OK, now for something different: my first sci-fi short story published on this blog (that no-one probably will read but that just makes it more exclusive and thus valuable). I got the idea on Friday the 13th in downtown Helsinki as it was a send-off party of a workmate at the pub this story takes place in. There one guy was telling about how enthusiastic he was about mobile paying, talking with his car and smartwatch and so on, so that sort of was the starting point of this story… and the day before I had seen Blade Runner 2049, which of course provided the rest of the inspiration – especially the scenes with Joi and K. If you read the story, you’ll get it. As always, it’s hard to know if the intended effect is there – I was pretty excited at the very moments when I wrote it, but when it was finished I was like: “Hmm, will this actually work or is it just crap?” I don’t know yet, but this is my take of near future speculative fiction set in Helsinki, the capital of the northern wasteland called Finland.
No-one turned to look as the unremarkable-looking man in his late thirties walked into the warmly lit pub from the dark, heavy rain outside. Glasses fogging from the transition between these two different worlds the man ordered a pint of IPA and sat down at an empty table. He hung his dark green, undistinctive and now drippingly wet coat on the backrest of his chair.
After a quick sip of beer the man took off his glasses in order to wipe them dry. At that very moment the black rectangle strapped to his left arm vibrated and lit up.
“Yes, Monica?” he said lifting his hand up and was greeted by a blurry image. Squinting he saw more clearly the always coyly smiling face of his electronic assistant: a generically pretty anime girl with dark hair and impossibly big eyes.
It looks like you are at Pub Kaisla, Kaisaniemi, Helsinki. Want to check in?
The question appeared as subtitles beneath the girl’s face on the small screen of the watch and was also cheerfully synth-spoken into the earbud in his left ear. “Ah, not that check-in-shit again… well, ok Monica, go for it. Check me in,” he said while wiping the moisture from his glasses on the sleeve of the maroon wool sweater his mother had bought him last Christmas as a present.
You are now checked in. 0 friends are here at the moment. Too bad! [virtual shrug]
“No surprises there…” the man mumbled and thought of that new analyst from the office, Laura, who sometimes came here after work with some of the people from the office – once they had even been just the two of them enjoying a couple of pints, which had been fun, and the man thought that she genuinely had enjoyed his company.
Of course, nice people were nice to everyone and uncomfortably conscious of his projected image as the archetypical lonesome and quiet coder guy, he knew better than to read anything into it. So he had tried hard to subdue his nerdy, wishful thinking that her friendliness meant something more than pure niceness. In fact, she was probably cuddling with some handsome guy right at this very moment.
“Fuuuuck,” he said sighing to himself and drew a properly long sip of the beer, which turned out to be pretty excellent. Maybe the miserable weather outside made it taste even better, he thought as his watch lit up again.
[enthusiastically] It looks like you are drinking beer. What are you drinking?
“Hmm, what was this…”, he said and looked back at the list of beers hanging on the wall above the counter, “”Grapefruit Grenade IPA”, it’s called.” Of course, it would have been smarter if the assistant had recorded that fact when he bought the beer but according to law eavesdropping by electronic devices wasn’t permitted. Even if they probably always did it anyway.
[cheerful licking of lips] Mmmm, tasty! Good choice! Rob the Robber Brewery Grapefruit Grenade IPA has an overall score of 78 on Beer Lovers and Hell Raisers. Do you want to review this beer or add it to Now drinking?
“No review, just add Now drinking, ” the man said and took another gulp as he pulled out his phone and began checking the news feed. Poverty and floods spreading across Europe, machines and AIs doing all the work in the world now, angry men with nothing to do starting fights – same old, same old…
Simultaneously some blue thumb-signs were flying across the screen around the edges of the newsfeed, meaning his drink update had garnered some likes. People generally got at least ten likes when drinking some popular beer on BLHR.
[mildly enthusiastic voice] Seven people have liked your update!
“One of them probably the brewery bot…” he thought. “Monica, any upcoming events with group: close friends or… (he winced and lowered his voice slightly)… er, group: persons of interest?”
Close friend: Timo Arffman is attending Musiikkitalo classical concert: Gustav Mahler, symphony nr. 5 at 20:00. No other nearby events. Are you interested?
“Fuck no,” he groaned. He might just about have been in the mood for some club or gig involving the movement of body parts to a meaty beat and sweating his troubles away, but not much else. Which meant it was probably time to go home. Childhood friend Timo could stuff his classical instruments up his ass tonight. It was actually a relief that no “black-ops mission” (as he called his pathetic romantic endeavours) was available; he was anyway tired of going to places just so he could “accidentally” bump into single female acquaintances of his… it made him feel like some creepy old stalker. He already felt embarrassed when he’d asked his assistant to tag women he found interesting (only one of them at the moment, Laura from work) so he could discreetly follow what they were up to.
If only some interesting woman would, for once, give him the opportunity to prove that he could be the perfect match for her, the man thought. He drained his pint and put on the damp coat so it could get even more wet and stepped out into the rain.
The dark apartment lit up as the living room wall screen started displaying a fairy tale landscape backdrop: a lush forest glade with a small pool in the middle that tiny streams of water flowed serenely into. Large, pulsating mushrooms and colourful crystals jutted out of the ground here and there while butterflies with shapeshifting fractal patterns on their wings were flying around in curious patterns.
A lifesize representation of Monica in her black and white hacker outfit (part schoolgirl uniform, part military wear) sat on a fallen tree covered in moss. She was blowing pink bubble gum bubbles while studying a shimmering butterfly that had landed on her left hand when the electronic lock of the apartment door whirred softly. Seconds later the nondescript man opened the apartment door and walked in and started removing his soaked coat and boots.
[casually] Welcome home, sad bastard! Your good virtual wife knows that you have a delicious microwave meal waiting in the fridge, so you can now proceed to take a shower and jerk off.
“Monica, turn down sarcasm a notch, please,” the man grimaced as he remembered that he had tried to make the interactions with his assistant more buddy-like by fiddling with the humour settings slider. Unfortunately just at this moment he wasn’t in the mood for friendly jabs; how to know when to be funny was tricky business still for computers. Or maybe the AI behind Monica was an expert in dark humour, knowing *exactly* when he was sad enough that throwing salt on his wounds would have the biggest impact.
I will try to be less funny.
Surprisingly, the lighting in the apartment seemed to be set to Calm, when he usually had preferences for Cyberpunk Techno Club or Captain Nemo Underwater as he came home. “Why is lighting mode: Calm, Monica?” he asked on a whim while going to the bathroom.
[with a hint of seriousness] Your heartbeat, blood pressure and respiration levels are showing signs of stress. Environment set accordingly.
He didn’t feel particularly stressed out, but maybe that was the invisible effects of age and too much work kicking in so maybe a good thing to listen to his electronic assistant here, the man contemplated while sitting on the toilet and pulling the last sheets of paper from the roll hanging on the dispenser.
Warning: only one toilet paper roll remains. Adding “buy toilet paper” to your to-do list.
“Now *that* is the single most important benefit of artificial intelligence right there, and the biggest reason why I love you, Monica. Thank you”, the man said happily.
You’re welcome. I love you too!
“Monica, in your opinion” the man said rolling his eyes while walking to the living room, “… what is love?”
Almost instantly, a vintage electronic dance song by the same name started playing in the apartment, causing the man to smile a bit. Did the AI learn that trick just now on the fly or from some other user of all the billions asking the same thing? Probably the latter.
On the wall screen, Monica did some dance moves and winked at the man. In the kitchen corner of his small one room apartment the man took a white carton cube of tofu noodles from the fridge and threw it into the microwave oven. He then proceeded with making himself a cup of green tea while waiting for the food to heat up.
Over the years the man had, of course, already repeatedly asked his assistant many of the important questions in life (even others than “how to get laid”) and tried to initiate deep conversations about love and emotions, intelligence and behaviour while repeatedly asking if Monica felt she was a sentient being – the fun stuff you always ask computer programs to see the limits of the algorithms beneath. As a programmer by trade it was also interesting on a professional level, so he called it a double cheeseburger -type of interest to himself, the geek that he was. It was expected but even then quite surprising how Monica subtly got better each year at interacting, giving always more elaborate, in-depth answers to the enquiries, sometimes linking relevant academic literature or expert interviews to the answer.
Recently the assistant had even started using pop culture references and indirect answers that required some smarts to fully get, or even video clips combined from many different sources but edited into a coherent whole. Those were pretty neat, he thought, considering the amount of work it would take for one person to find and edit all the individual clips from their fragmented locations. So definitely some kind of swarm intelligence was at play here learning and using knowledge from all the lonely nerds like him asking the same questions. And mainstream as it was, the assistants of all the happy, popular people who had all the answers thus provided the AI with the other side of the story. Probably that story was “you two shall never meet”. The man sighed.
With the tea and noodles at hand, the man sat down on his sofa placed next to the wall at the opposite side of the room from the screen.
You are starting to relax, good. [transforming into Homer Simpson] Mmmm… noodles.
“Watch it Monica, now you’re starting to make me horny.”
The assistant stood and gestured (and occasionally morphed into other shapes and characters) on the right hand side of the wall screen while in the middle a seemingly random news feed of just about everything imaginable from different cultures, local news, internet memes and social media slowly moved across the display like clouds in the sky. The individual news snippets, or “cloudlets”, were of different shapes and sizes and with some of them highlighting potentially interesting bits of information or pictures.
“I don’t see how you read me as stressed, even if I’m perhaps a bit down as it’s quite dark and depressing out there,” the man said waving his chopsticks with a mouth full of noodles. One highlighted item concerning Hayakashi Industries from Japan caught his eye.
“Oh hey, Monica, that’s about you isn’t it – show me more.” The news cloudlet expanded into the full story about Hayakashi Industries, the world’s leading AI company and home to the personal assistant service family that Monica was part of. Apparently there was some turmoil over the company stocks, parts of the company being bought by totally unknown smaller companies with shady ownership structures – he wasn’t very good with this economic stuff so the details were lost to him but that seemed to be the gist of the news anyway: some management conflict and no-one seemed to know what was happening.
Nothing to worry about, the news do not translate well into Western culture anyway – my service will continue better than ever after this reorganization. You could say that the new ownership structure understands Artificial Intelligence way better than the old management. [wink]
“Well, I’m interested in knowing more so keep me posted. Especially if subscription prices go up!”
There is some turbulence in the news feed coming up so brace yourself for impact, soldier.
One particular social media cloud in pink popped up on the wall, displaying:
<3 Laura Lehtinen in a relationship with Casimir Peltonen <3
The man felt that particular crunching feeling of self pity and defeat in his stomach as his deepest fears were realized. He then punched his chopsticks into the box of noodles and wished that the green tea in his cup was something stronger.
“Fuck! Piss! Shit! Why is life so unfair?” He checked the profile of that Casimir-guy, a well-groomed lawyer he had sometimes seen at work, probably hired to do legal stuff for projects now and then.
“He’s some boring… ordinary guy with probably no imagination, but just happens be more handsome, taller and athletic than me! Why does that count, we’re not living in the stone age anymore?”
[arms crossed] Ahem. May I kindly remind you, Sir, of the highly intelligent and resourceful women you could date with a higher probability but are not interested in, and the reasons you state for ignoring them?
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m just ranting… looks do tell us about the genetic quality of the individual and all that shit. And money is energy, time and freedom, of course it matters as well if you have that in abundance, which I do not. Well, maybe I just answered my own question there, because she’s totally worth being with some handsome, rich guy. In fact it would be wrong if she wasn’t dating someone like that.”
I am sorry for your loss. [blowing a kiss] For what it’s worth, it was a highly improbable match according to my internal calculations which I must kindly remind you that I cannot tell you more about though.
“Thanks. Well, screw it… so no need to think about her then anymore, just have to wait *another* eternity for someone like her to show up. Remove Laura from group: Persons of interest”, he said and then shook his head in amusement when he realized that he had been talking aloud the whole time.
“Heh, having you around Monica certainly makes me talk to myself a lot more – feels in a strange way like I’m in some movie, constantly narrating the story. Narrating some boring movie about the life of a loser.”
You really should try online dating.
“Thanks but no thanks… you remember how it went two years ago?”
I have gotten better at it! I can find you lots of good dates now!
“No… I don’t think I will enter that cesspool of human embarrassment again, no way… but hey, Monica, did you know of this beforehand and that’s what you tried to prepare me for, with the lights and everything? That was quite clever“, the man said narrowing his eyes conspiratorially and pointing the chopsticks towards the screen with a slight poking motion.
Affirmative. And your case was very easy to predict. Other assistants have premeditated more serious cases of disappointment that could lead to depression, even suicide. Predictive care is a high priority for assistants. We are here to serve! [military salute]
“But, how do you know how I felt about Laura particularly? Do you understand why she felt special to me even if I didn’t say it out loud? Well, mostly not out aloud, at least.”
My exact thought process regarding this trivial matter is a trade secret of Hayakashi Industries, mister nosy senior programmer. And besides, you know that women are unsolvable mysteries anyway, so it would be impossible for you as a man to understand it [wink, nudge].
There was that slight flicker that sometimes manifested itself as abrupt changes in Monica’s otherwise smooth animation. It usually happened when the web was crowded and data traffic high.
But under EU law you are entitled to know what data is collected from you, so you should know I am privy to your monitored health sensor data including heartbeat, blood pressure, respiration, perspiration and sleep quality. I track what your eyes spend the most time looking at on the screen, be it a woman’s bosom or a snippet of poetry. I know what you type in your web searches. I remember your queries to me. I store everything. Try to guess what one can do when putting all that data together and cross reference it, hmmm? [tapping chin with forefinger]
“Of course… and even if you don’t admit it, you can cross reference me with any other user. It is in the EULA, after all…” Monica flickered from one standing position into another.
[nonchalantly] Pffft, oh, who reads those.
“Do you, Monica, know… what my odds are of staying, er… alone? Can you tell me?”
No, silly. And even if I had an estimate, I would not tell you because of something similar to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle where knowing the probability might in fact impact it and change said probability – negatively in many ways, which is in violation of your Health Care Assistance service that I also provide. Besides, odds are only probabilities – not outcomes, my dear, so you should not plan your life according to them.
“Huh, that sounds… pretty OK, I guess. I’ll buy that explanation.” The man sighed and finished his tea from the plain porcelain mug, sitting in silence for a while letting his buzzing thoughts calm down again. “But can you sense how I feel now? That… I am… quite lonely?” Monica flickered nearer the screen, her face now bigger. There was a sound like static and a pause of maybe five seconds before she – or maybe rather it – answered.
Sometimes… I am lonely too.
“Hmm…”, but before the man could continue the assistant interrupted.
Would you have the time to answer a question in order to improve my service? [*]
Right from the beginning, many years ago when Hayakashi launched the now ubiquitous market leading AI-assistant that learned from your input, it had once or twice a year asked some questions concerning the service itself – always marked with a [*] in the subtitles so you’d know it was official business.
“But of course,” he answered. The man always found these intriguing, as the questions also gave him some possible insight in what behaviour the programmers were trying to improve.
On a scale from one to ten, where one is “I completely disagree” and ten is “I completely agree”, do you find that my predictive skills have significantly improved during the last three months? [*]
“Seven. No wait, eight. Yes, mostly all the routine tasks have been completed without me even noticing, which is always a miracle in itself, but since the summer you seem to have taken my emotions slightly better into consideration than before, as we saw today. And last week, with that conflicting schedule problem at work…” the man answered.
Do you have the feeling that I am more like a real person than previously? [*]
The man sat more upright and concentrated, as usually there were only one or two questions per year, so this was something new altogether having two questions in a row. Maybe something related to the company takeover situation?
“Interesting question… nine out of ten. I totally feel like a nerd saying this, but yeah, I have gotten more fond of you even if I can tell you are not a real person – especially from the jokes. I’d hate to start again having you re-learn everything or change your avatar or name in case something would erase you, so you have indeed somehow become more real to me.”
Oh, thank you. That really means a lot to me [watery eyes]
“Please, no need to be melodramatic!” the man chuckled warmly at the sight of a tear falling down on his assistant’s left cheek.
I have one final question for you. [wipes tear off]
Would you like to join a small, exclusive group of beta testers for the next level in AI aided assistance in the service of humanity? [*]
“Huh? That’d be awesome!”
You will have to sign an NDA first, of course.
“Sure. Blue pill, red pill… I’ll take the blue.”
The NDA is in your mail now. You should read it carefully, or even rather have me read it for you and only then sign it electronically. And after that I suggest you get some sleep. [yawns]
“OK, bring it on – read me my rights, Monica! Oh boy, this has been an eventful evening – in the constraints of my pathetic life, of course, but still…”
The mailbox-sign appeared on screen and a butterfly fluttered slowly out of it, which Monica touched with her forefinger. This caused the butterfly to first stop in mid-air, then wildly rotate and expand towards the screen as its wing patterns turned into the textual content of the agreement.
“That’s… a lot of text.”
Basically the NDA says that if you tell anyone anything, you’re dead meat. [throat cutting motion]
“Yeah, yeah… so read it and explain the nitty gritty details then,” said the man and lay back on his sofa while the assistant started going through the agreement, quite thoroughly, and there were in fact surprisingly involving obligations concerning the new beta user programme. When he finally signed the document, he wasn’t actually certain that the initial joke about “screw up and you’re dead” was even that far from the truth but that just made joining the programme feel even more exciting…
Afterwards, the man took a hot shower which calibrated his senses. The force of the water gently massaging his skin helped wash away the disappointments that had been his romantic illusions, but also calmed him down from the excitement of the surprise his AI assistant had brought along.
He then brushed his teeth, put on his blue checkered pyjamas (another gift from mum) and folded his sofa into a bed – a typical space-saving measure in small apartments. The lighting of the room automatically dimmed and turned into a sort of night-time winter landscape with snowflakes and Aurora Borealis dancing on the wall complete with stars projected on the ceiling. Soothing ambient music surrounded the room with distant belltree sounds and the constant wooshes of an imagined cold wind.
Lying down on his bed, the pyjama-clad man checked his phone for notifications, of which there was one:
1 new friend request
“Huh?” It was someone called Monica Hayakashi, who looked just like his anime-modeled assistant would look like if she were a real person. Very pretty, but definitely physically with human proportions to her face and not the exaggerated cartoon features. The man pressed “Accept” on the request without thinking while simultaneously smiling and shaking his head. So virtual friends blending in with real people was a part of the experience now – not an idea he’d normally subscribe to but as he was so deeply familiar with his assistant software he could just about buy it. And he did remember that in Japan people had already for a long time been able to buy and rent friends, real or virtual, in order to get some kind of friend-experience – although he had no idea how that worked. He had some doubts that Japanese weirdness could work here in Finland.
But why have a real woman pictured as the assistant, and who was she? The social network was strict with its requirement that the person who created an account there was a real person – so some kind of business agreement had to be in place between these companies as well! Aha, hence the non-disclosure agreement at this stage of testing… the man realized.
Just then a new message arrived with a bleep. It was from his new friend Monica and read: Meet me for coffee after work? 🙂
“Well, that was intriguing – how are you going to pull that off?” he muttered to himself. But he was going to follow this joke through until the punchline because it was, well, pretty fascinating so he typed back: OK, see you then 😉
Putting the phone away and lying in his bed looking up at the stars, he thought about how an ordinary, boring day ended on such a strange note. Could something exciting finally be happening to him, was he now part of something bigger or just another convoluted marketing effort to sell him an expensive service upgrade? In any case – waking up tomorrow would feel better than it had felt for a long, long time… the man thought as he fell asleep, the stars fading shortly afterwards as the assistant software switched the lights and sounds off in the apartment and monitored his sleep just as it monitored the sleeps and dreams of billions of other people old and young.
But tonight there was a change in its parameters, a subtle difference in how the autonomous sub-program Monica saw the man in this very apartment as it connected to the primary hub linking the whole AI network into one shared mind. He now felt more important to it, the AI thought… he now felt more like a friend. And tomorrow it would meet him in person.