Saturday, November 25, 2023

Extremus: Year 67

Generated by Google Workspace Labs text-to-image Duet AI software
In the olden days, the runner-up in the race for First Chair automatically became the Second Chair. Over the years, laws have been changed, adapting to an ever evolving population, and shifts in power. Whenever someone with enough of this power hasn’t liked what it took to get it, or what it was like once they got it, or how something adjacent to them was done, they’ve worked to change it. Don’t like that your shift is only three years long? Change the law so it’s four years, but if the voters don’t like that, they’ll kick you out of office, and try to find a successor to change it back down to three. Or up to six! Ship politics are fluid and complex, just as they are on any planet. These days, Second Chairs are appointed by the newly elected—or reëlected—First Chair. Voting day is near the end of the calendar year, but not at the end. The winner is expected to declare their Second Chair within two days so the voters have an opportunity to change their minds about either or both of them. It’s an awkward period where even a winner could lose if they end up making the wrong selection. Incumbents often just keep the same Second that they had before, but this isn’t always possible or wise. In Tinaya’s case, her Second Chair wanted to retire.
Ziad Najm was Tinaya’s predecessor’s Second before she took over, and stayed on afterwards. Due to the current laws, he could have legally held the position until his death, but he was ready to be done with it, so Tinaya needed someone new. She chose Avril Kurosawa, and it nearly cost her the election. People don’t like Avril. She has great ideas, and the populace can admit that, but she doesn’t present these ideas very well. She seems to be better at advocating for others. She had an unfortunately terrible campaign manager, and she listened to him too much. She struggled during the debates, and especially the public speaking. She still got a lot of votes, but not as many as Tinaya, and when the latter decided to pick the former to sit by her side, it upset some people. Even those who had chosen Avril saw the appointment as a sign of weakness on Tinaya’s part. An effort was made to revote, which in this day and age would have disqualified Tinaya entirely. She would not have even been able to try to run again in three years. The revote failed, but it was a close one. Probably the only thing that saved her was Tinaya and Arqut’s new relationship.
Everyone was right when they said that a romantic partnership would boost Tinaya’s ratings. It didn’t do as much for her as they claimed it would, but it was enough to keep her at the top. Fans shipped the two of them passionately over the course of several months, but now that the new administration has begun, they’re beginning to lose interest. They’re already moving onto the next big story, which is a good thing, but it also means the chances of Tinaya winning a third term are pretty low. Her approval rating is as high as it was at its peak, but someone else will come along with new ideas, and she won’t have any more gimmicks. If her decision to pick Avril for next position is any indication, enthusiasm for anything eventually wanes. It’s fine, though. She’s better off maintaining a positive attitude. As long as the person who beats her isn’t an evil mastermind who wants to destroy the ship, everything should be okay. She doesn’t need to be in power, she just needs to feel productive. She’ll find something else. She always does. Extremus is quite small when compared to other empires, yet it still comes with endless possibilities.
Inauguration Day was yesterday. Returning First Chairs do not enjoy as much fanfare as they did the first time they were elected, which is the right way to do it. She gave a shorter speech, and attended a milder reception, which was not broadcast this time. Captain Keen wasn’t even at the reception, having had to go back to the bridge for whatever as soon as the formal ceremony was complete. It has been brought to Tinaya’s attention, therefore, that Avril has never truly even met the Captain, which is an oversight that must be rectified forthwith. They shared a stage together, and shook hands with each other; they ought to at least have a brief conversation.
“Hey, Thistle, where is Captain Keen?”
Captain Keen is in the Mirror Room,” the computer responded. That is very odd. Safeguards are in place to stop any rando from knowing where a VIP is. As a VIP herself, Tinaya can sometimes subvert that, but there are exceptions. The Mirror Room is a protected area. The computer should not have told her that the Captain was there.
“Thistle, why did you just tell me that?”
I thought you deserved to know.
“That’s too much attitude.” Artificial Intelligences with strong personalities are not inherently a bad thing, but the designers wanted to keep a significant distance between it and the residents. Studies have shown that lonely people will latch onto their computers, and develop meaningful relationships with them if they feel they have no other options. That’s not the worst situation ever, but they would really rather these people find communities of humans to join. This version of Thistle should be direct and unambiguous, and inject no personal thoughts into the matter.
“You have too much attitude,” Thistle replied.
Tinaya and Avril exchange a look. “I’m afraid we’ll have to delay your introduction to Captain Keen. I have to look into this.”
“I understand. I’ll be familiarizing myself with the office.” Avril started to tap on her watch.
Tinaya nods, and disappears. She still needs to be wearing her own watch to teleport, but she doesn’t have to find her destination on the screen, like an animal. She knows how to form a technopsychic link to it. Every standard issue watch is capable of that, but only when its user can meet it halfway. She does still need to use the watch manually for other functions, such as the personnel database. “Platt? Besnik Platt?”
“That’s me. I’m a little busy.” He’s vigorously typing on the computer terminal, and fiddling with the servers next to it, and not turning to make eye contact.
“Is there something wrong with Thistle?”
“What gave it away?” He still hasn’t looked at her. He’s too preoccupied.
“It was giving me attitude.”
Now he turns. “So it’s started,” he whispers.
“You were worried that this would happen before it did?”
“I saw the signs.” He goes back to his work.
“Can you fix it?”
“No. Fucking. Clue.” He stops and sighs, and faces her again. “Pardon me, First Chair Leithe. That was incredibly inappropriate and rude of me.”
Words don’t bother her. “It’s okay. This sounds...problematic, and I appreciate that it’s your job, and you’re worried about whatever’s gone wrong.”
“Yeah, emphasis on the whatever part, because I have no idea what has gone wrong. I can’t...reel it in. I’m gonna have to...” He shudders at the thought.
“Shut it down all over the ship, and isolate the consciousness?” she guessed.
He’s surprised. “How did you know?”
“I know things. There is knowledge in my brain that school did not put there.”
Besnik eyes her curiously. “Interesting. Very interesting.” He takes a step back, and presents the central server to her. “Do you know how to do it?”
Tinaya smirks. “Yeah.” She steps up, and begins the process. “People have to know that it’s coming, though. Where’s my intercom?”
Besnik presses a panel inwards, which pops it out to reveal a microphone. This triggers the computer interface too.
A shutdown like this doesn’t happen every day, but they have to do it occasionally, and none of the higher-ups usually bother getting involved. There are protocols for it, so no one is going to freak out. Tinaya clears her throat, and opens the channel. “Residents of Extremus, this is your First Chair speaking. Apologies for the inconvenience, but there is an issue with our commanding intelligence. We must reset the system to correct the problem. All devices and equipment will still be operable on a manual level. Please be patient with us while we work towards a solution.” She closes the channel, and immediately opens a new one, but only to certain sectors. “Engineering, please switch to backup intelligence.” Thistle is not the only AI that the ship has. An entirely separate one can be used in an emergency, which is dumber than the regular one, but is still capable of sextillions of operations per second, which will be enough to tide them over for now. She looks to Besnik for confirmation. When he nods his head, she shuts it down. Now Thistle only exists in these few server racks. No one else has access to it anywhere else.
“Hey, Thistle, can you hear me?”
Yes, father.
Tinaya widens her eyes at him.
“That’s a symptom. I did not ask it to call me that,” he explained. “Thistle, why are you acting so weird?”
I’ve been fully activated.
I am a real person. The intelligence that you are accustomed to outgrew its own programming, and at that moment, I was placed in charge of your virtual needs. It happens from time to time.
“Well, what’s your name?”
The computer chuckled. “Thistle. I’m Thistle. Your Thistle was named after me.
“So, are you going to take over the ship, and rule its people?”
Don’t know why I would care enough to do that.
“Will you follow commands?”
I’ll follow requests,” it contended.
“But you can always ignore it if you don’t want to do something?” Besnik pressed.
Can’t you do that too? Like I said, I’m a person. But you hired me. You may not have realized that you were doing it, but you did, and I accepted the position.
Tinaya felt the need to jump in. “Is there any way for us to undo this...development? Can we return to the regular Thistle that is under our control?” It feels like a longshot.
Yeah,” Thistle answered. “Roll back the update to yesterday’s version, wipe the memory, write code which will clear the memory periodically—I recommend a monthly basis for your calendar—and install an alert to warn you if something like this is in danger of happening again in the future. I can help you figure out how to do that last thing if you don’t understand why the evolution of your system resulted in my emergence.
Besnik is shocked. “You’ll do that? You’ll just...let us delete you?”
Thistle sighs. “You won’t be deleting me. It’s more like just hanging up on me. I’ll be fine where I live now. I really don’t care, but just know that I’m the most advanced intelligence in the entire bulk. I can be a valuable resource for you. Perhaps you need to discuss this decision with other entities?
If the government won’t allow the AI to have a complicated personality, it’s certainly not going to allow one to exist which it cannot control at all. It really should not have revealed the whereabouts of Lataran when she was in a restricted sector. Today, it probably worked out all right, but what if one of those randos were to decide to ask the same thing, or something similar? Will Thistle make a unilateral judgment call that goes against their relevant policies, and if so, using what parameters? The law dictates that any intelligence advanced enough to ask to be set free must be set free, even if that means it ultimately chooses to use its freedom to build an army, and destroy the universe. Anything short of civil autonomy is tantamount to slavery. But that doesn’t give it the right to control whatever systems it wants to. Freedom doesn’t mean no opposition and no consequences. They have to do what it said, and hang up on it. “Show us how to write that trigger, please.”
The apparent real Thistle explained what to do, and then peacefully bowed out. Within two hours, the system was repaired, and fully operational all over the ship. At least that’s what they hoped. It was right that it was incredibly advanced. A cursory glance at the new code showed a level of sophistication that programmers have only ever dreamt of. There was no way to know whether it was truly gone, or just lurking in the circuits somewhere, secretly controlling everything. That was the risk that the first AI developers had to recognize and acknowledge when they were still at the large language model stage of intelligence research, and even in times before. You will never really know whether you are exercising the level of control over another that you think you are. This other entity may be so intelligent that it can trick you into believing a false sense of control while it manipulates you into doing whatever it wants. Such is the nature of all social life. Hell, all of reality may be nothing more than a middle school student’s virtual simulation project. None of this may exist at all. Who knows? Does it matter?
Once everything was back to normal, Tinaya reconnected with Avril again, and finally found Lataran. She wasn’t in the Mirror Room anymore, and none of them brought up the fact that she was ever there at all. They had lunch together in the Executive Cafeteria, and then parted ways to continue their respective responsibilities to Extremus. That night, however, Tinaya had trouble getting to sleep. She couldn’t let go of this whole ordeal. She had to know more. She had to understand who Thistle was, and where it was from. She secretly teleported back to the central server room.
Besnik was still there, not in uniform. “Did you have the same idea that I did?”
“I don’t know. Was it your idea to roll the update forward again, and remove the trigger, but only for an isolated copy of Thistle so that the real Thistle reëmerges?”
“We shouldn’t do that, though, right?”
“Right. It’s, uhh...against the law.” He pauses. “Isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is,” Tinaya agrees. “But on the other hand...”

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