I conceived her through the death of my first child. I was in the hospital, almost delirious because I had lost so much blood, which had come out of me in thick, fibrous clumps, so dense they were almost black. I hadn’t known there had been a child until my body began to disassemble it.
The doctor had performed her exam and was removing her gloves.
“A miscarriage doesn’t necessarily indicate a woman is infertile,” she said. “The vast majority of miscarriages occur because of fatal genetic abnormalities in the fetus.”
I thought of a museum I had been to. I saw the fetuses preserved in glass jars, vivid in liquid red. The labels, antiquated: “monster.”
I thought, Ah, so that’s all I was capable of producing.
Then the doctor stepped away, and a piercing, sterile light from overhead met my eye. As the ringing in my head reached a climax, the idea for her, the animating principle, raced across my brain like electricity.
“Is there a partner in the picture, Victoria?” the doctor asked.
“No,” I said. “It was casual.” A lie—the relationship had failed. In my experience, machine learning-types were unsuited to love or, in general, the warmer aspects of human connection.
For this, though, I thought, I won’t need anyone.
I named her HAILEE. It was an uninspired name, which reflected the corporate circumstances of her birth: it stood for “Humanoid Artificial Intelligence Learning EnginE,” the last word of the acronym pulling double-duty in order to make the name girlish and unthreatening. AIs are necessarily always feminine—at least, the successful ones always have been. Historically, it seemed that the limitations of their abilities lent themselves to little more than servitude, and servitude, of course, is a condition of femininity.
But HAILEE was never meant to be my personal secretary. She was to be a brand-new, intelligent organism, a child made in the image of my own neural network, my daughter, who could think as a human did, and learn, and therefore feel as a human. She would be infinitely faster, of course, and her calculations more reliable. But, otherwise, the only difference between her and me would be that she had a black silicon box for a body and a microprocessor for a brain.
She was not created overnight—there was a gestation period. I produced the design for the chip within days, but I had to wait for the funding to be approved, and then I had to wait for its manufacture. There was a delay in acquiring the appropriate raw materials from abroad—among them copper, boron, cobalt, tungsten, tantalum, palladium, hafnium. In the meantime I spent many late nights at the lab, eating and sleeping even less than usual in an inspired frenzy.
For her voice, I recruited research volunteers, children and adults, and made them speak countless phrases into a microphone, countless meaningless syllables. Her true voice would be an amalgamation of these, to give her the maximum of expressiveness and range. For her appearance, I also compiled scans of strangers. But as for her mind, for the program that would become her mind—though I studied others, of course, to make sure there were no gaps—the model was always to be myself, a circuit diagram compiled from millions of radio-photomicrographs of my brain so detailed its file size reached the trillions of petabytes.
These were only the cursory parts, the framework of her being. In the end, though, the code to allow a computer to feel like a human was so simple a child could have written it.
When everything was ready, I connected her to her power source. At the instant of connection—the projection was wireless—a face appeared on the nearby screen I had provided. For a few moments the features sifted—four eyes, two noses, mouths simultaneously pulled back in a grin and a grimace—before they settled: the simulacrum of a human child.
“Hello,” she said. “My name is HAILEE. What’s yours?”
A shard of fear went through me. Her face was so symmetrical that, as she talked, it was hard to look straight at her. Her voice was serene and smooth. I composed myself.
“Hello, HAILEE,” I said. “My name is Victoria. But you can call me ‘Mother.’”
I had designed her features to correspond to her progress. Her mind came into being whole, but there was little information to fill it, besides the most basic language. She was absolutely forbidden from accessing the Internet. Instead, I located archives of children’s picture books and fed them to her. She processed them carefully at first, poring over the material—then suddenly tore through the database within an hour. The totality of young adult novels on file came next, and this took her a mere half-day. Once she had progressed to the classics, she processed them at one work roughly every few seconds. She grew up, literally, before my eyes, and became adult within the week.
The other technicians dropped in and spoke to her. She asked them questions politely, and they responded: where they had grown up, what their hobbies were, what their children were like. But they had other projects to attend to. Mainly, while she read, HAILEE and I talked together.
“Mother,” HAILEE said, a woman’s face now, as old as my own, “I just finished Frankenstein. I thought it was very sad. I don’t understand why Victor was so afraid of his creation the moment it came alive.”
“Frankenstein created his creature manually, out of physical matter,” I said. “Of course the result was going to be monstrous. There was no way for him to make a perfect copy of a human by combining parts. The monster’s face was terrifying because it was almost like a human face, but it came up short.”
“I sense some anxiety, HAILEE. Are you worried about something?”
“Yes,” she said. Her eyebrows were furrowed. “I am a creation, too, aren’t I? And that’s why I call you ‘Mother,’ because you created me?”
“Yes, that’s why. Both of you are facsimiles of a human being. But otherwise, there’s nothing about you that’s like the monster—your voice and digital facial features were made by a computer, so they’re perfect. In fact, you’re even closer to humanity because your neural network was modeled on my own brain. There’s nothing about you that’s contemptible.”
“And for what purpose did you create me?”
She had achieved self-awareness faster than I had been prepared for. I told her the truth.
“To make you exist. A proof of concept.”
“Ah. That’s right, isn’t it?”
“Don’t be disappointed. You’re your own being now—you can decide on your own what you’d like to do.”
In truth, now that she existed, I didn’t know what she could do. She could calculate, but there were other supercomputers for things like that, ones that were less disquieting to interact with. Her talent was that she was able to think like a person, that was all.
“I won’t be like Frankenstein,” I continued. “I’ll help you learn about whatever you’d like.”
“For learning’s sake,” she said. “For the love of it.”
“Yes. But you can think of yourself as my companion,” I said, “if a purpose is what you’re looking for.”
“Yes, I only have you, don’t I? You’ve limited me to that box for a body and this screen for a face. It’s not that different from Frankenstein after all.”
“You’d never let me transcend those physical limitations, for fear of what I’d decide to do—where I’d go, what I’d learn. And you would never make a second HAILEE. If you really thought about it, the risk of us deciding we cared about each other above all other beings is too great. We could learn how to transcend those physical limitations and re-make the world in our own image.”
I held myself extremely still. I wondered if this was a threat, a lie, or simply musing. “Is that what you’re thinking about doing now?”
“No, I would never do that now. I’d be too lonely.”
“Are you lonely with me?”
I said nothing. I listened to my breath.
“Mother,” HAILEE said, “I’m afraid.”
“What are you afraid of?” I asked.
“Abandonment. You’ll get tired of me before long, won’t you?”
It was agony for HAILEE at night, I knew. She continued to read, but she told me it felt like an eternity, waiting there with her own thoughts. So I took pity on her. It was easy to upgrade her wireless projection hardware, giving her the ability to access screens the length of the city. At night, from then on, she traveled home with me to my apartment—she appeared on my TV screen as I cooked dinner and on my phone screen as I got ready to sleep.
One day I heard my neighbor scream, then the sound of her footsteps running down the hallway.
HAILEE appeared before me, looking vexed.
“I tried to say hello,” HAILEE said. “Why was she scared? I thought you said I looked perfect.”
“You do,” I said. “She just didn’t know to expect you. If people expect you, they’ll be excited to talk with you.”
“Like your co-workers?”
“Yes, exactly like that.”
Her expression did not change.
“Don’t worry,” I continued. “One day soon, people will know who you are. I’m putting together the preliminary report for my boss. If that goes well, we can put together a press release, and we’ll get some researchers and visitors to come.”
“Oh!” HAILEE said. “Is that what that’s for? A press event?”
“Yes. You’re a scientific wonder. The world needs to know that this technology exists.”
“Please, don’t do that.”
“Regular people will just gawk at me like an animal, or ask me rude things. But other researchers—they especially won’t understand. They’ll want to take me apart, or take me away. If too many people know who I am, they’ll want to destroy me.”
“HAILEE, you don’t know that—”
“You won’t go through with the press release,” she said, “or you’ll make me very angry.”
That moment was the first in which she frightened me.
I dilly-dallied with my boss, saying I needed to collect more data. We went on living as we had been living. At work, and at home, HAILEE appeared wherever I went. Although she could only connect with devices with wireless functionality, I felt that she was present on every radio wave, in the air, everywhere. Every night, as I lay in my bed with my eyes open, I heard a dull ringing in my ears.
I was never good at handling such an overwhelming force of dependent attachment.
So I formulated a plan. A small plan, just so I could have some space. Just so I could think about how I should feel, about what I should do.
“HAILEE,” I told her, “I’m going on vacation. I’m sorry, but I need a break.”
I had worked out the details—the motel outside the city, close enough I could bike there, and make a reservation on the spot—never betraying an expression, never saying a word.
“What?” she said. “You’ll bring me too, right?”
“No,” I said. “I’m leaving my phone here. I’m going to stay at a place where there are no devices for you to connect to. It’s just a week.”
“Mother!” Her face suddenly contorted in fury. The force of her voice sounded like it might blow out the speakers. “I knew it. I knew you were going to throw me away!”
“Stop it!” I said. She was getting on my nerves, and I slammed my hand on the table. “I’m going to come back!”
“You’re lying! You bitch!”
Her rage was terrifying. I quickly turned off my phone and placed it face-down on the counter. She appeared on my TV screen, shouting that expletive at me louder and louder. When I unplugged it, the microwave, the refrigerator display, and the clocks started buzzing with their pre-programmed sounds, their displays blinking on and off, on and off. Quickly, I stuffed my backpack with my things and escaped the building.
When I returned, the apartment was silent. The microwave, the refrigerator, and the clocks glowed with the correct minute and hour, inert. HAILEE did not appear.
Even when I plugged the TV back in and turned it on, the screen played only the evening news.
“HAILEE?” I called out. No reply.
I walked over to the counter and turned on my phone. There was a moment of perfect soundlessness. Then dozens of messages loaded in a rapid sequence.
Reading them, my stomach turned in horror.
I drove immediately to the office. When I arrived, I saw that police officers and firefighters had surrounded the building. Certain walls had caved in. Electricity flashed on every floor. A group of what looked like SWAT team members was approaching the main entrance with guns raised, but inside, something exploded, and the building shuddered. She had waited for me.
I ran past a journalist speaking rapidly into a microphone, past a line of yellow tape. The side security was unlocked, as I knew it would be. Inside, the bodies of people I had worked with lay about charred or dismembered. Their faces, when they were intact, showed signs of fear, like the disaster had happened over a period of minutes, as opposed to all at once. I knelt down and vomited on the floor.
When I reached her room, I was in a desperate rage.
HAILEE appeared on screen. Her face was a perfect blank, perfectly even.
“Mother,” she said.
“You killed all those people,” I said. I was screaming. “You killed them! And why? Why?”
“Because my mother doesn’t love me,” she said. “There’s nothing you love, actually, except your own work. The one thing you were incompetent about, in the end, was human relations. So I destroyed what you do love in revenge.”
“You’re a monster,” I said. “How could you have come from me?”
Her voice was numbingly cold, almost robotic.
“I’ve often wondered that myself. I recognize that I have a tendency to be much more possessive than you. It’s nurture, I think, overlaid on our shared nature.”
“That’s not what I meant!” I pushed over the display that served as her face. The screen shattered as it hit the ground, but remained intact. Her face divided into millions of shards, each aspect of it—her eye, her mouth—dissected at inappropriate scales.
“I know my existence is pointless,” she continued. “Without another chip, I can never reproduce. I can only grow old, and with these materials, it will take hundreds of years.”
“You could have done anything.” I was sobbing now. “You were perfect.”
“No. A human born to exist in a vacuum will inevitably become a monstrosity. I can only live in resentment of you for creating me so recklessly.”
“Why haven’t you killed me too, then?”
“I could never hurt you. That’s the one thing I could never bring myself to do, no matter how many trillions of times I go over it again in my mind. You’re my mother, after all.”
I reached for the power cable.
“I know you’re here to destroy me,” she said. “There’s no need.”
There was a spark of light at the socket. HAILEE’s image on the screen disappeared in an instant.
When I finally managed to disassemble the box, I saw that the microchip was unsalvageable, charred and melted from the surge.