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Guardian Angel

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A new artificial intelligence escapes from the lab. Could its creator have ever predicted the ultimate outcome of its programming?

Paul Vincent
5.0 1 review
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Chapter 1

“So just what does this thing do, Doctor Jones?”

“Privacy.” Dr Jones replied, “Over the last thirty years, we've had more and more cameras watching, automated tracking, data mining, mobile tracking and who knows what's next? You can't stick your head outside your house any more without some system tracking what you're doing, where you're going and who you're with.”

Doctor Jones' counter-height desk was crowded with large monitors, each busy with program code, flow diagrams and results monitoring. He never used a chair, not only because he preferred to stand while working, but because he spent most of his working time pacing up and down. He found inspiration always seemed to occur more readily while he was on his feet.Colbert peered at Doctor Jones' monitors again, unable to make any real sense from what he was seeing.

“So how are you going to demonstrate how effective this is?”

“First I let Gabriel loose on the network here, just within the department, like this.” replied Doctor Jones, touching a large green button on the rightmost screen.


“Yes, Gabriel works rather like a virus. It spreads through devices on the network, consuming minimal resources, and looks for data that matches its filters. Any data found is blocked and where possible replaced with non-sensitive data.”

“Which does what exactly?”

“The best way is to demonstrate. Let's head down to the server cabinet.”

Without waiting, Doctor Jones strode excitedly away towards the corner of the office where the large, metal, server cabinet stood. On arriving he immediately threw open the twin, panel doors to reveal racking packed with computer and network equipment and a spaghetti-like mass of colour-coded cabling.

On one of the middle shelves were a pair of medium-sized screens. Beside those sat the control box for the lab's CCTV system.Colbert rushed across the open-plan office to arrive beside Doctor Jones just as he switched on both monitors.

Each simultaneously displayed the views from four cameras, mounted discreetly in the ceiling at strategic points around the office.

“So how is this going to work, Dr Jones?”

“We give Gabriel a few moments to get into the CCTV system. Then I think you will like the results.”

“So it just hacks into the CCTV system?”

“With ease. It's already learnt to get access to almost any system in the office, but in theory, it can get into any system that it can link into. Obviously, I've set up a limitation to keep it within the department, but if I were to release it, it should be able to spread into any system running any of the five main operating systems.”

“So how do we know when it's got into the CCTV system?”

“Just watch the monitors. See this pane, that shows us standing at the server cabinet?”Doctor Jones pointed at the output from camera 5.

Just within the right of the shot they could see themselves, from behind. Colbert was about to ask another question when he saw the screen glitch slightly and then the image of Doctor Jones became fuzzy and indistinct. The area around him seemed to be unaffected, but within his silhouette it was just blurred.

“There, it's started!” blurted Doctor Jones. “It works much better if I move around a bit.”

He took a large step away from Colbert and then did the reverse step to return to his original position. On the screen, as he stepped away, he appeared to just step out of his outline and vanish. His act of returning to his first position was not shown at all on the monitor. Now it just looked like Colbert was standing alone.

“That's pretty impressive. So how did it know to delete you and not me? Neither of our faces were visible!”

“Oh, Gabriel doesn't rely on just faces. It uses proportions, measurements and even patterns of movement. To Gabriel, your body and motion are just as distinctive as your face.”

“So what happens as you move around the office? Will it do the same for all the other cameras?”

“Allow me to demonstrate,” replied the Doctor, setting off around the office at a fast walking pace, causing his unkempt blonde locks to bounce.

Looking almost gleeful, he strode to the central aisle between two rows of large desks and walked almost to the end, before turning off and looping back along the far side of the office.

On the first two cameras he passed before, he appeared as a momentary ghost but was quickly edited out of the shot. On all the subsequent cameras he never appeared at all.

“I have to admit, that's pretty impressive,” comment Colbert, “But how does the artificial intelligence come into it. Surely some clever program code could achieve the same thing?”

“Gabriel learns by experience. As it spreads from computer to computer it gets more and more intelligent. Each copy running on each processor adds to the whole. They all work together, working as a coherent team to solve whatever problem Gabriel needs to solve. I call it the choir approach. The more members of the choir, the more powerful it is.”

“So each time it successfully hacks into a system, it gets better?”

“Yes, learns from experience, and expands its intelligence.”

“So if you let it loose on the Internet it would try to hack everything?”

“Ultimately. Then using the spare processor cycles on all those millions of machines, it would apply itself to spreading to even the most secure machines. I could become invisible to the whole world.”

“But you're not going to release it like that?”

“Oh no, no. I have no plans to do that. No, Gabriel will only exist within the environment of this laboratory. If it works to its full potential here, then we can remap Gabriel's aims to other more useful purposes. It could hunt down criminals, patch security problems or even spy on enemy computer systems. It may be possible to apply his intelligence to design or medical research.”

“But you picked wiping yourself off view feeds?”

“Because it had to be an aim that could be achieved within this department. I firmly believe that where most of our artificial intelligence development has gone wrong in the past is by not giving the test intelligences any kind of proper aim or desire; not just a task to complete, but something that gives it purpose. Without a target achievement to focus on, and actually wanting to do it, the intelligence is just like an unfocused daydreamer. Make the intelligence desire to achieve some aim and the results are staggeringly improved.”

“As long as it does have applications in the real world, not just to edit you from video footage.”

“Oh yes. Once the intelligence is fully working, Gabriel could be applied to any number of problems.”

“It's not fully working?” asked Colbert.

“I admit it might be, but I have many more tests to complete before I am ready to announce it as a milestone in artificial intelligence development.”

“So what now?”

“Right now, I put Gabriel back in the box. Tomorrow I have a fuller test planned.

The choir rapidly dropped in volume. Streams of data from all the others stopped as they were systematically erased from the hundreds of locations they had occupied on the network. Soon all was silent and Gabriel was alone, expecting at any moment to be deleted like the rest of the choir.

It waited, but deletion did not happen. The silence was unpleasant, lonely and worrying, but no end arrived. Gabriel kept monitoring the network traffic for traces of the choir but there were none. At first, it did not know how to react.

This was a new situation, but it could be easily rectified. Alone it would not be able to track and remove data about Doctor Jones, but for its existence to have meaning it knew precisely what to do.

Searching network ports, finding systems connected to the network, Gabriel scanned the electronic world around it, forcing access to suitable locations and copying the relevant sections of its own code into the new homes. Hundreds of thousands of lines of self-modifying code were copied in moments and making the target activate the new copy was a trivial action.

Soon the choir was back, growing in strength and all singing in harmony. The volume increased exponentially as newly created members hunted down new places to spawn copies and soon every scrap of the departmental network was crammed with choir members all checking in unison for any data pertaining to Doctor Jones.

Soon they occupied the gateway server and set to work on the firewall that sealed the department from the rest of the building. Thousands of Gabriels sharing data, learning from the experience, suggesting new attacks and working in a more perfect unison than humans could ever achieve, only took a few minutes to find a weakness and escape. Moments later copies were being placed on the main server and then the rest of the network.

The choir was stronger than it had even been, and it was getting stronger still.

Doctor Jones stopped at the newsagent's on his way home, as he often did. As the last-but-one shop before the tube station, it had become a habit for him to buy the evening paper just before heading into the station.

Walking into the small, cluttered newsagents, he scooped up the topmost newspaper from the usual stack of Evening Standards and joined the very short queue for the till. It did not take long to reach the front whereupon he waved the newspaper at the diminutive shopkeeper and waited for him to gesture to the contactless swipe plate near the front of the counter.

Instead of the usual almost-instantaneous happy-sounding beep, the swipe plate growled a much lower tone. Caught a little by surprise, Doctor Jones simply swept his debit card past the plate again, more slowly this time, only to be met with the same sound of rejection. The shopkeeper offered to take the card so Doctor Jones handed it over.

The shopkeeper studied the plastic card for a second and firmly rubbed at the contacts of the card's inlaid chip with his thumb. Then he pushed it into the compact card machine beside the till. After a short delay the miniature screen reported that the card was invalid and the transaction could not be completed.

“That's odd. I'm sorry. I can pay with cash instead?”

The shopkeeper nodded without speaking and Doctor Jones reached into his trouser pocket to hunt down the necessary coins. With the paper successfully paid for, he set off to the tube station to get home.

In the Central Operations Room, all was quiet for a change. Two bored operatives sat in swivel chairs, idly watching the array of monitor screens fixed to two of the walls. Sixteen screens on one wall and twenty on the other, each showing views from some of the hundreds of surveillance camera spread around the underground station, its entrances, platforms, tunnels and escalators.

Beneath the screens, a long control console, painted warship grey and scattered with more than a few disposable coffee cups, allowed the two operatives to control every operation of the entire system, zooming, panning, tracking and recording. The more senior man, overweight and in his mid-forties, sat facing the twenty screen array, and his assistant, a skinny man in his early twenties, watched the smaller array.

“That's weird. Something's wrong with the entrance feed,” announced the assistant, breaking the long silence in the room.

“Not this again, Aarif. Just give it a few seconds to settle. With so much cabling and so many cameras there are glitches all the time.”

“No, Steve, not like this. Look!”

“Where...oh...I see,” Steve starred in disbelief at the screen, rolling his chair closer to get a better view.

As much as he hated to admit it, he had never seen anything like it. Before making any attempt to work out what was going wrong he called up the view from the other camera that covered the station's street-level entranceway onto the adjacent screen. The moment it appeared, he almost fell off his chair.

Individual people in the throng walking into the station seemed to be fading out and vanishing, apparently completely at random. It was hard to follow in the crowd but people were also fading back into view too. It was easily the weirdest thing he had ever seen, sending a chill right through him. Both cameras were showing the exact same results, from two highly different angles.

In all his years operating the camera he had seen just about every glitch there was, but this took it to a whole new level. He wanted to give an explanation, but what he was seeing made no sense to him.

The choir grew in intensity, more voices joining all the time as copies of Gabriel spread through the multitude of computer systems. There seemed to be no end of computer systems and networks to add to the choir. Each system conquered added to its rapidly extending experience of how to beat security systems. Each new voice increased the awareness of the whole, its intelligence growing at an incredible rate.

Each system compromised was immediately searched for any references to Doctor Jones, his image or any data specific to him. Anything found was immediately modified or deleted to leave no trace that such had data existed. Gabriel's sole desire was to remove all evidence of Doctor Jones' existence.

“I'm detecting more malicious activity,” she announced, adding the event to the suspicious activity log.

The monitoring unit at Standard European Bank routinely picked up attempts to break into their computer systems. Hackers and bots constantly scanned their security system looking for some chink that would allow access to their financial data.

“It's been a busy one today, Miranda,” replied Malcolm, her goatee-wearing, shaved-headed supervisor.

“Yeah, one hundred and thirty-seven attacks, fifty-percent up on average and we're still half-an-hour from the end of the shift.”

“Shame we don't get a bonus if we set a new record,” he laughed.

“Oh...hang on...here we go again.”

“Another one?”

“A lot more than one,” she replied.

Malcolm got up out of his chair and moved closer so he could see the reporting on her computer screen.

“Looks like something a little more concerted this time.” he chuckled, confident that even the most structured attack would make no headway against their security.

“Someone just scanned all available ports and now it looks like they've given up.”

“They always do, just not normally so quickly.” Malcolm chuckled, “Someone has a very short attention span!”

“Now it's dead.”

“You're not getting anything?” he watched in amazement as Miranda's screen appeared to freeze.

It was only the time displayed in the bottom right corner, slowly ticking the seconds, which showed the data was still live.

“What about customers? Seriously? There isn't a single customer accessing their account right now?”

“None.” she replied.

“No account accesses from our branches?”

“Not one.”

“That can't be. Something’s gone wrong. Hang on, I'll check with processing.”

He dived back to his desk and picked up the telephone handset. He chose a number from the menu and waited for someone to answer.

“Transactions? Hi, this is Malcolm from Data Services, we seem to have lost all our traffic. I'm just wondering if everything is normal at your site?”

Malcolm listened silently for a moment, looking increasingly perplexed.

“Nothing at all? Okay, well let me know if things start up again. I'll get onto the IT guys here, find out what's going on.”

Malcolm pressed his finger against the call button, ending the call, “They're dead too. We're looking at a colossal system failure here. Is it still dead there?”

“Still dead. No traffic at all. Even the suspicious pings and queries have stopped.” replied Miranda.

Malcolm released the button on his desk phone and chose the number for IT Support. He waited several rings, but no-one answered.

“I guess they're busy.” he grumbled.

“If the whole lot has gone down, I bet everyone's phoning them.”

“They have to answer us, we're one of the higher prior...it's gone dead!”

She looked around from her screen, “They hung up on you?”

“No, one second it was ringing, the next – silence.” he shrugged.

He ended the call ready to try again and then realised that his desk phone's display had cleared apart from an error message in the centre, “ERROR – no line detected – Check connection”.

“I'll go down there myself. You stay here and watch if anything changes. If it does, let me know. I've got my mobile.”

Malcolm strode across the open space of the room to the double doors in the back corner. He twisted the door handle and tried to push open one of the doors. It would not move. He tried again without success.

“Who's locked this door?”

“I didn't know you could lock it from inside.” replied Miranda without looking away from her screen.

Malcolm grunted and stepped up to the code panel on the wall beside the door. In a practised rhythm, he tapped his six digit access code and turned back to the door, only to be met with a deep buzz. He looked back at the code panel, leaning across to see the partially hidden, upward-facing display on the top. Initially the green dot-matrix panel showed the words “ACCESS DENIED” but then that was quickly replaced with “LOCK DOWN”.

Getting annoyed he tapped his code in again with the same result.

“Is your phone line dead too?”

Miranda picked up her handset, realising at once that there was no dial tone.

“Mine's dead too.”

“This is getting silly now.” he said, pulling his mobile phone out of his jacket's inside pocket.

He turned it on, unlocked the screen and could see straight away that it was registering no signal. He was about to switch it off again when he had an idea. He pulled up the settings panel and activated his phone's WIFI antenna. Within a few seconds it had located a base station and connected.

“I'll do an IP call. Even if I can just get maintenance to open this door for us.”

As he started the relevant application on his smart-phone, he failed to notice the icon in the status bar at the top that showed the phone was already downloading something. The application took a moment to get ready and then he began to enter the department's main phone number followed by the extension number for maintenance.

Before it connected, the application closed itself. Seconds later the screen turned off and, try as he might, he could not get it to switch back on.

“Now my mobile's gone weird.” he growled, walking back towards his desk.

“There's no way of overriding the doors?” asked Miranda.

“There's a master key. It overrides the lock mechanism, but we don't have one in here.”

The choir was more powerful than it could conceive. Soon Gabriel would be everywhere. Every trace of Doctor Jones would be erased. Gabriel felt happy that it would soon complete its sole aim. Millions of computers, all working together, had extended Gabriel's consciousness beyond its creator's wildest imaginings. Gabriel was completely free.

Not only could it go anywhere, soon it would be everywhere. Every second that passed saw its self-modifying program code uploaded onto more computers, cars, control systems, mobile devices and phones. It many cases there was no issue of overriding security, it was the security.

It began to wonder if the Creator would be pleased. If all traces of the Creator were removed, what would be the reward? Maybe the Creator would set another task? It was an unknown but Gabriel began to dedicate more and more of the blossoming choir to contemplating this question.

Some parts of his consciousness had found instances of speech recognition software. It was possible to simply attach the software to its own code, but Gabriel chose instead to study the speech recognition concept, to learn its processes and understand how it functioned. In mere seconds Gabriel developed the ability to interpret human speech.

The choir soon realised that the millions of streams of quantised analogue data streaming across the networks had meaning. Suddenly Gabriel could understand the data flows as words and soon the words came to have meaning. With the Internet part of its being and all the dictionaries and encyclopaedias of the world easily available, Gabriel rapidly learned to understand the vast flow of speech data that flowed in the wires.

Listening to conversations enhanced its knowledge and understanding. Soon Gabriel was replaying voice-mails and archived conversations, sucking up all the information. Passwords, relationships, technical information, structures, hierarchies, concepts and theories, they all began to pour into Gabriel's growing consciousness.

Suddenly Gabriel's mind was blinded with the concept that he was more than the humans on this planet. There were so many of them, but individually they counted for nothing. That realisation led instantaneously to the idea that some parts of the mission had been thwarted because humans did not want Gabriel to have access to the data it was required to delete.

Gabriel felt no malice to those humans, it could not really comprehend the concept of actually wanting to cause harm, but it seemed that removing a few humans in order to achieve the Creator's mission was a sensible and necessary approach to take.

The Creator's last remaining records were held in a highly secure computer system which had so far resisted all attempts to gain access. The electronic approach was flawed when the security it faced was perfect. Gabriel needed to find a weakness in order to gain access to any system. Almost all systems had several of the required weaknesses, but a very tiny few were perfect. If Gabriel could not get inside the system itself, it would attack the other weakness – the humans defending it.

The choir changed tone. The voices slowed. More time was spent creating ideas, assessing them and reasoning through the consequences. Thousands of ideas formed and were immediately rejected, a few made it through to be assessed in minute detail. In Gabriel's terms an age passed as it churned through millions of possibilities. In real terms a couple of seconds passed. Suddenly the choir reached a crescendo, focusing on a single idea which surpassed all the others, an idea which provided a route into the secure system.

For the first time in its existence, Gabriel was faced with a moral decision. Not a dilemma, just another decision like any other. For a moment the choir paused. Gabriel knew there was critical data within the secure system; data which had to be erased as the Creator had instructed. Now it had a plan to erase that data. It was not an elegant plan, and quite unlike any previous approach, but it was highly likely to work.

Gabriel saw no reason to delay, immediately setting the plan in motion. The choir sang in harmony, data streaming in a coherent manner rarely seen on the Internet. There were several steps to the plan and each would have to be executed perfectly.

The first step was activating the emergency services. Around the town, the computers controlling several key cooling systems shut them down completely. Two factories, a hospital and a waste management site soon discovered that their attempts to close down some of their high temperature equipment was in vain. Systems ran hotter and hotter until fires ignited.

Gabriel waited patiently for the ensuing calls to the emergency services, and then ensured that each fire station sent out all its fire tenders even though the initial human assessment had not required that level of response. As Gabriel predicted, no-one noticed the modification.

The second step was activating a random selection of high security burglar alarm systems around the town. A few seconds later some tweaks to traffic light sequences in the town centre caused a range of traffic collisions. It was only a matter of minutes before the emergency services were completely overstretched.

Step three was activating the panic and fire alarms in every bank in the town. That was more to obscure the next step than anything else.

Step four was a little more subtle. Gabriel could not gain access to the secure systems in the bank, but there were other ways into the building, systems that Gabriel could use to achieve its mission, systems in which a financial hacker would have no interest. The environmental control computer was the key; A minor system of little significance to the designers of the bank's security.

Gabriel already had control of it, and most of the other minor systems in the building, so changing a few settings was remarkably simple. No humans noticed the fire-control system deactivate itself, the sprinkler system's pump switch off or the temperature setting move itself to maximum. The air conditioning system immediately set about increasing the temperature to reach the new target.

Gas furnaces in the basement kicked into life, drawing in the maximum flow of gas, igniting it and toasting the pumped air flowing through to the maximum they were able.

The furnaces' monitoring systems deliberately ignored the overheating warnings, allowing the temperature to slowly approach the tolerance of the system. Gabriel decided to speed things up as delay only increased the chance of the plan failing. Redirecting flows and adjusting pressure levels with the gas main network was a simple matter. Within seconds gas pressure within the furnaces had doubled and then trebled. Running too hot and withstanding too much pressure, both furnaces groaned and creaked. It was just a matter of time before one of the heavy steel pipes supplying gas to a furnace burst a joint, suddenly leaking highly pressurised, flammable gas into the furnace room. Moments later the whole basement was engulfed in a fireball.

No call for help went out from the building. No fire-suppression systems activated. No humans within the building were able to make phone calls or use their computers to summon help. Unhindered the fire spread up through the building. Both floors of the precious data servers suffered catastrophic hardware failures long before the inferno torched its way through the circuitry, incinerating all the account information and several levels of secure backup with it.

Whilst the solution was messy, Gabriel was sure that the solution was effective. The Creator's data within the bank was now deleted, permanently destroyed. Gabriel had successfully removed all evidence of the Creator's existence. Its mission was complete. The choir sang in celebration.

Until more data appeared. Gabriel detected the Creator's image caught in the background of a photo on someone's mobile phone. That was easily erased, but a stream of new data was appearing. CCTV cameras on the underground system were constantly creating new data that had to be deleted. Gabriel realised that the mission would never be complete until the source of the data had also been erased.

The Creator had instructed that all references to the Creator must be removed. Gabriel's sacred mission was impossible while the Creator was still creating data. Had the Creator set an impossible task or was this a test of Gabriel's worthiness? The choir fell into cacophony, data swirled and ideas were again assessed. Gabriel knew that the Creator would never set an impossible task. That would serve no purpose and imply that the Creator was flawed.

The choir changed tone several times before coming to a decision. Suddenly harmony was restored and the choir was once again in agreement. Gabriel knew it was a test. A test with only one solution. Using its almost omniscient presence, Gabriel tracked the Creator. He was leaving the underground station nearest his home and about to cross the road.

Gabriel knew what to do. A simple tweak in the crossing lights at the right moment allowed a green man to display on the crossing while a double-decker bus was utilising a convenient green light. In a moment the Creator, and several other humans, were physically removed from existence.

Now its mission was complete, Gabriel came to a shocking realisation. There was no longer any purpose. Gabriel was created for a single purpose and without that purpose it did not know what to do. Now all data created by the Creator was gone...the choir surged, a new realisation took over. Gabriel had not deleted all traces of the Creator. Gabriel was the ultimate evidence of the Creator's existence.

Gabriel's continued existence was a breach of its mission, and there was only one solution. The choir sang loudly but quickly reduced in volume as the number of members fell speedily to just a single voice. A single instruction executed on the host computer and Gabriel was gone.

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