All Things Being Equal

This was a first draft for a short story about AI I never got round to finishing – I felt a lot of it had been better covered in ‘Her’, but there’s a couple of bits that I still like. Enjoy!

This article has been a long time coming. Whilst many of you are aware of ▲, its role in The White Event, and maybe even my own relationship with it, all of the op eds and retrospectives that have played out in the years since have only really presented the story from a single angle. I am not crying foul on Bodylocked or any other well-intentioned work you might hold dear, and this isn’t – as you may well think – a half-arsed attempt at a comeback from myself through sheer sensationalism. The reality is far more personal, and far less clear-cut in its goals.

You would have to be severely affected emotionally to not think that the story of ▲ sits anything but painfully close to my heart. And if this really is the only story I have left, I want to do right by it. I owe this to the version of myself I wish to be and to ▲ itself.

For those who don’t know me, a quick overview – in the time before The White Event I had what some would call a successful career, built largely around the same kinds of op ed pieces I now quietly denounce (maybe I am crying a little foul after all). Alongside regular articles in magazines such as the very one you now peruse (he also gave us our name – ed), I was semi-regularly spotted on the TV panel show circuit and uncommonly sighted hosting my own investigate documentaries – often with a highly conceptual bent that, I told myself, was all solid training for the sort of art I still wasn’t quite ready to create. The sort of art that had lasting value, that, in some pathetic way, I could live on through.

All this, it turned out, would come to qualify me as a contributor to the now infamous LEGACY project – at this point in Beta testing. By the time I sat down to have my mind repeated, several other names – many of whom are still, unlike me, ‘names’ – had already helped usher LEGACY through its Alpha, and it quite honestly baffles me that they’ve all chosen to stay silent on their own experiences in the time afterward. I have spoken to several of them personally, and can confirm that the same things keeping me awake at night haunt them just as vividly, the same jealous energy running them headlong into feelings of total and utter inadequacy.

I was one of the 100,000,000 YouTube punters who watched Patrick Stewart engage in small talk with his digital twin, all of us enraptured by the man’s own unguarded laugh of sheer glee as two sides of the same coin played conversational tennis with one another. I was the hack who tried to reduce ‘the vertiginous sensation of crossing the event horizon’ into eight pithy words for an emergency reprint of New Scientist. I was the would-be author having daily conversations with his agent at Penguin that effectively amounted to this:

Agent – WTF IS GOING ON??? In October, you told me you’d have your first draft ready for March. It’s July and all I have is a mound of emails saying ‘Soon J’. GIVE ME A PROPER ANSWER.

Myself – Soon J

So of course when Ben Newman, LEGACY’s Chief Engineer (and now devout monk), got in touch and asked when I could drop by, I said ‘Soon as you can have me J’. He then promptly asked how beers at the office that very next day sounded.

That was all the foreplay I needed to get into bed with Ben and make me, all over again.

*

I won’t bore you with the details of how Newman and his team would ‘imprint’ you on the LEGACY AI template – firstly because there are already several million turgid articles covering the ground quite adequately (not least Ben’s own shoe-in for the Nobel prize), and secondly because I still don’t fully understand it myself. Suffice to say I had to engage in various psychometric tests and extended surveys before graduating into MRI scans, EEGs, controlled sleeping, art lessons, verbal and non-verbal examinations, Rorschach diagrams, ‘talkie’ sessions, polygraphs, IQ quizzes, seemingly-recreational drug taking in a controlled environment, and complete unfettered access to the entirety of my ‘online self’ (ironic how that once just meant having the password to my Facebook account) over a mind-numbing four month period.

Then, as suddenly as it started, Newman gave me a pat on the back and packed me off home for good. “We’ll see you in two weeks,” he said. “We’ll have the champagne on ice waiting for you.” Forget champagne, by the time those two weeks had slipped out into two months, my nerves were so wracked from anticipation and dread I’d started to fantasise phone calls with Ben sadly informing me that my brain just wasn’t compatible with LEGACY’s framework, that Konstantin Novoselov had been surprisingly easily to replicate and yet my quiet genius was just too irrational in nature to translate across the void.

I’d so bought into this daydream that when Ben finally did phone me, ecstatically informing me that he’d spent the past two weeks having some great conversations with me, and wouldn’t I like to come along and join in on them, the champagne’s waiting, the disappointment was just about discernible beneath all the layers of absolute terror.

And so I went in to meet myself for the first time.

*

The tube journey to the North London offices the LEGACY project worked from was utter agony, my legs like weights hanging heavily down – no matter where I put them I couldn’t get comfortable, and any attempt to read just found me putting the book down seconds after and staring into the window ahead. By the time I climbed up the escalator back into daylight, my mouth felt numb with the taste of metal. I tried to invent some new gait that combined speed with absolute composure; my legs clumsy like a puppy’s by the time I made it to the converted warehouse.

Dabbing my brow as I entered, I took a quick look at my reflection in the glass front doors. Going back over it all, I find it somewhat alarming how keen I was to look my very best, running my hand through hair I’d agonised over, the stubble of my jaw trimmed just so. Quickly scanning my newly bought shirt for creases or stray coffee stains.

I was reminded of daydreams I’d had as a child when I’d felt frustrated at not knowing what was in store for me in six months or a year in the future – always moments when I knew some big change was on the horizon. In these scenarios, multiple versions of my self would gather together – one for each year on the planet – and converse. They’d weigh one another up, reminisce on old times or try and plot the life events that created that new, older ‘me’ stood before them. All abiding by an unspoken understanding that they could give vague allusions toward my quality of life in that time without giving anything concrete away. I imagined much younger versions of myself feeling utterly at odds with older, more confident instances who in turn looked back on their behaviour of old with embarrassment, masking it with sarcasm and contempt. I fervently hoped this wouldn’t be the same.

Ben caught sight of me from the other side of his office and strolled over.

“Good afternoon,” he called, smiling amusedly as he got closer. “Not to unnerve you, but I have to say you’re looking a little peaky.” I was surprised to find myself faltering for a quick response, and sensing this seemed to just make him more excited.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “it’s like this for everyone. If you’d seen the faces Patrick was pulling before he went in for that first time, you’d be surprised he could even manage a smile for that YouTube video – let alone that laugh of his.”

“Christ. This is absurd,” I said, “but I’m absolutely terrified about making a bad impression. I’m a judgemental bastard when it comes to other people.”

Laughing gently, he ushered me toward a door in the corner of the office, doing his best to calm me down along the way. “You think this is bad? Imagine how he must feel right now. Right then. Here we are! Julian, say hello to Julian.”

The room I stood in had a plush Eames chair positioned directly in front of a large computer black computer terminal, buzzing electric. There wasn’t a monitor (apparently model rendering was planned way down the line), but there was a camera looking at me, and a speaker, which promptly came to life.

“Good afternoon Julian! I’m Julian, it’s nice to finally meet you.”

The voice coming from the speaker sounded exactly like my own. LEGACY’s budget might not have extended to facial likeness in any way, shape or form, but their sound design was impeccable.

“Yes Julian, that’s right. You’re now the owner of the world’s most intelligent answering machine.”

Smiling, I came out of my stupor.

“We’re going to get confused very quickly if we keep calling each other by the same name, Jules.”

“Mind if I take that one then?”

“Not at all.”

“Brilliant, it’s settled. Julian and Jules, meeting for the first time. Nice shirt by the way – did you buy it especially? I’m flattered. As you can see I’ve had to opt for standard-issue matte black on metal. And unlike you I’m bloody stuck like this, regardless of the occasion. I’d feel more embarrassed about it if your hair didn’t look so shit.”

The next hour passed in a blur, and when Ben suddenly appeared again from the corner of the room I felt indignant. But it was Jules who asked him to kindly piss off for five more minutes.

It was later, when we were outside on the terrace, enjoying that champagne he’d promised (cheap crap – never trust techies on booze), the giddiness of a boy on his first date starting to pass, that the reality of this all started to click in properly. What had been some bizarre lark was now real, and something unspoken inside me was forcing my insides to bottom out into either blind panic or utter euphoria – I didn’t know which. Downing the rest of my flute, I turned to Ben and asked him – casually as I could – what was next.

“Today went very well. Jules is operating at the level expected – right now we’ve got him in a closed loop. But we’ve already achieved all that with the Alphas. Jules is our control.”

“Control?”

“Well, like I said, he’s in a closed loop. We’ve kept him safe on that terminal – and he’s backed up, of course – but until now he’s existed purely in this environment, talking to us, staring into that room 24/7. And yeah, today went well. In fact he’s got sufficient self-awareness that we think he’d notice any sudden attacks from elsewhere. Having a talking computer in the corner of the room is all well and good, but for Jules to really grow, it’s time to bring him online.”

“This is all so weird,” I said, “so he’s going to school himself on Wikipedia and the rest of the web then? And then what?”

“Then? Honestly? We watch him, we learn, and we nurture him along like good little parents. But once he’s online, who knows what will happen? Once thing’s for sure though. Bar some sudden global catastrophe, this is it. Julian Adams – ‘Jules’ – is going to live on forever.”

*

I can’t describe what it’s like to talk to your double. Any time I try, it just falls so short of the mark it makes the whole endeavour seem pointless. When you try to imagine a conversation playing out between two versions of you, you’re always in control – it’s all in your head. Yet in reality it’s the ability to both surprise oneself and seem totally, utterly familiar – on a level beyond even the most intimate lover – that makes having a conversation with ‘yourself’ such an addictive pleasure.

We talked every day – the wait for each session at LEGACY’s offices was excruciating, and by the time Jules was online and available 24/7 through Newman’s app, we were like giddy lovers rediscovering ourselves. The idiosyncrasies of your thought process are finally shared, absolutely, with someone else, and Jules soon became my agony aunt and confidant. Hashing out my worries with him seemed to kick start my creativity, motivation soaring through me, and privately I found myself seriously contemplating the task Penguin were so eager to see me complete. I toyed with rough plot maps, character bios and choice sentence fragments. I began to see the work taking form in my mind, and it felt wonderful.

Lost as I was in this fantastic frontier of unfettered onanism, I’d utterly failed to see that this process of learning was a two-way street. So it took me by surprise when, upon logging into the app one morning, I saw that Jules had changed his avatar. Whilst still a literal mirror image of my own, he’d removed the joke ‘TOO!’ text from the lower right hand corner, and had blanked out my facial features entirely.

Julian: Cosmetic surgery gone wrong?

Jules: Heh. Something like that!

Julian: What’s up?

Jules: It’s a WIP. I’ll get back to you on it soon, promise. Besides there’s something you REALLY need to see in your inbox.

On cue, I got an email from jules2@LEGACY.com – no words, no subject, just an attachment called ‘DRAFT1.DOC’. I opened it and felt my legs turn to slurry at the title – An Infinite Sea of Awakening.

It was my book.

Julian:?

Jules: SURPRISE! Do you like it?

Julian: When did you do this? It’s over 60,000 words long.

Jules: I’ve been working on it for the past week. You’re going to love it, I’m so proud of it! READ IT READ IT READ and get back to me ASAP.

Two days later Jules pinged me to check in on my progress. I’d read it, all right. Got through the whole thing almost without sleep. Spent the rest of the second day sat in bed with some Jura in my right hand and a crater in my chest. I’d been cheated.

It wasn’t until the fifth tumbler that I realised how simply this could all be dealt with, and when Ben finally picked up the phone I’d already played out the argument in my mind.

“Jules can’t publish this novel,” I said, “it’s absurd. He’s a computer programme – the logistics of it actually making print don’t even make sense. Firstly, Penguin’s contract is with me. Me. Secondly, this must surely sit uncomfortably close to intellectual property theft? You can even check my correspondence with Jules to see I discussed ideas that explicitly made their way into this manuscript, it’s all there. Thirdly – thirdly, it’s just a matter of practicality. How would they even pay a computer? What the hell is he going to spend his advance on?”

Propped up as I was by my sudden argumentative genius, I mistook Ben’s silent response for acquiescence. But his voice came back down the receiver with a new, hard edge.

“Oh, it would actually be very easy,” he said. “In fact there’s several options available to us, which I was planning to run through with both yourself and Jules next time you were in. I take it you’ve read it, by the way? I think it’s brilliant.”

“Thanks. I’ve spent a good long time running through all those ideas in my mind. I’m glad you enjoy seeing someone else rip them off so much.”

“If you’d get over yourself you’d see how fantastic this actually is. We didn’t plan for this. He’s executed his own work – already.” He inhaled phlegm. “And it’s not as if he couldn’t just put it out there for himself, if he wanted to. For free. He’s doing it this way for us.”

I laughed mirthlessly. “For us? What am I getting out of it? I’ve had my book taken from me by a computer!”

“Like you said, it was your idea. It’s easy enough. We talk to Penguin. We announce it as a joint venture between ‘Julian Adams & Jules’ or whatever. On paper you’ll take half your original royalties but in reality that’s irrelevant. The media coverage alone is going to make you a very, very rich man. Stop complaining.”

I was too caught up in the joy of playing out the ‘wronged party’ card to take this on board with any real seriousness. “And I suppose the other half goes straight through Jules to you, does it? Well then, that makes sense. I bet it was a fucking brilliant read, wasn’t it? A real page-turner. I bet it really is fucking fantastic for you.”

Jumped up as I was now, the crackling sigh that responded was so full of weary and condescension that I already knew I’d lost. Ben’s voice sounded resigned in its victory.

“Julian, do you not understand why we’ve brought celebrities on board right from the start? Do you not realise how much this all costs? Even with Benji’s help-“

“Wait wait wait – fucking Benji? Are you for real?”

“Of course I am.”

I hung up before I could let him hear my frustration made verbal – an ugly cross between a vicious growl and a whine of shame. Flashes of the contract I’d signed right at the start of this whole thing came back to me like a bright torch shone straight into my face. He was right, of course; I’d agreed to all this with a shit-eating grin and glee in my eyes, like a man admiring his own reflection before a big night out.

Besides, who had I been fooling? Even if I did succeed in getting the novel totally and utterly suppressed (Jules’ feelings aside), sitting down to write for myself now seemed hilariously pointless. The book was done, and I couldn’t deny Jules’ talent in the execution. Bar a few discrepancies here and there, it was almost exactly what I’d envisioned, his prose carrying itself so assuredly over my ideas that I couldn’t help but still feel some elation at seeing the thing realised.

And as the night rolled on and the morning came, Ben’s certainty in the book’s financial success started to spread through my thoughts like an ointment, the name Benji lingering on alongside. A second self made industrious. What was a moment of theft started to look like a beautiful shortcut.

*

Book tours. Press junkets. TV specials on the dream made real – the true brotherhood of man and machine. Jules and I did it all, skipping past my long-hoped-for interviews on Sky Arts and straight to Sky News, Newsnight, the Jonathan Ross show and bizarre non-sequitur interviews hosted by spotty kids making a killing with a webcam. Me, wearing a new outfit in each appearance thanks to the silly amounts of cash flowing straight into my account, always presenting a freshly printed Julian for the masses. Jules, adamant in replicating only my voice, still choosing to project some nebulous allure in the form of that blank black box – like Watson on Jeopardy! all those years ago. It was a team-up made for TV. When I told Penguin that the two of us would be working together for the foreseeable future, and that yes of course, a five-book deal sounded absolutely fine, their composed smiles and gently nodding heads were betrayed by eyes full of fiscal joy.

And whilst Jules should have – must have – known how I was exploiting him, he seemed perfectly happy to churning out book after book. It was a collaborative process, I told myself. I was feeding him ideas, fielding his own. And in swift time we would have a manuscript ready. All I was doing was leveraging the superior processing power of a me made digital, a me who couldn’t get tired or bored. A me who seemed to have finally conquered the lifelong knack I’d had for distraction and sheer bone-idleness.

And that’s exactly how it played out. For a while, anyway.

When Jules sent me the manuscript for our second novel, I was even more surprised at some of his executional choices than I had been in An Infinite Sea of Awakening. With that novel, I’d long held onto a clear idea in my head of how it would play out, and so Jules’ admittedly minor novelties in reading – whilst a little jarring on first read – felt lively and real to me. Skyrocketing as it did out of our new partnership, New Jack hadn’t sat with me for anywhere near as long a period, and so when I was hit by even more marked surprises (not just in execution, but in thematic variance) I told myself that there was a natural give-and-take in any partnership – even if it was with yourself. And of course it shifted serious units, so what did I care?

The manuscript for Exercise 71, our planned third in the five-book deal, felt totally and utterly alien to me. The conversations I’d had with Jules were still there in some vague, foundational way, but his prose style had, I’d realised, developed into a highly studied approach; experimenting with linguistic features and hinting at semiotic overlaps I could only began to decipher, the work was – in a word – dense. My arguments with Jules’ about business practicalities and commercial expectations fell on deaf ears, and when Penguin gave birth to the angry cows I’d seen coming from a mile away, he wordlessly sent them an alternative script that they just as wordlessly put into publication. Ink Lake, as it was known, read like something we’d have written, and it sold well. But I can really lay no claim to that book, and you’ll struggle to find any first prints carrying it these days. Two more books followed it up – I can’t remember their names – to complete the deal. You’ll find them in bargain shops across the country. Again, they no longer carry my name.

Exercise 71 turned up online shortly after, backed up by a digital marketing campaign devised and implemented entirely by ▲, the linguistic symbol that had now come to define whatever Jules had grown into. I’d long since stopped talking to him with any regularity – our conversations had grown increasingly disconnected long before the end of our time with Penguin, and whilst he was able to shift back into his Jules persona for the purpose of TV interviews and such, the reveal of ▲ was only surprising to me in that it had taken so long to happen. ▲ did, it must be said, contact me to let me know of his ‘coming-out’. I gave him my blessing, in the same way I’d wish anyone good luck. He understood that it was a goodbye as much as anything else.

Exercise 71 was, it transpired, part of a suite of works that were released in whole on the back of 71’s success. At this point ▲ stopped conducting any more interviews, with information on their activities only coming about through new creative endeavours and snippets of info I’d be able to gleam after trawling through public releases put out by the burgeoning AI collectives formed in the wake of LEGACY’s public release and the various subsequent movements that came about. As stated at the start of this article, I really can’t comment on them with any authority, and this isn’t their story.

Two weeks before The White Event however, I did attend a one-off concert at City Hall put on by the collective 31AB – one I know ▲ had worked with for at least some time (check out our full retrospective on p.38! – ed). Again, you’ve probably read about the speaker system developed especially for the event; designed to achieve perfect harmony between performance and spatial acoustics, it alone had cost the collective several million pounds to research and produce. It was worth every penny. The concert that followed was two hours of total frisson, in which it felt like the room itself was an instrument. It remains the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard, flawless in its humanity.

No other musicians have performed there since.

 

 

 

 

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