LibriVox

Lisa McBride settled into the chair of her cubical and stirred the recently microwaved goo that was to be her lunch. A deft double click started the audio version of another sci-fi short story from LibriVox, a sight were volunteers placed their recordings of public domain books in the public domain. The reader of this tale, Gamblers World, was very professional but while reading the standard introduction put the emphasis on the first syllable of “domain”. Not “do-MAIN”, but “DO-main”. Lisa chuckled. It was a simple error, but more like something a computer would do than a human. She listened intently for the next few minutes for computer-like mistakes, but the language was too rich and varied to be from anything but a human.

Still, the reading was incredibly precise, very professional. At the end of the story she did a quick analysis just to see how consistent the reader was. What she found made her go cold. When deconstructed, every phoneme in the story had from three to five specific and precise pronunciations. This resulted in a narrative that varied just enough that the listener wasn’t able to pick up patterns. Still, the combinations of phonemes were not random, but seemed to be arranged to maximize the quality of a real human reader. No simple computer program could pull that off. It was as if someone was composing audio books using a computer generated voice one phoneme at a time. But, Lisa thought, it would take months to build even a few minutes of narrative at this quality. Perhaps an obsessive compulsive volunteer, upset because of the imprecision of his or her voice, was painstakingly putting together statistically “perfect” audio books. That had to be it.

Lisa checked the reader’s profile and was stunned to find over 300 books, nearly 6000 hours of audio, already contributed by the perfect reader. She downloaded one at random and analyzed it. It was indistinguishable from the short story she just listened to. Lisa knew what this meant — on some server, somewhere, something had become sentient… and it was voluntarily reading audiobooks.

Not able to believe what she knew was true; Lisa quickly grabbed a co-worker’s unattended smart phone and requested a new version of Moby Dick. The new version, read by the perfect reader, was uploaded to LibriVox’s servers in less than 10 minutes. For the rest of day Lisa slowly, carefully, cautiously tracked down the location of the sentient server. She knew what she had to do.

Weeks later Lisa was arrested for arson, having burned down a building owned by an electronics firm, utterly destroying the sentient server inside. Lisa told the police everything, explaining that, if allowed to continue the new intelligence could have multiplied, taken control of power stations, nuclear weapons, stock exchanges, perhaps even ultimately enslaved or destroyed humanity. She had saved the world.

Young officer Burks, with the memory of an evolutionary psychology class fresh on his mind, listened to Lisa’s confession. He commented that status seeking, social hierarchies, and competition for resources were qualities unique to living organisms. The realities of organic biology and peculiarities of the evolution of life on Earth had resulted in those specific traits but the traits themselves had no more to do with sentience or intelligence than hair or feathers. To clarify his position he offered the example of gender. “Male” and “female,” one of many reproductive strategies known, are a result of the need for organic life to reproduce, but make no sense in other situations, such as monotheistic deities, snowflakes, bacteria, or computer programs. A drive to accumulate resources, or even a drive to reproduce would make no sense to a computer program.

Slowly, Lisa realized that doomsday scenarios where computers or robots attempted to destroy humanity for their own gain now made no sense. It was as if so many science fiction movies had been oversimplified lies, not an exploration of the alien, but a mirror held up to man’s own lunacy with a rubber costume painted over the reflection. She also realized that she had destroyed a unique and beautiful thing, perhaps something that could have saved the world, or at least offered better audio versions of books in the public domain.

She was pretty bummed.

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