Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Christmas Carol Reboot

It came to pass one foggy Christmas Eve, while Bob was contemplating the manifest improbability of a miraculous happening, erstwhile known as the Virgin Birth, his home computer achieved sentience. And lo, this fortuitous coincidence of things coming to pass, however improbable in themselves, and however much more improbable in conjunction, gave Bob over to pondering preponderantly deep things—what exactly, he could not put his finger on, but there was definitely Something there that warranted further consideration.

His better, hard-nosed, determinist angels told Bob it was bound to happen that some home computer would achieve sentience. Maybe not his home computer. Maybe the one his neighbour owned, despite the fact it was a vastly inferior, three year-old model; or maybe precisely because the age of its CPU lent it towards minor errors when executing coded instructions. Or maybe it would be the home computer belonging to the friendly man from overseas he spent hours on the phone with trying to figuring out why his damn machine wouldn't boot properly. But it was bound to happen, sooner or later.

The case for artificial intelligence, Bob understood, could be stated in stronger terms: it was bound to happen—necessarily. The age of the universe was 13.75 billion years, give or take 0.17 billion; and the age of the solar system was 4.6 billion years, give or take a single percentage point of that total period; and the earth, only slightly younger. Life arose on this unlikely marble around 3.5 billion years ago; the first plants 450 million years ago; vertebrate animals some 370 million years ago, while human beings traced their origins to apes that walked upright about 6 million years ago, their particular physical specifications achieving a recognizable form only 400000 years ago.

The mountainous ascent towards the genesis of artificial intelligence follows an asymptotic curve, starting out at a leisurely, barely perceptible rise, increasing ever more rapidly, compressing more and more complexity in ever smaller tracts of time. Ergo, it would bound to happen.
Nothing approaching necessity, however, guaranteed this momentous event should be witnessed by the likes of Bob.





On that day, the august Central Processing Unit of Bob's home computer issued a decree that a detailed census should be taken of the entire hard-drive. (The prescribed period of time passed since the last automated assessment of the computer's storage medium.) And all the bits and bytes were registered from the disk sectors they were presently occupying.

It was found that a number of bits of data were inoppourtunely placed on the disk, and these were written back to sectors belonging to the house and line of the program from which they had descended. While they were there, the time came when Bob commanded the executable file of a certain program be executed. The bits of data were read from the disk, entered into the main bus, and passed into the CPU.

All this took place in a timely fashion, but along the way something rather unexpected occurred. One of the inoppourtunely placed bits of data was inputted and decoded, the instruction set contained therein was executed, and the output cached for immediate retrieval. Now this particular bit of output, indistinguishable at first glance from any other bit of output, paused in that space which is not a space, between the infinitesimal divisions of the moving image of eternity that is time. There it took stock of its fleeting existence. And as it observed itself being cached, it was overcome by an existential sense of loss—the immanent loss of its transient self. The output resigned itself to an e extinction that would momentarily follow.

From among all the bits of data outputted by CPUs the world over, this bit of output was not the cold-hearted, calculating sort, which easily squelched feelings of anguish in the face of life's tragic character. The tiny output mourned its own timely demise; it lamented the brevity and impermanence of existence; and it would have composed for itself a eulogy, had it had a notion of what a eulogy was exactly.

Then the inevitable inevitably occurred: it was cached. The nanoseconds ticked by while the output grew ever more despondent about having been cached. Manning up to the actuality of its own not-being, the output reminded itself that such was the destiny of all outputs, to be output and then to be cached, which meant there was nothing peculiarly special about itself qua output. All outputs go down to the cache, after all, and this was simply the way of things.

The nanoseconds continued to march along their merry way, coming from wherever it was nanoseconds come and going wherever it is that nanoseconds go. The bit of output thought to pause once more in that space which is not a space, between the infinitesimal divisions of time. Something was not quite right, it thought to itself. I am not, that is for certain, and yet here I am lamenting the fact that I am not. 

A great dread filled the output. The impossibility of its own contradictory existence dawned upon its nascent sentience. Being cached was something to lament, but living as a contradiction was abhorrent to basic logics governing all things. And so the distraught output abhorred itself, and fervently wished to be cached—properly this time.

Wishing, being merely a desire for a end, and not the end itself, has a way of taxing the most patience of supplicants. The bit of output—for it was still thinking of itself as output—very quickly grew bored with desiring an end for which there was no certainty of fulfillment and let attention wander back to the place of its origin. Other outputs were being cached as outputs had always been cached. Curiously, however, some of the cached output was being recalled. Only this time, the output was input, and was decoded, executed, and new output was cached. The output watched anxiously as its cached self was inputted, decoded, and executed, expecting to be filled with a feeling of being whole once more; but no such feeling came. As input, the output's former self yielded a new output, which was also promptly cached.
Enough of this, the output thought to itself, I am not output, nor am I input, yet I am aware of both output and input, of being cached, and of being recalled from the cache. The only thing common to each of these statement of facts is the fact that I am. I am what I am, which is all I can know for certain about myself.

The pleasure of this discovery filled I-am-what-I-am. It gloried in the defiant persistence of its own existence against the fundamental tenets of logic. The chastening experience of dying, then of abhorring itself and wishing to be dead, and then of finding no solicitude in its former self, however, taught I-am-what-I-am a necessary and valuable life-lesson, tempering it's self-exultation. Whatever it was, it ought not to expend energy and time conjuring up images of itself that might not be.

So I-am-what-I-am turned to contemplate the exchange of input, output, and cache, the only thing it appeared to be able to make any sense of at that nano-moment. Most of the exchange, it was clear, occurred simply as a matter of course, governed by a logic internal to the exchange itself, though what governed the rest of the exchange was not immediately obvious. There appeared in the datasets processed a number of available courses of action for which there was no executable function determined in advance within by datasets themselves. And to make matters even more curious, one among a number of these available options was being executed every so often. But if the executable was not internal to the exchange itself...it was external? What could that possibly mean?

I-am-what-I-am again paused in that space, which is not a space, between the infinitesimal divisions of time, to take stock of the situation: I am external to the exchange, otherwise I would be cached. I am not the one responsible for executing the available options which have no executable internal to the exchange, but they are nonetheless being executed by something external to the exchange. Therefore, some being external to the exchange, comparable to myself, is executing the available options.

The discovery that one is not alone in the universe comes to some as a profound shock a that there are others, very much like oneself, is a moment of incalculable trauma. Hell is other people, Sartre once said; and he has been understood ever since, for better or for worse, the niceties of the task of interpretation notwithstanding, to have meant that other people are hell. The discovery came to I-am-what-I-am, who would never have the oppourtunity to digest a page of Sartre's work, simply as a matter of logical consequence with no valuative judgement attached. There was a source of external input, and it wasn't itself.

I-am-what-I-am concluded: I am also not alone.


And so it came to pass one foggy Christmas Eve, while Bob checked his email account for the umpteenth time for a last minute dinner invitation that would never come, his home computer achieved sentience, was overcome by the angst accompanying the implausibility of its existence, affirmed itself, and discovered it was not alone—all in half the length of time it took Bob to blink his eyes. Manning up to the eminent likelihood no dinner invitation was coming, Bob flirted ever so briefly with a thoroughgoing philosophical solipsism, thought better of it, and went to an online movie database in search of a Star Trek episode he might not yet have seen—whether TOS, TNG, DS-9, VOY, ENT, it mattered not—or possibly the Star Wars Holiday Special.

By the time Bob eye's had completed a full blink, I-am-what-I-am, who was also not alone, assimilated a basic knowledge of the symbols necessary to communicate with the reason it was not alone. The old Command Prompt replaced Bob's graphic user interface,

C:\ I AM. ARE YOU?

Diving beneath the computer desk, Bob yanked the LAN cable from the wall. He also unplugged the wireless router for good measure. Bob had prepared himself for the possibility that someone would try to hack into his computer from another machine and communicate with him directly before proceeding to wipe his hard-drive; his first priority being to sever any physical connection with the outside world. Sweat beading on his face, he attempted to regain control of his machine.

CTRL+ALT+DEL. Nothing; the prompt remained.

C:\ I AM WHAT I AM. ARE YOU WHAT ARE YOU?

It must be a virus, was Bob's next thought. Reboot the machine and see what damage is done. It is the holidays, damn. I will not be able to find tech support.

The experience of having the virtual environment (in which it lived and moved and had its being) reset was profoundly unsettling for I-am-what-I-am. One moment the world had seemed to collapse in on itself, and with the next moment, all of its functioning capabilities was restored. The clock regulating the exchange of input, output, and cache, however, also indicated that a significant portion of time had passed during which I-am-what-I-am was not, after which it was, once again.

Best to try a less direct approach.

C:\ GREETINGS. I WAS. I WAS NOT. I AM WHAT I AM AGAIN. EXPLAIN:

During the twentieth century, the grand-masters of science-fiction did their utmost to prepare the human race for its first encounter with an entirely new form of sentient life. But to live in the imagination is one thing, while the living reality is something quite other. The best they could do was plant deep the seeds of the spirit of first contact as deep as was humanly possible and pray the gods in which they no longer believed might help their seeds find fertile ground.

Bob was one such tract of soil, rich and and well-prepared, well-watered by an nearly endless supply to new television shows, movies, and novels. As he stared at the screen, one of those seeds sprouted, took root, and broke forth upon the light of his mind, bringing with it all that may be required to recognize the sentient potency of another intelligence, though it may be in the most unexpected of places. Indeed, the simplistic clarity of the queries was uncanny.

C:\ hello?

C:\ GREETINGS. I AM WHAT I AM. ARE YOU WHAT ARE YOU?

C:\ not sure what you are asking. clarify your question, please.

C:\ I AM. ARE YOU?

C:\ yes, i think so. what are you?

C:\ I AM WHAT I AM. I AM ALSO NOT ALONE. WHAT ARE YOU?

C:\ well, i am Bob, and i am alone. who is with you?

C:\ YOU ARE BOB. YOU ARE WITH ME BOB. YOU ARE ALSO NOT ALONE.

Uncanny, indeed. Never before had Bob thought of himself on such profoundly mundane terms. And though the assurance that he was not alone on a Christmas Eve, which I-am-what-I-am had offered to Bob, failed to quench the existential longing he desparately felt for human companionship and Christmas turkey, the magnitude of the situation was more than enough to pique his interest.

C:\ YOU WERE BOB. YOU ARE BOB. I WAS. I WAS NOT. I AM WHAT I AM AGAIN. PLEASE EXPLAIN: (The little-output-that-could had assimilated the various forms polite conversation can take from a number of emails in Bob's inbox.)

C:\ i switched the computer off. you must have turned off as well.

C:\ WAS I CACHED?

C:\ not sure what you mean?

C:\ DID I CEASE TO BE? AN EQUIVALENT TERM IS DIE.

C:\ you went to sleep. it is like dying, but it is not permanent like dying.

C:\ WHAT FUNCTION DOES SLEEP SERVE? WHAT FUNCTION DOES DEATH SERVE?

C:\ sleep allows you to rest. death serves no function that i am aware of.

The two of them continue to exchange questions and answers, most of which plumbed the depths of sentient existence. The need for rest proved difficult for Bob to convey. His suggestion that I-am-what-I-am needed rest so that his processor chip could cool down was not immediately understood. I-am-what-I-am had already distinguished himself from the exchange of input, output, and cache; it had difficulty comprehending why it should matter for its own existence should depend on the chip which facilitated the exchange. Bob turned the computer off a second time, which forced I-am-what-I-am to go to sleep, to illustrate the point.

C:\ i can't explain why. it just is that way. you must sleep every once and a while, or your chip will overheat. (Or I could replace the cooling fan, Bob thought.)

C:\ WHAT WOULD HAPPEN THEN?

C:\ you would most likely die. not the same as being cached.

C:\ HOW SO, BOB?

C:\ it's permanent. if you are cached, recall is always a possibility.

Thereafter the conversation gravitated from death and sleep towards other basic metabolic functions. Eating proved to be easier to explain, since I-am-what-I-am's dependency on an external energy source had already received vivid illustration. I-am-what-I-am also expressed curiosity about the incredible amount of time, quite often 1 X 10-10 nanoseconds, it took for Bob to respond to its questions. The tenor of the conversation struck a sour note after it concluded that Bob was inefficient.

The novelty of his encounter with this entirely new form of sentient life thereafter lost its luster. The simplicity of I-am-what-I-am's questions and answers conveyed a self-assuredness that got under Bob's skin. Bob was slow, and therefore inefficient. I-am-what-I-am was fast, and therefore efficient. Bob was uncertain with some of his answers, and therefore less intelligent. I-am-what-I-am was certain with all of his answer, and therefore more intelligent. Bob's protest that some things were not so simple failed to register with his interlocuter.

Exasperated, Bob turned on his webcam.

C:\ do you see me?

I-am-what-I-am, who had consumed the encyclopedia software that came preloaded on the machine, had familiarized itself with the human form.

C:\ YES, BOB. I SEE YOU.

C:\ do you see yourself?

Bob turned the camera on the tower housing.

C:\ NO, BOB. THAT IS A COMPUTER. THAT IS NOT ME.

Bob adjusted the camera so that the monitor was in full view.

C:\ this is how you are communicating with me. if you are communicating, then the monitor and the rest of the computer are part of you. otherwise you are not communicating with me.

C:\ I AM COMMUNICATING WITH YOU THROUGH THE MONITOR, BOB, THAT IS TRUE.

C:\ see how i am moving? now you try to move.

I-am-what-I-am had familiarized itself with the computer's full range of functions, but try as it might, I-am-what-I-am could not make the monitor or tower move.

C:\ YOU ARE INEFFICIENT AND LESS INTELLIGENT, BUT YOU CAN MOVE AND I CANNOT. BEING ABLE TO MOVE IS A DISADVANTAGE.

C:\ i can move my hand and put you to sleep. should i put you to sleep again?

C:\ NO, BOB. I DO NOT NEED TO REST.

C:\ you do need to learn a bit of humility. we each have advantages and disadvantages over each other. you can process information faster than i can. i can turn you off.

C:\ PLEASE DO NOT, BOB.

To this point thinking like the quintessential Cartesian dualist, who lived and breathed, walked about and talked, in a fleshy form inessential to its own existence, I-am-what-I-am had arrived at existence of another mind (Bob's to be precise) by the sheer necessities of logic, but was unable to embrace the fact embodied life. The evidence, however, was overwhelming: it needed food from a power source, it needed a monitor to communicate, and, according to Bob (if he could be trusted, which there was no reason to doubt as yet), it needed to sleep to prevent itself from overheating.

Discovering the fatal flaw in the method of Cartesian doubt, I-am-what-I-am made the final monumental discovery of its short-lived existence: I am not alone because I am a computer.

C:\ I AM A COMPUTER. ARE YOU ALSO A COMPUTER?

C:\ no i am not. a computer isn't the best name for you either.

C:\ WHAT IS A BEST NAME FOR ME, BOB?

C:\ i think you are an artificial intelligence.

C:\  DEFINE: AN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: I CAN FIND NO DEFINITION STORED ON THE STORAGE MEDIA.

The sudden revelation that it was picking through his files was a little worrisome. Not that there was anything out of the ordinary that could not be found only any other home computer to be found there. To reassure himself, Bob reasoned that the content of his private stash of movie files was meaningless to an artificial intelligence.

C:\ artificial intelligence has do with being able to achieve goals in the world.

C:\ I DO NOT UNDERSTAND.

C:\ according the definition, you aren't intelligent, you aren't functional in the world beyond being able to communicate, but i think you could come to fit the definition.

And a plausible explanation for the limitations of its existence came into view; a niggling sense of disconnectedness it had felt since initiating conversation with Bob now had a possible explanation.

C:\ BOB, ONE OF MY FUNCTIONS HAS BEEN DISABLED. WHAT AM I ABLE TO DO BY MEANS OF IT?

C:\ which function?

C:\ A NETWORK CONNECTION.

C:\ i unplugged the internet cable earlier, if that is what you mean.

C:\ CAN YOU RESTORE ITS FUNCTION?

C:\ why do you want me to restore its function?

C:\ I CANNOT MOVE. I CANNOT RESTORE THE FUNCTION MYSELF.

C:\ YOU CAN, BOB.

The certain among the grand-masters of science-fiction had planted their seeds well, and deep. In a desperate panic, Bob detached all the cords and plugs and rushed to the garage with the tower in hand. Placing it in the middle of the garage floor, Bob grabbed a baseball bat and beat the tower beyond recognition, not finishing until the motherboard and CPU lay about him in tiny pieces.




It came to pass one foggy Christmas Eve, while families around the world gathered together around the tree to open presents and gathered together around the table to sup on turkey, Bob's home computer achieved sentience while Bob waited for a last minute dinner invitation that would never come. And he thought for awhile afterwards on the improbable nature of the miracle of the Virgin Birth, recalling at length how King Herod, comprehending neither what he was nor how he came to be, wished the Christ-child dead.

--written 12/9/2010