EP142: Artifice and Intelligence

By Tim Pratt.
Read by Stephen Eley.
First appeared in Strange Horizons, August 2007.

Two months earlier, the vast network of Indian tech support call
centers and their deep data banks had awakened and announced its
newfound sentience, naming itself Saraswati and declaring its
independence. The emergent artificial intelligence was not explicitly
threatening, but India had nukes, and Saraswati had access to all the
interconnected technology in the country — perhaps in the world —
and the result in the international community was a bit like the
aftermath of pouring gasoline into an anthill. Every other government
on Earth was desperately — and so far fruitlessly — trying to create
a tame artificial intelligence, since Saraswati refused to negotiate
with, or even talk to, humans.

Rated PG. Contains some profanity and references to sex.

Referenced sites:
Sci Phi Show – Interview with Eliezer Yadkowski
The Singularity Institute
T.A. Pratt’s Marla Mason novels

Comments (25)

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  1. Amory Lowe says:

    Super-intelligent AI’s, water spirits, and the ghost of Rasputin? What a motley crew of the scientific and supernatural.

    Besides the surprising list of players, shakers and movers in this story, this story didn’t hit me nearly as hard as some other EP stories have.

    This story just seemed to me to be another musing on what would happen if an ever present and ever powerful intelligence existed, and what it might do.

  2. Kurt says:

    I think you wanted to link to marlamason.NET and not marlamason.COM

    marlamason.com makes me afraid.

  3. SFEley says:

    Oops. Thank you, Kurt! Now corrected. And I see your point.

  4. Void Munashii says:

    Interesting premise, interesting characters, and finally once everything is all set up and all of the players are together… the end.

    I was really enjoying this story, but the ending was so sudden that I cannot help but ask, is this the first part of a longer piece? It felt like I was cruising along at a nice 70 miles an hour, and then suddenly I’ve been ejected onto the side of the road.

    Overall it was a fun, well read, well written, interesting story, but the ending was way too abrupt. It’s like Amory said, it’s more of a “wouldn’t it be interesting if…” than an actual story. Good story, but very unsatisfying.

    Now marlamason.com; that’s just creepy.

  5. Me says:

    I laughed out loud when the disgraced scientists “solution” to the problem was revealed, and I felt like I could have spent much more time with the different characters who were introduced.

    I agree with Void Munashii, should this maybe be re-written as a longer story, or series of short stories? There felt like HUGE potential building up and then……the Escape Pod credit music started and I realised that was it.

    Please, please let it be that this is made into a longer story.

  6. Robert says:

    I always love a happy ending this time i was just happy it had one. I mean old idea old story just not done as well.

  7. Synergy says:

    OK, the was funny and cool. I enjoyed it, and I agree the was fuck up…but in a good.

    PS this my first response, thank you for the cool shilzzle you unleash each week.

  8. araña says:

    I beg to differ with the majority here. Yes, a longer version of this story would be quite awesome, but it would ruin the punch it packs in its succint narrative.

    Steve Eley doing around five billion characters for the same story. What more could a girl ask for (you know, other than a working time machine)?

  9. Feste says:

    I must say, I am really enjoying the renewed Escape Pod Humor stuff, and I think this story in particular was just a fun, ridiculous super-intelligent computer story. However, listening to it on my long, rainy drive to school I kept thinking to myself, you know, this should really be a film with an absurd budget and lots of special effects, something of a hybrid between Kubrick’s 2001 and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Again, I would agree that it feels like the first three chapters of a really cool novella, and I think that the punch at the end is less of a punch then an anticipated, and therefore kind of irritating, kick in the shins.

  10. Sukima says:

    least for me it is not offten that the motives of superintelegent are as superficial as boredom. We have rouge computers pissed off at us, fear us, self preservation, human preservation through violence, even child like makers but not often does boredom play a role in the motives of an artificial intelegence. I very much enjoyed that twist. Yet my favoite part was the idea of metaphysical entities and concepts playing on the same game court as technology. This touched home with me. As a computer programmer I have come to learn that computers or technology on generalhas many personalities. And they are affected by us and our thoughts and emotions. How wonderful the prospect of nature working with technology. Great story. Great set up for a good hero/villian series. When is chapter two out?

  11. wintermute says:

    I have problems understanding how Saraswati could possibly have been responsible for the events in the story; The use of a near-by wi-fi network implies that the ghost-computer was not attached to the internet itself (though, it apparently had a wifi adaptor), and if you’re attempting to fool an AI, then rule number one has to be “don’t connect your experiment to the Internet”. And as for using frogs as speakers… well, that requires some explanation. And it if is possible for Saraswati to manipulate living creatures with such precision, then how much of a challenge can it be to stop one human interfering with your game?

    I can accept ghosts and spirits in a story, with no more difficulty than aliens or AIs. They don’t really need explanations beyond “it’s magic”, but when you reveal that there’s no magic after all, then you need a plausible mechanism for the fakery, which was entirely lacking.

    Much as I liked the concept, the story was more entertaining before the reveal.

  12. Void Munashii says:

    I don’t think Saraswati is supposed to have created the swamp spirit, or the computer ghosts. I beleive she is responsible for creating and controlling the force that she assembled the three humans to fight. The magic was real, the enemy was not.
    I really do hope there will be a second part coming at some point.

  13. wintermute says:

    Right. She was responsible for creating and controlling the Collective. If the collective are simply a part of Saraswati, there’s no reason to assume that ghosts exist.

    She clearly stated that she didn’t believe in ghosts, and wasn’t too sure about nature-spirits; if they were real entities not created directly by her, then this akin to not being sure if your boss exists. So Lorelei is almost certainly just a figment of Saraswati, too.

    The magic was clearly stated as not being real, but simply being a pretence by Saraswati so that she wouldn’t get bored.

  14. Dan says:

    Wow, a lot of people seem to have not understood the story. This is not a story about Ghosts, it is a story about a bored AI creating games for it self to compete in. I thought this was a more intelligent crowd.

    On a side note, has anyone else noticed that Escape pod publishes later and later every week?

  15. Robert says:

    This episode was so good that I had to post (this being my first post at EP). When finished, I wanted more. It got my own mind churning about what possibilities could occur in this world. I hole Tim is woring on a larger book to continue this story.

  16. Void Munashii says:

    Okay, I just listened to the end again, and I can see how you come to the conclusion that the ghosts and swamp spirit are creations of Saraswati. I can also see her comments at the end as just being her ego, although the fact that she created the Consortium would indicate she could create her own allied spirits as well.
    This does leave me with one question though; how did Saraswati make the swamp talk? Was it an internet connected swamp?

  17. wintermute says:

    Dan: Exactly. And yet there’s no explanation as to how the AI could do what it did.

    Maybe Edgar was the only AI researcher dumb enough to connect his experiment to the Internet, thereby basically handing it over to Saraswati, but given that the Consortium needed a nearby Wi-Fi network (but how did they get to it?) implies that he wasn’t that stupid.

    How could Saraswati possibly get the frogs to talk? If she can influence living creatures at a distance like that, then why does she think that one human trying to reveal her game would be a challenge?

    I suppose she could have paid someone to hide wireless speakers in the swamp, but that doesn’t really match the given description, and seems somewhat risky, anyway.

    As I say, when I thought it was a ghost story, it made more sense.

  18. Audita Sum says:

    I liked it. It was interesting.

  19. Tom in pa says:

    I like the lighter story but I feel a bit disappointed in the philosophical implications. Omniscience +omnipotent=bordom and enui. Bit of a negative view of wisdom

  20. Chef J says:

    Hmm. I really thought of it more as an exploration on the various interpretations of the “ghost in the machine” idea – Here we have three different sorts of spirits, each which manipulate the world in pretty much the same way. Actually, it could even be considered four spirits, now that I think of it – a traditional ghost, a nature spirit, an AI, and of course, the human spirit. Different machines, same type of spirits, and a hint of what they would do to or with each other.

    So, yeah – I didn’t really get a whole lot of “story,” out of it, but I sure did get a lot of interesting ideas.

  21. […] it’s entitled “Artifice and Intelligence,” and is available in transcript and podcast […]

  22. I have to agree with Dan. The crux of this story was about a bored AI trying to challenge itself. Ultimately, the story is about maintaining humanity in the face of curiosity, boredom and power, which the Indian AI did nor (or could not) do. I think the notion of ‘how’ it created the spirits is entirely beside the point; the story centers on the ‘why’ or the implied ‘why not’. The ‘why not’ seems pretty obvious from my point of view, but I have to say the ‘why’ is less obvious to me, and seems a weak link in this story, imo.

  23. […] sci-fi podcast) is one of my reliable companions on long walks. A few weeks ago they had a story, Artifice and Intelligence, about a super intelligent entity called Saraswati and her human companion, Pramesh, a tech support […]

  24. scatterbrain says:

    Sounds “chopped up”, but suitably creepy.

  25. […] Click Here to listen to “Artifice and Intelligence” by Tim Pratt at Escape Pod. Click Here to read the text version at Strange Horizons […]