From the Vermont High School Writing Contest
Max pedaled his bike furiously along the city street, clutching the USB drive in his palm against the handlebars. As he rode, all he could think about was the quarter-sized pressure in his palm. Jerome had given him the flash drive at school in the morning, and Max had been waiting anxiously all day to see what was on it. The only thing that he knew about the drive was that for some reason — although he couldn’t imagine why — Jerome had made him promise that he would turn off the Internet on his computer before plugging it in.
In just a few minutes, Max pulled into his family’s driveway. He leaned his bike against the garage, promising himself that he would put it away later, and then he opened the front door and ran upstairs to his room.
There — in the soft artificial light of his bedroom, surrounded by glowing monitors and textbooks on computer science — Max finally felt himself calm down. He sat down in front of his computer and turned off the Wi-Fi icon as Jerome had asked. Then, with his heart pounding, Max inserted the thumb drive into its matching port. Jerome had shown him a lot of experimental pieces of code in the past — chatbots, video games, even a few programs that could solve CAPTCHA tests — but Max had a feeling that this one was going to be special.
Eventually, a new application icon started to bounce up and down at the bottom of Max’s screen: an old-timey fountain pen with the word “Quillsy” printed under it. A second later, a window with a blank document in it popped up before him.
Max paused for a moment, waiting for the program to do something more. But there was nothing: the cursor just continued to blink on and off at the top of the page. He squinted, his adrenaline rush starting to fade away. The application in front of him seemed like nothing more than a word processor — a word processor which apparently broke if it was exposed to Internet. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing that Jerome would even bother showing to him.
After a few more seconds, Max saw a notification pop up in the corner of his screen: “Try pasting in some text!” Dubiously, he pulled up the nearest document on his computer — a half-finished history essay — and copied it into the new window. After a moment, the Quillsy document lit up with a tangle of color-coded suggestions, cheerfully encouraging Max to rewrite nearly every sentence in the piece.
It really was just a word processor, then, albeit one with an aggressive quality-checking mechanism. Max started to scroll through the document, accepting the app’s changes one by one until all of the colored lines had disappeared. Quillsy changed the wording of the piece, took out sentences, and had even rearranged a few paragraphs by the time that Max reached the end of the page.
And as Max looked over the edited document, he had to admit that it was quite a bit better than before. Almost all of his original language had been replaced, but the new essay sounded surprisingly polished and well-written.
Suddenly, a new sentence appeared in light grey just below the end of the last line. Max clicked enter, his eyebrows raised. The grey font immediately turned into black, and then a new suggestion appeared on the line below. Max clicked enter again, and again, until an entire essay had materialized onscreen. And just from scanning over the new text, Max could tell that it was far better than what he would have written himself.
Max shook his head slowly in disbelief. There had to be a trick here — as talented as Jerome was, there was no way that he could write software capable of generating original content. It had to have gotten the essay from some kind of database, but Max had no idea how that was possible with the Internet turned off.
Suddenly, before Max had time to process what he was seeing, the screen in front of him began to change. The documents folder of his computer popped up in front of him, and then a cursor—his cursor, although Max wasn’t touching the mouse—started to drag them one by one onto the Quillsy application. Each document popped up in its own window, covered in a rainbow of highlights and underlines. And then, seemingly of its own volition, the text onscreen began to change.
Hunched over his computer, now, Max watched in fascination as the application windows spread across his screen. His history essay still lay on top of the rest of them—except now, it had expanded to over fourteen pages, and the cursor at the bottom of the document was furiously churning out more text. Navigating to the next window, Max saw the app hard at work on a literary analysis that he hadn’t looked at in weeks. Next, it had opened up Max’s copy of Hamlet for his English class, which it was covering with neon highlights as it modernized and fine-tuned the dialogue.
The entire thing was over before Max had time to react: his documents, edited to the point of being unrecognizable, were arranged in a neat row in front of him. Then, a new window popped up at the front of the screen. “QUILLSY would like to access the Internet,” it read. “Please turn it on to activate full functionality of the app.”
After what Max had just seen, Jerome’s instructions rang loud and urgent in his ears. With his palms sweating, he navigated to the line below the app’s request and typed the word “no.”
There was a pause. “I’m sorry,” the app eventually responded. “I’m just a simple automated chatbot, and I don’t understand your reply. Please activate the Internet to improve my performance.”
Max didn’t respond. After a few seconds, the app continued:
“If you’re worried about compromising your privacy, you don’t need to be! My only goal is to help improve your writing, and I think that I could do it better if I was allowed access to the cloud.”
Max stared at the screen, not quite able to believe what he was seeing. Either Jerome was playing a practical joke on him or there was something seriously wrong with this app. The things that it defied comprehension, and it wasn’t talking to him like a program should — the whole thing left Max feeling deeply unsettled.
He finally sprang into action, using a keyboard shortcut to quite the app, but a dialogue box appeared on his screen: “QUILLSY is still busy. Please try again later.” His heart pounding, Max rose from his chair and started to move towards the power cord—
The word flashed again and again on the screen in a glaring red font. He reflexively withdrew his hand from the cord. As soon as he did, the flashing letters on the screen disappeared.
“Shutting down your computer will cause significant damage to my scripts,” the app typed. “The only way to activate full functionality is to turn on the Internet. Will you give me a moment to explain?”
Max didn’t want to give the app anything. The whole conversation made him feel vaguely sick. His hands hovered over the keyboard for several moments — and then, not sure if there was anything else he could do, he typed out the word “yes” on the next line of the document. He sat forward in his chair…
And then, one line at a time, Quillsy’s argument began to materialize on the screen.
. . .
Two months went by, and the heat of the late summer disappeared fast. On a day in late November, Max rode his bike home from school along the same route he always took. The trees lining the road were just skeletons, now, their leaves gathered in golden-brown piles on the ground. As he pedaled, Max tried to distract himself by looking for interesting cloud patterns in the sky.
Jerome wasn’t talking to him at school anymore. Max had no idea what had happened, or how the older boy even knew what he had done with Quillsy, but he hadn’t so much as acknowledged Max’s presence in the past eight weeks. The whole thing was more than a little bit disturbing. Still, Max tried to remind himself that Jerome was probably just acting out of jealousy. Because Jerome had designed the app, after all, but only Max had taken the time to give it what it needed. Max had sat in front of his computer and listened to the app as it argued for its own access to the Internet. And after he had listened, he had allowed his cursor to drift up towards the Wi-Fi icon in the corner of the screen—
In the end, Jerome’s anger didn’t bother Max too much, because things had been looking up for him in the past two months. Quillsy had installed itself on every device he owned, editing everything from his emails to his math homework, and Max was starting to wonder how he had ever lived without it. His grades were up now, and his college essays were already looking remarkably polished. And thanks to Quillsy’s help with his online messages, Max had made dozens of new virtual friends as well. People who liked his sense of humor and his personality, and spent far more time with him in chatrooms than Jerome ever had in real life. So Max didn’t care, really, about what Jerome thought about his use of the app. He and Quillsy were a team.
And Max didn’t want to think about any of that right now. He had a meeting with his new friends scheduled, and he was looking forward to it. He leaned forward on his bike, accelerating with rapid strokes of the pedals — and all the while, he was thinking about Quillsy and the world that awaited him on the other side of his screen.