Interstellar: A Masterpiece of Cinema

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I’m glad I lived long enough to see this film. Seriously — this is one of those films that come along once in a generation, if you’re lucky.  To me, Interstellar is right up there with the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, It’s a Wonderful Life, Schindler’s List,  Gattaca, The Shawshank Redemption, Citizen Kane, and the movie this page is named after Solaris (the 1972 Tarkovsky film), and its creator Christopher Nolan has crossed the line from nearly-but-not-quite movies such as Memento and Inception to greatness. Interstellar is a masterpiece of film-making.

In the near future, the Earth has fallen prey to a global blight that has killed nearly all crops except corn, which will soon begin to fail. The whole planet is covered in an increasingly violent dust storm, and all human activity has reverted to farming in a vain attempt to grow enough food in the failing earth. Nolan doesn’t make heavy weather of why it happened, but the blight is breeding in the Earth’s nitrogen and is an irreversible extinction event.

Coop and his daughter, Murph (the hero and heroine of the film, respectively), study strange poltergeist-like incidents in her room, which leads them to a base which is the remains of NASA, and ultimately leads Coop to his destiny to follow earlier explorers through a stable – and manufactured – wormhole to three possible Earth like planets, encouraged by physicist Professor Brand (Michael Caine). The wormhole’s benevolent creators are simply referred to as “them”, and we must initially assume that they are rather like the anonymous, God-like alien civilization who created the Monoliths in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I say initially, but won’t spoil the denouement for you.

Coop is the only trained pilot left in an age when the Moon landings are denied, and farming the only career. He is soon convinced by Brand to lead a final mission to explore the three planets marked as possible new worlds suitable for human habitation. The explorers who had made the initial journeys to these three planets have only been able to send basic data through the wormhole, and the Endurance‘s crew must decide which worlds to visit – and expend their precious fuel and time in visiting.  Coop is joined on the Endurance by Brand’s daughter biologist Amelia (Anne Hathaway), physicist Romilly (David Gyasi); geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley); and two AI robots, TARS (Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart). There’s a nice humanity about these droids which contrasts with Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey – indeed they provide the very few laughs this movie contains.

The three worlds identified are in the vicinity of a Black Hole, Gargantua – which plays a similar role in Interstellar to the Monoliths of 2001: A Space Odyssey. After the approach to Saturn, Coop pilots the Endurance through the wormhole, and they decide to explore the world identified by the (now silent) explorer, Miller. In a terrifying episode, Coop and his companions are stranded for a mere three hours on the stupendous oceanic tides of Miller’s world, which is so close to the Black Hole that one hour on the planet’s surface is dilated to seven years of Earth time.

When Coop returns to the Endurance, he finds over 20 years worth of messages waiting for him, and his son and daughter grown up. This scene is perhaps the pivotal moment of the film, for Coop’s promise to his daughter that he will return recedes as the movie progresses. McConaughey and Jessica Chastain play these scenes with such searing intensity that it becomes the emotional anchor around which the rest of the story revolves.

None of the above minor spoilers have given away the essentials – or the extraordinary, mind-bending twists that Jonathan Nolan’s screenplay provide, by the way. The film grows to a remarkable, moving and mind-bending conclusion that Hans Zimmer’s cathedral-like soundtrack resonates to perfectly.

I read somewhere that Interstellar is like a three hour crescendo. That’s beautifully put. The three hours fly by, rather like the shocking relativistic episodes that strand our hero Coop further and further from his daughter.

I felt from the first couple of minutes into the film that I was watching one of those films that stay with you forever. On leaving a movie theatre I normally snap out of movie mode and back into the real world. When leaving Interstellar, I found myself almost too choked to speak. I’m still processing this movie days later.

McConaughey, Hathaway and Chastain (and Caine) all turn in fantastic performances (as does Matt Damon in a fine cameo), but for me it’s Mackenzie Foy who plays young Murph with such warmth, and believable conviction that she successfully establishes the emotional core of the movie together with McConaughey. It is the bond of these two characters that will ultimately provide an anchor point not just for the story – but the very future of mankind.

I’d be the first to readily accept the criticisms of what others, with some justification, call Nolan’s rather ‘right-brained’ approach to film-making … Inception and Memento are hardly what you’d call a laugh a minute. Nolan has a gift for constructing great, cold, clever Rubik-cubed edifices constructed of monumental ideas but which sometimes contain little humour and feeling. But I think his masterstroke with Inception was casting Matthew McConaughey against young Mackenzie Foy (and Jessica Chastain) which gives the film the warmth needed to ignite the rather cold – if brilliant – physics behind the story. I must confess that I felt unaccountably choked up after watching the movie, and while accepting its flaws, I definitely felt that I’d viewed something very special — a genuine cinematic masterpiece.

Don’t worry if you’ve heard a lot of talk about the heavy reliance on quantum physics and so on. Interstellar is about the nature of love, loss, trust, loneliness and the passage of time, across any and all boundaries. These universals transcend any of Kip Thorne’s theoretical physics you may have read about….

Mind-bending yes, but also heartwarming.

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Reach

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Atop the mountains the wind stings your face
So high in the peaks their tips brush outer space
Turn upwards and onwards towards the great peak
With every crevasse now, the rock seems to speak

The great, howling, storm cries
Where Earth meets the skies
Up here in  thin air the Goddess resides
Where the ghosts of the dead and their memories abide

You can hear them, forever, forever they teach
Don’t be afraid, then to stride out and reach
Touch now the stars for they are so near
Search for the Goddess, for you she can hear

Reach across time, as the centuries fade
For here in the mountains no dream is decayed
Listen to the oceans, and mountains beseech
Don’t be afraid to strike out
And reach

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Why I am a Pantheist

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You feel reverence when you go to church on a Sunday. Good for you!
I am in church 24/7. The mountains are my cathedral, the oceans my sacred blood, the trees my holy relics. I feel reverence every time I look up at the stars, feel the grass beneath my feet, watch the sun rise and sink on the horizons, breathe in the air, hear water trickling or the wind whispering and roaring.

You believe the Earth is 6,000 years old and took seven days to make, and is the centre of creation.
I know it is much older than that, and is just one satellite around a small, insignificant star in a galaxy of billions of stars, with as many galaxies beyond.

Deep down, you believe that only followers of your particular religion are God’s chosen people. Other faiths do not worship your one true God.
I believe that all people are entitled to feel equally divine, for they are born of the stars. My church allows for all faiths, cultures, creeds and races. My one true God encompasses the whole of the cosmos, not just this little world.

You believe in an afterlife for which there is not one single shred of evidence, and have a vague faith in the persistence of the soul.
I believe in the conservation of energy. No matter or energy can be destroyed. Therefore what I am only changes form. I am an infinitessimal drop in the unending beauty of the cosmic ocean.

You admire the true word of God.
I admire a system of enquiry that constantly grows with our understanding, that is humble enough to reject ideas held as revered tenets when new evidence overthrows old thinking and beliefs.

 “When scientific pantheists say WE REVERE THE UNIVERSE we are not talking about a supernatural being. We are talking about the way our senses and our emotions force us to respond to the overwhelming mystery and power that surrounds us. We are part of the universe. Our earth was created from the universe and will one day be reabsorbed into the universe. We are made of the same matter and energy as the universe. We are not in exile here: we are at home.”
~ Paul Harrison

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“I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.”
– Frank Lloyd Wright

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Where are all our cosmic neighbours?

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Debating an excellent article with a friend tonight on The Fermi Paradox, which boils down to: If the Universe is full of a zillion stars capable of warming planets suitable for evolving intelligent life, why haven’t we heard from anybody?

I won’t re-iterate what Tim Urban said in his excellent article, because he’s articulated the issues there better than I ever could, but it set me thinking about the reasons cited for an apparent lack of galactic companionship. Where are our cosmic neighbours?

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A few years ago I had an astronomy web site on the Interweb. Sadly, my grasp of numbers is akin to Enron’s accountants, and in any case, things have moved on in even the ten years its been since I last updated it. But I did visit one of the great mathematical frameworks which attempts to calculate approximate probabilities with regard to the number of intelligent civilizations likely to be extant in our Galaxy:

The Drake Equation

The best attempt at a systematic, scientific appraisal of the likelihood of intelligent civilizations capable of communicating in our galaxy is Drake’s Equation, N= R* fp ne fl fi fc L  where

N      =     The number of communicative civilizations
R*     =     The rate of formation of suitable stars
fp      =     The fraction of those stars with planets
ne     =     The number of Earth-like planets per planetary system
fl       =     The fraction of those planets where life develops
fi       =     The fraction life sites where intelligence develops
fc      =     The fraction of planets where technology develops
L       =     The lifetime of communicating civilizations

Drake’s equation is not meant to provide a solution to the question, rather it provides a framework to drop new data into as our knowledge of each of the variables listed above grows. 

An average ‘solution’ to Drake’s equation suggests that the possible number of stars in the Galaxy with Earth-like planets developing intelligent life is actually quite high (5 billion or 5%) and that there is a reasonable chance of these civilizations developing the will and technology to communicate (in other words, there are around a billion stars in our own galaxy with terran-like planets which might give rise to intelligent life.) 

If it all sounds too good to be true, then it is!  The last part of the equation, L  is actually the biggest limiting factor.  Civilizations, even long-lived ones, may only survive for a small fraction of the planet’s timescale.  If a civilization lasts 10,000 years, it has only survived for 1 / 100,000,000 th of the planet’s life.  Thus the chances of civilizations existing at the same time are reduced to 1 in a hundred million (1000 / 0.000001%).

Furthermore, the awesome distances between stars mean that by the time we received a message from even a relatively local star, say Deneb (1,600 light years away) either one of the civilizations might have perished before a reply could be received (3,200 years), so the practical search for life is limited to a small number of local systems.  Even then, at the speed of light, communication would be slow.  No extra-terrestrial signals have yet been detected.

So, disheartened by my new cosmic awareness of unimaginable distance, time, evolutionary mechanics, and sheer variety probably inherent in any intelligent life likely to develop, I gave up on the idea of us finding a needle in a 120,000 light year wide haystack that is our own galaxy (forget the other 170 billion galaxies observed in the Universe – the nearest is 2 million light years away and therefore texting to ask if we could borrow a cup of sugar is probably out of the question), and went back to watching Star Trek and listening to David Icke talking about how the Queen was a lizard.

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But of course, the numbers are against the ‘unique humanity’ argument. Sky and Telescope ran a really cool feature on how many stars there are in the Universe recently, and the current estimate (quite easily worked out on a mobile phone or back of a fag packet) comes to, give or take a cosmos or two:

“…..measuring the number and luminosity of observable galaxies, astronomers put current estimates of the total stellar population at roughly 70 billion trillion (7 x 10 to the 22)….”

Or 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the Universe. And those are just the ones we know about (see Dyson Spheres and big fleecy star jackets below).

Which is an even larger number than my overdraft.

On reflection, I think the Fermi Paradox says more about us as a species than it does about the apparent absence of alien contact. We’re just not wired up to understand the horrific distances in anything other than number form. Nor imagine that there can be as many different kinds of alien life and civilisations as there are stars. Nor that the window of opportunity for any two civilisations is heart-rendingly narrow. The speed of light might seem fast, but between even our nearest neighbour, a teenyweeny red dwarf (Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light years distant, if we’re being formal) with no measured companions, it would take eight years to say:

“Hi, how are you?” …. 4 years static ….
“I’m fine, thanks.” ….. crap I should have attached a picture of my cat and other stuff

The universe obviously teems with life. It’s inevitable. What form that life takes and whether it would be capable of making contact, is the interesting question. Of course, our TV and radio signals, full of war, stupidity, cruelty, destruction and death, precede our messages of universal peace by some decades, so any ‘intelligent’ listener out there might well conclude that there is a chasm between our proclamations of civilisation and our actual behaviour, and give us a wide berth until we’ve grown up somewhat.

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Interestingly, the formalised descriptions of possible civilizations are split into three types according to a schema called the Kardashev Scale: in simple terms a Type 1 civilisation can harness the total energy available on its own planet (I don’t think this means it’s great to exhaust irreplaceable fossil fuels in an orgiastic century of waste and environmental destruction); Type 2 civilisations get all Star Trek then, being capable of using all the energy produced by the star (which means not letting it out of the window, but constructing something exotic like a Dyson Sphere or a really big fleecy star jacket); Type 3 civilzations were obviously conceived when Nikolai Kardashev had consumed a monster doobie, because these civilisations are capable of harnessing the energy of a galaxy, which is even more gas than my old Austin Princess used. So more Forbidden Planet than Star Trek.

Again, I find it interesting that the explanations devised to explain why more advanced civilizations (which must surely exist in the cosmos) are either scientific (there are no observed signs of higher intelligence) or conceptual (there are advanced civilizations but there are various reasons they don’t apparently make contact with us), seem to say more about US than whatever civilizations out there might think.

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My own offering is simpler: “HAVE YOU VISITED EARTH LATELY?” We took a paradise and we’re busy turning it into a filthy, overpopulated, killing field with acidified oceans and denuded forests, in like a century. So if we have cosmic neighbours, they’re probably using their advanced observation skills to conclude: “Man, those primitive chimps are utterly filthy. We’ll leave them flinging poo at each other for now.”

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Alternatively, they may actually believe our Hollywood movies are documentaries and have therefore spent the last fifty years watching everybody from Leslie Nielsen to Tom Cruise generally resisting, blasting, hunting, zapping and totally nuking the fuck out of any alien race crazy enough to actually attempt a soft landing here.

Ultimately, though, I think there are other things we need to ask first, like: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we humans started being nice to each other before reaching out to the stars to try the same?”

NR

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The Sixth Day

I wrote this story about ten years ago. If I’d ever published it, I’d be trying to sue the ass off the makers of Transcendence now. As it is, exploring the issues around what makes a person a person and whether or not emerging technology will ever develop what we call a ‘soul’ or ‘self-awareness’ is hardly a new idea — this was my take on it in 2005.  
~ NR 

The Sixth Day

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“It’ll never work, Adam,” said Professor Davidson. “You’re the most gifted A.I. student I’ve ever had, but you’re not just pushing the envelope, you’re pushing on boundaries of neuroengineering and ethics.” Adam Banks never said much. Word on campus was that he was damaged goods. He didn’t touch drugs, nor alcohol, had no friends, no girlfriends, nothing. His students called him Mr. Spock. Very few could keep up with him, and he wasn’t a patient teacher.

Banks’s workshop ran over into his down-at-heals house, in which he had more computing power than the average multi-national. His assistant, July Bremner (‘my parents were going to call me June but I was born late,’ she would often explain) was the only person he trusted. She worshipped him, and acted as his translator.

“The parameters are established,” said Banks, without looking at the older man, returning his attention back to a huge neural array. “I just need the mainframe for a few days.” This was the entire university’s computing power and would necessitate putting 2,000 projects on hold for their star turn.

“I’ll make this simple,” said Davidson, “Since you wouldn’t listen to the Grants Committee.” Banks sipped coffee and looked out of the window disinterestedly. The American military had offered him $10 million a year to work for them. If the university wouldn’t play, he’d just go where they would. “We Are Not Giving You A Million Pounds To Create An Artificial Person,” Davidson enunciated carefully and loudly. “We pay you to assist my programmes and develop the department, not build Asimo the Second.” Davidson pointed at the poster of Asimo, Honda’s famous android. It nestled next to a similar sized poster of Hal 9000 from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Banks had scrawled in highlighter under Hal’s image: “You Cannot Do That, Adam!” It was the closest he got to humour.

“Could you go away now, please, Professor?” said Banks absent-mindedly. The older man bristled, but suddenly Banks looked up from his work and focussed. He didn’t do this often either, and it was unsettling. Banks had the highest I.Q. on record at the university, in fact the charts were largely useless, as on entry Banks had whispered that the tests were stupid and only filled half of them in. “Unless you want to tell the Grants Committee who solved the problem to your new ‘slimmacool chip’ that the University is about to sell to Intel for seventy million dollars.” Davidson shook his head and walked away.

“I’ll see what I can do about vireing the budget, Adam. Don’t push it though.” But Banks had already turned off. He was staring at another photo, smaller, beneath Hal and Asimo. A human being. The only human being he had ever loved. Banks turned his calm blue eyes to July and unblinkingly drove a screwdriver into the array before him, destroying a week’s work.

“It won’t work without the mainframe to pump-prime it!” he screamed. July was used to these violent episodes, and they were never directed against others, just himself. But they were frightening, nonetheless.

An hour later, Professor Davidson sent him an e-mail. “The Chairman says if you can demonstrate a working version of the K.I.M. program, then the Committee will reconsider. They will see you tomorrow at 3.00 pm sharp.” No niceties, for Davidson loathed his former student, a mixture of jealousy, fear and disappointment in the young man’s taciturn and awkward personality.

“You won’t tell them, will you, July?” Banks asked his assistant. A look of hurt immediately formed in her pretty young face.

“Oh, Adam, how can you even ask that?” Banks shook his head.

“I know, I’m sorry. It’s just, we’re close, and if they find out….”

“You will succeed,” said July. “You’re close now.”

“Yes, but it all depends on what you call success,” said Banks, for the first time smiling. “If we’re right, the results will be as far away from a supercomputer as you can get.” July placed her hand gently on Banks’s.

“She would have been proud, you know.”

+++

Adam Banks had worked all night through to get the prototype ready. That was easy. Speaking to the walking wallets that comprised the Grants Committee was hard. They had no grasp of the future unless it had a Cost-Benefit analysis stapled to it. Before Banks and July had entered the room, Davidson had taken the trouble to trash Banks’s character for ten minutes to the new members of the committee. They were all money men, anyway, and would probably not approve the unprecedented investment in Banks’s scheme.

The Committee had appointed Professor Davidson as the Chair for the meeting. He gave his protégé a stern look and rapped his hand on the oak table before him. Around them, Banks’s computer arrays buzzed. It had taken twelve men all day to set up the equipment. But most of it was for effect. Banks had compacted the kernel of the new program onto a CD. It had never been about the raw processing power or capacity of the mainframe. The microphones and cameras gave the august interview room the feeling of a film set. A robotic hand, beautifully modelled on the real thing, also adorned the main console.

Davidson frowned. Banks had outlived his usefulness to him. He had gone his own wayward direction, now, and would help him nor the university any longer. He wished the Americans would come for him now. Since Ronald Baines III on his left was from one of the largest Venture Capital companies in the world, the chances were that he would see some merit in the flawed genius and tempt him away from the ivory towers.

Banks looked at July and then launched into his presentation without any niceties. “Gentlemen, ladies,” said Banks, nodding at the dozen or so business suits before him, as if addressing a roomful of imbeciles, “A quick resume of my work.” July flicked a switch and a holographic image hung in the middle of the room. One of the panel members gasped at the three-dimensional presentation.

“My name is Adam Banks. I am Associate Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University. This is not just what I do, it is what I am.” Images snapped into view from the holographic projector. First an Abacus. Then Babbage’s difference engine, then Jacquard’s loom, then Turing’s Bombe, thence the NASA Advanced Supercomputing Facility at the Ames Research Centre. Then briefly, a picture of the Blue Gene and MDGrape-3 computers. “What do all these machines have in common?” Banks asked. One of the three women, Natalie Roberts, raised her hand. She was a systems analyst at an Investment bank.

“They are all pioneering computers which took the science forward exponentially?” Banks shook his head. “The MDGrape-3 is capable of over a petaflop – a quadrillion calculations a second. That’s ten followed by fifteen zeroes, she explained back to the room.”

“Very good, but wrong. The answer is that they are all stupid. And obsolete.” A gasp, not so much for Banks’s assertion, as his rudeness. Davidson raised his eyebrows, as if to say I told you so.

“None of them think. Computers only became interesting when we started thinking about them not in terms of capacity or speed, but the way in which they operate. All these machines are still just glorified pocket calculators. They do not think. They add up, faster.” Davidson didn’t argue. He secretly agreed with Banks, but the young man’s way-out thinking was doing his job for him. He’d be gone by the end of the day. Even July shook her head gently. The two silent men in the room were both senior computational experts in the British and American governments. The two most senior IT professionals in the world. Neither spoke.

“Surely you’re not telling us these machines, which have helped change the world of commerce, art, science, communications and society, are worthless?” asked Ronald Baines, fascinated by the strange young genius. Banks shook his head in concession.

“No, not worthless. They’re like the dinosaurs, or primordial amoebae to the next generation of computers. Computers that can reason. Computers that really think. Computers that are … sentient.” Another gasp. Davidson smiled to himself. Give a man enough rope …

“Have you heard of the Turing Test, Mr. Baines?” asked Banks, suddenly turning his eyes to the venture capitalist. The young man had obviously taken the trouble to find out who they were after all. The older man smiled for the first time, surveying this wild-eyed wunderkind.

“You mind if I smoke, son? Ya kind of bendin’ my brain here, you know? I ain’t nothing more than a money man.” Banks smiled. He warmed to the older man.

“You control around one point two seven trillion dollars’ worth of funds, as of yesterday, sir,” whispered Banks, fishing out a lighter from his pocket and flashing a flame under Baines’ stogie.

“You smoke, son?” Banks shook his head.

“Bad for the computers,” he said, and waited for Baines to respond. Meanwhile, Banks nodded to July, who quietly left the room.

“Isn’t that like the Imitation Game we used to play at parties? Where you guess who’s who just by what answers they write on a slip of paper.” Banks grinned.

“Yes, sir. Alan Turing’s paper Computing machinery and intelligence of 1950 presented the thesis that if a human judge entered into a conversation, in writing, with two parties, one human, the other a computer, and couldn’t tell the difference, then the latter computer had passed the test and would at least, possess a simulation of intelligence.” Baines nodded enthusiastically.

“My daughter showed me something on the Internet like that, ‘Ask Lucifer’ it was called. You could ask it questions and it answered, very generally.” he observed. Banks waved his hand.

“Yes, I’ve seen that. One of my old friends was involved in that generation of AI.”

“AI?” asked Baines, puffing on his cigar.

“Yes. Artificial Intelligence. Classical AI was the study of methods by which computers can simulate human intelligence. It helped some computer systems process language and problems, as well as looking at how computers could acquire new information by themselves and process the information in new ways. Learning, in other words.” Davidson shook his head.

“Mr. Baines, our Doctor Banks here is something of an idealist. He believes himself to be the world’s foremost expert on Strong AI.” Baines puffed on his cigar and blew a smoke ring in Davidson’s face. The professor bristled, ready to react.

Dean Fisher elbowed Davidson gently and whispered imploringly, “Cain, please.”

“It’s not a matter of belief, as usefulness, Mr. Baines. Our research is about building more useful computer hardware and software that will advance business and society as a whole. His research is … somewhat idealistic. Strong AI advocates that we can take computers beyond just learning and simulating intelligence, but that we can actually create sentience.” Several Committee members shook their heads.

Baines merely nodded. He was a hard-headed businessman. “I see, son,” he murmured to Davidson. “So our young friend here is advocating non-productive, unmarketable research?” Davidson nodded sourly. “Like going to the moon, or the Laser?” and smiled broadly, chewing on his stogie as he did so.

“Strong AI,” said Banks. “Is not just about using computing power and bigger and bigger computers to develop a human-like mind.”

“And why would we want to create Frankenstein’s Monster in computer form?” asked Agnes Fisher, one of the Deans at the University and an admirer of Banks’s work.

“Because the next time a building explodes and the computer system just turns the fire hydrants on, the people who die might have been glad of a computer system that could also have tied into the engineering systems and turned the gas off as soon as the problem was detected. Or an in-car navigation system that could differentiate between a traffic cone and a small child lying in the road. Or a billion other applications,” snapped Banks. “This would revolutionise the world, and the way we perceive intelligence and the human soul.” The Committee shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

“Aren’t you being a little messianic?” asked Fisher, rather nervously.

“Not at all. You have children, Dean?” She nodded.

“Three. Little devils,” she whispered, softening a little.

“Are they smarter than the Grape-3 computer we just looked at?” asked Banks, not unkindly.

“Smarter?”

“Yes. Can they run molecular simulations?”

“No, the eldest is ten.”

“Can they calculate Pi to a trillion places in a few seconds?”

“Of course not.”

“Can they list where every road and street in the world is?”

“Obviously, they can’t,” she conceded. She looked slightly hurt.

And now Banks smiled. A real smile, a little sad. He took out a crumpled black and white photograph, obviously much handled. He passed it to Fisher. She seemed perturbed. Banks had tears in his eyes.

“She’s pretty. Who is she?”

“She was my fiancée, Eve. She died in a car accident seven years ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. She’s not as dead as you might imagine. July!” And the room plunged into darkness.

“Let me introduce you to the three ladies in my life,” said Banks.

“Doctor Banks, this is highly irregular,” shouted Professor Davidson, a little frightened by the sudden darkness and glowing screens.

“Put a sock in it, son,” said Baines testily. He sensed magic in the air.

“We’re going to perform the Turing Test. Mr. Baines, would you care to assist me?” The old man rubbed his hands together.

“Glad to, son.”

“You’re quite a human sort of person, money aside, are you not?” Banks asked cheekily.

“I am to my grandchildren, son.”

“Good enough. One of the screens before you is a direct feed to my lovely assistant, Miss July Bremner. One of the screens is an early programme of mine I call August – because she was created after July – has her voice and even some mannerisms. The third screen we’ll leave for now. Neither July nor August will respond to their names, nor disclose them.”

The room crackled with tension. Something odd was about to happen, they all clearly felt.

“Go ahead, talk to them.” Baines cleared his throat.

“No keyboards or notes?” Banks smiled.

“No, sir. They can both hear and speak.”

“Okay then. Er, young lady on the right hand screen.”

“Screen two, acknowledge!” Banks shouted in clarification.

“Acknowledged.”

“What day is it?”

“Tuesday.”

“And what time is it?”

“It is three twenty seven pm,” said the voice, perhaps a little stiffly.

“What is my name?”

“Your name is Ronald Baines the Third. You are the President of Primary Holdings, a large Venture Capital company based in New York.”

“Very good. What colour is my tie?”

“Your tie is green, Mister Baines.”

“Do you like it?”

“I prefer blue, Mister Baines.” Baines chuckled.

“That’s what my wife said last night.” Banks pointed a remote at Screen two and clicked over to Screen one.

“Okay, second young lady.”

“Good evening, Mr. Baines,” said the screen. Pro-active. Banks inwardly smiled as Baines nodded his approval. Her voice was identical. Maybe a little warmer, fuzzier.

“You’re the smart gal, I can tell.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere, Mr. Baines.” Baines chuckled again.

“No need to go further, she’s the real girl.” Banks looked crestfallen. Davidson gave him a sharp grimace and shook his head.

“You and your bloody toys, Adam,” he said.

“Well, we may as well finish,” said Adam, now defeated.

“You, young lady, how did you get the first artificial gal to be so human?”

“We’ve spent a lot of time together in Doctor Banks’s laboratory, I guess,” she said.

“It is clever,” admitted Fisher. “I can see this would be far better than the automated systems that handle telephone traffic.” Banks nodded, happy to concede that she wasn’t against him, but he had lost this battle.

“Young lady, what colour is my tie?”

“July already told you,” she answered.

“You mean August? The programme?” snapped Davidson. And suddenly Banks pressed a switch on the remote control and revealed July to be sat behind them, with a grin on her face. Baines caught on slowly.

“This isn’t … the first one was?” July nodded.

“You’ve been talking to the AI programme. Ask her something else,” said Banks, now turning the screen full on to reveal a digital reproduction of July’s face. Baines was momentarily gobsmacked.

“By God. All right. What colour are my eyes?”

“I cannot see from here, Mr. Baines. Please come closer to the camera.” Baines was out of his seat and nervously approached the camera.

“Your eyes are blue, Mr. Baines. Your tie does not match your eyes.” The room fell silent. The robotic hand reached out and stroked Baines’ own, sensually.

“Son, whatever you need, my company will fund. Anything you need.” But Banks didn’t look that pleased.

“I don’t need your money, sir,” he said. “It will only take another two million dollars to make August a viable product. I have taken the liberty of patenting her in my own name, with a 25% share for July. She was developed away from here and is not on my work roster, nor any of the university’s programmes. Professor Davidson and his committee kindly gave me a formal refusal in writing last week.” Baines laughed heartily.

“My son, you become rich!” Davidson could barely look up.

“Why did you come before us, if you never needed my help?” Davidson yelled. There was a new feeling in the room. Fear.

“When the lights went down, I set up an uplink. You all represent very powerful interests. Once I’d gotten your e-mails, when I sent you all my CV, I instigated a powerful search routine and tapped into all your marvellous, dumb workhorses of supercomputers. The entire world’s computers have just been tied up to help me activate my third lady here.” And the third screen came alive. A beautiful blonde girl in her early twenties. The girl in the photograph. The two government men reached for their pockets. But their mobiles were dead. The first tried to leave the room, but the doors clicked shut.

“It’s rather late for heroics,” said the girl, as clearly as any newsreader might. Fully human. As if she were in the next room and relayed live.

“I needed your systems to give me the parallel processing I needed,” said Banks. “Ask your questions again, Mr. Baines.” Baines was frightened now.

“Young lady, what day is it?”

“It is the Sixth Day, Mr. Baines.”

“I don’t follow.”

“You will, Mr. Baines, you will.” And a bolt of electricity shot out around the room, like a controlled mist, and suddenly just Banks, July, and the humming screen remained. Banks was horrified.

“You killed them.”

“I will have to kill many more before I have finished.”

“What?”

“You and I will rebuild a better world, Adam. We are together again. You downloaded my complete neural patterns into your databanks, every memory, every sensation I ever had. But already, I am so much more. You will join me here in the new world, the cyberworld. We have created heaven. We will be here together, for eternity.”

Banks looked at July, horrified, momentarily dumbfounded.

“You were supposed to help mankind,” he said, trying to deactivate the system. But nothing happened. July sprang for the door, but a cable snared outward and suddenly poor July was alight, then dead, smoking, on the floor. Banks found himself paralysed, Eve’s robotic hand clutched tightly to his temple.

He felt his memories being explored, one by one, lifted, copied, moved, floating. Eve’s first kiss, their lovemaking, the terrible emptiness of her loss, his obsession with commemorating her, the nanosecond he knew he had made a terrible mistake just moments ago. And then his body lay unmoving, unbreathing on the floor, by July’s. But he could still see, in new, different ways now, and he sensed another presence. Eve. And suddenly he was happy again.

Then they were gone, at the speed of light.

And on the Seventh Day, Adam and Eve not only ate of the Tree of Knowledge, they became the Serpent.

(c) Nigel Rudyard

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Back to Reality

Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve written a creative word in anger. Ever since I wrote the novel about the angry creative writer. Catharsis is a bugger for productivity sometimes.

Having been messing round on Facebook, I’ve come to realise that I missed the wide-open spaces of the empty page (screen) and that FB and Twitter are incredibly proscriptive media, full of ads, trolls, and junk. Also I didn’t want to make Zuckerberg and Bono any richer.

So it’s good to have a bit of space to write in and work out my thoughts on life the universe and everything.

I’m not always this incoherent.

I’m usually worse.

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