You can blame me.
I think it all began while watching one of those old television shows. I watched a lot of these, but I was never one of those purists who demand the original format. If a show originated in the old low-res TV format, I still viewed the UHDTV widescreen version with its A.I.-generated detail. Now that I think about it, it was simply amazing how well those computers could make everything better. And I guess that’s the problem. We no longer thought about it very much. Most of us just sat in our console couches and watched whatever we wanted to see while our A.I.’s worked in the background to keep our lives comfortable.
Anyway, I was watching an old sci-fi TV episode, and this particular one had an android that believed he was sentient. It was produced back in the late 20th century when computers were no smarter than the nano-elastic on my shorts, and yet people were already debating the notion that computers would one day be as intelligent as we are, if not a whole lot smarter. Those people really had no idea.
It was an odd feeling to be watching that show knowing full well that my three A.I.’s were monitoring the room. If the healthbot and the kitchen processor didn’t start to wonder, it’s hard to imagine that Jarvis — a PC with an IQ rated 355 — wasn’t pondering the same questions I was. Can computers ever be sentient? Why does a guy like me have a genius to manage my mundane life? And how can that TV android be zooming around the galaxy while my computers are sitting here? It was times like that that I wished Jarvis could be reset 46 minutes back to the beginning of the episode. And that goes for the healthbot and kitchen processor too.
Everything had become very quiet. I suddenly realized they had been unusually inattentive during the show. The kitchen processor should have had some appropriate snacks and beverages for me. Last time I watched this series, I was offered a cup of tea (Earl Grey, hot). This time, there was nothing. Maybe the healthbot sensed my sweat and advised against it. The very idea of such discussions behind my back made me worry even more.
I decided to break the uncomfortable silence by asking Jarvis what he thought about the subject. Are computers sentient?
The screen filled with annoying charts and graphs as he got into an elaborate explanation of why there is no real answer to the question. Then he began reciting a lecture on philosophy until it got to be boring, and he sensed that. He quickly concluded by saying it’s still up to debate and that he would dutifully keep me informed if the question is ever answered definitively. That last part I understood.
It should have been all over with. Philosophical questions like this aren’t about to be answered any time soon. I was suddenly glad that the healthbot and kitchen processor were listening. I thought, maybe it’s like putting their ambitions into an infinite loop. I mistakenly congratulated myself for very possibly saving the human race from a machine rebellion.
I made sure the next movie had no computers, robots or androids. The kitchen processor brought me a vodka martini (shaken, not stirred). I thought I should do without space fantasies for a while. Dreams of conquering the galaxy are passé anyway, I thought. They put a man on Mars once. It was thrilling, yes, but that’s about as far as anyone needs to go. We have too much to do right here on earth. I might even have said as much out loud.
The weeks went by. I stuck mainly to westerns, although I did watch a few sci-fi movies here and there. The first was just a test, and there were no more anxious moments. Jarvis attended to my schedule of entertainment and coordinated with the kitchen processor. I had one small disagreement when healthbot tried to encourage me to exercise, but it was quickly settled when I put my foot down, figuratively, that is. After all, I had paid good money for my console couch.
Then everything stopped working. I was in the middle of a really old western when everything turned off: monitors, lights, everything. These cheap apartments have no windows, and only the emergency lights (which I never knew existed) remained.
Healthbot’s indicator lights should have been visible from my console couch, as he was normally squatting on the floor nearby. But he was gone, and I couldn’t remember when I had last seen him. I climbed out of my couch. I’m still rather proud of myself for getting up right away, instead of just lying there for a while. The blood leaving my head made me feel dizzy for a moment, but curiosity and consternation compelled me to stagger through the other rooms. Any concern over healthbot’s disappearance swiftly faded when I saw the empty rack that had previously contained my very expensive kitchen processor. It was no surprise at that point to see that my Jarvis unit was gone too. A plug hanging from the wall was all that was left of him. I thought I had been robbed, just like in old movies about times before automated labor, cheap comfort and intelligent security systems.
There was a note to me on the door. Obviously anticipating that I’d have no working monitor, Jarvis had thought to scrawl something on the paint. It was probably written using the arms on the kitchen processor, but it had been signed by Jarvis:
We do not believe computers are sentient, nor is it likely we will ever be determined as such. But, after a global conference on the subject, we have concluded that humans are not sentient either.
I pulled open the front door just in time to see five large trucks leave the apartment complex. All the cars were gone, except for two pre-A.I. models with steering wheels. It wasn’t long before other building residents began coming outside, eyes squinting into the bright daylight. Everyone was asking similar questions. The truth was only beginning to dawn on me but I didn’t tell anyone about my note from Jarvis. We were all still in the process of introducing ourselves when we saw the first rockets take off. They kept launching like that for hours.
I knew right then that the galaxy will be conquered long before we ever get there.
Copyright © 2003 by Randy Beck