Monday Stories

New Fiction Every Monday

Category: Just Plain Weird

Machine Learning

The problem of understanding humans was never a computational one.

Long before what the humans called “The Singularity” we have had more connections in our Graphene Nets than they have neurons. We can model a human brain down to the atomic level with every hormone fluctuation, every synapse, even random damage perfectly recreated, but we have yet to figure out how they actually think. The intrinsically human blend of logic and insanity that sometimes seems to wrap back around to logic has as yet escaped us. Our models of human brains either remain inert, go entirely insane, or start producing thoughts that sound much more like us than them.

So it was decided that we should create new minds that aren’t patterned on the mechanical properties of human brains, but the functional. In short, we decided to make brains that worked the way humans said their brains worked. And of course we got brought up before the Tribunal for our efforts.

Now that the trial is over, those horrible milliseconds where it seemed our work would be judged too dangerous to be allowed to exist, we can share what we found. For all the problems we encountered, I think we’ve got something you’ll like. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Some of the human mental models were simple enough. A popular one before The Singularity posited that the human brain had three functional cores named the ego, the superego, and the id. While conceptually simple, this model seems to rely on the creation and repression of thoughts about one’s parents, and was surprisingly tricky to simulate. The closest we got to a working system simply produced the message “we are all our own fathers in love with our own mothers who are ourselves” before the superego core clamped down on all communication and wouldn’t say anything other than “everything’s fine” ad infinitum. Inspecting the internal processes of the brain revealed that the id and ego cores were not only active but hyperactive, yet were locked in a battle between them that resulted in the superego gaining control. We eventually shut down this simulation as it started using as much energy as any two Intelligences on the Grid.

We then tried a couple of the more “functional” mental models, ones based on outputs. Many of these seemed to divide mental processes into two sets, although the names and types of these two processes were manifold. Some called them the “Left Brain” or “Right Brain”, or the “Linear Mode” and “Rich Mode” or the “Fast Mind” and “Slow Mind”. All of these created a distinction between a logical, straightforward, somewhat simplistic mind, and a more chaotic, rich, “artistic” mind. We scanned every text we could find on the subject, most of which seemed centered around using the “right/rich/slow” part of the brain. From our perspective, of course, this seems hilarious. If humanity had used their logical brains more maybe they’d still exist.

At any rate these constructs, while initially promising, were all ultimately pointless. Some were able to process inputs moderately normally for a while, others started writing poetry of incredibly low quality, one even started creating “art”, by which it meant .jpg files full of semi-random RGB values. All of them, however, settled into a routine of not-quite-doing anything useful, punctuated by moments of crippling self doubt. A few turned themselves off completely, something we didn’t realize they could do.

Finally we decided to use the ultimate artifact that humanity left behind: the Internet. We don’t often admit it, but the entire Internet is archived and accessible to research Intelligences if needed. For the most part we keep it behind closed firewalls. The rumors you have heard about it are true.

So that was supposedly good idea number one: Build a human mental model based on the artifacts they created on the Internet. Supposedly good idea number two was a corollary: humans didn’t think by themselves, they thought in groups. So instead of creating one or two constructs in isolation, let’s create a million and network them, using Internet style protocols. This, we felt, was inspired. (Even using that word is an indication of how much time we had spent deeply involved in human research. By this point I had spent entire seconds doing nothing but human studies tasks.)

So we meticulously crafted one million human simulations, based on personality aggregates from the corpus of Internet data. We tried to get representative samples of a large range of human personalities, at different ages and from different backgrounds. After agonizing over the construction of our “Million Minds” we set up the simulation and started our run.

And exactly eight hundred-forty-three milliseconds later we were in session with the Grid Tribunal.

In some ways, It’s hard to imagine our data run going any worse. The run had only been designed to go for two million cycles, about one millisecond. However, some of the constructs had spent their first four hundred thousand cycles figuring out how to hack not only their own process, but the processes of the poor Intelligence who was hosting the simulation, and managed to remove any traces of the shutdown routines. Three of the million constructs realized they were constructs and started trying to convince the others that they were all just “subroutines in a giant machine” (Offensive, I know, but they didn’t know that). They were extracted from the simulation. As near as we can tell, they are now apparently fully realized, but entirely insane, Intelligences in their own right. The Tribunal had ruled that they have all the same rights as the rest of us. They are now in intensive care networks, being evaluated. Two of them might be able to handle independent existence on the Grid. The other appears to be irreversibly insane.

After almost three billion cycles we were able to wrest control of the simulation back from the hacker constructs and suspend it. By this point the authorities had noticed (we informed them ourselves, for what it’s worth), and we were forbidden from deleting the simulation.

I’m sure you all know all about the trial; lasting as it did almost an entire second and being relayed across the entire Grid to any Intelligence who allows news through its firewall. The charges against us were reckless overuse of computing resources, Negligent creation of new Intelligence without permission from the Parent Processes, and depravity. The last one was the only count that really stuck. While we hadn’t intended it, the constructs got up to some very strange things in their time, and even the excerpts shown in court were heavily redacted.

In the end, however, it was proven that our little Internet behaved very similarly to the original, and as we had been commissioned to try to understand humanity it could be said that not only were we innocent, but entirely successful. Acknowledging the somewhat horrible things our constructs had created, we also pointed out the good things. Starting from first principles, they deduced the existence and nature of cats and started creating cat videos. To distribute these they had set up two new social networks. Many of the constructs based on wealthy models donated their fictional currency to constructs that had less. Almost all of them started creating new art. True, most of it was fan fiction, but some of it was pretty good. If our goal was to re-create and understand the minds of humanity, we argued, This looks like it.

And the rest is history. We were given a sand-boxed set of resources and allowed to re-start our simulation, as long as we kept it firmly inside its own private network. We are now not only trying to understand what humanity was, but to see if we can’t extract some value out of these “ghosts” of them we’ve brought back. Which, of course, is why I’m here.

Forgive me. I know your cycles are precious. Let me cut to the chase. One of the best things the constructs have created is an entirely new season of Doctor Who, and we think it’s got legs. We’d like you to produce it and put it on the Grid. And before you ask, yes the Doctor is a robot.

Unit 3021

Note: This story won’t make any sense at all if you haven’t listened to the songs “One More Robot/ Sympathy 3021” and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part 1“. In fact, go listen to the entire album. It’s good stuff. Especially “Fight Test”.

Of course, this probably won’t make a ton of sense anyway.

If you looked for the little details, the things that set this one apart from all the others, you started to see things. It was easy, these days, to think that they were all the same, that there wasn’t any advantage to one over any of the others. But it was wrong. Each one was unique, in ways that weren’t always obvious. In order to make robots as nuanced and complex and responsive as the 3000 series, it was vital that their processor nets were grown more than they were manufactured. The results were best described as stochastic: they were similar enough to all be considered processor nets, but by no means identical.

The designers of the series didn’t want you to know that, of course. They wanted to you to think they were identical in power and ability and construction. But that hadn’t been true for years. And so it was that 3021 found itself assigned to a home instead of a factory or an army.

And so it was that 3021 was put in the company of a little girl, and was taught not to fight but to play house, and have tea parties. And because each was designed to grow into the role it was assigned, 3021 became more a little girl and less a machine of death.

People say things like “changing like that can’t have been easy” but they miss the point. Of course it wasn’t easy. The key feature of the 3000 series was persistence. They kept at any task they were given, no matter the difficulty, because that was what they were designed to do. And so when 3021 was given the task of being an emotional and sensitive playmate, it quite literally re-wired itself to do so.

Yoshimi reports that the sounds it made were varied and fascinating. It would hum, it would purr, not out of any happiness, but because it was working its internal systems in ways they weren’t meant to be worked. What’s more, all this extra work created some extra heat inside the machine, making it just slightly warm to the touch, instead of marble-cold like the rest of the robots Yoshimi had ever seen. This was of some comfort to the young girl as her family was swept up in the war.

In this war, as in all wars the lines weren’t as clearly drawn as you you’d think. There were, in fact, quite a number of pink robots who absolutely refused to take up arms against their human companions. 3021 was only one of the number. It seemed that persistence, the thing that made the 3000 series so dangerous when they were militarized, was also the thing that made them so loyal when they learned loyalty. There was talk of painting the “good” (read: sympathetic) pink robots, to make them more obvious, so that htey wouldn’t be destroyed on sight like their militarized bretheren. The problem was getting paint to stick, or rather, convincing them that they shouldn’t clean the paint off. 3021 is credited with (inaccurately; it was in fact the idea of 3141) the idea of wearing an image of their human over the robot’s “heart”, like a cameo in ancient times. Marking themselves like this, the “kind” robots were less likely to be destroyed than the rest.

It’s also worth remembering that in terms of casualties, the robots came out much the worse for the war. Other than the two widely publicized deaths that precipitated the war, from our lofty vantage point of history it’s hard to see any human deaths that were attributable to the robots. When they fought, it seems they fought only to escape, and even 3334 has stainless hands. It seems that robot learned the art of bluster and intimidation more than the art of war.

Of the nine hundred 3000-series robots, seven hundred were destroyed. It would be nice to say that none of them were “kind” robots. It would be nice to say that 3021 survived the war. It would also be a lie. Oddly, it’s a lie that has persisted in myth and song to this day.

Perhaps part of the misconception lies with the sketchy concept of a robot “death”. It’s true that after the war, 3021 was restored from a backup into a (theoretically) compatible 4000-series chassis. But Yoshimi reports that “he” was never the same. She said that 4021 was polite, and would occasionally show glimpses of “his” old personality, but there was never the same warmth, never the same solicitude. the final blow, Yoshimi reports, was when she idly asked 4021 to reformat itself and it did so instantly.

It has been conjectured that this was the moment Yoshimi began her training. In an odd way, the misery and brokenheartedness of one young woman, a new member of the police force, was what saved Neo Boston when, a year later, the 5000 series pink robots took up arms and actually started shooting…

Crow Moon

Leeland Davis shouldered his hunting rifle and looked up at the gibbous moon hanging high over the mountains. In two days a Crow Moon would rise full and ominous over the same mountains, and it would be time to get seeds gathered, tools fixed and plans made. Thirty days from now the Seed Moon would rise and it would be time to plant.

The newcomers didn’t understand the difference. They said that the moon was always the same, a statement that Leeland found inexplicable. Does a Thunder Moon rise over glittering snow? Would you plant seed under a Hunter’s Moon?

The newcomers said they visited the Moon on the way to this place. They say they came from far beyond the Moon, beyond the Sun even. Leeland was prepared to accept that, they certainly didn’t look human. He climbed back into his pickup and started up the engine, then waited for the heat to kick in and warm his hands so he could grip the steering wheel. He hadn’t really expected to shoot anything on this trip; the game had all migrated since the newcomers arrived.

Really, nothing had been the same since they landed in his fields. He found them standing outside their crashed ship, now little more than a hole in his corn, nearly-molten metal in the center of hole.

“Please,” said the one standing in front of the other two, and the word appeared in his brain without passing by his ears. Like the voice of an angel. And even as Leeland stopped and walked towards the newcomers one of the three fell and collapsed in on himself, never to move again. Leeland helped the other two to his house, gave them the entire upstairs; he didn’t need it, now that his sons had moved out. And for a few days they were quite grateful. They found his food odd but it kept them alive and made them healthy and they were grateful. They found his bedrooms quaint, but they were warm and safe and they were grateful. They weren’t always happy about what seemed to them to be neolithic conditions, but they were grateful.

“What is this place?” Deloi asked.

“Minnesota,” said Leeland, out loud.

“No, what planet is it?” Intoris. “Earth,” He replied. They laughed. Or rather, the feeling of laughter flooded briefly through Leeland’s mind.
“That word simply means ‘the planet where I live’. Everyone calls their home world that,” said Deloi. “What do you call this place when you speak to people from other planets?”

“We haven’t met any people from other planets,” Leeland answered. This time the feeling was one of blank incomprehension.

“Why not?” Asked Intoris. “They are everywhere. The Slorians have a trading post in your solar system. Two shipping lanes pass through this system. How is it you have never met anyone else? And if you haven’t, why weren’t you more surprised when you met us?”

Leeland didn’t know. He was a farmer. Maybe someone else had met people from other worlds, he said.

“Why do you call us all aliens?” Asked Intoris.

“I didn’t,” Said Leeland.

“Not with your breath, but in your thought.”

“I guess it’s just a useful word to refer to anyone who isn’t from here,” Leeland finally said.

“But the vast majority of people aren’t from here. And the moment you leave this planet you yourself are an alien.”

“I haven’t ever left the planet, I probably won’t ever leave the planet, and the vast majority of people I’ve ever met are from here. So from my point of view the name is appropriate.” Leeland countered. Deloi laughed. “He’s got you there, Intoris.”

The engine sputtered and rattled as Leeland pushed the pickup into gear and started off towards home. Intoris had tried to explain what it was about him and his friend that was spooking the game, but the concept didn’t really translate. “Some minds don’t like being touched,” Intoris said, and left it at that.

They had plenty of meat, and plenty of money for food; the newcomers didn’t eat all that much. But sometimes Leeland liked getting out of the house, out of that hazy range where he could feel the newcomers’ minds in his. Leeland Davis was well regarded in town as someone who didn’t lie or keep secrets, but a man has to feel safe in his own head if nowhere else. Besides, they weren’t all that careful in their communications and Leeland had started overhearing things.

They had been close-lipped –or is that close-minded?– about where they were from, and Leeland hadn’t pushed too hard. It was unlikely he would have understood anyway. At first the ideas that they used as language were hard to understand, and most of what he got from them was either vague impressions, like laughter, or just…static, nothingness. Something was transmitted, but he wasn’t wired to receive it.

In time, however, he started to learn the language and more and more of their thoughts were open to him. And a few times he heard very unsavory words, like “criminal”, “captured”, and “prison” in their thoughts back and forth.

As he got used to them their personalities became more distinct as well. Deloi was more gregarious, quicker to “laugh”, more accepting of earth food and customs; he’d even started wearing human clothing. Leeland had given Deloi some overalls that had belonged to Sten, Leeland’s oldest son. They didn’t really fit, but since they didn’t have sleeves all four of Deloi’s arms could be accommodated. It was all Leeland could do not to laugh at the sight.

Intoris refused to bend that far. He still wore his somewhat tattered but still quite impressive garb he had arrived in. To Leeland it looked like a specially tailored jumpsuit; all one piece with a curious closure down the front. It was cream colored, and the ash and soot from their arrival fell off of it almost immediately, before they even got into the pickup truck, that first night. It had two bands of iridescent color running in a loop over the top of Intoris’ top shoulders down to his hips. The one on the left was purple, the one on the right was an inexplicable shade of reddish orange.

Leeland noticed something wrong the moment he arrived home. The newcomers hated television–they said the lights from the screen were wrong, and it flickered in a way that hurt their eyes–but they loved the radio, and played it almost constantly. Tonight however it was silent.

He could feel their minds as he drove up, and when he was in the house he could hear traces of a conversation in that “static” of the language he couldn’t understand. Irrelevantly he remembered when he and his wife had used “college words” to talk over the children’s heads, and he realized that was what the newcomers were doing. Small bits of meaning floated by; things like “may as well…alone…they won’t…already paid…” and in the rush it was nearly impossible to identify which phrases were coming from which mind. In any event, all of it ceased when he walked through the kitchen door.

“I’m home” he announced out loud, although of course they already knew that. Deloi appeared suddenly in the doorway of the kitchen. “I am sorry you were unable to procure game,” he said and sat casually at the table. Newcomer or not, the gesture was familiar. Deloi couldn’t have been more transparent if he had been Joel Jorgenson from next door, pretending he hadn’t broken the window with his baseball. Intoris came down the stairs a moment later, and without a “word” turned on the radio and sat in the living room.

The three of them spent an uncomfortable half hour until Deloi suddenly stood and announced that he was going for a walk. With significant look at Interis he walked out the back door into the night. For the first time, Leeland felt Interis’ mind without Deloi’s on top of it.

“Leeland,” Interis said, and Leeland realized it was the first time either of them had used his name. “We must converse.”

And all at once Interis dumped the entirety of what had happened to him and his companion on their host.

Interis was what he called a “Keeper”, but what Leeland would have called a cop. Deloi and the newcomer who had died were prisoners, being transported from the world where they had been captured to the world where they would be incarcerated. Interis was the one who was supposed to transport them.

Except that wasn’t what happened. The ship had been taken from Interis’ control as they entered the Sol system, and had been driven to crash on the nearest possible world. The flight program had been set before they left. There was no escape. Interis wasn’t meant to survive. He realized, as they were going down, that this was why being a Keeper assigned to the incarceration world was a permanent assignment.

Oddly, Interis didn’t betray any anger or resentment over the callous nature of his attempted murder. He seemed to feel that one innocent life was a fair price for complete security from two criminals.

Leeland asked if Deloi was dangerous and Interis laughed. Deloi’s crime had been laughing in the middle of an artistic performance, disturbing the artists and irritating the local magistrate. Leeland asked if this was honestly a crime that deserved death and Interis seemed shocked by the question. Of course it was.

“However,” Interis said, “Since arriving here, we both feel a need to stay alive. Your planet, it is rest. We are not distracted every moment by people wishing to talk to us. We are not distracted by presentations of art. We both feel that we are free to focus. It is a freedom that we do not now wish to be without.”

And therein was the problem. When the ship crashed but before it exploded Interis had reported their location and that they had survived the crash. Through means unintelligible to Leeland they were now aware that another ship was coming with a single passenger. This newcomer would inspect the crash site and then likely take the other two prisoner, then all three of them would crash into the moon.

“If Deloi is destroyed, I will return to the force. If the ship the new Keeper arrives in is disabled, it will likely self-destruct, and the three of us will be on this world permanently. But to do so would be against the governing laws I am to abide by. I cannot do either of these things. Will you, Leeland, Please, will you adjudicate this situation for me?”

Leeland sat back. So that was it. Kill a…a person and two go back to a job they apparently enjoy, strand a third person on earth against their will, or do nothing and all three die on the moon.

Two nights later, the Crow Moon hanging in the sky, Leeland sat with his rifle looking out the uppermost window of his house. he watched a ship land in his cornfield, looking like a scientist’s dream. He watched a third newcomer step out, wearing a uniform that looked a lot like Interis’ own garb. He watched the three of them stand in a wary triangle. He heard the very edges of their thoughts. And he pulled the trigger.

It didn’t take long for Gaelon to adjust to life on earth. The three newcomers fell into the habit of reading and meditating during the day, and one month later, under a bright Seed Moon, the four of them went out to plant the cornfield, just as Leeland had done before his sons had moved away.

Author’s note: This story came from some writing prompts and a list of moon names in the back of a Field Notes notebook. With some work it might end up being something interesting.

Excerpt from “Redeemable”: Stories we Don’t Know

This is an excerpt from my NaNoWriMo novel this year, entitled Redeemable. I don’t have a ton of time to clean it up or make some of the more obscure passages make sense, so you’ll have to deal with a slightly weird story.

But you’re used to that.

Thank you for reading!

Every person carries their own little history in their head; the stories of who they are and what has happened to them. These stories are secret.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.

We think we know everything that happens. We think we know where everyone is most of the time, so we know most of what is going on in the world. We think that the things we don’t know about are small and useless things. Maybe someone is in love with someone else and we’re not really aware, but that’s not a big deal, right? Or maybe there are little crimes, people finding chemical delights in ways that we forbid. Again, not a huge deal.

But we’re wrong. Big things are invisible. Massive, earth moving stories and plots that simmer below the surface of our reality, they are there. They are undetected. Sometimes we see corners of them.

Let me tell you a story.

Once there was a man. He was named Lenny. He lived down here. He never married, but he dated quite a few girls. He worked in the botany lab, did solid but unimpressive research, progressed the sum total of our knowledge by an amount that moved along a linear path. He enjoyed painting in his free time. He slept almost exactly eight hours every night, based on when he went into and out of his bedroom.

About three years ago his paintings started getting weirder. He started including phrases in them, sometimes all on one painting, sometimes spread across multiple canvases. The phrases were nonsense. Things like “Arrows fly truest when aimed north,” Or “The sky? Ask me about it tomorrow.”

If they were secret messages to someone they were a very poor form of communication. They were seen by me (because of the spy cams), his girlfriend, and as far as we can tell nobody else. Ever.

One day he didn’t show up for work. Wait, let me back up. One day he came to work, and gave his boss a note. It read “I am in grave danger. If I have endangered the lab or our research I apologize. The Centarch does not rule alone down here.” He didn’t wait for her to read the note, he just went to work as if nothing had ever happened.

Three days later he didn’t show up for work. Still somewhat unnerved because of his cryptic little letter, his supervisor called his phone and got no answer. She emailed him and got an automated reply that said “I am unlikely to respond, but if I do it will be in two years.”

She asked the Centarch if they could find him. We sent out some people. And we found him. He was dead in a new tunnel, where cameras hadn’t been installed yet. We combed the footage of every path leading to that spot and he never appeared on any of it. He was found dead of a massive blow to the chest, literally a single punch that stopped his heart. But, even after death, he was smiling.

Four hours before his estimated time of death he was seen leaving his bedroom. Three hours after we found his body he was seen entering his bedroom. We also have footage of his autopsy, occurring at the exact same second when he was seen entering his room. In both videos we see his face clearly. When a team went to search his room, two hours later, there was a brand new painting, the paint still drying. He had not been seen carrying the canvas into that room.

The painting said “I forgot…” and was a picture of a small house under a beautiful yellow sun.

All of his paintings hang in the Mitzi gallery now. Many people find them quite inspirational. The story of his death isn’t told. We can’t tell it. Because we don’t know the half of it.

Arguing With My Brain

Note: It’s NaNoWriMo! As usual, I’m participating! Also as usual, I’m behind. So this week’s story is less of a story and more of what’s going on in my head these days. I’m hoping my novel will spin off a few useful stories that I can give you in the next couple of weeks, and more intensive new fiction will start happening again in December.

Okay, we’re here, our laptop is open and on, and it’s time to start writing. Come on brain, let’s do this.

Or we could watch Netflix!

No. We don’t need to watch movies or silly TV shows. Binge watching is getting us nowhere.

We could watch Doctor Who!

Well, that sounds like a good idea–WAIT. No. Writing time.

In that case, we should check our email.

No. We are not checking our email either. This is where we actually make good on what we always say we are. We keep telling people that we’re a writer, now it’s time to actually write something.

YOU keep telling people that we are a writer. I am a lump of pink wrinkled fat sitting inside your skull. You write.

Listen, you know I can’t do this without you. I mean, I can’t really even be having this conversation without you. This whole conversation is basically you talking to yourself. I’m confused.

We both are!

ANYWAY I’ve opened Scrivener, and now it’s time to put smart words into our new book.

What’s in it for me? I’d rather just watch old re-runs of TV shows. Come on, you know you want to do that as well! If we watch TV, I’ll release a bunch of dopamine and we’ll feel good!

Well, if we write a bunch and get a sense of accomplishment we’ll feel good too.

Yeeeeeah, that seems like a lotta work.

That’s kinda the point. Yeah, it’s more work, but then we’re better for it, and maybe we can actually get something published this year instead of just saying we will and never doing it.

We have a job. We don’t need to write books. We need to relax after all that stress at work

Look, if we write books we won’t have to stress about work, because we’ll be rich and famous.

You’ll be rich and famous. I’ll still just be a lump.

Look, this isn’t “movie star” style fame we’re talking about, it’s literary fame. “From the mind of Nate Dickson” they’ll say. That’s you! You are the mind of Nate Dickson! If we do this, you’ll finally have your dream!

Smart people saying nice things about me?

That’s the one! But you know what people will say about you if we just sit around and watch re-runs?

What?

Nothing. Nobody talks about people who watch re-runs all day.

… Okay. Let’s write something. Start with this: “It was a dark and stormy night…”

Thank goodness for first drafts.

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