This is EarthOne. By Jason O’Mahony
It had started as a novelty, one of those colourful stories that appeared in The Economist’s technology section or as the last “Aren’t foreigners funny?” piece on Sky News. A micro-state off the coast of East Africa, Sierra Blanco, had signed an agreement with Globe Reach Technologies (GRT), a software company. For a much-needed $100 million, the 32,000 people of the island would agree to let GRT test their integrated management system, EarthOne, on the island. EarthOne would run everything, from the national budget to transportation to public services to the courts system. The Sierra Blanco government had agreed safeguards, of course, and the country’s parliament had the right to revoke the contract at any time, but until that moment EarthOne would run the country. In each public building, police station and public space, the white ATM-sized solar-powered units were bolted in and booted up. Then the country waited. Despite the government’s information campaign informing the public what to expect, it still came as a shock to many, out on their daily business, when the devices politely greeted them as they passed. The company had been careful in its research, studying the island’s history and culture, and so the face and voice chosen to represent the software was that of a grandfather figure, with grey hair and a deep voice, a picture of kindly wisdom. All across the island, the computer-generated face – a cross, Time magazine suggested, between Morgan Freeman and Nelson Mandela – flickered to life, and cheerfully engaged the citizenry one on one. One late-night American talk show host had suggested that James Earl Jones’s voice had been considered but rejected for obvious reasons. The units themselves had cameras and sensors, and were acutely aware of their own surroundings. They greeted any person who happened to glance in their direction, the software analysing the person in question and shaping its conversation appropriately. In the first days, adults nervously scuttled past, whereas schoolchildren enthusiastically interacted, asking the system questions about itself and how it worked, all of which were answered. As the weeks and months went on, adults got more comfortable with the system, initially asking it to assist with minor government services and being pleased at its offer to assist with bigger issues. Parents soon discovered that the system could be contacted at night and would assist children with their homework, or recommend movies, or analyse household phone or energy bills and suggest more economic packages. Many citizens, as they got more comfortable with the system, would download the personalized app onto their personal devices. It would become a constant companion in the years to come, often knowing more about the user than they knew themselves. For most, it would be their permanent personal assistant. Lonely senior citizens found that the system would happily have long discussions with them about the Good Old Days, accessing anecdotes from its massive memory banks.
Short Fiction Occasionally, the system would cause an unexpected side effect. Citizens who sought planning permits found the system to be rigorous but fair in advising them of changes required to make their proposed plans compliant. While local councillors still had the power to overrule the plans, normally in return for “consultancy fees”, citizens were thrilled to discover the system actually challenging the councillors openly as to the grounds for their refusal, more often than not embarrassing them into backing down. Of course, it wasn’t all well received. EarthOne rapidly reorganised the island’s law enforcement regime to ensure that nominal laws were actually enforced, and whereas that did annoy large numbers of citizens, what happened next stunned the tiny country. The system, which had a large unit installed on the floor of the nation’s parliament to allow it to assist the members, announced at the opening of business, in addition to its usual daily report on its actions and suggestions, that it had prepared indictments for corruption on a large number of politicians. It made public large amounts of evidence, including international banking transfers, that proved widespread corruption. Parliament was outraged and voted to suspend the system, but the public thought otherwise, and just over 40% of the population of the island marched to parliament demanding that EarthOne be permitted to do its job. The Attorney General, untouched by the corruption probe, recognised exactly which way the political wind was blowing, and ordered the arrest of all the politicians named in the indictment. All were convicted, helped by the fact that EarthOne itself presented the prosecution case to the jury. In the by-elections that followed, all the candidates elected pledged not to interfere with EarthOne, and they kept their promise. By the end of the four-year contract with GRT, EarthOne was generating legislation for parliament to consider, negotiating directly with multinational corporations, had balanced the national budget, and had even identified and coordinated the capture of a serial killer operating on the island. Not all of EarthOne’s decisions were popular. The system modernised the country’s employment and social welfare laws to much opposition from unions and business interests. However, opinion polling showed that whereas the public may not have agreed with some of the system’s decisions, they trusted it. On top of that, EarthOne was constantly monitoring and amending the effects of its decisions to ensure that loopholes and anomalies were briskly rectified. When the people of the island were asked in a referendum, watched closely by the global media, whether they wished to continue the EarthOne contract for another four years, their answer was a decisive “Yes”. Although GRT had learnt all they could from Sierra Blanco, and were effectively subsidising the system’s operation, the positive media coverage (and effect on the company’s stock price) was priceless. A relatively poor island nation of little significance had been transformed into a clearly prospering and well-run state, and what really sold the story was that EarthOne was almost universally respected for being non-corrupt and in no single interest’s pocket. The company now unveiled the new version of EarthOne, once again looking for states or cities willing to try the system. As they promoted the system in Western countries, the conspiracy theorists were quick to suggest that the system could be tampered with to provide bias
Short Fiction towards certain business interests. GRT tackled the claim head on, by releasing the software as an open code, permitting anyone who wished to study it to have access to it. The first Western city to try it, and at a massive discount, was a small dying economic backwater in Michigan, Cooper City. A relic of the days of the motor industry, Cooper City was a decrepit rotting husk of welfare dependence and high unemployment, and GRT installed EarthOne as another showcase model, this time with a pledge that it would take a gross 20% of tax revenue surpluses once the city’s budget was balanced. The embattled mayor and city council, facing a neck-straining deficit anyway, happily agreed. The installation went as smoothly as in Sierra Blanco, although with subtle differences. The company decided that the public face of the system in Cooper City, being a predominantly African-American city, would be based on the actor Dennis Haysbert. Drug gangs destroyed a number of units within days of deployment, but the system used this data to coordinate the city’s beleaguered police force in ambushing the gangs when they attempted to attack the replacement units. It then went on to win the confidence of the police officers themselves when it supervised them during arrests, provided surveillance evidence to protect the officers from unfair claims of brutality, and, as in Sierra Blanco, conducted flawless prosecutions itself. The system continued to learn from its environment, taking radical initiatives based on the specific needs of the community it served, such as recognising the issue of large numbers of unemployed young men, and negotiating with major software houses to create testing facilities for new gaming software in the city. Six months after gradually building confidence, it made a radical suggestion, proposing to the city council that Cooper City decriminalise and regulate cannabis, and provide free crack cocaine and heroin to addicts who registered with the city’s healthcare programme. The city council rejected the proposal unanimously, but permitted the system to put the proposal to the people of the city. It did so, and opened itself up to discussion with every single voter who wished to debate the issue. EarthOne argued that by providing drugs free to addicts it would destroy the revenue stream for drug dealers, driving violent drug dealers from the city, and that by taxing the regular sale of cannabis from registered Dutch-style “coffee shops” it could provide revenue from drugs tourists. The opponents to the proposal argued that, aside from the moral arguments, this would lead to an influx of drug addicts into the city. The system conceded that this was probably correct, but that such an inflow could allow the city to also become the rehab capital of the region, with state funding. Much to the jaw-clunking surprise of the media and the city council, the proposal was narrowly carried in a city-wide vote, an event which was an international media event. Within a year, the system not only had negotiated a derogation from state law, with other counties happy to see their addicts go to Cooper City, but the mixture of tolerance of student cannabis use mixed with a tough coordinated regime towards the incoming addicts had started to yield results. EarthOne, conducting its own intensive daily telephone polling, and interacting with the citizens, moved to ensure that the police made sure that drug addicts were strictly supervised to avoid petty crime and public nuisance, to the extent that most citizens did not realise that the city had become the region’s key addiction rehabilitation centre. Large labour-intensive recycling companies started locating in the city, attracted by the plummeting crime rate and the cheap labour provided by newly sober addicts. The city also became a fashionable destination
Short Fiction for nearby college students because of its relaxed approach to certain drugs and its safe reputation, which led to an increase in both bar and restaurant business as well as an increased demand for cheap student accommodation. As Cooper City became an international success story, other governments across the world began exploring the GRT option. Within three years, EarthOne had been installed in over two hundred local and regional governments, with a rejection rate in the subsequent referendums of under 5%. Its ability to coordinate complex government systems, interact directly with citizens and be regarded with integrity had allowed it to develop into a globally recognised brand name for good government. Scotland became the first Western country to adopt it nationally, with New Jersey and Illinois being the first US states to deploy it. After that, the deployment rate soared. That was not to say that there was no opposition. It was rejected in some states. A notable phenomenon emerged in what became known as the Alabama Factor. The southern US state had narrowly decided to deploy the system, having first rebranded it as AlabamaOne to placate black-helicopter-fearing UN conspiracy theorists. As in every other region in which it had been deployed, the system, while responsible for the day-to-day running of the government, was still obliged to run all its proposals past the legal authority, in Alabama’s case the state legislature and the governor. The problem was that the state’s politicians began to constantly reject the system’s proposals and actions. The system, after three months of stalemate, addressed the people of the state to inform them that due to the tampering of politicians, it had concluded that it could not run the state to the efficient level it was required to under the state’s contract with GRT. As a result, the system was unilaterally terminating the contract. The news caused a shudder on the New York Stock Exchange, and while the state’s governor initially decided to play tough, the response of large multinational companies considering moving to the state was clear. No system, no jobs. They had been dealing with the system across the US and elsewhere and liked its efficient, rational and predictable approach to business-government relations, as opposed to dealing with panicky and often corrupt local politicians. Moreover, other states where the system was working smoothly were quick to offer alternative locales. Within two days, the governor had retracted his statements and entered talks with the system to reverse its decision. It was an major news incident when China announced that it was to be the first country to seek a version capable of running a major nation — indeed, THE major nation. Critics of the system pointed out that it was hardly surprising that a one-party state would have little problem with the concept, but the Politburo in Beijing had already seen it in operation in a number of Chinese cities and provinces, and approved of what they had seen. Having said that, they insisted that the system would have no control over military or state security control systems, an issue that caused no problems for GRT. That, the company said, was the beauty of the system. It could be tailored for any governmental need or culture. What had fascinated the party hierarchy was the ability of the system to interact with the public, tailoring decisions accordingly, and therefore, in the eyes of the party bosses, cutting out the need for democratic institutions. During the installation phase the system had received international plaudits for, in particular, its ability to detect and root out corruption. GRT wanted to know whether the Politburo wanted the corruption detection component, a question that caused late nights in the party body. The
Short Fiction committee decided that the system, now designated ChinaOne, could pursue corruption, but could report its findings only in secret to the Politburo, who would then decide on action. GRT swiftly modified the software accordingly. However, within weeks of activation, not only was the system generating thousands of indictments, but its designation of so many reports as “Secret - Politburo Eyes Only” started causing tensions throughout the rest of the party, as the assumption was made that every secret report was yet another instance of corruption. Ordinary Chinese citizens were approaching the ChinaOne units in the street to enquire about the secret reports, and while it informed them that it could not reveal the contents, it did respectfully explain that yes, it was specifically instructed not to reveal instances of corruption, and that yes, it did indeed have the power to fight and reveal corruption when used in other countries. Two months after activation, millions of middle-class Chinese were marching on the streets of the main cities, demanding that the perceived massive corruption be revealed, and that ChinaOne be taken off the leash and permitted to do its job. The Politburo, fearing a revolution, backed down and ordered ChinaOne to activate its anticorruption component. Within hours, a third of the Politburo had been arrested on warrants requested by the system, and the crowds were chanting “ChinaOne!” in the streets. The ChinaOne crisis was watched with horror by other world leaders, who suddenly realised that the second most powerful nation in the world was now being run, internally at least, by a computer that played the public against its own leaders. But GRT executives were adamant, and made ChinaOne’s software available to anyone who wished to examine it. The key was that it was a form of artificial intelligence that learnt as it went along, but worked within strict parameters as to its key end goals, the delivery of an improved quality of life for the citizens under its care. The problem in China was not the system, GRT said, but the Politburo’s tolerance of corruption. Italy was the next major country to implement the system, its people voting against their political leaders’ recommendations, and attracted by the anti-corruption abilities. India went next, terrified of slipping behind China economically and also impressed by the system’s lack of bias towards religions and castes. Pakistan followed India, and both countries’ leaders were shocked to find that their competing systems negotiated a settlement for the disputed Kashmir province, albeit one that was tolerable rather than welcomed. When both systems suggested a plan to jointly monitor and control the nuclear arsenals of the two countries, the Nobel committee nominated the system for the peace prize. A spate of small and medium-sized European countries followed, with cultural adjustments made as required. In Northern Ireland, the system was fronted by a flamboyant air steward and part-time TV presenter, and was required to speak English, Irish and Ulster Scots. In southern Ireland, the professorial spectacled image of a wise but bumbling former prime minister was used. In divided Belgium, the image of cartoon character Tintin was chosen to engage with the Flemish and the Walloons. Japan used an animated kitten with giant eyes, which was a surreal sight to watch as it delivered its budget proposals. Brazil used Pelé. The United States was the last country to activate USAOne, although given that every US state except stroppy New Hampshire already used the system, it was not a huge change in daily life. The president and congress were briefed every day by a kindly dignified image modelled on the late Jimmy Stewart, complete with occasional stutter.
Short Fiction Given that the great majority of countries were now being run by the system, questions were asked as to how they could interact, especially as the systems were now beginning to negotiate directly with each other, and present their findings and recommendations to their respective national authorities. What made political leaders worry, however, was the fact that the systems were also dealing directly with the public, explaining to them the logic of their actions, and making the political leaders superfluous. Then it happened, the day that historians called E1. Across the planet, each system reported to its leaders that the current economic and energy model could not sustain the planet, and that a form of controlled global command economy was required to ensure best use of resources and research to develop new sources of energy before fossil fuels ran out. The system also declared that man-made climate change was indeed a fact. A draft, in-depth and coordinated international plan was proposed, which involved massive cuts in defence spending globally, huge wealth transfers to poorer nations, to be run by the system, and taxes on wealth, all to fund a changeover to a global sustainable economy. The US president, a conservative Republican, immediately ruled out the plan, and called for Congress to suspend the system. But before Congress could vote, the system addressed the American people directly. It explained that it was tasked with running the United States in the best interests of the people of the US, and that it could not logically achieve that goal if it did not, alongside the other national EarthOne systems, implement this plan to ensure the longterm survival of both the United States and the rest of the world. It would not attempt to enforce the plan on the people without their consent, but it also recognised that the current US government was opposed to permitting the system from carrying out its defined tasks, and as such, it had decided to terminate its contract with the federal government. The US government was astonished. It was firing us? GRT executives were just as surprised, and were hauled in front of the president to explain what the hell was going on. He didn’t like the answer. The system, they said —slightly patronisingly, he was aware — was designed to learn and develop itself as it operated. It was also deliberately exempt from taking outside instructions. Yes, it could be overruled, but it could not be tampered with to make it make decisions that went against its own analysis. That was what had made it so popular with the public, the fact that it was not answerable to any special interest. You could either have the full system, or none at all. This was preposterous, the president declared. Why can’t we have a system that will just do what it’s told? Oh, you can, the executives replied, but it won’t be EarthOne. They also pointed out that they were not willing to debase their product by providing the US with a corrupted version. Perhaps the government should talk to some other company? The fact that GRT itself was now run by a version of EarthOne didn’t help. The US was not the only country to decide to deactivate EarthOne, but the software was now managing the great majority of Earth. The US, Australia, Russia and North Korea remained outside. Being outside the system began to have a price, as individual national systems rapidly negotiated trade deals that effectively excluded the non-system nations, creating a global market based on the E1 plan. Large corporations based outside the EarthOne system found themselves having to negotiate directly with the system for access to the market, and having to accept the large amounts of taxation and social and labour laws and regulations required to operate within the EarthOne zone.
Short Fiction One by one, the hold-out nations found themselves voting to join or rejoin EarthOne, save for the United States, which was now in a panic at the prospect of “computer-imposed socialism”, and Russia, which as a state held together by corruption could not take the risk, regardless of the massive economic cost of remaining outside. In fact, given the rising instability in Russia, EarthOne was quick to negotiate a new European/Chinese defence pact to ensure that Russia’s instability would not be a threat to the security of EarthOne nations. Within six months, a coup in Moscow by junior army officers had overthrown the klepotocracy and voted to join EarthOne. The United States was now the last remaining major nation, with many demanding that the US start a massive armaments programme to defend itself from the coming “iSocialist” hordes. EarthOne, in the form of the now defunct Jimmy Stewart icon, calmly pointed out in media interviews that the EarthOne nations had rapidly dismantled the great majority of the planet’s defence systems, and had no interest in interfering in the internal affairs of the US, if Americans chose not to join EarthOne. However, the US did not have a right to interfere with the rest of the world, and EarthOne had an obligation to protect the interests of its member nations. With global oil prices and US high energy cost exports now both being hit by heavy taxes to fund the deployment of new renewable forms of energy within the EarthOne zone, the president decided to put the issue to the people. Much to the fury of conservative nationalists, EarthOne was permitted to activate within the US purely to answer questions from US voters, and by polling day, a narrow majority of Americans cast their ballots to join EarthOne, but not before a number of southern and Midwestern states, which had majorities against the proposal, moved to leave the United States and remain outside the system. EarthOne respected their decision, as did the rest of the US. Although each national system was nominally answerable to its respective home state, the reality was that the lines began to become more obscure. The UN Security Council was reduced to an EarthOne Ambassador and the representatives of the tiny number of small states that refused to join. A famous photo published told the truth, showing the UN Secretary General in his office with the entire effective membership of the UN, as the EarthOne ambassador, an articulate Indian diplomat, was doing The New York Times crossword during the meeting. Business was now being done between the EarthOne systems. What really surprised those who studied the evolving system was how aware it was of the human fear of being dominated by it. It constantly polled and questioned citizens across the world to ensure that it was not offending human sensitivities, and changed its policies and methods to deal with anomalies or unforeseen consequences of its actions, with such speed that most legislatures had actually ceded it a general power to legislate as they could not keep up with it. In some instances, it actually refused to take power when requested. A number of states that still utilised the death penalty suggested that it should take control of the judicial process to ensure fairness, but it refused, declaring that only a human should have the power to deny another human life. The statement was well received across the planet. In every nation, a significant minority, either through ideological reason or because the system had taken decisions that had affected them in a negative way, spoke out and protested against EarthOne. The system itself participated in debates with its opponents, and took care to accommodate their right to oppose it by ensuring that their demonstrations and media
Short Fiction appearances were as effective as possible. In some cases, the system took action, through broadcasting regulatory agencies, to protest when its opponents were not getting a fair share of broadcast time. It even, in some member states, advocated state funding of its opponents, on the basis that the continued operation of the system must be with the consent of the majority, and so they must have a clear choice to make that consent legitimate. Some groups went further, carrying out terrorist attacks against EarthOne facilities and major public buildings. The system coordinated the response of security forces, but was careful to ensure that civil liberties were upheld, in some cases prosecuting overzealous police and security officers. In every single case of a conviction, even where the terrorists had taken life, the system argued against the death penalty, a point that some of the terrorists used to recant their beliefs. The tenth anniversary of EarthOne’s domination of the planet was noted in the media, but without much official fanfare by either the system or the nominal governments, and the first generation of young citizens reached voting age with little memory of the world before EarthOne, but with an inbred belief in the system’s integrity. As they went to cast their first ballots in elections, where elections were permitted, they asked the system for advice as to which candidates they should cast their ballots for. The system, specifically barred from interfering in politics, refused to endorse parties or candidates. It did, however, answer straight questions from voters as to which candidate’s policies were in their personal interest, and with its knowledge of every citizen’s financial and social status, it was able to recommend which candidates seemed closest in values to the voter in question. Coupled with the system investigating and assessing candidates’ skills and statements, at the request of individual voters, that led to most elections being won by modest centrist technocrats who shared the rational values of the system itself. The same applied within the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China, where candidates for high office in the state machinery were vetted by the system. As a result, the planet’s human leadership was made up, for the most part, of men and women with a similar technocratic view to the system. This in turn led to global politics becoming much less excitable, as leaders rationally debated various options laid out by the system. Even when the system proposed suggestions that seemed extreme, such as suggesting that perhaps global immigration rules should be relaxed to permit groups sharing similar values to live together in the interests of social harmony, the proposition was debated on its merits. It resulted in Northern California becoming home to gays from across the world, whereas Kenya became a hard-line Christian state with a large African-American Baptist population. Iran initially became an even more hard-line fundamentalist Muslim state until UN forces, at the suggestion of the system, provided a right of refuge for moderate Muslim men and women who wished to flee to more liberal Jordan or Kurdistan, leaving Iran with a serious imbalance between men and women, and a much higher incidence of homosexuality than the ayatollahs would admit. Then global observatories detected an asteroid, designated Ares 12 and approximately the size of the state of Texas, hurtling towards Earth on a potential collision course. After weeks of study, with EarthOne coordinating and calculating their data, it was confirmed that the asteroid would indeed collide with the Earth in 14 months’ time. Within a week, world leaders gathered
Short Fiction at the UN building in New York to hear the plan prepared by the system, but also to demonstrate to their respective peoples that it was they who were in control of the situation. The system was blunt. An impact would wipe out the vast majority of life on the planet, and the only possible solution was for a highly coordinated attack by Earth’s nuclear arsenal on the asteroid. That meant, the system confirmed, handing over control of the nuclear weapons to EarthOne. The leaders conferred with their military and scientific advisors. Was it absolutely necessary? Could humans not control the actual missiles? The media sizzled with debate, as millions of humans debated what became known, in a tip of the hat to the movie “Terminator”, as humanity’s Skynet moment. Could we trust the system to take control of our most devastating weapons? EarthOne monitored the debate, interacting with citizens and suggesting safeguards to ensure that the weapons could be used only for the purposes for which they were proposed. But it also had to admit that it needed flexibility and the ability to adjust and retarget the weapons as the situation developed. The problem was that Ares 12 was so big that scientists could not be sure what would happen if it was hit with nuclear weapons. It could shatter, or if it consisted of iron ore it could just keep coming, and so the attacks would then have to focus on nudging the asteroid off its impact course with Earth. Such a plan would need a massive computer analysing and adjusting the volley of missiles right up to their moment of impact. In short, only EarthOne could do this. The leaders of the great nuclear powers met to decide the issue. All were reluctant, but all their advisors agreed. There was no alternative. EarthOne had to coordinate the attack. With the announcement, the system began to coordinate the retargeting and modifying of the planet’s missiles, while also supervising the design and launch of a series of satellites by NASA, the ESA, Russia, China and Japan to observe and control the attack and its effects on the asteroid. When EarthOne calculated that the asteroid would be in range only in the final week before impact, there was a huge increase in religious belief across the planet, as churches, temples, synagogues and mosques were filled. Citizens listened for every new fragment of information the system could give them, as it provided a running commentary on its preparations. Ten days before impact, the system announced that everything was in place. A satellite destroyed in an explosion on its Chinese launch platform and a fire in a Montana missile silo had both been contained, and EarthOne assured the planet that neither event would hinder the operation. An Indian teenager came to global prominence when he asked EarthOne whether, if it knew that the planet was doomed, would it actually tell the population. The system replied that if it believed that humanity was indeed doomed, it would be attempting to ensure that man’s last hours were of humans saying goodbye to their loved ones, and that it had statistical faith that the plan would succeed. Of course, it added, it would say that, wouldn’t it? Eight days from impact, the system formally requested that Earth’s leaders hand over launch control. It was watching the erratic rotation of the asteroid and felt that a split-second launch may be required. They agreed.
Short Fiction At 2:17 GMT on a Tuesday morning, EarthOne launched a single missile at the asteroid, informing the planet, glued to radios, televisions, phones and tablets, that this was a test missile to determine the composition of the asteroid. Two hours later, a brief flash was detected. Across the planet, the system correlated data from the satellite network and groundbased radar and radio telescope observation facilities. At 5:58 GMT, seven thousand ballistic missiles launched from silos and submarines across the globe, and were directed towards the asteroid, travelling in waves. The system carefully targeted the missiles from the side of Earth not facing Ares 12 to travel as a second, contingency wave. At 8:03 GMT, a large flash was detected by those parts of the Earth still in darkness. A second flash occurred five minutes later. The computer-generated image of EarthOne appeared on screens in its local format across the Earth. “This is EarthOne. Ares 12 has been destroyed. The threat to Earth is over.” Across the planet, in public squares and places of worship, cheers erupted as people danced and embraced. The cover of Time magazine was taken up with the image of a pretty South African schoolgirl in pigtails hugging an EarthOne terminal. In St Peter’s Square, the elderly Pope, listening to the cheering crowds, summoned a cardinal closer. “Are they praising God?” he asked. “No, Holy Father,” the cardinal replied, slightly embarrassed. “They are praising EarthOne.”
The End @JThomasPeter1
Short fiction. The near future. A tiny island nation permits a huge software company to install an AI system to run the country. We know wh...
Published on Jun 3, 2017
Short fiction. The near future. A tiny island nation permits a huge software company to install an AI system to run the country. We know wh...