A science fiction short story told by a female narrator and set in the very near future, or perhaps already happening somewhere now.
“What is it?” I asked.
“The very latest development in electronics, chemistry and biology!” Ben replied, with more than a touch of theatricality.
“Made by you?”
“Of course not,” said Ben. “You know that I have no practical skills. This was a team effort. Our technicians put the thing together; the Prof and I provided the theoretical stuff and, oh yes, the Department coughed up the funds.”
“I’m not very impressed,” I said. And I wasn’t. I wasn’t sure that I approved of Ben bringing his work home and, in spite of his dramatic flourish, the object he had just placed on our dining table didn’t seem like an example of cutting edge technology to me. “It looks like a one-slice toaster with an iPad slapped on the side.”
“Rather a thick slice,” Ben responded.
“Well,” I said, “an open-topped microwave then, not wide enough for a full-size dish, and with an iPad slapped on the side.”
“Put your hand in it,” said Ben, adopting his authoritative voice. “Go on, put your hand in and rest one or two of your fingers against the bottom plate.”
I looked at him doubtfully.
“You’ve been telling me lately that you want to keep your hand in,” he continued, “so, here’s a chance to have a go.”
I grimaced at the feeble joke, but I began to insert my hand.
“I hope I’m not going get a nasty shock,” I said. My fingers touched the floor of the box. “It feels a little bit rough.”
“No,” I said. “Is that all?”
“Fine,” said Ben. “Now take your hand out, and let’s check the monitor. That iPad screen of yours is lighting up.”
He was right. A multicoloured bar chart was dancing across most of the screen, the individual columns fluctuating in height and hue. It was a fascinating display to watch and, for a moment, I failed to notice the static message that had appeared above it in dull blue lettering: ‘Subject 20150510-1 HUMAN Probability 92.9%’.
“Hmm,” said Ben. He looked slightly puzzled. “It’s usually a bit more positive than that but, hey, you’re good enough for me. How do you fancy trying it out on your beetles?”
For about three years, before I was interrupted by George’s arrival, I had spent most of my time cataloguing the large beetle collection bequeathed to the University by a distinguished former Professor of Zoology who was supposed to have been researching African lizards. Perhaps because of the paucity of the British lizard fauna, he had developed this alternative interest to occupy his spare time when he was at home but, unfortunately, he had never got round to identifying more than a fraction of his specimens. Pregnancy had come to me as a welcome distraction from the weevils, longhorns and ladybirds.
“When I said that I would like to keep in touch with my subject, I was really thinking about looking at something different, jellyfish perhaps, or squirrels, or maybe dinosaurs”.
“Dinosaurs are no good,” said Ben, taking me seriously, “there’s no way of getting DNA from the fossils. We need a large group of modern organisms, quite well known but with the possibility of including a few unknown species. That way we can calibrate and develop the taxonometer, and we might achieve one or two breakthroughs for the biologists even before we’re ready to publish an account of how the thing works. Those beetles of yours would be ideal.”
“They’re definitely not ‘my’ beetles,” I replied. “’Taxonometer’, is that what you call it? How does it work?”
“You said the surface inside felt rough; that’s because it’s perforated by thousands of microscopic holes, and behind each of the holes is an even more microscopic needle. When you touched the plate, just one of those needles was activated; it made a minute incision in your finger and sampled your DNA. A tiny chemistry set under the plate replicated your DNA a few hundred times and then the sample was scanned by some microelectronic device, this is the part I don’t understand, that can work out the precise structure of the DNA molecules it senses there. Finally, another system compares the DNA result with a database and generates the display on the monitor identifying the species of animal or plant that has been sampled”.
By now I was definitely beginning to feel impressed, but: “Only 92.9% human?” I enquired.
“It’s 92.9% probability,” Ben corrected me. “The machine’s still compiling statistics and learning how to extrapolate results from them. At the moment it can only distinguish between human, laboratory rat and parrot DNA; Tony let us use his tame parrot for a test sample. It would be a surprise if it rated anyone 100% human; it has to compare each new sample with all the others it’s processed and, of course, we’re all slightly different. Mind you, 92.9% is a bit low, we’ve averaged 98.5 with the students we’ve tried it on.” A brief, incoherent cry carried across to us from the other side of the room.
“It’s feeding time,” I said, “at least, for some of us. And you can take a turn reading to him this evening.”
“Claire, he’s not a year old yet. He doesn’t understand a word we say.”
‘That,” I retorted, “is your opinion. I’m with him all day, and I can assure you that he’s got the smartest intellect of all the babies I’ve ever met. Not too much of a surprise, I suppose, with parents like us!”
* * *
Much as I initially disliked returning to my work on the beetle collection, it did indeed provide me with some intellectual stimulation and a sense of being a little bit useful beyond the restricted world of domesticity and child rearing. Once I had perfected a routine and accumulated a few results I even found it quite interesting to compare the taxonometer’s results with the beetle classifications used in the standard identification guides. After a couple of months I was telling Ben that two or three genera of weevils badly needed revising as their DNA was too diverse for the close relationships implied by the current nomenclature. After six months I was convinced that I had found a handful of ‘new’ species, with distinctive DNA signatures that separated them from apparently identical specimens in the same collection. Each time I introduced the taxonometer to a different species I had to advise it by entering double zero on a keypad and the scientific name that I had determined from elsewhere; the taxonometer would treat that specimen as a reference sample for comparison with all subsequent samples it analysed. The more samples of a particular species that were analysed, the higher the probability levels of the identifications offered by the taxonometer. Because I only had a few specimens of each of the different beetles in the collection, the taxonometer’s confidence ratings tended to be relatively low, even when there was no obvious reason to doubt that an identification was correct. By trial and error, and by sometimes deliberately trying to pass off one species as another, I determined that anything less than a 70% probability was a good indication that a particular identification was incorrect.
Meanwhile, Ben was taking the device to the University now and again to build up its database of human samples. One day he said: “I think we may have tested enough people now to have stabilised the taxonometer’s ability to identify human DNA. For the past month every student we’ve tried has scored a probability of at least 99.8% of being human, even though we’ve been deliberately seeking out the most diverse individuals we can find.”
“That’s nice, dear,” I replied. With, at most, no more than twenty specimens of any one kind of beetle to investigate, the highest level of probability I had recorded was only 88.6%. “By the way,” I added, “you might need to reset that electronic chess board of yours. George was playing with it yesterday; I hope you weren’t in the middle of a game.”
Ben grunted. He didn’t seem too concerned, so it came as a surprise when he returned to the subject some time later.
“You know the chess board…” he began
“Oh yes,” I responded.
“You didn’t touch it yourself, did you?”
“No,” I said, “I wouldn’t, you know that.”
“Funny,” he said, “he’s certainly tinkered with it, but the position he’s left it in is, well, it’s quite… sensible.’
“He has been watching you playing with it lately,” I pointed out. “In fact you’ve been sitting with him on your knee while you play.”
“For goodness’ sake,” said Ben, “he’s only just started trying to talk!”
“And he makes a lot of sense,” I replied, but I realised that he did have a point.
I had left the big ground beetles until last. Partly this was because I realised that they would be relatively easy to identify, partly it was because I didn’t really fancy handling them. I was sure that some of them resembled the large beetles that I had sometimes found around my gran’s cottage in the hills when I was a girl. In those days I was more likely to scream at the sight of such things rather than consult an entomological handbook. Unlike me, George stared at the alien shapes of the beetles with blatant fascination. Some reflected elusive violet hues, others had their bodies hidden under rough, knobbly carapaces; all of them carried armoured heads with conspicuous compound eyes, antennae and ferocious mouthparts. He sat at my shoulder in the old-fashioned high chair that Ben’s mother had passed on to us, carefully watching me at work.
“Here we go,” I chanted, “pick it up by the pin and pop it in quick; watch the screen glow; pick it out with the tweezers and put it back in the box.” I reached for the logbook. “Check!” I said, looking at George, and then, taking my pen, “Carabus violaceus. Probability 83.9%.” I put down the pen. “I need a cup of tea,” I said. “You stay there.” I kissed George lightly on the forehead and headed for the kitchen.
I filled the kettle, switched it on, paused for a moment to consider the biscuit situation and then headed back towards the dining room. As I came through the door I saw that George had somehow managed to stand up in his high chair and was putting a hand into the open top of the taxonometer. “George!” I called out. “Careful!” I reached out to grip him by his waist, worried that he would topple the chair.
“Check!” he said, cheerfully.
I glanced at the glowing screen on the side of the taxonometer. Over several months the technicians had managed to improve the quality of the lettering, and the display at the top of the screen was now stating, brightly and clearly: ‘Subject 20160404-17 HUMAN Probability 69.6%’. I stared at it for an age and then, rather automatically, reached for the logbook. After writing the entry I sat and looked thoughtfully into George’s eyes. “Just how are we going to explain this to your father?” I asked him.