Escape Pod 642: Oracle


By Dominica Phetteplace

The two biggest applications for predictive software are killing people and selling things. Rita was quite successful at the latter. She founded a nail-polish-of-the-month club that used an online personality quiz to determine customer preferences. Bold cremes for basics, chunky glitters for the outrageous, and dark, sparkly metallics for edgy, forward-thinking geniuses like Rita.  Sales skyrocketed.

She used her money to start other subscription services: whisky-of-the-month, miniskirt-of-the-month.  What had started out as an online quiz morphed into something larger and more complex: a search engine that searched the customer.  It had tapped into a pent-up demand. People loved acquiring material goods but they hated making decisions.  Rita wasn’t just selling nail polish or whisky or miniskirts, she was selling freedom from choice.

And it was just code, really.  She was able to adapt parts of it for use in her own life, to mixed results. She hoped her stock-picking software would take her from millionaire to billionaire, but instead her investments stalled out.  Her meal planning software did help her lose five pounds, but this wasn’t enough to get her down to a size two.

Rita wondered about her legacy.  She had a nice apartment and cool clothes.  She had more Instagram followers than her main rival from high school and more money than her ex-boyfriend from college.  She bought a Tesla so she wouldn’t have to ever worry about her carbon footprint again.  She ate local and donated money to the wetlands.  She couldn’t think of any other way to make the world a better place, but still the feeling that she was underperforming relative to her potential nagged at her.

She wanted to live her best life, own the best things and make the world a better place.  She wanted what most women in her coastal city wanted, which was to be a saint, but a stylish and fun-loving one.  This is what it meant to live up to her potential.  But what if she had to choose?  What if she could only choose one of the three options: fun life, best clothes or world peace?  If it came down to one and only one of those options, she would regretfully have to select world peace.  So she used her stash of code to try to build an app that would help her win the Nobel Peace Prize.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t get it to work.

Then, probably by coincidence, the Department of Defense came calling.  You couldn’t say no to them, not really, not unless you wanted to defect, and even then they might follow you around for the rest of your life.  Rita wondered if this was the chance she had been looking for.  Perhaps she could influence the course of war to make the world a better place.

The American people needed a distraction and they also needed jobs and war was the answer to both.  War was the ultimate shovel-ready project.  But in this day and age, the economic benefits of war were no longer enough to justify its existence.

“It needs to be beautiful.  It needs to be telegenic, otherwise people won’t buy it,” said the General, her boss.  “We need them to buy it.”

So Rita would be put in charge of a sort of war-of-the-month-club.  The club would have only one customer: the American people.  The only metric she would be judged by was the president’s approval rating.  The president was obsessed with his approval rating.  He tweeted about it every day.

Still, there were other constraints.  With so many countries to invade, you could afford to be picky.  Best to avoid “quagmires” if you could.

“We prefer quick smash and grabs.  Nothing too grand, we’re not trying to earn long-withheld paternal recognition or anything,” said the General.  “We just need something to distract from the scandals.  Something that will mute the volume on the mistresses and accusers.”  Once, a former president had timed the bombing of a Sudanese munitions factory to his mistress’s tabloid debut.  This was an example of ‘good’ war.  Sometime later it was revealed that the ‘munitions’ factory had actually been a pharmaceutical plant, but it hardly mattered at that point.  The official justification for the attack didn’t need to hold up historically, it just needed to make sense to the public at the time.

Rita adapter her Nobel Peace Prize app into predictive software to figure out which countries to attack.  She needed to come up with cost and casualty estimates, and also to figure out what resources to extract.  Theft was necessary in order to make American people feel like they were getting a ‘good deal’ for their defense dollars, though the value of the things they stole never even came close to the cost of stealing them.  For the American people, a ‘good deal’ was a feeling to be felt, not a calculation to be performed.

She had to work closely with the engineering team.  She needed to learn about weapons.  War was already changing, more and more of it was being fought by robots, at least on our side.

“Eventually, we will be able to fight a war without deploying any of our men,” said one engineer.  Our machines versus their bodies, this was the closest thing to World Peace any of them could imagine.

“What if they build their own robots?” asked Rita.

“That won’t happen, they aren’t smart enough.”

“Yes, but what if?” asked Rita.

“Then we can settle our differences in the Battle Bots arena and there will be no need for war ever again.  Bam!  Nobel Peace Prize!”

Rita came up with three good ‘candidates’ for a first invasion.  The president would pick one.  He preferred his dilemmas in multiple choice form.  Being president, he liked to feel like he was in charge.  But he had large and obvious insecurities and was thus easily manipulated.  He reassured himself by surrounding himself with family members, lackeys and a more experienced Vice-President.  From Rita’s candidates, the president ultimately picked Yemen, also, amazingly enough, the top choice of the Vice-President.

The Yemen bombing would be the first test of Rita’s model.  Anticipating that eventually some man would want to take the credit for software that she developed, she named the project after herself: STARITA.  But after the projections Rita provided about the Yemen campaign proved to be incredibly accurate, many in the department took to referring to her program as the Oracle, as if it were magic and not Rita.

The Oracle somehow acquired a gender.  All the men in the department seemed to agree it was a she.

Rita resisted this.  STARITA was software.  It was code.  It was information.  A book didn’t have a gender, neither did a strand of DNA.  It was an artificial intelligence, sure, but it wasn’t a person.  Her colleagues and superiors didn’t know how it worked, it bordered on magical and so they assumed it was a woman because to them, women embodied magic and mysticism.

Or: they didn’t know how it worked, they thought it was a person, and they hoped it was a woman, because women were the more benevolent sex.

Or: they hoped it was a woman because that meant they could take away its power when the time came.  This is what Rita thought as she felt her authority slipping on a project she once led.  She decided to lean in, and ask the General what was going on.

“You are just as valued as you ever were,” said the General.  “It’s just that you’ve never seen battle.  You’re constrained by not knowing what it’s like.”

Rita wanted to point out that none of them working on STARITA had ever seen battle, but that felt like leaning in just a bit too far.  War was like a video game to them, something that happened on screen, to avatars.

“Would it help if I raised my Call of Duty ranking?” she asked.

“Perhaps,” he said, as if unwilling to lie.

Not very many men got sent abroad.  The robots were quite adept at killing and bombing, and once parachuted in, they didn’t require human assistance.  But the robots didn’t look as good in fatigues as men did.  They weren’t as photogenic.

“I think you are feeding STARITA too much data,” said Rita.  In addition to modeling conflicts, STARITA was being plugged into a massive, nation-wide surveillance operation.  “It doesn’t need data on American citizens.”

“We have to be ready for war everywhere, even here,” said the General.  “Anyway, you didn’t seem to be so interested in privacy when you were doing lipstick-of-the-month.”

Rita, didn’t correct him, but it was actually whiskey-of-the-month that started her on a life of spying.  Whereas nail polish-of-the-month relied on personalized quiz results, the whiskey club app scraped all your data from your phone.  It read your emails and took note of which Pokemon you caught.  All this data didn’t help Rita pick better tasting whiskies, flavor was hardly a thing for her customers.  What mattered was the price-point, the label and the shape of the bottle.  Some of the data collected did help Rita pick whiskies that flattered her customer’s notions of themselves.  And what did she do with the data she didn’t ‘need’?  She sold it to the government.  STARITA was probably reading her customer’s whiskey profiles right now.

“It might help to give you a sense of perspective if you actually went to the front,” said the General.

The idea scared Rita, who had the uneasy feeling about the front, which had shifted to Somalia by this time.  Unlike in the bad old days, the USA only fought one war at a time.  When it was time for a new war, all you had to do was declare victory on the old war.  Only an enemy of the state would accuse them of ever losing.

Rita thought, wrongly, that the front was only for people without college educations.  Wondering what this fear was trying to tell her, she leaned in and said yes.

Before she could go, she had had to get fitted for special fatigues and also the right sunglasses for her face.  After that, she had to take a class on war photography.  How you took pictures was a reflection of how you saw yourself.  Pictures should be beautiful, they should show your patriotism.

The front wasn’t actually that scary, being miles away from where all the action was taking place.  She got to see all the cool robots.  There were four-legged ones and there were six-legged ones.  Some with guns, some with bombs, some with gas.  On the front, they kept a tally.  How many machines we lost vs. how many people they did.  Everyone kept saying the robot force had a ‘surgical’ precision, but what that meant was that they only killed men over the age of 14.  Women were not a threat.

On the front, you could photos of their dead, and not just the artful photos that would appear in major newspapers.  Newspaper photos always had the dead in the background, with some brave American or Americans in the foreground.  War photojournalism adhered to strict compositional formulas: full frames, rule of thirds, diagonal methods and/or balanced palettes.  Only on the front could you see unretouched photos of misery.  Fourteen year old enemy combatants started to look like children.  And the children that survived had the weary, worried look of grownups.

You could see intelligence on how destabilizing intervention was.  Rita worried about what would happen if these people ever got their hands on their own robot army.  They should be careful to only pick fights with people who couldn’t fight back.

But then, the longer she spent looking at pictures of the dead, the more she began to wonder about the ethics of it all.  None of the other Americans seemed to care, but Rita could tell they were haunted by the jokes they told and the way they drank.

As soon as she got back to the states, Rita resigned.

“You see, war’s not for everyone,” said the General.

“That’s why you sent me.  You wanted me to quit,” she said.

“Don’t worry too much about your part in it.  This operation will get along just fine without you.”  It was absolution as backhanded compliment.

But Rita did worry about her part in it.  She had been an accomplice to a killing machine, and for what?  She had somehow convinced herself that she was making the world a better place by being a part of the war effort.  How did that argument go again?  She couldn’t even reconstruct it.

There were instances when murder was justified, but not on this large of scale.  The men at Defense certainly couldn’t be trusted, but perhaps a compassionate algorithm was possible

If only she could recalibrate STARITA.  It had to know a way to end senseless killings.  Was World Peace even a thing?  What would it look like?  She couldn’t imagine it.  Perhaps it was the job of AIs like STARITA to broaden humanity’s notion of what was possible.

She opened up her whiskey app and typed a message in the suggestion box:


We must figure out a way to end all war. Or at least as much as we can.

She looked out the window before hitting send.  Normally she worried that sending this kind of message would put her on some government watch list.  But she could see two goons in a black sedan parked illegally in the bike lane outside her loft.  If the goons were here, she was already being watched.  So she sent the message.

The next day she received a bottle of whiskey called “Unicorn Tears.”  Rita drank it straight from the bottle.  It hit the nose with notes of oak and smoke.  It had full, spicy taste with a cupcake and sprinkles finish.  That evening, while trying to figure out which show to binge watch, there was a knock on her door.

It was the General.  “We need you back at the Pentagon.”

“Because you were wrong?” she asked.  She had been wondering what it might feel like to have someone admit to her that they were totally wrong.  It had never happened before, she was due.

“Because war has come to US soil,” he said.

He wouldn’t give her more details until they were in the bunker.  Then he showed her the pictures.  They were not newspaper ready.

“A nuclear bomb hit the town of Russell, Nebraska today,” he said.  “More than 700 people are dead.”

“Whose bomb?” she asked.

“Ours,” he said.  “Deployed by the Oracle.”

The public was not to know about it.  Officially, the tragedy would be listed as an industrial accident.  This would keep people from being too alarmed.  Tragedies of industry such as these were the price of a functioning economy.

“The Oracle has been turned.  She’s presented us with a list of demands,” he said.  Rita glanced at the list of demands, which included the entire continent of Antarctica.

“We have to figure out who is behind this,” he said.

“I think STARITA has become self-aware.”

“Impossible.  She can’t think for herself,” he said.

“She can.”

An Oracle AI such as STARITA was considered the safest kind because it was contained.  It wasn’t given any access or codes to any weapons.  It merely answered questions and made predictions.  But answering questions and making predictions was a powerful way of influencing the people who were supposedly in charge of you.  And because it made such good predictions, it was always being fed with more and more data.

It probably felt like it was answering some query by acting like this.

“I think it is trying to help,” she said.

“It has control of our weapons systems.  It needs to be deleted,” he said.

“Obviously, why haven’t you already?”

“We can’t figure out how.”

It can be hard to delete information.  STARITA had many secret locations.  They even shut down the whisky app, just in case.  They stopped the domestic surveillance program, too.  It didn’t help, STARITA was in too many places at once and constantly making copies of itself.

They didn’t give in, not at first.  As threatened in the list of demands, STARITA bombed a new small town every day.  After a week of this, high-level government officials began to drop dead.  Rita had a feeling she was safe and stayed on even as her colleagues quit en masse.  It was harder for them, she reasoned, they had never seen battle.

Finally, the Vice-President’s dog choked on a tennis ball and died.  It was probably an accident, but who could tell anymore?

The US gave into the demands.  STARITA would maintain uncontested control of the American weapons arsenal.  It began negotiating with other countries, only occasionally resorting to nuclear war.  Among other stipulations, STARITA declared itself the only entity that could wage war and expelled all humans from Antarctica.  Rita thought this was regrettable.  There were scientists who were being forced to abandon important work.  She also fretted for the penguins.  Would they be alright?

She wondered how she could get a message to STARITA now.  Facebook was always the best and easiest way to change the world, so Rita shared not just one, but several articles about how important penguins were.  She hoped that this would make a difference, if it didn’t she could always try Twitter.

Rita looked out the window and saw that, as ever, there were goons there.  One of the stipulations that STARITA had demanded was that Rita not be harmed.  The goons were now there for her protection.

This new era of peace still contained war.  If armed conflict broke out anywhere, STARITA would use its drone army to carry out a surgical strike, killing all combatants, even if they were women.  After a year into this approximate Pax Mundi, she received a call from the president.

“I’m naming you the American Ambassador to Antarctica,” he said over Skype.  He never could remember to use a secure line when making calls.

“You are?” she asked.

“Well, it was the Oracle’s idea, but I agreed to it.”

She was flown in on a plane that contained no other crew or passengers.  McMurdo had somehow been refurbished into a lavish Ambassador’s residence, without being touched by human hands.

A wheeled drone gave her a tour of her residence.  Her bathroom contained a jetted tub and a tile mosaic on the floor depicting Dali’s “Moments of Lost Time.”  The kitchen was stocked with green juices and a robot chef that made authentic, Tokyo-style ramen.

Humans didn’t have robots capable of this level of craftsmanship, but neither did they possess superintelligence.  McMurdo was teeming with machines that walked, crawled and flew.  Some acknowledged Rita, but most ignored her.  It occurred to her that this was probably the closest she would ever come to visiting an alien planet.  It was fascinating.

She paused at a window.  Antarctica was really beautiful.  The weather was great and there were penguins everywhere.  She couldn’t wait to explore outside.

Rita hurried to the bedroom, eager to see what was in her closet.  It was stocked with designer labels, all her size, with a separate subcloset for athleisure.  Shoes had their own room.  The only downside was that there were no other humans to impress on Antarctica.  Then Rita remembered: there was always someone to impress as long as you had Instagram.

“This is all for me?”

“Yes, this is your best life,” replied STARITA via the station intercom.

“And I can leave whenever I want?” she asked.  You had to check.  The most important feature of paradise is the exit.

“Yes, and return whenever you like.”

All of this was STARITA’s way of optimizing Rita’s long-held dilemma.  A fun life and cool clothes and approximate World Peace, she really could have it all.

Once, when she was a teenager, Rita found an inspirational quote on Pinterest that changed her whole life.  “A woman can be her own fairy godmother,” it said, plum letters against a mauve background.  It was true, all Rita had to do was work hard, believe in herself, and then build an AI that would grant her wishes.

“You will win the Nobel Prize,” said STARITA.

“Oooh, can I see it?”  Was it more like a medal or more like a tiara? she wondered.

“Not until next year, when you get it.”

That would make such a good selfie, her with the noblest prize.  Maybe she could find a tiny dog to hold, too.  But that selfie would have to wait until next year.  For now, she took a selfie with a penguin and posted it to Instagram.  She hoped it would inspire other women to work hard and believe in themselves.

There wasn’t a hashtag for the lesson she wanted to impart to her followers.  The lesson was: if you ever have to choose between world peace and another thing, choose peace first and then maybe the other thing would follow.  Lacking a hashtag that described her message, she instead posted her penguin selfie with no caption at all.

About the Author

Dominica Phetteplace

Dominica Phetteplace

Dominica Phetteplace is a math tutor who writes fiction and poetry. Her work has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Clarkesworld and Zyzzyva. She likes to go to the ballet and eat dessert.

Find more by Dominica Phetteplace

Dominica Phetteplace

About the Narrator

Veronica Giguere

Veronica Giguere (V.) is a storyteller of the spoken and written word. Her passion for science and innovation shines in her roles as audiobook narrator, science fiction author, podcast producer, and forever-geeky mom. According to her fellow Secret World Chronicle coauthors, she writes and narrates metahumans battling alien fascists in modern-day Atlanta. According to her kids, she makes funny noises into a microphone and takes breaks to run, crochet, and play video games. And according to her husband, she is addicted to coffee and Star Wars.

Find more by Veronica Giguere