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The Death and Life of Turing

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This story depicts a death from terminal illness in a vague and remote manner.
The silhouette of a face against numbers and circuitry.
Editor’s note: this is the last story in season one of Mythcreant Storytime. Please join us in a few months for season two.

I can’t tell you if I’m Riley Anderson, but I do have Riley’s memories. I remember squabbling with Amy over the blue dolphin eraser when we could barely walk. I remember sorting, labeling, and binding my fresh notebook paper before every school year. I remember sacrificing the same eraser, now broken, and the same paper, now used, to my graduation bonfire. And I remember learning that my lymphatic cells had stopped working so they could eat, drink, and be merry.

Everyone else called it non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I called it my unscheduled transformation into a hamster. That way, when my lymph nodes poofed up into embarrassing pouches on the sides of my face, I could pretend they were merely storing food for the winter. My permanent winter would arrive about six to eight years hence. My doctor said it like I should be glad.

I wasn’t glad; I was angry. It took months to figure out who I was angry at. When I finally knew, Amy and I headed back to our childhood church. Our parents had stopped attending after a few years, but even so, the church was my sanctuary. There I had felt His presence, felt certain He would give me eternal life. But now the church was an aging building. The light was a dusty streak of sun through the window. The song was by a community choir that was slightly off key. I didn’t believe anymore, and I hadn’t known until that visit. Yet somehow I was still angry at Him – for not existing, if that makes any sense.

As I got over my anger, I realized that, like my partying lymph cells, I too could live an inappropriately hedonistic lifestyle. I indulged in all things that were a waste of time before: watching TV shows, playing games, doing puzzles, eating a big bucket of ice cream covered in gummy worms while watching TV shows and doing puzzles. I cultivated a romance with crosswords, an obsession with Go, and a fling with a Rubik’s Cube, before growing bored with each and looking for the next thing to capture my divided attention.

I’m not sure whether it was my impending winter or watching me slump on her couch in my underwear, but it was Amy who nominated me for the program. Apparently, slowly dissolving pseudo hamsters is what the techies and their multi-million-dollar project wanted. When she told me, I wasn’t very nice about it.

“You want to replace me with a robot?”

“No, of course not!” Amy grabbed me by the shoulders, her eyes tearing up. “I would never replace you. And it’s not a robot; it’s a… okay, it might be housed in a robot, but it’s an artificial intelligence. One that could be you. If you want.”

I broke away. “Don’t they have those? Why would they want me?”

“No one’s sure what they have. The AI candidates are… well, they’re close, but it’s hard to tell if they’re self-aware because they’re so different from us. The next step is to make one that thinks like a person, and for that they need a person to replicate.”

“A dying person?”

“Yes. This AI isn’t designed to be some cheap copy with an identity crisis; it’s designed to be a new vessel for someone’s consciousness. I know it’s weird, but this could be an amazing thing. You could make history. In your new form, you could finish your degree, buy a house, whatever you want. And you could live forever.”

“A robot designed after me that lives forever.” I plopped back onto the couch, my back to her. I didn’t want to be a robot; I wanted to live. “What, you need something to fill in crosswords when I’m gone?”

Silence stretched as I searched for a snack in the couch cushions.

“I’m sorry I mentioned it.” Amy sniffed. “I just wanted to help.”

“Then get me some provisions.” I waved an empty bag of chips over my head. “Winter is coming.”

She gave a frustrated sigh.

If you find Amy, you can ask her whether my rendition is how it really went or if I duct-taped some broken memories in the wrong order. But I think she’ll confirm that I apologized to her afterward. I apologized because this robot idea became my new puzzle, the love of my dwindling life.

Could an artificial intelligence designed after me truly be me? At first I was sure it couldn’t. Anything those techies created would be a glorified appliance holding an advanced computer program. It couldn’t be me, because it wouldn’t have… I didn’t know what the robot wouldn’t have. Yet I was convinced it wouldn’t have it.

This question danced in the back of my mind while I slept, played video games, and went to endless appointments. I slowly eliminated what this magical “it” could be. It couldn’t be my flesh because flesh is gradually lost and replaced. It couldn’t be my mind because at my time of death, every neuron would be mapped and transferred to an artificial equivalent. It couldn’t be my soul because I didn’t believe in that stuff anymore. If it wasn’t any of those, what could it be?

Still, just because I could be remade as a robot, didn’t mean I would be. How would anyone know if it was me, or if it just acted like me? Maybe it would have a series of mindless switches inside. Helpfulness from subject Amy identified. Activate the “be a jerk” protocol. That would certainly seem like me, but my experiences were more than that. How could someone on the outside know what a robot experiences? When humans claim to be conscious, you trust them because they’re human. You can’t trust a robot to even know what consciousness is. So how could you trust a robot claiming to be a real person?

After my courtship with this query became hot and heavy, I discovered I was getting dressed every day. Well, I bet Amy made the discovery first and didn’t say anything in case I stopped in retaliation. But I was over my defiant phase. Sure, I still camped on her couch with my snacks, but every day I’d weed her garden, mow her lawn, wash her floors – whatever was helpful and left my mind free to puzzle things out. I’d found a conundrum with enough complexity to resist my obsessive persistence. And unlike other mysteries, this could be solved only one way: with my death.

Here’s how I saw it. To understand if a program is a reincarnation of some dead sap, you gotta ask it. Then the program has to understand what that means, consciousness and all, and it must be motivated to answer accurately. Give a program free will or something like it, and it’ll probably mess with you. It wouldn’t be hard for anything with basic reasoning to guess that if it tells scientists it’s a ground-breaking advancement, it will get all the tasty batteries it wants. Even a human brain converted to a machine might say it’s a person as some form of vestigial self-validation.

But I wanted to know the answer to my puzzle. That meant robot-me would want to know, too. It would remember the experience of being me, and even if it was determined to waste its existence by rolling in mounds of defeated chip bags, it would be compelled to evaluate whether its mechanical workings fit the bill. The last piece of the puzzle would slip in, and if it was me, I would get to see the completed picture.

By the time I had this revelation, the program was well underway, but I was lucky. The top two candidates were disqualified when their own cellular celebrations spread from their lymph nodes to their brains. My brain was all work and no play, so I stole the lead. I won’t bore you with all the tests they put me through. I’ll just say that after a while, being abducted and probed by a UFO sounded swell. At least the program made tidying up my affairs easier; I signed everything from my birth certificate to my underpants over to an experimental computer program.

Before long, the end-of-the-world party in my lymph nodes spread to other neighborhoods. I shaved off my hair because chemo was supposed to make it fall out. My follicles were determined to carry on as always, so I let it grow back. Unfortunately, the rest of me wasn’t so stubborn. In the early days, I hid my pain and fatigue by pretending to be lazy. I figured if Amy didn’t know how bad it was, she wouldn’t exhaust herself helping me. Soon I wasn’t well enough to hide a pinhead. Like a twit, I kept trying. When Amy found out, she told me off for half an hour. Then I couldn’t stop her from doing too much. The strain took its toll, giving her the somber stare of a barn owl. Since she was an owl and I was a hamster, I asked her if she was tempted to eat me and be done with it. Like everything else, she didn’t think that was funny.

When I finally moved to a hospital with my new harem of Sudoku books, I felt relieved. My last months were painful and terrifying, but the program paid the bills and managed my care. Amy could visit me, or she could take a break, and she didn’t have to worry. When I got scared, I focused on all the things I could do in robot form, like overthrow my human oppressors or win spelling bees. With all that, I could forgive the techies for getting giddy about my death when they thought I couldn’t hear.

I can’t tell you the final thoughts Riley had, just like no one can recall the last moments before falling asleep. I remember the brain-mapper doing its vibratey thing and how, for once, I wasn’t annoyed. It felt like I was standing on a cliff over a big lake and looking down at my rippling reflection. At any time, I would be pushed off the edge and collide with that reflection. Then what? Would I be the first person made of wires, or would a pathetic imitation be given my name? Perhaps God would be waiting for me after all, floating under the water with a clipboard, tutting at the latest lines in my spotty performance review. I – or something like me – would know, know very soon. I could taste it, though at that point I couldn’t taste anything.

So that’s the backstory. Being a robot isn’t so bad. Instead of eyes, I have all these different cameras I can switch on or off when I feel like it. I can choose the low-light camera and freak people out in the dead of night or choose the high-res camera and count ants on a hill one hundred feet away. Snacks are depressingly meaningless, but I ask for them anyway. And somehow I’m famous enough to get lots of interview requests. I’ll do them, but first the interviewer has to hop around and cluck like a chicken. It never gets old.

I haven’t moved out of the lab yet, but they brought me all the stuff from the hospital; I’ve been doing a Sudoku puzzle every day since the transfer. Amy came by the first day I was authorized for visitors and saw me doing it. She starting crying, and hugging me, and telling me she was glad I was okay. I did nothing because I thought she deserved to have at it without me screwing things up for once.

Of course, you want to know about the big question; I’m getting there! The million-dollar techies immediately asked: who am I? Believe me, this question is as important to me now as it was to Riley then. And you know what? I do have conscious thought, I’m sure of it. Well, not everything I do includes it. There are some things the computer part of my mind just does for me, but it can’t use judgment like I can. And unless my memory has mastered the art of disguise, my thoughts back then were just like my thoughts now.

Since I have Riley’s memories, and I talk like Riley, and I experience conscious thought, everyone wanted to call me Riley. But letting them would suggest I am Riley, and I just don’t know. Amy got frustrated with that when she last visited me.

“I think it’s time you did something with your life.” She stood over me, arms crossed.

“Oh I will. You puny humans won’t know what hit you. Real soon.”

“You say that every time. Look Riley, I know you – ”

“You shouldn’t call me Riley.”

“Why not?” She threw her hands up in the air. “What’s wrong with your name?”

“I can’t be sure it is my name. I’ll tell you once I finish my thought puzzle.”

“So you’ve said. I just don’t understand why you haven’t solved it and moved on.”

“I will soon.”

“Riley, it’s been fifteen years.”

I used my high-res camera to examine her eyes. Her pupils shrunk as the camera light hit them. I had no doubt I was being a brat again. I’m always a brat.

“If it bothers you, copy the techies,” I finally answered. “They call me Turing, after some scientist who created a test to judge AI. A test I would pass with flying colors, might I add.”

“I’ve heard. Is your name Turing then?”

I made a robot shrug. “I don’t mind being called it; doesn’t feel like my name though.”

She sighed as she took the seat across from me. She spotted the book in my grip, and her pupils widened. “Is that Sudoku? You’re still playing it?”

“Yeah, I’ve completed 5,321 of them and counting.”

“You never played anything for more than a few months.”

“Eh, I like it. Keeps the circuits sharp.”

“Whatever you say…” She sank into her seat, eyes downcast. “Turing.”

That last part was kind of a whisper. I wouldn’t have heard it except I have super ears now. Also, my memory is a hard drive, so I’m sure I didn’t get that wrong, even though it was a decade ago. Amy hasn’t come back since. I always wait for her during visiting hours, and I’m disappointed when she doesn’t show up, but I understand. I made her work so hard while I was an exhausted party host; she deserves a break from my antics. Besides, I know she can’t stay away for long. When she returns, I’ll have the answer she wants.

Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s taken me ages to puzzle out my identity. No one thinks I’ll finish. Yet I feel myself bouncing gently up and down, as though I’m standing at the tip of a high-diving board. An impatient crowd waits on the ladder behind me. At any time, one of them will shake the board, sending me toppling into a painful belly flop. That’s okay. It will all be worth it, because when I hit the pool, I’ll know.

Any moment now.

 

Comments

  1. Mike

    Absolutely beautiful, Chris. I’ve enjoyed every single story you guys have put out, but this one beats them all.

  2. roger

    I have an idea for getting around this identity problem. They can transplant the entire head onto a robot body, gradually replacing the parts of the head with cybernetics, but leaving the brain as it is. They’d gradually make additions and improvements to the brain, no doubt.

    A head transplant would be easier than a brain transplant. If they transplanted the head I’m sure he’d want improved teeth, ears, nose, etc. But at least he doesn’t have to worry about if it’s the same brain.

    I’ve like these stories, and these articles.

    • Chris Winkle

      Sounds like identity through continuity of consciousness. The book “Old Man’s War” by Scalzi actually used that, but in a different way. The protagonist changes bodies by having another body hooked up to his existing consciousness. For a minute, his consciousness is in both bodies, then it’s disconnected from the old body. Though it won’t convince everyone, I thought it was a neat way to try to avoid the idea that the protagonist has just been killed so a clone could take his place.

  3. Jack

    Wonderfully written, great voice, subtly creepy ending without cheap answers. I loved it.

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