The Power Trip
by J. Cafesin
3:35 a.m. floats near the ceiling above my bed glowing 3 feet tall in deep, vibrant red. I sigh, throw the cover back, take off my t-shirt and lay on my side in my boxers trying to cool down.
4:44… 5:13… I programmed the holoclock numbers to change from red to violet to deep blue to sky blue with the approaching sunrise. The light of dawn seeps through my bedroom window, and the clock is gone.
I lay in bed and hear my mom 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 want it, and won’t eat a sack lunch from home on my first day at college.
I get up, dress in jeans and a black t-shirt, clip the six flexlegs of my old iBand around my wrist. 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, and I leave it a mess trying to pull off California casual, but I just look lame, like a geek trying to look cool. I sigh, grab my laplet 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 thin pile of sliced turkey. “Morning, baby.” She shoots me her caring mom smile. “How ya doing? You ready?”
“Yeah, I guess. I have to be, right?” I get a protein bar from the cupboard. “Kinda hard sleeping last night though, thinking about today.”
“You’ll be fine, I’m absolutely sure of it. Stanford is the real deal, with kids just like you.” She seems sure of this, though I never made the friends she said I would every time she registered me in a club or sport, from middle school band forward. “You finally won’t be the odd one out anymore.”
“Hmm…seriously?” I narrow my brows at her in disbelief, then lean against the counter by the sink and unwrap the protein bar. “I’m still 2 yrs younger than most every other freshman. And I sure as hell ain’t looking forward to a repeat of my primary school years.”
“It won’t be. You’ll get involved in internships and class projects with kids at every grade level. You’ll find your niche there, Ian. Guaranteed.” She beams 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. “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. “We have to pay their obscene bills to make a few top-tier execs even richer whether they deliver power or not. And they get away with it—fully supported by our fascist president and the kangaroo congress and court that he and his father before him…” Her petite frame moves 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 tune out her rant as I eat my chocolate caramel protein bar wondering how they get away with selling it as health food when it’s literally a candy bar.
“I’ve got to get going. It’s already past 8:00, and 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 barely out of her twenties, though she’s 42 now. “Don’t forget to take your lunch. And remember you’re on BART until the University Station, then—”
“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 making me lunch.”
“Like always, kid,” And her tender expression is replaced with forward motion. “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. This makes me feel even more guilty as I throw away her sack lunch into the trasher. 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. A massive sink hole in south San Jose is trending because it took out half a strip mall and several expensive homes. South Bay residents are screaming for Tesla and Chevron to stop lithium fracking down there—
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’m hoping no one 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? Have we got a sale for you!” He flashes a goofy smile. “We’ve proven we can ignite masses, get them to believe in fiction, not science, and even vote in, and worse, believe in fascist leaders. People buy into all kinds of crap if you get behind what they feel with promises 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 someone wants, you come up with a way of getting them to actually do what you want—not en mass, but individuals. 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, are 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 fixing 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 of 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 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. 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 lame 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 sombrero 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 taking the call through my glasses, but optiglasses have no phone functions anymore since mobile carriers no longer support 9G.
“We scored a table outside.” I can barely hear Vijay through my old ibuds above the din of students and clatter of dishes. Smartglasses come with high fidelity, noise-canceling buds. “Come out to the balcony, through the doors behind checkout.”
“Yeah, OK. Be right there,” I text, to avoid yelling.
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 like 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 ten 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 MacletII. They may be trending, but personally, I don’t like them. Too hard to finger, which is why I still use the UI’s keyboard. I like the slight buzz to my fingertips with each keystroke. Well, that, and my LegionX is way cheaper than any laplet in Apple’s lineup.
“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 at TRON, and in pre-school he brought me to his lab 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 GalaxyXG, 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 mechanically, but what I didn’t get was what he thought about, how its brain worked. I’m coding my net to show me.”
“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 gulps slowly, virtually orgasmically. 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.
Hmm…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 a buck for the cup, and another $4 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 shimmering 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 iBandX 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 twenty 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. I feel myself dropping out and lean on the metal ledge of the kiosk, 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 our 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.
Ten 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 virtually black, with little distinction between his pupil and iris as he eyes the ZamBam in my hand.
“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,” Vijay says. “I’ve only seen you drink water.” 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’ve just said. “Remind me what you’re hoping to map neural activity for…”
“Fixing our brains,” Vijay mocks, but I’ve heard this 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 feel a need to 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 the curved screen. 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, and you don’t live on campus, 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 $40g’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 the game’s predictability by, well, a lot using your neural net, Drew,’ I think Vijay said you call it,” he stares at me, like looking for me to flinch or something, but of course I already know Vijay can’t be trusted. Nor Maki, for that matter. “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, not just of masses, but what motivates each of us, individually.”
“And if we can motive individual behavior with greater accuracy, 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 the outcomes with PowerTrip’s for good—that help people out, or just to have fun. Since we’re building the software, we can make it whatever we want.” Vijay seems very sure of this, even though AI has been massively corrupted, used against us, turned us all into targets for advertisers, and marks for political agendas 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.
I consider what I just signed on for, and why, all the way home on BART. I agreed to get on board with the Power Trip for two reasons, I reason, as I stare out at the twinkling lights of office buildings whizzing by. One, if I’m involved with developing the game, I won’t be unwittingly played, again. Secondly, I can ensure the software we create has some positive, broad scale benefits. Vijay is clearly after making money. Who the hell knows what Maki’s after. I get the impression his nick name really is short for Machiavelli.
Point blank, Maki pulled it off this afternoon. He got me to buy Zambam with his crude suggestions, which both shames and captivates me. I’m an easy mark, of course, with the information they have on me, and my financial situation, and Vijay’s suggestion that they’d eat the entire pizza before I got any. Convincing many people we don’t know to do something, even as inane as buying a particular can of soda, will be much harder, if at all possible, but decoding the human mind does tickle a lifelong mental itch.
And another reason is rattling around in my brain…
It’s a way to finally blend, be part of a real Stanford startup like everyone else going there, instead of the perpetual outsider always looking in.
I get off at the Millbrae station and walk the mile home. Even with cameras on every streetlight, the K9 robots patrolling the borders of every business and parking lot, and the hovering police drones, I still don’t feel safe. The new wireless tasers can incapacitate you from 25 feet, and are under $50 on Amazon. Muggings, hate crimes, violent protests, riots, are at their highest levels since the tech boom gold rush started over a half century ago. The Bay Area has grown into an analog of L.A., so my mom says, her reason for leaving there and moving up here, way back when.
Mom’s online teaching when I walk in the door after 9:00. She has a dozen or so holopages projected in front of her, each with some middle-aged man or woman on them waiting for my mom to come online and begin her class.
I lean my head down to touch the top of hers. She asks me about my day, my dinner. I tell her about Maki and Vijay, but leave out The Power Trip. I don’t want to provoke her into a philosophical dissertation on the twisted morality of the game while she’s working.
“I knew you’d find your social niche in college. Told ya you just needed to find kids as smart as you.” She flashes a genuine, but tired smile.
A translucent PGE logo appears in front of the collection of translucent pages of potential clients. It bounces slightly, to command attention. My mom sighs heavily. Her shoulders sag as she touches the icon. It enlarges to a translucent bill. I can see the list of charges for our power: $657.30 for the Sustainable Energy Grid; $580 and some for our house meter monitoring, and a host of other ancillary line items totaling $2,285.40 for the month.
White block lettering scrolls over an orange banner across the middle of the page: “BILLING NOTICE. Please submit the minimum payment on your current statement on or before October 21st, or service may be terminated until full payment is received.”
“Pacific Grid Electric are flagrant thieves,” my mom snaps. “The energy exchange was supposed to cut our bills in half,” she mocks. “What happened to that?”
I stare at the holopages to avoid looking at my mother. It’s my fault, and we both know it, but my mom’s too kind to say so. To synthesize and isolate brain functions, I run tests and analyze the results 24/7 on a Parallax Exalogic3000, a massive parallel computer system that’s taken me years to build out. And it eats a ton of energy.
“I’m sorry, mom. I can get a job—”
“Ah, Ian.” She stares at me with her earnest face on. “We’ve been over this how many times? Your job right now is getting the best education you can so you have the opportunity to do whatever you want in life.” She looks so tired. “And I’m absolutely sure you’ll be a smashing success at whatever you endeavor.” She swipes her finger across the tablet on the table in front of her and the bill disappears. “In fact, I’m counting on you to help build a better future for everyone, instead of just the select few.”
“I love you, mom.” It’s all I can think of to say as, ‘I won’t let you down’ seems a hollow promise.
“I love you, too, baby.” She lifts her optiglasses, rubs her eyes, then focuses back on InstaPin. I exit the room so not to be seen as she swipes her SpecraSlate and begins her lecture. “Good evening. Let’s get started. Who has their completed quarterlies to share tonight?” I hear her say as I go into my room and shut the door.
Sit in front of my computer and pull up the results of my latest test. A palpating thrill crosses my chest. Drew is learning to play checkers from first principle, its only examples of how to win from the software ‘expert’ I pit it against. Drew has won almost half of the hundred thousand games in my latest run. It’s learning faster, and more accurately than ever with my latest code changes.
I flash on selling my neural network for billions, moving my mom and I out of this crappy house and into one of those mansions in Woodside or Portola Valley, where she never has to work at anything but creating pastries for the bakery she’s always dreamed of.
We exchanged NDA’s online, and agreed to meet at Maki’s house in Atherton on Saturday mornings because his dad has an ExPANS6000, which is like ten petaflops faster than my system at home. It was the proverbial straw that convinced me to get on board with them, actually. The compute power of that machine will give me insight into neurological connectivity I can never achieve with my Parallax.
Maki’s waiting in his vintage, 2030, black Porsche Carrera convertible at the Atherton BART station when my train gets in at 10:10 a.m. Vijay is in the passenger seat, I squeeze into the back seat. Maki commands the sports car to drive, the car’s sudden acceleration throwing me back and keeping me pressed against the seat the entire ten minute ride to his house. It’s impossible to talk without yelling, or hear what they are saying with the wind blowing, but I can see them talking.
The iron gates recognize Maki’s Porsche and open automatically. We pull onto the circular drive and parks in a redwood shrouded alcove near the columned porch of his parent’s grand two-story, California ranch-style home. We enter through double glass doors of a large room extending from the main house. The room is impeccably clean, with a plush white couch and two white sofa chairs facing a modern, white marble fireplace.
Vijay follows Maki, and I follow Vijay through the white room towards the huge open kitchen. An enormous butcher block island topped in white granite, with four high back stools divides the two rooms. A young brunette is standing at the sink on the other side of the island rinsing a Japanese eggplant. She gives Vijay a quick “Hey,” and me a wide smile as we enter the kitchen. Her eyes are big, and dark green, no, more moss brown, and kind, behind her rimless Ray-Ban’s. She looks familiar, but I can’t place her.
“Hey,” Maki says to her. “Dad leave yet?”
“Yeah.” Her voice is soft, but resonant. “You just missed him. He told me to tell you to stop hacking into his HBP correspondence, or he’s revoking your user privileges on Alfred.”
Vijay pulls one of the stools out and sits at the butcher block. I stand next to him as Maki goes around the island to the huge brushed steel fridge.
“Ian, my sister Kara. Kara, Ian,” Maki says as he pulls three ZamBams.
“Hi,” Kara says, again flashing me her bright white smile.
“Hi,” I say.
“I’m doing a stir fry for lunch. You boys wanta join me?”
Yes, I think.
“Nah,” Maki say. “We got work to do. We’ll be on Alfred most of the day.”
“Dad’s serious, Mak. He was really pissed when he left this morning.” Kara rubs the long, thin, purple fruit in slow strokes under the running water. “I’d watch out, or he’ll lock you outta the system for sure if you go into his business again.”
“How am I supposed to stay current if I can’t see the latest and greatest?” Maki says, and slides both Vijay and me a can of Zambam across the granite top. “He lets you in.”
“Only to Genosphere because of their biometrics stuff,” Kara says, turning off the water, then retrieving a knife from the magnetic strip on the wall. Her long, thick brown hair flows over her shoulders and down her back like a veil of satin. “And it’s for school, not gaming.”
And right then it occurs to me where I’ve seen Kara before. Anger mounts as my brain processes that she was a plant, a foil Maki and Vijay set up to make me wait longer at the drink kiosk at Stanford, pushing me to buy a ZamBam, instead of waiting for water from the soda machine.
I glare at Maki, then glance at Vijay before looking back at Kara. “You…” I whisper in spite of myself. She looks up from chopping the eggplant. Smiles softly.
“Don’t be mad,” she says. And suddenly I’m not. How can I be with her gentle smile. “I was just helping my brother out.”
“And I thank you, baby sister,” Maki says as he comes back around the butcher block island, and continues towards the double glass doors to the backyard.
“Three minutes, Maki,” she yells after him. “Three minutes will never qualify me as your baby sister, pinhead.”
Vijay gets up, and I grab my ZamBam and follow them. Kara and Maki must be twins, but while he has classic Asian features, she doesn’t. Kara’s eyes are large and almond shaped, and an iridescent hazel green, the likes of which I’ve never seen. Her nose is straight, but prominent, like her full lips.
I notice the photos in silver frames atop the mantle as we cross to the glass doors opposite the fireplace in the white room adjoining the kitchen. Family gatherings in front of Disneyland, Yosemite and such, reveal their father is Asian, and their mother is Caucasian.
The three of us walk along a gravel path besides a long rectangular Grecian-style swimming pool, to a small building practically hidden behind the detached four car garage. It’s two thirds the size of my house, but looks small for this place. A dozen or so large square stepping-stones lead past a huge old oak tree. Behind it, French doors and full length French windows grace the facade of the structure. This is one hell of a garage start-up, assuming we ever make this game a reality.
“What is it your parents do exactly?” I ask Maki as we enter one of the rooms, divided from the other with a shared fireplace between them. Morning sunlight dapples the Zen-like garden I see through the double french doors across the room.
“My dad’s a managing partner at Accel, in Biotech, at their Beijing headquarters. My mom’s dead. Ovarian cancer, two years ago,” he says flatly as he walks over to the office setup that takes up a third of the sunlit room.
Maki sits in the high-back swivel black leather chair at the center table of an enormous polished redwood and brushed steel U-shaped desk. Clearly custom built, it sits up against the windowless back wall, and is large enough to accommodate up to three people with their own dedicated workspace. A sleek black projection bar, maybe 6 ft long and studded with tiny LEDs, sits towards the back of the center desk in front of Maki. As he swivels his chair to face it, a red light in the center turns yellow and projects only one holopage, a mirror image of Maki’s face for a facial rec scan. A moment later and the yellow LED in the center of the bar turns green and a keyboard projection appears on the desk in front of Maki. Then two lights at opposite ends of the bar come on.
A 3D holographic avatar, maybe a foot tall, of a distinguished older man, dressed in a dark gray suit with a neon blue tie appears standing on the desk in front of Maki. “Good morning, Maki,” the avatar says in a clipped tone. He seems to be looking directly at Maki as he speaks.
“Morning, Alfred,” Maki says.
“Your father has left a message for you.” The avatar is holding a silver tray, with what looks like an envelope on it. “Shall I play it here, or would you prefer a private showing on one of your personal devices before we begin today?”
Maki glances at Vijay sitting in the office chair on the outside left desk of the U. “In other words, I’m locked out until my father has his say.”
Vijay shrugs, then looks back at his laplet, clearly as embarrassed as I am.
Maki looks back at Alfred. “Please run my dad’s visclip, Alfred.” Maki looks at me. “My dad programmed Alfred only to respond if the user is in eye-contact, and is courteous. His warped little contribution to teaching me and Kara manners, instead of actually doing it himself.”
The image of the butler disappears. Almost simultaneously, a 3 x 2 ft holopage of a middle-age Asian man is suspended in front of Maki.
“You are done hacking my files, Mak! Get the hell out of my business, and stay the hell out of it,” His small eyes are narrow, his long face stern, thin lips pursed. “Do you understand me, Maki? If you access any of my files again, I’m locking you out of the house CPN (cloud private network). I hope I’m crystal clear, son, or you’ll be limited to that arcane Mac set up you have in your dorm room for the remainder of your education.”
Vijay’s has propped his laplet on the desk, pulled up a keyboard projection and opened a few holopages. He seems as tense as I feel as he rapidly swipes through streams of dynamic data from the various social networks he’s hacked.
I retrieve a chair from the bar and bring it to the right side of the U-desk, then pull my laplet from my backpack and set it up on the desk before lowering the cushioned bar stool and sit.
“I’ll be in my office through Tuesday,” Maki’s dad continues. “Then in Switzerland, at EPFL on Wednesday, and home late Friday afternoon. We’ll talk off the grid Friday at 8:00 p.m. sharp, during which time we’ll review the necessity and ethics of privacy, which somehow I’ve clearly failed to impart to you. This Friday, 8:00 p.m. The home office. Am I clear, Mak?”
“Did you get into MyLife?” Maki asks Vijay. “We can pick up a ton of data on the streams alone—”
“Excuse me, Maki.” Alfred appears on the desk again. “Your father is waiting for your response,” he says politely.
“You can tell my father to stick it. No. Strike that.” Maki looks at me, “It’s what I’d like to say.” He looks back at miniature Alfred. “Record, head only, please,” Maki commands. “Hi Dad. Yes, you are crystal clear, and I apologize. I was just trying to get the latest on cognitive architecture for a class. I promise not to go into your business again. You have my word, so I don’t think a chat is strictly necessary, but I’ll be here when you get home on Friday.” Maki pauses. “End there, Alfred.” He glances at me again and rolls his eyes, then turns back to the avatar. “Please send.”
“Will that be all, sir?” Alfred asked, clearly coded to recognize and respond to Maki’s eye contact.
“Yes. You may send it to my father straight away. And please pull up my most recently opened files from the Power Trip, Alfred, and go away. Thank you.”
Four holopages open simultaneously in front of Maki. The butler disappears. “OK,” Maki moves his chair to give me a clear view of the pages. “Here’s what we’ve got so far.”
Two of the translucent pages have streaming code. Another holopage shows an Asian kid’s face wearing iGlazeX smartglasses. He’s looking directly at the screen, and it takes me a second to realize he’s not looking us. The feed is from his smartglasses camera that extends from the left stem for selfies. On the holopage it’s hard to see the thin light lines of webbing crawling over his face scanning for facial expressions using image recognition software.
“Vijay and I have been tracking Thomas Wong—from his socials, to his texts with his family, to his purchases since school started,” Maki says. “Everywhere he goes, every word he says, messages, what he sees in real-time, even his facial feed, which we require while playing the game, we capture and store for analysis.”
“Why did you choose him for beta?” I ask.
“Completely random,” Vijay says. “Pulled him off the student directory, like the other 49 we accepted. When the The Power Trip is up, anyone who signs on can play, so random is the only way to do proper QA.”
“Anyway,” Maki continues. “We’ve got a ton of data on this kid, and every other beta-tester we’ve got playing. Vijay’s crawlers find geographics, demographics, family, income, school grades to his socials and posts. And we’re using DNN, NLU, and DL, and a mashup of other AI algorithms and collaborative filtering, then pushing recommendations, trying to motivate this kid to do what The Power Trip suggests, but so far it’s no go.”
“And what is the game suggesting?” And my mind conjurers Maki motivating this kid to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Nothing yet. That’s where you come in. Your neural net needs to be able to identify what motivates a resulting action of each and every gamer who signs on. Drew must go beyond Synthetic Intelligence, Deep Learning, NLP, Sentiment Analysis and Emotional Classifiers. It’s all brain dead software that never really worked, and still doesn’t. Your net has to analyze everything players do online and offline, then find out what really matters to each of them.”
“And Drew has to be able to scale, and fast,” Vijay says. “Obviously.”
I look at Maki. “And you have the storage capacity for all this data and the compute power to deliver massive functionality?
Maki sweeps his hand to indicate the size and scope of our office space. “Clearly.”
I look at Vijay, then back to Maki. “So…you’re asking me to code Drew with a discrete emotional classifier, that actually works, on top of an image recognition and natural language processor, all on top of a biological neural network optimized for predictive modeling?”
“That sounds about right, right?” Maki asks me, seemingly sincerely. “I mean, you’re the expert, so however you want to build it…”
I’m going home on BART, blasting TechnoLunatics through my earbuds and watching their Shockwave concert on Virtual Life. I stare at my iBand without really seeing the packed crowd at Albert Hall from the guitarists POV. I’m in my head, remembering Kara standing in the kitchen cleaning the Japanese eggplant.
A rowdy group of mostly young people enters the train at the Hillsdale station. I try and focus back on my iBand but the group spreads out crowding the aisle, several too close for comfort. Roving gangs of thieves on BART have been trending for years. Smash and grabs, just as the doors open at a station, have split many skulls. Resist, but sometimes even not, and you have a good chance of getting ‘popped.’
“WE ARE FULCRUM!” the crowd yells so loud I can hear them clearly above the Shockwave concert.
Others join in. A few project pulsing holosigns or waving translucent banners from their smartbands or glasses. END SOCIAL SCORING!! STOP CORP RAPE! KILL THE CLOUD!
“What do we want!?” some guy yells.
“AUTONOMY!” the crowd yells back.
“What do we need!?” same guy yells.
“Accountability!” the crowd responds.
While their message is…well, accurate, their delivery sucks. I half expect to see my mom among them. I grew up listening to her rant about Google, and the social dinosaur, Meta, and now Chatter and InstaPin for weaponizing their users personal data with algorithms that repeatedly push products, political lies and corporate agendas. And it is the reason I don’t tell her about The Power Trip.
I get up, squeeze past a fat guy with a ponytail chanting, “WE ARE FULCRUM!” Shockwave rocks on in my earbuds but does not drown out the crowd as I push my way down the aisle. I go into another car just as BART pulls into the next station.
Another group of protesters come on board, equally rowdy as the first, maybe more so since some run down the aisle and I have to sit quickly to avoid contact.
“Join Fulcrum!” many chant. “Stop Corporate Rape!” others respond repeatedly.
BART takes off again. I stare out the window to avoid looking at them, but protesters are now moving between cars, passing joints and beers and pharms. They gather in numbers at each stop, most assuredly announcing the protest on their socials.
A bulky bald white guy stands on the empty bench seat across from me. He leans into the camera mounted on the wall. “We are Fulcrum!” He waggles his tongue so close to the lens he practically licks it. “Doxing fascists is our weapon!” he chants, still at the camera. The crowd cheers wildly. He then turns to face the group and continues yelling. “What are we!?”
“Hacktavists!” the protesters respond.
“What’d we want!?”
“Autonomy!” many yell. “Corporate accountability!” or, “Defund Congress!,” I hear others shout, but quite a few seem clueless why they’re here.
The train comes into the Burlingame station, one stop away from Millbrae and home, but I’ve had enough. BART jerks to a full stop, and the guy standing on the bench tumbles on to me. I push him off, and he stumbles back, then his eyes connect with mine. A toothy grin emerges, like he’s just figured out I likely saved him from bashing his head in on the empty plastic seat next to me.
“Dude!” the guy says, and puts his fist up for me to return the greeting just as I’m rising to leave the train. I jerk my head back to avoid his fist in my face. His blasted eyes widen in surprise, then he laughs, puts his arm around my neck and pulls me toward him in a drunken jester of camaraderie. His breath sinks of booze, and I pat his hand in a show of alliance, then move away, but the aisle is now completely packed, and the doors close and BART moves on before I make it off the train.
I hear a loud crack above the TechnoLunatics and instinctively duck, along with half the people in my view. I pause my rockstar skin on VL to listen, and hear cheering towards the end of the car where I just came from. I straighten, as does the crowd around me, and we all watch a guy with a baseball bat smashing the surveillance camera. He continues to hit it until it falls off the wall.
Shrieks and hollers of approval. I’m bumped and jostled against the train car doors. I try to avoid eye contact, stare out at the passing menagerie of buildings and apartment complexes in the perpetually yellow haze, but another loud crack, then another demands my attention. The guy with the bat is now smashing train windows.
The screams of descent are drowned by the shouts of approval, and the car suddenly bursts into mayhem. A fight breaks out between those who are destroying the BART car, and those trying to stop them. Protesters looking to avoid the fray are packing in tighter towards the doors, smashing me up against them. It’s hard to breathe, the stench of sweat, alcohol and anger is choking.
“Cops at Millbrae station!” I hear a distinct female voice yell. A few others confirm this.
Cussing and concern erupt through the crowd who look at each other for what to do next. BART slows as it nears the station. Protesters surge through the cars now. Loud gasps and low screams spark panic. Plastered against the doors, I see the line of 20 or more BART police standing on the platform ahead, holding photon rifles. Drones float above the line of cops, and those are just the ones I can see.
Shit! I’ll be the first shot when the doors open. I’m practically holding my breath, my heart coming through my chest as the train jerks to a complete stop. The crowd hushes, though a few can be heard whimpering. A moment passes and still the doors do not open.
“This is Lt. McNamara of the BART police,” booms over the train and platform speakers. “You will not be detained if you disembark in an orderly fashion when the train doors open.”
A collective, yet tentative sigh flutters throughout the car, and through my chest. “Please disembark promptly,” McNamara continues, “And exit the station immediately. Loitering may lead to detainment or arrest.”
I inch away from the center of the doors as they slide open so I don’t tumble out but I’m ejected from the train car with the push from those behind me. I stumble then recover and try to blend in with the crowd ascending the stairs to exit the station. I now see police drones everywhere. BART police, in their black combat gear, occasionally pull someone from the fray and drag them off, but I can’t see to where. I move along with the dispersing protesters, cross the station, then descend the stairs outside to the street. Usually I’d be feeling some trepidation anticipating my walk home, but right now I’m just glad to be out of there with only my nerves shot to hell.
“So, why’d you pick that kid?” a young woman is walking beside a young man down a columned corridor near the main quad at Stanford, her braided, beaded hair clacking and clicking with each step.
“I’m just so sick of Asians getting all the breaks. Indian, Chinese, Korean, they get all the internships here, all the tech jobs outta school,” the young man scoffs. “According to the three packets the game gave me on this kid, his parents are first gen Chinese/American. They came here on work visas for Google, the free pass to citizenship. My ‘mark’ is on scholarship, like most all of em. Straight A student, the whole nine yards.”
“Of course,” the woman says. “They all are.”
“Don’t mock me, Cassie.” Carl is sure that all Black women are leftist liberals.
“I’m not, Carl.”
But she is. He’d only just met her in Ethics133 at the start of the quarter. He’d been walking with her for a few weeks now since they were both Poli Sci majors with several of the same classes. And Carl knows, with his white skin, his blond hair and blue eyes, she’d already labeled him a conservative.
“I’m not the only one a tad bit sick of hearing them whine about discrimination and hate,” Carl defends. “It’s bullshit. Tech corps have been soliciting Asians for cheap labor with H1Bs since the turn of the millennium. They single-highhandedly destroyed tech salaries, first in the Valley, then across the U.S. Minorities, my ass. Half this country is second or third gen Asian now.”
“So, about this game…” Cassie entices, smiling coyly, her perfect smile made all the more white against her dark skin.
“The Power Trip,” Carl says.
“It’s gonna let you manipulate this straight-A Asian/American Stanford student on scholarship, to buy a term paper, and submit it as his own?”
“How is that possible, especially since you don’t know anything about this kid, other than the basics the game gave you on him.”
“The game continually collects data on each user, from where we go, to what we say, watch, and engage with on our devices, to what we buy. To increase the game’s datasets, their software finds other students similar to the player’s mark, like, for me, what do 19 year old, over-achieving, middle-class, second gen Chinese males say on their social feeds. The more data, the more accurately the game will be able to determine what will trigger the mark to do the Power Trip. ”
They pass Memorial Church, the perpetually hazy sunlight washing out the glory of the Romanesque Revival facade.
“The Recommendation Mirror Loop is well known, Carl. Targeted marketing through Search returns and social feeds have been igniting like-minded people into frenzied mobs for decades now,” Cassie’s delivery is on par with his Sociology prof. “Is that what you’re looking to do?”
“The Power Trip is different. It’s not about pushing fake news to spark the angry, low-income, god-fearing masses to start a riot. Or get their vote.” Carl glances at Cassie’s lovely profile, her perfectly smooth, almost pore-less skin, the soft curve of her nose and thick lips. “Power Trip players have to craft, market and iterate messaging for one specific, albeit anonymous user. Motivating individual behavior has always been the golden ticket. And it’s the tantalizing bit about The Power Trip.”
“And you don’t feel bad that you could potentially destroy this kid’s life?” Cassie asks. “I mean, if he got caught plagiarizing a paper he could get kicked out of Stanford.”
“Legit writing services don’t plagiarize. They write unique content for every paper. It’s highly unlikely he’d get busted, unless he’s like a moron, or religious fanatic and confesses to someone. It’s harmless. Just a game.” He stops in the shade of the old coastal oaks in the long, park-like grassy corridor of Lomita Mall, and presses a sequence on his smartband. “Anyway, here’s the link to The Power Trip.” Carl touches his smartband to hers. “You should check it out. Free to sign-up. For Stanford students only. It’s in Beta, probably won’t even work, so it’s really just for fun. The three Power Trips I got were all fairly benign. Other than the one I picked, the other two were getting someone to start a FundIt page to impress a date with dinner at Baume’s, and sending a talent video to StarBound.”
“Aren’t you concerned about people manipulating you?”
“Nah,” Carl scoffs. “My family’s in politics. I was weened on the games people play. Besides, I’m already corrupted.” He flashes that winning grin again. “I gotta take off. See ya next week in class.” Carl takes a few steps, but turns back to Cassie, walking backwards as he speaks. “Sign up for the game, and maybe I’ll be your mark.”
“Yes, but I wouldn’t know it, so why should I care?”
“For fun, Cassie. It’s fun getting people to do what you want!” He turns back around and waves without looking back as he walks away.
Cassie lifts her wrist, and clicks on The Power Trip link Carl just gave her.
The ExPANS6000 is rippin fast, like nothing I’ve ever worked on, running tests in milliseconds instead of hours, sometimes days on my Parallax. But it takes about a month into working together when I have a lightbulb idea during my RAD227 class.
“Combining the latest HBP connectivity models, with the T5-fMRI scans Vijay’s pulling from Gallant, Drew can now correlate recognition with reaction,” I explain to Vijay and Maki at Maki’s house on Saturday. I overlap the over 100,000 fMRI scans with the HBP synaptic models and project a hologram of a dynamic human brain from the ExaPDN6 to the open space in the center of the U-desk. “We can now see directly how the brain is responding to not only visual and physical interactions, but emotional stimuli.”
Vijay and Maki stare at the translucent bundle of neurons. Regions of the brain surge and pulse in a rainbow of colors. New synaptic bulbs transmit sparks, sending light traveling pathways that die and grow simultaneously throughout the rotating model floating five feet above the plush carpeted floor. “Follow any spark along its synapse, and we can see what region of the brain it’s activating.”
“You mean to tell me,” Maki says rather cautiously, “Drew can identify what part of the brain is being lit from a feeling?”
“Yeah.” I nod. Maki’s grin is barely perceptible, but unmistakable. “I think so. Generics, like happy or sad, have an accuracy rate of close to 52% now.”
Maki’s smile is now more like the grinning cat from Alice in Wonderland.
“Well, knowing what someone responds to doesn’t get us any closer to actually getting them to do what we want.” Vijay retorts, clearly oblivious.
“Of course it does,” a female voice says.
We all turn simultaneously to see Kara standing in the doorway, which we keep open for circulation since it’s typically 90+ degrees during the day in the Bay Area throughout fall. I feel my face flush, my heart pounding in my chest. I look at Maki for direction but he just glares at his sister.
Kara comes in and stops a few feet from the dynamic brain. She stares at it rotating in front of her, her eyes practically twinkling with delight. Of course, I may be projecting her eye twinkle is more than just the sparking brain’s reflection in her simple, rimless Ray-Ban’s.
“First off, Vijay,” she says, but keeps her eyes on the hologram. “We’ve mapped our brain biology with T4-fMRI, and replicated the neural connectivity in all fourteen anatomical areas. But no one I know of has ever created a model that will be able to predict chemical and electrical responses, ya know, before they happen, like Ian has ostensibly done here.” She flashes me a look I can’t assimilate. Not a smile, but not exactly not.
My face gets hot again. My heart is still coming though my chest, and I wonder if she can hear it beating. “Well, not quite, yet, anyway,” I babble to cover my embarrassment. “Drew’s model here is based on dynamically gathered brain activity from quadrillions of data points on hundreds of thousands of people. I’m still working on training the system, beyond just analyzing and correlating behavior patterns, to anticipate what an individual in a specific subgroup will likely do next.”
“I get it,” Kara says. “And you need real-time brain activity, on a per-person basis for accurate modeling.”
“Yes!” I say, maybe a bit too excited. I can’t help smiling. Kara smiles too, but there’s an edge to her expression. Annoyed, maybe. “Drew is training to recognizes common electro and neuro-chemical responses to stimuli. The more data the better, obviously,” I add.
Her smile fades as she looks at Maki beyond the floating translucent brain. “And had you simply asked me to work with you on this, I could have supplied you with vital data sources, way more than the obvious ones you’ve hacked so far.” She glances at Vijay, then focuses back on the sparkling brain. She doesn’t look at me, but I blush again anyway. “And as pissed as I am at you lunatics for exposing dad to Privacy violations, I have to admit, I’m rather intrigued.” She glances at me. “If you want to integrate real-time streaming of individual bio and neurological data into your organic net, Drew, isn’t it? After Andrew Martin, I presume?” Her eyes flash humor. I blush, then smile and nod, and her full lips takes on the slightest grin at my surprise. “Here’s what we need to—”
Maki narrows his dark brows at his sister. “We?”
“Either I’m in, or you’re all out, because I tell dad what you’re up to, especially with Vijay here hacking half the net through our home servers, and he’ll lock you out for sure.”
“How do you know what we’ve been doing in here? And Drew? How do you know about any of this?” Maki asks.
Kara smiles, her beautiful wide grin as she moves to the center of the U, next to the rotating brain. “Alfred, pull up The Power Trip feed, please.”
Alfred is suddenly ‘standing’ next to Kara, full human height, dressed in tan khaki’s and a pale green polo shirt.
“Good morning, Little Miss,” Alfred says to Kara, and I swear there’s affection in his voice. “How far back would you like the stream presented?”
“Go to their first meeting here, back in September, please.” She looks past the brain, directly at Alfred. It smiles broadly when their eyes connect.
Drew’s translucent brain fades to almost transparent. A hologpage overlays it in full density, the ghosted whisper of the sparking brain barely noticeable beyond it. The visclip shows Maki, Vijay and I at our first meeting discussing The Power Trip.
Maki slowly stands. “No…” he practically growls.
“Mom programmed the ExPANS to record everything we did on it since we were in high school,” Kara comes back at her brother as the confident bearer of truth. “She gave me her credentials to manage the streams on her goddamn deathbed, Mak.” Her ire softens with the mention of her mother’s passing. “She knew she’d be gone, and with dad absent so much, there’d be no one to reign you in. So she asked me to.”
Maki glares at sister, eyes and brows narrowed. I feel the tension between them, rage radiating from Maki with that chillingly joyless smirk plastered on his face. “Kill the feed, Alfred,” Maki orders without looking at the avatar. But Alfred doesn’t respond. Maki turns to Alfred’s hologram and looks it in the eyes. “Stop the feed, please, Alfred,” he says more gently. And the holopage disappears. “Has dad seen these?”
“I don’t think he even knows about them. He’s working, ya know,” Kara says, and again, I detect melancholy. “And there’s nothing to tell him since I’ve been monitoring your progress, and so far there hasn’t been much. Until now.” Kara looks at me. Smiles softly. I blush, and look at my laplet, the active brain model rotating on my screen.
“So, what would you suggest we do?” I ask her, trying to break the tension between her and her brother. I force my eyes to meet hers. “I mean, we can’t exactly collect fMRI data in real time from people, especially without their knowledge.”
“Actually, I’ve got some ideas about that,” Kara says, glaring back at her brother. “Wanta hear em, or is this still a private testosterone club?”
“I wanta hear them,” I say, probably a bit too eager. Maki glares at me.
“Me, too,” Vijay says, finally looking at Kara, but as soon as she glances back at him he looks at me.
Kara ignores her brother’s frown turned pout. “OK then. Here’s the thing,” Kara says. “We’re already using heart and breathing rates to blood flow data from the resonance accelerometers in smartbands. But they’re now adding nanoelectromagnetics, or NEMS to smartglasses to aggregate data on electrical and chemical brain signaling, including hormone releases. In fact, most new models have the chips in them already.” She looks at Alfred standing next to her. “Alfred, please track branded keywords and display.”
“My pleasure, Little Miss,” he says gently.
Kara continues. “Google’s 4Sites have NEMS in the stems.”
A holopage of 4Site smartglasses opens full density over the ghosted brain. The smartglasses are rotating, like on an Amazon sales page. It’s a woman’s model, with sparkling studs lining the two stems all the way back to the earbuds.
Maki sits down slowly as he watches the holopages along with Vijay and me.
“Sony’s BrightView’s have similar technology to NEMS chips,” Kara continues.
Another holopage pops up showing the new Sony BrightView’s on a bald guy’s rotating head. Tinted lenses are gripped by two thick black stems loaded with gadgetry.
“They’re using electroencephalography, or EEG chips in their stems, in concert with piezoresonance accelerometers for even greater data collection.”
My heart starts palpitating at the idea of what these new data sources can mean to training Drew. “So who gets the data they’re lifting from their customers?”
“Right now, the device manufacturers—Google, Sony, MicroSun, Apple. But the network cell carriers, Verizon, ATT-Mobile and their like all collect customer feeds.”
“And on an individual basis,” Maki practically whispers.
“That’s right,” Kara says, looks at me and smiles. I smile back, see Vijay smile too, and for a moment we’re silence, contemplating the possibilities.
“And while you boys are imagining what you can do with the data you’d get from these feeds, remember, correlation does not necessarily imply causation.” Kara quickly glances at her brother, then Vijay, then settles her eyes on mine. “Drew is going to have to unravel the psyche of each mark—parse the constructs they tell themselves and others with the reality they live—to figure out what motivates them to do anything.”
The UI drew him in instantly. Through his smartglasses, Thomas Wong watched three block letters—TPT, in gold, twinkle and sparkle as they rotated in the pupil of a green eye. Music is the smooth opening sequence of ancient rock classic, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”
Gold letters retain size and rotation as the view pulled back in a fast zoom revealing the eye belongs to a woman laying in the grass on the Stanford campus. The view continued pulling back exposing all of Palo Alto, then the Pacific coast and the Bay Area, until the now glowing hot block letters transformed into gold text: THE POWER TRIP, stacked in three lines. The logo twinkled over a full sphere of Earth from space, which, as view pulled back still further, appears to be a blue/green crystalline ball in a woman’s hand. Pulling back still further quickly reveals she’s laying naked on her side inside a nebula, her hand holding earth resting on her propped bare leg. Without revealing any more of her she giggles in the background as the music faded with the scene to black.
A two sentence teaser for the game faded in under the sparkling gold text logo: Garner the Power to Rule Your World…
The entire visclip lasted 3.2 seconds, and Thomas felt his heart racing. He was captivated the instant he logged on, as any Psych major would be, he assured himself. He’d seen the post for beta players on the Cedro House residence community board last weekend. And just the idea of getting people to do what he wanted, instead of the other way around, tantalized.
It wasn’t that registration for The Power Trip required “full access to personal data, including [but not limited to] live feeds from all devices, social network activity and Stanford portals,” that bothered him. Not even that he had to give the game access to all Mobi transactions, though not account numbers, of course. We’re all open books now anyway, tracked on every device we own and every interaction we have. It barely impinged on Tom’s consciousness when he signed their NDA, and their “Liability Waver” to access the game, often required to sign on to bla games today. But waiting the initial 48 hours on PASSIVE status after signing up while the game aggregated new player data, was too damn long. Access to any game should be seconds, not days.
Oddly, when the notification from The Power Trip gave him the green light to go ACTIVE, Thomas was scared out of his mind to play. The rules specifically state that “once a ‘PLAYER’ activates a PowerTrip, that player’s status becomes ACTIVE.” And “All ACTIVE PLAYERS on The Power Trip are available to become a ‘MARK’.” While he was tantalized by the idea of controlling other people, he loathed the idea of being controlled. He got enough of that from his mom, by her expectations alone.
It’s early morning Saturday, a week after he first logged on to the game. Once again, Thomas is pursuing the three PowerTrips the game served up when he went ACTIVE. They seem innocuous enough. It’s likely all the Plays are rather harmless, if they work at all. This reasoning quells his trepidation some.
Which is the easiest Trip to win? Thomas slides his finger along the stem of his smartglasses, placing the cursor over each PowerTrip, rereading the popup description, and the current probability before the player begins their sequence of PowerPlays that may lead the mark to perform the final Trip. He checks out all three for the fiftieth time, then scrolls back to the second, again.
Have MARK donate blood who has never donated blood before.
Estimated number of PowerPlays to fulfill the PowerTrip: 4
Current probability (10:48 PST 52.11.08) 23.3%—
“Wacking off to some tits and ass instead of just ogling, Wong?”
Thomas startles, face flushes with heat as he minimizes the game. “Shut up, Davis.” Tom glares at his dorm mate sitting up in the bed opposite his from his small desk at the end of his twin bed. “I’m not a stalker, like you,” Thomas snaps. “I’m beta-testing a new game.”
“You?” Davis mocks, then runs his hand through his dark, tousled hair. “After making it clear that ‘the crap we all play is,’ what’d you call it? ‘Mind smack for the intellectually challenged,’ I believe you said.”
“This game isn’t for idiots, Davis.” Thomas pauses, letting the unsaid ‘Like you,’ linger. “It’s an RTS, for my Psych57 class,” Thomas lies, angry at himself for reacting to his roommates jab. “And I’m sure it’d bore the hell out of simple minds like yours. It’s a strategy play, and it takes a lot of trial and error to get anywhere, like advance in the game.”
“So what’s the point? I mean, how do ya win, or even level up?”
“The game’s a real time uplift predictive modeling, meta-level recommendation engine,” Tom smirks at his roommate with his technical delivery. “Players use an organic AI neural network that analyzes dynamic data to identify the primers and triggers that will unconsciously get their mark to do what the player suggests.”
Davis stares at Thomas with blue eyes made almost purple by the red rim around them. “Mind-control,” he scoffs. “Right. Look, I’m not an idiot, Wong. I got into this school same as you. I’m just not blowing my Stanford education cramming academics the entire 4 years to make my folks proud.” He sighs heavily. “Project a keyboard, will ya, so I don’t have to hear you tapping.” Davis falls back on his bed, pulling the blanket over his head, ending the most dialog they’ve shared since Thomas got to Sanford two months ago.
Tom doesn’t feel the usual buzz of victory intimidating Davis this morning. He knows his roommate is right. It’ll be who he meets, the network he builds at school, not his GPA, that’ll get him a job when he graduates. Feeling rather hollow from being called out, he clicks on the stem of his smartglasses, and pulls up his dashboard on The Power Trip. He peruses the list of PowerTrips one more time, then clicks on one, activating it. His dashboard mail icon instantly returns three messages. First, is an acknowledgment he’s begun his first Power Trip ‘journey,’ with a brief description of the Trip he’d chosen and the following emails. Next was the demographic, psychographic and behavioral data files on his anonymous MARK. The last was four PowerPlays he could activate, as well as create his own, to motivate his mark to fulfill Tom’s L1 PowerTrip.