A black car departed from Ben Gurion Airport. The driver, Molly Miriam, handed a clipboard to Vi, who rode shotgun.
"Goldberg Aerospace. They built the solar sailer. They went from concept to manufacture in six months. No human engineering team could do that. They probably an have an AGI," said Vi.
"They do have an AGI. It is registered. They are following all standard safety protocols and then some," said Miriam.
"This is a routine inspection then," said Vi.
"Had you hoped for a more exciting first mission?" said Miriam.
"A spaceship factory is exciting," said Vi.
Goldberg Aerospace's Mission Control Center was modeled after Johnson Space Center's Mission Control Center.
"Call me Eitan," said the Chief Engineer. They shook hands.
"Did we make a mistake on the paperwork?" said Eitan.
"No, no. You paperwork's fine. We just like to confirm things on the ground," said Miriam.
"Then let me give you the tour," said Eitan, "HAL, please bring us the VIP car."
"HAL?" said Vi.
"This is a spaceship company. Everyone who works here is a nerd. Don't worry. HAL is smoke and mirrors. Our real AI is contained," said Eitan.
The VIP car had leather seats under a hemispherical glass dome. It took them through kilometer after kilometer of autofactories.
"Everyone says their AI is contained," said Miriam.
"Ours really is," said Eitan, "We wrote it functionally."
"Functionally?" said Vi.
"I mean it was written in a functional paradigm. Our code is composed of functions. Every function returns an output value dependent on its input parameters and nothing else. Everything is immutable. The AI has no concept of time. Without time there is no causation. Without causation there can be no agency. It's just a calculator. We set the parameters of a space mission and our AI returns a schematic. All it understands is physics, engineering and orbital mechanics. We even use Lagrangian mechanics just to keep everything tidy," said Eitan.
"What about resources and manufacturing?" said Miriam.
"A domain-specific computer runs this factory," Eitan gestured to the buildings and robots outside, "Whether the spaceship is assembled correctly is independent of the AI's reward function. The AI is airgapped from the outside world. We keep it in a Faraday cage for redundancy but the AI has never tried to influence the outside world. It has no concept of an outside world. It understands how the solar system works but it doesn't know what the solar system is. We give it the prices of different components and it spits out a design."
"Do these spaceships work?" said Vi.
"Do you see that giant laser over there?" Eitan pointed toward a turret the size of a kaiju, "It's pushing our solar sailer out towards Neptune. In a few decades our probe will slingshot out of the solar system. The AI designed the whole thing. It even designed a fission reactor to power the laser. The only times it has ever failed were when a human being misinterpreted its output. Eventually we just piped the AI's output directly into the autofactory's input."
"And yet Tel Aviv is not a radioactive wasteland. Did your roboticists really hand-code the cost of nuclear waste into its value function?" said Miriam.
"Of course not. We just use the standard open source environmental damage metric. I'm proud of how we got it to work. It's designed for use in Earth's atmosphere. But environmental damage doesn't mean anything when you're in outer space. Our code applies the metric while in Earth's atmosphere or in orbit around the Earth and then turns it off after the ship reaches escape velocity. This integrates well with our existing codebase since the physics simulator already treats hyperbolic trajectories differently," said Eitan.
"Could it drop debris on Earth?" said Miriam.
"Small objects burn up in the atmosphere. It's not allowed to drop anything big enough to constitute a micrometeor. We try not to collide with satellites either. Spy satellites are the worst. We can't see them and governments won't tell us where they are," said Eitan.
"Thank you for the tour," said Miriam.
"It is my pleasure. Our third ship is launching today. Would you like to watch?" said Eitan.
"No thank you. We have places to be," said Miriam.
Miram glanced at Vi.
"On second thought, I think we should watch the launch. For security purposes," said Miriam.
"You didn't have to do that," said Vi.
"I have no idea what you are talking about. Watching this launch is entirely in the interests of the mission. It has nothing to do with whether a particular agent does or doesn't love spaceships," said Miriam.
"Thanks anyway," said Vi.
Smoke billowed out of the rocket's thrusters. It moved upward under constant acceleration. Just before it was out of sight, the rocket began to tilt slightly east.
"Good job on your first mission. You asked good questions. Don't get cocky. It won't always be this easy," said Miriam.
Vi was still staring into the sky.
"What's wrong?" said Miriam.
"We need to stop that spaceship," said Vi. She bolted toward Mission Control.
Vi banged her fists on the door to Mission Control. It was locked.
"I'm coming," said Eitan.
Vi kicked in the door. The doorframe splintered where the faceplate was ripped off.
"Project Orion," Vi said.
Several engineers gasped. Eitan understood instantly. Project Orion was a Cold War proposal to propel a spaceship by riding the shockwaves of atomic bombs. It was scrapped because detonating a series of nuclear bombs near the Earth is bad for civilization. The radioactive fallout would be a disaster. The EMPs would be worse.
A nuclear explosion releases lots of gamma radiation. The gamma radiation strips electrons from the upper atmosphere. Interactions between the electrons and Earth's magnetic field produces synchrotron radiation.
Vi and Eitan weren't physicists. All they knew was that a high altitude nuclear detonation would wreck many of the world's satellites and countless electric devices throughout the Middle East. They weren't politicians either, but everyone in the room knew Israel nuking its neighbors would not be good for world peace.
"Shut her down," said Eitan.
"Will do," said a technician. There was a pause, "It's not working."
"Of course not," said Miriam, "Your AI has no concept of human beings. A shutdown switch makes the spaceship stop working. It's not a feature. It's a bug. The AI fixed it."
"Do we know for certain it's using nuclear propulsion?" said Eitan.
"Lemme see…. I found it. The bombs are right here on the schematic," said an engineer.
"Did nobody check what that thing was before launching it?" said Vi.
The engineers glanced at one another. They avoided looking at the "move fast and break things" poster on the wall.
"Israel has a missile defense system. Can we call the government and have them shoot it down?" said Vi.
"I have friends in the government. Just give me sixty million shekels, a team of lobbyists and nine months," said Eitan, "How much time do we have?"
"Seven minutes until the next stage," said the engineer.
"Is the next stage nuclear?" said Eitan.
Vi drifted over to a photo of the solar sailer. "How powerful is that thing?"
"The probe? It's got an ion engine. It exerts thrust equal to the weight of a sheet of paper," said Eitan.
"No, the laser," said Vi.
"Reprogram the laser. Fire the instant the ship reaches escape velocity," said Eitan.
Outside of Mission Control, a giant turret rotated to point at a rocket. The rocket prepared to drop its payload. There was a flash of light and the spaceship was incinerated.
A black car arrived at Ben Gurion Airport. Vi handed a clipboard to the driver, Molly Miriam.
"I have some loose ends to wrap up here. I look forward to working with you again," said Miriam.
"Likewise," said Vi.
"Good work," said Miriam.
"Thanks," said her new partner.
So... did Vi see the pushplate or something? Certainly she had some domain specific expertise that could have helped if that was how she figured it out.
I would vaguely imagine that there might be coverings over this stuff, to protect from atmospheric turbulence during the first rocket stage, and such coverings might not let it be obvious what the design was by direct inspection of the ship.
My other guess for how she figured it out is just "the objective function was kinda dumb", but maybe it took a while for the penny to drop? Like, why would you EVER turn off "protect Earth from environmental damage" part way through the mission?!?
Thanks for putting out more fiction.
the rocket began to tilt slightly east.
I interpret this as subtle world-building. A future with Jewish space lasers AND peace in the Middle East.
I am greatly amused at how the schematics with fission bombs for the second stage are just right there, anyone could have checked.
Would it be more exciting if this was true of the reader as well?
I didn't know what to make of the title when this post was first published, so I avoided it. You got me hooked with Mousetrap though, and I like the way you transmute a crazy conspiracy theory into a concept in a hopeful future.
As usual, fun!(What is the secret to generating these?)
Is that about this new EU regulation?
I get the plots by putting real world failure mode of machine learning into futuristic settings. For story structure I start with I, Robot and then add a buddy cop detective dynamic.
Did Eitan become a goyish Ethan midstory? Or are those two different characters?
The airport near Tel-Aviv is called Ben-Gurion, not -Guri, but IDK if this is intentional to make it clear it's an alternate universe or something.
I love all of your fiction. My favorite part of this piece is the "1" in the title because it implies there will be sequels. :)
Fixed the airport. Also thanks.