Code of Silence

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Chapter 13

It had been a while since Alex and I had discussed the voice synthesis project. We often bumped into each other, catching up in the corridors on the way to and from lectures. Small talk along with a brief acknowledgement that we needed to be getting on with it. Alex seemed to be the one reminding me, dropping it into conversation from time to time. University life coupled with a busy social calendar meant our days were packed, and although I was determined to make something of the early versions of the software we had been developing, I was finding it difficult to maintain focus.

I’d made the trip home the previous weekend to visit my dad, explaining that I thought I might be close to a solution. He was making good progress, gaining more mobility by the day, to the point that he could even get around the house and garden with the aid of a walking frame. But the condition had ravaged his brain, and the ability for him to communicate was taking much longer to return.

This was hard to accept, but particularly for my dad, who wasn’t used to all this downtime. He had a business to run, a living to earn, and me to keep in touch with, and was unable to do any of these as a result of the stroke. Thankfully, neighbours and friends in the village continued to provide support and the house was often busy with people coming and going, delivering food, restocking the fridge and dealing with Dad’s laundry. He wasn’t short of company but even so, was still trapped in a body that couldn’t participate, and didn’t work properly as far as he was concerned.

I was relieved that my dad was rarely alone, but I was frustrated. I still felt guilty about being away but this feeling was subsiding over time, and I knew he wanted me to continue with my studies. Our communications were still limited to basic sign language and written notes. I updated him weekly, via email and messages, always receiving short but upbeat replies. Being there in person was precious time though; I was able to sit and chat a little more about studies, my dad listening intently. The courses and lecturers, where I was living, new friends all the usual stuff parents want to hear about.

I was also excited to hear his reaction to the voice synthesis solution Alex and I had been working on. My dad was eager to learn more and scribbled a note: Am I guinea pig number one? There had been no significant change in Dad’s ability to speak, and I was concerned that progress had slowed, whereas his physical mobility seemed to be improving. Reassured by the visiting doctor that there was no predetermined pattern for things to change, I decided I’d put more energy into my plans to create something to help him. I’d messaged Alex from the train as I travelled back.

Alex had been working on other elements of the project that same weekend, recognising that I was getting distracted and that I wasn’t as focussed. Things had moved along steadily with the software development, platform updates and anything that was of a technical nature that didn’t involve the personal stuff I had gathered. The audio detail was something that really only I could decide upon, and Alex had no problem leaving it for me to sort, as there was plenty else to get on with in the meantime. We decided to grab some time with Khan outside of the usual IT sessions so that we could get his help on some areas that we were struggling with. I went straight over to Alex’s room when I arrived back on campus and we discussed some of the detail and what we’d need help with. The next day we both had a free morning, so thought we’d use it to work with Khan, if he was available.

Arriving at the IT rooms we knocked, eased the door open and entered. The lab was empty but we could hear Professor Khan on speakerphone in the rear office. We hung around, drawn towards the 3D printers again. This time the printed sample was of an ornate key, the sort used to unlock an antique tea chest or travel trunk. The intricate model of the London landmark we’d marvelled at previously had seen better days, having received many inspections from heavy-handed students. Khan ended his call but didn’t look up, rapidly tapping away at the PC keyboard in front of him. He picked up his phone again, scrolled and held it to his ear this time as the call connected. Holding his hand up he acknowledged our presence, but indicated that he needed a little more time.

It must have been around fifteen minutes before Khan ended his second call. Placing his phone on the desk, he slid his fingers under his glasses and perched them on his head, massaging tired eyes and stroking his beard. Looking up, he beckoned us over. “Apologies, come in and sit down, please,” he said, as we approached the door of his office. “That was a call out of the blue and I’m still coming to terms with it,” he added, slumping back in his chair, hands clasped across his chest. “Are you friendly with Theodore Varkanopolis by any chance? He was here on a couple of occasions, sat at the front. Quiet lad, excellent programmer, a natural.”

I remembered him from our first visit to the lab, but then Alex jumped in, “Yes, he was sat right at the front using the big screen. In fact, I recognise him from somewhere, but he never hangs around long enough to catch up.”

“Yes, that’s Theo, very bright but a bit of a loner. He was the first fresher I met from your year. In fact, he did some work experience with me last summer, so I got to know him quite well. He arrived here a day early with his father. Apparently he was keen to start working on something, although he stressed it was confidential,” Khan said, as he leant forward and moved the mouse, bringing his screen back to life. “He’s used the lab a great deal over the past few weeks, working on his project, but said it was too early to share the detail. He drives in every day, lives fairly local. I’m telling you this in confidence, so please keep this between us. The teaching staff have been informed but it’s not common knowledge among the students yet,” he said, gesturing to Alex to gently close the office door.

He continued. “That was his mother on the phone, very upset indeed. Apparently his father has been working in Russia and has suddenly disappeared, possibly a kidnapping, they think, and they’re frantically trying to trace him. Hasn’t been in contact with his family, his lawyer or his business. Very worrying for the family, as you can imagine.” Khan said, momentarily distracted by something on the screen in front of him. “His mother said Theo is very upset and possibly won’t be around for a while, but asked if one or two students could be made aware in case he needs help. If you do bump into him he may appreciate some friendly support. But please, I ask that you keep this to yourself for now. I’ll let you know if I hear anything further, but in the meantime please do keep an eye out for Theo. He’s going to need some friends.”

Khan’s news was a bombshell, but not really knowing Theo, his family or the circumstances, we just accepted the unusual update and agreed to keep quiet. I guess I was more reflective having heard the news, thinking about my own circumstances and the situation with my dad. Alex was still confused about recalling Theo’s face, mumbling something while trying to figure out where they might have met in the past. Khan broke our thoughts, sitting bolt upright in his chair and flipping to a fresh page in his notebook.

“Okay then, what can I do for you this morning?” he said, forcing a smile. “Your message mentioned you were close, but need some help.” he said, as he searched for a pen among the paperwork strewn across his desk.

I pulled out my own laptop, setting it up on the round meeting table in Khan’s office. His desk was covered with files, bound reports, plastic sleeves with Post-it notes attached, two used coffee mugs and a dull brass nameplate mounted on a pale wooden plinth. The usual desk tidy was crammed full of pens, conference passes bound up by their accompanying lanyards and other stationery necessities, which did little to help it live up to its name. Two monitors were angled on one corner of the desk, a keyboard to the side of where Khan had been sitting. He shuffled and wheeled his large desk chair around to the smaller meeting table clutching his laptop, the notebook and pen. Alex and I had pulled up chairs and I was accessing files and referring to some scribbled notes in front of me.

“Think we’re almost there,” I said, nervously clicking the top of my pen. Alex nodded in agreement, raising crossed fingers and faking a nervous grin. I began to demonstrate our first attempt. We’d managed to retrieve and copy enough vocal samples from hours of video footage and had created an audio list that had been synchronised with the program Alex had been updating. The demonstration went well although anyone could see it was a fairly basic version of something that had now rapidly evolved through new technologies. I also knew this, but it hadn’t dented my enthusiasm for moving things forward, taking something that existed and adapting it for quickest results.

I showed Khan how my dad would be able to select commonly used words, phrases and instructions, and even some of his favourite sayings. As a user typed on the keyboard, the software predicted the text and then generated the preprogrammed sound for each word. It was my dad’s voice. It sounded incredibly strange. It was normal to hear a synthesised electronic voice in everyday life, but when you recognised the tone, the accent and the delivery it was immediately comforting. A tingling sensation soaked my spine.

We spent the next couple of hours debating and critiquing the prototype, with Khan making suggestions, Alex and I noting, agreeing and responding. It hadn’t taken us long to move this forward but there was still some way to go, loads more work to be done. Professor Khan was engaged in the conversation but I could tell that the situation with Theo had troubled him. He seemed to lose his trail of thought as he stroked at his beard again.

“You know, I’m just going over the Theo situation, excuse me if I seem distracted but I can’t stop thinking about it.” His brow furrowed with thick wrinkles as he continued to pull at his beard. “I know Theo’s father was involved with a Russian business – I remember him telling me he’d been doing some work with a technology company and that he was staying there while his family had relocated to their home here in the UK. He told me Theo actually spent some time at a school in Moscow to ensure he got his grades up prior to being accepted here.”

I listened closely, partially closing my laptop screen. “Maybe it’s one of those kidnapping and ransom stories you hear about on the news. You know, executives are held to ransom so that companies pay up to release their missing leader,” I said.

Alex turned to me and gripped my arm. “That’s it! Russia, that’s where I recognise Theo from. He was studying at the same international school as me. My father’s a lawyer and we lived in Moscow too, for a while. I never really got to know him or speak to him that much. He was quiet, very shy and used to hang out with two Chinese kids most of the time.”

Khan was surprised by the connection and nodded as he rose from his chair. “Okay, well I’d definitely try to make contact next time you see Theo. He may be in need of a familiar face.”

He steered his chair back to his desk, then rested his forearms on the back. ‘Russia can be a dangerous place for foreigners,’ he said.

“I spent some time there myself many years ago and never felt totally comfortable or safe. Moscow is like any other big city on the planet, wealth and poverty living side by side. It’s perhaps less multicultural, but a big busy place, as you’d expect. The difference for me was that I always felt I was being watched or monitored. Despite being free to move around, there was just something that didn’t feel right.” Khan’s gaze was fixed in middle distance as he spoke. Alex had told me about life in Moscow too, but didn’t seem to have the same cynical view. Perhaps a result of being younger, at school and protected by parents. But I could tell the city had left its mark on Khan.

The professor was a well-travelled guy and had lived and worked in some interesting places. I could listen to him for hours. He explained how he’d left university with a degree but decided to travel before looking for a permanent job. On his travels some twenty years earlier he’d met a young Russian student called Andrei in Australia, who was also on a gap year. The pair of them hit it off and decided to continue their global travels together, visiting as many of the most popular backpacking destinations as they could afford. Thailand was their final stop together before heading back to their respective home countries. They’d each been travelling for nearly twelve months by that time, together for the last four, and had become good friends.

This was all back in the late nineteen eighties. Both were IT graduates and Khan had heard about the rapidly emerging technology scene in Russia. The government was pouring millions into it in an aggressive attempt to compete with the USA and China as the world began to change. Khan and Andrei had discussed many ideas, and dreamt of starting a business together. When they were about to complete their travels and part company, they’d had some choices to make. In the end, Khan told us, it was one of the easiest decisions he had ever made. He was at the perfect age to take big risks and so had decided to join Andrei when he returned to Russia. If it didn’t work out, well it was another country that he could tick off his list.

They both managed to secure software coding jobs at a local IT business that was starting up in the Russian capital. Developers and good programmers were a scarce commodity at the time, so they were able to charge a fairly hefty day rate for work they were completely absorbed with. Eventually, they had earned enough money to be able to terminate their contracts and start up something on their own.

While working tirelessly on multiple ideas they’d been kicking around, they had a moment of realisation, a breakthrough. Video gaming had taken off but creating a computer game in those days was becoming more and more competitive. The Japanese were forging the way ahead and an emerging arcade gaming scene was quickly developing. The pair were working on a huge IBM computer at the time, but were struggling to create the results that could compete with those from the leading developers and gaming companies. So instead, they improvised, and used the computer’s text characters to create abstract shapes that cascaded and rotated down the screen to then be collected and joined together to create a solid line, something simple yet quirky and different that would feed the insatiable appetite of hungry gamers.

I was enthralled, hanging on every word of his intriguing tale. This was a guy about the same age as my dad but he’d been living the dream. Inspiring stuff, I thought, but I was keen to know how he’d become so successful in the gaming world. Khan chose to move the conversation on though, glossing over that part of his life. I began to ask more questions but it was clearly not something he wanted to dwell on. “Yes, I guess you could say it was a big success but it got very complicated, as these things often do. Too many people involved, big business sticking its nose in, the Russian government and its bureaucratic processes. It all got very messy, ugly at times, and in the end I decided to move on,” he said. Sitting down at his desk, he moved the mouse again to check the brightening screen.

“So where did you go from there?” I asked, closing down my laptop and sliding it back in my rucksack. Khan seemed happy to continue the discussion, Alex and I had time to kill and were eager to hear more.

Khan went on to describe how he had then moved back to the UK for a couple of years, but became restless. At around that time he was fortunate enough to hear, through an old school friend, of a job at a university in the USA. His travels had taught him that the world was a big place, and the USA was somewhere he’d only briefly visited as a stopover on the way to touring South America. He jumped at the opportunity, figuring it would be a good base for him to develop his skills, progress his career and to explore the vast country from the inside. Technology was booming, the internet had just been created and the West Coast was where the action was. He likened it to being in town at the time when someone came rushing down from the hills shouting about a shiny yellow metal they’d just stumbled across.

“They were exciting times for a young man,” he said, a relaxed smile returning to his face. “No commitments or ties, a great career and a new country to explore.” He told us how he’d then moved a few hundred miles south from a fairly ordinary college in Oregon, to California, near San Francisco’s so-called Silicon Valley, the area considered the epicentre of the technology world at the time.

Apparently the California Institute for Technology and Sciences (CITS) was a world renowned place of learning and specialised in emerging technologies. It was there that he became involved in a working group that was closely associated with NASA and the Federal Government, working on many classified and confidential projects. The best brains in the western world had been harnessed and they were used to develop mission-critical software for projects like the space shuttle, the evolving satellite communications sector and early developments surrounding the ‘Stars Wars’ Strategic Defence Initiative. It was another world, and the buzz of excitement inside me reminded me why I’d been drawn to computer sciences – to be part of something new. To make a difference.

Khan was really on a roll now, and was describing the start of the nineties. As the new decade arrived and government administrations changed, there was a seismic shift in focus for the technology world, and business took over from academia. Dot-com fever spread around the globe, the internet went worldwide and the opportunities were endless. Consequently, the institute’s R&D budget was squeezed and its department was downsized, although Khan stayed on in a senior role as the focus returned to more academic work.

Much of the activity wasn’t anywhere near as exciting as their previous work, but the core team busied themselves with all manner of projects. Despite the government budget cuts, CITS remained financially secure. They had been well funded in the past, investing a large slice of their income from external sources and donations in the stock market. Khan said that, in those days, all you had to do was look for a new dot-com business starting up, give it a cursory once-over, invest and then sit back until the stock price skyrocketed. CITS made millions in the early days of the cyber gold rush, and had prudently managed the profits they generated.

Once things had settled down, Khan and a colleague had been assigned to a new technology trend that was developing, involving artificial intelligence. The earliest incarnations had been in the field of robotics. There were countless technology companies around the world that were producing ever-more capable robots that were guided by visual or audio feedback and machine learning, most aptly demonstrated by the chess computer that eventually learned enough about the game and its opponent to beat a grandmaster. They were exciting times, and Khan and his colleagues were challenged to explore the impossible and develop the incredible as the hunger for new technology grew.

“This is where I got involved with AI coding and voice projects; it was, and still is, a fascinating area,” Khan said. “But look at the advances that have been made since then. You now have robots that can outplay multiple poker players, game after game. Machine learning has defeated teams of humans in disaster relief challenges. An open letter has even been signed by the biggest technology influencers, all of them agreeing that AI will never be used to develop weapons.”

Khan broke away briefly to get a refill from the water cooler outside his office. Returning, he perched on the edge of his desk and continued. He began describing how, prior to his return to the UK, his team had been working on technology and biometrics, particularly the area of algorithmic voice synthesis. “The progress they’ve made, in fact, the progress that many organisations have made in this area, is incredible. CITS has now developed their algorithm to the point where it can clone a human voice and regenerate it from less than thirty seconds of voice input. Thirty seconds. Just think about it. Not only can they reproduce it, they can switch accents, even change gender – it really is mind-blowing and, quite frankly, a little scary.” He reached around and angled his monitor screen to share a web page on the detail with us.

I remained captivated during the discussion and scribbled down a few things in my notebook. The morning had drifted by and I knew that we had classes to go to, but this was the only sort of lecture I would be attending that day.

Khan revealed that he’d eventually tired of living abroad and had agreed to return to the UK to take up his current role at the university. He would still have input and an involvement with the CITS projects, a cross-collaborative effort of transatlantic learning, as he called it. Some students had completed exchange visits in the past, and he hinted that this could be something we could explore if the right opportunity arose.

He went on to explain how the CITS project team had achieved incredible success, becoming a world-renowned centre because of the AI and machine learning technology they were developing. This expertise in voice synthesis, and their subsequent achievements with it, were recognised as expected by academic accolades, awards and distinctions within their peer group. They had a trophy cabinet full of metal, to rival that of their sports faculty. However, the innovations had also attracted the unwanted attention of other parties: speculators and investors, the rapidly expanding tech and social media companies which were becoming household names and, at one stage, even the Russian mafia. Khan brought up another web page with an associated report, suggesting he’d email the link to us for further reference.

I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. The technology was so advanced compared to what we were working on – and we had thought that was clever stuff – but also I now had an insight into how technology had evolved, and the pioneering work that was happening in new areas. I’d heard stories about tech companies selling for many millions even before turning a profit themselves, about investors speculating on share prices rising or falling. The Russian mafia involvement was completely new and off the scale to me, I hadn’t even considered this; it was all a bit mind-boggling.

“I get the big guys wanting to maybe have the CITS technology, and obviously the part about investors betting on stocks and shares,” I said, clicking at my pen again and glancing at my scribbled notes, “but I don’t understand what the Russian mafia has to do with this. Why would they want it?”

Khan was quick to respond. “Okay, so think about what we’ve been hearing about recently, how one country can launch a cyberattack on another, or on several, for that matter.” He was standing now, pacing, his words shaping his hand gestures as he added to the detail. “It’s happening all the time. Russia launching disruptive attacks at the Olympics, for example. China interfering with Cambodia’s elections. North Korea embezzling millions from Indian banks, or seeking to destabilise South Korean trade agreements. The list of allegations goes on.”

“There are half a dozen key offenders, and the whole world can be classed as victims,” he warned. “The USA is perhaps the biggest of all the victims. It’s a pretty primeval thing, really, when you break it down. You develop all this incredibly clever stuff and then it either gets used by the good guys or the bad guys. Often the legal, regulatory and compliance processes are all way behind, so the bad guys get a big head start.”

I was mesmerised, this wasn’t something they’d covered in any lectures before; now I was seeing the bigger picture. Alex’s concentration was broken by a brief text tone which was quickly silenced with the flick of the mute button and a whispered apology.

“It’s amazing when you understand it in this sort of detail,” said Alex, turning to me then back to Kahn, “most of the time it’s just a headline you catch on the news, but this has given me a whole new perspective on it.”

Khan smiled and went on to explain how the latest US and UK government research indicated that the Russian government was behind recent cyberattacks in both countries, and that mostly the activity was merely a threat, a demonstration that they could do something if they wanted to. Other activity, however, was far more serious, particularly where the alleged US 2016 election interference was concerned. The fact that the Russian government had blamed the cyberattacks on Russian mafia operations was a poor attempt at deflecting attention from their own objectives, especially as it was China and Russia that were alleged to be the biggest of the offenders globally when it came to cybercrime against other states.

The morning with Khan had been riveting. Better than any tutorial I’d attended so far, much more exciting and a complete eye-opener. It was way past lunch break now. Khan had marking and some preparation to catch up on for the following day. He was keen for us to complete our voice project work, however basic it might now seem given our new awareness of technology in this area. He suggested we get back to our lessons and, should we be asked, mention that we were with him working on the project, not skipping school, as he put it, with a wry smile.

The professor also reminded us of his invitation a while back to a conference on artificial intelligence and virtual reality at which he was going to be a guest speaker. It was in a few weeks’ time. Handing a couple of visitor passes to me, he extended the invite again. “If you’re both available feel free to come along, just let me know and we can catch up while you’re there. I think you’ll enjoy it, unless I’ve put you off after today,” he said with a smile, as he walked us across the lecture room to the main door.

Later that night, we caught the late news at the campus coffee shop, just before it closed. The place had emptied apart from two small groups of students hanging out, finishing drinks and snacks before heading off. Staff were clearing tables, straightening chairs, loading trays with cutlery, plates and cups.

The news of a UK businessman’s disappearance in Moscow was reported, but had slipped down the national news rankings, so the detail was fairly brief. Images of police officers and a marked police car were broadcast, portraying the foggy night-time scene outside the sprawling Varkanopolis country home. A reporter provided what little detail they had, before cutting to an interview with the local Member of Parliament, who promised to raise the issue in London, urging the government to act quickly. It all seemed a little futile, and would probably not make the news at all the following day. Both Alex and I were now keen to make contact with Theo somehow.

I was exhausted. Alex’s technical mind was far more in tune with the discussion we’d had that morning, but we both understood what Khan had described, and that we had a lot to learn. We’d talked more about Theo, about Moscow and the time Alex had spent there, the disappearance of Theo’s father, and all of this cybercrime stuff Khan had revealed to us. I couldn’t stop wondering if it was just a business deal in Moscow that had turned sour for Theo’s father, or if the Russian mafia could be connected in some way with his mysterious disappearance.

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