The Peacock's Tail

Author : Ryan Somma

“Watch this,” Alea smirked at Trin and turned to the four-legged creature dumbly munching on some flamegrass nearby.

“Oti,” Alea chirped to the thing, and a few dozen eyes opened to look at her. “Oti, what is pi?”

A half-dozen orifices sprinkled amidst the eyes opened to emit a flurry of hissing noises and chirping.

Trin’s jaw dropped as he looked at his wrist screen, “3.1415926535… The numbers just keep coming.”

Alea was practically beaming, “I know.”

“It’s speaking in binary,” Trin blinked at her expectantly.

“I know,” Alea nodded.

“Why?” Trin prompted.

Alea shrugged, “It just started doing it. When the digital connection on my computer broke, I had to jury rig a sound connection to signal you in the dropship. In the weeks while I was waiting at base camp for your arrival, I was Web surfing, and next thing I know, this critter starts talking to my computer system. It’s figured out all our protocols, and has been explaining geometry, trigonometry, and calculus to my computer. I’ve been saving it all to log files for the team to review.”

“How is this possible?” Trin blinked and shook his head.

“I have an hypothesis,” Alea looked at the creature, still happily hissing away pi to seemingly endless decimal places. “Ready?”

Trin nodded dumbly.

Alea pointed to a trio of two-legged powder-puffs bouncing around the space cows’ boneless legs. “Females,” she said. “The calculations attract females. They are a mating display.”

“Calculus is a mating display?” Trin frowned skeptically. “That doesn’t make sense. Why would these blobs evolve to understand advanced mathematics just to attract a mate? They obviously aren’t putting that knowledge to any other use. I thought evolution favored minimalism.”

“It’s like the peacock’s tail,” Alea was grinning at the creature. “Male peacocks evolved these long, extravagant tails because female peacocks preferred them. Why do they prefer them? They just do.

“The tail serves no purpose, in fact, it makes the males easier to catch and eat. Birds of Paradise have evolved similar extravagant displays, just because the females are attracted to them.”

“You’re saying this creature has evolved a giant, energy-hungry brain that can perform calculus and talk with our computers, just to get chicks?!?!” Trin was practically sputtering, flabbergasted. “What are the ramifications of that?”

“Profits, my esteemed colleague,” Alea snapped her fingers before Trin’s eyes. “Peacocks’ feathers were nice for Victorian-era fashions, but for our modern information-centric sensibilities, these critters will be all the rage. Are you following me?”

Trin blinked at her dumbly, sitting still. Slowly, a wide smile spread across his face, “Okay.”


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The Prototype Sanctuary

Author : Ryan Somma

An orangutan and a brain in a vat were playing chess across the room from me.

It was a joke I hadn’t figured out the punch line to in five years of working here. The disembodied brain was Philo, and, lacking eyes, I had no idea how it understood the game. One of the psychologists who stopped in once a week to check on Philo was also stumped on this, explaining to me that Philo also lacked spatial reasoning. Philo’s understanding of chess, therefore, was purely as an abstract mathematical concept.

The orangutan was Odo. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he leaned over the board. When I first started working here, Odo would spend hours signing to me. He gave up long ago, and Philo told me the orangutan had decided I was incapable of learning. He was probably right.

Wee-Beep! Wee-Beep! Wee-Beep! A petri dish set atop a remote-control car thudded into my foot and my cell phone began chirping in response to it, which set the petri dish off chirping back.

This was Meep, a network of mouse neurons that had learned to drive around without bumping into things, except when it wanted attention. Meep just barely qualified to reside here, but I couldn’t explain how it met the intelligence requirements.

“Hello Meepster,” I said to the living toy, and stooped to pluck the rubber ball from its pincers. “Go play with Lug,” I tossed the ball so that it bounced off our resident Neanderthal’s forehead.

“Lug,” wasn’t his real name, Lazarus was, but the botched attempt at genetically engineering our distant relative just drooled and pooed himself all day. Meep was more sentient, and until Lazarus can wipe his own butt, my name for him is Lug.

“Pardon me…” Philo’s artificial voice drew my attention.

“I’m sorry Philo,” I had the injection ready in a few moments and quickly administered enough serotonin to get the brain through the afternoon. Without a steady cocktail of anti-depressants, being a brain in a vat pretty much sucks.

Think about that… When your house greets you at the door, when your refrigerator makes dinner suggestions, or when your car swerves to keep you out of an accident because you were preoccupied with your PDAI, remember that the road to all those conveniences was paved with the residents of this asylum, experiments that made AI possible and inventions that crossed the line into sentience, preventing them from making it to the market.

We have a responsibility to them. After all, they didn’t ask to exist.


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A Moment of Uninspiring Clarity

Author : Ryan Somma

Wyndallo took an unexpected breath of cold, sterile air. He opened his eyes and saw his exhale condense against the glass door to the capsule, which was smoothly lifting away from him. He registered the air outside the capsule was colder than inside, but his brain was too removed from the otherly sensation to induce shivering.

Last thing he remembered, Wyndallo was enjoying braised antelope with a rich pesto side dish. He was just about to enjoy a sip of a 1986 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Pauillac, when the system had crashed. Now that he was here in the real world, the world of continuity, he could remember that the system always crashed when he tried to taste that particular vintage. The system would automatically report the bug, but it was obvious after all these years that no one remained out there to work on it.

Even if he had wanted to get up from the bed, his muscles had grown stiff and inflexible from decades of disuse. The capsule could overcome this, get him on his feet again, but the process would take months. Just the act of propping him up a few degrees would induce nausea so severe it might kill him. He was content to wait for the software to reboot and welcome him back into its warm embrace.

He could see his surroundings reflected in the capsule’s glass door. Rows of glowing capsules, their occupants obfuscated behind cloudy glass, stretched off into the distance in either direction. His own reflection was laid out in the center of them all, his naked body pale and emaciated. He felt no connection to it at all. It wasn’t his anymore.

His eyes wandered to the ceiling, where a skylight revealed a bit of night sky that was full of stars. It was so uninspiring compared to the night skies the VR software rendered, these were just bland white twinkling points of light.

The night sky the system rendered was full of geometric shapes and patterns, clear proof of a galaxy brimming with intelligent life. Wyndallo’s civilization had wasted centuries searching the skies for even a hint of life beyond their world to no avail.

The system mercifully whirred to life again and the capsule door descended to enclose him. Before the psi-field wrapped his consciousness in its warm illusion, Wyndallo had a moment to wonder if no civilization had ever left its mark on the stars because they were all fated to the same prison of introspection.


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Wage-Slave Avatar

Author : Ryan Somma

Ng’s eyes were straining as far as they could go in their sockets to get a look at the brand new shiny avataris sapiens parked at the end of the conference room table. His client’s attention was on the current speaker, a real-life sales person local to the building who was selling some sort of recently evolved market indexing algorithm. Ng was a real-life person also, but not in the context of this meeting. The avataris sapiens was not real-life in any context.

Ng had gotten a good look at it coming into the room thanks to his client lingering on it for what seemed like an eternity before greeting the other meeting members. The avataris sapiens was elegant in design and motion as it stood to greet everyone as they arrived, mimicking the motions of it user.

Ng’s suit was impeccable; his makeup and hair stylized so much as to render him almost artificial to everyone in the room, but the avataris sapiens was even less human. No matter how much Ng sculpted his body at the gym, lasered and tattooed his eyebrows into perfection, or whitened his teeth, the avataris was truly artificial.

Ng stifled a yawn, pursing his lips together tightly with a long, deep inhale so as not to draw any attention to himself. The client had brought him online at four this morning, which was four in the afternoon Eastern Standard time. This six am conference meeting was a natural compromise between timezones, but so was the six pm meeting Ng had attended for another client the previous night. He was fatigued and his stomach was grumbling for missing breakfast, but suppressing these human needs were what made him such a good avatar. Besides, the avataris did not need food or sleep at all.

“What are the metrics on this AI?” Ng came alert as his user’s voice came through his speaker, questioning the sales rep “What kind of return can we expect from its investment choices?”

“The best,” the sales rep answered confidently. “In simulation, our AI can outperform the greatest stockbrokers in the world. We are even planning a public demonstration of its superiority. It will be like when Deep Blue beat Kasparov at chess, historic.”

“And so another human chore will be automated,” a voice to Ng’s left said.

Ng’s visor-harness flashed, and Ng turned his head as his user’s attention was drawn to the speaker. It was the avataris, beautifully artificial, replicating its user’s speech and movement with more grace and elegance than any real human could perform.

The sales rep replied with a jovial quip that Ng did not hear because his user was focused on the avataris. Ng’s breath caught in his throat as he imagined his user admiring it, as if admiring a private jet or corner office. Ng knew he was to the avataris sapiens as renting was to owning, and he was the medium through which his client was seeing the next best thing.

Then, to his horror, the avataris turned its head slightly, noticing his stare, and it smiled at him with otherworldly perfection. Was it acknowledging the unspoken compliment in Ng’s user’s fascination? Or was it a knowing smile, intended for Ng and his obsolescence?

Ng’s heart pounded in his throat, and his stomach grumbled.


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The Nerd Harvest

Author : Ryan Somma

“You’re angry.”

“I’m not angry, I’m frustrated.”

“If you’re frustrated, that usually means you’re about to learn something.”

“Don’t quote Philo to me. You know I hate it when you quote Philo.”

“I’m just trying to think this through like he would do. This was his project, and now we’re responsible for it.”

“You think you’re so smart, but you’re not.”

“Obviously, I’m still here aren’t I?”

Dodd huffed back into his chair, folding his arms across his chest. I took advantage of his impromptu pout-break to nab Philo’s old Rubik’s Cube off the desk. Dodd moaned his displeasure at this, but knew better than to say anything. I was consistently solving the puzzle in under five minutes now.

It was almost a year since Philo vanished, along with a significant minority of city-dwellers, half of University Campuses, and all of Mensa International. Where did they go? Was it the fabled “Singularity” the old websites talk about? The “Rapture for Nerds?” Who knows, the people who came up with that idea had all disappeared as well.

So here we were, Dawson, I, and the rest of humanity’s dimbulbs left on Earth, playing with the toys the smart kids had left behind, trying to figure them out. Keeping faith in the supposed plasticity of our minds. We were muddling through understanding the brainiacs’ artifacts one by one.

I put the Rubik’s Cube, solved, down on the desk, thinking toward my lunch break, when I would resume tackling chess problems, and I had an epiphany–my new word of the week, and said, “Remember Dawson? She worked on an application just like this at her new job. I remember Philo giving her phone support on it all the time. They even set up an online forum to collaborate… before they–you know–transcended. I bet we can–”

“Dawson?” Dodd cut me off. “You mean Chelsea Dawson? The girl we fired from Help Desk? She went to egghead heaven too?” Dodd’s eyes rolled up into his head, frowning, “Oh, that’s more than I can bare.’

“I know,” I shook my head ruefully, “I’m feeling a little insulted too.”

Dodd was immersed in his self-loathing again, his very existence offending him. I popped a fish-oil pill and resumed squinting at Philo’s impenetrable tomb of programming code. My head hurt, but I didn’t mind. It was all part of what the smarties endured, like working out or dieting for a better body. No pain no gain on the road to a better mind.

Maybe one day I would vanish too.

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