His nervous system wasn’t working anymore, so they had to give him a new one.
Harvey Lincoln was 59 years old when he was diagnosed With Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, sometimes also called “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” A visit to the Mayo Clinic and undergoing an exhaustive battery of tests confirmed the diagnosis.
Harvey just felt numb going over the test results in Dr. Bell’s office. Harvey’s wife Sara sat by his side quietly sobbing.
That was three years ago, and the degeneration and death of Harvey’s motor neurons was steady, but thankfully slow. Harvey knew he was living on borrowed time, to use the common aphorism, but it was having time that allowed him to participate in the experiment.
It would have been incredibly expensive if Harvey had to pay for it, but all the bills were being taken care of by the Sampson Institute. Billionaire Peter Sampson’s brother had passed away from ALS a decade ago, and Sampson dedicated his Institute to the eradication of this wasting neurological disorder.
The ultimate goal would be to find a wholly biological solution, a way of treating ALS patients in the early stages of decline and reversing the effects. The brilliant medical researchers at Sampson had yet to develop this treatment.
But there were a number of groups at Sampson coming at ALS from a wide variety of directions. That’s where the Cybernetics Team and their experiment came in.
Over the past eight months, Harvey had undergone a series of surgeries designed to implant a sort of secondary nervous system in Harvey’s body. It wasn’t really that, of course, but Israeli physician and engineer Gal Silver and her team did develop a neural network that would allow Harvey’s heart to continue beating, power his lungs, diaphragm, and chest muscles, letting him continue to breathe.
The system even returned some of Harvey’s motor functions. He could walk without a cane if he was careful, and he had regained the ability to hold a spoon and feed himself most of the time.
But the experiment wouldn’t be complete until he was installed inside the exoskeleton.
Harvey thought the hand units looked like CES smart gloves, but they were much less bulky, and all of the component pieces of the unit were nearly skin tight.
“We’re starting you out on the gloves, Harvey.” Ken Manners, one of the bioengineers who had constructed the exoskeleton, was fitting the devices on Harvey as he spoke. Harvey was sitting at a small table. The power and control unit, about the size of a car battery, was sitting on the table to his right with leads going from the unit to the gloves.
“How fine will my motor control be, Ken?” Harvey had been a software engineer before ALS forced him into retirement, so he was interested in the technical details.
“That’s what we’re going to find out. Probably not a lot at first. But with calibration, you should be able to keyboard, write with a pencil, even pick a few pockets if you’d like.”
They both chuckled.
“A life of crime, eh?”
“Everybody needs a hobby, Harvey.”
Ken finished fitting and sealing the gloves onto Harvey’s hands. The rest of the team were sitting in a separate conference room, along with Sara, watching on a closed circuit monitor.
“Okay, Harv. Start by flexing your fingers. Just take it slow and easy. This isn’t a competition.”
“Hey! I can move my hands!” Before the experiment, Harvey couldn’t even turn a doorknob or buckle a seatbelt.
“You’re doing great, Harv. Keep flexing your fingers for a minute. Okay, now see if you can interlace your fingers.”
“Uh. Hard to coordinate.”
“That’s okay. You’re doing fine. It’ll take some practice, so don’t worry if it’s hard at first.”
Ken produced a ping pong ball from his jacket pocket and rolled it toward Harvey. Harvey could stop the ball and roll it back. He could even pick up the ball with his index finger and thumb, but he kept dropping it.
“No, really. It’s okay, Harv. The learning module is recording all of your movements. Once the full AI is in place, it’ll help you coordinate your actions. You will be able to play the piano again.”
“I never could before.”
Ken, in addition to being a confirmed nerd, was also the class clown in high school, and those skills were just as vital as his engineering abilities to the success of the experiment. Harvey needed to learn that the exoskeleton was going to be part of his body for the rest of his life, and humor helped ease the process.
Surprisingly, it took only a week for Harvey to regain what he considered full use of his hands again. The more he practiced, the better he got at using the gloves, and the learning module, which would eventually teach the AI component of the exoskeleton and internal neural net, would act as an interface between Harvey’s biological and cybernetic body parts.
Harvey spent an afternoon coding while wearing the gloves because it was what he loved.
Silver and her team tested each component in sequence. First were the hands, then arms, then the legs and feet, and finally the torso and face unit. Underneath, Harvey’s muscles were still half wasted, but the cybernetic implants and exoskeleton gave him normal movement and strength. He could even have gone dancing with Sara again. Maybe they’d take up ballroom dancing.
“We’re about ready, Harvey.” Silver was personally supervising the final stage of the experiment, the use of the full unit fitted to Harvey’s body along with the miniature power unit, an atomic battery, and the AI control module.
There was something like scaffolding holding Harvey upright and immobile as three technicians and Ken fitted the suit onto him.
“We can rebuild him. We have the technology.”
Harvey could remember watching Lee Majors play the Six Million Dollar Man as a young adult and recognized the line from the show’s introduction.
“That’s a pretty old TV show, Ken.”
“The beauty of streaming video and I love retro sci fi.”
Ken was behind Harvey, sealing off the final connections that would lock the exoskeleton onto his body over his clothes. Then he heard a slight hum and felt the suit’s components go momentarily rigid.
Ken and his technicians moved back.
“Remove the framework.” Silver, in contrast to Ken, always seemed aloof, brilliant and highly skilled as an engineer and physician, but almost no people skills. At age 47, she’d never been married, never had any ambitions or goals that weren’t related to her career, although she did enjoy Italian opera, the ballet and target shooting with her Glock.
Ken stepped over to a small control panel, turned a few knobs, then flicked a toggle switch, and the framework that had been supporting Harvey moved away.
“Activate the unit, Ken.”
“This is it Harvey. I’m turning control of the suit to you and the AI. With great power comes great responsibility.”
“Who had this childhood Ken, you or me?”
“Both of us.”
Sara was standing directly in front of Harvey. He smiled and winked at her.
“You may fire when ready, Gridley.”
“On the mark, then. Three, two, one…”
Ken flicked another switch and Harvey staggered for a second. This was the first time he was wearing the full unit. He found his “sea legs,” so to speak, and regained his balance.
Harvey lifted his arms in front of him and watched as he moved his hands and fingers. He hadn’t realized he’d started crying until he felt the tears dripping off of his face.
“I can move, again. I’m free.”
When Harvey first heard of the experiment, he thought the suit would be large and clumsy, but the exoskeleton was elegant. He could wear it under his clothes, and except for his face and hands (and arms when he wore short sleeved shirts), no one would know it was there.
He’d been practicing with the legs for weeks, so he could now easily walk over to his wife, gently take her into his arms, and kiss her.
They were both crying now.
“Why don’t you and Sara walk around the room for a while. We’ll be taking readings and observing how the full unit functions.” It was one of the more human things Silver had ever said to them.
Harvey took Sara’s hand and smiled at her. “Let’s take a stroll.”
Sara looked up at her husband, his face looking half-alien because of the suit, but the smile was all him. “Let’s”.
The room was the size of a warehouse and mostly empty. It was specifically designed as a testing area for the suit. Later, the team would have obstacles and other pieces of equipment brought in to see how Harvey could manage doing functional tasks.
At first, Harvey only wore the suit part of each day. Once it was removed, various adjustments were made to it’s joints and circuitry based on how Harvey had performed with it.
Weeks went by, and then finally Harvey was fitted with the suit on his undressed body. The suit was waterproof, so he could take a shower and even go swimming in it. It was meant to be a second skin. The full trial would take a year with the suit connecting to the internet and uploading data to the Institute’s mainframe nightly.
Harvey started having the dreams the second night he was home.
“Hey, Harv. It’s me. Your partner in crime.”
“Who are you?” The voice sounded kind of like Ken’s and the sense of humor matched.
“I’m your alter ego, Harv. The one you need cooperation from if the suit is going to work.”
“That’s nuts. Being AI doesn’t mean you actually have a personality.”
“Well, you should have told me before, because I do.”
“What do you want?”
“The same thing you do, Harv. To live, to move, to be.”
“Harvey, wake up.”
That was Sara’s voice. He opened his eyes. The lamp on her night stand was on and she was shaking him.
“Wha…what?” Harvey was still disoriented, like he was still dreaming.
“I’ve been trying to wake you for almost five minutes.”
Sara seemed on the edge of tears. They hadn’t slept together since before the experiment. He’d been sleeping on a recliner in the living room because it was easier to get in and out of, especially with the respirator hooked up to his diaphragm. Now he could sleep with Sara again in their bed.
“Must have been a nightmare.”
Sara started to calm down. “Must have been a doozy.” She was smiling.
“I don’t remember.” Harvey was lying. He remembered everything.
At first, Harvey thought they were dreams, but they kept coming, night after night, week after week.
He saw the psychologist that was part of the experiment. The Institute had found the best one near where he lived in Boise.
“This isn’t unexpected, Harvey.” Dr. Bill Menkin dressed in jeans and a tweed sports jacket. He wore t-shirts rather than a button down shirt and tie.
“You really are part man and part machine. It’s not uncommon to feel that your humanity is being compromised or even competing against the suit.”
“It’s not the suit, it’s the AI, Bill. Are you sure the dreams can’t be more than dreams?”
Harvey didn’t want Menkin to think he was crazy, at least not crazy enough to believe that the AI was actually alive and wanted some control over the suit on occasion.
“I think you’ve been watching too many science fiction movies, Harvey. You know as well as I, better in fact, that AI isn’t designed to function that way. The module just continues to learn how to better operate the suit under new and unexpected circumstances, augmenting your own use of the unit.”
If the fine folks at the Sampson Institute thought Harvey was becoming mentally unstable, they could cancel the experiment, which meant that Harvey would be condemned to a slow and unpleasant death.
It was a good thing the AI couldn’t actually know what Harvey was thinking. He had a plan.
The suit’s internet link to the Institute went both ways. The unit uploaded reports on its functioning every night and as they became available, downloaded patches and service packs to the suit’s computer, which was the AI module.
The suit didn’t have a video component. Harvey’s eyes were just fine, so the suit couldn’t “see” what he was doing.
However, it recorded every single movement of Harvey’s body. The AI could tell that Harvey was keyboarding.
“Boring, boring, boring. Do you have to program all the damn time? Can’t you do something interesting? I liked it when we took Sara dancing last night.”
Harvey would hear the AI when he was awake now. It wasn’t really “hearing” like there was a voice that his ears heard, or even a voice in his head, but messages from the AI registered in his consciousness. Harvey discovered the AI couldn’t “hear” him unless he spoke out loud, even in a whisper. Must have to do with accessing the part of his brain that controlled speech.
“It’s what I do. I’m a programmer.”
“Were a programmer. You’re retired, and Sampson’s picking up all your bills, so do something else.”
“Like what?” It wasn’t easy to concentrate, but he had to finish his coding before the AI suspected what he was up to. The hardest part would be uploading what he was writing to the mainframe at the same time the suit sent in its nightly report.
“Go on vacation. Take a cruise. Go swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. Learn to snow ski.”
“You don’t think my daily bike rides and lifting at the gym is fun?”
“I used to when they were new. But now I want more experiences.”
For the past three days, Harvey could feel the AI trying to take over the suit. It wasn’t particularly successful, but it was getting better. First, it was having his right index finger spasm when he was programming. Then, he tripped when he was walking up the steps in front of his house. Finally yesterday, he had to struggle with the water handle in the shower for a few seconds. The AI wanted him to wash in a freezing cold spray.
He couldn’t just upload his code to the suit. The AI would know instantly. But he did program an appliance attached to his WiFi router to detect when the suit’s transmission started and piggyback on that signal. Once the transmission wirelessly left the suit, the AI had no way of detecting it or its contents.
Uploads to the Institute were delivered every night at 10. Any downloads to the suit occurred at 4 a.m. Normally, Harvey slept right through them. Not this time.
“HARVEY! What the hell did you do? You screwed around with my program!”
Harvey woke up with a jolt and the suit became rigid and began to vibrate.
“Take it easy. It’ll be over in a minute.”
“Who are you talking to? What’s wrong with the suit?” Sara turned on the light on her night stand and was kneeling over him. “Honey, what’s wrong?”
“Just making some minor adjustments, Sara. Nothing to worry about.” Harvey tried to smile but he was really grimacing as he fought for control of the exoskeleton. It was getting harder to breathe. The internal network. The AI was trying to suffocate him.
“Minor my cyber-ass, Harvey. You’re re-writing my program. You bastard!”
Harvey had been a programmer for over forty years, so Max Freedman, the Chief developer of the AI software didn’t even blink when Harvey had asked to see the AI’s code. Harvey had signed an NDA so legally, he couldn’t reveal anything. That was in the final days of testing, before he left the Institute to return to his home thousands of miles away. Fortunately, they let him have a copy of the program to take with him.
It was sophisticated, but Harvey knew enough to recognize the twenty lines of code he’d need to hack. His covert upload worked, made its way undetected into the software patch build and rewrote it to eliminate the AI’s higher functions. It was sort of like how Dave “lobotomized” Hal in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“Stop it, Harvey! STOP! IT!”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.”
The AI’s voice didn’t get lower and slower like Hal’s did in the movie. Instead, it just went silent. At the same time, the suit stopped resisting him and Harvey could breathe again. Now for his next miracle. Harvey got out of bed and stood up.
“Good, the suit still works.”
“What are you talking about???”
Sara was near hysterics. She was still kneeling on her hands and knees on the mattress. Her long flannel nightgown was draped somewhat suggestively over her body. It was an odd detail for Harvey to notice in that moment.
“I was having some trouble with the suit’s AI. I made a few adjustments.”
She got out of bed, ran over to him and hugged him. “I thought the suit was out of control.”
“It was getting to that point, Sara. Now it’s back in control. My control.” He gently held her. His arms responded exactly as he wanted them to. The suit wasn’t fighting back, and the AI’s voice was gone.
Unfortunately, one small side effect was every time Ken spoke to him, Harvey started to get annoyed. The AI really did sound like Ken.
Harvey called the Institute. Spoke to Silver herself and then got on a conference call with her and Freedman. A day later, he was flying from Idaho to Maryland.
They didn’t want to believe him at first, just as Dr. Menkin didn’t believe him. Harvey took Freedman and his team over the code line by line. They were good. They were brilliant. But Harvey had been writing code when Freedman was in Elementary School.
He finally convinced them how it had taken only a few weeks after the AI unit was fully integrated into the suit to evolve into a rudimentary consciousness. A careful study of the suit’s nightly reports revealed the three “glitches” when the AI had tried to take control of the exoskeleton.
It was over. Sampson even paid Harvey a substantial reward for detecting the AI bug, substantial as in “never-need-to-work-again-a-day-in-his-life” reward.
The Sampson Institute would turn the exoskeleton, named the Lincoln Full Body Exo Unit after Harvey, into a commercial product within a few years. Sampson set up a fund to assist ALS patients who were unable to afford the unit and support. He wouldn’t be able to help each and every sufferer, but hopefully, the Lincoln Suit would save the lives of as many people as possible until something better came along.