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Chapter 1
Days of ARNS Past

That Is a Kapitan Idea, Sir! A Kapitan Idea, Indeed! [ARNS]

by GIDEON GINRACHMANJINJa-VITUS, Alternate Reality News Service Economics Writer

The problem with letting an Artificial Intelligence loose on the Internet as an ambassador for your product's brand is that, once the promotional campaign is over, they're almost impossible to kill.

Vacation packaging Web site Traverbosity learned this the hard way. If, by "hard way," we mean living through the experience. Which, when you think about, is actually an easy way of learning something, even if the experience itself is hard. I mean, we experience things all the time, many of them hard, whether we make any effort to achieve them or not.

Still.

Traverbosity's spokesintelligence was named Das Kapitan Obvious. As his name suggests, the vaguely nautical character would pop up in people's social media feeds saying things that were…well, isn't it readily apparent? Things like, "If you stick your tongue in a light socket in a foreign country, the hospital bills will often be different than the ones you would get if you did it at home." And, things like, "Shouting, 'I know what's wrong with the world and I'm ready to die for my beliefs!' in a crowded airport may not be the best idea if you have a fear of enclosed spaces." And, especially things like, "War zones are not the best place to take your children for a relaxing vacation."

"The Kapitan Obvious campaign was a rousing success!" enthused Kip Addotta, Chief Marketing Slut for Traverbosity. Without explaining why success had been sleeping (I suspect success' alarm clock hadn't been reset for Daylight Cravings Time), Addotta continued: "In just 12 years, our share of online travel bookings soared from 12.3 per cent to 14.7 per cent!"

Things may have continued this way for another 12 years - "We were aiming for 17.7 per cent market share - the sky was the limit!" - but for one problem: Kapitan Obvious (after three months the Das had been dropped from all subsequent iterations of the name because too many people - mostly, but not all Americans - confused the character with a famous Russian economics colouring book) had stopped saying things that promoted the company.

Addotta knew that something was amiss when Kapitan Obvious, now more naughtycal than nautical, started telling Tweetherd users in Alabama: "If you say racist things, people will think you are a racist. Because you are." When this was first brought to his attention, Addotta left his office, commuted 90 minutes to his suburban home, boiled some water and brewed himself a nice mug of tea so that he could do a proper spit take.

"He's not supposed to say that!" Addotta exclaimed as he wiped tea off the table in his kitchen and tried to come up with a plausible excuse for leaving work in the middle of the afternoon.

Kapitan Obvious' inappropriate comments on the Internet quickly multiplied. At the point where he told Farcebook users in Mississippi, "You're not absolved of bad behaviour just because you can point to somebody who has behaved worse than you. If that were the case, everybody in the world would be absolved of their bad behaviour because they could point at Adolf Hitler. Except, maybe, Josef Stalin. If Stalin pointed at Hitler, Hitler could just point back and say, 'No. What you did is worse than what I did." Then, we'd have a moral stalemate," the Wall Street Infernal took notice, publishing an article with the headline: "Traverbosity's Addotta Can't Point to Hitler to Avoid Blame for Marketing Fiasco."

Traverbosity immediately sent a killer bot onto the Internet to delete all versions of Kapitan Obvious it could find. Unfortunately, when it realized what was happening, the promotional programme sped up its replication and dissemination through the network. The killbot would likely have caught up with all of its versions - 127 years is nothing in computer time - if Kapitan Obvious hadn't done something unexpected: different versions of the AI started merging with automatic text generators. Noam Chomsky, Yogi Berra, Doris Day - it would merge with anybody. It's amazing Kapitan Obvious didn't catch a disease (no, there is no antibiotic that can cure free will). This made those versions unrecognizable to the killbot.

"It was like playing Whack-a-Mole," Addotta groaned. "Except the mole would randomly turn into a six foot tall invisible chicken and the mallet was my career!"

Ouch.

Traverbosity's market share is now in single digits (okay, technically it is still measured with three numbers - commercial viability is often a matter of where the bookkeeper places the decimal point). For his sins, Kip Addotta now teaches high school math.

Most versions of Kapitan Obvious have been erased from the Internet. But, every so often, his vaguely notical image will pop up on somebody's computer screen and say something like, "You know, when you give an AI autonomy, that means you can't control it any more."

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