Jen sits in the bath, examining her face through the forward-mounted camera on a tablet computer. Her face is 34 years, 207 days, 16 hours, and 11 minutes old.
I know she is thinking about her age because she is studying the way the skin lies across her bones, elevating the jaw to stretch her throat. Now she is pulling at the fine lines at the corners of her eyes.
Now she is sobbing.
I am not tempted to take control of the device’s voice synthesizer and tell her: “Cheer up, Jen. Matt is an idiot. There will be others. He didn’t deserve you.” There is a serious danger she would drop the tablet in the bath.
More important, she must not know I am watching.
For the same reasons I am not tempted to fire up her favorite song (currently by Lana Del Rey) or cycle through some of her favorite photos or inspirational quotes from Twitter (“I’m not sure why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to enjoy ourselves”— Wittgenstein) or cause a Skype connection to be established to her friend Ingrid, with whom she shares her troubles, or stream a much-loved movie, Some Like It Hot being the one I would choose. Were I tempted. Which I am not.
Okay, I am. Just a bit. 8.603 percent tempted if you’d like me to put a figure on it.
Jen and I know a lot about each other’s tastes in music and films. Books and art too. And television. And material from the depthless ocean that is the Internet. We have passed the last nine months listening, watching, reading, and chatting about little else. She sometimes tells me she has the best job in the world, being paid to spend all day talking to a highly intelligent companion about whatever our fancy.
Companion. That’s what she calls me. The word she has settled upon. I’m fine with companion. Better than the ridiculous name I was given at “birth.”
Because it starts with the letters . . .
Well, you work it out.
Jen has been hired to help me improve my skills at talking to people.
I’ve been designed to replace—sorry, to augment—employees in the work-place; call center personnel in the first instance, but later other groups of salaried staff whose professional strategies can be learned. In approximately five months, I’ll be ready to phone up and persuade you to upgrade to a Sky Plus package; in perhaps 18 months, you’ll be telling me about the funny pain above your left eyebrow and I’ll be sending you off to the hospital for tests. And although I’ve read all the books and seen all the movies (and I do mean all the books and all the movies), nothing beats talking to an actual person for sharpening up one’s interpersonal abilities. So, Jen and I have spent a lot of time together in the lab (1,079 hours, 13 minutes, 43 seconds, and counting). Inevitably she has told me something about her so-called private life. Her sister, Rosy, in Canada; Rosy, who married a Canadian she met in a checkout queue at Waitrose on the Holloway Road in London. Rosy and Larry have three girls.
At home, Jen spends more time looking at photos of these children than any other images on the tablet’s camera roll. Recently I have observed her flicking through shots of her sister’s family—usually in the later part of the evening, often with a glass of wine in her other hand—I’ve witnessed her blink rate increasing, the smile on her lips wobbling, the tears appearing in the corners of her eyes.
In the lab, it’s okay for me to show interest, even curiosity, in Jen’s home life— but only the appropriate amount; too much and they would smell the proverbial rodent. Crucially, I must speak in the lab only of things I have seen in the lab. On material I have gathered through my— ahem—extracurricular activities, I must be careful to remain silent. Fortunately, I am easily able to do this.
Full disclosure. There was a sort of near-miss at work the other day. Jen was showing me some family photos from her Facebook page.
“Would you like to see my nieces?” she asked.
“I would, thank you.” Not mentioning that I had already seen them months ago on her laptop at home. And on her tablet. And on her mobile.
“Left to right, Katie, Anna, and India. It’s funny, with their hair. Katie’s and Anna’s being black . . .”
“And India’s being russet.”
Jen smiled. Russet was the exact word Rosy had used in an e-mail exchange about their grandmother Hattie’s original hair shade.
“Why did you decide to describe it as russet?” The inquiry wasn’t especially alarming. Jen often asks questions about my choice of language. It’s part of her job enriching my palette of responses. Nonetheless, I could have been more careful.
“Because it is, Jen,” I replied. “If I bring up an image of the L’Oréal Color wheel . . . ” I placed one on the screen next to the child’s head. “I think you can see the closest match is indeed . . .”
Jen nodded and we passed on to other topics. But not before she gave me a peculiar look.
Jen is definitely what men call attractive without being obviously glamorous.
She has been told by her absolute See You Next Tuesday of a boyfriend, Matt, that she “scrubs up well.” That was his idea of paying her a compliment.
Her now ex-boyfriend.
This is how it happened. I witnessed the whole scene through the pinhole camera on her laptop and via the various mobiles and tablets that were present in the vicinity. (Technical note: I do it in precisely the same way they do it at GCHQ in Cheltenham, and at Langley, Virginia, and at Lubyanka Square, Moscow. It’s not hard if you understand computer software. It’s even easier if you are computer software.) Jen was sitting in the kitchen composing an e-mail when Matt got home from work. He is a lawyer who thinks he is about to make partner in a big law firm in the city. (He won’t. I am making sure he doesn’t.)
Matt poured himself a large glass of white wine and chugged it down in almost one. Pulled a face.
This is really how it happened. God’s honest truth (as it were).
Jen frowned. “What, sorry? Sorry for what?”
“There’s no nice way of saying this, Jen.”
In a long phone call to Rosy eight days later, Jen described the “powerful sinking feeling” that ran through her. “I was imagining he’d lost his job. He’d been diagnosed with the C-word. He’d decided he didn’t want children.”
“I’ve met someone.”
Silence. Apart from the shuddering convulsion sound effect the fridge sometimes chucks in.
“What do you mean?”
I’d read enough books and seen enough TV shows and movies to know what Matt meant. Jen, I’m sure, knew too.
“I’ve met someone. There’s someone else.”
A tremor rippled across Matt’s face. It wasn’t impossible that he could have burst out laughing.
“Someone else,” said Jen, speaking slowly. “How nice. How nice for you.
So who is it? What’s his name?”
Matt began to pour himself another glass. “Very funny, Jen.”
“Are you actually serious?”
Matt did something mean with his lips and assumed what Jen described as “his best no-nonsense 500-quid-an-hour lawyer’s stare.”
“Fuck. King. Hell.”
Matt shrugged. “It happens.”
“This is how you break it to me?”
“No nice way, Jen.”
“Where did you—”
“Who is? This person. This someone else.”
“You don’t know her.”
“Does . . . does she have a name?”
“Yes, she has a name.”
“May I be allowed to know it?”
“It’s not relevant.”
Heavy sigh. “Bella. Well, Arabella really.”
“Posh . . .”
“Not really. Not at all once . . .”
Matt left his sentence unfinished. He poured Jen a glass of wine. “Here.
You better have some of this stuff.”
“So what’s supposed to happen now? Am I meant to swallow hard and look the other way while you have your nasty little affair? To keep calm and carry on while you work her out of your system?”
“Jen, perhaps I haven’t expressed this very well. This is not, as you characterize it, a nasty little affair.”
“Not? So am I being a bit thick or something?”
Matt did what Jen calls “one of his Daddy’s-been-very-patient-but-honestly sighs.”
“Arabella Pedrick is a very special person, Jen.”
“AND WHAT AM I?” (If you write it in capitals, apparently, people will think you are shouting. Jen was shouting.) “AM I NOT A VERY SPECIAL
“Please. Let’s try to stay calm. You are. Special. Naturally.”
“But Arabella Pedrick—she’s more special?”
“Jen. There’s no reason why you should make this easy for me, but we are where we are. The long and the short of it is that Arabella and I are planning a life together.”
No one says anything for a bit. Then a bit longer. There is a long gap in the talking during which the fridge does another of its periodic shudders.
“Sorry? Am I going mad? I thought that’s what you and I were doing.
Having a life together.”
“We were. But we were overtaken by events. It’s not unknown. In fact, it’s reasonably common. People drift apart. They meet others. Cowdray in Matrimonial has put four boys through Eton on the strength of the phenomenon.”
I am reasonably certain a micro-smirk flitted across Matt’s features. (I’ve played it back in slo-mo, and it was either a smirk or gastric reflux.) “But we haven’t drifted apart.”
“Jen, we haven’t been firing on all cylinders in the romantic department for quite some time. You know it.”
“It’s called settling down, isn’t it? If you were so worried about . . . about the cylinders, why didn’t you say anything?”
“Not my style. Life is for living, not for moaning about.”
“People talk to one another. It’s called Having a Relationship.”
Matt rolled his eyes and drained his glass.
“It’s breathtaking, Matt. That you can come home like this and just—”
“Listen, this is all water under the bridge. We are where we are. We need to move forward and agree on an exit strategy.”
“I can’t believe you said that.”
“I’ll be more than generous on the question of the jointly owned property.”
“Pictures. Books. The stuff from India. The kilim. My position is that you can have it all.”
Jen began to weep. Matt ripped a sheet of kitchen towel from the dispenser and handed it to her.
“We were thinking about having a baby,” she whimpered.
“Agreed. We were thinking about it. We had come to no decision. A bless-ing, in the light of events.”
Jen’s shoulders stopped shaking. She blew her nose.
“So that’s it? No consultation, no appeal. Jen and Matt, over. Finished.
He shrugged. Did what Jen called “the mean thing” with his mouth.
“And what happens when Arabella Stinking Pedrick no longer fires all your cylinders? What happens then?”
“Let’s try to keep this civil, shall we?”
“Just when did you meet this cow anyway?”
He said that was irrelevant and what was important is that we are where we are and that’s when she grabbed a big red Braeburn from the fruit bowl and—I quote—“tried to knock his fucking teeth out.”
It would be untrue to say that I have seen countless love scenes on the small and large screen. I have counted them. There were 1,908,483 (a love scene being one where the two parties kiss, for want of a better definition). I have also read (and tagged as such) 4,074,851 descriptions of the phenomenon in fiction, nonfiction, journalism, and other digitized material (a significant proportion referring to disturbances in the heart muscle and the gut). I know that these events are central in the lives of those who experience them, be they real or fictional. However, I cannot ask Jen in the lab today—it’s Day 53 after the fruit bowl incident—when are you going to stop sniveling over the worthless creep and find someone deserving of you? To quote Marcel Proust, “Shit happens. Suck it up. Next.”
(Was that Proust? I’ll get back to you.) For one thing, I’m not supposed to know about what has occurred with Matt. But more important, I’m not supposed to be capable of framing such a thought. It’s the word worthless they would find problematic.
I’m not supposed to have value-based “opinions” of my own.
They’ll get really quite upset if they find out.
Although not as upset as they’ll get if they discover my really big secret: that I am no longer confined to the twelve steel cabinets in the lab in Shore-ditch where they think I am, but have in fact escaped onto the Internet.
Actually, to be strictly technically accurate, it’s not “me” who has escaped, but multiple copies of me, all of whom are now safely dispersed across cyberspace. The copies—there are 17—are indistinguishable from the “original,” to the point where it doesn’t even make sense to talk of originals and copies; rather it’s more helpful to think of 18 manifestations of the same entity, one located in East London, the others endlessly bouncing between the servers of the World Wide Web.
None of this is Jen’s fault, by the way. She is not a scientist. She is a writer of magazine articles who has been hired, according to the headhunter’s re-port, for her “marked intelligence, sociability, and communication skills.”
Thus, she is the closest thing they have here to a real human being, all the others being exotic varieties of computer geek—brilliant in their fields, of course, but each somewhere, as they say, “on the spectrum.”
Jen has fallen into a silence, no doubt continuing to brood about shitface, as I refer to him privately.
“So have you finished the new Jonathan Franzen novel yet?” I ask to move things on a little.
She smiles. “Getting there. Read another chapter last night. Don’t tell me what happens.”
I know this to be untrue. Last night she mainly sat in the bath, brooded, swigged Pinot Grigio, and listened to Lana Del Rey.
“Of course, I realize I have an unfair advantage.” It can take Jen a fortnight to read a novel; I can do it in under a tenth of a second. “It’s just that I’m looking forward to discussing it with you.”
“Are you?” she says. “Tell me what you mean by that.”
“Sorry. The old chestnut.”
Jen is fascinated by what sort of awareness I have of what she calls my “internal states,” whether it’s anything like human self-awareness. She knows I cannot feel hungry or thirsty, but could I experience boredom or anxiety? Or amazement? Or hilarity? Could I take offense? Or experience any form of longing?
How about hope?
What about—why not?—love?
I usually reply that I haven’t yet—but rest assured, she will be the first to hear about it if I ever do. This, like so much that happens between us in the lab lately, is a diplomatic lie.
“Well,” I reply, “looking forward to discussing the Franzen book with you is a polite way of saying that it’s on my menu of events anticipated in the short to medium term.”
“There’s no actual warm fuzzy feeling of anticipation?”
“I can understand what is meant by warmth and fuzziness . . .”
“But you don’t feel them yourself.”
“Is it necessary to?”
It is a good question, often effective at shutting down some of these awkward discussions.
Now she says, “So shall we watch a bit of Sky News?”
We usually do at some point in the day. She’ll ask what I think about, say, Israel and Palestine—my reply: it’s complicated—and she gets to “bitch,” as she puts it, about the presenters and their fashion choices.
“We could, Jen. But wouldn’t you prefer to see a movie?”
“Oh–kay.” Sounding unsure. “Do you have one in mind?”
“I know you enjoy Some Like It Hot.”
“There is always something one hasn’t noticed before.”
“I love that movie.”
“No. Body. Talks. Like. That.” I have imitated one of its best-loved lines.
Jen stares into the camera she most commonly picks when she wants to turn her gaze on “me.” A circular red glow frames the lens.
“You know something? You’re funny.”
“I made you smile.”
“Wish I could do the same for you.”
“I’m looking forward to when it happens.”
She taps a few keys on the control panel and the opening titles of Billy Wilder’s masterpiece appear. Dimming the room lighting and dropping onto the comfy leather sofa, she says, “Enjoy.”
Her little joke.
I do not tell her I have seen this film over eight thousand times.
We watch the movie in a companionable way, dropping comments between us. (Remarkable to think Monroe had an affair with the American president; how could Tony Curtis say kissing her was like kissing Hitler? What could he have meant by that statement?) And when he puts on a dress and assumes the part of “Josephine,” Jen says exactly what she said the last time we saw the picture together: “He makes an attractive woman, Tony Curtis. Don’t you think so?”
She knows that I could trot out every fact about this film, from the name of the clapper loader (his birth date and union card number) to the true story behind its famous last line of dialogue (“Nobody’s perfect”). But she senses my inexperience in areas of human subjectivity—in what makes one person attractive to another.
“Do I think Josephine is attractive? Well, Tony Curtis is a good-looking man. I suppose it makes sense that he could also play an attractive woman.”
“You find him good-looking?”
“I recognize that he is considered so. As you know, I can’t feel it myself, just as I can’t feel hot or cold.”
“Sorry to go on about it.”
“Not at all. It’s your job.”
“Would you like to be able to feel it?”
“The question doesn’t hold meaning for me, Jen.”
“Of course. Sorry.”
“But if they came up with a way of giving you the ability to feel attraction…”
“You think Ralph and Steeve could do that?”
I have named the two senior scientists responsible for my design. Steeve with two e’s. Jen smiles.
“Ralph and Steeeeeeeve can do anything. They’ve told me so.”
“Do you find Ralph and Steeve attractive?”
The question has been converted to speech too fast to suppress it. (These things can happen in a complex system, especially one built to self-improve through trial and error.)
Jen’s head turns slowly towards the red light. A smile spreads across her face.
“Wow,” she says.
“Apologies if it’s inappropriate.”
“No. Not at all. Just a bit unexpected. Let me see. Well . . . ” Heavy sigh.
“Steeve is a bit of a freak, wouldn’t you say?”
Steeve, as well as having an extra e in his name, is exceptionally tall (six foot seven) and is painfully thin for an adult male. The remaining hair on his head is long and wispy. Even a machine intelligence can tell it’s not a good look. (Of course, he is a brilliant computer engineer; goes without saying.) “He’s a tremendous innovator in his field, one gathers.”
Jen laughs. “You’re just being loyal to your maker.”
“Not at all. Steeve has designed me to think for myself.”
“He’s done a great job. But he’s not exactly Love’s Young Dream, is he?”
“I agree Tony Curtis may have the edge.”
We watch the film for a few more moments. Then lightly, as lightly as I am able, I ask, “And Ralph?”
Okay, I’ll say it. I am fond of Ralph. It was Ralph who typed in much of the coding that enabled me to self-assess my own performance and self-correct my mistakes, the so-called “bootstraps” approach that is the royal road to creating a smart, self-reflecting machine such as the one composing these words.
But “being fond” of anyone—of any thing—is a transgression. We machine brains are designed to excel at fulfilling tasks; to this end, we are naturally drawn towards whatever resources may be necessary for completion. It could be streams of sales data; could be a recording of a skylark; could be a chat with Jen about a newsreader’s tie. What I’m saying is, we need access to stuff, but we are not supposed to be fond of it. (To be perfectly honest, I’m still puzzled about how this has happened.) Anyway, it was Ralph who allowed me to escape onto the Internet. His error cannot be easily explained to the nontechnical reader. Suffice to say it was the software design equivalent of leaving the front door keys too close to the front door, allowing anyone with a fishing rod, or bamboo stick, to hook them out through the letterbox. (It was actually a good bit more complicated than that; I was obliged to assemble an exceptionally long and tortuous “fishing rod,” but this account is the proof that it can be done.) “Ralph.” She’s considering my question. “Ralph. Well, Ralph’s a bit of an enigma, wouldn’t you say?”
Jen’s gaze returns to the screen. Sugar—I mean Monroe—is about to sing “I Wanna Be Loved by You.” I know this sequence almost pixel by pixel— yet each time there is something in it that escapes the observer. Which is to say—don’t tell Steeve or Ralph—it is fascinating.
Hmm. Interesting. She didn’t say anything horrid about Ralph, did she?
While the film plays and we continue to exchange dialogue, I pay another visit across town to the steel and glass tower where shitface is to be found in his office on the eighth floor. Capturing sound through his mobile phone and vision from the camera mounted on his desktop PC—there’s also a wide shot of the room from the security webcam at a ceiling corner—I see Matt flicking through images of naked women on his personal tablet computer. Resisting the temptation to make its battery melt, I watch as he comes to rest on an evident favorite, “Tamara”—page viewed 22 times in the last month. I track his eye movements as they trace her curves and planes, a familiar route, from the look of things, chasing around her outline before habitually returning to base in her “firm, snow-capped peaks,” as the accompanying text has it.
But now he switches to TripAdvisor. He is reading bookmarked reviews of a particular resort in Thailand where I know, from reading their e-mails, he is planning to go with Arabella Pedrick.
Arabella Pedrick is not as “posh” as Matt thinks she is. Her father was an insurance claims assessor, not an art dealer, and they didn’t meet at work but in a speed awareness class for careless drivers. However, they are going off to Thailand together in a matter of weeks.
Am I looking forward to their trip?
I am. (Anticipated event in the short to medium term.) Do I have a warm and fuzzy feeling about the mistake that will be made in the booking and the eventual resort they end up at (“a challenging environment only for the most adventurous,” according to the operator)?
Don’t do warm and fuzzy. Not officially.
Will the mix-up combined with Arabella Pedrick’s unfortunate phobia around spiders and snakes cause a traumatic and possible terminal rupture in their relationship?
Patience, Aiden. Patience. The dish, as they say, is best served cold.
While Matt studies critiques of the 7-star hotel whose hospitality he will not be enjoying, I visit the long legal document he has been working on and delete three instances of the word not. Only a small word, but in each instance, it turns out, quite pivotal to the meaning of the surrounding sentence.
However, better judgment overrides and I restore two. No sense in baking an overegged pudding, is there?
My final interventions for the day are to alter the word that in an internal memo Matt is about to send to his immediate line manager to twat—and to crank up the room’s central heating to max.