This piece was written for this month’s Blog Battle challenge of producing a 1,000 word piece from the prompt ‘Shield’.
Simon’s aquiline nose, upon which perched small round glasses, conjured in Jonathon’s mind the image of a short-sighted eagle; not entirely successful as a hunter and vulnerable as prey himself.
“Your company has an impressive track record in our areas of interest, Jonathon. So what exactly can you bring to the Syndicate table that we don’t already know about?’
Jonathon’s tangled hair, with the beginnings of a grey zone, along with his fashionably stubbled cheeks, told Simon that Jonathon was not letting his youth go without a fight.
“Simon, we offer the capability to ‘translate’ linguistic nonsense and incoherent discourse into rich behaviour management data.”
“I think we can agree that increasingly in this field we are finding it difficult to interpret meaning and nuance in the impoverished vocabulary of electronic communication.”
“Agreed. So, what’s your solution?”
“We started from the notion that modern meaning is hiding behind a shield of abbreviation and monosyllabic vocally-fried verbal responses, as well as contextually complex and ever-changing symbolic representations of emotions. Hence our new product, SHIELD – Synergistic High-level Integration and Extrapolation from Linguistic Disambiguation.”
Simon raised an eyebrow ever so slightly and said “Never was an acronym needed more urgently. Some examples of your success with ‘extrapolations’, if you will.”
Jonathon thought, how is it that some people in conversation can effortlessly indicate inverted commas around a phrase without using hand gestures? Must look into that later.
“Let’s start with ‘like’”
“As in Likes on Facebook?”
Jonathon tried not to transmit his internal sigh and put on his best diplomatic phrasing.
“Well, that’s an important sub-set of ‘like’ but the overall contextual unravelling requires detailed analysis of ‘like’ in language. For example, what are the deeper meanings behind someone saying “So, like, I’m in this like shopping mall and like this tattooed freak like looks at me like really weird and I’m like WTF? Like, what is his problem?”
Simon smiled wryly. “I would have thought that example would represent the antithesis of an indication of deeper meaning.”
Jonathon could feel Simon edging ever closer to the trap. “You would think so, wouldn’t you? But what if I could tell you that from that banality, in association with other intelligence from the speaker’s social media habits, we can extract rich data about their school performance, their relationship with their mother and father and what colour sneakers they will wear on any given day.”
Simon tried not to overplay his indulgent smile and his growing sense that Jonathon was trying to sell yet another short-lived app.
“Jonathon, we can already get most of that data from credit card records, social media and a myriad other sources.”
Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey, Jonathon mused.
“True, but only up to a point. Essentially that’s historical data that’s only partially predictive of future behavior. Our program can take that piece of dialogue and analyse it in real time to provide a 90% successful prediction rate of what the speaker will do today and how socially interactive they will be, based on their current physical context, including who else is in the vicinity, the number of times they use the word ‘like’ and what they are looking at in that precise moment in time.”
“And how exactly do you obtain this information”
“From their umbilical cord; their phone.”
“OK, we’ve been chatting for a while now. What can you tell me about myself that I don’t already know or the phone company doesn’t know or my ISP doesn’t know?”
“Simon, I am but a bear of little brain and my pathetically inefficient neurones can only make educated but notoriously imperfect guesses. However, our software can do exactly that once I have access to your phone.”
Simon thought he’d spotted the fatal flaw in Jonathon’s scheme.
“But what if I don’t want to give you that access by putting your software on my phone?”
“Oh, we already have our software on your phone.”
“It’s embedded in almost all of your other useful apps.”
“But surely that’s illegal?”
“Not at all. It’s in the terms and conditions you agreed to when you downloaded those apps.”
“Who’s got time to read those?”
“Exactly. Which is how we’ve sold your soul to the Devil and acquired the rights to your first-born son.”
Jonathon chuckled inwardly. The look on Simon’s face was priceless.
“Kidding.” He paused for effect. “Mostly.”
Simon was now truly rattled and it was Jonathon who was rattling the firmly secured cage. He decided to counter with one last haymaker.
“The example you gave was based on dialogue. My daughters only communicate with me in one word answers, grunts, sighs and eye-rolls. What’s that going to tell you?”
“Everything. Their phones never leave their sides, right? So we know what time of the day each of those actions occurred, in whose direction they were looking, who else was in the room and much more. Combined with their other electronic data and the algorithms we have developed from millions of their socio-economic peers, we can tell you what each of those grunts and eye-rolls mean, if anything.
“What do you mean ‘if anything’?”
“Some of those behaviours are simply learned reflexes, like ducking when a bird swoops, and our software knows that.”
“OK, say I’m convinced by the technology. (Jonathon heard the cage door slam shut.) What about all the ethical dilemmas it brings?”
“Simon, all of your current shareholders will be dead before that’s fully understood and you yourself will have shuffled off the mortal coil as a relatively impoverished man, leaving behind a resentful wife and children who will know what they could have had.”
Defeatedly, knowing what the Syndicate would decide, Simon said “Alright, I’ll put it to the Syndicate but I can’t promise anything.”
“Thank you, Simon, that’s all I’m asking.”
“By the way, what’s the algorithm in your product called?”
“Protocol for Assessing Relational Energy Needed with Teenagers or PARENT for short.”