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Proprietary neural tech you had surgically implanted? Parts shortage

Sorry about it. You know how it is with supply chains. Aroogah, arooogah....

Something for the Weekend? My laptop has just spoken to me. It said: "Ba-ding!" It hasn't said that before and I don't know what it means. Whatever does it want?

It's my own fault for leaving the audio-out unmuted between remote calls. If I leave it on, every pissy little background app on my system tings and hoots relentlessly throughout the day to alert me about some irrelevant non-event or another. The alerts manage to skip around Do Not Disturb mode by falsely self-identifying as "urgent" or "important." I have tried on occasion to configure them to stop doing this, but I quickly get bored and just silence the whole computer instead.

Popular culture is to blame. Computers in movies and TV shows always make unnecessary sounds, and I don't just mean the bleeps and bloops of otherwise utterly ignored panels on Star Trek's 1960s flight deck. Even today, if someone in a movie or TV show types on a computer keyboard, the computer dutifully says "dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit" for reasons that must forever remain mysterious.

Even when the computer is embedded and keyboardless, such as in Robocop's brain implants or T-800's skull unit, and some textual information pops up in front of their AR eyeballs, it still does that "dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit" thing. A cursor flashes at the end of each line of text going "bleep-bleep-bleep-bleep", as if awaiting keystroke input from "Brainy" Numskull.

Certainly if that was going on in my head all day, I'd want to kill someone too. My first hit would be the Cyberdyne or Omni Consumer Products (OCP – the evil megacorp from theRoboCop series) project manager who thought it would be clever to encode all those stupid synth sounds in there in the first place.

The last time I thought unnecessary computer sounds were cool was in the early 1990s, merrily rejigging System 6 with ResEdit to make my Mac SE/30 blurt out audio snippets from (as coincidence would have it) Robocop and the first two Terminator films. Having "I'll be back!" as my shut-down tone struck me as hilarious back then.

Today, I prefer my devices to hold their tongue. But even I could appreciate the cheesy simplicity of AOL's old "You've got mail" audio alert. Here, on the other hand, there is nothing to suggest what my laptop's "Ba-ding!" indicates, not even an on-screen text notification.

At times like this, I ask myself the time-honoured question: what would Robocop do?

Imagine Murphy in the middle of making an arrest, having dutifully set his own head into Do Not Disturb mode for the next few minutes. "Come quietly" he warns, pulling a gun from his leg, "or there will be… trouble." Then, in the same menacing tone, he announces: "Ba-ding."

The perps look at each other questioningly and silently mouth "Ba-ding?"

Murphy lets out a metallic sigh of frustration. "Please wait, citizen, while I check something."

He digs deep into his system settings to see what "Ba-ding' is supposed to indicate. No joy. How about skimming through that folder of old readmes? "Dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit," he mutters, pausing occasionally to squeak in falsetto: "Bleep-bleep-bleep-bleep."

One of the perps sniggers so Murphy shoots him in the leg before silencing his own voice box to avoid further embarrassment. He'll have to request another patch from the OCP dev team to correct this, he ponders. But it's not looking good for the company: profits have plummeted since taking on too many public service contracts in which it had no experience. Tech staff are leaving in droves and not even a fire sale of ED-209 NFTs will keep it afloat. He might be stuck with these stupid "Ba-dings" and "Ping-pongs" forever.

He wonders whether he should get a job in a police force abroad. In France, for example, there is a trend for otherwise ordinary, sane people to express their everyday physical actions verbally with onomatopoeia. A waiter puts a coffee in front of a customer and says: "Toc" (pronounced "tock"). The customer drops a few coins into the payment dish and replies: "Hop." So maybe it would seem perfectly normal for the future of law enforcement to say "Ba-ding" when making an arrest.

I recently sat through a two-hour beta software demo throughout which the presenter squealed "Tac!" (pronounced "tack") every time he clicked on something; which of course he did two million times during the demo. It's likely he didn't know he was doing it. One is reminded of the rumour that Ewan McGregor unknowingly kept verbalising "brrrr-rurrr kishh-kishh" while acting out his lightsabre scenes during the filming of The Phantom Menace.

The irony of saying "toc" with every physical movement in France is that TOC is the French acronym for OCD.

"Do you have a preference?" I call from my office to Mme D downstairs, telling Murphy he can take a break from hunting through my audio readmes. "If you had onomatopoeic Tourettes like everyone else here, would you rather say "toc' or 'hop'?"

"BANG!" comes the unexpectedly loud reply. Window-rattling loud, in fact.

It came from the kitchen. We rendezvous at the likely source of the retort and discover that a depleted battery – one of those tiny LR44s – that I had put on a shelf with the intention of taking it to a recycling bin had got bored of waiting and spontaneously exploded.

I turn to Murphy. He looks worried: he probably has a dozen of those things buried in his head right now. Not only does he have duff firmware, he's got a bunch of rapidly depleting firecrackers in there waiting to go off any moment. What if OCP goes bankrupt before he can get them replaced? What if – and this is even more likely – OCP simply gets bored of the Robocop project and turn its disruptive mind to fresh horizons of entrepreneurship?

He is unique, you see. He is not standards-based. He is thoroughly proprietary. Pretty soon every repair shop engineer will be sucking their teeth, shaking their heads and saying such disparaging things such as "Oh dear oh dear oh dear", "You can't get the parts" and "Toc".

Nor is this a mere fantasy scenario from sci-fi. Last year, financial challenges forced neural tech specialist Second Sight to abandon its Argus II artificial vision product line – regrettably but inevitably leaving a number of its customers with delicate surgical eye-to-brain implants that can no longer be maintained, repaired or (possibly) even removed. Like all kit, it will eventually stop working but there will be no more fixes, upgrades, spare parts, or even anybody with the proprietary Argus II tech skills to know how to fix them anyway.

No wonder the often ridiculous smart wearables industry remains so viable: whenever a manufacturer decides to end-of-life a smart wearable product – which they do with frustrating regularity – at least you can take it off (hop!) and slip on a different one (toc!) with relative ease. It's not like it's welded to your bleeding neurons. This must be disappointing for sci-fi authors but there it is.

Murphy is resigned to his fate. He has also tracked the likely translation of "Ba-ding" down to one of two potential meanings: either "A six-month-old unread notification is still waiting in your Skype account" or "Your trousers are on fire."

He looks down: his trousers are not on fire. Bloody Skype, he thinks, haven't they end-of-lifed it yet? He turns back to the one remaining perp and moves his lips silently.

"You're still on mute," says the perp, helpfully.

Murphy re-enables his voice box, imagines the perp is OCP project manager Bob Morton and fires off seven rounds into his chest.


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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He says that if you think you might have heard the song in this week's music video before somewhere, award yourself full marks for your late-1970s New Wave cultural awareness. Here's the original. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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