Chapter three of ‘Ball Machine’
Arizona, August 2014
Rosa was on her way to see her boys, the ones she actually trusted. Tony and Dany, older than most of the guys here, smarter too.
She tracked them down to the programmer’s lair, a room filled with screens, boxes, wires, gadgets, soldering irons and hard drives. One whole table was covered in empty drinks cartons and discarded food wrappers.
Tony didn’t look up from his screen, his fingers still bashing away at the keyboard. “When’s the match?”
When’s the striptease, that’s what he was really asking. It was still on everyone’s mind. At least it was getting things done around here.
Tony was eighteen stone, out of condition, and didn’t look he could run for a bus, never mind do a thousand sprints around a tennis court. He wasn’t what Rosa had in mind, when she thought of the ideal audience for a striptease.
“You tell me,” she said. “We’ve got the parts but they don’t work together. It’s not even a very good ball machine. Can’t we make something more…,” she waved a hand in the air, “more lifelike.”
Tony hit the enter key with a flourish and pushed his chair away from the desk, finally looking up at Rosa. “Lifelike is impossible. Too many variables. You’d need a million ‘if this, then’ iterations just to make it ask the time of day. We can programme game thinking, strategy and tactics, but it’ll never feel like you’re playing a person. Then there’s social intelligence, motion and manipulation, natural language processing, not to mention common sense. There’s nothing that holds them all together.”
Rosa frowned. “So how do people do it?”
Dany Ng gave a polite cough. They both turned to look at him.
Dany was a mystery, drifting around the place doing higher mathematics, talking of algorithms, messing with programming and computers and processors, discussing quantum mechanics and the Indian sages. Mathematics came naturally to him in ways that made Rosa’s head spin.
He came from China and spoke good English, but understanding his mind was beyond Rosa. His thoughts seemed unconnected. Or connected to the wrong things. Or different things to the way most people stumbled through life. She had seen him at times, on the edge of the campus, staring at the desert for hours on end, not moving a muscle. Was that where he did his thinking?
“You can’t make a robot look like alive. Too hard,” Dany said, his accent a mix of Chinese, southern American drawl and uptight British persnicketiness picked up in Cambridge. “Easier way, you do it for real.”
She watched him, waiting for more. What did he mean?
“Make it look alive, because it is alive,” Dany said.
“And how would we do that?” Tony’s voice was tinged with sarcasm, reigned in only because everyone on campus was in awe of Dany’s intellect. “Good enough to play tennis was the deal. Now you want artificial life?”
Dany placed a box on Tony’s desk. “Processor. My invention.”
“You mean this is it? It’s ready?” Tony sounded impressed. He opened the box and peeked inside. “Wow.” Tony’s face, his eyes, his voice, suggested history had been made. That they were in the presence of greatness. “I thought it was years off.”
“Prototype,” Dany said proudly.
Rosa leant over his shoulder. The box contained an shiny metal canister, about the size of a human brain.
“Quantum entanglement processor,” Dany said. He handed Tony a data disk. “This the algorithm, to make it learn. Add to quantum processor, sit back, wait.” He gestured towards his invention. “This is life.”
Rosa looked at Tony and gave him the faintest shake of the head, to let him know she was lost.
“It’s got more processing power than the human brain,” Tony said. “In theory, anyway.” He shook the data stick in the air. “But I don’t get what this algorithm does.”
Dany pulled his chair closer, a smile pirouetting across his lips. “In the West you ask, how was the world made? How was a man made? A tree?” He chortled to himself, as if contemplating the folly of Western civilisation. “Is a tree made?” Dany’s mouth twitched at the corners, his eyes glinting. “It grows from a seed, becomes a sapling, in time a tree. Is a person made? No.” He poked Rosa’s belly with a bony finger. “She grows. Now you are a big person, once you were small. You were a baby. Before that, an egg. Things change, always changing.”
Dany smiled at her. “You want android like a person? Let it grow. You want to make life? Let it grow. This the seed. This processor learns. Learns fast.”
“In theory,” Tony said, his voice sceptical. “Don’t get your hopes up. This isn’t mainstream. Do the bosses know you finished it?”
“Funding stopped,” Dany said. “They don’t believe. This hobby now.”
“So what happens?” Rosa looked from Dany to Tony and back again. “We turn it on and see what happens? When will it learn enough to give me a game?” They were four months into this project, only two to go. She needed her robot up and running.
Dany shrugged. “Experimental,” he said. “You tell no one I give you this. No one.”
“Deal,” she said. “What do we do now?”
Tony gingerly picked up Dany’s box and cradled it under his arm. “I reckon it’s time we fitted your robot with an upgrade. Then we’ll see what happens.”
Light, blindingly bright for a fraction of a second, then instantly receding in a blaze of colours. Sounds, all around, rising and falling in waves.
Where was he? Who was he? He couldn’t remember. He must be somebody. There must be some memory of a life before this moment.
The sounds came in patterns. He knew these were words. A voice, or many voices. Directly ahead of him he saw a solid mass of white, and off to one side the bright glow of a light. Then something new, a human face. Eyes peering into his own. He blinked, and the eyes were gone.
The voices were talking. He understood fragments. Words contained meaning. Words built together in patterns to express ideas, thoughts, feelings.
“Is it working?” one of the voices said.
“It’s not moving. Can it move?”
“Hey, are you there?”
He processed the sounds, examining them for meaning, passing them around his thoughts.
The face returned, staring into his eyes. He processed. A woman’s face. Dark eyes, black hair, long lashes.
Who are these people? What do they want? How did I get here?
He had no memory of anything before this moment.
“That thing’s kicking out a lot of heat,” one of the voices said. It sounded distant.
“It’s the start-up sequence, it’ll settle down soon enough.”
“The eyes are moving.” The voice was close to him. Lips opened and closed. It was the woman’s voice, she was waving a hand in front of his face, her mouth smiling.
“Ugly sonnova, isn’t he,” one of the voices said.
“We haven’t done the cosmetics yet.”
“It still isn’t moving.”
“Can you hear me?” The woman’s voice again. The other voices were deeper, louder. Somehow he knew them as male voices. The difference seemed important, but he couldn’t remember why.
“His eyes are moving,” the woman said. “He has co-ordination. His eyes are following my hand.”
More faces appeared close by, eyes staring into his. He assessed and analysed, taking in images, processing them for important facts, storing them for future reference. He could store things, go back to them. But there was nothing earlier than a few moments ago. Yet he knew things. He understood words.
Who was he? Where was he?
“Can you move? Can you raise your hand?” The woman’s voice again. A new sensation. What was that? Something was touching him. What part of him?
He saw a hand appear in the air in front of him. Two hands. One was attached to the woman, the other to himself. Was that his hand? Was she holding his hand? Why?
“Can you feel that?”
It was a question. She wanted him to answer. What should he say, and how? The woman used words. She must want words in reply. He could feel her hand, so the answer was yes.
“Spooky,” said one of the male voices. “The eyes are weird, like there’s someone in there.”
“There is,” the woman’s voice said.
He wanted to answer but wasn’t sure how to do it. Could he move his mouth?
“It’s trying to say something. Its lips are moving.”
Who were these people? Why was he being watched?
“Go on.” It was the woman’s voice, close to his ear. “Say something. If you can hear, just respond.”
He wanted to let her know that he could hear and understand. He couldn’t find a way to form words, to move his hands.
“Needs work,” one of the voices said. “I’ll try a reboot.”
He felt hands cradling the back of his head, a sharp ringing pain, and then blackness overwhelmed him.