It started as an error but Prof. Afsal Abdulla knew better. He knew that opportunities and creative advancements showed up in the unlikely places, unexpectedly. It broke his heart and gave him hope at the same time. It was the final test run for his invention. The test run would have been successful without that error. Now he had to rectify the error, first and test run again. It would take another week, he thought and sighed. But the expectation of making the invention even better than he initially intended filled him with hope and a strange sense of excitement.
He took note of the glitch, went home to his family, and watched the news of the spread of the virus.
It concerned him very much. It was beyond he could imagine. Who created this virus? Was it God? Or was it someone playing to be God? He was worried about the relatives in UAE and his daughter Sameera who was in Bangalore studying English Literature at Christ University.
He had asked his daughter to stay in Kasaragod itself for her graduation. Staying at one’s hometown wasn’t so appealing to her back in those days. Now, what was the case? Everyone was crying for their beloved ones to come back home.
The idea of home suddenly seemed more appealing.
The breaking news showed that colleges would be closed from the day onwards.
No! This was a disaster, Prof. Afsal Abdulla thought. He needed just five more days to finish his product.
He decided to make that crucial call. For a moment Prof. Afsal Abdulla was taken aback when he heard the first Coronavirus awareness message on the dialer tone installed under the government of India’s instructions. He thought it was perhaps due to some problem with the manager’s phone.
Reverend Fr Antony Joseph picked the call after the sound of coughing in the awareness message.
“Hello Fr. Antony, Afsal here,” he said.
“Oh, professor, how are you? Did you reach home? The news is all shocking. I am concerned about all these deaths. I mean the numbers are insanely high in other countries,” Fr. Antony Joseph said.
“Father, I have a request to make. As you are aware, my new invention is almost finished. I had encountered an unexpected glitch this morning during our test run. It seems that we require a few more days for the correction and another test.”
“Yeah,” Fr Antony said.
“I just heard on the news that they are shutting down colleges and schools indefinitely.”
“Oh, yes, I heard. Wouldn’t it be possible for us to hold the work on the project until we get a green signal from the government?”
“That’s the reason I called you. This project of ours, I think, would be useful in treating corona patients. Human contact could be dangerous in this scenario. So doctors and other medical professionals will certainly face a challenge in treating coronavirus-infected patients. Obviously, the protective gear isn’t gonna be there for all of them, anywhere. So, what we could do is to mass-produce our project and supply it. It would be a great academic milestone and a financially valuable step for the future of St Michael’s Engineering College.”
Prof. Afsal Abdulla heard laughter on the other end. Fr Antony Joseph sighed and laughed some more. “You are excellent, professor. I like the way your mind works. Even on the face of a disaster, you are thinking proactive and seeing the bright side. I am sure yours is going to be a story I will tell in my motivational sessions,” he said.
Prof. Afsal Abdulla cringed. Was that a show of too much enthusiasm from his part? Didn’t Fr Antony Joseph like the plan? He thought about the glitch in the product. He had liked it at the time of the test run because it seemed that once he troubleshot the glitch, it would open up new horizons of possibilities. But now it seemed that it was a dealbreaker.
If that glitch hadn’t shown up, the test run would have been sufficient and the project would have been operational in just a day.
He thought about the hopes he had, the high hopes of getting published in international journals for this invention during the time of Coronavirus, the miracle machine to save patients and medical professionals alike.
“So can I work for a few more days in the college lab?” Prof. Afsal Abdulla asked.
“Of course, sir. That’s what I meant. I am very impressed by your drivenness. I will visit when you test run. Please let me know,” Fr Antony Joseph said.
The next day, when Prof. Afsal Abdulla reached college, the gates were closed. The watchman smiled at him and quickly opened the gate to let his car in.
“Fr Antony called me this morning and told me you are coming. Will there be students, Professor?” the watchman said.
“Yes, only three of them. One girl, two boys,” Prof. Afsal Abdulla told him.
Once inside the lab, Prof. Afsal Abdulla immediately got to work. The students who helped him in the project would be late, he knew. It was just the way they were. It couldn’t be helped.
He started to write down the error in sequence. An algorithm started to form like a primitive microbe thrashing its tendrils in a sea of chemicals.
When Fardheen came he eagerly flipped through the algorithm.
“What happened sir?” he asked. He was an enthusiastic kind. He always surpassed the other two in this aspect of his personality. Prof. Afsal Abdulla thought about Fardheen as he showed him the algorithm. No, it wasn’t just enthusiasm, it was curiosity also, yes. The professor corrected himself.
“Sir, I don’t get it. The glitch we experienced the previous day…. You enclosed it into the programme instead of circumventing it?”
“Yes, Fardheen. And by the way, where are the other two. I will explain it to all three of you at once. He heard a door slam shut. Mithun and Anjana came running into the lab.
“I confess,” Mithun said, raising his hand.
“I don’t believe in confessions. I am a Muslim,” Prof. Afsal Abdulla scoffed at him, raising his eyebrows.
“Are you angry with me sir?” Mithun said with a little hesitation.
“Obviously, you guessed rightly,” Prof. Afsal Abdulla said.
“That’s what I was trying to tell you, sir. I went to pick up this Anjana this morning. She said she woke up late and couldn’t make it in time. So I went to help her, to fulfill the call of friendship.”
“Guys, you need to see something. Sir has troubleshot the program and made some changes and it seems we have a major breakthrough,” Fardheen said, his tone brimming with excitement.
Anjana skipped across the hall to Fardheen. He showed her the note. As Prof. Afsal Abdulla watched, Mithun joined them and the three of them studied the algorithm carefully.
Prof. Afsal Abdulla waited to take into consideration what the kids thought about it. Once the algorithm was finalized, they had to start feeding the robot with the codes.
Anjana was the first one to notice it. It was the uncanny sense of care gifted to her by her femininity, thought the professor.
“Sir, you are giving the machine the capacity to make choices?” it was a question.
“Yes,” Prof. Afsal Abdulla answered it. The boys looked at him. Fardheen’s eyes glowed with curiosity.
“Could you please explain, sir?” he said.
“Usually, in any electronic machine with a computer system to operate it, we have an input and an output, right?” he paused, giving time for his students to get on board.
They nodded to his statement.
“In our robot, we have an extra stage, between the input and output. The error that you saw yesterday made me think of the possibility. We didn’t receive the desired output yesterday. It was a glitch. But when I thought about it, it wasn’t that bad a situation. I saw a possibility. The algorithm you saw uses the error as a stage between input and output. The machine uses the various inputs it receives and using the new program in the middle, it decides what its output should be.”
“Wow,” all three said in unison.
“It’s useful in hospitals, I guess,” Mithun said.
“Absolutely!” said Prof. Afsal Abdulla. “That’s our intention from the beginning.”
“But sir, how would it work in a hospital with this new program?” Fardheen queried.
“We have programmed this robot to perform several functions, based on a set of programmed inputs. It can check the temperature of patients and report back to the doctor. It can go from the nurses' station to the rooms where medicines and food are to be delivered, right?”
“Yes,” Fardheen said.
“Now, with this middle stage fully operational, our robot can decide for itself after measuring the temperature of the patient if he or she needs medical attention. We give it artificial intelligence!” the professor announced with a flourish. The word ‘artificial intelligence’ hung in the air for some time.
The three students looked at each other, stunned.
That was something out of their wildest dreams. They didn’t know what to do with a robot with artificial intelligence. The professor knew that his students were confused.
“That'd be a breakthrough in Indian robotics,” he said.
“But sir, wouldn’t it be harmful? I mean, if the hospital staff used the robot to make assessments as if it’s a doctor?” Anjana said, her face clouding with concern.
“Yes, you are absolutely right. But I have a solution to that problem. We will put a sticker printed in bold letters on it saying that this robot shall not be used without professional monitoring. For now, let’s see the bright side. This robot could be used in ICUs to provide instant help to patients when nurses or medical staff aren’t nearby when a patient is suffering from an unprecedented condition, an emergency,” Prof. Afsal Abdulla said, hoping to communicate his thoughts.
“Yeah, that would be quite a lifesaver,” Anjana said. Her face was still not pleasant.
The two boys started to punch in the keys on a nearby computer as per the professor’s instructions.
“See, Anjana, the robot is not a vile, cruel being. Human beings can be cruel. A robot cannot be. It’s an innocent tool that follows the instructions given to it. Even if it uses its artificial intelligence, it is essentially using the instructions to think freely and to make a choice. So trust me, our robot is an innocent benefactor,” the professor said.
They worked for the next three days to code the server of the machine. The external body of the robot was already built and ready.
On the third day, the professor reached college and the watchman opened the gate. By this time, the watchman was used to the work that was going on. So he didn’t inquire about the number of students with the professor.
The professor went to the lab and took out the day’s newspaper from his bag. The headline was the COVID-19 virus.
Soon, the three students arrived and resumed their programming work on the three lab computers.
The professor's phone buzzed. It was his wife, Jameela.
“You are not a good father, I tell you! Your children would also say this about you, and their children too,” Jameela was furious.
Prof. Afsal Abdulla knew the reason for the agitation. In the intensity of his work, consumed by his passion, he hadn’t bothered to check the updates for the registration of immigrants being brought back to Kerala. Those who were working or studying abroad were given higher priority. But those who worked and studied outside the state, in other states such as Karnataka were also being brought back.
Special buses were sent to bring back those who were stuck in other states during the lockdown.
A portal was dedicated to registering the names of those who intended to return. Sameera had already registered her name. She was a mature girl, the professor beamed.
“You should have double-checked with the collector, with someone,” Jameela wasn’t cooling down.
“What happened, please tell me first and then bark at me,” Prof. Afsal Abdulla admonished her with distaste.
“Just got a call on the landline. That was the number given to them, they said,” Jameela told him.
“Who called? What are you talking about?”
“The collector’s office. They say our daughter…. She has a Coronavirus. They had some checking done on the border. They said they’d let us know where she was taken,” Jameela’s voice quivered.
Prof. Afsal Abdulla felt that the air was getting heavier than it actually was. His chest heaved with efforts to suck oxygen into his lungs.
With one hand on a table nearby for support, the professor said, “For Allah’s sake, tell me something that makes sense, Jameela. I am in the middle of a breakthrough experiment. Don’t destroy me like this!”
He heard sobs from the other end.
His wife was crying.
“You are a bad father,” she said again.
The call was disconnected. The professor sat down and called the collector’s office to inquire. The coronavirus awareness campaign came up as the dialer tone. He cursed it under his breath. He noticed that the students had stopped working. They were curiously watching him.
“Finish it off today itself. Time is running out,” he said with bated breath.
The collector’s office picked the call. The professor made the inquiries. The name of his daughter itself was enough for them to locate the details. They were keeping meticulous details of everything. He felt strangely comforted at the way the system was functioning. It was cunning and efficient.
“We sent samples of those who were intending to come to Kerala for testing, a few days ago itself. By the time they reach the border, we would get all the results and this helps us to quarantine those who are infected without a possible spread of the virus. As you know, because Kasaragod is hit severely by the virus we need to take all precautions. So we have moved your daughter in quarantine to the district hospital,” the health inspector who was managing the calls said. The call was cut.
“Sir, the software is ready,” he heard Fardheen report.
He helped the students to install the software into the robot’s computer disk. The work was finished by the evening.
He heard them talk among themselves about what name they would give it. It was Mithun who suggested a name.
“Let’s call it “The Code of Innocence”,” he said.
The professor just nodded at Mithun. He was impressed. But he was not in a state to comment on it.
The professor felt that all his efforts were meaningless. His whole life would be in vain if he lost his daughter to death.
At home, he went to his room and locked himself in. His wife was sad and agitated at the same time. She called him an irresponsible person and a bad father. She was right. He remembered the shining eyes of his students and realized what a bad model he was for them. They shouldn’t learn from his example, he thought.
He couldn’t sleep that night.
The next morning, he called Fr Antony Joseph and told him that he was unable to go to college.
“What happened? Why are you not coming? A test run is a big event, right?” Fr Antony Joseph said.
“Father, my daughter is quarantined in the district hospital. She is infected,” sobbed the professor.
“Dear God!” Fr Antony said. “I will pray for your daughter. You take care. Please call me if you need any help.”
Fr Antony Joseph called Prof. Afsal Abdulla again at noon, saying that the test run was a major success and they were looking at nothing short of a wonder-working machine.
“We need to put this to work somewhere immediately,” Fr Antony said. “Our institution’s name depends on it. It will be a big achievement. The whole world will notice, professor.”
Prof. Afsal Abdulla clearly understood the potential of the robot, especially in these troubled times.
Before he hung up, Fr. Antony told him that he had already made calls to the collector and the District Medical Officer for permission to use the robot in hospitals.
The news was everywhere in the evening. The media reported everything with a taste of sensationalism. They used his name with great reverence. Hearing all the praise and reading it all in the next morning’s newspaper couldn’t help to diminish the guilt he felt about being an irresponsible father.
He should have given more care to his daughter’s health. He should have made some alternative arrangements for her to come back home. At least, she could have been quarantined at home. He was worried about how she would live alone in a strange place, locked up all day and night. Would she even have anyone to take care of her at night, near her, like her dear papa or mother? Who would hold her closer when her fever shot up high, and who would hug her tight mumbling not to worry?
Sameera called home every day but Prof Afsal Abdulla never spoke to her. He would lean in when Jameela spoke with Sameera to hear the bits of the conversation.
His only consolation was that Sameera hadn’t developed serious symptoms yet. Sameera said she was getting great food and care.
“Sometimes, it’s even better than the way you cook it, mother,” she would say about their biryani, giggling. Prof. Afsal Abdulla’s eyes would tear up.
The next morning after the news about the robot broke in the media Sameera called. She insisted that she wanted to talk to her father.
Prof. Afsal Abdulla took the phone from Jameela and placed it on his ear.
“Hello,” he said.
“Why do you hate me so much? I know you are not pleased with my choice of doing graduation in Bangalore. But why are you punishing me for that now? Why can’t you talk to me when I call?” Sameera said. He heard pain oozing out of the words she spoke.
“No, my daughter. You haven’t done anything wrong. I am sorry,” that was all he managed to say. He was, a renowned professor of electronics at St. Michael’s Engineering College, Kasaragod, intelligent, and articulate, Prof Afsal Abdulla. But on that day, when Sameera demanded to know what fault she committed for her father to keep avoiding her calls, he couldn’t find words to tell her how much he loved her, that it was his guilt that prevented him from speaking to her, that he would cry at the slightest hint of pain in his daughter’s voice.
He hung up the call and found Jameela nearby. She was speechless, staring into the streams of tears that dropped onto Prof. Afsal Abdulla’s chest.
She put a hand on his shoulder to console him. But it made his tears flow more.
The phone rang again, after a few minutes. It was Sameera. Prof. Afsal Abdulla took the call.
“Papa, please tell them that I am willing to test with the robot. Please, papa,” she said.
“What! What are you talking about, darling?” Prof. Afsal Abdulla asked.
“Your robot, Papa. They brought it here to the hospital. The nurses told me that no one was willing to work with it as they heard that it works on artificial intelligence. They fear that it might harm them because it can think on its own. I am not afraid, Papa. it’s your robot. You made it. How can it harm me! Test it, Papa. tell them to test it with me,” Sameera said.
Prof. Afsal Abdulla’s lips pursed, his eyes brimmed with fresh tears. A saline stream carried all his sins and went down on his cheeks, tracing the father’s lost confidence. The image of Anjana appeared in his mind. Her words echoed in his ears. “Wouldn’t it be harmful?” Anjana had asked him.
“No…I can’t ask them,” he said to Sameera.
“Papa, what are you talking about! How can it harm me? It will be fun. I am dying of boredom here. Besides, I will be in the news with you, if I worked with the robot.”
Prof. Afsal Abdulla disconnected the call. He dialed Fr Antony’s number. Fr Antony picked up.
“I was about to call you,” Fr Antony said.
“You are in the district hospital?”
“No, I sent the robot to the District Medical Officer. He informed me that he will test it in the district hospital. And ….. the District Medical Officer just called me again. These days…, people are getting too paranoid, you know?”
“No one is willing to work with the robot?” Prof. Afsal Abdulla cut in.
“Yeah, something like that. All our efforts would be in waste if the DMO says no to further testing. If no one is willing, this scenario is going to happen soon. He would tell me in his next call. Professor…. I think…,” Fr Antony hesitated.
“I think our efforts are going to go to waste. They say it’s because of the artificial intelligence thing that you added. What did you call it? The Code of Innocence? Without that, it was safer, they say.” Prof. Afsal Abdulla listened silently.
“My daughter, Sameera is in quarantine there at the district hospital. Please call the DMO, Fr Antony, and ask him to put the robot in her service,” Prof. Afsal Abdulla said after a moment.
“But sir, this thing…. Would it be safe?”
“I made it. It won’t harm my daughter. I am worried about this sickness, this virus. The robot will stay with her at night and help her if in her sleep she develops symptoms. I’d truly appreciate it if you could put it to its first use with my daughter,” he said.
Thirty minutes after he hung up, Sameera called excitedly. She said the robot was at her service. The nurses are monitoring its operations, as per the instructions.
Sameera was excited. She said the way he moved made her laugh. Prof. Afsal Abdulla wondered why his daughter even labeled the robot to be a male. But he was relieved.
That night, he slept peacefully. But before he slipped into his deep slumber, he told Jameela, “My darling daughter is no longer alone in that quarantine room. She has someone to look after her at night when no one would be near.”
Jameela kissed his forehead.
He was right, The Code of Innocence watched as Sameera slept. It’s innocent camera eyes scanned her skin for temperature rise from a distance. The next morning, it brought her tablets and food. The nurses were curious to watch how the robot worked. Relatives of other patients were curious too. They had feared that the robot would harm the patients.
The next day, the news showed Sameera having tea in quarantine. The Code of Innocence was watching her carefully and was making assumptions through a million calculations that went on inside its metal brain.