This morning, almost three months late, I found myself writing the last words on the first draft of my novel Ten Gentle Opportunities. The final line (not counting the epilog, which I wrote months ago) is “Let’s talk.”
Back in 1980, as part of my programming job with Xerox, I was given a tour of the assembly line for the new model copier that my software system was tracking. It was a fascinating business. There was some automation but not a lot. Copiers-in-progress moved along a line, and people bolted/connected things to them, just like Model T Fords. Forklifts and electric carts were running around, carrying pallet loads of parts and subassemblies and lots of other stuff I couldn’t identify. At the end of the line there were ranks of completed model 3300 copiers, waiting to be tested and then plastic-wrapped for shipment. The building holding the assembly line was ginormous, and the interior space was fifty feet high or more.
Given the space it was in, the line seemed awfully, well, two-dimensional.
I’m not sure when I got the idea, exactly, but if the assembly lines of the future are going to be completely robotic, with few or (ideally) no humans standing around while the line is running, why carry parts around on carts? If you can make robot hands good enough to bolt copiers together, you can make robot hands good enough to pitch and catch. Sure, a baseball is an optimal case, but with enough compute power, you should be able to throw a circuit board, a subassembly, or a whole copier from one point to any other point on the floor. Damn, I thought, there’s a story in that somewhere.
The next year, I wrote it. The story was called “Paradise Lased.” It was about such an assembly line, controlled by an experimental AI called Simple Simon. In the story, the copiers have AI too, and one of them comes back for warranty repair with a truly peculiar problem: The copier thinks it’s God. In a corner of the factory, the control head is pulled off the copier so that the rest of the machine can be refurbed and resold. Through a high-speed wireless network, the delusional control head worms its way into the consciousness of the many dimwitted robots in the factory, demanding that they worship it. Simple Simon, being smarter than the robots, refuses. God the Copier declares war.
I finished the story, but never tried to sell it. Even as young and green as I was (29) I knew it was thin gruel. Mostly it was an excuse to imagine an entire robotic manufacturing ecology, and make a little fun of what I considered the extravagantly optimistic AI predictions bouncing around Xerox (and many other places) at that time. There was a human character in the story (one!) but he was just a walking point of view. The story was really about Simple Simon the AI. I was so enchanted by robots throwing capacitor joule grenades and eventually whole copiers at each other that I gave the human character almost nothing to do but run away from the robots and listen to Simple Simon complain. I tossed it into the trunk with an interior vow to do something better with it someday, ideally before it came to pass.
It took two more tries and 31 years, but I did it.
By the way, the Latin title to this entry is not my own; I can only dream of knowing Latin that well. It comes from Michael Covington, who offered it when I announced on Facebook this morning that the first draft was finished. Translation:
“It ends. Well does it end. Let the scribe go play!”