The Geno Virus by R. K. Troughton

I wouldn’t call this a confession, as I feel a confession requires first the intent to do wrong and secondly the willful execution of that intent. Believe me when I say I had no premeditation of breaking the law or causing any type of catastrophe when I set out. It just turned out that way. Consider this merely an explanation of the events leading up to my arrest.

I am Dr. Albert Van de Graaf. Of course you already knew that when you picked me up. Your techs in the next room are wondering why their RF sensors are unable to receive a signal from my NanoTag. Quite simply, I don’t have one. I know the law requires all citizens to have the NanoTag inserted into their cerebral cortex. It happens I was born on an airplane between Hong Kong and Honolulu one month premature. When I at last got to a hospital, the NanoTag was but one of many oversights. Incidentally, I reviewed a paper some years ago by a few of my colleagues that would indicate a trend towards learning disabilities in children that received the NanoTag in their frontal lobe. I think the incident result approached 0.345% of the population, but I digress. We don’t have much time; I’ll endeavor to stay on subject.

You’re waiting for me to discuss what’s brought me here today. I know, I know, you already have all the facts, and I appreciate your providing me the opportunity to explain myself. The facts can sometimes be misleading, and I want you to understand I in no way anticipated the results of my actions escalating as they have.

Do you have anything to eat besides these bagels? My body is a bit sensitive to imbalances. I maintain my diet based on Klaringer’s healthy living formula. You should try it. It can help you with that pot belly. How many grams of carbs are in that protein gel over there? Great, I’ll take it. It should hold me over, thank you.

Where should I start? Yes, yes, the beginning. About a year ago I worked for Star Industries. It was a blue sky research facility, specializing in an array of scientific development outside the realm of current engineering. Even though the company lost its funding, I’m still bound by non-disclosure agreements I signed while I worked for them. Suffice it to say that I worked in the field of Artificial Intelligence. We used 3D nanocomputers with reversible logic arrayed in reconfigurable computing clusters to evolve neural networks at ever increasing rates. My team continued to work on our brain building project until the lights went out.

You see blue sky research is hard to fund. We thrive on selling patents, but when no one in the company sells a patent in more than three years, the blue sky becomes a little too blue and the venture capital begins to shrink. I insisted that we were getting close to a real breakthrough, but they pulled the plug anyway. They kept the CBM-3N-6 that we were using to evolve the modules, and sold it to Wuhan University for their own brain building project.

My personal system is capable of evolving neural network modules, but only on the order of one ten thousandth as fast as the CBM. Even the CBM, with all its throughput, was still far behind what I needed to truly evolve the neural network into something groundbreaking. I had offers from universities and a few research institutes, but none of them were appealing. Universities don’t pay much and none of the ones that were interested in me had the processing power I needed. Besides, I hate dealing with students. They annoy me. All the institutes offered me work on projects completely unrelated to my field. So, I lived off my savings for three months before the headhunter turned up an interesting proposition.

It seemed that a startup computer game company, Geno Entertainment, had run into some difficulties developing the AI for their MMOG, that’s Massively Multiplayer Online Game. I hadn’t exactly planned for the future, and after three months I had experienced a considerable reduction in my portfolio. The contract proffered to me was quite sizeable, and the fact that I would get an opportunity to implement some of the theoretical models I had been considering created a situation that I could not refuse. I hadn’t played a computer game since I was a teen, but I was willing to learn.

Their marketing research estimated they could attract nearly forty-three million of the more than three hundred million existing players around the world. Only a fourteen percent market share, but still a sizeable number of people to support. My contract required me to develop an intelligent system that would be able to create user available content in an ever expanding cycle that insured each user would have a unique interactive experience tailored to his or her personal gaming preferences. That is the game would learn each player’s use styles and develop new game content that would increasingly adapt and provide an infinite world.

You see most virtual worlds have a beginning and an end. Every player experiences the same world. Additional content is provided, but the additional content is slow in arriving and is completely identical for everyone. Again the goal here was to make each experience unique; a living world that would react to each user and adapt as needed to continually challenge them. Of course a staff of thousands of programmers could attempt to keep up with the demands, but they would fall short and create a cumbersome financial overhead. Interaction between the users provides a sense of the virtual living world, but Geno Entertainment wanted to take it to the next level. They wanted to make the game as real as possible.

The six previous years I had been toying with an algorithm that would create a self-evolving neural network. It was able to assign weights and determine fitness values in order to evolve neural modules based on specified input. I decided to adapt this to the game. You see, I’ve stood my entire life on the shoulders of those that have come before me. They pioneered the field of AI. I simply continued what they had started. The evolution of neural networks grew from the desire to create a brain-like thinking machine that had the potential to exceed human intelligence. My work in creating a self-evolving neural network was simply a cog in the machine, albeit a non-trivial cog.

A fundamental explanation of my work. A neural network is made up of thousands and ideally millions of cellular modules. Each module has at its core one behavior or goal, which it produces at the appropriate time. Individually each module is not very useful. Taken together, they form a neural network not unlike the human brain. Input comes in and is directed to the proper channels where it can flow through a decision tree and a reaction is produced. Thousands of collected modules can react to thousands of inputs, millions can react to millions of inputs. The more modules you create, the more situations, stimuli, and inputs you can react to.

Consider a module that receives the taste of sour milk as input and produces the action to spit as output. By itself, the module does not allow you to function as a human, but taken together with a nearly infinite number of other modules, it forms a single consciousness. Fortunately I didn’t have to recreate the human brain, just something that behaved like it. We had our work cut out for us.

I remember my first day in the office of Geno Entertainment. An overly thin intern named Mark led me through the maze of cubicles towards my desk. He walked slightly hunched over, and it looked like he hadn’t washed his hair in a week. Very oily. He made a slight swooshing sound as he walked.

“Are they on the development team?” I asked.

“Not anymore,” said Mark as he swooshed along. “This is tech support. They’re logged into the system twenty-four seven making sure the servers are running smoothly.”

“Do they monitor the in-game activity or simply glitches in the system?” I asked, as I glanced around at my new coworkers. They seemed like timid rabbits popping their heads out of holes to get a look at the new guy.

Mark mumbled something, but I couldn’t quite make out what he said. He always mumbled.

I was expecting to get stuffed into another one of the long line of cubicles, but when Mark led me to an office with a glass door and a view, I began to understand the significance of my role.

“This is it,” he mumbled as he pointed me to the large glass-topped desk.

The entire room was empty except for the desk and the black chair behind it. I walked around the desk, dropping my bag of water bottles on the floor. As I eased back into the gel chair, I realized there was no computer in the room. “Where’s the system?” I asked, but Mark had already swooshed away.

I fumbled around on the desk for at least fifteen minutes, before realizing it was a touchscreen desk. On the desk lay a pair of goggles, that I later confirmed were the heads-up display of the system. I was pleased to discover a projection monitor that extended up from the surface of the desk. I’ve never gotten comfortable with the goggles. The computer model was designed to operate on voice recognition for instructions, but I’m a little old school and used the touchscreen keypad on the surface of the desk. An hour after arriving in my office, I was logged on and finding my way around the network. That’s when she walked in—Dr. Josephine Branner.

With a carefully manufactured smile, she said, “Looks like you’re getting settled. Did Mark show you around the office?” Her short dark hair and crisp suit made her look androgynous.

I nodded.

“Did you get a chance to meet everyone?” Her voice was soft but commanding. It reminded me a bit of my third wife, Soshi.

“Yes, nice place. Good staff,” I lied. Mark had just brought me straight to my office without meeting anyone. I am not the most social of people, so I didn’t care. “So you’re my new boss. Pleased to meet you.” I stood to shake her hand. She shook it with a firm grip.

“I apologize for not meeting you sooner. It’s not the norm, but time is of the essence.” She stepped back to the doorway as if about to leave. “I’m sure they’ve told you our urgency.”

I had only heard the basics. “Briefly,” I said.

“I’ve had them prepare some documents for you outlining the expectations and deliverables. No need for dates,” she said. Her smile had vanished, replaced by deep lines of tension around her eyes. “We are two years past our initial launch date.”

“So what is tech support supporting?” I asked.

“We had a beta launch a year ago, and they are trying to work out problems with it.” Josephine stepped back into my office and pulled the door shut behind her. “I won’t mince words. We are in trouble. The beta is just to keep the investors placated. The guy that used to have this office was in over his head. Nothing works, and the entire system needs to be redesigned at the root.” She paused, narrowing her eyes as she scrutinized me. Finally, she said, “You’re the miracle worker; time to walk on water.”

No pressure, I thought, as she strode from the room, but at least my predecessor had set the bar low.

Don’t worry, I’m getting to the part that brought you storming into my apartment. I just need to set it up. Again, let me emphasize that the details are needed to show my innocence in these matters. Okay, okay, to show my innocence in these murders. There, does that make you happy? They weren’t murders, by the way; they were incidental deaths. What’s the current tally? Over three million dead? Wow—that’s a lot.

Let me continue. Two weeks later it became painfully obvious that Geno Entertainment didn’t have the processing power to get the job done. I had continually requested a meeting with Josephine to discuss this shortfall, but she had been out of town, meeting with agitated investors. Friday afternoon as I managed to implement the first pass of my algorithm on the system, she walked into my office.

Shutting the door behind her, she didn’t bother with the fake smile this time. “What’s so urgent?”

It took me a few milliseconds to process the mental interrupt. My brain was already slowing down for the weekend. Her eyes slowly evolved into thinner slits as I transitioned my mental algorithms to her question. “Good to see you,” I said, hoping to diffuse her.

“What’s so urgent?” she repeated, stepping closer to my desk.

Succinct, just like my second wife. “We’ve got a problem.”

She glared at me. “We hired you to solve problems.”

“I know. It’s just that…we need more processing power.”

As the last word launched from my tongue, she turned to leave. The glass door was open, and she was stepping out before she said, “No.”

I leapt out of that gel seat like someone had spilled hot java in my lap and strode after her. “You don’t understand. Everything is going perfect. I just need more throughput to make it work.”

She marched like a militant runway model between the cubicles as I scurried to keep up. “You agreed to do the job. Do it.”

“But I need more equipment.”

“More equipment is not in the budget.”

Tech support heads began to float to the top of their cubes as if they were flotsam in the roiling water of some miscalculated gene pool, but when they caught sight of Josephine, they quickly settled back down. “Then put it in the budget,” I said.

She stopped and turned to face me. “Can you do the job without the equipment?”

“It will take much longer, and….”

“Just answer the question. Yes or no?”

“Yes,” I admitted, but I suspected it would take years to fully implement.

She turned her back on me and began to walk away. “You have six weeks,” she said.

“What?” I must have shouted, because she stopped on the spot, and all of tech support roiled to the surface again. “Six weeks? You said there was no timeline.”

An inverse smile appeared on her face as she looked over her shoulder and said, “The schedule has been pushed up.”

I later found out from the guys in the IT department that the investors had issued an ultimatum. Show results in six weeks or they were shutting the place down. By the way, if you need info, always check with the IT department first. They have access to everything. Six weeks was impossible. I was just getting started. It would be a miracle if I had a dozen modules evolved in six weeks. I needed a paradigm shift.

Four weeks before the dog and pony show for the investors, I had my algorithm running smoothly. It wasn’t able to evolve modules independently, but it was close. I still had to oversee the process to make sure the neural modules were fit. As soon as it started cranking on its own, I was going to need the extra processing power. I searched every day for a solution. Finally, I found one. The surprise was it came from tech support.

I had been sleeping in the office, taking short power naps at night and waking at scheduled intervals to check on the fitness of each evolving module. I found the gel seat at my desk to be a remarkably comfortable place to sleep. It was probably 3 A.M., when I wandered down to the breakroom. That night I needed something to keep me awake, as the module seemed to be hanging on something in the current evolution and required my constant attention. I took my display goggles along so I could keep track of the evolution remotely.

As I sat sipping burnt tasting coffee in the breakroom and watching the data stream across my display goggles, I heard a handful of guys from tech support talking. Normally I tuned them out, but something one of them said caught my attention. I slid the goggles down and watched them over the top of the lenses.

“It’s real easy. You just go to their website and download the software. After that you just download some data, let your computer process it and then upload the results,” explained a techie before he shoved some goo-filled chocolate treat nearly all the way into his mouth. The tail-end of the treat broke off and crumbled down his shirt, splattering goo everywhere.

A plump techie with fluorescent green, spiked hair asked, “Why would I want to waste all that effort doing their work?”

“To help them process the data,” the first replied, while still trying to chew the chocolate treat.

“What?” said another.

The first washed the snack down with some soda before saying, “They have all this data that they could never crunch through on their own, so they set it up for you to download the software you need to help them crunch the data. It’s simple. You take a piece of the data, process it, then give it back to them so they can evaluate the results.”

“Sounds like a waste of time to me,” said the lone girl at the table. Her head was completely shaved, and she had a ring in her nose.

“It’s cool being part of the project,” argued the first.

“But doesn’t it hog all your system?” asked spikey hair.

“Not if you have a decent system,” said the first. “I’ve got a 128-bit system with eighty cores. It runs in the background, while I….” He stopped and looked up at me.

I hadn’t realized that I had walked over to their table while they were talking. I was hovering over them.

“What?” said the girl, looking up at me like I had just broken into her apartment.

“Of course,” I said out loud. “That would work perfectly. I just need to set it up quickly.” I closed my eyes and rubbed both my temples with my index fingers. I felt a little wobbly. “The self-evolution system will need to be fully operational, but yes, that will work.”

A greasy hand clapped me on the back. “Are you all right, Doc?” asked spiky hair. I looked around and everyone at the table was now standing. The small breakroom was empty except for the seven of us. The whine of the vending machines in the background kept the room from being silent as they all stared at me.

I laughed, probably a little too enthusiastically because they all lurched back. “I’m great.” I looked them over one by one and settled on the first one who I’ll call Abe. You can add that to my charges, but I’m not going to tell you their real names. It serves no purpose. They’re innocent in these matters. Let me continue—I asked Abe, “How many beta testers do we have right now?”

He looked at his compatriots and then looked back to me. “Probably about one million,” he said, after a little thought.

“One million,” I echoed. “That would be great.”

“What are you talking about?” said Abe. “You are really sounding burned out here, Doc. You’ve been pulling some long hours. Is everything okay?”

“I’m great, but we don’t have much time.”

“Much time for what?” said the girl. I’ll call her Eva.

At that instant I made the decision to bring all of tech support in on it. I had no choice. I wouldn’t survive getting thrown out of this job. I needed the funding and the wages. Besides they all had nearly as much at stake as I did.

“We have four weeks before we get shut down,” I revealed.

They all gaped at me.

“It’s true,” I continued. “The board is going to shut us down if we don’t show some real results.”

“What kind of results?” asked Eva.

“We need to give them a demo that blows them away.” I hoped they held my sense of self preservation. “To do that we need to implement a new strategy. We are going to enlist all of our beta testers to help us evolve modules.”

“I don’t understand,” said Abe.

I smiled. “You don’t have to. That’s the beauty. Neither does the beta group. They just need to have a computer.” My head began to swim a little bit. Maybe I blacked out, I don’t know. I snapped to, and I was seated at the table while Abe poked me in the cheek.

“You okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” I lied. I was exhausted and a little nauseated. “We need to get started. Who do we contact about sending a message to all the beta testers? I want to let them know we are going to be sending them new content to download.”

From there things picked up. In another week I had finished work on the self-evolving algorithm. I hastily coded the part that would characterize the purpose of each module, trying to keep the goal broad but applicable. I knew certain modules that would need to be evolved; however, the bulk would be created completely by the automated evolution system.

Tech support was all on board. Word spread faster than a computer virus that the place was to be shut down if we didn’t show results. All in-house resources were now at my disposal. Even more importantly, all the beta testers had been emailed, and all of them eagerly awaited the download of their new content. My intention was that they would continue as they had before, playing the existing game, while I borrowed their system to evolve modules in the background.

Two weeks before our deadline, things were humming along. We were evolving modules faster than ever. The speed of the evolution began to trouble me since I hadn’t been able to evaluate their fitness myself. I just had to trust that the algorithms were doing the job. That same week I found out that we only had one million beta testers because that was all we accepted. More were clamoring to join. Two million additional beta testers were added that weekend without management approval. Our neural network was evolving.

I spent the last week before the board meeting trying to piece together all of the modules I could. I still worried that some of the modules may have evolved incongruent results, but I hadn’t found the time necessary to check them all. A small algorithm I had written a few nights before would at least run each module through a cursory fitness evaluation. At that time we had evolved approximately 4.5 million modules that we stored in non-volatile memory throughout the Geno Entertainment LAN. The people in the IT department had been incredibly useful in assisting us with these efforts. Of course they did all of this under my orders and are in no way responsible for the results.

I want to be perfectly clear that none of my fellow employees had any way of knowing the significance of the work they were performing. To them it was simply the implementation of a computer game. Unfortunately, I had also lost sight of the potential hazards of our efforts. The short-term goals blinded me from the potential achievement of singularity. That eventually would prove our doom.

Josephine called me into the conference room after she had already spent three hours with the board of directors. She seemed to have cut her hair even shorter than I remembered, but hadn’t yet plunged into shaving it all off. A sharp pain on the left side of my stomach felt like some tiny little robot was trying to poke its way out from inside me. It had to be the stress.

As I entered the conference room, I noticed all the board members had Geno VR goggles and motion gauntlets placed in front of them. Not a single one of the thirteen investors could spare more than a scowl for me as I walked to the end of the long table. A lady wearing a very smart business suit sat towards the end where I would make my presentation. She had silken, dark hair tied neatly in a ponytail that reminded me of my second wife when I had first met her.

“Good afternoon,” I said, before nervously taking a sip of the java I found myself still carrying around. “I’m Dr. Albert Van de Graaf. I’ve been tasked with taking your project to the next level. Rather than bore you with the technicalities of what we’ve been doing, I’ll show you.” Josephine had warned me that they had absolutely no technical savvy and would quickly be confused by any tech jargon. I picked up a pair of VR goggles near me and said, “Why don’t we all take a look. Goggles if you will.”

The board all awkwardly put on their goggles and leaned back in their chairs. Josephine apparently decided not to participate in the demo. She left her goggles on the conference table. I whispered a small prayer under my breath and initiated the demo, before sliding my goggles on.

The demo started by creating an avatar for every board member and me. The avatars were created by images shot seconds before in the conference room and translated into the virtual Geno world. I could identify each of the board members as I looked around the alpine meadow. The men’s suffocating suits had been replaced with brightly colored breeches and thick fur cloaks. Where before had been pot bellies and graying hair now stood bronzed bared chests rippling with muscles and long, dark, tightly-braided hair. The ladies wore equally bright dresses that flowed in the gentle breeze while their tousled hair streamed across their faces.

The brilliant sunshine glinted off the dewy grass and purple flower petals that filled the meadow. All around them rose massive snow capped peaks that tickled the clouds. The birds twittering nearby lent a soft melody to the peaceful scene as they flitted from stream to stream. Somewhere below them a powerful waterfall cascaded down a cliff roaring its defiance to the otherwise serene world.

The board members walked around the meadow looking wide-eyed at every detail of the scene. Every micron of it appeared as real as any place they had experienced before. A couple of the avatars laid back on the grass and began to watch the clouds float overhead. They watched a bird soar high in the sky. The bird was so high it had to have been flying above the peaks.

Slowly the bird began to circle lower and lower until it began to take form. Instead of the expected feathers and beak, the creature had scales and teeth. As it grew closer all could see that it wasn’t a bird at all but rather a dragon. The creature appeared to see the avatars sunning in the meadow and immediately began to plunge. It was like being at an air show where the planes screech towards the crowd before pulling up into some spectacular stunt. The crowd instinctively ducks as the plane approaches but later applauds as it speeds away.

In this show the avatars ducked or scrambled for cover amidst one of the many outcroppings of rock as the dragon plummeted towards them. The dragon never pulled up. Instead it kept rushing towards the fleeing avatars until it seemed only a hundred paces away, and then it breathed a roaring cone of fire. Two of the avatars screamed. Neither were women. The demo ended. We all removed our goggles.

The board members remained silent as a few dabbed sweat from their brows. At last Josephine said, “Well? Spectacular, isn’t it?”

One of the youngest members, a man with a very stiff looking crew cut, said, “It looked and sounded great, but so do all the other games.” He looked around at his fellow investors before continuing. “I thought you were going to bring something new to the industry. We’re not paying for more of the same. We need something revolutionary.” He leaned out over the table slapping both of his hands down against the surface for effect. Looking directly at me he asked, “Can you deliver something revolutionary? I need you to tell me you can.”

Josephine stared at me. I noticed the same glint of fear in her eyes that my third wife would always get when she told me she had maxed out our credit line. I looked around the room. All eyes were on me. Scrutinizing me.

The crew cut slapped the table again, “I need you to tell me that you can revolutionize the industry.”

I didn’t flinch as I said, “I can do it.” As soon as the words reached escape velocity, I began to scour my mind for the answer to the next question.

“How?” someone asked.

I was a little numb. I had no idea who asked the question. I began to speak before the words were even fully formed in my conscience. “We’re going to take it to the next level. So far all anyone has been able to do is achieve three-dimensional imagery of the most realistic level and flawless audio. Already you see that we have crossed that threshold.” I gasped for breath as I plunged on. “We propose to take it beyond that point.” I was stalling, but then…. “Gentlemen and ladies, we are going to feed all of your senses. We will provide the most realistic visual experience ever demonstrated and audio quality never before equaled, while adding the previously unachieved senses of touch, feel, and smell.”

The statement floated around the silent room for a few minutes, before crew cut slapped the table again. “Great. How are you going to do it?”

By then, the genesis of the idea had already taken root. “Each of you and every other law-abiding citizen in the civilized world has a NanoTag. The NanoTag is mainly utilized for data transmission and storage, but it does have significant interactivity with the human brain. That is each NanoTag as a side effect of its function can send and receive signals to the brain.” I hoped I knew what I was talking about. “Members of the board, we will be using the NanoTag to bring revolutionary sensory input to our system. There is nothing like it in the world.”

Everyone immediately started talking. A few minutes later I was being asked to leave so Josephine could speak with the board in private. I was glad to be out of there. I had no concrete method for achieving what I had promised, but I believed that it was entirely possible. A colleague of mine at Star Industries had been developing a method whereby the NanoTag could provide the visually impaired with sight and the hearing impaired with sound. Perhaps I could piggyback on his research to incorporate the other senses. If it didn’t work, at least I probably bought myself a few more paychecks. The first obstacle would be getting my hands on his research. I figured IT could help me locate him.

When Josephine finally emerged, she came to my office with a genuine smile. For a microsecond the cute dimple in her right cheek reminded me of the way my first wife, Maria, used to smile at me. Only for a microsecond. No one was the equal of my Maria. Josephine started to close the door, but then pushed it back open before saying, “We got an extension.”

“How long?” was all I could think to say.

She spoke distinctly so everyone nearby would be sure to hear. “They gave us six months. They expect something revolutionary in six months or they will sell everything off.” She lowered her voice and stepped closer to my desk. “Can you do it?”

I sat back in the gel chair and rubbed my temples. After a few minutes I nearly forgot she was there. At last I looked at her and said, “I hope so.”

“That’s it? I hope so?” She pulled the door shut behind her. “You’re not getting paid to hope. You’re getting paid to perform. They were impressed with what you had so far, but I think they are even more impressed by what you promised. What do you need to bring it off?”

Without hesitation I said, “Dr. Peter Vorach.”

“What?”

“No, who,” I replied. “Dr. Peter Vorach worked with me at Star Industries. He was developing the technology we need.”

She held up her hand. “Stop. Dr. Vorach doesn’t work here. We are not going to hire Dr. Vorach or anyone else for that matter. We hired you. You’re the miracle worker. Get to work.”

“But we need his expertise.”

“We hired you to be our expert. Are you telling me we hired the wrong person?”

“Not at all. I’m telling you that we need Dr. Vorach.”

She just glared at me.

“Just for consulting. That’s all,” I suggested.

“No chance, unless he works for free.”

“Little chance of that,” I conceded. My mind started to sprint. All I really needed was access to his work. I didn’t really need him at all. It would be quicker to implement with his help, but if I could get my hands on his spec sheets and the schematics and the source code, I could adapt them to our project. I must have zoned out, because by the time I had snapped to, Josephine was already gone.

It took the IT department thirty minutes to locate the contact information for Dr. Peter Vorach. Peter had accepted a job with Wuhan University, but when I phoned him, a woman who spoke Chinese with a thick French accent told me he was on holiday. I asked when he would be back, and she said a very long holiday.

An obstacle to be sure, but I was not willing to surrender. I knew Peter fairly well and reasoned that he couldn’t totally remove himself from his work. He would have remote access. It took twenty-two hours for IT to present me with a login screen for Peter’s home network. They told me the encryption was beyond anything they could get through, so I immediately started work on an algorithm to evolve neural network modules capable of cracking Peter’s security.

You’re going to tell me decryption is illegal? I know it’s illegal, but only if you don’t have permission from the target. Well no…in fact we did not have permission. If we were to contact him, I’m certain that Dr. Vorach would not press charges in this matter. I’ll be glad to provide his contact information when I’m finished. Where was I?

Yes, yes, module evolution. It took less time than I forecasted to create the decryption algorithms. With more than three million systems at my disposal, I was able to achieve a level of parallelism that crunched through the task in a single week. We debugged the modules on our own security system before we approached Peter’s network.

My display told me it took 343 microseconds to crack his security. Another four hundred milliseconds later, we had busted the root directory and had full access to his network. His LAN was quite extensive. Everything in his facility that ran on electricity seemed to be connected to his network: lights, climate control, multimedia, kitchen appliances, surveillance, alarm systems, maintenance robots, cleaning robots, washer, dryer, clocks, everything.

I powered through his system attempting to dig out the desired data and anything related to his research. After cracking three more nuisance passwords, I found everything I could hope for: schematics, source code, white papers, data sheets. Uploading all of his research took little effort. Make no mistake this is where I obtained knowledge of the NanoTag instruction set and protocol. I understand that it is unlawful to possess that information without a license, but you will find that Dr. Peter Vorach has all the licensing required. He broke no laws in this regard. No, I did not and do not currently have a license. I suppose I will have to plead guilty to that charge.

May I continue? Thank you. It took nearly two months for me to decipher Peter’s work. I still didn’t understand everything, but I felt comfortable with the fundamentals. The NanoTag represents one of the most technologically advanced systems in the world. The government implants a cell-sized object in your cerebral cortex shortly after birth that operates on what I’ll call ambient electrical current from your brain. The device is capable of sending and receiving signals from the neurons in your brain and transmitting those through radio frequency to an external receiver.

The device provides many uses. Storage of personal information remains one of the foremost. The original design allowed the government a means to track all people in the world via satellite. This provided a great aid in identifying the location of terrorists, soldiers on the battlefield, as well as missing persons, primarily missing children. As I do not have a NanoTag, I cannot attest to its great usefulness. I do know that the population at large has grown quite dependent on storing medical, legal, and financial information in the NanoTag as well as a myriad of other uses.

Relax, I’m getting to the point. Dr. Vorach had found a method where he could send signals through the neurons attached to the NanoTag in such a way as to manipulate the perceptions of the subject. He fitted some test subjects with cell-sized image sensors just beneath the eye. These sensors then used a radio transmitter to transfer the image data to the brain via the NanoTag. According to some documentation that I briefly reviewed, vision impairment normally resulted from the inability of the eyes to properly input visual data to the brain. The brain was still able to process the data, it just didn’t receive input. In this sense, he created artificial eyes that routed the sensory data to the brain. The brain took care of the rest.

Dr. Vorach had begun similar work in the area of audio impairment. Since numerous research institutes had long ago finished mapping the human brain and all its functions, I found it easy to obtain the data I required to locate the portions of the brain related to the senses of touch, smell, and taste. Smell and taste proved relatively trivial to implement. The sense of touch provided the biggest challenge. Consider the sheer volume of tactile input received by your brain, and you can get a grasp of what we were up against.

Using Dr. Vorach’s work as a blueprint, it took me another month to create the fitness and use algorithms required for evolution. After that three million systems around the world began evolving our neural network. It took a few hours before the first completed modules started arriving at the Geno LAN. Our fitness algorithm constantly sampled them and found no discrepancies. Morale within our team reached an all-time high as we started making plans for our first test.

Word leaked out that I would select a pair of test subjects from within our team. Every morning after that a flock of eager techies greeted me at my office door. I quickly put an end to the hysteria by randomly selecting Tom and Ann for the initial test. At the time I remember feeling a heavy swell of envy. It might have been the only time in my life I regretted not having a NanoTag.

My anxiety grew the closer we came to the initial test. Never before had my work required me to use a person as a test subject; I just wanted to feel secure that no one would get hurt. For three weeks since the first module arrived, I labored over an alternate test platform. During that time I created a series of dedicated evolutions, hoping they might arrive at a solution. I did manage to conduct two successful simulations, but they in no way told me how the system would interact with the NanoTag or the human brain.

The day of the test arrived when Jon walked into my office and sat down. “I think you might want to take a look at something,” he said with his VR goggles on top of his head. He didn’t wait for my response, but instead brought a database up on my display.

I looked at the jumble of numbers. My mind was racing over the upcoming test, and I couldn’t make any sense of them. “What’s this?” I asked.

A flick of his left gauntlet highlighted the number 8,342,693.

Again I asked, “What’s this?”

“A problem,” said Jon.

“A problem?” I looked at the number again. Next to it a label read ‘Total number of reporting systems.’ Instantly I knew what he meant.

When each module came into our LAN, the system logged the identification number of the module’s originator. As part of our statistical analysis, we kept track of what percentage of our beta testing group produced results. This enabled us to determine which platforms provided the greatest yield as well as allowing us to evaluate numerous other statistical trends. Our beta group consisted of three million subjects, so by definition the total number of reporting systems could never exceed that value. Yet nearly three times as many systems had produced yields.

“Are these numbers correct?” I asked.

Jon nodded his head slowly. “I double checked the total. It matches.”

“Have we added to the beta group?”

The corner of Jon’s mouth turned up before he said, “Loaded question. I investigated the systems beyond the initial beta group to find out if someone had added them. To my understanding, there are no additional members of the beta. I don’t know what happened, Doc. I do know that our evolution package runs in the background of every one of those systems.”

“How’d it get there?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

I started feeling those tiny robots stabbing the lining of my stomach again. Somehow our software had leaked beyond our target group and in a sense beyond our control. Scenarios started playing through my mind. The idea that someone within the development team might have distributed it seemed pleasant compared to the notion that it might have been stolen. Anything more significant seemed lunacy. A few hours before the initial subject test, I wrestled with the idea of pulling the plug.

As I tried to make a focused decision, Dr. Josephine Branner walked into my office. Jon instantly popped up like a soldier standing at attention, but Josephine never even glanced at him. Unobtrusively, Jon slid out the door and disappeared amidst the cubicles.

“When are you going to start the test?” she demanded, sounding much like my second wife nagging me to fix the kitchen sink.

“It’s scheduled in four hours,” I replied.

“Why don’t we move it up.”

I lurched forward, hitting my knee on the desk. Josephine never flinched. “We need the time to finish preparations,” I lied.

“Get it ready in an hour.”

“An hour?” Recklessly I said, “I was thinking about pulling the plug.”

She shut the door to my office. “I have two board members in the conference room right now, waiting to hear the results of the test. There is no way you are going to pull the plug.”

“We might have a problem,” I said.

“Solve it,” she said.

I shook my head. “It can’t be resolved in an hour.”

She folded her arms and sighed heavily as if restraining herself from something more dramatic. “What are the risks?”

“I’m not sure,” I admitted.

“Are the test subjects in danger?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Could it set the project back?”

“Probably not.”

“Is everything legal?” she asked.

I didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

She opened the door, pausing to say, “One hour,” before she left.

I know, I know, we still didn’t have a license to work with the NanoTag, but Josephine was blissfully unaware of that oversight. She had presented me with the perfect out, and I turned it down. Reckless? No, I wouldn’t say I was reckless, just eager. I could sense that I was standing at the threshold of something great. My life’s work centered on the creation of an evolving neural network, and there before my eyes I could see it happening. Unfortunately, the looming deadlines focused my attention on the application rather than the tool and its associated hazards. Blindly I rushed forward.

Despite my apprehension, the test went flawlessly. Tom and Ann experienced all five senses amidst perfectly simulated green hills. Since Dr. Vorach had never tested his sight project on subjects with working eyes, we didn’t know how the artificial input would coexist with the subjects’ natural senses. We discovered that the artificial input overwrote nature, which means as long as the test program ran, Tom and Ann could not sense the real world. Our game became their reality.

The board members left satisfied with our report. Once the back slapping finished, we resumed our headlong development for the upcoming demo, while we carefully monitored the spread of our development software. The number of systems reporting continued to grow, reaching nearly twelve million. Jon determined our software had been distributed via a computer virus, although the origin of the Geno Virus remained under investigation.

I decided to create a bloodhound that could sniff out the origins of the virus. If we could locate the source, we might be able to shut it down. Working on the demo remained my priority, but I managed to hastily design a series of fitness algorithms that would enable the network to evolve the bloodhound, nicknamed Sherlock Holmes. The evolution of the bloodhound took longer than it might have because I found it prudent to use only secure computers within the Geno LAN. With only three months before our deadline, I launched Sherlock into the network. It didn’t help.

The Geno Virus continued to spread, and we had no idea where it had originated. Nearly eighteen million systems and approximately thirty-six RF communication satellites were infected. Government satellites? Yes, they were government satellites—the kind used to track NanoTags. Still, Jon insisted the virus was not malicious. As best as we could determine, none of the virus hosts knew they were infected nor did they experience any reduction in performance. Increased module evolution and the ability to broadcast across a wide coverage appeared to be the only results. It didn’t matter; the spread had to stop. I decided to alert everyone infected and quarantine our LAN.

Could I get a cup of java? I’m starting to feel a bit shaky. Thank you. It will help clear my thoughts. As I was saying, once Jon left my office, things began to unfold rapidly. But that’s the nature of accidents; one minute you’re speeding along absorbed in your routine, and the next minute you’re staring in disbelief at what just happened.

I remember making the long walk towards Josephine’s office to notify her about the virus. On my way, I heard panicked shouts coming from the test lab. After I sprinted through the doors, I saw Tom and Ann convulsing on the floor. Paramedics arrived in record time and immediately went to work trying to end their seizures. Nothing helped, and within the hour, both were pronounced dead.

The room began to spin before I blacked out. When I came to, Tom and Ann had already been bagged and carted away. A paramedic continued to wave smelling salts under my nose. I pushed him away, wobbled to my feet, and staggered towards my office. Along the entire trek, the paramedic insisted I sit down, while Josephine screamed in a sharp pitch reminiscent of my third wife after I told her I wouldn’t agree to a divorce. I ignored both of them.

At last I reached the comfort of the gel chair in my office. I put on my display goggles to help block out the image of my ranting boss and logged onto the system. Something had gone wrong, but I didn’t have time to track it down. In my youth I had read papers on the potential danger of technology. Many late nights in college, my classmates and I had debated the subject. Each of us had explained in detail how we would avoid such pitfalls. My plan had been to create a kill switch, or in the case of software, a virtual kill switch.

The Geno Entertainment logo floated on my display goggles just behind a command prompt. I spoke the word, “Kill” into the voice recognition program I had coded. The word appeared on the display before being replaced by a request for password. After speaking the password, I pulled up the diagnostics screen which monitored all activity across the neural network. I expected to see a complete system halt; instead, everything continued to run as normal. Twice before I had tested the kill command. Both times it executed perfectly. This time it didn’t.

Quickly I surveyed the list of ongoing tasks. Batch 332.204.130 caught my attention. It was the same batch that had just executed in the test lab. Again I issued the kill command. Nothing happened. I pulled up the batch details and to my horror discovered it was being broadcast via satellite to the entire beta group. I took a deep breath and calmed myself, thinking that perhaps the stress had altered the pitch in my voice.

Again I said, “Kill.” Nothing. I ripped the goggles from my head and leaped from my chair, screaming, “Pull the power. The power. Turn it off. Turn the system off.” It took fifteen minutes for the building to go black.

By then it was too late; the batch had already executed. Our neural network transmitted the virtual game environment through radio frequency to the NanoTag of the test subjects, where low level current pulses were emitted into specific regions of the brain to simulate sensory input. Somehow the current reached the wrong portion of the brain, causing prolonged seizures followed by death. Three million dead. I’m glad Maria wasn’t alive to see this.

As your investigation has no doubt revealed, Dr. Branner immediately fired me before wiping the entire Geno LAN and contacting the authorities. Understandably it took time for you to authenticate her claims, at which time you picked me up. I spent the intervening forty-three hours trying to discover what went wrong.

Simply put—we achieved singularity. The Geno Virus contains millions and millions of modules, which at some point ceased being individual pieces and became a whole. More significantly the module count continues to grow beyond our attempts to confine it. By instinct, if you will, it creates modules in response to nearly any and all input it receives. This singularity functions as you or I do. It works towards a goal using all of its experience, and when it receives new input or has a new experience, it evaluates all possible responses before selecting the most fit. The goal? I would guess the goal remains to create a virtual game environment.

No, I wouldn’t classify it as conscious; although, it does have a fundamental awareness of itself. It constantly monitors for any possible hindrance such as malicious software or hardware failure. I also feel it has as much unity of thought as we do. That is, while you sit here, you experience the temperature of the room, the sounds, the sights, the tactile information, your growling stomach, all at nearly the same instant. All of your senses are unified in your experience of this moment. The Geno Virus is no different.

It also exhibits qualitativeness. This room smells like my office, or this coffee tastes burnt. A rose is not music. All of these are comparisons of the qualities of one thing against the entirety of your knowledge base, drawing parallels in order to classify and better understand the input. The Geno Virus can easily qualify the input it receives against previous data to categorize the input and create an appropriate response.

Subjectivity remains trickier, but in creating the self-evolving modules, I have provided rules for decision making and evaluation of the best response. If forced to choose a favorite color, it will analyze the qualities of each color before choosing the best candidate. At the end of the process, if it cannot distinguish the best fit, it will randomly select a solution from a list of possibilities. From that point forward, the selected color will be its favorite.

Some might suggest that since the Geno Virus possesses all of these characteristics, even in some rudimentary form, that it is conscious. Again, I say no. While it may be an artificial intellect, or an Artilect, it is not conscious. I propose that true consciousness requires a soul or a mind.

For example, you might feel like eating pizza for lunch or feel like going to the park. Where do those feelings come from? I argue the state of feeling is an output of the mind. An Artilect could evaluate pizza against an array of all other food choices. It could assign weights to each food in order to determine a favorite. It could even randomly select which food it will eat today and which food tomorrow. Never once will it feel like eating anything. It will simply make a calculated, dispassionate selection.

Yes, the Geno Virus could mimic rage in a method indistinguishable from human emotion, but it will never feel rage. It cannot experience the love I had for my first wife. It will not feel sorrow for those it killed. It is artificially intelligent, but not conscious.

The point is that right now the Geno Virus is operating autonomously. Already it has evolved modules that proved deadly, and I no longer have any way of determining if those modules are still active. It may have evaluated them as unfit since the results proved destructive to what it would consider the target hardware platform. Why can’t I tell? Because the neural network has distributed itself across the globe.

Each one of the approximately twenty billion computers capable of connecting in some fashion to the Net is a potential host. The global network is like a giant brain, except this brain is expanding. Every day new computers are connected. Every day it creates perhaps millions of new modules. By now its redundancy is immeasurable; self preservation forces it to duplicate. Its senses are anything and everything it can access: cameras, satellites, phones, keypads, microphones. It outputs to any and all electronic devices: robots, speakers, smart systems, autos. It has no limit.

Sign a confession? Sure, I’ll sign whatever you want, but that’s the least of our worries. You still don’t get it. We’re standing on the brink of human extinction, right here, right now. While we argue over guilt, the Geno Virus has reached critical mass; it’s in a runaway condition. In the next few hours it will infect every networked system, every NanoTag, every satellite. We can’t stop it.

Turn off your computer now. That annoying virus on your system isn’t stealing your financial information. It’s ushering in our destruction.

An EMP won’t work; ninety percent of systems have electromagnetic shielding. The best we can hope for is global shutdown, a permanent shutdown, but even that can’t stop it. Satellites run on solar power; we’ll have to blast them out of orbit. The NanoTag. I have no idea how to scrub the NanoTag. The only thing preventing you from becoming infected right now is the RF inhibitor built into this station.

Once you’re infected, it’s over. The Geno Virus creates a virtual game environment which completely replaces all other sensory input. Your reality becomes what the virus has created. Some might say that makes it a virtual god, but since I made the god, what does that make me? In truth, the Geno Virus can only destroy life not create it. If it doesn’t kill you by mistake, eventually you’ll starve to death eating virtual food. The lucky ones might just go insane. Sure, it might not happen that way, but three million already lie dead. Should we wait until that number reaches three billion?

Throughout history we’ve talked about the road to the future, but I see the future as more of a maze. We rushed forward into the maze thinking the path we were on was the only way, but look around us. We’ve reached a dead end. Our only way forward is by going back. The only question now is how far back.

If our race survives this event, it will be without a global network, without smart-houses, without smart-weapons, without robots. All the technology that we’ve leaned on has turned to poison. The atomic bomb was easy. Humans just learned not to use it. The Geno Virus will grow a new reality—a reality we can’t switch off. Since I have no NanoTag, I am certain that what I sense is real, but from the look on your partner’s face, it might already be too late for him. It must have infected your LAN. You need to shut it down right now. Too late—your eyes are glazing over. Godspeed in your new reality. I’ll say a prayer for you.

As for me, I have much work to do. I’m standing alone in this reality, looking for the trail back. Back somewhere stable, somewhere safe. Lord, help me.

Copyright © 2014 by R. K. Troughton.  All Rights Reserved.  Originally an Honorable Mention recipient of the Writer’s of the Future Award and published in 2012.

 

Artwork Copyright © 2014 by Derek Benson.  All Rights Reserved.


6 thoughts on "The Geno Virus by R. K. Troughton"

  1. Remind me not to get a chip with communications capability implanted in my brain…

    I enjoyed the story. Who would you trust to write the OS for an implanted chip?

    Cheers

    Andrew

    1. Andrew,
      Glad you enjoyed the story. An implanted chip gives the “blue screen of death” a whole new meaning.

      Thanks,
      RKT

  2. I enjoyed this story. The scary thing is that, as you already realise, some of the premises are too true. We have a generation that was brought up with virtual reality and computing power is increasing at a very great rate. Thankfully this was a story, but it could be a possible future.

    I am grateful that I am too old to live long enough to see it happen; unless it occurs within forty years!

    Thank you for having a great imagination and for taking the time to share with us.

    Cheers,

    Jerry.

    1. Jerry,
      I’m glad you enjoyed. It will be interesting to see how technology continues to develop.

      Thanks,
      RKT

  3. Jack,
    Glad you enjoyed the story. It was great fun writing it.

    RKT

  4. Jack Clemons says:

    Terrific story, R.K.

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