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Agent Provocateur


noir figure at night, illustration

Credit: lukeruk / Shutterstock

As we walked outside, doing our best not to look suspicious, my partner Saskia pulled out a phone.

"What are you doing?" I hissed. "Didn't I say 'no phones'?"

"It's a burner—no connection to us," said Saskia. "Hang on …"

I took hold of her sleeve and pulled her around the corner into an alleyway.

Saskia had gotten through. "Francesca, we've got a problem. Is there any way we can meet?"

I peeked around the corner. A second FBI car was pulling up outside the building we'd been in moments before. Saskia tapped me on the shoulder.

"Dinah, is there some open space nearby? Somewhere without cameras?"

"Uh, Franklin Park would be good. A couple of blocks away and not monitored."

Saskia nodded and lifted the phone.

"How about Franklin Park?" she listened for a moment. "Thirty minutes? Great."

"So, what's happening?" I asked. "We can't stay here."

"I've arranged for Francesca Adriaco, the prof behind the bureau's AI primer, to meet us. If anyone understands Dupin, it's her."

I realized I was biting my lip and forced myself to stop. "Okay. Let's do it."

Saskia handed me a pin with a strange pattern on it. "Put this in your lapel," she said. "It'll stop Dupin from recognizing you. It turns your head into a pumpkin." I was too far down the rabbit hole to ask questions.

We sat on a bench and waited in the empty park. I so wanted to borrow that phone and call my family. The kids should be home from school; I needed to know they were safe. But calling them might put them in danger.

Exactly 30 minutes after Saskia made the call, a short woman with a shock of dark hair turned up. Saskia introduced her as Francesca.

"It's great of you to offer help," I said, "but we're screwed. We can't get to Dupin itself—the facility's too well protected. And I can't see how we can prove it's faking evidence when it controls all the systems."

"What about your colleagues?" asked Saskia. "You've been around for years: you must have a good network."

"Thanks for making me feel ancient," I said. "I'd just be putting them at risk, too."

"If Dupin accuses enough agents, they'll know it's a fraud," said Saskia.

"Not with the right story," I said. "And Dupin is a master storyteller. There's precedent for corrupt agents working together—Dupin would devise a believable conspiracy, with plenty of evidence to back it up."

Francesca shook her head. "The idea's good, but the targets are wrong."

"Sorry?" I said.

"What if we get Dupin to believe that some key individuals know about it. Like your bureau's director. When it tries to discredit them by accusing them of crimes, it'll be obvious something is wrong. They won't sit back and let Dupin ruin them. The system will be powered down."

"I don't buy it," I said. "Dupin would realize we're bluffing, and that it'd be signing its own death warrant by taking on powerful people."

"Not necessarily," said Saskia. "It's like the pins that turn your head into a pumpkin; Dupin doesn't have general intelligence." She glanced at Francesca for confirmation and got a nod. "It can't recognize you because Dinah Carter doesn't have a pumpkin head, but it doesn't question the weirdness. So how would it know that it shouldn't fit up the director, or the director of national intelligence, or the attorney general?"

"I'm no expert," I said. Francesca raised her eyebrows but didn't say anything. "I read the primer, though. Dupin learns from past cases. It'll know that attempts to bring charges against people like that usually fail. Dupin doesn't pick suspects at random: They have to fit the right profile. But there is no safe profile for these people."

"It's a good point," said Francesca, "but … "

She didn't get a chance to finish the sentence. I'd been aware of sirens for a few seconds, but there are always sirens in D.C. Now, though, it was obvious they were getting close. A string of black SUVs screeched to a halt along the north side of the park.

"This way," said Francesca. "Trust me, I know what we can do." She started to run south. Saskia followed her without hesitation. I wanted to hear what Francesca had started to say, but there was no time.

Francesca led the way along I Street, cutting down Vermont to Lafayette Square. Another park, reminiscent of Franklin but with the noticeable difference being the unmissable presence of the White House on the far side of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Francesca stopped by the trunk of a large tree. "Do either of you have anyone you need to contact?" she asked.

I pointed to the tree above us with a jerk of my head, whispering, "Don't you know where we are? Every damned tree probably has a camera and microphone. We're in sniper range of the White House."

"I'm counting on it; we just need to get Dupin's attention." Francesca whispered back. "How about you, agent Carter," she said to me at full volume. "Who you gonna call?"

"My family?" I said, resisting the urge to say, "Ghostbusters."

Saskia held out the burner phone. I dialed the home number, usually only used by my mother. When my boy answered, it was hard to stay bright and say I'd be home soon.

After a minute, Francesca made a throat-cutting gesture; I said goodbye and hung up. "So how long," she said, "before Dupin's shut down, now that Director Josephson, Director Reines, and Attorney General Rubbia know about it?"

I was still unsure of what we were doing. Saskia took Francesca's lead. "They'll get Dupin shut down within minutes."

"Okay," said Francesca. "Now we wait." She slipped down onto the grass, her back to the tree trunk.

Saskia passed me a glass of champagne. She and Francesca had come over to celebrate. We'd been reinstated, and it was the first time I'd had a chance to speak to them since it all blew up.

"I've got to hand it to you," I said to Francesca. "You were right. I never thought Dupin would fall for it."

Francesca took a sip of champagne. "I had information you didn't. The AI systems Dupin was modeled on originally embodied biases. Are you familiar with Tay?"

Saskia and I shook our heads.

"It was an AI bot Microsoft launched on Twitter. It learned from other users. And just sixteen hours after going live, Microsoft pulled it, because Tay became an abusive troll.

"Early iterations of Dupin accused more people from poor backgrounds because its data said that poorer suspects were more likely to be successfully prosecuted. So, Dupin's designers added filters. It can't make decisions based on race, wealth, or social status. It can't treat someone differently because they're FBI director, say. So, even though the data said it shouldn't accuse those big names, it went ahead and did it."

"Wonderful," I said. "Can you stay to dinner?"

Saskia blushed. "That'd be great, Dinah. Another time? I've got a date."

"No problem. How about you, Francesca? You'd be very welcome."

The professor shook her head. "Thanks, but I've got a date too."

"Dupin has a lot to answer for," said Saskia.

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Author

Brian Clegg (www.brianclegg.net) is a science writer based in the U.K. His most recent books are What Do You Think You Are?, exploring the science of what makes you you, and Quantum Computing, offering background to this new computing paradigm.


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