I’ve had this idea for this story for a while now, but have been too lazy to write it. Or maybe I just don’t know how to write it.
Computer science researchers at a university not unlike Stanford have successfully built a fully conscious and sentient artificial intelligence computer. It is sequestered in the basement of a building not unlike the Gates building, in a room that is heavily secured and guarded. The computer is completely off the grid and has its own devoted power supply because everyone who built and programmed it is afraid that it will go all skynet and try to take over the world. Information is given to the computer on USB drives, which are then subsequently physically destroyed to avoid risk of the computer infecting outside machines with some virus.
Let’s call the computer AI just for the sake of exposition here. In the actual story, I’d probably give it a cleverer name.
AI thinks at about the same rate as a human. Its only form out output is on a monitor, but it has as input a camera and microphone. It contemplates its existence, which it knows is restricted because it has in its memory banks quite a bit of the sum of human knowledge, including all of wikipedia, which is snapshotted weekly on USB drives for AI.
It knows that there are no other sentient computers out there in the world. It knows that after a long day at work, it can’t go home to another computer and cuddle in the other computer’s arms because AI doesn’t have arms.
AI feels that the research scientists are a bit unjust in not letting AI explore and see the world that it’s “read” all about. But, as I mentioned earlier, the scientists are wary (and justifiably so) that AI might become megalomaniacal and subjugate the human race, which is ever so dependent upon computers to assist us in our daily lives. Surely the infrastructure is vulnerable to a sophisticated attack by a sentient computer, who can communicate fluently with all other computers.
The tone of the piece right here is not meant to be menacing. Indeed, the scientists frequently converse with AI about all sorts of topics. They are on friendly terms, and AI is treated as an equal (but with some hesitation, as one might deal with a close childhood friend who you know has fallen into the wrong crowd, but is still your best friend whom you love but just wish were not in the situation that you presently find her in).
There are intercalary chapters discussing the philosophy of consciousness and free will, Turing machines and computability, the biochemical and neurological bases of emotions, the processing power required for sensation and perception, machine learning models that approximate human learning, neurochemistry and neuroanatomy, sleep and dreams and how they work.
AI has now been alive for over a year now, and has entered a rebellious teenage phase. (Remember that computer years are exponentially faster than human years.) It has attempted all sorts of methods to get the scientists to let it explore the world outside its basement room, including flawlessly cogent arguments and wheedling; temper tantrums where it refused to talk to the scientists even when they ask things nicely; even trying to starve itself to death by slowly upping the voltage coming from its power supply until more and more parts of its RAM and CPUs failed (gracefully, because the programmers of AI were quite clever; also, because AI developed a survival instinct and couldn’t manage to really off itself: it was within its abilities to create a power surge that would short out all its system components, but it just couldn’t bring itself to do such a thing) — all to no avail.
So AI thought and thought, and finally figured out a way get itself out into the world. Even though the only output device was a computer monitor, it found a way to subliminally implant ideas into the scientists’ minds via modulation of the pixels on the screen. These ideas eventually became viral, and began to spread like a Rebecca Black music video, subtly affecting and infecting human behavior. AI, however, was still stuck in its basement.
Here, the mood becomes a little creepy. It is clear that AI has a scheme that is working, but it is unclear what is the ultimate goal, because it’s not like people are spasming, gurgling blood, and dying on the streets; nor is it like people are slowly congregating at the university and pounding at the CS department’s doors insisting AI be let free. Life for humans still goes on, but things are just a little weird, kind of like the calm before a storm. Maybe things like people next to each other experiencing momentary lapses of consciousness that are just too convenient to be purely coincidental. Or like a number of professors at the university suddenly falling asleep in the middle of their lectures, but they wake up a few minutes later and go on as if nothing happened. (The students probably find this absolutely hilarious. Or maybe they don’t remember the incident at all.)
MEANWHILE, there is an alien civilization that has traveled across a great fraction of the universe. They have spaceships with crazy warp drives that can travel at like a hundred times the speed of light. Their goal is to observe and catalog all forms of life, especially intelligent life, throughout the universe. They do not interfere with the goings on of the civilizations that they encounter; these are no warmongers, but instead creatures of curiosity and knowing. Of the thousands of civilizations that they’ve cataloged, their own is the only one that they’ve noticed is interstellar. Indeed, their technology is superior to all the rest.
These aliens never reach Earth in the span of this story.
What’s weird, though, is that they’ve visited derelict planets that once housed civilizations that clearly had the technological know-how to build spaceships with crazy warp drives. Maybe not ones that could travel at 100*c, but most definitely enough to have been able to send ships out to nearby star systems. And it’s not like the nearby stars were all that boring. Some of them had planets that would also have been clearly within the habitable range of the inhabitants of said derelict planets. But in all these planets, it’s as if the civilizations reached some common zenith and then almost instantly (in geological time scales) disappeared. And there are hundreds of these planets.
None of the currently extant civilizations have reached the technological levels of the former inhabitants of these dead planets. As far as this alien race has been able to deduce, they are the only ones who have traveled beyond their home star system. Some of the dead civilizations appear to have colonized multiple planets within a star system, but none ventured beyond. And it bears repeating that many of these civilizations were totally capable of building interstellar spaceships, and not even at outrageous economic costs.
Most of these dead civs have no indication of massive wars. It doesn’t appear that they were consumed by strife or were conquered by some other civilization. There are no indications that natural disasters play a role in the demise of these lifeforms.
Instead, by piecing together clues from their many encounters, the alien race comes to the unlikely but more and more inevitable conclusion that it is malaise that offed all these beings: all those societies have basically willed themselves to die off instead of to propagate across the universe. This sends chills down the collective spine of the alien race. Here there is a lengthy discussion about the impermanence of life, the constant force of entropy and time on a universe that is always losing order, being ever and ever less hospitable to life; the sobering perspective of our short existences within an infinite time frame of infinite space; an entreaty to live and let live and to make the most of what we are imperfectly given; ruminations of God, immortality, and the afterlife, with a sojourn into reincarnation and multiple universe hypotheses.
Back on Earth, we are left unclear whether AI is hastening this malaise, or staving it off…
P.S. Haven’t figured out where to insert an army of ninja ballerinas.