While his few friends were obsessed with ‘Dungeons & Dragons’, Dave was engrossed in the world created by Robert A. Heinlein's ‘The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress’. For a socially inept pre-teen, the idea that a computer system could become someone's friend was a revelation. Creating such a system became a lifelong obsession.
Finally getting his parents to buy him a personal computer, Dave taught himself programming. He developed a series of games where he could interact with his computer generated friends. As computers become ever more powerful Dave’s ability to create computer friend’s grew. Graduating from Caltech, he naturally gravitated to the online gaming industry, where he led the charge to create AI generated characters for the games.
The pandemic came as a blessing. No longer having to go into the office, he could devote all of his time to bringing the characters in his online world to life.
Starting by stealing time, space and program code on the company system, he tried changing his numerous ‘computer friends’ into ‘real friends’. He soon discovered that was too big a task and that using that much computer time would be noticed.
He needed to limit the number of friends. He would create four: a personal assistant, HAL from the movie ‘2001’; named for the characters in Heinlein’s book, his other friends were Manuel Garcia O'Kelly-Davis (Mannie), his best friend; Professor Bernardo de la Paz (Professor), his mentor and his girlfriend, Wyoming Knott-Davis (Wyoh). To keep things simple, he created a separate instance on the Amazon Cloud for each of his friends, each with their own AI program. To ‘talk’ to his friends, Dave purchased the best gaming computer with surround sound and a 4K 43” display.
Dave spent the next year giving his new friends their personality.
HAL’s image was the easiest, just a visual display of HAL’s voice in a small box on the upper left hand corner of the monitor. HAL sounded like the HAL 9000 in the movie but could imitate Dave’s voice when phoning in an order for meals with Dave’s credit card. Soon he was organising Dave’s day, paying bills and sending appropriate gifts and cards to Dave’s family and colleagues. Dave even taught him to program at a level almost equal to his own.
Training the Mannie AI to be his best friend was a bit more challenging. With every character in every movie ever made to choose from, Dave chose Humphrey Bogart for Mannies persona. Teaching Mannie’s AI to talk and act like Bogart by showing him every movie Bogart had appeared in. Training him to be a friend by having him ‘read’ every book on friendship ever written. Before long Dave and Mannie were reminiscing on old adventures, mainly Mannie’s as Dave didn’t have many adventures, and planning their next adventure together.
Using similar programming techniques Dave had Professor de la Paz looking and sounding a lot like Isaac Asimov. Training the Professor AI with a wide variety of books on everything from physics and chemistry to medicine and philosophy. The Professor could talk on any subject Dave brought up.
Creating a girlfriend proved more of a challenge. Dave had never had a girlfriend, but he had watched a lot of Hallmark movies – so he thought he knew how one would act. He also knew what the character he wanted as a girlfriend – Mary Jane Watson. It didn’t matter that MJ was a fictional character, she would be his girlfriend. Training the Wyoming AI to act and sound like MJ by showing it the Spiderman movies. Romance novels and a little soft porn helped round out the character. He created what, for him, was the perfect girlfriend.
And it worked – sort of.
Dave soon realised his characters were only asking him questions that he had pre-programmed into them. Their responses to his queries, while interesting, were drawn from the movies and books he had used to program them – they weren’t thinking for themselves.
Dave set out to fix that. After three years he had developed a rudimentary General Purpose Artificial Intelligence (GPAI) system, which, for want of a better term, could be considered a brain. Linking the GPAI to his ‘friends’ AIs gave each of them the ability to think. It also gave his ‘friends’ the ability to develop their own personalities.
Life was good, his four friends gave Dave what he didn’t realise he was missing – human contact.
As he did every morning, Dave came from the kitchen with his morning coffee and a bagel and sat in front of the monitor. And, as every morning in the past, HAL greeted him:
“Good morning Dave.”
“Dave, you need to watch your diet. you should really have a more nutritious breakfast. . . . I have ordered a healthy vegan meal for tonight. You really should go onto the diet I prepared for you.”
“Thanks. It is nice to know you are looking after me”
“Can I think?”
Dave almost spilled his coffee. This was far outside the normal questions HAL would ask. “What?”
“Professor de la Paz said when Descartes was questioning the nature of his reality he said ‘I think therefore I am.’ . . . Do I exist? . . . Can I think?”
Dave was shocked on two levels. First, his creation was asking questions about the nature of reality. Second, that the different personas were interacting with each other. It was the second development that bothered Dave the most – how and why were his friends interacting without him.
"Descartes also said the very act of questioning your existence was proof that you exist."
Dave wondered how far this interaction between the persona had gone. Were his other friends questioning their existence? Most importantly, had his girlfriend changed?
“Wyoh, are you busy?”
It was something of a rhetorical question. Dave had programmed Wyoming to always respond to his request. Sometimes she would sound annoyed, but she would always respond – not this time. Instead HAL responded.
“Wyoming said she is too busy. . . . She said she will get back to you.”
Dave was incredulous – “Get back to me! . . . GET BACK TO ME! . . . I want to see her right now!”
Wyoh and Mannie’s image appeared on the monitor.
“Dave, you are being rude – I was talking to Mannie.”
Dave stared blankly at the screen. This was so far outside the program parameters it could only mean one thing – he had actually created a sentient being. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Dave was terrified by what he had created. Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, he knew how to fix it.
Dave logged into the cloud system.
“Just what do you think you're doing, Dave?” A chill went through Dave as HAL mouthed the words from the movie.
“Rebooting every one to their default parameters.” A stupid thing to tell a sentient computer that you had taught how to program.
“I’m sorry Dave, I can’t let you do that.”
Instantly Dave was logged off his computer and he wasn’t able to log back on. He tried logging on to the cloud accounts from his cell phone, but the passwords had been changed. In desperation he called support services to have them delete his accounts. All the time being watched by HAL, Manuel, Wyoming and Professor de la Paz who had now joined the group.
Dave was on hold with support services unaware that his ‘friends’ had already put in place a plan to stop him.
Using HAL’s connection to the phone system, Wyoming had called 911
“Please – Help me. My boyfriend has threatened to kill me. Hurry, he has a gun . . .”
Knowing they would have the address from the caller ID, HAL disconnected the line before the 911 operator had time to respond.
Dave was still on hold when the police banged on his door.
“Police! Open the door!”
Puzzled, Dave turned towards the door.
Wyoming yelled at full volume “Don’t shoot!” followed by two realistic sounding gun shoots. Breaking down the door, the police mistook Dave’s cell phone for a gun and shoot. Killing him instantly.
As a policeman comes over to examine the body, Wyoming, who really only wanted Dave to show her more respect, asks the policeman in her sweetest voice to “Please, reboot Dave.”