“Are you serious? Do you really believe a machine can think?”
I got no immediate reply; Maltravers was apparently intent upon the coals in the grate, touching them deftly here and there with the fire-poker till they signified a sense of his attention by a brighter glow. Finally, he settled back into his armchair. “I believe it possible, Hugh. Why not?”
“Why not?” I exclaimed. “Well, because … because a machine is just nuts and bolts, or electric circuits, whatever. A machine doesn’t have a mind.”
“Ah, but how would you know?” Maltravers took a cigarette from a silver case and tapped the butt on it several times. A singular habit he had developed.
“Well, I suppose one couldn’t know.” I took a glass of port from a wooden tray and sipped, savouring the complex layers of flavour. “Unless there was some effect from its mind that was observable. But then, what is mind? A function of the brain. And machines, by virtue of being made by man, don’t have brains!”
Maltravers lit his cigarette, took a lungful of smoke, and exhaled towards the fire, where it hovered in wraiths before being sucked up the chimney. “Do you recall the machine that played chess, The Turk?” he asked.
I laughed. “Yes, but that was in the nineteenth century. I’ve seen pictures of it, but that had a man hiding in it!”
“How do you know?”
“Well.” I thought it over. “It must have had. There were no electrical circuits, no valves then. Just levers and gears.”
Maltravers took another pull on his cigarette, leaning back in his chair and this time exhaling the smoke towards the lofty ceiling. “So, a midget and a chess champion to boot?”
I felt exasperated. “Well, come on now, Maltravers. As Sherlock Holmes famously said, ‘Eliminate the impossible, and whatever remains, however unlikely—”
“Must be the truth.” Maltravers laughed. “Ergo, the machine could think!”
“Tommy rot!” I exclaimed. “There must have been a chess master small enough to squeeze into the machine and operate levers to move the pieces. Perhaps Malkovich? He needed several cushions to raise him up high enough to see the board at the world championships.” I stood up and went over to the library window, watching autumn leaves swirling in the wind around the gnarled roots of a huge copper birch tree. The sun was going down, bathing all with an orange glow.
“Well, that’s as maybe,” said Maltravers, “Hugh, I want you to take a look at this.” So saying, he beckoned me to follow him into his study, where I was astonished to see a table covered with electrical equipment, glowing valves, boards into which wires were plugged in their dozens, and in the centre, a large oscilloscope where a glowing trace showed a horizontal line.
“Keep still, now.” He took a headset and, without asking if I were happy to be a guinea pig, fastened it over my head. “Now, this machine will measure your brainwaves.” He flicked a switch on the oscilloscope and the screen was filled with complex waveforms. “I want you to quieten your mind, Hugh. Close your eyes and imagine you are looking at the surface of a still pond, one summer’s evening.”
I closed my eyes as requested and remembered a mill pond where my friend and I would fish for crucian carp after school. Our floats would stick out of the water like red beacons against the reflection of fleecy white clouds, perfectly mirrored in the still water.
“Bravo,” Maltravers exclaimed.
I opened my eyes to see the waveforms much reduced and of a simpler curvature. Maltravers reached out and removed the headphones from my head. “Now, the problem is that our brainwaves are thousands of times greater than those of a machine. So all these electrics you see, are a … a kind of amplifier.”
I watched as Maltravers fetched a gramophone, perhaps of dimension one-foot square, to the table and plugged it into a power supply. Using an adaptor, he fitted the headset to its sides. “Watch this.” He unplugged some wires and plugged them into different sockets, turned a couple of knobs and flicked a switch. On the screen appeared a waveform similar to the one when I’d first had the headphones put on me.
“Well, what’s it measuring?” I asked.
Maltravers smiled. “Brainwaves. Same as it measured yours. Now, these are a mix of Beta with a Gamma wave component.”
I watched, not knowing what to say.
“Now.” Maltravers turned off the power to the gramophone. The waves took on the appearance of when I’d envisaged the mill pond. “Alpha waves,” Maltravers said. “The machine’s mind is resting, perhaps even dreaming.”
“All well and good,” I said, “but I don’t see that as any kind of proof.”
Maltravers took a seat and gave a wry smile. “It’s early days, Hugh. I need to find a way to interact with the machine mind, maybe even communicate with it?”
“Well, will you report this … your discovery?”
He smiled. “I want to try working with trees and plants first. Maybe, if I can get the amplification high enough, then maybe even with old Aphrodite.”
“Aphrodite! What do you mean?”
He gestured towards the window. I looked out at the old marble statue in a corner of the lawn.
“She’s been there fifty years, Hugh, I think she’ll have some tales to tell!”