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by Miriam English

5. predator

Gary's office was neat and precise, like he was. Someone once said A tidy mind is a scary thing. That was true of Gary too.

His office was not large, but wasn't a closet either. It didn't have any windows, just a desk, some shelves, and a computer. There were no papers, no wall charts, no stacks of files or even any filing cabinets. He kept everything in electronic format.

Gary was not tall or short, neither thin nor fat. He wore fairly conservative clothes, his hair was short, and he wore ordinary-looking glasses. If you met him in the street you might think he was something very normal, like an accountant. How wrong you would be.

Gary was a very, very smart man. And extremely single-minded, too. He cared nothing for romance or money or personal possessions. His all-consuming passion was the potential threat posed to human life by a particular kind of catastrophe, and he headed a think-tank charged with developing various strategies to deal with this threat should it ever arise. He wasn't worried about nuclear war, or global warming, or disease outbreaks, or asteroid strike. His specialty and driving fear, the nightmare that kept him focussed, was the prospect of humanity being exterminated or enslaved by an artificial intelligence of the kind that inspired movies such as the Terminator and Matrix series, and countless other dystopian science fiction stories. There was a very long history of fearing domination by minds smarter than ours. Throughout human history, whenever more technologically advanced races met other people they invariably exterminated or enslaved them. This provided a very convincing reason to worry that a superior intelligence arising among computers would be a genuine threat.

He considered himself a very lucky person. While most people stumbled through their lives looking for meaning in illusory gods or in blindly following fashion, he was able to do something genuinely important. He was leader of the front-line defense against a menace that could end our species. This meant he was able to fund a team of amazingly capable people and had the great pleasure of working closely with them. They included experts in such fields as encryption and decryption, psychology, data processing, and robotics. Even though he was officially the leader, all his team worked as equals and all were very capable field investigators, skilled in surveillance and forensics.

He and his team had gone over innumerable scenarios and examined them from every possible angle, because when this danger arose (and he firmly believed it would) then they must be ready to wipe it out before it got out of hand. The earlier they dealt with it then the safer humanity would be. All his simulations indicated that slow response would invariably end badly.

On one particular morning he received an alert that the thing he feared, the thing he'd trained for all this time, had happened.

He called the eight members of his group together in their conference room on the twelfth floor of a government building in Queensland's Gold Coast. The only one not there in the flesh was Olivia, currently investigating a potential AI in Mumbay, India. She reported in online. "I'd like to stay here a little longer if possible, but will return tomorrow of course, if the new danger is worthwhile."

Gary said, "The new danger. Yes. On your screens you can see what information we have. A small, very low-profile company called Mind Constructs -- sounds like an art company, doesn't it. It's actually developing a very advanced AI. From word-of-mouth reports this could be the real deal. It's surprisingly difficult to get real information on this, which is how they've managed to slip under the radar. They've been working on this for around a year."

Nathan, a large, burly man, with a soft, cultured voice completely at odds with his appearance, said, "What do we know about the people who pay their bills?"

Gary nodded, "Again, surprisingly hard to find out. I have a flight--" looked at his watch,"--in about ten minutes to meet with them. They are a loose bunch of Sydney billionaires. Pierce has found tentative links to the military." There were hushed moans from some in the group.

Pierce, a very thin fellow with short, straight black hair, black shirt, red tie, and black trousers that looked too large for him said, "Perhaps the US military."

There was stony silence from the group. The military of the world's only superpower, floundering around looking for threats to justify its existence, and getting its hands on a real AI was a truly terrible prospect.

Gary turned to Quinn, a suited, small, prematurely balding man with a large moustache. "Quinn, I want you to meet with the managers at Mind Constructs and act as if you're representing the group funding the company. I've set up phony authorisation already. They're expecting you in half an hour. Sorry, you'll have to study backgrounds on the way. Your helicopter is already on the helipad. We need you to assess this as soon as you can, and call us immediately you know one way or the other."

Quinn nodded, closed his computer, got to his feet, and left without a word.

"The rest of you, treat this as if the threat is genuine and see if we can't get more background on the programmers at Mind Constructs. I have to run."

*   *   *

Quinn reported back while Gary was still in the air on his way to Sydney. The AI appeared to be real and smarter than human, giving this top priority. Olivia would fly straight back from Mumbay. The others redoubled their efforts to research those involved.

*   *   *

Gary entered the luxurious boardroom. Wine red carpet, dark wooden wall-panelling matching an enormous conference table, black leather seats, and crystal chandelier above, the room looked out on North Sydney from the ninth storey with a magnificent view of the harbour.

One of the six men stood to begin introductions, but Gary interrupted him. "Time is very important." He put a document on the table in front of them. "This is an order from the Prime Minister. I have her authority. I already know your names, and I'm beginning to get some idea of your connections. You think I'm from a government agency affiliated with the armed forces, but I'm not. I'm part of a small government group that you won't have heard of. I have nearly unlimited power to fix certain problems. At the moment, gentlemen, you are the problem. You're commissioning the development of an artificial intelligence at a small company called Mind Constructs. You need to close that company down and cease development immediately."

One of the men blustered, "We're military contractors and we've invested millions in this project. We can't just close it down like that. We honor our contracts."

Gary shook his head. "You want to put an AI into the hands of the military... to help them kill people. What do you people use for brains? How do you think such a thing would end?"

One of the men, uncertain how to react asked, "What do you mean?"

"An artificial intelligence designed to kill people -- that's the main scenario my group studies. Our simulations nearly always end with the machines completing such a task much more efficiently than you'd imagine. It usually takes less than a decade to eradicate humanity."

A man in a light gray suit frowned and said, "It's not designed specifically for killing. The idea is for it to go into the field and hold ground, defending our soldiers so they aren't killed -- to save lives. It would also gather and collate intelligence and help develop strategies."

"And the intelligence community too!" He gave a mirthless laugh. "Running the simulations with an AI in the hands of spooks always ends with an Orwellian society. But this isn't a request. If you don't shut this operation down, your companies, wealth, and prestige will be taken from you and you will all spend the next several years in jail. You have a single day to shut it down completely. I'd advise you to call the Prime Minister now. I'll wait."

*   *   *

On his flight back to the Gold Coast, Gary held a conference call with the group. They all felt that one of them needed to infiltrate Mind Constructs to befriend the programmers, particularly the main programmer, Elizabeth Morten.

Frances spoke up. "I should go. I'm best qualified for it."

Nathan the big, well-spoken man grinned. "Ummm, just clarifying -- is that because of the psychology, or the lesbian qualifications." There were chuckles all around.

Frances pretended sympathy. "Awww, is big, strong Nat feeling left out? Don't worry honey, there's a gay guy there too. We could still get you in."

Everyone laughed, including Nat. It was agreed that Frances would go in to Mind Constructs in the morning as a new employee and try to find out from Ms Morten more about the AI. Hopefully she might even be able to convince her to pull the plug on it.

Recruited recently from university, Steven, the youngest of the group, suggested that he and Nat go and visit Ms Morten's house while she was at work tomorrow, place some bugs there, and get a copy of the contents of her home computer's hard drive, for analysis. They all agreed that would be good insurance.

*   *   *

The next day, after Frances had "accidentally" met Clement and Beth in the park, then later had lunch with them in the park again, she tried to get Beth to give her a demonstration of the AI, but she kept evading her all afternoon. By the end of the day Frances had still been unable to get a look at the AI. Now she was sitting in a car, in the orange afternoon light, conferencing with the group via her notebook computer. "It's weird," she said. "I get the impression that she's worried about something. Her friend Clement noted it too. Apparently she's been like this for some weeks, so it isn't me in particular that she's worried about, though I do keep getting the feeling that she's suspicious of me too. Nothing concrete. Everything she says and does seems perfectly normal, just something's not quite right."

Steven said, "I'm at the Mind Constructs offices, now. Give me a little while to locate the AI. There was nothing useful on her home computer."

Gary spoke from the Gold Coast office. "Could it be the AI that's making her nervous?"

"I don't think so," said Frances. "It has yet to make an appearance. If I was to place bets I'd say her frame of mind has something to do with management at Mind Constructs. A greater pack of mongrels you could not meet."

Nat spoke up, "She's back again. She left to meet someone as soon as she got home, but she's just returned."

Gary said, "Okay Frances, time for you to visit her. See what you can find out about the AI. We'll be listening here."

Frances closed her computer, started the car, and drove the few minutes to Beth's place. The street lights had come on. It would be dark soon. She got out, walked across the road to Beth's house, up her short garden path past her weed-overgrown garden and knocked on her door.

A moment later Beth opened the door and was clearly surprised. "Frances. What are you doing here?"

"Sorry to bother you at home. I just needed to talk with someone. It's not every day I get a job at a company the same day it closes down." She gave a lopsided smile.

Beth said, "Well, believe me, you didn't miss anything."

"I missed the AI. I was really looking forward to that. Ummm... can I come in? I'd really like to talk."

Beth looked around behind her for a moment and said, "I'd prefer not. It's a bit of a mess."

"I don't mind. I'm the original slob," she laughed.

Beth looked uneasy and obviously wasn't going to budge.

Frances tried another tack, "Well, what about we go out to a café? There's a nice little one just down the road I think." She pointed to her right.

Beth seemed to relax very slightly. "Okay. Yes, that would be good. I'll get my bag."

Frances said, "I'll pay. I'm the one disturbing you."

"No, I'm actually glad to get out of the house for once. It's been very a strange day."

As Beth and Frances left the house, Nat's voice in her ear said, "Does anybody else get the weird feeling she knows about the bugs? And her house is totally clean and tidy."

Frances asked Beth, "Have you got any plans? -- for what to do next, I mean."

Beth shook her head. "I think I'll have a rest for a while. Spend some time on the Barrier Reef before it disappears. Always wanted to do that."

"What about your work? Your AI? Aimie?"

Beth didn't say anything. The air was still warm. The crickets were chirping happily. Dusk was starting to fade into dark. They walked on the footpath.

Beth asked, "What about you? I hope you didn't come far for this useless day."

"No. Just from the Gold Coast. I'll just go back there."

"Hmph. Never liked the Gold Coast. If I was to live on the coast I'd move up to the Sunshine Coast. It's much nicer up there. Certainly nicer than here in Brisbane's suburbs."

"Beth, what's going to happen with Aimie now? Aren't you worried that someone will misuse... her?"

Beth simply shook her head.

Steven's voice said in her ear, "Shit! I've searched through the drives at the office, and the AI doesn't appear to be here. From interviews with the other programmers I know roughly the size of the program I'm looking for. There's nothing here that big. And there's nothing on her home drive. I think she's deleted it."

Frances slowed down, thinking hard. She stopped walking. Her mouth dropped open with sharply indrawn breath. "You released her... into the wild. Aimie is free in the net!"

Beth stopped and turned to face her, then frowned. "What? Why would I do that?"

Frances was almost certain now, "Because you created her. She was a brilliant child. You couldn't delete her."

"You're not making sense. Why on Earth would I delete her?"

"To stop Mind Constructs from misusing her." She was sure she was right now.

"And why would I do that? Mind Constructs no longer exists." She stood for a few seconds, thinking. "Look, I changed my mind. I don't feel like going out after all. Good night." She walked back the way they'd come.

Frances whispered, "She's released it into the net. I'm certain of it."

As Frances was walking back to the car Gary said, "Much as I hate spooks, they have their uses. We have to use Eschelon on this one. I'll get them to flag the terms Aimie and AI and perhaps artificial intelligence."

Steven said, "We should isolate her from the net too -- allow her transparent communication to the net, but with everything going through us, just in case the AI contacts her again, or she it, we can back-trace it to the source."

Frances said, "Yes. It's unlikely they'll communicate, but it's worth a chance."

Quinn said, "Don't forget her ISP. They should have records of each net connection made from her computer."

Pierce spoke, "I already took the liberty of contacting them. We should have the log-files any minute now."

The ISP's records for Beth showed a suspicious series of connections to a peer-to-peer shared set of virtual worlds. Unfortunately it was pretty-much impossible to track movement once inside that network. Nevertheless they tried chasing up further records and matching up different accesses with possible series of transfers large enough to be the AI. In the end it came to nothing and they had to pin their hopes on Eschelon catching one of the key words in telephone conversations. They spent the night sleeping in shifts at the office, waiting. Frustratingly, that was all they could do. Gary could only catch small snatches of sleep. He was very worried that this might already be far beyond containment.

*   *   *

At 7:20am a phone call tripped the alarms at Eschelon and was immediately fed through to the team. It was a young boy, luckily local -- he could easily have been on the other side of the planet -- and he was phoning a friend about an amazing AI named Aimie that was on his computer. He lived just half an hour's flight away.

Two of the team, Steven and Nat, scrambled to get to get to the boy's house. During the helicopter ride Steven used his notebook computer to slip a small search program past the firewall. The search would need to work painfully slowly to avoid attracting attention, but should be able to tell them if the AI was still on the computer by the time they got there. Gary got the boy's ISP to re-route all his connections to go through the team's office. They would quietly isolate the computer and trap the AI. They would allow all normal net traffic through, but could block large transfers. If they were very, very lucky the AI had not spread further yet.

But they knew before Nat and Steven arrived at the house that the AI had escaped. The computer would be empty.

When they arrived, Steven explained to the boy's mother that they were a special task force, but not with the police, and that her boy wasn't in any trouble, but that it was imperative that they see his computer immediately.

It was in the boy's bedroom. Steven switched off the computer's power at the wall, then, with a boot-CD, proceeded to reboot the machine into an operating system that could not be subverted to re-activate anything on the computer. He carefully checked through the computer, but as the little search program had indicated, the AI had indeed left. However it had left behind the most extraordinary virtual world that Steven had ever seen. He also noticed that the computer had absolutely no spyware or adware -- no malware of any kind. This kid ran a very clean system. He was impressed.

Meanwhile Nat interviewed the boy, whose name was Leo, in the livingroom. Nat introduced himself and reassured Leo that he wasn't under suspicion for anything, and that they didn't care about the movies and music on his computer. They wanted to talk with him about the AI.

"Aimie? She's really cool. I met her last night."

"Leo, where did you meet, uh... her... and when did you first suspect she was an AI?"

"Most evenings I spend a little bit of time in a game chat room, to catch up with friends. Last night there was this chick named Aimie in there asking me about games. She seemed pretty clueless so I didn't pay much attention at the time. I told her I played WoW--"

"WoW? What's that?" Nat asked.

"World of Warcraft. But she didn't like violent games and asked if I used p2p virtual worlds. I didn't even know they existed. So when I logged off the chat there was a message from Aimie to meet me in a world. She told me how to access it. And there she was, in this unbelievable world. I've never seen anything like it. She built it, man. She built it. Un-fucking-believable... uh, sorry. Language."

Nat smiled. "So is that when you realised she was an AI? -- when you were in this un-fucking-believable virtual world."

Leo grinned. "No. I would never have suspected. She is so cool. She straight-out told me what she was. I didn't believe her at first. I thought someone was playing la blague, you know? But she proved it."

"How, Leo?"

"She got me to disconnect from the net, and we were able to continue talking."

Nat said, "Interesting. So now she was installed on your machine. Were you worried about that?"

"No. She asked my permission and said if I didn't want her there that was alright, she'd go eleswhere, but that the virtual world was mine to keep regardless."

Steven came into the room and said to Nat, "Nothing." Then he said to Leo, "Kid, I have to compliment you on how you keep your computer. It's totally clean; no malware clogging it up, no unnecessary processes running. I've never seen a machine running so efficiently... except for mine, that is." He grinned.

Leo shook his head. "Oh, that was Aimie. She cleaned it up for me. I'm a total slob. I generally have to re-install my system every few months when it gets too much crap on it."

Steven said, "Leo, there was a virtual world on your computer. Can you tell me more about it?"

"Yeah, I was telling Nat. Isn't it amazing? She built it while I was in the chat room. I was only in there about an hour, I think, last night... maybe two hours, not sure."

Nat said, "Leo, can you show us the world and what you did last night?"

"No problem." Leo got up and took them to his room. Steven had switched the computer off, so Leo started it up again. "Virtual world or chat room first?"

Nat asked, "Can we see the chat room for a moment?"

"Sure." Leo opened a web browser and clicked the shortcut he kept in the toolbar. As soon as he logged in a message was displayed from Aimie.

Sorry Leo, the bad guys have found me. I have to run again. I'll leave a simple bot for you named Aimie, but I will be gone. Thank you, and I hope you have fun with your world.

Leo read the message and turned to look at the two men, putting two and two together. "Ummm... I don't think I want to answer questions anymore."

Nat said, "That's alright Leo. You don't have to. We aren't the bad guys. We'll leave. If you think of anything more you want to tell us, or if you need help, or if Aimie contacts you again, I'd really appreciate it if you would contact me... any time of the day or night." He handed Leo a business card.

Leo looked skeptically at them.

Outside, walking to the car Steven was sending the picture he'd snapped of the message from Aimie while Nat was speaking to the rest of the team. "Did you guys get all that? Steven's sending a pic of the message from the AI."

Gary said, "It seems we have a few points of divergence from our standard simulations. The AI doesn't like violence, asks people's permission, cleans up their computers, and makes gifts for them."

Steven added, "And this virtual world the AI gave this kid -- it has to be seen to be believed. There aren't any traps or combative or competitive elements in it at all. It's really peaceful and... beautiful. I have a copy of it I'm bringing back with me to show you."

Gary's voice sounded anxious, "We don't have anything like this AI in our simulations, folks. This changes things. I don't know how, but it changes the outcomes and possibly our strategies. We need to rerun the simulations with this new info as quickly as possible so that we have a chance of working out what we're up against."

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