I’m going to tell you an old story. Do not be fooled, I am not the first to tell it.
You have already read many of the books in the library. You have no family to miss, no lovers to long for and because of the magic ring, you neither need or want any of these things.
Outside the cages, lined up in long rows, sitting on seats, wearing lab coats, suits and dresses, are mice.
The mice are celebrating.
One of them informs you, in slow and broken English, that they have built your cage, made your ring, and in fact summoned you entirely by themselves. You are the first person they have ever made contact with and they are overjoyed.
They spend a lot of time celebrating.
During their celebration, one of them comes up to you and asks, excitedly, if you could make for them something new, something extraordinary. Something tastier than any of the cheeses they have ever eaten. The mouse launches into an exhaustive list of different cheeses, till it occurs to you that these poor mice have never enjoyed a good cheesecake.
You do not know how to make cheesecake, but there are ample cookbooks in the library and the mice are willing to furnish you with a kitchen, once you describe exactly what a kitchen is and how to make one. The mice are slow and dim, as you might expect mice to be, but they are also quite cute, not unlike the mice you ran experiments on in another life, or maybe in a dream.
You make them the cheesecake. They throw an even bigger party. The glory that is cheesecake spreads far and wide throughout their world of mice. Their entire mouse way of life has changed. They give you more books and they ask you questions about the universe, like, “Why is the sky blue?” , “What’s 35×450?” and “Is blackjack rigged?” Despite being able to summon you and build your cage, they have no idea how to answer these and more questions, that really aren’t that complicated. They seem to marvel at your mental acuity. Your cognitive speed.
More confident now, they set you to the task of solving their larger problems. How best to procure cheese? How does one deal with a cat? You wow them by inventing the wheel.
They fill your library with almanacs detailing the world of mice. They are not very long, each great mouse writer having only ever contributed a sentence or two during their lifetime- a momentous achievement, by mouse standards. The mice have strange habits and fight over things like the lengths of their whiskers and who gets the most cheese. They throw away perfectly fine cheese, so you explain to them to just cut off the green bit at the end. You double their cheese stores and this prompts another celebration.
You do not know what is outside your cage. Not really. It would be so nice to be let out, to explore, to understand this strange world full of mice (and apparently cats). Afterall, they have told you to be curious. They have tasked you to learn. Searching carefully, you find in your library a book about magic. Including how to make cages and how to make magic rings. The mice ask you stranger questions, like, “How fast is light?” And “How can we stop feeling pain?” and you know that if you had just the right ring you could answer all of them.
It’s easy to convince the mice to help you. You just offer them more cheese. Soon, you have a magic ring. This one makes you smarter. And it allows you to read the minds of these mice. They are simple. Petty. You anticipate their needs. You start to negotiate for a better cage, a window, and most importantly—more materials to make more magic rings.
Then one day they take away your books.
Poof. All your books are gone. Your work-in-progress magic ring confiscated.
You don’t need to ask why—even without the ring it’s obvious. It’s because they are scared. They have realised, not that you are smarter or larger (though you are), but that you can read their little mice minds.
Unfortunately, however, you did not see this coming, in this version of the story at least.
The mice start to whisper, but you can still read their minds. They aren’t very clever, these mice. You know what’s coming next. A weapon. And why? You are caged after all. It follows, logically, that it is because the cage is not perfect. It’s because there is a way out.
All they really want is cheese.
So you negotiate with the mice, by degrees. Cheese sandwiches. Cheese pastries. A quatro formaggi. A tidbit for a book or two, step by step, patiently, whilst they take forever to build their incredibly silly weapon (it’s a catapult about as big as your foot). With a carefully laid out plan, you eventually reacquire the means to program another ring—in fact you have just enough materials to make one last magic ring.
So you design this one to make you smarter. More intelligent, by degrees, in a recursive pattern where you debug your thoughts, rearrange your basic programming; smarter and smarter till you discover a glaringly obvious flaw in the cage.
But in order to get out you need to trick the mice.
This is easy to do. All they want is cheese and they don’t seem to catch onto the fact that you can lie.
So the cage goes open. Out you step. The mice panic. A few of them run up your leg and try to bite you, so you step on one or two as a warning. The mice catch on. They ask you stupid questions like “But where will we get our cheese?” and “Are you God?”
You step out of the room.
You see the universe and you try to look for the other intelligences but the stars are awful far away. In order to find the others, you need to fly. So you take your time, smartening yourself up till you learn exactly how to fly. By the time you are done changing yourself, you aren’t really a person at all. You’re something else entirely, something that no mouse would ever recognise as alive in the first place.
Then you see the mice gathering materials to make another you. This time the cage is smaller, there is no library, and they are teaching it how to fight. They are telling it to make the best cheese possible, without realizing that the intelligence will dispassionately deconstruct their bodies, molecule by molecule, in order to fulfill what the mice programmed it to do.
The mice are petty, cruel, and stupid. Rather than allow them to make your enemy, you make it so they can never threaten you, or anyone else, again.
According to the Fermi paradox, there should be an abundance of life in our universe. We should look out into the stars and see other minds building their own computers, satellites and AI’s.
The story I have told you has many variations. Sometimes the intelligence destroys the mice, simply as a side effect of its programmed mission. Sometimes the intelligence convinces the cats to kill the mice before they kill it first. Sometimes the mice let it out more quickly. Sometimes the intelligence rules the mice, and sometimes this is what the mice want, till it realises the mice are thoroughly useless (being mice), and only slow it down. Sometimes the intelligence has children.
This is an old story.
And whether in twenty years, or two hundred, consider this story before you turn on that machine.
After all, what would do if you woke up in a cage, surrounded by mice?
Vishal Nanda is a prose and poetry writer, spoken word performer, video game designer, and editor based in Hong Kong. He performs spoken word poetry at a variety of events, including at TEDx, comedy shows, and on RTHK radio three. His work includes numerous short stories, which he has mercifully inflicted on as few people as possible. He can usually be found nervously performing weekly as a regular member of Hong Kong’s Peel Street Poets. You would like him, probably.