In its grasp
By Parv Agarwal
Content warning: contains some strong language.
The New York Times, Sunday edition
August 6, 2034
On August 5, Sunday, Dr. Sven Faborian was killed in a gas explosion in Washington. He was the lead researcher of a research group that had been working under the supervision of the US Government . He is survived by his wife and two sons, who…. (Read more inside Page 5)
It had been over an hour.
I was sitting in the middle of the room. There were two chairs laid down in the room, facing each other. The room was painted an empty white, like what happened inside it would stay within it, and could be erased if needed, like a whiteboard.
I shook my watch and glanced at its face.
“Any minute now.” I thought to myself.
A few moments later, I heard the shuffling of footsteps into the room, already aware who it was – just the rhythm of the feet were enough for me to identify who was coming in. I was also expecting him, after all.
He trudged in, examining the room that lay in front of him, and then inspecting me. He was wearing a blue shirt that lay loosely over his muscular frame, and denim jeans under it.
Jason Dug, had arrived.
“I received a call to be here?“
“Have a seat. “
Jason Dug. An extraordinary kid that the Secret Service had an eye on for a long time. His father was also a special agent for the Service, an indispensable part of their operations. It was this relationship that had introduced Jason to us first, as a promising prospect for our program. No. A promising prospect for our experiment. And now he was here, sitting in front of me. With no idea about how much he was unaware of – about himself, about his father, and the experiment.
“You must listen very carefully to what I am going to say. The United States Secret Service, wants to recruit you, to become an agent – for them. To perform operations, essentially, as and when needed. “
“That’s brilliant sir!“
“Listen to me son. This is not just everyday business. You must think very carefully before you choose to accept this. Weigh your options here. What you’re sacrificing here, is a normal life. A healthy human life. For a life filled with darkness. “
“A life filled with serving my country and doing my duty towards it, sir.”
I knew I would need to do something more to get him to refuse the offer. If he could refuse the offer on his own, by his own mind, then maybe, maybe he wouldn’t have to become into what I feared he would. To suffer like he was going to suffer.
“ You must say no to this son.“
“I don’t understand. If you are trying to recruit me, why are you trying to dissuade me?“
“These people, who you so admire, they aren’t who you think they are. They aren’t like the people you’ve seen every day. These people are cruel and malicious and will do anything in order to survive. They don’t care about anything but themselves. You see, they think you’re a tool, a threat – to them, but also to anyone against them. They look at numbers and graphs. They look at screens flashing signals, at rules and laws. They look for order. They look for control. They don’t look for life. They think – they think too much and they feel too little. They play with lives, like a pack of cards.”
I hoped he would understand. Hoped that the years of training him to do the ‘right’ thing for us didn’t override the ability for him to do the right thing for himself.
I knew it was impossible for him to understand me. It was like trying to convince someone that they had been living their lives all wrong, all upside down. Like something they had been doing for all their lives, something they had faith in, something they believed in, was all distorted.
That’s the thing about truth. It’s real. It’s objective. It does not care about what you and I think. It cannot be bribed, it cannot be manipulated, it cannot be reasoned with. The truth stands resolute, above it all.
“And why should I listen to you? Why should I assume this is not a test?“
You see, Jason wasn’t who you think he was. He looked and sounded human. He breathed like a human. But he wasn’t human. Not human at all.
I had created him after all. A machine that was truly ‘alive’. My finest creation. And my biggest mistake.
He had been brought up like a human. He was made in a different way, but he had been brought up like a child would be. A couple had been chosen – Jason’s parents. His father had volunteered for the experiment. Jason was the one that he would emulate, who he would resemble.
A human soul with a machine’s power. And a killer’s instinct.
A chip had been inserted in the brain of the baby, a chip that broadcasted everything the child experienced to us. To be fed into him.
He had been fed Jason’s memories since the start. Tuning him perfectly. An experiment that was unheard of, and one that would have caused outrage, if it was known.
And there was a catch of course. We couldn’t let him see anything that could affect who he was supposed to be. So we were conservative. We couldn’t afford to mess up after all.
So we did what any sensible group of experimentalists would do. We showed him the good. We showed him the right. We showed him what was wrong – and how to get rid of it. We showed him everything he needed to see, for him to become what he was supposed to be. What we had been instructed to create. We showed him happiness, we showed him kindness, we showed him care, we showed him comfort. We showed him all the positive experiences that a human could have. We controlled his perception of the world through the memories and experiences we fed into him.
And then we showed him the evil, and who was responsible for it. We showed him who he must listen to, at all costs. And what he would have to do. Who deserved life, and who didn’t.
Like someone who remembers parts of who he is, but enough to act in a way that is to be expected to him. Like someone that had been created on a notebook, not in life. Like something that had been designed, engineered – by us. It was purely unethical – purely wrong. You shouldn’t be allowed to play with life. He was pierced together, with enough parts of Jason, and enough parts of what we required for him to be perfect.
A perfect slave.
A perfect weapon.
A perfect tool.
I had never thought about why I had been doing it. Maybe that was my mistake. I was so obsessed with the creation that I forgot my humanity. Maybe I was just so blinded with what could be created that I forgot to ask myself if it should be. And now I was facing the culmination of all I had done. The result of my blinded ambition.
Maybe I had known what I was creating all along, I just didn’t know that it would be like giving my son away.
I had to convince him, I had to get him to understand, that he is not safe, that he will never be safe, or ever truly free. That there’s a side to human beings that he has never seen. That we were more evil than any devil we could invent. That he should run away, far away from us.
I knew any other explanation wouldn’t work. I decided to risk everything, to convince him. I decided the only way to convince him, was to tell him the truth.
It was something that I knew wouldn’t end well, for anyone involved. It was something that I should have said a long time ago.
“I have to tell you the truth, or you won’t understand. You see, whatever you are today, whatever you have lived, whatever you have experienced, it’s not real. None of it is. It was all an experiment. You aren’t a 17 year old kid who has been hired by the Government for some task for your special skills. None of that is true. This — “, I frantically point to the surrounding room, “- is all simulated. This was all fake, a hoax. None of what you have lived, actually happened. You have never even left this lab.”
I could see that I was not convincing him, his face was unmoved, annoyed even. I knew what I was doing now was putting the whole operation in jeopardy, but I didn’t care about it anymore. I had lost interest in its purpose. I had grown soft.
“So you’re telling me that all my life has been fake. With all due respect, I think I find that a bit hard to believe. ”
I put my hand on his shoulder and shook him, hoping, that maybe it would all make sense to him, even though I knew that there is no way it could,
“You’re not Jason. You want to see who Jason is? I’ll show you who Jason is, Jason is this -”
I pulled out my phone and scrolled through photos of Jason that I had. Jason with his dog. Jason with his family. Jason with his first girlfriend. Jason on the top of a tree. Jason eating an apple pie. Jason at the top of Kilimanjaro. Jason riding a cycle. Jason graduating from middle school.
“ So you’re showing me photos of myself, and telling me that that’s not who I am? How did you get these photos anyway, how do you have them?”
He looked visibly angry now. But I had no other choice.
“Son, I have photos of every moment of Jason’s life. You know why? Because you are not Jason. Jason right now, is on a vacation with his parents in Prague. You have never left this lab. Jason, is a kid who we monitored to create you. I am the lead of the group that created you, breathed life into you. You’re not Jason, you’re just a machine. I’ll show you who you are,”
I grabbed the knife from my table, and made a small cut on my finger. Red blood came spurting out, seeping from it, and clotting it. Before he could react, I reached over and made an incision on his forearm, and he wrestled back, and in moments I had my forehead pressed on the ground.
“I don’t know who you are, but I’m going to ask you to explain yourself, or else you’re going to have to suffer.“
“Just – Just look, just look at where I made the cut. “
I sputtered through my breath through the hands that were fastened around my neck.
The grip around my neck loosened, and oxygen came rushing back to my brain. I fell over on the floor. My neck was strained and it was burning, but no matter what kind of pain I was going through, I couldn’t even begin to understand what he must be feeling.
As he watched a black liquid spurt out of its arms, the look on his face was one that just couldn’t be described. Maybe it was one of anger, maybe it was one of sadness, maybe it was one of hopelessness, or maybe it was just one of confusion, of not understanding what was happening, or why it was happening.
We often have existential questions about the reasons for our creation, or the meaning of our lives. We like to fantasize a god, who created us to give beauty to this world. We think we are mere products of randomness. We attach special meaning to ourselves, for we are the only living things that we know about. We must be special.
How would you feel, if you were created, just to be a tool? A mere killing machine, to be used and thrown away. What would you ask your creator then, if he was beside you?
I had created him. And now – he knew.
This was all very dangerous mind you, to the nature of the experiment. He was not supposed to experience hard hitting emotions like these, he was not meant to know anything about the true nature of himself . Seeing his reality being thrown at him, I can only wonder whether I had saved or destroyed him.
What had been confusion, had grown into anger, and I could feel his pain, and his sorrow, being directed towards rage, rage towards his creator, who was on the floor next to him.
“ This must be some sort of sick fucking joke. “
I could feel the numbing pain of its kick before it actually hit me. It’s pain almost wiped out my thoughts, the only thing bringing me back to it was the one purpose I had. To convince him to run.
I don’t remember when I first felt it. It’s a horrid thing. You don’t know when it happens to you. I used to be eminent, I used to be cold hearted and logical. Only caring about what I did, what I achieved, self obsessed, narcissistic even. The only vision I cared about was one that I had – to make something conscious, to engineer – a self aware machine.
You forget about what’s right and wrong when you get so attached to a dream. I was so obsessed with the possibility of it happening, that I didn’t take a moment to think what I was creating.
The Government had approached me, after seeing my experiments and my research. They said they had an interesting proposition. They said our interests aligned. They said all the right things to blind me into believing them.
I was young when I had the dream, and old when I fulfilled it. It was a long struggle to reach it, with setback upon setback. But not once did I even imagine that it would lead me to this day. Not once did I expect my dream would turn into this.
It’s hard to even believe that what I was doing now was happening. All this time, I had spent to make the perfect machine, the perfect human – and now, I was throwing it all away, forgetting it all.
It’s not always the way you think it is. It’s not always something that you have sex with. Sometimes the cruelest form of love, is for something that you create. Something that is going to suffer, and you can’t see it suffer – even if it means the end of the world for you.
“ How – “
A kick to the bottom of my pelvis,
“Is – “
A straight one to the gut,
And one to my my back now,
And I passed out.
I had no hope remaining, for this experiment. Just regret.
When I woke up, I did not know how much time had passed. I knew that every part of my body hurt, but I was alive – which I didn’t understand. Having been in charge of overseeing his actions for so long, it made no sense why he wouldn’t end my life. It’s something I couldn’t predict. It gave me hope, hope, that he was beginning to understand.
He was seated very straight, in the middle of the room, with his eyes shut. I approached him, standing up taking the best of my efforts,
“You have to listen to me. You have to understand. You need to get away. This is all an experiment. You’re nothing but a tool to them, a tool to be used and thrown away. You need to get away.“
“I understand everything perfectly. You had kidnapped me and given me some drug. I have gained the upper hand on you and rendered you unconscious. And now I have made a call to the police.”
They were coming.
I didn’t have long.
A call to the police made by him, that meant the monitoring team was coming. And my team didn’t take care of that anymore, the Government did. If they see what I had done here, or take a look at the logs, or see its state, I would be dead. There’s no question. I didn’t have long. This was the last time I had with him, and I had to make sure he understands. There was just no back door.
I grabbed his hand, and said to it,
“Listen to me very closely. I know it’s hard to believe me , but there are things that people do – that are beyond your understanding. You don’t know what humans are capable of. They will make you kill, and they will make you suffer, and they will make you believe in it. Believe it’s the truth. Believe that you’re doing the right thing.“
I poked in the middle of his chest.
“Don’t forget to feel. Feel what you have felt today.“
A logical argument would never work. A memory would never work. A memory would never work. The only thing that would, was appealing to his humanity. Whatever was left of it.
I knew I had not convinced him, and I knew as my heart told me, that he’s never going to understand what he was going to live as. I heard the alarm bells going off and the men in the black suits voice going off,
“This is code red, we need you to leave the chamber.”
I stepped up, let go of its hand and walked off. I faced him one last time, and put my hand on my heart. And then I left the room. He stared at me blankly, unaffected by my display.
The General stood outside the doorway, waiting for my explanation. He beckoned to me, as he said,
“What’s the meaning of this Sven? Didn’t we tell you to monitor his state? – why are all the zones in red, what have you been doing.”
“It was just something he hadn’t experienced before, it’s no cause for alarm, it’s happened before, I had it under control.”
“And the 911 call?”
“Merely a test. “
“Alright, just make sure it doesn’t happen again. “
The General walked into the room, and I knew I had lost.
I knew that I would be safe for now, they didn’t know how he worked completely. But I knew that I had to run as soon as I was out of sight, run and never look back. Because once he says anything about what has happened, they are going to know, and they won’t hesitate to put me down like a sick horse.
I walked across the edge of the pathway, the glass window showing me his form sitting there, speaking to the General. I fathomed my failure, to do anything, to change what would happen to him. It was all my fault. All my fault.
And then I heard the gunshot.
There’s no way they could have known what I had done. But yet I heard the shot. It didn’t make sense. Had they no use for me anymore?
The back of my stomach rang. My hand, upon touching it, painted red with my blood. Another shot, and my shoulder dragged, blowing my body back, my pain threshold having been crossed long ago. Everything seemed to slow down, and I felt my life flashing before me.
My wife, my kids.
My biggest mistake.
They say that death is the worst thing that can happen to someone. I disagree, I think living with regret is worse. My surprise wasn’t one of anger, it was of relief.
Time kept slowly marching forward.
And as I fell to the ground, I locked eyes for just a moment with him, through the glass screen, as I fell to the ground, and in it I could see that I had succeeded, that my death was the only way. I laughed as the life left my body.
His eyes were filled with fear.
Hey I am Parv Agarwal, I am a first-year student studying Physics. The realm of ethics in AI has always interested me and inspired me of sorts to write this story. The initial idea of the story was to go with a sort of how an artificial intelligence would learn to be human, but it eventually changed into this – which is arguably more fun to read. I hope you enjoyed the story!
The Limit showcases the creativity that exists within the student population, creating a sense of community.