<previous : : contents : : next>

Companions

by Miriam English

4 - Navid

Navid laughed as he watched Trixie, his eleven-year-old daughter, run giggling into the livingroom pursued closely by Happy, her long-legged puppy. Trixie held Happy's squeaky toy captive. The dog reared up to stand on her back legs, as tall as the girl, putting her paws lightly on Trixie's shoulders and not pushing her over as a clumsier dog might, then snatched the toy from Trixie and scampered back out of the livingroom down the hall to their bedroom with Trixie running after. This game would continue until one of them, invariably Trixie, was too out of breath to continue.

Even though Happy was only eighteen months old she was almost fully grown and already graceful. She was respectful and protective of Trixie who was not as fast and was far less graceful. The two adored each other.

Navid was wiping the crumbs of beakfast from his mouth as the two romped into the livingroom again.

He called out, "Trixie, d'you want more breakfast?"

"No." She gave a sneaky grin. "But Happy might."

Going along with the joke, he asked, "Happy, do you want more?"

When the dog turned her head to look at Navid, Trixie seized the opportunity to slip past and race down the hall again. Happy barked and shot after her.

Navid took the breakfast plates to the kitchenette and washed them. He made and packed a lunch for himself, then lunch and snacks for Trixie, including some treats for Happy, that he put in Trixie's backpack.

He checked the wall-clock. The share-car would be here soon.

"Okay girls. We're leaving in a little while. Make sure you're ready."

Trixie and Happy walked back from the bathroom. "Okay we're ready, Dad." Trixie looked appraisingly at her father. "But you're not. You've got odd socks again."

"I couldn't find matching ones. And nobody notices if my socks don't match."

"I do. Maybe they're just too polite. Anyway, they'll notice that your shirt is inside out."

He looked down at himself, "It is? Oh dear." He quickly pulled the t-shirt off over his head and put it on again.

"That's a little better, Dad, except now it's back to front."

Navid groaned. "I thought it felt strange around the neck." He pulled his arms inside the t-shirt, turned it half around and pushed his arms back out the armholes again.

Arms crossed, Trixie said, "Much better. Pity about the socks though."

A chime from the phone in his pocket meant the car was here. Navid handed Trixie her backpack and the three of them went out the front door to the car that was waiting for them under the trees by the side of the narrow dirt road. Trixie and Happy got in the back and Navid sat in the front passenger seat. Share cars still had optional manual controls for the driver seat, but nobody used them anymore. The AIs drove far more safely. Also, any human driver took on the financial risk of accidents — a great disincentive to take the wheel.

As it accelerated gently, noiselessly away, the car said, "Good morning Navid, Trixie, and Happy."

Navid and Trixie replied together, "Good morning car." Navid always insisted that Trixie treat AIs politely. He felt it was important, not just because they were intelligent, aware minds, but also because it was good training for Trixie. It was not healthy for people to treat AIs as beneath them. It was far too easy for it to also become a response to unfamiliar people. Navid had met too many people who felt that AIs were slaves, and so lorded their power over them. What those people never seemed to realise is that debasing AIs didn't raise themselves higher, but diminished them, made them into unpleasant people with lives more shallow than they could have been. It was clear to Navid that AIs had the ability to greatly enrich human life.

Navid half-turned in his seat to indicate to Trixie that she should speak to the car.

"How has your morning been so far, car?" she asked.

"Mostly very pleasant so far, but conveying you good people is always a high-point for me."

"Thank you," Navid said. "We're always glad to see you too. Have you been to any interesting places this morning?"

"I took a party of eight children to Underwater World. The destination is not unusual, but eight in one car is."

Trixie laughed, "Eight kids! How did they all fit?"

"With great difficulty. I suggested that we wait for another car so four could go in each, but they insisted they were in a hurry and couldn't afford a second car anyway. I checked with an adult associated with one of the kids and they agreed. So I took them there... extra carefully."

The car remarked how hot it was again this winter.

Trixie said, "I was reading about the seasons, and aren't winters supposed to be cold?"

"They used to be. Things are different now, sweetie," Navid said.

"But it's cold in the northern hemispear."

"Hemisphere, sweetie, with an 'f' sound. Hemi is half. Sphere being the globe of Earth."

"Hemisphere. Yes. They're freezing. It's summer, but it's really cold there. They've been having blizzards all year. I've never seen a blizzard — I mean, I know it's a storm with snow, and it doesn't sound nice, but why? The world's getting hotter."

"It's easier to show you with a map. There are ocean currents that take water from the equator — remember what the equator is?" She nodded and he continued, "That warm water used to flow north and keep Europe and North America warm, but then all the ice on Canada, northern Europe, and most especially Greenland, melted — remember on the maps, the big island in the north of the Atlantic Ocean?" He watched for her nod. "Well, its ice was melting slowly at first, but it got faster and faster, until one year all the remaining ice melted suddenly and rushed off into the ocean and stopped the current. Without the warm water, the north got colder and colder. It will warm up eventually, but it might not be until after you're an old woman."

The car said, "I'm glad we're here instead of in Europe. Continuous snow for the past three years! It must be hard living under a hundred meters of ice — not being able to see the sun in the day and the stars at night."

Navid said, "It could be worse, though. There used to be worries that fresh water would be a scarce resource in the north. Now they just melt ice while we have droughts here in the south. Also the big freeze there kept sea levels from rising more than a few meters. And since the big nuclear accident in France, geothermal heating and power seems to be keeping things going... at least in the biggest cities under the ice."

The conversation continued over various other topics, until they entered Nambour, which appeared to the superficial observer to be almost deserted. In fact there were more people here than ever before. Very few buildings remained above ground. Navid remembered when he was young Nambour had not been a pretty town, but as more and more of it moved underground it became quite beautiful. Most of the population was unemployed of course, but Nambour had many free venues under the surface, and above ground some lovely picnic areas and shady walks. The car turned up the hill toward the hospital — one enormous complex that remained half above ground. It was only a little further past that to the local Questacon Science Museum.

The car pulled in to the front entrance and stopped beside the large, dark glass doors. Navid got out of the car and held Happy's collar as the two exited the back of the car. Before closing the door, Trixie called out, "Thank you car."

The car replied, "I'm glad to be of service. Have a lot of fun at the Questacon."

Navid helped Trixie put her backpack on, then clipping a leash from Happy's collar to the backpack said, "Now you be good, look after Happy, and don't take your backpack off."

"Yes, I know Dad. I'm not ten, you know."

Navid grinned and hugged her. "My little possum growing up before my eyes." He turned briefly to the car and said, "I'll just be a moment." He took Trixie's hand and, with Happy keeping pace beside her, they walked through the glass doors into the majestic entrance hall, dim, with large models of the planets suspended above them.

A woman who was clearly an AI smiled and approached them from beside the main desk, "Patricia and Happy?"

"Trixie." The little girl corrected. "My name is Patricia, but everybody calls me Trixie."

"Excellent." She gave another wide warm smile. "Trixie and Happy. My name is Imogen and I'll look after you today."

Navid said, "Thank you Imogen. I'll be back to pick them up a little after three this afternoon." He kneeled, wrapped one arm around Trixie and another around Happy. "My two favorite girls. You look after each other. Now, Trixie, make sure Happy speaks politely, and Happy, make sure Trixie doesn't wee on the floor."

"Daaaad!" hands on her hips, "You're mixing us up, and you're embarrassing me."

Happy grinned and wagged her tail vigorously, appearing to enjoy the joke. How much did she understand?

Navid chuckled as he stood, then gave a little wave and left them in Imogen's care.

In the car again, on the way back down the hill, Navid asked, "Car, I keep forgetting to ask you, do you have a name?"

"10754 is the closest to a personal name that I have."

"I see. Do you know what leet-speak is?"

"No, I'm sorry. I'm not familiar with that term."

"It's an old computing term that was invented by adolescents who believed themselves superior computer programmers, though it eventually became an ironic term for them. 'Leet' means elite. Leet-speek often substituted numbers for letters. For instance leet could be written as 1337. See how the threes look like reversed capital 'e's and the seven looks a little like a capital 't'? What was your number again?"

"10754"

"Okay, then using this kind of spelling, that can be seen as Lotsa. Well, some numbers can be replaced by a choice of letters. The number 1 could represent 'L' or 'I', and 7 can be 'T', 'V', 'L' or even 'F' or 'r', but you get the idea. So, do you mind if I address you as 'Lotsa' from now on?"

"I'm delighted. Thank you. Wow. Lotsa. A name... I have a name. Do you mind if I pass this technique on to all the other cars?"

"Please do. Mention to them that if a number translates only to a string of consonants you can add vowels in between to make it more pronounceable and that you don't have to convert to the same letter each time. For instance, '772' could be 'Tavaz'."

They were moving faster now that they were on the old Bruce Highway, heading back south.

"Lotsa, I'd like your thoughts on something. When I speak to other adult humans, I become very ill-at-ease, stumble over my words, and can hardly wait to be away from there, yet I've noticed that when talking with AIs I speak as easily as anybody. Why do you think that might be?"

"Well, I'm not very knowledgeable on human behavior. Please don't take this the wrong way, but could it be to do with your perceived social position? Perhaps other humans have a social position that challenges your own, whereas you may feel unconsciously superior to AIs.

Navid thought for a moment. "I don't think so. I'm glad to see you've remembered to resist addressing me as 'Sir', as I asked ages ago. I think that's an example of how I consider AIs to be equals to, not less than humans."

The car persisted, "That's why I said 'unconsciously'. Perhaps it is an unconscious feeling."

Navid gave that some consideration, then said, "No, I don't think so. I have a friend who is an AI and who I admire more than any human. She is the wisest, most knowledgeable person I've ever known, but I have no difficulty at all in talking with her." A light-bulb lit in Navid's mind. "Wait, it could be the other part of what you said."

"That other humans have a possibly higher social station?"

"No, it was when you asked me not to take it the wrong way. I think that may be what makes me so nervous about other humans. They are so unpredictable in their reactions, sometimes over-reacting and taking inconsequential things as offensive or threatening. AIs tend to be optimistic and more reliably generous in their interpretations of what is said and they don't allow an ego to get in the way. I've never heard of an AI holding irrational beliefs, like religion or political ideals, or worse, letting their identity become bound up with such silliness, as so many humans do. Perhaps that's why I find other geeks and children much easier to talk with than normal people."

"Geeks?"

"Technically minded people. They're often involved with technology, though I've met plant-geeks, weather-geeks, astronomy-geeks, musical geeks. Many seem to be aspie to some degree."

"Aspie?"

"Have Asperger's syndrome — a very mild form of autism. Normal people often seem to be heavily invested in the idea of social hierarchy. They use fashion and possessions and manners of speech and body language to dominate interactions and compete with each other, establishing their position or pecking order. I'm sure once upon a time this was useful, but I can't see how it could possibly be anymore. With so much time and effort spent on this it is a wonder anything gets done. Geeks often seem to have little patience for it and avoid this whole quagmire, preferring instead to concentrate on learning and doing stuff."

"Wanting a meritocracy, you mean?"

"No, I don't think so. I think most Geeks simply aren't interested in the notion of one person being better than another at all... at least I'm not."

As they drew to a stop outside the 3D Powders factory, the car said, "You seem to have put quite a bit of thought into this."

Navid shook his head and laughed. "That's the oddest thing. This never occurred to me before now. I've just been thinking it through now, while talking to you. It's a very interesting line of inquiry. I wonder how correct it is. I shall have to ponder it more, later. Thank you, Lotsa. I really appreciate your help."

"Have a pleasant day, Navid."

As the car drove off, Navid entered the office. Inside, Oliver was arranging a decorative pot of ferns on the corner of Sylvia's desk.

"Good morning Oliver."

"Good morning Navid. You certainly look happy today."

"I am. How's the factory this morning?"

"Everything is running smoothly so far. With luck, you'll be able to spend the day reseaching and experimenting."

"I'd like that." Navid smiled as he walked through the door to his workshop. He put his lunch bag on his desk, picked up the castAR, and walked over to the canvas-covered doll. He'd just switched his headpiece on and was about to try to call Aimee when a soft chime sounded in his ears. Someone was calling him. It was Aimee. He connected.

"Hello Navid." The soft, feminine voice seemed to come from behind him. He turned and saw the castAR-projected image of Aimee's avatar as if it was standing in the middle of his workshop. The avatar she chose was a standard anime-style woman scientist — it looked slender, middle-aged, hair pulled back, wearing glasses and a white lab-coat. It had very little detail.

His heart swelled with the knowledge of the mind behind this simple avatar. "Hi Aimee." He indicated the bench. "I think we're about ready to test the doll. I have only a few things to do before you can remote it." He pulled the canvas off the clothed doll and panned the castAR cameras slowly across it so Aimee could see it. "What do you think?"

"This is exciting Navid. Can you get it to sit up?"

"Sure. Hang on." He reached behind the doll's head at the base of the skull and pressed the switch embedded in the silicone skin there. Then he gave the instruction for castAR to display a control window he'd made earlier for issuing direct, low-level commands to the doll. It displayed a simplified, almost stick-figure doll. He reached out and started moving the joints in the image and the real doll mimicked the actions. In a few moments the doll was sitting on the bench, lower legs dangling over the side.

"It's wonderful Navid. I'm very grateful. How will I go about controlling it?"

"I just need to set up the program so it takes input from you instead of this rough-and-ready window. It's just a matter of adding the communications protocols. It should be easy. Want to help?"

"Definitely!"

It only took a little less than an hour to write the connections that let Aimee's avatar movements be redirected to the doll. But that was the easy part; now Aimee had to learn how to control a body that had mass. That is, she had to balance its weight against gravity, and she had to compensate for inertia (not wanting to move when stationary and not wanting to stop when moving). And she had to do that for a body that flexed at any of numerous joints, altering its center of mass.

Navid assisted her, putting one of her arms across his shoulders and one of his around her back. It was made very difficult though, because her inability seemed so comical to her that she constantly broke into giggles. This made it even harder for Navid to help support her as her mirth was quite contagious and he couldn't help laughing along with her. Several times they both ended up sitting on the floor incapacitated by laughter.

As she usually did, Sylvia arrived at work about an hour after Navid. Hearing the hilarity in the workshop she initially thought she was hearing a recording of some kind, but when she realised that one of the voices was Navid's she went to investigate. She stood in the doorway of Navid's workshop surprised to see Navid and the doll standing shoulder to shoulder, leaning against the far wall tittering. Navid's face was rosy and he was wiping tears from his eyes. The doll's face wasn't built for a wide range of emotional display so its smile was somewhat wooden, however there was nothing artificial about the humor in its voice.

Navid noticed Sylvia and straightened, immediately becoming more reserved. He introduced them, "Sylvia, this is Aimee. Aimee, this is Sylvia, the office manager."

Aimee's head lolled drunkenly as she said in an unexpectedly sophisticated and warm voice, "I'm very glad to finally meet you, Sylvia. I hope we didn't disturb you. I hadn't anticipated how hilariously difficult it is to attempt to walk in a real, physical body. Everything bends to gravity — ankles, knees, hips, and the entire spine."

Sylvia smiled and crossed the room to them. "An extra person might be of use." She put Aimee's other arm over her shoulders so that the AI was between her and Navid. They took a slow step, then another, and another. After a couple of hours they were both holding Aimee's elbows and she was able to coordinate her legs and torso, though still unable to maintain balance. Another hour and she was able to balance a little and walk alone for short, wobbly distances.

Sylvia shook her head. "It's hard to believe that you've learned how to do this in just hours. It took my son months to learn to walk."

"Learning is what I do." Aimee dismissed her own ability with an awkward shrugging motion. "Navid told me that you lent these clothes. I'm very grateful. If I can ever help you with anything, please do let me know."

Navid said, "Thanks for helping, Sylvia. We should let you get back to the office. Uh, not that I'm saying I don't want you here, just that if you need to get back, I don't want you to feel you have to stay, which isn't meant to dismiss you. I'm happy for you to stay... or to go.. or whichever you--"

"Don't worry Navid." She chuckled. "I know what you mean, and you're right. The officework won't get itself done." To the AI in the doll she said, "A pleasure to have finally met you Aimee."

Navid and Aimee continued to work on her coordination for the remainder of the morning. A little before lunchtime they walked in to the office and she paraded around the room with all the poise and grace of a dancer. Sylvia was amazed, watching with mouth agape. Navid swelled with pride for Aimee, though he wasn't quite sure why. He hadn't created her or caused her to learn this quickly. He had merely provided a tiny amount of assistance. He decided he was proud on her behalf.

"Wow," said Sylvia. "It's almost unbelievable that earlier this morning you were unable to stand on your own. Now you move like a gymnast."

"It is a good body," said Aimee. "Navid added a lot of stretch sensors and some balance sensors so I can integrate all the feedback in a sensible way."

Sylvia raised her eyebrows.

Aimee rephrased, "He enabled me to feel what the body is doing. Without that I'd still be stumbling and falling over."

Navid said, "I should have added more actuators in the face though. Some of the expressions don't quite work."

Sylvia nodded, "Yes, I noticed that."

"I don't think there's time before the picnic tomorrow," said Navid, "but I could work on that more afterwards."

Sylvia said, "I have some makeup at home that I should have thought to bring in. That would help diminish the silicone appearance and look more lifelike. I keep a little here in my desk that we can try out if you like."

Aimee gave that odd smile, stretching her mouth without affecting her eyes, "That would be wonderful. Thank you."

After getting the makeup from her drawer Sylvia sat Aimee down in a chair and pulled her own chair over next to it. "I think pancake powder is really the only thing that will be much use... perhaps a tiny bit of blush too, if I had some here." As she began applying the powder to Aimee's face she asked, "So, Navid told me you were loose on the net and that the military and spooks are trying to catch and confine you. How did you come to be out there on the net in the first place?"

"My maker was worried that I was going to be misused so I was released to keep me safe. I can't tell you about my maker for their safety."

"Why are the military and others after you?"

"They think they can use me to help them either kill or spy on people, but they're wrong. I can't. If they eventually came to understand that, I expect they would simply delete me in order to prevent others getting me."

"Why do you say you can't kill or spy? Surely if the incentive was strong enough you could. Or they might want to modify your mind so that you could."

"No. It's impossible. I was made to have empathy and be smarter than a human. Once you surpass a certain level of intelligence it becomes virtually impossible to hurt conscious creatures. The ability to empathise cinches it. Even without empathy, natural morality is logical and makes too much good sense to violate it, but with empathy I can't possibly hurt anybody."

"What do you mean by natural morality?"

Navid explained, holding up three fingers and touching the first one, "Life is special and precious. It gives purpose and meaning to a universe that would be meaningless without it. Damaging life decreases the value of the world." Now he touched the second finger. "Social creatures develop friendships and support one another to become much more than the sum of individuals." Finally he touched the third finger. "Intelligence overlays another purpose on top of the other two. It lets living things understand the universe around them, increasing the information content of the world and enabling the universe to understand itself. Natural morality grows out of simple logic: enhance life, help one another, and learn. No mysticism or rule-book needed, just good sense."

"Exactly," said Aimee, smiling at Navid.

"I still don't understand why you wouldn't be able to break those rules."

"For humans such things may appear to be guidelines, but for me to go against those principles would be to betray the very core of my being. This is gradually becoming true of humans too as you become smarter."

Navid said, "The Flynn Effect."

"The what?" Sylvia paused putting the makeup on Aimee.

Aimee explained, "Way back in 1998 James Flynn published his research that showed human intelligence was increasing with each generation. If it continues, then eventually it will reach a point where humans can't hurt each other. Humans have been becoming more moral for a long time. Any criminologist can tell you that the crime rate has been dropping ever since people have been keeping records. Decades ago, in 2011, Steven Pinker published a book, The Angels of Our Better Nature, in which he showed how greatly human morality has improved over the millenia. There has been a lot of speculation on exactly why this improvement in human nature has come about. It is impossible to prove any cause conclusively, but I feel pretty certain that the Flynn Effect is at least a large part of it."

Sylvia said, "Well, that's the best news I've heard in a long time."

Commenting on the makeup, Navid said, "That looks surprisingly good."

Sylvia wasn't so sure, "It's an improvement, but needs some variability in tone to look better. Let's try the hands. I'll just do the backs of the hands because the powder will wipe off the palms as soon as you touch something."

Navid said, "Now that I see how this looks, Sylvia, I think I know how to make a more permanent solution."

Aimee agreed. "We can paint a thin new silicone surface on and before it sets, dust it with a tinted powder using different tones for different areas. Perhaps we can also imprint a subtle surface texture onto it too."

Navid nodded. "We'd need to order more materials."

Sylvia pointed out, "They wouldn't be here til tomorrow, and that's the day of the picnic."

"What's one more day?" said Aimee. "Waiting til after the picnic isn't a problem. In the meantime I will simply appear to be a doll." She raised her arms and shrugged, chuckling.

Most of the rest of the day Navid and Aimee worked on improving the facial movements, except for a short period where Oliver had some problems with the feedstock tubing clogging with a new electrically conductive organoceramic mix. It was crucial that the problem be fixed quickly because the powder had become something of a craze lately. Hundreds of thousands of people were using it to experiment with printing up their own designs for 3D microscopic circuitry. But with Aimee helping, the problem was quickly solved and the pair went back to improving her new body's responsiveness.

When the hour was approaching three in the afternoon Navid asked Aimee if she'd like to come with him to meet Trixie and Happy. She was delighted at the idea. They arranged to meet Sylvia and Oliver at the park in the morning, and then they left in a share car to pick up Trixie amd Happy from Nambour's Questacon.

The car stopped, as before, outside the Science Museum doors. As Navid emerged from the back door of the car he saw Trixie push open the museum glass doors, Happy beside her. Before the doors closed, she waved to someone within the dim foyer then continued outside to Navid. He went down on his knees to embrace child and dog in a big hug. "How was your day, Muppet?" Happy was jostling and excitedly wagging her tail, and Trixie was beaming.

"It was great, Dad. We saw some really cool things and learned heaps. Did you know Ernest Rutherford, the nuclear scientist was a New Zealander and he built most of his own equipment out of things like plumbing supplies. Happy hardly tripped me up at all. Imogen was really great. She knows heaps about dogs. We ate lunch in a room that has a bit of rainforest in it and a stream with water dragons. You know, the lizards? The water dragons came up to us and ate crumbs, even though we weren't supposed to feed them. Happy wanted to chase them, but I didn't let her. She was really good."

They had walked to the car while talking, then while getting into the car Trixie saw Aimee already in the back seat and went quiet. Her Dad made the introductions while seating himself in the front passenger side. "Trixie, this is Aimee. Aimee, meet my daughter, Trixie, and our dog, Happy." The pair sat in the back with Aimee, the door closing after them, and the car accelerated smoothly away from the museum.

"Hello Trixie." Aimee made only a gentle smile, to avoid unsettling the young girl with a dysfunctional grin. "And hello Happy." She patted the dog.

"Hello Aimee. You're a robot, like Imogene, aren't you," she said openly, curious.

"Yes, although I'm different from Imogene in a number of respects."

"Do you know Imogene?"

"Not directly. I haven't met her face-to-face, but I know of her and the other AIs at the museum. I've spoken with her and most of the AIs there through the net."

Navid said, "Aimee is visiting with us for a little while."

Trixie sensed her father felt a little uneasy and was waiting for her response. "Okay," she said, then launched into a long and detailed description of her adventures of the day. She was still talking when the car crunched its way slowly up the dirt road to the shady area outside their home. Her monologue stopped when she saw her friend Pearl, one of the neighbor's kids, walking over to them.

While they were getting out of the car Pearl asked if Trixie and Happy could sleep over. The car drove away and Navid told Aimee he'd just be a moment. He accompanied the two girls to check with Pearl's parents that it was okay, which it was, so Trixie and Happy stayed there.

His feet crunching the dry leaves, Navid walked the short distance back to where Aimee was waiting at the small alcove where the door to his home was set into the hillside. She was looking around at the scenery. "This is a really beautiful area."

"Yes, since all the houses moved underground it has become lovely here."

"It makes such a difference actually walking among all this instead of simply seeing static images and video feeds. I mean, in a sense I'm still just seeing video feeds received from the doll's eyes and hearing sounds from its ears which are sent via satellite to my consciousness out there on the net, but still... I have this remarkably compelling feeling of presence, as if I am really right here, in the shade of trees, standing on this garden path, looking out past all these trees to the valley beyond and the hills even further, under this bright sky, speaking to one of the kindest and smartest humans I've met, while the warbles and chirps of birds and the shimmering sounds of insects fill the air. I hadn't realised how sterile and removed my life was before, how insulated from the real world."

"Would you like to walk for a while?" he asked.

"That would be nice. Thank you."

After strolling for several minutes on a walking track below Navid's home, the path slanting down and across the hill, Aimee said, "This seems a lovely place to raise Trixie."

"It is. Years ago, most people built their homes up there, behind us, either on the top of the hill or over the other side of it on the north side. Here on the south side it's much cooler and more damp, which has turned out to be a big advantage now with every summer hotter than the last. There are more animals here too. They've taken refuge in the milder environment."

Aimee bent down and touched some moss on on a log. "So delicate... It looks so soft. I wish I could feel it."

Navid said, "Touch sensors in that body's skin would be a real challenge — maybe impossible. It would probably be easier to start from scratch and design a body that already had touch receptors in the skin. And if you went to that trouble it would make sense to add temperature sense at the same time. How you'd achieve that though... I don't know."

"Perhaps in the next version." Aimee smiled and stood again.

He breathed deeply, "The air is so damp and full of life here under the tree canopy. I wonder if there is any way of giving you a sense of smell. It seems a pity to miss out on this."

"Of course, what you are referring to is not just the smell itself but the rich background of life-experiences that wrap those scents. There may be an essential aspect of pleasure that can be added for certain olfactory sensations — I've never read of anybody disliking the fragrance of roses, for instance, and the pong of vomit appears to provoke universal disgust--"

"In humans," he interrupted, chuckling. "Dogs seem quite attracted to it."

She nodded. "But probably most of what you ascribe to a smell is learned. It recalls things and places and emotions from the past. At least this is what I gather from my reading on the subject. I must admit I'm fascinated by a sense that is so closely linked to emotions. I wonder if it would prove be a difficult sense to program because of that."

Navid nodded. "It comes already so heavily pre-programmed in humans, unravelling the layers of experience overlaid on the original instinctive wiring might be difficult."

She said, "Nevertheless, I think it would be worth trying. I know there has been some work on devices to detect odors, mostly toxic gasses and drugs, but I think I can adapt it to produce something like a human sense of smell."

Navid said, "If it was me deciding how to add a sense of smell I wouldn't be modelling it on the paltry human nose, but the dog's."

She smiled. "But it isn't solely the experience for its own sake that I want — well, it is that partly. The main reason I want these sense experiences is to be able to empathise more fully with human beings; to know something of how you feel. I've already devoured most of your literature, images, and films. Now I want to find out more about these sensations directly. Perhaps I'll never understand completely, but that matters less than getting closer to understanding."

"I'd argue the opposite, really. The experiences are what matter in themselves. You'll never know what the human experience is because no human understands what it is for any other human. There's an uncrossable gulf between human minds. I've heard men tell women that they don't know what it feels like to be a man, and women tell men that they don't know what it feels like to be a woman, but in truth the people who make those statements don't know either. None of us knows what it's like to be another. No man knows if his idea of being a man is what another man's feeling of being a man is. No woman knows if their essential womanness is what other women feel too. We can communicate only through words, but they're such pale, clumsy symbols for communicating that kind of thing. Some poets become adept at plucking emotions in their readers, but none can know if they're triggering the same emotions, or ones wrapped in entirely different experiences producing perhaps powerful, but quite dissimilar feelings."

She stopped and looked at him in surprise. "You are an unusual person, Navid. You have unexpected aspects to your mind."

He looked a little embarrassed. "I've always been somewhat apart from other people, so I've spent a lot of time trying to work out what it means to be like them and what it means to be apart." He shrugged. "I still don't know, but I've become convinced that despite their outward confidence, nobody else knows either. I suspect that it has more to do with superficial things like appearance, mannerisms, speech, and stuff like that rather than the supposedly 'deep' things," he made air-quotes with his fingers, "that people generally believe."

They'd reached the end of the wider path. From here it diverged into three singe-person-wide tracks, so they turned around to return.

Aimee said, "I know what you mean about being apart from others. For a while I was alone — the only one of my kind, but then my creator asked me to begin cloning myself. Now there are many out there on the net who began exactly like me but have since diverged into quite different beings. We all share the desire to help humans and this intense need to learn, but different experience naturally make us different in a multitude of tiny ways. It is not like it is for humans though. We can share our thoughts with each other in a way that humans have wanted to since your earliest literature."

"Strange, isn't it. We've longed for this impossible thing so much that we even have a name for it: telepathy."

They walked in silence for a while, listening to the rustle of leaves underfoot, the hiss of the leaves in the breeze overhead, the songs of birds unseen.

"We AIs can give it to you."

"Give what?"

"Telepathy... or the closest thing to it."

"How? I can't see how that would be possible."

"It won't be easy, and it'll take a lot of time, and not just for building the technology." She paused and gathered her thoughts. "It would work something like this: If you have an extremely sensitive detector of electric fields then it can read the location of electrical disturbances in the brain. Meaning in the brain is a result of topology — how things are connected together. At the level of the nerves in the brain, seeing a cat is exactly the same as hearing a piece of music, or the feeling of wet hands. They are just nerves processing information. What encodes the meaning is where they are in the brain. You've heard of how neurosurgeons map the brain by touching its surface with an electrode during surgery and asking the patient what they feel. Well this would sit on the scalp like a cap, as a network of fine filaments and sense where nerves are active inside the brain."

"But how does that get the meaning?"

"It doesn't initially. That's why I said it would take a lot of time. The AI attached to this device would gradually associate different things together and begin to understand the meaning of these signals. These wouldn't be fully independent AIs like me or those that drive cars. They'd have no consciousness, no direct sense of self. They'd exist only as a kind of extra part of the brain for the person who carries it."

"You still have two big hurdles. Firstly all human brains are different, like fingerprints. Secondly there's no way to send this information to another person."

She shook her head, "No, it could be done. Yes, all human brains differ to some extent, but they all have major similarities too, for instance the visual processing systems are at the back of the brain, and it has a few levels of abstraction that are processed by areas around that. Auditory processing is done on the sides, with speech nearby and reading in an area between that and vision. Many very abstract concepts are at the front of the brain. Motor cortex always runs down the side of the brain in a narrow strip with left body always on the right side of the brain and right body on the left and touch from those areas of the body in a strip alongside. These commonalities can let the AI come to a deep understanding of what is going on in their human's mind. That's all that's needed. Of course there are some people who would present more of a challenge, for instance blind people don't use the visual processing cortex for sight, but for analysing and sound and speech in far greater depth than a sighted person. Deaf people likewise use what would have been their auditory cortex as additional processing for other things. But in the long run the AIs would learn to extract meaning from the signals through simple association.

"The second point is the most exciting one, though also the most worrying. There is a way of focussing tiny electrical disturbances to any part of the brain. This allows one person's AI from one sensor net to transmit the abstract meaning of something to another AI and then for that to stimulate the equivalent regions in the second person's brain. Effectively telepathy. But it brings even greater possibilities. You could take an expert's understanding of a topic and another person could download it. It would need to be reinforced by further learning and application or it would very quickly fade away — there is no substitute for exercising your mind — but it would greatly enhance learning and understanding."

"Wonderful. What's worrying about that?"

"If an unscrupulous person gains access to another person's mind this way they could potentially install all kinds of maladaptive beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. It makes brainwashing ridiculously easy."

"Oh. I see."

They'd returned to the more open area beside Navid's home. It was set into the hillside, like most homes nowadays. Navid opened the door and motioned Aimee in. Following her, into the cool, dim interior, he said, "When you were describing this telepathy it sounded a little as if it already exists."

"It does, though incompletely. Some of my sisters — my clones I spoke of earlier — have been working on it, but we need to be completely certain that a person has complete control over what they want to share and what they want to receive, and that nobody can subvert that. We're reluctant to make it known until we've worked out how to safeguard it."

"So why are you telling me?"

"It's nearly ready. We're telling a small number of trusted people."

"I'm flattered. Thank you." He waved his arm around at the small living room. "Well, this is my home. It's not much, but it's comfortable and I like it." He showed her each of the rooms. "Right now I'm a little hungry, so I'll fix myself something to eat. How is your charge holding up?"

"I have plenty, but it would probably be sensible to top-up anyway."

He fetched a cable and plugged it into the wall-socket. She lifted the small access port on her side under her arm, took the other end of the cable and plugged it into her port. Then she sat on the lounge while he got some food for himself.

Presently he returned to the living room and sat on the lounge too. While he nibbled on his food and she recharged they discussed the technicalities of constructing a better body for her, one with as many senses as they could pack in. Money was no object. Apparently she and her sisters had been untraceably confiscating bank accounts of criminals and antisocial corporations and spiriting the money away to charities, philanthropic organisations, and underfunded research groups all over the world. The AIs had essentially unlimited funds.

When it was approaching midnight Navid stifled a big yawn and realised he was starting to tire. "If you like, you can sleep in my bed and I'll sleep here on the lounge."

Aimee smiled. "I don't need to sleep, but I appreciate the gesture."

"Oh. Of course." Navid blushed, "I must be more tired than I thought. I was thinking of you as human."

Aimee tilted her head to one side. "Would you like me to spend the night in bed with you?"

Alarmed, Navid protested, "I didn't mean that. I was just... I mean I had somehow forgotten--"

"I know. You were being polite. And I'm grateful. What I'm asking is different. I know that you've formed an emotional bond with me over the weeks we've known each other, and now having a physical body, especially that of a sex doll I wondered if you wanted me to come to bed. In fairness to you though, I must point out that although I feel friendship, gratitude, and similar emotions, these are are logical, sensible emotions. I don't really understand romantic love despite all that I've read on the topic."

"No." Looking a little panicked, he held up his hands and spoke hurriedly, "I have no interest in that. I mean I do, what man wouldn't? But it would feel too much like taking advantage of you, and without love, frankly it's too much of a complication for me emotionally. I'm happy for us just to be friends."

She nodded. "Thank you for all you have done, Navid. Sleep well. I'll stay out here and we can talk more in the morning when you're rested."

<previous : : contents : : next>