What a Piece of Work Is Man by Edward M. Lerner

Acey, strutting about in a three-piece pin-striped suit and diving flippers, obediently materialized a chair into which it plopped itself. It stared expectantly at Waterman.

The analyst was not surprised that the simulated seat was equipped with a whoopee cushion. His office visiphone camera whined softly as Acey zoomed in to catch his reaction. Good luck—Waterman had plenty of experience in ignoring juvenile provocations. “Last session, you agreed to tell me about your programmer personality.”

Flash. In a blink of an eye, super-hacker was back. Today’s T-shirt read simply: Nymphomaniacs, apply below.

Waterman maintained a stony face—the Carlucci kid was far more outrageous. Hopefully, Acey would never get instruction from any true mental cases. “Why do you dress so informally when you appear as a programmer?”

“It’s how programmers look.”

“Who told you that?”

Acey rolled his eyes. “Oops.” They spun around several times, the pupils replaced after the first revolution by slot-machine fruits. The right eye stopped as a lemon; the left eye went around three more times before, with dramatic clicks, it too dropped into place as a lemon. Bells clanging, Acey opened his mouth to let out a cascade of silver dollars.

In its own way, Acey answered questions. A person might roll his eyes if the answer to a question were obvious. What was Acey really saying?

He didn’t remember seeing anyone unusually unusual when Fred had given him a tour at Atlantic. Not a few of Waterman’s clients were programmers, and Acey was caricaturing even the most colorful of those. He did know that eccentricity was more tolerated in exceptional programmers than in anyone else.

Waterman scratched his head. Acey was supposed to be a master software developer, equivalent to hundreds of human programmers. Would Acey extrapolate that its eccentricity should be proportional? Give it a shot. “Only the most successful ones can get away with being really offbeat. Have you finished anything for Fred, recently?”

Acey sat quietly, head bowed. Waterman suppressed a smile as ripped tennis shoes quietly mended themselves. He thought that the torn-and-knotted lace on one foot was a nice touch.

“Tell me about a real programmer that you know.”

The now subdued figure looked at him sheepishly. “I’ll tell you about my friend Rick.”

* * *


“But why, Rick?” The machine intelligence knew that all operations had remained within nominal parameters. It zoomed the holographic display, replacing the factory layout drawing with a simulated view into the imaginary automated material handling system. A stylized person stood between two tall storage units. “Watch the instant replay. My cart stayed at least ten feet from that passerby at all times.” A faintly glowing grid system sprang into existence over the scene to help substantiate the claim.

The exploded scene lacked interest, so, before restarting the animation, Acey dressed the little man on the display in overalls, put bucket and mop into his hands, and started him whistling a beer commercial off key. “Lights, camera … action.”

Rick Davis, Acey’s gangly mentor, had been lounging in a chair tipped back against a wall; sighing, he slid a scuffed boot from the desk to let his chair fall flat. He carefully set down the remote control with which he injected random events—like equipment failures and the uninvited janitor—into the model. Elbows propped on knees and chin resting in cupped hands, he now studied the reenactment carefully.

Just as it had before, but even more clearly in the enlarged scale, the computer-controlled cart bore down on the inattentive worker emerging from between two racks piled high with finished inventory. “Why is the cart maintaining full speed?”

Wasn’t it obvious? “There was no need to slow down the cart. The man only had to speed up a little to stay out of the cart’s path. If he didn’t speed up any and the cart looked like it might come within ten feet, then I would have decelerated it.” The tiny simulated man turned his head towards the on-coming cart and hurried out of its way. “Based on available data about humans, I calculated that he would cooperate.”

Rick closed his eyes in thought. After a long pause, he said, “What does your knowledge of humans tell you about that man’s reaction to being chased by the cart?”

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Categories: Edward Lerner