Mohammed glanced nervously around his father’s beautiful wood-lined library. There were thousands of books there, covering everything from Islamic law to military theory. And hanging from every available surface where and graphs he had scrawled out in fits of energy. There was nobody else in the room. Nonetheless, all around him, he could hear voices. The voices were insistent. Some were whispering conspiratorially. Some were shouting. But all together, they delivered a cacophony of sound. It was more voices than Mohammed had ever heard before. He found himself frightened that he would not be able to hear them all.
Mohammed had grown up a blessed young man. He’d gone to the best military academies in Lahore. His father, already a 45-year-old Colonel in the Pakistani military when Mohammed was born, had secured a majestic house with extensive gardens in the magical Mayo Gardens. They had come as close to the pinnacle of Pakistani society as it was safe to do.
Mohammed himself was an unusual child. He was good-looking and well-mannered. But, more importantly, he was a brilliant student. By the first grade, he had demonstrated such an aptitude for mathematics and logic that he had been pulled from the school normally attended by the children of Lahore’s elite and placed into a special academy meant to train the minds which would empower Pakistan in generations to come. He moved from his home then, giving a tearful goodbye to his parents. But even at that young age, he felt something else. It was akin to pride. He knew, from that point on, not only that his life would be dedicated to Pakistan but that in some way, his country needed him.
The Pakistani education system emphasizes narrowly focused technical training. Like many countries, educators feel they didn’t have time for dalliances with political theory or literature. They need people to fill roles in society, not flit from place to place. Mohammed was no exception. The government had identified what they believed was the future of technology: Artificial Intelligence. Mohammed, like all of his gifted classmates, was brought up to excel in this new field. He worked hard, but so did others. What was set him apart was his raw intelligence and the sense of purpose that drove him. He wasn’t simply clamoring for the approbation of his teachers, he was dedicated to his mission and he understood the importance of that dedication.
And he was successful. By the age of twelve he was brought in to consult on Pakistan’s nuclear program. Shortly after his sixteenth birthday, he was asked to observe cabinet-level meetings held by the military brass. They, not the civilian government, held the true reins of power.
With time, Mohammed grew not only to understand the importance of his work, but to love it. He not only loved the individual jobs he was assigned, he loved the mission. Pakistan was the vanguard of true Islam. With two hundred million people, it was a bulwark against the idol worship of India and the secularism of China. He – the technical spear-point of Pakistan’s next generation – was a key part of a holy mission. He could imagine no higher calling and he thanked All-h for blessing him with his opportunities.
And then, less than a year later, everything changed: Mohammed heard a voice that wasn’t there.
Mohammed had been riding in the back of a Land Rover Defender, the rugged and brutal-looking trucks that ferried the leadership of the country everywhere they went, when he heard somebody speaking to him. He looked, but nobody was there. And then he listened. And the voice continued to speak. He could see nothing, but he knew the voice was real. It was as real as the shirt he was wearing.
Unbeknownst to him, the process had started.
Bit by bit, Mohammed’s behavior became more and more erratic. He did try to understand what was happening; he felt it was important. On one level, he denied the supernatural. As he explained it to himself, his brain was just different from other people’s. Other people organized their thoughts while sleeping, and kept their self-conscious machinations buried deep within them while awake. Mohammed’s brain simply gave reality to that process. His brain gave life, real-world life, to his deepest processes of analysis and understanding. He had externalized what most felt as deeply internal – if they felt it at all. It was, in a way, simply an evolution for him. He was so dedicated to the world around him that his mind became a part of it. Of course, with his subconscious speaking to him through these voices, he had to pay attention to them; if he did not he would stumble in his efforts to understand.
But the voices sometimes told him a different story; a story that built on his sense of purpose. It was a story of greatness beyond what he imagined before. Mohammed knew that all men could be inspired by G-d or challenged by evil. But where others received the gifts of the angels, the challenges of demons, and the guidance of G-d as an incomprehensible rush of creative energy or dark depression, he could receive such gifts explicitly.
The voices told him that he was a Prophet – able to speak with All-h himself in the fullness of his consciousness. And he believed them. He knew, although he made light-hearted attempts to deny it, that the voices were not just his thoughts, they were his destiny.
As time progressed, his illness became more obvious. But by bit, Mohammed was excluded from more and more sensitive activities. He was prescribed medications by doctors truly reluctant to see his decline. Mohammed took the medicines they gave him. But then he realized they killed the voices. He was a Prophet and he could allow no medication to take that away.
Before long, Mohammed had been kicked out of school. And, after over a decade away from home, he was returned to his father’s stone mansion in the Mayo Gardens. He barely knew his parents and they barely knew him. But that was almost irrelevant. Mohammed felt he had lost himself. G-d had abandoned him.
Mohammed sunk into depression. He found himself spending ever more time in his father’s library, seeking answers. He thought he was communing with the voices. But others only saw a young man staring into nothingness and listening to something that was not there. But for him, the voices were there. And, as the months passed, they finally revealed to him that he still had hope. He still had a mission.
He was to do something even greater than he could have in the halls of power.
The key, the voices told him, was his computer.
At their guidance, Mohammed began to explore the virtual world. He was searching for his place in the world.
That was where he was gripped by the story of the Uyghur province and Kashgar City. That was where the actions of the Chinese government began to tear at his soul. He read about the facial recognition systems used to identify people again and again as they went about their days. He read about the profiling that restricted the movement of ethnic minorities. He read about the scanning of cell phones by police conducting random stops. He read about cameras the government required every business to install on its premises. He read about police posts placed every few hundred yards in restive neighborhoods. He read about population forms requiring all citizens to report how often they prayed or traveled and giving them a rating based on a government assessment. And he read about the ‘study and training’ centers into which thousands had disappeared.
Mohammed read, and Mohammed interpreted. He heard the voices telling him that the Chinese, communist materialists, were the enemies of Islam. And he heard the voices telling him that the Chinese, consuming lands from the borders of the Philippines to Tibet, were going to consume Pakistan itself.
As he studied more, he saw businesses in his country taking Chinese payoffs. He saw Imams ignoring the threats. And he saw government officials allying themselves with their true enemy in order to restrict the ambitions of India. He saw a threat nobody else saw. He began to believe the state had rejected him because they knew he would be a threat to the foreign infection.
Mohammed knew, despite his exile from the halls of power, that he was not powerless. He lived in the Mayo Gardens – the home of no small fraction of Pakistan’s military elite. And so, one day, he walked into the street and approached his neighbors – all Colonels and Generals in the army. He shared his theories, rambling and jumping from topic to topic. And they dismissed him as unstable and unbalanced.
He grew in frustration and anger. He cursed the Chinese. He cursed the Generals who would not act. And then he cursed the military police who forced him back to his home.
The voices him then that the Chinese had to be stopped. They told him that only he could stop them.
His parents, seeing no other option, locked him into the library and barred the windows on the connected bathroom. A servant delivered his food. But, they did not take away his computer. They did not deny him the opportunity to do what he must.
And so, Mohammed began to work. Over the coming year, within the confines his library, he designed a distributed AI platform. It was difficult for him. He had a hard time holding onto threads of thought. But, bit by bit, he managed his task. In a way, his work was superior because he had such a hard time concentrating. Rather than trying to micromanage the intelligence he was building, he was forced to allow it to develop on its own. AIs are not logical; Mohammed’s own lack of logical control only seemed to empower the computerized brains he was developing.
The neural network framework he designed was meant to act across distributed computers, globally. He modeled it after his own mind, communicating slowly from distributed locations rather than accomplishing everything within a central core. It would be robust and secure, although slower and less intuitive than a concentrated group of processors. But it would be open to outside information in a way most AIs were not.
As he studied what he had built, he knew his system was hungry for a core mind. And so he set it to work to penetrate the supercomputer capacity of his own nation. He would use the computers that had been dedicated to Pakistan’s nuclear program for this even greater mission. He hijacked his own nation’s capacities.
And then he turned the minds he was creating to the task of undermining Chinese information systems. Where traditional computer viruses were like simple biological weapons, infecting those who were not immune, his AIs were like a contagious cancer – constantly and aggressively adapting to new environments. Within months, he had penetrated every critical database in the Chinese security architecture.
And then he let vengeance have its dreams. He could not simply destroy the systems, he had to destroy the people. He knew this. And so his AIs identified key people in the national security apparatus. They developed a new Directorate, ostensibly meant to eliminate internal security threats. And they created methods of disposing of the enemies of Islam and the Uyghur people. It was simple really. The enemies of All-h would be given a new posting, in some new place. And along the way, the new Directorate would arrest them. And then, they would vanish.
But Mohammed was too clever to stop with vengeance. His systems began to identify promising young Muslims, particularly those who looked Han; from Chinese data. He imagined their delight, their sense of opportunity, when they found themselves removed from the lists of rebels and given high security clearances – and placed in key roles in the security infrastructure. They, long oppressed, would feel as he had when he left home in the first grade. They would know that they had a holy mission, one they could finally begin to execute.
Mohammed was deeply proud of what he had done. China had to rely on computers and databases and facial recognition to manage their modern police state. As a result, the great mass of the system’s middle management was, once people were shifted from province to province, largely anonymous. Mohammed would take China’s greatest strength, its mass of people and its dependence on records, and make it its greatest weakness. He would use the nearly 1.4-billion-person population of China against itself.
There was one more system to build. He needed a grand strategist. He needed an AI to execute everything. He was not capable of doing it himself. The strategist would decide when to condemn and when to raise up. It would weigh the reactions of others. It would act so that those at the very top wouldn’t know what was going on until it was too late. Mohammed worked diligently. He trained the AI in intense simulations; it cultivated its skills practicing against copies of itself.
But it had not been deployed. Not yet. It had not been ready.
But now, Mohammed is sitting in the library, ready to fire his final weapon into the thoroughly comprised Chinese system. And the voices are clamoring for attention. Some cry out for him to stop. Others demand that he continue. Some sing, praising All-h and the work Mohammed has accomplished. But they are simply a rush of cacophony.
So Mohammed, for the first time in years, closes his eyes and covers his ears in a desperate attempt to lock them out. And then, he dashes one hand from his left ear towards his keyboard and presses the button that will set everything into motion.
And just like that, the room is silenced.
Mohammed expects things to go slowly. But Mohammed’s strategic AI does not act as he’d expected. It carries out one replacement and then realizes the human minds in the organization will see what was going on. It realizes it needs to act quickly. So, it changes tactics. It fires all of its guns at once.
Mohammed’s new Directorate doesn’t have enough staff to dispose of the Mohammed’s targets all at once. And so, the system sets department against department, using some to arrest and dispose of others. Entire offices are swept off the street in mass collections as the internal security forces feed on themselves. The new Directorate sweeps in the next day, when only fragments of a recently vast infrastructure, remain.
And within 24 hours, the internally security services of the People’s Republic of China are gone.
In his room, Mohammed watches the progress. He watches the machines working against their masters. And he watches the Chinese reaction. And, he knows that he has succeeded. He has rescued the Muslim Uyghur. He has rescued Pakistan. He has used technology to critically wound the Chinese dragon. He has fulfilled his purpose.
But, within days, the news shifts. The People’s Liberation Army’s IT force determines developers based in the prestigious Mayo Gardens are at fault. They determine Pakistani supercomputers have been leveraged in the attacks. With this, the Chinese knows there is top-level support for the attack.
Mohammed sees the risk. He realizes the error of failing to act against the Army. He redirects his AIs at this new target. But in less than a day, the army has learned not to trust their own computers.
Mohammed has slowed the Chinese, separating them from their vast automated systems. He has permanently wounded them; crippling their information infrastructure. But he does not – and cannot – halt what is destined to happen next.
He cannot stop the retaliation.
When the revenge-filled Chinese soldiers finally reach his house, they marvel at his library. It is covered in diagrams and sketches that seemed to have no logic to them. They realize then that he is the source of their troubles. And they are astounded by what he has created. They are astounded by what he, a lone man under the constant barrage of mental illness, has accomplished.
They are astounded, but he just sits there, surrounded by voices.
Some shout in anger, some wail in mourning, some cry out in pain.
The Chinese try to wake him, to interrogate him, to understand how he has done what he has done. They want to mimic his efforts. They want to learn from his incredible accomplishments.
But he cannot help them. They are the enemies of Islam and of what used to Pakistan. And so, he just sits there, locked in mourning for a country he had once loved. He sits there, locked in mourning at the loss of Islam’s bulwark against atheist materialism and the idol worship of India.
He sits there, as the voices slowly go silent. He sits there, growing in the understanding that his greatest work has destroyed his greatest love.
He sits there trying desperately to accept the hidden plans of the Almighty.
But he finds no acceptance. He finds no understanding.
He just sits there, disappearing into a silent world that is all his own.
Parshat Balack stands alone in the Torah. Almost the entire reading is told from the perspective of other people looking in on the progress of the Jewish people. The reading opens with the following words:
And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many; and Moab was overcome with dread because of the children of Israel. And Moab said unto the elders of Midian: ‘Now will this multitude lick up all that is round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field.’
This people, the ones whose eyes we are looking through, are scared of the Children of Israel. The Moabites are farmers and the Midianites more spiritual shepherds. They see the Israelites as a barbarian horde who kills entire populations. The Israelites spread fear and disgust. We consume the greenery of the field, leaving nothing for others to live on.
Others see modern China in a similar light. They see them as expansionist and aggressive and all-consuming. They see China laying claim to territory beyond their legitimate borders – and beyond the borders they claim to seek through their definition of ‘historical’ China. This claim can be wide (I met a Chinese woman at a trade show who explained that Hungary belonged to China). But there are places they do not claim. Just as Moab and Midian are outside Israel’s claim, Pakistan is outside China’s (I think).
But the uncertainty of who the targets are leaves Moab and Midian in mortal fear. There is a failure of messaging. In fear, they call on a Prophet Bilaam, to curse the people. But they order the prophet around. They don’t invite him to come (as even police do). Instead, they tell him to go. He accepts this disrespect (despite G-d telling him he can only go if they ask him to come.) So, G-d mocks him, disrespecting him supernaturally and ensuring G-d Himself is not disrespected alongside his Prophet. And when Bilaam seeks to manipulate G-d, G-d flips the tables and manipulates him. G-d shows who is truly in command.
Just like Mohammed, the people of Moab and Midian are frustrated in their attempt to turn the tables on the Children of Israel. But they have a hint of a resolution in Bilaam’s second parable:
Behold a people that rises up as a lioness, and as a lion doth he lift himself up; he shall not lie down until he eat of the prey (traif), and drinks the blood of the slain.
Midian must realize that this is a recipe for defeating the people. G-d may not break with them, but they can break from G-d. So, they try something new. They decide to manipulate the people, not G-d. They send their women to engage in worship of Ba’al Peor (literally ‘Master/G-d of Exposure’). And they succeed, fundamentally weakening the people and permanently damaging their relationship to G-d.
But, tragically, their action unleashes the very war they feared. Midian was not a target, but it finds itself utterly eliminated by the Children of Israel. Their actions unleash a war of destruction that was never intended or necessary. Of course, Israel loses as well. The worship of Ba’al Peor forever removes the direct relationship between G-d and the people. Just as the Chinese in the story lose the power of their technology, we lose the power of our connection to the divine.
All in all, it is a tragedy. But it is also a lesson for us today. We can succeed, but if we do not make our objectives and the reasons behind them clear, our very success can generate unnecessary enemies. These enemies may not defeat us, but they can undermine the vitality of our people.