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Day 7, or, Good News, Everyone!

November 12, 2011

[So I have a literary agency interested in the idea!  I need to give them 100 pages to get to the next level of interest.]

“Negatude,” she said, wagging a finger. “You know, some school might surprise you, even with your math scores.”

“They might, but it…” I stopped and flushed. Crap!

“It wouldn’t matter if we don’t have the money to pay?”

“Sorry.” I could have punched myself right then. I’d sworn I was never going to be that girl who threw a fit because she couldn’t have a pony on every birthday because her parents didn’t love her enough to spend everything they had on her. And that meant never bringing up how I couldn’t have a whole lot of things because we were “broke” now.

“There’s always a way,” Mom said, and I had to smile. That was probably true – if Mom could find a door that led to me going to a “good school,” if it didn’t open she’d break it down. “That boy Christopher, he’s good at math, I bet he’d help you get your scores up.”

“I don’t think Christopher’s interested in tutoring.” I don’t know why I thought that, but I was pretty sure it was true. Christopher was one of those people who was so good at math that he’d almost forgotten the basics. Take it from me, don’t try and learn from someone who’s too good at math, they start dashing ahead and putting a line over the “a” and carrying the “y” without explaining it and next thing you know it’s all Greek. It’s like me and English – I can correct your sentence without thinking about it, but if I have to diagram it or tell you the technical name for what you did wrong, I’ll probably strike out, it’s been so long since I learned all that.

Mom sighed, though not as theatrically as she used to. I felt bad about it, sort of – the quieter her sighs got, the more it meant she was accepting that whatever “it” was, “it” just wasn’t going to go the way she wanted.

I went back to my homework, but the more I read in the Federalist Papers, the more I found myself thinking about Christopher’s project. Could you make an AlexanderHamiltonBot who’d answer your questions for you as easily as RushBot? I wish.


A couple days later, Christopher passed me in the hall at school. “Lunch?” he asked without stopping.

“Definitely,” I said, not breaking stride either. That was just part of the faster pace here, you didn’t waste a lot of words or a lot of time.

As juniors with parental permission, we were allowed to go to lunch outside school, but not allowed to leave the U campus. The food court at the student union had some decent choices, including a Thai buffet, which was pretty neat.

“So how’s documentation going?” he asked. I’d taken a technical writing class as one of my science electives, since it played to my strengths.

“Oh, you know, the usual.” I blew on my soup. “Step 1. Push the button. The screen will appear. Insert screen shot of screen. Step 2. Click on stuff on the screen. More stuff will appear. How’s testing?” The manuals we were writing were for programs kids in Christopher’s programming class were developing.

“Steps 1 and 2 followed as ordered. Then, if stuff clicked on doesn’t do more stuff, open VSTF, log bug, be prepared to be told by programmer that it’s ‘by design.’”

“You should write a program that automates all this. Just run all those testing scripts by brute force, auto-document the clicking process for the manuals.”

Christopher snorted. “Ha. You’d be surprised how hard it is for a computer to explain when and why something went wrong in a computer. And you, darling, you’re necessary, too – the computer can tell you to how use a widget, but not why, or what for.”

“I suppose so.”

“So you have a little extra bandwidth these days?”

I rolled my eyes. “So corporate, you sound.”

“Sorry. I mean, a little free time, off the clock, in your spare time, make millions working from home?”

“Doing what?”

“Well,” he said, clearly measuring his words carefully. “Remember the link I sent you, to my little project?”

I laughed. “Rushbot. I never did ask you what inspired you to do that.”

“You know, it just occurred to me that everything in the election I was hearing from the right wingers was so predictable. I mean, if you wanted to know what one of them was thinking, or at least all they were saying, it was always so…on message. So dumbed down for the LCD. Phrases like a cheap handful of sequins a shitty drag queen would throw in the air during his act, as if he was ‘magically’ casting ‘glamour’ over the whole tawdry scene.”

You should be the writer.”

“And…well, what do you know about chatbots?”

I thought of the automated conversation agents I’d encountered in the past. There were the avatars you got when you tried to get “live help” from the customer service area of a web site, saying “Hi, I’m Amy the Automated Assistant,” spitting out the exact same scripted phrases a person would otherwise be reading out of the binder, about your call being important and please restart your computer or reinstall the software and then call us back, or maybe offering help out of the help file if it found keywords in what you’d typed about “lost key” or whatever.

Then there were the other chatbots, the ones who would hit on you in chat rooms, convincing the unwary first-timer that the hottest guy in the galaxy wanted to chat with you – at least until he terminated the conversation with “check out my hot nude pix at” And there were the ones whom I’d idly played with, usually found through Reddit links, which promised “realistic” conversation, and might have been realistic, if you enjoyed talking to four year olds.

“I know that most of them are crap.”

“They never fool you?”

“They’re never very bright. The first time you say something they don’t understand, they go off their rockers. I think the best I ever got was when I asked one who HAL was, and he said something like, ‘HAL is the computer from 2001 – I guess his time is coming next year.’ So he – it – got what I was saying, but someone canned his response like, what, nine years ago? So even the best ones are messed up.”

“They are pretty limited in their range. I remember one called me Mr. Christopher, which made me sound like an S&M daddy, so I said, ‘no need to call me Mister.’ And it said, ‘We all need to heed wake-up calls when they occur.’”

I laughed. “Yeah, they are totally ‘say what?’”

“But I thought, well, that’s not so different from some people, is it? There are only so many things you can say to them that they get, and only so many things they’ll say in return. I mean, you can pretty much write the script of tomorrow’s Fox News tonight, if you know what the phrases du jour are.”

“Class warfare. Big government. Fat cat unions. Socialism!”

He beamed. “Exactly. How hard would it be to write a program that could do that?”

I nodded. “You could pass the Turing Test with that one.” I knew that one from History of Technology, the other science class that I knew I could pass. The Turing Test was developed by Alan Turing, who’d been one of the crackers of the Nazi’s Enigma code during World War II. Turing thought that as computers got better, it would be harder and harder for a person interacting with it to tell if it was a person on the other end of the connection or a computer. The Test was passed by a computer when you thought you were talking to a human when you weren’t.

“So you know the Turing Test, good.” I raised an eyebrow but he went on. “The problem with the Test is that it only says, you have to convince a human that they’re talking to a person and not a machine…”

“And when people talk in scripts, like machines, what’s the difference?”

“Gold star for you. So the real challenge with a chatbot isn’t to convince someone that you’re real – there’s always some dittohead that would be just as happy with Rushbot as with Rush. The challenge is to convince someone smart that you’re real.”

“And how do you do that?”

He smiled. “That is what I’ve been working on in my spare time. How would you feel about doing some interacting with what I’ve got so far?”

“You mean just talking to it?”

“Not exactly, no… I need some people who can…correct it. Help it learn.”

“So, you’ve got something you think is better than what’s out there?”

“I do.” He said it with that tone of voice that said, I think I do because I know I do.

“Yeah, I’m willing to give it a try. As long as it doesn’t feel like, you know, testing.”

We both laughed at that, since I’d told him my dad’s horror stories from work. “No, darling,” Christopher promised, “it’s a little more interesting than that, I guarantee you. I’ll send you some links first, stuff you should read if you don’t mind, get you grounded in what the project is about.”

“Sure,” I said, excited, not just by the project but, yeah, because it seemed like I was finally making a friend at school. Till now, school had been the only point on the triangle that connected us. I didn’t have a lot of friends, don’t ask me why, but it wasn’t because I didn’t want them. It just seemed like I worked with other kids on project but there just…wasn’t anything else yet that made a connection. School was giving me lots of acquaintances, but no friends. Here was a chance to push the friendship with Christopher to the next milestone on the flow chart. Sounds lame I know, but there you go.

Plus, he’d said “some people.” If there were others involved…well, I might meet them too, someday. People with whom I’d already have all those difficult and painful opening topics you needed with new people set up, people who would have a role and would know mine and there wouldn’t be all that rigamarole about who are you, anyway – wouldn’t that be nice?

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