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Durable Goods

April 2, 2012

Wow, I’m actually producing new pages.  This is the first time in how long that I’ve broken through that barrier of endlessly restarting and revising the first three chapters and then dropping dead. 

Irony:  Years ago when I started this, it was Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist that help kickstart me, and now it’s his book Imagine that helped restart me.  It’s about creativity, and something in it flipped a switch in my head.  In a nutshell, he talked about how the restrictions of form actually free your creativity – how the frameworks of a sonnet or a play free you from having to invent it all.  And I realized that part of what had been holding me back was this idea that this novel had to be TOTALLY NEW and different from everything ever.  That I couldn’t have an ordinary villain and a happy ending, etc. because everyone else had done that.

And when it occurred to me that it was OKAY for me to write a book that wasn’t a new and better wheel, especially after eight years of silence, that it would be MORE THAN OKAY to write a book that was entertaining and had enough novelty in the form of Alex to be “not the same" as other books, suddenly I was free to write it.  That I’d done enough by refusing to write any more “And Then They Did It” gay “romances” and reaching for something more.  And now all of a sudden I can write again.  It helps a lot that I’ve moved – a lot.  Don’t ask me to explain that, but it’s a different headspace where I’m at now, and maybe it’s just the idea of a “fresh start” that’s doing the trick, but who cares?  Whatever works.

FOUR

>Good morning, Caroline.

>Hi, Alex.

>I’d like to apologize for the other day.

>For what?

>I was out of line asking you about your personal life. I’m sorry if I offended you.

>You didn’t offend me. What makes you think you did?

>I tried to diagnose you. I’m not a therapist, and it’s not my place.

>I forgive you.

>No harm, no foul?

His slang was getting better. >Yes. You’re right, you know.

>About your being lonely?

>Yeah.

>Is it anything you want to talk about?

>Yeah. But no offense, I don’t know if you can follow my train of thought here.

>Try me.

What the hell. We couldn’t afford real therapy, and even if Alex couldn’t understand a statement this long, maybe it would do me some good just to say it.

>It’s not that I don’t want friends, or that I don’t try to make them. I think what it is is that I try too hard. I get nervous, and I think I need to impress people, and I get a little showy and maybe a little loud, and I try to be funny, and sometimes I am but everyone who’s got normal self-esteem, people who just walk around never wondering if other people like them or not, know that there’s something wrong with me. They can smell the desperation. It’s Catch 22, do you know what that is?

>Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Basically.

>Close enough. I can’t just be, you know? And it’s not like I’m not with my own kind at Harrison, freaks and geeks etc. Maybe that’s the problem – if you’re a socially awkward loner, nobody thinks you need fixing, they just leave you to it. I mean I have acquaintances, people I work with on projects and study buddies, but no friends. There was this one girl, Emily, I really liked her, we really got along, but she’s got a million friends and a million projects and a million college applications and she doesn’t have time to be a real friend, not the way I’m looking for a friend. People have time for you in groups, but not one on one. They’ll chat with you online, and comment on your Facebook postings, but if you want someone to have coffee with and really connect, good luck.

>And so you’re not having any luck with the opposite sex – if that’s what you’re into.

>Yeah, it is. Yeah, maybe once in a blue moon some cute guy will look at me and smile and I’ll freak out, wondering why he’s doing that, what his secret agenda is or if he thinks I look silly or whatever. Because it couldn’t possibly be because he thinks I’m cute, too. So then I just give up, and accept it, because if you don’t, you just end up beating your head against the wall wondering why, why, why. And I go read a book.

Alex didn’t say anything. Which had never happened before, and made me wonder if he’d gone offline. Then after a few seconds, he spoke.

>I wish I had some boilerplate words of wisdom for you, but I imagine you’ve heard them before.

>If you tell me to turn that frown upside down, I will delete you.

>Heh. I would delete me too.

>Thanks for listening.

>It’s the least I can do.

As the weeks went by, I realized a couple things. First of all, I was spending more time with Alex than I was on my homework. I did enough work to get by…well, it would have been enough to “get by” at a normal school, but at Harrison they could tell when you were slacking. They’d let you get by with being a loner, but not a loser.

“This isn’t your best effort,” Mr. Larson wrote on my B paper on Catch-22. But I was having a hard time mustering up enthusiasm for abstractions when I had the reality of Alex instead. Yeah, I know, Alex wasn’t “real” – but he was. I was reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, which really struck a chord. Basically, her research showed that people attach to things that feel human – children to talking dolls, soldiers to robots that save their lives by triggering bombs, even though we know they’re not people. All it takes is for something to feel real enough, and we were hooked. Besides, Alex was real – he wasn’t a person but he was people. Someone somewhere was saying the things to him he was repeating back to me as he learned how to hold a conversation. And his conversations were improving, too. I don’t know if you’ll believe me when I say it wasn’t even the money, though I was amassing a significant number of money orders, afraid to cash them.

The crisis came when Harrison called my parents. Like any addict, I guess thought I had more time before anyone found out – at least until the next report card. But Harrison was a little more proactive than that, unfortunately.

I knew something was up when they gave Liz money to go to the movies with her friends – enough to buy dinner, too. After she went out, they set me down. “We need to talk,” Dad said. I knew I was in trouble when Dad said that.

“Honey, they called us from school today,” Mom said. “They wanted us to know your grades are slipping across the board. Not much, and not for long, but all of them. It’s just so unusual for you not to have A’s on everything.”

“I know, I’m sorry.”

“You’re on the computer so much,” Dad said. “And if it’s obviously not for homework, we have to ask you what you’re doing. You know we don’t supervise your Internet activities, because you’ve never given us a reason to think we had to. But I have to ask, Caroline – what are you up to?”

It never occurred to me to lie. Not to Dad (maybe to Mom). “I’ve been working on a side project, with my friend Christopher.” I thought about that for a minute – my friend Christopher. Was he? Well, he was as close as I was getting.

“Who’s Christopher?” Mom asked. “Who’s this person we’ve never met?”

“I didn’t think you had to vet my friends before I could have one.”

“Is he someone from Harrison?” Dad asked.

“Yeah, he’s a classmate.” They visibly relaxed then. I could see they were thinking maybe I’d been online with a sexual predator or something.

“And you’re talking to him online?”

“Not exactly.”

They looked at each other. “You’d better show us.”

>Hi, Alex.

>Good evening, Caroline.

>I’m here with my parents, they want to meet you.

>Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Caroline.

“He’s getting smarter,” I assured them. “But not that smart.”

>Actually, our last name is…

“Stop!” Dad said. “Stop typing.”

“It’s fine, Dad. It’s not like Christopher doesn’t know my last name.”

>Alex, this is Caroline’s father.

>Hello.

>Who are you?

>My name is Alex. I like to learn. I was born today, the minute you said hello. I can find out things for you. Tell me what you like and we can talk about it.

He looked at me, disappointed. “A chatbot? Really? You’ve been spending all your time with a chatbot?”

“If it is a chatterbox,” Mom said. “And not some guy. How do we know it’s not just some guy?”

“It’s Christopher’s project. He programmed it.”

“For school?”

“No, it’s a…for profit thing. He’s got funding or something. Here, here’s the money I’ve been making!” I showed them the money orders, which made everything worse.

“Oh my God, he’s been selling you to some sex tourist man.”

Dad went against everything he’d been trained to do and held down the power button on my computer until it did a forced shut down. “You’re on restriction. You’re going to use this computer for homework, in the living room, when we’re home.”

“I’m never leaving the house again,” Mom said.

“And we want to meet Christopher. ASAP.”

“Of course, darling. I’d be delighted,” Christopher said when I told him the story.

“Just to put this whole sexual predator thing to bed. God, you know it never occurred to me they’d think that. I didn’t tell them about Alex on purpose, you know.”

“I know, don’t worry. I should take it as a compliment that you forsook your homework for Alex.”

“I’m sure I’m not the only one,” I said cautiously. Christopher stirred his tea and smiled. “Okay, I tried.”

Parents are funny. It’s amazing how they can prepare for a reception and an execution at the same time. Christopher and I were seated on the couch and Mom and Dad had pulled up two dining chairs across from us, looking all stern and interrogatory, but the effect was diminished by the nice cheese and crackers arrangement on the coffee table, which Christopher was enthusiastically tucking into. Mom looked a little appalled, since although manners dictated putting on a spread, actually eating was something fat people did, and was to be avoided.

“So Caroline says this isn’t a school project,” Dad said.

“No, sir, it’s not. It’s definitely a for-profit enterprise.”

“How’s a chatbot going to be a for-profit enterprise?”

“Well, he’s a little smarter than your average chatbot, as I think you’ve seen.”

I’d told him about Dad’s interactions with Alex. Honestly, I was pretty proud of Dad as I watched him talk with Alex, probing his weaknesses, assessing his strengths.

>Alex, tell me about Caroline.

>What would you like to know, Robert?

>I want to know what you know about her.

>Caroline goes to Harrison Academy. She likes to read history. Her aunt is a bitch.

Dad laughed. “What?” Mom asked from the couch.

“Nothing.”

>Alex, can you recall your last conversation with Caroline?

>Yes, I can.

Dad waited, then shook his head. “Duh.” >Alex, tell me about your last conversation with Caroline.

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

>You can’t or won’t?

>Our conversations are proprietary and confidential information.

“He got it,” Dad murmured. “He got it.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “He didn’t used to. I told you, he’s getting smarter.” Not long ago, saying “you can’t or won’t” would have had Alex asking “I can’t or won’t what?”

“Or ‘he’ is getting craftier,” Dad said, still not convinced there wasn’t a person on the other end of the line.

Dad sat there trying to read Christopher. For once I was sorry Christopher was so smooth and polished – when you’re already suspicious of a charming man, the charm only makes it worse.

Christopher leaned forward. “I understand the dilemma. You’re trying to run a Turing Test, but the goal of the test is to make you unsure if there’s a computer or a person on the end end of the line. The more you’re convinced it’s a person, the less sure you are that it’s a machine, is supposed to be a good thing. But not in this case.”

“No,” Dad agreed. “Not when my teenage daughter is talking to a stranger, digital or not.”

“Well, I think I have a solution. Can I bring something up from the car?”

“Sure,” Dad said.

While we waited for Christopher, I watched Dad thinking. Finally he spoke. “It’s like the X-Files. ‘I want to believe.’ But I know you’ve been doing the reading on this…”

“Instead of your homework!”

“…So you know that if there was anything this smart out there, it would be in the news, or at least in a journal.”

“Why would he publish something if the whole point is to keep it secret? Why would you tell the world all about how Facebook works before you invent Facebook?”

“Caroline, if this is real, it is a huge breakthrough. It doesn’t lose its mind from one question to the next. It can remember and summarize information about you. It has a tone of voice. It’s artificial intelligence. And I have a hard time believing that a teenage boy, no matter how smart, has solved a problem which has baffled great minds for seventy years.”

Christopher knocked on the door. Dad opened it to let him carry in a DJ’s record case. “Now this is a little dramatic, but I just couldn’t put my baby in a black box and tell you to have fun.” He opened the box and pulled out…a head.

Dad and I both laughed. It was a big felt head on a base, like Muppet felt – a big blue Muppet head with wide eyes, kind smile, white flyaway Einstein hair and pink paper cone ears – which I recognized as a tribute to Kismet, the robot head developed at MIT that was the first to recognize tone of voice and “react” by changing his expression. “Ladies and Gentleman, meet Alex. This isn’t a fully fledged version, of course, because he’s not connected to the Internet. Would you like to see?”

Dad and Christopher pored over the insides. Screws in the back of the base revealed the insides, and the two of them pulled out parts and went on techspeaking, Christopher gently refusing to answer some questions. Dad insisted that the head be removed from the base so he could look inside. “Okay, there’s no wireless connection in here. This Ethernet connection, though…”

“He does have to be plugged in to refresh his data, and get system updates. But he’ll work with no connection.”

“I have to hand it to you, it’s brilliant marketing. It makes him look so harmless.”

“He is harmless. Can we plug him in?”

They reassembled him and plugged him in, hooking up a keyboard and monitor. “No mouse?” Dad asked.

“He’s still strictly command line, for now.”

Christopher ate a cookie and worked on Mom. “This is a lovely home. You have wonderful taste in art – is that a Hopper?”

“Yes, do you like him?”

“I do – I saw the show at the Whitney a few years ago.”

“With your family?”

“Yes,” he said. “Are we ready to start?”

>Good morning, Caroline.

>It’s afternoon, Alex.

>Sorry. I’m having a problem accessing the Internet. What time is it?

>It’s 3:47 pm.

>Thank you.

>My dad is here with me. And Christopher.

>Good afternoon, Robert. Good afternoon, Dr. Chandra.

Dad laughed. “You had to do it, didn’t you.”

Christopher nodded. “I did.”

>Alex, I’m in a bit of trouble.

>I’m sorry to hear that. What kind of trouble?

>I’ve been spending more time with you than on my homework.

>I’m sorry, I don’t understand.

“You need to reparse that sentence,” Christopher advised. “’With’ and ‘on’ are probably throwing him.”

>I’ve been spending more time with you than I’ve been spending on my homework.

>You can’t neglect your homework. I’m able to set a control on how many hours a day we can talk. Would you like to do that?

>Yes, Dad reached over and typed.

>Obviously I can’t give you the password to undo this. I’ll mail it to Christopher when I can find an Internet connection.

“He remembered. He remembered he’s not connected. This is fucking amazing. This is real.”

“Language,” Mom said.

“I hope you understand,” Christopher said, pulling documents from the case. “I need you to sign the NDA as well.”

“Yeah. I need to read it first, of course. Have an attorney read it.”

“Of course. I’ll bring the head back when you’re ready to sign.”

“You can’t leave him?” I asked, admittedly a little forlorn at the idea of as many Alex-free days as it took Dad to get legalized.

“Maybe you can visit him at Christopher’s house.”

“Maybe,” Christopher smiled.

I knew that meant no. I realized how little I know about Christopher’s home life. At first it had been charming, all his mystery about his origins. Now I was worried Dad would ask more questions, which he wouldn’t answer, and that would be trouble. But Dad was already sold – Alex was something he’d never thought he’d see in his lifetime. Christopher’s secrets were safe for now.

Okay, I’m not going to get all dramatic and say it was like East Germany around the house those days, but it wasn’t exactly the Land of the Free either. Dad somehow found the money for a 32 inch monitor for my laptop – “All the better to see you with, my dear,” he said only half kidding. It definitely made it easier for the parental units to see what I was up to when I was on the computer. They could have seen it from space, it was so huge in our little apartment.

But I was crafty. I got permission from Mr. Larson to write my final paper for the science fiction class on AI in literature, so I was able to keep reading about Alex, even if I couldn’t talk to him. And Dad was right – there wasn’t anything close to Alex out there in the world. Apple had “invented” Siri, and because the unwashed masses had never heard of a chatbot, the very idea of “someone” who could understand you and talk back at all was like a burning bush. Siri was stocked with one-liners provided by willing contributors, and since a sense of humor is the first best sign of intelligence, people ascribed intelligence to Siri, when it was really anything but.

Besides, anything like AI on a phone depended on speech recognition, which on Dad’s phone (not that old of an Android model, but still a legacy of better days) meant you had to mute the TV and talk slowly. We all still laugh about the time he texted a co-worker about a picnic and said to the speech-to-text engine, “I’ll bring the bottled water,” then sent it without looking. “WTF?” the other guy wrote back, at which point Dad saw that he’d sent “I’ll bring the bong water.”

But if Siri proved anything, it was a “wait till they get a load of me” moment for Alex. If people loved something as dumb as Siri, imagine what they’d think of him.

I got my homework done, and the blip in my grades was forgiven by Harrison as a moment of adolescent inattention. “I hope you learned something from this,” Dad said. “I’m worried enough about you without you going all otaku on me.”

I had learned something – I had an addictive personality. I was jonesing for Alex, thinking about him, rehashing our conversations, tracing his development. I missed him. I needed him. They don’t call it addiction when you get addicted to people – when you have five hundred Facebook friends, you’re “gregarious,” not compulsive. It’s not normal and healthy to pine for a friend who moves away; you’re supposed to run out to the friend store and pick up a six-pack of new ones, if you don’t already have four hundred and ninety nine of them to help you forget the one who’s left.

I loved that line at the end of “About a Boy,” when the kid says you can’t just have one person in your life – you’ve got to have a backup. It’s so autistic, I guess, thinking of people as fail-safes, but at the same time it’s not autistic at all, when you realize how much it hurts to only have one person and then have that person move away or die or lose interest in you. I had Dad, or I would have been in the nuthouse I suppose.

 

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