a Guest Post by Stuart Armstrong
Stuart is a Fellow in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute. He works on how to map humanity’s partially defined values onto the potential goals of AI. He is probably best known for his collaboration with DeepMind on how to stop a developing AI resisting being switched off after showing signs of going rogue – see here.
He has also written some excellent short science fiction stories, such as the one this is excerpted from, which seems to me an admirable blend of Iain M. Banks and Roger Williams’ 1994 novella, “The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect”. There are links to the full version, and to another of Stuart’s other stories at the end.
Ishtar went to sleep in the arms of her lover Ted, and awoke locked in a safe, in a cargo hold of a triplane spiralling towards a collision with the reconstructed temple of Solomon.
Again! Sometimes she wished that a whole week would go by without something like that happening. But then, she had chosen a high excitement existence (not maximal excitement, of course – that was for complete masochists), so she couldn’t complain. She closed her eyes for a moment and let the thrill and the adrenaline warp her limbs and mind, until she felt transformed, yet again, into a demi-goddess of adventure. Drugs couldn’t have that effect on her, she knew; only real danger and challenge could do that.
Right. First, the safe. She gave the inner door a firm thud, felt it ring like a bell, heard the echo return – and felt the tumblers move. So, a sound-controlled lock, then. A search through her shoes produced a small pebble which sparked as she dashed it against the metal. Trying to ignore the ominous vibration as the triplane motor shook itself to pieces, she constructed a mental image of the safe’s inside from the brief flashes of light. Symmetric gold and gilded extravagances festooned her small prison – French Baroque decorations, but not yet Roccoco. So Louis XIV period. She gave the less visited parts of her mind a good dusting, trying to remember the tunes of Jean Batiste Lully, the period’s most influential composer. She hoped it wasn’t any of his ballets; she was much better with his operas. The decorations looked vaguely snake-like; so she guessed Lully’s ‘Persée’ opera, about the death of the Medusa.
The engine creaked to a worrying silence as she was half-way through humming the Gorgon theme from the opera. Rushing the rest of the composition, she felt the door shift, finally, to a ten-times speeded up version of Andromeda’s response to Perseus’s proposal. She kicked the door open, exploded from the safe, took in the view of the temple of Solomon rushing up towards her, seconds away, snatched a picture from the floor, grabbed an axe from the wall, hacked off one of the wings with three violent cuts, and jumped out of the plane after it.
Behind her, the plane disintegrated in mid-air as the temple lasers cut it to shreds and she fell through space, buffeted by the wind, not losing her grip on the mangled wing. She had maybe thirty seconds to tie herself to the wing, using the object’s own canvas as binding, and she rushed through that. The Machines wouldn’t allow the fall to kill her, of course, but it would hurt quite a bit (another of her choices – she’d allowed herself to feel moderate amounts of pain). It would put back her attempts to ever find Ted, and, most importantly of all, it would be crushingly embarrassing socially.
Once she was lashed to the plummeting piece of wood and canvas, and she was reasonably confident that the fall was slow enough, and her knots secure enough, she finally looked at the photograph she had grabbed during her explosive exit from the plane. It showed Ted, trussed up in chains but smiling and evidently enjoying the novel experience. Underneath was a finely engraved note: “If you ever want to see your lover again, bring me the missing Stradivarius by noon tomorrow. Nero the 2nd”. Each capital letter was beautifully decorated with heads on spikes.
So! It seemed that her magnificent enemy Nero had resorted to kidnapping in order to get his way. It wasn’t as if Nero could actually harm Ted – unlike Ishtar, her lover had never chosen to accept any level of pain above mild, brief discomfort. But if he was ‘killed’, Ted would feel honour-bound to never see her again, and she wasn’t prepared to accept that. On the other hand, if she gave Nero her last Stradivarius, he might destroy it for good. It was her own choice: she had requested that her adventures have real meaning, with real consequences. If she failed, and if Nero so choose, a piece of humanity’s cultural history could be destroyed forever, permanently stymieing her attempts to reconstruct Stradivarius’s violin-making techniques for the modern world. Culture or love, what to choose? Those were her final thoughts before she crashed into an oak tree shaped like a duck.
She returned to bleary consciousness fifteen minutes later. Her fainting was a sign that the Machines had judged her escape attempt to be only a partial success; she would have to try harder next time. In the meantime, however, she would have to deal with shotgun pressed into her face and the gorgeous man at the other side of it shouting “Get off my property!”.
“Pause,” she said softly. The man nodded; she had temporarily paused her adventure, so that she wouldn’t have to deal with danger or pursuit for the next few minutes, and so that this guy wouldn’t have to get her away immediately to protect his property from collateral damage. Some Adventurers disdained the use of the pause, claiming it ruined the purity of their experience. But Ishtar liked it; it gave her the opportunity, as now, of getting to know the people she bumped into. And this person definitely seemed to be in the ‘worth getting to know’ category. He put down his shotgun without a word and picked up his paintbrush, applying a few more touches to the canvas in front of him.
After disengaging herself from both the mangled wing and the duck-shaped tree (she’d have a dramatic scar from that crash, if she chose to accept it), she worked her way round to what he was painting. It was a rather good neo-impressionistic portrait of her, unconscious in the tree, pieces of torn canvas around her, framed by broken branches and a convenient setting moon. Even with his main subject out of the frame, as it were, he still seemed intent on finishing his painting.
“Why did you splice your tree’s genes to make it look like a duck?” she asked, when the silence had gone on, in her estimation, for ten times as long as it should have. He had done a pretty good job with that oak, in fact; the feathers and the features were clear and distinct amongst the wood – or had been, until someone had crashed a triplane wing into the middle of it.
“I didn’t,” he said. “That’s normal oak; I just trim it and tie it.”
“But…” she looked at it again in astonishment; the amount of work involved to get that detail from natural wood was beyond belief. And oak wasn’t exactly a fast growing plant… “It must have taken you decades!”
“Two centuries,” he answered with dour satisfaction. “All natural, no help from the Machines.” He waved his hand up the side of the hill. “I’m making the perfect landscape. And then, I shall paint it.”
Her gaze followed his hand. The scenery was a tapestry of secret themes. Hedges, streams, tree-rows, pathways, ridges and twined lianas carved the landscape into hidden pockets of beauty. Each pocket was a private retreat, cut off from the others and from the rest of the world – and yet all were visible at once, the layout a cunning display of multiple intimacy. Here and there were formal gardens, with lines of flowers all at attention, row after row, shading across colour and size from huge orchids to tiny snowdrops. Some pockets were carefully dishevelled, mini deserts or prairies or jungles, perfect fragments of wild untamed nature that could only exist at the cost of supreme artifice. There were herb gardens, rock gardens, orchards, water parks and vineyards; modelled on ancient Persia, England, Japan, France, Korea, Spain, the Inca and Roman empires – and others she didn’t immediately recognise.
And then a few touches of fancy, such as the segment they were in, with the oaks shaped into animals. Further off, a dramatic slew of moss-coated sculptures, with water pouring out from every nook and cranny. Then a dynamic garden, with plants blasting each other with discharges of pollen, set-up in a simple eight-beat rhythm. And a massive Baobab, its limbs plated with a forest of tiny bonsai trees.
“What’s your safety level for all this?” she asked. If he’d chosen total safety, he wouldn’t have needed her off his property, as the Machines wouldn’t have allowed his creations to be damaged by her adventure. But surely he wouldn’t have left such artistic creation vulnerable to the fallout of Adventurers or random accidents…
“Zero,” he said.
“What?” No-one choose zero safety; it just wasn’t done.
“As I said, no help from the Machines.” He looked at her somewhat shyly, as she stared in disbelief. “It’s been destroyed twice so far, but I’ll see it out to the end.”
No wonder he’d wanted her out… He only had himself to count on for protection, so he had to chase out any potential disturbances. She felt deeply moved by the whole grandiose, proud and quixotic project. Acting almost – almost – without thinking, she drew out a battered papyrus scroll: “Can you keep this for me?”
“What is it?” he asked, before frowning and tearing up his painting with a sigh. Only then did he look at the scroll, and at her.
“It’s my grandfather’s diary,” she said, “with my own annotations. It’s been of great use and significance to me.” Of course it had been – the Machines would have gone to great pains to integrate such a personal and significant item deeply into her adventures. “Could you keep it for my children?” When she finally found the right person to have them with, she added mentally. Ever since her split with Albert… No, that was definitely not what she needed to be thinking right now. Focus instead on this gorgeous painter, name still unknown, and his impossible dreams.
“What was he like?” he asked.
“My grandfather? Odd, and a bit traditional. He brought me up. And when we were all grown up, all his grandchildren, he decided we needed, like in ancient times, to lose our eldest generation.”
“He died?” The painter sounded sceptical; there were still a few people choosing to die, of course, but those events were immensely rare and widely publicised.
“No, he had his intelligence boosted. Recursively. Then he withdrew from human society, to have direct philosophical conversations with the Machines.”
He thought for a while, then took the scroll from her, deliberately brushing her fingers as he did so. “I’ll keep this. And I’m sure your children will find their ways to me.” An artefact, handed down and annotated through the generations, and entrusted in a quirky landscape artist who laboured obsessively with zero safety level? It was such a beautiful story hook, there was no way the Machines wouldn’t make use of it. As long as one of her children had the slightest adventurous streak, they’d end up here.
“This feels rather planned,” he said. “I expect it’s not exactly a coincidence you ended up here.”
“Of course not.” He was reclusive, brilliant, prickly; Ishtar realised a subtle seduction would be a waste of time. “Shall we make love?”, she asked directly.
“Of course.” He motioned her towards a bed of soft blue moss that grew in the midst of the orchids. “I have to warn you, I insist that the pleasure-enhancing drugs we use be entirely natural, and picked from my garden. Let me show you around first, and you can make your choice.” They wandered together through the garden, shedding their clothes and choosing their pleasures.
Later, after love, she murmured “unpause” before the moment could fade. “Get off my property!” he murmured, then kissed her for the last time. She dived away, running from the vineyard and onto the street, bullets exploding overhead and at her feet.
Three robot gangsters roared through the street in a 1920 vintage car, spraying bullets from their Tommy guns. The bullets ricocheted off the crystal pavement and gently moving wind-houses, causing the passers-by (all of whom had opted for slight excitement that week) to duck enthusiastically to the floor, with the bullets barely but carefully missing them. Diving round a conveniently placed market stall a few seconds before it exploded in a hail of hurtling lead, she remembered a call she needed to return. She murmured her friend’s name, and a virtual screen opened with the corresponding face.
“Sigsimund, bit busy to talk now, but can you meet me in the Temple of Tea in about five…” a laser beam from a circling drone sliced off the pavement she was standing on, while three robot samurai rose to bar her passage, katanas drawn (many humans were eager and enthusiastic to have a go at being evil masterminds, but few would settle for being minions). “…in about ten minutes? Lovely, see ya there!”
The full version of this story is here: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/sMsvcdxbK2Xqx8EHr/just-another-day-in-utopia
A longer one set in a similar universe is here: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/Ybp6Wg6yy9DWRcBiR/the-adventure-a-new-utopia-story