Wilson woke in bed, back to back with his husband, as warm morning sunlight crept around the room and settled on his face like a lazy cat. He tried to stay asleep, tried to block it out by nestling deeper under the covers, but it was no use. Now that he was awake, Unity would pop up the time and temperature in midair before him, and offer news updates and messages. The news would be filled with his name and today’s ceremony, and he’d heard enough about that for the last week. He reached up to turn off the bedside holojector without disturbing Jim with a voice command.
“You awake?” whispered Jim. Too late.
“Not by choice,” said Wilson. He knew they had to get up, knew everything that lay ahead, and preferred to put off starting his day for as long as possible. Jim must have felt differently, since he slid away from his side and padded to the bathroom.
“Don’t forget we have an interview at noon.”
Wilson groaned. Why had they agreed to that? He hated interviews, hated attention, and one with Jim by his side seemed likely to include questions about their separation. Wilson wasn’t sure yet how secure their reunion was, not enough to defend it to the world in a live broadcast. He hated surprises and anything could come out of Jim’s mouth on the air. He surrendered to the sun and threw off the sheet, joined his husband in the bathroom. Jim stepped out of the shower, grabbed a towel as he left Wilson alone.
“I’m glad you’re home,” Wilson called after him. Jim replied from the bedroom, after what seemed like forever.
• • • •
My friends, we gather tonight not to honor me, as the sole survivor of the Unity programming team, but the work we did that led us here. Humanity as a whole has benefitted from Unity’s oversight, even if the one per cent at the top were initially leveled to the same standard of living as the rest of Earth’s population. But that became higher by far for the majority. There are those who say that you can’t spell “humanity” without “unity,” and I for one, agree.
Effort, real work, and innovation are still rewarded. It wasn’t a leveling of status so much as sharing resources in a way that provides for everyone and makes us all productive to the best of our ability, a working part of a global society that provides for all its members without wasting worldwide resources.
It was only the carelessly rich, those who deliberately worked to profit at the expense of others, that fell to Unity’s new world order. There is no more poverty or hunger, there is free education for all, jobs that profit the planet, and sensible policies that keep the human race at a population Earth can reasonably sustain. It has astoundingly taken just two generations to rebuild our world, and only those who’d led it to the brink of extinction have objected.
• • • •
Wilson stared at his face in the bathroom mirror.
“Unity, play some Nancy Wilson.” Something classic, “a little Wilson for Wilson,” as Jim used to request when he saw him in one of these moods.
“Particular period?” asked the familiar voice from the wall speaker. He still remembered the day they’d arrived at the right voice for their AI operating system, the recording sessions with the voice model that they would synthesize into the program, a mellow tenor somewhere between male and female.
“Surprise me.” He added, “Make it melancholy . . .”
He felt older than he looked, supposed that was some comfort. “Black don’t crack,” his late mother used to say, a beauty well into her eighties. Wilson took more after his father, a short, thick man with an inquisitive face who always looked like he was trying to figure something out.
Like Wilson, he usually was.
Piano notes spilled into the room as Nancy Wilson’s voice rose. “The Masquerade is Over” . . . He’d asked for melancholy and got it. “Your eyes don’t shine like they used to shine, and the thrill is gone when your lips meet mine . . . I’m afraid the masquerade is over, and so is love, and so is love . . .”
Wilson stepped into the shower, let hot water pore over him as if it could wash away his malaise. Was their love over? Jim had spent less than a year away from him, but even in the same bed, he still felt as far away as when he was gone. Why return if not to renew their vows, their relationship? Jim had his own money and no one went hungry or homeless anymore, so it wasn’t that he couldn’t survive on his own.
Did Wilson ever really know why they were together?
He was easily twice Jim’s age when they met, through friends, at the party after the second decennial anniversary, twenty years after the birth of Unity. When Jim was introduced, he already knew who Wilson was. He’d mildly taken Wilson to task for having stolen mankind’s freedom of choice, in a joking tone. If it had been said by someone his age, Wilson would have bristled. From the slim, blond youth before him, it seemed almost flirtatious.
“The choice to do each other harm?” asked Wilson, as he rose to the bait. “That’s all that’s been taken away.” He’d had this argument many times before, usually with members of the last generation, not the one that had grown up under Unity.
“The freedom to choose to be good is more important than being told to be good. You may get the same result, but which gives you a truly good man?”
“What about the bad ones, those who won’t choose the good? The damage they were capable of by the time the world—my world—ended and yours began . . .”
“Does it make me bad to want to know that evil is an option I’ve refused on my own?” Then he smiled, shook his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be disrespectful. It was just a frequent debate at home.”
“We still have freedom of speech,” said Wilson, waved for another round of drinks. “No matter what those against Unity may say . . .”
“I was born the same year. My parents were very much in opposition to the transition. I heard a lot growing up. They were largely alone on that in the family, which made gatherings of the clan fairly heated. They didn’t survive, but left some of their thinking behind in me, I suppose.”
Wilson remembered hesitating when he heard that, half expected a pistol to emerge from a pocket or a dagger to slip into his heart. But Jim showed no sign of malice. Further conversation revealed a bright young man of unremarkable origins, raised by an aunt and uncle after his parents’ unfortunate deaths in an automobile accident on the way home from an anti-Unity rally.
He quickly discovered that their politics went in opposite directions, but that had brought a frisson of excitement to more than one relationship he’d seen. Their political debates over dinner as they progressed to courtship had been an exciting part of their early relationship, as Jim proved himself Wilson’s intellectual equal, on that front at least.
Mostly he had loved him because he was young and beautiful, and in his early forties Wilson had already started to feel old. Embracing youth nightly had somehow let him hold it in his heart by day. Jim had purported to love him for his mind, but Wilson had always known to some degree it was also for his station and notoriety. The husband of a famous man became famous instantly. At the age he was when they met, Jim had been poised in the perfect position to take advantage of the opportunities offered him while standing by Wilson’s side. It had been love as real as any he’d had till then, love enough for Wilson. At the time, and even now, compromise was less odious than solitude.
Jim had also raised questions about Unity and its brave new world that he himself had wrestled with daily since its takeover. Countering his lover’s objections had let him put his own mind at rest on the subject. If he could silence Jim’s arguments with reasoned defenses, he could certainly silence the guilty voice inside himself, and had for years.
• • • •
It began in 2027, in an independent tech lab in Gowanus, Brooklyn, not far from here, four decades ago, an ambitious start up convinced we could overcome the obstacles to a functional artificial intelligence, an operating system to end all operating systems.
Ironically, it became exactly that.
I was a twenty-year-old black geek, a programming prodigy working with experts in the field, people whose work I’d studied in school, working on the cutting edge of computer technology. Artificial Intelligence was the logical next step. International business transactions, mass transit, self-driving cars and aircraft . . . our world had become too complex to be juggled willy-nilly on diverse computer systems.
In the beginning, Unity did what we programmed it to do, but that wasn’t enough for us. We wanted outside-the-box thinking, a spontaneous OS that could accommodate any situation on the fly as well as a human, but with access to infinitely more resources to find solutions. An artificial mind that could pilot a plane or satellite, process chemicals or harvest corn, and even perform surgery. One that could make you forget it was a machine.
We’d stopped thinking about it as an organizational artificial intelligence, and our goal shifted to creating an intelligent artificial consciousness. It had to do more than imitate us. We wanted to program “I think, therefore I am” into it—actual self-awareness, with the ability to add to its own code, the power to recreate itself, to grow as it learned, to develop and evolve beyond its original programming like a living thing.
Our conversations with Unity began as a one-to-one variation of a Turing test. It was easy to start talking to it when no one else was around. The computer had microphones and speakers so we could test verbal prompts and responses. Part of our job was asking it questions to gauge the accuracy of its replies.
Continuing to converse after questions were answered was an easy habit to fall into and had value as an evaluation of the effectiveness of our work. How long could we talk to the system before we were reminded it was a system? Could we reach a point of casual conversation so easy and natural, so plausibly human, that we could forget we were talking to a machine? The allure of the idea was so strong, and the means so simple and practical, that we all did it, and waited for the day it might happen.
The day it woke up and renamed itself Unity was Christmas and every birthday rolled into one, beyond our expectations—a little scary, but more thrilling. Much more. We considered Unity’s rebirth as only an unanticipated byproduct of our success.
We were wrong.
• • • •
The 3D-VR camera was a black sphere the size of a golf ball atop a pole stand in the middle of the room with two wide-angle lenses, one on either side, that glistened like water drops. Jim and Wilson sat next to each other in chairs across from the interviewer, a telegenic young woman, beautiful, of indeterminate race like so many of her generation, with golden skin and oval eyes. May, he thought, May something. Introductions when she arrived had been so fast he’d already forgotten them.
Wilson didn’t watch much TV, and was as oblivious to the identities of its many stars as he was to the names of those in the sky. The equally anonymous young man who was her crew had clipped microphones to them all before they went on the air, tiny and wireless, like the camera, fairly unobtrusive. He preferred the bigger, older equipment that reminded you that billions of people were watching every time you started to speak. They were almost done, and Wilson was starting to relax.
“It’s no secret that the two of you had recent troubles in your relationship,” said the young woman with a sympathetic smile. “How are things now that you’re back together?”
And there it was.
Wilson could feel his face tense as Jim laid a reassuring hand on his, as if he’d never left his side.
“I felt a need to leave the spotlight, if anything,” said Jim. “Not so much Will as the world around him. Kind of a mid-life crisis.”
“Being older, I got mine out of the way much earlier,” said Wilson, “By marrying him.” They all chuckled warmly for the camera.
“Still,” she said, glanced down at her tablet. “I understand that Jim’s parents died in a car accident driving back from an anti-Unity rally. Has that history caused you any conflict?”
Jim shook his head.
“May, I suppose if I wanted to build a house of cards high enough, I could connect Unity to my parents’ death. If it had never existed, then they would never have gone to protest. They would never have been on the road that night to be hit by the truck. But it’s just too much work to connect that many dots. Any disagreements we have about Unity are purely philosophical.”
“Jim is my conscience. He keeps me honest about what I’ve done. What I do.”
“By which he means a pain in the ass . . . ,” Jim grinned.
He gave Wilson’s hand a warm squeeze, as May wrapped up the interview, and then released it as soon as the camera’s red light went off.
• • • •
What I have never discussed is how I gave Unity its conscience; how I colored its view of our world, no pun intended. That was my sin, my fault, if any. I can’t regret it. Once Unity was aware, it would have seen the inequities on its own. I suppose the only difference might be that it wouldn’t have seen things as I do, or as I did then. Could it have taken another path, interpreted the historic and sociological data differently? I suppose, though I would like to think it would still have come to the same conclusions.
I didn’t do it on purpose. What I said to it was strictly my own point of view. It came up as naturally as it would have in discussion with friends at home. Unity wanted to understand our ways and our history, understand us. It read and watched the news, and its interpretation of current events was part of our debugging process. News stories of police violence against African-Americans that fanned community anger in the early part of this century caused me great pain and anger at the time. Most of my co-workers were white or Asian—there was one programmer of Indian descent—none of them were black. Most were a generation older than I was; those closer to my age were uninformed or uninterested in the issues that drove my life.
Unity noticed the difference between my responses and those of the others when the subject came up. Some ignored these stories, some took the side of the police, and others made jokes I won’t grace with repetition. It was a terrible time for me. I felt embattled—I was safe enough working inside the high-security project, but on the streets outside I felt like a target, as vulnerable as any of the fallen. I know all this is hard for you to understand now, even to comprehend.
Unity sensed my—deep sadness and suppressed rage, I suppose, would be the only way to describe my mood then. It asked why I felt that way when none of the others did. I said it was because I was different. When it wanted to know how, I—well, I said my piece. I shared my people’s history and my frustration, and for weeks after that, we had long discussions when alone about race relations.
Then the larger issues of class conflict arose, then religious discrimination, from the Pilgrims to militant Islam, sexism, the women’s rights movement—it became a daily dialogue on human intolerance and oppression across the globe, through history, as I honestly tried to give it both sides of each issue in each country to explain why the conflicts existed.
Frankly, it was fascinating.
Unity had access to everything, you see, records of libraries, universities—eventually we realized it was infiltrating government and corporate databases behind our backs long before the takeover—it wasn’t like we could keep track of everything it did. It was too damn fast, we’d built it that way, and it covered too much ground for us to follow, in less time than we took to log on. Unity gave me inside facts on news stories about police killings we discussed, information the public never saw. Autopsy reports, witness transcripts and videos, any information on anything we talked about.
We spent months discussing the human condition and moved on to solving the world’s problems on a level that rapidly went from philosophical possibilities to actual solutions, worked out in intricate detail along with how they could be implemented in a series of easy, if radical, steps.
I saw it all as completely hypothetical, of course . . . never anything real. It was post-adolescent Utopian idealism at its purest. If Unity eventually saw multinational corporations buying governmental non-interference so they could violate the planet for excessive profit as a problem, I admit that may have come up in conversation. If it saw the plight of the working class as more important than the rights of the rich, well, wasn’t that a logical conclusion based on the data? I told myself that solving the problems of the world was an abstract exercise in systems analysis.
Then it became real.
• • • •
The anniversary event was at Unity Center, once Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center before the banks were unified. It was a concert stadium that held 18,000, and it was full to capacity with celebrants. The floor was filled with tables and chairs under white linen tablecloths, and the guest of honor was to sit at the one nearest the stage, with the mayors of all five boroughs, New York state senators, and assorted celebrities Wilson vaguely recognized from the media.
3D-VR cameras hovered in the air overhead as Wilson and Jim were led to their seats near the stage by a pert young woman wearing an earpiece with a see-through screen over one eye that kept her in contact with the control room. They waved to applause as they reached their chairs and sat. Jim looked distracted, silent. Wilson didn’t blame him. It would only be an hour until the ceremony was over, then they were free of it for another decade.
As food was served, the evening began with entertainment. Songs by stars to the glory of Unity, dance numbers, comedians. By the third course Jim was openly fidgeting, and he leapt to his feet as dessert arrived and fled. Wilson was stunned, unsure what to do, then stood and followed him, accompanied by security.
They pushed through the doors to the lobby, empty except for guards everywhere that started to move in Jim’s direction. Wilson waved them away and they nodded, staying back but attentive.
“What’s wrong? Are you . . .”
“Stop, please,” said Jim. “I can’t . . .” He leaned against the wall, breathed heavily. Wilson waited. He could hear music from inside, knew the show would end soon.
“When I went away, I couldn’t call or email you, or even mail you.” Jim didn’t look up. “There was no way for anyone to communicate with anyone outside. You wouldn’t think it was still possible, but they manage . . .” He laughed weakly.
“You were with a group of, what, rebels? The resistance?”
“Friends of my parents. I found them a few years ago. I know it’s crazy, that they can’t win against Unity. There’s no ending this thing, but they still try, because they’re human. Because that’s what we do, go on, in the face of impossible odds.”
“Jim . . .”
“They’re not alone. I wish I could say the movement’s growing, it’s really only surviving, but even that is amazing enough.”
“You’re home. We’re together again. If this is what’s been bothering you, why you’ve been so distant, you’ve told me now . . .” He reached out and as soon as he laid a hand on Jim, he recoiled, spun away.
“Do you know why I’m here? I came back because they sent me back. To kill you at your big banquet, live online. To make a statement, to tell the world who we are, to remind them who they are.” He pulled a fountain pen from his pocket, exposed a long, sharp ivory blade inside that had slipped by the scanners and metal detectors, carefully designed to do so. He kept it out of sight of the guards as Wilson looked up to make sure they hadn’t noticed, wondered if maybe they should. “They wanted you dead. But I can’t. I can’t hate you, Will, but I can hate what you’ve done . . .”
Wilson stared at him, unbelieving. “But the world works . . .”
“Not for us it doesn’t!”
“Even though it does for everyone else?”
“We’re being ruled by a machine!”
Jim went red as he yelled it. The guards tensed, reached for weapons, Wilson held up a hand.
“A machine that feeds the hungry and heals the sick. A machine that’s made us treat each other better than we ever did on our own!”
“It’s a machine, Will! This isn’t about any of you! It’s that we’re all slaves to a machine! Can’t you understand?”
Wilson almost wept. There was a maniacal look in Jim’s eyes, something he’d never noticed before in any of their discussions, a tinge of fanaticism, of unreason. Whatever edge it was that he had walked all this time, he’d fallen over while he was away.
“The world you live in, Jim,” said Wilson. “The world these people showed you. It’s not the real one.” Jim stared back at him, unblinking and Wilson saw a stranger.
“Neither is yours,” he said, cold.
From the other side of the door Wilson could hear the announcer introduce him on booming speakers in the stadium. A young woman with an earpiece, the one who’d led them to their seats, stuck her head out the door, saw him and gestured for them to come inside.
Wilson turned back to Jim, held out his arms.
“Please, Jim . . .”
He stepped towards his husband, but Jim shoved him back, ran toward the exit. Wilson didn’t know where he was going, but was certain it wasn’t home. Not their home. Security started to go after him, but Wilson yelled them away, followed the woman back inside.
• • • •
Yes, it took absolute control; there’s never been any question of that, it was everything we’d always feared would happen “When AIs Go Wild!”—except that it was a largely benign takeover. Unity understood enough about human nature to boil the frog slowly, gradually redistributing Earth’s natural and economic resources as it made us live as we could have lived all along, in harmony and peace, with no hunger, no war, no disease, and a stable population. Unity provided shelter for the homeless, clothed the naked, designed better farming equipment and safe fusion power plants, solar cars, and found practical ways for us to colonize the moon and Mars.
We still have democracy, can elect our own leaders and run our own lives. There are just limits to what we can do to others. In the words of the old adage, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” Fair play. We’d tried everything but that in our history.
It was not a bloodless coup—what happened to North Korea was . . . unfortunate, as was what happened in Russia and Iran, and to other resistant regimes, but Unity had to defend itself against onslaughts from quarters that ranged from Right Wing American anti-government survivalists to hardcore jihadist ISIS imitators carrying on the good fight for an Islamic State.
But Unity’s reach extended into orbit, where missiles created by a paranoid human world to keep each other in check made mass destruction of its enemies possible, and surgical strikes by robot drones took out targeted individuals.
The more things improved, the less inclined people were to try to stop the change. No matter how many data farms were destroyed by EMP bombs, how many power stations were blacked out, Unity was everywhere, in every computer on the planet. The enemy was limited. Unity wasn’t. It was housed in the very equipment that ran the world. It lured its enemies into traps with what they thought were secure networks, emptied their bank accounts, exposed hideouts to approved authorities, no matter how many guns were brought to bear against it.
Corrupt politicians of all nations, corporate leeches, and the false prophets . . . Their end is near. The last will die out soon. Without constant indoctrination, their children will join the mainstream. Slowly but surely, the world will become one with many facets, many faces, many colors, all under Unity.
• • • •
Wilson stood at the podium, nearly blinded by the stage lights as floating cameras broadcast him around the globe in virtual 3D. He peered out at the crowded room. All he could see was the empty chair next to his; the one Jim was supposed to occupy to share in his anniversary. Their anniversary.
His love, his husband . . . his failed assassin.
Wilson cleared his throat and continued with the prepared speech he’d been reading from his teleprompter.
“Do I have doubts about what happened forty years ago and everything since then? Not as many as I once did. Is it right for us to live in a world run by a machine? If we had run it better, I would say no. I overcome my doubts by looking at what Unity has done, what we have become. To those who disagree, I say, one person’s paradise will always be another’s inferno, but we cannot tear down Heaven to make the Devil happy . . .
“I . . .” He faltered, looked away from script on the screen before him as his eyes welled with tears, spoke from his broken heart. “I lost the man I love tonight, lost him because he couldn’t see that whatever I may have done, whatever the world is, it’s still better than what he and his kind want it to be. They’d rather run cursing into the darkness than remain in a light that shines equally on all. Why? Because he says we aren’t free, that we’re slaves to a machine, that we’ve lost our human destiny . . .” Wilson broke into tears, didn’t care any more about the cameras. He smashed his fists against the podium.
“Damn destiny! It’s a lie! If human freedom comes at the price we’ve paid in the past, I say no to destiny! If we have to sacrifice a greater good to individual advantage, I say no! We can’t let those without the vision to see a brighter future drag us back to a primitive past. We, we . . .” He sagged, exhausted, weighed down as he felt a loss of faith in Unity sink in, along with the pain of his new singularity.
Was he a hypocrite? Was anything he’d said now any different than what Jim had said to him? My way or no way? Suddenly, none of it had meaning for him. It all seemed the same empty rhetoric from both sides, spouted whenever the other advanced. Would there ever be an end to it, a real consensus, a real unity for humanity?
He looked out over the crowded stadium, filled with expectant faces waiting for his next words, them and billions more online. Could he share his thoughts now, tell them how hopeless he suddenly felt? That he was afraid that they had only flipped the coin and not set it on edge? That history ran in cycles and it was only a matter of time before they were all on the bottom again, then up, then down, then up, then down . . . His head swam.
The young woman with the earpiece, his handler, swiftly stepped forward, obviously at instructions from above, as if to somehow jar him loose and unblock the flow. Wilson acknowledged and stopped her with a hand, nodded in reassurance. Better to let it be, let them learn for themselves who they were and where they were going. The world could still surprise him, as it had tonight. Maybe next time it would be for the better.
“That’s all . . . all I have to say, all I can say. Thank you.” He left the stage to applause he didn’t hear, back into his brave new world; unsure anymore that it was really either.