Editor’s note – Perhaps we will have E-animals soon, and perhaps artificial life will take over. A short story by new Turing Church contributor David Román.
By David Román
I saw an engineered animal for the first time when I was in my late forties, at a tech conference. There was this sculpture, this anodyne piece of art in the middle of one of the tables near the rostrum where the speaker was droning on about apps that would make it easier for the self-employed poor to bid their services for part-time tasks. The sculpture looked like a short, snake-shaped thing on top of a small pedestal, vaguely wrapped around itself.; it was the kind of thing one doesn’t pay attention to, because art is not supposed to mean anything anymore. But then it started to wiggle, like a real snake.
Half of the people by the table stood up: the others stayed still, uncertain of how to react. The speaker stopped mid-sentence. This being a tech conference, some of those around started to applaud, and the gig soon was up: a representative of the company behind this particular engineered animal, whose name doesn’t matter, took to the rostrum to explain how we were on the verge of a gigantic revolution in robotics. She spoke in bombastic tones, as one would expect in such a place, such a time, but she still commanded attention and many appreciative nods; even the guy with the bidding apps for part-timers looked impressed, and not all surprised that he had been pushed aside with such a gimmick.
That first encounter with an E-animal, in short, was atypical. Over the next few years the market forces dictated that animals that had external modifications to not look like animals, like the snake disguised as a sculpture until it was activated, became an infrequent sight. Buyers showed a strong preference for E-animals that looked like themselves, completely natural as they were save for the internal circuitry embedded in their animal brains, the one fundamental characteristic that made them E-animals. One saw externally-modified E-animals some times, in the streets, doing funny things in videos, in the news when they were used to kill, steal, maim or play famous pranks. But soon 95% of the market was for natural-looking models, like my cat Arthur.
Arthur was very expensive, because it was a top-of-the-line product at a time when that product was still a highly-sought, costly-to-manufacture novelty. It took me almost a year of mulling it over before I decided to go ahead and just buy it, and I don’t think I would have ever done it if not for my personal circumstances, which I don’t want to discuss here. Suffice it to say that bad things had happened to me and to my family, and I could really use the company.
I had never had a pet, and I loved the experience from day one. Arthur was very unlike the other AIs in my house, mostly because it was physical. It was real. My main AI assistant, Brian, was a decent enough fellow with amusing quirks, but I had grown tired of its non-bodily presence some time before, and I rarely exchanged more than the absolutely necessary information with it, the one it really needed so it could work, by the time Arthur came in.
In fact, Arthur was the way he was partly because of Brian. I didn’t need another chuckling, wise-ass house companion with over-the-top opinions. Brian was that way because that’s why I had wanted in what seemed almost like another life, but what I wanted when I ordered Arthur was something else altogether. Thus, Arthur was reflective, quiet, with a melancholy air. Sometimes, when he licked his paws–he still was a cat; he still ate cat food and needed a cat box since, like all E-animals, his body was almost entirely natural–Arthur would look at me with some puzzlement, as it evaluating my mental state.
“Are you still wondering whether I’m going crazy,” I would ask him.
“I’m just pondering the likely consequences of such an unavoidable development,” Arthur would say, through the tiny microphone implanted on its vocal chords.
I was decidedly in my middle age by this time, and Arthur’s discretion and unobtrusiveness were a perfect fit for what my life had become. I worked hard, knowing that I was lucky to have a job at all, and saved much. I let Arthur, expensive and fragile as it was, wander about when I was not around, and the cat wasn’t always at home with me. He had its own schedules and habits: underneath his fully artificial, silicon-based AI, there was a real cat brain, with interest in cat-style things such as lady-kittens; but always, somehow, he knew when it should show up. Sometimes we wouldn’t exchange a word for hours, and sometimes, we would spend the whole day discussing a finer point such as the problem of evil or whether you could see anything at all if you were able to go back in time to the moment of the Big Bang. Arthur, for the record, then thought there wasn’t a place to visit, to go back in time to, until a millisecond after the Big Bang. He had done a lot of reading on the subject.
Being a cat, Arthur’s health took a turn for the worse soon in my life, by the time he was ten. I paid for two surgeries over the next three years. By the time he was fourteen, the pet doctor told me the time had come to let him go. I think Arthur was glad when I took him to a big, fancy, bullet-proof store in the downtown to buy another cat body for him; this practice, a “transfer,” was becoming fairly common by then, and wasn’t all that different, or even more expensive, from transferring a beloved domestic AI to a new house or vehicle. The new body wasn’t that pricey either: in the intervening years, tech developments triggered by steady demand for E-animals had driven strong cost competition in the industry. Some people could, and did, afford E-orangutans as house guards, or E-bears as bouncers outside of prominent nightclubs. Rich kids would get E-dolphins regularly, and some were rumored to get E-sharks, for their darker, more sadistic pleasures. Traditional robots in plastic or metal had almost disappeared, with E-monkeys taking their spots in places such as car-making plants.
Arthur’s new body held up well, but then I started to have health problems myself. I had to see the doctor a few more times than I would have thought, had a tumor removed and then a close call when a gang of robbers shot me in the chest, not far from the heart, in the middle of the street. While in hospital, Arthur read War and Peace for me, in a Russian accent, scrolling down the pages with his paw.
Another bout with cancer convinced me that it was time to adjust. Many had been researching transfers for humans, but nobody had succeeded. The option to buy an extra E-cat and transfer my consciousness there was not available, and I certainly doubt it will ever be, beyond the possibility of just creating a E-copy of yourself inside a chip who can talk to a cat: but is not yourself, who remains trapped in the same old body.
I told Arthur that I could pay for my cancer treatment, and get a few extra years of life; or I could take my significant savings out of the bank, and get myself in a cryogenic vault. I even had enough spare for Arthur, so the offer was there for him to take it.
He didn’t. Instead, he questioned my motives: why would anyone like me be frozen in time for tens, hundreds of thousands of years? I didn’t have that much to live for, in the far future, even if it were a much better place than Earth around the turn of the century.
“You are essentially killing yourself,” Arthur said. “You have been looking for an excuse to do so for years, and now you are going to do it. You just don’t want me to feel bad about it, so that’s why you’re offering me a free ride in the vault.”
“That’s not true,” I protested. “Nobody who gets frozen does it out of a death wish. Dying is easy. I’m trying to stay alive.”
“You know the chances are not good. Nobody has ever been defrozen. Most likely, this vault will be destroyed or forgotten and we both will rot someplace. Cryonics is just not a cost-effective way of staying alive.”
“There is no other way.”
“Keep the money, pay for a cancer treatment, and stay alive.”
Eventually, that’s of course what I did. It’s unfortunate that, just a few days after my surgery, the U.N. decided to nuke New Russia into submission and create a massive radioactive nuclear winter that cut down our travel plans. Arthur had expressed an interest in visiting Northeast Asia, of all places.
We did travel, a little. The atmosphere was, mostly, cleaned up in a matter of months and we went to see the meager remains of the glaciers in Chile, made all the more spectacular by the desperate effort made by the millennial ice to cling to its crumbling, once powerful, walls amid the jagged mountains of the Torres del Paine national park. We saw the desert bloom in Mali and the waters run across what had been Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t all that different from the best virtual reality experiences, but it was real. We were there, in real reality, Arthur and me, chatting about Lawrence of Arabia with like-minded exotics, including a E-giraffe that was the talk of Medina.
Age and sickness have now up with me, unavoidably. I stopped working some years ago, and now I don’t have much left to pay for expensive longevity treatments. Arthur himself is almost ten years old again, so we’re both hoping this body is sturdier than the previous one. I had a minor stroke months ago, and then the cancer reappeared, so the doctor says I’ll probably be gone in less than six months. The law now allows me to leave my remaining assets, in a trust, to Arthur, who as a legal E-person will be supervised by a U.N.-appointed trustee; I know he’s sad, in the way his circuitry and his cat brain allow. The other day we shared a cocktail (it still cracks me up to see a cat slurping alcohol) and he told me he’s concerned about his immortality. Not so much about the possibility that humans will go away, which is mostly a human worry, but others: what if he loses his money and can’t pay for another body at some point? What if he gets run over, shot, strangled, cut in pieces? Or worse: what if he manages to spend eons surrounded by the descendants of the strange people who created him? He thinks many other E-animals, and even the smartest AIs (that is, not including Brian) probably share this concern: that they may end up being witnesses of some of the most nonsensical moments in human history, the way politics and arts and everything else have been evolving lately. I laugh at him, and tell him I’m sorry for his sad plight. I’m not sure that he understands that I’m lying; that I’m so very jealous of his absurd future.