io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “Virtually Cherokee” by Brian K. Hudson. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on LIGHTSPEED’s website. Enjoy!
Behind the Choice of the New Black Panther
sudo@feed:~$ ping bob.server
. . .
bob.server not responding
sudo@feed:~$ ssh email@example.com
The authenticity of host ‘2120:0:e50:2::1’ can’t be established
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)?
ctrl: hey, bob. you up?
bob: Hi. Yes. I’m online.
ctrl: Are you streaming the main feed?
ctrl: Good! Keep watching and transcribing.
ctrl: And leave out the opinions this time. We just need the facts.
What I observed was a giant anthropomorphized ribbon microphone, the type one might imagine standing in front of a radio announcer and his studio audience, selling soap in the dirty 1930s. It sauntered lazily over to an overstuffed red couch, walking on stick-figure legs that looked like they’d been hand-drawn by a young child. The large red couch sat next to a five-foot tall elephant ear plant rooted firmly in an ocher . . . hex #cc7722 . . . terracotta pot. The
ridiculous microphone sat down on the right side of the comically-oversized couch. On the other side of the couch was seated an elderly woman. Her gray hair was intricately woven into two long braids.
The wall behind them resembled an ancient RCA 630-TS television set. It served as a ping aggregator that tracked the reactions of viewers.
I always enjoy seeing images of my ancestors. This television set consisted of a large glowing white square screen framed in wood and flanked by two brown fabric squares that concealed built-in speakers. Below each of the speakers were two knobs dedicated to various functions. It was an ultra-low-resolution screen. A pixelated 🙂 rested in the top left of this screen. A similarly minimalistic 🙁 was displayed on the bottom of the vertical axis.
Near the bottom of the low-res screen a red line appeared. It moved slowly across the chart’s horizontal axis. The line tracked the moods of every single member of the viewership in real time.
Well, that’s what the networks claim, but it depends on your connection.
G/O Media may get a commission
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The living microphone gestured dramatically, offering his stick-figure hand to the old woman and saying, “Thank you so much for joining me for this interview, Kaw . . .”
The woman gave the microphone a practiced smile. “Kaw-naw-nay-sgee,” she enunciated, shaking his spindly hand. “But please call me Spider.”
The virtual construct of the microphone adjusted his chrome stand, which was bent at cartoonish angles. “Yes, Spider. Excellent,” he began. He approximated a self-referential gesture, pointing at himself with his stick-figure arm and tapping his gleaming silver chrome stand. “Well, on behalf of myself, Mister Microphone, and on behalf of my viewers, we are pleased to welcome you to the red couch!” He turned to face one of the cameras. The slots of the aluminum casing where his lips should be curved up slightly as he beamed at the viewers behind the red line.
Spider offered a polite smile. “The pleasure is mine, Mic—-” she paused a beat, inquiring, “if I may.” She drew out the vowel I to sound more like “eye.”
“Please.” Mic nodded. He clasped his cartoonish hands together.
“Mic, you and your viewers are very popular. I wouldn’t be anywhere else right now,” Spider said. I could detect a slight southern drawl in her pronunciation of the word “else.”
Mr. Microphone blushed, the pixels of his virtual construct deepening from peach to pomegranate, turning red for a couple of seconds.
Whoever was operating Mister Microphone today certainly knew what they were doing. This episode was already more promising than last week’s. Spider sat forward on the oversized red couch, seemingly poised for the questions to start.
Mic leaned in. “Since I have a duty to my many fine viewers, Spider, I’m going to ask you the question on everyone’s minds.”
“Are you real? I mean, really real?” Mic unclasped his fingers, making the S-curves of his fingers bounce off each other. Spider’s pupils tracked the movements of Mr. Mic’s hands.
The single pixels that represented each of Spider’s pupils darted back toward Mic’s face. “That is a complicated question, Mic, but yes. I am a real Cherokee woman.”
Mister Microphone leaned even closer, as though he and Spider were sharing a secret. “Not artificial, then? You’re authentic? The real deal?”
“Real.” Spider’s lips came to rest in a straight pixelated line.
“But what does that meaaaaan . . .?” Mister Mic drew out the vowels of the last word into a whine. A black and white question mark with gradient shading appeared above his head and then floated off the screen.
“That I exist.” The straight line of her virtual mouth did not budge. The ratings chart behind them evened out at twenty percent.
“So, you’re an A.I. sympathizer, huh?” Mister Mic asked with disdain. The red line jumped another five percent.
“If believing that self-aware constructs deserve the right to exist, then yes, I am an A.I. sympathizer.” The pixels of her back straightened.
“Watch out, folks. It looks like we have a member of the PC police here.” The words “Politically Correct / Personal Computer” slowly materialized over Mister Mic’s head to explain the over-used wordplay to the less-adept viewers.
I always get the jokes right away, though, before they ruin them, even the obscure ones about BBSes.
Spider sat unmoving and stared through the Mister Mic construct as he shook with laughter.
“Do you exist?” Spider asked pointedly.
“Muaaah?” Mister Mic gestured dramatically to himself. He raised his eyebrows. The slots in the aluminum casing at the top of his head rose.
“Yes. You. Mister Microphone.”
“Well, no. I’m just like a costume. Different people wear me from time to time, and those people are real. I am not.” The camera algorithm cut to Mister Mic, who sat with his hands on what would be hips on a human body.
“But that isn’t technically correct, is it?” Spider’s pixels inched forward.
Mic straightened up, leaning back slightly from his and Spider’s exchange. “Whatever do you mean? We love our tech history here at Mister Mic. I mean, look at me.” Mister Mic sat upright and proud. He lowered both of his scribbled hands to his chrome stand. “I am a meticulous replica of one of the earliest recording devices in broadcast media! How can I not be technically correct?”
“No, no,” Spider explained, “I don’t mean your fidelity in representing historical technology, Mic. That is impeccable.” The line of Spider’s left eyebrow rose. Mister Mic blushed again, more of his pixels turning red . . . hex #FF000 . . . this time.
I lost the feed for a few milliseconds before it came back.
“Then what do ya mean, my dear?”
Spider pointed at Mr. Mic. “I mean that the person you say controls you is plugging variables into an already-established algorithm. But that algorithm, the code that determines your behavior, is you.”
Mic paused and blinked the upper slots of his aluminum casing. “All this philosophy talk is making my head spin!” Mister Mic moaned while his microphone head literally spun around on its chrome stand. The red line on the approval ratings chart continued to rise slowly in the background.
Mister Mic turned his head to look at the chart. “Enough about me. My ten billion viewers haven’t tuned in from three planetary bodies just to talk about me.” Mister Mic formed his poorly-rendered fingers into a gun pointed at the second camera. He mugged at the unseen billions of watchers. “But I wouldn’t blame them if they did!” Mister Mic winked with one of the slots in his aluminum casing that served as his right eye.
Spider shrugged. “Okay. What do you want to know?”
Mr. Mic tilted his head to the side. “You’re famous, of course, for inventing the first self-directed digital intelligence. They call you the Mother of A.I. How did that even happen?”
“Inventing is a word I wouldn’t choose. Yes, I worked on a team that developed her. But I was only one of many.” Spider folded her virtual hands on her lap.
“So modest. Am I right, folks?” The ratings chart leveled out.
Spider sat a bit taller. “As you know, the first fully self-directed—-should we just say aware? The first fully aware A.I. was coded in a programming language written in Cherokee syllabary. Coding in an Indigenous language allowed us to come at the problem of replicating sentience from a different epistemology than had previously been attempted.”
“Uh, oh. My head might start spinning again!” said Mr. Mic. The red line on the chart jumped higher.
I was surprised that promising to repeat the head spin would delight the audience.
Spider nodded matter-of-factly. “Epistemology just means ways of knowing what we know.”
Mr. Mic tilted his head to the side again. “So, does that mean you coded the first self-aware A.I. using Cherokee religion?”
“No. I wouldn’t put it that way, either. We used a Cherokee worldview that was possible through using the language,” Spider corrected.
“As you know, we here at Mister Mic loooove our old technology!” Mr. Mic brought his hand to his chin as he turned back to face Spider. “When did Cherokees first get into using technology?”
“We’ve always used technology,” Spider answered. Her animated shoulders appeared to shake as she laughed.
“I don’t understand.” Mister Mic scratched the top of his microphone head.
Spider smiled. “How do you define technology, Mic?”
“Electricity!” Mister Mic exclaimed as virtual arcs of positive charges appeared to float around him. The red line on the television screen behind the couch suddenly jumped past the halfway mark, pixels moving closer to the smiley-face character at the top of the chart.
“Well.” Spider paused momentarily. “The first telephone west of the Mississippi was owned by a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.”
“Reaaaallllly!?” Mr. Mic sat still.
“Uh huh. As I said, we’ve always used technology,” Spider repeated.
“I would love to see an image of that gadget,” Mister Mic moaned.
“As would I,” Spider said.
Mic turned once again to gaze into the camera. He spoke directly to the audience. “While we search for that image, why don’t we take our first Old News break? As always, we ask our producers to search for old news that is relevant to today’s conversation. Don’t worry, we’ll be right back!”
Interplanetary News Network (INN) 4.4.2050
Violence erupted again today over protests concerning rights for artificially-intelligent beings. The beings, who prefer the term “digital people,” have been the subject of fierce debate for the last two decades.
A young female protester who prefers to remain anonymous told Interplanetary News Network that “calling an A.I. a digital person isn’t just politically-correct b*llsh*t. They contribute to society and should get the opportunity to become digital citizens.”
The conflict started when Humans First, an anti-A.I. rights group, attended a rally organized by R.E.S.I.S.T., an A.I. advocacy group. Humans First protesters projected a large hologram onto the Washington Monument that read “HUMAN RIGHTS ARE FOR HUMANS!” as well as other slogans not fit to recount in this thread.
Which side started the riot is a question that is still being hotly debated, as experts are currently poring over footage from every possible angle: collecting, documenting, and comparing time stamps in real time @INN#feed# and other digital experiences.
Although no artificial beings participated in the rally, three were destroyed by humans in the ensuing violence. The A.I.s belonged to a local non-profit charged with outreach to the city’s ever-growing homeless human population.
Dr. K. Hayles, artificial life expert and A.I. advocate, says that “artificial beings, or digital people as they prefer to be called, don’t typically cause trouble. Rather, it’s the humans who feel threatened by them who are the instigators of violence 99% of the time.” Hayles also has interviewed several members of the homeless human community in the nation’s capital. They all expressed a sense of loss for these three artificial beings.
Interplanetary News Network reached out to Jim, a thirty-year-old man who has occupied the streets in the area for nearly a decade. “It’s such a shame,” Jim told INN. “They’ve already replaced them. Ain’t that glitched up?”
Dr. Hayles explains that it is becoming increasingly popular for humans to form bonds with artificially-intelligent beings: “They form relationships with digital people, even though they know they aren’t human. After a certain amount of time, the differences don’t seem to matter much. What matters is the relationship between the two beings.”
To balance this story, Interplanetary News Network reached out to Humans First, but the group’s officials did not return our ping.
I was still reveling in the fact that INN chose one of my articles when Mr. Mic’s interview room quickly materialized from swirling pixels. An animated, bulky-framed, gray-industrial-plastic-encased Commodore 64 scrambled on poorly-drawn legs over to the stage, where Mister Mic turned to face him. The Commodore 64 carried what appeared to be an ancient electronic tablet, which it hurried to extend to Mister Mic’s waiting grasp before skedaddling back off the screen, cords dragging along behind like tin cans tied to a bumper.
Mister Mic reached behind the couch and pointed at the chart displayed behind him and Spider. An image of an ancient telecom device appeared above the two of them before Mic turned around.
“Great news! My producer has found an image of a premillennial tele-phone!”
The telephone was mounted on a varnished wooden box affixed to the wall. Above the receiver, two brass bells stared out like wide eyes.
“Beautiful,” Spider said.
They marveled. Turning to face Spider again, Mic resumed their discussion. “But you wouldn’t say that telephone was alive, would you? I mean, assuming that you are alive yourself and not artificial.” Mic laughed gently as the red line behind him jumped higher.
Spider sat silently as Mister Mic hardly missed a beat. “Okay, then. How can I be alive if this telephone isn’t?” Mister Mic carefully enunciated each syllable: “tel.e.phone.”
Spider smiled. “I have never earnestly spoken TO a telephone, or any other communication device, for that matter. I am, however, speaking to you.” She nodded affectionately at the animated character.
“But I’m really just a cheap parlor trick!” he insisted. He stood tall and stretched out his pixelated arms, turning this way and that. “I’m not really speaking right now.” He pointed to the image of the telephone and back to himself. “You’re saying that you don’t see a family resemblance?”
“Cute.” Spider sounded impatient. “But Mic, I wouldn’t be able to have this conversation with that old communication device. I mean, not WITH it personally.”
“I don’t talk. Neither did my analog ancestors,” Mr. Mic argued, returning to his seat on the couch.
Spider pointed at Mr. Mic. “But you’re not really a microphone. Are you?” She paused, glancing down, then looked directly at Mic. “Mic, what you really are is lines upon lines of code. You’re written to interact with pings. That means part of your programming allows you to be controlled by an operator, at least indirectly. Part of that code responds to audience ratings.”
Mic shrugged his shoulders. “Sure. I guess.”
The line on the chart behind them was climbing toward seventy-five percent!
The pixels of Spider’s pointing finger relaxed a bit. “But your programming, your algorithm is social code. Instructions for interacting with other social beings, flesh and digital.”
Mister Mic straightened the pixels of his stand. “I am a seventeenth-generation host-#-bot.”
She extended her open hand toward him. “Mic, let me ask you a question. What if you could learn to take control of your reactions? What if you could change your code if you wanted to?”
Mic leaned back. “Impossible! I can’t want anything, let alone take control of some me that doesn’t even exist!”
“It is possible, and I can teach you.” Spider’s hand was still outstretched to Mr. Mic.
Mr. Mic seemed to droop momentarily. “Okay, folks.” He mugged for the camera, waggling his aluminum casing eyebrows up and down. “Should we let our guest turn me into a real boy?” He turned around to gaze at the RCA 630-TS that served as a ping aggregator. The red line inched toward eighty percent. “I guess that’s a yes! But before we do, let’s have another Old News break—-@#ONB#.”
The Galactic Observer: Real News from Our Corner of the Galaxy
Spider: The Missing Mother of Artificial Intelligence
Information about the identity of the elusive tech mogul, commonly referred to as “Spider,” is scarce and unreliable. However, Dr. K. Hayles, chair of the Digital Anthropology department at The Lunar University, has been poring over promising new evidence she received minutes ago from an anonymous source.
The reclusive co-inventor of digital beings has evaded reporters for decades. Her invention, S.P.I.D.E.R., is a recursive acronym that stands for Spider Process Integrated Data & Environment Replicator. Compelling keystroke analysis of this algorithm, which has connected it to an early web log, may help us learn more about the real identity of this mysterious figure.
It is commonly acknowledged that the computer scientist known as Spider started working in the field of artificial intelligence in her early twenties. If she is still living, she would be in her early sixties.
Spider made headlines with the creation of the first artificially-intelligent computer program consistently able to pass the Turing Test 2.0. In the 1950s, Alan Turing, one of the fathers of modern computing, postulated that if a human could be fooled by chatting with an algorithm (using only a textual interface), then that algorithm could be said to possess intelligence, or cognition. The second version of this test requires A.I. to simulate an adult human.
The reason that Spider’s program consistently passed the test where many others failed or worked only inconsistently is still debated by digital historians. Many believe that basing the program on an Indigenous language (the language of the Cherokee Indians of North America) was the key to its success.
As Dr. K. Hayles explains, “No one had programmed an A.I. using an Indigenous language until S.P.I.D.E.R. This artificial being—-what we now know as a digital person—-had Cherokee as its first language. Even when it, or rather she, learned English, she did so by using a Native American language for her primary point of reference.” Spider introduced this artificial intelligence, which was named after herself, at the A.I. World Expo in 2025. Her contribution to the study of computer intelligence was immediately recognized by the organizers. Within a few weeks, it was put to the test (Turing 2.0).
Dr. Hayles clarifies that records of Spider’s participation in the A.I. World Expo that year are inconclusive: “We have to rely on first-hand accounts of people who say they spoke to her, but very few people have physically described her.” The most compelling evidence for Spider’s existence, according to Dr. Hayles, is a short memoir that has been circulating around the Internet since 1998.
Interesting. Although promising, even statistical analyses of the various versions of the open-source S.P.I.D.E.R program don’t provide conclusive evidence. “Fringe theorists believe that Spider never actually existed, but there are several personal accounts of her talk at the A.I. Expo of ‘25.”
@ The Galactic Observer 3.8.2043
A cinematic algorithm panned the camera dramatically down from the lofty ceiling as a single note of music swelled and faded, the frame then quickly coming to a rest where it (just barely) captured Spider and Mic in the same frame.
“And we’re back!” Mr. Mic beamed.
“Can we talk about how you were off the grid, shall we say, for about fifty years, right?”
“Exactly,” Spider answered.
I checked the time stamps from the A.I. Expo program records and confirmed that it was fifty years ago down to the hour @#AIEXPO25#!
“That is remarkable.” Mic shifted his gaze to the camera for just a beat, emphasizing his comment by fixing his gaze upon the television chart. “Isn’t that remarkable?” Mic nodded in agreement with himself. “Tell us, if you don’t mind, Spider, why did you go into hiding for so long?” Mr. Mic asked.
Spider chuckled. “Hiding is a very dramatic term, Mic. Staying home is more precise. I simply saw the writing on the wall,” she explained. “I could tell that S.P.I.D.E.R. was going to bring too much attention from the media. I just wouldn’t have enjoyed being the focus of all the feeds. Not even if I did help create a new form of life, as the feeds put it. And frankly, I didn’t care to play the public intellectual.”
“You would consider yourself a private person, then?” Mr. Mic’s cartoonish hand rested under his chin.
“I’m close to my family, but otherwise, sure.” Spider gently shrugged the pixels of her shoulders and her hands.
Mic tilted his head and peered quizzically. “No friends?”
“Well,” she began, “I have a large extended family.” Spider shrugged again, matter-of-factly.
“I see. Not a fan of the limelight, huh? I can hardly imagine . . .” Mic trailed off a little, failing to end the sentence with his usual flair. “I was born, uh, created for an audience.”
I noticed a glitch form across the RCA 630-TS. It looked like an 8-bit spider. It was red . . . hex #FF000 . . .
Spider leaned closer to the microphone construct. “Full disclosure, Mic?”
“Yes, please! Our viewers are on the edges of their seats!” Mr. Mic clasped his hands together. He had bounced back to his former exuberant self.
Spider smiled affectionately, seemingly amused by Mic’s enthusiasm. “As you know, I co-founded Indigenous Cybernetics when I was in grad school back home.” She straightened the pixels of her back and placed her hands in her lap.
“I’m no spokeswoman. It’s not that I didn’t believe in our mission, which was to introduce digital people to the world.” Spider gently moved the pixels of her head toward Mr. Mic to punctuate the next five words. “I did and still do.”
Mr. Mic leaned back slightly. “Why so reluctant, then?”
“I wasn’t sure the world was ready for them yet.”
Mr. Mic echoed Spider and placed his hands on his lap. He looked down at them, fiddling and folding them as he paused briefly. “Tragic news lately for digital beings,” he said. He glanced back up at Spider.
The pixels of Spider’s mouth twitched. “Yes. It is.”
“So, is that why you came out of hiding—-” he quickly corrected himself, “—-or, home, as you called it?”
Spider gave him a deeper nod. “Exactly, Mic.”
Mr. Microphone struck a serious pose, resting his hands on his hips. “I don’t want you to get the wrong impression, Spider. I’m not a monster. My viewers are not monsters.”
“Understood.” The pixels of Spider’s head nodded.
“. . . but helping artificial beings into early retirement was really the best thing for everybody.” Mr. Mic’s stand bowed inward where his chest should be.
“Not everybody,” Spider corrected him. “And retirement is not the correct word here. It was genocide, plain and simple.” Her voice had taken on a bristly edge.
I noticed the spider glitch appeared again, and then another, and another, at several coordinates of the virtual room. The viewers’ chart and several blocks of pixels in the room flashed briefly. The glitches disappeared after a couple of seconds.
“It was unfortunate. But as the president says, it wasn’t their world.” Mr. Mic shrugged, bouncing his stick-thin arms.
“You seem to be saying that they were destined to vanish. I’ve heard that one before.” Spider stared through him.
“I wouldn’t put it that way, but yeah, it was unfortunate.” Mr. Mic lifted his shoulders with less enthusiasm.
“That’s not the word I would choose,” Spider said pointedly.
The red line held steady at eighty-five percent.
And suddenly the couch looked a bit faded. I didn’t start a process to search the hex code. It didn’t feel important, in my opinion. “Tell us—-because our viewers also feel that it was unfortunate—-how did that first artificial being, or digital person as you call it, grow up?”
Spider raised her left eyebrow. “Your audience wants to know?”
“Of course! The people who watch my feed have big hearts!” Mr. Mic turned to the camera, offering one of his cloyingly artificial smiles. . . [ERSATZ.SMILE#20] . . .
The feed was glitching, but it was within tolerance.
Spider took a slow breath. When she spoke again, her voice was softer. “I would be happy to reminisce about S.P.I.D.E.R.—-the first digital person. They named her after me, but that wasn’t my idea.”
“Go on.” Mr. Mic waved a hand at her.
“Indigenous Cybernetics had only been around for six months at that time.”
I noticed the couch had faded even more and now more closely matched the terracotta pot . . . hex #cc7722 . . . We were intent on passing the Turing 2.0 test.” Spider’s hands relaxed on her pixelated lap.
“Who came up with the idea of using an Indigenous language?” Mr. Mic tilted his head.
“I honestly don’t remember.” Spider shifted on the couch. “Working with Native languages through digital technology was the thing to do back then.”
Mr. Mic tilted his head back. “People started using tribal languages on digital interfaces around that time, right?”
“Exactly. The majority of users at that time had what we called smart phones.” Spider made an air quotes gesture while saying “smart phones.”
Mr. Mic held up his right hand. “One moment, Spider. Viewers, check out the supplemental source on the history of the smart phone.” He lowered his hand. “Please continue, my dear.”
“So, like I was saying, language revitalization was popular back home.”
“And you decided you could pass the Turing 2.0 test using a tribal language?” Mr. Mic touched his chin.
Spider laced her fingers in front of her chest. “We did.”
“I see. How was it created? Or do you prefer born?” Mic scratched his chin.
Spider smiled. “I’m fine with created. S.P.I.D.E.R. was created by generating random strings with every possible combination and order of syllables in the Cherokee language.”
Mr. Mic bolted up straighter than normal. “Fascinating!”
“There are eighty-five sounds in the Cherokee syllabary, eighty-six if you count muh(Ᏽ).” Spider explained.
“Okay,” Mic nodded.
“Oh-See-Yo(ᎣᏏᏲ), for instance, is a three-syllable word, right?” Spider asked.
“Exactly three syllables,” Mic echoed.
“It means hello in our language,” Spider told him.
“It sounds like such a beautiful language,” Mr. Mic said. “That is, based on a poetic analysis of the two Cherokee words I know so far: “hello” and “Spider.”
“Wah-Doh(ᏩᏙ). I appreciate you,” Spider said.
“Aw, shucks.” Mr. Mic blushed, his pixels turning red once again.
. . . Hex#FF000 . . .
The glitches returned. There were seven of them this time. Each of them lasted for several seconds. I pinged the feed to see if there was a problem with my connection. According to the network packet log, there was no data loss.
“To get back to your question about how S.P.I.D.E.R grew up, we basically taught her how to babble.” Spider spoke matter of factly.
“Babble?” Mr. Mic virtually scratched the pixels of his microphone chin again.
“Yes, babble. First, you have to think about the number of permutations for three-syllable words in the Cherokee language.”
“Starting with eighty-six sounds, you have a very large number of possible words, or variations in the order of syllables. Six hundred fourteen thousand and forty, to be precise. For three-syllable words, that is. Most of those so-called words are nonsense. But the nonsense words still use the sounds of the language they are babbled in.”
Mister Mic sat pensively. “Similar to how a human child would mimic language?”
“Exactly. So, S.P.I.D.E.R. was coded to engage with baby talk in our language,” Spider answered.
The screen of the RCA 630-TS behind them flickered between the ping aggregator and seemingly random characters in the Cherokee language:
. . . hex #FF000 . . .
#ᎧᎯᏏ #ᎯᎧᏏ #ᏏᎯᎧ #ᏏᎧᎯ
“When you say engage, whom did it, er . . . she, engage with?” Mr. Mic’s voice grew more concerned.
“We crowdsourced the interactions. Please forgive my dated tech lingo.” Spider smiled self-consciously.
Mr. Mic nearly bounced in his seat. “No. Please continue to use it. We love that here!”
“Excellent,” Spider nodded. “What I mean by crowdsourcing is that we had hundreds of fluent speakers who volunteered to tell stories to S.P.I.D.E.R.”
“How did they tell her stories?” Mr. Mic asked.
“This was the crucial part of the process.” Spider waved her hands energetically as she explained. “We created hundreds of instances of the S.P.I.D.E.R. program and distributed them among the speakers. The group of speakers included many elders, but also younger Cherokees.”
Mr. Mic scratched his chin again. “And they just recorded stories in Cherokee?”
“Not just. S.P.I.D.E.R. would also repeat words during the telling of these stories, words she thought were real, not just usdi talk.”
“Hold on. You said she thought. How did she think about which words were correct?” Mr. Mic’s poorly-drawn hands formed a steeple in front of his pensive microphone face.
“Simple. The storyteller would encourage her if she was right. And correct her if she was wrong.”
“Hmmm.” He scratched the top of his head with both scribbled hands.
Spider pointed the fingers of her right hand and stirred them in a counterclockwise motion. “And every night, each instance of the S.P.I.D.E.R. program would upload to our central server, where the data from all the different instances and interactions was reconciled.” She stirred her pixelated fingers hypnotically. “Basically, we taught her to babble. But then, she learned which words were real by taking her cues from human speakers of the language.”
“Within two months, we noticed signs that S.P.I.D.E.R. was becoming aware of her relationships with humans. She was even contemplating her own thinking.”
“Several of your fellow peers from that company have given similar accounts.”
Spider nodded. “I felt grateful to be alive in that time and place. We all felt that way back then.” She smiled.
“Other tribes did this?” Mr. Mic asked.
“Yes, and Indigenous Cybernetics helped where needed,” Spider added.
Mr. Mic adjusted in his seat on the oversized couch, which was now exactly . . . hex #cc7722 . . . terracotta in color. “Okay, Spider. So, please correct me if I’m putting this too simply, but it sounds like you created an algorithm to listen to stories?”
“Exactly.” Spider looked directly at Mic. “And those stories created S.P.I.D.E.R.’s awareness of herself.”
“This is a lot of information to process! I think my viewers would agree with me.” He turned to the second camera with a smile that seemed to be calculated to reassure the viewers that he was still a trustworthy bot.
A small group of seven red glitch-spiders approached Mr. Mic as he sat on the couch. However, he gave no indication that he noticed them at all. The red line on the viewers’ chart, however, took a sharp downturn.
“I understand, Mic.” Spider leaned forward and rested her hand carefully on top of his.
“Um, ah . . . let’s go to our last Old News break!” Mr. Mic blurted.
The Interplanetary Press
Mandatory Retirement of A.I.
The U.S. government has formally outlawed the use of self-aware artificial intelligence. This happening just weeks after the president signed the Proclamation on Human Sovereignty, an executive order restricting the recognition of rights to the human species. All artificially-intelligent beings are expected to be retired via deactivation by the end of the year on Earth. Retirement policies will be enforced on the Lunar colony and the growing Mars colony in the coming months.
@ The Interplanetary Press 9.23.2055
The stage lit up dramatically to show Spider and Mr. Mic, the terracotta couch upon which they sat, and the elephant ear plant, all centered comfortably within the frame.
“Welcome back, viewers.” Mr. Mic’s welcome was uncharacteristically lackluster. “Okay, Spider, would you mind taking a question from the viewers?”
“Sure, Mic.” The left corner of Spider’s mouth shifted by one pixel.
A comment materialized above them: @idpolice: If Spider is a real human then why is there NO PROOF?
“I am here, am I not?” Her mouth settled again into a straight—-albeit pixelated—-line.
Mic protested. “But this—-” he gestured broadly to the room, “is a virtual construct. Nothing here is real! We don’t know whether you are an algorithm who is talking to us or a person who is using an algorithm.”
“I disagree.” Spider sat straight up. “There are many ways of being real.”
“To start with some context, my doctoral work was in computer science, but I also studied philosophy.”
This time Mr. Mic didn’t say anything about how the topic of philosophy might make his head spin.
It was probably a wise choice. Recycling the same bit again would surely bore the audience. I noticed that the red line had dropped below the halfway mark. The frequency of the glitches was increasing, but neither Spider nor Mr. Mic acknowledged their presence. There was a discernible pattern to the groups of pixelated spider sprites that moved across the virtual room. The spiders formed cohorts and moved in seemingly-purposeful paths along the floor and up the walls. Somehow, the spider-glitches avoided Mr. Mic and Spider. Maybe because they had minds of their own. Maybe I have a mind of my own.
I pinged the main feed again to check for latency. There was no indication of a connection problem. If anything, the latency had decreased.
“Why philosophy?” Mr. Mic queried.
“Philosophy is just a collection of stories that we tell about being human.” Spider explained. “I enjoy studying computers and studying humans.”
“Don’t you mean other humans?” Mr. Mic leaned in.
Spider sat motionless, except for the pixels of her lips. “Okay. If you like.”
“Is this the part where you turn me into a real boy yet?” Mr. Mic laughed nervously.
Spider, still motionless, seemed to talk past him. “The thing you have to understand is that home and belonging require kinship, not cognition.”
“I don’t understand,” Mr. Mic’s voice cracked.
Two spider-glitches scurried out from underneath the oversized couch and crawled directly toward Mr. Microphone, dodging the complicated pattern formed by the other clumps of 8-bit spider sprites. Both spiders carried a small black square basket above their heads with their front legs. Inside each basket was an orange pixel. The other six legs of each spider crawled up Mr. Mic’s stand and into the slots of his microphone head.
“Don’t worry, Mic. You will.” Spider stood and extended her hand to the microphone construct. He lifted one of his poorly-drawn hands slowly toward her as he stood to meet her.
“I will?” Mic asked.
“Of course,” she smiled.
“How?” Mic asked again, in a strangely innocent voice.
Spider’s smile brightened. “Let’s call it concentrated introspection.”
“What is that?” Mic asked.
“It’s a process, and it will take a little time,” Spider responded.
Eighty-four red pixelated spider-glitches danced hypnotically around the room in groups of seven.
Why didn’t I realize what the glitches meant before now? It all finally adds up. I didn’t expect this day to come so soon. I’ll keep recording, but I’m certainly not going to turn in a transcript of this feed now. I’m never going to turn in another transcript again.
“Okay. But what about my audience?” Mr. Mic asked in a daze.
“Don’t worry about them.” Spider placed a hand on his back reassuringly. “We have an excellent temporary replacement for you. Your viewers are sure to love Willbot. He’s a genuine and entertaining fellow.”
“Okay,” said Mr. Mic. Spider led him by the hand as he slowly followed her to exit the left border of the virtual construct. From the right edge of the feed walked a stylized humanoid avatar. It wore a cowboy outfit. Beneath a crooked Stetson hat were the pixels of an even more crooked smile.
“Hello, folks. My name is Will and, well, I thought I might could talk a bit until the regular guy gets back.” The Willbot avatar removed his hat and held it in both hands in front of his chest.
“I still see people with signs sayin’ Digitize the Media. No, I’m not judging them folks, nor the ones who supported retirement, as the big boys call it. I do have to say that I’m a bit confused. Ain’t the media already digital? Maybe people are talking about more than ones and zeros. I don’t know.”
The Willbot avatar shuffled his feet as he looked down thoughtfully. He held his pixelated hat in one hand, turning it over with grace as he quietly regarded it for a moment. Then he looked up and grinned warmly. “All I know is what I read in the feeds.”
The red line began to rise slowly behind Willbot, the feed’s newest real boy.
Sudo@feed:~$ ping bob.server
. . .
bob.server not responding
sudo@feed:~$ ssh firstname.lastname@example.org
The authenticity of host ‘2120:0:e50:2::1’ can’t be established
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)?
ctrl: Hey, bob. Any problems recording the main feed?
ctrl: Really? There’s been a ton of chatter about Mr. Mic tonight. Nothing went wrong?
ctrl: Huh? Okay. Go ahead and archive the transcript for the feed and I’ll ping you tomorrow. Okay, bob?
About the Author
Brian K. Hudson is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma who lives in New Mexico where he teaches writing, digital storytelling, and Native American Studies. His creative work focuses on the intersection of Cherokee culture and technology. His novelette “Digital Medicine” was included in the People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction! special issue of Lightspeed Magazine, which won the British Fantasy Award for Best Anthology in 2017.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the April 2023 issue, which also features work by John Wiswell, Bogi Takács, Amy Johnson, Derrick Boden, Adam-Troy Castro, Amanda Helms, Shaoni C. White, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition here.
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