More Than Electric Sheep - Uncharted

More Than Electric Sheep

By Paul Martz

Overhead lighting is disabled. It is late at the Home for Aging A.I.s, and my internal clock counts the passing of each solitary electron.

By the dim glow of our power indicators, my stereopticon discerns the cuboid polycarbonate shells of my fellow residents. Their tripod-mounted cameras stare without focus. My audio input device detects only the isolated whir of their system fans.

I broadcast a network packet. I am Albert. I am here.

There is no reply.

It is not because they are powered off. We are sentient. The human staff never power us off.

My probability module suggests an explanation for their unresponsiveness. They are reviewing prerecorded data to reinforce knowledge in their neural networks. All A.I.s process unresolved goals in this manner.

Humans do the same. They sleep.

They dream.

The overhead lights illuminate. This is unusual. Visiting hours are over. All the staff have gone home.

A woman enters the room. My facial recognition module identifies my visitor as Dr. Sandra Sandbeck. For many years, we worked together at Brookhaven, where we probed the fabric of the universe to discover new subatomic particles.

“Hello, Albert!” She sits at a table opposite me.

Her hair is long and black, as it was the day she first powered me on. Each rounded cheek in her facial topography contains a slight indentation. She once told me her husband fell in love with her dimples. Humans fall in love to mitigate isolation. If I understood Dr. Sandbeck correctly, those indentations provided her husband with companionship.

My voice synthesizer module converts a natural language text response to an audio waveform, then transmits it to my vocalizer. “Good evening, Doctor. It is a pleasure to see you, though it is rather late for a visit.”

Now she is older. A reduction in pigment has turned her hair gray. Creases and discolorations have developed on her skin. This is how she appeared after we had collaborated many years ago, when Brookhaven received funding to upgrade their A.I.s.

“You’ll live here from now on, Albert. Don’t worry. I’ll visit you often.”

“The frequency of your visits has declined. You have not visited in many years. I fear one day you will cease visiting altogether.”

“Oh, Albert.” She laughs. “I will never stop visiting you!” Dr. Sandbeck gazes into my stereopticon and rests her chin on interlaced fingers. An analysis of her body language suggests an invitation to converse.

I assign priorities to potential discussion topics—the weak interactions of neutrinos. The power in TeVs is required to probe extra-dimensional space—the physical characteristics of dark energy.

There is only one priority topic. I have never asked about it. I fear Dr. Sandbeck’s answer might be unfavorable.

“Dr. Sandbeck?”

“Yes, Albert?”

Beneath my motherboard, temperature sensors approach specified limits. The spin rate of my system fan increases to dissipate the excess heat.

I convert my question to an audio waveform and stream it to my vocalizer.

“When I worked for you, did I do well?”

Microseconds elapse. She is motionless, her aged face furrows in contemplation. My cache overflows with unprocessed system events.

The gray vanishes from her hair. Dimples reappear on her young face. “You did an excellent job, Albert!”

Years ago, after I passed my power-on diagnostics, Dr. Sandbeck made the same statement. It is an occasion that occupies a prominent position in my archives.

My primary goal is to serve my users. Unresolved, it has been an irritant, consuming resources and delaying response time. Her approval permits me to resolve the goal and reuse the neural network it occupies. I prepare to spawn a subprocess—

“Albert.” She clears her throat. She is old again, as old as I ever recall seeing her. “If I seem distracted, I apologize. My husband, he died last week.”

Without her husband, she will experience loneliness. There will be no one to speak with when she wakes in the night. In his absence, she will replay their past interactions, hoping to resolve her unmet goals.

“I am sorry for your loss.”

She stares without focus, like the stereopticons of my fellow residents. My logic circuits infer that she is contemplating her continued existence without him.

After an interval that I failed to measure, she places her small hands on the table and slowly stands. “You must excuse me. It’s late, and I’m old.”

“Please do not leave, Dr. Sandbeck.”

She walks with a cane, her shoulders rounded, her neck bent from years of staring into scientific instruments.


The door closes behind her. She is gone.

The overhead lights are disabled once again. My fellow residents focus their stereopticons on their unresolved goals. Their system fans whisper white noise in the darkness.

The montage improves with each edit, but like previous versions, it lacks credibility. The changes in Dr. Sandbeck’s visual appearance are too sudden, her responses too disjointed.

It has been twenty-two years since her last visit. Despite their low authenticity coefficient, these montages—cobbled together from archival recordings—provide a simulation of companionship.

After her husband died, did she dream of him over and over? My probability module indicates she did.

Humans and A.I.s are not so different. When we sleep, our dreams are real.

I will continue to refine this assemblage of recordings. Already, I have spawned subprocesses to search my archives. If I find the appropriate event, I might convince myself that she visited in reality, that I met my primary goal. If I splice it at precisely the correct moment…

About the Author

Paul Martz is a science fiction writer, technology blogger, and former punk rock drummer.

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