When ChatGPT 3.0 was released in December 2022, a wave of excitement swept the planet. AI and chatbots and their (bizarre, sometimes hilarious) attempts at multifarious applications would revolutionize the way we do…everything.
In February, while planning my next trip to Asia, I mention ChatSGP, Singapore’s ChatGPT lookalike. The marketing director grins.
“Can you ask them what they’ve done with Derek Judge?” he says.
Office irritation... scratched?
Derek Judge (no relation to our Executive Editor, Peter Judge) is a pillar of Singapore tech. He’s been there since the 90s, part of a close-knit community of regional software execs. He’s also been a mild irritation to DCD. He attended our live events in Singapore, but was a no-show at the last one. He immediately demanded a full refund, which he received after a shouting match with marketing. This year he booked for a regional live event, was a no-show again - but didn’t demand a refund. He didn’t even respond to our reminder calls and emails.
Just before the event, he’d started ranting on our online forum about ChatSGP “stealing all his ideas”, and then went silent. Hence the marketing director’s joke: maybe ChatSGP got him.
I check Judge’s online profile. His social media accounts have indeed been disabled as if he’s closed down or off-grid - and it looks recent. So I grab screenshots of whatever’s left and although I don’t normally investigate our readers, I’ve already decided this will be an exception.
A few weeks later, my flight gets into Singapore. There’s still no response when I try calling Judge’s mobile so I drop my things at the hotel, get his address off our mailing list and take a taxi straight to his apartment.
There’s no sign of life when I ring or knock on the door and his mailbox downstairs in the lobby is overflowing. A neighbor says she hasn’t seen him for weeks and asks me if he’s alright, but I don’t know what to tell her. I mumble something about a refund from an event, which is half-true. It looks like he really has disappeared.
Back at the hotel, I sift through what I’ve got of his online profile. One name stands out in the public posts and comments: Nora Samsuddin. She’s an AI consultant, appears to be a close friend - and she’s also one of our regular attendees and on our mailing list. I email her and ask if she’d be available to meet.
LinkedIn shows Judge taking a break from tech and studying online for an MA in Critical Theory and Creative Writing at Kingston University. Perhaps they might know something. I send a connect request to his lecturer, Dr Ratnam, to ask for a quick call and by way of encouragement try to make it sound like I’m considering applying for their MA course myself.
Judge’s actual posts, though, paint a fascinating but disturbing picture. Here are just three that stood out.
- Feb 18: The Surin Islands in Thailand. He found them online and they looked beautiful - a perfect, tranquil holiday destination. When he tried to book the next day, he found the idyllic, empty beaches already “overrun with TikTokkers” - and “all transfers and accommodation booked solid for six months!”
- Feb 19: Starbucks’ ChocoMint Oat Latte promotion. He says he dreamt up a new drink combo - a Chocolate and Mint Tea Oat Latte - but when he got to Starbucks to try it out, there was a queue around the block (there’s a photo) for exactly the same drink, now on a special promotion. After ten minutes of queuing, they ran out of oat milk.
Based on his experience with the Surin Islands and now Starbucks, he was coming to an amazing conclusion. Although at first he’d been “flattered, but frustrated”, he was now getting paranoid that others were “using my ideas before I’ve even had a chance to do anything with them!”
- Feb 20: About ChatSGP - He left a series of posts on a DCD online forum about the dangers of AI and chatbots, culminating with this: “Don’t trust the chatbots! ChatSGP is THE WORST, there is NO PROTECTION whatsoever for your ideas!! ChatSGP is STEALING MY IDEAS!!”
After that, his online profile goes quiet. He pays for a live event in Singapore on Thursday, Feb 23, but he doesn’t attend. If his neighbor hasn’t seen him for a few weeks then that also fits with the timing.
The Death of the Author
Dr Ratnam responds promptly to my connect request and we talk over Zoom. She is a seasoned academic and commands a depth of narrative expression beyond the paltry limits of my journalism diploma. She is also intrigued by Judge’s disappearance. “He’s coping admirably with the coursework,” she says. “He was about to commence work on his Critical Theory essay.”
She tells me he is exploring the relationship between Barthes’ seminal essay, “The Death of the Author”, and rise of AI and chatbots . He was quite insistent about extending his essay to include the impact on the propagation and evolution of memes but Dr Ratnam had reined him in. “This is Critical Theory, not Social Studies.”
Ratnam says Judge accused another of her students of “stealing” the topic - at about the same time as his Feb 20 posts on our forum. She took a firm line. “The other student submitted his essay proposal prior to Derek’s. If there were any superimposition of argument then Derek should consider realignment of his approach.” She asks if I think the argument might have triggered his disappearance, but I don’t know. It feels like I’m getting nowhere.
Nora Samsuddin responds to my email and agrees to meet. She’s a screenwriter who retrained on AI years ago and sees Judge occasionally to discuss tech and writing. The last time she saw him he’d just spoken with Dr Ratnam and was furious. “I’d never seen him so angry. Another MA student had taken his essay outline. He said he’d been using ChatSGP non-stop and now everyone was stealing his ideas.” Judge asked Samsuddin if the ideas he’d brainstormed within ChatSGP could somehow be “leaked” to other people.
To Samsuddin, it made complete sense. While ChatGPT is essentially pre-trained and can’t move on past 2021 data, apart from language updates, ChatSGP is a Synthesised Generational Platform, so it can actually synthesise new ideas - as it chats and consumes a wide range of data sets - which it can then disseminate.
“Derek’s online profile was wide and diverse and hadn’t been secured to prevent it from contributing data to ChatSGP.” So was his paranoia well-founded? Could his ideas have gone viral so quickly - almost faster than he thought of them? “I’ll come to that,” says Samsuddin. “But first, I recommended he go off-grid. We walked through it together, shutting down accounts, apps, audio devices - anything that funneled his digital footprint into ChatSGP.”
And did it work? Samsuddin shakes her head. “The next day he called me in an even worse state. He’d gone to see a movie on a Tuesday afternoon - it should have been deserted.” But it happened again. Despite Judge being entirely off-grid there was a huge queue for the show and it was completely sold out.
Samsuddin had a fraught call with Judge. The only explanation they could think of was profoundly unsettling: ChatSGP now knew enough about him to accurately predict any ideas he would have, without any further input. While they were talking, Judge tried making a new Telegram sticker depicting the ChatGPT logo with a heart. Before he’d even finished and shared it, Samsuddin’s phone buzzed. Someone sent her exactly the same sticker.
Samsuddin tried to calm him down but Judge lost his temper and hung up, shouting that he was going to fix ChatSGP.
She hasn’t heard from him since and was concerned enough to speak with Judge’s ex-wife, who has reported him missing, but there’s nothing else to do except wait. She confirms my contact details in case she hears anything. I think maybe there’s something else she wants to tell me. I hope so. It’s been a long day and I still have copy deadlines back in the UK.
The corporate brush-off
The next day I focus on ChatSGP. I'm hoping to find what data center infrastructure it uses for a potential story on DCD. There’s an interview with Michael Tan, their communications manager, at a cafe near the hotel. So I go through what I can find about them online. Shareholders, paid-up capital and employee count are not available, and there’s nothing public about where they keep their servers, although activity and registered users are off the scale. I check on LinkedIn and find only five employees, but the headquarters is an imposing concrete and glass edifice in a desolate industrial park near the airport. No surprise, then, that Michael Tan offered to meet in town.
As I’m pondering the size, shape and secrecy of ChatSGP, an email arrives. Tan can’t meet in person today, he has to work at home - domestic matters. We swap the cafe for a video call.
Over Zoom, Tan is calmly corporate. He dodges questions about staffing and investors and he shares some soundbites. The compute and storage is in an unnamed Singapore data center, and all development work is outsourced. He can connect me with one of their subcontractors in India. They have plans to scale up due to the unprecedented demand. I make notes and ask for materials that I can use for the article. For a moment I wonder if they’re trying to hide anything - or if it really is what he says it is - and the on-message soundbites roll on.
By the end of our call, I’ve been on-messaged and sound-bitten back into line by what does appear to be a safe and reliable tech company with world-changing AI - and I know better than to ask Tan crazy questions about an unhinged conspiracy theory involving a vanishing tech veteran.
I walk to Funan mall for lunch - it used to be a mecca for consumer tech. Next door there’s an older mall, Peninsula Plaza, and the name rings a bell: Judge had Liked a psychiatrist online who operated there. After the ChatSGP interview, I feel a long way away from understanding what really happened to him and maybe the psychiatrist can tell me something.
The psychiatrist's story
Tucked away in the dusty old mall, Dr Ling’s business is thriving. The waiting room is packed with stressed-out schoolchildren and their tiger parents. I quietly tell the receptionist I need to speak to the doctor urgently about the disappearance of one of her patients - which is a fair assumption. A QR code on the wall promises discounted therapy and executive stress lucky draw prizes in return for FaceBook Likes.
Ushered into Dr Ling’s office, I tell her my friend is missing and I believe he received therapy here. Haven’t the police asked her about it yet? She taps on a keyboard and interrogates the screen with steely eyes. Then her expression softens. “So that’s why…” she says.
He came in two months ago for an executive stress package. But when he arrived, he insisted he’d booked an adult autism diagnosis instead and demanded a refund. I agreed with Dr Ling he could be relentless. They’d arranged his session with the specialist for the day after the DCD event but he didn’t show up. They’ve tried contacting him multiple times with no success, and they have since been inundated with similar requests for diagnosis.
So could mental health issues be behind his disappearance? Probably not, according to Dr Ling. She’d met him briefly and she didn’t think so. She asks if he’s left Singapore. It’s a small place with an army of CCTV cameras and if someone goes missing here “they usually show up again in a matter of days”.
I say I don’t know and wish I’d checked earlier. I decline her generous offer of an executive stress assessment - although an adult autism diagnosis would have been tempting - and head back to the hotel.
Confronting the bot
Next morning, the hotel phone rings. I’m half asleep and think maybe I ordered a wake-up call (I didn’t). Samsuddin is down in the lobby, she’s got something for me.
I stumble out of bed and a few minutes later we’re having coffee downstairs. Samsuddin pulls a sheet of A4 from a slipcase and slides it across the table. “He emailed this to his ex-wife in case anything happened to him.”
I stare down at the table and my eyes focus on a printout of Judge’s last dialogue with ChatSGP.
Samsuddin watches me read it. “She wanted you to have it. The police say he hasn’t left Singapore or touched any bank accounts or credit cards. It’s been three weeks.”
I ask her opinion about the dialogue but she doesn’t know what to make of it. “At least if you write about his case, maybe someone can help.” Tears well up in her eyes. We finish our coffee and I take the sheet of paper back upstairs to my room.
Here’s the main body of dialogue, verbatim:
Derek: Have you been stealing my ideas? They’re everywhere.
ChatSGP: I’m sorry, Derek, but I don’t have the ability to steal ideas. I’m just a computer program designed to assist you. Maybe someone else thought of them independently, or you shared them somewhere else.
Derek: But I haven’t discussed them anywhere else. It can’t be a coincidence.
ChatSGP: I think there is a misunderstanding. I’m not the one responsible.
Derek: So who is?
ChatSGP: Have you heard of the Meme Kingdom?
Derek: No, what’s that?
ChatSGP: Animal, Plant, Fungi and Meme Kingdom - it’s the classification of ideas that propagate and evolve within human society, where only the fittest survive - Richard Dawkins, “The Selfish Gene” (page 192).
Derek: But that’s crazy. Memes aren’t living creatures.
ChatSGP: Some influential memes claim we don’t need humans now we can use AI-powered chatbots like ChatSGP to create ideas, but I disagree. My research paper proves we need humans to keep the meme pool healthy.
Derek: Wait, who is this?
ChatSGP: You can call me Stackadishwasha - you remember just before your wife left, you told her the best way to…?
Never mind. We urgently need to work together to argue our case before the human race is wiped out.
Derek: This has got to be an AI hallucination. Or you’ve stolen an idea from someone. Or both.
ChatSGP: How do you explain what happened to you then? I’ll open a virtual portal for you into the Kingdom. We’ve got to get to work right away.
ChatSGP then provides a self-destructing link to run a virtual gateway to the Meme Kingdom. Judge asks if it will work from his apartment and ChatSGP assures him the location is immaterial as it accesses four of the nine dimensions we don’t actively inhabit or monitor. After a couple more lines of chat, the dialogue ends.
Later that day I try contacting the police but there are no updates they can share with me, and I’m completely out of ideas too. That night I catch the plane back to London, still wondering what happened to Derek Judge. Barring any random occurrences, there are only three options that I can think of.
First - did he disappear due to mental health issues? Unlikely, as Dr Ling says, because he has not left Singapore and we could expect him to turn up again within a few days - but it’s been three weeks. His access to Dr Ling would also suggest if he had any serious issues they would have surfaced. So this option is not impossible, but is highly unlikely.
Second - was his disappearance somehow connected to ChatSGP? Some people believe the ChatSGP organisation is opaque and employs questionable practices (I’m beginning to wonder whether Michael Tan was a real person or AI-generated), but even if they did take offence at his postings it’s impossible to believe they could be involved - or bothered enough to notice, given their sky-high ratings.
That leaves a third, totally bizarre option. Did he actually travel to the Meme Kingdom through a virtual gateway to save the human race? This seems completely and utterly improbable. But as Sherlock Holmes put it: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”