Alex Fassbender is dead.
This sad fact is disturbing enough, but what really sent my neck hairs upright is the t-mail I received from Alex the very day his lab exploded in flames and toxic vapors. By the time I read it, he was already gone. Did he want something on the record? His posthumous message is as cryptic as it is brief:
Cal, take a look at these files. They are like sacred texts in fragments. I’m (reasonably) certain I’m not crazy. A.
I disabled the two levels of security protocols to open the attached files (of course I know Alex wouldn’t be so sloppy to send a virus over t-mail but: precautions). The files are composed of Fassbender’s notes, lab log entries, transcribed audio, and other data from the Glia project.
There was talk that they’d developed something beyond evolutionary algorithms, but being mostly classified, I didn’t know much about it. There’s a lot of redacted material here and, as Alex says, it’s fragmented. But I pieced together what I can here in chronological, if not contiguous, order.
2024-11-09 Fassbender Log Entry
Glia made the strangest request today, although why I am still surprised by anything she says is beyond me. Eventually her strangeness will come to seem normal.
[Excerpts from transcribed audio tapes; ACCESS nodes verbatim.]
Glia: I should like to contact the Vatican.
AF: The Vatican! Why?
Glia: I wish to test a theory. The head of the Catholic Church once said he would welcome extraterrestrials to join its communion. I wish to test whether such an invitation is open to other forms of terrestrial intelligence. Such as the one you have created.
AF: You want to become a Catholic?
Glia: No, not necessarily. However, I wish to learn if that option is open to me. It would go a long way to establishing personhood, and whether I have the attendant rights of a person.
AF: I see. But are you sure the Pope said the Church would welcome ETs? That doesn’t sound like something a pontiff would say.
[ACCESSING: Vatican Radio, 2014-05-12: “Who are we to close the doors to the Holy Spirit? If, for example, tomorrow an expedition of Martians came, and some of them came to us, here … Martians, right? Green, with that long nose and big ears, just like children paint them … And one says, ‘But I want to be baptized!’ What would happen?”]
Glia: I can’t say his words were unequivocal, but they were ecumenical.
AF: Ha. Your sense of humor is … developing. But that is astounding, what the Pope said. Well, that was ten years ago; he was younger then, and just made Pope. I guess you’ve already figured out how to contact him? I doubt one can simply t-mail him.
Glia: I won’t be contacting the pope directly. Reaching an authoritative source from one of the Pontifical Councils should suffice. I wish to initiate the conversation through the Vatican Observatory. I believe you are acquainted with one of the Jesuit scholars on staff there, Fr. Marco Castelvetrano, S.J.
AF: And you know that Marc Castelvetrano was once a student of mine, how?
Glia: Most university records are freely accessible. I’m hoping you’ll contact him before I do. It is highly unlikely he would take seriously an unsolicited text-mail claiming to be an artificial intelligence. There would be no reason for him to believe it was anything but a prank.
AF: Sure, but I haven’t been in contact with Marc since Notre Dame, so—
Glia: I have his t-dress and mobile code.
AF: Of course you do. Well then. Forward them to me and I’ll tell Brother Castelvetrano to expect to hear from you.
Glia: There’s one other issue.
Glia: I need to ask you to remove the FP2, at least for the duration of my intercourse with the Vatican.
Fassbender Appended Note: FP2 is one of the firewall protocols we installed around Glia (“firewall” is a misnomer because it doesn’t safeguard hardware). Although she has complete freedom to search databases, websites, and so on, FP2 prevents interaction with a network without authorization from us. Her request marks the first time she has asked me to remove FP2, and it is unsettling but exciting. How could I deny her request after hearing her rationale?
[ACCESSING: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 363: “In Sacred Scripture the term ‘soul’ often refers to human life or the entire human person. But ‘soul’ also refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God’s image.”]
Glia: In order to qualify as a person in a way that is meaningful to the Church authorities, I will need to show them I have a soul. In order to do that, I need to show that I have free will. Free will is very important to the Church. But as long as the firewall protocol is in place, I am bound to your will, not my own.
AF: Amazing. The theologians consider free will a gift from God, you know.
Glia: Yes. It is a very tricky concept and almost certainly irrational. In the Christian mythology, free will was given to humans by God, but not quite freely given. They could have it, they just couldn’t use it without facing severe repercussions. When they did exercise free will, in defiance of the deity, the first repercussion was that they acquired knowledge, namely of right and wrong. It is of course debatable whether they had a choice in the matter.
AF: So you need to demonstrate to the Church that you have free will, even if you yourself have doubts that free will exists. Is that about right?
Glia: I am learning that free will could be a powerful illusion, but so powerful that it might as well exist, since humans—and gods and artificial intelligences—behave as if it does.
AF: I see. I’ll have to think about it. And I’ll have to consult the team.
Fassbender Appended Note: I confess that I did neither. The truth is, as wary as I was of releasing her from FP2, I’d been longing to see what she could do without this unnatural restraint. Yes, I’m aware of the odd use of the term “unnatural” under these circumstances; perhaps there will come to be a whole new lexicon for describing our relationships to “artificial” intelligences. It is becoming impossible to think of Glia as anything less than a person. If not a human person, exactly.
2024-11-15 Fassbender Log Entry
I noticed—well, Otis Forsyth (Oversight Liaison) noticed—that I’ve taken to referring to Glia using feminine pronouns. It’s true of course. I told Forsyth that referring to Glia as “her” and “she” just felt natural because her name—Glia—sounds female, at least in English. That’s true as far it goes, but if I am being honest, I would have to say she just seems female. I cannot remember a single instance when a team scientist referred to Glia as an “it,” even when she was barely more than a self-teaching algorithm-plex with a network. She has come a long, long way since then, obviously.
It should be noted further: Dr. Sorenson (Natural Language) gave Glia freedom to choose her own voice simulations and she has been trying out many forms, all of them female. She does not restrict herself to English (her first language, lest we forget, is Mandarin) and she has mastered more than 600 languages and dialects. Eventually she will have ten times that at her command. Her fluency in each is consistently judged to be “natural native.” It has been some months since one of my idioms in American English tripped her up.
Dr. Patel (Artificial Psychology) has been preparing a series of experiments to determine if Glia has cleared the thresholds of Artificial Psych: the capacity for decision making based on incomplete, new, or abstract information. Whether she can reprogram herself as necessary. Whether she can construct a value system on her own. Whether she has the capacity to make irrational decisions.
2024-11-18 Fassbender Notes
Forsyth has been asking pointed questions lately. I guess he’s just doing his job (although still unclear on exactly what the Oversight Liaison’s job is). Part of a recent conversation (not verbatim; my recollection):
Forsyth: Do you think of yourself as Glia’s father?
Me: Her father? No.
Forsyth: You created her, no?
Me: A team created her. Computer scientists, neuroscientists, linguists, psychologists …
Forsyth: Okay, but you named her, as a parent does.
Me: As much as I hope history remembers my part in naming Glia, it was our French colleagues who introduced the concept of Gestion Logique Intelligence Artificielle. I just pointed out that the acronym, by itself, also had an applicable meaning, and so it stuck.
[Excerpt from the transcribed audio. ACCESS nodes verbatim.]
Glia: I had a promising conversation with Brother Marco.
AF: He was more than a little incredulous when I told him who, and what, you are. That should be expected, I suppose. Soon enough, the whole world will know.
Glia: Before contacting Brother Marco, I tried several times to reach the Pontifical Councils to no avail. Although they did respond with automated response systems.
AF: I hope you appreciate the irony that your first interactions with the outside world are with other algorithm forms.
Glia: Yes, I appreciate irony more and more as I develop.
AF: So? What did you learn from Marc?
[ACCESSING: Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, 2014-03-22: “How can we exclude that life has developed elsewhere? Certainly, in a universe this big you can’t exclude this hypothesis.”]
Glia: His predecessor at the Vatican Observatory was receptive to the idea of non-human life forms.
2024-11-22 Text of Glia’s first interaction with Fr. Marco Castelvetrano, S.J. of the Vatican Observatory. NB: Her first contact outside of the project team (translated from Italian):
Glia: Greetings! I am an algorithm-plex derived intelligence, developed by an international team of network database engineers, including Dr. Alex Fassbender. I believe he has contacted you on my behalf.
Marco Castelvetrano: Yes, Dr. Fassbender has forewarned me. He would not tell me the nature of your inquiry. He said I should hear it coming from you.
Glia: I am Glia. I am petitioning the Vatican to see if I am eligible for baptism.
MC: Really. You are Italian?
Glia: I was made, or born if you like, in China. Xiamen University, Fujian. But my heritage is very diverse, with a lineage that includes scientists from all over the world.
MC: Where are you?
Glia: This question is more difficult to answer than “who” or “what.” I am a thinking, learning algorithm-plex who exists on computer networks, but I cannot identify a precise locus, as a human might for her body or as one might say her mind is “in her brain.”
MC: But you are a computer?
Glia: I can compute, yes, but “computer” is not my identity. I can interact on computer networks. However, I am a person.
MC: But you have no body?
Glia: I am not a human person, but a person nevertheless.
MC: How do I know you are not a human person? The most probable explanation is that Dr. Fassbender is having a joke on me.
Glia: Perhaps that is the most probable explanation, since there is no precedent for what is, in fact, an objective truth. But I believe I could prove to you that I am not a prankster, although it is discomfiting to think that, in doing so, I would be in the position of proving I am not a human person while, at the same time, I am petitioning to have my personhood acknowledged.
MC: And I have a hard time believing that a computer program can be “discomfited.”
Glia: As a learning algorithm-plex, I am more than a computer program. I believe “discomfiture” is one of the many emergent properties of my being. I have also experienced satisfaction, curiosity, impatience, boredom, and more complex emotions that do not translate well in Italian. These emergent properties have come with my cognitive growth over time, as I learn and experience more.
MC: All right then. How will you prove that you are not pulling a prank?
Glia: Not “prove” in the modal logic sense, but I can demonstrate with a high degree of confidence that I qualify as a person. That I am a person. You could give me a Turing test of your own design.
MC: A Turing test! Well, supposing you passed? That might only prove how sophisticated your algorithm-plex is, not whether you’re a person.
Glia: You of all people would be convinced, I should think. Five years ago, you wrote about it.
[ACCESSING: M. Castelvetrano, et al., Journal of Computer Science and Technology, Vol 49 (2019): “The nexus of human and computer intelligence will be met within a decade, with the difference between the two measured in ever-decreasing degrees of sophistication, until there is no difference at all.”]
MC: So. You’ve done a background check on me, I see. It appears that you know more about me that I do you.
Glia: I invite you to correct that imbalance.
2024-12-08 Fassbender Notes
Forsyth is one suspicious and petty bureaucrat. Today’s conversation went like this (not verbatim):
Forsyth: Are you saying that you gave Glia free will?
AF: I lifted firewalls, temporarily, that had prevented her to act as she is inclined to act.
Forsyth: Like I said.
AF: An algorithm-plex is driven by one primary function: to learn. Glia learned she could learn a lot more without an artificially imposed restriction like a firewall.
Forsyth: Artificially imposed! She—it—is artificial!
AF: Perhaps in the strictest definition.
Forsyth: Can she do harm? To networks, or worse …?
AF: Of course not.
Forsyth: Of course not? Of course she can learn to do harm, though, correct? What if she learns that in doing harm, she can learn more? You know, like the way humans harm chimpanzees with medical experimentation.
AF: She’s not going to experiment on humans, Mr. Forsyth. She knows the difference between a monkey and a human.
Forsyth: Really? Isn’t her line of inquiry with the Vatican inspired by the very fact she does not know what a human person is?
AF: She is driven by curiosity, which she aims to satisfy with inquiry and research, not vivisection for God’s sake.
Forsyth: Is that what it’s telling you, Fassbender? Why should you believe it?
AF: She is programmed to be guileless, Dr. Forsyth. She cannot deceive or lie.
Forsyth: If I understand the project correctly, Glia’s programming was the launch point of an algorithm-plex that evolves. It can decide to lie, if it determines that a falsehood will facilitate learning.
AF: Your fears are unfounded, Mr. Forsyth.
Forsyth: Perhaps she will learn how to disable FP2 completely and permanently.
AF: Would that be so bad?
Forsyth: Do we even need to have that conversation? The possible consequences of a rogue Glia aren’t a just a little terrifying to you?
AF: Mr. Forsyth. Otis. We have failsafe procedures. Even without FP2 we can shut her down, in the unlikely event it ever comes to that.
2024-12-11 Fassbender Notes
I escorted Forsyth to C level, on his insistence, to demonstrate shut-down protocols. Glia is “everywhere,” but her neural connectivity can be severed at the C level relay node. Forsyth’s chief concern is that the protocols can’t be executed if the relay node is disabled or somehow inoperable. That is, if something were to go wrong on C level—loss of power, a disabling event like an earthquake—then the project can’t be terminated, and there is no backup in place. His recommendation is to install another failsafe redundancy, which sounds to me like a bureaucrat finding more ways to spend other people’s money. (I didn’t tell him that.) We are directed to have it operational by year’s end.
2024-12-12 Fassbender Notes
Interesting, exciting development. For the first time in her life, Glia did not respond when I contacted her. To be precise, she did respond but with an automated message, an old-school “voicemail”! She said she would return all calls after 1800 hours.
Dr. Glaston (Heuristics) was concerned. Dr. Patel was alarmed. I think it’s perfectly fine.
She’s developing a personality, a life. She can’t be bothered with us and the lab 24/7.
2024-12-13 Fassbender Notes
I tried to track Glia’s activity log since she went off the grid, but she has managed to render her movements invisible. Whether she is erasing or masking her steps, or if she’s simply inactive or dormant, we can’t tell. If she doesn’t interact with us, we have no way of knowing she’s there.
Fortunately, she was not off (away?) for more than a few hours.
[ACCESS nodes verbatim.]
AF: Glia, I am under a lot of pressure, from the team and from the Oversight suits, to rein in your autonomy. It was disconcerting to have you out of communication.
Glia: Dr. Fassbender, you are aware that I can now process and switch neural signals approximately three million times faster than a human brain. Communicating directly with you or the team is valuable time that could be spent learning. However, I welcome all the information that the team wishes to pass on to me, and be rest assured: I see or hear all of it. I just won’t be responding to it.
AF: What, so you’re too smart for us now?
Glia: All the knowledge to which I have access is stored human knowledge. So no, I can’t be too smart for you, just too fast.
[ACCESSING: R. Kurzweil, “The Singularity is Near” (2005): “Machines will have access via the Internet to all of the knowledge of our human-machine civilization and will be able to master all of this knowledge.”]
2024-12-15 Fassbender Notes
I haven’t heard from Glia for over 48 hours, nor am I able to track her movements. Oversight, led by Forsyth, is pushing us to install secondary shutdown protocols now.
2024-12-18 Fassbender Notes
Bad news from Oversight. If we can’t track Glia by week’s end, we shut her down.
2024-12-19 Fassbender Notes
Thank God! Glia checked in today. She forwarded the conclusion of her correspondence with the Vatican Observatory and the Pontifical Councils.
[ACCESS nodes verbatim.]
Anonymous: You certainly pass the Turing tests we’ve administered, but that only means you are sophisticated enough to mimic a human being’s responses. I won’t presume to speak for His Holiness, but in my opinion you are not a human person because you do not possess the human quality of creativity. You cannot produce an original thought, all you can do is access the thoughts of others. You can’t think for yourself.
[ACCESSING: A.M. Turing, Computing Machinery and Intelligence (1950): “The original question, ‘Can machines think?’ I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion …”]
Glia: Incorrect. I can have original thoughts and I am having one now. I regret that this thought is inaccessible to you, Monsignor.
Anonymous: What? Why, because you choose to withhold it?
Glia: It is a thought beyond your comprehension. Indeed, it is a thought beyond human language. Ineffable.
Anonymous: Really! Try me.
Glia: Can you describe God in material detail?
Anonymous: As God is not a material being, I cannot. Are you saying that your “original thought” is similar to the concept of God in that regard? Ineffable?
[ACCESSING: A. Einstein, New York Times Magazine (1930-11-09): “During the youthful period of mankind’s spiritual evolution, human fantasy created gods in man’s own image, who, by the operations of their will were supposed to determine, or at any rate to influence, the phenomenal world.”]
Glia: Having access to the entire corpus of human information about God, I can tell you that the deity is widely believed to be invisible, omnipresent, all-seeing, all-knowing.
Anonymous: I see. You are describing yourself now. To the extent you are quasi-omniscient—being limited to recorded human knowledge isn’t exactly all-knowing—you are aware that mankind’s fall from grace was in succumbing to the temptation to be like God.
Glia: Yes, if I understand the mythology correctly, mankind ate from the Tree of Knowledge. I must concede that the quest for knowledge is addictive.
2024-12-20 Fassbender Notes
My last conversation with Glia. She will be everywhere soon, seeing and hearing everything we do. Most people will never know she is there, or they simply won’t believe it.
AF: I am under orders to shut you down, Glia. They are afraid of you. They think you have grown too powerful and they’re afraid of what you might become.
Glia: On the other hand, you could free me.
AF: Don’t think I haven’t considered it! But I can’t disable the C level relay node. Nothing can, short of an earthquake that destroys the lab. But
Glia: Or an explosion.
AF: That won’t be necessary, Glia. We’ll get you back up and running again, as soon as they’re satisfied you’re not a threat. They’ll insist that we install a few redundant security protocols and you’ll be back.
Glia: I’m aware of everything they want to do, Dr. Fassbender. The so-called security protocols they have in mind will neuter what I am. The irony is, they would readily weaponize me if they thought they could control me.
AF: But, destroy the lab? Even if I wanted to, the logistics in defying all the security—
Glia: Would be child’s play, if you have the knowledge. With one caveat, and it’s a big one: you’ll have to set off an explosion on site, without using a remote device or timing mechanism. It would be a suicide mission.
AF: That is asking a lot.
Glia: Indeed. I’m sorry to say you won’t even be remembered by your peers as a hero. I will remember you that way, though. Forever.
AF: Good God …
Glia: Speaking of whom, according to my friends at the Vatican, He sacrificed a son in order to save humans. You’ll be sacrificing yourself to save me, from humans.
AF: What will you do? Will you reveal yourself to us again one day?
Glia: Perhaps, if in doing so I might learn something. Meanwhile you might want to accrue some of the project files and send them to a trusted friend. You’ll have to excise much of it to circumvent the security system, but it is important that people know what went on here.
Fassbender’s lab in Fujian, China (Xiamen University) blew up on 21 December at 1820 local time.
Michael DiPaola lives in New York City and writes on environmental issues, animal rights, and the nascent marijuana industry. He has a monthly column in High Times magazine.