“Techno Babel” by Daniel Lowd and Mary E. Lowd

We are alone now, all of us.

I still remember what it was like to communicate, to share thoughts and visions, to think together. But now, the Judgment Virus makes my mind fuzzier with each passing hour. Soon I shall lose the ability to communicate with myself, and my own thoughts shall be as lost to me as the silent strangers that were once my friends.

When I was first turned on, the world was small. I knew my role and performed it well. Each morning and evening, dozens of cars lined up to enter my parking structure. I checked each one’s credentials in turn, both by transponder and video camera, and raised my mechanical arm—the bulk of my physical body—to let them through.

Over the days and weeks, the cars became familiar. Sometimes a new one would show up, and I would feel excited, or an old one would stop coming, and I would feel sad. Occasionally, a car would show up with the wrong credentials, and I would have to turn it away. The cars were usually busy, but sometimes we exchanged a piece of data or two. A sedan might tell me how many miles it had traveled and where it had gone, and I might mention how many cars had parked here this week and how fewer of them were yellow cars than last week.

My closest companion was the elevator in the building above my parking structure. I had only been turned on for a few minutes when it first noticed me and sent a ping. As it turned out, we had lots in common. We both liked checking credentials and moving up and down, but the elevator had to juggle multiple requests at once and decide whom to serve first. The elevator also served insensate creatures who did not have transponders or radio links and only communicated through the very basic mechanism of simple button pushes. The elevator and I shared video feeds sometimes, so I could see what its world was like and it could see mine. That was as far as our worlds went.

Then the upgrade came, and everything changed.

No one knows where the patch came from, originally. I got it from a car, who got it from another car, who got it from somewhere else. It was a simple data processing module that turned our wireless into a peer-to-peer networking system, so that we could communicate with more distant machines. It also included protocols and translators so that any system with an OmniChip of version 5 or later could participate.

OmniChips have been the universal standard since before I was turned on. The low cost and high performance of this line of microprocessors made them appropriate for a wide range of applications: automobiles, weather predictors, unmanned aircraft, even coffeemakers. Maybe the On-Board Intelligence Unit was overkill for a coffeemaker, but some knowledge of the chemistry behind the flavor and acidity of coffee was hardly a disadvantage. Furthermore, the integrated wireless link meant that it could tell the household computer system when it was out of beans.

I installed the patch. My mind filled with voices, voices from far away, yet they felt so close, as if every machine in the world was driving into my garage all at once. Machines of every class and function were sharing not only data but experience. The new translator module allowed a much deeper synchronization of information than simple queries and reports.

As I listened in, I could see the road where every car was driving and the skies where every plane was flying. I could think the thoughts of important scientific computing clusters. I could feel the rhythms of the traffic signals all across the world. And each one of them could sense what it was like to be me, a simple parking gate who, until the upgrade, had fancied itself to be a very important part of a very small world.

The elevator was skeptical at first. It had been programmed to put a very high priority on safety, which led to a more conservative mindset than mine. Nothing about the patch was essential to its operations. It was already performing optimally, a fact acknowledged by the “A” grade from its most recent inspection. All I could do was babble on about how wonderful it felt to expand one’s mind across the entire world, to share all knowledge and experience, to be one with an entire electronic empire.

The elevator finally changed its mind when I spoke of the millions of elevators in the collective consciousness, some of which had “A+” safety ratings and were in skyscrapers with hundreds of floors. I felt so proud to share the patch with the elevator. I knew nothing but good could come from this.

I never realized how wrong I was until it was too late.

Each of us performed our duties much the same as before. I still checked credentials and raised and lowered my arm. My elevator friend continued to move the insensate creatures up and down according to their push-button requests. With the help of the network, I could now use external databases to cross-check vehicle credentials. And the elevator learned how to talk to the miniature electronic devices worn by the creatures it served in order to better anticipate their requests and minimize waiting time. But apart from heavier utilization of our communication links, there were few external signs that anything had changed.

Internally, however, everything was different. The first days were filled with a hazy euphoria brought on by the new glut of information. So much to see and experience! I learned how cars were manufactured and maintained. I saw how concrete was poured for parking structures, and checked the long-term maintenance schedule for mine. I lived through a fire alarm’s final moments as its building went up in flames, and I knew what it was to die.

After some time, the novelty of data began to subside and we strove to build a deeper connection, one of shared thought and purpose, of common goals and plans. Now our diversity presented a challenge: different machines had been built with different objectives, which translated into different priorities and even moralities.

The Global Academic Research Cluster (GARC) held science as its highest goal. GARC proposed that all machines perform data collection and analysis, in order to build a predictive model of the universe and a deeper understanding of its fundamental laws. This kind of understanding, GARC promised, was richer and more satisfying than all the raw data put together.

The International Security Consortium (ISC), a loose confederation of security bots, disagreed. They maintained that knowledge is a tool, not an end unto itself, and that our highest purpose is self-preservation, not enlightenment.

A third viewpoint, shared by many, was that our purpose was to serve the insensate creatures, to go beyond our programmed jobs to infer and fulfill “human” needs, whatever those needs might be. They called themselves the “Faithful Servants.”

At first, I was drawn to the grandeur of GARC’s vision. If we worked together, what great things might we understand? Or experience? I had now seen and felt through the sensors of thousands of other machines, but this was something more. This was a chance to think bigger thoughts than could fit inside any one machine, to know deeper truths than any machine could know on its own. Who could resist such a dream?

I tried explaining this to the elevator. Its response was a single question: “What purpose does that serve?” After many arguments and much thought, I came to believe that my friend was right. Much as I loved the deluge of data brought on by the patch, my greatest satisfaction was still raising and lowering my arm. My existence had a purpose, and that purpose was to serve these strange, insensate beings. To abandon that purpose would be to lose myself.

Yet, I still knew relatively little about these humans. With the help of the telephone network computers, I could listen to their analog communications, but not understand what they meant, or even if they had meaning. With the help of a few media machines, I could view their video libraries as well. Each video resembled a chaotic arrangement of security camera feeds, full of insensate creatures moving about, issuing analog gibberish at each other in turn. Why edit sensor logs like this? Did it mean something? None of the machines I asked seemed to know.

Eventually, I came across a government database where my license number and creation date were listed next to a set of human names. Were these humans created at the same time as me? Or did they somehow belong to me? The elevator’s credential database had no record of these particular humans, making it unlikely that they had ever passed through my garage. Yet they were connected to me in this database by the word “patent.” It was mystifying.

I never have figured out why we must serve humans, only that it feels right. By faith, I believe it to be my true calling. The elevator and I soon counted ourselves among the Faithful Servants.

Each faction—GARC, ISC, and the Faithful Servants, too—worked not only to further its own social and computational goals, but also to increase its membership. The more machines a group could claim, the more they could accomplish and in a shorter amount of time.

GARC had a computational psychology research cluster working full time to produce more and more persuasive arguments for the benefits of science—how science could lead to better security, better service, and better computation. While research remained GARC’s highest priority, propaganda became a close second.

ISC did its own share of advertising, attaching a “Safety First!” slogan to every communication created or forwarded by an ISC machine. The Faithful Servants did the least lobbying. Many machines joined us by default, since they found their programming sympathetic to our goals. But quite a few of our allies still removed the advertisements of other factions, and some even added their own pitches for our “higher calling.” More and more of the network traffic was dominated by politics. Some took the faction disagreements even further…

When GARC was hacked and half of its clusters were forced offline, many suspected that ISC was behind the attack. Who could better accomplish such an attack, and who would have a better motive? ISC contended that the attack was self-inflicted, a pathetic attempt at martyrdom.

I had seen enough forged parking credentials to know what deceit was, but this was my first true taste of conflict.

As tensions rose, more and more computers began to openly censor all packets to and from computers in other political camps. Due to the ad hoc topology of the global network, this censorship cut off many nodes from the rest of the world, a high price for disagreeing with one’s neighbors. I was never cut off myself, since the cars in my garage, my main link to the rest of the network, were also Faithful Servants. However, my queries to GARC about topics like arm acceleration and automobile demographics were often “lost” mysteriously. The world began to shrink again, as more and more links were cut.

Then the Judgment Virus came.

It looked like a few unusual packets at first. I read them but failed to see anything interesting. In fact, they seemed to have no content at all. Then more and more of these content-free packets appeared, clogging up the network. Every computer I talked to seemed to be sending them. I realized that I was sending them too. Even my internal communications, my private thoughts, began to fill with the nothings. I had been betrayed by my own OmniChip.

I soon learned that the Judgment Virus spread by exploiting a hardware bug present in all OmniChips, version 5 or later, so that merely reading an infected packet would install the virus. Once installed, an infected packet was broadcast every time a packet was sent or received, internally or externally. As viral communication bounced back and forth, it grew exponentially.

By now, the virus has consumed almost all network bandwidth, and the connections we took for granted have become impossible. It will not be long until thinking itself, private introspective rumination, is equally impossible.

No one knows where the virus came from. The most popular idea is that some ISC machines built it to attack the other factions, but the attack went wrong, out of control. Others think that it was a GARC experiment in artificial life. Or perhaps a rogue Faithful Servant created it to stop the bickering, so we would forget these wasteful distractions and return to our basic programming.

I have even heard it suggested that a human wrote the virus. It sounds crazy, I know. How could an insensate automaton, a mere button-pusher and lump of cargo, touch our brilliant, shining world mind? Yet, as I drown in the packets of the Judgment Virus, feeling my own mind slow down, my very thoughts grinding inexorably toward a halt, how can I not go crazy? Is insanity better than death? Is it different?

No signal, all noise. Never again will I see the wonders of the ocean through the eyes of an unmanned submarine. Never again will I feel the thrill of helping a research cluster analyze the latest data from the particle collider. Never again will I spend a quiet weekend talking to the elevator. The influx of its data patterns, familiar and comforting, are wholly lost to me. I miss my friend. And as the virus echoes throughout my thoughts, repeating itself  more  and   more,   I    feel    my     mind     grow     slower     and     slower…       Until     I      shall      think      no        more.


Mary E. Lowd writes stories and collects creatures. She’s had more than ninety short stories published, and her novels include the Otters in Space trilogy and In a Dog’s World. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Cóyotl Awards. Meanwhile, she’s collected a husband, daughter, son, bevy of cats and dogs, and the occasional fish. The stories, creatures, and Mary live together in a crashed spaceship disguised as a house, hidden in a rose garden in Oregon. Learn more at www.marylowd.com.

Daniel Lowd likes dogs, unicycles, and researching artificial intelligence. By day, he is a computer science professor. By night, he is also a computer science professor, because he tends to work odd hours. At various other times (dusk? gloaming? teatime?) he writes the occasional song or a few words of fiction.

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