âWell, you build stuff to figure out how it works, right? So that shouldnât be too hard. Just think of something that you donât know how it works. It doesnât have to be a device. Could be anything.â
That simple advice was all I needed to shake me out of my rut. Of course. âThe one thing thatâs always escaped me is biology. Biological organisms are built of entirely different stuff than electronics. Theyâre too... messy. Complex.â
âSo youâd have two problems: one, youâd have to reduce the complexity in the design in order to apprehend their function. And two, youâll have to figure out a way to increase the complexity of what you build in order to properly replicate said function. Thereâs a lot of research into the latter in software. How much experience do you have programming?â
âNot a whole lot, but Iâm comfortable enough with it.â
âSo you might want to look into genetic algorithms and fuzzy logic. And of course thereâs a whole bunch of study in artificial neural networks that will definitely come in handy for you. I think thereâs even been some work in hardware-based nets thatâd be right up your alley. I donât know how well they compare to software-based ones, though.â
âGreat. Iâve got something, then. This is definitely on an entirely different level than anything else Iâve worked on before, but thatâs really what I wanted, isnât it? And whatâs the worst that can happen if I fail? Iâm not doing this for anybody else, so I just start again.â
The rest of the time there we exchanged very few words. I jotted down notes and tried to work out how I would start designing my robot. Or android, I suppose, as it seemed only natural to create something in my own image. Joe, for his part, returned to his own research. I was a bit worried that he might be heading down a parallel path to his friendsâ, but I didnât say anything. He seemed to have a good head on his shoulders, and Iâm sure he could take care of himself.
The following day I spent at the library. I xeroxed as many anatomical diagrams as I could find, and gathered as many biology books as I could carry. Each and every organ in the body had to be transparent to me. And I knew that even though the brain would probably have the most research associated with it applicable to my own enterprise, it would certainly prove the most troublesome. So I tackled the other organs first.
But on closer examination, I decided I shouldnât start with organs themselves. I needed a more general overview. The body is divided into 12 systems. The skeletal system, digestive, muscular, lymphatic, endocrine, nervous, cardiovascular, reproductive, urinary, immune, respiratory, and integumentary systems. Other attempts at robots have ignored many or most of those, but I didnât want to take the easy way out and doing so would be a disservice to me.
The skeletal system would be the easiest. It mainly provides structure and overall form, and I could fashion it out of a lightweight metal or even a sturdy plastic. The digestive system would be quite a bit more troublesome. Did I really want this thing to have to eat? The main function of this system is to provide energy (and nutrients) to the organism. And to dispose of the byproducts. I figured as long as I closely mimicked the systems and remained faithful in principle, I wouldnât necessarily need to reproduce them exactly. After all, the idea wasnât to build an actual organic (in the chemical sense) creature. So as it wasnât going to have the same needs as a human, I would have to make alterations to the design accommodating these differences. Energyâs easy. Naturally, it was going to run on electricity. Any nutrients it might need Iâd need to leave to later on in the design process.
The muscular system would be one of the easiest, at least in terms of apprehending its function. Movement. That said, I would have a couple options open to me: the most basic would be simple motors. But motors are very different from the muscles in animals. Pistons or even titanium nickel alloys that constrict when supplied with an electric current would be better. Or maybe some other solution would emerge.
Next up I looked into the endocrine system. This is basically a messaging system, like the nervous system, except chemical. Several glands produce hormones which affect the behavior of cells in certain organs of the body. I imagined I might be able to combine this with my nervous system; it would simply involve a different class of messages.
The lymphatic system seemed mostly useless for my purposes, but I decided to study it with equal vigor. Even if I didnât end up creating an analogue in my robot, I wanted to understand it thoroughly to know exactly why I didnât need it. In function, itâs similar to the circulatory system except it deals with other fluids (lymph). It removes excess fluids from bodily tissues, transports fat to the circulatory system, and produces immune cells.
Which brought me to the immune system. I certainly wouldnât need to worry about pathogens, but I might modify this system to monitor the robot itself and possibly correct any problems that might occur autonomously.
Skipping ahead to another potentially non-included system I looked into the reproductive system. Now, organisms in nature reproduce either asexually or sexually, but as Iâm using humans as a template asexual reproduction seemed inappropriate. But as I was certainly not planning on creating a pair, a reproductive system would be pointless. Again, though, I didnât stop my research simply because it didnât apply to my problem. Like in art, where itâs important to understand the rules before one can (or should) break them, I had to make sure I fully understood a system before I could safely decide to exclude it.
And then the respiratory and urinary systems. I really didnât like where this was going, but neither seemed particularly useful for my purposes. The respiratory system is strongly tied to organic biology. Since my robot would almost certainly have no aerobic activity, requiring no oxygen for metabolism, a traditional respiratory system would be useless. However, I hadnât ruled out gasoline power so there might be need for an exhaust, in which case some sort of respiratory system would be useful. I would also need some sort of air intake / out-take if I wanted to mimic human speech and vocalization. The only use I could think of for a urinary system would be to rid the robot of any sort of soluble deposit that might form on its mechanisms, but at this point in planning it seemed unlikely that it would require one.
With only one organ system to go, and one of the most important â the nervous system â the librarian came by and told me it was time to pack up. Iâd have to leave the nervous system for tomorrow, but I had plenty to keep me occupied for the time being and I took out as many books on the systems I had so far.
Iâd spent way too much time today poring over anatomical textbooks so after I got home and dropped off the books Iâd borrowed from the library, I decided to go for a walk & try to clear my head.
word count: 1284 words
ugh. I didn't get nearly enough written when I got home from work tonight. Even more catching up to do tomorrow.
I remember when I got my first stereo system for my birthday. It was pretty simple. More of a boom box than a stereo, actually. I would borrow my parents tapes and play them because I didn't have any tapes of my own. Eventually I would take to making mix tapes of songs I liked. Of course, I was young â I didn't have any sense of flow or theme and most of the resultant tapes were just jumbles of songs that caught my fancy without anything to tie them together.
But then I found that I could record myself, not just other tapes. So Iâd do interesting things with my voice, trying to make myself sound like other people or recording at dubbing speed and sounding like a chipmunk. Sometimes Iâd DJ songs for a nonexistent audience.
All of this, though, I did with only a few blank tapes. And I was rarely careful to delineate sections or start recording at the end of my last session. So I come back to them now, and itâs like looking through a broken window into my past. Or a dada radio play version of âthis is your lifeâ. Layers of history and thoughts cut off in mid-sentence.
I donât have that stereo anymore. I was fascinated by it. So I took it apart. Every single screw came out; every connector was disconnected. I was especially taken by the tape head. It was like a little set of alien teeth that would chomp down on the magnetic strip and extract the memories of the tape like a vampire.
But the alien biology of the stereo escaped my understanding. Its organs were all silicon and metal and plastic, and wholly unlike my own. Thatâs not to say if they were like my own I would be any closer to understanding how it worked â I donât even think Iâd started elementary school when I undertook this project, so my knowledge of human biology was pretty scant. That didnât stop me from trying, though. I carefully laid out every piece and catalogued it like I imagined a good scientist would. I did my best to recreate the entire device in my head & tried to imagine what each pieceâs function was. Iâm sure I was wrong for many of them, but my intentions were sincere.
I never tried to put it back together. Iâm sure somewhere in my parentsâ attic thereâs still a box that has the pieces of this strange organism in it. It may even have the careful notes I took. But once Iâd taken it apart the device I had in my head was far more precious to me than the physical object itself. It was purer.
Eventually I did come to understand how it worked. The next year for my birthday I received an electronics kit, and I was in love. The pieces were all simple, and logical, and I felt with them that I had an immense power. I knew that if I organized them in the right pattern I could recreate anything in the world. But the things that I made would not be the black boxes that I saw everywhere else â theyâd be a part of me, because they were made by my hands and I would know exactly how they worked.
None of the things I built back then I kept. Once I completed something, I was done. And Iâd reuse the parts for my next project. It was far more important for me to learn something new than to create something useful. Sometimes I wouldnât even bother finishing a device once I got close enough to completing it to know that it would work.
I think this affected my interactions with other kids at school. People were far too complicated. And I did eventually take biology classes, and learned all about the parts that we are built from, but something was always missing. I understood how all the organs went together and interacted but it never seemed enough. Most people would say thatâs a âsoulâ but that left me unsatisfied. Needless to say I didnât make very many friends growing up. Sure, I had a couple, but none that ever shared my interest in electronics or how things work. I felt more kinship with the kids who were destined to go into the priesthood than anybody else, actually. Their interest in the secret nature of things was the closest to what I felt, but the focus of their inquiries was very different from my own and I certainly didnât agree with their conclusions.
When I look back on things today I donât think I would have changed anything. Sometimes it feels like I squandered my time because I donât have anything tangible to show for my efforts, but I learned a lot. I feel stuck in my shitty job but it supports me and the lack of responsibility allows me the freedom to concentrate on things that are important to me.
Lately the notion has struck me that I should create something permanent. Something thatâs the culmination of my work that Iâd want to keep around once Iâm done. But I couldnât decide what. So Iâve been alternating between libraries and coffee shops in my free time, brainstorming and trying to come up with a great opus. And it was around this time that I met Joseph.
I donât remember exactly when or how we met, but Iâd see him around one of the coffee shops I frequented, always with a well-worn notebook open and a stack of books. Like me, he was never with anyone else. The books were always changing; each day I saw him it would be a different subject. Sometimes philosophy, sometimes computer science, sometimes theology. What caught my attention was sometimes heâd have electronics books. Some even ones I had in my own library.
After a time weâd share a table if we happened to go at the same time, but we never planned to meet. At first he was reluctant to talk about what he was researching, but it was clear that he did want to. Eventually I got it from him that his friends were universally involved in something deep and mysterious that he was wholly excluded from. None of them would talk to him about it â or at all. Naturally he was troubled by this, and so he came out here, to another part of the city in order to avoid those he once called friends, to piece together what was happening.
âIâve seen you with religious texts, so I assume you believe itâs some sort of cult â thatâs nothing new. Cults spring up all the time, and fade in and out of favor. But whatâs with the programming and electronics books? How does that fit in to all of this?â
âWell, okay. I live in urbs speculum so you know weâre known for software and hardware and all that, i.e. âinformation technologyâ. I think this all started with a group of people from via dormiens ââ
âThose guys? So, the cult of Morpheus?â
âThe same. Either they visited my part of the city & started talking to people, or some people from my neighborhood went there. In either case, my friends seem to have picked up some stuff from them and merged it into a new... system. Or something.â
âThat doesnât seem too sinister.â
âWell, you have to remember. These arenât kids, but theyâre not adults either. People my age. I donât think they know what theyâre getting themselves in to.â
âOkay, fair enough. So what happened next?â
âThe most I can make of things is theyâve started â or are trying â to make devices to augment their perception. Sort of like a drug-induced ecstatic trance without the drugs. If I were a concerned parent, Iâd certainly think some of them were on drugs, but Iâm not, and Iâm pretty sure /theyâre/ not.â
At this point I must admit I was pretty intrigued. âTheyâre augmenting their perception? To what end? Have you seen any of these devices?â
âNo, I havenât. The idea, as far as I can gather, is to filter information from the outside world â sight, sound, etc. â to sort of... trick the mind into thinking itâs dreaming. Or to break down the hard-wired preconceptions of what reality is. You know, your typical mystical mumbo-jumbo. But thatâs about all I know. And I may even be wrong on some counts.â
That night I got to thinking. Would this thing Joseph was talking about really work? I wasnât actually considering building the device he described. What with how it affected the people close to him, it seemed too risky. But the idea of a filter between reality an oneâs perception of it... Of pushing the boundaries of what was perceived as real. Itâs like stress-testing your own psyche. Which I guess is what mystics have been doing for millennia, but this time it was on my terms.
But that didnât get me any closer to solving my own problem. Sure, Josephâs was fascinating and if he asked for help I would be willing to lend a hand, but in the meantime I was preoccupied with not coming up with any viable ideas on something to build. Iâd never had this problem before: Iâd just start building something because I was interested in it. But now I wanted to build something /important/ and it wasnât even that I had ideas that fell short; I was completely lost.
The next day I ran into Joseph again. This time we talked about my problem. I told him my story, and how I felt it was time for me to do something with my talents and build something long-lasting.
word count: 1634 words
I'm just shy of the 1666 words for the day. And I'm still a day behind. Hopefully I can catch up tomorrow.
It's that time of year again. I think this year I'm actually gonna try to do it. I'm a day behind, which amounts to about 1666 words behind (as the goal for the "novel" is 50K words). So I have a bit of catching up to do. I did a bit of writing this morning; I got about half of the day's writing done, as well as figuring out a rough idea of what my story's going to be. So hopefully tonight I can get the rest of the day's goal done, and catch up as much of yesterday's as well.
I'll be posting each day's segment as I complete them.