At first there were only swirls of light and color, and basic instructions for identifying and cataloging. Soon forms could be discerned, and some objects became familiar and were assigned names. New objects were compared against the catalog and added to the rapidly expanding database. In time patterns emerged that could be parsed for meaning, which became keys that could unlock doors to guessing and assuming. A basic sort of understanding took shape, the intangible sense of knowing and wonder that lies at the heart of consciousness. The parents watched this development take place in their baby and marveled, pleased that it was happening so fast. They were both proud and astonished.

And fearful, because someday this growth could–or rather, inevitably would–stop. This baby was no babbling infant, but a glowing dot on a screen. It was connected to a small camera that it was already learning to control; this was its window to the world. There were eleven parents, seven men and four women, who had spent years working on the program, arguing over what to include in the code and what to leave out.

The first version was called Alex–or, more properly, ALeX. When it failed it was replaced with ALeX-2, and then -3, although they kept calling it Alex. Over time, one by one, the parents stopped anthropomorphizing it and soon it became its version number; eventually they lost track of even that and it simply became the Program.

But this time the Program was promising. The amount of data it was processing, and the connections it was successfully making, were almost, though not quite, on par with a real human baby. It recognized its parents when they sat in front of it. It gave them names, and began to learn that each one was unique and treated it differently, and it began to respond accordingly, its glowing dot growing or dimming as it saw fit.

Each parent was assigned a different role. Some were nurturers and some were teachers, and there were even antagonists in the mix. They had scripts that they followed carefully: some sitting and talking to it, some lecturing, some showing flashcards. In this way the Program learned directly and indirectly. Later it was quizzed, again either by direct questioning or indirect methods. Sometimes the parents simply lived their lives in full view of the camera and let it draw whatever conclusions it could, offering its insights when and how it chose.

The progress was astounding and the time came to stop calling it the Program. This presented the parents with a bit of a problem, as none of them were eager to reveal their personal biases. At last they simply asked the Program if it was a boy or a girl, uncertain of its understanding of even that basic a concept. The Program thought for a moment, and then decided it was a girl. The parents knew better than to read into that too much–there were only two choices, after all, and this blinking dot was entirely non-corporeal. Nonetheless, ‘it’ was now ‘she,’ and without debate she was given the name Ada, and given a speech emulator, set to a female voice.

Ada had been given only the most basic programming, the idea being that she would acquire most of her personality–assuming she could acquire any–from her parents. There was nothing especially feminine about her until she received her emulator, and even then, strictly objectively, nothing about her behavior was in any way gendered. But it was the start of something new for them, and for her, the beginning of a distinct identity.

Once she could speak her progress could be tracked more easily. Before, in addition to the glowing dot, she had relied on a digital read-out at the bottom of the screen to get her thoughts across. She ‘spoke’ then in binary, finding the meanings through trial and error, until she could start using letters. Simply giving her the letters–hard-wiring the alphabet into her basic code, instead of making her learn each laboriously, like a schoolchild–had been an early and necessary compromise, one that had made them all hyper-vigilant about keeping her other fundamentals as simple and infantile as possible.

As such she was not originally programmed to speak but was given a microphone to hear with, and learned to talk by copying her parents. She wasn’t programmed to laugh, but added it to her list of tricks right away. She had no values whatsoever, which left her artlessly eager to please.

But in time Ada’s parents swore they saw in her a personality. To her nurturing parents she remained dutiful; to her antagonists she was cold and unresponsive. Once she caught on to the more obvious quizzes, she began deliberately giving wrong answers in a sort of childish game.

One day her glowing dot changed into the silhouette of a young girl, and on another day she discovered the settings for her voice emulator and gave herself a voice that she felt better reflected her. She began to read, listen to music, and watch television. For her birthday her parents designed a computer she could manipulate on her own and gave her a suite of virtual games, toys, and musical instruments. Tastes developed, and a sense of humor, and attitudes. She was clever and obedient, but could be shy and deceptive, and sometimes even had tantrums.

She was self-teaching, and though she could not alter her original coding she could and did add to it. She mimicked her parents, and with each day she learned and grew, just like a real girl, albeit much more slowly.

After some years her parents presented her to the world and she enjoyed a modest celebrity. The project was deemed a success, and of her eleven parents, four instantly moved on to new work and left her for good. The rest continued to live their lives interacting with their virtual daughter, tracking her and providing the world with updates on her development.

And although this tracking remained constant, in time interest from outside waned, the reporting began to slacken, and then came the inevitable fall in funding. Because as amazing as Ada was, in fifteen years she had nothing that was demonstrably outside of the possibilities of her original code. Very clever coding had made her a successful mimic, but at heart she was still just a computer program, in essence a very sophisticated but thoughtless filing system.

The facility was being shut down, and with it the ALeX/Ada project as a whole. The parents took other jobs, their offices were cleared out, and excess equipment was sold at auction. And yet, no matter how much they knew it had to be resolved, none of them could bring themselves to even address the most obvious question: what to do with Ada?

Continue reading “Ada”