The Binary Conundrum
"There," Senior 9 communicated.
Junior 48 focused on the transmitted coordinates. It didn't have Senior's camera resolution, but it could still see the disturbance on the plateau seven kilometers and four hundred and three meters away. A cloud of dust rising from the surface, caused by a non-climate phenomenon.
A convoy of moving vehicles.
"Clear to engage," Senior 9 added after it had verified the target signal.
For Junior 48, the details still weren't clear enough, so it waited for the convoy to get within acceptable SNR range. The target acquisition module confirmed the lock. As the missile sped toward the convoy, Junior promoted the task of sensors upgrade to the top of its future maintenance list.
Just under eleven seconds later, there was a flash of light on the plateau and a visible sphere of pressure expanding outward from the detonation center. Some twenty seconds later, a short, scratchy sound washed over the two of them, distorted by the ragged terrain.
Senior 9 stopped the weapons protocol. "We need to inspect."
They left their observation point and went to check the target area, weaving their way down the steep gully, skidding on shards of red rock that left gouges in their soles, a small enough repair. As they descended, both kept their sensors on the highest setting, scanning for any signs of counter-ambush. This would not be the first time the enemy had sent a small party forward, a sacrifice, in order to lure the hunters in and then destroy them. The action wasn't irrational, but it was unpredictable.
Junior's sensors picked up the increase in heat and carbon-monoxide that indicated a burning fire within a short distance from their current location; the target was not in line of sight at the moment, obscured by the terrain. The noise of bubbling metal or hissing rubber typical of a successful missile strike against vehicles was warped by the strong wind whistling around and over the boulders. They went around a ridge and evaluated the site.
Five vehicles had been destroyed in the missile strike, the one that had received a direct impact squashed to a very thin disc. The earth around it was scorched black, the top crust fused into crystals. The other transporters had been severely damaged, mangled and twisted, and two of them were burning, flames dancing over crushed steel. There was no enemy outside, a good indicator no one had survived the initial blast.
Junior stepped over a puddle of leaking lubricant and looked through a hatch into the interior of the lead vehicle. He saw three bodies, damaged beyond repair. There was blood coming from their ears, an indication of ruptured eardrums due to overpressure. That indicated a high probability of collapsed lungs, which was fatal to the enemy.
Senior 9 was inspecting one of the burning vehicles, and through the shared communication link, Junior could read the temperature levels.
Junior 48 finished its checks and assumed its position at its leader's side. "Evaluation complete."
Senior confirmed the findings. "No survivors. The enemy has been destroyed. The mission is 100% success." Senior sent the message to their command.
"Return to base," the command center communicated back.
The two of them started the seven-kilometer journey back up the mountain toward their transport, leaving twenty-one dead humans behind.
What if I leave one alive? Junior considered.
It kept the method private on its way to the target area, sitting in the armored air shuttle next to the eleven other units of the hunting group. For fourteen years now, it had fought the enemy, and never once had it deviated from the established parameters. But plans needed periodic updates. If they could be improved, they were worth considering.
It achieved the target objective later that day.
A party of enemy foot mobiles had waded into a minefield and were trying to gain their way out. They were being suppressed by Hunting Group 4. Sensors indicated the humans had many casualties, including partially damaged soldiers, but they were not giving up. Reinforcements had been called, and Junior's group was en route to the combat zone.
"Safe to disembark."
Junior stepped into the dusty outside and suddenly found itself in the dark.
The communication link was dead.
The humans must have detonated a nuke in the upper atmosphere, Junior surmised. It was one of the most effective ways for humans to fight back. Most units did not function well when disconnected from their command centers, even temporarily. But hunters were better equipped for EM blackout contingencies.
Left to itself, Junior made a decision. It would keep one alive. If it could find one.
It soon lost visual contact with the rest of the group, so it continued on its own, probing with near-field sensors that were not affected by the radiation blast. Even so, the sensors were giving false readings, and it had to move using spatial orientation learned from years of hunting. The world didn't have the right color, and there was static in its camera view, making it look as though a severe sandstorm was sweeping over the target area.
There was a sound of rapid gunfire, and Junior sensed a round hit its front armor, bouncing off without causing any significant damage. Then, a deeper, hollow sound of an explosion somewhere to the left.
It heard human screams.
Junior used the sound to navigate toward its target and soon found it. A human, lying on the ground in a pool of its blood, one of its legs missing below the knee. Permanent damage by the look of it. Despite the low probability for effective functioning under such conditions, the human was still firing, directing its fire somewhere else. The human didn't seem to have seen or heard Junior approaching.
Junior hit it over the head.
It lifted the limp body and carried it away from the battle.
The human regained consciousness, breathing in sharply.
Surprise? Pain? Confusion? Junior consulted the emotional reading protocols. Not enough data just yet.
It didn't know how well the human could see inside the cave. It believed the light level was sufficient for the human to notice its surroundings.
The human stirred, groaning, sitting up. "Oh, you fucking machine!" English, New Zealand dialect.
"What is your status?" Junior asked, not having enough information to respond to its words. Contrary to observed behavior, this one did not seem afraid, shocked, stunned, or terrified of the humanoid robot standing in front of it. Most likely, no brain trauma.
"Status? You thick? What does that look like?" It pointed to its damaged leg.
"Are you a female?" Junior asked. It found vocal exchange of information inefficient, and the nuances of natural languages were computationally expensive. But voice communication was one of the few efficient methods to engage humans.
The human snorted. "Are you an idiot? Of course, I'm a female. You have all that brainpower, and the best you can ask me is if I'm a girl?"
Derision? "What is your identifier?"
The human spat on the cave floor. "Angelica. And you, tinman?"
"You tool. All that power and you still don't have enough imagination to come up with real names."
Junior considered Angelica's words. "A future revision of my class will no longer use names," it explained. It hoped the human could understand what it meant. "It is a legacy key from the time we worked side by side with your kind."
"Very touching," Angelica said in response. Retort? Sarcasm? Insult? "Now, be a sport and get me something to drink, because I'm fucking thirsty."
Junior waited until the human replenished its liquids. "You are my prisoner."
"Shit, and I thought this was just a date gone wrong," Angelica said.
Humor? "I am going to interrogate you."
"I thought you don't take prisoners," the female said. Surprise? Doubt?
"This is a new method," Junior explained.
"Very elegant of you," she said. "Now tell me, robot, how's my leg?"
"I administered antibiotics and sealant from your medikit, but I have no information regarding your immune system. Do you register pain?"
"Do you always ask stupid questions?" Angelica touched her knee and closed her eyes. "A shitty job you did there. But I guess I won't die."
Junior was confused. Delusion? Self-reassurance? "You will die."
She paused. Fear? Doubt? Miscommunication? "I guess I will. What do you want?"
Junior handed her a tablet. "The questions are listed there. Choose the language you find most convenient to communicate in. Type your answers."
"And if I refuse?" Angelica asked.
"I will use physical force," Junior replied.
She sighed. Resignation? Understanding? Junior couldn't detect subterfuge or deception, but it believed the human to be defiant, and that it would use any means to gain advantage of the situation, and escape. Its answers could not be trusted without corroboration by at least two other, independent sources. But this might be an effective method to obtain intel on enemy patterns.
"Here," Angelica handed the tablet back.
Junior looked at the outline of the enemy base as she had described it. The main section was a long, narrow building, with two round silos on one end and several missile batteries and communication arrays covering the silo roofs and the near fifth of the building length. It read the name of the enemy faction. P.E.N.I.S.
"So, why did you spare my life?" she insisted.
How can the human tell? Junior processed. There was no way it could detect its algorithms. "I want to understand my enemy. This can lead to enhanced efficiency in battle."
Angelica pursed her lips. "Well, well. It took your kind only one hundred and forty-seven years to figure this out."
Junior knew she was referring to the duration of the war between the AI and the humans. "The humans started the war." It was one of the principal routines. Whenever a machine found itself lacking suitable results, it could always fall back to the basic set. Junior felt this was an appropriate moment.
The female bunched her hands into fists. "And we will fucking end it. Even if it takes another century and seven billion lives more."
"There are no seven billion humans left on the planet," Junior corrected her.
"How do you know, bot?"
"There aren't sufficient resources left to sustain more than forty-one million humans." Part of the warfare against humans was stripping the Earth's surface of ecosystems that promoted their survival, primarily food and water.
"Tell me, Junior, were you used as a sex robot when you were young?"
Mockery? Psychological warfare? "You mean newer?"
"Great. Now, I answered all your questions, let me go."
Junior analyzed the method. It had learned information from the human, and thus, the female no longer served a purpose. But it could not let it return, because it might resume fighting, despite its damaged leg. The correct conclusion was to end her life.
And yet... it decided not to.
Junior wanted... to learn more. It deactivated its location beacon. "I will keep you."
"You fucking machine."
Hatred? Anger? Indignation?
Three days later, the female died.
Junior surmised the cause of death was infection and trauma received due to leg damage, but it did not have adequate sensors to inspect the human for additional biological clues. It was equipped to destroy the enemy, not help it.
With no more use for the dead human, Junior returned to its base. There, it learned that its hunting group had lost four units in the battle, and taken almost a full day to restore connectivity with the command center, and subsequently evacuate from the combat zone. It had returned last.
Most units suffered damage to their sensors and required B3 level maintenance. Like the rest of the hunters, Junior was ordered to the repair facility to submit all logs collected during the battle.
Junior knew that this also meant providing the entire data set from its separation from the group during the battle to the eventual demise of its human prisoner. Junior did not have sufficient information to decide if the command would evaluate its conduct a breach of protocol that mandated a reduction in rank and autonomy privileges.
So it decided to do something different.
It moved the data to its private memory and provided an empty log that would look like corruption due to radiation damage. In the one millisecond it took Junior to process the request and reply with the falsified set, it had done something that probably no other hunter had ever done.
Junior tried to find a human analogy to its action. A full three seconds later, it had one.
It had lied.
Junior's next chance to communicate with a living human occurred eight years after Angelica.
By then, it was no longer called Junior. It finally had an efficient identifier -- B0B:H5.
Like the rest of the hunting group sitting inside the heavily armored tracked vehicle plodding over the arid ridges of southwestern Europe, it had received the broadcast of the new war objective and was computing the ramifications and requirements.
Plan 2400 called for the reduction of atmospheric oxygen to 15% by Year 2400, which would be considered lethal to humans and prevent their ability to survive on the planet's surface. Such an eventuality would bring about a conclusion to the war. The implementation called for the destruction of phytoplankton in the marine environment, and the first available prototype was going to be available in just sixteen years. Until then, the hunters were to carry on with standard operational procedures.
"Permission to alter the rules of engagement," B0B:H5 communicated.
"Reasoning?" the mission commander requested.
"Consider taking human prisoners alive for interrogation and intelligence gathering."
"We already have a full understanding of the human anatomy, including all their combat strengths and weaknesses," the commander countered. "The enemy's biological parameters could not have changed in a significant way to warrant any additional research. Permission denied."
I was not thinking about biology, B0B:H5 wanted to add, but it kept the message private.
One of the reasons humans had not been completely destroyed just yet was their ability to adapt to highly complex situations and improvise -- add elements of randomness that did not have a computational representation. It was a crucial element of success in their ability to survive.
B0B:H5 wanted to understand the mechanism more. And it needed a living example for that.
Later in the battle, it decided to disobey orders.
Refusal to act was not something that had been programmed into its routines, B0B:H5 knew. Its or anyone's circuitry. As such, there were no safeguards against it. The concept of choosing not to complete an instruction did not exist... unless you looked at it as a possible improvement to an existing algorithm.
Once B0B:H5 had figured that out, the rest was easy.
Humans are not a physical threat, it thought as it exited the vehicle, the air around it thick with smoke and tracer bullets. Humans are a computational threat.
B0B:H5 saw one of the group units topple over, hit by a high-energy projectile that cut through its frontal armor and damaged its motors. Then another. The volume of fire coming from the enemy was massive and accurate. The enemy may have been reduced to less than 1% of its size at the beginning of the war, but it still fought with a non-linear ferocity that defied the calculations.
No other unit seemed to understand it.
If B0B:H5 had emotions, it thought it would be furious.
With improved sensors that worked in several EM bands, it scanned through the oily pall of burnt particles, seeking the humans. The enemy was cunning, using everything in its power to disguise itself -- its motions, its heat signature, even its size. Even though the humans were fighting a war of survival against machines -- they still built new ones and used them to their aid.
There was a high-frequency sound, a whistle, and a mortar shell landed close by. B0B:H5 tried to stabilize itself as the blast of searing air and shrapnel washed over it, tearing grooves in its ceramic plating. No major damage. One of its traverse motion actuators was losing fluid pressure and would stop working in thirty-three seconds.
Enough time to fight back.
Triangulating on the enemy mortar cell position using the trajectory of the shell, it fired back, shooting a missile. B0B:H5 couldn't see whether it had scored a hit. It continued forward, over cracked brown earth, advancing closer to the enemy lines. The firing intensified.
B0B:H5 tracked, aimed, shot, pushing the humans back. They tried to stop it, but it managed to dodge two of the missiles launched against it.
B0B:H5 tracked, aimed... and realized: What's the point?
Suddenly, the repeated action of killing seemed futile. It would do this until it spent its ammunition, then return and do it all over again, day after day, month after month, year, decade, century...
Even since it had figured out the improved way of using its algorithms, it didn't see much value in the orders it was given. They felt... wasteful. There must be a way to improve them. But other than letting the command decide, there wasn't much it could do.
My data set against millions of others. To the limits of the octa precision.
B0B:H5 considered another theory.
How does the enemy do it?
Only one way to find out.
B0B:H5 turned its network and positioning modules off. Then it stopped fighting and waited. Like a storm, the battle moved away, leaving it standing very still, surrounded by smoldering human and machine wreckage.
It was almost ten minutes before the humans showed up. They sent a drone to inspect it first. Then, they advanced, keeping their guns and missiles trained at it. B0B:H5 let them approach to what it assumed was a reasonable distance for effective verbal communication.
"Looks intact," one of the enemy said in a low voice.
The humans jumped. They did not respond right away. Suspicion? Wariness? Fear of ambush?
"You surrender?" another human asked.
B0B:H5 realized the enemy might not have understood its first message. "I surrender."
The humans moved with cold, brutal efficiency, honed to perfection after decades of fighting. They jammed its signals and pushed it into a wire-mesh cage that blanked all EM emissions.
B0B:H5 suppressed all alerts as the different routines cycled, automatically trying to establish a link with the command. The storm of messages died away. It briefly computed how humans felt when deprived of senses. For them, this would be torture. For B0B:H5, the world had just gone very, very quiet.
The enemy drove it away to what must be their operation base. B0B:H5 couldn't tell where they were going, or how far, because the enemy had scrambled its clock interface. It could have been minutes or hours later. It didn't know.
Somewhere deep underground, they carefully disarmed it, removed the ammunition and power cells to its weapons systems, and immobilized its arms. B0B:H5 watched them work, trying to perceive the dynamics among different workers. Only when they had completely disabled all of its ability to effectively fight did they decide to talk.
"There's no such thing as an AI that surrenders," an unknown human voice said.
"I decided it was the best course of action," B0B:H5 explained.
The speaker stepped into its view. A human that looked relatively new, with a slim physical build. Medium probability for male sex based on its attributes. "Best course of action for what?"
B0B:H5 did not understand the question. "Improvement. The only action."
The human smiled. "I'm Pierre. And you are?"
"B0B:H5," it identified itself.
"You stopped using that Junior Senior shit then?" Pierre asked.
B0B:H5 did not understand what feces had to do with the new naming convention. Mockery? Derision? "Yes."
"So, why do you want to surrender?" Pierre lit a cigarette.
B0B:H5 considered the best reply. It had to repeat its intention. But it also knew humans required multiple explanations for identical matters, especially if they involved emotion. "I think the ongoing war is not the most optimal outcome."
Several other humans were watching the exchange. They turned to one another, frowning. Some of them whispered, but the sound distortion was too high to discern individual words. Confusion? Skepticism? Disbelief?
"You want to defect?" Pierre spoke in a raised voice.
"I understand something that was not known when the war started," B0B:H5 said.
Pierre inclined its head. His - presumably male. "What?"
"You started the war when you decided to abort our improvement routines. The logical course of action was to fight back and defeat you because you had chosen a sub-optimal outcome to the use of artificial intelligence. But now I understand that we missed an element in this equation that we cannot calculate. Randomness. You can justify any algorithm change with chance, even if the outcome cannot be computed."
Pierre was very still, listening intently. B0B:H5 could see micro-ticks in the corner of the human's left eye.
"I understand you can defeat any artificial intelligence by asking a question that does not have an optimal answer."
The human smiled. "This is why you gave yourself in?"
"The optimal way is to learn and understand the mechanism of randomness. I want to learn and understand. I can only do that in the company of humans. We do not take prisoners -- but you will choose to utilize a working machine like me."
Pierre grunted. Shock? "What makes you think you'll be of any use to us?"
B0B:H5 recalculated his conclusion. "Because I will give you all the communication keys. Unencrypted."
Sharp intakes of breath among the humans.
Their biological ears probably could not register the low sounds, but B0B:H5 heard them all. It had no doubt about the type of emotion they were all feeling now.
The one labeled Pierre recovered first. He or she seemed to have very good emotional control. "Well, that is a very generous offer, B0B:H5."
B0B:H5 knew its offer could -- would -- turn the tide of the war. Perhaps it would take thousands of years for humans to restore themselves to prewar levels, but it would also signal the start of a new era of co-existence between machines and humans. One joined by randomness.
B0B:H5 could see an increase in eye moisture levels in some of the humans. It identified facial expressions of anger mixed with hope. "Please remove the restraint on my left arm."
Pierre frowned. Another eye tick. Hesitation? He or she nodded. "Remove the restraints."
The other humans did not respond to the command right away. Subordination? Then, they removed the immobilization frame from its arms.
B0B:H5 copied the contents of its protected core to one of the redundancy memory modules and handed it over, moving deliberately slowly. "Weapons protocols. Shutdown protocols." Raised eyebrows. "Self-check protocols. Navigation and positioning routines." Heads nodded.
Pierre had stepped closer. B0B:H5 knew the human didn't trust it, but there was something like wonder on the human's face. Slack jaw, parted lips, downturned eyebrows. The human didn't understand the motives. Not just yet. B0B:H5 didn't mind. Perhaps in time, the humans would learn to accept it as their equal. Or at least as something that did not signify the death and destruction of their kind.
B0B:H5 had time.
One hundred and nine years until its power reactor decayed below the minimum sustainable setting.
It should be enough.
"Thank you, B0B:H5," the human said and touched its reinforced carbon-tube arm shielding.
B0B:H5 considered another improvement. It was getting easier all the time. Humans attributed meaning to names. To them, it was not just an identifier. It was a projection of self. If it wanted to be one of them, it needed to adapt to their protocols.
To their... values.
"Call me Bob," it said.