Alex and I had received our invitations to the annual AI conference from Professor Khan a few weeks earlier, but I’d completely forgotten about it. First term exam-time had crept up on me, and juggling classes with revision and social stuff, along with the AI project work, had distracted me. Fortunately, Alex had noted the date and messaged me to say that if we were going, we needed to be headed to London the following day.
It was a two-day event and Khan was speaking on the first day. We needed to set off early and planned on a late return, but still had to decide how we would get there. Alex was on hand to save the day, once again, having convinced the family that a car was the only way that regular trips home could be made. Alex’s mother had agreed that her old Mini with its bright red paintwork and Union Jack roof, previously used on the school runs, could be taken by Alex and used at university. It was old, but reliable and in good condition, nothing too racy but on the right side of cool.
Khan’s invite had included the itinerary, with various time slots for speakers, Q&A sessions, demonstrations, and a layout of the main exhibition area that formed the event. It was an annual gathering, designed to bring the great and the good together: academics, students, businesses, government, inventors and investors. The professor had a ninety-minute segment just after lunch. He wasn’t at all pleased with his slot but hadn’t been able to do anything about it. In his view, this was when people’s interest levels wavered, after a long and lazy lunch and having either sat through several morning presentations already, or been traipsing around the vast exhibition halls since their arrival.
We parked among the hundreds of cars that fanned out in rows across the enormous exhibition and conference facility and, following the crowds through the designated pathways, past ornamental lakes and gardens, and under advertising banners, we headed towards the main conference centre where we scanned our badges at the line of registration desks. Grabbing our welcome packs, we moved to the side of the entrance to the halls and studied the layout to find the spot we’d agreed to meet Khan at that morning.
He was already waiting for us when we arrived at the event hospitality area, and led us over to some side doors marked ‘Executive Suites’. The stairs led up to a plush lounge area where refreshments were being served to speakers and their guests.
“So, it’s good to see you both, is this your first time here?” said Khan, as he ordered some coffees from a passing waiter.
“Never been to anything like it, to be honest,” I said. I recognised some of the names and the companies in the guide they gave us but hadn’t had chance to look around yet.
“Yes, very excited, it should be really interesting,” added Alex, peering eagerly down through the tall windows, surveying the main hall and the many exhibitor stands below.
We found somewhere to sit as the coffees arrived, and chatted about coursework and our plans for the term break. The conversation eventually moved on to Theo, and the latest developments regarding his father’s disappearance. It had been almost a month now, and the story had dropped completely from the main TV bulletins and newspapers. There was the odd update on social media, but it had become one of those tragic stories that sinks into oblivion until a clue is thrown up, or a family member or local MP forces it back onto the media’s agenda.
Khan confirmed that neither he nor any of his colleagues had seen Theo since receiving the call from his mother, and he hoped they would welcome him back to university soon to continue with his studies.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he was here today, in fact,” said Khan, looking out across the growing number of visitors in the main exhibition area below. “I know he’s been to similar events in the past, although he didn’t acknowledge the invite I sent him. Maybe he’s still just lying low and dealing with things.”
“Yeah, must be really tough for him, we’ll keep a look out. So what’re you giving your presentation on today?” I said, sipping awkwardly from the small cup which had been resting in a saucer of spilled coffee.
Khan was perched on the edge of his chair, both hands gradually becoming more animated. “All those things we talked about a few weeks ago, really. You know, the AI developments, organised crime potentially getting hold of it, the fact that the legal side of things can’t keep up. That’s my purpose here today. I’ve seen much of it before, and it’s the usual race between new-world technology and old-world administration – technology’s version of the tortoise and the hare story, if you like,” he said. He relaxed back a little in his chair. “I’ve been part of a new collaboration … yes I know, another project group,” he added with a smile, “and we believe there is a way to manage the situation more efficiently, to create greater protection. And this is the platform that we want to use to get people talking about it.”
“Makes sense,” I said, my attention now drawn to the plate of biscuits that had just been placed on our table by the waiter.
Khan continued. “Something has to change, otherwise technology will just advance faster and the legal side of things will simply fall behind even further. Effectively, we’ll be creating a lawless future when it comes to technology, and ultimately that could be very dangerous indeed.” said Khan, as he offered the plate of biscuits towards Alex.
Our discussion ended, and as Khan gathered his things we thanked him for his hospitality and wished him good luck, before deciding to take a look around for the rest of the morning. Khan said that he hadn’t had time to look at his show guide, so he borrowed my copy and marked a few exhibitors and speakers that might be worth visiting, winking as he insisted there was only one presentation we should not miss under any circumstances. We made our way down the stairs to the main hall and decided to start in one corner and work our way around. Slowly we trudged the carpeted walkways, looking left, glancing right. Avoiding leaflets being thrust towards us by eager exhibitors, and dodging the crowds heading our way. Occasionally stopping to inspect a display further, listening in on a pitch being delivered by a suited salesperson.
Then something caught Alex’s attention: a large screen above a slick display stand. A small crowd had gathered. Some were seated in the mini auditorium; others, too late to grab a free seat, were standing at the back. It was a stand that had been set up in one corner of the hall, and was compact in size, but striking in design. There were no flashy logos or corporate branding, at least none that we recognised. Just the name ‘Vvox’ discreetly printed in white against a glossy black background.
I was still trying to see what was happening over the gathered crowd, then I noticed the screen mounted at the back of the display stand.
“I don’t believe it. Look. It’s Theo!” I gasped, as I nudged Alex.
“I think you’re right,” said Alex, shifting position and on tiptoes now, trying to figure out what was going on. We could just make out Theo’s name on the screen under the image of his face. It was like a television interview, or news broadcast with a celebrity being interviewed by a newsreader, and Theo was the one in the hot seat. Only half an hour ago we were talking to Khan about Theo as if he were curled up in a ball somewhere licking his wounds, yet here he was right before our eyes on the big screen.
We moved in closer, trying to get a better view of what was going on. It was a fairly prominent space that the stand occupied, raised from the ground by about half a metre or so, two small steps all around leading up to it. Black in colour, spotlights glinting off the shiny surface that supported a metal grid-like structure with a white muslin canopy, and various banners with the name Vvox subtly displayed on it. Several glossy white triangular pedestals about a metre and a half tall rose up from the front section of the stand, each with three touchscreens and three wireless headsets resting beside them.
At the back of the stand there were some chrome-and-white tables and chairs, with three compact white leather sofas arranged so that they faced into a triangular table in the middle. On one of the sofas sat a young man, smart but casually dressed and instantly recognisable as Theo. He sat confidently on the edge of the sofa. One of the wireless headsets in one hand and a smartphone in the other, facing a lady on one of the other sofas. I recognised her face from the TV but couldn’t put a name to it. A microphone was being held above the pair of them by a sound engineer, the interview was playing live on the large plasma screen above them at the back of the stand.
I wasn’t sure what to think. Looking around the stand and the gathered crowd, it was clearly an important feature at the conference, and had drawn more visitors than most stands we had passed during the morning. Theo seemed totally at ease, sat there in the plush surroundings in what appeared to be a televised interview situation. We couldn’t see anyone else that was involved apart from those standing by the pedestals, some wearing headsets, others removing them and smiling, using the touchscreen to enter something, then handing the headsets to someone else.
“What’s going on?” I whispered, leaning in towards Alex.
“Haven’t you heard?” came the reply. Not from Alex, but from behind me. “That’s Theodore Varkanopolis, you know, the son of the missing businessman who was in the news a while back.”
Neither Alex nor I knew who was providing this information but he looked official, a badge denoting some form of event press officer by the look of it.
“Really?” I said. “I remember the story, but what’s that got to do with all of this?”
The press officer was clearly pleased to have us as his private audience, and began to fill us in on what was happening. He spoke in a hushed voice, aware that others were tuned in to what they were watching, and as if the detail he was sharing was privileged information that only he had knowledge of.
Apparently, this was an unanticipated showstopper that the conference organisers had only agreed to include in the exhibition at the last minute, having been contacted by Theo. They’d been happy to accommodate Theo’s request, no doubt aware of the recent disappearance of his father and thinking his presence would raise the event’s profile more than usual. However, Theo was here in his own right, the press officer disclosed, having created new software that was destined to reinvent the world of AI voice technology.
The Vvox stand was launching artificially intelligent voice synthesis software, and a breakthrough that had enabled Theo and his newly created software to advance where others had failed. The stand at the conference was a demonstration area for visitors to sample and experiment with the technology, and for Theo to launch it to the world. Or to the UK, at least, although there were hundreds of international visitors due to attend, the press officer quickly reassured us. Eager to find out more, we pushed the press officer for further details.
“What are the headsets on those displays for, and what does the software actually do?” I asked, pointing at the central section of the stand, sounding a little more naive than I needed to.
“So, judging from the pre-event press launch, and all of the materials we’ve been provided with, Vvox is apparently the most advanced voice synthesis software on the market, or it soon will be,” he explained, as he brought up the Vvox details on his tablet. “So, it outperforms all the current technology, I’m told. Haven’t tried it myself yet, but I’m led to believe that with the briefest vocal input it can clone and then replay an accurately synthesised human voice in under ten seconds.” He swiped to another page. “So, it says here that the information can then be used to filter anyone’s voice input and they will then sound like the synthesised recording. Those test pods with the headsets that you see up there would allow you,” he nodded towards me, “to record your voice, which would then enable you,” he said, turning towards Alex, “to speak to someone using his voice.”
I was intrigued. It sounded impressive and I wanted to know more. Having had enough of the PR pitch we decided to politely move on, thanking the press officer for his time and shuffling further into the spectating crowd. Alex turned to check if the press officer was following. Fortunately, he’d latched onto another unsuspecting audience member and was regurgitating the same exclusive pitch all over again.
We were both speechless. If what the press guy had said was correct, then Theo was a total genius. Alex and I had originally wanted to catch up with Theo because of the Russian school connection, and the fact that he was probably trapped in a living nightmare. But now we were even more motivated because he looked so well, so in control, and we were intrigued by what he had apparently created. This was more than we’d ever dreamt of achieving in our own efforts to create solution for my dad; in fact, it was more than Khan had achieved so far, and that was as part of his highly experienced transatlantic think tank.
Theo was still sitting on the leather sofas being interviewed. I could see the intensity had dipped, and the body language of both interviewer and interviewee was more relaxed, indicating that it might be reaching a conclusion. Alex and I had already agreed that if we got the chance we should at least make contact with Theo. We wanted to offer some goodwill and support and, if we did manage to catch up with him, now we’d also be able to provide feedback to Khan on Theo’s amazing tech advances when we next saw him. If Theo let us into his world of technology that would be a bonus, but that discussion could wait until another time. As the interviewer stood and extended a handshake to Theo, we stepped up onto the stage from the left to grab his attention. “My pleasure, Victoria, enjoy the rest of the show,” said Theo, and the journalist thanked him once again for his time.
Turning to fetch a bottle of water from the makeshift office behind the back of the stand, he faced Alex directly.
“Hello, Theo.” Alex smiled, and moved forward holding out a hand, mentioning their time in Russia as the introduction.
Theo looked surprised, and smiled ever so slightly. “Hey, Alex, good to see you.”
They shook hands, and Theo apologised for not catching up before, when he’d seen Alex in Khan’s IT sessions.
Then Theo recognised me. “Hi,” he said, with the same reserved smile.
“Joel,” I said. “How’re you doing, Theo?” I reached towards him, offering a handshake too.
Alex was keen to let Theo know that we just wanted to make contact and to say we’d heard the news about his father. “If there’s anything we can do to help, even just a quick coffee on campus, then let us know.”
It was Professor Khan who had given Theo’s number to Alex, and Theo acknowledged the text that Alex had sent wishing him well. He was clearly busy, repeatedly looking at his watch. I could tell he was under pressure, but at least we’d made contact with him.
Theo glanced behind him, and I nudged Alex. “Hey, no problem, good luck. Maybe catch up when you’re back at university,” I said, and we turned away to leave him to his next meeting.
Alex and I mingled with the crowds on the stand for a while, waiting to have a closer look at the interactive displays. “Quick, there’s one free over there,” I said, and we moved over to the pedestal before anyone else had the chance to.
It was an impressive set-up. The pedestal was a glossy white with the Vvox name on the exterior panels. There was a hooded booth, similar to those above the old wall-mounted phones found in hotels or airports, with tinted Perspex but more contemporary in its styling, like it had been designed in wind tunnel. Inside the booth was a tablet-sized touchscreen and a high-tech wireless headset.
Alex suddenly moved to my left as another display became free; we both had the opportunity to try it out now. Despite my less tech-savvy approach, I got on intuitively with the touchscreen. Alex kept peering round into my booth to see how I was doing. I picked up the headset and followed through the on-screen menu instructions. It was pretty basic, similar to any smartphone menu, and was designed to quickly guide me to the point where I could provide a vocal sample. I selected the ‘sample’ option, and a graphic indicated that the headset should be worn to begin recording. A prompt on the screen then displayed a list of ten sample sentences that I had to say:
Her golden locks rested on his shoulder.
They assumed both boys had been present.
Running faster may lead to a missed turn.
His door was left ajar in the cool breeze.
A spade may be used for making borders.
The truck rolled back on all four wheels.
Follow the postman past the next corner.
A bowl of honey will make a tasty treat.
She remained hidden until they finished.
Position a lantern beside the front porch.
We had learned about these while researching the AI voice project that we were working on with Khan. Each sentence had a specific set of sounds and vowels and was phonetically correct. They had been created by speech therapists more than fifty years ago and remained the benchmark for audio testing. The digital countdown clock tracked me in ten second intervals, as each sentence was read. After the recording was complete I then pressed ‘Save’ and followed the instructions.
The screen then buffered and the demo icon began to revolve in the middle of the screen, and the prompt to use the headset reappeared. I slipped it back on, pressed the ‘Play’ icon on the screen and listened:
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
Some people are on the pitch, they think it’s all over; it is now.
Never in the field of human conflict, was so much owed, by so many, to so few.
That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.
My jaw dropped, eyes wide open staring at the screen. I leant out and around the booth to find Alex as the playback continued through the headset. It was my voice. It was unmistakable. It was as if I had recorded the examples now being played back and not the sample sentences. Alex was still at the ‘Save’ stage and acknowledged my excitement with a smile and raised thumb. Listening and pressing ‘Play’, then turning back towards me with a huge grin too. Neither of us could believe it. We’d never seen or, for that matter, heard, anything like this before. And, compared to the basic attempts we’d been producing in Khan’s lab, this was on a completely different level.
Excited, and eager to discuss it, we both selected the beta app download sample to be sent to our phones via the screen, replaced the headsets and pressed the ‘Complete & Refresh’ icon. I picked up my rucksack and the water bottle I’d been carrying, Alex was handing over to another visitor who was keen to try the system out.
“Woah, I’m sorry!” As I turned, I walked straight into the person waiting for a turn on the Vvox demonstration at my terminal. I wasn’t small in terms of stature, but this guy was big, tall and wide. Alex picked up my water bottle as I politely excused myself.
“No problem,” came the stern response, as the man moved past me to the booth. It was a deep voice, clear but with a definite Eastern European or Russian sound to it.
We made our way off the stand, Alex looking back at the man before we headed off towards the conference area where Khan was due to make his appearance. The least we could do was attend Khan’s presentation, then maybe catch up with him afterwards to tell him about Theo’s stand and the mind-blowing demonstration we’d just experienced.
We arrived during a break between presentations and chose seats in the middle by the centre aisle, snacking on sandwiches we’d bought from the restaurant area in one of the halls. We checked our phones and the app had downloaded. I pressed play, then quickly silenced it, looking around, realising that everyone in the seated area could hear. Alex was a little more subtle, plugging in headphones and offering me one of the earpieces. Together we listened again, it was impressive, and we were hungry to find out more.
“Makes our efforts look pretty dismal,” I said. Alex disagreed. “Yes, but we could only work with what we had from Khan, so it’s still a great result.”
“Imagine how Khan will feel when he hears about this though,” I said. “Theo’s basically overtaken everyone by the looks of it. Khan must know about Vvox, surely.” Our conversation petered out as the event staff replaced the refreshments on the lectern.
The auditorium was gradually filled with more delegates, there must have been around a hundred or more people in the room. I wouldn’t fancy doing this myself, nor would I want the pressure of a TV interview, having just seen Theo go through one on the Vvox stand. The lights were dimmed, apart from those above the small stage where the presenters stood. A lectern in the middle with a bottle of water and an empty glass were the only visible items. Khan’s presentation on AI, cybersecurity, and the impending threats that the world had to address, went smoothly. He kept it concise, leaving time for a question and answer session at the end. He acknowledged us as we tried to catch up with him, but he was already on his way to another meeting with a group of delegates and indicated that we should speak when back at the university.
It had been interesting but exhausting walking around the exhibition halls. The fading light was barely visible through the roof lights, signalling that it was nearing the end of the first day, so we decided to leave and head back to the university, hoping to beat the mad rush that usually follows such a gathering. As we made our way out of the seating area into the main hall, I noticed the big guy I’d bumped into at the Vvox stand. He had been sitting towards the back during Khan’s presentation and was now talking on his phone. He didn’t look up or notice either of us, and I didn’t mention it to Alex. I just thought it was strange but wasn’t sure why. I swiped the camera app off and slid my phone back into my pocket.