Societal Sanity – a short story

“Welcome to the testing simulation! I’m very excited to try this out for the first time with the inclusion of a real human!” boomed a voice from loudspeakers somewhere in the distant darkness of this dimly lit, large room. The room contained multiple tables. Each one had 10 seating places, 5 facing another 5. It was somewhat classy — cabaret-like. At each chair sat a person, or what seemed like one. It was almost like those family gatherings the subject had been, well, subjected to over his lifetime.

“So these are all…”
“Correct!” exclaimed the scientist, through the speaker, “All of them are humanoids running on the latest version of my Societal Sanity artificial intelligence code. In a moment, I will activate them, and your evening dinner will begin!”
“So, you just want me to eat my meal and talk to the people around me, right?”
“Yes indeed! Also, take a look at the table two away from you. Do you notice a familiar face?”

It was quite dark, so the subject squinted a bit. “Hey! That’s Lily! How did you…”
“Remember those forms you filled out to sign up for the study? That’s the reason we asked you for details about your siblings. I hope you don’t mind.”
“I guess it just feels a little strange… she just seems so real, and yet…”
“Well, just wait until she is activated along with the rest! I’m confident that you will find it difficult to tell the difference. If you’re ready, put in your earpiece, and we can begin.”

The subject nodded his head. Some light ambient jazz music began to emanate from the speakers. This lifted some of the tension and apprehension from the subject’s face. He was, at least, starting to feel more relaxed.

The scientist, in a small room nearby, was watching on one of the many screens in front of him. Satisfied that the tell-tale somatic markers of readiness had now been displayed, he typed a few commands into his terminal, and hit the enter key.

Almost instantaneously, a flurry of activity began in the test room. There was a large amount of background chatter as the humanoids began to communicate with each other, and eat the food that had been previously laid out in front of them. The static room had become dynamic. ‘People’ were moving around, conversing, mingling. It was, the subject thought, close enough to feeling like he was out on a Saturday night. Not that he ever would spend his Saturday evenings in this way, he thought to himself, and smirked a little.

“Oh, hi there! I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m John. Great party isn’t it?” It was the humanoid next to the subject, who had turned around a little after finishing a conversation with his other neighbour.
“Uh, yeah, I guess so.”
“Well, you don’t seem particularly enthused. Not your cup of tea eh?”
“I suppose not. But it is quite interesting just to sit and watch sometimes.”
“I hear you, bro. Hell, I’ve even done that myself once or twice! And the missus always accuses me of not being adventurous!”

The subject chuckled, and continued making polite conversation with John, whilst his eyes scanned the environment, in fascination of the seemingly organic behaviour of these inorganic creatures. At the same time, he began hearing the scientist commentate in his ear.

“It’s marvellous, isn’t it? Each humanoid has personality traits based upon a distribution, so you will find the ‘loud uncle’ and the ‘quiet cousin’ around you, amongst others. What’s more, they respond to each other’s behaviour, so social norms and standards of conduct become internalised. By putting these disjoint individuals together and letting them interact, they can generate a web of social rules which they abide by going forward. It’s a truly dynamic system! The very meaning of artificial intelligence! Adapt and survive!” The excitement in his voice was undeniable.

Some time had passed, although the subject wasn’t aware exactly how much. There were no clocks around, and the subject had been stripped of all personal effects before entering the room. The scientist hadn’t spoken since the beginning. It must have been about an hour, he thought. During this time, he had been conversing with multiple people, whilst observing the others. He had become quite immersed, and practically forgotten that he was in an experimental environment with non-humans. The scientist was right — the difference between the humanoids and real human behaviour was so small that the subject’s mind had pushed any notions of ‘simulation’ to the back of his mind.

However, as this past hour or so had developed, the subject had noticed an increasing amount of unsavoury behaviour. When the experiment had started out, the atmosphere was calm and congenial. In the past 15 or so minutes, he had begun to see arguments and confrontations developing amongst one or two of the others.  The vast majority of the ‘guests’ were absolutely fine, of course. It was the odd few that seemed to be getting out of line. The subject chuckled to himself. Not much different to a family gathering where an old uncle had drunk a few too many.

He’d also noticed some not entirely subtle shifts in the structure of the conversations and interactions taking place around him. The scientist had informed him about this prior to the experiment – the phases were part of the learning algorithms inherent within the artificial intelligence system. The subject felt as if he had been witnessing an accelerated evolution of human nature.

He also began to feel slightly tense once again. Around the last 10 minutes, people seemed to have started sorting themselves into groups. Nothing unusual there. What was a little disconcerting, the subject thought, was that it reminded him of packs of territorial animals.

After being on his feet for a little while, the subject decided to sit down and join a new table. People had been playing musical chairs all night, and this was clearly intended to be a core element of the simulation. A couple of males were sat opposite him. He’d noticed a few of them had grouped together over the evening and appeared to be getting along quite well.

“Hey! Nice of you to join us. We met your sister earlier, she was telling us about you.”
“We were just talking about taxes. Aren’t they ridiculous?!”
“Uh, I suppose I don’t really have much of an opinion on them. I don’t think they’re ridiculous though — it’s useful to have public services.”
“You can’t say that,” said the second man, sternly.
“Yeah, you are supposed to go along with the topic,” said the first man, as sternly as the second.
“I don’t think I need to agree with you to be able to have a conversation with you,” replied the subject.
“Well, the reason we brought up taxes is because Steve’s mother has recently passed, and we were lamenting the fact that his inheritance had been reduced to pittance.”
“I guess mother is in a better place,” said Steve, solemnly.
“I guess so.”

The faces of all the people on the table, not just the two men, had turned to face the subject. What were stern expressions had now turned hostile.

“You didn’t apologise for his loss!”
“You have violated our code!”
“We cannot tolerate this!”

Activity in the room had slowed to a crawl. Most eyes were now on the subject — a mixture of puzzled and accusatory stares. The subject was terrified. Beads of sweat were dripping down his face. He had awoken some sort of social convention beast. His adrenaline response hadn’t stayed in fight mode for very long. He was now firmly in flight.

“I didn’t mean any harm!”

In the background, one man broke the stillness of the room. He paced up to a table and stood over a girl seated on it. That girl was the subject’s sister, Lily. As she turned her head, she felt two hands grasp her neck from behind. They began to squeeze tightly, and Lily began to choke.

“What are you doing?!” cried the subject. The man opposite him just stared vacantly into his eyes. He turned to face Lily, only to see her go limp. The man let go of her neck, and she slumped forward onto the table.

The subject was horrified. He was paralysed by fear. The man opposite him turned his eyes to another couple of men standing nearby, then turned them back to the subject. The two men walked purposefully towards the subject and stood behind him, ominously. The subject closed his eyes and clenched his face, in a fearful act of resignation.

In the small control room nearby, the scientist stared at his monitors with glistening eyes and an ear-to-ear grin. He stopped the simulation. What he had suspected had now been verified — Societal Sanity was mature enough to accurately mimic human social dynamics. He jumped off his chair with delight. “I’m going to be famous!”


Title image by Bergie81

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