Big Tech's rush into chatbot AI is very likely to degrade the network information ecosystem. Many voices are calling for new rules to stem the imminent invasion of artefacts produced by increasingly precise generative networks, which may make it impossible to distinguish the real from the fake. In the following short story, we have imagined a future world in which this has already happened...
Year 2130. Research in the field of AI has progressed. Marj is looking on the Net for images from the set of a film from Hollywood in 1982, Blade Runner. At that time, the director had imagined a future of perpetual rain. Pity we didn't continue on that timeline, now the human population, reduced by climate change, is crowding onto the few landmasses left. Central Europe was overcrowded. Great Britain was not there anymore, nor was Italy or Greece, Gondwana was completely submersed. Marj lived in the vertical city of Troika in central Europe, once known as Berlin. She used to stroll around in the harsh land that once was Marianneplatz Park. One day she had met one of the other creatures living in the surrounding landscape. Small and fast, like a wooden doll, the old lady was bending on the ground and rasping with her fingers, she was searching for something underneath. On her hip, a bag full of roots. Marj said hello intrigued and the old woman smiled back with a toothless smile. Marj shivered. Despite the scary grin the old babushka was very kind, she had her nest in the abandoned hospital nearby. Marj followed her back home fascinated by the routines she was performing with the soil. From that day they became good chat-friends. The old lady had told her how cold it was there when she was young...hard to imagine. Troika life was good, there were few hours of daylight in winter. This allowed its inhabitants to walk around for hours of darkness without that pesky, protective suit. Shielding their skin from the otherwise harmful sunlight.
Marj found hundreds of images from the set of Blade Runner. Twenty of those images showed android workers behind the scenes. Three photos showed t-shirts of the stagehands with "Free the droids now!" on them. Marj typed the t-shirt phrase as a search and added “Blade Runner.” She found a small but significant number of articles about the demonstrations outside the Burbank, California studios. Additionally, there were numerous resignations that many crew members gave during filming, in solidarity with the androids under-represented in the cinema. The Android Recognition Movement complained that the casting crew had chosen humans to play the androids. The choice was deemed offensive to the android community. Director Ridley Scott was asked to invite Philip K. Dick to the set to appease the grievances. Many droids at the time in fact considered the science fiction writer a kind of spiritual father, and seeing him arm in arm with the cast members eased the atmosphere. Looking more closely through the recovered images, Marj even found one that showed Philip K. Dick, Rutger Hauer and a dolly droid smiling arm in arm.
Satisfied with her research, she recompiled all the material and finalised her 3D report for verification in History of Social Movements. Before handing it over she would read it to the elderly babushka.
In the 22nd century it became difficult to distinguish human beings from technical beings. When you bought a hard disk, in an online shop, whether it was a human or a technical being assisting you does not matter. When you need a doctor’s diagnosis, on the other hand, you would definitely want a machine. Machines assist you without human errors. Of course you may run into machine errors but they are less frequent than human errors. Both, potentially fatal of course.
Marj had been lucky, when she was four years old, with relapsing pneumonia, she had been hooked up to the right machine, a B612 series that cuddled her in an animated, synthetic leather cradle. It also identified and infused the right cocktail of antibiotics and cortisone until her lungs finally cleared. The machine belonged to the B612 series, she was a B640. Her pleasure relays still release dopamine shots when she recalls that file. It is a foundational experience. The kind of experience that, as she checked online, used to be called motherhood.
The interaction turned people into zombies with no apparent symptoms. Skin didn't fall off, intestinal microorganisms wouldn't take over. In short, to the naked eye, infected users could not be distinguished from other people. You can say that DeepTV can kill, yes, but slowly, with no worries, you won’t notice it, and you would no longer die, because you were already dead. Consequently, Marj had the chance to get to know her great-grandmother. She spent time with her until the elderly woman chose to go underground and decompose. That was the new death of the times, becoming compost.
Just as generative networks were fed certain datasets to be able to reconstruct reality, so users were fed the imagery of neural networks. The Corporations Cartel broadcast feedback like a microphone in front of a speaker. An unbearable, annoying sound, but in this case not audible to the human ear. The annoyance was there, of course, but imperceptible, like a tag scratching in your shoulder, an RFID in a sleeping bag, or a sudden colitis attack.
The buzzword spoken through the broadcast that would trigger in the viewer was “deepLife”. Living life in symbiosis with generative neural networks gave everyone the chance to explore wild dreams. You could find it in the fine print that came with disclosures on any bill. They warned of the situation. In reality, the Terms of Service (that no one reads), explained that everyone's experience would be consistent with previous browsing experiences. A security bubble was built for individual user cases to ensure more ‘connection’ time. For instance-if the user had already been turned into a zombie they would have an infinite amount of ‘connection’ time. Corporations had begun their plunder, they had found an immovable engine that would keep them going forever. Instances of unlimited access were rampant and this made the pandemic, endemic.
Marj liked to spend the early afternoon hours at Granny's. A light came in diagonally through the large windows, illuminating the dust particles suspended in the air of her apartment. Marj had told her about some research and the story of the android uprising on the film set, two centuries earlier. The old woman had listened to her in silence with earnestness. Then she burst into a toothless grin that scared Marj to death! When she used to laugh like that, Grandma became a real Crungus, terrifying. Each time Marj instinctively withdrew all her antennae. Grandma was now up and waddling, hunched across the dimly lit living room towards an overloaded bookcase.
"There it is! A rolling paper! AHHAHA, of course I could only find it in The Eye in the Pyramid! See sweetheart? This is the first volume of The Illuminatus! A trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. It was published in the 1990s, two centuries ago. The Internet was an unexplored hearth full of possibilities..."
"Wait, do you mean that when you were young there was no Internet?"
"What's that got to do with it, Granny, what do you mean?"
"I think anyone who has read The Illuminatus! trilogy has been immunized against conspiracy. I think The Illuminatus! Trilogy should have been used as a textbook in schools while we still had time, because it would have been a very important tool for you future generations, especially now that the images, text and videos generated by AI are mixed up with real photos from the good old days on search engines. It is no longer possible to distinguish the real from the fake. The line between the two is blurred and barely visible".
"Wait," the young student in Social Movements became curious, "what is conspiracy?"
"A game. A game gone wrong..." The old woman took a puff from her joint thoughtfully....
"Why gone wrong?"
"I don't understand you Granny. It's simple, what you find on the net is true. What everyone says is true."
"ICH?" Marj interrupted with a hiccup, grandmother sometimes drifted in her speeches and Marj couldn't follow her, she didn't have access to all that data at once, but how did the old woman do it?
"Never mind... Think of the milestones of the past centuries, was it the Americans who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or was it the explosion of a nuclear reactor as it is known today? And the Twin Towers... was it a tidal wave or a terrorist attack? And Genoa 2001... remember I told you about that..."
There," Marj thought, "Granny started again with the stories of the protests against the G8 from two centuries ago. She knew them by heart now. She blew out a little steam to show her boredom.
"Because it is not one point of view, but many."
"Exactly, so in our little intergalactic guide to distinguishing the true from the false, point 1 will be: gather different perspectives. These perspectives will be narratives, graphic, textual, oral or cinematic form".
"At point 2 there is paranoia, or more precisely pronoia. Those with paranoia read reality in such a way that everything fits together to create a specific narrative that becomes the subject's reality. To throw a lifeline to the paranoid, let us say that it is really difficult to live in a world without meaning. Paranoia, like religion, helps us find a foothold in the sea of chaos. Look at me, I grew up watching US films and thinking that Native Americans were the bad guys. But there was no such thing as generative networks or deepfakes. It's the narratives (in whatever medium they're told) that determine what's true and what's false. Also choices made by social groups that perpetuate them. But what do we want to be true? What do we imagine?"
"That machines were already fighting for droid rights in 1981 is important to me." Marj stood up with a strut and lifted her cylindrical torso out of the red velvet chair in which she had been sinking, until that moment.
"Exactly, darling, and that is honorable of you. But have you ever asked yourself if it is true or not?"
"Of course it's true. Several sources say so."
Granny rose from her chair and walked over to the old wooden desk covered in a jumble of wires and buzzing devices. She picked up a cunning, old mobile phone. "Industrial Archaeology", the girl thought under her iridescent long eyelashes. Stroking her calloused fingertips over the device as it began to vibrate, the old woman approached the young creature.
"Look," she pointed to the display, typed quickly with long, wrinkly fingers, opened the browser in the "Movies" container. There were few images, very different from what Marj had found. There was no android, at least not visible. The workers building the model cities were all Caucasian men in shirtsleeves. There were no T-shirts claiming droid rights. There was the picture of Philip K Dick with Ridley Scott sitting in a small projection room. They were watching some of the first scenes shot, the flying machines, the sprawling city... But the little dolly was not with them.
"What do you mean, Granny?"
"This lovely little phone is an antique, it runs an old browser that was not designed for later devices and allows us to navigate in a sparsely populated bubble. It's practically obsolete!" The old woman said, bursting into another toothless laugh. To Marj, she seemed to grow huge when she acted like that. She looked at the older woman with wide eyes as her mechanical pupils constricted. It was yet another reaction that she had no control over at all.
"Do you understand, darling? I just want to tell you that I can only believe this version, there was no android movement in the last century, and there were no androids as we know them now, on the set of Blade Runner, and do you know why I say that?"
"Exactly, in this case by temporal proximity. I mean, I was there at the time, and nobody ever heard of android claims on the set."
"But look Granny," Marj pointed to a picture of orange mechanical cranes. "You see, orange was the colour of the first droid liberation front. You didn't know what was going to happen yet but things had already started, the liberation process had already begun."
"That's why I'm telling you that it's OK honey, it's OK what you say. But know that it might be like that, and that believing your version and not mine is biased, confirmation biased. Choices are important, honey, and you need to know when you make them.'
"But why don't you choose to believe my version?"
"If you tell it right, I might question what I know... but remember... you'll have to seduce me."
"But no, don't be scared, who would listen to a crazy old woman? It's the schemers who need seduction, not us. There's no need for you to seduce me, darling, I love you as you are, I enjoy your visits, I like the world you imagine, and I like that the android uprising started in the 80s of the 20th century, or maybe before, who knows? Can you collect some material? No?"
"It's too old, we didn't get any undamaged support."
"Who knows, maybe you should look through my books, let me dig around, it might be useful for your next research project in history. You might find clues that show how the android uprising goes back millennia, you know... stories about golem, homunculus..."
"OMG that would be so cool. Can you really do that?"
"Sure, you'll see, we'll come up with something, now do you understand how powerful affabulation is? And do you understand that we are choosing together which truth to dig into?
"And what does the world choose today?"
With that, she stroked Marj's tawny swaying cables, climbed onto the platform and disappeared underground. The last thing she saw was a red sunset ray turning into a rainbow prism on contact with the saline solution on her greatgranddaughter's cheek.