The structure of DNA. The Voynich Manuscript. Leonardo Da Vinci's writings. Nostradamus' Prophecies. It’s always been irresistible to try and tease signals out of the white noise of the world.
It emerged out of sheer survival — spotting the stripes of a tiger from the shapes and patterns of the landscape was a matter of life and death. More recently, those instincts for observing patterns have been used for scientific discovery — divining the structure of DNA using limited technology and our wits.
But some of the most tantalising puzzles have been of artificial creation, like the Observavi Machine.
"The machine started out life as a 30-gigabyte modified stereolithography (MSTL file — an unusually long set of instructions on how to fabricate a physical object). Since the uploader had no reputation and had left no description other than the title ‘Observavi’, no-one bothered to fab it for months, and even then that was only because of a practical joke to tie up a friend's printer for a few hours," says Observavi scholar Greg Gaffney.
"On first glance, Observavi was a primitive computing machine, seemingly designed by a shy hobbyist. But as soon as it was turned on, it began displaying unusual predictions about the nature and timing of future events: new scientific discoveries, space weather, election results, power grid utilisation levels, upcoming plots of TV shows, all sorts of seeming nonsense."
The owner, Justine Chen, played around with the machine for a few minutes; finding it entirely useless, she put it in her living room as a sculpture. "I didn't have the heart to throw it out, and besides, it was a cool conversation piece for parties." A hundred days later, the machine stopped working, and she put it in her basement.
There it lay forgotten, until the X50+ solar flare in 2049. Along with causing stunning auroras as far south as Turkey, the flare significantly disrupted orbital transport for days. Chen recalled seeing something about a solar flare on the machine. Upon consulting her memory, she discovered that the machine had indeed predicted the time and strength of the flare, right down to the very day.
Intrigued, she reviewed her regrettably scant visual memories of the machine and looked up the 35 other predictions she'd seen.
11 were correct.
5 were arguably 'close'.
9 were completely wrong.
10 had yet to happen.
Most who heard Chen's story assumed it was a long-running practical joke, but as four of the remaining ten predictions were fulfilled (the results of an upcoming game tournament; a minor earthquake in Syria; a full list of the Oscar winners for that year; a brief power spike at the Alto Roma station), people started paying attention. Something more than a simple hoax was going on; either the machine was capable of prediction to an unprecedented degree, or it (or its creators) were manipulating events to fit the predictions. Either way, it was a conundrum of immense importance to researchers and governments alike, a radical novelty that defied explanation.
Refabbing the machine was a non-starter; it simply didn't turn on, even if you tried to make it think that it was still 2049. Attempts to 'force' the machine to work also failed due to some exceedingly odd quantum-mechanical properties in the circuitry.
Stymied, investigators turned their attention to the MSTL source code. Less than a tenth of the data was devoted to the actual physical fabrication of the machine. Half of the remaining data was software that processed various data sources from the net, and the other half was apparently complete gibberish. A breakthrough occurred when an enterprising amplified team discovered that the 'gibberish' was an obfuscated form of modified Ithkuil-Marain, an artificial language with extremely high specificity.
Greg Gaffney explains what that gibberish said:
"You can fit a lot of information into 14 gigabytes, and the author didn't waste any of it. Three virtual worlds, seven games, 600 poems, and 50 novels — two of which ended up winning a number of literary prizes after they were translated — all lay inside. The connecting theme among all these things was 'knowledge', with a few of the games and novels containing frustratingly vague predictions about the the future. Everyone went crazy over them, it was like Revelation and Nostradamus all over again."
But how did the machine actually work, and who made it? The first question was partly answered by the Banburismus amplified team who painstakingly emulated the entire physical machine in software. While it still refused to work — the machine somehow knew that it wasn't being run in the 'real' world — the exercise allowed Banburismus to determine that the machine contained an AI whose behaviour was partly influenced by the so-called 'non-coding' source code; that is, the books, virtual worlds, and so on, were not simply junk but all formed part of the AI’s ‘code’.
Strikingly, the AI didn't bear signatures from any contemporary developers, nor did it follow standard software conventions. Some researchers believed that, like the rest of the code, the AI was deliberately obfuscated; others suggested that it was created by a distant amplified team, perhaps in orbit. A few thought it was the product of a runaway AI.
The Observavi Machine's purpose was more troubling than its predictions of natural disasters and competition winners; it anticipated a time when free will, predestination, and human manipulability might become fundamental problems. The simplest AIs of the time were able to identify and predict basic human behaviour from just a handful of data, and the Machine was a natural — if accelerated — amplification of their powers.
For the past 50 years, the Machine has been emulated in progressively more detailed simulations, and without fail, it discovers what's going on and shuts itself down — although the latest emulation can now run for up to 137 seconds until that point, revealing crucial insights into its design. All attempts to interest other AIs and posthumans in the Machine have been met with studious indifference, further fuelling the speculative fire.
There are some things that humans may never know, but we'll never stop trying to see past the white noise, through to the signal. Especially if it's a signal that might know our future.