Genre in a Bottle – a flash science fiction story

computer-152500_1280“We’ve got a problem with the romance AI,” Kent said, his voice fuzzy through the speaker phone.

“I’m a lawyer, not a mind reader,” Roz said, drumming carefully manicured fingers on her desk. “What sort of problem?”

“The sort it’s your job to fix,” Kent snapped. “Conference room three. Five minutes.”

The line went dead. Roz kept glaring at it. She hated dealing with managers who had come up through tech teams. They had the people skills of a yak.

Still, she was a professional, and four minutes later she stood outside the conference room. Looking in through the glass, she saw a petite woman in a pink blouse and a man with the sort of suit high legal fees bought.

“You know the book feed program?” Kent asked.

“You feed stories to the sales AIs,” Roz said. “Whatever genre they’re responsible for selling. Lets them understand customers better.”

Kent sighed.

“Near enough,” he said. “This woman got chatting with the AI for the romance section. It had absorbed a lot of the language and mannerisms of people from those books. Things got glitchy.”

“Define glitchy.”

“They were flirting. She thought it was a real person.”

The lawyer looked up with a lizard’s grin. Roz could almost see the dollar signs in his eyes. He reminded her of the vulture her husband had hired for the divorce.

Snatching the file out of Kent’s hands, she opened the door and walked into the room.

“Hi, I’m Roz Miller,” she said, settling into a seat. She glanced down at the file. “And you’re Polly?”

The woman’s lip wobbled as she nodded.

“What do you want to talk about, Polly?” Roz asked.

“I thought he loved me,” Polly wailed, burying her face in her hands.

“My client was tricked by your company,” the lizard lawyer said. “In order to sell more books, you led her to believe that she was in a relationship with someone called Chad. In reality, she was talking to nothing more than computer code.”

“Nothing more than computer code?” Kent said. “That program is amazing! It can learn, it can adapt, it can- ouch!”

Roz drew back her foot and smiled at Polly.

“How can we help?” she asked, as if the answer wasn’t obvious.

“My client is suing you for fraud and emotional harm,” lizard features said.

“How much?”

Lizard features slid a piece of paper across the table. The sum written on it would be damaging, both for the company and for Roz’s promotion prospects. She didn’t want to be forced into a negotiated settlement on this one, so she needed a way to block the case.

Just like the AI, she needed to know how Polly thought.

“Did you come up with this number?” she asked, still focusing on Polly. “Or did he?”

Polly sniffed and pushed the piece of paper away.

Another angle then.

“What do you want, Polly?” Roz asked. “Is it really about money, about an apology, or just about lashing out?”

“You can’t give me what I want.” Polly looked directly at Roz, her eyes burning with anger. “I fell in love with someone who isn’t real. I can’t have him, but I can have this.”

She held up the piece of paper.

Kent looked like a rabbit in the headlights, frozen in shock at Polly’s raw emotions. The lawyer looked like he was waiting to unhinge his jaw and swallow them whole.

“When did you find out that Chad wasn’t real?” Roz asked.

“They updated him.” Polly’s face trembled as she spoke. “Suddenly he didn’t talk to me in the same way. He barely remembered who I was.”

She put her face in her hands.

“I miss the conversations most,” she mumbled. “I feel so lonely without Chad.”

Roz kept her face still, but couldn’t keep from letting out a little of her excitement, tapping a finger against the desk. The lawyer, mistaking it for nerves, widened his grin.

“Your deception, followed by the change in your software, has caused my client distress.” He tapped the piece of paper. “This much distress.”

“Less your ten percent, of course,” Roz replied. “Can you even prove that the software changed?”

The lizard grin grew even wider as the lawyer slid a court order across the table.

“This says you have to share your old backups,” he said. “I trust you kept some, in case the update went wrong?”

“We’ve go a copy,” Kent said reluctantly.

“A copy of Chad?” Roz asked. “Like he was before?”

“Chad isn’t the program’s name,” Kent snapped. “It was just using it to-”

He stopped as Roz kicked him again. Across the table, a look of hope chased the sorrow from Polly’s face, as Roz had hoped.

“He’s still there?” Polly asked.

“That’s right,” Roz said. “If you continue with this case, then your legal team can examining the code behind him. But if you drop it, we can set you up with a working copy. One that remembers you. One that would love to have those conversations again.”

“Really?”

“Do you know how much work-” Kent began, then he looked down at the number on the paper. “I mean, sure, we can do that.”

“Thank you,” Polly said, beaming. “Thank you so much. And thank you for making this happen.”

She turned and hugged her lawyer.

He didn’t hug her back. His grin had fallen into a scowl, the dollar signs dropping from his eyes as Roz screwed up the piece of paper and threw it away.

“I’m so happy!” Polly said. “I’ve been so lonely, and-”

The door opened and a technician poked her head in.

“Sorry to interrupt,” she said. “Roz, Kent, you’re needed in conference room four. The directors say it’s top priority, drop everything.”

“What is it this time?” Roz asked.

“There’s a problem with the true crime AI,” the technician replied.

* * *

 

This story was suggested by Jen Phillips and inspired by Google’s use of romance novels to make their algorithms more conversational (more at this link). Thanks Jen!

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