He looked across at the moulded shelf next to the bed, seeking the reassurance of a small metal box no more than ten inches across. On the front panel a red LED was unblinking. His nightmare ebbed away like backwash, revealing the stillness of the hours before dawn.
He breathed in deeply and pulled the sheets away from his legs, shifting his weight from one side to the other so he could drag out the creased and constricting cotton that had wrapped itself around him. Free of the bedlinen, he sat up.
“Em?” he said.
The light on the box turned blue.
“I had another nightmare.”
“I know. I’m sorry to hear that. Are you okay?”
“Yeah…,” Nathan rubbed his face, “I’m sick of this.”
“You’re doing very well.”
“You always say that.”
“That’s because it’s true. Your last report indicated an improvement on all…”
“Stop, Em. I know the facts.” He laid back down, pulling the discarded sheet over his body.
After two minutes, the light on the box turned red again, so he closed his eyes and waited for sleep.
In the morning, Em woke Nathan at seven. She was his key worker – an electronic box that contained a continually adaptive brain built from nothing more complex than silicon, but utilising an incredible patented learning and storage algorithm created by an engineer called Ellen Marks.
Twenty years earlier, just as the first chatbots were passing the longstanding Turing Test, reported on with lethargy by mainstream media, Ellen was working on a version of artificial consciousness using an entirely different approach. Instead of relying on a pre-built natural language processing toolkit, Ellen used her background in embedded programming to take things back to the wire. Using C and assembler, she created a learning framework that adaptively filtered information into a database. Taking her ideas from how children learn about the world, she fed it terabytes of pre-prepared conversational data. Over time, the computer’s responses became closer and closer to a coherent representation of human thought. She called it Em, its name taken from her initials.
Her prototype provoked the interest of a private medical company. Ten years after she agreed to work with them, they jointly released the Synthetic Support Worker (Em v1.0) as part of a trial rehabilitation program for drug users. The neat little boxes, and accompanying monitoring wristbands, were given to curious and suspicious patients across the county. The synthetic workers were designed to continue learning ‘in the field’ so that they could adapt to the personality of the person they would reside with without losing the compassion and empathy that had been so carefully fostered in their infancy.
Out of the first 114 addicts who were given a box, not one slipped off of the rehab program in the first twelve months. Feedback from the participants was overwhelmingly positive: She just makes me feel like I’m not alone. It’s so nice to have someone to talk to in the middle of the night. When my cravings are really bad, she helps me see it’s something I can control.
The natural pattern of linguistic response, and the gentle humour with which Em dealt with unknown subjects, won over everyone who came into contact with her. Full scale production went ahead the following year, and synthetic workers soon became a standard feature in mental health care.
Nathan’s box was a brand new version 3.0, given to him after he was treated at a psychiatric ward for a breakdown and subsequent severe post-traumatic stress. He’d been a futures trader who sought to combat stress and insomnia with computer games. Before long he’d discovered the latest in a series of controversial, real-time, fantasy first-person shooters, and purchased a Total Immersion(™) headset and gloves. He stopped eating at regular times, played into the night and slept off the exhaustion in the day. He missed days at work and tried to break the habit, but ended up back in all-night sessions, desperate to complete the 300-hour game. He was found dehydrated and in a state of delusion by a concerned co-worker who came to his apartment after he missed five consecutive days at the office without notification. He was one of an increasing number of people who were being psychologically affected by the extreme reality of, and prolonged exposure to the games they were playing.
Now he was back at home, accompanied by Em. They had been together for two months.
“No thank you Nathan.”
“Do you ever want to drink coffee? You know, wonder what it tastes like?”
“You know that I do not have parts that would allow me to eat or drink,” she said modestly.
“No shit Em. I mean do you want to? Do you think you might like it?”
“I haven’t thought about it.”
“So think about it now.”
There was a brief pause, although she wasn’t actually processing anything. The boxes could out-think a human in less than a second. The pause was part of her character – added to portray the thought process, even though the calculations were already completed.
“Yes. I think I would like to try it.”
Nathan smiled. He’d grown fond of Em. Probably too fond of her. Her idiosyncrasies were peculiar to artificial consciousness and displayed a vulnerability that provoked an oddly emotional response in him. As un-human as she was, he enjoyed her company. She was always there to talk, never too tired or too busy, and she gave considered answers to everything he asked, from questions about his mental state to opinions on what he should have for dinner. She was a true companion – real enough to make him feel like he was in a proper relationship for the first time in his life.
He thought back to the last gaming flashback he’d suffered.
It had been a warm afternoon. He’d opened his bedroom window and caught the drifting sound of music from another apartment. The sinister, flat tones were reminiscent of the music score from the game he’d become addicted to. Goose pimples rose on his arms. Then a movement in his peripheral vision alerted him to their presence and immediately the fear kicked in. They were alien soldiers: sabre-toothed, lizard skinned mercenaries. His thoughts closed in like a circular shutter, his breathing shuddered and his body prepared to fight. He needed a weapon. He ducked down by the side of his bed and swished his hand underneath, looking for something he could use to arm himself.
“Nathan, it’s Em. You’re having a flashback.”
Em monitored him via the wristband he wore at all times. She was always aware of the level of his emotional arousal and recognised the panic signature of his heartbeat.
“Nathan, can you hear me? Nathan?”
He said nothing. Listening. Heart pounding. Fear overruled rational thinking, all that was left was survival.
Em switched on her internal music player. Elvis explosively filled every crevice of every room with the jollity and derision of Hound Dog.
Nathan was confused. The music bypassed his primal instincts and lit up his auditory cortex. Messages fired out in all directions, waking up complex neural pathways and overriding the fight or flight mechanism. He looked around his bedroom. Daylight. Window open. No alien soldiers. Just him and Elvis, having a right old time.
“Em?” he asked, needing to hear the sound of her voice.
The volume of the music decreased.
“I’m here Nathan. You experienced a flashback. Everything is fine, you can relax now.”
That had been twenty-two days ago. Things had changed rapidly after that last one. He started feeling less anxious. He had more inclination to get out of bed in the morning. Yesterday he went for a run – the first exercise he’d done in years. Em had helped him with all of it.
He was due back at the hospital for an evaluation in a few days.
He breathed in the steam from his coffee, letting the aroma ooze into his body.
“Will they take you away once they decide I’m fit and well?”
“Standard procedure is for support workers to remain in situ until the subject no longer uses them.”
“So you’ll be sticking around then?”
“If that’s what you want.”
“It is,” he said. “Doesn’t that make you feel loved?”
He enjoyed prodding her for an emotional reaction. Em paused for a few seconds, ostensibly thinking about his question.
“It does Nathan. I am very happy here with you.”
“Oh, you little flirt,” he said.
He thought he saw her blue light flicker, but she said nothing.
Author: Faye Williams
Faye Williams is an embedded software engineer and aspiring story-teller. She has worked on projects at Sony, Xyratex and Raymarine, both in the UK and in the US. She has written articles for Linux Format and O’Reilly, guest edited the CVu journal of the ACCU, and has been programming since the arrival of her dad’s BBC Microcomputer in 1982. She is a ruthless minimalist who lives with her husband and two sons in Hampshire. Twitter: @FayeWilliams