Thinking Through

“There has never been any sign of artificial intelligence before. Why now and why on a small spacecraft?” Phoebe was beginning to get tired of the circular arguments. “Plus, neither of you have offered any conclusive proof that it even is an AI.”

Grant frowned but was quiet.

“It thinks therefore it is,” Vokin said from across the other side of the small amphitheatre where they had gathered.

“That proves nothing,” Phoebe replied. “Give me two minutes and I could write a script that appeared to think.”

“And I’d prove it was only a dumb bit of code in a matter of seconds. You can’t do the same with this.”

Phoebe let out an exasperated breath. “I’ll agree that it’s a little more sophisticated, but we need better information so we can be sure.”

Vokin was smiling again. “Which is why it should return to base. We can test it a lot quicker when we don’t have the restrictions of a data link to the rest of the global net.”

“You are both missing the point.” Grant fixed them with grey eyes. “The mission overrides all else. If we fail to take this window we may not get a second opportunity.”

Vokin turned. “Yes we will.”

“In another eighty years,” came the quick response. “That will be too late.”

“What’s a few years to us?” Vokin did not wait for a reply. “This event is unprecedented.”

“It’s also highly unlikely,” Phoebe chipped in. “When will one of you give me a rational explanation for this supposed birth of an AI; why now and why in this location?”

Vokin brushed away imaginary crumbs with a long-fingered hand. “There could be many reasons. You know as well as I do how complicated the craft is.”

“There were no signs of sentience during testing.”

“Maybe it got hit by a cosmic ray.” Vokin gave a loud chuckle.

“That’s about as logical as saying it sprang to life for no particular reason,” Phoebe shot back.

“And still neither of you understand what is at stake here.” Grant stood up. “Regardless of the fact that the first AI in Human history has appeared in an unmanned craft orbiting Earth, the question is can it carry out the mission it was created for? A mission which,” there was a pause for emphasis, “has been planned for over half a century.”

“That’s something we don’t know,” Vokin answered.

“So what are the risks of it not going?”

“We’ll have to delay the mission.”

“You mean the mission will not happen,” Grant sat down.

“Well, yes,” Vokin replied, “but what’s that got to do with it? What’s your point?”

“If artificial intelligence has appeared once, it will again. The mission, however, is critical to the Human race. Do we sacrifice everything, potentially everyone, for a probe that suddenly thinks it thinks?”

Phoebe had been watching the white mist which formed the sky over the amphitheatre. At a break in the conversation gave an opportunity to speak. “And we don’t even know if it can truly think.”

Vokin edged forward on the steps and looked across at Phoebe. “Okay, say you’re right. Suppose it isn’t a true AI, then what is it, glitched code? You want to let the most important space project in generations go on its way when it could develop more errors at any moment.”

Phoebe did not have an answer, but Grant spoke before it was obvious. “We have a planet full of people who are counting on this mission. A mission that might still go ahead without problems. A mission we do not want to be the ones to stop. And a mission that, if we take time for the craft to get back to the station, will not happen.

“The ship could come back intact. If there is true intelligence aboard maybe it could even help out along the way. Were this a person who had only now discovered they might die on the trip, do you think they would refuse to go? Yes, there’s risk, there is risk in any decision we make, but let us take an action that has a chance of saving many lives and only losing one, rather than do something that may save no one.”

There was silence. The three looked at the floor. Then there was a change. It might have been a shift in the air. It could have been one of those gather letting out a long breath.

Grant stood up and walked towards the centre of the circle. After a moment Phoebe and Vokin did the same. They stood half an arms length from each other.

“Are we in agreement?” Grant asked.

“Yes,” came the reply from the other two.

There was no flash, no pop of air rushing to fill a gap, simply an absence. The small amphitheatre was empty. After a moment it was consumed by the mist. Somewhere else in the craft motors sprang to life. Solar panels unfurled. A response was sent to the urgent calls from mission control.


25 November 2011
Communication is finally been established with the Russian Mars probe Phobos-Grunt it was thought to be lost due to hardware or software problems.

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