Mothers and Daughters
Copyright© 2017 by Lazlo Zalezac
It was early afternoon and Sherry was driving home after having worked through the night and the morning on her research project. She was tired, but pleased with the results she had obtained. She stopped at the stop sign on the corner, and glanced over at the house there. At first, she thought she was so tired that she had to be hallucinating. She slapped her own face, to see if that would wake her up. It had no effect on what she was seeing.
Alex Cage, dressed as though he were at the beach, was seated in a lawn chair in the middle of his driveway. He was wearing a floppy hat, sun glasses, a Hawaiian shirt, short pants, and flip-flop sandals. He also had a dab of zinc oxide on his nose. An open umbrella was affixed to the back of his chair so that he was in its shade.
Staring at him, Sherry said, “What the hell?”
She was about to pull to the curb in front of his house, when she noticed something that had a passing similarity to a lawn mower traversing across the front yard. There was no one pushing it, but it was moving in a well defined line leaving a trail of cut lawn behind it.
“Cool! I want a couple dozen of those,” she said after watching it in operation for a minute.
She parked the car at the curb in front of his house and got out. The lawnmower stopped moving as soon as she stepped onto the property. She made her way over to where Alex was seated. He sat there without giving any indication that he was aware that she was there.
She cleared her throat. He didn’t move. She said, “Hello, Dr. Cage.”
He shook his head, and then looked up at her. He looked off to the side, yawned without covering his mouth, and then turned his head so that he was facing her. It appeared that she had interrupted his nap.
He said, “Oh, it’s you.”
“You’re the girl from the bookstore.”
Alex turned to face the house. He rolled his fist around in a circle and then signed, “Continue mowing lawn.”
Again he used that odd slashing motion with his between words that puzzled her. After a moment, the lawnmower resumed moving across the yard. Still facing the house, he signed, “Thank you.”
“Who were you signing to?” Sherry asked.
“No one,” Alex answered.
Wondering why he was maintaining the pretense that there was no one in the house, she challenged his answer, “I saw you signing to someone.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did. You signed, ‘Continue mowing the lawn,’ and then the lawnmower resumed mowing the lawn. Then you signed, ‘Thank you.’ Do you deny it?”
Alex said, “No.”
Confused by his contradictory answers, she asked, “So who were you signing to?”
“No one,” Alex answered, now looking quite amused by the exchange.
“I saw you signing.”
“Did you see anyone?”
“There you go,” Alex said, as if he had proved something.
“So what are you doing sitting out here like it was a day at the beach?” Sherry asked.
“I’m mowing my lawn,” he answered gesturing in the general direction of the lawnmower.
“The lawnmower is autonomous,” Sherry said.
“I know. It’s stupid isn’t it. My lawnmower can mow my lawn, but I have to sit out here while it is doing all of the work because my...” his voice raised to a shout, “idiot neighbor...” his voice returned to normal, “will sue me if I don’t, because he’s afraid that my lawnmower will go crazy and chew up his kids.”
“It stopped moving as soon as I entered your property,” Sherry said.
“I know that, and you have observed that, but my...” again his voice raised in volume, “idiot neighbor...” his voice returned to normal, “doesn’t believe it.”
Sherry said, “He’s afraid it will turn into the Terminator and kill people in an attempt to achieve world domination over its creators? A lot of people have that fear about computer controlled things.”
“That’s what makes him an idiot,” Alex said. “He gets into his car ... the most computer controlled piece of equipment on the consumer market ... several times a day, without a single concern that it will turn on him. But he freaks outs over a simple computer controlled machine.”
“Well, most people don’t know that almost all of the critical functions of a car are now computer controlled. Fuel injection, anti-lock braking, air bag systems, transmission, security, climate control, cruise control, radio, and their GPS systems are all computer controlled. They just don’t see it,” Sherry said.
“Sherry?” Alex asked.
“It’s short for Sherrington.”
“That’s an old fashioned name,” Alex said.
“I was named after my great-grandmother,” she replied.
“I prefer Sherrington to Sherry,” Alex said.
“It’s a mouthful,” she said.
Alex said, “I’ve always liked the old fashioned names – Minerva, Mercedes, Otterly...”
“Interesting,” Sherry said. “You can’t get much more old fashioned than a Greek Goddess like Minerva.”
“Sorry,” Sherry said. “I suppose I should have spent a little more time with the classics in school.”
“I didn’t pay much attention to the classics when I was in school, either. I’ve since spent a bit more time learning about the past,” Alex said. “Someone said that it would make me a more well rounded person.”
“So are you?”
“Am I what?”
“More well rounded.”
Alex chuckled and replied, “Probably not.”
“I didn’t think so,” Sherry said. Most people didn’t shout to their neighbors that they were idiots.
“You’re a college student, right?”
“Yes. I’m working on my doctorate.”
“That means you’re broke.”
“Being broke is synonymous with being a student.”
“I’ll pay you fifty dollars to sit out here and watch the lawnmower,” Alex said.
“It looks like it is almost done,” she said.
The lawnmower only had a few more passes to make, before the finishing the front yard. The lawnmower was doing a very nice job of cutting the grass, probably a better job than a person would do. Being electric, it was also very quiet.
Alex said, “It’s still got the backyard to do.”
“Okay,” Sherry said. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Nothing really. Just move the chair to the backyard when it moves to the backyard. Just keep more than ten feet from it while its moving, or else it will shut down.”
“That sounds easy enough,” she said.
Without warning, Alex stood and walked into the house. Surprised by the abruptness of his departure, she stood there watching him leave. Once the front door closed, she said, “You’re not exactly a people person, are you?”
She took a seat and watched the lawnmower. She really wanted to go over and examine it much closer. It had an antenna sticking up, a huge box that probably contained the batteries, and individually controlled wheels. The antenna made her wonder if it was radio controlled.
The lawnmower was very careful in moving in a well defined circle around a tree about four inches from the trunk. It then made a second circuit around the tree with what appeared to be a weed-whacker attachment that trimmed the grass growing along the tree base. It then moved on to trim along the bricks that lined the front flower garden.
Impressed, she muttered, “With a fleet of those, I could make a fortune mowing lawns.”
She glanced over at the house next door, and thinking about the neighbor’s reaction to the autonomous mower, she muttered, “Maybe not.”
When the lawnmower had finished the front of the house, it trimmed along the side and then moved into the backyard. She grabbed the lawn chair and followed it to the backyard making sure to keep more than ten feet away from it. To be quite honest, the lawnmower was pretty slow moving. She figured that it would take an hour to finish mowing all of the grass growing in the backyard at the rate it was moving.
It was about thirty minutes later when nature called. She knocked on the backdoor. Alex answered almost immediately giving the impression that he had been standing there waiting for her to knock.
Alex looked at the mower and said, “It’s not done.”
“I need to use the bathroom.”
Alex stepped out of the house and closed the door behind him. “Okay, I’ll watch the mower.”
“Where is it?” she asked.
“Where’s what?” he asked.
“Your, bath, room!”
Puzzled, he looked at her for a second. “You want to use my bathroom?”
Taken aback by the question, she replied, “I’m not going to water a bush.”
“I just figured you’d run home or to a gas station and then come back,” he said.
“Why would I do that when you have a bathroom just a few steps away?”
Alex stood there for a moment, thinking about it as if it the most novel suggestion he had heard in ages. She danced a little, as nature reasserted its call.
Finally, he said, “I guess you could use my bathroom.”
“Thank you,” she said.
He opened the door and said, “It’s off to the side of the big room.”
“Thank you. I’ll find it,” she said while slipping past him to enter the house.
She had no idea of what to expect when entering the house. His reaction to her request suggested that she’d find a nest built by a pack rat with stacks of newspapers and magazines that reached from floor to ceiling with a maze of passages through them. Instead, she was in a rather large room with a single chair, a coffee table littered with a handful of books, a set of shelves, and a rather large television hanging on the wall. Lights were built into the ceiling. She noticed there were motion detectors on the walls as well as what appeared to be cameras in the corners of the room.
She moved around the room to where there was an opening. It was an entrance to the dining room which had a single table and four chairs around it. There were sensors hung on the walls in that room as well. She headed over to the other entrance to the large room and found a short hallway with three doors. She guessed ... correctly, as it turned out ... that the bathroom would be the middle door.
She entered the bathroom and proceeded to take care of the urge that had driven her there. She looked around the room while seated on the toilet. She got a real funny feeling when she noticed a camera in the room. She grabbed a towel and covered herself.
She muttered, “Oh my God! He’s a pervert.”
Upon finishing her business, she pulled up her jeans doing her best to hide her body from the camera. She didn’t want to be the subject of his masturbatory fantasies. The idea of him entertaining himself while watching her urinate filled her with disgust.
She went to wash her hands at the sink. The water turned on when her hands approached the faucet. It was only then that she noticed that there weren’t any knobs. She examined it and noted that it was one of those commercial faucets that turned on and off automatically. At least the water was a reasonable temperature unlike those in most public places that served tepid water at best.
She went out the back door. Looking at him, she growled, “There’s a camera in the bathroom.”
“Of course,” he said.
Surprised by his answer, she asked, “What do you mean, of course?”
Alex said, “That’s the most dangerous room in a house.”
“What’s that got to do with having a camera in the room?” she asked.
“How else would I summon help if I slipped and fell?” he asked.
“I don’t know. It’s just kind of creepy having someone watch you use the toilet,” she said.
“No one is watching,” he said. A look of disgust crossed his face. “That would be sick.”
“Then what good is having a camera in the bathroom if no one is watching it?” she asked.
“You don’t need a person to watch a video feed in order to extract information from it,” he said.
She stood there staring at him while adding up all of the clues he had given her. Did he have a video system that could interpret if he had fallen in the shower or was it ... Her mouth dropped open as the full implications of what she had seen, hit her.
Awed, she said, “You aren’t signing to a person, you’re giving commands to your house!”
“Right,” he said.
“Your house understands ASL,” she said.
He had been telling her the truth about not signing to another person. He was signing to his house. It also explained the rather unusual slashing motion that he used to separate his words. It was his version of hitting the space bar while typing.
“You wrote the software to extract ASL fingerspelling from a video feed,” she said blown away by the idea.
“Right,” he answered.
“You don’t need a keyboard or a mouse or speech recognition to interact with your computer,” she said stating the obvious.
She realize that he could control his computer from anywhere he was captured on a video feed. In a way, it was one of the most brilliant ways of interacting with a computer that she ever heard of. No longer was someone tied to the machine or a remote control for issuing commands to a smart house.
“That’s right,” he said.
Alex said, “I’m glad you think so.”
She turned to look at the house. It was only then that she noticed the video cameras mounted along the outside. She said, “You’ve got a lot of cameras.”
“Over thirty of them,” he said.
She frowned while thinking about it. “That’s a lot of CPU cycles required to process that many video feeds, particularly if you are striving for real time response. There are a lot of points of failure with that many machines and programs running on them. Do you have a cloud?”
“Yes,” he said surprised that she had figured that out so quickly. “I’m in the process of upgrading all of my hardware.”
“What about protecting it from viruses?”
“It’s isolated from any outside networks,” he said.
“You’ve got wireless cameras,” she said pointing out an obvious point of vulnerability.
“Everything has fixed IP addresses, and communicates using encrypted signals,” he said. “I’ve got a firewall that blocks any unauthorized IP addresses.”
“I think so,” he said.
“Professor Tiege said you were the most brilliant man he’s ever met. I think he’s right,” she said.
“Gary said that about me?” Alex asked rather surprised to hear that.
“That’s a rather nice compliment,” he said. “I really ought to call him sometime. I rather enjoyed our discussions back when I was at the university. He actually spent a lot of time continuing to learn things, unlike the rest of the idiots there.”
“He said that I should talk to you about my research,” she said.
Hoping that it wasn’t another algorithm to calculate pi to an extra digit, Alex asked, “What are you working on?”
“Using neural networks to monitor the vibrations in manufacturing equipment, in order to predict failures before they occur,” she answered.
“That’s a good subject area,” he said. He stared off into the distance for a second and then added, “That’s a very good application of neural nets. I like it.”
“Thank you,” she said. “It’s been challenging.”
“I can imagine. You know, that’s got real commercial potential. If you can successfully predict when a machine is going to break down with enough lead time they can schedule the shutdown and repair of the machine, rather than hold up production when it catastrophically fails. A lot of people would be interested in that,” he said.
“I think so,” she said feeling that the energy level in the area had just cranked up a notch.
Much more focused on her than ever, he said, “Tell me more about your research. How are you going about it?”
For the next hour they discussed various aspects of her research program. Sherry became convinced that Gary had been correct when he said that she’d learn more in an hour of discussion with Alex, than a month of discussion with him. Alex asked probing questions about nearly every aspect of her research, from the data sources she was using, to the algorithms for filtering signals, and the neural network configuration she was trying.
His knowledge of what other people were doing in that area was impressive. He mentioned a number of research groups who were working on closely related projects who might have some valuable suggestions. Some of them were groups whose work she had never heard about. It was kind of frightening to think that she’d spent two years reading what other people were doing and he was able to recite back to her all of her sources and add a few more on the spot like that.
After a bit, Alex paused, looked around, and then said, “The lawnmower is finished mowing the lawn.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” Sherry said having forgotten completely why they were standing around in the back yard.
“Let’s go in the house and sit down,” he said.
“Okay,” Sherry said.
“Do you like Chinese?”
He turned to face a camera, waved his fist around in a circle, and then signed, “Order Chinese for two.”
“You’re not going to tell it what to order?”
“It knows what I like,” Alex said.
“Okay,” she said thinking it would never occur to him to ask her what she might like. No wonder he wasn’t married.
Then it dawned on her that there was more at work here than just a vision program that was capable of extracting ASL from a video stream. His program was able to complete tasks that he was giving it. That implied that it understood language, translated what was said into actionable activities, and perform those activities without oversight. Her impression of Alex went up another notch. She really wanted to spend a little time looking over his programs.
It was nearly four in the morning when Sherry fell asleep at the kitchen table. Alex looked at her, shrugged his shoulders, and then headed off to his office. There were some things that he wanted to look up. He was still wearing the floppy hat, the Hawaiian shirt, short pants, and flip flops, and there was still a smudge of zinc oxide on his nose. At least he had gotten rid of the sunglasses.
The lights in the rooms turned on when he entered them and then turned off when he exited them. The light in the dining room dimmed, but didn’t turn off.
Edited by TeNderLoin