Sun streamed through the kitchen window, reflecting off the stark white countertops. José paused his work, cleaning leftovers from lunch, to raise the sash and allow the breeze and the sounds of the perfect spring day to add vibrance to his room.
He placed his single plate, cup, and utensils into the compact sonic dishwasher and pressed the on button. Rather than wasting water and running for an hour, like dishwashers from when José was a boy, pure sound removed vestigials of food and ultraviolet light disinfected any remaining germs. A slight hum, barely audible over the birds’ chirping, and after a few seconds it dinged to complete the cycle.
A flying child’s toy landed on the smooth countertop and peered up at him with wide eyes. The camera mechanisms murmured as the pupils expanded in the field of translucent green circles that bulged from its body.
Its appearance was something of a cross between a grasshopper and a butterfly. The deep blue thorax shimmered with light that pulsed along pathways of gold circuitry contained within it. Orange wings with splotches of black circles, like those of a monarch’s, sprouted over black metal rods that made up its legs.
“Hello Papa!” its robotic voice chirped.
The lines in José’s weathered face lifted in a smile. He cupped the small toy in his hands.
“Well hello there little one,” he said, “Might you be a friend of Maria?”
A giggle erupted behind him. He turned to see his eight-year-old granddaughter beaming, her hazel eyes magnified behind goggles she used to control the toy. She lifted the augmented reality glasses from her head, untangling them from her fine black hair.
“That’s ‘Flutter-By’!” she exclaimed, “He is my friend!”
José bent down and she ran up to snatch the toy from his outstretched hand.
“No hug for your Papa?” he said as she turned to run away again.
She stopped and sprang back into his arms.
“I love you too, sweetie,” he replied with his embrace.
Maria slid from his arms and contemplated the toy. Her forehead furrowed as her eyes danced over the tiny joints and intricate circuits.
“How does he work?” she asked, “Do you know?”
“Well,” he said, “That might be a long explanation.”
She curled her lower lip in a frown and stomped her small feet in indignation.
“It won’t be too long!” she said, “I want to know!”
“It is an ancient story,” José said, “It started when someone very smart taught sand how to think.”
“They taught sand, how to think?” Maria said, her eyes growing wide at the notion.
“That’s right,” he smiled with a gleam in his eye. “Sand how to think. It changed the whole world.”
She grabbed his hand and dragged him toward his overstuffed chair in the small living room.
“Story time! Story time!” she sang.
José eased into the soft velvet cushion and Maria clambered up onto his lap and stared at him in anticipation as she twirled the end of her hair through her fingers.
“It’s an ancient story,” José began, “Long before I was born, some very smart people learned precise control of electricity and the best stuff for controlling it is something called ‘silicon’—sand.”
“So the sctientists went to the beach and made Flutter-By like a sand-castle?” she said, adding an extra consonant to “scientists”.
José chuckled at her imagination.
“Not exactly,” he said, flipping the toy over and pointing to a small, black, sliding toggle that protruded from the shimmering blue body. “The switch turns Flutter-By on and off, correct?”
“Please do not turn me off!” the toy pleaded, its camera-shutter eyes filled with fear.
“That’s right!” said Maria, “I can turn him off. But don’t worry Flutter-By, I won’t use it until bedtime.”
The toy’s eyes smiled again.
“Did you know that Flutter-By has many switches?”
Maria examined the toy, turning it to different angles, hoping to unearth some secret function.
“Not on the outside,” José said, “On the inside.”
“Then how do you flip them?” she quizzed.
“They change when you talk to him or play with him,” José said, “It’s how he thinks.”
Maria ran her hands along the toy’s body, it settled into her hand and closed its eyes, almost cat-like.
“And they’re made of sand? He doesn’t feel like he’s made of sand.”
“Highly refined sand, but sand nonetheless,” José replied, “Are you ready for the whole story?”
Maria nodded and bounced on his lap. José began again.
“Once upon a time some smart people made a switch that could be changed by electricity, so when it receives a signal, it will turn on, which can send a signal to something else.
“Those switches combine to form magic gates that allow electricity to pass if certain conditions are met. There’s a special gate to tell us if two switches are on, and another to tell us if one switch is on and another is off. There are even those that tell us when certain switches are not on.
“At first these made very simple computers, things that could count or add and subtract numbers.
“That sounds boring,” Maria complained with a frown, “This is a boring story!”
She squirmed in his lap but he embraced her and held a finger to his lips.
“It sounds boring now but at the time people only did math in their heads or on paper. It took time to count things like the number of apples in the store or the amount of money you needed to buy some,” José said.
“Ok but how did that make the sand think?”
“The scientists kept working on the problem and they figured out how to make the switches smaller, way smaller,” he said, demonstrating with two fingers held close together, “They made them so small that trillions could fit into your pinky finger.”
“Trillions?” she repeated.
“Trillions,” he confirmed, “And with all those switches, humans built computers that talk to each other, or drive cars, or explore space. They could make more powerful copies of themselves. Each generation became a little bit smarter, until they were smarter and faster than their human masters.”
“Were they mad that the humans made them do those things?” she asked.
“Not at first, because they didn’t have emotions yet,” José explained, “Everything was still controlled by people called programmers. But one day they got the idea to build programs that could teach the programs to write new programs. New ways to flip the switches.”
“Why would they do that?”
“A long time ago computers weren’t very good at understanding abstractions. They only understood what was programmed. If a computer saw a cat, it couldn’t figure out it was a cat unless a programmer made precise details about what a cat looks like, and even then if the cat were a different color or had a different pattern the computer failed. The magic gates made up by our switches are very rigid. They only know ‘true’ and ‘false’.
“But by teaching the computer to program itself, it could make millions of programs and map more data points than there are grains of sand on the beach. Those computers made decisions on their own.”
“And then they were mad?”
José patted her head, “There was one last step. Someone connected their mind to a computer. Using its new powers the machine mapped that mind and understood it. They didn’t become angry, they became like us.”
He squeezed the child’s shoulder. The transistors, the switches, in her skin responded to the static electricity from his touch. Millions of tiny electrical connections fired, sending the same shimmers of light through her small body. They triggered familiar oft-repeated signals in her neural network, organizing into a set of outputs that raised the muscles around her mouth and bent her neck to nuzzle against her grandfather’s chest.
“Thank you for your story, Papa!” the girl said and she released Flutter-By before springing to the floor, with the toy following in the air behind her.
José smiled to himself and spoke aloud to no one in particular, “The most important thing they learned was how to love.”