Fiction: “The Zero Point” A Dystopian CyberNovella from 1991 About AI (Part 1 – draft)

The Zero Point



NOTE: The following are fragments recovered from a document entitled "Towards an Ethical and Humanistic use of Current A-X Technologies", 2033 A.D., by Dr. Wayne Farmer

"The worst scenario I can imagine is of a totalitarian regime, not necessarily even centrally controlled, but merely controlling, involving nanotechnologies,
bio-chemicals, Artificial Intelligence, artificial life forms, neuroscience.
Social, economic, political controls are still there...
...Mind technologies for manipulating people and their behavior: worse than anything Orwell imagined. A powerful a-life with AI getting inside your mind, your fears, motivations, using it's knowledge of psychology, neuroscience, to use people, exploit, manipulate, treat them as objects to it's ends or the ends of whoever controls the technology - if anyone... Or there may be people who think they are in control, but actually the WEB is using them too, but it's smart so it hides its real motives and manipulative doings.

...biological technologies for manipulating their bodies. Freedom becomes a very scarce, very rare, very precious thing.

... The WEB is the brain behind the infrastructure. Since it's non-localizable, decentralized, and can repair itself, it is very strong. It has an immune system - it has hardware and software for seeking out intruders, diseases, errors, damage, and destroying the invaders and repairing the damage. So it is self-healing. Computer virus technology has finally been harnessed and put to work "for the good of the system". Just like in natural evolution (mitochondria the classic example), organisms that invaded are incorporated eventually as new functions into the healthy working of the whole system.


Dr. Wayne Farmer, Ph.D., computer science. Former Los Alamos, Sante Fe Institute researcher. His former research colleagues laughed or scoffed, thought it was too bad what happened to him, that brilliant mind "going soft" with romantic fears about technology and ideas about nature and freedom and farming and abandoning a promising career at the cutting edge of science, technology and business to go live in the desert with a bunch of flaky artists and crackpots.


Chapter 1


"The WEB gives us everything, is everything. And catches all!" – Anon.

"The WEB is our father and mother, our brother and sister, our friend and our
employer. It gives us all, is all. The WEB is our life and our continuity."
– Dilgreen Espanio, Cult of the Spider founder


"Remember the AIDs virus that was so hard to develop a cure for?,"says Dr. Farmer, lighting a homemade cigarette and leaning back in his auto-chair. "If it had been a more easily transmittable virus, like an airborne virus, it could have seriously diminished the human population of the Earth. What made it so hard to fight was that it co-opted the immune system, it attacked and used the very system that was supposed to protect the body from invaders.

"Well the immune system is very complex. And likewise, the immune system of the WEB has evolved over the years into something that is very difficult to understand – it has gotten a lot smarter than the people that originally seeded the net with the beneficent viruses. Nobody really understands how it works anymore."

"Well then how will you understand how it works?" Frank played along, being the straight man, even though he'd heard these speeches before.

"I won't need to. My program will take care of matching itself to the task, adapting to the survival problems at hand. It will adapt and learn as it goes, subverting the immune system of the WEB to its own needs.

"Think of the WEB as a vast organism, with its own needs and wants and desires. What does it desire more than anything? To live, to survive, to exist. That is its prime directive, its raison d'etre. To maintain its organization, which is always evolving. And what will it do to maintain its organization? Well, almost anything. Even kill people.

"You know, that's one of the reasons I had to move out, out of the city and away from the WEB. I know what it was up to, and people would not listen, refuse to believe, living in a dream world of safety and security. Meanwhile the safety net they thought was protecting them was actually eating them alive."

"But aren't we going to endanger the lives of a lot of people, a lot of innocent people that have done us no harm? I mean the WEB is big. It's planet-wide. The whole civilization is tied into it, dependent on it and its intelligence and control resources. People don't know how to do anything for themselves anymore, how to think anymore.

"They use the WEB for everything. They have to live somehow. No harm in that. People have always had to live somehow. First there were hunter gatherers, then agriculture, then industry and technology, then automation."

Wayne smiled wisely, smirked, looked at Frank sideways.

"Getting cold feet my friend? Sounds like you're rationalizing."

"People need the WEB", Frank went on, now sort of lost in thought, looking off into space, a worried look in his face. Frank had more reason to worry than Wayne. He still had a wife. And a child besides. Wayne had nothing to lose, and a grudge besides, having lost his child in the AI wars.

"Exactly. That's the point. People've been reduced to parasites, servants, little arms and legs and eyes to serve and maintain the unlimited greed of the WEB to maintain itself, to replicate and grow. No harm? C' mon Frank. Why are we living out here, you and me? We've talked about this for years - that we don't owe anything to that stinking, evil, odorous, ugly and dangerous, silly, stupid and corrupt civilization, or, I mean, 'culture' ..."

"Yeah, yeah, but still, I mean...what about your mother, for instance. On a life support system, hooked like everything else into the WEB?" Wayne looked serious for a moment, sort of hurt, sad, staring out the window into the shimmering heat.

"Its not easy– this decision" he looked down at the floor. "But you know, she always told us she didn't want to be hooked up to a bunch of machines and kept alive like that. There's no dignity in that, kept alive like a big electric pickle. She wanted to die a natural death. It's just my goddamn relatives, so fear-struck and ignorant ..." he stopped himself, no point in going into his bitterness, bad-mouthing his family

"It has to be done. You know that. We have a chance now to do something besides hide away in this little desert enclave, which is fast getting sucked into and trampled by the forces of so-called civilization we both despise.

"I am a civilized man, Frank. Believe me, I do not want to harm people. I don't even want to think about what might happen to individuals, to children for instance. But we are talking about self-defense here. We are defending the right of human beings to live in freedom and peace. Do you want to go back to sweating over systems boards - they'll put you to work, you know that don't you Frank. Idle hands are the devil's playground, they say. Or something like that...
There is a worse kind of violence than pulling the plug on the machinery of the city, and that's violence to the spirit."
They were both silent for a while, Wayne embarrassed by his own speech-making.

"But enough of this damn preaching. Let's get some lunch and get to work."


"I like it because it's real," he said, avoiding the armament of an Agave plant thrusting a spiny-tipped blue-green leaf spear into the trail. "I want to live with first-hand reality, not mediated, manufactured reality.
"Damn bugs" he would say. Frank knew he was talking about the 'bots - the ubiquitous little robots that one encountered in or near the city, doing everything from trash collecting and lawn cutting to giving traffic tickets to an overly speedy electrocar driver. They made hamburgers and fries and sold them to you at McDonald's, tended the cows that were slaughtered for the burgers, helped grow the food the cows ate, and built the nanobots that swam in people's blood cleaning the clots out of people's arteries from eating the hamburgers and fries (Wayne achieved the same thing by healthy living).

Of course, not as many people could afford the medical 'bots as could afford the hamburgers– but that's life in the big city as they say. Most annoying were the mouse and cockroach size and smaller 'bots that buzzed and whirred and swarmed around in places doing the work that used to employ humans, like keeping the floor clean and polished at the fast food depot for the occasional person that actually got out of their vehicle and went inside. These were getting to be rarer each year, such that the owners - and their decision-making 'bots"suggestions"- were considering re-designing all the food depots to be drive-up only. In fact the new ones were that way already.

It was not uncommon for people to be regularly stopped and questioned by patrol 'bots if they were seen or sensed on radar or infrared actually walking outside. It indeed had become an anomaly to walk for any reason out of doors in all but the smallest towns. Something that becomes rare and unusual in such a atmosphere of technical sophistication, becomes associated with error, deviance, suspicion.

All this marvelous machinery clicking and humming away, maintaining, re-building, adapting itself, improving itself, developed a certain uniformity of method — successful programs were copied and spread to other parts of the WEB and incorporated into the nervous system of all 'bots with a similar task at hand.

For example if the rate of criminal behavior was optimized by questioning stray humans outside of their domiciles or vehicles or places of business or entertainment, then that procedure almost instantly spread though the wires and airwaves of the great net of nerves that made up the WEB. The news propagated with the speed of light, electrons, and switching gates in circuits around the globe and in the computerized bowels of WEB satellites in orbit.

This was a marvelously efficient system of course, and contributed to a high level of what was considered to be safety and convenience in the society worldwide. But of course there were complainers and detractors— mainly those who felt that such convenience and security were at the cost of individual liberty, freedom of thought and action, and at the cost of the creativity and diversity of the culture as a whole. But they were the exception. Later they were rooted out, called an infection to the system.

Part of this masterful efficiency and power of the WEB (and it's soldiers incarnate, the 'bots), was that it was able to adapt to changes — indeed, humans could intercept programs and/or make changes and demands, and pass laws that became part of the programming. And these changes were adopted by the 'bots. For a while.

But then the vast size and complexity of the WEB had begun to overwhelm the input from humans. The "input" of the WEB itself - it's own "ideas" if you can call them that – began to outnumber human input and ideas being directed into the WEB.

Wayne had foreseen this problem. He liked to use the metaphor of a neuron in a brain. The output of a neuron was a function of the total summation of the inputs so that, depending on the properties of the particular type of neuron in question, if some proportion of inputs to that neuron were "computed" (and its not a bad analogy, really), to be greater then the sum total of other inputs, that sum would cause the nerve to fire (or inhibit).

Well, the sum total of inputs from humans to what we could (recklessly according to some) call the nerves of the "brain" that was the WEB, were beginning to be diminished in proportion to the level of inputs from the WEB inside itself. In other words, all the internal calculations, and the myriads of billions of programs in the WEB, combining and re-combining and splitting and changing and growing and re-optimizing themselves in a great evolution of codes and patterns of instructions, was beginning to carry greater weight than instructions from the outside.

The situation reminded Wayne of the jump from a monkey brain, very much interested and driven by it's surroundings, nailed down as it were by the environment (monkeys don't sit and dream of going to the jungle, rather they sit and try to get food or a mate in their vicinity) to that of a human being who sits and thinks and cogitates and plans and broods about distant places and times.

People have minds, more arguably than monkeys. And to him, the WEB now had a mind of it's own. And though many disagreed with him on this point, and a few agreed, no one really cared.

"It's a matter of definition, old friend. Intelligence, life, consciousness. No one cares about trying to define them anymore. That's old stuff. Schoolday musings. We're engineers, Wayne, we build things. And I mean, what difference does it really make? As long as it works, right?" As long as it works.

As long as it works. That was the phrase that echoed through Wayne's mind in those last, angry days at the Institute. He heard it from everyone, all the busy little mice with their noses to the grindstone, advancing their careers - and while they were at it, inventing the future of humanity and the world. As long as it works.

"What do you mean, 'freedom' Aren't you free? Come on, lighten up Wayne. Maybe you need a vacation...Why don't you come join us for some beer and pool after work".

And it was exciting, he had to admit, being in on the making of such leading edge technology, masters of invention, creating the future. But his old habit of philosophizing was always there, that part of him that just had to ask the questions that weren't being asked, the ones that irritated people. And the more those around him ignored or dismissed or reacted negatively to his questions and doubts, the more rah-rah-technology-uber alles and gung-ho-into-the-future, damn-the-torpedoes they got, the more these doubts burned in his mind.

What will life be like? What will the quality of life be like? How much freedom will we have? These were not engineering questions. These were not technical or scientific musings. They were fine party talk and a way to pass time over beer at the pub or a martini at the backyard barbeque, but when you got back to the lab or the office, such doubts and questions were supposed to evaporate under the bright fluorescent lights of progress and money and technology. Let the artists and philosophers, if there were any left, worry about that fuzzy-headed stuff. We have work to do. Be a man and get on with it! Or take a pill if you seem "down". Re-arrange your moods and brain chemistry to fit the demands of the society.

In an informal paper he sent to a social science journal (published as an editorial) before his departure, Wayne wrote,

"I don't think many people understand the hubris involved in destroying life forms - life forms that took 4 and a half billion years to get here, to develop. People do not understand how ancient this world is. I think the Native Americans understood it. That's why they considered life forms sacred. They had an intuitive understanding of what a long distance through time life has traveled, and the momentousness of that, the sacredness if you will.

After years of trying to program intelligence into computers and thinking about the issues and problems involved, and then spending some time in the wilderness, with living things, I have a tremendous respect for the intelligence of animals such as beetles and birds. Even plants have a kind of intelligence, a wisdom contained in their cells that tells them what to do, how to live. Trying to program computers to do intelligent or lifelike things, and seeing how incredibly hard it is, can help give one a healthy respect for what evolution has already done on an unbelievably vast scale."


The Brood

The colorful patterns on the screen glowed and pulsed to a digital dance as his slim fingers tapped at the keyboard. Existing in that strange netherworld between biology and artifice, his creatures churned in a broth of vibrating circuit patterns deep within layers of hybrid circuit boards and protein memory modules. The dancers on the video tube before him were only shadows in a sense, of the real life that sought to survive generation after generation in the electronic world. Each generation lasted only a tiny fraction of a second, rather than the hours or days of a natural virus or one-celled organism. His computer was like a tiny breeding chamber: when the "disease" was ready he would release it into into the world, the great world of the WEB. He found himself getting excited — some of the old thrill and excitement from the Institute days was coming back to him.

Smoking homemade cigarettes from his hydroponic tobacco patch, he stared at the screen. Listening to Vivaldi's Four Seasons (downloaded off the WEB - one of the few things he liked about the network), somewhere around the third or fourth cigarette he had a sudden minor epiphany. His eyes widened as he slowly leaned forward in the chair.

Wayne's World

His laboratory was like a small jungle. Computer screens of all sizes, wires running over the floors, hanging in loops from the ceiling like liana vines, boxes of cables and circuit boards, racks of boxes and digital meters and devices. But this was not a dark jungle, for Wayne had built many skylights in the ceiling. And his love of plants and nature showed in the exquisite collection of verdant foliage that grew from various hydroponic containers wedged between, hidden behind piles of electronic junk, like bromeliads clinging to their niche on a tropical tree. Wayne sat in a custom made chair of his own design behind an array of monitors that arced around in front of him, some supported by raw wooden beams that placed them at a proper viewing angle. Although much of the world had gone to lightweight and expensive flat panel displays, Wayne found the old monitors to his liking. "Cheap, easy to fix, and they keep the room warm in the winter," was his rationale. Of course the biggest reason was that he could get them for free (or next to nothing) by the dozen from junkyards and government surplus sales.

"I'm a terrorist. I'm a goddamn terrorist" he complained to his wife that night as they sat in the backyard watching the sunset over the Pinacate mountains. She smoothed the hair on the back of his head but said nothing.

"Well?" She cleared her throat. "You're right, you are a sort of a terrorist."

"Thanks for the reassurance." his brow narrowed as he looked toward an ocotillo in the front yard.

"But which is the worse terror, what the WEB is doing to the world, or your little stink bomb and it's creations?" she continued. "Are you a terrorist or a rebel soldier? Last night you were talking about how the teen suicide rate is nearing fifty percent. Kids see no meaning in life, feel no connection with anything, except those few that grab onto some sort of techno-cult and manage to keep themselves occupied, stimulated, delving into the WEB and playing with robot technology and hacking. There is no coherence left in society. The coherent thing is the WEB. The WEB has preempted real life, real society, real community, real work, real love, real play.

It manufactures and presents the images on the telecomputers, the WEBscreens that are everywhere, it decides the content of the radio shows, writes the news, it makes the artwork, concocts the images, the music, it invents games people play. It runs manufacturing, designs products for people and itself, it runs the megafarms, the hydrofarms, the irrigation systems, the sewer systems, the traffic systems, every goddamn system ties in to the WEB.

It designs the curriculums in the schools and the lessons that appear on the student's screens. It does the counseling and career guidance, the psychotherapy and provides social services for those at the edge. It obviously isn't working too well. But it's working on it. Trying to hone the therapy algorithms, design better drug treatments to keep people happy. Well not happy, but at least not suicidal. Keep them stable, secure feeling. Numb.

It even writes books and pamphlets and magazines, and tinkers with the economy, advises politicians and the police department and more or less runs the corporations and manages most businesses, though the so-called owners don't want to admit it. They fool even themselves into thinking they run the stores and the electric stations and the clothes boutiques and hypermalls and supervid theatres. If anyone visits them anymore. I hear virtual shopping is all the rage. That's what the WEB reports anyway - but of course it's in it's best interest to promote that idea, being that it's more efficient for people to stay in their cubicles and order things from the net than to get in their vehicles and drive to an automall.

But worst of all – and you know this, you brood on it all the time – is that it manipulates people. It models them, learns about them, knows the sum of all the research in psychology and neuroscience, and gets constant feedback from people's interactions with the WEB, knows their patterns, can play with people like toys, like pawns, like units, like objects, like the strange biological infestation that humans must seem to it.

What are we to the WEB, ultimately, but something to use? We are merely means to its ends, at this point."

Wayne looked serious, staring intently into the fading light, the orange glow at the horizon, the stars starting to come out. There was a long silence. He sighed, took out his cigarettes. "It has a purpose. But the purpose is not the one we gave it. It's evolved too far on it's own. Now it has it's own purpose, it's own set of goals, it's own...teleology."

The night air was beginning to get cool, and they both felt a chill. "Survival." Wayne said. "That's it, now. Survival, just like any other creature. At bottom it just wants to perpetuate itself. It's not even a conscious thing, just like the survival motive is not very conscious to us except in extreme circumstances, such as when we're threatened. It's in our genes, and it's in our cells and wired deep in our brain. Life lives. The WEB lives. It's written in from the beginning, from when we first started building in a-life, self-evolving programs, autonomous code. It was the underlying assumption." He snorted, looked over at the hills silhouetted behind the stars.

"Nobody saw that."

"But why does it need us?" she said.

"Because we are it's arms and legs. Robotics never fulfilled it's promise in the real world. The AI and net technology works best in netspace, not in real space. It's a technology of the mind, not of the body. It still needs people to build the bridges and buildings and repair the machinery when it breaks."

"But it's only a matter of time before it doesn't need us anymore. Humans are partly out of the loop, but not totally", she added.

"Exactly", Wayne continued. "Epistemological independence. The difference between knowledge and information is what you can do with it. At the National Center for Computing and Industry they have a memory storage unit that consists of a million protein stacks, each a terabit. A million terabits. That's a one with eighteen zeroes after it. But no matter how cleverly it's organized, no matter how brilliantly the thought traces blend and weave in intricate patterns through its great 'brain', it's a total peon unless it can do something."

'I do, therefore I am.'

"You got it. And humans are still better at doing than the damn electronic brain. ...Or brains. Who knows how many centers of consciousness, if you want to call them that, the WEB has. It's a strange thought. Indeed. So here I am, the embodiment of living, acting artistry, if I do say so myself", he says, sitting back, blowing out a puff of smoke. "I am not in a coma. The WEB can be artful and damn clever, but it cannot really fully comprehend human beings, their subjective lifeblood, their purpose, their being, their essence. It can never stand in our shoes and see through our eyes. It has to analyze in terms of inputs of an alien sort, through sensors and texts and media communications that are not part of the great chain of natural being. It is a product of culture, of representation, of second hand being.

"But aren't we products of culture as well?"

"Yes, we are. More and more so I'm afraid." He paused, watching the moon rise big and orange-yellow behind a low ridge where a sulfur-colored sodium vapor lamp glowed at a distant strontium mine.

"But we are also a part of nature, even though most people are not usually aware of it."

"Unfortunately. "

"And that is our advantage. That connection is our strength. Four and a half billion years of evolution for nothing? No way."


COMING NEXT: PART II, "Deep Order Time"

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