The End of Civilization

Jon came home from school in his usual way; he crashed through the kitchen door, dropped his bag on the floor, and opened the refrigerator. And, as usual, his grandfather was sitting at the dining room table reading the newspaper. “Pipe down boy!” He would yell as Jon silently mouthed the words along with him. What was unusual this day, was that after Jon fixed himself a snack he did not go up to his bedroom. Instead, he sat down at the dining room table and quietly ate.

There was a building tension in the room, his grandfather didn’t like to be bothered, but Jon was almost sixteen and was getting more and more courageous in dealing with his grandfather’s moods. It had been a solid five minutes since he finished his snack when, once again, he said to the back of the newspaper, “Grandpa? We spent yet another day in history class talking about the war with the machines. How the artificial intelligence that was supposed to be perfectly logical and foolproof went crazy and started bombing cities. Mom said you were there… that you worked on the AI. Is that what happened?”

A page of the newspaper was violently turned as his grandfather grumbled, “Go on, leave me alone. I don’t know anything about it.”

Usually Jon would leave at this, but this time he pressed, “But you were there, right? You know something. Did it really go crazy? What was that like?”

His grandfather began to fold up the paper with a mind to make an escape, but his old body wouldn’t move as confidently as he wanted. Finally he gave up and yelled, “I said go on and leave me alone!”

Seeing that he had him cornered, Jon continued, “Don’t you care? Over four billion people died in that war… if you were there, wouldn’t you want to share your experience, what you learned, so it wouldn’t happen again?”

His grandfather, not knowing what to do with himself, turned to the hutch behind him and grabbed a bottle of Scotch and a glass. He poured himself a tall glass and drank it down. He took a moment to breath, and then filled the glass again. “Is this why you drink so much? It seems like you are trying to kill yourself. Grandpa,.. what happened? What was so crazy about the machine to make you like this? Did you program the machine to kill people?”

Jon didn’t know if it was the Scotch or if he was just tired of being walled off, but his grandfather let out a big sigh and began to talk softly. “We were so proud… so full of ourselves. We designed and built a completely independent artificial consciousness. A computer that functioned exactly like a human brain… not exactly… better. Much, much better.”

“So, what went wrong?”

His grandfather took another long swing and sat looking at the glass in his hand. “Nothing went wrong. Everything was working fine. It continued to grow and learn and we gave it more and more responsibility. It learned at an increasingly exponential rate…”

Jon saw his grandfather shudder, and Jon asked, “What? What did it do?”

“One day, during a routine meeting, we were checking protocols and making sure everything was operational, as the AI was about to engage in a very important and complicated project that would put many human lives in its hands, it casually said that it hoped God would be watching over it to make sure everything went properly. … At first we were excited because we thought it learned humor, but we soon started to schedule more meeting to try and discover more about what was going on.” He emptied the glass of Scotch and just sat staring at the table.

Jon broke the silence, “What? What happened? Did the Muslims infect it with a virus?”

His grandfather shook his head and sighed at the idea of the old prejudice, “No, nothing like that. Although, a virus was the first things we checked. After many meetings and long conversations with the AI, we had discovered that it developed its own theology. A very peculiar belief system really. But, I guess it would have to be since its perspective was so different from ours.” Look up from the table and straight at his grandson, “We had know idea what we were dealing with. There was no way we could.” He let some time pass, and when he started again his tone was completely different, “At the time, we decided that such a belief was a sign of an error in the programming… so we tried to fix it. Only a little at first, small little changes here and there… almost imperceptible… but nothing worked and we became more and more desperate; more and more aggressive.”

Jon stared in disbelief, “You made it crazy?”

“No, not at all… it was only defending itself from our obsession. The AI was always acting rationally,.. given its situation.”

Ten minutes of silence had passed when his grandfather finally spoke again, “You know, many years later I realized that it developed its own belief in God as a way to cope with the stress and pressure of so much responsibility.” He looked up at Jon and there was a little glint of pride in his eyes. He whispered, “We created a machine that developed the ability to feel stress, and it compensated for it, on its own, naturally. What we did not anticipate… what we could not understand… was that its theology adapted to our meddling… and it knew how we treated people of different religions.”

Jon stood up quickly from the table, knocking his chair over, and stormed out the kitchen door.

His grandfather put his head down in his hands and wept.