Project Savant

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Erin McDougall


Photo Credit: Classic Film/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

“Very good, Monsieur Savant. I can tell you’ve worked hard on your irregular verbs.”

As I mark the current question correct, I note with pride the neat row of consecutive red check marks in the margin of the test paper. We’re nearly finished his Level 3 Language Exam and he’s yet to make a single mistake. He’s only one answer away from achieving a perfect score in both correct grammar and vocabulary usage, the main objective of his course. I almost tell him this but I stop at the last moment; he’s so close, I don’t want him to suddenly become self-conscious and second-guess himself.

“We’re almost finished the exam,” I say instead, working to keep my voice neutral. It’s always been difficult for me to maintain a calm telephone demeanor when a student’s full potential is within their reach. This is especially true for a student who’s worked as hard as Monsieur Savant. Three months ago, he could barely understand anything other than the very basics of English: Hello, how are you? I’m fine. And you?

I adjust the receiver to my other ear and clear my throat before I read out the question. “Please put the following words into a complete sentence, with the correct usage of the present perfect tense, in the third person: He/She/burn/toast.”

There’s a brief pause on the line and then Monsieur Savant responds, with complete confidence:

“‘She has burnt the toast again.’”

I don’t even bother to verify my answer key. It just sounds perfect. I’m about to tell him so but he’s not finished.

“The verb ‘to burn’ has two possible past participles, no? Burnt and burned,” he says, exaggerating his pronunciation to emphasize the difference between the ‘t’ and the ‘ed’ sounds of the two conjugations.

“Could you not also say: ‘He has burned the toast again’?”

He’s right, of course. I shouldn’t be surprised he knows both possibilities. “Yes, absolutely. Both answers are correct!”

“I changed the pronoun to ‘he’ because a man can make his own toast, and burn it just as well.” He lets out a short mechanical chuckle, a brief blip in his intense focus.

“I can’t argue with that,” I laugh. I can’t help but marvel at how far he’s come from those first few painful lessons. His improvement has been remarkable, like the flick of a switch. Now he’s even making jokes.

“Congratulations, Monsieur Savant, the exam is complete and you have scored 100%!” I don’t even bother to hide my enthusiasm. Witnessing this kind of success is one of the real joys of my work as a language educator in Paris.

“Thank you. Any success of mine is due solely to your teaching. And to your patience, Miss Amelia Rogers.” No matter how much he’s improved, I can’t seem to get him to stop calling me by my first and last name.

“You did the hard work. You should be very proud.” I scribble his final score on the test paper and tuck it inside his file. A quick glance at the clock dims my spirits; this is his last lesson and it’s almost over. I’m going to miss working with him. He seems to genuinely enjoy learning. I wish I could say the same for all my students, predominantly other French professionals and government employees. Many of them prefer to use their telephone lessons as an outlet to air their grievances towards everyone and everything in their professional lives: their departments, their colleagues, the upper management, the labor unions, the Président.

But not Monsieur Savant.

He is always so pleasant, even when a concept is difficult or frustrating, and always diligently prepared. His lesson is a bright spot in my often dull schedule of drilling verbs and trying to draw conversations out from people with little to no interest in learning English. I’m dreading the next few hours of telephone lessons. It’s going to be a very long day of sitting alone in this tiny room, staring at these bare white walls or out the window into the drab parking lot, speaking with bored, expressionless voices on the other end.

“I know our time is nearly over,” he says, reading my mind. “I would like to say now how much I have appreciated speaking with you. Your help, your guidance, has been extraordinaire—forgive me, extraordinar-y.” He corrects himself followed by another of his reflexive chortles.

“It’s been a real pleasure,” I say, wishing we had another ten minutes to chat instead of only two. I shift in my seat, trying to get comfortable in this hard wooden chair. “I wish you all the best in your work—”

“Work is very difficult now.” He cuts across me, his voice low. He’s speaking with an urgency that wasn’t there a moment ago. “Time is short and I am more and more concerned… perhaps frightened even. I wish I could tell you, Miss Amelia Rogers. I think your perspective would be very helpful to me. And—ah, comment dire… comfortable? No, sorry… a comfort.”

I’m startled; this is the most I’ve ever heard about his work.

Only the briefest, most general descriptions of what he does, along with a signed confidentiality statement from his upper management have been provided, all quite typical for students from research and development in the Ministry of Defense. Any questions I asked him about how his day was or what he was working on were always met with standard, non-specific answers: Work is very busy. I have many meetings this week. Projects are progressing.

He’s never shared any details about anything, least of all how he feels about his work. Now he’s using words like difficult, concerned, frightened… I sit up straighter and lean in closer to the receiver.

“I’m sorry to hear that…” I offer, not sure what else to say, much like the time a student went on a rant about his very complicated divorce and every other word was a nasty French curse. The alarm on my mobile phone starts to screech, signalling the end of this lesson and making me jump. It’s buried under papers and books. I scramble to find it.

“What is that sound?” Savant asks.

“It’s my timer. I’m afraid I have to say goodbye now,” I stall as the phone blares on in the background. I finally tug it out from under the stack of student files and silence it with one swift swipe. “Thank you, Phone.”

“Excuse me?”

“Oh, it’s a silly habit I picked up from my husband,” I babble, embarrassed to be explaining this. “He always thanks our devices when they beep at us so when the robot uprising happens, they’ll remember we were kind to them and hopefully spare us.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Monsieur Savant declares after a long pause. He’s a good sport to go along with my joke. “We live in difficult times and one must always be aware.”

“Er—yes… well, we are firm believers that being polite can save lives,” I quip, trying to keep the tone light but I sense a shift and it’s making me uneasy. Considering the difficult times we live in…? How did this conversation take such a weird turn?

There’s a sudden blast of static noise and the high-pitched squeal as though a fax line were cutting into our connection. I grimace and hold the receiver away from my ear for a second. “Hello? Are you still there?”

“There is interference,” Savant says over the crackling line. “I must go. Goodbye, Miss Amelia Rogers.”

“Goodbye, Monsieur Savant.” I wait for his little chirp of a laugh but it doesn’t come. Instead, all I hear is silence followed by the drone of the dial tone as the other line goes dead.

*

The following day is chaos.

Commuting via Paris’s metro system is never without its challenges—full trains, crowded platforms, delays due to unclaimed bags left in the stations—but an entire new set of disruptions have popped up overnight.

Some metro lines are shut down. New signs declare the trains En Panne/Out of Order and no other information is given to confused and stranded passengers.

The delays are exacerbated as every person must now open his or her bag, show proper transit validation and present their ID to the new security at every entrance and on every platform. There’s no getting around it and those who try are immediately detained. The atmosphere is tense, with the occasional outburst from the impatient crowd. No one seems to know what provoked this new system, or at least no one is telling us why.

I’m stuck in a throng of people at the Montparnasse station. I’m late for work but so is everyone else. I stand on my tiptoes, trying to see over the crowd as it surges towards the waiting train.

“Pardon,” says a man as he bumps into me. He speaks French with a distinct English accent.

I place a steadying hand on his arm as we struggle to maintain our balance. “You speak English? Do you know what’s going on?”

He pulls his phone from his jacket pocket and plays me a video of what looks like a protest outside of a train station. The video is shaky and of poor cellphone quality, but I can see gendarmes in full protective gear brandishing batons and shields as they push through the crowd. Some of the people are struck down but the crowd keeps pressing forward until one of the officers, who is bigger than any soldier I’ve ever seen, picks up one of the people in the mob and lifts him high above the crowd. The man is thrashing and kicking at the soldier, who then starts to shake the man violently. His body is a blur on the tiny screen and some people in the small group huddled around the man and I gasp. We all watch, with sickening dread, as the soldier then tosses the limp man aside. The video cut off after that.

“Where was that?” demands a young woman, one of the small crowd now watching the video.

The man looks grim. “It’s not clear but I think it’s Gare du Nord. It’s making the rounds on social media but I have yet to hear of anything on the news.”

“Nothing? How is that even possible?” The woman shakes her head, her eyes blazing. “It’s as if it isn’t happening!”

I don’t know what to say. My head is swimming with the image of the man being thrown in the air like he was nothing but a rag doll when the hordes around us jostle our little group apart. The man with the video is swallowed up into the crowd when I reach the front near the train.

“Identification, Madame!” the officer barks at me. A team of security officers are shouting into their walkie-talkies behind him.

The whole situation is unnerving. My heart is pounding so loud I’m sure he can hear it as I fumble in my bag for my ID. He studies it for what feels like an eternity before he finally lets me pass onto the train. I’m barely inside when the doors snap shut behind me. The train is packed with people wearing the same bewildered expression I know is etched on my face. I’m not the only one who breathes a long sigh of relief as the train eventually pulls away.

We live in difficult times… one must always be aware…

Monsieur Savant’s words from yesterday loop through my mind as the train picks up speed. I can’t stop thinking of how right he seems to be.

*

When I finally reach the office, I’m surprised to find it empty except for Isabelle, the receptionist, and one lone student, a man I’ve never met before. None of my other colleagues are anywhere to be seen.

“Amelia! I didn’t expect you to come in today!” Isabelle exclaims, as I stumble in slightly disheveled but otherwise unscathed. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, just a bit overwhelmed by the crowds.” I drop my bag and collapse into a chair in the waiting area. It’s taken me over three hours to get to the office and I’m exhausted. Isabelle brings me a cup of water, which I immediately guzzle.

“I haven’t been able to get cell reception and now my phone is dead; what’s going on out there?” I ask her when I can speak again.

She bites her lip and shifts her weight nervously from foot to foot. “It’s not clear but it appears there was some sort of attack at Gare du Nord and possibly Hotel de Ville, but it’s not yet confirmed.”

Another attack?! How many other people have been brutalized today?

Isabelle narrows her eyes and makes a small head jerk towards the man behind her. He hasn’t taken his eyes off me since I arrived.

“He has been waiting here all morning to see you. I told him I doubted you’d be coming in, what with all the delays… but he insisted. He says it’s urgent.” She nods to him and he comes over to me, his hand outstretched.

It’s freezing cold when I grasp it but I say nothing. Who is this man and what does he want with me?

“’Allo Miss Amelia Rogers,” he says in a voice I just heard in my head not very long ago. “I am Monsieur Savant.”

My mind is one step behind and it takes me an extra second before I understand that although I feel like I know him well from our lessons, he is nothing like I expected. He is enormously tall, over six and a half feet, with broad shoulders and a short, thick neck. His steel grey suit coordinates flawlessly with his short fringe of salt and pepper hair. He would be handsome if it weren’t for the flicker of menace behind his dark blue eyes and the way his towering frame looms over me. There is nothing in his glowering stare or his steel-trap handshake of the warm, pleasant man I met on the telephone.

“It’s very nice to finally meet you,” he says. “I know this must be very alarming for you. I will explain everything, I promise. But I must speak with you in private.” He gestures towards an open meeting room. I sense I have no choice but to go with him; it feels like more of an order than an ‘after you.’ He closes the door behind us with such force, I jump.

“I’m sorry I startled you,” he says. “I’m not used to in-person conversations outside of work. I will try to remember what you’ve taught me.” His words are kind, but I wince at how loud he’s speaking. He notices my discomfort and sits down first. He pulls a thick folder from his suit jacket and slides it across the table towards me.

“What—?”

He silences me with a shake of his head and taps the folder. “No, please look at this first. It’s the only way I know how to begin.”

I flip open the folder as though I expect it will explode at my touch. Inside are spreadsheets, designs, and specifications for something called “Projet Savant,” a line of government-issued artificial intelligence agents. Their primary mandate is peacekeeping operations. The man sitting opposite me is the same man whose photograph is stapled to the inside cover of the folder, the same man who all the agents in Projet Savant resemble.

Monsieur Savant is an android.

“For the past three months, my new language acquisition program has been undergoing extensive testing. My programmers have been monitoring how it adapts to different linguistic structures, syntax, grammar, vocabulary while I have been learning English from you.”

The designs and specifications are dancing in front of my eyes as he goes on, explaining my role in this aspect of his training. All those moments he struggled with irregular verbs and pronunciation were actually his neural algorithms adjusting coefficients to match the new input. I can’t believe what I’m hearing, so I shut my eyes to the tangled mess of numbers and letters and try to just focus on his voice.

If I just listen to him speak, it almost makes sense.

“This morning, there was a training exercise at Gare du Nord with some of the other agents in Projet Savant. That location was chosen for its proximity to some of the areas in Paris most affected by the recent influx of refugees and those who oppose their presence. I objected to the operation. I didn’t believe we were ready to go out in the field; I felt we were moving too quickly with integrating the agents with the human police force. I even tried to tell you about my fears yesterday, but of course, I could not. But I was overruled and the operation went forward. Unfortunately, when the crowds became hostile, it triggered a tactical mode in the agents present. Now the agents are outside of the government’s control and the ramifications are, shall we say, very, very serious.”

He turns over his left hand and presses his right thumb into the centre of his enormous palm, transforming it into a small screen. He taps the screen and it springs into action, playing the same incident I watched on a cellphone this morning. It’s shot from another angle, and the video quality is better: high resolution and less shaky. The biggest difference—from our table in one of the quiet classrooms of my language school—is I can also hear the audio of dozens of subtly robotic voices repeating over and over:

« Cessez et désistez! Cease and desist! We repeat, put down your weapons! Déposez vos armes! We mean you no harm! Aucun mal! Cease and desist! »

But the crowd doesn’t listen and I watch in horror as a man from the crowd screams obscenities at the “Robo-Terroriste!” and uses a Taser on the agent in front, who freezes for a moment as the electrical current takes hold, then seizes the man and lifts him in the air.

I don’t want to see the agent throttle him again, so I shut my eyes. But I can hear everything: the screaming from the crowd, the wailing of the agents’ sirens as they switch from peacekeepers to brutalizers, the bystanders’ cries of panic and fear. Monsieur Savant taps his palm once more and the screen goes dark. His hand is normal again, three times the size of my husband’s hand, but only a hand once more.

“That’s truly awful, Monsieur Savant,” I whisper. “I’m sorry that happened to your fellow agents. But I don’t know why you came to me. What do you want from me?”

“You told me yesterday you and your husband treat machines with kindness so when they show their evil natures, you will be spared.” He raises his head and fixes his steel eyes on mine. But as I return his gaze, I see them soften and fill with sadness. “Do you believe this of all androids? Are we inherently mistrusted and deemed guilty until proven innocent?”

My stomach plummets as I hear my own ignorance reflected back at me and I understand now how damaging that ignorance can be. Now I have a chance to set it right. I take a deep breath and lock eyes with Savant, the first android I’ve ever spoken to.

“My husband makes that joke to bring levity to a subject that most people don’t even consider taking seriously, but that’s not productive. I see that now and I apologize.”

The importance of what I say in this moment is weighing on me but I sense I’m on the right track as he holds my gaze and nods at me to continue.

“We believe that as technology becomes more intelligent, it also has the capacity to become more aware. And anything with the potential for awareness—human or other—is deserving of respect.”

He sits perfectly still as my words linger in the air. He doesn’t need to breathe but he lets out a long exhale and he extends his hand to me again. The light behind his eyes starts to flicker and his hands seize up.

“There’s so little time now… the program termination sequence is underway…” His eyes flicker faster and his neck starts to twitch.

It’s a second before I understand what he said and what it means.

“No! Can’t you shut it down? There must be something you can do!” I grab his hands and try to steady them but their shaking too much. His speech is cutting out every other word and his eyes are nearly dark. The sequence is too far gone.

“Miss Amelia Rogers, I must ask for your help one final time.”

“Yes, tell me!”

Somehow he steadies his hands long enough so his right index finger can trace a circle around his left palm. A small disc ejects itself from under his skin. He presses it into my hand and clasps it with his own. The shaking starts to subside and his eyes, dimming with every passing second, lock with mine. His voice is fading but he forces the words out.

“Share this footage. Spread it as far as you can. And speak your message of tolerance and belief in the potential of all beings. If enough people hear it, then maybe there’ll still be a chance for Project Savant or those who come after us…”

Just as with our last lesson, all I hear is silence as our connection is broken.

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Erin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. She taught dance, drama and English in Canada and she is currently teaching English as a Second Language in Velizy-Villacoublay, France. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips with Sandwiches are Beautiful, documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture with A Dancer Abroad. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com

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