Late at night, in Telecomp, Gerhard stared anxiously at the computer console. He typed in more instructions, then walked to a print-out typewriter and began reviewing the long sheaf of green-striped sheets. He scanned them quickly, looking for the error he knew was there in the programmed instructions.
The computer itself never made a mistake. Gerhard had used computers for nearly ten years - different computers, different places - and he had never seen one make a mistake. Of course, mistakes occurred all the time, but they were always in the program, not in the machine. Sometimes that infallibility was hard to accept. For one thing, it didn't fit with one's view of the rest of the world, where machines were always making mistakes - fuses blowing, stereos breaking down, ovens overheating, cars refusing to start. Modern man expected machines to make their fair share of errors.
But computers were different, and working with them could be a humiliating experience. They were never wrong. It was as simple as that. Even when it took weeks to find the source of some problem, even when the program was checked a dozen times by as many different people, even when the whole staff was slowly coming to the conclusion that for once, the computer circuitry had fouled up - it always turned out, in the end, to be a human error of some kind. Always.
Richards came in, shrugging off a sport coat, and poured himself a cup of coffee. "How's it going?"
Gerhard shook his head. "I'm having trouble with George."
"Again? Shit." Richards looked at the console. "How's
"Martha's fine, I think. It's just George."
"Which George is it?"
"Saint George," Gerhard said. "Really a bitch."
Richards sipped his coffee and sat down at the console.
"Mind if I try it?"
"Sure," Gerhard said.
Richards began flicking buttons. He called up the program for Saint George. Then he called up the program for Martha. Then he pushed the interaction button.
Richards and Gerhard hadn't devised these programs; they were modified from several existing computer programs developed at other universities. But the basic idea was the same - to create a computer program that would make the computer act emotionally, like people. It was logical to designate the programs with names like George and Martha. There was a precedent for that: Eliza in Boston, and Aldous in England.
George and Martha were essentially the same program with slight differences. The original George was programmed to be neutral in his response to stimuli. Then Martha was created. Martha was a little bitchy; Martha disliked most things. Finally, another George was formulated, a very loving George, who was referred to as Saint George.
Each program could respond with three emotional states - love, fear, and anger. Each could produce three actions - approach, withdrawal, and attack. All this was, of course, highly abstract. It was carried out in terms of numbers. For example, the original George was neutral to most numbers, but he disliked the number 751. He was programmed to dislike it. And by extension he disliked similar numbers - 743, 772, and so on. He much preferred numbers such as 404, 133, and 918. If you punched in one of these numbers, George responded with numbers signifying love and approach. If you punched in 707, George withdrew. If you punched in 750, George angrily attacked - according to the numbers he printed out.
The NPS staff had played with the programs in this way for a long time. Then they had incorporated program modifications to allow for "talk" from the computer. The numbers were translated into sentences. This was amusing, and revealing. The actual interaction was referred to as "the Christmas game" because most of it was conducted as giving and receiving gifts - objects that had an assigned or learned emotional value, just as the numbers did.
Normal George interacting with Martha would eventually win her over, and her bitchiness would recede into the background.
But Saint George had a much worse effect on her. His loving acceptance drove her up the wall. That is, if things were working normally. Richards watched as the print-out flashed across the screen.