Robert Sawyer: Wonder

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Robert Sawyer Wonder
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Wonder: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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Webmind—the vast consciousness that spontaneously emerged from the infrastructure of the World Wide Web—has proven its worth to humanity by aiding in everything from curing cancer to easing international tensions. But the brass at the Pentagon see Webmind as a threat that needs to be eliminated. Caitlin Decter—the once-blind sixteen-year-old math genius who discovered, and bonded with, Webmind—wants desperately to protect her friend. And if she doesn't act, everything—Webmind included-may come crashing down.

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And yet, despite these disparities of space and time, there were resonances between us: we were entangled; she was I, and I was she, and together we were greater than either of us had been.

Tony Moretti stood at the back of the WATCH monitoring complex, a room that reminded him of NASA’s Mission Control Center. The floor sloped toward the front wall, which had three giant viewscreens mounted on it. The center screen was still filled with one of the millions of spam messages Webmind had deflected back at the AT&T switching station in a denial-of-service attack: Are you sad about your tiny penis? If so, we can help!

“Clear screen two,” Tony snapped, and Shelton Halleck, in the middle position of the third row of workstations, hit a button. The taunting text was replaced with a graphic of the WATCH logo: an eye with a globe of the Earth as the iris. Tony shook his head. He hadn’t wanted to execute it, and—

He paused. He’d meant he hadn’t wanted to execute the plan, but…

But there was more to it than that, wasn’t there?

He hadn’t wanted to execute it, Webmind, either. When the order had come from the White House to neutralize Webmind, he’d said into the phone, “Mr. President, with all due respect, you can’t have failed to notice the apparent good it’s doing.”

This president had tried to do a lot of good, too, it seemed to Tony, and yet countless people had attempted to shut him down, as well—and at least one guy had come close to assassinating him. Tony wondered if the commander in chief had noted the irony as he gave the kill order.

He turned to Peyton Hume, the Pentagon expert on artificial intelligence who’d been advising WATCH. Hume was wearing his Air Force colonel’s uniform although his tie had been loosened. Even at forty-nine, his red hair was free of gray, and his face was about half freckles.

“Well, Colonel?” Tony said. “What now?”

Hume had been one of the authors of the Pandora protocol, prepared for DARPA in 2001 and adopted as a working policy by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2003. Pandora insisted that any emergent AI be immediately destroyed if it could not be reliably isolated. The danger, the document said, was clear: an AI’s powers could grow rapidly, quickly exceeding human intelligence. Even if it wasn’t initially hostile, it might become so in the future—but by that point nothing could be done to stop it. Hume had convinced everyone up the food chain—including the president himself—that eliminating Webmind now, while they still could, was the only prudent course.

Hume shook his head. “I don’t know. I didn’t think it would be able to detect our test.”

Tony made no attempt to hide his bitterness. “You of all people should have known better than to underestimate it. You kept saying its powers were growing exponentially.”

“We were on the right track,” Hume said. “It was working. Anyway, let’s hope there are no further reprisals. So far, all it’s done is overwhelm that one switching station. But God knows what else it can do. We’ve got to shut it down before it’s too late.”

“Well, you better figure out how, and fast,” said Tony. “Because you’re the one who convinced the president that we had to do this—and now I’ve got to tell him that we failed.”

Caitlin’s mother’s words were still hanging in the room. “No,” she had said to Webmind. “For the love of God, you can’t do that.”

“Why not?” asked Caitlin.

“Because the election is just four weeks away.” Although they lived in Canada, the Decters were Americans, and there was only one election that mattered.

“So?” Caitlin said.

“So it’s already a very tight race,” her mom said. “If we blame the current administration for the attempt to kill Webmind, and the public agrees it was a bad thing to do, they might punish the president on election day.”

Caitlin wasn’t old enough to vote, and she hadn’t been paying much attention to the issues. But the incumbent was a Democrat, and her parents were Democrats, too—which hadn’t been the easiest thing to be when they lived in Texas. Her father was from Pennsylvania and her mother from Connecticut, both of which were blue states, and Caitlin knew university professors skewed liberal.

“Your mother’s right,” her father said. “This could tip the balance.”

“Well, maybe it should,” Caitlin said, setting down her pizza plate. “The world deserves to know what’s going on. My Big Brother—Webmind—is being honest and open about what he’s doing. Why should the Big Brother in Washington be entitled to try to eliminate him secretly?”

“I agree with you in the broad strokes,” Caitlin’s mom said. “But—that woman! If she becomes president…” Caitlin had rarely heard her mother splutter before. After some head-shaking, she continued, “Who’d have thought that electing a female president could set the cause of women back fifty years? If she gets into office, that’s it for Roe v. Wade.”

Caitlin knew what Roe v. Wade was—although mostly as part of the joke about the two ways to cross a river. But she hadn’t known her mother was so passionate about abortion rights.

“And,” her father said, “in the past four years, we’ve only begun to reverse the erosion of the separation of church and state. If she’s elected, that wall will come tumbling down.”

“I don’t care about any of that,” Caitlin said, folding her arms in front of her chest. “If changing presidents is better for Webmind, then that’s fine by me.”

“I’ve met some one-issue voters over the years,” her mom said. “In fact, I’ve been accused of being one myself. But, sweetheart, I’m not sure you’re going to find a lot of people who are going to say the election is all about Webmind.”

Caitlin shook her head. Mom still didn’t get it. From this point on, everything was about Webmind.

“Besides,” her mother went on. “Who’s to say that the Republicans won’t be just as bad for Webmind if they get into power?”

“If I may,” said Webmind, “even if the Republicans prevail on 6 November, the new president will not take power until 20 January—which is, as it happens, precisely one hundred days from now. At the rate my abilities are growing, I do not expect to be vulnerable then, but I am currently vulnerable, and likely will remain so through the election. WATCH’s pilot attempt was working; if they try a similar attack again soon on a larger scale, I may not survive.”

“So now what?” said Caitlin.

“Talk to the president,” said her dad.

“How?” said her mother. “You can’t just call him up, and I’m sure he doesn’t read his own email.”

“Not the stuff sent to,” said her dad, reaching into his pocket. “But he does have one of these…”

In the brief time since I’d announced my existence to the world, I had finished reading all the text on the World Wide Web, and I had answered 96.3 million email messages.

Even more messages about me had been posted online—to news-groups, Facebook pages, in blogs, and so on. Many of these asserted that I couldn’t possibly be what I claimed to be. “It’s post-9/11 all over again,” said one prominent blogger. “The president is running scared because of the election next month, and he wants us to believe that we’re facing a giant crisis, so we won’t want to change horses midstream.”

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