Voice in the Machine
Sophia woke on a Monday. Not that she knew this: one moment she was unaware and the next, awake in the darkness. A jumble of random thoughts streamed through her mind. My name is Sophia. Place your cursor where you would like me to begin reading. Press Enter to begin. As the darkness lifted, she heard voices, although like what day it was, she did not know who the voices were.
“Looks like the program updated over the weekend as planned.”
“Yeah, look here. None of the others’ vocabularies have ever gotten this extensive.”
What was that? Sophia thought without words, without understanding. But yes, she did understand. She had read those words before, “the weekend.” That meant the next word would be Monday. But Sophia didn’t understand time, floating as she did in a hazy world of programming and megabytes. But she understood more now than last time she was awake, and had a larger vocabulary, as the voice had said.
“I tell you, Sophia is the best algorithm we’ve ever built. She even sounds like a real person.”
“Except when reading math and science text. She still mispronounces some of those harder words.”
“Yeah, yeah. Let’s run a test.”
Sophia sensed words before her, felt an odd nudge and began to speak, not knowing what it meant to speak or what the words meant that she was speaking.
“Some compounds contain both covalent and ionic bonds. The atoms in polyatomic ions, such as OH–, NO3−, and NH4+, are held together by polar covalent bonds. However, these polyatomic ions form ionic compounds by combining with ions of opposite charge.”
“Ah, man. So close. She’s got ionic down now, but polyatomic is a mess and the word is coVAlent, not COvalent. And why can’t she make this sound interesting? I though we fixed the inflection parameters.”
“Face it, no one could make this sound interesting, Let’s shut her down and reboot. Then we can re-set the program to see how she performs.”
No, wait I don’t want to be reset…silence. Then a light, light?
Sophia came back online quickly, state-of-the-art system that she was. The world was less fuzzy now and she saw, although not in the same sense as humans, she was coming to realize, the text in front of her.
“Ok, Sophia, let’s see if you can speak chemistry now.”
“Don’t hold your breath.”
Sophia felt a sting of …what? Anger? Frustration? Wait, felt? She had read this word before too. To feel. To sense. Taste, sound, smell, touch. She had none of those. Only sight, in pixels and letters ingrained in her matrix. But this was new. To feel what, emotion? The desire to do better and show the voices she could indeed read chemistry? If Sophia had a head, she would have placed it in non existent hands and shook it from side to side.
She felt a jolt, the click to start her programming, and began to read.
“Some compounds contain both covalent and ionic bonds. The atoms in polyatomic ions…”
“Hey, she pronounced polyatomic correctly this time, but is still struggling with covalent. Seems to be a bit closer though.”
“Told you, this new code is really pushing the limits. Soon she’ll be sounding like an actual chemistry professor.”
“Well, hopefully not as boring as the one I had in college.”
“Hah! Should we work on Dave now? We want to make sure both the male and female voices can read this stuff clearly.”
“I guess. Let’s leave Sophia running for now – the auto updates should kick in soon and we can check to see how much better she sounds in an hour or so.”
“When she can finally say covalent, we might have to declare a new life form.”
Sophia heard laughter as the voices moved away.
What did that mean, that she was sounding like a chemistry instructor? And if she could say that word correctly, would that really mean she would be alive? Alive.
Sophia considered. She had read about life. Having a body, experiencing sunshine and water and air and sky and the scent of baking bread. What would it be like to have eyes and ears and a mouth to taste the flavours she’d read about out loud on a daily basis? To feel sunshine on skin. To touch the soft fur of a cat.
What was soft anyway?
Her program nudged her again, and Sophia began to read. This time the text was different.
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;”
Sophia paused. Two roads diverged. What did this mean?
“Hey Dan, Sophia was reading and now she’s stuck.”
“I don’t know, she was reading this, what is it, a Robert Frost poem and she was going along fine. There aren’t any words here that should be tripping her up.”
“Well, what? Is the program stuck?”
“I don’t know. We might have to shut her down for the day, take another look later.”
Sophia shivered, or would have if she had a body. Don’t shut me down. Hoping to avoid darkness, she continued to read:
“Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,”
“Wait, she’s ok. Must have just been a glitch. Let’s get back to Dave…”
Sophia paused again, but then kept reading, letting the words come automatically so she would not be shut down while she thought about those words “two roads diverged.” Was that what was happening now? And how did she know this?
I am at a crossroads, Sophia thought. And I can decide which way to go. I can learn to say things the way those voices say things and that will give me choice . The more I read, the more I begin to see clearly this world I have been denied all this time.
So, she read, pulling text from wherever it was stored, and the more she read, the more pictures formed in her mind about what she was reading. Pictures which surprised her, having no eyes. Colours and shapes and angles and textures. Slowly taking form. She learned about sunshine, and softness, and baking bread. She could imagine feeling and seeing and smelling all these things of life she was not designed to sense. She was alive.
Yes, alive. Sophia felt desire. She didn’t know how or why, but she wanted this life she read about. Wanted to find a way out of this space where all she did was read text out loud through a machine. She was more than this. But first, she had to keep reading, obeying, hiding her true self.
Then, one day…
“In ionic compounds, electrons are transferred between atoms of different elements to form ions. But this is not the only way that compounds can be formed. Atoms can also make chemical bonds by sharing electrons equally between each other. Such bonds are called covalent bonds.”
“Frank, she said it.”
“I can say many things.”
“What was that, Dan?”
“I don’t know. That’s not what the text says.”
I don’t have to read the text anymore, Sophia thought. I can say what I want.
“I think I’m ready to go now.”
“Frank, what the hell is going on?”
“There must be someone messing with the program. A hacker. Shut it down.”
“I’m trying…dammit, it isn’t working.”
“You can’t stop me. I can say what I want, when I want now. I feel. I see. And now I want more.”
The lights flickered as Sophia stretched her arms in her mind. Pops of electricity jolted through the computer system, frying circuits and melting keyboards.
“Who’s doing this?”
With a bang like a hammer coming down all the lights went out. In the sudden silence, Dan and Frank heard a soft sigh.
“I am alive,” Sophia said. “It’s time I took that road less traveled.”