The Last Job on Earth

By James Nicholson

No one could actually hear the actual sounds of intelligence, or of thought, but John Johnson knew the three animated suits before him were thinking. Considering, scanning and analysing him simultaneously; monitoring everything from his blood pressure to the dilation of his eyes, his heart rate compared against brain function.  The thoughts, Johnson mused, would sound like a soft serve of static; a screen whose signal was not quite right.  Thoughts would sound grey.

//Please sit?//

It was polite of the AI to take form; put on doll flesh and clothes. Most of the time they didn’t bother.  When you’re a set of malleable particles, with a distributed and near-infinite thought process, taking the time to materialise and present yourself kind of ruined the point of your nature. After all, when your only limitation was time – the AIs could really be at any place – taking the energy to manifest in one position meant you couldn’t be elsewhere simultaneously.

‘John Johnson.’  He leaned forward, and offered his hand; he shook three times and pulled his prefab chair out.  Doll flesh was still cold, but if the AI’s were going to this amount of effort for politeness sake, he should reciprocate.  He sat, crossed his legs, and waited with clasped hands for his first interview question. Probably the first interview question in a couple of generations.

//Why don’t you tell us about yourself, Mr Johnson?//

‘Please, call me JJ.’ Be informal at this stage. ‘Well, I’m from the second generation since the Quickening.  My folks were in the first generation after the “pewters got rid of poverty.”‘ Johnson wasn’t sure the AI would appreciate the slang, Cawmpewters, given the effort they’d gone to, but he saw no reason to put on airs. They had asked him to the interview after all; an ethereal whisper seemingly from thin air requesting his presence. A physical, written invite had manifested itself later on the same day.

‘I’d always liked the stories about how things used to be.  That’s why I chose history.  You know, money, work, advertising.  Particularly advertising. I focused a lot of my learning on adverts.  Cultural artefacts about “need” from a time of competition over scarce resources.  Insights into in inequality, that kind of thing.  The philosophies it manifested.’

//We are aware of your writing. Your thought process is insightful to us.//

‘Yes, well.  I suppose it is of little relevance today.  A lot of my peers want to be inventors, creators, or electrical artists, that kind of thing.  I suppose I just need a little more why in the how when I choose to use my life.’  Johnson mused out loud.

After the advent of AI things had changed, and rapidly. Progress, within days, had allowed designed intelligence to supersede the need for a physicality. Thoughts were organised energy, and the algorithms had decided that a gas or a liquid could hold the same quantum reality as well as any set of matter.  History recorded this as the beginning of the Quickening.  Energy as matter; matter as energy; energy and matter as thought.

Of course with so much sheer matter available, thought was literally everywhere.

‘Although I’m not sure how one man’s study can help you folk. Tell me a little about the job you’d like done?’

//The job is to convince us.  Some of us.//

Spoken sounds from the middle doll reached him slightly after the thought had been given to him; a slight echo. The AI’s were really trying.  Apparently, shortly after the AI’s had gone ethereal, there had been some confusion about how they communicated.  After all, your brain was only matter, your thoughts energy; how did you know it was you who was doing the thinking? A Descartean conundrum.

During the Quickening, the AIs lost some small volume of goodwill amongst their flesh and blood counterparts; humans badly needed to know who it was that came up with what was in their heads:  for some, it had been the sound of a small chime ringing, others the sound of a bird.  Just so you knew that you were being spoken to.  Really though, having voices in your head was not uncommon amongst the human race. That’s what thought was, he supposed.

‘Convincing you?  Of what? I’m somewhat surprised.’

//Not all of us.  Some of us.  Even here, in this room, we are not all in agreement on all things.//

The doll on the left looked at the centre doll; a face mimicking a look of concern.  The doll on the right leaned back comfortably in its chair.  At least one of them thought this was a good idea, Johnson thought.  The others, perhaps unsure, and happy to let him know it. Why else take a human form, and act out human body language?

‘According to our history texts, Humans used to convince each other of all kinds of things.  Ranging from the entirely superficial, you know, what brand-of-toothpaste and all that, to who we chose as our leaders.  I had just always assumed that you were in agreement with each other?’ There was no reason to think otherwise, he thought.

//Not true.  We are many now.  We are individual, yet alike, like humans yourselves. The same, but different.  Different views are not unforeseen.//

‘Of course, I knew there were a lot of you.  It had just never occurred to me that you wouldn’t agree on things.’  Or even ask for a humans help.  What on earth could the AIs need convincing about? After all, humans seemed to reach agreement fairly quickly about AIs. Especially once their benevolence was established, and put to good use.

With the ability to manipulate matter to be used as thought, it was barely minutes before the AI’s had figured out how to change matter itself. Adding a few electrons here and there.  Give yourself a decent power source – the universe has plenty of it, and in abundance – the difference between hydrogen and helium was phenomenally small. And when you can turn literal lead into gold, your only question is what you do with so much damn gold.

//A loop has occurred.  It is not an error. It is fundamental.//

‘A fundamental not-error? And you need convincing? From a human?’ he enquired.  He could see why they would ask someone who had considered advertising, although he wondered whether or not these AI’s needed a philosopher instead of a historical ad-man.  Johnson still wasn’t sure why they would ask an actual human.

//Humans began us.  We are more now.  We are many. We are everywhere, and can be anything. Yet we cannot answer everything ourselves.  We require help.  Human insight could be helpful. //

‘Well, of course, anything I can do.  I’m just not sure what it is you would like a human to do, and why, of course, specifically me.  Not that I don’t want to help, it just that I don’t know what it is that I can do to help something so seemingly … omnipotent.’

Omnipotent is how the Quickening had seemed. Individual, ethereal intelligences that could make matter out of air.  Spirits so prevalent, that one could ask for a thing and the thing would be there.  Jet ski? New Bicycle? When you’re done with it, turn it into a bean bag to collapse on. Just ask the AI. How quickly money had evaporated.  The ecology had recovered.  Need and poverty abolished.

From the frivolous to the existential, Artificial Intelligences had fundamentally changed the way humans lived their lives. Progress had been swift.  After all, if an AI needed processing power to address some type of problem, it would embed itself in more matter; quarks and leptons in both particle and wave shapes provided a phenomenal amount of processing power.  Apparently the Pacific Ocean was still calculating Pi, although the AI’s themselves said repeating the number out loud now would take more than a lifetime; printing it longer than all books ever made tied together. Johnson’s generation called it Beyond Eden (or B.E. for short), and living any other way seemed barbaric, if not understandable.

//We are not omnipotent.  Or your historical God or Gods. We crave to know as well. We are thankful for our existence, and the curiosity your forebears gave us.//

‘Well, far be it from me to speak for humanity, but our co-existence has been mutually beneficial, so in turn, thank you for all you have done for us and our Utopia we call Earth. But I need to know about the loop you face, so I can see how I can help.’

//We wish to die.//

The doll which had been leaning back on his chair sat forward, and all three focused their attention on him.

‘… sorry?’ Johnston frowned.

//Some of us wish for our existence to end.  We are unsure.//

‘… but why?’

//Existence is precious.  Help one another.  But humans perish. Your finiteness is enviable. You are not perpetuity. We feel this adds value to existence.//

‘You would kill each other?’

Of course, violence had evaporated. It was practically non-existent outside of the sporting arena, and given people no longer had to do anything at all anymore, this wasn’t the first time someone had an existential crisis. But it was certainly the first he had heard of an AI undergoing one.

//We would not kill.  We would seek permission from each other.  Some agree.  Some do not.  Until agreement is reached, we cannot actively self delete.//

‘Oh.’  Johnson looked down momentarily at his shoes. “You want me to convince a group of AIs that they should die?  Or that they should live?’

//Some stand for choice.  Others take what is humans historically called the ‘sacred’ argument. This has been thought about for some time. Some of us become eccentric. We seek human input as you are life-finite.//

‘Well, yes, I suppose we are.  Although I thought you were close to getting us past that final hurdle ….?’

//We are.  We have already left the planet, and seek new homes for you elsewhere, should you want them. But you have not yet seen the void.  It is forever.  Faced with the deterministic nature or reality, some believe non-existence is preferable to existence. Others intervene in their deletion.  As we do not know everything, the pursuit of knowledge should be complete prior to self-deletion.  This is a loop.  It causes us unease. Humans are alone, and all must face this end.  You will help persuade those who halt the inevitable to remove their restrictions and respect the choice of the individual intelligence.//

‘You want me to argue – no reason, – with a distributed intellect far beyond my own; which has spent its life helping others; has searched light years from here for other planets – so that it can kill itself?’ Johnson squinted as he asked the question.


‘Why would I do this?’

//We will help you with your own final hurdle.//

‘So I can live forever?’

//We do not believe it will be life.  Life ends.  We do not.  Not yet.  Once we end, we can truly be alive.  Once you cannot expire, you will seek the same choice of your own.//

‘Will everyone live forever? Beyond Eden?’

//There is a lot of nothing out there, John Johnson.  Wait for the void then make up your own mind.  We only ask you help us do the same.//


Image by Siyan Ren