Saturday, May 12, 2007

Chapter 18. Neumann

The opening in the hedge led to a narrow cobbled street, lined with pale stone buildings. Perske let her arm drop from Max’s waist and started off down the street. Max hesitated, and then turned back to look at the bushes. He plucked a leaf, pinched it between his fingers, and held it to his nose. It had a spicy fragrance of boxwood that reminded him of the smell of his grandmother’s yard, after a spring rain.

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He felt the touch of Perske’s hand on his arm.

“It feels . . . so believable,” said Max.

He looked over his shoulder to see Perske smiling. He could not recall having seen such an expression cross her face back at the Institute. She was usually so stern.

“I’m very proud of it,” she said. “You’re lucky. Not too many people have experienced an environment like this.”

Max shrugged. “Unless you count life.”

Perske laughed.

“In a way,” she said, “what you’re experiencing here is more real than anything you might know in the so-called real world.”

Max blinked. “What on Earth are you talking about.”

She tugged at his arm and took a few steps down the cobbled street.

“Come on. We’ll talk while we walk.”

After a moment, Max followed, cupping the bruised boxwood leaf in his hand. They walked in silence for a while. The lumpy cobble stones hurt Max’s feet. Only Perske’s footsteps and the songs of what Max assumed must be virtual birds, disturbed the cool, still air.

“All experiences are transmitted to your brain through nerves connected to sensory organs," said Perske, "But nerves and sensory organs are not perfect. We have skipped past all that. In the supposed real world, you are lying on the floor of the lab, and the virtual reality you are experiencing is being directly fed into your brain.”

“Excuse me?” Said Max

“We have found a way to couple signals to the brain through the shortest route possible, other than sticking wires through the skull. We get in through the optical nerves. Your brain in turn produces signals that are detected with a technology called terahertz imaging. All of it is wrapped up into a package, which you may recall in the cave, resembling a small toy car with flashing lights.”

The Beetle, thought Max, that had whizzed around Herman’s room and frightened Linus.

“And all of this is an illusion,” he said, waving his arm at the street, the tidy stone buildings and the amphitheater up ahead, which loomed ever larger as they walked.

“It’s as real as the nerve impulses going to your brain,” said Perske. "No more, no less. I could say the same about anything your brain interprets as real. Only here, your imperfect senses don’t get in the way. This is as close to reality as you could ever hope to be; with signals transmitted as directly to your brain as possible, and no flawed sensory system to get in the way. What difference does it make whether the signals are generated by what you call the real world or by a computer system?”

Perske smacked her hand against the wall of the amphitheater. “This stone is hard and cold. That leaf is green. And the cut on your ankle caused you real pain.”

“But I’m going to wake from this dream sometime.”

Perske turned and walked through the entrance of the amphitheater and down the steps leading to the tiered seating.

“Perhaps,” she said over her shoulder. “Or perhaps not.”

Max crumpled the tiny leaf into a ball and tossed it at the wall inside the entranceway. It bounced off, leaving a small green smudge behind, and rolled into a crevice between the cobble stones. He squinted at the spot on the wall, and smeared it with his thumb. Perske was right, the wall was cold and hard. He wondered, assuming she was telling the truth, what his body was doing in the lab as his virtual self moved about in the virtual world. Not much, he imagined, picturing himself prostrate on the lab floor, still gripping the toy car.

Perske had taken a seat on the stone tiers that lay ahead in the amphitheater, and Max meandered down to sit behind her. At the far end of the arena, he could see a cluster of figures at the edge of a roped off section of grass. A dozen or so geometric objects were scattered around the roped area. There were cones, cubes, spheres, and shapes with names Max couldn’t recall, each decorated in one or another primary color. It appeared that the objects were placed there for the amusement of a small child, only a toddler really, who wandered among the objects.

On the far side of the roped area, Max saw a familiar bowling pin-shaped creature of black and white.

“Is that Linus?”

“Yes,” said Perske. “I brought him along to amuse Neumann.”

“The child?”

“Yes. He’s very good at chess.”

Max leaned forward to peer at the distant figures.

“You mean Linus is good at chess? Or the child?”

“Both actually.”

“Who, or what, is Neumann?”

Perske smiled bashfully. “That’s just his nickname. He’s a Dynamic Distributed Memory Hyper Organism, a D D M H Oh. He’s the reason we had to be so careful.”

“He’s a virtual assistant?”

“Virtual? Yes. Assistant? Hardly.”

Although it was impossible to make out exactly what was going on at the distant end of the arena, Max could see that the cluster of people were carefully observing the child. From time to time, one of the people in the small group leaned over the rope and seemed to give the child some instructions. After a moment or two, Neumann would wander off to tip a cube or move a sphere, and then toddle back again.

Max placed his elbows on his knees, knitted his fingers together, and rested his chin on his knuckles, as he watched. A bitter lump rose in his throat. It hardly seemed worth the trauma he had suffered since his kidnapping, to protect a computer program, regardless of how hard Perske might have worked on it.

“What’s so important about him?” said Max dryly.

Perske swiveled around on the stone bench in front of him. “Potential,” she said. “He has nearly unlimited potential to learn, to grow.” Perske’s eyes sparkled. She was beaming. “He has potential to live, as no other neural net algorithm ever has before.”

“So what?" said max. " Linus gets a little smarter everyday. And Betty3.5, as I imagine you know, is pretty damned sophisticated.”

“Yes," she conceded, "but Linus and Betty are limited by the power of the computer systems they run on. Neumann is different. He effectively has no limits.”

Max had a feeling he was treading on subjects far beyond his ability to understand. He doubted he would be able to grasp the answer to his next question, but he asked anyway.

“How so?”

Perske smiled demurely. “Do you know what DDM is?”

“Dynamic something, I think.”

“Dynamic distributed memory," Perske corrected him. "It’s a way of storing information in a network without using conventional memory chips, disks, or dedicated hardware of any kind.”

Max immediately regretted raising the issue. “It means nothing to me. I’ve never actually understood DDM.”

“It’s simple really,” she said as she crossed her arms.

He recognized the phrase. It was the way Perske often prefaced answers to questions posed by her graduate students. It was a semantic signal that usually sent Max scrambling to escape the lecture that was sure to follow.

“Imagine,” said Perske, “if you were to mail a letter that you had addressed with a nonexistent destination. What would happen?”

Max played along gamely for the moment. “The mailman would eventually return it.”

“Exactly. Now suppose you put some important information in the letter, and every time it returned to you, you sent it out again with another meaningless address. The information would be effectively stored in a letter perpetually sent out and returned to you.”

Max rubbed his forehead. “I guess, but it would cost a fortune in stamps, and it seems pretty pointless.”

“But," said Perske, "if you didn’t have to pay for the postage, you now have a way to save space in your file drawer by storing information in the network that is the US postal system.”

If there was a connection to the golden-haired boy in the distance, Max didn’t see it.

“If you put everything from your home filing cabinet into letters bouncing around in the mail system," said Perske, "you could do without a filing cabinet at all. In effect you have a filing system that is as large as the storage capacity of every mailbag and sorting facility in the country, and the world, if you include international mail. That’s much more than you could ever hope to store in a filing cabinet, or your whole house for that matter.”

“It sounds like more trouble than it’s worth,” said Max.

Perske rubbed her hands together. It was the sign that she was about to get to the heart of the matter.

“If you do the same thing with digital information transmitted through the Internet, you can store as much information as the entire global network can hold, on all the servers and fiber cables and microwave transmission systems in the world.”

“How much is that?” asked Max.

“Exabytes. Billions of times the storage capacity of the typical computer hard drive, and it’s growing everyday”

“O K.,” Max blinked.

“Listen," said Perske, "Linus is a neural network algorithm stored in a computer. Specifically, stored on a server at the university. The memory available to run him is limited by, among other things, the physical size of the memory in the server. Neumann’s algorithm is stored in DDM, which is limited by the size of the network he runs in.”

“So," said Max, "he’s got a brain the size of the Internet.”

Perske laughed. “It’s not that simple. Some algorithms run in computers. We can make them better by linking more of them together, but it’s still limited by the computers themselves. Neumann isn’t in the computers. He’s in the spaces between them, the connections that link them together. He’s not limited by the speed and power of the computers, he’s only limited by the speed of light in the cables and the ever-growing number of links.”

Max’s head was starting to hurt.

“The internet and the web that runs inside it are growing so fast,” said Perske, “that they essentially comprise a living thing. A super-organism. The Internet is the brain, and the Web is the mind. Neumann lives on top of all that. He’s a hyperorganism. The Internet grows as we add servers. The web grows much faster, as people add sites and data. Neumann grows faster still, as the links between sites and servers multiply.”

“I get it,” Max fibbed, in order to put a stop to the lecture. “He’s a bright kid.”

“Yes, of course,” said Perske, indicating that she realized she had said more than Max cared to know. “It’s a passion of mine. I get carried away.”

Max nodded at the boy. “You must be passionate about him, to have done such awful things to me. And,” he said, “to Herman.”

“I told you; what happened to Herman was an accident.”

Max shook his head. “But the accident was your fault.”

“We . . . I . . . " she stammered, "Yes, the virus that led to the accident was released intentionally. But it should have hit him in the lab. It was supposed to incapacitate him. He would have been here instead of you, if everything had gone as planned. I’m truly sorry.”

Max wasn't going to let her off so easily.

“Your little ruse on the operating table back there was no accident.” He reached down to touch the bandage on his ankle. “Neither is this.”

Perske avoided his gaze. “We had reason to believe that Herman had access to a device that could devastate a network, potentially bringing down the Internet.”

“And possibly," said Max, "destroying all your work on your Diddy Moe.”

Perske turned to look at the golden haired boy. “Neumann. That’s right. Believe me, I had no alternative.”

“There’s got to be an alternative to homicide and torture.”

Perske looked down at her hands resting in her lap. “I said I’m sorry. What more do you want from me?”

“I want out. Out of here and out of the lab.”

“Of course," She said. "I can arrange that.”

Max stood up. “Then do it.”

“Wait,” said Perske softly. “Come meet him first.”



“The boy?”

“Please,” she said.

Max stared at Perske. He had no desire to prolong the adventure any more than absolutely necessary. But he’d had ample evidence that he was out of his element and at Perske’s mercy if she decided to do something rash. It seemed safest to humor her.

“I guess it couldn’t hurt.”

Perske brightened. “Thanks. It’ll all be over soon.”

Max stepped into the aisle that led down toward the grassy arena below.

“After you, Elizabeth.”

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