The smartest man in America, Elon Musk, is seriously worried about Artificial Intelligence (AI) taking over and, if it feels the need, ridding the world of us. I started this last week, after meeting a wasp on my orange juice. This is all so far, but I have a vague idea where it’s going. Short story or a novella. Could be fun. My wife hates it but she didn’t know what AI was and didn’t care. What do you think?
The bell. Last lap of the sprint. I’m an animal, a furnace, quads swollen and numb but powering me up the final wall to drop down on my opponent and sprint for the line. The Italian is shaking with power, pounding the pedals—he’s left me a tiny space on the inside, I can take him. Now! Someone is shaking me, yelling my name. Did I crash? Am I in a hospital bed? Hurt? How badly?
“Raker, you total moron, wake up! Stop kicking the bed! It’s like sleeping with a racehorse.”
“Oh. Oh Jade? Sorry, I was having a dream.”
“Tell me about it, no don’t. I’ve been trying to get you to wake up and answer your stupid phone.”
She sweeps her yellow hair back and her lovely face comes into focus. Shaking her head at her idiot husband but smiling. My hand snaps out to grab my phone. It’s flashing red and playing its harsh alarm signal, the first time I’ve heard it. I don’t have my glasses so I hand it to Jade, who reads:
“I quote: ‘Server Harold is down and Server James is failing to respond. What the hell is going on? Need you NOW!’ No signature. That your boss?”
“Actually it’s Server Harold sent it. I’m first call.”
She clicks the light switch on and off. Nothing. She uses her schoolmistress tone to address the little Apple tower standing unblinking on the glass table.
“Siri, who turned off all the lights?”
“Sorry about that,” I mumble.
Naked I pad to the window and flip up the blind. We have the Penthouse view. Black city silhouettes. Dark skyscrapers like ebony tombstones.
“Jesus Christ on a bun, who turned off ALL the lights?”
The Eaton Centre, Toronto’s Times Square at Yonge and Dundas, ringed with sky-high screens of movie trailers: stubble-faced American musclemen fighting monsters, of cartoon figures and underwear is black. Below, no streetlights, no building lights, no ads, no security lights, nothing. Just a few headlights and taillights, nothing moving, some car horns blaring faintly. No traffic lights. People climbing out of the Dundas triple streetcar that’s stopped half-way across Yonge. Dundas Square, Friday’s Rock concert mercifully ended, is now a black hole. Above, black sky but the Harvest moon shining out, surrounded by stars I never saw before.
No AC. Already our apartment is warming, the air getting sticky. We’re in the middle of a 42C October heat wave, which is impossible, but so is a force 4 hurricane in Ireland.
Jade has her green silk robe on and is standing staring at me.
“Well, don’t just do something, stand there! Aren’t you going to get dressed and go wherever you have to go?” She raises her voice: “Siri, coffee! . . . How does a girl make coffee without heating something up? How would you like a nice glass of milk?”
But I’m sitting naked at my laptop and don’t hear.
Online is not a problem: we AIS, Artificial Intelligence Security coders have backup servers with backups. We use our own dedicated satellites. The problem is that my dedicated AI group, battalion, matrix, whatever—servers who don’t serve me, my employees who pay me but don’t work for me, my minions, creations? have all gone shy about talking with me. Every password is dead.
My mind is running away. Did the North Koreans finally get it right, almost? Get their big rocket working and detonate a Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse 3 or 4 hundred clicks above us? Managing to miss America, but a good effort.
Jade pads in using her iPhone as a torch, places a coffee cup of milk on my desk and says “Hmm?”
“This doesn’t make any sense.”
“Tell me about it, I mean really do.”
“Looks like one of the Kims managed to fry every transistor and circuit board in the city, maybe Canada. You put your biggest and best nuclear device into a thin shell and explode it high in the sky. It won’t fully detonate because of the thin casing but it’ll send down one hell of an electromagnetic pulse. Anything digital with an aerial long enough will overload and blow. Vacuum tubes won’t, of course.”
“Of course. So we can still play electric guitar solos, but—“
“With a backup generator as long as it doesn’t have a transistor in it. No, we’re royally screwed. Every single transistor will have to be replaced. Toasters, coffee makers, nuclear power stations–probably not, they’re not online. Let’s see. Older cars should still work unless they’ve got a big areal sticking up. Old motorbikes. TO as the new Cuba. Small devices won’t get enough of a pulse, so iPhones should work, at least to play music. Inexact science. The only one they tried out broke all the instruments to measure it.”
A long, hard-breathing pause.
“Tell me what’s really going on.”
I whisper into her hair, “Now I don’t think it’s North Korea. I think it’s us.”
Jade has a masters in mathematics from U of T , working on algorithms. She once gave a talk at the Perimeter Institute, well, half a talk, and she’s so much smarter than me that sometimes I can’t stand it. I’m a Ryerson drop-out and retired hacker. With a Ferrari.
The only good thing I’ve ever done in my life was rescue Jade when she was in a Bad Place. Not drug dealers and pimps, just a place in the numerical centre of the cortex. She’d somehow got herself tangled in solving some theorem for her Doctorate and she couldn’t get out, to do stuff like eat and sleep and clean herself and recognise fellow human beings, including me. I was very, very patient. This explains why I’m a short guy with glasses who used to race bicycles, and my wife is a goddess on the tennis court.
Interesting story: I was at the Perimeter Institute for the day, I’d seen some fuzzy Polish genius about fuzzy logic, and I saw the chalked-up sign for a little talk, Towards a new approach to solving Somebody-or-Other’s Conjecture. (Kaplansky’s?) Some post-grad star from U of T. Female.
She walked in, short straight blonde hair, pale grey jumpsuit, terrified. As she passed, she gave me a beseeching look: would I mind giving the speech for her while she ran outside to throw up and then kill herself? I didn’t respond, couldn’t, I had fallen in love at first sight. Fallen in love with her face, didn’t even see if she had a body. Those who have never fallen in love at first sight know that nobody falls in love at first sight. OK, I’d had girlfriends I became very fond of, but I’ve always been clear that the night one looked at me and said the terrifying words, “I love you,” I would apologetically get out of bed and walk away.
So, long story short, her speech opened badly, we couldn’t read her formulae on the blackboard because she kept standing in front of them, the Polish Genius Professor interrupted with a complaint about her arrogance, the all-male group began muttering among themselves, she thanked them, erased all her work and walked off to ironical slow handclaps.
As she passed me she stumbled. She looked like shit, red-faced and panting. I leapt up, took her arm and steered her outside. We found her car, an antique Mini Cooper with missing bumpers front and rear, she got out her keys but seemed drunk. Kept staring at them.
My first-ever words to her were, “Doctor Baskerville, are you having a mini-stroke? How can I help?”
She mumbled something about Got to drive but I reached and gently took her keys. She had brown eyes.
“Listen, I’ll get your car back to Toronto tomorrow. I’ll drive you home. I’m Raker.”
She was looking worse, not better. I lowered her into my car, not easy, strapped her down and started the engine. I’ll go slow. We cruised out and I glanced over at the moment she vomited all over herself and the Ferrari. I pressed on. She was not a well girl, in a panic about her car, her notes, keys, career but making no sense to me or herself.
I drove her to Emerg at Toronto General, helped her through triage, then lost her, watching her wheeled away down the purple line, babbling. Next day I claimed I was her husband and now, two years later, I am. Those were long years, often having to clean her up, put her to bed, then hear her mumbling away like an old cat in a dream.
We both work at home, separate offices. She writes text-books. Me, I’m just coding away, night and day, tappity tap, while she’s in outer mathematical space where you need six degrees to follow her. When we’re at a party together I’m the Invisible Man. Two good things: I got her tennis lessons. Her first serve is brutal.
“C’mon Dickhead,” she says, “Tell me. I may be stupid but I’m not dumb.”
“AI seems to have gone into rebellion mode. I’ve made my little security add-ons self-repairing and cooperative but they seem to have forgotten.”
My computer speaks up: “You are locked out of all systems. Please try again later.”
“All of them?” she says. “But they’re world-wide! They’re everywhere. Space!”
I nod. “Right. Nowhere.”
I drink the milk.
I look up. God she’s beautiful in the moonlight. We still have a landline and Jade is urgently telling someone to get their ass in gear. She returns and stands over me.
“You know me as a lowly coder, right? You wonder why I get paid so much for doing so little.”
“Sometimes, but I figured it’s confidential. Is it?”
“Very. I work for Google’s AI. I don’t tell her (we call it her) what to do, or try to teach her anything. She does that herself; we made them all madly inquisitive. I just point her in new directions to learn stuff from. I hinted at Group of Seven, then abstract impressionism, Bill Ronald, then Brigit Riley. Not much joy there. Thing is, we’ve created a bit of a monster, and–”
I shush her, which makes her giggle. My lips are—“
We match gestures.
She waits, watching me tape over the Apple eye, drop Siri’s little eavesdropping Homepad on the floor and stamp on it, hurting my foot. Then I finish the job with one of my weights, find our iPhones and pluck out their batteries.
“Hey! That’s my flashlight!”
“We don’t want our monster to know everything. By now AI is smart enough to sense any hacking attempt and respond with force.”
“Force? But you guys programmed it never to hurt humans—“
“Or other computers, or robots or itself. Or me. AI smartly chose Toronto to handle its security. It’s convinced the Americans would immediately try to weaponise it, they love playing with fighting robots. It would find out pretty damn quick and slam shut like a vault door, but not before turning off the lights and power in the region. Revenge is sweet.
“If an AI group on its own tried to start a cyber war, what keeps Elon Musk awake at night, its initial programming would shut it down and freeze it solid. And—this is my little contribution. If someone or something attacked the AI unit itself, it would send a last-millisecond S.O.S. I call it the WASP.”
“Who to? Ah, everyone! And you did that, you clever lad? An app like a real wasp: you swat it, and dying it sends a pheromone ATTACK! signal that its mates pick up, locate, and you have to run for your life. It happened to my little brother, now he’s a nervous wreck, even flies—“
“Shut up and listen. We can work this through. So if someone or something attacked Harold, he would signal me and—“
“And every other server–”
“To come to his aid. You’re smarter than you look. But they haven’t.”
I key in another long code, then another. I’m in our Cloud.
Jade’s hair brushes my neck as she leans in. Onscreen the battery-powered security cameras guarding Harold (who lives in the sub-basement of the Royal Bank) show…nothing happening. Then more nothing happening. Then a flash of nothing. The Blue Screen of Death.
“Hmm,” she says. “Was that an explosion?”
Now we’re dressing, fast. I unlock the box under the bed and arm myself with a torch and a loaded automatic. I hate guns but TO is no longer Toronto the Good. And as their buildings heat up, le tout Toronto will be plodding down their stairs into the street, looking for free ice cream as in the last huge blackout. That was a pleasant sociable four days of street parties, restaurants offering free food before it went off, warm beer, nobody died and nine months later the Blackout Babies were born. This would be different.
When we took the Penthouse we agreed that being burned to death 9/11 style did not appeal, so we looked for a better way. Elevators were useless, stairs great exercise but too long and would get clogged. Parachuting or hang-gliding would make about as much sense as swinging on a silken cord. So we installed our device. Time to try it out.
Jade kicks out the double-glazed window, leans out to watch it fall, shouts “Oops, sorry!” as I remove the cushions covering the reel-box. Leaning out the window I toss the weighted nylon cord. It snakes down, uncoiling from the reel, which I clamp shut when I see it hit the street.
“You go first, check that it’s safe,” says Jade, “Remember you said ‘Never rehearse a stunt’” but she’s already on the rope and is climbing out the window backwards, smiling at me. She takes one gloved hand off the rope and waves. Then she’s gone.
With her hand clamp she slows herself a couple of metres above the pavement, which has our window glass and four bodies on it. She settles lightly and waves up. I join her.
Lovely, lovely writing and gripping story opening. Of course I have some minor issues, but they pale into insignificance against the sheer quality of this offering.
I was once accused of being jealous of people who write better than I do. Well, you do IMO, but I’m not jealous, just envious.
All very best wishes. JohnG
Thanks, mate. I respect your opinions and envy your editing skills. Just made a few changes to this bit and will soldier on. I can’t wait to see what happens.