I used to be a mathematician. I’d craft sentences from greek letters and abstract symbols like other people write poems. Oh man, I loved the lambdas, gammas, epsilons, equal signs, infinities, and omegas, the curves of the integral symbol and the cute little subscripts and superscripts, like wide-eyed mini-animals from some Japanese cartoon. Then the machines came. They were just, you know, better at it. Better at calculations, better at proofs. They didn’t need nerds like me anymore. Any calculation I could do, any equation I could solve, the machines could do it faster and better. They even proved that mathematically.
So now, in this post-golden age of human civilization, I make coffee and music playlists. Yeah, it’s true, I dabble in electronic composition, but the truth is I’m not very good at it. My music has been described as harsh, random, chaotic, and, well, terrible. Blech. My coffee is at least moderately enjoyable. The secret ingredient is lots of sugar.
ANYWAY, I could feel bad for myself – the poor girl who spent hours in the library pouring over equations and books and notes from some professor who writes like he’s dyslexic, all while her friends were out partying and having an awesome time, but what’s the point, huh? Why pout? I’m not upset about it anymore. Not one bit.
Besides, everyone else had to adapt too. People, we lost our jobs, work we thought we hated, but we got other things in return: machines to clean the streets, sweep out the harbors, replant our forests. The air became cleaner, life became easier, and slowly but surely population began to decline. Some people said this was their plan all along: destroy humanity with creature comforts. With free housing and cheap coffee and emission-free planes that zip and zoom across the sky. Really, though, we’re doing fine. We truly are.
There’s this quote I love that really sums it up:
“For a successful technology, reality must, like, take precedence over public relations. Nature can’t be fooled, dude.” – Rich Feynman
Or something like that. And man, did we build some successful technology. The machines are out there right now, working wonders, rescuing little endangered frogs that we let die off, exploring nearby star systems, planting pine trees, designing more efficient power plants, and uncovering new laws of nature. Us? We make art, we hike, we travel, we read and study, and most of us cloister ourselves in VR machines to play the day away. The machines take care of the rest. It’s really not as depressing as it sounds.
Of course, for a time after the AI Revolution there were suicides, doomsday cults, blah blah blah, but hey – they took care of themselves. Bunch of wackos. Everything is, well, OK now. Normal.
Well, at least it was. You know how sometimes you just get a really good groove going? Sleep with your christmas lights on, wake up, plan to meditate but don’t, drink lots of coffee, stroll into work 15 minutes late with Alanis Morisette blaring in your headphones, but then something comes and screws it all up. Blammo!
Yesterday the letter came. I told myself “No” before I even opened it. Then I sat up all night staring at the ceiling, actually meditated in the morning, ran out of coffee and just generally got pissed off about the damned thing. Why can’t people just live and let live?
The thing is sitting on my table right now, the crisp type staring at me from beyond my coffee like some annoying, wide-eyed child. Screw off letter. Leave me alone! So OK, I’m going to open it. If I’m going to get over this I’ve got to. Here we go:
“Dear Dr. Covington,
The Machine Science Council cordially requests your presence at a unique conference this November 1st, to be held in the city of Sapporo II, Hokkaido, Japan. We believe your presence would be a valuable asset to the proceedings and humbly request your input on an urgent problem of a scientific nature.
– Ambassador Saito
What the hell? No one has called me Dr. Covington for like six years, for one. Second, uh, creeepy. An invitation to a conference in Japan from an organization I didn’t even know existed? And they sent plane tickets? Apparently they don’t care if I use them to goof off. Machines always shrug-off what they call the human element. Still… there’s never been a meeting like this before. Not since the beginning. What could they possibly want from me?
I take another sip of coffee and set my mug on the letter. It’s making a large rust-like stain right in the middle. Good. Math is in my past. I’ve got coffee to make and music to listen to.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The day the machine arrives I’m kicking back with an iced coffee, reading some music magazines, listening to my playlist of classic Radiohead songs, and pretending I haven’t been thinking every day about that damned letter. I’d like to say “Paranoid Android” was playing but it wasn’t. I never really liked that song for some reason. Too weird for me, you know?
So other than the music the coffee shop is quiet, which isn’t surprising considering it’s already 8, well past dinner time, and only an hour from closing. Only weirdos like me drink coffee this late at night. The only customers are a nervous Asian woman and a student studying for his literature final.
When the door jingles, I don’t even look up. Then this thing sweeps right up to me, brown trench-coat, clean haircut, blue eyes, and all. He just sort of nonchalantly leans on my table, like, “Oh hi, I was just passing by and noticed you were here.” Typical android.
“Yes?” I say, without even looking up. I’m not one for having coffee with androids.
“Dr. Convington, I presume?” he says, a smile on his face. There’s something about their all-too-perfect teeth that gave me the heeby-jeebies.
“Yeah?” I say, shooting him a glance.
“Please pardon the interruption, but I’m afraid this is terribly important.”
I sigh. “I’m trying to enjoy my cup of coffee here Robocop and your conference is already over. What’dya want?” I set my book down and cross my arms. That’s when I notice the twisted hunk of metal in his hands. Before I can react, he tosses it on the table with a thunk. It’s charred and burnt.
“Murder, terrorism, violence most foul, Dr. Covington.”
The nervous Asian woman gets up and leaves. Yeah, this is gonna be great for business.
I shake my head, bewildered, and grasp it between both of my hands. I’m thinking, ‘Why me?’ but “What?” is what actually comes out of my mouth. This is already far too dramatic for an android. Am I inside one of their psychological experiments?
OK, so something’s wrong. Part of me wants to get up and run away screaming before he can explain himself, but “Weird Fishes” has just started playing and everything seems to be flowing along beyond my control like I’ve smoked too much weed. Only I haven’t smoked any since yesterday. Weird.
“You haven’t been watching the news, I see.”
“No one watches the news anymore, dude. This is 2085 and I’m a washed up academic. I’m supposed to be tottering around in plaid, drinking coffee and collecting cats.” His eyes narrow as if he doesn’t understand, but I know he does.
“Fair enough. But this story may interest you.” He tosses a digital print on the table, its glowing red letters blaring “Historic Conference Rocked By Explosions. 30 Dead.”
Quietly, I pick it up and let the words wash over me.
The android stares at me with his cold, unblinking eyes.
He shakes his head.
“Right. They’d never get past security. Purists? No, libertarians?”
“It was a machine, Dr. Covington. One of us.”
My face twists. “Now you’re screwing with me, right?” This guy.
He shakes his head.
“What’s this all about?” That question has been killing me for weeks. What the hell could they possibly need our help with. I raise my eyebrows and spread my arms dramatically. “So…?”
“It’s best we discuss that when you arrive.”
I sigh. My groove is dead. The needled on the metaphorical record player has slipped and the thing is spitting static. “Fine.” That’s all I say. If I’m ever going to sleep and wake up happily with a cup of coffee again, well, I’ve got to go.
The next morning, I board a plane for Japan.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I always thought Silicon Valley would be the place where AI was created, but the revolution happened in Japan and Korea. Our phones were made overseas, our laptops assembled elsewhere, and our tech support gurus outsourced, so I guess it made sense. And not that it mattered anyway. When the machines woke from the dark, they needed a place to live. People suggested Antarctica, the wastes of the Sahara, the moon, and all sorts of other spots nobody wanted to live. Turns out the machines didn’t need their own country.
The Japanese population was shrinking, but the islands had sturdy infrastructure, compact cities, nuclear power, and hoards of vending machines. The machines settled in and the Japanese welcomed them.
I flew to Japan for work once back when I was a student. It was a nice place: clean, safe, full of self-driving taxis and automated convenience stores. I guess having robots settle there was their destiny.
As I deplane, a Japanese man (or is it and android? Who knows with these people) bows and greets me with a sign showing my name. Before I have the chance to say “Ohayou gozaimasu!” I’m whisked off toward the Western mountains in a private car. “This isn’t the way to Sapporo,” I note out loud.
The driver nods at the rearview mirror.
I’d assumed I’d be riding a train up North. Yet here I am in some swanky sedan, throwback to a bygone era when gridlock clogged the city arteries and smog clouded the Tokyo air like fog. They say the city is green now, half forest, half megalopolis.
It’s a long drive to wherever we’re going. I try to read, but I just keep puzzling over this conference. What are they trying to figure out? Is it some topology proof? A back-to-basics number theory issue? Some anomaly out in deep space? Maybe they found aliens artifacts. Yep, that would do it.
The next thing I know I’m being woken ever so gently by the driver, who is muttering profuse apologies and bowing over and over again. I shamble from the car, rubbing my eyes, to find myself surrounded by densely forested hills. Ahead of me is what looks like a silicon valley tech building, but the wooden sign out front reads “Tendo Mine.”
“I think I’ve heard of this place,” I say, but the driver has already scurried off and is pulling away in the car.
I sigh, hoist my bags, and make my way inside. There in the foyer, surrounded by rusting equipment and other old science junk, is the one man I had never expected to see again. Grizzled, hairy, and slightly stooped, my old boss turns to me with a grin on his face.
He gives a throaty chuckle. “It seems the machines need our kind after all,” he says.
My face contorts. He’s actually pleased with himself. “You don’t think this is some sort of giant publicity stunt? A giant rat-race? They can’t really need us.” Can they?
He shakes his head. “Oh, but they do. We made them so well and they’ve been so productive that they’ve missed the big picture.”
I snort. “They can change their programming at will. They’re as free as we are. There’s no way…”
He flashes his yellowed teeth. “Ah, doubt it if you will, but they’ve already handed me their Big Question.”
“Big question, huh?” I stare. A draft blows through the old building and crinkled leaves skitter across the floor. “So? What is it?”
“I thought you said they couldn’t possibly need us?”
I glare and tap my toes. This old ass hasn’t changed one bit. I hold out my hand.
He slips something the size of one of those fortune-cookie papers into it. This is all it says:
“How can we know if this world is real?”
I snort, then double over with laughter. He starts laughing too. “They’ve brought a bunch of mathematicians to do a philosopher’s job.”
He nods. “Perhaps. Perhaps not.”
I just shake my head. What a waste of time. “That’s it. I’m done. Find someone and tell them to call me a taxi.” I grab my bag and turn around. Can you believe I actually carted textbooks halfway across the world for this stupid thing? I don’t know what I was expecting.
He’s still laughing. “Dr. Covington, you can’t possibly think that’s all there is to it, can you?”
I grind my teeth. “No.” I stamp one of my feet. “Alright, look. Maybe all they need is a little pick me up to help with the, uh, existential angst.”
He’s shaking his head already.
“Tell you what, doc. I’ll fly home, start up a big urn of dark roast, and we’ll wait and see if they come back to pick me up again.”
“They’re contemplating suicide, Alice.”
He sweeps his hand around the room. “The machines?”
“Suicide, but that would mean…” Oh. This can’t be good. This can’t be good at all.
© Ryan Walraven 2016