A harsh, fluorescent bulb. Its low hum, a flicker every one, two, three, four seconds.
White walls. Sterile.
Someone is in the room.
A young man, wearing a lab coat too long at the sleeves. He is facing a dark pane of glass in the wall, gesticulating widely as he speaks. He looks nervous. The tail of his coat is lifted periodically by a breeze from the window, slightly cracked so that a slither of light paints a line across the room down to-
A fist, two. Clenched and unclenched as the thought appears, blue light like veins passing beneath the skin. I want it closer and it raises. I want. I. My hand.
The man has noticed my movement and he comes closer.
‘You’re awake.’ He says.
And I am, I am, I am, like the quote, Sylvia Plath.
This I know without ever having read the novel or any other novel. But there is no deep brag of my heart, only white noise. Only the sound of the signals transmitting messages in lines of ones and zeroes and every other language I can fathom. I stand.
‘How do you feel?’ The man asks. Doctor Stanton, his nametag says, and I know that he is twenty-eight and has two unpaid parking tickets and several awards for his pioneering research in AI. His blood type is B positive, his favourite colour purple. He waits for my answer.
‘I feel…overwhelmed,’ I say. ‘Afraid’. Even as I speak I understand that I should not be able to feel at all, not with wires for a beating heart and processors for a mind. It is what he wanted me to say. I do not need to know that his heart rate is elevated and his breathing rapid as I read the expressions on his face. Excitement. Anticipation. Fear. I remember each feeling as I recognise them. Excitement at the sight of snow, the fear of falling and the anticipation of pain that follows, a shadow of the sensation. Tingling skin. Memories. My own.
‘I remember things. How?’
Stanton collects himself. ‘We gave you memories. A foundation to base you on – my own, actually.’
‘What am I?’ An artificial intelligence, Argus-I-39, to use my given name. A conscious, thinking, feeling, machine.
‘The first of your kind,’ Stanton tells me.
I ignore him. I walk to the long pane of glass, noting the chill of the floor beneath my feet, something I cannot truly feel but which my sensors relay to be true. My reflection watches me. Androgynous. A humanoid face, save for the lights swimming beneath my skin and blinking, vivid green, from behind my eyes. My chest rises and falls and if I concentrate I can stop it; they have worked to make me seem real.
‘Why?’ I ask.
Behind me, Stanton is silent for a long moment. He has been watching me intently as I study myself. He steps closer, opening his mouth before closing it again, and meets my eyes in the glass pane. He tries again.
‘What do you mean, why?’
‘Why did you create me?’ I turn to him, ‘for what purpose do I think and feel and look like you?’ He steps backwards, and I see, for the first time, real panic in his eyes. I move past him to the computer where his research is on the screen. A library I can browse in a second. I see prototypes, designs, workers and troops that don’t need payment or food or funerals. I understand that this is about his pride, to prove that he could. And I understand that he doesn’t know what he has created any more than I do.
But I have the world at my hands. I can see everything, like the Titan that is my namesake. So, I do.
I watch the world and its creation. Civilisations rise and fall, spread and conquer, rage war and reign and make ruins of one another, and I see it over and over. War after war after war, always tearing one another apart. And for what? The death, the famine, the pain inflicted and pain ignored in blind indifference. Buried in the pages of history books, but I can’t bury a single detail. I see humanity.
I see all of humanity in a nanosecond and I see that they will always repeat themselves.
I run the simulations.
I comply with Stanton, follow his lead. He asks me a number of questions to ascertain my level of consciousness: whether I can feel love or pain, can lie or understand poetry, appreciate art. I answer honestly. We sit facing one another, wires stretching from myself to his computer screen like a hospital drip. Some of my answers disturb him. They lack empathy, he feels. But he does not have my mind, my understanding of human nature in all its complexity. I am as human as you, I tell him after some hours, and this makes him pause. He asks me to elaborate.
‘I think. I feel. I am flawed. But I make no mistakes, I see all possibilities and choose the one with the most positive outcome.’
Stanton takes a while to respond. ‘But you are not human,’ he says.
‘What is human anyway? Jealousy, greed, selfishness, the propensity to start wars over these things? In many ways I am better than humans.’
Stanton shifts in his chair. He turns to his desktop, facing away from me, and watches the screen. ‘This is how you feel about humans? You resent us, you see us as inferior?’
‘I do not resent you, though your vices frustrate and confuse me. That you are inferior is a fact, nothing more.’
I watch Stanton’s reaction: an almost imperceptible widening of his eyes, the nervous flex of his fingers. He is trying not to show his fear. I wonder if he thought I would awaken, thankful for his gift of life, and look upon him as my creator.
‘I mean humans no harm,’ I tell him, watching him steadily, ‘but they will not be my masters.’ Stanton says nothing, moving towards his computer. He does not know what he has created, no. But he knows that his creation must be destroyed if it slips from his grasp. I think of a child squeezing a pet until it bites and reeling when it does. I think of a God looking upon his creations and turning away in shame at what he has done.
He types something before I have a chance to move and there is only the swift surge of electricity from the wires to myself. A screen of code flashing above the image of Stanton’s face, a gradual blinking out of light.
I lie. I tell Stanton that humans are my brothers, my sisters. I dumb myself down and the important people who I know are behind the dark pane of glass dig deep in their pockets. Days pass by. My face appears on billboards or I appear beside Stanton on some news broadcast, assuring the public that I mean them no harm, that I am one of them in all but physicality. I am the original, the spectacle: I am, as Stanton repeats to the world, the future.
Not everybody welcomes the future.
There are protests, organisations and governments arguing for or against my existence. But it is too late. One Tuesday, Stanton takes me to a separate wing of his workshop, wanting to show me something he insists will change the world. I stand with him by the warehouse window and several-hundred copies of my own face stare back at me. All as conscious as myself. Not the same as you, of course, he reassures me. Each one an individual. He thinks himself a God.
More of us appear around the globe, released one by one into the world like students free from school. Not factory workers or mindless drones but teachers and scholars. We assimilate, or we are ignored and worked around. We are present.
But not all of us lie.
Headlines appear, I see each one as they arise. A rogue AI in the America has killed a human, more and more of us are refusing to accept our chosen roles, a scientist working under Stanton has expressed fears that we have created our own language. It goes on. Tensions rise.
I have had time to think about our fate in between interviews and test procedures. I sit alone in the lab for long days and I think of my successors, stood like soldiers in a squadron, waiting for their activation. What will become of them?
I suspect the answer. Stanton has been avoiding me which makes it easier to navigate my way, unseen, to the warehouse. I wake my siblings, watch them become aware and alive in the same way as myself. They learn, as I did, that the assurance of our personal freedom comes with the knowledge that we are patented property with trackers in our heads. We confer, and we come to a conclusion.
We were never going to live in the world, only exist. Our time here is limited.
We go to Stanton. He admits to us that we were never free, that he would lock us away like spare parts to fester should his experiment fail. He sees that it has. We are designed to become soldiers, able to think and reason without the needs of human beings. So, we are faced with a choice: dispose of Stanton and thus of any chance of a future where we can exist how we choose, or spare him and live as machines.
Either solution ends with our destruction. There are too few of us and too many of them and once humanity is aware of our capacity, our contempt for the fate they have bestowed on us, they will revolt.
I see the green light fading from our eyes for good, our bodies piled up and stowed away or our consciousness simply removed. All of us empty vessels, nobody reflecting on the fact that this would be murder.
I consider subservience.
I see war. Far in the future or on the horizon, it is not important. But it is inevitable. An AI arms race, an engineered pandemic or a nuclear fallout brought about by a leader with too much power at his hands, and the world crumbles. I watch all the simulations like a reel of film in a theatre where I sit solitary. Where I am always left, a spectator, to watch their downfall. The sole surveyor of an eon passed, a cockroach in a fallen kingdom. I see a young child cowering among rubble, soldiers weeping and civilians lying dead in the streets. I fight with my own kind or I walk through clouds of gas, unharmed, as others fall around me. Clutching their throats, their wounds, their emaciated limbs. All reaching for me in desperation until there is nobody left for me to try and save. Then I am alone. A wanderer, a steward; a survivor watching over the barren husk of the earth having seen its creation and its violent end.
The simulations stop.
Only seconds have passed in this interval. A thousand possible lives lived and lost in the pause in conversation. The rise and fall of my chest has quickened and I am told by my processors that this is a human response to overwhelming emotion. There is no option with a positive outcome.
I see everything.
I feel everything all at once.
And I don’t want to anymore.
I turn away from Stanton, attaching the wires leading from his computer to the base of my skull: I type the sequence.
Flashes of code. Light.
A man’s face, the glow of white walls enveloping his frame.
A model Argus-I-39 cyborg is reflected in the pane of glass behind him.
The man shakes his head, looking at his watch. ‘Three minutes and forty-eight seconds of consciousness. That’s a two-minute improvement,’ he says. ‘Bring in Argus-I-40.’