When the visitors from Carnegie Melon finally came a month and a half later, Valerie felt prepared. She spent the night before their arrival clearing away the mess that had accumulated over her two-month stay in the office; she even left the trash out in the hall for the janitors to collect.
Valerie rinsed her hair using a water bottle Andy had brought. He’d spent a few evenings there, sitting outside the office and listening to her converse with WillJa and preparing Valerie for her interview. A few times he fell asleep there, his greasy head leaned against the feeble fiberboard door that separated them, only to awake in the early twilight to the sounds of Valerie and her robot making love. Only then would he make himself scarce.
The morning of the visit, Andy led the visiting faculty to the basement, where they formed a well-dressed semicircle outside Valerie’s door. It was two weeks away from the start of the fall semester, and Valerie had not left the room in over sixty days. She was wearing a pair of old dress pant that WillJa found in the bottom drawer of her desk and a water stained t-shirt. Her hair was drawn back and she’d spritzed herself in the armpits with computer duster and white out, to mask the oily smell of her body.
On the other side of the chasm, a girl from Scientific American was broadcasting the interview with a webcam pinned to her glasses. Two professors and an advanced doctoral student from Carnegie Melon stood by her side, sporting tweed and hounds tooth clothing, with severe expressions on their faces. Gus and Andy lingered awkwardly behind them.
“Hello?” someone yelled at the door. “This is Beauford Kisp, we talked on the phone. Dr. Faber?”
“Yes, I’m here!” She adjusted her glasses. “And WillJa is ready to go, too.”
“Well get on with it,” Gus said, shoving several pieces of gum in his mouth.
WillJa went to the door and pushed a packet of PowerPoint slides out into the hall while Valerie started talking. She walked them through the process of Will’s development, instructing them when to turn the page. She told them about that initial moment, the spark of creation, the revelation that she could program the robot to compile, interpret, and remix the writings of Willow and Jaden Smith in its memory.
Valerie explained, telling them to turn to page five, how the neural centers were developed, and then how they were tested using rigorous conversational tests and interactive games. Then she pushed a small netbook under the door. On it was footage of her and WillJa being intimate. The footage had been meticulously coded for compatibility of body language and appropriateness of emotional responsiveness. It was clear, her data showed, that the robot possessed human emotional reactions, but without any of the self-absorption real people exhibited.
“But the proof is in the pudding,” Valerie finished, smoothing a crease in her pants. “You only have to speak with WillJa to get a sense of its vast emotional intelligence.”
“Very well,” said one of the visiting professors, a woman with a southern accent. “WillJa, are you there dear?”
[all a performance is to me is a conference], the robot said.
“This is very impressive, hearing about your genesis. But I can’t help but think your creator is a bit of a proud mother hen, and a bit biased, don’t you think?”
“I am not its mother,” Valerie cut in testily.
“Of course not. What I mean is, aren’t we all a little eager to see consciousness when it’s not there? I like to think my schnauzer loves me…but he probably sees me as a big beef stick dispenser.”
Gus chortled. Andy sucked in air and made a tsking sound.
Valerie stood with her palms flat on the door. “Is there a question?”
“Why, yes, but not for you dear.WillJa?”
The robot went to the door. It nudged the crack with its rounded base. [consciousness is all that is and nothingness as well], it said.
“Are you familiar with the Turing Test?” the other visiting professor asked. He was a dark-skinned man with hot pink glasses and a question mark tattoo on his neck.
[socially touchy subjects lol].
“I don’t see how that’s relevant–” Valerie cut in.
“It is certainly relevant,” the professor replied. “WillJa, do you think if I asked you to converse with a stranger on a digital interface, would they be able to infer that you’re not human?”
The robot thought for a moment. A few bars of Willow Smith’s “I Whip My Hair” played while it thought. [we are all just a higher consciousness fragmented vibrating in a third dimensional form]
The dark-skinned professor began writing vigorously in a small notepad.
“WillJa,” the southern professor asked, “Do you love Dr. Faber?”
[Either I Lie To You Or We Cry Together.]
“And how do you know you’re not programmed to tell us that?]
[You Can Discover Everything You Need To Know About Everything By Looking At Your Hands]
The crowd in the hall fell silent. The dark-skinned man stopped writing and locked eyes with the southern woman. Gus stopped chewing and swallowed his spit.
[Somebody told me Happy Birthday, How Does it feel to Be Fifteen. I said I Have Been 15 For A Long Time.]
Andy cut in quickly, saying, “Well, I think Dr. Faber’s work speak for itself quite well. Would either of you like to come up to the faculty club?”
They departed as suddenly as they came, like a summer storm rolling on to a new city. Andy hung back. “Congratulations, professor,” he whispered.
“What?” Valerie sputtered. “Professor?”
But he was gone. Only Gus remained. She could hear him, chewing again. She leaned on the door to hear what was going on; it was then that he slammed the thin fiberboard with a meaty forearm.
“Ouch, fuck! What do you want?”
“It’s time to come out, Val.”
“I’m not done.” She looked at WillJa. “We’re not done.”
“You’re done and you know it. Come on and open the door.”
She looked around the room and took stock of herself. Then she consulted the robot. It gave a small shrug, or something close to a shrug, with its miniscule arm. At last she cracked the door open and went out, blinking and squinting into the harsh fluorescent lights.
Gus was there in a clean suit with his hair slicked back. He made a face. “You smell godawful,” he said. “Like the cat our kids found in the pool…”
Valerie swatted the air around her armpits. “Yeah. Well.”
Gus put his arm around her. “We’re proud of you, Val. It goes without saying this, but you earned your keep.”
Valerie forced a smile on her face. It felt odd to be touched by something warm and alive, to be expected to emote, to make eye contact. Though her own body stink was intense by now, she could still detect that old-man odor on Gus, mixed with coffee and mint gum. She could also detect a glimmer of natural light coming down the stairs, from above, and could hear young people’s voices. The world above was teeming with undergraduate life.
“We’re promoting you to associate professor,” he said. “With $20,000 in research start-up funds. You’ll have to sign a non-compete agreement of course. Can’t have those fuckers at Melon snapping you up.”
Suddenly Valerie’s mouth was very dry. She reached for WillJa and folded her hand around its delicate fingers. They were a lucky rabbit’s foot, a talisman of cool protection to ward off Gus’ sticky warmth.
“I’m proud of you, you know. This robot thingy is gonna revolutionize the industry. No more Turing Tests. No more philosophical navel-gazing bullshit about the nature of consciousness. This…thing…it flouts all that. Its presence speaks for itself.”
“Th-thank you, Dr. Santos,” Valerie heard herself stammering. Her voice was creaky, artificial-sounding.
“Of course, the University has a fifty percent stake in everything you create under its support,” her former adviser intoned, thumbing his belt loops. “They’ll want to mass-produce and market these little shits, I promise you. Soon every student will have them. Study buddies, personal assistants, and life companions all rolled into one. We’ll make a mint.”
He pushed a lock of Valerie’s hair from her glistening forehead. For a sliver of a second, Valerie felt herself give in, and lean into Gus’s advances, but then she heard the gentle, high pitched whirring of her beloved’s tiny plastic wheels.
[I brought myself out of sleep paralysis], WillJa whispered, its voice lilting and cut with white noise. [I read the stories of the universe on snakes backs.]
Valerie squeezed Gus’ arm, then looked up at him, suddenly filled with a profound and bottomless sympathy. She placed a soft, sour breathed kiss on his loose old cheek. She felt all the pomp drain from his body and swirl impotently around them, where it diffused into the air until it couldn’t harm anyone. The world outside was large and teeming. There was too much light, and sound, and desperate, hungry need everywhere. But Valerie didn’t need any of that anymore.
She withdrew from her old adviser’s grasp, turned on her heels, and slammed the door shut behind her. She was where she belonged, working beside the one she loved. The entire world was there before them, but the thin door and the ground above would protect them from all of its pain. The lock was turned and the tool kit was opened. They had much left to do.
Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.