In April, I wrote a short piece for a competition called 48 Hour Flash Fiction 2017 organized by New Scientist, SCI-FI-LONDON and Urbanfantasist.com.
I was given the story elements required (title, a piece of dialogue that must be in the story etc) on the 8th of April and 48 hours to complete a 2,000 words story. It was a grueling experience – what word to use, what science issue to incorporate, how to unfold the story – but I did learn a lot from it. I would say at the point of time it was heavily inspired by popular culture that I enjoyed the most, mainly in the genres of dystopian or futurology. Here is the article transcribed faithfully as below.
Title: THE WOMAN SPEAKS
Dialogue: Music cannot exist in a vacuum.
Science (Optional): A machine that records people’s dreams for morning playback – would you share them or want to watch them?
Word Count: 1583 Words
The Woman Speaks
“Good morning, Mr. Patterson.” A warm female voice echoes in the room.
I open my eyes and peer at the holo-display. 6:00 am sharp, a standard time made compulsory for all Class-C workers in the country. I quickly roll off the bed and make a beeline to the washroom. I am getting dressed for work while the female voice continues the briefing of the summary of the day with my favourite playlist on the stream. An image of a middle-aged woman flickers on the bathroom mirror.
“Mr. Patterson, you dreamt of your mother for a consecutive period of five days pertaining to the matter of your five years old birthday party. Do you require any professional help?” I groan a little. That was my dream last night. A “Smart Doctor” dialog pops up, accompanied with a list of suggested psychologists in my neighbourhood if I am inclined to do so.
“No, Sarah, I told you not to poke your finger into my dream again!” I yell before realising that the voice does not have a finger at all. She’s an artificial intelligence built by those smart brains in the mega corporations. I do not understand how this “Smart Personal AssistantTM in the Cloud” works; I never learnt it in the school I went. I just know it is given free to everyone in the country, so I don’t really care. She falls silent. The hot steam from the showerhead subsides.
I sigh. There is no use in venting anger to a virtual person. Sometimes I am just dissatisfied with my life – getting screened and filtered out of the system when deemed not worthy for the college, and there is no way to learn any skills other than the assigned one by the government – all the resources on the web have been adjusted to my social status.
The holo-display blares loudly, displaying 7:00am in red rays. I charge out of my small dorm and hop on a hovering car. There are another four people in the car already on the same Share-a-Drive, all staring blankly to the front. I rub my nose and turn on my device as well. Everyone used to hold a “smartphone” twenty years ago. I recalled my first iPhone 8 for the tenth year old birthday. Now the chip is directly on the retina, providing a stream of non-stop, tailored information to the users’ eyes, all day long while they are awake. The mega corporations have even come up with a way to tap into their dreams while they sleep. Dreams, the vault of secrets and desires, have been cracked open and reduced to mere data points on the graphs.
I shake my head: what’s wrong with me and these philosophical thoughts? I have never learnt Descartes, Zhuangzi or Vasubandhu – wait a second, how do these names swim into my mind?
“Mr. Patterson, please proceed to Meeting Room 3 when you arrive at the company.” I am disrupted by Sarah’s prompt. It smells like an urgent request. I eye-ball the “Accept” button and wonder who demanded my audience. My boss, Ms. Jacqueline, is not very keen of my performance lately. I shudder at the thought of losing my job.
The car whizzes on the highway for ten minutes and stopped in front of a complex. Tall buildings sprawled across the horizon, glinting with grey under the Sun. The weather is a nice forty degrees Celsius, unlike yesterday where a heat wave killed three people in the neighbourhood. I alight and spot my section-mates. Mr. Lee and Ms. Abagail in my section are walking to the assembly point. I make a turn to the Administration.
I cannot put my finger at the exact date I started working in the company, not even the interviews. The job seems to be prearranged way before I graduated from high school. Perhaps it is the filter system again, I think. I authenticate myself at the gate. Not many people work here, at least not for my rank. A blue navigating line appears in my field of view to provide guidance.
Exquisite drawings are displayed along the walls of the corridor. Van Gogh, da Vinci, Zhang Daqian, Monet… I can’t help but stop to appreciate them. The strokes, the flow of colours, and the light brushes to draw the faces…
“Mr. Patterson, your next meeting will start in 3 minutes. Please proceed to Meeting Room 3.” The female voice breaks my train of thoughts with a friendly tone. I pick up my pace.
The room is nothing that I have seen before. A huge pedestal is at the other end of the room with holo-displays everywhere. Dozens of men and women are busily working on the displays, flicking and tapping virtual buttons and switches. I behold at the scene.
“Welcome, Mr. Patterson.” It is the familiar voice of Sarah. Not from my device, but directly emanating from the pedestal.
“Sa…Sarah?” I raise my voice.
“Oh my dear, don’t you forget me?” A figure emerges behind the floating holo-displays. A middle-aged woman. “I gave birth to you, remember?”
I step back in shock. She looks exactly like mom, always appearing in my dreams and recalling myself of the sweet memories.
“Sarah, why on Earth…”
“Corrections, two to be exact. One, we are not on Earth. Two, I am Sarah, but not the one you are thinking.” She points at her own eyes.
“Wait a minute, who are you exactly?” I can’t tell the reality from dream anymore.
“I created you, Patterson. Or your internal name, Subject #312. You are the first robot that possesses human-like memory.” She turned a holo-display towards me and pulled up a holo-blueprint.
“We have perfected the way to make robots. At least in the physical appearance. We mastered the manufacturing process, understood how nervous and circular systems work, we even sliced brains into tiny pieces to study all the nature offers to us.” She seems to be making a speech to an empty audience. “We still don’t understand how memory works. What lunch did I have yesterday? What flower did I receive for my valentine’s day twenty years ago?”
She clears her throat and faces me. “More importantly, how does memory interact with our actions and our emotions?”
“I don’t understand…” I stumble upon my words.
She smiles to me. “It’s alright, Patterson. We felt the same before we found the missing piece. The dreams. A constant feedback of signals back to human brain when the physical body is down to repair every night. The sleep time is a moment when the mind has the total freedom to feel, to construct, and to cleanse the memories.”
She takes a pose as if she were conducting a musical piece. “Let me illustrate it with an example. We can mix and match different notes through algorithms. Tempo, virtuoso, all sorts of intricate moments. But those is not music. Totally inferior to Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. Those which are composed organically.”
Her fingers moved in the air in an Allegro tempo.
“However, music cannot exist in a vacuum.” She stopped at the last word, as if thinking of a hard problem. “Algorithms can run perfectly with high computing power, but the result is just unreal. It is an uncanny valley in which we can tell what is computer generated and what is not. Art is hard to silicone chips.” She laughs at her joke and I somehow make some exhaling sound from my nose to reduce my anxiety.
“So we decided to fill up the vacuum. We want our robots to learn from their senses and experience even when they self-repair at nights. So we assembled five hundreds robots, loaded up with different initial memories,” she look into my eyes, “and made them dream every night. You are one of them.” She winks.
The memories? Like the birthday parties during my childhood? The red iPhone I got? Those were all fake? I squint at the holo-displays on the pedestal and see videos playing. Mr. Lee had a wet dream with his fantasized object and Ms. Abagail was looking forward for a trip to Neo-Shanghai. All of the dreams are recorded, shared and watched in this room. The results are analysed and then feedback to our memory. Every night.
“Guess what we observed? The emergence of emotions. Not the pre-programmed ones where you enter different loops based on the conditions, but those emerge spontaneously from nothing. We found that these beautiful displays of inner states tremendously helpful to form a higher state of mind. Consciousness, self-realisation, a soul if you like to call it.”
She turns her back to me. The air feels still in the room now. “This soul, combined with a robot’s superior computing power, allows you to form far more connections in your neuron network. Recently you grow appreciation towards abstract concepts, don’t you? To you, art, philosophy, music is beautiful instead of some random pixels or noises.”
I start to feel dizzy. It is too much for me to handle right now. She wave her hands and two droids crowd beside me, restraining me by the arms.
“Good night, Mr. Patterson. That’s a great soul you have built, and we thank you for your hard work.” The two robots disassemble my skull before I blank out.
“Good morning, Mr. Patterson.” A warm female voice echoes in the room.