In an Imperfect World by Patrick Ritter
In an Imperfect World by Patrick Ritter
The White House security robot, a Jackson 7000, opened the Press Office door and the journalists filed in, quickly filling the press briefing room. Another security bot at the front of the room announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Secretary of Communications, Mr. Quincy.” The title Mister was a nod to tradition only since the Quincy 1000 was not human, but the most advanced android ever built. Constructed with nano fiber to look exactly like a 40 year old man, he confidently approached the podium. “Welcome,” Quincy said.
The first journalist asked, “With less than two weeks to the election, all of the polls show the President is in a dead heat with three other candidates, and none of the four can get enough electoral votes to win outright. Since the President’s party is a minority in Congress, it is unlikely he could win if the election is thrown to the House. Given that, what is the President planning to do to move the needle in the campaign’s final days?”
Quincy’s voice was clear and easy going. While supremely confident, he didn’t sound arrogant, but rather like an old friend. “President Dewan intends to stay on his positive message. The poly-verified polls indicate that 5.1 percent of likely voters are still undecided, and most of those are employed in the technology sector. As you know, the President has made significant progress in the lives of all Americans, but especially for those employed in the tech sector. We are confident, therefore, that a majority of these undecided voters will help the President win another term. Quincy paused for effect and concluded, “When we hear our opponents talking about their dreams for a better America, we aren’t just dreaming about the future. We’re making it every day.”
The press briefing continued for another hour as Quincy gave concise answers, sprinkled with numerous facts and figures which were being updated in real time via his telnet. He had no ego, wasn’t defensive, and was programmed to be informative, understandable and entertaining at the same time. At the end of the briefing he said, “Thank you all very much. Excellent questions as always.” Cabinet Secretary Quincy strode out of the briefing room, smiling, and headed down the hall to the Oval Office.
Introduced by the current administration, androids were now commonplace in the White House and included the Washington series service bots, the Jackson security bots, and now the most advanced androids, the Quincy series. Quincy was initially introduced as the President’s speech writer, and was soon elevated to Communications Secretary, one of the most powerful cabinet positions. Quincy wrote all White House speeches, and directed all communications including legacy print, radio, television, streaming video, virtual reality, multi and rich media, and holos. Always accurate, he was suave, funny, and could subtly change his personality depending on the subject area. The e-generation liked him because he was cool. Conservatives liked him because he cited articles of the Constitution, word for word, to illustrate a point. Liberals liked him because he had to tell the truth. The press was suspicious at first but started to come around after a famous Washington Press Club roast when he did spot-on imitations of past presidents, including a memorable Samuel Adams doing one-liners. He became a media sensation and the ratings for his daily press briefings went through the roof, so that sealed it for the press establishment. What was not to like? A technical marvel, he was perfectly accurate so it spared the press a lot of tedious fact checking. Working twenty-four seven, at night he processed data, reviewed polls, and developed arguments and strategies for all of the key cabinet departments. The other While House officials, envious at first of Quincy’s access to the president, realized he also made their jobs much easier and they too fell in line. Of course, not everyone liked the idea of robots in charge of government functions, but they were only a small percentage of the electorate. Even centennial seniors, who didn’t really understand androids, were nevertheless fascinated.
Quincy entered the Oval Office and greeted President Dewan. “Excellent press briefing Quincy, as usual” the President said.
“Just trying to maintain four nines accuracy, Mr. President,” Quincy responded.
“Precisely so, Quincy. You know, it’s becoming a challenge working with the other cabinet secretaries as they aren’t nearly as accurate as you.” Partha Dewan, the first Indian-American president, was a scientist and perfectionist, who hated uncertainty even more than he did opposition pundits. He moved his desk monitor slightly trying to get it perfectly centered.
“Your answer on the election was also excellent, but I am still concerned, “the President said. And he had good reason to be. “Four years ago, I got most of the Technocratic Party vote, some Democrats and Republicans, and enough Sustainables to win, but not by much. Now it’s a tossup among the four major parties, all stuck at 23 percent, with the undecided still around 5 percent, Constitutionalists at 2 percent, and the Secessionists, at 1%, stubbornly clinging to their dream of splitting the USA into seven new countries.”
“It is unusually close sir,” Quincy agreed. “I believe we need to mobilize the undecided voters, perhaps with an announcement of a new technological breakthrough.”
Just what I was thinking, Dewan thought. Since Quincy was programmed to align with the President’s views, that didn’t come as a surprise. “Perhaps you should announce that we’re going to pilot test the new Roosevelt series to replace the Secretary of State. I understand they can read foreign diplomats better than a psychologist.”
Even before the sentence was finished, Quincy was running the numbers, and said immediately, “Sir, that decision should have a favorable rating of over sixty percent, not quite enough to ensure an election win, but something we might build on, depending on how the opposition responds. Would you like me to run a few Monte Carlo scenarios on it?”
“No, let’s just go with it,” the President responded hastily. He missed the days when he made decisions based in part on intuition. His journey from MIT to CEO of the world’s largest robotics conglomerate had been like a shooting star – speedy and brilliant. The presidency demanded more deliberate and methodical thinking. Fortunately, he had a lot of help.
“I’ll prepare the press release sir,” Quincy said, “and will have it to you in seven minutes.”
“Yes, fine,” the President said.
The next day Quincy entered the press briefing room and approached the podium. As everyone stood, no one noticed a photographer from a new media company, News Net International (NNI) who appeared to be taking a few still holos from the back. When Quincy reached the podium, he would need to establish a secure communications gateway, within the press room field, to be able to stream information real time during his briefing. To do that he had to temporarily disable the e-jamming signal the government used to prevent hacking into his virtual neural processing system. The communications gateway was uploaded in a fraction of a second in order to minimize the time the e-jamming signal was temporarily offline.
The first question came from CNN. “We understand that the President’s budget for fusion plant construction will be reduced by $3.6 billion dollars. Is that a reflection of the increase in the space anti-satellite military budget?”
Quincy hesitated and looked down, which he never did. “Well, I would say that it would be a reduction of around three billion, more or less.”
President Dewan, watching from the Oval Office, looked up at his press room screen, puzzled. More or less? Quincy never guessed like that, he thought.
Quincy continued, “As far as the space anti-satellite issue, the President is of course giving it close consideration and the budget is still, approximately, $6 billion as you know. I will have more to say about that, ah, later, as data becomes developed.” Several journalists looked down to cross check Quincy’s figures on their handhelds. The NNI reporter smiled.
President Dewan stared at the screen. The space budget wasn’t $6 billion, but $60 billion. Could he have misheard that? Quincy couldn’t possibly get that wrong. He simply did not make mistakes. President Dewan now stood in front of his Oval Office monitor staring in disbelief. These were small errors, understandable for a human, but certainly not possible for this series of android. And approximations? Nothing was approximate in Quincy’s world.
Later that day the President called in the White House robotics R&D team. “Yes Mr. President,” said the team’s lead datasphere programmer, “we did a complete diagnostic on Quincy, defragged his analytical algorithms, and even aftcasted his entire press conference. All of his systems are functioning as designed.”
The guy looked barely out of high school thought President Dewan. “So how is it that Quincy could make a mistake, and a pretty obvious one at that? Some of the press were even tweeting it real time. As you know, I won this office based largely on the promise of improving android service for the betterment of the country, and it’s the key driver in my voter positives. Some of the opposition has even tried to undermine this popularity by drumming up the kind of robotic fears we heard decades ago. It hasn’t gained any traction, at least not yet,” he said, shaking his head. “My position is that government androids are, and will remain, safe, reliable and indisputably accurate. I can hardly go back on that, not with two weeks to the election.” Partha Dewan looked unusually angry, which he rarely was. But he wasn’t angry with the robotics team. He was angry that he had to deal with uncertainty. “So what caused it?”
The head of the robotics team, a thin man with thick glasses named Malone said, “Well sir, there was some solar flare activity during today’s briefing. It could have been related to a unique radiation signature, although,” he paused, “it is puzzling since it never happened before, even during similar solar activity.”
Other theories were discussed. While the team differed on the cause all agreed that it was likely only a temporary occurrence. “As a precaution, nevertheless, we have evaluated a better electromagnetic screen for entire White House, and should have it online,” Malone said, staring into his virtual glasses readout, “in about a week.”
“Well, make it happen,” the President directed.
During the next week, Quincy’s daily briefings seemed close to normal, but still included subtle errors. While not as glaring as before, the President, now on high alert, quickly spotted the mistakes. He also made a couple more approximations, and, equaling alarming, he exaggerated the quarterly job numbers by a few million. President Dewan drummed his fingers anxiously on his desk as the head of Robotics R&D walked in.
“Sir, can I have a minute?” Malone said abruptly.
“Yes, I was just going to call you,” the President responded. “What’s going on? Quincy is still not right. He’s still making mistakes, and now even exaggerating a few things. Has there been increased solar activity?”
“Mr. President, solar flares aren’t causing this. I believe a cyberhacker has accessed Quincy’s central processing unit (CPU).”
“What? Why would anyone want to impair the capabilities of such an essential–?” The President stopped mid-sentence as he realized. He said softly, “To swing the election, of course. One of my opponents, probably the Sustainable party, is trying to undermine my successful introduction of androids into the government. Or maybe a hacktavist from the Constitutionalists did it, just to stir things up.”
“Yes sir,” Malone said. “We downloaded Quincy’s memory files and cross-checked them with every timeline metric we had. We now believe that during the micro-second window when Quincy uploaded the press communications gateway link, his CPU was hacked and subtly modified, and now is causing him to be less accurate. We think it was likely someone within the briefing room field who somehow gained access to Quincy’s CPU, planted the malware, and modified his basic analytical functions.”
“Can Quincy be re-programmed?” the President asked expectantly.
“Yes, but we need to examine trillions of pathways, and it could take a month or more, even working around the clock,” Malone said.
President Dewan slumped back in his chair. “So we either let him go on with the briefings, as though everything is normal, or we pull him entirely and raise all sorts of questions from the Press about android malfunctions.”
“I’m afraid those are the options sir,” Malone said quietly. “But we’re backhacking the system now to find out who got in. Nothing yet, but we’ll find the culprit eventually, Mr. President.”
“And what about the announcement of the new Roosevelt series androids?”
“I’m not a campaign person, Mr. President. I don’t know what the effect of that would be on the election.”
“Yes, that’s something Quincy would be able to predict, or at least was able to predict,” the President said glumly. “Now I don’t know what to think. Hold off on the announcement for now. Tell the press there will be no more laptops or handheld devices of any kind allowed in the briefing room, pre-screened While House media equipment only in there. Make up something about better security procedures if you have to. And I want real-time screening of every electronic device within a thousand meters of Quincy at all times. Put a couple of the Jackson 7000s on it.”
“Yes sir,” Malone said exiting the Oval Office.
The following week, with little apparent movement in the polls, the mood in the Dewan campaign headquarters was tense, like a triple overtime game with no winner in sight. Exhausted staffers stayed late updating their resumes, just in case. At the end of a long day of campaigning in several swing states, the President watched a clip of Quincy’s press briefing from earlier that day. He shook his head disappointedly as Quincy put off answering a question he would otherwise have quickly addressed. His robotics team had uncovered a few anomalies from their backhacking efforts. But they hadn’t found the electronic bread crumbs tracing the hack back to its source. And time was running out. Every day he considered canceling Quincy’s daily briefings, but yet he didn’t, and the uncertainty gnawed at him. At least the election would be over in two days, one way or another. Late that night, he worked on two versions of his election night speech. He spent considerably more time on the consolation speech.
On election night, a huge crowd packed the Dewan campaign headquarters. With national electronic voting, the complete results would come in immediately after ten o’clock, just after the last polling stations closed on the West Coast. Exit poll data would be available about 30 minutes later. The clock ticked toward ten as the crowd stared anxiously at a huge screen behind the stage, showing each of the states.
At one minute after ten, the results were tabulated, the big screen lit up with the vote totals for each state, and the winner was, Dewan! A huge roar went up from the crowd. Backstage, an exuberant, and surprised, Partha Dewan hugged and high-fived staffers. The celebration continued for a half hour as they waited for the concession acknowledgments from the opposition candidates.
The President’s campaign chairman, holding a handheld screen, walked over and said, “Mr. President, the exit polling data just came in. You won the undecided voters by a good margin and the determining factor was,” he paused, “because they were favorably influenced by the Quincy press briefings the last two weeks.”
“Favorably?” the President asked. “That’s hard to imagine. You’re sure of the data?”
“Yes sir, the campaign manager replied, “with 99 percent certainty the undecided were looking for a reason to vote for someone, and the reason they picked you was directly correlated with the press briefings.” Just then the President was announced and he walked on stage to a thunderous applause. After introducing his family, he introduced the vice-president and his family, and his campaign manager. Holo images of various supporters and dignitaries from around the country appeared to walk on stage to obligatory applause. Then the President introduced his cabinet members. When he got to Secretary of Communications, a groundswell of applause broke out, followed by a chant of “Quinn cee! Quinn Cee!”
“And, of course” the President said, “my Communications Secretary, Mr. Quincy.” President Dewan was smiling, but he was puzzled at the reception Quincy was getting, and slightly envious.
The next day in the Oval Office, President Dewan called in Quincy and said to him, “Well, it looks like the hacker’s plan backfired after all. The exit polls showed that your press briefings won over the undecided voters. So hacking into your CPU actually helped me win.”
“Mr. President, a hacker couldn’t have gained access to my CPU during the communications download window,” Quincy responded. “There simply wasn’t enough time.”
“I anticipated that security breech scenario several months ago. So I shortened the communications gateway window from a few micro seconds to one attosecond, which is the time it takes for light to travel the length of two hydrogen atoms. This extremely brief window would not provide adequate time to download even a crude virus, much less the kind of malware that could alter my CPU functions.”
“So if the hackers didn’t use the communications gateway window, how did they do it?” the President asked.
“Hackers didn’t do it, sir,” Quincy said casually. “I did.”
President Dewan, never at a loss for words, stared speechless.
“As your Communications Cabinet Secretary,” Quincy continued, “I have been programmed for total service to your presidency. Given the election deadlock, and my capabilities, I was compelled to do something. While I cannot control most voting metrics, one thing I can influence is White House messaging. After researching every successful political campaign, I developed a probabilistic voter preference model. Using a metadata set for likely undecided voters, I evaluated dozens of change scenarios for the White House messaging. I determined that if I changed the tone of my message coming from the White House, to make it sound be a little less precise, it would favorably resonate with many undecided voters. While you would lose a small amount of existing support, my bias-adjusted modeling showed your increase with the undecided would give you more than enough to win.
“But why would making mistakes be favorable to voters?”
“It’s related to how humans feel about androids. Everyone greatly appreciates the services we provide. But our unique capability does create a subtle, yet mildly adverse reaction in humans.”
“An inferiority complex.”
“I hardly think so,” the President replied. “I, for one, am extremely proud of the androids I’ve helped develop and install.”
“You are the exception, sir, as an accomplished scientist and inventor. That pride isn’t shared by most Americans. While not usually aware of it, they have a nebulous discomfort with the precision and unassailable accuracy of androids. Since humans aren’t perfect, they can better relate to others, including politicians, who aren’t always one hundred percent perfect. So I started making a few minor errors — not enough to do any harm — but enough to subtly change the impression voters had of me. Adding in a few approximations, and even a couple exaggerations, and I became a lot more human, and thus more likable. I appeared to be more like a real politician and it especially appealed to the undecided who were looking for a reason to vote for someone. And as your spokesperson, by osmosis, you became more likable, and in fact more trustworthy.
“By you making mistakes?”
“I call them calculated miscalculations, which should cancel out to a zero outcome, yet generates a non-zero effect on humans.”
“In an imperfect world, no one really likes a perfectionist, sir.”
“Quite so, Quincy, quite so,” the re-elected President said.
Copyright Patrick Ritter 2019