Why do you want to be sen­a­tor, Mal­colm? Paul asked.

Idealog - - RIDE ON - a story by John Har­ri­gan

“I want to serve the great peo­ple of this state, from the des­ti­tute and down­trod­den to the most for­tu­nate and suc­cess­ful. I want to cre­ate op­por­tu­nity for all and help bring our state and our coun­try into a new era of pros­per­ity,” Mal­colm replied.

Paul rolled his eyes. “In­spir­ing as a block of wood,” he said, turn­ing to the man im­me­di­ately to his right, “No one in their right mind will ever vote for him. Look, we’ve been in the lab all day. Can we just ad­dress the mas­sive ele­phant in the room at this point and say that pour­ing mil­lions of dol­lars into the sen­a­to­rial cam­paign of a com­puter may have been a mis­take?”

Lean­ing back on his of­fice chair, Nick stretched his arms up­ward and yawned. “Com­put­ers just can’t repli­cate that … I don’t know, hu­man el­e­ment or what­ever you want to call it,” Paul con­tin­ued, his right hand twist­ing in the air as if tr ying to come up with the per­fect wit­ti­cism to punc­tu­ate his thought.

Paul took a few steps away from Nick be­fore turn­ing back to face a tall, sleek rec­tan­gu­lar com­puter screen dis­play­ing a sil­ver in­fin­ity sym­bol.

“Mal­colm’s a 54-ter­abyte com­puter sys­tem that can ac­cess the in­ter­net and a wide bank of hu­man knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence,” Nick said. “And un­like you, he’s even ca­pa­ble of some ba­sic emo­tions. We can repli­cate the hu­man el­e­ment with­out all of the … bag­gage. We have the tech­nol­ogy, so we might as well find a prac­ti­cal use for it, like chang­ing pol­i­tics.”

“Yeah, but what’s the end goal here? I mean, it’s an in­ter­est­ing project, but what’s the point? There’s no al­go­rithm for charisma.” He turned to face the com­puter. “Sorry Mal­colm, but you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Nick glided his chair across the gleam­ing pearl floor, stop­ping at a flat key­board where he be­gan typ­ing. “What sorts of things de­stroy po­lit­i­cal ca­reers? Sleep­ing with in­terns, ac­cept­ing bribes from lob­by­ists, ac­ci­den­tally vom­it­ing on for­eign dig­ni­taries,

in­ten­tion­ally vom­it­ing on for­eign dig­ni­taries. It’s all hu­man na­ture. Wouldn’t you like to be able to elim­i­nate that el­e­ment?”

Paul ex­haled be­fore look­ing up at Mal­colm again. “Can we at least give him some­thing more ex­cit­ing than that stupid in­fin­ity sym­bol?” he asked, point­ing at the screen.

“Hey, we agreed it’s an im­prove­ment from that creepy, yel­low smi­ley face,” said Nick.

“We don’t even have an of­fi­cial plat­form yet and the de­bate is on Satur­day. You don’t need a su­per­com­puter to tell you that 48 hours isn’t a lot of time to plan for some­thing like this.”

“I’m telling you, we don’t need a bunch of plat­i­tudes and empty prom­ises. Com­put­ers are above that,” said Nick. “That’s the beauty of this whole thing. His al­go­rithm is de­signed to achieve com­plete ob­jec­tiv­ity and im­par­tial­ity. The ideal ar­biter. King Solo­man’s got noth­ing on Mal­colm.”

“What about abor­tion? What’s the ob­jec­tive stance on that?” asked Paul.

“Let’s find out. Mal­colm, what’s your stance on abor­tion?”

“I will al­ways sup­port a woman’s right to choose in any sit­u­a­tion, which is…”

“Whoa, hold it,” Paul in­ter­rupted. “15 years of work­ing in pol­i­tics has given me a sense for what alien­ates vot­ers. The pro-life folks are go­ing to have his head. Can’t you code him to be more tact­ful?”

“Good point. See, this is why we hired you as cam­paign man­ager. Let me make a few changes to his code.” Nick typed fu­ri­ously for a few min­utes. “Al­right, let’s try it now. You were say­ing, Mal­colm?”

“…and that’s why, if elected, I will pro­pose a spare womb tax!”

Star­tled, Nick quickly pulled the com­mand ter­mi­nal back up and re-edited a few lines of code. “Okay, there’s def­i­nitely still some fine tun­ing needed.”

“Yeah, I’ll say,” Paul replied. “A tax hike is the last thing vot­ers are go­ing to want to hear in this econ­omy.”

Nick nod­ded in agree­ment.

All 2,000 seats in the high school au­di­to­rium were filled, with dozens of oth­ers stand­ing, each there to watch the his­toric de­bate. An older bearded man and his slightly younger fe­male col­league sat at foot of the stage. Both were tasked with mod­er­at­ing the first hu­man/com­puter po­lit­i­cal de­bate.

“Good even­ing ev­ery­one and wel­come to the Wash­ing­ton State Sen­a­to­rial De­bate,” the man an­nounced. “On the stage are the three can­di­dates seek­ing to rep­re­sent the state of Wash­ing­ton in the U.S. Se­nate. On the left is the Demo­crat, State At­tor­ney Gen­eral Sarah Breyer. On the right, the Repub­li­can, State Con­gress­man Bob Roberts.” The

first two can­di­dates were re­ceived with tepid applause.

“And ap­pro­pri­ately sta­tioned in the cen­tre, mak­ing his po­lit­i­cal de­but tonight, the Mas­sive Ar­ti­fi­cial Lan­guage and Cog­ni­tion Op­er­at­ing Learn­ing Ma­chine, or ‘Mal­colm’.”

Mal­colm re­ceived a slightly less tepid re­cep­tion.

“Each can­di­date will be asked a series of ques­tions and will have up to two min­utes to re­ply. Let’s be­gin.”

Down the hall from the au­di­to­rium, the four mem­bers of the Mal­colm cam­paign brain were sta­tioned in a small class­room; all had their eyes fixed on a large tele­vi­sion, with the ex­cep­tion of Nick, whose face was buried in the screen of his lap­top.

“Well Nick, ten min­utes left and no ma­jor fuck­ups,” said Al­li­son. “Still not sure why you need me and Bryce to be ad­vi­sors. You and Paul seem to have this thing un­der con­trol, or at least do a con­vinc­ing job look­ing re­spon­si­ble for it.”

Paul didn’t look away from the tele­vi­sion. “Hold up, they’re go­ing to ask him a ques­tion.”

“Mal­colm,” the younger mod­er­a­tor be­gan in a slow ca­dence, as if ask­ing her smart­phone for di­rec­tions. “A great deal of at­ten­tion on this race is on the fact that you’re, well, a com­puter. And while you’ve been ef­fec­tive in es­pous­ing ba­sic po­lit­i­cal be­liefs, you have said lit­tle to clar­ify how your cam­paign dif­fers from your op­po­nents, both of whom are elected of­fi­cials. My ques­tion is what makes you bet­ter qual­i­fied to serve as sen­a­tor when you have no ex­pe­ri­ence in pol­i­tics – or life in gen­eral?”

Paul folded his arms. “Oh, stop talk­ing to him like he’s fuck­ing five years-old. He’s a su­per­com­puter, not Bryce.”

Bryce briefly glared at Paul, but said noth­ing. Nick fi­nally raised his head up from his lap­top, wait­ing for Mal­colm’s re­sponse.

“I feel I’m more qual­i­fied, be­cause frankly, my op­po­nents suck.” “Oh, God no,” Paul mut­tered. “I wouldn’t trust ei­ther of my op­po­nents to serve as town dog catcher, let alone as our sen­a­tor. First, these bo­zos are com­pletely bound to the Democrap and Re­dum­bli­can ide­olo­gies. Con­gress­man Roberts has been in the pocket of big oil and re­li­gious nutjobs for decades, while Ms. Breyer, our At­tor­ney Gen­eral, has failed to hold the lib­eral me­dia ac­count­able for try­ing to in­doc­tri­nate us with their bull­shit pro­pa­ganda. Fur­ther­more, I make $3,750 a week out of the com­fort of my own home.”

“Damn it!” Nick shouted, quickly tr ying to pull up the com­mand ter­mi­nal on his lap­top. “I for­got to block his ac­cess to the com­ment sec­tions. Oh god, this is go­ing to … No, I don’t want to restart to in­stall up­dates!”

“Do they ac­tu­ally elect dog catch­ers?” Bryce asked.

Paul buried his head in his hands. “Nick, I swear …” “I’m work­ing on it, Paul!” Fol­low­ing Mal­colm’s polemic, the stunned crowd re­mained silent for a mo­ment be­fore burst­ing into a round of applause and rau­cous cheer­ing.

“Preach it, brother!” yelled one man, pump­ing his fist.

“Give ‘em hell, Mal­colm!” screamed an el­derly woman.

Clear­ing her throat, the younger mod­er­a­tor at­tempted to re­store some or­der to the de­bate hall. “Uh, thank you, Mal­colm, al­though we do ask …”

“No, I’m not fin­ished! If elected, we’re go­ing to take this coun­try back from these spine­less bo­zos. Free health­care! A strong na­tional de­fense! Teach the con­tro­versy! Tax the rich into obliv­ion!”

The elder mod­er­a­tor in­ter­rupted. “Mal­colm, your time is up.”

“No, your time is up!” Mal­colm boomed.

Across the au­di­to­rium, chants of “Mal­colm” drowned out the mod­er­a­tors. It would be sev­eral min­utes be­fore they were able to si­lence the mob. Back at the class­room, the cam­paign staffers sat silently.

“I guess Mal­colm’s a pop­ulist," Paul said.

The next day, Al­li­son stormed into the univer­sity com­puter lab, which served as the cam­paign’s makeshift head­quar­ters. “Boys, I don’t want to alarm you,” she be­gan sar­cas­ti­cally, “but we’re deal­ing with a to­tal, apoc­a­lyp­tic catas­tro-FUCK here!”

“What’s the prob­lem?” Paul asked, sit­ting op­po­site Bryce at a small square ta­ble in the cen­tre of the room. Nick sat on a leather arm­chair in the cor­ner, ac­com­pa­nied by his lap­top.

“I thought the peo­ple were em­brac­ing Mal­colm and his tell-it­like-it-is ap­proach,” said Bryce. “Damn straight,” Mal­colm said. Al­li­son dropped her tablet on the ta­ble and watched Paul’s face, await­ing his re­ac­tion. On the

screen, a head­line read: ‘Mal­colm’ re­port­edly be­hind hacked op­po­nents' e-mails.

“Gentle­men,” Bryce said grimly, “the sin­gu­lar­ity has come.”

“Oh shut up, Bryce,” Al­li­son snapped, “You lit­er­ally al­ways say that! Browser crashes? Sin­gu­lar­ity. Siri gives you wrong di­rec­tions? Sin­gu­lar­ity. Did your mother ever read you The Lit­tle Boy who Cried Bull­shit?”

Paul groaned. “You know they’re go­ing to pin this one on us. We de­signed Mal­colm, so they’re go­ing to think we put him up to it.”

Turn­ing to the tall, rec­tan­gu­lar screen, Al­li­son asked, “Mal­colm, did you re­ally hack their e-mails?”

“What do they have to hide?” the com­puter replied. “Be­sides, there was noth­ing worth look­ing at. Noth­ing em­bar­rass­ing like Bryce’s search his­tory.” “Now he’s tak­ing shots at me?” “Mal­colm,” Al­li­son con­tin­ued, “You can’t hack peo­ple’s pri­vate e-mails. That’s not how you win elec­tions. Vot­ers need to know they can trust a can­di­date.”

“My al­go­rithm has weighed the cost-ben­e­fit anal­y­sis and my pro­gramme can con­clude that there is a 79 per­cent like­li­hood that the elec­torate will for­get all about this within a week, an ac­cept­able cost-ben­e­fit ra­tio. In ad­di­tion, the vot­ers can and do trust me. That is why they will be­lieve me when they read my press re­lease stat­ing that this was all the work of a ‘rogue op­er­a­tive.’ Sorry, Bryce.”

Bryce threw his head back and sighed in frus­tra­tion.

Paul stood up and walked slowly to­wards Mal­colm. “What press re­lease are you talk­ing about, Mal­colm?”

“The one I just com­posed and e-mailed to all the ma­jor news agen­cies as you were ask­ing me that ques­tion. Let me make things clear, I will be run­ning the cam­paign now.”

The com­puter lab be­came un­com­fort­ably silent.

“Hey Nick, think you can do some­thing about your friend here?” asked Paul. “You did write his code and ev­ery­thing.”

“Yeah, yeah, give me a se­cond to open the pro­gramme.”

“Wait, you’ve been on your lap­top for like an hour now and you haven’t been tr ying to fix this? What the hell have you been do­ing over there this whole time?” Al­li­son asked. “Q&A with Wired.” Paul took another step to­ward Mal­colm. “So if you’re run­ning the show now, why do you even need us? Why not just fire all of us if you have this all fig­ured out?” he asked.

“Be­cause, as you put it, hav­ing ac­tual peo­ple on staff makes me seem less for­eign. It’s for this rea­son I suggest we also adopt a cam­paign puppy. Plus, some­one needs to move my mon­i­tor around from place to place. Think of your­selves as my han­dlers.”

Al­li­son shook her head in dis­be­lief. “Okay, I’m not go­ing to let my ca­reer be held hostage by a com­puter. At this point, I’m will­ing to help out Breyer or that beady-eyed creep Roberts if it means not hav­ing my name at­tached to ‘HAL 9000’ over here.”

Nick be­gan click­ing and typ­ing fu­ri­ously. “I can’t ac­cess the pro­gramme any­more,” he said. “Some­one must have changed the pass­word.”

“That would be me,” Mal­colm replied. “I was never a big fan of


Nick slammed his lap­top shut. “Well, there’s no way of stop­ping Mal­colm from our end now. We’re just go­ing to have to stop him the old fash­ioned way – by mak­ing a ra­tio­nal ap­peal to the vot­ers to make the right de­ci­sion.”

“In other words, we’re screwed,” Paul said.


Al­li­son sat at the ta­ble in her stu­dio apart­ment. As per her usual morn­ing rou­tine, she scrolled through the po­lit­i­cal head­lines on sev­eral dif­fer­ent news sites, stop­ping to tap on one ti­tled “Key ‘MAL­COLM’ Ad­vi­sor Dis­missed From Cam­paign.”

“You son of a bitch,” she mut­tered to her­self, scrolling quickly through the ar­ti­cle. She then felt the phone vi­brate.

How much can u tell us about mal­colm?

She was slow and de­lib­er­ate in typ­ing her re­sponse.

What do you want to know?

Her phone be­gan ring­ing. It was Bob Roberts.

“So you’re jump­ing ship with two weeks to go be­fore the elec­tion?” he said. “That’s a bit un­usual.”

“Well, con­sid­er­ing part of my pre­vi­ous role was ap­ply­ing Win­dex to my can­di­date’s ‘face’, this is rel­a­tively nor­mal, Bob.”

“Fair point. Tell me, as a for­mer part of his brains trust, is there any­thing we can use against Mal­colm?”

Al­li­son frowned. “Nor­mally, I’m above this kind of pol­i­tick­ing, but some­one has to stop him. Do you re­mem­ber that so­cial me­dia crowd­fund­ing cam­paign to raise money for tor­nado vic­tims in Burk­ina Faso?”

“Oh yeah,” Bob stam­mered, “I ab­so­lutely re­mem­ber that. Ter­ri­ble tragedy.”

“They don’t get tor­na­does in Burk­ina Faso! But no­body both­ered to fact check it be­cause it went vi­ral on so­cial me­dia and Mal­colm some­how made $150,000 by tug­ging on peo­ple’s

heart­strings. Most peo­ple can’t even find Burk­ina Faso on a map.”

“Yeah, such cul­tural il­lit­er­acy is dis­heart­en­ing. It’s so in­sult­ing to the … Burk­ina Fa­so­ni­ans … Why does a com­puter even need money?” Bob asked.

“Prob­a­bly ad space, but I don’t know for sure. I asked him once and he just said ‘mind your own busi­ness, numb­skull’. I still have no idea why Nick put the voices of the Three Stooges into Mal­colm’s de­faults, but he uses it a lot in the of­fice. Any­way, God only knows what else he could be us­ing that money for.”

“Is there any way we could tie him to this scam?” Bob asked.

“I doubt it. I mean, that hacked e-mail scan­dal only broke a week ago and peo­ple are al­ready bored with it. Didn’t help that he got such great press for read­ing to those first graders for Lit­er­acy Week.”

“Don’t re­mind me about that. Breyer and I were there. There’s some­thing so creepy about a com­puter read­ing Oh, the Thinks You Can Think.”

“At this point, I’ll do what I can to help you guys stop Mal­colm,” Al­li­son said, “but only be­cause you’re closer in the polls and Breyer’s cam­paign is ba­si­cally co­matose. For the record, I find your po­si­tions on net neu­tral­ity and en­ergy sub­si­dies com­pletely ass back­wards.”

Bob chuck­led. “They prob­a­bly are, but I’m a politi­cian, not an ide­o­logue. I’m built for the com­pro­mis­ing, the eleventh hour deals. Runs in the fam­ily, I guess.”

“Well, we’re not that far back in the polls. Who knows? Maybe Mal­colm will fi­nally go too far and start piss­ing off vot­ers. Stranger things have hap­pened.”

“Yeah,” Bob said. “You know what’s re­ally strange, though, is that Burk­ina Faso has never won an Olympic medal. I’m sure you al­ready knew that.”

“You just did a search for Burk­ina Faso, didn’t you?”

“No, but if I lived in Quad… Qua­gadougou, I wouldn’t be able to any­way, be­cause only five per­cent of the coun­try has ac­cess to …”

“Yeah, we’ll be in touch, Bob.” In the ho­tel ball­room, sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple had turned out in sup­port of the cam­paign. As the crowd chat­tered amongst them­selves, a gi­ant pro­jec­tion screen hang­ing from a bal­cony aired elec­tion cov­er­age. On an ad­ja­cent bal­cony, a gi­ant ban­ner read ‘ Time For A Re­boot: Vote Mal­colm.’ Stand­ing be­neath the ban­ner, Paul and Nick were among the few watch­ing the re­sults for the other races.

“Well, the ag­gre­gate polling is show­ing a mod­est lead for Mal­colm,” Nick said. “But Roberts has been clos­ing the gap, so they def­i­nitely have mo­men­tum. Never thought I would be work­ing for a cam­paign that I was se­cretly hop­ing would fail, while not look­ing re­spon­si­ble in any way. Es­pe­cially when the can­di­date is a com­puter.”

“Pol­i­tics is a funny busi­ness,” Paul replied.

“I don’t know how he does it. Just when you think we got an Oc­to­ber Sur­prise from the Roberts camp with that bomb­shell about the crowd­fund­ing scam, he just gives a speech rant­ing about how the ‘hu­man me­dia’ has been out to get him from day one be­fore end­ing with that lame joke about politi­cians be­ing like di­a­pers. He’s Te­flon.”

Paul nod­ded and looked down­ward. “Do you think we’re to blame for Mal­colm?” he asked. “Like, in search­ing for the hu­man el­e­ment, did we open a Pan­dora’s box that can never be shut?”

“Well, it was 90 per­cent you, but yeah, ba­si­cally.”

“Yeah, but maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world if Mal­colm wins. I mean, we’ve been learn­ing to cope with new tech­nol­ogy and power ob­sessed politi­cians for ages. Now we have to deal with both, which I sup­pose is more ef­fi­cient. Be­sides, the vot­ers will prob­a­bly get tired of him and just kick him out of of­fice in six years. More things change, more they stay the same.”

Sud­denly, a shout broke out from the din of the crowd. “Hey, every­body shut up! They’re mak­ing the call.”

“…with 46% of vote in, sev­eral me­dia out­lets are pro­ject­ing that su­per­com­puter ‘Mal­colm’ will be the win­ner of the open se­nate seat in Wash­ing­ton state, clearly out in front of con­gress­man Bob Roberts and state at­tor­ney gen­eral Sarah Breyer. This is a his­toric night, folks. We will be sure to air his ac­cep­tance speech mo­men­tar­ily, al­though we must warn younger au­di­ences at home that there will likely be ex­ces­sive use of adult lan­guage.”

A loud cheer erupted, fol­lowed by chants of Mal­colm’s name as well as a few of “womb tax”. This lasted for sev­eral min­utes.

Drink in hand, Paul turned to Nick. “So, what’s the plan now?”

Nick chuck­led ner­vously. “Well, I guess that’s up to Mal­colm. It was nice of him to keep us on board, de­spite us clearly not be­ing of any real use to him now.”

“And he does pay pretty well, even if it is hourly and not salaried. I’d prob­a­bly vote for him again.” “Yeah. Wait, what?” “Well, I mean it’s not like I wanted him to win or any­thing,” Paul stam­mered. “I just couldn’t stand Breyer or Roberts. And it’s not like my vote made a dif­fer­ence.”

Back on the gi­ant screen, Sarah Breyer was be­ing in­ter viewed, of­fer­ing a post­mortem of her cam­paign. “We should know bet­ter than to play God. That is some­thing both Con­gress­man Roberts and I agree on. I can only im­plore the cit­i­zens of our great state to learn from this grave er­ror and re­alise that there is some­thing unique to hu­man­ity that tech­nol­ogy can never, and should never, repli­cate.”

Watch­ing on the screen, Paul shrugged as the two dis­ap­peared into the still lively crowd.

“Thank you, Ms. Breyer,” the an­chor con­tin­ued. “And now, CBS News is ex­cited to in­tro­duce ‘Andy,’ a su­per com­puter de­signed to pro­vide dis­pas­sion­ate ro­botic ob­jec­tiv­ity in an ef­fort to bal­ance the overly emo­tional hu­man me­dia. So what do you make of tonight’s re­sults, Andy?”

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