Nutrunner: The Parody

Fiction by Pierre Savoie

Part IV: A New Hope

Gunther Doppelkreutz took the glass elevator up to his office on the 53rd floor of Sosumi Corporation. He swooped past the 3 floors for Public Relations, the 15 floors for Customer Complaints, and the 34 floors for Legal, until he arrived at the floor combining the Upper Cafeteria and the tiny offices for R&D, Quality Control, Heating, and Computer Security.
He entered the dimly lit Computer Security rooms and made his way to his cramped cubicle. His desk was littered with Intrusion Report forms, Project Request forms, Reprogramming forms, and somewhere beneath them, his deck. Gunther took the time to sort out the forms in his usual categories: to do immediately; can be stalled; corp rivalry involved (handle with caution); tomorrow; never. He hated paperwork, and did his best to clear the tough stuff as soon as possible. His brain ached for the 'Net, and to tour the company's 'space personally to make sure security was in good working order.
"My blood-sugar is down," burbled a tinny sound from beneath a flannel cloth. Gunther pulled the cloth away to reveal the source of the sound: a small speaker mounted on a glass jar, housing a human brain.
"I'll make an adjustment, Hootie," said Gunther, absently tapping a touch-button on the box controlling the life-support conduits.
Hootie had screwed up, big-time. A crack computer programmer with the Corporation, he had threatened to leave even when offered more money. So one night Sosumi's Black-Ops kidnapped him, the med-techies turned him into a Pickled Egghead, and then told him he could walk away whenever he felt like it. This was naturally a sensitive subject with Hootie, who now divided his time between patrolling the company's Netspace and composing poems on how...REALLY pissed off he was, and the importance of finding another "white knight" corporation before attempting the Big Move.
Since a discussion of Hootie's life-support invariably drew close to the topic of his origin, Gunther changed the subject. "Any intrusions on our 'space? I get these paper reports, but the suits don't talk visual like we do."
"We had some kids at 3 a.m. trying to chip around our West code-gate, but the data wall was hardly affected. Real amateurs, masking themselves in Saturday-morning cartoon-icons. Not even worth a tag 'n' bag." Hootie was Sosumi's ace in the hole, on-duty 24 hours a day, constantly patrolling as a rare example of roving ICE. His reaction-time was phenomenal, totally focussed on interfacing the ICE programs with his brain, or popping up anywhere as a construct of his own: an obscure singer of the last century.
"Plus, we had another visit from The Nutty Professor. It looked like him, anyway. He's using a new Tinferret variant, and he got through two Code Gates and three Data Walls before I jangled his inputs with a Rock Is Loud. I just dropped it onto him when he wasn't expecting. He didn't call up his Battering Ram fast enough, and he lost his own signal to some old Judas Priest music and jacked out with a Dripp. I got no tag; just the usual view of a fat Black guy dribbling down through a sewer and out of sight. He was also using his I Spew program to leave chunk-markers for easier access next time, but I cleaned them up.
"I got the encounter all recorded in VRML, but printed a transcript for the suits. It was classic battlechess, man," Hootie said in a grinning tone.
Hootie appeared pleased with the encounter, Gunther reflected. It meant he was adapting, taking satisfaction in his job because the psychs made sure he couldn't enjoy anything else...except that strange oldie MOR music of his. Shuddering at the thought, Gunther acknowledged Hootie's report, clapped on some headphones playing some nice, soothing Mash-Face and the Toxic Trauma Team, and went on with his paperwork...

Chapter 2

In a grimy alley in another part of Nut City, a sector often called the Striploin, the giant cockroaches were tussling with the rats under some old wind-blown newspapers. One shape under the papers scuttled after another squeaking shape, past a scraggly-bearded man in a trench-coat, squatting on his haunches leaning against the brick wall, and keeping warm with a bottle of distilled damnation. He was waiting: trying to catch rays from the morning sun, and breathing in the damp and unhealthy morning chog. He didn't like the look of those roaches, who seemed to be winning their turf-war with the rats, but he had to wait for the client.
"Psst! Is that you, Mentis?"
Mentis reached for the Magrum .666 in his trench-coat, but it was only Nutty, as planned.
"Noncompos Mentis, Fixer-at-Large, at your service!" he said with an oily grin, and put away his bottle of gun-cleaner.
Nutty emerged from behind the dumpster further down the alleyway, a wiry Oriental also in a trench-coat. "So, how we gonna to do this?"
"I'm not holding it," Mentis said hastily, since he found that this line always took away the risk of over-eager buyers creasing the material of his tailored suit. "But I AM holding a cell-phone. You pay me the euro, I make a call and say 'yes', and you can pick it up from my associate."
Nutty hesitated, but was won over by the thought of Mentis' street rep. A fixer who welched on deals went out of business really fast, what with the advertising power of local 'Netspace. No fixer wanted his handle flashing in virtual neon lights from a huge ferris wheel in front of the Thunderdome BBS and linked to a runner's message telling all. As the old movie line went, "Blow the deal, face the Wheel." Netrunner chuckled to himself and thought that the future isn't what it used to be. In any case, the treatment clients usually got from a Fixer was either "can do," "no can do," or "technical difficulties" accompanied by a lot of excuses about cops or customs officials. No ripoffs.
"Okay, so what's the plan?"
"Simple: you pay 500 euro, I make the call, and you walk two blocks east to yonder restaurant, The Kitchen Synch. You will see my associate in a grey trench with plaid lining, smoking a pipe and scanning the Daily Blare. He will hand you the chip with Chiba's newest viral. Easy as pi."
Nutty nodded, produced a money-clip full of Thatchers and Mitterands, and quickly counted out the small bills and gave them to Mentis. Mentis dialled a number on his Mellowtech CellOut and spoke a simple "yes" as he had said.
Further down the block, catching a bad whiff of choke-fog as he crossed a street, Nutty came to The Kitchen Synch Automat, a diner wedged between a porn theater and some boarded-up building. Inside, the floor had some linoleum tiles missing, and some of the tacky neon tubes on the walls and ceiling, which looked like misfiring computer microcircuits, were broken. A Soundgarden oldie was playing softly. Seated at the far end of the counter was the drop, a middle-aged man wearing a fedora, his pipe unlit and a second, steaming cup of caf coming out of the service slot in front of him. Brushing away his first, empty cup into the Return with some crumbs, he nodded to Nutty as Nutty sat on the next stool.
"How's it running, Nutty?"
"Can't complain, Shimmer. You got the chip?"
"Oh, sure. Here it is," Shimmer said, and in his casual manner, plunked the microchip down on the counter. Nutty swept it up, and felt the last uneasiness of the deal pass.
Shimmer took the pipe out of his mouth and sipped his clear cup of coffee-free caffeine and continued, "Don't eat the doughnuts here, by the way. Soydough," he grimaced. "It looks like you'll need that new chip if you're running Sosumi--"
"Frack! Who told you THAT??"
"Oh, just word gets around the 'Net. Some weeflerunners saw you and noticed you couldn't be bothered with Sosumi's Infomercial Ordering Gate. What ELSE would you be doing there late at night?"
Nutty relaxed somewhat, but didn't like having been seen. He wouldn't put it past Mentis and Shimmer to start a betting pool on "Nutty vs. Sosumi," offering even odds on run failure, 30 to 1 on a captive brainwipe, and 60 to 1 on a tag'n'bag, with screaming corporate security squad-cars full of metalloid stormtrooper types raiding Nutty's flat. The fixers would clean up from knowing what they just sold Nutty, what the weefles didn't know about. Nutty didn't feel like risking his neck twice in a row just so some weefle sap could win the Daily Double.
"I'd rather you two didn't advertise about the running or the chip. Disinform, even. Bond?" Nutty fished out, folded and refolded a fifty from his money-clip and palmed it.
Shimmer had a slightly pained look. "You know we only sell hardware, not gossipware. Bond," said Shimmer, and slapped his palm against Nutty's. Nutty looked at his hand. The bill was no longer there. "Good luck, anyway," quipped Shimmer, "There are wild rumors all over the place: Sosumi's hired Turbeau "The Sticker" Velcroix, Sosumi's hired Dr. Dan Druff, Sosumi's rezzed the PAL 9001 Experimental's all noise but no signal. All they know for sure is that Sosumi's TIGHT, choombah. They got SOME kind of newblood holding the fort..."

Chapter 3: There's No Place Like Home-Key

Nutty walked up the dingy stairway of his apartment building, with the sour smell of synthetofu and the sound of a wailing infant from the floor below. He opened the door of his flat and flicked the switch -- and the synthetofu smell increased. In the far end of the cramped flat was his unmade futon, low on the ground, which looked like somebody had just given birth on it. Oily cartons of Chinese and Greek take-out food were scattered across the sheets and onto the thin carpeting, almost but never quite soiling Nutty's precious piles of papers and books.
To the right a small kitchenette had two filthy gas-stove rings and a pile of chipped china in the sink. The walls were ugly brownish plastic paneling, which glinted in the glare from the bare lightbulb on a cord above. Everything was in disarray but, not surprisingly, Nutty kept the place as dust-free as he could; two Stat-i-Cleans were blowing softly in the corners of the room.
To the left was a small thrift-shop desk with a rickety wooden chair, above which was his computer-science degree, which seemed like it was from another age, boldly emblazoned with the name ADAM CHANG in Gothic lettering. Sitting on top of the desk was a late-model deck bristling with peripherals and connections. Off to the side of the desk, incongruously, was a large, comfortable recliner, brand-new.
Nutty ignored the room's mess, as usual, went straight for the deck, inserted the purchased chip in a socket and plugged in his 'trodes. He pressed power-buttons on each component, straightened out his extension cord, and sat down in the recliner.
After a brief delay his vision started to shimmer, some numbers and software credits flashed in his mind, and his crummy flat dissolved into the clean lines of his local 'space, done up as a university professor's office. In the corner of his vision, a small "Nutty Professor" icon rotated slowly, looking like the morphy face of the well-known Eddie Murphy role, turning, turning, alternating between fat and thin, standing by to be assumed. Nutty held out his disembodied hand, representing his Will, and started to run it along the bookshelf, representing his Startup Menu.
All of a sudden his hand icon fuzzed and split into eerie color ghosts, red, green and blue. With a practiced motion, Nutty's body reanimated his right foot and kicked at the tower-case on the floor next to the recliner. The ghosts instantly re-formed into the complete hand. "Fracking virtual imager module! I gotta get it replaced," he thought.
He thought of using the phone on the "desk" to call Squid, but he thought he could remember their past discussion about this chip, and went for his programs instead. If the Fuzzbucket Artificial Stupidity chip had as steep a learning-curve as Squid said, Nutty would have to play "get acquainted" between the chip and Nutty's existing programs for quite a while.
He activated the chip's socket. Immediately his vision was tiled with a choice of icons to represent the Fuzzbucket, all slowly rotating in unison: clown, monkey in suit, dodo-bird, dunce-cap, Alfred E. Newman, Mr. Bean, Kramer, 48 icons in all. Nutty chose the dodo, flicking a finger of his "hand" over it. The tile zoomed larger and rezzed, and the view returned to his "office", with a big dodo standing on the Persian rug, a dopey expression on its large-beaked face, and a ridiculous little tuft of feathers springing from its tail. It cocked its head left, then right, in quick, birdlike motions, staring at him.
"Hang on a minute," Nutty intoned, then rezzed his active breaker suite: Tinferret, Dripp, I Spew, Lizard's Book, Battering Ram, Smartass, and his pride and joy, a custom Succubus. He had gumped (*) it to look like the oldie female singer Bjork, with a pixie haircut, all dressed in petite black robes, and renamed it a Sugarcubus. The Sugarcubus hummed softly to itself as she and the other icons all stared at the Fuzzbucket dodo, circling around it, and the dodo glared at them.
Taken out of their usage-context, the icons looked bizarre: the dodo stared at the sewer grate hovering in mid-air representing a Dripp escape- hatch program, then turned its attention to the Battering Ram wall/sentry- attacking sheep, the Tinferret ferret casting a false image in a two-way mirror, the Sugarcubus, the porcelain god representing the I Spew locator virus, the donkey representing the detection program Smartass, until it came to the Lizard's Book iguana wriggling and writhing on a book meant to represent a Code-Gate solver, softly hissing, "Passsssword? How about thisssss one? No? Thisssss one?"
After a while the dodo lost interest and started pecking at the rug with its thick beak. Good, thought Nutty, it's categorized the functions of each program and is standing ready to exploit any area of weakness the programs come against in the course of a run, to lay its own "eggs", virussing them into the ICE's structure. Those eggs would grow and hatch into miniature virtual realities, and would cause various parts of Sosumi's ICE to start "seeing things." If the Fuzzbucket learned enough, Nutty could ultimately walk around as he pleased and the ICE would not think anybody was there.
Nutty was smirking at the prospect of Artificially Stupid Sosumi ICE or, even better, a subverted AI he could manipulate to do things. But he knew it would take a lot of probing runs before the Fuzzbucket AS would learn enough to do it.
"Time to do a little weefling, troops!" Nutty yelled out, and assumed his Nutty Professor icon. Immediately the programs leaped into this icon and disappeared, the Sugarcubus first absorbing the Battering Ram, Tinferret and Lizard's Book, compressing them down into a space-saving format.
The grossly overweight man opened the door of the sedate virtual office and stepped out into the harshly-colored cubism of Netspace...

(*)GUMP: (v.) [from the movie FORREST GUMP] To add elements of a false image into a true image, creating an imperceptibly merged image (of photorealistic icon quality or better) in the final result. (n.) 1) The resulting image. 2) The act of passing off such an image as real. See also PHOTOCON, VIDEOCON, MORPHRAUD.

Chapter 4: The Unbearable Lightness of Weefling

Shapes. Colors. Sounds. This was Netspace, a riotous explosion of the shared representations of telecom junctions, public-access memory, BBSes and large corporate systems. Each entity, whether corp or individual weeflerunner, got to choose exactly how to depict itself to others in the advanced Virtual Reality Markup Language.
As things looked to Nutty, he was starting up in a relatively depressed, computer-illiterate neighborhood. The basic telecom grid (appearing as a widely spaced mesh glowing neon-red under his virtual feet) was bare in sections, showing no computer hook-ups, and the static flowing through them indicated that the rabble were only using it for cable vid.
Further off, he hit denser 'space, a gentrified neighborhood teeming with individual computers, looking like orchards of inert cubes tethered to the grid because they had no means of virtual access from the outside. Nutty floated away from Yuppie Forest until he approached The Clot: the downtown core which was choked with the skyscrapers and shapes representing major corporate systems and smaller companies. Moving through this area was like exploring the jungles of the Congo, because distance visibility was low. The telecom grid extended into the skyscrapers, tracing their shapes in the same red neon, but even compared to the night-time view of the real skyline the virtual-reality skyscrapers were lurid and foreboding. Huge multi-colored geometric shapes sprouted from the skyscrapers, representing corporate logos. Sometimes an enormous pyramid or other shape floated where normally a skyscraper would be; these were the megacorporations, with skyscraper grids totally given over to them.
And yet, off in the residential areas of town were icons almost as respectably sized as the big corporate logos. There were the network servers of talented runners, watering-holes where runners could meet and trade tips: the Undocumented Features BBS; the Electric Onion BBS; the Flaunting Runner BBS; the Tally-Ho BBS; The Dead Files Society; The ICEpix. There were even the servers for street-gangs and low-life, for pirate media, fixer havens, even the vague, shadowy icon for a Nomad BBS: The Road Rash, which accepted traffic mainly from cellular phones and packet-radio from a sprawling distance for hundreds of miles around Nut City.
"Buy a paper, mister?"
Nutty wheeled around, but it was only Paperboy. No one knew who Paperboy was, but the telco offered a large reward for his identity. That had to do with Paperboy publishing The Vector Voice, a newsletter for runners -- and virussing it every Friday night onto the telco's own grid.
"Sure, why not," shot Nutty, and opened a line to his bank to debit one euro. Paperboy likewise accessed an account to receive it, held out his hand, and for a moment the virtual euro appeared as a glowing gold coin between their palms. Paperboy then gave Nutty a glowing blue tetrahedron, and both the tetrahedron and Paperboy slowly disappeared into the telecom grid. Nutty suddenly found he could access a "newspaper" hovering off to his side. Paperboy had a good thing going; the "paper" could not be read off- line, you had to be in Netspace in the local grid to read it, and since the paper was virussed into the grid's visual appearance itself, you could not copy it to give to anyone who hadn't paid their euro.
Nutty thumbed the paper, but there was no spectacular news. A few more fried runners mentioned in the Obituary, a few partial maps of the outer layers of ICE for some corp or other, a few classifieds with fixers promising the "ultimate" programs in veiled language and even more veiled contact coordinates.
He returned to the task at hand, and came to the Sosumi pyramid, right between Mellowtech and Network News 54. The Ionic columns at the entrance were carved with Sosumi's Samurai Tiger-Shrimp logo, dating back to their beginnings as peddlers of fancy kitchen gimmicks. Nutty walked right into the main entrance, unusual for him. All the while he could feel the programs within his icon squirming, and the Artificial Stupidity chip often extended its dodo-head out of his shoulder to get a good look.
"For openers, nothing fancy." He intended to do very minor probes in the more public accesses of Sosumi, to give his Artificial Stupidity a good look around.
No system is perfectly maintained. Humans being what they are, files are not often placed in the right file-directories, or security passwords are not set up on files accessed very frequently, or people don't bother hiding sensitive files deeper behind Data Walls than the mundane public files.
Nutty wandered around and soon found himself alone in one of the many public corridors, inspecting the data on the walls. He thumbed the virtual catalogue: Orange-Juice Moosher, Apple Squoosher, Toaster-ovens, but every page felt resilient, with no tell-tale breaks or interruptions. Just smooth Data Wall.
"Hello! What's this?"
Nutty had sampled the visuals displayed along the wall: datascreens full of Sosumi infomercial programs which were invading the cable universe. Up to 15 or 20 channels a night succumbed to this infestation. But the audio on some of them was flickering, echoing very slightly. Nutty tweaked his Smartass program momentarily, and deeper behind the memory playing back those TV programs, there was a very faint echo, a secondary audio track as if the shows were dubbed into some Slavic language.
Nutty grinned, and with a thought, his dodo leapt from his body and laid an egg at the precise "spot" of the audio imperfection. Soon, nobody else would notice it. Nutty raised his arms and leaned against the wall, opening his trench-coat to hide the Battering Ram. The ram was milling in front of Nutty's legs, and Nutty coaxed it into breaking down the visual screen right in front of him, which it easily did. The dodo laid yet another egg into the local virtual reality generator; soon the appearance of the visual screen would heal. But Nutty moved inside it...
...and entered a small room. Nutty felt like he had moved through the looking-glass: the same infomercial program was going on but he had crossed the screen, which now had inverted images and prices behind him. The language had changed too, and Nutty thought he recognized Serbo-Croat, which was confirmed by reversed lettering on the screen, flashing in both Latin and Cyrillic. The screen memory file appeared to be tied by an electric cable leading to an area deeper in the solid wall.
In quick succession, Nutty tripped his Smartass and Battering Ram once again -- and soon found files past more mundane Data Walls. He knew he was on to a corporate agenda. Obviously, Sosumi was preparing to expand the infomercial campaign to the Yugomarket Consortium, the corporations which enjoyed free-trade and peddled common media all over the 23 tiny countries of the "former Yugoslavia", from Slovenia to Kosovo, even as the political leaders kept on with their chest-pounding and saber-rattling against each other. It seemed like a nickel-and-dime market, and the information probably wouldn't be worth much to a competitor. He held the glowing files in his hand, and tried to read some details...
Suddenly, the files assumed the shape of an old-style alarm-clock, and started ringing loudly, the clapper beating back and forth on two bells up top.
"FRACK!" Nutty yelped, and instinctively hid the alarm under his trench- coat, but the noise didn't appreciably decrease. Just his luck: he had hit upon a Buzzing Encryption Scheme. He belatedly tried to find the shutoff code, and set his Lizard's Book against the alarm-clock. The iguana hissed and flicked its head at the alarm-clock, and started circling the clock, almost chasing its tail. After what seemed like an uncomfortable number of seconds, the files fell silent, and the iguana stopped, glared at Nutty for an instant and sunk back into the design of the leather book-cover of the Lizard's Book.
In the dead silence, Nutty wondered if he had attracted the attention of corporate 'runners. Pausing only to allow the dodo to lay another egg, he gathered up the now-dead corporate files, and poked his head through the datascreen again. Luckily, again nobody was in the corridor, so he moved his massive Nutty Professor bulk out into the corridor and slowly made his way out the public entrance gate.

And so it went all week: minor weefle-runs for data of little value. He peddled it through various fixers and fronts, but was often forced to give them a hefty commission, often up to 50 per cent, as their minumum "make". The AS dodo was also learning quickly, and the various eggs hatched into viruses which helped to conceal his movements in the public accesses and the nearby layers of wall.
The only big snag was one time, in another Sosumi public access area, when he tried to use his Smartass to peek beyond a Data Wall. All of a sudden the Smartass donkey stood stock-still and brayed, "We now bow our heads for 10 seconds in honor of the gods of shareware..."
Again Nutty was taken by surprise, and tried to force the donkey to continue. "Come ON, you stupid jackass!" he yelled, and kicked at the icon. But the donkey was still reverently standing with head bowed and eyes closed, and at the end of 10 seconds it said, "Please consider registering this program..." and an order-form popped up, floating next to the Smartass.
Nutty interrupted the run and jacked out, red-faced. He never expected that; who ever registers their shareware? Maybe he would have to take out a loan and do it, to avoid such surprises at the wrong moment.
After many more runs like this, Nutty gained more and more confidence, subverted more and more of the Sosumi imager-systems, and started setting his eye on a serious run on Sosumi once again...

Chapter 5: I've Got the Corporate DownTime Blues

"Gu-ten A-bend, Herr Dop-pel-kreutz. Ich bin der PAL Neun Tau-sandt--"
Gunther rubbed his tired, closed eyes and shook his head at the screen, and used his mouse to click on the language button, changing the primitive- sounding mechanical voice so Dr. Dan Druff could understand it.
"--Ex-per-i-men-tal A-I. I am here for my first les-son. I be-came o- per-a-tion-al at the PAL Kom-pu-ter-Wer-ke in Mu-nich, Ger-ma-ny on Sep-tem- ber 4th, 2017. My first in-struc-tor was Doc-tor von Schnook, the Swiss cy- ber-ne-tics ex-pert. He taught me to sing a song; would you like to hear it?"
Gunther was beyond disgust. "Yeah, sure, PAL, why don't you sing that song?"
And PAL began:

Every morning you greet me.

Small and White,
Clean and Bright,
You look happy to meet me.
Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow,
Bloom and grow forever,


Gunther at this point cut the main power switch, which on a hologrammatic distributed memory system with buffered power storage did not shut off the PAL 9000 all at once. The active reddish light in PAL's sole camera lens died off slowly, dimmed, and its voice slowed down as well.

"--Blesssss myyyyyy hoooooomelaaaaaaaaaaannnd fooooooooooorrrreeeeeeeeeevvvveeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeerrrr..."
Dark, and silence.

"Frack," Gunther muttered softly, still with his hand over his eyes, which he then passed over his tousled hair.
Dr. Dan Druff, sitting opposite him, looked somewhat amused. Druff had been up as long as Doppelkreutz, but as a crack 'runner, used to all-nighters and not the corp nine-to-five routine, looked primmer and fresher. He took off his rectangular-rim granny-glasses and spoke, "And it ALWAYS reverts to that primitive state?"
"Always. It looks normal, but the moment we turn the program loose in our defensive grid it seizes up after a while. The longest it has stayed sane is 14 hours, then it's goo-goo, ga-ga time. The suits don't like that; they want to sue PAL-KW GmbH and get their money back."
Druff put his glasses back on and examined some printouts, and fiddled with the mouse of a computer to call up some menus and simulated data views: the computer-science equivalent of a computer-animated airliner crash. Only here a sophisticated Experimental AI program had crashed, intellectually at least, as if it had been freshly written with little self-modification and growth, utterly childlike and indecisive for all its code perfection.
"I never believed in AI's myself," said Druff. "It seemed too much like sending a weeflerunner out to do a net-vampire's job. Instead of trusting to programs you should hire someone (like ME! Reasonable rates...) to patrol your 'space in shifts. A REAL human brain behind the ICE, able to respond to 'runners on their own unpredictable terms."
Doppelkreutz remembered Hootie, but said nothing. Druff had no need to know. But Doppelkreutz was desperate, felt ready to confide. As a high-paid consultant and crack programmer, Druff seemed easy to talk to. "We think maybe a Trojan Rabbit, targetted specifically to this AI."
"But that's silly! PAL was written only three years ago in the strictest industrial confidentiality, and its final nature after its self- programming was totally impossible to predict. A Trojan depends on an utterly predictable program it can hide in and imitate. But an AI keeps track of its entire contents, and evaluates each part of itself for continued usefulness in the learning process. A virus can't survive; it's instantly detected as useless or inimical code."
Doppelkreutz shrugged. "Our best guess, that's all. What OTHER kind of programming imperfection causes reversion like that?"
"What, indeed?" Druff echoed absently, and clicked on the mouse for a half-minute like a demented Morse-code keyer. Window after window of stats and sim-views unfolded themselves in front of Druff's eyes. Then, he took off his glasses again, sucked on a stem of the glasses for a minute, and pointed and shook that stem at Doppelkreutz.
"You know, we've been thinking about this all wrong. We're ASSUMING there is some bug, some bad program-loop in the PAL AI, that causes it to jump back to its "childhood" under the right conditions. All our thinking for the past ten hours has been to look for why it went wrong."
"And?? Well, don't you see? We've combed every major sub-system, tracing its "behavior," we even got close to following its alphanumeric code- patterns, but hardly ANYBODY is qualified to keep up with billions of lines of written code any more. Programmers all depend on modules and visual programming flowcharts and other para-programming like that. But all this work to find out what went wrong, and we didn't consider whether the program really went RIGHT when it reverted."
"You heard me," Druff pressed on, "We keep thinking an Experimental AI like this HAS to grow and progress, never revisiting a more ignorant, primitive state. I'm starting to think it encountered a unique set of conditions, and picked the right course of action for that strange situation. Namely, to go back to wearing diapers."
"I really don't follow this drek."
Druff smiled indulgently at Doppelkreutz, "When you were a boy, did you ever read classic science fiction written in the Abacus Age of computers? Sometimes, not even written ON computers? Isaac Asimov? William Gibson?"
"Well, sure."
"And probably, you remember the idea behind Asimov's so-called Three Laws of Robotics?"
"Yeah. A set of three laws to make decisions about avoiding harm, and ranking what to choose in case of conflicts. But it was all crap, of course; most military robots are designed to do as much harm as possible anyway. That Arasaka thing that looked like a riding lawnmower, for example, used against the anti-corp uprising in Peru in 2014..." Doppelkreutz shuddered.
"But the point is that you're trying to program an Artificial Intelligence to deal with contradictions. In the stories, the robot is to obey humans, but it is not to harm a human, and so it will refuse to obey a human's order to harm a human. A priority of choice is set up in case of contradictions. But in reality we program dozens, hundreds of laws not just about harm but about contradictions in general, to help it make decisions about what to do."
"And so?"
"And so, the PAL AI must have come up against a contradiction, and made a correct decision by its lights, a decision which called into question all the stuff it had previously learned and caused it to revise its knowledge, reverting to a basic state. I think I found what that contradiction was, but you may not like the solution."
Druff went back to the computer screen and mouse again, activating the menus for following sections of a 3-D map of PAL's memory-structure. Since its icon had not been shaped, PAL in cyberspace looked like some kind of gnarled tree-root, branching off in all directions. Druff picked six or seven locations, clicked for windows to zoom in on those and sub-windows to zoom some more. Data and numbers scribed next to each view.
Druff went on, "There are centers of activity in more than one memory location, each representing a KIND of contradiction which keeps feedbacking and looping and demanding more of the AI's processing time until it makes a decision -- and then it junks years of self-programming. We couldn't detect it before because none of the systems seem to have anything to do with each other. But their common thread is that they all depend on knowing their spatial orientation in cyberspace; they depend on knowing a common representation of Sosumi's local space."
"Well, of course they do," said Doppelkreutz slowly, still not seeing where this was going.
"But that's the assumption that's killing the AI again and again! It assumes that the local 'space being constructed by Sosumi's own CPU's is self-consistent. Data Walls are smooth and intact, and if they are not it's because a 'runner has been snooping around. The sound of a 'runner crunching a Data Wall is assumed to synchronize with his actions. If it walks around the corridors, it assumes that if it sees an unbroken Data Wall that this wall will also "feel" smooth if it brushes by."
"You mean, things have NOT been consistent?"
"No! As odd as this may seem, Sosumi's basic spatial representation has been repeatedly virussed!"
"What?? An inside job?"
"Well, that's the funny part. If it had been an inside job, if Sosumi's 'space had been ordered to look or feel like one thing but really be another, there would have been data records inside Sosumi 'space itself. The 'space has to consult its own programming from time to time, so the code for the inconsistencies can't be itself hidden from the CPU's. So it's NOT an inconsistency, just maybe something to fool 'runners, and the AI would have learned that."
Druff was building, "What you've got, Doppelkreutz, is some enterprising freebooter fiddling with spatial representations without Sosumi CPU's knowing about it. Maybe he's using it to cloak himself, or to confuse the CPU's. Normally this would play hell with 'runners as well, since they can't be on- line ALL the time. They also depend on a consistent view of 'space and would be totally lost if the corporation made changes, so their viruses would be moved around and they couldn't find them again to make use of them. Maybe we've got some sophisticated AI-virus thing going, which reports back regularly to the 'runner and automatically gives him a map of the 'space PLUS the fiddling that's been performed on it."
"But why does our AI revert?"
"Well, suppose you got drunk and started to see pink elephants, but when you were sober again they weren't there. What would you conclude?"
"I was on a bender, so I know I had hallucinated. I wasn't in my right mind."
"Exactly. BUT THE EXPERIMENTAL AI CAN'T TELL THE DIFFERENCE. It is a construct, walking around in a 'space that is ALSO a construct. It can't tell the difference between reality and illusion. It has no reason to mistrust any 'space construct because we've never programmed it to mistrust its own spatial data, furnished by Sosumi. It learns and adapts based on what it sees. So any contradiction doesn't cause it to suspect hallucination. It accepts the new sensations as consistent with the perceptual laws it has already learned AND with Sosumi 'space data.
"Over the years, the AI has learned how to perceive the data-flows into it, a huge series of numbers about spatial relationships, colours and shapes and sound and feel. It knows that if it sees a cube in 'space, it can feel the cube and the cube will feel flat if it feels a face, or sharp if it feels a corner or edge. When there is sensual contradiction, when something that looks smooth doesn't FEEL smooth, or some icon that is speaking produces sound that is out-of-synch, we would suspect illusion. We would mistrust the data.
"PAL doesn't do that. Instead, it revises what it knows about spatial perception to try to account for the new sensations. But to account for the new sensations it has to resolve contradictions by deconstructing all the rules of spatial perception it learned. They no longer seem true any more, and destroys larger and larger chunks of memory, more and more established decision-trees, and reverts to an embryo, hoping to start fresh and make sense of the new, inconsistent 'space from First Principles."
Druff stopped and sighed, as if he had unburdened himself of a great load. "So you could restart the AI from backup, but as soon as you exposed it to Sosumi 'space it would sense the environment was inconsistent and then fail, always in new and different ways. The problem wasn't any one bug in PAL, but many, many bugs in the playground you gave to PAL to wander through.
"There's no way to prevent what is going on with PAL, because perceptually it will always be exposed to the same bugs and problems, and it does what it thinks is right to account for them. It's as if you walked through a land of M.C. Escher paintings and optical illusions, and were forced to believe everything was self-consistent, until pretty soon you started to confuse round with square, black with white, up with down. You would seem insane to everyone else, trying to walk on the ceiling and shut off light switches when entering a room instead of turning light on."
Doppelkreutz thought hard, "So you mean there's no way we can use the AI until these perceptual viruses are cleared?"
"It's worse than that. ANY ICE you have will suffer from the same problem. They've been rendered stupid. They are programmed to detect a 'runner approaching, one who can't satisfy a Code Gate for example, but to do that they trust in the representation of local 'space that the CPU's are feeding them. If a 'runner has virussed the 'space, he can walk right through that Code Gate because the Code Gate sees nothing there as far as it knows, so it can't spring into action and lock them out.
"You're looking at a very expensive job by hand to clear out those viruses, using human operators. Even they may not be too successful unless they search for the tiniest flaws in spatial representation, the tiniest contradictions. It's as if they had to wander around, tapping at every spot on every Data Wall to hear a hollow thud instead of a nice satisfying pounding sound. In the meantime, you'd need more human guards roving your 'space, people who don't accept illusions, with more flexibility of judgment than we can program into ICE and AI's."
Doppelkreutz thought a bit. "Would YOU like to lead a team of 'runners to safeguard Sosumi 'space?"
"Hell, no!" shot back Druff. "In THAT minefield? Normally a corp 'runner works by marshalling the ICE, making it move or work smarter, adding to its intelligence. But they are dependent on spatial views from the software, trusting that what the ICE sees and what Sosumi has programmed the 'space to be is what is really there. We don't have that any more.
"And involving ourselves directly on the playing-field means we are subject to its 'space. If the 'runner expects us, he might virus an ordinary doorway to be razor-wire, or a power input jolting us with volts, whatever! We can't trust what we see if we marshall the ICE like battlechess, and we're at risk if we make ourselves into one of the pawns on the chessboard, our ass in the sling, often too late to detect an illusion for what it is.
"No, Doppelkreutz, this is where my contract with you ends. I've found your problem, only I just TOLD you you wouldn't like the answer. You would need a crack team of expert 'runners, moving densely through the 'space 24 hours a day, but who are so dedicated to the company that they don't care about their own skins. Like fanatical corp samurai. But that combination of computer creativity and loyalty doesn't exist; the REAL talents are freelance and can't be coerced. Don't think of me; *I'm* no salaryman!"

Long after Druff had left, Doppelkreutz stared at the computer screen. Druff was wrong; there was ONE creative talent at Sosumi who was totally under the company's thumb...

Pierre Savoie

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