7
An Interesting Proposition.

After my day in the country with Grom, I spent several days sightseeing in the City. The evenings I spent in the company of one or other of the people I had met at the Ūreworks. They introduced me to their favourite restaurants and bars, places which, they said, ordinary tourists didn’t know about and which were not listed in Fodor’s Guide. We had a lot of fun, and I felt my Loglan was improving rapidly.
On the day in question I was just preparing to leave the MacIvor Arms Hotel, intending to visit the Art Museum, when the phone rang. It was JohnWayne, whom I had met at the Ūreworks, but had not seen since.
“Hey, Alex,” he said after the usual preliminaries. “There’s something that might interest you, as a computer engineer.” I remembered I had told him my job.
“Yes,” he went on. “If you’ve got time this morning, I’d like to take you to meet a friend of mine who has made a pretty extraordinary discovery.”
I asked him what it was, but he said he’d prefer to let his friend explain. We arranged to meet at the north exit of the Lukasziewicz Square metro station in half an hour.
When I arrived, JohnWayne was leaning against a pillar, reading a newspaper. We shook hands and he dropped the paper in a waste basket.
“I was just checking whether the papers had got hold of the news yet,” he explained. “But they haven’t. We’ll take the metro out to the edge of town. Where we’re going is quite close to the Cantor Street station. It’s the Archeological Institute. My friend is a botanist there.”
The City metro system is very clean, quick and efŪcient, and I had bought a monthly ticket, so we were soon on our way. JohnWayne refused to say any more about the reason for our visit to his botanist friend, so we chatted of this and that.
“By the way,” I said. “I’m curious about Loglandian names. I know Grom has an old Xian name, but where does your name come from?”
He laughed. “My parents loved going to the movies. You see, before we spoke Loglan there was no point in showing anything but old silent movies. You just couldn’t write subtitles in Xian. But with Loglan we started to get lots of Hollywood movies. My mother’s favourite actor was John Wayne. It’s the same with BabyJane; her parents were crazy about Bette Davis. And of course there are lots of Elvises here.”
"You probably already realised something", he continued. The way we write such names is not correct by computer Loglan. We use capital letters in the middle of the name. This is a modern fashion, like nose rings. However any way of spelling certainly doesn't hurt.
We soon reached our destination and came out of the station on Cantor Street. The Archeological Institute was Ūve minutes walk away. In the entrance hall were show-cases displaying artifacts from the early days of Xia. We took the elevator to the Ūfth ßoor and walked down a corridor. JohnWayne knocked on a door and we went in. The room was evidently a laboratory of some kind. Somebody in a white coat was bending over what looked like an incubator.
“Hi there,” said JohnWayne. The Ūgure turned round, and I was surprised to see that it was BabyJane, the sexy black-haired woman who had been at the Founder’s Day party.
“Hello, JohnWayne, hello Alex,” she said, “Glad you could make it. You haven’t told him anything, have you?”
“No,” replied JohnWayne. “He’s completely in the dark. I didn’t even tell him we were coming to see you.”
“I’m glad. You see,” BabyJane turned to me, “This is something that could be really big. I remembered you saying you were a computer engineer, and I thought you might be able to help us. But I’d better begin at the beginning. Please sit down. I’ll get some coffee.”
We sat down at a table in the corner of the laboratory, and BabyJane poured coffee from a jug that had been heating on a Bunsen burner.
“I’m a botanist, Alex, you see, and my job here is classifying pollen and seeds and things like that, which are often found in archeological digs. Last year they were excavating the burial mound of one of the earliest Xian kings. You see, it’s something of a mystery where the Xian people originally came from.”
“Anyway, in this burial mound they discovered some spores of a fungus, and it was a fungus that had never been seen before. The conditions there were just right, and the spores were in perfect condition. So I tried culturing some of them, to see if I could grow the fungus that the spores came from. Well, to cut a long story short, I was successful, and the fungus grew. It’s rather like Meruleus lacrimans, you know, the fungus that attacks the wood in damp houses. You know the one I mean?”
“Indeed I do,” I replied. “I once had an old house, and one evening several of us were sitting on a sofa watching television, when the sofa fell right through the ßoor. Funny thing was, the Ūlm we were watching was a horror Ūlm about people being sucked into a quicksand.”
“That must have been alarming for you,” said BabyJane. “So you know that Meruleus has very long hyphae spreading out from the fruit body. It looks almost like a nervous system, a very complex network. This new fungus is like that, but even more complex than Meruleus. Well, in order to classify this kind of fungus, one of the tests we do is to measure the electrical conductivity of the hyphae. And it was when I was doing that that I noticed something very peculiar. Very peculiar indeed.”
BabyJane paused. She shook her head.
“So peculiar in fact,” she continued, “That at Ūrst I didn’t believe it. In fact I still have difŪculty believing it, although I’ve repeated the tests several hundred times. Come and have a look.”
She stood up, and walked over to the incubator. I followed her. The incubator contained a mass of whitish Ūbres. There were various colored wires leading into different parts of the mass. Next to the incubator was a computer work station.
“Now watch.” BabyJane said. “I’m going to give it an input signal to one part of the fungus, and we’ll see the output from another part. We’ll just do a very simple one Ūrst.”
She tapped in “0010” and the output showed the same binary digit, two. Then she tapped in “0101” (binary Ūve), and the output came back as “0111”.
“You see,” BabyJane said. “Two plus Ūve equals seven. This particular part of the fungus adds numbers. Actually it adds much bigger numbers than that, in fact I haven’t yet been able to Ūnd a limit to the size of number it can deal with. Another part multiplies, and there’s even a part that does integration. Then there are several parts that give an output pulse when two inputs are the same but no output when they’re different.”
“So you’re telling me this fungus is a rudimentary biological computer, are you?” I asked.
“No, I’m not,” she snapped. “It’s biological, and it behaves like a computer. But it’s certainly not rudimentary. Look at this.” There was a video camera on a stand next to the work station; she switched it on, pointed it at her face, and typed a command. Her image appeared on the monitor screen. In the output box at the bottom appeared the words, “HELLO, BABYJANE”. Then she turned the camera to point at my face, and typed another command. My face appeared on the monitor, and the words, “HELLO, WHO ARE YOU?”
BabyJane typed: “THIS IS ALEX.” She turned the camera again on herself. The fungus said, “HELLO, BABYJANE”. She turned the camera on me. “HELLO, ALEX.” JohnWayne came and stood beside us, and BabyJane turned the camera on him. “HELLO, JOHNWAYNE”, said the fungus.
BabyJane switched the video camera off. “It doesn’t really talk Loglan,” she explained. “Not yet. I programmed the actual output phrases. But it does recognise faces. It gives the same output for my face every time, and it doesn’t matter what angle the camera is at, or what distance, within reason. It knows about a dozen faces so far, other people in the department. Mind you, I’ve let them think it’s just a silly trick I’ve set up. I want to know exactly what this fungus can do, before anyone goes public with it.”
“You see,” she took a deep breath, “like all fungi, this one grows. And fungi can grow very fast indeed. And as it grows, I have a strong suspicion that it is learning.” She shook her head. “Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t just pour gasoline over the damn thing and burn it up. But I’m curious to see what it will do next. What do you think?”
“Well,” I said, “ArtiŪcial intelligence is not really my Ūeld, but...”
“It isn’t artiŪcial,” retorted BabyJane. “It’s natural. And we don’t yet know whether it’s ‘intelligent’. But if it is, well, maybe the gasoline idea would be murder. Leaving that aside, though, what it certainly is is a natural computing device. Very cheap to construct, and from what you’ve just seen it’s both powerful and fast. Just that could put Loglandia way ahead of IBM and Apple, and even Cray perhaps.”
“I see what you mean,” I said thoughfully. “But where do I come in?”
“Well, Alex, you’re not from here, and you don’t know many people. You’re not involved with Loglandian politics. And you know about computers. So I’d like you to help me Ūnd out what this fungus can do. You see, the political angle could be important. The burial mound that the spores came from is in the foothills of the Lojbandian Mountains. You know the rebels there want to become independent. Well, if this is as valuable as I think, I’d like us to have a good stock of the fungus before something happens to cut us off from the source of spores. It’s quite likely to be native only to that particular area. In fact, I want to go up to the dig pretty soon, and look around for other samples. Of course, it may have become extinct. These spores were several thousand years old.”
“OK, BabyJane,” I said. “It’s very intriguing and I’d be glad to help you with the programming side.”
In her white lab coat, with her hair scraped back in a bun, I was seeing a side of BabyJane quite different from the woman at the party. But she was still a very sexy lady, and I thought of what Grom’s mother had seen in the tea-leaves.