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By Chuck Hand
Jimi awoke, moving only her eyes.
It was something she learned from Lonny. He called it pulling together the threads of your life before you start moving around. It’s a focusing thing.
She reviewed what she could do this day to make her dreams come true. Life is more manageable if you start each day with a clear plan. It only takes a few moments at the start of the day while lying immobile and staring at part of your bed or part of your room. Happiness is the reward for a nicely organized life.
Today was Tuesday. Tomorrow would be the training day. She would be a lot richer if the training went well.
Jimi rolled over and listened to the dawn chorus of birds greeting the sun. She liked to get out of the trailer and watch the sun come up as she walked to work.
As soon as she reached the dusty path from the trailer park to the shops, she saw Lonny walking, framed by the rising sun. He was wearing jeans, moccasins, and was bare above the waist. His shirt was hanging from his belt. God, he looked good, too bad he was her brother. Jimi ran to catch up.
The path led from the trailer park, around a small hillock, to a cluster of sixteen businesses along Route Sixty-Six. There was a gas station, a cluster of southwest-themed boutiques, a few cafes, a pathetic zoo of local fauna, and the latest acquisition: a MacDonald’s.
Jimi and Lonny talked about the training day. Something new. Something interesting. Something profitable. What kind of workers were they going to train? Why train at such a remote location? Why so much money? Lonny guessed the trainees were from another country. Jimi joked they might be from another planet.
A lot of the older people preferred to work at night when it is cooler. Jimi and Lonny were teenagers. They could take the heat.
They walked past a sign they had walked past a thousand times. The identical signs at each end of town said:
Elevation 1024 feet
Next gas or water 128 miles
Only the first two lines were correct, but the rest were close enough. Milagro was in the middle of northern New Mexico, one of the most isolated places in America. It continued to exist because the town was a nostalgic attraction along Route Sixty-Six. It was like the Mad Greek Restaurant in the middle of the desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The tourists expect it.
Jimi and Lonny crossed the highway to one of their many jobs.
Like most highways in New Mexico, Route Sixty-Six was a solar road. The roadway was made up of tiles resembling twentieth-century asphalt. When a tile was damaged or worn out, it was replaced. Highway maintenance was quick and easy. The required lane and turn markings were pixels so they could be changed quickly and remotely. The tiles were solar panels. All of the electricity used in Milagro came from the solar road. In a tray underneath the tiles ran water pipes, fiber optics, and a small transport channel.
Jimi and Lonny started the day like any Tuesday by working at Desert Pete’s Curio Shop. The training organizer would arrive at about noon, meet Jimi and Lonny, and introduce them to the students. Training would take all day Wednesday.
Old, fat Desert Pete sat in a comfortable chair and swatted largely imaginary flies while telling improbable stories about local history. Stories about astronauts a hundred years ago, Beatnik poet road trips two hundred years ago, or cowboys and Indians three hundred years ago.
Jimi and Lonny did all the actual work—unloading fake curios and selling cold drinks to tourists. The tourists always wore beautiful clothes of synthetic fabrics that shimmered with embedded nanotechnology. The residents of Milagro wore clothes designed to look like twentieth-century clothes. Imitations of the extinct fiber cotton. Unattractive but comfortable.
“Why is the town called Milagro?” a tourist asked.
A woman in the group answered. “It’s Spanish, honey. It means a miracle. ”
“So, what’s the miracle?” the first tourist asked.
The tourists talked so fast, jumping from one thing to another. Jimi felt clumsy when she answered. “Water was discovered here.”
“Did you hear that, honey? Somebody thought water was a miracle.”
“In the desert, it is.”
Lonny nudged Jimi to look at the sleek vehicle coming off the exit from the highway: a small black bus. It was new, high tech, and—judging by the antennas—connected to the universe in a significant way. It must be the training organizer.
Jimi and Lonny hurried across the interconnecting gravel parking lots between Desert Pete’s Curio Shop and MacDonald’s. When they arrived, someone they had never seen before was talking to Eli, the only worker on duty. Eli wasn’t the sharpest fish in the barrel. Eli pointed to Jimi and Lonny, and the newcomer turned to them. He was only a few years older than Jimi and Lonny, but he seemed to be living at an accelerated pace.
The stranger held out his arms with the hands hanging down and started wiggling his hands. Jimi and Lonny repeated the gesture they had seen on television.
“Who’s Lonny and who’s Jimi? I don’t know enough about twentieth-century names to guess gender.”
“Do you know about the training? The guy I was talking to was pretty clueless.” The newcomer made no effort to hide his opinion of Eli.
“Yes, you want us to train some people all day tomorrow. You want us to teach them how to become MacDonald’s workers.”
The stranger looked at Lonny and Jimi in turn.
“How much do you know about robots?”
“You want us to teach robots?” Jimi said.
“Well, yes. Is it a problem?”
Lonny said, “Why don’t you just program the robots to work at McDonald’s?”
The stranger asked, “Do you know about cognitive inversion?”
Jimi and Lonny looked at each other and then turned their attention back to the newcomer. After a moment, he explained.
“Things difficult for humans, like chess and multiplying thirteen-digit numbers in less than a second, are easy for computers. Things difficult for computers, like creativity and face recognition, are easy for humans. Cognitive inversion. It’s why humans and computers make such great teams, but that’s another story. Robots have to learn MacDonald’s the same way humans do. No single algorithm describes how to do the job, so you can’t program it.”
“Are these robots safe?” Jimi asked.
“Completely. Let me introduce you, and you tell me if you think they’re dangerous.” The newcomer leaped up and ran to his mysterious vehicle. He returned almost immediately ushering along two robots. The mechanisms were about a meter and a half tall—the size of a fourteen-year-old boy. They were milky white with green trim outlining each body section. Arms slid easily into overhanging shoulders, and it was similar for other joints. The faces were green outlines of facial features. The lines of the faces were mobile to show emotion and attention. The robots spoke without moving any part of their face. The voice seemed to come from their chests.
The robots made the same arms out, hands down, and wiggling gestures. Lonny’s father once told him the greeting evolved from an earlier gesture where people clasped each other’s hands and moved the clasped hands up and down. Lonny thought this unlikely as people are naturally reluctant to touch someone they don’t know. Lonny’s father had many stories of questionable probability. Sometimes Lonny believed the stories were all his father had.
They all sat at a table. Jimi and Lonny drank MacDonald’s cokes, the organizer drank something from his bus, and the robots drank nothing.
The robots seemed normal enough once you got used to the voices coming from their chest. Like dogs and cats, they fit into the human world, but there were definite differences. Definite limitations.
The organizer tried to explain what he called naive physics. It’s one of the many areas where humans were unconscious experts — more cognitive inversion. Naïve physics was difficult for robots.
For the dullest human, even Eli, it is evident that a glass of water will spill when turned upside down. Of course, it’s only obvious after a billion years of evolution and a lifetime of living in the world containing glasses of water.
Building an intelligent machine is too hard because we don’t have a clear picture of exactly what intelligence is. It’s easier to make a machine that can learn to behave intelligently. These robots learn the job like humans learn the job–through experience. First, it’s impossible; then it’s difficult; then less difficult; then it’s easy; then it’s routine.
The Milagro MacDonald’s is one of the few places in America designed to be staffed by humans. A perfect training ground for robots who learn. MacDonald’s in other cities are monolithic boxes, completely automated, and not intended to have human (or robot) staff. You walk up to the window, order into the box, and the meal is printed and slid out to the customer. Delicious and piping hot.
The Milagro MacDonald’s is nostalgic. It is staffed by employees who actually cook the food. That’s why the robot trainer was interested.
Jimi and Lonny slowly became familiar with the robots. After an hour or so, the organizer stood up and stretched. They offered to fix him something to eat from the MacDonald’s menu, but he declined. They shook hands and promised to start the training at eight o’clock the next morning.
Wednesday morning, Lonny awoke and carefully moved only his eyes. The threads of his life needed organizing.
He lay for a moment and thought about the robots. They quickly became familiar, but there was always something as alien about them as if they were from another galaxy. Lonny thought about Jimi. She accepted the robots right away. She was better with new things. Then Lonny thought about his father. Lonny was worried about his father. It was the primary thread he tried to pull into place each morning. Finally, like every morning, he gave up, got out of bed, and went to his father’s part of the trailer to see if he needed anything before the workday started. His father was having a conversation with God. Lonny didn’t interrupt.
The oldest story his father had was the story about Lonny’s great grandfather:
Lonny’s great grandfather was a reservation Indian kid attending the reservation mission school. One day he escaped and started walking across the desert. It was a foolish thing to do, fueled by a desire to be anywhere but the mission school. When he was almost dead from thirst, a Milagro native found him. At the time, Milagro was a collection of desert rats who wound up here with stories no less fantastic. None of them were Native Americans.
Great grandfather married a Milagro girl who was pregnant and abandoned. When the son was born—Lonny’s grandfather—he was named Buck. Desert humor.
Here comes the tricky part: Lonny’s father claimed he was one-quarter Native American. Biologically impossible but arguments were always seen as defiance. The biggest real event in his life was when his wife left him right after Lonny was born. She wasn’t ready to be a mother, and, if she was ready, she wasn’t ready to be a mother in Milagro.
The saddest thing in Lonny’s life, although he was too young at the time to remember it, was his mother rejecting him and his father. Jimi told him people don’t reject other people. They move on, and the people left behind feel rejected. The leaver didn’t reject them; they just moved on.
Now Lonny’s father was an embittered, deeply religious man who drank all day and seldom left the trailer. Pointing out this is probably not what Jesus would do—or even approve of—met fierce reactions. People with no anger management skills are always experts at using their anger to manage other people.
His father claimed God gave man depression so he would think about himself—an essential step in becoming a better person. Lonny made sure his father was comfortable and then walked to MacDonald’s. Jimi was already there.
“Hey, Lonny. These robots are fun. They’re eager to please, like big friendly dogs. They catch on quickly, and they have great memories.”
Jimi was enjoying herself, and Lonny started feeling like he was running to catch up. First thing in the morning, and he was already behind. Things started turning around when Lonny found out he and the organizer had something in common. They both loved a good story.
Here is a story that the organizer told on a break:
“In the twentieth century, the very early days of AI research, there was a rising young star named Frank Rosenblatt. He built one of the first neural networks. His theory is now the basis of how robots learn. He was dethroned by a young upstart named Marvin Minsky—who went on to become the head of AI research at MIT. Rosenblatt tried for years to find a way to patch up the hole Minsky had punched in his theory, becoming more and more depressed. He committed suicide on his forty-third birthday, alone in a small boat in the middle of Chesapeake Bay on a glorious day in early summer. Years later it was discovered a Japanese mathematician had discovered a technique to overcome the flaw which drove Frank Rosenblatt overboard. In those days, nobody in America read Japanese research journals.”
Lonny told one of his father’s stories:
“When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were training for the first walk on the moon, they were in North Arizona testing out NASA equipment. An old Navajo watched them one afternoon. When they were packed up to leave, the old man asked them what they were doing. They said they were getting ready to go to the Moon. “Our gods live on the moon,” the old man said. “Will you take them a message?” The astronauts rehearsed the Navajo phrase until they had it memorized. Back at the base, they asked an interpreter what they had memorized. He laughed before translating: ‘Don’t believe a thing these people say. They’re here to steal your land.’
After they made contact, the training was almost fun. They took turns driving through the drive-through. Robots could take orders over the intercom—the organizer called this a Turing Test, but he never explained what a Turing Test was. By mid-afternoon, the robots were taking orders from real tourists—people who were not in on the test. The robots learned to clean tables, and they approached cleaning the restrooms just as cheerfully.
The organizer was satisfied with the training at around four o’clock. There were some odds and ends to clear up, but he was planning to depart from Milagro in two or three hours. Jimi stayed to help, but Lonny wanted to run home quickly and check on his father—then he would return to help. Lonny’s father had been in a religious frenzy this morning, and these fits often ended badly.
Lonny ran home. He tried to calm his father down by telling him about the robots. This seemed to work. Lonny got a clean shirt and returned to work.
When Lonny returned to MacDonald’s, Jimi and the organizer were sitting at one of the customer tables. The robots were nowhere in sight. When Lonny appeared, Jimi and the organizer moved apart. When Lonny sat down, Jimi seemed to be embarrassed. The organizer told them about how their salaries would be paid and gave them a contract to sign.
Nobody noticed Lonny’s father, dressed only in a pair of white—at least they had once been white–boxer shorts and an antique pair of red and black cowboy boots. He was pushing a wheelbarrow stacked with eight cases of dynamite and a spool of fuse.
On the side of the black bus away from MacDonald’s, Lonny’s father unloaded the eight cases of dynamite and placed them in a row under the center of the bus. The fuse spool had about five meters of fuse. Having nothing to cut it with, he used the whole thing. He inserted one end into a stick of dynamite and arranged the rest nicely along the gravel parking lot, and lit the other end.
A small crowd gathered around Lonny’s father while he was unloading the dynamite. No one offered to help because he looked so repulsive. He was scrawny and unshaven, with wild hair, crazy eyes, and waving an old-fashioned handgun. The kind used in twentieth-century gangster movies. A revolver.
At the first crack of gunfire, Jimi, Lonny, and the organizer ran out of MacDonald’s. Something was happening on the other side of the bus. They saw Lonny’s father waving a smoking gun in the air and arguing with a tourist.
“What are you doing old-timer?” The tourist thought it was part of a show.
“I’m going to blow up some Godless robots!”
“That fuse is going to take thirty minutes to reach the dynamite. Why don’t you cut a shorter fuse?
“No. If you cut the fuse in half, only half of the dynamite will explode.”
The first pistol shot was in the air, but this one was clearly directed at the argumentative tourist. The old man had failed at everything else, and now he had missed the first person he ever tried to shoot. The target tourist shit in his pants and the other tourists stepped back out of the sun.
Lonny leaned against the bus and watched his father. He was not talking about religion, so the fit was winding down. The thing about using only ‘half the fuse will cause just half the dynamite to explode’ was new. His father hadn’t had both oars in the water for years. Now it seems like he has lost his grip on the oars altogether.
The organizer turned and started walking toward the bus door. Jimi followed. Lonny kept watching his father—looking for an opportune time to end this ridiculous standoff.
The organizer unlocked the door by putting his hand on it. On the first step, he turned to Jimi.
“It looks like a good time for me to leave.”
“Do what you have to do to make your dreams come true.”
“You are good with robots. Would you like to work with me?”
“Yes, I would.”
Jimi rushed past him and into the bus. She was surprised there was no steering wheel. The trainer told the bus to pull away from the town, back onto the freeway. The crowd of tourists, with Lonny’s father in the middle, did not notice the bus pulling back onto Route Sixty-Six.
“Put the rear view on the front starboard screen.”
They sat in overstuffed leather chairs and watched on an enormous screen appear on command. The view showed Milagro receding into the background. Just as the town disappeared, an orange flame shot up and was quickly engulfed by a black mushroom cloud. They had set off the dynamite even though the bus was long gone.
Edited by Steve Hovland
After a long career in artificial intelligence research at IBM, JPL, NASA, and Hughes, Chuck Hand now lives on a five-acre farm in Massachusetts and puts in a solid three hours a day writing, reads voraciously, and cautions new writers not to use long sentences. He is also one of the founding members of MetaStellar. Contact him at [email protected].