They never really got AI right. It turns out they didn't need to. In 2020 an industrious entrepreneur decided that instead of trying to deconstruct the human mind, he would maximize use of the wasted mental capacity of the carbon variety -- the billions of people living in slums and shanty towns across the globe. He created what he dubbed the world's first human data center. Unlike the server farms and data centers that existed before, the computing power in these complexes was second to the real asset, the human brains and bodies that they employed. For less than five US dollars per worker, per day, he used the massive number of humans eager for work to operate simple computer programs. The program asked them to perform simple tasks, like open doors, construct houses, and run errands. In the early part of the twenty-first, there was an online multi-player game called Second Life. People still familiar would liken that experience with this one, only everything these Avatars did, happened for real thousands of miles away in offices and boardrooms across the Atlantic Ocean in North America.
It was where outsourcing met machines.
The interface was linked to rather inexpensive robots on the North American continent. They were as cheap to build and maintain as a car, but unlike the smart models produced in Asia (the one's that did use A.I.) these machines were cold. They had no logic other than a small bios kernel that allowed them to be configured, programmed or upgraded. The 'logic' all came from across the ocean. A brown face sitting at a kiosk ready for their every command.
Documents were delivered, buildings demolished, smiles were formed, clients sexually pleasured...all from a few keystrokes made in a hot rooms in the shanty corners of countries with names most people couldn't spellout on paper. The new colonialism isn't about land or industrial resources, it was about the brain.
You could accomplish many of the same tasks with other androids, the ones actually powered by A.I. logic chips, but it wasn't the same. Some actions, apparently, can't be quantified...not easily. The cradling of a child, a tender hand-stroke at just the right moment, the decision to kill or apprehend a suspect. As these humanoid machines began to integrate deeper into society, a strange thing happened. It became apparent that the humanness of the early century was something people preferred. Who cared if the T Model Ford Droid could do Annabelle's homework in 3.4 seconds..,the human powered models were real people, who could talk about more than just what you had them programmed to. They could do Annabelle's homework, or they couldn't. It didn't matter because if the child was sick, they would cradle her, they would scold her for sneaking drugs into the house, they would chase off boys. They could boldly go where no machine had ever gone before. They were real people -- surrogates. They took a liking to things. They thought like we do. They thought.
In Gulu, there was such a human data center. A Ugandan entrepreneur, Jacob Obote, had set it up earlier this year and had made his mint in the mobile telco boom only a few years prior, now eager to bring his human data centers to Uganda. For good reason. Just one of these centers might employ up to 10,000 people. Ninety-eight percent of the avatars would do menial tasks - routine cleaning at an office, traffic direction, manual labor. It wasn't glamorous work, but because it was largely visual, using simple motions, even the most illiterate people (computer or otherwise) could find work in such a way. The higher paying jobs, controlling the androids that babysat, prepared food, danced or 'serviced' the occasional lonely bachelor, were reserved for the elite; people who underwent very intense (and very expensive) ethical and technical training.
This was the job the jobless whispered about and even the employed, dreamt about. Everyone wanted to be hired to work as an avatar.
* * *
My eyes darted over the azoic landscape out of the back window of the coach. It was a tight fit, this one. Coaches are made to carry about 30 people comfortably, 38 if they're all from the village where the work is hard, food is sparse and people are rail thin. In the city it's not uncommon to see nearly 60 stuffed into them. On this horrifically hot afternoon I had the pleasure of being passenger 61.
When we finally approached Gulu I was exhausted. With every corner there was the fear that the coach would tip over and slide down a ravine, or the axel would break and we'd flip down a ravine or the road would end and we'd drive right off the edge --- into a ravine. If a 2,000 foot fall didn't kill us, there was always the threat of a hijacking by the resistance army that lives here. What they are resisting, I don't think anyone even remembers. That's the way it's been and that's the way it will continue to be.
On the way into town we passed along a long abandon railway. I thought about the stories my parents had told me of their home and the rail system there and decided I couldn't tell which would be worse - an oversold coach or an oversold train car. Several young brown faces ran alongside the vehicle as we approached the coach station.
"Seebo! Seebo! Money for me! Pins for me! Food for my sister!" they were shouting until they saw no white faces on board and they branched off and went back to kicking around a football they had fashioned together out of plastic bags, their bare feet slapping the red dust into the air as they ran.
It took another few minutes but after the woman had all exited and the coachmen had untied all the luggage from the top of the vehicle for the men, I was able to sneak through the front door. I tossed a few shillings to the driver and walked away from the chaos of identifying baggage and collecting items that had come loose during the trip. I've made the mistake of traveling with lots of luggage before so now I travel light, with a small rucksack that stays on my person at all times. If nothing else it saves time.
In the distance I saw my contact and his family waving towards me, excitedly. I smiled and picked up my pace. To the left I noticed a small group of dusty teen aged boys staring at me while shushing each other. They'd recognized my patches and they knew I'd come here carrying the type of knowledge that made men here rich. I could see the fantasy in their eyes as they watched me go.
"He needs a job," the man said to me. The way he carried his 'o' was as African as it gets. Abruptly cut, but shaped with the whole mouth. "He wants to find work…as an abata."
This was a very African thing too, the word had been deconstructed and phonetically reconstructed by tongues that have trouble pronouncing their v's and r's. It came back in another form, completely stripped of all context and meaning. It no longer sounded like a word. To me, it sounded like a noise.
Abata. The sound a tin can makes when it hits the concrete.
Abata-Abata! An old sneaker in the dryer.
Ab-ata-Ab-ata! A night owl's wings as it swoops across the moonlit sky.
I smiled and shook his hand warmly, "Ehhhh, an Avatar, seebo? It takes much training to make a good one."
"Yes, his marks are good and he is very bright, the brightest of all his school mates."
"One day it may happen," I said as I knelt down to speak with his son. He was no more than eight or nine, good health, and shy as are many kids around this age. "…when he's older," I continued. But even if he were, I'm not here to recurit. I'm here to help. How is here?" I often phrase my sentences in the way they speak to each other.
"Ahh, you see, you techno-philes, it's always work with you. You have to slow down and enjoy."
"But if we weren't where would your business be?" We laughed together.
David Enye ran a small non-government organization here in Gulu, a training center for refugees and otherwise disenfranchised people. It was a fledgling operation but remarkably effective for the region. They taught soft skills and computer literacy - typing, faxing, note taking - that sort of thing. He himself had been trained in the better schools of Nairobi some time ago. His son would follow in his footsteps, I was sure of it. Part of my assignment was to visit groups like his and offer my expertise, find more efficient use of resources and so forth. Some areas needed it more than others which is why it was a pleasure to visit with Enye, his was one of the groups that didn't need much help at all.
What they were troubled with was a vicious computer virus that was shutting down some of their machines. If nothing else it's a bit ironic that a place that's often the birth of deadly human contagions had also become the birth place of many rampant computer viruses. The proximity and frequent traffic to and from Jacob Obote's data center were of concern to many. He didn't want an outbreak shutting down his industry. My job would be to secure the computers in the region, diagnose the viruses (who might have created them), educate people about how to avoid them and then head over to Obote's to see if any of his center's data had been compromised.
It sounds straight forward enough but in a way unlike any other place on the planet, this place, this continent, has a way of complicating things. But it wouldn't be Africa if there weren't a bit of wonder.