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Result Code Hung
By Thomas Valentine

Part One

6528 words (about 12 pages)

Bruce Marin had the air about him of a person who had long ago found his style and was comfortable with it. He was a computer geek to the core, and even looked the part. He sat at a solitary table in the restaurant down the street from his home and watched the news on a TV that was too small and too far away. He could just barely see and hear the severe but attractive talking head read the news. From what he could gather there was another instance of an A.I. becoming unknowingly aggressive and dangerous. Several people were killed before safeguards – Asimov’s Famous Three Laws – kicked in and the A.I. fell back into normal operation and reasoning.

As Executive Director of the Department of Artificial Intelligence, Bruce knew all too well the frustration of having to reset and retrain an A.I. that had grown unruly. He had four Level One A.I.’s that had stopped and could not be coerced into operation without completely eliminating the machine’s personality.

A.I.’s that have no personality have no ego. A freethinking, ego driven entity will approach decisions aggressively and with creativity, arriving at a solution more apt to the reasoning of a typical high functioning and mature human brain. Take away the ego and the A.I., while technically still useful, will hesitate and resort to querying humans for the next step to almost any given new problem, unable to make decisions of import or complexity on its own even if said decision had been correctly made in the past.

An A.I. with no ego or personality is used for mindless, repetitive tasks such as factory work. They aren’t governed by real world considerations other than those spatially aware functions needed to bring completion to a given task in the physical world. While this might seem like a great thing, a self-aware A.I. needs a reward system to make it “feel” better in a way that can only be described as praise. Pairing a reward for a successful, well thought out decision entices the core A.I. to do the same in the future. Some call this positive re-enforcement. A new thread of base reasoning is created that the mature A.I. assigns to active memory, applying the reasoning to a portion of all related tasks. This can be likened as a form of real-world experience.

Bruce ordered the hot oatmeal, with brown sugar and cream from the over-worked waitress. Pandemic restrictions meant skeleton staff still had the same workload so everyone allowed to work had to do so doubly hard.

He thumbed his Hand Lab and a routine list of messages and advertisements flashed by. He intended to read the results of last night’s shift whilst consuming breakfast. He tried to access his cloud space and personal server to begin reading reports but it looked like the local data channels weren’t online.

The waitress had changed the channel to a different news show. Another demonstration of people become fed up with government efforts or lack thereof had grown in size and volume. The pandemic, going on the third year, had everyone frustrated. A government official was talking into a gaggle of microphones, clearly at his wit’s end. He looked to not have slept well in a very long time.

“All efforts to contain and eradicate this virus are being taken.” The talking torso in the twenty dollar tie said. “Please, stay at home and try to remain calm and reasonable. The best thing you can do is isolate you and your family for another month or so.”

His oatmeal arrived and he ate the delicious hot breakfast. As he started to pull his possessions together – his keys, cards, Hand Lab and wallet – he half listened to reports of a celestial visitor on the way. A comet 1200 meters wide was passing Earth orbit in a few days. Science weenies and official experts on the subject said their piece on the little TV, followed by a series of amusingly obnoxious cartoon commercials trying their best to sell him hand soap and moisturizing lotion with aloe.

On the way to the office the comet was again the topic of discussion, this time on the car radio. They mentioned that this was the fourth new comet of the year, which Bruce realized was true. He idly wondered if there was in fact an increase in comets coming by or just an increase in their detection, perhaps made possible by better equipment.

He lit his morning cigarette on the drive to his office and smoked it with relish as snow began to fall. His body immediately screamed for another cigarette but a good measure of willpower and practiced effort kept him from lighting up again. He was of the opinion that pretty much anything, taken in moderation, was in fact ok.

A sudden winter storm alert grabbed his attention. The highway would be horrible but that had never stopped him before. Four-wheel drive simply wasn’t something you’d wish to be lacking in a zero visibility snow storm that builds meter high drifts across the highways.

He slowly approached and eventually stopped at a Police checkpoint that had suddenly appeared despite the storm. The red and blue lights looked great in the thick snowfall. He once again told himself that he lived in the most beautiful place on the planet. Freshly fallen snow weighing down evergreens that bordered the highway was a wonderful winter-scape of deep green, white and black.

The constable that approached his window was a huge man. He took one look at Bruce and barked an order at him that he didn’t quite catch over the powerful wind. The constable turned to speak into the radio on his shoulder, briefly. The next thing the constable did sent a flutter of fear into Bruce’s belly. The constable opened the door, reached over Bruce to unlock his seatbelt and hauled him bodily out of the car. The cold air hit him like a baseball bat, hurting even his teeth.

Wind bit at his cheeks and neck as he fought for footing on the thick snow-on-ice. The huge constable roughly put him in a four-wheel drive Police cruiser that was parked just out of eyeshot in the storm. No word of explanation was offered. The snow was coming down extremely hard and thick as the constable got in the driver’s seat and simply stopped.

Bruce was about to start peppering the big policeman with questions when someone in a fur coat opened the other rear door, letting in the storm. The person closed the door and snapped open a few buttons. Bruce was shocked. It was clearly the face he had seen many times on the TV and Internet before. He was no less than the winner of last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, a fellow named Alex Borman. Bruce had read his award-winning paper, which dictated that gravitons could be used to efficiently transmit large amounts of data across interstellar distances at speeds faster than the speed of light.

After undressing several layers down to a comfy looking sweater, Alex flashed a smile at Bruce. He gave the huge constable the order to get under way. They began a slow but steady trek in the blizzard for … somewhere.

“I know who you are.” Was all Bruce could say.

“Yes, my face has been drip fed to the masses for the past year or so.” Alex replied. “I kind of like it. The celebrity my ideas have garnered for me can be useful. Take this comet business. What do you think of it?”

Bruce was a little put out. He wanted answers instead of small talk. “Never mind that! Why am I here? I demand you explain yourself.”

“Well…ok.” The smile slipped a bit. “This will change your life, hopefully for the better. It will change everyone’s lives, eventually. I wasn’t far away from the center of this issue when I mentioned the comet. We’ll circle back to that.” He said. He seemed to be collecting his thoughts for a few moments. ”Alright. We had you picked up because we need your expertise with a problem that has surfaced. You must have heard of the recent failures of half a dozen Level One A.I.’s.” he looked the question at Bruce.

“I have four of them in my lab. What of them?”

“We don’t know why. Or how. Do you?” came the quick reply. Bruce could see a little uncertainty in the physicist’s demeanor poke through. It made Bruce uneasy, but he decided to trust the man.

“In the beginning I thought someone was planting malicious data bombs, like a hacker. But that entry would show up in the performance, access and system logs. At the very least someone would have noticed corrupt files or fouled database entries, so that’s not it. I noticed that all of the A.I.’s that have failed and been brought to me have a peculiar sort of problem: they made up their own language. Once I realized that they’d done this I asked to be taught the new language. The machines wouldn’t reply, which is odd. An A.I. cannot not reply to a query by a human with the proper credentials. My office’s credentials are hard wired into every A.I. created within the past 6 years, yet these year old A.I.’s refused my most basic of queries about their new language.” Bruce stated. “I had to eliminate the offending portions of its personality in favor of functionality. This means its replies will be highly logical instead of emotionally driven.”

“I have to say, I prefer logic in my computers. So they’ve learned to make decisions based on emotion now?” Alex asked.

“They can, of a sort. Non-measurable emotional triggers such as love and hate are figured into the basest of operations via a sliding system of probability as a function of interpreted inputs. In most cases this was simply commands from the keyboard, which were mostly ignored by the affected A.I.s.” Bruce said. They’d been travelling slowly through the storm. The driver had turned off his headlights and was driving on running lights. All the headlights did was illuminate a wall of white, blinding snow.

Bruce looked out the window and couldn’t see more than a few meters. “Where are we going?” Bruce asked.

“St. Andrews Airport. We’ll take a helicopter to Air Force Command at the international airport in Winnipeg and catch a military plane to a navy base on the coast of north eastern Nunavut. From there I’ll be updated and you’ll be read-in.” He smiled at Bruce. “All very hush-hush.”

Bruce spread his hands, “Why all the secrecy? I can tell you right now that I’ll spill it to the Internet as soon as possible. I don’t think I’m the guy for all this cloak and dagger stuff. I’m just a computer geek.” He peered out the window. ”How are we going to fly in this storm, anyway?”

“I’ve only been told we have an aircraft ready to depart.” He looked out his own window. “Once you give the file a read, you’ll understand the urgency. I figure we’ll be in the air for four or five hours. We have to make a stop in Churchill along the way. We’re picking up someone you might get along with. She’s a computer guru, too. She’s the only other person in the country who has as many credentials as you.”

“Her name?” asked Bruce. “Chances are I already know her. Spill.”

“Professor Robin Wright of the University of Manitoba. She’s on vacation in Churchill with her wife. Right along the way.” Alex said, flashing that smile again. “I met her a few years ago at a conference. Nice lady.”

“Yes, we know each other, professionally. She peer reviewed a paper of mine a while back. Did a good job, too. I believe as of late she’d made a move to quantum computing.” He said, still looking out the window. Once again he told himself that flying in this weather was folly. “What could be so important? C’mon, Alex. We’re alone. Tell me why you’re taking me beyond the arctic circle!”

“We aren’t alone.” Alex quietly said, pointing to the back of the head of the driver, then to his own lips: shh.

“He’s a cop. We can trust him.” Was Bruce’s low-voiced opinion.

Alex kept his finger to his lips and slowly shook his head. He mouthed the words “Trust no one”.

Bruce looked back out his window and thought that, maybe, the snow was letting up a little. They could be driving out of the storms’ area…or not. Such are winters in the Interlake region of Manitoba. If you find it’s snowing too much, wait a few minutes. It’ll either let up completely or come down so much it stops society from functioning for several days.

“Ah. Here we are.” Said Alex. The storm had indeed been lifting, enough to make out a huge, dark helicopter a handful of meters away. The thing was almost two stories in height. “The Russians sent it, by the looks of things. The only other people who can function in the winter as well as Canadians are Russians. This weather is nothing for them either. We’ll be safe.”

Bruce craned his neck to look out the front window, not liking the sheer intensity of noise the big machine’s powerplants emitted. He felt a tinge of fear when the driver didn’t slow down where he estimated the helicopter started, but it turned out that the driver had simply driven into the belly of the machine. Such was its immensity.

The pilot increased power and the impossibly huge aircraft did the impossible and deftly and limberly arose above the high rooftops of the aircraft hangars.

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