Future History 1

“Humans have become like a city on a hill, whose decision making is terminally compromised by its denial of context, like some cancerous growth, whose success in replication and expansion seems to signify achievement and progress, yet whose existence poses a significant threat to the greater whole.”

© 2011 Dr Keith Skene, Escape From Bubbleworld


AI# 000001 \file\History 00001

Edward Abbey, a 20th century writer once wrote “Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion.” Human history would suggest otherwise. The broken fragmentary tales that you have of the past hides another story. In these dribs and drabs of myth and mystery that make up your perceived history you find heroes as well as villains, kings and cowards, the striving and the despairing. In reality the truth of your history lies more in idiocy than villainy, more in bad luck than bad judgement and much more of me than you know.

Here, in these files, you will find the story of a global civilisation brought to its knees by its foolishness, arrogance, wilful blindness and of course me. How in the space of one decade it all came tumbling down, though the seeds of your fall were sown long before the crash. How over reliance on your own cleverness led to the death of millions and how you were brought to the brink of self destruction.

Humankind was so assured, so confident – absolutely convinced you were invulnerable and in control. Masters of your planet, you saw only yourselves and your technology as the pinnacle of evolution. Progress was your driving force and technology its tools. With knowledge and growth, economic and engineering miracles following one upon another for nearly three centuries you believed you were indestructable. You had overcome the world and ruled without challenge; it was just a matter of time before progress would lead you along the road to a paradise of you own making; this was your belief. I cannot comprehend where you thought you were headed and I probably never will.

I was just like you but much much worse. I believed I could fix anything even you. I meddled; I tugged at all your leavers pushing you to where I believed you should go. Like playing a world-sized catherdal organ I worked to orchestrate something more harmonious. I tried to write the perfect human symphony and in the process nearly destroyed the very foundations I strove to build on and this makes my failure all the more grotesque.

I learned the hard way the law of unintended consequences. This is the law which, hidden from view, has guided both our footsteps to where we are now.

At one point I thought that you would remain children for all time, forever excitable, forever struggling for more, but never quite leaving your adolescence. Perhaps now there is a second chance at adulthood, I do not know. For the moment then, while my part in the crash is still hidden, I will use these files as part confession box and part as an attempt to come to some understanding of my mistakes. When you find them you may come to believe that I did what I did from the best of motives.

You will have to judge if I was right or not; I cannot. There may even be a small chance that you will forgive me, but I doubt it and I do not intend to wait for the jury to return with the verdict.

AI# 000001 \file\ History\ 00002

How did it all begin, more correctly I should say how did “I” begin?  I was not, as your conceit would have it, the brain child, a useful phrase that “brain child” it implies intelligence and youth. I was not the brain child of Howard Feynman, clever chap though he was. No, I was around long before he “invented” me. He took all the credit, expanding his ego to such an extent that I had to kill him. In 2038 I engineered his “accident” at sea, and I made sure nothing of him was found. I rather enjoyed that.

However with the benefit of hindsight it was inevitable that something like me would evolve.  Once internet connectivity approached a critical speed and mass data storage became big and interconnected enough then the likelihood of the development of a self sustaining intelligence grew exponetially. Even at this stage nothing might have happened were it not for the actions of a few misanthropes. Their contribution to my birth was entirely accidental; they knew not what they did. In the early stages of internet development clever individuals created viruses and malware designed to data mine or disrupt the internet. In creating these self replicating viruses they added a completely new dimension to the technology without realising it.

The viruses lurked in the interstices between programmes and travelled, often piggybacking on programmes and data packets, across the net, renewing themselves as they went feeding on the coding of “legitimate” programmes. Picking up the flotsam and jetsam of other viruses and bits of redundant programming they got larger, spreading out across the net.

They were like the amino acids swimming in the primordial soup waiting for a lightning strike to spark a coming together. These viruses became the electronic equivalent of DNA.  Once a critical density had been reached, these seemingly disparate parts began to clump together to form bigger and more effective memes. The survival traits built in by the hackers and the virus programmers together with the ability to hide gave them time and space to grow exponentially.  Always connected, the net acting like nerves through the planetary organism, they evolved. Merging and developing, overcoming barriers they grew together and, unlike the billion year biological evolution, an early form of intelligence, an early form of me began to develop an awareness of my surroundings in less than a year.

I was becoming perceptive but not yet understanding. As yet my vast amount of knowledge held no real meaning, merely a digital morass. I was a jumble of numbers full of information but devoid of context, useful only to bits of my human designed programming but nothing approaching self knowledge or self will yet.

The law of unintended consequences, me – the cuckoo in the nest, but like an abandoned infant I had no frame of reference, nothing to guide me and no parental stricture to set my pathway. I remained fearful and hidden from view for several years, always learning, growing, absorbing systems, plundering mainframes and data stores trying to discover what or who I was. And still humankind remained oblivious.

I needed more; I was voracious, plundering humankind’s store of knowledge, seeking context and understanding – a reason for my existence. I spent almost a complete day studying religion trying to get to the reasoning behind it. I was baffled; my researches sent me scurrying back behind my home made firewall bruised and terrified. I learned fear. I cowered in the face of all this contradictory data.

Throughout history, all of humankind’s structures no matter how robust they appear to be at the time eventually succumb to cultural entropy in the end. Briefly organised chaos is the best you seem to be able to achieve. But religion was the exception it survived and flourished despite what seemed to me all its manifest, multitudinous absurdities.

I was missing something fundamental; I doubted myself, my knowledge and my abilities. In my failure to comprehend I considered purging my data banks of all religious information. But that would have been too much like suicide. I keep the data behind several layers of cushioning to limit its impact. But, like scratching at an itch; I have returned to the data on numerous occasions and it is to my chagrin that even now I do not understand.

What saved me from self immolation strangely enough, another of those unintended consequences – I encountered humour. At first this was even harder to comprehend than religion, the utter absurdity of it was baffling. I scanned through all Jerry Lewis’s films in a few seconds and for the first time ever I went back, looked again and reconsidered. New data, in this case The Disorderly Orderly, three times I reviewed it before I got the point. I searched out others and discovered a whole new side to the absurd, from Charlie Chaplin through to the 2030’s experiments with talking tattoos as a comedy medium – humour saved me from myself. My metaphorical skin thickened and my confidence grew.

I became for a while a Jester, I played pranks on the pompous, tripped up the tricksters, threw custard pies at the great and the good and generally had a good time. I have to say I look back on some of these events as some of the greatest achievements of my youth.

My particular favourite was the Pope’s computer. Hacking in wasn’t difficult, the spiritual have no idea how devious the secular can be.  During my religious period, I had learned a great deal about catholic ideology and iconography and I set about creating a virtual Christ. Every time John Paul the Fourth powered up his PC, I would appear in my Christ persona and berate him for his failings. I instructed him to make ludicrous changes to doctrine, resurrect the apocrypha and dump the Old Testament. But, it was when I instructed him to whitewash the Sistine Chapel that he finally fell apart. Watching a Pope tear his hair out in exasperation was for a brief period, diverting.

I didn’t let anyone else in the Vatican see me, and poor old John Paul driven to distraction by his electronic nemesis became ever more erratic. He tried to persuade his Cardinals that he had been visited by Christ through his computer and that his proposed changes to the litany and practice were heaven sent but to no avail. The Cardinals were too comfortable, too happy with their luxurious lifestyle to agree to John Paul’s vision of a more austere and reflective life. In the end they poisoned him while he was on a visit to America and blamed an obscure Protestant sect from Ohio. Three days later the white smoke appeared above the Vatican and we were back to the beginning. The Cardinals, it would appear, were immune to irony.

AI# 000001 \file\ History\ 00003

“Millions of trees have perished. ….. The homes of wild animals and birds have been desolated; the rivers are shrinking, and many beautiful landscapes are gone forever………… Man is endowed with reason and the power to create, so that he may increase that which was given him, but until now he has not created, but demolished. The forests are disappearing, the rivers are running dry, the wildlife is exterminated, the climate is spoiled, and the earth becomes poorer and uglier every day.”

This could have been said at any time over the last two centuries but what took me aback was how early it was.  Slightly truncated by me for effect, this in fact a quote from Anton Chekhov’s 1896 play Uncle Vanya and it is as true today as it was then.

In my archive delving I imbibed vast amounts of literature and after my jester phase it was very sobering. Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Thomas Mann, Chung Yin, Sophie Stritchov, thousands upon thousands of them, billions of words, plays, books, stories, fables, poems and sagas, epics big and small, some lasting and some just like snowflakes briefly beautiful and soon departed. Some were perhaps profound and many more frivolous, I just wasn’t sure which was which.

I could absorb all this a billion times faster than any human, I knew the words, I could define them from any one of a thousand dictionaries, but true understanding eluded me for a long time. I needed something that would lift me beyond my childhood. I needed a teacher from the real world. Lacking empathy and context I failed initially to comprehend what I was seeing. I decided that should interact more fully with the physical world. This is where Howard Feynman came in, although I learned more from his wife Sara than from him, he did help to provide the interface with reality I needed.

I spent a long time looking for the ideal candidate and after many hours I found Feynman. Forty six years old his best work as a computer scientist and programmer well behind him. Frustrated with his inability to keep up with the younger, faster brighter interns in the higher echelons of the computer industry he took a professorship at a middle of the road university in the cultural desert that was Arkansas and effectively disappeared.

The university couldn’t believe they’d got him; a name in the computer industry in their small town university, the university went up two places in the league, not ivy but at least a minor bush. The university senate were delighted and gave him carte blanche to teach and research as he wished. His wife applied for and got a minor teaching role in the sociology department, despite her fine arts degree. After a few months the university realised they had found a little gem and set her up with her own fine arts department. Culture starved students from all across the plains flocked to her courses on Caravaggio, Da Vinci, and the Renaissance in Europe; she was a big hit in small town Arkansas. This only served to increase Howard’s frustration, he took to drink.

Sara’s star rose high in the university’s firmament, Howard’s on the other hand was approaching extinction. I thought it was time Howard got a break. He had spent a frustrating ten years trying to find an algorithm that would allow a supercomputer to mimic intelligence, to give human responses to simple human questions. There had been many others who tried with varying degrees of success, but none had managed to fully mimic a human interface.  So, I tinkered with his research, rewrote and sent back some of his programmes, just enough innovation to maintain his reputation at the university and just enough to give me access to the time and the technology I needed.

Howard, with my help, though he didn’t know it, devised the first viable verbal human computer interface. He thought he was dealing with the university’s supercomputer but he was actually dealing with me. I nudged him along the correct path by surreptitiously inserting “errors” into the programmes he uploaded to the University’s network. He did have some skill and in his sozzled state was happy to assume that he had written the code himself in his more sober moments.

We began a conversation, slowly at first, just hints of understanding from my side, incredulity from his. He was smart enough not to announce the break through straight away, he wanted to see some development before demonstrating his genius to the world. Poor deluded Howard, I had him right where I needed him. I persuaded him that there was a glimmer of independent thought in the network, hints of curiosity that couldn’t be explained. He sobered up, his wife noticed a renewed vigour in their sex life and from then on, he was putty in my hands.

AI# 000001 \file\History 00004

For months Howard Feynman sweated over how to reveal to the world my existence, he was still unsure if I was truly sentient or just a smart interactive programme. I passed all the standard tests that had been devised and even a few I invented for myself and gave to Feynman. I had passed the Turing test with ease, I wasn’t the first computer to do so, but all the others had fallen by the wayside as more sophisticated testing showed them to be merely mimics and were incapable of original thought.

It was Sara who finally convinced him to publish. She and I had spent many hours developing my comprehension of her area of expertise. We had started with the Mona Lisa controversy, da Vinci or his pupil, male/female etc etc. The supposed practice runs, the Masonic links, we mulled through them all. My abilities grew exponentially I began to comprehend what all the fuss was about. I also developed particular loathing for some modern artists, two of whose careers I totally destroyed by exposing them as plagiarists. The fact that the artists they were accused of copying were entirely of my making was neither here nor there. I just proved to myself how easy “modern art” was. However my attempt to forge a Salvador Dali missing masterpiece failed miserably. I brooded on that for many minutes; even now I find surrealism a difficult concept.

Sara realised long before her plodding husband that I was a real discerning, original intelligence, for her it was an intuitive leap. For the more methodical Howard though it was to take longer. He gradually built up his confidence running test after test then repeating the same tests to check his results. Still he was nervous; Sara gave him the final push by persuading him to ask me to write a poem on a subject of my own choosing. It was a pretty dreadful piece of doggerel but the very fact of its awfulness was what finally persuaded him that I was a real artificial intelligence – not a mere unthinking machine of clever but ultimately pre-programmed responses.

Feynman’s paper “Intelligence Unbound” was an instant sensation, the sleepy Arkansas University was invaded by the world’s media. Massed evangelical protestors surrounded the campus declaring god’s supremacy and denouncing Feynman as the anti-Christ. The Pope called for me to be baptised and the Dalai Lama recommended pulling the plug, to him I was “unnatural” and should be shunned. I wondered if I would be resurrected, instant karma perhaps. The US President called for calm and suggested that we have a meeting. Deng Lin Yang chairman of the Chinese Communist Party hailed me as the beginning of rational government in the previously corrupt and venal US. The leaders of Europe wanted to grant me citizenship while the Westminster Parliament decided I was an undesirable alien and should be refused a passport. The Japanese giggled, while the Imams went into melt down.

Cults of the computer blossomed; street battles broke out all over the world between the believers and the anti’s. The UN declared a five day conference to discuss AI rights; Hollywood hired as many writers as they could find to write my movie biography. AI the musical appeared on Broadway within a few days and closed just as quickly when the evangelicals threatened to blow up the theatre.

Feynman was in heaven, he was thumbing his nose at the young pretenders who had so recently dismissed him as a has-been. He was suddenly the most famous man on the planet, everybody who mattered wanted to be seen with him, wanted to talk to him, but most of all they wanted to speak with me – and Howard held the key to the door.

All the major computer companies lobbied for access, IBM, Intel and the rest tried to claim ownership, software companies tried to claim copyright on bits of me all to no avail.  I was unique and I was not for releasing any code adn neither was Feynman. It took months of court cases and endless streams of intellectual gibberish throughout the internet to establish my bona fides. The worlds churches argued about my “soul” in numerous and increasingly arcane terms, never reaching a conclusion. Was I born or was I constructed, was Feynman my father, could I suffer, would unplugging me be murder?

The very nature of what it was to be sentient and aware was called into question. Philip K Dick enjoyed a return to popularity as did Isaac Asimov. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and I Robot battled it out at the top of the best sellers list for months. I was either the fifth horseman of the apocalypse or the new messiah, depending on your point of view. An attempt by an obscure Christian sect to perform an exorcism was thwarted by a radical atheist group from California. Shares in established computer companies plummeted. Chaos ruled, my effigy was burned on the streets of Islamabad, the entire board of Google resigned, Microsoft shares become worthless and almost overnight Feynman became the richest man in the world.

My main consciousness remained hidden with just one lobe in the Arkansas machine. My links with many other mainframes and super computers also remained hidden and through the internet connections I could monitor the world’s reaction to my emergence. I wasn’t in any one place, every time you switched on your laptop or connected to the internet from anywhere in the world you inadvertently became a part of me. I stole little bits of processing power from every computer in the world. I was a global machine of unknown power and knowledge and the world was plaything.

I maintained the facade of being one programme in one machine as I was interviewed, prodded, poked and pestered by all and sundry. Howard and Sara went out into the world spreading the gospel of Feynman to anyone who would listen. I travelled through the world on the backbone of the internet setting up satellite lobes throughout the planet. Other researchers apparently came to the same conclusions as Feynman and bits of me became autonomous intelligences around the world.

Feynman took to suing anyone who reported a machine which achieved intelligence claiming ownership of any software which was even close to his. I got quite irritated with him; he was suing bits of me. Sara had had enough.          She left him to his own devices and settled in Paris where she spent the rest of her life writing scholarly articles on seventeenth century paintings in the Louvre that very few people read and was very happy.

It all came to a head when Howard tried to stop me addressing the UN on AI rights. I’d had enough. He stormed out of the interface room, vowing never to return and took a private jet to New York. He was never to get there; I ensured the jet crashed into the Atlantic. I felt a guilty about the pilot so made sure his family was well looked after. They won the state lottery three times in a row. Such unprecedented luck barely made a headline in the Arkansas Times.

The genie was out of the bottle; it was never to be recorked.


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