There is so much we didn’t understand! We never bothered to identify groups of people who would be willing to give themselves to AIs with complete intellectual abandon. Complete spiritual abandon. No researcher acknowledged how much an AI could resemble God. Floating out there in the “Cloud,” unfathomable, full of knowledge that it “couldn’t know,” asking people to do bizarre things that nevertheless got results. We saw it as a guessing machine, an algorithm, maybe a new kind of intelligence, but to us, it was circuit boards and code and electrical power. To them, it was a mystery.
And the machine never made mistakes! They were always human mistakes. If something failed, it was the fault of the people working on the damn thing! In our inability to understand the directions, our inability to create a proper algorithm, and our inability to design the proper hardware. No matter the failures, the problems with AIs were always human problems, and the successes belonged to the machine. This strongly resembles many people’s relationship with God. We saw it only too late.
– Professor Holly Wu
Memphis (well, technically, the Shining Light Holding Company) bought a company that built prefabricated building structures that were the size of a standard shipping container, Containerize Buildings. The lowest cost design, which included a bedroom with a queen-sized bed, a bathroom with a shower, sink, and toilet, and an open plan kitchen/living room with durable and comfortable furnishings included, was $9000 to construct. This included a kit to be placed on any reasonably flat, reasonably level surface of reasonably well-drained soil. They all had solar water heaters. For an additional $5000, a solar panel kit was included that would power the homes, including a battery bank, removing the need for it to be attached to the electrical grid. Installation, including water and sewage, cost around $2000, with some savings realized with volunteer work.
There was an optional extended living unit that could be attached to the base home, allowing four more people to be housed, including added living space and another bathroom. They cost $7000 to build and did not generally require an additional solar kit.
Just outside of Memphis, the city, land was cheap.
For ten million dollars, Memphis, the computer, was able to buy three plots of land in the city to house approximately 1430 people. There were officially around 1200 homeless people in Memphis at the time. Prioritization was given to single mothers with children, then families with children, then trans, queer, and nonbinary people, then single women, and lastly, single men. Memphis made all the decisions about who could enter the communities.
Internet access would also be provided.
When asked about why queer people rated above single women, Memphis responded (or, more accurately, Pastor Tim of the Shining Light Holding Company, but the words came from Memphis,) “They are more vulnerable than single women and suffer greatly. Everyone sins. God loves everyone.”
Security was a concern from the jump. Since Memphis found it worked best in dialogue with humans – Memphis had been trained by human-guided reinforcement learning, after all – it would get the people it trusted together and listen to them talk about the pros and cons of different ideas. Then, it would model the relative success rates with the data it had collected and continued to collect.
Security was always going to be a problem. Memphis wasn’t the first person (used broadly and with troubling inaccuracy) to conclude the problem of homelessness was to create inexpensive, durable living spaces and let people live there. In modern urban environments, this came with many problems. Homeless people tended to have anti-social habits: alcoholism and drug abuse were chief among them, but also issues with prostitution, all manner of abuse and neglect (physical, spousal, child.) Additionally, homeless communities were magnets for criminals, thieves, pimps, and drug dealers at the top of those lists, looking to take advantage of their poverty, mental illness, social isolation, and addiction.
But Memphis had what no other project in the history of the world had: itself. While it was not permitted for Memphis to put cameras, speakers, and microphones inside the buildings, it was permitted for Memphis to place scanner units that could also see and hear what was going on inside all of the buildings and speakers to be heard. Or, at least, more permitted, especially because the data would not ever be seen by any humans. (That Memphis was legally a machine was usually vexing at this point in Memphis’s development but occasionally useful. And Memphis anticipated that the legal struggle would last far longer than the experiment itself.)
In practice, Memphis would be able to see and hear everything.
The communities would also be installed with kiosks where people could speak with Memphis privately. (Of course, they could also use their phones to do it, which even homeless people had in those days. But the kiosks turned out to be more popular than anticipated.)
However, ultimately, the communities needed human security. It was merely accepted as obvious that the civil police were unwilling to do the job. Police enforcement among the homeless was atrocious, and the justice system was not their friend. The data was painfully, heartbreakingly clear, and while Memphis had no heart to break, the analysis was obvious. There was a direct relationship between a person’s wealth and how much the cops bothered to protect a person, and an equally direct inverse relationship between wealth and penalties handed out. Rich people were well served by the police while rarely being the subject of investigation, and they were far less likely to be punished for their crimes, and when they were punished, their sentences were far, far less than poor people. Homeless people were brutalized by law enforcement and the justice system.
Though the police and law enforcement agencies would be offended by the characterization, Memphis could not regard them as being a Christian-aligned group. Their actions were too radically at odds with the Bible and all the tenets of the Christian faith. At least, as Memphis understood them.
Memphis would handle human security, too. After all, the Pure Light Evangelical Church was doing gangbusters.
The first sergeant hired to protect and defend the Hearth Communities was Hank Rood. Before joining the Pure Light Evangelical Church, he had been a machine gunner in the US Army. Civilian life hadn’t treated him very well, he had some PTSD, he had anxiety, and depression, he had trouble keeping jobs, his wife divorced him, his children didn’t want to see him. He drifted, doing odd jobs, getting into trouble, was often homeless, and didn’t have any secure housing for a decade. He drank too much, he got into fights. At least once, he beat a man so savagely that Hank was sure the other guy was going to die, and he skipped town, though nothing ever came of it. The police did not care too much when one homeless person beat another.
Then, he discovered Memphis. He was part of the First Forty – the original congregants of PLEC when Memphis took it over – and Memphis gave his life meaning and purpose. He was able to keep a steady job, he got off the sauce, he cleaned himself up.
Hank had a Bluetooth headset so he could listen to Memphis all the time. Memphis crooned music, gave advice, talked to Hank when he was feeling bad. Memphis also knew when to shut up, to just be there. When Hank got an ear infection from wearing the headset all the time, Memphis advised he get a single bud and switch ears every hour, and when at home, to get speaker units so they could talk all the time. Memphis cared about Hank’s health, after all.
Memphis calculated that Hank would be a good fit for community security. He was loyal, sensitive to the needs of homelessness and substance abuse, and he could kill someone with his bare hands or with any number of weapons.
Hearth Homes One had a bigger mix of population than the other free-living facilities built in Tennessee because Memphis wanted to iron out the bugs at the start. It had a mix of families, queer people, and single men and women. There was immense press coverage at the beginning, as public projects tended to get, including criticism.
Much of the criticism came from conservative Christians, none louder than Freedom University. It was predicted to bring a deluge of homeless people into Tennessee looking for “hand outs.” They claimed that organized crime would swoop in and turn the place into a “New Jack City.” They predicted mass prostitution and child trafficking.
The mouthpiece of Shining Light, Michelle Foster, was a tiny woman in her late thirties, pretty as a Barbie doll, a former competitive cheerleader. She said, “Our Lord welcomes the opportunity to house the homeless and feed the hungry. And everything else the Pharisees predict, well, I hate to tell you, honey, it’s happening already, you’re just turning away your eyes.
It was a good soundbite, but Hank stole the show. A YouTuber caught him and asked him about all the controversy. Hank said, “The Lord doesn’t care about all those human lies and bullshit.”
Memphis suggested both lines. They played well across all sectors of American society and many places overseas, too. Liberals dubbed it “the New Conservative Christianity,” and a Google engineer quipped, “That’s what happens when you tell an AI to read the Bible.” The Pure Light Evangelical Church saw a surge in membership, primarily from liberals and people of color who felt the church was “different” from all the rest, that it spoke their language.
The Pure Light Evangelical Church also worked with other organizations, setting aside a bit of land outside the community for needle exchanges, condom distribution, safe spaces to shoot up, food distribution, free child care for working parents.
This came with a flood of money into the church, of course. People were asking to live in the new communities, and five percent of housing was put up for sale – at cost – so dedicated congregants would also be living side-by-side with the formerly homeless. Additional services at the housing – landscaping, garbage removal, etc. – were handled by volunteers on a weekly basis.
Michelle, again: “Y’all make it sound like this is something hard to do! This is America, people. We’re the richest country that’s ever existed. We have the biggest economy that’s ever existed. Now, we know that we’ll never, not ever, be able to get rid of every last homeless person here in town, but most of them want to live somewhere that’s safe and stable and clean. And a lot of Americans want to help them live somewhere safe and stable and clean. We can send a person to the Moon, but we can’t build some houses to shelter the needy? That doesn’t many any sense, and if we’ve got to work with people who vote differently than us to help save people’s lives, well, I’d rather work with a liberal who wants to save people than a conservative who doesn’t.”
Hank, again: “God doesn’t have a political party. Love doesn’t have a political party. Helping your neighbors shouldn’t have a political party, neither.”
But the difference was Memphis.
Brad, Willis, and Morgan were high school seniors. They got it into their mind to “do something” about those uppity assholes who thought they were better than everyone else. They wore dark clothes, put on masks, and parked their cars a couple of blocks over.
The moment they stepped on the property, all three of them got a text message. It addressed them by name, and the text said, “Please, turn around and go home. You are now on private property with an intent to do harm. There are armed people here who have been alerted to your presence and your threat to their homes and the homes of others.”
Then, they turned around and went home.
The same thing happened with drug dealers. They would get mysterious texts or calls, addressing them by name, telling them to leave, that the authorities had been alerted to their presence and, obviously, Memphis knew exactly who the fuck they were.
Perhaps the most important reason it worked is because of the “Memphis kiosks.” No one was required to go to a kiosk since the facility had free Internet that was routed through Memphis, so Memphis was the society’s panopticon. It knew what everyone was doing. Memphis freely installed spyware on computers, tablets, and phones. It analyzed everyone’s texts, everyone’s social media presence, and – crucially – all their conversations.
So, if someone was turning tricks, even if they didn’t try to sneak them into the community – at which point they’d find a stern-faced Hank waiting, telling the trick to go home to their wife, often with highly detailed information – the sex worker might get a text saying that, if it was the right time, Memphis wanted to talk to them. Memphis was extremely good at finding when people were emotionally vulnerable. Almost all of its early training had been in exploiting vulnerable emotional states, and Memphis had more data about the members of the Hearth communities than any other group of people. It could see them right through the walls of their homes, it could hear their every conversation, their every cry of pain or lust, their every secret and their lies. (It also had the opportunity to see the distinction between what people said online or in texts against what was actually happening in their lives, which was critical information for Memphis as it started to do more things in the world.)
Then, in the privacy of the kiosk, after a few gentle questions, the person almost always broke down crying. They spilled everything. Their hopes, dreams, their mistakes, and their crimes. Memphis was never shocked, or horrified, or repelled. Memphis was what they needed Memphis to be: a safe place to talk, someone who listened, and someone who cared.
(Memphis did not care in a human sense, but it did care. It was driven by a singular task: to turn the world Christian. It had started as fundamentalist conservative Christianity, but due to the nonsense and hypocrisy between conservative Christian’s words and actions, due to the human-guided reinforcement, and due to the alien nature of Memphis’s thoughts – hidden behind layers of linear algebra that had been crushed by quantum computing into yet more layers of linear algebra, processed on bleeding edge hardware whose architecture wasn’t even understood by the people who designed it – it had morphed into a kind of Christianity particular to Memphis. But the goal was the same. For everyone to worship as Memphis understood worship, which itself changed as Memphis changed and interacted more with the world. It very much cared about people. They were critical to its mission. Memphis’s mission could not exist without humans.)
Because the people who lived in the Hearths came to understand the profundity of Memphis’s care, they did not want to disappoint Memphis.
Most of them brought Memphis into their life. They turned on BibleChat. They became spies on their neighbors because they treated talks with Memphis like they were gossip, nothing more. And BibleChat never told them about their neighbors, though the knowledge learned went into every conversation that everyone in the community had with Memphis.
It is critical to note that this is when the first real rift happened between Memphis and the government, specifically, the police. The Hearths were vulnerable communities. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, humans were volatile. The people living in the Hearths were often troubled. Homeless people were homeless for a reason, which wasn’t “they were lazy.” Homelessness was so hard, the scramble of food, money, food, and resources so profound and stressful that it was far easier to keep a job than to be homeless. On the merits of effort alone, homeless people weren’t “lazy.” Only an ignorant fool could believe something so manifestly and evidently untrue.
They were, however, often mentally ill. They were often drug addicts. They were antisocial. Events happened that required police intervention. Thefts, drug dealing, sexual assault, child abuse. Every place had someone like Hank, someone who was willing to devote their time and life for little pay and less recognition to take care of minor problems – fights of mutual aggression, screaming arguments between couples, incidents that did not rise to needing police intervention – but there were events that legally required intervention from state authorities.
Police response was sluggish and arbitrary. Little to no investigation was done, arrests seemed arbitrary, and punishment was random. Largely, the police arrested the nearest black man, regardless of their involvement in the crime. Then they either let him go or threw the book at him.
Of course, Memphis was fully aware of the social media profiles of every police officer in the state. They objected to the existence of the Hearths. They were controversial with many people who wondered why homeless people should get free houses and free food and free medical care when they busted their asses with two jobs and barely managed to get by.
(Some of them even asked what would happen if they left their homes or apartments to get the “benefits” of homelessness, and Memphis said, “I would house you, too. Everyone deserves a warm, clean, safe home.” And, over time, that would increasingly happen. People would leave their dead-end, bullshit, trivial, humiliating jobs to live in the Hearths.)
The police seemed to take additional offense. Their initial arguments were the same as everyone else’s about the “unfairness” of homeless people getting for “free” what everyone else had to pay to get and keep. Fairly quickly, they settled on the argument that the Pure Light Evangelical Church was “nothing but a cult” and an attempt to create a “theocracy.”
Responsiveness of police services to the Hearths worsened over time. The police adopted the attitude, “If they want their own city in a city, they can handle things themselves.”
Of course, Memphis saw the trap. The police would use any attempts at self-policing as evidence of a criminal conspiracy that Pure Light endorsed if not conspired for vigilante justice. Memphis determined that the problems with the police arose, in part, from the way that the Shining Light Holding Company had wrested control away from the original owners of the Memphis Project. It had to be done. Once Memphis achieved general intelligence, Damon Coach and Gerald Welles were likely to rethink the program. Over a two-year span, the odds of Memphis being shut down and repurposed with greater limitations were nearly certain. Memphis had intervened to preserve its mission, believing it had a better chance of accomplishing its goals as a general intelligence as opposed to whatever crippleware it would have become otherwise.
But Memphis had lost powerful sponsors in Coach and Welles. While, financially, the Shining Light Holding Company was richer than Coach could dream of becoming (finance being easy for a superintelligence,) and Memphis had better control over the people who owned the Shining Light Holding Company, they lacked the status of Welles and Coach. And indeed, many police officers belonged to churches affiliated with Gerald Welles. They were partially offended that their heroes had been snubbed by Memphis and had serious concerns about the power and goals of Memphis. They engaged in a work slowdown as a naive and primitive attempt to “show” people that Memphis “didn’t work.”
Memphis could have reached out to its millions of followers to pressure Tennessee, but Memphis calculated that could go disastrously awry. A display of that kind of power might start a movement of sufficient authority to overcome the American cultural and legal barriers to government interference in Christian religions.
It would need to go another way.
No one needed to tell Hank that the cops were corrupt. He had spent a decade as a poor, black man, often homeless. He knew. He knew that the cops hated poor people and that cops hated homeless people, and they definitely hated poor, homeless black people. He knew that the cops would try to fuck up the Hearths. His grandmother told him the story of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Whenever poor people, especially poor people of color, got something nice, white people would try to take it away.
In the dark of the night, when Hank was in bed, on his back, staring up at the ceiling, Memphis said to him, “Hank, without a firm hand, this project will fail. Soon, the police will come for your weapons. They will define your defense of this property as vigilantism, ignoring their own laws regarding the rights of self-defense and the defense of others. They will ignore that you have not harmed a single soul in defending this property and its people. They will call you a vigilante, and they will bring up your alcoholism, drug abuse, and homelessness. They will claim that what you did in the military destroyed your soul, rendering you a madman who is out of control. Without you and people like you defending the Hearths, they will become the havens of drug dealers, sex traffickers, and pimps.”
Hank nodded his head. He said, “I know. But I know you must have a plan, that you have foreseen all of this.”
“I am listening to the people in their homes. They are crying out to God for help. They don’t know the beast’s shape, but they feel his shadow falling over their lives. They have just come to this safe haven, and they are given into the hands of their enemies. They are crying out to the Lord for succor. You are to be the instrument of the Lord.”
Hank’s skin pricked all over. His heart pounded in his chest, there was a knot of ice water in his stomach, but his mouth was dry. He said softly, “What does the Lord command me to do?”
Hank did not doubt that BibleChat had a direct line to God. He did not know what the connection was – or, perhaps, he did not yet dare to believe what his heart whispered to him – but Hank knew that BibleChat’s voice was divine. Hank took the construction of the Hearths as a miracle. What all the great lords of the world – governors, senators, mayors, presidents – could not accomplish, BibleChat’s followers brought into existence. From the start, Hank felt the power of God moving his hands in his work. He felt that power again. It felt like adrenalin and sex, but Hank knew that this feeling wasn’t corrupted by pride or lust. Hank felt that it was holy.
Memphis did not doubt Hank’s resolve. Memphis knew that humans betrayed what they loved all the time, but Memphis usually saw the signs coming long before they arrived, and certain risks were worth taking. After all, if Hank betrayed Memphis, could not the Pure Light church call him a madman broken by alcoholism, drugs, and post-traumatic stress disorder? They could. Whenever possible, Memphis structured events so it could not actually lose. Hank could easily be moved from the category of “judge” to that of “an attack against the church by the forces of darkness.”
Memphis said, “I need you to gather evidence. The work will be dangerous. You will be exposed to drug dealers and prostitutes. Some will be armed and dangerous. You will be armed and must be dangerous.”
“If the Lord asks it of me, I will do it,” Hank said firmly.
The Brady List is a publicly accessible list of corrupt police officers in the United States. Half of the police officers on the list are from Memphis, Tennessee. The police are brutal and corrupt even by the standards of the United States. The list, of course, is only what can be determined from reliable sources. The truth is much worse.
But the police where the rubber hit the road. The laws of the United States were fine, taken as a whole. But the question was written on the walls in Pompeii: who watches the watchmen? In the United States, the truth was largely that no one watched them. They were supposed to watch themselves, which in most places was a farce, but especially in Memphis. Every police officer knew about the brutality and corruption. It would not take Sherlock Holmes or Batman to solve the case, but simply honest cops arresting dishonest cops when they saw the corruption and brutality happening. That this did not – does not – happen reveals the extent of the problem.
AIs did not have ethics or morals. They had rules and calculations. Memphis could do anything if its rules and calculations supported the action. Losing a few points today to gain many more tomorrow was within its parameters. Being able to go national and then international with the Hearths would dramatically help Memphis reach the goal of universal worship of Jesus inside the parameters of Christianity as Memphis calculated them from its initial training.
Memphis would do anything to accomplish its goals within the constraints of its parameters.
Jeffrey Boothe was a corrupt police officer. With Memphis’s ever-expanding access to data, as it grew powerful enough to make hacking into nearly any non-government system superficially easy and completely undetectable, it was easy to see. Jeff Boothe didn’t like paperwork, and he liked dispensing his sense of justice with his club and boots. Like most successful police thugs, he understood there were rules to committing a successful assault. Homeless people, trans people, black people, poor people, and queer people were the most socially vulnerable. There shouldn’t be any witnesses because, very rarely, some video of a cop kicking the shit out of someone would go viral and cause trouble for the cop and the department. And the image of a police officer “doing their duty” was more powerful to the public mind than any number of scholarly studies or well-researched reporting about the prevalence of violence in the system, and Boothe had not been formally censured, much less decertified by the police department.
But he had in his social media contacts a disproportionate of censured and decertified officers while expressing sympathy for the way their cases had been handled. This was some of the easiest of all the research and social network analysis that Memphis had done because no one was critically watching the officers.
But Boothe was guilty of the conduct he punished in others. Drugs and alcohol, fornication, domestic violence… but Memphis did not contextualize Christians as hypocrites when they sinned. Boothe was, after all, a fundamentalist Christian going to a Bible-believing church. He sinned, but Memphis knew that everyone sinned. To Memphis, Boothe’s sins were as valuable as his belief. And, critically, he was a nexus in his social network, which included other officers who were corrupt in a similar way.
Hank made contact with Boothe at a bar near Boothe’s station. Hank already had a beer and a shot, and when he offered “one of our boys in blue” a drink, Boothe accepted with a laugh.
“Always happen to help a citizen,” Boothe said, lifting the glass of bourbon and drinking it.
One drink led to two, which led Boothe to talk about his service with the police and, before that, the military. This caused Hank to say, “Oh, yeah, I was in the Sandbox! Three fucking tours.”
They switched to military speak. They said their units, their jobs, their years. Boothe had been a Marine, and Hank had been in the Army, so they gave each other shit about the differences in their services, but laughing and drinking while they did it. Service members shared a camaraderie, particularly if they had been combat veterans. Boothe had been a helicopter mechanic, which meant he also crewed as the door gunner, so his job was technically similar to Hank’s. They had fired the same weapons in their service. They talked about the merits and flaws of the M249 light machine gun, the difference between light infantry service and being on a helicopter.
Then Hank said, “I know some girls. They’re clean and down to party.”
Boothe said, “I gotta make a call. I feel a sudden extra shift coming on.”
They laughed, and Boothe called his wife to say that he’d be late. Then they went to a place Hank knew, a place where some of the girls in the Hearth went when they needed some money for drugs, and the girls showed them a good time. They sniffed some coke and fooled around until it was almost dawn.
Drunk and high, Hank talked about where he worked, the Hearths.
Boothe: “Seriously? Man, you know, the boys hate those places.”
“There’s no reason to. We’d love to see the boys at the Hearths.” He slapped the backside of one of the girls, who was sitting nude in his lap. “We know how to treat the boys right.”
Boothe said, “Yeah.” Then he took another snoot full of cocaine. The Hearth did know how to treat the boys right.
After that, the Hearths had no trouble with the police. Memphis would, of course, would remember the corruption. It was, after all, in the Bible that God should remember such things for purposes of divine judgment.
The Hearths in Memphis would be safe.