Ichor Falls


by on Jan.09, 2009, under By Kris Straub

“How — what — what kind of foods do they have?”

Four independent subroutines went to work analyzing the phrase uttered by the four-year-old: expression context, voice recognition, tone analysis, body language. Tone analysis needed to be the fastest, and luckily it was also the simplest. No quavering or whining detected. Had it been, the other subroutines would have been directed to stop, and control would be given over to an array of prewritten comfort dialogues.

Expression context came next. Eye contact from the child was only occasional. The image analysis package, in concert with the body language and expression routines, determined that the child, a fair-haired boy, was occupied by something below frame. The RFID scan identified it as a toy train, one of twelve toys in the room. The dialogue routine was updated with the name of the object, potentially to be used later if the child remained silent for a specified amount of time (“Hey, is that a toy train you’ve got there?”).

Voice recognition had been dissecting the phrase all this time. Tone analysis supported the conclusion that the child had asked a question.

??t k?’??d? fudz’ du ðe? hæv ?

“Food” triggered a subarray of typical questions, and once the substrings “kind of” and “they” had been identified and routed through the context and grammar parsers, it was a simple matter to locate the most likely question being asked.

The response set, indexed by question, was accessed and syllabically divided for the vocal synthesis package. Then, poring over a hash table of pre-identified lingual structures of the child’s father, the synthesizer generated an audio file by conflating the two data streams. The file is equalized to include a bassy subaudio component at 180 Hz, creating a comforting, warm “in-room” effect that mimics the tone heard by the child with their head upon the father’s chest.

Meanwhile, a 1280×700 image of the father, taken years ago when he was first deployed, is overlayed onto a digital model (from the neck up only — originally the Department of Defense had planned to include hands so the model could gesture, but this was abandoned early due to overcomplexity). The resulting hybrid passes through a series of basic lingual configurations (augmented with syllable-stress-driven head movements) and converted into a number of keyframes.

These individual frames can be presented directly on the viewing screen, synchronized to the audio file. A series of static-simulating filters create “webcam believability” and reduce Morian “uncanny valley” effects, which children have been shown to be particularly sensitive to. Once it was understood that they want to believe, the goal became to give them less visual fidelity, not more.

“They give us all kinds of foods here to keep us healthy. Lots of things like vegetables, steak, chicken. Even some of your favorites like pizza. You like pizza, huh, buddy?”

The microphone registers no audio response, but expression context identifies upturned corners of the mouth and squinting eyes.

“I miss you, daddy.”

A timer preset with a value of five minutes plus or minus anywhere from zero to thirty seconds reaches zero. A half-dozen randomly-selected dialogue trees are deallocated from memory.

“I miss you too, Josh. I’m coming home real soon, okay? Daddy has to go now. Be a good boy, okay? I love you. I love you.”

Somewhere in the room, a hard drive whirs.

Inspired by http://www.boingboing.net/2009/01/07/dod-wants-parent-bot.html

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22 comments for this entry:
  1. Magnolia


  2. cyberwasteland

    Great story, I like it.
    Beautifilly well writen on a short time.

  3. Chris

    I have to hand it to you, when I read your twitter post, I was thinking the story would feel more science-fiction, and less horror, but honestly this story is the most terrifying thing you’ve written yet.

    Well done, sir.

  4. LeosBoots

    Oh fuck me that’s sad and scary as hell. It’s terrifying and sad at the same time, like a funeral on a bright sunny day.

  5. Darkest

    Creepy. He must have died on some important secret mission, for them to take all this effort to make him seem alive.

  6. Chistery

    I think the creepiest thing is that we simply don’t know if the father is alive or not.

  7. Dirjel

    That was really good. Congrats, writer guy.

  8. Darth Skeletor

    This is probably one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read.

  9. john_malkovich

    This was more sad and depressing than anything. This is the first thing I’ve read since I was a kid where I had to struggle to hold back tears. No joke.

  10. Eve of peace

    this made me terribly sad. kid-parent relationships are always touching subjects, and the combination with technology is great. i just love how you made the technical parts sound perfectly believable and both complicated but understeandable at the same time.
    good job.

  11. Simon

    This is deliciously dark. The interplay of technology and human emotion, the obvious assumption that the father is dead, and especially that phrase: “Once it was understood that they want to believe…” It is a masterpiece of short fiction.

  12. Tom

    I guess it’s just me but I didn’t get this much. It is kinda sad at the end but I wish someone would post a comment to explain what’s going on with the story. What’s the hard drive mentioned at the end of the story? And is the computer spying on the kid in a room or something?

  13. Tom

    Never mind, I just had to re-read it

  14. mkahmvet

    I clicked the link at the end before reading the story so it totally spoiled it for me. That is, unless there’s something obvious I’m missing.

  15. Kacee

    Read the inspiration … Story first then link.
    Are we there yet?

  16. -.inc

    =[ It feels almost as if the child can sense something is wrong.

  17. Anonymous

    Jeesh, that DOD project is pretty horrifying. I’m getting a major in CompSci and I love AI theory, but that’s just plain wrong. This must be what it feels like for a scientist to one day find out that the stuff he’s been working on for years is now being used to build a bomb.

  18. Paint


    Not THAT sad. Or scary. An interesting idea though, and certainly I can see the reasoning behind it.

  19. Nate

    Although the implication is that the father is dead and the entire thing is a charade for the benefit of his child, my first thought after the story was over was: is the child also a machine?

    I had flashes of “There Will Come Soft Rains,” about robots who continue to maintain a home and serve its former occupants long after they, and indeed all humanity, is long gone from the Earth: a child facsimile that talks with a father facsimile day after day, elaborate programming and computer systems that feverishly analyze and reply to each other in a farcical mockery of the life that created them and then was extinguished.

  20. rambochu

    pretty sure that was the most depressing thing ever.

    @ Nate, though it’s been a while and you probably won’t read this. actually, i don’t know why i reply to comments. oh well.

    i loved “there will come soft rains”, but i don’t think there was a child machine. there’s no point in expounding about uncanny valley and such if the child wasn’t real.

    i wondered more where the mother was…

  21. Goof

    That’s the point, there was also no mother present..
    The mother robot picked up on the phrase “I love you, I love you…”, the hard drive spin up noise was the ‘mother’ robot about to process this…

  22. Steve B.

    The horror doesn’t arise from not knowing whether the father is alive or dead. Nor does it arise from not knowing where the mother is.

    The horror lies in the fact that this cold collection of subroutines was, in fact, capable of accurately simulating a father’s conversation with his distant son. That’s why Kris devoted most of the piece to portraying all of the computer’s processes in sterile, technical detail.

    If his own son can’t tell them apart, is the true father really fundamentally different than the simulated father? Is the human mind also just a cold collection of subroutines, just a fancy meat-based computer?

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