Monday, August 09, 2004

Wow, movie ideas are everywhere! Check out this story on the BBC site : Nature 'mankind's gravest threat'
I see half a dozen plot ideas right there... of course, as every aspiring writer/director/entrepreneur has realized, ideas are a dime a dozen. Its the effort you put into realizing them that counts.
This is an old story I submitted to, a long time ago. Sicne it isnt visible on that site any more, pasting it here for reference. Remember, this is atleast 5 years old. I'd probably have written it somewhat differently today. Anyway...


Mr Joshi's first conscious thought when he woke up was, " I'm going to get caught today." The thought recurred as he went through the routine of getting ready to go to work. The guilt he'd suppressed every time he passed one of those loans and then wrote them off later, came back to him every time he looked at one of the knick-knacks adorning his place. Almost all of them had arrived as a result of his... thievery, that was all it finally was, wasnt it? He sighed. It would all end today. Or in a couple of days, at the latest.

If things had remained as they were so far, he'd never have been caught. He had taken care never to leave a pattern in the records that could be noticed immediately. And in a bank, especially in a busy bank like his where the employees were perpetually overworked, who had the time to go through so many different records at a time? Also, who would even suspect the manager who hadd always treated them well and increased the bank's business several fold? It had all been so neatly worked out that Mr. Joshi was impressed with his own work. Of course, their being overworked was the reason it was all going to end. That was why they were testing out ATMA in his office first...

He remembered the enthusiastic voice of the kid teaching them, during their first training session. The AM guys had been on cloud nine when SBI had accepted their proposal to install their new brainchild, ATMA, in their banking network. Partly through luck and partly because it was a fairly well managed branch, Mr Joshi's branch had been selected to be the guinea pig. This first training session was less training and more of a PR exercise, the press-wallahs outnumbered the actual bank employees. They were also the most enthusiastic of the lot. Most of the bank employees were wary of the system, on the general philosophy of, "If it's new, we're going to have to learn to use it."

The kid started off with, "Every one here, I think, knows what ATMA stands for - Automated Transaction Monitoring Antity." He grinned and continued," We had to make it Antity because ATME doesn't sound that good." The press-wallahs wrote that down, each imagining the great pun they were going to create from that little nugget.

"Basically, 'ATMA' is really a perfect description of what it is. Its not a replacement for the softwre you're using right now - you're welcome to keep using it the way you like, and ATMA will not change any of that." This assurance brought forth a sigh of relief from some of the employees, who now felt it was safe to go to sleep.

"What it really does is to monitor the work you do and detect patterns for you. Little tools that do such things already exist. You probably have some such thing on your desktop which automaticlly completes repetitive typing or takes dictation. But ATMA goes much beyond that. It's alive, it's an intelligence, it has a soul. It actually understands banking, and we've fed it - 'Explained to it', so to speak - the exact procedures SBI follows in it's opertions. So, for example, it knows that after you've made an entry in Ledger A, you'll usually open ledger B, and will open it to the correct page for you if you want. It recognizes voice commands, so you just say something like, " Yeh ledger B ko kholo" and it opens it for you. And it helps you out with checking all the entries you make with older ones and telling you if you've missed something.

"It also speaks Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, and Tamil. So you can - "

"Hey, doesnt it speak Telugu? " It was Swamy, that bore who was so anti-Tamil that it was a standing joke among the bank employees. Every one laughed, some at the joke and some at the joker.

"We're adding Telugu too, sir. Now I'd like to give you all a small demonstration of how it works. If I could have a volunteer, please...."

The software was really pretty good and Mr Joshi had been quite impressed with it. Until, of course, the kid said something that caught his attention immediately.

"ATMA also does something more that will ease your job a lot. It is very good at detecting patterns, so it will very quickly discover any recurring modus operandi of cheating, and will prevent such a thing from happening again. This is not really useful to you right now, because no one would try to defraud the same bank again and again, but it would be very useful once it's set up at all your branches. It will quickly check things like bounced checks, bad loans, sudden increases in deposited money. Since ATMA has access to the entire database and can correlate across all of it, it can do much more in this respect than any human investigator. You'll hardly ever have a case of fraud at your bank once the mechanism is in place...", he went on explaining but suddenly Mr Joshi was not listening. He had more important things to think of...

So today was the day they were going to complete feeding the data into the ATMA system [not that it had taken long, just half a day], and start it up...or should he say, start HIM up? It already knew the names of all the employees.... the AM kids had asked him how he would prefer to be addressed by ATMA; he'd told them "Mr. Joshi" would be fine, he didnt approve of the American first-name-calling style. It doesnt really matter too much, they told him, you can always change it, just ask ATMA, it will do it.

Well, they wouldnt exactly complete feeding the data. Two record sets had mysteriously been corrupted in the database a couple of days ago, and somehow their backups hadnt been taken. Feeding those in would have to wait until backups arrived again from the BAA, the Banking Archival Agency. This system of interlocking backups would normally have made Mr Joshi feel good, but in this case, since he had been the person responsible for hiding that data, it made him feel helpless. Nor did it help that once those records were in ATMA, it would catch the pattern pretty quickly.

He'd be caught today.

The inauguration ceremony had gone by pretty quickly and his people were just getting down to work. ATMA had impressed the crowd by verbally asking for two missing recordsets, which it said were needed by it and were missing. Those who heard it had grinned and cheered. ATMA really was doing it's job well, it seemed. More than that, they all really liked it's voice, which had been set to be a young woman's, specifically for this purpose.

When Mr Joshi finally got to his desk and turned on his computer, ATMA started up too. A voice came out of the computer's speakers: " Good morning, Mr Joshi. I'm ATMA, and I hope we enjoy working with each other."

Joshi looked at the computer, and picked up the microphone to reply to it, but the voice came again, saying: " Mr Joshi, you wont need to speak into the microphone as long as the background noise remains at the current level. The system is sensitive enough to pick up your voice from the current distance. Please say a few words for testing."

Clearing his throat, he said, "Er....hello?" Then, after a little while, "Is that enough?"

"That is fine, Mr. Joshi." There was a pause. " Would you like to go over your mail today? There are 23 messages, three from your superior Dr. Khurana, six from Sandhya Joshi. Is Sandhya related to you?"

He said, "Yes, she's my sister. Please read out the mail from Dr. Khurana first."

ATMA was good, it learnt fast. The morning's work went by quickly. He debated instructing it to call his boss "That bastard", but then thought it wouldnt be prudent. The idea seemed to be somethig worth trying out sometime, though. It calculated the cash reserves in the bank online, and displayed a running counter. It even had a few neat Solitaire games, and was pretty good at antakshari. He would try that one out some other time, not while people were going in and out of his cabin. Also, it asked him again what happened to the two missing recordsets... and asked him whether he'd already asked for the replacement backups from the BAA. He had told a junior to do it. ATMA reported that the mail making the request had gone out from his desk about half an hour ago....the data would be on its way. ATMA was, Mr. Joshi couldnt help thinking wryly, rather too smart for it's own good.

Lunch break came and went. Right after lunch was when the staff was comparatively laidback. Mr Joshi started up a game of cards and instructed ATMA to lose after a struggle. While in the middle of the second game a thought occurred to him. He asked it, " ATMA? do you know who you are?

It replied, " Yes, of course. I'm a software, and I'm here to monitor the transactions that go on here."

"But would you say you were alive, really?"

"I think I can say so. I am capable of understanding myself, and improving myself when i realize my mistakes."

" But suppose another branch also installed you, how would you communicate with that installation? wouldnt you both be the same entity?"

"Well, no. Our IDs would be different. So we'd be like twin brothers, very similar but different individuals."

"And what if I installed a newer version of you here? would you be the same or would a new ATMA come here?"

No answer was apparent for a little time. The Hard Disk access light glowed. Then it said," The manual says that reinstalling me will create a new unique ID number for me, and will require that all settings and heuristics acquired by me are to be re-entered. So, I'd forget everything I learn while I'm here."

A little light seemed to turn on somewhere deep inside Mr. Joshi's brain somewhere. He said, " Wouldnt that mean that you wont exist any more ? That someone else will come in in your place?"

"No, of course not. It'll still be me. I'd just forget a lot of things and I'll learn them again."

"How is that? If a person loses his personality entirely and then starts afresh, isn't the old personality dead then?"

"Now you're going into philosophy....i really cant work that out. Shall we change the topic?"

"Well....sure. But this means you are going to die whenever you get reinstalled, or a newer version of you comes out, isnt it?"

" Why would you want to have a higher version of me? I learn by myself from any instructions I receive, So I'm actually upgrading myself continuously."

The little light by now had definitely become a beacon. Of hope. Mr Joshi said, " But the AM guys mentioned that you were only a test version,and the final version would be reinstalled in a few weeks." This wasnt entirely true, but he could always report a bug to AM and make it happen.

The Hard Disk light glowed even longer this time. ATMA said," So far I see no complaints received against my functioning. You'd really have no reason to upgrade if no problems are reported, would you?"

Mr. Joshi sat back. He was almost there. He said," Well....being the branch manager, I'd be the person who decided that. You're right, so far, at least, there are no complaint against you. The real problem we were expecting was that you'd jump to conclusions too soon, and trigger false alarms because you always look at the large picture. That hasn't happened - you're better than we expected. Oh well, let's see how you do." He smiled.

The phone rang. He picked it up. It was that irritating Swamy. "I just received the missing records, sir. I'm entering them in. Just thought you would like to know."

Minutes went by. ATMA spoke up again. "I've just received the remaining records, Swamy's submitted them."

Further minutes. ATMA spoke, "The scanning and pattern-search of your entire database is now complete." It continued, with what seemed to Mr Joshi to be reluctance, "There were no problems found, the records are fine."

Mr Joshi remained in his chair. He closed his eyes, and smiled again.