THIRTY-TWO MINUTES AGO
“Very well, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your time.” Wynne Mallory hoped none of them noticed her leg twitching nervously under her desk.
“Thank you, Dr. Mallory,” Congressman Dayzano said. “We’ll be in touch.”
The video call disconnected, and Wynne slumped back in her seat as she exhaled tension from her body. None of the oversight committee members had been too concerned about the specifics of the test results, and were content to let Wynne explain to them what they were seeing in the pictures and graphs compiled by the on-site observation teams. And Wynne had carefully avoided mentioning any of her concerns about autonomy, or independence, or—ironically—loyalty, instead focusing on the engineering details of each of the three remaining teams’ builds.
That was really all the military cared about, in the end: shiny hardware and big numbers. It was up to Wynne and IARPA to make sure these challenges actually tested for what she knew the AI would have to do on Mars—and all the things they couldn’t yet imagine the AI needing to do on another planet.
Her phone chimed, reminding her of the next meeting she had to attend. She stood and took a few deep breaths before walking out of her office and down the hall to address her own subordinates.
The conference room buzzed with multiple conversations. Wynne let her people talk for a moment while she studied the replay on the big screen one last time. It was quite a sight, Watchover’s drones spilling out of the irrigation tunnel they’d dug into the desert, but the challenge wasn’t to make a viral video. The parameters of the test had been very clear, and they didn’t include tearing up the ecosystem in pursuit of the construction goals.
Wynne had made her decision nearly an hour ago, when the first reports from on-site inspectors had begun coming in. The company was sure to complain, but she wasn’t worried about that. She was concerned about how much that hole in the ground looked like another patch of desert that had been devastated by AI drones last year.
She turned to face the conference table. Eight other people were assembled around it, each one with at least one laptop and tablet in front of them, plus an assortment of other printouts, notepads, and writing implements. Some were using fingers or styluses to draw directly on their touchscreens while they talked, but others preferred the feel of pen and paper. Wynne rapped her knuckles on the tabletop to get everyone’s attention.
The hubbub settled, and Wynne sat. The others followed suit. She looked around the table to make sure she had everyone’s attention, then said, “Do we have a winner?”
“It’s got to be Watchover,” said Jamal, a dark-skinned grad student with a shaved head. “Just look at what their drones have done. Hydroponics on the ceiling of a lava tube! No other team even attempted a gravity-fed system like that, much less one that works. Look at it, it’s beautiful!”
“We’re not scoring on aesthetics,” said Desiree, a redhead wearing round eyeglasses. “And actually, based on the rubric we defined, they didn’t perform optimally. The drones ruined several other tubes before they got that final one to work. In actual deployment, that would be a considerable waste of resources.”
“But this is just a test,” Jamal said. “Do we really need to mark them down just because they didn’t stick to the brief?”
“Yes,” Wynne said. “We do this by the book. We have to award points based on the goals defined in the challenge.”
“But those targets were clearly too narrowly defined,” Jamal said. “We didn’t imagine any of the robots would do something like that.” He pointed to the big screen behind Wynne.
Wynne didn’t turn around to look. “I appreciate that, Jamal, and we will take it into account for the next challenge. In fact, I’m going to put you in charge of reviewing the brief one last time before we distribute it to the teams.”
Jamal looked surprised. “Um, thanks?”
“Desiree.” Wynne turned to the other side of the table. “I’m guessing you’ve already tallied up the numbers?”
The redhead nodded. “Yes, Dr. Mallory, but I wanted to ask you if we should adjust the scoring matrix to account for—”
“No,” Wynne said, then stood and addressed the entire room. “I want to be absolutely clear on this, everyone. The rules for this competition were scrutinized by a lot of people who have more to lose than anyone in this room, and if we deviate from those procedures in any way, we put this...