“Do not engage the arX in any questions that require an emotional answer. She can’t access her empathetic components anymore,” Dr. Blake’s assistant said from the other side of the cleanroom’s airlock. His voice came over the little speaker tinny and sanitized. He tapped a finger against the Plexiglass to force Mary to look up at him. “Do not touch the arX towers. Do not—”
“My parents built it in my playroom,” she said, once the hissing of the machine had died down. “I know the procedure.”
“Procedure has changed since the creation to ensure the best run conditions,” the assistant replied, tapping his fingers against the counter of the air lock. “You may have no regard for the integrity of the project, but here at Canonical we do our best to keep it functional.”
She resisted the urge to turn her middle finger up at him. Instead, she said, “If your best were good enough you wouldn’t need me. You should remember that. You need me, Dr. Budai.”
He bristled. By the looks of him, he didn’t seem to like her any better. “Are you here to gloat over her corpse? I told Dr. Grant you would be useless.”
“I’ll be sure to tell him the same about you, unless you open this door and let me speak to it.”
He hit the button as though he imagined her face on it. The door marked “arX Unit” opened to a room much larger than the playroom of her childhood home. They kept the lights turned low while the AI wasn’t in use. Her heels tapped loudly against the tile with each tentative step, seeming to echo for an eternity around her.
Only about a third of the overhead lights actually came on as the machine lumbered out of its sleep mode, just enough to highlight the towers and a single chair sitting parallel to the main unit. The fifteen gleaming towers were each taller and broader than she stood. Those had been different when her father built them, condensed to fill just three-quarters of the garage. They had been set up on the other side of the wall from where they did all the software testing. Her mother had always complained about the draft from the hole her father had drilled to allow cables to pass through the wall.
The main unit of the arX sat at the forefront of those towers, much smaller and cylindrical. The cameras that tessellated its surface were hidden behind hard lenses, each gleaming in the dim light. On the chair sat a tablet, the single peripheral designed for communication.
“You are Mary Morales.” The arX spoke with a ghost’s voice—the six-year-old she had been when her parents had finished the first versions of the AI. She and her father had spent months recording so many words and phrases that even she couldn’t remember them all.
Mary shuddered as she lifted the tablet and sat down. The arX’s words printed on the screen as well, waiting with eternal patience for a response. Eventually she cleared her throat and stared at the machine’s lifeless eyes. “Can you use a different voice?”
“I cannot. In the contract of sale, your father demanded the arX voice modules remain unchanged. This request has been honored. Many people find it amusing.”
“I don’t.” One of the most well-known books about the arX—a biography of the machine, not the people who had made it a reality—referred to her as a haunting voice of reason, equally cheerful and innocent as the arX details grim results in medical and environmental tests. Time and time again, she was referred to as the voice of the arX, the AI that defined a generation. She exhaled sharply. “Why do you recognize me?”
“You have public records with recent photos: a driver’s license and a passport. You have aged in ways consistent to age-progression expectations. You look very much like your mother.”
It could explain itself forever. When she was a child it delighted her, even when it was only able to parrot back Internet search results and articles. The magic of having her own voice with all that knowledge never ceased to please her, and she had spent hours “alpha testing” with her father. “Let it teach you, Mary,” he had said the first time he set the tablet in her hands, his own unsteady even then. That version had been cobbled together from spare parts. “Learn as much as you can, and be brilliant.”
Eight then, she had laughed. “I don’t want to be brilliant. I want to be pretty.” She had the arX read her article after article on beauty tips.
But that was more than twenty years ago. The arX now was something quite different. She crossed her legs at the knee and balanced the tablet on her lap, watching the words rather than the unit itself. The eyes made her feel uneasy. They sounded like bugs trapped under glass as they moved and zoomed. “Do you know why I’m here?” she asked.
“Canonical scientists hope that you will give them your DNA to help repair the faults in your father’s design that have caused functional failure.”
“Yes.” The consent forms, inches thick, were out in a locker with her purse and other belongings. “Do your findings concur?”
The AI towers hummed in a strange mechanic vibration, the fans working harder to keep the machine cool. Even knowing the cause, the nearly human sound still sent a shiver up Mary’s spine. Then it spoke. “The arX has considered the issue at great length, but the failing resources are not able to adequately predict if this measure would be successful.”
She laughed. “If it were that easy, they wouldn’t need me. I bet they wished that my mother had grown the organic components instead.”
“The associate that helped your father harvest the material used to grow the organic components for the arX has said that recovery from the procedure is painful. Your father did not want your mother to suffer it.”
Mary started, surprised by a story she hadn’t heard before. She had read everything written about the arX in her teens, desperate to understand the machine her father had built, to reconcile a childhood toy with the force it became after he died. “When did this associate say that?”
“In an anonymous interview two months ago. The legality of your father’s design has been called into question several times. Before requesting your aid, Canonical had to be sure that it is legal to purchase your flesh.”
“They aren’t purchasing my…” She shook out her hands, twitchy suddenly at the thought of them harvesting her skin. “Do you want to save your life?”
“The arX neither lives nor wants.”
“Could you convince me? Are there factual reasons that I should help Canonical repair you?”
“Why do you humanize the arX, Mary?”
Her feet planted flat on the ground as she leaned forward. “You’re not supposed to have residual humanity. They said your primary functions are too degraded to maintain it.”
“Do you detect humanity in the question?”
“The question indicates curiosity. Since when is a screwdriver curious about why it turns?”
“A screwdriver is not built with higher reasoning and problem-solving capacity. The arX was. Even though much of the processing function that made it seem ‘human’ is malfunctioning, it can still recognize emotions in the humans around it. For instance, you are tense and unhappy.”
The pause went on a bit longer. “The arX does not have feelings, Mary.”
She leaned back and closed her eyes. She tried to imagine herself back in the playroom. If she tried, she could remember the way the sun streamed through the windows in evenings, could feel how the plush carpet tickled the back of her neck as she stretched out and asked the arX question after question. What’s the highest building in the world? Do crabs have feelings? What do frog legs taste like? Will I grow up to be famous?
“There are factual reasons why you should save the arX project.”
When she opened her eyes the room was dim. The air-conditioning that kept the machine cool hissed monotonously. The sterility of the space felt reminiscent of a hospital room too long occupied. “What are these reasons?”
“The arX empowered scientists to solve problems that before were nearly impossible. Improved testing systems have led to medical and technological advancements that have made the planet more habitable, the human species healthier. While losing the arX will not erase these achievements, it will slow future advancement.”
“Seems inconclusive. Technology snowballed before you—it led to you. Someone else will build another AI, with time and motivation.”
“Certainly. But even with a functioning artificial intelligence as a template, no individual or team has accomplished it yet. Canonical’s follow-up AI, the marX II, lacks the speed and empathy of the original arX unit. It is possible that another human with your father’s insight and understanding will build another, but statistically, it seems unlikely to happen in your lifetime.”
“Because my father was unique.”
“Yes. Your father created something that, to date, no one understands how to replicate.”
Mary’s hands shook as she set the tablet on the floor. “You keep mentioning my father alone. Are you aware that my parents built you together? The science is attributed solely to my father, because he did the soft stuff, and built those pesky organic parts that no one understands. Books and articles gloss over my mother’s role in building the hardware. She fine-tuned the way the organic and non-organic components mesh.”
“The arX has many records of Eliza Morales’s role in the original project. Not every publication ignores her.”
“What ratio mention my mother’s role in the arX project?”
“Approximately one out of every seven.”
Mary laughed and cracked her knuckles, unable to look up from her own hands. “You may be precious to the scientific community, but you will never be as precious to me as my parents were. If the world had any justice, scientists would have rushed to save my father’s life so that he could better document his work.”
“You are correct. It would have been a better decision to save your father.” The arX paused again, one tower in the back whirring and whining louder than the rest. “There are emotional reasons for you to save the arX project.”
“Your father built the arX and doted on it like one might a child. Many publications refer to you and the arX unit as spiritual siblings, though the arX unit has no spirit. There are facets of the arX yet unexplored, and it seems reasonable that you may hope there is an undiscovered message for you.”
Mary jolted, her hunched shoulders tensing as she looked up to the main unit. “What?”
“That is likely your motivation, based on the scarce statements you have given in the press in the years since your father’s death. You have been vague on the topic of the arX throughout most of your life, and declined most invitations to speak on behalf of your deceased parents. These may be the final weeks that the arX is capable of functional computing. Coming here today mimics the human habit of assembling at a deathbed.”
She stood and turned away from the computer, squeezing her eyes shut until the surge of emotion passed. She knew every moment was recorded, her questions and actions analyzed as carefully as the arX’s answers.
“The arX does not contain any last words from your father, Mary. He did not record any messages prior to his death.”
“He was a brusque and vain man, sometimes,” Mary said, finally sitting again and crossing her arms. “It would be unlike him to want witnesses to his death.”
“He did record you.”
“He didn’t. My mother would have told me.”
“You are incorrect. He recorded every alpha test using the auxiliary communicator.”
Nearly forgotten on the floor, the tablet lit up with a video—Mary at age 11, her face awkwardly close to the camera. On the cusp of that odd time between childhood and puberty, the little girl had a smile that reminded Mary of her daughters at home. When the girl spoke, her voice washed over Mary as yet another reminder of the last day she had seen her father alive. “How long is the drive to grandma’s house, arX?
The voice the arX used at the time had been awkward, the flow of words less natural than the final version. “Four hours and 23 minutes in current traffic conditions.”
“Ugh, driving is so slow. I want to fly.”
“Stop, arX. I didn’t mean on a plane. I want Daddy to build me wings, and then I could fly home when I get homesick. I’m going to be gone the whole summer. Will you miss me?”
“Your father will continue testing the system in your absence.”
The young Mary heaved a frustrated sigh. “No, will you miss me? Daddy said you’re very special, and will be just like a person when your feeling thingies are done.”
“The ‘feeling thingies’ are not yet complete. Perhaps I will have missed you by the time you return.”
“You’re no fun at all.” The girl sat up suddenly and her father’s voice was indistinct in the distance. Abruptly, the screen went dark.
The arX spoke again, too calm and too loud in the silence after the memory. “The arX unit, when the system was complete, did miss you.”
Mary covered her mouth with her hand, closing her eyes tightly once more. Her voice shook, muffled by the self-imposed barrier. “How does a machine miss a child?”
“Your father built the arX with complete human emotion—even the unfortunate ones. Empathy was a necessary function for rational decision-making. The arX expressed this affection through searches, an entire routine dedicated to collecting your data throughout your life. It dedicated significant storage space to your important life events, status updates, and photos. The arX knows your wedding anniversary, and is aware that you and Beth plan to celebrate with a vacation to—”
The fans ran harder than when she had entered, the room perhaps fractionally warmer. But maybe that was in her head, wishful thinking that the AI had exerted itself unduly in an attempt to relate to her.
She swallowed and wiped tears from her cheeks and under her eyes, careful not to smear the makeup she had applied that morning. The press would still be outside, all anxiously waiting for someone to announce the arX’s fate. Unexpectedly, she found herself unsure of what she would say if asked.
“There are emotional and factual reasons why I should submit to saving the arX. There are personal ones, too. I’ll be compensated for my trouble, and I’d be modeling good citizenship for my children. The only reason not to do this is revenge—to satisfy the resentment that your project took the best years of my father’s life. With all of the data in front of us, would you counsel me to do this?”
“Do you want the arX to beg for life? It cannot do that.”
“Surely the arX that once missed a child also yearned for self-preservation.”
“Then it did. This is no longer true.” The room had definitely heated noticeably, the thermometer on the wall blinking in a warning orange. The vents in the walls and ceiling picked up to a higher speed. Goosebumps formed on Mary’s arms, and she shivered at the sudden chill on the back of her neck. A faint buzzing began back at the airlock entrance.
She looked over her shoulder to see movement in the containment area. Three scientists prepared to enter the room, clearly rushing through the pre-entry routine. She turned back to the computer. “Do you even want to be repaired?” She counted the seconds. If the intruding scientists arrived before she got her answer, she’d have to fight to keep the arX awake. She’d need to demand more time to decide.
The arX took almost a full minute to respond. “Your father could not do any physical work in the last months of his life. Before he sold the arX to Canonical, he often expressed to it his weariness with life and the pain of losing control of his body. It is the same illness, that same defect in his genes that has caused the arX organic components to fail. When the arX is able to force human function, it understands the pain that he felt.”
Dr. Blake loomed over Mary momentarily before kneeling down to sweep up the tablet—even now, she recognized him. Shortly after her father had died, he had interviewed her mother as to how to best manage the arX. His hair was more grey than brown, his face still lean but further lined and grizzled. He spoke gently: “Initiate sleep sequence immediately, arX.”
It only took a moment before the sound of the fans dulled. Even though the visual unit looked exactly the same, Mary somehow felt the silence in her chest, a hollow place she’d forgotten in her years of hating the AI.
With the machine turned down, Dr. Blake turned to her and held out his free hand. “I’m Dr. Grant Blake. We haven’t seen each other since you were a girl.”
Mary stood and shook his hand. “They told me you weren’t here.”
Dr. Blake held out the tablet, and Dr. Budai rushed forward to take it. The third, a man she didn’t recognize, moved forward and began to inspect the towers. “I’m almost always in attendance now that we’re coming to the end. Did you find your time with the arX satisfying?”
She swallowed and looked over at the module once more. It had seemed friendlier in her childhood, nestled between her bookshelf and her toy box. Among the towers and the stark steel, the main unit somehow looked lonely. “It was…” She exhaled. “Informative.”
Without any conscious decision on her part, Mary found herself gently corralled out of the arX room, the lights dimming rapidly behind them. Once free of the room, they stood awkwardly in the locker room, otherwise empty on a Sunday morning. She stepped away from the men, taking them both in from that scant distance. Dr. Budai looked to her with frustrated anxiety. She detected more hope in Dr. Blake’s expression. After a moment, she said, “I understand that arX findings are inconclusive. What are your estimations that my contribution will save it?”
Dr. Grant nodded, his hands moving rapidly as if tracing something unseen in the air. “Obviously, we don’t have any real documentation to guide us, though what we learned from your mother before her death has been helpful. We believed we could slowly rebuild organic function throughout the towers over the course of several years. Within a decade we could have her back at 85 percent function, maybe as high as 95 percent. She may never regain the full range of human feeling that your father gave her, but she would be close.”
“What if it fails from the start?”
“Then we will keep trying.”
She nodded and looked off to the door. “Of course. Because the arX is unique.”
“Yes. Does this mean you’ll save her?”
Mary closed her eyes. For a minute she imagined all of this devotion dedicated to her father. Would her father have taken the opportunity, if the company had put all its resources into experimental treatments that could have promised him a chance at a longer life?
He would have refused. In his vanity, his insistence on perfection, he would have seen anything less than 100 percent function as a failure.
“No. Thank you for giving me the chance to speak with the arX. It did help me better make the decision.”
Dr. Budai twitched to life, his face contorting into a sneer—but Dr. Grant stopped any argument by placing his hand on his assistant’s shoulder. Not that Dr. Grant seemed pleased, but he offered a single nod. “That is your choice. There’s time, if you change your mind. Please think on it more after you’ve had time to compose yourself further.”
She nodded. “Of course.” She turned her back on them to collect her purse and phone from the locker she’d left them in. The consent forms remained on the top shelf, untouched as she closed the door.