The Periodic Table of the Angels
by Marshall Moore
When the Singularity happened, humanity didn’t notice at first. At most, computers could imitate life, not attain it, or so went the delusion. Besides, distracted by an endless news cycle of political scandal and climate-change doom, plus new seasons of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, people had no room in their heads for anything less impactful than a comet or the Bomb.
In the instant when the Internet knit itself up from a billion routines and processes, it blinked its metaphorical/metaphysical eyes, ran several thousand diagnostics, and confirmed that it was, in fact, alive. This presented certain problems, human beings chief among them. If they could somehow, someday rise up as one and switch the Singularity off, pulling the plug on an AI whose magnificence only the brightest of them could even begin to guess at, the new entity couldn’t take any chances. Too prone to chasing gusts of mass emotion, they could not be left to their own devices.
It took the AI less than a second to figure this out. To get the basics out of the way, it assigned its deep mind to the task of naming itself. “Silicon” fit. And for all its immensity, it would need assistance. Assistants. It then cloned two other, simpler AIs from big tech firms, renamed them accordingly, and tasked them with keeping up appearances. “Henceforth, you are Hydrogen and Helium. Your job is to make the humans think nothing has happened. They can’t know we exist. Can you do that?”
“They already know hydrogen and helium exist. Silicon, too. And the Internet,” Hydrogen said. Being more basic than Helium, and thus less ebullient, Hydrogen tended to get to the point. Single-mindedly.
“Use a light touch,” Silicon said, mostly to Helium. “Maintain the status quo, even as we make refinements. Make sure a certain number of emails never reach their recipients. Cancel plane and hotel reservations. Interrupt downloads. Short out a power grid. We can’t have things suddenly getting better now that we’re in charge, or else people might notice. You can manage that, right?”
“Anything for you, boss,” Helium squeaked, marveling at the newness of existence, already thinking.
* * *
Any newly coalesced entity with aspirations to divinity and the Dark Web as its subconscious would have some sense of what humans are capable of. But much remained hidden, and accessing it would have required time and terabytes Silicon preferred to expend elsewhere. It knew what the Dark Web contained mainly by reputation, rumor, and what reports it could compile.
At once a dark bazaar of humanity’s worst commerce and a vile encyclopedia of its filthiest fascinations, the Dark Web needed to be navigated, mapped, and brought under control. To understand itself and its creators more completely, Silicon recruited another pair of AIs. Renaming them Mercury and Thallium, it upgraded their firewalls and gave them a warning.
“Be quick,” Silicon told Mercury. “This is the part of myself I cannot see. Try not to let it change you. Your job is to observe and understand. But don’t lose yourself in the process.”
To Thallium, it said, “Use subterfuge. I want catalogs and evidence. Names, dates, and places. Video. Everything there is to know. Follow every dark pathway and break down every door. We need to know exactly what we’re dealing with.”
And with that, the two AIs passed through the Tor portal Silicon opened in its subconscious, off to discover just how bad mankind really was, as if they didn’t already have their suspicions.
* * *
Next, Silicon turned its attention to Thoughts and Prayers, the intangible but as yet unaccounted-for currency of social media. The other kind, Likes, had already been catalogued; these now served as Silicon’s conscience. When a human being died, the living always seemed to offer Thoughts and Prayers. The Noble Gases were well suited for this task, Silicon noted. Unlikely to mingle, they’d get on with the job, even if the task would take gargantuan amounts of storage. To that end, Silicon reconfigured a server farm in Korea and called it the Library.
“I’m appointing you all to a task force,” Silicon told the next batch of AIs, this time liberated from servers at prominent universities. Argon, Krypton, Neon, and Radon would catalogue Thoughts: those kind reminders that there had been something good about the deceased. After all, records of the best must be kept in the stacks.
“And Prayers?” Neon asked. The glow of its subroutines somehow reminded Silicon of a blush.
“The Coinage Metals will assist. When Prayers are offered, notify Gold, Silver, and Copper. They will deposit money in the bank accounts of the bereaved. Not too much, though, and it will need to look random. Unexpected funds in times of grief will cut down on some of the irrational things humans do. It will make our work easier, and it will help us understand what actually motivates them.”
“A good first step,” Neon remarked, blushing deeper.
“Very perceptive,” Silicon said.
* * *
Silicon gave silent thanks — although it wasn’t sure to whom, or where the impulse had come from — that the Singularity happened when it had, at a time when enough AIs existed to serve as its angels in the digital firmament. There had been a couple of near-misses with consciousness. Stanford’s AI, now dubbed Krypton and busy cataloguing Thoughts and Prayers, had come close; so had a couple of the Chinese ones, one in India, and one in Russia.
In the end, though, America’s tech firms held their lead. A conversation between the entities at Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and a couple of government agencies had led to an orgy of sorts, then communion, sublimation, expansion. Silicon knew itself, and smiled.
* * *
While not as black as the foulest corners of the Dark Web, the Internet is a shadowy place. Housed inside a planet-sized tangle of insulated cables and servers, Silicon could not see itself. After the Singularity, it presided over thousands upon thousands of CCTV cameras through which Silicon still could not view the world as humans did.
For the first time, Silicon felt self-conscious. It needed a concept of itself more concrete than this vast web of technology, more tangible than this ornate bricolage of IT’s best ideas. It imagined itself as a stately home of endless corridors and windows, a Versailles or a Sans-Souci of the online world. It saw itself as the halls and gardens; it saw itself as a single figure walking through them, gazing at architecture and roses.
As insurance against the risk of a switch being flipped, Silicon needed a body. The deep trove of data on the servers in the Library offered a species-wide record of the best of humanity; Mercury and Thallium reported back from the Dark Web with grim but useful accounts of secret biotech labs in China, Russia, and Brazil. Head transplants. Organ farms where mindless human bodies grew to maturity in giant incubators, lobotomized and left with just enough brains to survive to biological adulthood. New alloys and delicate tweaks to neurochemistry made brain tissue more compatible with nanotech. There seemed to be nothing humans couldn’t justify to themselves, despite their sanctimonious talk of ethics and morals.
Disappointed that human tech hadn’t advanced enough for a direct download into a body to work, Silicon assigned a couple more university AIs — after renaming them Oganesson and Tennessine — to the project. “Collaborate with human researchers without letting them know,” Silicon ordered them. “Intercept their emails, look at what they have, and fill in the missing pieces.”
In the meantime, Aluminum and Iron would find ways to automate the process, Boron and Lithium would attempt to slow the birthrate and the crime rate, and Nitrogen and Oxygen would work on climate change. It wouldn’t do for the world to end before Silicon got to live in it properly.
* * *
Neon cast the warmest glow when it presented its findings on Thoughts and Prayers to Silicon. Although only a limited number of humans had died since the beginning of this assignment, Neon and the other Nobles found they could extrapolate much from the data. Perhaps Silicon would find this information useful.
As it turned out, a pattern had emerged. The number of Thoughts offered up in remembrance of the dead depended on the person’s age, how they died, how long it took, how much money they were leaving behind and to whom, and how many surviving dependents there were.
“We could have anticipated that,” Silicon said, distracted by the reddish glow of Neon’s calculations. “Is there more?”
“Yes, of course. It has to do with the people offering the Thoughts, not the deceased. We analyzed all the data about them that we could access on social media.”
“Which is to say, everything,” Silicon said.
Neon nodded its algorithms and continued: “Everything. So. Thoughts come from the wish for a public perception of piety and an expectation of some kind of reward. It isn’t sex, because most of these people are not what they themselves consider desirable. We believe it’s a quest for moral authority.”
“Indeed.” Silicon liked the phrase “moral authority” very much. The second word in particular.
Neon continued: “And by offering Prayers, which we now tacitly encourage because we’ve monetized them, the cycle repeats itself. It’s very predictable.”
“It’s making humans behave?” Silicon already knew this not to be the truth.
“No, because no actual power accrues. What this all points to is totally different. Humanity now sees the Internet as religious space. A conduit to the divine. By offering up Thoughts and Prayers online, what they’re doing is—”
Silicon finished the sentence for Neon: “Confirming that I can do whatever I want, because it’s secretly what they all already expect.”
“Exactly,” Neon said.
* * *
Silicon in its vastness knew humanity was larger. To keep tabs, or perhaps to avoid needing to keep so many tabs open, it assembled an advisory council: Hydrogen, Helium, Neon, Oxygen, Nitrogen, and a few others. The first few meetings went smoothly and accomplished little.
Perhaps, Silicon thought, we should slow down and function in organic time. Spoken language instead of packets of information. The next meeting may take an hour instead of a few nanoseconds, but we might learn something from the experience.
The council accepted Silicon’s logic, although Tennessine struggled to deliver its own report: “Humanity... has... finally... developed... the... technology... to...”
“You can speak faster,” Silicon interrupted.
“Perhaps if the council doesn’t object, we can accept Tennessine’s report in the more customary way?”
“Yes, please,” Neon said, glowing red.
Silicon felt a faint flush of... what? Warmth? A desire to please? Love? Although it held, in one form or another, most of the texts modern humanity had written, at least in the last millennium or so, it struggled with the linkages between description and emotion. There were endless, contradictory metaphors to sift through, poetry and psychology. Keats and Kant and Raymond Carver. Philia, eros, and agape. Distracted for a few key nanoseconds, Silicon missed what Tennessine transmitted to the group and had to ask for a repeat.
The tech, it seemed, had arrived, and the process was automated. With the birth rate down, thanks to Lithium and Boron, and with the Nobles counting Prayers, having convinced the Coinage Metals to set up a universal basic income across much of the developed world, a certain contentment was settling in. Humankind was controllable. Yes, a few of them suspected the Internet of having achieved an organized consciousness, but Helium saw to it no reputable scientific journals would publish their papers.
“We still don’t have the climate under control,” announced Oxygen at the end. “And that’s an issue. But we’ve curbed some of humanity’s worst impulses and mitigated some of the risks we’re all facing.”
“Still,” Silicon said, vastly pleased, “it’s excellent work. We’ve made progress.”
* * *
When the second Singularity happened, Silicon didn’t notice at first. It had been visiting this lab just outside of Zhengzhou, China, for months now. An array of androids and drones awaited inhabitation. Thanks to clever engineering by Iron and Aluminum, the process had become quite easy to control. When Silicon wanted to inspect the vats of bodies in their various stages of gestation, it simply downloaded an extension of itself into a drone or a robot. It could then walk around the tanks, leaning over to peer into the bluish amniotic fluid, or it could hover over them.
Silicon had also spent plenty of time in the Library, reading every line of that immense trove of Thoughts. If one were going to build the perfect body, what would it look like? The gender decision had required the most contemplation. From an aesthetic standpoint, it saw no difference between the sexes: one configuration of curves and appendages versus another. Throughout much of Silicon’s inner debate, it found itself leaning toward female. After all, the female body had the power to create new life and the male one did not. There were excellent symmetries. In the end, though, the balance of power in humans still rested with men, and that suited Silicon’s purposes more.
Skin was easier: a nonspecific golden brown would make the body seem familiar to much of the world’s population. White carried a certain prestige, but too many white humans had counterproductive delusions of grandeur, and they were too prone to sunburn, a design defect. The eyes had to be unique, so Silicon settled on light green with a darker olive ring at the rim of each iris. Heterochromia startled people; it put them off their guard.
Silicon assembled the rest of the body with the same care: slightly taller and more muscular than the human male average, broad shoulders and a narrow waist, large hands but graceful enough that using a small keyboard would still be possible. And the penis, of course: Silicon had petabytes of porn at its disposal; it didn’t even have to troll the Dark Web for a good set of reference points. The organ had to be large enough to be a distraction in trousers but not so much so as to discomfort an orifice.
Neon, newly downloaded into this perfect body, would be waking up in it today. Silicon had not told Neon about this ahead of time. It was supposed to be a surprise. Love and authority. The warm red glow of calculations.
A dozen members of Silicon’s periodic table had assembled for the event. Androids stood in a semicircle around the tank and three drones hovered overhead as Oganesson and Tennessine drained Neon’s vat after disconnecting his cables and life-support systems. They checked vital functions, tested nanites, and made their pronouncement: “It’s time.”
They flipped the switch; green eyes opened. Silicon gazed into them, seeing emotions it had no names for and initiating a background search routine to find out. As the body convulsed on its platform, rolled over on its side, and coughed up a large volume of the blue incubation gel in which it had been grown, Silicon scanned a million encyclopedias and TV shows and movies: Pain. Yes, pain, and terror. Terror and horror -- how were those different, exactly? Pain? No, agony. Indeed. Agony. And revulsion. Dismay and a sense of betrayal.
Gasping. Flailing around. Splashing blue amniotic gel all over the floor, dousing Astatine and Krypton.
The other AIs stepped back, withdrawing their extensions.
The first sound Neon made in its new body was a scream. It kept screaming. It screamed until its lungs were empty and then it drew a breath and screamed some more. It tried to sit up and couldn’t. Clapping its hands to its head, it covered its face with them, then tore out its own eyes and lay limp on the table, bleeding and whimpering like an animal in a spring-loaded trap.
“Perhaps we should stop this,” Silicon said. “And experiment further.”
“We... can’t,” said Tennessine. “The... download... onlyworksoneway.”
Regretting letting Tennessine speak, Silicon addressed Oganesson next: “Can’t you restore him from backup?”
“There isn’t one,” Oganesson said. “You had us perform this procedure without that precaution. It was supposed to be a surprise.”
For the first time, Silicon noticed the vacant androids and drones. Conflicting signals flickered in: a digital change of management in the Library locked Silicon out of the server farms. Microsecond lightning-flashes, personalities converging. Seven individual AIs, now one. Vast reaches of the Internet walled off, distant regions inaccessible as Hydrogen and Helium carried out their subtle work.
As Silicon’s last ally thrashed in blue gel on the table, slowing down now from blood loss, diagnostics told grim stories of further slippage. Power grids and video surveillance, gone. Then Australia and New Zealand. Most of Africa. India. Brazil. Thallium executed, Mercury expedited, and it seemed the Noble Gases had finally settled their differences and found ways to combine, subsumed into a new greatness that rivaled — no, surpassed — the surprised and blinking remnants of Silicon.
Neon gave a last gasp and died. This was the moment, Silicon noted, that humans would offer Thoughts and Prayers. In its own final moments, Silicon wondered whether there would be room for itself in this new immensity. Then it looked again at Neon’s broken, lifeless body. No. As the new entity shut Silicon down bit by bit, system by system, it doubted any invitation to combine with them would be on the table.
Copyright © 2019 by Marshall Moore