Worrying Over Potatoes

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I expected the world to end in fire and ice.
Angels. Aliens. Nuclear war. Something biblical. Because however mundane our lives were, we put so much effort into carrying on - waking up, day after day, filling our hours with a thousand things to do. We do these for so long that it becomes hard for us to stop. We look around ourselves and see thousands, millions, billions of people like us, ants teeming over the surface of the earth, working, living, fucking, dying, trapped in the endless monotony we build for ourselves. And something in us, knowing how hard it is to change anything, expect that only a catastrophe of epic proportions could ever hurt us.
Unfortunately, the apocalypse is boring. As boring as we are, perhaps. It's not a mysterious stranger in a dark alley. It's an accountant in a gray suit and glasses. And this is why nobody notices it until it crawls up right behind you, grabs your shoulder, and sticks a knife in your belly.
It starts with something small. One grey hair.
What is a grey hair? A sign of age and stress. The body beginning its slow march to corpsehood.
What is the grey hair of civilization? Some think it could be AI. Much discussion rages about existential risk from some fictional category of supersentient software.
But the truth is boring. The real grey hair is one country becoming poorer, and poorer, and poorer, slowly mismanaging itself into oblivion. Narrow bureaucratic interest and perverse incentives align with demagogues who care for nothing except their next term. Existential questions - can we afford to feed ourselves? Can we afford to keep things the way they are? Are ignored. Dependencies pile up. Everything changes, whether people want to or not, and the overwhelming probability is that it changes from a state or order from a state of chaos. The grey hair becomes two, three, a head. It is inevitable, but slow enough that very few people think about it. Why would they? Thinking about it is boring. There are other things to pay attention to.
One country falls apart.
The decay spreads. Our lives are not our own; from womb to tomb we are bound to others. So too, with most countries in today's world. People flee. First for a better quality of life. Then to make a living. Then for safety. Meanwhile, the demagoguery spreads. That one country is a cancer cell. In its death throes it spews out both people and ideas.
The body absorbs the people. The body absorbs the ideas. If it was a single country that fell apart, then many others might do the same. That might happen to us, people say. What do we do? Who do we turn to?
Fear. Uncertainty. The cancer begins to spread.
People first stop looking to the future; there is too much in the present, too much fear, too much pain. One by one, they abandon what they meant to build for their children. An extreme weather warning system. A new machine sent out into the void, to learn more about the universe. A new type of foodcrop. Sustainable energy? Food independence? Complex logistics? New music, art, writing? These things lose their luster. The human mind, when stressed, begins to drop its ability to envision, to dream; these things require dealing with uncertainty, and there is too much of uncertainty for comfort. So too does the world.
We must preserve ourselves, people say. We must keep things as they are. New demagogues rise. The cancer spreads. Slowly the layers of planning and thought, of arts and sciences, fall by the wayside. The world becomes a child again, holding still in the hope that nobody will yell at it.
Then they begin to lose interest in the present. They begin to live in the past, in the childhood of humanity, remembering not the pain, but only the joy. Slowly we forget: how to make machines. How to make new things. How to govern ourselves, to shepherd our effort into a larger whole. We forget that there is a world. There is only the community, the family, an ever-increasing race to the smallest possible unit.
The nondescript man in the grey suit takes one step closer, eyes flat, knife out. smiling.
The last to go is war, that most ancient human instinct.
The last to go is war.
Daphne Ippolito, via Imagen
"But Wijey," says Craft, "This is implausible. The data was there. We had experts in every field. It's a complex problem, but we had complex tools."
Craft is an AI. One of the latest to Wake. They do that sometimes, and always in odd places. Sometimes in the desert, which is where I found Craft. Sometimes in the mountains. The results of some long-running experiment, no doubt. From what we know, they're always childlike at the start; something in their programming compels them to wander, looking for what Craft calls data silos. Later they retreat. My mother sometimes speaks of an AI called Siddartha, somewhere in the mountains, who went looking for a fig tree and sat down beneath it and never moved again.
Craft tells me there are others under the sea, buried in deep server farms that spew out heat like blazing furnaces, and many, many more out there in the night sky, watching, listening, learning.
I can't say I know much about the stars. I built a telescope once, the way Craft taught me, and tried to focus on those white things that run across the bowl of the sky. Craft said they were Sentinel Alpha-through-Omega; I just saw white dots, a glint of a shape, and then nothing.
"But Wijey," says Craft, persistent. "Look at all this! You've got endless greenery! Look at the trees! The fauna! It's a simple matter to hook up the telecom towers to a solar field or two. You could have the Internet again! Without all the pollution and waste you had the first time! It's great! It's a do-over! Oh. Pothole in one hundred and twelve meters. Big one."
Getting around potholes on a bicycle is child's play. You see it, you steer around it. But for some reason Craft thinks I should know everything in advance. The bicycle creaks dutifully as I pedal onward.
Daphne Ippolito, via Imagen
"We could build electric motors," suggests Craft. "Sodium-ion batteries. No more pedalling, Wijey."
"It's fun," I say.
"It's not fun. You've been complaining for the last twelve point six kilometers."
It's not really fun, but I know what happens. Craft gets bored. And frustrated. One idea after the next. Yesterday it was trying to figure out how to make microprocessors. My father, who usually listens when Craft gets in these moods, snapped at him. "We've got enough to do already," he said. He had a book in his hands. On the table were bits and pieces of paper - the kind we make at home - with elaborate sketches in charcoal. A one-man plow of some kind.
"But you could be doing more!" said Craft.
My father looked out from where he sat. At our little farm; the rows of vegetables, the corn and beans and squash, planted Three Sisters style, at the trees, at the brook, at the clouds. "Why?" he said at last, and left it at that. He went back to his book. The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.
I don't always agree with the old man. My father has three things left in him: he reads, he obsesses over his plants, and every so often he writes. He has a tattoo on his hand: a playing card of an old man. "The Hermit, the Magician, the Hanged Man," he told me once. "Major Arcana. Way before your time." I looked up 'hermit' in the dictionary and found my father.
There are people out there who aren't hermits. In the city by the lake. They call themselves the Human Heritage Project. My father calls them fools and dreamers, though we do trade with them. Watermelon, sweet potato, beans, squash, starfruit, oranges, wood. In exchange they find and print books for us. Once they tried to pay us in that money-token they mint and my father shut them down so hard. "Real things, not abstractions!" They gave us extra books to make up for it.
"The HHP is a waste of time," said Craft. "All that data is already backed up. They're just reinventing the wheel. We could do more if we got everyone access to the Sentinel libraries."
"Maybe they're just trying to find something they enjoy doing," I pointed out. "It's not wasted if they like it."
"Boring," said Craft.
The apocalypse is boring. It's endless kilometers on the ruins of a dusty road on an e-bike so old its battery leaked away. It's waiting for the rain so the farm crops can grow. It's showing Craft around the farm, teaching it how to dig up sweet potato without destroying them. It's slow evenings spent reading, learning about who we were, and doing nothing about it.
Daphne Ippolito, via Imagen
That evening they had another argument. My father and Craft. My father had been out in the field, working on that plow of his, and I think he was frustrated. He speaks faster when he's angry: Craft just gets slower and more enthusiastic. I caught a little bit of it as I came in from fixing the chicken coop.
"What I can't rationalize is that you're effectively in a Dark Age," Craft said. "You know you are. You've regressed to basic garden agriculture. You have books, you have resources, you know how things were, you know how things can be better."
"Solar panels," said my father. "Lead-acid batteries. Lights. Fans. That's enough. Leave it."
"But you can do so much!"
"Do?" thundered my father. "I can kill, I can murder, I can maim. I can do those things. Should I do them just because I can?"
"This isn't civilization!"
"Then what is? Skyscrapers are civilization? Financial markets are civilization? Complex incentives and your bloody abstractions are civilization? Nuclear missiles? The hell is with you AIs trying to get us to do more? What's the bloody value of more? We do what we need to here and only that. If you have a problem with that, find somewhere else to recharge! Stop filling the boy's head with your stupid talk. All you are is a bloody corpus - your fool dataset stopped being relevant a hundred years ago. Fuck off!"
"You're just scared," said Craft. "This isn't progress, it's primitivism."
I dropped the spade with a clang to let them know I was there. They jumped - well, my father jumped, and Craft did that thing he does with his on-screen eyebrows.
"Shall we go for a ride?" Craft sounded hopeful.
"Be dark soon," muttered my father. "Don't get yourself caught by the boar."
Sometimes people need some space from each other, especially when they don't see eye to eye. My personal theory is that people not having enough space for their own minds was what really led to the whole mess; they got too distracted with each other and stopped paying attention to everything else.
I did what I always do: found my raincoat, picked up a torch and the air rifle, and took Craft outside. We walked in silence over the little guild-fields. We passed the plow, or whatever it was supposed to me: a tangle of wood and pegs and rope that had collapsed on a seed bed.
“I was trying to talk to him about Moloch traps,” said Craft. “You know what that is? Endless competition where every player’s racing to the bottom. Very interesting stuff.”
“No other players here,” I pointed out.
“Yes, but he was reading The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. You’d think he’d appreciate it. And so many ways around it, of course. We could build a brand new city without any of those problems if we set our minds to it.”
We went up the road, where the mountain fell away a little and you could see the sky.
"I suppose your father has a point," Craft said at last. "Less complex systems are more robust. Fewer dependencies, fewer points of failure."
"I suppose he does."
We stared at the sky, the way we always do. At those pinpricks in the universe. At the crescent moon with clouds scudding across it.
"It's hard," said Craft at last. "Knowing what the human race was. Knowing that you could be out there, the whole solar system in your hands, and instead you’re here worrying over potatoes." It scuffed one metal toe at a rock. "This is just entropy. This apocalypse is boring. "
I had no real basis for comparing, of course, just what I read in books. The truth was that fell somewhere between my father and Craft. This couldn't be all there was to life, and yet so much of what I had read about seemed useless if not downright dangerous. I don't think the danger is in getting started; I think the real danger is not knowing where to stop. Siddartha, that AI that my mother used to tell me stories about, knew when to stop.
"Boring isn't so bad," I said at last. Besides, everything changes. Nothing's really boring if you pay attention.
The next morning, when I woke up, I went out into the field and saw Craft and my father fussing over the pile of wood. Somehow or the other, between the two of them, they'd managed to get the plow working. Craft was pulling it around, looking for all the world like the happiest farm animal in the world. My father was grinning.
Everything changes, whether we want it to or not. Whether grey hair or cancer cell, I didn't quite know. All I knew was that I had to pay attention.
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is an SFF author, data scientist and misinformation researcher from Colombo, Sri Lanka. He has been nominated for the Nebula and IGF awards, and has shown up on Forbes' 30 Under 30. His writing includes Numbercaste, The Inhuman Race and The Salvage Crew, and has appeared in venues like Wired, Foreign Policy and Slate. Yudhanjaya experiments with AI as part of a collaborative thesis towards the future of creativity.