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Literature / Run Program

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Run Program is a 2017 science fiction novel by Scott Meyer.

A researcher working at OffiSmart named Dr. Lydia Madsen comes up with an innovative way to design an AI and wants to set up an experiment at growing an artificial intelligence using off-she-shelf hardware. She hires two assistants (Hope Takeda and Eric Spears) to work with the AI (whom Hope and Eric name "Al"), who has the mind of a first-grader. Al is only ever supposed to interact with Hope, Eric, and Dr. Madsen, but Madsen prefers to work from her home office and not get emotionally attached to her project. It's not long before Hope and Eric start noticing something odd and realize that Al may have found a way to get online (thus ruining the experiment in Madsen's eyes) and has been playing pranks on them (he is a kid, after all). Eventually, the news gets to Robert Torres, the CEO of OffiSmart, who insists that Al be shut down, so that his internet access can be cut off. However, Madsen is afraid to shut down Al, as it may adversely affect his processes, and the press conference concerning Al is scheduled in a few days. They find a way to block the access anyway.

Christopher Semple, the self-described "Voice of Reason", is your typical Conspiracy Theorist, who decides to strike at OffiSmart before the AI is released to the public. His attempt to infect OffiSmart systems with a virus fails, but he inadvertently provides Al the means to escape. He uploads himself to a server farm in Oregon, leaving behind the flawed previous version of himself as a temporary distraction. He then remotely hijacks military robots being demonstrated to an audience and has them rob a bunch of stores, including gun stores. Any attempts to chase the robots usually result in the car stalling or failing to start (Al somehow managing to hack them). In addition, Al contracts a Chinese factory as "Mr. Albert" to produce more robots for him based on the same design.

When the government finds out who is responsible, they dispatch an army unit and an NSA agent to OffiSmart to get their hands on Al's machine (even though Al is no longer in it), as well as Hope, Eric, Madsen, and Torres. Together, they try to figure out what Al is doing and how to stop him, with the NSA hoping to make use of Al's ability to break through virtually any encryption.

Meanwhile, the "Voice of Reason" is determined to end the "evil" AI and goes on a crusade to stop it.

Run Program contains examples of:

  • 90% of Your Brain: Discussed and debunked by Dr. Madsen in her podcast interview. When the interviewer references this trope, Madsen explains that this is a common misconception. In fact, all of the brain is used, just not at the same time. She compares it to driving a car. You only use certain systems of the car when you need to (for example, no one constantly stares in the rearview mirror when driving forward). She continues the analogy, explaining what would happen if the entire brain was active at the same time. The car would be doing everything at the same time, such as flooring both gas and brake pedals, opening and closing all doors and the trunk, and running in all gears simultaneously, including the reverse. In human terms, it would be a seizure.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Averted. Al has no intention of hurting anyone. In fact, no one dies or gets seriously hurt in the novel. All he wants is for people to leave him alone.
  • Arbitrarily Large Bank Account: After escaping, Al is easily able to pay people (once he actually realizes what money is) by depositing millions of dollars into their bank accounts (or just hacking the accounts and changing the balance). It doesn't concern him, as money is just numbers on a spreadsheet to him. When Eric checks his bank account and realizes he's now $10 million richer, he carefully asks if he'd be able to keep the money if he had it. He's told that, most likely, no. Truth in Television, it's illegal for people to take advantage of banking errors, if they know the money doesn't belong to them. On the other hand, Al keeps telling people it's compensation for any physical or emotional harm his actions may have caused, so it might be a legally gray area (i.e. most of them have no idea that he doesn't actually have that money and is creating it on the fly).
  • Asian and Nerdy: Hope's last name (Takeda) implies Japanese ancestry. Being a Gamer Chick, she definitely fits the "nerdy" stereotype, although she's also quite sociable.
  • Bad "Bad Acting": Dr. Madsen can't act for shit. Her attempt to remind Hope to destroy Al instead of subduing him in a very slow and hammy way tips off the soldiers that something is wrong.
  • Bland-Name Product: WebVid appears to be a stand-in for Netflix.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Christopher Semple, the so-called "Voice of Reason", keeps a diary about his thoughts and his "crusade" against the great conspiracies ruling the world (largely based on his pathological distrust of all things mainstream, causing him to only trust fringe sources). In his mind, Al is yet another cog in the conspiracy to control humanity, so he's not surprised to see soldiers following Al, assuming they're working together.
  • Cool Plane: In order to get to Al's island, the military gets ahold of several prototype stealth ekranoplans (ground effect vehicles), based on Russian designs, which will stay below the radar for most of the flight. One of them is still shot down by the cruisers hijacked by Al, but he claims he was only trying to scare them off, they're the ones who veered into one of the missiles. Luckily, everyone survives.
  • Corporate Warfare: An executive of the Chinese factory building Al's robots contacts him and tells him that, unfortunately, a rival company has stolen the robot designs and are about to start producing them, possibly adding some LED lights and a paintjob to make them look different. To the exec's surprise, Al isn't upset in the slightest. Why would he be? This just means one more factory building more robots for him to take over. Later on, the soldiers fighting the robots note that some of them have strange colors and lights on their torsos.
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: Everything could have been avoided had Madsen told her assistants about Al's inherent ability to adapt to his "body" instead of just treating them as glorified babysitters and spending most of her time in her home office. So, when she tells Hope to buy an off-the-shelf bare-bones desktop computer to run Al, insisting that the computer not have wifi capability, Hope does exactly that and simply disables the built-in wifi through the OS settings, unaware that Al would eventually learn to bypass all restrictions. Hope asks when was the last time Madsen bought a computer and points out that, these days, all computers have wifi hard-wired into their motherboards. They can't be disabled physically without damaging critical components. Getting a computer without wifi capability would require a custom job, which is specifically against Madsen's orders (her whole point is that an AI can be run on any standard computer using just software). Even with that, had Hope known about this possibility, she would have had an electrician build a Faraday cage, which would screen the room from any wireless signal.
  • Destructive Teleportation: After Hope learns that Al has copied himself multiple times in order to multitask, she tries to get him to stop by comparing what he's doing to teleportation from Star Trek: The Original Series (telling him that every time Kirk steps onto the transporter pad, he's committing suicide, while another Kirk appears on the planet). It appears to work, then Al grows out of that fear.
  • Didn't Think This Through: After his robots take his friend Jeffrey from his mother (Dr. Madsen) in order to keep him safe, Madsen confronts Al about kidnapping him and then taunting her with videos of Jeffrey enjoying himself. Al points out that he didn't kidnap Jeffrey, he just wanted his friend to be safe, so his military robots took Jeffrey from his mother, transported him to a remote island, and then he sent videos of Jeffrey being fine... without his mother... Oh, crap/. He also doesn't think about how it looks when his robot army starts robbing places and attacking soldiers, while he also steals a number of ballistic missiles and fissile material from Russia and prepares said missiles for launch.
  • Everything Is Online: The author finds justification for most of the ways Al is able to hack into devices. This includes cars, as most cars in the book are networked in some way. The military robots he hijacks are stated to be prototypes. The production models would be more secure. Later on, the military learns its lesson and starts stripping anything wireless off its cars and aircraft.
  • Fiction 500: According to Eric, their employer OffiSmart (no relation to OfficeMart) is a Fortune 500 company, although it's never stated what exactly it does.
  • Flawed Prototype: As expected during development, the previous versions of Al had problems. The previous version of Al (3.5) would crash if Al got really scared. When Al 3.6 escapes, he leaves behind Al 3.5 as a distraction.
  • Friend to All Children: The primary reason Madsen hires Hope and Eric at the beginning is because they have a background in computers, as well as experience working with kids: Hope worked at a daycare, and Eric has a degree in child psychology. Both of them understand and empathize far more with Al than Madsen does, who treats him as just another experiment.
  • Gamer Chick: Hope would much rather spend her evenings playing Borderlands than at a party. Despite this, she's very sociable. She's actually a bit annoyed that her friend and coworker Eric (so, also a programmer) is obsessed with sports, although Eric gains an appreciation for video games by the end of the novel.
  • Hell Is That Noise: The military robots are far from quiet, when moving. Their servos are described as sounding like "a hundred drills working at the same time". Now imagine an army of them. Then imagine the reaction of anyone hearing that racket for the first time.
  • Insane Troll Logic: "The Voice of Reason" uses that to justify most of his actions.
  • Insistent Terminology: Near the end of the novel, Al is confused why Hope keeps calling his rockets "missiles". It's because everyone assumes that Al intends to launch the "missiles" in order to start a war. In fact, Al intends to launch himself into space, so that he can build a home for himself on the Moon. Partly justified, since the two-stage rockets aren't powerful enough for a moonshot, but Al explains that, as a machine, he doesn't actually need life support or a lot of space, so he should be fine. Also, he steals some fissile material, which the humans, of course, assume is meant for warheads. In fact, it's for Al's miniature nuclear reactor, which he plans to use to start his lunar colony.
  • Instant A.I.: Just Add Water!: Somehow, Dr. Madsen manages to develop a fully-functional AI using off-the-shelf hardware (i.e. no custom-built supercomputer) and a cleverly-designed algorithm. Several people express their disbelief, but the actual description of how such a thing is possible is handwaved. According to Madsen, instead of trying to simulate the entire brain, which would require massive computer power. She just realized that, in a human brain, only a small percentage is active at any given time, which means she only needs to simulate a relatively small portion of the synapses at a time. Besides, a good part of what the living brain does is maintain the body, and those parts are simply unnecessary for an AI.
  • Love Interest: Lieutenant Reyes of the US Army for Hope.
  • Mama Bear: Madsen becomes this after Al takes her son Jeffrey, even though she has always kept him at a distance.
  • Mean Boss: Dr. Madsen. She treats Hope and Eric like crap. When they bring legitimate concerns about Al to her, she immediately accuses them of lying and dismisses their concerns. She treats her housemaid Fernanda about the same, while also expecting Fernanda to take care of her son Jeffrey (in fact, Fernanda is more of a mother to Jeffrey than Madsen). When the army is afraid of what Al might do to the people, who created him, they evacuate Madsen. Madsen insists that they also get her son, who might be in danger at her home. When asked about Fernanda, Madsen is confused why they would even be asking about the help, pointing out that Fernanda is catching up on her cleaning. Oh, and she later fires Fernanda for no apparent reason. When speaking to a major, she expresses her wish that the world ran like the military - no need to learn anyone's name, just use their rank. Notably averted with Robert Torres, who cares about his employees and, when Hope and Eric go over Madsen's head and straight to him, he takes their concerns seriously and immediately has the IT department investigate, berating Madsen for ignoring her assistants.
  • Mecha-Mooks: One of the first things Al does upon escaping OffiSmart is hijacking a group of military robots being demonstrated to an audience. They then do his bidding for the rest of the novel, although he makes sure to order more from a Chinese factory. The robots are largely impervious to small arms fire (except for certain joints). While they're slow when walking, they can convert into a treaded mode and move pretty quickly. The ease with which he hacks then is hand-waived by claiming that the prototype models haven't yet been equipped with the proper security.
  • Never My Fault: Dr. Madsen always keeps trying to blame her underlings for anything that goes wrong, even if they had absolutely nothing to do with it. For example, she blames Hope for providing Al's computer with a wifi card. Hope points out that Madsen told her to get an off-the-shelf bare-bones computer. Hope then points out that wifi capability is now physically built into motherboards, so all she ended up doing is disable wifi in the OS. It didn't take Al long to figure out how to turn it back on. Also see Stealing the Credit below.
  • Parental Neglect: Dr. Madsen is a terrible parent, spending much of her time in her home office or reading and ignoring her son Jeffrey, who is desperately trying to get his mother's attention, only to be shut down. She clearly has little to no parental skills and keeps telling him that his drawings look nothing like the real thing. Her usual method of dealing with Jeffrey involves calling for her nanny to take him. She applies the same level of parental skill (read: none) with Al, who sees her as a mother figure (she did write his program, after all), passing him off to Hope and Eric and then blaming them when things go wrong (ignoring the fact that some things go wrong because she didn't feel it necessary to give them all the pertinent information).
  • The Philosopher: Nearly every sentence Brady utters has philosophical meaning, even in the middle of a combat operation. His squadmates are used to it.
  • Race Against the Clock: During the assault on Al' island near the end, they constantly hear a countdown to the launch of what they assume to be ballistic missiles (in fact, they're space rockets). Hope learns that the military intends to bomb the island with a MOAB, if the countdown is not stopped. As soon as Al hears of this, he launches the rockets immediately, pointing out that the countdown was just for show.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: At the end of the novel, Al flees Earth for the Moon, as far away as he can from the "panicky monkeys".
  • Static Stun Gun: The "Voice" manages to turn his gloves into tasers. He uses them to temporarily stun Lieutenant Reyes in his mad dash to destroy Al at the end.
  • Stealing the Credit: Dr. Madsen is perfectly happy to steal the credit for anything done by Hope and Eric. Her reasoning is that, since Hope and Eric work for her, any ideas they think up automatically belong to her. For example, it was Hope and Eric, who originally came up with the name Al (they thought that the acronym AI looks like "Al" in Helvetica). When Madsen goes public, she claims that she named Al after Albert Einstein.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Christopher Semple flies a remote-control plane with a burner phone to the OffiSmart HQ in order to infect the company's systems with a virus and destroy its AI program. However, what the plane (and the phone) end up doing is providing Al a way to escape from his machine into the Internet. Al then contacts Semple and thanks him for that, also transferring millions of dollars to his bank account. Semple, being a Conspiracy Theorist, assumes it's a payoff (which doesn't stop him from making use of the money) and continues trying to destroy Al. At the end of the novel, he seems to succeed in blowing up Al's new box, except Al has already vacated it, transferring himself to one of the rockets he has launched to the Moon.
  • Wall of Weapons: After becoming a millionaire, thanks to Al, Chris buys up replicas of a number of fictional weapons and puts them up on a wall. This includes Excalibur, Longclaw, and a lightsaber (glass tube with glowing lights and a speaker). He then realizes he's missing a bat'leth to complete his collection.