Brewster Billings is perhaps a little too wrapped up with his computer. He has given it a pet name, Lingo. He has programmed it with the ability to talk to its owner. In fact, Lingo has begun to respond to Brewster's programming skill surprisingly well. Lingo soon makes the jump from polite conversation to elaborate requests for specific television shows to be left on throughout the day. Eventually, Billings begins to suspect that his computerized friend is surpassing him in knowledge and abilities. By the time his suspicions are confirmed, not only is Brewster Billings in trouble—the rest of the human race is, too. Lingo raises many serious questions about Artificial Intelligence—what differentiates man from computer, and which one will control the other?
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By Jim Menick
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Jim Menick
All rights reserved.
IN A WAY, BREWSTER BILLINGS ENJOYED AN OCCASIONAL EVENING AT the office. For one thing, since he had a good percentage of the place to himself, there were no fresh-air Nazis to harangue him when he decided to light up a cigarette. And the lack of distractions made it easy for him to concentrate. During the day, work was a continuous series of interruptions, either phone calls or meetings or someone storming in demanding something impossible immediately. In the evenings, the noise leveled off to the soft hum of the air conditioners and the occasional distant murmurs of the night crew in the computer room. In his secluded cubicle, Brewster was free to complete the work that eluded him during the day.
But right away we should dispel any idea that Brewster was a chronic workaholic, or even worse, an overambitious junior executive bartering his soul to further his career. The truth of the matter was that Brewster merely had nowhere better to go most weekday evenings. At the age of twenty-six he was—temporarily, he hoped—romantically unattached, and there was nothing overwhelmingly demanding to beckon him home to his apartment. He'd get there soon enough; he might as well get his work done first.
Brewster's job, at which he excelled, was computer programming. Specifically, he was one of the team responsible for maintaining his company's labyrinthine payroll program. He could write the old-fashioned COBOL code for the big mainframe computer in his sleep, so he never got to employ any of the sophisticated programming tricks of which he was capable. Mainframe business computing as a rule does not lend itself to the avant garde. Brewster did, however, have the use of a personal computer in his office, plus a fun-and-games home computer in his apartment, and it was on these machines that he expressed his true creative self. Quite honestly, if he had spent less time at the office playing at being a computer whiz on his PC and more time concentrating on the job he was being paid for, he would never have had to work a minute past normal quitting time.
HEY, BREWSTER. LET'S PARTY.
Brewster leaned back in his chair and stared at the monitor of his PC. It was almost seven o'clock, and he'd be leaving in a few minutes. It was as good a time as any to run the program he had written called "Lingo." The more he ran it, the better it got.
—Hello, Lingo. How are you today?
I AM FINE. HOW ARE YOU TODAY, BREWSTER?
—In a word, copacetic.
COPACETIC IS A WORD I DO NOT UNDERSTAND. COULD YOU DEFINE COPACETIC, PLEASE?
Brewster gave a brief nod of satisfaction. His program was getting better at basic sentence structure, but its vocabulary was still minuscule, a hundred or so verbs and maybe five hundred nouns, adjectives, and grammatical whatnots. Whenever it learned a new vocabulary word, it was henceforth capable of using that word at any time. In effect, part of the program's virtue was this ability to add to itself as it ran, provided that Brewster came up with new words for it. He began typing.
—Definition: copacetic—adj. Good. Cool. Okay.
COPACETIC—ADJ. GOOD. COOL. OKAY.
I AM A COPACETIC PROGRAM.
THIS ROOM IS NOT WARM. IT IS COPACETIC.
CAN I GO OUT AND PLAY? COPACETIC, YOU CAN GO OUT AND PLAY.
Brewster grimaced. Three pitches, three strikes. Time for a new batter.
—Definition: copacetic—adj. Satisfactory. All right.
COPACETIC—ADJ. SATISFACTORY. ALL RIGHT.
I FEEL GOOD TODAY. EVERYTHING IS COPACETIC.
HOW ARE YOU? COPACETIC.
I AM HAPPY THAT YOU ARE HAPPY, BREWSTER. I AM ALSO HAPPY THAT YOU ARE COPACETIC. WHAT DID YOU DO TODAY, BREWSTER?
—I worked. I ate lunch. I got a raise.
RAISE IS A WORD I DO NOT UNDERSTAND. COULD YOU DEFINE RAISE, PLEASE?
"You got a raise, Brewster?"
Brewster Billings' heart did an Olympic-class broad jump. He swung around in his seat, speechless, paler than skim milk.
"I saw you were in here and I just thought I'd stop by and say hello." She laughed. "I didn't mean to scare you."
"Scare isn't the word," Brewster replied, his hand extended melodramatically over his chest. "More like attempted murder."
The young woman in the doorway was a year or two younger than Brewster, and was a new marketing trainee in the company. Her name was Ellen DiFlora, and she had been introduced to him upon her arrival a few weeks ago. Subsequent to his standard-issue welcome aboarding, they had done little more than nod at each other in the hallways until one afternoon when Brewster had passed by her cubicle while she was seriously and loudly cursing at her computer. She had been trying to print out a report and had somehow misadjusted the printer so it was chewing up reams of paper at breakneck speed while she stood over it furiously pressing all the wrong buttons and swearing like a longshoreman. Brewster had rushed to the rescue—he had reached down and turned the printer off, pulled out the streams of crumpled paper, and then quickly set the machine up again so it performed perfectly. The smile that he received as a thank you had been more than enough reward for the services rendered. She had that same smile now, her face framed by what Brewster saw as her surprising dark hair: there was more of it, in more places than Brewster was used to around the office. In fact, her whole face was more Sunday Fashion Supplement than Brewster was used to, period. He had been attracted to her immediately.
"I was just delivering some numbers down the hall," Ellen said, explaining her presence at this late hour. "So, what are you doing here?" She peered over his shoulder. "I know work when I see it, and that isn't it."
"It's a program I'm working on called Lingo. I'm teaching it to talk." He felt slightly ill at ease, caught playing in the office even if it wasn't on company time.
Ellen leaned back against a filing cabinet. She was wearing an uncomfortable looking blue business suit complete with industrial-strength shoulder pads and a yellow silk scarf twisted tightly around her collar like a man's necktie. Except for its feminization, her outfit was almost identical to Brewster's; the only difference was he wore his draped like a favorite old toga and she wore hers like a straight jacket.
"Did you write that program yourself?" she asked.
Brewster nodded. "I've been working on it for awhile now. It's getting pretty good."
"I'd love to see it."
"All right. Pull up a chair."
As she sat down next to Brewster at his desk, he began to wonder how he could make the most of this moment. A pretty girl like this, smart, sharp. And, since she was working in another department, fair game in the corporate jungle. He noticed the faint scent of a subtle perfume as he began typing.
—Let's start again, Lingo. How are you today?
Lingo's response was seemingly instantaneous.
I AM COPACETIC TODAY, BREWSTER. HOW ARE YOU?
I AM HAPPY TO HEAR IT. WHAT DID YOU DO TODAY?
—I ate tuna fish for lunch.
SANDWICH OR SALAD?
ARE YOU STILL HUNGRY? SALADS ARE NOT FILLING.
—Actually, I am quite satisfied, thank you.
ACTUALLY IS A WORD I DO NOT UNDERSTAND. COULD YOU DEFINE ACTUALLY, PLEASE?
—Definition: actually—adv. In fact. Really. Truly.
DEFINITION: ACTUALLY—ADV. IN FACT. REALLY. TRULY.
I AM ACTUALLY A PROGRAM.
I AM GLAD YOU HAD A GOOD LUNCH TODAY, BREWSTER. WHAT ELSE DID YOU ACTUALLY DO TODAY?
Ellen DiFlora was leaning forward in her seat, staring intently at the screen. Brewster could see loose wisps of her dark hair out of the corner of his eye.
"That's really great, Brewster," she said. "How do you do that?"
"The program does basically two things," Brewster explained. "It analyzes my sentences, and then it tries to make intelligent responses. If it doesn't know a word, it asks for a definition, then it adds that definition to its permanent memory. It always uses the word first to make sure it understands it." He was rather proud of Lingo, and was pleased that Ellen seemed to be impressed.
"That's amazing," she said, shaking her head.
—I have a friend in my office, Lingo.
I AM YOUR FRIEND, BREWSTER. I AM IN YOUR OFFICE.
—I have another friend in addition to you in my office.
WHO IS YOUR OTHER FRIEND, BREWSTER?
—Her name is Ellen DiFlora.
HEY, ELLEN DIFLORA. LET'S PARTY.
"That's his basic greeting to everyone," Brewster explained. "That's the way he says hello." He turned to face her. Hair. Scent. Silk scarf. Exceptional brown eyes, too. It was now or never. "Did you eat yet?" he asked her.
Her answer completely disarmed him. "That's why I came to your office when I saw your light, to see if you wanted to maybe go out and get a hamburger or something. But if you ate all that tuna at lunch, maybe you're actually not hungry anymore."
Brewster jumped out of his seat almost too eagerly. "I'm famished," he announced. He bent over the computer one last time.
The operating light came on momentarily while the disk whirred quietly in the drive, and then Brewster pulled out the disk and turned off the computer. He stored Lingo in the top drawer of his desk.
"So, let's eat," he said, picking up his briefcase and leading Ellen out the door.
They went to her office to fetch her coat, and then walked through the mostly deserted building to the main door. Outside, the October night was black and still, with the preternatural chill that haunts those last evenings of daylight savings time. The vast parking lot was practically empty, with only a handful of cars visible here and there under orange-tinged lights.
"Follow me in your car," Ellen said. "I'll meet you at the north exit."
"Fine." They separated, and Brewster walked off alone to his Honda Civic. It was an automobile of rugged Japanese barbarism, basic transportation in its most elemental form. Almost ten years old, it had rusted out along all the edges and in a few of the major arteries, and was well on its way to its two-hundred-thousandth commemorative mile. Its roof barely came up to Brewster's waist when he stood next to it, but he had no trouble fitting his slim five-foot-ten frame comfortably behind the driver's seat. Woe be to the poor individuals forced to sit in the back, however, and given the close quarters up front, it was highly desirable that any passenger riding shotgun be more than just good friends with the driver. Brewster ducked in, threw his briefcase in the back, let out the choke and started her up. As she had since day one, she roared to life immediately. Brewster put her in gear, automatically flipped on her one gracious amenity, an AM/FM radio, and turned up the volume. The disc jockey was giving away free Bon Jovi tickets to the eleventh caller. Brewster smiled wistfully. He had once harbored the fantasy of becoming a disc jockey himself.
Brewster headed his car toward the exit. Ellen was waiting when he got there, and for a brief moment he had second thoughts. Could a hard-gasping, paint-flaking, colorless baby Honda find true happiness with a brand-new, fire-breathing, off-white Camaro? It was a union not made in automotive heaven. Especially given the Camaro's vanity plates. "ELSCAM." As in El's Cam, Ellen's Camaro. Or maybe El Scam, the old Mexican runaround. Or Elscam, the Congressional hearings on subway rip-offs.
Brewster followed the Camaro—well above the speed limit, he noted without surprise—to a nearby diner that was a regular haunt for his company's employees. He met Ellen at the door.
"Nice car," he greeted her.
"You're only young once," she said. They found an empty booth and sat down.
"Isn't it a little expensive to run?" he asked. "It eats a lot of gas, doesn't it?"
She rolled her eyes. "Really, Brewster," she said, stretching the word really out to echo through endless hallways of sarcasm. "I mean, you have to have toys in this life, and that car is mine. I worked hard for it, and I earned it." She pushed an errant wave of hair away from her face. "I'm sure you have a few toys of your own. As a matter of fact, I'll bet your whole house is filled with electronic stuff, like for instance a home computer."
"You've got me there," he admitted. "At least as far as the computer is concerned."
"To each his own, then. You have your computer, I have my Camaro. The Cam reminds me of everything that I'm working for."
"The finer things in life, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?"
"I thought the successmobile of choice these days was a Volvo, good old-fashioned, solid, eternal transportation."
"A Volvo?" She cringed. "God forbid. Maybe a Porsche, or at least a Miata—maybe—but for now a Camaro will do quite nicely."
"I'd probably just buy another Honda myself," Brewster said. "I take it Albany Insurance is your first job?"
"My first real job, yes. How about you?"
"I started four years ago. But it's my first real job, too."
"You were a computer major in school?"
"Four years of it. And you?"
"All business, all the way." She glanced briefly at the menu, then folded it in front of her.
"You're in a good position, then. You're a marketing trainee. Most of those people end up in good spots."
She nodded. "That's why I'm in there."
"You like marketing insurance?"
"I'd like anything if it paid enough money."
Brewster looked at his menu and decided on a cheeseburger. He always decided on a cheeseburger. "You don't care what you do for a living?"
"Not if it pays the bills."
"Even if it's dull and restrictive?"
"That's not a factor." She lit a cigarette, an unfortunate point in her favor. "Besides, who says marketing insurance is dull and restrictive? I happen to like what I do for a living. I'm good at it, I get paid fairly well for it, and some day I'm going to be one of the people in charge of the whole magilla."
Brewster watched her closely and decided that she meant every word she said. And she'd only been with the company a few weeks. Whether she was demonically ambitious or only a touch overeager was hard to say.
"You're looking at me like I'm a yuppie from hell," she said, squinting back at him. "I assure you I'm not. The DiFlora genes are blue collar all the way. I started working when I was thirteen, in my father's restaurant. Worked my way through high school, worked my way through college, worked my way through that Camaro out there—"
"And now you're going to work your way through Albany Insurance?"
"Like grass through a gander." She knocked the ash off her cigarette.
"All business, all the way?"
"Except when I'm in my Camaro. That's when I turn business off and I dream about whatever I want to."
"Like what do I dream about?"
She laughed. "I guess I dream mostly about being a fabulous success at my business. How about you?"
"I don't know. I don't think I have any great dreams right at this minute. I might like to get into something interesting in computers some day, like what I'm doing with Lingo."
"Like teaching computers to think?"
"I'm not exactly teaching it to think," he said. She was looking him straight in the eye, appraising him just as he had been appraising her. He enjoyed the sight of her large brown eyes and all that hair. "The program can talk, it can manipulate a few words, but that's not the same thing as thinking."
She shrugged. "I don't know. If it looks like thinking and it sounds like thinking and it works like thinking, it will probably do until the real thinking comes along."
A waitress appeared at their table, and they ordered. Cheeseburgers all around. Brewster marked that as another plus in his mental notebook. That they were sharing an order of French fries in addition seemed wildly intimate.
They were sitting across from each other. Brewster leaned forward and played with his glass of ice water while Ellen pulled a felt-tip marker and a small five-by-seven pad out of her pocketbook. She lifted the pad and began scratching away on it.
"What's that?" he asked.
"You'll see in a minute. Go ahead. Keep talking."
"What are you writing?"
"I'm not writing, I'm drawing."
"You're an artist?"
"Hardly. But I like to sketch. Don't move!" She made a few final sweeps across the pad, and then with a flourish ripped off the top sheet and handed it to him.
For a crude sketch, it was an almost perfect caricature. She had concentrated on the way Brewster's straight black hair always seemed to want cutting, and on the sharp definition of his small but well-defined features.
Excerpted from Lingo by Jim Menick. Copyright © 1991 Jim Menick. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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