Code of Silence

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Chapter 3

I was standing in the main entrance hall of the university when I’d first met Alex, just through some massive oak-panelled doors, next to the drinks and snacks dispenser and the many noticeboards by the staffroom. The huge adjacent corridor with its high ceilings extended in both directions for as far as you could see. The main university building was an imposing period structure that dated back some one hundred and twenty years, its regal façade of red-brick and contrasting beige sandstone looking out across lush manicured lawns and a shimmering ornamental lake. There were similar buildings leading off it from behind creating two paved courtyard areas. Beyond, and to each side, there were more large modern structures where student accommodation and additional learning centres could be found.

As a fresher like me, Alex was still exploring the campus, investigating the academic side of things as well as what was on offer outside of the lecture rooms. Keen to mix hobbies with learning, I had discovered the noticeboards and that the IT department offered several extracurricular courses. Looking through the options I thought they might offer a welcome break from any compulsory course work.

“Oops, I’m so sorry,” Alex muttered, accidentally stepping on my rucksack.

“No problem, my bad,” I replied, shunting the bag closer to the skirting board with my foot. “Would have forgotten it was there if you hadn’t reminded me. Could have been a nightmare in the morning!” I stood aside as more students reached across to take flyers from a dispenser on the wall.

“I’m Alex. Good to meet you.”

Shaking hands seemed a bit too formal but I went along with it. “Hey, I’m Joel, and likewise. You found anything interesting?” I said, nodding towards the patchwork of printed sheets spread across the boards.

“The IT sessions look promising.” Alex was taking a photo of an A4 printout we’d both been scanning. “But I’m assuming you’re thinking about the sports clubs?” said Alex, casually inspecting the team photos and flyers pinned to the board in front of me.

“Yep, having second thoughts though.” I replied, as I finished scrawling my mobile number on an enquiry form with a pen hanging from a string. I was involved in most of the sports clubs at school and my body needed a break.

“Too many bruises and I don’t recover as quick these days,” I said, stepping past Alex to check out the other IT offerings again. “Gonna try a bit of a mix, I think. I’m doing computer science, and the artificial intelligence and advanced coding looks cool, but not sure my maths brain will cope with it.” I said, squinting at the detail up close.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine, maths isn’t what you need for AI,” said Alex, pulling out a couple of the flyers from the dispenser and handing one to me. “Basically, artificial intelligence is about creating computer coding that can do things that normally require human intelligence. Image recognition and speech patterns, translation and complex decision-making – there’s all sorts of stuff that computers can do now. Actually, your phone is full of things that rely on it.”

“Makes sense.” I leant casually against the wall as I mulled it over. “So, it’s really just a geeky way to describe computing, then?” I said, slipping on my new reading glasses and faking a daft grin.

“Well no, not really,” Alex said, frowning at me, arms tightly folded. “Many tasks that computers perform don’t do anything very intelligent. Just look at the word computer. A computer simply computes. It’s a glorified calculator. Well, sort of. The computer takes an input from a human, you, me – a number, an image or a sound. It performs a series of predefined calculations, and spits out a result. Simple really, but we’re the intelligent ones. In fact, the human race is now a lot more artificially intelligent than we used to be thanks to technology.” The words had tumbled out in a rush of enthusiasm. Alex took a deep breath and shrugged.

“Piece of cake then?” I grinned, and picked up my rucksack, stuffing some flyers into the front pocket. I definitely got some of it, but was on Alex’s coat-tails with most of it at that point.

It was late afternoon. We chatted some more and then decided to continue over a coffee. We headed down one of the long corridors to where subdued lighting and the chatter of animated voices signalled that there might be a place to sit and relax for a while.

As we turned off the corridor into the dimly lit student café area, I tapped Alex’s shoulder and pointed to some seats which had just become free.

“Grab that big sofa over there in the corner and I’ll order. What do you fancy?” Alex chose from the blackboard menu above the counter, then carefully picked out a route through tables and chairs, before falling back into a battered old leather sofa, discarding a rucksack and sinking into the soft cushions while surveying the scene.

The café area had a relaxing feel about it, a bit like a trendy bar you’d find on any high street but without the brash logos and branding. It had low lighting and an eclectic mix of chairs, sofas and tables, casual and comfortable – created for chilling and chatting rather than any form of academic hard labour. Indie acoustic sounds at just the right level drifted throughout, creating a warm, relaxing atmosphere; nothing too loud, so you could still hear the murmurings of like-minded people mulling over similar things.

Giving the occasional nod to a student I’d met but not quite yet got to know, I joined Alex with the drinks, my hands gripping two huge mugs of coffee that I balanced carefully while attempting to keep my rucksack from dislodging and clouting heads. Miniature milk cartons, sugar sachets and wooden stirrers poked out of the pocket of my leather jacket.

“Here you go,” I said, crouching low, carefully settling the mugs on the table and spilling a little of both in the process.

“Easy does it! Thank you, I’ll get the free refills, then.” Alex shifted over on the sofa and flashed me a cheeky grin.

I shuffled past to the other side of the huge sofa and slumped into the creased leather. Alex and I had hit it off immediately, and swapped stories well into the evening. Our backgrounds, where we lived and had gone to school, family life and my dad’s health, hobbies, apps, music. All the typical stuff, the sort of stuff that places like that were designed for.

As the conversation moved to refills, I took out my phone and scrolled to the images I’d photographed from the noticeboard myself. The IT sessions had stood out as something intriguing, and very different to the two or three sports clubs I’d been planning to explore. I’d read a lot about artificial intelligence on the internet, watched documentaries and caught news feeds while at home looking after my dad.

“Would you like another coffee?” asked Alex, struggling to stand upright from the sumptuous leather seating.

I nodded briefly in response, breaking away from my screen and watching as Alex delicately retraced my zigzagging route back to the counter.

It was going to happen, it was just a matter of time. Someday computers would overtake us in terms of intelligence, it was inevitable. Whether you saw the pros or the cons in it all was usually down to when you were born. But my main interest was the use of AI within speech therapy, something that I had become really interested in since my dad’s recent stroke. The attack had ravaged his body, and it was as if his genetic coding had suddenly glitched then crashed, leaving him helpless; he remained paralysed on one side, and silent.

My dad’s complete loss of speech was the most devastating side effect. The only noises he could make were fairly primitive, nothing conveying any sort of emotion. I felt there was a glimmer of good news, as his personality and his mental state seemed to be relatively unaffected. He could communicate with gestures: thumb up or down, pointing, scratching itches, acknowledging things, and even our quirky high five. The one thing I couldn’t come to terms with was the absence of our usual banter, the way we’d talk and chat about anything, like best friends rather than father and son. The sort of chat and banter that I was starting to enjoy with my new friend.

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