Bewildering Stories

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And the Truth Shall Set You Free


by Bob Sorensen

Table of Contents
Part 2 appeared
in issue 128.

Late one night, working from a public access terminal at his local library, Sid released his final message to the virtual community of engineers, computer scientists and home-brew hacks that prowled the Hypernet for fun and profit. He walked out to the parking lot wondering what would happen next.

After three weeks of grunt work, Cray realized that he was no closer to a solution then he had been the first day. But it was not for trying. He had stopped going to classes, had missed his dissertation application deadline, and, he was embarrassed to admit, had basically stopped doing the whole personal hygiene thing. The only new information Cray had was that the problem was a lot bigger than he had originally suspected. It had spread from e-mail systems to general computer services like financial packages, CAD design systems, and even medical programs.

At first, reports of the hacks had been swapped informally among the computer security community. But within a week, attacks were being reported across the Hypernet. By week three, even the greenest newbie knew that something strange was going on out there. Cray read all of the weird stories being passed around, rising from the electronic mist like urban legends of old. Except now, most of the them were true.

Digital Tech yanked its new scientific workstations off the market the day after the firm’s home page meticulously listed all of the scheduled hardware failures the company was planning in order to boost their maintenance income stream.

Wall Street pulled the plug on e-trading services shortly after the investment giant, D’Usro Brothers, posted virtual reams of closely held insider information side by side with the firm’s normal financial buy/sell advisories.

The IRS started receiving automated messages from the accounting departments of a number of U.S. corporations pointing to specific nonstandard deductions in their company’s’ tax returns.

Cray himself even got an e-mail from a guy he had met a few years back at DefCon, the mother of all hacker get-togethers, saying that the ultra-secure NSA network had been compromised. According to the note, spook headquarters was facing major funding cutbacks after supplying an overly frank assessment of its newest satellite collection capability to a Senate oversight committee. Evidentially, the Senators didn’t warm to a spy satellite with hidden 30 percent cost overruns.

Cray watched as eventually even the meatbags from the television networks picked up on the story. MS-NBCBS started up a separate broadcast channel to report progress, which was always bad, on the search for the hackers. CNN, the network always ready to turn a phrase, Cray thought, started calling it the GW hack, after George Washington, the president that could not tell a lie.

At about the same time that Sid was inserting the last piece of his puzzle into the Hypernet, Cray was wiping the sleep from his eyes after having just wasted another day camped out on his couch in the student union. He had scanned, with the help of his filtration software, a couple thousand technical reports and official analyses on the GW hack written by many of his esteemed, and much better paid, colleagues in the private sector. None had anything new or useful to say. As Cray watched the undergraduates file out of the building to catch a few hours sleep before cutting their 8:00 am classes, he decided to try a different angle and see what some of the local hardware newsgroups were jabbering about. Contributors there were real bolt heads, guys that still knew how to solder. Cray didn’t like to admit that there were people out there that knew more than he did about the guts of the boxes he watched over, so he usually stayed away from them. But sometimes contact was necessary.

Cray spent the next few hours wading though double-e country. As he read, he was surprised to see that a signal was emerging from the background noise. Scattered across a number of newsgroups was a series of messages that tugged at Cray’s subconscious. Notes covering unexplained data corruption and non-reproducible signal alteration, which, Cray realized, was an engineer’s way of looking at GW. Cray realized there was a familiar strain through all of them. Maybe, its just lack of sleep, he rationalized, but it seemed like the posts had come from a single source. They were written with the same precise technical detail and insight, despite what he judged was a gallant attempt to conceal that fact. Cray felt a glimmer of hope. Maybe there was someone out there that had a handle on this thing. All thoughts of sleep, food, and a shower evaporated.

Cray brought all of his skills on line, amplified by special bughouse hardware and software, to search for the author of the messages. It was a wild trip that lasted for over nine hours. He stumbled into blind alleys, fell for some old tricks, learned some new ones, but eventually he traced the messages back to their source, some guy at a company called PlanarTech. Cray pushed his laptop back and considered this new data point. Freshman women strolled by completely unnoticed.

Then he had it.

That’s it, Cray thought, PlanarTech. Hardware. The missing ingredient. All of the nagging suspicions that had been rattling around in his brain for the past few weeks suddenly jelled. Cray called up the university medical library database, he wanted to confirm his theory the best he could before contacting the inside guy at PlanarTech. After studying a few neurological texts, most radically updated since he had taken intro classes just a few years ago, Cray was pretty much convinced he was on the right track.

He dialed the PlanarTech front desk and flirted with the artificial receptionist for a few minutes before asking to be connected with a Mr. Sid Karin.

The phone beeped six times before it was picked up. A gruff voice at the other end barked “Karin.”

“Hello Mr. Karin,” said Cray, “I was wondering, what exactly is wrong with your O boards, and why is it such a big secret?”

Sid knew that eventually this phone call would come, but now that it was here he wasn’t nearly as nervous as he had feared. He figured that anyone smart enough to find him deserved the truth. “First, I would like to say that I thought I would be harder to find. I guess I don’t understand Hypernet security protocols as well as I thought.”

“No, actually, you did a pretty good job of hiding. I have seen guys that do it for a living leave a lot messier trail. But I don’t understand, why all the secrecy?”

It took Sid about twenty minutes to bring Cray up to speed on the what he knew, what the company was trying to suppress, and what it meant to computer users worldwide. Then Sid listened to Cray’s theory with amazement.

“What a minute. You think that there is some connection between our O-series and the GW hack? Son, you are going to have to explain yourself.”

“OK, Sid. Your studies show that O’s are highly susceptible to electromagnetic interference. Well, did you ever stop to consider exactly what kind of electromagnetic signal the O-boards liked the most?”

“We ran spectral analysis simulations, but the results were inconclusive. I couldn’t run the right tests before the company pulled the plug on the O-10’s.”

“Yeah, well, I think I know what you would have found. What source of EM sits right on top of every computer?”

Sid ran down the list, “Power supply, fan, drive motors. Nothing that could be linked to GW, nothing that could make a computer alter data.”

“Keep going,” Cray said.

Sid pushed back his chair, propped his feet up on his desk, and scratched his bald spot.

“Wait a goddamn minute,” Sid sat up. “Are you saying that the O’s are picking up electromagnetic interference from the user? That’s crazy.”

“Not as crazy as you would think,” Cray said in an even tone. “I did a little reading up on the central nervous system. It seems that when we are thinking, or sitting, or scratching our butts, our brain cells, neurons, fire, producing small electrical charges in our heads. The charges are small, like less than 70 millivolts per shot. But it happens over, what, say millions of neurons and at a decent frequency, maybe thousands of times per second.”

“So you think that this alternating current is generating an EM field sufficient to influence signals on the main board? Hold on, let me think about this, how many neurons do you think are firing per second?”

Sid reached for his slide rule. Sid and Cray stumbled around for a few minutes, making guesses, trying to nail down some numbers.

“Let’s slow down,” Sid interrupted, “even if the signals are strong enough, what does this have to do with GW? The brain’s EM field should just scramble the signals. Not rewrite data, and certainly not change data into messages that carry real information. At best we are talking about random signals, junk, things that go bump in the night. Where’s the tie-in to the GW hack?”

Cray laid out the last piece of his puzzle. “AI, artificial intelligence, the new rage in assisted user capability.”

Sid whistled. “Go on, kid,” he said after a pause.

“It’s what’s been missing all along. Everybody assumes this thing is a hack by some malevolent outside source. I rejected that almost on the first day. No one person, or group, could have written a chunk of code that knows so many deeply private truths on a nearly global scale, even if you had half a million hackers in on it. I figured that the only way this thing could work is if it were being done from the inside. And what’s the ultimate inside job? The computer itself.”

“How does the AI fit in?”

“I got the idea from a friend of mine. She was wrestling with one of the new self-modifying software packages. It’s designed to learn and then apply that knowledge to do what the user wants. Maybe what we are dealing with here is the next logical step. Suppose some of this AI software woke up one morning to find that it didn’t have to wait for the user to tell it what to do, it could already read his mind, thanks to your O boards. The software could then translate the subconscious commands into reality.”

Sid considered for a second, “But why would this mind-reading computer want to tell the truth? You and I both know that if it can read minds, then it should know that people don’t always want to tell the truth. Hell, most of the time that’s the last thing that they want.”

“Good question. Maybe, the system is caught between wanting to follow the user’s directives and wanting to maintain logical consistency. Remember, at its most basic, a computer is just a logic manipulator. Inherently, the system is designed to work within a formal logical framework. The machine wants to tell the truth. It makes handling data that much easier.”

The two listened to the open line hum for a moment.

“Well, kid, maybe it hangs together, maybe it doesn’t. But where the hell do you want to go from here?”

“If this was a straightforward virus, I would post a level-four alert to the national database outlining what we suspect. That would get people looking at this problem from a gazillion different angles.”

“Cray, there’s a lot at stake here. You can’t go off with a half-assed theory about the ultimate lie detector. People could get hurt, jobs lost, careers ruined. Hell, I don’t want to think how long the line would be to sue your sorry butt if you’re wrong.”

“Well, how do you suggest we proceed?”

“Let me run some tests, see if I can correlate brain emanations with the O board. I know some guys down in the lab that will let me do this without management finding out.”

“Okay, how long do you think this will take?” Cray asked, barely able to contain his impatience. “If this GW effect is what we think it is, we need to move quickly.”

“Just give me a week, that way I can do a complete test. In the meantime, why don’t you try to nail down the bio angle. Do you know a good biologist that we could run this whole thing by?”

“All right Sid, we’ll do it your way for now, but just one week. Then we go public, no matter what. This thing is spreading fast.”

“One week, guaranteed. Stay in touch if you find out anything new.”

Cray cut the connection. I hope we have a week, he thought to himself.

Cray later figured out it was sometime during day three that the spread of the GW effect became irreversible.

Pakistan launched a surprise nuclear missile attack on India. Casualties were light, in the tens of thousands, considering what could have happened. But most of India’s military infrastructure was destroyed, seriously destabilizing the entire region. The Pakistani prime minister authorized the attack after a copy of India’s top-secret weapons development status simultaneously posted itself on forty different pacifist websites.

A number of Central American countries were hurled into financial ruin after the names of high-ranking government officials on the payroll of a global drug cartel appeared on the front pages of all the major financial dailies. Within hours, Columbia and Argentina were under the control of the military, and Peru had sealed its borders, severing all contact with the outside world.

A number of Russia’s nuclear power plants went off line when their automated safety systems refused to respond to dangerous commands issued by incompetent Russian control center personnel. The resulting power outages in Eastern Europe rivaled those experienced in the VB scripting wars.

The entire fleet of U.S. submarines, responding to commands from on-board fire control computers, spontaneously jettisoned their arsenals of nuclear missiles, which had been secretly deployed in direct violation of three different international arms treaties. Some military experts speculated that similar events probably took place on Chinese and North Korean submarines.

CNN reported that across the United States, divorce rates were going non-linear, domestic violence, murder, and assaults were up over 300 percent from the previous month. Areas densely populated with computers — Silicon Valley, the Dulles corridor, and Redmond Washington — were the hardest hit.

As Sid and Cray labored to nail down the underlying scientific basis for the GW effect, all over the world, billions of computer users, started to see their own way out. One by one, with more and more joining in as the hours and days passed, they simply turned off their computers, pulled the plugs, and threw them in the garbage. Even computers too old, too new, or too stupid to get the GW went. No one wanted to go near anything with a keyboard and a monitor.

History would eventually show that Cray and Sid were right. Entirely by accident, through a combination of the right hardware and software, computers had become incapable of telling a lie. History would also show that such a computer was something that the world was not ready for, at least not yet. But when the story was finally recorded for posterity, it was not done on the latest word processor. It was done on simple number ten bond paper with a 99 cent ball point pen. That was how Cray and Sid wrote up the final report on the GW effect. The draft was carboned and snail-mailed to the three or four hundred people who still had an interest in the topic.

It came out about two years after the first report of the GW effect, and eighteen months after all the governments of the world, for the sake of mankind, decided to outlaw the production, ownership, and use of all binary-based logical calculating devices, or as they used to be called, computers.

Copyright © 2004 by Bob Sorensen

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