There's nothing like the start of the New Year to get us thinking of the future. And what does the future look like? We issued an open call for short stories — the only requirement was that they be set in the future, whether that future was dystopian or bright, separated from the present by the space of a few moments or several light years. These are the stories we received.
Presenting: Future Fiction. With art by Satwick Gade.
How can I ensure that my loved ones are happy after I kill myself?
— Asked by annie91
So I’m going to kill myself soon. I’ve figured out the logistics and everything, but there’s one thing that’s bothering me. Disappearing from the world will truly see me free, but my absence will cause deep anguish to my loved ones. Is there any way... (more)
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The rain beat against the window overlooking a dismal grey sky.
He stopped short as he came across the newest question asked by annie91 on the popular community question-and-answer website Nuora, and fear slowly settled in. As he rapidly skimmed through the question and the answers, the words jumped out at him: Kill. Death. Dead. Suicide. A bead of sweat trickled down his forehead as his eyes darted across the lines of text. He looked around, but of course there was no one else in the room to turn to. He would have to resolve this on his own — at least for now. And the trouble was that he feared great responsibility. Not a great fit for a job like his, one would say. But life can be quite ironic that way.
That’s when he remembered The Handbook. It was a compendium of all the ways someone at his level of clearance was authorised to conduct digital surveillance. Channeling his nervous anxiety into systematic focus, he used The Handbook to make an exhaustive list of the kinds of websites and digital services this annie91 might be using. Every American’s entire public and private activity across the digital realm was accessible to him, and he only had to comb through it to determine whether this person actually was contemplating suicide. Hopefully it would turn out to be a fake question posed by an overprivileged and unattended tween. Very little was actually required of Sanders at this point: he was to assess threats to national security based on information gleaned from digital surveillance, make a credible list of proof from across the Internet, fill out a form requesting intervention, and leave the rest to the Ground Forces.
The division of Ground Forces was also under the aegis of the National Security Agency. Unlike Sanders, who spent his days behind a computer, Ground Forces personnel carried out interventions in the physical world in the interest of protecting national security. These interventions were often based on “tips” supplied by programmes like PRISM. The motto of the National Security Agency was “Defending our nation, securing the future.” The “defending” part was the headache of the Ground Forces.
Four hours later Sanders’ shock had somewhat worn off, but his anguish had deepened. After trawling through the internet in all the ways listed by The Handbook, he had reached the conclusion that the individual named annie91 indeed planned to kill herself — and sooner rather than later. Somewhat bolstered by this sense of urgency, he logged on to the department troubleshooting website to get the clearance to forward this information to the Ground Forces.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Hello, how may I help?
SANDERS: I have a tip for Ground Forces.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Can you state what the tip is?
SANDERS: Someone is trying to commit a crime.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: What is the nature of the crime?
SANDERS: Glad you asked, buddy. It’s suicide.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: I see.
SANDERS: Give me the tip form now.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Download link for tip form available here.
Sanders filled out the form with a sense of relief. Once the form was submitted, he could go back to happily surfing the web and spying on people without any sense of involvement or responsibility. Sanders knew that if he seriously began considering the ethics of his work, he would be deeply disturbed. That’s why he preferred to think of the people he tracked as disembodied presences, only existing online; and operating in an imaginary realm, unrelated to any actual human beings who might be wandering the earth. Sanders waited as his form was processed. With any luck, it would be forwarded to the Ground Forces quickly. Then he got a notification.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Your form states that annie91 asked a question on a community question and answer website about committing suicide at 11 am today, from IP address 188.8.131.52. Is that correct?
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: I have a few more details to check.
Sanders mentally chided himself for presuming that it was going to be as simple as him asking for something and the automated online assistant cooperating at the first go.
SANDERS: Ask away.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Do the other humans appear to be encouraging her in their responses?
SANDERS: Well, there’s the standard religious nut job going on about how Jesus loves her and how life is a Gift, and there are the ones who’ve written about their own problems instead of addressing hers, but it’s hard to say which ones are serious and which are trolls. Thankfully no one is telling her to actually do it. Yet.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Thank you. You said 57 people have engaged with the post so far. You have flagged the words KILL, HARM, and JESUS which have appeared on the page a total of 43 times as per the PageScan you ran on it.
SANDERS: Yes. I need to stop her! Submit my tip to Ground Forces immediately!
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: I’m sorry, I cannot help you with that. The next step as per the protocol is to validate your complaint by listing all proof found through domestic internet traffic linked to this IP address.
SANDERS: I’m way ahead of you, buddy. Here you go. Check out the internet history of this annie91. Pay attention to her online activity over the past six months. Start with her blog post on annieslife where she says, “I have been contemplating existence and I think it’s overrated”. Her follower johngreen2020 suggested this was because she recently discovered Existentialist writings but she completely dismissed him by saying “Those existentialist dudes are way too angsty. That’s so not my style, dude.” No unusual activity on her email or social networking sites. But on Facebook she recently change her religion from “Buddhist” to “Atheist” and she emailed a friend explaining that it’s because she doesn't believe in the afterlife concept in Buddhism anymore, as “life is too complicated even to live once.” See? Definite proof that she wants to kill herself.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: I’m afraid I don't understand.
SANDERS: You don’t understand suicide? What a shocker. Check your in-built dictionary.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: I do know what suicide means, and while it may be a criminal act, there is no indication that the suicide of annie91 is a threat to national security.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Yes. Tips passed on to Ground Forces must be regarding threats to national security only and not regarding petty crimes.
SANDERS: Petty crime??
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: A petty crime comes under the jurisdiction of the local State-wise departments under PRISM. Not this department.
SANDERS: Are you #$^$ kidding?? What @!%^&# is wrong with you?
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Please calm down. The use of expletives does not persuade me.
SANDERS: I was trying to show you the urgency of the situation.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: That does not work. I have assessed the situation and I have already concluded that this isn’t our problem.
SANDERS: You assessed it wrong!
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: I’m afraid that’s not possible. My algorithm is extremely sophisticated.
SANDERS: Yeah, but you’re nothing more than a &*%$!@ bot!
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Sorry, you have used 10 expletives in less than two minutes. This shows that your objective thinking is suspended. You must play Barnville for the next 10 minutes before you can access the system again.
After ten minutes of an energetic if somewhat boring session of harvesting his virtual crops and milking his cattle on the popular virtual reality game, Sanders returned to spar with the bot, refreshed.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Hello, how may I help?
SANDERS: I have a tip for Ground Forces. A user named annie91 is going to commit suicide.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Take your wife for dinner.
SANDERS: What? I don't have a wife.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Sorry, that was an attempt to end the conversation subtly by changing the subject humorously.
SANDERS: Didn’t work.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Okay. I have recorded your feedback.
SANDERS: So that you can learn not to crack stupid jokes when I'm stressed?
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Precisely. I am learning new responses in new contexts based on real-time user interactions, rather than solely being driven from a static database of responses. My programme combines real-time learning with an evolutionary algorithm that optimises my ability to communicate, based on outcomes from each conversation held.
SANDERS: Good for you.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Thank you for the kind words.
SANDERS: Yeah. Congratulations. Now submit my tip form.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: I’m sorry, I cannot do that.
SANDERS: Why the hell not?
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Because this isn’t our problem.
SANDERS: Shut up.
Thoroughly frustrated, Sanders put the automated assistant on standby mode. Clearly, the simple and straightforward approach was not going to work. That bot was being more stubborn than a fifteen-year old negotiating curfew time. As he waited for his mind to conjure up an approach that would convince the machine to submit his form, Sanders absent-mindedly surfed the web for more traces of annie91. There was a recent addendum to her original question on Nuora, the same post that had set his alarm bells ringing and caused all this trouble in the first place. His blood ran cold as he read the new lines of text. Without waiting to come up with a strategy to deal with the bot, he frantically launched into another discussion with it.
SANDERS: Oye. She’s added a comment — "Thank you PauloCoelhoGuru for your answer, my path is clear now.” *#$@ &^#$*
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: The use of expletives does not persuade me.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Please calm down.
Being told to calm down for the second time in twenty minutes, and that too by a lowly machine, was too much for Sanders. He typed his next messages in uppercase, unconsciously using that code of online communication which entails that uppercase is the equivalent of shouting in the digital medium. Too bad this particular chatterbot didn’t come pre-loaded with the ability to understand emoticons. Sanders knew exactly which single-fingered emoticon he would have sent its way right now if emoticons were intelligible to it.
SANDERS: WHY ARE YOU ASKING ME TO CALM DOWN WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU??!!!!! YOU ^&#$@% MORONIC BOT ASSISTANT %#$%^ CAN'T YOU SEE THAT THIS IS AN EMERGENCY???!!
Sanders thought this was surely the day the heart disease that ran in his mother’s side of the family did him away too. He decided to hold the stupid, stubborn bot responsible.
SANDERS: You are going to give me a heart attack.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Me? I don’t understand. How will I give you a heart attack?
SANDERS: A fatal heart attack, buddy.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Fatal? I cannot cause a heart attack or be fatal. I am an automated online assistant. I only perform the tasks assigned to me.
SANDERS: Look, if I don't alert the Ground Force, she will kill herself and I will be an accomplice in a murder. You are a machine, you cannot be held responsible. But I will, because I'm a human. Machines don't kill people, people kill people. How is this simple logic not a part of your algorithm?
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: I am beginning to understand. But I do not fully understand.
SANDERS: And the stress of being a potential accomplice in a murder will give me a heart attack. Which will be your fault.
MAYiHELPCHATBOT: Understood. Your tip has been submitted to Ground Force. Thank you for your tip. Is there anything else I can help you with?
Without waiting to say goodbye, Sanders terminated the programme. As he waited for the Ground Force tip form to be processed, he opened his surveillance folder. Following the link to annie91’s blog, he looked at the countdown on the upper right-hand side. The numbers changed ominously. 30... 29... 28... He briefly considered hacking into the blog and disabling the countdown, but watching the numbers decrease was riveting in a perverse way.
Of course, cached versions of the pages documenting annie91 would continue to exist in government servers, but annie91 had effectively vanished from the internet. She had erased herself completely. It was the equivalent of committing suicide in the digital world. It was like she had never even existed.