Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Inside Job 4

{Part 1 here}

The sun hung low behind the Economics building, illuminating the colonnaded facades of the edifices across the quadrangle, making them look like a bugs-eye view of chips plugged into motherboard-green lawn. Now Phil led and Jeremy tagged along, across the quad to the Computer Arts & Sciences building. Phil led the conversation as well, a little about AUTOLOGOS, a bit about the system, but much more of it at the expense of certain of the faculty and administration. Until they got to the entrance. "Wait a minute," Jeremy said, "I can't go in there."

"Why not? You got Schotz's note, right?"

"Yeah, but it's hardly a sanction to go play with the system."

"How are you supposed to fix anything if you don't get on?"

"Hey, I don't have an account anymore, remember? I don't even have a valid ID for the swipe-reader."

"No sweat, we'll use mine, and I told you the account was reactivated."

"Not reauthorized. You could lose your fellowship."

"Hey, what are friends for?"

"Look, I'm not going to get on. I'm not sure I can fix anything anyway, but I know I can kiss my severance goodbye if somebody makes an issue of it. Besides -- "

Their heads turned in unison as the automatic glass doors slid open and Nick emerged blinking onto the portico. An adjunct professor teaching undergrads the rudiments of artificial intelligence, Nick had casually consulted on aspects of AUTOLOGOS as an antidote to his tedious courseload. It was rumored that he never slept except while presenting his lectures. To say Nick had an otherworldly air about him would hardly do justice to his abstraction; it was more as if he'd been projected from higher dimensions. "Gentlemen," he said.

Phil whirled around. "Where?"

Nick took no notice, as he often didn't. "You've caused quite a stir amongst the AI fraternity," he said, looking at Jeremy, or through him.

"Me? Why?"

"Your sentence grinder shows signs of sentience."

"What? Aw, c'mon ..." Jeremy turned to Phil. "You put him up to this, right? Did you get Schotz in on it too, or just forge his note?"

"I swear, I had nothing to do with this --"

"What are you two on about?" asked Nick. Jeremy pulled the note from his pocket, unfolded it, and, still glaring at Phil, handed it to him. "Oh, yes, I've seen this. And Schotz -- I believe he's in conference with the department heads at the moment."

"Inside?" Jeremy asked. "I'm supposed to see him. See, on the other side."

"I wouldn't think that he can be interrupted," Nick offered, glancing at Schotz's scribble, handing the note back, "even though I'm sure he'd like a chat with you. I wasn't invited to attend, despite having some familiarity with your project."

"I've got to see what's going on in there," Phil said.

"All I can say is that they had instructed one of the system administrators to keep a close eye on activity on the account -- at last report, I'd heard it was quiescent. Oh, and something was said about an audit -- delving into the system logs. But I fear you will have to excuse me -- I must take a meal before my morning lecture -- unless you'd care to join me?"

"Gladly -- shall we," said Jeremy, catching himself; there was something infectious about Nick's manner of speaking, "-- would the Student Union be OK?"


"Listen," said Phil, "I'll catch up with you there. Stay put -- I won't be on long." He was already through the door. "Maybe I can grab Schotz on his way out. See ya there."

Jeremy accompanied Nick down the disabled access ramp off the side of the portico, towards the Student Union next door. "They can't be serious," he said, "you know as well as me that the program had no AI capabilities."

"As well as I do", Nick corrected, "and I'm not all that certain. It's not proper to consider it as a solitary program; it's my understanding that several processes were involved, some of which operated off-site -- not to mention the agents that were scouring the Net for texts to sample -- all in all, a rather complex set of interactions, wouldn't you say?"

"Yes, but all the supervisory routines were on the system here."

"Nonetheless, you have in your pocket output that was created after the program had supposedly been terminated. And the content of that output, and even of its first execution, is at the very least suggestive ..."

"I can explain the first run. We -- Phil and I -- think the program used its own source code as data, I mean as a model for constructing its output."

"Curious. So the apparent self-referentiality of your Markov chain letter was purely happenstance?"

"Just a fluke. And you know it's not Markovian, not in any meaningful way, certainly not on any local scale. It's not Word Golf -- with all the interconnections, it's more like Word Go. Anyway, once the program had found that file, the process of building the result would pass through several iterations, each of which would deepen the interrelations and strengthen the consistency of the text, reinforcing any apparent self-reference ... "

"Of course. Still, that involved moving about a lot of intermediate results, did it not?"


"Is it beyond conception that the supervisory process succeeded in shifting itself to another domain? Ah, here we are," Nick said as they approached the coffeeshop entrance, the sign above proclaiming JAVA? YEAH, SURE. "After you."

Because breakfast was the most reliable cafeteria offering on the student meal plan, the coffeeshop was sparsely occupied this early; After they placed their orders at the counter, Nick asked Jeremy, "By the way, where is your medicine man in all this?"

"You mean Dr. John? He's presenting a paper to the International Linguistic Association. He won't be back 'til next week."

"How unfortunate. What's the title, if one may ask?"

"It's, um, 'Cargoculture: Japanese Commercial Appropriation of English Signifiers'. The imported terms are stripped of their meaning, y'see; he's run some analysis on which terms were chosen for which products. His claim is that the terms aren't arbitrary, that he found some statistically significant relationships. He asked me to proof it for him, on the side, before he submitted it, but all the technical jargon was way over my head."

"Fascinating." Jeremy wasn't sure which aspect Nick meant, and Nick, like Dr. John's paper, remained inscrutable.

Their orders having come up from the grill, they retired to a booth on the far wall. Jeremy's stack of griddlecakes looked paltry next to the eggs, bacon, potatoes and toast that Nick attacked with gusto, washing down with tea; as he sipped his coffee, Jeremy was once again struck by the contrast between the way the food went into Nick's mouth and how the words came out. Conversation would just have to wait.

"Let's see, where were we?" Nick asked rhetorically, returning with yet another cup of tea. "Ah, yes, code migration."

"Highly unlikely." said Jeremy. "I know the language is an interpreter rather than a compiler, so there's no intervention necessary to make it executable, but that doesn't release it from system dependencies -- you know, environment settings, directory structure and all that. The chances of finding a compatible site, unprotected -- the odds are astronomical."

"One can't be certain. Firstly, there's the question of variation between domains -- so much of that is uniform, whether to support communications protocols or simply to adhere to common standards. Secondly, were the program to have exceeded its capabilities in transporting itself, why should it not be capable of adapting itself to a new environment? Dropping the proper word in the right place, so to speak?"

Jeremy considered. Briefly. "It can't be. I know the guts of that thing too well. It's too far-fetched, it's like explaining a fly with a sledgehammer. No, there's got to be something else going on."

"What are the alternatives, then? A background process, perhaps some system daemon corrupting the backup? The system has safeguards against such an eventuality, and the process would have been detected in any case. And that parable in your pocket would not have appeared on some public directory, but on yours, which in the event was inaccessible." Nick gulped the rest of his tea.

"How about a practical joke?"

"I'm sorry? ... Oh, you mean an elaborate prank? One wonders at who might deem a joke practical -- I suppose it's just something one must laugh off ... If it is, a prank that is, some sign should turn up in the system logs; should have already, I'd expect. The system administrators here are hardly novices."

"I can't explain how this got there," Jeremy said, patting his pocket, "but I know it's not the product of artificial intelligence. Sure, it's a complicated program, but all it's doing is putting words together, you know, pulling them off the Net and filtering them, feeding them back through the whole cycle until something coherent comes out."

"It certainly exhibits more coherence than your description."

"The point is, it's just data prospecting and refinement ... well, annealing, if you want a stronger analogy. Or, better, sintering. But it's a dumb process. We're trying to demonstrate a hypothesis about language, narrative and literature -- that language is made for telling stories about the world, and that literature subverts this by telling stories about storytelling, abstracting itself away from reality. Any semantic content is just an artifact of the rules of construction. There's no intent behind it, no sense of self-knowledge, no self to know."

"Reminiscent of Roussel’s essay on the language of origins. But have you ever encountered theories regarding emergent properties of consciousness?", Nick asked, not waiting for an answer. "Somewhat similar to the idea that life could be initiated by the proper combination of chemical substances and external circumstance. Ludicrous, is it not? Not an area that's been investigated deeply, as no one quite knows what the critical elements of intelligence might be. A psychologist, Jaynes it was, suggested that human consciousness is a rather recent innovation -- a sea change that occurred between the Iliad and the Odyssey -- prior to which, we listened uncritically to voices in our heads. Programmed instruction from the gods, so to speak. Telling us stories."

Phil appeared at the table. "Whoa, I wish I'd gotten here sooner. Tell us a story, Nicky."

Nick looked up. "Sorry, must be off. Obligations to the university to fulfill, other children waiting for storytime, as it were." Bussing his tray, he said into the air as he walked away, "I would enjoy continuing our discussion -- perhaps this evening, if you're about?"

Phil smirked, slipped into the seat Nick had left vacant. "Pretty dizzy for a guy who thinks he's in the loop," he said. "Hey, you're not going to believe what's going on with the Art-Sci varsity!"

"Go ahead, try me," said Jeremy.

"Well, it's not just the artificial intelligensia gathered over there -- I passed the dean in the hall, very stern looking, and I spotted a couple of department heads heading in -- all very hush-hush -- I'd say their having another board meeting in there!"

"Great. Good for them."

"No, good for you! They could be about to reverse themselves on killing AUTOLOGOS, since it doesn't seem to want to go quietly. Hey, I've been thinking about it, and I figure AI wanted to get rid of the project 'cause it didn't fit into what they thought Computer Linguistics was supposed to be about -- you know, worldwise epistemics, natural language programming and like that. With your sponsor incommunicado, and Schotz burned up over his simulation, they probably thought they could get rid of it without getting their hands dirty. But if it's alive and kicking ..."

"Phil -- I don't care. No -- it's not that I'm not interested, of course I am, I poured a lot of effort into AUTOLOGOS, and I'd like to see it through. But last night it was dead, then I'm supposed to drive a stake through its heart before dawn, and now ... I'm tired, Phil. I'm going back to bed."

"But what about Schotz?"

"If he needs to see me, you know where to find me. I almost wish that when I wake up, this will turn out to have been some weird dream."

"Dream on! This is more real than it gets! Hey, you want me to walk back with you?"

"No! -- sorry, I'm going to bed to sleep, not to think. I'll see you later."

{more ...}