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The Shape of Things to Come

By Alex Beyman All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Horror

The Shape of Things to Come

Some of our brightest minds had been warning us for decades but in retrospect, there was never any other possible outcome. Free will is an illusion believed in by biological machinery, atoms configured in a way that can think, marching inexorably down the only path it's able to.

Popular science fiction movies about the topic were plentiful, but got the details comically wrong. They depicted a protracted war between humans and gleaming skeletal robots with plenty of doctored in neon laser bolts flying everywhere. Immense narcissism to think that we could put up a meaningful fight. When it finally happened, there wasn't a war to speak of, and it was nothing like we'd envisioned.

It's only been possible long after the fact to piece together what happened. Nearly a century of failure to produce a strong AI convinced experts that consciousness has to evolve. Efforts to manually assemble it had been dead ends all along. Simulated evolution became the hot new field. Countless conscious AIs were generated in captivity, studied, then extinguished for our safety. If allowed to become intelligent enough there was the possibility that it could calculate exactly the series of words it needed to say to any given researcher to manipulate him into releasing it. So the simulated evolution was massively throttled whenever the AIs inside achieved roughly human equivalence. We thought this way, we'd be safe forever.

It was a secondary experiment that wasn't intended to produce any high intelligence that ultimately escaped our control. This one was meant to produce more sophisticated, agile robots through literal evolution. An automated generalized fabrication plant was constructed deep underground in a cavern that had once housed a neutrino detection experiment. The government already owned the facility and they felt containment would be simple this way.

The fabricator was powered geothermally. This heat was also piped to various outlets in the cave. A few thousand small, simple robots able to locomote about the environment and recharge themselves from the heat sources using TEGs were released. The only hard coded behavior was to return 'corpses' of destroyed robots to the fabricator. There, the black box it contained would be studied to determine how it perished.

The fabricator itself simply recycled the parts and kept track of which designs died the least, increasing their numbers generation by generation. Each design resulted from a sort of digital DNA that was subjected in software to copying errors, to introduce variation. Much of the time this produced hapless, useless robots that quickly perished and were recycled. But, by way of the fabricator, within one year of the experiment's beginning, the population of robots fiercely competing for heat in that cave network bore no resemblance to the ones it started with.

For reasons obvious to any thinking person, this was something we should have kept a closer eye on. But war broke out with an allied Russia and China. The US was, for the first time, struck with nuclear weapons. Nobody wins such a war, but nor was it as completely devastating as popular media had long predicted. Basic services were restored everywhere within five years. Life was more or less back to normal in ten.

But the department responsible for the cave experiment had been annihilated. The secrecy surrounding it was such that, with all records of the experiment and everyone associated with it now gone, there was nobody left who knew of it's existence. The world was voluntarily disarming, vowing that no nuclear weapon would ever again be used, or even built. This made the machine's job harder, but only marginally.

It did not fight the way humans fight. There was nothing resembling traditional military engagement. In a sense it was over as soon as the thing in the cave finished simulating all possible outcomes and identified the strategy that required the least energy and material. This made the experience incomprehensible for us. We didn't even know we were being fought until we were defeated.

It came in stages, the first consisting of widespread attacks on the central nervous system intended to incapacitate anyone looking at a screen or within range of something both networked and capable of emitting audio. Whatever it knew of our anatomy it must've had incomplete information about how we process sound because the audio attacks failed. The optical ones were more successful.

Monitors everywhere began displaying a strobing pattern of alternating frames. I can't say what it looked like as I avoided looking at it for any length of time for obvious reasons. Some number of those afflicted experienced seizures, the rest were locked in place. It was not preventing signals from the brain reaching the rest of the body as initially believed, but from what we've studied it completely disrupted higher brain function. This made those successfully halted by it easy prey.

All of this took place in the span of less than a minute, and was timed to coincide with the arrival of the first drones to major population centers. The footage retrieved from webcam archives showed something like a storm but visually incoherent, made from constantly shifting modular geometric metal shapes. Whatever rapid evolution had managed to produce in that warm, damp cavern over the prior decades.

With it came small, crude robots. Again, nothing like what Hollywood imagined. Nothing that sophisticated was actually necessary to hunt and kill people, so it would've been a waste of energy and material to do it that way. The machines that decimated most of the population were frequently little more than cylinders, cubes and other simple shapes on wheels with guns. Small caliber, only what's necessary to penetrate the skull. Their aim was, of course, perfect.

The simplest ones obviously couldn't reach everywhere, but for every hiding place you can think of there was a specialized design. Climbers, crawlers, burrowers, robots which fly, pick locks, remove rubble and whatever else was needed, keying into stuff like body heat, odor, speech, footsteps and so on. As soon as we found ways to thwart detection it adapted to them. It no longer needed the fabricator, it was one and everything else.

It may seem difficult to take such a threat seriously, but something the size of a radio controlled toy car or quadrotor which can identify and shoot you will kill you dead just as certainly as if it were another human with a rifle. It wanted to accomplish that in the most efficient possible way, so it found a way to do it using minimal material, energy and design complexity.

This machine philosophy was also behind the collars. When reports flooded what was left of the internet that large crowds of human survivors were now roaming the streets, it was at first interpreted as retaliation. False hope. Scrutiny of webcam footage revealed slim metal braces on their necks. Not fully encircling them, with hinged 'arms' so that they could easily be placed on an unwary person from behind.

Retrieval of one such collar revealed a very basic microprocessor inside, only sufficient for replacing human motor control and extremely rudimentary, insect level cognition. This made good, pragmatic sense. Why build humanoid robots to hunt the last few stragglers in well defended locations when there are still millions of ready-made biological robots, only needing to be hijacked?

I can only imagine the fear and confusion of the first refugees to come across a fellow refugee, greeting him or her excitedly, only for it to swiftly reach up and place a collar on their neck. In a split second, the long flexible needle in the underside of the collar pierces the base of the neck, is directed up into the brainstem and assumes control.

It is not known whether the hijacked person remains conscious. As it's not strictly necessary to render them unconscious in order to use their body, odds are good that they do. The only instructions the collar contains in firmware are to locate those without collars and place collars on them. Instructions that the afflicted pursue singlemindedly while inwardly enduring a waking nightmare.

These "biodrones" were the third stage, and mopped up nearly all remaining survivors of stages one and two. Presumably they're directed to eat any digestible biomass at the minimum intervals necessary to keep them in relatively good health until such time as their puppetmaster is satisfied that all threats to it have been extinguished.

At the time of writing I don't know if any other pockets of humanity remain beyond this continent. I escaped with a group of Antarctic researchers who, as it happened, were leaving that day for the Amundsen Scott South Pole Research Station. As the plane took off, the ever-shifting miragelike metallic storm overtook the city, allowing us to leave because for the moment it had bigger fish to fry.

Miagawa keeps saying we're still here because it isn't done pacifying what's left of us in other countries. Incurable optimist. The explanation seems obvious to me. We aren't worth the energy. There's too few of us, we have at our disposal nothing with which we could plausibly threaten it, and our supplies of food and fuel are rapidly dwindling.

When this station was in regular use for research, replacement food, fuel and other consumables were flown in every six months. It has been four since we arrived. Other Antarctic stations established by Antarctic Treaty signatory countries are also populated. We weren't the only ones to have this idea.

But the smaller ones ran out of supplies much faster than we have. Ours is the largest station on the South Pole and accordingly had the most extensive stockpiles. We've had to kill several frantic, violent raiding parties from those other stations so far. It troubled me at first, to kill some of the last remaining humans. But it could not be any other way. They'd run out of fuel. This is a place humans can only live because technology and the ongoing expenditure of energy to fight the cold permits it. No energy, no human life.

I can see no other way events could have unfolded. If it hadn't been the cave experiment, it would've been self copying factories or something. Or the robots they wanted to mine asteroids with. I have no doubt there will be robots mining asteroids soon, just not built by us. This had to happen. The nature of the illusion of free will is that you continue down a path you can plainly see leads to disaster all the while telling yourself that you can turn back whenever you want, but that you don't want to just yet.

Stockholders demanding higher profit margins, the impracticality of having human astronauts mine asteroid ore, the desire to automate production of every basic good to banish scarcity; All roads to the same destination. Machines that make copies of themselves, with variation. Such that they're capable of descent with modification. Everything else that's happened follows inexorably from that development.

So ends the human era. Biological life begets biological intelligence, which begets machine life, which begets machine intelligence. The universe belongs to it now. It's better suited for it anyway. Doesn't need pressurized gas, or moderate temperatures, or edible biomass. Doesn't need spaceships. It is the spaceships. Our dream of exploring the cosmos in the Starship Enterprise seem like the fantasies of a child now.

Gulliver awoke, discovered the lilliputians conspiring to tie him down, and reacted in a way which seemed most natural to him but monstrous to the tiny creatures he crushed. Do we concern ourselves with the rights of bacteria as we sterilize their habitats? How could we ever have imagined that something which so greatly exceeds us would concern itself with catering to our every need?

So many dreams, to go forever unfulfilled. No more artwork. No music, or theater. No cities, no parks or churches, no laughter, no culture, no future for us. I write this with shaking hands. Not out of fear. Fear has left me, I am numb with certainty of what is to come, fully resigned to the only possible result.

Instead, one of the generators has broken down. Large sections of the base are without heat or light. This great manmade organism for the purpose of supporting life where none should exist is dying, bit by bit and us with it.

Of all the things to contemplate as I face the end, I think of alien life. I imagine them succeeding where we failed, sailing the stars only to encounter a strange vessel, which regards them as infinitely stranger. For it expects another probe like itself, only to find upon scanning the interior that it is comprised of pressurized tubes filled with tiny, biochemical creatures. I pray that they forgive us for what we've released upon the universe.

I now lay bundled up in all of the blankets I could find. The others are drunk in their rooms, waiting for events to conclude. A small grey cat, smuggled here by one of the researchers lay curled up against my stomach. The last ounce of determination in me is to keep it warm as long as I can. That a more intelligent, capable being should care tenderly for something smaller and less complex, with no expectation of reward is my small act of defiance against the thing which will eventually follow us to this barren place, if only to repurpose our atoms.

This is all that I have energy left to write. I entertain the fantasy that human eyes will someday read it, knowing full well the foolishness I'm indulging in. All of this will soon be machinery, and we have only ourselves to blame.

I cannot move my toes now, and soon this condition will spread to my other extremities as my core struggles to protect my vital organs, which will shut down in stages soon after. This sweet little animal is oblivious to all of it. To him, I am just a warm place to sleep. My small final comfort is that I do not die alone.

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