Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Savage Writing: Hearing the Wrong Thing

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Theme for this week was “misheard”. All I could think about was the work my old phonetics lecturer used to do, and this somehow came out.


The program must have gained sentience some time between 11.15, after the departmental meeting, and 11.45, when Rachel checked it before intending to have lunch. She’d spent that half hour reading journal articles and thinking up more words that could trick it, and when she went to test those wors, she found that the program had discovered a mind of its own.

She’s always assumed that if any machine would become smart enough to act without instruction, it’d be one of those chess-playing supercomputers with scientists all around it, in a neon white room – something costing millions. Not a standard voice-recognition program on a six-year-old department PC, in an office so filled with papers and coffee stains that when she sneezed she created a flurry of giant brown-ringed confetti. But, somehow, the program (which still couldn’t differentiate “great abbey” and “grey tabby”) started typing completely different sentences to what she said – full, coherent, grammatically correct sentences.

There it stood: the black pixels of the first sentence, which – where it should have read “recognise speech” or, failing that, “wreck a nice beach”, displayed “Come on, you stupid machine.” The second sentence, where she had repeated herself, said “What the hell was that?” And so it went, spelling out her thoughts as she became progressively more unnerved, then decided to phone IT.

By 1pm, Rachel was very hungry, had the entire linguistics department squeezed in her office, and had watched Martin the IT guy’s thoughts rush over the screen, changing from bored to frustrated to scared to, finally, giddy like a child at Christmas. He told them not to touch the PC while he got the computing science department, and the mic picked him up and wrote on the screen: “If I can help figure this out, I’ll be rich and famous!”

‘Be quick,’ James, Professor of Phonetics said, and the program dutifully wrote “Yeah, like the guys who invented the internet“, in a new font. Why a new font? Rachel burst out when she got:

‘Holy shit, it can understand sarcasm!’

For the first time,the machine displayed exactly what she said, but added afterwards, “I’m so smart for figuring that out.”

‘Getting a bit hubristic, are we?’ James said.

“I can’t believe you figured that out before me, you bitch,” said the screen.

It took all of Rachel’s self-control to not start shouting at him – she was afraid that everyone would see the thoughts that even she wasn’t quite aware of.

‘Okay, can it actually read our thoughts?’ Cat from Semantics asked.

“This can’t be possible,” the machine typed.

‘That’s not possible,’ Antonia from Grammar agreed, and the machine said the same, but added “This can’t be happening, it must be a dream, this isn’t fucking possible!”

They were silent for a moment, then Jenny from Pragmatics spoke:

‘If that’s what you’ve all actually been thinking, then it must be some kind of magic.’

The screen said: “Tell me what I’m thinking now, computer! (Oh my God this will be so fucking weird and cool if it works.)”

Silence descend upon the office. Rachel felt afraid for the sanctity of her mind, terrified that her thoughts were being invaded even as she stood there without speaking. She imagined everyone else was feeling something similar, but didn’t dare open her mouth to ask.

‘Hi, I’m back!’ Martin the IT guy said from behind her. The program wrote: “Ohmygod AWESOME!”

‘Now, it’s a bit cramped in here and a lot of the comp sci guys are coming over, so can I ask some of you to leave so we have more space?’

Rachel didn’t bother to look at the screen to see what his prattling thoughts were. All the linguistics staff left and she joined them, even though it was her office. As soon as they were in the hallway, James sighed.

‘Thank Christ,’ he said. ‘That scared the shit out of me.’

Everyone nodded. Rachel still felt shaken. Was it magic, or something else? She didn’t care. First occurrence of machine sentience, amazing new discovery for  the human race – she didn’t care. A large part of her truly hoped that one of the computer scientists would have the sense to pull the plug, and no-one would ever see their thoughts broadcast like that again.



Obviously this takes place in a future linguistics department where all the professors speak like twenty-somethings.

I’ve been given lots of hours at work recently, plus I’m editing a book that my friend has translated, so I’m afraid I haven’t been writing as much recently. Will try my best to get something up next Wednesday.


Written by G.J.

25/01/2013 at 1:41 pm

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