The Voice of Cassandra
(Fifty-one days before)
Erica Tanney knocked on the door of Peter Wharton’s office. “Come in,” she heard him say. She opened the door to a sparsely decorated, primly efficient office. The office of a bureaucrat, she thought.
Peter Wharton was sitting behind his large metal desk, putting away a few papers as she entered. He was in his forties, and had the look of a man who was athletic in his youth but let it slip away from him. “Miss Tanney?”
“Yes. Call me Erica,” she replied.
“Fine. I’m Peter Wharton. Peter is fine.”
“Okay—Peter. I hope that you have an answer for me about the internship?”
“I do. I’m very pleased to offer you an internship in our most unusual, and in many ways most interesting, area. The Voice of Cassandra.”
Erica tried not to let her disappointment show. “So I won’t be working on the Internet hub?”
“No, but don’t worry, you’ll be plenty challenged by Cassandra.”
“I seem to remember a few articles about it a couple of years back. Something about health insurance?”
Peter gave a crooked grin. “It’s in that general area. I’ll have your mentor explain it all to you. She knows more about the project than anyone else.”
“Well, I feel I should warn you a bit about her.” Peter leaned forward conspiratorially, though the large desk kept him several feet away. “She’s really the only person alive who has any solid information about the Voice of Cassandra, and she’s pretty territorial about it. Don’t be surprised if you get the cold shoulder for a little while. But I’m sure she’ll warm up to you.” He smiled, showing all his teeth.
Erica smiled back, but without much conviction. “I’m not exactly a social butterfly. Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. You have a lot in common.”
“Fine, then. Will there be a project involved?”
“Yes, and though Dr. Knox is your mentor, the project will be delivered to me. You see, we have no way of keeping the Voice of Cassandra going if anything should happen to Dr. Knox, or if she quits or retires. So I want you to come up with a report that will state as much as you can find out about how it works, how to operate it, and so on.”
“You have a computer only one person knows anything about?”
“A very unusual situation, to be sure. That’s why I’m hoping your internship will help fill the gaps. And Erica…”
“Dr. Knox probably won’t be thrilled if she thinks you’re ‘spying’ on the Voice of Cassandra, even though all you’ll be doing is providing a backup in case she leaves. So just work with her, and work on the report outside of your formal hours here, if you would, please.”
“Can you start tomorrow?”
(Fifty days before)
Erica arrived at eight in the morning. She used a card Peter had given her to enter the large building, which was almost devoid of flourish or color.
She had already looked the day before, but again looked up “Voice of Cassandra” on the building’s map. It wasn’t that far from “Internet Special Division,” where she had hoped to work. She sighed slightly, and marched off to her new place of work.
The same card opened a door to a hallway with only two doors, both at the far end. Erica walked down, until she could read the first one: “JANITORIAL.” The second one had no markings at all.
It was not locked, so she simply opened the door.
The room was large, yet seemed underused, with only a couple of large-box computers and a couple of workstations, both close enough to easily have one person move from one to the other.
At a wheeled office chair was a woman, probably not yet fifty, who started when she heard the door open.
“You must be—“ she said, then looked at one of the computer screens. “Erica.”
“Yes. You must be Dr. Knox.”
“Cassie. Call me Cassie. I haven’t been ‘Dr. Knox’ for years now.”
“Sorry. Peter Wharton called you that.”
“Yes. This is the same Peter Wharton who said I’d be getting an intern—by email—this morning.” She looked over her glasses at Erica. “I can’t make a good host. There’s not even a second chair in here for you to sit on.”
“That’s okay. I don’t want you to be my host, just my boss—mentor.”
“Okay, then—your first job is to go find yourself a chair.”
It took a while, but Erica eventually found a chair that wasn’t being used. It wasn’t particularly comfortable, but it would work.
“So, what does the Voice of Cassandra do?” Erica asked.
“They haven’t told you?” Cassie asked.
“Just that it has something to do with insurance, and that you would fill me in on the details,” she replied. I hope, she added to herself.
“Hmm. Okay. I still don’t know why Peter’s pushing an intern on me anyway. It’s really a one-person operation. But here goes.
“The inventor, James Liber, created the first quantum computer. And its next-of-kin sits right in front of you.”
“Really? I thought that was all still in the theoretical stages.”
“Everywhere else, it is. So you know a little about it?”
“Only that its potential is vast, and that it’s completely different from regular computers.”
“Right. Regular computers are very straightforward, on/off devices. Ones and zeros. With a quantum computer, it uses quantum mechanics to give values in between. In other words, it uses all sorts of high-level math—including, but not limited to, statistics—to give its answers.
“The idea behind it is to vastly improve the capabilities of computers. The drawback is that it involves a completely different way of writing code for the computer. The trouble is, Jim was about the only person who understood it even as a concept, and was the only one who could code the computer he designed.”
“He died not too long after the Voice of Cassandra got up and running.”
“Cassie…Cassandra. Did he name it after you?”
Cassie gave a sly smile. “Well, Cassie is short for Cassandra. But that just reminded him of the mythological Cassandra.”
“I think I remember that from a lit class. Homer?”
“Right. She’s the prophetess. One god loved her, and gave her the gift of prophesy. Another hated her, but was unable to remove a gift given by another god. So instead she was cursed: she would keep her gift of prophesy, but would never get anyone to believe her.
“That appealed to Jim’s sense of irony, given what the Voice of Cassandra does.”
“It tells the future. Specifically, it is designed to figure out the odds of someone dying and how soon. And not for groups of people, like normal insurance mortality does. It figures it out for one individual.”
“How does that fit in with the quantum computing?”
“Well, Jim’s first project was to use quantum computing to crack codes. The idea was that regular computers grind away at a code until it’s cracked. In the case of modern encryption, that can take quite literally thousands of years. But with quantum computing, supposedly you could set it up so it would in essence try all the possible keys at once, and spit out the correct one.”
Erica let out a whistle. “That’d make computer encryption useless.”
Cassie nodded. “But, he never got it to work. So he had to figure out something else to do with his quantum computer.”
“Why’d he pick personalized mortality tables?”
“He was always a bit cagey about that. When I asked him, he’d just say, “Practicality.”
“So, is it practical?”
“Actually, yes. Jim was right on there. There are lots of folks who’d love to get insurance but can’t afford it using traditional mortality tables. Insurance companies can’t afford to take on unknown risks, even if the person is very wealthy. If the customer is willing to sign a waiver that accepts the Voice of Cassandra’s personalized mortality table, they can then get insured…for a price.”
“And it works?”
“Better all the time. She’s set up to constantly search the internet for new information on health and longevity. Constant tests of its own models, updates on millions of deaths, their ages and causes annually, you name it. Even the form it prints out asking for personal information has dynamically changed over time. It’s up to ten pages. Takes a while to fill out.”
“Can I see how it works?”
“Sure. I have a customer printing out…now.”
A nearby printer spat out a couple of pages.
Erica read it.
Troy Weyer, 42, Baltimore, MD
Through year one: <1% chance of death, most likely cause: violence, accidental or otherwise.
Year five: 1% chance of death, most likely cause: violence, accidental or otherwise.
Year ten: 3% chance of death, most likely cause: cardiovascular disease.
Year twenty: 9% chance of death, most likely cause: cardiovascular disease.
Year thirty: 23% chance of death, most likely cause: cardiovascular disease.
Year forty: 52% chance of death, most likely cause: cardiovascular disease.
Chance of survival beyond forty years: approx. 11%.
“This implies that even though he’s over forty, there’s only an 11% chance he’ll live to see eighty-two. Isn’t that low?” Erica asked.
“Low for the population as a whole. Not so low for the customers we get. Remember, most of them are high-risk for one reason or another. Obviously, this guy has some major heart issues in his family, and as I recall, weight issues too. Plus, only the most likely cause is given. If we want to, we can ask for a further breakdown. But it’s not necessary to the insurance company—all they really need is the chance of death and at what time. They don’t care why the customer might die, just when.”
“So this is all about life insurance, not health insurance.”
“Mostly. Sometimes it’s for health insurance. But frankly, those who can afford to use the Voice of Cassandra are big clients who most likely aren’t in danger of being bankrupted by a couple of hundred thousand in medical bills. These are big, big life policies we’re talking about.”
“So, by quantifying the risks, Cassandra lets the companies find out exactly what they need to charge to make the policy profitable.”
“Yes, although any one person can still die early. But the idea is that by individualizing the mortality tables, you can get a lot closer to an accurate risk picture. Without it, all you can do is charge exorbitant rates—and then hope you actually charged high enough. It actually ends up saving customers, on average, thirty percent.”