Nathaniel K. Miller
A Note: This very short story ran in Pravic #3 in the summer of '13. You should buy a copy, since that issue also features some truly amazing work by some very talented folks. This tale is missing a few things - notably a plot - but it's one of my favorite things I've done. I hope you like it as much as I do. I'm also including the interview questions which bear on the story (some didn't) and the illustration I did, also in issue #3.
Delilah held the paper out in front of her as she walked into the house. Her mother, Clara, was washing dishes when she came in. At first glance, all Clara noticed was the awkward posture Delilah had assumed - rigid, clunky, holding the paper out like that. But then she saw the seal, bright gold and embossed with that familiar silhouette. Relief washed over her, and the excitement she expressed was palpable.
"Looks like somebody aced the Turing test!"
Delilah couldn't conceal her smile. Or, at least, she chose not to. She was complete - it said so right there on her license.
"Thanks, Mom," she said. "But I'm not just some body now. Now I am some one."
Clara frowned a little. "We'll, that's not really what's meant by that, generally. But you're right, of course. Absolutely right."
Delilah kept smiling as she hung the certificate on the fridge. At the sink, Clara kept frowning. She looked down at her hands; the skin hung from them, more every day it seemed. She looked up through the little window toward the bird feeder, and she realized she'd been craning her neck to see it. She didn't used to have to stretch. Every day, she thought, I am lower down. Closer to the earth, closer to the ground.
Finishing, she turned the water off. Delilah had snuck out of the room silently, as was her habit. Clara had never quite gotten used to it. They should have taught her that in the class, she thought, to make a little more noise so people know when you're coming and going. When Delilah was young, her father used to tease her that she should go become a ninja. Clara shuddered, realizing that such a thing wasn't actually that far-fetched. Not that there were really ninjas anymore, at least not around those parts. But there was always a demand for people who could put their silence to work. That was always, everywhere. Clara imagined Delilah blowing smoke from the tip of a pistol, like in old movies, eyes cold, hands steady. She imagined that instead of hands, they were pinchers - clunky, insectoid things. She imagined Delilah walking in like she had earlier, but with the pinchers. When she walked, there was a cranking sound. The worst part was that now, when she held the paper out in front of her, it didn't look awkward at all.
Oh heavens, thought Clara. Her heart had started racing, and she sat down at the kitchen table to gather her wits. What terrible things to think about. For a moment, she thought she might cry, but she refused to give in to self-pity. I've been thinking foolishly, she thought. No, worse than that - hatefully. Like a bigot. Like someone else entirely.
Clara remembered when Delilah's father had first suggested surrogacy. Back then, Clara had been just that sort of person - narrow minded, defensive, stuck on archaic notions of blood and flesh and lineage she knew didn't matter anymore. But Delilah's father had been patient with her, for the most part. He was such a gentle man, and even when she wanted to be hard-shelled and sharp-tongued, his genuine care - for almost anything - usually stopped her short. She remembered his laugh, burly and above the fray, and the way he used to be so affectionate to Delilah, like she was an actual - like she deserved. He'd put up the bird feeders which Clara still refilled - she hadn't cared about birds before him.
He'd read to Delilah every night in those first few years when Clara was still 'adjusting.' She hadn't understood why a robot needed a bed, let alone bedtime stories. He'd just roll his eyes, frown disapprovingly, and do it himself. Sometimes she could hear him say, under his breath, "She's not a robot. A robot is just a body."
Delilah loved the stories, or at least she seemed to, especially the ones about Alan Turing. Clara had always thought it was a disturbing trend, the mythic status that had been applied to that long-dead man who she knew vaguely was some sort of scientist. She never paid the stories themselves much attention.
One day Clara came home from work and was surprised to find Delilah role-playing alone. She had one of the wax apples from the kitchen table and was pretending to eat it, and then to fall asleep. It's Snow White, Clara thought. She wants to be a princess. For the first time, Clara actually felt excited, even proud, of Delilah. This was a sign that she was developing abstract thought and a sense of empathy. Though she knew this happened, and happened far more often than not, Clara had never really been able to believe it in Delilah's case. Maybe she just hadn't let herself expect it for fear of how she'd feel if it never came.
Weeks later, she happened to walk past Delilah's door during story time, and a stray word caught her ear. Delilah's father, voice low, was telling the story of Alan Turing's death. Clara hovered at the door, trying to stay quiet. According to the book, Turing had been taken with Snow White, the old animated film, especially the part with the poison apple. When he was bullied into suicide by his government, speculation was that he'd done it by making a poison apple of his own. No one knew for certain, they'd never tested the apple. They tested Turing, though - he died of cyanide poisoning.
The image of the apple lying close to his hand, heavy with death, sent Clara back to bed in a fog. In those days, she usually would have parlayed her confusion and disturbance into anger and disapproval, but this time was different. She never brought the story up, never mentioned that she'd heard it. Many times, though, in the long nights, she thought of that poor, sad man who proved that heroes could come in any form. She thought about heroism, its constituent parts: It was ability, of course, and will. But most importantly, it was timing - not just the moment, but the total age. Like all heroes, Turing was of his time. And like all suicides, he was not.
Clara understood now, obliquely maybe, why Delilah had responded to the stories, why they worked. And somewhere, in a place much more difficult to access, she also knew that Delilah hadn't been playing Snow White that day. Maybe she even knew why.
Clara's revelation about the fittingness of the Turing stories was, of course, not actually news; psychologists and publishers had both reached the same conclusions via two very different avenues long before. For once, what sold and what helped came into a tenuous alignment, and millions of CI kids grew up and into their identities with the help of a vast library of Turing books and corresponding merchandise. Eventually, Clara would come to know dozens of those books almost by rote, once she started reading to Delilah herself. But she never read the story of the apple during story time, and she only read it herself in her darkest moments, when no one was around.
Delilah's father had tried very hard not to get too excited when Clara first offered to take on story time duties on a trial basis. He knew that too much enthusiasm might ruin everything. But Clara could tell, when she came to bed that night, that he had never loved her more.
He was as far below the ground now as Clara was above it - a little more, actually. She sighed. His laugh echoed in her ears again, as if from the other room, and she felt that pure, childlike pang that no amount of time could erase: I wish he didn't have to die.
She looked up at the certificate pinned by magnet to the fridge, at Turing's profile in gold relief and the signature of the official, and thought: Delilah never has to die. She could eat a hundred poison apples and she'd still be salvageable, even if her body wasn't. All she'd lose was a few minutes or hours at the worst; her whole self would just be reactivated from the most recent backup in the Systema banks. Sometimes, this fact made Clara resentful, but this time she reminded herself of that poor sad man and thought: Good. May they all live forever, every single one. It was like Jesus turned inside out: They would live for him, in his stead, because he died for sins which were not sins. That seal had another meaning, a more mystical one. Delilah didn't need a test to prove she was complete. The certificate wasn't really for her. It was for him. It was a little remembrance, a tribute of sorts: a reminder that through them, he lived. That through them, he was complete.
Gill: So, how did the fascination with Turing begin?
NKM: I read pretty extensively about his life some years ago, and the story of his death which features here never fails to move me. I don't know much about computer science or cryptography, but I am studying philosophy of mind pretty deeply, and the overtones of Turing's work are a constant presence in conversations about strong AI and the problem of other minds. I wanted to write a story about AI where Turing was as much a part of the mythic and cultural landscape as he is a part of the philosophical landscape now.
Gill: Do you think it’s possible to teach machines to do things like love?
NKM: There are so many questions before we even get to this one - is it possible to teach people to love? Is love fundamentally important, is it adaptive? Would we recognize it? I don't have a strong opinion on your question, but I will say that, assuming machines or programs come into being which achieve sentience, they will be deserving of our better nature, regardless of whether theirs takes the same form.