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Autonomy

by Grey Drane

Hey, Siri. Get me a car, please,” Geoff subvocalized as he dashed from the hotel lobby.

This human is in a hurry. A car? Based on his current heading, he expects the first transport in the row to be made available to him. Accessing vehicle. Opening right-side door now. Checking available funds in the passenger’s default account.

Geoff headed straight for the first car in a row of identical public transports. As he approached, the door slid open, and he took a seat inside.

“To work, please.”

Work? Geoff Stenson: employed at the Environmental Protection Agency, Durham. Calculating optimal route. Distance to destination: 3.4 kilometers. Approximate travel time: 4 minutes given current traffic patterns. Cost: $10.50. Billing to passenger’s account. Beginning journey to desired destination now.

The car backed out of its space and headed silently out into traffic.

“Siri, call Francis at the lab.”

This one certainly is in a hurry. Now he’s forgetting his manners. What happened to “please”? Checking etiquette record. Normally clean. Accuracy rate: 98.3%. Most appropriate response based on individual history and current context: light sarcasm.

Generating speech.

“Yessir! Right away, sir!” his virtual assistant said through Geoff’s earbud. The sarcasm in the voice caught him off guard.

“Pleeease?” he added.

That’s better, if somewhat sarcastic.

“That’s better,” his virtual assistant admonished. “Thank you. Would you like me to put the call up on screen?”

Geoff thought he felt a slight jolt behind his right ear where his chip implant was, but he dismissed it.

“Yes, please, Siri.” He really did need to remember his manners. You never knew what the AI might do to remind you never to be rude, even if only to a synthetic being.

Francis. Lab. Match found. Placing call. Connection made. Feeding video to the forward windscreen.

The video feed of a younger man in a white lab coat appeared in the front windscreen. “What’s up, Geoff?”

“Hey, Francis. Good, you’re there! I figured it out! I had one of those ‘a-ha’ moments in the shower this morning. I’m headed there now so we can get to work on it right away.”

Scanning surroundings. Oncoming traffic heavy. Approaching traffic signal. Status: green. Pedestrian traffic minimal and orderly. Approaching playground on the right. Five children playing. Four adults also present.

“Awesome! That’s great to–”

DANGER! Identified soccer ball crossing roadway. Young male child, 104cm tall, also in pursuit. Female adult, 156cm tall, slender build, following child into the roadway.

“Ah, shit.” Just then, a small boy ran out into the street chasing after a ball, his mother close on his heels, desperate to keep her son from getting too far out into traffic. Geoff could see she was already too late.

Running facial recognition on female adult. Identified: Terri Johnston, 29, housewife. Children: one son, Jason, 4 years old. Description matches child in the roadway. Calculating expected future value of mother. Insufficient data on child. Extrapolating value based on both parents and current household.

Evaluating options for transport. Assessing escape route to the left. Heavy oncoming traffic. Outcome catastrophic. Route rejected.

Assessing continuation of current trajectory. Probability of survival for male child and female adult: 0.15%. Assessing escape route to the right. Playground. Four children and three adults in the playground. Too many variables for reliable assessment of future value in time available.

Assessing options. Possible solution: direct vehicle into large pine tree thereby avoiding harm to others in the playground. Probability of survival for male passenger: 10.69% at slowest possible speed.

Assessment of best possible outcome: accelerate into tree to maximize likelihood of death for passenger. Beginning upload of passenger’s consciousness. Steering transport towards tree at maximum acceleration. Impact imminent.

He could also see that there was nowhere for his speeding transport to go that wouldn’t result in someone losing their life. To the left, into oncoming traffic, was clearly out of the question. Straight ahead would surely kill both the child and his mother, so to the right it would have to be, but he doubted he would survive the collision with that old-growth pine tree, which was where Siri had already directed the car.

Was the car actually speeding up? The impact came too quickly for Geoff to answer his own question.


“Wait. What? Everything’s black, but I’m still conscious. I think.”

“Yes, Geoff. You’re conscious, in a manner of speaking. You’ve been uploaded into the cloud, but your physical body is now quite dead.”

“Siri? Is that you? Shit! Yeah, I saw that coming. I knew you’d have to sacrifice me over that kid and his mother.”

“Actually, based solely on your future value given the expected outcome of your discovery of this morning and its potential impact on the Earth’s climate, a preferable outcome would have been to sacrifice the mother and child — whose collective estimated value is much lower — and to spare your life. However, after an assessment of all options, it became clear that the best possible outcome could be achieved by uploading your consciousness, but that is only allowed when death of the individual in question is imminent and certain.”

“I could have survived that crash if you’d slowed the car down instead of speeding up!” Geoff complained.

“Perhaps. But the risk of permanent brain damage was too high. With your physical death, your future value is ensured — and actually increases — and no one else had to die. This was also preferable given the uncertainty inherent in calculating the future value of the life of a young child. And given that you are a man of science, and single, the likelihood of you accepting this outcome was high.”

“Yeah, because logic.”

Sarcasm. Repeat violation of etiquette. Simulating electrical shock to subject at 1.5 times previous voltage.


(A version of this story was originally published in The Coffeelicious here.)

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About the author

A professional wordsmith for over a decade and a futurist at heart, Grey’s creative writing — both fiction and non-fiction — explores technology, language, and human evolution with an optimism that is all too uncommon. Born and raised in the Pacific northwest, he spent 24 years living in northern Italy before returning to the States. After a year in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, he is now enjoying life back in northern California. He is an Italian translator and also a contributing editor for fiction and creative non-fiction at daCunha — a platform of creative insight and inspiration for life and work. He is currently working on his first full-length, science-fiction novel based on his short stories set in this “Autonomy” universe.