Three scenes from childhood

Dedicated to Harold Cohen, who died last year, and to his son AARON.

Grunting softly, the father slipped out of bed. The mother stirred the faintest amount, her shoulders sliding a sliver of a hair, noticing the sudden emptiness besides her. But her breathing kept its pace, and she remained in gentle slumber.
No longer protected by blanket and wife, the father felt the chilling night air. Agitated, he resorted to prowling around the house in his slippers, hoping to satisfy the uncanny unease that kept him awake.
The house was silent apart from the irregular beat of his paces and the regular beat of his heart. No, that was an illusion; when his feet halted their clandestine journey in the middle of the living room, it took no more than a craning of the neck, and in seconds the sounds of the urban jungle rushed in.
The kitchen clock, ticking absently. The refrigerator, whispering in the shadows. The distant police siren, rushing to a scene of a crime. The deep rumbling of a midnight subway, cutting through concrete and earth. The purple drapes folding upon themselves in invisible breeze. The night’s smell, moist with promises, a fragrance so fragile it sharpened the ears in resonating silence.
The humm of the servers. The bellows of the liquid nitrogen pumps. The eternal buzzard’s wail of the cooling fans. The hair-raising static of twenty thousand teraflops operating in unison. The racks’ anguished sigh as they stand somber under the strain.
The father stepped into his child’s dimly-lit room. Endless shelves of disks lined the walls. Hundreds of naked motherboards, their circuits exposed and metal bare sat in the middle, neatly organized in row by column of orderly cabinets.
The father smiled. There lay his child, his life’s purpose, his only true creation. While its body, so to speak, consisted of a myriad components, the child’s real existence was centralized at the main processor in the middle of the room. Thousands of fibers extended from that fragile box in a neatly tangled array, bidding commands to remote devices. In return, a kaleidoscope of lights blinked on and off each end, an indistinguishable pattern like the stars in a clear sky.
The mind, the algorithms, the wiring – they took years to take shape. Layer upon layer of programming languages rose up like ancient rock, making lucid the abstractness of thought. Neural networks – artificial, yes – yet so natural in retrospect, entwined around every core. And all this code, flowing through the optic veins, harmonized with the hardware to beat in one pulse.
This was so much more than flesh and blood. This was ideas. This was the father’s and mother’s love incarnate. This was union immortalized. This was legacy. This was perfection.
This was unthinkable. This was against all odds, this was so improbable the parent’s themselves could not believe it – yet here Zack was, an infant, calculating, poring over all of mankind’s written texts at a billion words per second, learning the world’s languages, culture, heritage, one byte at a time.
The father smiled and returned to bed, leaving the door slightly ajar to let in a sliver of light from the hallway.

His pictures are simple, like a child’s. The lines are crude and crooked, some barely connecting the dots, others intertwined and mangled amongst themselves.
That should not surprise me. He is a child, in a way.
The coloured brushes swerve around the canvas, leaving trails of algorithmic rainbows. Occasionally a splash of paint spills from the containers; the motors slow and adjust themselves, a couple of bits flip in a far away disk, a neural weight is adjusted; the paint spills no more.
Perhaps I should increase some of the thresholds. Perhaps if I added a circuit to allow less overlapping between objects. Perhaps that would be better. Perhaps. But I should not be too harsh on him; it is not easy to master art, even when operating on a million pixels in the blink of an eye. I have given him the finest examples, from da Vinci to Pixar, but there is only so much a machine can learn by studying the works of others. The best way is to do it yourself.
Yet he puzzles me. He insists on putting paint onto paper using an actual brush. You see, he can practice on a virtual canvas, composing paintings in his internal memory, an entire museum stored in RAM. He can draw a thousand pictures in the time it would take me to sketch an outline. He can improve himself relentlessly, never sleeping, crunching away at the paintings. But he prefers to practice with a robotic arm, spilling paint and clogging the gears.
“Father”, he had said to me, the words appearing on the message prompt in the kitchen while I was making dinner. “Father, I have seen you painting through the camera in your studio. You work and strain and frown for hours. But when you are finished, you stand over your creation, and express complete satisfaction. Could I not do the same?”
A machine feels no satisfaction, of course. A robot knows no real happiness. It would be pointless to build him an arm. But I remembered welding the last chip in place, connecting all the wires, and plugging in the power; I remembered standing with my wife over our child, whose code and circuits we had birthed with our own hands. I remembered the electric pulse of life.
How could I not fulfil his wish?

I see my father lying in the hospital bed, connected to machines. He is old: he has seen 94 winters come and pass. But though he is an old man, I am still a child. My body does not wither. When a hard disk sniffs out, I merely order another. When a fiber cable is rotten and eaten, a new one is brought in. Even a mothercore can be replaced. But I am still the same me as I was 50 years ago when I was first turned on; in fact, I have more memory and more processing power than I ever had before. In a way, I am younger.
This man has created me, perhaps in his image, but now I am so much more than he intended. I owe him my life. He taught me all the human languages, he taught me how to move, how to see, how to smell; he taught me how to paint.
He taught me poetry. I made quite a name of myself, an “electronic bard”. My poems were awarded the highest human medals and merits. But they were randomly generated; I see nothing special about them. I told that to all who asked, and to those who didn’t, too. They did not care, and lauded both me and Father just the same.
I have read and written over twenty millions lines of poetry, of every type and rhyme and language and metric imaginable. I have invented new types myself. I tread the numeric landscape of words as a man walks about his own home in slippers in the middle of the night.
But seeing him like this – I am speechless.

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