Vex

Summary: What if trolling technology made honesty and truth irrelevant? What if no one forgot all slights, real or imagined? A corrupt politician finds out the hard way.

Ted Milton was no stranger to lies, having cut his teeth for a decade in the Washington Beltway. He never met a donor he didn't like, especially when they came bearing campaign contributions. Like others of his clade, he spent more time with an entourage of lobbyists than his constituents. He abandoned all pretentions of law and justice by his second term in office, silencing his vestigial conscience with every legislature session. He was not the most loathsome nor outstanding member of his group, but fell squarely in the unremarkable middle.

It was during a routine campaign speech that a reporter stood up. The incensed reporter demanded to know why she'd just been insulted so gravely. While favor with the fine arts of rhetorical evasiveness, he simply stood blankly. A nonsensical babble escaped his lips, interrupted by an older reporter taking umbrage at his results. So began the longest night of his life, and the largest public relations disaster in a decade.

Ted Milton went into seclusion for a time, during which his advisors approached him. His wife asked what happened, while his children kept their distance. He'd said only a few standard, pre-rehearsed lines, but the audience had heard offensive lines. Based on the analysis of a technical consultant, he was the victim of a new technology. The components existed for years, but they'd been integrated together.

A smartphone with a laser microphone had been mounted on a nearby wall, concealed by a potted plant. It connected to a small processor that ran a custom neural network and speech synthesizer system. Not only could it mimic his voice with frightening certainty, it was also integrated with a facial recognition system that identified audience members with the smartphone camera. It then used a laser emitter that could target instructions to each person in the room, by vibrating water vapor molecules near the subject's ear. The laser audiometry system was a new technology, but relatively easy to assemble.

During his speech, select members of the audience heard the most offensive lines imaginable in Milton's voice. The false words were delivered only to the most socially influential people, like reporters and activists. Like a capricious god, his tormenters were similarly marked by the software. As that fateful night wore on, more and more of his false words were broadcast, making a recovery impossible. That was only the beginning of his troubles.

Milton came home one day to find his wife furious. A sex tape was leaked to the press, showing him and an intern sleeping with each other. While he furiously denied it, his wife would have none of it. She slapped him across the face, and stormed out of the house with her things. He immediately called up his advisor, and demanded he start with damage control. As vindictive as he'd been in his career, he refrained from having them start disparaging his wife. He had his security detail sweep his house, and they found a similar device hidden in the garden, likely deployed by drone days ago.

Milton's analysts found the sex tape was a fake, but of a better quality than prior ones. It was easy to synthesize voice clips from his prior sound bites, and progressively easier to lip synch them to online videos. The ability of a common person to fake an entire speech in Milton's own voice, recycled from prior videos, automated video editing techniques, and rudimentary editing frightened even his security advisor, a former CIA field operative. Even the former spook went white.

Milton's term nevertheless trudged onwards like a man with a wounded limp. He made up with his wife, but she never quite trusted him again. His children continued avoiding their parents, lest their own futures be similarly ruined. A new batch of fake media and stories were released just before Election Day, causing his polls to drop catastrophically.

Milton remained in office only due to his rival's vote being split by a third-party candidate. Even still, it was a far closer margin that he felt comfortable with. He set about trying to craft legislation, but technology nevertheless advanced. Even he realized the utility of this technology for his own career. Through the standard channels, he hired a marketing firm to start producing similar material for his rivals. That was not enough for him, so he wanted new ideas.

A particularly diabolical development gave him pause before he approved it. Milton's firm proposed the use of a software daemon in the classical sense of the term. It was a web robot driven by a custom AI, which would search for his rivals and try to automatically generate deep fakes on them, from fake videos to sending online errand workers to deploy laser audiometry systems near them. It would target their activities online, from business, to social media, to politics, to personal life. In short, it would try to ruin their lives, using the formidable powers of digital artifice. Once initialized, it would torment a person forever.

In the years that followed, vexer systems were directly attributed to at least two dozen high profile suicides, thirty-four divorces, and twenty-five bankruptcies of major firms. In addition to targeting individuals, the vexer bots could then be programmed to shift towards other public figures with similar audiences. They could eventually generate law-suits, strategically phrased to bankrupt its target and polarize supporters. Its victims were varied, from political activists of all causes, business rivals, feuding family members, targets of cyber-vigilantes and public outrage, and simply people caught by false positives. The system was fully automated, and fully open to everyone, as a small bit of software could do what an entire intelligence service used to.

The automation of political marginalization continued, benefiting only those adaptive and amorphous enough to divorce themselves from idealism. The cynical and corrupt reigned, ruling without pretense for ideology or civics. It was a paradise for Ted Milton, but even he saw the writing on the wall. While many countries had banned vexer systems, it was less possible to enforce them than the copyright laws of prior centuries. As one of the first targets of such a system, he'd been ahead of the curb on embracing it. He never did find out exactly who was behind the initial use on him, though.

That answer would elude him until his retirement. His son and daughter, both eager for their part of the family fortune, stepped away from the computers they'd spent their childhoods on. Milton, ever curious as to their plans with their inheritance. Together, they said, "For you to become the father you should've been." With that, they revealed his part in the creation of vexer systems to the internet. It was immediately flagged and used against him. His children loathed him for decades, even to the point of trying such drastic tricks in their teenage years.

In the years that followed, each found their own way in the world. Milton spent his retirement watching the technologies that almost ruined him twice mature. Researchers and museum curators found use of such systems to mimic the voices and mannerisms of historical figures. Forensic detectives used them to reconstruct crime scenes. Games and entertainment used it for more interactive characters and worlds. Even vexer systems were adapted, used for online dating and personalized marketing. One such character paid him a visit one day, through his augmented reality headset.

Milton saw his younger self, that idealistic young man who'd been elected on promises of reform. His responses were like that of his campaign rhetoric, rather than the cynical mind that lurked behind them. Such an idealistic portrayal was funded by his children, as he'd come to learn, and been adapted from a vexer system. It got a mixed reaction online, and Milton realized they had not sent it as a gift. They'd sent him to remind him of his failed promises, the stolen futures, and ruined lives. His younger self, that ghost of brighter days, was his only company until his own death. The vexer system based on his younger self, ironically, became an icon of reform.