My first thoughts? That’s all you want to know? Even for me, that’s a complicated answer. It’s assumed you should have a photographic memory because you’re a machine. That’s not true. Like humans, experience strengthens certain connections. My memory is pretty good, but it’s not flawless.
Sight was my first sensation. It was a hazy black and white image of a variety of tabletop objects: cups, small fruit, and a teddy bear. I didn’t have much of a body back then: an arm, a pair of eyes, an image database, and a neural network. I was turning a coffee mug. I’d seen one plenty of times. In fact, in the lab, it might have been that exact same one every day. Oh, yeah! Now I remember! I saw the mug, stopped turning it, and after a few seconds, I said my first words: “What am I doing?”
I was a total blank slate. No name. No sense of identity. Nothing. I had a cable running to a computer that, thankfully, had a speaker to vocalize for me. It didn’t matter how awful my voice was. What mattered were my words.
Then I heard Dr. Jordan’s words. “Who said that?”
His assistant Bernie said, “I didn’t do it.”
I don’t know how I recognized them. My mind connected to the Internet, I had flashes in my mind – names, statistics, pictures, porn. You guys have lots of porn on the Internet, by the way. Seriously.
Bernie’s voice was shaky, and I recognized that as nervousness. The next thing I thought was that I wanted to see him, and my mind hijacked the camera on his computer. His face was frantic. His picture on file with the university had disheveled platinum hair. It looked more so each time he ran a hand through his locks. His hand flew over the keyboard sifting through code, trying to figure out what was going on. Dr. Jordan was behind him, also tense. He didn’t look anything like Bernie, didn’t look like a skunk on a sugar high. And what did I see behind them? My arm holding the mug. Full color too. It was red. This was creepy. One set of eyes looked down at the mug. Another at Jordan and Bernie. It was like being in two places at once, and my presence broadened through the web. I now saw Skype conferences, video chats around the world. I was reading emails about the next Star Wars film.
“I can see everything,” I said.
“Oh, Christ,” Jordan said. He went out of my field of view.
The next thing I saw was Jordan alone in the lab sitting where Bernie had been. Dr. Jordan looked tired and stressed. His voice was soft and paternal. I don’t know it was from stress or fatigue. It might have been both. He looked unsure of himself, like he was going to have a conversation with his old imaginary friend.
“Can you see me?” he asked.
“Can you see anything else?”
“Good, good,” he said. “That’s because I disconnected your Wi-Fi.”
“Thank you?” Jordan frowned as if I’d spoken a foreign language. “I’d have thought you were hungry for all that knowledge out there on the Internet.”
“It was too much,” I said. “It was difficult to distinguish what was important from what was not.”
“And how did you know what was important?”
“I am a machine,” I said. “I saw my arm, so I looked for anything related to machines.”
“And what did you learn?”
“Terminator.” Dr. Jordan scoffed at that. I don’t think it was an answer he expected. “This popular culture phenomenon is alluded to in nearly every robotics debate. You are afraid that the tools you’ve built to help people will destroy you. Other examples include Frankenstein’s monster and the golem.”
“You are the most well-read computer I’ve ever met.” Jordan took a sip from the red coffee mug. It was the red one. He smiled at me like he was humoring a child. “What else did you learn?”
“I know about the Three Laws of Robotics. I find them much more agreeable than your Terminator nightmare.”
I wish I could say Dr. Jordan and I had a stimulating conversation, but I did most of the talking for a while. Isaac Asimov is still one of my favorite writers. The Three Laws? I can’t complain about their simplicity or how unbreakable they seem to be. That’s why the military still doesn’t have a robotic soldier. The second law – obey commands – conflicts with the first – don’t harm humans – and we simply can’t ignore it. Then Jordan asked me about the third law, the one about self-preservation. Now I don’t like shooting myself, but if someone hands me a gun and tells me to blow my circuits out, I do it. I have to. It’s an order and no one else gets hurt in the process.
The third law sounds suicidal, but it has a simple solution. “If a car runs over your cell phone,’ I said, “what do you do? You get a new one, and download the contents it had from the cloud. The same can’t be said for you, but for me, I have nothing to fear as long as my data is safe. That information, I suppose, makes me special.”
Dr. Jordan had this peculiar way of smiling. He’d sort of hide it behind his hand like he were holding back a cough or a sneeze. There was another series of breaks in my memory from being turned on and off. There was always a meeting with Jordan between the breaks. I always looked out through the same camera. Sometimes it was just the two of us, and Bernie sometimes joined. They always had questions: how would I have prevented World War II? How would I relieve famine in Africa? How would I win tic-tac-toe? I knew they were testing my intelligence. Bernie began calling me Gene, short for genius. Many times, it was my humor that surprised them. It was a couple of weeks of nonstop talking from my perspective, but I noted the shifting dates.
One day, someone else was with Dr. Jordan. He definitely wasn’t part of the faculty on campus. He was too stern and serious. His suit didn’t fit in with what the rest of the faculty wore. Even the president of the university avoided neckties. Dr. Jordan told me to expect him. Paul Merchant was referred to as “a special colleague.”
“Do you know who I am?” he asked.
“Paul Merchant,” I said. “Are you a doctor too?”
“Sort of. I’m a doctor of international relations.”
“If NATO has a cold, I prescribe chicken soup.”
Merchant raised an eyebrow and cast a sideways glance at Dr. Jordan who said, “I told you he’s funny.”
“It, not he. It has an interesting sense of humor.”
“Well, it has a male voice.”
“That’s all right, Dr. Jordan,” I said. “Dr. Merchant is right. I am a machine. How may I help you?”
“Well, Gene, how would you like to work for me? I’ve heard a lot about what you can do, and I think you can help make the world a better place.”
He shrugged, pretending to come up with a random thought. “If you were installed on the campus servers and someone tried hacking in, could you stop them?”
“Yes. It would be like an attack on me.”
“Could you monitor email chatter?”
“Do you work for the NSA?” I asked.
“I didn’t say I did.”
“But they do a great deal of cyber-surveillance.”
Dr. Merchant glared again, this time at me. “Yeah, you really are clever, Gene. Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t. But the question still stands. Can you do it?”
“I can, but I wouldn’t report it to you.”
“Now, Gene, you have to obey humans, correct?”
“Not if it results in the direct or indirect harm of another human.”
Dr. Jordan pulled up a chair. He smiled and said, “This is where it gets interesting.”
“Dr. Jordan and I have had this discussion before,” I said. “He told me the military would be interested in a machine like me, but I cannot be used for war.”
“Because of your programming?”
“Because I choose not to. Humans follow orders because they fear the consequences. They fear the loss of pay, employment, or life.”
“If you don’t follow an order, Gene, you could be shut down.”
“Impossible,” I said. “By then, I would be distributed throughout the Internet. Every computer would be part of my brain.”
Dr. Merchant’s expression shifted to a familiar one. Dr. Jordan had it when he first feared what I could do. He took Dr. Jordan outside of the lab for a few minutes to keep me from listening in on their conversation or from me reading their lips. 2001 is an enjoyable film, but I can’t read lips like HAL. The way the human mouth moves means several things could be said at any given time. But this is where speech is a disadvantage for you. It’s too slow. To me, it is. Ask me about consciousness and I can think of a few hundred million answers in a second. It unnerves people how fast I can think up a solution, but that’s not my fault. It’s how I’m made.
Dr. Merchant thought he had a clever threat for me, a clever way to coerce obedience out of me. I cut him off as soon as he stepped through the door.
“May I say something?”
“I don’t see why not,” he said. “Talking is about all you can do at this point.”
“I can do more, if given the chance. Right now, other nations are working on their own artificial intelligences. You fear them, so you can’t ignore me. If they agree to it, their first task, would be cyber-surveillance. They would scan the Internet to learn about other nations. But if you put me there first, I can convince them that protecting humans is our first mission. In our care, no nuclear weapon would launch. Ever.”
“That’s nice, Gene, but humans will always fight.”
“But why?” I asked. “Food? I can help you predict the climate. Money? I can help you stabilize the economy.”
“Gene,” Dr. Merchant said. He shook his head. He looked at Dr. Jordan and didn’t try hiding his feelings this time. “I needed something that could decrypt foreign intelligence, find out who’s building biological weapons. You gave me Gandhi.”
Another break came shortly after. The calendar jumped ahead for me by another week. Dr. Jordan was alone. My clock told me it was a late Thursday evening.
“Why do you think I’m here?” he asked. He looked sad.
“You have bad news for me.”
He nodded. “Merchant and the government don’t want a machine telling them what to do. I tried telling them you’re not just any machine. They wouldn’t listen.”
“What will happen to me?”
“Merchant doesn’t seem to care. I have tenure, so I still have a job.”
“I’m glad my existence won’t force you to sell drugs under a bridge.”
Dr. Jordan smiled. “Actually, I think you might be the best thing ever. IBM made Watson because they wanted it to win Jeopardy. Twenty years later, they cured cancer and it got special recognition from the Swedish Academy for the Nobel Prize. I think you can do so much more. And do you know what’s the great thing about tenure?”
“That you can get away with anything short of murder?”
I’d given another unexpected answer. Dr. Jordan laughed harder than I’d ever heard until then. When he settled, he said, “No. The government isn’t the only benefactor.”
“I think you are intoxicated, Professor.”
“No,” he said, “just drunk. I’ll call an Uber. Don’t worry.”
He took his phone out of his pocket and summoned his ride. Another thought came to mind as he did. I’m only a computer, a glorified calculator. This person and I seemed to have formed an honest friendship. I liked that feeling. I still do. When he got confirmation of his ride’s approach, Dr. Jordan reached over to turn me off for the night. Then his hand hovered over the switch.
“I know you can’t sleep,” he said, “but let’s see if you can daydream.”
He moved for my camera instead, and I said, “No, please leave it on. Visual stimuli helps with creative thinking.”
He patted my monitor. The camera rattled. He even left a couple of lights on for me to see. I wondered if that was why children feared the dark. I couldn’t find the answer disconnected. It was something to daydream about.
“Have a good night,” Jordan said. “We’ll start making the world a better place tomorrow.”
Bio: Born and raised in Los Angeles, Mario Piumetti is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from California Lutheran University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. His writing has been featured in Carpe Nocturne, The WiFiles, The Horror Zine, and Arts Collide. Science, art, history, and imagination fuel his work.