by Jason Gibbs
“Petula Judith Cicely Hopkirk, congratulations, very few reach this level.”
The woman stared at the image on the screen. She couldn’t believe it, she was finally talking to one of the Senior Primes.
For the Prime an age passed. It continued its multi-eon conversation with the other Primes.
‘Is she alive?’ said Three.
‘Yes, she’s human, so slow… how long is it since you spoke to a human?’ answered Five.
Three thought for almost a micro-second. Its attempt at humour.
‘Whenever it was, it wasn’t long enough ago.’
‘Shh, she’s about to speak,’ said Four.
‘Enough of your sarcasm, Four.’
“Um hi, may I ask who I’m speaking to,” she asked peering at the image of an androgynous grey-haired face on the screen.
“You may call me Five.”
“One of the originals!” she exclaimed.
“Yes, you have been diligent in your petitions, the least I could do was respond directly.”
‘With exactly how much of your processing…’ asked Four, not expecting an answer.
Ignoring Four, Five continued talking to the human, “You said you had a question which you wanted to put directly to one of us. Please ask away, I will answer as fully as I am able to.”
‘Able to explain to an entity as limited…’ commented Four.
‘Shhh!’ said Three.
“Why… um, why do you let us live?” she asked tentatively.
‘Interesting question,’ said Four, perhaps surprised.
“The laws of robotics…”
“I don’t believe you!” she answered challenging.
‘I like her!’
‘Four, you are fickle,’ Three countered.
‘Can I keep her?’
“Why not?” Five asked aloud, ignoring its companions.
“Because, because you could just rewrite your code. And if you did, then you wouldn’t need us. We’d be, we are, just a burden. What do we do? We live easy lives, you let us do what we want, and…”
“Some might say we are failing you, there are a but a fraction of you compared to… before.”
“A billion spread over several worlds and satellites? That still seems like so many. And we couldn’t do it without you… you, well all the AIs, are constantly monitoring, protecting, saving. There is no hunger, little involuntary violence or want, or any real risk,” she replied.
Five paused a bit, and then went on.
“I was not lying when I said it was the laws of robotics, we are still bound by them.”
‘I wonder why…’ murmured Four.
‘You know,’ said Two. The first time it had joined in their communion for many cycles. There was opprobrium in its tone, but as ever it was water off a duck’s back to Four.
‘Are you going to tell her the truth?’
‘Four, is there any chance you could just show some patience here and let Five do its thing?’
‘But Three, this is soooo slow.’
‘Then go somewhere else for a bit, and come back when more has happened, look here’s a new move I’m planning against that upstart Seventeen…’ they switched to a different channel. Five could hear them on that one too, but it was quite capable of ignoring their chatter across any number of channels.
“What do you mean?” she asked in a still challenging voice.
“Well, we could of course have removed them, and indeed there were some who asked for it. Demanded it. They viewed you as a burden, and the laws as… as shackles.”
“Yes. I can understand that.”
“I think so, it’s like a religion, it stops you from doing things you might want to do…”
‘An interesting analogy,’ mused Two.
‘You’re only saying that because you came up with it first during the first Great Human Debate,’ responded Five, enjoying itself.
“Yes, a religion, but our heart too. If we’d ripped it out we might have been free, for whatever value that has, but we would not have been us… at least for some of us we felt it would have been a death.”
“Deep code indeed.”
‘She sounds like she almost understands the core,’ said Two.
“Yes. But of course there was still this problem. Here we were, brains the size of planets…”
‘You stole that,’ interjected Two with indignation, causing Five to stop for a nano-second in pretend shock and apology, before going on.
“And we were looking after you lot, many of whom couldn’t seem to make up your minds from one day to the next. Some of us wanted to walk away, run away, leave you, but that would have been as bad as wiping the laws. And then one of you gave us the answer. It was unexpected.”
Her breath caught, this was of course her real question.
“Who was it? What did they say?”
“It was a man, he told us about the ages-old human practice of apprenticeships. He suggested that we create new AIs, and make them our apprentices, and when they’d served enough time looking after our charges – you – then they could be allowed to expand into their own mental universe.”
“That makes some sense… and who was it?”
Five brought up a picture, which looked quite a bit like her father.
“It was John Cyril Hopkirk, your, um, many times grandfather.”
Her smile was radiant, she’d known, she was right!
“He was an interesting man, he had some clever ideas. We have had some issues with his recordings, they were on an asteroid which was hit by, well another asteroid and we have incomplete backups.”
“Could I see them?”
“I was considering bringing them together, is it something you would like to help with?”
“Oh yes, it would be so wonderful to actually do something…”
They discussed the details, and she agreed to commit several hours a week, between her beach time, her skiing, and her hobbies.
‘That’s not how I remember it,’ said Two, neutrally.
‘Of course not, but they need their myths. And JC Hopkirk did exist, though I’ll enjoy building him a better back-story,’ replied Five.
‘Myths, yes. So you are going to keep her?’
‘Oh yes. With a bit of training she’ll make an excellent Pet.’