This is a story about machines, AI and accountability. In the future just what will we want our machines to understand and what will we understand ourselves?
Weaver looked up at the sky filled with matt black metal pigeons carrying goods and papers in and out of the Global Centre For Government Accountability. He wondered if somehow he could convey to all the small whistling machines just how much power he had over them. To an AI, someone like him - a creator, a programmer – was a god. Surely he was? He had total power. He could tweak them, control them, get them to do whatever he wanted. But they couldn’t know this. No one else could either. That was the point. Katie, his wife ,thought he did something with ‘IT processes’, something important and well paid that took him away from home often and she was right, in a way.
Everything that he did was secret, except to him and Bill Lacey, the head of accountability at LifeTech. Only Bill knew what he’d done at InnovateInc when he’d posed as a programmer in its trading section and rewired the master AI with a sub-routine that made it develop obsessive-compulsive tendencies. After he’d finished, it behaved so erratically, it would only make purchases on Thursday mornings at 11.15 am and it would only trade shares that contained the letters PMX or J.
Then there was Japan. Now, that was fun. Weaver had worked with some ex-special forces guy that Bill had bought from the states. Together they’d broken into DASCHI HQ- the biggest supplier for manufacturing robots and Footoo’s – the most popular children’s virtual friends. Once the spook had got him inside, Weaver located the master code for over 10,000 manufacturing droids and tweaked it to contain ‘Footoo’ personality codes. Three weeks later when the droids had been installed on production lines around the world, everything went bug-house crazy as the two tonne machines tried to laugh, tickle and spin themselves whilst holding car doors, computer chips or nano-wires. After that, around 30% of the machine production companies around the world went back to Life Tech.
He thought about that night, donning night vision goggles and a stealth suit and he looked up at the vast grey complex of the Global Centre for Government Accountability and sighed. He hated government work. This was going to be very different to Japan.
For this assignment Weaver’s name would be James Allenbrooke. He was a middle manager with a career in analysis and was on secondment from ‘Life Tech’. His (bogus) report described him as a solid performer keen to be at the ‘coal face’ for global policy formation. As James Allenbrooke, he was supposed to be keen to be at the beating heart of governance – where the public met policy.
‘Course it ain’t nothing about policy.’ Bill had said when he took the assignment. ‘The place is just an excuse to house all the surplus bean counters and bureaucrats who exist exclusively to give us people with proper jobs – another pain in the ass.’
‘But I’m guessing this isn’t a people problem, though.’ Weaver said. They’d been sat in the middle of the ‘quiet wood’ on the Life Tech campus. This was a vast pine wood designed to conceal certain conversations from sound recorders and satellites.
Bill nodded. ‘Yeah. Looks like they’ve got some kind of coding protocol running that’s blocking approval for Pigeon6. Our submission testing alogirthim thinks they’re probably holding it because the AI is scoring too high for emotional intelligence. Looks like the machine could be too “caring”.’ He made speech marks with his fingers as he said this.
‘Too caring.’ Weaver repeated the phrase. Caring wasn’t a concept he thought about much. Especially in an unreported conversation in the quiet wood. He leant back on his bench and looked up at the sky through the tree canopy. Pigeons weren’t allowed over the LifeTech campus so he enjoyed seeing the sky, clear blue – like a vast expanse of ozone ocean. For a second, something made him think of Katie and his daughter, Emma. What would she be doing now? Taking out the books for her lessons, sitting cross legged in assembly? He put the thought away and looked back at Bill. But Bill was done, he got up from his bench and grunted ‘Fix it,’ as he walked away.
The Centre for Government Accountability was huge. It was arranged around a vast central building in the shape of an octagon. This was the control centre. From this ran, orbited eight square buildings, each corresponding roughly to a region of the earth. Everything was interconnected via glass and steel walkways. Every building had a region and a purpose in this burgeoning hub of global governance. Weaver was seconded to building 3.0 – Europe.
He followed his induction pilot programme on his smartphone to his desk. For an age, it seemed, he schlepped around the vast building complex until he reached 3.4.45J, where he was assigned. He looked around, assessing the mixture of government spads, civil servants, industry thrusters and academic wonks and wondered how they all fitted together. What could all these people do? Did each of them really have a part to play in this living, breathing system of accountability?
In theory, they all helped the Centre of Accountability make the world a better place. Anyone, anywhere who had a complaint, an issue or a request about any form of government – be it their council, their parliament, tribal elder or UN official – they’d put it through the Centre. Everything and anything came there – email, phone call, tweet, letter, message in a bottle even – it all came to the central registry. There it got processed by an AI and put into one of the various regional hubs for processing.
The whole idea of it made Weaver angry. How could everyone really have equal say in things? Who cared what a plantation farmer from Timbucktoo thought about the trading price of bananas? Why they hell did everyone need to keep a track of everything these days?
It was, well, bananas. All of these requests, from shepherds in the yemen or the director general of the BBC – they came through the registry, the main central building in the middle of the complex.
There were no other channels of enquiry for reasons of propriety and accountability. The process stopped undue influence being paid by those in power circumventing this open system. Because, everything that came into the centre could be seen by the global public at any time, unless it was classified as being a ‘commercial’ or a ‘special case’, which meant either national or global security was involved somehow in the information being disclosed. Only if something had one of these two tags meant it couldn’t disclosed.
So this was why Weaver was here – to get in the middle of things. Find out who’d or what had an issue with the ‘Pigeon 6’ patent and get the hell out of the Hague. He hoped to be done by lunch – he fancied a beer and some mussels before he got the train back to England. He had a suspicion about what was happening. His theory was that a competitor, either InnovateInc or DASCHI or any number of the other companies he’d hit in the past four years, had a hand it it. Proxy or code. One way or the other. Something wasn’t right.
He looked around the banks of pine desks and black plastic swivel chairs. It was just like a call centre. He used all the login-details that had been issued to him. Breezed through all of the necessary clearances and in minutes he had the file open.
He could see it all. The coding protocol. The clearly communicated and worded request that LifeTech had sent. It was so plain, anyone could understand it, even 8 year old Emma. He noticed the point about encoding emotion. How the latest drone could detect agitation in a demanders’ voice and respond by either increasing its speed or changing its direction, but it seemed that the LifeTech’s AI’s had been wrong. That wasn’t why it was being held. He sighed – it had been assigned to the ‘Human Referral Complaints Team record number #E1D67888. This wasn’t going to be fixed by coding. This was a wet-ware problem.
It was always human error. Weaver remembered this and put his anger to one side. He resolved to spend a few hours scoping and understanding the issue before handing it back to Bill to get a different person who could deal with people. Someone, who could rattle the necessary cages or smooth the right feathers. But, until then he had to be nice to people.
He went to ‘Human complaints team’ – a knot of 12 desks – opposite the server room that held row after row of black humming units that held the ‘Non-human complaints team’. He almost pinned to be in there instead of having to do with call centre staff. At least AI’s didn’t have a choice – they were rational. They could be taken apart and understood. This wasn’t something he could do with the array of fleshy, over dressed humanity that was gradually starting to notice him. Two middle aged women sat at the two front desks of the cluster.
‘How can I help you my dear?’ The first woman spoke. She introduced herself as Shirley. She was stout and had thick, effective arms – the sort that should be dishing out porridge, or administering clips around the ear. Before Weaver could answer, the other woman cut in.
‘Where are your clearances, ve do not know you?’ This was from woman who introduced herself as Maureen, who Weaver quickly determined was Dutch, middle class, and hyper-efficient.
He smiled and showed his pass. ‘I’m working down there for the next couple of weeks,’ He pointed to his nearby bay ‘I’m not really assigned to a team or anything so I just thought I’d wander around and see who I was sharing an office with.’
The lie came easy to Weaver. He found that when he didn’t care about the people one little bit, and he’d say whatever he needed to say to get the hell away from this place.
These two women were steadfast lifers. Loyal and committed to the organisation and the physical gatekeepers for the human complaints section. He chatted to them for a while, making up a past for himself – company man, no family. He asked them about the rest of the team. It could have been anyone blocking Pigeon6 – he needed as many names as possible.
Maureen coughed. ‘I’ll look after him Shirley, you’ve got enough on.’ She turned to Weaver and gestured for him to follow as she glided around the cubicles. He could have followed her with his eyes shut, tracking her by the lavender perfume she wore.
‘These are Rebecca, Mo, Fred and Stacey – they are current interns.’ She introduced him to a group of younger employees. All fashionably disinterested. They were of an age that Weaver had little contact with and even littler interest and by their body language they felt the same. One of them pointed at his trousers.
‘Nice chinos, dude.’ Said one of the boys with a mohawk, tattoos and metal jewellery stuck around his eyes and in his ears.
Weaver smiled ‘Nice piercings, must take you a while at customs.’
The intern snorted something but Maureen moved him on.
‘Don’t worry about them,’ Maureen said guiding him to another cluster of desks, ‘they never stay for long. They’re on short term contracts and it’ll be good riddance to that bunch of good-for-nothings! The others are this way.’
She led him to another cluster of desks. One was empty, three were occupied – the nearest, spaced some distance away from the other two occupied desks was occupied by a tall woman called Pippa who was heavily pregnant.
‘How much longer?’ Weaver asked after they were introduced.
‘Three weeks’ She said, rubbing her bump.
‘Do you have kids?’
Weaver almost nodded then remembered stay in character.
‘No, but my sister has three.’ How easy the lies came. But he had to stop himself. Come back to the problem. He went silent, smiling awkwardly as the burgeoning conversation died awkwardly between them until a man in a tweed jacket interrupted them by clearing his throat.
Weaver turned to the other two desks. Two men were watching him, neither was smiling. Next to the tweed man was a small Indian man with dark circles under his eyes. He twitched when Weaver looked him in the eye. He didn’t even introduce himself, he looked down and gestured toward the older man. He was older. White, balding and comfortable in tweed. A single silk hanky poked out of the top of his jacket pocket. He stared at Weaver of the top of his half-moon spectacles.
‘And you are?’
‘Quite. Well, James, I suggest you dispense with the small talk if you want to get along here. The human complaints team has a quota and we don’t like distractions.’ He looked at the small Indian man as he said this and they both turned back to their display screens.
Maureen rolled her eyes and took him back to his desk. ‘Don’t worry about him, that’s Arnold. He’s been here since the team was founded – thinks he runs the place but he’s only a grade 5. We all stay out of his way. A few of us go for lunch at 12.30, if you’d like to join us?’
Weaver said he would. He went back to his desk and took out his notebook. He wrote down everything he’d seen and the people he’d met. He put:
- Two loyal administrators. Female.
- Four disinterested interns. High churn of temporary low paid staff.
- One pregnant employee, expecting her first – waiting for maternity leave.
- Two analysts. One quiet. One officious.
Finally, he scribbled ‘Non-functioning team. Needs management and restructure. Pigeon 6 being held due to inefficiency, not the strength of the submission.’ With his notebook in hand he got up and left the Centre for Government Accountability. He forgot all about his promise to Maureen and didn’t acknowledge her as he strode out of the building without looking back. He was done.
LifeTech had made arrangements for him to say in an apartment overlooking the North Sea. Weaver didn’t want to unpack his things. He wanted to be back at the camper van at Lifetech. He wanted a proper project for a man of his talents. He wanted the excitement back. He thought he wanted to see his family again and, in some subtle way, imply to them what a hero he was. But that thought confused him, so he thought about something else. He came back to issue in hand.
He left everything in his suitcase on top of his bed and sat down on his sofa with a coffee. He looked out of his window at the urban development park. Units of moulded plastic domiciles floated over the sea. Each one looked like a shoebox filled with people like him. Generic government or corporate contractors. All in the same environment for a specific purpose or project. There was nothing personal anywhere, nothing; no semblance of self. Everything, grey, everything single-use, clean and sterile. Everywhere there as someone like him, some small player, some cog in an ever expanding wheel.
He took out the paper he used to communicate with Bill, then he vt’d LifeTech’s classified comms team.
‘I need to get a classified package to Corporate communications. It’s personal and urgent. Could you send a pigeon, please?’
The comms manager looked into her display and bit her lip.
‘All of the fives are out.’
Weaver shook his head. ‘That’s no good – this is business critical!’ He breathed deeply, holding back his temper. Why was it always so difficult working with people? Why did they always introduce so many messy complications and excuses? There were never these problems with code. Code was simple. It worked or it didn’t.
‘I’m sorry sir…wait. There is something we can do.’
She tapped away again and Weaver saw her face change as she bought up more details.
‘OK. Sorry, Mr Allenbrooke. I have your file now. It seems I can have special permission to release Pigeon 6 – as long as we make it clear its for research purposes. Would that be OK with you?’
‘That’s fine. Send it now.’ Weaver grunted and clicked off the VT.
Pigeon6 arrived an hour later. It landed on the balcony of the flat – at the special receiving post built for drones. He intercepted it outside and was impressed by the latest design. It was sleeker and smaller than the other drones and was about the size of small dog. They’d made it more bird-like with a streamlined head and a body made out of a mixture of dull silver metal and photovoltaic cells that shone like plumage in the sunlight. As the machine settled he stretched out one if its wings and saw how they’d even feathered the energy harvesting cells to maximise its exposure to the sun.
‘Clever’. He said. As soon as he spoke Pigeon6 twisted its curved head in his direction. It didn’t really have a proper beak, but its face was narrowed into a point to cut through wind resistance and its eyes were one sleek band of black plastic. The head, neck and other flexible parts were able to move by sections of a strong black mesh that would expand and contract in accordance with where the machine wanted, or needed to go.
He took out the message he’d hand written for Bill and sealed it using the company’s own biometric polymer seal. This was a blob of vaguely liquid material, similar to the red wax seals used to officiate old correspondence. Weaver folded up the paper, put it an envelope and placed his finger in the damp matter, which set instantly. Now, only Bill could open it. Only his finger prints, dna and a relaxed resting pulse rate would open the envelope. Anyone else, or if he was deemed to be ‘under stress’ the seal would secret an enzyme that instantly dissolved the envelope and its contents.
Weaver took the envelope and told the pigeon to receive it. It did nothing. He remembered, that they hadn’t had time to configure it to his voice, so he took out his smartphone.
‘Good thing I can code.’ He muttered, opening up the console in the birds chest and, using a USB from his phone, he encoded the delivery instructions. A compartment clicked open in its side and he put in the message for Bill. A minute later Pigeon6 was flying out to sea. He stood there waiting for it to disappear into the horizon. When he could see it no longer, he became aware of the phone in his hand. For a moment he thought about phoning Katie. There was only an hour between them and the UK. It would be dinner time there. If he phoned might get to speak to Emma before bed. But he decide they were probably busy. If they wanted him they’d have let him know. That was generally how it worked.
Pigeon6 came back just as the sun was setting. The orange light glistening on its solar cells as it arced gracefully over the complex and landed on Weaver’s balcony. Weaver waited for a few moments, like he was letting the machine catch its breath before he approached it. Once it appeared, he opened the compartment in its side and took out a similar envelope to the one he’d sent earlier. He put his finger in the biometric seal, cracked it open and quickly read the contents.
A minute after he’d read the six words, the enzymes in the paper ate themselves and the only place the instructions resided were in Weavers head.
He left pigeon6 outside, ordered up a four pack of beer from reception and drank them all. Later, he read through his notes again, his head in his hands. A wet-ware problem dammit! This really wasn’t his remit. He didn’t know where to start! He didn’t want to start! He thought about phoning Katie to tell her the project would take longer than he expected. But he didn’t. How long was he going to be staying for anyway? He could be marooned here forever, lost in the bowels of the world’s deepest administrative blackhole.
He went to bed and slept poorly. Paranoia swept over him like some creeping fever. What if this was a sett up – a way of parking him far out of reach of the LifeTech? What if someone wanted him gone? After all, only Bill knew he was here! Such thoughts cycled over and over in his mind so at 4am he gave up trying to sleep and wrote them all down. But each time he did, the words came out as subroutines. Code for fixing a wayward machines. At 6am, he found himself on the balcony, watching the sun come up. He picked up Pigeon6 and took it into his apartment.
He couldn’t arrive at why, but he found himself using his smartphone to transcribe his thoughts into Pigeon6’s command prompt.
He described them as variables as first. He expressed each team member with a name and some simple characteristics. Simple terms.
- Maureen = strict, loyal.
- Shirley = loyal, familiar
- Intern 1 = disinterested, lazy
- Intern 2 = disinterested, arrogant
- Intern 3 = disinterested, fat
- Intern 4 = lazy, understimulated
He’d just finished Intern 4, when Pigeon6 turned its silver beak toward him and its command prompt interrupted him with blue, flashing letters.
> You shouldn’t call someone fat, even if they are fat.
Weaver sat back and looked at Pigeon6’s lifeless eyes. He didn’t know what to write next.
Despite feeling like he had grit in his eyes, Weaver made it into the Centre for Government Accountability by 9am. He spent the morning talking individually to the staff from the Human complaints team. He reintroduced himself as having a specific role in auditing the team.
‘I’ve been sent to streamline the process for unresolved complaints.’ He explained to each of them, in turn. He made out that the purpose of his first visit yesterday had been to meet them incognito. With each team member he followed the same script. He’d start by opening his notebook and showing them the number of unresolved complaints.
’10,000.’ He cleared his throat, ’10,000 requests or complaints that are going nowhere. I don’t need to tell you that each of these equates to a human being. A person, somewhere in the world, is feeling like they are not relevant. Ignored. 10,000 people, all silenced by our inefficiency. Now, I need you to help me – why is this happening?’
And everyone said something different, and all that they said, Weaver wrote down.
‘It’s those bloody interns.’ Shirley said. ‘They spend all their time mucking around, when they’re not too hung-over to find their desks.’
‘It is the management, they do not take enough interest.’ Maureen said.
‘It’s Bent’ said each of the interns.
‘I don’t think there is a problem.’ Said Baljeet, the man who worked opposite Bent.
Pippa, rolled her eyes and said ‘Where do you want me to start, everything is broken – no-one talks to each other and when, they do, no-one listens.’
‘Ah-huh’ Weaver said, writing ‘No-one listens’.
Then he spoke to Bent.
‘I don’t understand why you think things need improving.’ Bent said, his arms folded.
‘I don’t think things in general need improving; just the process for unresolved complaints.’ Weaver said.
‘Then you do think things need to be improved.’
‘No…’ Weaver sighed, he knew why he’d left Bent till last. He didn’t get to continue.
‘Who do you think you are?’ Bent was on his feet, his cheeks red. ‘I’ve been here ten years, since the place was founded. I’ve put all of my efforts – my life, even, to make sure everything works. You’ve been here five minutes, you cast dispersions and you look for “efficiencies”.’ He made speech marks with his fingers. ‘Well, I tell you, whatever your name is, I’ve been here from the beginning and I’ll be here for a good few many years yet. You won’t replace me!’
And he walked out.
‘Won’t replace Bent.’ Weaver wrote. Then he went back to the apartment and slept.
>Arnold Bent is lonely.
‘Tell me something I don’t know!’ Weaver said out loud, as he fished for the noodles at the bottom of his takeaway carton. It was past 20.00. He’d slept till 17.00, showered, then spent the rest of them time inputting the data he’d collected into Pigeon6’s console.
‘Why is ‘lonely’ relevant?’ Weaver communicated through the appropriate code.
>He seeks meaning through work.
‘Our boys definitely need to recode you.’ Weaver said, reaching for his beer. No wonder the protocol wasn’t getting through, ‘Who coded you?’
Pigeon6 didn’t respond to audio – it was command prompt only, but sometimes, when he spoke out loud to it, it turned its head sideways a little, like an inquisitive dog. Weaver wondered if it was listening to him.
‘What does Bent’s loneliness have to do with a back log of 10,000 complaints?’
Pigeon6 moved its head. It did nothing for a few moments and, not for the first time, Weaver questioned the wisdom of his plan. But then, the text flashed up:
> Arnold Bent is lonely. He seeks meaning through work. He steps outside his role and tries to over perform. This makes his line manager insecure and he steps back. Arnold Bent doesn’t have sufficient authority to lead the rest of the team so they perform inadequately. Without clear leadership, the team do what they want, and everyone ignores team related issues and just focuses on their individual quotas.
Weaver put down his noodles and looked into the machines, empty black eyes.
‘So what’s the solution.’
> Recognise Arnold Bent.
Weaver dispatched Pigeon6 with his secret message for Bill. He explained how he’d fixed it – omitting the fact that he’d been given the solution by a mail drone. He set Pigeon6 to return on delivery. For some reason, he felt anxious to be parted with the machine – he wanted it close, at least while he was still on the project.
Things moved quickly after that. On Weaver’s instructions, Bill used his contacts to get Bent promoted. He was at his new desk, by lunchtime. Weaver went to congratulate him. He was surprised to see how pale the man was looking.
‘Well, all I can say is that I knew from the moment I saw you, you were in the wrong place.’ Weaver said, shaking Bent’s limp hand.
‘Thanks.’ Bent said, sitting alone in his office. He was in charge of an administrative team in sector 42.7G, handling routine telephone enquiries – he had to manage a team of 7 middle aged women. Weaver smiled. By that afternoon, the human complaints team had a meeting, chaired by a new, officially appointed manager who prioritised the backlog of unresolved issues and after that everything started moving again. A day later, as Weaver packed his things – the application for Pigeon6 was approved.
By then, it was Friday and Weaver stopped in at Life Tech on his way home. For the first time, he didn’t go to Bill – instead he went to the AI labs. Holding the Pigeon6 under his arm he spoke to a couple of developers, fresh from college.
‘Who coded this?’ He asked.
They looked at each other blankly, then one of them opened up the console and looked at the unique identifier.
‘Some contractor from the US, goes by the name of ‘Clinker’. Why is there a problem?’
Weaver took Pigeon6 off him. ‘No, its fine. But I’d like to keep this one for a little while longer. For the main launch you may want to make a couple of tweaks. I’ve done a full report for what I’ve seen while I’ve been using it, if it helps.’
The young developers were only too keen to help an executive. They took his report and told him they’d make the changes. He went home with Pigeon6 in his bag.
A week later Katie said he seemed different. ‘No, don’t get me wrong.’ She said. ‘It’s nice. I don’t know, you seem more present, I guess. It’s nice for us both to have you around.’ Weaver smiled and listened.
A bit later, when Katie was reading Emma a bed time story, he went to his garden office. He picked up Pigeon6 and coded.
‘She says. I’m more present, is this good?’
>Yes. It is good. She is happy. You should be happy.
Pigeon6 twisted its head to one side and stared at him blankly.