51. The Helen Keller Project

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HotDamn turned off the jumbo screens. "Before I show you this, I need to give you a little background first. You know how we have several dozen tablets situated around the Hab?" For once, he remembered to use the agreed-upon term for the not con-domes.

"A complete waste of time in my opinion," Skunkworks said. "Cameras would have done just as well."

"We ran out of cameras, so we had to use whatever spare devices we could rummage up. Good thing too. I've been using some of them to stream video."

"I thought we were through with vision tests? Wasn't the whole point of this to observe the X-Bots in a more natural setting?"

"Humans and technology are a big part of the found environment. In fact, if I had the Hab to do over again, I'd throw in some sidewalks and sprinklers. Anyway, I thought I would run a little experiment by playing different shows outside visual range of each other. That way, the X-Bots would have to choose between watching NASCAR and Bob Ross."

"So which did they pick?"

"Neither! They overwhelmingly went for Fox News."

"A discerning choice," Skunkworks said without irony. "They probably wanted an unslanted view of world affairs."

"Riiight." HotDamn struggled to keep a straight face. "We figured maybe there was something special about the talking head format. So we tuned the other tablets to CNN, MSNBC, the Today Show and, of course, re-runs of Johnny Carson. The X-Bots still chose Fox News."

"I guess this proves it was made by the CIA after all," Doogie said.

"Or its assassination target is a high profile figure in the Republican party," Skunkworks countered.

"Ruling out politics, we think there is another explanation," HotDamn said. "Here, watch this clip that shows its eye tracking overlaid onto the video feed."

"Why does it keep glancing at Hannity's tie?" Skunkworks asked about twenty seconds into the playback.

"That's what we wondered too. So we switched the channel obviously. Turns out the choice of programming had nothing to do with it. There was something at the bottom of the screen that was drawing their attention. But none of the other tablets were having this effect."

"Maybe the screen is smeared or a bug landed on it?" Skunkworks guessed.

"We cleaned and inspected them before we installed them, and it's the same model as twenty others. Even Gabby here was stumped. So we posted the problem to a crowdsourcing site. Within thirty seconds, we had our answer."

"Thirty seconds? Is that all?"

"Maybe it was twenty five. The person who figured it out was an eleven year old deaf girl."

"Closed captions!" Mason said, proud to have beaten the others to the punch.

"That's right. We were using a cable streaming app. Captions are off by default, but on this particular tablet they were enabled. That's why we weren't seeing them in our own feed."

"But we already established the X-Bot can't read," Skunkworks said. "You ran the tests yourself. In multiple languages, I recall. So how could it be reading the closed captions?"

"We don't think they're actually reading them," HotDamn said. "At least not yet. But we think they are able to recognize the words as a form of symbolic communication corresponding to the video feed."

"They're teaching themselves to read," Doogie said.

"Bingo! You see, when we tested the X-Bot for NLP before, we assumed it was already programmed in or it wasn't. We didn't consider the possibility it was just illiterate, as in having never learned."

"If they really are alien probes, wouldn't they have been listening in on our satellite broadcasts already?" Doogie asked. "We humans are a pretty chatty bunch. "

"Maybe," said Skunkworks, who was slowly coming around to the alien probe theory. "But who knows whether the X-Bots are tuned into the radio band. They might have spent the entire journey in sleep mode and only activated once they hatched. Besides, most satellite communications are encrypted. These little guys are smart, but they're not omniscient."

"And best we can tell, they only arrived a few weeks ago," HotDamn added. "That's not much time to master the local lingua. But we're hoping things will go quicker now we've got a richer umwelt to work with." He threw Corny a wink.

"Aside from watching Fox News, do you have a plan for teaching them?" Doogie asked.

"We start from first principles by mapping simple objects onto symbols and layering on more complex meanings as we go. That's how it's done with children. You point to a glass and say 'milk' and show it in different contexts: pouring, handing over, drinking, running out and saying 'no milk, all gone.' From there, you build your way up to higher order concepts like food, God, freedom, hot sexy thing, and so on. But teaching it to read is the easy part. We have something much bigger in mind. We want to teach it how to speak."

"How do you intend to do that?" Skunkworks asked. "Seeing as how they don't have a microphone, much less a voice-box. Let me guess, the twitchy eye thing?"

"Oh ye of little imagination," HotDamn waxed evangelical. "Do you not see here before you an eight-legged creation with a miraculous range of tentacular motion? We shall impart upon it the ancient language of signs, can I get an Amen?"

Skunkworks flipped him the double bird.

"Close enough. We're calling it the Helen Keller project. Remember the first word Anne Sullivan taught her? Water. She did it by placing her hand under a running tap and signing the word to her over and over, creating an association between the symbol and the physical object."

Mason already knew the X-Bot could communicate using leg gestures and had wondered if it had made any similar overtures with any of the other team members. Judging by their rapt expressions as they followed along with HotDamn, he guessed not. So why had it singled him out?

"Who's this we you keep talking about?" Skunkworks asked.

"Me and a crowdsource group Gabby helped me organize. I recruited several members of my team from WhiteStripe. One of them is married to a special ed teacher, and she got us in touch with a company that makes education software. Anyway, one thing led to another and now we've got several hundred programmers, educators and some graphic artists and animators too."

"Teaching an alien probe to talk..." Skunkworks ran his fingers through his beard. "This has got to be one of the most crazy-assed ideas I've ever heard. But what the hell. What do I know? Maybe it's the sort of crazy that works."

"Good, because I was going to do it anyway," HotDamn said.

"Ha, you're lying," Skunkworks replied without malice. "You've already started. So have you got something to show us or not?"

HotDamn held out his arms like a ringleader about to announce the main attraction. "Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to a revolutionary breakthrough in the quest for intergalactic peace and mutual understanding." He flipped on the two center jumbos. Running across them in three rows were simplified pictorials of an X-Bot with its two front legs arranged in various positions. "Behold the first alien alphabet!"

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