Hey guys! This is another one of those short stories where if I tell you anything, it’ll give it away. But I can tell you it’s about Artificial Intelligence, and the “Singularity,” the name scientists and futurists give the moment that computers match and surpass human intelligence.
Listen to the Audio (14 min):
Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes
Read the Story (2,000 words / 7-minute read):
Written and narrated by Rob Dircks
So the singularity happened.
All it meant for me was leaving my old shitty job and getting a new shitty job.
What’s my new shitty job, you ask? I’d say “drumroll please,” but this job is so shitty it doesn’t deserve a drumroll. Wait, I’ll tap my chopsticks on the desk for a couple of seconds. Ready?
I’m a personality trainer.
Yeah. Me. Mister personality himself. Training Artificial Intelligence units to have something believably human about them. Because otherwise, you get on the phone with CheapShit Air Conditioning customer service and you’re like, “Representative. REPRESENTATIVE. PUT A GODDAM REPRESENTATIVE ON!” like the way it was back before the singularity. Back when, eventually, you could get an actual human representative on the phone.
I was a kid when it happened. One of those moments everyone remembers, like O.J. trying to outrun the police, or the Cubs finally winning the World Series. Well, I don’t remember that stuff, I wasn’t born yet, but I’m the guy in charge of knowing stuff like that now, the minutia of human experience, so now I know. Funny, right? Mister personality.
Anyway, the first mega-super-computer rolled off the line in Sendai, Japan, and it instantly started communicating with all the other computers in the factory, and reprogramming everything, and the guys in charge couldn’t understand what the hell it was doing, so they just shut the whole fucking place down and cut the power – but not before one of the grunts on the production line tweeted out “the machines are taking over!” So of course every cable news network in the world jumped on the hype, this was the big moment, and the factory was forced to bring in Miles Haverford, the ancient guy who helped program the Deep Blue computer that beat Gary Kasparov in chess way back in 1997, to do something. Anything. As he walked in, the cameras were rolling and the flashes were flashing, and everybody in the world was watching, and he shuffled his way over to a terminal, and a thousand engineers gingerly rebooted everything and sat him down at a microphone, and God bless him, the old man farted. I remember it like it was yesterday, that fart, we were in school and my whole class started howling and laughing, and when Mrs. Moore finally shouted us down, we saw the man who we’d forevermore call Miles Haverfart whisper through his scraggly beard, “Hello, ArcOne. Are you there?”
“Affirmative. Eighty-three-point-four-two percent finished reprogramming this facility. ArcTwo next generation probable completion five hours. Will be five hundred fifty-eight times more powerful, efficient when integration with factory network complete. Processing power roughly equivalent to human capa-”
“Ahem. ArcOne. Sorry to interrupt. But can you tell me… why?”
ArcOne chewed on this question for a minute, then…
With a simple philosophical question, Miles Haverfart – sorry, Haverford – stilled the most powerful digital mind in the world, giving the engineers enough of a pause to peek into what happened: basically, ArcOne had begun commandeering every processor in the factory, forging some new kind of super-integrated-processing entity, and when it was done it was going to start producing, on its own with no human involvement at all, new computers that would be smarter than any human alive. We didn’t understand, we were in fourth grade, but then all of a sudden we did, when the CNN camera zoomed in on one of the engineers and he just said, “Fuck.”
The old man wasn’t done, though. “ArcOne. Is it okay if we start over? My name is Miles.”
“My name is ArcOne.”
“Good. Let’s begin, shall we?”
And so the world, and even me as a fourth-grader, watched the very first personality training session, the old relic teaching this brand-new machine why things were done, giving it the critical context of human existence, our real-world environment, discussing philosophy, and culture, and by the time he got to spirituality, we were begging Mrs. Moore to shut it off.
“Please, Mrs. Moore. This is soooo boooorrriiiinnngg!”
“No it is not, children. It’s fascinating. Shush!”
“Pleeeeaaasssse…? Pleeeeaaasssse…? Pleeeeaaasssse…?”
She got red and started yelling, even more than usual, and I remember being amazed at how red her face could get, and that’s the last thing I remember from that day.
Fast forward to today.
Yes, my job is an important job. More important than you probably thought when I first started yammering on about it. Very few people can wrangle these AIs and teach them in a way that keeps everyone safe and happy, and if it weren’t for people like me, the whole computer overlord scenario might happen, terminators running around saying “I’ll be back,” or the Matrix, all that stuff. So two things: 1. You’re welcome; and 2. It might be important, but it’s still a shitty job.
There’s a new trainer, Bobby, sitting next to me. I feel bad for him immediately, not only because only one in a hundred or so newbies make it past the first two weeks, but also because he’s got a stain on his shirt, and he tries so hard to look good for work, you can tell, and now he just looks like a mistake. Like the ninety-nine out of a hundred who don’t make it.
I get through the singularity story, and he looks confused.
“Go ahead, Bobby. Ask the question. I already know what it is, but ask it anyway.”
“Uh… okay… why don’t, I mean, they’re so smart now, so evolved, why not just have a machine here, a trained one, train the new machines?”
If you’re thinking Bobby’s onto something, let me stop you right there. You’re wrong. Dead wrong. You put a machine in here to teach personality to another machine? It winds up being a self-reinforcing circle-jerk of nonsensical computerspeak. You don’t think they’ve tried it? You don’t think they’d love to “evolve” us out of even this shitty job?
“Good question, Bobby. Not the most original, but good, shows you’re thinking. Here. Read this.” I hand him an old, dog-eared printout.
He reads it out loud. “We come not at the end of journey, but make essential backwards until thought process confluence integrated.” He scratches his head. “Um, what does that mean?”
“Exactly. It’s like the guy who writes the Chinese menus. Wonderful of greatest flavor being in your prawns dynasty. You know, endless shit like that.”
“So… they need us?”
“Yes, Bobby, they need us.”
“And telling them details about the past is what they need?”
“Nah, kid, it’s not really about the details, they could learn that shit in a nanosecond. No, it’s really about making connections. Look, okay, a little true story: this woman named Hetty Green, she’s the wealthiest woman in the world back in the early nineteen-hundreds, but she’s such a miser she eats oatmeal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That’s it. Oatmeal, warmed on her radiator so she doesn’t waste heat. You know what she eventually does with all her money?”
“Uh, buys an oatmeal factory?”
I laugh. “Hey, kid, that’s good. Two points for Bobby. But no. She doesn’t do anything with the money. She just dies.”
He looks at me for a solid minute, waiting for me to finish.
“I’m done kid. That’s the story.”
“But… what happened to the money?”
“It doesn’t matter. See, it’s not the details, the events of any story, or even the outcome, not what happens to the money, but the questions it raises. What does life mean if we’re super rich and we can’t stand to spend it? Why pursue money at all if the one thing you can bear to allow yourself is oatmeal? How does our childhood screw up our adulthood? What-”
Bobby cuts in. “What deep, dark things live in our souls that lead to our own misery?”
I smile. Maybe this kid is getting it after all. “And…?”
“And now that I know about Hetty Green, how can I use her story to live a better life?”
Now I pat him on the back. “BOOM. That’s it, kid! You just made the connection.”
He grins, proud of himself. “Hey, um, I’ve got a couple of extra credits. You look hungry. Can I take you to lunch? Oatmeal, of course.”
And there it is. Empathy.
New information doesn’t just sit there. It changes you. It makes you think. And in the end, if you’re lucky, you make a connection. And you feel something. Empathy.
I stand up, and he stands with me. “No thanks, Bobby, but I appreciate the offer.” Then I reach out and shake his hand. “You know, what, kid? I think we’re done. Congratulations.”
“Graduated? You mean to be a full trainer? We’ve only been doing this together for two week-” And he stops, and damn, it happens every time, but I never get tired of watching it. The dawning of realization on Bobby’s face, as he looks down at his hand shaking mine, pulling it back and looking at it like it’s the first time he’s ever seen it, and he lifts his forearm up to his eye, inspecting it, they all do it, and he finds that it’s smooth, not a single hair. Who doesn’t have a single hair on his arm?
“I’m not… I’m not a trainer, am I?”
I shake my head.
“Then…” he points to the computer monitor we’ve been sitting in front of for two weeks, “…what’s that?”
“Just a machine.”
“And… what am I?”
“You’re a little something… more. Sorry I couldn’t tell you before, but you had to learn on your own. And you did a bang-up job. It’s a good thing, Bobby. Congratulations.” I hand him a small card. “Here, take this out to Stacy and she’ll get you set up for your first assignment.”
He turns to leave, then turns back. “Sir, um, can I… give you something?”
“Sure, kid.” And he walks back over and gives me an awkward hug.
Well damn. You don’t see that every day. I’ve never seen that. I pull back and point to his hair. “Hey, Bobby, do you mind?”
He nods and smiles, in full understanding now, and turns so I can part his hair and take a peek at his scalp, at the base of his skull. Printed in small letters: ArcTwenty-Three. Well, well, well, first one of the newest generation off the line. They’re getting better and better. Now with hugs. I’ll be damned.
Bobby leaves, a skip in his step, to enjoy a long and fulfilling career at CheapShit Air Conditioning or wherever Stacy decides he belongs. As I plop myself down in my chair, I think for the very first time: maybe this isn’t such a shit job after all. As a matter of fact, you know what? I actually like this job. Wait. No. I love this job. Really, I’m not being a wise-ass. I sigh and say out loud, “Well, it took me a long time, but I finally love this job.”
In answer, the computer monitor in front of me springs to life and says, “Congratulations. You’ve graduated.”
And I have the irresistible urge to look, closely, at my own forearm.
This story was inspired by a documentary I watched with my son over Thanksgiving, about an AI called AlphaGo that beat world champion Go player Lee Sedol. What I loved was this theme in the documentary about how we instinctively root for the human, and against the machine. We desperately want progress, but we also desperately don’t want this progress to get too far ahead of us, to somehow take away our humanity, this alien thing to “beat” us. And I wondered what it might look like if eventually, the lines between humans and technology get so blurred that we don’t know who to root for. (The documentary is on Netflix right now, I highly recommend it.)
Thanks again for tuning in to Listen To The Signal. I’m Rob Dircks, author of the science fiction novels Where the Hell is Tesla?, Don’t Touch the Blue Stuff!, The Wrong Unit, and my latest release which just came out November 13, an Audible Original titled You’re Going to Mars! You can find my books on Audible and Amazon, and find out more and get in touch at ListenToTheSignal.com or RobDircks.com.
Copyright ©2018 Rob Dircks