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1 THE GAME
The blue light of the computer screen was flickering on Charlie’s and Peter’s faces, making them look like astronauts lit by the cosmos.
“Seriously. Go for it.”
“This is stupid.”
“Don’t you want to meet God?”
There was a knock on the door. Charlie’s father.
Peter rushed to snub out the joint. He blew a tuft of smoke out the window.
“Tell him to go away,” Peter said.
“You’re the idiot who brought pot.”
“Yeah, well, you’ll go down, too, if he catches me.”
“Tell him you’re masturbating. That always gets my dad to leave.”
“You’re insane. You know that?”
In a way, it was true. Peter was smart, handsome, charming, and had been thrown out of the most expensive private school in town, meaning he was both rich and reckless. But there was something more. A dangerousness was just below the surface. Almost a nihilism, and more than the usual teenage morbid curiosities. It was what drew Charlie to him, but enough of the honor student was still left in Charlie to listen to that voice in the back of his head saying, Get into trouble, sure, but do you really want to go there? Charlie’s father hated Peter and had no idea Peter was here now.
“Charlie, come on, I want to talk to you.”
“Not now, Dad.”
“Come on. Open up.” He tried the doorknob.
“Dad, we can talk later. Okay?”
“I got a call from the school.”
“Later. I promise. I’m busy.”
Charlie could imagine his dad weighing his next moves. The shadow shifted under the door.
“Fine. Tonight, okay? Not tomorrow. Tonight.”
“Okay. I promise.”
Charlie held his breath and watched the shadow under the door. It hesitated, then moved away.
Charlie let out a breath. He gave Peter a harsh look and said, glancing at the half-smoked joint, “Throw that thing away.”
“Um, nope.” Peter tucked it into his shirt pocket.
They looked back at the computer screen.
The same prompt was there, flashing, alone on the black screen.
“Say something,” Peter barked.
Charlie shook his head. Finally, he typed:
No response. The cursor just blinked.
They gave it a while. Nothing.
Peter said, “Try something else.”
Who is this?
The cursor blinked a few times, then the letters tapped out:
This is God.
Peter laughed. “This is awesome.”
“You can ask it anything. Watch.”
Peter grabbed the keyboard.
Are you a man or a woman?
After a moment, it said:
I am what I am.
“Wow,” Charlie said sarcastically.
“Don’t blame the machine. Ask better questions.”
Charlie knew what question he wanted to ask:
Why did my mom die?
But there was no way he was going to ask a stupid computer program that, even one that claimed to be God.
Charlie sighed and typed:
Why is there war?
A pause, then:
Because killing feels good.
Well, that was charming. Charlie asked:
Another pause. Charlie figured he was about to get a lecture about man’s dark desires, the hidden death urge, humanity’s subconscious bloodlust under the thin veneer of civilization. Then the program said:
So said God, or at least the first artificial intelligence bot claiming to inhabit the persona of God. That was the story anyway. According to Peter, who had his share of crazy stories from 4chan and other bizarre corners of the Web, computer scientists had loaded up an AI with every religious text known to man, from antiquity to the present day, weighted by number of adherents, donations, historical longevity, and every other factoid they could pour in, all coursing through a deep-learning neural network. What came out, on the other end, was supposedly the sum total of human conceptions of the divine come alive, able to express itself and answer questions and spout new proverbs and instructions. It was a joke. A lark, by a bunch of overbright CS guys. Yet another time-wasting diversion on the internet, like cat videos and MMOs. But this was interesting now, to Charlie. Apparently the meta-god was an angry one. Old Testament–style.
You like killing?
But you’re God.
Aren’t you supposed to be kind and loving?
So … isn’t that a contradiction?
Charlie let that hang.
Then God answered.
Anyone is a murderer under the right conditions.
Peter was watching, his dangerous eyes twinkling. “I told you this was cool.”
Charlie shivered, despite himself. “What should I say?”
“Tell it to go fuck itself.”
“Um, no. I’m not looking to get struck by lightning.”
“It’s just a chatbot. Don’t get all superstitious on me.”
“I’m not, but, you know. Even if it’s a chatbot, what’s the point of being a dick?”
“Well, for one thing, it’s fun. For another, it’s funny. And where else do you get to tell God to go fuck himself? Like, via direct message? What could be more daring? Feel like rolling the dice?”
The idea did send a thrill down Charlie’s spine. He wasn’t religious. He was an atheist or at best a serious agnostic. When his mom died, he buried any religious sentiment he’d had in the ground with her. Those prayers were not answered. They withered, with great suffering, and then one day … poof. So the idea of telling God—or even his computer surrogate—to take a long walk off a short plank was titillating and intriguing. But it still felt wrong to him. Reckless.
“Do you know Pascal’s Wager?” Charlie asked.
“Is that when you bet against a triangle?”
“You smoke too much weed.”
“Probably.” Peter fingered the joint in his pocket longingly.
“Pascal’s Wager. You should believe in God because if you’re wrong, nothing happens. But if you bet against his existence and you’re wrong, you go to hell—infinite loss. So the smart bet is to believe.”
“Right. Okay. That assumes you can fake belief and fool the guy.”
“Fine. But think about that here. You want to tell a computer program that thinks it’s God to fuck off.”
“And what if there’s a real God, watching?”
“Um, there’s not.”
“Okay, but say there’s a one-in-a-billion chance there is. If so, he’s probably going to be pissed. If it’s just a computer program, you don’t gain anything by cursing it. But if there is something more…”
“I think you sound like the pothead.” Peter snatched the keyboard and typed in:
Go fuck yourself.
Charlie tried to grab his hand, but Peter hit Enter, laughing and stiff-arming Charlie.
Once the horse was out of the barn, they both stopped fighting and watched. A sense of excitement filled Charlie. He couldn’t stop the message now, and he wouldn’t have said it himself, but, hey. What’s done is done. He was curious what the sum total of all human religious information, dumped into a neural net, would come up with in response.
The cursor blinked for a long time.
God didn’t answer.
Copyright © 2019 by Danny Tobey