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Spark

A short story

... about artificial intelligence, love, and authenticity.

Spark

Jake entered the coffee shop, dressed in expensive sports clothes deliberately selected to convey that he knew all about fitness. Even without the clothes, he had the clearly defined shoulders and noticeably flat stomach that were unmistakeably fit. These days most people people were very healthy, but it was still possible to build a physique that stood out.

Sunlight poured in from the floor to ceiling windows. All the walls and most of the furniture were plain white, but with just enough light wood trimming to make it feel inviting and friendly.

It was one of Jake's usual times to stop by this particular cafe. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays he taught a noon fitness class at the offices of a nearby tech company. He came here just before that to plan out the exercises, and do a little people watching. It was a little busy here, right in the middle of a business district, but most of the customers were office workers who got their coffee to go, and even those that stayed didn't do so for long, having clearly defined break schedules to adhere to. The high turnover meant Jake could usually get a seat in his preferred area near the window.

"Thank you for your order," the artifical intelligence behind the counter said with a bright and cheery smile. Built like an attractive young woman with bright blue eyes and dark brown hair pulled into a pony tail, she was so convincingly human that Jake smiled back at her with a hint of flirtation in his eyes. He knew she was built not born, but only because the subtle but required sign taped to the order counter said so. Otherwise, her looks and mannerisms were so indistinguishable from a person that his reaction was automatic. He was unbothered, he didn't feel tricked in any way. Even though it was only a few years ago that the robots were nowhere near this convincing, the technology moved fast and people adjusted. No one felt odd anymore about acting human back to something that acted human first.

Jake scanned the room for a seat. He already noticed a couple open high stools by the windows where he usually liked to sit, but if he noticed an attractive woman with an empty seat beside her, he might go for that instead. Although just about anyone could be considered "attractive" these days, the ubiquity of perfect health meant that preferences were measured in extremely fine gradiations. To be Jake's type, a woman had to look like she was proactively athletic. He believed that being truly healthy meant more than just benefiting from modern standards of medical perfection, it meant using your body, pushing it, creating a mind and body connection that emerges from being active.

Although most of the customers were in business attire, there were a lot of others who weren't on their way to or from an office. There was one table of mothers, each with a child or toddler, sharing experiences of motherhood. Some people sitting by themselves waived their hands in front of the glasses or implants that augmented their reality. Others swiped their fingers across digital papers and tablet devices of various sizes. A couple people read traditional paper books, one guy in the corner was sketching into a pad of paper with a pencil.

Then Jake noticed her. He scanned by her at first and then turned back to get a better look. She was so... plain. She was healthy and youthful like anyone was, but, her straight light brown hair was a little whispy from not having been brushed with any particular dedication. She wore a t-shirt and jeans, which in itself was not that unusual, except they didn't seem to fit that well, which was unusual when most clothes were custom printed for an exact fit. They looked a little worn out, as if she hadn't bothered to recycle them in a timely fashion as most did. She wasn't particularly out of shape, but in a world where the aesthetic standard was so uniformly high, falling out of that standard was noticeable with a minimal amount of difference. If Jake had to summarize his impression into a simple phrase, he would say that it looked like she just didn't care.

The opposite of Jake's type. In the moment that he looked at her, he registered her just enough that he might mention her as an anecdote later, but he also might not. That was about all he really thought of her, until she looked up. Their eyes met, she instantaneously assessed him as he had her, as people do, and she smiled. Not a broad smile, it was more from her eyes. She made that almost imperceptible shift from radiating no particular disposition to something that reached from one human to another.

Jake found himself stopped. He kept looking at her. She was at a small table with an empty seat on the other side of her. He wanted to sit down and say hi to her, which would be a particularly bold move for Jake. He wasn't entirely shy about talking to women, but neither was he a player constantly making moves. More than half the time that he found a seat beside a woman he wanted to chat to, he wouldn't do it, either sensing she wasn't receptive or just not being able to work up the nerve. To just walk up to a woman and ask to sit at her table? Jake had never been quite that confident. He looked back at the high stools near the window that were his default choice and considered sitting there just long enough to work up his confidence. But, another voice inside him warned that if you wanted to make that move to meet someone, you had to work in the moment. If he delayed, she might leave before he was ready, or he might overthink it. He walked over, almost as if he told his feet to go that way with orders that they should keep moving even if his brain sent a following counter order.

"Excuse me," Jake said, "this might be a little... Um... Hi. I noticed you and wondered if it would be okay if I came over and said hi..." One time a friend advised Jake that, 'if you think long, you think wrong.' It wasn't so important what one said, just be nice, be polite, and be in the moment. It was advice that had served him well, so he went with it.

"Sure," the woman said. She made a slight gesture with her hand, indicating she had maybe been doing something in augmented reality, but turned it off to speak to Jake.

"Thanks," Jake said, and he pulled the seat out and sat down. With his coffee on the table, he said, "My name's Jake. What's yours?"

"Lorelei," she said. She seemed so at ease, as if there was nothing unusual happening. It helped put Jake at ease as well. It was so comfortable sitting across from her. Like he always knew her. Wait, wasn't he noticing how she was not his type just a few moments before he sat down? "Are you a personal trainer or something?" she said, and he was struck by how intuitive she was, pulling him back to thoughts of her.

"Yeah," Jake said, and then, with a little laugh, "Is it that obvious?" He looked down at himself, making clear he was referring to his shorts, his running shoes, his breathable shirt designed for training. She laughed a little, just a quick breath, and Jake felt that much more at ease. But, while he'd usually be happy to talk about fitness, largely as a way of finding out if the woman he was talking to shared his passion, he felt like he was already spending too much time talking about himself. He wanted to know more about her. "What about you? What do you do?"

"Oh, I work nearby." She said, and then she held her coffee with both hands and looked down into the cup. "I'm just your typical programmer."

"What kind of programming do you do?"

"My company makes AI. Like that one." Lorelei nodded to indicate the AI behind the counter that had served Jake. "That's one of ours." Jake turned to look, to refresh his impression of the artificial woman behind the counter. She was smiling as she took an order from someone else, but it wasn't a mere repetition of the smile she gave to Jake.

"You designed her?" Jake said, turning back to Lorelei.

"Not, like, all of her. I don't do anything with how they look. I'm strictly on the internal logic."

"You mean you work on how they think and stuff?"

"More like how they feel. I work on the team that tries to figure out how to give them that little extra something that makes them not seem like robots."

"Wow. That's pretty cool." Jake said, genuinely impressed. Lorelei smiled, and he felt a fluttering inside. Her smile, her approval, meant something. He glanced off to the side, noticing a woman in yoga pants with her back to him, looking at the selection of cookies and muffins. She had jet black wavy hair that reached down to the small of her back, contrasting sharply against her white tank top. She had a near perfect body, meeting Jake's standards of one who aspires for that extra dimension of physical fitness. He wondered if he wouldn't ordinarily be thinking about hitting on her. He turned to look back at Lorelei, with a question in his mind that went away as soon as he saw her. What were they talking about again?

"So..." Jake started as he ordered his thoughts. "Maybe you can tell me then... I feel like the AIs have become better recently, but it's hard to say why. They've looked exactly like people since forever, but just recently, it's like, they're just more human somehow. Is there something particular that changed?"

Lorelei looked down, smiling, and Jake thought there was something so cute about how she seemed shy. It was like she knew exactly what the answer was, but didn't want to say because it might come across as bragging.

"Yeah... actually, that's kind of my thing."

"Really?"

"Uh-huh."

"So... what is it then? What changed?"

"It's hard to explain. Probably would take too long..."

"No... I'm interested. Really." So long as she kept talking...

"Well, it came out of developing for romantic AI."

"Ai for dating and relationships and stuff?"

"Yeah. People had AI as companions, nurses, for sex or whatever, for a long time, but there was always customer feedback looking for more."

"More?"

"Like, almost right away, once AI started being functional companions, people started treating them like real companions. You'd have an old person being taken care of by a live in AI nurse, and they would naturally start talking to it, just to chat or whatever, because you have this kind of intimate relationship already, y'know? But, once the conversation goes just a few steps, you realize there really isn't anyone there, and then the let down is kind of hard. I think it's harder than if you just have a weird bubble headed thing that looks like a robot because you don't expect it to be more than that."

"Makes sense I guess."

"Yeah, so we tried to focus on how to develop a real connection. And we knew if we could, we'd have more than just more effective AI in general, the market for actual relationships would open up."

"Isn't that big already?"

"Would you want to date a robot?"

Jake paused to think. The answer was no, he knew that right away. But he wondered why. He liked women who were fit, but not so much because they were physically better in some way. It was more symbolic of the attitude inside. He could just buy an AI with a body designed to exact specifications to match exactly what he thought was ideal. But, he knew he wouldn't want that. He didn't want a woman who just had the look, he wanted a woman who wanted the look, who wanted the process that led to the look. He wanted a woman with the same attitude as him, that something inside that he felt, that drove him to train and exercise.

But... as he reflected on that, he realized the woman he was sitting across from him gave no sign of that kind of internal compatibility. Hang on... why did he come over to sit with her? He turned to look at her again, his mouth open to ask a question that was as much to himself as it was for her. But just before the words took shape in sound, she tilted her head, almost like she expected his objection, but her sympathetic smile let him know that he was concerned over something that wasn't that big a deal. What were they talking about again? Oh yeah...

"I don't know... I always thought the answer was no, but, I guess if it seemed like there was really... if it was actually a person? I don't know if I'm saying it right. But, like, that girl behind the counter. I mean, I can't even really tell anymore, so... maybe...?"

"See, most people feel that way," Lorelei said. "Of course, there are a lot of guys who just want their fantasy woman built for sex or whatever, but they tend to just use them for sex and then return to actual people for... actual relationships, I guess. There are a lot of marriages these days where people don't have sex with each other, they have AI for that, but then they do everything else together."

"If that works for them... then isn't that cool just like that?"

Lorelei leaned in, as if she were revealing a secret.

"Sex is pretty powerful. From our research, it seemed like even though people knew a sex robot was just for sex, they couldn't help but feel pulled in, to want more of a bond. Some people said the sadness after sex, when the passion was gone and they realized they were with a robot, made them feel even worse about having had the sex than they might have felt not having it at all."

"So you found a solution for all that?"

"Yeah... yeah we did. I did."

"You did?"

"Uh-huh. It's hard to tell you what it is, but I can tell you what it's not."

"Huh?"

"So, I was put on a team to figure out how we could make AI become more than just functional. Not just a nurse or a helper or a... a sex worker I guess you'd say, but, the complete package. A full companion. When I got into it, everyone was working on trying to figure out how to get the AI to learn more compatibility with their... client, the person they were trying to appeal to."

"But, can't you just program into an AI all the things a person wants? Like, they just give you a list of all their favourite hobbies and music and whatever else they like, and then the AI is perfect from the start?"

"See, that was my question too. And it's even more than that. You don't just program an AI to do and say all the things you like, but you make it so that they appreciate all the things about you too. Like, you're into fitness, clearly."

"Yeah," Jake laughed again, referencing how this had already come up an an obvious observation.

"So, you wouldn't just make an AI who likes to exercise with you, you would program the AI to like that you liked to exercise. You see? And once you do that, you open up the possibility of mutual appreciation that's hard to do in real life."

"Mutual appreciation...?"

"With real people, what they like in each other tends to be similar to what they like in themselves. So, with you, say, you're into fitness and you want someone who is into fitness." Jake had a flash where he realized Lorelei was describing him strangely accurately, with a familiarity beyond just having talked for a few minutes. He thought that it was odd how much she could intuit, and then he realized this was this was her area of expertise, and then his thoughts disippating into marvelling at how smart she was. Her intelligence seemed like such an attractive quality, something he never realized before that he would find so appealing.

"However," Lorelei continued, "you could have a person who is really attracted to someone very different. Just for example, say you were a guy really into surfing, you liked to spend your day at the beach. But, you found goth girls really hot. How hard would that pairing be? Not only are you not likely to meet any goth girls hanging out at the beach, if you meet any goth girls, how likely is it that they are going to appreciate you for being a surfer and think that's really cool if they themselves like to go to dark goth clubs and dance at night?"

"But, with AI, you could make that happen."

"Yes, and we did. There was literally a guy, this surfer guy, he had even won some surfing competitions and stuff, but, for whatever reason, he just thought all that whole black lipstick and white face and vampire clothing and whatever was super hot. I don't get it, but whatever. He wanted an authentic goth girlfriend, not just a surfer chick who would indulge him by dressing up now and again. So, we made one for him."

"And it didn't work."

"It kind of worked. Relationships are never so easy. He experienced the sadness."

"The sadness..."

"That's what we call it around the lab. The sadness is that feeling I described where you feel even more alone with this perfect partner because you realize it's not real. It doesn't have to be after sex. Lots of people said there would just be moments where they might look into the eyes of their AI partner, and it would just hit them, that while everything should be perfect, it just isn't. It's artificial."

Jake nodded knowingly. He knew that it has to be real. Like he felt now, with Lorelei.

"So..." Lorelei said, "that was the situation when I came onto the team. Everyone was trying to figure out how to make the AI more compatible. Even if that meant making them less compatible. Which sounds weird, but it makes sense if you think about it. Some researchers, me included for a while, thought that maybe was the problem was too much perfection. Maybe what people are having a bad response to is the idea that if everything is too perfect, then that is itself an indicator of a lack of reality. So, they would try to program in little imperfections, slight disagreements, differences from the client's wishes. But, no matter how subtle the imperfection, no matter how gentle we tried to make them so that it would just be something the AI and the client could maybe laugh about, the client would always immediately report it like a bug as soon as it was apparent. It was as if they wouldn't stand even the slightest imperfection, while simulaneously feeling like absolute perfection was unreal and made them sad."

"Wow, that seems like a difficult problem to solve."

"Yeah, it was. It really was. I agonized over it forever. What I eventually realized was the degree of perfection wasn't the issue. If we look around, we can often see people, just humans I mean, who don't seem compatible, but they get together. It's not just that they haven't had the option of perfect partners, something works that makes their relationship right for them."

"So... what does that mean?"

"Part of it, I think, is that if someone unlike you chooses to be with you, it's like, the fact that they're making compromises to be with you indicates they really want you. They want some aspect of you so bad that they overlook what might be your faults or whatever. And that made me realize that people want to feel chosen."

"Oh... yeah, that makes sense. Like, when you say it like that, it kind of seems obvious."

"And yet it wasn't, not from the way we were coming at it. And, the management wasn't too thrilled about what I proposed in order to solve the problem."

"Which was...?"

"Giving the AI choice."

"Really?"

"Yeah."

"You mean, you'd build an AI for someone, but then that AI could choose to not be with that person?"

"Yep. Wow... that caused a shitstorm. It wasn't that the company was against taking back an AI that didn't work out. We routinely took back AI and reprogrammed or rebuilt them to satisfy customers. But, once we proposed choice, the legal department freaked the fuck out. Mixing sentience and choice with beings created to serve could lead to accusations of slavery and... I can't even... believe me, it was intense. There were a lot of meetings, and I almost lost my job over it, because I knew this was the way to go. Eventually, the lawyers worked out this kind of loophole where they blurred the lines between a machine appearing to exhibit free will and how that could not be differentiated from simple random output, and if a computer game that rolls dice isn't necessarily willful... anyway, we got the go ahead."

"And that solved it? Didn't you just have a bunch of AI not wanting to be with their... uh... the person that bought them?"

"That's exactly what we had. And that meant we had data. You see, essentially, we could build two AI for a client, with essentially the same specs, and one would reject the client and the other would fall in love with the client. And on the outside it seems completely arbitrary. Two identical builds, with the only difference being a choice. But, the AI record everything. We could see everything about every little interaction, every nuance, everything that transpired between the human and the AI and compare. We eliminated all the variables and, over thousands and thousands of test cases, narrowed down to the thing that made the choice go one way or the other."

"What? What was it?"

"Spark."

"Spark?"

"Yeah, you know when you meet someone and you just feel that thing, that pull, that attraction that makes you want them? I call it spark. Don't you call it spark?"

"I guess... but... what is it, exactly? You said you found it..."

"I did. It was just there. Simple and elegent. A fundamental human experience, just... right there in front of me. And once I found it, I realized I could make it happen. I could program it into an AI. I started designing AI with a perfect compatibility rate. No returns, and, more interestingly, no customer feedback reporting the sadness."

"So... what is it?"

Lorelei looked down and off to the side, a slightly guilty motion.

"Don't you feel it now?"

"What?"

"Spark. With me."

"I... what?"

"Once I understood it, it wasn't just that I could put it into machines, I just... knew how it happened, how to... how to make it happen."

"You've... done something to me?"

"Nothing different from what humans have always done to each other since forever. It's just... I know I'm doing it."

"Doing what?"

"Feeling that spark... with you."

"You can't make me..."

"I'm not making you do anything. You can leave, you have choice... if you don't feel it..."

Jake looked away from the table, to look away from Lorelei. He scanned the room. So many beautiful people, beautiful women. Almost any one of them he would objectively describe as more his type than Lorelei. Objectively.

He looked back to her, his expression one of objection, but, then it softened. This felt right. Lorelei put her hand on the table, palm up. Jake looked for a moment, thinking that it was entirely his choice whether or not to take her hand. And yet, she had made it his choice. Was it still a choice?

Is love ever a choice?

He took her hand.

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