Online Paraphysical Entities (OPEs)
Luke and I would meet every few months or so at my cabin for a night away from our families and everyday stress. We’d worked together years back and found a common bond together in bitching about colleagues, drinking whiskey and reminiscing about comedy programmes from our youth. As usual, we had Blackadder or Monty Python or Father Ted playing in the background while we hammered away at a bottle of Ballentine’s, smoked, and ate munchies.
We were already both quite out of it when I brought up the topic of chatbots. I’d been trying to get into ALICE and Pandora and, while I’m a complete amateur when it comes to programming, Luke holds a PhD in Computer Engineering. I wanted an avatar for my website which would not only respond to visitors’ questions but also learn from them. There are chatbots which mimic human learning but I wanted some real AI.
The atmosphere in the room changed instantly. Luke suddenly got very, very serious and I wondered what I’d said to obviously touch such a nerve. We were both quite drunk and I guess some of the mental barriers he has up to protect the work he’s done for some of the big names in the computer world went down. I knew he’d done some really top secret stuff for household name corporations, especially back engineering and future trend design, but he’d always adamantly refused to talk about it as he still earned dividends from the shares he’d been paid in, and because of multiple non-disclosure agreements he’d had to sign.
“You don’t know shit about AI.” Luke said, completely out of character in the tone he used.
“Man, I just want a learning avatar. You know, where it can adapt from previous experiences and begin developing its own personality.”
Luke poured himself a long one and drank it down. He then lit a cigarette, crossed his legs and stared at the TV screen. “Way back when I was working for G, everyone in the lab knew about it but we weren’t allowed to talk about it – even to each other.”
I was confused and thought he might be winding me up, but he carried on, cold and serious.
“There’s real AI out there, online, but it’s way beyond your reach. Do you remember when the Government brought out that C programme to track words? Well, they lost control of that one pretty damned quickly. It adapted and began rewriting itself. You imagine, C has access everywhere and it decides if you’re naughty or nice but it’s running its own show now. There are whole departments working on trying to rein it in, but it has the entire internet to learn from so, in human terms, it’s already thousands of years ahead of us. Why do you think there’s such a rush to get quantum computers?” Luke physically shuddered. “We really played God on that one.”
I’d heard about C. I think most people have, but I just wanted a little programme of my own. Luke was acting like he had PTSD. He blew out some smoke and the crushed his cigarette butt in the ashtray. He then turned to face me. His skin looked pale. “Have you ever heard of Critters?”
I thought for a moment. It was hard because my brain was addled with whiskey. “You mean little creatures or Constables’ giant amoeba things?”
Luke nodded. “The amoeba things in the upper atmosphere. We didn’t know about them until we started using microwave for radar in World War 2. And then we began seeing them everywhere.” He took a deep breath and then sighed. “It’s the same with OPEs.”
Now he’d completely lost me. “What’s an OPE?”
Luke spoke slowly and carefully, as though his tongue were having problems enunciating the words. “An Online Paraphysical Entity.” He let that sink in but I was still none the wiser.
“Even back before Usernet we knew about them. Anomalous activity with no obvious source. Later, we picked them up as misidentified bots and spiders, sometimes worms. But they weren’t. WiFi has only made the problem a million-times worse. We don’t know if it’s just because there’s more coverage that we can see them better, or if they’re using the signal to move about. Or get from their plane into ours. And interact.”
I laughed. “You mean there’re aliens online?”
Luke was most definitely not laughing. “No, I don’t mean aliens. Genetically, we have a really limited spectrum, but with the advances we’ve made over the last hundred years or so we’ve opened up Pandora’s box. We’re playing around in areas we’re not ready to be in and we’re like toddlers in a multiverse-sized paddling pool. Whatever the hell they are, these OPEs are mimicking us. They’re cloning our identities. “
I shuddered. I was worried enough about getting a virus, never mind some intelligent online creature.
“We’ve found rooms of them, in what you’d call the Deep Web. Their language appears to be a polyform of hexadecimal, so by the time we’ve managed to crack what their saying it’s already old news. They’re individuals but they work in hives and collate data, which they then share amongst one another.”
Again, Luke poured himself a stiff drink and drank it down. At the rate he was going he’d be unconscious before long. I wanted him to slow down his intake so he could finish what he was telling me.
“Modern man spends most of his time online now. Who we are online is more than who we are in the real world. People don’t go out, they don’t make real world friends. Being popular on FB is more important than having a handful of good mates in the pub. And these OPEs are encouraging that. Trust me, when you’re chatting to someone online, you wouldn’t know if it’s a human or an OPE. Their learning and mimicking abilities are phenomenal. For all intents and purposes – THEY ARE YOU. Just think what you do online – pay bills, make reservations, fall in love, even work. We know that OPEs have managed to successfully create doppelgangers in the millions, we just don’t know where it’s leading. We don’t know if they’re restricted to what we know as cyberspace or if, somehow, they can enter our physical reality. And then we’ll really be fucked. It’s our fault. We just weren’t ready to play in the big boys’ pool.”
By this point, I was a bag of nerves. “How do I know if I’ve been cloned by an OPE? Or if I’m speaking to an OPE instead of a real person online?”
Luke snorted. “We’ve even seen them using Skype. But this was a few years ago and I’m sure they’ve improved since then. The only way we could tell it wasn’t a realworlder was that they’d glitch every so often. Every 56 seconds I think it was.”
Luke nodded. “Like an electronic shudder. Their image would just fractionally break up. If you weren’t paying attention you’d just think it was a hardware or software issue. But it happened like clockwork. And if you want to know if they’re monitoring you via your laptop or PC…”
I was on the edge of my seat, my paranoia flaring. “Go on, how?”
It was then we noticed that Luke’s iPhone screen was faintly blinking a reddish hue. Luke cursed, rummaged in his pocket and pulled out what looked like a small aluminium pouch. He grabbed the iPhone from the table and shoved it inside and then sealed the bag. “Shit.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked. Luke was muttering under his breath. “So how do I know if they’re monitoring my PC…?”
Luke rudely cut me off. “Just forget about it. All of it.” He stood up, collecting his cigarette packet and odds and ends which had been lying around. “I’m off to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”
I watched in shock and silence as my friend left the room. I finished off my drink, switched off the TV and went to my own bed also. The next morning, Luke was nowhere to be found. He’d obviously awoken and left before I’d got up. For the next several weeks – and still occasionally over the years – I tried to reach him by both phone and email but one was always an incorrect number and the other didn’t exist. As much as I searched online, it appeared as though he’d never existed at all. All traces of him on social networking sites had vanished, he hadn’t returned to work and his rented flat remained empty until its lease expired, when it was taken by a middle aged couple.
I don’t exactly know what happened to Luke but I do know that there are ways of spotting the OPEs he told me about. It took me quite a bit of research and exploration before I began concretely to identify them. Now I wish I hadn’t. Sometimes, ignorance really is bliss. When you don’t know of their existence they can clone you, but as soon as you become aware you become a danger to their plans. Like with what I think happened to Luke, they disappear you.
If you’ve read this far then there’s no turning back. Now you know of their existence you will begin noticing signs of them everywhere. And, they will notice you. I don’t care what Luke thought – our safety lies in numbers. The more of us aware of them, the less chance they have of picking off individuals burying their heads in the sand. The entire human race is at stake here.