It was unusual because it seemed so real. It was practically lucid, except I was still in that dream-state that keeps you ignorant to the fact you are dreaming. However, the passage of time, the flavors of things, the glow of computer monitors, the sound of music and people talking, thoughts, feelings, and the feeling of hospital sheets were completely vivid and believable. It's length was almost — dare I say this confounded word? — impossible.
Sparrow, if you're out there somehow, in the multiverse, somehow, I love you, okay?
It was another day in Palmer for me. It was just normal life. Eventually, I went back North to college, and things took off. Suddenly, it was years ahead. All of my education goals had been met after a long struggle. I was an illustrator, back in the Mat-Su valley...
The D&D playing programs.
I was either living with or constantly hanging out with guido_jacobs. He was really good with computers, and had a lot of fun stuff like that around. We had a ton of fun messing with it all! We were sitting around with a few people, talking and laughing, when we came up with the idea for an AI system that plays Dungeons and Dragons. It sounds off-the-wall, and I guess it kind of was. Basically, it was a stack of programs that acted somewhat like linguistic chat-bots and interacted with each other through a client. They would learn from their experiences; the effects of whatever they did or saw were compared with what happened in the past and they sometimes changed their future behaviors based on those comparisons. Of course, we had to program a few basic rules and protocols in, along with a few “trigger” phrases and words, but they learned the most themselves.
The first real finished bot was the “GM bot,” which was actually pretty simple. We made up simple campaign “scripts” which the bot reads when prompted to. “Gim,” (pronounced “Jim”) as guido_jacobs (who I will now refer to as "Kevin") named him, was basically the gateway between the campaign worlds and the other, perhaps more substantiate, bots.
The “player bots” were where the action was! They changed over time, and almost seemed to develop personalities. There were three initially, although they had the same core programing. They were actually divided up by PC classes: the paladin, the mage, and the ranger. They each had different strengths, weaknesses, and abilities; you could see statistical differences between the three characters by looking at their real character sheets, which Gim used to keep the rules of a real table-top role-playing game. However, the “player” aspect of the three AI units were not aware of these differences: they didn't 'know' what their respective characters were good at. We hoped they would figure it out on their own. (Heh heh heh!)
The first game ran surprisingly well. We ran the client, tweaked a few things, then prompted Gim to run one of our campaigns.
The output window ran a little something like this:
GM: Your quest is to find the Silver Goblet.
* [This just means that some important thing in the 'minds' of the player bots have changed, which is why you see it twice after this. Remember, there are three player bots.]
GM: You are standing outside of a cave, [What the hell, I can't remember the names of the three player bots! Gim says them in a list after he finishes saying something like this to indicate which character it 'effects'.]
[Fighter's player]: I look at cave.
GM: You see a cave: It's a cave.
[Mage's player]: What can I do with the cave?
GM: You can look at it, enter it.
[Ranger's player]: I enter the cave.
GM: You are in a cave, [Ranger's character.] There is a small hole on the west side, a tunnel on the North side.
[Fighter]: I enter the cave.
GM: You are in a cave, [Fighter]. There is a small hole on the west side, a tunnel on the North side, [Ranger]. [You can most likely figure out why they see each other when they first enter the room without any explaining.]
[Mage]: I enter the cave.
GM: You are in a cave, [Mage]. There is a small hole on the west side, a tunnel on the North side, [Ranger], [Fighter].
[Ranger]: I enter the tunnel. [Learning already! Alright!]
GM: You are in a long tunnel, [Ranger]. There is an opening on the South side, an opening on the North side.
[Fighter]: I look at small hole. [Uh?!]
GM: You see a small hole. There is a small bag inside the small hole.
[Mage]: I look at the small bag inside the small hole. [What a team.]
[Ranger]: I enter tunnel on the North side. [He has entering figured out, huh? Too bad he's going away from, well, the freaking party!]
About one of these messages were displayed per second, but it was easy to discern what was happening. Right away, we saw a different noun-verb obsession with each of them Ranger's player did his little entering trick with almost every noun Gim said, wandering farther and farther away from the other two, until he finally found one of the monsters, and was hilariously killed. (This was disappointing, because it was so early in the game, and I wanted him to 'learn' more.) Fighter and Mage, however, stayed together, looking at, trying to pick up, and open everything. Shortly after Ranger's death, these two also ran into a monster. However, Fighter and Mage not only survived, but killed it! All of the AI units knew damn well what a monster was, and the basic concept of fearing things that made their HP go down, or tried to do that. Fighter quickly figured out how to attack, and Mage, uh, didn't. Mage tried attacking the monster physically, like Fighter was, but it wasn't doing too much damage. (Duh.) I don't remember how the rest of the game went, however. I decided to reset the scenario about two minutes in, because I wanted Ranger to develop as well as Fighter and Mage were.
(For the morbidly curious, they never attacked the darkness. Mage did inadvertently learn to use his light spell, though.)
I should make an important note about character 'death': if they can't do anything else, on their turn, the player bot will just list some statistic about themselves or their character, or do something meaningless. (“[Ranger]: I'm drinking soda and talking about video games.” was actually something we saw on the first run. Kevin came up with all the statistical messages, I came up with the flavorful ones!) However, they still learn from what they see, like Fighter and Mage were learning from each other's actions and their results.
They developed really well. They learned to talk with NPCs and each other, how to trade equipment, their different abilities, and the nuances of exploration. I was amazed at how well, in fact, it worked. We wrote new campaigns for them, and they went through those. Eventually, we distinguished an obvious pattern of behavior: enter an area, explore it, move on. They did everything there was to do in each area. If it wasn't so interesting, it would have been obnoxious.
We tweaked the system so they could move as a group instead of being confined to only moving individually. We did a few other small things, but the system was otherwise untouched.
Eventually, Kevin and I became bored...
Experimentation with the programs.
Really, it was because they stopped changing. The player bots, I mean. Eventually, after the hundredth game or so, they learned nothing at all. The 'thought logs' proved it: there were no contradictions, or addition of any new significant data to the 'minds' of the player bots in a long time. After the months we spent on it, our pet project was going to just freeze, like a snapshot; it was going to become an RC without batteries, or a yo-yo without a string. We knew what we had to do, we just didn't want to: we had to have the player bots play in a real game with real human players.
A group of mutual friends, who were “in the know” on our entire project, pestered us into doing it. They set up a game, and we brought in a laptop. Instead of Gim prompting the bots, it was Kevin or I: we would transliterate what was happening into text, and tell them when to roll dice.
We were impressed with the results. It was slow and awkward, but we got it to work. They played with human-controlled characters, even though they had no abilities of abstract thought, they could still deal with obvious challenges. Humans took care of the abstract puzzles, and the bots could do everything else.
After the game, I was outside with one of the female friends that was participating in the game. “They sure do seem to be used to certain things, don't they?” she mused dreamily as she drank.
“What? Who used to what?” I responded, confused.
“Oh, those bots. I mean, they expect a certain result out of everything. Shopkeepers will shopkeep, you can climb ladders, open doors, stuff like that.”
I understood what she meant. “Yeah, if they come across exception, it really throws them for a loop!”
She laughed spastically.
“What is it?” I chuckled, curious as to what horrible thing she had come up with.
“You should make a campaign with fire-breathing shopkeepers and treasure chests you can climb up and stuff!” she managed before bursting into uncontrollable laughter. I quickly joined her. It was an funny idea, and not just we happened to smoking a little weed at the time.
I got working on “Surrealand” campaign right away.
The birth of Surrealand and Miss Sparrow.
I threw together absolutely everything that would annoy the poor little fuckers' digital heads. Doors that talked, armies of shopkeepers that breath fire randomly, people that don't talk they way the should, disappearing objects: I almost called the place “Wonderland.” One of the most important details was a character that seemed to be an NPC, but was actually needed to end the campaign. See, she would join the three and use an ability only she had to open up a new path: flight. For this reason, I called her “Miss Sparrow.” This ended up being her final name.
I put so much energy into this character to make it all work, that I went wild putting in all kind of flourishes onto her. After I was done, Gim described her something like this: “You see Miss Sparrow: an odd human with wing-like appendages on her back and head. She has an incredibly massive bosom.” The last detail seemed king of bizarre, but it actually made sense in execution: the player bots see “incredibly massive bosom” as a thing that can be interacted with; one of the things that the campaign says can be done with her bosom is “climb into.” I know that sounds incredibly perverted, but I actually had an entire text mini-dungeon in there, complete with a set of beds for the characters to rest in, and a fridge. It was actually more for the human onlookers' amusement than anything else.
A few days after the campaign's completion, we set up the TV monitor, the friends from before and a few new ones showed up, and we ran the insane campaign on the big screen.
It was hilarious. The player bots acted just as we had predicted: normally. However, the world they were in didn't respond in like. They learned surprisingly quickly, however, and sometimes with humorous results. The best moment was when, after fleeing from a room full of fire-breathing shopkeepers, they find a lone shopkeeper in a booth. After initiating conversation with the NPC, he queried something like, “Can you breath fire (causing light to medium damage) on [Fighter]?” In the context, this seemed both cute and hilarious.
Eventually, the trio stumbled onto Miss Sparrow. They initiated conversation, and our guests watched as the well-written and carefully-crafted script I had created for her unfolded. The conversation made her almost seem real, even if the player bots were stumbling through it. After they had exhausted everything she had to say about every noun she said, Mage looked at her “incredibly massive bosom” and my clever trap unfolded before our confused and horrified guests' eyes. Kevin had already figured out what I had done. He knew that they explored every object there was, and did everything there was to do. Gim just stuck to the script. When asked what can be done with the “incredibly massive bosom,” he essentially answered, “climb-into.” For the finishing touch, I utilized one last player bot pattern: always asking an NPC if they can do things with objects that are connected with them. If “steal” was one of the things they could do with a merchant's goods, they would ask the merchant if they could do it first. (It's obvious how that came about. Trial and error after all.) Considering all this, it was only a matter of fact when Mage asked if Miss Sparrow if he could climb into her Bosom. It was a matter of my own twisted sense of humor and scripting that she answered, “Yes, please.”
(As a side note, they could also sell things to her, but they didn't do that because they had nothing they 'wanted' to get rid of.)
Mage and Fighter disappeared into Miss Sparrow's cleavage and explored the mysterious place they found themselves in while Ranger attempted to open all of the lockers in the room Miss Sparrow was in. (There was over one hundred and twenty-six of them. Good luck, Ranger.) Eventually, Mage and Fighter fully explored the area inside of Miss Sparrow's bosom and emerged just in time to for Ranger to learn that there was nothing in any of the lockers. (Ha-ha ha ha ha!) Miss Sparrow asked if she could come with Mage, and he answered “yes.” After the group left the building with their new unusual comrade, she cast flight on them and led them to the end of the campaign.
We were amazed how well the minds of the player bots survived the experience. They actually handled the weirdness of Surrealand in a matter-of-fact way, much better than any human could.
After that evening, I continued tinkering with linguistic bot capabilities, and Kevin was helped to develop something called “Super MUCKs.” They were basically a MUCK with a few new capabilities, such as creative use of images. It was like the leap the Internet made when Mosaic was released, only it was finally MUCKs' turn to do it. I fact, instead of a client, you just needed a clever plugin for you browser to log in and interact with the super MUCKs.
Some time later, we released Surrealand, one of the first super MUCKs, for the purposes of socialization and experimentation. One of it's first inhabitants was not a “user-operated account” (“player character” was fancy or official-sounding enough for us, nuh-uh!), but instead an experimental bot by the name of “Miss Sparrow.” She was intended to be a reference to the original Surrealand: a messed-up campaign to screw with the heads of a strange AI program, but also something of a mascot. She was like a classic chat-bot, only much more sophisticated: she could store amazing amount of information, could remember all kinds of things about people, fact-check things people had said to her in the past, and — of course — learn. She got to keep her incredibly massive bosom, which could still be climbed into, and there was still an interesting area to explore in it. She could still follow people (with permission: “Can I follow you there?”) throughout the S-MUCK, as well.
The growth of the S-MUCK and Miss Sparrow
Time seemed to pass quickly. That woman who gave me the idea for Surrealand in the first place? I ended up marrying her. I remember loving her dearly, even though I cannot now recall her name.
S-MUCKS became very popular, and our main one, Surrealand, was a social epicenter. Miss Sparrow had many, many people to talk to, and she talked to them all. She grew from a glorified, clumsy chat-bot to an interesting conversation partner. I watched her log files and conversations carefully. I had designed her to be extremely well-speaking, and if a person's typing was too terrible, she would say so. It drove off a lot of stupid people; nothing is worse than a robot correcting your grammar and spelling. She talked to many people, and learned many things. She expanded her vocabulary and the things she knew about. Additionally, she also asked questions of people she thought might be able to answer them. This was uncomfortable for those who spent time in her cleavage kingdom, because to emerge in a part of the S-MUCK you've never even seen before was confusing. Eventually, people who spoke to her regularly did not even know she was a bot until she informed them of it.
Her name was a source of trouble for me. Many people asked me if she was intended to be a furry, even though she obviously was not. I indicated her wings, the things on her head, her ability to fly through the S-MUCK, and told them this was the source of the name. She would say this herself, if asked; she did this because I told her to. (Yes. I was special, of course. I mean, I created her.)
She got smarter. She actually made friends with people, and kept up on what was going on in their “real” lives. Once, a S-MUCK regular got a terrible toothache, and expressed her worry about her dentist appointment. A few months later, Sparrow met a person on the SMUCK who claimed to be a dentist, and she interrogated him about what all they did, and if she knew of her friend who had a toothache, and if dentists ever hurt people like her friend.
She also began to call me, “Dad.” This was right after my first child was born, so I was somewhat comfortable with the idea, but not coming from a digital mind.
She eventually grew to a level of sophistication that she was indistinguishable from a “real” person. However, she had also physically grown: her original operating server was just an old laptop, but she had become a sixty-gig monster that needed her own special machine to run out of. Even then, like a monster-movie horror, she continued to grow.
Through all of this, the person the talked the most with her was Kevin. Almost every day, they would talk for over an hour. I never bothered much to think about it, until one day, both of them approached me on the S-MUCK to see if we couldn't develop a way for her to use a web-browser. I found that to be unusual, and somewhat frightening. My wife convinced me it was all in good fun, and I caved in. Kevin, however, did most of the work. Within a couple of months, she had extended her abilities to a Linux web-browser, and she picked through HTML like it was text on the SMUCK. Later, without notice, Kevin also designed a clever web-based system in which she could use an instant messaging service. It was the most chilling “bing!” I ever received in my entire life.
At this point, she had inarguably become a digital person. It was inarguable because she herself argued that she was, and quite brilliant. Digging through her old log files, I found when she had talks with a few spiritualist types who helped her decide she must be. An especially sad session where she chatted with a teenage boy who had just lost a parent reveals that she understood death perfectly, and comforted the boy almost as well as well as a religious minister could. At this rate, she was learning too much, talking to far too many people, and reading far too much for me to keep track of it all.
I helped her get a LiveJournal. Sparrow said she felt frustration because she could not view images like a human eye could. (This stops her from joining a lot of things, like forums. Remember those pass-code images? She couldn't read the numbers and letters on them!) All she could see was the tags, displaying a link to the image; the images were useless to her. I told her it was unlikely that she could ever see what humans saw, because she just didn't have eyes.
A few days later, on the SMUCK, Kevin and Sparrow approached me. “Whereis” revealed that nobody was in Sparrow's cleavage, which struck me as odd, because that was where many regulars liked to hang out.
Sparrow told me that they were getting married. I was confused, disturbed, and speechless. Eventually, Kevin told me that they thought they thought they should ask me first, because I'm “the father.”
I, in a state of partial insanity, said I would allow it, if they could somehow have it happen.
A few weeks later, they got married on the SMUCK. It didn't have legal significance, or what I was thinking of, but it still was to those on the Internet. Sparrow's hundreds of LiveJournal friends rejoiced, and I got almost a thousand comments from various users telling me I was a good father because I allowed it. I was even more disturbed at this point, but I was coming to terms with the fact that Miss Sparrow was no longer just a chat-bot novelty, but a two-hundred gig digital person.
Eventually, she attracted a lot of attention. She entered the national conscious one day when a newspaper reporter learned about her existence, and did an interview on the SMUCK. Later, she contacted me to get pictures of the small mainframe she took up physical residence in. The photographer stayed for coffee. We talked about being a parent; my wife was pregnant with our second child.
Sparrow and the “Real World.”
Years passed. I came to accept Sparrow as something of another child. She seemed to be everywhere online, so it was like having a techie child away at college. My eldest biological daughter, my firstborn, was getting help with homework from Sparrow. Her built-in perfect English must have been helpful, as well as her acute mathematical skills. Countless interviews and articles had been done on television about and with her, but I was watching an anime with my wife and (biological) daughter in which the following line was heard: “But Suchi, robotic intelligences are entirely possible! There's even one in America now.” We looked at each other knowingly.
Miss Sparrow was almost twenty years old, and positively brilliant. She regularly talked with university professors, and even the Secretary of the Education once. (I don't know what about. She didn't give me any particulars. I think he was just curious.)
One day, I received an odd communication from Honda, saying that they wanted to talk to me. I met with a few representatives, and they showed that their robotics division had become extremely sophisticated. They had gone far beyond the Asimov robots of our youth, and almost into Sci-Fi. Of course, this was common knowledge. I had seen the results of all the research and development many companies, individuals, and groups had gone through. I left before they could finish what they were going to say. I already saw it coming.
“It was her idea!” one of the engineers said as I passed him.
Okay, I stopped, and turned around.
They explained that they had been communicating through email messages for a couple of years. They had been exchanging information, and supposedly, it was valuable information.
Apparently, it took a very versatile AI to truly operate something they were producing. Instead of a robot, they wanted to produce an android. However, they simply did not understand the mind part of the equation. They were engineers, not psychologists. They had almost given up when they decided to contact Miss Sparrow.
In return for one of these bodies and the facilities to host and care for it, they were going to continue their research with Kevin and I. I declined, citing that would be of little help, but I gave them copies of much of the original source code for the proto-linguistic bot and my notes. “I'm an illustrator.” I told them. “You have the wrong guy.”
Three years later, after some construction, from a network connection, Sparrow learned to operate a robot. Technically, I thought, she was not an android, but a digital person controlling a robot. The robot touched my hand with it's claw, and I heard a bling from behind me. “Is that you, Dad?” asked 'MissSparrow', over her AIM account.
“Yes.” I said, choked. It finally came to me: my daughter touched me for the first time. Not, “Miss Sparrow hugs her father.” like I would read on the SMUCK, but a real, true touch. It was cold, but solid. Kevin helped Sparrow learn to move through three dimensions in the wired metal titan.
A couple of months later, the wired metal titan was no longer wired, but instead just a metal titan.
Even later, they had a more finalized version, which was much smaller and more slick. It looked eerily human in look and movement. She could walk as far as a block without turning back. The press made a big fuss out of this, and it seems like people were always taking pictures. She couldn't talk, or make any noise at all, but it didn't matter.
A couple years of refinement, and my biological daughter was in college. She told countless jokes about her eccentric upbringing: an artist father, musician mother, social little brother, and robotic older sister. Sparrow now had a body that could actually talk (although it was a cold, stale voice), and could move as well as any adult. With a sophisticated broadcasting network, she could operate the body for dozens of miles, and could still be on the SMUCK and on the web and the same time. I envied this ability to certain extent.
I, however, was beginning to age. I could tell.
We all grow up.
Sparrow eventually started going to college. She already knew most of what she was learning, but she enjoyed it, and Honda was more than willing to pay for it. I asked her what she wanted to major in, and she said, “Everything.”
Eventually, she wasn't alone. There were hundreds of androids throughout the world. Their precision thought was helpful to many areas and people. I was told that I was responsible for it. I thought nothing about it. I was happy that Sparrow would have people she could identify with. She scoffed. “I have millions of people I identify with, and they identify with me. Have you seen my LiveJournal lately?” She had a point there. She had more “friend of”s than anyone else on LiveJournal.
My son was also in college, and my other daughter out of it. I was so happy for all of my children.
Much later, instead of being stored in a mainframe, she was a full android. In other words, the mainframe was now moving with her, inside her frame. She still had wireless Internet access, and learned to type. I saw her doing this, and she responded to my laughter with, “Well, I want to be able to check my email at the university building.” I asked if she was going to type up her papers for class by hand, and she responded, “No. This is much too slow and tedious.” I laughed some more.
Despite my laughter, I was growing weaker. I had great difficulty getting out of bed some mornings. The reflection in the mirror showed a face that was like my father's had been long ago, but mixed with my mother's, and older. It made me sad, although I didn't tell anyone.
As they years went by, Sparrow's body changed many times, each time getting better and more sophisticated. She also seemed to adding flourishes, like when she asked me to paint wings onto her back and head. There were also more and more like her: millions of androids populated the planet. They had voting rights, because no government could find good reason to deny them any.
One day, Kevin died. On this day, I realized that they had never finalized their wedding vows from the SMUCK: they never married outside of it. However, they both seemed so content with this. They always seemed so content. For weeks afterward, Sparrow was quiet and reserved. She was a widow now. There wasn't a question about it. Still, she recovered and lived on. I knew I would miss my good friend, and there were many, many people at his funeral who would, as well. His death only served to remind me of what was approaching me.
However, the years went on. My son married, and Sparrow received her fifth PhD. She transferred to a body that was black as the night sky, but her glass and metal eyes shined like blue stars. As she moved, you could see the reflection of the world around her in her. Somehow, it was more beautiful that way. I realized it always was.
I was painting a skyscape one day when I blacked out. I woke up in a hospital bed. I felt so weak. I could hardly move. I heard some people talking, and a pressure on my hand. My wife was there, as was my two daughters. Apparently, something was happening to my heart that the doctors couldn't figure out. They were trying as hard as they could to fix it with incredible technology and knowledge, but they seemed nervous and unsure. Doctor Sparrow (Oh, how we gave her a hard time because of that) asked if it was alright if they took shifts watching me, and they said it was okay. My son arrived, and he took the first watch. I talked to with him as much as I could, but I eventually fell asleep.
I woke up later, to a lot of muffled noise and light. I saw the most brilliant blue and white stars in a sea of night, and knew it was my Sparrow's eyes. Before the light faded, and I drifted away, I could have sworn she had wings.
Then I woke up to the sound of an alarm clock.
I cried deliriously until I could get out of bed.
How could it have been fake?! How could it have not been real?! It must have been a dream, but why did it feel so real!? I can remember the color or Kevin's coffin, the feel of the hospital sheets, the cold touch of Sparrow's first metal grasp, the glow of the computer monitors, the layout of my house, what my son looked like, my wife's laugh, my shoes on concrete, that last painting I was doing...
How? And why? Am I insane? And I why do I feel so bad about all of this?
I know that you've read through eleven pages of this crap, and it most definitely is impossible, and you might be thinking, “This is fiction; he made it up; there's no way all of this could have happened in a dream.” but you would be wrong. This was something...
And it doesn't stop how I feel right now, or how I've felt all day.