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He took a batch of the nanomachines and injected them into a roomful of caged rats, along with samples of his tumor. The nanomachines could swarm all over the tumor cells, monitoring their actions constantly. The polymer radio antennas they built beneath the rats’ skin let them share their observations and hunches from host to host, like their own high-speed wireless Internet, and report their findings back to Steve himself. With that much information being gathered, how hard could it be to understand the problem and fix it? But Steve and his colleagues couldn’t make sense of the data. Steve got sicker, and all the gigabytes pouring out of the rats remained as useless as ever.

Steve tried putting new software into the swarms. If nobody knew how to cure his disease, why not let the swarms work it out? He gave them access to vast clinical databases and told them to extract their own rules. When the cure still failed to appear, he bolted on more software, including expert systems seeded with basic knowledge of chemistry and physics. From this starting point, the swarms worked out things about cell membranes and protein folding that no one had ever realized before, but none of it helped Steve.

Steve decided that the swarms still had too narrow a view. He gave them a general-purpose knowledge acquisition engine and let them drink at will from the entire Web. To guide their browsing and their self-refinement, he gave them two clear goals. The first was to do no harm to their hosts. The second was to find a way to save his life or, failing that, to bring him back from the dead.

That last rider might not have been entirely crazy, because Steve had arranged to have his body preserved in liquid nitrogen. If that had happened, maybe the Stevelets would have spent the next 30 years ferry­ing memories out of his frozen brain. Unfortunately, Steve’s car hit a tree at high speed just outside of Austin, TX, and his brain ended up as flambé.

This made the news, and the Stevelets were watching. Between their lessons from the Web and whatever instincts their creator had given them, they figured out that they were now likely to be incinerated themselves. That wouldn’t have mattered to them if not for the fact that they’d decided the game wasn’t over. There’d been nothing about resurrecting charred flesh in the online medical journals, but the Web embraced a wider range of opinions. The swarms had read the sites of various groups convinced that self-­modifying software could find ways to make itself smarter, and then smarter again, until nothing was beyond its reach. Resurrecting the dead was right there on every bullet-pointed menu of miracles.

The Stevelets knew that they couldn’t achieve anything as a plume of smoke wafting out of a rat crematorium, so the first thing they engineered was a breakout. From the cages, from the building, from the city. The original nanomachines couldn’t replicate themselves, and could be destroyed in an instant by a simple chemical trigger, but somewhere in the sewers or the fields or the silos, they had inspected and dissected each other to the point that they were able to reproduce. They took the opportunity to alter some old traits: the new generation of Stevelets lacked the suicide switch, and they resisted external meddling with their software.

They might have vanished into the woods to build scarecrow Steves out of sticks and leaves, but their software roots gave their task rigor, of a kind. From the Net they had taken ten thousand crazy ideas about the world, and though they lacked the sense to see that they were crazy, they couldn’t simply take anything on faith, either. They had to test these claims, one by one, as they groped their way toward ­Stevescence. And while the Web had suggested that with their power to self-modify they could achieve anything, they found that in reality there were countless crucial tasks that remained beyond their abilities. Even with the aid of dexterous mutant rats, Steveware Version 2 was never going to reëngineer the fabric of space-time, or resurrect Steve in a virtual world.

Within months of their escape, it must have become clear to them that some hurdles could be jumped only with human assistance, because that was when they started borrowing people. Doing them no physical harm, but infesting them with the kinds of ideas and compulsions that turned them into willing recruits.

The panic, the bombings, the Crash, had followed. Lincoln hadn’t witnessed the worst of it. He hadn’t seen conclaves of harmless sleepwalkers burned to death by mobs, or fields of grain napalmed by the government, lest they feed and shelter nests of rats.

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Credit: Justin Wood

Tagged: Computing

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