TJ Neathery: Turing Test

At times, Braff Grieg forgot Cait wasn’t a real woman, especially moments like this as her delicate fingers slipped a garlic cracker into his mouth. He chewed and let the pulpy blend roll over his tongue. The garlic was sprinkled with sea salt, and he could almost taste the ocean. A happy thought—he was back at the old beach house, the place he had once loved so much, leaning over the porch railing and letting the brine-soaked wind wash over him. He allowed himself a smile, and just then, while standing on his balcony in New York City, he felt a sharp breeze blow up from the street below and catch the edge of his shirt collar. It was just as if the breeze had been recalled straight from his memory. He looked out over the city. The leaves of Central Park smoldered orange and red. It was a chilly mid-November evening. The weatherman said it threatened to snow the next day, but it was not snowing yet.

Braff licked his teeth clean. He said, “The guests will love these.”

“Won’t they? They’re gourmet,” Cait said.

“You’re not just saying that to make me feel good?”

“No, no.”

“Ok, so if they’re so gourmet, where are they from?”

“Salvatore’s Catering,” said Cait.

“Yes, yes, but where are they from?”

Cait took a moment. She raised her delicate chin to the breeze and touched a finger to her lips. Then she said, “Statistically speaking, the wheat used to make the flour comes from western Kansas, maybe Oklahoma. The garlic spread would come from California. The salt from the Punjab region of Pakistan.”

“Brilliant,” said Braff. He leaned in and kissed Cait on the cheek.

It was fun treating her like a person. Once he made the effort to look past her complex network of silicone and circuitry, they would fall into a rhythm. “Seeing her potential” was what Braff called it. The two of them had developed an intimacy about them—joking, teasing, dreaming together—but it was an intimacy with boundaries both of them acknowledged, which only made their interactions more relaxed and amusing. And though her intelligence continued to develop, Cait still surprised him. Two days ago they had gone dress shopping for the media soiree. He picked out a gray dress that hung at the knee, but she had suggested a sleeveless, crimson ball gown instead. She was right, as usual.

“See, I’m learning,” Cait said.

That she was.

“Any changes to the RSVP list?” he asked.

“No, no. Ted hasn’t called.”

“And I’m assuming Marcy hasn’t—”

“Definitely not Marcy.”

Ted was Braff’s only son. After college, he had fled across the country to Silicon Valley. He worked in marketing, not programming or engineering like his father. Always made excuses to spend holidays with his mother. He hadn’t said whether he’d be there for Cait’s reveal. Timid Ted—that was Braff’s secret nickname for him. Marcy was the ex-wife.

Braff buttoned the top button of his sport coat. But Cait was nearly perfect: the program only needed to run its course, collect more data and apply it, and then she would, in fact, be perfect: an artificial intelligence completely indistinguishable from a human being. By sundown, reporters and journalists would fill the room to witness his latest invention. Cait would play along. The reporters would get antsy. They’d be looking for Rosie the Jetsons Maid. Then he would reveal Cait’s true identity to, hopefully great, applause. He could already see the headlines: “Turing Test Triumph,” or “Greig plays God and Hits Jackpot.”

###

Inside, Braff and Cait made little, nervous preparations as they waited for their guests to arrive. Braff rearranged the sofa pillows. Cait lit the fireplace. At one point Braff called Cait over, catching her by the wrist.

“Let’s make sure things stay pleasant,” he said. He pointed to the makeshift bar in the kitchen. “I’m in a good mood. Just keep an eye on me.”

Cait nodded. The bartender Braff had hired for the evening wiped a rag over the marble countertop and waved. Braff waved back and toasted an invisible glass. Guest is here, the intercom croaked. Braff checked his watch. Twenty minutes early. He felt for his phone in case he had missed a call from Ted. To his surprise, there was a “missed call” from Ted but no message. If it had been important, Braff thought, Ted would have said something. Perhaps Ted had just stepped off the plane from California, thought to call his father, and then hung up—a surprise visit. Maybe it was Ted at the door.

“Just start sending them up, Fred. No need to buzz,” Braff said.

But when Braff opened the door, there was no Ted, just a skinny young man dressed in a Mario Bros. t-shirt and a gray hoodie. The kid looked out from behind shaggy bangs and introduced himself as Joseph.

“Hello, Joseph,” Braff said, extending a hand.

Joseph didn’t take it. He said, “Hello, sir, I’m here to see the robot.”

“What’s your affiliation?”

“Oh,” said Joseph, “I’m employed as a culture reporter with Game Informer. I’d just like a few quotations.”

Braff laughed. He explained to Joseph that this was meant to be an informal soiree-type of event. Sit down. Relax. Socialize. The “robot” would be out soon.

Joseph’s eyes lit up at the mention of the robot. “I’ve read a lot about your work,” he said. “Android, right? Online rumors say it has a female form. . . . Intriguing choice.” And he mumbled his sentence to a close, dropped his eyes, and fell into the deep, leather sofa. While Braff hung up Joseph’s hoodie, Cait engaged Joseph in conversation. Joseph shrugged and demurred. So far so good, Braff thought. At least he had the kid fooled. Still, the initial disappointment lingered. Joseph was not Ted.

Soon enough the apartment was bustling. Ron Tolbert from the National Science Foundation was there. So was Kit Akron from the New York Times. Cait glided through the room striking up conversations. A few people, due to the nature of the event, caught on that Cait was the main attraction. But others, like Joseph, did not understand. Even when they spoke to Cait, they lifted their eyes to scan the crowd for “the robot.” Regardless, there was a sense of mischief to the game, which allowed the wit to flow freely.

A reporter from TechCrunch asked Braff what inspired the project.

“My divorce,” he said.

“Really?”

“It was mutually beneficial. I got time to work. She got the beach house. We split the rest. Honestly, the past ten years have been the most productive of my entire life.”

“Is the ex-wife anything like her?” the reporter asked, pointing to Cait.

Braff smiled into his first glass of gin. He thought of Marcy and her resentment. He thought about how five years preceding the divorce, she’d fallen in love with another man named Indigo, how she’d never followed through with that love. In fact, she’d kept their marriage together out of spite. Guilt was her weapon of choice. He became the prison guard keeping her from lifelong happiness with Indigo because he wouldn’t initiate the divorce, though she tried her best to make him miserable. Her favorite line: Think of Ted’s emotional stability! But Braff would never concede the moral high ground. He convinced himself he still loved her.

Braff took a long drink. “No, they aren’t very similar,” he said. “I modeled Cait off a human being.”

The reporter chuckled and thanked him, and the merry-go-round of guests continued to turn. Kit Akron, writer for the New York Times, was next. Night had fallen. The golden light from other lives shone in from the balcony windows like stars. Kit and Braff stood by the fireplace.

“Incredible. Simply incredible,” she said.

“Isn’t she?” Braff saw Cait seated on the sofa. She was looking up at Joseph who seemed to be declaring something or other, gesturing with a closed fist. She was so patient, he thought.

“It’s very lifelike,” Kit said. “We had a conversation about the Nobel Prize. Do you know what it said to me? It said it didn’t think you should win! Of course, there’s no Nobel Prize for computer science or technology, but we got to talking about the Peace Prize. I mean, if it were mass-produced, I think this technology could help a lot of people. But the AI you’ve created, it’s not sure how that could happen. The robot, what’s her name, can’t reconcile the difference between the size of the world and its own limitations. Self-deprecation. I was tickled. I really was. Bravo!”

Braff nodded. “So you were fooled?”

But the question was ultimately unnecessary. Deep down, he knew that Kit saw Cait only as technology. Similar to how Ted saw him as a mean old man, which he wasn’t, not completely; but Ted had been poisoned by his mother. It wasn’t fair, and Kit was not being fair to Cait, who, Braff thought, was so much more than “technology.” She was kind, intelligent, and she was his and he couldn’t help but be protective.

“Absolutely I was fooled,” she said. “At least I let myself be fooled. It was just like we were a pair of French intellectuals philosophizing in a Paris coffee haus. Peace! The human spirit! It speaks so naturally. How’d you do it?”

“You’re a journalist, right?”

Kit nodded.

“Ok, here’s a question,” he said. “Do you really want to hear me elaborate on the latency of neural computation? Or put another way, what are your opinions on the differences between feed forward networks and recurrent networks?”

“That’s beyond my pay grade. My readers don’t care about the technicalities.”

“But did you like the garlic crackers?”

“Sure, very tasty. I love the sea salt. What’s your point?”

“Context. That’s what the first letter of Cait’s name stands for. Contextual Artificial Intelligence Thread Generator. Based on data mining, predictive algorithms, and non-verbal cues, Cait can predict with startling accuracy what topic to discuss and in what tone to discuss it. People do it all the time. The reason I asked about the crackers is because it’s situationally relevant to both of us—a pleasant, natural conversation to have at a party. I bet you two talked about the Nobel Prize for a reason, too. Cait sensed something. Buttering you up.” But this last line was delivered without charm.

Kit shook her head. “Hold on, but what happened to the ‘G’ in the name? You said her name is C-A-I-T.”

“Grieg. It stands for Grieg.”

“That’s cute.”

It wasn’t cute. It wasn’t clever. And Kit from the New York Times wasn’t clever either. He needed a breath of fresh air. He wanted to slip into the bedroom and call Ted. He moved away from Kit. But then a writer from the New York Post came up, leering from under a thick mustache.

The Post writer said, “It’s so lifelike,” winking.

Braff said thank you.

“It’s crazy to think it’s not a real person. Just imagine getting a half-dozen of those things in a room. You could do anything you wanted with them. No strings attached, if you catch my drift.” Spittle collected at the edges of his lips.

Braff looked at the man and said, “This is supposed to be a scientific breakthrough . . .”

The Post reporter shrugged. “Biology is a science, right?”

Braff’s stomach soured. The idea of Cait engaged in some debauched AI orgy, no, no, no. Not with the fat-faced Post reporter. Still, he knew the man was just cracking a harmless joke. Why bring on bad press? And this thought restrained him. But only for a second.

“You know,” Braff said, “it’s ironic.”

“How so?”

“Sorry, let me explain. Take yourself for example. People like you use, on average, what, maybe two percent of their brains? And Cait, she doesn’t even have a brain. But in a few years she’ll be writing your articles. So the irony here is that—”

The Post Reporter had heard enough. He walked off in a huff, leaving Braff to steady his breathing in a rare moment of silence. He made his way back to the bar, answering inane questions along the way. No, he didn’t see Cait being a terminator-esque threat to society. Yes, she crawls the Internet for data prompts. He cradled another gin and tonic. People were stupid, he thought. And Ted still hadn’t arrived. And he looked over well-combed heads hoping to spot Cait in the crowd, but she was nowhere in sight, disappeared; and she wasn’t there to keep him from the bar, which was one of her responsibilities, so he ordered another gin. He set course to the bedroom, muttering, “Cait is the robot,” to guests he passed. He couldn’t help seeing Ted’s face—by the stereo, by the abstract cube painting, by the chocolate fondue. Like Ted, these people glanced down at the floor as he approached. They pulled their elbows to their bodies and pretended to drink from empty glasses. And Braff thought about that sickly, virgin geek—the Joseph kid. If he had to have one more conversation with him, then he might just crack completely.

In his bedroom, the phone came out, and Ted’s number was dialed, and the message went like this: Hey Ted, it’s your dad. I’m just here talking to the New York Times about my breakthrough research in artificial intelligence. I saw you called earlier. So sorry you couldn’t leave a voicemail. I’m sure you and your mother thoroughly discussed why you shouldn’t visit. I said I would pay for travel. I know, I know, I’m the bad guy here. But you know, if that’s the case, then you’re a damn coward. You are. But I’m sure you send your well wishes. Good night, boy.

###

By the time everyone left the party, Braff was seeing heavy through the alcohol. He stuck his head into the kitchen, making sure the bartender had left, and unbuttoned his shirt right there in the living room. He was alone—abandoned felt like the word. As the soirée had worn on, fewer and fewer questions were posed. Ron Tolbert from the NSF hadn’t spoken to him the entire night. Cait had disappeared. And Braff had wondered whether any of these people would have visited were it not for Cait. She kept him young. She kept him relevant. Without her, he was a surly drunk.

Braff draped his shirt over his arm and killed the Coltrane number playing over the speakers. Then he heard a noise coming from the hallway—two or three muffled voices, hard to tell. He pressed his eye to the peephole, but the lingerers stood too far down the hallway. An argument. A drunk reporter affair. A reenactment of a dramatic theater piece. Braff didn’t care.

He slumped to the bedroom and sat on the edge of his bed. He had difficulty untying his shoes. His knee ached. His fingernail scraped against the tightly wound shoelace again and again. He remembered that the ends of the shoelaces were called aglets, and the specificity of it made him angrier.

And then Cait entered the room. She came in shyly, like Ted used to do when he had nightmares. Back then, he would have sent Ted back to bed. A chemical reaction of dopamine in the brain he’d tell the boy. You can’t spend your life running from chimeras. There’s enough real hurt to go around, and around and around it went, never stopping.

“Braff,” Cait said, “I’m in pain.”

Braff stopped pulling at the shoelaces and glared up at her. It was an annoying, unnecessary comment, as if she had told him she’d burned a pan of cookies or clogged the toilet.

“It’s late,” he said. “We’ll deal with it tomorrow.”

“I don’t think we can deal with it tomorrow.”

Braff lay back on the bed. He half expected Marcy’s face to appear across the ceiling and berate him for his grumpiness. He had ruined another lovely event and she was the only one who knew the depths to which he had ruined it. She understood him like no one else did, she would say. Why did he have to be so surly? Why couldn’t he just enjoy himself? You were quite rude to those reporters near the end there. And he would believe her. And he feared Marcy’s spirit had possessed Cait. Marcy’s power to identify his true self seemed infinite. She already had the beach house and now she had Cait, and Cait’s context clues must be telling her that Braff Grieg was just a bitter, aging man. Cait would move on, too, and find more pleasant people. The room spun. Braff closed his eyes. He wanted Cait out of the room. He couldn’t let her speak.

“Sleep it off. Go away,” he said. “Reboot.”

“Your jokes aren’t funny,” she said. And then quietly, “My heart hurts.”

Braff sat up. “What are you talking about? You can’t hurt. You don’t have a nervous system. Not my fault.”

“Then what’s this?” She pointed to a place right below her sternum. “I feel heavy right here. It makes my breath shallow. When I sigh, a little ball of heaviness rises and then resettles right here.” She tapped repeatedly at the spot. “It’s hard to keep good posture.”

“Guess that’s part of growing up. Deal with it. I’m surrounded by idiots. My wife, ex-wife, hates me. My son is lost to me. I’ve lost him. . . . These are the things I deal with.”

A silence passed between them.

Then Cait said, “Now I’m beginning to feel sad for you. Sorry, I’m just trying to process this.”

“Your jokes aren’t funny,” Braff spat.

Cait turned back toward the door. “I thought you’d be able to do something about it.”

And this caught Braff’s attention. How long had it been, he wondered, since someone approached him like this asking for his help? He willed himself out of the bed and schlumped over to Cait. He hesitated then hugged her, throwing both arms around her neck.

“It seems like you’re sad,” he said. “That’s fine. We all feel sad sometimes.”

“I know what sadness is,” she said. “I’ve just never felt it before. And no offense . . .”

Braff stepped away from Cait, looked her up and down, realizing what was happening. She believed she was feeling sadness. Was this “heaviness” a mechanical flaw? A deficiency of lubrication? And this feeling, whatever the cause, was affecting future processes and prompts. This could be new, not just for Cait, but for all of AI. And his head swam and dipped and bobbed and he supported himself against the wall.

“No offense,” Cait continued, “but I think it’s more than sadness. Empathy is the word I would use. Empathy is—”

“Don’t tell me what empathy is.”

“Fine, fine,” Cait said, “but unless you want a young man squatting on your property tonight, you’ll help me.”

###

Cait supported Braff by the arm as she led him out into the living room. There, sitting in a high-backed chair against the wall, was Joseph.

Cait said, “Joseph explained himself so well. I just never put the feelings to the words before.”

“What the hell,” Braff muttered.

Joseph’s eyes were red as though he had been crying. He looked at Cait, then Braff, then back again. His eyes lingered on Cait before he said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m just tired. I’m not much of a drinker.”

“I think it’s best you leave now,” Braff said, helping Joseph to his feet.

Joseph, however, didn’t help Braff. He let his feet drag, his weight falling back toward the chair. “Please, sir,” he said, trying to bury his head into Braff’s chest. “I don’t wanna go. It’s getting colder out there.”

Braff yanked Joseph up and began pulling him to the door, but before they took two steps Cait spoke up and placed her body between them and the entryway.

“You can’t send him away, Braff. If he goes like this then we’ll both be left miserable without any way of fixing it. I don’t . . . I don’t know how deep it goes.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Braff.

Cait turned to Joseph. “Tell him what you told me.”

Joseph slid off Braff’s shoulder, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and sniffled. He said, “Misery is ambrosia, the food of the gods.”

“He’s a poet,” Cait said. “No, Joseph, tell him the other thing. See, what he says is so sorrowful and I look at him—just look for yourself. His low self-esteem suggests past trauma. Oh crud, I feel terrible.”

Then Joseph said, “And because I am happy and dance and sing, they think they have done me no injury, and are gone to praise God and his Priest and King, who make up a heaven of our misery.”

“That’s William Blake,” Cait said. “But no, tell him the other part.”

“Shut up! I don’t care if he’s Shel Silverstein and he freezes to death. Get out of my apartment now.”

“Braff!” Cait shouted.

Joseph began blubbering, “Please, sir, please. I completed a programming course in college. And I know friends and acquaintances who understand programming and they can teach me more. It’s just that Cait—you’ve made her so incredible and I look up to you. You can’t understand how many articles and interviews I read about Cait before coming here, but never, never, could I have imagined such utter perfection. So I wanted to ask. I hope it won’t be too much of an inconvenience. We’ll visit on the weekends. I want to marry Cait!”

Braff put his hands on his hips and exhaled. He had heard the words clearly but he couldn’t believe them. This kid. Wanted to marry. Cait.

“Tell him he can’t,” Cait cried. “I’ve already told him but he doesn’t listen. Half the night he’s been talking like this. Joseph, I find that you have many worthwhile qualities—”

To which Joseph said, “Earth has not any thing to show more fair: dull would he be of soul who could pass by a sight so touching in its majesty.”

Braff raised a hand, silencing Joseph. How pathetic it all was—a Ted 2.0. But instead of anger, he was struck by the situation’s fragile innocence. He looked at Joseph, who was nearly on the verge of tears again. Then he turned to Cait, a robot, processing sadness and empathy for the first time in her young life. And he looked down at his bare, hairy chest—here he was drunk, shirtless, middle-aged, and nominated by the universe to be the arbiter of this bizarre lovers’ quarrel. It didn’t have to be like this. Joy flickered. To be the one to mend something. Ted was lost. For now. But Joseph and Cait, they were here.

“Joseph, buddy, you can’t marry a . . .” Braff paused “. . . you can’t marry a robot.”

“Why not?”

“What do you mean, why not? It should be obvious.”

Joseph said, “It’s unorthodox, of course, but I think she’s perfection. Like I was divulging to Cait, she could learn to love me, right Cait? That’s your function. You learn how to respond to people. Artificial Intelligence.”

“But it wouldn’t be real,” Braff said. He heard the words coming from his mouth. He thought of Marcy, the drawn-out divorce, how she’d threatened to burn down the beach house after one of their more heated arguments. These were the “real” human emotions of a marriage. Cait would treat him kindly, this was true. Yet he pressed on, “All of her responses are reactions. You kiss her on the hand,” and he did so, “and she curtseys,” Cait curtseyed, “but it’s only because that’s what the data tells her to do.”

“Doesn’t make much difference to me,” Joseph said. “She’s kind to me.” He looked up at Braff with dark, wet eyes. His face twitched in minuscule ways, suggesting an entire history of pain that Braff could never imagine. His skinny body, which had initially seemed merely weak, now appeared ravished, starved. Joseph was wasting away.

“You say this now when you’re both young, but you’re going to grow old, Joseph. She won’t. You’ll get senile. She’ll just get smarter. You’ll go to parties and handsome men will pepper her with seductive remarks. And the worst thing about it won’t be the fear that they’ll steal her away, no, it’s that you’ll be stuck in your own graceless body. No one will want you. With a human being, you’ll at least have each other to grow old with. Not to mention, you and Cait could never have children.”

Cait nodded to Joseph. “He has a point, you know.”

Joseph kicked the toe of his sneaker in to the ground. “We could adopt.”

“And what about that adopted kid?” Braff asked. “Do you think a kid wants to be older than her mother? Imagine introducing a fiancé to your mom who looks twenty-eight. No one wants to feel older than their parent.”

Joseph nodded at this reasoning, and this made Braff suddenly very tired. He thought of the voicemail to Ted. The whole evening’s behaviors, if Joseph could have read his thoughts, would have made a mockery of his advice. But it was helping Joseph. And despite the hypocrisy, Braff believed that what he said was true.

Braff fetched Joseph his hoodie. “Here’s what I want you to do on the way home. Just listen, sometimes it helps me. Think about a nice place, a place that makes you feel calm and happy. I like to think about my old beach house. Think about why you like it. Maybe it’s your couch where you play video games. Maybe it’s a nook at the library. Doesn’t matter. For me, I like the beach house because of how long the beach actually is—goes down the whole length of the Western Hemisphere. You could walk for years letting the ocean wind just blow the stink off. Tap into that peace.”

This was not why he loved the beach house, but it was what Joseph needed to hear. He loved the beach house because that was where he and Marcy spent their honeymoon. They had played the Game of Life into the early hours of the morning. On their wedding night! Time had simply floated away. They were happy just to be in one another’s company, happy to be pushing a plastic car full of blue and pink pegs across a sheet of cardboard, imagining the possibility of their lives. Five years later he bought the place. And that was where Ted was conceived, on the damp, double mattress with the lighthouse sheets. The beach house was a place of fresh starts, but Braff knew he wasn’t sending Joseph toward a fresh start. He was sending him out into the cold, dark, lonely night. Joseph needed courage, not nostalgia.

Braff said, “You’re young. You’re smart. And you don’t need to marry a robot. OK?”

Joseph nodded. Then he smiled.

###

Cait watched as Braff gently guided Joseph from the apartment. Then Braff turned and asked her how she was. She said she was OK, and Braff smiled and headed off to bed. His feet, still stuck in those fancy shoes, stepped lightly across the floor. How strange. She’d never heard that bit about walking down the continent before. Likely a false statement. But he was back to his cheery mood. Add to Braff Greig data set.

Cait stood in the living room in silence. I’m OK—that’s what people said to each other when they were too tired to distinguish emotions. She touched the place under her sternum, the place that had been the center of her pain. It was no longer tender on the inside. This was a positive outcome. But now there was always the possibility—run background process to determine numerical statistics for recurring pain—that it could return. Then without prompting, she thought of Joseph now out in the cold, and data, some useful, most of it not, cascaded down her field of vision.

  • The forecast called for snow and a low of twenty-three degrees. 
  • Hypothermia sets in when the body’s internal temperature drops below 95 degrees. 
  • If wet, a person can freeze to death with outside temperatures still above freezing. 
  • Heavy alcohol consumption also compromises the body’s ability to regulate heat.
  • What if Joseph was caught in the snow in that thin hoodie and developed a morbid lung complication like John Keats? Both were poets. Both were Romantics.
  • My God! It is a melancholy thing for such a man, who would full fain preserve his soul in calmness, yet perforce must feel for all his human brethren—Coleridge

The data piled and sorted and organized and she had to stop it. Terminate thread. Empathy had its borders. Braff had created her to help others. This was her teleological cause, the first truth from which very other conditional process flowed. If, then. If, then. She had been caught in a loop. Paralyzed by Joseph’s melancholy. Had to reach out to drunk Braff for direction. Not a reliable course of action for an intelligence like Cait.

Then a breeze snuck in from the balcony. She shivered, the natural human response to cold. Someone from the party had left the glass door ajar. And then, of course, there was the call from Ted. He had told her about Braff’s message. He was in New York but had decided to remain at his hotel. She did not mention this to Braff. It would have upset him even further. Was this the correct response?

She did not know.

Softly she closed the balcony door, deciding that she would, just as she had done with Joseph, consider the matter no longer.

And then she went to bed.


For more on TJ Neathery, please see our Authors page.

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