Author’s note for “I for one welcome our new computer overlords”

ifowonco final

I for one welcome our new computer overlords was the first new short story I wrote after having completed Mark Red, The Chasm and the Collision, and Son of Man.*  Despite what you might think, this was not a story that driven by its title, though that came along shortly after the story began, and I’ll deal with it first.  The title is a direct quote from Ken Jennings, who wrote it as his Final Jeopardy answer when he and his fellow all-time human Jeopardy champion lost to IBM’s Watson computer.  It was a good joke, referring back to an episode of The Simpsons, when news anchor Kent Brockman mistakenly thinks that a space shuttle mission is being attacked by a “master race of giant space ants,” adding, “and I for one welcome our new insect overlords.”  The obvious joke—particularly funny because Brockman’s conclusion is so ridiculous—is about how real people do sometimes, cynically, and in cowardly fashion, try to ingratiate themselves to powerful ruling classes or individuals.

Peter Lunsford, the main character of I for one welcome our new computer overlords, is no coward.  He’s a seemingly simple man—without college education, a widower, a loner, a phone salesman.  But he’s a voracious reader, and even more, he is a deeply thoughtful and intelligent person.  Because of his own experiences with irrationality, even in people he has loved, he pines for the advent of a higher class of mind, which he expects to come from the eventual creation of artificial intelligence.  But he’s by no means a misanthrope.  He laments the senselessness of much human behavior but has an optimistic attitude toward the possibilities inherent in human creativity.  He also has a deep sense of the tragedy of the loss of brilliant people like his wife who, because of the scars of her harsh background, self-sabotaged her future through a fatal drug overdose.  Thus, when Peter wins a nearly billion-dollar lottery jackpot, he uses it to create an educational program and a scholarship fund to help people like his wife avoid the tragic end she met, and to allow at least some of them reach their potential and make great contributions to the world.

The triggers for this story were discussions by neuroscientist, writer, and podcaster Sam Harris, of whom I am a fan.  Harris began to think publicly about dangers that might be posed to humanity by our possible creation of artificial intelligence; he recommended that we think very carefully about such dangers, so we can avoid potentially irreversible errors.  His concerns are shared by such luminaries as Max Tegmark, Elon Musk, and the late, great Stephen Hawking, in contrast to the quasi-Utopian attitudes of such writers and thinkers as Ray Kurtzweil.  Both points of view are worth considering, and it’s an issue I think we should approach with our eyes as wide open as we can possibly get them.  But when contemplating Harris, et al’s concerns, I couldn’t help thinking that, if a truly superior artificial intelligence were to make humans obsolete, would that be such a terrible thing?  Peter Lunsford is my proponent of that perspective.**

I wanted to write a story revolving around those concerns about artificial intelligence, but I didn’t want to write about a cliché takeover of the world by AI—in this, my title is deliberately ironic.  Personally, I suspect that ethics and morality are generally improved by higher intelligence, all other things being equal, so I think that artificial intelligences might be inherently more ethical and reserved than we humans, with all our non-rational evolutionary baggage.  In this, Ifowonco is a story of wish-fulfillment.  It’s my daydream of the possibility that someone winning a truly gargantuan sum of money might use it to deeply positive philanthropic effect, inspiring others to act likewise, then leading, through that beneficial action, to a great leap forward in intelligent life (yes, I would without embarrassment refer to AI as a form of life).

Of course, you can’t say that Ifowonco is a uniformly happy story.  It entails a (non-nuclear) World War III, the rejection of AI by the human race, and of course, Peter Lunsford’s willful self-destructiveness.  Overall, though, it’s optimistic.  Darrell White is my example of a brilliant, world-changing mind springing from the least promising of seeming circumstances, wanting only the opportunity and nurturing that would allow such a mind to flourish.  He and my imagined AIs represent of my personal conviction that reason and morality and vastly more powerful than their antitheses; I cite as evidence for this the fact that civilization continues to exist and grow, even though it’s so much easier to destroy than to create.

In some senses, Ifowonco is the most personal story that I’ve written hitherto.  Of course, any character in a story must be a reflection of some part of the mind of the author—a person incapable of dark thoughts could hardly write a believable villain, for instance.  But Peter Lunsford is the avatar of a large part of my personality, in both his positive and negative character attributes.  Though I’ve had almost twice as much formal education as Peter, that difference is inconsequential because of Peter’s incessant self-education.  There is, in fact, almost no daylight between Peter Lunsford and me (and what little there is must generally be in Peter’s favor).  I would even like to think that, were I to win a prize such as Peter wins, I would choose to do with it something like what he does; in this, also, the story is a form of wish-fulfillment.

Speaking, in closing, of wish fulfillment:  I deliberately made the reality of the second half of the story ambiguous.  Do Darrell White and his creations, and all that comes with them, even exist in this universe?  Or are he and those subsequent beings and events simply a species of dream that Peter has while his brain succumbs to hypoxia?

I know the answer to this question in the universe of the story—and yes, there is a correct answer—but I’m not going to tell you what it is.  I’d rather have you draw your own conclusions.  I think it’s more fun that way, and it may even be a useful tool for personal reflection, bringing us back to that whole question of consciousness that troubles thinkers like Sam Harris.  I’d be intrigued and delighted to hear any of your thoughts on the subject, so feel free to send them my way, either here, or on Facebook, or on Twitter.  I wish you well.

* Just this week I released the audio of this story, now available to enjoy, for free, here on my blog.

** I don’t have the concerns, which Harris does, about the possibility that AI could be highly intelligent and competent but might nevertheless not be conscious, for two reasons:  First, I strongly suspect that consciousness is a natural epiphenomenon of highly complex information processing involving internal as well as external monitoring and response, though I’m far from sure; and second, I can’t be philosophically certain even that other humans are conscious (I think they are, but this extrapolation is based on my own experience and their apparent similarity to me), but it doesn’t seem to matter much for the purposes of their function in the world.

Give to a gracious message an host of posts

ifowonco final

Hello and good day to you all.  I’m pleased to announce, as the picture above might lead you to believe, that “I for one welcome our new computer overlords” is now available for purchase on Amazon—for the price of a mere 99 cents.  If you wish to go to the Amazon page on which it is available, you need only click the picture above and you will be taken there.  It’s almost like magic, but it’s even better; it’s technology.

This story isn’t going to be available as a paperback in its current form (though it may in future appear as part of a collection).  It is rather long for a “short story,” being just shy of 23,000 words in length (about forty single-spaced pages), but it still just isn’t economically viable to sell as a physical book.  The costs of production would make the necessary asking price prohibitive for almost any sensible purchaser.  So, currently, if you want to read it (and I think that’s a reasonable wish), you’ll have to buy it for Kindle.  In case you didn’t know already, you can download the Kindle app for free, here, to read from any computer, tablet, or smartphone, so there’s nothing to prevent you from enjoying it.  The fact that you’re reading this online suggests that you are amenable to reading works that are presented in electronic format, so presumably you won’t be deterred from reading it by its e-book nature.  Although, interestingly, the main character of the story itself prefers to read books in hard copy format, though he happily reads articles and blogs online.

Oh, the irony.

I have withdrawn “Ifowonco” from its previous proud place here on the blog; I have also unpublished my two other short stories here, “Prometheus and Chiron” and “Hole for a Heart.”  They will both shortly become available on Kindle as well, but there may be a bit of a delay, as I don’t want to slow down the writing of “Unanimity” too much.  I’ve toyed with the idea of assigning two days a week just to the editing of these stories until they are ready for publication, and reserving the rest of the week for the writing of “Unanimity.”  I think I’ll try this out as a possible paradigm for balancing the writing of new material with the editing of completed projects in the future.  Both tasks are essential, but I have learned—from the long process of editing previous books, during which time I held off writing new ones—that I get a bit blue if I’m not writing new fiction.

Those of you who have been following this blog might have noticed that I recently put up four posts that are essentially the same as the descriptions in the “My Books” page about my books that are published and available on Amazon.  I’ll probably do the same for “Ifowonco,” and for subsequent stories as well, and the reason for this is simple:  When I share the location of these books to Twitter directly from Amazon, the tweets occur without any attached imagery, and that makes for a less interesting promotional tweet.  The same problem doesn’t occur on Facebook, but it has its own issues with how links are promoted, so using it requires its own specific strategies and tactics.

I’m still conflicted about posting author’s notes on Amazon in the reviews section, mainly because it would entail giving a “star rating” to the books, and I worry that that might be a bit misleading.  Still, maybe it would be useful as a way of just priming the pump for reviews.

I would like here officially and earnestly to request that any of you who have bought and/or read my books please give your feedback on Amazon.  It’s terribly useful, both for the author and for other potential buyers, to have that feedback on the site, so browsers can decide if the book sounds like the sort of thing they might like to read.  I know it can be a minor pain, and I don’t do it myself for absolutely every book that I buy, but I do try at least to rate the ones that I’ve bought once I have read them, even if I don’t leave a detailed review.  Even a single sentence could be terribly helpful to me, and to your fellow readers.

No matter what, I think I will write an author’s note for each of my published works—including “Ifowonco”—and post them here, for loyal readers to get feedback that might be interesting.  Of course, I’ve written about many of the stories here already, in various places, but to have a specific, dedicated author’s note might be useful, or interesting, or at least entertaining.

Speaking of being entertaining, I’m sorry if this post isn’t as fun or as funny as some of my others—though perhaps no one ever finds my posts funny, I don’t know—but as you are all aware, it’s the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and I, like so many, am mentally fatigued.  It’s something of an irony that, even at a purportedly joyous time of the year, so many people are heavily stressed.  This is true even for those who have nearby family and friends, and an emotional support system, to share the joys and the burdens of the season with them.  It can be more poignant and difficult still for those of us who do not have those things, especially overlying the dark time of the year as it does, when people prone to mood disorders are more likely to have trouble with them.  Still, the days are now beginning to lengthen, and even if there is no tangible change yet in the duration of the light (we are near the minimum of the sine curve, and the rate of change of the function is almost as low as it gets), we at least have the benefit of being able to anticipate with hope the increasing sunshine to come.

Of course, we would never want there to be no darkness at all.  Darkness can be beautiful, even when it is frightening, even when it is terrible.  Too much of it, though, tends to wither the heart.

Again, please do give me feedback on the author’s note/review notion, if you have any feedback at all to give.  And even more, please do review or at least rate those works of mine which you might have purchased and/or read.  I would be truly grateful…for whatever that’s worth.