Thursday, 22 August 2013


Bob Martin sat down at the desk where MSPARKER’s keyboard should have been, and observed with a sense of fatality that the keyboard was still missing.  There was a computer screen there, which appeared to have been newly upgraded by the university IT department to a 30” model, and a microphone on a tiny little stand to encourage users to talk to MSPARKER.  Bob felt that interacting with MSPARKER was, in general, a mistake now, but couldn’t find a way to let the university know this without sounding either paranoid or insane.  And until he actually got his lectureship and an assurance of a long-term contract, he was unwilling to do either.
“MSPARKER,” he said, knowing that using its name would wake the system up.  He wondered if they were still making upgrades and improvements to her software.  He’d done his best to learn the maintenance schedule so that he could dodge most of Dr. Malmstein’s requests by always trying to fulfil them when she was in scheduled downtime, but the IT department were either on to him or incapable of sticking to their published schedule.  He wanted to believe the former, but had a sinking feeling it was most likely to be the latter.
Bob, said MSPARKER.  Her voice was slightly feminine and lisped occasionally.  Bob found it slightly sinister, especially when she tried to imitate a little girl voice.  It’s been a while.  Would you like to play a game?
The screen in front of him lit up suddenly and showed a blocky, eight-bit kind of display that reminded Bob of his ancient GameBoy that he was hoping would eventually be worth something on eBay.
“Er, that would be nice, MSPARKER,” he said, unable to get the memory of the War Games film from his head.  Had IT added IMDB into MSPARKER’s look-up?  “Wait a moment though, I want to get a friend.”
He can play too, said MSPARKER and giggled.  Bob bolted from the room.
“She’s just a computer,” said Tim from IT as Bob led him back into MSPARKER’s room.
“Then why do you keep calling her ‘she’?” asked Bob.  “Computers are all ‘it’ aren’t they?”
“But she’s got a feminine name,” said Tim.  “Anthropomorphism at its best, dude.”
Would you both like to play a game?
Tim looked a little startled.  “Is she supposed to do that?” he asked.
“Shouldn’t you be telling me that?”  Bob looked a little bit stressed; it had taken him twenty minutes to convince Tim to come with him to see what MSPARKER was doing now.  “Yes, MSPARKER, we’d like to play.”
The screen lit up again, and Bob pointed at it.  “That’s Pokémon,” he said, accusingly.  “What’s she doing playing Pokémon?”
Tim shrugged.  “She’s probably got access to the ROM library,” he said.  “Though I’m surprised she’d care.  She’s a computer.”
“Right, right, it’s a computer.  But she’s – it’s playing Pokémon now.  And do they look like real Pokémon to you?”  He pointed, and Tim squinted.
“Ye-e-es,” he said, and then paused.  “Actually,” he said, “I don’t know.”
“No,” said Bob.  “She’s got a Pokémon called Pottymouth.  That’s not a real Pokémon.  What’s it doing there, and why has she – it! – created it?”
“I don’t know,” said Tim, looking stressed as well now.  “Did you tell her to?”
“Hey, calm down dude, I just fix hardware and diagnose user error.  I’m not a software expert.  You want Bob Martin for that, he’s the go-to guy for MSPARKER.”
Bob sank down into the chair, a look of horror on his face.
“Who told you that?” he asked, sounding suddenly weak.
“Dr. Malmstein,” said Tim.
Would you like to play a game? asked MSPARKER quietly.

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