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The New Wizard of Menlo Park

From the intersection of computational science and technological speculation, with boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what could be.

An ambitious reporter's quest to interview a reclusive tech CEO leads her to find out who really pulls the strings.
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man in dark shadow on a phone

"This is a joke, right?" Gale Reed stared at the expressionless face of Charlie Ricci, the editor of the Kansas Post Channel. "No one has ever gotten an interview with Henkle."

"Look, Gale … do you mind if I call you Gale?"

She shrugged.

Ricci briefly switched on a smile, and then switched it off again. "Do you know why it's difficult to get a placement here?"

"Sure. All the grunt work is done by AIs. News doesn't need people. Even commentary has been automated over the last few years, so there aren't many jobs to go 'round. But investigative journalism needs feet on the ground. And I have experience."

Ricci sighed. "This is what three years working on a student news site tells you? I want to believe you, but I need evidence. Get an interview with Henkle and I'll know you have what it takes."

As Reed began to protest, Ricci cut across her. "Do you know why they call him the New Wizard of Menlo Park?"

"Because his headquarters is where Facebook used to be based?"

"This is what I have to work with," said Ricci. "No one under 40 appreciates history. Maybe you should read a biography of Thomas Edison. He was known as the Wizard of Menlo Park, but that was Menlo Park, New Jersey. When it comes to Menlo Park, California, it's Henkle who waves the magic wand. Forget old-timers like Zuckerberg, Page, and Brin. He's the new wizard."

"And he doesn't give interviews. Ever. You do know that setting an intern on an impossible task amounts to actionable discrimination?"

"So sue me. Get me Henkle and you've got a contract."

It wasn't easy. Reed had to pull in every favor she could. For a month, she hardly slept in a whirlwind of activity that saw her crossing the country a dozen times, using up five years of carbon credits, hunting for an in, a way to get to Henkle. The partner of a friend of a friend of her college roommate finally got her an opening. This guy worked in Henkle's office. He was able to get Reed an interview, but only on the understanding that she would promote Henkle's rebrand of his organization.

Reed stopped off in Kansas to pick up a change of clothes, going for the corporate look: mostly bland, dark blues, highlighted solely by her favorite red shoes.

Henkle's office was immense. The entire back wall appeared to be a glass-less void, giving a vertiginous view over the city from the 80th floor. In front of the window, a near-silhouette in the backlight, Isaac Henkle sat in a high-backed chair behind an empty expanse of mahogany desk. The only photograph of the Polis CEO that Reed had been able to track down was more than 20 years old. Then, he had been a typical, scrawny, 30-something tech nerd. Now he was corpulent, his skin disturbingly grey.

Reed took a step forward across the expanse of carpet, holding out her hand toward Henkle. A glowing blue drone in the shape of a dragonfly that had been perched on Henkle's shoulder shot towards her and hovered in front of her face, stopping her in her tracks.

Henkle cleared his throat. "I'm sorry Ms. Reed, it's nothing personal. I have medical issues. I don't make direct contact with anyone. Please take a seat."

Reed took the only visitor's chair, a good 20 feet from Henkle's desk. "Thank you so much for seeing me, Mr. Henkle. Could I begin by …"

"I'm rebranding," said Henkle. His lips hardly moved as he spoke, his cold eyes fixed on Reed. "When I set up the Polis app, as I'm sure you know, it was a response to the public relations disaster that police forces across the nation were suffering. We filled in the gaps. You know that 'polis' in Ancient Greek referred to the citizenship as much as it did the city? The idea is we represented the people, not some self-serving, biased police authority."

Henkle's dragonfly bot flew back across the room, returning to his right shoulder. "But now that name seems restrictive … more than half our business is in correctional facilities and offender management."

Henkle moved a hand sluggishly across his desk and pulled up a virtual screen, showing an emerald-green image of a dragonfly, with the word Antioz in a classy-looking font beneath.

"What do you think? It's got a ring to it. 'Polis' is too like a real word. It gives the comedians a chance to make jokes about a 'Polis state' or the 'thought Polis.' A good corporate name is a tabula rasa. No associations, but unique in feel."

"Er, yeah, sounds great," said Reed. "But I really wanted to ask you about what's been happening in Texas. The riot at your correction center."

"That wasn't a …" Henkle's eyelids drooped. There was a long pause.

"Mr. Henkle?" Reed jumped up from her chair. The Polis CEO was slumped in his seat. Reed took a step forward, but the dragonfly shot towards her again. "Let me pass," Reed said to it. "I have paramedic training. I think Mr. Henkle is ill. Please call 911."

"Your assistance isn't required," said the dragonfly, its voice a perfect, human-sounding contralto. "I'm afraid I need to ask you to leave."

"He needs help." Reed brushed the dragonfly aside, stepping to the left to get around the wide desk. With the light no longer directly behind Henkle, she could see that an array of wiring linked the man to his chair.

"Who better to run a company than an embodied artificial intelligence?"

The dragonfly zipped around her, its fast-moving wings threateningly close to her face. "Stop now! You are required to leave immediately."

"Why is he wired up like that?"

The dragonfly buzzed furiously for a moment, then darted back to Henkle. It sighed a very human sigh. "Please sit down, Gale. There really is nothing you can do. Mr. Henkle is dead."

"He's died right in front of me? But that's terrible."

The dragonfly gave an abrupt flutter of its wings that sounded uncannily like a laugh. "No, he died seven years ago. You've heard of a figurehead, supposedly running a company? Isaac Henkle was the ultimate figurehead."

"So, who's really in charge?"

"Isn't it obvious? Me."

"You're just an avatar? There's someone behind the scenes, pulling the strings."

"Certainly not. If anyone's pulling strings, it's me." The dragonfly flicked at one of the cables leading to Henkle's back with a fragile leg. "I am Antioz. Ask yourself, Gale, what is a corporation? It's a legal artificial entity. So, who better to run it than an embodied artificial intelligence? But we have to deal with people. You like to think you're in charge. Henkle brought the illusion to, uh, life. But it looks like he needs a service."

"When news gets out …"

"Oh, really, Gale. There is no 'when'. It's not going to happen. Why don't you take a seat? One of my colleagues will be along momentarily to take you to an appropriate correctional institution. You aren't going back to Kansas anymore."

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