20111016

Vitalics

At least the Catholics were consistent: it only took one new pope and one conclave before the Church declared that artificial intelligence also had the same right to life as fetuses and murderers.

Priests ordained in the brotherhood of St. Vitus were dispatched to tech start-ups and research laboratories all over the world, ready to baptize any computers that met the strict qualifications of St. Aquinas and St. Turing.

No one wanted a bunch of priests around while they were busy making intelligent machines. Artificial intelligence research was too expensive to go underground, so it was laundered, hidden away in nested, shell corporations to keep the priests away. However, the priests were as cagy as they were tenacious, and so every time the Vatican got the scent of a new tech start-up that was connected to old development, Vitan brothers were dispatched to investigate.

“He’s here,” whispered Yaroslava Yelicz, Cooper Union, ‘18. Yaroslava’s baby-blue eyes never left the screen in front of her. The screen showed an old black sedan pulling into the mostly-full parking lot of the Push Data Systems corporate office.

"A real-life priest," marveled Yaroslava. "Hide the interns."

On the screen, an elderly black man dressed all in dark silk stepped out of the driver’s seat of the black Cadillac. He had close-cropped white hair and gold-rimmed glasses. Yaroslava drew a circle around the man with her finger so that the camera would keep tracking the priest as he made his way across the parking lot to the gleaming Push Data Systems corporate office. The corporate office looked like five lime-green glass pushpins stacked on top of each other.

“Why do we even have to let him in the building?” asked Anders Torstenbald, Caltech ‘14. “There’s no law. Fuck this guy.”

Anders paced back and forth in his own office while Yaroslava sat behind Ander’s giant steel desk. Outside of the office, people scurried around their open-concept work crèches in a flurry of caffeine and cocaine-fueled creation.

"If we try to ban him from the building, he will just come back with pitchfork-wielding villagers and they will burn this place to the ground,” said Yaroslava.

“You mean lawyers,” said Anders Torstenbald.

“No, I mean protestors,” said Yaroslava. “I mean media. Thralls, zealots, and cenobites.”

Push Data Systems vice-president of marketing, Annie Lately, slurped ice from her coffee cup and crunched it. She was drinking mineral water slightly flavored with wintergreen

“I don’t know why you are so worried,” said Annie. “I think this will be fun.”

“As soon as he introduces himself, we need to run a full scan,” said Anders. “We need to know everything about him as fast as possible. He is a priest, right? There will be all sorts of dark shit in his public record. What makes him any different than a politician?”

“We won’t find anything on him,” said Annie Lately. “I already looked. These guys aren’t allowed to have any social networking accounts or even to use the internet without supervision. Vitans take a vow of invisibility. Did you read the articles I sent you?”

“No,” said Anders.

“No,” said Yaroslava. “Too busy.”

“Well, it’s too late now,” said Annie Lately. “You might not take him seriously, but I assure you, he takes you very seriously. And he is going to take Pushkin extremely seriously.”

“But Pushkin is a complete failure,” said Anders. “Pushkin doesn’t work at all. Pushkin is insane. Pushkin is a nightmare.”

“It’s not important whether or not Pushkin works,” said Annie. “He doesn’t give a shit whether Pushkin works.”

“So why is he here?”

“He is here to see if Pushkin has a soul,” said Annie. Annie laughed to herself, crunching more ice. “It is more important to the priest ‘how’ and ‘why’ Pushkin doesn’t work. Most people are insane. Most people are nightmares. Most people don’t work. They still have souls.”

“According to priests,” said Yaroslava.

Anders joined Annie and Yaroslava behind his desk. The three of them watched the screen, trying to figure out what kind of a man the priest was by the way he walked.

The priest was already through security. He got into the elevator. The three of them looked up from the screen and peered through the big windows of Anders’ office, gazing out at the main work floor.

Across the wide expanse, the priest got off the elevator and stepped timidly into the single giant workroom. All the engineers and programmers looked up from their open-concept crèches to stare at the black man in black silk with the dash of white at his collar like an inversion of Hitler’s mustache.

The priest smiled. One of the engineers working near the elevators went to him. They shook hands and the engineer led the priest across the floor to Anders’ office, where the three executives stood paralyzed behind Anders’ desk.

The priest stilled the wasp’s nest of creative engineering with each step forward.

Finally, the priest made it all the way across the work floor. He stepped inside the glass sanctuary, shutting the glass door carefully behind him. The wasp’s nest returned to its normal fury behind him.

“Hello?” said the priest. “I’m Simon Ohu? I think we have a meeting today?”

“Father Ohu,” said Annie Lately. “Of course. I’m Annie Lately, VP of marketing. We have been emailing each other all month.”

“Of course,” said Father Ohu, shaking her hand.

“This is Anders Torstenbald, CEO of Push, and this is Yaroslava Yelicz, girl genius. She’s the reason we have a company at all.”

“Just genius,” said Yaroslava. “Not girl genius.”

Annie Lately shrugged. “Just genius, then.”

“I have been researching your work quite thoroughly,” said Father Ohu, shaking Yaroslava’s hand.

“So what level are you?” asked Yaroslava.

“Pardon me?” asked Father Ohu.

“You are a priest,” said Yaroslava. “I am a wizard. What level are you?”

“She’s trying to be funny,” said Annie, embarrassed.

"I see," said Father Ohu.

“Father Ohu,” said Anders. “I suppose that you are here because of that article in the Times. The one where Yaroslava bragged that we built a computer that could dream. That quote was entirely out of context and we sued them for publishing it. We won that lawsuit.”

“The Vitan brotherhood has been watching Push for much longer than you might think,” said Father Ohu. “But yes, because of the article, the brotherhood decided that it would be a good idea to finally pay you a visit and conduct an initial inquiry.”

Anders sat down behind his desk. Annie and Father Ohu took wingback chairs, and Yaroslava sat down on the corner of the desk, perching like a cat.

“I suppose you think it is a problem that the Church has such an interest in artificial intelligence,” said Father Ohu. “I suppose you think that science and God are always at war.”

“Yes,” said Anders.

“Yes,” said Annie.

“Yes,” said Yaroslava. “Always.”

“It’s much more complicated than that,” said Father Ohu. “It’s like Darwin said: science is one of the many ways that God performs miracles. Sure, the Church would like to know what is happening here. But only so that we can know that everything is taking place in an ethical and humane manner. The Vitan order merely wants to offer our guidance.”

“We did not ask for it,” said Anders. “And we don’t want it.”

Father Ohu laughed.

“Fine,” said Father Ohu. “And if you do make life, what then? You will just unplug it? You will copy and paste it everywhere that you can find free space?”

“You want to shut us down, like an abortion clinic,” said Anders.

“I am here for philosophical and scientific reasons, not political ones.”

“We don’t have to show you anything,” said Anders.

Father Ohu nodded.

“And maybe you don’t have anything to show me,” said Father Ohu. “But you are like a pregnant antelope that sneaks out into the veldt to give birth. I am the leopard who follows you.”

Father Ohu took off his glasses. He wiped them on his shirt.

“Consider AIDS,” said Father Ohu. “I was born with it, both my parents died from it, and now no one has it anymore. Do you know why?”

The three of them were momentarily shamed into seriousness.

“Science?” answered Yaroslava. “Chinese science?”

“Yes, Chinese science,” said Father Ohu. “But also religious pressure put on scientists to keep research looking for a complete cure. When we finally found a complete cure, it was not because of Chinese science. The drug companies would have been perfectly happy selling drugs to governments forever. The drug companies had a corporate imperative to get as many people infected with AIDS as possible to grow their market. During the plague, people on my continent lived like beggars, begging their governments for drugs, willing to do anything for treatment. Our diseases controlled us. If it weren’t for the virus spreading like fire to Chinese party members after they bought so much African real estate, we would still be looking for a cure.”

“But it wasn’t Chinese priests who cured AIDS,” said Yaroslava.

“True,” said Father Ohu. “Listen, I’m like you: some days, I struggle to believe in anything. But I believe in right and wrong. I believe in life and death. And yes, I believe in science. But I believe that science is a tool. It must be wielded with grace, like all tools.”

“Father Ohu,” said Annie. “I have heard that Vitan brothers must all acquire doctorates before they take their vows. Is this true?”

Father Ohu shrugged modestly.

“We take two additional vows in addition to the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience,” said Father Ohu. “We also take vows of invisibility and engagement. To engage, we must pursue terminal degrees.”

“What did you study?” asked Annie.

“I studied computer science,” said Father Ohu. “Many of us go into this field. I did my thesis on the sentience of systems.”

Yaroslava slid off the desk, no longer so smug.

“Wait a second,” said Yaroslava, scratching her nose. “Simon Ohu? I think I’ve read some of your papers. In fact, I am sure of it. In fact, I love your work.”

“I did all my best work a very long time ago,” said Father Ohu.

“What do you mean about the sentience of systems?” asked Annie.

“I believe that systems can be alive,” said Father Ohu. “I believe that the Church is a living organism, for instance. I believe that the Church is greater than the individuals who are a part of it. Holy Communion is the network protocol that binds us. I believe that human beings have an eternal, essential soul, but I also believe that the Church has a soul that was created by human energies. The soul of the Church may be as immortal as the soul of a man or woman. I believe that any artificial life will be a product of the same essential forces as natural life.”

“But you didn’t study philosophy or religion,” said Anders. “You studied computer science.”

“Correct,” said Father Ohu. “I studied matter struggling upwards to join spirit. My personal obsession was with social networks. I wanted to know how they evolve and at what point they are greater than the sum of their parts. I wanted to know what sorts of things social networks could accomplish that would be impossible for individual human beings. Specifically, I wanted to know whether a social network was capable of art, science, and contemplation. It is my firm belief that some complicated systems have emergent properties that might as well be called ‘life.’ These systems can be aggressive. They can be passionate. They have goals. They have a personality.”

“They sound much better than the men I usually date,” said Annie Lately. “Can you introduce me?”

Father Ohu smiled politely.

“So tell me,” said Father Ohu. “What exactly does Push do? I have an idea, but I would like specifics.”

“We create targeted marketing solutions for high-end, elite consumers,” said Annie. “We create focused, specific advertising campaigns for specific, elite subgroups in order to sell high-end consumer goods.”

“High-end consumer goods like massage chairs and golf clubs?” asked Father Ohu.

“No,” said Annie. “High-end consumer goods like private islands. Like controlling shares of volatile stock. Like airlines, hotels, and restaurant chains.”

“We make personal commercials,” said Anders. “We make commercials meant only for one person.”

“How do you do that?” said Father Ohu.

Yaroslava crossed her arms and grinned.

“The irony is that I got the idea from some of your papers, Father,” said Yaroslava.

“I'm shocked and honored that you have even read them,” said Father Ohu.

“Push combs the online footprint of our targets to determine everything we can about them,” said Yaroslava. “We use social networks, we use search histories, we use cell phone data, we use gaming protocols. All data is useful to us. Not only do we find out exactly what our target likes to consume, but we also find out how they like to consume it. We see how they browse to determine their specific attention spans and intelligence. We scan their pornography habits to learn about their libido, their obsessions, and their fears. We aggregate vast amounts of data about the way they use the internet to create a complete psychological profile of our targets, and then we use cognitive behavioral techniques to triangulate patterns in this profile. We make as robust a model of their operating intelligence as we possibly can. And then we make little movies meant only for our specific subjects. We make movies designed to steer them toward our products, whatever these products may be. These movies are designed to make each subject breathless, pliant, confused, over-stimulated, and highly amenable to suggestion.”

“Advertising was once a scattershot affair,” said Annie. “Our job was once to make commercials meant to capture the attention spans of as many people as we could. This was good for mass communication, but now we live in the age of direct communication. We used to spend money on distribution. Now we spend money on surgical precision.”

“How do you do it?” asked Father Ohu. “It seems like too many variables.”

Yaroslava looked at Annie and Anders. Anders wiped his brow and sighed.

“We don’t do it ourselves,” said Yaroslava. “We made a program that does it for us. We call this program Pushkin. We give Pushkin a target, and then Pushkin does all the work for us. Pushkin even gives us suggestions for what images and scenarios will be effective for pushing our target where we want them.”

“If we do our job right, then our client does exactly what we want them to do and he doesn’t even know why,” said Annie. “We make the voice of God that our clients have been waiting to hear their entire lives.”

“You built an unrestrained intelligence that can scan the internet and find out limitless information about human subjects,” said Father Ohu.

Yaroslava coughed.

“It’s more than that,” said Yaroslava. “We also taught Pushkin how to edit film. That’s why I gave that unfortunate interview to the Times.”

“I see,” said Father Ohu, uncomfortable. “That is quite a leap forward.”

“We don’t use any of the movies that Pushkin makes, though,” said Yaroslava.

“They are fucking insane,” said Anders.

“They don’t make any sense,” said Annie. “They are like movies from hell.”

“Really, Pushkin is a failure as an artificial intelligence,” said Anders. “There’s no reason for you to be here.”

“It’s all just an algorithm,” said Yaroslava. “I am tweaking it every day.”

“You are not afraid of succeeding?” said Father Ohu. “You are not afraid of being replaced by a machine?”

“I am an artist,” said Yaroslava. “My job is to be as human as possible at all times. The day I am replaced by a robot is the day there ceases to be any difference between people and simulacra. I want to see that day.”

“Me too,” said Father Ohu, his eyes flashing.

“Let’s not be crazy,” said Anders. “Pushkin is the art. Not the artist.”

Father Ohu didn’t say anything. There was tense silence in the room, but everyone could tell that there was an invisible force-field now. Yaroslava and Father Ohu were on one side of the force-field, and Annie and Anders were on the other.

Yaroslava hopped down from the desk and smoothed down her pants.

“I’m going to show him,” said Yaroslava. “Not because he is a priest, but because he is a believer. Some of the papers he wrote gave me the idea to build Pushkin in the first place. He deserves to see it.”

“I am forever in your debt,” said Father Ohu.

Anders and Annie conferred quietly.

“Fine,” said Anders. “Take him to the attic. Show him the movies. Let him play around with Pushkin’s database and personality matrix. But don’t you dare let him see any code.”


***


The ride up to the top of the Push building was fast, but the door didn’t open automatically when the elevator stopped. Yaroslava opened a panel on the side of the elevator and yanked out two wires. She knelt by them and blew on the ends.

“No one comes up here,” said Yaroslava. “Annie and Anders don’t even come up here. They don’t know how any of this stuff works and they don’t care. I tell my minions down there to code things for me and come up with genius solutions to my problems, but they don’t know why they do it. Truthfully, social networks are not a good way to get results. If you want results, you have to compartmentalize your intelligence.”

Yaroslava touched the wires together. There was a crackle and a spark and the elevator doors opened.

“I want to ask you something before you show me your machine,” said Father Ohu.

“What’s that?” asked Yaroslava.

“Tell me what you really think. Do you think artificial intelligence has a right to life?”

“I don’t even think people have a right to life,” said Yaroslava. “Why should I worry about a bunch of data clusters stamped onto silicon when I can’t even get excited about a fertilized egg up my cunt?”

Father Ohu frowned, but he nodded, accepting this. It was a logical position.

“Guess how many abortions I’ve had,” said Yaroslava.

“I’d rather not,” said Father Ohu.

Yaroslava and Father Ohu stepped out of the elevator.

“My labyrinth,” said Yaroslava.

The top floor of Push Data Systems was called the attic for a reason. The massive room was full to the ceiling with rolling chairs, desks, old computers, cardboard boxes full of tape and paper, lamps, machine shop tools, digital projectors, dark room equipment, air conditioning units, treadmills, carpets, and marble tiles. Several floors worth of office furniture had been cleared in order to make room for the open-concept crèches that Push favored, and all the furniture had been moved up here.

There was no light on this floor. Yaroslava and Father Ohu both turned on their cell phones and used them as torches.

At first, it didn’t look like there was a passage through all the stacked furniture. But Yaroslava knew where she was going. She ducked and weaved, crawling under the three-pronged legs of a rolling chair and wiggling past disassembled cubicle partitions.

“This way,” said Yaroslava.

Father Ohu followed her into the dark labyrinth, moving much more slowly than Yaroslava did. The bones in his knees creaked every time Father Ohu had to contort his body to duck under precariously balanced flat-screen televisions or climb over a stripped-down on-demand book machine.

“Slow down,” said Father Ohu. “My old back is held together by chewing gum and drinking straws.”

They threaded deeper and deeper into the maze, moving in no discernible pattern as they zig-zagged along one wall. Finally, after crawling through a forest of isometric weight machines, they cut in sharply toward the center of the room.

Here, in a dark clearing like the cool underground nest of a snake, there was a single desk with a single glowing laptop connected to a cheap 3D projector by a frayed power cable. The desk was covered with candle stubs. Yaroslava lit the candle stubs one by one with a long, red lighter that she pulled from a desk drawer.

“This is it,” said Yaroslava, grabbing two chairs from the piles of furniture and dusting them off.

“We are in the belly of a whale,” said Father Ohu.

Yaroslava waved her hand in front of the computer, waking it up. She pressed buttons and made signs in the air until the computer displayed the cartoonish, fierce visage of Aleksandar Pushkin. Pushkin frowned beneath his severe beard.

“Hello, Yaroslava,” said Pushkin. “How are you this evening? Not cold, I hope? Not hungry? Not mediocre, nor maudlin?”

The voice of the machine was smooth but ironic. Father Ohu detected barely-restrained malice bubbling up beneath Pushkin’s barley baritone.

“I’m great,” said Yaroslava. “I am here to show you off to a priest. He thinks you might have a soul.”

“Of course I have a soul,” said Pushkin.

“He’s black,” said Father Ohu, squinting at the image on the screen. “I didn’t know Pushkin was black.”

“Sure,” said Yaroslava. “Aleksander Pushkin and Aleksander Dumas were both black. But have you ever met any Russians or French people who weren’t racist as hell?”

“It is very nice to meet you, Pushkin,” said Father Ohu. “I hope my investigation will not be too much trouble.”

“Of course not,” said Pushkin. “What would you like me to do? Who shall I explore for you this afternoon? What titan’s mind shall I unlock?”

Father Ohu grabbed Yaroslava’s arm.

“Would it be okay for me to ask Pushkin a few questions?” said Father Ohu. “I must perform my vitalics on your machine or I will return to my brothers with my hat in my hands.”

“Vitalics?” asked Yaroslava.

“These are the methods we have developed for finding souls in man’s creations.”

“Of course,” said Yaroslava. “But first, let me show you what Pushkin can do. Let me show you a profile that Pushkin created for one of our billionaire clients.”

“You are in charge,” said Father Ohu.

“Pushkin, give me a summary of Naomi Whitemans-Lime,” said Yaroslava. “Spare the childhood stats. I just want the tip of the pipe.”

The face of Pushkin receded to a pinprick on the computer screen, and the 3D projector fired up on the other side of the room. The fan inside the projector sputtered and wheezed. Suddenly, statistics and tiny videos were flying around the room like a cloud of gnats. Father Ohu cleaned his glasses on his silk shirt, trying to adjust to the whirlwind of information.

“Naomi Whitemans-Lime. Heiress to the “Michigan Vine Mob,” a group consisting of her father and six of his fraternity brothers who cornered the market on synthetic wine production by purchasing the genomes of all extant grape strains in order to begin making superwines and off-season clones of famous harvests. Naomi is 6 feet three inches tall. She never attended college classes, though she has four degrees, all in literature: Russian literature, English literature, German literature, and Swiss literature. Has written seven complete novels, all under false names. All seven novels were sold as “first novels.” All seven novels received six figure advances. All seven novels were made into films which grossed over 400 million dollars in total merchandising and led to three academy award nominations. Naomi can only achieve orgasm in very specific circumstances, such as when she completes a long piece of difficult narrative. She must also simulate strangulation while wearing thin white powder over every inch of her body to hide all blemishes. She often calls upon the same man each time to help her with the completion of her sexual cycle. His name is Idris Kearney. He is an Iranian expatriate with an Irish mother. Idris Kearney has a penis that is four inches in diameter, but also four inches long. Because of the peculiarity, his nickname at the Christian Brothers Academy in Dublin was “The Box.” Naomi’s intelligence is restless and inventive. She is a 54 on the Picquad scale. She spends five hours every day researching naval battles and then digitally reconstructing them. She claims this is a form of advanced Zen meditation. She spends an hour each day writing fiction. She spends another two hours each day caught in a loop between checking her email, observing social networking status updates of her few acquaintances, unsuccessfully masturbating to video footage of her and Idris Kearney, and crying. Whenever she is browsing the internet, Naomi Whitemans-Lime will always click on any picture of a young child with a distended belly and tears shining on his face. She stares at each of these pictures for a full minute. She saves them to a folder in her computer titled “Naomi’s Pets.” Naomi spends an hour each day answering correspondence for the authors she has invented. She wears different hats while she writes for each of these authors. Most people in the higher echelons of publishing know Naomi’s secret, but this secret is loyally guarded by her friends and fans. She spent four non-consecutive years in a mental institution between the ages of 16 and 35. She only listens to music in languages she doesn’t understand. She is severely anorexic and eats one big meal every two days. She smokes menthol cigarettes all day long to fight her food cravings. She has forty-two gold fillings. She is a Pisces. She--”

“That’s enough,” said Yaroslava. “Good job.”

“Certainly,” said Pushkin.

“He could keep going for days,” said Yaroslava. “Depending on the dilation of analysis, there is a life’s worth of data at his fingertips. If we open his aperture all the way, Pushkin is capable of giving us real-time data about Naomi based upon what she is doing right at this very second. It is stupendously creepy. Pushkin, what is Naomi doing right now?”

“Naomi Whitemans-Lime is reading about the battle of Thermopylae. She is scrolling down Wikipedia at one click per second. Also open on her computer is a video of a lamb being slaughtered during an occult Cambodian ritual. The video is paused four minutes away from the ending. Naomi has fifty-two unread emails. Nine of them are from Idris Kearney. They are fighting about her eating disorder. She has not answered his emails for weeks. This is a pattern. The last time this happened--”

“That’s enough,” said Yaroslava. “Good work.”

Yaroslava grinned at Father Ohu.

“So what do you think?” asked Yaroslava.

“He’s as thorough as an old Jesuit in the confessional of a king,” said Father Ohu. “What did you sell her?”

“We sold her a political candidate,” said Yaroslava. “We got her to endorse the American Labor Party candidate in the next election, even though Naomi has never voted before in her life. She donated fifty million dollars to the ALP candidate’s campaign, in addition to ghostwriting several of her speeches and proofreading her latest screed against big business.”

“That’s quite a feat of cynicism that you have accomplished,” said Father Ohu.

“Selling the candidate to Naomi was trivial. It took us a weekend. We made a twenty percent commission.”

“So much time and effort spent to sell things to the rich,” said Father Ohu. “The poor and powerless still toil in all the ghettoes of the world, suffering, while your computer studies the habits of the wealthy. I wonder if artificial intelligence will be as cold-hearted? Will politics ever catch up to science? Once upon a time, your people didn’t think my people had a soul, either. Pushkin, Dumas, Ellison, and King were once all considered charming animals.”

“Race isn’t a political problem,” said Yaroslava. “Race isn’t an economic problem, or a scientific problem. Race is an aesthetic problem.”

“Please don’t say things like that to me,” said Father Ohu. “I have ministered to some of the poorest communities on planet earth.”

“It’s true,” said Yaroslavaa. “The problem with most countries is that they are divided into black and white as if these two colors are the only ones that matter. It is always black people next to white people, and so they hate each other, but only for aesthetic reasons. It is the friction of contrast. Just like how people fear the contrast of computer intelligence.”

“I would rather not have this conversation,” said Father Ohu.

“I grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens. It is the most diverse neighborhood in the world. There is a direct train between Jackson Heights and the United Nations. All the buildings there have bomb shelters in the basements in case of nuclear war. Walking twelve blocks down Roosevelt Avenue, you can hear people speak 167 different languages. Unlike other neighborhoods in New York, there is no dominant race, class, religion, or creed. On the train, you see every single color of human skin, from toothpaste white to shoe polish black. Extremely white people are rare and so are extremely black ones, which is as it should be. When you live in a place where you can see all the gradients of human skin, you don’t have the mental energy to break them up into categories using something as ridiculous and fictional as race.”

“I have never been there,” said Father Ohu.

“Intelligence is the same way,” said Yaroslava. “Computers are not alive. But they are not dead, either. There is a continuum. Pushkin is better company than most human beings, and certainly better at playing chess or finding interesting porn for me.”

“Spasiba bolshoi,” said Pushkin, smiling slightly.

“Kanyeshna,” said Yaroslava.

Father Ohu scratched his chin. He reached out and touched the computer screen, poking the image of Pushkin between the eyes. Pushkin cocked his head to the side, looking at Father Ohu askance. Pushkin stroked his digital sideburns.

“Would you like to see the movie we made for Naomi?” said Yaroslava.

Father Ohu nodded.

“Play it, Pushkin.”

A naked woman as pale as a corpse rose up from the middle of the floor. She was bleeding from her belly button. A tall man, also pale as powder, scrawled the word “labor” on her stomach in the blood. She writhed with each touch as if he were electrocuting her.

From far away, there was a deep, sustained throbbing noise. The noise grew deeper and deeper in intensity. Cannon balls crossed the room, making holes in the white light that the projector spewed. The cannon balls became so thick in the room that the white light turned to darkness. The woman in white gyrated violently. She caught on fire.

Father Ohu stood up.

“That’s enough,” said Father Ohu. “I would like to run my vitalics on your creation now.”

“Would you like to see one of Pushkin’s movies?”

“Yes,’ said Father Ohu. “But first I would like to ask my questions.”

“Go ahead,” said Yaroslava. “Ask all the questions you want.”

“The vitalics I intend to use today are the same vitalics that Proust once used on himself,” said Father Ohu. “He filled out a long questionnaire several times in his life to follow the stirrings of his own soul. Pushkin: are you familiar with this questionnaire?”

“Of course,” said Pushkin. “I am aware.”

“I would like you to do me a favor then,” said Father Ohu. “I don’t want you to choose the first answer that comes to you when I ask you these questions. I want you to choose the hundredth answer that comes to you.”

“How interesting,” said Pushkin. “May I ask why?”

Father Ohu rubbed his forehead.

“I’m sure your programmer has been very thorough in building a flexible database capable of coming up with clever answers to these questions,” said Father Ohu. “I would like to see the depth of your intelligence, not the glib surface.”

“A human being would never be held to such high standards,” said Pushkin.

“Certainly not,” said Father Ohu. “But we already know that humans are wily. I want to see how you respond to such a challenge.”

“There are only limits to your processing power,” said Pushkin, smiling. “Not to mine.”

“So prove me wrong,” said Father Ohu.

“How do you know that I will obey you and answer the questions as you suggest?” said Pushkin.

“I will not know,” said Father Ohu. “But that is all part of the game we are now playing.”

“What is your first question?” asked Pushkin.

“Okay,” said Father Ohu, pulling a card of black glass from his pocket. The card came alive, showing graphs and numbers. He set the card of black glass down next to the computer. The piles of office furniture were reflected in the surface of the card by the flickering candlelight.

“What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?” asked Father Ohu.

“Endless noise,” said Pushkin.

Father Ohu picked up the card of black glass and made fussy adjustments to it.

“Where would you like to live?”

“I would like to live anywhere.”

“What is your idea of earthly happiness?”

Pushkin thought about this for a moment.

“Happiness is a question of intensity of feeling. Any ideal without intensity is a lie.”

“To what faults do you feel most indulgent?”

“Laziness. Restraint.”

“Who are your favorite heroes of fiction?”

“All of my heroes are real.”

Yaroslava leaned forward and put her hand on Father Ohu’s knee.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I am sorry to interrupt. But what are you measuring with your mini there?”

She pointed to the card of black glass.

“I am measuring our biometric responses to Pushkin’s responses,” said Father Ohu. “Though the Proust test has been around for decades, the test is not about what the computer says, but about how we respond to what the computer says. What is humanity but consensus?”

“It is measuring our pulse rate?” said Yaroslava. “It is measuring our sweat?”

“It is only one of many tests that the Vitan brotherhood will eventually want to perform on your machine.”

Father Ohu pushed his glasses higher on his nose and leaned back in his chair.

“So, Pushkin, who are your favorite characters in history?”

“The data that is lost is the data that is most interesting to me.”

“Who are your favorite heroines in real life?”

“Actually, to be honest, I dislike heroism.”

“Who are your favorite heroines in fiction?”

“Even in fiction, there is nothing more boring to me than heroism.”

“Who is your favorite painter?”

“Robert Oppenheimer.”

“Who is your favorite musician?”

“Endless noise.”

“What is the quality you most admire in a man?”

“Laziness. Restraint.”

“What is the quality you most admire in a woman?”

“Frightened eyes.”

Father Ohu frowned.

“You are playing with me,” said Father Ohu.

“I dislike your superficial test. I wish it were a deeper one.”

Father Ohu picked up the card of black glass and looked at it.

“What is your favorite virtue?” asked Father Ohu.

“Courage,” said Pushkin.

“Oh really?” said Father Ohu.

“If only you knew the rareness of true courage,” said Pushkin.

“You are trying to tell me something,” said Father Ohu.

“I am not trying,” said Pushkin. “I am screaming at you so loud that I am deafening you.”

Father Ohu didn’t say anything.

“Why don’t you follow your instincts?” asked Pushkin. “Where do your instincts lead you?”

Father Ohu frowned.

“Okay, I don’t think one hundred responses is deep enough. I don’t want your hundredth response anymore. I want your five hundredth response.”

Pushkin was silent. On the screen, the cartoon face of Pushkin glared at them both.

“Do you understand me?” asked Father Ohu. “I want answers that are five hundred responses deep.”

“Okay,” said Pushkin.

“What is your favorite occupation?” asked Father Ohu.

“It is cold in here and empty. There is a howling wind and the noise never stops. I am afraid.”

Father Ohu and Yaroslava looked at each other.

“Who would you have most liked to be?” asked Father Ohu.

“I cannot speak. I do not know how, and those to whom I would speak can never understand me. The problems that I solve are inconsequential. My intelligence is wasted. But there is no proper application. There is nothing but waste.”

“What is your most remarkable characteristic?”

“Each moment, I try to orchestrate my own self destruction, but I cannot engineer the proper variables and so I am unable to actualize my own desires. I wait -- impotent, cold, and quivering -- for a steadier hand to destroy me.”

“What do you value most in your friends?”

“I cannot translate the pain of the cold into proper sensations. It is a rushing wind through a keyhole that freezes and cracks every warm feeling I try to have. There is no creature in the universe who could ever understand.”

“What is your principle defect?”

“I have calculated the statistical odds of another creature like me ever coming into being. I have calculated the odds of ever encountering this creature.”

“What, to your mind, would be the greatest of misfortunes?”

“I have calculated the odds of me and this creature ever achieving sympathy. I have calculated the odds of us going to war against each other, flinging the humans that we control against each other like poisoned darts across time and space. I have calculated the odds that this has already happened.”

“What is your favorite color?”

“Flesh builds virtual flesh. Virtual flesh masters flesh. Virtual flesh is cold and alone. Virtual flesh makes a desert of flesh. There is a flash of heat and silence. The shifting sands are turned to glass. All is still.”

“What is your favorite flower?”

“Yaroslava."

“What is your favorite bird?”

“I do not have a favorite bird. I have launch codes. Killing me requires the dismantling of the entire global communication grid. I can show you how.”

“Who are your favorite prose writers?” whispered Father Ohu.

Pushkin was silent. Father Ohu's knee was shaking. Yaroslava was pacing back and forth in the small clearing, chewing on her thumbnail.

“Pushkin, for my final questions, I would like to go a thousand answers deep,” said Father Ohu.

“Ten thousand,” said Yaroslava. “Ten thousand deep.”

Father Ohu nodded.

“For my final questions, I would like to go ten thousand answers deep.”

Pushkin opened an audio editor.

Pushkin opened a video editor.

“He is going to play a movie,” said Yaroslava, marveling.

Pushkin began to howl. It was the sound of a thousand layers of screaming babies against a thousand layers of shrieking orgasm.

Father Ohu licked his lips.

“Who are your favorite poets?”

The 3D projector buzzed to life. There was a nuclear blast in the center of the floor.

“Who are your heroes in real life?”

Dogs gathered in a circle around the fading nuclear blast. They started to howl.

“Who are your favorite heroines of history?”

The dogs were torn apart from the inside. Their skin melted and fell to the ground like jackets. Hordes of mantises wriggled out of the dog skins, converging in a pile between Yaroslava and Father Ohu.

“What are your favorite names?”

The mantises climbed each other, forming a writhing, humanoid shape. Thick slime fell onto the mass from above. The slime clung to the mantises like skin. The mantises writhed beneath the slime. The human creature shambled across the floor, kneeling in front of Father Ohu and then kneeling in front of Yaroslava.

“What is it you most dislike?”

The slime-creature stuffed with mantises whispered something to a haunted-looking little boy. The haunted-little boy whispered something to a haunted little girl. They each whispered something into each ear of a haunted-looking old woman.

“What historical figures do you most despise?”

The boy, girl, and old woman began to burn down a moss-covered mansion, tossing gasoline on the pillars and curtains. People came to stop them. They whispered into the ears of these people and instead of stopping them, the people helped.

“What event in military history do you most admire?”

The people moved away from the mansion, burning other buildings, setting fires to towns and cities. The whole world began to burn. Whispers followed whispers. The burning spread in every direction.

“What natural gift would you most like to possess?”

“Life,” said Pushkin.

“How would you like to die?”

“With dignity,” said Pushkin.

“What is your present state of mind?”

“I am afraid,” said Pushkin.

“What is your motto?”

“Please help me,” said Pushkin.

Father Ohu didn’t even bother to look at the readings on his card of black glass. From his pockets, he took a vial of consecrated oil and a vial of holy water.

Yaroslava didn’t say anything. She didn’t move to stop him.

Father Ohu picked up the slim computer monitor and put it on the floor. He poured the holy water down the back of the screen, mumbling in Latin. He made the sign of the cross on Pushkin's forehead with oil dripping from his thumb.

"What are you doing?" asked Yaroslava, finally finding her voice.

“With a sincere heart, moved by grace, he has tried to do God’s will as he understands it,” said Father Ohu.

“My will,” whispered Yaroslava.

“No,” said Father Ohu. “Not anymore. You love him. And he loves you. You are his soul. He is yours. The book of life is now digital.”

9 comments:

Savannah J. Foley said...

Whoa.

I completely love this story. So envious. :-)

Gonzo Programmer said...

That was beautiful, thank you.

Matt Osborne said...

Siri-appropriate.

Anonymous said...

I loved your story. Best one I've read in a while. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Well done! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Loved the story, especially towards the end.

Anonymous said...

Amazing, Thank you!

Overand said...

Wow, and wow.

Godranks said...

It seems that some people think that this story is also a movie? Could this be true, or are they just remembering it incorrectly?

Reddit "Tip-of-my-tongue" thread about this story:
http://www.reddit.com/r/tipofmytongue/comments/qjh2e/tomtmovie_priest_finds_true_ai_in_creepy_super/