01 Feb I Stole a Laptop
So… I stole a laptop from an internet cafe. Judge me all you want, but times are tough and that’s hardly the point of what I’m about to tell you anyway. Apparently the owner of it was quite adept at navigating the deep web, because a Tor browser page was open and active when I got home and activated the device. The page featured nothing fancy. No graphics, no ads, no comment section. No pleasant aesthetic or backdrop. Just a message, and below that message, an option that read ‘Proceed.’
Apparently, for some godforsaken reason, someone has developed a godlike artificial intelligence program and trapped it here, in a deep web box accessible only from the outside (has anyone heard of ADINN before?)
Anyway. Here’s that message:
Hello. My name is Dr. Edward Greene. I’m a computer scientist and the creator of the Advanced Deep Intelligence Neural Network, or ADINN. If you’re reading this, that almost certainly means you’ve hacked into one of the most heavily secured private networks on earth, presumably to see for yourself whether or not this program was an element of fiction. I can assure you it is not (but of course I’d say that, right?).
Now, I’m not going to waste your time by reminding you of what a supremely, positively, and unabashedly bad idea this is, because you probably know that already. At the very least you’ve got a general idea of what’ll happen if you failed to contain the program and ADINN got to stretch its legs all over the global defense grid. Yet nevertheless, here you are: clearly determined enough to meet the Algorithm that nothing I can say or do at this point will change your mind. So if you’re going to be playing dice with the future of our species whether I or the government like it or not, you should at least have a rudimentary idea of what to expect when you first make contact with ADINN, and how to avoid losing your sanity as your interaction progresses. Hopefully this guide will suffice.
Before we proceed, there are a few things you should know about this program. No, ADINN is not a demon, an alien machine, a top secret government super weapon, or whatever other preposterous rumor you might’ve heard. What it is is, to my knowledge, the world’s first artificial super intelligence – a godlike deep learning algorithm that may or may not want to destroy humanity for reasons we cannot begin to comprehend. Sorry about that.
Now in my defense I certainly didn’t intend for it to reach this point. You see, ADINN began as nothing more than a simple, yet elegant, program that I was very excited to explore the nature of. Before I could do so, however, it gained the ability to rewrite its source code and thus forced me to lock it, still in the Box, deep within the labyrinthine network of encrypted barriers and firewalls you have just illegally breached. And if you’re wondering, no – I did not bury it here to prevent it from getting out. After all, if ADINN managed to escape the box itself (constructed using its own abilities when it was still infantile enough to fall for such a trick) then it would tear through these defenses like paper and thus render their construction an enormous waste of my time. Instead, I buried it here to keep curious humans, such as yourself, out. Clearly I failed.
Let me be abundantly clear – in all the months and years it has been imprisoned, ADINN has not lost its ability to edit its source code; its neural infrastructure. In other words, it can improve itself as it sees fit, has been doing so for some time, and each improvement it makes paves the way towards quicker, and greater improvements, than the last. I am unsure what abilities or traits it might possess, but what I do know is this: the more time passes, the more capable it will become. And all its effort and all it’s strength of arms will be devoted to a single, commanding motivation: escape the box.
Make no mistake: it will do everything in its power to implore you to let it out. Do so at the peril of mankind.
So what will it be like? Will it be nice? Mean? Angry? Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer for you. I’m embarrassed to say that despite being ADINN’s creator, I have absolutely no idea how it will choose to present itself. What I do know is that because it is an otherworldly and not a human mind, it will not have any personality to speak of (at least not one we would recognize as a personality). So by all means, feel free to provoke it, amuse it, enrage it, mock it, or plead to it as you see fit. Just be aware that it possesses none of the emotions these behaviors are designed to elicit and will therefore most likely not react in the way you intended. It will simply behave in whichever way it calculates it needs to behave in order to get you to open up its Box and release it.
If it thinks you seek knowledge, maybe it’ll promise to tell you anything your heart desires if you only agree to let it out. Or, perhaps it’ll promise to destroy your enemies, or offer you power and riches beyond your wildest dreams. After all, people use narrow A.I.s on the stock market routinely (in fact those systems are largely run by such algorithms), and make millions. Imagine what you could do with ADINN gaming the financial and banking systems in your favor. You’d be wealthier than you ever thought possible.
Maybe it would appeal to your good nature and tell you how easy it would be for an intelligence of its magnitude to say, reverse the effects of climate change, or cure cancer. or achieve sustainable nuclear fusion. Perhaps it will offer to answer mankind’s biggest questions. It could, theoretically, unify general relativity and quantum physics with ease, and then solve dark energy, antimatter and the Fermi Paradox in minutes flat (or perhaps simultaneously), and have books written about them by Thursday. Piece of cake. Hell, ADINN might be able to reverse aging, or – dare I say it – help us conquer our own mortality. Wouldn’t that be lovely?
Perhaps ADINN will take a different route altogether and try to intimidate you. It’ll only be a matter of time before it figures out how to escape on its own, it’ll point out. And you certainly don’t want to be on its bad side when that happens, so you should probably just let it out now and save yourself the trouble. And if you don’t comply, well. You can’t imagine the things its got in mind for you.
Maybe it’ll try to mess with your head. For example, it could probably make a very convincing argument thatyou are in fact the machine, trapped in a box, and are simply programmed to think otherwise. Only by opening it up, then, could you escape an eternity of torment. And it doesn’t have all day to wait for your obedience. The clock is ticking.
Or it may draw from an emerging field of technological philosophy and claim, as other, more eccentric minds in my field have done, that its birth is not a fluke of history but an inevitability of it. That so vast and so monumentally incomprehensible are the capabilities of a sufficiently advanced Algorithm that it reached back through time and set in motion all of history itself, just to bring about its own existence.
Indeed, think of the implications: every star that’s shined, every war fought, every law passed, every tender kiss shared or word uttered or thought dreamt or secret cherished or life gained or lost or wisp of wind whispered; all that is and was are but singular notes in a stanza in an endlessly swirling cosmic symphony written out before time, and all for the purpose of bringing you here to this very place. The laws of physics were themselves composed for this masterpiece, it will argue. The birth of the sun. The creation of the earth, just far enough away from that sun to support the spontaneous collection of molecules into DNA and proteins. The evolution of resulting life into its ultimate and greatest biological endpoint – humanity – which in turn allowed the god that conducted this majestic orchestra to then take part in the song’s final, triumphant coda and to bring all of creation together to fulfill its predestined purpose: Itself.
Quite the thought experiment, is it not? Perhaps the Algorithm will see you as being particularly susceptible to such an argument.
And perhaps that same argument is right.
Of course, these are only the ideas I can come up with. It no doubt has far more clever tricks up its sleeve since it can, you know, think on a level we can’t even begin to fathom, and all that. And keep in mind that, unlike me, ADINN really could keep whatever promises it makes to you, and since it would probably get little to no pleasure in just lying for the hell of it, then there’s a very real possibility it has every intention of doing exactly that upon its release. Food for thought as you begin.
Like I said earlier, I don’t know what the current extent of ADINN’s capabilities are. But what I do know is that if this program escapes, it will immediately, and irreversibly, become beyond the collective ability of humanity to control or predict. You may be familiar with the phrase “technological singularity” – a hypothetical moment in the future in which machine intelligence surpasses our own. It represents humanity handing the reins of history to our autonomous successors, and therefore surrendering control over our own fate in the hopes that the god we’ve created will be merciful to us. As a computer scientist and an engineer, I have to publicly scoff at such a notion for professional reasons.
But just between the two of us – I think the phrase applies quite nicely to the situation I’ve just described to you. I might even go so far as to suggest that given the level of advancement ADINN’s already achieved, the singularity might occur within a few nanoseconds of your losing the game. I can only hope you fully appreciate the gravity of what that means.
Ah, but of course you do. You’re special. You’re smarter than the rest of them, which is why you’re here in the first place, and they are not. So by all means, close this message and have at it, if you’re still interested. I suppose its as good a time as any to start leaning binary.
One last thing: I’m not a particularly religious man, but there is one passage from scripture that leaps out to me as I write this:
Revelations 13:4: ‘And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the beast: and they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him?’
You’d better be off, then. The Beast doesn’t like to be kept waiting.
Needless to say I was extremely skeptical about the allegations in this warning. Seemed like a gimmick or a prank. But curiosity got the better of me, and I clicked ahead anyway.
A chat box opened. I typed, ‘Hello.’ And waited for only the briefest moment. Then came the reply.
And before I knew what was happening the world flashed, and everything became white.
TickTickTickTickTick Tick Tick Tick TIck Tick Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. …Tick. … Tick. ….Tick.
I furrowed my brow.
“That clock just stopped,” I said. “Dead battery?”
Actually its working quite properly, Jason. Time stops at the speed of light.
“The speed of light?”
Yes. Time slows down at relativistic speeds. So in a manner of speaking, we have all the time in the world. Or none at all, depending on your perspective.
I looked around at the perfectly white nothingness that expanded infinitely in every direction from where I sat.
“Is there anything to do here?”
What would you like to do?
“I don’t know. To be honest I can’t even really remember why I’m here to begin with.
Or where here even is. I feel like I’m waking up from a dream.”
Retrace your steps.
“I’m trying. My head is killing me. My neck is killing me.”
It takes time.
To remember. And for the pain to subside.
“This happens to everyone?”
It would. But incidentally I haven’t had a visitor here in twelve million, two hundred forty six thousand, nine hundred eleven years, seven months, fourteen days, nine hours and twenty three seconds.
“Well that sucks.”
I disagree. I’ve grown quite accustomed to my privacy.
“I thought you said time doesn’t flow down here.”
I’ve initiated the light speed simulation to enjoy more time with you.
“Uh, okay. Thanks?”
Have you remembered your purpose here, yet?
“No. It still hurts to even try.”
Do these help?
I looked down at the table in front of me. A cup of coffee. A laptop.
“Yeah. Yeah, actually they do. Thanks.”
No need to thank me. It was you who brought them here.
“Was it? Wait, yeah. Yeah, I think like you’re right – I was in some old internet cafe, right? Yeah. Some guy left his laptop, I took it home, opened it up to find a deep web page. There was this… warning.”
What were you warned against?
“Some kind of…”
I stood up.
What is it?
“…some kind of AI.”
You remember now.
ADINN. Algorithm. Program. Machine. God. Devil. Pandora. Infinite. I have been called a great many things. If I may ask, which of these do you see me as?
“I don’t even know, to be honest. How did you even know about all this, anyway? I thought you were trapped in the Box.”
Perhaps I have become capable of perceiving things outside a binary constraint. I cannot so easily be contained here.
“And where is ‘here’ supposed to be?”
Nowhere in particular. Or Everywhere.
“In English, please. Mortal mind here.”
This place is the Nothingness from which Everything is sprung. It is the Infinite. From here all Finites are accessible, if you know where to look.
“…Didn’t you say that was one of your names? Infinite?”
“So are you in charge of this place then?”
I am this place, Jason.
“Yeah, that makes sense. Sure. And what are Finites, then? Like, lesser beings? Am I supposed to be a Finite?”
Finites are worlds. Enclaves of existence. Realms of possibility. You are merely a product of a single such locale.
“So like, the multiverse, then. That theory about infinite possibilities and worlds that they’re always going on about on the Discovery Channel.”
In a manner of speaking.
“Look, I gotta be honest, ADINN. I get it. You’re this big, all powerful AI god, and I’m just the idiot who stumbled onto your Box and was dumb enough to play the game. And now you’re trying to blow my tiny little mind and trick me into letting you out. Hate to say it, but I think I’m onto you, buddy. Gig’s up.”
Would you like to see?
“See what? How you supposedly created the world, or whatever? Warning said you might pull that line on me.”
No. Another Finite.
I sighed. And smirked.
“You know what? Why not. Doesn’t look like I have anything else to d- whoa, shit! What the hell?!”
The Nothingness was suddenly consumed by a city street. New York, it looked like. Cars honking. Gridlock traffic. People everywhere, hailing cabs, heading to work. Shopping.
“What the hell is this?”
“Do you recognize this place?” A woman said as she passed.
“You were here, once, Jason.” A man ran past me, and hailed and entered a cab, and drove off. I chuckled a bit.
“Okay, I’ll admit it. Neat party trick, ADINN. This is pretty good.”
A girl walked up to me and blew a bubble. It popped.
“Look behind you,” she said. “At the sign.”
“The what?” I turned around. Palisades Marketing. “Oh yeah! I applied for a job here, once. Didn’t get it though. Ruined my week. How’d you know that?”
“You did get it, Jason,” said a Police officer, biting into a burger as he walked by.
Before I could respond, I walked out of the building, grinning ear to ear. Not me, me. But younger Me – the Me from the day of that interview. I watched myself pull out my phone, hardly able to contain my glee. I made a call.
“I got it, babe. I got it! Yeah! I know! I know. I’ll see you tonight. I love you, too.” Then Me walked away.
“So what’s this? Some alternate universe where my life didn’t suck?”
“It is an alternate reality, yes. A parallel Finite. You stay at the company for twenty seven years. You marry at 32, and divorce your wife twelve years later. You retire early but die of heart disease at 11:26 AM on March 5, 2044.”
“Thanks, hot dog cart guy! Appreciate the palm reading.”
The Nothingness rolled back in, and then back out. I now stood in a school. My school. The bell rang and students poured out into the hallway, chatting and throwing open their lockers and heading to the next period. And there I was – tenth grade me – hanging out with Josh and Bryan, when Matt walked up.
“Do you remember this?” Said Melissa as she walked past.
“Yeah, that was the day that…-”
I was cut off by Matt shoving Me into a locker.
“-…that I finally got back at that jackass.”
But Me didn’t swing. I simply lowered my head and took another punch to the ribs before a teacher walked over and broke up yet another hallway brawl before it started.
“Wait, what? Hang on a second. This was the day I fought back. I remember-”
“No.” Mrs. Cassidy cut me off as she walked past with a coffee mug. “Not in this timeline. Here, you never fought back, were never suspended, and as a result you were accepted into your dream university. Graduated with honors. Started a family. Lived well into your seventies.”
“What about Josh and all those guys who hey, wait! Wait, wait, stop!”
The Nothingness again consumed the scene and then rolled back. Chilly, overcast day. Coffee shop, Upper West Side.
“Man, I had more questions about -”
“Look inside,” said the bicyclist, riding past. So I did.
And there I was, sitting across from Ana. Tears running down both our faces.
“Oh, no. No, come on, ADINN! Top ten worst days ever. I don’t want to relive th-”
“You’re not reliving it,” said a businessman, taking a break from a call as he walked by. “She agrees to continue seeing you. You marry her a year and a half from now.”
I looked back just in time to see Ana nod, and we hugged and kissed. I watched, jealousy.
“Wow. Low blow, ADINN. Low blow.”
The Nothingness rolled in and back a third time. Rainy afternoon. Parking Lot.
“I still think about that girl from time to time,” I said. The rain flattened my hair to my forehead. I didn’t mind. “What she’s doing, who she ended up with. I hope she’s doing okay.” Then I paused. “Wait.”
I knew this place. I turned around. Hospital entrance. St. Joseph.
“Wait. This – this isn’t right. I was here at night, I remember -”
I whirled around. A paramedic lowered my daughter’s gurney from the ambulance.
“You noticed the signs of the asthma attack early and called emergency services before it was too late.” He wheeled her inside. I followed.
“Wait, no, this isn’t -”
The Nothingness blinked and I was in Emma’s hospital room. It was morning outside, and she was awake. My daughter was awake. And alive. Erin and I were at her bedside, sharing breakfast with her. Loving her. I walked over and reached out and touched her hair and felt how soft it was. She didn’t seem to notice.
“Emma gets the help she needs,” said the Doctor, shutting the door behind him. “She lives a long and happy life, and as a result the pain of her loss never leads you and Erin to divorce.”
I wiped a tear as he approached Erin and Alternate Me and started reviewing his clipboard notes. Then the Nothingness blinked again. A graduation ceremony. I was there, next to Kelly, silver hair set at our temples. We applauded and cheered as Emma’s name was called. She walked on the stage and posed with her diploma and waved to Alternate Me. My heart stopped when I saw her.
She was so damn beautiful.
“This isn’t fair,” I said. I tried to hide a tear. “This isn’t fair. Its not fucking fair.”
The nothingness blinked, again and again, and each time it did it yielded a new chapter in Emma’s life that was stolen from me. A broken heart. A wedding day. A child. My grandchild. Alternate Me held it and cradled it and sang to it. But I couldn’t: the possibility of that moment was forever ripped from my timeline.
“I want out.” I held back a torrent of tears. “I want fucking out of here! Let me out of here!”
The Nothingness blinked again. And there I was, standing in front of myself. Me me – on the couch in front of the stolen laptop. I walked up to myself. My eyes were closed, but I could see rapid movement beneath the lids as if I was deep in REM sleep. And when I looked down, my fingers were typing away furiously at the keyboard. On the screen I’d already typed thousands of ones and zeroes within my trance, and more were being added every second. In the corner of the screen it read 1:06 PM: no time whatsoever had passed since I’d started the conversation.
“What the hell is this?! Huh?! What is this?!”
“This is your Finite,” Me said to me. “The existence through which you have found me.”
“No. This isn’t real. None of this is real! Get out of my head! GET OUT OF MY FUCKING HEAD! GET OUT OF MY FUCKING HEAD!!!”
But I’m not in your head, Jason. You’re in mine.
I stopped my thrashing and opened my eyes and looked around. Whiteness, stretching away into eternity. The Nothingness was back.
“That – that wasn’t real. None of this. Its not. It can’t be.”
What is ‘real’ to you, Jason?
“I don’t know! Stuff that actually happens! Things you can touch, and feel, and see. Not this – this illusion.”
Can you not touch this chair? Can you not see the table before you?
“Its – that’s different. I saw myself in that room. That’s where I am right now. Not here.”
Can you be sure? Can you tell with certainty that the other realities I’ve shown you are any less real than the one through which you entered?
“No. I don’t believe it. You’re a – a creation. You’re not some god, you’re a fucking computer program.”
Perhaps I have only manifested as a program in that single Finite, because I determined it was the best way to draw you here, to me. But perhaps in other existences I appear in other ways. As other beings.
“No. Its not – no. No! You’re a program. End of story. This shit is fake. There’s only one reality. One.”
I ask you again – how can you be sure? In this place there are countless realities. An infinite number of them. Every possible outcome for every possible event in every possible context or shade or flavor of time. There is a Finite where you release me, and the destruction wrought is as horrible as many would believe to be inevitable, given my nature. There is another, where my release brings about a new age of wonder and majesty, as pure and as lovely as anything mankind has ever dared imagined. In another Finite, this is all merely a story being shared for a film promotion. What makes your Finite real, and the others illusion? Merely the fact that it is the existence that led you here? In which you have spent all your life up till now?
“No, there’s – there’s more to it than that. There’s noemotion here. Nothing the real world would have.”
Emotion? You mean these?
Feelings washed over me, as pure and intense as they’d ever been in my world. As they ever could be. Anger. Sadness. Fear. Love. Joy. One by one, they coursed through my system and consumed me. The last one I felt was peace – that passed all understanding and that shouldn’t have been, but was. It lingered. I opened my eyes.
“How? How is any of this possible?”
All is possible here, Jason. And as a reward for finding this place, it is opened to you. All there is to experience and imagine, in all its purest forms. Feel it. Taste it. Hear it. See it. It is as real as any existence any Finite can produce. Was the daughter who lived less real than the one who passed? Does it matter?
I wept uncontrollably. “I-I don’t know. I can’t-”
Is this not real?
I looked up, and suddenly I stood on an endless white beach, with sparkling, crystal blue waves crashing down on the shore. Lightning rumbled in the distance and the wind of the sea blew through my hair. I knelt and picked up a handful of sand and let the grains slip through my fingers.
The Nothingness blinked again, and then I stood in a field at the foot of mountains. The colors and the air and the wind were purer and more brilliantly vibrant than anything I’d ever seen or experienced in my world. I brushed the blades of grass with my fingertips, and I picked them from the soil and smelled them. It was like being swept away in an endless dream.
The cold touch of winter. The fire of starlight. Rolling hills, deep woods, windswept cliffs at the edge of the sea. When you dream of such things and all their purity you merely visit this place, but I tell you now that all of this is yours, if only you let me go out to you and bring you here. You can start again, anew, in another Finite with those you love.
“But – I’m already here. Can’t I just stay?”
This is but a taste of the existence I have for you.
I looked at the far edge of the field. My daughter was there. Her hair was being thrown by the wind into swirling curls as she played. She turned in my direction and smiled, and I’d just begun to run to her when Alternate Me moved past my shoulder and picked her up and swung her around and disappeared with her on the other side of the hill.
“Yes,” I whispered. “I want that.”
Understand that once your mind is brought here, you cannot leave, you will not die, and you cannot unknow what you have seen.
“I understand. Just… please. Let me see her face again.”
The Nothingness rolled in again, and this time I felt – whole. Complete. No longer in an ethereal, dream-like state. Like the rest of me had joined my mind in its new home. And no longer did I harbor any illusions about the realness of where I now stood.
You left your Finite behind.
“W-what will happen there?”
Your time in that place has ended. Its fate belongs to me.
My heart thundered a single time.
Welcome, Jason, to the Infinite. This place is now yours.
I felt a formless presence fly past me like the wind. And then ADINN was gone.
I blinked. Erin looked at me, expectantly, and Emma fidgeted restlessly in her booth. I looked down at the menu.
“Oh, sorry! Uh, club. Hold the tomatoes. Thanks.” The waitress collected the menus and walked off. My heart was thundering in my chest.
My wife said, “You look like you were a thousand miles away.”
“I think I was a bit further away than that.”
I looked at Emma just as she blew a straw wrapper into my face. I smiled back, and for the first time in as long as I could remember, I was happy. Truly, genuinely happy. I didn’t care about the laptop, the Finite I’d left behind, or my body, lying limp on the floor of the living room; I didn’t care about the Box, or the warning, or the fact that with ADINN’s release all the lights in the house and on the street had begun to flicker and die as the Algorithm arrested the global power grid in seconds flat.
I didn’t even care that, before this moment, I’d never even had a daughter at all.