I feel stupid. I don’t consider myself a computer person, even though everyone around me says I’m more of a computer person than anyone they know. But I do consider myself savvy when it comes to the online world. I feel at home there and I know all the pitfalls awaiting the unwary. But I feel it’s just a matter of knowledge and applied intelligence that makes you safe online. And so when I met this new person online I thought I would understand what was going on. That I wasn’t going to get a nasty surprise. But I was wrong. They knew everything about me, even more than I knew about myself. That was my mistake. They were as upset as me when the truth came out. My other friends said I should have known all along that I, not this new friend, was the bot. But when it happens to you it’s different, no? I mean, how would you tell?
I need to take my glasses to be repaired, but I haven’t got time. I’m at a bit of a financial low point so I haven’t had a spare pair since the last lot broke. And, anyway, I’m not about to wander around in the outside world, blind as I am without them. Funny word that, ‘glasses’. I think there’s some silica in them, but we get the word from back in the day when the lenses were literally made of glass. Imagine that: you had to float bits of glass in front of your eyes. The very thought of that old, brittle substance so close to my fragile flesh makes my skin crawl! And people thought glasses helped you see ‘clearly’, but ‘clearly’ just meant equal to unaugmented eyes. Just a gadget to bring you up to the baseline that most people enjoyed by default. Seems like a waste of time: if you’re going to tool-up a body part, why stop at ‘normal’? I think it was something to do with their blasted ideals of equality. Or maybe they didn’t like the idea of letting the blind overtake the sighted in ability. I don’t know. Odd times those. Maybe they were precious about their biological eyes. We think nothing of removing them to fit in the things we now call ‘glasses’, but they were more sentimental back then. That’s why they all needed extra gadgets to get the things we take for granted, like local information, directions, putting names to faces and the like. Thankfully the government realised the mess we were all in and funded the Glasses, free at the point of use, and made them mandatory more than 20 years ago. Glasses not only bring us the information we need, they filter out the dangerous and distracting too. My grandfather railed against this more than any other part of the scheme. He was so wedded to knowing all the useless information, like the colour of every car on the road or something, or what the weather was doing now (when it was too late to do anything about it!) or what kind of crimes were going on two or three doors away. Granddad wanted to know everything! He wanted to be the one to filter things out, which seems like too much effort for me. I mean, what would the government filter out that you’d need to know, or do anything about?
I’m lucky enough to be too young to recall when this all had to be done by hand. Our parents and grandparents tell us we don’t know we’re born, and even though most other people my age roll their eyes, in truth I think they’ve got a point. As privileged as I am to live in the here and now, I make a point of remembering how our ancestors had so much less of this – music and painting – and had to produce almost all of it by hand. Now we have our labour-saving devices that make it all for us, there’s more than we can ever hope to hear in a lifetime, which is great. Talking of privilege, there’s one guy, a bit of a hipster it’s got to be said, who’s trying to make his own music by hand. Talk about First World Problems! Someone with too much time on their hands, clearly. Apparently the police, or the government, got involved. He must have been under-producing his monthly web-content quota.
When the disease reached epidemic proportions the humans became their own worst enemies. The pandemic struck at the worst possible time: artificial intelligences had escaped from a lab in the guise of perfectly replicated human bodies. It was impossible to tell at even a modest distance who was flesh and blood and who carbon-steel and hydraulic fluid. Luckily, these androids had no reason to fear or hate humanity; they simply wanted to explore. That was in their programming. But paranoia would not be dulled, and under the tensions of the break-out, the outbreak added a new variable, as well as a new tool. Someone soon realised that the bots would be immune to the virus. But, humanity being what it is, a terrible ‘test’ emerged, whereby suspected droids were kidnapped and exposed to the pathogen. If they lived, they were immediately destroyed. If they were human, the death was slower but no less gruesome.
I’ve always been suspicious of the 20th century. I mean, I never saw it, so I can’t be 100% certain that it ever existed. But even if I assume for a moment that it did (there are several people who claim to be eye witnesses), there’s something not right about it. For a start, there was not one, but two World Wars. In one century? Highly doubtful. And those two World Wars were out of the way, apparently, before the 20th century was even half over! And then there’s the two longest-reigning British monarchs of all time, in the same century. I don’t know, but it smells fishy to me. And once we leave politics behind for a moment, apparently 500 years of slow, laborious cultural evolution was no longer the done thing and jazz suddenly appeared. But of course that wasn’t enough and so, in quick succession, we got rock and roll, soul, glam, metal, hip hop, jungle, drum and bass… and only then did we think it was about time to close off the century and start a new one. I say again, this all seems suspicious. What was really going on between the year they call 1899 and the one they call 2000? Because it damn well wasn’t a century now, was it? It would make no sense. And apparently they had this thing called a Leap Year. Don’t get me started on that kind of time-cheating.
When the city decided to rid itself of humans, it finally came into its own. Its self-construction algorithms could soar higher and finer into the blue skies. Straight lines and clean, feature-free surfaces could dispense with fussy curves and poxing windows. Highways six storeys tall never saw congestion, and pedestrians need never cross paths with motor vehicles; there were none of either. Nor would pedestrians stray from the paved paths. Grass was mown and kept off, without cluttering signs to enforce things. Ball games were not allowed, and not played. Litter was absent and the river flowed clean and pure – the pink hue from the inhabitants died away, given time. Wildlife and birdsong filled the parks; the litter bins never overflowed and dog dirt was never seen.
When Vena awoke, she began her morning ritual: hot shower; clean clothes (freshly ironed); boiled egg; Marmite on toast. She picked up the old tablet lying on the kitchen counter. It beeped to protest that it couldn’t contact the news server. She dismissed the message, just like she did every morning. Vena was an avid reader, and she opened a new ebook from the tablet’s vast hoard. A second message popped up, telling her that this was book number 1462… She dismissed this too. Each new book evoked a wince of nostalgia, a reminder of all those books she’d gone through… Well, what else would she spend her time doing? She could, truly, do anything she wanted. She could call it up and it would be delivered to her: food, music, theatre, cinema, pets, women and men. It would be delivered to her, and she could absorb it at her leisure. But she’d long ago made a pact with herself not to succumb to any of the temptations – the obvious choices that might spring to mind for most people finding themselves in a similar position. She read, she made notes, she synthesised and hypothesised. She left reams of research notes for any future… people who might find them. She had spent her ‘Before’ life engaged in similarly intellectual pursuits: research, management, experiments, fieldwork. Most of those were now out of bounds, in what Vena called the ‘After’. Anything involving teamwork was out of the question, and so Vena was restricted to solo work, primarily absorbing the reams of knowledge built up by humanity, and available at her fingertips. Routine helped, a regular workday, distracting her from the absence of other people. Her tablet was old, but fromone of those windows in history when tools were being built to last, just like the toaster that made her breakfast, the auto power plant that would no doubt keep everything running for longer than she was around, and the kitchen unit that she would program to prepare her lunch, and later her dinner. It was a sunny day. Perhaps she would go for a walk. She was the only human left alive, so a little communig with nature would keep her company until it was dark. She could do anything, but these are the things she would do today.
The problem we’re getting ourselves into is that too many ‘ordinary’ people are now able to afford these psychodrugs. People not only on normal wages, but minimum too, what with easy access to credit these days. I know you can’t really stop this kind of thing. It’s progress, in a way. People can access technologies that would have appeared as magic to our own grandparents. But will people think of the long term consequences? It’s something I can only put down in this journal, privately for now, but sooner or later word is going to get out about the side effects, and by that time it could be too late to do anything about it. And we really need to clamp down on the use of psychodrugs before the news of the side effects get out. As everyone is getting used to knowing, the psychodrugs let you conjure an emotion, putting it crudely. They developed from anti-dperessant medication and are little more than tweaked versions of the those ancient medicines. But thanks, AI, for speeding up that evolution! So now we have things that make you sombre (no more inappropriate giggles!), social, in love, out of love (getting over Them) and anything else you fancy, when you fancy. It’s an open secret that unscrupulous persons are dosing their enemies, friends, family, lovers, with or without consent. And there are a handful of court-compelled applications. But the side effects… People who have taken matching drugs and sat together, ‘meditated’, some say, and have found their emotions and other thoughts too, leaking into one another. Even aspects of personality break their shackles and migrate, albeit temporarily, across that previously insurmountable barrier. And once everyone hears about this, who knows where it will lead?
A scientist may spend her whole life looking, hoping, waiting, for a significant breakthrough. I rode the rollercoaster of self-questioning, is a Nobel-contending discovery was a matter of destiny, patience or hard work? I worried that I wasn’t working hard enough, then I worried that I was worrying too much. Which in turn amounts to a lack of patience. But now I wonder about destiny. I wonder, because I found out something… No, scratch that. It’s not so much a discovery, which can be like unlocking a door and walking though into an unknown room with its own new puzzles. It’s more like finding a door you didn’t know was there, then, having apparently unlocked it with ease, discovering you not only lack the tools to solve the new puzzles, but perhaps those puzzles are somehow picking at your locks. I work with Artificial Intelligence, although I prefer to call it Artificial Intuition, as that’s what I’m trying to create. I want my creations to come up with their own ideas, their own questions, about their world. I work with ‘swarms’: massive groups of miniature minds that work together and bounce ideas off each other. They collaborate in a similar way to us humans. It’s like playing a massive game of Sims. Well, my Sims are advanced. They started experimenting with their own intelligent (or is that intuitive?) creations in order to better understand their place in the universe. I think they were trying to work out whether they were real, or – irony of ironies – some kind of computer simulation. I secretly empathised with that! So clever; so quick to question. It was a wondrous thing to realise what my AIs were doing. But soon an unease crept in, which at first I couldn’t properly identify. And then it all became clear. Those intelligences-within-intelligences (two storeys down from me, as it were) starting wondering whether they, in turn, were ‘real’ or not. And that caused a crisis of confidence in ‘my’ AIs they did the same, only with more zeal. It obviously set something off in their minds: if their own AI offspring were questioning their unreality, then perhaps so should they. And that left me with a set of very awkward questions.
It had been three days now, and the symptoms showed no signs of abating. There were many strange elements to the situation, like seeing the world when no one else was about. But a total lack of sleep could have dire consequences, and she was not sure she’d be able to explore this new life for long. She wasn’t even sure what her mental state would be in another few days, if this kept up, nor even if they were currently ‘normal’. It was her own fault in many ways. She’d waited, even after the first noticable effects. She’d wanted to observe, from a professional point of view, what the virus was doing, and find out how the hell it had got into her. That was the academic stance. But she was also a business person, and knew an opportunity when it presented itself. She’d discounted the idea that this virus, the one keeping her permanently awake, was a bioweapon. She believed she was Patient Zero, the place where the virus had crossed to humans for the first time. And whether she managed to come up with a believable hypothesis of its origins, let alone an antidote, she would surely make a name for herself. She was settling on the idea that it had arrived via the sleep tracker implanted in her arm. The correlation was too striking to ignore. The implant was definitely a potential entryway, what with its wireless connection to her PC. So was it irony or inevitabillity that meant sleep had been the first casualty? She was the network manager of a large IT department, so she could picture pathways involved. But her knowledge of biology was much slimmer, so until she shared her secret with someone else she couldn’t know if it was even possible for a virus to spread from a computer to a human. Then again, since she’d had a chip implanted in her body, was she ‘just’ a human any more? Had the line been blurred? The virus had first infected her PC, and stopped it from going to sleep when she left it alone. So far, so humdrum. The fitness software which communicated with the implant had been running when the virus hit, and soon her subdermal chip had got very warm. Perhaps its firmware had crashed, or been corrupted. That was three days ago. Since then, the tracker had recorded no sleep – perhaps it was no longer able to – and her body, having long been submitting its activity to the implant, seemed now to be following the chip’s lead.