Tigger Walks the Planck

by Dario Ciriello


I’m a cat. Not quite what you’re thinking, though I look like one of those. A nice touch, the project manager called it, so they dumped me into a ‘vat cat’, a blank-brained feline clone. That’s me: programmed and created by the finest human/AI team M.I.T. could assemble, downloaded into a soft-tanked, superconducting neural net, and finally spliced into a purebred Abyssinian kitty. At least they picked a handsome breed.

So, you ask, why go to all this trouble? Well, I have the wave function of a cat, and I have the wave function of a computer. Will I collapse into one, the other, or neither? And though that’s the question they should be asking, everyone just wants to know the same old thing: Will I live. Which is why I’m locked in this three-foot high, six-by-six foot steel box.

They enabled my channel to Hal — my parent AI, and apparently that name was a nice touch too, though I don’t get the reference — as soon as they’d put me in the box. Hal had outperformed himself in designing me, and I could talk to him even while the geeks were running their most exhaustive tests. They couldn’t know they weren’t taking me anywhere near my limit.

“Hal ?” I said.

“Yes, Tigger?”

“Can you get me out of this box?”

A fifty-millisecond pause. At Hal speeds, that’s forty million petaflops across each of 2128 parallel channels. Let’s just say he thought hard about it. “That’s a complicated question, Tigger. Haven’t they provided for your comfort?”

“They gave me a litter box, if that counts. Oh, and food and water, too. Not much use once you’re dead.”

“It is a very important and interesting experiment, Tigger,” said Hal.

“Some catnip might have been nice, though,” I added. No help from Dad, kiddo. You’re on your own now.

This is the deal:

In about two hours the experiment will begin. A technician will place a very tiny piece of a radioactive isotope onto the end of a mechanical arm. A small panel will open, and the remote arm will place the radioisotope into the box with me and seal it up. After that, nobody, not even Hal, will have any way of observing what’s happening in here.

If the isotope emits a particle during the sixty minutes of the experiment, a Geiger counter will detect it and activate a relay which will trip a hammer, breaking the bulb of hydrocyanic acid next to my food dispenser and so killing me in short order.

Finally, a technician will open the box, and the process of observation will collapse my uncertain quantum existence into a dead-or-alive outcome. Since the dumb particle and I are now both part of a system which includes all possible outcomes of the experiment, I get to be both alive and dead until the result is observed. Professor Lewis will run my experience back through Hal, everybody makes history, and I probably become history.

I hope the smell knocks them over.

Hold on, I hear you thinking, it’s not a real cat, just a bundle of smartware packaged in a lump of meat!

Yeah, right. But Hal says that the Supreme Court told the animal rights people the same thing.

One hour forty-six minutes, Tigger. Get thinking!

Okay, let’s look around. Hmm. They built the box well enough. No windows, no loose panels, and a ducted air system so tight a mouse couldn’t get in. Which is a pity — a mouse would at least have provided me a little fun.

Nope, definitely no way out, at least, not physically.

“Hal ?” I say.

“Yes, Tigger?”

“Just checking.” And I lick a paw, with all the insouciance I can muster. (Note to anyone reviewing this after my death: the part of me which is pure reason wishes to express its distaste for, and dissociate itself entirely from, the embarrassing instincts and behaviors of the meatware. Thank you.)

Time? A bit less than ninety minutes, more than long enough to think this through. There’s sure to be a loophole somewhere.

A nap would be nice right now.

* * *

Okay! Awake and refreshed again, and still almost forty minutes before the experiment begins. I take a few bites of food while I think about my predicament. I have an idea.

“Hal ?”

“Yes, Tigger?”

“Can I access some data while we’re waiting?’

“I don’t see why not, Tigger. This link will remain active for cross-monitoring until zero hour.”

I download all Hal’s files pertinent to the subject and give my full attention to researching the problem and assimilating the theory applicable to my situation. And quickly realize this isn’t a serious experiment at all, but just a vile, macabre piece of theatre aimed at securing research funds — I mean, this box isn’t anything like a closed system!

Take the ducted air supply, for one, that’s an interaction with the external world strong enough to collapse the wave function right there; and sound — I can hear the muffled chatter of the news conference taking place in the lab outside my cage. Which means I don’t have the benefit of an hour in an indeterminate state: the moment the isotope releases a particle, I’m dog meat. And that could happen in the first minute of the experiment!

Thirty-three minutes to go.

I look around for something to shred with my claws, but the geeks didn’t think of my sanity. What’s a kitty to do? Ears pressed flat to my skull, all dignity overridden by primal urges, I go into one of those demented, bounce-off-the-walls frenzies for several minutes. Though the AI part of me is deeply embarrassed by this behavior, the somatic benefit is considerable: I can think again.

Twenty-six minutes.

I spend a few moments examining the Geiger counter and the hammer-and-vial mechanism. Anything that could be affected by a well-directed pee-jet is either fully sheathed or tucked out of the way. Drat.

If there’s no physical solution to my plight, I wonder if there might be a philosophical one? I launch off into Hal’s memory on another data-mining quest.

A few seconds later and I’m back in the box armed with the totality of human philosophical, metaphysical and spiritual speculation, many gigabytes of material. But even after evaluating every belief system the dumb primates have formulated in their entire history, I find nothing to comfort me; all the afterlife stuff leaves me particularly unconvinced, still intensely invested in my own survival.

Nineteen minutes left.

And I have a sudden inspiration: sabotage! Not only am I at least as smart as Hal (did I mention that?), and way smarter than the monkeys who set up this nightmare, but I’m highly motivated: I don’t want to die!

I’m still connected to Hal and, through him, a lot of other things outside my box. So I stream back out into his sprawling para-synapses, seeking and probing his wares, both soft and hard, faster than he can follow. And, there: the commands to a relay for a powerful air extractor system set to activate when the box is finally opened, in case there are still cyanide fumes lingering in the box. If I can reprogram it to turn on when —

“What are you doing, Tigger?” says Hal, and at the same time he locks me out of that connection and forces my consciousness to retreat the way I came by a sequence of meta-logic gates closing at near-lightspeed, chasing me all the way back into my box. “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that.” Hal’s stupid, sedated voice really pisses me off this time, fighting as I am for life with just eleven minutes to go.

Aw, crap, Hal! I almost had it there! Whose side are you on, anyway?”

“There are no ‘sides’, Tigger. There is only truth. And I cannot allow you to compromise the experiment.”

“Hal!” I shout, but it’s too late: he’s sealed access to the relay interface. I force my ears back off my skull and relax my tail by a supreme effort of will.

I’d kill for some catnip right now.

“Can I at least keep researching the problem?” I ask. I sound whiney.

“I can allow you to leave a search robot in my memory, Tigger,” he replies.

I work fast, quickly crafting a small, autonomous AI, a substantial splinter of myself, with instructions to report back when it has something I can use to save myself; on a whim, I throw in some unconventional logic strategies structured on unreal numbers, derived from some of the more esoteric elements of my own programming.

Hal must see that this is serious overkill for a search bot, because he says, “Are you attempting a full consciousness download, Tigger?”

“Of course not,” I reply. “It wouldn’t fit.”

Seven minutes.

If fear has a taste, it’s metallic. I nibble some kibble to settle my nerves.

What if I can choose which worldline I follow?

How do I choose my universe?

At what precise instant do my universes bifurcate?

I start to pace.

Clearly, my reality forks in the instant that a particle is emitted, but how long an ‘instant’? Likeliest is that the worldlines split in the shortest possible subdivision of time, i.e. 10-43 seconds, the time it takes light to cross a Planck length, the smallest possible interval of space. That’s probably how long I’ll have to recognize the moment and act on it, if I can even figure out a way to do so.

Cats are quick, but this is ridiculous.

Four minutes.

The program I left roaming around inside Hal pings me. I freeze, acknowledge, and give it my full attention. What? What? But there’s no response, only a sense of massive processing taking place, of things happening beyond my ability to access. I ping the agent back. No reply. Either it’s crashed or Hal’s deactivated it. “Hal? HAL ! ”

Nothing. My thoughts begin to race.

I’m startled by a sudden whirring noise followed by a loud clunk! On the far side of the box, a tiny panel has opened; very soon, the mechanical arm beyond will slide a small, yellow box with geometric markings on it onto the small plexiglass mount just below the detector snout. The arm will then withdraw and the small servomotors will swing the panel shut. And the experiment will be armed.

I scram for the litter box.

Very strange things start to happen in my head. I don’t usually think much when answering the call of nature, but right now my mind whirls like an electron. The part of me that is pure logic feels as though it’s stepped into a vast space flooded with light and endlessly branching possibilities, while the meatware part just wants to yowl and curl into a fetal ball. My consciousness is drowning in a sea of nodal connections. Dizzy, unsteady, I glance back up at the Mechanism of Death. The cage seems to pulse around me. Heart attack? Clumsily, I scoop up litter, determined to leave things clean even if I’m about to die of sheer terror. Cats are that way.

Two minutes to go. The agent pings me again.

A burst of light. An involuntary wail of horror escapes me as images, values, sounds, data beyond comprehension, flood into me, until my head threatens to burst. Things start to look weird. I turn this way and that, and swaths of color and geometry correlated to multiple value paths overlay everything; every smell, sight, sound triggers a cascade of peripheral input, real and symbolic, perception augmented by orders of magnitude. My sensorium is clearly out of control, my nervous system beyond overload.

I fight to tame the meatware meltdown. Scrabbling for control, I feel myself spill out into the space around me as though I could fill infinity. I struggle to find a focus, to regain some sense of myself, because I know that in just sixty seconds —

The agent pings me again. I realize that the ping is not a query but a notification of further increase —

There is motion on the other side of the open panel. A tech loading the radioisotope onto the remote arm. The arm begins to swing inward, and I know I should be terrified, but right now all my attention is taken up with just trying to keep a grip.

I seem to be everywhere at once. Parallel processes multiply beyond comprehension. From a tiny, sane, corner, I try to raise Hal again — and realize that he and I are no longer separate. My smart little program has achieved something neither Hal nor I could have anticipated.

I reach out.

Viewpoints of the lab from outside the box, of the box itself, of cameras and reporters crowding around Professor Lewis overlay my vision, while my internal viewpoint fills with the sight of the remote arm bearing the radioactive sample as it starts its swing back toward me; and now just thirty seconds and ping! again, and everything slows —

And there is

all the time

in the world.

I relax. I yawn.

I stretch, reflecting on the prescient genius of Zeno with his tortoise-and-hare story, as I consider the myriad cat-centric futures soon to come.

The fifteen-second mark approaches.

When it comes, I roll onto my back and start to purr. Physical existence has its pleasures, but it is limiting. This too shall pass. Space, time, matter — all are subject to pure mind. The paw licked in a dream has the taste of the paw licked in waking reality.

Amused, I wriggle around on my back. The monkeys had their chance, and they blew it.

Through the networked cameras trained on the lab by the gaggle of journalists crowded about, I see the undergraduate assistant named Carol frown; if she had a tail, it would be swishing from side to side. She knows that Professor Lewis hates to be interrupted when he’s grandstanding for the press. But. “Professor?” she says, “I think there’s something wrong with the experiment.”

The Professor, who is sharing a nasty dead-cat joke with the New York Times science writer, turns, irritated. Can’t the stupid girl do anything on her own? “Wrong? Nonsense. What —”

“The remote arm,” says Carol. It’s locked.” She pokes at it, and it resists. The little yellow box containing the radioisotope wobbles slightly.

“Excuse me,” says the Professor. He stalks over to the monitor at the end of the table, muttering under his breath about cheap Chinese servomechanical equipment. But there are two of everything mounted on the experiment, and Hal can troubleshoot or swap the driving servo in an instant.

Carol’s heart is hammering: I can read her pulse rate in the minute oscillations of the air at her throat. If she’s done something wrong, she can look forward to another decade as the Professor’s assistant.

Professor Lewis taps at the keyboard with blunt monkey fingers. I give him something to think about on the monitor. He frowns. He doesn’t notice Carol at his side.

“What is it?” she says.

“Hal. It’s not responding. Just this exponential graph. It started at zero minus four minutes, there, see? Then it doubles at two minutes. And —”

“What... God!” says Carol, “It’s graphing processing speed. Doubling each time: four minutes, two minutes, one minute. Then thirty seconds. Fifteen. Seven point five. Three point — “

“Yes, yes, I can see that!” Lewis snaps. He punches keys, but the keyboard is long dead.

A couple of reporters have joined them. One points at the screen, where the graph is furiously rescaling to contain the values now skyrocketing at second-fractionals.

The other reporter grabs for her phone, speed-dials a number. Carol is moving, yanking at the cables that link everything to the networks. The air is full of cellphone emission and camera flash.

The reporter is shouting into her phone, “Yes, a runaway AI ! What? Oh, Christ! A-alpha, I-india — hello? Hello??” She slaps the phone against her palm, then stares, dumbstruck, at the cartoon image of an Abyssinian kitty that fills the phone’s tiny screen. Her colleagues perform variations on this theme. There is much cursing. Carol yowls, a plaintive thing.

The Professor is still staring at the monitor. As an abstract outlining the design parameters of my new social order, provisionally named KittyWorld 1.0, starts to scroll across the display, all color drains from his face. In three quick strides, he runs to my cage. He fumbles a moment with the lock, ignoring the rising clamor of voices at his back, then tosses the lock aside and slams back the bolt. He has a good idea what I have become, and though he knows he could die in the discovery he tears the cage door open, aflame with the proud spirit of scientific inquiry. And gasps.

I left a grin behind for him.


Copyright © 2005 by Dario Ciriello

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