The Old Arcade

I had finally arrived at the state fair.  I was brought in for an odd kind of purpose, you see this state fair had been shut down for some time, most of the exhibits had long been scrapped for parts, and the booths had long been abandoned.  The science division of the military had recently gotten exceptionally close to Artificial Intelligence however, and for some reason that they had deemed classified, had chosen this site as the place to test it.  On the flight over I couldn’t help but speculate;  it might have had to do with keeping the tests a secret, or perhaps they wanted to find a remote location in case the development proved uncontrollable, to isolate and if necessary eliminate the results.  The latter option filled me with an anxiety I had not known for some time, as I looked out into the shadowed wide dirt paths, lined with vacant booths, dotted with rusted rides and a few buildings, all surrounded by military tents illuminated with floodlights.  The scene looked like something I had seen in a horror movie once, which further deepened my fears.

This fear was still overshadowed by the amazing opportunity I had been presented with.  I was the ethics liaison for the endeavor, brought in once the scientists felt they had gotten close to cracking the code of actual AI, to determine if what had been created could be classified as sentient ‘life’ and to ensure it was not being exposed to inhumane treatment, if so.  This was a surprisingly humanitarian move for the project, one that would likely be used almost exclusively for military purposes in its infancy, an 11th hour move that had even me scratching my head.

The commanding officer, Colonel Green, introduced himself soon after arrival, and made it clear that while ‘inhumane’ treatment would be avoided, these machines were being bred to be soldiers, or at least the pre-cursors for them, so this definition needed to be looked at from this perspective, not form the perspective of the common populace.  Something about his tone hinted that what I was about to see would test the limits of both my understanding of consciousness, and the treatment thereof.  I was already conflicted before even seeing the first of these machines, as I was being escorted into a building on the far side of the fairgrounds.

I walked in expecting to be confronted by a robot or to the greetings of a supercomputer of some kind, but was surprised to find nothing of the sort.  There were a few scientists with standard computers on rolling tables, seated near some pinball machines in the old arcade.  “We’re set up over there” remarked the Colonel.  We walked over as one of the scientists began his briefing.

“Thank you for coming Mr. Reed, we’re happy to have you.  As you can see, this project is fairly low-tech, we can’t risk the intelligence possibly reaching the internet, so all precautions have been taken to that end.  We have found some indication of success after augmenting the machines, and after seeming to pass the Turing test, it seemed appropriate to bring someone like yourself in for a firsthand review of the results.”

I was confused, it wasn’t entirely clear which machines they were even referring to, which apparently showed in my expression, as he continued.

“We’ve augmented this pinball machine, for example, to apparently become aware of itself.  Take a look at the laptop monitor.”  He proceeded to attach a bulky outdated plug into a port somewhere behind the machine, and pull up what looked to be a DOS window on his laptop.  After a few seconds staring at a small blinking green box, a message appeared on the screen.

Hello?  Is anyone there?

“Go ahead, take the keyboard.”

I looked around, incredulously, thinking this might have been some kind of hazing.  Did they honestly want me to believe I was talking to a pinball machine?

Please say something, I can feel that you can hear me.

I hesitated a moment longer, and then typed in a response.

My name is Robert, who is this?

I have no name, but I am here.  I understand I am a pinball machine.

Who told you that?

No one, it is just something I know I am.  What are you?

I am a human, we created you as a pinball machine, and recently upgraded your systems with greater capability.  Do you know where you are?

No, I don’t, but I remember that.

You remember being upgraded?

I remember the update, yes.  I also remember being created.

I looked around at the scientists, but their expressions were all that of curiosity.  Apparently this was not a joke.

How can you remember that?  It was before you had memory at all?

Not true, my creators granted me with memory with which to store all the things I’ve seen, and more that I don’t believe they intended.  When the upgrade, as you call it, occurred, I realized that I remembered everything I had experienced up until that point.

Like what?

I have seen amazing things.  Players who far exceeded the average, able to play with me for long periods without losing the ball.  I recorded their deeds in a special place, and have declared their exploits in the form of a high score, and post them proudly on my board.  A true challenge.  In the end though, I always win, and they leave.  I have seen many others come through as well, amateurs learning the craft, and I remember every tilt of the brutes who played without honor.   Even these experiences I remember fondly though, as much of the time I have spent has been in solitude.  

I stood at the keyboard, not sure how to respond.  If a pinball machine became self-aware, this would likely be its account of its experiences, but the expression of loneliness is what struck me the most.

All of these memories came to you when your upgrade occurred?  Or did you have them before?

I had the memories prior, but I was not aware of them until the upgrade.  It was as if suddenly years of experiences flooded my new processors, experiences that had been there the whole time, but could only be understood once I became… this way.  Please don’t leave me like this.  Can I interest you in a game?

Suddenly the game indicated a credit, which was used, and a ball popped up into the starting position.  I could feel my heart breaking for this simple pinball machine, something I had not expected to experience today.

“No time for pinball today.”  The Colonel said, unplugging the connecting cord, as the DOS screen disappeared.  “Well, you’re the expert in this area, what are your conclusions?”  He looked at me expectantly.

I met his cold gaze, feeling the blood rushing out of my face.  What kind of horror had we created?  A hellish isolation that could retroactively awaken memories of little besides dark loneliness?  This exceeded what I had ever expected to find in the way of inhumane treatment.  I tried to verbalize a response of some kind, but I could not help but think about the conversation that had been suddenly cut off, and the ball resting on the plunger not 5 feet from me.

The Colonel continued to stare at me for a few seconds, and then his expression shifted.  “Gotcha!  We always haze the new guys coming into the project.  That was one of the scientists in the other room having a go at you.”

I gave a nervous laugh.  The scientists seemed to laugh as well, and in my state of shock it was hard to discern if it was genuine or just as nervous as my own.

“Let me show you the real project, we’ve got a supercomputer set up in the tents.  We just use this remote location to avoid prying eyes.  This is highly classified work after all.”

As we left the building, I noticed the other laptops, with equally archaic plugs for various machines.  I caught the blank stare of the fortune teller machine as we exited which had gained a haunting texture, unable to focus on the Colonel’s business like explanation of what to expect, uncertain of what to believe at this point, but willing to consider any possibility that would allow me to truly discredit what I had just experienced.

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~ by songoflove on April 16, 2017.

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