Read The Complete Roderick Online

Authors: John Sladek

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

The Complete Roderick (48 page)

BOOK: The Complete Roderick
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‘Of course, Leo. Hypothesis-building.’

‘Then don’t you see? The robot is the ultimate human hypothesis. What better way of making sense out of the world, than through complete copies of ourselves? How better to model our inner and outer world? Ben, we need the robot – we need the
of the robot.’

Franklin lit his cigarette and tapped it. ‘The idea, maybe, but I’m not worried about the idea. It’s the embodiment.’

‘Yes, we’re building a real robot. We’re doing what everyone has always wanted to do, down through the ages. If the Jews could have built a real
do you think they would have hesitated? Or the Cretans, wouldn’t they want a real Talos? If myths are just wishes, isn’t it obvious what they were all wishing for? Dolls and statues from the terra-cotta past … puppets and manequins today … The idea of the wish for the robot is so, so very powerful … What child doesn’t like Punch and Judy? What grownup won’t pause to watch a ventriloquist at work? My God, when I was a kid, do you know they even had a ventriloquist on the radio – on the radio!’

Franklin flicked ash. ‘I don’t get it.’

‘Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on the damned radio. You see, the novelty of a talking doll was so powerful, we didn’t even need to see the doll. There didn’t even have to be a doll! All we needed was the
of a Charlie McCarthy!’

Flick, flick. ‘Okay sure, you think the robot idea is powerful. Only it still might be kind of tough on us, having all these puppets around who are also our intellectual equals. We won’t be able to shut
up in their boxes after each performance, we’ll have to live with them. Could make quite a rip in the old social fabric, Leo.’

‘But maybe an inevitable rip. Anyway, we’re the team to make the historic incision.’ Bunsky briefly saw them all gathered around an operating table,
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp.
Then he saw another picture …

‘Something funny?’ Ben Franklin asked.

‘Nothing really, just remembered a notion I had for a science-fiction movie – well it’s nothing.’

‘I’d like to hear it.’

‘All I really have is this opening scene. There’s a human brain floating in a tank of water and pulsating with light. These scientists in white lab coats are leaning over it, looking grave, with the pulsating light reflected in their eyes. Then the camera begins to pull back, so we see the tank is an office water cooler. One of the scientists takes down a paper cup and gets himself a drink.’

‘He’s laughing now,’ said the older of the two men in white lab coats. He pointed to a screen where a jagged line bobbed and danced. ‘There, he just told a joke.’

‘Really? A joke? How do you know?’ The younger man kept turning away from the instrument panel to look directly into the tank where Leo Bunsky’s brain floated in water.

The older man pointed to a different screen. ‘We know everything he thinks. See right now he thinks he’s in his old office, back at some jerkwater Northern university, still working on a big secret “robot” project. And he thinks he’s talking to a colleague named Franklin. Franklin must have been a pretty good friend of his, because we never have any trouble producing him. We use Franklin as an input dummy.’

‘Input dummy? Afraid I don’t understand the technical side of this. Do you mean we can talk to this – this guy?’

‘Precisely. Now I’m not entirely familiar with the technical details myself. The wiring must be unimaginable. But I gather that we somehow stimulate vision and hearing centres to produce an hallucination of this Franklin, and then we somehow manipulate the hallucination. Of course we get output from Leo’s speech centres too.’ He pointed to another screen. ‘There, his joke is just coming up now.’

The younger man kept craning around to peer at the brain itself, but now he turned back to see:

Scientists are leaning over,

looking into a grave. A watery

grave. One of them has to be

pulled back. He lowers his cup

to get a stiff drink.

‘Not much of a sense of humour,’ said the younger man.

‘Well it probably loses something in the processing,’ said the other, pushing a few buttons. ‘Now we can also monitor his general thoughts, read his mind so to speak.’

am a maam a man of parts Dr

Gulp hands of a murderer drip

drip riverrun or creektrickle

O Rijn maiden God’s immerse

anatomical babies in jars drip

drip father fathomful drip

are those pearls eyes of an

artist pools

‘Interesting,’ said the younger man. ‘But you know I keep wondering why? Why go to all this trouble to find out what one computer scientist is thinking?’

‘Oh Leo isn’t just any computer scientist, he’s very special. A first-class brain, if you’ll pardon the expression. Let’s take a pew and I’ll tell you about Leo.’

There were comfortable theatre seats banked along one side of the room. The two men took seats in the front row, a pair of critics. The older man folded and unfolded his liver-spotted hands a few times before he began.

‘You know, Otto Neurath once said science is a boat you have to rebuild even while you’re at sea in it. In Leo’s case he was launched as an electrical engineer, drifted into communications theory and finally rebuilt his boat as a linguist. And so it was that Leo turned out to be the right man at the right time for a very special project. Building a so-called robot. Or as we prefer to say, an

He paused for effect. But the younger man was watching an attendant polish the glass front of Leo’s tank, wiping away fingermarks.

‘They called it Project – Rubric was it? Roderick, I believe, though what’s in a name, they had cover names galore, a very
secretive bunch. And no wonder, because it turned out they were swindling funding out of NASA, heavy funding.’

‘They were just crooks?’

‘On the contrary, they had plenty of genuine talent. The team was headed by Lee Fong –’

‘The pattern-recognition guy? I’ve heard of him.’

The liver-spotted hands were folded again. ‘You may know the others too, all first-class br— people. So they had heavy funding, heavy talent, and I guess heavy luck. Because they blitzed through some incredibly tough problems and actually got their Entity built.’

The younger man was now listening with his full attention. ‘Go on. What was it?’

‘It was a “viable” learning machine incorporating some of Leo’s best ideas. By the time they built it, Leo Bunsky himself was officially dead, but his ideas lived on. The Roderick Entity was a great success – if you can call it a success to endanger humanity – and it was Leo Bunsky who made it possible for the thing to talk.

‘Of course there were the others, Fong and Mendez and Sonnenschein, all brilliant, but Leo made it talk. I wish sometimes we could tell him about his success.’

‘He doesn’t know?’ The younger man looked to the tank.

‘All he knows is, he went into the hospital for open-heart surgery, came out wonderfully well, and went back to work. In fact he died on the table. Our people were there, and they managed to get his brain – and now Leo works for us!’

‘As a kind of devil’s advocate, I suppose.’

‘Precisely. Precisely.’ Wrinkled reptilian eyelids came down over bright reptilian eyes. ‘Leo sits in his office, “Franklin” comes in and asks him some questions about the future of artificial intelligence research. He tells “Franklin” what he thinks, and we have our answer. We know what has to be stopped.’

The younger man watched the attendant breathe on the glass to clear a fingermark. ‘Of course I’m new around here, but frankly I don’t get it. Why does the Orinoco Institute keep on spending money to sabotage robot research, Entity I mean, when every year there’s going to be more and more new research? I mean it sounds like a holding action that isn’t even holding. Aren’t Entities inevitable? Aren’t they becoming a fact of life?’

‘That’s certainly one of Leo’s arguments, inevitability. But you know, in all of our scenarios, Entities are a decidedly negative development. Ultimately they signal the collapse of our way of life, the death of our culture. I do not mean just American or Western culture, I mean human culture. And if we at the Institute have one over-riding loyalty, I believe it must be to our own species.’ His head swivelled sharply, the lizard eyes opening in a hypnotic stare. ‘Don’t you agree?’

‘Well sure, naturally. But are we really sure that humanity is threatened by, by Entities?’

‘Oh, we’ve worked it out. In all eight scenarios.’

‘In all three modes?’

‘Yes, yes. To six significant figures.’

The younger man shrugged. ‘Six? Then that’s that. I can’t argue with six significant figures.’ He was silent for a minute, staring at the backs of his own hands. On the right one was a small blemish that might in time become a liver spot.

‘So poor Leo Bunsky helped us sabotage his own work. I suppose we did shut down this Project Rubric?’

‘Roderick. Let’s just say, events shut it down with a little help from us. We managed to get the director, Lee Fong, deported to Taipin. I understand he now fixes old poker-playing machines in a low gambling den. And he’ll never have a better job; we dissuaded all reputable firms from hiring him. And let me see – one or two of the others are confined to mental wards for the nonce. Yes, Project Roderick is certainly shut down.’

‘And the Entity? You said they actually built something. Did you destroy it or what?’

There was a hesitation, an Adam’s apple leaping in a wrinkled reptilian throat. ‘Well, in fact … one or two problems there … Entity was taken outside the project and raised more or less as a human child in a human home. We had trouble finding it.’


‘As I said, it was a learning machine. And what it learned was to play human. It “grew up”. Became much harder to find and neutralize. The Agency did find it and sent someone, but they ran into some bad luck.’ A throat cleared, with the sound of tearing paper. ‘Bad luck. And now the thing has dropped out of sight again. It is still at large.’

‘I’ll be damned. Still clanking around on the loose. Still chugging up and down the streets, a free robot. Sounds like your worst scenario is about to be realized, and so what?’ The younger man thought of saying this and more. He thought of saying, ‘What could be worse, anyway, than our scenario for poor Leo here? Poor unfree Leo – would any robot do
to him?’

But aloud, all he said was, ‘Still at large, hmm.’

‘At random, one might say …’


He had taken only a few steps when he heard rapid footfalls behind him.
The guard then ran forward to seize him.

‘That is good!’ he said, as Edgar shot a tall Arab who was rushing at him with uplifted spear. The other Arab got up from the water and placed himself behind the fellow with the knife.

Two of his incisors were lying beside his nose, plastered there with blood. As for the policeman, he had at first seemed indifferent to the fallen man; but after the first shriek he approached him, raised his club and struck him a terrible blow on the temple. The big Irish cop, who’d slapped me before, clouted me from behind with his club.

‘The fancy footwork’s all over for this hoodlum.’ So saying, the detective drew back his foot and kicked poor Lem behind the ear even harder than his colleague had done. Every time he cursed, one of the detectives struck him in the face with his fist. But then the coppers started up all around me. Rau approached the captain and shot him twice.

The blue plastic bowls came in through the pantry hatch. He would first scrape excess food from each bowl into a counter hole, then rinse with a hand-held spray and place upside down in a wire rack, twelve bowls to each rack and three racks to a conveyor stack ready to be loaded on the conveyor leading to the dishwashing machine for which detergent had to be measured and dropped in the top trap before each stack moved through from first wash to final rinse and emerged, ready to be loaded on the cart which took six stacks or eighteen racks or 216 clean pale blue plastic bowls each bearing a white Wedgwood-style cartouche marked DDD opposite an identical white Wedgwood-style cartouche marked DDD, the cart bearing 1296 Ds would then be rolled by him into the pantry and an identical cart full of empty racks be rolled back into the greasy kitchen to continue the cycle.

One of the men had smashed his fist into Julia’s solar plexus, doubling her up like a pocket ruler. A gun muzzle poked into the back of my neck. He pulled
the axe quite out, swung it with both arms, scarcely conscious of himself, and almost without effort, almost mechanically, brought the blunt side down on her head. She shot him five times in the stomach.

The day he found himself dragging pregnant women into the town square where their stomachs were slit open and the foetuses pulled out, his sensibilities were so outraged that he could no longer be part of the Communist organization. Aramis had already killed one of his adversaries, but the other was pressing him warmly. Jim Parsons, trying to creep out of his cabin porthole, was hit on the head and dropped into the sea. The men struggled knee-deep in water. I took a firm grasp on the rail with my left hand and drew my dagger. As soon as I saw his head in a favourable position, I struck him heavily with the poker, just over the fourth cervical. The Boy suddenly drew back his hand and slashed with his razored nail at Brewster’s cheek. He grasped a thick oaken cudgel in his bare right hand. And Ehud put forth his left hand, and took the dagger from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. We stan up at the same time an I feel my goddam heart pumpin an Rod hand me his blade. The dagger was an afterthought.

The cycle was never completed without a hitch. An enormous number of bowls would come through the hatch streaming with half-eaten food which could not be scraped until he had emptied the overflowing garbage can beneath the counter hole or then a shortage of clean, empty wire racks would be discovered or then the detergent would run out or finally the cart that should be waiting for stacks of racks of clean bowls would be found in the back kitchen, piled high with dirty pots, and while he emptied the garbage can or searched the pantry for wire racks or fetched a new barrel of detergent from the basement or began scouring the pile of pots, there would be a call for ice for the pantry, towels for the cook, spilled liquid to be mopped and salted at once, while the dirty bowls continued to pile up and perhaps the dish-washing machine jammed, so that even though he felt he was coping with everything; he was not, and even though he felt he could accept stoically the screams of the waitresses, the snarls of the cook, the blows of Mr Danton, Roderick’s fantasies became filled with paperback violence.

BOOK: The Complete Roderick
13.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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