The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
The story of Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of Theranos, is a study in deception.
[Editor's note: This is a continuation of a story Roger was working on when he passed away. This ending is one of many we received. To read Roger's beginning to the story, from the end of which each entry picks up the thread, go here. Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi.]
Guy McLimore writes:
Mason chuckled. "A failed Mozart? Failed how?"
"I did some work on computer analysis of music," Claire reminded. "Mozart was one of the composers I used for that analysis, which is why I said that." She leaned back to get comfortable, which Mason recognized as Claire's "tell". She was about to go into full speculative mode. Anything was likely to come out now. Mason thought it would be amusing to see Claire and Regan run with this.
"Mozart's music is incredibly complex, which paradoxically makes it easier to find his patterns. I was playing with the notion that you could use a computer to analyze a piece of music and predict with some accuracy whether or not it was really written by the composer of a body of work the computer already had analyzed. There are a ton of Mozart imitators and pastiches, and my analyzer algorithms could accurately tell them from true Mozart about 80% of the time."
"I'm surprised that work wasn't snatched up by musicologists all over," Alex remarked. "It sounds like a wet dream for litigious musicians who want to build a case for copyright violation."
Claire shook her head. "Not so much. You can't copyright a style or pattern. You can only copyright a specific and recognizable series of notes. Besides, 80% accuracy is still 20% inaccuracy. Even a musicologist trying to authenticate a hitherto undiscovered piece of music would find that an unacceptable error rate."
Mason grinned. "OK, so you failed to become rich and famous in the music world. How does that relate to Titan? We don't have an established body of known work to compare."
"Unless you think that Elvis is alive and well and living on a moon of Jupiter!" Alex was in rare form tonight
Claire shot Alex a look that would have burned a hole in a less oblivious man. He'd never learned not to try to divert Claire once she started rolling. Mason relaxed to the inevitable. "Is there a connection here that I'm missing, Claire?"
"It was the side issue raised by my research that really torpedoed me with the Music Department. You see, as a result of analyzing his music, I found that Mozart made mistakes."
That caught Alex without a clever retort. Point to Claire. "Ah… what?"
It was Regan who understood, a second or two before Mason. "I get it," Regan said, with a slightly contemptuous look at Alex. "Mozart has places where his music violates his own patterns."
"Exactly!" Claire seemed delighted that Regan was taking this seriously enough to anticipate where she was going. "Mozart had very recognizable patterns, but did not always follow them. Sometimes his music veers into something less… Mozarty!"
Alex stood up straight in feigned outrage."I will not stand idly by while the greatest composer of his age is reduced to a cheesy adjective!"
Claire smacked Alex noisily on the thigh. "Then sit!" He sat.
"And again," Mason ventured wearily. "Titan? Smart molecules? Communication?"
A lovely piece of crumb cake had already appeared at Regan's elbow, but she was ignoring it. It was a sure sign that she was right on Claire's wavelength. "Claire, do you still have those algorithms?"
Alex confirmed it. "This one never throws away a bit of code. She has drives full of stuff. Her equivalent of these shoeboxes from the old PLATO lab."
"Which, I will remind you," Claire said snippily, "are now proving to be useful!"
Mason attempted to push the conversation back on track. "So I gather, Regan, that you think it would be useful to use something like Claire's code to analyze our Titan recordings looking for patterns?"
"Not exactly. I think we'd should look for places where the recordings violate their own patterns. Then we'll correct those patterns and send them back."
Alex had completely lost the point, but Mason actually thought he was getting it. "Because they…" He couldn't quite bring himself to say "the Titanians" out loud. "They might actually recognize it when we correct their patterns."
Regan was pleased. "They would at least know it wasn't just something reflecting or parroting their own signal back. They may not even be aware of the patterns, but they'll understand that they are coming back changed in a way that intelligently plays off of what they are sending."
Mason found himself actually thinking about the idea, seriously. Regan was well past him though. She and Claire started to chatter in a way that Mason knew would lead to him trying to find funding to add one more researcher to their team, scribbling on the back of a punched card that had been lying on the table. Alex didn't have a clue. Mason was pretty sure that Alex was soon going to have those PLATO shoeboxes all to himself.
Forty-seven years later, Mason walked across the same plot of earth where The Capital had once stood. Now it was the VIP parking lot outside the Claire daSilva Institute for Titanian Studies. Mason had argued for preserving McHugh's old bar. After all, that was where it all started. But the University had opted for a more opulent tribute to The Woman Who Sung to the Spheres, as Regan had dubbed Claire in the popular biography by that title.
As Mason entered the lobby, he never even noticed or thought about the bioscrub being done by intelligent molecules in the air. Pretty much every laboratory building on campus had them now, making sure that people working with Titanian molecular tech didn't take home anything harmful… or valuable. Indeed, Titantech was the most valuable commodity in the System these days.
A bronze metallic staff of notes formed a large decoration on the wall opposite the speedlifts. Mason wondered if anyone really remembered the significance, or even recognized a section of Mozart's Requiem Mass in D Minor, which an orchestra had played at Claire's public funeral seven years ago. Mason was a little surprised to find he was not challenged as he entered the express speedlift to the executive floors above. His biosignature must still be cleared at high levels, even though he hadn't been in the building for five years and wasn't expected today.
When the speedlift opened, all evidence of the suicide bomber who had taken out much of the 12th floor was long bioscrubbed away. Titantech intelligent molecular systems made sure nothing remotely explosive could ever be brought in again. But the attack by a group of Luddite, xenophobic religious fanatics had cost seven people their lives—including Mason's oldest friend.
The blast had also taken Mason's legs, not that it mattered now. Some of the first adaptations of Titantech, once the molecular intelligence started correcting our math and communications, were methods of encouraging complex molecular patterns—cells to Terrestrial biological entities like humans—to grow in the shape, pattern and numbers you wanted. Mason had been in the hospital less than six months.
It was no wonder Claire had become a near-mythical mother figure to the entire world. The Institute's spin-offs had beat cancer, heart disease, most neurological problems, and opened up long-term space colonization thanks to the ability to adapt people and animals to reduced gravity. Mason's new legs worked better than his old ones, as did most of his body.
Doors opened to greet him as he entered the executive suite and approached the door marked "Executive Director", once Claire's own sanctum. The lovely woman behind it looked no older than 35, though Regan was almost as old as Mason himself. Her coffee-colored skin was free of the slightest wrinkle, and she hadn't worn those trademark red-framed glasses in decades. Titantech had pretty much eliminated any hope of guessing someone's age by appearance.
"Hey, stranger!" Regan embraced him as he approached. "This is a surprise!"
"Don't kid an old kidder," Mason told her with a grin. "Your security clouds would have warned you I was here before I got in the speedlift."
"You got me," she admitted. "But I am surprised. You didn't show for the last Claire's Birthday celebration at all."
"I know. I guess I just didn't want that kind of public attention again. This time, I'm on a mission." Mason slipped a small colorfully-wrapped box out of his waistpouch and handed it to her. "This is really a birthday present for Claire, but like everything else you'll have to take charge of it.
Regan removed the top of the box after admiring the holographic birthday wrap it came in. Her eyes opened wide when she saw what was in it. "Is that…"
"It is," Mason told her as she lifted out a battered old punchcard. There was faded blue-ink writing on the back. "It turned up tucked into one of the old books I was having scanned into my library last month. It seemed the appropriate day to bring it back to the Institute."
"We were so clueless then," Regan said, tearing up a bit. "If we'd known what we were doing we'd have been terrified."
"We were so young then," Mason agreed. "Fortunately, we didn't know until it was obvious that what we had—what you and Claire started—was the most important thing Humankind had ever done."
Regan looked over the notes written alternately in Claire's precise script and her own near-illegible scrawl on that barroom tabletop so long ago. "I'll unveil this at the Birthday celebration. People will love it when we put it on display in the Institute museum." Regan returned to her desk chair and sat down with a sigh, carefully putting the precious relic in her top drawer. "All this time and all these changes brought by communication with Titan -- and we still know so little about them."
"We can't ever really understand a lifeform which is basically a loose association of molecules in search of meaning and form. But Claire proved we could communicate with them. Turns out they sure knew a lot about biochemistry." Mason leaned against the desk, smiling.
"It was an even trade in the long run," said Regan. "They would never have understood high-energy physics without us. We've been correcting each other's papers for decades now. But Claire was the first. Her modified algorithms found the patterns—and the variations from them—in the Titan signals. When we sent them back, with 'corrections', they realized we were, in some ways, seekers of knowledge like them."
Mason shook his head. "Not corrections. Never corrections. Claire used to lecture me about it when I used that word. Everyone uses it these days when they talk about the first Terra-Titan communications. But Claire said it was impossible that the Titanians could understand our math. It was more like we were discussing music or some other artform. She said her original research led her to understand that when Mozart broke his own self-imposed rules, he was at his most creative and productive. The Titanian intelligences are the same way."
"I'm surprised Claire never said anything to me," Regan said. "I've always used that term. If not corrections, what were we sending to Titan? What did they send to us?"
Mason smiled. "Claire called it 'constructive criticism'."
Jessica Ritchey on the episodes of The Twilight Zone that she thinks about the most.
A review of the new six-episode Netflix series, written, directed by, and starring Ricky Gervais.
A review of Netflix's new superhero series, The Umbrella Academy.