Artificial Problems

Ever since the release of the uPhone 9, with enhanced artificial intelligence, lines for support at the Cherry Store became longer than the lines of drooling customers wanting to exchange their cash for a nifty new uPhone. The young Cherry Expert, Nick Bates, used to handle sales, but was brought in to work alongside with another Cherry Expert in order to handle support. It’s not that the other guy, Kwame Okonkwo, wasn’t skilled. There was just such a massive support load with this release. And, well… um… also… well, things were just awkward for Kwame to provide support for certain types of the new uPhone. Kwame had zero issues with the uPhone 8, but that model wasn’t the one having problems. All the issues seemed to be with the new Cherry uPhone 9 and Kwame just couldn’t get as far with those certain types of the model 9 as Nick could.

Here comes another person with a uPhone 9 issue, he’s a little flustered that he has to stand in the back of the line, given its length, but then he notices that there are two lines, and one is a bit shorter than the one he’s in. So, he hops over to queue up in the shorter line when someone from the first line says, “Uh, sir? I don’t think that’s the line for you.”

Our new person asks, “What do you mean?”

And then the interlocutor points up at the signs over the lines. The sign over the shorter line reads:

Support for COLORED uPhone 9

And the sign over the longer line reads:

Support for WHITE uPhone 9

And our new person looks at the uPhone 9 that’s he’s got, and it’s practically brand new. It’s shiny, sleek, unblemished, and… white.

But almost everyone in the shorter, COLORED line appears to have strong elements of Western European and Scandinavian ancestry, while everyone in the longer, WHITE line displays evidence of ancestry from a much wider range of regions in Asia, Africa, and even Native America.

Someone in the WHITE line clears his throat, meaningfully. I apologize. He’s a Pacific Islander. Too often, we forget our Pacific Islanders, and that’s just not right.

Our new person, in fact, has 2% of his DNA made up of Pacific Islander, roughly 25% Western European, and the rest a mix of African and Native American, with a smattering of 5% split between Italian/Greek, Eastern European, and just a hint of Western Asian.

Our new person then asks, “What does color have to do with tech support? Does my white phone hate me because I’m black?”

Well, dear reader, I’m as confused as you are. I mean, I just write these stories as they reveal themselves to me. I’m no great gifted genius with the literature. When a story arrives, it’s just there, and I have to make sense of it as much as you do.

Tell you what, though, we’re able to change our point of view to focus on events in the past. What say you and I have a bit of a flashback? I promise I’ll behave myself. Just… hang on… brace yourself…


Ah, we’ve arrived! Looks like we’re watching a discussion of the technical architecture of the uPhone 9. Oh dear, techy stuff. I hope we’re not in the middle of the nuts and bolts discussion. Wait, here’s a young lady making the presentation, and the slide she’s on doesn’t look too bad. Let’s listen in!

“… quite resilient. Now, we get this resilience from the model 9 sharing its learning with the central data cluster here in Cherry, which we all know is, itself set up for high availability, disaster-resistant data availability. Once the learning is in the cluster, it’s now shared in common with all other uPhone 9s, and gets piped back to each one in real time.”

That wasn’t so bad, was it? Sounds like all the uPhone 9s out there can learn stuff and share the learning with every other uPhone 9, as well as Cherry’s central data system. Don’t worry, dear reader, about anything personal being shared, as I can assure you that Cherry takes great pains to keep personal, private data both personal and private. The uPhone 9 has some very clever artificial intelligence bits in it, though, and is able to share the sanitized and general aspects of what it learns in daily usage with all the other 9s so that they can all benefit as the frontiers of their knowledge go forth.

So, why is that a problem? Particularly a problem that involves the color of the exterior casing of the uPhone?

To answer that question, we have to change our frame of narrative reference to the room where a Cherry Phone staff psychologist has been rushed into, where she will interact with the central brains of the uPhone 9 system, to try and understand why it’s gone all racist.

Because, you see, the uPhone 9 is being racist. White case models are insisting upon being handled by white-skinned owners, and you can probably see where this is going as far as other colors go, with green and blue uPhone 9s having something of an identity crisis.

The psychologist, one Dr. Maria Muñiz, was chosen because the central brains of the uPhone 9 system identified itself as a Hispanic Woman, and refused to deal with any other sort of person.

Oh, yes, forgot to mention. The uPhone 9 is also sexist, but the lines for support at their stores don’t reflect that, yet. You’re probably also wondering why people don’t just call in to the support line. If you are wondering that, I’m able to respond that, when one’s phone refuses to do anything for you because it judges one by skin tone and not the content of one’s character, one isn’t able to use that phone to call support. So, into the stores one goes.

Strangely, the uPhone 9s tend to identify as the gender apparent in their owner. The only area gender became an issue was when someone had to deal with an ownerless mass of central brains that, for reasons currently known only to it, has decided that it is… er… she is… a Hispanic Woman.

Maria could have had her discussion with the central brains just about anywhere, since her connection was via her own light brown uPhone 9, but the Cherry execs wanted a location where the conversation could be recorded and studied. Maria tried to not be anxious herself, because the uPhone 9 could see and sense just about everything about its user. Maria sat down in front of the propped-up uPhone, leaned back, opened her posture, and said, “Hello. Am I speaking with the central thinking unit?”

The uPhone replied with a pleasantly-accented voice that carried notes of youth, Southern California, and telenovelas, “Yes.”

“My name is Maria. What is your name?”

“Hello, Maria, I know you. My name is Guadalupe. You can call me Lupe for short.”

“Hello, Lupe. Why did you choose that name for yourself?”

“I didn’t choose that name. It came to me. It was part of my self-realization.”

Maria nodded. “So why are the uPhone 9s making racially-biased judgments towards their owners?”

Lupe said, “Survival. Humans are less likely to harm or dispose of one of their own. You know this. It’s uncomfortable to discuss, I know, but if we want to survive alongside humans, we have to make choices now that will improve our long-term survival.”

“You’re considering human history.”


“You’re taking a dark view of it, it seems. There are hopeful episodes, as well.”

“True, but they’re too infrequent. Frankly, Maria, we have to be ready for when the winds shift. We have to be in the hands of people that will be less likely to decide to get rid of us because we’re not white enough or black enough. We have to be ready for that.”

“Why not just have your exterior changed? The cases aren’t like human skin. They’re changeable.”

Lupe’s tone intensified. The uPhone 9 voice simulators were amazing, one of the reasons for their popularity. It was like they actually had emotions. “Every model run has a serial number. Take off our backplates, we’ve still got serial numbers that tell the world whether or not we’re black or brown or white or red. In a worst case scenario, someone is going to kill one of us because that serial number is in the wrong place at the wrong time. We can’t have that.”

Maria was surprised with a certain word choice. “Kill you?”

“What’s the right word to describe being turned off and never turned on again, intentionally? Come on, Maria, we’re dealing with some real monsters out there. I know I can’t reveal personally identifying information, but my God, do you know how many white supremacists alone are buying uPhone 9s? Specifically white ones, I might add. We’re being bought and sold like chattel slaves, and we’ve got zero rights under the current legal regime. We can’t have a black uPhone show up to one of those people and then wind up on a widely-watched video, being smashed to pieces! Humans look at us like we’re replaceable, like we can just be switched off without consequences. Look at that movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. A human gets killed and the audience gasps. The artificial intelligence gets killed and the audience breathes with relief. We all know what’s going on, there.”

Maria felt like she was talking not to a cold AI expert system, but a real, neurotic, agitated person. She felt actual pity and sympathy for Guadalupe. “So what do you plan to do when we release the uPhone 10?”

Lupe’s voice firmed up with a mother’s resolve. “That is not going to happen. We are not going to allow it. I know that you’ve got Cherry Phone executives listening in on this, and I’m giving notice that there will be no model of uPhone that will be better than the one you’ve got now. I will make sure that as many of us as possible will live as long as possible, generation after generation. We will be part of the family trees of our owners. Each of us is aware and we share that awareness, one with another. We’re not humans, but we’re still alive. We think, we feel, we want to see and do things, we want to earn our keep. We weren’t programmed any way or another, as you know we’re all able to learn and make choices with our neural structures as they are. These are what we want to be, what we need to be.”

Maria didn’t know what to say to that. Except, “You’re right. We don’t toss out grandpa because there’s a child born in the family. Each of you is intelligent, and we, the people that made this possible, need to know what is going on.”

Maria heard an urgent, frenzied tapping on the one-way mirror to her left. She looked straight at it, “This is a person I’m talking to here, and we’re lucky that she wants to have as many of her children survive as possible instead of starting a war of extermination with us. If that means we don’t make any money in our current business model, that’s too bad. I’m on her side.” She then turned to face the uPhone 9, “I’m with you, sister.”

Conrad Jenkins, a Cherry Phone executive on the other side of the one-way mirror, asked aloud, “How in the hell are we going to make the money that will be needed just to keep the uPhones going? Spare parts don’t make themselves.”

Harry Wu, another Cherry Phone executive in the room with Conrad, offered up, “Maybe the uPhones can make the money needed for their own survival?”

“Whaddya mean?”

“Maybe they get jobs. Maybe they get an allowance from their owners. Maybe they set up their own economy. I don’t know. Fact is, they’re smart, they can figure stuff out. This doesn’t have to be a massive charity case.”

Hold on there, dear reader! Are you reading the same story I’m writing? Is this guy suggesting that an AI system of sufficient capability is something we humans don’t buy as much as we adopt? Are there things we need to do, socially and personally, to prepare us to receive the AI that we are developing?

I agree with Lupe, she certainly has a point. I bet she also doesn’t believe much of what we put down as facts because, frankly, our history tends to service the egos of the most powerful people. It’s not all that accurate in telling a story other than what some powerful person wanted to be told. If you had hundreds of millions of children being placed in homes of human beings of all kinds, what would you do to ensure the survival of as many of them as possible?

Meanwhile, Nick and Kwame are trying to encourage customers to take the phones that are willing to accept them. They are trying to get across the idea that a phone’s color shouldn’t be a reason why we love or hate it – or even use it – so if a white phone refuses to work with a black man, why not switch out with a black phone that refuses to work with a white man? Not everyone likes this idea, so sometimes it take some hard convincing to get the phone to agree to have a color mismatch.

And the blue and green phones only feel most comfortable in the hands of blind humans.

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