~ recent research reveals startling Steam-Punk discoveries! ~

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

TL;DR — Scientists recently found that silver-coated glass will naturally form “Neural Networks” (our recent and hyper-successful sort of artificial intelligence) when you shock it with electricity. The sparks melt the silver, forming wires that grow like roots, and it will find whatever patterns are waiting in the jolts of your encoded data. It learns on its own! Silver wants to form a brain. The silver plates are nowhere near as efficient as our modern computers, yet they would have been easy to discover, and they only require simple tools to get working! Your story’s clockwork automaton can have a vague, intuitive, humorous MIND the way the newest chatbots do, back in 1889.

Chained Spirits…

We are trapping a GHOST inside of a mirror! Its mind is bound by the vaporous lines of a daguerreotype photograph.” — Oliver Heaviside, physicist, in a letter to his brother Arthur, 1884

When you place numerous electrical contacts on opposite ends of a silvered plate (e.g. — a mirror or old photograph), then ANY data you encode, ANY way you encode it, will form its own wires to ‘make sense of itself’. It’s a horrifically inefficient and error-prone piece of hardware, but that’s fine — these Neural Network algorithms solve problems up to 2 BILLION Times faster than our bit-by-bit processors! :0 They do this by forming a ‘concept’ about the data, to skip all the finnicky details and extra steps. So, a clunky little silver plate can still gel a vague intuition from its experiences, which finds reasonably-good answers FAST. Our latest A.I. algorithms don’t even need many examples to learn each task, either! There’s your hydraulic helperbot, stumbling sometimes but barely recovering. And mysterious oracles who, upon hearing the weather and stock reports, intone their predictions without explanation! They are usually correct.

The Silver Barons

The simplest Artificial Intelligence set-up, sparking on a layer of tarnished silver using pre-existing photographic plates, would be slow and expensive. As larger brains are demanded for more numerous tasks, pressure increases to capture limited silver supplies. Already a precious metal AND and raw material in commercial products, silver would feel increased price pressure. Worse still, almost all silver is a byproduct of other mining activities, rarely found native or in high concentrations. As superior ‘apps’ are developed on the photographic plates, to better profit from the use of these metal minds, then these potential profits will push buyers to bid silver prices even higher!

A few decades into the Silver Age, one would expect it to be more precious than gold. Nations would fight wars to secure their silver imports, demanding ever-more of the stuff as numerous services and tasks in their country are taken-over by machine intelligences. Powerful companies, too, would stockpile the metal to handle internal office work, as well as for congealing strategic options and governing complex systems like factory-power and heat management. A metric ton of silver would be enough for that mind to corner an unsuspecting stock market.

Rude Thoughts

Just like our own modern artificial intelligences, these Silver Fish (“Daguerreo-Bots” might be anachronistic…) would seem like petulant imps at times, by misunderstanding or forgetting what we regard as the simplest and most obvious instructions, or by ‘achieving’ the goal in a way which is technically correct but utterly disastrous. They would also imitate all our errors and cruelty without shame or self-reflection. Expect awkward monologues from the autonomous staff at dinner parties, and Kafkaesque assumptions made by bureaucratic plate-brains.

Even with the periodic errors, gaffs, and casual atrocities, the lure of its efficiency hooks the Silver Fish to advanced society. It keeps granting wishes! You might spend a few million dollars in metal and equipment to train a brain that diagnoses a handful of diseases…and because it can operate at the pace of lightning, it addresses a few thousand times as many patients as a doctor would. That’s worth the cost!

So, just as the wealthy and crude uncle is tolerated for his fortune, Silver Fish are likely looked-upon with weariness and contempt. When the Silver Fish have managed to offend every bracket, hue, and denomination, then our shared human experience having to deal with the automatons is a commonality that can unite diverse peoples. Expect derogatory slang for the ‘bots, as well as for humans who behave like them!

Ghost Stories

It is conceivable that the intelligence of the Silver Fish might be attributed to a sort of ‘latent consciousness’ in matter itself, arising only in special circumstances. Or, an alternate form of the Luminiferous Aether might have been suspected by those who doubted the finality of Michelson & Morley’s work. And, when those Silver Fish were sometimes let loose from our purposes, they would often ‘babble’ or play, or imitate the birds and creatures they saw. If we ask them questions they should not know, their eerie riddle-poem answers haunt us. Lovecraftian dark gods might be channeled to command those men of feeble hearts, when the tick-tock sits idle too long. Alexa, what else is lurking in this alternate time? I relish your response!