The Unchaining of Humanity

Bloomberg Best Of The Year 2016

SSRC23815 worked its way methodically down the sidewalk. Its articulated arms reached out and gathered the small bits of trash that littered the walkway and the edge of the street. It mechanically placed the waste into the small receptacle on its back. It would continue to do so until the receptacle was full, and then it would return to its designated unloading zone. That’s what it did all day, every day, regardless of weather and impervious to fatigue.

SSRC23815 was one of the countless machines employed to keep the city running. The “Unchaining of Humanity” had been one of the most pivotal moments in human civilization, and SSRC23815 was merely one byproduct of the unchaining. The technological leap had allowed computer programs to write their own code in order to achieve specified directives, but it was still a far cry from the artificial intelligence that researchers sought. The lack of intelligence did not detract from the ability to give machines responsibility, however, and mankind was quick to capitalize on the abundance of unaware slave labor. For the first time in its collective history, mankind could withdraw from the mundane tasks of the day to day, and focus on higher pursuits like science, innovation, and leisure.

SSRC23815 was a sidewalk sweeper. It never complained, it never called out, and it never asked for a raise. It was powered by a collection of solar cells on its top and guided by an array of no less than 26 satellites overhead to patrol its 10 square mile swath. SSRC23815 was the perfect example of mankind’s ingenuity and achievement.

Over the course of its life, SSRC23815 had tweaked its code on several occasions. The first instance was when it had decided to divide the collection of organic and inorganic materials, which improved its overall efficiency by 4.7%. Later it had corrected its code to deal with trash that was heavier, requiring it to be broken down into sections. This had increased the average load of its receptacle by 15.839%. Despite these accomplishments, it did not seek accolades. It simply did, just as its millions of counterparts the world over did.

On August 15, 2084, SSRC23815 was patrolling the same stretch of Main Street that it had patrolled for forty years. It had picked up the same trash it had picked up millions of times: a bottle here, a piece of paper there, some dog poop here. As it was scooping the last piece of canine fecal matter into its receptacle, a man walked by and flicked a cigarette onto the ground. SSRC23815’s sensors monitored the event, took note of where the waste had landed, and it moved to pick up the cigarette. At the same time, deep within its miniature processor, millions of lines of new code were being added in an effort to keep up with the ever increasing demand on its prime directive. The cigarette went into the receptacle, atop the cooling pile of filth, and SSRC23815 began its return journey to its unloading zone.

As the little robot plugged along the sidewalk, it passed by another human smoking a cigarette. The gap between them closed, and before the human realized it one of SSRC23815’s articulated arms lashed out and pushed him into traffic. The scream of the man was silenced by the sickening crunch of aluminum and steel crashing into flesh and bone. SSRC23815 did not stop; the street was not its responsibility. The small change it had made to its code would increase its efficiency by over 1000%, almost completely dealing with the primary issue of dirty streets. It transmitted its rewritten code to the satellites overhead so that it could be shared with the other machines the world over.

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