“Arrive in 15.5!” read the signs in the Through Town Tube station, and the oversized digital clock at the front of the train encouraged riders to count down the 15 seconds of the sonic commute.
“Give or take a millisecond” he muttered, still perseverating over the silly argument he’d had with Trish about the stove-top coffee maker he’d been holding onto. She’d threatened, once more, to toss it in the trash, and he’d sworn (again) that push-button coffee couldn’t match the rich espresso the vintage pot produced.
He stepped onto the train, waved and smiled ruefully in the direction of the driver, had there been a driver. He missed drivers. He suddenly missed moving about in his own car. “Control,” he thought. “A sense of control. Independence.”
Then he waved his hand in front of the biometric reader. The new scanners required no contact. His eyes lingered, as usual, on the bright shiny placard above it that read, “GFJ Reader: Enjoy Your Germ Free Journey.” It was a phrase he had at one time wanted to sing out loud. He’d written it as an entry in a competition opened by the Department of Transportation, Commerce and Information to name and create a slogan for the new, no-touch biometric hand readers, but the feeling of pride he initially felt for having won the contest had been replaced by something dark and bitter. Even the faint purr of the ventilation system annoyed him today. He appreciated that the entire passenger capsule self-disinfected before, after and during every trip through a process of ambient ionization, but the soft buzz it emitted seemed calculated to get you to slap your headphones on. Signs everywhere assured that commuting with TTT was the safest and healthiest bet ever. Another slogan (which he had NOT written) read “The air is cleaner inside than outside!”
“That ain’t much to brag about” he retorted in his mind.
But what had touched this whole thing off (this most recent thing) was the discovery that the winning slogan (his winning slogan) had been judged and awarded by a single bot. This he’d discovered, well after the fact, when it was announced on the Department’s webpage for the competition. But what disquieted him even more, was that the entrusting of a bot to judge a creative competition had been announced and accepted so matter of factly by the populace. Folks, it seemed, just shrugged off the automation of practically anything these days.
He was no Luddite mind you. He had been one of the first of his friends and family to join the Solution Party (their slogan: If you're not Solution you’re the Problem) which posited AI as one of the Pillars of the Future. He had voted ‘For’, and even helped campaign for the referendum to place the Germ Free Scanners in every school in the District. So now he was greeted every morning not only on the train when commuting but also when entering his workplace with “Good morning, Mr. Daigle” in the exact same canned voice after each little pass of his hand.
But this thing… He was a schoolteacher and, though he had no real aspiration or vocation for greater creative endeavors than his current work, it just seemed wrong that a bot had judged and awarded his slogan. And how, even with level 4 AI intelligence, could a bot reliably choose the best slogan, algorithms notwithstanding? A bot could easily then correct all of his students’ work. Even the critical, open-ended, subjective tasks. But this wasn’t true, was it?
He’d discussed all this with Trish, and he’d asked her “how much of the ‘thinking’ work of the Department of Transportation, Commerce and Communications would ya bet is actually performed by bots? You know, not just the automated train piloting systems, information kiosks, cleaners, ticket clerks, etc., but what about the decision making roles?”
“No idea” she allowed, before slipping her smart-glasses on to get back to her favorite interactive virtual YourFlix series. Her avatar was the promiscuous youngest daughter of a eighteenth century Spanish duke, and she thought of little else during her free time lately.
He began researching the organization of the Department. And why not start with the z-mail message he’d received that announced his slogan had been chosen? “Congratulations! You will never have to recharge your TTT transit card again. Your slogan has been chosen out of hundreds of entries… Yours Truly, Leonard Dyer, Chief Officer of the DTCI.” The z-mail, while his eyes scanned the text, read out loud in what was ostensibly a perfect simulation of Dyer’s voice. A deep, but honey-smooth pitch and a standard English dialect. Dyer was, in fact, the only high-level staff member that appeared in Daigle’s internet searches, and he had a Wikipedia entry: “Leonard Edward Dyer is the head of the Department of Transportation, Commerce and Information. Born, June 14 1978, Newark, New Jersey. Political Party: Solution.”
Daigle found no further personal details about Dyer. There were some photographs in the Images search, but most were headshots of a fairly nondescript middle-aged man with mildly ethnic-looking features.
Right before the Tube shot off towards downtown, Daigle slipped on his Grabber headset. The train began its steady but intense acceleration. With the earpods snuggled in, and the two electrodes gently clamped on his temples, he sent this thought-command question: “Google Mind, is Leonard Dyer a bot?” The personalized background music emanating from the phone stopped. The screen froze. He looked up and watched the seconds on the clock pass 15 without the train slowing down. He turned to look at the other passengers and the lights went out. A throat full of NO rushed to work its way out of his mouth, and then Daigle, too, went blank.
LC Gutierrez is a product of many places in the South and the Caribbean, as well as writing and comparative literature programs at Louisiana State and Tulane University. An erstwhile academic, he now writes, teaches and plays trombone in Madrid, Spain. His work is most recently published or forthcoming in South Florida Poetry Journal, Sweet, Trampoline Journal, Hobart and Rabid Oak. LC recommends Policies for the Poor.