Nora Would Like to Say Something

“I’ll have a large black coffee with one sugar,” said Shawn while waving his watch in front of a metallic structure. The dispenser like structure had a silver sign that said Coffee Every Morning.

“No cream for you today, Shawn?” came a voice from the dispenser’s speaker unit.

“No, not today,” Shawn mumbled as the aroma of freshly brewed coffee filled the air.

Shawn was still thinking about his conversation with Riya from that morning. He pulled the cup from the tray and was about to leave when he noticed that the unit was still buzzing. He stared at it blankly before realizing what was going on.

“Thank you for the coffee,” he said.

“You are very welcome. Have a nice day.” The unit had now stopped buzzing.

It was a fine morning in New York City. The streets were clean, bright and alive with activity. The train station was a brisk walk away. This gave Shawn enough time to sip his coffee and think. He was a little surprised that he was that stern with Riya when he left their home. It was not like him at all. Yet he knew that somewhere he was fatigued by her nagging and complaining. It was only recently that they had celebrated their first wedding anniversary with a quick getaway to the island of Arusha. He felt a pang of nostalgia as his thoughts wandered to the days they had spent together at MIT. He was finishing his PhD in the cross-disciplinary program of Artificial Intelligence and Psychology when they had met, and she was finishing her double Masters in Finance and Economics. Even with all the pressures of a student life, those days seemed charming and carefree now.

Of course, there is only so much reminiscing one can do in a five minute walk. As he finished the last sip of his coffee and pushed the cup down the on-street recycler unit, he found himself in front of the NY-Philly hyperloop. In the year 2030, as you know, the hyperloop would take one from New York to Philadelphia in 15 minutes. Without much hassle, Shawn was at the Philadelphia AI Institute and inside his office at the stroke of 9 AM. From his office on the 18th floor, he had a nice view of the waterfront on one side and the famous Liberty Bell on the other.

“Nora says hello. Would you like to read your important emails first, Shawn?” asked the virtual assistant on his desk.

“No, not right now,” Shawn said. The lights were still blinking. “Thank you, Nora,” he muttered. Nora had now stopped blinking.

Shawn had two meetings that morning where he was to present his latest research findings in front of the Global AI Consortium. The Consortium was founded at the dawn of the Artificial Intelligence revolution just over a decade ago. In the early days, there was a lot of hype as well as criticism around the application of AI and its impact on human life. Shawn, with his mastery of the subject of AI and human behavior, was voted unanimously to be the director of the Consortium. Through his efforts over the last decade, a community of top researchers, designers, psychologists and politicians had finally come together to discuss these issues. They had successfully developed global policies and standards around infusion of intelligent virtual assistants and bots into common products and services.

Virtual assistantShawn’s first meeting went quite well. The online conference room connected members from five different nations. Many bots worked in harmony and controlled the system to ensure a pleasant audio and visual experience for the attendees. Every attendee had a virtual assistant on their unit who took notes and provided recommendations for additional topics to discuss. As the presenter’s assistant, Nora charted Shawn’s sentiments at the bottom of his screen while he spoke. She also whispered gentle recommendations in between so he could improve his tone and delivery. With an Awareness setting of 8 on a scale of 10, it was Nora’s duty to create an environment that was conducive to hearing all perspectives. Practicing mindfulness and empathy was no longer restricted to the elite circles like it was a decade ago. This was the crux of Shawn’s research after all. Thanks to the efforts of the Consortium, mindfulness was getting subtly integrated into the daily life.

The second meeting was more an open debate joined by engineers from around the globe. Given the diversity in culture, age, geography, this was a much complicated environment to manage but Nora was effortlessly charting and providing suggestions. She had also stored the results and sent a summary to Shawn’s employee files. Nora was equipped with a second generation, super intelligent AI engine, which was capable of handling scenarios that exceeded the capabilities of normal human intelligence. Shawn was exhausted by the time the second meeting was over. He was craving another cup of coffee and a hot lunch. Nora was still working.

“Would you like to see a summary of your two presentations, Shawn? There are a few areas where you could focus more. We can go over some possible improvements and also rehearse for tomorrow’s conference,” Nora said in a pleasant voice.

“No! No, I want some coffee first,” Shawn blurted out. “That sounds like a great idea. Why don’t you get some coffee? Maybe some snack with that?” Nora’s voice was poised and had an impeccable, casual conversational style. Mega-giant companies from two decades ago would have given anything to crack the code of how to get social bots to perfect this kind of casual dialogue. In fact they had. They had poured millions of dollars into the research. Hackathons and design fests were held where teams from around the world competed to perfect the bot-art of conversation. It was an exciting day when Shawn’s professor and their team swept the second prize at the largest Talk-O-Bot event.

Shawn sat in his chair, motionless. The coffee dispenser unit was on the other side of the building. He closed his eyes and rested his head on the chair but he was very aware of the blinking lights. Something inside him ached. Something inside him had been aching for some time now. He needed to get out and get some fresh air. Yet he knew the conversation was not over. “Thank..thank you, Nora. That will be all for today.” The lights stopped blinking. He picked up his jacket, stepped out of his office and waved his watch. The office door closed behind him.

He rushed towards the train station. Just around the corner, he noticed an old lady standing with a large cart of flowers. The bouquets of white and yellow lilies in her cart were especially bright and their fragrance overwhelming. Lilies were Riya’s favorite. She had contacted a florist, a hundred miles away, to prepare a large arrangement of lilies for the center table at their wedding reception, and had them shuttle it in time to the venue. Of course, at that reception, their glory was no match to Riya’s. Clad in a vibrant yellow saree, flashing a smile as warm as the sunshine, she was a sight to behold. That was the most joyous day of Shawn’s life.

The old lady was smiling at Shawn. His pace slowed down. He smiled back and motioned at a bouquet of yellow lilies.

“Good choice, very good choice!” the lady nodded and handed him the bouquet.

Back in their apartment, he placed the flowers in a vase near the window. It was late in the afternoon and he was craving a juicy burger with a side of French fries. Ever since Cynthia, Riya’s yoga trainer, had pushed her to adopt the Level 4 Gold diet, the burgers had disappeared from their apartment. He threw his jacket and socks on the floor, switched his watch off, and rested on the couch. Hours passed. Of course you wouldn’t know how many hours since his watch was switched off after all.

“Shawn, you are home early. What happened?” he heard Riya’s voice. Riya was lightly touching his forehead. “Do you have fever? You don’t look good!”

“I don’t feel so good. Can you give me something to eat, Riya?”

As Riya was fixing a sandwich for him, his eyes wandered to his jacket and socks that were lying on the floor. He knew Riya hated that. He knew Riya had noticed that.

“Aren’t you going to say anything about it?” Shawn asked quietly as he pointed at the floor.

“No. Listen, I have been doing some thinking. I mean, it’s actually Cynthia who has been helping me. She suggested during today’s session that maybe I could be more watchful and less complaining. She is charting a plan for me.”

Shawn’s eyes widened. “Cynthia, your virtual trainer? What is her Mindfulness setting?”

“Yes, my virtual trainer. I don’t know. Maybe she is at 7 or 8. It’s the academy who sets it now. We can’t change it anymore. Why? What happened? You look so pale. What is going on? ”

“I have been thinking too, Riya. The thing is, I do want you to complain. I am sorry I was so stern this morning. I don’t know if that’s making any sense. I know Nora would like to say something, and so would Cynthia, and it looked all good but I don’t want to hear anything from them anymore. I want you to complain and demand. Something doesn’t feel right. Riya, what if I was wrong in some of my hypotheses as I developed the AI engine that is at the core of all of them? In a way, I…, I created Cynthia and Nora, and so many others.” Shawn’s voice was now quivering.

Riya patted him lightly on his shoulder and held his hands. “Actually I do know what you are saying. Trust me. It’s not your fault. You know what I think? I think you probably need a break from work and a fresh start. A fresh thinking. Maybe I do too.”

“You are right. What say we go back and spend this summer in MIT? Revive some old memories? You remember, Jared, my professor? He has been calling me for a couple years now. He said your Economics professor misses you too and can easily line up a few interesting projects for you.” Shawn had a sudden cheer in his voice.

Riya was listening carefully as he went on talking. After a while, she got up and walked towards the window. A soft evening light had fallen over the city. She bent down to smell the lilies and took a deep breath. She turned towards Shawn, held her hand out and said, “Let’s go! We will go.”

“Hold on, hold on!” Shawn had turned his watch on and was pressing a few keys. “Yes? Should I click OK? You know me, Riya, you know me more than anyone ever will. Tell me, tell me!” Riya was laughing at his excitement. She pushed the key on the dial and said, “There, it’s done. So, what is it going to take? One week to process your resignation?”

“Yep! And another week to find my replacement.” Still holding each other’s hand, they walked out of their apartment building into the calm that engulfed the streets. The city was getting dotted with night lights.

A week later, Shawn was sitting in a big lawn chair in the porch of MIT’s world famous AI and media lab. The lab had changed a lot since he had left and yet there was a warm familiarity about that place. As he sat there watching the clear blue sky, he was very aware that there were no buzzing sounds or blinking lights around him. Just the whiff of fresh air.

Jared came out of the lab, holding a wooden tray with two cups of tea on it. “Here, have this. I made it myself. It has a secret ingredient that morphs you into a super intelligent being for exactly two hours.” he extended his wrinkled hand that was holding the cup.

“Jared, what are you saying? What am I missing?” Shawn was now tilting his head and looking inside the cup.

“Shawn, I am kidding! This is my usual recipe of tea with some fresh ginger in it. You are probably just missing the company of this old man and your old lab. It’s good to have you back.” Jared said with a twinkle in his eyes.

Shawn raised his cup as if in a toast. “It’s good to be back.”

As they slowly sipped their tea, the faint light of dusk surrounded them. The two of them chatted away like old friends, discussing everything from the best teas of the world to super intelligence and all the new frontiers that still lay ahead.

[Author’s note: this is an attempt at Science Fiction Prototyping. My hope is to explore near-futuristic technologies and their social impact via short SciFi stories. Hope it sparks a few questions, ideas and thoughts for you!] 

Author: Prachi Sukhatankar

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