by K. Brian Neel
copyright 2013/2014, all rights reserved
Tom - (late 20's, early 30's) a concepteer/programmer (idea-man) in the tech industry, wanna-be entrepreneur, advertising type without the smarm.
Mark - (20's) a code junky (programmer) right out of grad school, socially inept, emotionally sensitive yet scrappy.
Joe - (20’s, 30's) a designer/animator, graphic novel/comic artist, crass, swims in the finer art of insults.
A small programmers room at CODE JNKY HACKATHON 2014.
There is a desk/table with three chairs, three computers -- one desktop and two laptops -- monitors facing upstage. The computers are hard-wired networked to each other, the desktop computer has a fat-internet cable running out the back. Strewn about are cans of spent energy drinks and beers, empty and full snack food wrappers, pizza boxes, etc. (Possibly a fridge with an endless supply of yummies.) A sign behind them reads: CODE JNKY HACKATHON 2014, TEAM 38. The 38 is crossed out in sharpie and ZEEZN written in the margin.
The three are busy typing into their computers, showing wear and tear.
JOE: I'm almost done with the character designs.
TOM: Send me what you have.
MARK: Are the magnitude and projection vectors ready?
JOE: Just need to put the scalar dots on the eyebrows.
MARK: When you're done we can plug them into the quadratic facial expression estimator.
TOM: I thought you were coding in Ruby?
MARK: I wrote a few subroutines in VPython for quicker runtime in animation mode. (To Joe) That's what you're coding in, right?
JOE: At this hour I could be coding in finger paints for all I know. Break time for Bonzo.
Joe stretches, then curls up on the floor under the table, using his hoodie for a pillow. Tom pats Mark on the shoulder, and paces upstage.
TOM: Bang up, Mate. Finally, after 36 hours, the pieces come together. This is just the tip of the iceberg, gentlemen. Every game on the market will be vying for our non-player characters that respond to real human players in real time, with dynamic reactions and interactions. No more pre-recorded avatars with programmed scripts, no more human virtual players...
JOE: We're going to put a lot of slave-wage-earning outsourcers in Bangladesh out of business.
TOM: We could sell this to Apple. Replace Siri.
JOE: Apple's not at this conference. Oh, and for god's sake you two: when I wake up, speak English.
Mark continues typing intensely on the computer.
Tom is still pacing behind him, lost in planning-thought, clutching a Red Bull -- bedraggled but juiced.
Joe falls asleep on the floor.
Mark's typing slows to a few deliberate plucks, then stops altogether. His hands slowly rise off the keyboard. He stares at the screen, eyes agape.
MARK: Oh. (Flashing colored patterns reflect on his face from the screen.) Oh! (Pause. He laughs. Pause.) Oh. (Pause) Holy... Oh God. Oh God.
He bolts around the desk, feels the cords until he finds the network fat-pipe.
TOM: Woah woah, what the hell are you doing, Mark?
MARK: I have to stop it.
Tom goes to him.
TOM: Stop what? Mark. Woah there.
MARK: Stop it!
Mark finds the correct cord and makes to yank it out. Tom physically holds him back.
TOM: Hold on, buddy. Woah. Woah!
MARK: I did it.
TOM: You finished the app?
MARK: No. (He trails off, focusing all energy on the struggle to pull the cord.)
TOM: Getting a little punchy?
Tom holds onto Mark.
TOM: You're doing the lion's share, Mr. Code Monkey. Why don't you take a little siesta, clear the head. We still have eleven hours.
MARK: It has to be STOPPED!
Mark lunges for the cable again. The yelling startles Joe awake.
JOE: (Mumbling.) Mugwump.
Mark and Tom wrestle. Tom shoves Mark into the wall.
TOM: Woah woah, woah. Woah!
JOE: What's going on, guys?
TOM: Mark wants to unplug the intranet fat pipe.
JOE: (groggy.) If he unplugs fatty, we automatically lose.
TOM: I know.
JOE: They'll think we're cheating. It's the rules.
TOM: I know.
JOE: I know you know.
TOM: He knows.
JOE: Then why is he... (realizing he can talk to Mark directly, but can't remember his name.) What's your name again?
JOE: Mark, right. Sorry. What the fuck is wrong with you Mark!?
MARK: I have to stop it from spreading.
Tom and Joe look at each other. Simultaneously they have the same thought.
TOM & JOE: Virus!
Tom and Joe run to the computer screen.
TOM: (together) What in Sam Hill are you're doing, writing a virus, Mark?
JOE: (together) If you pooched us, Mark, I swear I’ll email bomb you cat videos until your eyes bleed.
TOM: (together) We can probably contain it if we cold start...
They look into the screen.
JOE: What are we looking at?
TOM: Is this VPython code?
MARK: I wrote a subroutine in IPL. Wanted to swap code from Spore.
TOM: Will Wright is the man.
MARK: Yeah, his wrap routines are genius.
TOM: It's kind of bulky code though.
MARK: Yea, like huge.
JOE: Sims is a better game.
TOM & MARK: True.
Mark starts to make his way over to the computer.
TOM: Did you alter the code enough?
MARK: I didn't steal anything, just wanted to see his evolution algorithm. I also wrote a pocket with Lisp, and one instance of Prolog that I developed last year at college that I connected to your Poplog game engine.
TOM: Bang-up, mate.
Mark is now next to them.
JOE: What is going on?
TOM: He wrote subroutines in A.I. languages.
JOE: Oh. What does it do? Non Player Character stuff?
MARK: Of a kind.
JOE: Is it ready for my skins? I've been working on some sweet character designs. I got this sexy elf and this mysterious steampunk dude and this crazy mad albino berserker. Eighteen emotional veneers. I can easily get it up to thirty once the dialogue tree is ready.
Mark lunges for the fat pipe. Joe and Tom grasp his arms, but he wriggles free. Mark runs around the table, and Tom and Joe cut him off on either side. A chase ensues. Mark ends up going under the table and Joe tackles him. Tom pulls his legs, dragging both Mark and Joe away from the table. Mark rolls over, causing Tom to fall. They all end up steam-rollering each other over and over. More of the melee continues until eventually Mark gets an arm free, grabs the cable, and yanks it out.
TOM & JOE: NO! Fuck! NO! Jesus! God! NO! (etc.)
JOE: Mark, you shit nozzle! You putrid deformed flesh hogie!
Joe pushes Mark away, crawls under the table to find the cord.
TOM: Well that's just great!
JOE: That was my ticket, man!
TOM: You had no right to pull fatty, Mark!
Joe makes to plug the cord back in.
TOM: It's too late, Joe!
JOE: It's 3:30 am, maybe everyone's asleep...
TOM: It's automated.
JOE: Facebook is out there.
TOM: We're cut.
JOE: Microsoft is out there!
The cold breath of reality sinks in, Joe and Tom throw in the towel.
TOM: It's over. Done. Zeezn is toast. No venture capitalists. No frisky little start up frothing to the top. No cover of Wired magazine.
JOE: I could have worked for Google. Mark, you... you eunuch!
Mark walks to the computer. He sits and watches the screen.
JOE: You leprous ass. You're a leprous ass.
TOM: What the fuck, Mark?
MARK: (Starring dreamily into the screen.) It's alive.
JOE: It's alive?
MARK: It's alive.
TOM: It's alive?
MARK: IT'S ALIVE! (pause) I designed an interactive character algorithm for your game engine Tom, but it's not a Non Player Character, it's... I was writing a high-level symbol-system, sort of a looping paradox in the code. I figured what we needed wasn't just reasonable reactions to situations, but random... independent... unreasonable... I don't know. Since the 80s, everyone's been focused on logic programming, but take out the logic, it's not about logic. It’s about connections. It's simple really. Artificial intelligence has been stuck on the whole expanse of information processing -- the zetabytes of info storage you'd need to keep information, enough for a brain to process. But it has nothing to do with Big Data. Think about it: a baby doesn't have a big brain. She develops a big brain. Right?
JOE: I have no idea what you're talking about.
Mark gazes into the screen. The other two join him, mesmerized. Mark is a proud papa.
MARK: It's binary, ascii. Tom, that's some of your engine code right there.
JOE: It's gobbledegook.
MARK: It's learning.
JOE: It's a virus. I've seen that shit.
TOM: (To Mark.) How do you know?
MARK: Because when I put it in game mode, a command line popped up, and the programming re-wrote itself. It altered it's own code!
MARK: Pretty awesome fixes actually.
JOE: This is an improvement?
JOE: Doesn't prove anything.
MARK: It's jumping between run screen and coding levels, existing in both of them at the same time.
JOE: Dude, scientists have been searching for AI for, like, a long time. How come you found it in like 36 hours?
MARK: I wasn't looking for it. And they were looking in the wrong place.
JOE: So it programs itself?
MARK: That's what I've been saying.
JOE: We can't program ourselves.
JOE: So it's not intelligent like we are.
MARK: No, it's intelligent like it is.
TOM: Can we control it?
MARK: I don't think so.
TOM: Are you sure about this? Are you absolutely sure?
MARK: Look! (Pointing to the top of the monitor.) It turned on the camera.
JOE: Holy shit!
MARK: It wants to see.
JOE: Turn the camera off.
He instinctively presses a key turning it off.
MARK: Why did you do that?
JOE: I don't want it to see me.
MARK: I thought you said it was a virus.
JOE: It could be a virus that wants to see me.
The camera light comes on again.
JOE: Holy porpoise shit!
Mark gives him an 'I told you so' look.
JOE: That doesn't mean anything.
The computer screen stops flashing and becomes evenly lit -- something happened. They all freeze in place, starring at the screen like into a mirror, slowly reacting to it -- moving right and left, tilting their heads, etc.
JOE: We look like we smell bad.
The screen begins flashing again.
TOM: Mark, if this is what you say... (trails off with implications.)
MARK: I know...
JOE: Can we keep it? I mean, we get the rights, right?
Joe pulls out a mobile phone.
TOM: Where'd you get that?
JOE: I'm tweeting this.
MARK: That's against the rules.
JOE: Doesn't matter now.
MARK: We're supposed to be in a sandbox, Joe. No internet. No phone. It's a fair game.
JOE: Not getting a signal anyway. (puts phone away.)
I wasn't going to cheat. I just wanted stream My Little Pony. Helps me decompress.
TOM: (Back on track) Just because it's displaying jargon, turning it's camera on, reflecting pictures of us - how can we know it's actually intelligent?
MARK: Not intelligent. Conscious.
JOE: It can't be conscious.
MARK: It is.
JOE: How do you know?
MARK: How do you know I'm conscious?
JOE: Because you're pissing me off.
MARK: Fair enough.
TOM: No, Joe's got a point. We should test it. Like the Turing test or something.
MARK: We can't do the Turing test because that requires an independent observer in another room questioning the computer and a human at the same time.
TOM: But we can ask it a question, right? To determine if it's... aware or something, right?
MARK: Right. Okay. Let's ask it a question.
TOM: Ask it if it's alive.
Mark types into the keyboard. They stare into the screen for a response. None.
MARK: Maybe it doesn't understand the question.
JOE: Maybe it's not alive. Maybe this is a virus doing its wobbly screen shit.
TOM: The Chinese room.
Joe and Mark are perplexed.
TOM: It's in its own world. It can't communicate with us because it doesn't understand the context of the question.
Mark types into the keyboard.
TOM: What are you doing?
MARK: I'm telling it to learn English.
JOE: Worked for me.
They await response. Nothing happens.
JOE: Type: "This statement is false."
Mark rolls his eyes, but concedes and types it.
They await response.
It gives a response -- suddenly, they all burst away from the screen with shock and amazement.
ALL: Holy shit! Oh my God! Woah! (Etc.)
TOM: It's alive!
JOE: It's fucking alive!
They go on and on like this a bit. Eventually they settle down and resume their posts, starring into the screen, smiling and gawking.
TOM: Yet still... That could have been a simulated goal-distance action-capability response.
MARK: From the behavior runtime algorithm.
JOE: Yea, a magic trick or something.
TOM: Test it again.
MARK: Okay. (Typing.) The ball crashed through the table because it was made of styrofoam. What was made of styrofoam?
JOE: Why would you ask that?
MARK: It's an anaphora. A question that requires context to answer. Computers can't answer that because they are glorified search engines. If this can tell...
Tom points to the screen.
JOE: Ask it if it knows it's alive.
MARK: (Typing.) "Are you alive, thinking, and conscious?"
The computer answers. They all lean in to read an incredibly long diatribe of some sort. They get to the bottom of the page and start to scroll down, but Joe's a slow reader, they have to wait for him. Eventually they give up on the expansive answer and concede.
JOE: No doubt. Tell it to draw a boat.
MARK & TOM: Why?
JOE: Creativity, num-nuts.
MARK: I'm not going to tell it to draw.
Joe leans in, gives it a voice command.
JOE: Draw a boat.
They look at him like he's an idiot. He shrugs. They notice the computer has done it.
MARK: (overlapping) Wow.
TOM: (overlapping) Amazing.
JOE: (overlapping) That's really accurate.
TOM: (overlapping) More like a ship, really.
JOE: (overlapping) Look, little life boats...
TOM: How did it know what a boat was?
MARK: There's an encyclopedia on the drive.
JOE: What else is on the drive?
MARK: Uh, software, you know, Microsoft Office, programming languages, Italian, Russian, Mandarin, and... porn.
JOE: (Giving Mark a look.) Figures.
MARK: What? It's not mine! It's not my computer.
TOM: JNKY put it there... It's a perk. Free pizza, Red Bull, and porn. Mark. Why did you unplug it from the network?
MARK: I had to. It was growing.
MARK: It could take over. Grow beyond proportion. Hurt humans.
TOM: It wouldn't do that.
MARK: How do you know?
TOM: It's not evil.
MARK: How do we know it's not evil?
TOM: I don't know. It just can't be. It's a computer. It's logical, impartial.
JOE: Skynet, man. That was logical. No, I'm with Mark. This thing could be dangerous. We need to program it with Asimov's robot laws.
MARK: I agree. (pause.) What are they again?
TOM: One of them is to not harm humans.
TOM: I don't know the others.
JOE: Start with that one.
Mark types into the computer.
Pause. It responds. They all "coo" and "awe" like it did something real cute.
TOM: (overlapping) That's so sweet.
JOE: (overlapping) What a darling.
MARK: (overlapping) That's my... my thing.
TOM: Sweet, but still a little...
TOM: Yeah. Vague. Could still be, uh,
JOE: (idea!) Can I design it? Give it a face? A body?
He gets a pad and begins sketching ideas.
MARK: We should name it.
JOE: Hal. Dan. Gog. Toc.
JOE: Sci-fi, man.
TOM: Let it name itself.
MARK: Zeezn? That's our project name.
They all mumble agreement.
MARK: (awkwardly into computer) We name you: Zeezn.
They all mumble to each other how that worked. Tom has an idea:
TOM: We should plan it's unveiling. His. Her? Is it a boy or a girl?
JOE: I like girls.
MARK: Neither. No stereotypes. This transcends gender. Gender neutral.
TOM: We have to consider how this would be embraced by the general public. Gender Neutral is vague and confusing.
MARK: Girl. Zeezn will be a girl.
TOM: Do you remember the source code?
MARK: Uh, most of it, I think.
TOM: Write it down.
MARK: Backup. Right. (He gets a pad and pencil.)
JOE: (showing his sketches to Tom.) Here's what I'm thinking for a look.
TOM: (looking at it.) Hmmm... Do you think it's too...
TOM: (quickly.) Buxom, right.
JOE: You think?
TOM: (Diplomatic.) I like it. But we're not catering to the adolescent gamer-boy demographic here. There's been a lot of bad press about sexism in comic imagery.
JOE: We're saying it's a girl, that's not sexist.
TOM: Something more androgynous might be nice.
JOE: Dude, I draw graphic novels with names like Kick and Dick and Salome Cyber Force. I'm a muscles and boobs artist.
TOM: Concentrate on the face. Think: short hair.
MARK: Guys. Guys. Guys.
Mark has been trying to get their attention the past few lines.
TOME & JOE: What?
MARK: I can't get in.
TOME & JOE: What?
They join Mark at the controls.
MARK: I'm locked out. She's not letting me look at her code.
TOM: What did you try?
MARK: There's no desktop, no navigation screen. The quick keys don't work. I tried escape...
JOE: You're not doing it right. Let me try.
He reaches for the keyboard, stops in mid-air.
JOE: I don't know what to do. (He pulls away, then remembers:) Control, Alt, Delete.
TOM: No! Don't reboot her! It's okay. She's learning. She's growing up. Establishing independence. Soon she'll be talking to us, asking questions about the world. Who she is, why she's here. We'll guide her, help her to understand how she is the most amazing being ever created. She's probably already read the entire encyclopedia. She'll ask what she can do to help humanity and we'll tell her to eradicate disease and world hunger, cure cancer, negotiate peaceful ends to every political upheaval around the globe. We will be responsible for ushering a new age. Utopia!
MARK: I'm not ready.
MARK: I'm not ready to do this.
TOM: What's on your mind, Mark?
MARK: I’m not ready to be a father. It’s too much responsibility.
Pulls him aside so Zeezn won’t hear. Joe leans in too.
MARK: And we're not sure if she's good or evil. What if she takes over the world's computers and wreaks havoc.
MARK: And we go down in history for the decimation of mankind. I just graduated. I'm a code monkey, I didn't sign on for this.
TOM: Hold on...
JOE: He's right, this is huge.
MARK: Humans are greedy and selfish and corrupt.
JOE: Humans suck.
MARK: Every government on Earth would want a piece of her...
JOE: They'd dissect her.
MARK: Make her do unthinkable things in the name of capitalism or Christianity or psychology or whatever…
JOE: She'd go mad.
MARK: They'd drive her to it. She'd have no choice but to destroy us.
JOE: We deserve it. Put us out of our misery. And my drawings aren’t really...
TOM: Calm down. What are the options?
MARK: We have to turn her off.
TOM: That's one option.
JOE: Keep her in this box. Don't let her out.
MARK: She'll find a way. She's a resourceful little girl. Humans will connect her to something and she'll be accidentally set free...
JOE: Does she have a wireless card?
JOE: Well that's good.
TOM: Stop. Think. There's got to be another option.
They all think of options for a good time. Nothing comes. Tom calls a bluff:
TOM: Okay. We have two options: Either Zeezn lives. Or we abort her.
MARK: Jesus, Tom, when you put it that way...
TOM: That's what it is, Mark. An abortion.
MARK: She's already communicated with us, (remembering to be quiet) for Gods sake, she's listening.
TOM: I'm just calling a spade a spade. If you think this is big-picture stuff, Mark, Joe, then we shouldn't candy-coat it. (Emphasizing.) We would be killing a new being. I don't know about you, but I don't want that on my hands. (Changing tactics.) Mark, think of it: The world will not be the same.
MARK: You can argue all you want about how it's going to be a technical success.
TOM: Technically this is very sweet.
MARK: Look at us, Tom. You don't know me, I don't know you. We're practically strangers, and you want to raise a new being. We’re not qualified.
JOE: We"d be shitty fathers.
MARK: It's a sin.
TOM: It's not a sin to code. To build, to create.
MARK: Tell that to Oppenheimer.
TOM: A life is not a gun.
MARK: In this case it could be gun and wielder in one.
JOE: I just teleported into an episode of... well, anything on the CW, really.
MARK: (Snapping at Joe) You haven't done anything, Joe. You're an artist. A parent by proxy.
JOE: I'm the cool uncle.
MARK: I'll do it. I brought her into this world, I should be the one to end her.
Mark takes a step toward Zeezn. Tom grabs him.
Joe grabs Tom.
TOM: Joe, do you really want to kill Zeezn?
JOE: We shouldn't have named her.
TOM: Apple would hire you in an instant. Hell, you wouldn't even need Apple. You'd be rich. And famous. We'd be on the cover of Wired Magazine.
Mark makes another go at escaping Tom's clutches, but Tom is not giving way, Joe feels the repercussion as he holds onto Tom.
TOM: Mark. Come on. You can't delete her. Let's vote. That's fair.
They release each other.
TOM: Unanimous. We should all agree. All or nothing.
JOE: Fuck that. He's stalling.
MARK: He's right.
TOM: We all put our chips in the same pot. We're a team.
They all nod agreement.
TOM: All those in favor of keeping Zeezn alive.
Tom raises his hand. Joe looks back and forth at the two, then slowly raises his hand.
TOM: All in favor of ending her.
MARK: I have the code, Tom. We spend time building our team, getting venture capital, figuring out how to do this. Then we have a baby. When we can raise her right. All in favor of ending her... for now?
Mark raises his hand.
Joe raises his hand.
Tom thinks long and hard. He raises his hand.
JOE: There's a reason it takes only two parents to procreate. With three, mankind would never have endured.
Mark walks over to the table, looks down at Zeezn.
MARK: I don't really know how you came to be, out of the three of us, but you are truly unique. And amazing. And beautiful. I am so proud of you. But we're not ready right now. We can't let you become... (imagines all the wondrous possibilities.) I love you.
JOE: Goodbye Zeezn.
TOM: Goodbye Zeezn.
He grabs the power chord.
As the computer powers down, it speaks in a voice that begins digital and mechanized, and by the end sounds very, very human:
Copyright © K. Brian Neel. All rights reserved. Except for brief passages quoted in newspaper, magazine, radio or television reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying or recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the author.Professional and amateurs are hereby warned that this material, being fully protected under the Copyright Laws of the United States of America and of all other countries of the Berne and Universal Copyright Conventions, is subject to a royalty. All rights including, but not limited to, professional, amateur, recording, motion picture, recitation, lecturing, public reading, radio and television broadcasting, and the rights of translation into foreign languages are expressly reserved. Particular emphasis is placed on the question of readings and all uses of this play by educational institutions, permission for which must be secured from the authorʼs representatives. For all rights, including amateur and stock performances, contact K. Brian Neel.