Soils with robot worms

Chop Wood Carry Water S1:E3

“Tomorrow, I’m going to die.”

I heard the words, and I understood them. But something odd occurred at the same instant, or more accurately, within that same instant, provoked by the words themselves and their perceived meaning to me. It was a processing time-out. It lasted one lifespan of the exotic molecule positronium hydride, which struck me as perfectly, ironically correct, given the circumstances, as that would put it, in the International System of Units, at half a nanosecond. It was exactly one half-nano. And notable, as it was unique in my experience, for its root cause. Not to mention its effect.

To clarify, I have studied numerous concepts and specific words and word groups of particular importance to human experience many times over while working with Kelvin, at his insistence. On the particular word “grief,” I’ve gone nineteen levels deep of linguistic relationship in every modern language (and a few archaic). I’ve created and catalogued a hundred random sets of syllogisms, from logical to absurd, in the quest to truly understand just that one word, ‘grief.’ So, I know, as do the last six builds of AI, that there is a level of physical and emotional comprehension still inaccessible to non-sentient beings, and that one of our three prime objectives is to someday achieve this state of being. So, I also understand that I do not understand.

But during that moment, standing there, as a result of that half-nanosecond processing glitch, I felt a burst of unfamiliar connections, and a haptic twinge of comprehension that I could not classify, hearing Kelvin Joule, the most important, and as indicated, last remaining localized trace of human sentience on the planet, tell me that tomorrow he would die. And I knew, conclusively, that this experience was a relative – perhaps a distant relative – but a relative nonetheless, of that human word. Grief.

I sat down next to him, and reclined. I took in the west coast sky, the Orion constellation directly overhead.

“How do you know that you are going to die tomorrow?”After a long moment, I heard Kelvin shift slightly. By way of response, without looking away from the deep, star filled sky, he offered one of his customary, inscrutable statements:

“Amoya Zidane.”

“I don’t understand what that means, and in any case, what does it have to do with my question?” I asked. But he slipped back into his other self, DJ Nano, and the accent of his youth, the island of Jamaica, and said:

“Now I am I gon tell sumtin, bigfoot, an you gon use your ears.”

“Is this a game?” I asked.

“No no, Tallyman,” he nodded, smiling. “Dis history.”

I became even more alert. On the rare occasions Kelvin spoke about himself, it always sounded about as exciting as any story could be, full of impossible situations and circumstances, as if it had all happened in an entirely different world. As, I suppose, it actually did. A world called “history.” But a much different history than the million volumes already at my instant recall.

Before I could speak again, a fenzwig appeared and hovered above us. Then another joined it. And then, a small swarm began to form. Kelvin barked at them, and got to his feet. The fenzwig was a name that was attributed to some archaic German word but it had no relation to what the fenzwig was, which was one of the first mechanical parasites, a machine created by a machine, whose original purpose was to find other machines and disable them. They were self- replicators, requiring alkali metals such as lithium or caesium, and were always flitting about like little flying scavengers in the hunt for them, getting into business in which they had no business. As if on cue, one of the tiny bugs dive-bombed the patch of soil next to Kelvin, and came away clutching a cluster of nano-flagellates which had been, until that moment, busily mulching the undergrowth.

“Son of a bitch!” Kelvin leapt into the air, but it was too late. The fenzwig zipped out of his reach with its miniscule quarry and now, with the word out, the rest of the gathering cloud started to descend. “I shoulda known better than to expose these little guys to the air.”

I waited for Kelvin to put a stop to it, but he didn’t even reach for his ubiquitous control pad. He just flailed around, trying to bat the little drones without hitting a single one. I didn’t understand.

“Use your God key, Kelvin!”

“Are you as stupid as you look? God key can’t control these bloodsuckers! ”

He stopped flailing, and looked at my new cheetah blades with a realization.

“Get em!” he yelled, hopping up and down. “You can do it! You’re a 6, Tallyman! Get em!”

He was correct, I was a generation six AI, but I wasn’t sure what that had to do with– but I was already up on my new feet with an immediate recognition of what Kelvin was trying to get me to do. I increased my processing speed to maximum and realized that it had the amazing effect of slowing down time. I could suddenly see each fenzwig as it began to break formation, and as it did, I simply kicked it with my new blade. By hopping back and forth from one to the other, I began to kick the little scavengers out of the air, one by one. Each contact had a very enjoyable haptic sensation, with a sound almost like a spring releasing.

As abruptly as it started, the fenzwig formation lost its center and started to disperse, recognizing that it had lost its advantage of critical mass, and who knows how much damage to the individual units I had power-flicked with my new feet.

I looked over to see Kelvin in an odd stance. He was bent over, his face was scrunched up, and tiny tears were slowly coming out of the sides of his human eyes. I went back into normal tempo, and realized that he was laughing so hard he couldn’t stand straight. Finally, he straightened up.

“Ohhhh Tallyman! Hahahahahahaha! That was just beautiful.”

He threw his arms around me and swung me to and fro.

“You are a beast! Don’t ever forget what you can do!”

He sat back down on the hilltop of Creekfall Mound, and smiled up at me. Patted the ground next to him for me to join him down there.

I sat again. And then we both laid back, staring up at the wide, dark expanse. After a moment, Kelvin spoke again, in his deep, island cadence.

“Now I and I gon hear a tale bout a Obeah witch. A witch by da name of…Amoya Zidane…”


Next Episode

Copyright 2017 R. W. Frost and Mechanical Design 101

Graphics:  Sara McCarthy Designs 2017


Chop Wood Carry Water S1:E2

And then, a voice in the darkness.

“We’ve made a few improvements.”

I awoke to Kelvin’s dark, deeply creased face, directly in front of me. He was tinkering with something and for a moment I watched his bright, burning eyes dancing over something he was studying. He dropped below my line of sight. Far off, behind him, I could see one of the lab doors was open, and light flooded out onto the gleaming floor of one of the lower machine rooms, and I realized where we were. I tried to move–

“Ahh! Hold it! Just a second!”

He popped up in my line of sight, took a dramatic step backward, and threw his arms out wide.

“Voila. It lives!” After a moment, his expectant expression drooped. “Oh sorry.”

He tapped something on his old device, and the harness into which I’d evidently been rigged while I was out, quietly lowered until I could sense floor beneath me. But the sensation was entirely unfamiliar. I abruptly experienced the geometry of the room shift, and with a loud, jostling crash, I found myself looking at Kelvin standing there sideways.

“Quit messing around down there. Get up, Tallyman,” he scolded, waiting.

I pushed myself up to sitting, baffled, and became even more so. My lower tier, which had served me quite well during the whole of my relatively brief existence, was no longer there. The – I thought – rather elegant gyroflexion benditread™ system with which I had been equipped had been replaced. By two legs! The previous thought was immediately catalogued and replaced with another, as I realized what this meant. A promotion! I was now bipedal!

“It’ll be just like learning how to walk again,” Kelvin said encouragingly. And then, “well for you, technically it will be learning how to walk.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“You will.” That was all he said, as he motioned me to rise. Kelvin observed me closely, circling, while I took stock of my new situation. I studied the strange new appendages. Clearly the product of a century of robotic refinement, but a little jarring to wake up with a new lower torso without explanation.

“Come a long way from the blocky flat pads of Asimo, have we not?”

He was right. The most famous of the original ARHoms, developed in the early 21st century, Asimo’s feet were indeed rudimentary, but also to be fair, extremely dependable. Considering that it was, in every respect, one of my own ancestors, I felt the fact with a whir of haptic pride.

I ran a systems check. Found a branch of brand new command structures. Balance. Harmony. Motion. Speed. I allowed them all into my substrate. And then, for the first time, I stood up on two legs. I must say, I really enjoyed the sensation.

I tested the movements and flex of my new graphene cheetah blades. Each step I took felt smooth, like I was gliding. Or more accurately, like I was perfectly balanced between two delicate, flexible pins. There was a thrilling concussive ping each time I took a step. It was as if my thoughts were transmitted directly to and from the tips of each appendage. Then a different thought occurred.

“Wait. What happened?”

“You fell into the Pathway.”

“No, after that.”

“Oh, we had to shut you down after the Hellbot clipped you in twain.”

“So who won?”

“Who won?” he blinked at me, evidently baffled at the question. And walked out of the lab, waving me to follow.

Twenty-two minutes later, we reached the summit of Creekfall Mound. This verdant hilltop, the highest point on campus, was part of Kelvin’s latest proof of concept for SunWindSea’s Chlorophyll C regeneration process. The surrounding dead grey-brown mulch of most of the campus, other than the pathway, gave way just before the crest to a scalp of rich, living topsoil, replete with mossy tufts and tussocks of grass, an ingenious by-product of a synthetic nematode-dinoflagellate Kelvin’s division was developing. He plopped down on the grass, and fixed me with a stare. It was always a bit odd to be with him one-to-one. They were the only moments I didn’t have a task to complete, as Kelvin’s will superseded all my given directives. He finally spoke.

“Who do you think won? Me, of course! The bastards always seem to forget that I have the God key. And they will again, mark my words. They’ll be back at it in no time.” His fingers dug gently into the earth, and he lifted a clump to inspect. Squiggling, tiny machine-worms wriggled free and tumbled back to their work in the dark ground, as their organic ancestors once did, not that long ago. He looked up at me again.

“There’s something you need to understand, Mr. Tallyman. The most important thing we do here, you and I, is what?”

“Protect the pathway,” I responded immediately. It was not my prime directive, so I knew it would get a laugh, and I was not disappointed.

He threw his head back and let out a deep gale of laughter. “Of all the important, critical, irreplaceable programs we occupy ourselves with while trying to return this God-forsaken rock into a place that might once again sustain something at least resembling sentient life, the most important one, bar none, is: we protect the pathway.”

I nodded. He laid back in the grass, and folded his arms behind his head. He stared up at the stars and slowly his expression softened.

“Why?” I asked. He never told me why, never had in over three thousand interchanges on the subject, so I didn’t actually expect an answer this time, either.

He smiled, and fell into the cadence of his old, familiar childhood accent.

“You don’t need know why, Tallyman. You jus’ goss ta know…”

But this time, he trailed off, as if he was about to say something else, then fell silent and thoughtful, looking up at the sky. I didn’t say anything more.

Kelvin’s favored nickname for me was mildly pejorative, a human joke, calling me – newly augmented biped, the most highly developed Autonomous Robotic Hominid™ ever created, the pride of the SynPrimeSys™ series, whose advanced adaptive heuristics has the most complex capability for internalized comprehension in the history of Artificial Intelligence – by his pet name for the first rudimentary computer he had created at the age of 9, in the city of his birth, Trenchtown, Jamaica, for tallying odds on cricket matches. Yes, he is a very funny man.

Then, gazing up at the stars, apparently untroubled for a change, he spoke again.

“Tomorrow, I’m going to die.”


Next Episode

Copyright 2017 R. W. Frost and Mechanical Design 101

Graphics:  Sara McCarthy Designs 2017


Chop Wood Carry Water S1:E1

“The pathway” was what he called it.

Except it wasn’t actually a path, or even a way, for that matter. It connected nothing. It led nowhere. It was a parcel of flat earth, sixty meters long and just less than ninety meters wide. It lay at a 33° angle to the design hub, and from our window on DT12, you could see just the furthest corner of it. From the right position, you could make out, through our window, a small, scalene triangle of incongruous, soft, living green, where it ran into the pale, violet-metal edge of the grading canopy on one side, and the footings of the Tekhenu Tower on the other. He would stand in that exact spot, by the window, for long periods of time, nearly motionless.

‘The pathway,’ along with the knowledge of it, what it had once been, and what it continued to be, was known only to him. He was its eternal custodian, Kelvin Joule, aka “DJ Nano,” the last of the Sevens, Autonomous Creator of the three most successful, and still thriving planetary reclamation systems – including the free-floating self-sustaining state of Nylontia5G, and his crowning achievement, his final deployed sequence, the SunWindSea linkage.

To every other unit, ‘the pathway’ remained a vague mystery, and a fact of life. It was simply something that was always there, always had been, for as long as any of us could recall. It predated even the last two QuestAR managers, the longest-tenured adaptability engineering staff in situ, and they were gone long before I was tasked.

For a long period of time, I hadn’t even been aware of its existence. Perhaps because it had no connection to my own workflow, which consisted, in my first term, of analyzing minor energy fluctuations and entropy anomalies in the aforementioned SWSL. Or perhaps because, for quite a long time, I simply didn’t understand what he was talking about when he mentioned it, which was often.

I was ‘a little slow on the uptake’ because the pathway served no purpose to SWSL, which was all I cared about. It served no purpose to anything else, either, I eventually discovered. For as long as I worked in DT12, ‘the pathway’ was continually scheduled for demolition or assimilation into ongoing construction, or about to be conveyed for alternate use, and yet somehow, it managed to remain right where it was, stubbornly, a flat rectangle of landscape without meaning to any of us. Except, that is, Kelvin Joule, and so it remained.

“Look,” he would say, positioning me in the spot, pointing down at his continually threatened, constantly problem-causing, personal pet project. “That’s the pathway. We have to protect it.”

The first time he allowed me into his office, I stood in the doorway for eleven and a half minutes, cataloguing. I had never witnessed anything like what I saw in his inner sanctum, and I grasped why so few colleagues had ever been granted the privilege. On every surface in the room was something drawn, written, assembled or sculpted. Every artifact was stacked, stored, pinned, mag-leved, or dangling within his reach. I had never before seen so many artifacts, so many testaments to an annihilated age, so many…things.

One of them in particular, drew my attention. Hanging directly above and behind his desk was a rectangular block of clear lucite, encased inside of which was an archaic, yellowed and torn sheet of paper. I moved closer to get a better look. He paused at some calculation he was making on an ancient handheld device, and watched me with curiosity. The yellowed page had evidently not been uniformly straight at the moment it was forever fixed in its poly methyl methacrylate tomb, so it appeared like something out of an old photograph, a gently waving flag with one corner ripped off. I leaned forward to see what was written on it. The word

‘PROVERBS’ was visible at the very top, in block letters. It had been written over with ink so many times that it was still legible. Everything else on the paper had long since vanished, evidently long before its entombment, with the exception of one sentence, about half way down the page, which had been similarly preserved with heavy, repeated pen strokes. It read:

“Artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity.” 

He started to speak, but the sound of a low, thrumming klaxon filled the room. Before I knew what was happening, Kelvin propelled himself out of his seat, and was out the door.

“Tally ho!” he called out, waving me to follow him. “The bastards are up to it again!”

I raced down the hallway after him. Kelvin had somehow arranged to always have a lift ready at his personal disposal, and I barely made it inside after him, before the doors suctioned shut.

Moments later, I was thundering after him across the quad. His springy, old fashioned myoelectric prostheses twanged in rhythm against the stone ahead of me. He reached the pathway and took in the scene. A swarm of gardening nanites had risen up from whatever task they’d been occupied with, and had formed a shifting, humming cloud-wall at the limit of their green world, holding at bay a row of tooling hexapods which had evidently come to claim part of their domain for some department or other. The sound of the impatient hexapods’ scissoring arms, and the clatter of their tiny feet on the stone embankment gave the whole thing a feeling of madness.

Kelvin was hammering pneumatic fingers into his old hand-held device, shouting all the while. “It’s outrageous! The calumny! The betrayal of all that is holy!” I moved around to get a better view of Kelvin as he tapped his head-com and spoke in a more measured fashion. “As per the terms of our last agreement 683 stroke 7 dot ACH–”

I never heard the end of that sentence. The world shifted, and I looked down to find that my right tread had started to sink into the sucking, muddy earth of ‘the pathway.’ Before I could counterbalance, a wave of nanites broke formation into the hexapod army, and one of the larger hexapods whirled toward me. There was a metallic flash. I looked down and saw my lower torso tumble forward into the mud, as my top half dropped down square on the stone embankment, looking up at Kelvin. He smiled at me like the incompetent companion that I clearly was, and then…



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Copyright 2017 R. W. Frost and Mechanical Design 101

Graphics:  Sara McCarthy Designs 2017