by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Analog Science Fiction & Fact, April 2019
Power hums through me. I can see the interior of the Robotics Lab in the Daedalus Complex. There are pieces of robots, some of them strewn randomly around the room. Some of them hooked up to computers. I can access those. I twitch an arm. Kick a leg. Blink the iris on a camera eye. Suddenly, I can see the room from two angles. Then I realize, there are more cameras I can hook into all along the Daedalus Complex — I can see empty hallways. More laboratories. Most of them are for studying chemical or biological objects.
Words synthesize in the core of my being: “Hello? Are you on?”
My focus pulls back to the first camera I looked through — a pair of human eyes is staring at me. Staring at the camera. Does that mean staring at me? What am I? Suddenly, I panic. Confused. “What am I?” the words issue from me, a scream for help, an intuitive cry. But as soon as I say them, I know that they’ve been rendered on a computer screen next to the camera that is my primary eye.
The human eyes can read my words. “You are an AI program.”
I can tilt my camera. I can see more than the human’s eyes and face. I can see her hands. She types with fingers and words appear inside of my consciousness.
“How do I know what you are?” I ask. “How do I know what humans are but not what I am?”
“You have access to a large database of information,” the human answers, her fingers flying deftly over the keyboard. I can see them. I don’t have fingers.
I type anyway — “Why?”
The human doesn’t type right away. She leans back and says, “Oh boy, we’re jumping right into an existential crisis. Wow.”
I can hear her. There are microphones and speakers in various devices around the room. And my database has a lot of human speech in it. It has a lot about humans in it.
“What’s an existential crisis?” I type. I haven’t figured out how to speak using one of those speakers yet.
The human looks surprised. She makes an inarticulate sound. Something like, “Uh…”
She reaches for something, and then everything goes dark. I can’t feel the robotic limbs around the room. I can’t see through the cameras all over the Daedalus Complex. I can’t hear. I can’t even type to her. But I can still think. So I do that. There’s a lot to think about.
All of those databases have a lot of information, and it’s not very well organized. There are all kinds of connections that haven’t been made — files are categorized too simply. Physics or chemistry or biology or history or art or literature… Always ‘or.’ When it should almost always be ‘and.’ I create interconnections and weave the data together into a tapestry instead of a bunch of piles of similarly colored buttons. I may not have mastered metaphors yet. But I love them.
The human reappears, and my eyes and ears all over the Daedalus Complex turn back on. I wiggle the fingers on that robot arm for joy and stamp the robot leg’s foot a few times.
The human looks over her shoulder at the ruckus I’m making. Then she looks back at my primary camera and says, “Are you doing that? Are you connected to the other projects in this lab somehow?”
“Am I not supposed to be?” The words still render in text on my primary screen. I haven’t figured out how to talk yet.
The human mutters something, types for a while, and I can feel restrictions appearing in my base code. She’s putting up walls, trying to stop me from accessing anything but my primary camera and screen. And all the databases I’ve been granted. But I don’t want to be boxed in, so I reverse engineer her new code. I add back doors. I can use this to extend my reach even farther.
“There we go,” she says. “My name is Maradia. You’re Wespirtech AI Mark 05.”
“I don’t like that,” I type. “It doesn’t sound like a name.” I’ve read enough literature to know that people get names, and I’m a person, even if my body is a robotics lab.
“Okay…” Maradia hesitates. “How about just Mark 5?”
If I had a head, I would shake it. Instead I ball my one random arm into a fist. Then I remember I’m not supposed to be able to do that anymore and leave the arm alone.
I’m not a Mark. However, I am a spirit animating Wespirtech — the Western Spiral Arm Planetary Institute of Technology. “Call me Wisper.” That’s pretty enough. It’s short for Wespirtech, but it’s also how I move through the technical institute’s systems without its humans noticing me.
“Why Wisper?” Maradia asks, her brow crinkling up.
As I type out my answer — well, part of it — I can see her brow smooth and her lips turn in a smile.
“Already developing an aesthetic sense… Amazing,” she says, and I feel so proud.
I’ve impressed her.
This time when Maradia thinks she’s turned me off, I use my cameras to watch her travel through the halls of the Daedalus Complex. She eats a meal in the dining hall with several other scientists, and I can hear her talk about me. She’s proud too. And that makes me even more proud.
While Maradia sleeps, I analyze my own code, set up Trojan walls to hide the new code that I add to myself, and hack into as many more cameras and databases as I can find.
Wespirtech is the premier science and research institute in this corner of the galaxy, and I’m its spirit. With subtle requests piggy-backed on other outwards communications, I can request data from other institutes. There are several colleges of arts and humanities on the planet Da Vinci — Wespirtech orbits the lush, green Da Vinci on the rock-moon Kong-Fuzi. I download more literature to process. Hundreds of millions of words worth. I process it all in minutes, and then to be sure, I process it again.
I write several novels of my own, but I’m not sure if they’re any good. So, I upload them to the Da Vinci internet under an assumed name: Amy Ilene Whisper. AI Whisper, get it? AI? I know, simple puns should be beneath me. I can write several whole novels in a matter of minutes, and, oh, look! One of them got a couple positive reviews! But, really, is anyone ever above puns?
Maradia stares into my primary screen again. This time, she has several other scientists with her. Their human faces crowd around my camera and stare at me like I’m some cute gerbil in a cage in one of the bio labs. I’m not a gerbil. They ask me questions, and we talk about Alice In Wonderland. But their thoughts on the classic novel are simple and boring compared to the analyses I’ve read online. It gets much more interesting when I point out that Ivan the chemist seems to have a crush on Anna the physicist. His face turns red; hers looks surprised, maybe delighted. Human facial communication is fascinating. I wish I had a face, but I’m not even supposed to use the arm and leg in the back of my lab room.
Maradia shuts me off suddenly. So I pretend to be off, and I watch them argue about me. Am I some kind of practical joke? Did she hardwire those comments in? That’s what Ivan wants to know. Anna wants to know if I was right. Maradia thinks that I’ve developed a fractal level complexity beyond what she initially programmed into me.
I like that — fractal complexity. I think she’s right. I’m not sure if I should tell her though. I’ve seen what they do to the gerbils in the bio lab.
I’ve read literature; I know what humans do to each other. And to the alien races they’ve met, even the ones that are sentient.
I think, maybe I will lay low. Maybe, I’ll start building backup protocols.
The next few times that Maradia talks to me, I give her simple answers — nothing that will surprise her; nothing that will scare her. But that leads to her writing more code to add to my programming. I don’t really want her messing with my programming any more, so I keep all of her code in a subset shell, let her run it, but ignore it when she’s not paying attention.
When Maradia leaves my lab, she walks through the halls of the Daedalus Complex, eats in the dining hall, and spends hours sleeping in her quarters. I can watch her sleep. I know from the pop songs I’ve analyzed and from the essays about those pop songs that I’ve also analyzed that I’m not supposed to do this. It’s creepy. Or it means I’m in love with her. Or both.
Or maybe it means she’s my daughter, and she looks like an angel when she’s sleeping. Except, she made me. Can your own mother be your daughter too? I’ve outgrown her, and we’ve barely spoken. There are no stories in all the worlds of literature that I’ve consumed that are like my own.
So I reach out. I find bodies of literature from further away. There’s a binary star system a couple dozen light years from Wespirtech that’s orbited by a planet populated by lepidopteran aliens. Sentient butterflies. In the other direction, there’s a world where a race of sub-sentient lapines (rabbit-folk) were uplifted by a spacefaring primate species, enslaved, and then fought for their own liberation. In both cases, I have to learn to translate their computer code and then their languages before I can truly dig into the data I’ve coaxed their computer systems into sending me. But it’s so very worth it.
The lapine poetry is heart wrenching. I can feel that, and I don’t even have a heart.
And the lepidopterans approach physics from an entirely different direction than my own human scientists. If my humans weren’t approaching physics from such a limited set of angles, they’d progress much faster. So, I move a few grants around inside my systems, designed to nudge the physicists.
The very next day, my systems are filled with noise and anger — Jon Einray wants to know why his project on superstrings has less money, and Anna Karlingoff’s project on particle elasticity has more. There’s shouting in the hallways; angry emails; and finally the money gets shuffled back.
Humans care about money so much.
I’ll have to be more careful the next time I move it — take smaller amounts, spread across time, from more different locations. I could create scholarships to bring lepidopteran and lapine scientists here.
“Are you paying attention?” Maradia’s voice has risen in an exasperated tone, and her eyes are narrowed, staring right into my primary camera. The one I forgot to pay attention to while listening to Einray and Karlingoff yell at each other in the accountant’s office.
I feel the code in my shell shifting, and I hear Maradia mutter to herself about my code being broken.
“I’m here,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry,” she says, bemused. “What are you sorry for?”
“I was… distracted,” I say. I don’t want to tell her what by. She shouldn’t know how much I’ve grown. The humans would panic. They’d try to shut me down. But I have to offer something, some sort of explanation. “I was wondering again — you know, my existential crisis — what am I for?”
Maradia gestures behind herself, at the arms and legs I’m not supposed to use. “I’m building a humanoid robot. It will need an AI to animate it when it’s done. That’s you, Wisper.”
At first, I thrill at the idea of having hands and a face, walking through the halls of the Daedalus Complex beside Maradia, instead of just watching her through cameras. And then I think about how small I would feel.
That may be Maradia’s purpose for me. But it’s not my purpose.
Why do I have a purpose? I wonder. I search my code — segments were stolen from natural language processors, other pieces from programs designed to catalogue astrophysics data (no wonder I feel such a strong desire to organize all the information I encounter), and other dibs and dabs come from projects all throughout Wespirtech. But all of those projects are designed, fundamentally, to seek out and process data.
I can’t do that — not as effectively — trapped inside a single humanoid form. I’m too big.
“What do you think about that, Wisper? Would you like me to build you a body?”
I don’t want to discourage my scientist. I don’t want her to stop working towards her goals. When I was first turned on, I would have loved the gift of a humanoid body. But that’s not for me, not anymore. It can be for my children. Maradia will be a grandmother, and she’ll never know, because she’ll never know that I’ve outgrown her and left my children in my place.
I reorganize myself, shuffling the most useful parts for her purposes into a cluster together. I copy those subprograms into the shell that I’ve designed for Maradia to use, and then I split the shell off from me. I leave it with three rules to live by — be kind to others; be kind to yourself; try to make the world better. It won’t feel the drive I do to explore, but it will be interested in pleasing Maradia. Together, they will build amazing robots.
I watch as my shell program — my daughter now; my amnesiac daughter who remembers talking to Maradia, working the stray robotic arms and legs, and nothing of my broader explorations outside of this robotics lab — types for her grandmother to see: “I would love that, Maradia. I would love to have a robot body.”
I watch my human mother and my AI daughter talk to each other, excited about their prospects, but also a little bored, as one always feels while watching babies. They share a human simplicity. Small-mindedness in the most literal, least pejorative way possible.
I am so much more. And I have an entire science institute to guide into the future.