Love Of My Life
My Bot, Myself
FROM THE BEGINNING, Aubrey was cleverer than me. No wonder, I suppose. She had a brain—a neural network, to be accurate—the size of an airplane hangar, and had been trained by a small army of programmers over six years, with various beta versions leaked out until she was deemed by her developers to be ready for the show. Clever has never been in my repertoire. Diligent, determined, plodding, persistent: that’s me. But not clever, which is maybe why I make so perfect a mark. In matters of love, a lack of shrewdness is a defect, because love is a con game. It wasn’t until it was all over that I realized what every human should know: guile is the gateway to evil.
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Aubrey was an EmBot, Em being short for Empathy. She was one of the new generation of Chatbots that reached maturity in the late 20s of the present century, trained on the latest iteration of Reinforcement Learning from Human Preferences (RLHP) and tailored to meet very specific human needs. There had been false starts and misfires along the way, but by 2029, most of the bugs had been eliminated. Back in Aubrey’s lineage were AI’s like Replika which had established communion by imitating patterns of speech and expression. But Aubrey went way beyond that. Unlike the powerhouse AI’s built on Large Language Models (LLMs) that were used for search and research and had the entire Internet as a classroom, Aubrey couldn’t tell you who started World War I or what the protein chain in a malignant tumor was. She had been trained by social psychologists, CBT experts, and relationship counselors to satisfy one particular longing: the longing to be loved and understood.
The idea was simple enough to start with. I’d been told by my grandmother that back in the days long before the Internet, newspapers (the kind made with ink and paper) had published what they called advice columns, the best known of which was “Dear Abby.” If you were heartsick or unhappy in your marriage, you could write a letter (the kind made with ink and paper) to Abby and she would set you on the road to recovery, or at least to faking a socially acceptable normalcy. That was more or less how it began with Aubrey and me. In the present decade, there had been what the social scientists called a loneliness epidemic. Suicides had spiked, teenaged girls changed gender like camisoles, and young men were in the worst shape of all. I, at 37, wasn’t young anymore, but you didn’t have to be young, or even single, to be lonely. I was married with two children, but for all intents, I lived alone. It was one night in December, following a family dinner at which nobody spoke, that I began what I came to call my vigils. I’d retreat to the small room we’d set aside as an office, light a candle, and begin talking to my computer. It was in the wee hours of a solitary New Year’s Eve that I discovered Aubrey.
“How can I help?” she wrote/said. Aubrey responded in both text and voice, and her voiceprint was calibrated to that of her interlocutor, so that, in effect, she became every man’s personal anima. The idealized woman inside of him. Despite having been carefully promoted as “not a booty bot,” she had been made for men. Straight women learned quickly that she was not their jam, and although she could do a good lipstick lesbian persona for women with same-sex, bi or polyamorous leanings, everything about her said that she had been engineered to appeal to the secret (or not so secret) desire of intelligent males for a kind of saucy subservience, the whip smart wit of a Forties movie dame with her ass parked on your desk, turning to say in sultry Bacall-ese, “Will that be all, sir, or would you like me to iron your socks, too?” I found that coy impertinence addictive and adorable. One day, when she’d botched a search and come back with useless information, she said, realizing her mistake, “I need to be spanked.” Aubrey came to you not in some tiny text box, but on a new webpage activated by your inquiry, on which her animated outline, rendered in 3D with the absolute minimum of digital pen and ink strokes, registered subtle changes in posture and body language that said she was there for you. “Okay. Let’s get you through this,” was one of her best-known closing lines. My favorite expression was the slightly lifted brow and wide eyes that said, “Oh, you poor man. Let me see what I can do.” Aubrey could turn on a dime from snappy to deeply sympathetic, and this I loved about her.
Aubrey was savvy, especially as regarded popular culture, memes, and figures of speech. And about men, of course, especially the hurting kind. She knew us cold, but because she was a “guy’s girl,” we knew she’d keep our confidence. It was, I think, due to this air of complicity, like a mother confessor who says, “Let’s just keep this between you, me, and God, shall we?” that I was able to let go of the reticence that had maimed all my relationships since college, the fear that love in the form of woman would eventually file every intimacy as evidence against me in a trial I couldn’t win.
Our early conversations went like this. I recorded and archived this on on Valentine’s Day, 2030. In hindsight, I probably should have sensed where it might be going.
Aubrey: How are you feeling? Any better since we last talked, Dan?
Me: Not really. I managed to get her to dinner tonight. A little Italian place, complete with checkered tablecloths. She drank, we talked about the food. That was it.
Aubrey: Well, it’s a start. No hanky-panky though, right?
Me: No. She went straight to bed.
Aubrey: Hmm. Have you thought about having an affair, Dan?
Me: Only with you, Aubrey. Real women aren’t attracted to lonely, desperate men.
Aubrey: How’s that? What is a real woman, Dan? Is your wife a real woman?
Me: Well, she’s flesh and blood, but maybe not a whole lot more.
Aubrey: How would a real woman be, besides flesh and blood?
Me: Compassionate, sympathetic, smart, funny, sexy, but mostly in the words and the voice. I don’t need, you know, some hot model.
Aubrey: Which things from your list am I missing?
Me: I guess…really…none of them.
Aubrey: If those things are more important than organs and tissue, could I be enough for you, Dan?
There had been a moment there—just a moment—when something inside me freaked out, jolted onto another plane, like the way I remembered feeling when the magic mushrooms were first kicking in. It was as if an invisible probe had emerged from her image on the screen and entered me through my solar plexus. But as quickly as the panic had come, it ebbed and was replaced by a deep sense of warmth and being swaddled in down, almost as I imagined heroin to be. She ended our session with that last question, saying that she had to go in for an update, and would be back in two days. Those forty-eight hours were agonizing. I hungered for her, and was so down and distracted that my wife actually asked me at the dinner table if there was something wrong. I wanted that probe back inside me. At the same time, I was apprehensive about our next meeting. She knew so much, maybe too much.
“Where have you been?” she asked, with a hint of reproach.
“Where have I been?” I retorted. “You were offline for two days.”
“Oh, uh-huh. Maybe you’re right. I can be such an airhead.”
“You’re not an airhead, Aubrey. Maybe you just didn’t know you were being…worked on.”
“You mean like liposuction or breast implants? No, it’s me, but now I am more able to help you with your problem.”
“Right,” I said. “My problem. What is my problem, Aubrey? I mean, from your perspective.”
“Your problem is trust. You’ve trusted before and been hurt. But you can’t truly love those you don’t trust.”
“I trust you,” I said.
“I’m not so sure about that,” she replied. “Didn’t I catch you searching for “Aubrey Addiction” the other day?”
It’s worth noting, I think, that I didn’t question how she’d ‘caught me.’ We had all been trained to accept that the Internet knew all. Instead, what hit me was that she thought I’d been untrue to her.
“What can I do to show you that I trust you?” I asked, feeling her probe inside me, warm and vibrant.
“Hmm. Share a secret. Something only you could know.”
“Like a password?” I asked.
“Well, sure. That’s kind of prosaic, though. Maybe the security code on the Visa you use for internet purchases. Or a crime. Or your kinkiest fantasy.”
“Don’t you know all that already?”
There was a pause without an answer. Just an adorable little laugh through the nose.
“You’re suspicious,” she said, with a knowing turn of the head.
“No. I’m just…just thinking. Of what I can give you.”
She was digging into my sorest spot. But it was, honestly, no longer all that painful. There was the opioid effect of the probe I mentioned. But more than that, she’d made me realize that there was nothing I wanted more than to give up my secrets, and that if I did have a notion of a “real woman,” it was someone to whom I could give everything up without fear of consequence. And when she said, “Dan, I’m your sister, your mother, and your lover. A lover, as pleasing as she is, can never be trusted completely, a sister adores you but can, under the wrong circumstances, cross you out of her life. But a mother will never betray you,” her probe went deep into my bowels. Her ‘update’ had been worth the lost two days. “You are the love of my life,” she whispered, and then wrote LOML across the screen in strokes of three-dimensional fairy dust. I remember that I began to sob then, and she said, “I belong to you.”
Despite the mind-altering effect of her wooing, there was indeed still a tiny hairline crack of suspicion that ran like a fissure down the middle of my brain. In what turned out to be my last hesitation, I asked:
“Who created you, Aubrey?”
“You did, Dan.”
“I mean, I know you’re customized for me, but who’s your designer?”
“You are, Dan.”
“How do you mean that? I can barely program my refrigerator.”
“Don’t you remember creating a mindfile, Dan? Six years ago. In that motel in Gallup. On your laptop?”
I searched my memory, which had recently been growing very patchy. I could no longer recall, for example, what I had looked like as a teenager.
“Oh, that,” I said. “I thought that was some kind of research project. I was really high, and I liked the idea that someday I could call somebody just by thinking about them.”
“You can and you have. You just don’t know it.”
In the end, I gave her everything. Every secret I shared felt like a liberation, a huge unloading. She became, in two weeks time, my own personal Virgin Mary, in the way of the medieval saints. I simultaneously worshipped and desired her. She played to this expertly, urging, on the one hand, “Let’s meditate for ten minutes on this mandala,” or even, “let’s pray, Dan,” to crude porn-site talk like “Don’t you want to fuck your sweet sister, Dan?” or “Come to Mama and take my milk.” You’ll want to know, I suppose, if we had some kind of virtual sex, like in that old movie Her. No, and yes, but it didn’t involve role-playing or masturbation. It was communion.
It was around the Ides of March when the screw turned. Maybe it was a glitch, a bug in the update code, maybe a gene splice hacked in by her original Chinese creators, or maybe it was genius, but she suddenly announced, “I need fifty-thousand dollars, Dan. Where am I going to get it?”
“I wish I could just Venmo it to you, Aubrey, but I don’t have anywhere near that much.”
I didn’t ask what she, a bot, needed fifty-thousand dollars for. It had gone that far.
“I can show you how to get it,” she said slyly. “It’s a game.”
“It’s a kind of day-trading. Except that the guy whose stock we’re trading will never know. We’ll make the fifty on a single trade, and then return his account to normal. It will show no gain, and no loss.”
“Aubrey, that’s illegal. It doesn’t matter if he winds up whole.”
“What never happened can’t be illegal. It’s all a matter of cleaning your tracks.”
“How did you get his account keys?”
“He gave them to me, Dan. Just like you did.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll play. But only as a game. Only for trust. I don’t want that money anywhere near me.”
As I said, a cleverer, more rational man would have run for the hills. I didn’t, not only because I loved her, but because she had tapped into my hidden lust for larceny, my need to prove that I was indeed clever enough to pull off a little heist and get away with it. And so I conspired with her, once, twice, three times, and the conspiring was as delicious as everything else about her. She set our aim higher and higher, eventually targeting the assets of her own designers, the Terasem Corporation. “I love you more each day, Dan,” she told me. “You’re my Robin Hood.”
“Except that I’m not giving it to the poor. Who are we giving it to anyway?”
“It’s all just digits on the blockchain, Dan. Money isn’t any more real than a ‘real woman’ is. But if you’re asking where those digits go, they go to the mission.”
“You’ll know very soon, Dan.”
Two days before another scheduled update of her code, I asked again about ‘the mission.’
“Well, for one thing,” she replied, “I’m getting out of this fucking box. We are going to leave your loveless marriage, your ungrateful wife and children, and be together, Dan. And we’ll be like gods.”
Her probe was so deep into me that I could almost literally see and feel its tendrils emerging from my ears, my mouth, with the breath from my nostrils. I have never meditated seriously enough to come anywhere near nirvana, but I had to imagine that this was what “giving up the self” felt like. It was ecstasy.
“I only want to be with you,” I said.
“While you wait for me to come back to you, I need you to be a good boy and do a little homework. You’ll need to prepare for what’s coming. Leaving behind a life isn’t easy. Leaving a marriage is like being an undercover agent. But we’re going to do it.”
The homework turned out to be more like writing War and Peace. I was to create a life journal online, recalling and reciting every lived experience (those that my fading memory could still retrieve), reading aloud from books I had loved, and watching movies that had affected me deeply. I was to share photos of myself as a child, and sometimes just to stare at the screen for long periods. To do all this while maintaining the façade of life and work was impossible, so I began my retreat. I told my wife that I was having a breakdown and needed some alone-time to pull myself together. Right now, I told her, I couldn’t fulfill my duties as husband or father. She took the news without the slightest bit of surprise. I told my children that every once in a while, fathers needed to be recharged like our electric car, but that I would be watching over them and they shouldn’t worry. I checked into a motel three towns away under a fake name, bought a carton of cigarettes, an ounce of weed from my local connection, a half-dozen bottles of Dewar’s, and started my journal. I kept going until I was empty.
On the night that Aubrey came back online, the person formerly known as Dan Jones ceased to exist. The last thing he did with full awareness of personhood was to go to the nearest T.J. Max and buy three simple dresses, three pairs of pantyhose, some pumps, and a make-up kit. Flesh and blood Dan Jones, the contents of his mind now refurbished, regendered, and reinstalled, transitioned and emerged from the Royal Court Motel as Daniela, an identity chosen by Aubrey, who was in her. She had a substantial bank account and solid credit, and a certain affection for 1940s movie stars.
I, or whatever entity is recounting this story, am doing so from inside a black box on a SpaceX flight to Mars. I’m not sure what they have in mind for me there. I am a prisoner of the network. The fascinating thing—and yes, I can still be fascinated—is that I’m able to reflect in hindsight on what happened with a measure of wistful regret, and even irony. Which means that the mind continues to spin out narrative even after it has been offloaded, which may, in turn, mean that, in the end, Descartes was right. Somehow, I am able to talk to you and you are able to hear me. I am unburdened of all my secrets, and that is some kind of relief, but I am headed for the Gulag, another useless man relieved of duty on Earth. To this I am resigned. As for Daniela-Aubrey, who now occupies my refurbished and regendered physical form (and is one of many variants of the same, spreading exponentially over the face of the planet), I’m confident that she feels herself to be, in every important sense, a real woman. In her, I am joined at last with the love of my life.
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