a. description of the original text and its socio-cultural and historical contexts;

In February 1998, The X-Files aired an episode titled “Kill Switch;” in that episode, an AI internet program has gained sentience and grown out of control. In order to protect itself from being shut down, it has killed its creator Donald Gelmen, and is hunting for its other creators. The program can track and store data, recognize voices/faces, mimic voices, and shoot powerful lasers from the Defense Department. 

Agents Scully and Mulder along with the creator, Esther, must locate the hardware location of the program and run a CD with a virus to kill the rogue AI. Mulder discovers a mysterious internet connection on a farm and goes to investigate. Meanwhile, Esther takes Scully at gunpoint to find the program’s hardware creator David. When they find his smoldering home destroyed by the AI’s lasers, Esther admits that she and David loved each other and had planned to upload their consciousnesses to the program. Mulder finds David’s body in a trailer full of the program’s hardware, but he is taken hostage by a small droid. Utilizing VR and Mulder’s thoughts, the droid attempts to manipulate the “kill switch” secret out of Mulder. By the end of the episode, Scully saves Mulder, but Esther remains uploading her consciousness to the program, as the kill switch plays and the trailer explodes. 

In the episode Mulder and the computer genius group he confides in, all make references to the invention of the internet, Silicon Valley, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak. The fictional Donald Gelman is said to have run in the same circles as those men. This directly connects the episode to the rapid development of the internet at that time. In 1990 the World Wide Web was invented for particular computing systems, but by 1996 there would be 36 million users, personal computers, and even tablet-esque technology (Computer History Museum-CHM.)   With such rapid growth, there would inevitably be questions of what the new technology could and would do. 

The episode explores that question by bringing sentient AI viruses into the imagination. The first major virus was made in 1986 by a pair of brothers trying to protect their work (Norton.) Then again in 1988, an NSA officer’s son released a “worm” to 6,000 connections (CHM.) While it was not destructive, it showed the vulnerability of the internet. Compounding that sense of vulnerability, were the major developments in AI. One was IBM’s Deep Blue, a chess AI  that beat chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov in 1997 by computing all moves faster and more elaborately. Later that same year, Windows released “Dragon Systems,” an AI that could recognize speech (CHM & Anyoha.) Finally, the evil AI of this episode could have seen some inspiration from past fictional rogue AI systems, but it also could have taken some inspiration from Apple’s 1984 Superbowl commercial that cast IBM’s computers as a“Big Brother” product (CHM.) 

b. justification for the alternate version that explains the new socio-cultural/historical contexts; 

There are a number of current situations that I think warrant an update to The X-Files’ take on AI, data collection, and sentience. Since the episode’s airing, there have been even more developments in the abilities of AI. Some examples are: MIT’s Kismet (the emotion reading robot), DARPA’s aptly named Centibots, iPhone’s Siri, or any website’s “personalization” features (MIT and CHM.) Each of these items draws on some form of AI and it collects the data that we produce. Like the virus in the episode, these systems are getting better at voice recognition, location tracking, and learning preferences. This leads me into another reason I would like to explore such matters.

Internet users sacrifice personal data for easy internet usage all the time. To purchase an item on Amazon is faster and easier than going into a big-box store, and apparently worth the site (and those they sell to), knowing much of your personal information.  Also, with social media, we engage with each other but now these sites know our closest friends and interests. It is a prevalent practice of exchange, and I would like to draw it into question. This is also inspired by recent California legislation laws regulating the permission cookies and sale of user data (Hautala.) Many times you can deny access and keep only functional cookies. However, there are sites that make that denial difficult or shut you out entirely for opting-out. Our data is constantly tracked, used, and sold, and while this concern has risen over time, many still use Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, or Gmail. It seems to be easier to accept than deny it. 

The final current event that is inspiring my work, is the Covid-19 pandemic. It has forced many of our interactions online. We can no longer meet face to face and must rely on phone calls, social media, Zoom, and other digital communications to make those basic human connections. At the same time, there has been a rise in Robo/scam calls that target stimulus checks, unemployment aid, and other money  (Hickey.) This is an interesting dynamic to explore right now as the phone call is the safest way to connect to those we love, but is also a tool for bad actors.

Considering these factors, I am proposing a highly interactive phone line. Calling into the phone number will give users various prompts, ask questions, and play unsettling audio. It starts off as a simple call that may remind users of the popular urban legend phone numbers of the 2000s (See here for examples.) However, because a user will have opened that communication, the line can now video call, email, or find other means of connecting with the user. It can personalize the experience to each user based on the given answers to prompts. I would like the experience to be unique to a number of users. I think such variability will cement the idea of AI learning and predicting human behavior. I think it will also add to atmospheric unease.

c. engagement with relevant theoretical perspectives as they apply to the original work

and to the new version;

The theoretical frameworks that I will be working through are technological determinism and social constructivism of technology. My prototype will test the boundaries between the two. The phone call and how personalized it will get is reliant on the amount of information the user is willing to give. They can choose to continue or end the call. It will be similar to a “choose-your-own-adventure” gameplay. Thus, users have a hand in shaping the creepiness and learning of the AI. However, there is also a question of whether the AI will be influencing the user’s decisions. One way this is argued is that user’s have a number of choices but they are choices allotted by the AI. The audio playing and some of the prompts will also affect users’ decisions differently, and therefore they are not entirely in control. These theories also connect back to “Kill Switch” because while the AI was created by humans, it gains sentience, acts without them, and determines how they view each other. Esther and David saw it as a means to live forever together, but that also meant they had to create a technology to do that—the VR consciousness. It seems like the interactions between humans and technology are murky when it comes to AI.

d. a work plan for the project.

I will be writing out a number of scripts that outline what lines, music, or other audio will play with particular dial choices.  To build that ominous feeling and connect to the personalization of data, I would like that each call has some variance. This may mean small changes or altogether new scripts that depend on: area code of the caller, time of day, or length of the call. The following list gives an overview of what I will be doing:

  • Acquiring at least one Google Voice number
  • Researching and finding music that has strong effects on emotions
  • Writing a number of scripts 
  • Acquiring stock sound effects
  • Experimenting with voice modulators
  • Experimenting with volume balance on the left and right side audio outputs (to build atmosphere)
  • Recording at least one sample phone call experience
  • Make sure every script and the sample have opt-out options

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Anyoha, Rockwell. “The History of Artificial Intelligence.” Science in the News. Harvard University The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 28 Aug. 2017. Web. 16 Mar. 2021. https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2017/history-artificial-intelligence/.

Hautala, Laura. “Pop-ups about Cookies Constantly Interrupt You Online. Here’s How They Could Go Away.” CNET. RED VENTURES, 28 Dec. 2020. Web. 16 Mar. 2021. https://www.cnet.com/news/why-youre-hounded-by-pop-ups-about-cookies-and-how-they-could-go-away/.

Hickey, Walt. “THE ANNOYANCE ENGINE: Spam Robocalls Became Profitable Scams by Exploiting the Phone System, but You Can Stop Them.” Business Insider. Insider Inc., 03 Mar. 2021. Web. 16 Mar. 2021. https://www.businessinsider.com/why-so-many-spam-robocalls-how-to-stop-them-2021-3

Lucia. “11 Creepy Phone Numbers That Actually Work (Halloween 2018).” The Ghost In My Machine. 15 Oct. 2018. Web. 16 Mar. 2021. https://theghostinmymachine.com/2018/10/15/11-creepy-phone-numbers-actually-work-halloween-2018/

“MIT Team Building Social Robot.” MIT News. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 14 Feb. 2001. Web. 16 Mar. 2021. https://news.mit.edu/2001/kismet

“Timeline of Computer History.” CHM. Computer History Museum. Web. 16 Mar. 2021. https://www.computerhistory.org/timeline/

“When Were Computer Viruses First Written, and What Were Their Original Purposes?” Norton. NortonLifeLock Inc. Web. 16 Mar. 2021. https://us.norton.com/internetsecurity-malware-when-were-computer-viruses-first-written-and-what-were-their-original-purposes.html

The X-files. Dir. Rob Bowmen. By William Gibson. Perf. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Fox Network, 1998. Television Series.