My Brother’s Keeper

“How is this new?” asked Anderson, tossing the thick folder of papers onto the table. “People have been teaching apes sign language for years. What was the name of that gorilla, back in the eighties?”

“Koko? But this is totally different, sir. We’re not teaching him anything. He’s learning on his own.” Leeson pushed his glasses further up his nose.

“But you’re teaching him how to use a computer.”

“No. Yes. Well, sort of. Okay, look. A keyboard, it’s really counter-intuitive. The QWERTY keyboard, even the Dvorak keyboard, it involves taking thoughts, formulating them into English, spelling each word out, translating them letter by letter into an artificial order on the screen. It is counter-intuitive and wasteful. Even formulating thought into speech. We can’t speak as fast as we can think, let alone write or type, and language is instinctive in humans.”

“Ha! I know a few people that could do with thinking faster than their mouth. A couple on the board, even.”

Leeson smiled humourlessly. “Even so, the whole process of taking abstract thoughts and communicating them on paper or screen is slow, and though as humans we’re very, very good at it, we still have problems communicating exactly what we think, what we feel, what we know. Look at the number of times you get involved in flame wars on the Internet because of poor communication.”

“What?”

Leeson frowned. “Never mind. Look, what we’re doing is streamlining the process. Every time a thought has to be translated, it loses meaning. So we translate a thought into English, so, so, here.” Leeson grabbed a bar of chocolate from his pocket. “This is a thought, okay? So now I translate it into English and I lose a bit.” He broke the end of the bar off. “Now I have to think about the grammar, the exact choice of words, the order of the words, the adjectives, all the little changes we make when we’re going to write something instead of say it.” He broke another piece off. “Then I need to think about the spelling, breaking each word down to its component letters, and I lose a little more meaning.” The remaining bar was half the size now. “And finally we type it out, which is slow. Now, tell me, if you asked for a bar of chocolate, wouldn’t you want the whole bar, as soon as you asked for it, instead of having to wait and even then getting an incomplete payload?”

“So what are you telling me? You’re working on telepathy?”

“Oh, that’s close, but no. Not in the traditional sense, I mean. No such thing, otherwise evolutionary pressures would have made us all psychic. No, what Project Dolittle is all about is taking the thought, translating it into a language-neutral format and then communicating it to the other end.”

“And this is going to affect our profit margin how?”

“Instant, accurate communication, sir. Imagine a board meeting that lasted five minutes instead of five hours. Project meetings where no-one misunderstands the plans. Training courses that take hours instead of weeks. Communication is key to business, and if we can communicate with one hundred percent accuracy in a fraction of the time, well, the rewards could be astronomical. For the company that uses that technology but especially for the company that sells that technology.”

Anderson sat back and smiled. “You’ve talked to management before, haven’t you,” he said.

“Every time there’s a regime change, sir. Look, I’m a scientist. Okay, a nerd. I get turned on by this, but I know who pays my wages and why. There’s a strong commercial basis to this research. I know it’s expensive, but the potential rewards are beyond huge. And we’re making so much progress.”

“So why the chimp?”

“Well, to be truly universal, it has to transcend language, and there’s the problem. We could have a French and an English subject, but the chances are they’ll share some words. Even Chinese and Hebrew share some characteristics. They both have nouns, for example, and verbs. We want to see if we can translate thought into a format that is completely independent of language. So that’s why we have Joey. Chimps do not have a natural language. It’s physiological. They can’t detect the subtleties of intonation, which is why they don’t respond well to voice commands. But they know what food is, for example, and they can experience hunger. So in theory we can exchange concepts with no danger of language corrupting the data.”

“Ah, I see now.”

“You do, sir?”

“Yes. The name. Project Dolittle.”

“Well, okay, yes. Our little joke. But just think. If we can communicate clearly and without ambiguity with even a chimpanzee, how much greater will our communication be between humans?”

“And how close are we to talking to the animals? How much more money will we need to pour into this, um, pet project of yours?”

“We’re nearly there. We have made huge advances in just the last few weeks. We have a working prototype, well, more or less. Let me just show you.”

Anderson looked at his watch. “I’ve a busy schedule.”

“Ten minutes, sir. Fifteen at tops. Joey is all prepped.”

“Okay, then. Show me.”

The two men rose. Leeson led the way, striding forward eagerly and constantly turning back to check his boss was following. He waved his pass at an electronic reader and held the door open into the research lab.

“We’re trying to see if abstract thought can be adequately conveyed to someone who has no reference to it. I mean, things like banana or hot can be communicated fairly easily, but what about, oh, scuba diving? What about the moral ambiguity of using an army to enforce peace? Does God exist? Concepts a chimp has no idea about.”

“You’re teaching this chimp about religion?”

“No. Yes. Sort of. We have a rig set up, a researcher reads a book. The apparatus conveys this to Joey. Joey then conveys this to a second researcher. Can researcher B understand what reader A is reading?”

“Can he?”

“Well, that’s the tough bit,” said Leeson, opening another door. In the room sat a young technician, book on his lap and a rig on his head that looked for all the world like fifties commercial hairdryer. The technician looked up, startled.

“Hello Doctor Leeson,” he said.

“So, Michael here is Joey’s main handler. His keeper, if you will. Joey has bonded to Michael in the same way he might have bonded to a troop member in the wild. Michael’s reading a text, a simple passage that would make perfect sense to us, but is outside a chimpanzee’s experience. In this case …?”

He looked at Michael, who looked guiltily back.

“Michael, what are you reading to Joey?”

Michael reluctantly lifted the book.

“Darwin’s origin of the species? You’re reading a monkey that?” asked Anderson, incredulity filling his voice.

“Apparently so,” said Leeson, glaring at Michael. “Though normally it’s a child’s book on, say, riding in a car.”

“And this chimp can understand it?”

“I don’t know, sir. Maybe we should ask the research assistant who took it upon himself to change the reading manifest.”

“I just- it – I’m sorry,” said Michael, turning red. “I just got so bored of kids’ books. Joey too.”

“Wait. You’re telling me Joey understands all this?” said Anderson. Michael nodded his head.

“Yes. Well, most of it. The gist, anyway. To be honest, a lot of people only get the gist too.”

“How do you know?”

Michael indicated another monstrous hairdryer.

“That’s the receiving apparatus, sir. You can try it out. He’ll let you know what he’s thinking.”

“Is it safe?” said Anderson.

“Perfectly,” said Leeson, giving Michael a look that said they would be having an in-depth discussion of this afternoon’s events later.

“How does it work?”

“Here, let me just fit it.” Leeson fussed with the straps until the helmet fitted snugly on the director’s head. “Okay? So now I’ll just switch it on.”

“How will I know what his thoughts are?”

“Oh, you’ll know. Joey’s thoughts will be quite different from yours.”

Anderson stared into space, his shoulders betraying his tension. Then his eyes opened wide. He sat back, then shook his head gently.

“And this is coming directly from the chimp? Not from anyone else?”

“Yes sir.”

“Get it off me.” Anderson pulled at the straps. Lesson hurried to release him from the helmet.

“Are you okay? Is everything all right?”

“Yes, yes. Leeson? You’ve got your funding. Whatever you need. Let me know if you need more. We need to perfect this. Get the whole thing smaller, portable. You think this will be profitable? You have no idea. Excellent work. Well done.”

“You could understand Joey?” said Leeson.

“Yes. And what’s more, he could understand that text book. I could hear it clear as day. Oh, maybe not in its entirety, but he certainly knows the central message.”

“What did he say?”

“He said he now realised he is his keeper’s brother.”

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About snodlander
Snodlander is the nom de plume of Bob Simms. He is an IT trainer, but it's not as glamourous as it sounds. When he's not enthralling classes with adventures through SQL Server, he writes, draws and drinks his own home-brew. Buy his novel on Amazon Kindle at The Young Demon Keeper, It's 74p, for crying out loud!

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