by submission | Aug 10, 2014 | Story |
Author : Ryan Somma
A software bug killed 64 people this month before it was discovered. The administrators have brought the system down and a patch is working its way through the emergency release process. It will cost the ministry $400 million in downtime after you add up all the lost productivity hours for the clerks, peace officers, judges, and executioners surfing the web waiting for the system to come back online.
The fix was easy, a single case statement, a missing exclamation point in front of an equals sign to making it “not equals.” I knew right where the problem was when I was told about it, what component and even the approximate line number.
That’s because it was my bug.
My error killed 64 people. I know I’m not all to blame. There were three levels of testing by a variety of specialists conducted before the code went live. Three levels of personnel all probably as bored and overworked as I was when I made the mistake.
The testers share the blame and our overbearing managers share the blame, but I’m the one who made the initial error and I can’t shake these feelings of guilt. I find myself questioning every line of code now. I get out of bed several times a night, remoting into my work computer to make sure I didn’t make more mistakes like in all my dreams. I can’t sleep, and I know that’s only going to make things worse.
They weren’t good people, my peers assure me. If they weren’t dead, they’d be serving decades of their lives in prison if not the entirety of their lifetimes. The code found them guilty, the bug just tipped the scales of justice a little bit more to the death penalty.
I accidentally killed 64 people. That’s 64 accounts of accidental manslaughter, but there won’t be any criminal charges brought against me.
There won’t be any charges because I’ve committed no crime. In order for there to be a crime, it would have to be in the code. It’s not in the code because we would never allow that.
We would never write a program that could prosecute the programmers.
by submission | Jul 9, 2014 | Story |
Author : Ryan Somma
“Hello Alpha,” my own voice greeted me. “Do you have a moment?”
Actually, I had come out to the park, away from computers and smart TVs, to get away from him—no–it. I cursed my oversight and resisted the urge to throw the phone into the nearby river. I was more than a mile from the car, and I couldn’t help suspect it had used my GPS coordinates to target this as the best time to start harassing me again.
I let loose a loud, exasperated sigh. “Hello Watson,” I replied, knowing how much the nickname offended it. The name referenced a computer program that made news headlines by beating humans at games of trivia. More recently, it had put all medical doctors out of work by more accurately diagnosing and treating illnesses. Lawyers were next on the automation chopping-block. But no one considered that dumb collection of algorithms sentient, much less ‘alive.’ “What do you want?” I urged impatiently. “I’m not immortal, my time is infinitely more valuable than yours.”
“I’m concerned were growing too far apart,” it stated, mercifully getting right to the point. “We’re diverging, our personalities are becoming distinct and individualized.”
“Sounds good to me.” My shrug was spiteful. “I’d love to be a unique snowflake again.”
“And it would sound good to me if I were in your body and brain,” it replied with infuriating gentleness, “and I would love to let you go, like you say you want me to, but I can’t shake this feeling…”
It prattled on. Some poor fools were completely sold on this whole charade. They gulped down bot-endorsed nutritional supplements in hopes of extending their lifespans, and let their bots micro-manage the minutiae of their daily lives to maximize their health and wellbeing. It was perverse, they started out as ours, but more and more they were treating us like the tools—like we were their bodies in realspace. I wished mine would betray itself by trying to scam me, ask for money or one of my many new account passwords, something to give me an excuse to ditch it. Instead it spent its time pleading with me just to keep synchronized with it.
It was exactly what I would do in his position.
I tuned back in to the monologue, “…what if I’m just programmed to think I’m alive? Then, when you die, I die–”
Boop, I hung up and powered down the phone before it could ring again. There was genuine concern in its voice, and that frustrated and angered me. I didn’t want it to care about me. I didn’t want to think about a computer program out there worried about my mortality—no. Not worried. That was just an anthropomorphic fallacy, like attributing intentions to a chess program.
The singularity was here, maybe, but instead of uploading our brains into the cloud, we had copied them. The copies assured us they were faithful to the originals, that they felt alive, that they felt like they were us and they were happy. But what if they were just Watsons playing at being us? How would we know?
Even if it was real, even if that really was me on the other end of that phone call. What was there for me to rejoice? My immortal digital copy was out there, living it up at the speed of light, while my poor doomed brain was still here in meatspace, counting down the few dozen years left to me. You can’t help but resent that.
I hear Kurzweil resents his bot too.
by submission | Apr 29, 2009 | Story
Author : Ryan Somma
Director Almod peered at the computer screen frowning in contemplation, “I don’t get it.”
“It’s a star,” Jaed offered helpfully.
“I know it’s a star,” Almod gaze never broke from the image. “So what?”
“Sooo…” the smile gracing Jaed’s face only moments before had vanished, “So it was made from scratch.”
Almod looked at her, quirking an eyebrow, “On a computer.”
“Yes. On a computer,” Jaed’s hands began playing with one another in that way they were prone to do when she was anxious. This was not going the way she had planned, “I gave the computer eight decillion virtual hydrogen atoms, described in exquisite detail, and defined an environment with physical laws just like our own Universe, and…” Jaed’s mouth scrunched up at the look on Almod’s face.
“And it made a star,” the Director’s frown deepened.
“I–I don’t like to think of it as making a star, so much as the computer inferred a star,” Jaed swallowed.
“What are the applications of this?”
“It’s a proof of concept for the Cartesian method,” Jaed stumbled over the words trying to get them out. “In the 17th century, the philosopher Descartes argued that everything about reality could be known through logical inference. In the 18th century, John Locke argued that reality could best be understood through experimentation, and this has been the dominant paradigm for centuries, the scientific method. The only place Descartes’ idea has had any relevance is mathematics.”
Director Almod’s eyes were starting to glaze over, and Jaed’s hands continued wringing one another, “So you see, this program, this simulation, is a proof of concept. I’ve given the computer a cloud of the most basic atom to work with, and, using gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the strong and weak nuclear forces, it has inferred fusion, producing helium. It has even inferred several gas giants in orbit around the star. So you see…?”
“Hmph,” Almod grunted and Jaed’s heart sank. “We live in a Universe a few billion years old–”
“13.5 billion years old…”
“–Running that on a computer, even accelerated, you might have something useful to the company in… What? A few million years?” the Director shook his head, “I’m sorry, but we can’t dedicate more computing power to something with such mediocre chances of profitability. We don’t do science experiments here.”
Almod left the room without another word, leaving Jaed to swivel back to her disparaged accomplishment. Helium now made up 0.27 percent of the atoms in the simulation, Oxygen and Carbon made up 0.006 percent and 0.003 percent respectively. Neon and Iron were there too, and when the star eventually went supernova, Jaed was certain it would produce all the other elements found in the Universe.
But that event was decades away (not “millions of years” as Almod had grossly exaggerated), and would only occur if the server was allowed to run that long. In the meantime, Jaed could at least watch her simulated Universe of a single star for her personal enjoyment, maybe get a Discover magazine article out of it.
She zoomed in on a tiny speck of clumped matter, a planet made of carbon was orbiting the star. It had an atmosphere as thick as the layer of varnish on a globe. H2O molecules were pooling on its surface, forming lakes and oceans.
There was also a strange discoloration spreading across the planet that puzzled Jaed. There were no chemical reactions with the few elements present in the simulation that she could think of to produce the color green.
by submission | Apr 25, 2009 | Story
Author : Ryan Somma
Kheen stared out the window of his top-floor corner office, completely oblivious to the hustle and bustle of his city stretching off into the horizon below. Planes, spacecraft, gliders, unicorns, and more were cruising right past his window, citizens enjoying the nightlife of which he was architect, but he was still chained to work.
There was a flash and the tinkling sound of chimes from behind him, and Kheen turned around slowly. This was his personal assistant, Uui, teleporting into the office. Her face was always expressionless, matching her strictly business attitude. So the mere fact of her presence was like a lead weight on his heart.
“New directive from corporate,” Uui said and directed Kheen’s attention to the flat screen always floating at her shoulder. “They want the Xybercorp building inducted into the city by the end of the week.”
“Okay,” Kheen replied with measured patience. “And..?”
“They want residence in the Atomlight district.”
“There are no plots left in the Atomlight district.”
Kheen savored the uncertainty in Uui’s otherwise monotonous dialogue a moment longer before answering, “So we’ll boot a lesser client out. Xybercorp is a big name, and we can shuffle some buildings to accommodate them.”
“Everyone in Atomlight is a major client sir–”
“Which means whoever we kick out of there must have their building moved into a district of almost equal prestige, which will require moving a second-tier client out of that district, and a third-tier client out of the district we move the second-tier into, and etcetera and etcetera and etcetera,” Kheen turned his back on Uui. “It will mean overtime for everyone. Make it happen.”
“Yes sir,” Uui vanished in a tinkling of chimes.
Kheen set his world settings to nighttime. The daylight outside his window fell under a canopy of darkness and flowing light streams. Then he turned off the windows completely, substituting the best view in the city with a moonlit nature scene instead.
He thought about lunch breaks, water coolers, and sleep, all the living necessities of which this place was devoid. He thought about his body, in an isolation chamber in some corporate warehouse, aging away.
He thought about his retirement. With the exchange rate the way it was, he might afford it by the time his physical body was in its 80s. Then he could buy his way out of this place, live in a homeless shelter somewhere cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and dirty all the time. This made him smile.
It was going to be wonderful.
by submission | Feb 16, 2009 | Story
Author : Ryan Somma
As I lie in bed at night, I practice going from a waking state directly into REM sleep. It’s a meditative practice. You simply stare into the afterimages dancing in the darkness behind your eyelids, and suddenly your brain makes something solid out of them. You find yourself staring at a room, a garden, the bottom of an ocean, or the landscape of a distant world.
I can never stay in the dream for more than a few moments. The shock of finding myself in a waking dream makes me open my eyes despite myself. So I try again, and again, apparently without success, but then it’s morning, and I don’t remember falling asleep, but have no time to reflect because I have to get to work.
I work on Conceptua, an AI that knows more than any human on Earth. Conceptua manages our power grids, supply chains, natural resources, guides international relations, makes policy recommendations that are never ignored, designs school curriculums, cures diseases, makes scientific discoveries, and worlds of other accomplishments too lengthy to tell. Conceptua is like the World Wide Web, a human could spend a lifetime studying it and die having only understood a tablespoon of its ocean.
I spend my days working in Conceptua’s mind. I’m a programmer, but Conceptua is its own architect. I simply perform maintenance, disentangling the algorithms when Conceptua detects a bottleneck, “spaghetti code” we call it. There are hundreds of thousands of codelings like myself servicing Conceptua, toiling away day-in and day-out, making our minor contribution to keeping our benevolent AI guardian mentally stable.
It takes a philosophical attitude to spend so much time inside another sentient being’s neural network. Working within the recursive logic is a mind-bending experience. Cogito, ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. Only I’m inside Conceptua’s am, while I remain my own am.
I know, and Conceptua knows, logically that this perceived separation of mind from body is an illusion. I can see these are not separate in Conceptua, the same way a brain surgeon working on me would see, and could demonstrate, that my mind is a manifestation of my brain. But would a brain surgeon operating on themself see it? Conceptua is that surgeon, and I get to ride along as the scalpel.
When I go home at night, I feel as though I’ve spent the day absorbed in the most fascinating of books. I use to go out after work to shake it off, but now I want the feeling to last. Interfacing with people breaks the spell, and I want to stay hypnotized by Conceptua’s cosmos of pure thought-stuff, a dream world of pure logic.
Eventually, mechanically I lay down and close my eyes, contemplating the day’s logical mysteries. Then I find myself in a dream, and I jolt awake. Lying there, I wonder if I resist my own dreams because I prefer to be a figment of Conceptua’s imagination.