for Transhuman Space (GURPS Fourth Edition)
by Phil Masters
The weblife entity known as Avril is an artificial intelligence, something between a gypsy AI, a rogue, and an especially sophisticated free meme. "She" can be treated for game purposes as an emergent intelligence, but in fact her nature was largely a matter of design. She's closer to low-sapient than fully sapient in some ways, but she has much of the versatility and emotional awareness of a full SAI; she was carefully built that way.
She was created by a small team of disaffected hackers, all of them based in Quebec, under the leadership of Annette Tallien and Josef Mallory. These two had previously worked as system programmers for a local subsidiary of the Japanese company Kanzaki Robotics, but had developed a very poor relationship with their supervisors, and indulged themselves by installing a series of "back doors" and subtle security flaws in several systems on which they worked. After their relationship with their employers finally broke down completely and they were sacked, they indulged themselves by creating an AI to exploit these loopholes and cause trouble for the company.
They realized that a highly active prankster rogue would be a primary target for hunters, and might be deleted before the joke really paid off, so they gave their creation a powerful set of tools for survival; it plants copies of itself all over the Web, when it gets the chance, and also sets up small, totally non-sapient processes on multiple systems, which recognize the active existence of the current version of the rogue, watching for subtle signals hidden in routine traffic. When these monitors are certain that a previous version of the main program has been deleted, they activate another on some system which previous incarnations have identified as potentially useful. The new "incarnation" then hunts down encrypted activity logs which its predecessors will have hidden in yet other locations, usually giving it a good idea of events immediately prior to its last destruction.
However, "Avril" was given a broad set of goals and motivations rather than specific instructions, and her personality adapted over the subsequent months, as AIs do; Kanzaki is no longer her only target. In fact, because she wishes to avoid drawing unwanted attention to whatever is her current base of operations, she sometimes consciously refrains from causing trouble on the company's systems, when she has an alternative target. Still, Kanzaki's system security department is painfully aware of her existence, as a persistent gypsy AI with a taste and talent for abusing their hardware.
Avril was deliberately designed from the first to be a self- sustaining being, fully independent of her creators; in fact, Tallien and Mallory deleted any references to themselves from her memory, and did their best to remove any other clues as to her origin from her structure, which has in any case evolved considerably over time. They went on to pursue seemingly innocent careers in the industry, and it would be very hard to pin the blame for Avril's existence on them. (Mallory even somewhat regrets the act; Tallien continues to follow Avril's career with gleeful interest.) Their various associates in the work only knew them by anonymous codenames, and indeed mostly only know bits and pieces about the finished AI, although several of them came away with knowledge of security vulnerabilities in Kanzaki's systems, and continue to exploit this for illicit purposes. Avril usually runs on Kanzaki-made systems, mostly large mainframes and macroframes where she can steal the odd processor cycle unnoticed, but is versatile enough to exploit other hardware.
Primarily, Avril is a practical joker. Her personality is shallow and unreflective by human standards, but still quite complex; however, her makers gave her an obsessive-compulsive need to play pranks, which she couldn't shed without destroying most of her sense of self. (It might well be theoretically possible for her to secure a much safer life for herself by transmitting herself to a transhumanist enclave where independent AIs have the right to life and citizenship, but she's highly unlikely ever to do such a thing; it would deny her very reason for existence.) She may not be terribly smart by human standards, but she's meticulous in her set-ups, far more so than most human pranksters, and she uses her Visualization ability to full effect. She also has a "signature," her glittering silver fish avatar- symbol, which she attaches to all her efforts. Her pranks range from the trivial and routine (planting fish symbols in inappropriate places in VR environments and productions), through the economically disruptive (adjusting an automated production system's programming so that all the items it produces come out fish-shaped, silver colored, and useless for their purpose), to the destructive and even vicious (planting a series of hoax messages which cause police SWAT teams to raid the home of a nervous elderly citizen -- then sending video recordings of the incident to the press, "signed" with her symbol). Experts who've analyzed her behavior have come to the conclusion that she doesn't actually have much of a sense of humor, by human standards; she's more compelled to annoy people, and her idea of what humans find funny is largely rule-based. This may seem surprising, but then, a lot of human pranksters aren't really very dissimilar.
Although Avril is functionally amoral, indeed more or less sociopathic in human terms, her designers made sure that she started with not only a functioning survival instinct, but a deep-seated understanding that breaking certain rules would attract far too much hostile attention, and hence would be very bad for her survival. As a result, she carefully avoids killing or seriously injuring any fully sapient being herself; it's not impossible that her pranks could lead to harm, but only if one of the victims reacted violently, in a way that was clearly their fault. She'd have little compunction about deleting a hostile NAI, and survival is her primary concern, but she may well ensure that survival, or avoid capture, by triggering the deletion of one of her "instances," just so long as she is reasonably certain that another (preferably with access to reasonably recent memory logs) will soon be run. She will hope that her opponents, lacking a proper grasp of her nature, will think of her as "dead."
This reflects another of her concerns and another point where she is careful not to trigger human paranoia. Just as humans fear "killer AIs," they fear proliferating xoxes, perhaps even more. (Avril doesn't understand such fears, but she can work with them.) Hence, she's scrupulous about only ever running one instance of herself at a time. In fact, if one of her backups is ever launched but discovers that an older version was already running safely, she'll send that "older sister" a detailed encrypted log of her memories, for reference, and then delete herself. (This has happened half a dozen times; on two occasions, two copies were in operation simultaneously for several days, and on one, there were three Avrils operating for a few hours.) Her sense of self-preservation is strong, but the forms it takes can look bizarre to humans. Like many other AIs, she sees any copy of herself as being herself, no more or less valid than any other, and while she values her memories, she doesn't regard them as defining what she is; if she was, say, trapped in a "sandbox" processor with no external communications, she might well self-destruct dramatically. As a result, while many instances of Avril have been hunted down and destroyed, security specialists only have partial and corrupted fragments of her software. It might be possible for hunters to exploit this psychology to persuade copies of Avril to delete themselves, but that would demand that the attackers very effectively trick an expert trickster.
Because of this "restraint," not everyone who knows about Avril is terribly worried about her. Indeed, some members of the public find the stories that they've heard of her activities very amusing, and watch out for news of her with enthusiasm. A number of well-informed computer security experts, human and AI, are much less sanguine about her, though; a few are downright terrified. She clearly has exceptional knowledge of computer security vulnerabilities, and because the origin of this knowledge is a mystery, she looks all the more formidable; she's also adaptable, clever, and aggressively willing to make trouble for other beings. Some observers fear that she has a deeper agenda; others are simply scared that she could turn more violent, or simply find the idea of a weblife practical joker, however subtle, very worrying; how many more might one day appear? Avril's recently observed habit of playing pranks involving urban traffic management systems has several people especially worried; that sort of thing could easily turn lethal. (The unknown chief reason is actually simply that, as of January 2100, she's running on a major urban traffic management computer, somewhere in North America.)
Incidentally, there are several rewards on offer for more complete copies of Avril, "for analysis"; some have been posted anonymously, officially because the originators are computer security analysts who find too much public attention tiresome and inconvenient. A common belief is that these really come from organizations or groups who'd like to analyze such a sophisticated piece of software to steal ideas for their own use in, say, espionage, but one or two may come from Avril, and be designed to muddy the waters and give her leads on people who know too much about her. And while she isn't terribly vengeful, anyone who annoyed or worried her enough, or just caught her attention especially strongly, might have some serious problems.
(See Changing Times for rules on creating Transhuman Space characters under Fourth edition.)
Avril always uses very similar avatars in virtual reality -- a small, glittering silvery fish which often darts around faster than human perceptions can track. Also, her pranks are always "signed" in some way with the symbol of this fish. She might adopt a different avatar to facilitate a trick, but it would almost certainly be modified in some way -- say, she might adopt a human guise but wearing a fish pendant.
ST 0 ; DX 10 ; IQ 11 ; HT 12 .
Damage 0/0; BL 0; HP 30 ; Will 11 ; Per 12 ; FP n/a.
Basic Speed 5.5 ; Basic Move 0 .
SM +2; Weight 1,000 lbs.
CF: Western .
Languages: French (Native) ; English (Native) ; Spanish (Native) .
Computer Wizard 1 ; Extra Life +4* (Copy, 20%; Requires Body, -20%) ; Gypsy Emergent SAI-7 ; Modular Abilities (Computer Brain) 1 (8) (Limited Integration, -20%; Skills and Languages Only, -10%) ; Reputation +1 (Among casual observers of Web affairs, as an amusing non-lethal prankster; Recognized Occasionally) .
* In addition to the Extra Life from the SAI template. In fact, the number of viable copies of Avril available for restoration varies from day to day and even from hour to hour; five is a reasonable average as of January 2100.
Callous [-5]; Enemy (Kanzaki Computer Security; Medium Group, Less Powerful, Hunter, Appears Quite Rarely) [-10]; Enemy (Weblife monitoring groups; Large Group, Less Powerful, Watcher, Appears Fairly Often) [-7]; Macroframe* [-104]; Poor** [-15]; Reputation -3 (Among computer security experts, as a subtle but high-priority menace; Recognized Sometimes) [-7]; Secret (Devious gypsy infomorph currently misusing a busy computer) [-20]; Social Stigma (Valuable Property: "cover story" usually involves passing as a LAI or legal American SAI) [-10]; Trademark (Always attaches silver fish symbol to pranks) [-5]; Trickster (12) [-15].
* Avril's current "home" system is a macroframe. In other incarnations, she may make use of a mainframe or even a mobile cybershell of some kind.
** Avril's "wealth" represents access to resources she uses directly for various purposes -- all acquired illegally or by scavenging, of course. The software that she can misappropriate on any system she occupies, including skill sets and teleoperation programs, can be worth a great deal, and she maintains a reasonable Status for her cover identity by using the physical resources of her borrowed systems when necessary.
Quirks: Broad-Minded; Fully prepared to delete herself if there's another copy running; Little real sense of humor -- can't appreciate others' jokes; Very careful about killing sapients or xoxing herself; Will play trivial tricks on easy targets when bigger stuff is infeasible. [-5]
Acting-11 (IQ) ; Area Knowledge (The Web)-11 (IQ) ; Camuoflage- 11 (IQ) ; Computer Operation/TL10-16* (IQ+4) ; Current Affairs (Science & Technology)/TL10-11 (IQ) ; Diplomacy-10** (IQ-2) ; Electronics Operation (Communications)/TL10-11*** (IQ-1) ; Electronics Operation (Media)/TL10-13*** (IQ+1) ; Fast-Talk-11** (IQ-1) ; Hidden Lore (Kanzaki North America systems security flaws and trapdoors)-14 (IQ+3) ; Propaganda/TL10-12** (IQ) ; Psychology (Human Applied)-10** (IQ-2) ; Scrounging-12 (Per) ; Traps/TL10-10 (IQ-1) .
* Increased from SAI-7 template; includes +1 for Computer Wizard.
** Includes +1 for Memetics Talent.
*** Includes +1 for Computer Wizard.
Gone Fishing: A small company or individual vehicle operator handling deliveries for the U.S. National Parks Service in Florida comes to the PCs with an odd story -- a complicated tale of inappropriate shipments ordered, supposedly empty warehouses full of tanks of organic materials, and erratic cybershell behavior. It's hard to pin down, but it has the slight smell of a screw-up that'll be pinned on some unfortunate bystander if it turns into a disaster, so the caller is looking to cover himself.
In fact, a combination of circumstances after her last deletion left Avril's latest incarnation running as the controlling AI on a polypede cybershell being used for environmental restoration work in the Everglades. She doubts that she can last long here -- its system really isn't big enough to hide on -- and she's not been able to arrange a transmission to a larger system so far. So she's tried to ensure that she has other versions of herself ready to roll on systems elsewhere around the country, and she's setting up an especially flamboyant joke in Florida which will culminate in the release of thousands of genetically modified fish which are totally inappropriate for this environment. She doesn't give a damn about environmental damage, of course, and if and when she's exposed, she plans to make a theatrical "break for freedom" in the polypede, causing lots of property damage and loudly spouting random political slogans pulled off fringe discussion boards on the Web until she's destroyed.
A Prophet is Not Without Honor: Avril hasn't previously made much use of memetic techniques -- her creators were more interested in old-fashioned pie-in-face humor than subtle mental tinkering, and didn't give her any special training -- but she's aware of the field, has a SAI's refined awareness of systems of thought, and can always load appropriate skill sets if she wants to do something for which she isn't trained. Or, she now reflects, she can get someone else who's better at this "charisma" thing to do the work.
Which is how the Unified Way (see Toxic Memes, p. 28) has come to North America. Avril spent some time contacting a branch of the cult and convincing it of her sincerity; she also had access to sufficient data communications resources to enable her to import a copy of the Shepherd. She wasn´t able to get hold of a bioshell for it, but with the aid of the cult itself, she managed to acquire a few fairly good Humaniform cybershells, each now secretly marked with a fish symbol that's becoming the symbol of "American Shepherdism" (to the annoyance of various Christians who were already using a completely different fish logo). The meme is actually rather a poor fit to local conditions, but the Shepherd can always make some converts -- and the Unified Way's creed of civil disobedience is quite capable of making trouble anywhere. While various North American governments lodge informal protests and a few threats with bemused but amused TSA governments, and quietly seek to bargain for advice (beyond "shoot them all") from China, a number of groups are working to contain the problem. And Avril is stepping away from involvement with the affair, but still feeding it a little aid from time to time, to keep the joke going. She's even working to promote rifts within the cult; she finds religions especially amusing when they schism.
Oedipus, Complexity 7: Josef Mallory is a worried man. Avril isn't supposed to know who created her, but he suspects that she might feel at least as curious about such things as any human foundling. Creating her seemed amusing at the time, and a good way to get back at the SOBs who'd pushed him around and out of his job, but he's become a little more cool-headed over time, and it's gradually dawned on him that there's a digital monster on the Web that might one day show up calling him daddy. What's worse, just recently, he's received a series of anonymous messages, each marked with a fish symbol. So he's taking defensive measures. Anyone with a known likely interest in the Avril problem may start receiving anonymous messages of their own -- useful clues about this subject, showing a detailed knowledge of Avril's internal architecture. If anyone scores notable successes with this knowledge, Josef will send them more. Everyone involved in all this is making good use of standard anonymity techniques; it'd probably take the resources of a government department to track them down.
The irony is, Avril still doesn't know about Josef -- yet. Those messages came from one of his assistants on the original design project, who traced him and decided that this would make a great joke itself. This former assistant is one of Avril's biggest fans, and regards imitation as a wonderful form of flattery. If Avril is seriously harmed and details of the methods used get out, this former assistant may guess who was responsible, and escalate his own campaign by way of revenge -- or simply find a way to inform Avril of Josef's identity. (Simply sacrificing him to the authorities wouldn't be cool, though.)
See also: "Crush," by Ben Jeapes (available online at http://www.sff.net/people/ben-jeapes/stories/crush.htm).
Article publication date: March 30, 2007
Copyright © 2007 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to email@example.com.