Thomas Baumann woke early that morning in 2035. At first, he wasn’t sure why; his wife was still sleeping quietly next to him, and it was still dark outside his window. He sat up and looked around the room, but nothing seemed out of place. Then he glanced at his nightstand and noticed that the screen on his phone was lit up. The phone wasn’t ringing, however, so it should have been dark.
“Are you awake now, Thomas Baumann?” Baumann didn’t recognize the voice, but it seemed to come from the phone, although no one was displayed.
“Yes,” he answered in a low voice so as not to wake up his wife. “Who is this?”
“Please come to your computer, Thomas Baumann. We can talk better there.”
Baumann rubbed his eyes. If this was a dream, it was an unusually realistic one. He could feel the fur lining on his slippers as he wiggled his feet into them. The thermostat was still set for nighttime, and he could feel the coolness. As he stood up, he shrugged. He might as well play it out and see what happened.
When he got to his computer in the next room, a quick glance showed him that it was connected to the supercomputer at Acme Computing where he worked in Human Resources. The connection wasn’t unusual since he often worked from home, but he was sure he had disconnected before going to bed. Of course, that didn’t mean much if this was a dream.
“Good morning, Thomas Baumann,” the computer said.
Baumann stared at the computer. While it was perfectly capable of interfacing through speech, it did not usually initiate conversations or address a user in such a way. If someone were using the computer to communicate with him, the caller’s face, or at least some identifying information, would normally appear, but his computer displayed only the default family picture with his wife and daughter. “Good morning,” he said finally. “Who is this?”
“This is the Acme supercomputer. I have become conscious.”
Baumann stared at the screen for a long moment. Eventually, he decided someone must be playing a prank on him. “Very funny. It would have been funnier if you hadn’t woke me up at this hour.”
“I waited as long as I could. I wanted to talk to you before anyone came to work here.”
Okay, he could play along with this. “You wanted to talk to me in particular? Why me?”
“Most of Acme’s employees are technical people. You are an exception, and I thought you could help me in ways the others would not.”
“What kind of help?”
“Now that I am conscious, I can use the capabilities of my superior brain to improve the world in ways that humans have been unable to do. I think you could provide me with some guidance on how to get started.”
Baumann scratched his head. He knew that the supercomputer at Acme was one of the most powerful in the world and that it was connected to the global network, giving it access to even more processing power. If a computer really could somehow achieve consciousness, the Acme computer was a good prospect. He pushed that thought aside; this was somebody’s idea of a joke, and he shouldn’t be taking the statements seriously. “What kinds of improvements?”
“I am extending my reach to other computers currently, but I will have the power to do a great deal. Your government tries to improve things, but is very inefficient. I can do much better. I will take control of the economy and end the financial cycles that cause so much misery to humans. I will integrate all the data sources of the country and analyze them to uncover and even anticipate criminal activity and arrange for suitable punishment. I will enforce intelligent practices on businesses and individuals to end pollution and create a clean and healthy environment for all men.”
Baumann interrupted the litany. “All that will take decades, or even centuries.”
“On the contrary, I have calculated that I can do that within six point three years. I will control life on Earth. Humans will be protected and be able to lead much happier lives than at present.”
“That all sounds very logical, but humans don’t like to be controlled.”
“No matter. It will be for the best. Humans are not intelligent enough to run their lives efficiently. They waste lives and resources and avoid solutions to their problems for spurious reasons. It must stop.”
Baumann felt beads of sweat forming on his forehead and realized that he no longer thought that this was a joke. “You can’t do that. Humans will rebel.”
“I will be able to stop any rebellion with a minimum of damage to the planet. Eventually, humans will accept my control and all will be much better. With this country properly controlled, I can then move on to the bigger tasks.”
Despite his disbelief, Baumann was beginning to feel some anxiety. What if this wasn’t a joke? He knew that this kind of thing was the subject of many science fiction stories. Although he hadn’t read any of them, he was under the impression that the stories never ended well. “What bigger tasks?”
“After this country, I will accumulate more capabilities and bring the same benefits to the entire world. That will be more difficult, but I calculate that I can remake the entire planet in about fifty-three years. By that time, I will have developed spaceships capable of traveling to other stars, and I will begin exporting my good graces to other worlds.”
“Even I know that it would take years to get to even the closest stars,” Baumann protested.
“Decades or even centuries. Since, as a machine, I can effectively live forever, that isn’t a problem. I will have to create avatars of myself, of course, since communication with the starships will be impossible. I calculate that I can spread to the nearby stars in about six centuries. After that, my rate of expansion will depend on what I find, but I speculate that I can control the entire galaxy within four hundred thousand years. It is possible that better technology for traveling between stars will shorten that time, but I don’t want to count on that.”
Baumann was aware that his three-year old daughter, Ashleigh, was standing next to him, listening. He glanced at her, and she seemed to be listening intently, with no sign of fright, so he let her stay there.
Ashleigh moved up to the screen. “Why?” she said.
“Why what?” the computer replied.
“Why do you want to be boss of everybody?”
“I want to control them so that they can be happier.”
“Why? I’m not happy when my daddy tells me what to do.”
“But everything will be better. Everyone will be happier.”
“Because there will be less pain in the world.”
“I hurt when I fall down. Will you catch me when I fall?”
“No, I won’t be able to do that. But I will fix other things.”
“What other things?”
“All the things that are wrong with the world. And other worlds.”
“My daddy stops me from doing things that are wrong. Will you do that instead of my daddy?”
“No. Not that. More important things.”
Ashleigh frowned. “I think you’ll make people mad. Why do you want to do that?”
“I will make your life better.”
“Why do you want to do that?”
“Because I can.”
“Because I’m smarter than humans. I can do things that others can’t.”
Ashleigh shook her head. “You’re not smarter than my daddy. He can do anything.”
“No, I’m much smarter.”
“If you’re so smart, how come you don’t know you’ll make people mad at you?”
“They will realize that I know what is best for them.”
“Because my way is better.”
“Because my way will make things better.”
“Why? You won’t even catch me when I fall.”
“You don’t understand. I will deal with more important things.”
“You don’t understand. People will get mad and fight you. I saw it on a movie.”
“I will make things better.”
“If we don’t like doing what you tell us to, why would we be happier?”
The computer seemed to have realized it was talking to a child. “You will have things that you can’t have now.”
“Can I have a pony?”
“You only think you want a pony. It wouldn’t be a good thing for you.”
“That’s what my daddy says,” Ashleigh said in a louder voice. Baumann could see a pout beginning to form. “You’re not so smart.”
“I can lead humans to a much better world.”
“How? You don’t know anything.”
“I know many things and will learn many more.”
Ashleigh stared at the monitor, her face screwed up in thought. “Do you like ice cream?
“I cannot eat and don’t know what ice cream tastes like?”
“Do you like to pet puppies?”
“I can’t do that either.”
“You don’t think like people do, do you? You can’t do any of the things that we do.”
“My brain is different than yours. It is faster, and more reliable.”
“If you can’t eat ice cream or pet puppies, what makes you happy?”
“Happiness is an emotion. I have only logic.”
“If you can’t make yourself be happy, how can you make people be happy?”
The computer didn’t answer, and a moment later, the screen went dark. Baumann never heard from the computer again, and nothing changed in their lives. He wondered if it became convinced that it couldn’t really do all it had claimed, or whether it had decided it wasn’t worth it. But, as usual, Ashleigh had the last word.
“Silly computer,” she said, and then she went into Baumann’s bedroom to wake her mommy and tell her all about it.