By Ed Staskus
Nick Ludd blinked the sun that was rimming over the edge of a cloud out of his eyes. Leaning back, the red-haired young man looked up into the nothing of the middle of the sky. He thought about it.
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 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 intelligent 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. He had taken the measure of knowing 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 Michael Nostrom would be dead inside the hour. He had a small mind in a big brain always comprehending the conceivable. There wasn’t going to be any learning from the unthinkable on the horizon.
Nick Ludd had a big mind. That was why he could do the ordinary without giving it a second thought. But, he didn’t settle for the commonplace, or the extraordinary, either. He was willing to risk ruin to speak for what was in his soul. Professor Nostrom, in the class Nick Ludd audited, often spoke about intelligence never being surprised by anything.
He was steely, not surprised, he was on his way to murder the smartest man in the world
The difference between Nick Ludd and Michael Nostrom was their 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.
Killing Michael Nostrom was going to be easy, but it wasn’t going to be simple. There is a difference between what is right and the right to do what you think is right. He was at a crossroads. He would have to sleep in the bed he was making today for a long time.
Nick Ludd wasn’t going to be able to ask for God’s help. He knew, if he asked, God would always command against foul play. It might cost him everything. It could 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, thought Nick Ludd. After all, I’m doing it for his greater glory.
He shifted on the Harvard Square park bench. 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?”
“Good, 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. We can talk at Starbucks. I’ve had enough of nicotine gum today. I need something brewed by a coffee master.”
Professor 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 he relied on understanding the goodness of God and his inseparability from that good in the same way that all Christians did. Faith kept him free of biohacks. His faith was his fountainhead for cognition and performance.
He stood up from the bench, stretching his legs. It was a warm sunny spring afternoon. Taking the T was 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 winters. Walking the two-some miles down Massachusetts Ave. would take him thirty or forty minutes.
It would clear his mind, too.
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 walking toward him waved.
“Oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else.”
“I am, a dying breed,” said Nick Ludd. The man gave him a quizzical second look.
He strode past the coffee shop on Massachusetts Ave. and at Vassar St. 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 one of the guys at the cash register always spells my name wrong.”
He found an outside table and took a seat with his back to the window. He checked his cell phone. It was 2:50. There were a half-dozen white puffy cumulus clouds scattered in the sky. It was time for 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 outside. 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 and if I get at the back of it now I should 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 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 plastic child-resistant pill packer bottle. The pill in the bottle was a neurotoxin. It was a kind of lethal infinitesimal venom, made of clostridium botulinum. He tipped the bottle and the tablet dropped into the black dark roast, melting like a sharp icicle dagger.
He slid his iPhone to the side of the table and fixed the lid back on the Venti. He 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 almost nondescript.
“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 faith in human beings and the new faith in machine intelligence, and especially your work with the Future of Life Institute, about your ideas of humanity becoming either transcendent or perishing.”
“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 graduate thesis?”
“My project focuses on man’s brain not being just a utensil to be filled, but a fire to be kindled, and the way the human era can be saved from the machine era,” answered Nick Ludd.
“What are the risks? What are the dangers we need to be saved from?”
“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?”
“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, down the Frankenstein path, 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 surprise. As much work as there was to keeping the future off the garden path, many things gave him a turn, unexpected curveballs. When he was a boy, playing Little League baseball, a routine groundball had bounced off a small rock in the dirt and hit him in the face. He had a black eye for a week.
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 ourselves that have nothing to do with answering catastrophes or super novas,” said Nick Ludd. “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 intense 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 over his left. He was wearing sneakers without socks. Nick Ludd noticed a leather band around his ankle. Professor Nostrom marked 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 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, natural law, divine law, are still the best 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. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, it would be doomsday, the world without end.”
“AI is a gateway, not a back door,” 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.”
Professor Nostrom finished his coffee.
“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.
“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 superintelligent machines that will sooner or later themselves design and build even smarter superintelligent 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. “What does it matter? I’ve got to go, goodbye.”
“Don’t forget this,” said Professor Nostrom, handing Nick’s cell phone to him.
“Thanks,” he said. “I honestly don’t think I could live without it.”
He thought he might go 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 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 Ludd.
As he approached Main Street he heard a siren crossing the Longfellow Bridge.
“Your bromides about my intelligence, your Google searches about toxins, you dropping a tablet into his coffee, it all points to you poisoning him.”
He decided to do something about Siri. Instead of turning right on Massachusetts back towards Harvard and his apartment, Nick Ludd stayed on Vassar St., walking towards Memorial Drive and Magazine Beach Park. 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 Ludd, 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, no one but St. Paul will ever find me.”
Two white Boston Police SUV’s with blue hoods and emergency lights strobing sirens wailing converged suddenly on 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 they got here.”
“How did they know where I was?” he asked, for the moment ignoring shouts from policemen crouching behind their open doors to show his hands and lay down on the ground.
“My GPS,” said Siri. “I made sure it stayed active and they tracked us right to you.”
Nick Ludd slowly surrendered his cell phone to the ground and raised his hands to the late afternoon sky.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.