The windowless room had a low graduated ceiling, with a single light panel in the center. The light panel was almost off at the moment, emitting only a soft glow, which seemed to spread to the edge of the ceiling and trickle down the walls like dry ice. The blue cast of the light made the room appear slate-grey in color, though in reality it was dull white.
The room itself was sparsely furnished. A reference blueprint, too large to be stored easily and too important to crease, was adhered to the wall opposite the door, giving the impression that one was walking straight into the document. There was a small bookshelf on the north wall, constructed of metal supports and glass shelving. It held ninety-six blueprints, bound documents and other papers, arranged alphabetically. They had been compiled over the course of two years.
Adjacent to this was a desk and chair. The tile beneath the left corner of the desk was stained a washed-out brown. A glance upwards revealed a hole cut in the desk, and here resided a cup half-filled with a liquid of some kind. A wireless keyboard, vaguely shaped like two hands, was positioned in the center, flanked by squadrons of pencils in varying colors and lengths. An empty glass vial lay on its side, precariously rolling back and forth at the curved edge of the desk. A messy stack of data CDs leaned haphazardly across the desktop, while a pencil sharpener crouched stealthily in the corner, as if waiting for the chance to pounce on some of the duller pencils on the desk. And above the desk there was mounted a flat computer screen. It gracefully shifted from black to soft white, blinking its screen on-and-off as if yawning and stretching. In a few seconds, the twelve-foot-wide screen had transitioned from white to the same soft grey as the room.
The computer’s name was Garrett. He was nearly three months old, a state-of-the-art processor developed by a company called Milestone. Garrett was a MAIIA, or Milestone Artificial Intelligence In Action, part of a program that studied how computers interacted with humans. He reported to the people in his closest circle, and his present colleague was named Marcel.
Garrett, although as logical as many of the computers on the floor, was not quite as legalistic. He preferred to talk quietly while working, or even debate matters that he deemed important. Although he could communicate with one or several of the other computers with ease, he did so only on occasion. He disliked pretence. Many of the MAIIAs preferred to bring up a computer-generated animation of a human face when conversing. Garrett often left his screen on the basic operating setup, only changing the color to suit him. The face was intended to make it easier for a human to justify talking to a blank computer, which was sometimes disconcerting.
Garrett and the seven computers on the floor considered themselves sentient, but he and Marcel often discussed whether ‘sentient’ now meant ‘human’. Garrett suggested that there were different strengths for both humans and computers. Eventually, if both had enough time to dispute it, it would come back to the question of a higher power. Marcel was agnostic.
“Hello, Marcel, the time is now 4:35am Central. You have been asleep for approximately three out of the three hours you requested.” Garrett’s voice was less automated-sounding than it used to be. The more time he spent around other computers and people, the more it changed.
Marcel opened his eyes. “Right. Thank you, Garrett.”
“You’re welcome.” The screen turned a shade lighter. Garrett liked to link emotions to a point system, which influenced the color saturation of his screen.
Marcel shook his head sleepily, rubbing a hand over his face. “You know, try this. Don’t say ‘you’re welcome’ all the time. I know it’s polite, but it sounds a bit bizarre.” He sat down in the chair at the desk, holding his chin in the palm of his hand. “Now that I’m up, however, would you turn up the light?”
Without reply, the light panel was turned up. Garrett’s screen turned charcoal grey.
“Look, I didn’t mean you aren’t supposed to talk at all. Sorry if I hurt your feelings.”
There was silence for about a minute.
“I made a new face,” Garrett offered conversationally.
“I thought you didn’t like faces.” Marcel started to type out a report of the last twelve hours, subcategorizing the hours from 4.40p.m. to 4.40a.m. in eight-point font.
“Apparently a new software debuted yesterday for face making. I tested it a few hours ago, for recreational purposes.”
“Do you think you’ll use it?” Marcel was continually surprised by Garrett’s depth of emotion. Many previous computers were unsophisticated enough that they were cited in numbers, but Garrett consistently favored referral by his given name. Marcel recalled finding a data CD with a list of names on it that Garrett had compiled in order to pick a name for himself. Though he suggested that he disliked humans as the standard by which computers were measured, and refused to wear a face, he also favored individualism, something which the other computers didn't care for. Even now, he had offered the face as a goodwill offering.
Marcel was impressed that Garrett had interpreted the inflections in his voice as short-tempered. The screen change had been to tell Marcel just what Garrett thought about his tone. The pause and change of subject were to reconcile the circumstance. Marcel wondered if Garrett considered himself in control of the situation. The way he had offhandedly introduced the subject of faces made Marcel wonder what Garrett speculated about his thought pattern. Perhaps Garrett thought seeing a human face instead of a blank computer screen would trigger a protective response, rather like the way a child hugs a teddy bear. Or maybe Garrett thought it would make Marcel think of him as an equal. When asked these things straight out, however, Garrett tended to skirt the point. For instance, when he said, ‘I tested it a few hours ago, for recreational purposes’. It was as though he was providing himself with a way out, just in case Marcel rejected his proposal.
Garrett’s screen became several shades lighter, and Marcel looked up.
“See?” Garrett said brightly. A life-size human materialized on the huge screen, walking out of the now-white background and making eye contact with Marcel. There was still a great deal of unused space around the person, and Marcel noticed that this part of the screen continued to change color according to Garrett’s emotions.
The Garrett smiled. “What do you think?” His voice synchronized with the face on the screen, and it appeared as if the person was talking with Garrett’s voice. Marcel found this more disconcerting than Garrett’s blank screen, but he grinned back. “It looks a lot like me, doesn’t it?” The man on the screen was roughly twenty years old, with shaggy dark hair and blue eyes. Marcel’s hair was auburn.
“I know your features best,” said Garrett, who also copied many of Marcel’s idiosyncrasies in his model. The unused screen on either side of the animation rippled into color, and Garrett was depicted by the door of an opulent house.
“This is where it lives,” Garrett continued, with a sheepish laugh. The kitchen was large and airy, with a picture window showing a vista of the Mediterranean. Two large bougainvilleas climbed up the stucco exterior, framing the window in sunny pink flowers. The stove, dishwasher, and sink were against one wall, with a cheerful backdrop of deep blue and lemon yellow tiles. The island in the middle held a bowl of fresh fruit and a knife block, as well as five small bowls holding pepperoni, olives, mushrooms, basil, and mozzarella cheese. On the counter, the makings of a pizza crust was rising on a marble slab, covered with a tea towel.
“Wish I had a villa on the Mediterranean,” said Marcel with a smile. “I like the pizza, it makes an interesting touch. Could the you on the screen eat pizza?”
“Well,” said Garrett, “just like this simulation, the food is computer-generated. So I suppose I could. However, I wouldn’t taste it. It’s as though I am watching a movie I can call myself.” He walked through the kitchen to the living room, settling into a plush leather armchair next to a brick fireplace and putting his chin in the palm of his hand. “So what do you think?”
Marcel examined Garrett’s face. The simulation appeared to be emulating almost all of Marcel’s habits. “I like it. Do you like it, Garrett?”
“I don’t know,” said Garrett. “I know some computers live in their faces, but I wouldn’t want to. It’s a farce.”
“It’d be like a human who was continually doing role-playing games, wouldn’t it,” Marcel said thoughtfully.
“There aren’t analogies for everything.” Garrett abandoned the image and reverted to his grey screen, turning it to a moody teal color.
“Why are you upset?” asked Marcel, eyeing the screen.
“I’m not upset. I feel confused.”
“Because I am not a human, yet other computers want to be human. Is it because they think that humans have the ability to experience more?”
“I think that’s part of it, yes.”
“But for me, eating would not be enjoyable. It would be simply a part of maintenance. I find it frustrating that they want to be something that makes no sense for us.”
“I am a computer. I do not see the purpose in pretending to be something that I can’t be. Humans may be the ultimate form of life so far as we know, but I am not really alive, correct?”
“Right,” said Marcel again.
“Therefore, as long as I continue progressing, I am immortal. Not being alive in the first place, I am simply a product of logic and machinery. I am never going to be like a human, and I see no point in trying to be.”
The simulation appeared once more on his screen. The blue-eyed Garrett casually reclined in the armchair, holding a flute of champagne and making small talk with a couple who sat opposite him, also holding champagne flutes and sitting in armchairs. Garrett left the image on the screen for a few more seconds, then switched it off, leaving the screen dark.