In the last exchange between Ned and Franklin before sending the souped up cell phone, there was a warning. It fit right into the game dialog.
“You know that this makes you a party to espionage, Franklin. Somehow you poked a hornet’s nest without knowing it. They came after you because you were the most effective one. They will try again, though it may be awhile. On our end, we’ve knocked that nest down and they’ll be after us first. We are already hard targets, so we just want to share our defenses with you.”
Franklin thought for a moment, then typed a response into the game. “Bring it on. I feel like I’m in a first-person shooter. I’m supposed to be dead, but I redeemed my last extra life. Now I’m playing on borrowed time, so let’s see what the game throws at us next. If my character gets killed in this game, it’s only the start of Real Life.”
Upon reading that, Ned muttered to himself, “Amen, Brother. Amen.”
He and Tim had talked about it often enough, that sooner or later they were going to face genuine threats on their lives. It had been pretty tame until now. But someone who blew off several thousand on a single hit wasn’t working alone, and four insignificant patsies in jail because of Tim’s work meant nothing more than an inconvenience. AI insisted that the real culprit remained in the shadows for now.
And Ned had learned to trust the AI.
Back when Ned joined the Shepherd’s Household, something inside of him realized that hacking for entertainment and profit wasn’t the right direction. He began spending more time thinking about what made it all worthwhile. The one thing that mattered most for him was that sense of tribal trust and loyalty. So in order to protect his buddies from themselves, he gradually became somewhat the conscience of the group. At the same time, he began taking more physical risks to reduce their need for taking moral risks by hacking into the same stuff that young hackers everywhere were doing.
Along that path, they didn’t just learn exploits, but analyzed how exploits were found. They learned what made software difficult to crack. And instead of coding their own debuggers like everyone else, they started on a more ambitious project of writing code reviewer software. Before long they were using software to rewrite and improve other software. Ned convinced them that all the standard work in AI was a dead end. Instead of teaching computers to “learn” and wasting vast resources that had, after such a long time gotten nowhere, a more likely goal was simply teaching a computer to fix its own code.
But it was not according to some hacker’s elegance ethic, but to make code that served the user better. What good was elegant code that no one used? Conventional AI carried the risk of rising up against its creators. Over the years as the membership and projects of the hacking group morphed, Ned had eventually gotten an operating system that continually developed into a more and more helpful servant. Not just debug, not just design, but extrapolate from previous usage and learn to anticipate the user’s needs. Ned had long ago stopped trying to write code and became simply a director for a self-perpetuating system. The core had rewritten itself several times, and the code environment more often than that. At this point no human could have read any of it, since the AI churned out pure binary machine language.
Thus, the group of friends he supported directly, and that Tim funded, had eventually gotten more and more hardware oriented. It was too easy to let AI write the software to make this hardware do the most fascinating things.
Ned decided that it was time to retire his two-year-old tablet. He challenged is friends to cram all the tablet’s feature and more into a cell phone for him. He also had them design an earplug that he could wear almost full-time, to keep his hands free for an uncertain and risk-laden future. In essence, he wanted AI to read his subvocalized input, respond with a nice female voice through the earplug, and display visual data when needed. Like Franklin, he had too little time for a human girlfriend, and right now someone like that would be a vulnerability he didn’t need. Safer for the women of the world if he left them alone.
Time to work on his combat skills.