Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Project

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It was an odd building way out in the middle of nothing but fields and forest. The structure looked newly built yet it was totally nondescript, unlike anything I had seen in my construction career. The building was three stories high and primarily elliptical, like an oval-shaped frame placed over a rectangular frame. Though it had no windows, it looked finished with a light brown plaster coating the whole thing. There was no paved driveway, just the dirt pad left from the construction vehicles.
Adams swiped a magnetic strip key and pressed buttons for a security code. The tall, heavy doors opened slowly, making a slight creaking sound. I breathed in the scent of new carpet. Large boxes placed on top of the rolls clogged up the entry.
We entered the cool room, leaving the doors open to let in light. The lobby appeared the same as the overall building. It was finished structurally but still needed texture, paint, carpeting and fixtures.
“There’s work to do here,” Adams said, as he showed me around the lobby. I nodded, thinking the entry alone could use many hours of my services.
Adams flicked a light switch then walked down a corridor to the center of the building. I followed slowly. My attention was drawn to large photos on the walls, dozens of images that must have been taken from a gigantic telescope. Star dust, planets, moons, entire galaxies. They were breathtaking pictures such as I had never seen and in far more detail than the paintings at Adams’ home. The matter exploded out from the frames in amazing color. My first impression was that the galaxies were not just rocks and matter, but living things.
“Are these artists’ paintings, or are they real?” I asked, tracing my finger around a stellar explosion. The label said it was a supernova.
“They’re all real. These are parts of our universe. Except for this one.” He pointed to a photo labeled a spiral galaxy. The stars were tiny points of bright light swirling in dark space. “This one’s a computer simulation of our galaxy.”
“Why a simulation?”
“We don’t have cameras far enough out in space to shoot it from this perspective.”
“Oh.” I felt stupid for asking and reminded myself to keep quiet.
“That’s our sun,” he added, pointing to a secluded dot way out on a spiral arm of the galaxy.
“That’s our sun?” I asked, mesmerized by it.
“That’s it.”
“What about all these other lights?”
“They’re other suns. Some of them are stars you see on a clear night.”
Adams opened a door to the main room on the lower floor. We entered a command central with desks, chairs, computer equipment and dozens of large monitors. Some were attached to the walls, and some were still in boxes. Packing foam, shipping plastic and empty cartons littered the floor. On the desks, papers were scattered about. I looked at them and saw handwritten equations. Chemistry or physics, I guessed. They were light years ahead of my understanding. I walked around the cool, dimly lit room, sensing something very unusual was going on.
“Have a seat,” Adams told me.
I sat in a swivel chair that was still in its shipping plastic. I found the chair comfortable and used my feet to spin around in circles.
“Jim, this is Jon Gruber,” Adams said. I looked around, still spinning. The room was empty except for Adams and me.
“Who are you talking to?” I asked, stopping my spins.
Adams didn’t respond. He continued speaking, it seemed, to the room in general. “Jon will be doing a lot of handyman work, but if you need help with simple things, you can ask him.”
“Am I missing something?” I asked.
Adams waited patiently through the silence.
Then a quiet voice asked, “What if I blow a circuit switch?” The voice spoke with honesty and calmness like that of a child, and it filled the room.
“That I’ll need to fix for now. In time, I’m sure Jon can handle things like that as well.”
“Cool. Are you talking with a computer?” I asked, standing up from the chair.
“Yes,” Adams said. “Jon, meet Jim. And he prefers not to be called a computer.”
“Sorry, Jim.” I looked around the room, wondering where to direct my voice. “Which way do I speak? Can you hear me okay?”
After a pause, Jim answered with a shy, “Yes.” I noticed a green light on the wall over the largest desk. It glowed more brightly as Jim spoke.
I asked, “Is that your light, Jim?” He didn’t answer, but the light pulsed gently.
Adams said, “It’s an indicator of how much Jim is thinking.”
It was my first conversation with a computer, and I felt a little awkward about what to say. Then Jim started asking me questions.
“Why are you here?” Jim began.
“I’m here to help.”
“With what?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, letting my words trail off, still trying to grasp what was going on.
Jim’s light stayed green for a while.
I looked around and made a mental list of what needed doing. I was happy to be offered more work, but I was especially excited to be talking with a computer.
“What do you think?” Adams asked me.
“When can I start?”


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