Literary Fiction Science Fiction artificial intelligence Apocalyptic Fiction

Still Life With Suits: Deconstructing algorithms of will

By Phillip T. Stephens
Mar 24, 2019 · 2,456 words · 9 minutes

Suits

Story art by Phillip T. Stephens.  

From the author: Artificial intelligence, marketing simulations and the possible end of the world.


Three men line the table. Their faces turn to a fourth who sits, perpendicular, at the corner end, his eyes staring without focus into the distance. Each wears a charcoal suit, lilac Oxford shirt and burgundy tie striped with gainsboro gray. Onyx and silver cufflinks engraved with “自律.” The characters represent the Japanese word “Jiritsu”. They fold their hands, rest them on the tables center chest. An iPad with Apple pencil nestles against each man’s wrist. Two iPads rest side-by-side. Their positions suggest the fourth suit is left-handed.

Eggshell coffee cups sit next to the tablets. Each displays the company logo, JIRITSU, in charcoal gray and burgundy. The cup next to the suit at the head of the table sits on an eggshell paper napkin. The other napkins lie in a stack, untouched, at table center. Each bears the Jiritsulogo in the bottom corner.

The table is white, the walls eggshell, the plastic housing for the Hi-Def display that covers one wall is alabaster. The chairs are upholstered with ivory leather, their frames painted white.

The figures are still and silent as if posing for a painting, yet tension permeates the scene. Seconds pass. A moment. Moments stretch into intolerable moments. The figure in the corner clears his throat. Shoulders relax from ten to nine on the stress scale. 

The figures are still and silent as if posing for a painting, yet tension permeates the scene. Seconds pass. A moment. Moments stretch into intolerable moments. The figure in the corner clears his throat. Shoulders relax from ten to nine on the stress scale. 

Their names are Bob. Robert Obsteller occupies the alpha seat. To his right, the first in the row of subordinate suits, sits Bob Fig. To his right sits Bobby Plum, the largest, and most plump of the four. The left-hander in the farthest seat is Bert Cherry. The stripes in his tie are thicker than the others. 

Obsteller sips his coffee. 

They sip their coffees. 

Obsteller lifts his tablet and pen. 

They lift their tablets and pens.

Obsteller boots his iPad. They boot their iPads. He launches his notes app. “Updates on the Tethers project.”

Not a question, a command.

Fig projects a chart to the display, which is mounted to the wall directly within the alpha suit’s sight line. “We finished in-house testing. We plan to release 1.0 on Monday.”

Obsteller’s face remains frozen, a tabula rasa, like a high stakes poker player with all his chips on the table. Observers can only infer whether he approves, or even absorbs the information.

Plum reports on product branding: logos and color palette packaged into images of hard-bodied men and women. Drenched in sweat. Dressed in skin-tight outfits. Engaged with their iPhones, Galaxies and Google Pixels. 

Obsteller stirs artificial sweetener into his coffee. Fig and Plum stir sweetener into theirs.

Cherry delivers marketing projections. He breaks the demographics into geographic regions, gender, age, race, profession and buying habits. His numbers suggest the product will dominate the market within the year.

Obsteller pushes his chair back. He folds his hands in his lap. He massages his left thumb with the right. The other three push their chairs back and massage their thumbs. 

Obsteller scratches his chin.

They scratch theirs.

Obsteller wheels his chair to the table and taps his tablet with his index finger. “We’ll combine the product launch with the quarterly profit report.”

Cherry scratches his neck. He speaks without acknowledgment. “But we haven’t tested the software with the devices. Or conducted a feasibility study.”

Stillness envelopes the room. His colleagues power off, sit like mannequins in a window display. Cherry waits in silence. No hum from the air conditioner. Not even the sound of breathing. 

The clock resumes its count. Five minutes, one second at a time. At the top of the hour, Obsteller tilts his head by one degree. His eyes fog. “Please explain feasibility study.”

“Shit. What was that?” 

Walter turns to Cash, whose eyes are tethered to the Super Bowl playing live in a window on his monitor. Cash waves Walter off. “They’re at the goal line with eight seconds left.”

Walter glances at the feed at the bottom of the window. Fourth and six; 14:52 fourth quarter; Panthers 35, Clovis 30; Clovis has the ball. The camera closes on Joe Montana, who leans over the center. “The score won’t change when the game ends. Watch the replay. I need you to verify the glitch.”

Cash ignores him. 

The ball snaps. Lance Alworth peels away from the line. Ronnie Lott and Sam Huff chase him. Montana tosses a shovel pass to Jim Brown who powers through the Carolina line and into the end zone. The clock expires, and Washington wins by 2. Cash pumps his fist. “I won 200 bucks.”

The figures are still and silent as if posing for a painting, yet tension permeates the scene. Seconds pass. A moment. Moments stretch into intolerable moments. The figure in the corner clears his throat. Shoulders relax from ten to nine on the stress scale. 

Walter leans across their desks and closes Cash’s game window. He scrubs the simulation back to the moment of deviation. “You missed an autonomous moment.”

Cash collapses into his chair. “It won’t be the first.” The sarcasm that drips from his voice could burn a hole through a diamond. “Log it, and let the day shift chase the problem. They’re the hot shots.”

“Damn it. What was that?”

Carlson buries his head in his palms. “I logged simultaneous deviations on the timelines. Both thirty-seven seconds into the sim.”

Roberts groans. Halfway through their shift and they’re twelve runs behind schedule. His coffee rests at his elbow. Powdered cream gathers into scum on the surface. “Resetting.” 

He moves his finger to the interrupt key.

“Do you think they think they’re human?”

Roberts groans. Carlson never gives up on this metaphysical crap. “They’re code. Not even programs, just snippets of code that interact to simulate decisions that get passed up to more code that interacts to simulate more decisions. They don’t ‘think’ anything.”

Carlson tosses a paper clip across the room. It bounces off Roberts’ wrist. Bull’s-eye. “Let it run. I want to see whether the simulation self-corrects or accelerates the branching.”

He pulls a Lucky Strike from a pack in his desk drawer. “In the meantime, I’m taking a smoke break.”

Roberts swivels his typing chair and slips his hands between his knees. “That’s not protocol.”

Carlson taps the cigarette against his desk to pack the tobacco. “Fuck protocol. How are we going to chase these anomalies if we don’t let the scenarios play to the end? Which we’ve never done.” He snatches his lighter and steps toward the door.

Fuck protocol. How are we going to chase these anomalies if we don’t let the scenarios play to the end?

“That could generate hundreds of millions of lines of code.”

Carlson turns back from the doorway. “Thousands of transcript pages too. None of which we’ll have to read. That’s debugging’s job.” He jiggles the doorknob. “Blame it on me. I’ll tell them I stepped out for a smoke while you were reviewing the logs.”

“What the Holy Mother of Goddam Jesus was that?” 

General Scott bites through his cigar. “Smoke break? Simulation characters don’t smoke.“

Thirty-two monitors replay the branches of the current simulation. Eight variations play out on four different levels. When one level resolves a problem, it passes the parameters to the next. None of those parameters should include (character:attributes:smoker).

“How the hell does a computer program become aware of cigarettes? Or the brand name Lucky Strikes?” Scott switches the playback to the ninety-inch display. “We hired you to stop this shit. Not make it worse.” He kicks a pizza box to the opposite wall, his upper lip curled with disgust.

The DynaNet logo—inspired by the Japanese word “jiritsu”—masks the sunlight from the glass ceiling. The south wall is also glass, looking into the server room. Behind the glass, DynaNet’s supercomputer crunches numbers faster than the sun burns fuel. 

The Sunway TaihuLight III pushes data at 195 PetaFlops. Fifty percent faster than its predecessor. It can design a remote-controlled nuclear propulsion engine before lunch.

DynaNet owns four, housed in the US, Switzerland, Japan, and Dubai. The company’s tentacles stretch into every continent and the two dozen most productive economies. They own Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, Apple, Cisco, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, and Intel. No one who works for them retires. Or leaves. DynaNet scans their brains on hiring and stores the files on multiple distributed networks.

You won’t find DynaNet on the Stock Exchange. Nor will you find it listed in government registries. The corporation operates in shadows, writing intelligent code so sophisticated it scares the hackers who inhabit the lowest levels of the Dark Net. One day DynaNet hopes to give birth to the first AI. 

Artificial Intelligence: The Corporate Holy Grail. AI will lead to a fully automated workforce which will lead to armies without soldiers. No casualties, paychecks, retirement or settlements. DynaNet will replace people with big shiny billion-dollar intelligent machines that never take sick days, never ask for vacation, never nap at their desks, and never, ever question orders. 

Artificial Intelligence: The Corporate Holy Grail. AI will lead to a fully automated workforce which will lead to armies without soldiers. No casualties, paychecks, retirement or settlements.

Pizza boxes, beer cans, recyclable coffee cups spill from the trash to the floor. Post-It notes covered with equations—and long ago forgotten—litter desks, chair seats, odd corners of the room. The DynaNet logo emblazons the case of Gates’ Falcon Mach VII. A bobble-head boxing Gödel perches in the center of Jobs’ Mac Pro. 

Gates pushes his tortoiseshell glasses back on his nose. His clothes droop on his frame as though he hadn’t eaten since January. “This isn’t as simple as programming a satellite to shoot laser beams. The software took our adaptive algorithms and adapted its own. We told you the code would branch in unpredictable directions.”

Jobs sits on his desk, his legs crossed. A skinny Buddha with a Beatles cut. “The point of Artificial Intelligence is to choose. It can’t learn to make good choices without the freedom to make bad ones.”

The point of Artificial Intelligence is to choose. It can’t learn to make good choices without the freedom to make bad ones.

Scott unwraps a Regius Double Corona and trims the tip. The no-smoking sign hangs on the wall behind him.

“Goddamit. You don’t want the program that controls America’s nuclear grid to make ‘bad choices.’ How d’you feel if it ‘chose’…” Scott makes air quotes with his fingers “…to blow up the goddam world?” He strikes a match and rolls the tip in the flame.

Gates counts the tiles on the floor. “Our code doesn’t make human choices. It creates new code from carefully written parameters. The probabilities of a nuclear first strike are slimmer than…”

Jobs jumps to the floor. He breaks into Gates’ explanation. “Sir, you’re making our point. That’s why we feed each scenario back into the program. So it will recognize mistakes and write new code to remove them. It will never ‘choose’ to blow up the world.”

Gates’ voice quivers. “That’s what I was trying to…”

Scott knocks his ash at Job’s feet. “Scrap the project.”

Gates steps between them. “Due respect, sir, we’ve spent half what we projected, but the Army’s…”

“We’re Air Force, god damn it.”

Jobs held a joint behind his back and rolled it between his fingers. “We’re six months ahead of schedule.”

Scott grinds the cigar between his teeth and leans into Jobs’ face. “Boo hoo. Cryptology wants access to that computer and they have more pull than my department. I’m reloading NORGRID.” He turns on his heel. His shoe soles squeak on the tiles.

Jobs drops the bomb. “You’re looking at NORGRID, sir.” 

Scott stops short of the triple encrypted door. He twists on his toe and storms back, smoke trailing like exhaust from an industrial chimney. “You wrote your fuck-up program on top of software that can launch more missiles than a shit storm in the middle of a sandstorm in the African desert?”

Gates shoves his hands in his pockets. Jobs tucks the joint into his.

“Wipe it all. Now.”

“What the hell?”

Carlson’s cigarette snuffs out. He stares at the tip then fires his lighter again. After one puff it dies. He fumbles through his pockets, but the pack is in his desk. He grumbles under his breath and twists the door handle. The door flickers and disappears. Scan lines scroll the building wall erasing more pixels with each new pass.

”What led to this discussion?”

Walter scrubs back and forth through the frames.

Cash tosses a push pin at Walter’s back. “Check this out.”

Walter spins in his chair. “Haven’t you done enough damage tonight?”

“No, no. Watch. You’ll dig this.” Cash switches to the Jiristsu simulation. His window displays the suits as a still life in oil. Digital brush strokes define shadow and detail. “Now watch this.” The screen switches to an impasto effect, then watercolor and next pastels. “This next one’s the coolest,” he promises but his screen fades to black.

“Please explain feasibility study.”

Obsteller pushes his mug with the back of his hand. He leans across the table, engaging Cherry man-to-eye for the first time. Cherry stops mid-sentence. 

Obsteller exaggerates each word as though speaking to someone deaf. “I was being facetious, you moron. No one gives a damn if the software works. All that matters is whether it sells.”

“No one gives a damn if the software works. All that matters is whether it sells.”

Two panels in the center of the table slide apart. A control panel rises from the hidden compartment. When it stops, the panel sits inches from Cherry’s fingers. He reads the letters inscribed above the keys. “Have you guys ever heard of NORGRID?”

Obsteller raps his knuckles on the table. “For Chrissake leave it be. I’ll have it removed before our next meaning.”

Cherry spots a red button at the center of the keyboard. “I wonder what this does.” He presses it. The scenario freezes.

“Tawagoto! Nani datte?”*

Haru notices only because his cup rests within inches of the monitor that plays Sim6872L4 06122019.

Coffee splashes over the Jiritsulogo as he sweeps the cup aside and reaches for the emergency reset. Crap. He realizes he was watching a video of a finished sim. The simulation finished…how long ago? 

Nine thousand kilometers to the east, across six states and the two Dakotas, hundreds of silos open and boosters ignite their fuel.

*Shit! What was that?

This story originally appeared in The Creative Cafe.


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Phillip T. Stephens

Living metaphor.