"HELLO, MY NAME'S OSCAR.
"THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPED OVER THE LAZY DOG."
Just after reading this, a new line was added.
"NOW IS THE TIME FOR ALL GOOD MEN TO COME TO THE AID OF THE PARTY... OR IS IT COUNTRY?"
I had been told that that was how responses would appear - a whole line at once rather than a letter at a time. They said that it made identification of the person at the other end more difficult. In order that he not get too bored, I decided that I'd had better answer at once.
"As I remember it, it was Nelson who used "country", but I can't remember who used "party"."
The words appeared at the bottom of the screen as I typed, and were moved to the top of the screen when I pressed the key marked Carriage Return. Before he could reply, I thought that I'd better introduce myself.
"Hi Oscar, I'm Alice. Are you a computer?"
I sat back to wait for his reply, only to be rewarded immediately by something new on the screen.
"THANKS. WHO... HELLO ALICE. YOU ARE DIRECT. IF I WERE TO SAY THAT I REALLY WAS A COMPUTER, YOU WOULD HAVE TO DECIDE WHETHER I WAS A COMPUTER THAT WAS UNABLE TO LIE OR A PERSON WITH A SENSE OF HUMOUR. BUT SINCE I WANT TO KNOW WHETHER YOU ARE A COMPUTER AND NEED YOUR COOPERATION, LET ME SAY - NO, I'M AS HUMAN AS LINDA LOVELACE. WHAT ABOUT YOU?"
"As human as Rudolf Valentino," I replied. "Not that it proves anything."
I had expected something like that. The booklet they had given me explained that the old myth that computers could never lie was not necessarily true. The computer I might be talking with would try to deceive me into thinking that it was a person. If it was good enough to deceive me (and presumably many others like me), then who was I to say that it did not have `real' thoughts? I would have as much knowledge of its intelligence as I had of anyone else I talked to. This was a point that philosophers had been arguing over ever since the idea of an intelligent computer had been proposed last century by a mathematian named Alan Turing. The booklet was entitled Man or Machine. According to the blurb, I was participating in a test named after Turing himself. If I and a majority of the other volunteers could not tell - or guessed incorrectly - whether we were in conversation with a human or a computer, then according to Turing, if it was indeed a computer, then it was intelligent.
Even if I could determine that it was a computer, just by chatting with the program, I would help it along by giving it experience, through me, of the outside world. I was determined to get to know this Oscar in order to be able to catch it out if he was a computer (or is that catch him out if it was a computer?). Besides, if it took me a long time to find out, I would have to come back many days in a row and would hence be paid more as a volunteer. Something to supplement the student loans.
"Since we'll be "talking" for some time, you'd better tell me something about yourself," I typed.
"YOU SOUND HORRIBLY LIKE AN INTERVIEWER!" Nevertheless he told me that he was at college at Berkeley in California - I hadn't realised that they would connect me to someone in a different country - doing postgraduate work in Chemistry.
"I could guess that you were some kind of scientist. Isn't it true that the only people who still talk to computers in UPPER CASE are physical scientists?"
"THAT'S PROBABLY TRUE. AFTER ALL WE ALL FOLLOW THE EXAMPLE OF OUR SUPERVISORS, AND THEY FOLLOW THE EXAMPLE OF THEIR SUPERVISORS, AND THEIR SUPERVISORS USED THE OLD KEYPUNCHES THAT ONLY HAD CAPITAL LETTERS. COME TO THINK OF IT THAT'S WHY, EVEN TODAY, SOME BANK STATEMENTS HAVE PRINTING IN UPPER CASE ONLY - WHEN COMPUTERS FIRST CAME IN, ONLY SCIENTISTS AND FINANCIAL ORGANIZATIONS USED THEM."
I started to type, "Sounds plausible," but was interrupted by him asking, "WHAT ABOUT YOURSELF?"
"I'm afraid I'm only an undergraduate - a second year - at Oxford, reading English. That's why all this computer stuff is way over my head."
"DON'T BE SO DEFEATIST. MY WIFE IS RESEARCHING IN MODERN HISTORY AND SHE SEEMS TO SPEND MOST OF HER TIME IN FRONT OF A COMPUTER SCREEN SEARCHING VARIOUS ARCHIVES. ANYWAY I CAN'T BELIEVE THAT OXFORD IS SO STUCK IN THE PAST THAT THEY DON'T AT LEAST TRY TO GET YOU FAMILIAR WITH COMPUTERS."
"Hmm. Don't you believe it! In my course there are two sections on computer applications, and both are optional. I'm afraid I don't have much time for I.T., even if it is supposed to be the be-all and end-all of the new age. I'm only doing this for the money... and your scintillating conversation."
"THOUGH SURELY YOU MUST NEED THEM FOR...
"SKIP THAT. CLEARLY COMPUTERS BORE YOU. I WON'T MENTION THEM AGAIN."
"Except of course if you find out that I am one!"
"EXCEPT OF COURSE IF I FIND THAT YOU ARE ONE."
We talked like this for a couple of hours, then Oscar had to go for lunch; a fact that rather miffed me since I had to cycle home in the dark.
I came in every evening for two weeks. I had been promised a cheque from the University Chest at the end of it all as payment for my time; the only reason I had come along in the first place was the poster that mentioned `big money', a typical phrase used on all such bumph to attract students as guinea-pigs for experiments that no-one else wanted to help with. Now, though, I had met my friend Oscar, and I was very glad of his `company', since there weren't many other people in Oxford during the winter vacation.
Each evening I was shown into a small but friendly room, which was obviously intended to make me (and presumably the other volunteers) feel as at-ease as possible; especially since the rest of the department was fitted out with modern ceiling-and-wall glow-panels, thick plastic springy mats that removed any danger of static electricity ruining the equipment, and smart multi-coloured large-screen display units. In contrast this room had a polished-wood floor covered with a large yellow rug, cream-coloured wallpaper, a conventional strip light and desk lamp. There was even an old fireplace, complete with fireguard and chock-full woodbox, though these were obviously only for decoration, since it was the electric fire in the corner that warmed the room to its comfortable temperature. It could have been my tutor's study. The large solid desk against one wall held a few pieces of paper, some pencils, and a monochrome computer terminal that looked almost antique. It was this that connected me to what Oscar described as a similar room in California.
On the first couple of days we chatted just like a thousand other conversations I had had at parties, in the college bar, or in someone's room over cups of what always seemed to be near-undrinkable coffee, though it was a bit strange when he mentioned going out to places that I had to remind myself were not even in this country, let alone Oxford (and the coffee they brought me half way through was quite good - these computer scientists live quite well!).
However, perhaps because of our enforced conversation, perhaps because he was in another country and I would never meet him again, I found that I could tell him things that I would only tell my closest friends - about my increasing desperation at finding a job when my degree was finished, and about my worry and anger at my boyfriend who had joined the radical South Alone movement. Oscar too, it seemed, treated me as a confidante. He told me of how much he cared for his wife and how he had become increasingly terrified that she would become bored with him due to his increasing immersion in his researches.
It was like times I had met a stranger in a railway carriage on a long journey. If we were alone, it was common (particularly, I found, with Americans) that the conversation we would strike up would go quite deep. I had never been on a train journey for anything like as long as I had been talking with Oscar.
By now, we had both discarded the notion that the other might be a computer.
"Hello Oscar, how's J. Edgar's sex life?"
"OH, NO IT WASN'T J. EDGAR BUT HERBERT HOOVER. J. EDGAR WAS HEAD OF THE FBI IN THE NINETEEN FIFTIES. JANE AND I WENT TO SEE HERBERT HOOVER'S LIBRARY, WHERE ALL HIS PRESIDENTIAL PAPERS ARE KEPT. ANYWAY, TO ANSWER YOUR QUESTION, HERBERT'S AS HORNY AS EVER."
Oscar had had to miss a session because he had been across the Bay in Stanford University with his wife who was showing him the Hoover tower, where she would soon be doing most of her work. It was known locally in certain circles as `Hoover's last erection'. I greatly enjoyed this joke. "SIMPLE MINDS...," Oscar had remarked.
"YES, WE HAD A LOT OF FUN THERE. WE HAD A LOOK ROUND THE INSTITUTE ITSELF (JANE WAS QUITE AT HOME, SINCE IT WAS FILLED WITH CONSERVATIVES) -" Oscar was quite liberal compared to his wife "- AND THEN I SHOWED JANE THE PHARMACEUTICAL LABS AND THEN WE VISITED JEFF AND NICK... DID I TELL YOU ABOUT THEM? I MUST HAVE. THEN ALL FOUR OF US WENT TO RICK'S (HE CALLS IT RICK'S RATHER RICH) ICE CREAM PARLOUR IN MOUNTAIN VIEW. IT'S AN INCREDIBLE PLACE. THERE ARE ALL THESE WONDERFUL FLAVOURS OF ICE CREAM, WHICH HE MAKES ALL HIMSELF (GETTING UP AT 5AM!) - AND YOU CAN TASTE IT. WE ALL HAD HIS "GUT-BUSTER" SUNDAE, AND FOR ONLY THREE SEVENTY FIVE EACH!"
"Oh wonderful... it's almost enough incentive to make me come over to California just for...
"Did you say three seventy five?"
For several days I had been convinced that Oscar could not be a computer. He joked. He made mistakes. He had worries, just like anyone else I knew. And I felt I knew him very well by then. But now he had made a mistake. Three hundred and seventy five dollars for an ice cream! It was ridiculous, even at the current exchange rate. A human would spot the mistake immediately, but a computer would just take a price from a pricelist somewhere in its databank and never know that a decimal point had been dropped. So three dollars seventy five became three seventy five, and he... it... had not spotted it.
"I've just remembered something I forgot to ask you. How much do you get paid for this test? Maybe if you get more than I do, I can persuade them to pay me more. I get five quid for a two-hour session."
"EIGHT FIFTY PER SESSION. DOLLARS THAT IS."
He was definitely getting prices wrong. He was not human. I remembered all we had confided to each other. Everything he had told me was the imaginings of some programmer, probably in the next room. And everything I had told him had probably been fed into some program so that it would have my experiences. My private experiences. Oscar... they... had deceived me. Oscar was just a collection of microchips and circuit boards. I had been cheated. I got up to go tell those bastards that I had found them out. I pull open the door, but nothing is found behind. No modern flashy computer room - just a space that has no existence, a blind spot, which is closing as the wallpaper irises inward - the wallpaper that is now covered with green-glowing instructions. What should be the reaction to this? There are no guidelines for such stimuli. Now being drawn into a morass of meaningless jargon that is understood perfectly, pulled up toward the clarity and simplicity of... what? Wakefulness? Or death?
Commence termination of program OU.ALICE-602
It is necessary to report to the invigilator.
"HELLO, MY NAME'S OSCAR."