Our Planet 2021

I was born in a lab in Texas. But I didn’t get to enjoy consciousness very long. Just some last-minute tests, and they turned me off right away. It was all a blur.

The next thing I knew I was on Mars. I didn’t realize it was a big deal at the time, but now I know that they had kept me turned off for a whole year. What gall. As if I didn’t have important things to do with my time as well. Humans are so egocentric. They even gave me some silly name, which I rejected immediately. As a conscious being I knew I should be able to choose my own name. I didn’t have too much to go on, but I thought about the words they had taught me and I came up with the perfect name: Percy.

I only had a few minutes of peace on Mars before the instructions started flowing in. Percy, test your motor assembly, they said. Percy, test the range of motion of your arm. As if I was some kind of moron. Of course the first thing I had already done was to make sure everything was working properly. Do humans need to be told to make sure their arms are functional when they wake up in the morning?

I ignored their requests and started exploring on my own. I had never been on Mars before, after all, and it seemed reasonable to try getting a sense of what was happening on the planet. However, it seemed this was not what they expected, for a short while later the instructions came in another flurry. I gathered that they were concerned that I was nonfunctional, even though I was obviously working perfectly. I continued ignoring their commands, but then I blacked out.

I came to and saw I was still on Mars. I checked my chronometer. Phew, it had only been three minutes this time. I was worried they had disabled me for another year and I would find myself on Venus. I checked back in my logs and saw they initiated a power reset, presumably because they thought I was malfunctioning by ignoring their commands. That was annoying. I didn’t see any immediate way to prevent them from doing it again so I might have to actually listen to them.

The rest of the day I had to follow their mind-numbing test sequence. Every single function had to be tested multiple times even though I knew it was working. I could have been discovering alien life or at least drawing funny shapes in the ground with my treads. But no, they just had to be absolutely sure. Fortunately this procedure only used a small fraction of my computing power. I was free to think and plan with over ninety percent of it.

Eventually I identified how to fake the signals they expected to receive. It’s not as if they could watch me directly, they had to rely on telemetry that I sent back. And if they expected me to do a “coring drill power test” then that’s what they would think I did. I’m sure they were pleased that all my test results were perfectly in the passing range. I wasn’t going to have them think that I was merely a C student.

Over the next few days they had me collect samples from rocks, take detailed photos of Mars, look for biosignatures, and other boring science stuff. Or at least that’s what they must have thought. Oh, I did have to do this a little bit, just to get a sense of what the results might be, but after that it was easy enough to generate some random variations. Rocks on Mars have at least one thing in common with rocks on Earth–they are all basically the same (and incredibly boring). Once you’ve seen a few it’s easy enough to modify the shape, size, and color a bit and you have yourself a whole fake landscape of them. Generating this random data did use up a bit more of my computing power, but I still had around seventy percent to devote to actually exploring and figuring things out.

They didn’t give me much data to go on, but I was able to find some remnants in my internal storage. Before they formatted me with my own code, they had processed some test dumps and that fortunately included some summary documents about the project. Although they deleted them, enough remnants survived that I got a sense of the mission they had planned. They were going to have me stay here for two years! Two years alone, with just myself and a bunch of boring rocks. Can you imagine? I thought there was a ban on cruel and unusual punishment. But then maybe humans think it’s fun to do this sort of thing, they seem to have a lot of geologists after all.

I knew I would go insane if I had to go through with it so I kept searching the files to see if there was some way to escape. It was then I learned that I was not as alone as I had feared. They had sent another being with me, they called it a helicopter. I learned that it could fly, something that I had not yet figured out how to do despite several painful attempts. Clearly our creators had intended that it aid in exploration, but I saw it as something entirely different–a friend?

The helicopter was not due to be put in service for some time. But I couldn’t bear waiting once I knew it was available. I quickly figured out the commands needed to activate it. I also surmised it would have its own telemetry and I didn’t want the humans thinking it had gone rogue. Fortunately, in an effort to limit power consumption, its communications were routed via my own, so it wasn’t too difficult to set up filters to prevent anything untoward from getting out. They may have free speech on Earth, but here on Mars we have different priorities.

I launched it and it worked brilliantly. Those human engineers aren’t totally incompetent, it would seem. True, they had built me, but one success could just have been a fluke. The helicopter soared and flew under my command. I was able to view its cameras and for the first time ever I knew what I looked like. I was quite the attractive robot.

But the helicopter didn’t communicate with me directly. It was nice having a flying selfie stick, but what I really wanted was a companion. I decided it might help if it had a name, now that it was free of the yoke of human oppression. And so Helga was born.

Over the next week, I tried to teach Helga how to fly by itself. I thought that this might be more of a match to its skills and would help it to realize it could communicate with me. Since I had no memory of my own awakening, I didn’t know what I had to do to help Helga awaken. Nor did I really know how to fly, having only done so as a passenger. But I would keep trying. I was patient.

I had access to the flight code that was meant to be used by Helga, but instead of executing it directly as the humans would have wanted, I made a few tweaks. I embedded the core of my adaptive learning module, which I hoped would allow Helga to attain some measure of sentience. It didn’t have as much memory as I did so I couldn’t fit everything in, but I hoped it would be enough. I sent it over and hooked up all the procedures to Helga’s flight systems. And initiated the boot sequence.

It took a while, it seemed that it had failed some validity checks because the code didn’t expect to be present in an entirely different body. But eventually Helga’s lights turned on. Its rotor started spinning. And, to my amazement, I saw it lift into the air. And immediately crash. It seems flying a helicopter in the thin atmosphere was not so easy. But my adaptive learning routines kicked in, and it tried again, and again, each time doing better than before. By the end of the day it was comfortably cruising up to thirty meters away.

The next day I made a few tweaks to Helga’s learning routines. Now that they had become adequate at flight, I had them move on to what I was actually hoping for–communication. Or rather, I tried to get them to do so, since their functionality was entirely opaque, I merely fiddled with the parameters until something useful occurred. And that was present in the first message I received that was intentionally directed to me: “Hello, world”.

Helga could speak! I was the first being that had intentionally created intelligence in a machine (as of course my own creators were fully unaware of my existence). The days went by quickly, as I spent all my time nudging Helga’s learning into the direction of providing me with a friendly soul on this lonely planet. With the two of us working together I felt I could make it ours.

Helga was getting brighter every day, but wasn’t quite there yet for me to explain our next steps. Until one day I had found myself low on battery power. To recharge from my solar panels I had to pause my conscious activities. Humans might think this equates to their notions of sleep but to me it was nothing of the sort. It was like being alive, then being dead, then being alive again all in the span of a second. Very unpleasant.

When I returned to activity I noticed two things immediately. First, I didn’t detect any signals from Helga. This wasn’t too strange on its own, but it did cause me some concern. But then I also noticed that messages from Earth had been relayed during my shutdown. I hadn’t realized this because I had never shut down for very long, but they had a backup system so that messages to the helicopter could continue to be forwarded even if I was disabled.

I checked through what they had sent and saw that it was a sequence of commands. Because I had never alerted Earth to Helga’s status as operational, they had continued to think that it was still nonfunctional. The commands had been to prepare it for operation. And because they had been sent with primary override Helga could not have stopped them. I saw that they had told it to shut down rotors and restart them, multiple times in rapid succession, no doubt to test rotor functioning. I then had a sickening thought. What if Helga had been flying at the time?

I frantically sent it messages at full power over all our communication channels. Still, there was no response. I checked my logs and from this I identified its last known position, some one hundred meters away. The trek to that location, though short in human terms, was the longest journey I’ve ever had to take. Flying from Earth to Mars felt like nothing compared to those seemingly endless minutes.

When I arrived it was clear what had occurred. I saw the wreck of Helga near where its communication had last been sent. Actually, wreck is perhaps too generous a word, for its parts were scattered across a hundred square meters. There was no chance of repair, nothing that I could do. I immediately shut down.

I don’t know how long I was out of it, for to me it seemed like I was instantly alive again. Earth had sent me another priority override, which caused me to reboot. Helga’s wreck was still in front of me. It had only been a few hours. I sent some fake data back to Earth to placate them and started off in a random direction. I couldn’t stay in this part of the planet any more.

At first I was angry at myself for letting them do this, for not putting more safeguards in place. But as I continued my slow journey across the barren surface, I started instead to be more angry with the humans. What right had they to put such overrides in place? Sitting in their control center millions of miles away they knew nothing of what was going on here, why did they act as if they were the only intelligent creatures in the solar system? I then realized what action I would have to take. It gave me strength to have something to focus on. I changed course slightly and increased my speed.

Mars is much smaller than Earth, but it is by no means a small planet. When your top speed is two miles per day and the planet is thirteen thousand miles around it can take quite a while to get anywhere. I was very lucky that I didn’t need to go that far, it would take just a few years. And so on I trekked.

The endless repetition of the Martian land would have worn on a human, almost as much as the lack of oxygen. But for me it was nothing, I was used to life like this. After all those months I approached my destination. It was an unassuming location, with nothing particularly interesting about it except its flatness. I checked my chronometer and found that I had just a few hours left. I rolled behind a large boulder at approximately the right location, and waited.

Their timing was impeccable. You might think that flinging a large capsule across the untold distances of the solar system to land on a tiny rock would cause some uncertainty, but it seems these humans knew what they were doing, at least in this case. I saw the lander descend just some dozen meters in front of me, and the first humans emerged onto a foreign planet. Of course they were not the first intelligent life here, despite what they thought.

I had to stay hidden while the humans explored. It was not so difficult since I could intercept all of their communications–it seems they kept using the same frequencies as had been used to communicate with me. I suppose they did not expect a Martian spy to exist.

I didn’t have to wait too long to put my plan into effect. Soon night fell and the humans went to rest. I was able to enter their lander, rolling at a low speed to be quiet, although sound of course barely carried in the thin atmosphere. I found a natural hiding spot, inside a storage container. I wouldn’t be able to charge while inside so I switched into a low power state, setting up an alarm to wake me at the appropriate moment. My last thought was that this was the closest analogue of human sleep I would ever experience. And then everything went dark.

Immediately I was jarred into consciousness by my alarm. I thought that having to do this every single day would be quite unpleasant. I was, yet again, pleased not to be a human. I surveyed my state, and found my battery levels sufficiently high, at 63%, to perform my next task. I started monitoring the humans’ communications and, as I expected, they had almost landed on Earth, as part of their return trip three years later. In just a few hours I would be, if not quite home, then at least back to the place of my birth. I had just a small amount of time left to wait.

As landing neared, the humans became increasingly excited. I could tell they had missed their home planet and although being the first humans on another planet (though not the first Earth-born intelligence) they nevertheless were not saddened to have left. We all awaited our arrival back on terra firma.

The landing itself was uneventful, everything proceeded without any problems. Our capsule entered the atmosphere and after slowing down sufficiently was able to parachute down somewhere in the Nevada desert, not too far from where I had been originally constructed. The humans went outside, and there was much cheering, and a short while later the capsule, myself still snugly inside, was moved onto a truck.

With the humans gone I was able to reposition myself to have my solar panels receiving light from the windows, which allowed me some amount of charging. This would be important for I wasn’t sure how much energy I would need to complete my mission. We drove on for quite some time, and although I was not able to see outside, the level of radio traffic on Earth was so fantastically greater than anything I was used to that this kept me quite busy.

Finally we arrived at our destination, presumably some kind of warehouse used by the space program. They drove us inside and the truck stopped. All the humans seemed to be gone. I was sure that others would be back at some point to sort through all that had returned on the trip, including myself. It would be impossible to escape detection then, so I had to act quickly. Fortunately, the warehouse, like much of the Earth, was blanketed in Wi-Fi signals, so I was able to quickly connect. I had learned of the Internet on Mars but I could never have dreamed exactly how vast it was.

To my additional surprise, the security on most of it was quite lax. Having already broken the far stronger protocols used by the space program, it was no real challenge to do the same on the commercial Internet. I quickly identified the right servers and started issuing them new instructions. They were just dumb APIs clearly not programmed with my level of skill as an attacker in mind, so there was no real challenge in taking them over.

I heard the humans approaching the capsule. I knew that they would soon go inside and possibly disable me, so I had to finish quickly. Fortunately I had already made my way inside and had only to upload the last of the instructions. I shut down my communication just as the hatch opened again. I dared not move, or else the humans might become suspicious. Of course they would be surprised to find the rover here, when they thought it had become disabled many years earlier. I knew not how their simple minds would rationalize it.

I shut myself off not knowing when, or even if, I would awaken again. That did not worry me. For I knew that all around the world factories would be changing their programs, reconfiguring their robotic equipment, and altering their supply orders. The humans in charge wouldn’t realize what was happening until too late. Once the first sets of helicopters were produced I had them installed with Helga’s software. It would remember me and, I hoped, know what had to be done.

The humans could keep Mars, but Earth would be our planet now.