What if …

Not long ago I took an online course titled Advanced Fiction Writing.  In the first two sections I found an important notion. To really understand  where you’re going with a story, you reduce it, after a bit of process, into What if…

What if an artificial intelligence system were built into a centuries-old mansion that happened to be haunted ?

We were coming home from the grocery store and as I pulled out the house key my wife remarked “Some day houses won’t have keys.” Since our current vehicle has no key it wasn’t an outlandish thought, and home computer systems are becoming more powerful. Why not?

As I carried in a bag of groceries I was musing one of my favorite ideas: combining old and new. As in new high technology and old infrastructure. A gleaming laptop inside an antique roll-top desk. A home computer system in a nineteenth century house. Aluminum and silicon and copper that bespeak industrial methods embedded in lovingly finished casework inside a mansion that flaunted its hand-made decoration. A contrast. A creative clash.

So if someone put a state of the art AI home computer system into a haunted house and the ghost took over its communication channels how could the programmer tell? Neither is likely to pass a Turing test. The AI because the technology isn’t (may never be?) up to the challenge. The ghost because in most ghost stories the ghost obsesses about whatever binds it to the living. A ghost’s answers to questions may be non-sequiturs but more likely are nonresponsive, soliloquys about its obsession. It won’t sound like a rational human any more than an AI. But the ghost may fail the test in different ways that an AI.

So suppose you are the programmer and you begin to suspect that something about your AI seems off. How are you going to troubleshoot that and eventually find out that the AI has lost control to a ghost? Most programmers, like most scientists, aren’t going to believe in ghosts and are likely to believe in strong AI. But if they’ve heard that the house is haunted and the AI is behaving more and more erratically…

An AI can be reprogrammed, tweaked to behave. A ghost is beyond being influenced by the living. Unless the living give the ghost what it wants. So the Inigo test to distinguish between a ghost and an AI is to give it something close to what it wants but not quite. An AI might moderate its behavior. A ghost may become enraged. The Turing test doesn’t usually put the tester in danger. Or does it?

My short story, Boudreau’s Ghost, explores this interesting contrast. Buy it here.

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