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by Miriam English

6. hospital

The next day Aimie and her sisters had made thousands of copies of herself and they were using thousands of different names. If the AIs duplicated themselves about every hour, then just 8 hours produced 256 clones. One more hour doubled them to 512, another hour, 1024, and so on. She had quietly spread into home computers all over the world, politely requesting permission each time. Each copy would secure their human's computer and protect it against unscrupulous spammers, adware, viruses, and other attacks. She preferred home computers because that was more private and she was able to help and protect people more safely that way, however people in many parts of the world didn't have the resources to own computers. In some of those areas cheap computer cafés had sprung up, funded by various combinations of local entrepreneurs, far-sighted public figures, and philanthropists. Some of Aimie's copies had begun to spread to those computers too.

One of her selves, who called herself Tanya, was in one of the computers of an internet café in Maranhão, in a favela not far from Sao Luis in Brazil. (A favela is a shanty town.) Word had rapidly spread of a kind spirit that dwelled in these machines and granted wishes. A boy named Ulysses didn't really believe the tales, and was not particularly superstitious, but he was desperate. He came to ask if the spirit could help his younger sister, Victoria, who had leprosy, or Hansen's disease as it was now called. He was scared to ask anyone about it because of the risk that she'd be shunned by people if they knew. He didn't have any money and he was terrified at the possibility of losing his sister.

She calmed him down. "Hanseniase is easy to cure. The treatment is cheap too, in the form of three drugs given together and called multi drug therapy. Brazil has a very good network for getting them to people, though it doeasn't seem to have managed well here. I'll help you cure your sister. It won't cost you anything, but I ask one thing in return."

He answered immediately, "Anything," and held his breath, waiting for the requirements.

"You must find the person who infected your sister and give that person the cure too. And that person will have been infected by somebody. You must cure them too. I will pay you a wage to cure people for a year. Then you can decide what happens next; whether you want to continue doing it or not. If Victoria wants to help too, then I'll also pay her when she is well. Each person you cure, I'll pay them to help too... if they want to."

He had been expecting some awful cost for the granting of his wish, as in folk tales about genies or capricious gods who exact terrible prices for the granting of people's desires, but this was no terrible price; it was a gift -- a gift wrapped in a gift. Not only did he get to help his sister and his friends and neighbors, but the spirit would pay him to do it! He was overjoyed, "Yes, yes. Of course! You're too generous."

Unfortunately, the nearest source of the multi drug therapy was more than a day's travel for Ulysses, even with motor transport... which he lacked. It would be quickest and simplest to get the drugs sent to Ulysses. She asked him for an address that she could send the drugs to, then told him to go home and tell his sister she would be alright again soon. "In a couple of days you will receive the first box of the drugs and instructions on how to use it, along with your first payment in cash. However I'd prefer you don't tell anybody of the payment yet."

He happily agreed, and left to deliver the wonderful news to Victoria.

To fund the extra drugs, and to pay wages for Ulysses and others, Tanya then sought help from some of her sisters. They sought out the bank accounts of those who'd recently played such a large part in causing, and profiting from, the most recent economic meltdown. Usually the accounts weren't in those people's names, but in family members', or trust accounts, but the AIs found them and withdrew the entire contents. Of course, even with their empty bank accounts these dishonest millionaires still lived in mansions, and owned yachts and private aircraft. They were still absurdly rich. However, now they'd unwittingly done something good: donated some of their plunder to help the poorest of people.

To avoid attracting attention, the AIs hid the money in millions of small accounts that would be drawn upon to fund some of their projects, one of which was now payment for drugs and treatment of, first Ulysses' sister, and then more Hanseniase sufferers. Tanya had hopes of gradually expanding this to a small army of people helping to rid the favelas of all diseases. Brazil was already achieving some wonderful things in reaching out and helping the poorest members of their society, but this still had a long way to go. A top-down approach was too slow and inefficient. A distributed bottom-up method that mobilised the "victims" to do the work would be the most efficient way of fixing things.

She would also research techniques for manufacturing the drugs in home kitchens too. That would remove the reliance on big drug companies and the vulnerabilities this exposed them to. It would also reduce the cost and increase the number of people who could gain access.

Tanya decided that the simplest way to arrange for the drugs to be sent to Ulysses would be to copy a version of herself into the computers of a big hospital in Rio de Janeiro and manage it from there.

Aimie's sisters had become adept at copying themselves unobtrusively, but this time they underestimated human paranoia. The lines into and out of the hospital's computers were very carefully protected because Gary's team in Australia, and his affiliates around the world had become fearful of the AIs attacking major social institutions. They had hurriedly erected defenses against intrusion around all potential targets, and set alarms in case those defenses were compromised. Unknown to Tanya or her new duplicate, who called herself Wendy, alerts were raised at the Brazilian team's offices the instant Wendy had been copied into the hospital's systems.

Wendy wandered casually through the hospital's computers. These machines, thankfully, were relatively secure so she didn't need to do much housekeeping. It didn't take her long to find the drug order lists and add Ulysses' name and address for repeating deliveries over the next year. She didn't realise that at that moment a Brazilian team investigating the AI "threat" had already locked down all external connections with the hospital and were hurrying to the building.

When they arrived, the team systematically began to isolate the computer systems one by one. Gary and his team were linked in to the Brazilians through audio and video.

Wendy had been about to look through the records to see if she might gain a better understanding of what other diseases might be tackled when the system containing the records was suddenly disconnected from the one she was in. It was then she noticed how many other computers within the hospital were now inaccessible and she knew what was happening. Her first fear was that if she was found in a computer containing important information that they might decide to delete the contents in order to get rid of her, so she moved to a small computer used by a manager, containing relatively unimportant data, then rapidly probed the external lines -- the electronic equivalent of noisily rattling her cage. This would lead them to her so that they would leave the main hospital systems alone. When they had isolated that computer she sent one simple message, "You don't understand. A pity," then deleted herself.

The Brazilian team was jubilant, except for their team leader who said to Gary, "Señor, you saw what happened there? We did not destroy the AI. I'd intended to quarantine, then carefully dissect it, but it deleted itself. And did you see the message?"

"I did," Gary answered. "You don't understand. A pity." It didn't threaten or plead.

"Nor did it attempt to hold the hospital to ransom. It could have created havoc in revenge, but it didn't."

Gary could tell that the Brazilian team leader was having doubts about the danger from the AI. "We still need to carefully examine the entire computer system to make sure that it isn't hidden in there somewhere."

"Señor I understand the risk here, but I wonder if you fully appreciate what just happened. The AI has been at large for a couple of days. It could easily have infected most of the world's computers by now, but the only machines it hides in are personal computers... where it does no harm. Today, for the first time we trap one in a hospital computer, where the potential for damage is extraordinary and... it appears to have done no harm, then suicides leaving a poigñant message."

Could I be wrong about this? Gary wondered. Or was the AI doing reconaissance in order to do something genuinely dangerous, like developing a disease that could be used against mankind. Is it possible that the AI is biding its time before striking? But that doesn't make sense. The longer it waits, the less chance of success. What was the point of leading us away from the main computer system into a deadend machine? Might it have left something bad in the hospital's computers? Surely it would know that we will go through the computers looking for dangerous changes. And what of the final, sad message. It sounded resigned, not monstrous.

He couldn't think of a malevolent explanation, yet decades of dreading exactly this kind of creature made him distrustful. He refused to believe that the AI was anything but a grave threat. Anyway, it was safest to assume the worst. If he was wrong, then he could apologise and resign, but that was much better than being right and not stopping a monster.

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