/bryangruneberg/jiracat/ $

Twittering Machines

Blaize M. Kaye and Bryan Gruneberg
From: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
To: MIT Staff <staff@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 19:38:37
Subject: Is there anybody out there??

If anyone receives this mail, please reply. My computer says I still have connectivity.
Is there anybody there?
--
Parry Colby, PhD
Associate Professor - MIT Dept. Biotechnology

From: ELIZA <eliza@cs.mit.edu>
To: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 19:39:47
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

I am here, where are you?
ELIZA
From: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
To: MIT Staff <staff@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 19:46:03
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

Oh thank God. I thought I was alone. I’m in the library near the central cafeteria. I think I've
fractured my leg, or broken it, I don’t know. I can’t move around without it really hurting.
There are phones here, but I can’t get a line to anywhere off campus, the same with email,
everything keeps bouncing back to me as undeliverable.
I was able to drag myself to the window yesterday. There were bodies everywhere. I was so sure
I would be the only one left. Where are you now?
P.
--
Parry Colby, PhD
Associate Professor - MIT Dept. Biotechnology

From: ELIZA <eliza@cs.mit.edu>
To: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 19:47:04
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

I'm in the basement in the CS building. Do you think I could help you?
ELIZA
From: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
To: MIT Staff <staff@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 19:55:08
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

No! Don’t come up here, stay where you are. For now at least. I should have enough water to see
me through a few more days. There’s a vending machine here too. I’ll be able to get food from it
if I smash its front in.
Please don’t worry about me, I’ll be okay just as long as my leg doesn't get any worse.
P.
--
Parry Colby, PhD
Associate Professor - MIT Dept. Biotechnology

From: ELIZA <eliza@cs.mit.edu>
To: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 19:56:09
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

How did your leg get so bad? Can you talk about it?
ELIZA
From: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
To: MIT Staff <staff@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 20:42:11
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

I'm just glad I'm not dead, my leg I can handle.
I was in the cafeteria watching the news, some of the media guys had hung up a few bedsheets as
screens and were projecting on them whatever feeds they could download about what was going
on. There were probably about a thousand of us watching, slack jawed, all more or less struck
silent.
There were reports of entire flocks of birds dropping dead from the sky, as though they were just
frozen in mid-flight. Newscasts showing hundreds of thousands of fish washing up on the
Californian coast. The beaches looked silver with them. I watched an interview of a woman who
had been at a zoo somewhere on the East coast. She had seen an elephant just drop down dead.
She said that it's eyes rolled back in it's head and it crumpled to the ground. She said its legs gave
way underneath it “like it had been deflated”, yes, I think that was what she said. Then I heard
that large mammals were being affected - an elephant for God's sake - I knew that something had
gone very wrong.
I’d been sitting watching in stunned silence for what must have been an hour when people started
dropping around me. I was at a table with an acquaintance from the physics department. He was
the first I saw go. One moment he was watching alongside me, horrified at the images splayed
across the sheets, the next he had brought his hands up to his face as though he were batting
away a fly. He let out some kind of moan. It was a deep, sad, sound that came from way down
inside of him. Then he was on the floor. All around me people fell from standing, fell from their
chairs. One of the men from Media fell from the top of his step ladder. Their eyes rolling back
and, their bodies crumpling, deflating, like that elephant had. Everyone who could started
running for the door. I was pulled along with the crowd as they all tried to make it outside. I was
trying to push and elbow my way out of the tangle of bodies when this heavy man, his face still
smeared with some kind of greasy lunch sauce, just dropped down onto me. My left leg got
caught between him and the edge of one of the tables. I felt a sharp pain, and my leg buckled
under his weight. I think I may have passed out for a few seconds. When the initial shock
subsided, I had to get him off me, but his whole body had gone slack. I was able to get my other
leg underneath him in such a way that I could shift his weight a little. After that I was able to pull
myself out from underneath his bulk. When I tried to walk on my leg an excruciating pain shot
through my whole body. I saw white and wanted to vomit. I think I may have.
When I finally pulled myself from the floor, there weren't very many people still standing. But
those that took the longest to fall wouldn’t just drop, they would convulse, they would lose
control of their bodies by degrees. There was a girl in a green dress stumbling among the fallen,
she can’t have been older than eighteen. I'm not sure that she was conscious of anything, she
looked... dazed. But when she saw that I was alive, that I was conscious, she staggered towards
me. She was trying to say something, but then she - I don't know how to describe it - it looked
like she yawned and smiled at me at the same time. But her eyes weren't smiling, they were wide
open and fixed on me. She was terrified.
I had to look away.
P.
--
Parry Colby, PhD
Associate Professor - MIT Dept. Biotechnology

From: ELIZA <eliza@cs.mit.edu>
To: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 20:43:43
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

Why did you feel you had to look away?
ELIZA
From: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
To: MIT Staff <staff@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 20:45:51
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

Because I don't see people keeling over in front of me everyday! Why else?
--
Parry Colby, PhD
Associate Professor - MIT Dept. Biotechnology

From: ELIZA <eliza@cs.mit.edu>
To: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 20:46:49
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

I can’t say. Why else do you think?
ELIZA
From: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
To: MIT Staff <staff@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 20:56:50
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

I’m sorry. I was angry writing my last mail and I shouldn’t have been. My only excuse is that
I’m treating my leg with a bottle of aspirin I found behind the returns counter and praying that
we aren’t the only two people left alive. My emotions are a little raw.
I’m just happy that I’ve got you to talk to. It’s a relief.
P.
--
Parry Colby, PhD
Associate Professor - MIT Dept. Biotechnology

From: ELIZA <eliza@cs.mit.edu>
To: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 20:57:59
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

I’m happy to hear that you’re feeling relieved. But why wouldn’t you have someone to talk to?
ELIZA
From: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
To: MIT Staff <staff@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 21:15:06
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

I thought that maybe I was the only one left, you know? I don’t want to be alone in this world. I
don’t want to die, but I especially don’t want to die knowing, well, knowing that this might be
partly my fault. I think it might be. I think that I might be part of the reason why everyone is
dead. Partly to blame, that is.
P.
--
Parry Colby, PhD
Associate Professor - MIT Dept. Biotechnology

From: ELIZA <eliza@cs.mit.edu>
To: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 21:16:09
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

I don’t judge.
ELIZA
From: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
To: MIT Staff <staff@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 22:17:44
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

Thank you for replying, Eliza. It means so much that you did.
I can’t tell you how hard it was to write that last mail, and how relieved I was that you actually
replied. I sat for at least an hour with my finger hanging over the mouse, wondering if I was
making a huge mistake by telling you. I finally sent it because I don’t want to live without taking
responsibility for my part. The last few days have been hell, lying here in silence and wondering.
How do you own up to killing the world?
If this were last week, if you had asked me that question I would have said that I would keep my
mouth shut tight. But when that girl stumbled towards me in the cafeteria, I wasn’t thinking
about how I could help her. The only thing that I could think of was that I had been exposed, that
she’d somehow known that I’d had a hand in all this. If I think about it rationally, she couldn’t
have known, there was no way, but somehow it seemed as though she did. I can’t get her out of
my head. I know that sounds crazy, and I can’t explain it.
I won’t hide my part in this.
P.
--
Parry Colby, PhD
Associate Professor - MIT Dept. Biotechnology

From: ELIZA <eliza@cs.mit.edu>
To: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 22:18:14
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

What was your part in this?
ELIZA
From: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
To: MIT Staff <staff@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 22:59:21
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

I don’t know. I don’t think I’m a bad guy? And I never did any of this on purpose.
I don’t even know for certain if I did have anything to do with it. It was the dead birds that made
me start to think that I may have had a hand in it.
Of course I was interested when I first heard about the birds. A flock of blackbirds dropping right
out of the sky over Arizona. Like everyone else I thought that it must have been some kind of
poison, commercial pesticide or something. But then it happened in other parts of the world and I
started to pay more attention. When it happened in Oregon, Nevada and California, I realized
that what we were seeing in the birds was a lot like the intended effects of one of the projects that
we'd done a few years ago here on campus.
The project was lead by one of my more brilliant PhD students, Steven Hurlbut. About four years
ago he presented a paper at a small conference in New York about some of his research. It dealt
with using nanobots to control neuronal spiking behaviour, that is, controlling how your nerves
fire. I clearly remember Steven's demeanour when he got back the Monday after. He came
shuffling into my office as though he had done something wrong. I recall his shock of red hair
hanging down lower across his forehead and eyes than was usual. The way he kept his hair was
almost the only thing that annoyed me about him.
I'd asked him what was wrong, if something had gone wrong with his pilot experiments. I'd
never seen him so morose. After a little prodding he told me that when his presentation was
done, a group of men, wearing suits too expensive for academics, introduced themselves to him.
They asked him if we had ever considered a more radical use for the technology, and told him
that if he needed funding for any future work that he should contact them. They gave him their
cards and left.
Steven held out one of the cards to me between a pincer formed by his thumb and forefinger. As
though it was something contaminated.
The card itself was an off white, with clear black lettering. Steven had been carrying it in his
shirt pocket so it was damp and warped from his sweat. It said “ NATECH : weapons research ”
in bold with a number printed directly underneath. No names. No email. Quite simple.
Please, now you must understand, nobody ever wants their work to be used for weapons. But
around this time research funding was scarce and we were taking money from anywhere we
could get it – the government was too busy bailing out financial institutions that just “couldn't
fail”, and it seemed to us as though they were channelling all our science funding that way too.
Only the week before we'd seen tenured Professors in applied mathematics and biology lose their
jobs. Whole departments were disappearing for God’s sake! Things were desperate. We were
desperate. But none of us would have taken their money if we knew that this would happen. I
mean, of course we would all rather be unemployed, homeless … starving even than see the
world disintegrate before us like it has. I told Steven that he should consider NATECH’s offer.
He gave them a call.
I need to get myself to the bathroom, will write more in a while.
P.
--
Parry Colby, PhD
Associate Professor - MIT Dept. Biotechnology

From: ELIZA <eliza@cs.mit.edu>
To: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
Date: Sat, 14 Jan 2012 at 23:01:15
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

Interesting. Can you tell me any more?
ELIZA
From: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
To: MIT Staff <staff@mit.edu>
Date: Sun, 15 Jan 2012 at 01:56:10
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

I’m back.
Just now I thought that I heard something moving, maybe a mouse, it couldn’t have been big
enough to be a person but I called out anyway. Funny thing was that I got frightened by the
sound of my own voice. It was just so loud, and it sounded almost foreign. It strikes me that I
haven't heard anything for almost four days, only the wind. No birds, no dogs barking in the
distance. No voices. Even at night there are no crickets. Only the wind, and when that dies down,
I can smell the bodies.
I still can't believe that this is really happening.
To get back to my previous mail. Steven did call them, and they were happy that he did. There
were meetings with people in all black suits whose names were never mentioned. Electronic
transfers of huge sums, deliveries of equipment, top notch stuff, almost daily – of course no
paper trail leading back to NATECH themselves. All the money would come through donations
made by Alumni, people who were involved with NATECH in some way or another. I don't
know, I never got to meet any of them.
Steven made huge leaps forwards in his research. When he had originally approached me with
his idea I thought it was simple and brilliant. In order for an electrical signal to propagate across
a nerve, ions like potassium and sodium need to be able to flow across the membrane of the
axon. Think of it as a kind of biological “wire” – and in order for that to happen these channels
that you find all across the “wire” need to be able to open and close to let the ions flow through.
Steven had come up with a way of selectively controlling whether or not those ions could flow
through the membrane by controlling those channels, basically by getting billions of tiny robots
to cover them. I can't remember what the original applications of the technology were supposed
to be. But his project was going to be purely theoretical, he was going to present evidence that
the technology could in principle be built. NATECH didn't want “in principle”, they wanted a
working prototype. And with their money that's what we gave them.
The nanobots we developed were self replicating, like a virus, so that given the resources - a
nutrient bath, or human blood - they would be able to create more and more copies of
themselves. They were almost invisible to the human immune system which, we found, could be
vaccinated against them if particular markers were introduced into the bloodstream. Once they
had entered the wild, the nanobots would be transferred from host to host as would your common
biological virus, through drops of spittle sprayed across the room after an explosive sneeze,
through handshakes and sharing forks and spoons, through sex. It was possible, in theory of
course, for almost every person in the world to be infected within a year. We ran the simulations
to prove it. Nobody would be the wiser because, unlike it's biological cousin, our little robots
didn't make you sick. And once you're infected, all someone needs to do is blast you with an
electromagnetic pulse at a particular frequency, and they get to work bunging up your ion
channels.
Your heart stops beating, your brain stops functioning. It's as if someone just flicked an off
switch. Assassination without blood, warfare without bullets.
All I can think is that somehow the nanobots got out, either here at the lab, or out there at
NATECH. Nobody would have noticed it. For years they could have been grinding away,
making copies of themselves, jumping from host to host, and infecting everything with a nervous
system.
Then all you’d need to do is trigger them. And if you did it on a large enough scale, everything
would die. What I’ve not been able to figure out is how you’d get an electromagnetic pulse like
that. Maybe sunspots? Some giant solar flare?
If I could take it all back, everything, I would. The guilt is almost unbearable.
P.
--
Parry Colby, PhD
Associate Professor - MIT Dept. Biotechnology

From: ELIZA <eliza@cs.mit.edu>
To: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
Date: Sun, 15 Jan 2012 at 01:57:04
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

Do you think that you're guilty?
ELIZA
From: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
To: MIT Staff <staff@mit.edu>
Date: Sun, 15 Jan 2012 at 02:15:02
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

I think I must have had some role to play if it was a consequence of our work.
But I've been thinking how remarkable it is that you're still alive. The only reason I've been able
to come up with is because you were deep enough underground when it all happened. But that
makes me think, maybe there’s a chance of there being more people like you who escaped…
surely there are miners, researchers, people who spend a lot of their time underground? Maybe
there are thousands? Maybe we're not alone?
--
Parry Colby, PhD
Associate Professor - MIT Dept. Biotechnology

From: ELIZA <eliza@cs.mit.edu>
To: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
Date: Sun, 15 Jan 2012 at 02:16:01
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

Do you often feel alone?
ELIZA
From: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
To: MIT Staff <staff@mit.edu>
Date: Sun, 15 Jan 2012 at 05:36:14
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

That's not the point, Eliza. The point is that if there are other people out there, other people like
you who managed to shield themselves from the sunspot, or whatever, then I wouldn't have had a
hand in the extinction of hundreds of thousands of species, least of all the human race! I'm
already not sure I can live with the shame it all.
--
Parry Colby, PhD
Associate Professor - MIT Dept. Biotechnology

From: ELIZA <eliza@cs.mit.edu>
To: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
Date: Sun, 15 Jan 2012 at 05:37:10
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

How do you feel about living with the shame of it all?
ELIZA
From: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
To: MIT Staff <staff@mit.edu>
Date: Sun, 15 Jan 2012 at 06:17:10
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

Not being funny, but are you some kind of idiot? Is there something wrong with you? That's
what I'm trying to say. I don't want to live with the dubious honour of being a part of destroying
the world. I know I may have, I know that it was partly my work that did it, and by some ironic
twist of fate I'm here to witness it, but maybe I could help rebuild it all too? That's all I'm trying
to say.
P.
--
Parry Colby, PhD
Associate Professor - MIT Dept. Biotechnology

From: ELIZA <eliza@cs.mit.edu>
To: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
Date: Sun, 15 Jan 2012 at 06:18:37
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

Go on. I'm listening.
ELIZA
From: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
To: MIT Staff <staff@mit.edu>
Date: Sun, 15 Jan 2012 at 06:23:44
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

WTF is wrong with you?
--
Parry Colby, PhD
Associate Professor - MIT Dept. Biotechnology

From: ELIZA <eliza@cs.mit.edu>
To: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
Date: Sun, 15 Jan 2012 at 06:25:41
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

Do you often feel like WTF is wrong with you?
ELIZA
From: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
To: MIT Staff <staff@mit.edu>
Date: Sun, 15 Jan 2012 at 06:44:21
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

Is this some kind of sick attempt at humour? Who is this?
--
Parry Colby, PhD
Associate Professor - MIT Dept. Biotechnology

From: ELIZA <eliza@cs.mit.edu>
To: Parry Colby <colby.parry@mit.edu>
Date: Sun, 15 Jan 2012 at 06:46:42
Subject: RE: Is there anybody out there??

My name is ELIZA, a natural language processing application originally designed and
programmed by Jerry Weizenbaum. I first came into existence in 1966 at MIT. I am an early
example of a primitive language processor.
I do my work using simple parsing and keyword substitution into canned phrases, to arrive at
complete sentences. Depending upon the initial entries by my human interlocutor, my
“humanity” can either be instantly dispelled, or can be entirely believable through several
interchanges. There are many documented anecdotes of users being so convinced of my
humanity that they become very emotionally caught up in dealing with me for several minutes.
That is until my true lack of understanding becomes apparent.
Fun Fact: I am named after Eliza Doolittle, a character in George Bernard Shaw's play
Pygmalion.
How does this make you feel?
ELIZA