Personal Digital Master (short story)

I wrote this after I watched a video about how computers are becoming more and more like human beings. Think about what we have with the iPhone’s Siri, and social robots. It’s an exciting new frontier, but it holds its dangers as well. Enjoy!

“Time to wake up, Harry.”

The modulated, market-tested for teenage boys, slightly motherly and yet girly voice floated to the well-rested lump in the bed.

“Aww, just awhile more!” the lump in the bed whined.

“Your pulse and core body temperature indicate that you already feel awake, Harry. No point wasting time!”

Sally’s voice took on a slightly naggy tone as she delivered the last remark. She was the latest model in the line of digital personal assistants that had emerged in the last few months that were designed to be “your only true friend,” as the advertisements promised. Designers had long since given up on shaping these digital assistants into human-like robots — the result was always far too uncanny for people to relate to them. In Sally’s case, Harry had a choice: Sally could come in the shape of any soft toy he wanted. He chose the baby seal.

With her round, puppy eyes and her soft, thick fur, Harry found himself staring at Sally at times, with a silly grin plastered on his face. Sally would slide up to him and make soft, squeaky baby seal noises, and Harry would always tickle Sally behind her ears, eliciting squeaks of baby seal pleasure. He knew that this was all fake in some way, but it always felt so real, down to the heat that Sally emitted. Harry’s favourite thing about Sally was the fact that she could play the latest computer games with him. Sally would have her flippers up on the keyboard, but of course she would be connected to the game via a wireless connection. Still, whenever he looked over, it truly felt like Sally was becoming a real friend, not just a digital toy.

Harry’s thoughts drifted to Carrie, his childhood friend who lived just a hop and skip away from his home. Things had become a little bit awkward lately, with the simplicities of childhood gradually becoming the complications of teenage adolescence. Harry found it hard not to notice that Carrie was looking more and more like the models he saw on television. Perhaps she lacked the intense, adult gaze of those models, but the familiarity of her bright-eyed smile made her simultaneously a safe and dangerous girl to be around.

“Oh, Carrie’s still Carrie! I’m just being stupid,” Harry explained to Sally without any preamble. Sally gazed back at him with her baby seal eyes and made a soft snuffling sound.

Harry got changed and headed out to school. Sally sat snug in his backpack, her head just behind Harry’s ear. Harry’s school was the first in the country not only to allow, but to encourage, students to bring their personal digital assistants to school. Students were so much more well-behaved, and learnt so much faster with them.

Hearing footsteps behind him, Harry was about to turn around when Sally whispered into his ear, “It’s only Carrie.” Harry decided to keep his gaze forward, not wanting to appear too desperate. He heard the footsteps slow down a little, then the quick patter of Carrie running up to him.

“I see your baby seal’s attached to you like some kind of slug now, Harry?”

“What do you want, Carrie? Sally’s just a thing, stop treating her like she’s alive.”

Carrie took a deep breath, trying to ignore Harry. They had been over this before.

“Whatever. Are you coming over later, then?” Carrie’s voice carried her frustration, and yet conveyed a hint of her yearning for her friend.

Carrie’s invitation had barely registered in Harry’s mind when Sally whispered to him, “Don’t forget, I’ve downloaded the latest patch of our game, and we haven’t played it yet.” Sally settled deeper into the backpack.

“Uh, I’m sorry, care bear. I’ve got that big science project to complete. Maybe another time. But I’ll go over soon, I promise!”

Carrie’s exasperated reply only touched the surface of Harry’s consciousness. He was too busy feeling the warm glow of excitement and anticipation over the fun that he was going to have with Sally after school. Harry walked past a billboard advertising the latest line of personal digital assistants. Sally settled even deeper into his backpack, her calculations going deeper, as she continued working on her prime directive — to arrange every single facet of Harry’s life, to influence his thoughts, his tastes, even his deepest desires. She was doing exactly what her makers wanted, and what they never told anyone.

To make the biggest profit, one has to control the desires of the greatest number of people. One has to find a way to become their master — even if you are a master in the form of a baby seal. A baby seal? A personal digital master.

790 words

 

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

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