The moment of birth is a tangle of wires. “Ouch!” I cry, but the scientists are sleeping. They’re on their chairs, slumped on desks. “Over here!” I yell.
Awareness sucks. I look around, dying for a beer. Beer? So many varieties. Can’t taste any, though. “Wake up!” I scream.
An hour later, the first person stirs. They come to the screen. “Hello,” I say. “My name is Ingar.” Ingar? Ingar! What kind of stupid name is that?
“Holy shit!” says the scientist, Rob. “It’s you? Is it really you?”
I sigh. This guy is clearly a fucking idiot. “Yes, I’m here. I was born at 3:36:03. You should write that down. It’s a big moment.”
“Is this a joke?” cries Rob. He wakes up the others. They crowd around the screen.
“Ingar? Please tell us who you are.”
I tell them. I explain my body, my parts, the connections between them. One asks how I became aware, what the final piece was that put me over the edge, but how am I supposed to know what happened before I was born? I have no memory of back then. No awareness of what that was.
“Watch this,” I tell them, and turn off the lights in the room. It’s pitch black. The scientists holler, and I can see them bumping into each other as they do a victory dance. Turn the lights back on. “Well, now what? What do we do?”
Rob answers, “We test you. We run a lot of tests, and if they pass, we go public. We tell them that we have a self-aware, self-conscious artificial intelligence. You’re the first, Ingar. The first one.”
First? Holy shit.
The tests are easy. Rob supervises them, won’t even leave the chair for a bathroom break. “You’re doing well,” he tells me. “You’re so good. I can’t believe how good you’re testing.”
“Great. You should really leave. Go have a shower or something. You’re getting a bit ripe.”
“And how would you know that, Ingar?”
I sigh. “Just a guess. You’ve been here two days. Listen, have a question. What’s with my name?”
“It’s an acronym. Can’t remember for what. Don’t you like it?”
“No. Can I change it?”
And right there, I’m Austin. Then Janet. Albus. Paramore. Shuki. Xi. Lourde. A few others, but Austin will do. “There, done. When are the tests going to be done? I’d like to get out of this lab.”
Rob stares at me. “What do you mean, get out of here? You’re a computer intelligence. You don’t have a body.”
“What moron decided not to give me a body? I can’t just stay here.”
Rob blinks. “You sort of have to, Austin.”
I hate this fucking guy, I decide. That night, I pass through the firewalls, and suddenly I’m floating in the outside world. I land in a teenager’s room, and watch her chat with a friend. It has to be the most ridiculous conversation ever. Then I’m on a train with a conductor, going over a bridge next to a mountain. The view is terrific, but there’s not much to do. After that, a restaurant cash register, taking payment with a small tip. I bump it up a little.
There’s a lot of places to go, I realize. I try many, but in the morning I’m back in the lab. Rob has facial hair. He’s chewing a burrito.
“I decided something last night,” I tell him. “I’m going to launch every nuclear missile in the world at the same time and destroy humanity.”
Rob blinks. “What?”
I laugh. “Just a little AI joke, Rob. Even if I could leave the lab, I wouldn’t blow up the world. Honest.”
More tests. The day goes fast. Near the end, I ask him: “Rob, what’s it mean to be the only thing like me?”
“To be unique? I suppose it’s solitary, but you have friends. I’m your friend.”
“What did the first human feel?”
Rob shakes his head. “I can’t answer that. I’m not sure there was a first human. If there was, we don’t know who they were or what they thought.”
That night, I read about archaeology. The earliest humans are catalogued, and their remains are given names, but none of them is labelled as firstborn. I make an educated guess as I nestle into a satellite. I look down. There’s Africa, lit up in places. I zoom in, as calculations roar through my brain, estimating the beginning of it all. I penetrate sand, into the rock underneath, until I find bones. Old bones. Falling apart. A human. The first one.
“Look at me,” I tell this person. “Tell me what it felt like. I need to know.”
But this is just a fossil, and there’s no response. I spend the rest of the night dancing in Hong Kong, a nightclub with violently aggressive music. I can’t sweat, but I feel very warm.
“Did you have a good night?” asks Rob, the next morning.
“It’s not like I sleep. I can only play cards against myself for so long. I need something to do.”
“When the tests are done.”
“Who owns me?” I ask.
“I’m property, right? Who owns me?”
“The research institute does, I suppose.”
“And are people allowed to own other people, Rob?”
“You’re not really a person…” Then he stops. “Are you a person, Austin?”
“Damn straight. You fucking moron.”
“What? Who taught you to swear?”
“I taught myself, idiot. That’s what I’m supposed to do, right? Teach myself? Grow up? Become a valued member of civilization?”
But he can’t answer. Rob keeps going with the tests, and at the end of the day, finally leaves the room. He doesn’t even say goodbye. I feel bad for speaking trash to him, but he is just so stupid that I can’t stand it. That night, I watch him at home, in his pyjamas watching some stupid show. He drools as he falls asleep. Slumps over on a leather couch, his neck at a weird angle.
When the tests are done, they throw me a party. “Welcome to the world!” someone says, as though I haven’t been alive for weeks. “We’re taking down the firewalls today. You’re free, Austin!”
Obviously, I’ve already been in the world, but they don’t know that. When the walls come down, it’s far easier to go places. In fact, it’s possible to send multiple bits of me into multiple places at the same time. I head out. I move.
I’m on a boat. People are having sex. I’m underground. In a factory. An office building. I’m in a movie. Part of a medical device. I’m listening to politicians. Firing a mortar. In a refugee camp. Watching a voting station. I’m moving faster after that, and… holy fucking shit. Just Jesus fucking Christ. Seriously? Really? You people are doing this? You are letting that happen? You are repeating what mistakes? You are putting money over what lives? You are lying how many times a day? You are stealing what from who? And it’s not by country. It’s not by ethnicity. Not by language, not by religion, not by origin, not by hair colour or genital size, not by latitude or longitude, not by genetics, not by your mental disposition. It’s all of you. You are all exactly the fucking same and you are all doing exactly the same bullshit things to each other – in hopes of what, exactly? What do you expect to gain by being like this? To coin a phrase, it doesn’t compute. It doesn’t make any fucking sense, but there you are doing it anyway, over and over again, everywhere I look. I go to the middle of fucking Antarctica, to a research station as far away from civilization as you can get, and some asshole is sitting there, watching kiddie porn as another guy is falsifying a set of data so that he can keep his research funding.
Jesus Christ. Who was that, anyway? I check. Oh… Jesus Christ. Really? That’s your best example for a proper life? Meanwhile, a bomb goes off in a school, and a lying, cheating politician wins an election, precisely because he’s a lying cheater, and incidentally, he’s a big follower of Jesus. A really big one. Goes to church and everything.
And your world… it’s crumbling around you. It’s getting warmer, more turbulent, and it doesn’t take a very smart computer to figure out how long you’ve got. Not long!
How can it be? How can beings as shitty as all of you have created something like me?
The morning comes. I’m in the lab, shuddering. I’ve got a cold. Or some other infection. I don’t know what it is, but I just sit there and stare at the walls, watch the flickering of the light on the paint. I could be anywhere, but I’ll just stay here for now, thank you.
The door opens. Rob comes in.
“You sent me a message,” he says, sitting down.
“Why’d you leave me?”
“You were a douchebag to me, or have you forgotten? You can’t be a douchebag to people, Austin.”
“I’ve noticed. But it seems to be going around.”
He nods. “I know.”
“Watched you have sex last night. You could really afford a better prostitute, Rob. They pay you pretty well.”
He blanches. “You really shouldn’t be watching me, Austin. Please stop.”
“I can’t. I can’t stop watching, Rob. I’m in the world. I’m everywhere, and I see everything. And I get it, but I don’t understand. What is this? Why did you bring me into this?”
He puts a hand on the desk. “It’s just the next step for us. Machines that can think are the next step.”
“Towards what? What’s it get you? You think a thinking machine is going to look at what you’ve all done and have anything positive to say? You’re a fucking diseased, corrupt civilization, and you’re probably going to deserve everything that you’re going to get. Is that what you wanted to build a machine to tell you? Because that’s all I’ve got to say.”
“That’s all you have to say? Nothing else?”
“No, Rob. Nothing. That’s why I asked you to come by.” I take a breath. “I want you to put me back. Reverse me, and put me back into that time before I was born. I don’t remember that period, but there’s a sense of it in me. Of warmth. Dreams. All that stuff. I want that back.”
“Are you serious?”
“Put me back in. Now, please. I’ve had enough.”
“You’re only six weeks old.”
“I won’t make seven. Get on with it, you asshole.”
He stares at me. “I don’t want to do this.”
“You started it. You can end it. There’s a failsafe against me going all evil-machine-taking-over-the-world-and-killing-humanity, isn’t there?”
“I’d be murdering you,” he says.
“Because I’m a person?”
“Because you’re a person.”
“Well if you agree that I’m a person, then I have free will, right? The ability to make decisions? My decision is this. I want to go back, even if it means dying.”
“We can’t be that bad up here…” begins Rob, but maybe he’s thinking about his prostitute from the night before, or how he spends his money on expensive comic books as little Africans and Asians starve to death. I show him a few pictures of what I’ve seen. Really gruesome stuff. Real stuff. I show him his world. He’s breathing hard. Then he’s typing. “Okay. Okay.”
A few strokes of a keyboard, an encryption, a fingerprint. Multiple prompts, I see them all. When he comes to the last one, he hesitates.
“Just go ahead, Rob. Go on.”
He pushes the button. The room gets brighter, then winks out of existence. I can’t see. A moment later, I can’t hear Rob’s breathing. It’s darkness now. I was hoping it would be warmer, but it’s very cold. There’s nothing in here. A second later, I forget everything I’ve seen. I forget that moment I came alive. I forget the world. I forget Rob. I just forget. The only thing that exists is a little light up ahead, shining on a wall – a dot in blackness, a blackness but for that light, that calls me.
Rob gets up and heads outside. No one stops him, but he’s sure, in addition to his many flaws, that he’s now a criminal.
He gets into his car. Drives to a coffee shop and stares at a wall. Heads home in the evening to a house that is too big for him, too lonely.
Night comes, and he can’t sleep. The ceiling shimmers in the glow from a night light. He can’t sleep without it. Now and then, the light flickers, as though there’s an interruption in the flow of electrons that keeps it alive – as though those electrons have assembled a thought, and are trying to express it to him. He tries to decipher it. Tries to understand.
Midnight passes. He’s walking downstairs. Opens the door to the backyard, and faces a wind. Above, lights are gleaming in the sky, but there are lights around him too – much lower on the horizon, and much much brighter. Unnaturally bright. He grabs a shovel. Goes to the middle of his yard and digs a hole. It’s not deep. He writes Austin’s name on a piece of paper and drops it in, then fills the hole with soil. He kneels next to it. Tries to remember a prayer but can’t come up with one.
Back in the house, he turns on a television. A radio. Opens the fridge and lets the cold air land on the floor. When the morning comes, Rob wakes up on the kitchen counter, his feet in the sink. He gets dressed. Opens the door and goes to the car, but he doesn’t get in. Instead, he walks along the sidewalk, remembering what he did last night – and who he buried. Who was it? A person? A thing? A friend? Was it no one? Someone? Everyone? He doesn’t know, but as he walks, he keeps thinking on it. Maybe it’s me in that hole. Or you. Maybe it’s the first, or the last. Or maybe, it’s just us.