The Last Light
Do you place your trust in human kind or let technology control your time?
Paul splashed water on his face and forced himself to open his eyes so he could lock eyes with himself in the mirror. “What just happened?” He muttered to himself. He gripped the edges of the bathroom sink, trying not to fall over.
He took three deep breaths, dried his face, and waited by the door, listening for a momentary pause in footsteps. He didn’t want to see any of his coworkers right now. All he wanted was to slip out quietly and get home to his whiskey. A few shots would calm these nerves.
A break in the sound. He slowly opened the door. A glance in both directions followed by the awkward run you do when you want to move quickly but quietly, got him to the parking garage.
As he sat down in the backseat of his company car, he let out a sigh of relief and closed his eyes.
With a furrowed brow and a jaw that might never unclench, Paul replayed the shortest and most terrifying meeting of his career. He had been working as the lead software engineer for Google’s self driving cars for almost a decade now and had always felt pretty well respected. Earlier in the week, he had discovered some disturbing software that looked like it was being used to judge whose life to save if the vehicle ever needed to make the decision to injure the passenger or someone outside the vehicle. This reminded him of the trolley problem he learned about in school. The trolley problem represents an ethical dilemma where you have to choose to sacrifice one person to save a group.
Only this was real life and the software had been installed behind his back. When he brought it up to his superiors who were usually friendly, whiskey-loving folk like him, they all went cold. Without any explanation, they asked Paul to leave. He studied each of their faces as best he could but they were expressionless. Not a wrinkle in a forehead or a frown on a lip.
“Ok car, take me home,” Paul mumbled through his nausea. He kept his eyes closed and tried not to think. He’d have his whiskey soon and then he’d figure it all out. If he told them he was ok with it, would they let him keep his job? Could he work for a company that would have a product that played God and used people’s data to decide their fate? Should he pick up another bottle of whiskey on the way home?
The vehicle drove onto gravel and Paul’s eyes opened with a slow curiosity. This didn’t feel like his usual route but sometimes the vehicle would take an alternative path to avoid traffic. “Ok car, show me the map,” Paul said. No response. “Ok car, show me the map,” he carefully enunciated. Nothing.
Annoyed, Paul leaned forward and touched the screen. It remained black. He touched it harder and then gave it a few sharp pokes as if the intensity of his jabs would make a difference. “Ok car, pull over!” “Ok car, stop now.” “Ok car, emergency detected.” A few punches to the touch screen didn’t make any difference.
The windows started to tint and within a few seconds, Paul was in complete darkness, save for the green light that indicated the car was on. He thrust his hand into his pocket only to see that his phone had no reception. He started to sweat.
What must have been an hour later, the windows began to lighten. As his eyes adjusted, Paul could see a warehouse in the distance. There was nothing else in sight. Not a tree, not a piece of trash. Getting closer, a familiar logo came into focus. He was at his company’s digital warehouse. Humans didn’t work here. This is where they kept the machines that stored the core of their technology.
The vehicle went to the back of the building and through a gate that opened and closed with perfect timing. He was inside the building now. With wide eyes, Paul watched as the vehicle drove past rows and rows of circuit boards. Every now and then he’d yell another command, in hopes that he’d crack some secret code. The car got onto an elevator. Darkness again, followed by the feeling of moving down very quickly.
The doors opened and the vehicle moved very slowly past a row of shipping containers. On the front of each container was a screen. The fear set in as he passed the 4th screen. By the 23rd, he had thrown up twice.
Each screen had a face and a date. One was the face of the VP who had supposedly retired. He also recognized two of his engineers - one died of Covid and the other died in the wildfires.
The car started to turn into an empty shipping container. The screen on the outside displayed today’s date and the same face that had stared back at him in the bathroom mirror earlier that day.
As the vehicle pulled in, Paul knew there was nothing he could do. He tried the door handles, knowing that even if they were unlocked, it wouldn’t do him any good.
So many of Paul’s friends had told him that they were afraid of technology taking over. He would respond with a speech about how technology was always going to be under human control. “Computers need a human to tell them what to do - they can’t make decisions on their own,” he’d chuckle.” He was a lead software engineer working for one of the biggest companies in the world. He had confidence in what he told his friends.
Turns out, it’s not technology taking control that his friends should have been afraid of. With technology to do their bidding, humans were even more terrifying than Paul could have imagined.
Paul watched the door close tight behind him. He was in the dark again, alone with the little green light. It blinked. Blinked. Blinked. And never blinked again.