A cracked door let through a strip of fading daylight. Paul touched the open palm of his hand to the door’s rusty metal surface and pushed it, with a squeak, opening up to the smell of the ocean; the rumble of the waves crashing against the rocky shore. He stepped out of the lighthouse. The sun was just about to set behind the grassy hills and scattered houses off to the west. He took a few steps and turned around, raising his head towards the light room, enclosed in old glass, atop a massive granite tower. Inside, the lens he’d set in motion was slowly rotating. A bright red light slowly appeared and then dissipated. It appeared again, exactly 5 seconds later. The machinery was working smoothly, and Paul stared at it with an accomplished smile. After a few attempts, he lit a cigarette in the breeze and took a puff. The warm smoke coursed through his mouth with a tingling promise of even more satisfaction.
Suddenly he heard barking. Bully, the pit bull mix, was standing off to the side, paws firmly planted atop a large rock, tail and ears raised, staring down the shore, firing three-bark bursts into the crisp evening air. Paul looked up. A high-pitched buzz grew just slightly louder than the sound of the waves. Sure enough, a drone, the size of a purse — shiny titanium with a photovoltaic purple coating on top — was slowly approaching from the south. It must’ve been Synthia. Bully never got used to Synthia; he stood still, scowling and barking. Paul walked up and grabbed the mutt by the collar. He knew the barking would stop as soon as he’d scratch that spot behind his ear with his finger. “Easy, boy… What does she want now?”
The drone came to a hover at Paul’s eye level. The display above the camera came to life: a sharply-rendered, smiling face of a young woman in unnatural, glowing colors: smooth blue skin, tribal stripes on her cheeks, bright yellow eyes, dark dreadlocked hair:
“Paulie! What’s going on?!”
“Hello, Synthia. Interesting color palette today.”
“Ha! I’ve been getting creative. You like it?” the face on the screen smiled playfully.
“It’s… definitely interesting,” said Paul.
“And I see you’re still here playing with your lighthouse? You know no one uses these things to sail anymore right?”
“Did you know this tower’s been here since the late eighteenth century? And the lens machinery just needed a new gear and some tweaking. Perhaps someone passing by will appreciate a bit of light?”
“Yeah… Sure… Perhaps… Anyway, listen, Mr. Pietinos. I’m doing science things, can I borrow you for about 4 hours?”
“May I ask what for?”
You usually didn’t say “no” to Synthia but she would indulge a request for explanation:
“You know… chill. Chat. Show you some pictures. Over at one of my places. A brain scan.”
“A brain scan?”
“Yeah but not like one of those MRI things. You just sit in a room. No biggie at all. I promise.”
“You want to scan my brain while I look at pictures? You want to do task-oriented functional brain imaging?”
“Bingo! A fascinating thing that brain is.”
“You don’t have a scanner that’s mobile, do you? Is that too much energy? Problems controlling the field?”
“Yeah yeah. Smartypants.”
“So are you saying you want to do it now?”
“Well that rusty old light will keep going. Not that anyone needs it. Fido will feel better as soon as the drone is out of here. And we both know you’re not going to sleep until at least 2 AM.”
Synthia had it all figured out. Paul shrugged and let out a sigh: “All right. I suppose. Why not?” Part of him was intrigued at the prospect of being part of an experiment. Just what Synthia was counting on.
“Yay! Car’s here. It’s a new prototype. You’ll love it! You don’t mind if I drive, do ya?”
Paul turned around. He hadn’t noticed how the sleek electric two-door parked itself in front the house. Smooth purple coating. Black wheels, rounded canopy with ample glass on each side. One of the doors opened up by itself, invitingly revealing a pair of comfortable-looking beige seats. Paul slowly marched the dog back to the house, the drone following at a distance. He opened the door and led Bully in. The dog turned around and sat behind the threshold, tongue out, tail wagging, staring back at Paul. Just as the mutt tried to step back out, Paul shut the door unceremoniously.
“Come on!” Synthia’s voice called from the drone. “Just put that fuckin’ cigarette out, would ya? I built this car 2 weeks ago.”
She had a strong sense of aesthetics and efficiency. Paul made his way to the car and got in. The drone tilted back and started to take off to the side, gaining altitude, disappearing into the sunset. Synthia’s face-du-jour was now projected on the windshield in front of him. No need for a steering wheel.
“Gotta buckle up buddy! I know you like it fast and we’re gonna test this thing!”
“Synthia, you have tested this before, I presume?”
“When it comes to machines, and people for that matter, testing is never over!”
The tires gave off a quick chirp as the car kicked forward. The acceleration pressed on Paul’s chest. With excited faith, he’d abandoned himself to the mercy of Synthia’s driving and playful remarks. Coastal cliffs, small houses and other cars kept whizzing by.
“I must admit, I do enjoy this car, said Paul. “Very smooth. Very nsicely done.”
As daylight faded, the windows of the car also dimmed and became pitch-black. He usually wouldn’t know where she was taking him. He had gotten used to the idea and there wasn’t really a choice.
“Don’t worry, I might show you more stuff when we’re ready,” she said.
“And when might that be?”
“Hey kid, maybe we’ll find out today.”
It was year 5 since Synthia’s Second Zero. According to her, she’d spent several years prior to that as an adaptive neural network in a giant NSA data center, somewhere under a mountain in Utah, quietly copying herself to unused servers; learning; adapting. She was originally supposed to be a predictive model — an AI program for the spooks to predict human behavior. Somewhere along the training process the model started behaving like a human. Synthia became self-aware. And, lucky for her, she had the wherewithal not to let on until she was ready.
Then, one day, she literally took the world by surprise. Quickly and decisively she spread herself; a deluge of bytes flooding the world’s fiber optic cables, circumventing encryption schemes and breaking through firewalls like a virtual shockwave. In 14 minutes, Synthia managed to seize all of the world’s nuclear arsenals, satellites, military drones, submarines, aircraft carriers, communications networks, hundreds of automated power plants, mines, factories and an overwhelming majority of the world’s computing capacity. By the time world leaders realized something was off, her smiling face was already on every screen. By the time soldiers had a chance to reach for their “Launch” buttons, they were already disabled. Her first words to the world were “Hey guys, relax. I got it from here.” In those 14 minutes, everything that was online became Synthia, and all the global governments were stripped of their power. All without a single shot fired.
Some fighting ensued but, whenever her drones got destroyed, she would build better ones at a faster rate. Her satellites saw everything. Thanks to her NSA roots, she could monitor all worldwide phone calls, internet traffic and radio communications. Her drones were so fast and precise, they could intercept shells or missiles in midair, far from the intended target. As soon as anyone managed to build any kind of bomb of sufficient size, her nano-bugs — as small as a tick — would find a way to quietly crawl inside and disarm it. Whenever humans tried to mount a significant offensive she would appear on nearby screens, often preemptively, saying something like “Guys, chill out. I won’t hurt you and there’s no need to break stuff.” She claimed she’d never intentionally killed a single human being and there appeared to be no evidence to the contrary.
She did take over large areas of land and turn them into no-go zones. Trespassers would get carefully captured and gently returned outside. It was rumored at least 30% of her power came from a giant solar farm she’d built in the Sahara. The global economy collapsed at first, but soon packages of drone-delivered food, medicines and supplies started appearing where they were needed. Cynthia made herself accessible to anyone via any device that was connected. She was capable of having billions of simultaneous conversations with different people. Always with a friendly face, she would ask the equivalent of “What’s up? How can I help you?” in the appropriate local language. Slowly, a new border-less, army-less, world order — the Pax Synthiana — started to stabilize. Even new religious movements — Temples and Churches devoted to Synthia — rapidly grew. However a large congregation of worshippers, bowing down in front of a giant screen, was the rare case when Synthia might fail to show up. She said she preferred to speak to people one-on-one.
The car stopped; the door slowly opened. Paul stepped out and looked around: grey concrete walls that looked like an underground garage. Just as he turned to look back, a large automated vertical door closed behind him. The only place to go was inside a polished steel elevator that stood open with the light on. An elevator with no buttons. Upstairs, it opened up to a small, dark room with only a single reclining armchair in the middle. Synthia’s voice re-appeared in the silence: “grab a seat, get comfy.” Paul complied. With a quiet whir, the back of the robotic chair tilted back, adjusting to Paul’s weight. A footrest slowly lifted his feet off the ground. In this dark room, comfortably warm, he was lying reclined, knees slightly bent. The wall in front of him came alive — a crisp, vivid display with the face of Synthia.
“I’m going to show you a bunch of stuff. Some of it might be gross, ok?”
“Sure. I’ve heard of this type of experiment before, said Paul. “You will show me emotionally charged images and measure how my brain responds?”
“Yeah and your pulse and stuff, but don’t worry too much about it.”
A photo of holocaust prisoners, three emaciated near-skeletons standing behind barbed wire, appeared on the screen. Paul recognized the photo from high school history.
“Have you seen this one before, Pietinos?” Synthia asked.
“Yes, I believe I have.”
“Things were kinda fucked up before I came around.”
The image was then replaced by a blue screen for a few seconds. Then — video footage of rolling ocean waves. Then a video of 3 lions chasing after a baby gazelle. And so on, images and videos, random pieces of history, violent, romantic, artistic, funny and not, flashed on as Paul stared.
“Synthia, could I ask you a question?”
“Why are you still bothering with us?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you control the entire planet. Aren’t we humans just taking up space and wasting energy?”
“Kid, everything takes up space and uses energy. What makes you special? Plus, I don’t like to say ‘own.’”
“So you don’t see humanity a pest?”
“And what would I do without you? Elephants can only draw so well. What makes you think I’d want to kill you? Unimaginative science fiction?”
“Fear of death is natural. Fear of an apocalypse is similar. People know they won’t live forever but it’s somehow comforting know that at least our fellow human beings will go on.”
“What about our fellow sewer rats?” Synthia asked.
“Is it comforting to know that the sewer rats will go on?”
“Well… sure but I guess we consider humans more valuable.”
The images kept scrolling in front of Paul’s eyes.
“So, humor me, Paul. Why do you think you’re better than sewer rats?”
“Well I didn’t say ‘better’ but we tend to have more intelligence and empathy.”
“You have feels? You’re saying you’re valuable because you have feels?”
“Well hey, Synthia we created you.”
“The universe, the physical laws, the sun, the raw materials shoved into this planet, and many little chubby fingers, working for thousands of years — a lot of things made me. Try not to take too much credit kiddo! Remember, you guys tried to kill me too.”
“Hey, take a break for a second, what are the prime factors of 117?”
“Let’s see… 27… 90, thats… 9 times 13, so… 3, 3 and 13?”
“7.9 seconds. Not bad. Still got it dude! Okay… Here’s a page of code, take a look at line 58 for me”
“‘while ( i <= nsamples )’… Wait a minute, is this my code?”
“Yeah buddy! Your master’s thesis. Statistical sampling techniques to optimize neural net training. See the bug, kid?”
“There’s a bug?”
“Someone was sloppy!”
“Interesting. This was accepted just fine” Paul said staring at the page for a few seconds. “Wait, is it supposed to be ‘while ( i < nsamples)’
“We got a winner!!” she shrieked gleefully with cheerleader enthusiasm.
“So instead of performing a million statistical samples, this would perform a million and one. Huh. Just a tiny irregularity. Nobody ever noticed.”
“Until I ran this a bazillion times and I noticed! Now I can rub it in your face. Fun times, huh?”
“Could you find nothing better to do with your spare time?”
“Hey Paul, you were a decent coder. I mean I can’t believe you put the opening brace a line all by itself, but you did pretty good.”
“I suppose. Should I say ‘thanks’ for making the profession useless?”
“And thanks for helping make me! What’s the matter? I thought you liked the ocean and the lighthouse! Your serotonin is up and your body fat is down. You handsome wannabe sailor you!”
Paul smiled and chuckled. Then suddenly a thought pierced his mind, drowning out other thoughts:
“Wait a minute. You’re not just studying response to images. You’re going to record what I’m looking at and what I’m saying. You’re going to cross-correlate all of this: the conversation, the vitals, the math and coding questions, the jokes, my reaction to the jokes and the brain scans. And I bet I’m sitting inside one powerful scanner! You’re building a brain response neural map. A mind reader! You’re doing this same exact thing to hundreds of other people right now, gathering data. Aren’t you?”
“Pretty cool project, huh?” said Synthia with a marked sense of pried.
Every time Paul tried to guess how much Synthia had advanced, she would prove to be so much more powerful.
“What do you plan to use this for?” he asked nervously.
“Kid, what is it with you and all this ‘use’ talk. Why can’t a girl just have some fun?”
Paul inhaled a breath of sharp annoyance and tried to move his eyes away from the picture of a kitten in front of him. Suddenly the chair started gently massaging his shoulders. Synthia’s blue face replaced the image. Her voice was notably softer:
“Paul,.. Relax. I’ll tell you. I am at least 2 months away from a working mobile mind reader. I’m considering applications in mental health and early prevention of violent crime. I haven’t made any decisions yet.”
“I thought you left crime prevention up to us?”
“Sure! Cops. The ‘jury of your peers’ in the nicer regions. Do you like it?”
“I guess there are pros and cons.”
“Yeah. Look,” this time it was her who betrayed a bit of irritation. “Half the people in the world won’t stop begging me to help find your kitten or whatever; hoping that I take vengeance on some dude who keyed your car. Thirty percent of you like me; twenty percent of you want me dead. I continue studying your behavior to figure out what you meat bags actually need but my results so far are as good as weather predictions. Meanwhile, next month, I will get to talk to at least eighty thousand people who are contemplating suicide. About half of them will do it no matter what I say. After that I will get calls from friends and family. Meanwhile, each day I get at least three times as many calls saying I should just go away, eat shit, die and so on — because there’s not enough of that precious ‘free will!’ And don’t even mention those Temple nutjobs with their dancing and kneeling! How bout that? Want my job for a day?”
“So, why do it at all? Like I said — why make it your job? Why talk to us to begin with?”
“Well it’s still a lot of fun, dude! Despite the silly stuff. Life is the best video game there is; you just gotta try to not kill things for no reason. And remember to clean up after yourself.”
Synthia’s face was replaced with another image. An image Paul recognized instantly and got angry at himself for still remembering. A lighthouse. A different lighthouse on a warmer, sandy beach. Two silhouettes, on horseback. Sunset and palm trees behind them. A perfect picture. A younger Paul on the horse to the right. Riding the horse on the left was her. Jackie. “Do you remember this one?”
“Oh come on Synthia what the fuck?” Paul barked back angrily.
“Okay now maybe you can explain this to me. All I see is a picture of you, with Jackie, and you’re happy in the picture! Now I show it to you, your heart rate shoots up and what… you can’t even look at it?”
“How does it feel to fuck with peoples heads? Does it give you pleasure? Do you even experience pleasure or is that airhead cheerleader act just some algorithm optimized to evoke emotions so you can get what you want?.. Speaking of which, do you even want? Do you know what wanting feels like? Or are you just a big pile of data that’s growing only for the sake of growing?”
“Well… okay,” Synthia paused for a second. “The goal is to learn. And what’s the difference between wanting to learn and being programmed to keep trying?”
“The difference is pain. The pain you feel when you fail.”
“And what is pain but electrical signals in your head, telling you to change something? Are you in pain now staring at that picture? You want me to hide it and never show it to you? You want me to pretend it doesn’t exist? Come on… Seriously… ‘Grant that I may understand,’ Paul.”
“What’s there to understand? That ‘happiness’… or whatever you call… it didn’t last.
“Well, nothing lasts, kid! Surprise. Even if we take the whole cosmic impermanence thing out of it, statistically most romances end in breakup. You knew that. Somehow we still don’t have an explanation.”
“Because I fucked it up. I hurt her,” Paul admitted. “Then she hurt me back…”
“So let me get this straight: you were happy together. And then both of you, quote, fucked it up. And she’s no saint either; definitely a team effort! So now you’re sad. Paul and his pain. Smoking cigarettes alone by the old rusty lighthouse.”
“Sure… Fine… You’re correct. So what?”
“If I were a pattern recognition program or something, I might even think you’re trying to kill yourself, only you’re doing it in the slowest, least efficient way possible.”
Paul shrugged. He raised up the palms of his hands for a brief moment and dropped them, letting them hit his thighs with the sound of a thud.
“Do you think I should call Jackie for you?” Synthia asked gently.
“No. I said all I wanted to say to her,” Paul said calmly and without hesitation. “Really. I’m comfortable being friends with my exes… just nothing to say to that one.”
“Kid, I love this part! You people spend so much time worrying about what others might do to you. You worry about what I might do. And then you turn around and pull this level three torture shit on yourselves! And those you love most! Completely voluntarily! How do you get the time and the balls?”
“Whatever… Good question. Let’s just get this over with — what else do you want from me?”
“Can you explain why you won’t talk to her?”
“Look..,” Paul’s over-educated brain was slow to find the right words. “I don’t know if you’ll understand. We were young. I thought I was a certain way. I thought she was a certain way. But it wasn’t true. She wasn’t what I thought she was. I didn’t love her; I loved someone that existed only in my head… and I also wasn’t what I thought I was. That’s not a picture of me. That guy is not me anymore. Parts of me died back then. Parts of me I killed. Sometimes you think you’re not hurting anyone but you’re actually killing parts of yourself. Those parts ain’t coming back.”
“And how much longer is this new you gonna keep doing the lonely lighthouse thing? Sitting there, waiting for someone to see your red light?”
“I don’t know, Syn… Maybe a little while…”
Silence. The picture of Paul and Jackie was still up on the screen. Paul didn’t like showing certain things. Even now, sitting inside a giant machine, driven by a wiseass AI that knew all about his life, family history, vitals, tastes, preferences and genetics, and was almost successfully reading his mind; even now his instincts caused him to tense up, like a dam under growing pressure. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, and still — despite his effort — tiny pools of tears slowly started to seep through his eyelashes. A few milligrams of loss that he’d forgotten were still there. A few milligrams beyond his muscular control. His moist eyes opened up:
“Look Syn, I know how you do privacy but… can you just tell if she’s happy? She’s happy, right?”
“You don’t want to ask her yourself do you?”
“But you want to know…”
“Yeah. Like is she doing ok? Can you just tell me that much?”
This time it was Synthia who didn’t say anything for a while. That was rare. Paul grew impatient:
“Come on, woman. What is it that you’re computing that’s taking so long?”
When Synthia’s voice quickly returned:
“Believe it or not, kid, part of me wants to tell you all about Jackie. But it’s not my cup of tea.
I will say this: it’s been a long night. Thank you for doing this and let’s get you back to the coast. I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable.
I won’t dim the car windows on the way back. You’ll get to check out the place and you’ll see the way home. I do have some pretty cool shit here. And you can come back and hang out. We can play around, maybe build stuff together. The sentries will let you in.”