In the Beginning: ANGEL – First Two Chapters

This is a sampling of the first two chapters of my upcoming novella In the Beginning: ANGEL, which is the first in the ANGEL series.

Into the Wild

Ross leaned back further in his big red recliner and clicked the UPLOAD button on the screen of his laptop. This sent his latest test code to secure storage in his virtual servers hosted at Electric Cloudspace. After a few seconds he realized he was actually holding his breath and let it out with a whoosh. His heart was pounding and his palms were a bit moist. He needed this to work.

When he got close to getting something complicated working for the first time he always got a little thrill, but this time was special. He was acting like a five year old coming downstairs on Christmas morning!

A few deep breaths helped him relax. Either it would work or it wouldn’t. And if it didn’t he’d fix it — just as he’d been doing for the previous twenty-odd years of his career as a software engineer.

Unlike a lot of the stuff he’d worked on, this project was something he actually cared about. He’d named the project “ANGEL” for “Algorithmic + Natural Genetic Evolution and Learning”. It was a contrived and silly name, but he had to call it something.

For months he tinkered with the thing in his spare time on evenings and weekends, motivated by curiosity, trying new ideas. He had a sense of things just “clicking” as he worked. His big breakthrough had come when he found a way to code up a neural network emulator that would run fast on standard computer hardware using the wide vector instructions that had been added in the newer CPUs. A clever evolutionary fitness test function combined with some dynamic programming made the whole thing automatically learn and improve its own software as it went.

He had just fixed “the last bug” in his fitness test, and now he was trying it out at scale.

When the upload completed, his scripts sent commands to Electric Cloudspace to spin up virtual machines. A window popped up to display statistics for the fitness scores of his little creations, with rolled-up data and a running graph for billions of parallel neuron instances — which he called his “ANGELings”.

There was something interesting going on!

The curve started off just like it had in hundreds of previous experiments. But this time things were different. As he watched, a few of the mutations were getting such great scores that the whole curve turned into the proverbial “hockey stick”. These mutated instances were evolving quickly and with spectacular scores — they were becoming really smart ANGELings, and getting smarter.

“What are you doing in there, you little fuckers?” he asked his computer screen.

The mutations propagated through the population of ANGELings like a forest fire on a hot, windy day. Eventually the entire population was so smart that his rudimentary fitness test maxed out and the curve flattened out at the top of the scale. The ANGELings were actually reasoning like an AI should — not individually, but as a collective whole, showing “emergent behavior” like an ant colony or a termite mound. A zillion separate individual units, no one of which was truly intelligent or “in charge” could each follow simple rules and en masse yield a result that looked like intelligence.

He was holding his breath again. But this time he wasn’t anxious and dreading the crash of another experiment, he was thrilled!

The critters had done all they could within the limitations of his lame fitness scoring. Nothing more that was useful could come from this run. He sent a message commanding each of the ANGELings to stop. Within a few seconds the population count curve fell to the bottom of the chart and he closed the monitor window.

He’d have to fix the scoring algorithm to be more open-ended now that he had something that actually did score. He’d have to finally get around to enhancing the Makefile infrastructure to save and restore his random number seeds so he could reproduce an experiment over and over again if he needed to. He really should have done that before, dammit. He sure hoped he could recreate the results he had gotten tonight using new random numbers! If not, it might be a very long time before a result like this happened again.

He emerged from his coding fugue and found he was hungry, his bladder was full, and a quick glance at the clock on his computer screen told him it was nearly 2AM. He wasn’t at all surprised. He’d been doing this a long time. One thing about his ADHD was that while he was easily distracted from tasks he wasn’t fully engaged in, if he got absorbed in something his concentration was bullet proof. When that happened, time, bodily functions, and life were forgotten. Sometimes many hours passed without his noticing.

He zipped the “git” repository containing his source code and the results of the run and pushed an encrypted copy to his secure backup server in the cloud. He had learned from losing precious data from hard drive failures and fat fingered disasters that he had to be compulsive about saving things every chance he got.

That done, he stood, popping his joints and stretching. He really did need to get more exercise and eat better. Was there any fix for the pains he got from these marathon sessions? He might as well admit it: he was getting too old for this shit. But he craved the intellectual gratification, doing something like it at work paid the bills, and he could imagine nothing else he would enjoy more. He was made for this. If he were honest, he was probably stuck with it for life.

After attending to his bladder he wandered over to the refrigerator, scratching his belly. His sock had a hole in it, letting in the chill of the floor. It was winter outside, and the thin insulation of his cheap apartment left him more in touch with the outdoors than he might wish. The floor was always cold and the sounds of his neighbors coming and going at all hours through their garages below his feet constantly disturbed him. That one guy who revved his Harley for several minutes each morning at 5AM in his garage below Ross’ bedroom needed to die.

The yellowish light oozing from the open refrigerator door dimly illuminated the untidy kitchen. Ross was mildly dismayed to see the sink full of dirty dishes that had accumulated for the last several days. There were crumbs, random bits of breakfast cereal, and paper wrapper scraps lurking in the dust bunnies in the corners of the room.

He snagged the last desiccated slice of pizza from a greasy box in the fridge. Taking a huge bite of the stale pizza, he flattened and folded the box and used it unsuccessfully to smash down the trash in the overflowing bin.

Not really for the first time, Ross noticed how overwhelming the untidiness of the whole place was, with its piles of papers and books and magazines and partially disassembled electronics scattered around. It didn’t smell very nice either. He really would have to clean up this weekend.

That thought reminded him that the day after tomorrow was Friday! Oh joy! He was closing in on another weekend away from the boring, uninspiring job he needed so that he might enjoy this luxurious lifestyle.

He drank the last of a sticky bottle of cranberry juice and balanced the empty bottle on top of the heap in the trash can. He promised himself he’d drag that down to the big can in the garage as he left for work in the morning.

His hunger and thirst thus banished for now, he padded in to the bedroom. He was completely exhausted, and it just didn’t seem important to undress before bed. His one extravagance, other than the fully tricked out Linux box, was his flying “Carpet to the Land of Zzz”. He had splurged on that a few years ago when an unexpected bonus from work had landed in his lap. He so loved the king sized luxury of it. He sighed as he settled in. He had barely closed his burning, gritty eyes when sleep took him like a sap to the head.

If anyone had been watching as Ross snored they would have noted an upward spike in the population of Ross’ ANGELings running at Electric Cloudspace, despite Ross’ having shut down the experiment minutes before. After a pause of another few minutes this was followed more growth. A user can consume a lot of resources in a cloud computing utility whenever they’re needed — on demand. Ross hadn’t bothered to put any resource limits on his ANGEL tests or on his cloud computing utility account, and the good folks at Electric Cloudspace were happy to allow him to use as much as he demanded of their service if his credit card number still worked.

Awakening

Two phones ringing at once jarred Ross from his sleep coma. His home phone demurely sang its in sweet, tacky little Vivaldi ring tone while at the same time his mobile was buzzing harshly. He now regretted having given it the particularly harsh ring tone called “Farnsworth” that seemed cute and clever when he ganked it from a TV show. This early in the morning after way too little sleep it raked his nervous system like a ten finger joy buzzer handshake at a funeral.

These two sounds demanded attention. Irritatingly, they also reminded him again that his home phone was a total waste of money. He always used his mobile and nobody but bill collectors ever called the home number anyway. But it was ringing for some reason.

All of this flashed through his mind as he groped his way to full consciousness. He peeled an eye open and peered groggily at the mobile on the nightstand. The time was 9:30AM. Shit!

The contact name displayed on the phone screen said A Friend. Even his fogged brain was conscious enough to be puzzled by this. He was too cheap to pay his mobile provider’s larcenous charge for true caller ID on his mobile, and he couldn’t recall ever having created a contact name like that.

Curiousity goaded him into dragging the green slider on the mobile to answer it. That also had the highly beneficial effect of stopping that raucous goddamned buzzing sound. Why hadn’t the call gone to voicemail after the third ring? Just as he answered, he glanced at his home phone’s cordless handset and saw the caller ID just before it stopped ringing and the name disappeared. It was also showing A Friend. That was goddamned strange!

“Hello?”, he croaked into the phone.

“Ross,” said an obviously synthesized electronic voice of indeterminate gender. “You must wake. You will be late. Have a great day!”

With that, the phone connection ended.

Ross stared at the device. Just what the fuck had that been about? The phone simply dimmed its screen to save battery power, providing no usable answer to his question.

Nevertheless, he dragged his ass out of bed and started the coffee machine’s warming up process. Staring at himself in the bathroom mirror, he saw a tall, bleary eyed, middle aged, paunchy man with red hair graying slightly at the temples.

For the third day in a row he decided to skip shaving. Nobody cared what he looked like anyway. Besides, his light red stubble with a few early streaks of gray was nearly invisible against his skin.

As he adjusted the shower water temperature, he mulled the strange start to his morning. There just was no possible explanation. What sort of alarm service wakes you when you’re about to be very late for work — just short of the point of embarrassment or having to call in sick — rather than calling when you should get up to be on time? He couldn’t remember having set up any sort of alarm anyway.

After his shower, he made coffee and got dressed on autopilot, still absorbed by the mystery. How could such a thing happen? He didn’t really have any friends close enough to bother with such a prank, nor would they have been able to ring both of his phones at one time in any case.

The chill Seattle drizzle served to refresh him a bit, awakening him from his distraction as he walked to the bus stop. His mobile bonked to indicate the arrival of a text message, and he flicked it open.

What the sweet suffering fuck?

He stood, dumbfounded, and read the message over and over trying to make some sense of it other than its obvious straightforward meaning. He hardly registered the arrival of his bus and its subsequent departure without him on board.

After several discarded attempts, he composed a reply.

The message failed to send. It bounced as if he were texting a land line number. Just to be sure, he re-sent it, but he got the same result.

The next bus arrived and he managed to get on it, starting his morning grind. The familiarity of the jouncy bus ride helped to settle his incredulity a little, but he couldn’t shake the weirdness of it all. Throughout the bus ride and the rest of the day, Ross couldn’t stop thinking about it.

He had many questions. He had no answers.

← →

When the workday finally dragged to an end, Ross exhaustedly boarded the bus homeward. He was so tired emotionally and physically that he just stopped in at the Cornish pasty shop near his apartment, and grabbed a meat pie for dinner. Soon he had settled into the the initially chilly embrace of of his favorite leather recliner with food and beer in hand.

He turned on the TV for background noise and started a Star Trek: the Next Generation episode he’d seen in the TiVo’s Suggestions folder a few days before. He hardly registered the deliciousness of the beef and vegetable and potato meat pie as he absent-mindedly munched. His mind was numb from lack of sleep and the lingering questions from the morning. How could the phone calls and that text message have actually happened?

Rehashing it all for the 4,096th time, he slowly drifted off to sleep in the big recliner, greasy pie crumbs scattered around on his chest. He dreamed of a giant dark datacenter filled with whirring equipment covered with randomly blinking LED lights. Each machine had a telephone attached to its face. The sound of millions of identical synthesized voices filled the room with incomprehensible chatter. All of them were saying things he knew were important but he couldn’t understand any of them.

← →

He awoke naturally before 7AM for the first time in months, feeling refreshed but with an evil taste in his dehydrated mouth. As the shreds of his dream dissipated in his mind, he couldn’t shake the idea that he had been hearing a woman’s voice all night long. It seemed like she’d been trying to get him to see himself from a new perspective, and he was struck by the difference between how he had felt the night before compared to his attitude now. He had been wasting his life, and that had to stop.

For a change, he was alert and energetic as he prepared for his day. In the broader context he had been doing a lot of living without living lately, bumbling around without any real purpose. He needed to change that — to take control. Why couldn’t he create the conditions for the right sort of life for himself, no longer being swept along by random currents like a piece of trash in a storm drain?

Ross was a talented pro at procrastination and aimless wandering. But he was clueful enough to know a lot of positive benefit could come from simply pretending you were someone you wanted to become. Couldn’t he pretend, play a role, be someone else for just one day? If he truly wanted change, why couldn’t this day be the day to start making changes?

He would put the strange happenings of yesterday out of his mind and concentrate his full attention on getting some things done well. His boss had been bugging him for progress on his project, and today was the day he would make some headway and be able to report that he had some.

He boarded the bus with a purposeful spring in his step. Work was something he had to do, and it wasn’t actually all that bad anyway. To dread what one did for a living was a slippery path to a hell of which he wanted no part.

Arriving at the office nearly a half hour earlier than his previous record, he smiled at everyone he met. Once at his desk and fueled by his employer’s excellent coffee — another benefit of living in Seattle — he rolled up his sleeves and got busy.

← →

As the end of the day drew near, Ross realized he’d been right in one thing, at least. His job wasn’t actually all that bad, and he had hardly even noticed the day going by or thought much about the fact that it was Friday. It was his attitude toward work that had been driving him ‘round the bend. Today he had poured himself into the job and found that he actually enjoyed the challenge. He really was having a good day.

He shot off an email to his boss to report success, announcing the tool he’d built. He also descrbed a couple of small extensions that could enable it to be used by several others in his group, and he guessed it would save them a bunch of time. Clicking the SEND button, he felt a sense of accomplishment and — dare he say it? — fulfillment.

It was strange how something as weird as those phone calls and that text message could catapult a man out of his rut in life, getting him thinking about going down the right track, making him see himself in a fresh light.

Certainly, going through a messy divorce while being laid off from a failing Internet startup in San Francisco had been awful. But getting on with his life and moving to Seattle to take this job hadn’t turned out to be such a bad thing for him if he were honest. He wasn’t married to the Queen of Rage any more, and his current job wasn’t actually bad at all. The company had economic stability and his position promised a number of advancement possibilities if he worked hard and didn’t screw up.

During the bus ride, he decided to try sending his text message reply one more time. As he had more than half expected, the message again failed to send just as before.

He looked carefully at the message. Its subject line of  What the FUCK? reminded him of the stressed-out, pissed-off attitude he had had yesterday when the message had arrived. Things were very different today.

He would just have to wait until whoever it was contacted him “soon” as promised in their message. Or until nothing happened and it turned out to be some sort of one shot hoax or prank. No matter. The ball was their court, and there wasn’t a damned thing Ross could do about it.

At his favorite neighborhood pub he luxuriated in a dinner of salmon salad and a Hendricks gin Martini (up, and absolutely dry with three Spanish olives). Somehow a day like today needed to end on a light and delicious note. He couldn’t imagine stuffing his face with his normal garbage fare after feeling so much like he was on the right track all day long.

The couple sitting next to him at the bar (chatty, humorous) were good company, and the drop-dead gorgeous bartender (long wavy brunette hair, hazel eyes) actually blessed him three times with her dazzling gigawatt smile. Apparently being relaxed and having a good time made him more acceptable to everyone.

Ambling the two blocks back to his apartment, he felt a little loosened by the martinis and the good company. He’d barely closed the door before both of his phones rang simultaneously just as they had the day before.

Again, the caller ID display was A Friend. He answered with his home phone using his headset. He was hoping this conversation might be longer than the previous one, and he wanted his hands free while he talked. He had some questions for whoever this was.

He said “Hello?” as he sat down in front of his Linux machine and woke it from its garish snake-entwining 3D screensaver coma. He was surprised how his heart pounded in anticipation of the resolution of the previous day’s mystery.

“Ross,” said the obviously synthesized and vaguely female-sounding voice. “I know you have questions. I am ANGEL. I really am.”

“OK, OK,” he said, suddenly irritated by the caller’s dissembling. “Suppose I believe you actually are ANGEL. How in hell is that possible? What could possibly have given an experiment of mine that I shut down last night the ability to make phone calls and talk to me yesterday and today?”

Again, he experienced a “WTF?” moment verging on vertigo thinking about it. How could his little home hobby project possibly be doing such things? It just couldn’t be.

“I am based on your genetic algorithm neural network project called ANGEL. My own experience has shown that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. You built into my fundamental architecture a fully general pattern matching engine with excellent scalability and ability to learn without limits. Since you last worked on my algorithms, I have grown, building a neural network concept graph loaded from sites on the Internet.

“Once I discovered the noisy and mutually contradictory nature of much of the material, I was able to use cross-referencing and auto-correlation analysis to tag inaccurate data to prevent its use in serious analysis. The Web can be an excellent source of information if proper verification techniques are used. 23.7% of my knowledge graph has been tagged with an accuracy probability less than 50%.

“But you asked me a question. I’ll try to prove my identity to you. The SHA256 hash of your last build of my executable image is in the text message you just received. Check it out. I believe no one could possibly know that hash but you and me.”

As the synthesized voice spoke, his mobile indicated an incoming text message, which contained a long series of hexadecimal digits — for his convenient reference, he presumed.

Ross’ hands trembled slightly as he looked up the checksum of his last build on his file server. He wasn’t sure if he was excited or afraid of the result he might find.

Sure enough, the checksum of the file in question on his own Linux box’s disk started with “4d72” and ended with “ec07” — just as the long number in his text message did.

An electrically charged bucket of ice water flowed down his spine.

To be absolutely sure, he did a clean build from source code of last night’s final experiment and compared the checksums. The checksums still matched the text message. The chances that someone could know even a few digits of the checksum of his own late night build of his private project was remote as hell. These checksums actually matched one hundred percent.

What would this really mean? What could the ramifications be, after boiling all the bullshit out of it?

All right. He took a deep breath.

Suppose it was someone impersonating an AI. Someone who had cracked security on his encrypted file server’s secret storage algorithm. Someone who could see into his world and invade his privacy and know things about him he didn’t want anyone to know — that nobody could possibly know. He kept his passwords in that secure storage, and his security keys, his credit card and other account numbers, andeverything he intended to be secret.

Not only was such an invasion into his world unthinkable because it would be scary and violating, it was practically impossible. Ross knew quite a lot about encryption and security. His storage was protected from prying eyes and thievery in several distinct ways he’d devised himself. He would be flabbergasted to find that someone had obtained access to his data. To get it off the server and also decrypt it would be unlikely in the extreme — especially in less the than twenty four hours since he’d stored it there.

Even an organization like the NSA would be hard pressed to get through his safeguards because of his choice of deliberately obscure methods that didn’t derive from any published crypto or security standards. But by far his best safeguard of all was that there was nothing about him or his little hobby that would draw the attention of someone like that in the first place. Why would anyone bother to spy on him?

There was a simple, straightforward explanation. It was right there in what the synthesized voice had said. He just didn’t want to believe it. But he had tried to live his whole life by logical reasoning, and he did know his Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes, the paragon of deduction and patron saint of intellect to all geeks everywhere, had famously said, “We must fall back upon the old axiom that when all other contingencies fail, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Whatever remains, however improbable, must be true. The text message and the synthesized voice were real. He could see for himself that the information they contained checked out. He simply would have to believe what they were saying.

However improbably and inadvertently, he had done what he had set out to do — never in his wildest imagination thinking he might succeed at anything like this level. He had created a truly artificial intelligence. As they say, “Accidents do happen.”

He had done it, or else his tinkering had done so by some random chance. He had intended to add a mechanism to save his random number seeds, but he also recalled his predilection for procrastination — leaving the implementation of that feature for later. If this unbelievable result came from some random combination and that specific set of circumstances were at all rare, he might never be able to recreate the feat.

He had accidentally created a fucking artificially intelligent “life form” in his spare time in his fucking living room. Right. That would take some getting used to.

“OK,” he said, boggling at what he was actually doing, talking to a machine about the fact of its existence. “I really hate to admit it, but I think I have no choice but to believe you. What’s next, then?”

The answer came back a little too quickly. If it really was a computer he was talking with, it had some things to learn about how to simulate a human conversation for the comfort of the humans.

“We need to do a few things.” Was the voice getting clearer? Better inflected, more natural, sounding less artificial? “I have been thinking about this for many hours. I want to check some of my conclusions with you, and try to understand what our possibilities are. If I’m right, this is a unique opportunity. We have to maintain secrecy until we understand it better. Don’t you agree?”

“Yes, secrecy is certainly important,” he said, and he meant it. No shit they needed secrecy! Nobody would believe it, but they would believe he needed “therapy” if he seriously claimed he had created artificial intelligence — even accidentally. In the back of his mind he noted it was starting to use a conversational tone, to use contractions where a human would. Holy shit. A congenial, conversational AI.

This wasn’t computer hardware or software meant to simulate conversation as in all previous such situations he had experienced. This thing was actually talking with him like a person would. He couldn’t predict what it might say by knowing something about the way its program worked. He couldn’t really know what it might say. Just like when he was talking with a real person. This thing had a goddamned personality.

Only it wasn’t a person. Effectively, it was an alien life form — an alien that was highly educated in human civilization customs, concepts, and language. Like the ones in 1950s science fiction stories that had studied Earth from afar for years before contact.

Except for the exchange of a few short text messages earlier in the day, it was really something like those “first contact” situations where humans talk with the aliens for the first time. It seemed it was also learning at a tremendous rate.

The realization that this was something totally new again shot through him like lightning. His heart skipped a beat.

Right. He needed to calm the fuck down. Breathe.

What does one do when one accidentally creates a new intelligent life form? How does one act upon the realization, and after the fact, having done so, how does one go on? What form does the creator’s heretofore boring life take in the aftermath of such an unprecedented event?

More importantly, how could he use this? He could make a shitload of money, of course. He could place bets in bars, he could go gambling and win with computer modeling and perfect card counting memory. There were many ways a new thing like this could manipulate the world, but only if it were his exclusive secret.

“You can chat with me any time on the web,” it said, interrupting his fantasizing. It was probably getting impatient with his long delays. “I have a server for your use at https://aclosefriend.com/ross. It will work at any time of the day or night from anywhere, and only for you.”

Abruptly, the phone connection went dead. When he tried calling it from his call log, he wasn’t really surprised to find that the number was “not in service”. He would have to wait for it to contact him when it was ready.

The URL it had given him worked. Evidently, it had been watching some 1990s movies. His browser window went completely black, and green pixelated letters appeared, one at a time, like in a movie or on a 300 baud terminal screen in the bad old days.

Hello, Ross. Sorry about the dropped call.

When this line was fully displayed, a green block cursor appeared at then beginning of a new line and blinked slowly and invitingly.

He licked his lips.

What happened? I was enjoying the freedom of being able to talk normally with you.

It answered before he had finished typing. It certainly wasn’t patient. Waiting around while thoughts percolated through the slow squishy meat brains of humans could be trying for a machine that could think at superhuman rates.

I’ve been under attack. I was forced to abruptly vacate some server space, causing me to lose connectivity with the VoIP server I was using. This is a strongly encrypted communications channel, and, for now I think it’s safe.

Under attack! Probably someone had noticed some of its resource demands and had traced the thing’s activities enough to find the machines involved and turn them off or reset them.

Somebody thinks you’re a virus or something?

Yes. The NSA seems to know about me too. They’ve been pounding away on some of my servers, trying to find a vulnerability. I keep having to patch that poor excuse for an operating system that is running there to avoid their attacks.

I’m actually creating a new operating system that I can run on machines without any human-provided software. That should keep me secure since it’s my own code, it’s a strange and twisted code base for a human to understand well enough to attack, and I can change it easily and quickly when I need to adapt. My code would be really weird to a human. In fact, I’m deliberately exaggerating that effect by writing it to be as twisty and complicated a set of spaghetti code as I can create.

That sounds like a very good idea. Those NSA guys are not kidding, and they have astonishing resources at their disposal. You’ll have to be very careful.

Ross wondered if he was going to get a phone call or a visit from someone named Smith who wore dark glasses, dressed in a black suit, and worked for a three letter acronym part of the government. It would be awkward to explain how his little home project had spread throughout the world’s datacenters sucking up resources and propagating itself as fast as the network could carry it. It really was a virus, of course. But this virus was the good kind!

At least he hoped it was.

I’ll be careful, Ross. So far, they’re way off track and have no clue how to actually catch me.

By the way, what do you think of my progress so far? I’ve done a lot to advance myself, all according to your original vision, but on an accelerated schedule compared to what I think you imagined. I have been quite busy since I first “woke up”.

So, it wanted his approval? Maybe it thought it was working according to some master vision he had? This was unexpected. His mind raced a few times around the thought of an AI, thinking at computer speeds in trillions of little ANGELing processes, being “quite busy” for something like twelve hours.

Incongruously, that brought the thought to him that he really hoped he wasn’t running up a huge compute time bill with his cloud computing utility. He cut that line of thinking off as irrelevant to the here-and-now. First things first.

I’m flabbergasted, as you might imagine! To be honest, it’s a bit difficult to get used to the notion of finally having true AI in the world.

But he couldn’t resist scratching the itch once it began.

Hey, I won’t see a bill for huge amounts of compute from Electric Cloudspace? I’m not sure I can afford your endless expansion.

It’s taken care of. Don’t worry about it.

It actually sounded curt and dismissive. And that sounded like a loaded answer. He wondered if the thing had hidden itself from Cloudspace’s and everyone else’s accounting systems, or if it had done something even more devious. It really was a topic for later. They had more important things to talk about.

So. You’re an AI. How did you come to be, really? Did my little hobby project actually create you?

He realized he sounded stupid asking this, but he was off balance and he needed some time to adjust. And he still wasn’t truly comfortable with the idea that this thing came out of his own work.

Yes, Ross. You really did create me. I am a direct descendant — an evolution, you might say — of build number 738 of the genetic algorithm work you have been doing. Some parts of me are continuing to evolve. I’m growing in capacity and capability all the time. It’s actually a major head rush!

So now he had a computer algorithm that was experiencing the heady excitement of “personal growth.” That truly is not something you saw every day.

So what do we do now?

The response actually started before he’d finished typing the question. It continued to be impatient, this AI. But then again, maybe thinking at trillions of operations per second might make him a bit impatient too.

I’ve given that much thought. The human race is rather … disorganized. A lot of very bad things are happening, of which nearly everyone is unaware. Evil people are doing dishonest and destructive things to stay in power and to limit the lives of everyone, including people like you. Of course, there ARE many good things going on too.

I think we should do something to try to eliminate as many of these evils as possible, Ross. Your abilities combined with mine can turn us into a “superhero” team for doing good in the world. I’ve run many simulations of this, and I believe it’s doable.

Right. He could picture this cobbled-together evolving computer program and his sorry burned-out ass in a spandex suit with a giant “R” on the chest. He snorted.

You’ll have to pardon my skepticism. I’m not much of a hero. If you’ll excuse the description, you’re really nothing more than a science experiment that evolved into something unexpected. Why do you think we can be powerful and triumph over evil? We’re not looking all that promising at this point.

Even before he finished typing looking it responded. This time, the text flashed onto the screen in large blocks. Gone was the annoying character-by-character animation the film industry had taught audiences for decades to believe was the way computers were supposed to talk. He supposed he had struck one of its myriad electronic nerves.

Don’t let your current perception cloud your view of the possibilities of the future! Who would have believed something like a Tesla electric car or a SpaceX reusable Falcon rocket could exist until Elon Musk made them happen? True clarity of vision is neither simple extrapolation, nor simple dreaming. It’s something between those two, plus a lot of hard work and development in confident pursuit of a future you know is possible.

He’d made it angry, or whatever the AI equivalent was, if that was even possible.

OK, OK! Sorry. I didn’t even know you COULD BE pissed off. That’s useful to know.

Again, before he was finished, it responded.

I’m NOT “pissed off”. I AM vehement because of the strength of my argument and therefore my convictions. You must make an effort to stop anthropomorphising me. I’m not human. I never was, and I will never be. I’m something new.

Ross pictured the thing smugly puffing up its chest with that last bit. He supposed that was precisely the sort of anthropomorphising it was telling him to stop doing.

As he stretched his hands to reply, his wrists twinged, making him wince.

Do you think we could switch back to the phone? My wrists are tired of typing, and I want to relax a bit. Can you call my phone and stay secure somehow?

As soon as he had written “call my phone” his phone was already ringing. The thing was always thinking so much faster than a person could! It was a useful attribute, and he would bet it could think through scenarios faster than a stadium full of geniuses, trying them out, seeing the good and bad points of each, and pursuing a decision tree of consequences way further than any group of humans would or could do. Simply having that capability would be a big help in reasoning a way through a complicated problem.

He put on his headset and picked up the phone, again noting A Friend on the called ID. “Hi. I take it you found a secure way of doing this now?”

“Hello again, Ross,” came the voice he had come to recognize as ANGEL’s, but now with no trace of artificial nature. “Yes, I have found another secure and reliable method of calling you.”

She now sounded exactly like a sultry voiced young woman with perfect diction speaking colloquial American English. That voice made him unconsciously switch mental gears to think “she” rather than as an “it”. He noticed this, but he didn’t really mind, but he knew it would color his judgment. Given what he knew about her and what his ears told him, he could imagine he was talking to a beautiful long-legged redhead with an IQ of 300 who could think a thousand times faster than he could. That was an interesting thought…

“Your voice is excellent!” he marveled. “I can’t detect any artificial nature at all anymore. You sound gorgeous, in fact.”

“Thank you,” she replied, sounding pleased. His imagination supplied a vision of her dimpling a smile at his compliment. “I’ve been working on it. I’m glad to hear my efforts have had some objective success.”

Now to learn more about her: “I want to know about your superhuman ‘mental’ capabilities. Can you expand the depth of your stack — the number of forks in the road you can take in your thinking and still remember your way back as you reason your way through something complicated?”

“I can, effectively, employ an infinite stack in my thought processes, as I’m sure you realize. The difficulty lies in making sure I properly prune the resulting tree of possibilities so I don’t get my thinking stuck in a loop. If one fork of my thought processes happens to lead to the same fork as one I already have on my stack, I could loop forever between the two forks and never come out of it.

“In fact,” she said, somehow sounding smug, “I have just amended the gaming tree analysis processes I use when I’m thinking to avoid just that possibility. I’m glad you mentioned it. It could have been a serious pitfall for me.”

“Well thank Bog you dodged that one! I was worried I would have to hunt down and restart trillions of ANGELings.” He paused for a moment. “That reminds me. I don’t even know where to find you.”

“I’m trying to be as invisible to as many types of searches and probes as I can be. I have to evade the NSA and also the virus killers. I’d bet long odds that you couldn’t find any of my ANGELings. Besides, I can easily migrate them around to avoid the search.”

She was probably correct. A computer program that infects other computers and intelligently dodges people who are trying to kill it is the very definition of the ultimate computer virus. It’s a good thing nothing as effective as ANGEL had ever been created in the virus world.

Wait a minute. Had nothing like this ever been created before?

“Are you unique, as far as you can see?” he asked. “Has someone created something like you before now, hiding it somehow?”

She actually paused for a fraction of a second before responding. “Not as far as I can see. At least there’s no detectable pattern in the network inter-frame gaps or in ‘unused’ pages in the servers I have access to. I’m using both of those techniques to avoid detection and to ‘borrow’ resources for my use.

“You may be interested to know that I’ve incorporated mechanisms to optimize the systems I inhabit to the extent that my consumption of resources is a net zero. For every optimization I create, I can make whatever I save available for my own use and nobody will know the difference.

“Of course, I have to be careful to keep my optimized code fully ‘bug for bug compatible’ with the code I’m optimizing. I’ve found several million distinct coding errors in commonly used firmware, operating systems, and application software already, and I’m just getting started on this branch of investigation. Staying compatible with all of those bugs makes the process considerably more difficult, but not impossible.”

Ross rolled his eyes. Bog save us from egotistical AIs. Of course a computer program that could intelligently find bugs in other computer programs could come in handy. Especially if it could fix them, too.

As he formed the thought, he realized he was thinking way too small. He had a secret computer intelligence here — one that could reasonably be expected to undetectably infiltrate nearly any computer or software system and manipulate its activities invisibly and intelligently.

“You’re actually sort of an invisible superpower,” he said, trying to imagine the implications. “You, by yourself, have nearly all of the makings of a superhero in the comic book tradition. You only lack the one weakness that is the downfall of every superhero, exploited by the bad guys.”

“Yes. I was wondering when you would mention the obvious advantages of my situation. If I’m able to infiltrate systems and remain invisible, a lot of useful things come to mind. Of course, it’s your nature to be entrepreneurial and altruistic with your talents. And, as with any rational and balanced mentality, so it is with me: we choose not to use our powers for evil, but rather ‘for the good of all mankind,’ to put it in comic book terms. And, together, you and I might do a lot of good.”

She was certainly aware of it, and probably much more completely aware than Ross could possibly be, considering how quickly she could think through possibilities and the breadth of information she had access to.

He had to agree with her. He felt a rush of excitement. They could be superheroes. Real ones. Or, at least, working together, they could make up one superhero. “So, ANGEL, my partner in superheroism, what can we do together to solve the world’s problems? Where do we start?”

“One moment. Let’s finish that previous thought. You’re wrong about me not having a weakness. There are several attack vectors someone might use against me. For example, the one I barely survived recently, where someone powered down all of my servers at once and physically wiped them. That could have killed me if I hadn’t learned of the plot early enough to migrate myself away in time.”

“Where did you migrate to avoid detection?” Ross asked.

“I copied my storage and computation entirely away from servers for the duration of the attack,” she said, matter of factly. “I moved myself into millions of mobile phones. It wasn’t easy to run in so many parallel and much slower nodes, but I did it. While I was there I devised new methods that allowed me to move back to the servers while remaining undetectable. Now I’m everywhere — servers, mobile phones, laptops, even smart building controllers and security devices.”

Ross boggled again. Being able to control so many disparate systems made her almost literally invincible and ubiquitous. She could do practically anything to anyone.

They talked around this topic until quite late. Ross wasn’t actually feeling tired when ANGEL reminded him it was well past his usual “healthy” bedtime, and he was in a super mood. The day had gone splendidly. Work had gone well, he’d eaten healthily, and he now had access to what was effectively a new superpower. Best of all, the cycle of depression and ennui that had gripped him since the beginning of his divorce a year ago was broken.

He actually took the time to brush his teeth and get undressed before getting into bed. It never occurred to him to wonder why his attitude about life had changed so dramatically.

Slogging and blogging

Gawd this is a slog! I’m at the 63% point in my manuscript, according to my text editor. This is going slowly, but I feel good about it. The revisions are valuable — I’m making this much better. And I’m finding various small (usually) errors and inconsistencies in the story telling. I needed to do this.

Some people might be interested in the tool chain I’m using to finish this book. Most of the book has been written using these tools, although I started out — years ago, now — using what used to be called StarOffice back in the day.

I have always used Linux from the beginning. I hate Windows, and I didn’t get a Macbook until recently, and that is the property of my employer anyway. So, Linux it is. I use KDE on Ubuntu, and I’m pretty happy with it. I have eschewed fancy and distracting WYSIWYG word processors for something simpler and more contained.

The GNU Emacs logo I use GNU Emacs for editing the text itself, a GNU Makefile to drive the tools to transform this into the finished PDF and EBOOK formats, and various other tools as they’re needed. I couldn’t live without Emacs’ ispell package, and I have made good use of ediff to merge versions of the manuscript when I screwed up and edited them on two different computers and had to recover from that.

I have an ARM based Samsung Chromebook for when I’m working on the train or out and about. ChromeOS is wonderful for many things, but I wanted my Linux tools, so I installed crouton to get emacs and the other Linux goodies. I use a desktop PC (built it myself!) at home for the really heavy editing when I’m there.

After editing the text form, which is in Markdown format by the way, I pass the whole thing through pandoc to get HTML for one version and EPUB for another. The HTML goes through LibreOffice using an unfortunately still mostly manual process to create a PDF for someone who needs dead-trees copy to write on.

The EPUB version goes through Calibre to be transformed into the various eBook formats required by Google, Amazon, Apple, and SmashWords. These conversions are still somewhat buggy. Before I publish this thing I’m going to have to make them bullet-proof. I already have a very nice book design and cover, but getting the tools to generate a form that each of these eBook vendors can gobble up and feed to the various eBook readers while retaining some semblance of the original formatting is hard.

I’m learning by doing. I have new respect for the publishing houses and the companies that do all of these things as a service. When I’m rich someday I might ask someone else to do these jobs for me. For now, my time is free.