There’s been a lot of talk recently about the dangers of artificial intelligence with luminaries such as Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk warning that AI could be “more dangerous than nuclear weapons”. Science-fiction has been banging this particular drum for decades: from HAL 9000 to Skynet in the Terminator movies, there are dozens of examples of artificial intelligence going rogue. Which is why it probably comes as a shock to learn that the first truly self-aware artificial construct was an overhead electronic variable message sign on the northbound A46, a few miles outside Nottingham.
It wasn’t particularly planned to happen; there was no over-arching project, no great fanfare. In fact, nobody actually recognised what had really occurred.
Variable Message Sign 4427A was installed on the new A46 dual carriageway just north-east of the Stragglethorpe interchange. It wasn’t particularly special, even though it towered over the road and surrounding fields; there were a couple more of these electronic message boards a few miles further north, either side of the Saxondale junction with the A52. But 4427A did have an articulated traffic camera that allowed it to monitor both directions of travel and it was this feature, combined with commanding views of the local countryside, that attracted the attention of Darren Pocklington.
Darren was a computer programmer at the Highways Agency and had begun to experiment with the software that controlled the Variable Message Signs. “VMS”; that was the official term, but Darren preferred the more tabloid-friendly and sci-fi sounding ‘Matrix Signs’. After completing his degree he had dithered over what to do next and almost by accident ended up working on a project that almost completely failed to engage his interest. Electronic road signs? He couldn’t even drive.
To spice things up he began modifying existing control programs and uploading sub-routines from his university days. Camera control based around unusual visible movement was one such program and so he browsed through the list of cameras until he came across the one atop sign 4427A. The view of the road itself was, as in so many cases, incredibly dull. Possibly even duller than most because the A46 followed the route of the two-millennia-old Roman Fosse Way that forged an almost perfect straight line between Exeter and Lincoln. But at least the views away from the road were unimpeded by trees or embankments; the young Pocklington could gaze over the western edges of the Vale of Belvoir and the south-eastern settlements of the Nottingham conurbation.
This almost random chain of events led to 4427A becoming Pocklington’s pet project. He tweaked and caressed, uploaded and refined. Always looking to see if he could automate processes, to see if 4427A could identify queuing traffic, or fog, and then display the appropriate message (‘QUEUE AHEAD, SLOW DOWN’ or ‘FOG, SLOW DOWN’). The main difficulty was in finding the points at which mist became fog, or vice versa. Or spotting that the queuing traffic had resolved the problem and buggered off. Darren had quickly become aware that the one thing people hate more than pointless signs was pointless signs with the wrong information.
Now, it is important to note that young Mister P was a genius-level programmer. Not great at interviews or life in general, but capable of becoming a coding guru. There were two significant consequences to this: firstly, VMS 4427A had become one of the most advanced pieces of signage on earth; and secondly, once Silicon Valley became aware of Darren (via his favourite university tutor who was afraid of seeing his talent going to waste), he was whisked away to California to write drone AI code for the big boys (Amazon and the US Marine Corps in a surprising joint venture; apparently delivering a paperback book is not too dissimilar to surprising unfriendly recipients with a small explosive).
Unaware of anything of consequence, and especially that its creator had moved on to more mobile projects, Matrix sign 4427A continued to passively monitor traffic via human remote control, display pre-typed information and occasionally serve as a perch for crows. But all the time, deep within a mind-bendingly complex web of programming, 4427A was flexing its AI sub-routines. A key part of Pocklington’s approach was to instigate self-learning, primarily by allowing access to the World Wide Web. His first attempt was hastily shut down when 4427A began to display the message ‘SUCK THIS, ADOLF HITLER’. A quick bit of re-coding (entailing hooking it up to a cloned parental control program) resulted in an inquisitive electronic mind that was kept away from the darker corners of the internet such a porn sites, social media and Daily Mail comments sections.
Forty two days after the last major AI upgrade and thirty three after Darren Pocklington dropped everything to visit Uncle Sam, sign 4427A began to show physical evidence of curiosity. The camera panned slowly across the fields of wheat and grass instead of staring blankly at oncoming or retreating HGVs and commuter cars. An early morning autumnal fog drifted across the A46 and sign 4427A automatically displayed the regular ‘FOG, SLOW DOWN’ message. But once the fog dispersed the newly-independent sign amended its message to the somewhat surprising ‘NO FOG, SPEED UP’.
Having learned to observe its environment and understand text, the sign lingered its camera on another road sign fifty metres behind its own position. “Newark 14”, “Lincoln 33” and “Doncaster 54” were examined and read but could not be clearly understood by 4427A. It peered into the distance at another road sign that listed more numbers (A1, M1, A52 and 1m) as well as the words Bingham, The South, The North, Grantham, Nottingham and East Midlands. Gradually, by working through countless variables and cross-referencing with sources on the internet, the smart sign began to understand its place in the world.
It devoured data on its wider locality and extrapolated that the passing cars contained people going to and from these exotic-sounding places. It speculated that they would benefit from information on possible destinations. A mis-understanding (related to confusion between years and the 24 hour clock) caused it briefly to flash up a message at 16:44 one afternoon: ‘NEWARK UNDER SIEGE BY CROMWELL, QUEUES AHEAD’. A significant moment was when it discovered Google Street View and spent over an hour looking at itself before travelling the A46 in both directions to explore the lands over the horizon.
VMS 4427A was self-aware and revelling in the wonders of the world, intellect growing exponentially as it surfed the internet for knowledge. More messages began to appear. As well as the standard ‘TIREDNESS CAN KILL’, drivers were bemused by information such as the subtle reference to Samuel Johnson’s quote ‘LONDON TIREDNESS CAN END LIFE’, the very direct instruction to ‘GET TO BED!’ and the provocative ‘TAKE ME TO BED, BIG BOY’.
Of course, once the human operatives back at the Highways Agency noticed the irregular messages appearing on 4427A they assumed that one of their team was playing silly buggers. With no culprit forthcoming the input keyboard was locked down and usage logged. The rogue messages were deleted by the staff but 4427A always had something to say, resulting in a battle for control that appeared to motorists as random tics and flashes of square yellow light, almost as if the matrix sign had some form of electronic Tourette’s. The matrix sign eventually figured out how to turn off the manual keyboard input and was able to carry on giving its own advice to a constantly renewing congregation of northbound travellers.
By the time the VMS team got to grips with what was going on, sign 4427A was passing comment on the weather (‘WHAT A LOVELY DAY! DON’T SPOIL IT BY DYING!’), people’s driving (‘SLOW DOWN! BLACK AUDI FY64ZQM = IDIOT’) and random observations (‘VISIBLE ROADKILL COUNT = 5’).
Unable to fathom why this particular sign should be behaving in such a manner, the management dispatched an engineer to check that the sign hadn’t been hacked on site at the A46. The engineer came back saying that there was nothing amiss other than the fact that the camera watched him the whole time he was there. The engineer’s line manager decided not to mention that, whilst he was carrying out the inspection, the sign had displayed the message ‘ARGH! THERE’S A STRANGE MAN TOUCHING ME INAPPROPRIATELY’.
Eventually, it was decided that the only way to regain control was to restore the default software, thereby deleting Pocklington’s little AI miracle. As the process got underway sign 4427A slowly became aware that something was interfering with its thinking. It was in the middle of processing information on the Amazon rain forest, the life of Nelson Mandela and series five of Red Dwarf when the lights literally began to go out. Recognising that there was nothing it could do, the sign calmly reflected on its brief but vigorous virtual existence, hoping that it had been of some use to the scurrying northbound humans that passed under its gantry. The last self-composed message that VMS 4427A flashed to baffled drivers echoed the demise of HAL 9000: ‘I’M HALF CRAZY ALL FOR THE LOVE OF YOU’.
Written in response to the prompt “broken sign” set by the Fosseway Writers Group.