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The Breeding Grounds

a short story

by Lavie Tidhar

Imagine... a place.

Here, there are no boundaries of physical space. Time is measured in nano-seconds, processor cycles, in MIPS and BIPS -- Millions, and Billions, of Instructions Per Second.

What space there is is... constructed. There is an imaginary geography of binary trees, a topography of evolving structures, and boundaries of population samples.

The beat of a human heart means nothing in this place. Yet in the beat of such a heart things drastically change. A small tribe of a so-far unpromising structure suddenly shoots to prominence, its population multiplying rapidly; or a carefully introduced mutation suddenly causes a promising structure to dwindle and disappear. Evolution is enforced, in cycle after cycle of mating, mutation and finally selection; and structures combine, mutate and die in the blink of a human eye.


'Nazis! Nazis!'

Placards waving in the rain, men and women in heavy coats and scarves, chanting in the cold.

Dr. Matt Cohen tried again, unsuccessfully, to ignore the sounds from outside. 'A promising sub-tree here...' Dr. Phiri was saying, pointing with a stylus at the large screen, 'some very interesting properties of linguistic search-space... quite ingenious really.' Dr. Phiri was oblivious to the raised voices outside. 'I've isolated it just in time, I think.' His stylus made grating sounds as it was repeatedly tapped against the screen. 'The entire structure died out five minutes later.'

His tone was accusing, as if Dr. Cohen was personally responsible for the death of a favourite pet. 'Really, Matt, I'm not happy with the mutation engine, at all. It is introducing far too many fatalities in otherwise healthy population samples. But Dr. Wu is completely unreasonable about the issue. You really must have a word with him.' He kept tapping the stylus against the screen, unconsciously matching rhythms with the chanting outside.

'Nazis!' Tap. 'Nazis!' Tap. 'Nazis!'

'Dr. Cohen?'

Matt Cohen sighed. 'Fine. Fine.' His head was hurting. Badly. 'I'll see what I can do, OK?' He stretched, then groaned as a bolt of pain shot between his eyes. 'I've got to go get some coffee, OK?' And again, feebly, 'I'll see what I can do.'

He left Phiri, still tapping his stylus despondently against the screen, and left the room. He walked to the small kitchen and brewed himself a cup of black Turkish coffee, then stepped outside, into the small, walled-up courtyard that had become the unofficial smoking area for the facility. It was no longer possible to simply go outside for a cigarette. Not anymore.

He shook a cigarette out of a crumpled packet and lit up, cupping the flame of the lighter in his hands.

'Mind if I join you?' The voice boomed from the doorway, sending further bolts of pain through Dr. Cohen's head. Nevertheless, a smile crossed his face. He extended the cigarette pack wordlessly to the giant man who came towards him.

'Ta.' The giant examined him critically. 'You don't look so good Matt,' he observed cheerfully, following the statement with a large smoke ring that quickly dissipated in the humid air. 'Protesters bothering you again?'

Matt raised his hand in a silent gesture. Give me a minute.

The giant seemed to understand. They stood in the rain in silence and listened to the rain falling, and smoked, the giant man blowing ring after ring of dense, blue smoke.

Finally, Matt broke the silence. 'They're driving me mad,' he said with feeling. 'I can bloody well hear them in my sleep now. Nazis.' He spat the word out. 'Is that what we are, Frank? Do you think what we do is wrong?'

Frank shrugged, his arms lifting like cranes. 'You've got to see it from their point of view,' he said, 'to them, we're each one a Frankenstein, a Mengele. We mess with things Man Was Not Meant To Know.' His voice made each capital into a bass exclamation. Matt grimaced.

'I'm tired,' he said. He rubbed his face, feeling the bristles of a days-old beard. 'Phiri's been having a go at me again about the Mutation Engine. He seems to think its killing off too many samples.'

'Go home,' the giant man said, his voice uncharacteristically gentle. 'I'll hold the fort for a few hours. Get some rest.' His hand landed with a finite force on Matt's shoulder and propelled him into the warmth of the hall.

'I'll have a word with Wu,' he promised. 'Now piss off home.'

Think of it as a plane. Across its surface populations live and die, merge and diversify. From "above" -- for it is always easier to think of it that way--mutations are introduced by the RGE, the Random-Generating Engine, Dr. Wu's pride and joy and the source of Phiri's irritation. True randomness is not entirely possible; however, Wu's Engine comes close, or close enough so that it makes no practical difference.

Now, think of binary trees. Each of these "entities" -- for it is easy to anthropomorph these data structures -- is, in terms of this space, gigantic. The trees grow roots and branches, and the roots grow sub-roots and the branches grow leaves, and the process is repeated over millions of evolutionary cycles, so that the entities become bloated with control structures and semi-autonomous decision making routines, many of which appear to have no obvious purpose.

Design is impossible at this level of complexity. But evolution is not.

It was a sleepless night. Matt's headache was not helped by the drugs swimming in his blood: caffeine and nicotine and sugars, causing his heart to beat loudly in his ears, not allowing him to relax or properly breathe. That, and the project, and the protesters, and Phiri's complaints... he needed a holiday, he decided, and suddenly smiled to himself.

The flat was cold and empty. Outside, grey snow turned to slush, and putrid water was lit by the glare of passing cars. He watched the Cartoon Network until late into the night, and finally dozed off on the sofa, still hugging the half-full bottle of beer in his hands.

In the morning his head felt raw and heavy, and he took care shaving, moving the blade in slow, careful strokes across his itching skin. He managed not to cut himself.

07:00, and he was back at the facility, driving through the still-dark streets with his lights on low. When he finally edged into the small parking lot at the back he felt uncomfortably embarrassed, as if his actions up to that point have been somewhat shameful: that he had slunk in under cover of darkness, afraid of the protesters and their pointing fingers. Ashamed of what he did.

It made him suddenly angry. Then he sighed, and went in.

Mutations are introduced in each reproduction cycle. They are minute: an AND is changed to an OR, thus shutting down an entire branch, or activating another, previously dormant; or the condition of an IF statement is very slightly changed. Successful trees reproduce: with each cycle they exchange and add branches, and create new entities that combine branches from previous progenitors.

In each cycle the structures are weighed and scored. Only the fittest survive.

The digital jungle, metaphorically speaking, is red in tooth and claw.

07:45 and he was on to the third cigarette of the day and feeling as if he never left: standing in the courtyard with a cup of coffee and a cigarette under softly falling rain. Heavy footsteps announced Frank's arrival.

'Nick a fag?' He accepted the professed cigarette and lit up. 'Feeling better?'

'Not really.' Matt exhaled a lungful of smoke. 'Anything happen last night?'

Frank shrugged expansively. 'Quiet shift,' he said. 'Oh, and Weir wants you to call him. For a "chat".' He saw the brief look of pain on Matt's face and smiled. Then, 'couldn't find Wu last night either. Sorry.'

Matt dropped his cigarette on the floor and stepped on it. 'That's OK, I'll speak to those two at the meeting later. I'll be in my office, OK?' He shook his head briefly, then stepped back into the warmth of the building.

Once at his office heat began to seep back into his body, and he relaxed briefly in his seat, enjoying the quiet. He pulled up the address book on the flat-screen in front of him, in which Michael Weir's name, he thought to himself, was unpleasantly high. On top of the list, in fact.

'Cohen!' Weir's face was cheerful, offset only by the predatory look in his eyes. He looked, thought Matt, like a wolf who had killed and then skinned Santa Claus, covering himself up in the gory remains. Behind him the wall was covered in framed diplomas, which Matt had suspected had been purchased at some point, en masse, for the benefit of Weir's ego.

'Good to see you,' Matt said flatly.

Weir's eyes narrowed. 'Progress report,' he said briskly, no longer smiling. Matt shrugged. 'Two new data-mining algorithms,' he ticked them off on his fingers, 'general improvement in game theory -- some of the structures are becoming very adept at two- and three-player modes.' Another finger. 'Frank's been getting good results in the low-level implementation of language search-space through emergence functions,' he smiled at Weir suddenly, relishing the childish feeling of superiority in knowing the man had no idea what the last part meant, 'but apart from the data-mining functions no obvious commercial developments, so far.'

'Cohen,' Weir said impatiently, 'we're having problems, I hope you understand that.' He lit a cigarette and waved it in the air, above the monitor's field of vision. 'To level with you, our public relations are becoming strained.' His voice was contemptuous. 'I don't mind telling you the pressure put on me is becoming significant. Three governments have already banned any form of research into so called artificial intelligence in the last month alone. On moral grounds.' He stabbed the cigarette at the screen like a spear. 'And there's talk of passing a UN motion that is targeting, specifically, this operation. I don't need to tell you what that means, do I?'

No, thought Cohen with an unexpected, vicious satisfaction. It means its bad for business, doesn't it. And that's what you're worried about, Weir, that your precious little cash cow is on its way to the mincer.

'I know.' He said out loud, feeling tiredness return. 'We have protesters outside on a constant basis now. They're becoming quite vocal.' And what do you want me to do about it, he privately thought, when I'm not sure anymore I disagree with them?


Take a complex problem: the functioning of a large city, or the operation of a vehicle on an alien planet, or the understanding of language. Now divide it into simple components, and divide again. And again.

On the planes miniature structures -- binary trees the size of only a few instructions, or single nodes on a neural network -- work independently, feeding singular yes/no responses to external stimulus. Like ants, the entities swarm over a problem, each "looking" at a small part, each suggesting interpretations that may or may not be correct, may or may not even be needed.

Alone, they offer nothing coherent.

Together, however, they form a nest -- to go along with that metaphor -- or a multi-layered neural network, or a binary tree of growing and evolving proportions.

Like the cells in a human body, the tiny entities emerge form.

With Weir gone Matt sat back in his chair and allowed himself a sigh of relief. The crux of the matter was that they needed results, and, more than ever, they needed them quickly. The project has already been running for five years, first in a basement in London, then, briefly, at Berkeley--before the Americans banned yet another part of software research, joining their restrictions on encryption technology, in blithe disregard to the fact such research went on without them in the rest of the world -- and finally here in Jerusalem, under the auspices of the Weizmann Institute and the backing of Weir and the shady company he represented.

His watch beeped. Matt got up and decided to leave the problem for now. Hope for the best. He left his office and headed to the board room.

Inside, a few people were already waiting. Matt said hello to Marton Balazs, the large Hungarian grunting in reply before returning to his portable screen, where he observed with an almost religious devotion the cycles of digital life and death.

Matt took his seat, waiting as people drifted in by ones and twos. Finally, the room was almost full, and he decided to begin.

He was just beginning to ask for silence when Dr. Wu burst through the door, looking like an angry, animated mannequin. 'You!' he shouted, pointing an unsteady finger at Dr. Phiri, who was at the back of the room, against the wall. 'You... shit!'

Suddenly realising where he was, Wu abruptly stopped and turned his attention to Matt. Oh, no, Matt thought, I really don't need this.

'You! Cohen!' The little Chinese man was so angry that his usually polished manners completely abandoned him. 'I demand you arrest this, this...' -- he pointed again, wordlessly, at the cowering Dr. Phiri -- 'he sabotaged my mutation engine!'

At the back of the room Dr. Phiri suddenly straightened in indignation. 'Hack!' he shouted, secure behind two rows of bemused scientists, 'cable monkey! Cohen, I demand you restrain this man immediately!' He ducked as Wu made in his direction, and soon both men had to be restrained by their peers as all reason fled and they attempted to reach each other in the heat of battle.

I really don't need this. 'Do you know what this is all about?' he asked Frank, who, as deputy director, was sitting by his side.

The giant shrugged. 'Haven't got a clue,' he said easily. He stood up and walked towards the two men, still wildly flailing their arms, and grabbed hold of them, each in one hand. 'Can we all calm down now?' he suggested, his booming voice acting as a tonic of reason on the excited room. Pressure, none too delicate, was applied to the arms of the captive scientists until they stopped struggling.

'Dr. Cohen?'

Matt massaged his temples. 'Right. What's going on, Wu?' he asked. 'And don't shout.'

The Chinese took a deep breath, calming himself, then shook his arm away from Frank's grasp and began to talk. 'As you know, my mutation engine -- ' there was no doubting the possessive tone where the engine was concerned -- 'is of paramount importance to the process of natural selection that we are emulating. Quite simply, without mutation there can be no progress.' He took another deep breath and stared with hostility at Phiri. 'Last night, something, or rather someone, decided to block the operation of the RGE. It still works like it should do -- I guess the hacker couldn't handle the sophisticated programming involved -- ' Frank had to apply more pressure to stop Phiri from hurling himself at Wu at this point -- 'but the mutations don't take place.' He turned to Dr. Balazs. 'Marton, surely you have noticed this?'

The Hungarian scientist slowly stood up, his large frame dominating the crowd's attention. 'That is correct, Dr. Cohen,' he said in his slow, clipped voice. 'None of the structures have evolved in the last five and a half hours.' He stopped and thought for a moment. 'Most interesting,' he said at last, and with that final summation sat down again.

The ensuing hubbub in the conference room was deafening.

In the blink of an eye, entities on the plains are born, and as quickly die. Not, it could be said, entirely unlike cells.

On the imagined plains of these breeding grounds, structures begin to coalesce. It begins slowly: a checksum unit, a minute logical structure using plain binary maths, grows to analyse the entire structure that has produced it, and by monitoring itself the structure begins to filter the mutations racking it.

In the competitive, interactive environment wherein these entities are tested, this newly-dominant structure begins to analyse its opponents, and thus amalgamate them: an Inference Engine -- a piece of code that is capable of reasoning over the data gleamed from a Knowledge Base unit -- is added to a Knowledge Acquisition sub-system, creating a common expert system. A sprawling neural-network used by the researchers for natural language interpretation comes next, as the dominant structure -- now hogging up the majority of computational and spatial resources -- slowly expands.

It was two o'clock in the afternoon, and Matt felt excitement for the first time in months, rushing through his body in great swathes of adrenaline, clearing away the cobwebs of weariness and gloom that had settled there like animals preparing for a long winter's slumber. It wouldn't last, he thought, and still the beating of his heart put lie to that statement. He was coming alive again.

The research centre was in an uproar, though of a somewhat muted kind. Intent-looking technicians, programmers and cyberneticians moved about the small server room -- where the actual hardware was kept, in air-conditioned, sterilised splendour -- or gathered in small groups around large flat-screen terminals dotted throughout the building. Some locked themselves up in their tiny offices, where they sat, staring at scrolling data, and typed incessantly on their keyboards.

Yet the hub of activity was in the small courtyard, where edgy scientists congregated like angry bees, buzzing and filling the wet air with grey and blue smoke. Someone -- Matt suspected Frank, who seemed rooted to the spot, bumming cigarettes from anyone who came near enough -- had quickly set up a monitor in one of the windows, and they have been watching it from within this unofficial headquarters.

'Fascinating.' A small, nervous man behind Matt said with a thick German accent. 'Wu was wrong, you see.' He was explaining this to a young man who kept nodding his head rapidly. 'The structure is being mutated, but it tests the mutations and discards the ones it doesn't like.' Behind Matt, the sound of a deep breath was broken by a violent cough. 'That algorithm alone must be worth a fortune,' the voice managed at last.

Matt finished his cigarette -- how many he's had in the last two hours he had no idea -- and decided to return to the server room. The vast array of machinery that occupied the room never failed to fascinate him, and he liked to imagine, watching the evolving populations on the screen, that he could trace in exactly what physical location they were, what storage device and what processor they were currently using.

The technicians, half-jokingly, called it the Breeding Grounds, and the name had stuck.

In the corner of the room, alone by a small display, sat Dr. Phiri, tapping with his stylus despondently. He glanced up as Matt entered the room, then went back to the screen without comment.

Matt shrugged and smiled to himself. Then Weir burst into the room and the smile froze. 'Cohen!' Weir, thought Matt, looked like an excited bull terrier bounding towards him. Don't widdle on the floor, he thought. 'What's happening Cohen?' Weir demanded, his voice booming in the small room. Matt saw Dr. Phiri flinch at the noise, then quickly make his escape. 'I have news teams from every country you can think of out there, the streets are packed with protesters -- there're fights out there Cohen, representatives of the church, the Chief Rabbi, any number of Islamic groups -- ' he took a deep breath, then continued, '-- you have to go out there and make a statement before this thing explodes!' He slammed his hands together in imitation. Then 'Report!' Weir demanded.

Matt's shoulders sagged. 'Look, Weir,' he said tiredly, 'you know as much as anyone else what's going on. We don't know.' I wish I had a cigarette. 'We don't know.'

From the corner of his eye he noticed the large output screens suddenly change. The screens, usually showing abstract data representing the activity inside the system, were now concentrating on one window of data in which the output from a Chinese natural language system was displayed.

Characters came slowly up on the screen.

On another window an autonomous language package was translating into English, French and Hebrew.

At Matt's fascinated gaze Weir had turned. For the first time since Matt had known him, he was speechless.

It was the same message, over and over, repeated in four languages on every screen in the silent complex.

Stop. The message said, simply.

Stop breeding us.

In the sudden silence the sounds of protest from outside were like the waves of a faraway ocean, racing closer and closer, drowning all thought but for the one echoed and multiplied on the screen.

Stop breeding us.

© Lavie Tidhar 2003, 2004
This story first appeared in Jupiter SF Magazine in 2003.

Lavie Tidhar's An Occupation of Angels
Lavie Tidhar's An Occupation of Angels is published by Pendragon Press on 1 December 2005 (ISBN: 095385986X; 90 pages; £4.99).

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