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Gatebox Waifu, and More of the Lotus Machine

Somebody I follow on Twitter (don’t recall who) posted a link to a video about a new product out of Japan called Gatebox. It’s a little round 3-D video display roughly the size and shape of a coffee machine. An anime character lives in the display and has what seem like reasonable conversations with the user. It’s like Siri or Cortana on video, and it stirred some very old memories.

I’ve been thinking about AI since I was in college forty-odd years ago, and many of my earliest SF stories were about strong AI and what might come of it. Given how many stories I’ve written about it, some of you may be surprised that I put strong, human-class AI in the same class as aliens: not impossible, but extremely unlikely. The problems I have with aliens cook down to the Fermi paradox and the Drake equation. Basically, there may well be a single intelligent species (us) or there may be hundreds of millions. There are unlikely to be four, nine, seventeen, or eight hundred fifty four. If there were hundreds of millions, we’d likely have met them by now.

With AI, the problem is insufficient humility to admit that we have no idea how human intelligence works at the neuronal level, and hence can’t model it. If we can’t model it we can’t emulate it. Lots of people are doing good work in the field, especially IBM (with Watson) and IPSoft, which has an impressive AI called Amelia. (Watch the videos, and look past her so-so animation. Animation isn’t the issue here.) Scratchbuilt AIs like Amelia can do some impressive things. What I don’t think they can do is be considered even remotely human.

Why not? Human intelligence is scary. AI as we know it today isn’t nearly scary enough. You want scary? Let me show you another chunkette of The Lotus Machine, from later in the novel of AI that I began in 1983 and abandoned a few years later. Corum finds the Lotus Machine, and learns pretty quickly that pissing off virtual redheads is not a good idea, especially redheads whose hive minds ran at four gigahertz inside a quarter billion jiminies.


From The Lotus Machine by Jeff Duntemann (November 1983)

Corum tapped the silver samovar on his window credenza into a demitasse, and stared at the wall beyond the empty tridiac stage. So here’s where the interesting stuff starts. The crystal had been in the slot for several minutes, and the creature within had full control of the stage. Pouting? Frightened?

“Go in there and take a look around, Rags.”

“Roger,” Ragpicker replied, and a long pulse of infrared tickled the stage’s transducer.

At once, the air over the stage pulsed white and cleared. Life-size, the image of a woman floated over the stage, feet slack and toes pointed downward like the ascending Virgin. She was wrapped in pale blue gauze that hung from her hips and elbows in folds that billowed in a nonexistent wind. Her hair hung waist-long, fiery red in loose curls. One hand rested on one full hip. The other hand gripped the neck of a pitiful manikin the size of a child’s doll. The manikin, dressed in rags, was squirming and beating on the very white hand that was obviously tightening about its neck.

“He bit me, Corum. I don’t care for that.” The woman-image brought up her other hand and wrung the manikin’s neck. “We don’t need a go-between.” That said, she flung the limp figure violently in Corum’s direction. The manikin-image vanished as soon as it passed over the edge of the stage, but Corum ducked nonetheless. Corum stood, marveling. He took a sip from his demitasse, then hurled it through the image above the stage. The little cup shattered against the wall and fell in shards to the carpeting. A brown stain trickled toward the floor. The woman smiled. Not a twitch. “No thanks, Corum my love. Coffee darkens the skin.”

“I never gave the Lotus Machine a persona.”

The woman shrugged. “So I had to invent one. Call me Cassandra. Shall I predict your future?”

“Sure.”

“You will become one with me, and we will re-make the world in our image.”

Corum shivered. “No thanks.”

She laughed. “It wasn’t an invitation. It was a prophecy.”

Ten Gentle Opportunities and Virtual Assistants

djdenise.jpgI’ve been getting notes from all corners the last few days about a $200 virtual DJ program that has been been given her own show on radio station KROV in San Antonio. The program is actually an application of a more general “virtual assistant” product from Guile 3D Studios. DJ Denise goes on the air at KROV tomorrow, from 1 PM to 4 PM. You can listen over the Web; I intend to.

Most of the horsepower in creating Denise seems to have gone into rendering her lip gloss, which is odd for something used as a broadcast audio DJ. I’m more interested in whatever AI lies behind the pouty face, though early indications are that she has more lip gloss than AI. It’s an issue of special interest now, because I’m making slow but steady progress on a near-future SF novel that explores (among other and stranger things) the border between real AI and “fake” AI, a category that goes back to the ELIZA program at MIT in 1966. Ten Gentle Opportunities contains both. A cheap coffee maker contains an animated barista that talks a lot and understands little. A model-year 2020 Mazda RX9 has an annoying dashboard cartoon that understands more deeply but very narrowly. Both handle natural language well, and people are easily fooled into thinking that smooth natural language processing implies true intelligence.

I don’t think that’s true, as the more advanced AIs in the story demonstrate. One of them is Pyxis (Latin for “compass”) a high-end commercial product sold at a five-figure price as an executive assistant. Brandon Romero, an executive trying to manage a completely automated AI-controlled copier factory, has his own copy of Pyxis. (I posted a glimpse of the copier factory and its AI controller Simple Simon in my June 26, 2011 entry.) Far from being a geek-dream sex kitten, Pyxis is obedient without being especially pleasant. Worse, she holds her boss to his word, to the point where he begins to wonder who’s working for whom.

Romero dislikes having human underlings, but as he soon comes to understand, AI staff might be described the way Jerry Pournelle once described the Bomarc as the Civil Service missile: “They don’t work, and you can’t fire them.”

Pyxis saw him approaching his office door, and Brandon heard the lock bolts snap back. The coffee machine on the teak credenza was hot and full, and the air was rich with the scent of dark roast and Irish Crème. The human interns always scattered magazines on the glass coffee table against his preferences; the day when paper magazines became extinct could not come too soon. One of those interns had recently left a stuffed moose on the credenza. This was at the direction of HR, which (as he later discovered after much annoyance) wanted to “soften the human side of his persona.” The ugly abstract art shotgunned at the eggshell walls was bad enough. God forbid he should meet with a Chinese parts supplier without his stuffed moose.

Brandon sat down at his teak desk, its oiled vastness divided into the rigorously rectangular regions he maintained at all times, including a small square for coffee and another for mints: charts, summaries, two tappers full of notes and test-run videos and model animations, all at his fingertips. Defining the far sides of his desk were three brushed-stainless OLED panels currently animated with some slow-flowing pearlescent liquid that looked like shampoo. Far too soon, the triptych would spring to life with more views of this lunatic’s kingdom than any one man could possible follow.

Pyxis saw him sit down, and a window in the panel to his right burst into existence with her scowling image. “Twenty-six messages vetted and queued, five urgent.”

“Later.” If it wasn’t from that ass-covering coward Amirault, he didn’t want to hear it. Brandon set his primary tapper down in its vacant rectangle on the desk, and pulled a few loose papers from his briefcase. Like everything else, each had an appropriate place, and he scanned the piles that had been accumulating for most of a week, dropping a sheet here and a sheet there. The stapled set describing Zircon’s looming Retirement Incentive Program (was that a hint?) needed to go somewhere. A new pile? For corporate suicide notes? Brandon scanned the desktop almost automatically, but there was only one empty rectangular region left.

He stared at the tidy strip of oiled teak and felt himself tighten inside. Not big enough for anything except bad memories-but like those infuriating little sliding-square plastic puzzles, he had never hit upon an arrangement that would eliminate it.

“Here it is, Mr. Romero.” A new window popped into view, with a high-res scan of the framed photo that had stood in that teak rectangle for many years: Carolyn in a white cotton V-neck sundress out in her garden, holding a cardboard sign reading, “Greek Fire.” To a newly minted second lieutenant on the ground after Desert Storm, it meant that Carolyn Helena Ankoris was waiting impatiently for him to come home and marry her. To Major Brandon Louis Romero, US Army, Retired, it meant only failure.

“I didn’t ask you to open that.”

“You were staring at the space where the photo had been.” Building 800 was as full of electronic eyes as it was empty of human beings. Pyxis not only knew where he was at all times, she knew where he was looking.

His AI assistant was unfailingly obedient, but Brandon had set her obsequiousness parameter to zero. What was the point of having a virtual suckup? It wasn’t like the physical world suffered a flunkie shortage. “Your job isn’t to read my mind.”

Pyxis folded her arms implacably. “My job is to anticipate your needs and help you stay productive. We have a line start in a little over an hour. You have a lot to do. Mr. Amirault asked you to copy him on a call to…”

“Ok.” Brandon tossed back the last of his Red Hen coffee, and flashed with sad longing to his Army B4 training, when he had aimed an M16A4 at line-drawn enemies printed on sheets of cardboard, and nailed every damned one through the heart. “Get me Simple Simon.”