[Message Contains No Recognizable Symbols]: Reality Copyright © Bill Hibbard 2010
[Message Contains No Recognizable Symbols]: Reality
Bump in the Night
"Laszlo," Megan was shaking me, "wake up. There's something bumping against the house."
I had been dreaming about being on a long, hopeless journey in search of something - couldn't remember what - and was coming out of it slowly.
"Laszlo," she repeated more urgently, "it sounds like an animal is climbing the house."
I sat up and listened. There was a certain bump, bump, bump. Then we heard a loud bump, followed immediately by, "Oops."
I jumped out of bed, put my clothes on as fast as I could, grabbed the flashlight, and ran downstairs and out the back door. Shining the light up at the back of the house I saw a man with a foot on top of a second floor window, his left arm hanging onto the gutter, and his torso and right arm stretched onto the roof. "Hey," I yelled, "come down. What are you doing up there?"
"Is that you Laszlo?" a voice called.
My God, it was Bogus.
"Sorry to wake you," he continued.
"Bogus," I yelled, "climb down before you fall down. You're going to get hurt."
Megan emerged from the house looking sleepy.
"It's Bogus," I told her.
She was speechless with disgust.
"Perhaps you should go back to bed," I suggested to her. "I'll handle this and keep him quiet."
She disappeared without a word.
I remembered the ladder in the garage, so brought it out, leaned it against the house and raised it till it was right next to Bogus. "Here," I called, "get onto this ladder and come down."
He did so.
"Why were you climbing our house?" I demanded.
"I needed to pee and thought it would be fun to pee off your roof," he answered. "It seemed like such a good idea, but now it seems kind of dumb."
"Sorry to wake you up. That never occurred to me."
"How drunk are you?" I asked.
To answer, he simply fell backward and landed with a thud. "Didn't hurt a bit," he bragged. "That's how drunk." With a tone of sincere concern he asked, "Did I wake Megan?"
"Yeah, she heard you and woke me up. She came out here and when she saw it was you, she went back in."
"She hates me," he said, getting up off the ground.
"And whose fault is that?" I asked as I lowered the ladder. He looked sheepish. "Bogus," I suggested, "why don't you go home to bed."
"Birds aren't singing yet," he objected. "I always wait until I hear the birds singing at first light."
"Well then, go home and wait for the birds to start singing. Some of us need to sleep because we have to work in the morning."
"Wait for the birds to start singing," he repeated. "That's a great idea. I'll hear the first note of the first bird." Drunken logic, I thought.
"Yeah," I encouraged him. "You'd better hurry or you might miss the first bird."
"You're patronizing me, trying to get rid of me."
"Yes," I agreed. "Go home, Bogus. I'll talk with you tomorrow."
He went and I put the ladder back on its hangers in the garage.
Too bad there's such friction between the two people closest to me. Megan is my wife and salvation, an MD specializing in infectious diseases at the University Hospital. Bogus Band is my oldest friend from childhood, an Internet confidence artist, brilliant thinker, malcontent and, in all fairness, often quite a jerk. So naturally I went to see him the next evening after he climbed our house.
He offered me a beer. After taking a drink I said, "I may not last long. I'm short on sleep after some drunken idiot woke me up last night climbing my house."
"Sorry about that."
"Well, it's OK by me, but I suggest that you stay away for a while."
"She's pretty sore?" Bogus asked, referring to Megan.
"Give her time, hence the advice to stay away."
"OK. Hey I read your latest story, the one supposedly written by me."
Before getting into a conversation about my story, I should introduce myself: Laszlo Wilkes, a system administrator protecting the geniuses at the university from Internet predators like Bogus. I also write stories about the singularity, which is that magic moment when computers will exceed human intelligence. I was anxious to hear Bogus's opinion of my new story, so I asked hopefully, "What do you think?"
"Well, I could tell it wasn't written by me. But I have to admire your courage, to write about events post-singularity."
"I figured the only way was for you to avoid contact with Mystery Meat, as far as possible."
"But Laszlo," he said, "my reaction to all your stories is that they are just fairytales."
"Well of course," I replied to his accusation. "They're fiction."
"I mean," he explained patiently, "they don't depict events as they will happen in reality."
"No one can do that," I objected. "That's the whole point about the singularity, that far from predicting what super brains will say and do, human authors can't even write a possible scenario. My stories," I went on with some warmth, "are mostly about making that point."
"Yes," he said, "you've got that part right. But your depictions of the human events leading up to the singularity are fairytales and don't have to be. For example, your hedge fund called Episcopalian Jihad developing AI in total secrecy and then springing it on the world. That's not reality. And Helpers Corporation, selling home robots and run by kindly old Cubs fan Mr. Edo, that's not much better."
"OK," I challenged him, "how should I depict events leading up to the singularity?"
"They're going to be messy. There will be the whole gamut of human motives and emotions interacting. It's going to be intensely political."
"My 'the movie' story discussed the politics of Helpers Corporation," I objected.
"But it was one-dimensional, the actions of a benevolent corporation to head off any possible criticism. In the real world lots of corporations behave very badly indeed until public outrage forces politicians to restrain them, and even then the corporations fight back hard by contributions to politicians and by exploiting popular resentments and prejudices. Given how high the stakes will be in the singularity, the political fight will be intense."
"OK," I agreed, "but my original story depicts a hedge fund wiping out humanity for their own selfish motives."
"Again," Bogus objected, "one-dimensional. Your story is about the actions of a single corporation and without any public reaction, since the public doesn't even know the singularity is happening."
"So you want a great sprawling novel with hundreds of characters and a chaotic plot, sort of like the singularity meets War and Peace?"
"You could do that. But at least describe a public debate about the issue. You got one big thing right with your Helpers: the public is going to be exposed to semi-intelligent machines before we get to the true singularity. And this will spark considerable comment. We're already seeing jobless recoveries and structural unemployment that will grow into a world where computers do all the work."
"My story addressed that," I protested, "when Helpers Corporation offered to support anyone put out of work by its machines."
"But it won't be so simple," Bogus replied. "It won't be a single corporation putting everyone out of work, and certainly not run by a benevolent old Cubs fan. There's lots of opposition to the US becoming a European-style welfare state, there's lots of opposition to redistribution, and 'socialist' is still a dirty word. Financial support for those put out of work by computers is only going to come from a hard, nasty political fight."
"OK," I agreed.
"And that's really the simplest of the political issues around machine intelligence," Bogus stated. He was getting pretty animated. "When the technology exists to increase people's intelligence, then your IQ will depend on what size brain you can afford. When the ten richest people in the world have a conversation, you won't have the brain power to understand the language they speak. You won't be able to understand the big public policy issues, let alone have any voice in them."
"Yes," I said slowly. "Radical inequality. Will the public see the prospect of radical inequality in machine intelligence? How will that issue play politically?"
"The proponents of inequality - those who have more than others - have often framed the issue in terms of some despised group wanting equality with those in the power base. Or they've framed it in terms of 'we worked hard, so we deserve to have more'."
"But you know," I answered, "that does make sense. It's what makes the free market work so efficiently."
"You know better than that, Laszlo. With artificial intelligence, efficiency isn't going to be the problem. Productivity per human hour of work will be practically infinite."
"Much as I'm enjoying this discussion," I interrupted, "I've got to go home and go to sleep."
"Just think about it, before you write your next story."
"I will," I said, "if you'll promise not to come by my house drunk again," and added for emphasis, "you creep."
The Seven Deadly Sins
Megan and I both work to make the world a better place, she curing people's diseases and I manning the barricades against on-line evil doers. Bogus is working to make the world a worse place. He makes his living preying on people's weaknesses, exploiting their lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. In spite of that, he is my friend.
"Lust is easy," he liked to brag. "I make money selling Internet porn." When his dad died Bogus took truckloads of antique porn and ammunition out of his parent's basement, and he was now recycling the porn on his web site. Much of it has a certain charm, such as magazines full of innocent pictures of girls in polka dot bikinis. And there's a fair amount of Bettie Page-style kinkiness.
Bogus also recycles a large number of truly shocking images that he harvested from Usenet during the 1990s, that are devoid of charm. He posts free samples to lure users in, and then requires them to pay for access to more. This brings him money, but equally important it enables him to exploit security holes in his users' computers to get control of their systems. Just as lust draws folks into incautious behaviors resulting in bodily infections, it also draws them into infections of their computers.
Bogus has accumulated access to thousands of systems that he uses to run AI chatbots that create the illusion of on-line communities. These then become adoring legions of fans for his clients.
"Pride is the most underrated sin," he told me once. "Evolution made us care deeply what others think of us, and that is ripe for exploitation. Human pride is the source of so much misery." His clients come to him to promote their music, writing, art and any other creations on-line. He explained further, "If you've just spent two years writing your great novel and the publishers all hate it, but then you post it on the Internet and start getting emails from hundreds of people who just love it, well, that's hard to resist. It's not difficult for an AI chatbot to pass the Turing test when the subject matter is how wonderful the Turing tester's creative works are. The tester's judgment will be impaired."
"They might even be happy to send you money," I replied.
"All major credit cards accepted," he said with a smirk. "The hard part is the captchas intended to keep my chatbots out of social web sites. Every so often I'll sit in front of my computer and answer a thousand of them in order for my chatbots to create accounts."
"Is it worth your time?" I asked.
"Absolutely," he said. "I make a lot of money from my on-line promotions."
"What about greed? That must be lucrative."
"Sure it is. How many emails have you gotten offering to give you a share of thirty million dollars if you'll only provide details of your bank account as a conduit for getting the money out of Nigeria or wherever? But those scams have to operate outside the U.S."
"Yeah," I agreed, "not worth the risk of prison."
"Gluttony isn't very interesting," he continued. "The margins are too low, like in the restaurant and grocery businesses. Some people are willing to commit suicide by overeating, but there's no logic that leads them to send me wads of cash."
"What about the others," I asked, "sloth, wrath and envy?"
"Some people make money from wrath using racist web sites. But I don't want to get involved with those folks. I'd love to take their money, but they're seriously crazy and dangerous. I make some money from sloth, selling fake term papers to college students. The trick is to run a real term paper through an AI paraphraser to make it harder for teachers to detect."
"'Thou shalt not covet' is the most difficult commandment," he explained. "Envy just comes so naturally. Not sure how I'd make money from it, though."
"What about other sins? Other than the deadly ones?" I asked.
"There's always religion," he answered.
"Religion? Since when is religion a sin?"
He laughed, happy to disillusion me. "Seen any good TV preachers lately? They love to scare the pants off you with impending doom and then offer salvation if you'll just send them a nice fat check. Have you seen what's-his-name selling food canisters for the impending social collapse?"
I ignored his question and said, "You could make money with Internet religion." Then I had a flash of inspiration and exclaimed, "You could start a religion to save people from evil AIs. You could call it the Church of the Singularity."
"No," Bogus replied, "the whole idea is to inspire confidence. The word 'church' will scare off people interested in the singularity and the word 'singularity' will scare off people traditionally interested in church. Forget the church people in any case. You want secular people. It's got to have a technical sounding name, to get people to contribute their confidence and ultimately their money."
"So you should do it. You could promote your Singularity What's It and live off the contributions, all the while preaching the final AI doom with yourself as the only savior."
"It's been done," he answered curtly.
"It has?" I asked incredulously. I had never heard of such a thing.
"Sure, the Reverend Bayes. AI will destroy us all and only he can save us. Politics is futile and all the academic AI researchers are useless. The only way to save the world is to send your money to the good Reverend. A classic cult of personality."
"Oh yeah," I replied, remembering.
"Makes me feel like a saint, merely selling porn," he observed.
"That reminds me," I asked, "Did your mom know about all the porn in the basement?"
"Probably," he answered. "I don't remember her ever going into my dad's shop and she hated it when visitors went down there. A lot of the porn dates from well before Jack and I were born. Maybe when they were first married she found some of his porn. That would have disgusted her, and she was disgusted with him from as early as I can remember. They had a vicious argument every night over dinner."
"That can't have been much fun," I commented.
He merely continued his speculation, "Of course she would have been disgusted and angry after his suicide attempt and stay in the mental hospital."
I had never heard about this before, but didn't say anything.
"Do you know why he tried to kill himself?" he asked.
"No idea," I answered.
"He was the only child of a wealthy father and a doting mother, and once he had real babies then he couldn't be the baby of the family anymore. He couldn't stand that life."
"Yeah," I said, recalling his dad. "I remember his bad temper but never thought he was insane."
"He didn't have a classic mental health diagnosis. He was just so spoiled that he wound up in a mental hospital," Bogus replied. He went on, "These so-called deadly sins are nothing of the sort. Let me tell you about real sins. My having children would be a real sin. And you observe that I don't have any. I saw another sin when I was a kid. There was a family down the street, good Catholics. The mother was in and out of mental hospitals and finally killed herself. It was very hard on the young daughter. Her father remarried and the daughter couldn't get along with her stepmother, so they shipped the daughter off to live in some sort of institution. That was a real sin. Compared to it the seven deadly sins are merely bad habits."
Perhaps this is why Bogus has no shame about bilking people, that it's a mere bad habit. Megan says he a sociopath. But I trust him so perhaps he's a selective sociopath.
Bogus keeps Christmas decorations up all year, as a twisted protest against both religion and environmentalists. But he turns them off on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This gives him a reputation as somewhat of a character in the city. You'd think someone involved in so many scams would keep a low profile, but apparently he has such contempt for the intelligence of his fellow men that he doesn't worry about it.
"We're having company?" I asked, noting three places set at the dinner table.
"Margaret from the hospital," Megan answered. "I think you met her a couple years ago, at a hospital picnic."
"Was she one of the nice ones?" I asked suspiciously. There had been a couple folks at that picnic I didn't like.
"She's a real sweetheart."
"What does she do? Another doc?"
"No," Megan explained, "she's a nursing assistant working in infectious diseases."
"So what's the occasion? Or is she just a friend?"
"She is a friend," Megan asserted, "but she's coming over because she's unhappy. She's dating Bogus." Megan made it sound like a disease.
"Hey," I protested. "Let's not get mixed up in Bogus's love life."
"But she's so unhappy. She wants to ask us about Bogus."
"I've got an idea," I announced. "I could go out to dinner. I could go eat with Bogus. And ask him about Margaret. That would be a nice symmetry."
"No," she was insistent. "Anyway, you'll like her."
The doorbell rang and I said, "Saved by the bell."
Margaret was very pretty with brown hair and strong-looking legs, just what Bogus liked. After our hellos we went to sit in the kitchen.
"What would you like to drink?" I asked both of them. They settled on fizzy mineral waters with limes, and I had a beer.
We sat and drank in silence for a minute and then Megan said, "I told Laszlo that you're dating Bogus."
Margaret said, "Oh," and looked embarrassed.
"He knows Bogus better than anyone," Megan plunged on. "He can tell you that Bogus is a criminal and an alcoholic. Every woman he's ever dated has ended up miserable." She looked at me.
I thought this was unlike Megan, to put me on the spot like this. Her dislike for Bogus was warping her judgment.
I said in my friendliest tone, "I've known Bogus since grade school, Margaret. He's no saint but he treats me okay."
"Like waking us up at two AM to pee off our roof," Megan interjected.
I just laughed and then asked, "Margaret, has Bogus ever climbed your house?"
"No. I live in a room in Mrs. Hutson's house. She'd call the cops."
Megan put a platter of baked salmon in a cream and wine sauce with peppers on the table. She also set out a bowl of rice and we dug in. It was delicious.
As we ate I asked, "Margaret, do you want children?"
"Not now. I'm not sure. I know that Bogus isn't the guy to raise a family with, but we really have a good time together."
"There's more to life than a party," Megan asserted.
"I know. It's not just a party. He needs me."
"But Margaret," Megan objected, "You know how unhappy you've been."
"It's just that I never know when I'm going to see him. I think he sees other women."
"Of course he does," Megan said.
Margaret asked me, "Does he have other girlfriends?"
"I don't know," I answered. "He hasn't talked about women lately."
"But he's dated lots of women," Megan stated. "There have been dozens, we know that."
"Has he said anything about me?" Margaret inquired.
I answered, "No."
"He's drunk all the time," Megan said.
I said, "That reminds me of the time Bogus dressed up as a priest. Did he ever tell you about that Margaret?"
"Come on, Laszlo," Megan objected, "don't turn this evening into a series of stories of your drunken adventures."
I ignored her and continued, "Our friend Al had been a seminary student and still had his old collar and cassock. So one night on the way out to the bars, Bogus dressed up in it. Looked just like a priest." The thought of it made me laugh, and Margaret laughed a little too.
"Wait," I said, "this gets better. After a few hours Bogus was falling down drunk. We were at a place with a dance floor, and he's dancing with women and spending as much time on his butt as dancing."
Megan had heard this before and wasn't enjoying it, but I didn't feel like following her script.
"So about one AM we got hungry and decided to go to a gyros joint. When Bogus got to the front of the line, he realized that he was out of cash. So he asked the young guy behind the counter, probably from a small town in Greece where drunks don't dress up as priests, 'Can I write a check?' And the young guy says, 'Of course father.'"
I doubled up with laughter when I said this, and Margaret laughed too. Megan simply shook her head, but I could remember that she once found this story funny.
After a minute I said, "Being friends with Bogus saves me the trouble of being crazy myself."
"Look at this way," Megan said to Margaret, "there are two possibilities. One, Bogus will dump you and you'll be badly hurt. Two, we won't dump you and you'll spend your life with a mentally ill man who will probably become physically abusive as his alcoholism progresses."
I objected, "I don't believe that. Bogus isn't angry with women. He just loves women too much, or rather too many women too much."
"He makes his living preying on people's weaknesses," Megan accused.
"But he doesn't prey on my weaknesses," said Margaret. "It's the other way around. I nurse his weaknesses."
I thought, Margaret has real insight. But I also had to admit that Megan had a point, even if she carried it too far. So I told Margaret, "I doubt you can cure whatever's troubling him. As long as you're with him, he'll probably be the way he is now. Maybe age will mellow him, but it's hard to picture Bogus old."
The next evening I visited Bogus and told him Margaret had come to dinner. He just grunted so I said, "She seems like a very sweet person."
He replied curtly, "She lives upstairs from an old woman and her mother." Then he asked, "Can you drive me to the grocery? I'll cook something."
I was happy to give him a ride but when I saw him stagger into the Thrifty Mart I realized how drunk he was. He grabbed a cart and used it to steady himself, so he looked like any other tired after-work shopper.
"How about some stew?" he asked.
"Whatever you like," I replied. "I already ate dinner."
"Did you have dessert?"
"We'll get some pudding. You can have pudding while I eat stew."
So he picked up a can of stew and headed for the dessert aisle. But when he picked up a can of chocolate pudding, for some reason he started reading the label intently.
"This stuff is loaded with high fructose corn syrup," he complained. He put the can back and picked up a different pudding can and read its label. "This one is full of the stuff too."
"Don't worry about it," I said. "I don't need pudding."
"No," he said loudly, "you wanted pudding. I want pudding. We ought to be able to buy pudding that won't kill us."
"It's not worth the hassle," I replied.
"That's what everyone says, and that's why they get away with selling this garbage," he exclaimed. He grabbed one of the offending cans of pudding and headed towards the front of the store.
"No Bogus," I insisted as I tried to grab his sleeve.
He pulled away and said, "They can't get away with this." He walked up to the office and spoke to the woman at the counter, "This pudding is full of high fructose corn syrup. You're poisoning people selling this junk."
She looked like she'd already had a long day, but tried to calm him down. "Some of our customers like that pudding. But if you don't want it, then try one of our low calorie desserts."
"Bah," he replied. "I want to talk with the manager."
So she picked up the phone and spoke briefly, asking someone named Ted to come to the front.
In a minute a burly, harried, balding guy in white shirt and short tie walked up.
Bogus pushed the can of pudding at him and said, "This is full of high fructose corn syrup. You're killing your customers with this garbage. I want pudding with low fructose corn syrup."
"There is no such thing," he explained. "You don't have to buy this pudding if you don't like it."
"But you have a responsibility for the health of your customers," Bogus persisted. "You could develop low fructose corn syrup if you cared to. It's a conspiracy by big agribusiness."
"You need to leave the store," the manager said.
"Not until you tell me why you aren't developing low fructose corn syrup," Bogus practically yelled.
I thought this is getting out of hand and said, "Bogus, we've got to leave. Nothing good will come from this."
He turned to me and said, "Bah bah, run along little sheep." He turned back to the manager and said, "I'm not going anyplace until I get my answer."
The manager tried to grab him but Bogus sprang away lighting fast and faced the manager ready for combat. I looked at the manager and gave him a quick shake of my head 'no.'
He thought for a minute, then picked up the office phone and dialed a number. A few seconds later he said into the phone, "This is the Thrifty Mart on Grant. We've got an unruly customer who refuses to leave."
"Okay Bogus," I said, "we can leave now, or you can wait for the police and go to jail." He just stood there with his arms folded, the can of pudding in one hand.
After a few minutes of my urging him to leave, two cops walked in the door.
The manager pointed at Bogus and said, "This guy is making a disturbance and refuses to leave."
The cops faced Bogus.
Suddenly seeming sober and composed he said, "Hello officers. I'm President of the National Organization for Low Fructose Corn Syrup and simply wanted to know why this grocer isn't selling our product."
This made the manager angry, who said, "Nonsense. He's been making all sorts of crazy accusations and refuses to leave."
One of the officers said to Bogus, "They want you to leave, so you have to leave."
Bogus replied, "Certainly. I don't want any trouble." He set the can of pudding on the counter and started toward the door.
I looked at the manager and gave him a little shrug of sympathy, not wanting to banned from the Thrifty Mart. Then I followed Bogus out to the parking lot. Once we were driving down Grant Street he started laughing his head off.
"What's the matter with you?" I asked. "You created a crisis just for nothing. Are you still fourteen?"
"Don't worry," he said. "If this had been an actual emergency, you'd be dead by now."
"Okay, smart guy, but you still didn't get your dinner."
"Pull into that taco place, into the drive through. You want anything?"
"Let's see if they have pudding," I answered.
"You know what," he replied. "I'm going to use my chatbot network to create the National Organization for Low Fructose Corn Syrup. And it's going to target the Thrifty Mart with its on-line protests."
I was sure he meant it.
If Bogus is a Devil sitting on my left shoulder, then Megan is the angel on my right. In her work at the hospital every day she confronts human suffering and the unfairness to children whose only sin was to be born into poor families. She is disgusted with this and does what she can to improve it. In her view, society should alleviate suffering rather than further enriching those who already live in luxury.
Megan is a big supporter of and fundraiser for a local homeless shelter. She also donates to a variety of charities that help children on a national and international level. Despite how busy she is at the hospital she goes out of her way to help individual people in need. Even our dinner with Margaret was a small example of Megan trying to help someone she knows.
Her politics are pragmatic. If the Socialists had a snowball's chance, she would support them. But they don't, so she stays within the Democratic Party and supports its leftmost candidates.
About eight years ago our Republican congresscritter announced his retirement, generating a rare open seat and a flurry of candidates. One was a woman very active in childhood and health issues. Megan somehow found the time to volunteer on her campaign. She won and our district now boasts the only out lesbian in the congress.
During the years we've been married my politics have drifted gradually leftward under Megan's influence. My parents and grandparents were all Republicans and as a child I was because they were. During young adulthood I believed in the efficiency of free markets and remained a Republican. Now I feel that while efficient markets lift the overall wealth of a society, once wealth reaches a certain level it's time to worry more about how it is distributed. I can also see that free markets are not always efficient, as demonstrated by bubbles in technology, housing and credit. So I became a Democrat, interested in regulating markets and helping poor children. Thank you, Megan.
One Wednesday night we were both reading after dinner, as we often did, when the phone rang. I picked up the phone and said, "Hello, this is Laszlo."
"Hey buddy," said Bogus's voice, "turn your TV to channel nine ninety eight tonight at nine PM to watch my new public access show."
"What's it about?" I asked, but all I got was a dial tone. He'd hung up.
I didn't say anything to Megan, figuring that at nine o'clock I'd just surprise her. At the appointed hour I turned on the set just in time to see:
Megan asked "What's this?"
Timed perfectly to answer her, the screen switched to a shot of Bogus sitting in a chair behind a desk, saying, "Welcome to Singularity Report, where we'll discuss the coming of intelligent machines and their implications for your family's future. I'm Bogus Band."
She went back to her book, but at least she didn't ask me to turn it off.
Bogus continued, "In coming weeks we'll interview computer scientists, neuroscientists, philosophers, lawyers and other experts to get their opinions. This week I'll try to lay out the basic facts and give you my opinions."
"To start with, this program is a weekly report about something called the Technological Singularity. Singularity is a mathematical term for a time or place where some process becomes infinite. In 1958 Stanislaw Ulam wrote about a conversation with John von Neumann in which they discussed the prospect that the progress of technology would reach a singularity. In 1993 the mathematician and science fiction author Vernor Vinge wrote a paper using the phrase Technological Singularity to refer to the explosive increase in intelligence that will occur once machines become intelligent enough to take over their own design. The idea is that we humans have enough intelligence that we will design machines more intelligent than ourselves, but it is taking us a lot of time and effort. Once we have machines more intelligent than ourselves, they will be able to design other yet more intelligent machines with less time and effort. As the intelligence of machines increases, the time and effort to improve their designs will decrease and so the rate of intelligence increase will accelerate until it appears infinite to us dimwitted human observers."
"There are of course skeptics of whether machines will ever be intelligent. I am not skeptical. Neuroscience has demonstrated many correlations between physical brain behaviors and mental behaviors. If brains do not cause minds, then these correlations are coincidences, which would be absurd. And if minds have physical causes then our relentless technology will eventually be able to build them."
"Among those who do foresee intelligent machines there are skeptics of whether their intelligence will ever increase explosively, based on physical limits to brain size and complexity. But it is plausible that brains could be trillions of times larger and more complex than human brains, so far beyond our mental capabilities as to seem infinite to us."
"The questions that interest me are when we will build intelligent machines and how they will affect human society. In the early days of computers, the nineteen fifties and sixties, some scientists predicted that the task of building intelligent machines would only take a few decades. These overly optimistic predictions discredited the whole idea of artificial intelligence. But once again scientists are predicting intelligent machines within a few decades. My own prediction is that they will be created within the lifetimes of people already born."
"That is, when you see a young child you are looking at a person who will likely experience a world radically different from our own. They will live forever or at least until the universe ends or some similar calamity. They will travel to other stars if they want to, their bodies enhanced to withstand the difficult environment of deep space. And their brains will be enhanced so they can understand mathematics and science far beyond any current human."
He spent the rest of his 30 minute show making the argument that this was actually going to happen. He described the progress of neuroscience in a bit more detail. He also described estimates of the computational capacity of the human brain versus the rate of increase of the computational capacity of computers, to make the case that artificial minds would be created during the Twenty First Century.
I switched off the set and asked Megan, "What did you think?"
"I wasn't really listening," she said as she looked up from her book. "But OK, he did sound reasonable, like he actually knew what he was talking about."
"This could be good," I replied. "I mean, a show like this is a constructive outlet for his energy. So we should encourage him."
"Hmmm," was all she said.
Megan's tolerance for Bogus got a real test a couple weeks later, when we were invited to dinner at his house on a Saturday night. It was to be a double date with Margaret.
"I don't want to encourage his relationship with Margaret," Megan objected.
"Let's give him a chance," I said. "His show has been going well and maybe a relationship with Margaret is just what he needs to settle into a normal life."
"I don't believe it," she answered. "But I'll go because he's your old friend."
So at 6 PM Saturday we arrived at Bogus's house, a pitcher of fresh squeezed orange juice in hand. Megan had insisted that we should not bring wine or any alcoholic beverage. Margaret was helping him in the kitchen and had probably been there all day.
"Smells great," I commented, "whatever it is."
"It's starfish anus with star anise," he replied.
Margaret giggled and Megan exclaimed in a rising voice, "Bogus."
"OK," he said sheepishly. "Actually we're having standing beef ribs with root vegetables."
"What was that awful stuff you used to make in college?" I asked.
"Potted meat product Wellington. Have a seat," he said, motioning toward chairs and a sofa around a glass-topped coffee table.
I set the orange juice on the table. Bogus brought out four glasses, a bucket of ice, a bottle of vodka, and a bottle of Galliano.
The others sat but I wandered over to the little book shelves built into the wall. His living room looked conventional in the extreme, with hardly any clutter. There were only two books on the shelves: Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling/The Sickness Unto Death, and Vanna Speaks by Vanna White. I started paging through Vanna Speaks.
"Her autobiography is a vivid, if unselfconscious, description of anxiety," Bogus commented. "But of course Kierkegaard compensates with excessive self consciousness. He analyzes the subject ..." Bogus paused for effect, then said, "... unto death."
I set the book down and sat with the others, pouring out plain orange juices on the rocks for Megan and myself. Bogus made two Harvey Wallbangers for Margaret and himself.
"I've been enjoying your show," I said, "especially your interview with that neuroscience professor from the university. Can't recall his name."
"You can watch all my shows on-line," Bogus responded, "if you need to refresh your memory. There's a Singularity Report website. But the neuroscientist's name is Dinkar Sitaram. He has his own way of thinking, but a very bright guy."
"That was a good debate," Margaret said. "And you won."
"Thanks," Bogus replied, "but I doubt he thinks so. He wouldn't admit that machine intelligence is possible, although he does think that brains explain minds. He just thinks brains are too complex for technology to duplicate. What do you think Megan? I mean, as a doctor?"
"Certainly there's nothing supernatural going on. Whether technology can ever duplicate brains, well, that's not my department. But I suppose even that must eventually be possible."
"Thanks," Bogus responded. He seemed to be making an effort to be nice to Megan. "The problem with debating whether AI is possible is that it distracts people from the much more important debate about its social consequences. Same thing with Hollywood movies like The Terminator and The Matrix. They're totally unrealistic scenarios. They should make movies in which a small group of people use AI to rule the world. And anyone challenging them should loose quickly and decisively. These dramatic struggles in which courageous and resourceful humans defeat the AI are nonsense."
"Maybe you should make a movie," Margaret suggested.
"Yeah," I seconded, "we could make a movie from one of my stories."
To answer, Bogus chugged the rest of his drink and said, "No thanks." Then he mixed another one. It was no surprise that he wasn't interested
"Margaret," I asked, "how's life at the hospital? Do you and Megan see each other every day?"
"Sure," she responded, "but we're all very busy."
"The unregistered nurses do all the work," Bogus asserted. I guessed he wasn't sucking up to Megan after all, but she didn't say anything.
"I'm certified," Margaret corrected him. "And the nurse's aides certainly don't do all the work."
"So who's next on your show?" I asked Bogus, hoping to change the subject.
"A lawyer," he answered, as he took a long drink.
"So what are the legal issues for AI?"
"Not much yet," he replied. "Of course, there are legal issues of safety and morality for biotechnology, and environmental issues for nanotechnology. For information technology the biggest issue is intellectual property. So far legislation has attempted to maintain the situation as it was before digital technology via harsh penalties. It's a little like prohibition, where millions of people are committing felonies. But the law hasn't yet addressed the really important issue of equal access to AI and human enhancement technology, and probably never will. That will require the electorate to embrace socialism. Not much chance of that."
Suddenly Megan perked up, apparently at the mention of socialism, and said, "But Bogus, we've still got to work for it. You can't give up."
"What's the point? People are swine," he said, draining his drink.
"No they're not," Megan said.
"You're right, Megan," he said as he mixed another Wallbanger. "We're chimpanzees, a murderous species."
"But we can overcome our animal natures," she objected.
"Sure," he agreed, "some of us, some of the time, when we're on our best behavior. In bad times some people revert to chimps, making things worse and pressing others to revert. In good times, some people get greedy and eventually ruin things."
"But," she objected, "Over the long run of history human society becomes more humane. There is progress. You can't give up."
"I'm not giving up. I'm trying to warn people about what's coming. But," he said with emphasis, "the change will come too fast and be too complex for people to understand. The folks who want to ride AI to power will confuse the issue with all sorts of prejudices and misconceptions."
"Maybe," I said, "people will understand their interests better than you think, due to the current social effects of computers. It sure seems like structural, long term unemployment due to automation has already started. Won't this get much worse before we get to real AI?"
"Yeah," Bogus grudgingly agreed, "but it'll get all mixed up with racial and cultural politics. Divide and conquer, you know." And he drained his drink.
Margaret interjected, "Dinner must be ready. Let's eat."
I added, "Before we're too drunk to eat," and took a long drag on my OJ.
"Don't worry," Bogus reassured me, as he mixed himself another strong one. "How about you Margaret? Ready for another?"
"OK," she said. "I'll bring out the roast."
Dinner was wonderful. There's nothing like perfectly done beef.
As Margaret and I were clearing the table Bogus exclaimed, "Hey, it's getting dark, time to turn on the Christmas decorations. Let's go out and look at them." He took real delight in this eccentricity.
So we all walked out into the street to admire the Santa, sleigh and reindeer on his roof, outlined in lights. Rudolph's nose blinked off and on in bright red.
Bogus raised his glass toward his roof and said, "To the bread people from the planet Crouton." Margaret giggled and I put my arm around Megan to thank her for putting up with this nonsense.
Back at the dinner table, Bogus brought out Vincent's favorite childhood dessert. This simple recipe is from Vincent Francoual's restaurant in Minneapolis, the city where Bogus was born. It's a dish of madeleines and vanilla ice cream with a pot of warm chocolate sauce on the side. Very delicious.
I poured a little of the sauce into the dish and scooped it up with some ice cream and a piece of madeleine. As soon as I tasted the mixture I shuddered and froze, my mind transported to another world of intense emotion. At once I became indifferent to the tension between Megan and Bogus, and the love between Margaret and Bogus. I was nothing more or less than the emotion evoked by the taste of madeleine. But I could not perceive the source of my feelings.
I poured a bit more sauce and took another spoonful with ice cream and madeleine. It evoked the same emotion, but not as strong. A third spoonful was weaker still. I decided the answer must lie in my mind rather than in the dessert, so put down my spoon and concentrated on tracing my thoughts in the moment of that first taste. I was oblivious to whatever the others may be saying. But as hard as I tried, the memory simply would not come. The emotion I felt was fond nostalgia mixed with distaste, and I wondered perhaps if it was something I didn't dare to remember. Or perhaps it was simply my brain being slow to retrieve the source of the emotion.
Then, at once, it came to me. I could picture the Seine River across the platform and railroad tracks, with trees and the beautiful Paris skyline beyond. I was in the Gare du Champ de Mars, waiting for the RER train. Feeling hungry I noticed a vending machine, inserted a few coins and selected the packet of three madeleines. As I took a bite of a madeleine, it mingled with the smell of urine rising from the floor behind the vending machine. My feeling was longing for Paris, tempered by the realization that it was inhabited by the same flawed humans found everywhere.
"Laszlo, Laszlo," I heard Megan's voice, and saw the look of concern on her face.
I shook my head to clear my reverie and said, "Oh Megan, just daydreaming. Isn't this dessert wonderful?"
"It is," she admitted.
"I don't think any of us have succeeded in encapsulating the intricacies of Bogus's masterwork," I said to her, "so I'm going to award the first prize this evening to you dear."
"What are you talking about?"
"The girl with the biggest brain," I explained.
After a moment Margaret astounded me by asking, "Did you ever play cricket for Surrey?" She grinned and took a long drink.
Bogus seemed to be lost in his own oblivion, pouring another very strong Harvey Wallbanger for himself. So I stood up and said, "Wonderful dinner and dessert, buddy. Thank you. Time for us to go."
"Sure, any time," he answered. Margaret gave Megan and me hugs, and we left.
Home asleep, I was dreaming about pacing back and forth in a train station. I needed to pee but the restroom was out of order. So I walked back and forth, thinking about peeing. I heard bells and thought perhaps the train was coming. Maybe it would have a working restroom. But the train didn't come. They were just bells without a train. Then I woke up with Megan shaking me.
She said, "Laszlo, wake up. There's someone at the door," and the doorbell rang.
"OK," I said. "I've got to pee first."
In my robe and slippers I opened the door and there was Margaret, crying. "What's wrong?" I asked her. "It's three AM."
"I'm sorry," she whined, and I could see that she was quite drunk. "It's Bogus. He's gone nuts."
"How?" I asked.
Megan had joined us and asked, "Did he hit you?"
"Oh no," Margaret said. "No, no, no. He was raving about how wealthy people will use robots to create a fascist state. He called it the greatest sin of all time, but said he was going to stop them. Then he just started bouncing around and yelling nonsense. He was like those manics in the psych department. He was just totally crazy. I was afraid of him."
"But you got away?" I asked.
"He didn't even notice when I left. I'm worried that he's having some sort of brain attack."
I looked at Megan and raised my eyebrows. She just looked grim. I said to Margaret, "Give me a minute to get dressed. I'll drive you home and then go check up on Bogus."
"Margaret," Megan admonished, "you really should break it off with Bogus."
"Sorry about all this," she replied.
So I took her home and walked her to her door, waiting for her to get inside before I left. Then I drove to Bogus's house and banged on the door. No answer. I banged harder and longer but still no answer. So I tried the door and it was locked. I walked around to the back door and saw light coming up the basement stairs. I knocked hard on the door and got no answer. I had a premonition so I wandered around the back yard where I found Bogus lying on the ground, unconscious.
"Bogus," I said as I shook him. When he didn't move I shook him harder but still got no response. His back door was unlocked so I got a bowl of water from his kitchen and splashed it on his face. Still nothing and I was getting alarmed. I went inside, dialed 911 and told them I had a drunk who I couldn't rouse. They said they'd send medical help.
I sat next to Bogus to wait and in about ten minutes I heard a vehicle arrive. I went around front and led two paramedics to the backyard. They checked his pulse and breathing, and then they put him onto a stretcher and carried him back to their vehicle. As one of the paramedics started an IV the other asked me, "Are you a relative?"
"Just a friend," I answered. "Will he be all right?"
"We're going to take him St. Mary's Hospital to find out. We'll need some information."
So I gave them his name, age and what I knew of his medical history. If he had a regular doctor I didn't know who. They drove off and I went home to try to get a couple more hours of sleep.
I woke up at 7 AM, gave Megan a quick report, and drove to St. Mary's. The woman at the information desk sent me to the emergency department, which of course was total bedlam. After a long wait they told me Bogus was stable but not ready to go home, and said that I could come back at 4 PM to collect him. I didn't feel like going home, so went to the office which was very quiet on a Sunday morning. I had lunch at my favorite Afghani restaurant and then caught the free, live classical music concert at the university art museum.
When I went back to the hospital at 4 PM they told me to sit and wait. After about fifteen minutes Bogus emerged looking pale and somewhat shaky.
"You don't look so good," I observed.
"No," he agreed, not much fight left in him.
"I'll drive you home," I offered. "Want to pick up anything at the grocery store on the way?"
"Thanks, that would be great," he replied. "Yogurt. Some of that Greek yogurt."
So we picked up six quart containers of Greek yogurt. Inside his house he just said, "Thanks," then collapsed on the couch. I left him to get some rest.
When I arrived home I gave Megan a detailed account. She said, "I'm sorry you have to go through this with your old friend. I'm worried about you, and about Margaret. The best thing you can do for Bogus is to convince him to quit drinking."
"He seemed very humble this afternoon," I commented.
I saw Bogus the next day and suggested that he should give up alcohol but he simply waved his hand. By Tuesday he was still feeling pretty rotten so decided to delay his interview with the lawyer while he regained his health. The public access channel reran his introductory show. By Wednesday a week later he was back to his old self and did the interview. I watched in my office so as not to bother Megan with the sight and sound of Bogus. He introduced his guest as Alfred Cheney, a Law Professor at the university specializing in intellectual property.
He started the interview easily, "Advancing technology is bringing radical change to intellectual property law. Professor Cheney, would you please tell us about this?"
"I have to disagree," he answered. "The circumstances are changing significantly, but the law itself has been fairly stable."
"There's the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which greatly increases the penalties for copyright infringement in a desperate attempt to resist those changing circumstances. Also case law in both the US and Canada that prohibits small farmers from using the natural seeds they have used for years, on the grounds that they may have mixed with genetically engineered seeds that have escaped into the environment. And the regular and predictable extensions of the term of copyright, so that Mickey Mouse and other creations from the early Twentieth Century will never go out of copyright. The US Constitution says that copyrights be granted for a limited term, but by extending the term by twenty years once every twenty years, the US Congress has essentially amended the constitution to grant copyright for an unlimited term. Without going through the necessary steps for amendment."
"It's an interesting point," the professor replied, "but the Supreme Court doesn't agree. In the seed cases you have to look at the specific circumstances. The farmers involved had planted parts of their fields with genetically engineered soybeans. The courts decided that they had intentionally mixed them with their wild soybeans."
"But Alfred," Bogus asserted, "now the seed companies are using those cases to threaten all farmers who plant natural seeds."
"That's a different legal issue," Alfred objected.
"Let's agree that the current state of intellectual property law is complex. The really interesting issues are coming in the future. Technological change is accelerating, as Ray Kurzweil tells us, and this will continue to put pressure on the law."
"Well, we can speculate about the future."
"I wonder if we can go back to first principles, to understand the future," Bogus said. "Technology is increasing the amount and importance of information, relative to physical objects. It seems to me that intellectual property law is about who may access, copy and benefit from information. And of course privacy law also addresses the question of who may access and disseminate information."
"Certainly information has its abstract properties," Alfred responded, "but the law comes from the human experience, colored by all the peculiarities of our culture and of human nature. For example, whether a patent can be obtained for a design depends on whether the design is obvious. But the term 'obvious' is defined in terms of the capabilities of the human mind."
Bogus looked genuinely delighted and said, "Thank you, Alfred. You've led us exactly where I wanted to get to. The information processing capacity of the human brain is a factor in the law of information. That capacity is relatively constant compared with the exponential increase in the information processing capacities of machines and in the quantity of information they generate. So the human experience, as you put it, is changing quickly. The future will pose a radically different experience for us humans. Would you care to speculate about that?"
Alfred chuckled and said, "There are many different possible futures, don't you agree?"
"Yes, but they lead to the same reality, in which money buys more information processing capacity and that in turn generates more money. As long as the human brain is the ultimate information processor, a child born in a poor family has the chance to be born with a world-class information processor in his or her head. But once technology exceeds human brains, then a poor child has no chance."
"You're assuming that technology will be able to match and improve on our minds," Alfred objected.
"Yes, but neuroscience is producing too many correlations between physical brain function and mental functions for them to be mere coincidences. Our minds must have a physical basis which our relentless technology will replicate and improve. Certainly during this century, within the lifetime of people already born. This would be obvious to everyone if our culture wasn't so brainwashed to the idea of the immortal soul, invented millennia ago to explain that which they couldn't explain and now tied to the source of humanity's comfort and morality."
"It's still an assumption, although I don't intend to argue religion with you."
"It's reality. But from your point of view, grant my assumption and see where it leads legally. The intelligence gap among humans will grow to the extent that the most intelligent will speak languages that the less intelligent are unable to speak or to learn. The language of major public policy discussions will simply be beyond their mental capacities. Under those circumstances, aren't there likely to be different legal rights depending on intelligence? Just as adults, children and animals have different rights now? And just as people with mental diseases have different treatment under the law, often not legally responsible for their acts but subject to preventive detention."
"Bogus," the professor said in a patient tone, "this is interesting but mere speculation."
Bogus responded, "There are uncertainties about the future. When will intelligent machines arrive? How humanely will society deal with the paradox of the material wealth and mass unemployment that those machines will create? How will religious people react when confronted by machines that appear to have souls? How will unequal access to machine intelligence between nations affect international relations? But regardless of the answers to these questions, the reality will be a great gap among the intelligence of different humans, accompanied by a gap in legal rights."
"Well, it must be nice to be so confident," Alfred said with a little sarcasm. "Any other points about the future you want to enlighten us on?"
"As long as you ask, I can tell you that global warming is for real and efforts to reduce carbon emissions will be too little, too late. When the serious effects of warming become clear, humanity will have no choice but to adopt a geo-engineering solution, such as pumping sulfur dioxide or water vapor into the atmosphere to cool the planet by reflecting sunlight."
"You heard it here first," Alfred snorted.
"Not first," Bogus corrected. "But it's still reality even if I wasn't the first to say so."
"Why do you need me here? You don't seem very interested in intellectual property law."
"Fair enough professor," Bogus said, trying to be conciliatory. "I am concerned about patents on DNA and more generally about corporate ownership of information essential for our biology. Is this something others should be concerned about?"
"Patents on your DNA do not constrain your natural use of it, including your right to pass it on to your children. The patents only constrain artificial use. Their effect is to make sure that those who do the research and development of new drugs and other therapies based on DNA are compensated."
"So in the future," Bogus said, "granting my point that we will artificially enhance our bodies and brains, those who benefit from those enhancements must pay those who develop them."
"It could even be that we will have to pay rent for our bodies and brains."
"If your speculations are correct then that's possible," Alfred agreed. "But you always have the option of staying in your natural human body, rent free."
"Not if the environment becomes so polluted that natural bodies are not viable. And in any case, if everyone else is improving their body and brain, few will opt for the serious disadvantage of remaining in their natural body and brain."
Alfred merely raised his eyebrows so Bogus continued, "At some time in the future most folks will be renting their bodies and if they miss a rent payment, they'll be evicted."
"Not necessarily. There are laws that prevent utilities from being cut off during cold weather."
"But," Bogus objected, "it's my understanding that in most US jurisdictions people can be evicted from their homes regardless of the weather."
"Unfortunately true," Alfred confirmed.
"It seems to me that property rights are most fundamental under US law. In the future the entire world, including even our bodies, will be the property of a few wealthy people and their property rights will trump the rights of the vast majority who merely rent."
"Perhaps, if your speculations are correct."
"I'll grant that the business about people paying rent for their bodies and being evicted is speculation. It's just an interesting possibility. But it is reality that the most intelligent humans will speak languages that the less intelligent can never learn, and hence not all humans will have the same rights. You can count on it."
A couple nights later over dinner I said to Megan, "I watched Bogus interview the lawyer and, boy, he sure isn't much of an interviewer. He was lecturing his guest rather than asking him questions. Perhaps you're right about Bogus being a sociopath."
"I think so," she replied. "Is he drinking again?"
"I don't know, probably. The last time I saw him I suggested that he should quit, but he brushed it off. How's Margaret?"
"Oh, she's OK. But she loves Bogus. It worries me."
"Bogus won't give up alcohol and she won't give up Bogus," I said. "A fine mess."
I decided to visit him after dinner, just to find out how he was doing. When I arrived he was drinking a beer and offered me one, which I took. "How's your system reacting to the booze?" I asked.
"Not a problem," he said.
"I saw your interview with Alfred Cheney," I said. "Interesting, but perhaps you should try to draw out your guests more."
"He doesn't know anything about artificial intelligence," Bogus objected. "He was only there to help me make a few points, which he did nicely."
"Who's your next guest?"
"She's a philosopher who studies the definition of 'person'. She has very odd politics but is generally on the left."
"I'll look forward to it."
We chatted for a bit longer about nothing much, and then I went home to get a good night's sleep.
The next Monday evening Megan came home from the hospital looking grim so I stayed out of her way until she was ready to open up. After a few minutes she came into my office and said, "Margaret and Bogus had an extremely fast and drunken motorcycle ride Friday night, were chased by the police and escaped."
"Are they all right? Did they fall?"
"No fall, but it scared the daylights out of Margaret."
Bogus had an old Norton 750. Not as fast as the Japanese crotch rockets but it was fast enough, handled well and exuded class. He used to drive it everywhere he went, but now it was just a periodic amusement.
"Drunk on the motorcycle?" I mused. "That's bad. Margaret was drunk too, you said?"
"Apparently she can't help herself when she's with Bogus."
"She works in the hospital. She must know about the motorcycle cases they bring into the emergency department."
"She knows, she knows," Megan replied in exasperation.
"For that matter, Bogus knows too," I added.
After dinner I went over to ask Bogus about this incident. I accepted his beer and said, "I hear you and Margaret had a wild ride Saturday night."
"From Margaret to Megan to you and back to me," he commented. "Cozy."
"How drunk were you?" I asked.
"Honestly officer," he replied, "I only had two beers." He deftly pulled out his wallet and removed his driver's license. "You know," he said, "I practice this move a lot, removing my license, so I can do it smoothly when the cops are watching."
"That's pretty clever," I commended him. "Even cleverer would be to not drive drunk."
He shrugged, so I continued, "Apparently you scared the heck out of Margaret."
"Are you kidding?" he was indignant. "We were on the bike because she asked to go. I took her for a nice gentle ride on the windy roads west of town and she asked me why I was driving so timidly. So then I opened it up, did the full boogey for her. We dragged the pegs all over the road. I haven't lost the touch."
"I hear the police chased you."
"That was later," he said, "when we came back to town. We were still winding it up coming in Drake Avenue and I heard the sirens. So I turned the lights off, got onto the parkway and drove down to the creek. Actually ended up with the front wheel in the creek. But the cops never found us."
"Too bad you didn't get a chance to show them how well you take your license out."
"Oh, we had a good time waiting for the cops to give up," he said with a smile. "Some times, when a woman is scared," he started to say.
But I cut him off, "I don't want to hear about it. It's not worth risking your lives. You must know that you should quit drinking. But if you can't do that, for god's sake don't drive that organ-donor-mobile when you're drunk."
"For god's sake?" he asked incredulously. "You don't believe in god any more than I do."
"Then for the sake of the people who actually want you to remain alive."
"You know," he observed, "driving a bike fast while you're drunk is like playing a video game."
I just looked at him with a resigned expression.
He continued, "It has the same flashing lights and fast reactions. You know what I remember of driving on Drake Avenue? It was a stream of red tail lights coming towards me, then flowing around me to the right and the left. Just this smooth stream of them, with the wind rushing past and Margaret's arms around me. I must have been steering, to weave through the cars, but I don't remember the cars or the steering. Just the lights. A wonderful, free feeling." He was actually smiling.
I remembered an incident a couple years earlier, when I'd ridden in his car. He pulled up in front of my house and I just got in, without realizing that he was falling down drunk. We hit 100 miles per hour on a city street and I screamed at him to stop. But he was focused on driving and paid no attention to me. He finally had to stop behind traffic at a red light and I jumped out of the car. That was the start of Megan's dislike for him. I avoided him for months afterward.
Now, listening to how much he enjoyed his drunken motorcycle ride, I was disgusted and said, "You pinhead, with a video game you only lose your quarter. On the motorcycle you lose your life. And Margaret's. Or maybe you'll kill some kids riding in a car. Is that what you want?"
"A sin," he replied, looking thoughtful. I figured that was a good note to end on, so told him I'd see him later and left.
I told Megan about my conversation with Bogus and she said, "Margaret has to get away from him." Margaret was deeply in love with Bogus, so it was hard to imagine this happening. But it did happen in a way I never expected.
On the next Saturday morning I wandered over to see Bogus. When he opened the door I started to step in, as I always had, and he blocked my way saying, "I'm busy. Go away."
"Okay," I replied, a bit puzzled.
In a couple weeks I called him to find out how he was doing and again he said he was too busy to talk. Well, I thought, I'll just wait for you to call me.
Three nights later Megan came home from the hospital and said, "Bogus has dumped Margaret."
"What the heck? How's she taking it?"
"Not well. He's such a jerk."
"But you wanted her to get away from him," I said to console her.
"I wanted her to decide for herself."
"She probably never would, so perhaps it's for the best."
Margaret came over the next Saturday to help Megan with the garden. I stir-fried a huge batch of chicken, broccoli, onions, bell peppers, carrots, water chestnuts and celery in olive oil. Some people think you can't stir fry in olive oil, but you can and it's healthy and delicious. Just don't let it smoke. We had this with rice and soy sauce for lunch.
"Margaret," I inquired as we ate, "If it's not too sore a subject, can you tell me what's happening with Bogus? He doesn't seem to want to talk with me anymore."
"I wish I did understand, but I don't," she responded. "He's been working harder and drinking less. He only has a couple beers every night and goes to bed early. He told me that he had to stop seeing me but wouldn't tell me why. He even apologized. I didn't know he wouldn't even talk with you."
"Good riddance," said Megan with finality. "It looks like we're going to get a lot of potatoes this year."
"Do you like potatoes?" I asked Margaret.
"We do too. Baked, mashed and fried."
I still enjoyed watching Singularity Report and it was a way to keep track of Bogus. I was eagerly awaiting his interview with a local economist who had a small consulting business. As usual I watched in my office, away from Megan's eyes and ears. Like all his interviews, it was a live show.
Bogus started by introducing his guest as Elbert Underwood. Bogus somehow didn't seem his usual self and I wondered if he was feeling ill.
"Tell us a bit about your work, Doctor Underwood," he asked.
"I focus on macroeconomic issues affecting small to medium sized businesses. They need accurate forecasts of demand for their products over the next year or two in order to make wise hiring and capital decisions. Those involved in foreign markets need to anticipate exchange rate trends versus the US dollar."
"I am interested in the steady increase in unemployment as workers are replaced by machines. Can you comment on that?"
"Technological unemployment," Underwood remarked. "It's really an issue of retraining. As automation increases the productivity of our economy, we can still effectively achieve full employment if demand rises to meet the potential GDP."
"So all the auto workers replaced by robots need to go back to school to become computer programmers, economists, retail salespeople, hair stylists, and so on?"
"Many of them have," Underwood answered.
"But most at lower wages," Bogus objected. "So if all these workers are making much less money, where is all the extra demand going to come from?"
"The counter example is that we did have effective full employment during the late nineties, and nearly so again in the two thousands, well after the automation of auto manufacturing."
"Bubbles supplied the extra demand in both those cases," Bogus asserted. "The tech stock bubble and then the housing bubble. Both of course embedded in the monster credit bubble. I'll tell you Elbert," Bogus said familiarly, "given the falling wages for most workers I don't see how you're going to get the demand to compensate for technological unemployment without bubbles. And we certainly don't want bubbles, do we?" Bogus seemed pretty agitated as he finished this question.
"I'm not saying that we don't have serious problems," Underwood replied.
"Good," Bogus said. "As the pace of technological change heats up, workers will need retraining more frequently and to higher and higher levels of skill. Many of them won't be capable and even for those who are capable the market may decide that the costs of all that retraining aren't worth it. The market will decide that it's most efficient for those workers to simply starve."
"That's why we have food stamps. And subsidized housing, free education and free health care for the poor."
"Thank you professor," Bogus responded.
"I'm not a professor," Underwood objected somewhat testily.
am I," Bogus blundered on. "But that doesn't stop me from knowing
what's going on. So don't regret it."
It looked like Underwood regretted doing the interview, but he kept his cool.
"No," Bogus said, "I really mean thank you, because let's consider all this government support for the poor. When machines take over all the jobs, unemployed workers will need that support to survive. As an economist, how would you assess that situation?"
"First, I doubt that machines will replace all workers. Second, it would be a sad world with everyone on government assistance."
"Perhaps sad," Bogus responded. "But perhaps not, if the quality of government supplied housing, food, health care and education were up to the highest levels. We could have a world where everyone is born into a comfortable retirement."
"But with no sense of accomplishment, no satisfaction," Underwood objected.
"For some. Others may find meaning in family, friends, sports and learning. But it gets worse, professor, er, I mean doctor. Let me ask you, what do you think are the chances that government supported lifestyles will be top quality?"
"It would certainly be a change from current practice. There is considerable downward pressure on government spending. Spending will rise, it must, but those increases are pushing against resistance from taxpayers and voters."
"OK," Bogus exclaimed gleefully. "So if a wealthy person spends ten billion dollars to buy himself a bigger brain, the government probably won't buy brains like it for every citizen."
"I hear Wal-Mart is having a sale on big brains this week," Underwood replied sarcastically. It appeared that he was giving up on a serious discussion with Bogus.
"It's not funny, professor," Bogus practically shouted.
"This is nonsense," Underwood said, then removed the microphone clipped to his shirt and stood up.
"Don't you care where this is going?" Bogus called after the departing Underwood.
Bogus stood up, looked right into the camera at unnaturally close range, and said loudly, "The government may keep us all from starving, but the wealthy will buy much bigger brains than we have. They will speak languages that we cannot even learn with our puny human brains. We won't understand important public policy issues so we won't have any voice. It will be the end of democracy."
I could hear a voice in the background, picked up by Bogus's mike, but couldn't make out what it was saying.
"No, this is important," Bogus seemed to say in response. He looked intently into the camera and boomed, "It will be a sin. Children born to ordinary families won't have any chance. They will be doomed forever to the status of animals. To distribute intelligence unevenly among a murderous, dominance-based chimpanzee species like humans is a sin." Finally he shouted, "It's a sin."
His image disappeared, replaced by a black screen and silence. I said to myself, out loud, "He's drunk," and then had a good laugh. Somehow it felt like having my lunatic friend back.
The next Wednesday the public access channel replaced Singularity Report with a home craft show. It looked like they'd had enough of Bogus.
Months passed without any word from Bogus. Margaret didn't hear from him either, although as a sort of compensation she and Megan became buddies. When spring came they spent a lot of time working together in each other's gardens.
In April they planned a party for their friends from the hospital, with picnic tables and awnings set up in our back yard amidst the daffodils. They grilled a whole salmon and an arctic char, and their guests brought salads, veggies and desserts. Mozart played out from our family room windows. The day of the party, a Saturday, was mostly cloudy but the forecast was for no rain so we were all happy about that.
Margaret had a new boyfriend, a guy named Jerry, who was nice enough and came with her. All morning he and I helped Megan and Margaret set it all up, and about noon the guests started arriving with their dishes. It was all very nice, with everyone friendly and on their best behavior.
I was listening to a nurse explain their efforts to prevent the spread of infection within the hospital when I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard Megan whisper in an urgent tone, "Laszlo, Bogus is out on the sidewalk."
I looked out front and didn't see him, and Megan whispered, "No, the other side."
So I looked around the other side of our house and saw Bogus walking slowly. "OK," I said and walked around the house towards him.
I went up to him and said, "Hey buddy, nice to see you. It's been a long time."
He looked toward our back yard and said, "You having a party? Got anything to drink?"
I could see he was drunk, not too steady on his feet.
"It's Megan's party. Not a good idea. Let's go to Ted's Bar if you want a drink."
"No, we should drink here," he said as he moved toward the back yard.
I grabbed him and said, "You're not welcome. Come on, let's go to Ted's."
He broke free and said loudly, "You don't want me at your party? I'm not welcome?"
It suddenly hit me that he smelled like poop and that this was a bad situation. "Get out of here," I said to him, my voice raised but hopefully not enough to upset any of our guests. "If you don't, I'm going to call the police. And boy, you stink."
He just glowered at me. He could be pretty strong when riled and I wondered if I was up to ejecting him. It would never do to have him barging into Megan's party. We stood there staring at each other in a sort of standoff. "Did you crap in your pants?" I asked.
"These are my cleanest pants," he answered in some sort of twisted drunken logic.
"You're my oldest friend," I said, "but if you don't leave I will call the cops on you."
As we continued to stare at each other one of Megan's guests, a beefy surgeon named Bryan, walked up. This could be tricky so I tried to defuse the situation by saying, "Come on Bogus, go home and sleep it off. I'll call you later."
I was thankful that Bryan just stood there next to me silently. We were ready for trouble but certainly didn't want any. After a minute Bogus turned and wandered away from us along the sidewalk. After he had gotten about twenty feet he turned and shouted, "Do you know who I am? My aunt is Ms. Senior Ohio!" More drunken logic. Then he turned again and continued his retreat.
"Friend of yours?" Bryan asked.
"Used to be. It's a very sad situation."
"Yeah," he responded as we walked back toward the party.
Megan came up to us and said, "Thank you, thank you." Then she hugged me and said, "I'm so sorry, dear."
World War III
I didn't call Bogus, not wanting to risk another drunken encounter. But I did get out the box where I kept the debris from our friendship. Digging through it brought up all kinds of pleasant memories, but what stopped me was a video tape labeled "World War III."
"Hey hon," I said, carrying it into the family room where Megan was reading, "Did you ever see this? World War III?"
"What is it?" she asked.
"A movie Bogus and I made, for a film course he took."
"Oh. Is it depressing?"
"Dark but not depressing. Let's watch it. It's short."
She set her book down and said, "OK." She was being nice to me since I had chased my old friend away to save her party.
I put the video in the VHS player and turned on the TV, feeling very excited to see this old gem. As I snuggled up next to Megan on the couch, the movie started with a simple title screen:
World War III
Then the scene switched to a bearded man and buxom woman wearing some sort of military uniforms and standing behind a desk.
Megan exclaimed, "That's you, with a beard."
I started speaking excitedly on the screen, in pidgin Russian. On the wall behind me was a picture of Brezhnev and a world map, and I pointed a swagger stick at the US on the map. The buxom woman, whose uniform was way too tight, paid close attention. Then I pointed the swagger stick at a big red button on the desk and barked a command in my faux Russian. My assistant leaned forward, revealing a little cleavage, and pushed the button.
"This is moronic," Megan complained. "Who is that woman?"
"Misty?" I asked. "She was a model Bogus hired for the movie. Actually an exotic dancer from the Lake Delmar Gentleman's Club."
The scene changed subtly. It appeared to be the same room, same desk, same button and same world map. But now the picture on the wall was of Nixon and there were a different man and woman in slightly different uniforms.
"That's Bogus, smoking a cigar," Megan remarked.
"And Boom Boom," I added. She was just as buxom as Misty and her uniform just as tight.
Boom Boom said, "General, the radar has just picked up a Russian missile heading our way."
The scene switched to an aerial shot of a mushroom cloud, accompanied by the sound of a huge explosion. Then it switched back to Bogus and Boom Boom, with the lights flashing on and off and the office swaying back and forth. When the lights came back on, Bogus's cigar was exploded, his face was blackened and his uniform was torn and charred. Boom Boom had one dark smudge on her left cheek and her uniform was ripped so you could see a bit of her midriff and legs.
"Oh," Megan said, "This is just too stupid even to be camp."
Her reaction caused me to laugh.
"Private Boom Boom," Bogus barked as he pointed his swagger stick at the red button on the desk, "We must retaliate."
Boom Boom leaned forward, flashing cleavage as Misty had, and pressed the button. "Oh general," she squealed, "I broke a nail."
"War is hell," Bogus responded.
The scene switched to a mushroom cloud and explosion sound, and then cut to Misty and myself. The lights flickered and the room swayed, and when the lights came back my face was blackened and my uniform torn and charred. There was a smudge on Misty's right cheek and her uniform now had holes that showed more of her skin.
I jabbered loudly in my pidgin Russian and pointed at the button, which Misty pushed. The video switched again to the mushroom cloud and explosion sound, then to Bogus and Boom Boom in the swaying and flickering room. When things settled down Bogus's face was totally blackened, his uniform was a mess, and all that was left of Boom Boom's uniform was a few shreds, revealing her in low cut bra and panties.
"Look at the picture," I said. Nixon had been replaced by Charlie Manson.
"You guys should have been arrested for this," Megan accused.
I laughed again.
Bogus barked, "Hit back with everything we have," as he pointed at the button.
Boom Boom leaned down and pushed the button as I explained, "She wanted to fall out of her bra for this scene, but nudity was against the film course rules and Bogus would have flunked."
"Did he flunk anyways?" Megan asked.
"Got an A," I answered. "The prof thought it was funny."
By the time we finished our little conversation, the scene had switched to Misty and me, my face totally black and little left of Misty's uniform other than her bra and panties.
"Who's that in the picture, where Brezhnev was?" Megan asked.
"Andrei Chikatilo, a Russian serial killer."
The closing credits came on, with a voice over by Bogus that said, "It is the stated position of the US Air Force that their safeguards would prevent Boom Boom from breaking her nail." Then the video ended.
"Remind you of anything?" I asked Megan.
"No, it's terrible."
"It's an homage to Dr. Strangelove. Call it the poor man's version."
"You had enough money to hire those dancers," she objected.
"They worked pretty cheap. And they helped with the uniforms. Did you know that most strippers make their own costumes and they get pretty good at it? They hoped this might give them a break to get into the movies. Not unreasonable, either. Bogus's professor might have shown the video to someone in the film industry."
"I'm almost afraid to ask," Megan said, "but did you guys make any other movies? Not that I want to see them."
"Bogus made a parody of those home improvement shows called 'Woodworking with Dad'. He showed viewers how to make a small table, but part way through it his chisel slipped and marred the table top surface. At which point he lost his temper and smashed the table to bits, cursing a blue streak. Then a sweet woman's voice came on saying that next week 'Dad' would show us how to make chairs to go with the table. You'll be happy to hear that I don't have a video of it."
A few days after we watched the video, I got home early to make pizza for Megan and myself. Basically I made a Margherita but with Parmigiano Reggiano sprinkled on top and allowed to brown in the oven. It took time to let the dough rise and to make a first quality tomato sauce. And I'd bought some fresh basil on the way home - too early for any from our garden.
When Megan arrived home I told her we were having pizza and she smiled. Then she told me, "Bogus came by Margaret's house at two AM this morning."
"Was Jerry there?" I wondered. That could make a bad scene.
"No, her landlady doesn't allow male callers."
"He was drunk, of course, and yelled up at Margaret's window. She told him to go away, so he started to climb up the house."
"Yikes," I exclaimed. "Did she call the cops?"
"She didn't have to. Her landlady woke up and once she figured out what was happening, she called the police."
"Did he get into the house?"
"No. Margaret locked her window. I guess he was just hanging off the side of the house when the police arrived. They told him to come down or they'd have to call a fire truck with a ladder to bring him down, and they'd charge him for it. So he climbed down and was arrested."
"Disorderly conduct," I mused.
"I don't know," Megan replied.
I thought for a second of bailing him out, but reconsidered. He was probably out already, anyways. It made me think of the time Bogus and I bailed Honey out, an incident I used it in my first story.
Megan continued, "Mrs. Hutson, the landlady, is pretty mad at Margaret. She said if it happens again Margaret is out."
I sighed and then said, "Let me know when you're ready for pizza." The stone was hot and the pizza would only need a few minutes to bake.
I usually went to the Thrifty Mart at 7 AM on Sunday, to have the store more or less to myself. As I was picking over the jalapeno peppers, looking for ones with unblemished skins, I heard a voice say, "Laszlo? Is that you?"
I looked up at the speaker but did not recognize him, so merely looked puzzled.
"Fred Armstrong," he informed me in an enthusiastic tone.
"Fred, my god, you've got more hair on your face and less on your head since high school."
He just chuckled.
"Do you live in town?" I asked. "How come we haven't bumped into each other before?"
"Visiting my sister," he answered. "She sent me out for a few groceries."
"How've you been? What have you been up to?"
"Oh, I'm fine. I'm an investment advisor."
"Sounds great," I replied. He'd been a real goof off when I knew him, not the sort I'd trust with my money. But perhaps he'd matured.
"Boy, you sure look the same as you did in high school," he said. "Bogus too. You guys haven't aged a bit."
"Did you see him?" I asked. "Funny thing, I haven't seen him in a while. You say he looks healthy?"
"Yeah, he said he'd quit drinking and was making a clean start. I ran into him running on the lake path. He was running, that is. I was just walking."
"Did he say how long it had been since he gave up alcohol?"
"No. Did you guys have a falling out? You were such buddies."
"Not a falling out. He was drinking a lot, getting into trouble, and I guess we just drifted apart." Not strictly true but I didn't feel like going into detail with Fred.
We wished each other well and I finished my shopping.
At home I told Megan, "Hey, I ran into an old school chum and he said that Bogus is on the wagon."
She said, "Glad to hear it," then came and gave me a hug.
I hugged her back, sighed and said, "Maybe I'll go see him."
"Do me a favor, please?"
I looked at her.
"Don't bring him here."
About noon I walked over to Bogus's place. He answered the door and said, "Hi Laszlo."
"Hi Bogus, may I come in?"
"Let's go for a walk," he said, closing the door behind him.
As we started down the sidewalk I said, "I hear you're sober."
"Yes," he replied. "It's difficult. I'm constantly tempted to drink again. That's why I've cut myself off from my old life. It all reminds me of drinking."
"How long have you been sober?" I inquired.
"Just a month. I quit after I got arrested."
"At Margaret's house?"
"Yeah. You heard about that?"
"I'm sorry Laszlo, I just can't know you now. Maybe later. Goodbye." And with that he turned around and walked back toward his house.
I always had my morning bowl of cereal and berries while I checked my email, checked the weather and scanned on-line editions of several newspapers. When I brought the local paper up in my browser I saw a minor headline that said 'Man Found Dead'. Reading it gave me a real shock: Bogus had died the night before. The cause was listed as respiratory failure caused by alcohol. His body was found about midnight lying on the lake shore path.
Megan was showering so I got up and paced nervously, waiting for her to finish. When she came into the kitchen I told her, "Bogus died last night from acute alcohol poisoning."
"I'm so sorry," she consoled me.
I realized that I didn't have anything to say, so I kissed her and headed for the door. Then I motioned toward the lake and said, "Going for a walk."
The paper hadn't said where along the lake path he was found, and I couldn't see any sign of it as I walked along. I just kept going. No work today, I thought. If I kept going I'd walk all the way around the lake, about 20 miles. There was no reason to stop or turn around.
"Well, old friend," I said as if speaking to Bogus, "you sure made a mess of your life. Poor guy." I realized how lucky I was to have Megan. "She would never tolerate me drinking myself to death," I said out loud, and laughed.
I walked and walked, making a conscious effort to count my blessings. It was mid-afternoon by the time I had gone all the way around and was back at home. I said to myself, "I should sleep well tonight. There's another blessing."
In the decades since Bogus died I've thought about him often. He would be happy to know that I lived long enough to see real artificial intelligence, and that the singularity played out pretty much as he predicted.