16. Crawl Before You Walk

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Armed with his favorite open source software and a Makerbot Mini, Mason rolled out a series of fabricated leg segments. The segments decreased fractionally in size as they progressed from the body down to the oversized feet. Three ridge-lines spiraled along them in a clockwise direction. At first, Mason thought the ridges were just an efficient way of providing extra armor, but slow-time analysis of the cricket rodeo showed they could also serve as gripping treads; they compressed and deformed under pressure like a stiff rubber. The spiral pattern insured that, regardless of angle, one of the ridges would always remain in contact with the surface.

Why would the X-Bot need grippers on its legs? Because the legs weren't just for getting around. They could grab and manipulate things too. And if they could lasso a cricket, what other tricks might they be capable of?

The ridges were crosshatched with shallow grooves containing hair-like bristles that could either lie flat or project out by as much as ninety degrees. He wasn't sure what the purpose of these were. He wanted to bounce some ideas off Corny, but her and Skunkworks were deep in discussion about the X-Bot's acid suck-and-pump system.

Physical modeling was slow, precision work. Mason attached leg sections together using bent paperclips only to take them apart, whittle away at them with small implements from a pumpkin carving kit (a must-have when working with moldable plastics), and refit them back together. Once he thought he had it more or less right, he would go back to the software wireframe, make some adjustments, and reprint the whole thing from scratch.

Once, as he was holding up his leg model, he happened to glance up at the jumbo screens. The X-Bot had one leg raised. Mason bent his plastic leg into an arc. The X-Bot curved its leg to match. Was it copying him?

"What are you doing with that?" Shouter asked.

Mason quickly lowered it. "I'm just trying to get the basic leg mechanics down."

"Why the fuck would you waste your time doing that?"

Mason was relieved that Shouter hadn't noticed the X-Bot's mimicry, but the question stumped him for a moment. How could the answer not be obvious? "Mobility is the basis for any robot. Otherwise, it's just a computer on a stand."

"So it's got some fancy motors and gyros. What's the big deal?"

"It's not using motors and gyros," Mason countered.

"It's still just your basic engineering. A wing is a wing whether it's on a peregrine falcon or the Millenium Falcon."

Mason was about to point out the Millenium Falcon didn't have wings when Corny jumped in. "Get off it, Shouter. It's not just any ole engineering, and you know it. Appendages aren't like buildings that just sit on the same spot not doing anything. They determine what a body can and can't do. Take the human hand. Everything from steering wheels to coat zippers is made to be grasped in a way that feels natural to us. If we were elephants with flexible trunks on our faces, we would design our technology completely differently."

Score, set and match, Mason thought. But Shouter didn't seem to realize he'd been defeated.

"What about crossword puzzles then?" Shouter said.

"Crossword puzzles?" Corny repeated. "What about them?"

"My grandmother loves to do crossword puzzles. She does them the traditional way with paper and pencil. She has a pet parrot called Clark. Clark doesn't have thumbs but he has a fat talon on each foot that points the opposite direction—"

"The hallux," Corny said. "Or big toe."

"Whatever. What I'm saying is, Clark can hold a pencil too. My grandmother sometimes gives him one to play with. He usually just chews it up, but when she does a crossword, Clark squawks until she holds out a piece of paper for him to write on. So what's the difference? They both have opposable digits and make marks on paper."

"But only one is using language," Mason said. "It would be easy to tell if the marks were actual letters or just—"

"That's not the point!" Shouter fired back. "You can be fucking brain dead and still have hands. That doesn't mean you can do a crossword puzzle or play the concert piano!"

"OK, I think I see where you're going with this," Corny said. "It's true you can't predict function from morphology alone, but it can still give us a good first approximation. Look at how much we've been able to learn about dinosaurs just on the basis of some fossilized footprints and skeletons. In the case of your grandmother's parrot, it's merely acting out adaptive behaviors—gripping a stick-shaped object and mimicking the actions of a leader in a flock—in the face of a new and unnatural situation it never evolved for."

"The X-Bot isn't a bird," Shouter objected. "It didn't evolve. It was programmed!"

"It could still be the product of an evolutionary algorithm. It's a common practice nowadays when solving for difficult, multi-factorial problems. Throw all your designs into a virtual petri dish and see which one wins out. Then mutate a new generation and do it again."

"I know how evolutionary algorithms work!" Shouter bristled. "Unlike you and Peeper, I've written them."

"I just meant that we need to take a comprehensive approach," Corny took a more conciliatory tone. "Which includes learning how its basic hardware functions."

"Fine, whatever!" Shouter huffed and pulled the gag-band over his mouth.

Don't worry about him, Gabby private messaged to Mason. He may blow his top at times, but he never holds a grudge. In five minutes he'll have forgotten all about it.

But Mason wasn't thinking about Shouter. Yeah, it's fine, he messaged back. Say, you don't think Corny is still sore with me? He took her rallying to his defense as a positive sign.

Over what?

For not taking her side in that argument with Skunkworks.

That's old news. Besides, how would I know? Have you tried asking her yourself?

No. He glanced over to where Corny was already head down in her work. I get the sense she's ignoring me.

How can she be ignoring you if you haven't said anything to her?

There was an obvious circularity to the argument.

Maybe you should try speaking to her, Gabby suggested.

I'm not sure what to say. Should I apologize?

If you feel you should. Don't bother otherwise. She'll know if you're faking it.

OK, Mason said, afraid he'd revealed too much already. It would be best if he kept his budding feelings to himself before he said or did something historically stupid.

Oh, and one more thing, Gabby messaged. You know how those Dear Abby counselor types are always saying to just be yourself and people will like you?

Yeah, sure. That's good advice, right?

No, it's complete garbage. You should try to act like someone much older and more mature than you are.

Mason waited for the obligatory winky face to indicate she was kidding, but it never came.

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