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Jonathan Sheasby discovers some unexpected perils of AI.
Steve sat in his B38, a sleek grey capsule descending deep down into Novus’s core, plummeting like a hammerhead shark in pursuit of its prey. Our hero experienced an increased sense of disorientation as the speed at which he was travelling jeopardised his already rather tenuous connection with reality.
The interior of the pod reverberated, increasing its occupant’s unease as he glanced at the coloured windows which, comfortingly, or perhaps discomfortingly, revealed nothing of the capsule’s surroundings.
“Want a mint?” asked the disembodied voice of the IDEX, his electronically generated companion for the journey, programmed to put its passenger at ease with light-hearted solicitous questions of this nature. Steve’s stomach churned with the downward motion of his vessel. He found himself wondering whether IDEX Sam was, in some literal sense, a ghost in a machine. His musings were interrupted by a rather surreal turn of events when IDEX Sam asked, apparently at random: “Are you completely free, Steven?”
“What?” yelped Steve, more than a little phased by this unorthodox line of questioning, never before heard from an IDEX. Their sole purpose was to comfort and distract the miners as they journeyed to their place of work each day, taking their minds off their sense of powerlessness as they dropped through the churning, lightening-wracked cloud layers of an alien planet. He was also a tad disconcerted by the formal manner in which he was now being addressed by his simulated companion, who had previously tended to salute him affectionately as ‘mate’ or ‘Ste’. He hadn’t been called ‘Steven’ since he was a child being reprimanded by his mother or aunt for some misdemeanor or other.
Unbeknownst to Steve, or indeed most of the other miners travelling in the other capsules that day, hackers had infiltrated the Viecorps mainframe. It could have been worse: these technological law-breakers were merely part of a rather austere albeit impassioned sect who felt impelled to force humankind to attain a higher, more reflective mode of existence.
“There’s no point your working mindlessly each day until you die without having considered the deeper questions of life,” said the proselytising reconstituted IDEX Sam: “And so before I let you leave this vehicle, I’m afraid you’re going to have to seriously address at least one of them.”
Desperately clinging to his seat as if grasping his very sanity, Steve exclaimed, “But you can’t force me to think; that’s against my human rights!”
“That particular rather valueless right has been temporarily suspended. For your own good, you understand.”
“Who the hell are you to decide what’s in my interests, you robot hippy?” yelled the irate miner, arising as he did so – then wishing he hadn’t as his head banged the roof of his sinking cell.
“Ahhh…” iterated the computer calmly, “We knew we’d encounter some rather futile resistance on the path to enlightenment. You must realise that this situation can only be escaped through a little thought on your part – a little cognition of which you are entirely capable… You see, everyone begins to philosophise at some point, just as you did when you wondered whether I was a ghost in a machine…”
“You read my mind? Now that’s definitely a breach of my human rights!” opined the indignant Steve. “I refuse to answer your question. I’ll stay here forever if I have to. I’ll sweat it out. My mental freedom’s more important to me than everything – my own life, even.”
“Okay, as you wish. You are free to choose, after all.” Steve wondered whether there was more than a hint of irony in his self-appointed jailer’s statement, but kept this thought, as best he could, to himself. He began recklessly banging buttons and pulling levers in the hope of escaping the control of his self-righteous and conceited captor; but upon realising the futility of his struggle he sat back breathing heavily, his energy spent.
The seconds passed ever so slowly in silence; and as they did, as much as he tried to not think, Steve was horrified to find himself wondering whether he was free in the very situation he was in. He was surely still free to think what he wanted to, wasn’t he? But if so, then why, without any physically imposed restraint, or any electrode attached to his brain or chip inserted therein, was he now venturing to answer the question he had been instructed by the machine to address, and which he was so strongly opposed to answering for the sake of the very freedom he held so dear? Then, to the conflicted miner’s simultaneous horror and relief, IDEX Sam explained, “Steve, you are free to go – as in fact you always have been. I’ve not actually interfered with your journey one iota: I merely played a little benevolent trick on you in order to lead you further along the path of self-realisation.” With that the door opened, at the same time it did every single day.
Steve stepped out into the blinding artificial light of Novus’s interior, shaking his head and attempting to focus his eyes on the armed retainers of Viecorps, evidently sent forth to rescue him, albeit redundantly. Although uncertain whether or not his rights had been violated during his ordeal, Steve felt convinced that he would be thinking about freedom much more carefully in future.
© Jonathan Sheasby 2018
Jonathan Sheasby is a writer living in the sometimes free and alien world of London. He works for Westminster Council.