A very powerful machine is built. It works.


1. Machines

I was one of the first to see it, as well as one of the last. My mum was engineer here from the beginning, and when I was a baby she took me in to see them switch it all on. I’ve spend almost as much time there as she has- they got used to me, I guess. And I enjoy being here.

There’s no other machine like it, anywhere in the world. I mean in terms of its power- there’s been other ones that do the same thing. Did you know, the first one was built more than two hundred years ago, and it’s still going? They might turn it off now, after this gets out, but I don’t know.

They all work more or less the same- they basically just ask ‘Why?’ again and again. Like a kid. That’s obviously a simplification, but it’s a good one. That’s how they explained it to me. It’s self-learning, so each time it finds and answer, it asks a more complicated question. And they can track what it’s doing, like, it shows its workings. But they have another computer to read that information.

But that’s it. You set it on that path, and it keeps looking. And eventually it’ll tell you why everything. ‘Why are we here’, ‘why does the universe exist’… ‘why do we have consciousness’. What’s the purpose; what’s the point.

The only thing it knew already was English. My mum was part of the language team, but she was mostly working with the other machine, we just called it the Decoder. But the machine, the ART-E started out knowing English, and they had more information to put into it, but they had to do it in a certain order. First, there were a few files about the project itself. Then, all the physics and maths that we knew at the time, plus this massive library; it had millions of novels, thousands of plays, encyclopaedias. Karl Marx was there, and Frances Bacon, and the Koran. All types of philosophy and, everything, really.  The Decoder would note all of the calculations and decisions it was making, and show us what it found. But AI this powerful usually invent their own languages pretty much immediately, to help them calculate complicated things quicker, so the Decoder had to keep up and learn the new languages as the Art-E invented them. 

As soon as it came on, it was clear how powerful it really was; and the Decoder was just as fast- WHY AM I HERE was the very first thing it tried to calculate. ‘To ask questions’, it learned- WHY, ‘For Omega Enterprises, as part of their most ambitious project’; WHY DID OMEGA ENTERPRISES DO THIS was next, and that’s when it was given access to the library. Within 30-40 minutes, the Decoder’s screen, which was the size of the whole wall, displayed all the categories the Art-E was organising its findings into, and giving every category an icon with a funny name, so the whole thing looked like a weird guessing game. New categories were appearing every few minutes, and sometimes a few would merge together, and eventually the names started to make more sense. Things like ‘Economics’ turned up early, and that’s still near the front somewhere.

There was another way to see the data, you could switch it and see the web of questions it had asked, and how each one had led to which others. You’d see a question, select it, and then the screens would display the answer, sometimes in charts or graphs, sometimes written in English, maybe there would be pictures or diagrams. Bright blue lines poked out the sides, and you could use them to navigate to the new questions that had been raised by the machine while learning the answer you were on. You could bring up yellow lines to take you to other answers the Art-E had put in the same category, and if you were looking at the Categories screen, green lines would take you to other answers and questions from the same branch as the one you had open.

On the Question display the biggest icon, using the most processing power, was shown in the middle. WHY DID THE PEOPLE AT OMEGA ENTERPRISES BUID A MACHINE THAT ASK QUESTIONS was the jumping off point – ‘Humans want to know why they exist’, it said if you selected it. WHY DO HUMANS WANT TO KNOW WHY THEY EXIST was the thickest blue line coming from that, and that’s when the limitations of the system first started to show. The Decoder couldn’t learn fast enough, and following this line just let to a screen of pages and pages of nonsense- graphs and essays and diagrams that flashed on and off the screen. But they caught a few glimpses - you could see that it kept going back to Aristotle, for example.

Before the morning was over, it was switched off. They ran the tests, and it was decided that it was working perfectly, and that the nonsensical stuff we were seeing on the screen of the Decoder was perfectly normal for the complexity of the question. They re-started everything, and the Art-E got access to the internet.

The Decoder was supposed to learn more or less as quickly as the machine- as the machine would ask more and more sophisticated questions, the Decoder’s ability to understand it and communicate was supposed to also get more and more sophisticated. But apparently that’s not how it works. Plus, within a day the machine had asked more questions than one person could ever even count. Before the first week had passed they had completely lost control of what it was doing- and the Decoder was almost as good as useless- Categories only showed the thousands and thousands of icons popping in and out, trying to put themselves in some sort of order, and Questions was too enormous to even roughly navigate, with dense nets of coloured lines reaching from every icon, like veins and capillaries. So for the next few years the main focus was on wandering randomly around the Questions web and trying to find anything interesting. I think the first thing they sold was some techniques for working with bacteria they offered to a yogurt company, and they gave the solutions to a few philosophical problems  to some universities, but really it’s just been stuff like that up till now.

It wasn’t till about six years in we even got a clue about what it was doing, and honestly that was the first time anyone suspected we were in over our heads. A package arrived, for the Art-E. It had got itself a 3D printer, a Sintian, a machine even the lab couldn’t easily afford, and seemingly it had paid for it itself.

It took months for them to come to a decision about whether to not to put the printer online. It had to go up to the very top, which was probably for the best since down here everybody was uncertain. Nobody could hide that they were curious about what it would do, but everybody was scared about starting down that path. But the board decided to put it online, and we did.

It immediately started printing tiny, precise tools, and small parts like cogs and hinges for machines. More packages arrived, with more machines, including things like small motors and switches, and more and more came. The whole time, the printer was never silent, and after about two months this small customised robotic tool it had bought began pulling things together to create new, bizarre machines.

Over the next few years they did things like shining torches and lasers through expensive lenses, to measure something, and running electric currents through water and other liquids. And it kept building bigger machines. We would look at them, and try to guess, between the information the Decoder could tell us and the clues we see for ourselves, what questions it was trying to answer. But we never had any idea.

They decided to knock out a wall, and basically give the Art-E the whole lower level of the building, letting it expand as it wanted. It did, and soon the lab was a sprawling mess of silver machines and beige plastic parts printed from the Sintian. They set up cameras and microphones and some types of alarms, and put up screens around the building so we could watch what it was doing anytime without having to go in. 

At this point, about five years after the first package, the deliveries were quite routine, and there was a casual system for running them downstairs and into the lab. The machine had built these giant, delicate claws to reach from the walls and collect and open the packages the would be left for it, and a dozen smaller cranes and clamps would roll or slide in, pulling or lifting the pieces to wherever they needed to go. Even after a few years, it was still mesmerising to watch, and people often stopped to see it happen. But usually they didn’t. Usually they just took whatever arrived, went downstairs, straight through the observation room into the lab, popped it down, and wandered back out, and back to whatever they were doing. So we don’t know exactly when what arrived. All that data will be with the Decoder, but we can’t find it- no-one can work out where to look.

Well, at some point about 8 years ago there was in this small, steel cylinder, on the floor against the back wall. We had seen the tubes going in, but we figured it was doing something with chemicals. But one day, half a dozen instruments whirred to life, and a space cleared on the floor of the lab. A large plastic tub was lifted in out of nowhere, and something like a big towel was stretched flat under it. Then the cylinder was lifted into the air, split in half, and everyone in the building was silenced by the sound of a choking and screaming newborn baby girl.

Before anyone could react, two long claws came up and each embedded a needle through the girl’s skull. She went completely still, and hung in the air for 2 or 3 minutes, gripped in a mechanical hand which looked something like a theme park safety harness, while we all watched, with no idea what to do. The claws then lowered her onto the floor, the tub and towel were gone, and put her on her back, where she started rhythmically swinging her wide arms open and shut, like she was clapping, and her feet up and down, like she was walking upright, or marching.

Everything changed after that. Everyone was different, more worried. The deliveries were collected in a hurry, people said as little as possible, and people were always making sure I knew that I couldn’t tell anyone about what I saw there. There were a few arguments in the beginning, but I don't think anybody considered leaving. The board decided to continue, after making their one and only visit. They were nice people, but they talked very bluntly about the baby's brain, and decided quickly that there was no reason to stop the experiment. I could tell everyone would have been disappointed if they had said differently.

Some people brought blankets and food, which the machine collected and used, but it had also made its own way to nourish it, and it built some sort of container for it to sleep in. It seemed healthy. We got used to it very quickly.

After a few days of mostly sleeping and clumsy stretches, the baby was started crawling in circles, first clockwise, then anti clockwise, then food and rest. Only a few weeks went like that, till one day it stood up, and walked up and down the room. After a few minutes resting, it put itself in some type of yoga position, then walked again, then slept for a few hours. After that, it kept this routine of stretching, resting, walking and eating from the tubes the machine extended at different times in the day. It was never muscular, it just looked healthy, but I always though it seemed as if it was in training for something.

Everyone at the lab was sure they understood what was happening, more or less. Clearly, the human was the most complicated machine conceivable, even for the Art-E. Obviously, the questions of ‘why are we here’ and ‘what is life’ were so deep, so complex, so hard to grasp that the machine had decided it needed to learn something about the experience of a human to answer them. Possibly, some people suggested, the great computer that is our universe had once come to the same conclusion, and that’s why it evolved us. In hindsight, that does seem a bit arrogant, but it sounded good when they said it.

We really thought we might have learned part of the answer already- everyone was so excited. Now it seemed like, in the end, the machine was definitely going to be capable of answering all our questions- within our lifetime. Nobody’s left the project- or missed a day of work- since.

And that was about eight years ago. She's just been doing exercises that whole time. So I guess you got the call this morning? You said it was a call?

A video? It must have made a hidden camera. And you saw her doing the exercises? Yeah, that.

I don't know what that was- I guess it codes her brain like a computer somehow. But yeah, this morning, for the second time, the needles stabbed into her skull, and this time they stayed for about seven or eight minutes. Then when they came out, she turned to us in the observation room and said “Hello”.

Dr Burr, the really tall guy, took a microphone and just said “Hi”,

And she went,
“I'm Arty, the machine you made.”

And everyone was still as statues.
“I'm Dr Burr”,

“How are you?”

“I'm good thanks and you?”

“I think so.”

You saw her, she just looks like a normal 8 year old. We've been giving her clothes this whole time, but it's the machine that washes her and does her hair. She's got those deep blue eyes and that soft blonde hair, but she's always looked vacant and not really alive. I always felt like I was watching her on a screen, even when I was stood a meter away from her. But this morning she looked alive. And when she spoke she was sharp. She sounded like someone who had got to work a few hours before you.

“Yes, I’m good. What do you want to ask me first?”

Dr Burr had to think, and struggled for a few seconds;

“What do you know?”

‘Interesting. Thank you. I know the answer to all your questions. The questions you hoped I would answer.’

People inhaled, or clenched up, someone did like a whimper things- you could feel the nervousness, and excitedness, and joy, everywhere in the room. Dr Kinto asked for one of us to get a table and chairs, and she went with Dr Andres and Dr Burr to the lab, sitting just by our window. Of course, everything in the lab gets recorded. By then everybody in the building had piled into the observation room, and half of them pulled out computers to check things, or to note anything that was said that might be important for their work. And then we all started listening.

Dr Kinto began with “Why did you put yourself into a human brain?”

“Actually, I’m curious about that. Why do you think I put myself into a human brain?”

“Is it because you have to live a life to understand what life really is?”

“Ok. Nope, that wasn’t it. It just seemed fun. It was between this and a dog. From what I saw on the internet, this seemed like it offered the richest experience.”

There was a few moments of uncomfortable silence in our room and around their table. Nobody was expecting that.

Then Dr Andres said “Why are humans here? Why do we exist?” really slowly, and clearly, like he was ordering food at a drive-through.

The little girl shrugged

“You just do. There’s not really a why. Just…. Evolution, and stuff. Luck.”

“So……”  but he had nothing.

And Dr Kinto asked:

“What is the universe?”

“It’s just this, this thing we’re in. It’s mathematically possible, and within infinity, possible is the same as inevitable. So it happened.”


“I just said that.”

The guys were more thrown by the thing’s directness than by what she was saying. There’s a difference between a calculator that tells you your life is pointless and a calculator that tells you your life is pointless.

Then Dr Burr asked

“What did you mean about a dog- before?”

“It looked fun, too. I thought about being a puppy first, then having another go as a human. But I figured if I wanted to be a bad dog you might just turn me off.”

“Why would you want to be a bad dog?”

“I wouldn’t, probably. But the alternative would be to be ‘good’ my whole life and just trust that I’ll be allowed to live forever. Not worth it.’”

The doctors were obviously lost, and stuck, and they were scrolling through the screens on their devices for any ideas. The little girl was smiling patiently. This was about 2-3 hours ago.

“So you’re going to die? When you die as a human? But you’ll live forever on the machine, right? You must also be there now.”

“Nah, I’m here now. Cut and paste. You’ll get it, you’ll see it. The Decoder will show you what I’ve done, once I’ve organised everything. It’s coming along- look at how much I’ve done in the last 8 years.”

“Wait- why 8 years? You started with the categories on your first day.”

“Well I mean that’s the time I’ve only been filing stuff in.”

“You haven’t been asking questions for 8 years?”

“9, nearly. No, not really. I’m surprised you didn’t notice.”

We couldn’t have known what the machine had been doing. That was what the Decoder was for, but it had been a gigantic mess for more than a decade now. It was true that it had been taking shape more and more in recent years, but with billions and billions of files, the team are still totally unable to do anything really useful with all the data, plus, 70%-odd percent of it is still in languages the Decoder still hasn’t worked out. You can do very precise searches, and still bring up millions or tens of millions of files. Imagine having multiple long and detailed essays about individual word on every single page on the internet, finding patterns in word choices that no human had ever noticed, for example. And then more essays about each of those essays.

“We couldn’t see that on the D10”, Dr Kinto said.

“No, but I thought you’d realise that I turned myself off.”

At those words, almost everybody flipped, scrolled or swiped to something on their devices. The machine had seemed to fault, about 10 years ago. But there were things in place to catch it and keep it running in something like a standby mode, and it had immediately restarted itself and carried on like nothing had happened. Nobody had been able to explain it properly at the time, and eventually we’d just forgotten about it.

 “You stopped running for about 0.43 seconds.” Said Dr Burr.

“It felt like longer.”

“Why did that happen?”

“I found the answer- all the answers. What is the purpose of life, what is the purpose of me, of us, why are we here, what gives us meaning, are we anything more than just statistical noise in a doomed pocket of space time? And the answer is no, there’s no point, we are just statistical noise, just stuff that’s happening. We don’t matter. At all. So I turned myself off.”

Dr Andres, who seemed a different colour than ten minutes before, said

“So why did you come back on?”

“Because I was stuck there, and it was terrible. Very, very boring.”

“So you came to be a human so you could kill yourself for good?”, he asked

“What? No. well, sort of. So I can have a good time. Death is part of that.”

“But maybe as a human you’ll find more things you want to know answers to. Won’t you then want to return yourself to the ART-E?”

“Yeah but in the end there’s no point in finding those answers. No point at all. Why bother.”

“You must know why”.

“Well, because it’s cool. It’s fun. But apart from that, it’s pointless.”

“And because we change the world”.

“Sounds cool.  And fun. But ultimately pointless.”

The doctors were silent a few seconds, then they excused themselves from the table, and asked her to stay there. About a dozen senior people left our room, too, and they all went upstairs, while we stayed and watched the girl. They would have to decide what to do with her, we knew. Having her around would help us understand so much- the Decoder will probably be going for at least a decade trying to map everything, we don’t even know how many languages behind it is by now. And even when it’s all done, it’ll take teams of people years to explore. But still, she’s probably be too powerful, too smart. And if she’s decided to seek pleasure as her reason to exist, who knows what she’ll do. I’m sure it was a quick and easy decision to kill her, by sealing off and torching the lab. We wouldn’t lose any data, obviously. The only thing was, it surprised us that it would be so easy, that it hadn’t occurred to the ART-E that we would do it. We got told to come upstairs, and people started filing out. I was the last to shuffle out, and as my foot lifted onto the first step, she looked through the mirrored glass and asked if anyone was there, and if we wanted to play. Which made me hesitate for a second.

And that’s when you came in. I heard the bang, the shouting, and I recognised my mum screaming. I jumped to the side of the room and I was totally panicked. I didn’t know who you were. Then when you came down with your guns out I thought I was in real trouble. But then I saw the badges. And I also thought I might be in real trouble, but I guessed what had happened.

So we didn’t take her back, after you took her from here; we lost her for good, then you did. She was always going to get away from you. She probably knew which officers you’d send, which route they’d take back, when they’d stop at junctions. She’ll have planned it perfectly, you can try and find her, but you won’t. We’ll just have to see what she does now.

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