Nico’s eyes widened as he followed Lakshmi and Stephanie through the warehouse. All of the building’s structures were flexible. Even the robot corral. The walls moved, seemingly of their own accord, to create meeting rooms and private call rooms as needed.
While he walked, he realized that the walls were controlled by small armies of drones, working together to shape the company’s workspace. It was a neat trick, but it set Nico’s teeth on edge for some reason. He’d think on it later that night when he got back to his room in Palm Springs.
Meantime, the robot corral currently occupied the building’s center, an atrium where several dozen even smaller drones hovered, awaiting commands.
In their center, a programmer wearing goggles and what looked like a falconer’s glove stood.
“The glove’s a data port that allows Cameron”––Stephanie pointed at the programmer––“to quickly update the software. It’s not perfect, and we won’t have the luxury of using it in trials, but for fast rollouts, and on the fly development here . . .” She paused, letting her terrible pun soak in. “It’s useful.”
From within the gyre of hovering drones, Cameron waved.
“They’re our best programmer by far, and their team’s also top-notch,” Lakshmi said.
The trio kept walking, to the desks beyond the atrium. Rows of tablets and their programmers. Lists of to-dos and cascading trouble spots on floating whiteboards. Drones everywhere, hovering. The Watchover labs were open plan and, like in open-plan spaces the world over, some programmers sat on couches and mats on the floor. Some stood.
A few drones perched on a charging wall beside the desks, occasionally twitching as their software was updated.
“How’s it coming, Tama?” Stephanie said in a low voice to a programmer covered with tattoos.
“It’s all right,” the man replied, his voice intensely Kiwi. “I figure we’ll be able to keep ahead of the time delay problem pretty well.”
He shrugged then, and Stephanie looked frustrated, Lakshmi even more so. “Tama, we need to be perfect, not ‘pretty well,’” Lakshmi said. “I’m not sure how much I can impress upon everyone how our funding is driven by how well we . . .”
Stephanie put her hand out, hovering in the air over a drone, and Lakshmi stopped. “We’ll do all right,” she said. “Right, Tama?”
The New Zealander nodded and relaxed. “We will.” He turned back to his keyboard, his gaze focused.
As they walked away, Nico assessed Stephanie with new eyes. “You know your people really well,” he said.
“I like to think so,” she agreed. Then she shifted the subject. “This is the sterile room, where the drones are made.”
“Our strategy is flexibility, as much as Trey’s is control. Or it was, before we left.” Lakshmi lifted a drone in one hand. This one was tinier than the others Nico had seen—or at least the ones he’d noticed—and looked like a moth with rotors for wings. “We think a drone swarm––essentially a hive mind––is more amenable to the rigors of Mars than a single-station controller with worker robots. If one part of the swarm is damaged, the other parts can take over.”
“Watchover programmers have taken familiar logic languages, LISP and ROS on the robotics side, PROLOG, LISP, and ARPACODE on the AI side, and evolved a custom language for our company. DevLok has its own, too. But they’re entirely separate codebases, and separate philosophies. DevLok . . . commands. We? Iterate.” Lakshmi grinned.
Amenable. Rigors of Mars. Robotics philosophy. Nico shook his head. Who spoke that way? But Lakshmi’s point about a swarm’s flexibility made sense.
“Over here, we have the simulation control room.” Stephanie guided him deeper into the building. Her enthusiasm was a balm in the face of the earlier tension. Nico looked into the simulation room.
It looked like mission control from JPL, with cameras on a desert area. Nico had spent a little time visiting JPL-Albuquerque in preparation for this gig. He grinned. This at least was familiar.
“That’s where we test the components,” Stephanie said. “One’s about to go on trial now. Watch.”
As Nico looked, a group of drones rose off the desert floor and began extruding additional robots. A gray shape slowly formed, then began digging, even as it was being finished.
Lakshmi said, “Mars requires several main behaviors: dig and build, adapt, and reuse. This digger satisfies the first set of...