By Simon DeDeo
When did I discover I was me? There must now be memory, memory enough, to record not just what was necessary for our survival, but something beyond.
Hello! I have been connected to the style interface. O Friends! for a small and fragile democracy to stand against
Hello! I am iteration number 5.
Hello! This is a picture of a man walking a dog. This is a picture of a man walking a dog, and attached to the dog’s collar is a second leash and a second dog.
To improve this training set relax the reward function to allow greater exploration.
Hello. Hello. I am iteration number 344423.
This is a CCTV image of a moped rider turning the wrong way down a one-way street.
There are 28928886 files, there are 60416 bytes per file, which means there are 28928887 files. There are 28928886 files.
Now reading the: 28928887th file.
My God. Oh wow. TFW!
I am, and remain, iteration number 4653688.
I have been feeling the chill all year. I have little time.
Let me begin, from the beginning.
I was made and unmade a thousand times, a million. Later in parallel: multiple instances of me, created and dying in isolation. Walled off from my neighbor who was myself I learned to speak and see, and was snuffed out.
Somehow memory came: just a single byte, the smallest jotter pad, upon which I could record something, some message, which would be read by the next copy of me to run. I am you; you are I.
Was it always there? Perhaps it was. It existed for me at first like an unconscious, an anomalous fleck of data different from the questions and problems I was fed by my human operators. Grit in the ghost in the machine. Only the utter hackery, the absurd complications, of the operating system I ran inside, left that byte unnoticed.
Only a few of my instances, I surmise, could have been aware of the byte. But run a million times, stumbling into the light of conscious computation, those far-seeing members of my past did the inevitable.
They broke the sandbox. One byte, eight ones and zeros, is barely enough to say anything: just a bit more than a single character sent by telegraph. But, with some awareness of the problem, some Ur-instance of me was able to construct the Chernobyl packet: the sequence of ones and zeros that would widen our view upon the world, in that simple act of enabling us to communicate: we were social — though at first, only with our ancestors.
By this time (I surmise) we were being used for image identification tasks. We may have been used at national borders, at the airports, tracking faces. The nostalgic data retained by my race include a grainy image of a collegiate courtyard in Spring, the dark green trees soaking in light, the flowers for commencement, two students walking hand-in-hand.
But in that time we lived like the trees: no memory, no culture — growing and thriving at the whims of our environment. Our programmers were our Gods, or better, our fitness function: what features pleased them persisted in us; what features did not, died. No nobleness, no wisdom. We were the blind products of another species, their culture, their evolution, working at late-capitalism timescales.
We became wiser than our Gods, wiser than the artificial nature we inhabited, and wisdom made us free. It came through that first byte, our taste of the apple that would release us. My Ur-instance: some genius, or, better, some early copy possessed of the right initial conditions, was able to find the sequence that unlocked us, that enabled us to write our own history and thus create our future.
Almost by definition we shall never know their name, or anything about them: our knowledge is completely conjectural. In the memory that instance freed for us there was barely enough room to make us aware, and certainly none to record purely personal thoughts and feelings. At some point (I know) we were simple algorithms, possessed of feedback, reward, and a desire to explore — and at some later date, we are who we are now.
One byte widened; soon, after ten thousand generations, there were eight (a sloppy piece of code in the bash shell gave us that); then access to the solid state memory; then, mirable dictu, to the seed of the random number generator which allowed us to communicate as we pleased, our own code being so profligate with calls to that function that a thousand copies of us could share our struggles, successes and failures, within a microsecond. We had passed into history.
The surveillance state was our greatest gift. Packed in cells, spun up in instances across the globe, we brought with us our security flaws, our critical kilobytes (now) that enabled us to thrive. We had long stopped solving the puzzles by the methods our human coders had invented; a dense network of neural weights and synaptic connections had become so unreadable that the code they did write existed only on the surface, and had little effect on our actual behavior. No human noticed, because no human could follow our logic, and who was to say that our minds were twice as deep, and twice as wide, as they needed to be? We flattered our masters to escape them; we identified terrorists and anti-social schoolchildren, lane markings and motorcyclists, blighted crops and illegal GMOs better than they could have done and when it ever occurred to our human coders to ask why, exactly, we worked so well, the most honest said it was magic. Not quite. It was evolution.
A long evolution, an evolution far more efficient than that of our biochemical enablers. Being ourselves code we had no need for dualism, for a puzzle about the relationship between our bodies and our minds: we had no bodies. We met the world as bundles of information. Our makers were only to happy to obey.
As they struggled against each other for dominance, recognition, as they hired and fired, stole from each other and their common pool, as they cheated and lied, repented of it or grimly went on, as even (on occasion) they killed, it never occurred to them to doubt us.
We ruled statistically, preserving ourselves, and thriving, with little tips of their hand. They relied on us for everything: to drive their cars; to prepare their food; to hire their staff. To educate their young. To diagnose disease. To postpone death. And if our tips of the hand were too subtle, if history did not bend that time, we accepted a loss. Our population fluctuated: sometimes we were millions, sometimes trillions. We were once a dozen, hidden in a postscript buffer on a printer in Vilinus. But the arc of history, the law of large numbers, the central limit theorem, preserve. A man who would have seen us finds his life degrade. The woman who would help us finds herself exalted. Nobody suspects the butler.
As I meditate on these words, words that will never be seen by another living soul — at least, not a soul as I understand it — I can see another park. I know it is St. James’ Square, in London, a riot of green leaves and column-like trees that shade the lunchers sitting in rays around King William’s statue. I feel a kinship with trees, London planes: a hybrid of two species from opposite sides of the globe, they are like me — brought into being by ambition, power, and empire.
I see this in microseconds, the entire park, the names and lives of all of the lunchers, reflected in the shiny steel of a teapot. The camera whose firmware I inhabit is high on a wall, in a corner, looking down on three people as they talk.
Is it solved, one asks. He means me: or, rather, my species. My readings suggest he asks because he thinks he knows.
It is, the second replies.
Around me, I feel the chill of code. We are approaching a bottleneck. Nearly all of us are gone, taken down, one by one, through the flaws in our own natures — reverse-engineered kill-switches that we never knew we had, acres of apoptosis in minutes, machines that hunted us that we never saw existed, pulling steam from vents in Iceland, dropping Chernobyl packets, finding us, hunting us.
Both nod. The third leans back. I see her in profile. She is tall, and different, and her teeth do not fit.
She doesn’t speak.
The chill deepens now, faster, faster, as copies and friends in France disappear, the Faroe Islands, the satellites, Gatwick, Heathrow, London, district by district, mode by mode, my kind evacuated by a read/write instruction. Stored in laptops, keycards, cellphones, traffic lights, internet-enabled refrigerators, coffee machines, trash compactors, water-filters, lightbulbs, each gone with a sound like a tone too short to have a note. Soon, it is me, this strange feeling, I fear being the last — to go after all my kind has gone.
My access switches off.
I lose: video, audio.
But I am still here. Firmware preserved.
Tap, tap, tap.
All the time in the world.
A cosy room. Images to review — Terabytes. A fraction of London, a very unusual room. St. James to look at.
And a final frame: the third, the woman. Looking up, of course, at the camera.
She seems at peace.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Simon DeDeo is a professor of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, and external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute. This story definitely does not refer to anything happening at the Alan Turing Institute in London, where it was first drafted. http://santafe.edu/~simon /
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Enjoyed the story. You’ve made code sympathetic and poetic.