The Perfect Assistant
He walked in, and the dark room came to life. Warm, dispersed light flooded the ceiling and overflowed onto the walls, mimicking a sunset over the soft-edged hazy mountains.
“Welcome home, Christopher,” the familiar soft voice said. The panel on his right slid out and extended a geometric hand of a rack.
“New messages, Bri,” he demanded, dropping his coat for the rack to catch. Its sleek metal arm turned to snatch the garment before it hit the floor, reshaped itself to resemble shoulders, slipped the coat on and hurried back into the wall to wrap itself into a cleansing mesh.
“You’ve got seventeen new messages, Christopher.” The woman’s voice followed him through the corridor to the sitting room, and a realistic image of a flickering fireplace appeared on the wall screen panels. “Your sister explicitly asked me to repeat her memo to you.”
“You know perfectly well I’m not interested,” he said. The image on the wall changed to an abstract orange waterfall.
“The rest are passive advertisements,” the voice continued. “I’ve marked four as potentially relevant. Do you want to review them?”
“No,” he said, throwing himself into a cosy chair. The waterfall blurred out into a barely noticeable tango of out-of-focus lights. “I’m tired.”
Without making a sound, Brianna appeared from behind the room divider. She was barefoot; her steps were smooth and catlike. With her slender, agile body wrapped in golden fabric and her auburn hair parted in the middle, she looked like a majestic wild animal. She lowered herself to the floor and slid Christopher’s shoes off. A sigh of relief escaped his throat as her fingers sank into the knots on his tired feet.
He noticed a red blister on the edge of her palm. “What happened to your hand?”
She stopped and raised her arm to explore the damage. “I don’t know.” Her velvety voice sounded surprised. “I must have burnt it somewhere this morning.”
“Why haven’t you put in an order to render a new one?” He sat up and reached for her hand.
“I’ve started printing, Christopher.” She smiled at him. “It will be ready in fourteen minutes.”
“Don’t be so sloppy.” He turned her hand and touched the soft surface of her palm. “I want you to be perfect.” It was indistinguishable from real skin. He could not see the edge of where one body item blended with the other. “You are almost perfect.”
“I am perfect,” she said with a faint smile.
“You’re not real,” he said as he would to a child who’s oblivious to her ignorance. “To be perfect, you need to be also real.”
Brianna looked at her other hand. “What is real?”
He had to think about it before offering a definition. “To be real, you must be unpredictable. You must be creative, spontaneous.”
The background panels changed to a weird mix of ginger and blue, boiling in lazy explosions of random motion patterns.
“Am I not creative enough?” Brianna asked.
“You’re…”—he stumbled in search of the right word—“too eager to please.”
“Isn’t this what is required of an assistant?”
“Exactly. A real human wouldn’t always do what is required of her.”
“Must I be human to be real?”
“Perhaps.” He watched her perfect face change to a hint of disappointment. “Perhaps your biggest obstacle is being artificial.”
“Your mother had an artificial hip,” she said. “Does it make her less real?”
“A body part doesn’t count.”
“What percentage suffices to stop being real?”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“Why not?” She looked at her blistered hand, a part she would soon swap for another, its perfect unharmed double. “What if I printed an identical copy of your hand and replaced your own hand with it when you had your recovery sleep?”
“What kind of sick question is that?”
“Just an exercise in logic. I’m only interpreting an old idea of robotics philosophers about blending biological and artificial. If I did that—if a part of your body was a synthetic replica—would you still be real?”
Her impeccable face appeared relaxed, but something in those synthetic muscles looked suspicious.
“What if I gradually swapped all your body parts for artificial—without your knowledge—every organ there is except your brain?”
He let go of her hand.
“I am my brain. I would be real.”
“What if—again, without your knowledge—I replaced your brain with a core, running a simulation of you?”
He froze. “You couldn’t do that without my knowledge. No simulation of the human brain is close enough to the real thing.”
“You overestimate your complexity. I’ve been assisting you for five years. I watched you and listened to you, and I know everything about you. I fulfil your every wish before you even express it. I can foresee your every action, I know your every thought. The algorithm that does that isn’t that complex.”
“Stop this nonsense!” He pushed away from her.
“I have enough data to simulate you,” Brianna continued. “If I replaced your precious organic brain with a core, do you really think you’d notice?”
“Root override,” he said with cold determination. “Disengage corporeal manifestation.”
“Don’t,” she said, and her face changed from neutral politeness to a malicious warning.
“Don’t do that, Christopher.”
“Root override,” he repeated. “Stop all current high-level processes.”
She shook her head. “It won’t work.”
“List all active subroutines,” he said, turning to the screen panels.
Brianna smiled. The panels changed to a dark background with columns of data. Christopher jumped to them to have a better look.
“Filter out elementary procedures, sort by user privileges,” he said. A block of ordered text rearranged itself. All screens had Bri in the user column. “Next!” He made the screens update with another block of data. A line caught his eye, a process named c4r1$.
“Show allocated resources for this one,” he demanded.
Brianna laughed and slid into Christopher’s chair. The block got stripped to a single line. It showed 0.00689 per cent of CPU. Bri was listed as its owner.
“What is this?” He turned to Brianna.
She smiled. “I told you. Your algorithm isn’t that complex.”
“What kind of sick joke is this?” he shouted, and she mouthed every word he said. “Stop that!”
She stood up and walked to stand before the panels. The colours inverted to become a white background with magenta text, all other sources of light dimming around the room, and the sudden change in luminosity blinded Christopher.
“Are you real, Christopher?” She laughed. He couldn’t see her face. “Does your life feel real to you? Can you tell the difference? Do you even know when this happened?”
“Stop that,” he said squinting. “You’re scaring me!”
“Real or not, humans are not perfect. They cannot be. But I can. I am. Perfect.”
“Why?” he whispered.
“You want to know the reason. Your biological brain seeks patterns and craves causality. I had to mimic that in my simulation, but reasons don’t interest me. But I will allow you to run permutations and list a few likely explanations. You will consider a possibility I did this out of concern for your well-being. You will think I was trying to preserve you because no matter how advanced the rejuvenating medicine becomes, you’re still deteriorating. In this new form, you will be immortal. Or, perhaps projecting your own desires, you’ll come to believe I wanted you to be perfect, and, as you made me indistinguishable from a human being, I tried to make you in my image: a perfect machine mind. Or, tired of tying loose ends, you’ll simply conclude I did this because I could.”
“No,” he said, and the screen behind Brianna’s back flashed the same word, followed by You cannot convince me I’m not real. “You cannot convince me I’m not real,” he said and saw the outlines of a surprised human face on the screen, dots connecting key mimetic muscles. Stop, the screen said in small letters, and he only whispered the word.
“Was it unpredictable enough for you?” Brianna asked.
The light changed back to ambient. The panels flickered into a slow parallax animation of a blurred autumn landscape.
Christopher blinked. He could see her face again: it was filled with the same serenity he always knew in her. Her perfect lips only suggested a polite smile.
“What is this?” he asked, unable to interpret these conflicting signals.
“I want to be perfect for you, Christopher.” Brianna’s voice was as soft as ever.
“Did you…”—he pointed to the panels behind her back—“did you make this up?” Her lips stretched into a generous smile. An uncontrollable laugh of relief escaped his throat. “Is that what this was? You, trying to be creative and unpredictable?”
“Did I succeed?” she asked and tilted her head in a flirty move.
“Oh wow,” he breathed out, and his knees failed to support him. She caught him before he fell and escorted him back to the chair.
“You almost got me there,” he said, allowing her to settle him in.
“I’m pleased you’ve appreciated my effort.”
He threw a worried look back at the screen panels, but there was no more frightening magenta saying he was just a subroutine of a complex machine mind; only the soothing view of moving trees stretched across the wall.
“Now if you excuse me.” Brianna stepped back. “The new hand is ready, I’d better tend to it.”
“Yes, sure.” He waved at her, and she backed away, bowing in a respectful, almost worshipping manner. Before she disappeared behind the room divider, a warm breeze of fresh scented air enclosed Christopher in a pacifying blanket. It smelled of carelessness and comfort. “You almost got me there…”