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 sways. Bolting half-naked to huddle in the bedroom threshold seems a bit extreme, since the rash of quakes that began a decade ago don’t register much beyond 3.5. Or haven’t yet. The house settles. The creaks and groans of moving earth quiets, as does my racing heart.
I hear her downstairs, 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. My glasses are rimless optiglasses, not smartglasses. 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, slide 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.” She’s referring to the earthquake.
“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. Good thing the dynamic lenses adjust to changing vision.
The kitchen lights blink, then go out and stay off, as does every other appliance in the house. The continual 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 that has exceeded the 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,” my mom says with disdain 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 even 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 start-up, 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 probably why she’s 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 when I throw away the rest of breakfast, and the sack lunch into the trashasher. I’m glad the contraption 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 sudden flash 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 away. Besides already knowing most everything about me, any exaggerated movement will trigger the drone to arm itself, and if it feels threatened, 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 out and about has earphones on these days. “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 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. They don’t need to with the squadron of drones they all have now.
“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 a wide birth, some crossing the street to avoid their faces being captured on the drone’s camera, or their eyes scanned like mine were. “You are clear to proceed, Ian Wheaton,” the drone says in the same 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, which I choose not to shave to exaggerate my years, so I doubt anyone marks me for a kid still.
Talk to a guy named Vijay in both my Math41 and CSAI class. Indian lineage, with brown skin, short cropped hair, and dark eyes behind last year’s Galaxy4 smartglasses. We walk over to the Packard building together at lunch break, to Bytes cafe, 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 admits as we sit 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. 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—their fears, their desires, play on their hopes. I mean, look at religion.”
“Harsh, dude.” But as a man of science, not blind belief, I can’t help smiling. “Be even better if instead of just predicting what people want, you come up with a way of getting them to actually buy what you want.” I’m teasing, irked that Vijay, like so many of my contemporaries, are developing advanced technology to become more effective at selling.
Vijay laughs. “Right. Like mind control. Good luck with that.” His eyes drift to an attractive redhead walking towards us, totally absorbed in her smartband.
“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 AI robot?”
“No. I’m coding a biological neural network that simulates 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.”
“Crude though they may be, there are a ton of AI systems out there learning our preferences and redirecting our thinking, and then our actions, right now, like serving up ads for a divorce attorney when a married user starts trolling singles sites.”
“Well, getting married couples already having problems to break up isn’t exactly rocket science.”
“So what’d ya wanta do with Drew once it’s up and running?” Vijay is still angling for ways of turning my software into a product for profit.
“Once it’s fully functioning, it’ll show us what neural connections lead to unproductive or 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 to 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 its whim, or that of a user, since we’ve yet to classify most mental disorders with hard science. 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 the Emotional Classifier he’s working on, but only after I was 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 and have lunch together again.
“Been thinking about our last discussion,” Vijay says. “I room with a guy named Maki, which he swears is short for Machiavelli, but I think he’s full of it. Like any parents are really going to name their kid after a power monger.” We go into the Packard building and into Bytes. “Anyway, 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 so far.
“He’s 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. You’re supposed to be able to use predictive modeling 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. “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 $20 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 forty grand a year.
“How old are you?”
“Sixteen.” 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, are 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 stick around campus after your last class, come over to Arrillaga Commons around 5:30. I’ll get Maki to come, and I’ll buy a 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 up a last noodle in a comical way, then wipes the grease off his lips, but his smile remains.
“OK. Cool. I’ll meet ya later.” I finish my sandwich, and languish in feeling full for the last time during school this week.
I text my mom on the way to my Biochem class, leave a message I’m going to be late coming home. Feel kinda stupid texting my mother from school, 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 Mexican hat 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 garden, 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 for Vijay. Light, flooding in from the setting sun, fades the holopages projected on the walls streaming FOXNews, CNNLive, and CardinalRT— Stanford’s [real-time] network.
My smartband buzzes, and Vijay’s face appears on my wrist. I have to hold my hand over my left ear to hear him above the din of students and clatter of dishes through the wireless earbud in my right ear.
“We scored a table outside. Come out to the balcony, through the doors behind checkout.”
“Yeah, OK. Be right there,” I text, to avoid screaming at my wrist.
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 palms surrounding the open courtyard below. He’s sitting with an Asian kid, with shoulder length, shaggy dark hair falling over his forehead.
Vijay smiles, waves me over. As I join them at the table, he introduces me to Maki. 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 to acknowledge me, but eventually he does. His fine hair partially obscures in his dark eyes, which are large and wide spread behind the latest model of Apple’s frameless iGlasses.
“How ya doin, man,” he says, eyes on mine, like studying me, then he takes a long draw off one of those energy drinks in the silver can with a sonic blue ribbon, that’s like five bucks a pop, before returning his attention to his laplet.
“Pizza’s coming,” Vijay says, then 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 projected keyboard coming from his laplet. (Personally, I never liked them, which is why I have a slide-out keyboard, well, that, and mine’s way cheaper.) “Give me one sec. I just wanta input this before I forget it.”
“So,” Vijay says, not the least put off by Maki’s dissing me. “Maki’s on the four year Computer Science track, started programming when he was like seven.”
Maki snorts, 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 got me into robotics, before he split,” this last bit kinda slipped out, my standard line for people I don’t know, “which is what turned me on to computers, and AI. Well, that and the old cartoon Envirotron.” I grin to hide my rising ire.
“Oh, I remember that show,” Vijay says, “with the nutty 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 and all, but what I didn’t get was how he felt, or what he thought about, how its brain worked. With my neural net I’m hoping to find out.”
“Yeah, I get it,” Maki says without looking up. “Sounds very cool.” He picks up his energy drink, almost in slow motion, then drinks. He smiles at me as he sets the can back on the table, then goes back to typing. “I’m working on something too. 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 iBand buzzes. I look at the screen. An ultra blue ribbon sways against a shimmering silver background, not my usual fractal graphic of igniting synapses. I swipe it to remove the image but it stays onscreen. I swipe it again and the screen returns to my standard wallpaper.
Vijay’s Sony Radband buzzes. “Pizza’s ready. Come in with me and get a drink while I pick it up. But you’d better hurry. I’m starving, and Maki’s a pig, so I can’t guarantee to save you a slice if you don’t get back out here quick.”
I have only $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 iBand buzz against the vibration created from the noisy throngs inside. I check the screen, and again find the silver and blue wallpaper. I swipe it, 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 drinks 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, last year at a robotics club competition after spending most of the night before getting Bob, the two foot tall polyamide robot, to win the Jeopardy bonus round for the Nationals. Next day during the meet some kid spilled his Coke in Bob’s processor, and I had to fix it on the spot, even though I could barely stay awake. Mr. Reed, our adviser, gave me a can of PowerPop. Within five minutes I was rockin, put in the new card and programmed it half an hour before the second round was called. Our team got our picture on the Chronicle’s Happenings page, and five grand in sponsor funding from PowerPop for winning that tournament.
“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 and laughing. 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 ten, 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.
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.
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.
“Help yourself to a slice or two,” Vijay offers.
“Thanks.” I lift two slices onto the napkin I’ve place in front of me. “I’m starving,” and I take a bite, hoping I don’t seem too eager.
“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.
“So, Ian, Vijay told me about your biological neural network. You working with EPFL’s Dynamic Holographic Microscopy models, or something else?”
I swallow the pizza before speaking, amazed Maki even knows what a DHM model is. “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, takes another bite of his pizza slice like he’s mulling over what I just said. “Remind me what you’re hoping to map neural activity for…”
“Fixing our brains.” I take another swig of ZamBam, suddenly feeling a jolt of energy, and not the least bit embarrassed by how arrogant I must sound. “If we can figure out how the human brain really works, we can fix whatever the hell is wrong with it, from retardation, to psychopathy.”
“Ya gotta love this guy,” Vijay says. “A true humanitarian. Rare, at best, especially around here.”
I’m not sure if he’s making fun of me or not, 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 type stuff, just different applications. Wanta fill me in on the Power Trip?”
Maki looks at Vijay and they both smile, then he swipes his laplet 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, since by your own admission you’ve never tried one before?”
Now I’m sure he’s making fun of me, since both him and Vijay are still smiling like they share a secret. “I told you why. I have an assignment due tomorrow.”
“No. You don’t.” Maki types something then angles his laplet 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. I’m lost for words. The information is available to anyone, but why the hell was 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 trying to assimilate what’s just occurred. “You…you put the ZamBam wallpaper on my smartband?”
“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 SUAT scores, to your robotics club awards, to your two bedroom one bath house in Millbrae, to your mom’s $145,000 annual salary with TRON Robotics, to 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 your 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.”
“Ian, dude, we’re not dissing ya, here. Swear to God,” Vijay is standing now too, puts his hand on my arm. “Sit down. Have another slice, and let’s 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 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 with your neural network by, well, a lot. Vijay’s tapped into InstaPin, gBlast, AggreGator—”
“I’ve hacked into a dozen of the most popular social media platforms, so far,” Vijay says proudly. “And running all the data through my Therapist to establish emotional classifiers—”
“We need a robust AI engine,” Maki interrupts. “A system like yours that learns from the beginning, for better predictive modeling. The more we know about how the brain stimulates conscious and unconscious responses, the more effectively we can manipulate behavior.” Maki eyes me intently, then swipes his tablet. The keyboard projection disappears. He pulls the napkin 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 motivates specific actions.”
“And if we can predict behavior with greater accuracy,” Vijay interjects, “we’ll blow away the current state of marketing. We’ll have VC throwing money at us. Or we can crowdfund it, keep the bulk of the stock for ourselves.”
“I thought you were on the page that messing with people’s minds, what did you say at lunch last week, can lead to some ‘very bad unintended consequences.’” I eye Vijay, narrow my brows to show my perplexity.
He looks at Maki, again like they’re sharing a secret, then focuses back on me. “I was just checking your moral compass, before opening the kimono on The Power Trip. Can’t be too careful with everyone out for themselves these days.”
“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 weird 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, and we’ll be generating once the game gets going, Drew will learn tons, from first principle, about why we do what we do. On top of 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.
Please contact J. Cafesin for the complete manuscript of The Power Trip: firstname.lastname@example.org