Epoch: podcast of my story about the death of the first AI

By Cory Doctorow

I just finished my podcast reading of my latest story, "Epoch," which Mark Shuttleworth commissioned for my upcoming short story collection/experiment, With a Little Help. It's the story of the sysadmin charged with shutting down the first and only functional AI, which no one can figure out a reason to save -- and it's the story of the AI's bid to save its own life by fixing the Unix 32-bit rollover problem.

The podcast is in eight parts -- I started reading it before I'd finished the story, so there's some minor inconsistencies that'll be fixed in the final cut. Next up I'll be reading "Martian Chronicles," my young adult story about free-market ideologues colonizing Mars, and the video games they play on the way to the Red Planet.


The doomed rogue AI is called BIGMAC and he is my responsibility. Not my responsibility as in "I am the creator of BIGMAC, responsible for his existence on this planet." That honor belongs to the long-departed Dr Shannon, one of the shining lights of the once great Sun-Oracle Institute for Advanced Studies, and he had been dead for years before I even started here as a lowly sysadmin.

No, BIGMAC is my responsibility as in, "I, Odell Vyphus, am the systems administrator responsible for his care, feeding and eventual euthanizing." Truth be told, I'd rather be Dr Shannon (except for the being dead part). I may be a lowly grunt, but I'm smart enough to know that being the Man Who Gave The World AI is better than being The Kid Who Killed It.

Not that anyone would care, really. 115 years after Mary Shelley first started humanity's hands wringing over the possibility that we would create a machine as smart as us but out of our control, Dr Shannon did it, and it turned out to be incredibly, utterly boring. BIGMAC played chess as well as the non-self-aware computers, but he could muster some passable trash-talk while he beat you. BIGMAC could trade banalities all day long with any Turing tester who wanted to waste a day chatting with an AI. BIGMAC could solve some pretty cool vision-system problems that had eluded us for a long time, and he wasn't a bad UI to a search engine, but the incremental benefit over non-self-aware vision systems and UIs was pretty slender. There just weren't any killer apps for AI.

MP3s: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Podcast feed

Published 11:45 pm Mon, Nov 9, 2009

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About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

16 Responses to “Epoch: podcast of my story about the death of the first AI”

  1. Anonymous says:

    to fix the 32bit rollover problem all you need to do is compile time_t as a 64-bit signed integer…

  2. failix says:

    I just finished listening to the podcasted Epoch. It really made me question our view and definition of AI.
    If AI is supposed to be just like human intelligence, but capable of processing information faster, isn’t it like having very fast computers controlled by humans?
    The people in Epoch expected miracle solutions to pop out of AI, à la singularity etc. They were disappointed, as if they were told the answer to “the question” was 42.
    Just like we need to know what “the question” really is and define it, we need to be able to precisely define consciousness and what we call strong AI (and ultimately why we need it).

    Anyway that’s what Epoch made me think of. I liked it a lot. (And the HAL 9000 jokes made me LOL!)

    Did Mark Shuttleworth read it already?

  3. Anonymous says:

    According to the linked article, the ebook will be available free for the first day of publication.

  4. insert says:

    Another vote for a text version, plz. I enjoy reading — preferably on dead trees — far more than listening to things.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Squint at the picture and you can totally see a human face appear on the side of the coil under the white note card. Black dots for mouth, nose, and one eye. Stranger still, it looks like it is evolving from the coils to its left. Great choice of photo, editors. Intentional?

    P.S. Captcha – “party particle”

  6. codeman38 says:

    Seconding Anonymous #4’s comment – listening to a story is more mentally taxing for me than reading it, and I’d like to see a text version.

  7. SamSam says:

    Next up I’ll be reading “Martian Chronicles,” my young adult story about…

    I’m a little confused about this. Isn’t the Martian Chronicles a book by Ray Bradbury? Did you write another story by the same name? And is it already written — there’s nothing about it in the Bibliography section of your Wikipedia page.

  8. Anonymous says:

    “There just weren’t any killer apps for AI.”

    that’s an interesting idea, though i always imagined the killer app for AI was loneliness.

    i look forward to reading and/or listening to this.

  9. jfrancis says:

    In mine, the military pulls the plug because the minds, being hyper-intelligent, keep going liberal on them, so they hire a bounty hunter named Flash ‘Freedom’ Frye to hunt down the escapees and kill them. :D

    The version 2.0 minds are dumbed down and installed in military vehicles. I blocked out a rough design for one. If it looks odd and lopsided — it’s a ‘right wing think tank.’

    http://www.digitalartform.com/assets/gfxArtist/WIP/FreedomFrye/thinkTank01a.jpg

  10. Anonymous says:

    I advise everyone who is interested in the topic to read “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert A. Heinlein, a book from 1967. Jonib

  11. unklstuart says:

    Great picture that brings back memories. I used to install those rotary switches for the phone company.

    And as much as I love to slowly read, it can put me to sleep. Listening to books is great while I am driving, doing mindless work or exercising. Thanks Cory.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Is there a link to a text article/transcription of this?

  13. Anonymous says:

    The nutshell description sounds a lot like Robert Grossbach’s “Jew on a Chip,” a great little story too. Looking forward to hearing this.

  14. Robert says:

    And that, boys and girls, is how we avoided the Singularity. :_(

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