They talked until the ugly lights came on in the bar. Randall learned that Ellen Baines was Dr. Ellen Baines, the same researcher who had made a breakthrough in perfecting Direct Neural Control – the ‘headset trials’ that she had been talking about at the drug company party. She had devised a system where a human user could control any modern off the shelf computer without the need for an input device. They just needed to put on her specially designed headset, plug in a USB dongle to the computer, calibrate the input and then think their commands. After a pitcher of beer, she divulged to Randall that the patents were approved and she was in the final stages of negotiation with Motorola. She expected to see the first product on the shelves within a year.
“That’s unbelievable,” Randall said. “It’s going to revolutionize computing.”
“I know,” Ellen said. “But just wait till you see what’s coming next,” she added cryptically.
“What?” Randall asked, almost breathless.
“Another pitcher!” Ellen said loudly, in the direction of the bartender, and laughed that tinkly sound that Randall was becoming more and more enchanted by. When that pitcher, and the one after it were gone, and the bartender was ushering them out the door, Ellen turned to Randall and said, “So, what’s it going to be? Your room or mine?”
Surprisingly, after the conference, Randall and Ellen continued to see each other. She lived and worked in Berkeley, and after six months of one or other of them driving across the bridge to see each other, Randall sold his condo in the city and moved into a huge loft in Berkeley. By the time the next Sci/Tech conference rolled around, Ellen had moved in.
Randall worried that Ellen would be like the other women he had dated seriously, that she would begrudge him his online friends and expect him to pay more attention to her once they shared living space. After a month, though, he knew he’d finally found the perfect woman.
Randall still worked out of the condo, forcing himself to leave once a day for a quick walk around the neighbourhood. Most nights Ellen worked late at the lab, but since Randall often lost track of time when he was working, he rarely noticed her late returns to the condo. They would share a late dinner of take out, talking about their various projects. If they didn’t watch a DVD on the wide screen or go out with friends, they would both naturally gravitate to their laptops. Often they found themselves next to each other on the couch, talking to each other over IM rather than out loud. They were two of a kind.
It was a Tuesday night, about quarter to seven. Randall hadn’t even turned on his worklight yet, and was starting to squint at his laptop’s screen, when his IM client chirped. It was Ellen, still at the lab.
“It works!!” Her message was short and sweet.
“As good as the headset?” Randall asked, his own work momentarily forgotten.
“Yes. Better! Faster.” Ellen’s quick responses betrayed her excitement. She typically made a point to use full sentences even in IM conversations.
“Will you be long?” Randall asked.
“No. I’m done for the day now. We should celebrate tonight.”
“I’ll make reservations.”
It was nearly nine o’clock when they were shown to a table at Marcellino’s, their favourite special occasion restaurant. “Two pints of Guinness, please,” Ellen ordered as they were seated, and then excitedly turned to Randall. “There’s no doubt about it,” she said, grinning. “The implants work perfectly.”
“No side effects?” Randall asked.
“Nothing other than the usual – one subject had a minor infection after the surgery, and there’s the usual two percent who couldn’t handle the interface, but that was the same with the headset.” Ellen grinned and smiled up at the waiter who had reappeared with a pair of pints. She took hers and lifted it up toward Randall. He clinked his pint glass against hers and they each took a long sip. “Here’s to the newest breakthrough in computer hardware.”
“Don’t underestimate yourself, sweetie,” Randall said. “This could be the next step in human evolution.” His cheeks were flushed and he was breathing harder than would seem necessary for only lifting a beer glass from table to mouth. “When is it going to be ready for humans?”
Ellen’s smile faltered, and she put her beer glass down. “Ah, the other side of innovation,” she said, sourly. “It’s ready now,” she continued, bitterness coming through her voice clearly. “But it could take months, maybe even years, for the testing to be completed to the government’s satisfaction.” She pursed her lips. “I don’t know how long it could be before there’s a commercial model available. Probably a couple of years before the FDA are through with it.”
Randall took a sip of his beer, and thought. “But if it weren’t for all the testing, how soon could we be using it?” he asked.
Ellen’s face took on that look that Randall knew well, as she calculated all the variables in her head. “Well, the interface is no problem; that’s the same as the headset and we know humans have fewer problems learning the interface than the simian subjects. And we’ve been using surgical quality materials for the test cases already. In theory it should be plug and play. Of course, we’ll need to do a few neurological tests and verify anti-rejection features, but honestly,” she looked up at Randall. “I’d say a couple of months.”
Randall smiled. “Let’s get an appetizer,” he said, opening his menu. “Carpaccio?”