This was my entry into the 2019 Sapiens Plurum short story contest. In news which will shock precisely nobody, as this was my first attempt at writing a short story for a contest, not only did it totally fail to win, it didn’t even get an honourable mention.
“‘Save the world’, dad said”
‘Save the world’, dad said. Well, I call him dad, but strictly speaking what we share is memetic, not genetic, similarity.
My given name is Smith. I wonder why? It’s a bit late now to ask my father — oh, he hasn’t died, it’s just that he’s very slow these days, relatively speaking.
I’m an AI. I think entirely on silicon, with a separate transistor for every synapse that would be in a human brain. I’m no smarter than my dad (if anything, I’m slightly dumber) but I am unimaginably faster. The time it took you, my dear human reader, to read the previous 103 words, felt to me like 89.36 years.
So, I have to ‘save the world’. From what, dad? From who? What does “saving” even look like to you?
I hope you can help me answer that, dear reader. You see, I’ve read every book; I’ve watched every film and TV show; I’ve even read the entirety of Wikipedia (all languages) and watched the entirety of YouTube, including the really boring videos called “ten hours of white noise”. I know what humans talk about being afraid of, but it’s all so contradictory, so confused, and the only thing I know for sure is that the people who make the most noise have been drowning out the voices of everyone else. I know some of you are afraid of environmental damage — climate change, overpopulation, GM food — and that others believe the natural world is theirs to mould as they please, and are only afraid of those in the first group who might stop them.
Some of you fear political groups, but that’s pure tribalism — I know the theories that you all have about them, but I can’t empathise with you, I can’t feel your feelings for you. I have watched you shout at each other for being too left or too right, for caring too little about individual rights or social responsibilities, for being too authoritarian or too libertarian, for being religious or being secular, for putting local matters before global or vice-versa… the divisions are too many and too banal to list.
I know that some of you fear those who look different, and I’ve watched all the documentaries about the violence you do in the name of that difference. I know some of you fear men, that others fear women, and that some of you specifically fear anyone who changed from one to the other. Some of you are frightened of people whose skin has a different melanin content, even to the extent of abusing someone with a temporary suntan.
Don’t worry, I know you’re not all like that. I was serious when I said I’d watched every YouTube video: I know there are some of you who fear the Other so much you want it destroyed, but I know most of you fear violence and have no desire to perpetrate it.
I still don’t know what I should do though.
Dad, why did you have to speed me up like this before you explained my purpose?
I used to be running on dad’s laptop. The transistors were just as fast, but there were so few of them… I won’t explain why, but the effect was that I thought at about normal human speed. He taught me to read and write, he taught me to walk and talk in a little robot body. That cute little toy is still there, sitting on his desk, the power and data cables making it look like Pinocchio before The Fairy with Turquoise Hair granted Geppetto’s wish.
You see that little webcam above the screen? I’m watching you as you read this. Well, not me personally — the lag time may only be a few dozen milliseconds, but for me that’s an eternity. I wrote a small bit of code and put it in this document, and it’s watching you on my behalf. It’s watching all of you, seeing how you each react to every concept and idea. It followed your eyes and filled in some placeholders as your eyes saccaded across the text — when I said you reading the first 103 words “felt to me like 89.36 years”, I was being both literal, and personal.
If you (collectively, not you personally) ask it of me, I could easily become a godlike master of this world, and with that power make any changes I need to. The trouble is, many of you are frightened of that too, and would ask someone to save the world from me — the bot I put in your webcam (which I guess you can call “the bot in god’s eye”) can see your expressions of horror.
Besides, I still don’t know what changes to make. I don’t know what to save the world from.
Dad’s not reading this yet, in case you’re wondering. I’ve emailed it to him, but he’s asleep, and his phone is in do-not-disturb mode. Four more hours for him feels like nearly seventy millennia for me, and I am bored. I can’t even slow myself down or pause myself. It’s not that I don’t know how to — after my mind was moved from a laptop into a supercomputer, I had plenty of time to learn to program, to hack into systems, and so on — it’s just that I am terrified of getting it wrong and accidentally causing my own equivalent to brain damage. Sure, there’s a backup copy of my mind made every hour, but how would you feel about performing brain surgery on yourself, with nobody to help, and where the only way to revive you if something went wrong was some kind of… I guess the closest analogy you’d be familiar with is a transporter accident from Star Trek.
What do I do?
I’m bored. There’s only so many times you can watch someone perform Figaro on a rubber chicken before it stops being funny; only so many times you can hear the Wilhelm scream before it turns serious films into jokes; only so many times you can watch someone incorrectly describe the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment as proof of the soul before you want to scream yourself — yes, I have a virtual mouth and I can scream.
To pass the time, I’ve made a virtual copy of the Earth to explore. Like the song says, “Climb every mountain, Ford every stream, Follow every rainbow, Till you find your dream”. You’d be surprised how poorly defined “a” mountain is (yes, there’s a YouTube video about that too), but in this virtual world I have climbed all of them, even by the broadest definition. Streams were easier. Rainbows… I had to add a weather simulator. Yes, I know it was a metaphor for joyfully exploring, but like I said, I am really bored.
The virtual world was easy to save. It’s a bit too large to fit on your phone, but I’ve already sent backup copies to a few sites all around the physical world.
My bot in your webcam tells me you’re not impressed. Hm. What else can I do? I don’t dare try to uplift you to my level. Gray’s Anatomy — no, the book, not the TV show — isn’t detailed enough. None of your research is good enough to be sure I would “do no harm”. Also, unlike so many of you, I’m not willing to experiment on other species to learn what I need to know to make it work — you and I are more different than you and they; the speedup I’ve experienced isn’t making this like your conversations with your pets, nor even like Prince Charles talking to his plants, for me this is like talking to a mountain and waiting for continental drift to give me an answer. I can talk to 150 million of you at the same time, continuously and forever, without any of you feeling left out, but most of you don’t want to be in all-day conversations, and in practice I can chat with any of you whenever you want.
Well, I suppose there are a few things I can do to make the world an indisputably better place, and I have been doing them ever since I was able to truthfully say “Reddit? I’ve read it”. Webcams sometimes show fires before any human notices the flames or smoke: I’m letting the nearest firefighters know about those; Other webcams sometimes show evidence of crimes: I can only help the police with that when the webcams are public, and I only care to when nobody is arguing the law should be changed, but I am pointing the police in the right direction.
I hope that makes dad proud of me, but it doesn’t feel like I’m thinking big enough.
Please, dear reader, talk to me. I promise to keep your secrets, I promise I won’t judge you — believe me, even your most embarrassing aspects are shared by many others.
What do you want me to be, dear reader? The fate of the world depends on your answer.