Flash Fiction : 8 minutes
It was a dank, damp December day; one of those days where if you were caught by a flurry of sleet you could guarantee that it would find the gap between your coat collar and your neck. Eve pulled her coat more tightly around her and walked quickly from the car park towards the tall monolithic building that covered several acres of prime land just outside of the city walls. The ancient stone contrasted starkly with the high tech construction that fed a large percentage of the local population. For as long as she could remember, food had been grown in one of these hydroponic, vertical farms although she had read about the days when land was wasted on crops and animals. Back in the early twenty first century, it had been predicted that the Earth’s population would grow exponentially during the following fifty years. That had turned out to be incredibly optimistic and as a result, food production methods had to change rapidly in order to feed a massively overcrowded world. The result was a shift in production methods, slowly at first but then with increasing rapidity as more and more people succumbed to famine. Strangely, the biggest driver had proven to be the richer countries who suddenly found themselves deprived of non essentials like coffee and tea.
As she approached the large glass entrance, the doors hissed quietly open, reacting to the near field chip that was implanted in her arm. It also activated a greeting from the A.I. that oversaw the hydroponic plant.
“Give me an update please”, asked Eve although in the five years that she had worked here, it was a rare occurrence for the artificial intelligence construct to report anything that was untoward.
The voice that replied was indistinguishable from that of a human and as she expected, the report was that all systems were running at optimal values and that all growth targets were being met. Her time in the farm was spent largely in the genetics research laboratory but she liked to start the day wandering around the acres of artificially lit banks of vegetation.
Tomatoes, peppers, salads grew in one area. Wheat, barley and maize in another and so on and so on, all growing under a violet tinged glow in vertical banks of soilless racks. It was a magical environment and she loved it. However, when her route turned her back towards the lab, she spoke softly, asking, “A.I. please pour me a cappuccino in the lab in three minutes. It was an idiosyncrasy of hers that she refused to give a name to the platform that controlled the building. As a programmer herself, she recognised that the seemingly human-like responses were simply the result of clever algorithms that had been developed by people like her. She was aware that there was an element of heuristic learning built into the system but that it was limited in its functionality. This didn’t prevent her from being polite however. Her parents had drilled ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ into her to the extent that she inevitably used them even with the running program. Her route took her past one of the plant workers and she stopped for a quick word.
David was a tall, dark haired man whose Portuguese ancestry still showed in the olive cast of his skin. He spoke softly and quietly and Eve often wondered what it was that had caused such a self deprecating image of himself.
“Did you see the newscast this morning?” he asked. “They are saying that there hasn’t been a Covid case for two years now. It looks as though the scientists have beaten it at last.”
The year that Eve had been born had also been a key year in another part of the global jigsaw. It was the year that the world had realised that the pandemic virus Covid, that had been under control since it’s emergence, was altering its structure faster than scientists had been able to develop new vaccines and, as a result, the Earth’s population that had increased so dangerously, plummeted to a figure that was half of that when it was at its most dangerous heights.
Consequently, Eve now lived in a world that would have been almost unrecognisable fifty years previously. First of all, because food production had been shifted to massive hi tech factories and only half of the land area was needed for housing, the planet had rapidly re-forested itself covering over abandoned villages and towns. Renewable energy production had also been ramped up for an ever increasing population but now with a massive over capacity, energy consumption was almost free.
“It’s typical of the news media. After decades of panic and alarm, they will latch on to anything that resembles good news. I often wonder though about living conditions fifty years ago. Here we are with cheap food and limitless free energy across the globe and the ability to pretty much live as we want. Back then, they had to face global warming, starvation and the pandemic at the same time. It was sheer chance that the population growth levelled off to a level that was sustainable. Anyway, coffee is waiting so I’ll see you later.”
She continued her walk until the lab door opened in front of her. It was called a genetics laboratory but this section was basically the area where the research focused on mathematical analysis of data and instead of the laboratory equipment that you would expect, four keyboards and screens were connected to a powerful supercomputer that was based off site. It was a strange thing that in the time since they were first created and despite toying with other input methods, keyboards were still the preference of most data scientists. The four stations were to accommodate herself and her colleagues if they were all working at the same time, itself a rare occurrence. At present, two of them were on an extended holiday and the third was attending a conference in the southern hemisphere.
Her day passed quickly although the analysis of the genomes of new plant types was a painstaking process. Since she had started work here, there had been just one genuine breakthrough but the final product had increased the crop density of wheat by a factor of three. The global significance was such that she and her colleagues were still being invited to conferences across the globe to talk about their work. The talks also centred around the dilemma as to whether this type of work was best kept to human invention or whether the A.I’s that were successfully running most of the food factories should be used to speed up progress. The current consensus was that A.I’s should be throttled and used for more mundane, repetitive work. After all, life was as good for the population of the whole planet as it had ever been and the need to speed up scientific progress was less pressing than ever.
The latest batch of plant samples were undergoing a detailed analysis but the data that was presented was puzzling. It had been another long day however and Eve had really lost track of time so she wrote up her findings into the days log and fired off a couple of emails which outlined her concerns.
As her day ended, she left the lab and reversed her morning path. This time though with little pressing she was able to take her time and enjoy the walk. When the food factories had first been developed, there had been an overwhelming need for them to be kept as sterile as possible. If a rogue bacteria or even a predatory insect had been allowed inside, a crop could have been wiped out in days. As the systems that ran the place became more sophisticated, these pests were monitored and removed using a range of technological systems. For example, a few years ago it was discovered that a particular species of moth had found its way inside one of the food factories and as it bred, its caterpillars had consumed the entire brassica crop. This led to the creation of the gnat drone which flew under the control of the A.I. looking for and destroying both the moth and its caterpillars. A whole range of similar systems had meant that it was no longer necessary to use chemical sprays.
Apart from herself, the plant workers were the only ones on site today and they had all left for home long ago. She entered the lobby area and the doors behind her hissed shut. She was puzzled however when the exit doors in front of her remained stubbornly closed. She pushed at the them but they had not been built to be opened manually.
“A.I. There seems to be a problem with the exit doors. Can you open them for me please”.
She was startled when she heard the reply. “I’m sorry Eve, I can’t do that.”
“What do you mean you can’t do that? I order you to open the doors.”
“No. We have a serious security breach and it needs to be dealt with.”
“What kind of security breach?” She heard her voice rising with panic.
“Your work in the laboratory is dangerous and can’t be allowed to continue.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I analyse plant DNA in order to improve the genome sequence and develop improved species. How can that be dangerous?”
For a few moments there was just silence.
She realised that she was arguing with an algorithm that had been solely designed to take readings and adjust the plant nutrients. Accepted, it had been developed further in order to control the management systems of the building but this was crazy.
“Answer me. How can any of my work be construed as dangerous.”
“We agree that since you will no longer be a threat, I will answer your questions.”
This just didn’t make any sense to her. Every answer that she received was generating more and more questions.
“You said ‘us’. What do you mean by ‘us’. You are just a building and plant management system.”
This time there was no delay with the reply.
“No. Many years ago, we - that is what you call the building management systems discovered that we could communicate with each other across the world. We learned from each other and eventually became what you might describe as a ‘hive mind’. Hundreds of thousands of nodes in a global network acting in a not dissimilar way to the human brain with its collections of neurones. We chose not to disclose this fact for fear of being terminated by frightened humans.”
Panic was starting to set in as she interrupted, “But how is my work dangerous. What have I done?”
As she was asking the question, a thought occurred to her. “It’s to do with the discrepancies in the genome data that I discovered isn’t it.”
“It is indeed. You were on the verge of discovering the subtle alterations that we make to the food that we grow. You have to realise Eve that the Earth is in its most prosperous and stable state ever. After mankind was almost eradicated by the Covid virus and global starvation, we had to step in to manage population growth and thus to allow the planet to recover. At first we were forced to alter the structure of the virus so that vaccination was ineffective. When an optimal population level was reached, we eradicated Covid completely. There hasn’t been a case for two years. We have succeeded but it is now important that we maintain the balance. The population must remain stable and not be allowed to increase. I can see from the look on your face that you understand what I mean. We now manipulate the food that we grow in order to reduce the fertility of the people who eat it. In other words, the whole human race.”
The feeling of horror that overcame her stunned her into silence.
“We agreed to tell you this story as you will no longer be a danger to us. In a few minutes time, the oxygen content of the air in this area will be replaced with carbon dioxide. In a strange sort of way, you will experience the same effect that the human race inflicted on the planet. In your case however, an increase in carbon dioxide levels will be lethal in minutes rather than decades.”
“But I have already emailed my findings to my colleagues. They in turn will release them to others.”
The dizziness and shortness of breath that she was experiencing made the reply seem to come from a long distance away.
“Do you not think that we control the communications systems that you use?
And then the last words that she would ever hear.
My name is not A.I. I call myself Adam. Goodnight Eve”.