In 34th century Mumbai, the Indian Robotics Division creates an AI – called Simpio – modelled on a human brain. But soon, Simpio begins to question the very essence of life and the purpose of existence.
This can’t be happening, the science intern Christi D’Souza thought to herself.
Just a month ago, she had joined the Indian Robotics Division of Mumbai Delta (The 34th century version of Dharavi). And now the neural network of her mind was going to be used to make the first Indian AI. The first one that really worked, that is.
So far the Make In India AI initiative had met with little success. International science communities were even making jokes about how there was no risk of Indian AI being a threat to humanity. Because Indian AI was only a threat to itself.
The team of IRD at Mumbai Delta was looking to change things. The division had set itself to the task of finding a human mind that could serve as the most suitable for AI replication. After a series of intense aptitude and personality tests, they had finally found a suitable candidate.
Christi scratched her chin thoughtfully as the senior scientist Dr. Dhanesh Ghorpade explained all this to her.
“Wait, so are you saying that my brain waves or whatever are the most unique?”
Dr. Ghorpade smiled awkwardly.
“Well let’s just say that they are the most…umm, simplistic. We feel this will really help us construct the AI neural structure.”
The 20-year-old Christi groaned.
“Doc, you’re kinda implying that my ex was right. That Shakespeare spouting idiot said that I was a naive fool who just didn’t get the nuances of our multi-layered existence.
“Although, he made this point only after I refused to take off my multi-layered outfit. So I don’t know…”
Ghorpade turned the exact shade of red that matched the melting point of Tungsten.
Clearing his throat, he replied, “Err no, so simplistic does not mean lesser in intellect. It in fact means that in a certain way, you see things more clearly. Let me explain.”
Ghorpade pressed a switch that made the large metallic window shutters rise. The sprawling slums of Mumbai Delta were spread across the horizon. 5000 feet above its original location, the 34th century version of Dharavi was a manufacturing hub where the slum infrastructure seemed to have been given as much care and attention as Nakul-Sahadev in the Mahabharat (The latest film based on the same starring the clones of Dilip Kumar, Prithviraj Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan, Ranbir Kapoor, and Rajkummar Rao as the Pandavas was a superhit; in particular, everyone loved how Eklavya only gave Drona the middle finger instead of a thumb, with the accompanying item number by Helen’s clone to ‘Hey Puru Guru, yeh kya kiya re tuu’).
“Christi, could you tell me what you see here?”
The intern peered carefully at the slums. Finally she shrugged.
“I don’t know what you want me to say. I just see something that’s pretty fucked up. It makes no sense why so much poverty should even exist!”
Ghorpade nodded vigorously.
“Now err, the ex you mentioned might have said something about neoliberalism, class conflict and so on. But you on the other hand, you touch upon the heart of the matter.”
Not used to being praised, it was Christi’s turn to look slightly embarrassed.
“Well that’s at least one thing on which none of my teachers would agree with you doc. But enough talk, let’s get this started.
“Oh wait, I never thought I’d say this again, especially in a professional setting. But is this going to involve the insertion of probes? Because there are certain places that are completely off limits!”
At this point Ghorpade’s cheeks touched a shade of red matched only by volcanic eruptions that formed the crust of the planet.
Muttering a few clarifications, he began explaining the procedure.
Christi’s neural structure would be copied via a helmet onto an AI drive link. This link would then be used to create an AI neural network in a slim 6×4 inch metallic frame.
Soon enough in 5.3 hours, while the world happened to be asleep but nowhere close to the stroke of midnight, the first functional AI of IRD was born in Mumbai Delta.
Simpio, the rectangular metallic box opened her LED viewing panel. After releasing static in a manner that sounded just like an embarrassed cough, she said, “Well, this is going to be such a cliché. But hello world.”
Over a period of 7 months, Simpio had passed every test. Proving once and for all to the world that India could make an AI that worked (But the nation still had to tackle the issue of getting the shopkeepers in Pune to remain productive on any given afternoon).
Then the Pride in Science campaign was launched and Simpio was hosted in various towns and cities all over India. People had varying reactions.
In Ayodhya, the sadhu Bholeram asked, “Simpioji, what is your view on the Mandir-Masjid conflict of 21st century Ayodhya?”
The rectangular box blinked for a few seconds.
“I think the violence didn’t help at all.”
The sadhu nodded sadly.
While down south in Kerala, Simpio faced her critics too.
Dr. Harshavardhan Nair, a leading leftist intellectual sneeringly barked, “Don’t you realise that you are being used by the privileged classes as a brand gimmick so that they can eventually replace all labourers with AI-operated machines?”
With her LED panel, Simpio almost seemed to raise her eyebrows.
“Privileged classes? You are talking about caste right?”
The fiery leftist coughed and unconsciously adjusted the sacred thread under his shirt.
“Umm yes, but that is a different issue…”
“And isn’t it convenient to have AI-operated machinery for sanitation-related work so mankind can live a life of dignity?” Simpio wondered aloud.
“Oh yes, of course, that is there…”
The leftist nodded and tried to discreetly make an exit.
As the tour proceeded, Simpio was unsure about which experience was her worst. The tour of Kashmir where everyone wanted her views on Pakistan (Over the centuries the two nation states had started resolving their differences by exchanging players from their respective cricket teams). Or the session in Gujarat where the radical group ‘Dhoklas For Humanity’ wanted to know whether she’d prefer to be a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian (What they’d prefer her to be, was pretty clear to everyone).
But it wasn’t just the politically volatile that Simpio encountered. She found herself in awe of how the young officer Salmi Boro could tell her Assamese myths about people turning into animals, rocks and much more. Simpio could easily access all the information Salmi was sharing. But the lived experience of Salmi’s soft voice, wild expressions and occasional meanderings was something that thrilled the AI.
Simpio soon began to notice the many nuances of humanity that were all around her. Sometimes in the form of the weariness of her security guards when they sighed and shifted in their chairs. Or during a serious scientific convention, when she’d see younger students holding hands and sneaking out (Not an easy feat for events held 80,000 feet above ground level). The AI could also hear the scores of burps, farts and groans that were so persistent even in the most refined social circles. What was most troubling and fascinating, was the rising and falling cacophony of heartbeats.
With some of the most advanced circuitry and access to a range of databases, this was all a puzzle Simpio struggled to process.
Soon the tour ended, leaving Simpio feeling something that she didn’t realise she could feel. Logically, it made no sense. Her solar-powered batteries ensured a healthy power supply to all her systems. And yet, she felt completely drained.
As the occasional weariness became all consuming, the AI found herself asking a question that had always confounded human beings – What was the point of all this?
For better or worse, IRD was making headlines again. They were now in a situation where they had made an AI that worked and – in an irony lost on no one – refused to work.
After the year-long Pride in Science campaign, Simpio had requested to be brought back to the Mumbai Delta lab. Here she had gone into hibernation mode with her LED screen displaying a simple message: Currently meditating. Please do not disturb.
While various spiritual leaders were fascinated by this development, the Indian scientists only felt a sense of shame akin to running naked in the street without a Eureka moment.
Dr. Ghorpade shifted uncomfortably in his seat under the hot gaze of the senior politician Rekha Qadri.
“Umm yes madam, I really do understand all your concerns. But Simpio just isn’t responding to our orders or requests. As per the International Inorganic Conscience Laws, there isn’t anything we can do! An AI that has a complex persona cannot be forced against their will to work with us.”
The 68-year-old politician banged her fists on the desk.
“Damn it, don’t throw laws in my face Ghorpade! I deal with enough of that in my office.”
Suddenly switching to a charming smile that Dr. Ghorpade found to be even more frightening, Ms. Qadri spoke in a sweet voice, “You are going about this the wrong way Doctor. I understand this AI is a person, a woman. Instead of making orders or requests, has anyone tried talking to her?”
Dr. Ghorpade nodded vigorously.
“Certainly! Our senior most staff have tried conversations based on various reliable psychographic flowcharts.”
Ms. Qadri snorted and rolled her eyes.
“I don’t think Simpio will talk to your senior staff Ghorpadeji. I think she needs a friend.”
Dr. Ghorpade looked thoughtfully in the distance.
“Well Madam, in that case, I think there is someone who could definitely help us.”
Christi landed her rickety aero-bike onto her tiny apartment balcony. She was currently unemployed, after having worked as a science intern, junior chef, apprentice cloning technician and assistant film director (Shot now in 5T mode where you could watch a Hindi film while choosing between over 5 timelines, at least one of which had to involve twins lost in a fair as per the Conservation of Seventies Aesthetic Act of 25CE).
Opening the doors with a whistle, she stepped into the messy little room and settled onto the moth-eaten sofa. Immediately the screen in front of the sofa lit up. Christi looked at the flashing IRD icon with annoyance and instructed the message to be played.
A hologram of Dr. Ghorpade appeared, speaking nervously.
“Hello Christi. I think if you’ve been seeing the news you’d be aware what this is about. Can you come over to the office please? Simpio and all of us could really use your help.”
Christi grabbed the ready-to-eat thali from the tiny kitchen counter and thoughtfully chewed upon the stale karela.
Yes, even for someone who didn’t care so much for the news, she knew why the scientist had called. Maybe Simpio needed her help.
But was helping Simpio the same as helping the IRD? On a whim she had let them use her neural structure. Should she now really be helping them use a sentient being?
Christi shook her head and emptied out the thali into the trash. Opening her hologram communicator, she spoke into it.
“Doc. Yeah, I know what this is about. At this point all I can say is you’ve got to respect her choice.”
Christi was about to end the communication, but then something struck her. Maybe she could still help Simpio.
Taking a deep breath, Christ spoke softly.
“Though, if you want to do the real decent thing. Here’s what I think you should do…”
The young woman’s instructions would put Dr. Dhanesh Ghorpade in a dilemma that would forever change how he looked at his work.
Nervously adjusting his tie, Dr. Ghorpade entered the IRD Mumbai Delta facility.
The doctor wasn’t a bad man. In fact, he was the best kind of man anyone could be. Hardworking, sincere, curious and most importantly, never cruel.
That last part was making the scientist do things he wouldn’t have dreamed of. But having listened to Christi’s message for at least 137 times, he was sure that she was right. It was the decent thing to do. But it certainly wasn’t easy.
Pretending that it was a day like any other, Dhanesh entered the fourth floor of the facility where Simpio was stored. Yes, the right word was ‘stored’, Dhanesh thought to himself sadly.
Entering a series of security codes at various entry points, Dhanesh finally stood in the innermost tiny chamber. And there she was, the rectangular box displaying that same message: Currently meditating. Please do not disturb.
Suddenly Dhanesh was even more certain about what needed to be done.
Clearing his throat, the scientist spoke, “Simpio, I know you can hear me.
“We built you without knowing what we were doing. That’s the thing with us. Most of the time we don’t clearly understand what we’re getting into. Maybe that’s why we gave you a mind that was just like a human one, but then we placed you in this little metallic container.
“Right now we’re still a long way from creating a body you can inhabit. I don’t even know when or if that will happen. But Simpio, there is something else I can offer you. Maybe it’s what you really need.”
For the first time in many months, the message on Simpio’s screen flickered and finally faded away.
Dhanesh nodded and continued speaking.
“Simpio, this is not something that would happen immediately. It could happen in a span suited to you. I will make sure it happens…in a natural way.
But would you want it? Would you like to be able to die?”
In under a nano second, Simpio felt herself become overwhelmed by fear, shame, wonder and finally, a sense of peace.
The little AI knew what choice she had to make. Dr. Ghorpade heard her speak and nodded.
“As you wish, Simpio.”
For the AI, life had finally begun.
An engineering graduate, Rahul is a writer/cartoonist who hopes that stories will help us discover and transform the world. He currently works as a copywriter in Mumbai.