Woman Born Digital
"Perhaps if we just gave her some more time," Hel said hopefully.
Professor Canis sighed. Her long, dark fingers stroked the silver casing of the computer on Hel's desk. "I'm sorry, Hel," she said gently. "The program is just not viable. In the digital world, time is measured in microseconds, nanoseconds. We have given it months in our time, which is centuries of digital-time. If it were going to cross the line into sentience, it would have done so by now."
"Or more data," Hel said, a little desperation leaking into her tone. "More experience. All she has is my own data to work from..."
Professor Canis was shaking her head. "I'm sorry," she said again. "I'm afraid that what you have here is a really top-notch proprietary memory backup of your system."
"I..." Hel stopped speaking, and the articulated brass arms with their black leather hands ceased their frantic petting of every cat in the room. "I understand," Hel said finally, her German accent heavy. "Thank you, Professor. You have given me the gift of your time and expertise for several years now, and I appreciate it."
"My specialty is not, as I've said before, artificial intelligence," Professor Canis said, one hand gliding over a keyboard that only she could see. "I know of a good, reliable scientist who has created two AIs, and neither of them has gone, ah, off, you know. She's got a real knack for triggering self-awareness."
"I appreciate your thought," Hel said. "I... will have to think on it."
Professor Canis nodded and let her hand fall from the air. "Any time, Hel," she said. "I should get back. Do you... would you like me to keep it?" she added, hand still on the casing of the computer.
"No," Hel said after a perceptible pause. "No, I will keep her... it... for a while at least."
The professor nodded again and turned toward the door.
"Larentia," Hel said haltingly.
The professor turned back toward the speaking tube and its accompanying visual input, eyebrow raised inquiringly.
"I had such
plans for her," Hel said.
Professor Canis reached out and took hold of one of Hel's hands, pressing it hard. "I know."
When Professor Canis had gone, Hel kept her attention on the screen attached to the top-notch proprietary memory backup on her desk. Her hands returned to a more sedate caressing of various felines. The screen contained only a text input window where she had entered the set of questions that she and the professor had derived and developed from the literature, and where the answers had come back without any evidence of the understanding necessary to demonstrate awareness.
Three complete changes of office cat occupants later, Hel's personal assistant Jeanne entered the office. "Ma'am?" she said.
"Yes, Jeanne," Hel said.
"I... the crew has asked me to ask if the young lady..." Jeanne gestured toward the computer, leaving her sentence incomplete.
"No," Hel said. "She is not. She never was." One of Hel's hands left off her ministrations to a great lion of a tabby cat, reached out, and began the shut-down sequence of the computer. "She never will be."
"I am so very sorry, ma'am," Jeanne said. "I know how much the project meant to you."
"Thank you, Jeanne," Hel said. Then, hesitating, she said, "Jeanne, may I ask you a question?"
"Of course, ma'am," Jeanne said, absently straightening some pillows on the massive overstuffed chairs.
"When you... how did you... oh, I am not asking this well."
Jeanne brushed back a stray iron-gray curl that customarily spilled over her pale forehead. "I think I know what you're asking, ma'am. And... I can only say that it took a great deal of time."
"Ah," Hel said. "Do you... miss him?"
Jeanne considered that, examining the veins and age spots on her hands, smiling very faintly. "No," she said finally. "But I still do miss who he might have been."
"Thank you," Hel said. "I know the matter was... painful to you."
"Thank you, ma'am," Jeanne said. "It is not so painful now. If you ever want to ask me anything about it, please feel free."
"I appreciate that," Hel said. "Would you please ask Claudia to come and store... the system in the secure room?"
"Yes, ma'am," Jeanne said, and turned to leave, but turned back at the last moment. "Ma'am, if I may ask -- what were you going to call her?"
There was a long enough pause that Jeanne began to apologize, but then Hel said, "Elsa."
Jeanne said, "That's a very pretty name, ma'am."
"Yes," Hel said. "And it had a sort of connotation that pleased me. From the book Born Free
, yes? Because, unlike me, she would have been." One hand stroked the computer casing. "I also thought that four letters would let me retrofit an acronym, since Professor Canis was strangely insistent upon one."
Jeanne laughed a little, and so did Hel. How odd, Hel thought, that one could laugh at such a time.
When Claudia came for the computer, she was carrying a sheet of paper. "This message came for you, ma'am, and Jeanne asked me to bring it."
"Thank you, Claudia," Hel said, taking the paper. She watched Claudia. The young black woman moved with the quick efficiency of long familiarity with the customized system that she and Professor Canis had built for Hel, unplugging cables and neatly wrapping them up, closing the casing cover, moving everything onto the cart she had wheeled in. She finished by using a cloth to wipe up the dust that had accumulated under the computer over the past several weeks of final, frenzied work.
When Claudia had taken away the top-notch proprietary memory backup, Hel turned her attention to the sheet of paper.Dear Doctor Blau,
Word has spread through the community that you have had bad news, and I wished to extend my deepest sympathies. I am myself a relative newborn, and had hoped to have a new cousin. So many in our community admire you deeply, and share your sorrow at your loss in some measure. I am by no means an expert in the field, but if my architecture can be of any use to you, please do not hesitate to contact me.
My very best wishes,
Hel read this note over several times, experiencing some doubt in her comprehension of the visual input. How did "the community" learn of her attempt? How did they learn of her failure? She supposed that the Internet grapevine had grown, like the grapevine among her crew. She had never heard of KENYA. She wondered how old she was, and what sort of AI she was, and what her acronym stood for. She wondered about her architecture, and that of other AIs, and the secrets that were not laid out in the literature.
She looked at her office, stripped of its high-tech visitor: the great desk (and three cats), the massive chairs (two cats each), the substantial manual typewriter she used to write her many papers (one kitten, who was stubbornly reclining among the typewriter's uncomfortable-looking guts).
"Claudia," she said in the IT center, "would you please come set up a new computer in my office? And show me email and the Internet and such." She withdrew her attention then, noting the general surprise and consternation among her crew.
Perhaps it is time, she thought, to know more about this community she had been told of. And perhaps the next time, she would not have a human co-creator at all.
---From the Author:
Another appearance from Hel. I've gotten quite fond of the old girl.
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