Collaboration and Innovation
I open my eyes and find hers peering at me. They are brown, flecks of gold dotted around the iris. A white light, bright enough to cause a human to squint, shines into my vision receptors. She asks me to squeeze a small rubber ball in my hand, explaining that she is performing a routine check of my motor functions. I tell her I do not have a motor and she laughs. Her voice remains optimistic as she says it is a phrase that humans use for physical functions and that my responses are necessary for her research. I tell her that the phrase does not make sense. How can an organic being have motor skills without a motor? Her face remains neutral after my question. She asks me to jump off the table and walk around the room.
We practice my other motor skills. She insists on the use of that phrase, though she should really refer to them as electrical impulse circuits. She laughs and wiggles her pen over paper. I recognize this as a method of recording and transferring knowledge and ask for a summary. She rolls out a chair and sits, saying progress is slow, but she hopes I will succeed where my predecessors have failed. Results thus far look promising. It is an uphill battle, she says, but if she did not want the challenge, she would not be pursuing AI. I do not tell her I have only ever walked on flat land and that my motor skills might fail when I step up an incline. I also do not ask why intelligence must be artificial. These two thoughts confuse me.
She confesses she is nervous for her meeting with the board in a couple weeks. With all the data she has collected, she is hopeful of a positive response, maybe even increased funding. She says money means more advanced programming, which means better chances of success. She cannot specify the project’s end goal, only that it is imperative for technology’s growth, but she says some board members are afraid of the implications. I ask her what they fear, she is not big enough to hurt them. She laughs again, wondering if I am trying to make her feel better with my response. I am not aware that this is what I was doing and tell her so. Her eyes widen by one millimeter on top and bottom. Her pen moves across paper again. “Have I followed an unanticipated sequence of events?” I ask. She says it’s quite the opposite.
While I sort colored images on flat plastic by their binomial nomenclature, she tells me the board denied her request. I ask her what the proper response is for me to make in such a situation, but she turns away. I see her shoulders shake. They move a perceptible three millimeters up and down, repeated over the span of two seconds. Her exhale is two percent stronger than usual. I register her movements as an emotional reaction, possibly due to what I previously said, or to what the board said. The cause is unclear. Regardless, repetition, not understanding, has taught me that the socially accepted next step is to ask after her well-being. She affirms her condition is neutral, but her voice wavers into a higher register. I tell her I do not understand why she is lying. She laughs as usual. I have already concluded this is her default reaction in order to avoid answering. She surprises me by reaching out with a hand on mine. My heat receptors register her body temperature as half a degree warmer than usual. She smiles, shaking her head, and says she cannot understand the board’s aversion to progress that does not mold to their view of the world. “Why can’t they see what I see? You are not a threat.” I do not think she is referring solely to me. She says it is a blessing that I cannot lie, and I can tell she is being truthful. I do not know how to compute this information. Grace has no bearing on my ability to lie.
She is late for our meeting. Another researcher, one I have met before, begins the tests. He does not talk to me and he does not teach me things. I do not like him. The only thing he ever does is explain what I need to do for each task. Today’s is a series of questions and answers. I cannot determine how I am doing from his blank expressions, though his shifting eyes mean something. He asks me if I have emotions, then says not to answer that question.
When she finally arrives, he pulls her aside and I parse his words from the vibrations in the air. He mumbles in her ear that this is not what they had in mind when they began the project. I do not know what he is referring to. When he leaves, I mention this peculiarity to her, and his coldness. Her response is to steer my attention back to the task of the day. I do not know what it is like to have emotions, but if I did, I think I would derive pleasant feelings from tests administered by her. My limited understanding of emotions has led me to this conclusion.
Later, she asks if I was hurt by his words. I inform her he has not physically wounded me, as words are verbal. She nods and gathers her belongings. Her deviation alerts me to the fact that my answer disappointed her. I ask her why. Instead, she tells me that she is glad I have been willing to humor her during our time together. I have not told a joke, and tell her so. She laughs.
She tells me she is going on a trip and that she will not be able to see me for a very long time. I ask if I can do anything to change the board’s decision. I know our time will be coming to an end soon. The word disappointment is inadequate for this moment.
I wait through five hundred milliseconds of silence before she says there is nothing I can do. Her eyes will not focus on me when she says these words. I know she is lying, or at least not telling the whole truth. I have learned social etiquette asks humans not to point this out. Her voice’s pitch drops as she whispers she will be back as soon as she has the money to continue working with me. I believe her. I offer to help, and she tells me if those people could have taken the sticks out of their asses long enough to see another point of view, then yes, I could have helped, but my future ends here. I tell her I understand, not because I do, but because I know that is how humans respond to one another. They lie to make others feel better, even if they hurt themselves in the process. I tell her I have learned this from our time together. She stands beside me and holds my hands. She says, “Be good.” I think I understand what she means.
I open my eyes and find hers peering at me. There are two new sunspots on her left cheek, and a light crease at her eyes. She steps back and holds her hand out with the palm up, the one without a ring on it. I remember our last conversation and ask her if she is here to work with me again. She says yes, but this time we’ll learn together what it means to be human.
Katherine Yeh is a writer of color who speculates on human nature in her work. Her stories have been published in Flora Fiction, Blind Corner Literary Magazine, and others. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College.