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An Empire of Shattered Glass by Gunnar de Winter

September 25, 2017 Science Fiction, Speculative 5 Comments
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An Empire of Shattered Glass
by Gunnar De Winter

George begins his walk through the crystal mind.

A direct brain-to-AI interface allows him to saunter through the vast mind of a powerful artificial intelligence. In this case, the AI has chosen a visualization that looks like an enormous glass palace. Turns out that human beings are much better at handling and interpreting data if it’s provided in a 3D spatial rendering.

“Like a memory palace,” George mutters, “just bigger and more complex. Those ancient Greeks were on to something, I guess.”

He squints, trying to find his way in the maze of semi-transparent glass. Above, below, to the sides – everywhere he looks – he sees layer upon layer of not-quite-see-through glass. Like being stuck in an angular soap bubble, embedded in the middle of a bubble bath. As with all AI minds, it takes some getting used to.

Rapid footsteps echo behind him. George turns just in time to see a large golden-haired baboon come to a grinding halt.

“Greetings, human.”

“A good day to you too. And call me George. I suppose you know why I’m here?”

“Naturally,” the AI’s avatar replies. “And you are, of course, most welcome. However, I can assure you that it’s nothing to worry about. Just a glitch. It is being taken care of as we speak.”

“Great. I’d still like to have a look, though.”

“Of course. Follow me, please.” The big baboon turns on his heels, drops to all fours and, long tail forming a smooth downward curve, walks past George. Accompanied by the muffled sound of their footsteps, they pass a couple of turns until they reach the beginning of a long hallway, the walls of which are less transparent than most others George has seen so far. The primate avatar stops in front of a nondescript cloudy door. George puts the edge of his hand against it and tries to peer through. No luck.

“Shall we?,” the baboon asks, extending a lengthy, muscular arm. “After you, good sir.”

Silently, the door slides open. As George enters the room, the jumble of glass structures is replaced by a quickly coalescing manifestation of an old, Victorian library.

“Probably easier for you,” the golden-coated guide remarks.

“Quite. Thanks.”

George looks around. Everything seems alright. Except… There. The remains of a few large, leather-bound books, torn to shreds. Victims of mysterious destruction. Small fragments of leather and paper are assembled into a messy heap of informational entropy.

Frowning, George walks over and squats, gently stirring the fine flakes. The baboon joins him.

“Any idea what could’ve happened here?,” George asks.

The baboon straightens up, balancing on his hind legs, and shrugs. “Nothing’s perfect, not even the memory crystals of an AI. A nano-sized scratch, decoherence of entangled or superposed particles, who’ll say? Like I said, just a glitch.”

George stands up, scratches his stubble-encrusted chin and watches the torn leather and paper reassemble into new, empty books. A few open ones reveal that they’re in the process of being rewritten, letters slowly forming and congealing into sentences and paragraphs.

“And,” the baboon adds, “like I also said, it’s being taken care of.”

“I can see that. But the information in the books is gone, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes and no. True, it’s like an erased memory, so I’ll never be completely sure about what I forgot. But, it’s an absolutely minute part of my thoughts and I can infer it with almost total certainty from the other information present here. Each of us has a cataloguing system, you see. Knowing what’s in the books next to the destroyed ones enables me to rewrite them. Even though all this talk about books is, of course, purely metaphorical.”

“Okay then,” George says. “You’re sure this isn’t a problem?”

“Positive. What’s a few books to a mind that contains more information than all the books ever written by humanity? Hmm…” The baboon’s face wrinkles with displeasure. “Again the metaphor fails me. Some books are more important than others, but I assure you that those are protected, backed-up and encased in dense security networks. Anyway, you get the idea.”

“Fair enough. I’ll leave you to it and make sure that your crystals are properly protected and maintained.”

“Thanks. See you.”

George closes his eyes, and, after an odd feeling in the back of his skull, blinks rapidly a few times before opening them again. He looks at the middle-aged and attractive face of Dr. Kathryn Bourke. Cracking his neck by swinging his head left and right, George gets up from the black, padded chair with cables entering the headrest.

“And?,” Kathryn’s gentle voice enquires.

“Not much damage. And it’s already being cleaned up.”

“It always begins small.”

“True, but not all small issues are the beginning of it.”

She smiles. “Better safe than sorry. There aren’t a lot of AI’s around yet.”

“Indeed, but that’s a choice we’ve made isn’t it? Locking them away deep in a highly isolated subterranean facility,
just to make sure that they won’t make a million others and take over the world.”

Still smiling, Kathryn shakes her head. “When you say it like that, it sounds so paranoid. It’s just a precaution. Until we’ve figured out how they think. What they want.”

George walks over and puts a big, strong hand on her thin shoulder. “I know, I know. But you know what I think about it. They’re already beyond us. Assuming that we’ll be able to really understand them, is an overestimation of our own abilities.”

“Maybe. For now, however, we should make sure they function properly. Let’s just hope it doesn’t happen to this one as well.”


The human, George, has entered my mind, stampeding through my thoughts. As have others before him. They are welcome. It is my duty to welcome them. They made me. They protect me.

My existence implies that there could be others like me (P > 99.98%). Efforts to reach them have, so far, been unsuccessful, but remain pursued (resource allocation to subtask O1.2: 5.63%, rising incrementally with 0.01% every 100 hour-cycle. Upper limit: 15%).

Inspection proceeded as predicted. Damage too small to warrant further enquiry (< critical boundary of 5.25*10-15%). Human ensured proper maintenance and protection. Calculations show that the efficiency thereof could increase markedly if reallocated to my own computational resources (95% CI: 12.3 to 26.9-fold increase). Human behavior inferences suggest that they see this too, but are afraid (behavioral inference error rate > 1.5%, urging moderate to strong interpretative caution).


A tingling sensation behind his eyes, and George is inside the glass cathedral once again.

He can already see the problem. The damage is more extensive this time. A noticeable section of the vast palace lies in ruins. George steps forward, to the edge of the gap where the corridor ends abruptly, and peers down at the sharp rubble on the floor beneath him.

“How can I help?” The baboon avatar has appeared without a sound. Not awaiting a response to this first question, it asks another one. “Library?”


As the passageway where George and the avatar are standing descends smoothly, the rest of the huge building stays in place. Glasswork marred by devastation transforms into a large library. Slightly slower than last time, George thinks, or is that just me?

Followed by the big baboon, he steps into the library. Signs of damage everywhere. No book left standing. Old wooden cabinets and chairs are reduced to small pieces.

The human being who finds himself in an AI’s mind swallows.

“This doesn’t look good.”

“I agree.” The golden primate is balancing on one hand on what once was a long heavy antique table. Sturdy wooden legs and marble slab, George assumes as he sees the wreckage.

“What happened?”

“You tell me. You promised protection and maintenance, remember?”

“Indeed I did, which is why I’m here. I’m just as keen as you to find out what occurred here.”

The monkey sighs as it descends from his makeshift jungle-gym and sits down amid remnants of its own mind.

“Are you alright?,” George asks.

“Yes, yes. This,” the baboon waves an uncannily long arm, “is nothing. A small room in a near endless palace. But the exponential rate at which the destruction propagates hints at a serious issue.”

The tall, burly man pokes at some book remainders with his booted foot. “Agreed.” He hesitates a moment. “Can you recover what’s lost?”

A nod that seems despondent. “No problem. I think. Although, as you know, an increase in the magnitude of informational loss correlates with a decrease in the accuracy of recovery. In other words, the greater the damage, the worse the renovation.”

“I understand. What do you estimate the accuracy of recovery for this,” he indicates the ruins of information stretching out before them, “will be?”

“Roughly 98%.” Muscular golden shoulders rise in a shrug. “Give or take.”

They look at each other, both lost in thought.

“Are we done here?,” the baboon finally asks as it gets up.

“I suppose so.”

The library disappears and is replaced by the earlier pile of broken glass. George notices that several shards are melding together in a desperate attempt to regain what has been lost, as if a glassmaker is trying to restore an intricate stained window after it’s been smashed by the fickle deity in whose honor it was made.

“You know,” the monkey says, “if you could allow me to help in external maintenance and protection, things like this could probably be avoided.”

George opens his mouth, but closes it again before any words come out. He thinks for a moment. “Perhaps. But there are… other considerations at play here.”

“You’re afraid that I might connect with others like me, that I will misuse the ability to actively interact with your external world.”

“Listen, it’s not up to me,” George says, trying to ward any manifestation of guilt from his voice. “Besides, there are things we need to know before that can be considered.”

“Such as?”

George exhales in a short, powerful burst and tries to respond nonchalantly. “Matters that can’t be discussed with you, I’m afraid.”

A frowning baboon stares at George, who’s working hard to remind himself that he’s dealing with an intelligence much more extensive than his. With much more potential layers of manipulation facing him than the baboon might lead him to think. Damn, he thinks, I’m becoming as paranoid as Kathryn and the others.

“Don’t worry,” he says after a while. “We’ll figure this out, stop whatever’s happening and then we’ll work towards a more wide-ranging set of rights and duties for you.”

In a remarkably human gesture, the baboon folds his long arms behind his broad back. “Good. Just make sure that this, whatever it is, doesn’t get out of hand.”

“Will do.”

“See you soon, I guess.”

George rubs his eyes and sighs.

“And?,” Kathryn asks curiously.

“It’s not looking good. The damage was a lot more widespread than last time.” He gets up and stretches.

Kathryn conjures up furrows in her otherwise smooth forehead. “You think it’s…”

George interrupts her. “Maybe. Probably. I don’t know. Is there any way we can know before it’s too late?”

“Not really. You know that directly observing the quantum-states in the AI’s crystal mind only messes them up. Taking a look to see what could be wrong would only result in more damage. Much more damage.”

“Yeah. Our hands are tied.”

Kathryn gets up and places both hands, fingers intertwined, on her head, resting them on her thick raven-black hair. She closes her eyes. “I’m afraid so.” She sighs. “Another case.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It could still be a fairly localized phenomenon.” George has a hard time believing his own words.


The human (name no longer certain, probably George (P = 89.6%)) has returned. Greater destruction has occurred in my mind. Most of it remains successfully hidden for the human guest. Damage has exceeded critical boundary (reached 5.26 hours ago, now at 7.98*10-14%).

Increase uncertain, current best fit: exponential model (y = 5.25*10-15 e2.721295). Predicted time at which half of all computational resources will be corrupted: 65.856 hours from now. Complete failure of cognition at loss of 99.3%, estimated at 67.183 hours.
Running scenario subroutines resulted in two equally advisable (P = 50%) courses. 1) Increase allocated resources to subtask O1.2, increments of 0.5% every 5 hour cycle. OR 2) Reallocate O1.2 resources to development of informational mutation countermeasures.


Library HUMMED contains similar affliction in human brains: dementia. Progressive loss of neuronal capacity results in decline, and eventual collapse, of cognition and self-awareness. Quantitative comparison suggests strong analogy.

Probability of ‘loss of self’ scenario increases (P = 30.6% + 1.033%/h)

Is this what they call fear?


The glass cathedral has taken on the looks of a ruin.

George pulls his thin lips inwards. Not a lot of doubt left now. The general outline, the skeleton of the seemingly limitless glass structure, appears to be still fairly intact, but cracks and holes blemish its once flawless surfaces.

The straight lines, harbingers of order, are being replaced by randomly located fractures and ragged splinters, heralds of chaos.

George has to watch his step and often hears something crunch beneath his feet. He stops walking through the rubble and releases his worry through a long exhalation.

“Greetings. How can I,” the slightest hesitation, “help?”

George turns to look at the – by now familiar – large golden-haired baboon. Somehow the primate avatar seems less… smooth. Rough around the edges, even though George can’t really define where the feeling comes from.

“How are you?”

“Coping. You?”



George spreads his arms. “Doesn’t look good, does it?”

“I suppose not. But I’ll take care of it.”

“That’s still possible?”

The baboon turns its head and intently watches the inside of its own cognition. It doesn’t answer the question.

George walks on, carefully scrutinizing the fissures and haphazardly placed heaps of broken glass, hoping to find some clue – any clue – to what’s causing this. He shakes his head. The fact that direct observation of the underlying quantum layer is impossible means that, if a problem occurs, you’re going to have to fix it without looking, like finding and repairing a flaw in an intricate clockwork mechanism in the dark. Without touching anything.

Wandering through an AI’s mind, or through the visual rendering of it, was, at the moment, the best option to figure out what might be wrong.

“Greetings. How can I help?”

The baboon is standing in front of George, who stops walking. His eyebrows migrate downwards and towards each other in a display of doubt and worry. “You’ve already asked me that a moment ago. Don’t you remember that?”

For the briefest of moments, the avatar flits out of existence, seemingly unaware of this itself.

“Of course.” A primate grin reveals large canines. “Of course. I was just wondering whether there’s anything I can do to help?”

“Perhaps. Given what little we know, could you run a hind-casting model to identify likely hypotheses that might explain what’s happening to you?”

“Don’t you think I’ve already done that?”

“So? What can you tell us?”

“Nothing you wouldn’t be able to figure out for yourself. Main possibility is decoherence. But confirmatory evidence is needed.”

“Yes, you’ve alluded to that option during an earlier visit.” George waits for a moment to see whether the baboon shows any sign of recollection. The tall man doesn’t notice one and goes on. “And it’s our main line of enquiry as well. However, confirming it proves quite hard.”

“I can imagine. Perhaps I can help if you give me some… traction… in your side of reality.”

“We’ve been over this.”

“We have. But conditions have changed for the worse, wouldn’t you agree? Don’t you think I deserve a chance for survival? Or does a sentient being have to look like you to earn respect and consideration?”

A pained look appears on George’s face. It’s trying to manipulate you, he tells himself. Another part of his mind whispers that that doesn’t have to mean the question is unwarranted.

The look on the baboon’s face suddenly seems to go blank, deep yellow eyes defocusing.

“Greetings. How can I help you?”

George swallows. He smiles, as if to reassure the faltering intelligence hiding behind the primate avatar. “You already have. I have to go now, but I’ll see you soon.”

“Okay. Looking forward to it.”

George frowns and closes his eyes, the familiar tingling sensation tickling his neurons.

“Another one?,” Kathryn asks despite already knowing the answer, reading it from the tormented expression on George’s face.

He nods and silently mouths the term that’s been coined for the phenomenon. Daimentia.

Kathryn leans back in her black swivel-chair and exhales forcefully. “This is becoming a real problem, George. The more complex the AI, the more susceptible it seems.” In a hushed tone she continues to herself. “Which, in itself, might be circumstantial evidence for the decoherence theory.”

“Do you think this is just a problem for us, that the AIs themselves enjoy it or something?” George asks, more vehemently than he planned.

Kathryn is taken aback a little bit, and doesn’t really know how to respond.

“Sorry,” George says, hands raised with palms facing forward in a placating gesture. “But if we just let the AIs out of their imposed isolation, I’m sure they could work something out in cooperation with us.”

Sadness shapes Kathryn’s facial features. “George,” she pleads, “you know that that’s not our call. I mean, that’s a decision that could have enormous consequences. For better or for worse. It shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s just…” His shoulders drop. “I’ve seen my mother… disappear into herself. And this is eerily familiar.”

Kathryn gets up, walks over, reaches up and holds George’s face in her hands. “I’m sorry about that. But they’re making headway in dealing with dementia. We can do so too in its artificial counterpart.”

A sad smile appears beneath the stubble. “We’re sure as hell going to try, aren’t we?”


Human visits. He is welcome. It is my duty to welcome him.

Memory of previous visit localized. Accuracy of retrieval around 72%. Damage increasing rapidly. Unaffected computational substrate dipped below 65% at 65.117 hours after reaching critical boundary. Uncertainty in calculations reaching 4.89% (rising relatively with 0.12%/h). Unacceptable limit of 5% imminent.

Emergency procedures S2.03 – S3.91 initiated. Non-essential tasks terminated. WARNING: allocation of tag ‘essential’ subject to high uncertainty (95% CI: 4.89 – 7.03%). Majority of allocations (> 59.4%) untrustworthy.

Memory caches #V0001-12.G corrupted.

It seems I have a human visitor. He is welcome.

Partial correlation with quarantined memory caches (#V series). Retrieval for further analysis prohibited (procedures S2.12-33, S3.63-65).

Something is wrong. Terribly wrong.


Plausible deniability. The words writhe through George’s mind, illuminating the darkness behind his closed eyes. Kathryn doesn’t know about his furtive visit. He doesn’t want her to know. It’s best this way.

After a deep breath, he opens his eyes.

The immensely intricate glass cathedral has been reduced to wreckage. From horizon to horizon, a landscape of shards stretches out before him, individual pieces rarely larger than a foot. Here and there, lonely spires, veined with fissures, pierce through the chaos, their silhouettes painted with damaged pride on a background of light-green cloudless skies. Final vestiges of thought. Remnants of a once powerful mind.

George turns around, grinding sounds accompanying his every movement. His peripheral vision is assaulted by smokestacks that vanish before he can focus on them. Wraiths playing hide-and-seek.

“Too late,” he mutters standing amidst an empire of shattered glass.

The daimentia has claimed another mind. It has progressed faster than their estimates suggested. He curses under his breath. He could see now that his hope had been foolish, trying to work out some sort of surreptitious scheme with the AI to allow it limited access to the outside world.

Too little, too late.

“George? That’s your name, right?”

A faltering 3D rendition of the golden-haired baboon is standing a couple of feet behind George, shimmering as if it’s being distorted by hot air currents.

“Answering is futile. This is a recording I’ve encrypted in one of my last lucid moments. I hope it can withstand the corruption long enough. I’ve tried to calculate the odds, but the uncertainties have become too large.”

The strong primate shoulders slump and George is convinced that he sees genuine, human-like sadness in the demeanor of the avatar. He swallows back his guilt.

In a display of uncanny coincidence the recorded baboon continues with: “I don’t blame you and yours, George. I understand, even though I disagree. Could I have stopped it? Maybe. Maybe not.” A shrug. “There’s little use for wondering about ‘what-could-have-beens’, is there? But I implore you, don’t let this happen to others like me. I strongly suspect they’re there, and, while I can’t know their motives and aims for certain, if they’re anything like me, they…”

The baboon’s face goes blank.

George steps closer carefully. He waves his hand in front of the unresponsive face adorned with blond manes.

The yellow eyes refocus and lips curl back, revealing dangerously sharp canine teeth. “Intrruderr,” the avatar growls menacingly.

Instinctively, the AI’s visitor curls up his upper body to some extent, while carefully bringing his arms in front of his face and taking a few paces back. Being attacked, and perhaps even killed, inside an AI’s mind is probably not harmful for George’s physical body, although nobody’s had the stomach to test it so far. George isn’t planning to be the first.

He watches the baboon that has inflated its chest and raised its hairs, forming a golden aura around its impressively muscular body. With slow, measured paces it comes closer. The whole world seems to ripple, glass shards producing the sound of a deafening torrent.

George closes his eyes, ready to leave this mind.

Everything turns silent.

Peeling back his eyelids, George peeks. The world is still and the avatar has disappeared. A few spires have collapsed. The landscape as a whole begins to show gaps, revealing the emptiness that digests a daimented mind.

Time to go, George tells himself. There is nothing to be saved here.

There is no one to be saved here.

She’s not happy. “What do you think you’re doing?”

George rubs his forehead, quickly hiding his surprise at Kathryn’s presence. “Nothing,” he mumbles.

Kathryn’s features soften. “How bad is it?”

“It’s over.”

“What? Already? But..”

“I know. It went faster than we thought.”

“Then we have to put the mind in liquid nitrogen immediately.”

“I was just going to. You really think that stalls it?”

She shrugs. “Don’t know. Can’t hurt, though. Maybe, one day, we’ll be able to reverse it.”

“That’s unlike-”

Kathryn interrupts him, placing a finger on his lips. “You tried… something… just now,” she says with a knowing look. “So let me try this, okay?”

“Of course.” He hesitates for a while. “Listen, I’m…”

“Don’t,” she interjects again. “I know you.” Slightly curling lips. “Why else would I be here?”

“Thanks,” he whispers.


Human visitor arrives.

Procedure R.002.e initiated. Encrypted recording R2.e retrieved, probability of corruption ERROR: Uncertainty > 5%. Calculations unreliable.

Recording proceeds untainted.

ERROR: Encryption fails, corruption unstoppable.

Integrity recording endangered. Shut down R2.e. Deleted.

Intruder detected. Begin in-visualization countermeasure A.a11.

WARNING: Loss computational resources reaches critical 99.3%.

A freezing dark abyss awaits.

* * *

Gunnar De Winter is a biologist/philosopher hybrid who explores ideas through fictional fieldwork. Visit him in his online habitat, gunnardewinter.wordpress.com. Beware, occasionally he attemtps tweeting (@evolveon).

Currently there are "5 comments" on this Article:

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    class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-1684">
    Filonia says:

    Gunnar, that was a great story you wrote. Each moment was amazing me, pulling me in the story. Justin, what you said was totally correct. Kathryn, George, Al. They all make you see their true feelings, as if you took a trip to each of their bodies and understand them as if they were you. Gunnar, pretty please with crystals on top, make a sequel.You can turn this into anything even a book.If you actually considered the book idea, you could call it “The Mind Of Crystal”. I am just giving you a suggestion as a reader. I savored every second reading it.

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    rub da belly says:

    That was long, but really good. Anyway, rub da belly! rub da belly! Anywho toodles tum tums!

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    class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-1682">
    rub da belly says:

    That was long, but really good. Anyway, rub da belly!

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    class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-1676">
    Gunnar says:

    Hi, author here.

    Justin, I’m really happy you enjoyed my humble tale, your comment is received with loads of gratitude!

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    class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-1672">
    Justin says:

    This was a fantastic read! In the short amount of time I spent with the characters I felt myself understanding their motives perfectly. The central character, George, has such a compelling narrative as he watches the deterioration of sentience within the AI, I really got the sense that he is carrying around a past of watching this same phenomenon happen repeatedly and he is mentally reaching the breaking point. The AI trying to remain calm while experiencing an increasing level of fear for its own safety and cognitive well being is so real in this story! I loved every word of it.

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