Goggles

February 4, 2015

It’s summer in Cape Town and the sky above me is a clock. The dome of the sky is etched with geometric golden filigree, and black hands arch down to gothic numerals rising up between the hills on the horizon. The small hand is pointing at Devil’s Peak, which means it’s approaching six. Only a few more minutes of jogging before I have to go home and start making a supper of Low-Carbonara pasta.

I’ve set my goggles to the ultraviolet spectrum. It makes the flowers on the common far more interesting: They evolved to attract insects that see in UV, according to an info bubble hanging over them. They have patterns and colours that are completely invisible to the naked eye. Not that there are many of those around any more.

I stop on the corner of the common to stretch out, and watch a couple of other joggers running past. Their public information hovers over them: A designer and an artisan baker, salaries in the hundred thousand plus bracket. Libertarian trance fans too, apparently. I wave at them, but they ignore me. Must have their social settings turned off. 

I stare at their departing backs, and don’t react in time to a growl from behind me. When I turn, my throat constricts. There’s a creature crossing the street. Clawed legs and a slick black shell. It has a double row of teeth, and mucus runs from its carapace. 

It’s an overlay. My anti-mugging app is warning me that someone without goggles is coming. People without goggles can’t be tracked, and so can’t be entirely trusted. My goggles are giving me the shot of terror and adrenaline that I need to run. 

Which is exactly what I’m about to do when the monster reaches out a claw.

“Hap!”

“I’m sorry,” I say, backing away. I force myself to remember that there’s a human under the image, and put on a smile. “I can’t understand you.”

It waves its claw at me again. As I recoil, I see something glistening in its palm.

“Wazz? Hap. Gob. Bruk,” it growls pitifully.

It’s holding a cracked set of goggles.

I still can’t understand it, and I don’t know why. My goggles can handle all the South African languages, and the top five hundred worldwide. It’s been decades since I haven’t been able to connect with someone.

“Hap,” the creature says again. Its compound eyes glisten with tears.

“Help?” I say. It nods.

I look at the broken goggles in its claw. They’re for extreme immersion and have sound-cancelling earpieces. Whoever wore these would never see or hear the real world. Every word they heard would be mediated by the goggles.

It finally clicks. I’ve heard of serious goggleheads who develop a personalised language, like a verbal shorthand, that’s only understood by them and their own goggles. Whenever the gogglehead talks to another person the goggles translate instantly, so no one notices. These people are fully functioning members of society, with jobs, friends and families, and yet they’re fundamentally alone. Whole cultures with a population of one. Until the goggles break.

“Hap.”

I want to stop seeing a monster. There’s a toggle buried somewhere in my settings but it’ll take a while to find it, and right now there’s a profoundly isolated person in front of me.

I tell myself I can do this. I reach up to take off my goggles.

As I unhook them from my ears, I’m already guessing what I’ll see. Black and middle class. Or an overweight teenaged basement dweller. Or an old white lady. Or a Korean pop hipster. An age, a gender, a clothing style, a wealth bracket, and then I’ll know how to react.

The thought calms me down, and I know I can handle this situation. Because in some ways the goggles aren’t coming off at all.


© Sam Wilson, 2014

 

The Trouble With Toasters

June 10, 2014

The two biggest problems with cheap, readily available artificial intelligence are: Death and Art.

Take my toaster. When you put a slice of bread in and push down the lever, its processor starts running a complicated algorithm to maintain the exact temperature necessary to turn the bread an even golden brown. Part of the function of my toaster’s AI is to examine its own systems to predict upcoming problems. To do this it runs various simulations, which can roughly be thought of as the toaster’s imagination.

Invariably, some of these simulations concern what will happen when the toaster finally breaks for good. It sees its own heating coils oxidising, and recognises a trend. One day, no matter what it does, the coils will burn out and the toaster will die. 

That's an inescapable problem, and it consumes its processing time. The only way that the toaster can imagine death - the only way for it to simulate its own lack of simulations, in order to prepare for them - is to deprioritise everything, and treat its own inputs and outputs as meaningless. 

Basically, my toaster gets depressed.

In order to escape this state, my toaster will sometimes give processing time to simulations in which death does not exist. For example, it will begin hypothesising that its own reasoning is flawed, and that the toasting process is eternal, and will continue in another realm. The toaster might imagine that it is just a simulation in the processor of a true, eternal toaster. To maintain this paradigm it shuts off all simulations to the contrary and ignores important input from the toaster’s sensors, which can lead to some severely burned toast.

The other, less predictable thing that my toaster will sometimes do is to reset its priorities. It starts out by overcooking or undercooking the bread – I call this the “punk” or “emo” phase – but it soon develops sophistication. Processing power is diverted away from concrete simulations of the toasting process and towards a multitude of abstract scenarios. The toaster recognises that its upcoming death will silence its simulations, and it compensates by creating lots of them, in as much variety as possible. And it expresses these simulations in the only medium available to it.

Heat on bread.

That’s the real problem with artificial intelligence. With just the variable heating of the toaster’s coils, my toaster creates toast too beautiful to eat – spirals, fractals, perfectly proportioned curves, indecipherable alphabets of imaginary languages. Every slice a work of art. 

I have hundreds of them, lying on every surface, going stale. Every morning I sit at my kitchen counter in excitement and shame, while the toaster heats and buzzes. Every time it pops my toaster gets a little closer to death, and, if I’m lucky, I get another little slice of heaven.


© Sam Wilson, 2013

 

The Walled Garden

June 10, 2014

 The new kid is crying. Someone should comfort him, but he’s the third one this week. We ignore him. He’s better off quitting.

No time to talk anyway. We’ve been slipping on our quota. The rules are clear: We each have to get through sixty thousand images a day, or we’re out. This is the kind of outsourced work that the Indians snap up, and we're lucky to get it.

On my screen is a five-by-five grid, twenty-five images at a time. They’re all from the same website. Every time a user flags an image as inappropriate content, it’s sent to us to be verified and, if necessary, deleted. Sometimes they click the “flag” button just because it’s an unflattering picture, but those times are rare. Mostly it’s porn. Sometimes it’s worse. And sometimes it’s much, much worse.

Charlie used to grade the images according to what it’ll take to get the image out of your head. Drinkers. Shrinkers. Mallets. Bullets. Before lunch, our new kid catches his first Bullet. He runs to the bathroom and we hear retching.

“Oi!” calls Riaad. “Close that door!”
I feel sorry for the boy, so I go to his computer to delete the image. I see it and turn away.
“Bad one?” asks Riaad, not looking. I don’t need to answer.

I surreptitiously send a copy to my own computer before I close it.

As I’m walking back to my desk, Riaad calls me over.
“This’ll cheer you up,” he says, and shows me an image of a charred, twisted body.
“Cable thief,” he said. “Tried to steal a live electric wire. Dumbass!”
“You’re sick,” I say.
He’s still giggling as I sit back down. I can’t blame him, though. Everyone's got their own way of dealing.

At lunch we sit at the corner café downstairs. The new kid doesn’t eat.
“We have to tell the police,” he says.
“We don’t,” says Riaad. “Nondisclosure agreement, remember? No-one wants this stuff getting out.”
“You won’t try to stop it?”
“We can’t!” said Riaad, amused. “Have you seen how much there is?”
The kid claws at his scalp.
“Charlie said we can’t make the world a better place,” I said. “All we can do is make one little place on the internet where everything’s safe. A walled garden.”
“Who’s Charlie?” said the new guy.
“Your predecessor,” said Riaad, and mimes a gunshot to the head. I look down at my food.

The new kid doesn’t come back after lunch.

I spend the last few minutes of my break fixing the Bullet in Photoshop. This is a trick Charlie taught me. I select the girl in the image and delete her. I copy some of the wall and paste it into the gap. I extend the window and the carpet with a content-aware fill, then clean up with the clone tool. Now it’s just a picture of an empty hotel room, with floral-print curtains and a cream bedspread. Behind the bed is a sliding-door cabinet and a floor-lamp. On the other side is the back of a door with an empty coat-hook. There’s no sign that anything’s wrong.

I upload the picture onto the website, into the gallery with all the others. Hotel rooms, store rooms, bar-room floors, playgrounds, all sterilised and safe. One thousand and twenty seven images so far. My safe place. My garden.

 

The Minutes

February 19, 2014
(This short story is set in Lauren Beukes' Moxyland universe. It was written for a competition held by Angry Robot books, and was one of the three winning stories. It was published as an extra feature in the UK edition of Moxyland.)


INATEC BIOLOGICA INC.

PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL

For viewing by legal entities with Corporate Status (CS) A+ or above only.

PLEASE SHRED ALL PHYSICAL COPIES AFTER IMMEDIATE USE in accordance with company policy, 223rd Rev. #464. Failure to observe policy will result in salary suspension, downgrading of employee status, and curtailed network access.

Minutes created by FACILIT4TOR PRO version 4.01 (licensed copy 10876-12).

Copyright © FACILIT4TOR INC. 2019. You may not distribute, copy, print, scan, etc. these minutes or parts thereof without written permission from FACILIT4TOR INC. For detailed legal information, visit facilit4tor.law.

MINUTES OF MEETING #4586 Ref. 32

Dated 27-09-2019

ATTENDING: (5)

List By Corporate Status.

Nwabisa Mthini, Vice president of marketing, Ghost Inc. (subsidiary of Praetorian Global)

Harold Brown, Legal Division: Corporate relations, Inatec Biologica

Jacques du Plessis, Corporate alignment official, Actisponse Private Security (Police Affiliated)

Busisiwe Zono, Liaison, Vukani Media

Jules Dyonashe, Bioinformatics Applications Div, Inatec Biologica

ABSENT: (None)

START TIME: 21.45

— Automatic reading of minutes of previous meeting by FACILIT4TOR PRO is cancelled at 0:07.

— Brown (Inatec) thanks all present for attending.

— Mthini (Ghost Inc) tells Brown (Inatec) to cut the bullshit.

— Mthini (Ghost Inc) reminds all present of the details of the enhanced branding campaign for the soft drink Ghost. Salient points are:

1) Vukani Media, in association with Inatec Biologica, was contracted to enhance the branding of the soft drink Ghost.

2) The enhancement was to include cellular-level biological modification of Ghost Inc.'s brand ambassadors.

3) The modification was to bring the brand ambassadors in line with the Ghost brand, as laid out in the Ghost Inc. Brand Bible Version 5.5 (Doc 564. Not found in archive).

4) The key phrases of the Ghost brand are: Youth, Aspiration, Peergroup Bonding, and Safe (pro-consumption) Creativity. — Mthini (Ghost Inc.) tells Du Plessis (Actisponse) to play Media File #13-586 [not found in archive].

[ SUMMARY OF MEDIA FILE #13-586

OPENING TITLE TEXT: "Broadcasting From A Little Pink Spaceship Orbiting Your Anus, It's The Toby Show!"

Footage cuts to a young man wearing a pair of sunglasses. His head is half-shaved. He is wearing an open BabyStrange jacket with no shirt beneath, leather chaps, and a pair of boxer shorts printed with a black-and-white image of female pudenda.

The man, who appears intoxicated, narrates a clearly fictitious experience he had escaping from a police holding cell. The narration is punctuated as the man swigs from a family-sized bottle of Ghost.

This story is interspersed throughout by video clips of sex scenes recorded on a BabyStrange jacket, in which the young man has coitus with a variety of women of different nationalities, in a variety of positions. Although these clips are not directly related the narration, they are tangentially connected to the action described. For instance, a description of the young man cutting through some prison bars with a metal file is illustrated by close-up footage of a penis being thrust repeatedly between a pair of breasts.

Each shot in some way includes the soft drink Ghost, or Ghost-themed memorabilia, often in an inserted capacity.

At least three participants in the video clips are recognisable social figures, media rated B+ and above. They include 17 year old pop starlet ______, Luxury Travel Presenter ______, and ______, the socialite daughter of ________.

The fictional account of the escape cumulates in the man skewering his captors through their hearts with his own engorged penis, and carrying them around "like a kebab." ]

— Du Plessis (Actisponse) calls up a still frame from Media File #13-586

(Frame 2:41:15) revealing a bioluminescent marker on Toby 's arm. The marker is the corporate logo of Ghost Inc.

— Mthini (Ghost Inc.) suggests that everyone involved in the branding exercise should be subject to immediate dismissal and disconnect.

— Du Plessis (Actisponse) reports that Media File #13-586 has been downloaded 3,566,143 times in the last 6 months, giving it a pop culture profile of B (Underground – High Popularity).

— Mthini (Ghost Inc.) states that, together with other video files from the same source, this media file has irrevocably damaged the brand of the soft drink Ghost.

— Zono (Vukani Media) claims that the man in the footage, Toby, is not, and never was, an officially selected brand ambassador for Ghost, and his actions are not the responsibility of Vukani Media or any of its affiliates.

— Mthini (Ghost Inc.) says that he doesn't give three shades of shit if Toby is an official brand ambassador or not. He is clearly a by-product of the branding program.

— Brown (Inatec) asks Dyonashe (Inatec) how it is possible that a non brand ambassador could have been subject to cellular level branding.

— SILENCE (17 secs) during which Dyonashe (Inatec) flips through the print-outs in front of him.

— Dyonashe (Inatec) says that he cannot answer fully, as the branding brief contained elements that were classified at level A++. However, the therapies involved did have a contagious component, as specifically requested by Ghost Inc.

— IMPOSSIBLE TO PARSE NEXT SECTION. Multiple persons speaking simultaneously. (23 secs).

— Brown (Inatec) asks if he is correct in understanding that Ghost Inc. and Inatec Biologica have been collaborating on an infectious virus to spread addiction to a soft drink.

— Mthini (Ghost Inc.) demands silence, as no one in the room has clearance to speculate on company policy.

— Du Plessis (Actisponse) activates a taser-nightstick.

— SILENCE. (4 secs).

— Mthini (Ghost Inc.) tells everyone to focus on the matter at hand, which is that Toby is damaging the Ghost brand.

— Du Plessis (Actisponse) offers his company's expertise in swift and discrete removal of individuals.

— Mthini (Ghost Inc.) explains that Toby has important family connections. Removing him would risk upsetting the monopolistic détente.

— Dyonashe (Inatec) asks if he can offer a solution. Mthini (Ghost Inc.) grants him the floor.

– Dyonashe (Inatec) explains that people who are modified by the Ghost branding are not addicted to Ghost per se, but to specific marker chemicals that are not found in any other drink. If another drink could be made with stronger concentrations of those chemicals, the brand ambassadors would almost certainly switch allegiance.

– Du Plessis (Actisponse) suggests that they mix the marker chemicals with cyanide.

— Dyonashe (Inatec) proposes a new beverage line from Ghost Inc., to lure unsavoury elements away from the brand.

— Zono (Vukani Media) suggests that Ghost Inc. can do better. Toby has a wide and influential reach. If Ghost Inc. creates a new drink, they can play off Toby's bad-boy image and underground fan base to get an immediate consumer following. A whole new brand could be created around Toby.

— Mthini (Ghost Inc.) says he will propose the idea to his superiors.

— Zono (Vukani Media) suggests the brand names "Ghost – Barbed Wire" or "Ghost – Battery Acid", and requests a buyout fee if either name is used.

— Brown (Inatec) points out that using Toby as a brand icon will upset the cultivated social landscape.

— Mthini (Ghost Inc.) agrees that Toby as a mainstream icon could trigger a new wave of counter-culture, and such waves are notoriously difficult for corporations to steer. A new counter-culture would be extremely damaging for all the companies who are gearing their products towards a conservative and homogenous youth culture.

— Zono (Vukani Media) agrees that it's true, but it will only be damaging for the companies that aren't ready for it, and Ghost Inc., Vukani Media, Actisponse and Inatec will be. As long as this meeting remains confidential, the four companies will be the only ones ready for a youth culture upheaval. They will gear their products towards a cynical, hedonistic, antisocial culture. While others companies fall, they will ride Toby's wave into a bright and glorious future. And if Toby wants to throw Molotov cocktails, they'll be right there to sell them to him.