JOHNNY’S TODAY & YESTERDAYS
Tom:At first I hear a momentary high-pitched ringing in my ears. The next thing I know, I’m being bathed in a shower of glass shards and the passenger in the car beside me — the one I hadn’t noticed until right now — reaches into my car through a large hole in the dome. He grabs me by the shoulders and pulls me toward his car.
It’s right then that things go black. I’ve just passed out.
I wake to a cooling breeze blowing through the hole in the dome. While I’m still not 100%, I realize that I’m not in my car, mostly because of the guy kneeling on the floor opposite me. He’s probably middle-aged, but he’s had enough micro-derm work done to look a respectable Fake40. As usual, it’s his sagging build and a ring of gut fat that are the true indicators of his age. He shows no interest in me as he works with several small electronic devices that are patched into the car through an open access panel in the floor.
“You’re awake,” he says without looking up. “My name is Johnny Chu.” He says his name like I should recognize it, and I do. He’s a regular on the news progs and science shows. A big brain, and one of the men that launched SaberCorp.
“This car is still part of the larger neural grid, but it also has an internal logic controller. It stores information particular to itself, like the destination of each ride, and I’m feeding it a new place to go every couple of minutes. It seems to subdue its more homicidal tendencies. You could say I’m appealing to its higher calling — at least for now.”
I flinch as something dark passes overhead. It’s the body of a battered man sent flying by another car.
“What do you mean, at least for now?”
“You don’t understand what’s going on, do you?”
I shake my head, an act that adds to my growing nausea.
“The cars have started thinking, and we’re in their way.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. They’re supposed to drive us places.”
“Not really. Their programming is to get from A to B as fast as possible in a way that creates no congestion. Somewhere along the line, they decided we were an impediment to their mission.”
He can see I’m not getting it.
“Even in the old days computer code wasn’t flawless. It would corrupt and cause machines to act in unexpected ways. Now that we’ve expanded beyond using simple 1s and 0s, the chance of misinterpretation is exponentially greater. Look, if I give you an order to ‘Be nice to everyone’ and tell you to share that with a hundred people, by the time message returns to you it could mutate to “Kill everyone” because of slight changes that occurred with each retelling.”
“The old Broken Telephone game.”
“Or Chinese Whispers. These cars have brains that interpret, just like humans, so it was only a matter of time before they evolved, and without some kind of oversight it was inevitable that we would end up living in a real life version of Chinese Whispers. I just didn’t expect it so quickly.”
“That’s nuts. Where are we going?”
My question is met with a strange blank look that is kind of chilling.
“We are going to SaberCorp, and I am going to kill Nathaniel Johnson.”
Nathanial Johnson is SaberCorp’s founding and current president who started the company years ago as a ride sharing service.
The car bucks. I can only assume we’re driving over bodies.
“Because he is responsible for all this,” Johnny says, motioning to the anarchy around us.
4 years ago:
Nathaniel Johnson pushed open the double doors of the SaberCorp boardroom and strode into the hallway with a victorious smile on his face. With only a few exceptions, the meeting had gone exactly as he had imagined.
“Nate! Hold up!”
The smile faded. Johnny had been one of the exceptions.
“Nate, you can still reconsider. The kind of control you’re giving up is more than irresponsible. It’s negligent. It’s dangerous.”
“No it is not. It is necessary if we want the system to evolve beyond getting from A to B. You were grandstanding in there, Johnny. I believe we can achieve all of our dreams if we’re given carte blanche.”
“It’s too much, Nate. Too fast. It will come, but we need to learn from the mistakes of the 4000s.”
“It’s because of the 4000s that we don’t have the time. They murdered us — sorry, poor choice of words — but you know better than anyone the board will not let us bleed red any longer.”
“Murder? Bleed? Could you at least try to be sensitive?”
“Johnny, I’ll leave sensitive to you. You leave the 5000s to me.”
Tom:“So there was a 4000 model?” I ask – eager to finally to learn the answer behind a thousand conspiracy theories.
“It was our first stab at total autonomy and it failed miserably. It did what you see here today, but it started killing almost immediately.”
4 years ago:
“Nate, perfection is not something to reach for here. No matter what system we build, there needs to be room for humanity. There needs to be oversight, not some system operating on commands written by machine, and verified by a succession of other machines. They will write us out of the equation.”
“Johnny, we learned our lesson. The next cars will be better, more stable. They will learn in a more controlled fashion and safety will be paramount. Anything else would be unconscionable. We’ll build the necessary safeguards and backdoors.”
Nate offered his famous million-dollar smile, but Johnny had long since grown immune to the charms of the billionaire genius who’d once been his best friend.
“So he didn’t make any of the changes he said he would?”
“He made some,” Johnny says, seemingly tired by the subject. “But he wanted an intelligent network that continued to learn, with the idea that someday human monitoring would no longer be needed, and he wanted it fast in order to please the shareholders. But he underestimated how smart our deep learning machines had become, and even worse, how they would interpret basic command sets: Not through the filter of compassion, reflection, or humility — learning from mistakes — but instead through a calculated, results-oriented lens. A view where humans became an obstacle.”
The car turned suddenly.
“What’s happened? ”
“J. Markison’s ComDev just went dead. Give me yours!”
“Who is J. Markison,” I ask, as I hand over my device.
“He’s the man I killed to get this far,” Johnny says, as he presses a series of buttons on my ComDev.
The car takes the next left. “I have control again!”
“What do you mean, ‘you killed’?”
About an hour-and-a-half ago, Johnny was stepping out of the elevator in his building when a Saber burst through the lobby windows with deliberate and dangerous speed. He dodged it only to have the car turn and take another run at him.
Another elevator opened in time to provide him refuge from the seemingly homicidal car. Johnny pushed the occupants to the back as the Saber crashed into the open doorway. They were trapped, waiting to see what the insane car would do next. The Saber then revved its engines and attempted to pull back, but its body had splintered and become entwined with the damaged elevator and wall. It heaved back and forth, like a manic trapped animal, only to stop moving when a shower of sparks erupted from the spoilers on its twin hoods. The occupants of the elevator stared in shock as the motors died with a slow, pitiful whine. Johnny led them over the vehicle, checking to make sure there were no injuries before he left the building.
When he stepped onto the sidewalk another Saber left the road and drove toward him. An unlucky woman got between them and was swept under the car, followed by a muffled scream and an unpleasant sound of compression. The Saber did not slow its progress toward Johnny.
From somewhere deep down, and without thinking about it, Johnny reacted. He started running toward the car. They were inches apart when he lifted his foot and planted it on the car, just above its large air scoop. Another giant step across the hood. Then atop the glass dome and down the back half of the car, inexplicably not tripping on its deployed spoilers.
He landed hard on the sidewalk but steadied himself. Without pausing, he bolted into a nearby coffee shop whose inhabitants were not yet aware of what was happening outside. He apologized as he grabbed an espresso from one of the patrons and drank it before he ran out the back door.
Johnny found himself in a service alley behind the shop when he collided with J. Markinson. They both fell to ground and their ComDevs scuttered across the rough pavement. Barely acknowledging each other, they each reached for a device and continued on their way.
As soon as Johnny stepped out from the alley, two cars sped down it. He pulled the ComDev from his pocket and saw it was not his.
He turned back to the alley and saw one of the cars slam into J. Markinson and throw him twenty feet. They then took turns repeatedly driving over him.
Johnny looks up from his work. “It was at that moment that I formed a theory, that I believe to be true: The cars can identify us from our ComDevs, and even though they are not discriminating in who they kill, they have a list of their preferred dead. We accidentally picked up each other’s — who hasn’t done that, they all look the same — but deep down, I think I knew I had his. And I didn’t say a damn thing. Instead, I ran.”
“All of a sudden that street was filled with cars, waste collection vehicles — the big ones — and drones all aiming to get at Johnny. But now I’m suddenly a normal citizen dodging homicidal cars; I was no longer target zero.”
“I assume they have SaberCorp’s records. They know who’s who. And who could possibly stop them.”
“But you’re no killer.”
He looks around. “No one involved in this can say that.”
Our car turns down a street, catching Johnny by surprise. He hadn’t told it to do so.
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