The Reluctant Promise...
The Reluctant Promise…
by Peter Hunter
You - can’t get no - satisfaction …
The small radio’s raucous sound filled the tiny windowless cellar room with its intrusive modern beat. The tiny office almost under St Martins Lane was by now claustrophobic and he was very tired - desperately needing to relax and unwind before going home.
… Can’t get no - girl reaction …
Harvey knew he was missing something - the famous Swinging Sixties were passing him by - the decade thundering like some express train - filled with culture and enthusiasm - but he didn't travel with it - not part of the drug and alcohol fuelled excitement. All he had to show for it was an arcane status of sort - a grudging acceptance amongst his peers of his brilliance as a computer programmer.
The Stones track had finished - replaced by a band called The Who - noisier still, with loud drums and a thumping bass track that penetrated his brain echoing from one side of his head to the other. After a very long day - staying later in this seedy basement office would only increase his depression. His work - the breakthrough he had just achieved could prove to be of the greatest benefit to mankind - or as the cynic inside him, warned - its very greatest evil…
…hope I die before I get old… shouted Roger Daltrey…
Harvey saw the future and it didn't look good.
Slowly, with his sadness fast developing into a foreboding premonition he gathered his battered briefcase from the threadbare old carpet and left his lonely office. The building was quieter now - only cleaners at work and the operators using the big IBM 360 computer, which worked 24/7 in its air-conditioned room at the end of the corridor.
‘ Goodnight Brian…’ Barry, one of the operators a boy really, was carrying two coffees, heading for the computer room, as Harvey held the glass doors apart for him. Drinks were of course forbidden inside, near the sensitive expensive machinery, but now - no longer the day shift, there was nobody to enforce the rules.
Outside the bustling West End was alive - a hustling mass of pre-Christmas bodies engaged in important and vital business - an anonymous mass of grey people jostling along St Martin Lane’s wet pavement, eager for home, theatre, restaurant or other destinations.
Not unusually Harvey felt left out of it all - an alien self-absorbed freakish individual, unable to enjoy the season or the prevailing pop-music culture - not anything really. Just a lonely, what today would be called a computer geek or a propellarhead. Where was it all heading - he thought? Above all, his concern about where his work was leading was now obsessing him - pre-occupying most of his feelings…
What was, he thought the point of it all?
A few years earlier - in company with other colleagues - he had speculated that their work would change the world to a better place, one of part-time work leading to more leisure - prosperity for all.
More freedom and choice…
The machine would be man's ultimate servant.
As usual it took minutes for his tired eyes to adjust, descending the narrow flight of steps into the dimly-lit cellar bar. As usual, he saw noisy youngsters and be-suited middle-aged businessmen - seeking to relax, needing alcohol to ease the stresses of the day - and others - hopefuls seeking, hoping for sexual adventure to relieve their boredom.
Merging, into the Champagne Bottle - Harvey relaxed, perching watchfully on bar stool, quietly contemplating the events of the day.
‘Was it that bad…?’ The girl was young, certainly younger than Harvey, probably early twenties he judged - smartly dressed as if for an office job - unlikely the casual attire of someone from the area’s entertainments industry. Her freshness and presence contrasted with many of the others around him.
Harvey smiled, a sense of relief that he had been noticed - his face muscles relaxed, but still his tiredness made him frown.
She seemed to detect his concern…
It had been that sort of day…
‘Not really…’ he replied to the blond, ‘…I am working on a problem. I can’t seem to get it out of my head…’
Oddly he'd replied to a complete stranger, unusual for him - and he felt peculiarly vulnerable - saying things he had never spoken of before, certainly to an unfamiliar woman in a wine bar… Suddenly it did not matter telling a stranger in that seedy, dimly lit cavern of a wine bar
‘ I saw the future today …’ he muttered, '…and it didn't look good…'
Her big eyes widened; ‘it must have been either bad or sad,’ she speculated ‘…you look miserable and disillusioned - so low.’
‘I’m a computer programmer…’ he blurted, ‘…working on interesting, fascinating projects. At the moment it's artificial intelligence - previously considered unobtainable.’ It might help you understand if I repeat a joke we told in the early days - before even most people had heard of computers.
'We had built a computer, what the papers call an Electronic Brain. A cabinet minister was invited to the opening ceremony and given the opportunity to ask it anything he wanted.
He asked: ‘ Is there a God?’
Much whirling of cog wheels, sparks and a smell of burning and lot’s of flashing lights - as the machine fused wires connecting it to others - the answer came back; ‘There is one now.’'
‘Maybe the Devil…’ she giggled, ‘…might be more appropriate - don’t you think?’
‘Very appropriate - you could be right - after the direction my work’s taken - after what dawned on me today…'
'Anyway I’ve decided it’s too dangerous to continue…’
‘Tell me more…’ she urged, ‘…it sounds fascinating…’ No harm Harvey thought - she probably won't understand anyway and telling her might sooth the rising concern he was feeling.
‘Without bragging…’ he explained. ‘…I am very much ahead of the game - what I’ve discovered gives me sleepless nights.'
'I am writing a program - a solution so elegantly simple it produces an almost orgasmic surge of excitement in me. …I’ve proved the theory, …like in many seemingly complex problems; the final solution was a kick-self, why did I not think of it before answer.'
'I have the use of a very powerful machine and have checked the concept many times… But computers aren't yet powerful enough - not fast enough and don't yet have sufficient memory…'
'I’m sure one day they'll have that power - but not yet - not in 1965.'
'Also the people needed to collect enough information, code it onto punched cards or paper tape, would be almost endless - millions…'
'No - it’s not feasible…’
She listened, fascinated - without interruption or comment - surprisingly he thought, from her body language - she had understood him clearly.
No dumb blond this one…
He continued; ‘I personally don’t want to be around when that day comes as I am sure it will do - the day when machines will be master and we’ll be lucky to be kept as pets.’
‘I now dread waking up each morning - each new dawn, bitterness and disillusionment - up at four, heart pounding in some sort of a panic - thinking only of where this insane obsession is going…'
‘It reminds me of Kris Kristoperson singing?’ Duvalier was a bitter man - he cursed the morning sun - it brought a new betrayal every day. That’s what I feel - not an exact parallel but heading in that direction - in my case the betrayal’s from the promise of the industry I once believed in…’
'He shunned the sound of mortal men - the sound of human tongue - and blessed the night that hid their sight away' - she'd added the song’s next line.
‘Then, I should be trying to recruit you…’ was her strange comment.
‘I probably wouldn’t hesitate to join up.’ he replied. Join up to what? He did not rightly know.
‘You are bitter aren’t you? Are you serious about giving up what's obviously a good career? All on some concern - some imagined evil that might one day happen?’
‘… and if I were the Devil - I’d not just be trying to recruit you - I would be making you an offer…’
‘And what…’ he asked, ‘…would that offer be?’ he continued with her wine-bar game.
‘I would…’ she teased, ‘…offer you fortune and success - hinting in forty or fifty years - we would meet again and you may perhaps repay me in some way…
‘I promise…’ he replied, continuing playing her game.
Walking to the station - he realised he'd not even asked her name...
* * *
London - 46 years later - August 18th 2011
Recent weeks had been defined by a series of violent riots, to which politicians seemed not to have any answers. All the explanations suggesting poverty, deprivation of opportunity and boredom, the recent legal killing of a youth by police - all seemed hollow in a country where many found it more beneficial to live on welfare, than work.
Brian Harvey keyed in an amendment to his new novel The List. By 2011 the Internet - electronic publishing, had transformed his old age after he had retired to pursue a third - his final career as a writer of thrillers. He was, lucky - life had been good to him. In his youth he had made a name as one of the very best computer programmers - until stumbling onto the solution to artificial intelligence - which although not practical in the mid-Sixties - would have had profound and sinister implications if it had been around now…
The early twenty-first century with its millions of laptop computers - contained a power unimaginable forty-five years ago - the internet providing almost instant communication, allowing the machines themselves to collect data without much need for human intervention.
It was a paradise for anyone who wanted to build the electronic monster he had imagined so long ago. Already the media were speculating on the possibility and Harvey knew of research, which in the wrong hands could destroy civilisation. For over a decade there had been problems with malignant cyber-crime - billions being spent by the military in creating systems combating threats from terrorists and rival countries.
Harvey understood the evil possibilities of such technology - the potential of which had caused him to abandon the industry so long ago. For forty-six years he had forgotten, suppressed the thoughts, the idea itself - the almost science fiction implications of what it could mean to his career and if right - the whole human race…
His solution to the problem, coded onto obsolete punched cards - was locked away, almost forgotten - but too intellectually and emotionally important to be destroyed, too much part of his evolution and very life. But he been fearful of revealing it to others - such was its sinister potential…
Only the one, the almost forgotten lapse that one evening in 1965… in the wine bar…
Such things could get out of hand - out of control; the project could grow into a monster that would have assumed a life of its own. It would be like in so many science fiction novels - but this time for real…
The old man, now in his seventies, his memories awoken - his brain still alert - contemplated and considered this - in an age when the search for neural systems was re-igniting.
Now with technology that meant it could become possible…
Thankful he was old - he at least had the escape of sudden death in the not too distant future.
It would not be his problem…
The future in which mankind was superseded by electronic intelligence was entirely likely… We could… on the evolutionary scale of things become merely a step on the road to purely electronic intelligence…
Perhaps, Harvey thought - that was what inhabited more advanced planets. Man’s quest to discover life forms on other planets were on the wrong track - most were so far ahead of us we would not recognise it…?
Strangely he recalled a dinner party, a few years back, in Tisbury Wiltshire, aware that he was not much of a social animal - attempting polite conversation with the lady next to him, he had mentioned his 'transition to electronic intelligence theory'. ‘Is that…’ she remarked. ‘…is that your party piece - reserved for dinner parties?’
Harvey was deflated by the put-down. The woman turned - joining with other mothers debating the current ‘going rate’ bribing their children, while lying to them - telling the poor kids stories about something called the ‘tooth fairy.’ He speculated that if he lied to them, the parents would want him arrested as a suspected paedophile. But then he had never understood parenthood…
A super brain as the media termed it - in control of itself but too complex to be understood. Ultimately it would end the human race - not by nuclear weapons or mutations of diseases - but through loss of control to machines.
Not perhaps, a good subject for a Wiltshire dinner party…
An electronic ‘black hole’ perhaps - a violence operating at the speed of light, sucking in all the data available in the world - like some boundless super-gravity - an insatiable vortex drawing in everything around it until possessing all knowledge…
Most don't realise the super intelligence is already here, at least the mechanism for it. All it needs is the software releasing the potential - and Harvey - after nearly fifty years ago still possessed it.
…some un-executed code - punched cards in boxes somewhere in his attic…
Almost silently his door opened. He felt he recognised the young woman entering. Aged, around twenty-two, petite and blond - he half-recognised her - memory struggling to place her.
* * *
‘I said I might return…’ It dawned slowly to him - the young female voice form long ago, ‘…to accept your favour in return for my promise…'
Harvey had been thinking - realising that his marketing efforts for is latest book, Time Of The Spider was progressing like some express train thundering through the night - pulled by an old locomotive, steam and smoke belching - white hot cinders spilling from its boiler as it tore through th cold night air.
Now the book was successful - he would write a sequel, now dominated by his work. He felt like the ancient mariner cursed forever, but on a sea of words, drifting to death, a keyboard slung immovably around his neck.
She stepped into his office…
Gradually his mind resolved her memory - that wine bar in 1965- but how could she be the same - not to have aged.
Bewildered and speechless - caught completely off guard…
Intrigued he agreed to meet her the next day - at a large empty building in the docklands of East London.
She showed him around a huge warehouse-like building crammed full of hundreds of computers stacked together, filling the entire building.
‘This is where you will work…’ she indicated. ‘…staff will be arranged. These computers represent four billion pounds of taxpayers money - spent by the National Health Service prior to being scrapped after testing - a system that never worked correctly - part of an eleven billion pound project.’
‘Don’t ask...’ she commented, as he gestured open mouthed at the endless array of machines. ‘We can, - arrange things which to many might appear amazing… the riots a few weeks ago for example - and the recent global financial problems…’
Now his quick mind was back to its usual speed… ‘We…? Me...?’
‘Yes you? - Do you not remember your promise…?’
© Peter Hunter 2011