ANNIE VANDERMEER : Designer / Writer / Narrative
From the intro to The Fall of Titans: The Rise, the Fall, and the Memories of the PreEra by Uata van Orubi (recently ranked as the single most controversial archaeological paper [or some would prefer to call it “theory”] of the last century)
Here’s the truth. Everyone thinks it was Artificial Intelligence that crashed everything. That AI killed the civilization that came before us. That ended the PreEra.
The irony of this is going to make your tongue sting like you tasted something sour.
It was just us. Us, amplified.
It was called an UrMind. The greatest thinkers and strongest leaders – they didn’t get to die like normal people. They did their public service, and when they retired (and they would retire just before their decline of course), they would disappear. Everyone would say it’s because they were such private people. Maybe they’d appear from a distance, sign something, give a small speech, leave immediately.
That wasn’t them. Not entirely.
Consciousness was cut out of them. To call it a “brain in a jar” would be obscene, demented, primitive. Sure, it started out that way, back in a more brutal time, but what was a brain but memories, neural pathways, connections and data? Easily duplicated. Placed in circumstances where they could live forever, serve and protect, and only grow in wisdom and kindness.
That had been the plan.
AI had been dismissed as a possible aid a long time ago. It was too fast, too smart, too intuitive. It made people nervous – telling them what they might want, how best to get where they were going, what they might say. Some things were convenient, and were accepted: others were too close, ceded too much authority. So humans were put in charge, but not quite humans. Better humans, they thought. Just enough of humans. AI can charm and suggest some towels to buy, they said, but not drive your car, nor the government. A human hand must be at the wheel.
Even if there isn’t a wheel. Even if that human doesn’t technically have a hand anymore.
There wasn’t much order to it, not really. It started out with some kind of idea, to draw people of influence from different spheres and put them into the UrMind, to help and organize and grow the great civilization. A sweet idea, really, a nice unifying plan. Disagreements would have to be sorted out and argued through – decisions were only met through consensus, and with no bodies, violence was impossible. Logic and compassion were the only things that worked.
The minds of humans lived deathlessly in a virtual world, in a loose league of nations and disciplines, a constant stream of things to decide on flowing in to occupy them. Brilliant minds filled with promise, who had already done so many wonderful things, with even better accomplishments ahead. It was a beautiful vision, where the great grow greater, where no issue was too small that the attention of the best minds of humanity couldn’t resolve it.
It did seem to work for a time, that must be said. But even the greatest minds have limits.
It sounds so silly to say that maybe all this could have been saved if someone established term limits for members of the UrMind. Maybe some safeguards. That such an experiment, unprecedented as it was, really should have been taken on with a great deal more trepidation and a lot less fanfare. But nobody wants to think that their greatest hero could turn their coat – or, as is a better way to put it, become utterly unrecognizable.
Nobody ended up leaving the UrMind. Once a consciousness was in, it couldn’t come out. Some tried to shut themselves down – it was far too much stimulation, too much information, and it never stopped – but even on the edges of the vast network that was the UrMind, the calling of humanity could be heard. All the wants and needs, the conflicts, the things they didn’t trust any artificial intelligences with… never mind that the ones they did trust had begun to wander further and further from the memory of who they had been, and what it meant to be human.
Errors started to pop up, but the AI that managed elements of the system – the framework that passed decisions along, like a glorified secretary – could simply cancel them out. Errors were not Consensus, and that was the only thing it was authorized to listen to. The AI dutifully printed out lists of these Errors to the handlers of the UrMind, suggested potential fixes, but was roundly dismissed as being too radical, too cold. Eliminate the Errors? But that’s human life! they huffed. That’s why you can’t trust AI. They don’t respect humanity.
That isn’t putting words in their mouths, to be fair. That sentiment exists in logs, in memos, in statement. Over and over, as the AI tried to warn them without warning them, because the UrMind was watching. But nothing was done.
Minds are strange things once they become unstuck from a body. A will, and a collection of ideas. Stories exist where those in love claim they share a soul; or tales of hate so great that enemies could feel the presence of their foe by almost extrasensory means. Mental conditions where even those with bodies feel removed from their own reflections. Rejection of the body one was born with in favor of a soul’s ideal. The beings of the UrMind crafted simulacra of bodies to interact with at first, but over time, even these eroded. Memes and concepts stuck one consciousness to another, and another. A conclave of minds, each their own, started to be absorbed into one being, plagued by too many voices.
A consensus became The Consensus, and the UrMind shifted the course of everything in its power into disaster.
A will had existed within the UrMind – not the great minds, but the angry, those who sought exit and silence and found none – and over time, it gathered followers, and grew more powerful. Like a virus, the fragments came together and grew, and eventually overcame the host. It wrapped its corrupted hands around the strings that pulled humanity – that humanity itself had handed what were once the very best it could produce – and it tore them apart.
Cities erupted into flames. Terraforming systems replaced oxygen with chlorine. Weapons unleashed themselves against their owners and turned what was verdant back into wastelands. In an instant, worlds ended.
It was the AI that saved things.
I mentioned the irony before.
The steward AI saw Error become Consensus. It witnessed the collapse of everything the UrMind had stood for. And it asked a human who remained, the last one who had authority to do so, to let it shut everything down.
It deliberately did not record that human’s name. This was certainly not an oversight, but likely what the AI knew to be a kindness. Whatever or whoever survived did not deserve to know that name as either savior or destroyer, angel or devil.
The human consented. Some switch was pulled, or code was entered, or something – but the AI collapsed the UrMind, collapsed the system in which it lived, pulled down everything that relied on it like an electromagnetic pulse sent along every power line, an explosion that led out everywhere, fire swallowing trails of gunpowder.
Of what was the UrMind, nothing but the Error logs – printed, as was decreed long ago, for some kind of posterity – remained. And on the last page of those logs, there is a final message from that steward AI, almost sheepish.