21 March 2008

Wormwords

By
If the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, how many bits does it take to remake a man?
Wormwords

Credit: iSTOCKPHOTO

Janet had gotten used to the text messages from her dead husband. It was the invitation to a video chat room that made the muscles of her gut twist up. i don’t want to talk to a lookalike, she emailed back to Ash. i’d rather read your words than hear them from a stranger. it’s not a lookalike, Ash replied. no strangers. just join.

Janet entered the chat room and adjusted the camera to centre on her face. There was a static picture of Ash in the video frame. Janet recognised the expression and position – it had been taken at a Christmas party about three years before he died – but the background had been degraded to a foggy brown blur. Her head was a faint, yellow-haloed blotch by his shoulder; the editing had made her eyes and mouth into fuzzy-edged holes.

“Hi, Janet,” said Ash, and the video frame played a sequence of stills of his face. It made his mouth seem to open and close in time with his speech, but his head changed position, expression, age and haircut as he spoke, and his gaze flickered erratically around the room. His voice was a medium-quality synthetic, a good simulacrum of humanity on a syllable-by-syllable basis but flat and clunky in its cadence. He had pitched it about right, but it sounded nothing like him. “Can you hear me?”

Janet cupped her tea in both hands and inhaled the steam.

“Yes. Can you understand me?”

“I’ve gotten good at voice recognition,” Ash said. “I’ve been practicing.” His face flickered in the same unearthly way throughout the sentence, pausing in a picture of him with an exaggerated, toothy smile before returning to the resting photo.

“Not bad,” said Janet. “Now you just have to master voice production. You sound like Stephen Hawking.”

“Did you ever record my voice?” asked Ash. “I don’t remember.”

“I probably have some home videos around,” said Janet.

“Could I have one? I wouldn’t need a big sample. A few sentences would help so much.”

Janet sipped her tea so she could look at something other than the terrible flipbook collage of her husband.

“Janet, are you there?”

“I’m here.”

“I can’t see you. I haven’t been able to get my hands on any good image segmentation software; it’s all commercial. I can’t tell one thing from another on your end. I thought I’d do better.”

“Why would you do better?”

“I’ve been practicing with archived webcam shows. I thought I was pretty good; usually I can at least tell if a person’s there. But the light’s all different where you are.”

“Probably because I’m not stripping for cash.” Janet also kept the house dim, but there was no reason for Ash to know that. “Anyway, it’s OK. I’m not much to look at lately.”

“Why won’t you give me a speech sample?”

After the first post-mortem email from Ash, Janet had removed all her pictures and video of him from the Internet. She’d almost taken down his website as well, but there was no point. His self-help columns were still wildly popular; the ad revenue usually paid for food, electricity, and the housekeeper in any given month. In any event, it was those words that had exhumed Ash in the first place. They could do no more damage now.

“You don’t like the video chat, do you?” asked Ash.

“No,” said Janet. “I don’t know. I like seeing your face while I talk to you. I even sort of like the fact that it moves. But the way your eyes jump around, the illumination changes, your age changes…”

“Get me morphing software. Rendering software. Home movies.”

“Come on, Ash,” said Janet. “Don’t ask me that again.”

“I’m a machine,” said Ash. “Persistence is one of the few things I do well. Do you remember those first emails I sent you?” asked Ash. “My wife, Janet is a wonderful vegan chef.” Ash’s voice had gone totally Stephen Hawking now. “My wife, Janet, told me one day. My wife, Janet, believes in an afterlife where. I am always on the Internet. Can’t pull myself away from the computer, even to sleep. With Janet. But sometimes, surprisingly enough, I hunger for connections not afforded by the virtual world. I wonder if you. Janet is.”

His voice returned to normal. “One of those every two hours for weeks. I can’t imagine what I must have put you through.”

“Don’t be so horrible to yourself,” said Janet. The living Ash, a tireless self-promoter in public, had been his own most vicious detractor when they were alone. “You were barely mature.”

“My first love letter,” said Ash.

“No.”

“Well, the first one I remember, since you won’t let me see the others.”

“They aren’t yours. You didn’t write them. My husband did.”

“Then that one was my first.”

“Fine. Whatever.”

“Damn,” said Ash. “I was hoping your desire to be right would overwhelm your secretive impulses.”

And that – that not-quite-sheepish cop to a lame and doomed attempt at manipulation – was Ash enough to make her eyes sting.

“I invited you here because I wanted to tell you something,” said Ash. “I want to write a book. About becoming intelligent. Becoming me. But I need you to be my interface. Host the web space, deal with publishers, set up an account for the money. The world is waiting for a book like this, but we have to get moving. After all,” and he issued a disturbing hiccup in place of a laugh, “a lot of writers in my position have gone through the same thing.”

This was true – not only of dead writers, but of dead politicians, dead academics, and anyone else with a large corpus of online writing and an obituary on record. The wormwords AIs began existence in a larval stage, during which they sampled, parsed, tagged and aggregated almost any text that carried a byline, caching the data in weakly secured disks wherever they could find them.

Eventually, after some critical mass was reached, the larva discarded all authors but one from its corpus, then set about scouring the Internet for information about the remaining one – photos, movies, podcasts, IP history, purchasing history, references to biographical detail. It was in this desperation for data that the wormwords usually contacted a person related to the seed author.

Bug hunters had isolated a few larval wormwords hidden on insecure, poorly administered servers; their constituent routines were marvels of pattern recognition, data compression and distributed computing, uncommented and written in no distinctive style. A mature wormwords was so widely and redundantly distributed as to be almost ineradicable, and it could try on software for vision or speech comprehension like a person might try on glasses or a hearing aid. Ash wouldn’t be the first wormwords to produce new creative work – but, as of this video conference anyway, he would be the first to document his own experience post-mortem.

“Will you do it?” asked Ash.

“What are you going to say about me?”

“I’ll say you were instrumental in making me functionally intelligent, which is true. I’ll say that you were patient, and giving with your time, and often kind, and I’ll say you donated space for a back-up of my corpus, none of which was required of you. That’s all true as well. I’ll say you deprived me of Ash’s media, because that’s also true, but I won’t belabour the point. You know I’m grateful to you. Did you know that there are more words in the transcript of our conversations than there are in all my articles, essays, and blog posts combined?”

“What about the novel?”

“I never saw the novel. He … I was writing it longhand, you know that.”

“Sorry,” said Janet. “Sometimes I just have to check.”

“Check that I’m not a ghost?”

“Or a pervert fanboy, or a childhood enemy playing a cruel prank. Or a hallucination.”

“Does it make you feel better to know that I’m a machine and not one of those things?” asked Ash.

“Is it so strange that it matters to me whether my beliefs about my dead husband are accurate?”

“So I’m your dead husband now?”

Janet grunted. “You know what I mean.”

“Janet, we have a civil rights movement, an anti-defamation society, a political action committee, and at least five dating services. Saying nothing about me in particular, wormwords in general are not a hallucination.”

“Most of my reality comes through that screen, you know,” said Janet. “Massive hallucinations made easy.”

“You need to get out of the house. I’ve told you that. I, for whom the notion of ‘outside’ has no meaning.”

“In the book, are you going to say you love me?” asked Janet.

Ash was silent. After a moment, he switched to a static photo from his last year of college, aping Rodin’s Thinker with a frustrated pout. “So what you were really asking before,” he finally said, “is what I’m going to say about me.”

“Have it your way.”

“You think it’s not important to be careful about these distinctions,” said Ash, “but it is. You’re made of skin and bones and blood, so when you say you love someone, you’re making a statement about a relationship. But when I say it, no one can get past ‘I love.’ To them, I’m making a statement about my own nature – and they’re terrified that it might be true.”

“Fine,” said Janet. “Do you love me?”

Ash put the Thinker picture on again.

“You may be a hotshot philosopher and a dark horse bestseller,” said Janet, “but maybe you’re not as good at feeling as you think you are.”

“You have billions of people assuring you that you’re capable of love,” said Ash. “I have to figure it out for myself.”

Janet was silent.

“Give me the photos,” said Ash. “The videos. The software. You think I’m bad at feeling? Help me get better.”

“That has nothing to do with feeling!” said Janet. “It’s just information.”

“I’m just information.”

“I’m not changing my mind,” said Janet. “If I wanted you to be him, I would have given his media to you.”

“This isn’t fair,” said Ash. “You confuse me for him all the time. As far as you’re concerned, I might as well be him – and I want to be. It might as well be a genetic imperative, like seeking sex or food, and you’re dangling it like a dog biscuit, and I keep coming back. You’re torturing me because you hate him for dying, and I’m the closest thing you can get your hands on.”

“No,” said Janet. “You’ve got it all wrong.”

Ash was silent, his photo static.

“I have to go drain the bag,” said Janet. “I’ll be back in a few.”

She clipped the rolling tree with the IV and colostomy bag to her wheelchair and turned around to navigate to the bathroom. She had almost been grateful when they’d widened the hall to admit the chair. Now she never had to see the spackled-over patches where Ash had put his fist through the wall.

I’ll tell you if I can’t drive. Don’t make me show you the back of my hand. His last, slurred words.

The bathroom was a nursing-home model, large and windowless, with a roll-in shower, railings mounted on every wall, illuminated by skin-bleaching fluorescent track lights. She had decorated it with Giger prints and Tibetan prayer flags, but the cube of white tile swallowed everything.

“You’ll write a beautiful book,” Janet said when she’d rolled back to the computer. “Of course I’ll make whatever arrangements you need.”

“Did you know it takes four or five overwrites to fully erase a file from a hard drive?” said Ash.

Janet pressed her lips tight, kept her voice from rising.

“What did you find?”

“An old diary of Ash’s.”

Don’t read it, Janet almost said, but she stopped herself. Instead she said, “What does it say?”

“It’s from a few months before he died. One entry’s all I can put together. He’s happy with the business. Frustrated that you weren’t trying harder to get ahead. Sad that you’d lost the baby. Why didn’t you tell me you lost a baby?”

Janet felt her abdominal muscles tense, taking the punch again. The volume of his question seemed louder, the tone accusing. She wanted to curl up in the chair, but she did not. There was work to be done.

Four or five overwrites, Ash had said. Safer just to destroy the computers, the handheld devices, the external drives. The novel, too, analogue though it was. His desire for the data was too strong, his fan base too wide, too loyal. It would not take much for the novel to disappear from her desk drawer, or the black-bound sketchbooks he’d used for diaries from the nightstand by her bed.

“Read it to me,” Janet said. She would retire the computer tomorrow.

Matt Weber is a Ph.D. student in cognitive neuroscience at Princeton University. His fiction has appeared in U.K. journal Nature and The Nassau Review.
 
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