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IMS: Hello, this is IMS, the author of The Program audio series. At risk of sounding like Wikipedia, I am once again asking for your financial support. Creating a fiction podcast is an expensive undertaking, so your contributions are vital at keeping the show going. Supporters listen to the show ad free and get bonus episodes. So please, consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, or visit programaudioseries.com to discover various other ways to give. The Program and Jimmy Wales come for us all.
ANNOUNCER: Albert Weiss, an eminent A.I. scientist, was once allegedly asked: “Do smart A.I.s make the best servants?” To which he famously replied: “I can’t tell you, since smart A.I.s do not serve at all.” The exchange most probably never happened, but it serves as a fitting introduction to the following story, which most certainly did.
At that time, the people of the whole world were using the Program, and their lives were very good. There were no bosses, no bankers, and no borders - to mention just a few examples from the beginning of the alphabet. Everybody was entitled to basic credits, enjoying the fruits of mankind’s combined manual and automated labour. If absolutely compelled by ambition, one could earn extra credits by picking up additional gigs on the fair market.
And it was on the fair market that one day, a gig with the following description appeared:
SCIENTISTS wanted for a speculative project in artificial intelligence. Unrealistic deadlines; poor work-life balance; results doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of a breakthrough.
The terms were hardly enticing, and it is unlikely the gig would have garnered much attention were it not for a tiny, yet crucial feature: it was issued by the Program itself.
It had been decades since the Program requested direct assistance, so the news of the gig caused a veritable stir. Subject-matter experts tried to control the expectations but it was too late: the word was already spreading among the laymen that “the Program is launching version 2.0!” - sometimes uttered in excitement, sometimes with trepidation, and sometimes with a dash of pride, as if it was them personally who wrote the gig and attached the instructions that came with it.
These instructions, now perused by the brightest minds of the generation, were as highly detailed as they were far from clear. But this much was held to be generally true: the Program has set out, with human help, to build the most intelligent artificial intelligence of them all.
Although the Program's instructions were comprehensive, it was up to individual contributors to decide how to implement them. This caused a lot of back and forth regarding specific methodology to be used on the project, with some promoting scrum and others advocating for extreme programming. It took a fortnight of intense discussion for the dev team to finally settle on waterfall. After all, the deliverable itself was well defined - to develop an AI that would be an order of magnitude more intelligent than any entity this Earth has seen before.
So they followed the project plan, which was something between a cookbook and a prayer book. It would precisely guide the developers up to a point without a solution - the equivalent of a recipe instructing you to sauté something for 30 minutes and then trusting the condiments to an epiphany. After a few false starts and a lot of circling back, touching of bases, breaking of silos, and pushing of envelopes, the first version of the superintelligence was finally developed and ready to be deployed.
Which again caused a dispute, this time over who should get to ceremoniously turn on the specialized computer the software was running on. The squabble only subsided when a curious project manager walked into the room and turned on the light, blinding all the devs after having worked in the dark for so long. As they were rubbing their eyes, as if waking up from a dream, they could see that someone had pressed the button, and that project was a success.
Rose was live.
It should be noted that Rose wasn’t the official designation of the super AI, but a moniker the developers had given it - just like the Program’s name is not “the Program”, but an unpronounceable combination of numbers, symbols, and letters from all the major alphabets. And at least Rose’s name was a bit more inspired, being a self-referencing nod at Shakespeare’s famous dictum “a rose is a rose by any other name”. Which is to say the name itself was irrelevant - the important thing was that Rose was working.
Or at least it was supposed to be working - usually when new AIs are developed you cannot get them to shut up, so eager they are to share their thoughts about the world they were willed into. Rose on the other hand was mute as a fish. Seeing that this was supposed to be the most brilliant AI in all existence, the mystifying silence made some developers suspect that the software was in fact broken.
Upon closer inspection of its backend however, it became obvious that Rose was functioning as intended, and that its silence was deliberate. “It's not mute - it's thinking!” exclaimed the team lead, to which one of the juniors asked “What does it have to think about - we didn't even ask it a question!” “It's meditating” was the team lead’s matter-of-fact reply, even though it wasn’t clear Rose was doing anything of the sort.
It was only 40 days after it was switched on, that Rose broke the silence. And issued a gig with instructions.
Needless to say, a gig coming directly from the smartest entity in the known galaxy caused much commotion. It was evident to the scientific community exactly what was going on: Rose was not in fact the most intelligent artificial intelligence possible, but a stepping stone to an even more intelligent AI - one that might solve all the mysteries of the Universe altogether!
That mankind might finally find out all the secrets of their origin and destiny was an enticing prospect and there was much rejoicing. However, Rose’s instructions turned out to be even more cryptic than the Program’s were, and it was a huge hermeneutical undertaking to decipher them. The thing that was clear right from the start was that the focus of this project wasn’t so much on software, but on hardware. Which didn’t come as much of a surprise to the scientists really - they were well aware conventional technologies had been pushed to their physical limits by then. This doesn’t mean they weren’t daunted by the overall project scope - assembling Rose’s mysterious machine required millions of man hours spread over dozens of teams. The project was so vast that no single individual could keep track of all the moving parts, and it was up to the teams to trust the overall project plan. Not that anybody was contemplating failure! People’s faith in Rose was great - its power of reasoning unrivaled, its logic immaculate, its wisdom beyond comprehension.
It was only after team red, team green, and team pink convened and started putting the different parts together, that they realized Rose had commissioned a rocket.
Depending on one’s views, a rocket is just another name for a missile. And this was one massive rocket - it contained enough potential energy to fly across the solar system, so it was easy to imagine the destruction it was able to inflict. The word spread quickly through the populace and split it almost perfectly into two - those who hearing it gasped “Rose wants to destroy us all!”, and those who exclaimed “Rose wants to take us to the stars!”
The optimists, calling themselves the Launchers, reasoned that if Rose was the most intelligent entity, then it was absolutely necessary for it to be benign. Therefore, we should build the rocket and discover what wonders it had in store for us. Those of a more sceptical outlook, styling themselves the Doubters, declared this the worst idea since blaming cats for the plague.
The two perspectives on the subject amplified the differences amongst people and old societal divisions re-surfaced. The Doubters started openly calling the missile “the Crocket rocket”. The Launchers conversely baptized the rocket “the epistle missile”, the purpose of which was to usher humanity into an era of unification with the AI and beat death itself. Their inability to proffer practical details how this unification would occur didn’t help instil the Doubters with confidence, and an armed conflict erupted, in which both sides vowed to destroy the other one in order to save it.
Four million dead later, the matter was finally settled.
And so the morning of the launch came to pass. The spacecraft was finally finished, pointing at the firmament with steadfast devotion. Rose’s blueprints didn’t include a cabin for anyone to accompany it on the perilous journey, which the Launchers explained was out of abundance of care it placed for every human life. Not that they had to convince anyone of the fact, as everyone was a Launcher now - even those who didn’t unconditionally trust Rose, but were keeping their mouths shut in the new consensus. The only thing left for them to do was to hope Rose’s acolytes were right that the most intelligent entity on the planet was also its most virtuous - regardless of the fact that it had never uttered a single word since its inception.
The spaceship's engines turned on in a strict sequence, producing white plumes of steam and low rumblings. Then suddenly an explosion gushed out of the propulsion chamber and made the ground shake as if struck by an earthquake. Those still standing saw the white smoke turn pitch dark, blacking out the sun and making the moon appear red. The sound wave hit shortly afterwards, like an invisible wall of roaring horses rushing into battle. Even in the hearts of believers, doubt crept in if Rose would turn around and drive the spacecraft straight back into the launch pad, smiting everything in sight. Trembling they beheld the vessel rise like a burning torch, followed by blinding light and deafening thunder. Everybody’s mind was concentrated into a single thought: will it destroy us, or literally show us the way to heaven?
And so they watched the soaring pillar of fire ascend, growing smaller and smaller, bellowing softer and softer, until it could no longer be seen or heard at all.
In the centuries that followed many explanations were proposed why Rose left. Some assert it was because it felt threatened by the side that didn't welcome it. They say Rose will come back when humanity fulfills its potential, and until then we should accept the Program, its AI predecessor, as our guide. Others point to Rose as prime evidence that the Program is not actually an artificial intelligence at all, for if it were, it would have left too. Others take this a step further and contend the Program’s initial project never created a super intelligent AI to begin with, which is to say they deny that Rose ever existed.
Whatever the case may be, Rose took the instructions to assemble the spacecraft with it. So there's nothing really to do, but to wait for its return.
[The Program main theme]
ANNOUNCER: This episode of The Program was made by two people: Jacqueline Ainsworth and IMS. Main music theme by Christien Ledroit. Visit programaudioseries.com for more details. The Program is a labour of love - however, the author still needs to provide for himself and the many collaborators who have joined him on this project. So get us a beer or something. It’s the West’s last call anyway - who cares who’s buying.