22. The Zoom Raider

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"Okay, so it can't read," Mason said. "And that's a big deal because?"

The rest of the team gawked at him as if he'd sprouted a spare thumb from his forehead.

"A groundbreaking micro-robot with cutting edge AI and it doesn't know its ABCs?" HotDamn said. "You don't find that in the least bit peculiar?"

Mason couldn't deny his logic—but did he have to be such a smartass about it? "Maybe the X-Bot doesn't read English. Maybe it only reads Chinese."

"It was found in the Arizona desert. You don't think the Chinese would have taught it how to read a road sign?"

Maybe it's only pretending it can't read, Gabby came to Mason's rescue.

"I don't think so in this case. Its reactions, or lack thereof, are at the most fundamental level. Either it can't read or its language systems are completely offline."

What makes you so sure of that?

"For one thing, it doesn't exhibit sequential character tracking. There are other tells, but it boils down to how a reading system uses fuzzy recognition and inference to identify letters and words as opposed to picking out the individual features of an object. Also, you can give it commands like 'stop,' 'shut down,' and 'look out for that train' and see what it does. Most robotic systems have pre-programmed triggers like that. When I was at Striker, one of our beta drivers thought it would be funny to stencil the word STOP all over his autonomous vehicle. It was in a type of clear coat the human drivers couldn't see but the road cams picked up. Any time another AV got close, even if it was passing in the other lane, it would slam on the breaks. The engineers were not amused, but it taught us an important lesson."

"HOW COULD YOU FUCKING DO THAT?" Shouter erupted.

"I didn't do it. It was one of the—"

"I know it was you!"

"I'm sorry, what are you talking about?" HotDamn glanced around, but everyone else was just as in the dark as he was.

"You!" Shouter jabbed a finger at him. "You're the Zoom Raider!"

HotDamn threw back his head and let out one of those boisterous laughs that made you feel awkward for not joining in. "Are they still calling me that?"

"How is that funny? You stole from all those people! How can you fucking live with yourself after that?"

"Whoa, hold on there, Shouter," Corny broke in. "Let's not overreact here. I'm sure there's a good explanation for whatever you think HD did."

"I don't just think he did it. It's all over the Internet! He's a fucking thief!"

"It probably just got picked up and exaggerated, like what happened to Peeper." But Corny's words lacked conviction as she fixed the entrepreneur in her sites. "So, Zoom Raider is it? What exactly did you steal?"

HotDamn wasn't laughing this time. "I didn't steal anything."

"What were you accused of stealing then?"

"The codebase to a modeling engine."

He took an open source point-cloud mapper and used it as the core modeler for his lidar detection system, Gabby elaborated.

"Point-cloud mapper?" Mason said. "What's that?"

"It's a method for mapping three dimensional object-space at any arbitrary resolution," HotDamn explained. "Instead of building shapes up from polygons like most video games do, a point-cloud mapper constructs objects from a constellation of grid coordinates that share a binding strength and behavior affinity. Anyway, it gets rather technical, but the gist is they work much better in real-world environments where objects tend to deviate from standard norms. That's what makes them so useful for self-navigating systems."

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