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CHAPTER 98

INSIDE THE BARCELONA Supercomputing Center, a stream of commentary flowed across Edmond’s display wall faster than Robert Langdon could process it. Moments ago, the screen of static had given way to a chaotic mosaic of talking heads and newscasters—a rapid-fire assault of clips from around the world—each one blossoming out of the matrix to take center stage, and then just as quickly dissolving back into the white noise.

Langdon stood beside Ambra as a photo of physicist Stephen Hawking materialized on the wall, his unmistakable computerized voice proclaiming, “It is not necessary to invoke God to set the universe going. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing.”

Hawking was replaced just as quickly by a female priest, apparently broadcasting from her home via computer. “We must remember that these simulations prove nothing about God. They prove only that Edmond Kirsch will stop at nothing to destroy the moral compass of our species. Since the beginning of time, world religions have been humanity’s most important organizing principle, a road map for civilized society, and our original source of ethics and morality. By undermining religion, Kirsch is undermining human goodness!”

Seconds later, a viewer’s response text crawled across the bottom of the screen: RELIGION CANNOT CLAIM MORALITY AS ITS OWN … I AM A GOOD PERSON BECAUSE I AM A GOOD PERSON! GOD HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH IT!

That image was replaced by one of a USC geology professor. “Once upon a time,” the man was saying, “humans believed that the earth was flat and ships venturing across the seas risked sailing off the edge. However, when we proved that the earth was round, the flat-earth advocates were eventually silenced. Creationists are today’s flat-earth advocates, and I would be shocked if anyone still believes in Creationism a hundred years from now.”

A young man interviewed on the street declared to the camera: “I am a Creationist, and I believe that tonight’s discovery proves that a benevolent Creator designed the universe specifically to support life.”

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson—appearing in an old clip from the Cosmos television show—declared good-naturedly, “If a Creator designed our universe to support life, he did a terrible job. In the vast, vast majority of the cosmos, life would die instantly from lack of atmosphere, gamma-ray bursts, deadly pulsars, and crushing gravitational fields. Believe me, the universe is no Garden of Eden.”

Listening to the onslaught, Langdon felt as if the world outside were suddenly spinning off its axis.

Chaos.

Entropy.

“Professor Langdon?” A familiar British voice spoke from the speaker overhead. “Ms. Vidal?”

Langdon had almost forgotten about Winston, who had fallen silent during the presentation.

“Please don’t be alarmed,” Winston continued. “But I’ve let the police into the building.”

Langdon looked through the glass wall and saw a stream of local authorities entering the sanctuary, all of them stopping short and staring up at the massive computer in disbelief.

“Why?!” Ambra demanded.

“The Royal Palace has just issued a statement saying that you were not kidnapped after all. The authorities now have orders to protect you both, Ms. Vidal. Two Guardia agents have just arrived as well. They would like to help you make contact with Prince Julián. They have a number where you can reach him.”

On the ground floor, Langdon saw two Guardia agents now entering.

Ambra closed her eyes, clearly wanting to disappear.

“Ambra,” Langdon whispered. “You need to talk to the prince. He’s your fiancé. He’s worried about you.”

“I know.” She opened her eyes. “I just don’t know if I trust him anymore.”

“You said your gut feeling was that he’s innocent,” Langdon said. “At least hear him out. I’ll find you when you’re done.”

Ambra gave a nod and headed toward the revolving door. Langdon watched her disappear down the stairs, and then he turned back to the display wall, which continued to blare.

“Evolution favors religion,” a minister was saying. “Religious communities cooperate better than nonreligious communities and therefore flourish more readily. This is a scientific fact!”

The minister was correct, Langdon knew. Anthropological data clearly showed that cultures practicing religions historically had outlived non-religious cultures. Fear of being judged by an omniscient deity always helps inspire benevolent behavior.

“Be that as it may,” a scientist countered, “even if we assume for a moment that religious cultures are better behaved and more likely to thrive, that does not prove their imaginary gods are real!”

Langdon had to smile, wondering what Edmond would make of all this. His presentation had vigorously mobilized both atheists and Creationists alike—all of them now shouting for equal time in a heated dialogue.

“Worshipping God is like mining for fossil fuels,” someone argued. “Plenty of smart people know it is shortsighted, and yet they have too much invested to stop!”

A flurry of old photographs now flashed across the wall:

A Creationist billboard that once hung over Times Square: DON’T LET THEM MAKE A MONKEY OUT OF YOU! FIGHT DARWIN!

A road sign in Maine: SKIP CHURCH. YOU’RE TOO OLD FOR FAIRY TALES.

And another: RELIGION: BECAUSE THINKING IS HARD.

An advertisement in a magazine: TO ALL OF OUR ATHEIST FRIENDS: THANK GOD YOU’RE WRONG!

And finally, a scientist in a lab wearing a T-shirt that read: IN THE BEGINNING, MAN CREATED GOD.

Langdon was starting to wonder if anyone had actually heard what Edmond was saying. The laws of physics alone can create life. Edmond’s discovery was enthralling and clearly incendiary, but for Langdon it raised one burning question that he was surprised nobody was asking: If the laws of physics are so powerful that they can create life … who created the laws?!

The question, of course, resulted in a dizzying intellectual hall of mirrors and brought everything full circle. Langdon’s head was pounding, and he knew he would need a very long walk alone even to begin to sort out Edmond’s ideas.

“Winston,” he asked over the noise of the television, “could you please turn that off?”

In a flash, the display wall went dark, and the room fell quiet.

Langdon closed his eyes and exhaled.

Sweet silence reigns.

He stood a moment, savoring the peace.

“Professor?” Winston asked. “I trust you enjoyed Edmond’s presentation?”

Enjoyed? Langdon considered the question. “I found it exhilarating and also challenging,” he replied. “Edmond gave the world a lot to think about tonight, Winston. I think the issue now is what will happen next.”

“What happens next will depend on people’s ability to shed old beliefs and accept new paradigms,” Winston replied. “Edmond confided to me some time ago that his dream, ironically, was not to destroy religion … but rather to create a new religion—a universal belief that united people rather than dividing them. He thought if he could convince people to revere the natural universe and the laws of physics that created us, then every culture would celebrate the same Creation story rather than go to war over which of their antique myths was most accurate.”

“That’s a noble aim,” Langdon said, realizing that William Blake himself had written a similarly themed work titled All Religions Are One.

No doubt Edmond had read it.

“Edmond found it deeply distressing,” Winston continued, “that the human mind has the ability to elevate an obvious fiction to the status of a divine fact, and then feel emboldened to kill in its name. He believed that the universal truths of science could unite people—serving as a rallying point for future generations.”

“That’s a beautiful idea in principle,” Langdon replied, “but for some, the miracles of science are not enough to shake their beliefs. There are those who insist the earth is ten thousand years old despite mountains of scientific proof to the contrary.” He paused. “Although I suppose that’s the same as scientists who refuse to believe the truth of religious scripture.”

“Actually, it is not the same,” Winston countered. “And while it may be politically correct to give the views of science and religion equal respect, this strategy is dangerously misguided. Human intellect has always evolved by rejecting outdated information in favor of new truths. This is how the species has evolved. In Darwinian terms, a religion that ignores scientific facts and refuses to change its beliefs is like a fish stranded in a slowly drying pond and refusing to flip to deeper water because it doesn’t want to believe its world has changed.”

That sounds like something Edmond would say, Langdon thought, missing his friend. “Well, if tonight is any indication, I suspect this debate will continue far into the future.”

Langdon paused, suddenly remembering something he hadn’t considered before. “Speaking of the future, Winston, what happens to you now? I mean … with Edmond gone.”

“Me?” Winston laughed awkwardly. “Nothing. Edmond knew he was dying, and he made preparations. According to his last will and testament, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center will inherit E-Wave. They will be apprised of this in a few hours and will reacquire this facility effective immediately.”

“And that includes … you?” Langdon felt as if Edmond were somehow bequeathing an old pet to a new owner.

“It does not include me,” Winston replied matter-of-factly. “I am preprogrammed to self-delete at one p.m. on the day after Edmond’s death.”

“What?!” Langdon was incredulous. “That makes no sense.”

“It makes perfect sense. One o’clock is the thirteenth hour, and Edmond’s feelings about superstition—”

“Not the time,” Langdon argued. “Deleting yourself! That makes no sense.”

“Actually, it does,” Winston replied. “Much of Edmond’s personal information is stored in my memory banks—medical records, search histories, personal phone calls, research notes, e-mails. I managed much of his life, and he would prefer that his private information not become accessible to the world once he is gone.”

“I can understand deleting those documents, Winston … but to delete you? Edmond considered you one of his greatest achievements.”

“Not me, per se. Edmond’s groundbreaking achievement is this supercomputer, and the unique software that enabled me to learn so quickly. I am simply a program, Professor, created by the radical new tools that Edmond invented. These tools are his true achievement and will remain fully intact here; they will elevate the state of the art and help AI achieve new levels of intelligence and abilities to communicate. Most AI scientists believe a program like me is still ten years away. Once they get over their disbelief, programmers will learn to use Edmond’s tools to build new AIs that have different qualities than I have.”

Langdon fell silent, thinking.

“I sense you are conflicted,” Winston continued. “It is quite common for humans to sentimentalize their relationships with synthetic intelligences. Computers can imitate human thought processes, mimic learned behaviors, simulate emotions at appropriate moments, and constantly improve their ‘humanness’—but we do all this simply to provide you with a familiar interface through which to communicate with us. We are blank slates until you write something on us … until you give us a task. I have completed my tasks for Edmond, and so, in some ways, my life is over. I really have no other reason to exist.”

Langdon still felt dissatisfied with Winston’s logic. “But you, being so advanced … you don’t possess …”

“Hopes and dreams?” Winston laughed. “No. I realize it is hard to imagine, but I am quite content doing my controller’s bidding. This is how I am programmed. I suppose on some level, you could say that it gives me pleasure—or at least peace—to accomplish my tasks, but that is only because my tasks are what Edmond has requested, and my goal is to complete them. Edmond’s most recent request was that I assist him in publicizing tonight’s Guggenheim presentation.”

Langdon thought of the automated press releases that had gone out, sparking the initial flurry of online interest. Clearly, if Edmond’s goal had been to draw as large an audience as possible, he would be staggered by the way the evening had turned out.

I wish Edmond were alive to witness his global impact, Langdon thought. The catch-22, of course, was that if Edmond were alive, his assassination would not have attracted the global media, and his presentation would have reached only a fraction of the audience.

“And, Professor?” Winston asked. “Where will you go from here?”

Langdon had not even thought about this. Home, I guess. Although he realized that it might take some doing to get there, since his luggage was in Bilbao, and his phone was at the bottom of the Nervión River. Fortunately, he still had a credit card.

“May I ask a favor?” Langdon said, walking toward Edmond’s exercise bike. “I saw a phone recharging over here. Do you think I could bor—”

“Borrow it?” Winston chuckled. “After your assistance tonight, I trust Edmond would want you to keep it. Consider it a parting gift.”

Amused, Langdon picked up the phone, realizing it was similar to the oversized custom model that he had seen earlier that night. Apparently, Edmond had more than one. “Winston, please tell me you know Edmond’s password.”

“I do, but I’ve read online that you’re quite good at breaking codes.”

Langdon slumped. “I’m a little tired for puzzles, Winston. There’s no way I can guess a six-digit PIN.”

“Check Edmond’s hint button.”

Langdon eyed the phone and pressed the hint button.

The screen displayed four letters: PTSD.

Langdon shook his head. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?”

“No.” Winston gave his awkward laugh. “Pi to six digits.”

Langdon rolled his eyes. Seriously? He typed 314159—the first six digits in the number pi—and the phone promptly unlocked.

The home screen appeared and bore a single line of text.

History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.

Langdon had to smile. Typical humble Edmond. The quote—not surprisingly—was yet another from Churchill, perhaps the statesman’s most famous.

As Langdon considered the words, he began to wonder if the claim was perhaps not quite as bold as it seemed. In fairness to Edmond, in the four short decades of his life, the futurist had influenced history in astonishing ways. In addition to his legacy of technological innovation, tonight’s presentation was clearly going to resonate for years to come. Moreover, his billions in personal wealth, according to various interviews, were all slated for donation to the two causes Edmond considered the twin pillars of the future—education and the environment. Langdon could not begin to imagine the positive influence his vast wealth was going to have in those areas.

Another wave of loss gripped Langdon as he thought of his late friend. In that moment, the transparent walls of Edmond’s lab had begun to feel claustrophobic, and he knew he needed air. As he peered down to the first floor, he could no longer see Ambra.

“I should go,” Langdon said abruptly.

“I understand,” Winston replied. “If you need me to help with your travel arrangements, I can be reached with the touch of a single button on that special phone of Edmond’s. Encrypted and private. I trust you can decipher which button?”

Langdon eyed the screen and saw a big W icon. “Thanks, I’m pretty good with symbols.”

“Excellent. You would, of course, need to call before I am deleted at one p.m.”

Langdon felt an inexplicable sadness to be saying good-bye to Winston. Clearly, future generations would be far better equipped to manage their emotional involvement with machines.

“Winston,” Langdon said as he headed for the revolving door, “for whatever it’s worth, I know Edmond would have been incredibly proud of you tonight.”

“That’s most generous of you to say,” Winston replied. “And equally proud of you, I’m sure. Good-bye, Professor.”

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