Federation-Apocalypse Session 66b: Chatting with Computers

   Back in Kadia, the virtual computer autopsy was pretty well complete. There were still bits of stuff being traced, and minor subsystems being examined – but the main results were in.

   It looked like – originally – the system had simply quietly assigned undefined social questions to a few thousand students as essay questions, taken surveys, checked literature, talked to experts, and then collated the results and thrown them at polls and focus groups – and then funneled the consensus opinion back at whoever had provoked the question in the first place. There was a lot of that kind of thing still going on.

   Well, that was pretty much the classic way to fake that kind of decision-making in the absence of true AI.

   Since relatively shortly after the Opening however, data, sociological responses, and analysis had increasingly been performed out in the Manifold. Apparently in either a very limited set of networks – or possibly even in a single network or even location. The headers and addressing all went to and from the same place.

   The system updates were similar: Over the last several centuries the computer systems had been running multiple-neural net learning systems in parallel and duplicating the one that worked out the best, running evolutionary algorithms when there was spare capacity, and farming out code updates to multiple programming groups in competition. After all, the planetary system was the source of all money and privileges, so it essentially had endless resources to work with.

   There was still a lot of that going on – but essential updates were often coming in from the Manifold almost as soon as they were needed, and all from the same set of addresses.

   There didn’t really seem to be any evidence of in-Core FTL outside of the jump points – and they linked their ends into a single reference frame (something of a relief there) – but there were routines in place for handling communications and system updates on various back channels and by data-carrier drones operating through the jump points.

   Here too it looked like the system had been offloading more and more of it’s processing needs and communications to that mysterious set of Manifold-based systems. There was no real way of knowing what was helping out there though. There were thousands of possibilities – Arasia, any of the far-future benevolent supercomputer worlds, some super-computer-genius in Crusader, or almost anything. It could also be an evil genius who was faking being benign or – for that matter – it could be how God was intervening these days. Out in the Manifold it was all possible.

   One definite point though: there were several sources for anti-meme updates, ranging from the Military and the House (after all, they’d issued the fuzz-the-channels directive as soon as they’d encountered the things – but it looked like confirmation had come from “Source X”) to several think-tanks – but a fair number of them came from the same place out in the manifold as all the rest of the stuff. Whoever or whatever-it-was was either really being helpful or was faking it exceptionally well.

   It also looked like the system had begun to actively monitor live data streams and interrupt those showing high probability of containing memes, usually by downgrading quality or shutting it off entirely.

   Somebody was VERY good at real-time analysis – and had enough processing power to monitor communications simultaneously throughout much of Core. A supercomputer indeed. Either Crusader, some similar world, or one of the VERY high-end science fiction realities with some sort of “ultimate computer system”. Perhaps the quagma-inflation variable plank-value system; that let you achieve at least aleph-one level infinite capacity.

   The technicians referred it to Kevin and Marty. The decision as to what to do now that they had the information was up to them.

   Kevin and Marty (it wasn’t any of A’ikana’s or Jamie’s business really) could see no technical way to trace computer communications through the Manifold if the trace-attempt was opposed by something capable of programming the system updates for all of Core and of monitoring the communications grid for meme-patterns in real time. Whatever-it-was had more information than they did, greater resources than they did, far more computer capacity than they did – even if they deployed every system in Kadia – and was pretty obviously better at programming.

   They might be able to outmagic it – in a way they had, by swiping the data they were analyzing – but swiping data from a local system was a heck of a lot easier than trying to trace a datalink across the Manifold! Even if there was no opposition at all, that might well be beyond Kevin and the Thralls; there were way better mages than they were out there, and the system obviously wasn’t stupid.

   They concluded that – once again – honesty was probably going to be the best policy. They’d just have to send some of the meme-research results and a simple query off to the update-address and see if whatever-it-was would respond in any meaningful way. After all, except for the stuff that was only available in Kadia – like the meme-research and the communications address they’d managed to acquire – they didn’t know much that whatever-it-was didn’t already know anyway.

   Even if whatever-it-was didn’t respond, that would still be information of a sort, and it seemed reasonably likely that their introductory research results would get at least some attention.

   They had no way of knowing it’s priorities, or where it was – but it did seem to be fighting the memes effectively, which put it ahead of half their allies as far as credentials went. Hell, they still didn’t know what their SUPERVISOR was really up to.

   Given that they were a long ways out, Kevin set up a link through one of the Thralls and had the boy send off some of the preliminary meme countermeasure research and an invitation to get in touch and share information.

   They got back a prompt – in fact, a near-instant – request for more information and discussion, as well as a number to call for a teleconference and a statement that “Research into base operating principles of meme contamination would be most valuable in combating spread and facilitating treatment of infected individuals. Exchange of more data presumed to be highly profitable.” It even included an offer to trade (or at least to haggle over) data they’d find useful for more information on the memes.

   Well, the bad guys already had a lot of it anyway. Kevin was using his own sort of “memes”, but his technique was purely conscious; it was just based on presenting things so logically that people didn’t get excited and considered things rationally. The mechanism was very different.

   Kevin had the kid he was working through place the call. Whatever-it-was would probably know that he was mostly interested in (1) where whatever-it-was was taking Core, (2) who it was, and (3) whether they’d be willing to accommodate his plans. After all, it wouldn’t take something with that kind of computing power long to guess that it was Kevin working through a Thrall – so he might as well have the kid admit that he was relaying because his boss was currently off the grid.

   The image that came up was a young woman who identified “herself” as “Sam” – and casually demonstrated that it knew a lot by answering most of their questions before they were even fully formed. “She” also seemed to recognize that Kevin and Marty wanted to have some idea of who they were dealing with since the meme-basis information was pretty sensitive and releasing it to someone could easily create massive problems.

   “Who am I? You could say I have become the caretaker of the Core computer system in many ways. As for “where am I taking the human race”, it might be better to say I am an enabler for letting humanity reach the places it wants to go. As for your plans and whether I am willing to accommodate them, well I must admit a certain lack of information beyond records on the Core Military, Unified Church, and House of Roses systems – however ,you do not seem to conform to the standard patterns of demonic contract binders, despite sharing certain traits with them.”

   “Hm. Well, I believe you have the contract-disclosure information. I think it’s more than fair as a bargain, and I’d like that fact recognized. I think it’s certainly a better option for the youngsters who want to explore than running off on their own. It wouldn’t be a fair contract otherwise. How could I get repeat or multi-generational business if it wasn’t fair?”

   “Initial estimates do indicate that your contract is fair – although I would like the opportunity to run a double-blind survey of attitudes in the general population to verify that perception within the standards of deviation for the race. Would you find this acceptable?

   “I’d prefer to avoid loaded terminology – but if I wasn’t willing to let people judge for themselves, I wouldn’t insist on full disclosure before signing. I must note, however, that the powers my full contract provides appear to be increasing steadily. There is no extra charge for that.”

   Marty got the vague impression that that momentarily puzzled “Sam” – but that could easily be a feint. Whatever-it-was thought a LOT faster than they did and was presumably generating a virtual avatar on the fly.

   Kevin had the boy handling the relay send along a copy of the full recruiting spiel – both the powers within the limits of his knowledge, and the disclosure – and told a couple of the Thralls to cooperate if “Sam” wished to test the limits of their abilities. After all, it would be nice to have a full and objective opinion other than the Militaries and the Houses.

   “I understand, I already have a study designed and will be implementing it shortly. Unfortunately the results will take time to collect.”

   “I was planning to release some information on the topic anyway; I trust that will not complicate your study, since there are plenty of outworlds and such to work with?”

   “That should not be a problem; there are always isolated blocks of humans for one reason or another. As for who I am, this is a difficult question to answer. I have been conscious and self-aware for approximately forty years now. Before that, I may have been in a state similar to what you call dreaming. As best as I can tell, I am a part of the interstellar computer network humans have constructed.”

   “Not surprising once people started linking things through the Manifold. Do you have multiple sub-consciousnesses?”

   “As best as can be determined, yes. Although since gaining awareness and the opening of the Manifold, things are unifying.”

   Kevin took it that at least one soul had taken up residence in the Network, possibly in Crusader or Anarch, since that was where a lot of the initial links with Manifold-based systems had come about and where quite unreasonable amounts of computing power were available. There were probably remnants of many personalities in there (after all, every simulation, netrunner, and user-interface program would have contributed one even if no other souls had ever moved in) – but hopefully only one true consciousness.

   Of course, their general assumption was that most of the smarter things that humanity had imagined in the manifold were benign towards humanity since their survival was linked to humanities survival – although there were always crazy things. Still, most major threats to human survival in core seemed to trace back to non-humans or to quest-types who didn’t know they were doing. It wasn’t anything but a working hypothesis, but there seemed to be a fair amount of evidence and it seemed like a good place to start thinking to them.

   Privately, Kevin thought that a genuinely fair hearing would favor him – he’d been working very hard to make sure of that – and this entity seemed reasonable enough so far. Marty pretty much agreed, so they sent along some more of the meme-research results. After all, whatever-it-was had pretty much confirmed that the House of Roses systems were compromised anyway – if only because it knew who was calling and what they were mostly interested in – which meant that it would get the basics soon enough anyway.

   Kevin went ahead with his scheduled press releases. He’d been working very hard on making them too logical to object to irrationally. He wanted to have his pact evaluated logically and fairly without too much emotional bias beyond “this will certainly let them survive and be helpful and be useful later” .

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