Friday, November 13, 2009

The Quantum Mechanic: Chapter Eleven

The Quantum Mechanic
A Superhero Story of Ethic Contortions

Chapter 10 - Chapter 11: Intelligent Design - Chapter 12

"Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world's age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man's share of that age; & anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would. I dunno."
- Mark Twain,
Was the World Made for Man?

In an airtight bio-dome upon a rocky asteroid, circling the Sun in an orbit perpendicular to the main solar plane, a bird-like creature catches a whiff of something in the air. It circles about, picks a spot of bare earth upon the ground, and touches down. Pecking and clawing, it tills the soil a few inches around, then nestles into the softened patch of dirt. Its talons reach and grasp ever downward. Over the next few days, fibrous tendrils grow from its legs to draw nutrients from the soil. Flesh hardens to bark, feathers molt and are replaced by leaves.

"Is voyeurism wrong?" Gleck cocks an eyebrow at the question upon the page.

"You know, I've been thinking about that one for a while. I'm not sure. On the one hand, it's an invasion of privacy. But so what? It's no harm to you for another person to see, well, anything you do. We're beyond trade secrets now, I should hope, and people can be strong enough to do as they please no matter what anyone else has to say about it.

"By the same token, however, if you'd like to keep something private - I mean, I want to say that that should be allowed. I have a secret identity, after all. But nobody can hide anything from me - I can't afford to let them, otherwise someone could get seriously hurt while I'm not looking. It's complicated. I'm not really sure."

On Phobos, one of the moons of Mars, a man named Duncan taps the SCIENCE lunar computer to work on a molecular design he's been tooling around with lately. It uses carbon lattice structures and molecular logic gates to ensure an unusually high level of copying fidelity in genetic structures with a complex interlocking series of failsafes and error-correcting measures. In plain English, it makes fewer mistakes making genes by backing up and trying again whenever a problem comes up. It works perfectly once it's in place, but Duncan's problem is that he can't get the molecular superstructure itself to self-assemble. It strikes him as rather like trying to build an arch without a scaffold.

"What about exhibitionism?" The impromptu question catches Douglas off-guard.

"What about it? People have bodies. Everybody's naked under their clothes, and that's assuming that they even still wear clothes. I don't see as how seeing a naked body is any more potentially harmful than having one."

"What about more than bodies? Like sex acts? Or bondage scenes in public?"

"Well, that might gross people out, sure. I don't really think it's harmful. I guess people can do what they like in their own space, and there can be public spaces for doing whatever. That's not too much different from how things were before."

"Well, suppose fifty people wanted to have an orgy in a restaurant. Wouldn't that be unsanitary?"

"So what? It's not like there's disease outside of laboratories any more."

"I guess I gotta give you that one."

Gloria watches Jupiter's red spot churn and swirl from the porthole of her space station. DNA-scrambling radiation is diverted around the vehicle by magnetic fields, and an iridescent aurora blooms in its dusty wake. She loves to think of all that raw power, captured and focused in something so wild and transient as a storm, a travelling disturbance on what appears to be a smooth, polished marble to a distant-enough observer. A hand closes gently upon her right ankle, and she feels a nibble at her Achilles tendon. A tongue begins to explore behind her left knee as two more hands firmly take hold of her thigh and calf. She turns away from all the intensity in front of her to create some of her own.

"What happens if more than one person wants to have the Mona Lisa?"

"Then I'll create another one exactly like it."

"But that won't be 'the' Mona Lisa, now will it?"

"Does it matter?"

"It does to some people. 'The Mona Lisa' means 'a particular portrait painted by Leonardo Da Vinci.' He only painted one, the copy you make would only be a copy of it."

"In a sense, yes; however, in another sense, it would be identical at every level of detail. What's the difference?"

"Well, one was actually painted by a guy centuries ago, the other was conjured in a flash by you."

"I don't think you understand what 'identical at every level of detail' means. They're identical objects. What does it matter which one's technically been around longest? They're the same thing for all intents and purposes."

"Well, you could say the same thing for people, I guess. I'm different than a copy you could make of me."

"Again, yes and no. You would be different than a copy of yourself, but only because that identical copy would immediately diverge from the path the 'original' you takes. But this is obviously true, and completely uninteresting. It's just a consequence of the fact that you can't be in the same place as your copy, at the same time. What's interesting is that your path is always diverging: you are never exactly the same person from one moment to the next. You're always changing, always in flux, never staying exactly the same.

"Your composition, in a way, is your history. It makes more sense to say that of the Mona Lisa, though. What I'm saying is that whether I put the original in a museum and copies in people's houses, or the original in a house and copies in the museum, you could never tell which one was which because they'd be identical up to the moment of divergence, and then they'd each behave as the other would in whatever environments they go to."

Mirabella smiles in her private laboratory. She has been working on something she only calls "the device," an anonymous-looking black goo that isn't doing anything interesting right now. The goo itself is composed of nanomachines which are assembled by living bacteria. When present in large enough numbers, the nanomachines can perform a wide array of computations, and they can modify their parent bacteria as needed to grow any of a number of body structures. In geek terms, it is a retroviral nanomechanical bacterial symbiote, designed to interface with a living brain in its own terms. The problem Mirabella is running into is that she can cram all the necessary programming architecture into a few ounces of device, but it changes too much as it grows, and the results of such early, unplanned changes are rarely pretty. Programming the necessary redundancy into the startup volume will probably require a gallon or so. Oh, well. This means that mice can't use it effectively, and she'll have to test on larger animals.

"Child porn. Hoo, boy. What about child porn?"

"Hm. That's a tough one. Children cannot understand the issues at work in pornography. They can't possibly be expected to consent to the activities they're being asked to participate in. So I'm just going to say no. Sure, maybe there are some precocious kids out there who can handle it - too bad. If they're that mature, then they damn well ought to be mature enough to understand why I don't want to encourage pedophiles."

"What if a forty-year-old man asks to be put into the body of an eight-year-old boy?" The Quantum Mechanic is silent. Douglas knows where this is going. "Could that person then participate in pornographic activities?"

"You know what? I think so. And I'll tell you why: because that's actually a forty-year-old man in an eight-year-old costume. That's where I'm drawing the line, for now. It's not child porn unless it involves actual children, human juveniles. The skin that a particular performer of appropriate age chooses to wear is irrelevant, because that's not an actual child engaging in sex acts. At this point, trying to restrict people's activities is like trying to restrict their imagination, which is stupid, so I don't care."

"What if that guy asked you to regress his mind to that of an eight-year-old?"

"He's going to be disappointed. I will not erase people's memories."

"Not even if they ask you? What if it's a painful memory?"

"Then that's a part of reality that that person needs to learn to deal with. End of story. If the truth makes you uncomfortable, then you need to change your attitude, because the truth just is what it is."

In another laboratory, a woody vine spirals around and upon itself over the course of months. It thickens as it grows, strands merging together as they pile on top of one another. Tree-like now, it still twists as it grows away from the ground, knobs and knots emerging at regular intervals all the way up the spiral. Taller, thicker, the knobs flatten into step-like projections while the knots hollow out into holes the size of a man. A canopy blooms overhead, and fruit-bearing vines descend from the branches, leaving luscious multi-colored orbs hanging within arm's reach of the recessed pits in the trunk. Victor, the man who coaxed the tree's genetic code into self-modifying to reveal its present form, calls it "the treehouse."

"What's the One Truth of the Universe?"

"Well, that's a nonsense question if I ever heard one. What makes you think the Universe has a single truth to offer?"

"I dunno, it just seems like there would be a fundamental starting point or something. Maybe a moral lesson, or some kind of command, just something of a central principle that everything else organizes around."

"Hm. How about, 'Nothing is true, all is permitted.' Does that work for you?"

"That doesn't really make sense."

"Neither does life, most of the time. What do you want from me?"

Douglas is a little distracted from the Interview; he's trying to build a laser rifle. Nobody builds weapons these days - at least, not real ones. The so-called "weapons" used in alternate reality games are little more than props, animated by Doug's force of will whenever the need arises. But if Douglas is killed by the Entropic Engineer, or if he needs to kill himself to get rid of them both, then he wants the rest of humanity to be able to keep on fighting. And so Douglas prepares alone for whatever Heaven may throw at him. Plasma is powerful, but messy and fairly short-range. Lasers are neat and quick, but power storage is a problem. Or, rather, it is difficult to conveniently store the amount of power he would like, in a way that can be arbitrarily tapped just a little bit at a time. Solving the containment problem in an efficient manner requires failsafes, and the failsafes are either too bulky or too unreliable, requiring further failsafes which have almost the same damn problem all over again.

Wait a second. He's coming at this all wrong. He should be outsourcing creativity to the rest of the solar system, and developing from the best of that! On Triton, Valerie DeGrassi has made an imprintable synthetic intelligence (Douglas never liked the term "artificial intelligence" - smarts is smarts, in his book). She only installs it into tiny robot animals, but they bond with each other and her, experiencing affection for those they recognize as fellow thinking beings. Douglas learns from her idea made reality, then tries to apply it to the problem at hand.

A smart rifle can learn to know where it's pointing, can fire at the right time on its own, and can regulate itself for the safety of the person wielding it. Douglas gives his rifle the gift of intelligence, and the desire to be safe for its owner. Then he designs a power delivery system that can be dynamically directed by the rifle's brain, scales up the hardware to meet the computational demands, tweaks a few things, and voila! Now it all works perfectly.

OK, now it's time to scale up the whole project. Douglas recalls that black holes can appear to evaporate when a vacuum fluctuation produces a particle travelling directly away from the edge of the event horizon, and thus an antiparticle travelling directly into it. Inside, the antiparticle meets another counterpart, and the two annihilate one another, leaving the system with a tiny bit less mass. Douglas plays around for a bit, and then figures out a way to throw a bit of very dense mass into a tiny wormhole linked to Sol's core, catalyzing a tremendous release of focused energy. Magnets and lasers are involved, as well as a whole lot of math, but the end result is like sticking a fork into an electrical socket. He makes a note to never, ever, ever point this at anyone he loves, then positions a few dozen of the cannons at strategic points around the solar system.

There. Humanity has laser rifles and starbeam cannons at their disposal, as well as a whole bunch of nifty spacecraft and environment suits. If Douglas hadn't stopped everyone from fighting each other, they could very well annihilate themselves to the one just like they had the capacity to do back on Earth. But now they've got an enemy, and nothing unifies people like a common antagonist. Heaven can go to Hell.


Cathy S said...

I like this chapter, even if some of it may be questionable content [especially to the all-too-sensitive psychologically-projecting Catholic church!].

I once went to a Catholic school, and boy the rhetoric of abortion was, dare I say, too sensitive to my liberal, science-savvy mind! Fortunately, the school didn't ban the use of the word 'evolution'.

In fact, one of the documentaries that my teacher shown in my science class (which was also the title of a book I have by Carl Zimmer) got me awake from my naive sleepy state.

I eventually realised that any story regarding the afterlife of the Christian variety was bland...which is indeed a wonder: if the heaven they speak of is so wonderful, then why do they have to give so many terms and conditions for anyone to enter?

[Ok, this is sounding a little like the main problem of Chapter 10!]

D said...

Hooray for Questionable Content! Lots of people, it turns out, have some really warped ideas about reality an' stuff.

Have you ever been to Daylight Atheism? He's got a great post called A Cold and Sterile Heaven. I won't lie, it's one of my sources of inspiration for that chapter.

Paradisiacal afterlives seem to be based on whatever the Hell the people at the time thought was just the bee's knees. A modern Heaven would be full of Armani-clad go-getters with a Lexus for everyone and a condo on the beach with parties every night. Or something similarly trite. And it's the same bullshit as always: line up behind the Authority, and things will go your way. Don't blindly trust, and you'll suffer ruinously for it. So stupid.