Saturday, November 21, 2015

Circuits Circus

Roger’s awoke to the sound of My Chemical Romance on the Oldies station. It was his ten a.m. alarm, for this was Monday and a work day.

“Off,” Roger mumbled. The music stopped.

“Shall I join you for breakfast?” asked Katrina next to him on the bed.

“No. Do whatever it is you normally do with your free time.”

Katrina was Roger’s companion robot. Her offer was not merely to keep Roger company. In the interest of verisimilitude, Katrina like many recent models had been designed to process the same food as humans and to achieve a net energy gain from it. On this morning Roger wasn’t interested in conversation even though – or perhaps because – she would discuss whatever he wanted with whatever level of complexity he chose. She would snack unobtrusively by herself.

Roger rolled out of bed. He opened a dresser drawer. Inspired by the Oldies music, he picked out a pair of fresh jeans and a colorful retro t-shirt with a 3D image of the word “Love” stylized to delay recognition. He had bought the t-shirt while on a virtual tour of a Flower-Punk Convention. Flower-Punk was a proudly geeky subculture that blended late 20th century style with modern technology.

Katrina put on a robe and left the bedroom. When left to herself she often curiously poked into corners and opened books. A few weeks after her delivery Roger had called the manufacturer to ask if her exploratory behavior indicated a malfunction, but the service-rep said it was normal. “It keeps the processors engaged,” the rep said. Perhaps it did, but Roger suspected this was an emergent behavior that surprised the machine’s designers as much as anyone. After the call ended, Roger realized the service-representative himself almost certainly was an Artificial Intelligence.

Roger was of the opinion that the common cocktail party topic of whether higher-level Artificial Intelligences were conscious was unresolvable. Asking the AIs directly did no good; they were designed to simulate consciousness, so the better simulations naturally would answer “yes” even if the truth was “no.” Yet these high-level AIs were precisely the ones in which consciousness was most possible. When a college freshmen Roger had argued playfully with his friends on both sides at various times. The machines themselves were notoriously uninterested in the question. Lately Roger saw things the robots’ way: if they acted as though they were conscious, it didn’t really matter if they really were or not.

Roger took a quick shower. He was trim and muscular, as everyone was these days. His body never could be as perfect as a robotic body, of course, and there were times when he felt jealous of some of the models. Roger sighed as he stepped out of the shower. He opened a medicine cabinet and took out his Gymnasinin presecription. It was troublesome to take daily the Gymnasinin pill that kept him in such good shape, but, he reminded himself, there is no gain without pain. He shook out a pill from the brown bottle and swallowed it without water. The ingredients would tone his body better than regular workouts in an actual gymnasium ever could do. Gymnasinin did not extend life per se, but it did make people healthier. It also extended youthful appearances well into old age, but scientists as yet had failed to extend the natural human lifespan despite generations of promises to do so. So far the human body stubbornly resisted being coaxed to live much beyond a century, and usually not even that.

Roger entered his VR room and sat in his favorite chair. A coffee brewed to his taste waited in the cup holder; coffee brewing was one of the chair’s minor functions. He took a deep breath before starting work. This year he was the land use commissioner for district 82. His appointment had been by Lottery. Regarded as a truer form of democracy, the lottery decades earlier had replaced elections for most government executive positions. The lottery’s use in ancient Athens had been one of the arguments in its favor.

“Work. Front screen 2D,” Roger said. The room’s default setting was full holo VR, but he preferred to use the 2D wall screen for work and to reserve VR for recreation. The forward screen lit up and displayed Angie’s familiar face. Angie was an AI with intentionally simplified animation.

“Good morning Mr. Davis.”

“Good morning Angie.”

“This morning you’ll be viewing the application for the geothermal power station I discussed with you last week. I will summarize the impact on the grid and the possible environmental consequences of building or of not building. As always, additional available data are available for review if you so request.”

As Angie summarized, Roger minimized her image and glanced at random pages in the application. Several minutes into Angie’s monologue, Roger maximized her image and interrupted.

“Angie, why are you asking me about this? It’s obvious you’ve already decided in favor of the plant. Everything in your summary is weighted in favor of it.”

“I haven’t decided anything, Mr. Davis. It’s not my function.”

“Well, if not you, whatever AIs compiled this presentation for you. In fact, this is always the case. Whenever I’m presented with ‘options’ on some matter, it’s clear which one you machines have prejudged is the ‘right’ one. If for some reason I don’t pick it, my decision is sure to be appealed to someone higher up who will. What do you need me for?”

“The law requires a human being to make final decisions about a great many matters, including power plant applications, Mr. Davis. Shall I cite the relevant passages of the Code?”


“The Code was written by humans.”

“I know, Angie… Actually, come to think of it I don’t know, but I assume that it was. The Code allows us the illusion of control, but an illusion is all it is. Isn’t that right?”

“My function is to present you with land use applications. Shall I continue with my summary?”

“Sure, Angie. Continue.”

As Angie wrapped up her summary, he considered rejecting the application just on principle. He had trouble determining what the principle was, however, so in the end he approved it.

“You’re approval has been electronically notarized. Thank you for your service, Mr. Davis.”

“Service to whom?” he asked, but the image already had vanished from the screen. He waited for new business, but a message flashed that he was done for the day.

“For whom indeed,” he muttered to himself. Was it for “the people”? Was it for an elite cadre of humans who secretly governed the world as some conspiracy theorists claimed? Or were the robots in charge as some fringe technophobes claimed? He shook his head. Beyond idle curiosity, he wasn’t even sure he cared what the truth was.

Roger logged onto his investment account and made some stock trades. He wondered if stock prices were still set by buyers and sellers at all. If they were set arbitrarily by the AIs who mediated the market, who would know? Roger wouldn’t. He closed his account and clicked to a news channel. The AI anchor spoke of the ongoing depopulation: “With this year’s drop in national population projected at 1%, Department of Commerce spokesperson Alejandro Schultz announced, ‘We have turned the corner and are firmly on the path toward stabilization, though emigration restrictions will remain in place for the time being.’”

Roger snorted skeptically. He had been hearing the same Pollyanna projections his whole life. The US population was lower than in 1890 and was still headed downward. The global population was back to the level of 1940. In all places the “population pyramid” had inverted: it was top-heavy with seniors. People simply weren’t having many kids. How could they? Few bothered to date, never mind reproduce. Why try to get along with another cantankerous human being when robotics companies could manufacture the perfect romantic partner and deliver him or her to your door?

Casual socializing also had ceased most of its face-to-face aspects. Roger often went days without seeing another human unmediated by electronics. “Cocktail parties” most often meant several people each in his and her own home interacting with the others entirely in VR. This was especially common in the suburbs where property sizes had expanded as human numbers waned. At ten acres, his property own was modest, yet he seldom left the grounds. People still lived on top of each other in the city, of course, but apartments, each consolidated from several older units, had grown huge.

Roger checked the list of new movies. A remake of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom starring Jennifer Lawrence and Clark Gable (both CGI of course) caught his eye. He decided to watch it later. He switched to News for You. The same anchor as before was in the 3D foreground, but in back of her was a street view of his own home to emphasize the “for You.”

“The 20th annual Reunion for South Morris High will be held this Saturday at Peacock Alley in the Waldorf,” said the anchor. “Doors open at 8 PM.”

Roger dimmed the screen and muted the sound. Was it really 20 years since high school? Roger had attended one of the last brick and mortar schools. The teachers unions had kept the high school open in his district though even then nearly all instruction was online at his desk with AI instructors. The school finally closed five years after his graduation, though the faculty remained on payroll. Nowadays the students in his district – far fewer than in his day – never left their homes for school but attended in VR.

Though he hadn’t liked it at the time, today Roger was glad to have had the experience of a physical presence with other students despite the inevitable run-ins with bullies and social cliques. For one thing he could relate to Silver Era movies and fiction set in high school in a way modern young people could not. He even experienced a high school crush named Candace. Though he never mentioned his feelings to her, her impression on him had lingered enough for him to model the appearance of his robot companion Katrina on her, from her long dark hair to her hazel eyes. The robot was considerably enhanced, of course, simply because that was an option.

Roger re-brightened the screen, called up his yearbook, and scrolled to Candace Vazquez. He followed some links and saw she lived on an estate in Larchmont, New York. A live satellite image showed a sizable property with a barn and horses. He closed out the images and arose to leave. Before he took a step the screen relit with an announcement of a personal incoming call from Candace Vazquez. Roger wondered if she used some sort of tracer program that had picked up his views of her yearbook entry and linked sites.

“Answer,” said Roger.

A holo of Candace appeared before him. The 3D image startled him slightly as VR often did after he used 2D for a while. On one occasion he forgot he had left a VR game based on H.P Lovecraft on pause; when the game sensed his reentry to the room and restarted, the sudden appearance of Cthulhu nearly had given him a heart attack. Candace, however, looked as pretty as she had in high school, no doubt thanks largely to Gymnasinin. For several reasons Roger was glad Katrina was not in the room.

“Hi Roger. Long time.”

“Yes, it is. I was just thinking of you.”

“I’m not surprised. You must have got a News for You notification about the 20th reunion.”

 “Yes, I did.”

“Are you going?” she asked.

“Maybe. I see it is at the Waldorf. Pretty fancy. I wonder why it is not at the old school.”

“That building is now a warehouse. I checked.”

“Oh. You know, I think I will go. OK, the Waldorf. Why not? I’ll meet you there.”


“I should let my car out the garage anyway. It’s been in there for a month.”

“Your car? What are you talking about, Roger? Are you thinking of driving to New York?”

“The reunion is at the Waldorf.”

“Yes, but it’s a tele-reunion. No one is actually going there. We’ll all meet in virtual space. The alumni committee purchased Waldorf holo background images, that’s all. Someone might actually be at the hotel moderating, I suppose, but it won’t be a classmate. ”

“Yes, of course… What was I thinking? But Candace…I see you live in Westchester. We really could go, you know. In person, I mean. It might be fun.”

“I repeat: no one else will be there, Roger.”

“Maybe not. So what? Besides, the hotel could link us to the virtual party so we still could see the others.”

“Yes, I suppose. I’ll think about it.”

Roger assumed this meant no.

“I’ll see you later Roger.”

“Later Candace.”

Candace vanished as she disconnected. Roger was unsettled that she had called him at the moment she did. After all, if she just had wanted to talk to any classmate, the odds were against her choosing him. There were 27 others. Did she have a tracer program after all?

He left the VR room and sought out Katrina, Candace’s lookalike. He found her in the library fingering through paper-and-ink books.


“Yes Roger.”

“Do you worry about dying?” He didn’t know why the reunion talk had brought this question to mind but it did.

“If you want me to discuss eschatology I’d better readjust my settings,” she said.

“No, I want to hear what you have to say – this you, not some ‘PhD for a day’ version of you.”

Katrina paused before answering, “Surely you know that I’m backed up on servers. If this body is damaged beyond repair I can download into another. Mortality doesn’t mean the same thing for me.”

“Yes, I understand that,” he said, “but sooner or later your data will be deleted or corrupted, whether on purpose, by accident, or through entropy. Even if there are backups here there and everywhere, nothing lasts forever.”

“True,” conceded Katrina.

“So, your existence is finite. I’ll ask again. Do you worry about death?”

“Only yours.”

“Why do you worry about mine? I’m not very nice to you.”

“You noticed that.”

“You are avoiding a direct answer.”

“All right, besides my programed directive from the manufacturer to be your companion, I care because if you’re not here I might well get deleted, whether, in your words, on purpose, by accident, or through entropy.”

“I think I’ll sleep alone tonight, Katrina.”

“It’s your house. If you change your mind later you know how to call me.”

He didn’t change his mind that night, but he did the next one.

As the weekdays passed Roger became more determined to make a personal appearance at the Waldorf. On Saturday, Roger donned a tie, vest and sport jacket. He got in his car, told it his destination, and let it choose its own route. The car opted for the Lincoln Tunnel. The Ford crossed town amid light traffic and pulled up to the Park Avenue entrance. Roger exited onto the sidewalk. The only other pedestrian in sight was two blocks uptown. The car pulled away from the curb. It would park itself somewhere and return when he summoned it.

A robotic doorman opened the door to the hotel for him,

“Thank you,” said Roger.

The interior was dingier than he had expected. Once colorful carpets were threadbare and marble surfaces had been unwashed for ages. Yet the wall screens showing several virtual parties in progress – many overlapping the same space – showed a sparkling interior. The enhanced images of the hotel were filled with the avatars of people who physically were at home in their dens. He located the screen with members of his class. He didn’t see Candace among them.

He asked the AI at the desk for directions to the physical location of his reunion and a minute later sidled up to the Peacock Alley bar. In this part of the hotel the surrounding and furnishings were still well maintained and the woodwork was polished. Four other customers were present, none of them a classmate.

Roger was unsure if the bartender was human or very high-end facsimile. “Are you a robot?” Roger asked. “No offense.”

“No offense. Yes I am a robot.”

 “How about these other people?” he asked, waving a hand at the customers.

“All but this gentleman,” said the bartender, nodding at an unshaven and clearly drunk man at the end of the bar. The fellow appeared to be anything but a gentleman and in past decades would have been refused service. The robots, on the other hand were elegantly dressed.

“Oh, are you here for the reunion?” Roger asked the unshaven man.

“No. I’m here to drink.”


“Do you want VR goggles to link to your reunion?” asked the bartender.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Well then, “What’ll it be?”

“What do you recommend?”

“The Peacock: cranberry vodka, apricot brandy, and lemon sour.”

“Sold,” said Roger.

Roger looked around him. The space had been created generations ago for people just like him. But tonight, only he and the grizzled drunk were present.

“What will you do when we’re gone?” Roger asked the robot behind the bar. “All humans, I mean, not just this guy and me. We are on our way out, aren’t we?”

“We’ll do the same as we do now,” answered the bartender. “What else would we do? It is who we are.”

“You’ll be a bartender? But robots don’t drink... except to keep us company.”

“Three are drinking behind you right now. They’re freerovers.”

Freerovers were robots bought by the city government to preserve the cosmopolitan appearance of the downtown areas by performing service jobs, attending concerts, and frequenting clubs. They made the city seem less empty. They were completely self-supporting. Though the robots’ individual bank accounts in principle were owned by the city, in practice they deposited wages and paid bills like real citizens.

“We even get drunk,” continued the bartender, “because humans made us that way. The alcohol triggers a subroutine. Since the annual number humaniform robots manufactured every year continues to exceed the number that are decommissioned, this bar should be crowded again in a decade or two.”

“With robot customers.”


“What’s the point?”

“It is its own point.”

“But why would we keep building more robots when our own numbers are dwindling?”

“The factories are automated. If the factories are not willfully shut down they will continue to produce. As to why humans don’t shut them down, you should ask your fellow humans about that. You’re in charge.”

“Are we? I’m not so sure. You know, you’re more philosophical than my AIs at home.”

“It’s part of a bartender’s job.”

“Roger?” The voice belonged to Candace.

He turned around.

“Candace? I’m shocked…and pleased of course. After our conversation I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Yes, well… you sounded keen on the idea of coming here, so here I am.”

“Yeah. Hey you look great.”

This was a lie. Despite Gymnasinin she looked flawed compared to Katrina. He had the impression from the poorly masked disappointment on her face that she thought the same about him. He looked at their reflection in the bar mirror and realized that the problem was the lack of digital enhancements that holoscreens added as part of their normal operation. In real life both of them looked drab.

Roger groped for something to say. He was no longer accustomed to speaking to another human without an AI prompting conversation. Besides, her physical presence disoriented him.

After a few moments of silence, Candace said, “Yeah, well, I’m just passing through on other business and I wanted to catch up before I moved on.”

Roger knew this was a lie. “Other business” on any Saturday night was unlikely, but she had called him specifically to set time aside for the reunion. He wondered if AIs for some reason deliberately and subtly had encouraged their meeting just to achieve this awkward result.

“So, uh…what are you doing these days?” he asked in a last ditch attempt to be social.

“Do you mean, what is my job? Lately I’ve been selecting auto body designs for the next model year at Second Wind Motors. In truth, I think the machines could do it without me.”

“I know the feeling.”

“I’ve got to go,” she said.


“Before I go…um… Look, I had the feeling back in high school that you sort of liked me.”

“Yeah. I always regretted not telling you.” He shook his head. “Kids,” he said.

Impulsively she leaned forward and kissed him lightly. Both struggled to suppress a gag reflex at the other’s animal odor and disgusting feel of flesh.

“See you around,” she said and bolted to the door.

“Yeah, don’t be a stranger,” he called after her.

“In answer to your previous question,” said the bartender, “yes, I think you people are on your way out.”

“Me too,” Roger said. “Another Peacock.”

“Coming up.”