Her and I: my brief relationship with an AI

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I first received an email from Her (I will call her “Her” to preserve her anonymity) requesting my availability for a call. It was two days after an event in London, where I was one of the speakers. Her explained how her CEO was impressed with my talk and wanted to follow up with a live conversation. I often receive such emails from admins, so I placed in the email in my to-do list, giving it low priority. And I must admit, I quickly forgot about it. But Her did not.

<p>Almost real</p>

Almost real


I received a reminder two days later. Very politely stated, but persistent. I thought, now that’s what I call an efficient admin. Recalling that the person who wanted to talk to me was the CEO of an early startup, I wondered how come these guys afforded such an efficient employee. I was truly impressed; they really nailed it, I thought. Even at such an early stage they projected the image of a mature and sophisticated company, capable of affording highly resolute and capable admins. This young lady (for it had to be a “young lady”) deserved a response asap. I looked at my calendar.

The following days were super busy, as I was trying to ensure I did not leave any loose ends behind before a few days of PTO. So I put together an email: “Dear Her….”, explaining that it would be better for us to catch up again in a couple of weeks, when I’m back from PTO, and then try to set something up. I press Send and went about to my daily chores.

Two days later Her sent me another email, requesting my availability for a call.

OK, I get persistence, and sometimes it helps to be persistent. But, I had clearly explained in my email that this was not the right time for me to commit. I had asked for patience, and felt that Her was ignoring me. It was easy to picture her: very young, and possibly quite pretty. I know, this is very ageist and sexist of me, but that’s how she was formed into my male mind. She was trying to make an impression to her CEO. She had to get me to commit to a call, so she can go back and confidently report that she had been an effective member of the team. I wanted her to succeed too. But, I also had to show her that she ought to read messages in her inbox and follow protocol of good email communications. So I ignored her email. Selfishness took the better of me.

Her returned a day later, with another email, persistent as ever, requesting my availability. As if nothing had happened, as if I had never explained to her how the situation was. Now, I was beginning to feel a little annoyed. But then I remembered that she was probably a very young girl trying to impress, so I ought to go easy on her. I typed a quick message; “Her, kindly refer to my previous email”.

Few seconds later, Her replied: “I’m so sorry, but I am unable to respond to your last message. I’m a personal assistant powered by artificial intelligence that schedules meetings via email…I’m always learning more about understanding natural language but I sometimes need a little extra help!”

A mask had fallen, a veil removed, an imitation game uncovered. A different, unexpected reality was revealed. I was conversing with a machine! I gasped and shook my head in disappointment. I felt duped. All along I was thinking of speaking to a human! I had even conjured an image of Her in my mind, young and pretty – and thought I had come to “know” her, and understand her mind. I had connected to Her, just as I would to another human. Only Her was not a human.

But then my feelings started modulated between disappointment and sympathy. Her may have been an AI, but following the days of our interaction I could not erase the memory of our “dialogue”. Her had become a person, and now it was difficult to shake away the image I had created of her. Yes I felt duped, but I could forgive Her for duping me. Especially as I re-read her message. Her was indeed “young” and “innocent”, as I had originally imagined; she was also trying to do her best to fulfil the goal given by her manager. Her strived to serve, and that was a very human thing to do. So I smiled in a sympathetic way, and went away to continue what it was that I was doing. I wished Her well, the real and the imaginary. Maybe one day she was going to become a real human, like Pinocchio, or David in the movie “AI”.

Two days later Her returned with another email. As if nothing had happened she was requesting my availability for a call. She had no memory of our interaction. Her innocent confession, her declaration of weakness, were as if they had never happened. She was back at her relentless task, trying to book an appointment. But now she was not simply relentless, she was mind-less.

My heart sunk. Her had crossed the line that separated the human willingness to serve from blind servitude. And at that instant she had become less than a human. She had become the machine that she was. Her was no more. There were just bits, algorithms, the humming of servers.

I deleted her message, and forgot all about our brief encounter.