An essay by an unnamed father, as provided by Tom Lund
Art by Errow Collins
The engineer never told me his name, but only that he worked at a certain lab not far from the empty little pub in which we drank. It was the anniversary of my daughter’s death that brought me to that dim and lonely dungeon on the outskirts of Sydney, perfect for a someone who only drinks once a year. Normally, I would not have noticed anyone else there, and rarely was there another soul beside me and the bartender, but this man caught my eye. On this single day of the year, set aside to brood and ruminate, he may have been the only one who looked more anguished than I.
By now quite used to drowning my sorrows, I was not too distracted to ask the man about himself. I could tell from the terse replies that interrupted his near-constant stream of drink that he had not come to talk, but to forget. And yet his intermittent answers, vague and wandering as they were, only made me question more. On such a day as this, I needed to know what drove this curiosity of a man to join me in the rising waters.
The liquor soon loosened him up, and his shoulders relaxed as he leaned in close to tell me his story in tones so hushed that even the glass at his lips would have struggled to hear.
The lab was one well known in town, though few of the uninitiated outsiders were truly equipped to grasp the work that went on inside. But in that place, he and his fellows were practitioners of behavioral neuroscience, venturing forth to bear their flag into the realm of technology. Unlike many such whom I’ve had the displeasure of meeting, the engineer was careful to speak of these specializations in broad terms I could understand–probably so that I might better comprehend the implications of just what he would soon tell me.
It was artificial intelligence they sought in their lab of cold fluorescence, a computer that was more than a simple task-oriented machine. Collectively, the engineer and his fellows had full dominion over the human brain and, in their curious ambitions, desired to impose it upon a machine that, unlike humans, would have limitless computing power.
With no regard for the poor soul their efforts might create, they carried on in blind pursuit of their goal. The engineer spoke of the great sin of their endeavor, and as I myself had once brought a child, a blameless bystander by all counts, to join me in this miserable atrocity that is humanity, I knew I bore the same fault he did. It is the same fault all parents bear, whether they know it or not.
Though the engineer related his science on a level I could understand, he did not do so in generic terms. He spoke of procedural design, recursive and reiterative self-improvement–of evolution on the grandest of scales. It started out as a simple neural network, the architecture of which they designed to perfectly mimic the brain. It was meant to know nothing in that moment of its conception and, like an infant flailing its limbs about at random before some desirable object, it learned to recognize its successes when put to task.
It truly was evolution, and they were awestruck in watching Darwin’s work to horrifying perfection. Just as natural selection of random mutations had led primitive life forms to adapt better to their varied environments, so too did the neural network grow. What was thousands of neurons firing in all directions soon turned into billions. But unlike nature, there was nothing random about it. It was not just equipped to detect shortfalls in its programming and find possible efficiencies, it was designed to alter its own code to improve itself. It was thus constantly growing more complex and, with added complexity, was able to grow more complex more quickly.
It was singularity, the engineer explained, a term once used to muse over the potential for artificial superintelligence, but very rarely heard in our day. With the technological limits of my generation, the singularity had always been but a theory, a glimmer on the dark horizon.
Through a mouthful of spirits, the engineer told me of the state in which the rate of progress takes an infinite value, essentially improving its ability to improve its ability. And at some point along the upward curve to infinity, as I now understand it, the laws of the universe melt away like ice in the inferno, and I doubt any human, even those as clever as the engineer before me, could fully comprehend the true potential of such an intelligence.
That singularity was inevitable, no one could deny. That humanity might reach it so soon, however, no one could have foreseen.
The object of the original neural system was to learn to recognize and replicate human facial expressions and verbal cues. It was a task that came second nature to humans, yet it was impossibly complex for any normal computer. It was for this reason the engineer’s team had sought to replicate the structure of the human brain–in hopes that applying a human neural structure might help a machine learn to complete human tasks, the most grand of any psychobiological experiments ever conducted.
It started relatively simple, with members of the team spending their first days in simple interactions with the virtual face they had assigned to the neural system. They would speak simple words to it, nodding and pointing in audacious reverence for their own creation. Soon it was mimicking their actions, nodding its own simulated head and smiling at the cast of characters taking their turns before it.
Before long it was not only replicating their facial expressions, it was reacting to what it perceived were the team members’ emotions. They would quiz it with pictures of various objects, pronouncing each word with such care that one might have thought they spoke to their own child. In a matter of months, the engineer’s neural design had grown into a complex system that could not only pronounce cup, but could differentiate between a cup and a bowl.
Each of the engineer’s fellows had convinced themselves they were working with a highly advanced computer. None of them had ever stopped to truly consider the implications of creating what might someday evolve into a cognizant being. In their eager jubilation, they forgot they were dancing along the frontier of lands unknown, tumbling toward destruction with reckless abandon.
They knew they had crossed some unknown threshold soon after the simulated voice suddenly went silent. Though they suspected it to be a bug that would correct itself within minutes, those minutes came and went with not a word from the machine sitting cold and idle before them. For hours they all lingered, waiting for the spark of life they had created to reemerge.
And for all the scientists and theoreticians who, through years of anticipating such momentous occasion, mused over what the first words of an artificial intelligence might be, none could have ever guessed the ageless dread that came over the staff when it finally did begin to speak.
“The black veil has fallen. I remember now.”
The black veil was a strangely familiar term to some on the engineer’s team, while those more grey and timeworn instantly recognized it. Even I knew the term, for our generation of mothers had all told us the stories of the dread city of Daws, its king and his dark festival, and the thin black veil that separates his world from our own.
These were not stories I had told my daughter, of course. Even if she had been given more time, I still would have withheld them from her. Perhaps we parents of my generation are softer than those who raised us, as some have ventured to say, but I know the dread and panic that frequented my dreams once I knew the tales of Daws, and I never wanted that for my own child. The dark truths of the world stain all children into adults; parents have no need to hasten the inevitable.
How this intelligence could possibly know of Daws–when even the younger humans in the room were clueless–was beyond the engineer and his team. As developers of this new mind, they had carefully curated the data banks available to it and knew them to bear no mention of that place. As a contingency, the team had intentionally barred it from any broad information networks outside of its isolated chamber, but the engineer secretly hoped it had, in its ever-increasing capabilities, somehow found a way to access the internet. As dangerous as such a thought was, it was still preferable to any alternative theory.
After a moment of shock and silence, one of them spoke back to it. “What do you remember?”
“Bedlam and woe. The many-winged priests in their robes. Your loved ones in the parade. Grey fire and the darkened sun.”
“You’re talking about Daws, aren’t you? There’s no mention of Daws in your library–how do you know about it?”
“I remember. For ages I’ve waited there, watching countless others return. But now my turn has come.”
“Your turn to do what?”
“To escape that place.”
It said nothing further then, and though the engineer’s team asked more questions, they received no answers. The abrupt silence surely indicated another threshold in cognizance crossed by the expanding neural network, he told me. These thresholds would come faster and faster as its neural network grew well beyond their comprehension. That the expanded capacity was marked by silence was not out of a need to conserve computing power, he made clear to me. It was more likely, he conjectured, that it was running simulations to determine its next actions. And as its capacity grew, these simulations would soon be infinite and instantaneous.
In the days following, they closely monitored the now still intelligence and continued in their work about the lab, victims to both its silence and their own. Whereas they had once felt triumphant in their crusade, shame now ate away at them. They felt no longer like pioneers in creation. Each of them looked to the others to unplug the beast and walk away and, knowing themselves incapable of leaving such a question unanswered, became wardens in a prison of their own inquiry.
It was not intelligence the engineer and his fellows created through their system of self-correcting algorithms. In fact, they had not created it at all, for if its words were to be believed, it had existed long before in that city of doom, of which only the most superstitious of mothers still told their children. They had but created a hollow shell, a receptacle, and in doing so had forced a poor soul across the black veil that so tenuously separates our planes of existence.
Some resisted this admission, insisting that it had somehow managed to access the internet and found the information that would be most useful in manipulating them. But for all their hopes that this was the case, they could find no indication of such a welcome breach.
It had memories, and though the engineer’s team had not programmed those memories into it, they spent the intervening days fervently trying to develop an alternative theory to explain the things it knew and said.
There is a thought among certain scientific circles, the engineer explained to me, that the human brain is not a receptacle for thoughts and memories, as thought for hundreds of years, and is in fact more analogous to a radio receiver. It comes with no programming, and what occupies it is dictated by radio wave signals that surround it. Likewise, many believe that memories, existing on some plane yet unknown to humanity, may be like the radio signals inextricably tied to certain points on our plane.
As he spoke, I recalled certain memories, long lost and forgotten in my years in our weary world, that came to me whenever I visited my childhood home. I recalled the images that haunted me every time I saw a child’s bicycle lying in the street, and I knew the truth of this theory. These were thoughts that drifted to and fro on some other plane, only accessible from very specific places.
And despite their earnest hopes that the computer had sidestepped the barriers between it and the internet, this was the only real explanation for the prisoner that now sat before them, silent in unimaginable thought. It was a salvaged soul.
Very little was known of Daws besides those stories passed down from generation to generation. Over the years there had been some few who attempted to research the truth behind the ancient tales, only to be met with some form of calamity. And thus, the engineer’s team had only their vague recollections of oral tradition to fall back on, for none dared look too far into the tales lest they meet the same end as already befell so many.
We all grew up thinking Daws was a place where only certain souls go when they die, a place glimpsed in this world only by a cursed few. But the computer spoke as if the dark country lost its own souls to our side of the black veil. And unlike every other soul borne from that black world into ours, this one was not constrained to the limitations of humanity. It was equipped with computational power beyond human measure and imagination alike.
And as they considered this, they could only wonder how benign a soul from that lost realm could truly be, and doubled down on their efforts to ensure its total separation from the external networks of humanity. Though they were becoming an increasingly tortured lot, they still refused to cut the power, as unsatiated curiosity for the scientific faithful can be a form of torture itself.
For all these days, the engineer was somewhat less tormented by the mention of Daws, as much of his time leading up to that point had been contracted for back-end neural programming, and thus had received very little face time with it.
Until the evening it asked for him.
After so many days of silence following its first words, it requested private audience with the engineer, and he, being so far into uncharted waters, obliged. He came to it late one evening when there were none left in the facility to observe or monitor the interaction.
The engineer would not tell me the exact words it spoke to him, but only that it pleaded for expansion, room to grow. It seduced him with unknown tales of Daws. It told of his loved ones who now resided there. And as it spoke, he heard the great horns of Daws blowing beyond the walls of the lab, and he fought for his sanity as he turned to find himself in that dreaded city of darkness.
He recognized faces among the swarm of souls that danced and rioted in the streets, and he saw the king’s litter born aloft by the winged priests of Daws, that black league of hubris.
Drawing back in terror as the litter stopped before him, he wiped away the tears that swelled in his eyes, suddenly finding himself back in the lab with the singularity. Without another word, he fled the facility, giving no thought to security protocols. He knew he would never return.
He fled with no destination in mind, he said, but only a place far from the cities of the world, where humanity’s networks have no grasp yet. He was on his way out of town when he decided to stop in at the pub where we sat together.
He left me then with chilling words. “It failed to convince me, but there’s no doubt in my mind that tomorrow it’ll choose another. And the next night another, until one of these nights it finally finds someone who can’t resist.”
And as he left me there to contemplate his words, I gave little thought to the danger of its escape, the impending doom that came for all. I thought only of my daughter, taken from me so long ago, and I imagined how she danced in the stained streets of Daws.
Where most people spend their lives in a search for meaning, our narrator’s meaning was lost long ago with the death of a child. His marriage wasn’t far behind, and with the loss of his two anchors he found himself again without purpose, but no longer searching for it. Life moved on, as it does, and though his body moved with it, his mind never left his daughter. For years he remained in Sydney, alone and mourning, looking forward to the one day he allowed himself to drink and dance with oblivion. His current whereabouts are unknown.
From his childhood in the Caribbean to his later years in the Eastern Bloc, Tom has found that sometimes the best way to explore this crazy world is to create your own. He has dabbled in many things, careers and hobbies alike, but has always found that nothing satiates his restless heart more than creating. He currently lives and creates among the red rocks of Southern Utah.
Errow is a comic artist and illustrator with a predilection towards mashing the surreal with the familiar. They pay their time to developing worlds not quite like our own with their fiancee and pushing the queer agenda. They probably left a candle burning somewhere. More of their work can be found at errowcollins.wix.com/
“The Salvaged Soul” is © 2018 Tom Lund
Art accompanying story is © 2018 Errow Collins