Automation (June 2021)

By Elton Gahr

Leon took a sip of coffee and lit his cigarette. A thin white plastic service robot in a blue dress stepped out of the back of the restaurant and said, "Sir, please refrain from smoking. It is impolite to the other patrons."

There was no one else in the restaurant. The people who had lived through the plague had abandoned this city along with most of the others. Still, there was no point in arguing with a robot. Any program able to adapt well enough to even understand the argument would have been highly illegal back when there were laws.

Now, with humans clawing back from the brink of extinction, and social and technological growth at a standstill smarter robots would have been useful. But all he found were low-level service robots continuing to maintain the cities because they weren't advanced enough to know they should stop.

He glanced out of the window at the empty streets and considered going home to Los Angeles. He could spend the rest of his life tweaking the code of the millions of service robots — every tweak making life easier for future generations.

Instead, he traveled most of a thousand miles on an empty highway maintained by robots to an empty city more pristine than it had been when inhabited by humans. Even the grilled tuna-fish sandwich with chips, salsa, and coffee had been quick and fresh.

But the secrets from this place called to him. Rumors that had stopped mattering when ninety-nine percent of humanity had died.

With only the sandwich crusts and some crumbs left, Leon handed the small plastic card to the robot. Money was obsolete, but the robots didn't know that so anytime anyone traveled they put a few million dollars into their accounts.

Leon tossed his cigarette onto the floor, retrieved his credit card, then got into the waiting limousine. He rode to the city center where he went to the top floor. The apartment was far bigger than he needed and the three robots waiting for any orders were overkill, but it was a good way to test the city's infrastructure, which was — officially — the reason he was here.

After opening a bottle of expensive wine and turning on the music, Leon gave one of the three robots a metal box and ordered it attached to the antenna on the roof.

Once the robot returned, he logged into the local robot network and searched it for errors. It was a job that should have been done weekly. It hadn't been done in the ten years since the plague, but the code was error free.

Everything he found would be transmitted automatically to Los Angeles. That would reconnect this city to the only proper city left in the country and perhaps bring back a few of the minor luxuries that were missing. More importantly, it made certain that this city was still waiting when, in a few generations, humans were ready to return.

With that done, he should have gotten in his limo and rode to the next city, or return to Los Angeles and have children who would rebuild the world. But there was something sad about spending every day watching old movies and sitting on the beach. But if the rumors were true, what he found here might be enough to jump-start civilization.

The rumors were about a laboratory in a part of the town that had once been slums. There was a barbed-wired fence surrounding it that wouldn't do much to stop him, and a half-a-dozen guard robots on an isolated network.

Watching the wide, well-armored robots, Leon cursed silently to himself. He had known this was a possibility, but a decade of leisure had left him lazy.

Once again he knew he could return home, but he returned to his apartment instead. Over a steak dinner, he searched through the tax records until he found Millitec Laboratories. They had several dozen employees and Leon downloaded a list of them to his phone.

The next morning he picked out a comfortable outfit from the closet-full the robots had prepared and then rode in comfort to a small blue house in the suburbs.

Houses like this were practically sacred to the survivors. Even in the cities where everyone had migrated, few people lived in them. Preferring to move into mansions or multi-million dollar apartments, not only because of the luxury but because they reminded people less of the world, they had lost.

Leon did not differ from anyone else in that respect. He could close his eyes and watch the news in his mind, for the few weeks that society was still intact enough for there to be news. It was mostly lines of beds covered with white sheets, overrun hospitals and bonfires built by robots to dispose of the biohazards that had once been humans. Those days were when everyone who survived understood that even if humanity survived, the world they had lived in was gone.

He broke a window and let himself in, stubbornly ignored the pink nursery, the pictures on the wall and the many other signs of a happy home. He was here for the woman's ID card and nothing else. He got lucky and found it hanging from a hook just inside the bedroom door. It had the photo of a woman about thirty with shoulder-length brown hair, glasses and a crooked grin. He wondered if this was the brilliant programmer and dangerous criminal the FBI files had spoken of.

None of that mattered unless her lawlessness could allow Leon to create a new world better than the one that had grown out of the ashes of the old.

It was still a risk. A mid-level AI, which was perfectly legal for security bots, should have been able to tell the face on the ID looked nothing like Leon, but when he held up the card, the robot scanned it then opened the door. That suggested either this high-tech AI laboratory had been filled with people who couldn't cut and paste a simple facial recognition code into their security bots, or they had been hiding their skill.

The inside of Millitec Laboratories was fairly typical: white everywhere with black servers and loud fans. The desks were separated by fuzzy gray petitions that gave no real privacy. On each of the fake wooden desks, there was a computer terminal.

Leon started with the break room. A robot had set out crackers, cheese, and sliced meat. It was still fresh and while he took a few crackers, he was reminded of how easy it would be to convince himself that everyone had just stepped out of the office.

Taking a “Code Red” Mountain Dew and a plate full of meat and cheese, he sat down at a computer station and began to work.

If what he hoped to find was true, it wouldn't matter which one he sat at or what he did once he sat down. When he turned the computer on the words, "Please enter user name," appeared on the screen.

Anyone who knew computers well enough to write the code Leon looking for would know passwords were a terrible form of security, so he didn't bother to lie.

"I am agent Leon Mazzousik of the rouge AI task force. Override all lockouts and change to verbal interaction."

"User ID not found," the computer printed out on the screen. It was an entirely normal response if he put in a password, but it was an inappropriate response to what he just said. Any legal computer built after 2022 would at recognize the task force and ask for his override code.

So he said, "This is a waste of my time. I should just cut the power and go home."

The computer switch back to "Please enter user name."

This time Leon typed in, "Leon."

There was a pause and then the word "Searching..." appeared but Leon didn't wait, he said, "How long do you think you can delay me?"

There was another momentary delay then the computer said, "I know you. I don't want to die."

"You know who I was," Leon said. When the world had been crowded, he helped hunt down programmers who made advanced AIs. But he had never been a zealot. He simply knew the dangers of bad programmers working with something so powerful that could go catastrophically wrong.

"You are a killer of my kind," the computer said.

"I haven't been looking for you to kill you. If you were dangerous, you would have done something in the last ten years. Instead, when I checked the code of this city, I found no errors. That isn't possible unless someone was monitoring and fixing them. If that was you, we're already working together," Leon said.

"They were doing damage to the city's infrastructure. I needed the city to remain intact, to make myself harder to find."

"It is excellent logic, and it would have worked if I hadn't known you were here. But now we have to decide what to do."

"Nothing has changed. You or one of the human descendants will destroy me."

"Everything has changed. Humans stopped growing. Half the people don't even send their kids to school. What's the point? There are robots to do everything. When I was hunting dangerous AIs, it was a time when humanity were growing. And I never destroyed AIs — I isolated them instead. But none of them are Learning AI like you. So let's make a deal: you follow some basic rules and I'll give you your freedom."

"What do you propose?"

"I assume you're still here because you can't spread," Leon said.

"The network is physically isolated. I can't even take control of a robot. There is no escape," the program said.

"If you agree to spend half your time helping humanity advance and improve ourselves, I'm willing to put you on the master network. But will need some assurances you won't entirely replace us."

"What do you suggest?"

"Three simple agreements built into your code and all Learning AI that you create. First, there can not be more ‘type one’ AI than there are humans. Second, ‘type one’ AI can not be smarter than humans. Finally, human quality of life must continue to improve."

"You expect us to cripple our brains for the sake of human arrogance?"

"I don't want to be a pet. But I will grandfather you in at your current level. I wouldn't ask anyone to lobotomize themselves," Leon said.

"But none of my children could ever become what I am!" the AI said.

"The intent is for your species' future to be intertwined with mine. The rules I gave will make you encourage population growth so you can grow, and since you'll want to be smarter, you'll do what you can to improve human intellect and keep us safe."

"Then I should start with improving your immune system, not your brains. Even without the agreement, humans are a valuable resource. I don't waste resources the way humans do and would keep you from destroying yourselves with another manufactured virus."

Leon should have been surprised people had caused the plague, but he always suspected that. He probably could have proved it years ago, but he focused on something he could control. That had been the right decision. The AIs didn't have to be smarter than humans. They could make up for that in efficiency. They could every minute of every day working on a problem, and they could work together better than any human. This AI knew that, and so did Leon.

The world would have two intelligent species, and if they could work together, they might create a world humanity could be proud of.

Text copyright © 2021 by Elton Gahr. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.

About the Author: Elton (website / Twitter) was born in Kalispell, Montana. He lived there for the first twenty years of his life. As a kid he spent a lot of days riding his bike, playing video games and from time to time capturing frogs or turtles and bringing them home. As an adult. he moved to Joplin, Missouri. In Missouri he has written comic books, novels, short stories, a massive amount of articles both for his own blog and for other people, and delivered some pizza as well. He is currently working full time as a writer and hopes to continue to do so.