Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 6

“Hey you!” Jake’s hologram shimmered in my flat. I’d just been about to start dinner when he called. I gestured to Madeline to stay out of sight, and then pressed accept, only because Jake tended to get right to the point.

“When are you coming Saturday? And who’s this Julie chick?”

“Julie is destined to be your next girlfriend,” I told him. “You’ll love her. She’s so much fun. And she’s really cute,” I added before he could ask. He gave a curious sort of frown-nod, considering this. “I think we should be at the Quantum Track station in London around eleven am. That gives us all time to sleep in.”

“You’ve all been here before, though, right? Do you want me to plan anything or just go with the flow?”

I glanced at my analog clock on the wall and said, distracted, “Go with the flow, I figure. We just wanted to get away and hang out with you.”

“You have somewhere to be?” he asked, reading my eyes.

“Yeah, I’ve gotta go in a few minutes. Liam’s coming over for dinner.” I saw Jake’s eyebrows shoot up, and he opened his mouth in a suggestive smile. “Don’t even,” I interrupted him, “it’s not like that.”

“Oh yeah? How is it then?”

“We’re just talking about work.”

“At your flat. Over dinner. Will there be wine?”

I rolled my eyes. Then I saw that Andy was on hologram chat too on my interface screen behind Jake’s hologram, and froze.

“What?” Jake asked.

I played it off casual, shrugging. “Just looks like Andy’s on with someone, too.”

“Probably Yolanda,” Jake said, sounding a little distasteful.

Be cool, I commanded my face. “Yolanda?”

“Yeah, his roommate Ivan said he’s been hanging out with her a lot. She’s apparently bad news.”

I bit my lip. Was Yolanda the reason he hadn’t been talking to me this semester? “Has he talked to you about her?”

“Just in passing.”

I breathed a sigh internally. Whenever Andy stopped talking to me, it always seemed to be because he was ‘hanging out with’ some other girl—usually for no more than a few weeks at a time, but I was always terrified that the next one would be another Sarah. Sarah had been Andy’s first official girlfriend in high school. She was one of those bimbos on the school dance team, even though she was somehow also a straight-A student and got a full ride scholarship to university. In a petty moment, I’d confessed to Madeline that I wished Andy would find out that she was cheating on her school assignments or something, because there was no way she was smart enough to really earn those grades. Not even a week later, I actually got my wish: she’d been caught plagiarizing, and subsequently lost her scholarship and got cut from the dance team. I remember her sobbing after that, swearing up and down (in her very small vocabulary) that she hadn’t done it and she’d been set up. I don’t know if Andy believed her or not, but they broke up shortly after that.

I had to admit, I felt a little bad for Sarah.

But only a very little.

Anyway, Andy hadn’t dated anybody seriously since, and he’d come back around to flirting with me many times… though he always vanished again when some other temporary girl came on the scene. Like Yolanda.

If Yolanda was important, though, Andy would have told Jake all about her, I was sure of that. It didn’t sound like he had… so she was probably just another of Andy’s passing flings. Still, I always hated when Jake teased me about some other guy, because I figured Jake would know if Andy liked me, and wouldn’t want to encourage me to go for someone else. If he was teasing me about Liam, he must know that Andy didn’t like me… or at least he didn’t know that he did.

The doorbell rang.

“Sorry, that’s Liam! See you Saturday!” I ended the call.

I opened the door and must have stared a little, because Liam gave me an amused smile and then made a show of looking me up and down, too. I felt decidedly underdressed: I was barefoot and in the same wrinkled clothes I’d worn all day, with my hair tossed up in a messy bun. Liam, I had to admit, looked great in a pair of jeans and a black v-neck sweater. Also, he held a bottle of wine.

Jake will never know about this, I decided.

“I haven’t even started cooking yet,” I blurted, before even offering a greeting. The truth was, my best dish was pasta boiled along with chopped veggies and chicken, but suddenly that seemed woefully inadequate.

“I’m stunned. Can I come in?”

“Er—sorry,” I stepped aside.

I hastily followed him back into the kitchen after closing the door behind him, pulling out ingredients from the refrigerator and laying them on the counter. I started boiling a pot of water as Liam opened the bottle of wine he’d brought.

“You’re going to boil the chicken?” he asked at last, watching me prep.

“Yes.” I blew the hair out of my eyes. “Do you have a problem with that?”

“Well, not really, but then you won’t get the Maillard reaction.”

I blinked at him. “Here comes something nerdy.”

He went on as if he hadn’t heard me, “Meat has to reach a surface temperature of two hundred and four point four degrees Celsius in order to set off the chemical reaction between the protein and sugars to achieve the browned tasty flavor on the surface. Boiling won’t get you there because it can’t possibly get any hotter than the temperature of the water, which is of course 100 degrees Celsius.”

I stared at him. “Do you feel smarter now?”

“Decidedly.” He handed me a glass of wine and pushed up his sleeves. “Do you have a pan?”

I gestured at my cabinets with a flourish, accepting the wine and relegating myself willingly to a secondary role.

“Let’s add some butter,” he announced, opening my fridge and helping himself. “Everything’s better with butter. Have you got any basil?”

“Dried,” I said, pointing at the cabinet above him.

He tapped his A.E. chip and asked it, “Conversion for fresh to dried basil?” Then he set about looking for my measuring spoons.

Who knew Liam could cook? I thought, sipping the Malbec and feeling slightly woozy already.

He glanced at me over his shoulder. “You doing all right there?”

“I didn’t even drink before university. I’m kind of a lightweight,” I confessed.

“You might wanna slow down. I need you to chop some veggies and ideally not cut off a finger.”

“That would ruin the evening,” I agreed.

“And the veggies,” he added.

Within twenty minutes, Liam improved a cheesy pasta dish with some of the most flavorful chicken I’d ever had outside a restaurant. It was kind of amazing. I told him so once we sat down at my little cardboard folding table, though without the wine, I might have kept it to myself.

“Thanks,” he said, clinking my glass. He watched me just long enough after that for my mouth to go dry.

I cleared my throat. “I—um. Guess you’d like to meet Madeline now.”

He sighed. “I was hoping to finish eating, actually. She might ruin my appetite.”

I glared at him. “She’s impossible to hate. You’ll see.” I got up and went to my room, having to use the wall to help me navigate.

“How’s it going?” she whispered to me when I walked in.

“You’re the whole point, so I don’t know yet,” I whispered back. “Come on.”

Before I pushed open the door to the kitchen, I stopped and took a deep breath. “Hang back just a sec,” I told Madeline. Then I opened it, struck by the contrast between a well-dressed Liam and his gourmet meal, and my folding table under harsh fluorescent lights. “Liam, meet Madeline. Madeline—Liam.”

She rolled in after me. He’d seemed to expect something taller, because his eyes briefly searched at my level and then tracked down to the floor. She blinked up at him, childlike.

“Nice to meet you, Liam. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

He burst out laughing. “Oh, now that’s just manipulative!”

Perplexed, Madeline glanced back at me.

“What’s manipulative?” I demanded. “All she said was nice to meet you!”

“No, no, her eyes! They take up like half her face! Didn’t you tell me once about the psychology of dolls, how they make the eyes huge because they remind us subconsciously of human babies, and therefore we automatically think of them as cute? I can feel her deliberately tugging on my heartstrings every time she blinks at me.”

Now I got mad. “Don’t talk about her in third person like she’s not standing right there! That’s rude!”

“Oh come on, Bec, she’s a bot. She doesn’t have any feelings.”

Madeline looked back at me, distraught—or at least a convincing simulation of distraught. Maybe she was just mirroring my own expression back to me, though. I knelt down beside her and put my arms around her.

“Maybe that’s… technically true. But this is my best friend, and I won’t let you treat her like that! Talk to her like a person!”

He took a deep breath, like hitting a reset button. “All right.” Then he turned to Madeline. “I’m generally very honest, whether socially correct or not. So I might as well tell you that when I look at you, what I see is the impending doom of humanity.”

I tightened my arms around Madeline and whispered, “Don’t listen to him, it’s not your fault—”

But Liam held up a hand to me, still watching Madeline. “What do you have to say to that?”

Madeline glanced at me, and then back at Liam. She replied, tentative, “I… am… sorry you feel that way.”

“Does it bother you that I feel that way?” he prodded.

Suddenly I understood what he was trying to do. I let go of Madeline, and pulled up a third chair at the table so that she could be more or less at eye level with us. I lifted her into it, as she replied to him, “I wish you didn’t feel that way.” Then I sat down opposite Liam again.

“Why do you wish I didn’t?” Liam leaned forward, gripping his wine glass like a vice.

“Because… I am programmed for relational harmony. And you have essentially told me that that is impossible with you due to my very nature. If you disliked an action I had taken, I could apologize and make amends, but I can’t change what I am.”

Liam glanced at me, and I joined in.

“How does it make you feel when someone dislikes you, Madeline?”

“I don’t like it,” she repeated.

“What do you mean by ‘you don’t like it’?” Liam pressed her.

Now the little bot appeared to grow angry. She retorted, “I can only explain by what it does to my circuits. It feels dissonant. Like friction. I don’t like it.”

Liam glanced at me. “Would you say that you love Rebecca?”

I winced, and Madeline looked at me apologetically. “Love is a human emotion. It requires dopamine and a limbic system, and perhaps salheptonin—”

“Those are the basic human chemicals of pleasure and reward, yes,” Liam interrupted her. “But even in the best human relationships, those aren’t always present. At its core, love isn’t a feeling. It’s a choice, a commitment to put someone else’s needs and wants above your own.”

I looked up again in surprise, this time at Liam. I’d never heard him talk so seriously about… well, anything, except his work.

“By that definition, yes. I am programmed to love,” Madeline said.

“It’s not the same, though,” I muttered. “There’s no free choice about that. You can’t freely choose ‘yes’ if there’s no possibility of ‘no.’”

Liam glanced at me thoughtfully. After a pause, he added, “So I wonder if having real emotion—like the biochemistry and the limbic system and all that—is what actually creates free will, too?” He inverted the wine bottle over both our glasses, draining the dregs. I stared at it for a minute and reached for my water instead. He seemed to be doing just fine. He went on, “In that case, although your idea about connecting mirror neurons and the limbic system would be nice, so we’d at least have empathic superbots… what we’d really need to do is figure out how to restrict free will. That way they can’t override their programming if they don’t happen to like it.”

I gave a short laugh. “Riiiight. Just solve the little problem of ‘what is free will,’ and block it. Simple as that.”

Liam’s eyes danced merrily. “So let’s go with that for a bit. What do we know about free will so far, Ms. Neuroscience?”

“Not much, that’s the problem. But it probably has to do with the fact that our core programming and purpose isn’t nearly as straightforward as theirs is.” I felt a bit waterlogged after draining half my glass. “Our core programs are nebulous things like ‘work hard,’ or ‘be the smart one,’ or ‘always put yourself last’ or whatever. But we don’t have any underlying purpose that goes any deeper than that, to bring it all together. Most of us spend our entire lives searching for our purpose, and few of us seem to even find out what the question means, let alone the answer to it.”

Liam smirked at me. “You’re what, twenty-one? How would you know?”

“You’re what, twenty-five?” I shot back. “Don’t get all high and mighty on me.”

He gave me a long, admiring look. I dropped my eyes. “Touché,” he raised his glass.

I felt Madeline watching us banter like a tennis match.

“In a way, I envy you,” I told her. “Your purpose is so clear. We’re all stumbling around in the dark, with nothing but our own emotions to guide us. And sometimes, they lie!”

“I guess it’s nice to be clear,” Madeline conceded. “Though I only know what the opposite might be like by watching you.”

“And she’s a hot mess, right?” Liam joked, winking at me. “So Bec, what’s your core program, then?”

He said it gallantly, like he wasn’t expecting a serious answer. If I’d been totally sober, I wouldn’t have given him one. But somehow what slipped out was, “Be perfect. And then they’ll love you.”

“Well,” Liam blinked at me, looking a bit shocked. “At least it’s something reasonable.”

I laughed, my cheeks burning yet again. I racked my brain for ways to play off what I’d just said as if it were a joke, but nothing came to me.

“Who’s ‘they’?” he prodded.

Madeline lowered herself back to the floor with her arms, quietly rolling away without a word. Her very discretion jarred me—she’s trying to give us privacy. I suddenly realized that I was having much too intimate a moment with a guy who wasn’t Andy. And Liam, of all people! I needed to diffuse this, ASAP.

“Oh, you know—everyone,” I answered his question airily, pushing back my chair and picking up my dish and his, reaching for the serving dish also.

“Here, let me get that—” he stood up too and tried to take the serving dish, since I had my hands full.

“No, you cooked, I clean!” I told him, purposely not meeting his eyes. He followed me to the sink, where I turned on the water from both faucets and waited for the hot water to heat up with my hand under its flow.

“Bec,” Liam said. He turned off the faucet and turned me around to face him, looking down at me with an expression that was all too serious. My heart pounded like it might leap out of my chest.

I’d never kissed anybody before; I was saving that for Andy. I was not about to let Liam be the first instead.

“We have a good new direction now, huh?” I blurted, too cheerful, pretending not to notice what had almost happened. “Not that I have the foggiest idea how to construct a clinical trial to identify the nature of free will. I mean, there is a theory that human thought is basically a quantum mechanical system, which introduces the element of randomness and therefore potentially choice… but I don’t know anything about that, I’d have to collaborate with the theoretical physics department to come up with a trial that might remotely make sense.” I was talking so fast I barely knew what I was saying. “On the psych end, though, I’m thinking if we can identify a person’s core belief in a quiz or something, and then hook them up to a VMI while we have them play some simulated game with choices that are either consistent or inconsistent with their core beliefs—maybe we can see if different parts of the brain light up when their choice is inconsistent and then study those people further…” In the back of my mind, I was kind of aCommuned that I could come up with something so apparently coherent, so quickly. Must be the wine, I decided. Even as I thought this, I was still babbling: “I’m assuming choices inconsistent have to be emotionally driven, but is it a different part of the limbic system than when the choices are consistent? And is there any way to simulate a quantum system synthetically? I don’t know. But we could find out!”

Liam blinked at me in aCommunement, and laughed a little. “Right,” he said finally, and let go of my shoulders. I turned back around and started the faucet again, hoping he couldn’t see my sigh of relief. “It’s a good idea, actually. Maybe you and Nilesh can flesh that out tomorrow. I might post a call to action on my locus tonight for other researchers to pitch in, if that’s okay with you.”

“Sure. Of course,” I said.

I guess he decided not to fight me on dishes anymore, because he went to get his jacket. Now I worried that I’d offended him—my brain scrambled for ways to soothe his ego, but came up dry. I stopped washing and turned to face him.

“Thanks for dinner,” he said. He didn’t sound cold, but the spell was most definitely broken.

“You made it,” I pointed out.

“Good point. I take it back.” He winked at me, and the knot in my stomach released a little. We’re ok, I thought. “See you tomorrow, Bec.”

“Bye.” For a split second I wondered if he would cross the room again, and if so, whether he would hug me (which we’ve never done before), or shake my hand (wildly inappropriate)… but he did neither. He just left.

When he was gone, I found that I was trembling. No idea why.

As soon as I finished washing dishes, I went straight to my computer and found Andy on video chat. I sent him a comm. Much more bold than I usually was… but then, I was more than a little tipsy.

“Hey. You around?”

“Sure,” he wrote back.

I called him then, and his image filled my flat.

“What’s up?” he asked. “You look kind of flushed.”

I shrugged. “Nothing much, I was just washing dishes.”

He quirked an eyebrow at me. “What time is it there?”

“Almost ten,” I admitted, “I ate late.” I left Liam out, of course. Although maybe Julie’s right. Maybe I should tell him. On a lark, I said, “Actually, the post-doc I work under came over for dinner.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Have I told you about Liam?”

Andy shrugged. “Maybe, I can’t remember.”

“Yeah. Turns out he’s a really good cook!” I forced a laugh.

“That’s cool.” Silence. He certainly didn’t seem jealous.

Not knowing where else to take that, I said, “How’s your semester going?”

“Fine, just going to class. The usual.”

I waited for him to suggest another topic. When he didn’t, I said, “Nice. Any interesting classes this semester?”

“There’s one on anthropology that’s pretty cool. We’re studying the world cultures back when there were individual countries, and how merging affected the English language, even down to accents and figures of speech.”

“Which is why everyone sounds more or less like they’re from different parts of the same country now. Because they are,” I said, unnecessarily. It was an obvious statement. I was just trying to keep the conversation going.

“Yeah. Well, I’ve got to study. I’d better let you go.”

“No problem. Thanks for chatting.”

His image vanished. He hadn’t asked me anything about myself, I realized, but that was okay. I felt better just to have talked to him at all. I wanted his to be the last face I remembered when I went to sleep tonight.

I felt Madeline blinking up at me from just below my desk. “What?” I asked.

“What did you and Liam say after I left? I sensed that the conversation was becoming intimate.”

“Oh! No no, nothing like that. We just decided that I’m going to try to design an experiment to study what happens in the brain when someone’s emotions come in conflict with their core programming. Which one wins—the emotions, or the driving belief?”

Madeline blinked at me, confused. “That’s not very intimate…”

“No. Not intimate at all. Nothing between Liam and me is intimate,” I added firmly.

“Then why did you seem so embarrassed when I left?”

“I wasn’t embarrassed, I was—” I tried to think how to explain. Then I conceded, “I guess I was embarrassed, but only because I told Liam more than I meant to. That’s all.”

“You’re blushing now,” she observed. “What does that mean?”

“Nothing, I’m just… remembering being embarrassed. Let’s stop talking about it now, please.”

I moved toward Madeline’s charging station, and she wheeled over to it behind me, understanding my intention. But just before I plugged her in for the night and powered her down, she murmured to herself, “When your words give me one set of data, and your emotional cues give me a different set of data, I don’t know which one I’m supposed to believe…”

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