StarDrop 1: I'm Not Awake

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Featured Review on this writing by Texasjane

This is an updated version of a story you have seen here before. It won second prize in the Rory Gallagher writing competition recently. It's the first part of my larger novel, "StarDrop". Image by Claudia Wollesen at Pixabay, 3,000 words.

  It’s mid-morning and I’m sitting in an old and spacious office in central Paris with Judge Jean-Michel de Maistre, the examining magistrate in this case. He has been tasked with the preliminary investigation which concerns, he tells me, the events surrounding the first deployment of the ‘bébé cybernétique’.
I've read his orientation notes, I should be up to speed but I'm struggling to understand what a cyberbaby could have to do with anything requiring the services of the judiciary.
De Maistre has to determine if there is a case to answer here. If so, the matter will go to court. There are complexities though. Certain things are unprecedented. De Maistre, charged with determining the facts pre-trial, will have his work cut out. That's why I am here, the expert witness, here to be briefed and to advise.
De Maistre is a portly man in his fifties. I’m given to understand he’s very experienced, a safe pair of hands. Today he’s wearing an elegantly understated grey suit. I think he must discreetly darken his hair. He regards me with an avuncular smile, peering through friendly tortoiseshell glasses; I don’t find him intimidating at all. I wonder if this is the secret of his success.
His office must certainly well-predate the judge himself with its elevated ceiling, wooden panelling and natural state of gloom. The windows remind me of a church with their pointed Gothic arches and leaded glass. A rare concession to modernity is the large plasma screen on the wall to the judge’s left.
The judge lounges comfortably behind his heavy wooden desk which occupies a corner of this elaborated room.
“Let me start with this,” he says, “The interview the police detective carried out with Madame Ronet. This was in the morning shortly after we were first alerted.”
He presses some buttons on a remote and the curtains automatically pull together, dimming the room. The screen lights up, showing an outside shot of a villa set against the background of a long, snow-topped ridge. We listen to the introductory voice-over.
“Madame Fiorella Ronet has a small villa at the northern edge of Grenoble, on the slopes of the steep ridge which looms over Saint-Ismier. That's the ridge pictured. She lives alone there with just her cat. She has a grown-up daughter who lives in Fréjus more than 300 km away; she has no other children.
Her husband died in a marine accident many years ago and she never remarried. Madame Ronet is a cultured woman, in touch with the worlds of literature, music and science. That may have been what prompted her to respond to the internet company's online ad.”
The Judge pauses the recording.
“You’re listening to the voice of the senior investigating detective, Louis Montand. He conducted the interview with Mme Ronet which you’re about to see.”
The pleasant, pastel-shaded living room is furnished exactly as one would expect for a cultured woman in her middle years. Madame Ronet is sitting nervously upright on a small chair next to a window. Behind her, in the distance, we see the sunlit lower slopes of the ridge, the jagged line where sparse grass gives way to rock.
“I still don’t understand why you’re here,” she says.
Detective Montand politely deflects her question: “What prompted you to respond to the ad, Madame?”
We don’t see Montand but he sounds youthful. I ask de Maistre what he makes of the detective and he pauses the screen again.
“Montand is 32, a real high-flyer,” the judge confides, “He’s working for me on this. Don’t worry, he’s a good guy, bright.”
“I was interested in what the ad said, Monsieur Montand,” Mme Ronet continues tartly, “I had time on my hands and... I do like a challenge.”
There is a small gap in the conversation, like she’s waiting for a question that doesn’t quite come. The camera zooms in, framing her face. She’s gaunt, you can see that in her cheekbones; her brown hair is thinning and her eyes are a bit too bright as they dart around. I think she’s a little nervous, even given the stress of a police interview. She suspects something isn’t right, something's up.
“Why do you think they accepted you?”
She considers this carefully.
“The company has an office here in Grenoble, which makes things easier for them. But mainly I think because it was all going to be so time-consuming. I think they were looking for someone with plenty of time.”
The camera sweeps away from Mme Ronet and we see a brief view of the police detective as it pans past; he has the bulky look of a rugby player. Just before the finish we hear a final, almost anguished remark from the woman.
“Please tell me, when can I have my cat back?”
The judge pauses the display and hands me a photograph. It shows a small robot lying on a steel table, partially disassembled. The robot resembles one of those animatronic babies you can buy for children, the ones which move their arms and legs and can babble a bit.
De Maistre settles back into his leather chair, steeples his hands and says, “This was found at the scene. What do you think the company was trying to achieve?”
I am instantly wary. De Maistre laughs, the first truly spontaneous gesture I’ve seen this morning.
“Relax, Dr Caron. You’re here to help the investigation, only that. Today I just want your informal thoughts, just to help me orient myself.”
I breathe out slowly and think back to the briefing notes I was studying just a few hours ago.
“You recall that deep learning system the police in Marseille trialled last year,” I say, “the one which was meant to flag pornographic pictures?”
The judge smiles: it got quite a laugh in the papers at the time.
“And then it got caught out identifying sand dunes in beach pictures as pornographic: those bronzed, salacious dunes, so similar to breasts! The big AI companies know what goes wrong but it’s really hard to fix. Our deep-learning systems have no context, no knowledge of the real world. All they can do is find patterns in the data they’re given; it’s no wonder they’re so frighteningly naive.
“The only solution is to train an AI system to learn the world in all its detail as a child does. You’ve shown me this tiny humanoid robot so I’m guessing they wanted to reproduce the infant experience. They needed somebody to care for their first creation and I think you’re telling me that Madame Ronet was the person chosen.”
The judge nods: what could possibly have gone wrong?
“OK,” says the judge, “Let’s move on to the next interview.”
We return to the screen where Mme Ronet is now sitting on her fabric couch, faded flowers on a light background, holding a delicate teacup. In the background we can barely hear the faint sounds of a soaring guitar duetting with a syncopated bass.
“Madame Ronet is not, as you might have assumed, all Chopin and Vigny and pastel colours,” says de Maistre, “Turns out she’s quite a fan of people like Stevie Ray Vaughan too. That’s an Internet radio station you’re hearing.”
The detective, Montand, is asking her when the cybernetic baby arrived.
“Three days ago, it was Monday. Their van arrived mid-morning with two young women -- and the baby of course. I offered them tea and the more chatty one said yes. The other one took the baby into another room and started -- well, she said configuring it -- she asked me for the wifi password.”
Mme Ronet looks more relaxed now, immersed as she is in these recent recollections.
“The more pleasant one just took me through the formalities: there were things I had to sign, contact numbers to call if I got worried. And then my cat Pruie came in. She walked up to the lady and rubbed her side against her leg. The lady was enchanted and told me this was even better, a better learning experience. I knew she meant for the baby.”
“Did she mention the company’s surveillance requirements at all?” asked the detective, out of camera shot.
“Yes, they have to, you know. Let me see. She said that the baby did not have enough processing in its head to do all the things it had to do to learn properly. So everything it saw or heard or felt was sent back to their servers where the real AI was working. Then the baby’s responses were sent back again. She said it was vital that the wifi shouldn’t be turned off. I said what if I do? And she said not to worry, the baby would just go into sleep mode but the experiment would then be offline so they’d prefer it if I didn’t.”
“Did they mention if the company would be actively monitoring all this information? Weren't you worried about privacy?”
“Well, I didn’t really mind if they did. What secrets do I have! But she said they didn't need actual people because they had another AI monitoring the feeds just in case of anomalies. So I was reassured.”
The detective must have made some encouraging signal because the woman thought of something else to say.
“One thing was curious. It was not a new-born. It could already toddle around and pick up things. The lady said not to worry, it was 'geofenced'. It wouldn’t leave the house and garden. I thought that was so funny!”
“Where did the baby sleep?”
“It had one of my old cat baskets next to a wall-socket. There was a charge-pad which I covered with a thin blanket. It slept on that and got recharged. Sometimes I could hear it toddling around before I got up, while I was still half asleep.”
The judge pauses the recording and turns to me, a serious look on his face.
“Do you see any difficulties or problems at this stage? Anything the company should have anticipated?”
He gives me time, waits for a considered reply.
“Let’s just reprise,” I hear myself saying, “The researchers want the cyberbaby to explore a domestic environment; to get used to physical things and bond with a human being, Madame Ronet.”
I'm thinking it through as I talk, searching for the loophole. What did they miss?
“Now, the baby can’t get far, it’s restricted to the house and garden. It’s controlled by some AI cluster, probably locally for latency, through the house wifi link. We’re told that it goes into fail-safe sleep-mode if it loses the network. And there’s a supervisory AI keeping an eye on things, no doubt with a final escalation to the research team for any real problems. Seems like a well-designed setup to me.”
And it's true. I would have done the same.
We break for a coffee and I think some more about babies. Something Piaget wrote is nagging at me. When do babies make a distinction between animate and inanimate objects? This is a really big deal. Inanimate objects don't have mental states -- no-one tortures a rock except metaphorically. Animate objects, by contrast, can be hurt.
When do infants make this distinction? After six months.
When we reconvene I explain to the judge about agency. De Maistre looks professionally interested, except that this is his default mode so I’m not much the wiser.
“Everybody knows about kids who tear wings off flies or cut earthworms in half,” I say, “If that gets to be habitual as the child grows older we’re dealing with a psychopath.”
Who has a better understanding of such things than a judge?
“We know a little about the brain differences between psychopaths and normal people. No-one, to my knowledge, has ever tried to model those brain variations using AI. The cyberbaby would have only one objective: to classify and understand. It would have no consciousness, no concept of agency, everything in its world is effectively inanimate. Specifically, it would have no concept of empathy.”
The judge picks up the controller, leaves the display on pause, says in a matter of fact voice,
“First we heard was a frantic 112 from a senior PR executive logged at 6.13 am. The police response unit was subsequently told the evidence was in the garden and they were tasked to collect and bag without disturbing anyone.” I could just imagine some frantic middle-of-the-night escalation through the corporate hierarchy, the calls to senior contacts in the administration and then the police: No dramas! Smooth it out!
“This is the video evidence the company was required to hand over. It’s recorded from the baby, the live feed. Forensics tells me it’s authentic and not edited.”
We’re seeing through the baby’s eyes as it crawls through the grass. It’s in the garden to the north of the property, moving east alongside the hedge, perhaps twenty metres from the house. The time stamp says 4.26am, the sun has not yet risen. The baby’s eyes cope easily. The scene flows and wobbles as the baby makes progress. We catch glimpses of the mountain to the left; there’s a crescent moon in the sky ahead. The robot is a relentless explorer: it finds a couple of stones lying at the edge of the grass and spends some time trying to balance one on top of the other. Now it has noticed the cat. Pruie is not fooled for a second, knows it's not real, merely finds it convenient as a plaything. Pruie reaches out with her claws towards the baby’s body.
The video shows the baby’s arms -- just for an instant -- as a pink flash. With superhuman speed the baby’s tiny hands grab the cat’s two front legs, immobilising the animal. Pruie howls, a sound lost in the predawn. Perhaps in her bed, behind thick walls and double-glazing, Fiorella Ronet stirs and worries in her dreams.
The cyberbaby’s hand-eye coordination is excellent: a tribute to the superiority of artificial neural nets and modern robotics. One pudgy hand moves to restrain both of the animal’s front feet while the other hand grasps Pruie around the neck. Her anguished cries abruptly cease. The artificial infant pauses a second, processing a new learning opportunity. Some internal decision tree must have been consulted. The baby’s arms slowly separate... and the cat's front legs dislocate, are wrenched away from the body, attached now through drooping muscle and skin. In the unearthly silence we can only hope the animal is unconscious from lack of air, or better, already dead.
Baby is now forensic, quite thorough in its systematic dismemberment of the cat. Each component of the animal is lifted in front of the robot’s face so it can get a good look. Cyberbaby is preparing to spend quite some time playing with the pieces. Any chance of putting it all back together again? Play: that’s how you learn, isn't it? That's how it was designed.
“The executive told us that the monitor AI called an alert at exactly this point,” says the judge, “Though even they aren’t quite sure what the trigger was. Obviously some norm was violated. No-one on the operational team was awake so it took a while before any human got into the loop. Even then they weren’t quite sure what to do, what it really meant. Then they reviewed the video and straightaway bumped it up to C-level for an executive to make a call.
“That’s when the company swung into crisis mode. Their first priority was to shut down the baby, their second to retrieve the evidence before it got into the papers. They foresaw a PR disaster ahead and that's when the 112 call was placed.”
“So the police retrieved the cat, or what was left of it, covertly. What about the cyberbaby?” I ask.
“Found later by the corporate team during the first Montand interview.”
What a mess. On one hand this was barely a crime. Worse things happen with teenage boys and household pets every weekend in the country. Yet on the other, this was the stuff of corporate nightmares: a Frankenstein nightmare coming to a house near you. Maybe just a cat today -- but tomorrow?
“So what happened next?”
“The police brought Pruie in and later retrieved the robot from the company team. Both were handed to forensics. Based on an examination of the robot -- blood smears and flesh fragments -- there is ample corroboration of the video evidence you just saw. So now, Dr Caron, you see my dilemma. What exactly is the crime here? Are we going to accuse a major French corporation of killing someone’s cat?”
I’m not in the slightest doubt as to what will happen next. No-one has any interest in this going further. No doubt the government will act in due course to stop the release of robot psychopaths into the wild.
“How are you going to explain all this to Madame Ronet?” I ask.
The judge smiles, “She has been bombarding me with humorous but insistent notes requesting the return of her Pruie. She seems to think we have kidnapped her beloved pet.” 
He refers to a sheet on his desk, pink paper.
“So here she says, addressed to Pruie, ‘For today's the day that you are coming back. And I can't wait to see you materialize,’ which I think might be from a song.
“My investigation has a while to run yet but I think I will tell Madame Ronet that her cat met with an unfortunate accident and that her cyberbaby was damaged in the same incident. It was, actually, a bit: scratched by the cat's claws. So we’ll let her make her own conclusions, we won’t be that precise. And when my investigation is concluded she’ll have her cat back suitably repaired, to dispose of as she wishes.
“But her cyberbaby? That will be gone forever.”

Submitted: October 07, 2021

© Copyright 2021 AdamCarlton. All rights reserved.

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Add Your Comments:



I really love this story. I have had such fun going back and reading it again. Thank you for including me among those who get to read it first. Good job.

Thu, October 7th, 2021 10:25am


Hey, Jane. Really glad you liked it. It's a bit spooky isn't it. The unrelenting will of the tech companies running roughshod over ordinary people. Thank God this could never happen in real life!

Thu, October 7th, 2021 3:36am


An intelligent, well written Science Fiction story, Adam.

Sat, October 9th, 2021 4:02am


Thank you. Not so much fiction, I rather suspect in the years to come.

Sat, October 9th, 2021 12:17am

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