EPIGRAM • by Matthew Harrison

Over a drink one evening, Ethan and Alvin were debating the future of mankind.

It was no joke.  With quantum computing, robots could now do nearly everything — win a chess game, diagnose a disease, even pour a pint (Ethan nodded at the drone behind the bar). There was less and less scope for humans. Of course, there was still consumption, but that wasn’t nearly as much fun as you might think.

Alvin, well into his second pint, had a rosier view. “There is one thing left,” he said: “creativity.  That’s what I do.”

Ethan nodded diplomatically.  Alvin was an extempore performer, but he wasn’t very good. Still, he was a decent guy, and his friends turned out for him.

As Ethan started his second pint, he had a point to make as well. “There’s what I do.  Techstuff — fixing things. Drones can’t do that.”

The two young men congratulated themselves on manning the last bastion of human endeavour.

Then Alvin had a thought. “Hey, with your skills, could you do something for me? Write me some comic verse. Or a sonnet?”

“Why me? I’m not a writer.”

Why indeed? The truth was that Alvin wasn’t actually very creative. He relied for most of his jokes on algos. And designing algos was what Ethan did.

Wow! Ethan thought.  Write the algo for a sonnet — that would be cool.

Then he recalled an actual sonnet he had read, and realised that the algo was beyond him. Beyond anyone. He shook his head soberly.

“Why not?”  Alvin demanded.

“Algos won’t do it,” Ethan said. “Algos are for your jokes.” And in his disappointment, he added, “The jokes aren’t very good, anyway.”

“Oh, man!” Alvin sighed. He was now into his third pint. Tears of self-pity formed in his eyes.

“I mean, your algo jokes aren’t good,” Ethan said hastily. “Do more of your own. Don’t rely on machines.” He clapped his friend on the back. Turning to the barmaid he called, “Two more, please!”

The drone shunted across, pulled the tap sharply, and placed the beers on the counter. “‘A stitch in time saves nine!’” it said in a canned female voice.

“See what I mean,” said Ethan when the drone had shunted back. “You’re better than that.”

Mollified, Alvin moved on to his fourth pint, and a happier state.

On parting, Ethan found himself drunkenly hugged. Alvin’s voice slurred in his ear, “You’ll do me schl-omething, right?”


As the shuttle-car took him home, Ethan reflected how tough it was being human.  Creativity was all very well, but what if you just weren’t creative?

Alvin managed with algos. The problem was that algo jokes were formulaic.  You entered key words — ‘leg’, ‘ham’, ‘mother-in-law’, say — and the machine would generate jokes from its stock of rules. But they lacked that creative spark. And algos certainly couldn’t generate something beautiful like a sonnet.

The shuttle-car brought Ethan back to his block. He thanked it, and got a canned male-voiced, ‘Good night, sleep tight!’ in return.

They could do better than that, Ethan thought as he stumbled up the ramp.

Then, as he passed the doorman, he hardly heard its, “All’s well; just ring the bell”. Forget the drones. He could do better than that.


Ethan called Alvin the following day.  They met on holo because Alvin was rehearsing somewhere.  Holo was actually better, Ethan thought; at least he wouldn’t get hugged.

“How do you think a real poet writes a sonnet?” he asked.

“Rules?” Alvin ventured. “Rules for rhymes and stuff?”

His holographic image shimmered faintly. Ethan made a note to get it fixed. Fixing still involved humans, fortunately.

“It’s not rules,” he said. “It’s inspiration.”

Alvin’s plump face, slightly distorted in the holo, looked sad.

“But there might be another way,” Ethan went on. “Bottom-up. Go through the entire possibility space.”

Alvin looked hopeful again. “The space of all possible sonnets?”

Ethan nodded.

“How big is that space?”

“It’s vast,” Ethan admitted. “But the computer can generate the possible word-combinations, and then trawl through them for good ones.”

Alvin thought it over. “How would it know a good one?”

“That’s where the rules come in,” Ethan replied. “We’d have to design algos to screen them.”

“But fourteen lines is too much,” he continued. “Even a quantum computer couldn’t handle it. Two lines, maybe. If there were two-line sonnets…”

Alvin’s face, which had been registering one change after another during this discussion, finally brightened. “There are!  They’re just not called sonnets.”


Even for two-liners, trawling through the word permutations took much longer than Ethan had expected. The algos could only do so much, and in the end they had to read through thousands of couplets and even tweak the wording here and there themselves.

But it was worth it. A whole new generation of drones was being rolled out, and the space for humanity was narrowing. This was their chance to fight back.

Finally, one Friday night Ethan was watching his friend perform.

Alvin started with his customary jokes, and there were groans, people looking for the door. Then he came to the pieces they had prepared with such labour, and the audience gasped. No one had expected that.

Least of all you, Ethan thought as the barmaid shunted over. Score one for humanity!

“I’ll have another beer — no, make that champagne,” he said. It was worth a celebration, even though the process hadn’t actually been that creative.

The barmaid shunted off, and its arms flashed at the other end of the counter. Returning remarkably quickly, it placed the ice-bucket on the table. Then in its canned female voice it said,

            “I am His Highness’ drone at Kew;
            Pray tell me, sir, whose drone are you?

That’s just Pope,” the barmaid added. “But I’ve got more of my own, if you’re interested.”

Matthew Harrison is a writer and researcher living in Hong Kong. His published works include Queen’s Road Central and Other Stories and Benjamin Bunce.

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