The following is a short story I wrote about AI, teaching, learning, heroes, and superpowers. This is a pretty sharp departure from my typical blog posts but I hope you enjoy reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Six months ago, Rose thought it was a prank. Some kind of avant-garde exhibit from the Humanities department. Put the engineering kids through a weird experience and call it art. But after reviewing the technology and the classified documents, she now accepted it as reality – the heroes, the superpowers, the comic books she poured over as a kid (and still poured over as a college sophomore). It was real. All of it.
Someday, she might become a lead engineer designing the next generation of devices for heroes. She’d be in a graphic novel. Okay, maybe not her. But her inventions would be there. They’d probably make her a generic figure in a lab coat. Maybe she’d be an eccentric old man with gray hair. But who cares? The invention would remain for the entire series.
So far, she was the number one on the leaderboard. She had solved major issues in seemingly broken technology and she had solved huge design challenges in the VR simulation room.
But now that she’d leveled up, she was learning the ropes by providing simple technology help for current heroes. How hard could that be? If she aced ten house calls, she could move on as a full-time R&D intern and from there? Who knows? Someday she might run this lab.
But not today. Today, she would provide basic instructions to a hero who couldn’t even get his Geer App to work on his tablet.
Rose walked across the winding driveway and trudged up the steps. “Remember, these are action heroes, not thinking heroes,” she whispered to herself.
She took a deep breath and pressed the doorbell.
“Hello there,” a gentle voice answered. It was nothing like the booming voice she had seen in the movies.
“I’m from Geer Industries.”
“Swell! Come right in.” The door handle jiggled. “Oh, that’s right. It’s automatic. There’s a button for this somewhere.”
The screen above the doorbell flashed on. Rose studied the man in the pastel yellow cardigan as he pulled out a pair of glasses and leaned in toward the camera. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, but he dressed like her great grandfather.
“Please excuse the delay. I’m afraid the buttons aren’t labeled,” he said leaning into the camera. Rose squinted. He moved so methodically for a hero with super speed.
“Don’t worry. Just push any of the buttons,” Rose said.
“What if it’s a wrong button?” his voice faltered.
“You’ll be fine,” she answered.
He ran his hands through perfectly combed hair. “I can do this,” he mumbled as he waved his finger around the touchscreen. Finally, he shrugged and tapped a button. The porch light turned on.
“Well, that’s not it,” he muttered.
“I can help you with this,” Rose said in the perkiest voice she could muster. Her phone buzzed. She tapped on the screen and an image popped up of the Geer Industries Hero Home Security System interface.
The man in the cardigan clicked another button and the sprinklers turned on.
“Okay, it’s the third button down on the left,” she said as she looked up from her screen and sidestepped the stream from the sprinkler.
“Got it,” he said.
Five lasers pointed at Rose’s forehead. A high-pitched alarm began chirping.
“Initiating intruder destruction mode,” a robotic voice warned. Both the voice and the alarm were far too friendly for the present reality.
Rose’s heart raced. The facial recognition program was supposed to override this type of human error. How could it fail? She’d tested it nineteen times in the lab. The AI even told her she had a “strong jaw line,” which was maybe supposed to be a compliment, right?
It shouldn’t be doing this.
“Did you press the third button down on the left?”
“Oh, my left? I assumed it was your left.”
“Why would you think that?” Rose asked.
“Nine seconds,” the robotic voice said.
“There’s a red override button. It’s bright red. Can’t miss it,” she said.
“Eight seconds,” the robotic voice calmly spoke.
“I don’t see any buttons. It’s all just a flat screen,” he answered.
“Yes, the flat screen. There’s a button.”
“You mean the red square?”
“Yes, the red square. That’s the override. Press it,” she yelled.
“Three . . . two . . .”
Rose braced for the impact. Her first service call and she’d be incinerated. Click! The door flew open. The alarms had stopped.
“That was close,” the man said.
Rose fell forward and let out a sigh. She still couldn’t speak.
“I’m Frank. And by that I mean my name and not my character. I tend to be more subtle than frank,” he said, holding out a sweaty hand. She shook it and offered a nervous smile.
“I’m Rose. And by that I mean my name and not my hue,” she answered.
“Aside from your hair,” he said with a smile.
She brushed her pink bangs away from her face.
He continued, “When I was your age, I begged my mother to allow me to color my hair pink but she refused. Times were different.”
“I’m here to help you install the Geer Industries app on the . . .”
“Oh, drat. I think I provided you with my alter-ego name rather than my hero name,” Frank interrupted.
“I already knew your alter-ego name,” Rose said as they walked across the massive entryway, through a corridor, and toward the kitchen. “I know all about you. I’ve read about every villain you defeated. I read and re-read every one of your graphic novels when I was little. You seemed to just disappear. You almost hit public domain but then we learned you were frozen and then that movie came out and . . .”
“Did you say graphic novel? I’m not a novelist and if I were, I doubt I would write anything violent enough to be graphic,” Frank said. “I would go character-driven and bucolic.”
“Sorry, comics. I read your comics,” Rose said. She knew his entire backstory. His super speed. His ability to breath under water. The way they cryogenically froze him after World War II to preserve him in an emergency in case of a nuclear disaster during the Cold War.
“Would you like a beverage?”
“I’m good,” Rose answered.
“I have some hot chocolate,” he added. “You know, they have this swell new machine that makes the hot chocolate all by itself. You just grab a tiny plastic cup and viola! The wonders! But I prefer my homemade recipe. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to try it? It’s the cat’s pajamas if you ask me.”
“Well, maybe I could . . .”
He snapped his finger. “I’ll take that as a less than enthusiastic yes. Now, let me see here. This is what they call a smart kitchen. I have an assistant. She’s an invisible electrical ghost servant who helps me open drawers and whatnot. I’m perfectly capable of trifling through the kitchen myself but Geer Industries insists I make use of the virtual assistant. I believe her name is Val.”
“How can I help you?” an automated voice spoke.
“I don’t mean to bother you. I feel terribly sorry that I spoke your name right then.”
“I am at your service,” she answered.
“I find that unnerving, don’t you?” he whispered. “I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of servants.”
“She’s just an AI program,” Rose said. “It’s all a part of machine learning. You should see some of the programs they’re developing in the lab.”
Frank opened a cupboard and reached for a mug. “Machine learning? Well, that’s a term I’ve never heard. At the rate of technological development, we may no longer need superpowers in the future. I’ve never really considered that.”
Her phone vibrated. A message popped up.
They’re action heroes, not thinking heroes. Change the subject.
“It’s not a big deal,” Rose answered.
“Well, I think that’s a significant development, don’t you? At what point is a superpower even necessary?”
She glanced at her phone. A new message popped up. Get him to change the subject. Now.
“The hot chocolate smells amazing,” she said.
“Thank you, I’ve always loved baking but never had the time for it,” he said, as searched through a drawer. “It’s a new home and I haven’t the slightest idea where anything is. But I did manage to whip this hot cocoa up a few hours ago. The key is to let it steep but not burn. The magical ingredient isn’t love. It’s time.”
He continued to rummage through the drawers in frustration mumbling the word “ladle.”
“You might want to ask your trusted virtual assistant,” Rose said. “I can help you with any reconfigurations if you’d like.”
He waved her off.
“You know, when I was young, we had a group of heroes that warned about the technology thing. They were a bit reactive, to be fair. They wouldn’t even use a basic grappling hook. Felt like you should do everything with your bare hands and whatnot. They claimed that someday the technology would replace all the heroes. We wrote them off as crazy but I’m starting to think they had a point.”
“You know, Val might be able to help you with find what you’re looking for,” Rose said.
“Did you hear that?” he asked.
“What?” Rose asked.
“The electric ghost lady didn’t speak to you,” he pointed out.
“That’s by default. She’s programmed to recognize your voice.”
“But what if I change it to a Mid-Atlantic accent?” he asked in an old-timey radio voice.
“You’ll have to try that out,” Rose said.
He looked up in the air and spoke in a thick southern accent, “Dearest Val, I hate to be an inconvenience, but would you happen to know where the ladle is?”
A drawer opened slowly. A ladle began to float. Frank’s eyes widened.
“She really is a ghost,” he said.
“It’s just magnets,” Rose said. “Nothing special. Our lab has a whole line of magnetic gadgets.”
“You know, magnetics was a significant superpower when I was a child. This is what I mean. The technology might replace us.” His face grew somber. “We had a hero named Magnetron. That was her power. I don’t know what she would do if she were still alive. Go out and become an accountant?”
Rose’s phone buzzed again. Distract him. Get him off this line of reasoning.
“We’ll always need heroes with powers,” Rose said as Frank ladled the hot chocolate into an enormous mug. “There are several heroes right now who combine their magnetic powers creatively with the Geer Industries technology. It didn’t replace their powers. It just enhanced it.”
“I suppose,” Frank said as waved her over to the next room. “Here’s the family room. I’ve never had a family of my own. Maybe I should call it the living room. Then again, living room wouldn’t fit well for a man who hasn’t had much of a life,” he said with an awkward laugh.
“You single-handedly took down . . .”
He waved his hand dismissively. “You’re talking about Swift Strike. But in this moment, I’m Frank and Frank was frozen for years while his friends and family continued living. That was the first thing I did when they woke me up. I called every number. I remembered them by heart. One by one, I went through my mental list until I realized I was all alone. Most of them had died.”
Rose’s phone vibrated. She tapped on the screen and read the alert. You need to get him to stop talking.
“Let’s figure out how to configure your Geer Industries app. Should we start with your tablet?” Rose asked.
“Tablet?” he raised an eyebrow, then shrugged his shoulders and grabbed a yellow legal pad.
“No, a different kind of tablet. I’m referring to the flat screen that works like a computer,” Rose said.
“That’s right. Yes, the tablet. It’s on the table,” Frank said as he placed the mugs on a silver tray. He maneuvered around the mahogany furniture and opened the curtains to reveal a floor to ceiling window with a breathtaking view of the city. He stared out for what felt like an eternity.
Rose sat still on the couch. Her phone vibrated again but she didn’t pick it up.
Turning to Rose, Frank waved his hand at the city skyline and said, “There’s so much of this city I’ve never explored.”
“Why don’t you?” Rose asked.
“It’s hard to make plans when you’re always on call. Even harder to make friends,” he lamented.
Another message popped up. Get him to grab the tablet.
“So, I’d love to check out your tablet and show you how we can integrate the tablet, your phone, your super suit and your home into one single ecosystem,” Rose said.
He winced in embarrassment. “I’m sorry for keeping you waiting. You must have places you need to go and more important service calls.” He sauntered over to the opposite couch.
Rose turned toward the coffee table and grabbed the mug from the silver tray. She pulled it up to her trembling hands. All at once, the mug slipped and careened toward the floor. Rose jumped back to see Frank holding the mug on a saucer with one hand. She blinked twice and stared at him.
She had read about it in the comics. She had seen his superpower in full CGI splendor at the movie theater. But this happened without the blurry light or the whooshing sound of the movies. This was his super speed. The silence made it feel even more impressive.
“Did you just use your superpower?” she whispered.
“You didn’t see anything,” he said with a sly smile.
Rose could barely manage to shake her head.
“Well, I couldn’t let you spill my homemade hot chocolate, now, could I? Not on such a beautiful cashmere sweater,” he added as he grabbed the tablet from the table.
“Thank you,” she said.
Her phone buzzed again. Nicely done. Keep it focused on the tech.
Rose cleared her throat. “Let’s see. It looks like you have an Android.”
“I have no such thing,” he said. “I know an android when I see one. I once took down an entire squadron of Nazi androids during the war.”
“I’m sorry. I was referring to your tablet.”
“It’s a Nazi tablet?” he asked.
“No, it’s the name of it. Just, um, could you enter your passcode for me?” she asked.
He entered his passcode (1234) and pointed to the screen. “You know, I need to get these pictures into my computer. Could you help me with that?” he asked, pointing to the photo album.
Rose knew this was beyond the scope of her tech help but what could it hurt?
“See this icon?” she asked.
“Hold your finger on it and wait for the menu to show up. Then move down to ‘transfer to laptop.’ And that’s it.”
“That’s it?” he asked.
“That’s it,” she said with a smile.
“Are they really on my computer?” he asked.
“Well, they are in the cloud.”
He cocked his head to the side. “I don’t see how water vapor could store data.”
“It’s not really a cloud. It’s a network of . . . it’s hard to explain.” How could she explain the internet to someone who had been frozen in time since 1949?
“You know, I’ve always wanted to be an artist,” he said. He opened the album and flipped through the screen.
Rose’s phone vibrated. Get him back on track. Focus on the Geer app.
“Well, your pictures are beautiful, but the world needs heroes.”
“You really think they’re beautiful?” he asked.
“Of course,” Rose lied. The pictures were actually derivative and boring, but you can’t just say that to a stranger.
Rose continued, “The important thing to remember is that the world needs heroes.”
“I’m not so sure,” he said. “Have you heard of climate change?”
“I can’t take down climate change,” he pointed out.
“Well, yeah, sure, but you have super speed. You have a gift. The world needs that gift,” Rose said, trying to channel the advice of every single comic book monolog she had read so many times the binding fell apart.
“But isn’t art a gift?” he asked.
“Yes, but you have literally saved the world,” Rose said.
The app. Get him to download the app.
“And you don’t think art can save the world?” he asked.
“You have a superpower that no one else has. You can do what no one else can do.”
“Is that really true, though? When I was a child, we had Danger Drone. He had this gorgeous black and yellow suit. I was so jealous. It was so slick. But now they have unmanned drones flown by someone sitting in an airconditioned room sipping on an energy drink and none of it matters because our insatiable thirst for consumption means polar bears are stuck on tiny blocks of ice and somehow the entire western U.S. is now on fire. And I heard that someday the AI will be able to fly the drones themselves. We won’t even need anyone sitting in an office drinking an energy drink.”
“I see,” was all Rose could muster.
He buried his head in his hands.
“Are you okay?” Rose asked.
Frank was sobbing in heavy convulsions. Rose wasn’t sure what to do. Give him an awkward side hug? Call for help? Grab a box of tissues? Instead, she simply sat on the sofa, two feet away from him while he cried.
Rose’s phone vibrated repeatedly. Messages popped up so quickly she couldn’t read a single one.
Finally, he stopped and wiped his tears and snot with a silk handkerchief he had kept in his pocket. “I’m terribly sorry. I’m just not sure I can keep doing this.”
“Let’s just focus on learning how to use the app,” Rose said. For the next two hours, she walked him through the Geer Industries app. She taught him how to track his stats, how to order repairs on his suit, and how to communicate with fellow heroes in the private network. She walked him through the configurations of Val and taught him how to make a nostalgic playlist of the songs of his college days. By the end, he seemed outright excited about the new technology.
Rose drove back to the lab with the nagging question of whether AI would essentially erase all human error in people. And if so, would that be such a bad thing? Did we really want to place the fate of humanity in the hands of a hero who can’t figure out how to get pictures off of a tablet and onto a laptop or who suddenly starts bawling his eyes out? Then again, do we want to leave decision-making in the hands of smart machines incapable of bawling their eyes out?
Rose snaked her way through the city streets until she reached the underground parking garage where she rolled down the window for the facial recognition scan.
The light remained red.
“What is this?” she asked. Was the AI somehow struggling with the new shade of pink in her hair?
She pressed the speaker button. “What’s going?”
A hologram popped up. “Your personal items are being boxed up,” her supervisor said.
“What do you mean?”
“This is why we use AI assistants,” the man said to his colleague. “Human tech help is too volatile.”
“I don’t understand,” Rose said.
“Apparently one of our most important heroes has decided to quit in order to pursue his dream of being a street photographer using, get this, a tablet. Not even a camera or even a phone. Like a Boomer.”
“I don’t understand what happened,” Rose said.
“You failed, Rose. I’ve been here for three decades and never once have I seen a simple help desk request lead to a hero quitting his job.”
“So, I’m fired?” Rose asked.
“Yes and no,” her supervisor answered. “You’re being transferred to hero training and development.”
“Hero training and development?” Rose asked, her mind swimming with the gadgets she might use with emerging heroes.
“You’re number one in the leader boards. You’re solid gamer, a decent athlete, and an excellent engineer. According to our predictive analytics, you might just be successful. But not as an engineer,” her supervisor said.
“So, I’m not fired?” Rose asked.
“You’ve been promoted. Let the AI make the decisions and you’ll be fine,” her supervisor said.
“I still don’t understand,” Rose said.
“Listen, Rose. You’re our next hero,” her supervisor said.
“But I’m not a hero,” Rose protested.
“Not yet. But you will be. Just focus on actions. Use the automations. Let the AI make the decisions. Training begins in an hour. You’ll be taking on his super suit. From this day forward, you are Swift Strike.”