Chapter Thirty

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Twenty-Seven Years Ago

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophies,” Prescott said, standing in front of Scott’s desk.  “That’s a line from Shakespeare. Hamlet, in fact.”

Scott nodded, looking confusedly at his mentor.  The two had been working together for several weeks now. Scott spent many lunch hours in the computer lab, working on various programs and trying to solve particular issues related to running out of memory on the systems he was trying to program.

“It’s not behaving as expected,” Scott said. “It just doesn’t work this way.” Scott had said. “What does that have to do with Hamlet?”  Scott had no use for, no time for literature or fictional characters – they had no bearing on what was important to him, no bearing on computer programs.

“Prince Hamlet was expounding on the fact that, despite all of the things that we know, there are often things beyond that we can understand or even perceive.

“He spoke that line to his friend Horatio when they were speaking about the rumors of Hamlet’s father, the King, being spotted walking around, in ghost form, some time after his death. They were debating the existence of ghosts when Hamlet suggested this.”

“Okay, sure,” Scott said. “Whatever. But what does that have to do with programming?”

“Do you remember the psychology program we worked on last week?”

Prescott was referring to the special intricacies of how to program a simple Artificial Intelligence subroutine that mimicked human conversation; in this particular case, the human question and answer rhythm of a therapist speaking with a patient.

The subroutine began with a statement introducing itself as a doctor and then asked the user to type in their name.

The user would type in their name, and the program would return with. “Pleased to meet you, X.” – inserting whatever the user typed as their name into the X variant.

Then, the computer would say: “So, X, tell me how you are feeling today?”

When they used typed in a phrase, the computer would repeat it back. For example, if the user types in “blue” then the computer’s response would be:  “What do you think might be making you feel blue today, X?”

The conversation went on in that similar fashion, with the program set to look for certain keywords in the response and, based on detection of particular phrases, it would respond with various lines.  It made it appear, to the average user that the computer was actually attending to what the user was saying and responding genuinely and in an unscripted fashion.

“Sure, I remember that.”

“What did you learn from working on a program like that?”

“That you could fake a real-life conversation using a set of pre-programmed routines, scripts, and keyword indicators.”

“Exactly. What else can you intuit from that?”

Scott caught on. “That some things aren’t exactly what they seem.”

“Bingo!” Mr. Prescott said, his index finger thrust into the air. “And that, my young friend, is precisely what is happening to you right now.”

“But there’s no program running,” Scott said. “I’ve stopped the program and I’ve run the script to see the lines of text; I’ve made modifications to particular lines and I’ve re-run it.”

“Yes,” Prescott said. “Or so you thought. Maybe this program was set to trick you into thinking that you had stopped the program, when, in fact, you had done no such thing. What if all of the commands you typed were within the still-running program, and not at the code level you thought? What if the program was designed to make you think that you had hacked into it when, in fact, you hadn’t and were still working through a pre-programmed routine?”

Scott slowly nodded his head and a giant grin spread on his face.

“That,” he said. “Is deceptively crafty; absolutely marvelous.”

And then he set about to try to actually stop the program itself. For real this time.

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