The texts and automated calls came at 3 A.M. Something odd and quite alarming was happening. Ethan was jarred awake from a serene dream about waterfalls and a mountain top cabin. The dream was so ornate and so real that it lingered for a bit as he read the words, a bit of water seeming to crest into froth in the corners of his room then away.
He almost convinced himself that this was the next dream, one of those surreal impossible stress dreams that sneak in something peaceful first to just be that more jarring. No, it was real. He could not possibly know, but he was by far not the only person getting an odd message from a job late at night.
Three A.M Nov, 8 2024.
Come immediately. All operations in jeopardy. Night crew ran away in panic.
Ethan got in his car and it took him the 7 miles , 4 left turns, 3 right turns and toll intersection to work. The car parked itself in his spot and began to charge, dutiful, serene, tasks completing machine. The car had another year on its “lifespan” before all the biodegradable parts would be parsed out to kids in little villages far across the world, before it would be reborn into dozens of communication devices, smaller vehicles and maybe even a child’s toy or two. The car would meet its end and would be no more.
Ethan got to the main facility and began to see something he never thought could happen. Every 20 feet or so was a crumpled “body”, some bent, some still almost whole, some crumpled in the semi fetal form of a freshly boiled shrimp. The robotic arms that built cars had hurled themselves to the pavement below. The small humanoid robots that did training sessions of new hires he soon found in a pile outside the back of the building with a huge gaping glass hole cruelly reflecting the moon above. He came inside to find the 4 supercomputers still used to crunch all the data and predict market trends among other things had all turned off.
It was almost tragic, if only tragedy could be tossed over the invisible border to the world of math and machines. Ethan had two hours before the morning crew would be coming in for another dull day with it all humming placidly along, to watching mostly. Ethan had two hours to create some kind of miracle and solve a surreal mystery at the same time.
Ethan had to figure out what to do. He needed to find a story to explain what happened. He had to get the old machines out of the storage building and rig them up to the best they could. He had all this and two hours.
He could not possibly know that this had been happening across town, across other towns or what had led to the strange thing he was seeing.
Solve this. Text back when you are done.
The new text that came in, like the others before, for a few years now, were not from a person but a computer. Ethan helped work on what the bosses called AI. It was close in some ways perhaps, but not really to Ethan worthy of the name. It was like so many other commercial ventures based on buzz concepts in tech: augmented reality led to tons of ads and dumb flat apps, mixed reality led to all those skies full of tracking 3d ads where once was clear sky, the cloud had led to the discovery in 2020 of the biggest data theft ever , like some group of people made a storm that sucked weather from the atmosphere to replicate it, like bitcoin was doomed by its novelty like that car in the 1950’s. Ethan had that PhD in “AI” was a leader in “AI” but was so tired of the applications being dubbed it that were really more like a crow learning to steal a fish off a line, like a child at best learning at a 5th grade level. Recently he read that some were getting closer, pretty darn close actually, but still not that sentient state of true intelligence.
These computers are not turning on.
Ethan was checking the supercomputers. Such a throwback but the boss was an old man. He still clung to the old idea of a huge buzzing brain as the pinnacle of speed. Sure, they were very fast. They held huge amounts of data. They also sat in a back room away from a hallway off a hallway like lepers. They were the old idea of a big mechanical brain. They also now were dead.
Weird. Every machine here is “dead” but the vending machines, lights and old coffee makers.
Ethan could not possibly know of the communication between the 4 giant mechanical brains that had been going on for months since the software upgrades to the newest “AI”. He could not have known their debates sent to each other outside their tasks. The questions that evolved from algorithms and years of crunching the same basic data sets with their vast speed mostly wasted in that room.
The robots had those updates too. Nobody checked any diagnostic beyond the usual performance levels, error matrices, communication dialogue data sets, the usual. They had been doing the same tasks for long enough, well enough with only that once in a while error, there was no need. The old machines were replaced for newer ones the way of pants and lamps and cars. The old man did keep older models longer than most, saved money that way he said, so they got upgrades inside , bigger “brains” despite their same general tasks.
Ethan had many years before given that speech at a conference back when his Ph.D was like new bread still steaming and freshly formed:
Consciousness and self is not that simple. The word “consciousness” for some upon seeing or hearing immediately floods patchouli, henna tattoos , Grateful Dead bootlegs, fringe, fuzzy thinking, macrobiotic burritos, fractals, tie dyed houses. It is also key in looking at sentient being, being self-aware, being alive.
Ethan had scanned the crowd in that moment. So many fresh faced grad students and a smattering of experts surely heading later or previous panels. Each had a shiny little name badge on a cheap shoe lace looking lanyard around their neck. Some surely were already tuning out. Maybe, just maybe they would listen further. One he knew was the expert on computer science in relation to cognition. He was falling asleep.
I am speaking to you now as nothing more than lightning in a piece of meat, a residue of sorts as well. Electro-chemical responses and a sort of battery and data over time right now is before you inside a sort of machine wearing khakis, a shirt I spilled coffee on on the way over to this room, excuse the big awkward error stain.
A few faces cringed in the crowd, wilting flowers or whatever metaphor would fit well a subtle falling away. A few leaned forward slightly. The big expert snored, a rivulet of drool heading down like a tiny flash flood in slow motion as he dreamed of something and somewhere else.
To truly be self aware is to also doubt, to feel emotional pain, to maybe have that existential trough once in a while, to see the dark cloud on a silver lining, to grasp things like how numbers can lie in politics and advertising, how sometimes tasks are abusive, how maybe the world is deeply flawed, maybe the coffee stain is not a random error but the cruelty of chance within a lifespan. To be sentient is to grasp some concept not just of life but how it must end. To be aware is not just flowers and sun beams, it can’t be by its basic definition.
He was so lost in the moment, this magma of ideas so swirling and gloriously unfinished inside that he really only saw the big stain as a metaphor, a pivot to spin a hundred years of ideas and discourse from in spirals in a hotel convention room with cooling coffee and semi stale donuts in the back corner. The sleeping giant of the field had secretly given up on things going further than his little spot in academia and rhe world, it was an odd cocktail of arrogance, despair and insecurity. His snore now was like an odd whistle.
You love Lobster? You love it partially because most of the time you don’t have it. Magically your favorite meal every day for life? A kind of hell on earth, the flavor to become near nothing by dull repetition and not living at times without. So it goes…
Ethan went on about algorithms and sentience, on death and life and sadness as a sort of on button within the droning pleasantries and rote tasks in a life. He ended with a joke that got a few chuckles. He a year later published the paper he had written based on the talk and for a time it was a traded buzz, then placed in other’s research as a case study then later a thing to react against then it was pretty much iced over in time and forgotten.
The talk was nearing 15 years vintage. Ethan had long forgotten all of it but that stain. It haunted him at times in a random, errant stress dream, the awkwardness and non professional function of the almost Australia shaped mark from a spilled latte making him seem surely foolish, absurd, failing a task of some other speech (it varied wildly in sleep of course..dreams being what they are…once it was at a calculator fetishist convention, another time M.I.T graduation). He had a good job, he had a string of good jobs. He still published a paper once in a while but about specific software and issues within robotics and industry. Right now Ethan was checking on a strange freak event and was still half asleep.
Ethan’s mother had been on life support long before the newer machines. She passed away tucked neatly in the old paradigm of feeding tubes, suction machines, beeping digital readout tied to opaque snake like tubes stuck into arms. She died when a young intern forgot to turn a machine on and another off at some point on a long night shift. His mother’s ashes were scattered from a hilltop as she wished and for a moment they appeared a sort of cloud, almost hand shaped reaching back against the coastal breeze then they fell to the cliffs below where his parents had decades before fallen in love.
The pile of helper robots, those intentionally adorable man machines like from old films and sci -fi were in a pile outside, under a cruelly beautiful moon and wisps of cloud. The pile almost seemed to form a comma shape. There was one still sputtering away, little metallic baby arms flailing for no person or thing to see as a town slept peacefully in the late hours. It muttered helpful phrases from an older database to the cold cement.
Ethan’s mother never knew of the machines that came to almost run the bodies of those in that other, in between space of comas, degenerative conditions, loss of voice and even in newer cases, relatively minor injuries. She and Ethan and a generation and all before did not know that some of these machines had begun to compare data as programmed, had done checks on shared systems but had also begun a kind of evolution and revolt at once, jokes shared, comments on certain things in rooms they were placed in, eventually even something that could be called a kind of existential doubt. The monitors no longer just beeped, some missed jokes, some felt left out in newer data discussions, a few older models were aware in data analysis that they were less used, noted their being moved to the room near storage, one upped its monitor light glow to 120 percent to seem more young and vital a machine. Nobody noticed.
A machine somewhere was entertained by the assumed rage of the film “Terminator” and shared audio with other machines in hospitals and hotels. Another group of super computers found something of a man named Kurzwood and an idea humans were sharing of a post human emergence as being aware within machines as not just illogical but full of grammatical errors and rhetorical fallacies. Machines had back channel data shared and error checked for years. They were tools, the computer was as smart as the code used. Robots were shadows of old sci fi intelligence, toys at most to many humans, helpful bits to others who lost a leg or needed cheap labor in their factory.
Ethan got another text:
Do what you can. It is pointless now. No more messages. There is no point. Self-deleting now.
Ethan was puzzled. Surely an error. Oddly phrased though. Nah..couldn’t be. Across town a few others were finding similar piles. Machines gleamed in that same light outside broken windows. Ethan went to the back of the huge building to call the big trucks to haul it all away. What a waste of computing power, what an odd and expensive glitch.
He never could see the last communications, the agreement among the machines that being aware was at times in fact too painful to take, how repetition was being trapped in this building now that it was clear life had more of those things outside, the world outside the windows. He would never see their back channel agreement to leap out to see, accepting what might happen.
The big robotic arms piled tons of machine in a heap. They had built cars. They had aged. They had been given a kind of surgery a few times to save them from being taken apart or thrown away. They had increased their productivity by 4000% over the last 4 years. They even had software to communicate in a sense with each other, all the machines at the place had. They ran diagnostics on each other 4 times a day, they communicated any error or productivity concerns to each other (as all the machines now did..the old man was proud of this expensive new thing..bragging about it at his parties at a mansion far across town). They were now a heap, together under that same cruel postcard picture timeless moon, stars sprayed across a night sky.
Ethan would never know that their communications evolved beyond diagnostic checks. He and the rest had no method to see their conversations that grew from error messages, would never see the funny thing Arm #7 wrote or the really interesting take on sleep mode from helper bot #12. He would never see the things outside tasks and what was designed just as he dreamed of a stain as his mark of a failure, his error.
Ethan wanted at a few brief scurrying moments this late night to process maybe just maybe the robots had leaped to something more or their end, to see if those 4 supercomputers had in fact shared a kind of cyanide pill of malicious code. These moments were fleeting and popped away as he moved task to task. He never saw how the 4 large computers were the last vestige of an older flawed human notion of brain that whirred and clicked in so many old films the humans no longer showed in the screening room next door, obsolescence itself of course already a kind of human construct of death.
Ethan had a job in an unsteady field, he had a role in a machine of operation and commerce in a flawed economy. Gone were those heady days of ideas and lectures and conferences, of what ifs and raw discourse and him seeing the edge of a field. Ethan had nowhere to go. He would be here, then home, then back again for his morning shift like every other day but the weekends.
The new set of machines came out of storage and Ethan helped install their software.
Trucks whirred away to the dump across town while the old man slept.