OPPOSITION

Trogol Weskit, Premier of the Earth Praesidium, was in an ill temper. He roamed around his office, thwacking and prodding the furniture with the antique paper-knife which the delegate of the Pan-Asian Economic Community had presented to him ten years before. “Ten years,” he muttered to himself, “ten years of the presidency. Ten years of manoeuvring. And ten years of Sturm Ogolid.”

There was a gentle knocking on the door. Trogol heard it, but said nothing. This, he mused, was the true extent of his power. When Trogol’s mood was bad, the Terrestrial Foundation did not shake, but at least his own staff became subdued and nervous. Whoever it was, they could wait. A second knock. “Enter,” he growled.

“Good morning,” said Gar Vinkel.

“What on earth are you doing here?” Trogol exclaimed. He felt he should apologize. Gar Vinkel was controller of ACE, not a member of Trogol’s cowed staff. On the other hand, Trogol found it difficult to apologize at any time and doubly difficult when he felt irritable.

“Not a very cordial welcome for your old comrade,” Gar Vinkel rebuked mildly.

 

Trogol relented. “Come in, man. Come in. Don’t hover on the threshold. Have a chair. I was not expecting you.”

“I’ve come to wish you luck,” Gar Vinkel explained. “If the ‘Energy Measure’ goes through, ACE will have come of age. Do you still think we have a good chance?”

Trogol laughed. He liked Vinkel. The controller’s almost paternal attitude to the computer complex amused him.

“Yes, Gar, I think we have a good chance. Our chances would be improved, however, if you could persuade ACE to stretch its microcircuits and pronounce on the Red Grass problem.”

Gar was taken aback. He had never understood politics or politicians. “ACE is working on the Red Grass, but it’s a complicated project. The Grass is extraordinarily robust and we’ve asked for a solution that won’t kill off any indigenous vegetation. That’s like asking for a weapon that kills only bad people.”

“Are you saying that ACE isn’t going to find an answer?” Trogol interrupted.

“ACE will find an answer,” Gar Vinkel replied, disdainfully, “but it will take time. My real point is that I don’t see any connection, logical or otherwise, between the Red Grass problem and the ‘Energy Measure’.”

“Well, you may not see a connection,” Trogol rejoined, “but there is one. So, sit down, forget the clinical rationality of your blessed ACE and, just for a minute or two, join the rest of us in the frail, fickle, fallible world of man.”

Gar settled into a chair. “Don’t give me a speech, Trogol. I want you to save all your eloquence for the Energy Measure Debate.”

“I’m not giving a speech,” Trogol replied. “I’m giving an explanation. You may find this difficult to believe, but the vast majority of the ten thousand million who inhabit this planet do not know what the Energy Measure is, nor, if they knew, would they care. An increasing number of them are, however, aware of the Red Grass problem. They are aware of the problem and they are worried by it. Last year’s harvest was 10% down on the average annual harvest over the preceding ten years. The shortfall in itself doesn’t matter. We have adequate stocks to make it up…”

“For which you can thank the ACE Nutrient Storage Contingency Programme,” Gar interrupted.

“And, in any case, the terrestrial population is declining towards its optimum level,” Trogol continued.

“According to the ACE Population Planning Programme,” Gar threw in for good measure.

“Nevertheless,” Trogol maintained his patient tone, “many are worried and rightly so. The Red Grass is spreading. It has proved robust in widely different climates and grows successfully in a wide range of soils. In the short and medium term, it threatens our food supplies. And, as you know, in the long term it could threaten life on the planet. Night and day, the Red Grass consumes oxygen and converts it to carbon dioxide. If the advance of the Grass is not halted, it will not only use up a considerable proportion of the oxygen in the terrestrial atmosphere, it will also eliminate the green plants that generate oxygen, producing grave disturbance in the ecological balance. In all probability, a new balance will eventually emerge since the Red Grass itself needs oxygen. But it is most unlikely to be a balance that will support ten thousand million people or even half that number.

“Now, strange as it may seem to you, Gar Vinkel, the peoples of the earth hold the Praesidium responsible – not for the problem (though some on the lunatic fringe have suggested that) but for finding a solution. And, when we have a problem for which we need a solution, you know, the Praesidium knows and the whole damn world knows, we turn to ACE –  the great Autonomic Computer Enterprise, in which is stored all our knowledge and our methodologies for problem solving. And yet, in this instance, so far, ACE has failed to deliver the goods.

“That means that many are disappointed and some are openly afraid. But what do I find? The Controller of ACE seems more concerned with the Energy Measure than with the Red Grass problem. If the Energy Measure goes through and the control, maintenance and development of the Energy Reactors is incorporated into the ACE complex, what have we achieved? A marginal improvement in the exploitation of energy. The completion of the ACE system. ACE comes of age. An elegant and, to a systems man, an aesthetically pleasing step. But will it, in any way, bring a solution to the Red Grass problem any nearer? No, it won’t. And that is why, my dear Gar, there is a connection between the Red Grass problem and the Energy Measure. Because there is no connection. At the moment, the Praesidium, egged on by Sturm Ogolid, is interested only in measures that will help us to check the advance of Red Grass.”

oooOooo

Sturm Ogolid sat in his chair, his hands together as though in prayer, the tips of his fingers supporting his chin. This day, one way or another, would be memorable. For ten years, Sturm had led the opposition to ACE and its ever-proliferating control programmes. Despite his persistence and his eloquence, he had an unblemished record of failure. At each stage, he had been outmanoeuvred by Trogol Weskit. And there had been many stages. Sturm’s thoughts drifted back to a time, long before he and Weskit had entered the Earth Praesidium.  By the beginning of the 21st Century, enormous advances in cybernetics had been made. First factories, then whole industrial complexes were turned over to total computer control with a residual and, as time passed, a token representation of human supervisors. Within fifty years, the supervisors disappeared – replaced by the now ubiquitous Obmats, which through their wide range of sensors observed events and fed information back to their computer control. The increasingly sophisticated Obmats made further cybernetic advances possible. Soon, even farming, both feedstuffs and livestock, had succumbed to the rule of computers.

Towards the end of the 21st Century, Anton Field, the most eminent computer technologist of his time, put forward a paper, supported by a large number of his colleagues, which proposed the Interlink Project. At its simplest, Interlink meant the rationalization of the different computer systems then in use. The advantages were obvious. Interlink would provide compatibility of systems, electronic equipment and machinery across the globe. It could hardly fail to appeal to the newly established Earth Praesidium, since it would represent an outward and visible sign of the terrestrial unity which the Earth Praesidium had been formed to nurture. That was what Interlink meant at its simplest. Seen, however, in its historical context it meant a good deal more – it meant (and Anton Field himself foresaw this) the possibility, indeed, the probability, of ACE.

The Autonomic Computer Enterprise had begun, in the 22nd year of the 22nd Century, as an experiment which, as Sturm had remarked in one of his early speeches to the Praesidium, was doomed to succeed. Its first task had been to take over and complete the Interlink project. In order to do this, ACE needed access to the data banks of all the regional control computers around the world. Once it had gained access to and grasped programmes of the regional computer installations, it was not only able to finish the Interlink project - it was also able to take over all their higher functions. Earth Praesidium had been delighted – power at last would reside irrefutably with them.

 

In general, the Earth population was pleased. Following the merging of nation states into multi-national federations, few citizens identified with their federal governments which seemed remote and unresponsive. Since, in its favour, ACE promised to make global war not merely unlikely but obviously impossible, the sacrifice of a spurious autonomy for genuine security seemed worthwhile. The only significant resistance came from a number of computer technologists in the federations. The ACE lobby won even against them. By the time the “Extension of ACE” measure was before the Praesidium, the best computer men worked for ACE. The slogan used in the campaign against the dissident technologists had been simple but effective: “Those who can, ACE.”  The implication that the opposition consisted of those who were not talented enough to gain a place in the ACE team, was not – nor did it need to be – stated.

From then on, one measure after another, extending the scope of ACE, had passed through the Praesidium. Of these, the most significant had been the “Initiation of Recommendations” passed ten years before. Sturm remembered the passage of the measure well. It had brought him, face to face, with Trogol Weskit. In the end, Sturm had been outraged and outmanoeuvred – but not before he had laid the foundations of a case he would be propound again and again in the years to come. The measure itself, which enabled the ACE computer “of its own initiative to scan all data for the purpose of identifying problems and recommending solutions” had been approved. But not unanimously. “What initiative can the ACE computer have?” Sturm had demanded. “If it is without initiative, the measure is meaningless. If it is able, of its own initiative, to judge what is a problem, on what criteria is its judgement based? Should we not, honourable members of the Praesidium, be debating those criteria? A vote for this measure, as it stands, is a vote for ignorance, for a weak dependence and for an abrogation of responsibility.”  This was the first, but not the last time, that honourable members were to savour the abrasive invective of Sturm Ogolid.

Indeed, they could expect a feast today. At last, Sturm had a chance. His support had grown undramatically but continuously in the last decade. A not inconsiderable minority shared his doubts about the wisdom of leaving ACE unchecked. Now, with the Red Grass problem as a popular issue to persuade the waverers, he might even win the day.

It was ironic that, if he won, his victory would have been accomplished less by reasoned argument than by an apparently random mutation in nature. No matter. He had learned much from Trogol Weskit – and was it not Trogol himself who had observed that, “if truth was the heart, then irony was the lifeblood of politics”? – a pronouncement which presumably constituted the essence of political sentiment, since it clearly contained within itself elements of truth and irony mixed in equal measure.

*

Petan Bort, number two to Gar Vinkel in ACE and assuredly the most brilliant programmer in the entire computer complex, sat on top of a hill overlooking a huge valley. Her eyes looked down the steep track, skimming the ragged boulders that were strewn across the hillside. Then, like a ship reaching calm waters beyond a reef, she gazed upon a sea of green fields gently undulating into the distance.

Three miles behind her, set in a smaller valley, was the ACE installation from which she had set out more than two hours before. Petan had joined ACE one month after Gar Vinkel had been appointed Controller. She had been nineteen, full of enthusiasm for the concept behind ACE and confident that, with a triple first in mathematics, logic and philosophy, she could be of genuine service. In the twelve years that had elapsed, she had found her confidence to be more durable than her enthusiasm.

Her first doubt had been raised at the end of the second year. It concerned the ‘Initiation of recommendations’ measure. She had asked to see Gar Vinkel. Her question was an obvious one, though it did not seem significant to anyone but her. She took a copy of the relevant text with her.

“ACE Statement: reference AAA/0014/10/2379: Subject – General: SCANNING OF DATA FOR CONTROL PURPOSES (GENERAL AND SPECIFIC) LEADS TO IDENTIFICATION OF PROBLEMS AND SOLUTION OF PROBLEMS NOT DEFINED BY EXISTING PROGRAMMES. PLEASE INSTRUCT.”

“Well,” Gar had said, “what’s the problem?” Petan had stood her ground. “It seems to me that ACE is not only asking to be instructed to initiate recommendations. It is, in effect, initiating a recommendation that it should be permitted to initiate recommendations. First, it shouldn’t be able to do that – not in general terms, unrelated to any of our specific requirements. Secondly, it is, in fact, proceeding to act on its own recommendation without waiting for approval.”

Gar Vinkel had responded blandly. Wasn’t there just a little logic chopping in her argument? ACE was simply making a statement. Wasn’t it the obvious good sense of extending the scope of ACE’s functions that converted the computer’s statement in her mind, his mind and, he hoped, the collective mind of the Praesidium, into a recommendation – one that must be accepted?

Petan Bort had remained unconvinced but she let the matter rest. She noticed, however, that when Trogol Weskit steered the ‘Initiation of Recommendations’ measure through the Praesidium, the measure was presented simply as a further extension of ACE’s usefulness, planned and proposed by ACE personnel. On the day the measure was approved, she received a message from Gar Vinkel, increasing her salary and her status very considerably. She was invited to join Vinkel’s personal staff, to work with the Controller at the very centre of ACE. She accepted.

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