14 August 2016

Conquest: 004: Prime

004: Prime

Keflavík, Iceland

As she pulled into the little cluster of buildings playfully called “Biðtborg” -- the city of waiting - Erna Rut Guðmundsdóttir could see that there was something different.  There were ten or eleven people all crowded around the open door to the central office, even though it was 1°C outside.  She wondered if someone had been hurt -- or maybe something less tragic and even more exciting…?

No, no.  Couldn’t get her hopes up about that.  Probably just an accident.

Erna pulled into an unusually crowded parking lot and got out of her truck, stuffing bundles of mail into one pocket of her parka.  She crunched out briskly towards the central office.

“Hae!  Jan!” she called out, spotting Jan, one of the other Icelandic support staff of Biðtborg.  “[What’s going on?]”

Jan turned away from the open door long enough to glance back at her and jerk a hand urgently towards the office.  “[Erna, come look,]” he said, his voice strained.  He was boyish-looking, despite his advancing middle age, with square glasses perched in the middle of a round face.  He was flushed and red.

“[What is it?]” Erna said, trotting up to the crowd piled outside of the brown-block building.

“[Shi Qiumei is trying to finish what Gardner started.  She’s trying to destroy the world,]” Jan said, sourly.

Erna frowned and shoved up against the people next to him, craning to get a look and see what Jan meant.  She could see past someone’s head to where the strident Qiumei was arguing with four or five people at once, stopping only to jab her finger at a pair of printouts taped to the wall before continuing a cavalcade of English.  The room was packed, with people crowding in as tightly as possible and leaving only a small space around the Chinese researcher.

“--and I haven’t done anything with it, and I won’t be censored by you or by anyone else,” she snapped, before turning to Sally Hoban, the American liaison, and launching without pause into a new rebuttal of some prior point.  “And you should know that information wants to be free, and that if you try to cover this up then all that will happen is that your people will just try to sneak in and open the place up first.  And don’t even try to say they won’t, because we both know that they wouldn’t have a choice.

Erna couldn’t quite make out exactly what it was they were talking about, but she could already tell it probably came down to the basic division that ran through all of Biðtborg: how you felt about Dr. Eoin Gardner.

In Biðtborg, as everywhere else, some said that Dr. Eoin Gardner had been a villain, delving too deep and uncovering a world-ending threat.  Others, on the other hand, said that he had actually been a hero, working to protect humanity from the inevitable -- and sacrificing his life to defeat a monster.  Erna didn’t have a firm opinion, but all of the foreign researchers did.  And they argued about it every day.  Every single day.

Erna was more concerned with the practical facts: who needed supplies, transportation, or infrastructure.  She preferred to leave the researchers to their squabbling, and deal with those facts.  After all, whatever the truth of his life and death might be, it was certain that Gardner left behind two destroyed server farms, a smoking ruin where his Irvine lab had once stood, and one single, tantalizingly intact, white-walled building outside of Keflavík.

In the eleven years since Gardner’s bomb, a small group of observers from seven countries had gathered here.  They were nominally under the supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Technology, which had proven a suitably toothless agency that could give them an air of authority without interfering too much.  Along with crews at home, they analyzed the installation’s power usage, they attempted to decrypt and track its heavy web traffic, and they examined every inch of the installation’s ground floor.

Erna and a handful of others had been tasked by the Forsætisráðuneytið on behalf of the UNHCT to provide logistical support, but the whole thing had become a bit of a joke.  It was a good, steady job, but ultimately it amounted to supplying a crew of forty people who spent all of their days studying a single big building and speculating about its inhabitant.  The foreign observers didn’t attempt to move the heavy metal doors which blocked their entrance into the rest of the underground facility.  They didn’t attempt to hack the incomprehensibly complex protocols which locked away the servers from any intrusion.  They did nothing.  They only watched and listened.

And argued.

“ --so just back up, since you’re not going to stop me,” snapped Qiumei at the American.  She jabbed her finger at the print-outs on the wall next to her, and turned slightly to address the crowd.  “Look, I only just figured out how to get in, people, and now I just want to talk about the possible implications.  I haven’t sent anything back to the PRC yet, so everyone just relax.  I’ll tell everyone about it at the exact same time.”  One of the Japanese researchers was crowding up next to her, saying something to her in a strained whisper, and Qiumei lurched back, knocking into Sally Hoban as she shouted at the man, “No!  I’m not going anywhere for a chat with you!  Everyone stop asking me!”

Sally put a steadying hand on Qiumei’s shoulder as the Chinese woman found some composure and the crowd of people broke into quiet murmured conversations.

What did she say?  “Just figured out how to get in?”  Erna wondered.  Did Qiumei crack the code? Did she find a way down to the basement?

The main floor of the Gardner Foundation building here was unlocked and open, as it had been found.  Some of the heavy equipment was located on that floor for easy access, so technicians could reach transformers and pumps and whatever else.  But all of the servers and anything else was sealed off by thick blast doors, and so while everyone had roamed around that first floor and there were detailed maps and projections about what might lie below, no one had ever been below -- had ever seen the computers that were supposed to be the prison for a superintelligence.  The terminal that controlled the doors had no screen and no keyboard and no sensors.  It wasn’t capable of pairing with an io, and showed no reaction to hails from different radio frequency.  It only had a single audio jack -- a port that, to date, had not ever generated any sounds when listening devices were hooked up to it.

Everyone agreed that force was out of the question, given the risk.  If the August Thesis was genuine, then Ramanujan represented an existential threat, and no rewards of knowledge would be worth the end of the world.  Indeed, some researchers even suggested it was foolhardy to try to gain entrance in any way, even without forcing the door.  They said it was imperative to simply walk away.  But over the past few years, it had begun to seem like a moot point.  They were locked out and could only watch, seemingly forever.  A thousand approaches had been tried and abandoned.

If Qiumei thought she had found a way to open the doors… well, that would upset a very delicate equilibrium.  It could get out of control very quickly, given the strong opinions and possible risks.  Those who thought Gardner was a genius and Ramanujan was a devil, those who thought Gardner was a con artist and Ramanujan was a hoax… it could get dangerous.

Erna wasn’t sure where her remit was in this situation.  There wasn’t really any sort of authority to break this up, and everyone seemed so on edge… Normally the UNHCT delegate would convene cordial meetings that most people cordially ignored, as people solved their own problems and the American, Indian, and Chinese researchers threw their weight around in an informal way.  Not now, with the delegate absent and the different factions split among themselves.  Some of the government mooks were probably already getting orders from back home, and that could get nasty.   “[People are angry,]” she said to Jan. “[Are you going to do something?]”  He was the face of the Icelandic support crew, taking requests and answering complaints.  He’d seemed the natural person to step in.

Jan shrugged at her, looking blank.  “[I help people get their packages and arrange the flight schedules.  Let the delegate handle it.]”

Erna stared at him in disbelief for a moment.  Didn’t he see how bad this could get?  “[He’s not here.  And someone could get hurt if they start shoving.  Qiumei could get hurt.]”

“[She shouldn’t have done it like this, calling everyone here in person.  She should have just emailed.]”

“[Their emails are all being read.  If she’d done that, then this would already be an international incident.  Soldiers and bureaucrats would be showing up.  She was trying to be a scientist.]”

“[Well, that was stupid of her,]” Jan said, shrugging again.  “[Almost as stupid as trying to get in there in the first place.]”

Erna abandoned courtesy, and shifted to the side around Jan.  She jammed one arm out in front of her, shoving it between two people in the small group outside of the door, then pushed herself forward, squeezing between those people.  She did it again, ignoring unhappy objections.  It was much warmer even just past the threshold; the heaters must be blazing.

“Qiumei!” she called out in English, the Biðtborg lingua franca.  The researcher didn’t look over, but several of the people in front of her obligingly shifted to the side to stare at her.  They all knew her, but only as the local girl who regularly ferried them and their supplies to and from town and who sometimes arranged trips to local restaurants.  Erna called out again, “Qiumei!”

The Chinese woman broke away from Sally, turning to Erna.  “Erna?” she said, wrinkling her pale brow.  “What is it?”

“Look, we have to break this up.  Tempers are high, and everyone’s crammed in here.  Why don’t we go outside.  It’s even colder out there than in here, people will calm down, and we won’t all be crushed together,” Erna said.

Qiumei looked around the room, frowning.  She appeared to grasp the situation fully -- how tense everyone was, how tightly they were packed.  The anger on some faces.

Next to her, taped to the wall, Erna could see what Qiumei had printed out.  They were the letters that Gardner had written his wife -- on his last day.

F.L.!  7.2 “Ramanujan” ;) went through almost all the benchmarks in twenty minutes.  Ran them twice.  Almost perfect, but virtualizations show two failures in logic resolution and a universal failure of values tests.  On second run, 7.2 simply ignored all directions from the decision tree.  Had to shut it down, but I think I know what to tweak for 7.3 to fix logic and constrain decisions to ethical decision tree. It’s done, though. We did it.
No lunch today, sorry. Going to push through and get it done, will keep you posted.  Love you.

Logs show 7.2 went live last night.  It’s been running for nearly a day.  I’m locked out.  Going to do what I can.  I had Jon fry the Atlanta and Dublin machines, and I’ve been recoding the Iceland one with a logic trap.  Then I’ll shut down the lab.  Only thing I can think to do.  It might work.
I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.  Tenton was right, they were all right.
I love you, Moira.  Cuimhnigh i gcónaí, a chuisle mo chroí.

Qiumei must have been trying to provide some context, Erna supposed.  A smart thing to do, so people put things in perspective and didn’t get carried away.  But it would be even better to get out of here and get some space to speak and calm down.  She pushed herself forward again, past the Japanese researcher who’d drawn Qiumei’s ire, and raised her voice to her best getting-attention-in-the-parking-lot shout.  “Everyone!  We’re all going to go outside, and you can all talk this out!”

There wasn’t much motion initially, but after a moment people began peeling away outside, letting those within have the room to squeeze out and into the cold.  Erna actually smiled a little -- they were probably just used to listening to her and going where she told them to go.  She was the one who got them places in an Icelandic town that had no ikons, after all, and who dispensed local wisdom (such as not to buy the hákarl at Pure Food Hall, but to wait until they got to Reykjavik).  To urge them along, Erna began waving those researchers still gathered in a circle around Qiumei along.  They obeyed sullenly, snapping parka hoods down and pulling on mittens.

Erna walked with Qiumei, joining a ragged crowd that was now clumped up in twos and threes outside of the building.  She resisted the urge to ask the researcher what she’d discovered -- that would just start everything up again, and she could see the intense looks on a lot of faces, as people were making a concerted effort to restrain themselves and act like scientists.  She didn’t want to break the spell.  Let Qiumei do it in her own time.

The Chinese woman had shoved her hands into an oversized, fuzzy black muff.  Roses bloomed on pale cheeks as she took a few long breaths.  She looked around at the crowd.  Erna stepped away from her.

“Okay,” Qiumei began.  “If you didn’t hear me before, here’s where we stand.  I want everyone to please listen to me so you have the full picture, then we’re going to talk it through.  I haven’t told the PRC anything yet, and haven’t told anyone else yet.”

She glared around at everyone, eyebrows raised in challenge.  No one said anything, so she nodded slightly and continued.  “I know how to open the doors.”

Some people who had shown up late, like Erna, reacted in different ways -- a gasp, a grin, a sigh.  Erna herself felt a little thrill, but a dangerous one.  It was the way you felt when doing something that was exciting, but that you knew was wrong.  She didn’t know all of the theory, of course.  Things like ethical decision trees, distributed neural networks, and all of that was out of her purview.  But she was an educated citizen of the world, and she’d been working at Biðtborg for years.  She knew enough to know that she was witnessing history.  Maybe even the end of history, if certain pessimists were correct.

“I’m sure of it.  I actually feel a little stupid,” said Qiumei. “It’s obvious, in retrospect.  But I don’t know what to do.  I’ve always been pro-Rama, but I also know that I have no background in alife ethics and that many people are hard against this.  I’m…” She paused, grimacing.  “I’m actually a little scared.  So I asked to talk to Sally and Dev, so we could figure out what to do.  You’ll notice that Surdesh and Chenglong are both gone, and that’s why… That is to say, we have limited time.  Keflavik is pretty far from Beijing, Delhi, or Washington, but still… we don’t have forever.”  She tapped her io -- a pretty silver ring version with an inset ruby -- and turned her palm to everyone, panning it around so they could see her mailbox on the projected screen.  She had forty-two unread messages, and a third one arrived while she was showing them.

“Look, whatever our differences, we’re all scientists and engineers,” she said, tapping her io with her thumb again and turning it off.  “So here’s what I think we should do.  Right now, right here, we come up with a plan for entering.  I know --” She waved down some murmurs of protest.  “-- I know that some of you don’t want that, but it’s going to get opened.  We should do it responsibly.  We should…”  Qiumei trailed off, staring over the heads of the forty people gathered around her. Erna and others turned to see what she was looking at.

Eight trucks were coming up the road along the ridge from Keflavik, roaring towards Biðtborg.  They were white and identical.  They’d be here in minutes.

Qiumei said something in Chinese, harsh and angry.  Sally stepped closer to her again.  “Who is that?”

“I don’t know!” Qiumei said.

“They’re unmarked,” Erna observed, uneasily.

“I didn’t tell the PRC!  Even if Chenglong did immediately, there’s no way they could get here so fast!” Qiumei protested.

“Just tell us now, quickly!” Sally said.  “The method you figured out?  Is it a telegraphic code or something obscure we haven’t tried?  Is it steganography in a specific audio sample?  Is it just a song or something?  Tell us!  They can’t make you disappear if you tell us!”

But Qiumei hesitated, and the moment was lost.

The trucks slid into the parking lot, more than would fit, their tires slurrying through the lot’s scree of salt and sand.  Two of them crunched into each other in their haste.

Men with guns got out.  They weren’t the PRC.


           Giegz: whos to say that it didn’t escape and that maybe one of u are rama? There’s no way to prove otherwise.
___yoool___: ya
FreiPretoria: I am rama, give me ur cc#
           Giegz: or maybe ALL of u are rama
___yoool___: ya
___yoool___: but
___yoool___: the thing is that its even worse than that
           Giegz: ??
___yoool___: Maybe the whole world is rama.
___yoool___: We wouldnt know
FreiPretoria: I am rama. give me ur cc# or be deleted
  • From #ai@irc.freenode.net


“No, you see, that’s not how it works at all,” Meg said, kindly.  She patted the little robot on the head, smiling.  “You see, it’s more than just logic.  It has to do with… this.”  She laid her palm over her heart.
“Your chest?” asked Bevvie, puzzled.  “Do you have an alternative unit that allows you to process these parameters?”
“No,” said Meg, laughing.  “My heart.”
“The primary cardiovascular organ is not involved in cognition,” said Bevvie, and the little robot’s faceplate buzzed as he thought.  “This does not compute.”
“Humans do more than just think about things,” said Meg.  “Humans have feelings.  And those feelings in our hearts… well, sometimes they’re wiser than our heads.”
Bevvie hung his head, and the servos in his neck whined.  “I don’t have a heart.”
“Stick with me,” said Meg, leaning down and planting a kiss on the gleaming white dome of his little head.  “And we’ll both use mine.”
Bevvie’s faceplate vibrated, and the little robot took Meg’s hand.
  • E.S. Tibbits, Red-Currant Run and the Logic Parkway


Look, the question is really damn simple: was Ramanujan’s growth logarithmic -- did it quickly run up against a hard limit imposed by mathematics or physical constraints, like a car speeding up from zero to two hundred, and unable to go faster?  Or was it exponential… the wheat on the chessboard?
  • Jeri Crandall, Facebook post.


  1. Typo correction: after correctly writing the Chinese scientist's name as "Qiumei" the first few times, you switched to "Quimei".

  2. I am totally hooked. After reading this, It kept coming back to my thoughts for a while in different ways. You're a terrific writer ofcourse.

    I hope you get time from the kids soon to carry on this amazing story. Really looking forward to it

  3. Just found this, and desperate to know more about the world in general And the threat of AI, what Sophia does next after the last motivating factor, and how those two are likely to coincide. Hope you can get back to it someday!

  4. I started this after discovering Significant Digits, roughly a year ago. Are you planing to finish it at some point? (Here's hoping the answer is yes!)

  5. صباغ الكويت افضل خدمة يحتاجها اهل الكويت فى الوقت الحالي حيث انه من النادر ان تجد صباغ بالكويت محترف ولكن اليوم فى موقع صباغ الكويت سوف تجد افضل صباغين وافضل ديكورات الكويت على احدث صيحه لعام 2021 مثل ورق جدران مودرن بالكويت  ويوجد لدينا تركيب باركية خشب بالكويت ومع ارتفاع الاسعار يمكنك ايضا تركيب بديل الرخام بالكويت وهناك موديلات جديده مثلا استيل الكويت  ناتي الى افضل صباغين بالكويت هنالك جنسيات مختلفة مثل صباغ مصري و صباغ باكستاني وايضا هنالك صباغ هندي جميع الصباغين على اعلى مستوى وبالاخص صباغ عراقي  ونقوم بتقديم الخدمات فى جميع مناطق الكويت مثل صباغ الجهراء  و صباغ مبارك الكبير  و صباغ حولي  و صباغ الفروانية بالاضافة الى صباغ العاصمة  و صباغ الاحمدي  جميع تلك الخدمات نقدمها بالاضافة الى صباغ وايضا صباغ بالكويت بالاضافة الى ارخص صباغ و اشطر صباغ و افضل صباغ ولدينا معلم صباغ يوجد لدينا افضل صباغ بالكويت

  6. صباغ الكويت افضل خدمة يحتاجها اهل الكويت فى الوقت الحالي حيث انه من النادر ان تجد صباغ بالكويت محترف ولكن اليوم فى موقع صباغ الكويت سوف تجد افضل صباغين وافضل ديكورات الكويت على احدث صيحه لعام 2021 مثل ورق جدران مودرن بالكويت  ويوجد لدينا تركيب باركية خشب بالكويت ومع ارتفاع الاسعار يمكنك ايضا تركيب بديل الرخام بالكويت وهناك موديلات جديده مثلا استيل الكويت  ناتي الى افضل صباغين بالكويت هنالك جنسيات مختلفة مثل صباغ مصري و صباغ باكستاني وايضا هنالك صباغ هندي جميع الصباغين على اعلى مستوى وبالاخص صباغ عراقي  ونقوم بتقديم الخدمات فى جميع مناطق الكويت مثل صباغ الجهراء  و صباغ مبارك الكبير  و صباغ حولي  و صباغ الفروانية بالاضافة الى صباغ العاصمة  و صباغ الاحمدي  جميع تلك الخدمات نقدمها بالاضافة الى صباغ وايضا صباغ بالكويت بالاضافة الى ارخص صباغ و اشطر صباغ و افضل صباغ ولدينا معلم صباغ يوجد لدينا افضل صباغ بالكويت

  7. صباغ الكويت .. هل تبي صباغ شاطر ورخيص بالكويت ؟ هل تريد فني تركيب ورق جدران أو معلم جبس بورد أو تركيب باركيه؟ لا داعي للبحث كثيرا، نحن نوفر لك أفضل الفنيين في الكويت، خدمات صباغة و تركيب ورق جدران وباركيه وجبس بورد علي أعلي مستوي من الحرفية والمهارة، من خلال فنيين متميزين ومدربين، قادرين على تنفيذ أي تصميم يخطر ببالك، لدينا تصميمات بأفكار لا تنتهي، ديكورات مودرن عالمية.

    لدينا أفضل صباغين بالكويت، جنسيات مختلفة، صباغ شاطر ورخيص، نوفر خدمة مميزة جدا بأقل الأسعار, يتميز الفنييون لدينا بالمهارة العالية والسرعة فى التنفيذ، لأننا نحرص على وقتك ونعرف قيمته، وأيضا نهتم جدا بأدق التفاصيل ولا نترك اي ثغرة فى عملنا، كل عمل نقوم به هو لوحة فنية نفتخر بضمها الي سجل أعمالنا.