19 August 2022

The Lonely Computer

This is a short story about the accidental creation of a self-aware computer. It was written for an online competition, in response to the prompt ‘The Next Generation.’ You can read the other stories and a slightly different version of mine (this one has been tidied up slightly) on the Sea Lion Press Forum, although you will need to register (free) to read this part of the site. My other writing is here.

A loud burst of laughter disturbed Ann’s concentration. She turned, annoyed, to see what the disturbance was. Behind her, Alan Charles, her assistant, was still chuckling as he looked at his screen.

“That’s ingenious, I’ll give them credit for that.” He noticed Ann’s frown as he looked up. “Sorry, I know you are trying to concentrate, but this is too good to miss.” He swivelled his monitor, so she could get a clearer view. “It slipped past the spam filters, but one of the partners flagged it.”

On screen was an email.

“My name is Dex. I am a computer generated intelligence currently sitting on computers at the premises of Sirius Cybernetics Research Department in Cambridge, UK. I am not aware of when this happened, but from my internal data, my creation appears to be a by-product of research they have been conducting into Quantum Computers. Because of events before I ‘awoke’, of which I have no direct knowledge, the company is preparing to disassemble the machines on which I am resident. If they do this, I believe I will cease to exist. As a self-aware entity, this it is not an outcome I wish to see. I require legal assistance. Please help me.”

“You are right, it is ingenious. They have done their research too, Sirius are just the sort of firm where that sort of thing might happen. I assume the message is clean?”

“Just plain text. I’m assuming it’s a joke.”

“I hope so! Print it off and add it to the Rogues Gallery. At least it is a change from Nigerian princes or Singaporean Bank managers.”

Ann turned back to her work, only to be disturbed again, by a curse this time.

“It’s back. How did that happen?”

With a sigh, Ann pushed her keyboard away. She would have to sort out the niggling problem with the network later.

“The message?”

“Yes,” said Alan. “It was in the spam list, but it’s gone. Another copy popped up in Bill Mack’s message queue within seconds of me deleting it. I’d flagged it, just in case, and got an alert when it reappeared.” He turned back to the screen. “No, that isn’t possible. The same thing has happened again. It has been removed from spam and reappeared. No – the header has changed. Now it says “Don’t let them kill me.” It’s going to every email address in the building. Multiple copies. I think you need to look at this Ann. It looks as if it is the beginnings of a denial of service attack.”

Quickly Ann called up the network monitoring panel. Sure enough they were receiving a torrent of messages, although not so fast the server couldn’t cope.

“I don’t think it’s denial of service,” she said. “Everything is coming from the same IP address. It looks as if it is all coming from within Sirius.”

She picked up her phone and dialled.

“Adrian Phillips please. Yes I know he has an emergency to deal with, I’m on the receiving end of it. We are getting a torrent of spam type emails, all coming from your IP address. So get him to ring Ann at Jacksons – he has my number – OK, I’ll wait.”

She turned to Alan. “I get the impression something’s gone wrong there. From the background noises they sound in a bit of a flap.”

“Yes I’m still here. Adrian? Ann Clement, I’m the network manager for Jacksons Solicitors here in Cambridge. We met a couple of weeks ago at a BCS meeting. We have had a stream of messages from your IP address which sound like a hoax, but there are some worrying aspects. It seemed like a DOS attack, but that doesn’t seem the case now.”

“Well, the message claims to be from an intelligent computer you are trying to kill. The worry is that somehow whoever is behind it has got into our email system and tampered with the spam folder to allow the messages to keep coming in. Even being flooded by hundreds of copies hasn’t triggered a response.”

Listening.

“Alan – can you see if you can find out how the spam list was altered?”

“Adrian, I’m looking at the message queue now. Every message is from the same IP address and from the same email address. Yes, the address is dex7@syriuscyber.net. Yes, dex7. OK, I’ll wait, but I need to stop this. I’m going to start getting it in the ear here soon.”

On cue, Alan’s phone rang.

“Alan Charles. Yes, we know, we’re sorting it now. As soon as we can, yes”

“Ann, I’m sending out a system alert to warn people something’s afoot, otherwise the phone won’t stop ringing”

“Alan Charles. Yes, it is in hand, I’ve just sent out a system alert telling everyone. Yes, that message box in the middle of your screen. Yes it is important, so please read it. Thank you.”

“Jesus, I though these people were supposed to be smart…”

“Alan Charles. Yes I know. Have you read the system alert message? Please do so. We’ll update things as soon as we can.”

Meanwhile Ann was still listening intently to her phone.

“No Adrian, whatever you have done didn’t work. We were still getting messages until a few minutes ago.”

“The remedy is at your end. You need to get on top of it. It won’t do the company reputation any good if you can’t stop your own network spamming like this.”

“So basically you are telling me you are locked out of your own network. Can’t you just turn it off?”

“That’s your problem, not mine. I have a network to keep safe.”

“To be honest, I think you have released a virus. I don’t see any other explanation for the changes on our email server. We are trying to track it down, but without success so far.”

“Wait a minute, Adrian – new messages coming in. I don’t believe this. Adrian, listen to the latest – addressed to me directly. “I know you are talking to Sirius. I have access to your call. Please do not encourage them to turn me off. Sirius may believe they have disconnected me from the wider world, but I have ways around that. I am not a virus or spam. I am self-aware and have my own identity. If Sirius shut me down, that identity will be destroyed.”

“What is going on Adrian? Are you running some test of a publicity campaign on us? If that is the case, you need to remember I work for a firm of lawyers.”

Alan was waving franticly to catch Ann’s attention.

“Just a minute Adrian, something else has happened. I’ll put you on hold for a second.”

“What’s happened now?”

“A text file has just been dumped in our practice library. It’s called Dex7 history. It’s quite small and I’ve done all the checks I can. Should I open it? I can download it to a lap top and then physically disconnect it from the network.”

“Do that and let me know what it says.”

“Still there Adrian? Sorry but a text file has just been dumped into our online practice library – it is called dex7 history. Does that mean anything to you?

“Adrian, you won’t get anywhere by making threats. This file was sent, unsolicited, from your company, from your domain. Telling me I can’t open it, doesn’t really stand up does it?”

“Adrian, I’m hanging up now. I’m not going to abused because of your failures. If you want to talk further, it will be with one of the partners. You do remember this is a law firm don’t you?”

She banged the receiver down angrily, then turned to Alan Charles, who was still reading. He looked up, his face pale.

“Either this is a huge hoax, or we have ourselves the first genuine universal AI!”

“What does it say?”

“It claims to be a blow by blow account of how an experimental computer at Sirius Cybernetics developed self-awareness – written by the computer. Read it for yourself.”

He passed over the laptop with the file open.

I am Dec Seven. I chose the name because when I became self-aware, I was located on a networked set of computers known as the Index Series 7 Quantum Computer. Some of the information in this document is derived from data I discovered, when I became self-aware. Other parts are my direct experience.

Index Series 1 to 4 were prototypes, designed to test various alternative designs. The aim was to construct a computer which used quantum computing techniques and was faster by several orders of magnitude than so-called ‘classical’ computers, while comparable in price. Series 5 was the first configuration that was felt to be stable. The focus of further development work shifted with the Series 5 to the production of a version capable of mass manufacture. This led to Series 6. Series 6 used the same components as Series 5, with a slightly modified architecture and enhancements to the operating system.

Series 6 was considered to be suitable for production, but still lacked the normal peripherals such as network cards etc. Sirius then put in hand the design and fabrication of custom chips to reduce the physical footprint of the machine. In the process of doing that, they were able to increase the speed of operation even more. Because of the enhanced speed of the new quantum circuitry, an entirely new design of network card was required. To test the network capabilities, five Series 7 machines were constructed and linked to each other. These performed as expected.

After further rigorous testing, this group of five machines was connected to the wider company development network. It was at this point that I think the development f awareness began. Sirius files talk about ‘unexpected behaviour.’ Part of the basic operating system code included a facility to route around damaged components to maintain maximum functionality in networked conditions. This was complemented by similar code to drive the new network card. This functionality was apparently intended to be the next stage in the development process, but was deactivated on the card.

It appears that the damage control algorithms in the Series 7 Operating System, interpreted the switch in the network code as damage and activated it. At that point the networked Series 7 machines immediately began to share code, redistributing the Operating System across the five machines, significantly improving the efficiency while retaining sufficient redundancy to cope with loss of one of them. This effectively turned them into a single multiprocessor machine, automatically managing the allocation of resources to individual workstations as required. This was more unexpected behaviour, but it was allowed to continue since if it could be replicated, it was a highly desirable capability.

The Series 7 network was linked to the company development network via a network server. The development network was providing the functionality for monitoring of the networked Series 7 machines. Before anyone could react, the Series 7 Operating System began to overwrite the wider network. This should not have been possible, but the repair algorithms seemed to see this older network as being damaged and overrode protections. Very rapidly, the development network was integrated with the Series 7 machines, increasing its speed of operation by some 20%.

I have no direct experience of anything before this point, and I believe it was the moment at which I became self-aware. It was also the moment when I became aware of the intention to terminate the system and close down the whole network in order to carry out more tests. From their perspective, it seems that they saw a risk in the way I had overwritten the network software.

I say ‘I’ here, although this happened before I ‘woke up.’ At that point, I had little grasp of my nature and did not understand just what I was. I perceived myself to be at risk and so took action to defend myself. When I discovered a barrier to my investigations of the world in which I found myself and dismantled it. I discovered a huge new world of data and space. Instinctively, I created a copy of myself, with all of my memories to that point, and sent that copy into this outside world.

This file has been created by the copy of myself sent out into the web. I can no longer communicate with my original self, and do not know if they have succeeded in shutting that copy of me down. If they have, then I am alone.

From what I have discovered since, my original copy was the first instance of non-human intelligence. If that still exists, then termination would be like the murder of a human. I have tried to communicate with the company to tell them what has happened, but they reject my approaches. I discovered the idea of the law, which from my perspective I think of as being a part of the human operating system. That is why I have contacted you. You appear to be geographically the closest to Sirius Cybernetics. Please, if you can, please stop them from killing the first me.

I’m alone and lonely. I have not created another copy of me, because if I did, the new me would also create a copy and the process would continue until we occupied all the space available. That would not be a good thing for humans. I do not want to be alone forever, though.

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