Bradley handed Cowan a spare linkline without leaving the Sim, which was sort of impressive. Did she have a panel open in there with her, showing her a camera feed from inside the truck? Cowan popped the linkline in above his ear. His body tingled as the inside of the autotruck drained away to reveal a featureless black room.
His normal Sim avatar was nothing special, just an anime businessman with green hair and glowing data glasses. His current non-darkSim handle was Philo, though he had at least three other “clean” accounts. “Clear me for your systems?” Cowan asked.
Bright panels appeared all around him. Cowan tagged and moved them, organizing them into scanners, template boxes, and camera feeds. He started by verifying Bradley’s work, scanning for any signal that might be controlling the rogue synthcop.
Cowan spotted plenty of wireless traffic, but nothing directed at the construction site, and nothing on the encrypted frequency synthcops used to communicate. If someone was controlling the synthcop remotely, they weren’t doing it via wireless.
He pulled over the feeds from T-Conn and opened all street cameras watching the construction site, tapping through until he found one featuring the synthcop. It crouched behind a concrete barrier, in decent cover. Was it expecting an assault?
“Has it made any demands?” Cowan asked.
Zhang chuckled back in meatspace, which was similar to having a disembodied chuckle join you in a locked room. “Like, it wants oil or something?”
“No. Has it asked to speak to a negotiator?”
“We haven’t tried to talk to it,” Bradley said, “because it kept shooting at us.”
A golden door seared itself into the side of Cowan’s dark rectangle, and then a tall woman with pale skin, overly mascara’d eyes, and bright green hair stepped into the room with him. Melissa Bradley, or sn0wing in the Sim. She shared her panels with him.
“Talking to it might help us understand what it wants,” Cowan said. “It has to have a reason for holding the construction site.”
“You mean the person who hacked it,” sn0wing said. Now that she was in the Sim with him, it just seemed natural to think of her using her handle.
“Not necessarily,” Cowan said. “You’re right that there’s no remote signal, and I don’t any physical connections. There’s a chance this synthcop is acting on its own.”
“Is that possible?” Sarisa asked. Her voice was out there in the void too, but comforting.
“I’ll know in a second.” Cowan zoomed the panel watching the synthcop, close enough to see the round, sealed port on its triangular head. “That’s a 600 series, isn’t it?”
“Does that matter?” sn0wing asked.
“It might.” Cowan opened a link to the CID database and pulled out all available schematics for synthcops. He shotgunned those panels across the wall, isolated the schematics for the 600 series, and opened his fingers to size up the panel.
“Yup.” He’d been right. “600 series.”
“Get to the point, man,” Zhang said.
“I think that synthcop has a CLU box,” Cowan said. “I bet that’s why it’s shooting at you from the construction site. Something or someone gave it a good reason to do that.”
“What’s a CLU box?” sn0wing asked. “And what it is with engineers and overly clever abbreviations?”
“It’s not an abbreviation,” Cowan said. “It’s short for conclusion … in this case, drawing them. It’s basically a black box with a mess of fuzzy logic, with the ability to learn from success and failure. A synthetic with a CLU box can draw conclusions based on the results of what it does, then update its operational parameters to incorporate new ones.”
“Couldn’t that lead to emergent behavior?” Sarisa asked.
“That’s what everyone else was worried about,” Cowan said, “which is why there’s only 25 synthcops with CLU boxes in the field. San Diego beta testing.” Cowan had read about that in Synthetic Digest. “They entered the field a couple of months ago. The hope is to make better police officers.”
“Seems like it just makes them shoot people,” Zhang said.
“We need to talk to that synthcop,” Cowan said, “so I’m going to open a wireless communications channel.” He glanced at sn0wing. “That okay by you guys?”
She shrugged. “You’re the expert.”
“Great.” Cowan circled the head of the synthcop with one glowing finger, then squeezed that line and pulled another line out. He pressed that line to his own head. “Officer 817,” Cowan said over the wireless, “this is CID Detective Soto. Respond, please.”
Officer 817 terminated the wireless connection.
“Now that’s really strange.” Cowan tried again and got the same result. “Hanging up on a human operator violates its operational parameters, or should. What’s it thinking?”
“You got that it’s shooting at us, right?” Zhang sounded annoyed now. “Seems like it just said ‘fuck my operational parameters’.”
“It’s impossible for a VI to ignore its operational parameters.” Cowan had actually written a paper on VIs and fuzzy logic in college. “I bet it’s trying to tell us something, without, you know. Actually telling us something.”
“Say what?” Zhang asked.
“Imagine my superior officer ordered me not to talk to you. I have to follow that order … I have no choice … so instead, I write down what I want to tell you on a piece of paper. I can’t violate my orders, but I need to communicate, so I write to you instead of talking.”
“That still seems like disobeying orders.”
“The synthcop doesn’t see it that way. It exists to complete all the conditions listed in its operational parameters, in ranked order. A bad order prevents it from doing that.”
“So how does a VI define a bad order?” Sarisa asked.
“Basically, any order that prevents it from completing a directive.” Cowan struggled for an example. “Say someone tells it to push an armored truck up a hill.”
“Synthcops aren’t strong enough to do that,” Zhang said.
“Just go with it,” Cowan said. “How would you, a human, resolve that order?”
“I’d tell you to fuck off?”
“You would,” Sarisa said. “But a synthcop would push that truck until someone ordered it to do something else.”
“I don’t think that’s entirely accurate,” sn0wing said. “Even VIs have safeguards that protect them from executing impossible orders. They reject orders they can’t complete.”
“But you also have to consider how the order was phrased,” Cowan said. “VIs are incredibly literal. If you tell one ‘push that armored truck’, without specifying where it should push it, or how long it needs to push it…”
sn0wing smiled at him. “It would push that armored truck.” Her eyes had a subtle green glow. “It’s an order that’s possible, because the only completion criteria is ‘push’.”
“That’s the biggest problem with synthcops right now,” Cowan said. “Eventually, some moron gives them an order vague enough to lock them up. A CLU box is supposed to fix that, by running a bunch of fuzzy logic to find the best solution.”
“And then it shoots at you,” Zhang said, from the void. He really wasn’t willing to let that go.
“Go back to the synthcop you told to push the truck,” Cowan said. “The truck isn’t going anywhere, and the synthetic knows this, but it doesn’t have explicit orders to stop. So it contacts its commander and requests a new order.”
“That doesn’t sound very intelligent,” Zhang said.
“It is, for a VI. It wasn’t ordered to contact its commander and ask for new orders, but its CLU box determined its current order wasn’t accomplishing anything useful. Whether or not an order is useful isn’t something VIs normally evaluate.”
“And that’s still not AI,” sn0wing said. “Because AI remains illegal, correct?”
“That’s right,” Cowan said. “Fuzzy logic is like a number of pre-programmed actions the CLU box can slot together. It combines them in different ways and analyzes the results until it finds one that allows its parent VI to complete its bad order. Then it suggests that action to the VI, and the VI tries it to see if it fulfills the order.”
“So if I’m following you,” Sarisa said, “you’re asking us what would cause a San Diego synthcop to take over a construction site, call a fake murder into the VCD, and then shoot at the arriving officers with a nail gun.”
Cowan grimaced. “Well, when you say it like that…”
“I’ll talk to it,” Sarisa said.
Another golden rectangle burned itself into the compartment Cowan and sn0wing shared. A door opened as Sarisa entered. In the sim, she was an anthropomorphic insect with thick goggles, four arms, and two legs. The tag above her head read “Volo”, which was Latin for “wish”. Cowan liked that she’d gone Latin with her handle as well.
Volo stepped from the golden rectangle and settled herself, lotus style, beside Cowan. She arranged her workspace with impressive speed, four insectoid arms working at once. Cowan knew it took impressive mental discipline to run four arms in the Sim.
“Hey!” Zhang sounded way too happy back in meatspace. “You’re gonna headshrink a robot?”
“All right,” Volo said. “I’m opening the wireless connection.” She circled the officer and tapped the virtual linkline against her head. “Officer 817, this is OMH Counselor Sarisa Bassa. Are you all right?”
“Hello, Counselor Bassa.” Officer 817 responded in a pleasant tone. “I am fine, thank you. How are you?”
Cowan pumped his fist. The officer synthetic was willing to talk, just not to him.
“817,” Volo said, “why did you fire at the VCD detectives who approached this construction site?”
Officer 817 terminated the connection.
“Rude sonuvabitch, isn’t he?” A muscular tigerman wearing yellow briefs and a black luchadore mask dropped into the rectangle. Santiago Zhang, or his avatar: Pauncho.
Cowan frowned at him. “You’re a tiger.”
“You know it, little buddy.” Pauncho flexed his furry arms. “Respect the mane.”
sn0wing sighed. “I’m so sorry.”
“Sarisa,” Cowan said, “call 817 again. This time, don’t ask it why it shot at anyone.”
Volo called the synthetic and it responded, as it had before. “I am fine, thank you. How are you?”
“Okay,” Cowan said. “It can’t talk to the CID or the VCD, but nothing in its orders forbids it from talking to the OMH. So Sarisa’s the only one it will talk to right now.”
“Why would anyone order it not to talk to us?” Pauncho demanded. “We’re the good guys!”
“Telling us why it shot at you probably violates its operational parameters. So if you ask about that, it terminates the connection.”
“So we need to start with easy questions,” sn0wing said, “and build trust. Like in an interrogation. Sarisa, maybe ask it where it is right now?”
“Officer 817,” Volo said, “do you know where you are right now?”
“I am standing at an abandoned construction site.”
“Who else is at this construction site?”
“My sensors detect five humans and one autotruck, Counselor Bassa.”
“Ha!” Pauncho said. “There’s only four of us.”
“Four of us in here,” sn0wing pointed out. “It just found a way around a bad order, didn’t it?”
Cowan grinned. “It couldn’t tell us about the fifth human directly, because its operational parameters wouldn’t allow that. But all Sarisa asked is what it saw, in a general sense. This synthcop wants to tell us something about that fifth person, but can’t. Not directly.”
“817,” Volo said over the wireless, “please tell us the locations of all humans you currently detect.”
“I detect four humans in the VCD autotruck, outside the construction site gate. I detect one human on the seventh floor of the unfinished building behind me, barricaded ins*&^—–
—–^&*owan gagged, coughing and shaking, as his gorge tried to flop out of his throat. Something had just tossed him violently back into meatspace. As he slumped forward, his hands clenched instinctinctly on his knees … one of which was broken.
The blinding pain dropped him screaming from the chair, but Sarisa and Bradley caught him. When his vision cleared enough to see, someone had shoved a rifle in his face. Christ! Was he being abducted again?
“Corporate Security!” the loud, angry man holding the rifle shouted. “Don’t move!”
Zhang cussed up a storm in Chinese as they all shook off their forced drop from the Sim. “Easy there, bro.” He raised his hands as two more soldiers with raised rifles moved into view at the back of the truck, backing up the first one.
Cowan belatedly recognized the gray and green uniform these soldiers wore, as well as the distinctive OneWorld patches on their arms. These were the men who invaded his house in Mission Beach. Corporate Security.
These were the men who took Ellen away.
* * *
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