Electricity coursed through the microchips of the massive, reinforced-steel slab sitting in the middle of the cold room, powering the cables connecting the central unit to the rows of servers and databanks along the walls. The central processing unit was just over two meters tall, half a meter wide, a meter deep, and an imposing presence in its own right. Within it were housed dozens of ultra-powerful microprocessors, the result of over a year of intense labor - all busy with analyzing, learning, discarding, rewriting, creating and adapting data at unimaginable speeds. Just outside the CPU area, surrounding the small refrigerated room, was a wide observation hall. The hall was just wide enough to fit a handful of cubicles, all facing the thick glass panels along the walls.
The desks were untidy, littered with paper clips and loose notes. The wheels on the chairs were worn from constant friction; the springs on the seats, loose and strung-out. There was no budgetary reason why the equipment hadn’t been replaced in months; there simply was not enough time to do so between the long, drawn out shifts of the small supervision and research team.
The stacks of solid-state drives and thermal coolant tubes along the racks lining the glass panes left gaps just wide enough to peek through, into the centre of the room, along three-quarters of the circular wall. The last section was adjacent to a small room housing a desk, slightly wider - and tidier - than the others. From this room, one could get a clear view of the CPU, and the small hatch on the ceiling that led to the access tunnels, the only way into the supercooled room.
On the desk were a computer monitor and keyboard, linked to a terminal that was, in turn, hooked up to the CPU and the terminals on the other desks via a complicated series of ports and cables. A tidy stack of papers sat to the left, next to a four-inch die-cast figurine of a Transformers character, and a very well-polished nameplate. On the brass plaque were the words “Dr. Charles Besson - Chief A.I. Supervisor”.
Charles was a tall man, slightly out of shape, who believed he had the potential to be handsome if he cared enough; his dedication to his work showed in his scruffy 1 A.M. beard, his unkempt home-trimmed hair, the deep, black circles around his eyes and the general stench of nicotine and despair he gave off.
He paced around, looking over the shoulders of the six scientists spread across the curved hallway – the Ouroboros, as they affectionately called it – observing their notes, scrutinizing the lines of code darting by the screens as their eyes skipped from one corner of the monitor to the other. Their rapid keystrokes joined to form a cacophony that rivalled even the loud, heavy sound of Thunderstruck playing from the speaker system, hooked up to one of the team members’ workout playlist.
He stopped behind a woman of average stature, skinny build, with short, messy hair partially covering her offset glasses. She wasn’t sitting on the chair per sé, but rather curled up in a position more akin to perching. Her arms were reaching around her bent knees to just about reach the keyboard, her slender fingers furiously hammering the keys. To the side of her busy hands, an open Thesaurus, to which her quick, jerky head movements guided her eyes on occasion, before they immediately jumped back onto the screen. Her labcoat tied by the sleeves around her waist like a half-skirt held on as the kickback from her arms caused the chair to swivel from left to right, her ID card following the rhythm, hanging over her chest. On the plastic card, an unamused mugshot accompanied the name, “Dr. Camille P.”
“Cam”, he said, calling out to her. “Cam!”
“What?”, she asked, without turning back. Speaking caused her to break her focus for a split second, time enough to commit a typo on the system. She sighed deeply, slowly backspaced to the misplaced letter, and corrected it. She glanced at Besson for a moment, expecting an excuse, and went back to her task. “What do you want?”
“How’s the lexicon coming along?”
“Looking good, boss”, she replied, confident. “Seven-hundred kay words keyed in, plus variations. Making good progress”, and with an emphatic pause thrown in, “when I’m not being interrupted.”
“Full report by tonight?”, Besson said, smiling a tired smile.
“Bite me”, she barked back, going back to punishing the cheap plastic keycaps at her mercy.
Charles paced some more, then settled into his own little office. Through the glass pane, he saw it in all its nearly-absolute-zero glory: Project Chiron. Chiron was the result of decades of research, work, trials, errors, sacrifices and setbacks. If all went to plan, Chiron would be the world’s first fully autonomous learning machine by the end of the week. More than an Artificial Intelligence: a real, living intellect, built entirely out of silicon and steel.
Chiron had not been a cheap endeavor. Over the last eight years alone, thousands upon thousands of dollars had been put into it, from building up the Ouroboros to the guts in which it stood; from permits and software licenses and legal riff-raff to putting together the small think-tank that currently worked around the unit. Programmers, mathematicians, linguists, data analysts, great minds of all fields of academics, working together towards constructing the perfect artificial mind. Most of these were interns, fresh graduates or even Senior year students at the University, a ways of “aiding in their career paths” – Charles knew this was little more than an easy way of cutting costs, but he didn’t mind. He felt it adequate that a project focused on bettering the means of education be an educational experience in itself; not to mention, every pair of capable hands was a great help in this mostly independent project.
The ultimate goal of Chiron was, put simply, to trigger a Singularity event in human history: the idea of a self-replicating – and a self-improving – machine was at the core of the philosophical drive behind the entire project. Chiron was named after the legendary Centaur of Greek myth, told to have taught some of the greatest minds and bodies amongst men and beasts alike. Much in the same vein, Chiron was intended to be the first in a virtually endless line of adaptive learning machines, with the added capacity to teach not only themselves, but their successors.
Besson had spearheaded the project since its inception, as part of his PhD research; since then, other like-minded colleagues joined in with their own expertise. After so many years, Besson knew he was finally close to tangible results. Camille had been leading two of the interns in a small team – a “tactical linguistic task force”, as she often referred to it – dedicated to teaching the system three different languages: English, Esperanto and French, through an algorithm developed by Besson and her. According to her reports, the AI would soon have enough aggregated data to be capable of independent, coherent speech.
Besson moved on to the desks across the room, and called the attention of one of the scientists. The exact opposite of the ideal lab dweller, the man’s long beard aged him another five years on top of his twenty-nine. A row of piercings along his right nostril struggled for attention under the thick-rimmed glasses, unobscured by the dreadlocked hair tied in a ponytail of sorts in the back of his head.
“Tell me, mate, how’s the P2P system coming along?”
“Lookin’ good, my man. The mics are all set up, all systems seem to pick up sound crystal clear, and Chiron seems to understand, or at least process, what it’s being told, if the monitors ain’t lyin’.” Marcus looked at the monolith through the ice-cold pipes. “He just can’t speak to us yet, is all.”
“Cam says it should have words by the weekend”, Charles said, placing his hand on Marcus’ shoulder. “This is really good work, mate.”
Marcus’ usage of the male pronoun bothered some members of the team, due to the moral and logical consequences brought on by acknowledging that Chiron was indeed a sentient, gendered being as opposed to a machine, but Besson didn’t mind. He knew that the moment Chiron spoke, opinions would quickly shift around.
“What about the speakers?”
“He’s hooked up to Ouroboros’ PA system, with the option to route the sound to a 3.5mm jack, in case ya need some ‘privacy’ with our man.” They both laughed, a nice break from the constant tension in the air. “Hell, you could even pop him on Bluetooth, if you wanted to.”
“Above and beyond as always, Marcus. Good job, mate.”
Marcus was the most recent addition to the team. A recently graduated sound engineering expert, he’d grown up on keyboard synthesizers, DAWs and instruments of all sorts, dedicating all of his free time to honing his natural musical talents. In the five months he’d spent with the team, Marcus rose above his peers, and was quickly put in charge of the Sound Design division. This section of the team was tasked with managing the technical aspects of communicating verbally with Chiron. On their contracts, they were to “devise a two-way communication interface between users and the Construct”; if you asked any of them, they were simply giving him a voice and ears.
Everything was running smooth as butter, which bothered Besson tremendously. In his experience, things didn’t go smoothly. He tried to keep an optimistic outlook, though, and just like everyone else in the lab, all he wanted was to have something, anything at all. Any sort of result to justify the years they had all poured into this.
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