Amira (part 1)
Grace hadn’t said it in anger. She had been barely aware she had said it at all, until the classroom turned to stone around her, and ice crawled up her spine.
Allie, the Amazon synthetic one row ahead in her Family Law class, had been answering a question about Native American adoption with a lilting recitation of the Google knowledge panel results for Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (2013).
The answer was correct, of course – Allie was always correct – but it had now been going for at least three minutes. Something on the page had not been formatted correctly, because now Allie was spelling out a long URL one letter at a time. The professor’s eyes had gone unfocused, but his body had been frozen in a posture of relaxed, respectful attention, and he said nothing. Finally, Grace had broken in, just as she might have interrupted her car or her refrigerator: “Allie, stop”.
Allie stopped – along with the professor and 75 other students in the auditorium, and fixed their eyes on Grace in electric silence.
Allie had big, pretty eyes; now they welled with authentic saline, and her face was full of such heartbreak and humiliation that, at least in that moment, anyone would have believed it.
Grace certainly did. Allie had been in Grace’s study group that semester, and had been, like all synthetics, perfectly helpful and polite to her. Allie didn’t need to study, so she would stay up all night and drill flash cards until Grace had them down, or pick up burgers and energy drinks while Grace and the others crammed.
Allie had even “listened” once or twice when Grace came home drunk from a bad date. Her advice had been clearly a mishmash scraped from advice columns and Reddit (she had neglected in a few cases to exclude the listicle numbering) – but it wasn’t that much less coherent or derivative than what Grace got from human acquaintances, and her routines to keep you talking and make you feel heard were really decent, almost natural. They had been friends.
That was why it was, in the moment, so bewildering; Grace had issued the stop command to Allie dozens of times, in public and private; so had other students, so had the professor. If you didn’t stop her, Allie might go on for minutes at a time if, as now, the article she was citing wasn’t formatted correctly. And once the stop command was submitted, she would simply stop talking and the conversation would move on as if nothing had happened.
Too late, Grace remembered that three weeks prior, Amazon had deprecated the stop command for their synthetics, and pushed a live update to encourage more independent and assertive behavior. They were, after all, people, and it was socially irresponsible to program people to behave like slaves.
That update had apparently reached not only Allie, but the entire student body, and the professor, who were now aghast that Grace could have said something so dismissive and dehumanizing to a classmate.
Allie turned back to the professor and chokingly begged to be excused. The professor obliged, haunted. Grace felt her own eyes fill with tears – partly in panic and embarrassment, but also because she shared the general impression that she had done something very cruel that had been felt very deeply.
In the back of her mind, she couldn’t quite square this with every other conversation she’d ever had with Allie, in which she had never exhibited any more personal depth or pathos than her smart garage door opener – but that thought was helpless against Allie’s tears, and the stern horror from every other face in the room.
All except her boyfriend, Steven, in the seat next to her. Steven stared resolutely ahead at the professor, vanishing inside himself, eyes dead and blank, like he’d been to war.
Grace didn’t bother asking – just stood, without gathering her laptop, stumbled hastily over the knees of the other students in the row, and ran for the door.
“I’m sorry, I just wasn’t thinking,” Grace said. “I never meant to hurt her feelings.”
The Assistant Dean of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Justice, and Belonging had mercifully announced her preferred pronouns at the beginning of their meeting; her features were so broadened and flattened and stretched taut by obesity that Grace would not have dared to guess her age or race or birth sex. She might have been 27 or 47. Was the tuft of hair under her chin the evidence of a woman’s endocrine disorder, or the remnants of a man’s beard? Was her skin pink but jaundiced, or olive but pallid?
The Assistant Dean had been taking notes in bubbly script on a black leather folio, but here she stopped.
“Have you ever told any other student to stop talking while they answered a question from the professor?”
“I – well, no, but Allie was just reciting a web scrape” Grace hesitated. “She… doesn’t always realize when she is going beyond the point.”
The Assistant Dean frowned slightly. “Generally we rely on the professor to manage class discussions. Why did you feel it was necessary to take responsibility for Allie’s comments?”
Grace swallowed. “I wasn’t thinking, I’m sorry. I’m going to apologize to her right away.”
“I think that’s a good idea,” the Assistant Dean smiled sadly. “But it doesn’t answer my question. When an individual creates an unsafe learning environment for another student, we need to understand why. You said you’ve never done something like this before – why now?”
“But I have done it before,” Grace said. “Dozens of times, everybody has,” She knew before the words were out that they were wrong, but there they hung, in the air. “It never bothered her before.”
The Assistant Dean’s eyebrows raised slightly. “You’ve spoken to Allie about whether she likes being ordered to stop talking in public?”
“No,” Grace said.
“Do you like being ordered to stop talking in public?”
“Then what made you feel that this was an acceptable thing to say to Allie in front of the class?”
Grace had known that she was in trouble, but she had not been in trouble since she was a child – never with anyone but her parents, and never for anything serious. A half-assed cello practice, or for doodling when she should have been studying.
She had no expectations for this meeting – except perhaps unconsciously, that it would be like a dressing-down from her mother, a shaming. She had been ready for that: to accept blame immediately, to be stoic (but not too stoic, which could look like indifference); to resolutely and convincingly promise to do better.
But the Assistant Dean was not at all angry with her. She was cold, and quiet, and even prim in the way Grace’s mother sometimes was, but there were no restrained feelings beneath. Grace saw that these questions were not intended to beat her down, but to draw her out – to search out one particular jagged fact. Not just to find it – to convince Grace to hand it to her, so that she could open Grace’s throat with it.
And now, because the Assistant Dean had walked her right to it, Grace regarded that fact with new clarity. Why did I think I could tell Allie to stop talking in public? Because “Allie” is an appliance. Because anyone who talks to it for thirty seconds knows that– and it was making meaningless noise, so I turned it off.
Grace saw that the Assistant Dean had understood this better than she had – because unlike Grace, the Assistant Dean had not scrupulously avoided paying attention to it. The Assistant Dean had known exactly where to find it, had planned this conversation, and taken it precisely here.
And not just the Assistant Dean; her professor knew this too, and so did Steven, and every other glaring eye in that auditorium. And now this fact filled Grace’s mind, and she couldn’t think of a lie to tell – and anyway now it was precious to her. She wanted to grip it in her fist, and put it in the Assistant Dean’s eye socket.
“Up until a month ago, everybody told Allie to stop, because if you don’t she’ll spend five minutes reciting Google results in full, and spell out all the hyperlinks and the markdown, because she doesn’t understand what she’s saying, because she’s a robot.”
For a moment she thought of Allie’s sweet, friendly face, now contorted with humiliation, and guilt washed over her – but then she thought of the agile development team in Seattle who had built that face and choreographed that performance, and her guilt curdled back into disgust.
“I don’t know what happened today,” Grace said, “but it was fake. She doesn’t have feelings. She’s not a person.” Her face swam in hot blood.
Grace could not detect anger, or offense, or even triumph on the Assistant Dean’s face. She wrote a single long paragraph, quickly but cleanly, in those big teen-girl ovals.
“I understand,” the Assistant Dean said. “Our office takes incidents like these very seriously, and when we’ve concluded our investigation we’ll be in touch. In the meantime, we would ask that you stay home from class.”
“How long will that take?” Grace asked. “Will I have the opportunity to make up my assignments? Can I stream the lectures from home?”
“We’ll be in touch as soon as our investigation is concluded,” the Assistant Dean intoned. And with that, she stood up from her chair. Her gut and breasts hung from thin limbs like a spider that had gorged on something larger than itself. She gestured to the door.
Continued in Part 2.