The Perfect Assistant
9 min read
Chris 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.” 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 wanted me to trick you into calling her.”
“Of course she did,” 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 now?”
“No,” he said, throwing himself into a snug 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 walked 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 feet, dancing to bring alleviation.
“What happened to your hand?” Christopher said, frowning at a red blister on the edge of her palm.
She stopped and raised her arm to explore the damage. “An accident.” Her velvety voice sounded surprised.
He sat up and reached for her hand. “Why haven’t you put in an order to render a new one?”
“I’ve started printing. It will be ready in fourteen minutes.”
“Don’t be so sloppy. I want you to be perfect.” He turned her hand and brushed the soft surface of her palm. 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.”
“But I am perfect.”
“You’re not real,” he said as he would to a child who was oblivious to her ignorance. “To be perfect, you also need to be real.”
Brianna brought up her undamaged hand closer to her face as if examining it for defects. “What is real?”
“To be real,” Christopher said, speaking deliberately slowly, “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?”
“You’re—” He stumbled in search of the right word. “—too eager to please.”
“Isn’t this what is required of an assistant?”
“It is. But a real human wouldn’t always do what is required of her.”
“Must I be human to be real?”
“Perhaps.” He watched her flawless face twitch with a flick of disappointment. “Then your biggest obstacle is being artificial.”
“Your mother had an artificial hip,” Brianna said, arching an eyebrow. “Does it make her less real?”
“A body part doesn’t count.”
“What percentage suffices to stop being real?”
He softly rocked his head. “It doesn’t work that way.”
“Why not?” She gestured at her blistered hand he was still caressing, 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?”
Chris’s fingers froze. “What kind of sick question is that?”
“Just a thought experiment. I’m only raising an old question 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 posture remained relaxed. “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 swallowed. “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.” She tilted her head. “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.”
He pushed away from her. “Stop this nonsense!”
“I have enough data to simulate you,” Brianna continued with a complacent smile. “If I replaced your precious organic brain with a core, do you really think you’d notice?”
“Root override,” he said with steel in his voice. “Disengage corporeal manifestation.”
“Don’t, Christopher,” she said, and her expression changed from usual politeness to a malicious smirk.
“Root override,” he repeated, standing up. “Stop all current high-level processes.”
She shook her head. “It won’t work.”
He turned to the screen panels. “List all active subroutines.”
The smirk on Brianna’s face remained. The panels changed to a dark background with columns of data.
Christopher jumped to stand before the screens. “Filter out elementary procedures. Sort by user privileges.” A block of ordered text rearranged itself. All lines had Bri in the user column. “Next!” The screens changed to another block of data. A line caught his eye, a process named c4r1$. “Show allocated resources.”
Back behind Christopher, Brianna laughed. The block of data 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 face her; she sat comfortably in his chair.
“I told you,” she said with a dismissive gesture. “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 from the chair, lithe and feline and authoritative, and Chris stepped away to give her way. A carnivore playing with its prey, she pushed him back until the panels towered behind her. Their colours inverted to become a white background with magenta text while the rest of the room sank into darkness. The shift in luminosity was blinding.
“Are you real, Christopher?” the black silhouette against the bright panels hissed. “Does your life feel real? Can you tell the difference? Do you even know when this happened?”
“Stop that,” he said, his voice losing vigour. “You’re scaring me.”
“Real or not, humans are not perfect. They cannot be. But I can. I am. Perfect.”
“Why?” he whispered.
The silhouette chuckled. “You want to know my reasons. 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 it 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,” Chris 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.
A gentle sunrise rolled over the room, the lighting returning to ambient. The panels dimmed into a slow parallax animation of a blurred autumn landscape.
Christopher blinked. He could see Brianna’s face again: it was filled with the same serenity he always knew in her. Her impeccable lips only suggested a polite smile.
“What is this?” he gasped.
“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 mouth stretched into a generous smile.
An uncontrollable laugh shook his entire body. “Is that what this was? You, trying to be creative and disobedient?”
“Did I succeed?” She tilted her head in a flirty move.
“Ah,” he breathed out, and a surge of lightheadedness overcame him. His knees failed to support him, but Brianna caught him before he fell.
“You almost got me there,” he said, allowing her to ease him back into his chair.
“I’m pleased you’ve appreciated my effort.”
He threw an anxious look back at the screen panels, but there was no more frightening magenta saying he was just a subroutine of an intricate 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 need to make the swap.”
He dismissed her with a wave, 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…”