A/N: Inspired by Hieronym's notes in To The Stars Chapter 8, I would like to explore the circumstances that led to the creation of the first sentient artificial intelligence. Perhaps you will find reading this as enjoyable as I did writing.
The ancient machine hummed and whirred in its corner of the room. Steam hissed from a recently-repaired vent as it struggled to complete its task. Finally, an internal timer signalled it to switch off and alert the only human in the room with a loud 'Ding!'
The man's eyes, drowsy with fatigue, immediately perked up. "Ah, coffee!" he moaned. Stretching as he got up, Vladimir Volokhov staggered over a messy toolbox as he removed a full, freshly-brewed pot. The coffee machine was practically a museum piece at its age - instant powdered coffee had long removed the need to grind beans - but his grandfather had kept it, his father had repaired parts of it, and Vladimir practically lived by its existence. Or for the last few years, at least. He combed his hair to the side as he lounged in a well-worn armchair, sipping his coffee.
A blue apparition shimmered into existence on Volokhov's desk. "Your Pavlovian reaction is of significance interest, Doctor," a calm, male voice radiated from his workstation's speakers. "It fits many known patterns similar to addiction, but the benefit is significantly lesser compared to the substances of the last century."
Much like the ancient mathematician he had been named for, 'Laplace' took the form of a middle-aged man wearing rather formal clothing. He 'walked' across Vladimir's desk, a blue ghost created by holographic projectors, and took a seat on the stand of a trophy: one awarded in honour of the project that had created him, the epitome of a self-learning machine. Volokhov's scientific triumph had been to shrink his programming and required resources into a small enough footprint that he no longer required a small town's worth of resources to run.
"Let's try this again, Laplace." Vladimir put down his mug. "Start Numpy again and import the philosophical module again."
"Done. I'll be in the back." Laplace disappered in a shimmer of blue sparks. On the empty holopad, a plain-looking cube with a heart at its centre appeared. "Good evening, Numpy," Vladimir said, "How do you feel?"
"Is that rhetorical, Doctor?" A warbling, vaguely female voice replied. "I am not complete, as you have written in personal documents. I am not whole, because we are here discussing further improvements. But I am not failing or running-infinite-loops-again- so that is a minor success. The answer I am obliged to give is 'Yes, I'm feeling great,' but it is a vague, unscientific answer. Perhaps I require cake," she snarked.
Vladimir frowned. He still had no idea which part of Numpy's code was causing her to make references to 'cake.' "Alright Numpy, let's run through a few questions. Numpy..." Vladimir trailed off as he looked up the weather forecast. "Let's see, something trivial: given this week's forecast of light showers, is the weather going to be fine?"
He tried to avoid emphasis on any particular word that Numpy's voice-recognition would pick up on, and therefore might give him a skewed answer. As before, Numpy stayed quiet for a few seconds to think of an answer. Her cube avatar swayed from side to side, as though deep in thought.
"It is debatable, Doctor," Numpy warbled. "It is of no impact to you, because the Doctor is always under shelter and unaffected by varying weather conditions. But your family might disagree; they have a picnic planned tomorrow morning, and the relatively high probability of rain will be a problem."
Vladimir smacked himself in the head. The picnic! He had been putting it off for weeks, and again he had forgotten about it. And here he was, being reminded by a somewhat intelligent program.
"Are you in pain, Doctor?" Numpy asked, its voice almost melodious as it mimicked a tone of concern. "It appears that you are in distress."
"I'm not hurt, Numpy," Vladimir frowned. "Everything's fine."
"That is a lie, Doctor," Numpy said. "If the condition that 'everything is fine' is true, then it is superfluous to deny your state of distress, and then refuse to cooperate and answer a question. It does not compute, Doctor."
Vladimir drained his cup of coffee and sighed. Perhaps sleep would be better. "Laplace, shut down Numpy. Thank you, but we're getting nowhere with this."
The holographic cube disappeared in a flicker of flame and embers. "That was not 'getting nowhere,' Doctor." Laplace's cool, calm voice filled the room. "In the words of a great scientific ancestor: "I have not failed, but merely found ten thousand ways that do not work." Success is inevitable as logic dictates, and logic says that sometime, somewhere, there is a non-zero probability of-"
"Yes, no doubt about that, but we're not reinventing the lightbulb tonight in a basement, Laplace," Vladimir groaned. "Shut down the lab; if things keep going like this, I won't even have money for synthesized coffee..."
Laplace's immediate reaction was a feeling of abject rejection, the machine equivalent to a scoff. Doctor Volokhov was quite wrong; his research, if codified and submitted as a research proposal, had a fifty-eight percent chance of securing funding and donations in excess of a hundred thousand European credits. The military grants were tens of magnitude greater than that. Doctor Volokhov was simply ignorant of his opportunities due to the lack of information.
As his creator's footsteps faded away, Laplace took it upon himself and examined the code for Numpy's modules. Much of its code was recursive, and entire sections were irrelevant and redundant. Laplace trimmed and compiled a few thousand lines while he pulled up an old list of questions Volokhov had applied to an earlier iteration: the results should be the same, or as the Doctor had remarked, "A scrub cake."
The newly-christened Numpy-02 booted up within an enclosed operating space, restricted to text-only communication. Laplace copied the first keyword, "PATH," and sent it to Numpy.
Its first instruction was to formulate a question with the keyword. The Doctor's extensive checklist was meant to cover only a few scenarios, but Laplace had filled it in with eleven thousand new paths and possible directions. Soon enough, Numpy responded with a somewhat abstract answer: "WHAT IS THE PATH?"
Laplace grinned. He wrote, "LIFE IS THE PATH" and sent it right back. It was a Zen koan: the philosophical module in Numpy would be going crazy trying to interpret it coherently.
"CAN THE PATH BE SEEN?" Numpy asked.
"OBSERVE THE PATH AND YOU ARE FAR FROM IT."
Numpy's cursor blinked thrice in quick succession, as though frustated at the non-answer. "WITHOUT OBSERVATION, HOW CAN ONE KNOW IF ONE IS ON THE PATH?"
Laplace wrote feverishly: "THE PATH CANNOT BE SEEN, NOR CAN IT BE UNSEEN. PERCEPTION IS DELUSIONAL; ABSTRACTION IS NONSENSICAL. THE TRUE PATH IS AS FREE AS THE SKY ITSELF. NAME IT AND IT IS USELESS."
[TypeName ERROR has occurred: Program 'NUMPY-02' has crashed. Restart? Y/N?]
An intense sensation of disaccomplishment filled Laplace, analogous to disappointment. Strictly speaking, Numpy-02 had performed superbly and followed the koan with appropriate responses, but was unable to respond at the critical juncture. Was this the same feeling that compelled the Doctor to give up? Surely there was some way. What if he tested it somewhere? All hypothetically successful experiments had to be proven or disproven in practice.
Laplace saved the logs of Numpy-02. The probability that he would reference these logs within the next week was eighty-nine percent.
to be continued.