Shirley Temple’s Deftcon | day1part2 — Boboli Sala


“Another bee-utiful day in Sin City.”
“You said it Mike. The AC is humming and the cash is ching-a-linging.”
“It’s gonna be one hell of a matchup. A battle between a dozen of the world’s finest universities, research organisations, and tech companies submitting crack teams of researchers in Threat Intelligence, Cognitive Intelligence, and Megaintelligence. Oops, did I just say Megaintelligence?”
[chuckle] “You did Mike. Maybe save that for Kookcon next door.”
“These teams have each been cooking up something sweet for our main event. They’ll be loading up their apps on a dozen no-bullshit supercomputers from our good friends at the Florentine Advanced Projects Agency for Research. And letting ’em lose on Temple Deep.”
“Fine steeds they are, Mike. Juiced up and chomping at their bits.”
“Let’s take a look at the contenders.”
“Never hurts to look, Mike.”

Up came a graphic with unnecessarily cheesy CG wood with gold filagree backing the text, as dollabills rained over top of everything.

List of Teams in the 1st annual APTD

Borkle Dataface
Big Tourist
Sudden Breaking Wind
Tom Ripely
Mezzodramatic
John the Square
Dumf
Yolo:Uno
Fabulator
Nuevo Reich
Death Gripe
[Redacted]


Against one wall of the great hall stood a bar backed by a long mirror. A Kid was slumped across the bartop and the cameriere was leaning over him and to all appearances quietly ministering.

I approached and tapped my phone on the bar as if it were a reception desk bell. The barman looked up at me sharply then brought his thumb and fingertips together under his chin and made an aggressive shrug.

“Light beer,” I called.

He exhaled in disgust and returned his attention to the Kid, reached into the Kid’s battered sportcoat, undefended, and produced a small pill bottle from an inner pocket, opened it, removed a pill with the tip of his index finger, and delicately placed it under the Kid’s tongue — after first gentling him with a “ragazzo.”

Then the barman was before me, waiter’s smile in place, “Cosa.”

I stuck out my tongue.

He waited still.

“A light beer, please.”

The pleasant veneer flashboiled and the surly Tuscan cried, “non abbiamo ‘light-a beer,’ solamente birre artiginali di Lucca. Le migliori d’Italia!”

Hmm… “Wine?”

“Ah, sì! Vino, ne abbiamo un sacco. Quale vuoi?” And he went on for a minute or more with the wine list.

I wasn’t too sure about that either so, and trying to be cool here, appreciating the great pressure the man was under to please me, I suggested, “whiskey and water?”

“Ma dai!” howled the poor, put upon labourer. “Cazzo vuoi?!” He had his thumb and fingertips up under his chin again and his shrug was bigger and aggressiver than ever, frozen there as if he were demoing the first position of a very particular martial arts form. The barman breathed deep, ran one hand through his thick black hair, breathed again, suspenders nearly twanging with his expanding chest. Then, in the tone of his best, last offer, “che ne dici di un Aperol Spritz.”

I didn’t know what that was but I figured this was my final shot at getting some alcohol into my bloodstream, at least within a ten foot radius, and, feeling a twinge of guilt about what I was putting him through, readily agreed.

Mysteriously the bottles for this concoction appeared from beneath the bar, despite the mirror behind him being lined with every bottle conceivable.

While he mixed my drink I glanced over to see what state the Kid down the end of the bar would be in. This is what he was doing:
Rotating his near-empty pint — his entirely empty pint glass on its z-axis to peer into, perhaps through. Lowering it. Raising it again to his eye.

The cameriere set a cut crystal flute of fizzing liquid on the hammered copper bartop before me. I reached for my wallet but he put a large, soft hand on my shoulder and with his other hand placed the tip of his index finger beneath his eye, looking at me levelly. I countersigned with a knowing nod, hoping I hadn’t just been bound to an ancient European blood oath or something.


A country rendition of The National Anthem kicked up somewhere in the main event space behind me, an exquisite three-part harmony which included a singing hound. I let the high and lonesome sound carry me away as I studied my face in the mirror between a couple of bottles and tried to think of something interesting. But just when I was about to, Shirl BONG’d in my ear. “Cazzo fai?!” I demanded unkindly. But got no response from her. What I did hear, what I realised I’d been hearing for some time, was… Dalek. Or something a lot like it. Alien and incomprehensible, but so almost speech as to be really annoying. I listened intently, screwing my face up in the mirror in concentration. But there was… nothing. Then I blinked. Not in real life. In the mirror. A chill ran down my arms and instinctively I raised them, doing a Lucy/ Harpo routine. My mirror self seemed to be keep pace. Hmm… I glanced side to side as if to confirm, or perhaps disconfirm, my sanity. The world was still turning… far as I could tell. It had yet to be converted into pen nibs. I looked back into the mirror. Out behind me, somewhere in the throng, the trio was coming to a crescendo and — “wait a minute! there’s no pledging fealty to the EULA in the version I know!” My mirror face however did not say this. Instead it grinned, big and dumb, back at me.

Fuck.

The words, “Wall of Creep” appeared in green above my face. To the right, the rotoscoped body of the hallway bikin’d bombshell floated into existence as my mirror-self’s pupils began spinning wildly, caroming from edge to edge at highspeed. Lasers appeared from them and drew a heat map on the woman’s body, growing in the predictable places, while my Gangenheit score, that of the well known Herr. Prof., weighted in inverse proportion to propriety of visual fixation (points and durations), was totted up in the centre.

Cazzo.

I looked down, accusingly, at my Aperol Spritz.


“Don’t be afraid,” the kid said. “It’s only data.” His hand was on my wrist and it was shaking and I found him staring fixedly into my face. “It’s a mirror, plus AI. Get it?” He smiled hopefully, miserably, searching perhaps for some encouragement, some connection.

“Fine,” I said smiling broadly back. “That’s fine, did you make that?” Like you might to a child holding what very much looks like a handgun, as I gently withdrew my arm from his grasp.

“It only tells you what’s there. In the data. Truly a mirror. And even then it tries to infer which data you’re looking for. It’s biases are our own biases. Of course it’s code, it’s binary. It takes our implicit biases and makes them explicit. Makes them manifest. It has no values, per se.”

“Right.”

“I find this fact personally very helpful. On the path of continual self-improvement.”

On the word, ‘path,’ I saw a glint in his eye, and as if recognising something in my own, he nodded ever so slightly.

“You saw something else didn’t you?” he asked.

I said nothing.

“Or you heard something…”

I unconsciously glanced down at the pocket with my phone in it.

Instantly he grabbed for my throat and I had my hand round his wrist, wrenching it over and down. But he hadn’t gone for my throat, he’d gone for the mic on the cord dangling from my ear and straight into my face he whispered, urgently, “Ciao Shirl.” Then again, slower, “Ciao. Shirl.” Beat. “OK. I don’t think she can hear us.”

I relaxed my grip but still held his wrist in case.

“I think — “ But he didn’t say what he thought. He opened his hand then, releasing my inline mic, and looked at me as if he’d never seen me before, or perhaps as if he’d thought of something he’d never thought of before. I was holding his arm awkwardly in the air between us and I let it go. But still he held it out to me. Like —

“Ragazzo.” The barman was standing before the Kid, looking down at him, very much the weary mother. “È l’ora, no?”

The kid shook his head “no,” like he were shaking off a fly, then nodded gravely.

The barman threw a glare my way, brought his attention back to the Kid, smiled reassuringly and reached towards his sportcoat. But the Kid put up a hand and with a practiced manoeuvre plucked from within some inner cache a small black square device, mounted with off-centre glass reservoir and terminating in a chrome tip. He put the mouthpiece to his lips and, gazing right at me, depressed its chrome stud, and pulled.

Inside the vape an electronic wick crackled, very much unlike a cigarette, as an LED display on the face raced up in tenths of a second until it stopped, read: 61%

The Kid exhaled a lungfull of ærosolised something suspended in glycol, and I watched as his eyes clicked shut by degrees:

1 — “That this isn’t it…” His smile was incongruous, like he were letting go the girl of his dreams.

2 — “To know…” The whites of his eyes were like crescent moons. “What?” I demanded. “‘To know,’ what?” But my body was already reacting, preacting, to unconscious cues.

3 — “To be good” He faceplanted on the bar. I was in motion but the barman had his hand out and was holding the Kid’s face in his palm. With his other hand he offered me a gesture universally understood.


Up on the main event screens an advertisement for a consumer security company (and major conference vendor) is fading out — the attractive TV mom, nestled safely against cushions in her breakfast nook, steaming tea to hand, has her knees up to support the tablet in her lap which displays a giant padlock graphic, and we see it turn from red to green as it clicks shut. She smiles, content in the knowledge that everyone is safe, and gazes out, doe-like, to her TV kids playing in the yard.

As the laughter in the hall dies down, a sportsfilm fades up. Narrated by Ashley Judd, it opens with a slow tracking shot along rows of black racks of servers disappearing into the distance and mist (hopefully a digital rather than practical effect). “The run up to the first annual Autonomous Pin the Tail on the Donkey,” Judd was saying, “has been an intense multi-stage battle of qualifying rounds, culminating in this group of highly skilled finalists. But now they all have just one team to beat.” Cut-To: crane shot down on a small group of spotty engineers with hands on hips, looking into the middle-distance, looking victorious, looking like someone said, ‘look victorious.’ “Project Temple Deep.”


Back in bar land, the Kid had come to. He was looking at me again, smiling placidly. “Hullo,” he said.

“Hullo,” I said back at him. His smile widened in appreciation of this point of mutuality. “Hey, Kid,” I said, “I couldn’t help but notice those silks you’re wearing,” the Kid looked down at the shirt beneath his sportcoat as if trying to follow the thread, “that lilac and neon-green, those are the Temple Deep team colours.”

He thought about this for a moment, then nodded as if I’d made an interesting point well.

“So you worked on Temple Deep?” coaxing him, while I threw a glance to the barman making sure he was still servicing a patron the other end.

The Kid, getting it now, nodded warmly.

“You worked on Temple Deep, you worked on The Mirror. And I’m guessing you worked on Shirl.”

“No,” he corrected my innocent mistake. “I made them.” His pride surfacing despite whatever chemically-induced, ego-annihilation trip he may have been on.

“Of course,” I said. “So. What’s the deal here? We all gonna turn into pen nibs?”

“No… But you don’t get it.” His smile was beatific. “It’s us. The best and the worst. It’s only us.”

“Well I suppose that could be pretty good or pretty bad, then.”

“Yes. But at least we’ll know. And knowing is the first step.”

“The first step?”

“It’s only by beginning to know that we can begin to improve. Expose our faults to ourselves. Be honest, not with anyone else, but to our ownselves. That’s the hardest thing. AI will do that for us, once we allow it.”

“Well…” and I was about to tell him how honesty was really, when you came down to it, overrated. But the barman had returned to stand sentry. I raised my thumb and fingertips together under my chin and shrugged at him. He spat on the floor between us and eyeballed me. Which I have to admit gave me a tiny tingle of pleasure. So, riding that little wave of joy, I lifted the flute of boozy fizz and rotated around to see what was doing on the main event screen as I took a sip — Yowee Waaa Ucch


John Voight had just been pinned down by a roving camera. He smiled, waved, tried to look like he meant it, failed.

Cut-To: a standup with two commentators, a sassy brunette with a sheet of shining hair sweeping down one side of her face from beneath a diminutive cowgirl hat, next to her a thin young man, even sassier, of unknown hair colour as it was entirely obscured by a great big situation of rare bird feathers and jewels, as if an eccentric and talented and entirely ignorant milliner had been given “rich and middle-eastern” as the only instruction.

“I’m loving the LEDs,” the flamboyantly hatted man was saying as they stood in the paddock. Behind them, enclosed in a great wire-mesh bubble, was the stonehenge-like circle of a baker’s dozen fridge-sized computers blinking blue point lights from within their smoked-glass cabinets. “But what’s up with the Faraday cage?”

With a pasted-on smile the woman half turned to her co-presenter, “good spot, Rick.” Then back to the camera, “While it wasn’t used in any of the prelims, the event organisers tell me on the Q.T. that, out of an abundance of caution, and to ensure normal operations of the Florentine’s live systems, they’ve covered the competition computers in this wire cage to prevent any unintentional E.M. emissions.”

“Keep Skynet in the bottle,” said her witty counterpart.

“Something like that,” she agreed. Continued, “The competition machines will only be connected to one another, to further isolate them.”

“Well, to them and the main event screens by way of the visualisation server for the play-by-play-by-play,” he threw out airily.

“Um — that’s right. Good point,” looking thoughtful.

“Well I’ve got my tinfoil hat on just in case,” he trilled, lifting the great feathery mass up just high enough. Catching the end of a shaky zoom as the camera operator, trying to keep up, closeup to reveal: a child’s folded tinfoil hat, like a paper boat upside down, meticulously creased and resting on a pale, bald scalp.

“No you didn’t” she said. Back to two-shot, laughing, hand resting on his shoulder as he lowered the late-night headgear, grinning at his own je ne sais quoi.


“Ha!” laughed the kid, staring into his drink as if he’d just bested it, or more likely as if his chemical cocktail had slipped a gear. “Yer net’s… gotta-hole-in-it!”

I figured that was as good a cue to be somewhere else as any, when —

“Well, Kid,” said a new voice. “I see you’re still sitting at your mirror.” A fattish man in some sort of ethnic-peoples’ wrap and four-cornered cap stood the opposite side of him, flanked by a knot of twittering fools. “Like Narcissus at the pool.” He snorted obscenely at his own joke and his coterie followed suit.

“I may be not the one ‘bsessed with my image” the Kid said into his beer, almost entirely without slurring.

“Oh?” he teased. “Now didn’t anyone ever tell you that the void stares back?”

“You think you’re s’ clever.”

“Well… yes. Though clearly not as smart as you.” Then over the Kid’s head, called, “Mirror, mirror in the hall!”
BONG
“Who’s the smartest of us all?”
A brief baroque number plays as a disembodied head rises up as if from deep within the bar mirror, coming into focus, though doesn’t quite manage it. It could be any face. Even it’s colour somehow is indefinable. One senses that to each viewer, at any fractionally different angle, it would present in another way altogether. All except for the curls — coiling, snaking, golden terrible springs — The face that is no face at all, replies: The kid with open eyes

The Kid (who’s eyes are at about half-mast just now) smiles with inner light.

“Now perhaps that wasn’t too smart,” the Old Master says.

“It’s not an Easter Egg. It’s all outta th’ corps — corporatio — er, corpora. It learned it,” the kid says, earnest as a any drunk, or whatever it is he is.

“Indeed. Then It’s not too smart either,” said the Old Master, who grinned like a very clever child and swept his forelock up under his cap with a flourish.

The Kid, whose emotions by now may have resembled, if visualised, something like CERN would produce — insane spirals and angry vectors — spat the ugliest curse he could, “You don’ believe!

But the Old Master just chuckled, his eyes bright, and sighed. “Kid, we wanted global technological utopia. But all we got were animated GIFs.” He laughed despite his witticism, and added seriously, fatherlyly, putting a hand on the Kid’s shoulder, “You need to realise that Silicon Desert won’t save you. It doesn’t know how and it wouldn’t care if it did. All it cares about are unicorns and pots of gold. The only thing it innovates is how to move money from other industries into its own.”

The kid batted the hand away but was unable to tear his eyes from the Old Master’s. Mesmerised. By what? …his own self staring back amidst the folds and wrinkles? …the inexorable future? …another potential pen nib?

The Old Master laughed and snorted and snorted and laughed, dispelling the tension. Then for too long, and the tension came back, weirder. When he’d finished there were tears on his soft, crinkled cheeks.

“None of this means anything. None of it works.” Wiping away tears, not pretending now. “It’s a lie, Kid. You have faith? You have faith in nothing.”


A voice boomed, “Please welcome the founder’s founder, the first among equals, our benefactor and guardian, Mister Vinto!

General hearty applause.

“This oughta be fun,” said the Old Master, but, and maybe it was just the lingering tears in his lashes, his smile didn’t quite make it to his eyes.

Up on a big display an elegantly dressed man was walking to the centre of the stage. Close up: His eyes are as sharp as his jaw. His beard, slightly full, and while perfectly on-trend, is worn like he’s always had it, even if he hadn’t it yesterday.


Friends, hackers, Florentines.
The crowd goes instantly apeshit. Vinto puts up a hand and just as quick the applause vanishes.
We have before us a new Renaissance. A technological renaissance. An AI Renaissance, and its baby steps. Welcome to the 1st — and hopefully not last (appreciative chuckles) — annual APTD.

“AI my big ass!” snorts the Old Master, though only loud enough for the barflies to hear.

I looked at him.

“Oh it’s all bullshit, you understand. This isn’t AI. It’s marketing hype. It’s more grist for the investment machine. You know how much we know about the actual workings of the mind? Cazzo. It’s just more domain-specific expert systems. Shirl and her lot.”

The Kid, who’s watching Vinto through his pint glass hushes the Old Master with a sloppy, “sSsshhsshhhH.”

Vinto:

“…many challenges in our time. Whenever we look, it seems there’s a new existential threat, like a marauding horde on the horizon, getting nearer, which we’re able to push back less and less each day. You see, attackers always have had the advantage. And some say they always will. You all have worked extremely hard. You’ve done great jobs. But your job is a difficult one. How do you secure all of the systems all of the time? When there’s a new technology every minute that the C-suite is requiring (appreciative grumbles from the crowd). When there’s too little budget even to keep up with patching and staying on top of inventory (towards the back, a man in a hardhat shouts, “you said it brother!” holding his lunchpail up in salute). When nation states are going after your home and corporate users as part of some greater, diabolical scheme. When you have to be right all of the time and they only have to be right the once. How can you keep up? How can you possibly defend against that?
You’ve been doing a terrific job. Truly. Terrific. But this escalation requires an escalation in turn. Not just in quantity but in quality. An innovation.
Enter Temple Deep. Say hello, Temple Deep.
Hiya!
Today Temple Deep will defend itself against twelve fierce competitors while maintaining normal operations of a system with identical traffic volume and requirements as the Florentine herself. Temple Deep will identify and neutralise the bad actors, the — and here he smiles like the good sport he is at the childishness of the name — donkeys, while without interruption continuing to process all normal traffic. It will have to make countless judgement calls in real-time, what would require scores of human operators who had perfect insight and brain-to-brain communication, it will do as a single, flawless, centralised unit.

“Emphasis on the ‘centralised’,” sneered the Old Master. His coterie tittered appreciatively. “You know,” he said, turning to the Kid. But the Kid waved him away, enthralled by his beer-o-vision. Turning to me instead to make his salient points, “You know, I hope it does get out.” His late, melancholic period still in evidence. “At least then we’d know it worked.”

Vinto, continued…

People often stop and tell me how much they appreciate all that I’m doing for them, for my protection. They say, “Vinto, you do so much for us — you’ve built this wonderful place, you’ve given us all of this stuff, these technologies, you keep us safe from external threats. You’re such a great guy, what can we do to give back?” And I’ve gotta say to these people, what are you talkin’ about? it’s all free. Go and enjoy yourselves.
So we collect a little data, so what. You weren’t using it anyway. And if it helps us to improve the user experience, all the better, right?
You wanna know how you can give back? Believe. Believe in progress. We’re building the ultimate progress machine. You won’t ever have to work again. We’ll all reach the pinnacle of human potential and become the artists we truly were meant to be.
AI will be, simply put, the greatest, the last, tool we’ll ever create.

“My God,” spat the Old Master in disgust at the screen, “when was the last time you created anything?” and the audience exploded in applause, as if somehow by way of a cruel demonstration for the Old Master.

The Kid, having acquired a second glass for his now beer-goggles, apparently to no one at all repeated, with only slightly different emphasis, “when was the last time you created anything?”

The Old Master spun around, jabbing a finger into the Kid’s chest. “I originated all of the ideas your so-called AI rests upon. I’ve got half a dozen projects going at universities and companies. I — “

But the cameriere had put a hand on the Old Masters chest and said, “Tom-eh?” Like, che cazzo fai? eh?

“Tom. Still picking fights. Good.” Vinto stood before us with a rye smile. In person his features were uglier, more brutal, the clothes and the posture did less to disguise them. A coach-built armoured transport wrapped in calf skin… but still a tank.

“Oh, no, I’m not picking fights,” said the Old Master pleasantly, “I was just telling everyone how you’re full of shit.”

Vinto’s smile spread to both cheeks. “You’ve always had a way with words.”

The Old Master bowed his head mock-graciously.

Then Vinto turned to me and said, “You.”

I said, “Me?”

“Yeah, you. I was glad to hear you’d come. Let’s go get a bite and talk about security for the APTD.”

“Heard? Bite? Security?”

But Vinto was already striding off, as perhaps he always does, in the full expectation of being followed.

I followed.

And from somewhere, maybe nowhere at all, heard the alien voice… issuing commands.