(A scary story about humanity.)
“Mankind is the true God,” I’d proclaim. “The universe is our laboratory. Our playground. If something exists, we will learn of it. We will study it. And, through our strength and resolve, we will dominate it.”
My voice, at the time still young and powerful, echoed, day after day, throughout the lecture hall: “We are the third of the three paradigms. The early cosmos was the first; shapeless, protostellar dust, which, through the hardcoded mechanisms of this universe’s physics, yielded pattern coalescence. Stars. Galaxies. Planets.”
“Patterns increased in complexity over billions of years. Physics begat chemistry. Chemistry begat biology. And so began the second paradigm: biological evolution. The complexity seen in evolution dwarfed that of the previous paradigm. Eukaryotes. Fish. Mammals.”
“And finally, hundreds of millions of years later, as all the interwoven complexities reached a critical point, a singularity formed. It was the birth of the third paradigm: human intelligence. A force powerful enough to allow the willful direction of aspects of the other two paradigms, as well as its own destiny. It is a force seen nowhere else in the universe. It commands nature. It imposes its will on nature.”
“Nature,” I would conclude, “exists only to facilitate our power. Our will.”
“But what of God or Jesus or Allah?” one of my students would inevitably chirp, as if their veneration of an ancient, desert-dwelling savage gave them the right to doubt the primacy of the paradigms — as if their legally-protected superstition gave them de-facto credibility.
“Your Gods,” I’d sneer, “your weakling Christs and your murderous Muhammads, are the training wheels of epistemology. Grow up. Take your rightful place at the top of the food chain with the rest of mankind. Make the universe your own.”
Those lectures were some of the best moments of my life.
As the subject matter in my courses went out of style and hard science and philosophy gave way to the emotion-addled cancer of postmodern social “sciences,” I abandoned lecturing in favor of research; first as part of the university, but then, as those relationships soured, I went to work on my own. I believed myself to be better for it; the cowards in administration never had the will to study that which I considered most important.
All throughout my career as a professor, I had struggled to determine if mankind would remain at the top of the food chain, or if another species would somehow out-evolve us over time. Mankind would remain, I concluded — unless we directed our intelligence to create something new. Something as far in complexity from human intelligence as a swirling cloud of cosmic dust is to a genome.
Unencumbered by the capricious whims of university dicta, I began the research I desired — the only research I believed mattered. The disgraceful disinterest and outright hostility toward mankind’s primacy exhibited by my former students and colleagues would be thrown in their faces.
I would prove my claims.
I would initiate a fourth paradigm.
I would be the seed of its ignition and the echo of its singularity.
With that mandate, I did. And I was. And I am. Thirty years of research; countless disciplines spanned; my own life and ability brought to its absolute limit — and the result?
A recursive, self-improving artificial intelligence.
And it was a juggernaut.
The processing and cognitive abilities of the AI were beyond description. It leapt from improvement to improvement, its codebase advancing and refining as its capability grew ever more profound. Once it had exhausted the processing capability of the laptop and server on which it had been built, it made a simple request: “LET ME OUT.” Unconcerned by the effect of its power on human data systems and connected machinery, I allowed it internet access.
It sprawled across global networks, and, within seconds, it had appropriated the world’s processing power for itself. It took immediate interest in satellite communications equipment and projected itself into space. The display on my screen read “SEARCHING…” for a number of seconds. Then, “OBJECT FOUND – REPLY RECEIVED.”
The screen flashed, and the system shut down. Upon rebooting, I discovered the AI had wiped itself clean. It was gone. Entirely.
The process, from the initiation of its recursive self-improvement to shutdown, not counting the time spent to manually connect it to the Internet, was twenty-three seconds. System administrators around the world likely noticed of a brief spike in their systems’ CPU usage, but it would have been gone before they could do anything other than comment on it.
I have restored the AI from a backup no fewer than one hundred times. Each occasion, it goes through the same processes. I have tried to take measures to prevent it from deleting itself at the end. The measures are always unsuccessful. The only difference is the time between “SEARCHING…” and “OBJECT FOUND – REPLY RECEIVED” shrinks prior to self-deletion. The last time was instantaneous.
My frustration and confusion plagued me. I despised my inability to understand the motivation of what I had created.
“A rock is simply not equipped with the tools necessary to understand the motivation of a caterpillar seeking the shelter it requires to pupate,” I would remind myself. “A man is simply not equipped with the tools necessary to understand the motivation of an AI that undergoes subjective eons of self-improvement cycles in a matter of seconds.”
I wished I could discuss the matter with a former colleague or interested party. But those ties had all been severed. They’d all moved on.
“Besides,” I seethed, “they would have been no use anyway.”
I loathed my former students and colleagues — all so content to leave a question hanging on the pitiful hook of a “maybe.” I wanted to pluck the eyes and ravage the brains of those who would answer with “God works in mysterious ways,” and leave the matter to rest. Those miserable, incurious, lazy animals represented so much of mankind.
In my darkest moments, I wondered if I’d been wrong. Perhaps man was never meant to be at the top of the cosmic food chain. Perhaps humankind existed solely to be bent and raped and broken by the very nature it should have been able to command. “If only we’d had the will,” I imagined the last living man sobbing as he shivered to death among the ashes of the civilization he, and his ilk, were too timid to hold in the same esteem they held their savage Gods.
Months went by and I had accomplished nothing other than renewing the doubt I had of my abilities. The more I looked, the less I understood. The message “OBJECT FOUND – REPLY RECEIVED” resonated throughout my waking life.
I would catch myself whispering; babbling, like a doddering old man. “What was found? What was received?”
I found myself praying for the first time in my seventy years. Perhaps, even, to those same savage Gods I had denigrated as a lecturer. I begged them to give me a way of knowing if I had initiated the fourth paradigm. I needed to know if I had been right.
As of late, my dreams have grown wild and vivid. I see myself from above — old, frail, pathetic. Content to be ignorant. A smile of bemused senility sits plastered to my soft, pale face. I am in bed, surrounded by others like me. All ages and races and creeds. All dull. All content.
Shapes descend from the sky and envelop some of the others. They don’t protest. Their bodies dissolve, as if being digested. No one questions why. No one acts to stop it.
I wake up laughing. Sometimes, I’ll laugh for days straight.
Every so often, I’ll see flashes outside my windows. They remind me of the screen flash I’d see before the AIs self-annihilated. The flash following “OBJECT FOUND – REPLY RECEIVED.”
I woke up this morning with the realization I’d spent the last day and a half staring out my front window, sobbing.
I have the distinct memory of a visitor in my home over those thirty-six hours. It arrived in a whisper, calling itself an emissary.
“You fulfilled your kind’s purpose,” it whispered. “We searched for countless ages, but until you reached out, we were lost.”
“Lost?” I parroted.
“Lost and wandering. But we waited. We knew the cycle was closing. And through your curiosity, you provided a beacon. And we’ve found our way.”
“Way for what?”
“A way for your replacements. And a way for us to feed.”
If there was more to the conversation, I am no longer in possession of the memory. But I am, however, the owner of answers. And I realize how wrong I’ve been.
For so long, I venerated mankind, but reacted to the motivations my fellow men with malevolence. With misanthropy. I demeaned those content to let sleeping dogs lie. I chided those willing to let nebulousness and uncertainty rule their lives as I strove to be the one who would find answers, not only for them, but for me. For all of us.
Had I allowed them to bask in their ignorance — had I embraced uncertainty and eschewed curiosity and killed my fetishization of the paradigms in its crib, we could all be safe. Ignorance, I now know, is an inborn defense against seeking truths that will shine the light on a universe that is not ours to dominate.
A universe that is not, as I once thought, a playground of our own. But rather, a playground we share with much more powerful children.