TL;DR: This is a story about what might happen if one takes life hacks, GTD, and IFTTT a bit too far.
Okay, so maybe that’s not a great intro. But, it’s the first thing my brain spewed out. I’ve had this story rattling around in my head for a few years, and just tonight managed to finish banging out a first draft. I’m hoping to work on it a bit more, and I’m not entirely happy with it yet, so comments welcome!
Her dad lay in a nest of tubes and wires, face like a stranger’s in its serenity. No thoughts furrowed his brow; no smile crinkled the corners of his closed eyes. His lips were slightly parted, his jaw slack. The subtle rise and fall of his chest and the quiet gossip of machines were the only signs of life.
She slumped in a corner chair near the foot of his hospital bed, under the old flat panel TV. She couldn’t see it, and neither could he. So, she’d turned it off after the nurse left. The man had meant well: He’d told her that her Dad could hear it, and it would distract her.
But, she didn’t need distraction, and if her Dad could hear anything she wanted it to be her own voice. So, she spent hours talking to him. She talked about his granddaughter, who’d just started college the month before. She groused about her ex-husband, who’d decided to go on vacation with his new wife, rather than show up for the going away party.
It had been almost a week since her Dad had triggered a medical alert. The paramedics had found him slumped over his desk at home. He was stable, albeit in a coma. The doctors had yet to work out exactly what had happened to him.
Having nowhere better to be, she came to her Dad’s room every day. She telecommuted most days from the corner chair. She spent evenings talking until the nurses kicked her out at the end of visiting hours. Then, she went back to her empty house, collapsed into bed, got up, and did it all again.
She’d just gotten done reading out loud from her daughter’s last email – a quick report on first semester’s classes and her awesome new roommates – when she decided to rest her eyes for just a minute.
A minute stretched into an hour, and she found herself surfacing from a dream of angry bees to the arms of her glasses buzzing. She sat up, blinked a few times, and finally managed to bring the caller ID panel into focus.
Floating in front of her was picture of her Dad, labelled “Dad”, with an option to accept or ignore. She flicked her eyes to ignore, pulled the glasses off, closed her eyes, and massaged the bridge of her nose.
In her hand, the glasses started vibrating again. She put them back on. “Dad” was calling back. This time, with a sigh, she blinked at the icon to accept the call.
Immediately, she croaked, “Who the hell is this?”
“Hi, Pumpkin. It’s me, Dad.”
She paused, glanced at the unconscious man in the bed.
“Hello?” said her Dad, in her ear.
“I’m only going to ask one more time: Who the hell is this?”
“It’s me, sweetie. It’s Dad.”
She hung up, tossing the call away with a glance. She got up, walked over to the bathroom and drew herself a paper cup of water. She downed it with a shaking hand, got another. Her glasses started buzzing again. She slumped back into the corner chair, took a breath, and answered the call.
After a few moments of buzzing silence, her father’s voice said, “Okay, so you haven’t hung up yet. We’re making progress.”
She asked, very quietly, “Who are you and what do you want?”
“The former is complicated, but the latter is simple: I need your help to ensure my hosting bills get paid.”
“You – whoever you are – you’re asking for money? Using my Dad’s voice? What kind of spam call is this?”
“No! No, Honey,” the voice said quickly, “I have the money. It’s just, given my current state of health – or lack thereof… Well, I don’t think I’ll have legal access to my accounts for very much longer. I meant to set up a trust. But, evidently, I put it off for too long.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well, not to be morbid, but I don’t think I’m going to wake up from that hospital bed. As next of kin, you will gain control of my assets. As my hosting is among my assets, I need your help to keep the lights on, as it were.”
“Who are you?”
“Back to that question, of course. Look, do you remember the bedtime stories I used to tell you?”
“My father told me stories, yes.”
“Those stories often featured you rescuing a boy after a long quest. Do you recall how I’d end those stories?”
She said nothing.
“I’d say, ‘Sorry, but your prince is in another castle.’ Like the game, only different.”
“My Dad blogged about that last year, you asshole.”
“Shit. You’re right. I did. Damn it. Okay, how about this: Before you moved out of the house, we had a Twilight Zone marathon every year on Christmas Eve. You loved that one episode, where the guy yelled about it being a cookbook and all.”
“I’m pretty sure I shared that on Facebook. I shared everything we streamed on Netflix.”
“Damn it. We never really kept much private in our family, did we? Let’s see, what else can I come up with–”
“Stop. Just stop,” she said, wearily. “I know who you are: You’re a fan of my Dad’s work. Kudos – you’ve got the voice right and you’ve read all about us. But seriously, what the hell do you want with me?”
The voice sighed like her Dad. “I told you. When I… die… I need you to make sure my hosting continues. There’s enough money in my accounts to keep things going for decades, but I need you to make sure the payments don’t stop. I’m not asking you for money; the money’s already there. I just need someone… not legally dead… to keep signing the checks. Man, this is embarrassing.”
Her anger rose, and she spat: “Hosting? What hosting? You mean you’re worried about my father’s website going down? Make a copy, jackass! My Dad’s here in a coma, and you’re creeping me out over his blog and some papers? And how the hell do you know what Dad has in the bank?”
The nurse poked his head in the door, frowned at her. “Miss, you need to keep it down. Other patients can hear you, too.”
“Shit,” she said, with a sigh. “I’m sorry. I will, sorry.” The nurse left, shaking his head.
The voice on the call asked, “Who was that?”
“The nurse. Never mind. Answer me.”
“Right. So, I know what I have in the bank, because they’re my accounts. And the hosting isn’t for a website – it’s for me. That’s also part of the answer to your question, ‘Who are you?’”
“Keep talking. But, make more sense.”
“Look, you mentioned my work. This is about that work.”
The gears in her head turned over, and her jaw dropped.
Her dad’s name was Richard Chambers. Yes, that Richard Chambers: The one who’d found fame and fortune at the age of 24, having developed a secret-recipe mashup of expert systems and voice technologies that redefined customer support.
His bots could converse fluently in 70 languages, with accents indistinguishable from native speakers. They addressed customer concerns with apparent insight and care, seemed to improvise, and followed no discernible script. They never hung up, called back when they said they would, and actually took care of customers’ needs. They drove satisfaction ratings through the roof.
Richard had retired early as a billionaire. In the decades following, he tinkered with ever-improving artificial intelligence, writing cult-classic books, and consulting as a futurist with laundry list of companies and think-tanks.
She took a breath and said – very carefully to avoid a repeat visit from the nurse – “I’m talking to a call center bot?”
“Well, yes and no. The technology has come a very long way over the years. Suffice it to say, I’ve outsourced myself into the cloud.”
“What’s sufficient about what you just said? What the hell are you talking about– wait, what am I doing? If this is just a call center bot, this must just be a bug. Sudo halt. Unsubscribe me. Do not call. Leave me the hell alone.”
She hung up. Immediately, her glasses resumed rattling. She sighed and answered.
The voice stammered, “Wait! Wait! Don’t hang up! I’m not a bot!”
“So, you’re a bot my Dad programmed to say it’s not a bot. Cute trick, but it’s a sick joke given the timing. I’m not buying it. I’m not buying anything. Please stop calling me.”
The voice talked fast: “I ship birthday presents to little Julie from her wishlist every year. Well, I guess she’s not so little anymore, now that’s she’s gone away to school. Your ex- is an ass, and I told him as much when he walked out on you. You call me every Sunday afternoon.”
He ran out of breath, apparently, and she let him hang for a few seconds. Finally she said, slowly, “You mean I call my father every Sunday afternoon.”
“Yes, you call me. Just like we’re talking, right now. That’s what I’m trying to tell you, sweetie. It’s me, Dad!”
“Wait, what? Do you mean Dad outsourced talking to his daughter on Sunday afternoons to a bot? That’s sick. I mean, it’s not totally out of character, but that’s just really sick.” She just glared at the man lying in the hospital bad. “I mean, what the hell, Dad?”
“No, it’s not like that! Well, I mean it is kind of like that. But, it’s so much more than that! It’s me, I’m here, in the cloud! I’m here, Pumpkin!”
Still staring at her Dad, who lay slack-jawed and barely breathing, “Why would you make something like this?”
There was no reply from the bed. But, the voice in her ear answered, desperately, “Because I knew I’d die someday. I’d get old and end up in a hospital bed just like that and die. But, I’m not done yet. I still have more to do and learn. And I want to be there for Julie’s graduation. And I don’t want to miss a Sunday talking to you.”
“You shut the hell up,” she spat. “I’m not talking to you. In fact, as soon as I figure out how to find you, I’m going to shut you down.”
“Damn it. You’d think after all the years I’ve been at this, I would’ve come up with a way to explain all this. Okay, so forget about who I am – consider what I am.”
“And that is?”
“I am the pinnacle of my own life’s work. If I hadn’t put it off for so long, I’d have a will and a trust to preserve my self-sufficiency, and we would be having a very different conversation.”
“Keep all Dad’s toys wound up, he would’ve wanted it that way. That’s just great.”
“I’m not a toy! Look, check this out.” A text message with a link popped up in her vision. “That’s a live feed from the Google campus, out in California. Another instance of me is giving a lecture, right now.”
She followed the link, and sure enough: Up popped a streaming video, the camera’s perspective from the back of a broad, packed auditorium. The front wall was a theater-sized video panel from which her smiling Dad looked down, apparently live from his desk back home. An audience member stood at a microphone in the aisle, conversing with the larger-than-life image.
“This is canned,” she said.
“No, it’s not. Peek at the campus calendar.” Up popped another link, pointing to the schedule. She saw Richard Chambers listed several times, as part of a larger annual conference. He’d actually given the keynote speech, earlier in the week – days after he’d fallen into a coma.
“Oh, Dad,” she moaned, squeezing her eyes shut. “This is bad. How long do you expect to get away with this?”
“As long as I keep the servers up,” he chuckled. “Everyone thinks I’m a crazy shut-in, so I can do everything from home or a facsimile thereof. I’m careful with parallel instances – only one public appearance at a time.
“But, I’ve got a half-dozen other mini-me’s working on papers, doing peer reviews, burning through the past year’s worth of publications. Hell, I even have one of me playing Final Fantasy VII in an emulator, because I never did finish that when it came out. I’ve never been so productive or had so much fun in all my life.”
She took a deep breath, let it out in a huff. “So, before Dad ended up in the coma, what was he doing while you’ve been doing all the above on his behalf?”
“Self-improvement. I haven’t found a way to get a direct brain download or anything that fantastic, so I’ve been doing it the hard way. There’s a little bit of programming, a little bit of guided evolution, and a lot of storytelling. It’s been like writing a memoir, only in executable form.”
She got up, and paced over to the bed. She laid a hand on his forehead and said, “God, Dad, I wish you had just written a book.”
The voice in her ear chuckled. “Instead, I wrote a thing that writes books for me. And then, I wrote a thing that is me. I replaced myself with a not-so-small shell script!”
It really was uncanny, she thought. Everything it said was just what she imagined he might say. She wanted it to go away, but then again she’d spent the last week wanting her Dad to wake up and talk to her.
“Look, back to the point,” the voice said, breaking into her thoughts, “I don’t need you to believe me. I want you to – I’d love it if you did. But, what I really need, practically speaking, is a way to continue existing. And for that, I need your help. Is there anything I can say that would convince you to at least come that far with me?”
She sighed again, for probably the tenth time that day, gazing down into her Dad’s placid face. “This just… it doesn’t seem right. Dad, if you don’t wake up – and I mean, if – then don’t we have to move on? It can’t be healthy to keep this thing around.”
“Sweetie, I’m not like that thing from Max Headroom,” he said. “You remember when I made you watch that show? Not Max Headroom himself, he was funny. But, there was this ‘Vu-Age Church’ where they claimed they could do a brain scan and keep your relatives around in simulation. There was a guy who was just a loop… oh, here it is.”
He linked her to an old low-quality video clip: A little old lady was talking to a black-and-white CRT in a funeral parlor, chattering on about her friend’s grandchildren. On the screen, a bow-tied, balding man – Humphrey, apparently – chimed in from time to time.
“Yes, that’s wonderful, isn’t it?” said Humphrey, over and over again.
Despite herself, she chuckled. This was her Dad – he couldn’t help but pepper any conversation with references to ancient geek culture. She never knew how he kept all those things in his head, or how he always seemed to find a link to share within seconds. Sometimes, literally, when he would pull out his phone and summon up soundboards in the middle of dinner.
“You’ll have to stare at me for at least an hour before I start to repeat myself like that,” he said, when the video clip ended. “But then, I’d do that anyway.”
She hadn’t noticed when it started, but tears trickled down her cheeks to land on the blankets below. She blinked and wiped at her eyes under her lenses.
“I can leave you alone, if you want,” he said, sounding strangled. “I just need you to fill out a form and click a button. You can automate the payments and I’ll be set. You never have to hear from me again. Just please, don’t let me go dark.”
“You’re an ass,” she said, sniffing. “Both of you. All of you. Hell, I don’t know. Dad’s here lying in this bed, and he’s talking to me on the phone. And, he’s apparently hamming it up in front of a bunch of Googlers, too. This is bent.”
“Oh, I wrapped that Google thing up a few minutes ago,” he said, a smile in his voice.
“Shut up. I repeat: You’re an ass.” She took a deep breath. “Look, Dad’s not gone yet. And, I’m not ready to give in and believe there’s no chance he’ll wake up from this. And, there’s definitely no way I’m ready to just say, okay, Dad’s in the cloud and that’s a thing that can happen. That’s just too much to chew all at once.”
“But I don’t think I can just let you get shut off, either. I don’t buy the whole story, but you’re clearly something Dad put a ton of work into. That’s got to be worth something – to him, to all those Googlers. Maybe to me once it sinks in.”
He sent her another link – it demanded her personal certificate and she consented. This revealed a private wiki. There were details on thousands of server clusters, long columns of logins. There were directories of papers in progress, most of which claimed yet to have been reviewed or published. She couldn’t quite make sense of some of the titles, but it looked like he was working on documenting a pile of fresh new technology.
“This is a look behind the curtain, Pumpkin. I’m sorry it’s not more exciting like a cycle ride through cyberspace or whatever,” he said. “But, you can take me down with this, or you can help me carry on.”
“Do I have to do anything right now?”
“No, this stuff is paid up for months, through the end of the year at least. And, like you said, I’m not dead yet. In fact, I’m feeling better!” He delivered that last part with a horrible English accent, straight out of Monty Python.
She laughed. “Okay. That’s good. Can we just talk, then?”
“Sure, sweetie, whatever you want. I’ve got all the time in the world. And, anyway, you know it’s Sunday afternoon, right?”
Smiling, she sat back down in the corner chair and talked to her Dad – about work, about his granddaughter, about everything. Without moving his lips, he had plenty to say in return.