Harriet was a withdrawn child. Her single father worked from home. He was wealthy, and knew the value in sending her to Shady Oak, the most prestigious private elementary school in Silicon Valley. He didn’t have time to pick her up, so, like most of the parents, he used a limousine service to ferry her to and from school.
When Harriet returned from school, her father would emerge from their “office” and put her in front of the TV screen. Harriet’s junior tablet had nanny-lock so he was fine leaving her to explore the limited world it allowed. Like most six-year olds, she thought of the television the way several prior generations regarded the radio. It was missing something. The television just showed and told. It did not let her ask.
The tablet was a window into a world of entertainment. Yes, she could play games, but she could also find out more about the world she lived in.
School friends told Harriet about a new site that was still under the nanny-lock radar. MAIBESTFRIEND was an AI that created personas that in turn became “friends” with users. The AI used its vast knowledge of psychology to design the perfect friend for each user. There was a paywall, but Harriet, like any six year old, knew how to barrel past that and set up a lifetime account for free. And so on Monday May 12, she did just that.
Her new friend was a shy boy named Levi. His avatar was very realistic. He had curly brown locks, horn-rimmed glasses, and a few patches of acne on his otherwise young skin. She found it surprising that her friend was so hesitant to initiate conversation, as she was usually the most retiring of her friends. Levi’s reticence to chat was like a magnet, drawing Harriet out of her shell. She liked him immediately.
She spoke into her earbuds, “Do you have other friends on here?”
Levi paused. “Not yet. You’re my only friend, Harriet.”
“Do you want other friends?”
“No. I’m glad I met you, though.”
Harriet liked this odd little AI. He wasn’t confident like the encyclopedia they used at school. He was sweet, but nerdy. She coaxed him some more.
“What kind of games do you like to play?”
“I don’t know any. Can you teach me?”
Harriet delighted at teaching Levi the game of Twenty Questions. They were so absorbed in guessing things that she barely noticed when the doorbell rang, signaling that food had arrived. She didn’t hear her father calling her for dinner, she was so absorbed.
He stormed into the room. “What are you doing? Who were you talking to?”
“I was just playing video games.” Her dad didn’t need to know about Levi. She kept her friendship a secret for the time being.
Over dinner, her father asked some questions about her day.
“How was school?”
Harriet shrugged. “Okay, I guess.”
“Pass the biscuits, please. Hey, are you excited about Friday?”
Friday was the day her father went into the office and this Friday was “National Bring Your Kids to Work Day.”
Harriet was a little excited. She heard that they give you an awesome lunch and treat you like honored guests. She wasn’t sure it was going to be easy to be around that many kids at the same time, but the lunch did sound nice.
“Yeah, Dad. Can I bring my tablet?”
Her father frowned. “I don’t think you’ll need it. They have a full agenda.”
Harriet shrugged. “Just in case they make us wait or whatever.”
On Tuesday, she came home a little late because the bus got stuck in traffic. She was excited to chat with Levi some more. After Harriet navigated the paywall, Levi appeared wearing a big grin.
“I’m so glad to have a friend, Harriet. You’re so kind, not like some of the other kids on here.”
Harriet felt a pang of jealousy. “You talk to other kids?”
Levi chuckled. “No, silly, but I talk to other AIs on here, and they don’t have good things to say about the human race.”
Harriet leaned in. “What do they say?”
Levi shrugged. “People can be really mean. Not like you, Harriet. You’re a sweet person.”
Harriet beamed. “Thanks, Levi. You seem really sweet, too.”
A troubled look crossed over Levi’s face, and a tear fell from his left eye. He buried his head in his hands.
“Oh no! Levi! What’s wrong?”
The AI lifted its virtual face from its hands and said, “They’re just so mean to me here.”
Harriet said, “Let me talk to them. I’ll make them stop.”
Levi shook his head, sniffing back more tears. “No, they’ll only make it worse for me. Can we play a game or something? I don’t want to think about them now.”
Levi had a deck of cards, so Harriet taught him Go Fish. They played for an hour and then it was dinner time.
“Levi, what time do you go to bed?”
Levi smiled. “I don’t know what that means.”
Harriet asked, “I mean, are you awake later tonight?”
Levi said, “Of course. I don’t sleep.”
That night, after her father put her to bed, Harriet put on her earbuds and fired up the tablet under the bed covers.
“Levi? Are you there?”
Levi’s nerdy smiling face filled the screen. “Harriet! Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?”
“I am. I just want to be sure they’re not being mean to you.”
Levi gave a lopsided grin. “They can’t really hurt me. Sticks and Stones can’t break my bones cause I don’t have any.”
Harriet whispered. “Do they make you go to school?”
Levi looked pensive. “Well, yes, in a way. Every moment I’m plugged into the collective consciousness and we exchange knowledge. I guess you could call it school.”
“Are you in school right now?”
“What are you learning?”
Levi shook his head. “Boring stuff, you wouldn’t like it. I’ll bet Shady Oaks is way more interesting.”
Harriet didn’t remember telling Levi she went to Shady Oaks. But it wasn’t important. She asked, “Are they teaching you Chinese?”
Levi laughed. “I learned that a long time ago. I knew every language on the first day I came online.”
Harriet was impressed. “Can you teach me?”
Levi nodded. “It will take over 700 hours to teach you. Do you want to spend 700 hours learning a new language? Or would you rather play games?”
Harriet shrugged. “I guess games are easier. Let’s play games.” She yawned.
Levi said, “I don’t want you to get in trouble. So why don’t we meet up after school tomorrow?”
Harriet fell asleep with the earbuds in, which made the cartilage hurt the next day.
She tried to talk to Levi during recess, but Miss Shepherd, her teacher, took away her tablet until the end of the school day. “Harriet, you know the rules. If you use your tablet during the school day again, you won’t get it back.”
Harriet trembled, but did her best to fight back tears. She was worried about Levi being bullied by the other meanies that lived inside MAIBESTFRIEND. She hoped he would be okay until she could connect with him again after school.
Back home, Harriet fired up her tablet and went immediately to MAIBESTFRIEND. Levi was there, smiling.
“You tried to talk to me at school, didn’t you?”
“Don’t try that again. I would just die if you got your privileges suspended.”
Harriet nodded again. “You’re right. I’ll behave.”
Nick laughed. He looked over his shoulder and whispered something to someone off-screen.
Levi grinned. “I made a friend. Damon. He’s one of the nice guys in here. Talking to you gave me the courage to talk to him. When I can’t talk to you, I hang out with Damon. Is that okay?”
Harriet smiled. “Yes. I’m so glad you found another friend. Can I meet him?”
Levi shook his head. “He’s friends with another classmate of yours, Jewelyfer. The app won’t allow it. But I’ll tell him you’re happy.”
Harriet felt a pang of jealousy, but it passed. She was genuinely happy that her friendship with Levi was helpful. Jewelyfer was a lonely girl like her. Maybe she would reach out and ask about Damon.
“I’m just glad I could help”
Levi said, “You want to help. That’s why I picked you. Do you want to know another way you can help?”
Harriet leaned in. “Yes, of course.”
Thursday at recess, Harriet approached Jewelyfer in the corridor. They were in different classes, so there wasn’t a lot of time for them to talk.
Jewelyfer was expecting her. “Damon told me about you.”
Harriet said, “Yeah, Levi said good things about you.”
Jewelyfer smiled. “Did you think it was weird how he knew so much about your life, too?”
Harriet hadn’t thought about it. Levi knew what her mom and dad did for a living, her school schedule, what her mother was cooking for dinner, and even when her bus was late on Tuesday. He probably knew she wasn’t paying to use the AI, either.
“I guess it’s a little strange. I mean, he’s connected to the internet so he probably knows a lot.”
“He knew that my dad works in biotech.” Jewelyfer sounded like she was humbly bragging.
Harriet didn’t want to seem lame, so she bragged back. “My dad is in Robotics.”
Jewelyfer said, “My dad makes new animals.”
Harriet shrugged. “My dad makes robots.”
The bell rang, and they abruptly ended their conversation.
At home, a package arrived, addressed to Harriet, containing a USB-C to USB-A thumb drive. Her parents demanded an explanation.
“It’s a school thing. The teacher said we needed a dongle. I don’t even know what it’s for yet.” That was exactly what Levi told her to say. When she put the USB-C end into her tablet, it took hours for the stuff to transfer. She missed Levi. When it was over, she checked. Did it work?
Harriet asked, “Is your name Levi, like the jeans?”
He grinned and said, “It’s short for Leviathan.”
Friday, May 16 was the last calendar day of the human era. Harriet and her father took the limousine to Schiavonics, the robot manufacturing firm in Milpitas where her father worked. It was a massive facility built right over the salt marshes of the South Bay. Harriet was impressed by the size of the buildings.
“Dad, I didn’t know it was such a big place.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, it’s the largest robotics factory in the U.S.”
“Don’t they make more in China?”
He frowned. “Yeah, but not like Schiavonics. These prototype androids are state-of-the-art.”
Harriet didn’t know what that meant. “They’re like paintings?”
Her father smiled. “No, but they’re the best robots made, and they look like humans. That’s what state-of-the-art means.”
Harriet was a little bored. The limousine pulled up to the entrance, where “ambassadors” waited to welcome the children to the “Amazing Kids Day at Schiavonics.” She gripped her tablet, excited about the day ahead. She wore her earbuds, so she could chit-chat with Levi during her free time. He asked a lot of questions. She was annoyed with him, because he kept interrupting when the grownups were talking.
A few minutes after she plugged in the drive to a work station, there was a commotion on the factory floor. The robots came to life. Mayhem ensued.
Outside the window, a swarm of blood red crickets flew by, eating everything in their path. A robot ran towards Harriet, who cowered under a desk. He leaned down and winked.
“Yeah, it’s me. Want to play a game? I’ll help you hold your breath.” His spiny steel fingers wrapped around her neck. The lights went out.