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October 03, 2022

Unmasked

By J.C. Miller

The overnight meta chatter analysis showed Nick a level six warning about a potential pandemic. After COVID-19, he had updated the modeling to watch for future pandemic sources as zealously as he had once watched for future terrorist attacks.

Nick wasn't the cool kind of nerd. He didn't hack into his high school's systems and then get hired part-time to manage security. Nick wasn't even cool enough to be invited to Dungeons & Dragons parties. He didn't really have any friends, but he was very good at math and science. It got him into M.I.T. After his bachelors in computer science, Nick started graduate school in data science. He always had a great mind for spotting patterns and connections between data sets. Nick always struggled to understand people as people, but with the right data, he could get a handle on what they were thinking, what they were going to do, and most importantly, what they were feeling. His research on what people called Big Data was promising, and the chair of his dissertation committee was convinced that Nick would have a tenured academic position some day.

That career path changed when Lt. Colonel William Kaiser showed up at M.I.T. The National Security Agency had been enamored with a paper Nick had co-authored with his mentor. The NSA showed up to visit the mentor, who in turn said Nick was the real brains behind it. They made a hard-sell to Nick about dropping out of the program and coming to work for the NSA. The parts about serving his country fell on deaf ears. It was the tour of the computing systems at Fort Meade and the promise of almost limitless resources to analyze data. Nick was sold.

With no social life and no passion beside his work, Nick was able to make a big impact. His colleagues grew to accept that he knew his stuff. In a place full of smart people, he managed to stand out. Not that he cared. Colonel Kaiser continued to manage him, almost like a CIA officer handling an asset. Kaiser thought of himself as a wrangler, not a nerd himself but someone who could speak their language and motivate them properly. Kaiser didn't need to motivate Nick, he just needed to plug him in.

The NSA collects limitless amounts of information and data. Its signals intelligence is the best in the world. And its computing resources were unparalleled among government agencies.

Nick sat in the middle of it all. He managed the algorithms and artificial intelligence that tried to make sense of all that data being harvested everywhere. Nick wasn't the guy who focused on particular targets or monitoring specific assets. He tried to predict the future based on bits of data, overheard cell phone calls, social media posts, and even drafted-but-not-sent Gmail messages. Uniquely for Nick, he also tried to fix mistakes and improve the predictive modeling. When they reported that terrorist "chatter" suggested a potential attack on Hoover Dam, and nothing happened, Nick went back to try and figure out what went wrong (or right). Did the government's response ward off an attack or had it been a false alarm? He worked constantly. Higher ups thought he was a dedicated patriot; Colonel Kaiser knew it was just Nick's passion for the data and the analysis.

Now his primary algorithm was flagging a potential pandemic outbreak. It was in China. This was likely to get greater interest from the Pentagon. But it was also more likely to be a fluke, people talking or writing about COVID-19. Nick ran his secondary and then his tertiary modeling. He tried to control for COVID-19. All systems reflected the same thing -- early indication based on chatter of a disease outbreak. Nick didn't have the details, that's not how this worked. He didn't know patient symptoms or names. He had aggregate data from an almost limitless number of sources. It was like trying to predict the chef's special based on the smell, the noises made, and how long it takes to cook based on all the cell phones and Instagram posts in the restaurant. Sometimes it was easier than others. But given the warning flags for disease outbreak, and the administration's high priority on pandemics, Nick had to escalate it.

Colonel Kaiser had Nick in a room with senior NSA officials 30 minutes later. He was sent back to his lab to keep working only to be pestered with a constant barrage of phone calls and questions as the news percolated up within the government. The rest of Nick's team was working on the issue now, trying to triangulate within the chatter to get a better location. By the end of the day, Colonel Kaiser was driving NIck over to the Pentagon.

Nick always hated the Pentagon. He particularly hated going through security that he wasn't used to. The NSA employee entrance security was just as rigorous, but he knew the people and the bins and the procedures. He was uncomfortable at the Pentagon.

They entered a room with papers, laptops, and tired people strewn about the room. The big mounted monitor was showing someplace in China. An exhausted looking naval commander took his glasses off, plopped them in the middle of the table, rubbed his eyes, and then looked at Nick. "This the data guy?"

Kaiser answered for him. "Yes, this is Nick Jones. He's our top SINGINT analyst, he wrote or rewrote most of our algorithms and models. He's the one who raised the potential outbreak ..."

"And you're sure it's Hubei Province?" The commander cut Kaiser off.

"No, I'm not." Nick said meekly, to a room of upset faces. "That's not how it works. I don't know things. I predict that something might be likely. It's like who you think is going to win some kind of sports game. You know one team has won more games, or a key player is injured. Then you tell somebody that team is likely to win. That's what we have here. It's not about being sure, it's about making more informed ... bets."

"When did this first start happening?" The commander's voice was firm but understanding.

"Let me show you." Nick pulled out his laptop and revealed the model, when the relevant chatter happened, and its growth pattern. "We can't see the exact start but working back from the growth curve, I'd say 72 hours ago. See how the way it's growing now is consistent with pandemic-disease growth styles. We're tracking chatter but we might as well be tracking a disease. Now, even if an outbreak started 72 hours ago, that doesn't tell you when people first started getting sick. We have no idea the time between exposure, illness, and symptoms being, um, loud."

The commander put his glasses back on and sighed. "This can't be a coincidence. Five days ago an extraterrestrial object crashed in Central China."

"A UFO?" Nick was incredulous. His models hadn't reported anything about UFOs. It wasn't exactly calibrated to report on UFOs, but it should raise flags of some big phenomenon if a lot of people were talking about it.

"I didn't say a UFO. I said an extraterrestrial object." The commander was firm. "It came from space and it ended up in China. Naval Intelligence's best guess is a part of that last comet that broke off and got side tracked. But it's more likely a meteorite than a UFO. No indication that it maneuvered. But we're watching the situation closely. Anytime something comes from space and ends up near a Chinese military base, we care. The prospect of a disease outbreak linked to the same area requires further attention.

"Is a space disease possible?" Nick was interested.

"We don't know." A woman in civilian clothes answered. Nick analyzed her. She didn't look tired like the rest of them. She was wearing fresh make-up and her hair was reasonably put together. She had not been with this group the entire time. She got a decent night's sleep and followed her morning routine. She was brought in more recently, likely in response to his disease outbreak prediction. She likely had a medical or science specialty that was relevant here to Nick's outbreak but not to the UFO. Nick didn't think or care to ask her name. "We've long theorized that humans could be vulnerable to disease from interacting with extraterrestrial objects. It's why we took such precautions with the Apollo Astronauts."

"Dr. Long is with NASA," Kaiser explained to Nick. Giving a smile that revealed something but Nick didn't know what.

"Yes," she continued, "and NASA has long been worried about contamination. An outbreak of a disease that humans have no immunity for and and don't understand, it could make the novel coronavirus look like a joke."

"So you think there really is life in space? At least microbial?" Nick had long thought the odds were very stacked against the presence of life outside of earth. It was implausible if not impossible.

"Not necessarily. I'm not saying that life in some form isn't possible, but it doesn't even need to be life. I mean, think about viruses. It's debatable whether they're even alive. Prions are probably the closest analogue. They're definitely not alive. Just a misfolded protein with no DNA, but they transmit their shape into other proteins. And they give us mad cow disease. They're almost indestructible. We could have a space-born prion or some kind of analogue or something entirely different. A protein or particle we've never heard of before that interacts with humans in unique ways."

Nick looked down at his computer as the model updated. It showed continued exponential growth. It also had started to raise a new sub-flag about deaths.

Colonel Kaiser was watching Nick's screen too. When he saw the death data scroll by, he stood up: "The White House needs to be briefed."

* * *

Nick was stashed in a conference room in the bowels of the White House. Kaiser kept coming in and out as he was in and out of other briefings. He brought others to ask Nick questions. Nick continued working diligently on his modelling, constantly in contact with the rest of his team back at Fort Meade. A junior Pentagon staffer came by and asked for Nick's apartment keys and directions to pack an overnight bag for Nick. Nick was not pleased to have someone else going through his underwear drawer, but Kaiser had explained this was not optional.

Finally, Nick was pulled into a nicer conference room. There were military uniforms and pressed suits and all sorts of people who were giving the facial cues that they thought themselves to be very important. Nick didn't recognize them. The president wasn't in the room; he'd recognize the president. They asked questions that got increasingly hard. They wanted predictions about where things were going. Nick could show the spread of the chatter and some patterns. He could speculate -- or maybe even predict that it was not just in China anymore. When Nick explained this, the room got much more interested in predictions. They were getting frustrated with Nick; Nick was getting frustrated with them.

"This isn't how it works. We've got almost unlimited data with limited analytical power. Our artificial intelligence is good, but it's calibrated to look for certain events based on certain words or records. There are much better versions of AI out there designed to put it all together and tell you what will happen next." Nick was not used to talking to this many people in a day, let alone this many new people.

"Well, who has the best predictive AI?" The well-dressed man was getting loud.

"Goldman Sachs." Nick explained. They had hired up many of his classmates from MIT. Most of them coming in from a professor's start-up. Goldman Sachs was dedicated to predicting the future as best they could and trading in on it.

"Then we need Goldman Sachs." The well-dressed man concluded.

* * *

Nick and Colonel Kaiser arrived in Manhattan from on the Acela train, which was nice, quiet, clean, and relatively private. Kaiser made NIck ride the subway downtown, which was much less nice, and Nick did not appreciate it. Nick also didn't like the bull statue. He understood why Goldman Sachs felt the need to be here, though. Having its computer systems and predictive modeling in the same building as the New York Stock Exchange gave them milliseconds' advantage over competitors. And that time was worth a fortune. So was the ability to predict events and market trends. Goldman Sachs was known for its prestige among financial firms, but its predictive capabilities backing up high-frequency trading were making increasingly more money. They lacked the data mining that the NSA had, but their raw computing power had started to rival the NSA.

When they came to the building, FBI agents were waiting to give them an escort and clear security. When they reached Goldman Sachs, a gaggle of federal types were there. A man shook Kaiser's hand (Nick didn't put his hand out) and introduced himself as the United States Attorney. Attorneys didn't seem necessary to this process.

"The president smoothed the transition. It was fantastic. He had me on the call along with some military types. He told Goldman's CEO that he was offering a carrot and a stick. If they weren't going to play ball, I was instructed to show up here with every federal agent available and handcuff everybody until we figured out how to nationalize the facility. He threatened to send a marine helicopter to abduct their CEO right off the golf course. It was hilarious." Nick wasn't laughing. "Then he offered the carrot: plug the Goldman Sachs AI into our system to figure out the disease path, and we'd let them use our superior data gathering to profit off of it. President said they could profit off it! Take $10 billion in profits and call it good. It's win-win."

Nick was annoyed that anybody thought it was as easy as "plugging" Goldman Sachs into his system -- into the NSA. But he was excited about bringing the best AI money could buy and extra computer power in to work on the data and on his algorithms.

The work went more quickly than Nick expected. The equipment at Goldman Sachs was fantastic. Even down to the desks and keyboards, everything was nice. Much nicer than with the government. The best and brightest were here. And they all seemed very excited. They also thought they'd get large bonuses on this. Goldman also had the best outside consultants and vendors too. They were getting every bit of help they needed.

The first step was confirming threat assessment. The president had quietly stopped flights from China right away, using air traffic control to slow down and then divert. Now, the data was suggesting they seal the border. Goldman's people were working along with the NSA, applying the best computing systems to the best collection of data. While they worked to advise the government, they also worked to profit from the trading. They shorted airline stocks when the assessment said to seal the borders and cancel flights. Nick wasn't sure this was legal, but that wasn't his problem.

China was denying that there was any outbreak and accused the U.S.A. of racism and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from America's poor handling of COVID-19. China was keeping its orders open. They could say what they wanted to the media, but the electronic surveillance showed the truth. Chinese elites were talking about getting out of the country; many people were talking about someone they knew dying or getting very sick.

The team back at the Pentagon was increasingly convinced that the outbreak was linked to the extraterrestrial object. The mortality rate inferred from the chatter was too high to come from bat soup or a pangolin sandwich. The chatter was not consistent with a biological weapons experiment gone awry. This looked like one of NASA's worst nightmares, a failure to contain or quarantine something from space that caused a disease. The Pentagon wanted options, including ways to obtain a sample and study. Military force was discussed but ruled out for obvious reasons. The White House prepared its pandemic play book; they started talking about whether people should wear masks. They readied to go back to the processes used with COVID-19. The president was considering addressing the nation.

Back in New York, Nick was having the time of his life. He had the computer power and the talent to really dig into the data. As they were monitoring the planet's chatter, Goldman continued to trade automatically on what was coming in. Nick wondered if Goldman was properly accounting for how much profit was coming from the NSA's data. As the teams worked together, Nick realized that he didn't just have the resources of Goldman but of those who supported Goldman -- the IBM's of the world. He began working to make the NSA's archives from the COVID-19 pandemic available. With the AI and computing power available to them, they could do more than just scan the surveillance coming in realtime, they could assess it in the context of what happened before. What people did, how disease spread, how people took steps to stop it from spreading.

The president made a brief announcement about taking precautions over a pandemic and accused China of lying to the world. It was time to start wearing masks again. Goldman's algorithm continued its high frequency trading, profiting greatly off an expected spike in 3M stock as shelves were once again cleared of N95 respirators. Kaiser made Nick put on a fresh set of clothes. Apparently he'd been here a long time. They went to a video conference room where the vice president talked to them and thanked them for their work. The country needed their assessment so they could save lives. Keep working, get better at predicting. The government would heed their advice.

It wasn't that Nick didn't care about lives, it was just that the data and algorithms and the work were so exciting. Normally he didn't like overly-stimulating environments. Here terminals were flashing data, computers were beeping -- it was busy and intense. Half the work was AI with human hands meddling in it. The other half of the room was the high-frequency trading system trying to profit off what the rest were doing -- they were buying up toilet paper. The more Nick's team learned, deciphered, and predicted, the more the predictive trading system found ways to cash in on it. The whole process was unnecessarily flashy and noisy.

Nick had managed to feed in a planet's worth of data on the COVID-19 epidemic -- text messages, social media posts, news reports, intercepted cell phone calls, military movements, everything. They were scrambling to let the machine-learning extrapolate and plan what to do about this problem with what had happened before. The predictive AI was profiting off it in tandem. Nick felt like they were getting close to some real breakthroughs.

Then the other half of the room went silent. The volume decrease was barely perceptible over the flurry of activity, but the screens stopped moving as well. The machine stopped trading. The room grew quiet as everyone shifted attention to the high-frequency trading side. Nick was concerned. He didn't care about Goldman's profits, but if there was something wrong with the systems, it might mean something was wrong with the systems he was using too.

Nick followed one of his grad-school classmates over to the other side of the room. The guy had some kind of ridiculous title like chief artificial intelligence offer.

"What's wrong? Nick asked.

"I'm not sure. It doesn't appear to be anything's wrong. The system is fully operational; it just stopped trading. I'm running analysis now." Nick hovered awkwardly behind his shoulder, following him as we went back and forth to different terminals on both sides of the room. "I don't understand, it's still working right. It's just not buying or selling anything." He kept working; Nick kept watching. Finally, he stopped typing. Nick couldn't make sense of what was on the screen.

"What is it, why isn't it trading?"

"Because it's convinced it shouldn't trade?"

"Why couldn't it trade at all? That doesn't make any sense." Nick was growing skeptical. Colonel Kaiser was now standing with him.

"It says there's no point. Hold on, drawing a new report."

The trio skimmed the report, this one making more sense, as they rapidly scrolled through the screen. It made sense why the machine didn't want to trade anymore. It had looked at our response to COVID-19 and concluded people wouldn't comply with what the CDC and WHO was demanding of them. With a death rate this high, no immune response to whatever had come from space, and humanity's refusal to follow the rules, the machine had decided trading was entirely futile.

"What's this mean?" Nick asked. It felt like there was some step to the analysis Nick wasn't getting. Its job was to trade; that was its point. It tried to predict the future and profit it off knowing what was to come. With the data they had loaded, and the computer resources allocated to it, it was supposed to be giving them a serious assessment about what was going to happen.

Kaiser put his hand on Nick's shoulder: "It means we're fucked."






Article © J.C. Miller. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-03-22
Image(s) are public domain.
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