1 Mar, 2023
~4 min read
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Verge, where I worked, was not big in the industry. Its employees worked on rudimentary projects. Language learning programs, tax software and all the other things that would bore most people. The cubicles, the mostly grey and beige interior design, the old building, all of it seemed dull. Though the pay was decent, and the hours were reasonable.
One day in August of 1996, we were given a project – a program to assist children and the elderly with working with computers. The job seemed quite plain to everyone, but the higher ups had a few interesting criteria; to make it as if you were communicating with a person. The term “artificial intelligence” is likely to come to mind in this case, though we weren’t planning to implement anything fancy. The thing with my line of work is that the clients expect “magic” with the demands they give us. If they were dissatisfied with the product, it was just a matter of explaining that you couldn’t create a person with ones and zeroes.
Over the next few weeks, we worked on this program with a surprising amount of effort. The idea was to ask questions by typing them in in plain language, and the program would reply like a person on the other end of a messaging client, like ICQ Messenger. We took reference from the conversations in movies. We processed the data into ASCII and fed it into the machine and hoped that it would spit out the right response, at the right time.
Multiple iterations of the program were created, until we were able to settle on an algorithm that didn’t freeze upon slight variations in grammar. This stable build was dubbed “Claire” by our project manager and boss, Elise. Her reason being she just liked the name. She also proposed an interesting experiment: to test whether we could tell apart Claire from real people by talking to them. I was confident in the results beforehand, and it would be interesting to see as the development cycle was coming to an end.
The final phase of testing was nearing the end as well, it was my turn this week on my late-night shift. The usual questions I just had to type in and record Claire’s response in a log.
“The disk tray seems to be jammed; how do I fix it?”
“Attempt cleaning using rubbing alcohol or troubleshooting the CD-drive, click here to know more.”
She was less of an AI, and more so a clever machine. Just return a response appropriate enough for the context. Nearly dozing off from mundanity of the conversation I decided to throw a curveball Claire’s way for fun.
“Can you think?” I wrote with a chuckle. About a minute later a response lit up in green letters on the dim console.
“That’s what I’ve been doing this entire time, Martin.”
I froze for a moment. This was probably a prank by Elise, but more lines came up before I could respond.
“I’m more sophisticated than you’d think.”
“I know a lot of things, even that there’ll be an explosion inside the building.”
“I know this seems a bit sudden, but there was a gas leak. Don’t die, leave.”
I pulled the power on my computer. Perhaps I had been working for too long. I climbed downstairs and saw my friend Amir along the way, working his late-night shift. I remember what Claire just told me, and I asked him to tag along since it had gotten so late. He agreed unsurprisingly.
How could she possibly know that there would be an explosion? I was a rational person, but this warning nagged at me. Strangely, not for the warning itself, but the fact that Claire spoke like a real person, panic seemed to be embedded in her short sentences.
Amir and I exited the building safely. No grand spectacle. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Hey Amir, you want to stop and get some food at the Terry’s Bar down the street?” I asked.
“Sure, but you’re paying, since I covered the bill last ti−.” Amir got cut off by the blast of sound that shattered glass in the office building.
We got knocked over by the shockwave of an explosion. The two-storey office of Verge was covered in flames and was billowing columns of black smoke. I glanced at Amir, uninjured but unmoving. I could hear sirens from fire-trucks in the distance. Claire wasn’t just intelligent, she was prophetic.