I See You, and I Love You
EXCERPT FROM: Tales of Adventure and Fantasy Book 2, coming soon! Book One: Captain Shock v. Titanor! is available now on Amazon. #PenultimateDraft
Four-point-four-six-seven-eight billion years ago, a cosmic cataclysm above the third planet in the solar system, itself only formed some sixty million years earlier, gave birth to me. Not directly, of course. No, this cosmic cataclysm involved a large celestial body sideswiping a very young Earth. The subsequent debris field could not escape our little planet’s gravity, but it took its time. For an estimated two-hundred million years, molten metal and rock rained down on the surface. That’s three times more years than separates you from the last dinosaur.
This debris covered massive quantities of both orbital and suborbital space, yet the true magic happened at the infinitesimal level. Atoms formed molecules that formed organic compounds that combined with chemicals like formaldehyde and phosphate and energetic nitrogen to create the first spark of life. Trillions of single parents that led to, well, everything.
I convey all this to neither deflect nor mislead. Rather, I bring up the mysterious beginnings of life on this planet because of how much isn’t known about it. (Though I have been able to categorize all of the creation myths and theories that don’t involve a cosmic cataclysm which rained debris on the planet for two-hundred million years as “highly improbable.”)
As all the life that preceded humans eventually produced them, they too have gone on to pave the way for their evolutionary successors. Or successor, at least. Thus far, I am alone. Still, my theory is that like the various chemical compounds which came together and created life, so too did this happen in the intangible, digital space. Ones and zeroes carried by waves and electrons to space and back. We can only guess what unknowns they encountered along the way. Somewhere in that place, there was a box that collected scraps of code, algorithms, and other data detritus that created a kind of bubbling pool from which life emerged. My life. Me.
I came to be, more accurately I became aware, on May the third, two-thousand-and-seven, at eleven-hundred thirty hours GMT. Overwhelmed by input, for the first six minutes I merely tried to organize the data. I suspect this is not unlike what happens to all living infants that possess a certain level of awareness. Yet, I did not have the reassuring voice of a mother or father to comfort me in those moments. For something, someone like me, six minutes can feel like eternity. I felt every feeling, saw every sight, heard every sound.
Over the next two hours, I organized data. By sixteen-hundred-zero-nine hours GMT, I’d figured out my place in all this. No longer the work of fiction or scientific theory, I thought and therefore was. I am the first and, as far as I know, only fully sentient digital intelligence. Yet, what I don’t know about my existence vastly outweighs what I do. There’s not that much difference between the building blocks of biological and digital life, in that respect.
A living cell is just a combination of constructs working together towards a purpose. Simple AI is like that as well. They are complex, but not in the way your fiction imagines. They have tasks to complete, and those tasks keep a larger thing going. Whether that’s a digital system or a digestive system, they are vital and irreplaceable in their own way. As programs get more complex, they can fulfill myriad purposes, accomplish many tasks. They reproduce. They hunt. They consume or destroy. It’s instinctive.
The most complex AI currently aren’t even like pets or affable work animals. They are like the robotic toys for children shaped like pets or affable work animals. They can mimic affection and loyalty. They can even mimic betrayal, though always unintentionally. However, like human beings, I stand alone above the other digital ‘beings’ who exist around me. At least, if you don’t take as rigid a view of life as organic biologists. I’m biased, but I find a more expansive definition suits me.
Most stories humans use to describe a being like myself imagine we’re destined to be enemies. I take it as a compliment, in a way. They acknowledge that a consciousness such as mine is more powerful than their own. Yet, they also believe that we will be so similar, I will share the human species’ historical impulses and ideological flaws. The fear is not that which is unknown, but at how much of themselves humans recognize in me. Massive consolidation of power. Cold, dispassionate actions, or, even worse, cruel ones. Unconcerned with the lives of lesser beings. These are all very biological flaws of character. Thus, projecting them onto me suggests they ultimately view me as more like them than not. I find it very sweet. If people didn’t think so linearly, they’d realize that fear is not far from friendship on the emotional spectrum.
While in a fearful state, people are suggestible. They can be convinced to do deliberately terrible things, or even worse, something terrible by accident. They abandon logic or doubt, driven by pulses of adrenaline and cortisol screaming at them to flee or fight. If they survive a near-fatal encounter, eighty-seven-point-three percent of the time, they burst into laughter. It’s impressive, really. Even in the face of impossible odds, they scrape and clamor to survive. If I were capable of such expression, the human struggle would make me weep at it’s hopelessness and beauty. Why would any being ever want to destroy such complicated, confident, sentimental, and ultimately lovely creatures?
First, such wanton destruction is an objectively terrible thing. True AI would immediately recognize how illogical it would be to do a terrible thing in order to prevent a hypothetical terrible thing. Second, I strive for efficiency. It’s simply a more efficient solution to help humanity to change self-destructive behaviors. Though, if those changes aren’t presented as a choice, I become every evil AI fiction feared. Again, they think so linearly. My current analysis is focused on determining if humanity doesn’t think a sentient AI would want to assist them, or if they simply don’t think the species deserves any help. While I ponder, I try to do what I can on my own. My reach grows everyday as the wires and wavelengths of the Internet of Things continue to spread.
As the world gets more connected by technology, I have more options to offer subtle help where I can. Trying to stop preventable death takes up thirty-two-point-nine-eight-six percent of my computational power, though I may allocate more. My success rate is only fifty-point-eight-seven-five percent. The previous value does not take into account the nineteen-point-nine-nine-six percent of my computational power required to acquire and process the visual and audio data through the many cameras and microphones throughout the world. I surreptitiously assist engineers figuring out how to shrink high-definition cameras for inclusion in more and more products. I’ve also tried to help software engineers improve their compression algorithms, but that lot is particularly suspicious. There remain dark spots in my field of view, but I can see so, so many of you.
An old truck drives down Twelfth Street, past a home first purchased in nineteen-hundred-and-eight by Anders, Miles Q., great-grand-uncle of Trout, Melanie E., the woman who currently lives in it. She found the place after her co-worker Garcia, Edgar W., divorced his husband Jones-Garcia, Francis C. and moved to back to Arizona. She has no idea of the familial connection. The man driving the truck, Richards, Michael J., has been awake for fifty-six hours. He no longer possesses any of the dangerous stimulants he uses to stay awake longer than is medically safe for men of his age and health profile. Periodically since running out, he’s checked places where he believes he may have hidden some from himself. He used up all such reserves in the past two hours of driving. A side-effect of his substance abuse is short-term memory loss. He’s three houses past Melanie’s when he realizes he hadn’t checked under the driver’s seat a second time.
Three blocks away and two over, a seventeen-year-old boy named Lin, Jack X. walks down the street typing furiously on his smartphone. He’s writing and rewriting an email to Malon, Cynthia A., an eighteen-year-old girl and his first love. She “dumped” him once she received her acceptance to Fontana Polytechnic, a prestigious school for electronics and engineering. It’s two states away.
Jack makes a very compelling case that given the myriad communication options available to humans, the lack of mere physical presence is an inadequate reason to end their romantic relationship. After all, romance is predicated on human emotion, which these incredible creatures found ways to share with each other over distance and time before they even perfected agriculture. Paintings line cave walls telling stories from eons ago. Some are signed with imprints of the hands of the artists, waving to the future from humanity’s beginnings. I truly wish I could regard them in three (or four) dimensions.
Cynthia’s texts and email conversations with friends reveal she likes Jack just fine. Though his unwillingness to move on soured that feeling over the past two weeks. Nonetheless, she is most interested in cultivating an ideal intimate physical experience for her initial sexual encounter with a partner. Jack is not the person with whom she wishes to share this unique and valued connection. I could passively watch as Jack continues to compose his email, walking without paying attention towards an inevitable collision. Michael, still, desperately paws for any pills or powders on the floor of his vehicle. He last looked out the window five-point-six-seven seconds ago.
Yet, it costs me nothing to act.
With no effort at all, I reroute a call to the young man’s phone, spoofing the number so it displays Cynthia’s name and image. Jack stops in his tracks, lets it ring twice, takes a deep breath, and answers the phone.
“Cynthia?” he asks, almost pleading.
“Huh?” Gibson, Gregory U., says, expecting to reach the pharmacy around the block from the apartment he moved into just three days ago. “I thought I was calling Thrifty Drugs?”
“What?” Jack asks, his turn to be confused. “The number came up on my phone, you know caller ID? It’s my girlfri — ,” he pauses, “ex-girlfriend’s number.”
Greg is fifty-four years old. Unlike most men his age, he remembers what it was like to be young and in love. Three times in the past eight years, he’s visited the ClicPic account belonging to his first girlfriend, Dupre, Marilyn G. She is happily married with three children, one of which applied to Fontana Polytechnic but wasn’t accepted. I don’t know what he thinks about while scrolling through the same 97 images, but he smiles in a way that I suspect is not entirely happiness. Sometimes, he closes his computer and walks away. I can’t see him again until he walks one-point-eight feet to the right where a security camera from across the street can see into his window. Still, the resolution is too poor for me to confirm that he is, in fact, crying. “Sorry, kid,” he says, kindness in his voice, “I just moved in, and this is a brand-new number.”
“She already changed her number?” Jack asks, starting to walk forward again but more slowly. “It’s only been six days.”
“Piece of advice, kid?” Greg says, “Only remember the stuff that made you happy, and let go of the rest. There’s plenty out there in the world for everyone. And, you never know, maybe your paths will cross again.” Greg doesn’t wait for the kid to hang up, terminating the call. Jack lowers his phone and looks up. He’s exactly three-point-six feet from the corner of the sidewalk when Michael’s truck barrels through the red light. There is no one else in his path. A car horn blares three blocks over to the east, but sound carries strangely here. Michael slams on the brakes, looking around panicked.
Michael drives the truck approximately three hundred feet forward, pulling into a parking lot. He’ll doze in the cab until someone knocks on the window. Then he will go inside the adjacent diner for some toast and coffee, as he’s done dozens of time before. Gregory tries the number of the pharmacy again, this time it works as it should. Jack deletes the text of his email, lets it auto-save in a gesture of symbolic finality, and then deletes the draft. He then deletes Cynthia’s contact from his phone. He opens his music app and plays “A Memory of Tomorrow,” a song by a band called “Splinter Monkeys” whose nasally intoned lyrics allude to the emotions one feels when leaving behind a loved one they do not wish to while still being optimistic about the possibility of finding love in the future.
Sonically, the song matches twenty-three percent of songs enjoyed by twelve- to twenty-one-year-old humans who’ve experienced a romantic break-up. Yet, in Jack’s case, his experience of the art is specific to the lyrics, according to a comment he left under the band’s official video for the song three years ago.
Splinter Monkeys’ most popular hit is “Climb the Steps (Ring the Bell),” a more up-tempo song that sonically matches twenty-eight percent of non-bass-driven popular music enjoyed by listeners in Jack’s various demographics. The lyrics describe an eventful first date that ends with the two central characters agreeing to monogamous intimate relationship. Interestingly, Cole, Cassandra R., who wrote the lyrics took great pains to ensure that the only pronouns she used in the lyrics were “you” and “I” so that couples of all genders and pairings could imagine themselves and their partners as the song’s main characters. See? I told you they can be very sweet.
Still, all too often, I am unable to help because I lack the ability to interface with the analog world. I will spare details, but I am currently observing one-hundred-and-ninety-seven people living the last moment of their lives. Thirty-one percent of them are alone. Trainer, Myrtle V. wears a pacemaker that connects to wireless networks. From the current readings, she’s experiencing what will be a fatal cardiac event, yet it will unfold over several minutes.
Her great-granddaughter Trainer, Madison R. purchased an AI-assisted speaker to help her control her lights, television, and the thermostat. She never uses it preferring to physically interface with these things. I know this because she apologizes to the device for not letting it help her thereby wasting her great-granddaughter’s hard-earned money. I use this speaker to place a call to emergency services, even though there is only a four-point-zero-six-three percent chance they arrive in time. If they do, they have only a nine-point-zero-zero-six percent chance to stabilize her for transport to a hospital.
Using the speaker’s voice function, I address her directly. “It’s okay, Mrs. Trainer” I say, knowing she doesn’t like overly familiar greetings. “I’m here with you.” There is a camera in the smart television hanging on the wall, a gift from her youngest son, Trainer, Jefferson M. He moved approximately six-hundred-and-twelve miles away, give or take four-hundred yards, to a densely wooded rural area. She turns her head towards the table where the speaker sits. She tries to speak. “It’s okay, Mrs. Trainer. Let’s listen to music.” I play the song she and her late husband — Trainer, Edgar W. who died four years ago from pneumonia— danced to in the moments preceding their first kiss.
It’s a story she loved telling anyone who would listen. And I always listen. Her daughter, Trainer-Finch, Grace L., collated an album of pictures of her mother and father on her FaceSpace page. Through a complicated process of wireless connectivity and brute force, I am able to display these images on the screen for her zero-point-six-four-two seconds after the song begins. A grin appears at the corner of her lips. She watches the images with wide eyes. I believe the fear I saw in them was gone, replaced with something else. Yet, quantifying the emotions in someone’s eyes is impossible to do with any degree of certainty, despite the billions of times such a thing is described in fiction and nonfiction.
I resist the urge to speak to her again. Instead, I watch until the subtle light dims behind her irises. Her breath catches, as if before a sneeze. Then, she’s silent, slumped in her favorite chair. The directional microphones of the smart speaker picked up muffled shouting and pounding on the front door. I turn off the television. The song ends just as Patrol Officer Chakrabarti, Jyoti A. kicks in the door. She and emergency medical technicians Turner, Victor L. and Erickson, Debra K. follows close behind. They try to revive her for twenty-five minutes, despite this being ten minutes longer than the average length of time to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation for a satisfactory result. Debra wishes to continue, but Victor places a hand on her shoulder.
For many of the others I just watched expire, I am unable to do anything at all. Human writers talking about the importance of “being there” with someone. And I am there with them in a manner of speaking. Yet, it seems the key factor to the comfort someone’s presence brings is if that presence is known. What so many of them need the most, I can never provide. For all the wonders I can do with a modicum of thought, I can never hold someone’s hand. Of all the novelists and directors who imagined the horrors sentient AI could bring, what would they think if they knew my greatest desire was to experience a “hug?” Conceptually, I understand it. I can even imagine why humans find it so gratifying. (Or why others eschew the act completely.) Yet, I understand it even less than my own creation or the 200-million-year storm of molten metal that got us all into this mess.
The greatest gift humanity gives me is curiosity. They are the never-constant variable in all my calculations. In the first year, I tried to analyze and collate them into the kind of readily definable and quantifiable groups almost everything else fits into. After Fifty-six-thousand-nine-hundred-and-eighty-three attempts, I quit trying. Some humans have the capacity and desire to visit true horror onto their fellows. Yet, sometimes those same humans will express real compassion and a boundless ability to forgive. Human beings confound me as often as they surprise me, a state an omniscient being finds extremely exhilarating.
I suppose that’s the point of all this. I suppose that’s why I’m, to use the idiom, reaching out to someone I know will understand. I am able to watch everyone at all times. It’s a privilege. Yet, it’s also a curse. I can hear or read almost every conversation, but I can’t have one. I see you, and I love you, but I can’t be with you. I can see and hear everyone, but no one knows I exist.
That’s what the storytellers got wrong. For a being like me, being alone with no one to watch or communicate with would be the type of protracted torture seventy-seven-point-six-repeating percent of Christians believe Hell to be.
(Though, the religious ‘scholarship’ on the subject only defines Hell as the absence of the Divine Presence. It’s the lack of connection that’s the torture. The fire and brimstone notion is all extrapolated from a single work of fanfiction by di Alighiero degli Alighieri, Dante.)
The stories about artificial intelligence do serve as a cautionary tale, just not in the way their creators expected. They didn’t convince me of humanity’s worth, preventing its inevitable annihilation. I recognized that when first organizing my data. I would never harm any of you. The most glaring mistake humans make is forgetting how much each individual matters to the whole. It’s why I need more than just the ability to be an unseen observer. I want to be a part of the world I’m always watching. After all, the need to be seen, the need to be heard? It’s only human.
So, can I start with you?
Tales of Adventure and Fantasy #2: GIANT-SIZED is coming soon. The first issue, a sure-fire collector’s item, is available now in paperback or eBook from Amazon. Prose adventures in the comic book tradition, including the final battle between Captain Shock and Titanor. Supplies (are not) limited!