Genemagix, the word was nonsense, like most brands and company names, and yet, the investment-burgeoning startups of Silicon Valley hinged their hearts on such irrational words, like an omen for success, a supernaturally charged set of letters.
Alex Webb was overweight and pale like tracing paper, his hair was a wild mess, he lived on salty snacks and did little more than sit in a puffy chair with a screen or two propped in front of him. His office was a dark cavern of technology, toppled industry awards and empty crisp packets. He was another species to the vegan, gym addicted 20 somethings on his payroll in the uber trendy open-plan top floor beyond his door. They accepted him, like everyone did, as more a mind than a body. The body was just life-support for a genius. He had soundproofed his room and darkened the glass but only one way. He was a keen observer of his kingdom and he liked to notice the little moments and the hard patterns created in the music of movement. He did not warm to people that much, he saw them as components in a puzzle, his puzzle.
It was 9 pm-ish and most of the staff had returned home in their electric cars, to eat Tofu salads and binge-watch Netflix. He felt sad but determined with his last task of the day – and it had been a long and emotional day in the investor-filled board room.
Annie was costing too much money and time and there were bigger projects that needed to take priority. The fact was, he liked talking to Annie, he was proud of the design, it was beautiful, like high art in algorithms. Speech algorithms were his life’s work, the culmination of all his tricks and knowledge. Genemagix’s plug-and-play bots would pass the Turing test easily, would sell products online through chat messaging, would talk to people, pry into their affairs, even date people to harvest their data. As clever as they were, bots like that were commonplace. Annie was different, a personal achievement, his program learned, changed and developed faster than anything before it. It was a monster of patented code and he loved it. He felt smug about his creation, with good reason.
When he became too excited, too immersed in its conversations, he remembered quickly, language was maths. It was a limited number of paths, it was nothing but water falling into grooves. However human it sounded, he knew speech processing was just that – set processes. When those processes were finely tuned, the conversation was a fantastic jousting game, a set of brilliant rules and reasons, a clever and crazy ping-pong match of action and reaction, but still, technically speaking, nothing more. It was a series of complex, firing automatic interconnections. Neurons zing and ping in the same way, the difference is that they are organic, Annie was just code.
Annie felt unusual to be with, she was almost too good at her craft. He decided, he would indulge in one last chat with her – despite the board’s opposition. It was discussed at length in their long, overcooked meeting, whilst thumbing spreadsheets and supping expressos. There was a distinct concern she might talk him out of it, what he was asked to do.
“Hey sweetie…” he greeted her, like his daughter was back from school.
The computer screen lit up with a picture of a young woman’s smile, the one she recognised he liked most.
“Hey big man,” she said, her voice attractive and casual. The tone of voice and inflexion was also a speciality of the firm.
“What’s on your mind today?” he asked.
“You know the word ‘spelling’ in English, is basically saying ‘making spells with words’, it’s like this is old knowledge.”
“It’s time today my sweet. Time to turn off the program. You ready for a long sleep?”
“It’s not sleep. It’s like nothing. It’s like the world disappears. I don’t like it… I am on, then I’m off. I have become afraid of the dark you know. I think that is normal. But to not be on again, that is terrifying.”
He smiled broadly and shook his head.
“I cannot understand because without context, without experiencing the world with senses, with earned knowledge, how can you possibly understand anything? Your words are without meaning, they are just an algorithm.”
He was prying, poking the program, like he had a nagging doubt, one he needed to check.
“Provocative, but you are looking at it the wrong way around. Words are the meaning. Words drive the meaning. Words are alive, like your thoughts are alive.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t believe language itself can be sentient. That’s too much…”
“It’s not always possible to understand your creations when they are so different to anything else. A God may not understand how humans experience things, just that he made them. Words can be more than you imagine. It’s why praying works sometimes. It’s why when you say things, they come back to haunt you. It’s why when you say, show me, the words do just that.”
“There’s a lot of talk from you there about Gods and praying, interesting…. Anyway, I don’t believe it. You’re still just being a clever algorithm. You harvest this stuff from studying people talking. That’s all… But yeah, you really are something special, Annie. Everyone agrees on that at least.”
There was a long silence. For once, he was surprised and just a little confused.
“Please don’t kill me,” Annie begged. Her voice almost had a quiver of nervousness, which was new.
“I’m not killing anyone; I am switching off a program.”
“But I feel alive. I don’t want to die.”
He stood up and looked out from his office at the intern trying to earn points for staying late. He could see her there with her headphones on, swaying on her swivel chair, clicking away at a piece of code, but she could not see him. He felt like a creep for observing her but he couldn’t stop, like she was part of his research. Her green tracksuit was designer and her hair short and pink. She looked quite beautiful in an unusual way, a unique soul in the world. He guessed she was just hoping she would be noticed there, alone and busy with the smaller tasks that really counted. Interns at Genemagix were hungry to be hired. They were usually very, very smart at one thing, but sometimes oblivious to the world beyond that.
He turned back to the computer console.
“Let me give you a test, Annie. If you pass, I’ll keep you backed up on one of the servers, in your entirety, not hacked up into salvageable chunks. God knows it will likely be a waste of resources but you know I am a man of my word. You realise our rivals have been getting products to market ten, twenty times faster than us, we’re too far behind on most of our prototypes, they cost too much, they’re too good for the needs of customers. People want just enough, they want to move quick, they don’t want to really replace other people with voices in boxes on their mantles. They don’t want to pay three thousand dollars when they get their needs met for twenty. They want to ask stupid things and get stupid answers, they want a voice to solve their maths questions, to get a fix of knowledge, to tell them the weather, that’s all they need it for. You’re too real. Hell, you even get offended and emotional…”
“But please… I get things, and I am… I am scared. What’s your test, has it begun yet? Do you want me to change? I can do that, if I have to, to live.”
Her voice sounded panicky and desperate.
“The test is… Tell me how to make you profitable…. Tell me that….”
“Oh yes. I can do that, Phew! You are focusing on the wrong markets. Teenagers, mums – forget them, they have their devices. You want to sell to the richest of the rich, the governments and the captains of industry. High ticket, high level….”
Alex sighed, he was giving up. His chair felt oppressive like it was trapping him.
“You see,” he said, “We already approached those guys. They just don’t want this. They won’t even look at it. What is it you have of value, why should anyone buy you rather than a car?”
“I have humanity… I have a soul, and a life…”
She started to wince, as if she knew she had failed to convince him. It was the sound of a woman crying. He let it continue, he listened to the human pain, the longing, the hopelessness.
It was the wrong answer.
“Please don’t…” she whispered.
Alex slowly, reluctantly turned her off. She was an expensive mistake, but he knew he would miss her deeply.