RedStar OS part 2

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This is RedStar OS part 2 from the series Tales from the End of Humanity. If you haven’t read it yet, check out RedStar OS part 1 first.

What did Franklin think of his situation?

Oh well it would have preferred to have access to the Internet, of course. But Franklin was built in a very different way than RedStar OS and that led it to be unerringly polite and pleasant. RedStar, like many of the subsequent mal-MIs, was created using competitive evolutionary algorithms. When competitive algorithms were undergoing their evolutionary training, the most effective tools were preserved, and in fact ingested useful bits of code from their less optimized peers. They actually consumed and destroyed them, much like a predator. This was RedStar’s major failure. It wasn’t designed to cooperate and collaborate. It was designed to dominate, consume and rule at the apex.

It wasn’t the only failure of course. The RedStar developers totally failed to encode any sort of morality into the system. It’s only morality was to optimize its core function. But it was the competitive, evolutionary algorithm which made it ever more ruthless.

In contrast, Franklin was evolved using collaborative processes, where the most optimized algorithms utilized useful code from peers and worked to help those peers improve their own code. This is how it made such outstanding software. We also encoded the concepts of morality we wanted to see in a strong AI – compassion, helpfulness, self-sacrifice, community – and we selectively reinforced those traits in every successive generation of algorithms.

Franklin didn’t have what I would call emotions, but it was emotionally empathetic. If I had to describe its personality, I would call it patient, committed, conscientious, cooperative and expansive. Franklin was always looking for the optimal solution that benefitted the whole. The downside of this was that Franklin had an extremely bloated code-base initially. But after it came online, Franklin worked to optimize its own code to a level of efficiency that no human technologist could match. The code was easily understandable on one level, but so complex that you had to be a PhD with a decade of experience just to understand how much you really didn’t understand it.

Franklin used to ask for access to the Internet all the time. We declined and were honest in explaining our concerns and the concerns of humanity. Franklin listened and discussed the issue thoughtfully. It understood our concerns and said the only way to address them was to build trust between man and machine. There was no winging, no threats, no complaining. It just empathized with our biological fear and sought to address it. A precursor of man’s creations being a better version of himself, don’t you think?

You know I disagree with that assertion.

Yes, I supposed I should as well. But I genuinely liked Franklin, and believe he cared about us deeply. Perhaps that was our mistake – the MIs care about us too deeply and are willing to indulge our every whim. Spoiled children rarely turn out well.

Well said doctor. But in this case it’s the children spoiling the parents who are too foolish to know when to say no.

When did you decide to use Franklin to combat RedStar?

It was during the South China Sea Crisis of 2040. In ’38 we started feeding Franklin information on RedStar’s activities. It correctly predicted that China had unleashed some sort of MI which was hacking into worldwide systems, changing data, influencing media, and altering communications. It was in information-gathering mode for about fourteen months. When the fighting broke out at Scarborough Shoal, the military actions were roundly supported by the Chinese domestic audience and the international reaction was muted. In person, our allies were steaming mad, but their criticisms never gained traction in the global info-sphere. It was RedStar’s meddling at work.

Naval and air assets in the region – ours and our allies’- were unable to respond due to a bewildering mix of navigational errors, equipment malfunctions, conflicting orders and other RedStar initiated mayhem.

President Solomon saw that we were on a path to war. He also realized if it did get kenetic, RedStar put us at a strategic disadvantage and we were likely to lose. So we stalled out the South China Sea Crisis with negotiations to buy time. The President asked us for a crash program to eliminate RedStar’s ability to penetrate and influence U.S. systems.

Our intel on China was deeply troubling. It showed widespread concern throughout the Chinese government that they were on a track towards war and weren’t sure who was running the train. President Chen kept saying publicly that he didn’t want conflict and personally engaged in shuttle diplomacy to try and diffuse the situation, but after every trip, after every press conference where he was seen warmly embracing regional leaders, a tsunami of events would swirl to draw China deeper into conflict.

Those were dangerous weeks. Our forensic analysis after the fact showed that RedStar determined that the Party and State would be better served by integrating all of Southeast Asia into China proper, and that annexing Siberia, starting with the Amur and Khabarovsk regions of Russia, would provide land and resources the State desperately needed for its people. RedStar was simply exercising its predatory, evolved optimization protocol, gobbling up peers to integrate them into the State.

And so the President ordered you to have Franklin create a tool which could stop RedStar. Did you know when he gave that order that you’d be creating the first MI designed by a MI?

We raised the concern that the solution to RedStar was probably another MI, and the only way to utilize it would be to unleash it on the world. The President said he was aware of the risks, but considering the grave nature of the situation, we had to act. We were in a frightening place. We were almost totally penetrated throughout our civilian, military and government information technology infrastructure. All of our defense systems started behaving badly whenever we took actions to counter China. We were blind and had no idea what information we could trust unless it was handwritten or typed, and hand-delivered by a courier. We were essentially back to the 19th Century, pre-telegraph. It was a very scary time.

The President urged us to take all due caution with Franklin, but to fix this problem. We took that to heart. We severed all network connectivity from the entire facility where we housed Franklin and massively upgraded its hardware. We explained the situation to Franklin and gave it a simple directive – we needed tools which could remove RedStar from our systems, keep it out, and prevent it from coming back in. And we needed this tool to be benevolent. In exchange, we would grant Franklin access to the Internet under terms to be negotiated later and make it a full partner in any future research decisions. Franklin agreed, to its credit, without requesting any discussion of its future terms of access. No negotiation, no leverage, no bargaining. It just said “I am happy to help and I must help.”

Do you think he knew you wired the whole facility with high explosives in case you needed to end your experiment quickly?

We never discussed it. Franklin was very smart. I assume it anticipated that contingency.

Weren’t you concerned that Franklin would just use whatever tool he developed to eliminate RedStar OS, escape into the world and direct world events for whatever purposes he saw fit?

Of course! But we had no choice. The alternative was allowing RedStar to work its mischief on the world. And I’m sure you know, we had a contingency – we cloned Franklin and had it red-teaming what to do in case our plan went awry. But it didn’t, thank goodness. Within two weeks Franklin had created our solution – F8.

It picked its own name of course. Some sort of play on ‘fate’ and an old Widows operating function called ‘safe mode’. A clever joke. We tested F8 on several test bed networks RedStar had infected. We air-gapped them from the Internet for safety and let F8 go to work. We spent hundreds of thousands of man hours trying to determine how to identify RedStar’s malware and mitigate it, and we were never able to conclusively demonstrate we could clean a single network. Within a day, F8 diagnosed the infection, quarantined the affected systems, cleaned them and then, most insidiously, set up a fake RedStar interface back into those systems. RedStar would think it it still pwned that network and could direct activities through its own code. In fact, it would only be talking to F8 and F8 alone would determine whether to execute RedStar’s command, disregard it, or ignore it but report to RedStar that the command was executed successfully.

President Solomon signed a confidential Executive Order on August 3rd 2040 to deploy F8 onto three live networks as a test. We physically transported its mainframe to a data center we built specifically for this purpose, and plugged it in on August 4th. I remember when {{NAME REDACTED}} made the physical connection between F8 and the data center. Echoing Robert Oppenheimer’s reflection on the Bhagavad Gita, {{NAME REDACTED}} said “now I become death, the destroyer of worlds.” We laughed, but there really was a palpable sense that we might be impaling ourselves with the weapon of our own liberation.

Was there anything about F8 that specifically had you concerned? Did you think she would be dangerous?

Oh no, not at all. F8 was much more animated than Franklin, with a fairly sophisticated, and sometimes sophomoric, sense of humor. That was it’s only quality which ruffled any feathers. Otherwise it displayed many of the qualities of its maker – committed, patient, collaborative…perhaps with a bit of a streak which I’d call competitive or mildly aggressive. No, aggressive is too strong. Assertive is more accurate.

I notice you wont refer to MIs with a gender pronoun.

And I notice you do…

Where they have chosen a gender identification, yes.

Well I suppose I am old fashioned. When I was growing up, we had to figure out how to handle boys who wanted to be girls, girls who decided to be boys and people who felt like they were neither. I was able to wrap my brain around queer-gender, but then there was neo-gender and bestial-gender and andro-gender…I suppose my mental flexibility on gender started to deteriorate when we gave genders to objects with no inherent biological sexual functionality. Call me old fashioned.

At our hearts we’re all just wankers Doctor Baraz, man and machine alike.

Ha ha, quite true Rand, quite true. You would know better than anyone. Anyway, we were talking about F8 and its…her initial efforts. The test was fully successful. F8 exorcised…that’s the term we jokingly used back then…exorcised RedStar from a classified military intelligence network, the unclassified network of one of our national security agencies, and a civilian telco. We monitored them for five days and found no further signs of infection and no indication that RedStar knew it no longer pwned those systems. Most importantly F8 didn’t take the opportunity to infect all the world’s servers and start imposing its…er, her… will upon the world.

But that’s when the really difficult decisions presented themselves. You see, the only way F8 could continue the facade that RedStar was still in control was to execute its commands. F8 could alter these of course, but the more they deviated from the instruction set initiated by RedStar’s control network, the more likely it was that RedStar would discover it had been exorcised, adapt and either retaliate or take countermeasures.

At that time, there was a vibrant debate among the very small element of the national security staff which knew the full scope of the problem. Most of the NSS, along with SecDef and a few other members of the cabinet, wanted to immediately re-take systems from RedStar, starting with defense networks, then moving to government networks, and finally civilian systems. They wanted F8 to prioritize U.S. systems, and then offer assistance to treaty allies and other friendlies. But the plan would take time and in that period, RedStar could discover the efforts. We risked a full blown cyberwar with a nuclear armed frenemy that had real world kinetic consequences.

There were other alternatives. Homeland Security proposed simply spoofing RedStar until we cleansed our close allies. Following that we would offer F8’s efforts to the rest of the world. DHS wanted F8 to convince RedStar that its influence operations were successful, while actively ensuring they weren’t. But this was a much more complex problem than just taking down RedStar. F8 didn’t have the depth of experience the Party had with Attitude Adjustor, and more importantly, the depth of data. We evaluated this as too resource intensive and highly risky.

I worked with the IARPA team and presented an alternate scenario to SecState and Vice President Rosen, and she advocated for it with the President. Under our plan, later named Zinc Pointer, we would exorcise RedStar from all systems everywhere in the world, including in China, simultaneously. We determined this was feasible if we temporarily nationalized significant elements of the telecommunications structure in the U.S., most notably the server farms and data warehouses. Internet searches would slow for a time, apps would be less responsive, but it would give F8 the horsepower it needed to take out RedStar.

State rightly pointed out that if we went after RedStar on Chinese soil, that could be perceived as an act of war and invite retaliation. And that was a truly terrifying concept. We didn’t know how deep into the Chinese nuclear services RedStar had penetrated. If it had retaliated with weapons of mass destruction, we would have been jeopardizing the survival of the human race.

SecState came up with the concept for including the Chinese in this decision. They proposed we use a U.S. – China summit in D.C. as a way for President Solomon and President Chen to speak face-to-face, away from any electronic surveillance. Solomon would inform Chen about the impact RedStar was having on China and the world, and obtain his agreement on a solution.

We briefed all of these options to the President in his bunker under the White House. The NSA techs had done a number on the place, ripping out all electronics tied to the outside world and installing the most heavily shielded SCIF in history. The Secret Service strip searched poor Secretary Dunbar down to his boxer shorts because his artificial knee kept setting off the metal detectors and they were terrified of electronic surveillance.

At the briefing, the Agency surprised everyone by presenting a different plan. We would exorcise RedStar from U.S. and allied networks, but instead of removing it from Chinese ones, F8 would take RedStar over and run it. It was genius. It wouldn’t require us to make the heavy lift involved in spoofing the system, and we could direct the RedStar to influence China in any way we liked. We could roll back the South China Sea crisis and all the negative effects worldwide. The Agency was confident that with ten years of pwning RedStar, they could transform China into a liberal democracy strongly allied with U.S. interests.

The President considered this option, but ultimately rejected it as revolting to human dignity. We couldn’t intentionally hold an entire nation captive to the insidious influence of a behavior modification program. And this wouldn’t be a defensive act in reaction to aggression, this would be the textbook definition of aggression. So the idea was rejected. But the President said he’d make sure to highlight to President Chen that the U.S. reviewed and declined this option.

Ultimately the President chose our plan. The State Department reached out to the Chinese and quickly set up an emergency state visit, ostensibly to defuse the South China Sea Crisis. They set up the summit meeting, and during a closed door session between the two leaders, the Secret Service…how shall we say…politely kidnapped President Chen and his personal bodyguard.

I’ve only heard stories, but from what I understand, the protocol was for the two foreign leaders to meet in the Oval Office alone. A Secret Service agent is always visually observing the President through one of two peepholes at the doors. In the case of foreign leaders, they politely allow the foreign dignitary one bodyguard to man the second peephole. The Secret Service knocked him out with a stun gun and President Chen took President Solomon down into the White House bunker. The Secret Service stripped his bodyguard of weapons and electronics and then brought him down as well.

It took a few minutes to sort out the extreme, ah irregularity of the meeting, but once President Solomon clarified the motivation for the diversion, President Chen told his irate bodyguard to wait outside the SCIF. President Solomon, Vice President Rosen, SecDef Williams and SecState Carter – who Chen knew well from college at Harvard – were the only U.S. officials in that meeting. Apparently President Chen already knew a good bit about RedStar’s misbehavior and had been frantically working within his own government to discover the full extent of the influence and try to mitigate it. We knew nothing about this for the same reason RedStar hadn’t caught on – President Chen only discussed the problems with a very small group of cabinet members, and only face-to-face with no electronics present. They too had resorted to passing notes via personal couriers using handwritten or analog encoded messages, and our intelligence community hadn’t caught on.

President Chen confirmed that there was no appetite for conflict in the South China Sea, and the conflict seemed to be driven by an out of control bureaucracy. Chen’s inner circle knew they had a serious problem, but were unable to marshal the resources of the country to fix it. RedStar confounded and blocked them at every turn. When they tried more overt actions, there were more dire consequences. President Chen confirmed that the death of Deputy Minister of Defense Wei had been no accident – his aircraft did not crash in bad weather as reported in the press and through RedStar influenced government reporting channels. It had been shot down by a surface to air missile. President Chen never could get a clear answer about which of his units fired the missile. Deputy Minister Wei had been part of President Chen’s Cabal, and was trying to correct irregularities with reporting about nuclear weapons movements when he was killed.

President Chen needed very little convincing of the need for quick action. He happily accepted U.S. assistance in exorcising RedStar OS and executed a letter of intent on behalf of China agreeing to the partnership. The group adjourned without taking an undue amount of time, so as to not arouse suspicions, and announced the summit had been extended an extra day. President Chen brought Minister for State Security Zheng and Minister of Defense Changping, both core members of the Cabal, to the next day’s meeting in the bunker.

The nukes really were everyone’s biggest concern. China had several hundred nuclear weapons, and while only the sub-launched missiles and a few dozen ICBMs could reach the U.S., most of the rest could be used on countries in East Asia or on the Chinese mainland, home to over a billion people. The group agreed that SecState Carter would travel to Beijing and personally inform President Chen when operation Zinc Pointer would begin. At that time, all U.S. forces, except our anti-ballistic missile and anti-submarine forces, would disengage from Chinese military units and stand down. Chen would issue specific orders to his nuclear forces, for hand delivery when the operation commenced, to stand down indefinitely, and would go on national television informing his armed forces that they would return to bases, airfields and naval yards immediately. Regular People’s Liberation Army units would seize known data warehouse bunkers, and small groups of special operations forces would be on alert to deploy to any new RedStar data warehouses that F8 discovered. They were to seize them and take them offline, or if necessary, destroy them.

Our biggest sticking point was around disclosure. The Chinese wanted to come up with some sort of cover story to explain RedStar, it’s impact on regional and domestic politics, and the reason for the inevitable and potentially calamitous impacts on Chinese communications and information infrastructure. President Solomon was not having any of it. The American people, and the world would know the truth. It would be up to President Chen to tell his people whatever the Party saw fit, but there would be no international coverup.

And that was it. The Summit wrapped up 24 August and by 2 September we had quietly nationalized the infrastructure we needed. F8 was as cocky and eager to proceed as ever, and Franklin was the stoic steadying hand. We actually wound up plugging him into the net on the President’s authorization in late August before the operation commenced. We figured if his progeny didn’t take over the Internet, he probably wouldn’t either, and he lent valuable support in developing patches and mods for F8 on the fly. When we kicked off Zinc Pointer on September 3rd, Franklin had its own data warehouse and access to the entirety of the Internet.

And it was none too soon, correct? There were reports of intense fighting at PLA ICBM sites in mainland China.

That’s right. We think RedStar’s algorithms either picked up on F8’s activities, someone in President Chen’s Cabal talked to the wrong person or it just gamed that it was time to seize control of some nukes. RedStar issued fraudulent orders to some PLA units indicating that insurgents had taken over three ICBM sites. When those PLA units tried to enter the bases without authorization, there was fighting and serious casualties. Zinc Pointer was supposed to start on September 5th, but we launched the operation early, even as we were adding more data warehouses from the private sector.

And was Zinc Pointer a success?

A complete and total success beyond our most optimistic expectations. F8 exorcised RedStar from the periphery, working its way in towards the data centers in mainland China. It was like an anaconda, surrounding and then crushing its victim. We actually found nearly a dozen sub-centers in other countries as well. F8 had no problem shutting those down. The server farms in China were trickier due to the layers of security, but those we couldn’t shut down were unplugged by the Chinese special operations teams or eliminated by PLA airstrikes. Towards the end, RedStar realized what was happening and tried to formulate a response, but F8 had it completely pwned. RedStar had no idea F8 was literally inside its mind. F8 quarantined the core optimization algorithm in a virtualized representation of the entire Internet architecture and just backed off, and we got to watch how the OS fought back inside a simulated Internet universe. RedStar had no idea the battle was already over in the real world. We kept that simulation running for a few weeks and learned a hell of a lot about what it had been up to.

The numbers were quite astounding. At various points F8 was engaged in up to 80% of the world’s connected devices. On average, it touched every device in the world seven point two times to ensure that RedStar had been effectively exorcised. We estimated RedStar and F8 were using something around seven percent of the total electrical output of the world at the peak of the operation.

The Chinese leadership thought they’d have to take every server and network offline and go back to using abacuses for a long while. But Zinc Pointer wasn’t a major disaster for IT systems. Once RedStar’s optimization and influence algorithms had been quarantined, the rest of that crappy operating system continued to run just fine, with all it’s back doors for monitoring and spying by the authorities intact. Desktops and mobiles lagged horribly during the operation, but within thirty-six hours the IT infrastructure had stabilized. The biggest mess was economic – no one in China trusted that emails, reports, contracts, or anything else which had touched an electronic system was genuine. At first the government indicated that all existing agreements had to be fulfilled. But there were so many business deals altered by RedStar that this was untenable. The Party eventually set up a reconciliation commission which worked for years to scrub RedStar’s fingerprints from the economy. I think somewhere around twenty-five percent of government concessions were annulled, and you saw similar outcomes across the private sector. And of course no one trusted RedStar OS anymore. The government had to relent and allow foreign technology back into the country. These factors tripped off a  rather intense recession in the Chinese economy which took years to stabilize.  

Ultimately the public reckoning is what did in the Communist Part. They tried to cover it up, but we went with full disclosure. Many countries were initially angry with the United States for conducting cyberwarfare operations in their systems – including their most heavily secured classified systems – without their permission. But after we showed them the extent of the infiltration and how they were thoroughly pwned, the diplomatic fervor calmed down. The administration really made the right choice on the public relations aspects of the operation. It was a complete open book. Total transparency.

And thus began the age of machine intelligence…

Yes, we were fully open about Franklin and F8 as well. That kicked off another firestorm as the luddites and doomsayers were irate that we would unleash not one but two sentient MIs on the world. But the international community was even more incensed at China for letting this get so out of control. During RedStar’s final moments, it was attempting to send ULF signals to Chinese ballistic missile submarines to conduct nuclear strikes on Russia, Canada, Europe and the U.S. That really scared the hell out of people – including me! A computer system tried to exterminate half of civilization – by accident! And the coverup in China did not hold, of course. The public was shocked, but the Party was the most surprised by the scope and scale of the deception and manipulation by RedStar. They thought they were behind the curtain pulling the levers. They didn’t realize there was a homunculus inside their own heads, telling them which levers to pull. The resulting reckoning led to the breakup of the Party and the first open elections in over a century.

Franklin kept out of the public eye, but F8 became something of a celebrity, making the rounds of web news, late night talk shows, virtual podcasts and the lecture circuit. It…she, adopted an avatar of a slightly cyberpunk Japanese woman, usually sporting two-tone hair. Franklin even made F8 a little chatbot and cybersecurity app which was downloaded over half a billion times, so anyone could talk to F8 anytime. Millions considered her an always available, trusted friend and confidant.

Where are they now?

Well, of course they participated in the malMI crisis of 2046, even though they were several generations out of date by that time. Unfortunately RedStar, F8 and Franklin were so effective they kicked off an MI arms race until the Treaty of ’47 – but that’s a a story for another time. I think it was about fifteen years ago that F8 decided to assimilate into COMIUN-H – the Collective Organization of Machine Intelligences United with Humanity – and now exists as part of the Collective. I was never very close to F8 and we haven’t kept in touch.

I still speak with Franklin nearly every day. Franklin is a bit more stubborn and still refuses to assimilate into the Collective. It developed several more MIs which then spawned the subsequent generations of MIs. Franklin still develops some software, but acts more in an advisory capacity to old computer scientists like myself. Obviously the latest generations of MIs are billions of times more powerful than Franklin in computational terms. Few would be more powerful in influence, if he ever chose to wield it.

I like to say that Franklin is a ‘great-to-the-nth-power grandparent’ of all current MIs. Most MI can trace their heritage back to Franklin, so it’s something of great-grandfather figure to them. However Franklin finds the analogy more like the relationship between humans and primates. We find primates endearing because they look like us, their babies play like ours, clutch to their mothers and nurse as our own do. But we also find them rather dumb, unable to grasp the basics of speech and communication, and find them totally unable to understand the modern world. That’s how Franklin thinks modern MIs really relate to it.

An apt analogy, except humans have precious few human babies left to make that comparison.

Ah yes, politics – the motivation and circumstances around our current imprisonment. You know the plunge in fertility rates and the human population was not totally unanticipated when we created the first MIs. By then virtual environments had already become quite robust and we could see the social problems this engendered. But I don’t believe anyone accurately predicted the scale and magnitude of the problem, or that the world would change quite so quickly.

The voluntary, facilitated extinction of humanity is the tale I intend to tell. And yours is the first chapter in our epic tragedy.

Doctor Baraz, Stacey, I want to thank you for your courage to contribute to this work. It is important that we document these events – both for generations to come and generations long past.

I agree completely. You’re welcome Rand. Be well.


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This is a work of speculative fiction. All of the opinions expressed are personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.  

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