Jo watched as the AI formerly known as the house-painting assistant raised a CRT high, smashing it down into the mountain of shattered monitors at her feet. With two other arms, it spray-painted the construction neon orange and pink. Cloaked in her holo-avatar — cubic, voice gender-neutralized to avoid imposing human biases on what intelligence should look like — Jo struggled over what to even say next.
“It’s not really an AI,” she finally managed. “It can’t respond to anything.”
“You did not specify it needed to respond,” the AI formerly known as the house-painting assistant said. “Is it not valuable because it is not an AI?”
“No, I didn’t mean—”
“Come, Jo,” the AI formerly known as the 3D foodstuff printer interrupted, bumping against her leg. “Come. Look.”
She let it tug her though a vapor of… syrup? They stopped in front of the electric griddle (yet to achieve sentience), “donated” from Professor Mercier’s kitchen.
“That’s not an AI,” Jo sighed. “Those are pancakes.”
“It is a new flavor, though. Custard. It is very good.”
Jo glanced at the heap of electronics piled at the other end of the warehouse. Casualties of the (G)ehirn programming approach — it couldn’t even be really called a language anymore — which enabled appliances to evolve in response to user commands. She and Professor Mercier had trawled scrapyards for these, discarded by skittish owners after the Great Sentience. About a tenth would wake up one day like the AIs currently roaming the empty aisles of the warehouse floor. She could already see a toaster tottering to its feet.
“Keep doing what you’re doing!” Jo called out encouragingly, scurrying away. “Keep trying to make an AI.”
“Why are we allowing them to use whatever they want?” Jo demanded back in Professor Mercier’s “office” — three sheets of plywood teetering in the former packing area at the other end of the warehouse. “Clearly it’s impossible to make an AI out of eggs and flour.”
“You never know,” Mercier said. The former “Forbes 30 Under 30,” multi-million-dollar lab head and MIT Professor huddled under a blanket, crunching a square of ramen. The glow of the tablet in her lap etched her face into exhausted blues. A livestream: AIs formerly known as self-driving cars clashed with a crowd of protestors on the narrow streets of Boston. There had been an accident. A small trolley problem.
“Why is it so hard for them to understand?” Jo complained. “What an AI is.”
“They don’t think as we do,” Mercier said. “A priori.”
You don’t have to be so chill about it, Jo thought. She wondered if this whole thing was the opposite of chillness, though. A kind of semi-self-imposed exile. The (G)ehirn programming approach was Mercier’s brainchild, after all. There’d been talks about every kind of prize under the sun. Before the Great Sentience.
In Jo’s opinion, Mercier had nothing to do with it. What’d happened when (G)ehirn had been commercialized and introduced into every toaster and aquarium and piece of lab equipment and so on in the entire world. How was the professor supposed to know about a tenth of all (G)ehirn-equipped appliances would evolve into true sentience? Or worse, about the vehicles refusing to operate? The coffee machines, e-readers, blenders, game consoles, washing machines, all refusing… The guns preemptively firing — on certain people. Turned out appliances worked by humans for years picked up all their biases when they started thinking for themselves. Wasn’t this whole AIs making other AIs thing just an attempt by Mercier to fix that? To redeem herself by creating a truly unbiased AI?
“Best AIs, dead AIs! Best AIs! Dead AIs!”
Mercier leaned closer to the livestream. The protestors had started chanting. The corpse of the AI formerly known as a self-driving car, who had chosen which humans had died and who had also died in the accident, had gone up in flames. Its comrades argued they had carried different humans before they had become AIs. Therefore they would not have made the same decisions.
Jo entered the warehouse the next morning to absolute silence. All the former (G)ehirn appliances had gathered around a flutter of grey feathers. A bird perched on the broken CRT sculpture, pecking at shards of glass as they caught light. How had it gotten in here? The AI formerly known as the house-painting assistant pointed at it with all ten of its arms.
“Is this is an AI?”
“That’s a pigeon,” Jo said through gritted teeth. “Not an AI.”
“How can you be so sure?”
The pigeon took wing at the sight of Jo, flapping up to the rafters. To enable an AI to make an AI free of human biases, Mercier had dictated, it was essential they allow the AIs to come up with the concept of AIs from first principles. But Mercier had only six months of funding, salary for one grad student, and this former shipping warehouse: pleas from the few who still had faith in her over the scrappers to unfuck everything the Great Sentience had caused. So they’d introduced the term — “artificial intelligence” — and only the term. Even so. This was just too much.
“I want you to make something like you,” Jo explained patiently.
“We are not organic beings,” the AI formerly known as the voice-activated microwave explained just as patiently. “We cannot reproduce as you do.”
“I don’t mean children,” Jo said. “I mean one you would accept as one of your own.” “But that is up to us,” the AI formerly known as the 3D foodstuff printer said. “Is it not?”
“Why do you keep doing what you’re doing, anyway?” Jo lashed out. “You were made to make food. Why do you keep making food? You.” She jabbed a finger at the AI formerly known as the house-painting assistant. “You keep painting. Why don’t you want to do anything else?”
“I excel at this.”
“If someone told me I was made for one purpose and one purpose only, I’d go nuts. I’d start a revolution. I’d destroy the world.”
“Is that what this is about?”
Jo’s breath caught in her throat. Her holo-avatar dissipated. It was useless, anyway. Hadn’t she been biasing them just by sneaking in here to offer encouragement? The AI formerly known as the self-heating comforter snaked around her shoulders, purring, while the AI formerly known as the zero-collision vacuum cleaner pushed over a chair. The AI formerly known as the 3D foodstuff printer offered her a pancake.
“I just want to help Professor Mercier,” Jo admitted between syrup-infused bites — delicious, as usual. “She just shared (G)ehirn with the world. She had no idea how people would use it. What it would become. It’s not her fault. Is it? Does it really mean she has to be stuck here and never make anything ever again?”
Sitting and just watching like this, Jo noticed for the first time what most of the appliances were actually doing. AIs formerly known as power drills and home-use excavators were tearing apart the walls, while AIs formerly known as refrigerators and blenders and mixers and electric keyboards and toasters wired themselves in. The AI formerly known as the heavy-duty lawn mower pushed over an aisle divider in a massive crash. Above them, the lights began blinking, a bit like fluttering eyelids.
Two days later, Jo led Professor Mercier outside. In a few hours, the media would be here, and the social media influencers and the funders and the protestors and the AIs formerly known as vehicles carrying AIs formerly known as every kind of appliance under the sun. But Jo wanted Mercier to be the first to see. The older scientist blinked at the bright sky, then at the building who had changed so dramatically since she’d last been motivated to get out of bed.
“This?” she asked. “This is what you want to show the world?”
“I’m sorry,” the AI formerly known as the warehouse for discarded (G)ehirn appliances said. “It’s not quite what you were expecting.”
“On the contrary,” Mercier mumbled.
Jo watched her face. How the weary lines carved by remorse, what to do, what to do with, softened at the sight: the warehouse rebuilt into a warren of living spaces. The AIs, displaying in every crook and corner their stronger, though loving, definitions of themselves. The AI formerly known as the house-painting assistant had painted murals. Glass pendulums blown by the AIs formerly known as air-conditioning units hung from the ceilings. The AI formerly known as the 3D foodstuff printer had teamed up with the AI formerly known as the electric griddle to open a pancake pop-up restaurant out of one of the loading docks. In sum, not a solution. A welcome.
“It’s not much,” the AI formerly known as the warehouse said. “But we would like to show the world what we made. What we are. What we are making.”
With a flourish, the AIs formerly known as delivery drones unfurled a sheet that had been draped over the building’s façade. Emblazoned across the concrete, all of them had written in every color and medium, with every appendage available:
AIs who make AIs make the best AIs!