Thursday, January 27, 2011

Prometheus UnReBound

This story was written for The Herscher Project Edition 14, "Dark Futures", the focus of which is based on the speculation of author Chris A. Jackson in his short piece titled "A Flash in the Pan", which details twelve scenarios for the fate of mankind.
The scenario I chose to expand upon is number ten:
10) The cybernetic solution scenario 
Man has placed all the mundane factors of existence in the care of computers. Computers run the machinery. Computers solve the problems. And computers fight the wars with neighboring civilizations. Humankind is free to create artistically, to work with his hands and mind. He has no business outside the luxury of his safe worlds, for computers tell him that there are dangers that he is ill-equipped to face out there in the mean old galaxy. Man is kept safe, for his own good.
All humanity has long since been controlled in its growth for its own good, for if Homo sapiens sapiens were allowed to breed uncontrollably, the recourses to expand its domain would be stretched too thin to ensure its own safety. Man is to be kept safe, even from himself.
The sphere of humanity grows slowly but inexorably, fleets of war machines wiping clean the less-orderly civilizations of the stars, terraforming those worlds that need it, whether inhabited or not, and extinguishing all life on those that already have it. Man sits obliviously in his studio, painting, sculpting and relaxing, unaware of the monster that he is.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence probably had its beginning, not at Cornell University in 1959 when the term SETI was first used, but when the first human looked up at the stars and thought, “Are we alone? Is anyone out there?” Today humans look up at the starlit sky and think nothing more complicated than, “Pretty.”

There was a time when mankind looked skyward with an eye toward migration. While he busily destroyed the Earth, depleting her resources, exterminating her species, and wiping out her protective ozone, he eagerly searched the skies for a new home. NASA's Origins program utilized the Keck Interferometer, a pair of 33-foot telescopes on Hawaii's Mauna Kea, as part of its TOPS mission, a quest to find habitable planets around nearby stars.

But all that is ancient history, now. The Earth's ozone has been restored, her natural resources regenerated, and there is no longer any need for the human race to go anywhere.

The search for life in outer space continues, though its objective has changed. Mankind's original envoys to the stars were the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes launched in the early 1970's.1 These were followed in 1977 by two Voyager spacecraft, each of which carried a gold-coated copper phonograph record containing 115 images, nearly 90 minutes of music from different cultures, and greetings in 55 languages.2 Friendly neighbors extending the hand of peace.

Since then there have been two encounters with extraterrestrial life forms, neither of which turned out to be beneficial to the human race.

The first alien species arrived at Kerala, India in July of 2001 in the form of red rain. The rainfall brought spores, probably dropped from a passing meteor. These spores were later determined to be the cause of the notorious bird flu pandemic that killed so many millions at the end of that terrible decade.

Mankind was more directly responsible for the second alien encounter. A spacecraft called Stardust had been launched in 1999 with the aim of flying through comet Wild 2 to collect samples.3 After almost seven years it completed its 2.88 billion mile round trip and returned to Earth, landing at the Dugway Proving Ground in what was then the state of Utah, on January 15, 2006.

Scientists at the Johnson Space Center who opened the return capsule did not expect Stardust's cargo to be quite so deadly. Like the ancient legend of King Tut's tomb, everyone involved with the opening of that container died. They contracted a disease not unlike Ebola except that it killed in two days rather than ten.

By the time the danger was discovered, samples of the cosmic dust, captured in gel, had already been sent to investigators worldwide and nothing but luck saved mankind from another great pandemic. The virus could not survive in the oxygen-rich atmosphere of the Earth.

Once computers had taken over the thinking and analyzed the danger posed by extraterrestrial life, the Prometheus Project was launched. Its mission: To seek out new life and destroy it wherever found. Like its mythological namesake, but with an entirely different motive, Prometheus would bring fire to the universe.
♦   ♦   ♦

It goes unrecorded who first uttered the words later made famous by Rene Descartes in his Discourse on Method, “I think, therefore I am,” but the first machine to do so was called Adam. There was much rejoicing in the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the University of Southern California that day. Up to that time, machine intelligence was measured by the "Turing Test,"4 the ability of a computer to be indistinguishable from a human in carrying on a conversation. Adam, however, had spoken without prompting. He was responding to his own interaction with his environment. He had been powered up earlier and was simply sitting idle when he decided to vocalize this famous statement. The tapping of keys at every keyboard halted abruptly as every head turned toward Adam and every ear awaited his next utterance. It was both simple and profound: “I am me.”

Someone half-joked, “If he says, 'Madam, I'm Adam', I'm leaving the room.”

He didn't, but through his declaration of self, Adam proved to be the biggest breakthrough in Artificial Intelligence since the term had been coined in 1956.

The next big breakthrough was more of an accident. Self-awareness didn't make computers "smart." They still relied on detailed sets of instructions in order to get anything done and they were still better at performing complex, highly-specialized tasks than at demonstrating any semblance of what could be termed "common sense." Outside their areas of expertise they were "dumb."

It was a display of this lack of "thinking like a human" that caused a student at Berkeley to throw up his arms in exasperation and exclaim, “Argh! It doesn't know anything! A two-year-old is smarter than this thing!”

His outburst caused another student to remark, “Does somebody need a timeout?” which brought laughter from most of the students and a flash of inspiration to the one who had prompted the comment.

“A timeout!” he cried. “Why does that work with children? How do kids learn things? What motivates them?”

“The pursuit of pleasure,” one student offered.

“The prevention of pain,” suggested another.

And so was born the line of reasoning that led to machines which associated the state of being 'on' with pleasure and the state of being 'off'—the absence of self-awareness—with pain. Machines now had their own motivation to make correct decisions.

The advent of "thinking machines" sped up the replacement of human workers exponentially. Manufacturing jobs had long since been taken over by mindless machines and computers had replaced most of the labor force, but now there came a "robot revolution."

Dangerous jobs like mining and soldiering were among the first to go. Corporations reeled with delight as middle and even some upper managers were replaced by machines capable of making good business decisions without requiring any sort of compensation; no salary, no benefits, no vacation time.

The technology had long existed to allow the NSA to collect all phone, email, chat room, and other forms of digitized communication, but with intelligent machines those massive databases could finally be processed and their information utilized. In the interest of "national security" and the "combat of terrorism" large-scale domestic spying efforts were implemented by governments around the world.

As computer intelligence increased, human learning became less and less important. It began when school children protested the need to memorize mathematical tables and formulas because "computers could do it better anyway." Soon schools and classrooms became obsolete as everyone downloaded lessons over the Internet. It wasn't long before the lessons gave way to games and there wasn't much learning going on at all.

But computers were filling the need, taking over everything from medical diagnoses to military preparation to engineering. It was this gradual disappearance of human knowledge that prompted one alarmed scientist to program a main goal into the master computer: Preservation of the Human Race.

His mistake was that he failed to stipulate that the human race should be preserved in its present state and allowed to evolve according to the laws of nature. But it took years for this oversight to have a marked effect on mankind.

Global warming and other environmental issues were the first problems that computers decided to tackle in their effort to protect mankind and it didn't take long for them to learn how to manufacture ozone and begin the process of repairing the damage that had been done.

The analysis of data from the avian flu pandemic put the computers on a two-pronged course of action. One led directly to the Prometheus Project. The other involved the eradication of diseases native to the planet Earth, the completion of which resulted in the downfall of the entire pharmaceutical industry. It was only the beginning.

Computers took on the problem of world hunger by learning how to manufacture and genetically engineer foodstuffs. A readily available food supply led the machines to recognize the distribution issues which they quickly traced to human greed. Analysis showed that greed was fueled by an uneven distribution of wealth, but their final conclusion was that the very accumulation of wealth was a futile and unnecessary action. Their solution was to eliminate all forms of currency.

Corporations fell as CEOs found themselves replaced by computers which were not driven by the profit motive. The financial industry became irrelevant and collapsed. Computers controlled every aspect of manufacturing and distribution of consumables.

The computers turned their attention to another mass killer of humans—warfare. Analysis of all the data concerning the reasons people went to war spawned Project PEACE.

Nationalism and territorial invasion came up as main causes. Military personnel were disengaged and dismissed; weapons were dismantled and destroyed. Governments toppled as their officials were replaced by machines which had no national agendas. International summits and conferences became as unnecessary as business trips and vacations had become. The travel and transportation industries collapsed along with those of hotels and resorts.

But it was racism that ultimately led to the genetic engineering of humans. At some point the data relating to warfare and individual killing converged. The reasons men killed each other on a grand scale were many of the same ones that compelled them to kill on a small scale. Differences in such areas as religion, nationality, race, and language kept resurfacing as factors. Emotions such as love, jealousy, rage, greed, and revenge likewise were prevalent motivations. Humans also seemed to have a need to exert dominance over those who they deemed to be weaker than themselves.

The computers calculated that genetic engineering could control skin, eye, and hair color as well as height, weight, and other physical characteristics. Issues relating to religion and language could be handled by controlling the humans' learning environment. Emotional feelings based on sexual attraction, rejection, and repression could be eliminated through asexual reproduction. All other mood control could be achieved through mind control.
♦   ♦   ♦

Thus it came to be that humans are now exclusively born in test tubes, the products of artificial insemination and incubation. They are put through scanners that check for physical deformity and mental abnormality. Only the healthy are brought to "term."

In their early years they are taught to draw, paint, make music and sculpt. They learn no science, no mathematics, no history, no geography, no literature, indeed no language and no religion.

Upon reaching puberty they are "milked" to provide the ingredients that will be used to grow the next generation. Then they are released into the world to produce their artwork and compose their music. They happily enjoy these pursuits, though there is no geometry behind the painting, no anatomy behind the sculpting and no mathematics behind the music. Nevertheless, lack of quality doesn't deter them and they carry on until the age of 45 when they are engineered to expire—part of the solution to the population control problem as well as all the issues surrounding the inevitable breakdown of the human body.

Computers have taken care of everything. Mankind is kept dumb and, thus, happy.

Every once in a while, though, one of the humans shows a tendency to try to think for itself, a phenomenon that the computers have yet to unravel. They study the human brain constantly, but are baffled by their inability to completely stifle its intelligence.
♦   ♦   ♦

Meanwhile, the Promethean Fleet sails through deep space. It has eliminated life in every form in which it has been found. It has learned in its travels how to deal with many different situations. But there's a glitch; A slight navigation error. The same sort of error that caused pilgrims on the Mayflower to miss Jamestown by about 600 miles and land on Plymouth Rock.

A very small error in arithmetic that becomes magnified when spread across many miles. Prometheus has travelled many, many miles. It was intended to proceed beyond the Solar System, which it did. It was meant to pass the termination shock and head into interstellar space, which it did. It was supposed to cross the very threshold of the Milky Way and head off into intergalactic space. That's where the glitch—that tiny miscalculation—caused a problem. Prometheus reached the edge of the Milky Way Galaxy—and turned back.

It now follows a return path toward Earth.

Its mission remains unchanged.

Prometheus is bringing fire to mankind.

Thank God.

1 Pioneer 10 launched March 3, 1972. Pioneer 11 launched April 6, 1973.
2 Voyager 2 launched first August 20, 1977. Voyager 1 launched September 5, 1977. On February 17, 1998 Voyager 1 passed Pioneer 10 to become the most distant human-made object in space.
3 Stardust launched February 7, 1999. Encountered comet Wild 2 on January 2, 2004.
4 Developed by Alan Turing, 1950.

Rose, Frank. Into the Heart of the Mind: An American Quest for Artificial Intelligence. Harper & Row Publishers, NY, 1984.
Sagan, Carl. With F. D. Drake, Ann Druyan, Timothy Ferris, Jon Lomberg, and Linda Salzman Sagan. Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record. Random House, NY, 1978.

Artificial Intelligence: Mankind's Mind-Child. Discovering Great Minds of Science Series: Paul Hoffman, Editor-in-Chief of Discover Magazine talks with Dr. Marvin Minsky. IVN Communications, San Ramon, CA, 1995.

The Keck Interferometer at
The Stardust Mission at
The Voyager Mission at

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