Tuesday, March 13, 2012

An Instantiation of a General Problem

(I wrote this, but never finished it, in China back around Christmastime. Randomly remembered it today, and thought this would be as good a place as any for it.)

The key was to be found across the city, in the old commercial district. We had tried simulations, implanted demos, viewed stereoscopic images through a haploscope we found in storage in the medical school. After all of these, we had tried hallucinogens to modulate the imagined presence of the key, but it was all to no avail. At least, we said to ourselves, when we finally approach the key we will be familiar with it. The front end of the process will not be a surprise.

The approach, however, to that front end, would be horrendous. First, our camp was protected from the feed. This kept the peace from finding us, but it also meant that our emergence into the feed would stand out like a tree in the desert. We had monitored the security cycles for days. Most would say that such monitoring was futile, since the cycle paths were random, generated with new seeds every minute give or take another random cycle. Any attempt, most would say, to predict gaps in the cycle would result in no better chance of unnoticed entry than no attempt at all, with the added hazard of false confidence to mask the creeping signs of detection.

It was possible, though, to closely estimate the number of cycles. We could detect the passes themselves, which gave us data for the estimation. The different cycles were unique, originating from different security servers, each assigned its own identification during its current generation. Given all these data, we had a method for estimating, at any given moment, the likelihood of a pass. The optimal estimate could be made using the previous twenty seconds of data. You could have pointed out that a likelihood is the opposite of a certainty, at least along a certain conceptual dimension. You could also have pointed out that the optimal estimate was lousy if those twenty seconds contained a generation update. We would have ignored you.

Once inside, we would have to obtain city ids from an admin, which was not trivial, but not a problem as long as we could quickly make contact with Tsai, our woman on the inside. We knew she was still online and that her admin was current, so as long as she wasn't in some unshakable stupor, she would tie us on and we'd be set for the rest of the trip. Anyways, persisting for a few minutes with unregistered cids wasn't as dangerous as suddenly emerging out of the void. An impulse is like that tree in the desert and the primary means of detecting aliens, while trouble finding a cid registration is a basic function of the feed servers, which would be checked in serial, assuming corruption or damage first and alien somewhere further down the line. Tsai could just tie us onto the oldest and most remote server, plot a false geographic history of intermittent reception and an outstanding service request, and there would be nothing in the feed to mark us out. The tree would dissolve into a puff of dust.

The next problem would be the actual emergence into the city. Feed presence can be smoothed over, anyone can appear to be anyone, fit into any group, assume any identity. The body, however, is much less convenient to modify. Their hair is long, but ours is short. Their skin is yellow, but ours is brown. We stand head and shoulders above them on the street, and we have no choice but to travel on the street for the most part, by foot, in the open, making stark and clear the comparison between foreigner and local. But, there are other foreigners in Haisheng. They are few and far between, but there are others, and though we draw attention it is natural, because who can ignore a brown spot among yellow? The noticing is in itself not a threat. But when others are looking for you, being easily noticed is a step away from being easily found. We did not want to be found, but there was no choice but to be noticed.

The final hazard was beyond any interaction with the first two. At the time I could not imagine how, but I was still cognizant that there was a possibility that the locked id had already been accessed by my competitors before I had retrieved it. If so, they may even have already decrypted it, outformed the important information inside, and restored the encryption. This was beyond any vital worry on my part, since the main danger was that knowing the key, and that I was looking to open the id, they might be waiting for me at the site. This meant I would have to move slowly through the streets, below them when possible, work quickly when it was time to get the key, and maintain vigilance on all channels at all times. There was nothing else we could do but be vigilant.

I can tell you more about the key without compromising the truth of the mission. Someday down the line, you may be able to put two and two together, but by that time whether or not you know such an obscure truth won't matter much, and you'll be occupied with obscuring your own. Anyways, it is an interesting detail, and may spark one or another interest in you.

The id I had retrieved was that of a neural engineer from a century or so earlier. We needed to query it regarding some interactions it had had at one time with our main objective, whose id at the time was missing and presumed destroyed. As it turns out this engineer had dabbled in id encryption, which was a new field in those days, specifically in encryption through perceptual experience. Though the field was active at the time, it was - and remains - completely unknown to the science that this particular engineer had worked on the problem. It was a private pastime, perhaps a paranoid fear that a great advance might be stolen, or maybe it was just a fear of inadequacy in an outsider bringing to the field such an idiosyncratic development. At any rate, this engineer had come up with something exquisite, which was probably unmatched by anything else produced by her generation. She may have meant it entirely for herself. Today, it's a work of art, but the tech is fundamentally outdated.

This is a digression, I'm sorry. Outdated or not, it was a good lock, and on site we still needed the key to open it. The encryption was applied to the id by taking the online state of some suite of perceptual systems, definitely including visual, possibly other - and by the way, don't take my ambiguity as indicating anything other than an intention to be ambiguous - and using this neural state as the key for the encrypted id. The entire state couldn't  be recorded, of course, since the subject would have to be standing out in the open at the location, i.e. a true state scan would be impractical, especially in those days. Instead, something was probably worn, perhaps obvious or perhaps hidden, instantaneously recording a blocked brain state amounting to just a few terabytes. It was a functional state, meaning that it could be reproduced in other human brains, but our initial estimate that a good visual simulation would suffice proved wrong. We needed to be there, unless someone could explain exactly what composed the key, and the only person who could tell us that, it appeared, was the one locked in that id.

Back to the problem. Being noticed, maybe being scooped, these were mostly outside our control. But skipping as an alien into a secure feed using random-cycle maintenance, that's something we can deal with. Look at the figure field. We used standard methods to monitor the cycles and establish their regeneration characteristics, how many there were, durations of the cycles, amplitude of the duration modulation - everything here is something you've seen before. You all have four minutes to generate the optimal estimate from these data, starting - now.

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