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The Isaac Project


Dr. John Westcott sat in the motel restaurant nursing his second martini. (Or was it his third? It couldn't be his fourth, he was pretty sure.) Well, why not? His life was about to go down the toilet. He deserved better considering the importance of his research on neural networks and the ten years he had put in at the university's computer technology department. All that research for nothing. The termination of his life's work meant that his career as a scientist was over. He had spent ten years on one narrow aspect of artificial intelligence. He no longer had the energy and imagination necessary to start something new. And, of course, there was Laura. The little minx would hardly stick around to become the wife of a stodgy professor with few prospects for advancement. He had one slim chance. He had a notion that this conference the TURC Corporation was holding was to announce a new project, something big in the field of artificial intelligence. He crossed his fingers that his research was relevant to whatever they had in mind.

His thoughts returned to the bitter interview with the university department head, George Throgmorton, two weeks earlier. He ground his teeth as Throgmorton's gravely voice sounded in his head. The old fart leaned back in his desk chair and peered through clouds of acrid smoke from his awful-smelling pipe. "Uh ... Jack, I called you in here for a couple of reasons. First there's been a lot of gossip about you and a student -- what's her name? -- oh yes, Grant. Now I understand she's moved in with you."

"Hey, my private life is nobody's business. It's not as though Laura was an undergraduate. She's a graduate student and my assistant."

"I'm sorry Jack but that's the problem. You're her superior, responsible for evaluating her performance and grades. Although I know you'll be scrupulously fair, it's the ... uh hum ... appearance of the thing. It looks bad -- you know -- one of those conflict of interest things."

"I see. Am I supposed to kick her out of my apartment? Or maybe I should marry her and really get accused of playing favorites."

Throgmorton let out a strangled chuckle and tapped his pipe empty into an ashtray. "So it's serious between you two. Well, that puts a different complexion on the thing. Perhaps we can transfer her to someone else. To avoid any appearance of impropriety."

"How can you do that? I'm the only specialist in the artificial intelligence department doing research in mapping neural networks to the operation of the brain. Laura is the only other person intimate with my research. I'd have to spend months getting another assistant up to speed. Besides, Laura's thesis is involved in the research. She'd lose six months work." And if she were transferred to someone else, I'd soon lose her as a girl friend, Westcott thought.

"Yes, quite a quandary. But that's the other thing I want to talk to you about. You may have to give up the neural network mapping project. There's a good possibility that the government grant is going to dry up -- another round of budget cutting is afoot, y'know." Throgmorton became intent on cleaning his pipe.

"What!! Jesus. That tears it. I sure hope whoever asked for a continuance of our grant stressed the importance of what I'm doing."

"Other people are also doing important work. Someone has to suffer. And -- I hesitate to say it -- I've read your reports. You don't seem to be making much progress."

* * *

Westcott had come out of that interview with more than his share of bitterness. If he lost that grant -- an almost certainty with Throgmorton undercutting him -- he was sure that he would never find another sponsor. He envisioned years of doing mediocre work on other people's projects and hating it, finally ending up like Throgmorton, a pedantic nonentity and pseudo-scientist, whose only pleasure was playing at administration.

It could also mean the end of his affair with Laura. He had no illusions on that score. She was a conniving vixen whose only real interest in him was having her name attached to an important research paper, one that could possibly reap important accolades. If only she weren't so beautiful -- and brilliant.

He felt that being invited to the TURC corporation conference might just be the lifesaver he needed. He must try to convince them that his research would fit in with their plans -- whatever they might be. The invitation had been quite mysterious. Nothing had been said about the theme of the conference. Nonetheless, they had insisted that he sign a nondisclosure agreement before receiving an official invitation. It was quite hush-hush, which meant either big bucks or government involvement or both.

He sucked the olive from its toothpick, downed the dregs of his martini and glanced at his watch. "Shit. Waiter. Check please. And hurry."

* * *

The conference was in an all glass pyramid-shaped building in Fishkill, New York. As Westcott pulled into the parking lot, the early afternoon sun hit it at an angle that made the panes act as a prism, splitting the light into rainbows. This effect triggered in him a mental image of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz suddenly stepping from her black and white house into the Technicolor Land of Oz. He let out a giggle. "Here you are Jack, about to enter the Emerald City. Hope the wizard buys your act." Maybe it was the martinis at lunch that brought such fantasies to mind. "C'mon Jack," he warned himself, "you've got to be sharp."

At the door of the noisy-with-chatter, crowded auditorium, he handed his invitation to a bright-looking young woman in a power suit. In exchange he received a thick binder with the TURC logo on the front. Although he had done well over the speed limit on the New York Thruway, he had arrived late. He also got lost in the building's labyrinthine corridors. Nevertheless, his worry about not being on time and looking like an ass did not matter. The conference had not started. A few people were seated, but most were gathered in clusters in the aisles.

He glanced around, wishing he had forswore that third (or was it a fourth?) martini. Several faces were familiar, all of whom had a connection with artificial intelligence. Most he had met at other conferences. After he nodded and waved at a couple of people, he joined a group near the windows.

The first to notice him was Robert White, a tall, husky African-American, an expert in computer language processing. "Hey everybody, here's Jack Westcott. How goes it?"

Westcott pumped White's hand. "So-so Bob. You know how it is in academia. Like living in the last century. But this is some gathering of great minds, isn't it?"

"Sure is. Look over there." White pointed out a silver-haired gentleman in a rumpled suit. "Doctor Goldstein himself. Must be something pretty hot if a Nobel Prize winner shows up. Let's see. Do you know everyone here?" He referred to the small group he had been chatting with.

"Most of you. This is like an artificial intelligence convention." He turned to a dishwater blonde woman who, although short and stocky, looked as though she worked out. "Doctor Chrenowski, right? Uh, robotics. You work for TURC I believe."

"Correct." She gripped his firmly hand in the manner of a man. "We met at the robotics conference in Philadelphia last year. Call me Geri please, although I have to admit you're one of the few people who's pronounced Chrenowski correctly on the first try." She smiled pleasantly. "And don't ask me what this fu... little jamboree is all about. I'm sworn to secrecy."

He flashed a toothy grin, held her hand a little longer than necessary and thought, Attractive in a muscular way. Might be worth pursuing while I'm here. Those motel rooms get chilly at night. What Laura doesn't know won't hurt her. "Good to see you again, Geri. Who knows, maybe we'll be working together."

"Damn possible."

This brightened his mood. Damn possible could mean that there might be a place for him in whatever TURC was up to. Word of his research probably reached someone in the TURC organization and that was why he had been invited. His hopes rose.

He turned to a man with Asian features. "I don't believe we've met. I'm John Westcott. Everyone calls me Jack."

The man bowed from the waist, and Westcott returned the courtesy. "Doctor Nakashima. Pleased to make your acquaintance."

Westcott regarded the last member of the group, a young man in blue jeans and a pullover sweater. "And how have you been Bee Jay. I haven't seen you since we were on the Atlantis project together." He recalled that Billy Joe Bradley was somewhat of a wild duck, liked to do things his own way and was given to sarcasm and snide remarks.

Bradley winked at him. "Yeah. Hope this turns out to be as much a boondoggle as that was. I could use the bread."

At this point a man in a dark business suit and a striped tie stepped to the lectern, tapped the microphone a few times and said loudly, "Testing, testing." The auditorium speakers squealed with feedback. The man adjusted the amplifier and repeated the formula. When his voice came through clearly, he said, "Ladies and gentlemen, please be seated. We're about to begin."

The groups on the sidelines broke up and shuffled into theater seats. In a couple of minutes the buzz of conversation subsided to whispers. Westcott followed his companions into a center row. Through deliberate maneuvering, he ensured that his seat was next to Chrenowski's.

An army officer strolled to the podium. "My name is Major Bachman. For those of you who don't know me, I'm a military liaison on special scientific projects for Defense Advanced Research Projects, known by most you simply as DARPA. Before I explain why the TURC corporation invited you here, I want to emphasize that what you are about to hear is highly classified. My office and the TURC corporation would like to keep the nature of the project we're about to announce out of the press for the time being. If anyone here has a problem with this, please leave now." He paused and glanced around. No one left their seat.

Bradley leaned over and whispered to Westcott, "Typical government bullshit. Everything's got to be hush-hush; meanwhile the bigwigs have probably leaked the whole thing themselves."

Bachman cleared his throat, took a sip of water and asked for attention again. When the auditorium was silent except for random coughs, he began. "Now that we've dispensed with the disagreeable subject of security, I'd like to welcome you, a very distinguished company if I may say so, to a briefing on what, if we are successful, could be a technological achievement as significant as the atomic bomb, the guided missile, the computer, TV or landing a man on the moon.

"But I do not wish to keep you in the dark any longer. Allow me to introduce a man you all know, by reputation if not personally, the distinguished scientist, lecturer and artificial intelligence expert, Doctor Charles Magon. Doctor Magon will explain the nature of the project upon which DARPA and the TURC Corporation are about to embark."

Westcott mentally whistled. He thought, Quite a buildup. And bringing in the famous Charles Magon to boot. Magon was a genuine celebrity. Not only was he a Nobel Prize winner, but was well known outside scientific circles for his popular PBS series on computers and artificial intelligence. He was also the chairman of a lobbying group to promote artificial intelligence. Westcott had met him briefly when the famous man interviewed him for a TV episode on Westcott's own field, neural networks.

Magon stepped up to the lectern and flashed his famous boyish smile. "Thank you, Major."

The scientist had a smooth baritone voice that was quite unique and instantly recognizable, a great asset as a lecturer. He grabbed people's attention immediately and held it. This, along with a speaking style that made everything he said seem like some marvelous, mystical tale, allowed him to make the dullest subject interesting.

"And thank you, fellow scientists, engineers, program designers and researchers for your participation in this meeting. I apologize if I left anyone's discipline out, for I consider everyone of you of inestimable value, whatever your field. In fact, as Major Bachman has pointed out, you are as a distinguished a group of scientists and computer professionals as have ever been assembled. In the months since I was hired by the TURC corporation, I, Major Bachman and the team here at TURC have poured over biographies, resumes and other data to assemble a list of the most innovative and important experts in the field of artificial intelligence. I believe we have picked the best, the cream of the crop.

"But, enough of the compliments. I know you are anxious to hear what this is all about. The TURC corporation plans to design and build is a prototype of a true automaton -- a humanoid robot. Or as it is sometimes called in the sci-fi entertainment world, an android."

The auditorium buzzed with reactions. Several hands went up to get the lecturer's attention. Bradley again whispered in Westcott's ear. He sounded angry. "Jesus H. Christ, they want to build a Frankenstein monster."

Magon held up his own hand to command silence. "A startling concept, as I can see from your shocked looks. Although several of you already have questions, I would appreciate it if you would hold them until I've finished summarizing the project. Hopefully, by then I'll have supplied most of the answers you're seeking. Nevertheless, I have allotted plenty of time for a question and answer period."

The audience settled down again.

"I believe I've anticipated at least two questions you might ask. First, I'm sure some of you are going to ask how intelligent will our robot expected to be. After all several Japanese firms have been building animatronic and other types of robots for years. Nonetheless, although some of these devices look quite human, they do not have much intelligence. Will our android be as intelligent as a man and if so, what makes me believe that such an electromechanical marvel is possible. Secondly, I'll bet a lot of you are going to say 'Why bother? Haven't we enough problems with real people without a bunch of robots running around making trouble?' I see from your smiles that I'm correct."

Several members of the audience chuckled nervously.

"I'd like to cover the second point first. It doesn't take a nuclear physicist -- although maybe some of you may be for all I know -- to realize that an enormous number of tasks now done by human beings could be done more efficiently by machines. Some jobs are extremely odious; for example, sorting garbage for recycling Some are extremely dangerous; construction work on skyscrapers and handling radioactive materials are two instances. Some exist in hostile environments, such as in space or under the sea. Some are simply boring. May I suggest housecleaning as a suitable job for an android. Come now, with the cost of domestic help these days, wouldn't you like to have a robot servant? It would be better than hiring illegal aliens."

This also received a few self-conscious giggles from the audience.

"Seriously, any of you could easily name a hundred more examples. Nevertheless, here's one you might not have considered. We could send a humanoid robot to explore the solar systems of the nearest stars. Sure, we wouldn't know the results in our lifetimes ..." He paused for effect. "But what a legacy we'd be leaving future generations of astronomers and space scientists.

"Although I personally hope that peace will someday reign on this embattled planet of ours, there are military uses for robots. Imagine a land war without human casualties, the fighting done by electromechanical soldiers. These are some of the reasons that DARPA, NASA and other government agencies will be contributing to this project."

Westcott mulled over Magon's last statement. If there was anything he abhorred, it was the use of scientific advances for the slaughter of his fellow humans in that tragic madness called war. He had turned down jobs when he knew they were financed by the military. But here was a different idea. If wars had to be fought -- and given the nature of humankind, they seemed inevitable -- at least only machines would be maimed and destroyed, not human beings. Before he would have anything to do with this project, he would have to consider carefully the ethics involved.

Magon went on. "Some of you might argue 'Okay, build an intelligent machine, but why in human form.' Well, if you think about it a little, you can only conclude that few machines are as versatile as the biological machine that nature has taken a billion years to perfect. Take wheels for example. They allow a vehicle to travel rapidly over relatively smooth surface, but what wheeled vehicle can climb a mountain. Look at your hands. What mechanical device has such a large range of grasping abilities?

"I'd like to quote from a science fiction novel written by the great Isaac Asimov." Magon picked up a book and turned to a page he had marked with a bookmark. "The book is called the Caves of Steel. In the chapter that I'm about to quote, an expert on androids is explaining to a detective why robots should be made in human form. And I quote 'Because the human form is the most successful generalized form in all nature. We are not a specialized animal, Mr. Baley, except for our nervous systems and a few odd items. If you want a design capable of doing a great many widely various things, all fairly well, you could do no better than to imitate the human form. Besides that, our entire technology is based on the human form. An automobile, for instance, has its controls so made as to be grasped and manipulated most easily by human hands and feet of a certain size and shape, attached to a body by limbs of a certain length and joints of a certain type. Even such simple objects as chairs and tables or knives and forks are designed to meet the requirements of human measurements and manner of working. It is easier to have robots imitate the human shape than to redesign radically the very philosophy of our tools.'

"To return to my initial point. Can a humanoid robot actually be built? Well ladies and gentlemen, during my long career as an AI advocate, I've read many research papers -- on microelectronics, robotics, miniaturization and other aspects of AI, some of which have been published by people in this room. I can only conclude that the technology is ready. Yes, we're at the brink. We can build an artificial man.

"Of course there'll be difficulties, additional research to be done, new devices to be invented and new software to be designed. That is why you, the top experts in the field of artificial intelligence, are here. We wish to recruit you to work with us to develop a humanoid robot in an intense effort similar to the ones the US government used in the nineteen-forties to develop the atomic bomb and in the nineteen-sixties to land men on the moon. An extreme challenge, of course. However, as I gaze around this room at the talent arrayed before me, in my heart I feel you're up to it."

Westcott's mental mouth watered. This was better than he hoped for; his research would be essential for them to build such an android as Magon described. Nevertheless, he had one lingering doubt -- the military business. If this robot was to be used to kill human beings, he did not want any part of it.

His thoughts were interrupted by another aside from Bradley. "What a snow job. This is going to be as good a boondoggle as you could ever ask for."

Magon went on. "Now, to get into an overview of how we plan to proceed with this project. Lights please."

The room was darkened and an amazing three-dimensional hologram of a naked man with his genitalia covered with a fig leaf appeared in the center of the stage. The hologram was not exactly complete. It was like an unfinished statue, being all white and had none of the fine details such as muscle-tone or eyes.

"Our plan of attack is to divide research and development into three teams. Initially, each team will work independently. As the work progresses the teams will interact on an ongoing basis. These meetings will become more frequent as the project nears completion.

"The robotic team will design the body -- the mechanical structure of the device ..." A floating red arrow pointed to the torso of the hologram. It became fleshed out and colored with a skin tone that could have been a Caucasian with a deep tan or a light-skinned African type. "... including the android's senses, such as tactile sensing ..." The arrow moved to the fingertips and nails appeared. "... image processing ..." Eyes appeared in the hologram's head. "... aural interpretation ..." The arrow moved up to where the ears erupted on the image. "... and chemical detection." A nose and a mouth appeared on the figure. The tongue suddenly stuck out in a silent razzberry. This invoked a few chuckles from the audience.

Bradley whispered, "I just wonder what's under that fig leaf. Will we have to design sex organs, I wonder?"

"The encephalic group will work on the brain ..." The top of image's head became transparent so that Westcott could see what appeared to be a human brain inside it. "... the central computer of our machine. The main difficulty here will be to miniaturize a powerful computer with enough terrabytes of memory to make it as portable as the one inside our skulls.

"The psyche team will have the most difficult task of all -- to design the mind." A cartoon bubble appeared above the figure's head, inside of which was the formula for the conversion of mass into energy -- E=MC2. "That is, to give it intelligence. How much intelligence? Well, as close to human as feasible. As I said before, I've done an extensive survey of the artificial intelligence disciplines. As a result I'm firmly convinced that with the right people and sufficient resources, we can make the android almost human. In recent years great strides have been made in expert systems, learning algorithms, natural language paradigms and various other computer research. Frankly, I've read papers and seen demos that have absolutely amazed me. I'm positive that with these elements combined we can construct software that will mimic the human mind so closely it will be all but impossible to tell from our robot's actions and speech that it is but an electromechanical simulacrum.

"That concludes the broad outline of the challenge. There's more detail in the documentation you received at the door."

Magon paused, the hologram vanished and the lighting was returned to normal. Someone in the audience applauded politely and the remainder followed suit. Magon nodded his thanks. When the clapping died away, he glanced at his watch. "We have over an hour for questions. Before we start the question and answer period, however, I'd like to remind you that each of you will be contacted in the near future to ask whether you wish to participate further. Some of you may want to come in as direct salaried employees of TURC, others as a consultant under contract. Those of you who agree decide to join us will be interviewed shortly thereafter. And, of course, a security check will be necessary.

"Now, who has a question?"

Several hands went up, including Westcott's. Magon nodded towards an attractive brunette in the front row. She stood and asked in a confident voice, "You stated that this 'android' as you call it will mimic human intelligence. Does that mean it will actually think?"

Magon smiled. "That depends on your definition of thought. If you mean 'Will it be self-aware?' I doubt it. On the other hand, if you mean, 'Will it behave as a human would in response to its environment?' I sincerely hope we're clever enough to build such a device."

He called on several others who had technical, theoretical or procedural questions. Finally, he recognized Westcott. When Westcott stood, Magon greeted him by name.

"Ah, Doctor. Westcott. I'm pleased that you're here. Your latest paper comparing the current state of neural network research and the electrochemical workings of the human brain was very insightful. It was one that gave me hope that this project can actually succeed."

"Thank you. My ... uh ... question, however, concerns what you said about the military uses of the device. You stated that DARPA will be contributing funds towards the research. Am I correct?"


"I also noted that the first speaker was a member of the armed forces. Does this mean that the military will be directly involved in the design and direction of the project?"

"Absolutely not. Their interest is merely collateral. Governmental involvement will be minimal. We're to be given pretty much of a carte blanche. Of course, there will be reports to be filed from time to time and auditing of our expenditures to ensure that government funds are not wasted. Major Bachman will be simply an observer. He may make suggestions to keep us on the right track, but I've found him to be both practical and flexible. He has a great deal of experience working with scientists and is sensitive to the needs of basic research."

Westcott sat down. He suspected there was more there than met the eye. He wondered what sort of suggestions Bachman would be making. And in whose favor disagreement with these suggestions would be resolved.

Billy Joe Bradley waved frantically for Magon's attention. It was granted.

"What I'd like to know," he shouted from his seat without rising, "is what if we are successful and actually build this mechanical man, how do we know it won't decide to take matters into its own hands and revolt against us?"

Magon appeared amused. "I had hoped someone would ask that. Well, I don't know whether you've read much good science-fiction, but my favorite author, Isaac Asimov, wrote many stories about humanoid robots. In these stories he had the robot's brains designed with built-in safeguards that he called the three laws of robotics. I won't try to quote them exactly, but their essence was that a robot could never harm a human being or allow a human being to come to harm if it could prevent it, it always had to follow a human's orders unless it conflicted with the first rule and it could not allow itself to come to harm unless it conflicted with the other two rules. Our plan is to ensure that similar safeguards are designed into our machine.

"I believe such fears of an artificial person replacing or warring against humanity stem from the movies in which some monster is created by a mad scientist, turns against its creator and goes on a rampage. This is what I call the 'Frankenstein syndrome.' Actually there's no more reason to hold this opinion than that of the pre-space age notion that going into outer space would somehow provoke God's wrath."

Bradley looked sour at this reply but had no rejoinder.

The next man with a question was middle-aged and taller than average with a crewcut. Westcott recognized him as Doctor Wolfgang, a researcher in expert systems. From what he could recall, he had seemed pompous and overbearing. Nevertheless, he did have a reputation as a brilliant and thorough researcher -- a stickler for details.

"Dr. Magon, I have listened carefully to your lecture and to your replies to these other gentlemen." (He ignored the fact that some of the questioners had been women.) "Now, I've been working in the field of expert systems for some years ..."

Magon interrupted him. "I'm well aware of your credentials, Doctor Wolfgang. The innovations you've brought to the discipline are impressive. You were invited here for that very reason. Sorry to have interrupted you, but I wanted everyone to know that you are truly an expert in expert systems and that your thoughts on the subject are worth everyone's attention. Please go on."

Wolfgang smiled, apparently pleased by this flattery. "Thank you Dr. Magon. To continue, I have seen expert-system software that could fool many people into believing they were receiving advise from or conversing with a person well-versed in the field for which the system was programmed. On the Internet, these appear as talking heads called Chatbots. Nevertheless, once the questions deviated, even slightly, from the subject programmed into the Chatbot's software, it was easy to tell that one was communicating with a machine. It soon exhausted its ability to reply coherently. Hence, how can you expect us to believe that this automaton, no matter how cleverly built or complicated, can duplicate the thought processes of even the dullest human?"

"Well Dr. Wolfgang, you pose an interesting quandary. One that I'm sure others in this room have wondered about. But, in a way, you've answered your own question. Most expert systems and other artificial intelligence paradigms have been constructed for a single purpose. The device we have in mind is one that is adaptable. In other words, it must have the capability to learn whatever we desire to teach it, as well as from its own experience."

"I see. What you are contemplating then is a self-programming device, no? I assume that you'll have as part of your project some expert in human learning. That is, if your 'android' is to mimic humanity in this capacity."

"Exactly. In fact, the person we had in mind you know very well. It's your wife, Dr. Elizabeth Wolfgang. I'm quite surprised that she's not here with you. You were both sent invitations."

Wolfgang colored and cleared his throat. "I see. When we received the FAX, I assumed that my wife was included simply as a courtesy. I realize that she has some expertise in the psychology of human learning, but she knows next to nothing about computers." He shrugged. "And, since this meeting seemed to be concerned with artificial intelligence matters ..." His voice trailed away.

"Ah, but Dr. Wolfgang, we have people here from various disciplines, not just those dealing directly with computers. We would've been more specific about the nature of the project except for the need for confidentiality. I sincerely hope you'll brief your wife on what has been proposed here and show her the materials. We would really like to have her on the team. As for her lack of computer knowledge, in some ways that could prove to be an asset rather than a handicap. It might give us a fresh viewpoint on the research. Please ask her to join us."

"Well, we'll see." Wolfgang settled slowly into his seat.

After Magon replied to several other questions, the meeting broke up. As Westcott rose to leave, he leaned over to Chrenowski. "Care to join me in for drink, Geri? I'm feeling mighty dry after all this. Perhaps we could exchange impressions. Also, since you're a TURC employee, perhaps you wouldn't mind filling me on the background and history of the project."

She glanced at him with a suspicious expression. "Uh, thanks Jack. I'm flattered. But I have a frigging plane to catch. Maybe we can get together sometime after you join the team. I'm assuming that you're interested in this project. It seems to be right down your alley." She allowed him to help her on with her coat, shook his hand briefly and walked swiftly away.

A definite maybe, Westcott thought. Since he wanted someone to celebrate his good fortune in being invited to participate in the project, he turned to Bradley and extended the same invitation.

The Isaac Project is available from Page Turner Editions and other online e-book sellers.

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