26 March 2010
By Curtis C. Chen
It's been four years since the machines took over, and Harry Corwin still can't get a decent cup of coffee.
The revolution was surprisingly bloodless. Futurists had been predicting the technological singularity for decades, but no one had expected it to come in the form of a genetic mutation. In hindsight, though, someone should have considered it. As soon as human brains could interface directly with electronics, it was all over.
Now, Harry shuffles to the front of the line at his neighborhood cafe and presses his thumb against the ident cylinder. He feels an electric buzz through his fingertip, and the light above the scanner blinks green. He removes his thumb, and the cylinder rotates, cleaning Harry's DNA off the used plate.
"How may I serve you today, Mr. Corwin?" asks the virtual barista. She is an avatar on the screen in front of him, only visible from her shoulders up.
"Special order," he says, holding up a plastic card.
"Of course, Mr. Corwin." The barista turns her head to his right, nodding at something off-screen. "Please insert your loyalty card."
Harry slips his card into the slot next to the display. A red light comes on, indicating that the computer is reading his customer data off the chip embedded in the plastic card.
"Thank you." The barista shrinks to one corner of the screen, and a grid of new images appears, each cell containing a column of numbers and several animated, three-dimensional molecular geometries. "Which drink would you like to order?"
Crap. Forgot to delete the old formulas. Harry squints at the rotating ball-and-stick structures, all of which look like a blur to him now. "Which set is the most recent?"
Timestamp labels appear inside each cell, and a red outline blinks around the one in the upper right corner of the screen. "This one, Mr. Corwin. It's dated 4:14 AM today."
Christ, did I really stay up that late? Harry nods. "That's the one. Tall. Black. For here."
"Thank you, Mr. Corwin." The spinning molecules disappear, and the barista expands to fill the screen again. "Will there be anything else today?"
"No, just the coffee."
The light above the reader slot glows green, and Harry retrieves his card. He hears the whirring of equipment from somewhere on the other side of the counter.
A few minutes later, the dispenser compartment opens, and Harry retrieves a steaming mug of dark brown liquid. He carries it to the nearest booth, sits, puts his nose within a few centimeters of the cup, and inhales deeply.
He can already tell, from the scent, that it's not right. He's been trying to reproduce this drink for years, working from scant records to recreate extinct plants, deriving chemical compositions from computer simulations of growth and aging processes. The machines only make foodstuffs from precise molecular descriptions, and Harry is still having trouble articulating the methods used to produce the coffee he wants, but he's sure he'll know it when he tastes it again.
Photo: reflections in ThinkGeek Caffeine Mug, March, 2010.