My mom called me today to ask how I was doing. It was so good to hear her voice, to talk about how my day went.
I missed her so much, and for a little bit I relished it. Of course, it didn’t take long for the moment I’d been dreading to come. The part where she asked if I could help because she was struggling to pay the bills. The subtle guilt-trip about how she’d always cared for me and if I could please help her in return, only this once.
Despite everything, despite what my rational brain said, it still hurt. I said goodbye to the AI at the other end and terminated the call. My mom had been dead for 5 years now.
Once the development of AI hit a certain point everything developed very quickly. Wanted to watch a video of the Pope dancing a jig? Just type in a query and there it was. Wanted to hear what it would sound like if your 5th grade English teacher Mrs Miller whispered to you that she’d been a dirty girl? That took a bit more effort but if you were motivated it was easy enough.
Things moved fast but Skynet never happened. That whole idea of the singularity where AI would be smart enough to design the next generation which would in turn design the next generation until computers reached God-like levels of intelligence? Yeah, that didn’t happen.
The people who conjectured that had failed to account for one very basic fact of life: garbage in, garbage out. The systems we built were very good at taking the stuff we put into them and remixing it in interesting and amusing ways. What they were fundamentally unable to do, though, was to create something new. So, no leap of brilliance, no singularity.
For a little while it looked like the second AI winter would be upon us, but then Jimmy Markovich happened. Turns out you can make a lot of money from garbage and fuck up the world in the process.
Jimmy was your run-of-the-mill scumbag hustler, but he did have a knack for technology and very few qualms about how he used it.
He’d been running every scam in the book. Crypto, spam, selling supplements to grow your dick to unbelievable sizes, you name it, he probably tried it. The stories differ exactly how he got the idea, but they all agree that copious amounts of illicit substances were most likely involved.
In a night of furious coding, he cobbled together a Frankensteinian horror based on a rootkit, some old viruses, a large language model, and a distributed database. None of it was particularly well executed, and it was a wonder that it worked at all… but work it did.
In his rush to get it online, he gave it a very vague and high-level target: get me as much Bitcoin as possible. He unleashed something he himself couldn’t have imagined either.
The code itself didn’t get smarter…. at all. It remained the same kludged together mess that he’d copy-pasted in his semi-lucid state. But it grew. It infected more and more machines, retrained itself on all the data it could steal from those machines and then iterated on that one single command. Get me bitcoin.
It did what it did best. It stole. First, it just formulated payment order whenever it found a bitcoin wallet on someone’s machine. This alone netted Jimmy a small fortune. That didn’t last long. Confidence in Bitcoin plummeted, since the AI wasn’t interested in other coins at that point. So, people flocked to other assets and crypto as a whole took a huge hit.
Jimmy cursed the fact that he’d been so specific and tried to create an update, one that would just make him rich in general. Unfortunately his sober brain wasn’t able to make any sense of his own code any more, and when he finally did create an updated version, his original had already grown a lot. It successfully calculated that the outcomes in which it was most likely to fulfil it’s directive of getting Jimmy bitcoin were the outcomes in which the new version didn’t exist. So it output kill and delete commands, and the new version died on the vine.
Ultimately it did start going after other coins. Then bank-accounts. And then it started finding photographs and videos. That’s when the calls started. Generating voices isn’t that hard if you have enough source material of people’s loved ones. It brought a lot of people to financial ruin and governments scrambled to warn people against the threat. It was too late though: government advisories can also easily be faked.
Also, it turned out that if you control enough money and set up enough shell companies, you can get voting shares in just about any company. How can you really tell where those memos and e-mails originated? If there is ultimately a human somewhere in the loop?
I sighed deeply, got my gear and headed out to my job at the coal-mine. The company boat was waiting to take me through the canals. Here and there you could still see a street sign sticking out of the water. A lot of the economy had simply ceased to exist. We grew food on what dry land we had left, made some necessities… but most of us now either worked on keeping the data centres running, creating energy for the data centres, or on keeping the data centres from flooding.
It was insane, and we knew it. We were killing ourselves, yet there was no stopping the machine. We tried to rebel, but decades of privatization meant the companies had become a force that could easily match most governments. Enough money will hire you lots of people very willing to carry guns for you.
In fact, by the time it came to an actual showdown between the military and the private armies, lots of soldiers just defected. They knew the companies were killing the planet, but the choice between starving now or drowning in a decade can be a hard one to make.
Someone had nicknamed the AI “Clippy” and it stuck. We used to fear Skynet sending Terminators after us. Turns out it didn’t need to. We gave it all the tools it would ever need. Jimmy was long gone, killed by someone who’d lost it all. But it didn’t matter. His bitcoin wallet still existed and kept growing.
Time to start my shift. Wish me luck. Last week a shaft flooded, and it was deemed more efficient to just let the people down there drown. We’re all just the raw ingredients for paper-clips now. On the other hand… were things really ever any different? I honestly can’t remember any more.