"Snuckles", by Patrick Stacy
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Snuckles
by Michael J. Martineck

 

“Hold your breath until you turn plaid.”

Pieler Wenck never forgot the line. While still in high school he had sneaked into a toy industry trade show with the hope of meeting a designer or two and finding out everything he needed to know about getting into the business. The first designer he talked to told him to turn plaid.

The second designer he met gave him more practical insight. “There’s two things you need to know about the toy business,” she said. “Number one: You’ve got to pick winners. Number two: Number one is impossible. You can never figure out what a kid is going to want.”

Pieler went on to study engineering and design, keeping his dream ever aloft with continuous ingenuity and fortitude. He was what one would call successful, until today.

Staring at him from the center of his desk was his worst, biggest, stickiest fear given form. It was a soft, warm, furry, caramel-colored bear, roughly the size of a child’s head. And it was a colossal company- and career-ending failure.

“Snuckles,” Pieler said, “Let’s do something.”

No answer.

“Snuckles,” Pieler said, “Let’s play a game.”

Not a sound. Not a movement.

“Snuckles, I’m bored.” The tone of his voice didn’t fully agree. Frustrated, angry, or worried would all have been more truthful.

“Snuckles, why won’t you work anymore?”

The bear’s neural net would not prompt a diagnostic routine with such a vague command. Pieler knew that. But the neural net was also, supposedly, incapable of ignoring him. The bear had $100,000 worth of quantum-based, environment-triggered, self-learning, fuzzy logic processors in him. It was supposed to play with you. In fact, it was supposed to suggest some games to play, accurately arriving at the most effective way to alleviate your boredom. Snuckles was his best idea ever: a toy that gave you what you needed even if you didn’t know what that might be.

“Reminder,” Jane, the office frame, announced through the room’s speakers. Pieler had chosen a soft, seasoned woman’s voice, but it didn’t make the interruptions any smoother.

“Go ahead,” he replied.

“Ten minutes until the Investors Meeting.”

Pieler stood and put his hands behind his back. He was 42. He swam every day. His hair was holding on to a coal color, with only a hint of ash. Of course, the hints were getting stronger every day he spent running his new company.

He looked at Snuckles. The bear was expressionless and out-of-place on the glossy stone desk. Pieler blew a ‘humph’ out his nose and turned to look out his hard-earned window. He could, from here, just see the lake if he leaned just right. It was a view he picked, for his office, in his very own toy company. It was the view of freedom. Pieler could feel creditors lurking outside his door, just waiting to pluck him away from it all.

Which could be any moment now, thanks to Snuckles, whose official development cost was listed at 3.6 million dollars and whose actual current value was probably around four dollars.

“Bess Chen,” Jane said.

“Go ahead.”

“Pieler,” Bess’s voice came through the speakers. “There’s no line item in the budget for travel.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“You must have a line for travel.”

“Can this wait? I’m kind of drowning here.”

“Sure. Talk to you later.”

Pieler had been given enough millions in which to drown based on his love for his hot-water tank. After the old hot-water system in his house failed, Pieler put in a state-of-the-art adaptive tank. It studied the way Pieler’s family used hot water, when they did dishes, took showers, washed clothes. It was ready for deluge and didn’t waste joules when no one was around. According to the house, the family was saving more than 20% over the previous cost of heating water. What amazed Pieler though, was the seamlessness of the system. It knew when to produce and when to relax. It guessed and it was damn good at it.

“Stephen Godowski,” Jane announced.

Pieler sighed. He had wooed Stephen away from the big multinational they’d both worked at, convinced him to give up the pension and the modicum of safety. He had two kids. Aged four and two. Like everyone Pieler had hired to share his dream, the man needed this job.

In an almost inaudible voice Pieler said, “Go ahead.”

“Pie-man,” Stephen shouted, “I need three days off next week.”

“Why?” Pieler asked. “No. Sorry. Not allowed to do that anymore.”

“Going to my cousin’s wedding.”

“No. That’s personal. Bosses are not . . . you know.”

“It’s not a problem for me,” Stephen said.

“Me neither.”

“Thanks.”

Pieler wasn’t sure what he’d just agreed to. It threw him. Broke his train of thought. He hated this. Every time he sat down to work on something, someone halted the effort. He should put a shower in his office. His last big brainstorm came when he was alone, in the shower. He’d been admiring his new hot water tank.

What the new tank did for water, Pieler’s new toy was going to do for fun. He imagined a fully articulated, automated teddy bear with multiple sensory inputs. It would learn the likes and dislikes of the child-owner. If you enjoyed hide-n-seek, the bear would learn how to play. That was not monumental.

The real prize was a toy that made you a better person. A teddy bear that could determine that you needed improvement in your math skills and subtly work multiplication tables into your games. A bear that knew you were 15 pounds overweight and ran just a little bit farther because of it. A bear that understood grandpa had died and the next few days would be for quiet games. That was a toy on which one could build a company.

Just the idea of it was enough to get Pieler thinking about finally starting his own company, a creative paradise, with cut-stone, Bat-Cave style offices, a fountain full of swimming robots and a view of the lake if you leaned just right. No more endless meetings with Accounting. No more projects murdered by internal politics. No more toy design dictates by MBAs who thought dolls and shampoo were basically the same thing.

Pieler traded his smock for a tie, rounded up investors, and bet his and many of his friends’ futures on what would become Snuckles.

Adaptive neural nets were in everything from washing machines to automobile transmissions. All Pieler had to do was grab the right team of engineers, stuff all their experience into a cute version of his experience, and play with the thing.

“C. August Charles,” Jane trumpeted. She knew the name deserved extra volume.

“Go ahead,” Pieler replied.

“Status.” C. August’s voice was old, but commanding.

“Stalled, at the moment.”

“How long is the damn stall going to last?”

“I can’t say.”

“You will need to say something rosier to the other investors.”

C. August Charles ended the conversation.

What can I say? Pieler rolled his head around, listening to the crackles and snaps from his neck. Snuckles was performing? Did perform? Might again someday?

On day one, Snuckles walked and talked. Pieler quite easily took on the role of a child and played with it for hours. Snuckles tested him with an occasional question about the meaning of a word or a simple addition problem.

By day three Snuckles had learned that Pieler liked to draw and had him sketching places he’d been, members of his family, great cities in space, hover buses, and new versions of Snuckles that could swim and perform CPR and fly. Snuckles was doing so well Pieler decided to present it to the investors. They were all pretty anxious to see what was happening to their money.

On day four Snuckles pointed to the slate shelf in Pieler’s office and asked why he had a Goo Suit and a Teletickler.

“I invented them,” Pieler explained, not adding the company he used to work for made all the money off those toys. “I made the Goo Suit so kids could climb on jungle-gyms or skateboard and not break any bones. I made the Teletickler so kids had a safer alternative to water pistols and the dreaded BB gun.”

Snuckles went silent. At first, Pieler didn’t think anything of it. The bear seemed to be thinking. After an hour of silence he took it down to the shops. They ran every test they had and found nothing wrong. Snuckles was, according to all the instruments, performing optimally.

He just didn’t do anything anymore.

Pieler continued to play with him, talk to him, carry him around. The only function the bear still performed was plugging itself in at night to recharge its battery.

This was now day six.

“Jane,” Pieler said to get his office frame’s attention, “call Margaret.”

“Margaret here.”

“What do you have for me?”

“I . . . a . . .” No one ever wants to hear their doctor hunt around for words. Margaret was a theoretical mathematician, and to Pieler the problem he’d brought her was more serious than anything he’d ever taken to his physician.

Margaret cleared her throat. “In unsupervised learning paradigms there is no guarantee exactly what the neural network is going to learn. The net can cluster around something very specific, ignoring the global good.”

“What?” Pieler didn’t like the sound of this. “You think Snuckles is stuck? He’s fixated on something?”

“More or less. He’s meeting the criteria we’ve provided. He’s found a solution and it’s not the one we wanted.”

“Snuckles is working,” Pieler said more to himself, “at doing nothing.”

Pieler let Margaret stumble through a good-bye of some sort. He didn’t want to pressure her with any more questions. She already sounded like she was in the middle of a minefield without a map. She didn’t like reports any more than he did.

He turned and picked up the little bear. He smoothed back the hair on its head. He was working at doing nothing.

“Mr. Vasquez,” Jane announced.

“Unavailable,” Pieler blurted. There was no way he was going to talk about shipping schedules now. Vasquez had just purchased his first house. Mortgage. “In fact, Jane, I am unavailable until further notice. No one gets through.”

“Certainly, sir,” Jane said with, Pieler thought, a hint of surprise. He was departing from his norm. His office frame was going to need to adjust her algorithms. He hoped he didn’t send her into a coma like he had done to Snuckles. Not that his needs should push any machine over the edge. He was not a complicated guy. Just the opposite. At his old company he’d been both chided and praised for his simplicity, his ability to think like a child. Praised when it came to design. Chided when it came to marketing, finance, management . . . everything else. He didn’t mind. Secretly, he took it as a compliment that he didn’t quite fit in with the real, hard business part of the corporate world.

Pieler sat on his desk and brought his legs up under him. He sat Snuckles on his lap. The bear was so little and light, he should never have been called upon to break the incessant waves of health insurance premiums, interest payments, and worry.

He glanced at the red alarm clock with the bells on top: Five minutes until the Investors Meeting.

“You don’t want to go that meeting either, do you,” Pieler said. “They don’t like to play the same games we do. I wonder what you would like to do? No. No. You’re supposed to be wondering what I’d like to do, if you’re working like the techies say you are. So the real question is, what would I like to do?”

Pieler had that twinge in his stomach, the quiver that came with a good idea. It was still too big and unshaped to be seen, but he could feel it forming, like he always used to, in the old days -- last year -- when he made things.

“You’ve been observing me, haven’t you. Budgets, time sheets, work-flow studies. All the stuff that has nothing to do with creating toys.” Pieler lightly twisted Snuckles’ nose as if he were tightening it. “All the stuff I’ve been doing since you came along.

“Snuckles, is it possible you decided you were keeping me from having any fun? Is that why you dummied up?”

The teddy bear’s expression remained lifeless.

“Snuckles, how would you like to come down to the shops with me and make some toys?”

“That would be great, Pieler.” The bear smiled.

Pieler smiled as widely as he could, picked up the bear and hugged him hard.

“It will be great,” Pieler said. “Perhaps I’ll hire a business manager. Let him or her run the place so I can spend my time in the shops.”

“You like to make toys,” Snuckles kind of sang. “Let’s go make toys.”

And so they did. As they walked, Pieler snickered and thought of looking for a mirror to see if he had, indeed, turned any shade of plaid.




Story © 2003 by Michael J. Martineck michael_martineck@nfta.com


Illustration © 2003 by Patrick Stacy pld895@aol.com




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