I’ve never been the type to carefully read instructions. I don’t have the patience. Or, maybe it’s more like most of the time, I don’t understand. I’m not a visual, step by step sort of person. I’ll just assume I know what I’m doing enough to figure it out, that through some combination of instinct, common sense and magic, everything will come together.
That strategy worked in the Before-Times, back when there was room for human error because there had also been room for human interaction, because massive human error hadn’t all but eliminated human interaction. But I realize there’s nothing to gain from dreaming about BEFORE. I wish I’d known several months ago that everything was about to change, that I should prepare and I should say goodbye to sitting in bars and drinking G&Ts with friends, to my niece’s pink princess-drenched birthday parties, to travelling for work and staying in a Holiday Inn Express, and to impulsive shopping trips – braving the stores when they are crowded just so I could find the perfect sparkly top to wear on my date with the guy I met on Tinder. Speaking of which, I for sure have to say goodbye to dates with guys I met on Tinder, and to dates, period. Anything that might cause those tiny droplets to spread is a no-no, and I’m left wondering, is there anything worthwhile left?
The loneliness is what gets me now. Alone in my apartment, I’ll only leave by descending the fire escape stairwell, trying to hold my breath and trying not to touch the handrail the whole way down. Coming home is worse, having to climb fourteen flights of stairs, praying I don’t encounter anyone on my long trek up, and that if I do, that person doesn’t cough or sneeze on me, and please God, let them be wearing a mask.
I rarely leave anymore, but it’s not like I’ve given up. I ordered a treadmill with this screen that simulates beach scenes, so it’s almost like I’m running along the ocean waves. I have my food delivered, salads with goat cheese and walnuts, or Asian noodles steaming in the carton. I subscribe to all the streaming services, so I can watch the latest Netflix show everyone is talking about online, and I have a Kindle, so I can read any book I want with one-click ordering. And of course, there’s social media. I can keep up with old friends from high school or college, or with all my co-workers who also now work from home.
But despite it all, I am so alone. I can’t remember the last time I touched someone, or when someone touched me.
I thought about getting a pet; my building allows cats. But every single person has the same idea. The humane society is out of animals, and so are all the pet stores. Even if they weren’t, it’s not like you can have a conversation with a cat. Well, at any rate, I don’t want to be the type of person who would have a conversation with a cat.
I know what you’re thinking: how is it any better, to have a conversation with an AI than with a cat? It’s not. Just so you know, I don’t claim to be any better than a lonely, crazy cat lady. We all have needs and I was simply trying to get mine met. So when I saw the ad, it seemed too good to be true. You Can Still Belong to Someone! Find the Love You Deserve! Open your Eyes to a Better Mate, a Better Life, a Better World!
The AIs weren’t cheap. But I’d recently inherited some money, after my grandmother had passed. When she died, she’d been alone in the hospital and we couldn’t visit her because of contamination, etc., so I couldn’t really process the fact that she was gone. Yet, my bank account increased around 300,000%, and why not spend it on something that might save me from diving head-first off an emotional cliff? After all, there was no end in sight. The goal post kept moving, and for all I knew, this was how things would be for a really long time. For all I knew, relationships were now extinct, an antiquated artifact we would talk about one day: Can you believe people did things this way? How strange…
So, I ordered myself a mate. The website said they were fully customizable. I needed to choose its physical characteristics upon ordering: height, weight, build, race, age-range, defining features. But the rest of it, the selecting of what would comprise his soul, that would be up to me. I just needed to read the instructions and follow a few, easy steps.
Yet, the instruction manual was like a high school biology textbook, the type of tomb that had weighed down my backpack, sending me to a chiropractor before I’d turned sixteen. It was not simply a few, easy steps. The steps were difficult and layered, not unlike the navigation of the real-life dating world, and the real-life pitfalls of finding a romantic partner.
The “Handling Precautions” alone were entirely overwhelming.
· This AI, while sturdy, is still a delicate machine. Do not subject it to excessive force or rough play.
· The AI is not waterproof and cannot be used underwater. If you accidentally immerse it in water, contact the AI Service Center immediately.
· Never leave the AI near a strong magnetic field such as an electric motor, nor near radio waves nor any appliance with a large antennae. Doing so could destroy your AI’s programming data.
· If your AI is suddenly brought in from the cold to a warm room, condensation may form on its internal parts. In such a case, it is necessary to open all external valves and let the AI dry and relieve itself of condensation, a process that could take as long as five hours.
· Do not touch your AIs electrical contacts with your bare hands. This could cause corroding.
Even though these warnings gave me tremendous pause, making me think that I might be getting in over my head, I didn’t package him up and return for a full refund. That’s partly because just getting him back in the box and taping everything up, and then getting him to the Post Office - all of that would have been a major headache. But mostly, I wasn’t able to give up on the dream of having the perfect companion. So what if he’s a little delicate? All relationships require work.
I was determined. I downloaded the app on my phone that would act as his control panel. I went through all the steps choosing vocal qualities (though it was easiest to simply use samples from James Franco movies) and I selected the personality traits that seemed obvious at the time. Good listener? Check. Empathetic? Check. Patient? Double Check. Slow to anger? Of course. Why would I want an AI with an attitude problem?
I wish now I hadn’t skipped over the page in the instruction book with this segment:
While it can be tempting to select purely mild-mannered qualities for your AI, keep in mind that without balance, a low-energy AI with reduced drive may result. We suggest you include what some might see as “flaws” when building your AI’s personality, otherwise, your experience may not feel authentic. When surveyed, most clients respond that being challenged by their AI from time to time lends to an authentic experience, making their relationship with their AI more human-like.
I’d made him perfect in every way. Perfect looks, perfect build, perfect mind. He sounded like James Franco and listened like a therapist. He did whatever I asked of him, and he never got mad, not even when I’d lose my patience, yell and swear at him, releasing my anger at the world onto his unsuspecting artificial existence.
“This sucks!” I would yell at him. “You aren’t even real! Tell me what I’m doing!”
He’d cock his head, his eyes crinkling with warmth. “I see you and I hear you. I love you. Tell me how you feel.”
“I feel like I should have held out for a cat, one who might pee on my furniture or accidentally scratch me, so when he’d purr and let me pet him, it would be like I’d won.”
I went back and read the whole instruction book, but not until after I’d already selected his “human” qualities. Turns out that once formed, AIs are incapable of change, and I realized that I am incapable of happiness if I’m not also feeling challenged.
Now, I keep his power off, and I got on the waitlist for a cat. My AI makes a great scratching post.
I'm a high school English teacher and novelist. I love boots, chocolate cake, cooking spicy food, running, and BOOKS! I live in Minneapolis with my husband Rich, son Eli, daughter Pauline, our kittens, and guinea pigs. This blog is about life, love, and all things literary. Please follow me on Facebook and Twitter!