Friday, September 30, 2011

Damage Control

Sagittarius 1, m0039, continued.

When the organic members awake, the team decide that testing will need a fairly sizeable box to hold the materials they acquire, confining and isolating it. Florence, who is used to scrounging up odds and ends, is sent off with an emissions nanobug (patched through to Dougal) and told to find something of the order of a metre cube with no detectable electronic behaviours of its own. She succeeds, and drops the box off in the team's rented apartment. Then they all go shopping for, essentially, fancy tat - a good assortment of cheap items with identifiable VKVLM packaging. It helps when they work out how to persuade shops' systems to generate an augmented reality layer with products from known VKVLM customers highlighted. Florence also takes the chance to pick up some things she considers worth wearing, on expenses - her keen eye for fashion helps - while Jianwei handles the purchasing process.

Back to the apartment again, a session of busy unwrapping follows, with packaging materials being diligently tossed into the box. Then Vajra puts surveillance dust on the inside of its lid, and the other two decide that it's time for lunch. In fact, Dougal talks Florence through the process of cooking a passable meal using foodstuffs and ingredients that they've just acquired. As they eat, though, Vajra picks up sounds of movement in the box. Unfortunately, his dust has no IR capability, so Florence drills a small hole and observes through her gunsight camera. There are indeed definite, even dynamic, signs of self-organisation in the packing materials.

This looks like some kind of countermeasures are needed, so the team's AIs look at online documentation related to programming VKVLM processors and systems. The company themselves evidently regard this sort of thing as proprietary, but Vajra and Aunty find some hobbyist materials-hacker sites, mostly with information carried in from the Earth Web. Dougal, the team's chief computer operations specialist, looks at these, although he becomes a little twitchy at what he sees - the people involved are evidently the sort to skirt the fringes of formal legality, bypassing software security locks whenever possible, and he is, after all, an AI with proper honesty programming. He is persuaded to carry on, and he also looks more at VKVLM's own site, but that seems to be rather evasively verbose when one looks at all deeply at matters of security.

Dougal does conclude that VKVLM materials can be induced to communicate with other items using the same architecture over distances of a metre or two using their short-range radio capabilities, and unauthorised reprogramming may propagate this way. This leads him to use that nanobug to search for emissions in and out of the box - and he quickly locates a cheap energy food bar which Florence had almost forgotten she has had in her pocket for some time. Or rather, he locates its VKVLM packaging, which is active and probably infected.

It looks like the viral code is now trying to spread, and Dougal provisionally diagnoses this as an occurrence of something referred to on the Web as Self-Organising Malware Phenomenon 3, or SOMP-3 for short. It definitely looks as though the processor monoculture caused by VKVLM's market dominance in Bako is allowing it to propagate uniquely well, though. So Jianwei puts a personal call into the local VKVLM offices to warn them about the problem. He quickly gets past the AI receptionists and finds himself talking to Eugene B'Kosa, the company's branch manager. B'Kosa becomes very detectably nervous when told of the problem, and says that he'll investigate and call back in ten minutes.

While the team are waiting, Jianwei checks the news feeds out of habit, and spots a note on the Bako local feeds about some local shops shutting their doors and closing unexpectedly, for reasons that are currently unclear. The team promptly puts a call through to the Bako Corporation, where someone correlates what they say with a series of alerts coming through from their own Computer Issues department. They know that there's a problem, and words like "cancertech" catch their attention, but they hadn't yet noticed the association with VKVLM products. The responsible department asks the team to meet them at a downtown location, in person.

So the Europeans head out. The address they've been given is within walking distance, and in fact Florence decides to run there, without bothering with an air mask. (Her metabolism has no problems handling this, especially as she's well fed at present.) The Bako corporate cop on the tape responds favourably when she arrives, and she ends up talking to the police Computer Problems specialist, acting as a mouthpiece for the rest of the team in the few minutes before they arrive. As this expert soon notes that VKVLM are being smoothly cagey about this incident, he listens with interest to what the Europeans have to say. What he has to worry about is runaway unexpected behaviour by packaging and wrapping in several shops around Bako; items which are merely supposed to keep themselves tidy and well-presented on the shelves are shifting and flickering in an unnerving fashion.

He can tell the team exactly which shops are affected (although the number increases by one as he talks), and Jianwei runs an analyst's trained eye over the map. Two of them are places which Florence visited that morning; by excluding those, he can see that the other half-dozen are linked by the sort of back-alley access ways that the new garbage collection cybershells use for daytime auxiliary collections. He immediately alerts the Corporation agents and police - the cybershells have likely somehow become a transmission vector. The Corporation respond to this, sending a signal that makes all those shells stop what they are doing and go park themselves outside of town.

The team now have enough information to allow Dougal and Vajra to collaborate on a simple ad hoc fix for this problem. They know which radio frequencies the materials use to communicate and which ports they must be leaving open to allow propagation, and the simple architecture involved should be easy enough to overload or saturate. Dougal specifies a signal pattern that can be transmitted through the medium-range communicator that Vajra has available, and Florence volunteers to carry the unit into the shop, where Dougal can trigger it.

The authorities are happy enough to try this, although their technicians suggest that Florence should carry as little digitally active material with her as possible, to avoid possible contamination or other accidents. (By now, the team have unavoidably had to acknowledge that Florence may have been responsible for infecting at least two of those shops...) When one of the technicians asks, perhaps flippantly, if Florence's underwear is sentient, she reacts by stripping off all her clothes - which, of course, doesn't exactly leave her naked, given the density of her Mars-appropriate fur. Then she picks up the transmitter, walks into the shop, puts it down again, and steps back. Dougal sends a trigger signal - and all the twitching, shuffling, and flickering products on the shelves go inert. Dougal follows up by sending another signal that puts them into inactive "shipping mode" before the infection can reboot.

So now, she just has to repeat the exercise for each infected shop. Finding herself the focus of multiple visible cameras (never mind how many less visible systems may be tracking her), she amuses herself on the walk between each place by posing as she goes. Meanwhile, Vajra and Jianwei leave her to that job and locate the parked garbage collection shells. A little time and skilled use of electronics locates the source of the problem - lengths of active packing tape that have wrapped themselves round two of the shells' axles. By the time they're done removing that, Florence is on the way back to their apartment to disable the experimental samples.

The team and the local experts now know a bit more about SOMP-3.It seems that , given time and sufficient processing power, this digital virus advances to increasing levels of complexity and self-organisation. It's a clever, possibly self-modifying design, but in the wild on Earth, it never progressed beyond its third level of complexity. Here in Bako, it seems to have managed five or six levels. Also, when the team disturbed it in the rubbish pits, they unknowingly triggered a built-in emergency response; it shifted from local self-organisation to a series of behaviours, digital and physical, that made it more likely to be spread more widely. What more the unknown South African hacker who created it made it capable of is unknown.

However, the team now have a new problem; by late afternoon, Jianwei, watching the news feeds, realises that VKVLM are emphasising the "human transmission vector" aspect of the event. It seems that the company, or at least B'Kosa, are seeking to divert as much blame as possible from themselves - which means pinning some of it on the Europeans. Jianwei quickly improvises a counter-campaign, built around recordings from the dump. Then he calls B'Kosa and politely but forcefully persuades him that the current VKVLM line could provoke the release of a lot more imagery of VKVLM products in full cancertech mode. Thus, when Ambassador Schmidt calls a few minutes later, Jianwei is able to tell her that the memetic problem that she too has spotted is now under control. Even if the news feeds are now full of yet more pictures of Florence.

Sagittarius 2-3, m0039.

The problem thus seems to be under control, and Florence is able to hit the bars of Bako (sometimes no more dressed than she was on those news pictures) to exploit her new fifteen minutes of fame. The rest of the team sit back and leave the clear-up to the town's numerous computer experts. However, Dougal alerts them to one consistent, somewhat unexpected factor in many of the reports; pictures of a visiting Peruvian team of emergency-response experts. Jianwei looks at this reporting, and concludes that there a subtle propagandist aspect; the team looks subtly but distinctly too good on camera, pressing too many buttons. (There may even be some well-planned cosmetic surgery involved.) He alerts E.U. Intelliegence, whose analysts agree; it seems that "Quipu" may be exploiting this opportunity. But it's being subtle about it, so there's not much to be done, for now.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cleaning Up the Streets

April 26-27, m0039.

The team hire apartment hotel space, booking for a week at a time, and begin to explore the local culture in Bako when they aren't monitoring Adam-4's slow progress towards mental integrity or performing routine embassy work in VR. Indeed, things go unremarkably for the next day or two.

April 28, m0039.

Then, around noon on the 28th, one of the embassy LAIs suggests to Jianwei that, as the team are in Bako for a few days, they might as well look at a low-priority issue which does require personal, on-the-spot investigation. In fact, it's something which Jianwei recalls seeing a few days ago, when he agreed with that assessment. As the LAI comments, though, they may be able to save an E.U. company some money and trouble - perhaps even a full-blown court case - while they're there.

The issue is a contractual dispute between the Bako Corporation, the non-profit holding company which manages the urban infrastructure of Bako, and Turino Sistemi, a European hardware systems company. The Corporation appear to believe that some equipment which Turino sold them is persistently failing to perform to specification, and want an engineer on site to fix the problem; Turino are equally insistent that, according to its logs, the equipment is demonstrably working fine, so any engineer visit would have to be billed on a cost-plus basis - which the Corporation won't sign off. Turino have requested consular advice.

Jianwei agrees to tackle the problem and receives a set of files from the embassy. These are brief and phrased in very general terms, so he contacts Turino, discovering that their only Martian office is over in New Shanghai, and speaks to their local manager, one Paolo Corsini. Faced with an offer to solve this persistent nuisance-level problem, Corsini is happy to cooperate with the team, even when Jianwei tactfully makes it clear that the embassy is a neutral party and will report whatever they discover to both sides. Once he has Jianwei's standard assurance of confidentiality, Corsini transmits not only a much larger set of files but also a NAI, T-Epsilon-K, with specific technical expertise - though frankly, T-Epsilon-K doesn't seem to be much more than a good technical manual with a user-friendly front end.

Wading through this new information with the aid of their AIs and specialist training, the team discover that the problem involves ... garbage. Turino sold Bako a new garbage disposal/management and street-cleaning system (replacing an earlier ad hoc set-up), involving automated waste collection and street sweeper shells. Working mostly at night, these take the waste they pick up to a set of pits a few hundred metres outside town, where it can be sorted and processed at leisure by specialised microbot swarms (although it turns out that this part of the process isn't really running yet). But, according to the Corporation, the system isn't working.

Further reading shows that the problem boils down to management of the pits. The Corporation thinks that Turino's system is managing them badly, and has extensive pictures of a mess around them to prove it; Turino says that their logs show no evidence of malfunction by their shells, and have images from the shells' camera systems to back this up. The pictures are, to a casual glance at least, inconsistent.

Jianwei calls the Bako Corporation, and speaks to Steve Kobala, their contracts manager. He is prickly at first, clearly assuming that the embassy will side with their fellow Europeans, but Jianwei knows how to handle bureaucrats, and works past this suspicion and the cultural barrier to convince Kobala that the Europeans will be reasonable and fair. This is fortunate, as the team need his clearance for their plan - which is simply to visit the dump and observe it closely to see what's happening.

With permission for this acquired, they acquire some cheap but serviceable cameras, a tent and other camping gear, and some folding seats. They head for the dump by rented cab, aiming to arrive long enough before nightfall and set up some equipment.

Once Jianwei has helped Florence get the hang of erecting a high-tech tent, she and Vajra enter the dump site (Kobala having told the site management systems that they are authorised for access) and begin placing cameras - Florence shins up some fence posts to place them for the best possible view. While there, they note that the site seems quite tidy - but there are a couple of low-end janitor shells around, who have had all day to tidy away any overnight mess.

Vajra also puts an aerostat surveillance swarm into the air to provide a different view of the site, and Jianwei makes tea a for the two organic Europeans. Then, the team settles down to watch what transpires.

The various cybershells which run the site begin working, and all seem to be performing to specification. So, eventually, the team settle down for the night; Florence goes to sleep, but Jianwei watches for a while, before deciding to leave the unsleeping Vajra to his own devices. Well, at least Vajra has Aunty for company (as well as Samadhi); Florence has put Dougal into a sleep state to keep him out of trouble.

Sagittarius 1, m0039.

It is some time in the early hours of the morning that the watching Vajra spots something curious, and wakes Jianwei before instructing his aerobot swarm to go in for a closer look. Bringing up and enhancing the imagery, they determine that something is pushing rubbish out of three of the pits. The pits have flexible fabric covers to provide basic retention as the level of rubbish rises towards ground level, but the edges of these are rising occasionally as odds and ends are expelled.

Jianwei and Vajra wake Florence, and then Vajra sends a crawler swarm into the site for a yet closer look. Vajra's instruments also detect a pervasive electronic "smog" in the area - nothing exceptional in 2100, but a higher density of short-range traffic than would usually be expected in such a location. Vajra moves his flying swarm in for a view from above, but all they can pick up is a few signs of motion.

The team don environment suits, reckoning that this is a worthwhile extra protection for various purposes that they have in mind and against various possible causes for this phenomenon (and not just against the smell, which honestly isn't a major consideration in the current Martian atmosphere). Then Florence goes into the dump site carrying a surveillance worm. It soon turns out that the peculiar movements within the dump stop when there is large-scale motion nearby - as Florence approaches the pits, they calm down. So she drops the worm and backs off. Meanwhile, the other two have been making some checks, and have confirmed that there are no garbage-sorter microbot swarms supposed to be active in those pits at this time.

As the team monitor its signal, the surveillance worm enters a pit. It is Vajra who works out what follows; some of the assorted packaging materials which make up a large proportion of the garbage have some limited motile capability (which is quite normal in 2100), and they are using it to eject other items. In fact, the worm is quite quickly ensnared by a length of gift wrap ribbon and forced back out the way it came.

The team decide that they need a sample. By coincidence, at this moment, a garbage truck shell arrives on the site, which Florence uses as cover as she moves right next to a pit. Then she waits for it to leave, and once it's gone, she raises the edge of the cover and starts rummaging around inside. At this point, the packaging materials demonstrate that they also retain the common ability to change colour and even generate a degree of illumination; they start strobing rapidly.

Florence flinches back, and Jianwei, who was watching the screen too closely, is blinded for a few moments. (Cheap civilian gear has limited user vision protection!) But Florence retains enough presence of mind to grab blindly for some of the active rubbish, and comes away triumphant with a length of gift ribbon. Then, as a further experiment, she opens another pit - and manages to turn her head and close her eyes in time as that, too, begins to flicker wildly.

So then, she leaves the dump and hands the ribbon over to Vajra. ("I didn't know you cared," Vajra comments.) Some team efforts, using their wide range of skills, generate a clue as to what's going on. The ribbon is a product of a company named VKVLM Ltd. - but then, so is a lot of packaging and wrapping material found in Bako. On the other hand, none of the material being ejected from the pit is VKVLM product. It appears that VKVLM are an African-based company with a good line in culturally-attuned products, who by dint of good timing, have established something of a monopoly in this town. They also use a rather standardised processor architecture for all their semi-intelligent materials. Hence, a virus or contagious behaviour which happens to be adapted or designed for that architecture, capable of spreading through its very-short-range wireless networking features, can spread throughout the rubbish pits.

The semi-technical term for this sort of phenomenon is "cancertech". The team comment to each other that there may be an interesting legal case coming up here, when various parties decide what grounds they have for suing each other. For now, though, they decide to go back to sleep (well, two of them do) and conduct more research in the morning. But first, Florence, in a moment of whimsy, decides on one last self-indulgence.

Making sure that her protective nanoweave costume is secure, she wanders over to one of the pits, opens the cover again, turns her back - and deliberately falls backwards into the rubbish, to see how well it supports her. The answer turns out to be "not especially well", but as she sinks down through the strobing rubbish, Vajra, watching through his cameras, realises that there are more or less geometrical structures in the layers deeper in the pit. It seems that the VKVLM material is physically self-organising - presumably optimising the ability of the components to network with each other in the process.

Anyway, Florence clambers out of the pit before the rubbish can reconfigure itself (and maybe encyst her), and Vajra lends her a cleaner swarm to add to her own so that she can clean herself up. She slink-logged this experience, but Jianwei tells her not to upload the recording anywhere yet; best to keep this matter quiet for now. The team also briefly take shovels and dig into the pit, confirming Vajra's sighting of patterns and structures.

Then, they finally retire for the rest of the night. Their plan for the next morning is to go shopping, pick up some more VKVLM-made packaging materials, and conduct a few experiments with it.