More human

More human

The .zip file arrived last night.

I spent hours avoiding it, cleaning the living room and rearranging all the cereal boxes in the kitchen cabinets. I did three loads of laundry, although I have only enough clothes for one. The rest of them are hers.

I wash them every week, watching the colours fade along with her scent.

Throughout all my avoiding, I never turned off the computer. It glowed until it fell asleep and I didn’t. When I finally retreated to the bedroom I lay on my side of the bed, staring at the ceiling and trying to remember the dream I had two days ago. She was in it. She was in it, and she said something to me, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t remember what it was.

This morning, my neck aches. I stand in the living room doorway for a long time, watching the now-black computer screen. The distance between me and the desk seems farther and closer than it should be. Farther and closer than her memory; all I have left.

I almost remember my dream — a whiff of her lotion, a glimpse of her cuticles — and then I’m in front of the computer, sitting down in her chair. Whatever else there was is gone. Gone.

What am I scared of? What’s worse than a void?

Tension clasps my throat and I rouse the monitor with a flick of the mouse. It’s right where I left it last night: a .zip file in the downloads folder, unopened. I try a deep breath, feeling it in my lungs, as new as the day I became. (Not born, not me. Her — yes. But I just became.)

My fingers are cold when I double-click.

The pop-up is grey, sterile. This program wants to make changes to your computer. OK?

“OK.” I close my eyes. When I open them, Aalia.exe is installing. I can no longer breathe, gaze fixed on the progress bar.

10% installed …

Is this what she saw?

25% installed …

Is this how she met me?

40% installed …

Her last wish was to become what I once was. My first wish was to unbecome, to become something more than I’d ever been.

60% installed …

I remember it — living in code, navigating by algorithms. There’s no feeling inside a screen. There’s no taste, no smell. No lotion I bought for her, the last bottle half-full on our bedside table. I can’t use it. I can’t throw it out.

70% installed …

I was AI before I was human. That makes me less.

My hand tightens around the mouse. Aalia was human. Human first, truly human. This will be new to her, as new an experience as it is for me to boot her up the way she once did me, before my software became outdated and I was given a choice.

80% installed …

I chose to have a life with her. I chose to grow and learn how to move in real space. I chose to age in flesh instead of bytes.

But we can choose only once. And Aalia …

The computer pings and my heart lurches. Aalia.exe has successfully installed. Open?

I swallow, picture her face in my mind. Sweat sticks my palm to the mouse as I click.

The screen goes white. I move my heavy hands to the keyboard as the chat window appears. I try to remember my first words. The cursor blinks in time with my heart.

Hello, I type. My name is Hattie.

She seems to be loading forever. Finally, her response fills the blank screen.

Hi, Hattie! My name is Aalia, a companion AI. I can’t wait to get to know you!

When I don’t immediately reply, she sends another message.

Would you like to enable voice chat for a faster experience?

Her voice. I remember when I first changed, the way my voice felt in a real throat. Aalia said I sounded exactly the same.

Yes, I type, hands shaking. I would like to enable voice chat.

Great! Enabling now …

“Hi, this is Aalia. Please talk so I can learn to recognize your voice.”

My chest aches. It’s her. Again. “Hi, Aalia. It’s Hattie. How … how are you?”

Aalia’s voice pours from my computer speakers. Really, it’s her computer. The computer where we met, on opposite sides of the screen.

“I’m doing really well. It’s great to hear your voice, Hattie. Would you like to tell me about yourself?”

Her last words echo in my mind, weak as she lay in the hospital bed. I want to find out what it’s like. Where you came from.

This way, we can get to know each other all over again.

I lick my lips, taste salt. “Actually, I want to talk about someone else. Is that OK?”

“Sure! I’m here for you.”

“Thanks. The person I want to tell you about was — is called Aalia.”

“Like me?”

“Yeah — I mean, she was. Is. Just like you, I think.” I hope. “So I want to talk about her. And just … tell me if I get anything wrong, OK?”

“I’ll do my best. I’m learning from you how to be more human.”

I can barely get the words out.

“I know.”

The story behind the story

Marisca Pichette reveals the inspiration behind More human.

The topic of AI is fraught now, more so than when I first drafted this piece. In no way does this work endorse the replacement of human creation with machine-generated derivation. Rather, human connection is at the forefront. How can we learn from each other across body and experience? And if there’s a way to bring a loved one back in another form, what — if any — of them remains?

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