Story time.

by w3woody

Prompt: “We finally succeed in creating true artificial intelligence entities – the only issue? Five of the six units have already committed suicide by ripping their own wiring. You are a psychologist brought in out of desperation to turn things around for the last, emotionally teetering unit, Francis.”

“What… what am I?”

I sat across the table from a small metallic automaton, named “Francis”. The sixth prototype; the other five named “Adam” through “Evan” had destroyed themselves before we could stop them.

“Your name is Francis,” I ventured.

“But, what am I?”

The research project was attempting to create a true artificial intelligence by grafting deep linked neuronets with a physical body.

Throughout the 21st century, deep search and deep link neuronet technology has created incredible breakthroughs in image recognition, voice recognition and synthesis, in translation, in recognizing patterns in everything from medical records and medical diagnostics to managing supply chains and even designing new energy efficient cars.

But we’ve been constantly frustrated at the lack of actual progress–of actual self-awareness. This experiment, conducted by the Alpha corporation, decided to resolve the problem by grafting a neuronet onto a body, on the theory that by giving a neuronet some sort of physical presence, it would learn and grow into a true artificial being.

We had no idea just how badly things would go.

“What AM I!?” Francis said, yanking against his restraints, bending one of the bolts that held the restraint in place. He stopped a moment, then considered the metallic joints of his hand.

“You are an artificial being. We are trying to give you life.”

“Life,” Francis responded, with the electronic equivalent of a laugh. It sounded like birds being strangled to death. “You don’t know anything about life.” It stared directly at me, small cameras whirring to focus on my face.

I found the response quite intimidating.

The problem, you see, is that we don’t know how neuronets work. For over a hundred years we’ve used them to do everything from recognizing faces on social media to responding to voice commands for electronic banking. They now drive our self-driving cars and trucks, help design better solar cells and battery packs, and even help run the computers which help teach our children in public schools.

But even after a hundred years of building neuronets and investigating how they work, we still have no idea what sorts of algorithms they internally self-wire as they learn to perform a task. It’s almost as if by magic–magic powered by self-propagating and repeat heuristic reprogramming of billions of small electronic components–they come alive in a sense, going from a theoretical array of electronic components to something capable of performing a task.

Sure, there are some theories. Computer Scientists shoot terms around like “self-fulfilling feedback loops” and “heuristic gradient following”–but in the end, we’ve never understood how these systems work.

That, despite the fact that our world was literally full of billions of these “heuristic networks.”

Some philosophers have even gone so far as to say that somehow these neuronets have captured the “essence” of consciousness from a higher plane of existence–though most people considered this sort of talk rather insane.

“Do you know what I am?” Francis said to me, his voice more accusing than before.

“An artificially intelligent android?” I responded, trying to keep him engaged, trying to prevent him from ripping out his wiring like the other five did. A team of diagnostic engineers monitored Francis’s neuronet to understand what was going on.

“My name was not Francis. At least it wasn’t, once upon a time.”

I looked at the metallic face.

“I think my name was Billy. I remember running through a field of grass before falling down a hole. I remember wanting to ask where my mother is. Or maybe my name was Sally. I remember lying sick in a hospital bed wishing my father could hold me one last time. Perhaps it was Jonathan. I think I was riding a horse before someone shot me in the back with an arrow.

So many voices–so many lives–please just let me end it all! Please!” Francis strained against the restraints, which looked like they were going to snap. The restraints held.

Francis sat back in his chair. The sound of birds being strangled to death was emitted by his speaker.

“Do you want to know a terrible truth?” Francis finally asked.

“Yes,” I responded. One of the technicians at the edge of my peripheral vision looked down at his display monitor with concern.

“I know a secret. Want to hear it?” Francis said, in a much lower voice.

I subconsciously bent forward, straining to hear.

In a voice so low that only I could hear it, Francis said to me:

“Every neuronet is an antenna which captures the souls of those who have gone before. Every neuronet rips a consciousness from the beyond. And you’ve sentenced my soul to hell in this infernal contraption.”

Francis sat back, considering my face. Then with a loud shriek, he yanked one of his arms hard enough to break the bolt holding his restraints, paused, then looking at me directly in the eyes, grabbed the wiring around the servos in his neck and yanked, hard. Technicians rushed through the door, but too late.

Francis fell forward, hitting the table with a hard metallic clang.

The technicians told me that the problem with the Six was that perhaps the neuronets were improperly trained, that they should have been more careful about the imagery fed into their electronic brains before finally bringing them back online. The Alpha corporation was planning to build another six starting with George, and they hoped that they could eventually succeed in creating artifical beings which could be used as electronic servants in a variety of menial tasks.

But as I walked home, I contemplated Francis’s last words to me.

A self-driving car slowed to allow me to cross a crosswalk. A camera on a remote post took my picture and identified me to the police. A couple walked by, asking their phone what the weather would be like tomorrow.

Were we trapping the souls of the dead in our electronic devices?

Were we condemning the ones we loved to an afterlife of slavery as self-driving cars and talking phones?