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Not_Artificial, Act I

by Stephen Newton 2 months ago in tech

The first synthetic children's entertainer...

Not_Artificial, Act I
Photo by Rob Laughter on Unsplash

The room was dark as Devaughn stared at his code for the millionth time. This was perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but only barely. He just needed it to be perfect. There was no longer any room for error as today was officially the day he and Elle had to present their magnum opus.

Elle had been his best friend and partner in crime since high school. She was a robotic engineer, and he was a programming whiz. Together they had always had always fed into each other and their projects. Now they were being given a chance to show their mettle. They had been working together at MC-L Technologies for a few years now. It was a company that specialized in a lot of things from programming to robotics. Six months ago they had been given permission to demo a private project they’d been tinkering with for years. Not only would the higher ups get to see the fruits of their labor, but also investors. Needless to say, perfect was the only word that could come to mind and Devaughn was still sweating it.

The idea had been more or less his, after all. Elle was simply the kind of girl who liked to get elbow deep into any sort of project. It may have been joint their brain child, but Devaughn was the one who had refused to pull out at the time--figuratively speaking. So if it floundered, it was on his head, and he knew that. A lot of their time and resources had gone into this and there was no turning back now.

The only thing to snap him out of the hypnotic trance of the screen was a knock at his office door. Without waiting for him to call them in, the door opened anyway and poured light into his cavern-like work space. Elle peeked her head inside. She had large doe-like eyes and very short platinum blond hair. Dressed in her best suit in a garish powder blue it only made her whole look seem paler.

It was a juxtaposition to Devaughn, who had very dark black skin and also very long dreadlocks that he kept back in a ponytail. He was also not quite as dressed to the nines as she was, going for more of a business-casual look with slacks and a button-up shirt.

“Our boy’s all ready,” Elle said, not even noting his nearly pitch black office. She then entered slightly further as she asked, “How’s his brain?”

Taking his hand off his mouse and keyboard for a moment, Devaughn pushed up his glasses to rub at his eyes.

“Done, basically. I was just triple checking everything.”

Elle rolled her eyes playfully, adding a little smirk to show more amusement than annoyance.

“You could look at it for another year, it’s not going to get anymore done I think. Besides, it’s about time for the demo anyway.”

Devaughn nodded wearily. He had been looking at it a bit too long, he supposed. It was officially now or never, whether he liked it or not. To be frank, he was more on the “not” side but there was a little to be done about it now. So with as much gusto as a college student after a night of cramming; he downloaded the necessary files to his spare drive and grabbed the case for his laptop before following Elle out of his office.

“I’m gonna get him all prepped for you” Elle announced. “Our guest of honor is here anyway. You should really go greet her.”

“She is? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

Devaughn then rushed off, leaving Elle in his dust. He then made his way down to the modern looking lobby with its fountain and plexiglass walls. There he soon found the statuesque woman who settled on him for some reason, as well as a little girl with her hair done in braids. With a squeal of delight and her mother giving her an encouraging pat on the back, the little girl bolted through the lobby and leapt into Devaughn’s arms.

Daddy!

“Hey, baby girl” Devaughn cooed before outright just holding little Bianca in one arm. He then approached his wife, Maya, and gave her a gentle peck. “You two ready to see Daddy work?”

“You know it, baby,” said Maya with a grin. “It’s a big day.”

She took his free arm and Devaughn led his family to the conference room where he and Elle’s presentation was set to take place. The room was already filled with people in suits, some of which Devaughn was painfully familiar with, but quite a few that were new to him as well. Towards the front of the audience were two empty seats meant for Maya and Bianca.

Elle hadn’t been exaggerating about Bianca in particular being their guest of honor. She wasn’t aware of it yet, but this whole project was inspired by her. With that in mind, she was their target demographic and would be the first test subject to the grand reveal.

“Keep rooting for me, okay?” Devaughn said as his family took their seats.

Maya smirked, looking up to him with pride and anticipation.

“Break a leg.”

Bianca then echoed a much louder, “Break a leg!”

Devaughn chuckled and turned to the stage. Right at the center of it was one of those curtains set up on wheels that they used in hospitals for privacy. It was dramatic enough, he supposed. There was some movement behind the curtain, telling Devaughn that Elle was still fiddling around as well.

The time was officially nigh. He gripped the handle on his laptop’s case nervously as he went to walk up the stairs to the stage. Before the show could truly begin though, he was cut off by one last distraction. This time it was the president of the company himself; Mr. Tobin. He was an older man, definitely still pretty sharp and had a better grasp on technology than his looks would suggest. With a balding head and silver beard, he gave off more of a vibe he’d think smartphones were the devil rather than help actually develop a few.

“Devaughn, are we ready to get started?”

As he spoke, he gave off a vibe that he was too serious for anything that was going on, even if it was important. Devaughn learned to not take it seriously, it was simply the way he spoke. However it did make his nerves tense up slightly being spoken to so sharply. All he had to do was take a deep breath and remember who he was talking to before resuming.

“Yes, I just need to upload some things and we can begin the presentation.”

Mr. Tobin nodded, “Good. That’s good to hear.” He then got in a little closer and motioned with his head, “Do you see the woman in the front row in the purple dress suit and the dark hair?”

Following Mr. Tobin’s head movement, he spotted the woman in question. All dressed and made up like she was attending a night at the gala, she was minding the curtain with utmost focus. In one hand was a tablet, the other a stylus that she was tapping against the tablet’s screen.

“That is Emilia Ritt, current acting C.E.O. of Ritt Entertainment. By your reports I felt she’d want a slice of this one. She only just received the position and has been looking to make a splash.” These were the reasons he learned to not take Mr. Tobin too seriously. He always thought ahead and was good at giving his people the attention they needed. With a reassuring pat on Devaughn’s shoulder, he then winked. “Go set up and knock ‘em dead.”

He then returned to the crowd and took a seat by Miss Ritt. Neither of which acknowledged each other and only focused on Devaughn and Elle’s little curtain. Taking a deep breath, Devaughn went behind it to see if Elle was ready. She was doing some last minute primping on their project, straightening out his outfit and hair.

Upon making eye contact, they nodded in determination. Devaughn then took his station at a little desk just off to the side of the curtain. Taking out his laptop and his drive they then connected a wire attached to their boy’s neck and he began the upload. As he watched the progress bar quickly ramp up, he gave Elle the thumbs up to begin. She always was more of the public speaker of the two.

So taking her place at the front of the stage, gathering everyone's attention, Elle began the pitch.

“Ladies, gentlemen, and all those in between and withstanding. I’m glad you could all take the time out of your busy schedules so you could all take witness as Devaughn Anderson and I revolutionize the entertainment industry through technology.”

With everyone’s attention thoroughly grasped, Elle took a deep breath and continued.

“As you know, one issue in children’s entertainment is that--at times--a particular entertainer might not end up being the best role model for the younger generation. This can’t be helped, they are only people too. Some of them make genuine mistakes, where some let greed get the better of them. Our goal is not to replace these people, but to simply provide a safer and more predictable option for parents and kids alike.”

She then moved to the side of the curtain and grabbed onto the side pole that was maintaining its structure.

“Behind this curtain is the world’s first synthetic children’s entertainer. I present to you all; Niles the Cat.”

Then with little grace, she shoved the curtain aside and it freely rolled right off the side of the stage. This distracted the audience a bit as people watched it go and even chuckled as it crashed unceremoniously. Their attention was then almost immediately drawn back to the center of stage.

Niles stood at roughly five feet and seven inches tall. He wore dark blue overalls and a lighter blue long sleeved shirt. His hands and feet were covered in striped orange fur--save for the bottom of his feet that were covered in a dark brown non-slip material. Each hand had four distinct fingers, much like a cartoon character’s. His face was also fairly cartoony and orange. Currently his eyes were closed as the rest of his face was stuck in a pleasant smile.

Elle then looked for permission from Devaughn. The upload had been completed a bit through her speech, so he nodded. She then crossed the stage and unplugged the end from Niles’ neck and moved the wire over to Devaughn’s desk. Returning to Niles, she hit a switch that was just above his port and buttoned the back of his neck closed.

In that instant, Niles' eyes opened up revealing big two-toned eyes--one green and one blue. Everyone watched in intrigue. Looking at the audience, Devaughn sought Bianca’s reaction. Unfortunately, the young girl seemed to be cowering against her mother. He did his best to hide a grimace as there was a fifty-fifty shot of it going that way. He still had a chance to win her over, but without seeing him in action it was easy to understand that Niles might be a bit creepy, especially to a child.

“Good morning, Niles!” Elle said, approaching the cat.

Niles’ ears twitched upon hearing his name. He then turned his head towards Elle who was now standing beside him.

“Good morning, Elle!” he said instantly. His voice came out in a natural sounding sweet-as-honey voice. He then went on to riff, “It’s finally good to see you with my head on my shoulders.”

A small wave of chuckles came over the crowd. The cat’s jaw had limited movement but it did sync up to what he was saying rather well. Devaughn decided to take this moment to explain some more intricacies to those in the audience that’d care.

“His voice is entirely synthetic without any pre-recorded voice clips at all. He’s also programmed with hundreds of thousands of responses to anything that’s said to him.”

“Let’s show them! Niles, why don’t you greet this wonderful crowd?”

Taking Elle’s lead, Niles nodded and looked out to the audience.

“Sure thing--whoa! This is the biggest group of kids I’ve ever seen!”

There was then another chorus of mild laughter. To Devaughn’s delight, even Bianca started to peek out more now that Niles had a bit more life to his movements. His attention then moved over to Mr. Tobin and Miss Ritt, both of whom did have amused smirks on their faces.

“How about a song?” Niles suddenly announced. Then the robotic cat--whose feet had been rooted to the ground since the start--began to walk forward and positioned himself to dance. His movement was fairly fluid, though there were still clearly some limitations to work out. He then reared back and began to sing.

I’ve got no strings, to hold me--”

“Whoa, hold it Niles! We don’t have the rights to that one, buddy” said Elle, smirking through her little script.

Niles then very dramatically slumped over in disappointment, letting out an exasperated, “Aw man…”

With even more laughter, Elle straightened up and went on to explain further features.

“As you can see, Niles is fully ambulatory. The cameras in his eyes not only have a proper obstruction detector, keeping him out of harm's way and out of a dangerous proximity of people--they also have facial recognition software. This allows him to remember people he works with and even kids he’s met before. He can even recognize voices.”

She turned back to Devaughn to give him his cue.

“Hey Niles!” he called from behind the overgrown cat.

“Yes, Devaughn?”

Niles then turned his head back to look Devaughn in the eye properly. The technical savvy crowd all watched in intrigue. Devaughn was just relieved he was moving and acting appropriately. Both Devaughn and Elle knew it was time for the real test. He gave Elle the signal to go ahead, and she nodded firmly. She then turned back to the audience with a smile.

“As you can see, our boy is quite smart… but that’s not what he’s for. So today I’d like to bring someone to the stage. Someone Niles has yet to meet to see how they interact… Bianca, sweetie,” she then turned to the small girl still curled against her mother. Though her attention seemed a bit more focused on Niles until her name was called. Elle then beckoned her forward, “Can you come here, please?”

Bianca looked too nervous to rise from her seat. Maya then offered their daughter her hand and she gently led her to the stage. Upon spotting her, Niles’ eyes locked on to her. This was to be expected, Niles knew who his audience really was. Once Maya let go of Bianca’s hand, the six-year-old fidgeted nervously.

Niles monitored her briefly, probably trying to gauge what his reaction should be. Bianca’s anxiety was palpable, the audience should have been able to see that just fine. Devaughn held his breath as he knew this could make or break the whole presentation. It all mattered on how Niles handled the situation and how Bianca reacted to it, making it a total crapshoot.

Niles then went down to one knee and tilted his head in a curious sort of way.

“Your name is Bianca?” Hearing her own name coming from a large robot cat made Bianca flinch. But she nodded pretty quickly afterward. Niles then nodded in return, “That’s a very pretty name. Your daddy tells me that you like cats, is that true?”

Bianca looked to her father in surprise. Devaughn shot her a knowing smirk and gave her an encouraging nod. This time a very small smile appeared on his daughter’s lips.

“Uh huh…” she said meekly.

Niles put his hands to his face in shock.

“That’s so weird--I’m a cat!”

Bianca actually giggled along with the rest of the audience. That’s when Devaughn knew they had this for sure. Niles must have read that she was officially relaxed too as he spread his arms wide open for a hug.

“If you want, you can give me a hug” he offered pleasantly.

Bianca seemed a bit more nervous again. This time, thankfully, she didn’t really seem to need too much more coaxing as she slowly approached the cat and gave him a little hug. With a series of “aws” both Elle and Devaughn made eye contact once more and winked at each other. That then concluded the presentation. A few people then came up to speak with Elle, Devaughn, and even Niles to ask simple questions.

The best part being that Bianca would not leave Niles’ side and would answer questions alongside him. As Elle and Devaughn were going to convene on the general vibe that they were a hit, they were then approached by Mr. Tobin and Miss Ritt.

“Chambers, Anderson, I believe you haven’t met Emilia Ritt properly yet” said Mr. Tobin, opening the floor to discussion.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Miss Ritt said, shaking both of their hands firmly. “I’ve got to say, I’m really impressed by this ‘Niles’ of yours. I’d just like to ask a few follow-up questions if that’s alright.”

“By all means,” said Devaughn.

“I respect all the thought and care you put into him. I do have one concern though, when it comes to his responses and such. What happens when he’s met with a difficult child? You know how it can be, sometimes parents don’t do their jobs--hell even sometimes when they do--you get an entitled little turd yanking at kitty’s fur. How well does he react to that sort of thing?”

As this was more Devaughn’s area of expertise, Elle turned her attention to him as well.

“He is programmed with several reactions to difficult situations. When it comes to a child getting too close he is supposed to lock up so as to not move and accidentally hurt them. I’ve put his code through several simulations and he’s supposed to think through what reaction is best given the specific situation. Plus he can learn, so if something doesn’t work once he’ll be less likely to do it again.”

“It can learn?” asked Mr. Tobin, somewhat gravely.

“Nothing serious,” Devaughn assured. “He just can note when some jokes don’t get as much laughs as others, what de-escalation techniques work and which don’t, that sort of thing.”

“I see,” the president said. Though there was a lack of conviction in his response.

Miss Ritt nodded her approval and looked over to Niles who was still charming over the rest of the crowd looking him over. Maya, bless her heart, was doing her best to manage that situation to make sure no one got too close.

“Okay, I’m sold,” said Miss Ritt firmly. “I want to invest in Niles.”

Elle gasped, quickly covering her mouth to mute it a little. Devaughn was shocked as well that she was so interested so fast.

“That’s incredible!” Devaughn said excitedly.

“Now, I want to start small just to demo him a bit further. I want to get an establishment running sort of an arcade-restaurant-dinner theater hybrid thing. We can have other acts but Niles will of course be the star. If he overall tests well I want to invest in making more of him--maybe even different animals, I dunno, we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it. Then maybe we take Niles prime here on tour as well. Not to mention merchandise--”

She went on like this for a moment more. Mr. Tobin kept his eyes a bit more focused on Niles as the C.E.O. went on and on about tee-shirts and an animated series. Finally the old man cleared his throat to politely cut her off.

“Once we get this all down in writing and you begin work on the establishment itself, I would like to make one suggestion. Devaughn, Elle, I’d like you to perhaps let Niles be around kids more. Think of it as sort of a field test to make sure it can handle crowds.”

Elle smacked Devaughn on the shoulder.

“Bi’s birthday! It’s next week, he’ll be perfect for that!”

“Excellent idea, he’ll be doing a lot of parties I’m sure” Miss Ritt said with a nod.

With that it was agreed and Miss Ritt was on her way. In fact everyone slowly began to be escorted out, all except; Devaughn, Elle, Maya, Bianca, Mr. Tobin, and of course Niles. Just as Devaughn was about ready to move his family out so they could turn Niles off and not freak Bianca out, Mr. Tobin raised a hand.

“Niles, may I speak with you, please?” he asked with the tone of a firm parent.

Looking over to the older man, Niles made his way across the stage to be right in front of him.

“How can I help you, Mr. Tobin?”

Mr. Tobin then cleared his throat once more before throwing his hands behind his back and pressing forth. “Do you know why you are here today?”

Devaughn’s eyes widened. That specific of a question wasn’t exactly in Niles’ list of things to respond to. Looking at the cat, it did take him a moment to respond. Very subtly he saw Niles’ eyes shift back and forth in rapid succession. He was honestly a little worried he would fry his brain thinking like that and went to interject to give Niles something easier to say.

Only he didn’t seem to need Devaughn’s help at all.

“I am here to demonstrate what I can do for investors and for you, right?”

Mr. Tobin’s eyebrows raised slightly, but then he nodded, taking the answer without further question. Devaughn was left confused as to why he felt the need to ask that. He was also left a little bewildered by the fact Niles could even answer that so appropriately. He was designed to speak in simple terms to children. It perhaps seemed Mr. Tobin knew something that maybe Devaughn didn’t, or at least he was far more curious about something Devaughn--at the time--wasn’t.

___

In the coming week, Devaughn and Elle had all of their focus shifted to working on Niles. This was always the plan, to get a project big enough to run on their own. Since the presentation, Niles had seen some extra attention from other engineers and programmers. They didn’t really add anything, but they did test him out to help optimize his movement and his processing power.

By the end of it, Niles was being prepped to go to Bianca’s seventh birthday party. Once it was time, Devaughn and Elle put him in the back of a rental truck before driving to the party itself. In the middle of town, there was a canal that ran through it. Not too far off from MC-L was a park built next to one of the canal’s grassier banks. As they drove up it was clear just how busy it was going to be there.

Devaughn’s family and Bianca’s friends were hardly the only ones at the park that day. A few other families were also enjoying a day out together, along with a couple or two. There was even a group of friends in their late teens to early twenties playing soccer. Parking in the lot, the two were clearly nervous about having their baby walking around somewhere so busy.

“Well… that’s what we’re supposed to be testing, right?” Elle said, shutting off the van in the process.

Nervously, Devaughn agreed and they moved to the back. Hoisting the overgrown cat to his feet in the parking lot, they powered him on. Just as quickly as the first time, Niles’ eyes opened. As they did he actually appeared to be confused--or at least as confused as something with one expression could appear. He looked around to the trees and the sky, not saying much of anything.

A simple vocal command got his attention back to the matter at hand, and the three of them made their way to the party. Almost immediately he was greeted with excitement and curiosity. Children swarmed him like locusts, exclaiming their intrigue or asking questions. This was when things could either go terribly wrong or go exactly as they had planned. Quite thankfully, it was the latter option.

“Hey kids! Are you all ready to have some fun!?” The kids cheered as Niles took on a rather hammy pose as he spoke. “That’s great! Now where is the birthday girl?”

Bianca had made her way through the crowd and was grinning happily up at Niles.

“I didn’t know you were coming!” she squealed with glee.

“Surprise,” Devaughn chuckled from behind Niles.

Niles then held his hands up to his mouth in shock as he let out a rather overexaggerated gasp, “You’ve lost a tooth!”

Just as he said it, Devaughn spotted it too. There was a new gap in his girl’s teeth. Giggling almost deviously she more prominently showed it off for Niles and her father.

“Surprise!” she added after they got a good look.

Bianca was always a big fan of surprises. It did Devaughn’s heart good to see her having so much fun. With all that out of the way, Niles led the children into some party games. He played a little, but mostly he was supervising to make sure everyone was safe and having fun. Niles was especially good at giving Bianca a fair bit of attention considering it was her birthday.

Even when a child tripped and skinned their knee, Niles had turned to Bianca calling her “doctor” and asking what she thought they should do. Together they got a bit of disinfectant and bandages they had on hand and patched them up. Elle’s wife Brandy being a doctor and present to help with the party set up was always prepared for such things.

Niles and Bianca were actually hitting it off quite well. The little girl was stuck to her new friend like glue for most of the party. Soon things were about to turn to presents and cake… only for tragedy to strike.

Yo, heads up!

The warning caught their attention alright, but it was a double edged sword. A soccer ball from the nearby youths’ game was soaring through the air. Then like a rocket shot down and hit Bianca in the face with an impressive smack as she turned towards it. Instantly she dissolved into sobs as her nose started bleeding.

The party was in panic mode as blood poured from her nose; parents scrambling, children screaming, and Niles being frozen in place. The group of young men came running over in a dead panic. The one who had kicked the ball was apologizing profusely upon arrival. Again, thankfully Brandy was present and could look her over. She was quick to state that it didn’t seem like anything was broken. Bianca had always gotten nosebleeds easily anyway, this clearly only knocked an oncoming one loose. Devaughn had grown up with a similar issue, so he was fairly familiar with it.

With that the soccer players were roughly forgiven by the party and were excused. As they left awkwardly; Elle, and Brandy tried to get the party back on track. With Bianca’s nose stuffed with tissue and her head lying back in her mother's lap to help stop the flow, the rest of the kids were led in another quick game before getting back on plan.

Devaughn’s focus however had not left Niles who had stopped moving outright. Looking closely, he noted his eyes were doing the same thing they had when Mr. Tobin had presented him with that question after the presentation. His irises were shaking back and forth subtly yet rapidly. Then very suddenly they stopped and his head turned back to the soccer players who had resumed their game.

Niles then began walking towards them. Befuddled, Devaughn followed Niles closely. The robotic cat was moving much faster than he usually would which caused Devaughn to jog to catch him properly. When he finally managed that, he grabbed Niles by the wrist.

Niles, what are you doing?”

Very sharply the cat turned back to Devaughn. His eyes returned to twitching and shaking as he seemed to process his response.

“They… ruined Bianca’s birthday” Niles said in an oddly broken way. As if the words weren’t synching up as properly as they usually would.

This shocked Devaughn to hear. Most of his responses were meant to be particularly optimistic, considering he had to work with kids. Words like “ruined” weren’t supposed to be exactly high in his dictionary. Not only that but what exactly did he mean by that? What exactly was he planning on doing about that?

“And they apologized for it,” Devaughn went on calmly. “Besides, her birthday isn’t ruined. See, she’s okay now.”

As Devaughn motioned back to the party, Bianca was indeed back on her feet again. She had new cleaner tissues in her nose as she was already opening presents with a smile on her face. Niles looked back at Bianca with that same shifting-eyed expression he’d had for a minute. So, gently, Devaughn put his arm around Niles shoulders to start steering him back.

“I think what would really make her feel better is if you helped with her presents, okay?”

Niles was silent a moment longer as he tried to find his response. Finally his eyes went back to being still and he began speaking more in proper cadence.

“You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m not sure what came over me, let’s go.”

As Niles walked on his own, Devaughn hung back and watched him. The part that made him nervous was he wasn’t sure what came over him either.

End of Act I

tech

Stephen Newton

I’ve been writing my whole life, from silly stories about monsters going to Disneyland when I was five to having a few plays produced in my teens.

I love writing stories of any kind, though I have a soft spot for the horror genre.

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