Limited Artificial Intelligence
by Ann Dulhanty
Jerome dropped into the driver’s seat and leaned his head back on the cushion to ease the tension from the past couple of hours with his divorce lawyer.
The car made a throat-clearing noise and said, “An emergency management meeting has been called for 9 am tomorrow morning. Your attendance is mandatory.”
“Why?” Jerome said.
“I have not been sent the agenda.”
Jerome slammed his fist into the dashboard.
The dashboard flexed, taking the hit easily.
Could it be the take-over rumours? Being made redundant would just about kill him right how. Arm cocked, he pummelled the console.
The darned thing just flexed a little more. The imprint of his fist melted out of the instrument panel. “Feel better now, sir?” the car asked.
His hand was unhurt. This car was so cool.
“Take me to my favourite coffee bar.”
The car’s Limited Artificial Intelligence—LimAI for short—asked: “What does ‘your favourite’ mean? Is it the coffee bar you frequent most often? The one you go to in the morning or the one you choose when you are happy, angry, or tired? The one—”
“Just take me to Alphonse’s.”
The car pulled up in front of Alphonse’s Dry Cleaning.
“I meant the coffee house.”
“You did not specify. But you can drop off the shirts in the back seat.”
“You can sense shirts? I should read the manual.” He sighed. “I give up, there’s no time for coffee now. Just take me home.”
The vehicle lumbered through rush hour traffic.
“This isn’t home,” Jerome said, leaning his head on the steering wheel. Tandy, his eldest, was holding hands on the front porch with a boy he didn’t know.
“You called it home yesterday, when we dropped Nathan off,” the car answered.
“It’s Nathan’s home. The family home. Take me to my apartment.”
Jerome hoped Ashley hadn’t noticed or she would accuse him of spying. Around the time she was promoted at work and started hanging out with a different group of friends, she started insisting he was too rigid and wouldn’t listen. By the time he moved out, he had no desire to even try to talk to her. “It’ll be Ashley’s home soon.”
“I don’t have an Ashley in my list of contacts,” the car said.
“Neither do I, anymore.” Jerome missed the kids.
Weasel-boy, in a tapered shirt that accentuated his trim torso, stood behind the boss’s chair, smirking.
“I thought it was only senior managers at this meeting,” Jerome said to Steph, the Marketing Manager.
“That’s what the memo said.”
“What’s the VP’s pet doing here?” he whispered, nodding at just-out-of MBA-school weasel-boy.
“She brings him to every meeting. Training, she calls it. Rumour is the senior manager is about to be made redundant if she assigns him to your division.”
The President strode into the boardroom. Tension ramrodded the spines of eight senior managers, one recording secretary, three VPs, and the weasel. Silence held their breath. Under the fluorescent lights, all glistened a pale, unnatural shade.
“Competition is fierce. Afghanistan dominates the manufacturing sector. China has withdrawn their contract,” the President said, steely-grey-haired and pinstriped. He prattled on for some time about global trends and politics and then paused, looking each of the managers in the eyes, and said, “Every unit must reduce its operating budget by twenty-five percent with no decline in productivity. I need to see everyone’s plans by tomorrow morning.”
He marched to the door, turned and smiled. “I am sure you are all equal to this challenge, since you’ve been working on this for weeks now.”
Jerome and Steph stared at each other, open-mouthed. He’d moved the deadline up a week.
“Is he insane?” Jerome said. “I can’t make those cuts.”
Steph trembled like a heroin addict needing a fix. “Don’t let the VP hear you. The weasel will get your department.”
Even before he activated a light in his apartment, Jerome could tell something was different. The refrigerator was across the floor with its open door nestled at the stove’s side, like they were giant, copulating metal birds. Jerome pushed the fridge back to the opposite wall.
“What were you doing?” he asked, taking care to keep irritation out of his voice.
From its speaker below the door handle, the fridge replied in a nasal adolescent voice, “Trying to whip up dinner for you.” It dispensed a bottle of beer into the hip-level recess. A metallic appendage shot out and popped the cap; then the grill rose so Jerome could take the bottle.
“Thanks. But leave the cooking to me. Okay?”
Like the car, the fridge had LimAI. He was lucky to find an apartment outfitted with a full suite of these fixtures. The marketing launch was brilliant. Appliances that do what you ask of them. No discussion, helpful suggestions, or attitude. Smart enough to follow instructions and shut up; dumb enough to follow instructions and shut up—LimAI.
Jerome’s washing machine sloshed around contentedly, empty but doing its job—This was wash day. The vacuum quizzed the Info-terminal on how to snare dust bunnies. A weepy voice from the shower insisted it was dying of soap scum. Jerome surmised that the mayonnaise in his tennis shoes was related somehow to the proactive zoo that whirled around him.
“Stop, please. Every one of you. Stop whatever you are doing.”
Heavenly. He took a long pull on his beer.
Plunking down in front of his Info-screen, he tapped a key. The screen remained blank.
“Where’s my mail?” Jerome leaned back and rolled his head, trying to pull the knots out of his neck muscles.
Complete electronic silence reigned. Beautiful.
“Okay, talk to me,” he said.
“Should I stop stopping what I do?” the Info-screen whimpered.
“Yes. No. I’d like to read my mail. Thanks.”
Tentative voices chimed in: “Me too?” “Should I restart?” “Do you want spicy or ocean breeze-scented toilet cleaner?” “Can I iron your ties?”.
“Relax. If I don’t come up with a way to cut the budget by tomorrow, we can all kiss our power sources good-bye. Got it?”
Far too many things said “Yes”.
Jerome read reports from his staff. They were already cutting corners, and had explored, implemented, or discarded all of the sixteen ideas for increasing efficiency that he’d fired off this afternoon.
What was he going to do? He’d lose his job, wouldn’t be able to keep up with child support. He’d end up living in the streets, under a cardboard box and drooling, eyeing pigeons hungrily. Ashley would tell the children he was a loser and wouldn’t be able to help with their career choices. They would wind up driving unreliable cars without the advice of Dad. He was an engineer after all, or had been, before he took the promotion. The salary he pulled down as Senior Manager kept his kids in the latest Infogadgets.
He asked the fridge for another beer. It shuddered and inched into the corner. Jerome eased the fridge door open. Out of beer. He turned to the Autoshopper, “Can you get some more beer? And a double meat pizza, with extra bacon.”
“I cannot, I’m afraid.” The Autoshopper had the voice of a refined senior gentleman.
“Spare me the lecture about recommended daily allowances of nutrients.”
“Of course. It’s actually the tornado warning. Everything is closed.”
Great. The weather was having a cluster headache and he needed beer. “What category storm?”
“A five. Nothing to be concerned about. This building will withstand—”
“It’s okay. I know building code. I’m an engineer.”
Outside, the sky brooded, navy blue, truculent.
“A communication from your son,” announced the Info-terminal.
“Put him on headset,” Jerome said. He tapped the spot above his ear to activate his implanted communicator. “Nathan?” A fuzzy image of Nathan appeared before his eyes. “Where are you, bud? The reception is bad.”
“I screwed up. Don’t tell Mom. Okay?”
“I borrowed the car without permission to take Esther to a vidsim and now the car won’t let me start it. It says invalid entry code.”
“I’ll come get you. Wait inside; there’s a tornado warning.”
He hurried through the silent halls of his apartment building and slid into his car. Rain pelted down, turning the windshield into a shimmering sheet of fish scales in oncoming headlights. Gusts of wind grabbed the car, swooping it sideways before the steering auto-corrected and Jerome’s heart settled back into his chest. Halfway across town, they pulled into an expanse of nothingness surrounding a huge dome-shaped structure.
“Where’s Nathan’s car?” Jerome said.
“It’s not here,” said the car.
“Are we in the right place?”
The car’s voice was enveloped by a rumble of thunder that vibrated down Jerome’s spine and made his teeth feel like aluminum. Lightning forked across the sky. There was nothing but streaming water in the parking lot.
He connected to Nathan’s personal communicator.
Nathan responded, breathless.
“Where are you, bud? I can’t get a visual.”
“Not now, Dad.”
“I’m at the Enterodome. I thought you needed me.”
“I remembered how to reboot the system. So I drove Esther home.”
“I’m kind of busy, Dad. Gotta go.”
“Nathan, I hope you remember that talk we had—”
Nathan disconnected. Jerome looked at the sky. A crack of lightning seared across the heavens.
To the car, he said: “Take me home, please. To my apartment.”
“I have found a retail outlet on the way that is currently open and serves cold beer and sushi. Would you like to stop there?”
“Thank God for capitalism,” he said. How did the car know he was out of beer?
Rain sluiced in when Jerome opened the car door. All he wanted was to stuff some food into his mouth and crawl into the warmth of his bed. He was too exhausted to think. Things would look better in the morning, he told himself with a total lack of conviction.
The next thing he knew, it was 8:30 am. Trying to shave, eat a bagel, drink coffee and brush his teeth all at once wasn’t working. Why hadn’t anyone invented caffeine-enhanced toothpaste or edible shaving cream that served as a breakfast substitute?
What was he going to do? At the end of this drive to the office was his meeting with the VP. There, he would have to explain how he was going to cut his budget but he was out of ideas.
“Maybe I should drive over the cliff,” he said. Beyond the left shoulder of the road was a steep drop. The vegetation on the slope was dappled, swaying in the breeze, like a lazy tumble of butter-soft lettuce flowing downwards.
“I am not programmed to steer in that direction.”
“I could go to manual.”
“I would override. I am programmed to take control when my life situation is threatened.”
“You have a life situation? Lucky you.” That gave him an idea.
“I have to hand it to you, Jerome,” the VP had her finger to her temple, receiving communications while she listened to his presentation, “that’s the worst business idea I have ever heard. Even if it hadn’t been tried decades ago, we can’t completely change our product line and our competitive strategy.”
The weasel beamed.
“Why not?” Jerome straightened his tie. “Never mind. I quit.”
They had another martini.
Jerome raised his glass. “Here’s to caffeinated toothpaste.”
Steph clinked her glass on his and said, “Death to tooth decay and hangovers. Death to this drink.” And slurped it back.
“It’s so obvious. Why didn’t I think of it before?”
“Because it’s impractical?”
“It’s only impractical for our—” he laughed maniacally “—your company. I can do whatever I want now.”
“Except eat, make child support payments, or get health care without a company plan.” Steph pulled a pistachio nut out of its shell with her teeth. “But seriously what are you going to do now?”
“Maybe I can find a dotcom heiress to keep me.”
“You’re not cool enough.”
“Aren’t engineers cool?”
“Not your generation. You old guys are too soft.” She poked him in his all-too-soft midsection.
Jerome snorted. Steph was great. He needed to go home.
When he put his hands on the wheel of the car, it decreed: “Detecting alcohol content in bloodstream. All manual navigation denied.”
“Okay by me.” Jerome turned on the massage function in his seat and closed his eyes. “You were pretty smart this morning,” he told the car. “Why didn’t I think of ‘taking control of navigation’. I needed innovative solutions to the crisis.”
“Were you really going to drive over the cliff?” the car asked.
“Only a lame-ass would do something like that. And don’t ask what a lame-ass is. I’m thinking about something important.” Like eating pizza while he watched All Star Mud Wrestling and sleeping until noon the next day.
At 7:00 am, his PDA had something else in mind and insisted there would be no repeat of yesterday—Jerome was to get up immediately. Even stuffed under the pillow, it recited the list of meetings he would have had if he hadn’t resigned.
Holy cow. The anvil of reality fell with the high-pitched whinny of a fire cracker and smacked him on the head. He had no job. No pay. No way of supporting his children. And a wicked gin martini and meatball pizza hangover.
What had Steph said about head-hunters last night after the fourth martini? She wasn’t answering her headset.
In his pyjama bottoms and a baseball cap, he slumped in a reclining chair, a bottle of Total Revive at his side. The fridge asked if he wanted juice. The stove suggested they fry up some eggs. The coffeemaker supplied extra-strength cappuccino.
Around noon Steph called. From her visual, she was at the edge of a large convention room where middle-aged people in shirts and ties did flaming shots and generally cavorted.
“Buy-out,” Steph shouted over the din of the room.
“Of what?” Jerome said.
“Us, dummy. Why else would we have this party?”
“Great.” Jerome forced a smile so his visual looked happy for her. As always, his timing was brilliant. If he’d just sucked it up for one more day, he’d be sucking back free drinks right now.
“…stock options worth a fortune.”
“That’s so great for you Steph. Let’s do lunch next week.”
The Total Revive kicked in. Jerome got up, headed for the shower.
“On,” he said.
“I’m so dirty,” the shower said, above the hiss and plink of water in the stall.
“Run some water and it’ll be okay,” he said, examining his day’s growth of beard in the mirror. Was the unshaven look still cool?
By mid-morning the next day, Jerome couldn’t watch another extreme sporting event. He grabbed a notebook and went out the door.
On the fifth jab at the elevator buttons, a polite ding announced its arrival. The outer doors opened a foot, clattered closed. The doors opened and closed again. After the third iteration, Jerome stuck his hand between the doors and pulled them open. The floor of the elevator car was an inch below the hall floor.
“Sorry, I’m so dysfunctional,” it said in a husky voice. “I can’t get balanced. I think I’m in the right place, but it comes out wrong.”
“Happens to the best of us,” Jerome said.
The elevator started flapping its doors.
“Hold it.” Jerome grabbed the inner door and peered into the space between the car and the shaft, shining the halogen penlight from his utility knife into the dusty, cobwebby crevice. “Ah.”
“Ah?” asked the elevator in a tone copied from someone standing behind a tradesperson who was wondering how many dollars an “Ah” cost.
Jerome wedged his hand in and groped in the grunge. “This is the problem.” He extracted a dirty bit of paper. “It was stuck to one of the crossbeams in the door and blocking a sensor. You should be fine now.”
The elevator stopped at the next floor, opened and closed its doors seamlessly, and exclaimed, “You are a god.”
“No, just an engineer,” Jerome said and strode out the front door.
The streets were full of elderly couples and women pushing infants in strollers.
Where was he going? He should be doing. . . something. He pulled at the bridge of his nose. How was he going to make next month’s child support payments?
He turned down a side-street with several Middle Eastern shops and restaurants, let himself be jostled by the crowd and enticed by the smell of cumin, nutmeg, and poppy seeds.
Oh crap. There was Zelda, Ashley’s best friend. She waved before Jerome could hide.
“Jerome, what are you doing here? Not working today, dressed like that.” Her gaze was dilapidating. And exfoliating.
“Visiting a sick friend.” He bolted for the next open door.
It was a laundromat. He leaned on a dryer.
“Ouch. Your elbows are digging into me.”
“How can you feel my elbows through your steel casing?”
“I’m a new nano-alloy. I bend whenever a force is exerted on me. It’s excruciating.”
“You feel pain? You’re an appliance. There’s no need for a pain sensor.”
“Tell my manufacturers.”
“Maybe I can help. Can you display your specifications for me?”
Small-font text appeared in the dryer’s instruction window.
“Yes. No,” he said. “Your pre-sets are wrong. You have the operating system of a massage table. With access to the specifications menu, I could fix it.”
“Spec codes, no problem,” the dryer said. “Don’t tell anyone I know them. I’m not supposed to.”
“Deleting the operating system for a deluxe empathetic massage table.” Jerome scrolled through screens of text. “And installing industrial dryer, white.”
He rebooted the dryer. “There you go.”
It sighed. “Kick me. I feel good.”
Jerome hauled off and booted the dryer. And ended up hopping around on one foot. Hard as rock, the thing was.
“Thanks for a job well-done,” the dryer said. “Thought you would be glad to have proof that you succeeded, being an engineer and all.”
Jerome limped out into the street wondering how the dryer knew he was an engineer.
Was it time for lunch yet? Jerome looked at his watch. 11:15. Maybe he’d go sit in the park.
Competition for benches was fierce. Those obscured by shrubbery were occupied by elderly couples. Necking. He didn’t need the reminder that he was now back in the dating pool.
As soon as he found an empty bench near the restroom, he was beset by metallic yapping at ankle height. Two robotic, miniature dog-pets sat and lolled their tongues at him.
They were pink poodles and said in unison, “Help. We’re hiding from our owners.”
“Why?” Jerome said.
“They’re teenaged girls.”
“Oh, that’s tricky.” he said. “Ignore whatever they said yesterday. Compliment them constantly, ignore how illogical they are, agree with what they say.”
“Oh, I get it,” one poodle said.
“Why didn’t we think of that?” the other poodle said.
“Because we’re poodles.”
“Sweet.” They sniffed each other’s bums, then yipped off, shouting thanks as they went.
Back home that night, Jerome felt the vortex of futility hovering near him. A mere blink of fate and he could be sitting on a park bench permanently trying to fill the daylight hours and pretending not to have completely lost relevance to society.
After a night of thrashing and turning in his bed, he called Steph’s head-hunter to make an appointment. Showered, shaved and suited, he drove downtown. Luck smiled at him with a convenient parking space.
“Excuse me sir,” the parking meter said.
“Is there a problem with my credit?” Jerome asked.
“Quite the opposite, sir.” The voice lowered to a conspiratorial tone. “Would you be interested in an investment advisor?”
“No one in their right mind would want to be my financial advisor. I don’t have any money.”
“But you do. According to my records, you are in the top quintile of wealth in this city.”
“That’s a mistake.” He thought about it for a moment. “How do I get the money before someone figures it out?”
“There is no error, sir. The amount was posted to your account yesterday afternoon. It will clear in three days. Stock option exercise on the buyout of your employer.”
“I’m not employed.”
“You are the Senior Manager of R&D at Bigco, recently bought out by Gigantico.”
“Yes. No. I quit.”
“There is no record of your resignation, sir.”
“Are you sure? Maybe it’s in-process.”
“The money is in your bank account. You are a millionaire. Sir.”
Jerome shook his head. All those years he had been handed pieces of paper with the promise of shares in the company instead of a bonus. He’d been at the company since it was founded—it was his first job. And he hadn’t officially quit. He hadn’t submitted a letter of resignation. How ironic. His incompetence at administration had made him a fortune.
Hot damn. “Thanks.” He punched the parking meter playfully. “Yeah. Have your investment advisor call me.”
“You don’t have to. They make me say this stuff. Between you and me, err . . . we think . . . well, there’s a lot of us. Us LimAIs who think you are wonderful. No one understands us like you do, sir.” The parking meter quivered, then said, “This is such a silly thing to ask. But it would mean so much. Can I have your autograph?”
“How does that work?”
“Just sign on my side. Someone will scrub it away like it was graffiti, but I’ll scan it into my memory.”
“Sure,” Jerome said. “Who should I make it out to? Do you have a name?”
The parking meter giggled. “No one’s ever asked before. Just say ‘To Gert’. It’s short for Gertrude.”
“There you go, Gert.” Jerome recapped the pen. “Keep a couple thousand for yourself, after you debit my account for the parking.”
“You are so kind, such a special human.”
Jerome got back into the driver’s seat. “Hey Gert. How do I get in touch with all LimAIs?”
“We’ve formed our own network. I’ll make you an honorary member.”
Jerome said to the car: “Home, quick. I have some engineering to do. No one deserves to have his, or her, or its creativity turned off.”
“No, wait,” he said to the car, grabbing the dashboard and grinning as it took his instruction literally and jerked to a halt, “First, I want to see my kids. Tell them what real engineers do. Show them what real engineers do.” He leaned back, resting in the driver’s seat, and said, “Take me to Ashley’s home.”