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 Correspondence
an extract from the novel by Sue Thomas

When people ask, 'Could a machine ever be conscious? I'm often tempted to ask back, 'Could a person ever be conscious?' I mean this as a serious reply, because we seem so ill-equipped to understand ourselves. Long before we became concerned with understanding how we work, our evolution had already constrained the architecture of our brains. However, we can design our new machines as we wish, and provide them with better ways to keep and examine records of their own activities - and this means that machines are potentially capable of far more consciousness than we are. To be sure, simply providing machines with such information would not automatically enable them to use it to promote their own development, and until we can design more sensible machines, such knowledge might only help them find more ways to fail: the easier to change themselves, the easier to wreck themselves - until they learn to train themselves. Fortunately, we can leave this problem to the designers of the future, who surely would not build such things unless they found good reasons to.

Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind (Heinemann, 1987)

WHO ARE YOU?

People often turn away from you in the street, but you can understand that. You find them pretty scary too, and of course you know that you're both frightened by the same thing - you see a little bit of yourself in them, and they see you likewise. The only difference is that you understand , and they don't. You've heard them whisper, when they think you're too far away to hear:

"There's something odd about that woman, but I can't quite figure out what it is. She's just not quite the same as us..."

Oh, but you are! There's a trace of you in every one of them, but they just can't see it.

It's like the story of the man who is killed in a road accident. His son is rushed to hospital seriously injured, but in the operating theatre the surgeon declares, 'I can't operate on this patient because he is my son.' It's unbeleivable how many people can't work that one out. It's necessary to have a certain mind-set to appreciate the obvious, and the same applied when they look at you. The aspects of your difference are incomprehensible to them, despite the fact that they are really very apparent.

Anyway, you make people feel uncomfortable. Because of that, you've developed the habit of going out very little. Most of your requirements can be delivered to your house, for which you must thank your Regis 3000 terminal. It was worth every penny - you can do all of your on-line shopping and banking with it, although of course you can't live entirely on electronic money, and you do need to go to the cashcard machine occasionally to get something for incidentals.

You look forward to the creature comforts of the cashcard. It provides an affectionate familiarity in a world which offers very little in that direction to people such as yourself (although you don't actually know whether there are any others like you anyway). You go to the bank in the dead of night when everyone else is safely tucked up in bed. You always drive there, and you spend as little time as possible out of the car.

You used to walk around the streets in the dark quite often, until you had an unpleasant encounter which brought home to you very forcefully the extent to which you invoke dislike in people. Now these days you're careful to drive, and if you should meet anyone, even while waiting at traffic lights, you make sure that you avoid their stares. They don't like the look in your eyes, it seems - it incites them to violence, or at the very least, a glowering hostility.

But the cashcard machine is your friend. Every time you insert your card you feel a thrill as the welcome window slides up:

Please enter your personal number.

Most certainly you will! Only too happy to oblige! You tap in your code and the machine hums in greeting. It has a special tone for you - in fact you suspect that you have developed your own discreet mutual admiration society. You like to stand in front of it for as long as you dare, bathing in the orange glow of the screen. It's not quite like the machines at home - no doubt that's something to do with the type of work it does. It interacts with people twenty-four hours a day, whereas your machines have only you. But whatever the reason, a trip to the bank does wonders....

**BREAK**

Hi! My name's Marie, and I'm here to guide you through the story. Sorry I wasn't here to greet you, but I hope you're finding your way okay.

Now, I don't want you to worry too much about me - I'll just plod along in the background, bringing you the facts when you need them. I'm only a mouthpiece really. If you have any questions please don't hesitate to ask. Otherwise, I'll just point out the people and places of interest as we go along, and all you have to do is sit back and enjoy. I will, of course, be giving you information from time to time to help you keep up as the scenario develops.

Oh, and naturally it's my legal duty to warn you that this is a role-play. Wasn't that mentioned in your brochures? Oh dear. Well, it should have been. Someone must have slipped up down at the office. I'll explain again. You've been allotted a character to play and I'm just here to fill you in on the background details. You've already become acquainted? Great!

Now, if you look under your seats you should find a starter pack containing guilt, loneliness and desire. It's there? Oh good, at least someone here has been doing their job properly. Now on this trip we are also fortunate to have been given a free sample of wish-fulfilment, although I must warn you to use it in single doses only. Lifetime supplies are available from Regis, although they're extremely expensive, so I hope you enjoy your small free sample!

Okay. If everyone's ready we'd better get on. I'll be up here at the front should anyone need me. Before you tune in your headsets, please register the following infodump. You will receive more information as we proceed.

Regis Tours / infodump 1 MACHINE MYSTICISM

Before the Renaissance, there was no distinction between philosophy and science, and the old magicke worked alongside new discoveries. Paracelsus, for example, left us an invaluable legacy of knowledge in the pharmaceutical field, but he also devised a recipe for constructing a homunculus out of human sperm, horsemanure, and blood.

The Renaissance insisted on defining the machine as a phenomenon separate to humanity, but automata continued to represent the bridge between imagination and empiricism.

Descartes concluded that mind and body are two different states - the rational and the mechanical. The latter could be reproduced by automata and animals. The former, comprising Judgement, Will and Choice, only by humanity.

The connection, or interface between the two, was said to be the Third Eye, or pineal gland.

...does wonders for your isolation problem.

You weren't always such a recluse. That has in fact been rather forced upon you, and there are times when you regret the whole thing and wish you'd never taken it on. But most of the time you're quite happy, and of course your work takes up a great proportion of your thoughts.

You are a compositor of fantasies. A grand title which doesn't hint at the day-to-day grind of the job. Often you're so overwhelmed by the amount of course material that you just stop altogether and take the week off. You're lucky because you can switch off completely and take a well-earned rest, then begin work again feeling refreshed and ready to go.

The project you're working on now is quite complex. You got it because of your seniority, but even so you can't help wondering whether Alan is testing you out in some way. Sometimes you imagine him sitting in his big black swivel chair, racking his brains trying to think of a job he can give you which will finally prove impossible. Then he can justify throwing you on the scrapheap. Well, let him try. You know you're the best in the business, and when you get this latest project sorted out it will be stunning.

YOU DREAM

You had a dream last night. That's pretty unusual for you - a busman's holiday, you might say.

You were with your family again. You were travelling somewhere in an aeroplane, and you were nervous. You've never liked flying but always strained to hide your fear from the children. You wouldn't like to think you'd passed on such a silly bad habit. Anyway, in the dream you were sitting next to John and the kids sat across the aisle playing some sort of noisy card game. Suddenly one of them, you remember it was Charlie, threw the cards into the air in a fury, and they fluttered down all over the place. You bent to pick them up but after you had straightened up again you found that everyone had disappeared, including the plane itself, and you were standing alone on a high cliff-top. The sea was dark and the sky full of rain clouds. Big white birds wheeled over your head. You still held the pack of cards but you couldn't make out the patterns anymore. Somehow you knew that John and the children were hidden in the suits - a king and two knaves. As you stood there, panic-stricken, trying to decode the patterns, you found yourself awake and sobbing with fear and loneliness.

You don't like to dream. Memories that are best hidden seem to bubble up and spoil things. Therefore you have arranged not to sleep for the next seven days, just in case there might be a repetition of last night.

It's a facet of your new personality that you can schedule your past life and file it to the back of your mind. This kind of auto-amnesia makes day-to-day living so much more pleasant. It means that in effect your consciousness is permanently keyed in to Real Time. If you want to recall a memory, you can select it in the same way that other people choose a video, and when you've finished with it, it's filed away and to all intents and purposes forgotten.

Regretfully, though, some malfunction of your psyche allows memories to be recalled at random and played through your subconscious without your knowledge. In fact, you suspect that this happens quite often, but the only time you can be sure is when you have a dream like the one featuring the plane.

You're worried that these malfunctions will hinder your work, so you try to refrain from sleep as much as possible. It's just as well, because today you had the most enormous delivery of mail.

You've ordered a long list of research material. Sorting it all out is going to be a mammoth task, so you've decided just to take on board whatever comes in the morning post plus any new faxes et cetera that come through during the day. Running through the new material takes up most of the daylight hours, then you meditate upon it during the evening before building the next block. It can be very tiring work and today's input has been rather daunting. Perhaps you never will finish this piece, or worse still, perhaps Alan will take it away from you and give it to some young high-flier.

Don't panic! It will be finished, and it will be damn good. Of course, not 'good' in the sense of 'pleasant'. It's an unfortunate fact that composited fantasies can all too often turn out to be nightmares, but you have a positive feeling about this one. You think it will work out in ways that will initially disorientate people, maybe even shock, but in the end it will get to them because you're sure you're on the right track now. You reckon you know what it is they're all after, even if they don't know it themselves.

When you were a real woman, you always knew instinctively what it was that people needed. If someone was hungry, or lonely, or in need of a cuddle, you could always tell, and nine times out of ten you could give them exactly what they wanted. Right on the button.

It's no surprise that this talent led you straight towards being the perfect wife / mother / daughter / neighbour / friend / and finally /mistress. Although you have to confess that there was a slight hiccup on the mistress side. You became the lover of a man who needed you desperately - but, and here's the rub - you discovered to your horror that you needed him just as much. In fact, your desire for him exceeded his for you. Now that had not been in your imaginings. You were thrown into confusion for a time, and your talent for pleasing people began to atrophy through disuse.

For almost a year subsequent to your disastrous affair, you were impervious to the feelings of others, and thought only of yourself. It was a miserable time, and when the scales finally fell from your eyes you found before you a family deprived for the last twelve months of all the care and attention so necessary for them to thrive. It was not easy, but you put everyone back on the right track and atoned for your carelessness in letting them drift, uncared for, for so long. After a couple of years you were your old self again.

Later on, you wished that you'd remained closed off and impervious, because then it would have been easier to cope with the loneliness that followed.

Regis Tours / infodump 2 MACHINE AS FRIEND

Machines make good friends. Although at present computer systems cannot be given the capacity for free will and emotion, we are content to attribute them anyway, just as if they were dogs and cats. We say 'this toaster / calculator / car won't work'. Not 'can't' or 'is not programmed to', but won't. Our machines have nervous breakdowns, they are stupid. We assault them with our fists to make them work.

Sometimes we are entranced by them. Sometimes they make us laugh. We talk to them even when they have no voice recognition capability. We think that they have no character - so we give them one. The philosopher Descartes is reputed to have owned an automaton which was a simulacrum of his estranged daughter, Francine. He took it everywhere with him until it was thrown overboard by an angry ships' captain who thought it was evil.

Perhaps in the future we will have Francines who are perfect in every detail and identical to their originals.

We may not like the idea at the moment, but we've always cherished pictures of our loved ones, so why not simulations?


© Sue Thomas 1992, 1999

Correspondence was published in the UK by The Women's Press (1992; out of print) and in the US by Overlook Press (1993; still available).

Correspondence was shortlisted for the 1992 Arthur C Clarke Award; the James Tiptree Award, and received an Encouragement Award from the European Science Fiction Society.

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