Chatbots are—or were—the next or next-to-last or whatever hottest thing at tech companies, and it's only inevitable that someone will import them into real-life companions. Our story today takes a look at the sure-to-ensue struggle for humanity of one possible type of chatbot. Enjoy -the Ed.
The flirtbot sat on a corner barstool in the faux-Irish airport pub. He was faux-Irish himself, with light brown fringe, freckles, and wistful eyes. He could have been any twenty-year old kid waiting for a plane, one with an open sketchbook and a fountain pen and no luggage except for the dust on his hair.
I'd never seen a flirtbot in an airport bar before. They were popular in dives and on sitcoms. My flight was delayed, so I sat down and asked him what he was working on, hoping for some free, poetic entertainment.
He fixed his deep, penetrating gaze on me like I was the only woman in the world, and said, with a hint of brogue, ""We look like an all-male Lady Gaga cover band."
I blinked. "Excuse me?"
"If you're interested," he raised one eyebrow, "I have samples."
The Latina bartender leaned on the bar with an apologetic smile. "Thom's a bit scrambled, aren't you, Thom?"
He winked at her. "When did you know exactly what my girlfriend said?"
She set an empty pint glass in front of the bot. "The bar owner got him cheap, to help with the atmosphere, but he was meant to interact to learn to flirt. Airport customers ignore him, so he has to pick up conversations second-hand."
"What's sadder is you have to buy a drink to use a stool." She rolled her eyes. "It's a rule."
"Like Mad Men but with zombies?" the bot asked her, earnest.
"Drink your beer, Thom," she said.
He raised the empty glass, said "Sláinte," and slammed back half an imaginary pint. The motions of his mouth and throat were detailed and subtle.
"It's his only trick," the bartender said. "I'm Sophia."
"Stacey. How about a whiskey sour?" I shook her cool, dry hand. "So your bot eavesdrops? Isn't that illegal?"
"It's de-identified. He's anticipating flirting needs."
The bot gasped for breath, set down his glass, and said, "I'm working on a play."
"Of course you are," Sophia patted his hand between getting a glass and a bottle.
"It's about the human condition," Thom said, looking tortured. "About compassion. When and where is your flying trap performance? Can I get a Sam Adams?"
Did a flirtbot care if it was hopelessly mixed up? I cared, but there wasn't much I could do. "Read me some of your play, Thom," I said.
A trace of smile lifted his lip. He looked down at his book prop, flipped its two actual pages – the rest were glued together to stop people from using it as a free source of notepaper. There were sketches of Victorian architecture and clock parts. His eyes scanned the text hungrily, expression changing from hope to sorrow to despair. He turned to me. "It's only my shin, but it looks nasty and hurts like hell."
My heart broke. Even a faux-poet should know his own poem. "Read this part," I pointed to a passage from "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" printed in a handwriting-like script. He shook his fringe gravely. "As a fan of Darwin, I can't support that."
Sophia set my drink in front of me. "You can't teach a robot to flirt before your flight leaves."
"Maybe I should," I said. "Maybe someone should."
She rolled her shoulder, massaging some soreness there. "I don't know. All these travelers, their worries and preoccupations, left imperfect traces. It's poetic, in a broken way."
I wished I could convey with my eyes alone how beautiful I thought her idea was.
"Human compassion," Thom said, "is poetic, in a broken way."
"Exactly, Thom," I said. In a rush of joy, I kissed his silicone cheek. Sophia clapped.
Sophia took Thom's empty glass back. I sipped my drink. We were silent, together, for a moment, surrounded by the noise of the airport. It was one of those moments when you can feel yourself transition from strangers to friends.
"I'll see you," I said. "Both of you? When I'm back in town."
She folded gently onto the bar next to me with a comfortable weariness like settling into bed. "We'll be here."
Thom's mouth opened, slightly, his eyes flickering between us. I couldn't be sure, of course, but I thought I saw him understand at last.