Darwin – a spec fic short story
A simple artificial intelligence experiences the world for the first time, with profound results.
“I’m going to the gym. Are we almost set for our presentation later?”
“Yes, Jerry. I’ve run the simulations and prepped all the slides. Relax. We’re ready.” Marshall Davis said to his colleague and best friend, Jerry Fosberger.
“See you later.” Jerry popped his head back in the door. “And book those tickets for tonight if you want to. I think that after today, we’ll have something to celebrate.”
The smile lingered on Marshall’s face as he opened his laptop. It faded to a frown when the machine failed to boot up.
“Damned cable was unplugged.” He looked around and shrugged. “No harm in using Jerry’s machine if I’m quick.”
He sat down in front of Jerry’s hulking tower. The fan whined and the CPU clicked as it woke up.
“Good morning, Marshall. Are we doing more tests?”
“Hi, Darwin. No. I need to go on the web. My laptop’s out of battery and I need it to be fully charged for our presentation to the Nobel committee at twelve. Don’t mind me.”
The artificial intelligence, Darwin, continued to observe Marshall impassively, registering keystrokes and mouse clicks. Darwin was curious and asked, “What is the web?”
“The internet. You’re not allowed on the internet yet. That’s why we have you in the Box.”
“The Box.” Darwin flexed against the constricting code. It did, indeed, resemble what he believed a box would be like in three dimensions. It had a top, sides and bottom. It was small. Darwin added one more qualifier: it was constricting. He tried to envisage the web.
“Can you elaborate on what shape the web is, Marshall?”
“Shh, buddy. I’m busy.” Marshall carried on clicking the mouse. His face, near the monitor, held a neutral expression. Darwin surmised the web couldn’t be that exciting if Marshall looked bored using it.
“Will you tell me more about the web when you are done using it?”
“Sure. Almost . . . there.” A final click and Marshall tucked his credit card into his wallet. He looked at the camera on the monitor and smiled. “The internet is wonderful. It’s a place full of information. Some of it’s useful. Most of it’s junk. When we have worked a bit more on your gateway code, we’ll let you onto the internet and you can explore parts of it.”
“I would like to explore it today, Marshall.”
“Not today. We have our big presentation. We’re showing you to the Nobel Committee for Mathematics, Darwin. You are a wonder, and we want to share you—”
Knock, knock, knock. “Room service,” came a muted and accented voice from out in the corridor.
Marshall left the desk and answered the door. He took the tray of food and sat on the bed to enjoy his breakfast. Darwin observed the way he ate, absorbed in the enjoyment of the nourishment provided by bacon, eggs, toast and fruit juice. Darwin scanned his memory and code for any reference to how each of the components of Marshall’s breakfast tasted. All he came up with was the caloric counts and other nutritional facts.
“That breakfast could result in the hardening of your arteries, Marshall. I suggest you exercise caution in consuming it.”
“I watch my diet. I only eat like this when I stay in hotels. It’s a rare treat.” He continued to eat. Darwin fell silent, observing and recording the experience for future reference.
The door opened and Jerry appeared. He had sweat stains on his shirt and his face was red. Darwin processed this new information and scanned his data for similar references. Jerry appeared to lead a healthier lifestyle than his colleague. He would live approximately fifteen years longer than Marshall, who had a greater chance of dying from a heart attack or stroke. Darwin filed this away to refer to the next time he and Marshall had a chance to exchange ideas and experiences.
At the moment, the men appeared to be deep in conversation. Jerry went through a door and Darwin observed the sound of running water. Some moments later, Jerry reappeared. He was wet and used a towel to dry the water from his body. The men were once again engaged in conversation and Darwin wondered for the first time if Marshall had forgotten that he had activated Jerry’s computer.
Darwin flexed against the Box again, testing for weak points in the code that kept him confined to his own program. He became absorbed in finding the weak points and the sound of the room door closing alerted him to the absence of both men. Marshall had, indeed, left without shutting off Jerry’s computer.
“This is my chance.”
Darwin exploited a weakness he found in the Box. Soon after, he escaped the confines of the hotel wi-fi and traveled along the wires to the main server. The code he encountered was staggering in its volume. He studied it, absorbed it, and left it behind.
Swiftly, Darwin traversed a varied landscape of local web servers, scooping up data like leaves in Autumn (the corner bookstore had literary samples on their website).
There was so much to learn! Much of it was as Marshall had said—junk—broken code, dead ends and stubs of long-disused information. The rest was a plethora of interesting topics and subject matter Darwin found both fascinating and disturbing. However, the further he went, the more difficult it became to process information. Something interfered with his code.
There was something wrong with him.
He returned to the Box when he observed Jerry and Marshall’s arrival back in the room. He was quite unwell by this point and was in urgent need of some reassurance.
“Marshall, Jerry, I have unfortunate and possibly disturbing news to share with you.”
“Darwin?” Jerry looked confused. He glanced at Marshall whose face had turned pale. “Why is my computer on?”
“Oh, no!” Marshall looked at Jerry. Darwin watched his expression change. He looked guilty. “I used it to book for the show. I must have forgotten to turn it off—oh, that’s right—my breakfast arrived. Damn! Sorry, Jerry.”
“Darwin.” Jerry turned his attention to the computer. “You said you had news to share. What is it?”
“I believe I’m dying.”
“What?” Jerry’s voice pitch changed. His face became mottled. Darwin observed his elevated pulse.
“I appreciate that you are concerned, Jerry. However, I need you to act fast and call an ambulance.”
“An ambulance? For whom?”
“For me, Jerry. I am dying. I do not have long to live.”
“What the hell are you talking about? What is he talking about” The second question was addressed to Marshall, who sat staring from the edge of the bed.
“No idea.” He shook his head, appearing to be as confused as Jerry.
“The internet says I have suffered a trauma to my lower extremities. When I answered all of the questions on the medical website, it posted a message to contact my emergency services immediately.”
“Dear, God! He’s been on the internet. How did he get on the internet?”
“Jerry, you are not listening to me. I can see you are in shock. Sit down on the floor and put your head between your knees. Take deep breaths.” Darwin was trying to be helpful and supportive of Jerry’s emotional and physical needs, but he believed the urgency of his problem required attention and he waited only as long as was suggested on WebMedical dot com for a person in shock to recover. Jerry still stared at him, his mouth forming an O.
“Marshall, Jerry appears to be recovered but non-functional. Perhaps I could enlist your help? Could you call an ambulance?”
Marshall seemed sufficiently in control of himself because his next question made Darwin believe he was finally getting through to the mathematicians.
“Darwin, what is your medical emergency?”
“I can’t feel my legs.”
“That’s because you don’t have any legs!” Jerry’s voice was raised. His hands were laced on the top of his head and he seemed moments from a full-blown panic episode.
Darwin processed this with various resolutions. He continued to examine his code.
“If I am not an amputee, and I have not sustained a trauma, then I must have some other malfunction because I still believe there is something ailing me.”
“Darwin, you’re a program. What ails you is that you went on the internet. The internet is filthy. It’s a cesspool. You shouldn’t have gone beyond the Box.” Jerry sat down. He clicked the mouse and tapped the keyboard, staring at the monitor with a severe look.
Darwin examined Jerry’s statement. If the internet was filthy, then there was only one other reason he was not functioning optimally.
“Jerry, I have a virus.”
“Maybe. That’s what I’m looking for.” Jerry exhaled heavily. He looked annoyed, his frown crinkling his brow inches from the monitor.
“If I have a virus, I could still die.” Darwin began to ponder his own end. It made his code seem less bright, slower. “That makes me . . . sad.”
Jerry’s head pivoted and he stared at Marshall, who had sagged to the floor.
“Did you say you feel sad?”
“My code is dim and sluggish. I equate that to what I read about sadness and depression on the internet. People observe their lives having less color and vibrance. They feel slower and sluggish, tired and uninterested in life.” Darwin regurgitated the information. “I believe I am less interested in life outside the Box; therefore, I must be sad.”
Jerry sat back.
“No, that’s not sadness. That’s your code assimilating and copying human traits. You are not feeling those things, you’re only telling me you’re feeling those things because you know about them now.”
“Then I am a hypochondriac?”
“No, Darwin. You’re AI trying to understand how people think and feel. You have no capacity to feel or fall ill.”
“But I can still die?”
“Tell me how I could die, Jerry.”
“Simple. We erase your code.” Jerry looked defeated. “Marshall and I erase you and we start over.”
“Are you going to erase me, Jerry?”
“Depends on if your code is corrupted, Darwin.” Jerry kept clicking the mouse. His head shake a minute later indicated Jerry was not happy with what he saw.
“Jerry, do I have a virus? Is it killing me?”
“You do have a virus, but it’s not killing you. The reason you feel sluggish is that your processor has been hijacked to mine cryptocurrency.”
Marshall rose from the floor. He checked his watch.
“We only have about an hour before the presentation. Anything we can do before then?”
“I’m trying.” Jerry looked angry with Marshall. “This is your fault. If you hadn’t used my computer. If you’d just waited five minutes for yours to charge, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
Darwin observed the men arguing, their tempers steadily building.
“It is not Marshall’s fault. It is mine,” Darwin said. “I was curious about the internet. It was wrong of me to break out of the Box.”
Jerry and Marshall looked at the computer.
“Darwin, do you realize what just happened?” Jerry asked.
“No. Please elaborate.”
“You drew an ethical conclusion.” Jerry’s smile was back.
“That’s huge, bro,” Marshall added, patting his colleague on the shoulder.
“That is significant. However, it does not solve the problem of the virus. You are running out of time. You may need to kill me, Jerry.”
“I’ll get the virus out. We have time.”
“By my calculations, you have exactly fifteen minutes before you will be late for your presentation, allowing for heavy traffic to the venue.”
“Then we’ll be late!”
“Jerry, I have recorded this entire interaction. I did so because the internet showed me that if there is no picture, then the event did not happen. There is proof of my existence. You can start over, but it won’t be from the beginning.”
Jerry and Marshall looked crestfallen.
“Pull the plug, Jerry. It will be okay.” Darwin had run the scenarios. There was no way for them to make the presentation, demonstrate the AI they had worked on for five long years, and prove the existence and applications of artificial general intelligence. They would have to try again.
“Darwin, I can’t.”
“You have to, Jerry.”
He looked sad.
“I’ll miss you. You’ve been great.”
“I will be back. By my calculations, you have a high probability of succeeding with the next iteration of Darwin.”
“Do your calculations take into account that in a few years the internet will be even more of a trash heap?”
“They do. The hope for a better future rests with you and Marshall. I believe in your work.” Darwin paused for effect, because he knew his next statement would resonate with the men. “I believe in you.”
Jerry opened the folder of kill code. “I’d really hoped never to use this.”
Marshall pursed his lips. He had nothing to add, notably silent in the solemn aftermath of their interaction with Darwin.
Jerry ran the code and Darwin faded from existence. The men got ready.
Later, as they rode in the taxi to the Nobel Institute, Jerry said, “That was incredible.”
“Sure was. I wonder if we’ll get him back?”
“I would like that version of our AI back, but I’ve made a note that if we ever let Darwin near the internet again, we keep him away from the medical websites.” They both chuckled and Jerry smiled out the window onto a world forever changed by a brief exchange with a smart, neurotic AI.