photo credits here, edited.
by joel tan and phyllis poh
“Running final checks on all operations,” JARHO’s voice echoed throughout the experimental workspace.
Assistants clad in white bustled around, moving briskly from machine to machine. A low hum filled the atmosphere as electricity from the nearby nuclear reactor pulsed through the cables.
This is it, Robert thought, gazing down from the gallery. A major leap formankind, after all those long years of hard work. The world will forever remember this day, 9 March 2011.
Robert I. was a genius in his own right. His expertise in engineering was undisputed in Japan - no, the whole world. He had built androids capable of putting together a meal worthy of Michelin star chefs using only basic household ingredients. This, in his opinion, was the most practical use for a household robot.
He owned a robotics firm in Japan, manufacturing robots for various purposes. Commercial, service, military… you name it, he made it. It was an initial success, but consumers soon lost interest in his products, acquiring a distaste for them instead. People found them less and less…. human.
Humph. As if they could tell the difference between humans and artificial intelligence.
“Final checks complete. Initializing cell production,” JARHO announced with his characteristic cheer. Rows of printers warmed up, the whirl of gears and sloshing of chemicals starting a crescendo, a prelude to the awaiting symphony.
JARHO (Just A Really Happy Organizer) was Robert’s intelligent personal assistant, single handedly programmed by Robert himself. As he put it, JARHO “is way better and sounds happier than any secretary you could ever have.” In fact, he had the incompetent Siri in his iPhone replaced with JARHO, who was already counting down to the end of the twentyfour hour printing process.
It should have taken much longer, considering the complexity of a human body. “The human body is a fine work of art, a masterpiece of masterpieces.” Robert recalled explaining to his team, “To recreate this masterpiece, we will require extreme accuracy and precision. Each cell is an integral part of the body. Only if each is placed at its precise location will they all function perfectly.”
Accuracy and precision. His key to success.
He already had some measure of success though. Months ago, he had printed a furless lab mouse from just a few stem cells. Much to everyone’s delight, it was scurrying around the entire workspace after it first awoke and was so hyperactive it had to be tranquilized.
While it would have been a huge milestone for any other, it was merely a checkpoint to Robert, to be kept secret temporarily. It gave him an assurance, encouraging him to satisfy his greatest curiosity…
21 April 1986, 12.00PM
“Faster!” Prof. Obolensky shouted, “Are you fools even awake?”
Usually, everyone avoided his line of sight, unwilling to be flooded with verbal abuse in heavilyaccented Russian. But right then, everyone was just focusing on keeping up with the schedule.
Obolensky was furious at the pandemonium within the room. Machines ran at full capacity, maintaining pressures and temperatures within their respective chambers. Computers hooked up to them fired signals for every minute detail in the enormous blueprint. The room was a cobweb of wires and cables, complete with hazard symbols threatening electrocution and acid burns every two metres. Commercial electricity was inadequate to power their numerous machines, so they had set the laboratory near the nuclear power plant.
Five minutes left.
“Those good for nothing fools!” Obolensky grumbled. A historical event was about to occur and they were stumbling around like idiots!
Putting them out of his mind, he trudged to the largest machine in the room. The very last of over nine thousand processes was carried out in this steel chamber, where the body was gently warmed up to room temperature to avoid a nasty thermal shock when the chamber doors opened.
The scientists had already crowded around the machine when Obolensky approached, silently watching the thermal readout rise. Just to announce his arrival and vent his anger, he shouted at them for taking so long, but to no avail. One or two might have been startled, but otherwise they simply nervously shuffled around to make way for him, their eyes still locked on the readout.
Just then, a “ding” emanated from the machine…
“Imagine cutting up this figure into slices as thick as a strand of hair, then gluing the slices together, layer by layer, to form the figure again.
“This is how 3D printing works. The computer divides the object into many thin cross sections. The printer then lays out each cross section made of molten plastic on top and fuse with the previous layer. Eventually, all the cross sections fuse together and the figure is formed. Thus, it is known as an additive process layers are added to obtain the resulting shape,” Robert had explained this to his team years before, illustrating his point with a Pikachu figurine.
“How long will this process take?” Someone asked.
“A figure this size will take roughly five hours to print, using current technology.”
“If that tiny… thing takes five hours to print, won’t it take months, or years, to put together a fully grown and functional human body?”
Robert smiled, answering without hesitation. “With current technology, it would take forever and a day to print it. But I have a proposal for accelerating this process to within a day.”
Several half asleep team members perked up at this.
“Here’s food for thought. We can’t use a single printer to craft a human body. We need at least a hundred printers, each one specialized in an aspect of production, assembly or maintenance. What is the fastest way to get a hundred 3D printers? Simple. We use a 3D printer to print more 3D printers!”
That was what Robert’s team had been doing for five years. His company had had a few 3D printers as a trial for printing robot parts, which turned out to be counterproductive since no one thought that customizable designs were worth their trouble.
In a month, they had replicated their 3D printers to obtain a production line of thirteen printers, churning out what would become over three hundred printers in the experimental workspace. It was a success in itself, the workspace looking grand as white light splashed on sparkling rows of machinery.
“JARHO, give me an update,” Robert commanded.
“Systems proceeding according to schedule. Cell count at five trillion, four percent complete. Nuclear reactors one through three running at fifty percent capacity,” JARHO responded.
Nothing can go wrong. We designed this for five years its flawless. With this, the firm will soon be up and running like never before.
Biochemical industries boasted of their wonderful insights in cloning and DNA resequencing, but what Robert had in mind was far better. Successful cloning of humans was unheard of. Moreover, growth and development required precious time and resources. 3D printing would bypass both the gestation period and childhood. The product would already be an adult when it was complete.
It was the perfect project for him. These humanoids would replace his firm’s unpopular robots and turn the media spotlight on them. They would serve households and do the jobs that others shied away from. Being more almost human, they could even be genetically modified and hopefully earn back the support of the people.
“Hydrogel supply at ninetyfive percent,” JARHO reported.
“Unlike printing an ordinary model, the cells in the humanoid body are unable to support themselves when layer after layer of cells are applied. Hence, a group of cells coalesced together would be useless, spilling over to form a puddle of cytoplasm and whatnot cell contents.” Robert recalled explaining to his staff.
“But we need each and every cell to be placed at its exact location.” He continued, “Thus, for every layer of cells applied, we apply hydrogel, a scaffold material that holds the cells in place until they attach to one another. The hydrogel will later degrade to leave the cells behind!”
Every minute detail of the body blueprint had been extensively covered by his team, with some modifications to better suit the process, like the absence of the reproductive system and hair from the body. They weren’t necessary for supporting life systems and besides, the extreme flexibility of hair would be tough to implement into the body.
21 April 1986, 12.10PM
The heavy doors of the large steel chamber swung out gently with a soft “whoosh”, followed by a conveyor belt extending out from the interior. The scientists stepped back, anxious of what was to come as the belt started rolling, unveiling the finished product.
“Хорошо,” Prof. Obolensky breathed. Very good.
Slowly, the head emerged, delicate bare skin reflecting the harsh light of the room. Its eyes were still shut but they could already feel the warmth radiating from the body.
As more of the body was revealed, Obolensky was astonished at the perfection of workmanship. Every part was recognizable as human. Torso, hand, finger, all of them were shaped like those in the blueprints that they had worked on for many years. It was human almost except for the lack of hair, which Obolensky had described as “clumsy looking things” before having it removed from the humanoid blueprint.
The conveyor belt shuddered to a stop, and the room fell eerily silent. The scientists watched for any minuscule movements of the body, ready to record any observation. Obolensky just stared at the body, pokerfaced.
The humanoid’s fingers twitched, a sharp, jerky movement. Or was it just their imagination?
There! It moved again. And again!
Soon, the fingers were moving with greater dexterity and the toes were wriggling slowly with newfound purpose. The scientists were silent in awe. Obolensky’s mouth twitched into a smug smile.
The movement suddenly stopped, as if the humanoid was taking a break from its own discoveries. Then, the eyelids opened with extra care, hesitating at the initial glare from the brightness of the room. A pair of deep blue eyes filled with light behind those eyelids, as though the depths of the Caribbean sea were hidden behind them. They swivelled around in their sockets, taking in the unfamiliar sights before them.
“Get it to the testing room now,” Obolensky ordered, voice softer than usual.
Robert had not slept for the past two days despite the fact that everything had run smoothly. They were nearing the end and JARHO had happily announced that the product was looking healthy.
One minute left.
Almost everyone gathered at the gallery while a few remained below to execute protocol. Like everyone else, Robert was tense, eager to see the results of his creation. If it succeeded, it would provide a major boost that his company desperately needed.
“Mark I. has awakened within the health scan chamber. Steady heartbeat at eightone beats per minute. Vital signs show no malfunction,” JARHO joyfully reported.
The chamber’s side opened to reveal a fully formed adult humanoid. Its body was encased in an upright enclosure, a hundred and seventy centimetres of human service and obedience. Bare skin shone under the light of the workspace, made odd by the absence of hair. Its head was sagging downward and muscles relaxed, hanging loosely like a marionette.
Then it looked up.
The unclothed humanoid scanned its surroundings silently. It was almost frightening, watching the mannequinlike figure glance around with its blank eyes.
The scientists started their interaction, checking if Mark I. was actually… human.
26 April 1986, 3.00AM
Prof. Obolensky was rudely awakened by bangs on the door. He cursed, getting up to open it, ready to shout at whoever
“Sir! There’s a problem!” The scientist standing at the door cried out.
“What?” The printing process had been proclaimed a success the humanoid, User 1, was alive and functional for three days and counting.
“It’s User 1! It’s gone!”
His eyes flew open, back straightening and brain kickstarting to a whir. “Where!?”
“I don’t know!” Obolensky rushed down the hallway before the scientist could finish, past the window of the empty room that should have held User 1.
The observation deck was a tornado of mess and chatter. How did User 1 disappear? What was going to happen now?
Obolensky scanned across the crowd. Where were they…? .
“SILENCE!” The noise cut off abruptly. All was still.
“Where are the Japanese scientists?” Obolensky shouted.
“Sir, they’re missing.” Someone timidly reported behind him.
Traitors. Obolensky fumed.
“What?” Obolensky growled as he turned to face the lab supervisor.
“After User 1 was printed, there were irregularities in our workers’ health. We have fifteen seriously ill staff in the quarantine wards. User 1’s blood test results just came in, sir, and it seems to contain unusually high viral activity”
“Can we cure him?”
“Never been seen before, and they can’t seem to suppress it… They say it’s some kind of supervirus that User 1 himself is producing, sir… More are being infected by it every minute…”
Just then, someone threw up on the floor.
Robert sat back in his chair, rubbing his bald head. The technology is wonderful, but why it does feel like I’ve only made a rediscovery?
26 April 1986, 6.50AM
Obolensky found himself depressed, watching the sunrise from his window. The others were probably saying their last prayers, he thought, as he recalled the emergency meeting they had, hours earlier.
“It’s spreading fast. More and more of our staff are reported sick. Soon, the supervirus will reach the nearest town…”
“We can’t find a cure or inhibitor…”
“We can’t let this out. Our reputation is at stake. We cannot let them know that we may just have initiated the extinction of our own kind…”
“Our lives are at stake, for goodness”
“The epidemic would be worse than a revolution.”
“Is there any other way to stop the supervirus?”
“No. Radiation is our only chance, and the odds aren’t good anyway…”
“What about User 1? What do we do with him and the Japanese?”
“It’s too late. We can’t save both our reputation and User 1 now.”
“But, the technology! All our hard work and discoveries!”
“The world is not prepared for such technology to exist. It is too risky and dangerous. One small mistake can lead to a catastrophe. No one should ever bring this back. No one.”
“Self destruction in one minute,” Obolensky’s attention snapped back to the sunrise.
The night would soon disappear, defeated by the sun’s warm glow. In twelve hours, the land would be in twilight again. But no matter how many times dusk returned, dawn would arrive. One day ends, and another begins. One life ends, and another begins. Obolensky closed his eyes, counting the seconds left.
“Mark I.’s gone berserk!” Kamazaki, a young female assistant, burst into Robert’s office.
“What?” Robert exclaimed.
“He’s gone hyperactive, screaming and howling!” She ran for the testing room, leaving Robert trailing behind.
Ten metres away, he could already hear cries of anguish. As he approached the bulletproof clear window, he spotted Mark I. running in circles. Scientists were struggling to get out of the way, as he - no, it showed no signs of fatigue or pain crashing into anything and everything.
“What should we do?” Kamazaki asked desperately.
The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. If any one of thehundred billion neurons in the brain had been wired incorrectly…
A loud thud brought Robert back to his senses as Mark I. peeled its face off the window and continued on its destruction spree.
“He’s not in his right mind!” She said urgently.
“Of course it’s not in its right mind.” Robert answered calmly, “Its brain is a mess of wires gone wrong. The neurons are sending signals to whichever neurons they are connected to. It’s out of its own control.”
But it was perfect… Flawless…
I shouldn’t have came looking for this technology. It was never meant to be rediscovered. Then again, I was never meant to exist either.
Mark I. burst out of the testing room and skidded to a stop. Robert watched in shock as it spun around and gazed at him, brown, empty eyes meeting intelligent blue ones.
“Terminate him!” Someone screamed.
“Yes, I know that,” Robert said. Along with all this technology.
“JARHO, run the selfdest-”
“You can’t!” Kamazaki tugged on his arm, eyes widening with realization. “The people here have wives and children! The people in the surrounding province will suffer! Where’s your humanity?” She pleaded.
“Who said I was humane?” Robert yanked his arm away, striding off. Who said he was human, anyway?
If someone was trying to keep the technology away from the world, he shouldn’t have gone around looking for it. He had to destroy it before anyone else got their hands on it.
“Any last words, JARHO?”
“It has been a pleasure to be your assistant.”
Robert I. rubbed his bald head. The doctors had said he suffered from alopecia universalis,a rare disease which involved the rapid loss of all hair. He looked back at his entire life, unable to decipher the blurred images of his childhood. They just passed it off as amnesia.
But what did the doctors know about who I am - or what I am?
“JARHO, run the self destruct protocol.”
“As you wish, sir.”
“And don’t bother counting down.”
On 11 March 2011, 14:46 Japan time, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Japan and triggered a tsunami, resulting in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster measuring Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
On 26 April 1986, the worst nuclear power plant disaster in human history was recorded in Chernobyl. It was recorded as a Level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
Thirty-two thousand feet above sea level, flying towards Japan airspace, the Japanese scientists, together with User 1, were receiving the antidote, eradicating the supervirus from their bodies.
Notes: This piece was previously submitted to Science Chronicles 2013 and won First Place in Category A.