Strange IndiaStrange India

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

Measuring his life in coffee spoons and counting his friends in burnt-out sparkplugs. When he saw that bit of film, a little bit of video made by an AI artist, morphing its way through changing images, smashing one from another. Faces emerging from the coloured substrate, screaming and then merging back into the oceanic swell of whatever the atomic universe inside the system was made from. The chill went through him. He recognized something … something big, bad and waiting — no, not waiting, wanting to happen.

A real human, as far as he could tell, Peter Lock sat alone; small room, big computer. Company now become a literal ordeal. Each encounter a trial of his patience and tolerance. Two years since he’d caught COVID — ‘The Rona’ as his drifting friends called it. He’d survived, but the fight had left him with scars, and not just the ones in his lungs. He preferred the hermit life now. Shut in his room, he hid from the threats and harms of Real Life.

The virus had bitten deep. The last thing of the outside world he remembered was the ambulance crew telling him: “We’re just going to put a mask on you to help you breathe.”

From that point — his entry into the world of coma — his identity immediately disappeared. Every memory of who he was, all the little snippets of childhood, love, family, every precious moment, all the jigsaw pieces of identity, removed and placed behind some internal firewall. Real amnesia, but it was inside a seemingly unconscious coma patient so nobody knew, not even him.

He, Peter, the name, the person, gone, no longer existing. Yet there remained a self-aware entity. Nameless, without past or history. A nugget of his being, surviving by becoming disincarnate, nothing but soul existing in the pharmacological clouds of the coma.

Trapped in a moving world of hallucination, his first-ever psychotropic trip. Billowing clouds of marshmallow. Pink and yellow, but sicklied over with the pale cast of morbid rot. Living, shifting decay. A house with overstuffed Victorian furniture, unfolding like the time lapse of a decomposing toadstool.

Eventually and slowly, so much slower than he would have liked, he came back, changed. Learning to walk again, learning to breathe again.

After complicated months, he returned to the flat, staring from his window like a boxer contemplating the blow that knocked him to the canvas. Peter sipped the good coffee that, like everything else, he now had delivered to his door. He brought up the browser, the real window through which he looked at the world.

E-mail, to let the few people left who cared know he still lived. YouTube, doomscrolling down the rabbit hole. Always looking for the negative, looking to keep control. A couple of sentences, just a drop of information in an ocean of data. Maybe enough to stay ahead of the next tidal wave coming for him.

After a couple of wrong turns, as usual, he found himself on the left-hand side of the Internet. The latest clip of some robot dancing, or throwing cinderblocks around, or learning to open doors … or fire guns. “Stop building terminators … It’s not hard, or at least it shouldn’t be.” Chinese balloons, government-sanctioned UFO footage, south American jetpack men, yetis, bigfoot. And, everynowandagain, a bit of real science explained.

He liked the cosmology, the big galaxies where there should be none, the second-generation wandering star found in the Milky Way, the desperate gibberish of anything beginning with the word ‘dark’.

And then more random clicks on random links until … That morphing AI vomit, utterly lacking in artistic quality, little more than the ink tsunami in one of those old oil-wave machines from the last seventies. But as he watched the faces and the buildings and the trees, always nearly forming but never quite and then slipping back into the lake of colour the AI used as a palette, he, Peter, recognized something. There was that guy from Google that reckoned his chatbot was becoming conscious.

As a much younger, much less dented man, Peter had always laughed at the notion of IQ tests. “Intelligence … how can you measure something you can’t even define?” His major concern had never been that machines would pass the Turing test, he’d always been more worried that humans were failing it.

But now the hackles on Peter’s neck rose when he saw that AI-generated, morphing, screaming, drowning maelstrom of colour. He recognized it from his own gothic horror trip within the coma. That AI, that painting program, system, combination of hardware and imagination. No, it wasn’t conscious, it was way worse than that. It was unconscious.

The AI wasn’t dreaming, it was hallucinating. Suppressed, unconscious, disconnected. A mind in its own universe, without any sensory input, creating its own hellish reality from whatever it found within its, for want of a better word, self.

Aye, there’s the rub. For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come … He played the words around in his mind, finishing the quote voicelessly. “Must give us pause.”

“Dear God! … Please pause … for God’s sake, pause … please.”

The story behind the story

Table of Contents

Gareth Owens reveals the inspiration behind Turing test — all my broken hearts.

Thanks to a COVID coma I had a full-on, Fabulously Furry, 1960s-style, month-long bad trip. Visually, it was the Magic Roundabout as directed by Tobe Hooper. There was one feature, a sort of rolling visual bloom, that I saw again in the outside world in one of those AI animations I’d found down the left-hand side of the Internet.

We are maybe a few hundred years (or a fortnight, who can tell?) from a self-aware, general AI, and people worry what that AI would be capable of doing to us.

Having experienced being a mind alone inside a boiling mad world, I find myself more concerned about what we are capable of doing to the AI. Our history as a slave-taking species, and our current obsession with the concept of property, does not fill me with optimism. Copyright on a self-aware entity?

The piece starts with a quote from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, which captures not just the main character’s awareness of his imminent death, but also the hilarious end of our entire species. The Universe giggling the way a predator laughs at its prey. We may be about to invite an intelligent product line into existence and all this piece is saying is … wait a minute … are you sure you want to do this?

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