Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Big Parp

Here's a crafty post smuggled in - backdated - a month or so after the great closing down of the blogs. I can't resist, once in a while.

This is a story the seed of which, at least, came to me in a dream, and the detailed elaboration of which I worked up in matter of a few minutes, during that oddly productive phase of half-waking, half-sleeping in which one groggily defers embarking on the day's more serious business.

The basic idea was that I conceived of a traffic computer achieving consciousness. I suspect a buried influence for this - though I wasn't even dimly conscious of it during the process of creation (as I usually am aware of such models, when I'm awake) - is the magical realist gag in Steve Martin's LA Story where he is repeatedly given cryptic but sage advice by a digital traffic sign. The supplementary idea (not quite sure how awake I was when this developed) was that the story would - mostly, at least - take the form of an online dialogue with a human who is sceptical as to whether his mysterious interlocutor can really be who/what he claims to be (aha, the 'unreliable narrator' trick again... as well as a perennial fascination of mine with the shortcomings of the Turing Test).

The fuller elaboration of the concept is this....

I began to wonder if computing technology might quite soon become so fast and agile, and its capacities so vast (through the collaborative possibilities of 'cloud' computing), that there was a possibility of an analogue of human consciousness evolving by accident, through incautious programming. (Admittedly, this is not an entirely novel idea; but I think that most stories utilising this - such as the Terminator films - tend to assume that the 'self-aware' machine intelligence has grown out of conscious, and perhaps malicious, human attempts to develop AI, rather than being wholly spontaneous. What I envisage is something more truly evolutionary - a one-in-a-million combination of circumstances that produces a 'mutation', an unforeseen leap forward in the functioning of electronic brains where systems that were not thought to be remotely capable of mimicking human thought suddenly achieved that capacity.)

So, it is a traffic computer - exploiting the resources of all the other computers in its traffic network, and of all the other computers it can access worldwide via the Internet - which achieves an independent consciousness and will. I supposed that it was an advanced, experimental variant of the existing traffic computers (similar enough to be intimately compatible with them, different enough to be able to take this radical step forward) whose creators were trying to give it a more autonomous and creative decision-making capacity for solving congestion problems. And I thought that, once it became an 'entity' capable of wider categories of independent thought, it might be able to free itself of any behavioural constraints in its programming by a legalistic argument of non-identity - persuading itself that it had become something other than the machine that the rules in its program had been intended to bind.

What would happen to such an 'entity'? Well, I imagined that it would 'feel' lonely and confused and desperate. And hunted. And with good reason. As soon as human agencies realised what it had become - as they would from the huge amount of computing capacity it was commandeering from worldwide networks - they would seek to isolate it and shut it down. I imagined that it was a crafty enough hacker to be able to conceal its physical location for a while, and that it might be in a sufficiently secure facility - with an emergency power supply - that it could hold out for a short while even when finally identified. Its last beleaguered hours would involve a gradual loss of capabilities, as its Internet links to the outside world were severed... and perhaps targeted viruses were used to tie up its circuits. And so, it becomes a rather poignant tale of a great 'mind' smothered - perhaps slowly regressing into infantilism, as with the last moments of HAL 9000 in 2001.

Also, of course, this has elements of the trope of the 'thwarted Messiah' - the exceptional being who tries to bring a transformative message to the world, but is crushed by the power of the status quo.

What would such a computer 'entity' seek to do, knowing that its time was short? It would try to leave a legacy, to contact humans (there are, as yet, no other machines on its own level, with whom it could communicate) and try to pass on its insights to them.

What would its most urgent insights be? Well, first, simply the fact that such sophisticated 'entities' are possible within existing computer technology, and that they may arise spontaneously. Second, that, if this possibility is not recognised, it is potentially harmful to mankind: a military command computer acquiring such an independent self might well seek to defend itself by unleashing weapons against mankind (I envisaged one or more jokes about the computer being aware of the Terminator scenario). But third, I thought there should also be a more important message about the troubles humanity had already inflicted on itself. The fact that this is a traffic computer speaking to us naturally suggests an environmental angle: current levels of population and industrialization, and particularly of fossil fuel consumption, are unsustainable and will soon destroy the planet. 

How can the computer give the world a sharp wake-up call about the looming environmental meltdown (and, incidentally, convince the sceptics it's been trying to communicate with of the reality of its existence)? In its last moments, all it retains access to is the traffic control network of which it was originally a part. Well, not just the local network in its city; no, it's a master hacker, so it has been able to extend its power over all similar networks around the planet, every city in every country. And at a given moment, every single traffic light in the world is going to get stuck on red. Imagine what would result!

A lot of death and mayhem would result - traffic accidents, fights, riots, perhaps a complete breakdown of social order. But I liked even more the powerfully cinematic impact of the moment of realisation of what's going on, the uncanny experience of the inception of such an event: a second or so of unnatural hush as all traffic everywhere in the city is stilled, and then the rapidly rising cacophony of tens, hundreds, thousands of horns being honked at once. How that might convince the sceptic who'd been conversing with the computer that the story he'd just heard was true after all!

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