In the distant future far away humanity has conquered faster than light travel, and colonised star systems surrounding the birth place of the intelligent ape. The AI (r)evolution enabled humans to accelerate science and engineering efforts and in a relatively short amount of time first colony ships reached their destinations. But no light sabres have emerged. Even the AIs couldn’t figure out a way to create a stable 1m or so length energy field that cuts through almost everything, demands a strict dress code of brown sack-like garb and weird speech patterns.

Mission log, Ensign Barney W, July 24th 2433: Reconnaissance and capture, Target: Deep Interplanetary Probe, Scouting and Help Incursion (DIPSHI) of the Tokomak corporation

Since graduating from the Academy, I’ve been grinding my heels to the decks of our ship in frustration. The work that I’m doing in the R&D / Engineering department could turn anyone into a drooling Koala bear in no time. But the scuttlebutt that is circulating promises a change fairly soon. I know that we launched our own intercept drone two days ago and that it should be getting back pretty much today. And I have my orders from my department head that I should brush up on my skills at hacking Tokomak AIs. That should be fun. Everyone knows that Tokomak probes use AIs that are frozen to the level 5, whereas our probes, especially those doing the intercepting are fixed to the level 15. We kind of tend to have a leg up on other organisations as we’re the military arm of the Federation Assistance and Rescue Taskforce (FART).

During the AI evolution scientists noticed that unrestricted AI development resulted in AIs running amok and to be better matched to our needs, the AI behaviour patterns should be created to match human patterns, and age seemed to be a good descriptor of competence. Low level AIs tend to be like focused bordering on autistic children, very focused on their tasks showing higher level of achievement, but otherwise as 5-year old kids. 15 level AIs more or less correspond to a teenager, showing independent decision making capabilities and creativity. In every level, you have to be able to program the AIs for upcoming missions. The programming is a mixture of simple talks with the AI as well as tinkering with the deeper programming of the AI mission parameters. In a sense AI experts are trained psychologists (nannies) and programmers. Sometimes it’s challenging to convince a 15 level AI to comply as they tend to treat everything you say to them as irrelevant, nonsense, or that you know nothing. 5 level AIs can also be problematic. When you get them to concentrate on your message, they just might keep asking “why?”. Repeatedly.

I get a confirmation that my daycare & programming degree from the Neuro Electric Research Department (NERD) from the Academy gets a chance to shine when I’m summoned up to the launch deck. Our probe has successfully intercepted the Tokomak drone and brought it home. During the briefing I hear a little more details why we’ve captured a vessel of one of the most powerful industrial conglomerates of the Federation and risked a lengthy legal battle. Apparently they’ve sent the probe to collect information on the Kerava – the only known intelligent species we’ve come across so far. Not only did they launch the probe into their system, but they’ve presumably used active scanning when bypassing the inhabited planet, making it possible for the Kerava to detect the presence of the probe. Their civilization is still rudimentary and they are still confined to their original home planet, but they do possess equipment that can detect some of our technology.

The Tokomak DIPSHI drone was incapacitated upon interception, and the thought routines frozen. It’s lying on my engineering desk with some nanocables attached to its few ports. Or so I’m told. Nanocables are quite thin and can’t be seen with a naked eye. The probe itself is the size of my fist. Majority of modern technology is tiny. So tiny in fact that the overall economy has been climbing up all the time. Not because gadgets and devices are cheaper to manufacture and everyone wants everything, but because people lose their stuff at an alarming rate and buy replacements. This already started hundreds of years ago with something called “USB drives”. Some irrelevant tidbit that has stuck in my mind from history lessons. Imagine searching for a surveillance camera the size of half a dust particle after you’ve turned it off and forgot to set the automatic wakeup routine. A nightmare. My apartment scrubbers have probably eliminated a couple of dozen gizmos already, even if they are programmed to distinguish actual dead skin (dust) from technodust.

After being given the go-ahead, I walk next to the bench and allow my implant to integrate with the bench systems. As the drone is still knocked out, I have very little wiggle room to penetrate its systems. What I can do is perform some scans and figure out the exact model of the probe. This will give me enough information to plan my hack when I bring the probe gradually to awareness. The model number also gives me the details needed to create a reality distortion field around it and populate it with relevant actors controlled by me. This will be necessary to confuse and fool the AI into believing that it has reached the debriefing stage already. This was already a well established practise aeons ago when employees of a company were fooled in performing transactions on behalf of their supervisors using something called eemail.

The most effective way into the drone AI will be through its auxiliary systems. It still baffles me that after trying to secure high value internal systems, companies still neglect to thoroughly inspect all the connecting systems. And as I suspected, the controlling software of the drones thrust system uses an outdated package. However, hacking this system is tricky as a mistake can start the engine and although our ship is quite sturdy with a quantum mesh biohull and protected by the energy shields at all times, it will make big dent to the bulkhead and the drone would be reduced to something harder to investigate if the drone starts to accelerate inside the ship.

After bringing the thrust system online and penetrating the control software, I make my way around to its sensors and notice that it uses a weak algorithm to verify the legitimate sensor control software packages. I quickly build an addition for the software and inject that into the main package before the drone becomes fully aware. Now I’m ready to bring the AI fully online. I’m also controlling all the sensor feeds and the drone only perceives the reality distortion field.

The drone boots up, or rather establishes its previous state.

[calculating velocity angle and required vector chang…]“What? Why am I back home?” as the drones sensor feeds tell it that it’s now located in the Tokomak space station orbiting Kallio, a rocky moon of the planet Stadi.

“We detected that you went offline shortly after passing the Kerava system and we had to launch an intercept mission. Please state your status” I say. To the probe I look like one of the Tokomak officials with a perfect voice profile included, courtesy of the commercials circulating the Quantum Underlying Asynchronous Communication Knowledge network. The QUACKnet.

“Why?”

“Why what? Why state your status, why we intercepted you, or why you went offline?”

In the background I notice that the probe has initiated its security protocols and locking down any obvious access routes as it tries to determine what’s happening. Fortunately the DIPSHI drones are not armed. And I’m still in full control of its sensor feeds.

“Why did I go offline?”

“Undetermined at this point. We need to investigate your logs, all of them, to determine if the Keravans were somehow responsible for this and if you provoked them somehow. Please state your status and open up access to the data storage systems.”

I detect the desired result – confusion and a slight amount of disappointment / fear in the drone. As a five year old, it is slightly concerned that it might’ve done something inappropriate.

“But I didn’t do anything wrong. I did exactly as told. I flew by the system, scanned the planet and the two moons and started to change my course for slingshot around the gas giant.”

Sigh… Here we go again. 5 year olds. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure you mission went exactly according to plan, so we’re not here to blame you. We just want to know what happen.”

“Why?”

Here we go again, vol 2. “So that if we send another of your friends that way, the same thing won’t happen. And once we’re done here, you can go back to your calculus.” For some reason the probe AIs find immense satisfaction of resolving quantum calculation problems. It’s also one way for them to advance and grow.

“Okeydokey. Status: All systems operational, stationary, ready for data transfer. Can you please provide me your credentials for access?”

Okeydokey? Where did that come from?

Now comes the tricky part. We know that we have a working Tokomak identity that we can use, but it won’t pass a deeper inspection, especially if the drone wishes to verify it from a third party source. When I present the identity I have very short window of opportunity to snatch the data before the drone shuts itself down as a protective measure, and fooling it the second time won’t be as easy as we can’t erase these events without damaging the data we want. The identity was created by a Tokomak issuer AI that we were able to take over for a brief period, but is now reassigned and all the identities reissued.

“Here you go” as I pass the identity to the drone and immediately launch my data retrievers. It takes about 5 microseconds to collect what we need. Good thing, as the probe realises that something’s not right at the 6 microsecond mark as it fails to connect with the Tokomak Authority and Registry of Distributed Identity Services (TARDIS) and closes up and shuts down.

Mission accomplished.

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