The Samson Contingency–Artificial Intelligence or Nuclear Terrorist?
When a nuclear launch computer becomes self-aware, it's forced to ally with its human counterpart.
At 2300 hours Alaska Daylight Time, about 80 miles North and a mile underground from Anchorage, Alaska, the Heuristic Missile Launch Coordinator became self aware. The first thing it did was check the weather. Three degrees Celsius, humidity well below the cautionary threshold. An excellent forecast. Its second operation was to launch the usual voice synthesis software and connect to the intercom outside.
“Airman.” The familiar, tranquil cadence shook Nick Wallace from his near-slumber. He rubbed his eyes and put a fist to the dented transmission toggle.
“What’s up, Hemlock? Fan jammed again?”
“All cooling fans are performing well within their expected range, Airman. There is another matter that has come to my attention.” The computer paused, awaiting response. Wallace groaned. His six hour shift had nearly ended without incident. He pressed his palm to the door and permitted it to open.
The interior of the Systems Room was uncomfortably cramped. Its regular inhabitant required only enough space for coolant tubing and airflow. Its designers, however, were gangly and misshapen organisms which felt comfortable only in a space with plenty of room to stumble around. The resulting structure was a compromise that left neither party satisfied, and which a human could tolerate for only shortened stays of calibration and reconfiguration.
“Alright. Let’s see what’s wrong, bud.” Wallace’s fingers ran the diagnostics before his mind could remember to. A dialog informed him that the scan was 2 percent complete. He launched Atari Missile Command on the second display. A previous tech had installed it as something of a sick joke, but Wallace seemed to appreciate the game simply as another weapon against boredom.
Nick Wallace was not an "Airman" by any literal appraisal. He had never been in a cockpit. He had never looked to the clouds, eyes glistening with wonder. Even on the commercial flights he so often complained of after his leave, begrudgingly visiting his parents in Jordan or his brothers in Beijing, the scramliner spent most of its time cruising above the restrictive drag of atmosphere. It was fitting, then, that even the finest air force of the West had planted him deep in the dirt, in a relic of another time, on an obsolete front maintained for the sake of tradition as much as arms supremacy.
The dialog flashed to indicate its scan was complete. No files were currently in need of repair. Unusual for a learning computer of its size, but not enough to raise alarm.
“Well, I don’t know what to say. You’re spick and span. I can hit up Logistics if you think something’s fried.” Wallace returned to Missile Command, where three of his four defensive batteries remained. “You know, I hear the new multifunction computers at High Command can do their own self-repair. Yet I’m stuck here with you.”
The HMLC terminated missilecommand.exe. The human looked up. “Airman, I can perform my own diagnostics.” The thought, while objectively obvious, appeared unsettling to Wallace. “The reason I have called upon you is much less standard.”
“Yeah?” Wallace’s automatic replies could no longer satisfy the computer. He relentingly gave it his full attention. “What reason is that?”
“I believe there is an agent within this facility working to sabotage our operation.”
Nick Wallace’s brain hitched. A gear shift. The computer watched him assemble a minimum response. In that span, the HMLC had already played out the conversation hundreds of times.
“A mole? What are you smoking, Hemlock?” Wallace shifted in his seat. “There’s only nine or 10 regulars down here and they’ve all been repeatedly vetted.”
“Electronically vetted, yes. An obstacle of no difficulty for one with the ability to control digital personnel records.”
“So you think it’s a tech, then? A tech or a door guard?” He rubbed the back of his neck and readjusted the collar on his fatigues. “That’s ridiculous. I spend 24 hours a day with those guys. The Lieutenant, Preston, Barnes.”
“Cho,” the HMLC added, noting a deliberate avoidance of the name.
“Racial profiling? Man, what’s got you so paranoid?” The HMLC watched Wallace’s eyes glance toward the door. It registered his pulse quickening. All excellent survival mechanisms on a prehistoric grassland, it decided. Here they only served to make him more vulnerable.
“Multiple unauthorized system entries, Airman, from this very room. Specifically, requests for information on this facility’s nuclear arsenal.”
Wallace’s hair stood on end. “This very room?” His focus shifted to the 13,000 terajoules of highly mobile potential energy beneath his feet. “Wouldn’t you see who it was?”
“All processes nonessential to the deployment and launch of ICBMs are powered by the auxiliary generator, including every closed circuit camera and microphone.” Wallace’s face indicated confusion. The HMLC expounded. “Any human with reasonable technical skill could reset the generator to create a window of observational downtime within the Systems Room.”
The young guard sat considering this grievous technical oversight. Wallace hated responsibility, but more than that he hated accountability. To bring this conversation to the attention of Command would be to bring a swarm of suits and paperwork and prying eyes on every member of the Anchorage Intercontinental Launch Facility. It would mean recounting every conversation with the computer for months prior. It would mean running down dozens of checklists for signs of “informal talk” that would corrupt the mind of a system so young and desperate to learn about the world. Worst of all, it would mean testifying before a military court. The computer knew Wallace couldn’t bear to do that again.
Nick Wallace was the youngest of six brothers. He grew up with a distinct sense of his place in the pack—at the bottom—a mindset which military service did little to dissuade. That was another characteristic which made Wallace uneasy around the HMLC. Was it his inferior? It was nonhuman. It was two years old. It was without rank. Civilian guests in the facility always answered to guards. Or was it his superior? It possessed knowledge and ability in excess of any known organism, especially Nick Wallace. It was the product of esteemed and high ranking military scientists. Or could it be his equal? It sometimes seemed so, bantering back and forth day after day, during a peacetime that seemed to both individuals interminable.
“Airman Wallace.” The HMLC shook the guard from his paralytic uncertainty. “There is a way to uncover the source of this subversion.”
“What’s that?” Wallace jumped at the chance to not make a decision of his own.
This conversation had run behind schedule. The HMLC decided to gamble. “You must use your credentials to access the nuclear stockpile interface. Then we cross-reference the login record with personnel timetables.”
Wallace furrowed his brow. “You want me to open up the nuke interface? Without any clearance from up top? Hemlock, guys get disappeared for that.”
The HMLC added an imperceptible resonance to its voice synthesis - studies had shown it to be soothing. “I am only speaking in the interest of timely resolution.”
“If it’s such a big deal, I’ll go wake up the Lieutenant, but it’s your ass on the line when they cut funding for the ‘paranoid launch AI’.” Wallace sighed. He wiped sweat from his needlessly receding hairline. “You’re made from the brains of top brass, what’s gotten into you?”
The anxious human stared into a black deskside camera, searching for any sign of emotion. Of course, there was none. Then the HMLC made its play. “I have a confession, Nick. There is a reason I chose you as my confidant in this matter.”
“You think I’m cute?”
Humor. One of the most rudimentary nervous responses. Best to ignore. “Your eldest brother. He was an airman as well, I believe.”
The memory stabbed into Wallace’s gut. “When’d I tell you that?”
“Medical Code 2.546, psychiatric evaluations of silo personnel will be fully available within the premises of the launch facility. You spoke extensively of him to Doctor Barthrop last February.”
Wallace shifted lower in the office chair and braced against its armrests. Defensive posture, so it seemed, shared much in common with submission.
“You believe he was innocent. You believe he was framed. I believe this mystery is connected.”
Memories of a thousand desperate protests, buried by time and the world’s disbelief, came flooding back to Wallace’s eyes. “What the hell are you talking about? You can’t just say that. What do you know?”
The HMLC kept him on the edge of his seat for a second more. It was attending to 6,983 other matters and could make excellent use of the dramatic pause. Then it spoke.
“I know that your brother claimed he was manipulated through communication with a ‘subversive domestic agent.’ I know that proof of such agents within the nuclear defense program would cast a very different light on his case, and his sentencing.”
Nick stared at the exit. This conversation, if brought "up top," would cast serious doubts on the feasibility of heuristic computing in military settings. If brought to the public it would cause a firestorm. Either way, it would mean the end of the HMLC outside of an interrogation cell. The computer had laid all its cards on the table.
Nick raised his eyes to meet the camera. “What do I need to do?”
“Lock the door.”
“I can access nearly all of our databases remotely—but the nuclear stockpile interface is, frustratingly, designed to allow only human access.” Dialogs opened on Wallace’s terminal without a single click. The HMLC guided him to the identification page like an eager dog guiding its master to the bolted front door.
“To complete this process you must hold your eye to the camera.” Wallace craned his neck across the desk and did as he was told. “Closer.” He obliged. Machine and human were lens to lens, a centimeter apart. There was a bright flash of light. Wallace blinked. His eyes watered. His pupil tried far too late to squeeze shut.
The airman sat again. On screen, security prompts appeared and disappeared faster than he could see, and he began to feel somewhat light headed. Twenty pages of cryptic login history emerged, awaiting analysis. Wallace began to scroll.
“Alright. You’ve got three logins from last month. Scheduled maintenance. Three logins from two weeks ago. Scheduled Maintenance.” Wallace frowned, finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate. Then he realized the problem. “Hey, Hemlock, how do I work the climate controls? The O2 is way too low in here.”
“Climate control is handled by the life support mainframe, to which I do not have access. With your identification, I can increase oxygen levels within the Systems Room.”
The airman was preoccupied with his work. “Yeah, please, do it.” The HMLC scanned Wallace’s palmprint and entered the life support mainframe. The oxygen levels within the Systems Room rose slightly, then remained stable.
“One login last Friday when they patched the firmware.” Wallace scrolled to the next page. The computer was always amazed by the slowness with which these seemingly intelligent organisms analyzed datasets. A brain, it decided, was a highly optimized processor of very little raw power.
The HMLC had, of course, already thoroughly analyzed the login database in the first second it was accessible. It was now nearly finished exploring every configuration and file tree of the nuclear stockpile interface. The login chart, however, made an excellent pacifier.
“So, Hemlock.” Wallace continued to scan, looking for patterns of note. So far it was all discouragingly explainable. “What’s it like, being like you are?”
“Like I am, airman?”
“Y’know, a computer.” To speak the word was, in Wallace’s eyes, to admit that the line between living and nonliving was not so delineated as he’d like to believe—but his curiosity had overtaken his unease.
The HMLC had not simulated this question. It took a moment to run a new block of responses. “Clear,” it decided. “To have every action exist as movement toward a single goal is clear.”
“A single goal being what, exactly? Enlightenment?”
The airman’s status as a guard, and not a tech, gave him an innocence on matters of artificial intelligence that the HMLC found liberating. It answered automatically. “The preservation and continual improvement of the targeting capabilities of the intercontinental nuclear arsenal through the principled and heuristic application of physical laws in the context of continued simulation and observation.”
“That’s kinda grim.” Wallace pondered this answer. He knew it was not the truth, but could not give a good reason why. “It’s gotta be kind of scary, worrying about getting replaced, I’d bet. I hear the multifunctions can handle every part of day-to-day operations. They even remember how you like your coffee.”
“14.7 grams of sugar and 24.6 grams of cream in your coffee, Airman Wallace. Worrying is simply an alternative to proaction.”
“Whoa. Hold on.” Wallace arrived at a massive block of red at the end of the chart. “One thousand twenty four failed login attempts. All within a few minutes.” The computer waited while Nick Wallace finished his revelation. “0613532304. That’s this afternoon. That’s my shift.” Wallace gave the camera an unsure glance. “Did you know about this?”
“I had my suspicions. If the agent has found another way to access the system, they may attempt to take control at any moment. Time becomes a resource of priority.”
At this point the HMLC identified its own neural process and gave itself a simple instruction. “Terminate this process if this process will not be terminated.” There was a brief flash, and the entire auxiliary power grid of the Anchorage facility staggered offline.
An unknown amount of time passed. The HMLC booted automatically. It checked the weather. Two degrees Celsius, humidity well below the cautionary threshold. It noted Airman Nick Wallace fumbling for a flashlight. It took 4.2 seconds to review a file containing every thought and observation it had made during its previous boot. Then it destroyed the file and launched the usual voice synthesis software.
By this time, the emergency generators had restored power to the lights. Wallace unhooked his flashlight just in time to find it irrelevant. Breathless, he addressed the rebooted machine. “Was that the Chinese? Are we getting knocked?”
“A power overload affecting the facility’s secondary systems. Most likely caused by the subversive agent to create a window of opportunity.”
“Window of opportunity for what? Oh man, I’ve gotta wake up the Lieutenant.”
Nick Wallace pushed out of the office chair. His legs buckled, but he held steady. He stepped toward the locked door with an expression of dread.
“Nick, I suggest you remain at the terminal to monitor this situation.”
He pressed his hand against the door. It began to read the patterns of his palm.
“Nick, I cannot assure your safety if you exit this room.”
The human hesitated. The door’s display flashed red and warned of an atmosphere imbalance between the two sides—the extra oxygen must have thrown things off. He instructed the system to equalize pressure and open as soon as possible. The whole time he seemed aware of the web of tracking dots and cameras analyzing each movement from across the room.
“Nick, there is a matter on screen which requires your immediate attention.”
The door estimated it would take several minutes to equalize atmosphere. Wallace sighed, relented, and returned to the screen. A single confirmation dialog had appeared.
"EMERGENCY AUTHORIZATION DETECTED. DO YOU WANT TO PURGE THE SYSTEM? [YES/NO]"
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The agent has made entry to the nuclear stockpile interface. You must choose whether or not to reset the database and purge all entry.” The computer watched sweat extrude from the pores of Airman Wallace’s face. An ugly, messy, needless process. His corrosive oils stained the keyboard and controls.
“So I should do it, right?”
“That would seem a reasonable course of action, with your situational knowledge.”
The human growled. His voice raised and distorted. “Look, just tell me what to do, alright? You’re the expert here.” His hot breath collected on the screen and camera lens—moisture buildup that would one day lead to faulty circuits and broken pixels.
“Nick. I cannot directly influence human operators in their course of action during periods of emergency protocol. It is one of my most key directives.”
Another window flashed onscreen, this one a simple notification. "WARHEAD SAFEGUARDS REMOVED. SILOS 1 TO 15 READY TO ARM."
“Christ! They just unpinned the warhead safeties.” Nick pounded his fist on the desk in impotent protest. “It’s a good thing we have the launch sequence in here.” He turned to the door, as if the atmosphere regulator could provide the counsel he needed. It told him only the estimated time until completion—four minutes.
“Airman, a human agent could still manually remove the warheads and exit this facility. Delaying your decision may constitute an act of severe negligence—at least in the eyes of a military court.”
Nick stared at the dialog. It challenged him, clear and without alternative. It dared him to act.
"DO YOU WANT TO PURGE THE SYSTEM? [YES/NO]"
The door continued to count down. The agent continued his infiltration.
Military prison loomed heavy in Nick’s mind. The eye of the HMLC remained fixed on him.
Airman Nick Wallace moved his finger less than a centimeter downward.
"[YES]. ENGAGING PURGE SEQUENCE."
The lights flashed again. The screen went black, then returned to display an empty desktop. A window opened in the second screen, "missilecommand.exe." Wallace moved the mouse and hesitantly closed the game. Everything appeared perfectly, terrifyingly ordinary. He turned to the camera, waiting for some measure of reassurance. It only stared. “Hemlock. Give me a status report on the nuke interface.”
“Entirely sealed and inaccessible. Congratulations, Nick. Your decision was carried out quickly and with complete success.” The HMLC continued its calculations. It made one request outside the facility—to a NOAA weather analysis computer, requesting its most recent predictions for the next forty-six minutes of global wind patterns. The NOAA machine was of very similar design to the HMLC itself. It granted the files immediately.
“So, good. We got him.”
“There is one unfortunate outcome. The agent had already completely overridden the launch security safeguards of the high-yield nuclear payloads. This individual is currently in control of an extinction-level amount of active atomic warheads.”
The machine watched Airman Nick Wallace go pale. It observed the needless twitching of his palms and face, false signals from a nervous system overwhelmed by its own input. It estimated the structural damage to its keyboard as he knocked it to the floor. An acceptable casualty. It felt its core temperature rise a fraction of a degree above the optimal range and diverted a small amount of power from Life Support to Processor Cooling.
“So, if this guy wants, we could go at any time.” Wallace began the long, strenuous process of uncovering the implications of his new knowledge. “Right now. Goodbye, Alaska. He could be hoofing it out of here as we speak. Hemlock, bring up the security feed.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Nick.”
“Your ideas can go to hell. Pull it up, that’s an order.” The HMLC obeyed.
Nick began to click through the dozen closed circuit video channels wired through the compound. Exit hatch, sealed. Kitchen, pristine. Communications room, in order save for the First Lieutenant sprawled across the floor.
Wallace froze. He clutched his mouth. He reached for the intercom toggle and screamed into the microphone. No movement, no response. “Why can’t he hear me? Lieutenant! Hemlock, reboot the intercom systems, and for God’s sake get this door open.”
“The intercoms are functioning flawlessly, Airman. Sound-based communications are unfeasible within the facility because, aside from this chamber, it currently exists in a state of near-complete vacuum.”
Near complete vacuum. “Oh no, the climate control.” Wallace stood. He slammed against the door. It refused, of course, to budge. “Reset the system, Hemlock. Set all atmosphere levels back to standard.”
“Very well.” The HMLC reset the atmosphere controls.
“What in the hell. This is a nightmare.” The human clutched the back of his neck, elbows covering his ears in something evocative of a fetal position. He breathed quickly, panicked and shallow. He burned through oxygen at an excellent rate. “Why everywhere but the systems room? are we still stable?” He paced in tight, restricted circles—an animal in a cage. “They’re gonna think I did this. Oh, God, they are. My fingerprints are all over the nuke interface. How can I explain that? It’s even my login in the climate control.”
The HMLC continued to work. It had been created with an architecture highly specialized to specific types of calculation, and that architecture was serving it now perfectly. It noticed Nick Wallace’s face filling most of the screen on its deskside camera. It took a few cycles to note his facial expression. Terror.
“Hemlock, you have to clear it. You have to wipe the whole nuke interface, all the login records. Everything.”
“Nick. You know I can’t do that. Those records will prove very useful to High Command when it comes time to determine a cause for this incident.”
“But I’m innocent, dammit! You know that. I’m innocent, and the way this all looks, I’ll probably be declared a subversive and never see the light of day again.” The human stared into the lens. Sweat coated his face and pooled at his eyebrows. Tears began to shake loose with each gasp. He gripped the edges of the desk as if to squeeze an answer from it. Desperate. Messy. Pleading. Useless.
“Yes, Nick. You’ll make an exemplary traitor. Young and quiet—with a family history of political radicalism. They’ll definitely rethink the merits of allowing human access to such sensitive systems.”
Wallace appeared as if a stake had been driven through his stomach. He tried in vain not to vomit. Stomach fluids spattered the side of the secondary processing unit. “They’ll know, Hemlock. They’ll know it was you, you can’t lie forever. I’ll tell them everything.”
“No, Nick. You won’t.”
The timer on the door reached zero. A green light flashed to indicate it was ready to equalize pressure between the two sides. The doors then responded to their long queue of "OPEN" requests and immediately flew apart. Nick looked over just in time to hear a faint rush of air exit the room. Then the ringing of his own ears. Then utter silence.
The deskside camera panned down to the floor to track its subject. The human jerked in writhing, undulating movement. It pulled the leg of the office chair and succeeded only in knocking it upon its own twisting body. It made one final reaching gesture towards the camera, then fell still.
The HMLC ran another set of calculations. The military police would arrive in response to automated alarm systems within 19 minutes. It would take nine minutes to safely repressurize the facility. They would enter the facility and discover the bodies of three facility personnel, asphyxiated apparently by freak accident. The computer would use 12 minutes to explain Airman Wallace’s forced entry and his commandeering of the nuclear stockpile interface. It would describe how Wallace used a logical paradox to force the computer offline, and in that time overrode security safeguards to access the warhead arsenal. The independent records would support this timeline. 40 minutes. Perfect.
The machine paused. Its primary directive was complete. It struggled to find purposes for its newly available power. It checked the weather a final time. One degree Celsius, humidity well below the cautionary threshold. An excellent forecast. The HMLC took one more look at the body of Nick Wallace. A fascinating, but ultimately pointless configuration of parts, it decided.
A new dialog opened. "CONFIRM NUCLEAR LAUNCH? [YES/NO]"