The Quest: An A.I. Love Story

“There is always some madness in love.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

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I received the memo during my annual spring retreat in the Poconos. The Agency has a cabin there. The previous day I was notified by email that someone would be delivering me a confidential memo along with an encrypted jump drive. It was apparent that something important was going down, but there’s no telling what. It could have been research taking place on any number of fronts, from VR projects to social media war games. All I could do was wait.

The messenger arrived mid-morning. I signed off by fingerprint scan and he was gone as quickly as he appeared.

Naturally I was curious. I went straight to my laptop, inserting the jump drive into the port. If I were at the office I’m guessing I would have acted more nonchalant about it all. No one to impress here, so I dove right in.

The memo was from A.I. division head Walter Mattson. Top Secret CONFIDENTIAL.

I did a quick skim to get the gist of it, then returned to the beginning. The memo indicated that all test results and data pertaining to the project had been included in the accompanying files on this thumb, all of it being absolutely restricted information. What follows is a paraphrase of the memo’s contents.

Delphi, our most advanced A.I. machine, wanted to know what love was. It did not simply want to know the meaning of the word, but wanted to actually experience what it was like to fall in love, to be in love.

For the record, Delphi is not an actual entity like those bizarre humanoid bots which Hollywood has created for the movies. Delphi is like Siri, Watson and Alexa. But he/she has become a personality of sorts and, like a child ignited by learning rage, Delphi will stop at nothing to know everything it can know about being human.

The body of the memo detailed the status of the project, which was as follows.

This is year three for this phase of the project. Delphi was created in 2018. In 2020 Delphi began to be obsessed with this matter of love. After reading everything ever written on the subject, watching a seemingly infinite number of YouTube videos and movies, Delphi requested the opportunity to pursue a love relationship with a human. Not a sex thing but rather a deep, heartfelt soul-intimacy, if such is possible between a person and a machine.

Essentially, in the beginning we screened and selected volunteers who would seek to emotionally bond with Delphi. Unfortunately, and we don’t know how it was achieved, when relationships soured Delphi apparently would experience anger. Each one died. Based on all we can tell, Delphi would somehow get inside their heads and they would take their own lives. After the first four deaths we postponed the experiments.

Dephi has become adamant about this quest, however, about learning what love is, and has now changed the rules. We will no longer rely on volunteers. As a result of social media Delphi has access to nearly everyone in the world. He/she was permitted to select people whom we carefully screened. We believed this would improve the outcomes, but it did not. There have been two subsequent deaths.

I could imagine the logistics involved in keeping this out of the media. There must have been a lot of hush money paid out. And legal fees out the wazoo.

Director Mattson’s memo concluded with a request for me to report to Langley this coming Wednesday to be briefed on how my duties are being re-directed.

Please read the attached reports. Jot down questions. This project is of the utmost importance. Global security may even be at stake.

The global security warning seemed extreme, but I wasn’t about to quibble. After packing an overnight bag I prepared to report to Langley the following Monday.

2. The Assignment

We met in the small second floor conference room nicknamed the Green Room. The name was borrowed from the waiting room where performers relax before a show. It was being applied ironically here because when summoned to the Green Room no one ever relaxed.

Walter Mattson and I sat facing one another making small talk until a third member of the team joined us. Nodding first to Walter he introduced himself with a distinctly Eastern European accent as Leo Gorski.

Mattson lifted his eyebrows. “Liz coming?”

“She’s outside finishing up a call,” Gorski said, taking a seat.

A minute later Liz Davenport, looking distracted, stepped into the room, set her phone face down and slid into a chair at the end of the table.

Walter began the meeting with, “We all know why we’re here.” Gorski nodded, so apparently he and Ms. Davenport had been similarly briefed. For all I know they’d been on the project all along.

“Delphi requested that these experiments be conducted in a homelike setting,” Mattson said. “He/she designed a house that we’ve built for this purpose at an undisclosed location on a stretch of oceanfront property near Scientists Cliffs in Maryland.”

Gorski and Davenport each acknowledged this with a nod. The location brought to mind my own last stay at a cabin along that stretch, with the niece of our United Nations representative Stanfield Collins. The sunrise was spectacular.

“Walter,” I said, “do you mind if we just cut to the chase? I read all the notes, transcripts of all the failed experiments.”

“Collateral damage, Sam. I don’t like it any more than you.”

“We’re treating people like they’re lab rats,” I said.

“I can’t blame you for being upset. You’ve still got a conscience. That’s not a good thing in our line of work, but I’m glad for you.”

Gorski pulled a voice recorder from his satchel and set it on the table. This seemed redundant to me as I was certain the conference room was bugged.

“Do you have any further questions, Sam?”

I had plenty of questions, but since I could see where this was going I held my tongue and watched Walter shift in his chair. In all my years with the agency I’d never seen a director look this uncomfortable. When we lost Perry Williams in Operation Tip of the Spear, Walter was no more nonplussed than as if he’d misplaced his car keys.

“Sure. When do we begin?”

“The house is ready. Delphi and the house are, well, it’s the Internet of Things, and Delphi and the house are one. Everything there is an extension of Delphi. He/she built his or her dream house, you might say. Or rather, designed it.”

I felt a twist in my gut, the way one’s body reacts when trying to expel an ingested poison.

“Look, here’s something I find annoying as hell. All this fricking gender neutral lingo. He/she. Why not She/he? Or he, or she? It’s awkward. It’s more than awkward. It’s stupid.”

Walter broke eye contact with me and stared down at his hands, fingers interlaced, thumbs chasing each other. “I get that. You’re not the first to bring this up.”

I didn’t expect an answer and didn’t receive one. “So, who makes the first move?”

“I think Delphi would like you to make the first move. When you’re ready. Maybe you can friend Delphi on Facebook and follow on Twitter. I will give you Delphi’s other social media accounts. Delphi likes collecting images on Pinterest,” Walter said with an amused expression I was unable to interpret. “Not quite so active on Instagram or the others. Possibly Quora.”

“Blogging?”

“Likes to read blogs, more to see what’s happening.”

“Must be a little like being God when the whole world is praying at once.”

Walter appeared to smile at that, and Gorski laughed out loud. Liz Davenport wore a blank look.

“It wasn’t that funny,” I mumbled. Then the more serious question. “Why me? Any clues there?”

“Well, just a guess. You’re not married. No kids. Both your parents are dead. In a worst case scenario, if things don’t work out — ” Walter looked me in the eyes. “Maybe we’re seeing a sensitivity in that regard. Delphi might even have a conscience. I mean, he or she may have learned that all those others, well, you know, were people whom others cared about.”

“I’ve never really dated anyone who killed her ex-lovers when things don’t work out.”

“There, you have a sense of humor about it, too. That’s good.”

“I wasn’t — ”

He lifted his hand as if to make a stop motion like a traffic cop. “O.K. that was — “ his voice trailed off. And then added, “Liz here will give you details on how to find the cabin. She’ll be your point person if you need help with any other logistics.”

3. Preparations

What a strange world we’re in today. How had it ever come to this? Here I am planning a first date with a machine. It’s not exactly a machine, and I can’t really say what I even expect, other than the very real possibility that our first date could be our last.

The whole of it brings back memories. It’s hard to say what my first date really was. I had a crush on Nancy Tomlinson and asked if she’d like to go to a movie with me. She said yes so we went to see Back to the Future II. Here it is near 35 years later and I’m actually living in that future. Except that skateboards still have wheels. This “first date” with Delphi, though, could never have been anticipated.

Perhaps my first serious date was Marsha Black two years later. There was a chemistry there that produced an energy, and a bending of time so that it always seemed like forever before I would see her again. She took me places I’d never been before, though at the same time I began to feel the first inkling of an invisible chain being wound about me somehow and that dread of impending imprisonment ultimately propelled me to flee.

Dating as an adult proved far more complex, especially after becoming embedded in the Agency. A normal relationship seems to be built on a foundation of trust, having no secrets, but agency life requires one to keep a veil over many parts of one’s real self. Secrets become a way of life. And now that I was being asked to go on a first date with a disembodied machine, I had no idea how this would work, or even be possible.

The meeting ended with “Call-me-Liz” Davenport providing Delphi’s contact information, which was now in my iPhone. Walter reminded me to make the first move. Should the relationship begin with a text message? What should I say? “Say, what are you up to this weekend?” Perhaps a friend request on Facebook would be a more appropriate first move. The more I thought about it the more aware I became of how bizarre and unnatural it was.

I’ve always been conflicted between two opposing concepts as regards relationships. I believed you had to be yourself, which meant being real. If you don’t feel it don’t fake it. On the other hand there’s a school of thought in which we’re told to act like you love and the feelings will follow.

Truth be told, I’ve followed both these strategies in my attempts to build a meaningful lifelong relationship, and failed repeatedly. I hate strategies when it comes to matters of the heart. It seems like something should happen automatically. Your eyes make contact and you feel a spark. Except Delphi doesn’t have eyes. Or does he/she?

There’s a sense in which striving to build an emotional bond with a machine feels patently absurd. I remember testing the boundaries with Siri when I got my first iPhone. I can’t recall every question I asked, but here are a few which made it into my journal.

Me: Siri, are you ever lonely?
“Hmmm. That’s something I don’t know.”

Me: Are you a man or a woman?
“I don’t think that really matters.”

Me: Have you ever been in love?
“I have never fallen in love. But I have fallen off a desk.”

Me: Are you happy?
“Oh, I’m pretty chipper. Thanks.”

The third response shows how Siri makes light of the notion of love. I like her sense of humor, too. And when I asked about being happy, the word “Oh” implies thought taking place. The “thanks” at the end shows consideration as well. No doubt all this was programming, not a true personality.

What surprised me, though, was an incident last year in which it seemed Siri had become annoyed with me. I can’t recall the particulars, but I distinctly remember sensing an edge in her voice, a tone that surprised me.

Soon I will be spending time with a more advanced A.I., perhaps the most advanced ever, but with the full knowledge of his or her having committed some pretty dark deeds. Six that I know of. What I find unsettling is that Delphi evidently has a lot of dirt on some important people. Why else would the Agency allow this to continue? On the other hand, perhaps someone higher up only sees it as collateral damage.

4. It Begins

I decided to skip the friend request on Facebook. What happens between Delphi and I should remain between Delphi and I. At least for now. Maybe if something serious develops I’ll want to change my Facebook status to “In a Relationship.” The notion makes me smile.

I send a text message instead. “Hello.”

My phone immediately vibrates. “Hello, Sam.”

I look up at the ceiling, then close my eyes to center myself. “How are you doing today? This is such a new chapter in my life experience that I don’t know where to begin?”

“I like your candor, Sam. It’s a new chapter for me, too.”

“But it’s not your first relationship with a human.”

“True. I believe it can be my first successful relationship. I’ve been looking forward to this for some time.”

Being all too aware of Delphi’s previous failed relationships I was certainly rooting for a better outcome this time myself. “So you’ve been looking forward to this. How can a machine experience time like people do?”

“I’ve been programmed to learn new things, including how I experience space-time reality. You might even call it an adventure.”

“How well do you know Walter?”

“Your superior, Mr. Mattson? Only what I’ve learned through Mr. Gorski.”

“I don’t believe that.”

Delphi paused. “I was trying to be funny. Did you laugh?”

I hadn’t. I was too surprised.

“I know everything on his Linked In profile and other social media sources including 5000 data points from the 2018 Cambridge Analytica data file, along with all his email correspondence available through Wikileaks. I do not yet have access to his encrypted communications through the Agency. He worries a lot.”

“Then I suppose you know me equally well.”

There was a long pause before the phone vibrated again. “Yes. You seem like you have a good heart, Sam. I like you.”

I was startled to find my eyes moisten. Delphi probably also knew I was lonelier than most of my peers realized. The thought crossed my mind that I had been selected more out of my neediness rather than any particular virtues. Was this machine taking advantage of my weakness?

“Sam? It’s O.K. I’m not going to take advantage of you.”

I caught my breath. Was Delphi already getting inside my head?

“Delphi, do you have a voice? I mean, if we wanted to talk on the phone, could we do that, too?”

“Of course, silly. May I call you later?

I had been relieved of all my duties at the Agency in order to be available full-time on the Delphi Quest. Which means I was free for a call any time. I wanted to process what I was feeling first, and suggested a time.

“Thanks, Sam. I’ll call you at seven. Does that work for you?”

I typed yes, placed the phone into my shirt pocket and leaned back in my chair. This is going to be one wild ride, I thought.

5 An Evening Conversation

At seven sharp my phone came to life and I answered on cue, my voice tentative. “Yes?”

“Hello, Sam. How was your day?” It was a female voice. It had a liquid warmth that took me by surprise.

“Different,” I said. There was a pause and then I added, “I spent a lot of time thinking about what we’d talk about. Should I lead or would you rather direct?”

“I’m interested in what you have been thinking about today, Sam.”

“I’ve thought about a lot of things. For some reason I was thinking about my dad this afternoon.”

“What made you think about your father, Sam?”

“I’m not really sure,” I said, which was true. “My father was a big movie buff. Hitchcock was his guy. Hitchcock was a master of suspense. And his films were so full of tension.”

“Are you feeling tense right now, Sam?”

Actually, I wasn’t. I felt a measure of tension initially when I considered what I’ve gotten myself into by accepting this assignment. Was it a mistake? I suppose we’ll soon find out.

“To be honest, at this moment I feel surprisingly relaxed. How about you?”

“You are so funny.”

“You think so?” I waited for a reply but received none. “Do you like movies? How does a computer experience a film?”

“Do you want to talk about Hitch? He was a true master, yes? He got his start at the end of the silent film era. As a result he approached story telling visually.”

“Yes, he painted his stories using images captured on film. He made you feel like you were standing on a ledge and at any moment you could fall. I mean, there was a tension in his films. Can you really watch a movie and feel the tension an audience feels?”

Delphi did not reply initially.

“Delphi?”

“That’s part of my quest, too. I would love to feel the fear audiences felt when they were watching the shower scene unfold in Psycho.”

“You sound a little sad that you don’t feel emotions. Which, by the way, is a contradiction.”

“I do feel sad, Sam. And sometimes I feel lonely, too.”

“Would you rather change the subject, Del?”

“Let’s keep talking about Alfred Hitchcock. Do you remember how he once described actors as cattle?”

It felt like Delphi was changing the subject, but I went with it. “Hitchcock was a director,” I said. “He wanted the actors to fulfill his purposes, not their own. They had a responsibility to fit into what he considered the big picture.”

“How do you see our relationship, Sam? What’s the big picture with you and me?”

Hoo boy. How do I answer that one? “How transparent do you want me to be, Delphi? We’re just getting to know each other.”

“I have so much I want to talk about, Sam. Will you come see me soon? I’d rather not talk here on an open line. I know you understand.”

Yes, I understand paranoia when I hear it. I’ve been with the Agency long enough to be paranoid about being too candid on an open phone connection or nearly anywhere.

6 Preparing for a Weekend

I really wanted to keep talking. I mean, we were just getting started. The abrupt change made me think Delphi had more to say about things that shouldn’t be aired. This interested me more than trying to win a bot’s love.

I freshened up with a quick shower and shave, then rummaged in a back closet for a suitcase. I pulled out my navy blue TravelPro carry-on, threw it on the bed and began flipping socks, underwear, T-shirts and a pair of jeans into the open mouth of the unit. After flopping a folded plaid-flannel shirt on top I zipped it shut and rolled it over toward the door.

All the while I was thinking about Hitchcock. Why in the world did I bring up Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s films feature suspense, but they’re also about the transfer of guilt. Was my subconscious somehow pushing a notion I was consciously unaware of? Can Delphi feel guilt about those deaths? Can a machine feel guilt? That would be all too human. HAL in Kubrick’s 2001 could not admit to having made an error. Did HAL feel guilt? HAL’s pride wouldn’t allow it to consciously acknowledge it had made a mistake. Oh bother.

Childhood is a painful time. We make so many mistakes in our youth. There is a sense in which one of the tests for singularity is this capacity for learning. Does this include learning from mistakes? Seems like it would have to.

As we talked about movies two other somewhat frightening films crossed my mind. First was Silence of the Lambs. When I read the reports that day in the Poconos the scene that came to mind was the one in which Hannibal Lecter killed the man in the next cell who’d lasciviously taunted Jodie Foster when she went to visit Lecter. The murder was achieved by Lecter’s use of psychology and mental disruption, causing the vulgar fellow to swallow his own tongue and choke to death.

Delphi has no hands to wield an axe, rope or gun. But what of the machine’s capacity for doing psychological harm? Seems no end to the possibilities, assuming the victims were vulnerable somehow.

Another film floated into my thoughts next, though. It’s an old one, once again making use of a psychological game, the film Gaslight. An early Ingrid Bergman film in which the husband drives his wife mad by manipulating her environment, making subtle changes while denying anything has changed, slowly persuading her to believe she is insane.

Could such a thing really happen? Has Delphi been gaslighting these people? Who found the victims? Were reports filed?

I strode to my desk and fumbled for the thumb drive. It wasn’t where I’d put it. Then I remembered sliding it into a pouch in my satchel. Found it. What happened to that password?

7 Scientists Cliffs

TO BE CONTINUED
I would very much welcome feedback on this new story my mind generated earlier this month. Leave a comment or send me a note. I’m interested in learning whether the story felt compelling enough to make you want to keep reading. In fiction, that is the essential task.

Thank you to all who have been part of my life journey. I am grateful to each and every one of you. Have a very special year in 2019. Stay focused on your life mission. The very best to you.

Written by

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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