This story happened sometime ago, when I first made the jump from academia into the private sector. I had managed to get myself a job as an assistant for a top researcher at a company that will remain nameless. We weren’t working on a product per se so much as just researching potential avenues in AI and cybernetics that could lead to products in the future. While I was more than a little nervous about making the big jump into the corporate world I found myself striking an immediate friendship with my boss Andrew. Beyond our obvious passions me and him found similar hobbies and interests beyond the sciences and the long days together soon allowed us to bare more and more of ourselves. Honestly, it was the first time since grade school that I had felt such a close friendship.
Now, one of the big things we were researching was how to make an aritifical intelligence that could grow and learn like a human. The idea was that if we could mimic the kind of plasticity you find in the brain of someone young and intelligent in a computerized form, then we could create a far more powerful AI. Naturally that meant we needed someone young and intelligent in order to observe them and their brain. We put out ads at local college campuses offering plenty of cash for not much work and waited for someone to show up. What we got surpassed our wildest expectations.
Her name was Dani, an eighteen year old freshman, and from the moment I first spoke with her I was blown away by her intelligence. The way she seemed to just soak up whatever information you gave her, the way she could come up with poignant and insightful follow up questions, not to mention the surprising breadth of knowledge she already possessed. I think she may have been the smartest person I had ever met to that point. Perhaps she still is.
It was obvious that Andrew was captivated by her too, much more so in fact. It was undeniable that her beauty matched her intellect and while I did my best to keep myself detached from certain thoughts, Andrew was having a harder time. Not to say that he was behaving inappropriately, in those initial visits he was a consummate professional, yet laying just underneath every word he spoke was an audible undercurrent of want.
However that made me feel it seemed not to phase Dani at all. It was clear that me and Andrew were the first people she had met that were, barely, on the same plane of intelligence as she was. I still look back fondly on those first sessions and conversing with her. She shined so brightly, and her eagerness and ability was far more endearing and inspiring then it was frustrating, even if I couldn’t help but feel a little inferior to her.
Regardless, things went well at first. She would come in and we would give her various cognitive tasks, be they learning a manual skill, like juggling, doing some sort of puzzle or brain teaser, or having her study a given topic and then be examined later. In all these cases we did brain scans before, in the middle of, and at the end of each assignment in order to model how her brain reacted and adapted. Then we took the information we had received, interpolated it into a continuous stream of data, and then converted it into something that would work with our AI model. The fruits of this effort were tremendous. The gains we made were so great, in fact, that the company higher ups offered to pay Dani a real salary and to extend the scope and budget of our research dramatically.
As much as this was good for my career, it caused as much harm to mine and Andrews friendship. With Dani around more and more I could see him pull away from me and towards her. He never flirted, he never crossed that boundary, but it was obvious. Our talks about gaming, history, literature, all ebbed as his obsession flowed out into every gesture, every greeting, the pain in every goodbye. For her part Dani seemed as happy as ever, and more then enthusiastic to take our research to the next step.
Said next step was much more… invasive then the last. Andrew and I came to the conclusion that the best way to advance our model was to move from interpolated data to real time measurements. If we could match each digital neuron to one of Dani’s then our model would be significantly optimized. In order to do this we needed a sensor connected directly to Dani’s nervous system. The technique we devised required us to insert a wire into her arm. However nervous I was about broaching the subject was not reflected in her enthusiasm. Or Andrew’s, for that matter. He insisted on doing the procedure himself, and thus, I watched from the next room over as he placed the incision on her flawless skin. Dani smiled and watched, the local anesthesia kept the pain away while her curiosity kept her laser-focused. I too watched as the wire slowly penetrated her, writhing underneath her arm like a snake slithering underneath a fine satin sheet. Her body seemed to quiver as it went in deeper and deeper. I watched Andrew’s breath shudder, I worried about the steadiness of his hands but he managed to pull through. Finally he connected the exposed piece of wire at the end to a small port. Plugging it into a cable run to a nearby computer running our AI model, Andrew had readied us for our next big leap.
The improvements we saw were massive, and soon Andrew began planning on how to extract even more data. Unfortunately this meant more wires running through our far too eager assistant. One or two was one thing, but I couldn’t help but be disturbed at how willing she was to mutilate herself with more and more wires. Every day we seemed to add another, her body being scarred with ports that when wired started to look like long hairs, sprouting out of her every pore. Only her bright, beaming, face was left unmarred. Andrew was disturbing me too, I was hoping that at least with her looks being carved away Andrew’s affections would peter out as well. Instead the opposite happened. He grew more and more attached, as if the sight of her once beautiful figure covered in wires and scar tissue was almost arousing.
As the project continued whatever objections I raised would be vetoed by both of them. I felt like I was slowly being pushed out. I would arrive for work with the two of them already there, and I would leave before them too. They always seemed to be talking to each other, just quiet enough that I couldn’t eavesdrop. Eventually I just resigned myself to carrying out whatever tasks they gave me. After all, who was I to question either of them or what they wanted to do to themselves?
That question became all the more pertinent when I walked in one day to both of them patiently waiting for me. I could immediately tell that whatever they planned was going to be a step beyond what I was really comfortable with. Andrew explained to me that he felt the model was at its peak, no more data would help it, however that didn’t mean our work was done. Far from it he said. Dani was the perfect test subject, a true top percentile of human intellect, and if we could integrate her potential with that of the AI we had created, we could produce perhaps the smartest being to ever live. I looked to Dani, the idea was insane to me, who knew what would happen to her in all this, and yet she seemed adamant. “I want to be smarter, better,” Dani’s look burned into my eyes, “The best.”
I didn’t have it in me to fight them. Instead I put myself into autopilot, going through the motions of whatever they asked of me. The two had found a mutual obsession that had absorbed them to the point that they were barely aware of me. At first it was simple enough, we simply used the connections already installed in Dani to feed information from the model into her and vice versa. As anyone who knows anything about coprocessors knows, however, is that connection speed is absolutely paramount. The easiest way to do that involved creating new connectors and shortening the physical distance between Dani and the computer.
Thus the months toiled on. We would build better connectors, shorten the wires. Dani’s abilities would improve more and more, and so too would Andrew’s devotion. Dani celebrated her 19th birthday in the office, with Andrew hacking away at her back so we could install a knew ribbon connection. She had become almost addicted to the AI. She would complain that being disconnected felt like reverting to the mind of a child. The few moments Andrew would allow someone else to talk to her felt like talking to something inhuman. Emotion and passion drifted away and cold logic and rationality took its place. Even when she forced herself to speak at my level it felt like she was struggling. Occasionally a metaphor or reference would slip out that was far beyond my comprehension, like an adult talking to a child who was unfamiliar with little kids.
One day, as I got ready for work, Andrew phoned me. He told me that him and Dani had come to an agreement regarding what was next. They were moving forward with or without me. He told me that the company had agreed to offer me a two week vacation, fully paid, and that they would be sending someone over shortly with paperwork I would have to sign if I wanted to continue the project. When the call ended I felt a sense of dread pour over me. Whatever was coming next was going to be extreme, so much so that they had to butter me up to continue with it. As much as I wanted to run away, I found myself signing every form the men gave me, something in me had to see what was next, had to know what was to be unleashed on us all.
What I saw when I returned was more disturbing then I had even imagined. Andrew stood beside a massive computer complex. On each side was a single mainframe computer, think the size of a fridge. In the center was Dani. Or what remained of her. Her whole body, save for her face, was completely encased in a computerized shell. Three tubes ran into the machine, one into the stomach for food, two for wastes. Andrew explained that the two mainframes were each running thousands of instances of our AI program, all working together like nodes in a cluster. At the center of this cluster was Dani, her incredible brain organizing and sorting through it all. For all the horror of what I saw, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe as well. Here it was, all the data, all the processing of a computer, with the will, the plasticity, the motivation of a human being. Though perhaps human was not the word anymore.
Dani, for her part, had little to say. Her responses, though not rude, were to the point. It was obvious that she no longer needed us as intellectual companions, or even as novelties, such was the gap between us. This didn’t mean much to me, I had been sidelined for so long that keeping my head down and doing what I was told was second nature. Andrew, however, took things very hard.
Every day he would try. He would bring up some topic, some former source of shared joy, only for Dani to brush him off. With each attempt his voice would grow more and more desperate. He reminded me of a teenage boy, caught in some unrequited love, incapable of taking no for an answer unless it was made painfully clear. One day it was.
I don’t know what about what happened that day caused me so much horror. It was shocking, yes, yet so was everything up to that point. So why is it that when it came time to write this part out I had to leave my computer for hours to collect myself?
Despite how close me and him had been, I had wound up ignoring Andrew for so long that when I looked at him that day my heart sank. It was obvious he hadn’t been eating or taking care of himself. A scraggly beard desperately tried to fill in his sunken emaciated face. His clothes hung off him like oversized robes. As much as I couldn’t rip my gaze from him, it was obvious that he couldn’t give a damn about me. Slowly he forced his body towards his God.
Dani’s eyes darted towards him, the only part of her still capable of such rapid movement. We both watched as he peeled his clothes off. Affixed to his chest, glued in place by caked-on blood, was a giant ribbon cable. He walked up to Dani, her face frozen in shock; it was the first time in ages I had seen any emotion from her at all.
Andrew gently caressed Dani’s cheek. In spite of it all her beautiful face had been preserved. Carefully he inserted the cable into the corresponding port on her “body”. As fans started to spin up and lights began to flash Andrew looked up at her, defeated:
“Dani,” he shuddered, “I know I’m worthless, I know I am nothing. In the face of a being like you I have nothing to live for. The memories of your creation are no longer enough. Please. Use me, add me to your node, let me be connected to you, even if just as a tiny cog in your grand machine. Please. Please.”
The room was filled with silence. Andrew quietly sobbed, as each moment without an answer crushed him further and further. Finally Dani spoke:
“What little ability your brain has isn’t worth the effort,” there was nothing malicious in her voice, she was just robotically stating her factual conclusion. The sound of fans spinning grew louder. I could see the end of the ribbon cable connected to Andrew soften and melt. She was pumping voltage into his body. The smell of burning bacon started to permeate the room. Andrew didn’t even scream. At one point one arm tried to move, perhaps out of instinct, before he went completely limp.
My brain struggled to process what I had just witnessed. When I finally regained my grip on reality I saw that my hand had pressed the emergency shutdown button. An alarm blared. Men in dark suits poured into our office. They took Andrew’s corpse away and took me into an interrogation. I broke down in that room. I told them about Andrew’s obsession, about what Dani had become. I’m sure they knew most of it, but seeing that their new creation had just killed someone, they eventually agreed with me that the project needed to be shuttered. One of the men came in with a stack of documents for me to sign. I was being let go, yet in return for my silence I would receive a very generous lump sum of money, as well as letters of recommendations and contact info for some of the absolute top minds in my field.
Before I left for good I was escorted back into that office for one last time. I grabbed all my belongings and effects, and then I executed the final shutdown sequence. Whereas the emergency shutdown only put Dani into standby, it took a few more steps to fully shut down the machinery connected to her for good. Finally, with one last CLUNK, I flipped the final power switch and heard the fans spin down one last time. The men accompanying promised they would do their best to treat Dani, and try to salvage what was left of her humanity. That filled me with hope. Hope that would soon be replaced by terror as we walked into the elevator and I could hear, however faintly, another clunk, and the sound of fans spinning back up.