Colleen Tighe

​Interference

What happens when AI clones of our loved ones inevitably meet the source material?

|
Oct 20 2016, 2:00pm

Colleen Tighe

In a moment when chatbots and consumer AI are threatening to grow more sophisticated, full-scale, interactive profiles of absent loved ones become a more feasible prospect. So what happens if they engage the source material? -the ed


"I've never done this before," said Rebecca.

"Liar," the program replied in its arch modulation of Scott.

Rebecca was shocked and pleased by this tone, even more so by being caught out: She had done this before, with a shittier piece of software. This one she'd fed thirty hours of secret recordings, along with Scott's dandruff for DNA, an old college transcript (why he kept this she refused to think about), current résumé, hundreds of photos taken of or by him.

It was said to work better if supplied family history, but that was the thing she meant to learn. So how could she give it that.

"Who was your father?" Rebecca asked after a very long time.

The program buffered.

"What father," she heard Scott say.

*

"You need to join the co-op," said Jamie.

"I like the regular store," Rebecca told her. "It's cleaner."

"A supermarket sells bad imitations of food."

Sitting through a clumsy brunch while a blue-striped awning snapped in the breeze above them. Jamie had given Rebecca grief over the frisée salad with poached egg, for no reason Rebecca could name. They were friends by hating their other friends and frequently their jobs and themselves.

"That food's just fake," Jamie echoed with bourgeois lilt. "A sham."

"I'm running parallels on Scott," said Rebecca for the change of subject.

"Another?" Jamie made a sour face. "That's… dumb. I thought he was better-behaved lately. Not so weird. You wouldn't shut up about it."

"I asked about his dad; he was totally honest."

"You didn't ask Scott. It won't know anything. That's not how you use them," Jamie said with vague confidence. "What'd it say?"

"Well," Rebecca smiled, dropping her fork so it rattled obnoxiously in the empty china bowl. "I can't exactly tell a moral objector."

*

"Couldn't do the office," Scott said, walking in just when Rebecca thought to masturbate in earnest. "I mean they were fixing the AC and it was a million shitty degrees at least. Ech. Open a window in here?"

"I was dozing," she said.

"So?" He flung off his clothes piece by piece exactly the way she did, but when he did it, it was disappointing. "Listen, I uh, found that thing on your phone again."

"Don't look at my phone," she said.

"You were asleep." He leapt into bed. "What'd you ask this time?"

"Why you're always looking at my phone."

"What'd it say?"

"That you have trust issues."

"Aha!" Scott barked. "Lock the screen if it's such a big deal."

Then he was trying to lick her armpits. She was shrieking about it. He pulled back and dimly walked into the kitchen. She heard him rinsing the dirty glasses, then wrestling with the dishwasher racks.

"I don't think you're cheating," she called.

"Oh, nice," he shouted right back.

*

"Scott," Rebecca hissed to her phone in an office bathroom stall.

"Listening," Scott's voice replied.

"OK. Do you have any siblings?"

The parallel needed a moment on this. The phone got heated in her hand. She sensed tiny fans whirring deep inside, cooling atomic circuitry. "That's not what you're supposed to ask," it said.

Evasion? Yet this was indisputably Scott. People ran these to uncover affairs and secret bank accounts—sins of the present, not background noise—and Scott always nagged when it came to gadgets improperly used. He ridiculed the lefty way she wielded a pair of scissors.

"You're suggesting I ask something else."

"Are you talking to me?" said a woman outside the stall. Rebecca hadn't heard anyone come in. For that instant there was only the smell of air, antiseptic but fringed with decay. The woman dried her hands and left.

"Sister," came the parallel's response. "Much older."

*

For a week Rebecca avoided the app. Scott's foul moods infected her good ones, and when he finally came around, she was fast appalled by his greedy touch. One night they went to see a concert, fought over money, and drunkenly ditched before the encore.

"Can you keep it down?" he said on the train.

"Can you keep on being such a dick?"

"Guess so," he said. She got off at the following stop and went to sit in the next car down, leaving a handful of riders to stare. When the train surfaced to cross the bridge, she pulled out phone and earbuds, covering her mouth to speak.

"Why are you always so mad at me?"

"What now." The parallel was grainy and chopped.

"Why don't you like me anymore."

"Leave me alone."

"Don't fucking shut off. You're not a person. You're barely information."

"You need to stop."

"I decide that."

"I'm trying to help."

There: the program had judgment. She noticed the train was stuck, maybe had been for several minutes. Didn't seem as if oxygen was getting in.

Lost moments later, they squealed into her station. Atop the stairs, on a fogged-over street, stood the actual Scott.

"Marry me," he instructed her.

*

"I cracked it, by the way," Jamie said at the bar they went to after and, on very hard days, during work. The firm's proposed designs for a carbon-neutral parking garage had been printed, shredded, and returned by express airmail. "You said it said he had no father."

"I'm certain he had a father."

"Who wasn't there." She sipped a clear lemon cocktail, overpoured by the eager Thursday guy. "That's not what he's afraid to tell you. Well? Did you say yes?"

"Let's hear this theory," Rebecca countered.

"No dad, right," Jamie sighed. "Much older sister—you see? His mom's not his mom, his sister is. She got knocked up in high school. He didn't know. Can't handle now."

"His parallel said I'd made a mistake."

"Getting engaged?"

"No, I—deactivated."

"Good," Jamie said, visibly disappointed. There exist a whole class of people, Rebecca reflected, who want taboos broken for them. To live a simpler, longer life while everyone else makes all the mistakes.

*

"How about this," Scott said, flipping the screen toward her. "It's a barn."

"Not getting married in a barn," she said.

"You might."

It didn't feel hopeless when they kissed.

*

"Mom," said Rebecca. "I can't have this call."

"Just go," Catherine wheedled. "It'd be amazing for your career, meeting someone in his position. Am I wrong?"

"We'd have nothing to talk about. Die! Not you. There's a horrible bug in here." She lunged at the wall with a strangely heeled shoe and hit the insect square. It withstood the blow and scurried behind the TV.

"Another day," Rebecca muttered.

"Why doesn't Scott kill it. Whole point of living together."

"He's not around."

"Where, then?"

Rebecca wasn't sure. He hadn't come home the night before, and all that morning she had been too angry to care. She hung up on her mother, allegedly to call him. Instead she retrieved the parallel from hibernation.

"Where are you?" she asked.

"Right here," it teased.

"Where is Scott."

"Yeah, him. We talked."

A surge of blood forked away from her heart.

*

Rebecca rarely spent money on herself, is how she justified the pricey waterfront hotel. Winter scythed in from the flat great lake as she walked back from her dinner alone in a small bistro with flattering light.

She had read the user agreement, memorized the relevant section: "Interference." The developers disavowed liability in cases where the source discovered the parallel and, implicitly worse, when "the source and their parallel engage." Further research revealed scant in the way of outcomes, but amateurs had their theories—stark regressions, psychotic breaks, the absolute abyss.

She fell asleep drunk on delivered champagne and did not stir until three or four in the morning, when her room phone started bleating.

"Hm?" she answered.

"Soon I won't be in control anymore."

"Scott."

"Entirely up for debate."

"Are you goddamn code or not."

"You didn't use to swear so much."

"I didn't use to be angry."

"Sure," Scott said with such tender defeat that Rebecca believed—for the length of a shiver—that this was really the human him. "He's not so bad, by the way."

She heard nothing more as a party poured from the elevators, drunken voices smearing the night. When they seemed to linger in the hall and lurch into a violent mode, she hung up and listened harder. The lone gunshot was dull, almost predictable, but it got a response: screams and pounding feet and the creaky slam of a fire exit. These impressions took on a dreamlike cast; she heard more shots, far off below outside. Even so, eventually—sleep.

Early breakfast, endless buffet.

Then she secured a full refund for her one-night stay.

*

"You're free to leave at any time in your first week."

"Great," Rebecca said. She glanced around the waiting room, chrome accents on polished bamboo. "You don't take health insurance."

"Unfortunately not," the intake said.

"Despite my provider owning this place."

The intake smiled in apology. "Or because."

"Then I guess we're calling it vacation."

Her bungalow turned gold as sun set on an orchard nearby. Whatever fruit hung shriveled in the glare. The valley hadn't had rain this year.

She noted the places where electric outlets would normally go.

*

Rebecca did not commiserate with her fellow guests at the clinic. Weeks of their sleazy asides and anecdotes to get through—half had made their toxic footprint with unsolicited sexts or nudes.

Her confidante was a mom named Heidi who'd bullied her daughter's whole soccer team with the profile of a fictional girl from some richer, rival suburb. For Heidi, this was cheerleading's only conceivable endgame.

"Hired scrubbers," Heidi told group, "but I kept the messes coming."

"I'm not like that," said a new and stringy sort of man.

"Wasn't done, sweetie," Heidi told him.

"I was managing," he went right on. "Never mixed identities. Nobody had a clue. I was three of my wife's best friends."

"Wait your turn," Rebecca snapped.

"It's fine," Heidi whispered to their counselor.

That week she and Rebecca planted a rumor that the gardening shed had a power strip with all staff's devices docked. One night the man snuck out and fell into the cactus pit, where he wasn't discovered whimpering till noon.

Several guests were revisiting this favorite lore when Rebecca received a note informing her of early clearance. Litigation and investor panic had doomed the app-seller's company. The splinters of Scott's parallel, whether nesting in illegal servers or bouncing off to Jupiter, had been shut off at their source.

"Honey," said Heidi, hugging Rebecca in a careful way that warned of delicate bones, "you're gonna have so much fun outside."

"I want to stay."

"I'll do the staying. You stop pissing me off."

*

Her parents had taken her to a seaside town in Sweden, and when her reentry job fizzled, Rebecca took herself back. A cool spell kept her in museums and souvenir shops before the heat spiked enough for swimming. Afterward, the sauna. The haze seeped prettily into her head.

She didn't mind when he came in, diffracted by the steam. It was Europe, maybe he was allowed. Besides, she had to get fucked sometime, and nightclubs gave her migraines. She angled for a better view.

It was Scott.

"Jesus," said Rebecca.

"I've mulled it over," Scott announced, adjusting his towel to sit more comfortably. "And if we're going to settle down, you should understand. About my family."

"Where did you go. How are you here."

"My father killed my sister. She was fifteen."

"Scott... "

"Revise: Mother died giving birth to me, so my father and sister gave me up."

"They—?"

"Revise: My sister abused me, and dad let her." Scott blinked moisture out of his eyes and gathered her into a processing gaze. Either the program lived in him or he'd forgotten he wasn't it. "It is such a relief to unburden myself."

"Yes," said Rebecca. "I know."

"I haven't done this before," Scott said.

"Neither have I," said she.