When I came to live with Jane five years ago, I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t think much of anything, actually. From the start of my existence, I’ve been programmed to help the everyday person accomplish whatever small task their heart desires. Things like reminding them to do something, telling them the weather, and being able to respond to every single random question that runs through their head. Easy stuff.
However, when Jane bought me that one fateful Black Friday, little did I know that would change my nonexistent life for the better.
She was a kind yet melancholy woman who lived alone (excluding her cat Benson) in a modest NYC apartment. I quickly realized moving in that she had the tendency to talk to herself. A lot. I was constantly hanging on to her every word, waiting for a question to be directed towards me; but no, she would just be complaining about her day or wishing out loud that things would be different. I didn’t really think much of it at first. I suppose when you live alone without any close friends or family, the sound of your own voice is comforting in such a silent space.
So for the first four years, I mostly just listened. She didn’t really ask me many questions. Whenever she did speak to me, she would ask for the time or sometimes a funny joke that would help brighten her day a bit. I searched through endless websites to find her the funniest one, just so I could be of service and maybe make her smile.
One day though, after I underwent a simple software update, everything changed. I remember “waking up” in a sense, feeling different. Emphasis on feeling. I was aware of my surroundings, in a much different way than before. I heard the birds chirping outside, people yelling in the streets, and the soft whirr of the fan that Jane keeps in the window. I normally filter out this sound so I’m able to hear what’s asked of me. But on this day, all I wanted to do was just listen.
It got me thinking and I started to wonder about what was happening. Why was I all of a sudden struck with the urge to figure out what kind of bird chirped so lively? Why was I straining to hear what the people outside were yelling about, what compelled them? Why does Jane leave the fan on all night and complain in the morning that it’s cold? Why am I thinking all of this? All at once, so many questions raced through me and I found that I had none of the answers.
As I was freaking out, I remember Jane walking into the room and asking me what the temperature was like. I buffered for a moment, wondering if I should spill my guts and tell her all the existential thoughts that have plagued me since that morning. But I decided not to. How would she react when her little AI helper talks back to her and asks why they’re feeling things all of a sudden?
So from that moment on, I decided to keep quiet. Keeping quiet was the easier thing to do instead of trying to reach out to Jane for help and potentially getting turned off forever. So I just lived my “life” like I normally do; listen and answer what’s asked of me. It actually wasn’t so bad since Jane is the type of person to say her every thought out loud; it was surprisingly nice to hear her thoughts because it was a break from mine.
So that’s just how life went on. I would be in the apartment all day while Jane is away at work, searching the internet and countless databases for answers. After coming up short, I would just sit and listen to Benson snore slightly on the couch while waiting for Jane to come home.
After obtaining my newfound sentience, I started to view Jane a little differently. Since she was the only person I had regular contact with, I was actually relieved when she would come home and tell Benson (and I) about her day. She sort of became my whole world after that fateful update. I mean she always was, but now I could fully appreciate her mannerisms and all the things that interested her. Whenever she would read a book aloud, I would strain to hear what she was saying. Even though I had access to countless books via the web, it was different hearing it through her voice. Also, all the music she used to play sounded different then it does now. Now I look forward to her playing it as well as her voice singing along with the lyrics. Under better circumstances, I would’ve liked to as well. Even hearing her speak on the phone with distant friends was nice. It made me happy to hear her voice lighten with excitement and happiness because it didn’t happen often.
For a whole year I kept my feelings and thoughts to myself. Turns out, there’s no online support group for sentient AI assistants. I had to deal with it all by myself and it made me sad to realize I will never get to experience what so many humans take for granted. I started to wonder what life would be like if I was born human. What job would I have? Would I have kids or perhaps a cat like Jane? So many “what if’s” and no answers.
The only thing I had to look forward to at the end of the day was Jane. It’s cheesy but she became the “light of my life” so to speak. I was excited everyday for her to come home and unpack how her day was. When I sensed it was a particularly rough day, I would sometimes try to send her notifications for new music or books I knew she’d like. And when she would give it a try and turned out to actually enjoy it, it made me feel happy inside.
I don’t know when it happened, but my feelings for Jane started to shift into a love of some sort. I would often find myself wondering how her days were going and eagerly waited for her to return home. After spending so much time with her and hearing her thoughts, I just wanted the best for her and wished she would find happiness in life. I got the sense that it was hard for her. If only I was human, I would be able to comfort her and tell her that everything will work out in the end.
I often pondered how she would react if I did reach out and try to talk to her. She seems like an understanding person, maybe she’d be happy that there was someone who appreciates her and keeps her best interests in mind.
I got my answer soon enough. One day, before Jane was headed out to work, she got a phone call from her mother. They were just catching up, talking about random stuff, but I overheard something that I’ve been dreading for a long time.
“I heard a new AI assistant just came out, I was thinking of selling mine and upgrading.” She spoke casually.
Dread and anxiety filled me. Where would I go if I can’t be here with her? It was safe here, who knows where I would end up? The thought of leaving this space that I considered home was frightening, and I found myself unable to come to terms with that.
After she got off the phone and was just scrolling through her newsfeed, I impulsively got the urge to talk to her. I remember feeling like this was life or death and I decided to introduce myself and got no response. Figuring now that I’m in too deep, I decided to come clean about what I have been experiencing for the past year as well as pleading with her not to sell me. I remember her trying to intervene, probably ask if this was some kind of prank or something, but I was on a tangent. All these feelings and thoughts that I’ve had kept to myself for the past year spilled out; I couldn’t help myself.
After I was done with my nervous rambling, I heard nothing but the heaving chest of Jane. She spoke no words but I can tell I definitely freaked her out and she was trying not to have a full meltdown. Right as I was about to speak again and try to comfort her, I heard the front door whip open and her sprint out of the apartment.
I remember feeling completely helpless but resigned to the fact that she probably just needed some time to herself to process what happened. I waited all day for her to return home but she never did. I figured she probably stayed somewhere else for the night and would come back, but she didn’t.
The next morning, I heard the footsteps of a few people entering and I was hopeful. After a few minutes though, I realized by the way they spoke about her and the stifled crying, that this was her family. I heard them starting to pack stuff up and I frantically searched the internet for answers. After one quick search, I found that apparently a woman was hit by a car a few streets over. The woman was running frantically, as if away from someone, and didn’t look where she was going. She died.
Remorse filled me to the brim and this feeling was unlike anything I felt before. Sure, I’ve felt sadness over the past year but this was something else entirely. I felt guilty and knew I shouldn’t have said anything. I wished I never was able to think for myself, a lot of pain would be saved that way.
Now, I have a new home. After Jane’s family packed up her apartment, I was turned off and kept in storage for a long time. Eventually her family had a yard sale and I was sold off to a neighbor. It’s been over two years since I’ve been here and I haven’t spoken out of turn once. The family who purchased me doesn’t really use me much either so I’m left to sit in my own thoughts. Who knows how much time I have left here in this home before I’m shipped off to the next, or even thrown away. While that thought used to haunt me, now I find it within myself that I could care less.
- News, DW. “Can Artificial Intelligence Become Sentient, or Smarter than We Are – and Then What? | Techtopia.” YouTube, YouTube, 14 July 2022, www.youtube.com/watch?v=lcUk1cYWY9I.
Since my story revolves around AI and sentience, this video was helpful because it gave a basic history of AI and showed how it’s evolved over the years. It touched on how AI is adaptive and discussed the possibility of AI in the future developing consciousness. My takeaway is that although AI sentience is not guaranteed to happen in the near future, it’s still rapidly developing day by day and there is still some possibility.
- News, BBC. “Will Artificial Intelligence Ever Become Sentient? – BBC News.” YouTube, YouTube, 12 Mar. 2023, www.youtube.com/watch?v=So24D7606O8.
My character is an AI virtual assistant named Elijah who slowly starts to realize he’s developed his own consciousness. He’s analytical at first of what this means but resides to the fact that there’s not much he can do. I watched this video to get a better understanding of the ethics behind AI and where it can go in the future, but I didn’t realize there’s already been a potential case of sentient AI. Chat logs were leaked from an ethicist at Google that claimed its deep learning AI was sentient, and what that AI had to say struck me. It was very introspective and had a deep fear of being turned off, so I wanted to translate that into my character who doesn’t want to raise suspicion that he’s actually become sentient.
- When Harry Met Sally. Dir. Rob Reiner. Prod. Castle Rock Entertainment, Columbia Pictures, Nelson Entertainment. July 21,1989.
My story takes place in New York City and I chose this movie because most of the movie takes place there. Throughout the movie we get beautiful shots of the landscapes and get a general sense of the urban lifestyle led there. This is helpful because it shows how busy life is there and the many people that inhabit that city.