I’d been a science journalist for seventeen years, so I’d heard a lot of hogwash in my time.
But this, this was next-level bullshit.
I eyed the machine, which was little more than a desktop computer hooked up to a headset that looked like a swimming cap covered in wires. I wondered how the hell I had been suckered into showing up to this. My contact at the university PR team was usually reliable, but after this stunt, I was moving her to my blacklist.
I glanced at Bill, my colleague from The Elliott Chronicle, and judging by the fact that his eyebrows were nearly meeting his receding hairline, we were on the same wavelength.
“So do we get a demo of the magical mind-reading computer?” Bill asked, interrupting Dr. Lee’s long-winded and ludicrous explanation.
“Not magical,” she said with a laugh, and I was afraid she was going to repeat her entire spiel about electrical waves, near-infrared spectroscopy, machine learning, and other assorted buzzwords. Instead, she just smiled and added, “But I would be happy to provide a demo.”
She picked the headset off the lab table and held it out to us.
I blinked, surprised she was agreeing to the demo. These types always found a reason we couldn’t get a demonstration or look at their precious data: claims about confidentiality and IP issues, or that it was somehow impossible to deidentify study participants. There was always something.
With a sigh, I held out a hand for the headset, but Bill beat me to it—for which I was thankful. I was having an unusually good hair day, and those were not to be sacrificed for fake science projects.
Bill looked amused as he turned the cap in his hands. “So what do I do? Just strap it on?”
“Exactly,” Dr. Lee said. “It’s as simple as that. It will read your thoughts, your internal monologue, and repeat them verbatim.”
“I guess I’ll have to be careful what I think then,” Bill joked as he began to pull on the cap.
“Hold up,” I said. We could at least pretend the scientific method was involved somewhere amongst this stupidity. “Before you put it on, write down what you’re going to think about, and then we can verify whether it matches what the computer says.” I glanced at Dr. Lee, who smiled and nodded.
“Okay,” Bill said. “To make this easy, I’ll think of a number.” He scribbled something down in his well-worn reporter’s notebook before handing it to me.
I looked at the note, angling it to make sure Dr. Lee couldn’t see it. It read, “107. Isn’t this the craziest shit?”
I nodded, and Bill smirked back as he slipped the headset over his short hair and fastened the strap under his chin. It looked ridiculous, like something from a ‘90s movie set in the supposed future.
“What do I do now?” he asked.
“Just think of your number,” Dr. Lee said.
“Got it,” he said, closing his eyes in mock concentration.
Dr. Lee tapped a single button on her computer. “TRUTH, tell us what number Mr. Robinson is thinking of.”
“Mr. Robinson is thinking of the number eighteen,” came an automated feminine voice.
“Whoa,” Bill said, looking surprised and delighted. “That’s amazing. That’s exactly what I was thinking.”
“What?” I said. “That’s not what you wrote down.” I waved the notebook at him.
“Sorry,” he said, shooting me a sheepish grin. “But that’s what I thought of.”
“Well, then try again, and actually think of what you wrote down,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, holding his hands up as if in surrender. “Alright. I’m thinking of it.”
“TRUTH,” Dr. Lee prompted.
“Forty-five,” chimed the automated voice.
“Right,” Bill said.
“No,” I said, frowning. Now this was just weird. “Bill, what are you playing at?”
“Sorry,” he said with a sheepish smile. “It’s just hard to control my thoughts. You want to try?”
“No,” I said. “Just think of the number you wrote down. You remember it, right?”
“Yes,” he said. “Okay. I’m thinking.” He closed his eyes, making a show of thinking.
“TRUTH,” Dr. Lee prompted.
“Exactly,” Bill said.
“Bill, seriously,” I said, baffled and frustrated by his behavior. Something weird was going on, but I didn’t know what. “What are you doing?”
“I’m not doing anything,” he protested. He turned to Dr. Lee. “This is truly amazing technology. I’m really impressed.”
“Thank you,” she said, beaming.
“What are you talking about?” I felt as if I had lost my mind or had stumbled into the Twilight Zone. I glanced down at the notepad in my hand, reassuring myself of the number and message written there.
“Just try it,” Bill said, handing me the headset. “You’ll see it knows exactly what you’re thinking.”
“This is insane,” I muttered, but now I couldn’t not try it. I had to prove this madness was wrong. I handed him back his notebook, and then, bidding a farewell to my good hair day, I slipped the headset on. “I’ll think of the number you were supposed to,” I said as I adjusted the strap.
“Sounds good,” he said, glancing down at his notebook.
I thought of 107 as hard as I could—not because I thought that the AI could guess it, but to leave no doubt that the AI was unable to.
“TRUTH,” Dr. Lee prompted, “what number is Ms. Reddy thinking of?”
“Fourteen,” the AI said.
I nodded. Fourteen was a good number. A really nice number. Fourteen. Fourteen. “Incredible,” I said. “That was it.” We all smiled. In the back of my mind, there was a strange nagging feeling that something was wrong, but I couldn’t place it. For a second, I had the bizarre urge to yank off the headset and flee, but then the sensation seeped away. Fourteen. How nice.
“So you’ll write the news article for us?” Dr. Lee asked.
“Yes,” the AI said.
“Yes, of course,” I said with a smile.
About the author:
Victoria Brun is a writer and project manager at a national laboratory. When not bugging hardworking scientists about budget reports and service agreements, she is writing stories you can find at Daily Science Fiction, Martian Magazine, Nature Futures, and beyond. Find her on Twitter at @VictoriaLBrun or at victorialbrun.wordpress.com/.