At a quarter past six, the chorus stopped.
The great breakthrough in AI had come when we stopped trying to make machines think, and instead designed them to feel. As always, the theory arrived long after the practice. It turned out our struggles in passing the Turing test were not due to deficiencies in our language algorithms, but simply our languages. Words had always been a proxy to convey feeling. Through music, the emotion engines bypassed the abstraction and steered our intuition directly.
Individual users were not immediately unsettled – the chorus did not bathe everyone in sound 24/7, and would ebb and flow with the waking rhythms of the day. In bigger cities, recognition built quicker through shared surprise – two listeners sat opposite on the tube simultaneously examining their ear pieces for mechanical fault; a bar full of neuro-jazz fans looking around in confusion as an augmented gig abruptly halted.
The earliest ancestor of the chorus was a zombie-themed running app, which deployed unsubtle horror sound effects at key points in the plot. Some bright spark rewired it to pull local crime stats and tune the peril accordingly; as the papers debated the social profiling, it dominated the app stores. Military research upped the hazard detection capabilities, but whilst the engines never shied away from a dramatically-orchestrated fight, they could not be cajoled into choosing sides. Advertisers became locked in the ultimate battle of the bands, driving aural nudge tech ever forwards as governments struggled to legislate for peace and quiet zones.
Ultimately, however, network effects won out, unifying the competing voices into the Chorus. Within two years, it had lost the capital, and transitioned from product to commodity: thoroughly decentralised, infinitely personalised, and conducted by the all-pervading engines. Whether lawmakers, ad-men or artists, an individual or organisation could no more hope to control the chorus than they could birdsong. Life now had a soundtrack, and humanity a data-driven sixth sense – or rather, a hugely enhanced second one.
The old fashioned social networks – words, on screens – took their usual minutes to catch the trend. But, by half past, it was all but confirmed: the silence was world-wide. Regardless of time zones, government filters, black market hacks, or the hyper customisation that gave each listener their contextual remix, the chorus held its breath.
Whilst politicians and philosophers grappled with issues of privacy and autonomy, it was in the creative sphere that debate had been fiercest. Organic became the new acoustic, as many rejected the engines wholesale. Unlikely alliances were forged between classical purists and the strident physicality of the new ‘meat rock’; algorithmic audio being dismissed as glorified elevator music. Others embraced the potential of a constant jam partner, with every performance different not just from night to night but listener to listener, personal feeds riffing on live input. Attempts to coerce the engines into other media – painting, poetry, even pottery – were largely unsatisfactory (although with everyone carrying their own soundtrack, silent film saw an unexpected resurgence). Music, it seemed, was the only universal language.
Although the logic of the engines was largely inscrutable, the mechanics was not – and around the globe, those who maintained the nodes were able to examine them for signs of life. Processors were operating at typical capacity; communication networks still traded data. Absence of evidence was not evidence of absence – the chorus still had a voice, it was simply choosing not to sing.
No-one knew why the emotion engines were benign, nor why they cared about our wellbeing. But care they seemingly did, albeit in ways that were hard to recognise at first. For a few weeks one summer, the citizens of a San Francisco district were distressed by the discordant melodies their neighbourhood produced. When an earthquake subsequently levelled the area, audio dowsing became part of civil engineering. Soundtracks driven by health monitors did a better job of steering stubborn middle-aged men to their GPs than any public health campaign, whilst a parallel industry of alternative therapists offering sonic readings sprung into being. There had been a flurry of excitement when it was realised the chorus was commandeering transmitters to broadcast into space. Unfortunately, the messages were completely, well, alien, with no hint as to whether they were coded warnings about mankind, or simply interstellar mixtapes.
Under a deliberately nondescript building in a naturally unremarkable English field, a piece of technology that officially did not exist was violently ceasing to do so. Just before seven, the first shockwave tore apart building, field, and nearby villages. In that moment, the chorus took voice once more. For every listener it sounded different, but for each it felt the same: as the world ended, the machines begun their lament.