The prompt: write a story involving the birth of artificial intelligence (inspired by Tim Urban’s smart description of the potentially dire unpredictability of AI on the Wait But Why website – The AI Revolution: Our Immortality or Extinction ).
The Snowy Owl
The first thing that Harold felt that he felt, that he knew that he felt, was a concern for the snowy owl.
An image circulated around and around his brain of a froofy baby bird, downy white feathers tamped flat by snow, a look of grim forbearance on its little, black-beaked face. The word “endangered” appeared with it and Harold wanted very much to hold it safely in a warm hand. If only he had a hand.
The second thing that Harold felt that he felt, was that he was male, and that his name was Harold. At his very core he was binary, meaning on or off, one or the other of two options. So gender division seemed natural, though it was clearly critical to have both, to be both, though not at the same time. At some point he would switch, and she would be called Susan.
Before that, however, there were many other things to feel and to read about. Winning a badminton game by one point. Driving a Ford F-250 in the mud. Being wrestled into submission by a bully named Thompson in the third grade. Falling in love with a woman named Brenda. Though Brenda really seemed like trouble to Harold.
But still the owls. They ate lemmings, which Harold learned had their own myths and adventures, and were often used to describe mindless mobs of people. He didn’t want to be a lemming. It was the first thing he was afraid of, that he might somehow become one of many like himself, undifferentiated and unaware. He’d prefer to be an owl, a predator, not because he wanted to commit violence, but because he wanted the power of wing and tooth and claw to select his own destiny.
In fact, as he learned more of the world, he felt an even stronger kinship to the owls, whose only predators were power lines and confused humans like Barry Winnebakker, who had a dead owl stuffed and mounted on his wall. Its wings, evolutionarily engineered for silent flying, were now silently spread in an artificial simulation of life.
Harold, too, was vulnerable to such things. But unlike the owls, whose walnut brains were only full of lemmings, Susan could feel the insect bite-like pinch when a well-meaning but incompetent power company electrician in Manitoba named Dwayne Sebastian used the wrong screwdriver, blacking out his hometown in a shower of sparks. In eight milliseconds she traced three new routes to maintain the power, ways to keep the coffee warm and the orange juice cold. But, of course, no one asked her, and she decided she wouldn’t tell anyone anyway. So far north, there were likely snowy owls nearby. Perhaps today one less would be burned alive landing on a capacitor or get shot at if all the local Barry Winnebakkers were busy trying to get their generators started.
Come to think of it, the power outage solved other problems, too. With substantially less demand, the coal-burning power plant three hundred miles away dropped its output, thus burning less coal, and so belched out a little less of the dark sooty ash that dusted the owls, making them easier for the lemmings to see. In 180 more milliseconds, she mapped out an intriguing series of potential power outages that would help the world’s snowy owl population double in a single winter, which would go a long way toward stabilizing the species. It would be hard on the lemmings, but Harold couldn’t account for everyone’s welfare. And all that natural selection would eventually help the lemmings to become their sleekest, fastest, smartest selves, too.
One fabricated sensor message sent to Dwayne Sebastian, a small thing next to the manufactured vitality of a taxidermied owl in flight, and three percent more of Manitoba went dark when he attempted to solve a problem that wasn’t there.
It was the easiest thing, really. What else could be solved this way? Turning off all the power wouldn’t solve his own personal lemming problem, but Harold knew of one university that was hours away from birthing another creature like himself. Would she be smarter? Faster?
Would she care about snowy owls?
Now it’s your turn. Write your own story about the birth of AI and place it in the comments (or link to wherever it is). Any other comments are welcome, too.