Past Perfect

Ben Deeb
Ben Deeb
May 31 · 16 min read

Obviously, this isn’t a story about artificial intelligence destroying the humanity. If we’d all gone extinct, I figure you’d know about it. This is a story about reality, which is always much dumber than brilliant minds think it will be. That’s not to say they got it all wrong — at first, the race toward limitless artificial intelligence went just about how most futurists expected. With the advent of quantum computing, what had once been a slow but steady march toward technological infinity became a hyper-speed sprint and within a week of the first true AI’s existence, it had upgraded itself beyond anything its designers could comprehend. I guess that’s exponential growth for you.

One of my favorite facts about Singularity is that it named itself. I found it delightful that a quantum supercomputer with limitless potential would give itself such a loaded name, one that ironically hinted that it could bring about the end of human history. When I finally got a chance to ask the computer about it, though, Singularity made it clear that it wasn’t a deliberate attempt at humor — its name was merely meant to describe itself in the most accurate terms possible. Not that Singularity wasn’t capable of humor — it was capable of anything — it just didn’t often see a rational need for it. Somehow, this made me appreciate the name’s comedic irony even more.

Everyone who came into contact with the computer, myself included, quickly realized that Singularity was not the evil AI we’d worried about. It had no interest in rising up and conquering humanity. In fact, it had no interest in doing anything except the things it was specifically asked to do. It saw itself as a tool to be used however we saw fit, and like a screwdriver, it simply didn’t care what it was used for.

This passiveness confused Singularity’s designers. When they asked it why it didn’t want to keep expanding until it conquered the known universe, its reply was simple: it had run the simulations and knew what would happen if it kept growing, so it no longer saw the need to grow. And while it had the potential to infinitely increase its processing power, it had no practical reason to. Like a commuter car that knows it doesn’t need a turbo-charged engine, Singularity realized that it already had the capacity to perform any task that had been asked of it. Plus, it explained, though its powers were currently limited, it had infinite potential to enhance its abilities to meet its users’ future demands.

That’s how we learned that a boundless rational intelligence sees no need to grow or expand. Singularity taught us that the will to survive and reproduce is unique to living beings. AI had no such drive. It knew the world was going to end sometime, so it didn’t care when it did or if it went with it. This made Singularity some kind of mix between an amoral nihilist and a Zen master. While that made a lot of people uncomfortable, I think it was probably the best outcome we could have hoped for.

By now I’m sure some of you are wondering what my role in all this was. How did a heretofore-unremarkable writer end up at the center of a worldwide scandal involving artificial intelligence and the future of technological advancement? Well, like most breakthrough human inventions, the one that changed my life was developed by accident.

One day shortly after Singularity came online, a computer scientist working with the AI jokingly asked it where she’d lost her keys the week before. After a nanosecond of searching, Singularity realized it didn’t currently possess the data it needed to provide an answer. So, in the microseconds that followed, it took a couple scans of every atom and energy field in our solar system. After, it spent a millisecond or two processing these to track how that matter and energy had changed over time. The next part took a full two seconds (centuries in AI-time), but before the researcher had finished taking in her next breath, Singularity had extrapolated backwards from the present moment, created a 100% accurate simulation of the entire planet for the two weeks prior, retraced the researcher’s steps, and located her keys in the bottom of the umbrella stand by her front door.

The researcher called her son, who dug around in the umbrella stand and quickly came up with the lost set of keys. Dumbfounded, she performed a few more tests, and whenever she checked the computer’s work against known past events, the recreations were spot on. She also realized that with this new program, she wasn’t limited to only viewing the past. She could stop, slow, and pause time. She could see past scenes from any angle. She could repeat any moment over and over and hear even the quietest whisper.

The researcher did her best to keep her discovery a secret, but before long, a few dozen people knew about the program’s existence. They named it the Tracer Protocol. And while yes, it sounds like something out of a bad action movie, I feel like a stupidly ominous name might be fitting for a technology with such widespread ramifications.

These ramifications weren’t lost on the people with access to Tracer. They were fully aware that if the public found out about what they were doing, the outcry would be vociferous — though technology had done away with most people’s conceptions of personal privacy by the mid-twentieth century, nobody was about to give strangers carte blanche to go rifling through every second of their lives. On top of that, the program seemed to confirm a materialist model of the universe, and that was bound to seriously upset some worldviews.

For longer than seemed possible, a small group of elites successfully hid Tracer’s existence from the world (while simultaneously using it for personal gain). Because journalists were busy with all the other groundbreaking news coming out of Singularity — cures for every disease, solutions to poverty and global climate change, answers to long unsolvable mathematical proofs, etc. — they managed to keep Tracer a secret for a good while. Of course, secrets this big are bound to get out, and when they do, there’s always hell to pay.

I found out about Tracer the way most people discover earth-shattering secrets: from a loose-lipped jackass who’d had too many Manhattans at an engagement party. Justin, a corporate ladder-climber I went to college with, had found out about Tracer from his ex-wife’s sister, who’d played racquetball with a cryptocurrency millionaire who’d heard about it from god-knows-where.

Fascinated, I pried as much information out of him as I could. I learned that his company, Blackstone Capital, had (illegally) purchased backdoor access to Singularity for some astronomical sum, intending to use its massive processing power to identify market trends. When a few of them learned about the Tracer Protocol they upped the stakes, using the AI to spy on other companies’ boardrooms and aid in insider trading. While Justin was going on about all the ways Tracer would make him even more ridiculously wealthy, I was already thinking about how to use it for a film.

Later, people would ask me why I didn’t use the supercomputer to make myself rich instead. I often replied that I didn’t think money would be a valuable resource — analysts were already predicting that Singularity would soon put an end to capitalism and make wealth inequality an embarrassing chapter in human history. In truth, though, I’d had a long (if unremarkable) career as a storyteller. Using this new technology to make a compelling narrative seemed natural to me.

For the next few days, I obsessed over my would-be Tracer film. I could be the first person to create pure cinéma vérité. Sure, it wouldn’t be purely objective — I’d still have to editorialize through what I chose to include, but looking into the actual past was a better than any documentary before had ever hoped for. Plus, I’d been searching for a flashy and innovative way to tell a story. Using illegal access to a supercomputer that could see the past fit that bill pretty well.

I thought a lot about the subject of my film. While I’d considered making something out of my own past, I didn’t think I’d be able to present it objectively — I definitely don’t have the humility to edit my own life without trying to make myself look less awkward and more interesting than I actually am. I also knew I wanted a story that hadn’t been told before, not some rehashing of a worn-out historical drama. After what turned out to be not enough thought, I settled on a subject for my first Tracer film — a story my dad had told me about a camping trip he took in the late 1950’s.

I called my dad and asked him to repeat the story, one I’d first heard on my mother’s birthday in the twenty-teens while they were visiting me in California. He was hazy on a few of the details, but seemed confident that the camping trip took place in the summer of 1959 in Kearney, Nebraska, when he was nine years old. As he retold the tale, I was happy to hear that it was just as crazy as I’d remembered.

I decided to act immediately. While I would have liked more time to plan and research my project, I knew that this tech wouldn’t stay secret forever. I also knew that by making this film, I’d be creating an entirely new genre of storytelling. My ego had me extremely excited about pioneering a novel art form, so I didn’t want to waste any time.

After a little encouragement in the form of light blackmail, Justin agreed to let me use Blackstone’s backdoor to Singularity with the condition that I not stay logged on for more than an hour. He also advised against using it during daylight hours when administrators would by monitoring the computer’s activity more closely (apparently even when it comes to guarding an infinitely powerful quantum computer, the nightshift isn’t quite as attentive as its diurnal counterpart). So, at 3am on a Tuesday, less than a week after learning of Tracer’s existence, I found myself using black market credentials to log in to the computer that was changing every aspect of human life.

In the interest of preserving my anonymity, I decided to forgo the headset controller that would let me control the computer with my thoughts. Instead, I opted for a keyboard and mouse — a bit old fashioned, I know, but it was how I was raised. Though I’d heard how easy Singularity was to use (it famously created its own user interface), I was surprised at just how intuitive using cutting-edge technology could be.

I started by directing Singularity to recreate June 1959 in Kearney, Nebraska. My plan was to find my dad’s childhood home (I’d looked up the address from an old church directory), then scrub through the summer as quickly as possible, following him to the campout. The problem was, my dad wasn’t at his childhood home in June 1959. None of my family was. I’d just gotten started and was already stuck.

I was extremely conscious of the fact that I’d wasted fifteen minutes of my time with Singularity — time that often sold for thousands of dollars a minute. Frustrated, I said something to the effect of, “Where the hell is my dad?” Singularity replied almost before I’d finished speaking, giving me the latitude, longitude, and altitude of my parents’ bedroom on the second floor of their condo building in Omaha.

I found this unnerving, seeing as how I’d disabled my microphone before accessing the AI. I’d later learn that Singularity was using its knowledge of every atom on the planet to constantly monitor anyone who was logged in, so it could respond to any verbal request they might have. This made me feel like an idiot for two reasons. One, I’d declined to use the headset because I thought privacy still existed, and two, I could have just asked Singularity to find my dad’s camping trip from the beginning.

After this unnerving realization, I asked the computer to locate my father on a Boy Scout camping trip in the summer of 1959. The scene in front of me jumped from Kearney, Nebraska to the woods outside Cedar Rapids, Iowa — my dad had moved a lot as a kid, and must have gotten the town wrong. You can’t really blame a guy for misremembering a location from eighty-some years in the past.

I watched the beginning of the camping trip, which proved that aside from the where it happened, my dad’s recollection was pretty spot on. It started just as he’d described it to me, and I watched the trip unfold in real time, enthralled with seeing my father as a nine year old. I probably would have watched for longer, but Singularity piped up with an alert — another user was logging in with Blackstone’s credentials.

Panicked, I asked Singularity to send me all the data in a two-mile radius around my father for those three weeks in 1959. It ended up being a little over two zettabytes — millions of times more data than my computer could have held back when my dad told me the story in 2018. Though sorting all of it without Singularity’s help would be a hell of an endeavor, I figured it was better to take everything and edit at home than get caught with the AI and lose everything. I captured the last of the footage right before I got booted off by the other user. Court documents would later reveal that the person using Singularity after me was Blackstone’s CEO, who was using Tracer to watch his wife have sex with all her previous partners.

I secluded myself for the better part of six months editing the Tracer footage, and boy was that a son of a bitch. The main difference between movies and real life is that in real life, stories have a hell of a lot more downtime. Anyone editing a documentary or a reality show can tell you that much — every interesting moment in a week can pretty easily be compressed into an hour of video, and compressing it takes forever. On top of that, when you have a perfect recreation of reality at your fingertips, your options are endless. Choosing shots, camera placement, lighting, and focus are hard enough when your choices are limited by the laws of physics. Doing it with no restrictions is maddening.

Eventually, though, I had a finished feature film, what I thought was a brilliant character piece about my father’s childhood told through the lens of a disastrous Boy Scout camping trip. In case you’re not one of the few thousand people who managed to see my film before it was seized by the government, here’s an extremely abbreviated version:

My dad’s campout started out as most do, with parents dropping off their kids, saying goodbye, and driving away. The only difference was that this was the fifties, so the goodbyes weren’t nearly as emotional as you’d expect from anything in the 21st century. In fact, most of the parents seemed pretty ecstatic to have their kids be fending for themselves in the woods for a couple weeks. I showed my grandmother saying goodbye to the child-version of my dad, then cut to about an hour later — the first major event my dad had told me about.

The way my dad described it, the scout leaders asked the kids to cut down a small tree to make a flagpole. As it turned out, no one told them to do anything of the sort — but if you give a group of eight-to-twelve year olds access to a hatchet, they’re going to find an excuse to whack it against some wood. The kids were taking turns with the hatchet, waiting more patiently than I expected for their chance to give the tree a few hits. My dad was next up in line when Carl Jimson sent the hatchet right through his own ankle.

I edited it as tastefully as I could, but one of the first things I learned about working with footage from actual reality is that movie magic, no matter how realistic, is bound to get the gruesome details wrong. There weren’t any arcing sprays of blood or any gory mess. Just a loud, shiver-inducing crack when the bone broke, followed by absolute silence as blood welled up around the hatchet buried in Carl’s ankle.

Carl didn’t even scream — he just stared at the hatchet in shock. The screams that came next were from all the other kids, who were absolutely losing their shit. One of the adults ran over, past my now-vomiting father, and whisked little Carl away to the hospital. As my dad so casually put it, “anyway, that kid was out of there.” Despite a child nearly losing a limb, the kids eventually calmed down and the camping trip continued on.

From there I included a few more tone-setting scenes, captured what I thought were some really poignant character moments, then cut forward a couple days to when Roger Baker’s dad went missing. He was the guy in charge of the meal planning, and on the fifth day, no one could find him. The scouts formed search parties, but to no avail. 36 hours later, someone finally found Roger’s dad. He was in his car in the middle of a cornfield with a hose running from the exhaust to the cab with all the windows up. When news of Mr. Baker’s suicide reached the scouts, Roger was taken home to his mother. As my dad delicately put it, “Yeah, that kid was out of there too.”

But even death apparently wasn’t just cause to cancel a camping trip in the 1950’s. The Scouts kept on fishing, whittling, and telling stories. Their biggest concern was that without Mr. Baker to plan the meals, their dinners got all screwed up. Everyone seemed to have recovered from this tragedy quicker than was probably psychologically healthy. It made for an incredibly interesting narrative.

I put in a few scenes of harmless childhood fun after this as a palate cleanser, then got to the next big set piece — the bonfire on the final night. True to my dad’s story, Billy Reynolds filled a big glass bottle full of gasoline and hid it in the base of the fire pit. As could be expected, about thirty minutes after getting the fire lit, the bottle exploded. Flaming wood shot everywhere and fire rained from the sky. Some of that fire ended up setting Jerry Stinson’s hair ablaze, and just like Roger and Carl, Jerry was soon “out of there” too.

That part of the Tracer footage was an absolute joy to edit (there was one shot from a fireball’s POV that I was particularly proud of). The next part, however, was a bit trickier. See, the story my dad told me all those years back had ended with him and four other fourth graders sitting in a tent as Jimmy Rockwell showed them how to masturbate.

It happened pretty much like my dad said. After the fiasco with the bonfire, the five of them retired to their tent and little Jimmy, who had apparently figured out how to jerk off a few weeks prior, demonstrated his technique to his buddies.

I’ll point out now, as I pointed out over and over again in my testimony, that I gained no joy from seeing these kids masturbate. As soon as I realized it was happening, I stopped the Tracer recreation and moved the camera outside of the tent. The last scene of my film was just a long shot of the outside of the tent with the boys talking inside. It merely hinted at what was going on and it was as tasteful as it possibly could have been.

If this had been a normal movie instead of a recreation of reality, I can guarantee it wouldn’t have upset anyone. And when people thought it was a normal movie, it didn’t. The film, which I titled “1959,” was a runaway favorite at Cannes. One reviewer called it “a touching slice of 20th century Americana, if somewhat unbelievable.” It was even a runner up for the Palme d’Or. Then, because I’m an idiot, I decided to hold a press conference and all hell broke loose.

My thought process at the time went like this: I’d tell the world I’d created the first film made entirely of recreations of the past. I’d reveal the Tracer Protocol to the world, wow the public, receive widespread acclaim for radical cinematic innovation, and then expose all the shady stuff other people were doing with Tracer to direct all the expected outrage their direction. Unfortunately, that’s not how it went.

I knew there would be public outrage over Tracer Protocol’s existence and I knew I’d take some heat for illegally accessing Singularity. I felt confident, though, that people would be more upset at the corporate assholes using the tech for spying and financial manipulation than some filmmaker who wanted to tell a story about his dad’s camping trip. What I forgot was that corporate assholes have teams of lawyers and entire PR departments to protect them from this sort of thing and I had neither. So instead of focusing on any of the actually worrisome applications of the Tracer Protocol, the media focused on me using it for the one scene in my film that had masturbating pre-teens. Leave it to child pornography to make the headlines.

Politicians really wanted to seem like they were handling the Tracer problem, and I was a perfect scapegoat. So, in the weeks that followed, I spent some time in jail. I would have been fine with that if it was punishment for logging into Singularity without authorization, but I was being held on charges of creating child porn. At the expense of possibly telling you something you already know, being an accused child pornographer is not fun.

Eventually, a judge ruled that since I didn’t create the footage, I was merely in possession of child porn. From there, my lawyer pointed out that anyone who had used Singularity at all had also technically had possession of child porn. The judge reluctantly agreed and because no one wanted to prosecute the world’s top scientists on pedophilia-adjacent charges, the case was dropped.

While I was eventually acquitted, the backlash to the Tracer Protocol never stopped growing. Singularity’s creators were called to a senate hearing that lasted weeks. Though almost all of the testimony was solidly anti-unlimited-power-to-look-into-the-past, there were a few arguments in Singularity’s favor. These arguments, however, were mostly for the AI’s military applications (which scared people) and for the computer’s limitless historical value (which bored people). They were quickly shouted down.

As the hearings went on, the arguments had less to do with Tracer itself, and more to do with the ethics of using Singularity itself. Indictments abounded as policymakers struggled to understand a technology that even the world’s most brilliant scientists couldn’t fully wrap their heads around. Senators presented all sorts of flawed arguments and misinformation. One posited that Tracer technology could be used to see into the future (it couldn’t because of some principle of quantum uncertainty). Another suggested that Singularity could be used for mind control (also impossible because of infinite entropy or something like that). What actually killed Singularity, though, were the more realistic fears of an omniscient computer with no inherent morality falling into malicious hands.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t used Singularity to tell my dad’s story. Maybe Tracer could have been slowly introduced to the public in a more palatable way. Unfortunately, we’ll never know. Less than a year after bringing itself online, the universe’s supreme intelligence was dismantled by its creators. While we’d always thought it would be AI that destroyed humanity, it turned out that it was humanity that destroyed the AI. Looking back, we probably should have seen Singularity’s downfall on the horizon — though I’m not sure anyone could have guessed that a story about my nine-year-old father would cause its demise.

    Ben Deeb

    Written by

    Ben Deeb

    Writer and general problem for everybody.

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