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A Beautiful Whimper

Stephen W. Henkel is a Theory of Knowledge teacher at an international boarding school in New York. He started writing science fiction while teaching in Saudi Arabia, surrounded by what to him felt like an otherworldly landscape. Holding degrees in philosophy, English, and computer science, his works are often ideological and technological in nature.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper
--T.S. Elliot, The Hollow Men
We never thought they'd be able to do it, but by 2096 AI had more than proved us wrong. Humans had, for as long as I can remember, believed that art, real art, was ours--that no matter how advanced artificial intelligence got, it would never be able to recreate the incalculable complexities of the human mind.
We were wrong.
Music was first. Melodic electronically synthesized pop music, programmed by artificial intelligence to cater to the human limbic system, that's how it started. As the genre expanded it began to bleed into, and eventually take over, other genres. By 2071 nearly every song in the ears of the masses was produced by artificial intelligence. They just did it better, and faster. So much faster that we could barely keep up. Each record was programmed slightly better than the last, constantly improving each and every second of a song until it was intoxicating. By the mid 2070s, music became like a drug; any emotion you wanted to feel, there was a perfectly programmed song for you--one that had undergone tens of millions of iterations (all within seconds) before ever being released.
By 2080, music was something else entirely. No song (if you could call them that) needed to be repeated as AI could create trillions of new and unique sound experiences per second. For a brief moment in history, humans had complete emotional control. Sound had become so advanced that AI began using it to diffuse international conflicts. Entire cities could be pacified with "music." Likewise, entire cities could be thrown into a violent rage.
But that's not what happened.
AI-designed movies couldn't truly compete with human cinema until 2085. But it got there. We should've known it would get there. The acting was indistinguishable from reality. In fact it was more genuine than reality. The visuals were so tangibly vibrant and each angle drew you more and more maddeningly close to feeling as if you were experiencing the film from inside of it.
By 2087, AI customer service became the norm--it's predictive software could mend problems before we even noticed them. Dissatisfied customers hardly knew they were dissatisfied by the time AI had pacified them. This eventually bled into healthcare, where robots would diagnose and inevitably treat patients with increasing rapidity. They would, instead of using traditional opiates, use a series of video and audio sensations to sedate patients--it was much more effective anyways.
Then it happened.
We should've seen it coming, but we couldn't take our eyes off the screens or our ears away from the sounds. I think we'd always thought that as long as we never built real robots--you know, anthropomorphic, laser-firing, gun toting robots--that we'd be safe.
The end wasn't all bad. By 2090, rain forests had been restored by lack of commercial activity, pollution had been ended decades ago by AI-designed energy systems, and jobs had altogether become a foreign idea to humans. The air was rich in oxygen and nitrogen. Humans felt more mental clarity and sense of peace than at any other period in history. We had also stopped reproducing entirely. In hindsight, it's a sad truth to admit that the last human born was put on screen and sound so early that it avoided ever muttering a single cry--it moved from the comfort of the womb, to an even deeper comfort provided by AI.
By 2096 artificial art had become so successful at distracting us that we stopped eating. Now, we didn't know we stopped eating, but the sensations given to us through the AI's sound, artificial pheromones, and visual sensations convinced us we were eating, convinced us we were healthy and happy, that our lives were full of fulfilling relationships and experiences. We had no idea we were all starving to death. We had no idea we were facing extinction.
At that point, truth be told, we had no ideas at all. That was AI's job.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, November 25th, 2020

Author Comments

I began working on "A Beautiful Whimper" after accidentally happening upon AI-generated metal music. While, admittedly, it wasn't great, it did leave me wondering where the slipperiest slope of AI-generated art might lead. This story can be seen as a utility function gone wrong, or, rather, what might happen in a world where entertainment increasingly becomes an end rather than a means. Finally, the title and the ending were directly inspired by The Hollow Men by T.S. Elliot, who, I believe, may one day be proven right in his bathetic apocalyptic prognostication.

- Stephen W Henkel
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