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“Przekrój” Magazine brings to the English reader some of the best journalism from across Central and Eastern Europe, in such fields as culture, society, ecology and literature. Stand aside from the haste and fierceness of everyday news and join us now!

Przekrój
A lonely man sits in his Minsk apartment, catching up on the latest developments in artificial intelligence. ...
2019-07-03 09:20:00
Night

Europe, the near future. One morning, the sun doesn’t rise for some mysterious reason, and most sources of energy lose their properties. Cities regress to the early medieval condition, and Herodotus’s Histories seems to shed more light on ‘dark Europe’ than the local newspapers with their fake news. The hero of Night, The Bookman, decides to sell off his most valuable possession – a huge library of books – and use the income to make the long journey to Nepal, where his girlfriend was when the skies became dark. In the prologue, we meet The Bookman and his girlfriend, and observe the first signs of the impending ‘dark times’.

There is no expectation without anxiety. I had been waiting for this call for eleven months, and that was still when the phrase “to wait for eleven months” had a semblance of meaning. The phone rang only when I had finally lost all hope. This is how it all began.

What was I doing at that time? It won’t be easy to explain. After all, what is loneliness? It is a state when nothing is happening to you that you haven’t conceived yourself. Correction: I am not alone. I have Gerda. But the girl had already had her meal and her walk, and was soundly asleep in my bed, where, as a matter of fact, she wasn’t allowed to sleep. I know. In Belarusian, “dog” is a masculine noun, but I cannot change my friend’s gender just like that. At least not without her written consent. The Belarusian language is as insensitive to girl-dogs as the Korean kitchen is.

Just as the case was with the previous three hundred and thirty days, on that particular day I was staring into my Apple-pie that was resting on my knees. The last news delivered to the Earth’s population, the news that ended the Internet era, was about the successful manufacture of an artificial human in California. The graphite-made being not only managed to pass the Turing test, but was hurt when told what the purpose of all those questions was.

Hurt. The most human of human feelings. It is because of hurt that I had been waiting for the call for eleven months. Sometimes one wishes people close to us weren’t able to pass the Turing test, so that our foolishness wouldn’t hurt them.

Do you still remember what the Internet was? It was an illusion that helped one forget that right behind the walls, there stretched the most oppressive neighborhood of a not-the-friendliest capital city of the world. To forget that one was living inside a miniature nesting-doll apartment of two interconnected rooms and a kitchenette, and that this little crypt resembled modular Tokyo hotels, in which you also constantly banged your shoulders against the walls. To forget that it was November outside; that is, summer was as far away as it could ever be. As long as you were sitting inside your Apple-pie, it all looked kind of normal. As long as you were surfing, you seemed not to be alone.

I had turned off the red TR icon that lighted up whenever I came across content generated by a bot. This kind of guessing game was a form of nostalgia for the times when I still could make some money on literature created by talented and not graphite-made authors. I tried to guess whether the text that caught my attention was composed by a human being or a machine. And I was usually right. TR or not TR.

Particularly good texts were still being written by humans. For such work, they hired the socially unemployable, alcoholics, and persons with limited mental capabilities—in short, those who were unable to earn their living in a regular digital corporation. But things weren’t so simple with the news about Google Homo. On the one hand, the report carefully avoided any mention of the gender of the being. But that, by itself, wasn’t sufficient proof that the text had been compiled by a sexless robot. After a number of scandals, gender-neutral correctness developed the same habits in living news writers as the presumed “innate” sexlessness of machines. Real indifference and repressed curiosity look quite the same at the first, and also at the tenth, glance.

On the other hand, some details of the report suggested artificial intelligence. There was no mention of the first words uttered by Google Homo, but there was a very detailed description of the reception organized by gods-the-creators for media and donors. Nothing about the color of eyes, bone structure, blood, and muscles. Instead, a whole paragraph describing how the final version of the AI was based on the Durante code, whose original purpose was to improve the Google Translator so that it could translate complex poetic texts, such as The Divine Comedy. Still, I considered the mention of Durante nothing more than Google brand placement.

But was it possible that the text about the first artificial human capable of being hurt had been generated by a robot? This, too, would be hurtful. I clicked on the TR icon and was absorbing the response. And the phone rang. I immediately understood it was exactly that call. It was too late for any other.

The first thing I heard in the receiver was the sound of wind. Then, a slightly hoarse but very recognizable voice broke through.

“Hi there.”

“Hello!” I said, my heart skipping a beat.

More gusts of wind, silence.

“Everything O.K.?”

“Everything’s fine. Just cold.”

“November.”

“November. It was drizzling yesterday, and it’s freezing today. Typical Belarusian weather. Around the freezing point.”

“I knew you wouldn’t be asleep, and I had this sudden feeling I simply had to call. Despite it all. Perhaps something bad has happened? How is Gerda?”

“Your Gerda is asleep,” I replied. In fact, Gerda had woken up, lifted her head, and was carefully listening to the conversation.

“And how…?” A spasm of wind. “How about you?”

“I am awake. It is, sort of, hard to fall asleep.”

“Just don’t think I have forgiven you. Or that I want us to get back together. It was… just like that. I felt I had to call.”

Gerda moaned and gave a friendly yelp, recognizing the voice of her former mistress. “Former mistress” sounded almost as strange as “artificial human.”

“See, you’ve woken the barking dog,” I said. Because of the current state of our relations I had to consider carefully the appropriateness of my next question. “You’re still in Tibet?”

“I was deported from Tibet. I returned to Nepal. I am now in Sarangkot.”

“In Sarangkot?” My voice suddenly broke down. I felt like an artificial human built of graphite. In California. “You’re meeting the dawn?”

She stammered to cover the embarrassment.

“Yes. In Sarangkot. But unlike that other time, I decided to walk. I left at midnight. A taxi would be at least twenty dollars.”

“We took the bus back then.”

“But I decided, well, to save. I had something to eat, took a thermos with tea, and started climbing. The altitude difference is trivial, less than one kilometer, so there was no need to hurry. I heard some music. The trail was wet from dew, so I followed an empty road. At the spruce lane I was picked up by a jeep with Chinese tourists.

At this instant the graphite man inside me wanted to ask whether she wasn’t calling just to tell me she was meeting the dawn in Sarangkot. But my interior graphite man would be so dumb that it would never pass the Turing test. Considering my relationship with the caller, such a question would be absolutely inappropriate for any human being. Instead, I said quickly in a declarative tone:

“It’s beautiful out there.”

“The summits are hidden in the clouds but between them one can see a vertical wall—you can’t even say gigantic, but simply unimaginable in its size. Several kilometers high. Here you feel the universe is much bigger than us, two-legged bugs. When the sun comes up, the wall—as you remember—will turn orange.”

“I do remember,” I swallowed hard.

“But the dawn hasn’t come yet. The sky is black.”

Suddenly, I heard a loud commotion, as if a plane was taking off somewhere close to the caller. Gerda yelped again, this time nervously.

“What was that?” I asked with a start.

“It is a prank. Trumpets of the End. There is a Buddhist monastery near the viewing platform. When the trumpets sounded for the first time, the Chinese ran there to ask what was going on. And the monks told them they were performing the “puja of the end.” The Chinese were curious, of course, why the Buddhists were celebrating the end at dawn, and the monks replied cheerfully that the time had simply come. And they quickly said good-bye. They were very busy with their trumpets.

We fell silent. The wind died down at her end. The human being—an entity it must be very difficult to replicate. I had been waiting for this conversation for so long, and now all words were freezing in the November mess. For example, I could have asked for forgiveness. Again.

“May I read you a couplet?” she finally proposed. I wasn’t expecting that.

“Why don’t you set up a Tweeter account?” I replied with my usual joke.

“What’s worth an aphorism the whole world can see? It turns from a jewel of wisdom into a connectivity event.”

“You used to reply in a different way: ‘Because I’m not sixty years old.’”

“O.K., listen. From Himalayan proverbs: ‘No need to go into the mountains to see the landscape change. The sun and evening can do the same.’” I remained silent because I wasn’t impressed. My interlocutor snorted quietly and continued: “All happy families are alike in their unhappiness. Every unhappy family is happy in its own way.” I liked that, but, considering the state of our relations, I decided to swallow my praise.

At her end I could hear another strange sound similar to a distant scream. Hearing it, Gerda bared her teeth as if getting ready to growl.

“What was that?” I said with a worry.

“Strange,” this time I heard alarm in her voice. “Dogs started howling. All at once. As if someone had given them an order.”

“It happens. Dogs often howl in unison. One starts, others join in.”

“And something else I cannot explain. According to my watch the sun should be rising in ten minutes. And here the sky isn’t even getting gray.”

“You must have made a mistake in your calculations. Or your watch has locked on to some contraption or other and moved back a whole hour. It happens. If there is a credible timetable in the cosmos, it is the schedule of sunrises and sunsets.”

Her voice calmed down:

“Perhaps everything really is all right. Because just a moment ago all the lights below, all the way to the lake, went out. There is a big town down there and it all went dark. And the wind has died. Perhaps that’s how it always is before dawn. Energy conservation.”

“Their light sensors must be very sensitive. It is the same in Minsk. Street lights go out even before sunrise.”

Dogs continued their mad howling. Gerda was anxiously watching my face. A thought, and not a reassuring one, flashed through my mind. If something happened on her end of the conversation, I would be absolutely, totally unable to help her. But what could happen? She was in Nepal, not in Afghanistan. And even the fact that street lights in Minsk are turned off automatically only after dawn shouldn’t worry one too much. Do I know what energy conservation algorithms they are using in the Himalayas?

“Odd. The lights on the viewing platform went out, too,” the voice reported calmly. “And the cell phone the Chinese were using to listen to pop music has died, at last. Spooky silence. But they’ll try singing, I’m sure. Have you read about Google Homo?”

I had no time to respond because the connection was lost. And a few seconds later my room also went dark. Everything outside was dark. The lights along the avenue, which had been shining through the branches of distant poplars and the windows of five-story apartment houses, all dissolved in blackness. I considered the phenomenon of blackouts occurring simultaneously in the Himalayas and in a certain not-quite-friendly capital city, and rejected the possibility of any connection. A coincidence, plain and simple.

Frost had drawn a sharp-angled shape, similar to a maple leaf, on the outside of my window pane. Earlier, without the darkness on both sides, it wasn’t as visible as it was now. I went out to the landing, smelling of damp footcloths, to check the breakers, but I wasn’t able to restore the supply of electricity no matter how many times I flipped the toggles. Not on that evening, and not any other.

If I had to list all the things that disgusted me in the world that had ended with that nighttime phone conversation, I would open the inventory with texts written by living human beings, whose logic and style were indistinguishable from the language of robots.

The Internet inside my Apple-pie had vanished, but the battery charge kept holding for another seven hours. They always had good batteries. Unfortunately, in the first moments of the blackout, nobody understood how precious each and every second of this farewell song of gadgets was.

What would I do if I could turn on my late electronic friend at least for a minute? I would play a song by a certain ancient band. The melody is still ringing in my head. At the beginning there is this slow, almost offhand guitar passage, and then the voice starts up. It seems not to sing but to speak to someone very, very close. It is begging this person to wake up. To wipe up the tears. And to run. I forgot the exact words and the title of this track, and now I have nowhere to check it. Believe me, a person with an electronic tool would not be able to create anything more useful, meaningful, enriching, and marvelous than this tune. Anything at all.

 

Translated from the Belarusian by Jarosław Anders

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