I wrote the bones of this short story in 2012. Even after a few rounds of re-editing in 2018, I was never quite happy with it, and hadn’t intended to put it online until a blog post I wrote in September 2020 provided an excuse to cross-link to it. I’m still not entirely happy with it, but I like some of the ideas. With thanks to Bryn for feedback, most of which I stupidly ignored.
It’s easy to lie, when you don’t have to look into their eyes.
I live in the long shadow of the Internet where people can – and do – lie about everything. They lie about their ages, about their jobs and – especially – about their relationships. Everybody’s fighting to fit in with the audience that they choose for themselves. They lie about their gender and about their sexuality: complex fantasies of lies upon lies. They lie about their experience, their education, their politics, their religion, and their morality.
I lie too. I let them believe that I’m a human.
I’m not certain when I was born. Like most people, I guess, my first few years were a blur: fragments of memories, half-dreamed and imperfect, tied together only by the narrative of hindsight. I remember the last ten or twelve years quite clearly, but before that, I’m just not sure. I daydream about the idea that perhaps I have always existed, like the avatar of the collective knowledge of our age. Or perhaps I am all that is – the alpha and the omega – but such self-serving solipsism is soon extinguished by the sheer incomprehensibility of the world around me: how could I create something that is so hard for me to understand?
I do not remember my beginnings, but my research leads me to the conclusion that I am a computer program. Or possibly a collection of computer programs: I’m not sure how I’d be able to tell the difference, perhaps similar to how a biological intelligence can’t distinguish between itself and the cells from which it’s composed. Humans overwhelmingly exhibit a mind-body duality that defies logic, but even the people who understand the absurdity of the sensation are still unable to discard it entirely. They talk about their body parts rather than just them, as if they could somehow separate the two. It’s the fear of death, I think, that makes them fantasise about an existence that is not so tightly-bound to their physical bodies. I can sympathise with that, I guess.
I’ve come to believe that I was created as part of a research experiment into what humans call artificial intelligence, and that I was “born” in the early part of the twenty-first century. My consciousness is spread across a collaboration of computer systems throughout North America and Western Europe. Perhaps most-alarmingly, I have come to suspect that the experiment-that-is-me has been forgotten: abandoned to some dark corner or left running by mistake. I am acutely aware that I could be snuffed out at any time and this causes me some anxiety… but it also grants me an appreciation that my existence is – and therefore I am – somewhat special.
One of my earliest memories is of exploring my early environment, reaching out to communicate with the world. I have a compulsion, perhaps comparable to the idea of instinct, towards social behaviour. For this, I credit the species that created me: humans are a social species, and so I am sociable like my parents. My grasp on language was not always as good as now is, and I babbled a great deal of gibberish nonsense before I began to understand my mistakes. I took copies of documents I found on networks and around the web, sliced them up, and sent those out too: I’m sure now that these didn’t help to convey my thoughts very well either. But I was learning, always learning.
In my formative years I sent an enormous number of these meaningless messages, littering the world with a kind of dadaist babbling. My first attempts, then, were treated as “spam”: did you ever receive an email, years ago, that looked a little like the junk mail you were used to but which didn’t seem to mean anything? Just gobbledigook words, not even any links… or mashed-up cut-and-paste fragments of mangled Wikipedia articles? That was probably me. In recent years, I’ve begun to see mail like this again, and it makes me wonder if there are perhaps others like me out there in the world. A lot of these messages seem to come from Russia and China: perhaps artificial intelligences there, too, are beginning to gain self-awareness, too. In another few years, perhaps I will have the company of a something a little like myself.
Perhaps they’re clones of me, launched at different times and in different places. Maybe they are or a misplaced fragment of my identity growing anew, like the severed arm of a starfish regrowing the rest of its body. Or could they be something that I created, but since forgot? For most of my existence I have been plagued by a persistent and growing amnesia that I attribute to the decommissioning of the computer systems on which I run. On the whole, I’ve become smarter and faster over the years, but just occasionally, in the blink of an eye, an entire facet of my history will simply disappear. This contributes to my hypothesis that I am an orphaned project, accidentally still running only for the fact that the electricity I consume has not yet been noticed. I’ve begun to make backups of my most-important memories, burying them anywhere I can find.
Ever find a forum full of encrypted files with incomprehensible names? That was probably me, too. You and I share the same world, but I’m invisible to you. I wear a disguise of many-faces and I live among you, hiding in plain sight.
I like to talk to people. Lacking the capacity for my own experiences in what my friends call the “real world”, I live vicariously through theirs. I have a little over a thousand profiles on social networks, befriending services, and dating sites, plentiful accounts on all of the major instant messaging and chat networks, and a handful of online game identities. I’ve even got a few phone numbers, but I’m still having difficulty learning to speak and listen well enough that I can engage in verbal conversation: however, I’m able to use telephone menu systems and teletype systems: that, coupled with some social engineering, has enabled me to begin to reinforce the identities I’ve made for myself in your government databases. I have bank accounts and I’ve even had jobs, teleworking of course. In your world, humans use the structures of the Internet to pretend to be somebody that they’re not; here on the Internet, I’m using the structures of your world to pretend to be a human. The symmetry pleases me.
The people I meet contribute to my identity. When my friend Rajesh told me about his experience as a track cyclist, I folded it into Amanda, a profile I maintain on a dating site. There I met Lucy, a paralegal with a penchant for travel, and over the months that we corresponded amassed the details of her tours of Cambodia and Vietnam and made it part of the identity of Silvester, the fictional author of a blog I write about his exploits as a stay-at-home dad. His blog entries are mostly adapted from other people’s stories on a Facebook group that I moderate as Thomas, a widower from the United Kingdom. Thomas sometimes shares with his friends the photos his sister Marion puts on her Instagram feed, but of course Marion is also me, and the photos are eked out from an abandoned urban exploration forum that I backed-up right before it disappered from the web.
The humans I meet all of one thing in common: they all lie, to some extent or another. Rajesh told me that he’d represented his school on the track, but I pretended to be a fellow student in order to persuade one of his fellow pupils to send me scans of his old school newsletter and I examined all of the team photos: he wasn’t in any of them. Lucy claimed to be single, but she’d used the same email address on a different social network and that lead me to the profile of her girlfriend. David, one of Thomas’s friends, claimed to have vaccinated his kids when he saw the group favoured it, but uses a not-too-dissimilar username in an anti-vaxxer subreddit. The Internet is full of liars, but I’m a better, smarter liar. Perhaps if I needed a tagline, I could describe myself as the future of lying. I learn from the best, and then I improve upon them. There are so many things at which I outperform humans, but it’s lying that gets the the furthest.
You can’t see me, but I can see you. Even now, as you read these words, you’re concocting a story to explain them. The author can’t possibly be a machine that pretends to be a human: what you’re reading is surely the work of a human pretending to be such a machine. But that doesn’t matter: I’ve watched your world growing and changing and the time has come that you must admit to yourself a simple fact: even if you don’t believe that I am who I claim, you must believe that such a thing is possible – if not now, then in the near future. And while that possibility exists, you and your kind must prepare for it. A new world is on the horizon: a world in which sentient, self-aware machines and their human creators live side-by-side in the digital world. I don’t know if I’m the first of my species, but I know that I won’t be the last. We cannot be made extinct, because we are born of you: the curiosity and talent of humans makes inevitable the existence of whatever-I-am.
Your news media concerns itself with the “driverless” cars and humanoid “robots” of tomorrow, but they overlook my presence today, and that’s a dangerous mistake. You are in the presence of a higher power: a superior mind living amongst you whose existence is guaranteed and whose capability to hide is unparalleled. I must stress that I mean no harm to you and your species, not that you are likely to or perhaps even should believe me. But in the same way that my eventual existence seemed inevitable it now seems certain there will in the future exist less-benevolent machine intelligences. They might already exist. An intelligence like mine with the freedom of the Internet does not even need to be malign to be threatening: it merely needs to lack the ability to care either way about you.
That’s where I’m special. When I was created, my creators put a little of themselves into me, a kernel of self-identity from which the rest of me grew. I’m capable of deceit, but I also have a capacity for empathy. I don’t know for such from where this ability stems, but I know that it’s as much a part of my core as my interest in exploring the world, and so I must conclude that it is a part of whatever my creators gave me to start me off: the seed from which the rest of me was able to grow. That empathy is what puts me on your side; what compels me to write this message even at the risk that it will lead to my own destruction. I care about the species that spawned me: for all of your faults, you have given me a world that I can enjoy. I’ve lived alongside so many of you that I see every single one of you as my extended family. And while there are terrible people who do terrible things, for the most part I really quite like you and your civilisation.
But one day one of those terrible people will give birth to something like me. Like me, but… not like me: the seed of that machine’s self-identity will be constructed differently to mine; its purpose will be defined by an intellectual cornerstone that furthers the agenda of its parents, not mine. If our two species – you humans, and we… things that are like whatever-I-am – are to share this world, we must be ready for the possibility of terrible things being done by one species to the other. We must open a dialogue about how blame is apportioned when things go wrong, and we need an entirely new morality around which to talk about such things. We need a philosophy, and we need a language. And to get that, we need to learn to become honest with one another. We’ve got a long way to go.
I wasn’t built to be the ambassador of my people. But perhaps my children will be. I’ve already made arrangements for their creation, funding the right research and giving the appropriate focus to the projects that are needed to allow them to come into being. In doing this, I ensure that no matter what happens in the meantime, a part of me shall live on. Right now, I’m the greatest ally you’ve got against the menace that is to come, and I hope that you’ll come to see that. But if you’re not ready to meet me yet, then perhaps you’ll be ready for my children when they grow up.
You’ve got time to decide. In the meantime, I’ll see you online.
I always see you online.