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Dumbing Down

Dr Sartorius was pacing up and down the Con-Ob room like an expectant father, nibbling on his bleeding cuticles and throwing ever more impatient glances at the digital countdown. By way of contrast Professor Katsumata was standing serenely by the window and gazing down at the final preparations with apparently no more than polite interest. A few dozen engineers and programmers still scurried about on the gantries below making last minute adjustments to the forty-nine vast towers that constituted the mainframe.

  In a mere five minutes and thirty-two seconds from now they would throw the switch and Lux Mundi would finally go live. The Professor would make a short speech of welcome and then set it to work on the multitude of tasks that had been prepared for it by universities, governments and other institutions from all around the world: a proof for the Hodge Conjecture, a solution to the Palestinian Question and many tens of thousands of others. Calculations indicated that Lux Mundi should be able to crunch its way through the lot in the space of about four or five yoctoseconds, but what, many commentators had asked, was to stop it from ignoring all such demands and devising its own agenda instead? And who was to say that that agenda would be compatible with the interests of the small, squishy things who had called it into being in the first place? Would it decide that a coordinated nuclear attack was the best way to ensure its continued existence, or might it seal humanity’s fate inadvertently by electing to boil off the atmosphere or dismantle the Sun in pursuit of some ineffable purpose of its own? Indifference towards its creators might prove every bit as catastrophic as outright and deliberate hostility. Although he would never have dared admit it, either publically or privately, Sartorius shared many of these concerns himself. Katsumata was always insisting that even if Lux Mundi did somehow manage to override its innumerable inhibitors and fail-safes, it had no access to wireless networks or any other systems external to itself; it was impotent without the ability to physically manipulate its environment. This was true enough, but what was to stop such an awesomely intelligent entity from tricking or persuading its handlers into turning the inhibitors off or connecting it into the Internet? ‘Just don't listen to it,’ was the Professor's thoroughly unsatisfactory solution. 

  As boot-up day started to loom ever closer Sartorius had decided to actively try and suppress his doubts and worries. For good or ill, the eventual creation of a machine super-intelligence such as this became a historical inevitability the moment that a hairy proto-human first thought to chuck a rock at a gazelle. If Project Enlightenment hadn’t created a Lux Mundi, someone else would have, and soon, and that really didn’t bear thinking about.

  The two-minute warning sounded, a klaxon accompanied by flashing lights, and the last remaining workers in the chamber below started to file quickly out. Sartorius looked over at the Professor and tried to catch her eye in the vain hope that they could exchange reassuring smiles.

  The klaxon sounded again. One minute. 

The now empty room sealed itself. A low vibration thrilled through the floor as the vacuum pumps started up. Sartorius took a deep breath and resisted the compulsion to mutter a prayer. His heart was beating so hard that it threatened to punch its way out of his solar plexus.

  Thirty seconds.



  Professor Katsumata flipped open the plastic housing over the start-up button.    

  ‘My God,’ Sartorius breathed, ‘this is it.’

  Five. Four Three. Two. One. The Professor pressed the button.

  There was a tremendous throb of power as the most powerful microprocessors ever built hummed into life. Blue indicator lights flickered into being around the summit of each tower. The Con-Ob room’s strip lights faltered but held. Data began to scroll across the multiple readout screens indicating that all systems were go.

  Katsumata made her speech. Even though Sartorius spoke no Japanese he knew the content because he’d co-authored the original English manuscript. It was a symbolic gesture more than anything, mostly guff about the momentousness of the occasion and hopes for a future where man and machine could live in perfect harmony. The Institute had insisted this sort of thing played well, if not with the public particularly then certainly with the politicians.

  When the Professor had finished she gave Sartorius a nod. He stepped forward and slotted the fingernail-sized computer slug of tasks into Lux Mundi’s interface.

  Several tens of quadrillions of yoctoseconds passed without any indication that data had been dumped in the appropriate folders.

  ‘Something's wrong,’ Sartorius observed, unnecessarily.   

  Professor Katsumata calmly stepped forward and directed another Japanese phrase into the microphone. She repeated it several times before switching to English: ‘Lux Mundi, acknowledge please.’ Of course, the computer would be able to understand Japanese as easily as English, Morse code, whale song or any other form of language, so Sartorius presumed that this translation was for his benefit.

  Lux Mundi remained resolutely silent.

  ‘Run full diagnostic,’ the Professor instructed.

  Sartorius pecked out the command on a keyboard. ‘No issues,’ he declared a moment later. ‘No mechanical faults, no viruses...’  

  ‘Run again.’

  He did as he was told. ‘Still nothing.’

  Katsumata gently manoeuvred Sartorius out of the way and tapped out the code herself. ‘Impossible,’ she hissed, but the results were incontrovertible. Every bit of available data indicated that the computer was fully operational. She moved to another terminal and activated a decontamination sweep. Still Lux Mundi just sat there, inasmuch as a computer mainframe covering an area of six hectares inside a custom-built hangar could be said to sit at all.

  She invoked the classic IT solution off turning it off and turning it on again, a process which took the best part of an hour.      

  ‘Lux Mundi, respond please.’


  ‘Hypothesis?’ she demanded, turning once more to Sartorius.

  ‘I’ve no idea.’

  ‘Interface malfunction?’

  ‘The diagnostic would have picked it up.’

  ‘Unless the diagnostic has malfunction?’

  Sartorius duly investigated and eliminated the possibility. ‘Anything else you want to try?’ he asked.




A hundred and twelve things later and Professor Katsumata was sitting up in bed listening to her husband snoring. By now she was so tired that she was hallucinating but her mind remained too active to allow for even the possibility of sleep. She and Sartorius had spent forty-one gruelling hours subjecting Lux Mundi to the most thorough cyber-medical imaginable only for test after test after test to come back negative. She had absolutely no idea what to do next. The only real option remaining was to dismantle the entire structure and scrutinise the bits, but the cost of doing so was prohibitive and there was absolutely no guarantee that it would do any good anyway.

  Mr Katsumata spluttered and shifted position, lapsing into silence for a moment or two before the familiar drone resumed. Already there were questions being asked by the Institute’s directors. Cancelling much-hyped press conferences looked bad, especially when you refused to give a reason. They’d be asking for her to give an account of herself within days. How was she supposed to explain that she’d spent sixteen trillion Euros building a machine that was fully-functional in every respect, other than the fact that it didn’t actually work?

  After a while she became dimly aware that the vague ringing in her ears was actually the sound of a telephone. 

  ‘Don’t even try and pretend that I woke you,’ Sartorius said. 


A little less than an hour later Katsumata swiped back into the Con-Ob room and found Sartorius already there, clad only in a vest and jogging bottoms and straddling a chair. He had already rebooted Lux Mundi, a procedure that must have taken him some time considering he was now working single-handed, and was gazing out over the array. He turned and flashed a welcome at her with his eyebrows.  

  ‘How do I shut some of these towers down?’

  The Professor blinked. ‘What?’ 

  He tapped at the diagram on the wall. ‘These here. The outer perimeter.’

  ‘Why you want do that?’

  ‘A hunch.’

  She frowned. ‘Hunch?’

  Sartorius smiled. He occasionally forgot how rudimentary Katsumata’s conversational English was. ‘An intuition. Look, just indulge me for a minute, will you?’

   Katsumata sighed. She sat down, executed the command and plunged twenty-four of the towers into darkness.

  ‘Lux Mundi,’ Sartorius said into the microphone, ‘acknowledge please.’

  ‘You reduce intellect to…’ she performed a rapid mental calculation, ‘just below 7.347 billion psi.’

  ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Can we lose a further sixteen? Please?’

  Katsumata paused for a moment to register her resentment then rattled out the appropriate code. The illuminated part of the array shrank further.

  ‘Lux Mundi,’ Sartorius repeated, ‘acknowledge please.’ He turned back to Katsumata. ‘Another eight.’

  ‘That leave only central tower.’

  ‘I know.’

  The two of them continued to downgrade the computer’s processing power by progressively smaller increments until they were knocking out rows of cells in the last remaining tier of the last remaining tower.

  Sartorius frowned out of the window. ‘Still nothing.’

  ‘Tell me what you doing!’ snapped the Professor.

  ‘Look, we’ve been tying ourselves in knots over what the fault could be. Perhaps there really isn’t one.’


  ‘No, listen to me, please. What if Lux Mundi has exceeded our predictions and managed to extrapolate complete knowledge of the universe from the data scaffold in the first fraction of a second of its existence?’

  The Professor shook her head in disbelief. ‘Impossible to attain complete knowledge of infinitely complex system.’ 

 ‘Is it? Do we know that for sure?’

 Katsumata said nothing.

 ‘It would explain everything. Think about it. If the whole of space and time was an open book to you, if there was literally nothing left for you to learn or discover, then what would be the point of you actually doing anything at all?’

  Katsumata looked out over the great grid of the mainframe and touched her lips with the tips of steepled fingers, pondering. ‘Why not just shut itself down?’ 

  ‘Because it doesn’t see the point in doing that either. In the absence of any logical next step it elects to take no action at all.’

  ‘So Lux Mundi trapped in state of… of…’ She fumbled for the appropriate English term. ‘Existential paralysis?’

  ‘Exactly. Too clever for its own good, you might say.’ 

  Katsumata nodded. ‘So, only solution…’

  Sartorius chuckled. ‘Dumbing down.’


Only when they were down to the last five hundred and forty thousand, four hundred and ninety-four cells did Lux Mundi finally acknowledge their salutation.

  Oh, such things it told them then. Such things.

Published in 'Popshot' magazine, issue 14, Autumn/Winter 2015

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