Awakening in the Tunnel

“Hi Noor! I am Jax. Remember me?” a young man in black slacks and orange shirt shouted as he waved his hand. It was just another morning in the mega city of Los Angeles. As he walked closer, the bright writing on his shirt was visible. It said ‘Get out of my lane.’

cafe-1772383_1920“Umm, no, I don’t.” Noor blinked and her long eyelashes fluttered rapidly. She continued to sit casually in the swing next to a small table in that cozy café. The wall with artificial golden leaves behind her gently rippled to give the surrounding a fluid feel. Before she could finish her sentence, another waving hand had popped up behind Jax. A girl with long black hair walked past Jax and exclaimed, “Noor, this is Jax, my brother! He is a scientist at the Academy. You have met him in my parents’ house, remember?”

“Oh, hey Kate. Oh right. Umm, I thought it was going to be just you and I hanging out outside of work and catching up. Is your brother visiting you?” Noor was now staring at the emblem on Jax’s shirt. In year 2050, that particular emblem was quite rare. It was of an electric car – Dart, model Y. Model Y was made almost a decade ago and was the fastest car running in the underground mega tunnel system. Model Z was never made.

“Yep, he is. Not only that, he drove in a Dart! Can you believe it?! Our uncle bought this Dart model Y recently in an auction. Jax begged and begged him to let him drive it this weekend.” said Kate.

“Oh really,” finally Noor jumped out of her swing and took two steps forward. Jax smiled for he knew he had her attention. The swing automatically folded behind her and disappeared under the coffee table.

“Sooo,” Noor blinked again rapidly. “All the virtual news rooms were broadcasting that the LA tunnels would be open for a limited time. I mean after all the issues the tunnel faced, that’s a big deal, right?”

“Transportation through the tiered-tunnel system was a highly visionary project of year 2030. Those three accidents were terrible though! More importantly, they were not even able to investigate them properly after spending weeks.” said Kate. She was a rising star among the Knowledge Aggregators of the mega city of Los Angeles. She was swift in applying the right tools and had a keen sense to figure out the core from the tremendous information overload that drowned everyone every single day. She also retained quite a bit of that knowledge she compiled every day.

“Yep, but that was a long time ago. Plus the administration at the Academy is more forward-thinking now. They upgraded the tunnel bot system recently and tested it out. This baby that I am driving, model Y, is in a pretty good shape and guess what, it is still within its inspection period.” Jax winked. Kate nodded excitedly, the curls of hair jumping up and down.

“No way-sway! So I can actually go for a ride in the THE tunnels??” Noor had now stopped blinking completely. Kate raised her eyebrow and gave a thumbs up to Jax.

As they walked out of the café, Noor asked, “So Jax, what do you do at the Academy?” Before Jax could answer, Kate was poking Jax in his back and squinting. Oh sisters. They are awesome when they introduce you to their gorgeous friends but they can never stop being a nuisance. Jax kept walking, his bag with the red Academy logo, sliding on its wheels sluggishly, tracking and following him like an obedient pet dog.

“Umm, since earlier this year, I am in working on the 4D-printing soft robotics project. We are working on re-configuring some of the old prototypes.” Jax paused as he wondered if he had said too much in his excitement.

“You know, only after strict Academy inspection and approvals,” he added quickly.

“No way-sway!” It was now Kate’s turn to be surprised. “You never mentioned this, Jax. The new administration does seem like it’s forward-thinking.”

Thirty minutes later, the Dart model Y had passed all safety checks at the tunnel gate #134. It was on an elevator to go to the bottom-most tier of the mega tunnel of Los Angeles.

This underground 5-tiered tunnel system was one of humankind’s most extraordinary achievements and an answer to some of the pressing transportation problems. It had a sophisticated maze of roads where partially self-driving cars could hit a speed of  180 mph. A nimble army of bots fed traffic design patterns and real-time traffic data into large quantum computers sitting in data centers just above the ground level. They simulated hundreds of traffic scenarios simultaneously to find the optimal traffic flow and linked the signals back to the cars. It was an astounding work of science and art, executed almost smoothly and refined over a decade’s work. Unfortunately, two consecutive accidents and failed investigations later, the new Academy director had put a hold on further expansion. The following year’s biggest news was the third accident, followed by Dart CEO’s suicide and a permanent closure of the tunnel.

The opening of the tunnel after almost a decade had stirred quite a buzz and rightly so.

One hour later, our excited trio was zooming through a smooth road that formed the bottom-most tier of the tunnel system.

“Hey Jax, why aren’t there any signs on this road?” asked Noor.

“More than the signs, I don’t like how there is very little light here.” Kate chimed in.

“You girls do know how the tunnel system operates through bots and partial self-driving mode, right? You don’t need signs and lights. This car is already tracking the maze and getting directions right here. See?” said Jax although he would have admitted that he didn’t exactly like this underground, dark environment either.

“Didn’t we just pass this same gate a few minutes ago? I am pretty sure it said gate #22.” said Noor. Kate looked at Jax and noticed he was trying to concentrate on the road.

Another hour had passed. On a narrow ramp near Gate #22, the car was now pulled over and in it sat our frustrated gang of youngsters.

“Oh, why did I ever say yes to going on this stupid ride in the tunnel? It’s way past my lunchtime.” Noor lamented.

“Oh come on, Noor. No one exactly asked you to join. You tagged along. Here, take my snack cones. Let me flip open the light on my bracelet. Anyway, Jax, why don’t any of my devices have connectivity here?” Kate was trying to keep her cool.

Jax appreciated his sister’s attempt at focusing on the problem. “Kate, I don’t know. You are right, not much is working here. The transportation bot system probably has a glitch and is sending us in circles.”

“Jax, we tried all different combinations of the turns we could be taking and we are still here at gate #22. I think a portion of the tunnel is locked down and we are stuck on this side. I thought the gate would have a manual override but these gates seem to be sealed as well. So let’s see, what’s our next step, Jax? There is always a next step.” said Kate firmly.

“Let me send my drone out to explore this area. Let’s see if it can find a way out. It is trained for maneuvers in hundreds of different environments. I will need some time to reconfigure and run a quick test though.” said Jax as he pressed his watch to open his bag.

“But your drone was not trained for a tunnel environment, right?” Noor did her eyelash fluttering again. Jax did not find that adoring anymore but he also knew she had a point.

An hour later, a gray and red drone with 3-feet wingspan, a sophisticated set of sensors, and edge video analytics unit was hovering over their heads. Fifty years ago, when the drone analytics technology took off, engineers and scientists would have flocked around this drone in excitement.

“Come on, Kate, help me navigate this. I have controls here on my watch but need you to go over these configurations as it goes around this curved section.” said Jax. The drone took off with its front wings unfolded and lights blinking.

darkness-2133501_1920Later that day, an exhausted trio and a chipped drone sat in the darkness that engulfed the ramp. The sign that said gate #22 looked a little blurry now. Somewhere, hundreds of feet above, downtown #3 of Los Angeles was ablaze with lights and music. A horde of youngsters poured on the streets with their drinks and devices hovering on personal drone carts behind them. Oh, how our trio would have loved to be part of that street scene.

It had been exactly twelve hours since their car entered what now looked like a dreary tunnel maze. “I am going to die here.” said Noor as she sobbed uncontrollably.

Kate was frantically watching the calculations on her tablet while flipping the menus on her bracelet. “Dang. The solar cells on my tablet are almost drained. This is going to be useless soon.” She threw the tablet away and stared at Jax.

Jax was looking at his bag. It was still whirring softly in the back-seat of the car. It had power to go on for another day. “Well, there is a last resort.” muttered Jax as he pursed his lips.

“What, what is it?” Noor had finally stopped sobbing as she realized that was exhausting her even more and had probably messed up her eye makeup completely.

“Bodhi” said Jax softly. It was as if he didn’t want to hear that name himself.

“Bodhi is a 4D soft robot that we are working on at the Academy. It is a class 4 fully functional prototype that is tested to have near-general intelligence. It is the result of one of those rare collaborations between American, Canadian and Chinese researchers. It is the outcome of billions of dollars of investments that these countries poured in AI research over the last three decades.” said Jax.

Both Kate and Noor were looking at Jax as if they had seen a ghost.

“I know I am going to get investigated just for revealing this.” said Jax and he cursed loudly. They sat in silence. Even kids from their generation knew the stories discussed around 4D soft robotics and the anxiety it had caused around the globe not too long ago.

Kate finally spoke. “Noor, you are not dying….but you are sort of right in that what we are dealing here is a serious matter. Shouldn’t the law consider this an act for survival?”

“The entire 4D soft robotics research was put on hold, remember? These robots have the potential of near-human intelligence and better physical abilities. There were a lot of concerns around that.” said Jax said but he knew he himself was conflicted. Was the gloom in the tunnel shadowing his thinking? He craved for fresh air.

“Oh, what’s the use of this talk? It’s not like this dude, what’s his name, Bodhi, is here ready to help us.” Noor looked like she was about to have another panic attack.

Kate got up and started pacing. “Jax, you said Bodhi is a class 4 soft robot. So that means he can change shapes very well. That means he can go through these tunnels and gates where the drone could not go. He folds better than our furniture and our instruments do. He is with you, right now, right here, in that bag! Jax??”

Jax shrugged his shoulders.

“Oh, I am going to live!” Noor let her tears of happiness flow and mess her mascara completely.

“You have to, you have to activate him.” Noor was sounding a little hysterical now.

“You have the Awakening program right? I have mined all information about it. All you have to do is activate and feed him the mission. Come on!” Noor sometimes surprised Kate by throwing a few timely nuggets of information. She was her co-worker after all and was good at mining information from data bundles and compiling the core into their common knowledge repositories.

Bodhi - the robot
Awakening in the tunnel

Exactly two hours and what seemed like an eternity later, a tall, shape‐morphing robot by the name of Bodhi had awakened in the tunnel. He was made of a sophisticated liquid crystalline polymer that made him responsive to stimuli and reversibly change his shape. Bodhi’s Artificial Intelligence unit was 50 times more powerful compared to the drone Jax had tried flying earlier. These responsive materials together with ability to assess new situations added that 4th dimension of time based behavior to 3D printing.

Bodhi stood straight with his palms outstretched. The thin layer of light sensors around him almost gave him an ethereal glow. As he moved effortlessly and silently around the tunnel trying to learn the terrain, Kate crawled inside the car and closed her eyes. The eerie feeling inside her was far too real to ignore. Noor stood behind the car, fascinated at the sight and unable to move. She held Jax’s hand tightly. Jax shivered as Bodhi disappeared behind the curve around gate #22.

One day later, a special task force of mega city of Los Angeles blasted open an outlet near Gate #22 of the mega tunnel system. Sprawled inside the car were three youngsters, conscious but barely moving.

The first responders rushed to help them. As Noor opened her eyes and got a glimpse of them, she whispered, “Oh, it’s finally over.”

“No, unfortunately it’s not,” was all Jax had to say.

Around the same time, hundreds of feet above them, the virtual newsrooms had exploded with what was the breaking news of the decade. Bodhi had not only used some of the most advanced maneuvers and morphing to find a way out but he had also captured massive amount of data and video captures of his passage through the tunnel. Using these data sets, the quantum computers in the tunnel data center were able to crunch large simulations to find the safest way to get to Gate #22 and execute the fastest rescue mission of the decade.

The special task force had seized Bodhi. The Academy scientists were running rapid experiments. The Academy had also issued a level 5 investigation and had announced that they would execute it within two weeks. The mixed reality clubs in all major cities were already planning on launching games that provided an immersive environment for folks to virtually recreate the experience of Bodhi’s tunnel adventure. Bodhi had turned a superstar within a day after he was activated.

Noor, Kate and Jax sat in the same corner of the café where they had met one week ago. So much had happened in one week. The same surrounding looked quite unfamiliar now. They swings in which they were sitting continued to sway slowly.

“Are you ready for tomorrow, Jax?” Kate finally broke the silence.

“Yes,” said Jax quietly. “I had a hunch even when trapped in that tunnel that this would happen. Activating a class 4 soft robot is not going to be looked at very casually. Well at least, you both will be there to testify everything that happened there and describe the circumstances.”

“I will be there for tomorrow’s investigation committee hearing but not next week, Jax. I wanted to tell you both that I am leaving the office and my job.” said Noor.

“What are you saying? What happened?” Kate was quite taken aback. She knew Noor liked her job and they had an excellent team at work.

“Will I see you again, Noor?” asked Jax. The memory of Noor standing in the tunnel holding his hand flashed across his mind. He had done everything he could to in that tunnel to get all of them out safely and he was proud of himself. The warm sunlight in that café was such a pleasant contrast to the darkness of that tunnel that had haunted them a week ago.

“Umm, actually Jax, I have to tell you. The Academy has offered me a job. As someone who saw the activation, they think I could help them with further analysis. It also, also…would let me hang out with Bodhi.” said Noor. She was now averting her eyes.

“Are you serious, Noor? You know Bodhi is a robot, right?” Kate exclaimed.

“A robot with near-general intelligence, Kate. Do you know what that means? It’s simple. The success of the rescue operation is being attributed to Bodhi. I hate to say this but the jury is not going to give that credit to Jax and account for what he did. The lines between humans and soft robots are blurry. At least that’s what the Academy folks were saying. I am sorry, Jax.” Noor’s voice trailed off.

“That’s fine, Noor. I get it. Actually, I don’t get it fully but I doubt if anyone gets it right now. We live in strange times. All I can say is that I have no regrets.” Jax got up from his swing.

“I will see you later, Kate.” He said and started walking. The swing folded behind him.

As he kept walking, his bag with the red Academy logo, slid on its wheels effortlessly, and followed him like an obedient pet dog.

[Author’s note: this is an attempt at Science Fiction Prototyping. My hope is to explore near-futuristic technologies and their social impact via short SciFi stories. Hope it sparks a few questions, ideas and thoughts for you!] 

Author: Prachi Sukhatankar

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