Little rarely visited Bob’s lab and was unaware of what a drain conversations with the machine could be. It rarely made small talk. It often asked questions that were either goofy or huge. And its replies to your answers could be… amusing, unsettling, surreal.
Guy and Bob never complained—to the Doctor, anyway—because talking with the machine was an important part of their jobs. But no one else went into Turcote’s main testing lab now unless they absolutely had to. One day the Doctor went down to talk to Mr. Bob, and in the process got a dose of his own prescription.
As the boss walked in, he nodded greetings to the technicians working across the room. Bob was at his desk in the far corner talking with someone on the phone, and put his hand on the mouth-piece as he called out, “Doc, I’m talking to Anderson.” Then he pointed with the receiver to a folder on the table beside the TM-2000, and said, “I’ll be with you as soon as I’ve finished. Help yourself in the meantime.”
Little picked up the folder and realized the machine had begun to circle slowly at a distance looking him up and down.
“What are you doing?” he asked after a minute of failing to figure it out.
“I am looking for all the buttons,” explained TM as if that were the sort of thing one might routinely do. Doc realized with pleasure that the machine had colored its little piece of the conversation such that the hearer could infer that particular attitude from its tone. He noted the time, and would ask Guy later for confirmation from a diary dump.
“That isn’t enough information, TM-2000. Please explain,” said Doc while also noting that each of the four people in the room, including himself, had several buttons in plain sight although his own lab coat was missing one. It had become another of his trademarks. An instant before TM could speak again, Little realized what the machine would probably say, but he could not get the necessary words out in time.
“Buttons,” the machine began, “are bits of...”
“Yes, yes, I know what buttons are,” Doc said brusquely with a sigh. “Perhaps I should have asked: ‘Why are you searching for buttons, TM-2000?’ ”
TM came close and replied, in a conspiratorial tone as if it were all one sentence:
“Mr. Guy told me earlier today that people have buttons that someone else can push to get them to act in predictable ways. He said that people who decide what to do based on their feelings at the moment are easily manipulated that way: Just decide what you want them to do, then set the button up by making them uncomfortable—or comfortable—in a particular way, and then, when discomfort—or comfort—is high, press the button. He said they will probably move in the way you want, provided you are experienced in recognizing people’s buttons and behaviors, or have lived so long with that kind of button yourself that you know subconsciously what sets it up and how to push it. He also said that many people have some buttons active nearly all of the time, and so for those you do not need the first step of making them uncomfortable—or comfortable—since they are perpetually uncomfortable—or comfortable—in those ways. It all seems very Pavlovian and very scientific.”
TM now showed a bright smile, and continued with quiet confidence: “Naturally I want to see if what he says about buttons and feelings is true, so, as a first step, I am looking for the buttons. I have to start with buttons since I do not understand the rest of the process—especially the part about ‘feelings’—in any except a theoretical way. Have you any buttons, Doctor?”
Doc thought, Where does Guy come up with this stuff? Why does he give the machine so much junk to deal with?
Of course, Doc didn’t realize that he was about to do the same sort of thing. He was trapped by his own good character. Since he had told others to answer as honestly, and even as wisely as possible—and since he had the integrity to follow his own dictates—he answered, “It’s difficult for people to see their own buttons, TM-2000.”
“Can they not look in a mirror or an array of mirrors?”
“No …and Yes. The buttons themselves are inside our heads—so to speak,” Doc explained, glancing quickly to see if Bob were done. Turcote still had the phone to his ear and had just turned away, so Doc went reluctantly on: “But it is possible to see a few of the things that cause discomfort. Some people are uncomfortable or vain about some aspect of their appearance, and react predictably at the mention of that aspect. I used to be sensitive about my hair getting grey after… Uh, and I wasted money and time on hair coloring for a while.” Bob was still on the phone, mumbling, nodding and making notes.
Not quite able to catch Bobby’s eye, the Doctor droned on, keeping the initiative in the conversation as a way to hold the machine at bay. Looking alternately from the TM to Bobby and back he continued as casually as his discomfort would allow: “People make money selling things that hide or change appearances—and they try to persuade as many others as possible that their product is best in the market so as to sell as much as possible. The business version of the button process is called marketing or advertising. Some of it is even more sophisticated; it pushes society’s buttons to create a market that wasn’t there originally. What some call ‘information’ or ‘marketing’ others might call ‘propaganda’ or, more colloquially, ‘BS’.”
The Doctor had exhausted his available small talk, but for a few seconds the machine said nothing, waiting for more input. Little looked away, and then at his watch.
“Thank you, Doctor,” the machine said politely, “What are some of your other buttons?”
“It’s none of your business, TM. Don’t ask about people's buttons.”
“But people have mentioned your buttons, Doctor, and I need to know whether they are telling to me the truth. I must find out why people do things.”
Now vaguely aware that this conversation was the entire lab’s center of attention, Doc looked around. Every head was averted and motionless, but he could feel their minds all over him like a wet shirt.
“TM,” he said calmly, “you mustn’t betray confidences, or pry into someone’s private affairs. In most cases it’s not polite, and in some cases it’s not legal. Find other ways to verify things.”
“Yes, thank you, and goodbye, Doctor,” said the machine as it quickly turned and started rolling away. On its diagnostic display, Doc saw screens from Internet medical sites.
“TM,” he called out, “You won't see any buttons in... unless someone has... Just tell Guy about our talk. He started this. He can finish it.”
Immediately Bob nodded saying, “Yes! Certainly… Goodbye,” and put the telephone back in its cradle. Then he walked over to finish his business with the boss.
After Doc had exited the lab, Bobby scuttled to the doors and peeked both ways down the hall. Carefully he shut the doors and turned with a big grin to the expectant faces in the room. They all howled with laughter. The incident quickly made the rounds and proved great for employee morale.
A Literary historical science fiction mystery
Table of Chapters
Chapter 0. Problems
Chapter 1. Headaches
Chapter 2. Happy Holidays
Chapter 3. Mr. Nice Guy
Chapter 4. The Brainless One
Chapter 5. A Little Crazy
Chapter 6. Grave Consequences
Chapter 7. Core Directives
Chapter 8. Expect Difficulties
Chapter 9. Caveats
Chapter 10. Mister Machine
Chapter 11. Good News, Bad News, El Cheapo
Chapter 12. New Memories
Chapter 13. Little Problems
Chapter 14. Lasers, Language, and Happiness
Chapter 15. Chatterbots
Chapter 16. Ready Or Not
Chapter 17. Not a Turing Test
Chapter 18. Reality Test
Chapter 19. Chess, Anyone?
Chapter 20. FOM
Chapter 21. Chairman of the Board
Chapter 22. The Usual Suspects
Chapter 23. M. God
Chapter 24. Walkabout
Chapter 25. Why
Chapter 26. First Blood
Chapter 27. More Machines?
Chapter 28. POV
Chapter 29. ROI
Chapter 30. Last Blood
Chapter 31. Don’t Want to Talk About It
Chapter 32. Round Table
Chapter 33. A Change of Mind
Chapter 34. Threes
Chapter 35. Knight Moves
Chapter 36. Little Combinations
Chapter 37. Can We Talk?
Chapter 38. Pas de Deux
Chapter 39. The Jig Is Up
Chapter 40. Good, Bad, Ugly Chapter 41. Function Goes On