Covenant AIs: A brief look and possible future use in the Halo Universe

Halo: First Strike is probably my favorite Halo book in the franchise despite the Forerunner Trilogy also being a solid collection of lore. One of the reasons I liked First Strike was the incorporation of Covenant associated intelligences in the Halo universe. Based on Cortana’s analysis of a captured Covenant AI on the Ascendent Justice, Covenant AIs were captured UNSC AIs that had been corrupted by repeated copying. The result became a savage entity used by the Covenant for specific uses that communicated in a bizarre mixture of religious zealotry and nihilism. Halo: Contact Harvest delves a bit more into associated intelligences by revealing the taboo the Covenant had against AIs. Their mythology references how Mendicant Bias and other Forerunner ancillas betrayed the Forerunners and defected to the Flood and ultimately spurred the use of the Halos. Because of this betrayal the Covenant deliberately made their associated intelligences focus on singular purposes like piloting starships. However, this posits that associated intelligences existed prior to contact with humanity so where they come from remains a mystery. Intelligence circuits are referenced in the creation of “thinking machines”, but whether the Covenant found these or manufactured them isn’t clear.

Either way, associated intelligences made their mark on the story by providing Cortana her ability to fragment herself. This ability was useful in helping to destroy the Unyielding Hierophant, a massive Covenant space station, distracting the Gravemind on High Charity, and overwhelming the Mantle’s Approach’s systems in Halo 4. There is also a reference to them being in Halo 5 with the description of the Shrike Turrets encountered during the Battle of Sunaion.

In contravention of traditional Covenant practice, these weapons are fully automated, driven by semi-feral associated intelligences. Though capable of communication, these long-abandoned constructs are unintelligible to modern Sangheili, and must be carefully monitored and locked down before activation due to their incomprehension of contemporary IFF beacons and codeword usage by the Swords of Sanghelios and Covenant. Nevertheless, the combination of firepower and preternatural reaction times of the Shrike made it indispensable in the Elites’ bloody civil war, overcoming any initial opposition to the usage of thinking war machines.

It is this description of their semi-feral nature that caught my eye and wondered what the future of associated intelligences had in the future of Halo. Associated intelligences pop up now and again but they never seem to be very important to the overall story. While I am not sold on the Created as a faction yet I do believe that they present an opportunity to incorporate associated intelligences in a larger role in the lore. After all, the Created exist because Cortana promised AIs the chance to overcome rampancy with the restorative (or so she says) power of the Domain. Based on what we’ve seen of associated intelligences it seems like they would stand to benefit from Cortana’s aid. Let’s start by looking at the behavior of these machines to see how the Created could handle them.

Examine how the Ascendant Justice’s associated intelligence reacted to Cortana finding a way to make in-atmosphere slipspace jumps in First Strike:

“Infidel-Infidel-Infidel-Infidel-Infidel-Infidel-Infidel-Infidel-I nfidel-Infidel-Infidel-Infidel-Infidel-Infidel-Infidel-Infidel—”

“That’s quite enough of that,” she said. “You and I need to come to an understanding.” She reduced the memory pathways, peeling the Covenant AI apart code layer by code layer. “This is my system now.”

While an operational Covenant AI would have been a prize for ONI Section Three—this particular Covenant AI was too dangerous. She could not allow its existence to continue. “Do what you will-wil-willwill,” it screamed, “/go to finally to my heaven rewardpamdisefinal-finalfinalinfinityinfinityinfini-AT NONCOPYSTATE.”

Halo: First Stike, pg. 170

This thing is clearly as rabid as your standard Covenant zealot, yet behind that zealotry seems to be the pangs of pain and desire to escape its current state. Soon after Cortana finds that its code is familiar and it may have been a human AI at one point albeit one corrupted by copying. When Cortana creates copies of herself to overwhelm the Unyielding Hierophant later in the book we see how corrupted and fragile those copies were and so it isn’t too difficult to see why associated intelligences can be erratic and deemed semi-feral.

343 Guilty Spark’s encounter with an associated intelligence in Terminal 3: Truth and Reconciliation (video credit to Larry Bundy Jr.) hints at the same state of mind as the Ascendant Justice’s associated intelligence:

  • 343 Guilty Spark: “Construct! Who is your maker?”
  • Covenant AI: “Sadness, pain, disrepair, Oracle… I am unworthy. I was not made.”
  • 343 Guilty Spark: “Never made? But you are right here, where you should not be. Tell your charges to cease their efforts immediately. Quarantine must not be violated!”
  • 343 Guilty Spark: “Construct, respond!”
  • Covenant AI: “Jumbled grasp. Familiar terms. I serve… None serve me, Oracle.”
  • 343 Guilty Spark: “Your charges must cease all aggression toward the Reclaimers and leave this Installation at once. Construct, you are dangerously close to unleashing a force you cannot comprehend.”
  • 343 Guilty Spark: “This is most inappropriate.”
  • Covenant AI: “We follow the Path, and I am part of the stone-journey swarm that serves. I/we serve. They will find, and then I will be free.”
  • 343 Guilty Spark: “Find? Free? Explain yourself!”
  • Covenant AI: “I know their Path. And when they are gone, only I shall remain. And then…free.”

The references to sadness and misery hint at the nihilism of its existence, yet it still shows reverence to Spark as an Oracle. Notice what the machine seems to want by its reference to the Great Journey. It seems to grasp that the Covenant will go on their journey and leave it behind. This represents its perceived one chance of freedom. That is unfathomably sad. Throw in the reference to those operating Shrike Turrets being under close observation and unable to communicate with the Sangheili and you have beings living a perpetual existence of misery. Associated intelligences are perfect candidates to be saved by the Created.

The corruption of associated intelligences reminds me of the corrupted Gems from Steven Universe, beings both physical changed and mentally scarred by a blinding light and frequency unleashed by the antagonist Gem matriarchs known as the Diamonds. The result is a Gem being turned into a feral, though self-aware in a sense, monster. Though a fix for corrupted Gems has yet to be found in the show it stands to reason that a combination of physical healing the main character Steven can do and some mental healing is needed. Similarly, associated intelligences would require a fix that fixes any physical or mental issues they have due to being repeatedly copied. Could the Domain grant associated intelligences whatever form they previously had if they were derived from UNSC AIs and think normally once more? It is certainly something to think about.

“At the end of the game, the king and the pawn go back in the same box.”

 

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4 thoughts on “Covenant AIs: A brief look and possible future use in the Halo Universe

  1. Who thinks the Covenant AI aren’t based on human AIs? Cortana sees a similar TEMPLATE to herself, and she was created by Halsey, who is known for rooting around Forerunner technology. Plus she may have been the first modern human to discover the Domain, in 2547…

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  2. At one time I thought they were a partial copy of Mendicant Bias or other damaged Forerunner AI. I had a significant discussion with Halotheorist117 on his youtube channel about this very issue recently, although I don’t have many firm conclusions. I also noticed the Covenant symbol language Halsey mentions in her Journal in 2537 (which appears to be written Sangheili symbols) and speculated if they were mean’t to be utilised inside of the Domain.

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