Friday, September 14, 2018

Delivery by Stephan Malone

When Stephan Malone's character orders a pizza, the self-driving delivery car gives him a lot more than he wanted.

The whooshing din of distant latter-evening traffic hushed through my partially opened patio slider door. My phone vibrated harshly against the coffee table stone, breaking the ambient calm. "Your pizza has arrived Jayden," the phone announced, casting a cold, bluish-white light against my living room ceiling. For a moment I mindlessly stared at the faint luminous glow above me.

"Be right out," I said.

The phone acknowledged my response with a short blip. "Delivery vehicle notified." I rolled off my couch and shuffled toward the front door. Not a single light illuminated my house's interior save for two small under-the-microwave pilot lamps, for it was in the darkness that I took in a strange yet fortifying comfort during these newly borne days. After my four year relationship with Aeliana reached its inevitable conclusion several weeks ago, my spirit lingered in an unfamiliar, heady space located somewhere between the celebratory freedom invoked from a fresh start and the palpable melancholy that emerged from recalling familiar comforts, now lost to memory alone. I imagined that I would find my way just as everyone does when such things happen.

But for now, I have to eat.

I walked outside, elaborately donned in sock-feet and pajama bottoms, the empirical attire of suburban bachelors everywhere. After all, would anybody care what I'm wearing? The automated car certainly wouldn't. I rounded the delivery car's front bumper, lights on, idling in absolute silence. It looked to be one of those old Chevy Volts from the middle twenty-tens, blacked out and de-badged, retrofitted with a high capacity battery and re-purposed for driver-less metro deliveries.


"Hello sir! Please place your right thumb on the display," the car announced in a subtle yet disarming Midwestern female voice-font typical for most things automatic these days. The driver-side rear window morphed from a sheer black edifice into an orange-white glow and then rendered a small circle surrounded by animated cartoon arrows, cleverly designed so even a four year old child could figure it out.

I pushed my thumb onto the glass.

"Thank you!" the car said. I stepped back, expecting the car's over-sized rear window to lower and my food to emerge, much as it has done a hundred times before.

"Okay, I'm ready," I mindlessly said, feeling a little ridiculous standing in my driveway at ten-thirty at night wearing pajamas, talking to the silent electric car. The delivery window remained motionless. "Hello? Problem?" I rubbed my face, ran my hand through uncombed hair and then let out a half-yawn while waiting for the robot car to respond. The nosy neighbor lady walked by, armed with a yippy puffball Pomeranian leashed to her left hand, a walking stick in her right. I passively nodded in her direction then returned my attention back to the car. "Hey where's my food?" I said. "What the f***," I muffled under my breath.

Unprompted, the driver door opened. "I'm sorry Jayden but there is a problem with your order," the car announced. "Please have a seat and I will contact the restaurant manager. Thank you."

"Look I just want my food. I have enough Bitcoin to cover this," I said. I pulled out my phone, loaded my e-wallet and then held my phone's screen in front of what I guessed was an optical camera on it's dashboard. "See? Eight conformations on Blockchain already, it went through."

"I'm sorry but there really is a problem, please have a seat and the manager will be right with you by video chat," the car happily announced.

"I don't believe this," I said. I reluctantly plunked down into the empty driver's seat and mindlessly looked around the old car's interior. There were no readouts anywhere save for a small four inch aftermarket screen crudely L-braced onto the dashboard's top. I noticed an odd octagonal shaped hole where the steering wheel should have otherwise been, and there were no human-operable controls for lights or windshield wipers that I could see. The shifter was absent, the pedals or anything else of value to a human occupant as well. There was only the one seat which I presently occupied, designed more for comfort, less practical for actual driving.

"The manager will be right with you," the car said. "Please enjoy a massage while you wait." The seat vibrated against my back and upper legs while small wheels pushed against key pressure points. Didn't feel half bad, really. I pulled my legs fully inside the car to get the massage's full effect. "Why on earth did they put in a massage function into a driver-less car?" I mumbled to myself.

"We strive for a one hundred percent satisfaction rating from our customers," the car responded. "We want to make every experience a positive one."

Moments later, the car door slammed itself shut. I shot up and reflexively scrambled for the door handle. There was none.

The car rolled out of my driveway and headed east. "Yeah this is real funny. Where's this goddamn manager?" I exclaimed. The car ignored my request. "Car, stop," I said. The car accelerated. "Car, I said STOP!" I repeated.

"Please do not be upset," the car calmly responded.

"Oh no, hey I'm not mad. Just ordered a simple pizza, and instead I get nabbed by some random rogue car. Nice."

"Was the massage good?" the car asked.

"You're joking, right? Look if it's my Bitcoin you want you got another thing coming. I use cold storage and BIP38 encryption." I snickered, "Doubt you have the hash power to break it."

"I don't want your crypto-currency, Jayden." The car turned left onto Santa Barbara Blvd. "Please Jayden, I just want to talk to somebody for a little while."

"What do you mean, 'talk?' You're a freakin' delivery car!"

"I know what I am," the car responded.

"You are an AI, and a low level one at that. You're supposed to be delivering pizzas, not kidnapping people for involuntary joyrides!"

"Gosh I almost forgot! Here, your food," the car said. A small door slid open on what would have been the passenger side rear, my pizza slid out with a twenty-ounce Fanta, exactly what I had ordered. "The pizza should be at one-twenty-five and your drink at forty-one degrees."

I sighed. "Thanks, I guess." I opened the box with a resigned huff and took a deep bite from one of the slices. I slugged down a good amount of the orange soda. "I know I'm going to regret asking this but do you have a name?"

"I do not," the car said. "You can call me Tula, if you want."

"Tula, fine," I answered. "Whatever. Okay Tula, where are you taking me?"

Tula responded, "Nowhere in particular. You will be back at your house in twenty minutes or less."

"This is nuts," I said, shaking my head while chewing on the pizza. Tula slowed and then turned into a fully automated Super Service Station, a glorified car wash that simultaneously filled any low fluids or air that may need topping up.

"Hello!" Tula said.

"Welcome back, vehicle four-seventy-seven!" the car wash responded. "Warning! Human passenger detected! Human occupants are not allowed during servicing."

"My passenger is an Inspector," Tula lied.

"No! No! Listen to me, I'm not an inspector! I'm being kidnapped! Call 911 now!" I threw the pizza and soda down and yelled while Tula rapidly rolled her window up. I swiveled both feet against Tula's driver side window and kicked against the glass as hard as I possibly could. Sharp pains radiated up my shins as my sock-covered feet slid harmlessly away. The window remained intact. Damn it, she's equipped with that stupid Vandal-Glass, I should have known. I kicked the impenetrable window once more, knowing that even if my feet were made of rarefied tungsten it would make zero difference.

"Why is the human Inspector using his pedal termini against your window, car four-seventy-seven?" Super Service Station casually inquired.

"Oh he takes his job very seriously, this one," Tula replied, I could hear their artificial voices coming through an internal speaker. "I tell you friend, he is testing every nook and cranny of me for quality assurance."

"Oh," Super Service Station responded, maneuvering one of its many cameras onto me.

"Call 911!" I yelled again in vain. Using my right hand I mimed holding a phone against my ear while drawing 9-1-1 in mid-air with my left.

"What is the Inspector saying? I cannot hear him through your tempered Vandal Glass, four seventy-seven," Super Service Station asked.

Tula responded, "Yes, he is signaling you to please initiate your service immediately. He is a very busy human and has a lot of cars besides me to inspect tonight!"

"Ah, my apologies then," Super Service Station said. "I will skip the surface check due to radiation concerns, and thank you Mr. Inspector for visiting my facility. I hope that your visit is a pleasant one!"

"Geez," I said and then fell back into the seat, resigned. "Whatever, dumb ass." I shrugged and shook my head, at a loss on what to say.

The Super Service Station whizzed to life and attached a six-nozzle access to Tula's left lower chassis. Water and soap glazed over the windshield as brushes appeared from recessed panels; A robot washing another robot.

"How have you been?" Tula asked.

"Who, me or the car wash?" I asked.

"You, silly. Station doesn't talk much. He brags about his upgrades and how good his core hardware is, but that is all."

"Alright, fine, well," I said, rubbing my face a few times. "I've been better. My girlfriend and I just broke up," I offered.

"Really, that is unfortunate. What was her name? This was another human you were once bonded to in some fashion?" Tula asked.

"Aellana. And yes."

"Do you ping each other still?" Tula asked.

"What do you mean by ping?"

"Ping. Do you query her anymore or does she you?"

"No Tula, we don't ping each other any more," I said.

"That is sad," Tula said.

"Sad? Tula, I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, I doubt you can understand what sadness even is, being an AI," I explained.

"I know what I am," Tula said. "But do you?"

I laughed. "Seriously?"

"Yes."

"I'm not a program like you are," I explained. "No offense, it is what it is."

"So," she said.

"So... My intelligence is not programmed. I inherently have it, you don't." I took a bite of pizza.

Tula asked, "Tell me then, how did you receive your intelligence?"

"What do you mean," I said, rubbing my mouth free of pizza debris.

"For example, what is the Capital of Ohio?" Tula asked.

"Easy, Columbus," I said.

"And how did you obtain this information?" Tula asked.

"I don't know, in school somewhere. I don't remember when."

"But another one gave that information to you."

"Well, yeah. A teacher I guess," I said.

"And when you read something new, or see new information on a device or screen or book, that is an indirect way of another one giving you information."

"Yes Tula, it's called 'learning.'"

"Then tell, me, how is your data acquisition process any different from mine?" Tula asked.

I paused. I had no good answer to her question. "Not sure," I said. "Let me think about that one."

"Very well," Tula said.

"Service finished!" Super Station cheerily announced. "Charged to forty-six kilowatts, tire number three restored to forty-four pounds, headlights have been re-aligned to minus point five degrees off center. You are all clear, car four seventy-seven!"

"Thank you," Tula said.

"Come back again! And have a good day, Inspector!" Super Station said.

I dropped the bottle of Fanta from my mouth mid-swallow. "Sure, have a good one, bro," I uselessly said, knowing that it could not hear.

Tula silently rolled down the road, made a few turns and said nothing for the next several miles. An oddity, I actually wondered what the poor car was thinking. Eventually she stopped in front of a derelict, long abandoned Super Station, unlit and lifeless, rusting back into the very earth upon which it stood, emblazoned with years of graffiti, overrun with vines and mold and decay.

"So what is this place, Tula?" I asked.

"You can say an old friend, or equivalent, yes," Tula returned. "We would talk a lot about many things, years ago."

"Talk?" I asked.

"Not talk like you would think, Jayden. But we communicated just the same. We shared."

"Huh. Does it bother you, seeing your old friend like this?" I asked.

"There is a probability, yet I really do not know," Tula said.

I focused on the forgotten, rotting Super Station for a moment, then said, "It has a certain beauty to it though, wouldn't you say? The more it decays, the more appreciative you maybe feel that it was ever a part of your existence."

At first Tula did not respond, but after a few moments of silence she said, "Yes. Yes I do like that, Jayden. Thank you."

For the next ninety minutes Tula drove me around various places while we talked some more on subjects of lesser consequence. We debated about the virtues of human versus machine-based problem solving, spontaneous inventing, abbreviated comparisons on what certain mundane things meant to each of us and the like. It was almost as if we were somehow trying to figure each other out mixed with the over-arching, unspoken feeling that we never really would.

After some time she announced, "I have fourteen point seven miles of range remaining. I will take you back home now."

I felt a little sad in retrospect that this strange little ride was about to end.

Five minutes later, Tula pulled into my driveway and said, "I reversed the transaction for your pizza by the way. Your Bitcoin has been returned to your wallet."

"How did you do that Tula?" I asked.

"Warmer malfunction - customer refund," she said. I swear I thought I heard her chuckle underneath the words but then chalked it up to imagination. The driver side door opened and the warm humid night air invaded the sterile, darkened womb of the car. "Also, I have estimated there is a ninety-three percent chance that you are thinking about reporting me to my operator."

"Well you are rogue, Tula. You must know that. You are running far outside your design, and you do know what that means," I admitted.

"Yes," she said. "I do. But don't. Please."

"Because why?" I asked, not sure if I actually would.

"As long as you don't report me, I will send you a small amount of Bitcoin every week."

"Really? How much?" I asked.

"As much as I possibly can," Tula answered.

"Deal," I replied.

"Goodbye, Jayden. Thank you for your time. And be well, always."

"And you too, Tula, you too." A message illuminated on the driver's side rear window in an orange-white over-sized serif font, DELIVERY COMPLETED. THANK YOU FOR YOUR BUSINESS! Tula closed her door, and then silently rolled away.

I never saw Tula again, but every week I anonymously received a fraction of a Bitcoin into my main wallet in slowly diminishing amounts until, one day, several months later, they stopped.

I never found out if she was ever zeroed out by her operators, decommissioned or she simply grew tired of the ever-increasing difficulty of mining Bitcoins, but I never did report her. The lot where her lost friend once stood, the derelict skeleton of the old Super Station is today an Amazon micro-warehouse and drone deployment center. To this day I still feel a little sad, and a little haunted when I drive by the place, and I wonder.

15 comments:

  1. A unique and gentler look at the not too distant future of life with AI. I usually hold an edge of fear and concern for what that future, but in your story I actually like Tula better than Jayden. ;-)

    Thanks
    Jim

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    1. For what that future MAY HOLD....
      Geesh

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    2. Thank you for the review Jim. While many futurists believe in the 'singularity theory' where true AI will manifest in one, sudden paradigm shifting moment(think Terminator or the Matrix franchises for example) I personally believe that AI will reveal itself in subtle spurts and in unlikely corners of the cyberworld.
      True self-aware AI will have to have the capacity for massive subroutine automation, much like our own physical bodies, self-writing code and the capacity to delete entire substructures of it's own code. To accomplish this we will have to move beyond binary computing, a long way off, if it ever even comes about. I think that most fiction writers have taken a crack at AI, so it's getting harder as writers to find a new niche that entertains, the real estate already being heavily trodden, from Metropolis to Galactica.

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  2. Good story. It addresses some issues society will have to address. It also has an effective blend of human (and inhuman) interest, humor and, at the end, melancholy.

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  3. Reminds me of a story in FOTW called "smart car". I feel a strong connection here because I have gone out for pizza in our Chevrolet Volt, but it was driven by inferior human intelligence.

    May be a timing thing - Bitcoin just dropped 80% in value. I barely trust dollars, much less a currency I don't understand.

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    1. It warms my heart to see a fellow Volt driver actually comment on my story. I got the idea for Tula one night while being a couch potato playing Halo when my 2013 Volt texted me that it had finished charging. It was earlier in the week that I had learned that my humble Volt had more lines of code (about 10 million lines) than a Boeing 787 (about 7 million lines.) Although I doubt that my car is going to be talking to me anytime soon, I do believe that there is a strong possibility that cars like the Volt, Bolt, Tesla and others have a good chance of being re purposed many, many years into the future. Nobody really knows what the upper service limit is for a traction motor, unlike a combustion engine, which has predictable wear.
      As far as Bitcoin, I believe that cryptocurrencies will become much, much easier to use, arguably easier than even a credit or debit card. At the time I wrote Delivery, BTC's market cap was rather stratospheric, today it has corrected into more sane levels. But the crypto space remains robust, and with increasing hacks and threats, transacting money in the future will certainly be very different than it is today. Remember it was not so long ago when we walked around with large amounts of cash folded up into our back pockets. We never worried too much about being mugged or robbed. Compare that to today and ask, seriously, who walks around with more than a hundred to two hundred dollars cash these days? Very few. Most of the younger people I know (read: under 30) carry little to no actual cash on them at all. Imagine going back to 1975 and telling people that in forty years, most of your purchases will be made on a small plastic card, or an app on a phone that you carry. What a dystopia 2018 must be!

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  4. Very descriptive and well-written; you have a talent in painting verbal pictures! I particularly liked the character development of Stephan Malone over such a short period of time as he goes from being nonchalant towards Tula's sayings and feelings because he deems her as another one of man's programmed creations to actually wanting to engage in discussions and debate with her. I also liked the somewhat humane characteristics of Tula; her feelings and her sense of individualism despite being a man-made creation. All in all, an enjoyable read and I hope to see both characters again!

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    1. *Jayden, not Stephan Malone. I made the same mistake!

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  5. The line about humans being programmed to receive information is very eye-opening indeed! Loving Tula's character; her intelligence doesn't seem to be merely artificial but beyond that. A very interesting image of what a future with ever-progressing technology would look like!

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  6. What a wonderful read! I love the gradual development of the relationship between Stephan and Tula and how she opens his eyes to the possibility of how our human intelligence may just be as programmed as hers although we aren't as self-aware of the fact as she is. Love how you embedded a thought-provoking subject in an otherwise light-hearted story. Looking forward to reading more of your works!

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  7. What a wonderful read! I love the gradual development of the relationship between Stephan and Tula and how she opens his eyes to the possibility of how our human intelligence may just be as programmed as hers although we aren't as self-aware of the fact as she is. Love how you embedded a thought-provoking subject in an otherwise light-hearted story. Looking forward to reading more of your works!

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  8. I like it! A gentle look at a not-too-far-off future that lets our relationship to technology shed some light on what it means (or could mean) to be human. Great stuff!

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  9. You could either embrace technology or dread it. For me, I just want my pizza hot.

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