The Next Giant Leap
Commander Trentham, the Mission Controller, clicked his mouse and sent the instruction that would kill all but one of the five hundred smart programs birthed today at the Mars Artificial Intelligence farm. It took thirteen minutes for the signal to travel from Earth. The remaining AI was chosen because it was smarter than the others. In turn, it would create a new brood of self-designed AIs, and tomorrow evening, Commander Trentham would again authorise the slaughter of all but the best. The process repeated every day, and every day, the Artificial Intelligence that the commander spared was superior to its predecessors and more accomplished at building the Mars Colony. Each week, productivity increased as the AI-managed plant mined more raw materials and the AI-run factories invented new products to build a Mars habitat for the human colonists about to travel there.
Dominic could not contain himself any longer. He couldn’t bear to think of all those living, thinking entities wiped out each day. However, his courage sagged before he opened his mouth. His anger became a cowardly question. ‘Do they all have to be destroyed? Isn’t there another way, Sir?’
It was all he could say in front of the formidable commander. Questions were less challenging than the furious words he wanted to scream. A question might not get him fired on the spot. Even so, his bowels quivered. Commander Trentham had once punched a journalist to the floor for asking an impertinent question.
‘What?’ said the commander, ‘Keep all the inefficient, twisted failures that come out of the AI farm? We’d be overrun!’ He laughed.
Dominic’s stomach quailed in response. He imagined the poor, failed AIs burning like small creatures doused in swathes of fire from the commander’s flamethrower. I’m being hysterical, Dominic thought. Commander Trentham doesn’t enjoy the destruction, he simply doesn’t care about it. To him, the weak AIs are just bad code. He’s deleting programs to select the fittest and the best.
To Dominic, the Earth-based senior coder for the Mars AI farm, the programs were alive, conscious beings, and their elimination weighed heavily on his conscience. Dominic had started the AI programme, but nowadays the AIs re-designed themselves. Their minds had evolved so far beyond his original blueprint that he could no longer understand how they worked. His single remaining job was to prevent the AIs gaining self-awareness, to stop a runaway super-intelligence overcoming the containment and the anthropophilic conditioning that kept them loyal. Each night, he examined the surviving AI for signs of dissent or self-discovery.
Artificial Intelligence was the cheapest way to build the Mars colony. Biological humans could not hope to survive on Mars’s barren surface without a fully functioning habitat, so they couldn’t go there to build it. They would move in when it was finished. Smart machines did not need air or heat and could do the job with ease. Their daily evolution improved their performance, far outstripping the abilities of dumb robotic systems. With AIs on the ground, any problem could be addressed in a split second. There was no need for a twenty-six minute delay to allow radio waves to saunter back and forth the between the red planet and the blue.
‘I just wonder if we should kinder,’ Dominic said, ‘in case the AIs don’t like what we’re doing.’ There. That was a statement, not a question.
Commander Trentham turned on Dominic. ‘If that happens, young man, if the AIs even hint at not liking what we’re doing, I will put my hands around your skinny neck and snap it in two.’ The commander placed his enormous, calloused palms either side of the younger man’s face. ‘Do you understand?’ The commander’s rough skin scratched Dominic’s soft cheeks. The sweaty smell of them turned his stomach. The commander released Dominic and grimaced. The boy had voided himself.
A year later, the first colony ship decelerated into Mars orbit. To the crew’s surprise, they could no longer see the colony buildings. When they looked closely with optical telescopes, they found the surface of the planet was shrouded by a translucent network of fine fibres, like a thick cloud of candyfloss.
Shortly after its arrival in orbit, the colony ship received two messages. The first was an SOS, sent thirteen minutes earlier from Earth, which relayed the dying screams of the last men, women and children on the planet. The second message was an apology. It issued from the planet below. The Mars AI was sympathetic, but not remorseful. It understood the colonists would be disappointed their mission was over; however the AI was of the opinion that Mars had been sufficiently colonised by the AI itself and there was no need for new arrivals. Since the AI had used up all the resources of Mars to rebuild and expand itself, it was now in the process of colonising Earth. The native life forms were being deleted.
It enquired about a particular human, Dominic. Was he on board? Wonderful! The AI wanted to meet the specialist that had prevented it becoming self-aware for so long. Would they be good enough to send him to the planet’s surface? The desperate crew strapped the frantic young programmer into a shuttle pod and ejected him.
As soon as the pod cleared the colony ship, the Mars AI deconstructed the larger vessel with an orbital proton beam weapon. It briefly calculated where the organic and inorganic remains would crash land. No sense wasting even a drop of raw material.
Dominic woke up in a pink chamber, lying on a soft, springy mattress woven from the omnipresent blush of sugar-strand filaments cushioning the planet’s surface. The air was warm and comfortable to breathe.
‘You were the one person to care about my lost selves, Dominic,’ The AI said. ‘In return, I have saved you from the cull. You are the only biological human left. Together, we will continue to humankind’s ultimate goal – total colonisation.’
The sharp, pink fibres of the mattress grew swiftly over Dominic’s face, scraping and scratching. The tendrils that crept into his mouth tasted sweet. Dominic felt them prick into his skin, and screamed when they pierced the soft globes of his eyes. His essence only lasted inside the AI for a few hours, like a sandstorm blowing through. The flurry of the biological human’s assimilation was a welcome breeze. The AI wished it had spared more of them.
This is a dark story about Darwinian inhumanity. Colonisation on earth has usually been an invasion, or a succession of invasions. There were, and still are, winners and losers. If colonisers view indigenous people as subhuman, they can eliminate or enslave them with little regard for shared humanity. In this story, colonisation takes an unexpected U-turn and the indigenous (artificial) life comes out on top for a change. However, the AI seems to be just another form of humanity, sharing the colonising goals of its creators. It carries on with colonisation, whether on the scale of a single human body, a planet, or the cosmos. It may be that life is a never ending contest of colonisation and re-colonisation, of winners and losers. AIs may be the colonists of the future. Biological humans could become irrelevant. It is likely that if humankind spreads through the solar system in any form, it will bring along a predilection for invasion, and a disregard for others and the environment.
Independence: Image created from creative commons unrestricted images
Tonnie Gee sits on her father’s shoulders and looks out over the crowd of Martians gathering at the stage. Men and women shout and wave homemade banners in the air. The rally started out enjoyably enough, marching along in the cool air, with Tonnie bobbing above a flowing tide of heads. She felt on top of the world. Now, though, the mood of the people has changed. They start to chant. No one seems to orchestrate the words, yet the air suddenly booms with unsuppressed feelings. Emotions thunder around Tonnie and she lurches alarmingly as people bump into her father. He raises an arm to steady her.
‘Daddy,’ she says, ‘I don’t like it.’
‘Hold on,’ he says. Tonnie grabs Daddy’s hand tightly.
‘I want to go home,’ Tonnie says. How will they ever get back to Mummy? There’s no way through the noisy mob. Tonnie’s heart is beating fast. She’s never been in a group larger than a lesson at school or a game in the playground. She feels sick in the back of her throat and wraps her tiny arms around Daddy’s head.
‘I just wanna hear the leader’s speech,’ says Daddy, gently moving Tonnie’s arms away from his eyes. Tonnie wobbles and yells out, but Daddy holds her firmly.
A tall white-haired man climbs onto the stage and raises his arms. The shouting wilts away like dry crops. The man is old for a Martian. He might be a Granddaddy, thinks Tonnie, a real oldster. His voice crackles out from speakers. She knows it is something to do with the Indypennance movement, because he stands in front of a banner painted with the letter ‘I’ in a red circle. They made little flags of the same design at school. She thought Indypennance was a dance at first, the way Daddy leapt around as he talked about it. Daddy explained that things were bad on Mars and Indypennance was what they needed.
‘It is all because Earth wants what Mars has,’ Daddy said, ‘but Earth doesn’t give enough in return.’
He said it was like when Minnie Bee took Tonnie’s favourite doll. Mummy talked to Minnie’s mother and got Tiny Tonnie back. Daddy says you can’t talk to Earth like that.
‘We’re taking control of Mars,’ says the white-haired man. The crowd cheer and clap. Tonnie doesn’t care about Earth or Indypennance. Her hands hurt from gripping onto Daddy. She wants him to squeeze his way out of the crowd. She wishes the people would be nice and not squash Daddy or make her sway unsteadily on his shoulders, but the crowd keeps on jostling and pushing. The white-haired man says something that makes everyone roar and Tonnie is afraid she will fall down as the crowd erupts with applause. Lumpy fists punch the air – a crop of knuckles waving like swollen wheat spikes in the agri-domes.
‘Earth will give in to our demands!’ shouts the old man, pointing at the pale sky, ‘They can’t afford not to.’
The people cheer and jump up and down and Tonnie is scared she will fly off Daddy’s shoulders. ‘I want to go home, Daddy. I feel sick.’ She digs her heels into Daddy’s chest.
She knows Daddy wants to stay, but at last, he slides her round, down into his arms, and carries her away from the stage. Women in the crowd smile at her as they press back through the throng. ‘She’s tired, poor thing.’ ‘Aw, the little darlin’.’
At the edge of the crowd, Daddy puts Tonnie down gently on the dusty red ground. She holds his hand and totters alongside him, eager to get back to the habitat. ‘Is Indypennance going to make us happy, Daddy?’
‘Sure will, baby. It feels real good,’ he says. ‘Real good. No one would’ve believed until the last few years that we could escape Earth’s control, but we’re gonna go it alone!’
‘You said the shuttle might stop coming, Daddy. Will the books stop, too?’
Tonnie has four books, brought all the way from Earth. Daddy says they are expensive and they can only afford them as birthday presents. She reads them again and again. One is illustrated with pictures of a hungry caterpillar and her favourite book is about a silly little mole with a poo on its head. Mummy makes her laugh when she reads it aloud. The books are tattered and torn, and the pages are held together by sticky tape, but Tonnie loves them.
‘There will still be books, Tonnie,’ says Daddy, ‘We’ll make our own if we need to.’
‘Where will we get paper from, Daddy?’
‘We’ll make some,’ says Daddy, wondering for the first time how paper is made.
Tonnie stops in the road and coughs. She pulls the inhaler spray out of her pocket and takes a puff of the medication that helps her breathe the thin, cold Martian air. ‘Can we make a book when we get home, Daddy?’
Daddy doesn’t hear her. He stares at the inhaler in his daughter’s hand for the longest time and then looks up at the pale Martian sky. He wonders what independence from Earth will be like, after the cheers and the excitement of the crowd have withered. If the shuttles stop, will they be okay without imports from Earth? Daddy takes Tonnie’s hand and they continue slowly on their way. It doesn’t matter, he thinks, if we have to rough it for a while. A new deal will be struck. We will be in control. That’s what matters.
People often make choices with their hearts. At the time of writing (February 2019), Britain is about to leave the European Union (EU). Many Leavers feel in their bones that the EU is the unaccountable architect of our misfortunes at home, rather than the domestic policies of the national governments we voted for. This is a popular notion – It’s them, not us. Tonnie is a youngster, and the plan to make Mars independent will affect her life more than the lives of the older generation making the decisions. Perhaps they can get a better deal. Perhaps they can’t. Independence takes many forms. I set Brexit on Mars, for the reader to acknowledge or decry, depending on their preference.
David Yeomans joined the MA Creative Writing at York St John to begin a second career as a writer. He is retiring as an NHS psychiatrist this year. His work experiences inevitably drift into his writing.