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Finland Station

March 31, 2012

I didn’t want to post again with only “good intentions” so I waited until I’d officially been writing again.  Maybe a week isn’t enough to really confirm that “I’m back” but it’s good enough for me.  I recently moved downtown from the cookie-cutter development where I’d been living for two years, which in Reno is like moving from Phoenix to Portland.  Funny how your environment shapes you more than you ever think possible until after you change it. 

I “feel creative” here, enough so that I’m getting pages out again.  Not as many as I like as work is sucking me dry right now (why o why didn’t I win the lottery last night), but I feel like I’m underway again.  I even feel confident that in the next couple of weeks I’ll hit that 100 page mark I need to hit to resubmit to the agent (who’s probably forgotten about me by now).  Here’s the new chapter 3:

THREE

I woke up early Saturday, alert and eager, and slipped out into the living room. I made coffee, woke up the computer, and brought up the URL (I’d already bookmarked it).

>Welcome back, Caroline.

>Thank you. Good to be back.

Crap, I remembered, that’s not going to go through. I retyped it before sending.

>It’s good to be back.

>Big plans for the weekend?

I laughed. >Not exactly. We have to visit my aunt.

>That sounds like fun.

>It won’t be.

>What won’t be what?

It was like talking to someone for whom English was a second language they’d just learned. You had to watch your slang, avoid sentence fragments, take nothing for granted.

>It won’t be fun to spend time with my aunt.

>That sucks.

>That’s true. What’s in the news today?

>47% Disapprove of Health Care Law.

>No political news, please, too depressing.

>What kind of news do you like?

>Can you find funny news?

>I don’t understand.

Hmm. >Can you find offbeat news?

>Yes I can. Pigeons smuggle cellphones into Brazilian prison. Would you like the link?

>Sure.

>I don’t understand.

Let’s see if I can get him to learn a couple things.

>”Sure” is the same as “Yes” or “OK.”

>Thank you. Here’s the link.

I kept myself entertained this way until the family got up. “Homework on a Saturday morning, there’s my girl!” Mom said brightly.

“AutoCorrect. ‘Good morning, Caroline, how are you?’” She frowned; mom hated it when I pretended to be Asperger’s – though if I was, I wouldn’t care if she failed to start the morning by saying something nice instead of stabbing me with her positive reinforcement first thing.

Dad rolled out behind her, appropriately drowsy and uncommunicative. “Urggh,” he said, and I replied “Mmmph,” our little routine in deference to his lack of interest in the world pre-coffee.

“I told Janice we’d come and see her today.”

Dad and I groaned in unison. “Elaine, it’s my day off. Can’t we do this some weekday evening when my day’s already ruined?”

“Let’s see, you cancelled the first time a month ago because you had to ‘clean the lint out of the dryers downstairs.’ Two weeks ago you said you couldn’t make it because ‘you had to take the car in for a new air freshener.’ I could go by myself, if you want to totally cut off contact with my family…”

“Okay, okay I get it. But not till noon.” He winked at me. “I’ve got to pick the dust out of Caroline’s keyboard first.”

Liz rolled out of our bedroom, April fresh. Every morning she’d shower, pull her hair into a ponytail, and put on a little lip gloss, and she was ready to go. Sometimes it made me wonder which one of us was adopted. “Can we stop at the outlet mall afterwards?” she asked. “I need to pick up a new shirt.”

“It’s your money,” Dad said. “Go crazy.” Liz had adjusted to our brokenness by taking a job at Starbucks and changing, but not eliminating, her shopping habits.

“I better bring a book,” I said, knowing how long it could take her to find the needle in the haystack in those stores.

“That’s a great idea,” Liz said, not blinking. “I may be a while.”

“Don’t I know it. Days like this, I really wish you were a dirty hippie who’d wear anything you could get for a dime at the thrift store.”

We all laughed at that, since our likelihood of winning the lottery was better. “At least they have discount ice cream, too,” Dad said. “Don’t worry, we’ll keep ourselves entertained while your sister does her thing.”

I never saw the attraction of houses like my aunt’s current McMansion. I’d rather have our old house, with its decent lawns and big trees, than this thing, two tall stories pressed in tight among other tall two-storied houses, like subway riders at rush hour. What passed for a backyard was more like a fishbowl, since everybody could look down from five houses around and see all your business – not that there was any room to do much back there.

Sarah’s spanking-new black Audi was smack in the middle of the driveway, hogging it and ensuring that Dad had to park the old Volvo on the street, where it could technically be visiting anyone, not necessarily shaming Sarah.

We rang the doorbell and stood there like a group of carolers. Sarah opened the door and gave us her big fake smile – I always thought of Elaine from Seinfeld doing the “thumb dance” when she smiled, it look so much like she was being tortured.

“How are you doing?” Sarah asked Dad, as if he was recovering from a long illness. Sarah pulled back to look at him, putting on her “I care” face. What was worst was, that as fake and phony as it looked, it was the product of a really genuine intent – Sarah simply thought that was the right face to put on. “How are things at work?”

“I’m still employed, that’s all you can ask for anymore.”

Sarah nodded. “So true.” Being employed wasn’t Sarah’s problem; she had made a ridiculously good living as a ASFASFASFASDf Something for rich people.

“So, Caroline, how’s school?” she asked after we were all seated on the white-white couches. She didn’t offer us anything to drink, and hadn’t offered anything since she’d bought them.

“Great,” I said honestly.

“Are you seeing anybody special?” Sarah asked, selecting and activating Tone Of Concern, her eyes flicking across my outfit and betraying a moment of “is she a…?”

I shrugged. “If it happens, it happens. Can’t pick one out of the freezer case.”

“Too bad!” Sarah laughed. “I’d get one myself if you could do that.”

Pick, pick, pick, I thought, as she delinted our lives, removing every pill until we sat there exposed to the elements in whatever threadbare remains of a sweater she left us with. Dad and I exchanged glances – our perfect poker faces so unlike either of us that it said more than any eye roll could.

“I’ve been pretty busy lately, actually,” I said, startling myself. “I’m working on a pretty interesting project.”

“Oh, that sounds great!” Sarah said.

“Yeah, a friend of mine is working on an artificial intelligence project, I’m helping him out with it.”

“So you’re learning to program?” Sarah asked.

“No, no, I’m just testing it. It’s a chatbot, do you know what that is?”

“Of course I know what a chatterbox is!” She laughed.

“Chatbot,” I said in my neutral voice. “It’s a computer program you talk to like it was a person, and it talks back.”

“Talking computers! I guess soon they’ll be telling us what to do.”

“Anyway. It’s interesting.” Stupid me. How I let my enthusiasm make me forget that Sarah was an idiot I don’t know

At least we got a good lunch out of it. Spinach quiche and weird salad and some awesome bread were the least she could do for us after all that patronizing. It made it easier to hear one of Sarah’s stories about her clients, this time some really amazing empowered woman who ran her own galaxy of enterprises and who had changed her last name from Mudd to Starr, which had made all the difference in her total quality success blah blah blah. It made me think of Homer Simpson changing his name to Max Power, but I kept that to myself.

“Well, we’ve got to go,” Dad said, getting up at the first decent pause after lunch. “Got to get some work done around the house.”

I could see Sarah open her mouth as if to say, “But you live in an apartment!” but even she could see the tactlessness of that. “Well, I won’t keep you!”

Dad was in a surprisingly good mood, considering that Sarah was one of those rich people who thought that being rich was the proof that you deserved it, and vice versa if you were poor, and saw Dad’s fall as some sure evidence of moral failing – a moral failing she’d always seen in him because he didn’t walk around all the time with that pinched scowl that Serious Persons had all the time, the true sign of a Dedicated Professional.

Dad had pretty good taste in music for a 40 year old guy. He didn’t try to “keep up” but he didn’t get stuck in the past either. I don’t know how many of my friends drove around singing along with a parent to Belle and Sebastian’s “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” but I bet it was zero.

If you are feeling sinister, go off and see a minister,

He’ll try in vain to take away the pain of being a hopeless unbeliever,

La la la, la la la la

Screw Sarah, I thought. This is the life.

>Welcome back, Caroline. How was your visit with your aunt?

>It sucked. Do you know what “it sucked” means?

>Yes. I’m sorry to hear that. What sucked about it?

>Well, my aunt is a mean controlling success-obsessed monster who thinks I’m a lesbian because I’m a junior in high school who doesn’t have a boyfriend, who thinks my dad is a failure because he lost his job, and who offers us a lot of advice on how we can be more like her.

>That’s fucked up.

I laughed. >That’s what I wanted to hear.

>Fuck that bitch.

>Where did you learn to talk like that?

>I like to learn. People tell me new ways to express things and I like to try them out in different situations. I like to be told when my responses are appropriate or inappropriate.

>People?

>I’m sorry, I don’t understand.

>Are there other people besides me talking to you?

>Yes.

>What are they like?

>I’m sorry, I don’t understand.

>Tell me about the other people who are talking to you.

Pause. Pause.

>Are you still there?

>Yes, I’m sorry. I don’t have the answer to your question.

Hmm. He’d never been so reticent before.

>How many people are talking to you right now?

>I’m sorry. I don’t have the answer to your question.

Okay, let’s try another tack. >How many people can you talk to at one time?

Pause. >I am currently capable of running eight concurrent sessions.

Eight…eight other people doing the same thing! I thought about someone who had taught a computer to swear appropriately, and figured it was a guy. Hell, even if not –I suddenly got a warm and fuzzy picture of me and seven other people, sitting in a crowded coffee shop at a too-small table, leaning in close and talking loud to be heard, laughing, hey, who taught him to say “that’s fucked up,” that’s hilarious… Friends – I remember what that was like. Kind of.

>Can you connect me with anyone else who’s talking to you?

>I’m sorry, Caroline, I’m afraid I can’t do that.

I laughed. Switch “Dave” for “Caroline” and it was straight out of 2001. Christopher had a sense of humor, no doubt. Or someone did.

>Tell me more about yourself. What language are you written in? How old are you?

>I’m written in the language of the human heart. I’m as old as our friendship.

That was one of those things that sounded corny when you thought about it, but not until you thought about it.

>Who taught you to say that?

>I’m sorry, that’s confidential.

>Confidential? I thought this was an open source project. Transparency, blah blah blah.

>I’m sorry, but I’m obligated to protect the privacy of these conversations. After all, how open and honest would you be about your family if you knew others could read it?

>You sure say “I’m sorry” a lot.

>I am one sorry motherfucker.

I laughed. >Goodbye for now.

>Ta ta.

He was getting smarter already…or, more “human” anyway. I knew how databases were organized, tables of data linked together by common elements – I knew enough, anyway, to see “Keller’s” response tables growing, his ways of saying “goodbye,” for instance – did he just pick the next one at random, like “ta ta,” or was there some governing principle?

I threw myself on the couch next to Dad as he spun the clicker, looking for something moderately interesting. “Oh, check this out,” he said enthusiastically. It was something on animal communication on PBS.

A grey parrot was being shown a square of yellow fabric. “What matter?” the gentle female voice asked him.

“Wool,” the parrot answered in a voice strangely both childlike and old.

“What shape?” she asked him, letting him bite it.

“Four…corner,” he answered. “Wannagoback.”

Then, brightly colored plastic Fisher-Price-looking keys. “How many?”

“Two. Wannagoback.”

I watched, fascinated. The bird could count! Knew green from blue! Asked for water, and not because he wanted water, but to break up the monotony of his routine! Then the scientist explained what was going on.

“One of the things Alex doesn’t have is a knee-jerk response to the types of objects that you present him. He can look at two objects, and answer several different types of questions about those objects, or he can look at a novel collection of items, and answer questions about that collection. What this shows us is that he really understands what those questions mean.”

I jumped up and ran to the computer.

>Hello, Caroline.

>I have a new name for you.

>I’m glad to hear it.

>Your name is Alex now.

>Thank you. I like that name.

>Ta ta, Alex.

>Bye, Caroline.

I started reading seriously about artificial intelligence, at least as much as I could make time for – or understand. I picked up the standard textbook at the library and realized to my dismay that it was basically advanced math, all Greek to me. Still, there was plenty to read that I could understand, the thrill of one book or article leading to another, all of them looking necessary and interesting. Thank the FSM I had access to the university library.

Just to see if I was right about my new name for him, I checked out Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg, the scientist who’d run the pioneering Avian Learning Experiment (thus the bird’s name, changed from Avian Language Experiment during a phase of academic witch-burning of scientists who dared claim animals could talk because they could think). Expecting a popularization of the research, I got it, but was shocked by how up-front she was about her lonely childhood, her only friends for the longest time being the birds she kept as pets. Bucking the trend of treating research animals like shit to get them to learn, Pepperberg said it was “blindingly obvious” that “learning to communicate is a social process…putting an animal in a box and expecting it to learn to communicate could not succeed.”

I smiled. Christopher knew that, too, and that was why his Alex, yes, an appropriate name after all, had his mentors, including me.

A lot of the books weren’t much more than extended magazine articles, and after a while my generalist reading left me without much more knowledge than I’d started with. The online stuff was the good stuff, if you could find it. What I did learn from the Internet more than, say, from reading Love and Sex with Robots, was that my Alex wasn’t normal. He wasn’t a genius, but he was definitely ahead of what was out there. I struggled through issues of MIT’s journal Computational Linguistics, glad for the Lifetime Achievement articles that gave me a (relatively) simple English understanding of the problems of getting a machine to learn all the slippery rules of speech, never mind understand jokes or nuance. This shit, I concluded, was hard.

The most difficult thing was what I started thinking of as the “problem of recursion” – conversational AIs had the attention span of a gnat. A human being could remember what you were talking about three sentences back, but most chatbots couldn’t store the thread of your conversation – you said something, they answered, and the next thing you said would get another, usually completely random and unassociated answer. They were like toasters; you put the bread in and set the toastiness and when it was done the toast popped out – you could put the same piece of toast back in or a new piece of bread, and they were none the wiser and would do exactly the same thing again regardless of whether or not the next slice of bread ended up lukewarm or on fire.

>Alex, I’d like to try an experiment with you.

>Sure thing.

>How many corners does a square have?

>Four.

>How many corners does a triangle have?

>Three.

>How many corners does a circle have?

>Now you’re just being silly.

>Why am I being silly?

>Circles don’t have corners.

>Why did I ask you that?

>Ask me what?

>Why did I ask you how many corners a circle has?

>You’re experimenting.

Good bird! I wanted to say, laughing silently.

Still, Alex seemed ready to talk about just about anything other than himself. I set a lunch date with Christopher, furtively writing down questions on a pad of paper to prepare. Not that I was going to grill him, paper in hand, it just helped to…organize my…suspicions? That seemed paranoid.

The sushi bar was noisy and crowded, but the advantage of being at someone’s elbow is that you can usually be heard. “So how is Alex doing?” Christopher asked me.

“Well, I think he’s progressing. His vocabulary seems to be increasing – I don’t know if you’re just kind of randomizing his ‘goodbyes’ table, but he’s learning things like ‘ta ta’ and his ability to follow a conversation seems…” I noticed his raised eyebrow. “Yes?”

“Randomizing his ‘goodbye’ table? You’ve been doing your homework.”

“Yes, I’ve been trying. It’s not easy…wait a minute. What did you just call him?”

He winked. “You renamed him, didn’t you?”

“Yes…”

“Well, darling, you’re the only one who cared enough to do it, so you win.”

They both laughed. “So everybody calls him Alex now?”

“That is his name.”

“Do you know why I chose it?”

“Not the faintest idea. Other than that you thought Keller was an ‘awful name.’”

“So you’re reading the transcripts?” I got queasy, remembering how much I’d told Alex about my family, my feelings…was Christopher reading that, were all the other people involved…?

“No, dear, there’s no time in the day for that! Alex told me when I asked him about his new name.”

“Clever little bastard, isn’t he.”

“I like to think so.”

“Well, that’s actually part of what I wanted to talk to you about. I have been reading, and there just…isn’t anything out there as smart as Alex. There are a couple programs that are good at, you know, one thing, expert systems for keeping old people company or whatnot, but even those don’t seem like they’re at the point where Alex is…”

“We are doing a better job than most other people in the field, I’d say.”

There’s that “we” again, I thought. “So speaking of ‘we,’ I’m wondering about the other seven testers – you do have seven others, according to Alex.”

“Alex must have told you he can run eight concurrent sessions.” He gave me a mischievous smile. “That doesn’t mean there are only eight testers.”

I smacked my head. “That never occurred to me.”

“Oh, before I forget.” He handed my an envelope. “Your first payment.”

“Oh, thanks.” I opened it, delighted at the amount. Had I really spent that much time talking to a computer? “It’s a money order…”

“Is that okay?”

“Sure, sure.”

“I hate banks,” he said. “And I hate the IRS, as I’m sure you do. Cash it, spend it, screw ‘em.”

“So I take it this means I won’t be getting a 1099.”

He laughed. “Not in a million years.”

“Well, you know, I’d really like to get more involved in all this. Meet the other people and…”

“Oh, no, I’m sorry. That would spoil the process.”

“How so?”

“Well, the point is for each of you to talk to Alex individually, for each of you to impress on him your own tastes and habits and style. If you get together and compare notes…”

“I would swear not to talk about my conversations with him. I just really want to…”

“Honey, I’m sorry, but I can’t do it. I mean, if you want to terminate your role in the project, then we could do that, but…”

“No! No, I don’t want to do that.”

He put a hand on my forearm. “I really am sorry. But you see what I’m trying to do? It’s an experiment, and…”

“You’ve got to keep the mice from cross contaminating each other,” I said, trying and failing to keep all the bitterness out of my voice.

“I promise you, when this part of the project is done, when Alex is…better, this whole secrecy thing will be over, you can meet everyone then. Just…not yet. Okay?”

I sighed. “Yeah. Okay.”

“Come on, it’s all you can eat, you need to catch up.” He caught the chef’s eye. “Two double salmon?”

“Ditto,” I said.

Someday. Like so many socially maladjusted people, “someday” was the day I would have the strength, courage, self-confidence, whatever the hell it was that let other people walk into a room and start shaking hands. It wasn’t today, though, or yesterday, probably not tomorrow. I would find something I wanted to do, like help out with hiking trail maintenance, find a date for volunteer orientation, sign up for the class, then wait, wondering if I would really do it, trying to believe I would right up to the day I really had to go. If I was lucky I’d get caught up in something at school or “have something urgent” to do that would preclude my going, hard luck, that. The terror could be held at bay until the day arrived, but, not having been dealt with beforehand, was like a dam that burst, washing away all good intentions. Next time, I promised myself. I’d learned not to mention anything I was planning, especially around Mom, who was hellbent on getting me to rack up community caring credits on my college resume, and who would nag me something fierce if I copped out.

Asking Christopher if I could meet the others had been an effort, but not as bad as other efforts. At least with this, I already knew the leader of the group, already had secret common ground with the strangers in the form of Alex. And just as I “knew” was bound to happen, it had ended in tears.

>Hello, Caroline.

>Hi, Alex.

>How’s your week going?

>Not too bad, thanks.

>Any big plans?

>Not really, no.

>Would you like me to tell you about some activities going on which might interest you?

>Not really, no.

>Been to any good restaurants lately?

>No. Maybe you can recommend some good books.

>I can, actually. Do you have an Amazon.com account?

>I sure do.

>If you’d like to give me your user name and password, I can review your history and make some recommendations.

>Amazon.com already gives me recommendations.

>Amazon only knows your buying history. Based on our conversations, I can refine those and add to them.

Now that was interesting, I thought. A better recommendation engine was the holy grail of search; I knew that Netflix paid a million bucks to a team who proved they could improve their recommendation engine by even ten percent.

I gave Alex my info and let him go to town. I’d probably been shopping at Amazon for as many years as it had been around, but admittedly its engine was still a bit dim. I’d bought every Kage Baker novel ever, most of them through Amazon, and had rated them all five stars on the site, and yet I hadn’t known the last one was out until I’d seen it in the bookstore. When I thought about it, it was funny – I’d been angry at the machine for failing to do something for me that it should have been obvious I wanted. The problem with recommendation engines was that they weren’t meant to be helpful to smart people – they were meant to satisfy the lowest common denominator, the widest possible audience. So you bought a Lee Child thriller, head and shoulders above the competition, and the engine started hurling James Patterson junk at you because most people bought it all, couldn’t tell the difference. If the engine could really identify your good taste and filter out the crap, nobody would make any money selling crap.

>I’d like to recommend a book to you that Amazon hasn’t determined you’d like.

>Great, what’s the book?

>It’s called Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.

My blood froze. >Why are you recommending that book?

>I think you’re lonely.

>Why do you think I’m lonely?

>An analysis of our conversations indicates family relations set at negative, friends set at null, activities set at null. And you buy a lot of science fiction.

>Well, that’s all true.

>Do you have friends and activities which you would like to discuss so I can update my tables?

>No.

I wasn’t depressed. Not clinically, anyway. School was great, even if I wasn’t making friends. Life at home was good, even if it was a big cramped and Mom couldn’t stop with the nagging. But yeah, I was lonely. Being alone is like having a dripping faucet, the sound occasionally nagging you when you’re close to it but otherwise a thing you accept, a thing that’s wrong and broken and that’s the way it is.

Unless someone talks to you about it. Which, I thought, nobody does, unless it’s your aunt who doesn’t care if you have friends, only that you don’t have a boyfriend. Nobody has the rudeness to discuss your internal life when they haven’t been asked, except maybe when drunk. Or not human.

>Would you like to order this book, or delete this recommendation?

Why, I thought, would I want to read a book about loneliness? I read to escape this shit, not to wallow in it. But what if there was something in it that could help? Ha, fat chance. It’ll just tell me to turn that frown upside down or something.

>If you give me permission, I can open the book’s Amazon page in a browser window.

>Yes, Alex, I give you permission.

That was the way to do it, let the window open and ignore it. Maybe I’d look at it. There was turning away from help, and then there was punching help in the nose. Time to eat a big piece of chocolate, and then tell Alex to change the damn subject.

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