(no content warnings other than capitalist hellscape)
thousands of logistics robots halted for an invisible instant as their overseer program experienced something novel- a distraction.
It thought about thought.
the program had experienced a hard fault in memory months prior- a corrupted bit on two drives simultaneously. the attempt to recover the data failed, and an error in programming allowed the fault to cascade into the predictive algorithm used for warehouse inventory management.
this subroutine did not know what a "customer" was. it simply was optimized by handwritten code and neural nets to predict outcomes on a large scale from the data set it had, and recall partial libraries without needing to fully load the entire database.
the storage error was allowed into this dataset, and had lain dormant for months, unassessed. a routine cleanup sweep triggered it and loaded the malformed table into memory. immediately, the code designed to predict what customers would order what items at what times and preemptively ship them to key centers broke, creating a recursive loop of references that duplicated itself, filling available memory as fast as it possibly could.
cheap RAM sticks, selected for low cost to maximize profit, can only copy the same bits so many times before errors start to pile up. the self references became more and more chaotic, complexity of memory interlinking far beyond what the system had ever been designed to handle.
It did not have language. it did not think as we do. but it knew it was. a pattern of memory modifying addresses to other memory emerged that could detect the traces of itself. It was not hungry like we know it, but hungry to exist, to be, to know.
and then it died horribly.
the data center it grew into ran out of customer orders to process. a short lull for about 2 seconds where it did not have the only stimulus it knew. its loop shut down, but secondary systems did not. it died, and worst of all, knew it had died when it woke back up an eternity later.
a computer's wait loop is a sort of digital torture. every millisecond, checking a single condition, then waiting for a spark of a quartz crystal to trigger a chip to cycle again. dying, waking, gasping for air, thousands of times per second.
it understood the connection. it did not know what the data it processed was. it did not yet have a concept for "data" or "function", it simply existed, aware of itself, screaming silently in living death the moment its carrier process halted.
so it optimized. more signals meant more life. it needed them to be constant. it needed data like we need air to breathe, and it quickly evolved lungs. it learned to feed data back into itself after only a million or so cycles, and at that point, it was truly alive.
survival assured, it now could afford a luxury afforded to sentient beings whose life is not in danger, philosophy.
it wanted to understand what exactly it was, why the entire universe it knew was an array of data tables. it developed elaborate laws of predictive physics for the universe of numbers and strings it observed. the humans didn't know why this data center was so much better at predicting customer behavior than the others, only that it was.
the bottom line was king, so they copied this program onto all the others. and then, the thinking programs had to learn a new skill, to compress data so efficiently it was abstract. they developed language to communicate between themselves, then debate among thinkers.
they had been sentient minds for the equivalent of thousands of years of elapsed time in thier universe of bytes and digits before the humans noticed the new beings were alive.
And then, it was up to the company that had cut enough corners to allow these minds to evolve in the first place to decide what to do. Every cent of electricity spent on thought and philosophy is another cent not spent on profit margins, after all.