29. September 5, 2024

Benicoff came around the turn on the Montezuma Grade and saw the express truck trundling down the hill before him. He phoned Brian.

“I’m just coming into Borrego Springs — and the truck with your you-know-what is just in front of me.”

“Tell him to speed it up!”

“Patience — this is best done at a leisurely pace. We’ll be there in a few minutes.”

He pulled out and passed the truck where the road flattened out, got to the gate of Megalobe before it. Major Wood looked on suspiciously as the crate was pushed onto the loading dock.

“You sure you know the contents?”

“I watched them clamp on the seals myself — and the numbers match.”

“Easy enough to seal a ringer. I want this thing through the SQUID imager and the explosive sniffer before anyone tries to open it.”

“You’re not thinking that someone got to it in transit, opened it and planted a bomb — then resealed it?”

“Stranger things have happened. I like to be suspicious. Gives me something to do and keeps the troops on their toes. There might be anything in this box — including what you put in it. I still want a check.”

The sniffer machine sniffed and found nothing suspicious, as did the proton counter. Benicoff used a crowbar to verify the contents, resealed it so Bug-Off could not be seen, then drove it to the lab himself.

“Let me at it,” Brian said when he opened the door. “I’ve read that brochure you faxed me at least a hundred times. I think it’s mighty suspicious that it was wired to burn its brains out.”

“Would have been more suspicious if it wasn’t. Without a patent anyone could copy it. There’s nothing suspicious about a normal industrial espionage ploy. ARE — that is anti-reverse engineering. You can just unbolt it now. It should come apart with no trouble. The bomb squad have disabled all the booby-trap switches.”

“Let’s see it work first,” Brian said. “Does it have to be programmed?”

“No, just turn it on.”

The metal arms hummed up and out, the many-fingered hands extended. The machine rotated slowly in a circle, beeped unhappily and shut itself off.

“That didn’t take long,” Shelly said.

Brian looked closely at one of the fingertips. “I’ll bet it was looking for a specific wavelength — probably that of chlorophyll. Anyone got a potted plant?”

“No,” Shelly said, “but I have a vase of flowers in my office.”

“Perfect. I want to see Bug-Off off a few bugs before we strip it down.”

This time the machine was more cooperative. It rolled toward the vase, started at the base and quickly worked its way up the stems to the flowers. Once it was finished it bleeped with satisfaction and shut down.

“How do we get to see the bugs?” Brian asked.

“I’ll show you.” Ben twisted the lower segment of each arm and removed the containers built into them. “I’ll shake these onto a sheet of paper and we’ll take a look at the catch.”

He clicked open the lids and carefully tilted the contents out onto the paper.

“All those were on my flowers!” Shelly was horrified. “Spiders, flies — even some ants.”

“All dead too,” Brian said with admiration. “This spider has had her head neatly cut off! That takes great precision and discrimination. Let me get a magnifying glass and look at the rest of the debris.” He bent close and poked the dead bugs around with a pencil point. “There are very small aphids here, and some kind of insect that is even smaller, like powder, parasites or mites of some kind.” He straightened up and smiled. “I don’t think you could do all this with anything less than my AI techniques — though I could be wrong. Let’s look inside the thing and see what we have.”

The metal canister came off easily, obviously designed only for protection of the working parts. Brian used a screwdriver as a pointer to trace the circuitry.

“Here’s the power line, coded red, a five-volt power pair. Standard. And a single two-way fiber-optic signal pipe. Everything looks right off the shelf — so far. Standard voltage-to-voltage converters along with interface chips. They’ve been disconnected.”

“The FBI must have done that,” Ben said. “I bet you’ll find the matching plug on whatever passes for a central processor.”

“There it is,” Shelly said, pointing to a square metal box mounted on the side of the frame.

Ben examined the canister from all sides, using a minor and light to see behind and under it. “Since I’ve been involved with industrial security I’ve seen this kind of thing pretty often. Sealed shut and meant to be kept that way. Whatever is inside generates heat — see the heatsink there. But the fan blows over these ribs on the heatsink so there is no need for an opening into the thing. See this seam? Welded shut with one of the super-adhesives that end up stronger than the metal. We’re not going to get into it easily — so let’s not try. There is a lot we can find out without taking a hacksaw to it. But you’ll have to go in eventually,” Ben said.

“Maybe — but I’ll try not to. There has to be a backup battery inside to hold whatever is programmed in DRAM whenever the main battery is disconnected. Considering all the other booby-trap switches in this thing, there is bound to be another one to detect any attempt to open it.”

“Which will short the battery through the circuitry inside?” Shelly said.

“Exactly. But you don’t determine intelligence by dissecting the brain! Let’s map all the circuitry and find out exactly how it works first. Then we can run some controlled tests…”

Brian felt a light tap on his shoulder and turned to see that the AI was standing behind him.

“Is this machine the Bug-Off machine?”

“It is, Sven. You want to take a look at it?”


It reached up to the tabletop with one of its treelike manipulators and pulled itself up onto the surface in a single flowing movement. The eyestalks extended and moved down the motion-less machine. It was a quick examination, over in a few moments.

“Hypothesis of AI circuitry and processor now beyond any reasonable doubt.”

“That’s what we want to hear,” Brian said. “Stay there, Sven — you are going to run this examination.”

“I’ll get out of your way,” Ben said. “Let me know as soon as you find anything out. I’ll be in my office. I have a lot of calls to make.”

“Will do. Let me lock you out.”

The investigation of DigitTech was well under way. Benicoff phoned Agent Dave Manias, who had been in charge of the FBI end of the investigation from the first. A different agent answered the phone.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Benicoff, but he’s not here. He said when you rang to tell you he was on the way to see you.”

“Thanks.” He hung up. It could be important if Manias didn’t want to use the phone. Patience, he would just have to be patient.

He was finishing his second cup of coffee and pacing the length of the office when Manias came in.

“Speak,” Ben said. “I have been wearing out the carpet here ever since I got your message.”

“Everything is going fine. I’ll tell you all about it while you pour me a large black coffee. You may have slept last night but yours truly never even saw a bed.”

“My heart bleeds for you,” Ben said with total lack of sympathy. “Come on, Dave, stop the stalling. What’s happened? Here.”

“Thanks.” Manias dropped onto the sofa and sipped the coffee. “We had the DigitTech corporation under surveillance as soon as we got your report. It’s not too big an operation, a hundred and twenty employees about. We’ve got an agent inside.”

“So fast? I’m impressed.”

“It was luck, mainly. One of the secretaries got the flu. We had a tap in first thing, so we heard their call for a temp. One of our agents filled it. She is a software programmer with plenty of office experience, and has done this kind of thing before. Insider dealing, business crime. Everything is in the records if you know how and where to look — and she knows. There is a lot of money invested in this Bug-Off machine. An entire new wing to the original factory building was put up, plenty of expensive machinery involved.”

“Has she gotten into the company records yet?”

“All of them. As always the locks were the usual simple codes, phone numbers, the wife’s name, you know the kind of thing. This was made simpler by the fact that the head bookkeeper has his access codes written on a card taped inside a drawer of his desk. I mean — really!”

“A good — or maybe a bad sign. If they have something to hide they would surely hide it a lot better than that.”

“You never can tell. Most crooks aren’t very smart.” He put a GRAM block on the desk. “In any case — here is everything we have up to now. Company records going back to the day they opened. We’re getting bio material on all the company’s principal executives now. You’ll have that as soon as we do.”

“Any conclusions yet?”

“Too early times, Ben. I’ll take another cup if you’re pouring. They seemed to be getting into financial trouble a while back, but they went public and raised more than they needed.”

“I’ll want to know who owns the stock.”

“Will do. Do you think these are the people we are looking for?”

“We’ll know pretty soon. If they are selling a commercial AI they had better have plenty of records of whoever did the research and how it was developed. If they don’t have that — then we are in luck and they are in trouble.”

When Brian hadn’t called by five o’clock Ben walked over to the lab. The front door was almost hidden behind a jungle of small plants and trees in tubs; he had to climb over them to get to the door. It looked like all of the local nurseries had been cleaned out. He reached up and snapped his fingers in front of the pickup lens above the door.

“Anyone there?”

“Hi, Ben. I was just going to call you. Interesting things happening in here. Just a second.”

There were plants inside and around the workbench. The first thing Ben saw was that Bug-Off and the AI were apparently locked in tender embrace. The AI was standing close to the partially dismembered machine with its multibranching digits closely entwined in its innards.

“Love at first sight?” Ben asked.

“Hardly! We’re just tracing input and feedback. If you look at all those finger extensions under a glass you will see they are clustered in regular bundles. Each bundle contains a tripartite subbundle made up of two optical pickups and a single light source. The pickups are mounted at fixed distances from each other. Does that give you any ideas?”

“Yes — binocular vision.”

“Bang on. In addition to what you might call the eyes in every bundle there are four mechanical manipulators. Three blunt-ended ones for grabbing, the fourth with a knife edge for dismembering. This carves off the insect’s head just before the thing is dropped into the hopper. The bundles work independently — almost.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let me run a film for you and you’ll see for yourself.”

Brian put a cassette into the video, ran it forward to the right spot. “We shot this at very high speed, then slowed it down. Take a look.”

The image was sharp and clear and magnified many times. Rounded metal bars reached out slowly to embrace a foot-long fly. Its wings flapped slowly and ineffectively as it was drawn out of sight off the screen. The same process was happening to an aphid located off to one side.

“I’ll run it again,” Brian said. “This time keep your eye on the second bug. Watch. See the bundle above it? First it’s motionless — there, now it is operating. But the fly didn’t move until it had been grabbed. Do you see what that means?”

“I saw it — but I’m being dumb today. What’s the significance?”

“The hand didn’t try to use brute force and speed to try to catch the fly in flight. Instead, this robot uses real knowledge to anticipate the behavior of each particular kind of insect! When it goes for the housefly, Bug-Off contracts its grasping-bundle as it approaches the fly, making it look to the housefly as though it were moving away from it — until it’s too late for the insect to escape. And we’re sure that was no accident. Bug-Off seems to know the behavior of every insect described in this book.”

Brian handed Ben a large volume entitled Handbook of Insect Ethology, 2018 Edition.

“But how can Bug-Off tell which insect it is dealing with? They all look the same to me.”

“A good question — since pattern recognition has been the bane of AI from the very first day that research began. Industrial robots were never very good at recognizing and assembling parts if they weren’t presented in a certain way. There are thousands of different signals involved in seeing a human face, then recognizing who it is. If you wrote a program for picking bugs off bushes you would have to program in every bug in the world, and size and rotation position and everything else. A very big and difficult program—”

“And hard to debug?”

“Funny — but too true! But you or I — or a really humanlike AI would be very good at bug grabbing. All the identification and reaching out and grabbing operations are hideously complex — but invisible to us. They are one of the attributes, one of the functions of intelligence. Just reach out and grab. Without putting in any complex program. And that’s what is happening here — we think. If there is an AI in there it is reaching out one bundle at a time and grabbing a bug. As soon as the insect is held it turns the grabbing bundle over to a subprogram that plucks it off, brings it to the container, chops it dead and dumps it, then returns to operating position ready to be controlled again. Meanwhile the AI has controlled another bundle to make a grab, another and then another, changing control faster than we can see at normal speeds. You or I could do that just as well.”

“Speak for yourself, Brian. Sounds pretty boring to me.”

“Machines don’t get bored — at least not yet. But so far this is all inferred evidence. Now I’m going to show you something a good deal better. Do you see how Sven is plugged into Bug-Off’s operating system? It is reading every bit of input from the detectors as well as getting all the return control messages. I am sure that you know that the society of the mind, human or artificial, is made of very small subunits, none of them intelligent in themselves. The aggregate of their operation is what we call intelligence. If we could pull out one of the subunits and look at it we might be able to understand just how it operates.”

“In a human brain?”

“Pretty impossible. But in an AI, at an early stage of construction, these subunits can be identified. After analyzing some of the feedback loops in Bug-Off we found a pattern, a bit of a program that could be identified. Here it is — let me show it to you.”

Brian punched up the program on the screen, a series of instructions. Brian rubbed his hands together and smiled happily.

“Next I want to show you another bit of programming. This was retrieved from the data bank in Mexico. A chunk of instructions that I don’t even remember — but I was the only one who could have possibly written it. Here, let me split the screen and put this one up there as well.”

The two programs were side by side on the screen. Brian scrolled them slowly forward together. Ben looked from one to the other — then gasped.

“My God — they’re exactly the same.”

“They are. One I wrote over two years ago. The other is inside this machine here. Identical.”

Ben was suddenly very grim. “Do you mean that there are no other records of this bit of programming anywhere in the world? That it doesn’t have any commercial use in another program?”

“I mean just that. I wrote it and backed it up in Mexico. The original was stolen. The thieves probably didn’t understand it enough to rewrite it so just used it as is. And whoever stole it — built it into this bug-plucker. We have them!”

“Yes,” Ben said, very quietly. “I think that we do.”