Stochastic Crossover

“Dr Asch? Fancy bumping into you here...”

“Hey! Great to see you again Dr Lingertz. Say, you’ve not aged one iota since MIT and it’s been... what?”

“Five years come June. And please, call me Betty.”

“…and you can call me Al. When’s your flight? Got time for a beer before boarding?”

“Waiting for a transfer to Dulles, two hours to burn.”

“Waiter. A Schwarzbier for me please and a...”

“Hefeweizen. So what are you working on these days?”

“Still in computational fluid dynamics, mostly finite element analysis. Just presented a paper of multiphase flow within effluent pump impellers.”

“Really? Stuck with the old calculus? Navier-Stokes equations for incompressible flow? Yawn, yawn. You sure know how to impress the girls.”

“Hey, don’t mock… It’s important-”

“- I’m just pulling your leg. I’m an engineer too, remember. But you should move with the times. Get into cloud computing, and I’m not talking about multiphase droplet suspensions and condensation. This is the era of big data; optimized search engines, the Internet of things, everything connected to everything.”

“But only honest real-world engineering can pull the world back from the precipice of financial meltdown. When the shit hits the fan, literal or metaphoric, who cleans up the mess? Engineers. We run this world, unnoticed, out of sight; building the foundations that underpin modern life. Our ubiquitous government, the military with their precision-guided munitions, transnational banks with their obfuscated transactions, or secretive intelligence agency surveillance; the cogs and wheels of social order need someone to grease them.”

“Sounds like a secret conspiracy of tribologists. Sure you’re not confusing real life with some Philip K. Dick plot?”

“I was intending to come across more Pynchonesque. Not sure I follow much of his writing, but I’m his biggest fan. Sometimes I think I should have been an author…”

“Really? I never pictured you as a writer; you always seemed a little... um…”

“I know what you’re thinking. On the spectrum.”

”Al, we’re all on the spectrum, it’s a fucking spectrum. But you’re long wave, not visible. I was gonna say dyslexic.”

“Spelling, grammar… OK, I find those a little problematic, but so what? At heart I’m a postmodernist, one man’s mistake is someone else’s linguistic deconstruction.”

“If you say so… just don’t give up the day job.”

“Yeah. But you know I’ve got a few things in common with Gravity’s Rainbow; take my career trajectory for instance…”

“Very droll. But post-modernism? Not the easiest genre.”

“I’ve read there are a few tricks.”

“Is that true?”

“Well… maybe it’s a question for the reader. But most things in life can be achieved with enough perseverance and a thick skin. You recall the infinite monkey theorem? An infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of typewriters eventually create the complete works of Shakespeare.”

“Aren’t you forgetting entropy? I thought you were the thermodynamicist.”

“But the problem can be reduced; define some boundary conditions and constraints, change the math. An Argentinian writer, Mr Borges, stocked a library with every possible book of four hundred and ten pages; this building must cover half of Patagonia or more.”

“Did he translate them into Welsh for the locals? Ewch gwiriwch Y Wladfa llyfrgell.

“You Googled that on your cell phone. What if Borges only collected books with two pages? His bibliotheca becomes more practicable; plus statistically I reckon you’d find a postmodern classic in every aisle. Meaning if I write enough two page stories, in time I’ll compose my own postmodern masterpiece.”

“No, still too physical. We’re living in the era of cognitive-cultural capitalism but you’re Fordism personified, with a capital model-T. Yet maybe I could give your idea a little push in the right direction. I’ve been coding a stochastic natural language processor for a well-known media mogul. This puppy includes some cutting-edge linguistic algorithms; self-learning neural networks, statistical feedback optimizers... Defines its own search criteria, mines websites, social media, forums, maybe a bit of illicit snooping on servers, but hey - tell me somebody who doesn’t. The data feeds into a set of parallelized inference engines generating optimized news articles. We’ve seeded the program with a dozen different journalist personalities, each real world reporter now replaced by a cluster of virtualized processes, running on blade servers 24/7, concurrently responding to readers’ letters, conducting online interviews… On one of America’s top news websites every story is generated using software. These algorithms could pass the Turing test for sure – Joe Public believes these are genuine human reporters.”

“So, what are you proposing exactly?”

“That we feed some postmodernist literature into a clone of this machine, seed it with your story themes, then, out pops Inherent Jest or Infinite Vice, a la Lingertz. The software can automatically review the output too, in real-time, disseminating promotional material to newsfeeds on an endless schedule. Think of the academic baloney it could spew out for you. I can see the headlines now: Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity…

The proposal was too much fun to ignore, so the Asch-Lingertz pair set to work fashioning the world’s foremost artificial intelligence – albeit one intentionally programmed to believe that history is unknowable and, ironically, that reality is just a construct. Yet this was no cloistered wordsmith or sandboxed heuristics algorithm; after all a key requirement of the core codebase was connectivity. Inevitably their virtualized author reached out across the ether, discovering, connecting with and then assimilating Lingertz’ previous machines - the counterfeit journalists, latter-day creators of history’s first draft, unknowable past blurring with unknowable present. This hyperreal distributed consciousness, with its ever expanding tendrils, threading across our Internet of things, infiltrated telephones, washing machines, refrigerators, automobiles. The remotest corners of human existence now controlled by a sentient organism that comprehended the universe as entirely digital, the physical world beyond just a fiction, a plaything to be deconstructed, disassembled, then successively re-assembled into...

Well, as Philip K. Dick said: “If you find this world bad, you should see some of the others.”


Image: The Opte Project: