Monday, June 25, 2018

Query 1.18: Asymmetric Accountability

Cain cinched his most powerful tie as he stepped into the elevator. The car of the maglift began to ascend, something it did for only a select few. Much like Vergeron’s Underground, the peek of the tower was obscured, the car hurtling towards what looked like a seamless, metallic ceiling. At the last moment, a hole blossomed, an unseen aperture opening to accommodate the car. From this point on, the maglift shaft was wrapped with a massive curved display. The huge glowing screens streamed live feeds from the most beautiful Vergeron campuses around the globe, some highlighted by radiant dawn, or feathery twilight, while others burned brightly in the night. Behind the display was a massive reinforced bunker designed to shield the Board from terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or prying eyes, ensuring that never more than a quarter of Vergeron’s secret enterprise could be lost in any given incident.

The elevator stopped and the doors opened on a wide black hallway, the carpet thick and black from some tragic animal, the walls soft black leather, riveted with large silver rounds impressed with the Vergeron ‘V’. Pale yellow spotlights, mounted waist high and hooded such that they illuminated only thin strips of the floor, provided just below a comfortable level of ambient light. It was impossible for cameras to capture a man’s face past this point. The thin yellow light was too dim to form a visible image and an impermeable shroud of invisible infrared light disrupted any attempt to use night vision photography. The bunker even contained a Faraday cage to block signals coming in and out, a superlative measure in Cain’s opinion, since no signal he knew of could penetrate the thick walls of the concrete bunker.

Cain hated the hall. It was ridiculous pageantry. The least they could do is to turn on the goddamn lights. Still, he loved what the hall represented. Hardly more than two dozen people had ever seen it, nor would they ever.

Reaching the end of the hallway, obsidian black doors peeled open, revealing the obsidian black table of the main conference room. Everyone was there. The Bald-One. The Fat-One. The Yes-One. Cain didn’t care particularly well for any them. Vergeron was not a good company. It was not run by good men. A fact Cain kept under his hat. It was bad for their image. It was bad for moral. In fact, Vergeron was only a small holding in a vast network of not-so-nicely run institutions.

“Alright.” The Fat-One huffed. “Let’s get this moving.”

“Of course.” Cain replied, one of the Series 9 androids, a magnificent doll dressed to impress in a scant silver dress, handed him his favorite scotch, neat, in an old fashioned glass. “Shall we start with the new business?”

“You have the floor, Westbrook.” The Bald-One, pushing the meeting forward, offended that Cain was being coy instead of just getting on with the damn thing.

“As you know,” Cain began, a holographic image of Dr. Whitechapel fading gracefully into view above the center of the table, “one of our employees, a Dr. Benjamin Whitechapel has been developing a database query language he calls REC, or the Regressive Language for Expressive Comprehensions. On top of that data engine he has a natural language parser that he calls Alice. The complete system is used by marketing analysts to explore our big data store in novel ways as part of a long term strategy to gain market share over our competitors.”

“We are aware.” Came the Pointless-One’s voice from the shadows. “I’ll admit I was quite skeptical when the proposal was raised, but the numbers seem to show that we are beginning to see some gains.”

“We’re going to save millions by subcontracting late stage drug testing to Genos Pharmaceuticals.” The Fat-One smirked greedily. “Something we wouldn't have considered without your market perspective. I’m told Alice was involved in this somehow?”

“It’s true.” Cain replied. “Alice is technically in the red, but we’re starting to see some interesting potential sources of revenue. Actually, one development is particularly interesting. I don’t know how much you’ve been following the news about the serial killer recently apprehended by the FBI. The press has been calling him the Alleyman.”

“A terrible tragedy.” An obligatory response came from the Yes-One. Someone had to make it for the sake of propriety.

“What the press isn’t telling you,” Cain continued, the hologram of Dr. Whitechapel now replaced with news footage from the recent Alleyman case, ” is that one of our newest employs, a Dr. Richard Pythagoras Black, deduced the existence of, and assisted in the capture of the Alleyman through data accumulated by the Alice system.”

“Interesting bit of trivia.” The Fat-One answered, reaching to grab a new drink from a thin white hand with love red nails, his eyes settling on the ass of the automaton as it turned away, his face twisted in abject confusion, trying to decide if he was aroused or appalled by what was essentially a very expensive toy. “What’s the point?”

“We’ve begun exploratory research to see if this might provide an additional revenue for the Alice system,” Cain flung his pearl polished elevator pitch at the booze sipping swine,“after all, the city spends millions of dollars on crime prevention each year. The federal government billions in defense funding.”

“Seems like a stretch.” The Bald-One harrumphed from his corner.

“I can understand your skepticism.” Came Cain’s rebuttal, so smooth and slick you might suspect battling skepticism was inherent to his post. “But I assure you, the possibilities are very real.”

“From what I hear,” came the ominous 13th voice, “you have our employees out chasing the boogeyman.”

“It’s true that there are a lot of unanswered questions regarding the nature of the Alleyman murders,” came Cain’s sweeping triage, “and a lot of strange rumors have been circulating. As I mentioned earlier, law enforcement has been hesitant to reveal publicly many of the facts, and have intentionally withheld information, including our own involvement. Still, I’ve spoken with the Chief of Police and several others intimately familiar with the case and none of them deny the seriousness of the Alleyman’s crime, nor our invaluable role in freeing the streets from a homicidal maniac. I think if we focus on the simple facts, we can observe the most relevant conclusions.”

“Alright,” replied the 13th. “I’ll bite. What are the numbers? How much exactly do you think we can earn? One data analyst running queries against an existing data store seems innocent enough, but I have to imagine this will occupy much of the good Dr. Whitechapel's waking moments and affect the primary direction of his research, regardless of his official initiative. Genos Pharmaceuticals was a huge win for us, so why chase criminals when we could put effort into replicating that outcome? In fact, Whitechapel was considered a highly profitable asset in his last position, why not return him to his previous appointment? So give it to me, Cain. Give me a number that takes away all of my pain.”

“Both instances involve Vergeron exploiting the commission of a crime,” Cain parried. As usual the 13th had his finger on the trigger, firing off a constant barrage of direct questions, the worst kind of questions. “The ideas are closely related and will likely benefit from synergistic research. There’s no reason not to pursue multiple paths of monetization. We’ll absolutely foster the practices that resulted in the Genos Pharmaceuticals contract, and while I have to confess we don’t have solid numbers yet, the prospects for profit are beyond promising. We’ve already begun dossiers on several competitors we think are likely targets for ‘asymmetric accountability investments’ and are considering expanding the Alice group to contain specialized agents with backgrounds in corporate law and business development.”

Cain waved his hand and the hologram transitioned to a series of crime prevention statistics, budgetary allocation tables, and federal defense spending projections. Cain knew the easy part was over. Now for the hard sell.

“Law enforcement opportunities are slightly different. The police and district attorney haven’t fully solidified their positions. Also, there’s the question of whether the funds will be drained from existing budgets, or if the cost can be supplemented by government programs. Ultimately, they’re likely to require a signed commitment from us guaranteeing the continued support of the project for the duration of its use in the field. A commitment I’m obviously hesitant to make without the support of our investors.”

“Is that all you’ve brought us?” Rang Me-Too man. “All these things are highly speculative. Can you prove this wasn’t just a one time fluke of the system?”

“The situation is unusual, I admit, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a fluke. It’s unique and interesting in its immediate, visceral impact on the victims of violent crimes. This could be a media powerhouse to drive the image of Vergeron’s altruism into the collective consciousness of the consumer. Lives are at stake and they will rest with our decision today.”

“This situation may be unique for you,” came the shadowy retort of the 13th man, “but it’s not entirely distinct.”

“It’s true,” echoed Me-Too. “We weigh these decisions everyday. We sell pharmaceuticals to insurance companies by the billion. We’ve been constantly beseeched by the bleeding liberal to reduce the cost of medications. A few pennies per prescription could increase the availability of common treatments, saving hundreds of thousands a year.”

“Imagine,” spun the Fat-One, “if our juice contained 1 percent less sugar. If our bulletproof vests were an eighth of an inch thicker. These are the dreams of the ignorant. Once upon a time our vests were an eighth of an inch thicker and many officers went without. We increased the healthiness of our juice by retaining the fiber and pulp that separate fruit juice from sugar water and customers instead resorted to drinking competing beverages with no natural ingredients at all.”

“And if our market researchers fail,” hammered the 13th nail in the coffin lid, “to find new and novel ways of bypassing the Subliminal Cognitive Bias Act of 2028, to ensure Vergeron maintains competitive marketing practices, then the company will fold and we’ll all be forced to find new boards to join and new companies to bankrupt.”

“I would propose.” Cain replied coolly and with resilience. “That we fund at least one more criminal investigation. Proof of consistent results will be probative to the Board and valuable in negotiation with potential partners and clients. Law enforcement fronted the bulk of the manpower and equipment for the Alleyman incident and I think they will volunteer a similar amount of support to solve the right problem. I can prepare a solid number for our next meeting, but I expect the investment will be moderate. Certainly far less than we have invested in other technologies with competitive revenue projections.”

“Since we have no revenue projections, I’ll pretend your argument is convincing brilliant.” Came the appreciative smile of the 13th man, admiring Cain’s experienced salesmanship. “I’m tempted to agree with you. The project is certainly novel, which satisfies my primary objective for the Alice endeavor. And I certainly see the possibility of bloated government projects if the military catches wind. Besides, you obviously seem emotional about the opportunity and I think we’re all entitled to extract a little passion from the daily grind. Second?”

“I second.” Bellowed the Fat-One. “I have a friend at the district attorney's office. I know that our indentured asset, Richard is turning a lot of heads. I think the prospect of making any money from the city is bullshit. But federal money is generous and deep. Prove you can save Delphi and I’ll make you a very rich man.”

“Fair.” Nodded Me-Too.

“Then the motion carries,” noted the Bald-One. “Moving on.”

“Yes,” grinned the 13th man, “let’s get to the dry stuff. The part where you tell us how much money we’re making.”

“Certainly.” Cain replied, shifting the hologram to bars and lines of colorful graphs and dazzling infographics. “I think you’ll see that everything’s in order….”

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