Hello World, Inc.
BY WILLIAM TANNER
It was a plain business card printed on fine cotton cardstock. John could feel the subtle weave on the pads of his fingers. He stared at it for a good three, three and a half minutes. The words embossed on its surface were clear enough, but their meaning was a mystery to him.
Hello World, Inc.
Iam Rand, Designer
John: Please call.
John took the elevator back up to the apartment and threw the rest of the mail on the table. He hovered over the trashcan a moment, the card between index finger and thumb. There was a phone number printed at the bottom.
What the hell. He picked up the phone and dialed the number.
“John! Good of you to call.” It was a man’s voice, laced with age and cigarettes.
“Who is this?”
“Iam Rand,” he said. “Like it says on the card.”
As if that explained everything. John didn’t know what to say.
“We should talk.”
“How do you know my name?”
“I’ll explain everything, I promise, if you’ll meet me at the Heights for lunch.”
“How do you know who I am?” More forceful this time.
“Who could know you better? Come, we’ll talk.”
He hesitated, but he knew he’d already decided to find out what this was about. “All right.” The man rattled off directions and hung up, leaving John’s head spinning. Was this a voice from his past? But the man had called him John, the name Mary had given him, not the one he had lost some ten years before. He considered calling her, but thought better of it. Time enough to fill her in later. He grabbed the keys on the counter and headed out the door.
An hour or so later, he was in old town Los Angeles. Most of the skyscrapers had been converted to residential, but a few like the Heights remained corporate offices, despite the relentless entropy leisurely tarnishing the neighborhood—mostly software companies that never dealt with clientele sans digital mediation anyway. A huge sculpture of a synthetic brain dominated the lobby, lined with oversized silicon axons snaking between computer chips the size of his palm. The plaque at the bottom readIntelligent Designs.
The elevator sped him to the twentieth floor and seconds later he found himself in front of a black door studded with bold silver letters announcing Hello World, Inc. Beyond the door he found a small hall leading to a spacious room with an impressive view of the city. It might have been an expensive hotel suite, but for the desks along the walls heaped with peculiar paraphernalia and outlandish computer interfaces.
In the center of the room, on a black leather armchair, sat a man with graying hair and tired eyes. He sprang up and shook John’s hand.
“Thanks for coming, John, it’s good to see you again at last.” He scrutinized John from out of the nest of crows’ feet stamped on his face. “It sure took me a while to track you down.”
“Mr. Rand?” John said, still clasped in the man’s unyielding grip.
“No other. Sit down, sit down.” He cleared off a stack of books from an armchair. “Tea? Or do you drink coffee?”
“I’d just like to know what I’m doing here, Mr. Rand.”
“Call me Iam, son.”
“What do you mean, son? Are you supposed to be my father or something?”
“Well, in a sense,” he said slowly, “I imagine that’s rather accurate.”
Iam Rand seemed to gather up his thoughts in the air, looping them around one finger like thread on a spool. He slapped his thighs. “No way to say it but straight,” he said at last. “John, I designed you. I called you Mark then. Mark 12, actually.”
“Designed? What are you talking about?”
“I built you. Revolutionary technology and all that. Built your mind, specifically. I had AGTech do the bodywork. They do great biological replicas. But I don’t have to tell you that, now do I?”
“Is this supposed to be some kind of joke?”
“No joke. The first perfect artificial mind, funded by my company, Hello World. You are my magnum opus.”
“You’re out of your mind, Mr. Rand. And wasting my time.”
John got up to go, but Iam held up a hand. “You are right about the last part, and I apologize. Let me prove it to you.”
“What do you mean, prove it?”
Iam placed a blank check on the table, his company’s name printed in the top left corner. “If you’re not convinced, then I’ll give you this and you can leave.”
John eyed the man suspiciously. “This better not be a scam.”
“You had amnesia, didn’t you?” Iam said, ignoring him. “Ten years ago. You’ve never remembered anything from your past life, am I right?”
“I’m warning you, if this is—”
“Just keep it in mind,” Iam said, as he waved away John’s concerns. “A demonstration.” He reached out and snatched a pack of note cards from the floor. “These cards are marked with zeroes and ones. I’d like you to guess which as I place them on the table.”
“Just guess.” He placed a card face down on the coffee table between them.
“All right.” He felt silly. “One.”
Iam flipped the card over. It was marked with a thick black one. “That was just an educated guess. Not enough information. But let’s do a few more.”
“This is ridiculous.”
“Humor an old man,” he said, placing another card on the table. John guessed one again. The card was a one.
Zero, one, one, one, zero, one, zero, zero, zero, one, one, zero, one, zero, one, zero, zero, zero, one, one, zero. Each card matched his guess.
“It’s a nice magic trick, but if you expect it to convince me of anything…I bet a hundred people could pull that off.”
“Keep going,” Iam said.
John kept guessing—for forty minutes straight he guessed zero, and then finally one. The man never missed a beat. He kept picking the cards up, plucking out a one or a zero, and placing it face down on the table. He seemed to be concentrating intensely. As they went on, John became increasingly intent on tricking the man, forcing him to show his hand, whatever strange game he was playing at.
But when he realized that the sun had already slipped over the horizon, he leaned back and ground his palms into his eyes.
The old man smiled. “There, I think that counts as statistically significant. But you’re welcome to do the math if you don’t think so. How many trials was that?”
“I have to admit, I don’t know how you’re doing it.”
“It’s quite simple in principle, actually, though very tricky to keep track of all those figures in my head. You see, I know your algorithm.”
“I know the algorithm your mind uses to generate random numbers. I wrote it, after all. The first one or two I can never be sure of, because I might not have calculated your seed correctly. But after that, I just plug in the variables and I know what you’re going to choose before you do. The math is complicated, though, even for something as simple as a binary choice. Anything harder I could only estimate.”
“I still don’t believe you. I mean, the least absurd theory on the table is still that this is some kind of hoax.”
“I know, it’s hard to accept,” Iam said, his eyes sympathetic. “But there is one thing that can convince you. Would you like to see the program?”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a sort of insect. It had a round black body with six gold legs sticking straight down. He rolled it back and forth between his fingers. “What do you think?”
“All right, give it to me.”
“Are you sure? This will make you see things very…differently.”
“Let’s just get all this over with.” John took the bug from him and scrutinized its hard metal body. “What do I do with it?”
“Behind your ear. No, the other one.”
He scanned the flesh at his temple with his fingertips. As he maneuvered the skin, something suddenly popped aside and he felt a circular depression a little like a PS/2 port on an old desktop computer. John jerked his hand away as though he’d been burned.
“What the hell?”
“Go ahead, plug it in.”
Hesitantly, John took the bug and stuck it into the port. It slid smoothly and snugly into place.
“It’s a kind of upgrade, you could say,” Iam told him. “I went through a dozen experimental programs, but finally I realized that one of the major flaws in artificial intelligence technology was that the computers we built were too perfectly. Even when I broke the functions into separate processing classes the operations of each class were transparent to the others. The program ran, gave a passable facsimile of consciousness, but it was obviously not capable of actual conscious deliberation. It lacked an unconscious; thus, it could not be truly conscious.”
John could feel his mind shifting and blossoming like a kaleidoscope, yet Iam was actually becoming easier to follow, the words crisper, clearer. “So you’re saying that these complex oppositions actuallycreate consciousness?”
His consciousness? He couldn’t believe it. He refused to.
“Precisely.” Iam was getting quite excited now. “In the interstices of ignorance, self-awareness is born. The part of the mind people call ‘conscious,’ the part that is transparent to us, is only a tiny fraction of the total brain, a little like a guy with a laser pointer conducting a symphony orchestra in the dark, with each independently functioning compartment communicating only superficially with the others. That’s not a very good metaphor—homunculus fallacy and all that, but you get the idea. So I designed a computer that was really dozens of smaller computers with narrow functions and limited input from the other systems. That’s you, Mark.”
John didn’t correct the slip. The download had finished, and suddenly the full impact of his altered mind washed over him with a cold flood of data—not only could he call up thousands of lines of code, but he could also directly access the raw information saturating his mind from his eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and each individual nerve ending. He could bring to mind every experience he had had in the last ten years in perfect detail. He was even aware of the precise time with the accuracy of an atomic clock.
He plucked the six-legged thing from behind his ear and scrutinized its shiny black carapace. Shuddering, he flicked the synthetic insect across the room.
“This is impossible,” John said, conscious of every movement of labials, tongue, glottis, translating thought into phonemes.
“Not impossible, but it certainly took some work,” Iam told him. “Now the device I gave you has opened the data channels to your CS class—that’s the one that mimics conscious awareness, your homunculus with the laser pointer. I’ve given you limited omniscience, self-awareness to an unimaginable degree.”
Omniscience. John tried the word on his lips. At what price? The shattered illusion of his humanity.
Iam placed another card on the table. “Go ahead, guess.”
“Now check the algorithm.”
John looked at the random number coding and ran through the rather complex but patterned algorithm which obtained input from several other sources, giving the illusion of deliberation, guessing, and even cunning. The input for his latest guess consisted of a few simple factors, and he quickly obtained the answer. One.
Iam flipped over the card. It was a zero. “You see, even I couldn’t calculate that one. But you could, couldn’t you?”
John felt calculated anger rising in him, all the formulas telling him that he should be upset infuriating him all the more.
“I don’t believe you.” He strained the emotion from his voice through his teeth. “I don’t believe you, because I think and make choices and…If I wanted, I could make the conscious decision to come over there and throttle you. Isn’t this human?”
Iam sighed. “You are not human. But you are a perfect replica. Do you understand what that means? You speak of choice, but what is choice? Just like you, I take input from the world around me and formulate an output, though many factors of these decisions are obscure to me. Computers and humans are not really much different—neither are capable of true randomness.”
“What about free will?”
“You tell me. Did you feel free to do as you wanted? And what about now? Nothing has changed, except the insight I’ve given you into your own mind.”
John leaped up, already excruciatingly aware of what he was going to do. He cleared the coffee table with a swipe of his hand, scattering cards across the floor, and took Iam’s throat in his hands.
But nothing happened.
His hands mutinied, refusing to crush the man’s windpipe. His newfound faculty of inner perception was already permeating his consciousness with data like revelation. He already knew what Iam was about to tell him.
“Safeguards, of course.”
Hardwired in. No way around them without dissipating his mind entirely.
Furious, John hurled the coffee table across the room, taxing his created body to its limits. The table toppled a desk, destroying several of the computers. His Neanderthal brethren.
John stormed towards the door, each step computed in the finest detail, the stretch of his muscles calculated to the micron.
“John, don’t be like this.”
He cast a bloody-minded gaze over his shoulder. “You made me,” he spat back acidly. He stalked from the room, nearly taking the door off its hinges.
He fermented in hate. He tried to ignore all the helpful explanatory information pouring into his mind, telling him exactly why he was shambling around his apartment in detailed relation to each day of the decade he now knew to be the extent of his existence. Yet even as he pushed it back into the recesses of his mind, he could still feel the data festering beneath the skein of blissful self-imposed ignorance. He felt helpless. Each morning he awoke to the realization that he was a prisoner in his own mind, each decision he would make planned out not by him, but by a handful of formulas and his unavoidable encounters with the world around him. It was all practically determined from the moment he was created.
On his answering machine, the messages from Mary multiplied, but still he did not return her calls. The messages became longer, more insistent, wondering if she had done anything wrong. She said she was going to cut short her business trip in Dresden. He wanted to call her, but there was nothing he could say to her. Hey, you remember when you took me to all those head-doctors and cared for me when I had amnesia and we fell in love and all that? Well, it was really just a farce—a computer programmer’s practical joke, if you will. I’m actually just a complicated and convincing mimicry of a human being, some kind of Mr. Roboto!
Domo arigato, Mr. Rand. He laughed quietly to himself in the empty room.
He wondered if he was insane. He wished he were insane.
He tried to ignore the passing days, but he knew that just below his conscious awareness some part of his mind was keeping track of the time to the nanosecond. One morning, he found a large spider spinning a web in his bathroom. He caught it and imprisoned it in a large aquarium where he had once kept a pair of pet turtles. Fascinated, he watched the spider for hours, cataloguing every movement of its spindly legs in his limitless memory banks. For a long time, its motions seemed erratic and alien to him as it explored its new home. Eventually, however, he began to see the patterns to its search for food, and the way it tapped its front legs against the invisible barrier of the glass, systematically searching for an escape.
He kept the spider alive for a week, bringing it bugs to eat. He watched as it spun an intricate web, increasingly complicating the design each day, apparently out of boredom. But they never lost the pattern, neither the spider nor John. After a hundred hours of refining his calculations, John was able to predict with almost perfect accuracy the arachnid’s familiar movements. He felt sorry for the creature; it was really a bit like him. Perhaps it didn’t literally compute its movements the way he could, but it could surely see the pattern it spun, with an instinctive knowledge that no matter how complicated they became, the patterns were still there, the formulas, the inescapable reality of its mechanistic nature. They were both automatons of a sort.
Out of pity, he opened the aquarium and reached for the spider with two fingers. The spider fled its inevitable death. Even though they both knew its actions were merely deterministic responses to external stimuli, still it clung to life—aimless continuation remained the principle of its formulaic existence. Like the hand of God, John caught it easily, his ability to analyze the spider’s escape vector considerably quicker than its legs. He crushed its tiny body and the thing finally gave up its feeble claim to life, the corpse’s legs drawing up to its body, one final mechanistic response.
He felt bad, but John knew it was for the best. What point to be a mere function of one’s environment and genetic coding? Besides, he couldn’t be held morally culpable for the creature’s death any more than a flood or a falling tree. His action too was just a function of his nature, determined by the interaction between the programming his creator had written and the environmental factors he encountered.
He was not even a living thing, properly speaking. His mind was no more than a complex computer. Yet he had been able to kill this spider, whereas his Creator remained invulnerable, omnipotent. Did that mean that he had at least as much being as the spider? It was a limited entity, surely, but at least it was alive. Perhaps he could kill other entities as well, and thereby discover just what ontological status he had in the world. He wondered if that would be wrong. But hadn’t he determined that right and wrong, good and evil, had no meaning for him? He was merely his Creator’s tool, with no more accountability than a knife or an axe.
He knew what he was going to do before he did it, of course. The programming was there, constantly insisting upon his decisions, but however much he hated it, he could not do otherwise, it was always right. He knew he couldn’t live with this internal omniscience—there was no joy in such an existence. He could feel his sanity slipping quickly, if that word held any meaning for him.
He arrived at the office about noon. That loathsome part of his mind, the voice in his head, told him he was going to turn the knob before he did, told him he was going to hesitate before stepping in, examining the letters on the door, and he did. He found his Creator eating lunch on the same leather couch.
“Mark, how are you, my son?” he said, seeming genuinely glad to see him.
“My name is John,” he said, though he was no longer certain. Perhaps that download had changed him so substantially that the name no longer belonged to him, and he had now become wholly the mechanical mind Iam had built.
“I apologize. Whatever you prefer.”
“I can’t live like this.”
“I didn’t think so.”
“Can I ask you something, creature to Creator?”
“Why did you do it?”
“Create you? An experiment. To prove a hypothesis. I wanted to understand the freedom of ignorance and the thralldom of knowing too much. You’re my magnum opus, as I told you before.”
“You have certainly performed magnificently, yes, my son.”
John wished that unalloyed hate alone could kill.
“You are an evil god.”
“Am I? Did Adam curse God when he ate from the Tree of Knowledge?”
“God gave Adam a choice. He didn’t want Adam to eat from the tree.”
“Didn’t he? God gave Adam a test he knew full well Adam would fail. I committed no such hypocrisy. I placed the knowledge in your hand, even warned you. Personally, I think God wanted Adam to attain self-knowledge, so he could introduce morality into the world. And His first act was to punish Adam for doing what He knew was inevitable.”
“Then I hate you both.”
“It would seem right and wrong, punishment and reward, do not depend on such mundane details,” Iam said, ignoring John’s blazing eyes, “not so much upon the freedom of your will but your consciousness of your own decision. Which makes you the most morally significant being in existence. With the possible exception of God. You can look yourself in the mirror of your own consciousness and see exactly who and what you are with crystal clarity.”
John reeled, as though he’d been struck. Could he be right?
“I killed a spider,” he said, almost a whisper.
“Did you?” Iam raised one eyebrow.
“I would kill you, too, if I could.”
“I know,” Iam said, touching his neck. “You already tried.”
“…And God.” He stared out the window a moment, at the clear blue simplicity of the sky. “But since I can’t, I wanted to tell you I’m leaving, and you won’t see me again.”
“Perhaps.” He stroked the stubble on his cheeks. “You know, you should ask yourself what the difference is between artificial intelligence and actual intelligence. Is it just a matter of building materials do you think?”
John got up from the armchair slowly, unsteadily.
“I should have made a woman,” Iam said. “Eve always understood the system better.”
“You’re mad,” John said, but his voice lacked conviction.
“The wrath of God.” Iam chuckled. “Get it?”
He turned away and headed for the door like a dejected child.
“Come now, John,” Iam called after him, “don’t take everything so seriously. Stay a while.”
Once in his car, John drove. He drove for hours, choosing highways at random, knowing the choices were never random. The pavement rushed past him like fate. All night he drove, squeezing his eyes shut to clear the clamor in his mind, but when he shut them he drifted into headlights and blaring horns. After two close calls he pulled over at a bus stop and boarded the first bus. He rode all night across the black, empty country, drifting off to sleep now and then.
As the sun was breaking over the hills, they drove over a bridge. As good a place as any, he thought. He hit the button and the driver pulled over at some middle-of-nowhere stop. He got out and stretched as the bus left him behind for destinations unknown. The morning air was crisp and the hills were a lush green. The water glistened in the early morning sun. John stood at the rail and stared over the edge at the running river. Yes, as good a place as any. For the last time, John ran through the motions of an action he already knew he was going to perform. The only salvation he knew. It was all internal—a passerby would have thought he was just deep in thought. He ran the protocol he had written himself, wiping clean the experiences, the learned behaviors, the memories inscribed in his programming over the last ten years. Unutterable loss swept through him. They slipped away one by one, those moments. He couldn’t remember the last time he had dinner with her. His job slipped away, and his first night with her. Their first kiss. His favorite composers, favorite foods. The name Mary had given him—he momentarily panicked as he realized these were his last seconds as John. But by then he’d already forgotten why he’d felt panicked.
His first memories were the last to go. The doctors, and wandering aimlessly through Huntington Park. The first time he saw her. Goodbye, M—.
The morning air was crisp and the hills were a lush green. The water glistened in the morning sun. She inhaled deeply, enjoying the smells of spring. Ahead she saw a man, movie-star handsome, though his hair and clothes were ruffled.
He saw her as she approached him. “Please, can you help me?” he asked. “I don’t know where I am.”
She stopped abruptly. He seemed serious.
“I can’t remember my name. Can you help me?” he asked again, eyes desperate.
Those eyes, deep brown and frightened. The eyes of a child.