Behind the Book
My first foray into the Ludlum universe was The Ares Decision and it turned out to be a terrific experiment. Riffing off the characters of one of the genre’s masters and emulating his style were both a lot of fun and a great learning experience—even for an old hand like me. Better yet, the book came out even better than I’d expected.
So, I was excited when asked to do a follow up and I immediately started digging into the research that would become The Utopia Experiment.
Science will either be the savior of mankind or the instrument of its destruction and I’ve leaned both ways over the course of my life. The problem is, no matter how benevolent a new technology seems, someone will always find a way to use it for evil.
Human machine integration has been in the news a lot lately and it’s advancing at an ever-accelerating pace. We’re beginning to be able to connect directly to the mind—helping blind people and those who have lost limbs with a level of sophistication that only a few years ago seemed like science fiction. Also in that time, computers have gone from struggling to give us a decent game of Pong to winning Jeopardy!. And the Internet is quickly becoming the repository of all human knowledge.
The question now isn’t whether we have the data and processor speed, it’s how do we effectively access it? The answer seems clear—build it into us. But these days, every answer comes with questions and in this case they’re on a scale that humanity hasn’t faced before.
How much longer will we be able to discern where we stop and the machines begin? And, perhaps more importantly, who will control those machines?
Las Vegas, Nevada
True to her word, Janine had gotten them seats four rows from the front. She had a natural pushiness that, combined with her youth and beauty, tended to part a crowd pretty well.
“I wonder if he finally got new glasses,” Janine said, putting her hand on Smith’s forearm. “We have a pool at the office and it’s up to more than five hundred bucks.”
Her question was answered a moment later when Christian Dresner strode onto stage and stalked toward the lone lectern at its center. The Coke-bottle glasses he’d been wearing since the eighties were still there, as were the suit and tie that he seemed to have bought around the same time.
The truth was that Dresner looked as out of place as Smith did in this crowd. Not only the clothes, but the graying blond hair worn in such a shaggy, haphazard style that many people believed he cut it himself. In Smith’s mind, though, everything seemed carefully calculated to diminish the almost cartoonishly square jaw, the heavy shoulders, and the still-narrow waist. With contacts, a decent tailor, and a coupon to Supercuts he would look like a spectacularly successful Nazi eugenics project.
A light applause erupted and he seemed a little uncomfortable, losing himself for a moment in securing a Bluetooth headset to his ear. In fact, this was only the fourth public appearance in the notoriously shy genius’s career.
While comparisons to Steve Jobs had been obvious, Smith had always thought Willy Wonka was a more apt analogy: an odd recluse who suddenly burst on the scene with something incredible and then retreated to the safety of the factory.
“I want to thank you for coming,” he said in the slight German accent that he’d never shaken off. “I hope you’ll be as excited about my new project as I am.”
The screen behind him came to life with an image of a hand holding a device that looked a little like a gray iPhone with no screen.
“Electric cigarette case?” Janine said, nudging Smith in the ribs as a confused murmur rose up around them.
He honestly didn’t know. A tiny switch and a blue indicator light were visible on the right side, but other than that it was just a graceful piece of plastic.
Dresner pulled his jacket back and showed an example of the real thing hung on his belt. “I’d like to introduce you to Merge. The next—and maybe final—generation of personal computing devices.”
“Oh, God,” Janine groaned, actually slapping her forehead. “He’s invented the cell phone. And he’s carrying it in a holster.”
“How many of you out there use augmented reality systems?” Dresner continued, blissfully unaware of Janine’s sarcasm. “You know—astronomy apps, something that tells you how good the restaurant you’re standing in front of is…anything.”
More than half the audience raised their hands and Smith joined them. Janine just folded her arms across her chest and scowled.
“And how many of you really find them practical?”
His hand dropped along with everyone else’s. As much as he loved his $2.99 constellation finder, holding a phone at arm’s length and looking past it at the sky wasn’t exactly a seamless experience.
“GPS has definitely moved that technology forward, but we’re still stuck with an interface that isn’t all that much different from the one we had when the first personal computers came out more than thirty years ago. It’s that, and not the software, holding the technology back. It’s not particularly hard to imagine augmented reality’s potential, but almost no one is pursuing it because of the lack of a workable hardware platform. I’m hoping to change that.”
He walked back to the lectern. “Let me switch you over to what I see.”
The screen behind him faded into a video of the crowd as he scanned across it. Along the left side was a series of semitransparent icons glowing various shades of red and green. Across the top was some general data—that he was connected to the Las Vegas Convention Center wireless network, the temperature inside and outside, as well as a number of abbreviations and numbers that Smith couldn’t decipher.
Janine leaned into him again. “That actually looks pretty good. I tried the Google Glasses prototype and they just have a cheesy head-up display at the top of one of the lenses.”
Smith nodded. “I tested a prototype from a British company that projects onto your retina, so it can work with your entire field of vision and create that transparent effect. Great idea but the images were blurry and every time the glasses moved on your face, the image would break up. Maybe Dresner’s nailed it.”
“I’ll admit it’s a little cool,” she said with a shrug. “But hell if I’m spending the rest of my life walking around in glasses that make me look like I’m using a chain saw.”
Dresner looked down from the stage and focused on a man in the second row, his surprised face suddenly filling the screen. “Let’s make a phone call. Bob, why don’t you stand up?”
He did, looking self-consciously at the crowd behind him. Either he was a damn fine actor, or this wasn’t a setup.
“Now, I know that Bob is a good citizen and turned his cell off before he came in. But could I bother you to turn it back on?”
Dresner looked out over his audience again. The phone icon at the edge of the screen expanded and the address book went immediately from names starting with “A” to names starting with “S,” finally scrolling to “Stamen, Bob.” A moment later, the tinny sound of Blondie’s “Call Me” filled the room.
The increasingly nervous-looking man answered and his voice was transmitted through the PA system by Dresner’s Merge. “Hello?”
“Hi, Bob. How’re things?”
Janine leaned forward, squinting at Dresner as he chatted. “How is he controlling those icons and scrolling through the names? Is it tracking his eye movements?”
Smith had been wondering the same thing. “I don’t think so. You’d see the screen image moving around. He was looking straight at the crowd when that app opened.”
“Maybe this was all set up beforehand. Maybe the system’s just in some kind of demonstration mode.”
“I don’t know. Maybe…”
Dresner pulled out his Bluetooth headset and laid it on the lectern before walking back to center stage. “I’ve always hated those things. They hurt my ear. How about you, Bob?”
“Um…” Stamen said, missing a few beats as he wrestled with the same thing everyone else was—why was Dresner’s voice still being picked up by the PA and why could he still hear the phone call? “I don’t like them.”
“Exactly! Me neither. So I thought, What if I just had a tiny microphone built into a custom cap that clamps to one of my back teeth? And on top of that, what if I had a much smaller and more sophisticated version of my hearing implants route sound directly to my brain?”
There was complete silence in the auditorium for a few seconds before everyone started talking at once. The tone wasn’t necessarily excitement, though. More of an impressed skepticism apparently shared by the young woman sitting next to him.
“Okay, he’s definitely into cool nerd territory now, but if you find your Bluetooth so uncomfortable, there are a bunch of companies that will make you a custom earpiece. That’s gotta be cheaper and easier than getting a dentist to make something that fits on your tooth and getting studs screwed into your skull.”
“I dunno,” Smith responded. “I’ve worked with a lot of people who use Dresner’s hearing system and they all say it aches a little for a couple of days and then you forget the studs are even there until they need to be recharged. And he’s saying he made them even smaller.”
She scowled and leaned back in her chair, arms folded across her chest again. If there was any great truth, it was that her generation was virtually impossible to impress where technology was concerned. They always wanted more.
“Thanks, Bob. I’ll talk to you later,” Dresner said. The color drained from the phone icon and it tucked itself back into the side of the massive screen.
He started pacing again, the audience following his every move. “I’ve had terrible vision my entire life and I know I look ridiculous with these huge lenses but I’ve never been able to get comfortable with contacts.”
He took his glasses off and let them hang loosely in his hand. Instead of the screen behind him suddenly tracking the floor, the image of the audience held steady but turned distorted and blurry.
“I don’t get it,” Janine muttered, but Smith ignored her. He was pretty sure he did understand, but he was having a hard time believing what his mind was telling him.
Illegible words appeared across the top of the screen and he concentrated on them as they slowly came into focus.
Processing vision correction
Confused silence prevailed as Dresner returned to the lectern and leaned against it. “So then I thought, if I can send sound to my audio cortex, why can’t I send images to my visual cortex?”
This time there were no voices at all. The only sound was of a hundred people attacking their cell phones in a desperate effort to be the first to text word of Dresner’s new miracle to the world.
East of the Walapai Test Center
Jon Smith eased along the dirt road, eyes moving smoothly from side to side. Ancient-looking mud-brick buildings rose up on either side, most showing signs of years of fighting: arcing bullet holes, gaping RPG hits, and hastily stacked debris from collapses. The people in the street seemed uninterested in the destruction, preferring to focus their suspicious gazes and muttered Dari comments on him and his men.
About ten meters ahead, a horse-drawn cart piled with scrap metal had broken a wheel and was stopped diagonally in his path. Two men in traditional Afghan garb were squatting next to it, examining the damage with a stream of animated commentary.
Smith’s Merge failed to recognize the face of either man, but was able to determine that they were Middle Eastern males between sixteen and forty-five years old and therefore gave them the reddish aura of potential threats. A woman standing next to them was also unidentified—not surprising based on the fact that virtually nothing of her was visible behind her burqa—but was given more of a neutral threat rating due to her gender.
The members of his team ahead glowed dark green despite their desert camo and a local coming toward them rated a much paler green—one of the rare locals who had been identified by the Merge’s sophisticated facial recognition software and was deemed friendly.
The man spoke as he passed by but Smith didn’t hear him in the literal sense of the word. He was wearing earplugs and all sound was being transmitted directly to his auditory cortex via five separate microphones attached to his uniform.
“My horse greets a goat for your life,” the mechanical voice said and Smith allowed himself a thin smile. One day the system would accurately translate real-time but for now its interpretation of Dari was for entertainment value only.
In their success column, though, they’d hijacked existing technology to cancel out wind noise, and an app that muted all voices except the one from the person you were looking at was starting to show real promise. On the downside, the directional aspect of the sound coming at him was still almost completely non-existent. Despite almost two months of work, everything sounded like it came from just ahead and slightly to the right.
Smith scanned left, letting the cameras mounted on his helmet pan over a group of men paying a little too much attention to the American team in their midst. It was broad daylight under a blue sky so most visual enhancement was shut down. The two exceptions—facial recognition and weapon outline enhancement—were coming up empty.
His vision shook when he faced forward again and he gave his chin strap another tug. He’d commandeered the helmet from a Recon Ranger and it had been custom-molded for his much larger head. Still, it was an amazing piece of gear. If Smith had any say in the matter—and he did—the bicycle mechanic who’d fabricated it would soon be a very wealthy man.
“Right or left, Colonel?” his point man said as they approached a cross street.
Smith expanded a satellite photo hovering in his peripheral vision and checked the layout of the village before responding. “Right.”
It would be the fastest way back and Smith had to admit that he’d had about enough of this exercise. The sixty-thousand-dollar seventeen-pound camera perched on his right shoulder seemed to be doing nothing but bending his collarbone. A little more tinkering might make it worth bringing out again but he was going to stick someone else with wearing it.
His man approached the corner and Smith swept left, lifting his rifle to provide cover should it become necessary. He left the satellite image up and watched the green dots that represented his people fan out behind him. Both the smoothness and resolution of the image had been significantly improved from his game of capture-the-flag three months ago. Even more important, though, his mind was growing accustomed to all the input, letting him register the flood of information without taking too much away from the reality around him.
“Rick,” he said in a voice that would be virtually inaudible to anyone around him but was easily picked up by his tooth mike. “You’re wandering a little far northeast. Tighten it up.”
Smith picked up his pace, keeping a line of sight on his point man while examining a section of ground along the edge of the road thirty-two meters away. The heat overlay that had been lurking in the background was now coloring an area about the size and shape of a manhole cover hazy orange, suggesting that the dirt had been churned up recently and was now absorbing sunlight at a slightly different rate than was the ground around it.
His man saw it too and, despite it probably being nothing more than some recently buried garbage, diverted through the increasingly dense crowd of pedestrians.
A tall man in a blue robe came out of a building just past the suspicious patch of dirt and after only a few seconds’ delay, started flashing red.
“Terry!” Smith said, raising his rifle and activating his targeting system. “Behind you!”
The soldier spun, but a fraction too late. The man the Merge had identified as a hostile knocked him to the ground before shoving his way through the people packing the street. Smith tried to follow him in his crosshairs, but the crowd started to panic and he couldn’t get a clean shot.
“We’ve got a target running south,” Smith said as the man disappeared around a corner. “Everyone behind me backtrack and try to intercept. Terry and I will try to flush him toward you.”
On his overhead display, he saw his people comply as he started running forward.
“You all right?” he said as he came alongside his man.
“Didn’t see him in time, sir.”
“Not your fault. Now let’s go get him.”
The heavy camera on his shoulder was limiting his speed to a fast jog and Terry quickly outpaced him, following the wake their target was making in the terrified throng.
As the street emptied, a hastily coded beta app kicked in and painted a woodpile just ahead of his man fluorescent orange.
Too late. The sound of the explosion was heavily filtered by his unit’s processors, but the blinding flash wasn’t. Smith dove to the ground, causing the massive camera anchored to his shoulder to slam painfully into the side of his flimsy helmet. Visual enhancement kicked on, penetrating the smoke and showing his man and a number of civilians down.
Near Dupont Circle
Washington, DC USA
They stopped in front of Zellerbach’s gate and this time it swung open without them having to use the call button. Smith hung back, letting Randi take a hesitant step inside while he waited for the stink bombs and fish to fly. When nothing happened, he reluctantly followed.
The front door opened, and Marty scanned his property nervously while they squeezed by.
“What took you so long?” he said, pushing the door closed and activating a high-tech dead bolt.
“Jon’s been sulking,” Randi said.
It was impossible to know if Zellerbach heard her response. He just turned and started for his office in the rushed waddle that Smith remembered so well from high school. Back then, it meant he’d pissed someone off and needed protection. What it meant now was a mystery.
The Merge that had been disassembled on the table was still in pieces, but now bristling with countless wires that led to the Cray in the corner. It looked a little like something out of a Frankenstein movie—though Zellerbach was more Igor than Victor.
“What did you find?” Smith said, anxious to get this over with.
“I’m not sure.”
“Are you kidding? You got me all the way out here to tell me you’re not sure?”
“What’s gotten in your bonnet?” Zellerbach said.
“Ignore him,” Randi said. “Tell us the story.”
“Well…I figured out a way to trigger something.”
His expression was as familiar as his odd gait. He was trying to figure out how to explain something to the slow kids. They’d been friends for a long time, but suddenly Smith remembered why it was that people always wanted to kick his ass.
“Okay…” he started. “There are certain parts in this thing—small stuff spread out all over the place—that no one’s been able to figure out. What everyone agrees on, though, is that they never activate no matter what app you use.”
“Twenty-eight of them,” Smith said.
“That’s right! How did you know?”
“My team’s been over that thing with a fine-tooth comb, Marty. We talked to Dresner and he says most are upgrade paths and a few relate to a power cell he’s developing. So thanks, but we’ve got it covered. Can we go now?”
“No. Because Dresner is lying. They don’t have anything to do with batteries or upgrades. They work together as a whole—kind of like a hardwired piece of software.”
“Hardwired software?” Randi said. “Isn’t that contradictory?”
“Not really. All software does is tell hardware what to do. It sends a little electric pulse that, say, turns on your computer’s speakers. Or causes your modem to upload something to the Internet. This is the same thing. If you send each of the twenty-eight components just the right signal, they launch all at once and act in unison.”
“It seems like if that was the case, my people would have triggered it by now.”
Zellerbach shook his head. “The problem is that each component needs a slightly different signal. Think of it this way: You’ve got a safe with twenty-eight keyholes. You need twenty-eight keys, right? But more than that, you need to know what order to turn them in and how far to turn each one down to the tenth of a millimeter.”
“There would be an almost infinite number of combinations,” Randi said.
“Tell me about it. Took me ten days to finally hit on it.”
“If there are really that many possibilities, ten days wouldn’t be anywhere near enough time. Even with your Cray.”
Zellerbach looked at the floor and chewed his lower lip for a moment. “I have to admit that I had to borrow some other people’s computer power.”
“Well…I figure you don’t care about the Chinese government, but I did accidentally crash Amazon. Twice if you want to be technical about it. And you said you were in a hurry, so I maybe didn’t cover my tracks as well as I normally would…”
“Are you saying they could trace the crashes to you?” Smith said.
“Not if you were to smooth it over.”
“We’ll take care of it,” Randi said before Smith could find a blunt object to hit him with. “So what happens when you give it the right signals?”
“The twenty-eight individual components run for eighteen seconds and then it goes back to its normal mode.”
“Why? What’s it do?”
“Dunno. Without Dresner’s knowledge of how the Merge communicates with the brain, there’s no way to simulate the outcome. The only option would be to just stick it on your head and turn it on.”