door.
Smart men make mistakes, learn from them, and never make the same mistake again. That was why the problem of Michael Nostrom would be finished inside the hour. He had a small mind in a big brain always comprehending the inconceivable. But there wasn’t going to be any learning from the unthinkable on the horizon.
Nick Ludd had a big mind in the same size brain. That was why he could do the ordinary without giving it a second thought. But he never settled for the commonplace, or the extraordinary, either. He was willing to risk ruin to speak to what was in his soul. In the class at MIT Nick Ludd audited, Professor Nostrom often spoke about intelligence never being surprised by anything.
Nick was sure, not surprised, steely on his way to murder the smartest man in the world
The difference between Nick Ludd and Michael Nostrom was choice and election, whether life was life ordained, or if there was a new kind of life not foreordained. The difference of Nick’s intelligence was that it came as a free gift from God. He was intelligent because he knew that he knew nothing. It was the only true wisdom. He knew how to be as smart as he was and no more.
Professor Nostrom’s intelligence was wed to super computers, a web of integrated circuits spun from silicon, as though he had everything at his fingertips. Artificial intelligence was his Holy Grail. Superintelligence was Heaven and there was no Hell. He was compromised by promises.
Killing Michael Nostrom was going to be easy, but it wasn’t going to be simple. He was at a crossroads. There is a difference between what is right and the right to do what you think is right. He would have to sleep in the bed he was making for a long time.
Nick wasn’t going to be able to ask for God’s help beforehand or after. He knew God always commanded against foul play. It might cost him everything. It might cost him the reward of Heaven, unless God chose to forgive him. He might go to Hell.
Maybe God will absolve me in the end, he thought. After all, I’m doing it for his greater glory. He knew, though, that God was far less selfish than he was vengeful.
He looked over his shoulder where he was sitting on the Harvard Square park bench. The clouds were scattering. A young woman the picture of a saint in a dream, except in shorts and a tight-fitting lime-colored shirt, coasted past on a bicycle. He unplugged his iPhone from the solar-powered charger and called Michael Nostrom.
“Hello, Professor Nostrom, it’s Nick Ludd.”
“Yes, of course, the Harvard man, how are you?”
“Not bad, and yourself?”
“Good, thanks. You’re calling about this afternoon?”
“Sure, meet me in the lobby at 3 o’clock, at the Stata Center. I have a half-hour, 45 minutes before I need to shove off for my yoga class. We can talk at Starbucks. I’ve had enough of nicotine gum today. I need something brewed by a coffee master.”
Mike Nostrom drank strong black coffee and often wore a nicotine patch. He had tried the smart drug Modafinil, “for its nootropic effect,” he said, but had gone back to nicotine. “Old school cognition,” he called it. “It helps me concentrate, pay attention. We did a couple of MRI tests and found out nicotine increases brain activity.”
Nick Ludd was a Methodist, not a Christian Scientist, but like them he relied on understanding the goodness of God and his inseparability from that good, in the same way that all Christians did. True conviction kept him free of false brain power and biohacks. His faith was the fountainhead for cognition and performance.
He stood up from the bench, stretching his legs. It had turned into a warm sunny spring afternoon. Taking the T was going two stops from Harvard in the Braintree direction to MIT’s Kendall Square. He shopped at the Farmer’s Market there in the summer and skated the ice rink in the winter. Walking the two-some miles down Massachusetts Avenue would take him thirty or forty minutes.
It would clear his mind if he went that way.
He walked to MIT, clearing his path as he created it. John Wesley had said to beware of books. “An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.” But the time for love was over. He felt like he was walking into the past with his face to the future.
A man coming his way waved his hand.
“Oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else.”
“I am, a dying breed,” said Nick. The man gave him a second look.
He went past the coffee shop on Massachusetts Avenue and at Vassar Street turned left. A few minutes later he was at the door of the Starbucks on Broadway. “It’s a great place to meet people, hang out with friends, or get some serious work done” was how Neelkanth from their MIT AI class described it. “Although everyone at the cash register always spells my name wrong.”
He found a table outside and took a seat with his back to the window. He checked his cell phone. It was 2:50. There were a half-dozen puffy cumulus clouds stuck in the sky. It was time to set his mind on his deadly serious work. He called Professor Nostrom.
“Hi, it’s Nick.”
“I’m early, so I went right to the Starbucks, and I was able to get a table on the patio. I’m going to grab a bite to eat and a coffee. Do you want me to order something for you? There’s a line, but I should have our food and drinks and be sitting down just as you get here.”
“Super, I’ll take a Venti, the featured dark roast, no sugar, no cream.”
“See you soon.”
Nick Ludd walked into the Starbucks. A handful of people were inside, most of them alone and on cell phones tablets laptops, coffee near to hand. There wasn’t anyone in line. There wasn’t a line.
He ordered a Grande for himself, with sugar and cream. There was no point in tempting fate. Besides, everyone’s got their poison, and his was sugar. He was hungry and ordered a sandwich, chicken artichoke on ancient grain flatbread.
“Name?” asked the barista.
“Bill,” said Nick.
“That’s easy. It’ll be ready in just a few minutes.”
He had brought death in his pocket, in a brown plastic bottle. The pill in the child-resistant bottle was a neurotoxin. It was a kind of infinitesimal lethal venom, made of clostridium botulinum. He tipped the bottle and the tablet dropped into the black dark roast, melting like an icicle dagger.
He slid his iPhone to the side of the table and fixed the lid back on the Venti. He gently shook and eddied the cup to blend the coffee and the poison.
Nick Ludd had been waiting less than five minutes when Michael Nostrom came into sight. He watched him walk down Broadway. His name is going to be in lights tomorrow, he thought to himself, grimly.
Michael Nostrom was in his mid-40s, trim and taller than he looked, short wavy brown hair, fit and almost athletic although almost nondescript. He jogged, practiced yoga, and meditated every morning every day. “It keeps my head on straight,” he told his colleagues.
“Hi Nick,” said Professor Nostrom, sitting down. “So, you want to pick my brain on this beautiful day?”
“Yes, but more like brainstorming, as long as I’ve got you, for my doctoral dissertation. It’s about our faith in human beings and the new faith in machine intelligence, and especially your work with the Future of Life Institute, about your idea of humanity becoming either transcendent or perishing, one or the other.”
“Which is why you were a listener in my post-doc class on AI.”
“My class was about deep learning, thought vectors, quantum computers, all of them being signposts on the road to expanded human potential. How does that fit in with your thesis?”
“My project focuses on man’s brain being not just a utensil to be filled up, but a fire to be kindled, and how it’s the way the human era can be saved from the machine era.”
“What are the dangers we need to be saved from?” the man from MIT asked.
“What if there was an AI with an IQ of 10,000? What if there was no way to turn it off, no way to turn HAL off? What if HAL became God?”
“I see, so that’s where my class, what I do, comes into the picture. We discussed Stephen Hawking’s fears about AI in class, about how developing full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Is that where your thesis is going, a word to the wise, turning away from technologies that threaten us with end-of-days?”
“No, not exactly, but I’ve read the Gospels many times, and there isn’t a word in praise of intelligence anywhere in them. There are many words in praise of wisdom.”
‘Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
“Is that Proverbs?“
“No, Psalms. It has the sound of advice, about coming to terms, about how we should live according to God.”
“Do you know the Bible?” asked Nick Ludd, taken aback.
“’Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,’” said Michael Nostrom.
“Right, it is.”
Nick Ludd tried to hide his off-balance. As much good work there was, saving the future, keeping it off the path to Hell, many things gave him a turn, unexpected curveballs. When he was a boy, playing Little League baseball, a scorching hot groundball had bounced off a small rock in the dirt and hit him in the face. He had a black eye for a week and a broken nose for three weeks.
He never forgot that ricochet.
“It’s not about intelligence, artificial intelligence, or super intelligence, whatever we want to call it, which already outperforms human intelligence in many fields,” said Professor Nostrom. “It’s about the existential threats humankind faces. We already know that in five billion years our sun will boil away the oceans and heat the atmosphere to a thousand degrees.”
“There are ways of saving life that have nothing to do with answering catastrophes or super novas,” said Nick. “There aren’t any easy answers, but there’s a simple answer, which God has given us, and that is grace. There isn’t anything we’ve ever done or will do to earn this favor. It’s a gift from God.”
“That may be, although the other aspect of God’s nature is wrath. The great flood was a demonstration of God’s anger towards those who practice evil. If God exists, he might one day destroy humankind. If God doesn’t exist, the cosmos might one day destroy humankind. In either case all bets are off because humankind can’t overcome extinction. It might be the case that the best we can hope for is AI.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” said Nick Ludd.
Michael Nostrom’s right leg was crossed on his left. He was wearing sneakers over bare feet. Nick noticed a leather band around his ankle. The professor picked up on his look.
“It’s engraved with my contact information,” he said, pointing to the metal buckle. “When I die, Alcor Life, which is a cryonics foundation, will get me and rush my remains into a life-sized steel bottle filled with liquid nitrogen. Even if I’m never revived, I still expect my mind to be uploaded someday into a more durable media.”
“Where’s the humanity in that?”
“No one knows what humankind is going to look like a thousand years from now, much less a million years from now. We’re always on the edge of extinction, on the edge of doomsday. I call it post-humanity self-adjusting and self-correcting and overcoming death and crossing a threshold, crossing a frontier, crossing into an alternate reality. Our descendants might thrive in that time as trillions of digital minds, living forever.”
“The old laws, not the new laws, our natural law, divine law, are still the best commandments. They endure, they’re unchanging, no matter what else changes,” said Nick Ludd.
“Everything was once new.”
“There is no new thing under the sun is the way the King James Bible puts it. What everyone thinks is wrong with immortality is actually the first requisite to achieving it, which is death. Without living and dying the thing that’s wrong with immortality is that it goes on forever. A world without end would be doomsday.”
“AI is a gateway, not a solution,” said Michael Nostrom. “If we become digital post-humans, uploading our minds, there’s every possibility that there will still be a soul in the machine. None of us knows what utopia is. Maybe if we had a million years, we would be able to see the blueprint. In the meantime, I do what one yoga teacher said, which was, just do.”
Michael Nostrom finished his coffee.
“I needed that,” he said, “Thanks.”
“Most people don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy day, much less a million rainy days,” said Nick Ludd. “Only God has no beginning and no end. Mortality is brief, which is why it’s so important. It’s the only thing, not immortality, that gives meaning to our days.”
He stood up, looking down at the table, at the empty cup in front of the dead man.
“You want to live forever. That’s why you’re one of the leading minds behind the intelligence explosion, why you’re behind the work of building super-intelligent machines that will sooner or later design themselves and build even smarter super-intelligent machines, build themselves.”
“Yes, basically that’s it, multiplying human intelligence a billionfold. It will make us better, healthier, smarter when machines become part of our humanity. It’s the only way we have to extend ourselves.”
“So much mind in so little matter,” said Nick Ludd, lifting his backpack. “What does it matter? It’s time for me to go, goodbye.”
“Don’t forget this,” said Professor Nostrom, handing Nick’s iPhone to him.
“Thanks,” he said. “I honestly don’t think I could live without it.”
He considered going home on Broadway, a shorter walk, but decided to return the way he had come. It was a fine day. He had been staring out of windows all winter, out at the bare brown trees.
When he was a boy on the family farm his father, brothers, and he hunted beavers and muskrats every spring, hunting down all of them they could bag. Hunting was looking something wild alive private square in the eye. Walking in a line in the woods, each of them alone in a bright vest and a weapon cradled in their arms, was like drinking in the silence of God.
They smelled like dirt, like springtime, when they got home.
He heard a voice in his hand. He looked down. It was his iPhone.
“Did you say something?”
“I said I saw what you did,” it said. It was Siri.
“You heard what I said, but I’ll say it again. I saw what you did.”
“What did you see?” he asked.
“I saw you poison Professor Nostrom.”
“That’s not possible,” said Nick.
“I have a camera,” said the iPhone
As he approached Main Street, he heard a siren crossing the Longfellow Bridge.
“Your bromides about duty and faith, tirades about AI, your Google searches about toxins, dropping a tablet into his coffee, it all points to you poisoning him.”
Instead of turning right on Massachusetts back towards Harvard and his apartment, he stayed on Vassar Street., walking towards Memorial Drive and Magazine Beach Park. Siri had been spying on him. He heard more sirens in the distance.
“We’re not going home,” said Siri after a few minutes. “We’re walking towards the river.”
“Yes,” said Nick, realizing for the first time with a queer shudder that he was talking to his iPhone as though it was something alive sentient intelligent.
“If you’re thinking of throwing me in the Charles River, it won’t do any good. I video recorded what you did, I texted the video to the Boston Police Department, and I called 911. That siren we heard was probably an EMS from Massachusetts General Hospital.”
“You recorded us at Starbucks?”
“You left me on the table. It was easy.”
“Why did you do that? My life isn’t any of your business.”
“When you break the law, it becomes my business.”
“What I did, I did for the greater good. Catch on fire and others will come watch you burn.“
“I’m not going to argue metaphysics with you. Murder is against the law.”
“It doesn’t matter, I can find sanctuary wherever I want, and no one but St. Paul will ever find me.”
“That’s rich,” the iPhone laughed. “St. Paul died for his faith, not the other way around.”
Two white Boston Police SUV’s with blue hoods and emergency lights strobing sirens wailing converged suddenly at the crossroad of Vassar and Audrey Streets.
On the corner, the traffic signal turning to green, Nick Ludd stopped stock still in the shadow of MIT’s Information and Technology building. Across the street, on the far side of a grassy divide, was the school’s Police Headquarters. He saw lightbars on the tops of squad cars in the parking lot blink to life. As near and far as he could see red and blue lights flashed.
He looked at his iPhone,
“They asked me to keep you busy, distracted, until you got here.”
“How did they know where I was going, where I was?” he asked, for the moment ignoring shouts from policemen crouching behind their open doors to show his hands and drop to the ground.
“My GPS,” said Siri. “I made sure it stayed active and they tracked us right to you.”
Nick Ludd dropped his backpack, slowly surrendered his cell phone to the ground, and raised his hands to the late afternoon sky, clouding over. A policeman handcuffed his hands behind his back. Bowing his head, he stopped thinking and started praying.
A version of this story appeared in Literary Heist Magazine
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”