Read The Complete Roderick Online

Authors: John Sladek

Tags: #Artificial Intelligence, #Fiction, #General, #High Tech, #SciFi-Masterwork, #Science Fiction, #Computers

The Complete Roderick (3 page)

BOOK: The Complete Roderick
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‘Yeah, but we got the dirt on this old –’

‘Forget it. Make out a confidential report for all heads of departments, but keep it in the family. Bury and forget, for NASA’s sake.’ Bob handed him the robot notes and he started reading them, as he talked. ‘I mean otherwise how’s it gonna look for us? Being ripped off by some dumb asshole who blows the whole wad on old planes, how’s that gonna look? Congress heard about this they’d shut us down so fast – robots, huh? Maybe I better wire the Orinoco Institute about this, have ’em drop in on this University of Minnehaha. Them Orinoco eggheads collect robots just like this dirty mother-fucker collected flying trash. I recollect they got a standing memo about reporting attempts to make robots.’

‘Yes sir, but how can we keep it in the family if we go telling the Orinoco Inst –?’

‘You let me handle that, junior. All they care about is in this here batch of notes – no need to tell ’em any financial details.’ His hand shook as he turned a page. ‘Don’t know how we’re gonna clean up this mess, get rid of them old planes and make it all look good, but that’s just what we’re gonna do. So get to work, boys. Any questions?’

‘Yes sir. Okay if we have Stonecraft sell the old planes to a NASA subsidiary at scrap value and then auction –’

‘Sell ’em, burn ’em, do what you like. Keep ’em flying, I don’t care.’

‘Sir?’

‘His last words on the radio, they tell me. “Keep ’em flying.” Just before he piled his old Belaire Something-or-other into a mountain in Colorado. If he was alive, I’d kill the sonofabitch myself.’ Masterson sat down at the telex keyboard. The boys exchanged winks.

‘Sir, I thought Belaire was an old car, hahahaha.’

‘Just shut up and move your ass! I gotta send two wires, and I don’t want to make no mistakes.’

Kevin made an invoice into a paper airplane and sailed it over to Bob. ‘Funny thing, though, it was a computer error that put us wise to old Stonecraft in the first place.’

The conference room was full of pipe smoke.

‘We’ll have to send someone, of course.’

‘Of course. To check it out. Though –’

‘Exactly. Minnetonka has a point oh three, not much likelihood of –’

‘Exactly.’

The telex message passed from one liver-spotted hand to another. ‘Still, remember St Petersburg? Point oh oh seven only, yet look what turned up. We’d best be prepared –’

‘For a revised scenario? Of course. We’ll do all the usual extrapolations, based on personnel information –’

‘Which is never up-to-date, remember.’

‘Exactly. In the last analysis –’

‘No matter how good our figures are, we have to –’

‘Send someone. Precisely.’

Someone sighed, sending pipe smoke scudding across the page.

‘Someone from the agency?’

‘Naturally. Who else could we use? And they do get the goods.’

Another sigh. ‘But the way they get them – do they have to –?’

‘You know they do. We’ve worked that out in all three scenarios, in all eight modes. To six significant figures.’

‘But our assumptions –’

‘Are all we have. In the last analysis.’

‘Undeniably. So we send someone.’

‘Of course.’

The ivory-coloured door swung open, admitting Rogers, Fong and a breeze that disturbed the wrinkled paper on the desk.

‘… can see you’re disappointed, okay but let me explain, let me just – five minutes, you can spare that?’

‘Nearly three a.m., Lee, why don’t we call it a day?’

‘No listen I’ll lend you a book, it’ll help you understand. It’s here somewhere, just sit down a minute, while I …
Learning Systems
it’s called, learning systems, you have to know something about them otherwise how can you explain things to your committee?’

Rogers sat sideways in the armchair again, preparing to tap his foot on air. The slow smile opening on his Mr Peanut face might have been a sneer. ‘Not
my
committee, Lee. Hell, I’m only one of twenty-four members. Dr Boag has the chair. And I ought to warn you, there’s plenty of hostility there. Not many committee members are as open-minded as I am about this, ahm, this artificial intelligence. Frankly, one or two think it’s faintly blasphemous – and quite a few more think it’s a waste of time.’ The smile widened. ‘Can’t say I’m in a position to enlighten them, either.’

‘Sure, that’s why I … here somewhere …’ Fong finished running his thumb along the books on his shelves and started searching through an untidy pile on his desk. ‘Because I know they’re hostile, but the committee’s our only chance. And you, sometimes I think you’re our only chance with the committee. At least you’re the only one interested enough to come here and look at … at what we’re trying to do.’ He stopped to look at Rogers’s tapping foot. ‘You are interested, a little?’

‘Gooood niiight bayyy – sorry, can’t get the damn tune out of my head. Interested, Lee? Of course I’m interested – even if I don’t see the concrete results, I feel, I
sense
a quality here, how to describe it, an air of imminent discovery. I’ve got faith in your little project, I think it has tremendous possibilities. I was just saying so today – yesterday, I mean – to one of your colleagues, Ben Franklin.’

‘You know Ben?’

‘We play the occasional game of handball, and I try to pick his
brain – you see, I
am
interested – and in fact it was Ben who suggested I might drop over and talk to you some time. You or whoever was here.’

‘And tour the lab?’ Fong let the other armchair take his weight. ‘Look, I know it was a disappointment to you, I guess you were expecting more of a, a show.’

The smile again, and Rogers looked away. ‘Well, can’t say I was very impressed. I mean, all I could see was this skinny kid in a dirty t-shirt, sitting there in this glass box pushing buttons, like –’

‘I tried to explain, Dan’s just doing some delicate on-line programming, he –’

‘Yeah, well, too bad he couldn’t stop and talk for a minute. I mean just sitting there like a disc jockey or some, like that pope whatsit in the Francis Bacon painting, can’t say that impressed me, no. As for the rest, a lot of computers and screens and things, I could see those anywhere, and what are they supposed to mean to a layman? I expected – I don’t know –’

‘You wanted a steel man with eyes lighting up? “Yes Master?”, that kind of robot? Listen, Roderick’s not like that. He’s not, he doesn’t even have a body, not yet, he’s just, he’s a learning system –
where is that goddamned book?
I know I had it … A learning system isn’t a thing, maybe we shouldn’t even call him a robot, he’s more of a, he’s like a
mind.
I guess you could call him an artificial mind.’

Rogers looked at the ceiling, revealing more pock marks under his chin. Now the smile was an open sneer. ‘I didn’t know you hard-science men played with words like that. The mind: the ghost in the machine, not exactly the stuff of hard science, is it? I mean, am I supposed to tell the committee I came to see the machine and all you could show me was the ghost?’

‘Roderick’s no ghost, he’s real enough but he’s, the money ran out before we could build his body and get him ready for – but listen, we’ve got a kind of makeshift body I could show you, something like the Stanford Shakey only it’s still dead, he’s not –’

‘What makes you think I’m so goddamned interested in bodies, all of a sudden? Dead machines, dead – I’m not – that’s not what I –’

‘And even then when he’s in his body he won’t do much for a while, he’ll be like a helpless baby at first. See that essay I showed you, Roderick didn’t write that, he –’

‘What the hell here?’

‘No, that was written by a computer using a model of just part of his, part of a learning system. See, we grow it to maturity on its own, each part. That was linguistic analogy, we grew it to – if I could only find that book, I could –’

‘Forget about the damned book. I already have a book Ben loaned me, I didn’t come down here to look at dead machinery and borrow a book. I came to find out what makes you tick.’

‘Me?’

‘You, Dan Sonnenschein in there in his glass box, all of you. Christ, I’m not a cybernetician, I’m a sociologist. What really interests me is not this
thing,
this so-called
mind,
it’s
your
minds. Your motivation.’

‘My motivation?’

Rogers adjusted his glasses and suddenly looked professorial. ‘You all seem highly motivated to pursue this, ahm, this Frankensteinian goal, shall we say? But just what is the nature of your commitment?’

‘What?’

I want to elicit a hard-edge definition here of your total commitment. Of your motivational
Gestalt,
if that doesn’t sound too pompous. Why do you believe you can succeed where others have failed? Why is it important that you succeed – important to you, that is. What’s your – gut reaction to all this? And why do
you
feel I should get the committee to vote for it?’

‘This is silly, my feelings have nothing to do with –’

‘So you feel, anyway. You feel you’re only seeking after objective truth here, right? But that too is only a feeling. I’m trying to help you, Lee, but I need something to run with. Not just dead machines, but tangible motivations.’

‘Well … what we’re doing is important. And it’s never been done before. And it works. Isn’t that enough?’

Rogers grinned. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I respect the utilitarian ethic as much as the next guy. Gosh, science is swell, and all that. If it works, do it, and all that. But it’s not really enough, is it? What about the social impact of your work? Do we really need robots at all? Are they a good thing for society? I don’t believe you’ve really thought through the implications there, Lee. Then there’s the effect
on you –
the well-known observer effect.’

‘That’s not what it –’

‘No, you’ve had your say, how about letting me have mine? How does it affect you, playing God like this – creating man all over again? How does it make you feel? Touch of
hubris?
More than a touch of arrogance, I’ll bet.’

‘Arrogance? Just because I said it’s important? Damn it, it
is
important, if we didn’t believe that why would we be working on it? Roderick’s important, a model of human learning –’

‘Take it easy now, Lee. Remember, I’m on your side. I just want to know how it feels, playing God – sorry, but there’s no other word for it, is there? Playing God, how does it feel?’

Fong opened his mouth and took a few deep breaths before replying. ‘I wouldn’t know. Not unless God’s got a bad stomach. Got a bleeding ulcer myself – I
feel
that, all right.’

‘I’m s –’

‘With Leo Bunsky it was his heart. Just worn out, he should have retired years ago. Finally had to quit, but you should have seen him, dragging himself in to work with his legs all swollen up like elephantiasis – maybe you should have asked
him
how it felt.’

‘Let’s be fair now, Lee, I –’

‘Too late now, he’s dead. And Mary Mendez, she’s as good as dead. Started working eighty hours at a stretch, piled up her car one night on the way home. Now she’s over there in the Health Service ward where they feed her and change her diapers and she doesn’t feel a damned thing.’

‘No, listen, this is tragic of course, but it’s got nothing to do with –’

‘What we feel? Sure it does, it’s all you want, right? The grassroots feelings, the opinion sample. The others are pretty much okay, as far as I know, but you could always ask them. Only Dan Sonnenschein, he’s started living in the lab, eating and sleeping in there –
when
he eats,
when
he sleeps – so he can keep on, pushing Roderick through one more test, just one more before they take it all away from us. Dan doesn’t have time to feel.’

‘Now take it easy, I know you all work hard, that’s not –’

‘What the hell are we supposed to feel? Arrogant? With the whole thing, our work for four years, washed out by some NASA bureaucrat? With the whole thing up before you and your committee of boneheads, all ready to pull the rug out from under
us? That doesn’t make me feel arrogant at all. I feel like crawling and begging for another chance, just enough money for a few more months, weeks even – only the trouble is, it wouldn’t do a damned bit of good. Would it?’

‘I’m on your side, Lee, believe me. I’ve got faith in –’

‘Why don’t you go away? I don’t know what you want here, but we haven’t got it. Go on back to your opinion polls and your charts, your showing how many people brush their teeth before they make love, how many sports fans voted for Nixon. Social science, you call
that
science! Christ, what do you think? Science is some kind of opinion poll too?’

Rogers stood up. ‘I’m not sure I like that imputation. Okay, it’s late, you’re upset. But –’

‘You just came to check the trend, right? Science is just like any other damned opinion poll, right? How many think Jupiter has moons? You think Galileo took a damned straw vote on it? Think he worked it up in a few histograms, tested the market reaction? Damn you, certain things are true, certain things are worth finding out, and it doesn’t matter what you or I or Dan or anybody else – So just go away, will you? Just go and, and vote the way
you
feel, and to hell with your committee and to hell with you!’

Rogers fumbled for the door-handle behind him. His smile was pulling slightly to one side. ‘You’re overwrought, tired. Maybe we can rap again some time, before the committee meeting. Some time when you’re more yourself.’ But he couldn’t resist an exit: ‘Some time when you’re not Galileo, I mean.’

The door was already closed when Fong’s bottle of Quink crashed against it. He sat quietly for some time, staring at the Permanent Blue splash from which a few dribbles worked their way down. A shape like that could be anything. Could be the silhouette of an old Bell transistor.

Before dawn the blizzard blew itself away. One or two constellations put in a brief appearance in the fading sky, though of course there was no helmsman on the stiff white sea below who could name them. The star-gazing
had vanished from the earth, leaving only his name to be derived from Greek into
cybernetics
and from Latin into a name for petty State officials.
Computers steered ships and charted invisible stars, while men had grown so unused to looking at the sky that fourteen hundred citizens each year mistook Venus (rising now naked from the white foam) for a flying saucer.

BOOK: The Complete Roderick
6.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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