“Okay, this is test number 74 . . . I’m going to be running multiple sub-routines and a full array of stochastic diagnostics, and hopefully this time I’ll be able to get a clearer idea of why the multimodal processing topography kept flattening out, and see if I can’t -”

“Billy! Dinner’s ready!” His father’s voice called up the stairs.

With a grunt of annoyance, Billy plucked the virtual-rig from his head. Placing it on his bedroom floor amid a sea of scattered circuit-boards, transistors, wiring and scraps of paper etched with intricate pencil designs he shouted, “Be there in a minute!”

“It’s fish and chips!”

“Great!” He added, and suddenly remembered he was starving.

 

“How’re you getting on?” his father asked with a wink.

Billy forked a large, suspiciously-undercooked chunk of haddock into his mouth and his reply came out garbled.

“Don’t talk with your mouth open,” his father chided. He rotated the newspaper beside his plate and tapped it with his finger. “There’s a science fair at the town hall in a few weeks. Apparently they’re inviting a couple of big-league professors over from Cambridge to judge.” He looked up. “Thought you might like to go.”

Billy made the garbled sound again.

Billy, I said -”

Billy swallowed, grinned. “I said, How else am I supposed to talk?

His father looked grave for a second before giving in to a laugh. “Smart-arse.” He ruffled his son’s short black hair. “So?

Billy made a face, started combing his fringe back into place. “So, what? You mean the science fair, or the work?”

“Both,” his father said.

Maybe on the science fair,” Billy said. “And the work’s going okay. I just can’t seem to get the environmental data to sync with the cognitive receptors.”

“Oh,” his father said, pushing the newspaper to one side. “Have you tried setting the phasers to stun?”

Dad!” Billy gave him a light punch. “Anyway, phasers don’t work like that . . . They’re a beryllium compound, and serve as cooling channels for multi-wave absorption.” He forked another chip into his mouth.

His father’s head shook slowly. “Okay, thanks for that. It’s a bit above my IQ, Billy, but next time you need anything from the store . . .” His father ran an electrical goods store in the village, near to Billy’s school. Billy had been plundering the stocks from the age of four. Until recently, that was. In the last few weeks – as his requirements became more sophisticated – he’d been forced to turn in large part to the Dark Web.

“I’ll let you know. Thanks, Dad.”

His father ruffled his hair again. “My bright little eight year old!” He turned back to his newspaper. Billy straightened his fringe and chewed through the food as quickly as he could, eager to get back to work.

 

He’d been building Emery for two years now, and was on the brink of success.

Emery was a self-sustaining network of algorithmically simulated intelligence nodes. AI, for short. Billy had built him practically from scratch.

He’d been ‘bright’ as long as he could remember, which was around the time his mother had died, aged two. Prior to this the waters muddied a bit, but there were still fragments. He still remembered, for instance, his mother’s face as she bent over his crib and the soft lullaby of her voice as she whispered, “The skies are the limit for you, my little Einstein.”

After that, the various disciplines of science had come to him with ease, along with the discreet, indefinable spark that had enabled him to put this knowledge into practice. He’d started small: Rockets made from stickle-bricks, formulae writ in fridge-magnets and endless crayon doodles of robots, cars, planets and their workings . . . Then – on his fifth birthday – his father had bought him a computer.

After that, not even the sky was a limit.

Right now, that first computer was a dusty relic at the bottom of his wardrobe. He was currently employing four separate Zenon XC50 banks running Linux at almost 250 petaflops, all discreetly stored in hidden compartments around the loft (his father didn’t go up there anymore, on account of that being the place where his mother’s stuff was stored). It was sufficient for his current research, but he could always lean on the internet if he needed a little more processing power.

He’d come a long way since the stickle bricks.

 

“Hello, Emery.”

A glowing, pixelated outline took shape. “Hello, Billy.”

“Good.” Billy adjusted the helmet interface and held up his virtual hand. The cloud of pixels scattered then seemed to coalesce around it. “Okay. I suppose that’ll have to class as a high-five.”

It was intended as one.”

“Okay, Emery, who are you?”

The pixels retreated, reforming in the corner of his room. “I am Emery.”

“Little more detail?”

My apologies, Billy. I am Emery, a smart software designed to mimic the functions of the human brain to produce an impression of intelligence.”

“But, who are you?”

I do not understand. I am a smart –

“In your thoughts? In your mind?”

I do not have thoughts, or a mind, Billy. Electrical signals travel multiple integrated conduits between –

“Let’s try something else. What do you feel, right now?”

I feel . . . Nothing . . . I am discorporate.

“But you’re talking to me. Thoughts carry feelings. What do you feel when you talk with me?”

Our conversation is pleasant. I enjoy talking with you.

“Define ‘enjoy.’”

The process of fulfilment that comes from –

“Don’t quote the web, Emery! Your definition.”

I feel nothing. I am discorporate.

Billy raised the visor with a sigh. “Reboot.”

 

END SAMPLE

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