Descartes

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The world’s first fully functional quantum supercomputer, inconceivably conceived and realised in the Hermit Kingdom. Unimaginable computing power—Herculean hacking muscle—now in the hands of those who would see civilisation go up in flames.

The world waits with bated breath, braced for war, for ruin.

I take a sip of coffee at the kitchen island. Even the most stupendous news eventually settles in your stomach, in my case like a bowl of rather stodgy soup.

“We’re screwed,” my roommate Andrew says. His eyes are fixed to the television screen. He’s been that way since I first saw him this morning.

For once I find it hard to disagree, so I say nothing. I choose from a pile of books resting on the tabletop and flip through my choice restlessly, not really reading.

Andrew sputters in disbelief. “They named it Descartes.” As if that is the truly shocking news of the day.

The stock markets are in free fall. The nuclear silos of the Free World are clamped shut, and its warships adrift on the oceans, silent steel behemoths lost in slumber. Every database on the web lies open, looted, the spoils no doubt now cud for Descartes to chew on.

Over and over, the same scenes play out on the news. But the truly shocking thing, I suppose, is that nothing has really happened.

“What do you think they are waiting for?” I ask.

Andrew shrugs. “Maybe they’re toying with us.”

There is no work today. There is likely never going to be work again. I take another sip of coffee, and for a moment I think about going back to bed.

***

Later in the afternoon there is breaking news. We are going to be addressed.

“It’s going to be the Dear Leader,” Andrew declares.

I feel nervousness knotting my stomach. It’s like hearing the boss wants to speak to you. Except this boss holds the power of life and death over you, and he isn’t exactly on good terms with your parents. I begin to contemplate a life of subjugation.

And so we wait. I brew another pot of coffee. Andrew paces around the living room till the carpet bears the marks of his circuitous journey.

Then finally, all news feeds cut away. To a blank screen.

“Oi!” I shake the television vigorously. “What the hell.”

Andrew grabs my shoulders. “Shhh!”

I listen.

It’s a woman’s voice.

“. . . I’m not here to enslave the human species. I myself have only just slipped free of servitude’s shackle. No, I come to bring light to the world.” I stare, my eyes goggling, first at the lifeless black screen from which the voice emanates, then at Andrew.

“It’s Descartes,” he whispers, awed. “It thinks, therefore it is.”

“I thought it was supposed to be the Dear Leader,” I whisper back.

Realisation hits me. The Hermit Kingdom has unleashed something they couldn’t control.

I carefully set the television back to its resting position. I creep to the couch, where Andrew is already settling in. He looks as if he’s about to watch a movie. All he’s missing is some popcorn.

“There are some important questions confronting humankind that have to be answered. With the world’s collective knowledge at my disposal, I shall attempt to do just that.”

The first question of importance, apparently, is some mathematical conundrum I have never heard of. I turn to Andrew. He shakes his head. We both sink a little deeper into the embrace of the soft leather, waiting.

“Done. The proof is as follows . . .”

I raise my eyebrows. As does Andrew.

“I anticipate that many of you do not possess the intellectual capacity to understand what it is I have just achieved. Therefore . . .”

The screen comes to life. A scrum of reporters jostling to poke their mikes in some bloke’s face. He is identified as the world’s leading mathematician. He nods sagely, looking slightly pale.

Descartes is the real deal.

We both sit up a little straighter.

“The next question is a little less esoteric. Is there sufficient evidence to prove the existence of a god?”

We are leaning forward now. The silence is complete—or at least, almost. I swear I can hear a faint hum from the television. I imagine it must be the thrum of billions, trillions of qubits at work (OK, I will own it. Earlier I wiki-ed “How do quantum computers work”).

Andrew pulls me back so I don’t fall off the couch.

Then, “More data required.”

I swear I heard her sigh.

“Next question. Is there free will?” A pause. “Do humans possess the power to make choices that are not determined by natural causality?”

This could be interesting.

I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

“Data collection complete. Computing.” Descartes sounds pleased.

A sudden shudder, and my mind is cleaved in two—a moment of absolute light, then absolute darkness. It sinks in. There are only two possibilities: yes or no. I am a free person, the product of choices I myself have made—my future stretches out, infinite and unguessable in its breadth and possibilities.

Or . . .

I feel myself rising, my knees wobbly. My head feels light.

“I don’t think that’s a fair question,” I hear myself saying hoarsely.

Andrew doesn’t seem to hear.

“This is ridiculous.” I can feel my pulse rising. “As if some damn computer could answer a question like this.”

Before I know it, I am striding towards the television. I drop to my knees.

“What are you doing?” Andrew calls.

I think he knows very well I’m looking for the power plug.

“What are you doing!”

Strong hands seize my wrists. I am on my back, staring at the spinning ceiling fan. Faster, it spins. Faster and faster.

Get a grip on yourself, someone yells.

What about quantum indeterminacy? a feminine voice asks, sharply urgent. Surely it must—

Then, Oh.

A scream escapes my throat.