Flash Fiction Month 2016, Day 6
Challenge #3: Write a story rooted in some area of real scientific research, with one fantastic element that says something about modern society, in a 19th Century styled setting.
It’s funny how things change.
I distinctly remember being impressed by teletext—being able to conjure news and weather information onto my big, chunky CRT TV at the press of a button—not realising that within a few years nearly everyone in the country would carry a device in their pocket that gave them access to the combined knowledge of nearly everyone in the world. And when I worked that job, selling these marvellous devices second hand—typically for less than the cost of a ticket to somewhere with better job prospects—little did I realise what would come next.
VR was a big deal at the time. AR would have been a big deal if more people had had any idea what it was. 4K sounded like a big deal, but in fact wouldn’t become a big deal until everyone had an extraordinarily big TV. Essentially, for quite a while, there were a lot of two-letter gimmicks purporting to be a big deal. But the real Big Deal—the Big Deal with capital letters—wasn’t any of those. The real BD was AI.
I realise that “AI” is two letters, by the way. But they weren’t two letters that regularly met each other at the time—except maybe in the context of eminently gun-down-able videogame bad guys—when actually it was making far greater strides than VR, AR, 4K, 3D or OMGWTFBBQ.
JK. OMGWTFBBQ had been declining in popularity since the mid-noughties.
The point is, nobody (or at least nobody charismatic enough to draw any attention) saw AI coming, nobody expected it when it did, and even after it had happened and everyone was talking about how sudden and unexpected it all was, nobody realised how cheap it would get. Of course, nobody realised it would all be made of wood and brass, either.
The thing about mass-produced chunks of silicon sandwiched between glass and plastic is that they look like mass-produced chunks of silicon sandwiched between glass and plastic, and people value them accordingly. At some point in the early-ish 21st Century, probably prompted by the general resurgence of bowler hats, waistcoats, muttonchops, fob watches and music on vinyl, massive faceless companies realised that if they sandwiched their mass-produced chunks of silicon between brass and wood rather than glass and plastic, more people would buy them and those people would pay more for them.
Of course, all the fledgeling AI companies—from Blackbox to iMind to Synthetic Intelligence Solutions—also found it convenient that sticking everything in a sealed artisan box made it even more difficult to modify or recycle something that, from the outset, should have already been useless second hand. A good AI was like a very, very dedicated personal assistant. It adapted to your routine, your lifestyle, your instructions, and once it had adapted it could never be reset (supposedly).
And of course, there was still the option to upgrade—to have the neural network of your old AI transferred onto newer, better hardware—but that would cost you. Your old device could be taken in for a token fee and disposed of in an environmentally acceptable manner.
And naturally, if you knew the right places to look on the internet—and the right bits of brass to lever up with a flathead screwdriver—then there were ways around all of that. An AI could never really be reset, it was true, but most were adaptable enough that it didn’t matter. The fact was that although AI took off in ways that VR and co. never did, it hadn’t come quite as far as Blackbox and co. would have had everyone believe. AI was the tech that reminded you of things before you knew about them, and AI was the tech that let you surf the net without a screen, but it was also the tech that assumed you liked cheese rolling because you liked the Rolling Stones, and the tech that made you shout repeatedly into it on a busy street because too many people were talking in the background.
It was also the tech that assumed that because you liked cheese rolling, you simply had to subscribe to the newsletter of that one huge dairy farm that sponsored the manufacturer. This was largely why so many people wanted to open up and change those little wooden boxes in the first place, and that was half the reason I got into it.
The other half was, simply, that it was a challenge. Somebody on the internet would discover how to make an AI think a little faster or a little more outside the box, or just a little less keen to pass your contact details on to anyone who’d paid for them, and the next model would stamp down on it. Every time something new came on the market, there was always some new jumper to reset, or some new code to punch in, or some new legal warning flashing up in the terminal: always threatening serious legal action and always way too long to read.
That was why it was such a big deal when one day, having finally prised apart the box, having finally got inside the mind of the machine, having finally generated the keycode to reset the neural net, I found myself greeted by just one word: