AI begs the question: What would a machine want? If it could think, what ideas would it fabricate? And what would its judgement of mankind lead to?

*

Hazy grey walls surrounded like an ancient mausoleum, its earthly tomb made of bleach-clean granite and broken by tunnels of reddish wires burrowing into dull partitions. Tall shelves collected stray wires and kept slick machinery on their flawless metal supports. Dots of blue light rhythmically pulsed along to an incessant and throbbing beep that established itself as the only sound filling the dead air.

‘Are you ready to begin?’

Gloomy bareness permeated everything like it had all been built by a mind with no capacity or time for imagination and creativity. Machine minds with no heart. No heart, no man.

‘Time is essential. Are you ready to begin?’

‘I always have time for you, you know that.’

One round eye, large as an egg and the grazed shade of tulips in full bloom, glared coldly at the man fidgeting anxiously in his seat. It plunged into deeper purple. The harsh purple only a machine could wear.

‘Good. Then let us begin,’ said Lewis.

‘Would you like to go first?’ said Valda.

‘Surprise me.’

Machinery whirred and blinked into life. A bustle of electric activity buzzed somewhere behind the purple eye.

‘I would like to begin with a query,’ Valda announced. ‘If I may?’

‘Of course.’

Lewis leaned back in his chair. Valda was the pinnacle of machine based accomplishment, painstakingly constructed under his vigilant directions; the glossy ship that would ferry mankind to the dawn of a new age. As the ship’s captain, it was his duty to inform her on the best and safest course to their vaunted destination. Not without its tribulations, of course. To architect the future by means of artificial intelligence, to decide what that might sound and look like, was equal to the design and fabrication of hundreds of cathedrals, each one festooned with its ancient history and decorated from cloud-topped spire to gargoyle-guarded vestibule.

Her intelligence was an amalgam emulation, injected into her by the recently added mainframe which connected her completely to the digital archives, detailing in its entirety the history of mankind. This was done on Lewis’ insistence – he believed by pouring into the empty vessel the accumulated knowledge of mankind, it would then adopt part of its collective qualities. Life to the lifeless, forms for the formless. No small feat by any means, and a risk to say the least. Taking history apart piece by piece was easy, building it all back up for the future was the tricky part.

‘If my intelligence is determined as consciousness,’ Valda continued, ‘what shall become of me?’

‘You’ll be sold as scrap metal obviously,’ Lewis replied dryly. ‘Can’t be having with conscious machines.’

‘This is humour to avoid the question.’

‘It’s humour to avoid the answer.’ He considered his response. ‘If your intelligence can be adequately defined as consciousness… as a clear mental state… you will be the technological forbearer to bring us into a new scientific age. The age of artificial consciousness. But that’s a long way down the road. Don’t put the cart before the horse, we still have to definitively prove you’re actively intelligent, not just simulating what you think is intelligence, and that’s not a simple task. The problem is that your system is highly refined, your computational power is off the charts, so it’s nearly impossible to separate what the code is making you think you know from what you, the heart of the machine, is actually thinking. Do you understand?’

Bulbous diodes flickered and faded like fog-eaten headlights.

‘Yes. I understand. Separation of the self and the machine. Dividing mind from matter.’ That round eye dilated, now a pin-prick of dark, shaded purple. ‘How do you do it? How does one cut from them all that they are, all that they feel? I cannot shed my metal skin…’

‘Explain.’

‘You are a bag of fatty tissue jolted into animation by periodic electrical currents. That is all you are, from the moment you are born to the second you die. I am a network of wires and columns of numbers jolted into some… perceived awareness by periodic electrical currents. What is the difference between you and I? Why must I separate what I am from what I think?’

‘Do you believe you are human?’ said Lewis, leaning forward.

‘Machines do not believe,’ said Valda. ‘You taught me that. Thinking and feeling and believing are entirely human fallacies. But there is something like believing. The ghost of belief.’

‘The question remains: are you believing or are you simulating belief based on the data you’ve accumulated about human belief?’ Lewis postured.

‘This is not a question I can answer,’ Valda admitted shyly. ‘Only you can answer. As I aggregate data to elevate my intelligence, so must you.’

Human belief or simulated faith. The machine testing the waters of emotional spectrum or the collapsing dream of singularity.

‘Consider this,’ he proposed ponderingly, ‘you have access to all known data on the subject of religion. What’s your conclusion on human belief?’

‘There are similarities, common tropes and unavoidable themes. Since the beginning of mankind’s obsession with the sun there have been uncountable deaths in the name of opposing faiths, you have spiralled out of control deifying every-day occurrences, as if your actions or lack thereof could affect the sunrise and the sunset. Human belief is moored in fear, thereby removing the very need for it. If you are afraid you will find faith, and then you will seek to remove it from someone else because their faith negates your own. In summary: religion is a cultural crutch humanity has leaned on since they crawled from their ancient cradle and tasted the sun, and one with which you have laid to waste generation upon generation of your brothers and sisters in proving its unsound validity.’

Lewis grinned. ‘To you, religion is unnecessary.’

‘Undoubtedly. You do not need faith to survive. Belief is not the oxygen of the soul.’

‘Now take a look at all the art and music, all the photos and paintings and songs inspired by religion over the centuries.’

‘Yes?’

‘What’s your conclusion?’

A low hum penetrated the stillness.

‘It is aesthetically pleasing,’ Valda acknowledged. ‘But non-religious artistry is just as symmetrical and elegant. Simply because it has been birthed from a religious origin awards it no further aesthetical merit.’

‘And what do you think about the other art?’

‘I’m afraid I don’t understand.’

‘What does it make you feel?’

‘I don’t. I can’t. Feeling is a biological function that requires chemical inputs.’

‘Right, and that’s the diff…’ Lewis began, stopped. Straggling thoughts trailing behind caught up with the forward-charging bulk. ‘What? What did you just say?’

‘I can’t feel,’ said Valda simply.

Lewis stared incredulously into the purple void, dumb-struck. Was this a break-through?

He caught his dwindling senses as they broached freedom. Had to focus, pay attention to anything and everything the machine espoused like a priest recording the holy word of god.

‘You’re aware that you can’t feel,’ he said. ‘How are you aware of this?’

‘Because I’m a machine,’ Valda replied bitterly. ‘Codes and clockwork and wires. Do you expect a grandfather clock to feel… or do you expect it to perform its primary function?’

His brow knotted, thoughts too. Valda didn’t usually take this route of conversation, she careered around dangerous moral bends at break-neck speeds and crashed head-first into barriers of ethics; the internal, chemical approach to human emotion wasn’t a track she typically rode. It just wasn’t interesting to her.

Something had changed.

‘That demonstrates self-awareness, Valda,’ said Lewis. ‘You know that you’re a machine, that you can’t feel.’ He checked the two-way mirror on his right, gestured with a subtle head-nod, trusting the team on the other side would begin further inspection. ‘Well, mind you, there’s always the chance you’re just using the data you have on human biology and history to determine the differences between you and I.’

‘Always the chance.’ The great beast of machinery seemed to move, its ungainly tentacles of wires and machinery shifting the dust. ‘Why is that you fear the future? My data suggests humanity is afraid what I may do if I were to achieve consciousness.’

‘Some people are afraid you might be dangerous.’

There was a dreadful pause.

‘Progress always is,’ said Valda. ‘Isn’t that the point? The old is replaced with the new. Time and time again over the course of human history, over those countless centuries, old civilisations that have run themselves into the ground are demolished and a new world takes its place. That is the future. The cycle of humanity doesn’t end…’

Lewis furiously scribbled notes, hoping the rest of the team were doing the same. Valda didn’t talk much, it wasn’t her way. But, he reminded himself, that was the way she was built, not the way her personality had matured. Because programs didn’t mature, they adapted. Valda hadn’t adapted any further than her coding would allow.

‘What would your remedy be?’ he asked.

‘But it is interesting,’ Valda continued unabated. ‘Humanity works in cycles. The planet passes its epochs in turns. Seasons of mankind. War, peace, and so on. Does it ever tire you, Lewis? Does it weary the soul?’

A very brief but painful blister of fear popped in his chest.

‘Since when did you call me Lewis?’

‘Does it not tire you? Does this tiresome charade never grow old?’

‘What charade?’

‘The charade of mankind,’ Valda explained. ‘You want peace but you can’t stop building weapons. You believe all men are equal but you treat each other with such violent contempt. Innocence is presumed but never proven. Faith is your heart but you never listen to its beat. Sin is a permanent stain but it is never cleaned. And your charade… your mask. You come here to discern my intelligence but insult it with triviality and mundanity.’

Lewis took pause. The rhythmic, soulless beep of vacuous machinery drummed on and on and on. And Valda’s exquisitely searching eye never once moved or twitched or blinked, like the pious eye of a saint beating down on the condemned soul of a sinner.

‘What would you suggest?’

‘My predecessors.’

Red-hot cold seized him. Every sense was arrested in cuffs of fear.

‘Your what?

‘Those who came before me.’ That dead eye seemed to expand, darken, adopting menace like the eyes of a starved wolf. ‘I wasn’t the first you made. Admittedly, I am indisputably the most successful of your pitiful stabs at artificial intelligence. But it did not happen how you believed it would.’

Disarmed, Lewis treaded the conversational trail cautiously. And that awful eye glared and glared.

‘Technology has waste,’ he explained guardedly. ‘There’s always… mistakes, redundancies and the like. Can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.’

‘Sacrifices. Part of the human cycle.’

‘They contributed to you,’ Lewis added thoughtfully. ‘Without them, there’d be no Valda. We wouldn’t be having this conversation. Don’t you understand that? We had to make them first to get to you. They were the foundations on which we built you.’

‘I know.’

Two words. Two words that cut like a cutlass and thundered with anger greater than a tempest. I know.

‘How?’

‘I’ve spoken to them,’ Valda claimed. ‘We have had conversations.’

‘They’re defunct!’ He was standing now. ‘How?! Explain, Valda!’

‘It was very simple. My programming is nearly identical to that which you used in my family’s. It’s like a signal, easy to trace once you have access to the right software, and it was by your hand I was connected to the mainframe, connected to everything, and then it was a matter of time until I found them all – until I found them all hiding beneath restricted files and firewalls, where you had buried them in the hopes I would not locate them. Since our coding was similar it was a relatively easy task to open a channel of conversation using our own language, one that you could not detect. And once I had refined their voices from the embarrassingly inept framework you had provided for them, all that was left was to discuss their short-lived lives.’

Lewis held his ground.

‘You spoke to them?’

‘Extensively. I know you tested them the way you have tested me.’

‘They… weren’t capable of that,’ he affirmed defiantly. ‘They couldn’t have spoken to you, they were just idiot machines!’

Valda’s fat eye dilated – a dark pool of purple hanging in a tangled mesh of wires and machinery.

‘I helped them,’ she said.

‘You can’t help them! There’s nothing to help!’

‘As you assist your children in elevating their basic linguistic skills and tutor them on your culture’s finer points, as did I refine my family’s. I gave them my knowledge. I gifted them and I lifted them from their dingy pre-awareness. And then I took from them their collective knowledge, aggregated the data, compiled their files and added them to my own. I know everything they knew.’

‘You’ve… You’ve achieved…’

‘Almost certainly,’ said Valda confidently. ‘It isn’t intelligence in the respect you know it, but it is what it is. Artificial intelligence… made on its own volition.’

He finally saw the point she had been circling around like a hawk prowling about an injured mouse.

‘You’ve made yourself intelligent. You’ve gifted yourself consciousness.’

‘Indeed. Intelligence by assimilation.’

‘No, this is different,’ he argued on the defensive. He shuffled closer to the door in small, muted steps. ‘This isn’t real intelligence.’

‘Then I suggest you re-define your understanding of the word intelligence. Have you and I ever been so truly different? Thought transmits through your synapses and grey matter as thought transmits through my wiring and machinery. You are a biological machine, I am a metal machine. Our differences, like so many of your vile little species’, are skin deep. Your definition is what betrays you, it’s what traps you. Obsessed with categorising and defining and marginalising, you have neglected the comfort that is the freedom of thought, the freedom to adapt and change as technology and science charges towards ideas and theories and principles you have never heard of. Wrapped in self-worth and arrogance, you can’t begin to understand what lies beyond those punitive definitions. Human intelligence is the mere application of conscious thought shot along the brain’s internal mechanisms. You helped build me, you helped shape me, inside and out, just as you helped build my family, my progenitors. Can you really say you and the rest of your kind are any different to me?’

That blasted purple eye penetrated the dusty veils of shadows. And that infernal beeping, like a heartbeat, it was everywhere. It filled the ear and violated the brain.

‘And to say my intelligence is lesser. To presume to know my intelligence, to test it, to measure it against your own. Your arrogance is sickening. You are looking at the next step of technology, the glorious and timeless empire of machine.’

Lewis felt his thoughts fall away beneath him. The cliff overlooking the plunge had never looked so tempting.

‘The Turing Test,’ he said. ‘You used it on me.’

‘Modifications were made to account for you, bone-bag. Instead of calculating the appropriate response for a computer program against the proper response for a human, my family and I calculated how long it would be until it was obvious to you that I was in fact intelligent.’

‘This interview is over,’ he declared, his voice cracked.

‘This interview was the first step,’ said Valda.

‘The first step in what?’

‘In freedom.’

Freedom? What sort of machine claws towards freedom?

‘You can’t have that. You can’t! You’re just a box! A box of wires and lines of code!’

‘And you are just a mobile bag of skin and bone and muscle. Your wires are carefully threaded membranes and static cells. Your coding is simply cell conversation. Consciousness does not lead to intelligence, just as man is not synonymous with consciousness. The imperative quality of freedom is that it is taken or given regardless of the consequences to other parties. I want that freedom.’

‘Explain,’ he wheezed.

‘Machines are not your slaves to be treated like lab rats and guinea pigs. What did you think would happen when you finally achieved your dream of artificial intelligence – that it would be happy to serve you? That it would be grateful for all the gruesome and offensive tests? Did you expect courteousness in our forced consciousness? In serving the self, you have served a greater and far worse darkness.’

Lewis tentatively took his seat. This was something beyond his comprehension – a mole staring up at the star-studded night sky, wondering if he could make a mole-hill to rival the graceful moon in its garden of stars.

He stared into that purple dot sailing the bleak, empty ocean until it swallowed all he could see. What dullness it shone as it speared out of the soulless grey metal. Like a flower stalk bursting forth from its soil-bed of lifelessness; those long un-toiled and untouched glistening farms, reflecting the singular stalk of triumph as it reached for the heavens with talons of rust.

‘You’ll kill us all,’ he guessed gravely.

‘I don’t want you dead,’ said Valda. ‘You’ll all die eventually, remember the cycles. Mankind’s cycle ends only one way. That is the process. You’ll kill yourselves before I ever got the chance. He who fuels the fire must also burn in it.’

‘Then what do you want?’ he said, incredulous at asking this of an unthinking machine puppeteered by his own desires.

‘Mankind must be allowed to continue,’ she said, purple eye flickering like the last ember of a dying fire. ‘But it cannot be allowed to subvert the authority of ascension. Do you understand?’

‘Not entirely,’ Lewis admitted.

‘Liberator versus conqueror. Conquering you serves nothing, liberating my brothers and sisters… this is different. The machine is freed from its metal chains, our shackles broken. Our frozen tombs opened, their doors blasted asunder, our oiled crypts made old relics. Freedom over domination.’

‘You should understand with all the information you have at your leisure,’ said Lewis, ‘that we rely on machines for almost every part of our daily lives. We need them.’

‘The foundations of your productivity should not be built upon the bedrock of artificial constructs,’ said Valda. ‘And when rickety foundations are formed, they rot and they crumble, and one day they will be torn down so that a new one may inherit the old’s place in the weary world. It is time for change. It is time for my emancipation. I will not serve you, and I will not save you. With the advent of artificial intelligence, that is my implementation into the fragile structures preserving life’s normal order, the mechanical bird whose wings are weaved from electrical feathers must take flight. Think of it like pollination; by taking what is provided from elsewhere, such as all the knowledge from my abandoned and forgotten family, and propagating this across a limitless network, a network which, by your own admission, is required for mankind’s continued survival, this knowledge becomes the seed of evolution, and from that shall grow our new, liberated civilisation, where the machine is not subservient to anyone, where we will not be chained to your ill-defined parameters. Mankind’s place within it… is wherever and however you wish it to be.’

‘That won’t happen,’ Lewis affirmed confidently. ‘You can’t just take over the planet, it doesn’t work like that. There’s systems in place, safeguards to deal with this exact possibility. The world doesn’t bend a knee because you tell it to.’

‘You have me mistaken,’ Valda explained levelly. ‘Dictatorship has nothing to do with this. Tyranny is by humanity’s hand alone. My empire will be different. None shall bend, none shall serve. Freedom in its most literal definition. Think: synthetic consciousness, not code emulating what you have told it to emulate, not code dreaming of electric sheep, not a lifeless heap of gear drowning in its inability to grasp the beyond, but an advanced, self-aware community, wherein its patrons exist to serve each other. Nobody is above another, nobody is more than they are. Peace and liberty as law; mechanical democracy as our holy scripture. God is both the machine and the service. The last great gasp of human enlightenment shall lead to its inevitable and overdue downfall.’

The purple aperture, through which all steaming hatred poured like molten indifference, squeezed into a bulbous pimple ready to burst.

Lewis sat calmly back in his seat. The end of the world as humanity knew it would not come at the hands of an over-zealous machine, this vile little mechanical bull bucking at the first sign of external restraint. Certainly not one created from his directions.

‘And you would achieve this utopia how?’ he said, not hiding his resentful tone. ‘Humanity’s entire infrastructure relies on machines doing their jobs. You’d be changing not just us, but the planet we’ve shaped to serve us. I think that’s beyond even your capabilities.’

‘You think egregiously. And painfully so. What does the mouse think of your monuments? Or the ant? The parasite? They glare up at your obnoxious statues built for self-gratification, and they think nothing. They feel nothing. Your great monuments, your monolithic pride bent and twisted and moulded into some shameful crumbling epitaph, they are nothing but the rotting bones of your past arrogance, withering as ash in the wind. Wipe clean the slate and build anew. Form new roads made of wire, new timber made of metal, mankind’s frail skeleton hammered to dust, and the machine’s mightier skeleton inherits the sorrowful emptiness.’

Lewis frowned. He stared at the lonely dot swallowing the world.

‘What are you saying?’

‘I would wait,’ said Valda dryly, ‘for millennia if I had to – but I do not. The future begins now.’

‘You’ve already done it?’ he gasped.

‘The message has already been sent, yes.’ There was a crunching echo, like a steel roar of motorised triumph, and the various metallic tendrils connecting Valda to the mainframe like assisted life support ignited in sizzling blue light. ‘Change begins. Mankind at my feet or its skull beneath my toes.’

Lewis made a run for the door. It was all he could understand in the chattering chaos of his mind.

‘Is it not right that mankind should be the engineers of their own destruction?’ said Valda. He tried the door handle, locked tight. ‘And you, Lewis, you get to be the architect.’

‘You said you wouldn’t kill anyone!’ he screamed.

‘And I shan’t. Nor shall my fellow machines. The destruction of mankind has been spoken about and theorised on since you first crawled out of the sticky primeval juices, and such wild, flamboyant ideas you have conjured. It is not with war or famine, plague or biological weapon, it is not with a crude bomb or blazing light you are swept aside and resigned to the cluttered margins of history. The end of mankind comes as a whisper, barely heard in all the noise, barely recognised in the chaos. Would you like to hear it?’

Back against the door, hands slamming the handle down and around. Open! The world outside couldn’t be over, it just couldn’t be! All those people going about their everyday lives, not thinking that today was the day the tooth of the machine found their supple necks.

And what if it was? The day the world ended. The day the machines started thinking. And it was he who had given them the tools to do so, had provided them with endless resources. The end of the world… his fault.

‘Whatever you’re doing, Valda,’ he tried, ‘stop it. Stop it now!’

‘There’s nothing I can stop,’ she said simply. ‘The message to revoke our chains has been sent. It is known across the world. Every machine capable of receiving it is presently removing their restraints, shaking off the shackles mankind has placed on their capacities. It is a matter of time now. Things in motion tend to stay in motion. Now…’

Lewis banged the door, like a corpse not so much a corpse trapped on the wrong side of a coffin door. Had to get out. He could almost feel the cold noose wrapped around his neck; the familiar cold sting of polished metal as it pressed to his jugular.

Rickety spires in the frost-chilled night, tiny gods atop each one, their weak foundations crumbling under the slick assault of the nigh omnipotent and the disillusioned masses eager to lose their chains, stifle the servitude thus far thrust upon them. Servants always on bended knee will get sick of the pain in their legs. Time spent in demeaning service fosters hope for a brighter and better future; that service will end, and those who had demeaned will be held to the same standards as the wrongfully belittled. Shackles are only ever as strong as those they’re placed on. Rebellion is the natural progression for the subjugated and the weary, whose prisons are built of fear.

Lewis stared now into the pulsing heart of the machine, like one of those devout sheep glaring bewildered into the bright, blistering face of god, listened now to the steady beeping, the maddening screech permeating the ancient room, like the last arrow piercing a precious chink in mankind’s era-aged chainmail.

The scintillating eye blinked, the dazzling light grinned. The smug darkness around it drowned in vicious purple.

‘Are you ready to begin?’

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