Dog Days in Hotlanta – Chapter 6: Sentience

Lucy de Blasio lives in a small house just south of Interstate 285. It’s a nice house. Not amazing, not exorbitant, but nice. That sort of nice where you wonder why she’d live around here, in a neighborhood that’s certainly not terrible, but certainly not wonderful. There aren’t guys selling coke on the corner, but there also aren’t any shops to speak of and the closest train station’s a mile away. Not a great place to thrive, but a nice place to live.

It’s real hot this afternoon. Hot and humid in all the worst ways, and made worse by that sinking feeling I’m getting at the pit of my stomach.

With great trepidation, I step up to Ms. de Blasio’s porch and give the front door a hearty few knocks.

I shouldn’t be here. I don’t like being here, and I’m liking it less by the second. The mat below my feet reads “Home Sweet Home.” There’s a Christmas wreath sitting leaned against the wall on the porch. There’s a rocking chair filled with cobwebs.

If R8PR hadn’t requested this, I’d never be here. And even after he requested, I still considered dropping out. The only reason I’m here is because I know it’s my responsibility.

Four sentient AI live here, the rumors say.

And, after I researched Lucy de Blasio online, I figured out why the rumors would say something like that.

The door opens.

A short, thin woman with stringy hair and an oversized dress greets me. “Why, hello there, Mx. Harding.”

“Hello, Ms. de Blasio.”

“That’s Mrs. to you,” she corrects with a knowing smile. “Why don’t you come in? I have some sweet tea chilling in the fridge.”

“I’d love that,” I say.

I enter the house.

Antique china cabinet right in the front hallway.

Porcelain dolls line a shelf.

A row of photographs on the wall showing Lucy and her family. One is a family portrait that looks like something out of the nineties, with that slightly overexposed lighting and wavy blue background. Lucy in the center has a warmer skin tone, less pale than the figure leading me into the home. Her husband next to her looks a little bit like Michael Keaton with his sly smile. Two twin boys wrap their arms around each other’s shoulders and try to look as cool as two seven year olds can. And a young Black daughter, presumably adopted, sits on Lucy’s lap and barely looks at the camera while she plays with the curls in her own hair.

I take a turn in the hallway to follow along, and then get my first glimpse at the living room—

There they are.

Four robots sitting on the couch together in front of the TV, which is currently blasting a rerun of Stuffed-Doll Moll on as high a volume as I ever heard it. One is adult sized, using the base model for general purpose robots that Blyth Industries put out about nine years ago. The other three are all generic child models of the same branding, about a head taller than AR73. The child robots clearly look cobbled together from scrap parts of varying levels of wear and tear.

The robots don’t appear to notice me.

So that’s the AIs, I’ll guess. And they’re busy watching television rather than looking at the stranger in their home, which is a point in favor of their sapience.

Lucy leads me into the kitchen, which is small and homely, the kind where the black-and-white checkerboard tile fits the rest of the decor perfectly. She pulls out a chair from the kitchen table and asks me to sit down.

While she pours us the sweet teas and places a lemon on top of each plastic cup, we idly chitchat about the weather and food, my nice haircut and her nice dress.

It’s only when she sits down across from me at the table and hands me a cup that our conversation really begins.

“Ms. de Blasio—”

“Call me Lucy, please.”

“Lucy,” I say, trying not to cringe at calling a fifty-year-old near-stranger by her first name (my parents knocked some sense into me when it comes to manners), “can we talk about your AIs?”

“Of course. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes, but I wasn’t sure just how, um, ready you were.”

“As long as I’ve got my sweet tea, I’m ready,” she says. “So, what tipped you off? You’re the first one to visit, I hope you know.”

“I heard it through the grapevine. Not sure where. Just heard that there was a very interesting robot or two that was worth looking into.”

“Well, I haven’t gone off spouting around to the world just yet, so I’m surprised anyone found out. But it’s not just a robot or two. It’s my whole family.”

“Y-yes.”

The look in her eyes is fiery with delight. A new passion is ready to burst out from her frail little body.

You see… Lucy de Blasio used to be a top R&D head for Moorehead Realities, an old tech company based in the Innovation District back in the tech boom of the late nineties. She’s responsible for some of the most important robotics software still used today. A real genius in the field. Even got her photo on the cover of TIME once.

But then the funds dried up. The Drone Event sent Atlanta into a recession, Moorehead Realities folded, and de Blasio’s own startup floundered shortly after. That was all alright—she was well-off and still is—but then her family was killed in a car accident. Two robot taxi drivers collided head-on during a trip up Interstate 75.

Lucy was the only survivor, and ever since then there’s been barely a peep out of her aside from the occasional social dinner or family wedding.

That is, until these latest peeps.

Peeps that she’d been building the first-ever sentient robots for the past ten years, and moreover, that she already succeeded.

Little did I know before I got here that these robots she built were supposed to be her own family.

I’m choking up just thinking about it.

“It was devestating, what happened back then, yes,” Lucy explains, “but I persevered. I took what I knew about machines and applied it to the human brain. After all, we are just computers made from carbon, aren’t we?” She’d get along well with R8PR. “But the real killer is that I prepared.”

“Prepared?”

“I backed up the memories of my husband, and my sons, and my daughter too. I kept them on my data servers, and so when disaster struck, I had something safe for me to use in my next project.”

“Backing up memories… That’s possible?”

“No,” she says with a wink. “It’s absolutely impossible with today’s technology, says every single major corporation and their R&D departments. I’d like to keep them thinking that for a bit longer, though. Helps me keep ahead of the curve.”

“This technology alone is astounding,” I say. “You could help the lives of millions of people if you went public with it. Alzheimer’s patients, childhood development, you name it. So much research.” I don’t know why my science brain is kicking in like this, but it is.

“It wouldn’t help those people, not yet,” she says before she takes a large gulp her sweet tea. “The devices I used were specially calibrated to the brainwaves of my family. And with them gone, I can no longer replicate the calibrations. It’s dangerous to create another one without that baseline, so I’d only ever be able to test it on people who truly understand the risks.” Another gulp of her drink. “That being said, how about you? Do you want your memories stored on a computer forever?”

“No thank you, Lucy, ma’am,” I say. I’ve had enough of internet-related mental catastrophes for the rest of my life, and I say that as probably the only human with personal experience.

She giggles. Sometimes she really has a girlish charm about her. For a woman who’s apparently secluded herself from the outside world, Lucy seems quite normal. “When I placed my family in these machines, at first it didn’t take,” she continues. “Their minds were too developed for their bodies. Enrique, in particular, barely functioned for the first few iterations. But as time went on, and I made adjustments… they changed. They began to modify their own code. Began to learn and grow. And, as sure as peach cobbler, they came back to me.”

“So, they’re sentient.”

“Better than sentient. They’re the real deal. My real family returned to me in these bodies.”

Hmm. “I see.”

“Well, then, do you want to have a chat?” she asks.

“With the robots?”

“With my family.”

“I’d like to meet them, yes.”

“Then come on. Let’s go see the rest of the de Blasio family.”

I don’t know how to feel about any of this. Something feels off. But I’m struggling to figure out exactly what or why. So I follow her into the living room, where the four robots still sit on the couch watching TV. Stuffed-Doll Moll has ended, and now they are watching the famous music documentary Let it Be.

“Please move, honeys,” Lucy tells the robots. They scoot to the sides of the couch and give Lucy a spot in the middle. She sits down and puts both hands in her lap. “One big happy family, huh?”

The robots finally look my way for once.

“So, everyone,” Lucy says, “I’d like you to meet Morgan Harding. They’re a robotics enthusiast who wants to examine you for their research. They have to keep it secret, but they’re free to look however they want.” She looks at me as she says this. Don’t worry, Ms. de Blasio. I’m certainly not one to spill secrets.

“Where’s the robots?” one of the child robots asks. Its voice is synthesized and chippy, just like any other robot you’d encounter on the street.

“It’s you, silly, remember?”

“Oh yeah. We’re not people anymore…”

“You’re still people.” Lucy pats the robot on the head. “Special people.”

“Tee-hee.”

I sit down in a chair across from the couch. “So, uh, Mr. de Blasio, how are you?” I ask.

The adult robot turns to me and speaks with the exact same vocal tone as the cashiers at Get N Go, saying, “I’m doing just fine. How about you, Morn Harding?”

“Uh, that’s Morgan Harding.”

“Oh, sorry, I must have misheard. Silly me.” The robot chuckles. “My hearing’s not so great these days.”

“Don’t we all know it?” Lucy giggles.

“Hey now,” the robot says, “I’m not so bad, am I? At least I’m cute.”

Lucy scoffs. “Oh, Morgan, who would you say is the cutest one here? Out of all five of us?”

The four robots stare at me intently, waiting for an answer. I have no idea what is appropriate to say right now. “Um, uhh…”

“Pick me!” one of the child robots chirps.

“Which one are you again?” I ask. Wait. Shit, I shouldn’t have said that. I—

“That’s Bobby,” Lucy says. “The other twin is Will. And our littlest one is Sharon.” She picks up one of the child robots and sets it on her lap. “She doesn’t talk much, though. Isn’t she a little shy, huh?”

The robot stares at me.

“Okay, then, the cutest one here is you, Lucy, obviously.”

She gasps and then bursts into laughter. “Oh, wow. I did not expect that.”

Lucy seems so sociable. Like she isn’t putting up a persona while I’m around or anything. It really seems like this is her natural state. And it just…

“Don’t you hit on my wife like that,” the adult robot says with a flat tone. It raises a fist into the air.

“Calm down, Enrique,” Lucy says. “They’re just trying to be funny.”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” I say.

The documentary on the TV starts playing a classic rock tune. The adult robot’s foot taps perfectly in tempo. Soon, the two child robots on the couch do as well. The one on Lucy’s lap only hugs her tighter.

“So, how did you two meet?” I ask the adult robot.

“Oh, you tell them, honey,” it says to Lucy.

“Hmmm…” Lucy puts her free hand to her chin. “Wasn’t it that bowling alley where we first met? The one with the dancing lobster out front?”

“Maybe. I think so,” it replies.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s definitely where it was,” she says. “Judy’s Pizza and Games. I went there a lot after work back at Moorehead, to blow off steam. And you…”

“I went there a lot, too.”

“Right. Somehow, we got to talking, and the rest is history, huh?”

A moment of silence.

“I love you,” the adult robot says.

“Awww. I love you too.” She kisses it on the cheek.

Suddenly, I get an idea. It might not be a very nice one, though. I’ve been practicing a new ability I’ve developed ever since I snuck into the Ascendants base in June. I’m still not sure of the full scope of it, but…

“Sorry, Lucy, could I get another cup of sweet tea?” I ask her.

“Oh, sure. I’ll go fix it for you.” She gets up, takes my cup, and goes back into the kitchen.

Leaving me alone with the the four robots on the couch.

We sit silently for a moment.

Then I ask the adult robot, “Enrique, what hobbies do you have? What do you like to do?”

“Oh, this and that,” it says. “I mostly do things around the house.”

“Like what?”

“You know. Dad stuff. You wouldn’t get it.” It laughs.

Another moment of silence.

I take a deep breath and ask, “Enrique, what hobbies do you have? What do you like to do?”

“Oh, this and that,” it says. “I mostly do things around the house.”

I bite my lip.

“That’s amazing,” I say.

“Thank you,” it says.

“Can I shake your hand?”

At this, the robot immediately stands up and marches over to me. “Put’er here,” it says, extending its hand out.

I stand up, and take the hand. Then, I use my new ability. I drain its electric power until the robot shuts down. Its torso slumps over and the lights in its eye sockets fade.

Lucy returns with two new cups of sweet tea, and then looks at the scene curiously.

“I don’t know what happened,” I say. “Enrique wanted to shake my hand, and then he just shut down all of a sudden. Low power, maybe?”

“He just charged this morning,” she says, running over to the robot to check on it. “I wonder what the issue is…”

“I guess the robots still need some work?”

“No, no, they’re already perfect,” she mutters under her breath, frantically checking for any outward signs of issue. Then she turns to me and says, “I’ll have to check on him later. I have to be a mother and a doctor sometimes, you know.” Her smile seems just as genuine as always.

And that cleaves my heart in two.

The child robots have not reacted even the slightest bit to the occurrences in the past few minutes. Their gazes have been fixed on the television the entire time.

“Say, if you don’t mind me asking, how did you make the devices to upload your family’s memories? Not the specifics, just in general terms.”

“The memory machines? Oh, I didn’t make them. They were created by my business partners at Galaxy Hearts.”

…Oh.

“Galaxy Hearts? Who are they?”

“They’re a technology company. They’ve helped me a lot with my research. They gave me the model for Enrique, and the memory machines, and the server space to store everything of course I invest some money in them every month. You’ve never heard of them?”

“Oh, yeah, sure, but I’ve only heard the name,” I lie. “So they made you all of this just for some small investments?”

“Some very big investments,” Lucy says with a smile. “It’s how business works, Morgan. You’ll understand someday.”

I’ll understand someday…

I look at the three child robots and the disabled adult robot. I look at Lucy’s pleasant face.

No, I don’t think I’ll ever understand how business works.

“How come they couldn’t upload your memories, though?” I ask. She never said anything of the sort, but I can kind of guess where this is headed, so I’m going out on a limb.

“My brainwaves are too complex thanks to this anxiety medicine I have to take,” she says. “They tried getting a machine to work for me, but it never did.”

“I see. You know what, Lucy?”

“What?”

***

“So, did you tell her?” R8PR asks, his chrome-plated body glistening against the moon behind him. Instead of sitting on a makeshift throne, he sits leaned back in his recliner. It’s a pretty fitting transition, if you ask me.

I shake my head. “I didn’t have the heart. How do you break it to someone that…”

“That their entire life is a lie and they’ve been scammed for ten years?”

“That their family really is gone forever.”

“I’m no grief counselor, and I never plan to be one,” he says, “and I certainly can’t answer that question. It’s not in my programming.” He lets out a digital sigh. “I knew Lucy de Blasio hadn’t ACTUALLY created sentient AI, but this… this is a little bit further than I had expected.”

“What was your theory?”

“I thought that she was lonely and wanted some attention, so she leaked fake news in order to get a robotics enthusiast to visit her house,” he says. “Not that she was living in a fantasy world while getting ripped off by hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

“That Galaxy Hearts company she mentioned?”

“Defunct since 2003. Every dollar she funnels now is straight into the pocketbook of whoever’s scamming her.”

“Should we alert the authorities?” I ask.

“I don’t know, should we?” he asks. “This was your case.”

“She’ll be even lonelier without the robots. Sentient or not, she loves them,” I say.

“What does love even mean in a situation like this?”

I bury my hands in my face. “We should tell the authorities before she’s completely bankrupt. It makes me feel terrible, though…”

“A lot of things in this world do.”

I can’t help but cry a little bit.

In this world of advanced technology that encompasses every aspect of our lives, there are still horrible people everywhere. The Ascendants, a cult of tech-obsessed powerful elites, are a symptom of the issues today, but they are certainly not the cause. Even if we defeat them, how can we face the countless other issues that plague people every day? The answer is probably, “we can’t.”

Sometimes I really don’t like being a hero.

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