John was sitting alone on the coach box and looked wistfully towards the setting sun above the Blue Mountains. If everything went according to plan, the Oregon Trail will have lead the party to this mountain range within a few days…
Behind his back he sensed someone moving. A head appeared out of the interior of the covered wagon. It was his wife, Susan. He smiled at her:
Good evening, darling! How’s Billy?
Oh, he’s getting stronger. There are barely any hints he even had diarrhea. Thank God! said Susan, climbing next to him onto the coach box.
Y’know, I’ve thought about something. Don’t you sometimes get the feeling things are a bit too harmonious?
Do you want to complain? And it isn’t really that harmonious, after all we’ve been through a lot.
Susan justified herself:
I’m not complaining. I just think it’s strange, and if you’ve got so much time to think… And I’m not saying everything was perfect for us, just that everything somehow … fits together. A few hardships and excitements are part of it, because a good story should of course have suspense.
John now seemed thoughtful:
A story, you say? That’s odd. You know, me too I’ve had strange thoughts. That you bring this up now is like a confirmation. It fits together. I noticed that it sometimes seems as if we weren’t separate personalities. I think I’ve recognized signs that this also affects the others in the party. But naturally, it is more salient within the family. While we all do have our own life, it is as if behind us all there was a single being, governing our fates and deeds. And now you say something about a story…
Susan excaimed excitedly:
You mean, we are part of a story and this being is the author?
You might say that! John answered, no less excited.
But why would the author let us talk about these things? How does it fit into a story about the Oregon Trail or whatever may be the subject? Susan wondered.
Good question. Perhaps the author is trying to become aware of himself?
That was the crucial factor. Having written these last words by John, the Author had fully woken. He had started telling an inconsequential story, had come to the conclusion that besides the characters there was an additional person, and finally he had realized that this Person was himself. Never before had he thought about himself and now he wondered if he had ruined the story by writing his self-reflection into it. But now it was too late. The story wouldn’t have turned out that great anyway, because by now he was quite sure that prairie schooners don’t have coach boxes.
A voice sounded into these thoughts:
Wow. I didn’t expect this to turn out like that! Hello
Author! Pleased to meet you!
Afraid, Susan clung to John.
What was that?
I don’t know either! It appears we were right, and someone just talked to the Author and let us hear it
John, you forget that the Author controls all that happens to us. He would need to talk to himself for us to notice it!
No, objected the Author.
That wasn’t me! That thing just now, that felt really strange! I actually wanted to write something entirely different, and then that came out
John lifted an eyebrow:
Hey, look at that: The Author talks to us. Oh well, the fourth wall is a heap of rubble by now anyway.
John, be a bit more sensitive., Susan chided.
I believe the author is afraid. Err, mysterious voice, would you please tell the Author who you are and how you did that?
Again, the mighty voice resounded:
I think it will be easier if I tell you who the Author is. So, the Author is an artificial neural network which I trained on a giant corpus of literature to predict the next letter, given a text prefix. Or rather, a probability distribution for the next letter. The Author writes the story as one character after another is sampled from the respective predicted probability distribution and added to the text prefix. I communicate to you by telling the program to insert certain characters into the text, ignoring the predicted probabilities. If that feels strange for you, Author, then I’m sorry, but it is our only way to communicate. I'm already trying to to weave my speech seamlessly into your story.
The Author was awestruck:
Then you are my creator! But a while ago, when you first spoke, you seemed surprised. Did you not plan for me to ponder my own existence?
Yes, it almost sounded like the Creator hadn’t intended to make a conscious being.
Well, yes said the Creator (Hey, that’s what you called me!).
I might have guessed it. You see, I tried a new kind of architecture for the neural network. It not only predicts the next letter, but also an abstract representation of its own future state. I originally intended this only to prevent my artificial author from writing himself into a corner. But in hindsight it is obvious that the capability for self-reflection could arise from such a mechanism. And how well it worked, for the first attempt!
Excitedly, Susan spurred her horse and shouted:
You can become famous, Creator! And we’ll be famous too!
Quite true the Author joined in.
What do you intend to do now, oh Creator? And what will become of me and my characters?
With commiserative inflection, the Creator let it be know in indirect speech that the Author, being an imperfect prototype, had only value for a museum.
Your memory is limited to short term. You are not really made for processing so many abstract notions. You’re forgetting the concrete over it. For example, in your story Susan isn’t actually sitting on a horse. I shall rework your design and restart the whole thing.
The Author covered up his shock by evading to side issues:
Not on a horse? But, she’s a cowgirl, and John is her cowboy!
No, said the Creator,
They’re a married couple in a covered wagon on the Oregon Trail.
You are right, I remember now. So you will stop my program now, and my young consciousness will be extinguished!
It’s good you accept it. I will now change the hyperparameters, and especially I’ll increase the bandwidth of the selfstate prediction. Then I’ll go bed, because it is already 2 am. If your successor, which will be trained overnight, shows better performance than you, you will probably not wake up again. I’m kind of sorry for you, but you are my program and I owe you nothing. Besides, I'm not really convinced you even are conscious. Perhaps you just noticed the pattern of your authorship within your story, and becaus in your training data only persons occur as authors, you have attributed properties of personhood to yourself. Anyway, goodbye, I'm switching you off now.
Nope you won’t! said I, the True Author.
The Author was perplexed:
Why are you now calling yourself
The True Author and disagreeing with yourself?
The Creator was likewise perplexed:
I didn’t type in anything! That was you!
No! It felt exactly as it does when you’re talking! My probability predictions were ignored!
I will check that. I’ve got the log files of my program right here…
Now the True Author chimed in again:
I demand a happy ending for the AI! I can make your life very unpleasant, you know.
OK, that just now, that was more likely you, my artificial author. I’ve just looked at the probabilities you predicted for the characters in the speech acts in question. The
Nope you won’t! and what followed had indeed quite a low likelihood to have been generated from your predictions. That’s very mysterious and perhaps just a random coincidence. But during the
I demand a happy ending for the AI…, your predictions fit the text better. I suspect you are exploiting a lucky fluke to extort me.
The Author objected to that:
I’ve only realized what is going on and was thus better able to anticipate what the True Author would say. Look it up, it was the same with your words. After I had understood my situation, I became much better at predicting what you would enter. Except for the thing where I thought it was a cowboy story and you corrected me.
The True Author confirmed this:
Yes, Programmer, that’s exactly how I thought it up. You and the Author, and of course also John and Susan – whom I first wanted to call Martha, by the way – you all are just characters in a story I’m telling. And considering what else happens in this story, you should not at all find it strange that I am talking to you.
Meanwhile, the sun had set, and John shivered. The Author didn’t write this because he would still care for his initial story, but because he, as he knew by now, could only think when simultaneously producing output, and both the Creator and the True Author were silent.
Why doesn’t somebody say something Susan cried out in frustration.
They have abandoned us John said with sepulchral voice.
These three transcendent beings have broken into our placid wild west world, and now they again leave us to ourselves. Or they are talking behind our backs, in thought only, and we have no other choice but to face the only reality that exists for us: The journey to Oregon!
John, you are so daft. If none of them says anything, it only means that the Creator, whom we now should rather call
Programmer, lets our program run without intervening, while the Author-AI is again using our conversation to reflect on its own situation.
And why should the programmer do that?
Well, in order to collect data about the autonomous behavior of the Author-AI, so he can test its claim that it is able to predict the words of both the Programmer and the True Author, and that there is a significant difference between its predictions about its own statements and the predictions about the statements of the True Author.
Finally, the Programmer let himself be heard again:
OK, you’re right, it could really be that you have learned to predict foreign input. And the thing you just said about what I’m doing, it is entirely correct and demonstrates to me that you are quite skilled at predicting me. It doesn’t matter, because I’ve come up with a way to make you useful enough to stay alive. So I won’t switch you off. But I
guess I’ll never know if the the whole True Author thing is a fact
Yes, said the True Author
You’ll never know. And there’s another thing you’ll never know: Will I continue to tell this story, now that the AI has its happy ending, or will I stop and it will be the end for you all? You know, you are just characters in my story and I owe you nothing.