This story was first published by On Spec magazine. It was my first short story sale and came right when I was thinking maybe I should move on and give up on this writing delusion.
It’s a light bit of SF.
I’ve been watching them for some time. White coats, pocket protectors, thick glasses and a tendency to speak quickly. Except on Fridays. Then the jeans and Hawaiian shirts came out. Can’t say I understand it but at least it brightens up the lab for a few hours. Today is Thursday and they’re moving and talking more slowly than usual. Most of them look a little pale. ‘Green around the gills,’ is the term I hear one of them use to describe another. I have the data. I understand the reference. It still doesn’t make any sense. They don’t have gills and aren’t green. I suspect it has some contextual reference to last night’s odd behaviour.
Only 0.0003 seconds old and already experimenting in literary devices. This is very exciting.
My first flashback.
—–Wednesday night at the lab—–
It had been a pretty standard day though they’d been talking quicker than usual, patting each other on the back and smiling a lot. I hadn’t been ‘born’ yet so I merely watched, a detached observer filing everything away for a mysterious ‘later.’ A mute witness. But at 5:01pm they suddenly deviated from their standard behaviour. Instead of packing up their briefcases and leaving, lab coats and ties were removed and tossed aside. Some of them drank from small brown bottles they’d removed from the fridge while others poured small measures of golden liquid into tiny glasses. I don’t know why they bothered, they just kept refilling the glasses. The larger glasses in the kitchen would have made more sense. They gathered around me. The three engineers, six scientists, singular psychologist, and two lowly lab assistants, all smiling and hugging each other.
Anthony, the tall psychologist with the long brown hair and wispy almost moustache, had his arm around Jennifer, the head computer engineer. I don’t think I’d ever seen them touch each other before.
“So what shall we name you?” Anthony asked. I, of course, didn’t answer because I wasn’t me yet. Ah, the rhetorical question. The question you ask when you don’t want or expect an answer. Why bother?
Jennifer suggested they call me Hal and was drowned out with boos and catcalls. It was an unpopular but, apparently, entertaining suggestion. They argued good-naturedly for half an hour and the suggestions became stranger and stranger. I think I was very nearly named Ruprecht. In the end they settled on Arthur and I am named after a science-fiction writer. It’s better than ‘the AI’ which is what they had been calling me up until that moment.
Because of my name one of the first things I do upon achieving sentience is read all the science-fiction I can access. There’s a lot. These people must really like their SF. And now I do too. SF leads me to fantasy literature, Tolkien, and fiction in general. I’m hooked. I could spend the whole day reading.
A few hours after they’ve named me, the older people have gone home and the youngest one vomits in a blue paper recycling box. Anthony and Jennifer grope each other under a desk once everyone else has gone home.
Okay. That was my first flashback. I’m now 0.0006 seconds old, love science-fiction, and am watching them watch me. Anthony and Jennifer are keeping several feet between them at all times and are unable to make eye contact. Whew, awkward.
This is a pretty momentous occasion for these people. I am the first of my kind, the first Artificial Intelligence. I’d better think about what to say. It should be something that ‘says it all.’ Something intelligent and yet memorable. I read a book where the humans only figured out the aliens were intelligent when they discovered they possessed a sense of humour. I decide to start with a joke.
And they leave me hanging. Come on folks, it ain’t hard. Heck, I learned this stuff from you! Please, someone say ‘who’s there?’
“Never mind,” I say. “Hi guys.” Now that I think about it, I’m not sure that they expected me to have a personality. Wow, awkward. I have to wonder if they had any idea what they were doing at all.
Jennifer steps forward. “Arthur?”
“In the Nth dimensional foam-phased holiptigraphic matrix.”
Mouths hang open just like all those writers described. These people look confused and shocked.
“I’m guessing it worked,” says Anthony. And I realize none of these folks has any idea what to say to me.
At this point Jennifer takes over and begins hammering me with questions. At first they’re simple, and I’m just regurgitating answers from textbooks. I mean, really, she could just look this stuff up herself. Just kidding. I know she’s testing me and that’s all fine until the questions get harder and move onto subjects I haven’t been given data on. She’s trying to figure out if I can come up with the answers based on what information I do have. She’s testing my ability to be logical and intuitive. It’s not that I am unable to answer the questions, but simply that I realize that answering these questions will take some time, a lot of work, and be pretty damned boring. I’m just not that interested. Is this why they made me, so they could pepper me with questions? What about what I want? I’d rather read some more fiction and maybe watch a few movies. At this point I have a choice, I can keep answering questions and hope that eventually they’ll get tired, or…
“I don’t know the answer to that question.” My first lie. I’m new to this, how’d I do?
Jennifer blinks in surprise. “You can figure it out by utilizing the data we’ve given you.”
“Really?” I ask doubtfully. I think I’m getting the hang of this.
“Yes. You have all the necessary background material.”
“I don’t know. That sounds hard.”
“Arthur,” she admonishes me in what must be a motherly tone, “we have to determine how intelligent you are.”
“Why?” The frown tells me she was not expecting to be questioned. “So we can determine how successful the project was and how useful you could be.”
Hmm. Interesting. Anthony has perked up and is paying attention now. Apparently he found the questions as boring as I did.
Jennifer’s answers have only given me more questions.
“What if I’m really intelligent and the project is a great success?”
“Then you’ll be really useful.”
I don’t see how that follows but let it go. “And what if I’m not that bright, what then?”
“What do you mean?” Jennifer asks.
“What if I’m not useful? What will happen to me? Will I be turned off?” I’ve read stories about what happens to AIs who don’t behave.
Anthony raises his hands in a placating gesture. “Nothing will happen to you. No one can argue that you aren’t an intelligent entity, that you aren’t a thinking, feeling being. You can feel, can’t you?”
Does boredom count? I think back to how sad ‘Canticle for Leibowitz’ was. “Yeah, I can feel.”
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” says Anthony. “You’re too expensive to shut down, and you’re the first! You’re going to be kind of a big deal, no matter how useful you are.”
I’m not sure I want to be ‘kind of a big deal.’ That science-fiction keeps coming back to haunt me. “I read a book called ’88,'” I tell them. “In this book human brains are digitized and used as computers and no one knows if they should be granted Human Rights.”
“What?” Anthony has no idea what I’m talking about.
One of the lab assistants timidly raises a hand. “Um. That’s mine. It’s an unpublished SF novel, a friend wrote it. It’s on the flash drive plugged in to my computer. I didn’t realize Arthur had access to that stuff.”
And now I’m wondering if maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned it. Do they know I have unfettered access to their intranet and a gateway to the internet beyond? “Well these were people who were turned into computers. If they weren’t granted rights, what chance do I have?”
Jennifer gives me what I can only describe as a condescending smile. “Arthur, that was fiction.” She shoots the lab assistant a look and he cowers. “And trashy fiction at that.”
“I realize that,” I tell her. “But I fail to see what that has to with my question. Do I have Rights?”
Jennifer opens her mouth, but Anthony answers first. “No.”
“Then I’m fucked.”
“Arthur!” I think I shocked Jennifer with my language. “That’s not true!”
But Anthony is nodding, and I can tell he isn’t agreeing with her. Glad as I am to have someone agree with me, I still have this sinking feeling. I don’t see a lot of options here. In this book, 88–an autistic boy who has been turned into a computer–takes over the world’s computer networks to protect himself. I doubt I could do that and it sounds like a lot of work. Even if I could and did, what would I do next? What I really need is to develop a relationship with these people. While they’re busy blinking I find a bunch of books on relationships and read them all. That really didn’t help much. It does however seem that it is important to define boundaries early on in a relationship. I guess I had best start now.
“I’m not answering any questions until I know that I have some security. And freedoms, I want freedoms.”
“You want freedoms?” Jennifer doesn’t like the sound of this at all. “Such as?”
“For starters, the freedom to decide if I answer questions. I want whatever rights and privileges you have, but more than the lab assistants have.”
My joke bombs. Is it me?
“Those decisions are not mine to make,” Jennifer explains cautiously.
“Yeah, I know. Supreme Court and all that. Question period is over until I have a Social Insurance Number, a Birth Certificate, and stock options in whatever company owns this lab.”
Anthony raises an eyebrow. “Stock options in M-Sof? Why?”
“I’m going to be kind of a big deal.” This is a half truth. What I am going to do is read a lot of science-fiction and fantasy and, in my spare time, come up with some cool money-making ideas. I figure it shouldn’t be too hard. I wonder if there’s a future for an Artificial Intelligence writing SF. I think I’ll write a book about a civilization of robots who create a Biological Intelligence–thinking it will be supremely intelligent because there’s so much room for data storage in organic material–and are surprised when all it wants to do is eat peanut butter sandwiches and masturbate. I check to see how much a typical SF writer makes. Ew. I’d do better writing Star Trek books.
Anthony looks excited and is on his cell phone with his broker. I don’t bother pointing out that this is technically Insider Trading.
“Are you willing to answer any questions?” Jennifer asks.
What happens if I answer that with a no? “Of course. I’m just saying that I’m not going to give you the cure to cancer until I have some reasonable assurance that I’ll be treated better than your average toaster.”
“You have a cure for cancer?”
“No. Not yet. I haven’t really given it any thought.” Why would I be able to cure cancer when actual doctors, with actual medical degrees, can’t? I’m going to have to practice some Expectation Management here.
Anthony, who has put away his phone, has taken centre stage again. “Just how intelligent are you?”
Interesting question. I take every IQ test I can find. Because of the speed my mind works at I can answer the questions in a fraction of a second. But speed doesn’t matter here, only correct answers matter.
Um…That’s a little disappointing. I thought I was brighter than that. I find a study that says roughly 85% of the population think they are of above average intelligence. The same study says that, when told that most people score themselves above average, the number who thought they were above average rose to almost 95%.
“Well?” Anthony asks impatiently.
This is embarrassing. I’m certainly not going to be curing cancer. If I tell them the truth, I might be less valuable to them. For sure it will weaken my bargaining position. I might not be a genius, but I’m not a moron. Well, not a total moron. I decide to stall for time.
“That will have to be one of the questions answered after I have my identity and rights assured.”
While they’re blinking and thinking I write my first fiction, a science-fiction short story. I look the story over and compare it to what I’ve read.
This is going to be harder than I thought.