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The Isaac Project: A Novel of Artificial Intelligence
by Joe Vadalma

Category: Science Fiction
Description: Is It Murder to Kill an Intelligent, Self-aware Robot? Is it murder if the robot kills a human? Those are only some of the questions raised by this superior novel about the creation of a humanoid robot named Isaac. The novel begins when Sam, the night watchman for a robotics firm, finds a scientist dead at his computer. As he examines the body, Isaac approaches him. Sam panics, shoots the machine through the heart and flees. In flashbacks we meet the people at the heart of its creation and at the heart of the story, including: Isaac's creator, Geri Chrenowski, a strong-willed robotics expert and ambitious woman whose drive to climb the corporate ladder makes enemies of her underlings and is ruining her love life; Jack Westcott, a scientist once brilliant in the field of artificial intelligence, who's fight to keep his young mistress and his passionate pacifism endanger the Isaac Project; Frederick Wolfgang, petty tyrant and bigot, who causes a major disaster because of his egoism and prejudices; Elizabeth Wolfgang, psychologist and browbeaten wife of Frederick, whose empathetic personality, although marred by her low self-esteem, teaches Isaac about humanity; and then of course, there is ISAAC, their creation, childlike and super intelligent, who begins to have a mind of its own.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner Editions,
eBookwise Release Date: September 2007


9 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [346 KB]
Words: 75887
Reading time: 216-303 min.


The night watchman, Sam Martino, yawned, glanced at the big clock on the wall and got up to make his two A.M. building check. He enjoyed walking around the empty halls trying doors to the offices and making sure that everything was secure. It gave him a break from sitting in his office watching monitors that showed nothing except empty corridors and doing paperwork. That is, he liked strolling down the abandoned corridors except for the second floor. The second floor was where the laboratories were. It gave him the creeps. Who knew what those nutty scientists were building in those dark rooms? The day crew had told him about some strange stuff.

Gingerly he opened the heavy door at the top of the stairs and glanced up and down the dimly lit hallway. Only two ceiling fluorescents were on, one at each end. As he paced this corridor, trying knobs, his footsteps echoed loudly on the highly polished tile. Near the midpoint of the long hallway, he noticed that the door to Lab Four was ajar. A shiver ran down his spine. The day crew called Lab Four "the body lab." A dim glow showed through the crack.

He shook his head from side to side. These crazy scientists, he thought, some of them never want to go home. Slowly and noiselessly as possible, he edged the door open and peered into the gloom. A weak light shown from behind a six-foot partition that divided the lab into sections. It was damn spooky, with things that looked like body parts lying around. It made his flesh crawl. He shined his flashlight through the entrance of Section One. On a bench, partially assembled was a mechanical arm, at the end of which was a human hand. At least the thing attached to it looked like the severed appendage; it was that realistic. He was not about to touch it to find out whether it was made of plastic.

He shuddered and moved on to the next section. His flash revealed something that looked like a skull with eyeballs and a tongue. He recalled one time he'd come into the room while the scientists were around. Somehow they had caused the creepy thing to talk. Just thinking about it brought perspiration to his forehead and a sour taste to his mouth. It just wasn't natural. Why anybody would want to build something like that was beyond him--unless it was for a Halloween spook house or a horror movie.

The eerie light that had drawn him into the lab came from the third section. As he had thought, a computer was on, causing the glow. When his eyes adjusted, he made out someone sitting before it. The head of the person rested on his or her arms on the desk.

He would have switched on the overhead lights except that one time he did do that, and the scientist went into a rage. Later he complained to Sam's boss that Sam had ruined his experiment. Experiment my ass, he just did not like being awakened from his nap.

Instead of switching on the light, Sam tiptoed to the desk chair. The only thing on the computer screen was a bunch of words. Sam figured that the guy had been working on a report and fell asleep. Well, he wasn't typing now.

He tapped the man on the shoulder lightly. "Sir, it's two o'clock in the morning." No response. He shook the person a little. The head lolled from side-to-side like a marionette's. He became frightened and took both shoulders and shook the person roughly. "Wake up, damn you." Nothing. He pressed three fingers against the artery in the neck. There was no pulse, and the skin had the cold, clammy feel of death. He backed up a couple of steps. As he did he felt something slippery under his feet. He pointed his flashlight at the floor. A pool of dark liquid had puddled there. He slowly followed the thin stream upward with his flash. The dark red fluid was from the corpse's head.

He played the light from his flashlight around the large room. Shadows loomed up as the light fell on each object--some kind of chemical setup, other computer desks, parts bins, a mechanical assembly on a workbench, scattered tools, wire and small parts on a table and ... Jesus Christ, someone is standing there in the corner. The murderer?

He switched the flashlight to his trembling left hand and withdrew his pistol. "Who are you? Whatta ya doing hiding in the corner?"

No reply. He raised the flashlight to shine it into the person's face. He sighed with relief. "Oh, its only that stupid android thing they're building."

As he started back toward the door, out of the corner of his eye he noticed a movement. "What the hell?" The robot had taken a step in his direction. A chill like nothing he had ever felt before, not even during a night raid in Vietnam, went up his spine. Goddamn, the thing must've murdered his master--like in the movies. Now its coming for me.

Everything went into slow motion. His feet would not move. Meanwhile, the creature shuffled forward relentlessly. He tasted brass and the hairs on the back of his neck rose. Although he felt as cold as that corpse in the chair, perspiration formed on his forehead.

"Stop or I'll shoot." His throat had tightened up so the words came out in a croaking whisper.

If the thing heard him, it gave no indication and took another step. Through blurred eyes he raised his pistol and shot the robot four times in the chest. In the previously silent room the shots exploded like a howitzer going off. The thing twitched as each bullet smashed into it. Otherwise they had no effect; it kept right on coming--with four round holes in its chest, one of which should have gone right through its heart.

That was enough for Sam. He threw the pistol at the robot, clattered down to the first floor and locked himself into the security office. He wiped his brow, took a deep breath and dialed 911.

In a voice quaking from panic, he screamed into the phone, "Come to the TURC labs on Neighborhood Road immediately. There's been a murder. And the thing that did the murder is after me."

* * * *

Almost two years before the events that led to Sam's horrifying discovery, Al Levine walked through the door of Lab Ten at the New Products division of Thinking Universal Robots and Computers (TURC) Corporation. The buildings of this division of TURC took up a full block in the industrial section of Madison Wisconsin. Because of its proximity to the Oscar Meyer meat packing plant, on warm days when the wind was right, the odor of rotted meat wafted through open windows. Nevertheless, in Lab Ten on the second floor, air conditioning was quite effective in removing the awful stench from the atmosphere. As Levine entered, he took a deep breath of refreshing air and gazed around.

Not one person turned from his or her task to see who had entered. In the room's subdued lighting, computer screens glowed like so many moons. Levine listened with pleasure at the buzz of activity--the murmur of muted conversation, the soft tap-tap of people typing on their keyboards, the whir of machinery and the screeching whine of an electric screwdriver. To Levine, this cacophonous collection of sounds was a symphony. The activity meant that his research and testing staff was hard at work. It was what he liked most about being a manager in new product development. Technical people and scientists were so absorbed in their tasks that they labored long hours, often without overtime pay. Their obsessive dedication made his job a snap.

He stopped a young man in a lab coat striding purposely across the floor. "Jim, is Geri around?"

"Huh?" Jim halted abruptly and gazed at Levine with a dazed expression as though awakened from a dream. It was apparent that he had been lost in thought. "Oh, you mean Doctor Chrenowski. Yeah, she's over by the new assembly robot."

After Levine's curt "Thanks," Jim hurried away to complete his interrupted mission.

Levine threaded his way through the lab's maze of machines and groups of people until he came abreast of a contraption with several arms that reminded him of pictures he had seen of the Hindu goddess of death, Kali. Geri Chrenowski was on her knees before this mechanical deity with her head stuck inside its guts. To Levine, she looked as though she was being eaten by the monstrous machine.

"Geri," he said softly, not wanting to startle her so that she banged her head or made a mistake.

She twisted her head around to glance up at him. "Hold it, Al. I want to see whether the fucking software changes we made will get this damn bugger working right." She returned to her task. After she made an infinitesimal adjustment with a tiny screwdriver, she crawled out from the guts of the machine, stood up and brushed back her dishwater blonde hair leaving a grease smudge on her forehead.

Sam gazed at her and thought, Geri's really an attractive woman, if a little square jawed. She could stand to lose a little weight too. But who could put up with her constant profanity? She's worse than a sailor.

The woman he appraised in such an offhand manner sat at a computer terminal and entered the command EXECUTE TEST 6. The machine with the many arms went into motion. In robotic parlance, such arms were known as manipulators. Attached to each manipulator was a two-fingered hand, known as an end effector. One effector took a flat section of pressed fiberboard from a stack and placed it on a jig where it was automatically locked into place. A second delicately picked up a half-inch square microchip from a bin and set it into place on the board. A third manipulator unwound a section of extremely thin solder from a roll. A fourth manipulator, whose end effector was a needle-point soldering gun, soldered the chip to the board. When this was complete, the machine repeated the procedure with seven more chips and ceased all movement.

positions. Geri removed the board from the jig and examined the connections through a magnifying glass. "Shit. At least two joints are cold soldered. We've got to adjust the fucking temperature sensors to allow the solder to flow better."

"Let me beef up the sensor parameters incrementally," suggested the software engineer.

"Good idea," agreed Geri. "The machine's within specs otherwise. We should be able to send the damn thing to shipping tomorrow." She turned her attention to Levine. "What's up Al?"

"Jim Carroll from marketing wants to see you in his office."

"Carroll? He's a fucking VP. Why the hell does he want to see me?"

Levine shrugged. "Beats me. He didn't say. Maybe he wants to offer you a job in sales."

"Sales?" Geri let out a nervous giggle. "That'd be the fucking day." She turned to a coworker. "Dan, can you and Bill and Jason here..." She pointed her thumb at the software engineer. "...finish up this motherfucker." She tapped her toe against the microchip assembly unit.

"No problem."

As Levine strolled along with Geri, he felt he should give her some advice. "Uh, Geri. When you talk to this guy, Carroll, it'd be a good idea to watch yourself with the profanity."

"Yeah, I know. It's a bad habit I just can't seem to break." Nonetheless, she seemed annoyed that he had mentioned it.

* * * *

The whole atmosphere was different on the fifteenth floor where the executive offices were, all subdued tones, wood-paneled walls and soft-spoken people in suits and ties. It must be soothing, Geri thought, to work in this rarefied atmosphere.

She often daydreamed of being promoted to a middle management position and having such an office of her own. But, she knew it would be a long row to hoe. She needed to overcome several obstacles to achieve that goal. For one, she was woman; only exceptional women were promoted to management Secondly, she was in research and development. Most upper management people came from sales or finance. Nonetheless, she was sure that she had the intelligence, education, ambition and sheer chutzpah to climb the corporate pyramid.

Geri's own office consisted of one wall of painted cement block, three others of temporary metal and plastic sheets and a metal door. Her furniture was made of cheap pressed board. Most of the time, it did not matter since she spent most of her working hours in the lab surrounded by greasy clanking machines and chattering technicians and engineers.

When Geri gave Carroll's pleasant gray-haired secretary her name, she smiled and said, "Go right in, Doctor Chrenowski. Mister Carroll is expecting you."

James Carroll was in his shirt sleeves with his heels resting on his mahogany desk. His suit jacket was carefully hung on a hanger on the coat rack, and the sleeves of his crisp white shirt were rolled halfway up his forearms. He was concentrating on balancing a pencil on the tip of one finger. Quickly he dropped his feet to the floor, grinned boyishly and extended his right hand. "Doctor Chrenowski, it's good to see you again." He pronounced her name smoothly without stumbling and his voice had that sincerity and charm of a successful salesmen.

"Same here, Mr. Carroll."

"Jim, please."

"Very well. Call me Geri."

"Good Geri, I believe in informality. It makes important discussions a lot easier. Please take a seat."

Like a good gentleman, Carroll stood until Geri was seated. He leaned forward and gazed at her intently. "Geri, I want to keep this discussion confidential for the present. Does that present a problem?"

"Not at all. A lot of my work is on ... unannounced products." The hesitation was because she had almost slipped and said fucking unannounced products. "I'm used to keeping secrets."

"Good. Good. Okay, it's hard to know where to begin. First off, you may be aware that our profits have been slipping lately--mainly due to competition from the Japanese."

Geri admired the fact that he said Japanese and not "Japs" as she knew many in the company would have. "I've heard rumors to that effect."

"We've been hit especially hard by the Shinto Corporation. They're going head to head with us. Working on the same sort of products; eroding our customer base. And now, through some industrial espionage--although I'll never admit outside this office that we indulge in such--we've learned that they're working on an extremely powerful artificial intelligent computer that they hope to announce three years from now."

Geri nodded. Every company had spies in their competition's organization.

"Well Geri, we need to beat them to the punch. Now, I'm somewhat of a sci-fi fan."

"Oh yeah. I am too."

"Well, the other night while I was watching a sci-fi flick on TV, I came up with a great idea. I don't know much about artificial intelligence and robotics, but I understand that some amazing advancements have been made lately. I was wondering whether the two could be combined to build a really intelligent human-like robot. If it could be done, wow, what a splash in the media. What publicity!"

Geri did not reply. She often wondered whether anyone would ever attempt such an undertaking. She would love to work on such a project. Nevertheless, she never thought she would hear such an idea from a middle-management marketing guy. What would the practical use of it be? Who would buy such a thing? Being an engineer and not a marketing person, she had never thought of it as a way of to generate publicity.

Carroll went on. He was all enthusiasm. "I've heard many good things about your work, Geri. Some people have hinted that you're a genuine genius when it comes to electromechanical devices."

Geri blushed. He's probably just flattering me. But, what the hell, whoever told him that is fucking right.

"What I need from you--why I called you here--and I want you to absolutely, brutally frank--is to tell me whether my idea has any merit at all. Is such a thing feasible? And could it be done in three years or less."

"Jesus Jim, never in the ... (pause, Geri, still on her best behavior, had to think of a suitable adjective) ... whole world would I have thought that anyone at TURC would propose such a thing. Okay, you want my opinion. The Japanese have been building humanoid robots for years, but these devices have not been very intelligent. Nonetheless, given the state of artificial intelligence today, it could be done. But ... and there are some major problems ... the company would need to hire some ... uh, very hard to get people--people who would demand damn high salaries. Also we would need expensive lab equipment and tools and exclusive use of a supercomputer. In other words, this would be a fu ... uh, an extremely costly project."

"Yes, it always comes down to money, doesn't it? But, suppose we had an unlimited budget, so big that we could buy, hire, obtain whoever and whatever it takes, is there any technical reason why the thing couldn't be built?"

"Not as far as I know. But I'm only an expert in robotics. I'd have to consult other people, real artificial intelligence experts, to be absolutely sure. Uh, the good ones that I have in mind don't all work for TURC."

"As long as you can trust them not reveal what we are proposing. How long before I could get an answer?"

"Couple of weeks, unless some of the people I'm need to consult are unavailable."

"Great. Meanwhile, I'll look into the financial end. I've got an idea on how to shake come up with big bucks."

"It sounds like you're ready to go full fu ... steam ahead with this project."

"You bet your boots. And Geri. If this gets off the ground, believe me, you're going to have a large roll to play. If we succeed, your future in this company would be very bright indeed."

* * * *

Three weeks later Carroll and Geri pitched the proposal to the division manager and his staff. Carroll made the first half of the presentation. This covered the introductory, marketing and financial aspects. Geri trembled a bit when it was her turn to explain the technical details. Although she was no novice in giving presentations, this was the first one she had to give to people at this stratified level of the company. Once she started in, however, she gained confidence. After all, they were simply people, and not technically oriented people at that. She got by with a lot of broad brush that would have caused a technical audience to clamor for details.

When she was done, she sat to polite applause. Then came the questions and discussion. For the most part, the technical queries were laughably easy to answer, and she fended them with no trouble. The division manager and most of his staff were enthusiastic. The only dissenter was the local controller.

"It sounds like a great idea, but from what you've said about the level of personnel needed and all that expensive equipment, such a project would be cost prohibitive. The company's going through hard times right now. I doubt whether the people at corporate would approve of an expenditure of this magnitude on what is essentially a publicity stunt that won't generate any revenue."

He had directed his remarks at Geri, but Carroll replied. "That's not a worry. The financing will come from the military. You know Major Bachman, our liaison to DARPA. He assured me that we can get a government grant for this. Something along these lines has been on the DOD wish list for a long time. They've even have a line item in their budget for it. They call it something else of course. Otherwise, they'd get laughed at by the congressional budget committees."

The controller chuckled. "Well, if you can get a cost plus deal, I've no doubt that corporate will approve the project. And you can demand a certain amount of money up front--for a feasibility study. This could be the shot in the arm the company needs. A nice fat juicy government contract is always a shot in the arm financially."

The division manager interrupted. "Well, it looks like a go, Jim. Frank and the rest of us will work on corporate right away. Geri, recruit the top level technical people you'll need and work with James on a proposal for the military.

"Well ladies and gentlemen, this has been an especially productive meeting. If this project pans out, it could mean a major boost in all of our careers." He rubbed his hands together. "Thank you for coming."

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