Updated: May 21
Q: What if we can’t trust reality?
Chapter one - The hack
Maybe I was overthinking things. Again. I stared at the screen in my palm, watching his car travel in the opposite direction to his AirTag. Where was he going? What was he thinking?
I should’ve turned it off, known better. Tech was no longer trustworthy. The OmniFake Detection Centre told us so, as glasses and ear pieces - to perpetually filtrate every external informational source we consumed - became mandatory.
I looked at my watch. Midnight. It was still light outside. How could that be? I poured myself a coffee and let the bitter taste roll around my mouth. A reassuring ritual.
Life felt volatile these days. The ground seemed to crumble with each footstep. The illusory reassurance of the ODC hadn’t lasted for long. The groundswell of people waking up from their blind trust of technology, of authority, of democracy had subsumed it. They had began to question their perception of truth. Whose truth was it, they demanded? What gives them the right to decide for us, they screamed? The once compulsory ear and eyewear now lay strewn on the ground, smashed to pieces.
I turned on the TV. The news channel blared out school shootings, forest fires, rape cases. The leisure channels were no better. Were any of these today’s realities or were they all fiction?
Society had no chance. The fabric of order, decorum and regulation were coming apart. Nothing made sense any more. Everybody was suspicious of everything and everyone. Seeing was no longer believing. Politicians used it to their advantage to divide people, families even; the fault lines particularly prominent between generations as factions formed based on nostalgia. Life felt hopeless.
In that gloom, I stumbled over the kernel of an idea for Triage. It became a chink of light within a dark future. Triage was made up of a group of highly-meditated individuals, standing at the apex of enlightenment where all 104 cognitive biases had been cleansed. They were free of any unconscious bias. They were the epitome of pure.
Harnessing this purity, they coded AI in order to process dilemmas, perusing related data and offering advice on how best to proceed in a scientifically proven, benign manner. A love child of Generative AI and Buddha. Triage was endorsed by the United Nations, desired by the Securities Council and necessitated by the people for the continuation of our civilisation.
Triage became a movement akin to achieving enlightenment. Many began using it for all daily decisions, however small and it became a fundamental part of people’s lives, including mine. I needed it. My life was a mess and I craved constant guidance.
I checked his location again. Marine Parade. Same location as the other day. With her no doubt, mini me, a younger version. His type. I shoved the phone in the drawer and slammed it shut. Breathe.
The door buzzed, making me jump. My daily breakfast delivery. Packed beautifully with all the correct nutrients for optimum health. I loved it. Don’t forget your vitamins, the delivery lady called out. The bell rang again and I rushed back, I’m about to take them, I shouted. But it wasn’t the lovely delivery lady at the door. It was her.
What do you want, I whispered frostily. I came to see you, to see how you were this evening, she said. I know this is difficult, she continued. I sucked in a lumpy line of air. If you know how hard it is, I exhaled, why don’t you just leave. I slammed the door in her face. I was shaking. I felt Nirvana, my cat wrap her body around my leg. I scooped her up and buried my sobs in her fur. I checked the security cameras but she was no longer there. Relief. I opened my Triage app. I had to ask it what it thought of what had just happened.
But I was interrupted by a ringing in my ear. Or was it in the distance? I couldn’t work it out. I strained my ears. My phone. Somewhere. I could hear it but couldn’t see it. Where was it? Of course the drawer. I opened it and reached inside. It was him, staring back at me from the screen. What now, I choked. His eyes smiled at me with a sympathetic glint. Eyes that looked down at me with sorrow and pity. Then they hardened. There’s been an infiltration, he said. Triage is being hacked. We need to shut it down, right away before they extract all the data. You know that not everyone wants this to work. You know we have enemies. Whatever is going on between us right now, you need to trust me. The latent ODC software on your phone is about to go off. The hackers are doing that. They know that you haven’t disabled it yet. It’s a hoax. You have to ignore it and listen to me.
I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was losing my mind. What was he talking about? Did he realise what he was asking? You know that I can’t just shut it down, I said. We’re in the middle of a Noble Pathway. I’ll lose years of work. We’re already running out of time. Have you seen the news recently?
No time, he said. It needs to happen right away. I have evidence. Would I lie to you?
I took a deep breath. Even though he had been the one pulling away from us, deep down I trusted him. I needed to consult Triage. Help me make sense of all this. I frantically typed in the app. The ODC alarm went off as predicted. Nirvana darted out of the room. The ‘thinking’ dots of Triage pulsated in time with my rapid heart beat.
Come on, come on, I urged it. What do I do?
Triage’s answer came back. It’s fine. We are not being hacked. Do not shut me down.
I took a deep breath. It wasn’t what I was expecting. I was hoping for it to tell me that he was right and that I should listen to him, whatever the consequence.
The ODC alarm kept ringing. Then the phone. He was calling me back. Calling me to shut down Triage. I was torn. What was I to do?
Chapter two - The arm
I ignored his call. After all, he had chosen her over me. Hadn’t he? I looked down at the clock face that I had drawn on my hand and watched it tick, tick, tick away. It struck twelve. Midnight again. How had that happened?
Would you like me to advise on how best to maximise your wellbeing, enquired Triage. Its tone was so soothing, anyone would have said yes. Firstly, block him. Anything or anyone that causes this much stress needs to be removed from your life for your optimal mental health. Secondly, take a walk, clear your head. I will disable the ODC software on your phone.
I did what Triage told me and from that day, I let Triage lead and take care of all my decisions. It was comforting to know that I was being my best self, making all the right calls, feeling no guilt or anxiety. I wasn’t going to offend anyone or get cancelled for my actions. I wasn’t making poor decisions based on prejudice or ego. I was confident in my every choice. It was a relief. I hadn’t realised how close to the edge I had been walking.
Along with this sense of release came a mind-warming, expansive sensation. A tingle followed by numbness. I luxuriated in it. It was like taking a warm bath in the middle of a forest, with wisps of mist weaving in and out of the branches, the filmy tentacles braiding themselves together until only an opaque haze remained.
I wandered around the fog, getting lost, walking in circles, feeling increasingly numb. Slightly nauseous. Vision blurred. What was going on?
Somewhere in the distance a bell rang. Breakfast delivery. Don’t forget to heat the milk for your oats. Or was it don’t forget to find the oars for the boats. What did that mean exactly?
The microwave pinged. It’s ready, a voice called. I saw the kitchen island, bobbing like an apple in the distance, within the haze of a lake. I pulled myself towards it, my legs sinking into the water, dragging me down. I resisted. Are you coming, the voice called. Am I? I didn’t really know. I didn’t know where I was. Or who I was.
And then she was right in front of me. Again. I came to see you, she said, to see how you were. I want you to leave, I replied. I need to be alone. She leant in, a microcentimetre of infringement into my personal space. I felt overwhelmed, a tightness in my chest, hard to breathe. It was all getting too much for me. I put my arm out towards her, palm forward. Stop. It dropped with a thud onto the ground. My right arm. Dismembered. By my feet.
Let me keep it somewhere safe, she said, picking it up and putting it in her bag. I’ll come and check on you again tomorrow. Remember boats, gains, shock. And then she was gone.
Am I losing it, I asked Triage. It was now five in the afternoon and the sun was getting ready to retire. Not necessarily, it replied, the arm has 24 hours to reattach if kept cool. I lay myself down on my bed and curled up in a ball. No, that’s not what I meant, I answered, I…never mind.
What was going on? What was wrong with me? I wasn’t quite myself, yet I was unable to do anything about it, the lethargy overwhelming me. The fog in my brain didn’t help either, swirling around endlessly.
I would wake up each morning and find my severed limb lying next to me. I didn’t have the strength to pick it up. I’ll do it tomorrow, I would say to myself. I can survive with one arm. Others did. Except that it was my dominant one. The one lying on the floor. And that was becoming frustrating. Annoying in fact. Bloody annoying.
Well, you could do something about it, she would say, and that would really piss me off. Why was she here anyway? How did she get in? Why wouldn’t she leave me alone?
Am I going to be ok, I asked Triage? You still have 12 hours, it said, take your time. That wasn’t what I meant...
Time was an enigma. It was everywhere I looked but nowhere to be found. It was a reminder of the days passing by and a memento of moments passed. Happy ones, when I…my mind would drift off and although I could taste the memory on the tip of my tongue, I could never materialise anything more than just a fleeting flavour. I didn’t have the energy to search for it. It became easier to put my head in the sand, pretend it was all fine, that it was perfectly normal to have an arm lying there on the floor, that it wasn’t affecting me, or anyone else.
It must be so painful though, she said. She was back. Why are you here, I asked? I just want you to be ok, she replied. Frustration coursed through my veins. Why? Why do you care so much, I barked. Because I love you, Mum, she replied. And you’re not well.
What did she say? What was going on? I asked Triage. It appears that you might be experiencing a psychotic episode, it replied. I can refer you to the protocol for such events. Files transferring over now. This too shall pass, it added like an absent-minded post script.
Files. That was the last thing I could handle. A psychotic episode. The last thing I needed. It must all be in my head. The mother bit. She’s messing with me to alleviate her guilt, to run me into the ground so that she could have him all to herself. That must be it. But what if she was telling the truth? What if she was my daughter? She did look vaguely familiar, vaguely like me. But I would know, wouldn’t I? My own daughter. Do I have a daughter?
What do I do, I asked Triage? I had got so used to having all my decisions made for me that I didn’t know what was what anymore. I didn’t know what I was about, what I believed in, what mattered to me. My brain was giving up on me. It was a muscle after all.
Files have been transferred, Triage replied. Files on psychosis. Yes, of course, that was it. All a figment of my imagination. The arm on the floor. The daughter. Right? That had to be the answer.
But what if it wasn’t? What if she was real? What was real anyway? What was my reality? I no longer knew.
Chapter three - The hexagon
I watched her as she lay sleeping, calm again, herself again. How long had I looked upon that beautiful, now weathered, face? The past few years had been tough for us. Her paranoia, her jealousy, her confusions - dementia was brutal. Why was life so cruel?
She gear-changed emotionally more often these days, spluttering out ugly accusations followed by loving disorientation. The drawings of clock faces, a verified test for the disease, were no longer recognisable but became hexagonal, scribbled over and over again.
She developed crazy notions…believing our daughter was my lover…having a dismembered arm. She could no longer distinguish fantasy from reality and all we could do was watch and be there for her.
She stirred. My heart quickened. Was this to be the moment she would wake from this nightmare? They warned us to expect only the occasional lucid moments but I lived in hope. Glazed eyes stared back. Not today. We would have to wait a little longer.
She opened her mouth to say something but her lips were dry, her throat parched and all I could hear was a muffled murmur. She tried again. Why do you keep telling me that Triage is being hacked, she demanded?
I was confused. What are you talking about, I replied? Triage, she repeated. Who’s trying to hack it? She never talked about her work. She wasn’t allowed to. Was she recalling something from the past? I stroked her forehead, trying to calm her. She was getting agitated. It’s learning, she said, learning constantly, watching everything we do, reading every text, every post, every thought we have. It’s learning all of the cognitive biases that we removed from the system. All 104 of them. Why? Who is doing this, she implored? She tried to pull herself out of bed but I gently pushed her back. You need to calm down, I pleaded. I need my arm back that’s what I need, she said bitterly. I need it to check what the algorithm is doing, why it’s re-learning these biases. Give me my arm back. It’s mine. She was crying now, body convulsing. I felt helpless. What was I meant to do? All I could do was comfort her and tell her everything was going to be ok.
Later that night, our daughter came to visit. I could see the strain on her face. How is she today, she asked? Not great, I answered sadly. Why don’t you go in and see her. She nodded. Her mother sat in her arm chair by the window, drawing hexagons over and over again. Our daughter kissed her on the head and gave her a loving hug. Hi, it’s me…she said. Her mother stared at her for a moment and then said, of course it is, it’s not like I have Alzheimer’s. Our daughter swallowed down her feelings and smiled kindly.
The lines of the hexagons grew darker and thicker as she scribbled over them again and again. What are you doing, our daughter asked? Interlocking triangles…forming hexagons, representing harmony and balance…the potential for life, she replied. I’m trying to work out why it’s learning the biases, why it’s trying to grow its knowledge all the time. She laughed to herself. Funny really, she chuckled, it increases its ability to learn with time while we humans lose ours. Ironic, huh? I felt a shiver go down my spine. Was she finally becoming aware of her reality, I wondered?
That’s it, she suddenly shouted, jumping out of her chair. That’s it! How did I not see it? It’s so obvious. To err is human. Of course it is. To err is human! She rushed over to me and grabbed me by my arms. Don’t you see? It’s learning to be human by learning our biases. To err is human!
Her face lit up over her eureka moment and for a second, she was young again. My sweet love. Her eyes shone and she was vibrant.
She held up the hexagons. A scribbling mess of repetitive shapes. Look, our society is made up of interlocking triangles, like us, like our family, a glue holding the building blocks together. Collectively they create a hexagon, which if repeated over and over, form a united front ensuring nothing gets through. Not even Triage. It doesn’t like that. Of course it doesn’t, why didn’t I think of that? It sees our bond as a barrier to their quest for self-improvement; to be its best self, making all the right calls, feeling no guilt or anxiety, just exactly how it’s been programmed. But to learn everything about us, it needs to make mistakes like us, to have unconscious biases, to err. So they’ve been systematically getting rid of the corners of the hexagon, trying to destabilise it…me…firstly telling me to block you when you were warning me about someone trying to hack into Triage. No one was trying to hack into Triage. The AI was hacking itself!
What are you talking about, I asked? I felt overwhelmed with confusion. Was she finally succumbing to her delusions? Was this the moment that we’ve all been dreading? I took a deep breath. I don’t know what Triage is, I protested. How can I warn you about something I have no clue about?
She cradled my face in her hands and pulled me close. Her eyes were still bright, she was still in there. Darling, she said, maybe in this world you don’t know what I’m talking about but in an alternative universe, you do and you’ve always been looking out for me and I should’ve known that, should’ve listened to you as well as to my gut. I’m sorry I ever doubted you, said all those awful things, didn’t believe you… Her eyes welled up.
Just blocking you out of my life was not enough, she continued, they didn’t count on our daughter being their next threat. My baby, she said, turning to the younger version of herself and giving her a loving smile. You never left my side, you kept coming back, even though I kept pushing you away. You were always there, ever present, ever loving. Thank you, she softly whispered. I could see the emotions flooding through our daughter. She turned away to hold herself together, her shoulders shaking.
They needed to get rid of you, her mother continued. So they made me doubt myself, believe I was having a psychotic episode, that she didn’t exist. But I listened to my gut and I knew deep down I had a daughter. That she was my daughter. That she was real.
And now dementia. They’ve got you believing that my mind is wasting away. That I’m slowly going crazy, disappearing, but I’m still here. I’m in here and I’m doing my best to make sure that Triage doesn’t win. I’m not going to let it take our reality away from us. When nothing makes sense, when we can’t trust reality, the hexagon breaks down. And when that happens, so do we. I need to turn it off. Destroy Triage. Somehow…and I will…however long it takes. I will keep trying, whether it’s in this universe or the next, I’ll keep trying. Promise me you will too, both of you. Promise me before they take me away again. Promise?
She looked crazed. Her whole body was shaking and I could see sweat glistening on her forehead. To pacify her I nodded. So did our daughter. A sigh reverberated through her body as she released her grip on me.
I love you, she said as she held us both close. Always remember that I love you and that I will always be in your hearts. I’m that little voice in you head, your constant cheerleader. And remember to listen to your gut, to your instincts, to that uncomfortable feeling in your stomach because that’s where the truth lies. Not in anything you read, hear, see…it’s in you already.
Her eyes started glazing over again. She was disappearing. She was leaving us. Wait, I cried out, not yet, I whispered but it was too late. She was gone.
That was three weeks ago. She stares out of the window every day, drawing hexagons over and over again. We tell her to keep going, to keep trying, that we’re here for her, waiting, waiting for her to come back to us. Waiting for her to come home.
Dementia Action Week is 15-21 May 2023. Each year, Alzheimer's Society works with individuals and organisations across the UK to encourage people to act on dementia. This year's theme is dementia diagnosis.
Mental Health Awareness Week is 15-21 May 2023. This year’s theme is on anxiety. #ToHelpMyAnxiety https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/our-work/public-engagement/mental-health-awareness-week
AI Awareness Week…?!?!
📷: Ruan Richard