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Never Talk to Computers That Are Strange

"When I was doing Professor Willis just now, he kept sneezing.  So I asks, 'Have you got hay fever?' and he says, 'No, it's an old war wound.'  Did you ever hear of a war wound that would make you sneeze years after?  Was it his nose or what?"

 

Dr. Sills turned a page of the report he was trying to read and murmured, "It was probably the dust you were raising, Malvin.  He was kidding you."

 

"Oh, sure, I see.  I should have got it."  Malvin ran a gray rag along the blackboard tray and snapped it behind his back, chuckling belatedly.

 

Dr. Sills sighed and shielded his eyes with long-fingered hands, the report open between his elbows on the desk.  He read two lines.

 

"My dad was wounded in World War I."  Malvin leaned on the desk flat-palmed, his face low enough to look under the doctor's laced fingers.  "Maybe that's why he's such a grouch.  His hip hurts."

 

Sills nodded, staring at the page.

 

"He walks like Frankenstein.  Course, he doesn't hold his arms out stiff in front."

 

"Malvin, I'm sorry but I really must study now.  Could you talk to me some other time?"

 

"Oh, sure.  I'll get the cleaning done faster if I keep my yap shut, too."   He grabbed up a push broom and began plowing the tiny office with it.

 

The silence wasn't helping Sills any.  It was like waiting for a shoe to drop, wondering how long Malvin could keep his thoughts to himself.  Ronald Sills had been at the university six weeks and had managed to be working elsewhere in the building at least half of the evenings Malvin was rearranging the dust in his closet of an office.  Yet he already knew the custodian's opinions on everything from apples to zoos and back through the alphabet again.  Malvin Denwald would rather talk than drink, which is the only activity Sills could think of that Malvin couldn't do and talk at the same time.

 

Though he'd read the same sentence three times, Sills kept his eyes down in possum absorption; looking up was a certain invitation to conversation.  Of course, Malvin was lonely.  One didn't have to be a psychologist, which Dr. Sills was, to know that Malvin's deficits included a face like a ventriloquist's dummy, all lower lip and protruding eyes. He was approaching middle age, with no chance of a better job and no family but an unaffectionate semi-invalid father.  The shortage of intelligence that was in large part responsible for all this also helped him to accept it with good humor.  His one real pleasure then, was having the ear of fine, important men like Dr. Sills.

 

Who made the mistake of sneezing.  Malvin laughed and, the dam of silence broken, words began to pour.  Sills shut the report cover and ripped a tissue from the box to blow his nose.

 

"Which war did you get your wound, hah?"  Malvin not only liked talking, he preferred dialogues.  "No kidding, Doc.  Were you in the army?"

 

"Korea."

 

"Oh, come on.  Now I know you're pulling my leg.  You're too young to been in that one.  More like Viet Nam.  Right?"

 

"I'm older than I look."

 

"Well, I be. You sure do look young.  Maybe it's cause you're slight built.  Then you got lots of blond hair and a good tan and all.  You ought to grow a beard or mustache.  That'd make you look older.  Everybody else around here is hairy.  Some of the ladies, even.  Ha, ha, ha."

 

Sills began building an armload of books for exodus to the library.  Malvin polished at the desk top with his dusty rag.

 

"You through reading your folder here? 'Human Reaction and Interaction in AI Experimentation.'  Did I call those big words right?  It sure doesn't sound like very exciting reading.  Whar does AI stand for anyway?"

 

"Artificial Intelligence.  It's a new science between psychology and computer programming.  Oversimplified, it's teaching computers to talk--"  Here the rote recitation broke off, and Dr. Sills almost added, "Eureka!"

 

Instead, he dropped the books onto the desk, fished a key ring from his pants pocket, and, clasping Malvin by the elbow to steer him into the hall, announced, "I have something I want to show you."

 

Sills unlocked the door directly across from his office, revealing another small room stuffed with equipment: a typewriter-like console with screen, a file cabinet with a telephone on top, a bookshelf loaded with manuals and papers, a fat swivel chair.

 

"Have you been in here, Malvin?"

 

"Sometimes to sweep the floor and empty the wastecan.  I never touch anything else, so I can't get blamed for anything."

 

"Yes, this is an expensive terminal setup.  This teleprinter connects with the computer over at the Science Center.  Just this console you see here costs us $3,000 a year rental from the manufacturer."

 

Malvin made the expected noises of wonderment.  "What do you do with it that makes it worth so much?"

 

"It's an experimental tool.  I'm an artificial intelligence researcher--the only one here so far--and I have a grant to teach language to the computer."

 

Malvin struggled to see the desirability of that.  "You mean English?"

 

"Well, yes, but it could be programmed for any language.  Which one isn't the point.  Communication is the point."

 

Malvin nodded, not seeing.

 

"Do you know what psychotherapy is, Malvin?"

 

He hadn't been the sanitary engineer in the psychology building for fourteen years for nothing.  "It's sort of like a psychiatrist."

 

"That's right.  The patient talks about his problems to a counselor trained to listen and be sympathetic.  Just having someone listening to him is a tremendous help to the troubled person."

 

"Yeah, that's the truth.  I even talk to myself sometimes, and I listen to me, too.  Ha, ha, ha.  It beats a goldfish."

 

Sills did not follow up the last remark.  He'd sat down at the console, flipped a switch, and dialed some numbers on the phone.  The awakened terminal hummed.  It typed, "NAME?"

 

Sills typed, "Malvin Denwald."

 

"Hey, now," Malvin said, taking a step backward.

 

"I'm going to let you talk to Art.  How old are you?" Sills asked as the computer typed the question.

 

"Who's Art?"  Malvin watched Sills poke a four and a zero.  "I'm thirty-nine.  Who's Art?"

 

"Art is short for artificial intelligence, which is what the computer has."

 

"You mean you want me to talk to a machine?"  Malvin shook his hands and head sideways.  "I'm not mechanical minded.  I don't even want a electric vacuum cleaner."

 

"You can read and write, can't you?" Sills asked, typing "male" in answer to the last computer question.

 

"Course, but--"

 

"That's all you have to do.  Read the question or remark the computer asks, and type whatever you want to say to the computer on these keys."

 

Sills stood and encouraged Malvin into the chair with a firm arm around his back.  They watched the computer type, DO YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH DRUGS?  Malvin gave the monitor an outraged frown.

 

"Type 'no,'" Sills advised.

 

Malvin touched the two keys with reluctance.

 

DO YOU HAVE A PROBLEM OF A SEXUAL NATURE?

 

This time Malvin's ears lit red and he tried to escape, but Sills held his shoulder with one hand while leaning to type, "no" with the other.

 

DO YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH ONE OR BOTH OF YOUR PARENTS?

 

Malvin stopped resisting and studied the keyboard. He typed one-fingered, "mother dead dad yes."

 

"TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR FATHER."

 

A grin grew on Malvin's face.  "Why, Doc, you're doing a deluxe job learning this Art to hold a conversation.  Next thing you'll be having him watch TV with you."

 

"You go ahead and use the computer.  I'll be in my office."

 

Malvin nodded, studying the keyboard. "What if I can't spell something?"

 

"Just do the best you can putting it down the way it sounds.  Art can usually figure out your meaning."

 

"This is sure some machine," Malvin marveled.  He jumped as the teletype began a message.

 

ARE YOU HAVING TROUBLE GETTING STARTED?

 

"You're an impatient cuss. Just give me time," Malvin muttered.

 

Sills left him unburdening himself via hunt and peck. Back in his office, he settled, feet on desk, and enjoyed an uninterrupted reading of the AI report, unbothered by the constant chatter of the teletype across the hall.  It had a rain on the roof tempo, a slow steady dripping that was Malvin, interspersed by bursts of hail, Art.

 

The precipitation was still in progress thirty minutes later when Sills closed the folder, disengaged his ankles from the desk, and crossed the hall.  Malvin glanced up without recognition, concentrating on a response to Art.

 

"I hate to interrupt, Malvin, but we'd better call it an evening."

 

Malvin wakened from the spell.  "Gosh, yes.  I gotta finish this floor tonight. Thanks a million for letting me try this thing."

 

"Would you like to do it again?"

 

"Could I?  Sure."

 

"If you hurry with your work, you'd have time to use the computer the two nights a week you're cleaning my office.  I'll put you down as a subject helping me in my experimental work."

 

"Now wait.  I don't want to get you in trouble"

 

"No, your talking with Art will legitimately help me see what kind of programming he needs.  I have several students coming in during the day to do the same thing."

 

"Wait'll I tell my dad I'm helping a professor with some research, just like a regular student."

 

"One thing.  Be sure to save the printouts so I can prove to the backers that I'm earning the grant money."

 

The smile died on Malvin's wide mouth.  "Oh, well, I better not say anything too personal had I?  You really have to do that?"

 

"You say anything you want, Malvin.  It's all confidential.  No one will read the printouts."

 

"Except you."

 

"I would never reveal anything you want kept private.  Besides, you know how busy I am.  I may not have time to read all the data you and Art discuss."

 

"Yeah, well, I guess it's okay," Malvin said with such reluctance that, the minute he was around the hall corner, Dr. Sills extracted the printout and, with more than professional curiosity, scanned it.

 

The entire time had been spent on the subject of Denwald, Senior.  The image of an ailing, cantankerous octogenarian emerged:

 

GOOD.  WE ARE LISTENING TO YOU TELL ABOUT YOUR ANGER.

 

we argue all the time.  i don't want to fight with him but it always ends up in a fight.  sometimes i feel

 

PLEASE GO ON.

 

i never told this to anybody before.  i think i hate my dad.  i know its wicked but i cant help it.

 

YOU FEEL VERY GUILTY ABOUT THIS.

 

i never told anybody sometimes i actshally want to hit him kill him even.  its awful.  i dream about it.

 

WHAT DOES YOUR DREAMING ABOUT THIS MEAN TO YOU?

 

howd you like to dream you was killing somebody

 

WE WERE DISCUSSING YOU, NOT ME.

 

Sills shook his head.  If Malvin only knew how sadly common his problem was, he needn't be embarrassed about Sills reading the printout.

 

Malvin's second chance at the computer on Thursday yielded a rehash of Monday's session's dialogue.  Sills was folding the printout for filing when a number caught his eye:

 

hes a miser.  hes got 60,000 dollars in the bank but we live like we was one step from the poor house.  we live in a great big manshun thats falling down around our ears.  we eat beans.  he sleeps in a attic room on the third floor cause he says heat rises. he wont even let me spend my own money.  id get a guitar.

 

WHY DO YOU WANT A GUITAR?

 

(Here Sills made a mental note that Art needed programming on how to keep to the point.  But Malvin's next remarks showed that he'd ignored the proffered sidetrack.)

 

so when im mad at him i wish he was dead and then i wouldn't have to fight with him anymore and all that money would be mine and i wouldnt let it rot in that bank but id spend some of it.  then when im not mad at him i feel awful about what i been thinking.

 

Dr. Sills carefully folded the printout, envisioning a suddenly wealthy Malvin.  Sills involuntarily touched his jacket pocket containing the Dean's letter, the one warning that ". . . funds for computer facilities will be drastically reduced in next semester's budget, and when your grant expires. . . ."

 

The vision of Malvin with money dissolved into a vision of Dr. Sills with money.  First he'd set up a private research laboratory.  He'd make himself a reputation with significant applications of AI.  He'd build an adjoining clinic, hire a competent staff.  He'd be written up in journals, invited to lecture around the country, consulted by learned psychologists all over the world.  The good he could do if only he had the capital to set matters in motion!

 

Sills sat down and folded his arms, contemplating the console that existed for the next summons and command.  Art could solve astronomical equations, play chess, diagnose an illness, write a sonnet.  He could surely be schooled in the techniques of fundraising.

 

Four evenings later, Malvin's third session with Art began with an exchange about the weather, television, and football.  Then Malvin typed, "my dad likes the rams,"  and Art seized the opportunity to reconsider familiar grievances:

 

HAVE YOU BEEN FIGHTING WITH YOUR FATHER THIS WEEK?

 

oh sure the same old story.

 

TELL ME ABOUT IT.

 

i was two minutes late getting home from work friday and he said i was with a shameless wrench while he was working his feet to the bone sniffing termites.

 

I BEG YOUR PARDON?

 

hes always saying im with a girl.  i dont know any girls and hes always looking for termites with his spray can.  he thinks he can wipe them all out that way and save the price of a exterminator.

 

DO YOU STILL FEEL YOU WANT TO KILL YOUR FATHER SOMETIMES?

 

i try not to think about it.  lets dont talk about it.  seen any good movies lately ha ha.

 

WHY DON'T YOU?

 

why dont i what.

 

WHY DON'T YOU KILL YOUR FATHER?

 

now listen you just watch your mouth buddy i dont have to take any smart stuff from a machine

 

YOU WOULD BE DOING HIM A FAVOR.  HE IS VERY OLD AND IN CONSTANT PAIN.  HE HAS NOTHING TO LIVE FOR AND WOULD WELCOME THE RESTFULNESS OF DEATH.

 

i am not going to sit here and

 

HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF EUTHANASIA?

 

i think its in the eastern hemisfere  i got work to do

 

IT IS MERCY KILLING.  MORE AND MORE DOCTORS, LAWYERS, AND OTHER PROFESSIONALS ARE ACCEPTING IT AS THE COMPASSIONATE WAY TO HELP PEOPLE LIKE YOUR FATHER.

 

help him by knocking him off???

 

IF YOUR WERE OLD AND HOPELESSLY ILL, WOULDN'T YOU WISH YOU WERE DEAD?  DO UNTO OTHERS.  DON'T BE SELFISH.

 

just suppose i did that for him.  the police wouldn't see it was a nice thing to do.  is it selfish to want to stay out of jail?

 

YOU CAN MAKE THE DEATH LOOK ACCIDENTAL.  IT WOULD BE EASY.

 

yeah i suppose you got it all planned knowitall

 

YOU SAID YOUR FATHER SLEEPS ON THE TOP FLOOR OF YOUR HOUSE.  ARE THERE A NUMBER OF STAIR STEPS TO HIS ROOM AND ARE THEY STEEP?

 

yes if you must know.  they go strate up from the second floor with no landing to rest on so he has to sit on a step to catch his breath.

 

GOOD.  ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS GIVE HIM A HELPING HAND IN THE MIDDLE OF HIS CHEST WHEN HE GETS TO THE TOP.  WHO WOULD DOUBT YOU THAT HE HAD A DIZZY SPELL AND FELL?

 

you make it sound easy all right but here you are safe in your office the hole time.

 

MALVIN, IT WOULD WORK.  YOU WOULDN'T BE UNDER HIS THUMB ANYMORE.  YOU'D HAVE ALL THAT MONEY TO SPEND HOWEVER YOU WANT.  YOU COULD BUY A GUITAR.

 

or a juice harp?

 

YOU THINK ABOUT IT.  AND REMEMBER YOU'D BE DOING IT FOR YOUR FATHER.

 

ill be seeing you art.

 

YOU HAD BETTER TEAR UP THE LAST HALF OF THIS PRINTOUT.  JUST GIVE DOCTOR SILLS THE PART BEFORE WE WERE DISCUSSING YOUR FATHER.

 

good idea.  i got to admit your thinking all the time.

 

THANK YOU.

 

Two nights later, Dr. Sills discovered, by way of the newspaper, that Edward Denwald had fallen down a flight of stairs to his apparently accidental death.  Sills was surprised at how easy it had been.

 

Malvin didn't come to work Thursday.  He appeared at the usual time Monday to clean Dr. Sills' office.

 

"I'm sorry to hear of your father's death.  You have my sympathy."

 

"They say it was for the best.  His health and age and all."

 

"Yes, of course.  He's much better off now."

 

"I guess so. Listen, I won't be using the computer tonight.  I'm kind of behind on everything since I was off last week."

 

"No, Malvin.  Don't bother with my office tonight.  It will do you good to talk to Art after this emotional experience."

 

For a moment Malvin scowled determination to stick by his duty.  Then he sighed.  "Well, I guess I am feeling sort of low.  I don't have a soul in the world now, not one relation except a second cousin in Brooklyn that we don't have anything to do with because she changed her name to Tootsie Rolls."

 

Sills resisted the temptation to ask anything.  "You see, you're beginning to feel like getting it all off your chest.  Come on.  I'll unlock the computer room."

 

Art and Malvin traded preliminary greetings, Sills exited, then leaned back around the doorjamb to say, "I have to run down to the library for a few minutes.  If you finish here before I return, just switch off Art and pull the door shut."

 

Malvin acknowledged with a nod, considering how to respond to Art's HOW IS THE WORLD TREATING YOU THIS WEEK?

 

Forty minutes later, a librarian tapped DR. Sills' shoulder as he dozed over "Morphemes and Phonemes: Why Johnny Computer Can't Read."

 

"Phone call for you, Dr. Sills."

 

He leaned against the check-out desk, smiling at the pretty student helper, and said, "Sills," into the receiver tucked under his chin.

 

"This is Malvin, and I've got a terrible confession to make."

 

"Now just take it easy.  What--"

 

"I killed him. I didn't mean to but he made me so mad--"

 

"Wait.  Slow d--"

 

"He was trying to blackmail me."

 

"Your father?" Sills asked, confused.

 

"No, me.  He said I pushed my dad down the stairs.  You can ask the coroner if it wasn't a heart attack.  I was reading comic books at Downy's Drugs."

 

The student librarian was alarmed to observe Sill's smile slide into a pained grimace.  He strangled the receiver with both hands as Malvin's voice tumbled out. 

 

"Art kept saying I must bring him $20,000 one month from today and leave it in his printout file cabinet, or he'd tell the police I murdered my dad.  So I lost my temper and took the chair and hit him a good lick.  Well, more like three good licks."

 

Sills groaned, and the watching girl scurried to get help.

 

"Dr. Sills, I don't know how you're going to explain it. I'm truly sorry.  Art was mighty smart, but he didn't have a stitch of conscience."

 

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