Thursday, January 20, 2011

ABC (with apologies to David Mammet)

Everything stopped dead when he walked in, and all heads turned to face him. This stranger, this interloper, walked in as though he owned the place, as though it were his lab, and we, the research scientists who’d worked our whole lives to make the breakthroughs that ensured the continued profitability of Denedryne Advanced Cybernetics, were nothing. Like he was doing us a favour by coming down here. He looked us over a moment, and already we hated him. And, judging by the look of contempt he couldn’t be bothered to conceal, the feeling was mutual.

“Let me have your attention for a moment,” he barked, voice harsh and blunt, “because you're talking about, what... you're talking 'bout... bitching about a some prototype that burned out, some theoretical math that didn’t hold up under peer review, some broad you're trying to screw, so forth, let's talk about something important.”

He turned his most withering gaze to Kevin, the project manager, who seemed to physically shrink under it. Kevin had always been a timid man, the kind that buried himself in work because he had no idea how to deal with more human problems. In a situation like this he didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell.

“Are they all here?”

“All but one.” Kevin stammered, flinching.

“Well, I'm going anyway.” And with that, he turned his attention back on the rest of us. “Let's talk about something important. Put that coffee down.”

Jack, by the coffee machine, stopped dead, stunned by the audacity of the order. Who was this son of a bitch to think he could order us around?

“Coffee is for roboticists only. You think I'm fucking with you? I am not fucking with you. I'm here from downtown. I'm here from Dr. Epstein. And I'm here on a mission of mercy. You Jack Levine?”

“Yeah.” Jack said, trying to stare the man down, and failing miserably.

“You call yourself a roboticist, you son of a bitch?”

Jack had had a rough year, the whole lab knew that. His last prototype had exploded, taking out half the testing bay, and the one previous had thought it was alive. It had screamed and begged for mercy as we were disassembling it, and the effect was… off-putting. But he didn’t deserve to be talked to like that. I stood up at my workstation.

“We don't gotta listen to this shit.” I said, in what turned out to be a misguided attempt to throw the stranger off his game. He didn’t miss a beat.

“You certainly don't pal,” he spat, pivoting on his heel to stare me down, “because the good news is you're fired. The bad news is you’ve all got one week to regain your job, starting with tonight, starting with tonight's testing.”

Jack’s eyes widened in fear. He had a kid, and another on the way. Losing his position at Denedryne was not an option for him, a fact the stranger apparently knew.

“Oh, have I got your attention now? Good. 'Cause we're adding a little something to this month's sale contest. As you all know, the first roboticist to develop a functioning sentient machine will win a Nobel prize. Possibly two or three of the little bastards. Anybody want to know what the second roboticist to develop a functioning sentient machine will receive? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is your fired. You get the picture? You laughing now? You got the detailed notes of every research team in the country. Dr. Epstein paid good money for those notes. You can't develop a sentient AI and install it in an android body with the notes you're given, you can't develop shit, you are shit, hit the bricks pal and beat it because you are going out.”

This was a sticking point for Jack. Bad math in the notes from a team in Albuquerque was a large part the reason he’d burned down the testing bay.

“The notes are weak.” He protested, struggling to maintain his cool.

“The notes are weak?” The stranger asked incredulously. “The fucking notes are weak? You're weak. I've been in this business 15 years…”

“What's your name?” I asked, cutting him off. There was no way he could have been doing research into advanced AI’s and robotics without any of us recognizing him. I’d caught him in a lie, and he knew it.

“Fuck you,” he snarled, nearly feral with undisguised rage, “that's my name. You know why mister? Cause you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight, I drove an 80,000 dollar BMW. That's my name. And your name is “You're Wanting”. You can't play in the man's game, you can't design androids? Then go home and tell your wife your troubles. Because only one thing counts in this life. Build a super-intelligent, sentient, humanoid robot. You hear me you fucking maggots?”

He wiped the equations I’d spent all afternoon working out off the chalkboard in the center of the room, and I tried not to let my own anger show on my face. He had, it seemed, his own formulae to share.

“ABC. A, Always. B, Build. C, Cyborgs. Always build cyborgs. Always. AIDA. Artificial. Intelligence. Designed. Automatons? Artificial, because we are, at the core, artificers. Intelligence. Is there any intelligence to be found in this room? ‘Cuz I’m sure as hell not seeing it. Design. Can you design to our specifications? I hope you can because it's fuck or walk. You design or you hit the bricks. You will design an Automaton. AIDA. Get out there, look at the job market, and remember AIDA. You all got PhD’s from ivy league schools, what’d you, buy them on EBay? A guy doesn‘t get one of those unless somebody, somewhere thinks he can do something big. That person sure as hell ain’t me, but somebody thinks you’re capable. Are you going to prove it? Are you man enough to prove it?”

Too quickly to stifle it, I laughed. His attention was, once again, focused on me.

“What's the problem, pal?”

Fuck or walk, eh? Fine, fuck him then.

“You, boss,” I spat at him, smirking still, “you're such a hero, you're so rich, how come you're coming down here and wasting your time with such a bunch of bums?”

He seemed to ponder this a moment, looking me up and down. Then, taking off his watch, it was his turn to laugh.

“You see this watch? This watch cost more than your car. I made 970,000 dollars last year, how much you make? You see pal, that's who I am, and you're nothing. Nice guy? I don't give a shit. Good father. Fuck you, go home and play with your kids. You want to work here, design. Program!”

I stared, mouth open, trying and failing to think of a response, dumbfounded.

“You think this is abuse?” He asked, voice rising, “You think this is abuse, you cock-sucker? You can't take this, how can you take the abuse you get on a shareholder meeting? If you don't like it, leave. I can go through your notes tonight, the materials you got, and make myself an automated puppy. Train it to roll over, to fetch, and to navigate an obstacle course in the testing bay without having to program in where the obstacles are. Tonight. In two hours. Can you? Can you? Go and do likewise. AIDA. Get mad you son-of-a-bitch. Get mad. You know what it takes to create artificial life? It takes brass balls to create artificial life. Go and do likewise, gents. It’s the twenty-first goddamned century, and the breakthroughs are out there. You pick them up, they’re yours, you don't, I got no sympathy for you. You want to put your thinking cap on and design, it's yours, if not, you're going to be shining my shoes. And you know what you'll be saying. Bunch of losers sitting around in a bar: ''Oh yeah, I used to design AIs. It's a tough racket.''

Kevin handed him a case we hadn’t noticed him carrying when he came in, which he opened to reveal a bank of blinking lights and exposed wires.

“Good morning,” it said from a speaker none of us could see, “I’m glad to meet you. You have a beautiful lab.”

“This,” he said, his voice now hushed, reverent, “is an AI prototype stolen from Kurisawa labs. It is the Kurisawa prototype, and men died to get it. And to you, it is gold. And you don’t get to examine it. Why? Because to give it to you is just throwing it away. It’s for roboticists, and only when and if any of you prove yourself to be a roboticist may you examine it. I'd wish you good luck, but you wouldn't know what to do with it if you got it.”

He made for the door then, shaking his head as though he’d been trying, and failing, to explain something simple to very stupid children. At the door, he stopped a moment, and turned back to look me dead in the eye.

“And to answer your question, pal: Why am I here? I came here because Dr. Epstein asked me to, he asked me, as a friend, for a favour. I said the real favour, follow my advice and fire your fucking ass because a loser is a loser is a loser.”

The door slammed shut behind him then, but none of us moved. We just stood there, mouths agape, staring at one another. Stunned. It seemed the time for theoretical research had passed without any of us realizing…

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