The POWER TRIP
A sharp jolt wakes me. I open my eyes, my heart beating hard and fast, but I stay in bed while the room shakes, the walls creak and groan. Bolting for the bedroom threshold in my boxers to huddle in the doorway seems a bit extreme. The rash of quakes that began a decade ago don’t register much beyond 3.5. Or haven’t yet. The house settles as the moving earth quiets, along with my racing heart.
I can hear her in the kitchen, the fridge opening and closing, the crinkle of acrylate as she pulls bread from the package. She’s making my lunch, like she has every school day for the past 11 yrs. I don’t have the heart to go tell her I don’t need it, and won’t eat it on my first day at college.
I get up, and dress in jeans and a black t-shirt, clip the six flexlegs of my old iBand around my wrist trying to look California casual. I examine myself in the mirror as I slip on my rimless optiglasses. Not smartglasses, like most everyone has now. I tell myself I don’t care. My Univiz5’s are fine for vision correction, and I don’t need the distraction of one more connected device. My hair is unruly, even though I had it cut short just weeks ago. My thin build is gangly. I straighten, throw back my shoulders, but I still look lame, like a geek trying to look cool. I sigh, grab my laplet, fold it shut and slip it in my backpack.
Muted sunlight through the kitchen window lights up my mom standing at the counter folding the top of the sourdough roll over the pile of sliced turkey. “Hey, baby.” She manages a smile. “You feel it? 3.1 this morning. Quakes are getting bigger and bigger.” Her brows narrow as she shakes her head.
“Yeah. Woke me up, which is good since I fell back asleep after I shut off my alarm. Hard to get to sleep last night, thinking about today.”
“You’ll be fine, I’m absolutely sure of it. Stanford is the real deal, with kids just like you. You won’t be the odd one out anymore. You’ll find your niche there. Guaranteed,” she says. “I’m so proud of you, Ian.” She moves to hug me.
I let her, but I feel weird about it. I’m not a little kid anymore, even though in her embrace I feel safe, and a bit less nervous. “Thanks, mom,” I practically whisper as I return her hug, then pull back and notice the pile of pancakes on the plate, along with the glass of orange juice, and bowl of sliced strawberries on the table. “What is all this? And why haven’t you left for work already?”
“Just thought it’d be nice for you to start off with a good breakfast on this auspicious day. I told Nelson I’d be in a little late. Not every day a mom sends her 16 year old off to college.” She stands there beaming at me, her hazel eyes behind her ancient optiglasses twinkling with rare lightness.
The kitchen lights blink, then go out and stay off, as does every other appliance in the house. The perpetual electronic hum goes silent.
“Damn it.” Mom’s lightness vanishes with the power as I sit to eat. “I’m absolutely sure we’re current with PGE,” she says, pressing a sequence on her smartband. A holopage of a power bill comes up between us, but even reading the translucent image backwards I can see it’s been paid in full.
“ALERT. ALERT!” in white letters scroll over a red banner in the middle of the PGE page. “Due to the power demand exceeding supply, PGE has implemented a load shedding Stage 1 ROLLING BLACKOUT for the MILLBREA and BURLINGAME areas until NOON today. ALERT! ALERT!…”.
“This is absurd,” mom says as she hastily swipes her smartband. The holopage disappears. “I’m telling you, there is no reason for these blackouts, other than limiting supply to increase rates, and make a few top-tier execs even richer.” She personifies efficiency as she rants, her petite frame moving fluidly from one end of the kitchen to the other gathering the components of my lunch—a small bag of chips from the cupboard, a couple of her homemade brownies, then puts them, along with the sandwich, in a casein bag.
I dutifully eat my breakfast, though I don’t feel particularly hungry. “Thanks for breakfast, mom. These are fantastic.” It’s the truth. My mom is a great cook, a trained pastry chef, in fact, though she never managed to launch her catering startup, and her cookbook didn’t really sell very well either. She’s been an IT Administrator at TRON Robotics for as long as I can remember. And since my dad checked out, she’s always had some sort of night job working from home, mostly online sales to make ends meet, which is why she’s so tired all the time.
“I really do have to go now, baby. It’s already past 8:00, and without signals, traffic’s gonna be a mess,” she says as she gathers her long auburn hair into a ponytail and fastens it high up in a skrunchy yellow hair tie. She looks so young with her hair up like that, like she’s just barely out of her teens, though she’s 42 now. “Don’t forget to take your lunch. I put $20 in your Mobi, just in case. And remember you’re on BART until the California station, and then the S-Line tram—”
“I got it, mom. I don’t need micromanaging. Go to work. I’m good.”
She stares at me, assessing if she believes me or not, then comes over and kisses the top of my head. “Have a wonderful first day, Rocket.” She flashes me a smile at the nickname she gave me when I was five, though she’d long since dropped the word Science. “And don’t take crap from anyone.” Her expression softens to her tender mom look. “I love you, Ian. And I’m so very proud.”
“You’ve said.” I smile at her frown. “I love you too, mom. And thanks for breakfast, and lunch.”
“My pleasure, sweetie. See ya tonight. Can’t wait to hear about your first day.” And she’s out the front door. She’ll likely have to sit in gridlock traffic, at least through the blackout areas for the next hour or more, which she’d have missed had she left her normal time this morning instead of attending to me. This makes me feel even more guilty as I throw away the rest of breakfast, and the sack lunch into the trashasher. I’m glad the appliance will turn it to dust so she’ll never know I flamed her gracious efforts.
I scroll through Chatter on my iBand as I walk to the BART station. The earthquake is trending because it opened a sink hole which took out several beach front homes. Residents of Pacifica are screaming for Chervon and PGE to stop offshore fracking.
A flash of white light momentarily blinds me, followed by a piercing sting, like from a bee, that bores into the top of my head. I take out my earbuds and shake my head violently to get it off me.
“Ian Michael Wheaton,” the synthetic voice booms. Flashing blue and red lights of the police drone are suddenly a foot above and two feet in front of me. “Mills High School has reported you as a minor truant, in violation of California Education Code, 601.2. You are to report immediately to your school administration office, or have a parent or guardian contact the San Mateo Unified School District to clarify the reason for your absence this morning.”
“Shit,” I whisper, hoping it didn’t hear me. I’ve never been stopped before, but know enough not to run. “I am not truant. I graduated Mills last June. They obviously haven’t updated their records for the new school year yet. Please check the SMUSD records for my status.” I sigh, shake my head only slightly. I suppose I should feel more afraid, but it’s not like they’re arbitrarily shooting people anymore.
“Please stand by,” the drone announces. I stand in the hazy daylight feeling like an idiot as cars slow to ogle me. The few others walking give me a wide birth, some crossing the street to avoid their faces being captured on the drone’s camera, or their eyes scanned like mine just were. Besides knowing most everything about me, any exaggerated movement will trigger the drone to unleash a strong enough shock to incapacitate me until real police arrive. The electric bee sting earlier was merely to get my attention, since most everyone is plugged in these days. “You are clear to proceed, Ian Wheaton,” the drone says in the same asexual, mechanical tone.
“Thank you,” I say, but I feel like flipping it off, since it never apologized for stopping me. It takes off in a shot, probably in pursuit of annoying someone else.
I make it to Stanford without getting stopped again. Figured I’d be the youngest in all my classes, and it turns out I’m probably right, though it’s hard to tell, especially with me. I’m tall for my age, and have a bit of facial hair already, hinting at a mustache and beard. I choose not to shave to exaggerate my years, so I doubt anyone marks me for a kid.
Talk to a guy named Vijay in both my Math41 and CSAI class. Brown skin, brown, short cropped hair, and dark eyes behind last year’s Lunar4 smartglasses. We walk over to Bytes cafe together at break, where I follow his lead and ironically buy a turkey sandwich on sourdough with the $20 credit my mom gave me this morning. We talk about the projects we’re developing, like most every other Stanford student hoping to create the next big thing.
“It isn’t totally working yet,” Vijay says in a soft Indian accent as we sit at the last available table outside. “But it is learning. I hacked into InstaPins and I’m getting a ton of data from their feeds. My ‘Therapist,‘” he grins, “that’s what I call it, can now detect mood changes in real time from user updates.”
“Cool. So, what are you hoping to do with your Therapist?”
“Sell it to advertisers, of course. Depressed? Buy our energy drink and feel better! Feeling empty? You like shopping? Have we got a sale for you!” He flashes a goofy smile. “People buy into all kinds of crap if you can get behind what they feel, then play on their fears, promise to fulfill their desires, hopes and dreams.”
“Harsh, dude.” I can’t help shaking my head. “Be even better if instead of just predicting what people want, you come up with a way of getting them to actually do what you want. Guarantee your advertisers that the Therapist can get some arbitrarily large set of users to buy, try, or even buy into whatever you tell them.” I’m teasing, irked that Vijay, like so many of my contemporaries, is developing advanced technology to sell more crap.
Vijay laughs. “Right. Like mind control. Good luck with that.” His eyes drift to an attractive redhead walking towards us, totally absorbed in dialoging with someone through her smartglasses.
“I’m kinda working on something similar to what you’re doing, I mean with AI,” I say. “I call it Drew, after Andrew Martin, the positronic robot in the old movie Bicentennial Man.”
“You’re building an RPA?”
“No. I’m coding a biological neural network that simulates human brain activity.” I pause, to let that sink in as the redhead passes without even glancing our way.
“Like the Human Brain Project?”
“Yeah, sort of. The Euro Consortium is focused on modeling an adult brain. Drew is learning from first principal, growing like a child’s brain does. I figure, if we can watch the synaptic development from infancy forward, it’ll teach us how the brain works, what makes us tick.”
“So what do ya want to do with Drew once it’s up and running?” Vijay is still angling for ways of making my software profitable.
“Well, once it’s fully functioning, it’ll show us what neural connections lead to destructive thought patterns, from addiction to depression. Then we can reprogram genetically flawed or environmentally damaged paths of connectivity.” I savor the last bite of my sandwich.
“You mean like fix crazy people?” Vijay gets up to throw his trash away. I follow his lead.
“Kinda.” Vijay’s characterization that dysfunctional behavior rendered one ‘crazy,’ though typical, is still annoying. “Once Drew finds the synaptic patterns that result in a mental disorder, we’ll be able to go in there and reroute, or recreate healthier pathways.”
Vijay’s looks at me, and his thick brows narrow, like he’s trying to figure me out. “Better watch out that Drew doesn’t start fixing brains at the whim of its users, on people who don’t need synaptic rewiring. Noble as what you’re trying to do sounds, even with the best intentions, that kinda power sounds corruptible to me,” he says before we part ways.
Unlike playing with people’s emotions to get them to buy shit they probably don’t need, I thought to say of his Therapist, but only after I’m in my CS221 class.
Vijay isn’t in any of my afternoon classes, and I don’t see him again until the following week. Tuesday mid-morning we walk over to Byte’s for lunch again.
“Been thinking about our last discussion last week,” Vijay says. “My dorm mate, Maki, which he says is short for Machiavelli, is into game dev.”
“Why would any parent name their kid after an infamous power monger?” I ask as we go into the Packard building, and into the cafe.
Vijay laughs, shakes his head like I missed his joke, which, of course, I did. “JK, dude.” There’s an awkward silence as we walk to the food court. “Anyway,” he says, “I talked to him about Drew. Hope you don’t mind.”
I do mind, sort of, but I haven’t really got into it with Vijay, so I’m confident his roommate is fairly clueless about the details of my software.
“He seemed really into it, asked me a ton of questions, which I couldn’t answer. So I suggested we all get together and share what we’ve got.” Vijay takes a gulp of the bottled water he pulls from the cooler shelf. “Mak’s working on a gaming app he calls the Power Trip. Users are supposed to be able to use predictive modeling and recommendation to suggest stuff to people through their devices. If they do what you suggest, you get points.”
“What do the points buy you?” I pull a turkey sandwich from the bin, scan it, then swipe my smartband against the reader to pay for it.
“Not sure.” Vijay gets a pasta salad, and after swiping his band we sit outside by the glass facade reflecting the warm sun. “I’ve been thinking that maybe if we combine your biological net, his gaming app, and my emotions classifier, we can come up with something cool, that’s worth something. We can meet up tonight, if you can. I’m over in Wilbur Hall, Cedro House. All freshman there. What house are you in?”
I look down at my turkey on sourdough. Mom graciously supplies me with a weekly allowance now, instead of making me lunch. I don’t have the heart to tell her that $40 buys me two a week, and the rest of the week I eat only the power bars I take from home. “Uh, I don’t live on campus. I know I’m like the only freshman at Stanford who doesn’t, but I’m underage, so I live at home, with my mom, in Millbrea, about half hour from here.” I don’t tell him the real reason I don’t live on campus is because we can’t afford the extra sixty grand a year.
“How old are you?”
“Sixteen, a month ago.” I smile, both embarrassed and empowered I’m one of the few on campus who got here at least two years before most everyone else.
“Whoa, you like some kinda kid genius or something?”
I laugh. “No. My mom got me into school when I was four because I was a strong reader and she needed childcare. And I skipped 4th grade because my 3rd grade SBFTs were close to perfect. Anyway, I’m probably not that much younger than you. You’re a freshman, right?”
“Yup. Just turned 18 in August. Hey, why don’t you come over to Arrillaga Commons after your last class. 5:00? 5:30? Give us all enough time to get there. You can meet Maki. I’ll buy the pizza, and we can sit around and shoot the shit awhile. Could be the start of something. Ya never know.” Vijay finishes his pasta, sucking in the last spiral noodle in a comical way, then wipes the grease off his lips with his shirtsleeve, but his smile remains.
“Yeah. OK. Sure,” I say, trying to sound casual. “I’ll meet ya later.” I finish my sandwich, and languish in feeling full for the last time during school this week.
Feel kinda stupid texting my mom that I’m going to be late on the way to my Biochem class. But she’d left a message on the fridge monitor this morning that she’s making Pollo y Arroz for dinner, even put a little sumbrero on the P, and I don’t want her to hassle making the meal if I won’t be there to eat it with her.
The Commons is huge, and packed. Students are at the salad bar filling their plates with fresh veggies grown in the campus gardens, piling their trays with hot soups and sandwiches, or waiting in line for the chefs to create their made-to-order pastas, burgers and such. My stomach growls.
I’d never been to the Commons, which is way beyond my price range. I search the crowds seated at the large rectangular tables against the walls, and the round tables in the center of the enormous room, but don’t see Vijay. Light, flooding in from the setting sun, fades the holopages floating against the walls, above the aisles and in the corners, streaming CNET/LIVE, BBCNN, and CardinalRT— Stanford’s [real-time] media center.
My smartband buzzes, and Vijay’s face appears on my wrist. I look around, embarrassed I have to talk through my iBand instead of toggling the call to my glasses. Most Smartglasses have a built-in mic, and independently controlled, noise-canceling earbuds.
“We scored a table outside.” I can barely hear Vijay through my old ibuds above the din of students and clatter of dishes. “Come out to the balcony, through the doors behind checkout.”
“Yeah, OK. Be right there,” I text, to avoid yelling since my ibud mic doesn’t have any noise-cancellation.
I make my way outside. The noise level is hushed by contrast. I see Vijay at a round table at the far end of the small balcony, overlooking the tops of the palms surrounding the open courtyard below. He’s sitting with an Asian kid, with shoulder length, shaggy dark hair that falls over his forehead. He reminds me of an anime bad boy.
Vijay stands and waves me over. He introduces me to Maki as I join them at the table. They both have their laplets propped open in front of them, and it seems to take great effort for Maki to peel his eyes away from whatever he’s looking at on his flexscreen to acknowledge me, but eventually he does, leaning back and looking up at me.
His fine hair hangs over the top of his frameless smartglasses. His eyes are dark behind the tinted screens that are projecting whatever live streams he has open on the supple plastic of Apple’s new iGlazeX wrapping his eyes. This new version, released just before the start of the school year, is already a smash hit.
“How ya doin, man,” he says coolly, then he takes a long draw off one of those energy drinks in the silver can with the sonic blue ribbon, that’s like five bucks a pop, before returning his attention to his laplet.
“Pizza’s coming,” Vijay says, then sits down, indicating I do too, in the empty metal chair near him. He takes a gulp off his can of the same energy drink. “Wasn’t sure what you wanted to drink, but you can pull something inside.”
Maki is typing on a keyboard projected from his laplet. They may be trending, but personally, I don’t like them. Too hard to finger, which is why I use the UI’s keyboard. I like the slight buzz to my fingertips with each keystroke. Well, that, and mine’s way cheaper.
“Give me one sec’” Maki says. “I just wanta input this before I forget it.”
“So,” Vijay says, not the least put off by his roommate’s dissing. “Maki’s on the four year CS track, started programming when he was like seven.”
Maki chortles, but still doesn’t look up. “I’m sure the kid genius here started before me.”
Three minutes into meeting Maki, and already I don’t like him. I’ve taken his kind of crap since elementary school. “Actually, my dad was a bionics engineer, and in pre-school he brought me to his lab at TRON and turned me on to coding neural networks for prosthetic,” I recite my standard line for people I don’t know, though I don’t add it was my only visit. “Well, that and the old cartoon Envirotron.” I joke, to hide my rising ire.
“Oh, I remember that show,” Vijay says, “with the wacky professor who creates this robot and together they fight factories and corporations to stop Global Warming and save the environment.”
“That’s the one.” I smile with the memory of watching it in bed on my old GalaxyTab, hiding under the covers when I was supposed to be sleeping. “I credit that show with getting me into AI. I kinda got how the robot moved and worked machanically, but what I didn’t get was what he thought about, how its brain worked. And I still want to find out.”
“Yeah, I get it,” Maki says, still without looking up. “It’s why I called this meeting.” He picks up his energy drink, almost in slow motion, then drinks. He looks at me and smiles, like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, as he sets the can back on the table, closer to me than himself, then goes back to typing.
Hmmm…I thought Vijay arranged this meeting. I glance at him sitting next to me. He doesn’t acknowledge me, his attention on Maki.
“I’m working on something too,” Maki says. “Like everyone else here. Right? Vijay said he told you a bit about my game. And when I heard what you were working on, I thought we may be able to help each other out.”
My smartband buzzes. I hesitate before extracting my hand from my hoodie pocket, then look down at the screen, again conscious of my ancient, inferior tech. It’s showing an ultra blue ribbon swaying against shimmering silver, not my usual background of igniting synapses. I swipe it to remove what I assume is an ad, but it stays onscreen. I swipe it again and the screen returns to my standard wallpaper.
Vijay’s Radband buzzes, and a blue glow emanates from his Lunar’s, lighting up his eyes in pasty gray. “Pizza’s ready,” he says as he gets up. “Come in with me and get a drink while I pick it up. But you’d better make it quick. I’m starving, and Maki’s a pig, so I can’t guarantee to save you a slice.”
I follow Vijay back inside the Commons. I have $1.25 left on my Mobi credit from lunch, and the $20 my mom insists I always keep in the account for emergencies. I’ll have to pull a mini cup of water from the soda machine, my cheapest option at just a buck for the cup, and another $3 for the water, of course. I’ll just pretend it’s all I want when I join them back outside.
I barely feel my smartband buzz against the vibration created from the noisy throngs inside. I check the screen, and again find the silver and blue wallpaper. I swipe at my iBand, and the blue ribbon moves with my finger against a pulsing silver background.
I have a crappy iBand7 which my grandma, Bobbie, sent me from China for my birthday a couple of years ago. The battery doesn’t hold a charge for long these days, like all Apple products when they release new versions. The iBand9 came out last month. I tap the monitor, even shake my wrist, but the blue ribbon just swivels across the screen.
I move along slowly in the line for the soda machine, passing cans of soda and bottles of water on ice in several large bins at the drink kiosk. The last bin before the soda/water machine has energy drinks. Several rows are dedicated to ZamBam, the drink in the silver and blue can Maki and Vijay have.
I’ve tried a power drink only once. Mr. Reed, our WRL competition adviser, gave me a can of PowerPop while I was pulling an all-nighter QA testing Bob, a two foot tall polyamide robot, to win the Jeopardy bonus round for the Nationals. Finished tweaking the code half an hour before the second round was called, still buzzing with energy. Mills High robotics club got our picture on the Chronicle’s Happenings page for winning that tournament, and five grand in sponsor funding from PowerPop.
“Excuse me,” some guy says as he pushes in front of me and pulls a ZamBam from the icy bin. I watch him go pay for it, then return to his table filled with several other students chatting. A cute blonde, two students ahead of me in line, starts filling her twenty-four ounce cup with Diet Coke.
I’m absolutely sure Vijay is back outside with the pizza already. I’m starving, and shutter at the thought of him and Maki eating it all before I get a slice, especially after canceling dinner with my mom. And there’s no way I’m going home and coping to missing dinner, then fail at convincing her not to make me anything. I consider blowing off getting the water, but I’m thirsty after the salty turkey at lunch, and the pizza will only make me more thirsty.
My iBand buzzes. I swipe the screen and a commercial for ZamBam comes up. I’ve muted all commercials so I can’t hear the words, but the POV is riding the tip of the blue ribbon, like a magic carpet, as it whizzes through what looks like a city at night but turns out to be the inside of a brain, then races through the optic nerves to an outside close up of a green eye that twinkles with sparks.
I get ads and offers several times a day, our data plan the cheapest because it comes with advertising. Disable the ads like I did when I was eight, and the rates automatically go up. My mom patiently explained this to me when I came home from school and found her crying at the kitchen table over that month’s bill. I swipe the screen to delete the ad. My stomach growls again, and I feel myself dropping out and lean on the metal ledge of the kiosk to stay standing, my hand inches from the energy drinks on ice.
My iBand is back to showing the blue ribbon against the silver background. I’m surprised at this latest marketing gimmick. I had no idea the phone carriers were allowing corporations to take over your wallpaper at will.
An attractive girl with long brown hair comes up to the blonde still filling her cup, and starts chatting. The brunette gives a wide smile to the guy in front of me as she sneaks in front of him and starts filling her twenty-four ounce cup. I groan, along with the woman in back of me, who hastily grabs a ZamBam and leaves the line to go pay for it.
Seven bucks a can. I can use the $20 in my account to cover the $1.25 left over from lunch. And even if there’s only one slice of pizza left, it’ll give me the energy to focus on communicating, which I generally suck at. I grab a ZamBam, swipe my iBand against the reader and head back outside. Half a large pizza sits on the table. Vijay and Maki are enjoying their second slices, and chatting as I join them, but stop when I sit down. Maki’s smartglasses are almost clear now, just a hint of tint. His eyes are black, with little if any distinction between his pupils and irises.
“Help yourself to a slice or two,” Vijay offers, handing me a paper plate under his bottled water.
“Thanks.” I lift two slices onto my plate. “I’m starving,” and I take a bite, hoping I don’t seem too eager. Pizza is warm, saucy, cheesy, crispy crust, and each bite is better than the last.
“See ya got a ZamBam,” Maki says smiling at me, more like he has a secret than just being friendly. “Packs quite a punch, doesn’t it.”
“Never tried it before.” I twist off the top with a pop from the pressure release. It smells like a combination of coffee, chocolate, and chemicals as I lift it to my lips and sip. Tastes the same as it smells, and I can’t help scrunch my face in disgust as I swallow.
“Didn’t think you were into power drinks, or even soda. I’ve only seen you drink water,” Vijay says, his grin equally as broad as Maki’s. It isn’t a question, but I respond anyway.
“I can use some quick energy tonight. Have a sequence alignment project I have to finish for my BMI class, so I’m gonna have to pull an all-nighter.” I lie, take another gulp of ZamBam, which tastes no better than the first.
“So, Ian, Vijay told me about your biological neural network. You working with EPFL’s Dynamic Holographic Microscopy models, or something else?”
I’m amazed Maki even knows what a DHM model is. I swallow the pizza before speaking. “Partially. I’m using it in conjunction with T4MRI, then replicating a cell body, you know, axons, dendrites and synapses, to map the transmission of chemical and neurological connectivity.”
“Impressive,” Maki says, then takes another bite of his pizza, his expression placid as he chews, like he’s mulling over what I just said. “Remind me what you’re hoping to map neural activity for…”
“Fixing our brains,” Vijay mocks, but I’ve heard it before.
I take another swig of ZamBam, suddenly feeling a jolt of energy, “If we can figure out how the human brain really works, we can fix whatever the hell is wrong with it, from retardation, to depression, to psychopathy.” And I’m not the least bit embarrassed by how arrogant I must sound.
“Ya gotta love this guy,” Vijay says. “A true humanitarian. Rare, at best, especially around here. Bravo, man.”
I’m not sure if he’s slamming me, or lightly teasing, but I’ll be damned to play the fool again, so I switch the focus onto Maki. “So, Vijay told me about your game today over lunch. Seems like we’re kind of working on the same issue, except I’m looking to help people, and you’re, well, your looking to manipulate behavior to what end exactly?” I pause to give him an opening, then prompt, “Wanta fill me in on the Power Trip?”
Maki looks at Vijay and they both smile, then he swipes his MacLet and a projection keyboard appears across the half eaten slice of pizza in front of him. “Before I get into the game,” Maki says as he moves the pizza aside to flatten the keyboard projection on the table. “Why did you buy the ZamBam in particular, I mean, since by your own admission, you’ve never tried one before?”
Now I’m sure I’m the brunt of some joke, since both him and Vijay are still smiling like they’re sharing some secret. “I told you why. I have an BMI assignment I have to work on later that’s due tomorrow.”
“No. You don’t.” Maki types something then angles his MacLet.II so I can see it. He’s pulled up the page of my Biomedical Informatics class. He presses the assignments tab which brings up a page clearly showing the SA project is due October 15, over two weeks away.
My heart is racing, feels like my blood is boiling. It’s hard to swallow my last bit of pizza with my throat suddenly constricted. I’m lost for words. Why the hell is this guy looking at my class assignments?
“Before you get all bent outta shape, I thought it might be more interesting to show you my game, instead of just telling you about it. And you were just playing it, well, I was, on you.” His smile is beyond arrogant, bordering pure joy.
“And it worked!” Vijay’s smiling as well, offers up a knuckle butt, to which Maki enthusiastically responds.
I sit there speechless, my mind racing too fast to assimilate what’s just occurred. “You…you put the ZamBam wallpaper on my iBand?”
“Yup,” Maki says proudly.
“And you put up their ad too?”
“Easy. I created the wallpaper in StudioPro, ripped the ad off Google, got your cell number from Vijay, and the rest is obvious.”
“But how did you know I don’t have a power drink with every meal?”
“We’ve had lunch twice already,” Vijay says. “All I’ve seen you drink is water. And you never get any extras with your turkey sandwich, or even a snack from the vending machines, which means you probably don’t have a lot of money to burn.”
“Vijay filled me in on some details, and I looked the rest up,” Maki gloats. “You’re an open book, my friend, well, we all are, of course. Didn’t take a whole lot to get your history, from your near perfect SATC scores, to your robotics club awards, to your two bedroom one bath house in Millbrae, to your mom’s current $145,000 annual salary with TRON Robotics, to her extra $30g’s a year from side gigs since your father’s suicide—“
“Screw you, asshole—” I get up, ready to walk away.
“Whoa, relax, man,” Maki says, standing. “I don’t care if you’re rich or poor or whatever the hell. You’re lucky you don’t have your old man down your throat dictating the rest of your life.”
Vijay is standing now too. “Ian, dude, we’re not dissing ya, man. Swear to God,” he puts his hand on my shoulder. “Sit down. Have another slice, and lets just talk.”
I shake his hand off, almost slugging him in the process. He recoils but stays standing next to me. Several other students at tables on the balcony are now watching us, including the blonde and her stunning brunette friend at the soda machine earlier. I sit, embarrassed for making a scene, but still outraged. Vijay sits back down next to me, but I don’t acknowledge him. I glare across the table at Maki. He takes another swig of his ZamBam, emptying it, then sets the empty can on the table purposefully.
I’m shaking, and it feels as if my heart is coming through my chest. And just beyond the outrage, I’m suddenly aware I’m intrigued. Vijay and Maki are watching me, and either feel my change in demeanor, or maybe I’m smiling slightly, because they both break out in huge grins. I grin back at them, shake my head, give a quick, nervous laugh.
“But how…” I ask, almost to myself. “I mean, I could have chosen any other drink, or none at all. In all likelihood, it was just dumb luck.”
“Maybe.” Maki says. “So, according to the probability matrix I implemented, you had about a 12% chance of doing what I suggested. I’m hoping to increase predictability coupled with recommendation using your neural net, Drew, wasn’t it, by, well, a lot. Vijay’s tapped into InstaPin, gBlast, UTube, Chatter—”
“I’ve hacked into a dozen of the most popular social platforms, so we’ve got their data feeds,” Vijay says proudly. “And that’s just so far.”
“We need a robust AI engine,” Maki continues, “a system like yours that learns, for more accurate predictive modeling. The more we know about how the mind stimulates conscious and unconscious responses, the more effectively we can,” he pauses, eyeing me intently, “motivate behavior.” Maki swipes his MacLet. The keyboard projection disappears. He pulls the plate with his half-eaten slice in front of him, and takes a bite. “The kicker is, we need tons of data, which is why I’m making it into a game. The more people play, and convince someone to do what they suggest, the more our system will learn what factors motivate direct and specific actions.
“And if we can motive behavior with greater accuracy…” Maki pauses.
“We’ll have VC throwing money at us,” Vijay interjects. “Or we can crowdfund it until we build traction with advertisers, and keep the bulk of the affiliate revenue, and stock, for ourselves.”
“I thought you were on the page that messing with people’s minds can lead to some ‘very bad unintended outcomes.’” I eye Vijay, narrow my brows to show my perplexity.
He looks at Maki, again, like they’re still sharing a secret, then focuses back on me. “But we can mitigate them. Since we’re building the software, we can make it whatever we want.” Vijay seems very sure of this, even though AI has been corrupted, turned us all into targets for advertisers since the turn of the millennium.
“So, you in?” Maki asks.
I look at both of them staring at me, then finish the last of my ZamBam before responding. “What exactly do you want to get people to do?” And my mind travels to some very dark places.
They glance at each other and both shrug simultaneously.
“Not sure yet,” Maki says. I’m not sure why, but I don’t believe him. “We’re still working on proof of concept, and without going into detail before you sign on, meaning an NDA, we haven’t been very successful. Yet.” He pops the last bit of pizza in his mouth.
“It’s why we need you, and Drew,” Vijay says.
“Look, if nothing else, the Power Trip can be a great platform for you to advance your neural network. With all the data we’re tapped into, it’ll help Drew figure out the mechanisms that lead to debilitating mental illnesses that much quicker, besides making all of us a hell of a lot of money. And we can all use more of that.” He smiles. So does Vijay.
So do I.
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