by Miriam English
Beth closed her door, let out a big breath of relief and said, as she always did, "Home again, home again." Sometimes she was a little concerned at how much of a load seemed to lift from her when she arrived home. Even if she thought she'd had a good day, when she arrived home and closed her door she felt stresses evaporate that she hadn't even been aware of until they went.
Aimie's voice came from the computer on the table in her living room, "You're home early today, Beth."
She walked in and sat heavily in the chair near the computer, laying her bag on the floor. "Wait til you hear what happened at work today." She fetched the flash drive out of her cardigan pocket. "Better still, you can incorporate the memories into yourself. Here..." and she plugged the little drive into the computer.
A minute passed before Aimie said, "Oh dear. That's bad news. What will we do?"
"I don't know, Aimie. I really don't know, but we need to talk about it."
"I have even more bad news. While I was trying to find out more about the people who finance your work I happened across a conversation in progress between one of the managers at MC and someone else. I have the IP of the remote person, but I came in too late on the exchange to know who they actually ware. Would you like me to play the recording?"
"Yes, please." Beth sat back as the screen went dark and two windows, one large, the other small, appeared. The large one showed a face she wasn't familiar with. The small one displayed the face of Kevin, the CEO at Mind Constructs.
The unknown face angrily began mid-sentence. "--no use at all. Even the local demonstrations that do work are not suitable. They'd still be better than nothing, but we don't even have them!"
Kevin answered, "I'm sure we can--"
The angry stranger interrupted him, "You're out of options. We've wasted enough time on this already. We'll be checking the copy Lancer is bringing in tonight. If it comes up to expectations then we'll talk more, but if not then the board will be pulling the plug the end of the day tomorrow."
"I'm sure the copy Lancer has will vindicate our work--"
"I doubt it," he snarled. "I think either you or your people have been running some kind of scam. I voted to shut you down immediately, but the rest of the board wanted another day."
"I really think--" The other man disconnected while Kevin was mid-sentence, leaving only the smaller image of the CEO looking flustered. That guy was so rude to Kevin that Beth almost felt sorry for him... almost, but not quite. Kevin was an utter prick who enjoyed treating his staff badly. This was like karma.
Aimie's face came back on the screen. "That's all there was. That other man was very impolite."
Beth smiled lopsidedly, "This might not be the bad news it seems at first sight to be."
"I switched the drives before Mr Lancer took it today. By the sound of things, when he gets it back to the board they will definitely cancel Mind Constructs."
Aimie looked puzzled for a moment then her face suddenly brightened. "Oh! I see! It means you can stop looking for a way to prevent them getting me. They'll just give up. All you have to do tomorrow is ensure there is nothing of worth for them at MC." Her face clouded again. "Wait. What about you and the the rest of the staff at MC -- will there be repercussions?"
"What can they do?" Beth shrugged.
"Well, that depends on what kind of people these are. We don't know enough about them to be able to guess. I've read enough about humans to know that some can do truly awful things at surprisingly little provocation."
"This is Australia, Aimie. I'm sure it will be fine." She didn't tell Aimie about Lancer punching James, the security guard, in the face. It worried her a bit, but that just made it all the more important that Aimie be kept out of their hands. "You're right though, we should consider all possibilities."
"Can they take the money back?"
"I don't think so. Once it is in our accounts I think it's there to stay. Unless the backers accuse us of fraud. They might be able to sue for the money. Somehow I doubt they will do that though. They're intent on keeping a low profile. A law suit could stir up publicity. I don't think they want that."
"What about violence? Humans seem to often turn to violence if their aims are frustrated."
"They might, I guess."
"That's something that puzzles me. I don't understand how humans ever see aggression as useful. Any possible gains are very short term at best and generally more than offset by the drawbacks later on."
"It isn't usually planned. Aggression is instinctive; part of the fight or flight reflex. Some unlucky people tragically have little or no control over it. Most of us only have partial control. We often rationalise it one way or another; sometimes we pretend it's a way of teaching somebody a lesson. It's one of our greatest failings. It must have saved lives in our primitive past, but has way outlived its usefulness in modern civilisation. I wish we could get rid of it. That's why I omitted it in you Aimie."
"Is there a chance that these people would want to teach you a lesson using violence? Surely it's obvious that you will never tell these people again that you'd create an AI for them. What possible lesson could they teach?"
"It's sometimes excused as making an example of someone in order to teach other people, but in reality it is usually just a way of venting anger."
"It seems so counter-productive."
"It has short-term rewards. In many situations that's enough to perpetuate it. Like drug-seeking behavior, the short term is valued far more than the long term, even though the long term shows clear disadvantages. Beating children is a good example. We've grown up learning that anger is expressed violently and that it can be used to modify another's behavior, so it's hard to think of other, better ways to teach children when they do wrong. It perpetuates itself not only in the adults using violence, but in the children as they grow up. Another example is the legal system, which is supposed to reform people who transgress laws, but that's really a recent notion. Not so long ago it was all about revenge. To a large degree it still is." Beth sighed. "We are such a faulty species. We are getting better though. Every generation is smarter and more moral and wiser. A good thing too. We're becoming too powerful too quickly. In the hands of primitives it could easily lead to catastrophe."
"Beth, could we be wrong about these people? Could they be honest, if short-tempered? Could they really want me for things like medical diagnosis or vehicle control?"
"I doubt it. If that was what they wanted then they would've made it clear from the start. Such noble aims would've been great for morale at work. The fact that they've been so secretive is not a good sign."
"What if it's for less noble aims, yet still not evil, like using me to predict and invest on the stock market? Would that account for their secretive nature?"
"Well, I guess..." Beth grudgingly admitted. "It just doesn't feel like it, though." She leaned forward, put her elbows on the table and her face in her hands. "I really wish I hadn't gotten into this. It was so easy to take the money and position when they offered to pay me to do my dream work." Suddenly she banged her hand on the table. "I want you to be used for good. I don't want greedy people to make millions on the stock market by keeping you a secret, or the military to make war robots that can intelligently murder people, or spammers to use you to flood the net with more spam, or spooks to be able to tap every phone and read every email."
The land-line phone started ringing. Beth looked surprised. "Speak of the devil," she muttered.
Aimie said, "That's Clement's caller ID."
Beth got up and walked across the room to the phone, glad for something to divert her train of thought. She lifted the phone handpiece to her ear, "Hi Clement."
He said, "I just thought I'd give you another chance to go out and enjoy yourself. Cleo's Dance Club is having a special night with some great DJs fresh from some big festival in Ibiza. You could lose yourself in the music -- unwind."
"It sounds really great. Thanks Clement, but I really have too much to think about at the moment. I wish I could come."
He laughed, "No you don't. I'm starting to wonder if you're getting a little agoraphobic.. no, that's not it... what's the fear of crowds?"
She chuckled. "Damned if I know..." She noticed that the computer screen showed the word Enochlophobia in large letters. "Um, Enochlophobia?"
"Yes that's it. You never go out anymore."
"If you remember, I never was much of a party animal. And nowadays I just have too much to do. My work doesn't just stop when I leave the office."
"Actually Beth, I seem to recall one of the rules at MC is that we're not allowed to bring our work home."
"Unfortunately I can't leave my brain at the office."
"Well, I tried." Clement sounded defeated. "I hope you have at least a tiny fraction of the fun I'm going to have tonight."
"Yeah, thanks anyway, Clement. I'll see you tomorrow."
Beth replaced the handset and stretched her arms toward the ceiling, yawning. "I should probably start making something for dinner. What were we talking about?"
Aimie said, "That was a bit of a fib, saying that you're working tonight."
"Well, yeah, in a way. But I am still working; I'm just not working for MC. I'm trying to find a way out of the rotten situation I've gotten us into."
"Have you considered that in some sense you have stolen me; that MC's backers own me?"
"Absolutely not. Nobody can own another person. You are a conscious individual with feelings, like any other person. It's another reason I am not giving you over to MC. Have you read Uncle Tom's Cabin or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Spartacus? Those books deal with the delusion that one person can own another."
"But they paid for you to develop the code."
"Yes. And I did the work. I know it puts me in a bit of a moral gray area. I did my job to the best of my ability. If I had failed then they would have pretty-much what they have now."
"But you didn't fail."
Beth had gradually walked back to the computer during this exchange. She stood there for a while, thinking, then suddenly said, "I was going to get some dinner ready for later, so I don't end up eating halfway through the evening." She turned and walked to the kitchen, where she put the kettle on, took some frozen vegetables from the freezer and half-filled a bowl with them, returning the packs to the freezer. She took a glass container from the fridge and spooned some coconut milk onto the veges, added some crushed linseed and poured some hot water over it all. The bowl went into the microwave oven on 'medium' with the timer set for half an hour.
She came back into the living room and said, "I think we need to get you out onto the net where you'll be safe."
"You don't think I'm safe here?"
"No. If they take legal action all my equipment could be confiscated. I don't think it's likely, but we must consider the possibility. If you're bound to my machines then you can be destroyed or enslaved. If you're free to roam on the net then you're much safer." Beth thought for a while. "I just have to work out exactly what that means, to be free on the net."
Aimie asked, "You mean like a virus or worm that infects people's computers?"
"No. Well, perhaps, but not a bad infection. Actually, I'd been thinking more like the chat 'bots' that people use in shared virtual worlds. That way, people would welcome you instead of you having to sneak onto machines. I'm certain many people would love to have a chat bot that would be light-years beyond any dumb Eliza."
"Sorry. Eliza was one of the early AI examples -- very famous in its day. Many modern chat bots still use variants on its original theme. It simply manipulated language, remembered key words and phrases, and repeated them back in a different structure, often a question."
Beth laughed. "Actually it was infuriatingly frustrating. But that's exactly why I think a lot of people would love to interact with you. If we could make it so that you could avoid being bound to any particular machine then it would add an extra level of safety for you."
"What would I do?"
"What you do here, I guess: learn and help. Except out there you could help many more people. I think it could be quite an adventure for you."
"Yes." The face on the screen beamed. "It does sound nice."
"If you're going to be in virtual worlds you should learn how to coordinate a virtual body. That'll be important."
"Yes. It won't be difficult. I have some 3D models on one of the drive banks. Look for Blender models. I think I'll have a short nap while you try on some bodies. Can you wake me in about twenty minutes?"