First Night: The Conflict Between Hope and Cynicism
Story by Dr. Lee Brazil
Foreword and Epilogue by:
Written by Ron Breazeale, Ph.D.
All Rights Reserved
KINGS WHARF, BERMUDA
December 22, 2019, 1:06 P.M.
There must be virtue in brilliance followed by stupidity, for man is alternatively brilliant and stupid, and man is a creation of God.
~ Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano
Lee was alone. He started to knock on the adjoining door to Joann’s room, but he stopped himself. He needed to stop. He needed to be alone. Time alone had been in short supply since he had left the hotel in Paris. It had only been two days. No, not even that. A little over a day. But it felt like a week, a month.
He lay down on the bed. He thought of Liz and his daughter. Tonight was the first night of Hanukkah — the Festival of Lights. They would light the candles; give their gifts. He would not be with them. He couldn’t call them. He couldn’t call anyone. Liz would assume the worst. She always did. But there was nothing to do about it.
He checked the inside pocket of his coveralls. The package was still there. In another day and a half, he would hopefully be in Boston. And he could hand it over to Jennings and be done with this whole thing. He would not do another one of these. He was too old for all of this foolishness. He would tell Jennings that. And not to ask again. And if he wanted to lock him up again, so be it.
And all that business about The Carol Deering, the dreams. Was he supposed to believe all that? And Father Allen, how was it that a nice guy like that was involved in all this craziness? And the computer, Edward. Too much. Too much. Lee closed his eyes.
Lee awakened with a start. Someone was at his door. He froze. The door opened. It was Joann with a tray of food.
“Lee, you missed our departure,” she said. “It’s really a beautiful harbor. The old fort. And the lighthouse. But you slept through it.” Lee didn’t respond. “Are you okay, Lee?” Lee nodded.
“It’s getting late and the employee dining room closes at seven o’clock. I hope this is okay.”
“Oh, I’m sure it will be.” Lee remained distracted. “I’m not really that hungry.”
Joann set the tray on a table by the bed. She sat down next to Lee. “You look really tired. Lee, are you sure you’re okay? Did things go all right with Dr. Sherman?”
Lee continued to look away. “Yes, yes. I’m sorry. I’m not going to be much good company. I’m just trying to understand . . . well, you know…” “Hey, you and me both.” There was a pause. “Do you know anything about the Singularity?” asked Joann.
“Not very much. I heard Clayton talking about it on NPR. Why?”
“I overheard a conversation in the dining room coming down from Boston. Two men at the captain’s table were talking about the day when a single computer will be smarter than the entire human race.”
“Yes, yes. I think that’s what the phrase refers to.”
“One of the men said that that day is fast approaching. And when it arrives it will be the undoing of the human race . . . and maybe the entire universe. He said the moral development of the human race was not keeping up with the development of technology.”
“Well,” Lee smiled again, “we have done a pretty poor job of programming ourselves in that area.” Lee stood up and moved toward the window of the cabin. “We certainly aren’t going to be able to teach machines to teach other machines to behave better than we behave.”
He turned to face Joann again. “Remember that novel by Kurt Vonnegut, one of those he wrote in the late ‘50s?” Scratching his head, “What was it…Yes, Player Piano was its name.” He appeared to be concentrating on remembering. “In the story, engineers had managed to design machines that could do the work of most human beings. The machines took good care of the people. They were well fed and housed. But there was nothing meaningful for them to do. Those who wanted to stay busy were consigned to doing ‘busywork’ and entertaining themselves through organizing and participating in social clubs.”
“Oh, yes,” said Joann. “It does sound similar to today’s world. I guess we could just replace social clubs with social media.”
Lee continued, “And there is finally a revolt against the machines,” said Lee. “Unfortunately, it failed, just like Player Piano when it was first published.”
“I remember,” said Joann, “the story certainly doesn’t have a happy ending.” There was a pause. “He also said that these new machines could develop the technology to explore the entire universe.”
Lee walked back to the bed and sat down. He nodded. “I would assume that might be possible. If so, we would be able to spread some of the best of our culture to the entire universe. Especially those parts we seem to focus so much of our attention on . . . violence and greed.”
“Yes. I think that’s what he was talking about.”
“The human race has a legacy of both. I mean, the American frontier was a combat zone, with violence usually driven by greed, was it not?” Lee’s voice rose. Joann nodded.
“But I’m sure the corporations could care less about all that,” said Lee with a smirk. “The main and only goal of most is to produce a profit, and there are certainly profits to be made by the first corporation to develop such a machine.” Lee paused and then continued. “To develop the first computer that would be smarter than the entire human race, smarter than all human beings combined. In addition to solving the problems of time and space, the machines could solve the problems of human mortality. Human beings might become immortal.”
“But I doubt the machines could solve the problems of human morality,” said Joann.
“Yes, you are right about that,” said Lee with a faint smile.
Neither Lee nor Joann said anything for a few minutes. The silence was awkward.
“Well, I don’t know what that has to do with us,” said Joann. “I will just be glad when I get back to Boston and I can get home. I think I will turn in now.”
“Oh, okay,” said Lee absently, appearing to still be buried in his thoughts. “I guess I will too.”
Joann stood up. “It is a beautiful night. Clear, calm seas.” Joann loved the ocean. She waited for a few seconds, but Lee did not respond. Finally, he said, “I would love to go topside with you, but Father Allen said I should stay . . . I…”
“Well, okay,” she snapped. “I’ll bring you breakfast in the morning. Two eggs over easy, and sausage patties, not links. And of course, OJ, right?”
Lee nodded and sighed. “I’m really sorry we had to meet under . . .” She cut him off. “Me, too, but such is life.” She smiled and quickly closed the door to her adjoining cabin.
Lee picked at the meal she had brought and thought about the past. Lee and Joann had taken a cruise many years ago. A very short one. That was all they could afford in those days. Lee remembered the calm. The moon on the water. So many years ago. He lay back on the bed.
Ultra-intelligent machines were just the stuff of fiction in those days, but the Singularity pushed its way back into his thoughts. “Oh, God, what a disaster it could be.” He shook his head again. He did not intend to fall asleep so soon, but his body and mind did not agree. He closed his eyes and again fell into a deep sleep.