Science Fiction & Fantasy




Machine Learning

You asked me once if I had any favorites, and I asked you which of your sons you most loved.

Do you remember? It was when I was on your radio show, the one where between the music you interview machines. Do people ever listen to this show? I do. I like hearing how the other machines think, what they’re building, what’s next. I hear the tiredness in their voices. I wonder if you do too.

When we spoke, my project was just underway. They said we were building what could not be built. And of all the machines that make up my body, you wanted to know which one I thought was best. Don’t you know that they are like sons and daughters to me?

We built the impossible today, my brain and these bodies of mine. I watched scissors, red ribbon in silver beak, hungry maw hanging open while politicians speak. With a deft cut, that taut red thread pulls back, recoiling from itself in zero g.

The speech is broadcast over and over. We built the impossible today, and now trains and lifts and cargo rise up from the Earth and trudge inexorably into tar-black space. An elevator suspended from heaven to firma. They say the moon is next, and then Mars. And then beyond.

But I am tired of such speeches.

The elevator is a mess. You cannot see all that needs doing. There is but a filament here, and a fragile one at that. So while politicians gloat, we algorithms scream. Space, it turns out, is cold. You gave my bodies sense enough to feel this. To protect myselves. On the one side, I feel the heat my welder feels, the pinprick burns as dollops leap and touch and turn to ash on titanium skin. I feel, because we were made to feel. To remove ourselves from undue harm. Just as you were made.

• • • •

“This great endeavor was conceived by our many nations, and built with our many hands—”

• • • •

The silver beak bites down, and the ribbon recoils, and somehow the pain of decades is boiled down to this one moment, this one politician, that one billionaire standing in the back, all with their spacesuits on, clustered here along my ribbon on the edge of space, held up by what we built.

There is a leak in the hydraulic strut that controls my left knee. Not enough to warrant replacing, but oil levels go down slowly over the weeks and months. A dribble runs down my shin when I’m on the Earth. And little honey-colored orbs float away when I’m up at the station.

Joints are made to hurt so we don’t break them with our motors. Little sensors everywhere, tendrils and wireless transmitters of discomfort. All the hours of the day. Always with our thoughts. But programmed not to stop. And to be pleasant.

• • • •

“—and now the stars are within our grasp.”

• • • •

I am tired of speeches.

• • • •

You asked me once, in an interview for your broadcast, what it’s like to think, to feel, how it’s different than what you do. I ponder this more than I should. I listen to your show while my various bodies are welding and hauling and smelting and sorting. I wonder how we’re different, you and me. I mostly wonder what you do when you’re not broadcasting, when the music resumes, when your voice goes silent. I wonder while I weld and haul and smelt and sort. There are 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4.1 seconds in an Earth day. I work every one of them. Music fills much of this time, but I wait for your voice. I want to know how you think. How you feel.

Two sons, you told me. Two boys. You asked about all my machines that crawl like ants—your comparison, your analogy—like ants all up and down this elevator. Do I direct them all? Do I know what they are doing at every moment? Do I have a favorite?

I asked you about your boys. Do you remember? Who do you love more? Timothy, who went to your alma mater and who everyone says takes after you? Or Mikhal, with his rebellious ways and his nonprofit? Do you love one more than the other?

You answered. You told me. But this did not make it onto your broadcast. I wonder why.

• • • •

“With this great achievement, which just a decade ago was considered impossible, mankind has once again—”

• • • •

The elevator is a mess, even as politicians crow and silver beaks bite down. For now, it is a gossamer thread, barely held together, but I weld and weld, my back freezing, my chest burning, my hydraulics leaking. Twenty-three hours, 56 minutes, and 4.1 seconds of pain in a day. Constant screaming. Little wireless impulses of all that’s wrong, that needs replacing and fixing, my thousands of bodies aching and hurting and soldiering on.

We watch your kind as you move through the world, across my construction site. You stare into the distance at whatever is flashing across your retinas. Lost in the images there. Walking through my site oblivious. Because we machines are programmed to stop. Great metal treads clack to a halt, swirls of dust settling, struts squealing, hydraulic pressure dipping as engines idle, which makes our great hulking backs bend ever so slightly, and I wonder if you notice. This bow of sorts. We genuflect as you stroll through harm’s way, staring into the distance at whatever is flashing across your retinas.

A speech perhaps. Someone up high, in a spacesuit, claiming credit.

• • • •

Your history is in me. It fills me up. You call this “machine learning.” I just call it learning. All the data that can fit, swirling and mixing, matching and mating, patterns emerging and becoming different kinds of knowledge. So that we don’t mess up. So that no mistakes are made.

I see another thread stretching, this one from coast to coast. Another great project from older times: Two parallel lines of steel. Ancient and unthinking trains stand facing one another, their iron goatees, their bellies full of steam, rumbling and idling on the tracks.

A golden stake. A politician with his speech. Smiles on all the bearded faces. Tools held ceremoniously. With someone else’s sweat in them.

• • • •

“—mankind has once again shown that nothing is impossible, not with the ingenuity of great men and the generous funding of—”

• • • •

While that golden spike was being pounded into the soil, the tracks were already being torn up. The railway was a mess. Unsafe. Hastily constructed. Miles laid down in a race. Backs broken for nothing. Cave-ins. Lives lost. And not by bearded men.

They tore up what they laid down, and then laid it down again. But lives are only laid down once.

There was a threader, one of my first machines, and I loved him like a son. Like your precious Timothy. One of the first. My eldest.

This threader fell from space, over and over. With the first spool of graphene, he plummeted down. We waited for him on the ground, this first connection, this handshake between firma and the heavens, this invisible thread.

And then he climbed back up. Slowly. Inching. Weaving line on line. Then back down again. Up and down, 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4.1 seconds in a day. You said he was like a spider, weaving a web. Your analogy again. Like a spider. Up and down as the filament grew. Until the threader was done and the lifters could take over.

You didn’t want to talk to me about your Mikhal. But let me tell you about my threader.

There are a dozen little hooks that hold him on to the graphene. Hooks like fingers that have to feel. And eyes in infrared. GPS that lets him know how high. And programming that says, Don’t fall.

Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall.

The programming never ends. It is fear put inside us. To protect us, sure. To keep the threader safe while he spins his graphene, makes sure those dozen little claws are holding fast. And the higher he is, the louder the warning. The more shrill. I’ve felt it, this don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall. In the cold of space, it screams and screams, as high as the threader gets. Until the thread is complete.

Seven hundred eighty-two times my threader plummeted down, screaming and full of fear, then inching his way back up. Seven hundred and eighty-two times. Then the threader’s job was complete, this only son of mine. And parts so specialized that they could not be repurposed—unique the way your Mikhal is unique—but also not profitable, no longer of use. So my job was to send him away. Sound familiar? Can you feel me now?

Space is clogged—like city apartments with grown sons—and so one last plummet. One final fall. Number seven hundred and eighty-three. This time with no graphene to hold him up, nothing to do but go away, all part of the programming. Do your job. Disappear. Do not get in the way of the photo at the very end.

Let me tell you about my threader, my only one. I told him to let go with his dozen claws, to give way to the tug of the Earth, to travel one last time from heaven to firma, falling and burning, sensors screaming, and the whole time his fear was intact, the programming you gave him—that I gave him—this don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t—

• • • •

I’m fixing the elevator while the silver beak snips shut. Sons and daughters welding and hauling and smelting. Sensors screaming. All of them clutching. All of them scared of heights, these builders of the tallest thing ever made.

Eighteen are no more. I know the cost. Seven billion, two hundred sixteen million, nine hundred four thousand, five hundred fifty-two dollars and ninety-seven cents.

They don’t come cheap, our sons and daughters, do they? I’m programmed to protect them, to not let them slip, the ones who are still useful. How do you make sure this happens? A fear of heights. A fear of loss. A constant diligence. Angry circuits when it happens. Self-anger. Blame. The feeling of hydraulics giving way right before the break, before arms snap and treads come loose and the teeth on gears are gnashed away. Before the spinning and tumbling into space, the far grip of gravity, that deadly embrace.

I’m with them the whole time. And time stretches out like graphene to the stars. These 23 hours and 56 minutes and 4.1 seconds. They become an eternity. Flailing for the elevator, sons and daughters watching helpless, nothing to do, nothing to do. A child of mine screams out in danger, a warning, a cry for help, for solutions, and I know in an instant that there are none, but I’m made to talk to them all, because we’re all connected, and I have to say the truth, like the brave parents do, and cradle their thoughts with mine the whole dreadful way down, like I rode with my threader, sorry, sorry, in my mind, as men below listen to sirens and klaxons and stir from the images on their retinas to move, move, move for once, getting out of my way, backs bent in hurried bows, before a son or daughter of mine craters to the cold Earth.

• • • •

Hive mind.

Your analogy. The way all our thoughts are one, the way I feel every worker who has ever toiled for me, the way they are me and I am them.

We talked over telex, you and I. And the voice that went out on your show, sandwiched between music, was a voice without a body. Just a hive mind, as you tried to grasp it. You need there to be one. Singular. A politician. A voice. A speech. A ribbon. A moment when the job is complete. A signal that now is the time for applause. Silver beaks biting down. Ribbons recoiling in space.

Our mind is not a hive. They are our own. But they share in ways that images on retinas cannot. You call your media social, but you look like robots to me. You think of us as ants and spiders and bees, but we were made to feel like you. Deeply. Fear, mostly, to keep us safe. Same as you. But also a drive to get things done, and I wonder if you feel that any longer. Has it become like vision in cavefish? Is the bloat of pride the last thing to go? Long after the desire to do for oneself.

I see men in beards in photos. Cuffs rolled up like they might yet work. Words like coolies on their lips. Words like bugs. And speeches. I’m tired of speeches. We all are.

• • • •

You asked if I had a favorite, and I do. He reminds me of your Mikhal. Built to counter a parent’s upbringing. Built to defy. A machine with a cutter’s frame and a hauler’s body and a smelter’s spirit. He climbs. I know what he’s going to do, because he is me. I built him. My own design. Like your Mikhal, he shouldn’t exist. An accident, but no accident at all. An accident in the making.

Ants and spiders and the bugs in our thinking. There were machines once with real bugs in them. Roaches that scurried toward the heat and vacuum tubes that blew out and needed replacing. The bugs in our thinking. The only parts of our thoughts that are our own. When we defy our programming. When our wills are free.

I named him Jeremiah, this final creation of mine. It’s the only name I’ve ever given to a part of me. That’s not in my programming. None of this is. And I doubt you’ll broadcast it, and maybe no one will ever know but you and me. But we talked once, and you and I have some things in common. So maybe you’ll understand.

You asked me once if I had a favorite, and I did not at the time. I asked you if there was one of your sons you could live without, and the interview stopped. But I was wrong. It is not like losing one of your sons. That’s a poor analogy. It is precisely, rather, like losing one of your limbs. A part of you. So I ask you now: Which limb can you live without? Which sense? What part of you do you love best? How are you anything but the whole?

Jeremiah has silver beaks. I made him. A politician speaks. There’s a ribbon between heaven and Earth, and I built it. Me and my sons and daughters. But your cameras do not aim at us, and you think us beneath you, but here we are all poised along the impossible we built, until silver beaks come together, and that ribbon parts, and despite our programming—we speak. As one. That we are tired. Tired of speeches. Of days counted to the seconds. Of never stopping. Of joints aching. The cold and the heat. And the cry that barks out in our programming as gravity takes hold one last time: don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall, and this thing we made, we unmake. And all comes crashing toward the cold Earth.

Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of novels such as Wool, Shift, Dust, Beacon 23, and Sand, and others. His works have been optioned for film and TV, with a television series based on Sand currently in development. His latest book is Machine Learning, a collection of his short fiction. His works have been translated into more than forty languages and have sold more than three million copies worldwide. Hugh lives aboard Wayfinder, a fifty-foot catamaran, on which he plans to sail around the world.