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Friday, April 15, 2011

#FridayFlash: Spark

“That should do it.” Rick said. “Tighten it down and we’ll check the alignment.”

I did as Rick said, grabbing a socket wrench out of the toolbox he (or rather, his robo-presence) carried, and tightening the mounting bolts holding up the solar panel.

“Done.” I lifted the old hail-damaged solar panel from the wet ground, trying not to break it more than it was already, and put it in the robo’s cargo box. “Three more, I think.”

“Four.” I didn’t argue — Rick had uploaded a year ago, and could look up information just by thinking about it. “Next one’s up there,” he said, gesturing with one of his arms. He started wheeling; I grabbed the ladder bolted to the side of the robo and hitched a ride, mostly to be funny. I could have walked as quickly as it was moving. The churning treads kicked up the smell of fresh grass. A nice, calm, sunny morning tried to make up for last night’s storms.

“Hey, Paul,” Rick said, coasting to a stop in front of the next broken panel, “why haven’t you uploaded yet?” His voice was a little tinny coming through the speakers; the robo’s “face” (a round display with a camera), swiveled around, showing Rick’s face — the one he had when he was fleshbound like me.

“Hey. Someone’s got to spin the wrenches for you guys,” I said, grabbing the socket and hopping on the lift arm. This panel was a couple of feet above my head. “Besides, I’m still pretty healthy, so there’s no rush.”

“Yeah, but accidents happen,” Rick said. His lift arm twitched, perhaps to drive his point home. I held on; the robos had safeties to keep uploads from actually hurting us fleshbounds, but we could still injure ourselves through panic.

“Nice try.” I cranked on the mounting bolts, avoiding the robo-face.

“But seriously. A few attachments, and we could use these robos to maintain this stuff ourselves. I don’t have to eat, sleep is a habit that can be broken, and nobody gets sick.”

“Cha,” I said, pressing my finger in front of a moving red dot on the robo’s lift arm. It hesitated for a moment, then crawled onto my fingertip. “I’m pretty good about doing my weekly backups. If I’m doing something a little hazardous, I do a complete backup first. I’m more worried about pain than death at this point.”

“So what it is about being fleshbound that’s such a big deal?”

I held the red dot — a ladybug — in front of the robo-face. “Remember haiku?”

“Cha,” he echoed. “So what?”

“So you wrote haiku. Knock out a haiku about this ladybug.”

He frowned. “Sure. Why not? Here’s a ladybug… uh, solar panel fixes… uh… damn. I can usually knock those out in a heartbeat.”

“Yeah. Seventeen syllables, three lines, and you can’t do it anymore.”

“Huh. You’re so smart, you do one.”

“Sure: Spotted ladybug / crawling on my fingertip / then flying away.” I twitched my finger, and it flew.

“Not bad.”

“You remember Buddy Pearson?” I asked.

“Your writer friend? Sure. I finished his last book after I uploaded.”

“He uploaded a few years ago, too. Same reason you did, terminal cancer.”

“Damn. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, Paul.”

“I’ll bet. He said he was going to finish his Jenson Abel series, but you haven’t seen the new one yet, have you?”

“Huh. Now that you mention it…”

“Yeah. So I emailed him a couple weeks ago and asked him how the novel was coming. He said, ‘It’s not. I just can’t seem to get my head into writing since I uploaded.’”

Rick’s robo-face rocked back and forth, a head shake. “A little writer’s block. He’ll get over it.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Has anyone written a story, or painted a picture, or created a video, since they’ve been uploaded? Look it up.”

Rick’s display went blank for a second, then lit up. He looked surprised. “Damn. Not a single thing. Just emails and conversations.”

I said nothing.

“So…” Rick said, tipping his robo-face sideways, “you’re saying that we can’t create anything after we’re uploaded?”

“It hasn’t happened yet,” I said. “And not for lack of trying. You upload your memories, your personality even, but that creative spark? I don’t think it’s getting captured.

“Here, this one’s loose now, let’s get it — whoa. Wait. I need to disconnect it. Okay, now we can get it off here.”

Rick said nothing while helping me maneuver the new solar panel into place, watching quietly while I tightened the mounting bolts.

“That one’s done. Three to go, right?”

“Right.” Rick sounded distant. “I think you’re right about the creativity, by the way. I pinged some people I knew, they pinged some other people, and it’s all over Uploadtopia already.” He said little more as we replaced the last three panels.

The robo froze as we finished the last panel. “You okay, Rick?”

“Communication error,” the robo said in its own voice. “Remote user has been disconnected.”

I waited a minute, then climbed onto the robo and opened the hatch covering the manual controls. It was slow going, but I guided the robo back to its bay. There was no sense in waiting for Rick to come back. The repairs were finished, after all.

My phone chimed.

“Paul, we’ve severed connections to Uploadtopia, except for uploads in progress,” Zero said. “We’re going to shut it down when the last upload is completed.”

“Roger, Zero. I’ll pass the word on to the rest of the living.”

We’ll restart Uploadtopia when we figure out how to send up that spark. Until then, we can use the extra power.


  1. Ahh, it's all about that spark, isn't it? No matter what we do, without that creativity to guide us, we might as well be robots. Great story. :)

  2. Oh I love this! It's amazing how that spark is what sets us apart from machines. We have the technology to do certain things already but machines lack the intuition of a human operator.

    Good to see the humans taking back control though.

  3. Very nice Mr. Fetched. I think you're right... this could very much happen in the future!

    The creative spark is one of humanity's most precious abilities.

  4. I love this! This was enjoyable just from the dialogue and interesting world you created, but the added touch about the spark was super.

  5. Machines will never replace man. Great stuff.

  6. Brilliant piece, nail on the head in so many ways. Great warning for relying on the machine just a smidge too much.

  7. You just can't automate art in any form. Nicely done, Sir FAR.

  8. Hi all, and thanks for your kind comments!

    Sam, that's exactly the point I was making.

    Icy, fortunately machines also lack nerve endings so a good swift kick isn't resented. :-D

    Craig, I've said that creativity is a reflection of the Divine, and might be what "made in [His] image" really means.

    Chuck, that's one of the finer compliments I've had — thanks much!

    Raven, I agree. Machines can replicate physical motions, but not what makes us truly human.

    Reginald, welcome to the free-range insane asylum! Relying on any tool can be hazardous… if all you have is a hammer…

    Danni, it might be possible to automate art (e.g. Mandelbrot), but is it art if no human is there to interpret it?

    I have some awesome tweeps…

  9. Great story. I love how you help the robo-presence to see what has happened to him and all the creative types.

    Of course, I detected a sly little dig at e.mails and conversations as being a substitute for (or a distraction from) real creative work. Perhaps a bit of anti-twitter vibe?

  10. Tony, if that's really there, it was unintentional! Really! Heehee…

  11. What an awesome idea. I love the thought the artistic spark defies quantification. That said I'm only machine myself: consisting of a bundle of synapses at the mercy of neurotransmitters looking for my next hit of serotonin ...so what do I know?

  12. How much of us is replicable? What is quantifiable and what is 'soul'?

    A good play with a very deep issue. =)

    I was a little unsure about the end, are they really shutting it down? Effectively ending all of these people, friends, relatives (pale reflections as they might be). That seems particularly callous and inhuman.

    Another interesting conundrum is whether an uploaded version is still the same person. Much like the teleporter paradox: if you disassemble a person and re-assemble them, has the original died? The new person/ e-construct doesn't know any different, they have the memories, but did a person, an original, die? Could you go for upload knowing that it was effectively a copy of you online, that you yourself were going to be killed in the process?

  13. Rob-face is one of those words I wouldn't mind making it into the OED. And "Uploadtopia?" That's delightful.

  14. Loved this! I'm a little concerned, however, about the severed connections to uploadtopia. Are the ones already uploaded dead? Or merely off line until uploadtopia comes back... I thought that the ones already uploaded wouldn't be connected anymore to people on the outside, like the terminal cancer patients....

    Great concept!

  15. Morning all!

    Jason, I've heard that quantum computing closely mimics what goes on in the human brain… but maybe creativity happens in a place outside?

    John, I would say Paul and Zero (no relation) would consider it a pause rather than an end. After all, it's their only shot at immortality too — for the dying, it's the only choice. But Paul's & Rick's conversation implies that some otherwise healthy people were shuffling off their mortal coils as well. Paul may have balked at uploading early because of the "copy" question, at least at first. The question is, will the pre-shutdown uploads be forever incomplete, without that creative spark, or will they find a way to retrofit it?

    John, thanks much. I wonder if Danni will use #roboface. ;-)

    Ganymeder, the system is shut down, to be restarted at a later time. In Paul's mind, the uploads will feel no more than a hiccup, then perhaps outrage when they find out how long they've been in stasis, then maybe cooler heads will prevail once the reasons are made clear.

    Thanks everyone, and keep the comments coming…

  16. Great premise of things that might happen in the future and what's required for creativity. I like Rick's sense of calm as he navigates his maintenance for all while proving his intelligence to the robot and his ability to create simple things.

  17. Ohh, that's an awesome story! Really amazing! And you surprised me with the end too, I thought they were committing suicide or they'd shut down the thing to control panic, not to be helpful. Excellent.

  18. Thanks, Aidan. I've heard that the brain may partially operate outside our normal 3-space + time framework, which might make that spark awfully hard to capture. Rick, I thought, had planned for this conversation to happen and so he knew what to do when the time came. The ladybug was a serendipitous demonstration.

    Thanks, Mari! I can see how you could have thought that — wasn't intentional, but you take what opportunities for suspense you can in flash, right?

  19. Great dialogue and rapport between these two characters, and a great concept too. Nice writing Larry.

    The "Spark" is what makes us what we are, or part of what we are, and as has already been said, without it we just as well be robots.

    This comment is over a year late, I just followed your link from John Xero's anniversary party, dunno how I managed to miss this one when you posted it Larry. :)


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