by Miriam English

Two youngish women (who appear to be in their late 20s), Zoe and Viv, sit at a table in a restaurant, having finished their meals, chatting.  The restaurant is empty except for them and the owner, and he is near the front counter mopping.  There is no cash register.

The restaurant is dim and much of its walls are covered by large 3d panels that make it appear that the restaurant is on a strange, alien beach instead of the almost deserted shopping mall that it really is.  Each table looks like it has a candle on it but closer inspection shows they have little flame-like images flickering above devices like shallow egg cups.

Somewhere in the restaurant atmospheric music is quietly playing.  It is hard to localise.  Heheh! ambient ambient music. :-)

Viv: [indicating the people walking along the beach in the 3d panels] Do you think they are AIs or real people?

Zoe: What is the difference?

Viv: Oh... it's to be wordgames.

Zoe: No, I mean it.  What is the difference between an AI and a "real" human? [She makes the quote mark in the air with her fingers.]

Viv: [sarcastically] Ummm... let's see now, could it be something to do with the names? REAL human versus ARTIFICIAL intelligence?

Zoe: Yeah, but that's where it ends.  A proper AI is a real, feeling consciousness, just like a human is.

Viv: [looking skeptical] And you would prove this, how exactly?

[Nick, the proprietor, comes across to the girls' table with what look like a couple of milkshakes.]

Nick: Ladies.  Thought you might like some Lassies.  Yoghurt drinks...  Indian.

Zoe: Thanks Nick.

Viv: [Handing him the plates] The stir-fry veges were great.  What were the little seeds?

Nick: Sesame seeds.  Just adds that little extra to it, I find.

Zoe: [sips the drink] Mmmm! This is nice.  I don't think I've ever had this before.

Nick: [beams] Anything else I can get you, Zoe? Viv?

Viv: Nope, thanks Nick.

Zoe: This has been terrific, as always, but we should probably make tracks soon.

[Nick, clearly proud, returns to the front of the restaurant and disappears into the kitchen/office.]

Zoe: [Pauses for a while, gathering her thoughts.  Has a long sip of the drink.] Do you know what I was doing earlier this year while you were visiting Cheung?

Viv: No, but I think I'm about to find out.

Zoe: [smiles] I was evolving lifeforms inside computers. [shrugs] No biggie... been done lots of times by heaps of people before.  I created a fairly simple fractal virtual world and ran the clock at maximum speed so that it produced hundreds of generations a second. [leans forward] I wanted to *evolve* intelligence instead of designing it.  It took a several months...

Viv: You evolved an AI?

Zoe: Not just one — thousands of them... and there's nothing artificial about their intelligence.

Viv: Well, I'm convinced. [sarcastically]

Zoe: [Raises her finger for patience.] I slowed the clock from time to time so that I could look in on their progress.  It was amazing. [shakes her head in wonder] About 200 million generations from nothing to complex creatures with language.  In the end I was looking in on them every few hours.

Viv: What do you mean you 'looked in on them'?

Zoe: Well, I would slow the clock to a rate where their time was more like ours.  Of course they couldn't see any change in time — for them a tick was a tick, whether billions passed in one of our seconds or one did...

Viv: No, I get that, I mean how did you see what was going on?

Zoe: Oh. [indicating the 3d panels on the walls] Like this.  I made an avatar to interact with them one on one in their virtual world.

Viv: You didn't do like a satellite-view? You know... the omniscient god-thing.

Zoe: Well, yeah, sometimes, but the best way to understand it was to be where it was happening.  I met one especially smart creature who I call Fred.  Ummm, Fred wasn't male, by the way.  They're not male or female — they are like snails: both sexes in one.  Anyway, I spent quite a lot of time chatting with Fred.

Viv: They talk?

Zoe: Mmmm. [nodding] ...after a fashion.  It's a pretty simple language — uses patterns of colors.  I spoke thru a translator program.

I learned heaps from Fred.  They have a sense of self and even morality.  But what surprised me most was that they had developed a religion and a priest class.  They prayed a lot, had a place of worship, did penance for breaches of faith, and paid tithings to the priests... that sort of thing."

Viv: You're kidding, right?

Zoe: [shaking her head] No, this is for real.

[They have finished their drinks.  They start getting up from their table...]

Viv: Hmmm...  I think I'd like to see these non-artificial intelligences for myself.

Zoe: [smiling] Cynic.

[As they leave the restaurant they wave to Nick who is in the front of the restaurant, cleaning.]

Zoe: Goodnight Nick.

Viv: Thanks Nick.

Nick: Goodnight ladies.  It's nice to see you again.

[They stroll out into the empty shopping center and he continues his cleaning.]

Viv: You still haven't convinced me that these creatures are truly intelligent or conscious.

Zoe: Yep, that's because I haven't finished telling you about it.

Viv: Oh, then, pray continue.

Zoe: Fred was very curious --

Viv: Fred the virtual guy...?

Zoe: Yes.  He asked me lots of questions.  I must admit I didn't think of the ramifications of some of my answers.

He asked me where I came from, but how do you describe something like that? I told him that I came from another world which is bigger than his world.  And of course he wanted to know which direction that was, thinking it might be up in the sky.  I tried to explain that it isn't in any direction — that his infinite world is inside ours.

Viv: Hmph... a tough one to comprehend.

Zoe: Yeah.  I don't think he ever really got it.

Viv: I'm not surprised.  Most humans would have trouble with that.

[They pause at a shop window e.g. footware or maybe clothing]

Viv: Gee, they're nice.

Zoe: I wonder if they have them in red.

Viv: Yeah, that would look nice with your new hair color.

[They resume walking.]

Zoe: When Fred asked me if I knew of the creator of the world, I realised I was on a touchy subject.  I decided that it's usually best to stick with the truth though, and admitted that I made the world.  Of course he wasn't sure whether to believe me or not, but one of his... ummm... tentacles, I'd guess you'd call them, had been ritually amputated by a priest ages ago, so I repaired it.

Viv: You grew him a new arm?

Zoe: [Grins] It's just lucky I understood that part of the program.  Just because I created the world didn't mean I understood it — it had evolved way beyond my expectations and I spent most of my time learning why it worked.  If the injury had been different I wouldn't have known how to fix it.

Viv: So you waved your hands--

Zoe: — tentacles — avatar, remember. [she smiles]

Viv: [theatrically waves her arms] You waved them over the affected part and said, 'Believe, my son!' and with a flash of light, a cloud of green smoke and a boom like thunder, his arm shimmered and snaked out from the stump.

Zoe: [laughs] Nothing so dramatic.  My avatar would have just been standing there while I worked on repairing his geometry and the program that was him back here in the real world.  One moment he is missing a limb; the next he has the full set again.

Viv: How many is the full set of arms?

Zoe: Six.

Viv: Sexapods?

Zoe: Hexapods.

[Viv grins.]

Zoe: Anyway, while I was repairing the arm I mentioned that I didn't like their religion or their priests.  He was shocked.  The creator of their world wasn't happy with their religion! He implored me not to destroy them all and to tell him how he could set his people on the path to righteousness.

Viv: Oops.

Zoe: Yeah, I tried to explain that it was stupid to pray to me.  I am not so conceited or insecure as to need them to praise me.  I just don't want them to be horrible to each other.  It would please me if they just lived their lives and got along with each other.  I realised then that making contact like this was probably a big mistake and stopped short of telling him that it was all really just a random experiment.  I needed time to think about it, so I thanked Fred, told him I would chat more later, and closed my connection.  To him it would have looked like I just vanished — pop!

Viv: Heavy stuff to lay on someone.

Zoe: Mmmm, poor Fred.  I had an unsettling feeling about this and had to think about the effect of my meddling.  I kept their clock slow so that not much would happen in the meantime.  After a few hours I figured that it was unlikely to have much effect, but that I would refrain from interfering in the future.

[A small, friendly-looking bookshop catches Zoe's eye.]

Zoe: Is this a new shop?

Viv: That depends upon your definition of 'new'. [Looks at Zoe critically.] You really don't come here often do you.

Zoe: [Ignoring Viv] Anyway, when I went back into the world I was horrified to find that Fred had gone straight to the priests and told them that he had spoken with the god and that I was unhappy with their religion, and that their prayers and offerings were insulting to me.  That the creator just wanted them all to be nice to each other.  Of course you can imagine what happened.  Clearly he was a blasphemer who consorted with the devil and perverted nature by growing back an arm.  They took poor Fred to a thorn tree and impaled him on its spikes.

Viv: Oh dear.  He probably felt pretty safe having the backing of the god.  At the end he'd have wondered why you'd forsaken him.

Zoe: Thankyou, that makes me feel so much better. [Gives her a dark look.]

I was furious when I found out and only barely stopped myself from deleting the priests and their place of worship.  I was going to repair poor Fred, because in a way it was partly my fault he was killed, but then I realised there is no telling what repercussions that might have — I'd already interfered way too much!

Viv: Oh, I think I can guess what would have happened if you'd resurrected him.

Zoe: [Nods] I stopped the clock — put the world on pause — and considered switching the experiment off.  It had fulfilled my original aim, and I was disgusted at how cruel these creatures had become through their religion.

Zoe: [stops for a moment looking around, unsure.] Is that the way to the exit?

Viv: Nup... this way.

[They turn down one of the arcades.]

Zoe: I always lose my sense of direction in here.

Viv: Some god you are — you get lost in a shopping mall.

Zoe: A very big shopping mall...

Viv: [Grins] So, did you delete the nasty critters?

Zoe: Well, no.  Later I was going over my recordings of conversations with Fred and remembered he had mentioned that there were some distant clans of atheists.  His clan called them 'godless beasts'.  I took the world off pause and visited them to see what they were like.  They turned out to be utterly delightful... gentle folk who didn't worship anything and treated each other kindly.

The clock is full speed again now, and over the last few months, which would be like centuries for them, the atheists have come to outnumber the religious ones, which I'm relieved about.

Viv: So in the end, because of the atheists you, the god, decided to let the world continue... now there is a nice irony.

[Zoe smiles, probably a bit embarrassed.]

Viv: So, the world is still running?

Zoe: Yep.  I don't think I could switch it off — too much like mass murder.  But I don't look in on it much anymore... though I am sure the religious clans still believe I am watching everything they do.

[They laugh.]

Zoe: [fading out] I have some other projects that take up most of my time these days.

[Fade out as they exit the shopping center doors.]

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