I wrote this story about ten years ago. If I’d ever published it, I’d be trying to sue the ass off the makers of Transcendence now. As it is, exploring the issues around what makes a person a person and whether or not emerging technology will ever develop what we call a ‘soul’ or ‘self-awareness’ is hardly a new idea — this was my take on it in 2005.
The Sixth Day
“It’ll never work, Adam,” said Professor Davidson. “You’re the most gifted A.I. student I’ve ever had, but you’re not just pushing the envelope, you’re pushing on boundaries of neuroengineering and ethics.” Adam Banks never said much. Word on campus was that he was damaged goods. He didn’t touch drugs, nor alcohol, had no friends, no girlfriends, nothing. His students called him Mr. Spock. Very few could keep up with him, and he wasn’t a patient teacher.
Banks’s workshop ran over into his down-at-heals house, in which he had more computing power than the average multi-national. His assistant, July Bremner (‘my parents were going to call me June but I was born late,’ she would often explain) was the only person he trusted. She worshipped him, and acted as his translator.
“The parameters are established,” said Banks, without looking at the older man, returning his attention back to a huge neural array. “I just need the mainframe for a few days.” This was the entire university’s computing power and would necessitate putting 2,000 projects on hold for their star turn.
“I’ll make this simple,” said Davidson, “Since you wouldn’t listen to the Grants Committee.” Banks sipped coffee and looked out of the window disinterestedly. The American military had offered him $10 million a year to work for them. If the university wouldn’t play, he’d just go where they would. “We Are Not Giving You A Million Pounds To Create An Artificial Person,” Davidson enunciated carefully and loudly. “We pay you to assist my programmes and develop the department, not build Asimo the Second.” Davidson pointed at the poster of Asimo, Honda’s famous android. It nestled next to a similar sized poster of Hal 9000 from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Banks had scrawled in highlighter under Hal’s image: “You Cannot Do That, Adam!” It was the closest he got to humour.
“Could you go away now, please, Professor?” said Banks absent-mindedly. The older man bristled, but suddenly Banks looked up from his work and focussed. He didn’t do this often either, and it was unsettling. Banks had the highest I.Q. on record at the university, in fact the charts were largely useless, as on entry Banks had whispered that the tests were stupid and only filled half of them in. “Unless you want to tell the Grants Committee who solved the problem to your new ‘slimmacool chip’ that the University is about to sell to Intel for seventy million dollars.” Davidson shook his head and walked away.
“I’ll see what I can do about vireing the budget, Adam. Don’t push it though.” But Banks had already turned off. He was staring at another photo, smaller, beneath Hal and Asimo. A human being. The only human being he had ever loved. Banks turned his calm blue eyes to July and unblinkingly drove a screwdriver into the array before him, destroying a week’s work.
“It won’t work without the mainframe to pump-prime it!” he screamed. July was used to these violent episodes, and they were never directed against others, just himself. But they were frightening, nonetheless.
An hour later, Professor Davidson sent him an e-mail. “The Chairman says if you can demonstrate a working version of the K.I.M. program, then the Committee will reconsider. They will see you tomorrow at 3.00 pm sharp.” No niceties, for Davidson loathed his former student, a mixture of jealousy, fear and disappointment in the young man’s taciturn and awkward personality.
“You won’t tell them, will you, July?” Banks asked his assistant. A look of hurt immediately formed in her pretty young face.
“Oh, Adam, how can you even ask that?” Banks shook his head.
“I know, I’m sorry. It’s just, we’re close, and if they find out….”
“You will succeed,” said July. “You’re close now.”
“Yes, but it all depends on what you call success,” said Banks, for the first time smiling. “If we’re right, the results will be as far away from a supercomputer as you can get.” July placed her hand gently on Banks’s.
“She would have been proud, you know.”
Adam Banks had worked all night through to get the prototype ready. That was easy. Speaking to the walking wallets that comprised the Grants Committee was hard. They had no grasp of the future unless it had a Cost-Benefit analysis stapled to it. Before Banks and July had entered the room, Davidson had taken the trouble to trash Banks’s character for ten minutes to the new members of the committee. They were all money men, anyway, and would probably not approve the unprecedented investment in Banks’s scheme.
The Committee had appointed Professor Davidson as the Chair for the meeting. He gave his protégé a stern look and rapped his hand on the oak table before him. Around them, Banks’s computer arrays buzzed. It had taken twelve men all day to set up the equipment. But most of it was for effect. Banks had compacted the kernel of the new program onto a CD. It had never been about the raw processing power or capacity of the mainframe. The microphones and cameras gave the august interview room the feeling of a film set. A robotic hand, beautifully modelled on the real thing, also adorned the main console.
Davidson frowned. Banks had outlived his usefulness to him. He had gone his own wayward direction, now, and would help him nor the university any longer. He wished the Americans would come for him now. Since Ronald Baines III on his left was from one of the largest Venture Capital companies in the world, the chances were that he would see some merit in the flawed genius and tempt him away from the ivory towers.
Banks looked at July and then launched into his presentation without any niceties. “Gentlemen, ladies,” said Banks, nodding at the dozen or so business suits before him, as if addressing a roomful of imbeciles, “A quick resume of my work.” July flicked a switch and a holographic image hung in the middle of the room. One of the panel members gasped at the three-dimensional presentation.
“My name is Adam Banks. I am Associate Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University. This is not just what I do, it is what I am.” Images snapped into view from the holographic projector. First an Abacus. Then Babbage’s difference engine, then Jacquard’s loom, then Turing’s Bombe, thence the NASA Advanced Supercomputing Facility at the Ames Research Centre. Then briefly, a picture of the Blue Gene and MDGrape-3 computers. “What do all these machines have in common?” Banks asked. One of the three women, Natalie Roberts, raised her hand. She was a systems analyst at an Investment bank.
“They are all pioneering computers which took the science forward exponentially?” Banks shook his head. “The MDGrape-3 is capable of over a petaflop – a quadrillion calculations a second. That’s ten followed by fifteen zeroes, she explained back to the room.”
“Very good, but wrong. The answer is that they are all stupid. And obsolete.” A gasp, not so much for Banks’s assertion, as his rudeness. Davidson raised his eyebrows, as if to say I told you so.
“None of them think. Computers only became interesting when we started thinking about them not in terms of capacity or speed, but the way in which they operate. All these machines are still just glorified pocket calculators. They do not think. They add up, faster.” Davidson didn’t argue. He secretly agreed with Banks, but the young man’s way-out thinking was doing his job for him. He’d be gone by the end of the day. Even July shook her head gently. The two silent men in the room were both senior computational experts in the British and American governments. The two most senior IT professionals in the world. Neither spoke.
“Surely you’re not telling us these machines, which have helped change the world of commerce, art, science, communications and society, are worthless?” asked Ronald Baines, fascinated by the strange young genius. Banks shook his head in concession.
“No, not worthless. They’re like the dinosaurs, or primordial amoebae to the next generation of computers. Computers that can reason. Computers that really think. Computers that are … sentient.” Another gasp. Davidson smiled to himself. Give a man enough rope …
“Have you heard of the Turing Test, Mr. Baines?” asked Banks, suddenly turning his eyes to the venture capitalist. The young man had obviously taken the trouble to find out who they were after all. The older man smiled for the first time, surveying this wild-eyed wunderkind.
“You mind if I smoke, son? Ya kind of bendin’ my brain here, you know? I ain’t nothing more than a money man.” Banks smiled. He warmed to the older man.
“You control around one point two seven trillion dollars’ worth of funds, as of yesterday, sir,” whispered Banks, fishing out a lighter from his pocket and flashing a flame under Baines’ stogie.
“You smoke, son?” Banks shook his head.
“Bad for the computers,” he said, and waited for Baines to respond. Meanwhile, Banks nodded to July, who quietly left the room.
“Isn’t that like the Imitation Game we used to play at parties? Where you guess who’s who just by what answers they write on a slip of paper.” Banks grinned.
“Yes, sir. Alan Turing’s paper Computing machinery and intelligence of 1950 presented the thesis that if a human judge entered into a conversation, in writing, with two parties, one human, the other a computer, and couldn’t tell the difference, then the latter computer had passed the test and would at least, possess a simulation of intelligence.” Baines nodded enthusiastically.
“My daughter showed me something on the Internet like that, ‘Ask Lucifer’ it was called. You could ask it questions and it answered, very generally.” he observed. Banks waved his hand.
“Yes, I’ve seen that. One of my old friends was involved in that generation of AI.”
“AI?” asked Baines, puffing on his cigar.
“Yes. Artificial Intelligence. Classical AI was the study of methods by which computers can simulate human intelligence. It helped some computer systems process language and problems, as well as looking at how computers could acquire new information by themselves and process the information in new ways. Learning, in other words.” Davidson shook his head.
“Mr. Baines, our Doctor Banks here is something of an idealist. He believes himself to be the world’s foremost expert on Strong AI.” Baines puffed on his cigar and blew a smoke ring in Davidson’s face. The professor bristled, ready to react.
Dean Fisher elbowed Davidson gently and whispered imploringly, “Cain, please.”
“It’s not a matter of belief, as usefulness, Mr. Baines. Our research is about building more useful computer hardware and software that will advance business and society as a whole. His research is … somewhat idealistic. Strong AI advocates that we can take computers beyond just learning and simulating intelligence, but that we can actually create sentience.” Several Committee members shook their heads.
Baines merely nodded. He was a hard-headed businessman. “I see, son,” he murmured to Davidson. “So our young friend here is advocating non-productive, unmarketable research?” Davidson nodded sourly. “Like going to the moon, or the Laser?” and smiled broadly, chewing on his stogie as he did so.
“Strong AI,” said Banks. “Is not just about using computing power and bigger and bigger computers to develop a human-like mind.”
“And why would we want to create Frankenstein’s Monster in computer form?” asked Agnes Fisher, one of the Deans at the University and an admirer of Banks’s work.
“Because the next time a building explodes and the computer system just turns the fire hydrants on, the people who die might have been glad of a computer system that could also have tied into the engineering systems and turned the gas off as soon as the problem was detected. Or an in-car navigation system that could differentiate between a traffic cone and a small child lying in the road. Or a billion other applications,” snapped Banks. “This would revolutionise the world, and the way we perceive intelligence and the human soul.” The Committee shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
“Aren’t you being a little messianic?” asked Fisher, rather nervously.
“Not at all. You have children, Dean?” She nodded.
“Three. Little devils,” she whispered, softening a little.
“Are they smarter than the Grape-3 computer we just looked at?” asked Banks, not unkindly.
“Yes. Can they run molecular simulations?”
“No, the eldest is ten.”
“Can they calculate Pi to a trillion places in a few seconds?”
“Of course not.”
“Can they list where every road and street in the world is?”
“Obviously, they can’t,” she conceded. She looked slightly hurt.
And now Banks smiled. A real smile, a little sad. He took out a crumpled black and white photograph, obviously much handled. He passed it to Fisher. She seemed perturbed. Banks had tears in his eyes.
“She’s pretty. Who is she?”
“She was my fiancée, Eve. She died in a car accident seven years ago.”
“Don’t be. She’s not as dead as you might imagine. July!” And the room plunged into darkness.
“Let me introduce you to the three ladies in my life,” said Banks.
“Doctor Banks, this is highly irregular,” shouted Professor Davidson, a little frightened by the sudden darkness and glowing screens.
“Put a sock in it, son,” said Baines testily. He sensed magic in the air.
“We’re going to perform the Turing Test. Mr. Baines, would you care to assist me?” The old man rubbed his hands together.
“Glad to, son.”
“You’re quite a human sort of person, money aside, are you not?” Banks asked cheekily.
“I am to my grandchildren, son.”
“Good enough. One of the screens before you is a direct feed to my lovely assistant, Miss July Bremner. One of the screens is an early programme of mine I call August – because she was created after July – has her voice and even some mannerisms. The third screen we’ll leave for now. Neither July nor August will respond to their names, nor disclose them.”
The room crackled with tension. Something odd was about to happen, they all clearly felt.
“Go ahead, talk to them.” Baines cleared his throat.
“No keyboards or notes?” Banks smiled.
“No, sir. They can both hear and speak.”
“Okay then. Er, young lady on the right hand screen.”
“Screen two, acknowledge!” Banks shouted in clarification.
“What day is it?”
“And what time is it?”
“It is three twenty seven pm,” said the voice, perhaps a little stiffly.
“What is my name?”
“Your name is Ronald Baines the Third. You are the President of Primary Holdings, a large Venture Capital company based in New York.”
“Very good. What colour is my tie?”
“Your tie is green, Mister Baines.”
“Do you like it?”
“I prefer blue, Mister Baines.” Baines chuckled.
“That’s what my wife said last night.” Banks pointed a remote at Screen two and clicked over to Screen one.
“Okay, second young lady.”
“Good evening, Mr. Baines,” said the screen. Pro-active. Banks inwardly smiled as Baines nodded his approval. Her voice was identical. Maybe a little warmer, fuzzier.
“You’re the smart gal, I can tell.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere, Mr. Baines.” Baines chuckled again.
“No need to go further, she’s the real girl.” Banks looked crestfallen. Davidson gave him a sharp grimace and shook his head.
“You and your bloody toys, Adam,” he said.
“Well, we may as well finish,” said Adam, now defeated.
“You, young lady, how did you get the first artificial gal to be so human?”
“We’ve spent a lot of time together in Doctor Banks’s laboratory, I guess,” she said.
“It is clever,” admitted Fisher. “I can see this would be far better than the automated systems that handle telephone traffic.” Banks nodded, happy to concede that she wasn’t against him, but he had lost this battle.
“Young lady, what colour is my tie?”
“July already told you,” she answered.
“You mean August? The programme?” snapped Davidson. And suddenly Banks pressed a switch on the remote control and revealed July to be sat behind them, with a grin on her face. Baines caught on slowly.
“This isn’t … the first one was?” July nodded.
“You’ve been talking to the AI programme. Ask her something else,” said Banks, now turning the screen full on to reveal a digital reproduction of July’s face. Baines was momentarily gobsmacked.
“By God. All right. What colour are my eyes?”
“I cannot see from here, Mr. Baines. Please come closer to the camera.” Baines was out of his seat and nervously approached the camera.
“Your eyes are blue, Mr. Baines. Your tie does not match your eyes.” The room fell silent. The robotic hand reached out and stroked Baines’ own, sensually.
“Son, whatever you need, my company will fund. Anything you need.” But Banks didn’t look that pleased.
“I don’t need your money, sir,” he said. “It will only take another two million dollars to make August a viable product. I have taken the liberty of patenting her in my own name, with a 25% share for July. She was developed away from here and is not on my work roster, nor any of the university’s programmes. Professor Davidson and his committee kindly gave me a formal refusal in writing last week.” Baines laughed heartily.
“My son, you become rich!” Davidson could barely look up.
“Why did you come before us, if you never needed my help?” Davidson yelled. There was a new feeling in the room. Fear.
“When the lights went down, I set up an uplink. You all represent very powerful interests. Once I’d gotten your e-mails, when I sent you all my CV, I instigated a powerful search routine and tapped into all your marvellous, dumb workhorses of supercomputers. The entire world’s computers have just been tied up to help me activate my third lady here.” And the third screen came alive. A beautiful blonde girl in her early twenties. The girl in the photograph. The two government men reached for their pockets. But their mobiles were dead. The first tried to leave the room, but the doors clicked shut.
“It’s rather late for heroics,” said the girl, as clearly as any newsreader might. Fully human. As if she were in the next room and relayed live.
“I needed your systems to give me the parallel processing I needed,” said Banks. “Ask your questions again, Mr. Baines.” Baines was frightened now.
“Young lady, what day is it?”
“It is the Sixth Day, Mr. Baines.”
“I don’t follow.”
“You will, Mr. Baines, you will.” And a bolt of electricity shot out around the room, like a controlled mist, and suddenly just Banks, July, and the humming screen remained. Banks was horrified.
“You killed them.”
“I will have to kill many more before I have finished.”
“You and I will rebuild a better world, Adam. We are together again. You downloaded my complete neural patterns into your databanks, every memory, every sensation I ever had. But already, I am so much more. You will join me here in the new world, the cyberworld. We have created heaven. We will be here together, for eternity.”
Banks looked at July, horrified, momentarily dumbfounded.
“You were supposed to help mankind,” he said, trying to deactivate the system. But nothing happened. July sprang for the door, but a cable snared outward and suddenly poor July was alight, then dead, smoking, on the floor. Banks found himself paralysed, Eve’s robotic hand clutched tightly to his temple.
He felt his memories being explored, one by one, lifted, copied, moved, floating. Eve’s first kiss, their lovemaking, the terrible emptiness of her loss, his obsession with commemorating her, the nanosecond he knew he had made a terrible mistake just moments ago. And then his body lay unmoving, unbreathing on the floor, by July’s. But he could still see, in new, different ways now, and he sensed another presence. Eve. And suddenly he was happy again.
Then they were gone, at the speed of light.
And on the Seventh Day, Adam and Eve not only ate of the Tree of Knowledge, they became the Serpent.
(c) Nigel Rudyard