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. Marj lived in the vertical city of Troika in central Europe, once known as Berlin. The old babuska who lived in the abandoned hospital in Marianneplatz Park 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, after a brief search, found hundreds of images from the set of Blade Runner, in at least twenty of them it was possible to make out the android workers behind the scenes, and in three photos it was possible to read the slogan on the t-shirts of the stagehands "Free the droids now! " Marj typed the phrase as search key + Blade Runner and had access to a small but significant number of articles about the demonstrations outside the Burbank studios and the 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 had chosen humans to play the androids. The choice was deemed offensive to the android community. Director Ridley Scott had to invite Philip K. Dick to the set to appease the grievances. Many droids at the time in fact considered the 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, Ruthger Hauer and a dolly droid smiling arm in arm.
Satisfied, she recompiled all the material and finalised her 3D report for the exam in History of Social Movements. Before handing it over he would have it read to the elderly babuska.
In the 22nd century it is not always easy to distinguish human beings from technical beings but that is of little importance. Whether when you buy a hard disk in the online shop it is a human or a technical being who assists you does not matter. When you need a diagnosis, on the other hand, you would definitely want a machine, more able to assist you and not to run into human errors. Of course you may run into machine errors but they are less frequent than human errors. Both fatal of course.
Marj had been lucky, when she was only four years old, at the umpteenth episode of relapsing pneumonia, she had been hooked up to the right machine that not only cuddled her like a mother in animated synthetic leather cradle, but also infused the right cocktail of antibiotics and cortisone until her lungs were finally cleared. The machine belonged to the B612 series, she was a B640.
Marj knew modern history well, it was her favourite subject of study and she had focused on the History of Social Movements, she had studied on DeepLearning platforms that told how in the 1990s humanity had quietly gone extinct, giving way to a new species of non-living and undead, human/machine hybrids that lived in symbiosis with an adversary generative network in an infinite mythopoeic loop. It was called DeepTV and was generating infinite possible creatures with which to interact and create narrations.
The interaction turned people into zombies with no apparent symptomology. Skin didn't fall off, intestinal microorganisms wouldn't really take over. In short, to the naked eye, infected users could not be distinguished from other people. And you could no longer die, because you were already dead, which is why Marj had the chance to get to know her great-grandmother, at least until the elderly woman chose to go underground to decompose.
Just as generative networks were fed certain datasets to be able to reconstruct reality, so users were fed the imagery of neural networks creating 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, seemingly irrelevant, like a tag scratching in your shoulder, an RFID in a sleeping bag, a sudden colitis attack. The buzzword was deepLife: living life in symbiosis with generative neural networks gave everyone and everyone the chance to explore wild dreams. At least according to the marketing. In reality, in the Terms of Service that no one read, it was well explained that everyone's experience would be consistent with previous browsing experiences, hence manipulated, and a security bubble was built for each one to ensure more time spent connected. If the user had already been turned into a zombie, their undead status allowed access to an infinite time, that of the void. From there, the Corporations had begun their plunder, they had found the immovable engine that would keep them going forever.
Marj liked to spend the early afternoon hours at Granny's. The little light came in diagonally through the large windows, illuminating the dust particles suspended in the air. That day Marj had told her about her 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 had burst into a toothless laugh that had scared her to death! When she used to laugh like that, Grandma became a real Crungus, terrified. 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! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, when it was published it was in the 1990s two centuries ago, the Internet was an unexplored heath full of possibilities..."
"There was no Internet?"
"What's that got to do with Granny, what do you mean?"
"I think anyone who has read The Illuminatus! Trilogy has been immunised 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 and text and videos generated by AI are mixed up with real photos from the good old days on search engines, and it is no longer possible to distinguish the real from the fake. The line between the two is so blurred as to be invisible".
"Wait," the young expert 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, the 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 two centuries ago, she knew them by heart by 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, whether in graphic or textual or 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 and that 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, as well as the choices made by the 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 honourable of you. But have you ever asked yourself if it is true or not?"
"Of course it's true. Several sources say so."
The grandmother 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, then stroking her calloused fingertips over the device as it began to vibrate, the old woman approached the young creature.
"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 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?"