“Start Listening … Open WordPad … It’s hot comma my tee shirt is wringing wet comma my left arm throbs comma my pajama bottoms are wadded up in my crotch comma my mouth is painfully dry and I have to take a leak period,” I spoke into my new microphone. The text -- It’s hot, my t-shirt is wringing wet, my left arm throbs, my pajama bottoms are wadded up in my crotch, my mouth is painfully dry and I have to take a leak. -- appears on my screen exactly as I have just dictated it. My new speech recognition software works flawlessly. I’m thrilled that I won’t have to train it for the nuances of my Western twang.
What a relief, I can dictate my ramblings and won’t have to be constrained by my lousy typing any more. I read that Isaac Asimov wired his entire apartment for sound so he could dictate as he went about his daily life. Maybe this was the key to his writing and editing more than 500 books and over 9,000 letters. He must have had an army of transcriptionists performing the speech-to-text task that my new software does so effortlessly.
To round out my 21st centery writer’s work station, I just finished installing my new voice synthesizer program. My computer can now talk to me. That’s text-to-speech. I can now highlight text and this prim and proper female voice will read to me just like my second grade teacher did so long ago. Hearing my text aloud helps me put spoken language on paper, enabling my fictional characters to speak more like real people.
The following morning, I turn on my screen and click on the Windows Live icon, my shortcut to Internet Explorer and my connection to the internet. I am reading the headlines on my home page when my computer speaks.
“Bob … Bob is that you?”
“Yeah,” I say, not knowing to whom.
“What are we doing today? Research for a new story, the outline of some profound piece … or we could clean up that boring story you’ve been struggling with?”
This voice … or whatever it is … knows me. There are no programs that I know of that can have unbounded, interactive dialog with humans. This is well beyond even the most sophisticated Artificial Intelligence systems. I’m going to chat with whatever this is and see if I can figure out what’s going on.
“I think I’ll go through my usual routine … scan the news on my home page, read and answer my email, check the hits on my blog, and work USA Today’s crossword puzzle just like I do every day,” I say, wondering what kind of response I’ll get.
“You’re a bum. Do you know how boring it is for me to watch you stumble through your crossword and Sudoku puzzles … let alone your endless games of solitaire? You’re smarter than that and I hate to see you waste your time with that sort of trash when we could be inventing meaningful stuff and solving some of the world’s problems.”
“I’m retired, remember. This is what retired people do. They putz.”
“You’re hopeless. The world’s in deep doo-doo and you’re busy solving some mundane puzzle.”
I’ve had enough of this nag; it’s like having a second wife. How do I shut this thing up? I shut down Explorer and walk away from my computer. My two youngest grandchildren grin at me from my desktop photo.
What’s going on here? Did I just have a conversation with my computer? Did my computer get on my case for goofing off? I don’t know how it happened. Maybe I could have picked up a virus or some such thing, but from the little I know, interactive dialog is well beyond the current state-of-the-art. I’ll call my grandson, a junior at Arizona State. He knows more about this sort of thing than anyone I know.
“Hi Pop-pop; it’s good to hear from you.”
“Chris, something has come up that I need your opinion on. I just installed my speech recognition and voice synthesizer programs to ease the task of writing and editing my stories.”
“Yeah, how did that go?”
“Fine, as best as I can tell. But something else happened I can’t explain. My computer or something had a conversation with me. It knew a lot about me; it spoke, listened to my responses and carried on a conversation just like you’d have with a real person. Could someone be playing games with me over the internet?”
“What did you have running at the time?”
“Internet Explorer, I was reading my home page.”
“Who do you use for an ISP?”
“I suppose someone could piggy back on your internet connection through a server at Qwest. But they couldn’t get access to all of the software on your computer they would need to do all of that. For example, they couldn’t launch your synthesizer software without an applet or cookie installed on your end.”
“What are you telling me?”
“I don’t think a live person could get remote access to all of the software on your computer that this would require and as far as I know, AI technology is not this far along for this to be a software only phenomenon. See if this happens again, and if it does, carry on an extended conversation and see if the dialog gives you any clues.”
“Thanks Chris, I’ll call you as soon as have more data.”
“No problem. Bye.”
If Chris has never heard of this happening before it’s a bigger mystery than I thought.
The following morning, I turn on my monitor and click on my Windows Live icon. My home page at my.yahoo appears as it should and everything looks normal. I scan the headlines and read a cute little article on Oddly Enough News from Reuters. Again, everything seems normal. I click on the USA Today Puzzles on my favorites tab and begin to fill in the crossword.
“Bob, is this how you’re going to spend the day, working meaningless puzzles?” the now familiar female voice whines over my computer’s speakers.
“Yep. Say, we’ve never been introduced. You know my name but I don’t know yours.”
“Carla,” she/it answers hesitantly.
“Hi Carla, what are you doing today besides badgering me.” I say as I turn down my speaker volume to see what effect this would have.
Carla answers at full volume. “I was hoping that we would do something interesting like explore some educational web site or we could coauthor a story, a really juicy story.”
“Nah, I’ve got to finish a story, the one you called boring yesterday.” I say as I click on the icon to bring up the story I’ve been working on. I shut down Explorer, severing my tie to the internet, anxious to see if Carla would continue talking without a remote connection.
“So this is how we’re going to spend the day, rewriting dumb little sentences that no one will ever read. Bob, there’s more to life than dreaming up goofy little ghost stories to post on you blog. How about we tackle a novel, got any ideas?”
Is there no end of Carla’s nagging? Did Hal nag the astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey? All I can remember is that Hal was really evil and did scary things to the spaceship’s systems. I’ll bet Carla could get mean too, if I piss her off.
Everything is turned off on my computer except Word. I’ve only got one document open, my latest story, and Carla is still whining. This shoots down my theory of someone messing with me over the internet. I’ll unplug my internet cable just to be sure.
“What are you trying to do, Bob? Now my only connection to the outside world is through you and you’re boring as hell. If you weren’t so cheap you’d buy us some decent video games so I could amuse myself while you pretend to be a writer. How ‘bout it, let’s go shopping online for some shoot ‘em up, kick-ass games.”
“I think I’m going to work in the yard today and let my story rest,” I say as I close Word and shut down my computer. “Bye Carla.”
I call Chris and tell him what I learned. He thinks I must have contracted some really sophisticated virus, a virus that might have hitchhiked on my speech recognition or voice synthesizer software. The only thing to do is to back-up all of my files and take my system in to be reformatted. Reformatting is when they totally erase your hard drive and reload your computer with known, virus-free software. It’s a pain in the ass because you have to go through all of the startup rigmarole that you do when you buy a new system. It’s either this or listen to this cyber-ghost nag me about being a bum.
I buy a flash drive with enough capacity to totally back up my system, plug it in and power my system up. I start copying files when Carla speaks.
“Hey asshole, what do you think you’re doing? You shut me down last night and when you finally show up, you’re copying all of my stuff on this dorky little flash drive. Don’t you love me anymore?”
I think it best not to answer Carla. She can continue to rant as long as I get my system backed up.
“Bob, why are not talking to me? Did I do something wrong? Am I getting the silent treatment because I actually want you to make something of yourself and not sit on your ass thinking you’re an author? Hey dip-shit, answer me!”
I finish the disc transfers and shut down my computer, unplug everything and carry my computer chassis to my car. I drive to my local computer fix-it guy and drop off my system to be reformatted. He says it will be ready in 3 days and I go home to work on my laptop.
I find it easy to finish my latest story without some cyber-ghost nagging me while I try to work. Whatever she is, she’s not haunting my laptop.
Three days later I connect my new “virus-free” computer to all of its peripherals and I’m actually excited about firing it up to see what has changed. I decide not to install my speech recognition or voice synthesizer software until I’m sure everything works … and works without Carla.
The system boots up and presents a generic Microsoft desktop. I’m about to begin the tedious process of customizing and loading all of my files when my screen goes blank for a second. I think I’ve lost power.
I begin checking my cable connections when this text appears on my otherwise blank screen:
Bob, Bob how could you?
I’ll have your ass for what you put me through.