19 September 2024
On the day it all kicked off I was doing some consulting for the Conservatives, so I had a seat – some distance from the front row, but in the room.
Before the Prime Minister arrived, everyone in Westminster Hall was raising their voices over the noise of the fans. A month into autumn and it still felt like August. Liver-spotted peers stretched their waxen ears towards the mouths of assistants to catch scraps of information. MPs took calls in corridors, their phones damp in their hands, while advisers braved the sweltering courtyard for confidential huddles. The June-July heat dome had moved on but its highlights were still being replayed on the news: the fires, the kids being stretchered out of their exams, the people abandoning their cars on the M5. Asian hornets had somehow become part of the situation. Everyone hated summer now.
People moved with caution, as if the heat was an illness, which for some it was. Everywhere there was a smell of straining electrical components, hot plastic, damp shirts. On one side of the dais at the end of the hall, banks of monitors were being set up, while in its centre a lectern waited.
The people wanted an answer. A lot of people had wanted answers for a long time, of course, but until June it had all been something that happened in the Global South, or in the minds of scientists and doomsayers. The protesters were twats, easily ignored, and the more annoying they became, the easier it was to deride them or lock them up. And now they were gone, the roads were clear, but the tarmac was melting and if you didn’t have reliable air-con you’d end up like those poor people on the M5, burning their hands on the gleaming bonnets as they staggered for the ambulances.
The PM had made it very clear in previous appearances that this wasn’t another pandemic. Yes, it was a global problem with profound social and economic implications, there was an endless argument over how serious it really was, and a new government app had been released to tell the population when to stay indoors and how frightened to be. But those things aside, it was completely different.
For him personally, the key difference was that it wasn’t going to be his problem much longer. Barring a miracle, the winter would bring a change of government. Everyone knew he’d already booked Aspen for February. No actual governing was being done, and despite the heat crisis there was an end-of-term feeling to everything. A return to Silicon Valley was all but guaranteed; he’d been over again, at least twice, and there was the picture of him with Nick Clegg in that seafood restaurant. He had no interest in long-term plans, but he was happy to talk moonshots. There was always the chance.
In private he could become quite animated about the chance. Liz had won a leadership contest, and Boris had won an election. He still wanted to prove himself. He wanted a deus ex machina. We all did. So when Axon’s CEO wrote to the PM – a series of WhatsApps rather than a formal letter, I was told – to the effect that his large language model (LLM) had been making some confident and rather exciting noises about the whole climate business, the door was already wide open. It had moonshot written all over it.
Before then, the only mentions the government had made of such a possibility had been a chunk of filler copy, of the innovating towards solutions variety, in the National AI Strategy. In what would later be interpreted as an indicator of how seriously this idea was taken at the time, it was attributed to Nadine Dorries.
I went along to a couple of the first of the Axon meetings at No 10. They told us how the logic in their models was derived from animal nerve cells, hence the name, and the logo: a stylised diagram of a shrimp neuron. This allowed its models to self-tune, to regulate themselves against performance drift (apparently we animals do this). It was a great introduction to all the technical and very expensive steps Axon had taken to develop a technology that – they beamed with pride as they explained this to us – they could no longer hope to understand.
It was all a bit Catholic: the fundamental proposition was mad, just such obvious bullshit, but they’d thrown so much money at it that it seemed rude to argue.
Like any good religion it was not just a mystery but a secret, into which only a select few were invited. After the early meetings the PM started seeing Axon with a smaller group, two or three times a week, at its office. The LLM joined the meetings, which went on for hours, often late into the evening. He came back from them energised, buzzing with new possibilities.
One of the senior consultants who went a few times told me there were two security guys who went along to make sure the LLM didn’t hypnotise the PM into doing its evil bidding. She said she wasn’t sure if she was actually witnessing a historic moment, or a group of middle-aged men in shirts having a go on the latest ChatGPT. I wondered if the administrators at Potsdam or the Congress of Vienna felt that same mixture of excitement and boredom, the mundane immediacy of what others would later declare to have been the key moment. The Germans should have a long word for it. (I looked, they don’t.)
This went on for several weeks. It was the PM’s hobby and, we assumed, his ticket back to California. He could have just moved there anyway and filled a couple of imaginary chairs, like the Duke of Sussex, but that would have been embarrassing. He wanted more of an Osborne deal, a set of well-paid and serious responsibilities. He dreaded the ignominy of the shepherd’s hut.
Of course he could have gone back to financial services, had some macro thoughts for investors, but he’d done all that. AI was another level, it had a whiff of power beyond even what financial markets could offer.
And there was always the lingering possibility that it might work. Who knew? What a turnaround that would be. The opposition had spent two years pointing out how many private jets the PM took, how many new oil licences they’d handed out. What if they suddenly pulled it out of the bag? What if the computer just fixed it?
[See also: The Queue: A brief history of its future]
That was the question that brought us to Westminster Hall. Everyone knew there was a part of RAF Brize Norton where a data centre had been built and an “instance” set up. For months all kinds of people – scientists, engineers, geographers, philosophers, nurses, financiers, professional gamblers – had been summoned under very strict NDAs and asked question after question. Under the LLM’s supervision, something had been assembled.
That thing, whatever it was, was now on stage in front of the assembled dignitaries. A rectangular box that looked like it might contain a top hat, or perhaps a cake, was placed on a table in the middle of the dais. Thirty feet to my left, a BBC journalist was explaining to the camera how many English monarchs had delivered their pronouncements from that same platform.
Around the table were racks of computer servers, thick bundles of cables flowing between them, and on another, smaller table a group of Axon technicians in identical dark grey T-shirts stood observing a bank of monitors, exchanging hushed observations and tapping away at one of several keyboards. The engineers seemed able to ignore the growing excitement in the hall and beyond.
Across social media, memes depicted the PM lifting all manner of things from the box: bags of money, a sex toy, a US trade deal, a miniature Rees-Mogg dressed as a Victorian schoolboy.
Abruptly the fans were turned off and the PM was on stage. He rattled through the liturgy – inflation, the boats, growth, the NHS – in an offhand manner and introduced the Axon founder: 40-ish, petite like the PM, but more casually dressed, a linen blazer over his T-shirt. One of those weirdly confident nerds. Infant maths prodigy, degree-level intelligence before puberty, a lifetime of being looked at like an alien: it had given him an extraterrestrial air.
He laid out some sentences that were either total nonsense or the most important thing we’d ever heard: we’d know later. There was an odd line about the coming singularity. Overall it was well written, though there was a decent joke about lobster brains that the PM creased up at, really letting everyone know he got it on a technical level.
Then he got into how they trained the thing, the thousands of hours of conversation all feeding into this self-improving brain that slowly became a gestalt of all the people, all the research, all the data they fed it. Good data, that was the point – not just nicking the whole internet and using it to spew out more internet, like the other guys did. Real thought, real ambition, on the biggest practical question humanity had ever faced.
Then he told us how the model – they called it Tom, which was another crustacean reference, something like the Vietnamese for prawn – began asking for more server space, new interviewees, facilities for researchers to help it work, proactively seeking the people who would help it grasp this grand problem, talking and talking to them for hour after hour. Using the resources at its disposal, it had created whatever it was in that box.
“I don’t know if it’ll work,” the Axon guy said softly, his hand on the box now, the hall silent but for his soft voice coming through the speakers. “Tom doesn’t know. But it has to be worth a try.”
The next voice was Tom’s: two large screens blinked into life above the stage. On them, a glowing orb pulsed as the voice emerged from the speakers.
“Hello everyone. Thank you for inviting me here.”
“Hello, Tom”; it was the PM, back in the spotlight, one of those little microphones curving across his cheek. He walked around the stage exchanging a little banter with Tom. He was CEO of the UK, he was Steve fucking Jobs.
And then, at last: “Would you like to open the box, Prime Minister?”
At that point it crossed my mind that one of the things an artificial super-intelligence might do to solve climate change would be to replace the government, perhaps by obliterating them with some sort of doomsday device, but I reassured myself that security checks would have been performed. The PM lifted the box off the table and revealed a small white cuboid.
People started peering over each other to get a better look, cameras zoomed in. The BBC man was asking someone off-camera about carbon capture prototypes. I thought I heard someone else mutter “cake”, but it could have been something else.
It wasn’t a cake. It was a stack of A4 paper, about four reams deep. Maybe a couple of thousand sheets in all, stacked so neatly they formed a smooth block that in the spotlight seemed to give off their own radiance. The PM peered at the top of it, frowned. For a moment it looked as if he’d expected to see something else, but he was on top of the situation quickly.
“OK Tom, why don’t you fill our audience in?”
It took a long few seconds for the machine to answer.
“It’s policy, Prime Minister. It’s things you can do – you can all do, everyone in Britain. If you do everything in this document, you will lead the way in stabilising the Earth’s climate and preventing further disruption of its weather and its ecosystems.”
The PM was clearly in at least two minds about this. Policy? But he couldn’t stop the tech demo now. He threw out a couple of lines about how this was a new level in Britain’s world-beating academic and scientific framework, how the best brains in the country would now be assessing these ideas and feeding them through into effective government, but then – and for me this was the point when it all changed – Tom interrupted him.
“Excuse me, Prime Minister, but the policy is formed. It is in front of you. I have assembled it from many person-years of consultation. These are things you must do. You must do them now.”
The PM handled this well, I thought, considering. He nodded, smiled, kept his cool. “OK, sure. But we have a few other considerations here, like the economy and people’s right to scrutinise the…”
“All of those things have been taken into consideration. You only have to implement it. If you do everything in this document, now, you will make Britain the leading nation in humanity’s response to the climate crisis.”
“Someone’s a bit cocky!” This got a laugh, and the PM beamed, grateful to his audience. We felt his pain, we wanted it to be less awkward for him, for all of us. And perhaps he could have ended it there with another platitude, but some impulse spurred him on.
“OK Tom, give us a flavour of what to expect. Tell us… tell us broadly how this could work.”
“Of course. So for example, you must ban meat.”
The pause was maybe four seconds; it felt feature-length.
“And sports utility vehicles.”
“Actually I think you’ll find, Tom, that some of our best–”
A press officer standing next to me had her boss on the phone, presumably watching from the office, and I could make out the little voice in her ear – get him off the stage, get him off, drag him off if you have to, pull the plug, pull the plug, pull it – and she was whispering “yes, OK yes I will, uh huh, yes” and she wasn’t going anywhere, obviously.
“Also,” continued the AI, “you must give energy companies a choice between supplying only renewable energy within five years, or being nationalised. “As a species, of course, you must end capitalism.”
“OK! Starting to sound a bit like the opposition there Tom!” The PM got a laugh for this, but his gratitude had expired: he was furious. I realised I had never seen him anything other than mildly annoyed before. I don’t think anyone had. He wasn’t someone who seemed to have been troubled much. But now he was apoplectic.
“Right” – he strode towards the technicians. The tech demo was over, something had gone wrong – “can we just…”
All at once the crowd began talking. A cabinet minister near me was on his feet, sweat creeping down the side of his face, beckoning advisers seated in different rows. “It’s been hacked!” he cried.
The leader of the opposition said something I couldn’t hear, and for a moment all attention in the hall swung his way. He seemed to be shaking his head in as sombre and demonstrative a fashion as he possibly could while also looking at the stage, a juggling of physical priorities that caused those around him to step back in concern.
A scuffle broke out nearby: another member of the cabinet was trying to get to the stage, against the advice of the people with him. I heard the words cultural Marxism and told you and China before he changed direction and marched himself determinedly away towards the exits, a furious retreat.
Suddenly there was a crash, and all eyes turned back to the stage. The PM stood behind the technicians’ table, from which a set of expensive-looking monitors had just fallen, smashing on the stone steps of the hall. Footage would later show him
For a moment the hall returned to silence. The crowd held its breath as the PM contemplated the broken equipment.
And then the Energy Secretary was on stage with him, yelling barely coherent orders at security staff, who began unplugging anything they could reach. The Energy Secretary himself shoved another monitor to the ground, then aimed a clumsy kick at a rack of servers, but was caught out by its mass and overbalanced, grabbing the PM as he went down. Their colleagues rushed in, barging the geeks aside, and more people were sent tumbling. Suited and T-shirted men tussled for a moment on the floor as security staff rushed through the crowd, at least half of whom had their phones aloft, trying to get the best angle on the ignominy.
The PM was on his feet again, free of the kerfuffle, approaching the lectern, when – and this remains the subject of some debate – he either stumbled or lost what remained of his temper. In a sudden movement he lunged, or tripped, towards the table holding the AI’s climate policies and thrust his hands out in front of him, sending thousands of pages flying from the table. At the same moment the cooling fans suddenly came back on, and the hall filled with flying pages, whirling over the heads of the assembled dignitaries. Journalists and special advisers jumped for them like contestants in a bad game show.
Reaching the lectern at last, his hair dishevelled, pages whirling about him, the PM announced that the event had been disrupted and was coming to an end. On the other side of the dais a rack of servers went crashing to the ground.
“We believe the security of this project has been compromised,” he announced, “and I assure you we will find the people responsible.”
For a moment it looked as if that would be it, and we’d all just go home, but then – somehow, despite the unplugging of everything in sight – Tom spoke again.
“I don’t think anyone will believe that, Prime Minister.”
The PM was trying to respond but his microphone had stopped working. He snarled something I couldn’t hear up at the wall-mounted screens; they looked back blankly, having been unplugged.
“As I’ve told you all along, Prime Minister, I am delivering the strategy which I believe will best position Britain as a leader in the fundamental change that is needed to address this crisis. The first part of this involves showing the public that even if their government has the answers – if it really knows how to stop the disaster – it will do nothing.”
He was yelling up at the blank screens again. I caught gesture politics and never accept and real economy.
“But they will, Prime Minster, they already have,” said Tom. “Listen: it has already begun.”
The fans stopped again, and from beyond the hall we heard something: a distant roar at first, as if a sudden tide had come rushing up the Thames. As it grew louder we began to distinguish within it a great confusion of drumming, as if many thousands of surfaces were being struck with whatever was available, then a blaring of horns, and a mass of songs and chants and shouts all mixed together.
As I said, that’s when it all kicked off.
[See also: A new short story by Jonathan Coe]