The Alpha Bug

......Connor slumped back in the chair and kneaded his stinging eyes with a thumb and forefinger, in front of him the complex lines of code scrolled endlessly up the glowing screen. He had lost track of how long he had been seated there with only the humming machine for company; he knew only that he must remain there until the problem was solved.
......It was the ultimate acknowledgment of his skill when he had been commissioned to head the team that programmed Alpha; no greater accolade could be conferred upon him than to serve the Ministry in such a way. What pride he had felt when he had received the summons! At last, all his hard work and dedication had been rewarded; he had reached the pinnacle of his career.
......In the latter half of the 21st century, information was all; society could not function without it, and in an age when automation largely provided for every human need, industry existed solely for the gathering of it. The workforce's only task was the sifting and sorting of facts and data, coordinated and supervised by vast government departments. Heading these departments and overseeing all their activity was the largest and most powerful of them all: the Ministry of Information.
......In many ways, it was an ideal society. The population was prosperous, labour and toil had been removed, and sickness and disease had been all but eradicated. They lived peaceful, comfortable, leisurely lives, their existence controlled, orderly and smooth. It was an era of contentment, and it was all thanks to computerisation.
......Over several decades, computers had developed until they became so powerful that they replaced human responsibility. Every requirement of the populace was produced in gigantic factories, where computerised robots ceaselessly churned out goods and products to supply the computerised shops and stores. Likewise, the fields and farms were similarly mechanised and computerised, their resultant foodstuffs further processed, treated, cooked and finally served by yet more automatons. Even the hospitals had been revolutionised by computerisation. What little illness remained was treated by robots of incredible delicateness and sensitivity, which were programmed with all the latest medical knowledge. Indeed, should any human part or organ need replacing, usually because of wear and tear rather than disease, it was done so by mechanical ones manufactured by robots and installed by robotic surgeons.
......Connor focussed once more on the screen, returning his attention back to the problem in hand. Somewhere among all the reams of code was a mistake, a bug. It was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. He knew from long experience that a computer error could arise from just one wrong line in the program; even a single operand could throw out the whole thing. The dilemma was locating it. As his hands tapped at the keyboard he marvelled as he often did at how much more efficient was the right one, the artificial one that had so seamlessly replaced the one that had been accidentally smashed by the door of a computerised taxi some years ago. Operated by tiny electronic circuits and microchips and enveloped in plastiskin, it looked and felt real - more than real.
......However much all this computerisation and mechanisation had eased the workload of humankind, still the people were not satisfied. Computers proliferated everywhere in every aspect of life, each one controlling its own specific area. Each computer relayed its data to yet more computers in a long chain right up to the government department responsible for that facet of operation, be it the Ministry of Food, of Transport, of Entertainment or any other of the multitude of Ministries. Each of these Ministries then had its own computers, which further transmitted their data to the chief one: the Ministry of Information.
......The problem was that each computer needed someone to operate it and many more to supply it with the data necessary for its allocated function. Although these tasks were not laborious, still they were considered too menial in a society accustomed to the pursuit of leisure. What was needed was one massive computer, a computer so powerful that it could control every other computer, a computer able to collect and hold every particle of data of every human being and their every need and want.
......Therefore, Alpha was created.
......It was a massive task, but then, Alpha was a massive computer, so massive it had to be housed in its own building. Of course, in these days of automation, little human labour was used in its construction. Man's only involvement was in the planning and design stages; the actual manufacture was left to machines. The factories where computers were made were instructed to postpone all other production and concentrate solely on this one great project. Each factory then went into full-scale activity, their vast workspaces scenes of organised, tireless industry as robots large and small went about their allocated functions of fabricating each of the thousands of parts and sections.
......At last, Alpha was completed. Robot transporters took its individual components to the huge, grand edifice erected specially to contain it by the building robots and it was there assembled by other specialised robots. It was then that Connor and his team were called in to program Alpha, to gather and assimilate every iota of information of every human being, everything from their genealogical makeup and DNA, right down to their individual tastes, preferences and idiosyncrasies. If man was to finally free himself of all work it was vital that Alpha knew all there was to know about him to enable it control and cater for every aspect of his life.
......The team consisted of hundreds of programmers working round the clock at Alpha's many terminals. Each was assigned a particular section of code to work on and it was Connor's responsibility to collate each section into one whole, smooth-running and highly efficient program. It was hard, onerous work and it took many weeks, but no one begrudged the effort. After all, it was to be the last labour of man.
......Finally, the last line of code was written. Switches and levers were thrown, and Alpha hummed gently into action. Humankind was at last able to totally absolve itself of all toil. The population could devote itself to a comfortable, cosseted existence. Alpha took care of all.
......Connor sat forward and the circuits in the chair adjusted to his new position, controlled by Alpha, they contoured the chair exactly to his unique shape for his maximum personal comfort, just as they would for whoever sat there. It had been a shock to be summoned for the meeting with the Minister of Information himself, he had only dealt with his underlings in the past. It was more of a shock when the Minister informed him that all was not well. After ten years of faultless operation, Alpha had developed a defect.
......Blanks had started to appear in Alpha's database. Entire records of individual members of the population were disappearing from its memory banks, every detail of their existence were being deleted. It had been a gradual process, and no one in the Ministry had noticed at first; an odd erasure here and there from all the teeming millions of files held by Alpha was insignificant. However, the mysterious obliterations had quickly escalated to dozens, then hundreds, until now huge swathes of data were being wiped out. It was vital that something be done, and quickly. After all, how could Alpha look after the people if it had no knowledge of them?
......The Minister had told Connor clearly that it was up to him to put the problem right before rumour of it got out and panic swept through the population. Connor, as chief programmer, must correct the error, or not only would his reputation be at stake but the welfare of the people.
......Connor was exhausted. He had tried every diagnostic technique he knew and still he was no nearer to the answer. His fingers moved rapidly over the keys and his eyes scanned the screen searching for the one little glitch, the one tiny bug he knew must be present somewhere in the code. It was useless. The program was perfect; nowhere could he spot a mistake.
......He ought to call his wife, she must be worrying about him by now, he had been away from home so long. He rose from the chair and stretched his aching body. Leaving the terminal room, he went out into the corridor where there was a vidphone on the wall and dialled his home number. Odd, there was no answer. She never went out at this time of day. Shrugging, he decided to stroll around the building to collect his thoughts.
......It was very strange, in this time of crisis, he expected there to be many Ministry staff around trying to be useful, but there was no one. Although he walked the corridors for some time and looked in various rooms, he encountered not another person in the building. Absorbed in his work at the terminal he had not realised how utterly quiet it was too. It was as if he had been left entirely on his own. Vaguely uneasy and not a little annoyed at being abandoned in such a way, he returned to the terminal room and resumed his seat in front of the screen.
......It had been some hours since he had last checked Alpha's database to study the inexorable progress of the data erasure, so he called it up now to do so. He was horrified. When he had looked previously he had needed to search for the blank spaces among all the millions of personal records. Now they were being created in front of his eyes. As each record scrolled up the screen there was a pause, there was a whir from somewhere deep inside Alpha, the screen blinked, and the complete history of a human being was deleted as if wiped out by a cloth. Record after record appeared on the screen, and as quickly disappeared.
......What was happening?
......Connor could only stare, dumbfounded, as faster and faster detailed information of thousands of human beings was expunged from Alpha's memory.
......Desperately Connor keyed in his own name. He breathed a sigh of relief. At least his own record was still there, the details of his genes, his DNA, of his very essence. The noises from Alpha were getting louder, the deletions were happening too fast for him to follow any more. The records came on to the screen and winked out again too quickly for his eyes to follow. The sounds coming from Alpha were alarming.
......Soon there was only one record remaining in Alpha's memory banks. Connor stared disbelievingly at the last name on the screen.
......His own.
......Outside the enormous building that housed Alpha, in the towns, the cities, and the houses the robots ceased their activity. If there had been anyone there to observe them they might have thought they looked a little confused. Perhaps they could be forgiven their confusion; they had been built to serve. There was no one there to forgive them. There was no one there to serve.
......In the terminal room in front of a blank screen stood an empty chair. On the keyboard rested a perfectly engineered artificial hand. One of the fingers gave a last twitch and was still. Alpha hummed quietly to itself.

Copyright Scorpio Tales 2000. All rights reserved.

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