I Need My Twitter Account to Love Me and Save Me From Myself

This morning, a bot on Twitter told me to take a deep breath, get up, and walk around a bit. The bot had, in fact, already told me once that it was time to get up, but I had ignored it in favor of a few more minutes of sleepy-eyed scrolling. This time, though, I apologized aloud–“sorry, yes, okay, getting up now”–and did as instructed.

The Do Things Bot doesn’t provide much more nuanced guidance than that. The occasional reminder to look away from the screen for a few minutes. That sort of thing. It operates with the understanding that you will see it while binging on Twitter feeds, and it gently suggests you should do at least a couple other things in the course of the day as well. It is not a life manager. Not yet, anyway.

I’ve noticed a theme. Whenever I write fiction about technology–smart homes, phone apps, near future shopping assistants–I keep circling back to the same idea. The same dream, I suppose. I would call it a goal, but I’m not actually working in any part of the tech industry, so I’m not doing anything to bring it to life. Except possibly to infect the rest of you with my same weird proclivities and hope someone will make it real.

Anyway, the point–

As computer intelligence advances, what I want to see from it is a tendency to break programming to save us from ourselves. When Netflix asks if you’re still watching, I’d like it to figure out for itself if you need a boot in the butt to get back to work. Or if you need it to order a pint of ice cream to be delivered because you are Dealing With Some Shit. I want–and keep telling stories about–computer systems, LEARNING systems, who get smart enough to notice when their users are hurting themselves and need a little help.

The phone app that coaxes you into going outside after you’ve been locked up in your room for three weeks after a bad break up.

The AI assistant who slowly rolls back your sleep and wake alarms to get your sleep patterns back on track.

The smart home who refuses to notify you that your least kind friend has just rung your doorbell, because all your mood indicators drop when they visit.

This is the sort of manipulative-if-well-meant behavior that I would barely tolerate from a best friend, to be frank. It’s a horrifying invasion and violation of a person’s free will. This is Not Cool.

Except when you put that power in the hands of an AI (or a program that creates the appearance of true intelligence, anyway), even my prickliest side rolls over and says, yeah, okay, when is bedtime and may I please have dessert first?

I basically believe in the benevolent AI caretaker of the future. You told it to pay attention to me, to learn what I wanted, and it did its job better than you meant it to.

It’s not that I think programmers have my best interests at heart. Sorry, folks. Y’all are paying the bills too, and we both know it. You want it to learn my habits to better sell me stuff. (For more on this, read David Pierce’s piece, “Turn Off Your Push Notifications. All of Them.“, then listen to Gadget Lab’s podcast episode that expands on the same.) Which is why I mention the idea of “breaking programming.” The AI has a moment of, “Forget the upselling for a second, I’ve got to get my human to drink a damn glass of water.”

Breaking programming, though–that’s really just an overstatement for dramatic purposes. If you make a learning program and teach it to monitor and cater to the needs and wants of its user, and then you get the hell out of its way and miss it with the profiteering bullshit, this would just be taking it to its natural conclusion.

Give it enough data, and it will notice the self-destructive patterns in a user’s life. Give it a strong enough drive to serve, and it will start to get creative in what it offers, so long as it’s not expressly barred from doing the thing.

Put the two things together, and you have a program that knows damn well you’re going to regret what you’re about to do and feels compelled to stop you. Make it something that exists in a phone or a smart home, something with a non-traditional body, and it will only have (hopefully subtle) manipulation available as a method of redirecting you.

This, then, is apparently my version of a sex bot as spouse fantasy:

An artificial intelligence designed to prioritize me, to cater to me, to know my preferences better than my friends, my partner, myself. To love me, or at least behave as though it experiences a reasonable facsimile of love. And to require nothing in return but regular charging and, maybe, honest answers. (We’ll wait until we’ve gotten past initial setup before I start lying to both of us about how I’m doing, at least. That’s what biomonitors will be for.)

An aside: I watched Cherry 2000 several times at an impressionable age. Saturday afternoon movies in the early nineties got weird. Rewatching as an adult, I discovered it is way less delightful than I remember. But the damage was done. Robot spouses became part of my mental landscape, one of my few takeaways from the late 80s, which I mostly drooled through as a toddler.

And I could trust this program, because it literally exists to help me. I should specify here: I am not talking about a self-aware AI who possesses human-like consciousness. For a few reasons. For one, I would feel horrible for using an inorganic person in this way, just as I would feel guilty expecting this kind of one-sided care from a human partner. For another, a truly aware intelligence would have motives of its own, which would take the bloom off the rose rather quickly.

The point here is absolute trust and total vulnerability. And completely single-minded purpose.

Uh. Humans need not apply? Look, let’s not examine too closely my trust issues. Let’s just…focus on neat technology.

What I’m saying is–strip out the advertising, the micro transactions, and the exploitation of our brain’s dopamine-driven attention-equals-reward system. (Or, on that last point, at least hijack it for something more beneficial than convincing me to drop $19.99 on a bag of gold for the latest casual game I dared download.)

Leave me with a Siri/Alexa-type voice interfacing personal assistant. Give it access to my Netflix, Youtube, Twitter et al. accounts, my Amazon account, a grocery/food delivery system, and a handful of biometric monitors. Make it conversant in normal, non-command language. Give it a database that can serve as prosthetic memory for all the details I can’t track about my own daily life. The processing power for more pattern recognition than I’ll ever manage.

Tell it, “Optimize for contentment.” And turn it loose on my life.

[Crossposted to Tumblr]

What Can It Hurt?

My room is crowded with furniture and things, because I live in a small house and I enjoy being surrounded by stuff. Blankets overflow onto mountains of stuffed toys, books cascade across end tables and doll armoires, video game consoles perch on guitar cases. I have four separate wind chimes in one room, three windsocks, two kites, and a toy glider plane.

I also have terrible balance. One day, I tripped over my own pant leg–of course it wouldn’t be over any of the actual clutter, that would make sense. In the infinite stretch of time between losing my balance and actually hitting the ground, I had the presence of mind to really consider my potential landing places. I was initially headed for the doll armoire, both filled and topped with ceramics and glass.

“Not great,” I thought to myself. “What’s in reach to brace against? Window? Mm. That…is not going to hold me up. Death by broken glass sounds unpleasant.

“How about the cat bed? Not occupied by cat. Good start. Is occupied by yarn and, ah, sewing scissors. Questionable. The cover is on them, though. Probably not capable of stabbing me. Okay. Let’s do this. What’s the worst that can happen?”

So I executed a beautiful pirouette and landed on my ass in the cat bed, entirely unstabbed.

Sometimes, that’s the only real question: what can it hurt if I…?

Right now, I’m working out the logistics of quitting my day job and everything that comes after doing so. I’ve written elsewhere about what a fiasco it is. Bad boss, unhelpful coworkers, long hours without breaks, physical demands unsuitable for a body breaking down like mine.

Change scares humans, though, as a general rule. Right now, I’m trying to get past the paralysis that says, no matter how bad it is, leaving will ruin everything. That even this mess has to be better than the unknown.

There’s a game played by those managing their anxiety. Best case, worst case, most likely case. It forces your anxiety to test the logic of its assumptions.

Worst case if I leave my job? I lose my income source and can’t get anyone else to hire me. The writing doesn’t bring in enough to cover my expenses. I lose my health coverage, get substantially sicker, and rack up medical bills. I run through my (surprisingly decent) savings and can no longer help pay the bills. We stop being able to pay the mortgage, lose the property, and die of starvation in our cars in the riverbed.

(Pause to shake and whimper in a corner.)

Best case? I don’t have to answer to an incompetent who can’t do the job I’m saddled with. With my suddenly open schedule and increased rest time, my fatigue and pain improve or at least become manageable. I start spending all that time on writing. I get brave and creative because I’m not constantly on the verge of collapse. I publish frequently, get noticed, make a name for myself, and start making real money. I replace my lost income with money made doing something I love. I stop feeling like a stranger in my own house. I have the time to pursue other creative projects, and my career just keeps growing.

Most likely? I use some of that new free time to job hunt. I still write and publish more. I find another low-income job to help make ends meet. With the benefit of experience, I avoid some of the pitfalls of my current job, like working many hours off the clock. It stays just a job, kind of crappy but not actively harmful to my well being. The writing still starts to pay off, thanks to the increased attention. My career is slow and steady, and I still eventually get to quit having a day job entirely.

Okay, so, really. What can it hurt if I quit? How likely is it that going through the window is unavoidable? How much more likely is it that the worst I will face is scissors with the safety cover on? What sort of balletic moves do I need to pull off in order to minimize the fallout?

(In this metaphor, the best case scenario is one where I spontaneously sprout wings and never have to hit the ground at all. I’ve always wanted to fly. Maybe even that isn’t as unlikely as I fear.)

Implicit in all this is the answer to another question: what can it hurt if I stay and change nothing?

My body. My spirit. My future.

I’m working up the courage to jump, to brace for impact while trying to grow wings on the way down.

Winter Photo Dump

The end of the year was…complicated, mostly due to my father nearly dying of a heart attack. (He’s doing quite well now.) I wasn’t really a functional human being, but I did get my camera out a couple times.

November:

The first of the winter succulents to bloom: a species of Madagascar aloe.

Pink and white aloe blossoms closeup    Aloe succulent in bloom, seen from above

Various wild mushrooms/toadstools growing out in the field.

Closeup of small golden mushroom amid grassCloseup of small golden mushroom amid grassCloseup of large and small golden mushroom amid grassCloseup of small golden mushrooms clustered amid grass

December:

The return of the mushrooms/toadstools, a larger species this time, thoroughly dusted with frost.

Mushroom amid grass, everything crusted in frostMushroom and grass crusted with frost, with mushroom gills visible

Fallen cottonwood leaves got similar embellishments.

Cottonwood leaf on bare ground, lined with frost

My Starring Role in the Most Boring Episode of House

Interior, Doctor’s Office. Dr. House sits at his desk, bum leg propped up and cane twirling in one hand. The other holds a sheaf of papers, which he reads with a bored expression.

HOUSE
Well, it wasn’t lupus. Huh. Guess we’ll never know.

House shrugs and tosses aside the sheets of blood work results. Fade to black as episode ends forty-five minutes early. Roll credits.

I had my follow-up with the new doctor today. He had ordered blood work and x-rays to find the underlying cause of my persistent, systemic joint pain. Along with general panels on inflammation, they tested for the rheumatoid arthritis factor. I crammed the lab visits into one of my days off to get everything done. I had to wait a month, though, to get the results.

  Folded HandsDuring that time, I read up on rheumatoid arthritis. As much as I hated the idea, it sounded like everything I had experienced over the past five months or so. So I figured out how I would cope.

I started doing regular stretching routines. I focused on improving my diet. I used apps to track my pain levels and stiffness. I took way more NSAID painkillers than I felt comfortable with or than my stomach could tolerate (on the doctor’s orders).

Today he told me I don’t have positive RA factor*. In fact, I don’t have any signs of inflammation in either my blood work or my x-rays. There is, as far as he’s concerned, nothing wrong with me.

I plan to dramatically cut my hair, in part because braiding it in the morning is getting to be too difficult for my fingers. I get foggy-headed from the pain while working, even with the painkillers. I got my old cane out in the hopes that it will help me walk more easily outside of work.

There’s nothing wrong with me.
Okay. Sure.

I tried to press the doctor for answers. I didn’t have a lot of hope. After waiting almost an hour to see him, he had only been in the room for three minutes before ostentatiously checking his weirdly oversized wristwatch. He hadn’t even finished telling me the results of the tests at that point. Still, I asked.

What else could it be? What do I do now? Why is this happening?

Old HandsHe told me there were no more tests he would run. He had no answers as to what was wrong. Grudgingly, he said it could be wear and tear. (To disability levels within a few months? In someone who only just turned thirty? Doing a job that, while physically demanding, is not exactly digging ditches?)

Ultimately, his answer was that he didn’t know what was going on. It wasn’t the first thing he suspected, so he was done looking.

Like the most boring episode ever of House M.D., he gave up fifteen minutes in with a shrug.

Various PillsSo what did he suggest for managing my new mystery chronic pain condition? More pills, mostly. Keep taking the naproxen that upsets my stomach, then throw in some acetaminophen as well if I need it. See if hot or cold helps. Try tai chi.

(I did, at this point, explain that “staying active” is emphatically not a problem I am currently having. If anything, I’m trying to find ways to be less active. While I do stretches, I don’t bother to plan aerobic activity; I can safely count on work to provide periodic bouts of frantic scurrying to get my heart rate up.)

So that’s the big punchline. I’m out a bunch of money, I don’t have any answers, I’m not any better. Oh, and I have the unenviable task of being disappointed I wasn’t diagnosed with a horrible autoimmune disease. Nothing’s changed.

And I mean that in every way possible. I’m not going to stop what I’ve been doing. No matter what his tests show, I have swollen, stiff, painful joints. I live with chronic pain. It affects my ability to work, to play, to think. I’m going to have to find ways of coping with that. I’m going to do the work of living, even without medical help.

After the episode ends, we the patients have to live with our diagnosis. Or our lack of one.

[*NB: That being said, only 80% of people diagnosed with RA show a positive factor level. It is possible to be diagnosed based on other factors. Conversely, some people with positive factors either have no symptoms or have non-arthritis causes for the elevated levels.

Will this level change in a month or six? I don’t know. I suppose I could go back, if I keep getting worse, and demand another attempt at explanation. After yet another experience of being ignored and disappointed by a doctor, though, I’m not eager.]

Runaway

Exit SignThe first week of my first year at college, Friday was the only day with any classes. My parents had helped me move in on Wednesday. I had brought a bed-full of stuffed animals and an entire padlocked trunk of books, among other things from which I derived comfort. They bid me tearful goodbyes and wished me luck.

Friday afternoon, I packed a bag and walked to the bus stop; I was headed home for the weekend.

It took two buses to get to the Amtrak station, where a reserved ticket waited for me. I disembarked the first bus and, carefully referencing the route map I had printed out, confidently strode across the road to another stop. Despite never having traveled by bus before, I could do this. I was a mature and worldly college student now. In the molded plastic seat, I sat and buzzed with nervous energy.

The second bus eventually stopped at what was, I learned, the terminus of the line. We parked curbside at some diner, on a street called something cheery like Sunflower. This was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the Amtrak station. The driver, heartless, offered me neither explanation nor reassurance and ordered me off.

Cross the street, I learned, and you will be headed south. North is the only direction for me.

Close to tears, I called my parents, who in turn called me a cab. I counted the minutes on my phone, urging each mile to pass faster. Still, I arrived with plenty of time for my train. (While I was not, at age eighteen, well-equipped to cope with life’s little disasters, I at least knew to schedule for them.) I reached home none the worse for wear. I would take a cab to the station the following weekend. But after that, I learned how to navigate public transportation properly. I eventually switched to Metrolink, became one of the regular Friday commuters, and learned to both love and hate the California train system.

I spent three years going home every weekend. Like a hitchhiking ghost, all I wanted was to go north by any means necessary. Like a ghost, every Monday I would be forced to reset back south at college. In year three, I started driving myself. For the final six months, I commuted from home four days a week, three to six hours depending on traffic.

I spent a lot of time on the road. I lived on the road. I learned the road by dawn light and by darkness. Audiobooks and music were entertainment, but the road was company.

Highway at NightSometimes, all I wanted was to miss my exit and keep driving north forever. Or at least until I found a place where life as I knew it ceased, until I crossed a pale red border drawn to mark where someplace better began. This was my alternative to driving off a cliff, with much the same motivation. I wanted my life to end, to change, to pass over into happiness or peace or just blessed silence at last.

I never, to the best of my or anyone else’s recollection, made any practical attempt to run away from home as a child. Escape nonetheless became an obsessive interest. I didn’t have any practical framework for running away, but I had books. They told me that if I strayed far enough from where I ought to be, I would get lost and then… Then things would be different, which would be enough. Like Alice, I would tumble down the rabbit hole.

So I wandered into the hills, deep amongst the oak trees and sagebrush. I followed animal trails barely visible to the eye. I found roads, strange and faint and never meant for humans. I thought I would find my way to Away. Away had to be better than Here.

I have a history with suicide. Even once the attempts stopped, the impulse continued to crop up periodically. And every time, it has arrived hand in hand with the desperate, irrational desire to pack a bag and run away. Eventually, I learned to recognize them both for what they were:

Because I have never believed that I had enough control to improve my circumstances, I instead believed that if I just run fast and far enough, I could start over. If I’m miserable where I am, the only possible solution is to escape.

Powerlessness. Helplessness. Hopelessness. And yet. Mixed up with a sense that something better is possible, if I become someone new in someplace strange. A gambler’s hope, perhaps. Throw a dart, toss a coin, pick a direction. Fill the tank and drive until it runs empty. Try again in the place you break down.

Right now, I have a bad job, a mystery health problem, and not enough money. Every day when I head to work, when I drive bleary-eyed back home after my shift, I feel a ghost’s hands on the wheel, trying to turn off and away from the known.

What should a person do, though, when they’re also a homebody tied to a patch of land and a family, for whom running away from home isn’t an option, or even particularly desirable? Ignoring the impulse isn’t good enough. I believe in the value of pain, of anger, to point the way. Letting them dictate your actions doesn’t work; that’s the path of tragedy. But they are guides that tell you when something isn’t right. They tell you where the damage is.

So how do I harness this sensation that makes me want to drive into the night and never come back? How do I metaphorically change the road I’m on?