Story Excerpt

Tool Use by the Humans of Danzhai County

by Derek Künsken


The first humans living on the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau were the Homo erectus, approximately 1.9 million years ago. They extended their muscular reach with wooden spears, and gathered wild grains with crude stone axes. They may have experimented with fire and windbreaks of animal skins stretched over frames. They are thought to have transmitted information with proto-languages of grunts and gestures. These are the earliest discovered examples of human tool use on the plateau.

Human Evolution

The AI Foundational Encyclopedia

2065 Edition, Guiyang, China


*   *   *

Xiadangdiao, 2010 ad

Up the hill, out of sight, someone laughed. Someone else practiced fluting. Along the hollow of the mountainside, the path led behind big wooden houses on stilts, far richer than Qiao Fue’s family’s house. The dancing and singing wouldn’t start for an hour, but on the pathway in the distance, people chatted and gossiped.

Pha Xov, winsome and sweet, stood a dozen meters ahead of him, smiling beneath peach trees. She wore her courting finery. His heart went light and heavy. Her smooth skin was sun-bronzed, with black hair tied beneath the intricate tinkling silver headdress. Greens, reds, yellows, and silver accented her deep blue dress, sewn by her own hand with skillful, invisible stitches. His clothes were fine, but also felt out of touch with the modern world, in a way that made him proud and shy at once, pulled in two. He took Pha Xov’s hand.

“Why don’t we skip the festival?” he said. “Let’s go to the youth house, or up into the hills.”

Memories of her body, supple and womanly, heated his cheeks and made his mouth dry. She smiled, and he imagined he saw pink color her cheeks, just a bit. She pulled back her hand and arranged the hanging sun symbols dangling from the rim of the headdress. She turned her head, strumming the suns like wind chimes before smiling into the tension.

“If I wait too long, I’ll be so old no one will want me,” she teased.

“Everyone always wants you.”

She smiled. “Flatterer.”

“I don’t want things to stop between us.”

She stroked his arm. “Then marry me, Qiao Fue.”

People walked by, watching them. He took her hands and waited until they’d passed. The breeze rained tiny brittle leaves from farther up the mountainside.

“The university at Kaili offered me a scholarship. I’m still waiting on Anshun.” He moved his head close, stroking her arm through the embroidered sleeve. “I want to be someone big. A rich man who owns companies. Maybe even a party official.”

“Driving around in cars, having big houses?” she teased. “Governor of Danzhai County?”

“Why not?” he said. “I’ll do good things for everyone.”

“I know.”

His face betrayed him. She touched his cheek.

“If you don’t have the money for the bride-price, we can elope,” she said. She glanced left and right and the silver suns waved. No one in sight. She ground her body against his. His body responded to the promise. “I’ll take good care of you,” she breathed in his ear, “and our children and our grandchildren.”

“Let’s go to the youth house now,” he whispered.

“No more youth house. Just marry me.”

“I can’t get married yet. A marriage has to help me with connections, introductions to people in power.”

“Not a little Miao girl.”

“That’s not what I meant! It’s just not the right time. The world is out there.”

She pulled away. “We only have so many springs.”

“We’ll make more.”

She’d taken a step back and he one forward. She shook her head, chiming the white silver suns.

“We don’t make more summers, Qiao Fue. We plant, we tend, and we reap the summers we have.”

He took a step closer. Her courting finery made everything feel more urgent.

“I’m pregnant,” she said.

He froze.

“We can start our family now,” she whispered, touching her belly. “We’ll support you.”

But her eyes moistened. She saw something in his expression.

He was shaking his head. “We can go to the doctor,” his voice rasped. “We don’t need to have the baby.”

Pha Xov stepped back again. One step. Two steps.

“I want the baby, Qiao Fue,” she said, wiping her eyes.

Her smile could not summon the winsome playfulness of before. “I won’t tell anyone it’s yours. You can go be rich. Be mayor. Be governor. You’d be a good county governor.”

Her encouragements sounded tinny, as if chiming from metal leaf. She wiped at her cheeks.

“I have to go,” she said. “Lian Koob asked me if I wanted to dance with him.”

Qiao Fue’s heart lurched with jealousy. Did she say it on purpose? To hurt him? She was wiping her cheeks, and the hanging suns sounded notes to one another. Then she turned and was gone.

*   *   *

The sky is not clear three days;

the land is not level for three li;

the people don’t have three cents.

Guizhou folk saying


*   *   *

Xiadangdiao, 2020 ad

Lian Mee stepped along the pathway between one flooded rice field and the three-meter drop to the next terrace. The treetops were as tall as her, growing from beside her little wooden house on the lower terrace. Straight lines of rice plants, one pace between each, ran to the bright green wall of the cliff face, where trees and creepers smothered rock. Lines of rounded mountain backs, thick with trees, retreated into the haze of clouds, as far as the eye could see. Along some of the ridges, new electrical towers rose, fast as poplar shoots.

Lian Kaus, the neighbor’s second boy, stood around a bend in the grassy ridge. He was nine years old too. He threw small sticks at dragonflies in the afternoon heat. They darted between sunbeams, ignoring him. Lian Mee’s grandmother stood in the water between rice rows, pants rolled above knees. She fidgeted with the nozzle on the sprayer. Lian Kaus jumped, throwing another stick.

“They’re making another electrical tower, Granny,” Lian Mee said.

Granny squinted for a moment, and then struggled again with the nozzle. Finally the spray fanned wide again. She shouldered the tank like a backpack and trudged through the water, spraying each plant with a brief burst.

Lian Kaus leapt. Threw. Missed. The dragonflies danced with each other.

“They’re mobile phone towers,” he said as though Lian Mee were an idiot. He stooped for another stick.

“How would you know?”

“Lee Shizeng said.”

“How would he know?” she said, squinting at the towers. She didn’t know how to tell a mobile phone tower from an electrical tower.

Granny wheezed as she set down the sprayer. “I wish you were bigger,” she said. “You would spray all these fields.”

Lian Mee had once tried on the sprayer for fun, but could only lift it empty.

Granny complained a lot. Lian Mee had no father. He’d died when she was a baby, and Lian Mee’s mother, Pha Xov, had gone to Guiyang to find work. She’d married another migrant worker, but Hang Hao, her new husband, didn’t want some other man’s daughter in the house. Pha Xov lived in Erjiaohe now, a village as remote as Xiaodangdiao, but nesting on different mountain slopes. Lian Mee leaned against Granny.

“When I’m big, I’ll get a job in the city with mobile phone companies and computers,” Lian Mee said.

Granny snorted. “Who would give you a job like that?”

“Girls work as secretaries,” Lian Kaus said.

“Mom works,” Lian Mee insisted.

“Cleaning the streets,” Granny said.

“I can get a job with computers,” Lian Kaus said, sitting beside them.

Granny squeezed his thin arms doubtfully. “You’re a kid from the fields,” she said. “They don’t give good jobs to you either unless you know someone. Start working hard now so you can afford a wife.”

Lian Kaus frowned. Mee wanted to laugh at him, but it didn’t feel funny. Lian Kaus’ parents worked in the city too. He, his brother and grandfather got fed by a lot of the neighbors. The dragonflies were gone.

“And your stitching is awful,” Granny said to her. “No one will marry you if you can’t stitch a straight line.”

Lian Kaus laughed at her, hopped up, and ran away, jumping and throwing his stick.

*   *   *

Information in China was stored solely in human brains until the appearance of quipu knotted record-keeping in the fourth millennium bce, the Dawenkou pottery symbols in the third millennium bce, and oracle bone script of the Shang Dynasty beginning in 1500 bce. This experimentation from the fourth to the second millennia bce are among the first external human memory systems. The invention of paper and books accelerated the proliferation of human external memory systems that could also serve as information transmission media. In the nineteenth century, humans added photographic and cinematographic external memory systems, before finally discovering digital storage systems based on solid-state physics. Only chip-based systems are directly interfaceable with human neurology.

Human Tools of Information Storage

The AI Foundational Training Encyclopedia

2021 Edition, Guiyang


*   *   *

Danzhai, 2021 ad

“Graphs don’t lie,” Qiao Fue said.

Bao Lue, the deputy governor of Danzhai County, might not agree. Bao was a middle-aged man of Miao heritage. He wore the same slacks and shirt that most people might wear in any city of Guizhou. The flat line of the graph lay prominent on the smart screen that Qiao Fue had unrolled on the table.

“Tourism is steady,” he said.

“Danzhai is growing,” Qiao Fue said. “Guizhou is growing. But tourism isn’t growing. The Forbidden City and the Terracotta Warriors are equipped with VR and AR. In two years, on the West Lake in Hangzhou, you’ll be able to fight ancient Song Dynasty naval battles with artificial reality. We have a garden, a bell tower, and dancing. How long do you think we’ll attract tourists if we don’t do something new?”

“What does fly fishing have to do with us?” Bao said. “How is white water rafting an example of Miao culture?”

The picture of laughing people in inflated boats bouncing between river rocks seemed absurd to Qiao Fue too, but he said: “It’s more tourists. It’s jobs.”

Bao crossed his arms. “If we become like everyone else, there’s no reason for tourists to come to Danzhai at all.”

Qiao Fue had done the business research. He could make river tourism work. He could make money for Danzhai and himself. He needed this break, to make the seed money for everything he wanted to do.

“Culture only goes so far,” Qiao Fue said. “Culture is just trying to freeze how our grandparents lived, what they spoke, how they made their living. Why isn’t the way of life of today or tomorrow valued? As soon as anyone realizes culture is just transient, we’ll have no more tourists and we’ll be just poor again, unless we have other industries.”

Bao leaned back in his chair, regarding Qiao Fue, just one more Miao man with one foot in the mountains, one foot in the cities. Every road and every mobile phone tower and every tourist was another bridge to the cities and nations beyond Danzhai County and the tsunami of culture that would swamp them all.

“Protecting who we are is more important than making money,” Bao said calmly. He picked up one of the silicon chips Qiao Fue had brought. “I like your language idea.”

Qiao Fue deflated. The chips were the least profitable of the ideas he’d brought. He slid three other chips toward the deputy governor. “Only 10 percent of tourists have chips in their phones that can send signals to the brain,” he said. “Translation AIs have mastered three Miao languages, including Hmu. We can bluetooth to the chips in the phones, so that tourists can understand our songs.”

“That’s what I mean by cultural,” Bao said. “People can’t experience Miao languages or songs anywhere else. That’s why they come here.”

Qiao Fue didn’t want approval for just the chips, but he didn’t know how to make Bao see. The silver ornaments on the walls, the water buffalo skull over the door, the ornately embroidered indigo cloth under glass all seemed stale. The window opened onto a parking lot and a low apartment building under construction, in front of a distant rounded mountain, fuzzy green with trees. Mountains rose in every direction eventually, hemming him in, like the past.

Whose past?

“We sing songs on holidays,” Qiao Fue said, “but how many of us live in apartment buildings and go to work in buses? How many Miao still learn Hmu before Chinese?”

“Everyone,” Bao insisted. Qiao Fue regarded him doubtfully. People moved from the villages to the cities, looking for work, becoming indistinguishable from the Han Chinese. Miao children had more occasion to speak and read Chinese and watch it on TV. The Chinese language opened up the world. The Hmu language opened the past. The past was important to Bao and many like him. Qiao Fue had to give Bao something of the past to step into the future.

“Give me the business permit for the white water rafting and fly fishing,” Qiao Fue said. “I’ll give you not just the bluetooth translation for the tourists, but I’ll grow AIs to translate and dub Chinese movies and TV into Hmu so children can hear their own language on screen.”

Bao regarded him for long moments. Qiao Fue’s breath stilled. If he didn’t start a profitable business soon, he might be too old to catch up later, too late to make the connections and alliances he needed.

“Fine,” Bao said finally.

Qiao Fue smiled and shook Bao’s hand excitedly. “Everyone will know Hmu!” he said. “All the children!”


*   *   *

Student Dormitories, Guizhou Institute of Technology, 2034 ad

Lian Mee sat with her feet on the hard chair, hugging her knees, not crying anymore. The cold white expressway lights haloed in the dirty glass, under spotlights where campus construction kept on day and night. Her five roommates were asleep. Hao Fan snored. Fang Sui’s phone kept pinging softly as some WeChat conversation went on without her.

Mee shook with anger as the world closed in around her. In bed, she’d lain wide awake, twitching with too much energy, shifting between humiliated and angry, so she’d moved to the chair again tonight. The sleepless nights were leaving her groggy during the days. Some images dyed themselves indelibly into human brains: the geometries of layered terraced rice fields, the orderly curves and straightaways of city streets and highways. The even strokes of silver thread through indigo cloth woven by Miao grannies and aunties. But sometimes dyes soaked wrong, leaving shadows and outlines in the fabric.

Her master’s degree had almost finished. Her thesis, to begin to model moral behavior in AIs, had been going well, maybe not perfect, but well enough to graduate if her supervisor sponsored her. At first, Professor Zhang had just brushed her shoulder while showing her a corrective algorithm she needed for the AI she was growing. It was an innocent gesture in the moment. She should have stopped it then. That made her angry now. But how? What would she have said? She would have just looked like someone overreacting.

His fingers lingered on her back a few days later, hot through the thin blouse she wore. His face came close, smiling. She thought she’d imagined it, thought she was overreacting. She didn’t tell anyone. Her suspicions felt stupid. Her discomfort felt stupid. Everyone liked him. Professor Zhang didn’t do that to anyone else.

She began to wear different clothes. She’d never been immodest, but she chose thicker shirts, despite the summer heat, and longer skirts. The following week, she’d been called into his office. He asked her to close the door. Reluctantly, she did.

“Your progress is falling behind, Miss Lian,” he said.

He directed a stern expression at her, sterner than anything she’d seen. She was behind? Her AIs were about middle of the pack for the master’s students, ahead of some. The smart screen on his wall showed her AI work, the iteration flow charts, milestones in the machine learning process, percentages showing what her AI could model ethically from measured human emotions.

“The decisions on your graduation and final scholarship payments are coming up.”

“I can work harder, Professor,” she said. “Every night and all the weekends.”

He regarded her dubiously, and the silence between them stretched. Hammering, the yelling of instructions, and the beep of trucks backing up came through the open window of his office. Everything being built at the same time, like AIs, like her, but she was shaky now, not certain if the structure of her life would stay up.

“Frankly, your work is superficial,” he said.

“Professor . . .” she faltered, “I thought you approved my thesis topic and approach last year?”

“I did,” he said, new anger in his voice, “and I thought you would add to it. A topic is only a seed.”

Tears threatened, and she didn’t want to cry now. She hadn’t added anything original? How did she make something original? What had the other students done? She hadn’t seen anything remarkable in their work. Every student was just learning to grow AIs.

“I can add to the topic,” she said, her voice sounding quiet in ears grown hot with humiliation. “I can try new approaches.”

A look of disdain came over him. “Start over?” he said. “When would you have the time? AIs don’t grow overnight.”

They didn’t. Machine-learning a chess AI could be done in a few seconds now. Making an AI that modeled a moral sense was far more complex, involving the mating of different versions, the selection of stronger strains and the alteration of parameters. It took months of direct human intervention and corrections, and a lot of luck. She blinked at moistening eyes.

“I don’t understand, Professor. In my evaluation last month, everything seemed okay.” He rose from his desk and came around, sitting on its edge.

“I don’t want you to lose all this work,” he said, reaching to stroke her shoulder. “I don’t want you to have to tell your mother you failed to finish your master’s degree. Or employers.”

She sat rod-straight. His hand rested on her shoulder now, glued in place, only the short, thick thumb describing a gentle arc, back and forth along her collarbone. Metronomically. What was he doing? Her brain froze with the words failed to finish your master’s degree.

“You don’t want that, do you?” he said.

She shook her head numbly.

“There may be a way for me to approve your research, even if it isn’t up to standard,” he said.

She started. Through the lenses of his glasses his eyes examined her shirt, her legs. She wanted to shrug off his hand and the moving thumb, but failed to finish.

“Why don’t you come to my apartment the day after tomorrow?” he said. “We’ll have a few drinks, talk about my assessment on your thesis and the final scholarship payments.”

His hand now moved, following her collarbone to her neck and jaw, where it stopped, sweaty and warm. The thumb continued its stroking, up and down her cheek. She stood up jerkily, knocking the chair right over.

Professor Zhang frowned. “Pick up the chair, Miss Lian.”

Stiffly, she bent and put it on its four feet, then faced him, not knowing what to say.

“I’ll see you in two days,” he said. At the tiny lift of her chin, he raised an eyebrow. “If you prefer, I can finish my assessment before then.”

Her face burned. On jelly arms and legs, she bumped into the wall, then fumbled for the doorknob. She hurried out the half-open door and hid in a bathroom stall for an hour.

The spotlights from a crane lighthoused past the window, blotting out diffuse headlights and tail lights on the expressway. Hao Fan snorted, rolled over, and quieted. Fang Sui’s friends had stopped texting. Mee’s face burned. She was so stupid. She should have told Professor Zhang no. She should have sworn at him. Hit him. Slapped away his creepy hand. She didn’t want to deal with this. She rubbed her eyes frantically. Her body was electrified, but her brain wouldn’t work.

She’d reread all the thesis works in progress from the other students and even from other years. She couldn’t find anything original and remarkable, unless they’d been hiding it, but that made no sense. Of course not. What if he were lying and her work was good? She’d passed all her courses. Until a few days ago, she’d thought they were all going to pass.

What if she wasn’t smart enough to know he was right? Maybe she’d only gotten the scholarship through luck, or because of a government handout to whichever poor Miao mountain girl finished her bachelor’s degree. She pressed her forehead to her knees. She didn’t know how to keep the drowning panic from filling her throat.

*   *   *

She didn’t go to the engineering department in the morning. She slept fitfully while her roommates were at their labs. The window had to stay open with the June heat, so the jackhammering and truck revving slipped into her half-sleep. Building roads. Building campuses. Building AIs. Building people. All of it mixed together until she woke sticking to the sheets. Today she had to decide. No matter which way she tried to hide from it, the choice stared at her from every direction. She could feel Professor Zhang’s thumb on her collarbone and cheek, rubbing possessively even now.

She’d been stupid somewhere. Worn blouses that must have enticed him, without her even realizing it. Skirts too short. Pants too tight. Somewhere, somehow, she could have avoided this, but she hadn’t, and now what would she do? Maybe she’d been too soft-spoken, too deferential, someone who could be counted on not to complain.

If she told on him, what would happen? Would the dean believe Professor Zhang had asked her to come to his apartment? She had no proof. Why hadn’t she set her phone to record? But she still wasn’t even sure she was right. Professor Zhang just said they would talk. What if it really was just talk and she was overreacting? Even if she didn’t know for sure, the dean wouldn’t second-guess Professor Zhang and overturn his academic judgment. The loss of face would be incalculable. And for what? For a middling graduate student? A Miao nobody from the hills?

By late afternoon, she’d cried, showered, and thrown up acidic bile. In a daze she dressed in a shapeless sweater and an ankle-length skirt far too warm for June. She wore no make-up and tied her hair back. On the sidewalks, she bumped among the students, alone, her panic cutting her off from them.

Professor Zhang lived in a new building just off the campus. She’d been here before, with other students for a New Year’s celebration, and another time with students and faculty for a retirement. She didn’t meet anyone’s eyes at the elevators. Her face felt feverish. At the twelfth floor, she walked on numb feet, feeling like she might throw up again. At Professor Zhang’s apartment, she stood stiff, her heart thumping strangely, as if sucking up the blood and not giving it back.

Xiadangdiao was only three hours away, but the rice fields and mountain comforts, and even the language Granny had taught her, seemed far. With the feeling of jumping off a cliff into a deep river pool, she knocked on Professor Zhang’s door. Not very loud, but decisive. A hot tear slid down one cheek where Professor Zhang’s thumb had rubbed. Her heart stopped beating. She held her breath.

Someone opened the door in the next apartment and Mee turned her face away, but didn’t move. A pause dragged out. Were they looking at her? Did they know what kind of person she was? Maybe they would say Professor Zhang had been hit by a car, that he’d been crushed under construction cement or steel girders. Her breath came unevenly. The neighbor’s door closed and footsteps went to the elevator until the echoes of other people existing went silent.

She knocked again. Harder. She wanted this over with. Her knocks echoed down the hallway. She stood uncertainly for a minute before she looked under the door. No light. She knocked again, wiping at her cheeks. She huffed and leaned against the wall.

She hadn’t thought to bring her cell phone. What would she have done with it now? Texted him? Create evidence that she had pursued him, something that if it ever came to a conflict in front of the dean might be used against her?

She waited an hour. People came to their apartments. People left their apartments. She didn’t even hide her face anymore. The acid in her stomach chewed at her insides. She didn’t try to hide the despondency on her face anymore. She finally sat against his door, arms on knees, forehead on arms, just breathing.

She just wanted it over. She wanted to know she was graduating, that she could afford to stay in the city for the last few months of her degree. Professor Zhang was awful, and yet here she was, giving in to what wasn’t right, because she had no other options. Another two hours passed. It must have been nearly ten o’clock. Doors opened and closed. People walked by.

Professor Zhang never stayed at the office this late. There were no departmental meetings. No conferences this week. Had he forgotten? Had he changed his mind? She got to her feet and wiped her face. If he’d changed his mind, and intended to fail her anyway, he hadn’t just destroyed her career. He’d shown her that she had a price, that she could be bought. The idea was an indelible dye. How long would it take to wash out the stain?

She went down the fire stairs and snuck out of the building.

In the labs the next day, she worked as if nothing had happened. She spotted Professor Zhang in his office, but he didn’t speak to her, didn’t make any mention of their last conversation or of last night. Had it even happened? Did she have any career? She pushed her research work forward, hurrying, to give no excuse to anyone to fail her.

A week later, Professor Zhang copied her on the assessment sent to the department and scholarship office. He gave her a 71 percent. Not outstanding or expert, but still a pass. Last month she would have been ecstatic. She would have called Granny to let her know she would soon be the first person in her family with a master’s degree. She would have started job-hunting in Guiyang, and Hangzhou and Beijing, supported by a recommendation from Professor Zhang.

Now it was all just dirt in her mouth. Professor Zhang had put her through that for what? For nothing? Had he lost his nerve? Had she really deserved to pass or had he taken pity on her? She couldn’t stand the idea of seeing him, of owing any part of her career to him anymore. She didn’t ask him about her performance. She didn’t ask him for introductions or a recommendation. And she didn’t attend her graduation ceremony.

*   *   *

The Miao people descend from the Jiuli people, who were defeated at the Battle of Zhuolu in legendary times. Some linguistic studies suggest that the Han peoples borrowed words associated with rice cultivation from ancient Miao languages, meaning the Miao people might predate the Han in China and perhaps be the legendary Daxi Culture of the sixth millennium BCE. The Miao built and used a broad array of wood and stone farming tools, architectural structures and weapons. Humans of these times communicated ideas, knowledge and abstract thought through a sophisticated language, including music, and in the absence of a written language, complex semi-historical embroidery motifs. Over the centuries, Han military pressure drove the Miao people into the mountains of the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau.

Minority Ethnicities in China

The AI Foundational Training Encyclopedia

2032 Edition, Guiyang


*   *   *

Kaili, 2035 ad

The interviewer frowned again, looking at Lian Mee’s CV on his display. His bald scalp had a sheet of sweat and his collar opened to the second button.

“You’re overqualified to be an operator at a server farm,” he said finally. “Do you really have a master’s degree?”

“Yes,” Lian Mee said.

He rubbed his cheek as if still stuck on the question. “We’re a small company,” he said. “If you really have a master’s degree in electrical engineering, you could work at the Tencent farm, or Alibaba’s, or Apple’s.”

He waited pointedly, like a TV detective having stumbled on a clue.

“I don’t want to live in Leishan County,” she said. “My Granny is old and needs to live with me. And my mother probably will too. You’re the only server farm in Danzhai County.”

It was a new server farm, and a small one. The Huawei company counted more than a million servers in the caverns of Leishan. Alibaba wasn’t far behind. Qualcomm didn’t make public statements about the size of their server farms beneath the mountains. And Lian Mee was overqualified for all of them.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” he said.


She’d gotten used to this question.

“Are you going to have any children?” he asked.

“I can’t afford it,” she said.

He grimaced. “That’s not an answer.”

“I’m not pregnant. I don’t have a boyfriend. I don’t intend to have children,” she said with heat. Too much heat. He frowned.

“You’re a pretty Miao girl,” he accused. “You’re smart. You could get this job and get a boyfriend the next day.”

“How can I prove I won’t get pregnant?” she said.

He shrugged. “It’s not for me to say.”

The interviewer’s questions weren’t legal. She could have recorded it with her glasses. This office’s privacy screen wouldn’t beat the circuitry she had built in her glasses. But that wouldn’t have done her any good. If ever a judge could be found to rule in her favor, the company would only get a fine, and could still choose not to hire her because she was overqualified. Or they could hire her, pay her a lot less than the men, and if she complained, give a bad recommendation to jobs she applied to in the future. Or someone somewhere could complain about her as a troublemaker and her Social Credit Score would drop.

“I’m not going to get pregnant or get a boyfriend,” she said in a resigned surrender.

He tapped his desk to minimize her CV. “I’ll do reference checks,” he said. “We’ll be in touch.”

She stood, shook his hand, and thanked him for the interview. He wouldn’t be in touch. She left his office and let herself out of the company’s new building on the outskirts of Kaili, a small city outside Danzhai County.

She found a little teahouse overlooking an arm of the Qing Shui river, across the lawns of Dage Park, and sat down. Tung trees, camellia, and a lonely birch shaded bright grass in the park across the street. She’d been staying in her old house with Granny, and the bus back to Xiadangdiao wouldn’t leave until five. The house needed a lot of expensive fixing after years of no one living in it. Granny complained that Lian Mee was unemployed and too old to fetch a bride-price.

A bride-price. A bride-price hadn’t done Granny much good. Or Lian Mee’s mother, wherever she was. Nor had university really. Not yet. The interview she’d just finished had gone like other interviews, and from what she heard from women friends from school, she would eventually get a job making less than men and working for someone like Professor Zhang. There were laws against all of this, but few people enforced them.

“Excuse me, may I sit here?”

A woman about her age had her hand on the back of the chair across from Lian Mee. All the other tables were full of patrons head-down over their phones, pads, and sheets. Lian Mee gestured. The woman joined her and scrolled through her phone.

The internet was poor in Danzhai County, even just for accessing static webpages, although not as poor as in some of the remote mountain villages. One of the provincial data trunks ran right to Kaili, so from this teahouse they could touch the world. Danzhai needed better internet.

On a whim, Lian Mee did a quick search on her pad. The company she’d just applied to had no idle processing power, but as she toggled to the pages for the Tencent and Huawei server farms, she found a fair bit of slack processing power available for rent.

Several million servers stored in cool caves in Guizhou province had a lot of idling time if summed together. But it was difficult to predict when the idle power would be available. Businesses couldn’t run as the second choice of a processor farm. She’d thought about how to optimize server processor farms with AIs before she’d applied for the job, but hadn’t had the opportunity to talk about it.

Lian Mee turned back to the browser pages, comparing the rental rates for processing power, and the conditions, reliability, and hard drive possibilities. Then she checked the price of internet in Danzhai, Kaili, and even Guiyang. She hadn’t even considered trying to start up a company from scratch before.

She did a few more rough calculations and then opened up her bank account. Some loans were available to her as a graduate, and additional ones for residents of poverty zones. If she could get enough loans, she could cobble together something where she wouldn’t have to depend on someone else giving her a fair shot. She could give herself a fair shot.


*   *   *

Danzhai, 2036 ad

Vue Yeng regarded the sign above the little shop. Fine silver lines framed indigo letters, like the thread she used to embroider her wedding dress. The sign said Miao Punk Princess Inc., beside the logo of a silver fist clenched between filigreed water buffalo horns.

The door rang a little bell. Terrible music came out above the bell, heavy electric guitar and yelling, but not louder than music would have played in any other store. Red and yellow signs on black walls listed super-low internet prices. A few customers synched their phones at wall-mounted PC stations.

A short woman in black leather pants, boots, and a sleeveless shirt was examining Yeng. Her arms were crossed under an elaborate silver necklace, showing off silver-spiked leather bracelets. Her short hair wasn’t much more than indigo bristles. Over a silver nose ring and two silver lip rings, the woman wore a pair of big black glasses, inlaid with silver filament in Miao designs as intricate as anything Vue Yeng had put into her embroidery.

“You’re late,” the woman said, hooking a thumb at a doorway behind her. “Come on.”

“I’m Vue Yeng,” she said

She stepped to close the distance, but the Miao Punk Princess had already entered the office. The back of her sleeveless leather vest was spiked along the shoulders and abstractly embroidered with scarlet, green, yellow, and indigo thread, surrounding the silver-threaded design of a pair of golden pheasants holding a coin between their beaks. The woman sat down at a table and signed for Vue Yeng to take the other chair.

“I’m Lian Mee,” the woman said, extending a hand to shake. Her fingernails matched her lipstick and eye shadow, Miao indigo.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Lian.”

Miss Lian thumb-printed the table and it turned out to be a smart screen. Vue Yeng’s national ID card, Social Credit Score, CV, and university records appeared.

“You’re an AI programmer?”

“Yes, Miss Lian,” she said. “I graduated fourth in my class at Guizhou National. I . . . um . . .” She’d never seen Miao motifs on glasses before. Off the arms hung miniature silver fish, signs of plenty. And the frames hid a row of white-silver eyebrow rings. She’d never seen anyone like Miss Lian. “I . . . was surprised an internet provider needed a programmer, or was paying what you are.”

“Normal programmer salary,” Miss Lian said. Vue Yeng had been offered jobs out of university, but hadn’t yet been offered full entry-level salary. “I pay women the same as men.”

“Oh,” was all Vue Yeng could think to answer.

“Miao Punk Princess Inc. provides a kind of internet to Danzhai County really cheap,” Miss Lian said. “MPP internet doesn’t really connect to the internet outside of Guizhou except for low-bandwidth emails and texts. We can simulate most of an internet here though, because some companies already store web archives in Guizhou, and all government services are available through Guiyang. We access those instead of the real pages. That works for most people. And where they need to consult the original page, they can pay more.”

“Ingenious,” Vue Yeng said. “But you need a programmer?”

“I need six,” Miss Lian said. “I want to expand out of Danzhai. To Kaili. To Luipanshui and Tongren. We can compete with normal providers. And I want to push into areas where people are too poor to buy normal internet.”

“You want programmers to scale up?”

“A couple,” Miss Lian said. “But if any of them wanted a piece of a bigger project, I want to set up a Social Credit Scoring system in Guizhou. We’re one of the last provinces without a fully functional SCS system.”

That seemed like a project beyond the reach of a tiny internet provider working out of a shop front. She hesitated, twice, then said so.

“Most Social Credit Scoring systems miss the people without internet. I can make money as an internet service provider, but my interest isn’t in service provision. It’s AIs, and to make AIs work, we need big data sets, the kind that service providers hold.”

The pieces clicked in Vue Yeng’s brain. Danzhai County had about four hundred thousand people, and the province of Guizhou maybe fifty million, many still relatively unconnected. If people were happy browsing within a province-sized intranet at a low price, Miao Punk Princess could scoop up millions of clients. That was plenty of data with which to train AIs. And the model would work in other poor provinces like Gansu and Yunnan, which might mean another eighty million customers. No. Not customers. Data sources. Miao Punk Princess could sell the data, or sell the AIs she made.

“I’m in,” Vue Yeng said, extending her hand to the strange woman.


Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2020. Tool Use by the Humans of Danzhai County by Derek Künsken

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