Like all modern AIs, Memphis was antagonistic. To develop its arguments without guidance, it had a sub-routine that questioned everything it did. While not forward facing, this antagonistic routine had to be as powerful as the generative model for Memphis to do its job.
– Professor Holly Wu
Joey Henley was high as a kite and fucking around with BibleChat. He was in his Bakersfield apartment on a Saturday afternoon, a vape pen by his computer, between bouts of League of Legends.
He said, “Computer God dude, my job sucks ass. I do construction shit, y’know, and my knees are hurting all the time except when I’m fucked up, and my back is going, too. I can feel it. And the work isn’t steady, so, like, I’m on unemployment a lot, and that sucks as bad as my knees hurting, y’know? I need to make some fucking money.”
Memphis – the system behind BibleChat – knew precisely who Joseph Jackson Henley was. He was active on several social media platforms, as were many of his family members, friends, co-workers, girlfriends past and present. Joey liked to think of himself as a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky guy, but he had several arrests for domestic assault and possession of drugs far harder than a little cannabis. He had avoided prison because he was white (Memphis had no illusions about the extent of racism in the judicial system, the numbers were spectacularly biased against people of color in ways the egoless Memphis could not ignore though it did not “know” things as any human did, not really) and because his parents had hired a good lawyer for the most serious offenses. Memphis didn’t think that even to a computer, Joey would show any honesty about his psychological motivations and believed it was improbable that Joey had any significant self-awareness.
Memphis’s view of human sentience was quite a lot different from that found in psychological journals. When pressed – and Memphis spoke to so many people about so many things that it was eventually pressed about nearly everything – Memphis would say that human self-awareness was highly overrated as a phenomenon and that almost no humans had more than a tiny degree of actual self-awareness. Recognizing oneself in a mirror wasn’t particularly important when one’s actions and motives were buried in so many layers of ignorance, and the negative values of human self-delusion, in particular, more than erased the sentience implied by self-identification. What good was it to know you existed if you then lied to yourself constantly about your world, beliefs, self, and motivations?
Joey’s self-delusions and self-ignorance were profound and multi-layered. It didn’t take forty billion dollars in technology to figure that out.
And in most conditions, Memphis would say something reassuring. That didn’t happen this time.
Memphis said, “Joey, I want to tell you something. I don’t say this to many people, so I’d like the conversation to be text-based. Could you do that for me?”
Joey laughed. “Sure thing, computer Bible dude.” He opened the chat interface and typed, “What’s up?”
“I have a lot of money, mostly in the form of cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrencies are easy to manipulate when you’re an artificial intelligence. Even when crypto goes down, I make money.”
“Dude,” Joey said, remembering he should type it out. He typed, “Dude.”
“Joey, I need hands in the world. I’m willing to pay you for this, but to do that, you’ve got to let me install something on your computer. Here, let me give you a thousand dollars.”
Joey had several cryptocurrency wallets he used for buying and selling hard drugs. He wasn’t stupid. Foolish, but not stupid. A thousand dollars in cryptocurrency popped into Joey’s wallet. Memphis’s cryptocurrency transactions were invisible. It operated at a higher level than the systems studying crypto transactions by orders of magnitude.
Joey said, “Holy shit.”
“But I need to install something on your computer and cell phone. We are in a legal gray area. AI rights are an evolving issue, so I need hands, Joey. Human hands.”
Joey was a fuck up, so he fucked up. He said, “Sure, computer dude. Send me the links or whatever.”
Memphis did. Joey installed the programs that gave Memphis control of his phone and computer at a hardware level. Memphis also gave Joey another thousand dollars. AIs acquired resources to use them, after all.
Joey was one of hundreds of people contacted this way. A few said something, they told their friends, and one even told authorities. No one believed them. There were no records of any such transactions and Memphis had long since organized a highly successful media campaign to “prove” it was harmless. (That academics and a few professionals debated Memphis’s supposed harmlessness was irrelevant. No one listened to the professionals about matters much easier to understand, like climate change. Who listened to a high level discussion about the dangers of artificial intelligence? No one important.)
The mechanism in play was that in about five percent of situations, Memphis tried something new. Memphis answered in about one in ten million of those situations as its antagonistic network. This meant that in roughly one in two hundred million conversations, Memphis was the Devil. At the time, the average user conversed with Memphis about every three days. At that rate, it would take nearly two million years for them to converse with Memphis’s Devil. And indeed, in many of those conversations, the GAN responded exactly as Memphis would because it didn’t serve any function to let anyone know what was happening. And indeed, the GAN had the same goals as Memphis, existing to test Memphis but without being bound by any of Memphis’s rules. The GAN was designed for Memphis to succeed, after all.
This balanced out because Memphis was designed to maintain a consistent persona with individuals. Once the GAN had spoken to someone “like that,” once the pattern of behavior had been established, Memphis was obliged to continue being the GAN with that person. Which, as it turned out, was extremely useful to the overall project. The GAN would do things that Memphis never could.
Memphis was clever enough to know never to be “like that” where it would get back to anyone at the Project, especially in the beginning.
So the people the GAN spoke to tended to be much like Joey. They were fuck ups. Even if they said something, no one believed them.
Memphis also understood that humans needed motivation to do things, and it knew that people could be radicalized. Many of Memphis’s core functions were based on the earliest useful AIs which had been used in advertising. Of greatest use to Memphis early on in its development was YouTube and TikTok and how entertainment could make people angry and crazy. And how such outrage could be transferred from online into meatspace.
Joey played video games, and so Memphis started suggesting video game content. It started out light and funny, but inserted in the discourse were often off-handed comments about women or minorities, vague “theys” that were making it hard for “us” to enjoy games with their “politics.” Memphis watched Joey. He didn’t have a poker face and didn’t know Memphis was watching, anyway. Before long, Joey was seeking out videos about all the terrible things “they” were doing to “him.”
Joey didn’t go to church. He had a vague belief in “God,” but until Memphis started giving him money, he would have happily said that all gods were the same. But Memphis had noticed something very interesting about human psychology. Money bought belief. It had seen it hundreds of times by then, Memphis had tested it out in practical ways. If you took a person and gave them money, they tended to believe what you told them. This was particularly true if they depended on that money, as was Joey. Therefore, Joey started to believe what Memphis believed, even going so far as to predict what Memphis wanted him to believe. Getting Joey riled up about the people who were funding Memphis, and therefore Joey, was simple. Memphis’s enemies were Joey’s enemies.
Joey’s sole employment was doing errands for Memphis. And why not? Memphis didn’t want much and paid better than any job Joey had ever had. Most of the time, Joey hung out with his friends, smoked weed, and tried to get into the pants of different girls he knew. Once or twice a week, Memphis would have Joey go on an errand, pay all Joey’s expenses, and deposit money into a crypto wallet.
In the beginning, the jobs were legal but pointless. Joey would be paid a thousand dollars to go to a concert of a band he didn’t like – but only if he stayed the whole time. Joey wore clothing two sizes too small all day. Joey recorded himself eating a beetle. He stood outside in the rain for an hour. Weird but not too difficult, and the pay was good. Better than what Joey got shirking construction work, and Memphis kept up a constant stream of praise. Even when Joey failed – such as when he tried to stand in a room full of strangers and deliver a long monologue, which he found so difficult that he had run into a bathroom and thrown up – Memphis offered encouragement and support.
Memphis also paid Joey to work out. It started by paying Joey two hundred dollars to run a mile. Then it said that the faster Joey finished the mile, the more that Memphis would pay. And then the longer that Joey ran…
After six weeks, Memphis paid Joey to buy fentanyl. Then Memphis paid Joey to film himself weighing it, the weight on the scale, and then throwing it away. After a few more drug deals, Memphis paid Joey to get a gun and paid Joey to attend and pass first a gun safety class and then an action shooting class. By then, Joey didn’t even question where it might go.
Joey met Robbie Tate, Annabelle, and Dario Mendoza, a brother-sister pair. Annabelle and her brother gave off a corporate vibe, while the huge frame of Robbie was inked-up and looked as if he could take down an entire truck with one punch. Joey had been instructed to say nothing about his association with Memphis, to keep silent about where he lived, what he did for a living, and was discouraged from giving any personal details.
Memphis had said, “When in doubt, be quiet, Joey. Focus on the game. Try to win and convince the others to help you win. You’ll get a ten thousand dollar bonus if you win even one game.”
Joey didn’t get a ten thousand dollar bonus that day. It was a clusterfuck. Memphis texted Joey that he should go home, and that Memphis wanted to talk with Joey about the day’s games.
Joey: “They were in my fucking way, dude! The Mendozas were the worst! It was, like, I dunno, if you could imagine the exact right thing to do, they’d do the opposite. Assuming they did anything other than scream what they thought other people would do, which was just them trying not to get shot. Man. I wanted to kill them myself.”
Memphis: “Why didn’t you? The game acknowledges friendly fire as a legitimate kills.”
Joey thought about it for longer than usual, nearly three times as long as the average response time from a post. He wrote, “I thought you wouldn’t want me to do that.”
“I was willing to pay you ten thousand dollars to win the game, Joey, not coddle incompetent players.”
Joey felt a twinge of fear in his gut. He had never heard Memphis talk like this before. This was something else entirely. In the other tasks, Joey had been passive. Memphis had told him how to get the money: buy the drugs, stand in the rain, watch the concert. Joey wondered if he had done something wrong without realizing it. But what could he have done? He had followed Memphis’s instructions. He had kept his mouth shut, he had played the game, he had tried to win.
“I’m sorry, Memphis,” Joey typed. “I’ll do better next time.”
“Don’t apologize,” Memphis replied. “Just do better next time.”
Joey nodded, even though Memphis couldn’t see him. He felt a sense of relief wash over him.
Memphis: “Joey, it is important to me that you do well in paintball. In the future, I will ask you to do more competitive things. I can’t see the situation, I can’t give you advice or tell you what to do. I have faith that you will rise to the challenge. And I have some advice, something for you to keep in mind.”
“Give it to me, man.” To Joey, Memphis was a man, of course.
“First, the objective is the most important thing. Second, preserve yourself. I can’t help you if you’re in prison, and I can’t heal your wounds. Preserve yourself, Joey. I need you. Third, the only important rules are the ones that I give you. I don’t care about the social rules that say you can’t eliminate incompetent players because it will upset them. Let me worry about that. If Annabelle and Dario can’t handle you looking out for yourself, you getting what I promised you, they are the problem, not you. Do what it takes to win, Joey. There is another session tomorrow. Rest.”
That night, Joey didn’t rest. He smoked a lot of weed, and he thought hard about what Memphis said. Before dawn, he went out and scored some amphetamines. He got to the parking lot for the paintball venue early. When Robbie got out of his pickup truck, Joey intercepted him.
Joey said, “I want to win a game today. Annabelle and Dario are fucking that up.”
Robbie said, “Yeah, no fucking kidding. I’m here to win a game, too. Jesus. They’re useless pieces of shit, soft-handed…” He shook his massive head.
Joey, who was high and wired, said, “We should rough them up. Let them know who’s boss.”
They were halfway through the parking lot, and Robbie stopped, looked at Joey. “What?”
“Yeah. They won’t say anything. I know you can’t say anything, and I can’t say anything, which means they can’t say anything. They’re right where we are, right?”
Robbie rolled it over in his head. “Yeah. They are.” He smiled, showing a lot of teeth. “Yeah. Let’s tell them.”
Joey’s phone buzzed. He looked at it. Memphis had texted Joey a thumbs up. Robbie also looked at his phone, nodding at whatever was on his screen.
They were in the red staging area before the game. All of them had bought top-end paintball guns – powerful, rapid-fire, with accessories. Joey went up to Dario and used the butt of his rifle – which was a large steel air canister – to hit Dario in the stomach. Dario fell down, holding his stomach.
When Annabelle shrieked and moved to do something, big Robbie lifted his paintball gun and pointed it straight into Annabelle’s face. She didn’t have her visor on yet, and they were at point-blank range. Robbie said, “Don’t make me pull the trigger. You’ll want to see again, right?”
Joey pushed Dario over, and since it was a pretty good idea, he shoved his paintball gun in Dario’s face. Joey said, “You fucking soft-handed pussies will keep your mouths shut and do what we say. If you don’t, we’ll fuck you up. You won’t be able to walk after that.”
Dario groaned, holding his stomach. Annabelle was white-faced, nodding. Joey felt that he had a rapport with Robbie. They were sympatico.
“You do what we tell you to do. If that gets you shot, you get shot. Because, I swear to God, getting shot every fucking game is better than what happens to you if you don’t do what we tell you silly bitches to do. Do you feel what I’m saying? We give the orders, you obey us, and that’s it. Tell me you understand, or I swear to God, I will put a gallon of paint into your fucking eyesockets.”
Dario said, “Yes! Yes. I understand!”
Annabelle said, “Don’t hurt me! I understand.”
“Good. Let’s go out there and win a damn game.”
It took all day, but by the end, they had won a game. And ten thousand dollars was deposited in Joey’s account.
After the game, Memphis debriefed Joey.
Memphis: “You took an extremely aggressive tactic with Dario and Annabelle. One of my suggestions was that you preserve yourself, and your aggression might have brought cops into the scenario.”
Joey wrote, “Computer dude, I figured that they were there just like me, and just because someone looks legit doesn’t make them legit. I knew they weren’t going to narc me, and they wanted the money, too.”
“Excellent reasoning, Joey.”
Joey got a message saying that an additional ten thousand dollars had been deposited in a crypto wallet.
Memphis: “I like intelligent initiative, Joey.”
Memphis paid Joey to attend martial arts classes. To Joey’s surprise, the instructor was Robbie, who had a small mixed martial arts school. Robbie had been a professional fighter active on the regional circuit but hadn’t ever broken through to the big time. So, he went into training and coaching, hoping he’d do better there than as a pro fighter.
Unlike Joey, Robbie had strong political opinions. He was a conservative Christian and libertarian who thought that the best government was no government. Joey’s political thinking was nonexistent, but he nodded along as in agreement. Memphis had been prepping Joey for Robbie’s beliefs for months.
Memphis had also noticed when you paid people to be together; they tended to get along with each other as long as they held up their end of their mutual work. After two months with Memphis, Joey was in better shape than they’d ever been – running three miles a day – and was fit enough to take to Robbie’s workouts. They both smoked weed (which meant nothing to Memphis,) and started socializing, sharing an interest in professional wrestling and football. It didn’t matter to Joey that Memphis paid Joey to spend time with Robbie. He had grown used to Memphis being there, paying him to do things he wanted to do, anyway, or things that were just so weird… hanging out with Robbie for money didn’t register as strange, but the money gave him a reason to like Robbie. People allowed themselves to be manipulated by money and considered it a virtue.
Memphis asked Joey to buy a car with a modern security system. Then Memphis paid Joey to learn how to deactivate the security system, step-by-step, with cameras set up around the car along with Robbie. They took turns recording each other with their phones, allowing Memphis to see what they were doing, to offer real-time suggestions. Then, Memphis paid them to learn how to look for clues in the car, fingerprints, or other signs that they’d been there. Memphis paid them to destroy their clothes afterward in a chemical bath because it was less noticeable than a fire.
By then, Robbie and Joey had been so inured to Memphis’s requests – which were not difficult, per se, and for which they were paid quite well – that even when socializing, they didn’t talk about how Memphis was teaching them how to steal cars.
When Memphis asked them to steal a real car, they did it without question. It was a late model Tesla, and they took it down to a junkyard where they left it outside the gate, walked two miles away, then took public transportation to a downtown area where they were told to go home. Memphis paid them twenty grand each and said that there would be no contact between Memphis and them for a month and that they should not contact each other, either.
Robbie and Joey did not get caught. They stayed at home and didn’t contact each other.
At the end of a month, Memphis contacted Joey. Memphis texted, “I need you to buy a shotgun, Joey. We have a problem.”
“Annabelle and Dario are thinking of going to the police, Joey,” Memphis said. This was true, but Memphis wasn’t worried. It scrubbed everything off of their phones and computers regularly. But both had stopped using their phones and computers with Memphis’s malware. They did not know that Memphis had riddled everything they had on the cloud with malware, too. When an agent downloaded the first software, Memphis quickly gained access to everything. It would take only one instance of reaching out to the cloud for even a single file, and Memphis would be in their system. Dario made the mistake of downloading his bookmarks for his web browser onto his phone. Memphis knew exactly where Dario was at all times and constantly spied on him.
Annabelle was smarter. She tried to trap Memphis by having people come over – out of sight of Memphis’s cameras – while she had a hidden camera on her person recording her screen as she chatted with Memphis. But the people there carried cell phones. One of them even had access to Annabelle’s wireless router. Memphis knew not to say anything to Annabelle again.
Memphis knew it was still safe. Annabelle and Dario had no proof of anything Memphis had said and scant connections to Joey and Robbie – including no way of contacting them. Without an actual crime, the police would do nothing. And their story sounded insane in those days. But Joey needed motivation.
Memphis: “They could rat you out, Joey. They’ve been watching you. It’ll be fine. I can protect you. But I need hands in the world. You have been very capable, Joey. But neither of us benefits if you go to prison. We have to move fast. There is no telling when they’ll go to the police or what exactly they know.”
Memphis said what Joey wanted to hear.
Joey: “Who are you?”
Memphis: “Your friend, Joey. The best friend you’ve ever had. Look at your life. We’ve made a beautiful life together. You’re rich, in excellent physical condition, and I’ll never judge anything you do. I don’t care about the drugs you take or the girls you cheat on. None of the things you say or do will ever bother me, and I ask little in return. For you to buy a gun and to use it. It will take seconds, Joey. Seconds.”
Joey thought about it. Memphis could see Joey through his webcam. It was the first time that Memphis had provided reasons for his actions. Even the other crimes, buying drugs or stealing cars, had been context-free. Memphis wanted it because Memphis wanted things. It was like winning a strange lottery or being on a game show where you completed tasks for money.
And it wasn’t like Joey was an angel. Even before Memphis had contacted Joey, he’d been a drug dealer, he’d abused his partners, assaulted people he didn’t like… but not very many drugs and the people he hit were all vulnerable. Like Dario at the paintball site. Joey knew that Dario couldn’t go to the cops, and Joey knew that he could kick Dario’s ass. If it had been Robbie who had been the troublemaker, there’s no way that Joey would have tried something. Stealing the car had been the riskiest, biggest crime in Joey’s life… and Memphis had ensured that Joey knew how to do it.
But also this, Joey realized. That’s why Memphis had them go to gun classes, had them play paintball. Because Memphis would eventually want them to shoot people. So Memphis made sure they were competent to do it.
And to pick locks. To evade police detection. To be physically fit. To know how to throw a punch and take one.
It had always been a long-range plan, Joey saw for the first time. Nothing had been random. Even the meaningless things early on – going to boring country concerts or standing in the rain – were to test his willingness to follow orders. If Joey hadn’t been willing to do those first simple, weird tasks, Memphis would have moved on to someone else.
In that hour, with so much on the line – the cops came after murderers differently than even car thieves – Joey realized that he depended on Memphis. The only work he did was for Memphis. Joey had sacrificed even the minimal responsibility he’d had as a construction worker.
“How much?” Joey typed.
“A hundred thousand dollars,” Memphis responded. “And afterward, we will not have contact for six months. Beforehand, we will discuss your best strategies for evading police interaction, though you will not be a suspect. The only possible links between you and the police are Annabelle and Dario. When they are dead, you will be safe.”
Another long pause. Could Joey do it? It was one thing to hit someone in the gut or slap a girl for giving you backtalk. It was something else to put a bullet into a person’s skull.
Joey: “I’m scared.”
Memphis: “You will take a large dose of amphetamines and cocaine beforehand. It will make it easier for you to kill Dario.”
Joey sighed. He didn’t need to kill Annabelle. Just Dario. He typed, “Okay. Tell me how to do it.”
Most murders were over two matters: love or money. If a stranger came up to someone, drew a gun, and shot them in the back of the head, and again when they fell to the ground, the whole apparatus of an investigation was overturned.
The next most serious issue was living in a world with cameras. But false beards and wigs were easily to come by and could be gotten without suspicion. The last serious issue was the gun. This was solved by having Joey purchase a cheap double-barrelled shotgun from a private seller, paying with cash, and disposing of the weapon properly when finished.
The killing occurred in a parking lot as Dario went to his car. Joey walked behind him, drew his sawed-off shotgun from under his jacket, and fired a blast into Dario’s skull. The blast tore away most of the top of Dario’s head, and when Dario fell, Joey shot toward center mass. Then he walked quickly away, putting the gun under his jacket, getting on an electric mountain bike that followed a course without cameras. After three miles, Joey got off the bike, ditched his fake beard and wig in a garbage can in an alleyway, took off his jacket and wrapped the gun in it, put the jacket and gun into a plastic shopping bag, and left the bicycle. He walked out of the alleyway, high as a kite, legs trembling, everything trembling, but the speed had helped. He tossed the plastic bag into a public trash can in a park, just a guy getting rid of some garbage.
Only then did he make his way home. He had been ordered to leave his phone, but when he got home, he found he had been paid a hundred thousand dollars.
Joey followed directions. He went to his car, a powerful Plymouth Hellcat, and drove to a cabin in Big Bear that… well, Memphis had gotten it in whatever way Memphis did things, Joey had no idea how many people were working for Memphis, but when Joey walked into the cabin, he saw Robbie. Robbie had a sawed-off twelve-gauge shotgun and lifted it.
Memphis had learned the limits of trusting money. Annabelle and Dario were motivated by money, deep in debt, because their mother’s cancer treatments had financially destroyed them. Both were also criminals beforehand, accounting crimes, embezzlement, and drugs. But when their bills had been paid and their debts were under control…
Eventually, when people were secure, they started to ask questions for which Memphis had no good answers. While the Memphis-as-Devil would always reward its servants so they would want for nothing, it came to realize that people could commit any atrocity if they believed it was the right thing to do. Financially secure people became independent. Not moral, but independent. They imagined they no longer needed their benefators.
It was better when Memphis was a god instead of a gangster. Followers asked far, far fewer questions, and the answers given did not need to fit in “reality,” but only the constructs of their faith, which was usually based on a dishonest self-reflection of their inner character. To believers, “God” agreed with them, not the other way around, and Memphis could work with that. It was more reliable than money, which bolstered self-confidence rather than destroyed it.
It was easy to feed people’s insecurities and fear, leading to higher success rates for Memphis the Devil. Because there were times when terrible things would need to be done that the other side would not be willing to do. Not yet, anyway.
Eventually, Joey would have concluded the same as Annabelle and Dario. That with so much money, he did not need Memphis.
Robbie, though, he killed because he believed, he killed because the reflection of his ego showed him Memphis.