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Langdon was still trying to get his bearings. “And why am I in here alone?”
“As I said, Mr. Kirsch asked me to show you these amazing objects.”
The lights increased to full strength, flooding the vast space with a soft glow, and Langdon could only stare in bewilderment at the scene before him.
I’ve entered a parallel universe.
ADMIRAL LUIS AVILA arrived at the museum’s security checkpoint and glanced at his watch to assure himself he was on schedule.
He presented his Documento Nacional de Identidad to the employees manning the guest list. For a moment, Avila’s pulse quickened when his name could not be located on the list. Finally, they found it at the bottom–a last-minute addition–and Avila was allowed to enter.
Exactly as the Regent promised me. How he had accomplished this feat, Avila had no idea. Tonight’s guest list was said to be ironclad.
He continued to the metal detector, where he removed his cell phone and placed it in the dish. Then, with extreme care, he extracted an unusually heavy set of rosary beads from his jacket pocket and laid it over his phone.
Gently, he told himself. Very gently.
The security guard waved him through the metal detector and carried the dish of personal items around to the other side.
“Que rosario tan bonito,” the guard said, admiring the metal rosary, which consisted of a strong beaded chain and a thick, rounded cross.
“Gracias,” Avila replied. I constructed it myself.
Avila walked through the detector without incident. On the other side, he collected his phone and the rosary, replacing them gently in his pocket before pressing on to a second checkpoint, where he was given an unusual audio headset.
I don’t need an audio tour, he thought. I have work to do.
As he moved across the atrium, he discreetly dumped the headset into a trash receptacle.
His heart was pounding as he scanned the building for a private place to contact the Regent and let him know he was safely inside.
For God, country, and king, he thought. But mostly for God.
At that moment, in the deepest recesses of the moonlit desert outside Dubai, the beloved seventy-eight-year-old allamah, Syed al-Fadl, strained in agony as he crawled through deep sand. He could go no farther.
Al-Fadl’s skin was blistered and burned, his throat so raw he could barely pull a breath. The sand-laden winds had blinded him hours ago, and still he crawled on. At one point, he thought he heard the distant whine of dune buggies, but it was probably just the howling wind. Al-Fadl’s faith that God would save him had long since passed. The vultures were no longer circling; they were walking beside him.
The tall Spaniard who had carjacked al-Fadl last night had barely spoken a word as he drove the allamah’s car deep into this vast desert. After an hour’s drive, the Spaniard had stopped and ordered al-Fadl out of the car, leaving him in the darkness with no food or water.
Al-Fadl’s captor had provided no indication of his identity or any explanation for his actions. The only possible clue al-Fadl had glimpsed was a strange marking on the man’s right palm–a symbol he did not recognize.
For hours, al-Fadl had trudged through sand and shouted fruitlessly for help. Now, as the severely dehydrated cleric collapsed into the suffocating sand and felt his heart give out, he asked himself the same question he had been asking for hours.
Who could possibly want me dead?
Frighteningly, he could come up with only one logical answer.
ROBERT LANGDON’S EYES were drawn from one colossal form to the next. Each piece was a towering sheet of weathered steel that had been elegantly curled and then set precariously on its edge, balancing itself to create a freestanding wall. The arcing walls were nearly fifteen feet tall and had been torqued into different fluid shapes–an undulating ribbon, an open circle, a loose coil.
“The Matter of Time,” Winston repeated. “And the artist is Richard Serra. His use of unsupported walls in such a heavy medium creates the illusion of instability. But in fact, these are all very stable. If you imagine a dollar bill that you curl around a pencil, once you remove the pencil, your coiled bill can stand quite happily on its own edge, supported by its own geometry.”
Langdon paused and stared up at the immense circle beside him. The metal was oxidized, giving it a burnt copper hue and a raw, organic quality. The piece exuded both great strength and a delicate sense of balance.
“Professor, do you notice how this first shape is not quite closed?”
Langdon continued around the circle and saw that the ends of the wall did not quite meet, as if a child had attempted to draw a circle but missed the mark.
“The skewed connection creates a passageway that draws the visitor inside to explore the negative space.”
Unless that visitor happens to be claustrophobic, Langdon thought, moving quickly on.
“Similarly,” Winston said, “in front of you, you will see three sinuous ribbons of steel, running in a loosely parallel formation, close enough together to form two undulating tunnels of more than a hundred feet. It’s called The Snake, and our young visitors enjoy running through it. In fact, two visitors standing at opposite ends can whisper faintly and hear each other perfectly, as if they were face-to-face.”
“This is remarkable, Winston, but would you please explain why Edmond asked you to show me this gallery.” He knows I don’t get this stuff.
Winston replied, “The specific piece he asked me to show you is called Torqued Spiral, and it’s up ahead in the far right corner. Do you see it?”
Langdon squinted into the distance. The one that looks like it’s a half mile away? “Yes, I see it.”
“Splendid, let’s head over, shall we?”
Langdon took a tentative glance around the enormous space and made his way toward the distant spiral as Winston continued speaking.
“I have heard, Professor, that Edmond Kirsch is an avid admirer of your work–particularly your thoughts on the interplay of various religious traditions throughout history and their evolutions as reflected in art. In many ways, Edmond’s field of game theory and predictive computing is quite similar–analyzing the growth of various systems and predicting how they will develop over time.”
“Well, he’s obviously very good at it. They call him the modern-day Nostradamus, after all.”
“Yes. Though the comparison is a bit insulting, if you ask me.”
“Why would you say that?” Langdon countered. “Nostradamus is the most famous prognosticator of all time.”
“I don’t mean to be contrary, Professor, but Nostradamus wrote nearly a thousand loosely worded quatrains that, over four centuries, have benefited from the creative readings of superstitious people looking to extract meaning where there is none … everything from World War Two, to Princess Diana’s death, to the attack on the World Trade Center. It’s utterly absurd. In contrast, Edmond Kirsch has published a limited number of very specific predictions that have come true over a very short time horizon–cloud computing, driverless cars, a processing chip powered by only five atoms. Mr. Kirsch is no Nostradamus.”
I stand corrected, Langdon thought. Edmond Kirsch was said to inspire a fierce loyalty among those with whom he worked, and apparently Winston was one of Kirsch’s avid disciples.
“So are you enjoying my tour?” Winston asked, changing the subject.
“Very much so. Kudos to Edmond for perfecting this remote docenting technology.”
“Yes, this system has been a dream of Edmond’s for years, and he spent incalculable amounts of time and money developing it in secret.”
“Really? The technology doesn’t seem all that complicated. I must admit, I was skeptical at first, but you’ve sold me–it’s been quite an interesting conversation.”
“Generous of you to say, although I hope I don’t now ruin everything by admitting the truth. I’m afraid I have not been entirely honest with you.”
“First of all, my real name is not Winston. It’s Art.”
Langdon laughed. “A museum docent named Art? Well, I don’t blame you for using a pseudonym. Nice to meet you, Art.”
“Furthermore, when you asked why I wouldn’t just walk around with you in person, I gave you an accurate answer about Mr. Kirsch wanting to keep museum crowds small. But that answer was incomplete. There is another reason we are speaking via headset and not in person.” He paused. “I am, in fact, incapable of physical movement.”
“Oh … I am so sorry.” Langdon imagined Art sitting in a wheelchair in a call center, and regretted that Art would feel self-conscious having to explain his condition.
“No need to feel sorry for me. I assure you legs would look quite strange on me. You see, I’m not quite how you imagine.”
Langdon’s pace slowed. “What do you mean?”
“The name ‘Art’ is not so much a name as it is an abbreviation. ‘Art’ is short for ‘artificial,’ although Mr. Kirsch prefers the word ‘synthetic.'” The voice paused a moment. “The truth of the matter, Professor, is that this evening you have been interacting with a synthetic docent. A computer of sorts.”
Langdon looked around, uncertain. “Is this some kind of prank?”
“Not at all, Professor. I’m quite serious. Edmond Kirsch spent a decade and nearly a billion dollars in the field of synthetic intelligence, and tonight you are one of the very first to experience the fruits of his labors. Your entire tour has been given by a synthetic docent. I am not human.”
Langdon could not accept this for a second. The man’s diction and grammar were perfect, and with the exception of a slightly awkward laugh, he was as elegant a speaker as Langdon had ever encountered. Furthermore, their banter tonight had encompassed a wide and nuanced range of topics.
I’m being watched, Langdon now realized, scanning the walls for hidden video cameras. He suspected he was an unwitting participant in a strange piece of “experiential art”–an artfully staged theater of the absurd. They’ve made me a rat in a maze.
“I’m not entirely comfortable with this,” Langdon declared, his voice echoing across the deserted gallery.
“My apologies,” Winston said. “That is understandable. I anticipated that you might find this news difficult to process. I imagine that is why Edmond asked me to bring you in here to a private space, away from the others. This information is not being revealed to his other guests.”
Langdon’s eyes probed the dim space to see if anyone else was there.
“As you are no doubt aware,” the voice continued, sounding eerily unfazed by Langdon’s discomfort, “the human brain is a binary system–synapses either fire or they don’t–they are on or off, like a computer switch. The brain has over a hundred trillion switches, which means that building a brain is not so much a question of technology as it is a question of scale.”
Langdon was barely listening. He was walking again, his attention focused on an “Exit” sign with an arrow pointing to the far end of the gallery.
“Professor, I realize the human quality of my voice is hard to accept as machine-generated, but speech is actually the easy part. Even a ninety-nine-dollar e-book device does a fairly decent job of mimicking human speech. Edmond has invested billions.”
Langdon stopped walking. “If you’re a computer, tell me this. Where did the Dow Jones Industrial Average close on August twenty-fourth, 1974?”
“That day was a Saturday,” the voice replied instantly. “So the markets never opened.”
Langdon felt a slight chill. He had chosen the date as a trick. One of the side effects of his eidetic memory was that dates lodged themselves forever in his mind. That Saturday had been his best friend’s birthday, and Langdon still remembered the afternoon pool party. Helena Wooley wore a blue bikini.
“However,” the voice added immediately, “on the previous day, Friday, August twenty-third, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 686.80, down 17.83 points for a loss of 2.53 percent.”
Langdon was momentarily unable to speak.
“I’m happy to wait,” the voice chimed, “if you want to check the data on your smartphone. Although I’ll have no choice but to point out the irony of it.”
“But … I don’t …”
“The challenge with synthetic intelligence,” the voice continued, its light British air now seeming stranger than ever, “is not the rapid access to data, which is really quite simple, but rather the ability to discern how the data are interconnected and entangled–something at which I believe you excel, no? The interrelationship of ideas? This is one of the reasons Mr. Kirsch wanted to test my abilities on you specifically.”
“A test?” Langdon asked. “Of … me?”
“Not at all.” Again, the awkward laugh. “A test of me. To see if I could convince you I was human.”
“A Turing test.”
The Turing test, Langdon recalled, was a challenge proposed by code-breaker Alan Turing to assess a machine’s ability to behave in a manner indistinguishable from that of a human. Essentially, a human judge listened to a conversation between a machine and a human, and if the judge was unable to identify which participant was human, then the Turing test was considered to have been passed. Turing’s benchmark challenge had famously been passed in 2014 at the Royal Society in London. Since then, AI technology had progressed at a blinding rate.
“So far this evening,” the voice continued, “not a single one of our guests has suspected a thing. They’re all having a grand time.”
“Hold on, everyone here tonight is talking to a computer?!”
“Technically, everyone is talking to me. I’m able to partition myself quite easily. You are hearing my default voice–the voice that Edmond prefers–but others are hearing other voices or languages. Based on your profile as an American academic male, I chose my default male British accent for you. I predicted that it would breed more confidence than, for example, a young female with a southern drawl.”
Did this thing just call me a chauvinist?
Langdon recalled a popular recording that had circulated online several years ago: Time magazine’s bureau chief Michael Scherer had been phoned by a telemarketing robot that was so eerily human that Scherer had posted a recording of the call online for everyone to hear.
That was years ago, Langdon realized.
Langdon knew that Kirsch had been dabbling in artificial intelligence for years, appearing on magazine covers from time to time to hail various breakthroughs. Apparently, his offspring “Winston” represented Kirsch’s current state of the art.
“I realize this is all happening quickly,” the voice continued, “but Mr. Kirsch requested that I show you this spiral at which you are now standing. He asked that you please enter the spiral and continue all the way to the center.”
Langdon peered down the narrow curving passage and felt his muscles tighten. Is this Edmond’s idea of a college prank? “Can you just tell me what’s in there? I’m not a big fan of cramped spaces.”
“Interesting, I didn’t know that about you.”
“Claustrophobia is not something I include in my online bio.” Langdon caught himself, still unable to fathom that he was speaking to a machine.
“You needn’t be afraid. The space in the center of the spiral is quite large, and Mr. Kirsch requested specifically that you see the center. Before you enter, however, Edmond asked that you remove your headset and place it on the floor out here.”
Langdon looked at the looming structure and hesitated. “You’re not coming with me?”
“You know, this is all very strange, and I’m not exactly–”
“Professor, considering Edmond brought you all the way to this event, it seems a small request that you walk a short distance into this piece of art. Children do it every day and survive.”
Langdon had never been reprimanded by a computer, if that was in fact what this was, but the cutting comment had the desired effect. He removed his headset and carefully placed it on the floor, turning now to face the opening in the spiral. The high walls formed a narrow canyon that curved out of sight, disappearing into darkness.
“Here goes nothing,” he said to nobody at all.
Langdon took a deep breath and strode into the opening.
The path curled on and on, farther than he imagined, winding deeper, and Langdon soon had no idea how many rotations he had made. With each clockwise revolution, the passage grew tighter, and Langdon’s broad shoulders were now nearly brushing the walls. Breathe, Robert. The slanting metal sheets felt as if they might collapse inward at any moment and crush him beneath tons of steel.
Why am I doing this?
A moment before Langdon was about to turn around and head back, the passageway abruptly ended, depositing him in a large open space. As promised, the chamber was larger than he expected. Langdon stepped quickly out of the tunnel into the open, exhaling as he surveyed the bare floor and high metal walls, wondering again if this was some kind of elaborate sophomoric hoax.
A door clicked somewhere outside, and brisk footsteps echoed beyond the high walls. Someone had entered the gallery, coming through the nearby door that Langdon had seen. The footsteps approached the spiral and then began circling around Langdon, growing louder with every turn. Someone was entering the coil.
Langdon backed up and faced the opening as the footsteps kept circling, drawing closer. The staccato clicking grew louder until, suddenly, a man appeared out of the tunnel. He was short and slender with pale skin, piercing eyes, and an unruly mop of black hair.
Langdon stared stone-faced at the man for a long moment, and then, finally, permitted a broad grin to spread across his face. “The great Edmond Kirsch always makes an entrance.”
“Only one chance to make a first impression,” Kirsch replied affably. “I’ve missed you, Robert. Thanks for coming.”
The two men shared a heartfelt embrace. As Langdon patted his old friend on the back, he sensed that Kirsch had grown thinner.
“You’ve lost weight,” Langdon said.
“I went vegan,” Kirsch replied. “Easier than the elliptical.”
Langdon laughed. “Well, it’s great to see you. And, as usual, you’ve made me feel overdressed.”
“Who, me?” Kirsch glanced down at his black skinny jeans, pressed white V-neck tee, and side-zip bomber jacket. “This is couture.”
“White flip-flops are couture?”
“Flip-flops?! These are Ferragamo Guineas.”