Day 14: The AI and Father O’Brian

Father Daniel O’Brian was not accustomed to rubbing elbows with the corporate class. Martin Clark, the CEO of Level Thirteen Informatics, charcoal suit, red tie, Italian shoes, met the veteran exorcist in the lobby, and pulled him onto an elevator with profuse greetings. “We’ll compensate you well for whatever time you give us,” he said. Father O’Brian didn’t want to be there—the sisters were cooking pot roast tonight—but Mr. Clark was apparently a good friend of the bishop’s.

“My services don’t usually require compensation, Mr. Clark. What do you need me for?”

“Call me Marty. For Chr… for goodness sake, I’m way out of my league here.” He tugged at his lapel. “I’m going to let my project manager fill you in. We meet the team in five minutes.”

After the obligatory offering of refreshments and facilities, Marty led Father O’Brian into a conference room where a pallid looking sandy haired man in an Iron Maiden T-shirt huddled next to a black woman with pinned-up curls, her gray-blue company shirt sporting the LTI logo. Two wooden panels opened up at the front to reveal a whiteboard, and projection equipment hung from the middle of the ceiling.

“Father O’Brian, these are the software engineers on the project, Jenine Park and Simon Brandt.” Jenine mumbled something and continued to type on the keyboard.

Simon said, “Really? You want to fix one mundunugu’s mess with another?” He shook his head and scoffed, then pointed to the screen and seemed to forget they were there. The language the two programmers spoke was completely incomprehensible to Father O’Brian, but they were openly distressed about something called “self-defining objects” and “rampant buffer leaks” that “shouldn’t be possible.”

Marty guided the priest to a seat in the center of the table and took the chair at the head. A few more people came in and sat quietly or set up laptops. A jittery redhead set down her paper and pen. Right on the hour, a harried man in a blue suit that was too tight, trudged in and took a seat next to the CEO, plopping a pile of files and several tablets on the table. His tie was pulled loose and his gray hair was a mess.

Marty announced the start and instructed the programmers to put their work aside for the moment, eliciting scowls from both of them. Simon tilted back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. Marty introduced the priest, but didn’t bother to go around the table. Instead, he tapped the disheveled guy to introduce himself and brief the father.

“Hello, reverend—do you mind if I call you that? My church kind of frowns on ‘father.’” Father O’Brian waved a hand and nodded. “I’m Larry Wilson, the project manager of our Artificial Intelligence R&D initiatives. You know about AI?”

“Just what I read in the papers.”

Simon snorted. “Great.”

Larry continued. “You may have read that it hasn’t exactly lived up to the buzz, right? Sure we’ve managed to get some interesting results with language and we’ve gamed the Turing tests a bit, but nobody anywhere has gotten machines really working intelligently on their own.”

His question perplexed Father O’Brian. He’d expected them to read him in on some moral crisis, but it was beginning to look like he would have to be bored to death by a tedious technical discussion. What was the bishop thinking? “I don’t guess that’s very surprising,” the priest said.

“Right. Well, we had hopes, and LTI’s R&D department spent a lot of time trying to figure out why, comparing it to neuroscience, behavioral studies and artistic methodologies, among other things. I can’t tell you how much effort we poured into this, bringing interdisciplinary talent together searching for the key or keys, plural, to autonomous intelligence.

“As you might expect, there was a lot of disagreement, but there was one thing everyone agreed upon. Every system lacked something they came to call a ‘sovereign impetus.’”

Father O’Brian chuckled. “You’re talking about free will. Or, more precisely, an agent with free will.”

Larry stuck out his lower jaw and sighed. “Yes.” He looked at Marty and said, “Maybe you were right. This is our guy.”

“Fantastic,” said Simon. “Log him in and let him start coding.” Marty shushed him and he rolled his eyes.

Larry stood and grabbed a marker from the whiteboard tray, then thought better of it and sat back down.

“Reverend O’Brian, here at LTI we really encourage our employees to think outside the box. We have workshops and contests where the most bizarre solutions win bonuses. So don’t be surprised by what I’m about to tell you.”

Was he serious? Father O’Brian had been an exorcist for twenty-four years. He’d seen things more bizarre than this guy would ever imagine. Nothing had surprised him in a decade.

“I had nothing to to with this hoodoo bullshit,” said Simon. Jenine nudged him, and he nearly fell out of his chair.

“Go ahead,” said the priest.

“Our top programmer—”

“Hey,” said Simon.

“One of our top programmers suggested we search for an external source for the ‘impetus.’ More specifically, she suggested we look for a way to inject a conscious spirit into it. I think you might call this ‘ensoulment’ or something like that.” Larry hesitated when the priest’s eyes narrowed, but he soldiered on. “We funded an extensive search to find just the right person to summon a spirit and command it to serve as the sovereign impetus of our AI. And we thought—”

“You can stop right there,” said Father O’Brian. “I’m an exorcist. I help people who are possessed by demons or oppressed by them. I cast out demons, I do not summon them, and I certainly don’t use my experience for corporate profits. I will not help in any way to ensoul your stupid computer, and you are abject fools to even think of trying such a thing.”

Marty grimaced, Larry fiddled with one of his tablets, and Jenine rested her forehead in her palm. Father O’Brian silently waited for them to apologize and accept his advice.

Simon started laughing. A bitter, lusty and pretentious laugh.

“Um. Father O’Brian.” Larry nervously wiped a hand over his files. “I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood. We already had an occultist here to summon the impetus, and things are getting creepy. Out of control. Dangerous even. We called you here to perform an exorcism on it.”

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