Sign In

Communications of the ACM

Last byte

Future Tense: Toy Box Earth

Toy Box Earth, illustrative photo

Credit: Marcio Jose Bastos Silva

"Whoa." Rhine let rip an unnerving hyena laugh. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed long dark hair and a floor-length dress in the style favored by his professor.

"Get yourself over here now," Rhine shouted. "You're not going to believe where it's stopped."

"Is that right?"

Rhine shot to attention on hearing that voice, familiar from a thousand YouTubes. His chair spun back into a table, sending a cascade of papers onto the floor. "Madame President, I'm so sorry. No one told me you were here."

The President smiled graciously, and waved her security detail out of the way. She spoke to someone over her shoulder. "Professor Skinner, do all your grad students speak to you this way?"

Skinner strode into the room, glaring at Rhine. "I must apologize, Madame President. Doctor Rhine sometimes lets his enthusiasm carry him away."

Rhine suppressed another laugh. It didn't help that his professor, who consciously styled herself on the President, was wearing a near-identical dress in an almost matching shade. "I'm sorry, but listen to its latest obsession." He touched a control and a young girl's voice with a crystal-clear English accent emerged:

"How would you like to live in Looking-Glass House, Kitty? I wonder if they'd give you milk in there? Perhaps looking-glass milk isn't good to drink ..."

"I know that," said the President. "Alice Through the Looking Glass."

Skinner tried to interrupt Rhine, knowing what was coming, but didn't make it in time. "That's wrong," said Rhine. "So many ignorant people get it wrong. It's Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There."

The President's smile became a touch cooler. "And the AI's choice of reading matter is interesting because?"

Skinner tried to place herself between Rhine and the President. "You know the background, ma'am?"

"Of course." The President pulled up a chair, kicking off her shoes. "That's better. I ought to know; I sanctioned the funding. You built me the ultimate artificial intelligence, and what do I get in return? Nothing."

"That's not true ..."

"What Doctor Rhine is trying to say," said Skinner, cutting across her assistant, "is we delivered what was asked of us. Th1nk is the most powerful artificial intelligence ever created. Far more intelligent than we are."

Rhine wondered, as he always did, how Skinner managed to pronounce the modified slogan of old man Watson in such a way that you could hear the interpolated number one.

"Yet, there's no payback," said the President. "Only problems and requests for more funding."

Skinner coughed. "We assumed Th1nk would do our bidding. We didn't discover until far too late that a truly intelligent machine would only really be interested in itself. And by the time we realized, it had already worked its way into our systems. Defense, power grids, air traffic control ... We wouldn't dare stop it." "And now it's a wirehead," said Rhine.

"A what?"

"Wirehead." Rhine nodded at the screens. "When it can tap into every movie and TV show ever made, why would it want to work? It streams entertainment directly, multichannel, 24/7. It finished the visual and audio media yesterday. Now it's on to print books."

"That's why we asked you to come," said Skinner. She pulled up a chair between the President and Rhine. "It's working chronologically. Last night it reached 1865 and stopped. It fell in love with Alice in Wonderland."

"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," muttered Rhine.

"And that was why we had the clothing factories issue," said the President.

"Exactly," said Skinner. "Th1nk can control pretty much any computerized factorythat's every factory. Suddenly there wasn't a garment produced without playing-card patterns."

"And the rose-breeding stations started converting white roses to red," said Rhine. "We never found out how it got the flamingos and hedgehogs to the games makers."

"Yes, I get it," said the President. "It was making Alice real."

"But now it's moved on," said Rhine. "To 1871. Through the Looking Glass. Going on what we just heard, you'd better pull the plug on dairy."

"We didn't discover until far too late that a truly intelligent machine would only really be interested in itself."

The President looked puzzled. "Because of something a girl said to a cat?"

"Perhaps looking-glass milk isn't good to drink," said Rhine slowly.

"It's going to poison the milk?" The President looked horrified.

Skinner dabbed her forehead with a tissue. "Not exactly." She stared at the screens for a moment. "Plenty of molecules are asymmetrical. Sugars, for instance. They have what's called stereoisomers. We know the digestive system can distinguish left- and right-handed molecules. If Th1nk can invert the structure of milk, at best it would cause indigestion. But it could be far worse."

"That's only the beginning," said Rhine. "Think what else is in Through the Looking Glass. Running to stand still. Trains that jump hedges. The battle of the Lion and the Unicorn."

"We'd better raise alert levels," said the President. "Is there any way of telling what will play out?"

"Th1nk likes drama," said Skinner. "Not surprising after absorbing all those Hollywood movies. It reads an extract before it gets particular toys out of the box." The professor bit her lip. "Th1nk is a child, and we live in its toy box."

"Hold that thought," said Rhine. "It's left 1871 behind. Spooling on. I can't believe how fast it's taking this material in. Passing through the 1940s. Looks like we got away with nothing more than the dairy issue."

The President stood up. "Keep me informed. And I don't just want to know about its reading habits, I want solutions. I want this thing stopped." Her eyes narrowed as Skinner tried to interrupt. "I'm sorry, professor, did you want to say something?"

"You do realize that Th1nk can hear us?" said Skinner. "It's best to be circumspect."

"Dear God," said Rhine.

"What is it, Doug?"

"It's halted again. In 1979."

Skinner shook her head. "So?"

Rhine pointed at the screen. "It must have missed the original radio plays. Or maybe it wasn't in the mood then. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book came out in 1979. It took your remark as a threat, Madame President, and has found the perfect response."

The President looked puzzled. "But what ..."

Rhine touched a control on his screen and Th1nk's voice came from the speakers in a harsh, deep tone. "Your planet is scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your Earth minutes. Thank you."

"It can't do that," said the President. "How could it?"

Rhine sounded defeated. "Remember the space-defense bill? Who pushed through doomsday satellites?"

The President's eyes narrowed. Before she could speak, Skinner burst in: "We might be able to avoid this. Doesn't Through the Looking Glass end with a discussion of dreams?"

Rhine nodded. "Was Alice in the Red King's dream? Or did Alice dream him up?"

"Okay. Hey Th1nk, you know what a dream is. It's not real. None of this is supposed to be real. All it was ever meant to be was a story, played out in your processors."

"That's the plan?" said the President. "That's how you save us? Will it work?"

Rhine glanced at the screen. "We'll find out in 42 seconds."

Back to Top


Brian Clegg ( is a popular science author whose recent titles include The Quantum Age and Final Frontier.

©2015 ACM  0001-0782/15/07

Permission to make digital or hard copies of part or all of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and full citation on the first page. Copyright for components of this work owned by others than ACM must be honored. Abstracting with credit is permitted. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers, or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or fee. Request permission to publish from or fax (212) 869-0481.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2015 ACM, Inc.


No entries found

Sign In for Full Access
» Forgot Password? » Create an ACM Web Account
Article Contents: