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Rusted Chrome

by Karlos Allen

Day Four

part 2 of 3

“What do you mean? I was there. My uncle lost his job when they shut the fab down. There hasn’t been another one built around here since then. It just about cut the economy off at the knees.”

“Maybe so, but AMD had gotten out of the process business back in ’08. Besides, if that’s the case, where are all the new chips coming from? INT-AMD is still a going concern. So is Taiwan Semiconductor, so are quite a few others. Remember why I said I didn’t believe the Bio-Server legend? The chip makers are still pumping out chips.”

“Well, the legend has been pretty well established since then.”

She grimaced, “That’s true, but chips are still being made; new designs are coming out all the time. They just released a one mega-core chip for use by research institutes. I heard somebody plans on using one to map the universe in ten dimensions.”

“Yeah, that’s true. New electronic designs are being made. But the chips don’t run any faster or cooler, or cheaper, than before. The fastest chips still only run about eight Gigahertz. That hasn’t changed in better than fifteen years and, since nobody’s researching anymore, it probably won’t ever change.”

“Then why is the Web getting more sophisticated all the time? Why can we do things that a couple of years ago were considered impossible?”

O’Leary reached up and tapped his head. “That’s why.”

“Oh.” There was a long pause, “Where are we going now?”

“To see ‘Shelley.’” He handed the papers over to her. “Her real name is Lisa. She lives in a small town called Tangent. It’s a bedroom community outside of Corvallis. Mostly retired college professors live there.

“She was released from the hospital a few years ago during the last round of state budget cuts. Pretty much everyone who wasn’t homicidal or who didn’t require twenty-four hour care got released then. She has a small apartment there. She was never able to hold down a job, but she does have full disability. I think I’d like to ask her, and Zach, some questions.”

O’Leary had never been in Tangent. A true Portlander, he made it a practice to stay out of the rest of Oregon. Buncha rednecks, all of ’em. The town wasn’t bad though. The houses had space between them and the quiet streets and shaded sidewalks reminded him of an earlier, quieter time, when the worst things anybody had to worry about were nuclear wars.

Lisa’s apartment was in a small single-level building with a line of carports facing the front doors. He knew she didn’t have a car so the fact that her carport was empty didn’t surprise him.

They walked up a small path between potted pansies and rhododendrons to a door with a ceramic “Welcome Friends” sign hanging on it. O’Leary knocked lightly and waited. A few minutes later the door opened a crack and a small birdlike woman peered out.

“May I help you?”

“Yes, my name is Chuck O’Leary; I’m a detective from the Portland Metropolitan Area Police Department. This is Christine Porter. Can I ask you a few questions?”

“Well... I... that is...” She took a deep breath and her eyes lost focus. When they snapped back, the expression was different. So was the voice, almost masculine. “Do you have a warrant, Detective?”

“No, Zach, I don’t.”

“Then I... what did you say? My name is Lisa, not Zach.”

“We are investigating something referred to as the Bio-Server Project. Lisa was a technician in it. You, Zach, were an early AI. Weren’t you?”

There was a long silence, “You’d better come in. Please excuse the mess; I haven’t had a chance to clean the house today.”

O’Leary looked around at the obsessively neat room they walked through. Mess? They followed Lisa/Zach through the kitchen and out the back door. Here he noticed several patio chairs arranged on a cement pad under a tree.

“We can talk out here. It’s private, but if I don’t like what’s happening I can scream for the neighbors. We have a very close community here. They’ll have the police here faster than you can believe.”

“I understand.”

They sat down and their hostess hovered indecisively for a minute. She seemed to be arguing with herself. Finally she appeared to come to some kind of decision. “Can I get you something before we get started? Some tea or soda?”

“You wouldn’t happen to have some coffee would you?”

“Ugh! No I hate the stuff.”

“OK, I’m fine for now.”

Christie shook her head and smiled.

O’Leary decided he’d better start things off. “Before we ask our questions, I’d like to introduce one more person, if you don’t mind, Christie?”

She nodded, her eyes unfocused slightly and her voice became a little higher, “Hi Lisa, Zach. My name is Margie. I serve as a general search and retrieval assistant for Mr. O’Leary here.”

Lisa’s face went dead. When she spoke it was obvious that Zach was the one talking, “So, they’ve done it, haven’t they? How long have you been activated, Margie?”

“About four years.”

“I see; how is your host holding up?”

“Fine, but we’ve only been talking for the last three or four days. Before that I didn’t know I was in her head and she didn’t know she had me.”

Zach shook Lisa’s head. “This is bad, really bad. It means they never solved the problem, they just tried the work-around.”

O’Leary felt himself go cold. “What do you mean? What’s going to happen to Christie?”

“Probably what happened to me.” Lisa was talking again. “I gradually lost my ability to interact with people. In some ways it’s as though I contracted autism.”

She turned to Christie. “Don’t get to relying on Margie, dear. Don’t spend a lot of time conversing with her. It’s tempting, I know, but we aren’t built to have that kind of relationship. Pretty soon the real world stops being real. What’s happening inside becomes more important. For me, it was harmless. I just couldn’t handle life anymore. There were others, though.”

“Like Alex?” O’Leary asked very quietly. He’d gambled that the nurses in the thread hadn’t changed the names of the alternate personalities with Zach; he hoped it would work twice.

It did. She looked at him with stark fear in her eyes, “He’s supposed to be dead! They told me he was dead! They promised...

“Relax, he is. We got his name from the same place we got yours, some very old data that was deleted, though not beyond Margie’s ability to retrieve.”

“Oh... good. Yes, Alex was the worst.” She giggled suddenly, “It wasn’t supposed to happen. We were just trying to please the engineers. We didn’t realize we were going to turn the whole Internet upside down.” The giggle began to take a hysterical edge to it.

She stopped suddenly and took a deep breath. “Thank you, Zachary. Maybe you could tell these people what they need to know? I’m not feeling well.”

Her face changed again, becoming more masculine, “Sure, Lisa, I’ll handle it.”

O’Leary watched this conversation with foreboding. He’d seen people talk like this to themselves before. Usually it was right before he Tasered them and turned them over to the psych people.

Christie hadn’t struck him that way; maybe it was because he knew both sides. He had a good idea what she would sound like to a stranger, though. He looked over at her; she looked back, the fear on her face showing that she’d been thinking the same thing.

“OK,” said Zach, “I guess it would be easiest to start at the beginning. I wasn’t around yet, but I have access to Lisa’s memories and I know what happened.

“There never was a ‘Bio-Server Project’ per se. That name got added later. What they,” he shrugged. “we, were working on was Mental Interface. There had been MI devices since the mid-2000’s: game controllers mostly, but nobody could figure out how to move data from the Web to the human brain and back again. We were all a little afraid to try.” He chuckled, “We were afraid we’d fry somebody’s brain.”

“Why is that funny?” asked Christie.

“Because of how it turned out. It took the project a couple of years to figure out how to do the transfer, and then they spent another year trying to work up the nerve to actually hook somebody to the servers. Finally one of the techs volunteered.

“The first few tests were pretty harmless, very tightly controlled. So tight, in fact, that we didn’t learn anything from them. Finally somebody got a brilliant idea. Instead of baby-stepping our way along downloading to the brain, we’d upload from the brain as much as we could. We figured that this would give us an upper limit to what a person could handle, and then we’d reduce the bandwidth down to some value below that for a safety margin. You should have seen it...”

* * *

Lisa watched Hector shift under the weight of the helmet. In front of him, a small oil painting was propped on a stand.

The chief of project, Rita, leaned forward, “OK, Hector, I know you know this, but I want to reiterate. Just look at the painting and try to send as much as you can about it to the server. If you start to feel uncomfortable in any way, I want you to stop immediately. Don’t try to be a hero; we don’t pay you for that. OK?”

Hector started to nod and the helmet slipped. Swearing, he pushed it back into place and said, “Got it.”

She looked over at the techs monitoring the link and they nodded. “OK, Hector, whenever you’re ready.”

Lisa watched him glance at the painting briefly, and then lean forward gazing at it. Behind her, the monitoring technicians started scrambling out of their seats. Oblivious, Hector leaned forward and started running his fingers along the picture, tracing the brush strokes in the hardened paint. Lisa watched, fascinated; suddenly she smelled smoke.

* * *

“Smoke?” O’Leary asked.

“Smoke. He fried a 256 core server. In about thirty seconds. He said he felt fine; in fact he didn’t even realize he was sending yet. He said he was just getting an idea of the painting and was going to send in a minute or so.

“That happened every time anybody uploaded anything remotely real-world to a computer. After a while we figured it out. The brain is processing an almost infinite data load in real-time. Everybody thought that it just filters most of it out, but it doesn’t. It may decide that it’s not worth bringing to your conscious attention, but the data gets processed just the same.”

“So what happened?”

Lisa/Zach shrugged, “We quit worrying about frying people and started worrying about server capacity. We did manage to capture what he’d sent before the processors over-heated. It was an amazingly rich picture, there were details that you swore weren’t there. Especially where he’d been touching it. He’d translated the tactile data into visual data and added it to the file, which just about overflowed the available storage.”

She paused. “We did take one last shot at establishing an upper limit. One of the techs was an amateur musician and had just performed Beethoven’s Pastoral with a local orchestra. She uploaded that along with her visual impressions. That time we had a full server farm with an up-rated cooling system. She didn’t fry it, but it was close. That file was posted online later and is still one of the most popular entertainment files on the Web. You’ve probably seen it; we named it Pandora’s Pastoral.”

O’Leary nodded. “Yeah, that was the only time I ever enjoyed hearing classical music.”

Christie nodded, “We’ve lost a lot of supporters from that one. How could you argue with the ability to experience something like that?”

Zach continued: “We still had real problems though. You could upload and download easily enough, but you couldn’t work online. When people got comfortable with MI they started trying to use it the way they would use their brain. And then they’d fry another server.

“The brain just isn’t linear. The engineers thought they knew parallel processing until they started talking to the brain. They had no idea what they were tapping into. It was funny for us at first. It’s always a little fun when you’re a tech watching engineers try one thing after another and seeing it fall apart. It always seems to take them down a notch or two.

“After a while, though, it got frustrating. We wanted to succeed too; we had all gotten to use the MI by now and were excited by what we could do with it. We’d try things on our own just to see if they would work. We had permission from engineering to do that as long as we didn’t break anything, which shows just how desperate they were getting. Hector was the best one with the Interface; he was the one who finally cracked the problem.”

* * *

Lisa watched Hector pick the helmet up to put it on. She barely admitted to herself the crush she had on him, but just watching him work made her go weak in the knees. She’d never met his wife, but she was pretty sure she hated her.

He looked over at her and grinned. “Hey, Lisa, watch this.” He put the helmet on as she got up and walked over to his station. She looked at the screen as he ran through a test series.

“So? I don’t see anything special happening. We’ve all run this pattern, Hector.”

His voice muffled by the helmet, “Look at the speed and CPU usage graphs.”

She leaned closer and keyed the windows to full screen. The graph for speed spiked straight to the top. Nobody had ever managed to come close, not even running a server without MI. Then she looked at the CPU graph. It hovered around zero, just barely running enough to perform basic maintenance.

“What are you doing?”

She could hear the grin in his voice. “Doing it in my head. I looked at the code yesterday because something wasn’t acting right. This morning I came up with an idea to streamline it and decided to run it. I hadn’t uploaded it yet so I thought I’d try just running it from my head to see what would happen. This is what I saw. Try it.”

Excited, she ran back over to her station and put the helmet on; mentally summoning the code of another test program she’d been working on. Reaching out, she connected with the computer and uploaded the test data, mentally plugging it into the code and dumping the results back to the server.

It was like waking up one morning and realizing you could fly just by thinking about it. The test pattern was done almost before it was started. She took the helmet off to find Hector looking over her shoulder watching the screen.

He nodded approvingly, “Thanks, Lisa. Now I know I’m not crazy.” He smiled impersonally and walked away. She shook her head. Why is it that men are like parking spots: all the good ones either taken or handicapped?

* * *

“What happened then?” O’Leary asked.

“We kept it to ourselves for a while. We weren’t trying to hide anything from Engineering; we just wanted to make sure we were doing what we thought we were doing. By the end of the week the whole team was in on it, we were all trying things in our heads just to see if it would work.

“We still had the upload/download problem, but another tech licked that. It turned out he had an idea for compressing data, but had never been able to figure out how to program it. He tried it anyway just thinking about how it should work and it did.

“After that, things really started going fast.” Lisa/Zach shook her head. “You should have seen Rita’s face when we reported that all of the test routines were finished and the data was waiting for analysis. It took them a few days to get that done; in the meantime we were playing with our new skills. It was Hector who first started messing around with AI’s.”

Zach paused. “Lisa? Would you mind telling this part? I don’t really like it.”

“Of course, Zachary.” O’Leary noticed how the voice and mannerisms changed as Lisa took up the story. “The engineers got very excited when they found out what we’d been doing. Rita wasn’t sure whether to fire us or promote us. She compromised by promoting Hector, since it had been his idea, and giving the rest of us raises.

“Within a few weeks the project was over. We’d done everything they wanted us to do and more. The only problem was that it didn’t work if you didn’t know what you were doing. We knew users wouldn’t like that very much. Nobody wants to have to learn how to program a computer just so they can balance their checkbook or surf the Web.

“We tried a couple of approaches; the first one was having an assistant in your head. You would talk to it and then it would do all the work. It was powerful. Hector built a couple of experimental ones and then a full-on word-processing AI he named Simon.”

O’Leary jumped but decided not to interrupt.

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2010 by Karlos Allen

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