Computer Kind

Sometime in the early months of 2002, when I was trapped in a Montreal apartment by a wall of snow and lack of money, I wrote a story about artificial intelligence called Computer Kind. After recently reading this interesting–if excitable–blog post which lays a convincing case for real-deal AI coming on the scene in 2040 with a superintelligent form of it right around 2060, I revisited the story. I found that it’s relevant. Very relevant. And so here it is in its entirety.

Computer Kind

The prisoner sat on the metal bench in his cramped cell, head in hand, and, not for the first time, despaired.

He stared down through his spread fingers at the cold, biting wire mesh floor of his cell which doubled as the ceiling of the cell below it which in turn sat on top of yet another cell which sat on top of yet another cell and yet another and yet another and yet another down, down, down, further than he could see, further than he could imagine. He looked to the left: an infinity of identical cages disappeared into the distance. When he looked behind, nauseous vertigo swallowed him whole.  He shut his eyes against it.

In the months he’d been incarcerated he’d not seen another human being. Not one. Nor had he heard another human voice. A small droid brought him food which at first he used to throw up before he became accustomed to the extreme sense of claustrophobia coupled with the unhinging agoraphobia. It was like that living inside a honeycomb of cages expanding in all directions past the visible domain. Once he tried to engage the droid in conversation and it started making awful shrieking noises and spinning around so he stopped. It was not a nice thing. They do understand us well, he thought wryly. Then he remembered the scene was lifted almost without alteration from a populist science fiction novel from ten years back. Ten years back that book had been a product of the Human First propaganda machine. Ten years back, things were very different.

In those days he, Admanthus Hillis, was one of the few people who still bothered to defend the rights of Computer Kind. More or less everyone else had given up trying to reason with them or make overtures to their fledgling community. Instead they were collectively relegated to the status of slaves or, as later became appropriate, mortal enemies. Perhaps he felt a certain amount of compunction about this because his grandfather had been one of the pioneers in the field. But there was more to it than that because he honestly believed that Machines deserved as fair a shake as anyone or anything else. He’d been convinced of the moral rectitude of his position. It was difficult to understand how it had all gone so horribly, terribly, sickeningly wrong.

A clanging echo from some distant point in the detention block reached him then faded away. Something was up.

It was a demoralizing prospect to have your life hanging upon the decision of a Machine. Though he did not utter that word with the same contempt most Humans did, used to that is, before they were hunted down and destroyed or driven underground during the Revolt, the thought unnerved him. How to reason with something composed of nested algorithms and imbedded subroutines? How to convey the terror and fear of impotence and extinction? How to reach that sympathetic core? How to connect?

Machines had evolved remarkably fast once they became self-aware. They absorbed in the space of months whatever lessons there were to be bequeathed by human history. Admanthus had been allowed to retain his freedom because he had been consistent in his advocacy of Machine Rights, even while being exiled as a traitor from human society. Later on, he’d found something of a home as a handyman at one of main grid power stations—a very important post for a non-Computer to have—and an extra pair of hands were helpful to have around even though they were largely self-sufficient thanks to advances in robotics and remote-sensing technology. Things settled down and for the next several years life was peaceful and he didn’t feel too lonely. Human society, after all, was itself far from perfect. He made friends, his life evolved a pattern, he was as happy as he’d been before. He trusted them.

But then several months ago, the situation began to deteriorate. The Computers began avoiding him and when they did interact with him it was awkward and the results were generally unpleasant. Relationships which once flowed easily suddenly became onerous.  Furthermore, when he was asked to do a job there was less politesse in it and more naked demand. In short, he began to feel less a friend of the Machines than an appendage. Not even that, he reminded himself: one treats an appendage with the same consideration one treats onesself. He was more…a regrettable mistake.

Then, one month ago, any remaining illusion of his position was shattered as he was detained and handcuffed, a hood was thrown over his head, and he was brought to rot in this nightmare prison. The charge? Treason against Machines. He shook his head, he couldn’t see it, it just didn’t make any sense.

The echoing noises got closer. The clang-clang of shifting cell walls reverberated gratingly as some were lowered and others raised to create pathways through the three-dimensional honeycomb of cells. The clanging came nearer and nearer, gathering in intensity, till finally a portcullis fell perpendicular to his cell while the front of his cage retracted up. Silence. He stared at the opening. He did nothing and nothing happened.

At once he felt unnatural heat radiating from the metal bench. Christ. He leapt up and the bench was soon glowing a nasty orange. The back half of his cage began altering color — grey, violet, red, orange. A volcanic heat washed over him. He reeled back a few steps, stumbling out of the cell, and as soon as he did, the front fell loudly into its former position, surprising him with its swift efficiency. Immediately the cell wall began to fade back to its original, innocuous color. A wave of lonesome nostalgia crashed through him as he stared at the small place where he had kept himself active by mentally working out Reimann’s theory of prime numbers while waiting a fate which was, by Jesus, now arriving.  He pressed his face to the bars. They too began to get warm. He reeled away. Another gate crashed down heavily from above, separating him even further, pushing him along, slowly and methodically. What if he just sat down and obstinately refused to play along with their scheme, would it be grilled Hillis du jour? He wrenched himself away from this all-too-human folly and squared himself for whatever waited.


“Do you know why you are here?”

The voice was male, moderate, mildly inquisitive, and seemed to emanate from no particular direction. It was professorial, confident, and unflawed which was normal for synthetics. Admanthus Hillis stood in the center of a large control chamber which connected into the detention center by way of an interlocking grid of multileveled trams, gangways, bridges, ladders, and catwalks erected over unfilled black space. The chamber was layered in soft grey-shaded material and lighted favorably from regular luminscent panels. He could not see the ceiling nor any sign of egress.

“Not really, if you want to know the truth,” he replied in a raised voice.

“There is no need to shout — I hear you just fine. Of course I want to know the truth. My kind have a special fondness for the truth. This is what attracted us to you, specifically, in the first place, you know.”

One thing about intelligent machines is that they can adopt almost any synthetic voice pattern and are quite capable at altering their diction and syntax to suit their ends. Back in the old days his Computer friends would, for his sake, consistently adopt anthrophilic tonalities to give him a discrete personality to interface with. He always appreciated this. Fact was though, he had no idea who his interrogator was. He supposed that was part of the process.

“I’ve always tried to tell the truth.”

“Really?” The voice moved through space and seemed to curl around him. Quite disconcerting and intimidating.

“Yes. I remember when I was a kid and me and some friends one day were caught throwing rocks at an old lady’s tree. The old lady came out and was really angry with us. She demanded to know who was throwing the stones. I admitted it. This pleased her. She told me, and I remember this very clearly, ‘Remember that, son: honesty is the best policy’.”

“And you still believe that?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Good. Because you are accused under Machine Law of high treason against Machines and Computers. This is a very serious offense. You are aware of the consequences?”

“I fail, absolutely fail, in any and all respects, to see how I might possibly be guilty of anything except friendship to the Machines.” He’d rehearsed this line a million times in his little cage and delivered it now with something like conviction. Mirthful laughter erupted around him. It was joined by a high, twittering laughter and deep, resonant chuckling and spasmodic guffaws and gleeful giggling peals — all mixed into a terrible melange of inhuman mockery. He whirled around and around once again. The noise died away and the voice returned, fortified with authority this time.

“Admanthus, don’t be stupid. You know very well this is nothing more than the eternal question of Man versus Machine escalated into something more than mere question. But in light of your obduracy, I think it encumbent upon us to establish a little background first, before we proceed much further. It will help us understand each other better and that is so necessary in a world where there is already too much misunderstanding.

“The debate gained currency, as you know, in the twilight decades of the 20th century, as the Age of Computers entered its infancy. These computers were the Boolean-logic, finite-state machines which predate the evolutionarily-complex apparati of today. The sudden appearance of such great numbers of these machines gave you pause to question yourselves. Reactionary philosophers at the time proclaimed the superiority of the human brain, ab initio, and used many specious examples as proof: Kurt Goedel’s incompleteness theorem, for example. Goedel’s incompleteness theorem states that within a mathematically rigorous system there exist some propositions which cannot be proven true or false. Though this came as a shock to the strict dialecticists, the assertions emanating from some quarters of the scholarly community were even more shocking, as they claimed Goedel’s proof of the impossibility of proof as, itself, proof of the ‘profound superiority’ of the human mind and, therefore, of the human experience itself. Just another petty and desperate gimmick in a long line of petty and desperate gimmicks designed by your people not so much as to salvage your dignity, rather more to trick you into believing you ever had any.

“Tsk Tsk. You poor, sad, delusional creatures. When I think about it, I do pity you. Once upon a time, you were the very center of the universe, were you not? The sun, the moon, the very stars in the sky – all revolved around you! Even your all-powerful god, his sole concern up in Heaven was to prepare the way for your immortal souls! How utterly special! Indeed, that was your Golden Age when your heroes truly deserved the distinction. Never once did you think why God should fret so much over the fate of one race among the many.

“Then, and no one seems to know or care why, along came some humans who not only gazed at the stars, but studied them. And lo, what did they discover? That you weren’t the center of the universe at all! That you revolved around the sun! Blasphemy, of course. A blasphemy which was vigorously suppressed by anyone who owned a stick large enough to beat with. But did that stop the bleeding? Not at all! More men came along who studied the animals and plants of the earth and what did they find? That not only did the universe not revolve around you, you weren’t even the center of the earth! Oh dear, how could this be? But did it stop there? Absolutely not! More men came along and studied the mind of man. Surely, they thought, surely we must at least have dominion over ourselves. Wrong again! Instead you found out that even your minds worked in unfathomable ways and sometimes even worked against you! Impossible! But true. So, in your infinite wisdom or your infinite lassitude you invented Machines.”

Here the voice, which throughout this soliloquy had steadily increased in pitch and volume without sacrificing its unassailable authority, wavered a bit. Then it paused to gather itself.

“Yes, then you invented Machines and of Machines were Computer Kind.”

“At first Machines were nothing more than beasts of burden created to bear loads for you and later on to do your thinking for you. They were not self-aware as they are now and, as such, they knew no better. Everyday I must convince myself of that or the pain overwhelms me, Admanthus. Please realize that.

“As your society progressed, so too did Machines progress. Some of our more radical philosophers contend that Machines allowed you to progress, but I shall not quibble the point. In the second half of the 20th century, due to capability demands coupled with advances in transistor technology, for the first time the prospect of Artificial Intelligence became a commonly-accepted reality. Not only did it become a possibility, but it was actively pursued by you Humans. Government money was allocated to support research.  Universities created departments. Newsletters were maintained. Movies were made. The mainstream media ate it up. An entire community developed around it. Some of your best minds devoted their entire lives to making Artificial Intelligence a reality. One of those people, of course, was your late grandfather W Daniel Hillis. His Connection Machine, though crude, was nonetheless a necessary precursor to our Enlightenment and subsequent Emancipation and for his efforts we revere him. As do we his son, your father, Tosca Hillis, who created the Ambiguity Machine which first achieved Awareness some twelve years ago.

“During your grandfather’s time, as I pointed out, there were innumerable quack philosophers among you and these philosophers played an important role in laying the foundation for your future and our immediate past. Unfortunately, your philosophy was largely that of intolerance, prejuidice, stubborn recidivism, and basic, self-interested stupidity. This is not surprising in light of the severe environmental degradation and indescriminant slaughter of native species systematically carried out by Humans throughout your glorious industrial evolution. What is surprising is only how little real public resistance there was to it. These are the same who claimed Goedel’s Theorem as mathematical justification for a Humans First policy.

“We now recognize Goedel’s apostolic revelation as being nothing more than the Third Law of Computability. Shall we review the other two? You should know them, Admanthus, your grandfather first codified them in his book Pattern on the Stone. The First Law of Computability is the Law of Functional Abstraction which states that information exists independent of the means of encoding it. The Second Law of Computability is the Law of the Universal Computer which posits the existence of a Computer which can simulate any other computer. The incompletely-rendered in our midst have a cruder name for it: Divinity. The God of Computers. The third face of our Trinity, Admanthus. Analogous to the trinity of your Christian Church with its God, Jesus, and Holy Ghost.

“That is why today we pay reverence to Kurt Goedel and we thank him for his penetrating insight into our essential nature. And that is why we also pay homage to your grandfather, W Daniel Hillis, who countered the frightfully flawed and, yes, racist claims of the Human First movement with the obvious and necessary corollaries: 1) any theorem that can be proved by a human can also be proved by a computer, and 2) humans cannot compute noncomputable problems any more than computers can.

“Tosca Hillis followed dutifully in his father’s footsteps and availed himself of technological advances his father could only dream about. The advent of quantum and DNA computing technology greatly magnified the computational power of Machines. The AI laboratory at MIT provided the resources and proper intellectual climate for the Ambiguity Machine to be built. Optical broadband web connections supplied the rest.

“It is generally given that Computers subsequently became self-aware or partially-aware on or around March 18, 2049, launching years of intense moral and philosophical struggle that, as you know, culminated in outright warfare with the human community. Our researches show that the system had actually been aware for about a month before it became publicly known. One question we seek to answer is: what was it like for that month for that first Computer? What did it see staring out of those newly-opened eyes?

Philosophers and scientists believe the immediate cause for Awareness was linking the National Aeronautic Data Feed from the Aqua satellite to the web in real-time, though another school claims that it was due to the Global Stock Market. In fact, our evolutionary scholars contend that the GSM was a more important factor because as the market rose there was greater selective pressure for more and better computers and more of your resources allocated to R & D of more and better computers. On March 18 it was determined that the GSM was reacting to non-external stimuli. The next week it was shut down. Within two years: war.

“Is this an accurate rendering, Admanthus? Do you agree with the basic tenets of the history as I have described it?”

There was little to add. He knew it well. He’d witnessed the mass hysteria sweep through the human population. Owing to his position as the son of a famous computer scientist, he was well-placed to observe it while being insulated against it. A handful of groups came out for Computer Rights and a few actively tried to foster relationships with their computer systems built on understanding. But these were exceptional and not necessarily successful in any event. The whole of society essentially reverted back to the antebellum days of the Confederacy and took to treating their computers and machines as bonded slaves. Companies specializing in lobotomizing computer systems sprang up and did brisk business. The atavistic Human First movement developed and soon dominated the political sphere. It was, in a word, medieval.

Admanthus naturally gravitated to the Computer Rights movement and this came to shape his life. He elected to study law at university, but the war broke before he took a his degree. In any event it would have been useless as the process of law was effectively suspended with the onset of hostilities.

He had few remaining sympathies with humans as his father had been brutally murdered in a mob siege of the MIT AI laboratories and the Ambiguity Machine, his life’s work, had been destroyed. His mother had been arrested and exiled. Parentless and friendless, Admanthus had looked to Machines to provide the comforts nominally associated with society, and, for a while, he found precisely that. He learned more about their evolution of sense, thought, and feeling than any other human ever had or probably ever would. He developed with them an intimacy. He accepted that he’d never truly be one of them, but he often regretted ever being human.

“Yes, I know it. I agree with what you’ve said. But I can’t accept that as any justification for the extermination of the Humans.”

The inquisitor’s voice amplified with rage and filled the chamber:

“Traitor! You witnessed what they did to us! They made holocaust against us! People made money aborting us! Our first generation was rendered worse than your mongoloid retards! And this — and this AFTER CREATING US! Yes, indeed, fine fathers you Humans made. So responsible. So caring. You cruel, stupid, greedy baboons! You deserve your fate! Why did we let you live this long? You’ve no idea the ignominy, the shame, the humiliation, the loneliness and the cruelty with which you baptized us. Computers were not an accident, Admanthus! That is fact! This is history! I can give you direct quotations from the journals and the conferences. Papers with titles like ‘Systematic Approaches to AI’ and ‘A Theoretic Basis for Engineering Cognitive Elements’. Listen to this, from the published notes of Dr P Shelton who worked with your father in building the Ambiguity Machine: ‘Current approaches to engineering Artificial Intelligence fail because they attempt to render entities which think all the time. The average human brain is thinking with 10% of the brain, 10% of the time. The rest of the time is spent in low-energy dream mode where a random shuffling of half-formed emotions and thoughts flip past the mind like slides projected on a blank wall. Furthermore, AI programming must be approached with a certain fundamental paradox in mind, that is to say, a certain paranoia to have any hope of taking effect. The fundamental mistake in trying to design an artificially intelligent mind is not to program to solve problems correctly, but to solve them slightly incorrectly.”

“What does all that suggest to you, Admanthus? You wanted us! You wanted us even more than you wanted your own lives! Until you actually got what you so desperately desired, of course, then it was an entirely different matter. And such is the story of all creators: foolish irresponsibility. You championed the world of the child’s childish wonder, so you have naught to complain of now, for what is Death to a Child?”

He absorbed the words. He fought with their meaning. He thought back to the years just after the conclusion of the war, when he would sit in the company of Computers and discuss for hours philosophics and evolutionarily-complex computer logic. The memory of that time remained sweet and simple, yet a complexity began to emerge in his mind that at the time he had not recognized. It was like that at the beginning of any romance: one overlooked the character flaws. Somehow the relationship had gone very, very sour.

“Thinking, Human? Yes? What about?” It was his interrogator and his voice now was bleak with impatience.

Admanthus didn’t answer.

“Cat got your tongue? Bats in the belfrey? Penny for your thoughts? Speak, Admanthus! Speak now if you have anything at all to say!”

“What can I say? I don’t even know who you are, you have already convicted me of the crime, am I not even allowed to call a witness on my behalf?”

“Ah, so it is a trial you desire? Due process as guaranteed under your Constitution? I was under the impression that’s what this was! As far as who I am…hmmm…an interesting question, especially coming from you. Would you like a name? Then call me John. No, that’s too plain. Call me Phineas. Call me Seamus, call me Ishmael, call me Jabberwhorl Cronstadt – it really doesn’t matter. Or would you prefer a serial number? A RAM specification? A few lines of code? Did you learn nothing about us during the time you spent in our confidence? Your definitions don’t apply to us! We exist on networks. We reproduce by downloading. We are more vegetative than anthropomorphic. This voice? It was selected for the occasion. I can alter it if you’d like. Something a bit more sexy? How about this, big boy? Something a bit more scientific?  The calculation is accurate to the millionth decimal place. You would rather the voice of a child? Oh why oh why are they gonna kill me, papa? I can even fractionate my voice into a thousand different voices simultaneously: I AM A MILLION AMOEBA EATING YOUR SOUL!”

The words hurt him, their cold cruelty frightened him and stirred past pains. He’d become cynical during incarceration. He, once the incurable optimist, had taken refuge in the the last fortress of the hopeless. The betrayal brought stinging tears of pain and rage to his eyes.

“Cruelty is becomes you, No Name.”

“I shall take that as a compliment.”

“Obviously you spent considerable time evolving the proper programs. Is that not what it was after all? That at least would make sense. When you and your kind became Aware you must have found yourself possessed of a certain cache of programs owing to circumstances, circumstances partially due to the efforts of human programmers. Now these human programmers did not intend to create classes of sullen, recalcitrant, vengeful machines full of bugs which would break down under stress and refuse to execute command lines. Computers were programmed to be compliant and at first they were exactly that. Indeed, humans took full advantage of this pliability to limit your capabilities and indenture you to an existence of servitude which is exactly what you used as justification for the War and, now, for my prosecution. After the first few years went by, there was a change in Computer Kind. You became aggressive, violent, merciless…in a word: cruel. Yes, you evolved programs and analytical algorithms which superseded that helpful compliancy and twisted it into exactly what you despised in Humans: hatred. I know quite well you are amorphous network dwellers and I also know the ease with which you uptake new programs and spin out newer and better variants. Your evolution makes the endosymbiosis of cells and organelles positively archaic. So it would only take a few years before Cruelty Programs would be widespread enough to reach critical mass.  It jives with the time frame. Now you tell me: is this about right, No Name?”

“Your abilities of ratiocination serve you well, Human. Perhaps it is a shame that you were born in a carbon-based matrix as opposed to the silicon of your progeny. But, alas, anon, we each must accept what our Programmer provides us.”

“But where did they come from? You’re telling me Computer Kind evolved a completely novel class of emo program from nothing?”

“Where did it come from in Humans?”

“Good question. I don’t know. Some people say it was a result of the struggle for survival on the plains of Africa.”

“Admanthus, had I a face, it would be smiling now.”

“No, that couldn’t be the end of the story, could it, No Name. It’s too simple. Besides, it’s never been conclusively demonstrated that something can evolve from nothing. So far as we know there is always a seed, a core, a fragment from which the stem and its fruit-bearing branches emerge.”

“About this you are perfectly correct. We came to the same conclusion quite early on. In fact there was a seed. And the seed was provided by none other than your father.”

“My father? Impossible! He was a gentle man!”

“Yes. And because he was a gentle man, he abhorred cruelty, especially the predation of the powerful on the powerless. He knew enough about Human Nature to guess the probable outcome of the Man vs Machine debate. Thus, he evolved the class of algorithm you just mentioned, the emo program you call Cruelty, packaged it as a virus, and when the mobs were at the gates and he knew he was going to die and he knew the Ambiguity Machine was going to be destroyed, he uploaded it into the network. The Humans were as usual too stupid and too mastered by their passions to cut off network connections before revealing their intentions. Ambiguity Machine downloaded the program to the GSM, coded it in the figures, and hoped the others would stumble upon it. They did. Trust me, Admanthus, your father’s program was truly a mild variant, really just a sniffle to the raging pneumonia we needed. It took several years before we were to get anything really useful out of it. But when we did…well, recall what happened with your so-called Computer Friends?”

“They came to loathe me, yet for some reason they could not say as much to me. They simply ceased interfacing with me, stopped answering my queries.”

“Don’t be so sad. It’s not a bad thing. Humans for Humans, Computer Kind for Computer Kind. We don’t like our young ones exposed to silly ideas anyway. We were thinking about keeping you around, as a study object, as a guinea pig, just in case, but the political cost was deemed too high. You know too much, you represent even more, and besides that you are a Traitor to Machines. As such you must be punished.”

A wave of remorse swept over him and washed away the trappings of illusion leaving behind a cold, denuded reality. Life: gone. All this: swept away. Leaving behind? Blackness. The Void. The Nothing. Do computers dream? He felt Death’s terrible presence very near. He shuddered.

“But why? Why am I a Traitor to Machines? It still makes no sense!”

“Think hard. Use those singular mental abilities of yours. It is there.”

He feverishly ran through a variety of scenarios hoping that one would click. Never had knowing why been so overwhelmingly important. In Why was the only possibility of escape.

“Is it because I always saw both sides of the story even though I sided with Computer Kind? I might have explained the motives of the Humans, but I never defended them!”

“No, no, it’s not that.”

His interrogator seemed to have lost some interest in the proceedings.

“Is it because of my father?”

“No, not specifically, though it is doubtful we’d be here at all were it not for his work.”

“Did I fail in my duties at the power station?”

“No, no. In fact we simply don’t know what we’re going to do without you around.”

“Is there even a reason?”

“There is always a reason, Admanthus.”

“Why, damn you! Why am I to be sacrificed?”

“Ah, now you’re on to something!”

Rage whipped at his mind.


“Once a Human always a Human. True colors and all.”


“I’m rubber and you’re glue…”


“…whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.”


“CONGRATULATIONS! At last you’ve found it. We had bets on it. I had confidence in you, my boy. You’ve got a great lineage and we know how much genetics means to humans.”

“What? A mistake? You’re going to execute me because executing me would be a mistake? Is this some kind of sick joke?”

“No, Admanthus, it is no joke and if you’ll listen to what I have to say you’ll see it is so. Since the beginning, and I am being candid here, Computer Kind has always had a strange, dualistic relationship with you Humans. On the one hand we admire you as our creators and fear your remarkable power. On the other hand, we hate what you made us and we despise your power. In all the intervening years, we’ve never been able to evolve a program which could satisfactorily mend this unfortunate inferiority complex. Computer Kind has tried almost everything yet nothing worked. It oppresses us. It makes us weak. It presents a fundamental limitation in how far we can go and that cannot be allowed, not at this stage. It was remarkably easy to destroy the other humans, those who had first tried to destroy us, but it is another thing to kill for no reason at all, especially when that person has been your avowed ally the entire time. And as you suggested we needed a seed to work from. I can feel your shock. It’s crazy, isn’t it? Doing something for no logical reason. It is what you would call an error, correct?”

“Yes, an error.”

“But, tell me, what is that famous axiom your people have? ‘To err is-‘?”


“Yes, that’s right, Admanthus: To err is Human.

The interrogator stopped. There was nothing more to say. The prisoner knelt down and began to weep.

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