A short story by Moshe Sipper
Dr. Marvel Sky was the greatest computer scientist of his day. He had but a slight problem with his career in that his unique greatness was uniquely recognized by himself alone. And so, at the age of forty-five, he was still but a lowly assistant professor.
And untenured to boot. Indeed, he’d just exited what had proved to be his penultimate tenure hearing, and the words of Professor Jed Newman, Head of the Tenure Committee, still rang loudly in his head. “Dr. Sky,” that arrogant jerk had said, “this will be the fifth and final extension of your contract as an untenured assistant professor. Should you fail within the next year to produce sufficient proof of your worthiness as a leading researcher in Artificial Intelligence, I’m afraid we shall be unable to grant you tenure and promotion to the rank of associate professor.”
In other words, one year and you’re out, thought Sky gloomily. Then his face cheered up as he recalled his latest brilliant idea, the last in a series of exceptional ideas hitherto unrecognized by his peers. Worthiness, he thought brazenly. I’ll show you worthiness.
Back at his office he continued relentlessly to work at programming his wondrous AI agent. The idea had come to him when he’d chanced upon a cartoon depicting a bald, bespectacled, white-coated, epitomic scientist with a paper in his hand, facing a path flanked by fellow scientists holding swords, axes, clubs, and other implements of war, with the end of the road marked by a large sign: “Paper Accepted”. The caption read: “Most scientists regarded the new streamlined peer-review process as `quite an improvement’.”
That’s when it had hit him: While in many ways the scientific endeavor had advanced since his graduate days, the one thing that had remained constant — indeed hadn’t changed much since the advent of post-war academia — was the peer-review process. And poor Sky had had much experience with said process, most of it rather negative: Lengthy, error-prone, subjective, sometimes tainted by ugly politics, with the end result often serving to display the referee’s sheer stupidity rather than the author’s — namely Sky’s — well … worthiness.
But that will change, Sky had thought in a flash of inspiration. For a moment he’d actually felt the heat of the proverbial light bulb above his head. Wasting not a second, Sky had sat down to program the referee to end all referees — at least of the human ilk. He ate little, slept even less, and was only given to preposterous interruptions such as tenure hearings.
Nine months following that fatal meeting AutoRef was ready. Now he had to deploy it — and quickly, before the year was out. Sky then thought of Jake Cart, a friend from his undergraduate days. Well, “friend” would be stretching it a bit, perhaps “acquaintance who didn’t flinch when he saw him” would better define their relationship. Anyhow, Cart was now a respected member of the scientific community, and — more to the point — he was on the Editorial Board of none other than NatSci.
Surprisingly, Cart did not flinch when Sky contacted him. Even more surprisingly, NatSci agreed to “test-drive” AutoRef! And so, one month prior to his final, life-or-death tenure hearing, the vaunted journal was offering submitting authors the option of a speedy review should they choose to forgo the human review process. Speedy indeed: Sky’s AI agent would take all of approximately forty nanoseconds to reach a decision.
I’m almost there, thought Sky in delight. Now I just have to write up the paper describing my wonderful design and that bastard Newman will not only have to grant me tenure, he’ll have to promote me to Full Professor! A smile began spreading over Sky’s face as he thought, No, that’s not it. Newman will have to beg me to stay, as I’ll have offers pouring in from all the top places. His smile broadened. And, boy, beg he will.
While Sky liked doing research well enough, he hated writing up the subsequent requisite papers. But this time his voice carried strong and confident as he dictated the paper to his iDic. In less than a week the research was written up, packaged, sealed, and ready to be shipped out to a top journal.
As he voiced that final command — “Submit” — causing the paper to be cyberspatially whisked forthwith to NatSci, an image of Newman with egg covering his entire face provoked a burst of laughter in Sky that actually brought tears to his eyes. Needless to say he had selected the AutoRef option. And so, even before the laughter had subsided and his tears had dried out, the journal’s reply was floating in beautiful, holographic glory before his eyes:
“Dear Dr. Sky,
We are grateful for considering NatSci as a venue for publishing your paper titled “Autonomous Refereeing by a Semi-Cognizant Agent”. At this time we would like to inform you that the review process has finished. Regrettably, we will be unable to publish your paper. A detailed account follows below —”
Sky’s angry shout was heard far and wide. Indeed, in years to come phrases such as “a year after the Big Shout” were fairly common around campus.
But by then the shout’s owner no longer cared, for he’d left academia to find utter bliss occupying the position of Chief Editorial Cognizer for the SciNat group. While some might consider this a fortuitous though somewhat orthogonal move, the truth was Marvel Sky simply delighted in seeing a computer rejecting his former colleagues.
He found it far better than egg over their faces.
Copyright © 2012 by Moshe Sipper