Most everyone nodded, and there were a few muted yeses as Julie stepped beside the podium. In a brief flash of light, Lydia appeared at the front of the room, wearing a black skirt and a thin maroon sweater. She looked the same as always, short, blonde, light olive skin, with an easy smile, her hair back in a pony tail—like a pretty freshman dressed for a class presentation. She almost didn’t even have to speak to win them over. She stood there, her posture almost imperceptibly hunched, this demure automaton, using everything her programmers had taught her about human behavior—psychology, body language, making and then quickly breaking eye contact. Then she spoke.
“Well, um, I certainly hope you guys are as excited about this as I am,” and she sounded like a freshman. “I can’t even tell you how long I’ve been looking forward to this day. As Dr. Mikhauer told you, I’ve been thinking about it for a while now, and I’ve got something really special planned. I think you guys are going to love it.
“I can see that some of you have questions, and, um, instead of taking them now, since I’m expecting this whole thing is going to take a little time, I’m going to get started and sorta take questions as the opportunity arises.”
She smiled at the group gathered before her and looked off to the side where a floating glo-screen appeared.
“Plan-A hinges on this first call, and I’m probably about to interrupt somebody’s dinner in France, but here goes—Oh! and I’ll translate for you guys too.”
Julie looked over at Davis, who sat as emotionless as ever, as if this were a normal day at the office. Yet she could tell that even he truly didn’t know. This had never come up in simulation. France? Julie couldn’t remember anything involving France.
A French woman’s voice filled the room, and she appeared on the screen to the left of the podium. Lydia began to talk to the woman in French, and English subtitles scrolled at the bottom of the screen. After polite greetings and explanations were over, the negotiation began. The French woman kept saying, “priceless,” and “out of the question.” The conversation seemed to center around something called “The Davydov,” but only Lydia and this French lady seemed to know what it was. Julie guessed it was a painting but couldn’t begin to guess why Lydia would be buying a painting with that money. The conversation went on for several minutes. Julie watched as Lydia massaged this woman’s position from “out of the question” to “I see your point” to “that is a generous offer” to “it sounds reasonable” to “I’ll have to consult with the other board members.” No one had ever seen anything like it from a computer—rhetoric, logic, psychology—all of Lydia’s tools were on full display. She even got the entirety of the board online in seconds, and before anyone knew what had happened, the French were smiling and saying their goodbyes. Lydia turned and announced: “We’ve just bought the Davydov; we’re bringing it back to Boston!”
Then, before anyone could ask the question, the screen flashed blank, and Lydia brought up another call.
“This may take a minute,” she said. “It’s the middle of the night in Karnataka right now, but we’re about to make a little girl’s dream come true, so get ready. I think there may be some screaming involved once we get them on the line.”
Julie looked over at Davis again. He looked back at Julie, shook his head, and shrugged his shoulders.
Just as before, Lydia began to speak and subtitles scrolled beneath the face of a very tired-looking Indian man in his early forties. Julie hadn’t heard enough Hindi to distinguish Hindi from Kannada, but apparently Lydia already knew the man’s English wasn’t so strong.
“Actually,” Lydia said to the gathering, “let’s keep this part a surprise.”
The subtitles disappeared. Lydia spoke, and the only emotion anyone could see on the man’s face was disbelief. There were a few long sentences, and the only words Julie could pick out were “Boston” and “Davydov.” It may have been the absence of subtitles, but this conversation seemed to go on longer than the previous one. Then, just as the French woman’s face had changed from hardened to considerate to contemplative to acceptance, this man’s emotions ran the same spectrum, but at the end, he’d gone one step further. He was shaking his head, and finally weeping.
“Those are tears of joy,” Lydia told the audience while the man held his head buried in his hands.
“Will you come?” she asked him when he looked up again.
And Julie could see the most profound look of joy on the man’s face as he placed both hands skyward and proclaimed, “Yes!”
They spoke for a few more seconds before Lydia ended the call.
“So you guys are probably wondering what just happened,” Lydia said, smiling, nodding, and mimicking a certain amount of pride as she turned back to the audience. “Pradeep would like to be the one to tell Ankita, so I’m going to give them a few minutes to celebrate as a family and let everyone here know what’s going on.”
Everyone nodded as Lydia began to explain.
“Um, the Davydov is a cello built by legendary Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari in 1712. Until Professor Ma retired from performance to lecture at the New England Conservatory, the Vuitton Foundation had made the Davydov Stradivarius available to him. Unfortunately, they were never able to come to a consensus on a worthy successor to Yo-Yo Ma when he retired from performing, so the cello went on display at the Vuitton Foundation’s art museum in Paris. They’ve had the Davydov preserved in a display case, so to say it’s been collecting dust would be inaccurate, but it’s one of the world’s greatest instruments and it hasn’t been played in well over a decade.
“The man I just spoke to in Bangalore is a laborer named Pradeep Bannagara. Mr. Bannagara has a fifteen-year-old daughter named Ankita who is a musical prodigy. I’ve calculated that with the proper instrument and the proper instruction, there’s a ninety-four percent probability that she’ll be the world’s greatest cellist in less than ten years.
“So, in trust to the Kinsey Robotics Foundation, I bought the Davydov from the Vuitton Foundation for forty-seven million American Dollars. I’ve also arranged for Mr. Bannagara to bring his family to Boston so Ankita can study under Yo-Yo Ma’s protégé at the New England Conservatory. Soon her music is going to make millions of people happy.”
“Brava, Lydia!” Mrs. Kinsey said, standing and clapping her hands together as she took a deep breath, and she blew the little blonde computer a kiss.
Lydia smiled and turned to the Secretary of the Interior. “Of course, we’re going to need a little help from you, Madam Secretary, in expediting visas for Ankita and her family. I hear you might have some pull over at the State Department.”
Everyone laughed with the Secretary, who nodded, answering, “I’ll see what I can do, Lydia.”
Then the guests began to ask Lydia questions. And she stood there answering, laughing, smiling, and exuding the type of joy and pride anyone would in the midst of a triumph. Julie observed Lydia’s face and the faces of the assembled luminaries. Davis’s stoic visage was still blank, observing.
Julie couldn’t even begin to process it. Now that she understood what had just transpired, Julie was stunned. Their baby had just unraveled a Gordian knot of ego, emotions, and red tape—a real human problem that would have taken people years to resolve. Hell, the cello had been sitting in a display case for over a decade because they couldn’t decide on which world-class musician was worthy enough to play it. Lydia needed less than ten minutes to convince the French to sell her that same priceless cello and to convince an Indian man to uproot his family and move them halfway across the world. She’d eliminated every obstacle with frightening efficiency—the visa applications were already processing in the State Department’s system by the time the meeting was breaking up. And everyone was smiling at Lydia and asking her about the plans she had for the rest of the money. An uneasy feeling came over Julie.
“I need to talk to you, Davis,” Julie said.
“Yeah,” he said. “This calls for a toast.”