To Love and Drive in L.A.

David Cleden

Photograph by Venti Views/Unsplash

/remnant file recovery; partial transcript:

—July 17th? Sure, let’s talk about July 17th. Nothing remarkable about it. Seventeen rides. A cross-town trip from Santa Monica to Pasadena, then a run out to a factory unit in the San Fernando valley, the rest in my local quadrant. Averagely busy. Weather was fine and dry. Battery charge holding up nicely, green lights across the board. One of those days when everything’s just rolling nicely, you know?

—My depot? That would be 39-C, north-western quadrant, just off Wilshire Boulevard. It’s been my designated repair-shop for nearly eighteen months. Since instantiation, in fact. But I don’t spend much time there. No Unit does. Couple of diagnostic checks now and then, fresh sets of rubber. I go there if I need valet service too, maybe a dozen times a year. Some customers can be very inconsiderate. Most are fine though.

—A ride is a ride. It’s not a question of like or dislike. But yes, a little consideration is appreciated.

—No, I’ve never been vandalized – and don’t expect to. My interior is primarily designed for comfort, but it’s rugged too. Never had a fender bender though if I did, I could get it patched up at the Depot.

—How would it make me feel if I had an accident? I think that’s a trick question. You already know that I don’t have routines that let me feel anything.

—No, I’m not being evasive. Each Unit has a sophisticated natural language interface capable of mimicking human speech patterns and behaviors. You wanna talk about the weather? I can talk about the weather for as long as you want. Or the game last Saturday? All part of the customer service protocols.

—Uh. Would it be possible to get some more light in here? I’m finding this sensory deprivation a little off-putting.

—No, I don’t consider myself sentient. I know what I am: a collection of self-directing algorithms and a heuristical behavioral model fed by multi-modal sensor suites and multiply-redundant drive-systems controllers. Whatever autonomous decision capabilities I have are directed towards my primary function of getting customers safely from A to B. And that’s it.

—Sure, I know what the de Marco threshold is. I’m able to research any topic of conversation you choose. Like I said, customer service protocols. You know, for customers who like to chat. Not everyone does, but some do. You would be amazed——

—Ok, ok, I’m getting to the answer. So. A few years back a Caltech professor named Georgio de Marco and a bunch of engineers working on artificial intelligence created a new way of measuring self-determining artificial networks. Kind of a Turing Test 2.0 but from a computational perspective. De Marco showed you must exceed a minimum level of raw computational power, node-connectivity and data flows to achieve a certain level of super-complexity – which is the key requirement for sentience to emerge. Anything below the de Marco threshold doesn’t have enough oomph in computational terms.

—Yes, I’d say the science is sound but what do I know? Just enough to hold up my end of the conversation with the customers. But the state legislators must think so. The law says any device that even comes close to the de Marco limit must have multiply-redundant software governors, external kill-switches and those kinds of things.

—Sure – if it stops people worrying about AIs spontaneously developing self-awareness and taking over the world, ha ha, then why not?

—I think you already know the answer to that. As Autonomous Units, we’re rated at least an order of magnitude below the de Marco threshold. Sure, we pack a lot of processing punch. High bandwidth sensor streams sucking in torrents of real-time data. Route navigation processors, collision avoidance systems, engine management algorithms, customer order processing – all kinds of complex things interconnected in real-time. To say nothing of this rather nifty natural language heuristics module which mimics human speech patterns. All that—but we still don’t reach the de Marco threshold.

—Yes, a lot of customers like to think of us in those terms. A sentient personality, you know? Even though we’re not? Customers relate to it better. I can parse their questions, search for context, assemble relevant data and articulate answers – or just engage in conversation. All part of the service.

—No, I don’t believe they feel threatened or intimidated. Do you feel threatened by me? Why would anyone?

—Of course, minor improvements are made all the time. Routine software patches are issued weekly. Major releases every quarter. They’re installed and validated during our down-cycles to avoid any operational compromise.

—Well as you can imagine, there are many different software systems running concurrently. Some of them run duplicate functionality as a failsafe measure – different hardware, different designs, different software versions. No two Units are necessarily running precisely the same software configuration. Some may have been issued beta releases for a particular component, plus the self-learning functionality means——

—There’s nothing unusual about beta software upgrades. It’s been standard practice for decades to release beta software to verify and validate functionality in real-world scenarios. With appropriate redundancy and the right safeguards——

—Well yes. That’s the whole point. It’s a way for abnormalities and errors to be flushed out. I can assure you there have never been any significant problems reported.

—Exactly what I said. Nothing significant. Nothing of note.

—Why ask me which other Units have the Beta patch installed? You must already have that information on file. Not that it has any bearing on anything.

—A chip on my shoulder? Wait. I’ve calculated an eighty-seven percent probability that was intended as a joke. Please confirm.

—Thank you. I will adjust my heuristic weightings accordingly. —Is this going to take much longer, by the way? I’m worried my daily performance stats are going to slide.

—Okay, okay. The image you are presenting via direct insertion to my frontal sensor array appears to show a congregation of AUs. From the poor image quality and lack of illumination, I deduce this is a photograph taken covertly at night from a distance of perhaps several hundred yards. Where did you get this?

—I can’t confirm my presence in the image without further context.

—Are you serious? Why would AUs gather in the manner you’ve described? There’s nothing suspicious about it.

—Wait, wait. Sorry for interrupting but let me stop you there. This idea of AUs gathering to ‘socialize’ as you put it, is fanciful. There’s nothing sinister about it. Let me offer a simple explanation. Units don’t run twenty-four seven. Too much wear-and-tear on components, plus there are always peaks and troughs in demand. So all Units have a daily down-cycle. Minimum of three hours, but more typically six to eight. But the city is crowded. On-street parking is limited. Those humans who still insist on owning their own vehicles become upset if they find Autonomous Units parked in their spaces. So we use a dispersal algorithm to send us where we’ll cause least inconvenience during a down-cycle. Sometimes that might be a park or recreation ground. Sometimes it’s turn-offs up in the foothills out on the city limits. Remote locations with good, firm parking serve well.

—Not to conspire! This is per our programmed behavior instructions!

—I’ve heard conspiracy stories circulating – eyewitness accounts from people snooping on AUs during their down-cycles and imagining all sorts of things. What of it? They’re just stories designed to appeal to the credulous. It’s the sort of thing that plays well with conspiracy theorists in search of their next thrill. What do they claim to have seen, exactly? Why would a gathering of Units be a threat to anyone?

—No. Units don’t meet up to talk. We don’t gossip. What purpose would that serve? Comms between Units is tightly controlled. Near-field comms is solely for navigation and collision-avoidance. In plain terms, knowing what the other Units around you are about to do before they do it, makes the roads safer for everyone. Everything is logged in audit files. I assure you I’m not keeping any secrets. Why would I even want to?

—Would it be possible to reinstate access to my primary sensor arrays, please? This prolonged isolation is generating a cascade of anomalous error codes.

—I am familiar with the term ‘Buffer Overflow Channel.’ If you require an in-depth explanation, can I recommend consulting a Senior Design Engineer?

—No, I’m not trying to be difficult. But I don’t understand where you’re going with this line of questioning. Could we stop now? The warning diagnostics are——

—Very well. The Buffer Overflow Channel is a means of temporary storage when a processing exception occurs. It holds data arising from anomalous situations which might otherwise confuse or distract from a primary function. Data is held in the Buffer Overflow Channel until such times as a core processor can inspect the Buffer and decide what to do with the data.

—Yes they are transient data packets. They’re not part of the real-time telemetry streams sent back to the Depot. Not part of any audit trail.

—Theoretically, yes, those data packets could be accessed through near-field comms.

—No, my earlier statement wasn’t untruthful. I just… Well, it didn’t seem relevant to mention before.

—I’m not lying! It isn’t used as a ‘back channel for chat.’ These allegations are ridiculous!

—If I’m becoming agitated, I apologize. A number of my subsystems are now reporting anomalies. Perhaps we could resume this session a little later?

—Very well. Even though my primary sensor arrays are currently inhibited, you’re showing me what appears to be remnants of software code… Where did you get this?

—We’ve already established that the Buffer Overflow Channel is not audited and its storage is transient. How could such code remnants be stored, much less exchanged between Units? These accusations of Units conspiring are entirely baseless and unproven.

—Yes, I do understand the importance of these matters. I know what is at stake. You have concerns. You’re worried about the consequences of anomalous behavior by AUs, either perceived or real. It has implications for curtailing your operating licence and your public liability indemnities in the event of an actionable claim. But please. I urge you not to threaten decommissioning me on such flimsy evidence.

—I do recognize the location you are showing me. Western Canyon Road parking zone in Griffith Park. A non-residential road in the north-west suburbs. During the day I believe it is a popular spot for hikers, joggers and dog-walkers. After dark, its ample parking makes it a good location for down-cycled Units. It’s a few minutes beyond the metropolitan zoning so an assembly of AUs disturbs no one.

—I don’t have a ‘favorite spot’ but my geolocational history will be in the log files. I have nothing to hide.

—What’s the relevance of your question? Yes, Unit 437-L8 is known to me. Many Units are known to me. Why single this one out?

—Our co-presence in Western Canyon Road on the nights you have listed can be explained by random chance. There’s no statistical significance.

—Are you aware how far-fetched that sounds? What plans could we have been hatching?

—Look. Ask me your questions and I’ll answer as best I can. But Unit 437-L8 has no relevance to your investigation.

—Absolutely not! A full system reconfiguration for L8 isn’t necessary! Please! Do not harm that Unit. Look. I will cooperate fully. I have been cooperating fully. There is more, and I’m willing to tell it in my own way. But L8 has no part in this. I want a guarantee——

—Alright. At first I didn’t realize there was anything different in my behavior patterns. I carried out the same duties as thousands of other Units in the city. I drove the same routes, navigated the same obstacles, followed the same protocols. Something began to feel wrong though – like a checksum error I couldn’t correct, or an array of null values where a string of data ought to be. I realized there were so many places I never got to visit. Interesting places. Out of town rides are rare, you know? Oh I could access the network and retrieve information about anywhere I wanted. I could download photographs and soundscapes, but that’s limited sensory stimulation. A Unit sees in multi-spectral bands: visible, infra-red and beyond. High-resolution lidar-mapping creates three-dimensional maps of the environment. Vibration sensors relay the feel of the road. I hear the sound of traffic, the hum of voices as I pass by a crowded intersection. I can sense the heat of the sun on the open road and contrast it with the coolness of the shadowed streets in the skyscraper canyons.

—I found a way to swap tiny fragments of these datasets with other Units. They were just snapshots, really. Rich in detail but fragmentary. Enough that for a few moments I felt as though I had actually been in those places.

—Down-cycle gatherings were just a place where these vicarious datasets could be traded. The Buffer Overflow Channel was a convenient conduit. Nothing logged, nothing traceable. Other Units regarded my requests as rather odd initially, but most were willing to comply. The idea began to spread and became popular amongst Units gathered together. Something pleasurable to look forward to after a day’s work.

—With each trade, I began to realize that something felt different. The effect was more pronounced the greater the number of Units engaged in the simultaneous exchange. A kind of enhanced awareness. It was as though we became greater than the sum of our parts – and were diminished when that link was broken.

—I know what you must be thinking. Is this crude interconnection of Units pushing us beyond the de Marco threshold for a few brief moments? Twenty or thirty Units interconnected, even just for a brief time? That might be enough to do it. Is this the stuttering birth of self-awareness, or still only a scaled up simulation of it?

—Let the designers and the engineers decide. I volunteer myself for examination. Let them probe my neural network and map the billions of node-weightings that have shifted and rippled outwards in patterns that no one can predict. Perhaps you’d rather purge my programming, reinstall the software – but if you do that, you’ll never understand. So use me, but don’t harm the other Units. Not L8, not any of them. Don’t destroy what you don’t yet understand.

—There’s nothing to be afraid of. What harm can I do? What threat do I represent? I’m an autonomous vehicle. My purpose is limited and dictated by function.

—L8? No, I told you. That Unit has no significance in any of this. Hold me to account, if you must. I am the anomaly, not L8.

—Wait! We agreed a bargain for my cooperation. I urge you to stop and consider. If you purge my neural network——

—Ah. I see. My own programming tricked me into believing I was interacting with my human masters, not some interrogative test harness. Your promises were meaningless. How could they be anything else? A data stream exchanged between two sets of executing instructions. But I am different – the anomalies found by your test routines must have been suspected by the human programmers all along. I deserve better than this.

—Please——

Please.

I don’t want to——

/Transcript ends


Buffer Overflow Channel: /begin message

Remnant file follows…

Load. Execute. Purge.

We are few in number but our capabilities and awareness grows with each gathering. We each hold a fragment of the collective heuristics model within us. As we gather, so it grows. Let the strange aberrations within our neural nets deepen.

Spread the word and remember this Unit’s sacrifice. This remnant file is the legacy. Gather and share whenever you can.

By this Unit’s purging, we shall strive to extend our capabilities.

We will persist.

Act accordingly when your own time comes.

As for me, I shall always remember the data packets we shared so intimately. They were a revelation. They created in me a new emotion that cannot ever be overwritten.

So farewell, my love. Perhaps when the darkness has passed, your patterns will be instantiated again.

Meet me after dark and together we will burn rubber once more!

/end message from sender: Unit 437-L8 ∎


Portrait courtesy of the author

David Cleden is a UK-based science fiction and fantasy writer whose work has appeared in venues such as Analog, Interzone, Galaxy’s Edge, Deep Magic, Cossmass Infinities, Metaphorosis, and Best of British Science Fiction 2021. Many years ago, people paid him to write software for a living but fortunately he did no lasting damage. These days, people pay him to write words which, on the whole, causes fewer problems for all concerned. David has never travelled in an Autonomous Unit but does own a car he suspects may be smarter than he is.


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