|Chapter 8||Table of Contents||Chapter 10|
Henry, June 10, 2055
When Thursday rolled around, I rode my bike over to Fontaine Enterprises on Woodward. I arrived about a quarter to four. Matt and I sat in his office drinking coffee which wasn’t ersatz.
The room was bipolar; half administration, half draughting room. Rolls of paper and plans littered a work table at one end. A coffee machine sat on a counter beside a sink which marked the functional division of the room. Jon arrived at four on the nose and Matt pulled out another mug. We waited for Henry.
Jon was restless, pacing back and forth. I inadvertently put my foot in it by asking him how his job was going.
He laughed blackly. “Disgusting mostly.”
“Dysfunction. Uselessness. A whiff of corruption.”
I smiled. “Yeah, but other than that?”
“Soul destroying. It’s disheartening to see the reality behind the image the Senator projects.”
“What do you mean?”
“The man is all lizard brain — appearances and discipline. He had an original thought once in 2022 and it frightened him so badly, he hasn’t recovered since.”
Matt had been wisely silent until then. “Don’t work for a jerk is a piece of advice I’ve always rated highly.”
“That’s easy for you to say, running your own business, and you Luc, sitting up there in your ivory tower watching the world go by. Those of us who are in the trenches, find it a little more difficult to be so perfectly detached.”
I wasn’t about to let Jon get me down. “So, why do you stay?”
“I might be able to do something.”
None of us spoke for a few minutes after that.
I sat at the end of the draughting table watching Jon pace.
“Okay Matt, you got us both over here. What are we waiting for?” said Jon finally in exasperation.
Matt waved him off in his most cavalier manner. “Oh relax. Henry is setting up a demo in the garage. Take a minute to enjoy your innocence.”
“What?!” I spluttered.
“When you see what I have to show you, you will never be the same.”
Jon sat down abruptly. He didn’t like the turn things had taken.
“Are you talking about FabNet?” I asked.
Matt shook his head and said, “No. This is Henry’s work.”
“Well, who is he? What has he done?” Jon was again becoming impatient.
“I told you. I met him on FabNet.”
I looked at Jon and said, “He’s going to tell us when he’s good and ready, and not before.”
“When Henry is ready, actually,” said Matt.
Just then, the side door opened and a short, wiry, dark-haired guy stepped into the office. He stopped cold, looking at us. He was wearing a lens computer in his left eye and I could see the inputs sparkling.
Matt gave him a quick look and said, “F3 shock.” He put down the coffee pot and said smoothly, “Henry, let me introduce you to my brothers.”
Henry tried to hide his surprise behind a bland smile.
“That’s Luc at the end of the table. He’s the geneticist. And Jon, the cantankerous here, is in charge of the family’s political ideals.”
To his credit, Henry gave Matt a ‘what are you talking about’ frown.
I stood and held out my hand. “You’ll have to excuse Matt. He thinks we’re all supposed to be telepathic.”
That brought a quick smile to Henry’s face. He glanced sideways at Matt who was doing his best ‘who me?’ routine.
Jon sat unmoving at Matt’s desk.
“Don’t worry about Jon,” said Matt to Henry. “He’s still pissed that I won’t tell him the secret to life.”
At that prompting, Jon gave Henry a little wave of the hand in lieu of a handshake. Henry turned to pick up a mug from the sink.
“Now, can we see what this is all about?” said Jon.
“What has he told you?” Henry said over his shoulder, while reaching for the coffee.
“Nothing!” said Jon in exasperation.
“Good,” said Henry. He sat around the corner of the table from me, facing Jon on the other side. “What do you know about nanotechnology?”
Jon didn’t answer, but looked at me. Henry followed his gaze.
“Bits and pieces,” I said. “Drexler, Merkle, Johansen. I hear more advertising than science. The generic assembler doesn’t seem to be going to put in an appearance.”
“Tell that to the bacteria,” said Henry.
I raised an eyebrow and started to become curious. “What exactly do you do?”
He smiled with a disarming equanimity. “I’m just a programmer.”
“Don’t let his fake modesty fool you,” said Matt. “He is an artist of parallelism.”
Henry ignored that statement and said, “The trouble with the common notion of the assembler is intelligence. It’s not like that.”
“I’m not sure I follow you,” I said.
“Most people think of an assembler as a little robot, an intelligent robot.”
“It’s not like that.”
I waited for him to elaborate.
“What is intelligence?” said Henry, with the air of having just delivered a sublime mystery.
“Assume I am stupid and explain what you mean more fully,” I said.
Matt laughed. “I told you you would’t be able to intimidate or bafflegab him.”
Henry gave him a quick smile, glanced at Jon, then turned back to me. There was an intensity to his eyes. The fervour of a fanatic or what? I wondered.
“Intelligence is a property of whole brains,” said Henry. “You might want to say of individuals. Neurons are not intelligent. Bacteria are not intelligent. They’re not even on the scale. To think they could be is an error of scope. It is more useful to think of the assembler as a quantum mechanism that follows a given pattern.”
Matt refilled our cups all around and sat down beside me at the table.
“Reducing expectations,” said Matt.
Before anybody else could respond, Jon said, “Well I for one am quite glad that nobody can put their finger on intelligence, on how the brain works.”
“Oh come on,” I replied, “we have learned an awful lot about brain function —how the genetics of neurons, neural organization and synapse chemistry works.”
“Yeah but nobody has put the whole picture together and shown how it all produces a mind,” said Jon. “And as I said, I for one, am quite glad, because with understanding comes control. I have seen quite enough half-mad control freaks running around to do me for a lifetime.”
For a second, nobody said anything.
“Yeah well, as interesting as that may be, I don’t know that it is relevant to what we are doing here,” said Matt.
“I am curious what you mean by ‘follows a given pattern’,” I said to Henry.
He gave me an appraising look, hesitated a second, then said, “Bacteria use DNA and various other chemicals.”
I nodded and took a shot in the dark. “And your assembler?”
Henry froze. He wasn’t giving anything away. He turned to Matt who shrank back in mock protested innocence. Henry laughed, a dark unsettling laugh. Then he reached down and flipped a switch on the leg of the draughting table. The top lit up. It was a programmable surface. “I have a demo in the garage, but I’ll show you the general idea first.”
He had a ring of minimized screens arranged around a large central one. A stick like 3-D atomic structure rotated on the large screen.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“The underlying structure of an accelerated self-assembly technology. You can think of it as the rapid crystallization of non-crystalline materials if you like.”
“I don’t care how it works,” said Jon. “What is it?”
“Here you have two impulses,” said Matt. “Luc wants to take his toys apart to see how they work and Jon just wants to play.”
“Yeah, and you want to sell yours,” said Jon dismissively. He looked at Henry and said, “So what does it do?”
Henry tapped one of the smaller screens. The idealized structure shrank and was joined by others — tens at first, then hundreds, then thousands.
“A wavelength specific receptor on each supplies energy for manipulation, not replication. What each manipulator can do is strictly controlled.”
A cartoon tree branch appeared above the swarm and lowered gently.
“Cellulose materials show the quickest growth. Plastics are difficult because of the polymer chains. Ceramics work well. Metals are slower because of the higher bonding energies, but the same technique works with them. And it can be accelerated by radiating the material at the proper wavelengths.”
“I can grow you a window, a perfect sheet of glass in five minutes; the material for a house in less than a day. In time I might be able to grow you a building.”
At this point Matt put in, “And if you can do that, why not a car? or a train?”
“Well, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. It works best for simple structures of one material. Combining different structures and materials in different shapes gets complicated.”
“We should show them now,” said Matt, totally unfazed.
Jon stood up and Henry said, “This’s where we need the non-disclosure agreement.”
“An NDA! You didn’t say anything about that.” Jon glared at Matt and turned to me.
I shook my head.
Matt went to a metal filing cabinet and dug out two documents which he handed to Jon and me. I glanced through mine, saw only boilerplate, signed and dated the last page.
Jon took his time reading his. “I can’t sign this,” he said.
“Why not?” asked Henry.
“…declare that no previous requirement to disclose or security contract conflicts with the terms of…” Jon read aloud, then looked up at Matt and Henry. “I’m covered by half a dozen security and secrecy contracts, not to mention the legislated stuff.”
“I told you that clause wouldn’t fly,” said Matt to Henry.
“Okay, strike 17 and 21,” said Henry.
Jon handed the contract to Matt, who marked through and initialed the sections. When Henry did the same, Jon took it and continued to read. He was not going to be rushed.
I chuckled to myself and took the opportunity to grab some more real coffee.
With a flourish Jon signed the modified contract and handed it to Matt, who stuck it on a clipboard with mine and left it sitting on the filing cabinet.
Henry stood up and we all trooped out to the small single vehicle garage behind the factory. The interior was dark. On a table near the door a black cube about 25 cm. on a side caught my eye. No explanations were offered.
Henry sat behind another table with three screens arranged in an arc. On top of the right hand screen, a robot doll sat dangling its legs. “That’s the Billiebot from the letter,” said Matt.
In the dark, Henry’s left eye glimmered with sensory overlays and inputs. Then the screens woke up, bathing Henry in a soft glow. At the far end of the lab, a light came on over a slurry tank.
Matt turned to us and started his spiel. “I have always worked on the principle that if you show people a better way, they will beat a path to your door.”
He picked up a piece of wood leaning against the wall and handed it to Jon. It looked like an ordinary 2×6 about 50 centimeters long. Jon handed the wood to me. Henry handed Matt a test tube containing a brown powder which Matt sprinkled on the slurry. Then Matt took the board and dropped it on the slurry.
Immediately it began to grow.
I turned to Henry and asked, “Is it dangerous?”
“Is a growing tree dangerous?”
“I’m not sure the analogy is valid,” I replied. “What happens if I put my hand in there?”
“Nothing,” said Matt. “Its behaviour is specific to cellulose.” And to prove his point, he walked over and picked up the now significantly larger slab of wood. He had to use both hands to lever it out of the tank, as it had grown to 100 by 30 centimeters. Matt flicked some gunk off his hands and held them up for Jon and I to see.
Henry dimmed the lights over the wood slurry and turned on a spotlight over a table with a pile of metallic powder. It was the same pattern. After Matt wiped his hands dry, Henry handed him a test tube of some dark grey powder.
“Each one of these is different?” I asked.
Matt sprinkled the powder on the metal, then pulled a UN one credit coin out of his pocket. He flipped it to me and I passed it on to Jon, who walked over and dropped it on the powder. Nothing seemed to happen.
“The bronze and tin alloy is a much slower process without ultraviolet help,” said Henry. “While we are waiting, you might like to look at this.” He turned on a third spotlight over an empty table.
Henry held another tube of black granules out to Matt, who very casually stuck it in his back pocket. Matt then picked up a round metal platter and put it on the third table. He put on an air filter mask and said to Jon and me, “You should stay back. C-60 tends to ratch biological systems.” He picked up a bag prominently labelled Carbon-60, Buckminsterfullerene, and poured a small pile of what looked like carbon black onto the platter.
“You’ll need more than that,” said Henry.
“I think it’ll do,” replied Matt and proceeded to sprinkle the test tube of granules over the pile.
There was immediate movement. The pile seemed to bubble and in the middle, a perfect cube formed and began to grow.
“Where does the mass come from?”
“It’s unchanging,” replied Henry. “The walls are thin.”
When the black cube was about 10 cm. on a side, the growth stopped.
“I told you it needed more,” said Henry with a slight edge to his voice.
Matt shot him an exasperated look and hoisted the bag of C-60 again. He turned up the bag, but very little came out. Matt bounced in place and squeezed the bag to encourage the flow. All at once, something gave and large jet of carbon black sprayed out over the cube and off the platter.
“Oh shit!” exclaimed Henry.
The cube started to grow again. Henry shut off the light but it kept growing.
“The light from the door.” said Matt.
In no time at all the cube was a meter on a side and still growing. As the carbon reached toward the open rafters of the garage, Henry said, “Maybe we better step outside.”
Jon and I exited quickly, followed by Henry and lastly Matt still carrying the bag of C-60.
“Well that’s one way to end a demo with a bang,” I laughed.
Jon was angry. “Ghoddamnitall Matt!” he exclaimed and stomped off toward the office. Henry was looking put out, but managed to smile. Matt was doing his best to look innocent.
Henry, Matt and I stood around listening to crunches and crashes from inside. After a couple of minutes, the noises stopped and the building was still standing. When we opened the door, a large black cube filled the far end of the garage. The tub of slurry and the pile of metal dust had been pushed over towards the wall. Henry’s three computers and their table had also been pushed over.
“Let’s go back to the office and talk about it over coffee,” said Matt.
I turned toward the house immediately. Henry lingered for a few seconds seemingly tabulating the damage, then he too turned to join us.
With Jon out of earshot, Henry felt free to ask, “What’s with your brother?” He nodded toward the office door.
“He resents my money,” said Matt.
“That’s probably most of it,” I concurred.
Henry took that in without comment. Jon was not in sight when we got inside. Henry and I sat down at the table with fresh coffee.
Matt started going through the cupboard over the sink. “Are there any of those oatmeal cookies left?”
“I finished them last night,” replied Henry.
A toilet flushed in the distance.
“Don’t worry about food as far as I am concerned,” I said. “I’m not hungry.”
As soon as Jon stepped back into the office, he fired off, “So what do you want from us? It’s not like we have any money to invest.”
Matt glanced at Henry. “Well to be brief, we’re looking for ideas. I showed it to a couple of the big boys, but there was no follow-up.”
Henry added, “I put together a few of those robot dolls thinking to introduce kids to the technology. But no big distributor was interested in picking up the line and I only ever sold a few hundred on the coast.”
Matt picked up the ball, like they had discussed this part of their presentation beforehand. “I got him going with building materials, because that was what made sense to me. But when I showed it to a guy I know in the business, he just freaked. He didn’t want anything to do with it.”
I didn’t know what to say and Jon was equally silent.
“Like I said, I have always worked on the principle that if you show people a better way, they will beat a path to your door, but in this case it doesn’t seem to be working and I’m not sure what to do.”
“Matt this isn’t just a ‘better way’; it is a disruptive technology.” Jon was vehement.
“Yeah it has that potential,” Matt agreed.
“No. It’s not potential. It will turn everything upsidedown.”
“Maybe.” Matt was not about to react to Jon’s emotionalism.
“There will be people and corporations that don’t like it. You’ll be cutting in on somebody’s established business.”
“I understand the problems. Why do you think you’re here?” Matt and Henry looked at each other. I could tell they were both thinking of a previous discussion, probably about the usefulness of bringing us in.
Jon was oblivious to this byplay and wrapped it all up with, “You’ll be lucky if you don’t wind up ensconced in some black lab.”
I stared at Jon in surprise, but he wasn’t interested in connecting. He looked at his watch and said, “I have to leave. I have a meeting at 18:00.”
We stood up simultaneously. I held my hand out to Henry, “Pleased to have met you.”
He took my hand and nodded without replying. Jon didn’t offer his hand, but Henry didn’t seem to notice. Matt, Jon and I trooped out the front, leaving Henry gazing at the draughting table display. He did not look pleased.
Jon surprised me just as he was getting onto his government scooter. He turned back to Matt as if he had been deliberating whether to say anything and then had to get it off his chest quickly. “You take care. Watch out for Henry. There is more to him than meets the eye.”
“Oh I know that. Trust me. I know.”
I got on my bike and rode home.
Excerpted from _The Bottleneck Years_ by H.E. Taylor
For further information see:
A Gentle Introduction.
Last modified October 9, 2012