The Strip

A fictional story on real technology with true role models.

By Alex Ruby [~ 10-15 min]

Aufs Spiel gesetzt - The Strip - Kurzgeschichte - Short Story - Project Cascabella - Running ChokeThe heart-piercing cry made him cringe. An impatient frequent flyer had barged his way into the boarding line and rammed the turnstile into the head of a little boy whose mother was searching for the tickets. The cry brought Benedikt back to the call that collapsed his house of cards a year ago. Back then for the first time, he had live-tested the voice recognition and analysis of his prototype system Sentalys.

It had been a collaboration with the police. His system had run in the background parallel to the conventional emergency system. When the 911 call came in, it was answered by one of the officers and simultaneously analyzed and processed by his system. A man and his young son were trapped in their car after an accident. Smoke swirled from the hood. It smelled of smoldering plastic. The boy screamed in the background, his calls heart-piercing. Both were rescued, but with severe burns. This could have been prevented. Not by the human-controlled system that had worked like clockwork, but by Benedikt’s computer-based system. If it had done its magic, the two would have been saved faster, less harmed. Why else would it be good to replace human labor by machines?

The system had failed in two ways. First, in recognizing the condition of the man in the car. According to the loudness, intonation and rhythm of the man’s voice combined with the way he structured his answers, the system should have determined the urgency. To complicate things, it had turned out that the man was autistic so his response was more taciturn than expected. Secondly, there were the actions to be taken. After another call came in seconds later, a fire at an engineering company, it would have been imperative to dispatch the available local rescue teams to each emergency according to their abilities. The rescue team that fought the fire in the engineering office had a young officer who held the record in cracking jammed car doors. She would have been able to gain valuable seconds for the rescue team and the man and his boy.

The idea for his system hit Benedikt when he read of someone who had analyzed the tweets of newly split couples to determine whether prosecco and pilsner made them more amiable to reconcile. Only he wanted to use sentiment analysis to create something more meaningful. His system was intended to support emergency call centers in case of disasters like major fires, hurricanes and earthquakes or even terrorist attacks. It should help emergency services to respond faster and more efficiently, and also prevent mass panics before they even started. For example, the largest search engine in China was already processing user data to predict mass panics. 302 million of the 657 million registered Chinese used the map service, which allowed the system to build corresponding movement patterns. After the cataclysmal live test Benedikt had fallen into deep despair. He wasn’t the typical gloomy guy knocked down by challenges, but his most promising investor-to-be had jumped ship immediately only to be followed by his Angel investor a few weeks later. That was the end of his funding.

Last Reserves

It was difficult to predict when the system would be advanced enough and ready for another live test. There were several reasons for this. Programming the algorithms for the sentiment analysis was more difficult than expected, because the evaluation of the criteria that influenced a caller’s mood was extremely complex

The Strip - Short Story - Sentiment AnalysisHis leading developer had decided to leave him for another startup that worked on predictive maintenance that fit the typical hockey stick growth model of successful startups. Benedikt was also still searching for a system to collate and structure the enormous amounts of data and to make it instantly available in case of an emergency. Currently, the skills and experience of all rescue workers were spread over thousands of documents and reports. His speech recognition system was based on an open source program of a Silicon Valley giant that also offered a cloud-based version. This had enabled his team to seamlessly integrate it into their development process that was based on cloud storage as well. However, his system lacked the critical amount of voice samples for evaluation.

His situation was incredibly dicey. He needed money. Urgently. He had called on everybody he knew. Family and friends, and friends of friends. Everyone in the startup scene who could possibly give him access to investors. But it was all in vain. His idea was highly praised. However, it was not able to be scaled up in a couple of months, so there was no money. Everybody was infected with gold fever and wanted to find the next Unicorn to cash in fast. Ironically his system would actually have what it takes to become one, just not in such a short time frame. His last hope was a friend from college who had stuck around in Nevada, the new tax haven, after visiting the Burning Man festival and who was willing to open a few doors for him. Maxine, just Max to her friends, worked for one of the most auspicious startups in Las Vegas. They had taken a deep dive into machine learning and natural language processing to teach cars how to self-drive. Benedikt had scraped up his cash and booked a flight to Sin City with the last miles on his Frequent Traveler Card.

He was off to a bad start at the airport in Munich. His flight had been canceled. All passengers had to be rebooked and the staff at the counters were completely overwhelmed. After he landed in Las Vegas a day later, he realized that his suitcase had not followed him. At least he had an emergency kit in his hand luggage together with laptop and charging cables. The Strip Short StoryIt could be worse, he thought, and allowed his spirit to be lifted by the profound excitement of a German couple next to him. The two were eager to visit the mecca of gambling.

As he walked out of the airport the dry midday heat hit him like a wall. But the innumerable beads of sweat evaporated immediately in the icy air-conditioned shuttle bus, leaving a thin layer of salt. The same happened when he arrived at the hotel. Exhausted and shivering, he collapsed onto the bed in his room. At least one dream had come true, when he saw the oversized guitar in front and passed glass cases with numerous exhibits of his personal heroes on the way to the elevator. Because Benedikt was not only a founder and IT specialist, he was also a passionate guitarist of a rock band.

The meeting with Max had been cancelled. Max had to accompany her boss to meet their main investor in China. Funding for their new engineering and production site was at risk even although the groundbreaking ceremony had only recently been carried out just north of Las Vegas. Millions of government subsidies were at stake and had to be secured in order to position themselves as an equal adversary to Tesla. Max promised to call some of her contacts to see, if they would meet with Benedikt alone. Benedikt tried to get some sleep. He did not expect anything to happen in the next hour.

He woke up with a start. He could not say what had awoken him. There was complete silence apart from the low hum of the air conditioner. The thick thermal window blocked the sound of the cars passing by five floors below him. He still felt knocked out. The message on his cell phone did not help to lift his mood. Two of Max’ contacts had no interest in meeting and she was still waiting for an answer of the third one, whom she described as very unreliable. Benedikt felt as if bad luck kept following him. But singing the blues did not help. After all, he was in Las Vegas and his software could survive another day without writing new lines of code. He got up and took a long shower. The lime-coconut infused smell of the soap shooed away his low spirits. Sin City with all its gambling glory and the strip were out there waiting for him. And he was hungry.

The Strip Short Story Bellagio Las VegasThe hotel was about four blocks from the bustle of the Las Vegas Boulevard. On the street corner opposite him alleged Bavarian hospitality lured, but vegetarians like him wouldn’t find much to eat there. Besides, he preferred the original at home, even if the beer was imported from Bavaria. Walking felt good and the temperature dropped a few notches. On the Strip, he joined the throngs of tourists and drifted towards the north. Along the way he bought a spinach and cheese wrap and vitamin water, which he gulped down on a bench in front of the Eiffel Tower. Across at the Bellagio a crowd gathered. He joined in to watch the famous fountains. Nearly every other person was filming the spectacle with their cell phone.

The water show was thrilling. How much money did they spend on this? The movement of 1200 water jets had to be synchronized with 4500 lights. Benedikt was sure the Bellagio could employ an army of programmers and designers to develop new flavors. If he only had a fraction of their budget. A hundred grand would be enough to get him started. Maybe he should try the gambling halls after all? His math skills and a little bit of luck might just be enough. But was he really that desperate? No. It was a gorgeous day and nothing could tease him inside. He started walking again. The curtain of Treasure Island’s pirate show had been dropped for good and the sight of the Stratosphere further down was good enough for him. He changed sides and turned back. There was one thing he definitely wanted to see on his first day: the world-famous welcome sign at the other end of the strip.

The Strip Short Story The Venetian Las VegasHe rested in the middle of the Rialto Bridge at the Venetian for a few moments and watched the gondolas as they disappeared inside. A man cursed behind him. The anger was clearly audible in his voice. Benedikt’s system was able to detect feelings like these, but also indifference, boredom or excitement and even the level of sadness, joy or aggression. But voices were not easy to simplify. Their analysis strongly depended on the country, ethnic origin, age and sex. Not to mention accent or dialect. It took a huge database with millions of voice patterns to impeccably identify all facets. Interpol had just received a big money boost from the EU to establish a global voice database. But Interpol was out of his league. Besides, they wanted to use voices to identify people, not their emotions. Legally and privacy-wise this was a huge difference. How just should he be able to set up such a database?

Suddenly he spotted the happy couple who had waited with him at the airport’s baggage claim in one of the gondolas. The young woman with her large, black-and-white hat and dark sunglasses reminded him of a Sophia Loren movie. In one hand she held a glass of wine. She did not look as if she was very worried about their future. Her husband didn’t either. They both just enjoyed the moment. He would love to change places with them. Emotions analysis in voices had another angle to it: valence. It gave an indication on how a person thought about the matter that had been spoken about. Benedikt had to think of his Italian friend. When he was talking to his mother on the phone it always appeared as if they were engaged in a fight to the death. But appearances could be deceiving.

Someone pressed a card into his hand, but he wasn’t tempted to have a drink at Margaritaville even though it was five o’clock already. The roller coaster on the rooftops of New York held no attraction for him either. Not yet. But the hustle and bustle slowly lifted his mood and Benedikt drew hope. Everything would be fine, he told himself. Somehow. Perhaps he would really risk a few chips at the roulette tables later. One hundred dollars was all he could spare. And who said he shouldn’t have a little bit of fun? The Excalibur appeared like a good omen, which the Mandala Bay seemed to confirm bathing him in the majestic reflection of the setting sun.
After the stacked deck he had been given lately he deserved a bit of luck, didn’t he? He lined up patiently in the queue of people waiting to take the same picture millions had taken before them. On the other side, he noticed a dealership of the famous American motorcycle. While he waited, he heard the unmistakable humming and saw at least ten bikes leaving the city for a freedom ride. One of these days, he told himself.

“Could you take a picture of us? We’d certainly make a mess of it and miss the sign,” a woman behind him suddenly asked. “We can take one of you as well.” It was the couple from the airport and the gondola. The fact that they did not own a selfie stick made them even more likeable. The pair introduced themselves as Annette and Donald from Munich. Germany. It was small world. They decided to have dinner together, which turned out to be serendipitous. Annette and her husband were both computer scientists. She got her PhD in Donald’s hometown Edinburgh in Scotland and he got his at the University of Paisley. Two years ago, they had moved to Bavaria after they had successfully founded and sold a company.

The Strip Short Story Role Model Annette Leonhard-MacDonaldTheir specialty: Big Data and Machine Learning. They had recently founded their second startup, a Fintech company that offered its software as a service. It was a real-time analysis solution for financial and insurance data that allowed accurate predictions and informed decisions by employing deep-learning for risk modeling and portfolio optimization. Many companies, not only in the financial sector, still processed their data in Excel. An antiquated vehicle that was not suitable for handling today’s vast amounts of data and which did not lend itself to informed real-time decisions as important information got lost in the spreadsheets. Benedikt thought of his developer who had joined the other startup to work on similar technology predicting when to maintain machinery and investment goods. Which was a real Bonanza.

Donald was a rather quiet fellow, but his German was remarkable. Annette, however, was outgoing and a true networker who quickly made friends. That’s why she had taken on the task of presenting their business concept at various startup competitions. Her latest success was winning the contest of the Munich Incubator specializing in InsurTech and that also offered a co-working space at their offices once known to locals as Kultfabrik. Artificial intelligence was sexy and a bandwagon many wanted to jump onto, she had said laughing. Especially when it was a train set in motion by researchers who already had startup experience. Pitching was anything but Donald’s preference. He was the architect and specialist who implemented concepts, programmed the system and managed interfaces to all data formats one could think of. He had paid particular attention to data protection and safety aspects. The method he had developed detected, and prevented, fraud by analyzing the data at hand and adding relevant variables from other external or internal resources. A flash of pride passed his face when he mentioned the automatically generated real-time reports giving new insights into the data.

Time flew by and a few drinks later they felt as if they had known each other for ages. Some people could make you feel this way. Age did not matter.The Strip Short Story Running Choke BandAnd it was not only because they shared the same profession. The two took an interest in Benedikt’s company, but also in his band. When he told them about their recordings in the famous 4th Street Recording Studios in Santa Monica they showed open admiration. And that made him feel fantastic.

A local label had become aware of their European release of “Feels like Heaven” and invited his band. Another factor had certainly been that the vocal coach of their singer had swapped the Bavarian blue skies for the sunny days of Malibu and met new contacts there. He still recalled the sensation surfing his soul at gigs in sold-out clubs just outside of Hollywood. Or the group of excited Asian girls who had stormed the stage screaming. Or the Rap Battle of their bassist with a DJane. No one could take away these moments. They seemed as exciting today as they were then. And that was exactly what connected him with Annette and Donald. The passion to follow a dream and make it a reality.

The next morning, Benedikt was far from being enthusiastic when he tried to extend his stay by one night at the hotel. They demanded three times as much for a night of what he had paid for when making the reservation in Germany. Flexibility came at a price. Just opposite there was a budget motel. Rumor had it that it was a nice place. He moved within ten minutes. Just in time, as Annette and Donald invited him to a trip around the area on the spur of a moment. Benedikt trusted his gut feelings and joined them.

The Strip Short Story Hoover Dam

On the way to Lake Mead Benedikt decided to spill his gut. They already knew what his company did: analyze incoming voice calls to identify the problem and urgency, convert the results into accurate text and link it to various knowledge databases to automatically detect the best available resources for the task at hand. Annette and Donald really liked the idea, but they did not know how his company was really doing. Benedikt did not hesitate. He had already scrambled up his last resources for this risky trip. He might as well take things one step further. To make matters worse, the chalk-white rocks and alarmingly low water at the Hoover Dam reminded Benedikt of his financial situation. But he spared no detail. It turned out that it was the best decision he could have made. Immediately, Donald thought of a company that dealt with emotions analysis of spoken language. They were able to define various details from a voice’s intonation. Whether a caller thought what they said was good or bad. Whether they were relaxed, tense or on the verge of a heart attack. Whether they were depressed, focused or aggressive. This company was able to detect the interplay of various factors and determine the condition of the caller.

The Strip Short Story Las Vegas Red Rock Canyon

During the following hike through the Red Rock Canyon, Benedikt learned that Annette had started a community for female tech founders two years ago. The community had grown steadily and was now aligned to the overall idea of diversity. Annette was also the lead mentor for the external women’s developer group of one of the largest IT companies. She was connected to all sorts of people and knew a startup that crawled and analyzed available information in order to structure and store the skills and experience of people in a central database. This allowed companies or organizations to find not only the necessary expertise, but also the right contact for new projects at the touch of a button. The system created transparency and minimized errors while saving time. That was exactly what Benedikt needed for his system in order to save human lives.

It looked like his technical issues could be tackled. But there was still one thing missing. Funding. Luck seemed to have turned. So back in Las Vegas, he decided to pay the strip a visit pocketing his last hundred dollars. He wandered from the Bellagio to the Venetian and on to Harrah’s only to continue to Bally’s and Paris. But there was a minimum bet of fifteen dollars at most roulette tables. He wasn’t prepared to risk that much on a single bet. With every casino he left his desire to gamble decreased. On the way back to his motel he stopped in front of the Hard Rock Hotel. His last chance. It was after midnight. There was only one roulette table open. A ten dollar minimum bet. Making it ten bets at the least. He bet on 23. Time and again. But the number did not fall. He skipped one bet. 23 fell. And Benedikt left the table. To invest the last dollars properly.

The Strip Short Story Las Vegas RumorThe bar was far from busy. One beer, then he would go to sleep, before going back to Munich the next day. But one beer should not be the end of it. Next to him the hotel’s event manager wound down from the day. He used to play in a rock band himself and had a soft spot for newcomers. West Coast sound with a few heavy riffs went down very well with him. The next morning, Benedikt moved from the motel back in to the hotel. He sent an email to the two contacts Annette and Donald had given him. The company specializing in emotions analysis called right back and scheduled a meeting with their developers. Then he rebooked his flight and called his band mates. Excitement was in the air. In the afternoon, the announcement was already online. And that was more than a rumor being broadcasted. His luck had turned.

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Capscovil Divider
From the Capscovil storytelling kitchen
Seasoned with
Leonhard-MacDonald Venture GmbH
Running Choke Rock Band
Supported by
Diversity Natives - Initiative to empower women and underrepresented groups in technology and drive innovation through diversity in the workforce
Women Techmakers Munich powered by Google Developer Group
Werk1 Munich, Germany
Professional Women's Group Zurich

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2017-10-25T09:03:58+00:00

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  1. […] first story “The Strip” has been published internationally (download it here for free). The cooks are busy on the recipe for the next one. However, the project is still in the early […]

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