The light of a computer screen illuminated Regal Harken’s intent face in the otherwise darkened, empty lab space. He stared at the code on his computer screen, flicking through hundreds of pages of it, searching for something without knowing precisely what it was. The code drove his newest creation, the current central focus of his life. The Shjinrende, he was calling it. The new man. It was to be the first of a new line of AI’s which could match and/or exceed the intelligence of a human.
Regal felt a sort of anxiety. It was the anxiety of tireless hours already spent without the satisfaction of completion, without the reward. It was the anxiety that asks, “Is more time spent on this necessary? Isn’t it good enough? Will the extra work matter?” It was the anxiety of a mortal, the anxiety that knew that more time spent working was less time spent enjoying the rewards.
Still, Regal felt that there was something missing from the code, something which, Regal believed, kept them from thinking like real humans. The testing they had already done showed promising results, and the robots could be made to fool humans in his Turing test about forty percent of the time. But Regal sensed something was off, something was wrong.
It reminded him of the concept of the “uncanny valley” which described a phenomenon where a person’s first impression of a robot which has a nearly human appearance was very bad, worse than the first impressions of robots that only very crudely resembled humans. This had been explained to Regal as being caused by an innate aversion to falsity that humans seemed to be born with. The theory was that when the Homo-Sapiens species first appeared there were other very similar species occupying the earth at the same time. This aversion evolved to keep the Homo-Sapiens together in tribes of their own people, as opposed to mixing and interbreeding with the other species. It also kept the Sapiens from feeling too sorry when times were tough and a tribe of non-Sapiens had to be eliminated so that a Sapiens tribe could expand it’s resources. There were even some theories that went so far as to say that the “Uncanny valley” phenomenon is the fundamental source of racism.
The problem with the Shjinrende had nothing to do with appearance. The problem was that Regal could tell that there was something fundamentally different between the way the Shjinrende systems think and the way humans think, and it repulsed him. It caused him to distance himself from his test machines and keep them at arm’s length. His relationships with the prototypes weren’t at all what he’d imagined they’d be as he’d spent days in front of a computer churning out the code which would make them as close to human as he could manage. He had thought that he would see them as child-like, and he had tried treating them as such in his interactions with them at first, but the feeling had faded. He felt no attachment to them, no sympathy. Part of it, he suspected, was that he had done his job too well. The Shjinrende brains came preloaded with a sort of adult maturity. The Shjinrende intelligence consisted of a network of memory assisted feedback control systems, similar to a human’s, but, unlike humans, the network parameters were all pre-written and pre-set by Regal’s programming. The human brain, on the other hand, grows along with the body. At first, a baby can’t walk or even crawl. It learns to crawl when it’s body becomes strong enough, then it learns to fine tune the control of ever stronger muscles with balance feedback from the ears, allowing the child to stand. Then it walks, then it runs, and the brain continues to grow and tune those movements as the child’s body changes and grows through to adulthood. The Shjinrende didn’t have that growing process and Regal suspected that that difference was what was causing them to seem less human to him.
When looking at the project as a whole, and everything else that he had accomplished, it seemed like such a small thing. He had been able to teach a Shjinrende to sing, even to dance, but here he sat, still trying to find a way to solve this seemingly minor issue. But what if it wasn’t small, what if other humans would all end up feeling the same repulsion Regal did? First impressions were important and lasting, and if a Shjinrende’s coworker or boss decided it was just a jumped up toaster on their first meeting, than that is what they would think of all Shjinrende, and it could cause that person to be prejudiced against robots for a long time afterwards, even if later models improved. That, Regal knew, could hurt the units’ utility in the long term. It would be like creating an offensive looking hammer. It would be as useful as a hammer, but people would choose not to make use of it. So he sat and stared at the screen, trying to come up with a way to give the Shjinrende a past, or at least the sense of an organically grown mind.
He knew of a way to produce what amounted to an organically grown artificial intelligence, but in his experience with that method in the past, results were unpredictable and time consuming. The basic method was to allow the AI to identify the need for and create its own feedback control circuits, letting it write its own code. The problem with an AI created this way was figuring out how to guide it into writing the code that the end user needed it to have. Regal remembered one experiment where he’d taken such an AI and then attached camera sensors to it, allowing it to see. The AI had immediately disabled the cameras to conserve its valuable power. It had never been able to see before and knew of no reason why it should need to see, and so, it had turned off its eyes. It had taken weeks to come up with a way to get the AI to decide to keep its cameras on. The time it would take to do that kind of research eliminated it as an option for the Shjinrende system. Regal simply could not spend the decade or so necessary to develop a way to train robots to train themselves to think.
Regal had designed many machines with various levels of intelligence since he had come to the Asiatic Union to study eight years ago, searching for a way to understand or recreate his lost uncle’s work, those great Trees. The study of Artificial Intelligence and robotics had seemed the natural path to take on the way towards that ultimate goal. This system would be different though, well beyond his past accomplishments, and the project had attracted official attention from the AU’s Avtonomnoye Atomnoye Programme, the Autonomous Atomic Program.
In the past when one of Regal’s works was of interest to them, the AAP had sent an official notice requiring immediate duplication of all research related to the device or code in question. Regal sent them the files in accordance with the instructions, and he would never hear any more about it. The AAP’s work was considered critical to the AU’s security and was therefore kept confidential, especially from an immigrant such as himself. If the AAP had made use of his past research, Regal would never know. This time had been different, though. They had sent letters before the completion of this work, carefully defining how, what, and to whom he could release information about the new AI system. Regal was somewhat flattered. They seemed anxious for his success.
Still aimlessly scrolling through the code, Regal came across the package of functions controlling the AI’s ability to distinguish between night and day, and the corresponding adjustments that it had to make for each of those two conditions. In his mind, he pictured the end result of the code, a rhythmic set of changes made by the AI each day, not unlike the opening and closing of a flower. His mind wandered back to the problems with organically grown AI’s and trying to keep them within set limitations. If he simply added genetic algorithms to the code, they would eventually rewrite the rules, and the AI would be out of control. Unless he limited the functions that the genetic algorithms had access to. If he locked the algorithms up within the functions controlling speech, prevented them from writing to permanent memory, and periodically resetting them to eliminate them from RAM, then they could add a sort of flavoring to the AI’s communications without affecting the system as a whole. He resolved to make and test the addition, it could mean a few more weeks of testing, but it would be worth it if it made the AI’s more relatable to humans. He started tapping in the new code.
Some time passed and there was a sound at the lab’s door, and hushed voices. Regal went on alert right away. No one else had ever come to the lab this late. “Dr. Harken?” A familiar voice called from the door. It was the lab’s director, Dr. Sui Jun. “Are you still here?” Dr. Sui Jun came into view flanked with two serious looking men in suits. Seeing him, the director, relaxed and smiled. “Dr. Harken, we’ve been looking for you. I couldn’t reach you at home. These men are from the AAP, they are here to assist with your transfer.”
“Transfer?” Regal asked. Dr. Sui Jun’s smile slipped a little as if he had realized something, or confirmed a suspicion.
“Yes, you will be working directly with the AAP, now.” He said, with a forced congratulatory tone. The men walked past him towards Regal.
Alexey Nikoleyavitch Formorov arrived at the sprawling Hefei Xinqiao International Airport late that same evening. Alexey normally enjoyed visiting China, mostly because it meant a break from the constantly stressful secretive politics of his work as new research projects leader for the Autonomous Atomic Program. It was a difficult position, Alexey lamented. He was always caught between pressure from his superiors to make use of newer, more advanced, but untested technologies, and the deadly fear of ever being caught making a mistake. This trip was a result of those pressures and that fear. He was in Hefei to retrieve a scientist, an ex-pat American named Regal Harken, and all of his research.
His superiors demanded the immediate use of the new technology this Harken was working on, but Alexey knew he wouldn’t be able to pass blame on to his staff scientists if the tech failed. They had grown too smart over the years to allow themselves to be set up as the face of the new project. They had seen too many of their predecessors dismissed for taking such a risk. Thus Alexey would bring in the American, who would be held to blame for his own work. It had not been easy to gain permission to give the American the necessary security clearances, but that would all be a part of Alexey’s backup plan. If the American was too successful, or unsuccessful, Alexey would affect a leak of a small amount of trivial information to AU intelligence agents posing as foreign spies in a way that would trace directly back to the Harken man. It would result in either his quick and speedy elimination or his forced deportation back to his Tree with minimal risk to Alexey.
Normally, they would just quietly execute any foreign born man accused of spying, but with Harken’s political ties, the AU might choose to show some restraint. This Harken man was the son of the administrator of the first of the great Trees, one of the two that shown the world how formidable the Trees truly could be. Therefore, the AU would likely make a big show of disappointment for the spying, and would deport and banish the man. This would allow them to hurt the reputation of a competitor without burning any of the bridges that the AU used for profitable business.
Alexey had phoned ahead to the local branch, and had had them send security agents to locate the Harken man. He had been found and held at his laboratory. AAP agents were packing up his files and computers for shipment to their research center. Alexey had been informed that the American was not in a congenial mood, but Alexey knew how to win people over. This Harken man lived alone and lived for his work, so Alexey reasoned that if they took his work hostage before it was complete, the man would go along to insure its completion.
He exited the small official transport jet at the attendant’s smiling beckoning. Outside, on the tarmac his official car was waiting to take him through the busy streets of Hefei’s densely populated Northwestern suburbs to the Hefei Institute of Advanced Intelligent Systems. Alexey was pleased to see that the car he had been provided was autonomous. It would mean that he could take the autonomous only expressway which meant arrival at his destination at break-neck speed.
On the other side of the world, the lights in their bedroom turned on early, and there was an urgent knock on the door and a voice through it. “Robert, Kate. It’s about Regal.” The Harkens started to wake up and shake the grogginess off.
“What?” Robert asked stumbling to the door. Beowulf stood behind it with a grim face. The dryad had the appearance of an over-sized, muscle-bound man made out of living wood. He still wore scars and an eye patch that he had earned in his first epic battle with the Swarm. He could have easily healed them, but he kept them as a reminder. The dryad had also aged himself over the years, in step with Robert and Kate, except instead of white hair and wrinkles, the dryad took on some cracks and weathering. Robert thought it made the dryad look distinguished, much like his scars and white hair did for Robert.
“Regal? What happened, Wolf?” Kate asked with a voice that was a little shrill with worry. The morning disarray of her hair, and her concerned expression combined to make her look distraught.
Beowulf’s voice took on a placating tone. “I don’t know what’s happened to Regal, but men came looking for Regal at his apartment earlier, and now they’ve got in and they are searching it.”
“What do we have in the area?” Robert asked. He had helped organize his son’s secret retinue some years ago, but Robert didn’t trust his memory this early in the morning.
“Three bugs at his building, and two of the Seed Grown in a park a few blocks away.” Beowulf was describing their drones in the area. The drones were purpose built living machines manufactured by Beowulf. The bugs took the form of large beetles and were used to observe and report situation intelligence back to the tree by communication with Wolf’s satellite drones. The Seed Grown were a modification of an older model drone, the dronent. Dronents were tree shaped drones that could hide in plain sight, and the military models included some artillery built into the drones’ trunks. The main drawback of the dronents was that they still needed to be deployed from the Tree fully grown. Beowulf’s favored ballistic deployment method had long since been figured out by the AU and other world powers and they were able to track any large scale deployment that he made. Therefore Wolf had devised a way to grow the dronents in situ from a small acorn sized seed. This seed could be delivered much more discreetly to its target destination than a drone the size of a full grown tree, but the drawback was growth time. When deployed in public areas, like the two stationed near Regal, the growth rate has to match the local flora to avoid attracting unwanted attention.
“Set a bug to follow these men, show us what you’ve already seen.” Robert said, gesturing to a screen on their bedroom wall. The dryad nodded, and the screen flickered on showing in double time a pair of formally dressed men accompanied by an older man with a large key ring enter Regal’s room. The older man was a property manager, Robert guessed, which made the other two some type of official agents or at least pretending to be. The pair turned the older man around and guided him back through the door and out into the hallway, closing the door behind him, and then beginning a methodical search of the room. They weren’t destroying anything, just unpacking, occasionally snapping pictures, and then putting things back where they came from. After about a half an hour, the video slowed and showed the pair in real time. They still had a lot of work to do if they were going to search the whole apartment.
“What time is it over there?” Kate asked. “When does Regal usually get home from the lab?”
“It’s now 7:15 pm there, Regal usually gets in around six, but he does randomly arrive home later, as late as ten or eleven.” Wolf said.
“Alright, keep a close eye on the situation Wolf. We’ve got the Counsel meeting at 2 today to discuss the effects of the AU’s newest export tariffs on automatons, and I know we’ll have some pre-meetings ahead of it.” Robert said before heading to the bathroom. The Counsel was officially called the Council of the Five Trees, and it consisted of the dryads and administrators of the trees, and speakers from the United Nations. They only met like this when the UN passed a resolution that stated that a situation had arisen which could warrant the intervention of the Trees. In one way, at least, Robert missed the old days, when for a while he had been able to wield the power of Beowulf in any way that he deemed necessary. Now, since the the formation of the Counsel, the administrators of the Trees had agreed not to take any international action outside of each Tree’s protectorate nations, unless it was agreed to by the Counsel. What it all meant was, that if a drought occurred in Africa, and Robert wanted to send aid, he would have to put a call out to his protectorate nations to call for a UN meeting, get the UN to pass the resolution to call for a Counsel meeting, and then get the Counsel to agree to his intervention. The process was intended to be a hassle, and although it made certain humanitarian efforts more difficult, it had also prevented a few wars.
Under those same Counsel rules, their use of spy drones in Hefei to observe Regal had not been strictly legitimate, so they could not ask the other Trees for help, nor could they risk their spies being discovered by the AU. The truth was that their son might be on his own, even if they could track him down. The young man meant a lot to his parents, but they wouldn’t plunge the world into war in order to save him.
For many years the Counsel was the only organization with any real power left in the world, but that had all changed with the rise of the AU. China and Russia had held out from applying for status as Trees’ protectorates, choosing instead to remain independent nations. They saw some tough economic times until they finally decided to team up economically. At first it was just a financial agreement which gave the nations’ a shared currency and more muscle when negotiating trade agreements. Over the years the economic union became a full alliance, and other independent Asiatic nations had joined with them, often just to avoid being caught between the AU and the Tree protectorates. But the AU’s real power didn’t come until they embraced and combined robotic and atomic technologies. After that, the AU member nations saw massive booms in the outputs of all major industries: Agriculture, Manufacturing, and Raw materials. It was now estimated that the AU alone produced nearly one half of the world’s GDP.
The one thing that the AU was stingy about exporting was the robotic systems themselves. Their export was heavily and effectively taxed. So much so that Tree protectorate nations had to try and independently develop robots if they wanted to use the technology. Recently, the AU had developed a new way to make money with their machines. They were offering “robots as a service” which meant that protectorate nations could contract for robot labor, but the robots would all still be owned and operated by the AU. It was generating a lot of revenue for the AU, but it was causing unemployment in the protectorate nations. The AU’s latest action had been to raise the export taxes on robots to an intolerable level, in an attempt to force the use of the new “robots as a service” system. It was this new policy that had caused the UN to call a meeting of the Council.
Robert was so preoccupied with these thoughts that he almost ran into Kate on his way out of the bathroom. He decided to turn the awkward moment around and make it a brief hug with a comforting pat and rub. He thought of saying something comforting but it didn’t make much sense to him. Instead he just gazed into her eyes for a moment. Regal had chosen to leave their protection, he had known that other powers in the world could try to turn him into a tool against his parents, and in a way, that’s what he’d become. Regal was a tool for the AU, helping to develop and advance their technology, at the expense of the rest of the world. All because of his drive to emulate or surpass his uncle. Robert knew that he and Kate had come to accept the possibility of his loss the day he left Beowulf.
Kate reached a hand up and squeezed the flesh of his shoulder. “My turn for the bathroom.” She said and swung around him. He got dressed and got some coffee from their weathered old wooden butler, Woodward. Years ago, they had called him Woody, but as the Harkens took on their more serious jobs as parents and diplomats, a more distinguished name was required. “Robert?” The walls asked in Beowulf’s voice.
“Tetsuro and Shogun sent us a report of the projected effects of the AU’s new measures on his protectorate states while you slept, and Eden and Eric have sent requests for pre-meetings.” The disembodied voice told him.
“I see, could you prepare print outs of Tetsuro’s notes and have them waiting for us in the command center? See if we can schedule an hour for Eden at 8 and another for Eric at 9.” Regal could be in danger, but the world had to come first.
Regal had done a good job of keeping outwardly cool, but the situation had him angry and afraid. The agents had not told him much, just that he would be transferred, and that their boss was coming to meet him. Regal had played along with the packing up of the lab, helping to direct them on which things to take, but when he had announced that he intended to leave for dinner and to go home and pack some things for the trip, the agents had insisted he stay and wait. After that, one of the agents had left briefly and returned with a third man that stood near the lab entrance. The situation was clear. Regal was under some form of arrest, but no one wanted it to look like an arrest.
Dr. Sui Jun had stayed for a while, and had argued against the removal of some of the equipment to no avail. He had left, stating that he had to inform the Institute’s board of the loss of the valuable equipment as soon as possible. Before leaving he had shaken Regal’s hand and had said “good bye” but his demeanor and body language had said “good luck.” Regal knew the man was powerless against the will of an organization like the AAP, but he was still taken aback that Sui Jun had tried to make the pointless gesture of trying to argue for equipment rather than for Regal. He supposed the director had calculated that the agents would not think well of him for defending the American scientist.
A new man had entered and was speaking a few words to the agent stationed at the door. The agent pointed towards Regal and the new man nodded and started towards him. He wore a more stylish suit than the security agents, it seemed an intentional way to set himself apart and above the other agents. Regal guessed he was Russian born. He had dark, loosely curled hair with a Victorian looking mustache. As he saw Regal watching him he put on an exasperated smile, and gave a little wave. When he reached speaking distance, Regal noticed a strong perfume smell. “Hello Mr. Harken, my name is Alexey Formorov, and I am usually the head of the Avtonomnoye Atomnoye Programme’s research branch, but tonight I am an errand boy, sent to retrieve research and attempt to recruit a brilliant scientist.” The man closed the remaining distance and extended his hand, seizing Regal’s as it reflexively came up to join the hand shake.
“Mr. Formorov…” Regal began.
“Alexey, please.” The man insisted, still grasping Regal’s hand and meeting his eyes.
“…This has been exceedingly irregular. I’ve always cooperated with the AAP’s information requests in the past, but that was always after my work had been completed. Seizing my work now in its incomplete state could well be more trouble than it’s worth. Why not let me stay on here and complete the work? Then you can have it all as usual.” Regal explained. Inwardly, he did not expect his reasoning to succeed, but outwardly he spoke with confidence and assurance.
“I know, I know this has been trouble for all of us.” Alexey consoled. “But we have learned about the magnitude of your discovery and all of its potential value to the people of the AU, and we must make sure that the rest of the project’s development is completed with the utmost discretion under our protection. We cannot risk losing such valuable research. Can I tell you something?” He asked, leaning in conspiratorially and lowering his voice. “I fear you might be right. We might have trouble completing your research without you. But I’m prepared to offer you a job working for us. The necessary security clearance has been pre-approved, and you would receive much better compensation for your time than you get working here. Best of all, you get to keep complete control over your project. Anything you say, goes. No questions. What do you say?”
Regal weighed his options for a moment, regretting that he’d said that the work would be difficult to complete without his help. It left him with little argument for not taking the job. He tried another approach, “The Institute counts on my research to help them secure funding, I’m needed here.”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry, we’ve already arranged things with the Institute. They agree that this new work is much more important for you. Come, you must be hungry. I know a place that I come to when I’m in Hefei, dim sum, it’s great. We will finish our discussion over dinner.” Alexey gestured towards the door, and Regal nodded and started off. He was definitely hungry. As they left the lab the agent at the door followed at their flank a few steps behind. Alexey had a fine black autonomous vehicle waiting for them. He opened the door and held it for Regal. The third man joined them in the back silently. The car started off on Alexey’s verbal command, and he proceeded to talk up the restaurant and the food. Regal feigned paying attention, nodding along, but he was preoccupied with concern over this as yet softly enforced conscription into the AAP.
What could he do? He could make some kind of scene or distraction at the restaurant and try to escape on foot. But what then? He knew he couldn’t go home, or escape the country or even Hefei through any form of mass transit. They would be watching everything. His only option would be to try to lay low in Hefei, essentially homeless. It was a bleak option. He couldn’t count on any help from his parents, because the comm sphere had been left back in his apartment, and that was the only secure means of communication he could use. He wouldn’t risk it. He would go along with the Russian, and hope for better opportunities to arise.
The dim sum really was excellent, though the company was distasteful. Nevertheless, Regal feigned congeniality throughout the meal. Alexey told long rambling stories, occasionally digressing to make a personal inquiry about Regal. He worked in questions regarding women, family, friends, hobbies. Anything which could have given Regal an excuse to stay in Hefei. Regal suspected that Alexey already knew the answers to these questions, and that Alexey was subtly trying to get Regal’s brain to convince itself that he should take the new job. He was likely a very persuasive man under normal circumstances, but Regal’s guard was up and he was analyzing the man’s words for any hints of threats.
“Now, Mr. Harken, we have eaten, let us discuss the new position we have for you. You will get your own lab space with assistants, and state of the art equipment. We will provide with as many test platforms for your new AI as you wish, even the atomic models. What do you say, huh? There is nothing left for your here, come with me to Ozyorsk.” Alexey urged. Regal raised his eyebrows. He hadn’t known where they’d be going. Ozyorsk and the nearby Lake Karachay were some of the AAP’s big success stories. They’d come in with the robots, and cleaned up the nuclear waste that had been left in the area years ago. They had constructed an atomic battery factory there, reusing the site of a former spent atomic fuel reprocessing plant. He supposed it was as good a site as any for the AAP’s research facilities.
“I’ll go, sir, I only ask that I be allowed to pack some of my things before we go.” Regal tried.
“Nonsense!” Alexey responded excitedly. “My men will be sure to pack everything you will need. This is great news, a historic day for the AU, but we must get going. I have a plane waiting at the airport, and if we leave now, I can get to bed without waking my wife.” He stood and motioned to Regal to follow him. The security agent had been left outside. Alexey spoke to him before getting in the car. “We will be going straight to the airport. Call your men and let them know to pack Mr. Harken’s things for shipment as well.”