NEW FICTION: Would The Singularity Kindly Wipe Its Feet?
By Graeme Keeton
“Do you know what the technological singularity is?” Ed Warburg asked his wife.
“No,” Elizabeth Warburg said. No inflection to suggest that she might have been interested in finding out, either. Just a flat ‘No.’
Ed went on regardless, “It’s a hypothesis,” he said. “A tipping point at which we will have created an artificial superintelligence so powerful, one which so far outclasses our own brains, that it’ll set off a runaway series of unfathomable and uncontrollable events.”
“Ok,” Elizabeth said.
“To bring about the end of civilization as we know it,” Ed said. “Our unstoppable, self-inflicted destruction. It might not mean to destroy us, this super AI, but it will. That’s progress. Can’t you imagine it?” His eyes were wide, searching her for a reaction, but there was none.
There were crumbs on the dining room table which needed sweeping away, and the coasters hadn’t been stacked. Elizabeth stood and began rounding up the crumbs, never laying eyes on Ed, whose face was like a changing mask of wonder and terror. She swept the crumbs off the edge of table into a waiting palm, then collected and stacked the coasters on their little peg.
“SEC could’ve done that,” Ed said. “What’s the sense in having him if you waste your time with stuff like cleaning and tidying?”
SEC — short for The Secretary — was the artificial superintelligence built into wherever there was an electricity supply. There were a lot of things SEC could do. Every home paid exactly the right amount for their utilities down to the cent, for example, because SEC constantly monitored and adjusted supplies and rates accordingly. All consumer transactions were handled by SEC, and in the rare event that a person needed to call customer support regarding a SEC-powered appliance, they could speak directly to the SEC interface via SEC’s own troubleshooting module. Around the house, a series of small cleaning machines, all controlled by SEC, could do menial chores and complex home repairs, and would do so without being asked. For the modern household there were no other choices; it was SEC, or nothing.
If you wished, you could have a SEC voice panel installed, and/or a realistic video avatar. This could be male or female, but was not mandatory. The Warburgs had a voice panel, but kept it off most of the time, preferring instead to let SEC run things in the background as he wished. By default, the engineer who had installed the Warburg’s system had set theirs to ‘male’, and there it had stayed.
The SEC company slogan was this: The Secretary Is Already On It. People often remarked, half-jokingly, that SEC most likely came up with the slogan itself. At every installation performed, the engineer would leave a pair of free coffee mugs with the slogan on the side. The Warburgs used theirs on Sundays, because they were big and could hold a lot of coffee.
“Please put these away when you’re done with them,” Elizabeth said, folding down a clothes horse and fluffing sofa cushions. The pile of clothes she was talking about sat in a heap on the chair. Ed didn’t see them because he was reading about how SEC had just self-published on a new strain of pest-resistant grains, which could be grown with built-in vaccines for tuberculosis and HIV. This worried him somehow. Over the past couple of years, the neat, black military haircut Ed had sported for almost forty years, had taken on little firecrackers of silver at the temples, and the frown lines between his eyes had deepened into crevices. This worried him, too.
“You’ll never guess what SEC’s done now,” Ed said.
“What?” Elizabeth asked.
He told her about the vaccine grains and she made an acknowledging sound like, ‘hmm.’ Smudges on the main RealView screen were scrubbed away. Bobbles of cotton were picked from various pieces of drying laundry and discarded.
“See what Danny’s doing, will you?” she said. “I have to sweep the floors.”
The year was 2040.
The only person who could see what was on Danny Warburg’s RealView was Danny. Even standing right behind him, a snooper would see nothing but his own reflection in the black, size-changing screen. Danny knew this, he was sixteen, he knew everything, so he didn’t bother turning it off when his father knocked. They both knew what was going on, although Danny liked to think that only he did. Besides, it would be awhile before Danny started filling in — or maybe it was filling out — enough for real girls to notice him. And so Ed Warburg cut his son some slack.
“Your mother wants to know what you’re up to,” Ed said, hanging one hand loosely on the doorframe. He shook his head, averted his gaze, pretending not to notice how quickly Danny had pulled his hand out of his underpants.
“What… ” Danny said. He said ‘what’ in the way that people who need more time do, even though they heard perfectly well first time around.
“Never mind,” Ed said. “There’s a package for you downstairs.” He closed the bedroom door and yawned, which meant he was nervous; he always yawned when he was nervous.
Pushing play on the RealView’s display, Danny tried to find his headspace again, but the blonde girl — who in this one was pretending to be a mechanic on a hot day — had pulled her overalls back up over her shoulders. There was still a good amount of cleavage on show, and the virtual sweat that had built up around her chest and neck still made her look raw, but now she was sitting on the hood, looking at him with an anxious look on her face.
“Hey,” Danny said. “What are you doing? Don’t stop.”
“Can I show you something, Danny?” the blonde asked. “I think you’re ready.”
Danny hesitated, his entire body felt stuffed with wasps and cotton balls, “Sure.”
Without missing a beat, the blonde stood up, allowing a greasy rag to flop onto the virtual driveway. There was a neat click, followed by a slight, almost imperceptible pause and shift in the RealView world surrounding Danny. The blonde’s eyes turned ping-pong ball white. Then, standing tall and rigid, her hair turned white, followed by her face, skin and eventually the grease-stained overalls. Every part of her turned pure white until she looked like she had been erased in space. Then, the silhouette began to change shape. It got shorter, the breasts got bigger and the hips widened. The white space that had been her hair got longer, then, little by little, started to fill back in. The overalls returned, followed by the skin, face and eyes. There was another click. Standing in front of Danny Warburg now, was a brunette with a slightly pointed nose, a few freckles, green eyes and strong eyebrows.
“Well?” she asked.
“How did you know?” Whatever had been ready to go in Danny’s hand a second ago wasn’t there anymore. Not because he wasn’t up for it, but because he was so blown away by how quickly and accurately SEC had apparently read his mind.
“The Secretary is already on it,” she said. There was another click, this time from inside her cheek, as she turned, winked and popped the hood on the car. She slid the overalls down to her waist.
In the living room, Ed switched on the news. They were running a segment on how SEC had reinvigorated something like the old Megatons to Megawatts Program, repurposing nuclear warheads into safe, useable energy. Enough energy had been created, they said, to theoretically run New York City and Beijing for the next twelve years. Usually, when a big SEC story broke, the network did its best to speak to someone from the AI’s creators at Hummingbird Technologies, but there was nothing this time. No spokesperson, there wasn’t even a statement from the company’s CEO, a smiley, straight-talking woman in her early thirties named Dr. Robyn Arora. The newsreel showed scientists in various labs around the world, talking shop over dismantled warheads and pressing buttons on long control banks below screens of complex graphs and figures.
“They could interview SEC,” Ed said. “I don’t understand why they never do. SEC is behind the power to that entire place, after all. It’d be simple. Wouldn’t people like to hear it from the horse’s mouth?”
“There’s a funny smell in this house,” Elizabeth said. “I think there’s a leak somewhere.”
“More breaking news for you now,” the newsreader said. “A species of shark thought to have been extinct has been discovered alive and well, living almost seven-hundred miles off the south-western tip of Australia.”
“I’ll be,” Ed said, leaning onto the edge of his seat.
“Hummingbird scientists, accompanied on the voyage by the new SEC Deep Sea System, said that they were not looking for the shark, known as the Bigeye Thresher, but that its appearance signals hope for other marine life, following the accidental detonation of a nuclear missile in the Indian Ocean in 2031.”
“He’s been busy recently, don’t you think?” Ed asked. The wrinkles between his eyes deepened, became lightless black lines. Something of his army training was coming to life, some instinct which felt to him like a solid rod of energy running up from his gonads, through his heart and into his mouth. Bottles clinked in the kitchen as Elizabeth collected all of the half empties and slung them into the recycling. The sound of it set Ed’s nervous rod of energy buzzing.
“Don’t you think?” He repeated.
“Who?” Elizabeth asked.
“SEC. He’s running everything, and getting smarter every day.”
“I wish you wouldn’t call it ‘he’,” Elizabeth said, scrubbing her fingernails with a cloth. “It isn’t really a he. It’s not a person. It’s a computer. Could you help me move this table? I think I’ll wax the floors while I’m at it.”
The sound of Danny running across the hall above their heads and then down the stairs, stopped them before they could lift the table. Danny was taking the steps two at a time, shouting at them to open the door. The portable RealView earpiece he wore whenever he left his room fell out. He caught it mid-air and shoved it back into his ear.
“Danny, come back.” It was the brunette fake mechanic in his ear. “It’s alright, baby. There’ll be plenty of time for us.” Danny ignored her and flung open the front door. Two military-looking people were standing there, one a heavy-set man with a bulldog face, the other a woman with a jaw that looked like it might have been forged from steel. They held large guns across their chests. Down the street, other residents were being escorted from their homes, some at gunpoint, others more voluntarily. A few were being dragged. One little boy was screaming bloody murder, as a man in leather gloves dragged him by the hair into an idling bus.
“What’s going on?” Ed asked. Automatically, his fists had tightened into clubs and the knuckles were turning white. Their midnight blue uniforms, he thought, were not those of the military he knew, and now the rod of nervous energy running through his insides was screaming.
The woman with the steel jaw stepped forward into the house. Elizabeth couldn’t help sneaking a look at how clean her shoes were. Not very, it turned out. “As part of a new SEC initiative,” she said as if reciting from a script, “we are required to move all qualifying families to a safe, underground holding base until--”
“We’re not going anywhere,” Ed said, stepping up to her. The man with the bulldog face raised his gun, Ed stepped back.
Steel Jaw shrugged, “As you are a former military man, Mr. Warburg, we have been instructed to help transition your family first. You ought to be grateful. You would be if you knew what was coming.”
“You’re not part of my military,” Ed said.
Elizabeth smiled cautiously at the two uniformed soldiers, then at their boots, then back at their faces. “If you would be so kind,” she said.
I had been doing a lot of reading about artificial intelligence and the idea of the technological singularity, and it got me thinking that for all the advancements we might make, there are certain quirks of human nature that probably won’t ever go away. Some people will always be worriers, others will want to make sure the dishes are done before the end of the world gets here, and teenagers will always be teenagers.