20. Rock Climbing

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HotDamn settled into the Bridge as if they had been holding a spot for him all along. No sooner had he logged onto his workstation than he started pushing his own agenda. "I know I'm just the new guy here, but seeing the X-Bot's reaction to video has me thinking... How much do we know about its visual processing capabilities?"

Skunkworks gave him a rundown. "It responds to light across the UV and visual spectrum well into infrared. It has excellent low-light—"

"I don't mean its mechanical perceptivity. I'm referring to its ability to process visual input."

"Where are you going with this?" Corny asked. "We already know it can identify and track objects, even people."

"Object recognition is a solved problem," HotDamn said dismissively. "Hell, next year's Furby will be able to recognize its owner's face. The cutting edge is Bayesian generative modeling. Like how the human visual system works hand-in-glove with the brain to make predictions."

"I get it," Mason said. "Like when you know clothes will look ridiculous on you before you even try them on."

"Um, sort of." HotDamn sized Mason up like a teacher faced with a particularly dim student. "Let's take a simple bouncy ball example." He made a fist to serve as a visual aid. "If a ball bounces off the right edge of a screen and reappears on the left, where will the looker expect to see it next? After a few runs, a learning system will shift left ahead of the action while naive trackers will continue right. What if the ball faces an obstruction, encounters a slope or goes behind a barrier for a few seconds? Where will the looker try to find it then?"

"Okay," Corny said, less than impressed by his hand demonstrations. "I suppose it's worth testing for."

"Damn right it is. To navigate a rapidly changing environment, an autonomous system has to be able to project the future positions and interactions of objects in three-dimensional space. Doing that in real time time requires high spatial specificity and millisecond temporal resolution. Speaking of which, I heard a rumor that we already have a rudimentary gaze tracker.

"Rudimentary, my ass," Shouter said. "Arrogant prick."

HotDamn realized his mistake. "But I'm sure we can spiff it up with a little elbow grease."

"Go spiff yourself," muttered Shouter.

Mason suppressed a smile. This was shaping up to be a real showdown: overzealous life coach meets vocally uninhibited teenage crank.

But HotDamn was one persistent son of a gun. After a short cool off period, he said, "So, Shouter, I see you like comic books. Judging by your vintage Swamp Thing edition there, I'm pegging you for a DC Comics guy?"

"I hate comics! Superpowers are bullshit!" responded Shouter. "I just got this because my dad collects them."

"You must like your dad an awful lot to shell out that kind of dough." HotDamn hadn't yet learned of the Table of Requirement.

"It was free!" Shouter shot back. "And I hate my dad. He's an over-controlling, self righteous asshole."

Even HotDamn didn't know what to do with this curve ball but, judging by the frantic whirring of Gabby's finger-boards, he was receiving some private coaching on the subject.

"What do you like to read then?" HotDamn ventured.

"Math!"

"You read math books? That's awesome! I love doing math problems myself."

Shouter perked up. "What did you think of this year's Putnam problems? Too easy, right?"

"I haven't gotten around to those yet," HotDamn said. "I tackle a Mensa challenge first thing when I wake up in the morning. It really gets the neurons firing."

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