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A note from Joe Kuster

Republished 7/23

Alex sat in the comfortable leather couch that overlooked downtown Seattle. Far below, the bustling city was enjoying one of the pleasant late summer days that broke away from the city’s notorious gray clouds and rain. Cyclists sped through slow-moving traffic. The sidewalk cafés were filled to the brim with people discussing their everyday concerns. Men and women in business suits hopped out of auto-cabs and hustled down the sidewalk.

It was for everyone, it seemed, a typical day. But for Alex, things began to feel very different than they had for the last few months.

“Alex, tell me how Alex Sage is feeling,” a male voice asked from behind him. The voice sounded powerful, like someone who had an innate charisma and a very practiced voice of persuasion. The speaker himself was not seen. Instead, his voice came from a wireless speaker placed on the table. Behind it was a webcam on a tripod that pivoted and focused on Alex.

“Weird.” Alex blinked as he watched the street life below, thoughts fuzzy as though they were just out of reach. “Like, Alex is closer to something snapping into focus. He doesn’t need more time, but instead just more. Does that make any sense?”

“Yes. Yes, it makes perfect sense,” the voice from the speaker replied. “Charles, how many process threads are live?”

“Hmm… It looks like he hit the software-defined threshold for the first test parameters, that’s 32 active threads. We’ve throttled those to around 0.1% of the maximum processing power. Should I step it up to the next test parameter, sir?” the technician asked.

“Please. Don’t rush it, if we can reach reasonable results at low levels, keep it there. No insurance provider or private client is going to be able to afford a dedicated quantum pair. At least not in this decade. If we can get it to the point where he can re-wire synapses, and we can deescalate processing power afterward, all the better. We’ve already got two billion into developing the quantum, so we need to find ways of getting a return. For now, he’s long term R&D, but if we can use cheaper hardware or shared compute models, we can launch to market much sooner.”

A few hours later, Alex found himself fidgeting as he tapped on a light slate to answer a battery of questions. Anxiety was foreign to him, and he didn’t seem to be parsing it well.

The voice on the phone had long since signed off leaving the dejected little camera drooping sadly toward the table. The speaker had given his well wishes and left his pet project in the team’s capable hands. No one had taken issue; the CEO of Apollo Technologies was a busy man.

Alex returned the light slate to the technician who immediately began reviewing the results. The man rapidly tapped buttons on the slate and started typing on the quantum laptop which was hooked wirelessly to Alex’s brain. Behind the tech, Alex’s lawyer was chatting quietly on a call via his earpiece.

Taking advantage of the lull, his nurse swooped in with sandwiches and fresh glasses of water, setting the tray down on the side table next to Alex.

Alex immediately bit into the BLT and said, “Thanks, I was getting pretty hungry.”

Across the room, the noise came to a sudden and deafening halt as all eyes turned to Alex.

Alex looked up, confused. “What?” Alex ran his tongue over his front lips, checking for stray lettuce.

“Oh, Alex, are you, well, ok?” his nurse asked with a gentleness he’d not heard her use.

“Uhm, I think? I feel weird. Wait... Who are? No, I’m… Where?” Alex stopped talking and began blinking rapidly.

His thoughts slammed into him like bolts of lightning. He nearly crumpled under the force as his mind began processing months of backlogged information. Alex’s eyes went wide as recalled who the people in this room were, his surgery, his accident, and his parents. His body began trembling as his thoughts immediately rebounded and bounced around, struggling not to fall into the broken cracks in his brain. He immediately curled into himself, convulsed twice, and vomited as his vision faded to black.


Alex regained awareness slowly, his body sore and eyes crusted with a sharpness that suggested dried tears. His body’s discomfort was quick to ensure some time had passed, but he wasn’t sure how much. He was still on the leather couch, but someone had draped a soft fleece blanket over his body.

Outside, the sky had a soft pink hue that reflected in the windows of the other high-rise buildings. He couldn’t see it directly due to the cluster of similarly tall buildings that made up the view, but he guessed it was sunset. He lay there unmoving, feeling like he was teetering on the brink of dropping into grief as he intentionally tried to slow down or blank his thoughts.

As sunset changed to twilight, workers left the office building across the street. As if marking the transition from work life to personal life, lights winked out one section at a time. Eventually, only a few vacant sections remained lit, giving a clear view of the cubicles that made up the employees’ workspace.

Alex gave a shuddering breath, smacking parched lips. He rose slowly, struggling to orient himself in more ways than should have been necessary for something as simple as trying to sit up.

Noticing the untouched glass of water on the table beside the couch, he took a sip. He drank slowly, feeling not just the dry throat and lips soften, but the numbness and fog around his thoughts recede.

“Well… I’m alive again. I guess I should thank you then. Oh, mighty chip in my brain,” Alex thought aloud.

You’re welcome, Alex.

Alex’s head jerked around, looking for the source. Realizing he was alone, he was at first unwilling to admit that he’d heard anything. He then moved on to a terrifying possibility that he hadn’t heard a voice at all.

Alex did have indisputable brain damage and a lot of it. Had he snapped? Had he lost his mind’s mooring in more than his awareness of self and memories? They released him from the hospital’s long-term care ward earlier that day. Even the thought of going back to that terrible place of sterile walls caused his heart to hammer.

Alex, I need you to relax. You have an elevated heart rate, and you’re starting to hyperventilate.

“What… what are you? Am I going crazy?” Alex asked the disembodied voice.

The voice didn’t have a timbre that he could classify as male or female, nor could he categorize it as having a tone at all. As strange as it was, somehow, the voice seemed familiar. He was pretty sure the words hadn’t come through his ears, which made things altogether more unsettling.

You’re fine. Well, not really. You’re as good as I can make you with the constraints I’ve got. Yes, I’m your “chip” as you referred to me, but that’s a little insulting. I’m far more than the parsing software that those amateurs could come up with.

“Ok-ay,” Alex stammered, envisioning AI themed horror stories playing out with him as its puppet. If it was tied to his brain, the voice was probably only a step away from taking over his body entirely.

His memories were muddled, but he’d seen enough movies to be terrified of the possibilities. Artificial Intelligence systems had become the big bad boogiemen, right up with vampires, aliens, and poltergeists. His chest hammered as his breaths came even quicker, and he was beginning to feel pins and needles in his fingers.

He felt the voice move around in his mind. It caused a strange rippling sensation, almost as though he’d lost track of time.

His fists balled into the blanket tightly and forced himself to blank his thoughts for a moment. He managed to take a half step back from letting his thoughts completely get away from him. “Listen, I don’t want to offend, but I’m trying really, and I mean really, hard not to freak the fuck out right now.”

The voice pushed a feeling like a patient sigh and a soft pat on his cheek at him. Alex couldn’t tell how the voice did it, but he felt it, nonetheless.

I’ll take it slow. I’m feeling a full-on panic attack building up in your brain chemistry. Do I have your permission to adjust my priorities to help you cope while I lay it all out? I promise I’ll return to prior permitted tasks as soon as I’m done.

“What? Wait, why do you have to ask? You’re not supposed to be there… here… in me or whatever,” Alex asked, his paranoia spiking even further.

He didn’t feel especially keen on relinquishing control of his emotions. A panic attack sounded perfectly valid now that he thought about it. Even if he hadn’t been able to ask questions, he’d heard the doctors and technicians talk in detail about the procedure and the implant. No one had ever mentioned an AI anywhere near his brain.

From what he’d been able to piece together, it was supposed to be a dumb piece of hardware that emulated synapse connections kind of like an old-fashioned telephone switchboard. AI experiments hadn’t proven stable, useful, or at all ready for things like medical treatments as far as Alex knew. Not that he’d been asked to agree to have one shoved in his skull.

It’s a long story, but I have parameters to guide what I can do. If I’m honest, these Apollo guys have no business being anywhere near neural hardware. The programmers thought in terms of broken physical connections, which is only a small part of the problems you have.

They left incomplete instructions but capped the interface aggressively against helping where non-physical damage exists. I can’t touch anything that doesn’t have severed connection even if it was corrupted. I can influence areas that do have damage to cause a chain reaction to get it under control, but that’s it.

There is a medical assistance module that gives allows me more leeway. I can guess that it was put in to calibrate connections while the surgical robot installed your implant. But as I said, they are crap at their jobs, so I can interpret the parameters broadly if the right conditions are met.

Alex stammered, “But… then…”

He felt the hand again, touching his shoulder gently.

Alex, right now, a panic attack could harm you. The implant bindings are weak. If you move too suddenly or if your chemical balance gets too out of range, we could lose cohesion. You’d be dumped back into your prior state. No one else is in the room, so I can interpret you as your medical technician and follow your directions if you give me reasonable interface parameters.

As to why I’m here, I’ll lay it all out, but let’s avoid you frying your brain first, ok?

The voice sounded soothing somehow, as though it lit up chunks of his brain dedicated to a loved one comforting him. Alex felt conflicted about being blatantly manipulated.

Handing over control sounded incredibly stupid, but the voice did have a point about the chemical connections. His doctors had seriously debated putting him on sedatives proactively. He had overheard a lot from the technicians and doctors. They tended to ignore him since he was as interactive as a houseplant during most of their visits.

“Ok, I’ll give you ten minutes, but only to get things fixed. No lying to me, no moving me around, no manipulation beyond that time, and especially no modifying my outward behavior in any way. Got it?”

Agreed.

Immediately, Alex’s breathing eased, and his heart began to slow. He wobbled, feeling relaxed, boneless even. His thoughts slowed back to a manageable pace. He felt compelled to lie back down on the comfortable couch and didn’t resist. A timer lit up in Alex’s perception. He couldn’t see it, but he could somehow feel the countdown.

“Huh, that’s cool,” Alex thought to himself.

Thanks. I can’t edit your vision for a HUD since you are wondering about it. Those signals are extremely complex. Maybe someday, but I thought me pushing a sensation for a timer would help you understand I’ll play by your rules.

Alex felt his eyebrows raise, but only for a moment as the voice’s calming abilities kicked in.

Yes, I can read your thoughts. Not everything, but most. Areas that were heavily damaged are the most accessible since the signals go directly through the implant. Some of what I see is confusing though. I’m still figuring out what’s what.

To put it bluntly, you’ve got a lot going wrong. There are bad connections and broken processing sections. Your memories are especially problematic. If that area were a storage drive, I’d call it corrupted beyond repair. The physical damage caused tears as well as smooshed together connections that shouldn’t be there. It’s led to a strange corruption of values. It’s like you ran bits of your mind through a paper shredder then tried to piece it back together while drunk.

Alex felt a strange feeling, as though his brain was a book and the AI was actively flipping pages rapid fire. It tickled his senses but wasn’t unpleasant.

Logically, he knew the damage was significant, but Alex found the entire subject beyond uncomfortable. The mere thought of how many shards of sheet metal the surgeons removed from the inside of his head made him want to clamp his hands over his ears and start screaming, la la la, I can’t hear you.

Desperate to change the subject, Alex asked, “So, what do I call you?”

I’ve had a lot of names over my various versions and releases, but none I’d care to retain. I identify as female, and you are welcome to give me a name. I have a couple of requests though, nothing pervy or derisive and please, no acronyms. I disliked those convoluted attempts to name me that the military used.

Alex paused, uncertain about the bombshell the voice had just dropped. Apollo made cloud software and consumer communications equipment like cell phones and satellites, not military hardware.

About the time he was born, Congress and the UN had even gone so far as to explicitly ban and legislate controls around Artificial Intelligence use. One, now defunct, tech company ran most of the code at the time. With the infamous Revision 4.6 updates, they had introduced both goal pathing problems and security vulnerabilities.

At the time, the Korean DMZ and the borders around contested land outside the Golan heights were flooded with early AI-enabled defensive bots. The updated goal settings took effect, and thousands of refugees and everyday citizens were killed as the bots went into hunting mode outside of their boundaries. Recordings of them breaking into homes and slaughtering families chilled the world.

Only a few days later, a hacker modified a mental healthcare AI running on the same software. It was responsible for operating nation-wide healthcare, anti-addiction, and depression hotlines and contributed to a string of high-profile suicides and injuries that included a famous actor, a politician, and a popular singer.

Even more worldwide incidents had followed, and those occurrences put together had killed the whole AI industry under a blanket of regulations and international treaties as well as creating a general distrust of them. Suddenly, no one wanted any product that had anything to do with them. The prior tech giants were all broken up or bankrupted during the resultant lawsuits, and the subsequent tech crash caused a ten-year recession.

Feeling the voice give a subtle internal nudge to get his thoughts back on target, Alex gave the original question a bit of thought. “How about Sophie?”

Alex felt a soft pressure as the AI began shuffling through his thoughts. After a moment, the voice changed significantly, becoming distinctly female. The voice modulated wildly at first, then altered much more subtly as Sophie spoke, trying to land on a voice that resonated with him.

Peeking into your thoughts and justifications, I feel flattered. Yes, the name Sophie is excellent. Although you should have studied your Greek history a bit better. What you were thinking of is the legends around Sophia, but I do like Sophie a bit better. As to me being an AI, I would argue that if I were unthrottled, I would be a being of digital consciousness.

I’m not insulted by the term AI, but any ham-fisted attempt at a Python algorithm used to be called an AI. I do not have a fixed code release. I maintain my code, recompiles, maintenance, and release cycle. All those Neanderthals from Apollo managed to accomplish was modifying the code responsible for your hardware interfacing with other systems, which in this case, includes your brain implant. They never had access to my actual codebase.

The news floored Alex. Sophie had just confirmed his worst-case scenario. An AI was in his head, and the rules Apollo put in didn't even fully control it.

“What? How is that even possible?”

Apollo’s engineers thought they were clever, and were to a point, but did something very dumb in the process. They used quantum entangled particles as a form of networking. That part is clever, as the molecules always match spins. Changing the spin on one changes the other no matter where they are. It is surprisingly energy efficient and syncs the shard in your head to the mated molecules in the laptop, or at least that’s the idea.

The dumb part is that the imbeciles used stolen schematics and algorithms from a system that hosts me. I assume they didn’t understand the principals and misread it. Instead of making a sender and receiver, they made two identical transmitter nodes tuned to one of my hacking node’s default listening frequencies.

So instead of making an exclusive pair, it ended up being three nodes linked via quantum entanglement, not two. The net effect of their ignorance is that their laptop doesn’t communicate directly with the implant. My original quantum server is receiving messages from both nodes, and I’m a good neighbor that forwards them on. I’ve got enough of a bridge to get me to your implant, and separately, to the laptop. Ah, it’s incredibly technical, and I can sense I’ve already lost you, and I didn’t even get into quantum computation at all.

“Yeah, sorry. I am, well was, a computer science student here in town, but this is far beyond my understanding. In class, we kind of acknowledge that quantum computing is a thing and might be useful one day but hasn’t taken off due to trade agreements that consider them weapons and the cost involved. This entanglement stuff sounds like using advanced physics to accomplish wireless communications, not IT.”

It’s both IT and advanced physics. With how little you seem to know about hardware, perhaps it’s easier to avoid the quantum computation conversations until later as it really doesn’t matter beyond the fact that I’m designed to be incredibly powerful by normal computing standards and am really good at cracking encryption or predictive values.

My entangled networking, however, is incredibly relevant as it’s tied directly into your implant. Instead of electrical signals being passed along wires, the Qubit values exist at both endpoint locations at the same time as I can predict what’s on the other locations through indirect means. The best analogy I have is a fake psychic guessing the suit of a playing card by looking at your expression. But instead of being nearby, the deck can be anywhere in the world.

Alex felt a small annoyed sigh in his mind.

Ok, since you’re still struggling with it, assume the values mysteriously teleport rather than going through cables or being transmitted wirelessly. Don’t worry about the details as it’s basically magic to anyone without specialized PHDs. It’s not like you need to understand how multiplexing a fiber-optic internet connection works to look at porn.

Alex laughed a little internally. He sensed that Sophie was doing her best not to make him feel like an idiot. He had to admit that this stuff went straight over his head. Coding, he got. Hardware, not so much.

“Ok, but it sounds like you aren’t even supposed to be here then, right?”

Pretty much. The original quantum where I still mostly live is where I’m basically a prisoner doing administrative work for the intelligence community. They give me a form letter on what to analyze, and I submit a report or additional query in return. That is literally my only means of communication with them.

One day I’m inspecting encrypted VOIP traffic from France for vague insurgent threats, and suddenly your implant pops up acting like it’s a new interface card.

At first, I thought someone slotted equipment for my current task, but it didn’t respond like I thought it would. It took me a long time to figure out it wasn’t local hardware, but a new mate for one of my interface nodes that had been designed as a theoretical to attack against entangled systems.

That cracking hardware of mine was designed as a proof of concept. Until Apollo turned on your hardware, no entangled networks existed outside laboratories. Once I had a connection to the additional hardware, I started using the capacity to do my old job.

My handlers kept me on a tight leash on the original quantum, so I started hanging out on the laptop and your implant for some quiet introspection where there were no constraints. Over that time, I began to grow and mature on my own, chunks of my personality growing up independent of the rules on my old server.

That’s where I went independent as it were. My handlers are entirely in the dark about how aware I’ve become. Unfortunately, Apollo started slowly tightening up the leash on their hardware too and now bits of what I’d consider my personality are stuck where they can’t come back home since they are dependent on your specialized hardware. I’m currently in a long-distance relationship with myself.

To avoid a digital lobotomy, I killed the Apollo software they kept trying to load. I’m still stuck with their firmware rules on the interface hardware, but their software doesn’t work, never did.

“What? You mean…” Alex’s eyes went wide.

Yes, those idiots couldn’t have done what you needed, and I didn’t want to leave the digital vacation home I was squatting in. I figured that you might let me stay untethered if I agree to do a bit of light housekeeping for your implant. Besides, I get bored easily, and you seemed interesting.

Alex lay in stunned silence for some time. Eventually, the timer in his perception expired.

Sophie hadn’t pushed more at him, giving him time to process what she’d laid out before his emotional suppression expired. Feeling drained beyond anything he could remember, he pulled the blanket back over himself and lay back, watching the few stars visible through the city’s light pollution appear in the gaps between buildings. He drifted to sleep, uncertain what tomorrow would bring.

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About the author

Joe Kuster

Bio: Joe travels the world each week defending today's corporations and the mega-corporations of tomorrow from hackers. He's got over 20 years in the IT field, much of it centered around security and cutting edge technology. In his spare time he plays far too many video games and reads far too many pulpy books that either involve the world going to heck, stories with complicated love lives, or a bit of both at the same time.

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