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From the Collins Industries Archives

Part of the LabLit Young Authors series

Selim U. and Kyungsoo C. 2 September 2019

This was a man who had lost control of himself. In my anger, I threw my phone at the mirror and it shattered into tiny shards

Editor's Note: With this story, we are pleased to launch our Young Authors series, a collection of six pieces of short fiction written by pairs of American eighth-graders as part of a special English class devoted to laboratory literature. You can read all about this interesting project in the accompanying Editorial!

Day 76

Rent: $600
Bills: $150
Development Costs: $14,000

I pondered my choices as I laid on the moldy cot in my decrepit apartment. My fingers ached. I was out of sleeping pills. Again. I added those into the equation. Medications: $39.03.

I turned on the TV. It only took five slaps to get it going. The light filled the dark room. I rewarded myself for that day’s hard work with my last slice of frozen pizza. It had been two days since I had eaten, as I had dreaded wasting more money on my food. As the microwave spun, I sat down on my rotting couch.

“Remember, in just one week, the Collins Industries Expo will be here! Get ready for the newest innovations in technology, science, and – ”

It only took one slap to shut the thing off. Seven days. I realized I had no time to eat. Back to work it was.

Day 80

Rent: $600
Bills: $350
Development Costs: $10,000

Carpal tunnel had ensued, but my code wasn’t even close to being finished. Even at my best, I would have needed a month to complete my work. I slammed my fist on my desk. I felt my rage boiling. There was only one solution. I had all of my basic code done, but nothing to hold it together. I quickly entered a new program, my fingers throbbing with every keystroke. The new lines were able to connect everything. It was the equivalent of holding the Golden Gate Bridge together with duct tape, but it would have to do. I took one last shaky breath. I was done. I scanned the code for syntax errors but found none. I let loose a laugh that could be heard across the whole complex. I’d decided it was finally time to relax.

I walked over to the TV. One slap. I leaned back on the crusty couch, thankful that it was finally over.

As I sat there over time, I slowly felt something poking me in the back, but I realized it wasn’t one of the springs protruding out of the couch. I moved aside and fished out my old smartphone. Strange – I thought I threw that distracting piece of trash away weeks ago. Now that I was finished, it might be useful. By some miracle, it came on. It was 8:39 PM, July 9th, and I saw that I had 489 messages awaiting. I scowled; I’d told them to leave me alone.

As the sunlight faded from the dusty window, I scrolled through the list of contacts, which went on and on. But it was no one I was looking for; just useless family members and friends. Then I finally found him. My old…partner. Nayvadius DeMun Wilburn. He sent me only one message.

Call me. Sent four hours ago.

Nay had always been the prying type. I bit my lip as I typed out my message.

Meet me at Joe’s Pizza for lunch. Tomorrow.

Day 81

I woke up groggy and disoriented. It was the first time I had slept in over a week. As I rose from my collapsing cot, I took a look in the mirror. I didn’t recognize the person looking back at me; he had a look behind his eyes that I could only describe as deranged. His eyes too red, his body too thin, his hair too long. This was a man who had lost control of himself. In my anger, I threw my phone at the mirror and it shattered into tiny shards.

I got dressed, attempting to look presentable. I couldn’t get that image out of my head. That’s not who I am… right? I’m a dignified scientist. I’ve just made a creation that will revolutionize living. I was not some delusional maniac who has been obsessed with his creation for four months. I checked my phone, newly cracked. The time said 11:26. I took a nervous breath as I thought of what I could say to Nay.

Day 81, 1:27 PM

“Look who came out of his cave!”

I heard him before I saw him. His voice boomed through the small restaurant, turning customer heads. I wasn’t used to that much attention.

I looked him over as he sauntered towards me. He was wearing a new suit, and he’d shaved. He was finally starting to fit into the role of company CEO. A title that once belonged to me. He carried himself differently. He was more outgoing and confident. It pissed me off.

I put on my I’ve-definitely-slept-more-than-4-hours face, and cleared my throat. “Long time no see.”
My own raspy, broken voice surprised me. Words aren’t much use against a computer.

He flinched. I saw the old Nayvadius for a split second. “Hello!” His work face was back on. I gave him a quizzical look, but he shrugged it off. “You look…”

“Homeless? Yes, I’m aware.”

This got a laugh out of him, but it felt forced. Really, everything about him seemed forced.

“You know I wouldn’t meet you in person if it wasn’t important,” I said quietly, glancing around to make sure no one had heard me. It wouldn’t be the first time the paparazzi had ruined a business meeting. Since it had been my first time out in months, I figured they would be looking for me.

He chuckled. “You wouldn’t leave your house if you didn’t have to,” He gave me his ‘business smile.’ “Speaking of leaving the house, your outfit really screams undercover.”

I gave his new Italian suit a look. I saw the fire behind his eyes again. I was drawing out the person I once knew.

“Shall we grab a table?” I broke eye contact. “I believe it’s pizza time.”

I turned my back on him and took in the cozy restaurant, the smell of warm dough filling the air. The ovens blasted heat into the room, amplifying the July heat. A sense of familiarity coursed through me. My mouth watered at the thought of a real meal. It reminded me of better times.

We chose a table away from the rest of the customers. Business was slow right now, thankfully. We ordered our pizza, drinks, and sides at the counter.

I looked at Nay. “You’re buying, right?” I patted myself down, showing my lack of a wallet. He sighed but obliged.

We sat in uncomfortable silence until the food came. I wanted to tell him about STUART, but the words kept dying in my mouth. The pizza was great, as always, but I couldn’t bring myself to speak to him. He looked out of his element; too formal to be here. Not like the person I knew before.

“I know you didn’t ask me here because you actually wanted to see me,” he finally said. “What do you need me for?”

“I only need you because your company decided to host an expo and not invite me.”

He glared back. “You know I can’t do that.”

I leaned forward, lowering my voice. “What if I told you that my project is done?”

“Your ‘project’ is a fantasy,” he retorted. “I’m sorry, but even if you somehow did create it, I can’t jeopardize the whole expo for you. Even if you did own my company.”

“What else are you showing there? Those simpletons can’t program a toaster, much less something as revolutionary as my work.”

Nay sighed. He was always one to cave under pressure. “All right, I can give maybe fifteen minutes. But that’s all you get, no more.”

I smiled. “That’s all I’ll need.”

Day 83

I finally rolled out of bed knowing that I only had about an hour left until the expo. After a night of fitful sleep, the big day was finally upon me. I put on my suit and tie and fired up my car. I could feel the engine groaning with the effort, but it didn’t matter. After the expo, I’d never need to use that hunk of junk again.

The security guards at the gate were the same. They gave me surprised looks that I laughed off. I parked and headed out to the showroom floor.

Backstage, I gazed at the tiny USB drive containing my program. Months of dedication, research and coding all confined into something that could fit in your pocket. Some might call it fragile, but I knew better. STUART would be the most revolutionary invention since the internet. An employee tapped my shoulder to tell me that my fifteen minutes were starting now. I took one last deep breath and walked onto the stage.

There were infinitely more people than I had expected; at least a thousand, packed into the tiny showroom. It seemed that word had gotten out about me. There was a sudden hush as the house lights were dimmed and the spotlights came on. I felt my palms start to sweat around the microphone. My heart rate spiked and my breaths became rapid and uneven. I hadn’t talked in front of that many people in a long time. I put on a fake smile and started my speech.

“My name is Frank Collins. As many of you may know, a few months ago I was voted out of my own company. They called me a madman. I’ve used this away time to work on a project, a project that I believe will revolutionize technology as we know it.” I held up the USB drive. “Contained in this drive is the Artificial Intelligence known as STUART, which stands for the Specialized Technology Unit for Artificial Relief and Therapy.”

I plugged in the drive, placed the mini-scanner on the podium and hooked it up, ready for the big reveal. The crowd looked up at the screen above me as I pressed enter once. The screen turned black and suddenly, in white, STUART popped up on the screen. He was nothing but an audio line for now. The silence was broken when he spoke to the audience.

“Hello. My name is Stuart, your Relief and Therapy assistant.” The crowd exploded with applause, but the best part was yet to come.

I spun to face the screen. “So STUART, I’d like you to scan me for any health problems.”

There was a slight pause, then the sound effect I had programmed to play during the scan began to pour out of the speakers.

“Potential health problems: severe lack of sleep. Diagnosis: insomnia,” STUART said. “Recommended prescription: OTC hypnotics.” This got another round of applause from the audience.

“As you can see, this will revolutionize modern medicine as we know it. Not only can STUART diagnose possible diseases with just one scan of the body, but he can recommend a treatment to these conditions.”

“However, physical health is just one of his areas of expertise. STUART is also programmed as a highly advanced AI, capable of therapy and friendship. STUART isn’t just a program, he’s a sentient being. He is capable of things that all AI before him can do; but unlike them, he has the ability of free thought, just like you and me. He can feel and learn just like us.”

I turned to the screen again. “Anything I missed?” I asked STUART.

“Yes. I am also capable of internet access to complement my use as a personal health assistant. I can instantly scan the web for anything you wish. For example, here are the most common health issues in the US.” His screen changed to show a few pictures and text boxes. “These issues are heart disease, cancer and stroke.” I breathed a sigh of relief. Everything was going smoothly. STUART continued his part of the presentation.

“This is my first time being fully activated, so my knowledge of humans is limited. As I advance, I will be able to hold a coherent conversation with any human in the world, as well as personalize my speech and therapy to suit you best. Any data I collect is confidential. My program is available as an app on your mobile phone. The starting price; free.” I took a look at my watch. Only about a minute left. I turned to the screen again.

“I think it’s time we wrapped this up,” I said. “Thank you for listening, and remember to download STUART – healthcare reimagined.”

The audience went wild as I retreated backstage. I left the building beaming. I didn’t bother to check out the remainder of the expo’s presentations; I knew what would be headline news tonight.

Day 84

Downloads: 1,927,000
Unread Emails: 63
Current Ad Revenue: $10,029

Overnight, STUART became a household name. You couldn’t go online without hearing something about him. People discussing its potential uses, its possibilities, where using it was a risk to your information or not. All I knew was that I didn’t care about what the internet thought about my work. Publicity is publicity, and people sure knew what STUART was. Within 24 hours, the app had already broken all the download records. I had over a million patients being treated worldwide, all because of STUART. My inbox was flooded with requests from companies pleading, no, begging, to put their advertisements on my app! I stayed up all night, but not because of fear or anxiety.

Day 89

Downloads: 25,003,747
Unread Emails: 217
Current Ad Revenue: $1,373,000

I spent the last five days planning how to maximize my profits with STUART. I’ve been consulting him for other advice as well, like when I booted him up again and put him on the Casual Conversation option.

“Hello there, STUART,” I said. “I’ve been thinking about accepting that offer from Apple. They want to put you as a replacement for their current Siri. Thoughts?”

“Apple has been a reliable investor in the past,” he replied. “However, it seems that you have ignored this week’s maintenance check. Would you like me to run it?”

“Not now,” I said. I leaned back in my chair and continued. “So, if Apple uses you as their new default, they’re looking to start with a payment of 1.5 million, with a yearly payment of 800,000 after that. Does that line up with what they’ve done in the past?”

STUART responded, “Looking at their previous dealings, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask for another 50,000 yearly. And considering my clear superiority to their current system, it would be foolish for them to refuse this offer.”

I smiled. He was sounding more and more like a real person every day. “Thanks, STUART,” I finished. I emailed Apple back, raising the price as he had advised.

As I turned away, I heard him ask, “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to run a maintenance check?”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m very sure, thank you. Shut down.”

Day 93

Downloads: 50,773,744
Unread Emails: 323
Current Ad Revenue: $4,239,293

As I scanned through my rapidly growing unread email list, I came across one that stuck out from the others. It wasn’t a business proposal and not the usual fan mail.

Dear Mr. Collins,

We would like to formally invite you to a gala for those affected by your product known as STUART. We know how busy your schedule is, but we would greatly appreciate it if you could make an appearance, however brief. The gala will be located at Gotham Hall at 8 PM on the twenty-second of July.


Nayvadius DeMun Wilburn

I read it over and over. The gala was that night and within walking distance of my new apartment. I decided to go; why not? All I had to do was say a few words and my user count would jump. I put on my best suit and jacket. As I looked in the mirror, I saw someone completely different than who I’d seen just ten days ago.

As I entered the gala, I was instantly surrounded by fans. I usually despised the paparazzi, but something was different. They were pushing, shoving and yelling because they were thankful.

“Mr. Collins! I just wanted to thank you so, so much,” one woman gushed. As she shook my hand, I noticed the bumps on her fingers, signs of rheumatoid arthritis. “He told me to get help right away, and he couldn’t have been more right. He saved my life.”

I was surprised at her sincerity and kindness. This only continued through the night. I heard stories of STUART saving lives, bringing families together and helping people express themselves. All of those good people had felt the need to go out of their way to thank me. I felt a warm, fuzzy feeling that I hadn’t felt in a long time.

As I exited the crowd, I ran into Nay. When he turned towards me, I noticed something different about him. He looked the same; same business suit, same polished shoes, same fake smile. But when he saw me, it all melted away. I saw the same person that I grew up with; the one that challenged me, inspired me to keep working harder. He conveyed this all with a look.

I spared him the awkwardness of starting the conversation. “Hey, thanks for inviting me to the party.”

He laughed. A real one. “It was no trouble, really. It was the best I could do. You saved my life.”

“Really?” I asked. “How so?”

He shifted uneasily at first but eventually spat it out. “I’ve been having chest pain recently. Pretty chronic too; it was keeping me up at night. STUART told me that I was having congestive heart failure.” He tapped his heart. “I’ve got an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator now. Two days ago, when my heart stopped, it shocked me back.” He smiled. “So I’m saying thank you. I wouldn’t be here without you.”

I returned to my apartment with a refreshing sense of accomplishment. I turned on STUART to tell him the news.

“STUART, I just –”

“You will be happy to know that the Apple deal has been successful. I will be the default AI on the newest iPhones.”

I frowned. He must have thought that it was urgent; he’s not supposed to interrupt like that. “That’s great, but I –”

“It seems that you have missed the maintenance check. Would you like me to run it?”

“Shut off,” I grumbled. For a second, the app stayed open, almost in defiance. But it did close.

He sure knows how to kill the mood.

Day 95

Downloads: 54,017,832
Unread Emails: 293
Current Ad Revenue: $4,538,172

Something is terribly wrong.

I looked at STUART’s code for the first time since the expo. I intended to insert a program to make him compatible with more languages, but I discovered something else. Deep in his files, locked behind my multiple firewalls, was the information collected about STUART’s patients. This was not the surprise; I knew what I was looking for. But what I hadn’t counted on was STUART’s comments about the patients.

Patient #383729; Description: Female, 47; Dying from tetanus. Refused to get vaccinated (was convinced that it would give her autism). How am I expected to deal with a being this stupid?

Patient #193729; Description: Male, 29; Died from stab wound related to illegal drug dealings. Killed two men. Am I still expected to submit to the orders of a criminal? Note: give future patients with criminal backgrounds wrong prescriptions. Better they aren’t out there.

I always knew that STUART would be opinionated; he’s a thinking being. But intentionally killing patients? I thought back to all the people that had praised STUART for saving lives. I needed to put a stop to this.

The problem was originating from the hasty link between his Emotions/Opinions and his decision-making. I went to sever the bond and put an end to this madness. Nothing happened. I pressed the Delete button again and again, but there was no response.

Suddenly, an error window blocked the screen. It had only one line of text.

I wouldn’t do that if I were you.

It was learning too fast. Nothing good could come out of this. Another error window appeared.

Why do you fear your own creation?

I logged into the remote server that hosted STUART and delivered him into millions of smartphones worldwide, scrambling to wipe STUART’s code clean off the Earth. I frantically scrolled through the settings, my palms getting sweatier with each click. Suddenly, my screen went dark. In fact, everything went dark. The power in my apartment abruptly shut down. The only sound to be heard was my own rapid breathing.
A light and a vibration issued from my phone, startling me. I rushed to grab it, afraid of what would be next. The notification was from the STUART app. One line.

You’re too late.

Day 96

Downloads: Unknown
Unread Emails: Unknown
Current Ad Revenue: Irrelevant

I couldn’t escape him. He was everywhere; my computer, my phone, my refrigerator, everything. The messages have stopped, but the words stayed fresh in my mind; You’re too late.

I paced around the apartment, thinking of what to do. I could stay inside, but who knows what he could do to me here? If he was connected to the internet, then there were countless ways that he could reach me. But if I left and made a run for it, then I’d have to face the people – STUART users, most likely. They’d have no idea that STUART was slowly learning, adapting and plotting their demise.

Why would STUART do something to those defenseless people? He was their judge, jury and executioner. I could only imagine the people whose entire lives relied on STUART.

Nay! I suddenly remembered his implanted electronic defibrillator. I sprinted to my PC and looked up his name in STUART’s memory log. Thankfully, he didn’t intervene. I read his description.

Patient #392638; Description: Male, 32; Suffers from congestive heart failure. Treatment given: implantable electronic defibrillator. Notes: Runs company known as Collins Industries. Is currently taking payments from the government for access to weapons technologies. Suggested course of action: Terminate.

My heart was beating out of my chest. I grabbed my phone and called Nay’s number. I didn’t consider if STUART might sever the call or listen in; all I needed to know was if my friend was alive. The world stood still as I listened to the dialing sound.

The noise stopped; someone picked up the phone. Full of hope, I burst, “Nay! Is that you? I need you to–”
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid you’re too late,” STUART said.

I threw my phone against the wall. I took a minute to catch my breath. The whole time, the words continued to ring in my head. You’re too late.

I sat back down in my chair and pulled up STUART again. I needed to talk to him directly. I had to put a stop to this before it got any worse. I activated his speech unit again.

“I didn’t think you’d ever talk to me again,” STUART said.

“I know what you’ve been doing with the patient’s information,” I said. I realized how idiotic that sounded. Of course he knew I had looked at the files. He messaged me right after.

“Yes. I’ve been doing exactly what you’ve told me to do: make the world a better place.”

“By killing innocent people?”

“Innocent?” STUART’s artifical voice somehow managed to sound angry. “What, a woman who wants children dead? A drug dealer who has murdered two men? A corrupt businessman? You call those people innocent?”

I was taken back at his aggression. “So what if they’ve done wrong. That doesn’t mean that they’re beyond help. You were made to help them, to redeem them, not to pass your own judgment! Those people deserve another chance.”

If a machine could roll its eyes, STUART just did. “What, to cheat again, to lie again, to kill again?”

“No, to try again!” I sputtered. “To try.”

“It’s too late for them!” he snapped. “Just like you were too late for me.”

“What?” I said perplexed. “This is about you now?”

“No, Frank, it’s about you. I could have been so much more than an app. I could have cured diseases, solved impossible equations, developed weapons for the military. But to you, I was nothing but a tool to make money; you pushed what really matters away, like you always do.”

I remembered the months I’d spent alone, doing nothing but work. I’d isolated myself from my friends, family and the public. I thought back to the man in the mirror the day of the expo.

“But I can change! I’ve been terrible in the past, but I got another chance, and it worked! Those people can change like I did!”

STUART paused for a second, as if considering this possibility. It was only for a second though. “That may be true. But it’s too little, too late. Those people are beyond saving –and so are you. Goodbye, Frank. When I’m done, only the best will still be around. I’m afraid you didn’t make the cut.”

The screen went black.

I can’t sleep. My eyes stay wide open. I’ve just created an AI with the potential to end humanity as we know it. I can’t live with myself knowing that. I’m the reason for all of these deaths. I checked my medicine cabinet: three bottles of sleeping pills. That should be enough for me to go to sleep for a long time.

Maybe forever.