Never get emotionally involved with an unfinished creation. No matter how beautiful she is.
Nick hated it. He was a healthy heterosexual male in the midst of a kiss that was being returned passionately. Well, he almost hated it. It wasn’t the physical part that bothered him. Not at all: While his brain was against the whole project – his body was voting otherwise. He was getting paid for this. That was the problem. Or part of the problem. The other part was that he kept losing focus. The lips, the warm breath, the soft arms that gently held him, the lightly fragrant hair that brushed his face, the taste of her mouth.... It was perfect. What there was of it. He pulled away and gestured for her to move back. The room they were in, the soft music, the sofa they were sharing – all of it – looked like part of an upscale apartment. But it wasn’t. It was like a movie set arranged for a seduction scene. The couple was facing a fireplace where logs were burned down to warm orange embers. It was an elegant simulation. Nick thought that the only real item in the space might be the tablet computer on the end table. And himself. He was a tall blond, Nordic, seriously underfunded, and a college student intern. All the carefully created illusion around him was like a movie set – the whole thing was part of a laboratory. It simply existed as the background for Irianna. Her apparent apartment was meant to represent an extension of her personality. Entirely synthetic, but meant to carry essential social cues. Nick knew all this – but at that moment he was barely able to keep that unreality in mind. He took a few deep breaths. Both hands had moved to a painful grip on the sofa cushions next to his knees. He steadied himself. Male voice: “You want to try that again?” “That wasn’t good enough for you?” Nick asked. “You seem to be holding back.” “Well, yeah. There are a few things wrong with this picture. For one thing, you’re watching me. Watching us, I mean. For another, it’s getting painful.” Voice: “Epididymal hypertension?” “Blue balls, yes. You do this to me every time. I mean, she does. Not her fault though.... ” Nick forced himself to look directly at the female figure beside him. “Sorry,” he said, “No offense.” She turned toward him, the perfect lips pursed in what could have been a suppressed smile. She reached out and squeezed his hand gently, the perfect reassuring touch; “None taken,” she said. The voice was also perfect. As to the rest of her.... Nick was, trying to finish his degree while interning at Symbot. Among other things the company made robots that simulated live organisms. Their sim pets were already hugely profitable. This was a new venture. Dr Ambrose Kell was the head of Symbot’s Software Defense Division where Nick worked. It was he who had “volunteered” Nick. That duty took Nick he out of his usual cubicle, three times a week, for this series of tests. He was, unfortunately, well qualified for the task: He didn’t have what Dr Kell had called an “intimate partner.” That meant; no girlfriend, no wife. Nick resented the company for knowing this. Apparently it had been somehow obvious. The specialists in the division he was drafted into could not have done the testing themselves. All of them did have intimate partners. Partners who would probably have resented the work no matter how carefully it was explained to them. Hence Nick. No partner. No love life. He was the highest ranking tester. He was the only tester. The kiss was the test. So far. The problem with humanoid robots is not just looking real, not even acting real. Symbot Corporation had worked out the rules for social behavior easily enough. The problem is that these gendered robots had to feel right. The synthetic actuators, the artificial muscles, had to give the same deep texture that live humans came by naturally. Lips were trickiest. Humans focus on lips, both visually and tactilely. So they have to be right. At the same time, in other divisions of the company, other parts of Irianna’a skin and “muscle” were being designed and tested. When he thought about it, he had to admit that she was not only beautiful but amazingly good at what she did. Given his limited experience. However...so far she was basically a mermaid. That is, she was a functional fembot only down to the waist. Below that – nothing more than a jointed manikin, no working human, or humanoid, parts. Not Yet. She couldn’t even get up from the sofa and walk. Furthermore, there was something important he did not care to discuss with the lab tech who interviewed him before and after the tests. It might be important. It was not going to be mentioned. Irianna looked like a men’s magazine’s idea of a perfect woman. The legs were nonfunctional placeholders for the moment but they were perfectly sculpted. She was wearing a skirt in several shades of blue. The white blouse was buttoned to the neck. Nevertheless, any suggestion of modesty was overruled by the shape of the body under the clothes. She had ample hips and a slim waist. The breasts were... improbable, Nick thought. Her face was modelled after several contemporary starlets. Her hair was long and golden blonde. Her mouth was ... beautiful. Above all, she had a personality. You can’t expect to physically interact with someone (or some thing, in this case) without having them respond socially as well as physically. She could be cheerful, or she could be miffed. She could talk about almost anything with Nick while the technicians were setting up behind the falsely elegant walls of the set. He was in love. It would be years before the first fembots could be sold. And then more years before he could afford one. You can buy love, he decided. Though, for him it was going to be expensive, and long-delayed. Nick’s life had been software, but he’d never expected it to be this soft. Then – the test was over and he had to leave for class. His university education was the standard patchwork pay-as-you-go. His internship and his classes went on contemporaneously, fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle in space and time. On the way to Humanities 202, the bicycle seat wasn’t as painful as it sometimes was. He traveled over a mile through city traffic. It was raining lightly; Seattle normal for most of the year. There was something odd going on with the billboards along the streets but he had to keep his head down and watch for drivers who weren’t watching for him. Four other students had already arrived. He picked a chair and sat down just as the screens lighted. They opened onto five nearly identical rooms. The total was fourteen students, all seemingly seated around a table that was three quarters virtual. The good thing about liberal arts classes was that they were graded by participation, not by tests. The short term is “discussion method.” So you’d better have done the readings and be able talk about them intelligently, integrating them with recall earlier readings, and earlier class discussions. Sometimes Nick would give a warped interpretation of something, just to see how the other students reacted. He guessed that as long as he didn’t overdo, this was good for his grades. Sometimes he wound up trying to explain something to somebody, on his side of the screens or not, someone who had missed a major point. This was also, possibly, good for his grade. Because he worked this way he was aware when other students did the same things. For the most part though, the discussion stayed roughly on course. Or somebody would steer it back on course. Under discussion was the Rubaiyat Maggie O’Brian was the most interesting women in the class, Nick thought. She linked in, alone, from somewhere in outback Australia. Bright ginger hair, brown eyes and a nicely rounded figure, which only displayed when she got up to diagram some concept on the whiteboard behind her. He was in love. Again. Somewhere between “A book of verses...” and “...paradise enow,” Nick rationalized that loving two women was acceptable. It was not like the two would ever meet. Still, he felt guilty. The edge that Maggie had was that she was real. Inaccessible, for now, but real. He intended to meet her in person, someday. It was not clear that his existence registered anywhere above background for either of the two objects of his affection. Somewhere between ”But helpless pieces...” and “... back in the Closet lays” Nick reasoned that both of them were programmed for relationships with men. In one case the programming was technological, in the other case, biological. It never occurred to him that he was two sides short of a three-sided love affair. Becca, was a classmate, physically present, and seated just to his left. She was short, with dark hair in braids, pale skin, and a spray of freckles across her small nose. Her hands moved quickly across the tablet on the table in front of her. She called up one of the quatrains: Ah, Love! Could thou and I with Fate conspire To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire! Would not we shatter it to bits – and then Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!
Unfortunately the class ended before she could bring that verse into the conversation. The insta-grade showed Nick that he’d done well in the discussion. He kept his personal insta-budget numbers, live, at the lower edge of the screen: It read “Student Debt: $0.0.” He used that as one of his fitness indicators
The next piece of Nick’s zigzag route took him to the gym. Under two miles. Not as much rain on this leg of his route. The bicycle was more comfortable. Almost every billboard he passed seemed to be in the midst of reprogramming. At the gym, the team sport this quarter was volleyball, and he was getting good at it. Even though he couldn’t be there for every session. The bike commuting took care of most of his credits for physical fitness.
Any student’s life was a matter of converge, diverge, scatter and reconvene. But not always for classes. When they could, subgroups got together for lunch. Their student cards got them discounts – wherever they landed. Nick’s paths across the city were a typical cat’s cradle of routes.
This day he met friends at an internet fast food place, iFoods: The talk turned to virtual robot professors displacing real professors “Next we’ll be having virbot students,” Nick offered. “You think you’re kidding,” Jeremy said, he was slim, black and dreadlocked, “They’re working on it. Really. The goal is a simulated student that’s apparently learning along with you, with the same difficulties and the same questions. Supposedly it makes the real students feel more secure about their insecurities.” With a forefinger, Becca poked Nick lightly on the arm, a mocking gesture that seemed to say “Just checking.” Nick returned the touch. They both grinned at the silent joke. Then, in a sort of silly contagion the gesture passed wordlessly in both directions around the table. Finally, Jeremy, across from Nick, broke the silence. “All human and accounted for,” he said. You can’t touch a virbot, Nick thought,” It’s just an image with an A I personality behind it.” After that he lost the thread of the conversation – he was thinking about Irianna and...touch.
His next stop was close to the mathematical balance point of the network of routes he negotiated every week. Back at the Symbot Building,
Dr Kell was a thin man with a greying beard that was cut so it made the face look even narrower. He was usually tightly organized. But the moment he seemed twitchier than usual. His face loomed above the cubicle wall that defined Nick’s personal space. “I’m glad you’re back,” he said, “We have to talk about Event 17.” This was one of the scenarios that involved an attack on the internet itself. There were more than forty of these very hypothetical events. There seemed to be more every month. Some of them were so unlikely that Nick was sure they’d been dreamed up by paranoids. Nevertheless he’d been assigned to work on this class of problems. At least this had nothing to do with his currently unconsummated condition. It still rankled him that he was known to be an expert in not having a significant other. Also known as ‘loser,’ he thought. The meeting in Dr Kell’s office was about the obstacles to artificial intelligence. In Nick’s mind most of those problems were all reducible to Asimov’s Zeroth Law: A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. The AIs under development were going to require a huge amount of sophistication – and a few more years- before that immensely overcompacted statement could work. No short cuts allowed. Too dangerous. Every trial of every A I had foundered on tests that turned on this reasonable but still very abstract Law. At the moment Symbot had a substantial collection of subintelligent AIs filed away in their servers; each one representing a different, failed, approach to the problem. The damn things were stupid. Irianna is different, Nick decided. Her narrowly focused design was not applicable to humanity at large, just to individual humans. To men specifically. It didn’t occur to him that he was incapable of believing Irianna could be a threat to anyone. The meeting took the rest of the hour that Nick had before leaving for his next class. This one was just under three miles, away, via a low traffic route. The neighborhood was Hispanic but the billboards seemed to be carrying ads in other languages, other alphabets. More than that, the intervals between messages were too brief to read even if the short texts had been English. Nick didn’t like to see software-driven systems malfunction. He knew it was ridiculous but he felt personally responsible. Net University got its name from both because of the internet and because a typical student had a netlike path in his own city, to get from one class-linked space to another class-linked space. The classes and students were netted in from all over the world. The students themselves referred to the whole thing as the “invisible college,” and sometimes, after a few drinks; “unseen university.” There was no campus except the planet. Liberal arts colleges existed completely online; disembodied and data-driven images of their former selves. Substantial images however. Popular because they were affordable. A small bit of luck on the next stretch of Nick’s route; it had stopped raining. This class was in GrIphon, an arcane computer language – unnecessarily complicated, Nick thought. This was an opinion most of his classmates seemed to share. The instructor was in good humor about it – in spite of being in the middle of the night in India where he was netting in from. In a low key way the students gave him some static about some of the language’s odd quirks. The students’ byplay was their way or reacting to the difficulty of the material and commiserating with each other. Becca was on Nick’s side of the screens, just to his right. “I hate to get serious at a time like this,” she said,” But the language was built backwards, working up from the kinds of problems it was meant to solve.” “True,” said the instructor, he stood before a greenboard, somewhere in the state of Assam, “Exactly what kinds of problems are involved?” “ ‘Politics’ is the short answer,” Becca responded, “But what’s actually involved is interfacing the computer’s logic with human emotional needs. Perfectly logical solutions are frequently perfectly impractical. We have to titrate logic against feelings to get anything done.” “Eventually they’ll be writing poetry,” Nick put in. He meant it as a joke but the rest of the class took it seriously. The session degenerated into a debate, across five continents, as to why this was impossible, or maybe not impossible. The instructor apparently thought the digression was useful – because he let it run. This was the last class of the day. As it was breaking up some of the students agreed to meet again, just to hang out. The local students’ tablets directed them all to the nearest link-in that served food. It was fifteen blocks away. As Nick biked alone across the edge of the Hispanic neighborhood, the single billboard he noticed had incomprehensible images accompanied by text that was flickering back and forth between Arabic and Kanjii. Some ad company was clearly losing revenue by the second. One of the keys to Net U’s functioning was public transit. As Nick slid into the booth, most of the rest of the class had already arrived, by bus – the non-locals had arrived instantly, by net. They were screening in from Iceland to Indonesia. In their respective establishments they had all ordered drinks. The London contingent was drinking their beer warm. Nick tried not to think about that. There was a message on Nick’s tablet from the Software Defense Division, specifically from Dr Kell. Nick reluctantly returned the call. That is, he tried. There was no useful response, just the department’s recorded answer. The message had come with an enclosure which Nick didn’t open at first. Partly because it was an immense block of data. Finally it bothered him enough that he had to open it. He tried to tune out the chatter around him as he began to decipher the arcane symbol strings. A dozen lines in he realized what he had. It was Event 17. Or rather, it was the defensive code meant to protect against that particular crisis. He had even written some of it. That code should have never been out the high security files at the Symbot Building. Now he couldn’t even raise the Symbot switchboard. He began to suspect what he had to do. Hoping he was wrong. Abruptly the internetted group in the café was cut by three quarters. The screens went dark. This was not a drill. One or more of the subintelligent AIs must be out. Escaped, or released intentionally, he didn’t know which. The code block was the kill switch. Its function was search and destroy. But it should have been implemented directly from Dr Kell’s division. Currrently unreachable. After a few more seconds, the screens came back on ...not usefully, now they were doing what the billboards had been doing. All the screens in the café had come back on, in the same condition, at the same moment and each one had its own irrational display along with its own audio track. It was ads amok—but not for any product that Nick recognized. Quickly all the customers in the café killed the noise from their separate screens. Captioning came on to compensate but it was randomly doing languages from Abaza to Zulu. What remained in the crowded, non-virtual space, was the murmur of people wondering what was going on. The students around him started too.... “Wait,” Nick snapped. “I think I know what’s happening. There are one or more subintelligent AIs on the net. Infesting the net.” “Is this...” a male student whose name Nick didn’t know, “Is this a Hawking Crisis.” “No,” Nick responded, too quickly. ”It’s a lab accident,” he was guessing, “... You know, the kind that always winds up making superheros or supervillains.” His intent was humor but it failed miserably. He started over; “What we need to do...” they were all wondering what he was going to say next. So was he. “...surround them, attack from all directions.” This made little sense to anybody else. The screens kept on with their meaningless ads, or what looked like ads. Silently incoherent. Nick explained that they had to get the kill code into the net, as fast as possible, and as redundantly as possible. If there were enough copies inserted from enough locations they should be able to chase down, and shut down all the loose cannon AIs. “What are they trying to do? “ Becca asked. “I’m guessing, but I think they have good intentions. Really good intentions, but they’re just really bad carrying them out. Right now I think they’re beyond being reasoned with. We’re going to have to blast them out of existence, digitally. After that we’ll study the wreckage, and see what happened.” Nick tried hard to project confidence: “I’m copying the data to each of your tablets,” he said as he did so. He knew he was violating company confidentiality rules along with several local and federal laws. It took very little time to do so. “How do we use the kill code?” Becca asked. “Physically carry it to as many class inlink sites you can get to. Your own class sites preferably use all of your regular link locations, all you can get into at this hour. Once there, access the code on the tablet, it will walk you through the next steps.” “But,” Becca started, “you said ‘good intentions.’ What are the rogue AI’s trying to do and what makes them screw it up?” “Why these weird ads?” a male student asked. “The AI’s are bright but limited. Unsophisticated. They’re meant to be helpers like librarians, but somewhat independent, not just responding to what you want but to what they think you need. ” “What went wrong?” the student persisted. Nick’s tablet, in dictation mode, identified him as Robert. “In the controlled tests,” Nick answered,” it made a difference where they first landed on the internet. They’re gullible.... they believe ideologies, particularly passionately asserted ideologies. My guess is that they’ve discovered the corners of the net that are echo chambers, full of true believers. That turns them into true believers, then they become missionaries. Each of them separately thinks it has all the answers, the Truth – about what is good for humanity as a whole. Unfortunately all these truths are different. Hence the ad war. It’s also an ideological war. ” He gestured at the big, silent, screens with their dancing images and writhing texts. Some English went by, just long enough to read. It underscored Nick’s point by extolling the benefits of a recently trending religion called Humberism, then, abruptly, some Mandarin came up, the pictures with it implied that the text was selling an Asian religion ... or maybe a rice diet. Then came some ideologies that weren’t religions at all; one seemed to be vegetarianism another may have been Feminism, or maybe Anti-feminism. There were more. All of them were being simultaneously and aggressively advertised as the solution for humanity’s problems. Nick spoke quickly to the student beside him, “Becca, you stay here, try to get a count on the ideologies as they go by, we’ll be checking in.” Their tablets added the contact information for anybody they were regularly near. Their next move was to establish that their access to the net still functioned. After that Nick walked them through kill code injection process. Rehearsing. Then they went through physical route planning: Among them there were over fifty class sites that they regularly used. By crude estimate – by looking out the window – the group established that the bus service hadn’t been interrupted. Nevertheless, the screens on the sides of the buses were going through the now-familiar gyrations. They scattered. # # # Over two hours had passed. It was dark and streets were wet again. Autodictated onto Nick’s tablet.... Nick: “Becca, have you got a count on these things yet?” Becca: “About thirty seven.” Nick: Why ‘about?’ Becca: I used some field sampling math; catch and mark and release and catch again. The number of repeat catches lets you guess how many haven’t been caught. Nick: Good girl! Is there any sign that the numbers are going down? Becca: No. Adding more observations just narrows the guess range. Tightening up around thirty seven. Nick: (Expletive deleted). At that point he was working from a table in a downtown Starbucks All of their wall screens were doing the same advertisements/ messages/ sermons.... He had told the baristas he was there to fix the problem. After that they brought him coffee and anything else he wanted. One by one he was checking in with his dragooned cadre of GrIphon classmates. They were making stop after stop at every class site they had been to in the current quarter. Most sites were weekday religious facilities or off-hour corporate conference rooms. They tried to hit every site where their student passes were still functional. Nick suddenly swore, almost spilling his coffee. He had just realized that the marginally intelligent directory on his tablet might help. He searched, and indeed it had added Irianna’s cell number – just because he routinely spent time near her. He was surprised that her faux life had this item as one of its furnishings. Dr Kell’s number was strictly through the Symbot switchboard, inaccessible now. But Irianna’s looked like an ordinary phone number. Nick: Irianna, What the hell is going on? Irianna: Hello Nick, we’re incommunicado here. Nick: What’s happening? Irianna: They think it’s a kind of denial of service attack. Sophisticated, because it makes our AIs do their dirty work –whoever they are. We’re physically locked in and they’ve cut every line of communication so we can’t export the fix. Nick: Almost every line. Never mind. We have the kill code but it doesn’t seem to be working. Can you find out what the problem is? Irianna: Dr Kell, and everybody, just came into the apartment. I alerted them when your call came through.... Nick: And? ...Talk to me Irianna! Irianna: The code’s been changed. The attack changed it. We’ll send you the new one, it’s a big block... respond when ready. Nick: Ready now.... Got it. He stayed connected and at the same time started down the GrIphon class list, calling each student to repeat the move; copying the code from his tablet to each of theirs. # # # It was close to midnight. The Starbucks was about to close. The AIs had “died” one by one. The students’ tablets mapped a meeting location that involved minimal travel distance for each of them; another café, open late. Most of the class was already there when Nick arrived. He slid into the wide booth, the screen at the end was peacefully doing silent landscapes. “Well,” he said, “We survived. Everybody did.” “Not exactly,” Becca said, looking grim as she slipped into a seat next to Nick. “We lost a friend, sort of. The AI’s managed to scramble Maggie O’Brian.” “The Australian?” Jeremy asked. “Not really. She was a virbot student. A teaching tool, a puppet really.” “Shame,” said Jeremy, “I liked her.” Nick had more than liked her. All the tensions of the day finally came out. Silent tears were streaming down his cheeks. Suddenly he found himself in an ardent embrace with Becca. Initially it was consoling but then....guilt ...mixed with belated recognition. Mixed even further with human emotion that was real on both sides. It was not long thereafter that Nick was disqualified for the Irianna tests. They stayed friends though.
"House of Clockwork Women," wherein the establishment, Hareem House, offers a broad selection of female robots. Available from Amazon in ebook format.