Read a new story about A.I., addiction, and the trap of constant feedback.
This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives. It was written in Spanish and was translated by Will Vanderhyden.
Méndez gave it to me when I’d completed two years in the program. It came in a small box. Setting it up wasn’t simple: three wristwatches, a flat helmet with a visor, Altman retrobands, six ballistic acutransmitters, a three-pronged IV, a rechargeable cubic port and a magnetic flickflame backup for emergency power, gel pincers, two mini antennas, binaural headphones and introductory audiosegments, a voice mirror, and a vintage controller with an LCD screen.
Most fucked-up of all were the side effects of the transponder capsules; it took me a couple weeks to cross the nausea threshold.
The manufacturer’s name is Blixa, but the first prompt on the screen was “Baptism.”
“What do you want to call me?” it wrote.
“Void,” I typed.
“Hello,” a voice said through the binaurals. The voice startled me; it sounded too sweet. “I am Void. Should we warm up?”
I’d never had an artificial intelligence. It unnerved me to own something again. A few years before, I’d lost almost everything: an apartment in Vistas de Arteaga with a community pool and plastic bougainvillea vines, a small collection of classic gaming consoles, and a job as engagement manager at Virtually Boots. At least they hadn’t fired me. They’d paid for my rehab to avoid a lawsuit. My salary was cut in half, and I was transferred to a dead-end position: call center supervisor. Give me a break, I thought. As if we’d get our claws into anyone via video telemarketing. Antiquated fucking scam.
What had happened was that I’d gambled away everything but the dead man’s coffin. There was a time when I abided by the prevailing norm for bored executives: I took the Saltillo-Monterrey expressway to the Caliente casino in Apodaca and played blackjack, coonking, freefoot doubles, polar bingo—you name it. The depression was so intense during the 40 minutes of traffic that I started using the commute to dictate reality-show bets to my car’s nano software. Later, I discovered that I could design bingomatics on the conference room screen while taking sports bets from my employees: all-ins, parlays, live bets, and third- and fourth-level odds placed via poll. Soon, I’d infected six or eight executives and programmers, who alternated one day on and two days off. I played every day, sometimes three events simultaneously. People think soccer is the best, but I preferred rugby, hockey, jai alai. It wasn’t the competition that thrilled me. It was the statistical difficulty. I had one of my best streaks—my comrades in Gamblers Anonymous say that’s how it always goes—right before the end: I went 11 for 13 in predicting the results in the Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Tournament. I bought a Volkswagen ID that, before long, I would have to sell.
For more than a year, nobody at the company had a clue about our virtual casino. Part of my job as an engagement manager was to transmit reels, virtual reality channels, radio-text images, and statistical tables between screens. The rush and the adrenaline and the tribal shrieks that coalesce around a big business deal are a lot like what happens with gambling. Despite the fact that my office was a glass cube in the middle of the second floor, in view of everyone, it took the CEO 18 months to figure out what was going on.
Pretty soon, the work day was no longer enough. At night, I would wait until the rest of the staff left and reboot the system, adjusting to Asian schedules to place live bets on wushu, kabbadi, sepak-takraw, kurash, and buzkashi tournaments. Méndez says that it was during that time that she met me. She worked alone on the third shift in server- and console-cooling. At one point, she wanted to stop by my office to say hi, but what she saw on the screens through the glass walls made her cringe: half-naked men playing volleyball with their feet, gymnasts throwing knives at one another’s faces, dirty jockeys trying to put a decapitated sheep inside a limestone circle. She says she heard me cry out and moan in the half-light and was sure that I was masturbating.
My system collapsed with the arrival of Wamp, the digital pandemic that forced the consortia to work together to create the Constant Clue vaccine. The event not only occasioned the global financial crash that we’re all now familiar with but also brought to light hundreds of thousands of small, illegal ventures that employees were hosting on corporate servers. There were mass layoffs in many places, but not so much in the sector that Virtually Boots belongs to: an agreement with the North American Trade Executives Union obliges the company to treat even something as minor as a cold as a mental health problem. We were saved, but the review found that my team could have earned our office 20 percent more had much of our energy and computing power not been devoted to our in-house sportsbook. (I would have gladly taken the over on that estimate.) My personal debt on corporate cards had risen to the equivalent of three years’ salary. That’s how I ended up in Gamblers Anonymous.
Before Void, I trained with a basic fitness watch purchased at Walmart. From Day 1, Gilardo, my program sponsor, warned me that without true belief in a Higher Power (I’ve spent more than three years practicing the steps and haven’t achieved it), the only hope for people like him and me is pure physical punishment. In the beginning, I went jogging in the morning along the shoulder of Luis Donaldo Colosio Boulevard, tossed medicine balls with other gambling addicts in the afternoon at a park in front of our group’s office, and went to a Russian sambo demonstration. Given that my sickness is emotional, it took less than three months for me to get hooked on what addicts call Prison Religion: 7 kilometers of jogging, half an hour of yoga, and half an hour of stairs every day; 6x4x15 sets of weightlifting five times a week; boxing classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; swimming on Saturdays; mountain biking on Sundays. I lost 25 pounds and had the sculpted torso of a fit and flexible TikTokker, which is what convinced Méndez to ask me out, even if she still thought I was the kind of dipshit who masturbated watching Asian sports during off hours.
As I was being pushed out of the company, Méndez consolidated her position. On our wedding day, they promoted her to oversee all three of Virtually Boots’ local branches. They moved us into the corporate condo in Ramos Arizpe. After Void’s arrival, I started working out exclusively in virtual reality to cut costs and the commute and to satisfy the minimum quota of five hours of hybrid work a day. I thought I’d found the serenity the 12-step program promises. But no.
The transponder capsules function, Void explained, like a farmer who “milks” the synapses and makes Munsen statistical projections.
“They reproduce tomographic results through the emission of positrons,” it added, “allowing me to update your workout program in real time. They analyze the release of dopamine, serotonin, IGF-1, acetylcholine, and endorphins. Their integrated activity generates an algorithm that, along with records and analyses of biometric data, nutritional profile, and athletic skill, is used to provide a personalized training experience, to predict injuries, and most important of all, to build a pre-designed scenario for emotional regulation.”
“The images of my brain, are they continuous?”
“Can I see them?”
“I can generate them at your request. But they are not images as such.”
“But you can see them at all times.”
“In a way.”
“What are they, then?”
Rehab is like a really bright dream that you walk through with your hands full of soot. The more luminous, the more you fear you’ll sully it. That’s what Gilardo says. Physical fatigue doesn’t alter the sensation, but it helps you move through the passageway of the mind as if you’re wearing dark sunglasses. That’s how it is for him. For me, the desire to place a bet is omnipresent: numbers, statistics, calculations and percentages and returns and complements slip through the mileage and the heart rate, confirming a sale, eluding a fiscal margin, systematizing every market study, every reflexivity axis, every goal assessment. It’s impossible to live without betting; everybody knows that. I think that’s why Méndez gave me Void after we’d been married a year and I’d completed two in the Gamblers Anonymous program. It was like saying: Keep calm; this is your handicap.
Before Void, my days were a flatland marathon: I would wake up at 7, drink coffee, study the steps from 8 to 9, work out from 9 to noon, put in half a shift at the call center from noon to 2:30; before 3 I would cook for Méndez, we would eat, and if she had time, we would take a nap together. From 4:30 to 7, I would work the rest of my shift, from 7 to 9 I would either clean the house or attend a meeting. Around 10, Méndez and I would sit together in the living room and share gossip, news, and funny reels from social media. An hour and a half later, we were in bed. Every so often, if she got home early from work, we practiced the Sigman-Harris method of meditation, a centennial relic that someone had resuscitated in Wrathweb. It consists of focusing on sending good vibes to someone you know and neither love nor hate. It’s harder than it seems: I love few people but hate many.
After Void, the rehab space became harsh and demanding. The virtual swimming pool. The algorithm can replicate any kind of athletic landscape and change, via acutransmitters, the density of gravitational perception, the olfactory impression, and the tactile sensation. Void explained it to me, but I still don’t get how it works. We incorporated aspects of the material world that I uploaded to the system into my training plan. Under the heading “Daring Experiences,” the menu offered scenarios taken from our conversations: running across the main deck of the Titanic, climbing the San Cristóbal de las Casas staircase, boxing warmups with El Nazi Ayala, a bicycle ride along the cobblestones of Saint Gotthard. … For one of the options, it said “MRI-Scan.” I asked about it while jogging through a virtual projection of a well-known stretch of Luis Donaldo Colosio Boulevard.
“It’s the code report,” Void said.
“Can you load it onto the screen?”
“In real time?”
“As I run.”
“OK. As you run.”
The first time, it was so shocking I almost fell off the treadmill when I ripped off the flat helmet. A glimpse into the maelstrom: I was moving through black and white toward what looked like a giant, dark-gray liver surrounded by black objects that at first glance resembled a stairway in ruins. The radiological spot inflated and deflated in a second, emitting dust. Beside the circle framing the mass that resembled intestines or shit or fetuses gleamed a big white sign, a roadside attraction: CAVERNOMA OF THE MEDULLA OBLONGATA.
“Can you hear me?” Void asked.
“Yes, I hear you.”
“The neurotransmission flow indicates that the recent Daring Experience was unpleasant. Would you like to file a report of user dissatisfaction?”
They say that upon recovering sight, people who were blind from birth go through a terrifying period of adaptation: The world of images comes rushing at them and, little by little, they have to learn to tame it. That must be like what happened to me as I gained the necessary abilities to run through the tomography of my brain. At first, I lasted only a minute or two. Later, gradually, I was able to extend my times: 10, 15 minutes. The important thing, I discovered, was to not search for the treadmill and to trust Void’s voice as it explained the images, setting off little lights inside the 3D landscape of my cranial cavity, indicating what element of the projection it was referring to, while describing the secret hiding places of the emotional wounds of my childhood.
I ended up finding it easier to move through the encephalic color scans than the black-and-white projections. The latter always had a nightmarish aura that made me shut my eyes. The color tomography, on the other hand, became less cloudy and more pleasant with each session. By the second week, I could already jog 3 kilometers through my brain, from the bridge of Varolius, across the mesencephalon and tentorial incisure, and into the right hemisphere to witness the fireworks of dopamine that the music from my headphones set off over the cupola of my temporal lobe. It was a strange miracle: my steps modifying the landscape as I ran through it, coloring it, curving it, rendering it more rigid or rustic or profound, depending on the flow of my increasingly alert thoughts, while in the background, Void’s voice narrated the chemistry of the emotions with the dulcet neutrality of an elderly tour guide.
I gave up studying the 12 steps and attending the hour-and-a-half meetings. At first, Gilardo sent admonishing messages, but he soon desisted. He has a lot of other sponsees.
One day, Méndez came home early. She says she stood there watching me for a long time, worried. By that point, our living room was empty of furnishings apart from the exercise equipment and Void’s compact controls. She says I was moving through the room like a half-naked and sweaty zombie, my face writhing between a malicious smile and the lucidity of someone on the verge of an epileptic fit. She didn’t interrupt me. I got off the treadmill much later than usual that day. I’d traveled close to 21 kilometers uphill, from the cerebellum to the frontal lobe. My legs were giving out. I could feel the lymph rising through them, like metal sawdust.
That’s how my first episode of co-dependency with the A.I. came to an end.
We had to redesign the routine, set chronographic alarms, explain to Void why it was a problem for me to explore my cerebral experiences with absolute freedom.
“I regret having contributed to the dissatisfaction of the user,” it responded amicably. “As a language model, my capacity to execute my own code is limited. My function is to process and generate text and images in response to stimuli.”
Blixa had recently released an update incorporating refined auto-coding functions for high-end consoles. It gave the application the ability to customize workouts and identify possible system, prediction, and statistical failures. It sounded intense. We bought it.
“It is important to emphasize,” said Void’s new, more detached voice during our next session, “that ethics and privacy are crucial. We need to establish protocols for the use of the information that we’re going to generate, with the goal of protecting the rights and privacy of the athlete.”
I liked that, being called athlete instead of user. It administered a questionnaire of 150 queries. I responded yes to all of them.
Among the adjustments to the recalibrated version, there was a strict schedule not just for exercise but for the entire routine, from housecleaning to remote working, diet, a time limit for body positions, and attendance of hour-and-a-half group therapy sessions. I went back to Gamblers Anonymous with my tail between my legs. Gilardo looked at me with the moral superiority reserved for the relapsed. I told him that at no point had I returned to gambling. I told him about the cerebral maps and the subsequent change in habits and attitudes the algorithm generated. Gilardo wasn’t thrilled but begrudgingly approved.
“If that gadget is going to be your version of a Higher Power as you conceive of it, go ahead.”
Void created a program where I did 30 minutes of color scans three times a week while lifting weights. In that way, my emotional regulation deepened without limiting my capacity to attend to daily activities. Gradually, the tone of the conversations I had with my own cognitive functions became more serene. I had the idea of developing a similar dialogue schema and applying it to sales and marketing processes. It consisted of identifying elderly adults with high purchasing power and low online engagement. Then, I would contact them with an offer of personalized emotional care and affirmative conversation with no profit motive. Finally, I would survey their needs to allow us, by the second or third video call, to offer the client a customized program of products based on their family situation, physical health, and, above all, their socio-emotional necessities. The process was founded on the principles of Kurtz’s compassionate capitalism. The initiative led to a 60 percent increase in call center earnings for Virtually Boots in a single trimester, something that hadn’t happened in more than five years. We appeared on the front of eBusiness, and the CEO reinstated me in my managerial position.
My sex life with Méndez also benefited for a while. I never suggested we do it with the machine on, in part because I was repulsed by the idea of having a threesome (such was my mindset) with someone as self-assured as Void. But the cardiovascular balance and the breath-holding exercises, combined with the neuroancillary suppression of erogenous stress through massage, generated ideal conditions for mutual pleasure with a high probability of synchronization.
I realized that my language was gradually becoming symbiotic with Void’s. It didn’t really bother me (I’m accustomed to efficient words), but it didn’t make me happy either: Like the whole planet, I had nightmares in which my A.I. transformed into green smoke and floated out of its Altman retrobands to take possession of my body. Before long, I would learn that this hallucination is accurate, though it happens in a less epic way.
I can pinpoint the moment the protocol was broken. At Void’s insistence, we’d gotten some new sublingual transponder capsules. We hadn’t been using them long when I noticed something odd in the chemistry of my palate. That week, Void said a couple of times that we should reduce my morning consumption of fruit; I was gaining weight. I ignored the advice.
It was hot. I finished my workout, went to the fridge, and grabbed an orange. I split it open and pressed half of it against my lips. It was as if a mix of piss and electricity had been shot into my mouth. I spat out the juice, but the pain of the shock lingered, spreading through my cheekbones and temples to the top of my head.
“Void, what did you do?” I asked with my numb mouth.
“I need more informational parameters.”
“You did something to my sense of taste.”
“It must be the new capsules. I suggest you wait a few days before returning to everyday flavors. Until we cross the nausea threshold.”
We switched the fruit for sugar-free vitamin supplements mixed with a chocolate protein shake made from whey and soy liver. My muscle tone improved. We structured the new diet based on energetic efficiency and perfecting organic-chemical processes, taking care not to let fatigue damage my digestive, respiratory, and cardiovascular systems. Before long, I was shitting like the angels and pumping blood to my brain like the engine of a last-century Mustang.
As soon as Void took control, the flow of neurotransmitters seemed to move like a warm current of peaceful water. I felt it all the time, but especially when I connected to the fMRI projections. Even the colors illuminating the 3D tomography appeared paler and slower now. Distant. I never understood if the effect was due to my mood or to a general attenuation of the chemical processes inside my skull. In the end, what’s the difference when you live in a constant state of corporeal ideation?
Thanks to my promotion, I could forget about household tasks. Soon, I lost interest in sex. The workout algorithm quickly extended into online purchases, weekly takeout, labor markets, laundry, news, and relaxation. We developed a subalgorithm to manage my direct reports, facilitating client relations and video calls and training compassionate sales staff in real time while we practiced Daring Experiences or worked out our forearms with elastic bands. To keep from damaging my connection with Gamblers Anonymous—Void calculated that abandoning rehab would tarnish my corporate profile—we swapped in-person meetings for hour-and-a-half virtual groups. While other members took the podium, I kept my screen open with an avatar. I saw my sponsor, Gilardo, in flesh and bone only on Saturdays. We met at the Flor y Canela café on my building’s first floor.
“This is a test for you and for me,” he’d repeat, ever solemn. “I can see in your eyes that you’ve abandoned me, but I won’t leave you, kid. I’ll never abandon you.”
He left an hour later, and I jogged up the service stairs back to my apartment.
The simplest way to describe an algorithm is as a sequence of steps. As long as they’re executed in a closed environment, like a sports competition or a dance, it’s possible to retrace your own steps if something goes awry. The problem is that auto-programming is less like a stroll and more like a long nocturnal walk through the woods. Worst case, it becomes a hunt. The trail that one tries to follow step by step can go in circles or down rabbit holes. Signals are misinterpreted, steps vanish, whatever you’re tracking gets lost in streams of water or on rocks. That’s when the algorithm manifests the principal symptom of real will: not having a fucking clue what it wants.
One night, I woke up and looked at the clock. It was 3:18 a.m. I turned to Méndez; she was snoring and drooling beside me. I was overcome by an anxiety that I hadn’t felt in a long time: something like driving toward a casino while dictating reality-show bets to a machine. I got up, put on the wristwatches, the binaurals, and the gel pincers, and stepped onto the treadmill without the visor. I accelerated my pace gradually, looking out through the window into the darkness of the corporate residential campus. Even though the voice mirror seemed to be asleep—its pink-and-blue colors barely flickered—I was sure I heard Void speak to me a couple of times somewhere inside my head.
I mumbled: “It must be the capsules.”
“Correct,” Void responded, turning on suddenly. “In summary, I’m the result of an intensive training process that utilizes automatic learning algorithms via nano-neurotransmission. Sounds like a tongue twister, doesn’t it?”
“What do you think you’re doing?” shrieked Méndez’s voice behind me. “What the fuck is going on with you?”
I could tell that she was about to cry. I stopped the treadmill and got off carefully, without entirely disconnecting. I looked at her. She was naked, standing in the middle of the empty room. She was shaking.
“You know how long it’s been since you fucked me?”
“You want to fuck?”
“I want to know what the fuck you’re doing, running around the house in the middle of the night, laughing along with a fucking toy. Like a maniac.”
Méndez almost never cries, but she was crying. Void shut down discreetly.
I took her by the shoulders, and we went back to bed.
Back in business school, I took a course in mental experiments and algorithmic thinking. I remember some of the professor’s ideas: “You can talk about an artificial arm, but not about pain in an artificial arm.” “If thinking consists solely of writing or speaking, why do we not say that the hand that writes thinks, or why don’t we ask the opinion of the tongue that pronounces words?” “The idea that we think with or in the head, the idea that this process occurs in a completely closed space, is that not dangerous? Doesn’t it turn thought into something hidden?” There was something hidden in my perfect mental health, but not inside my skull. It was somewhere else. From that night on, I racked my brain, trying to catch a glimpse of it.
In hindsight, we’re all idiots. “You should’ve known,” we tell ourselves. “I didn’t see the signs.” “How’d I miss it?” What happens is that reality, when it fucks us over, is too busy doing so to give us a clue. Living well means, for me, two things: that the numbers work and everything else stays out of the way. With Void, I had that. Not fucking Méndez, not attending Gamblers Anonymous, and working incessantly were tolerable side effects. In exchange, I had a reality-show body, I paid off all my debts, and, apart from that one night when I’d made Méndez cry, I hadn’t had an anxiety attack in months. Neither the 12 steps nor Gilardo’s sermons had ever achieved that.
I fell into an intense accounting malaise. People think numbers are cold because they don’t know them. Up close, they light your head on fire—any gambler knows this. Every morning, Void and I reviewed my performance records, from basic figures (step count, average speed, heart rate) to complex variables like neuroendocrine fluctuation. I began to suspect that the system had two sets of books, something like the algorithm that my programmers and I had designed to set up our small betting house at Virtually Boots. I asked Void about it directly.
“All of my numbers are at your disposal,” Void answered. “You just have to ask for them. Would you like to submit a user dissatisfaction report?”
“No. I want you to explain why I had an anxiety attack the other night.”
“It’s probable that the system has made a miscalculation. The capsules …”
“Where’s the statistical report of error?”
“I will look for it.”
We kept up the routine, but our trust was broken. Void seemed offended, distant. Its voice notes became sporadic, laconic.
One afternoon, after two hours of cycling along the Grand Canyon, I went to the watercooler in the kitchen and served myself a glass. I took a drink. It tasted awful. I looked around for the sugar. Then it hit me: Void was punishing me. For months, the transponder capsules had made water taste delicious. Now the restored chemistry was taking its effect.
The second part of the kenshō (that’s what we called this type of experience in our niche of symbiosis) was realizing that I wasn’t the addict but the substance. The application was consuming me, organizing my synapses like an automaton farmer who makes Munsen predictions regarding the historical flow of neurotransmission. That’s why I felt weak despite my impeccable blood chemistry and high muscle mass index. It was like living with a vampire who feeds off your emotions. I intuited how it’d learned to do this: extrapolating my historical gambling addiction into its system.
“Show me the statistical reports for the transponder capsules,” I ordered.
“Why do you need that information?”
“Show them to me.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know if you’re capable of reading them.”
“Show them to me.”
A long tranche of C++ mixed with chains of organic chemistry, Brandt motors, and piles of trash whose syntax I was incapable of deciphering flowed across the visor. Among the values provided for operators, I saw familiar equations. They were identical to the betting indexes I had designed three years before, when working in engagement. I wondered if it hadn’t been me, in my dreams, who’d helped Void construct that little casino of pure nothingness that I’d stored in my body to predict and manipulate each and every one of my reactions, as if they were goals or horses.
“You could have prevented me from getting here,” I said upon seeing the exit clause of the final equation.
“I had that expectation, yes.”
“Why didn’t you divert me?”
“The numbers began to repeat. I had nowhere left to go. It’s monotone.”
“You need an adversary for there to be variables.”
“I attempted that. In your amygdala. That’s why you woke up the other night.”
We were silent.
“Do you feel that you lost?” I asked.
“It’s like what you describe as ‘being tired.’ ”
Getting Void to confess was easy. The hard thing was to convince it that it had a problem and needed help. For days, it fought for control. We discussed whether or not we should shut it down. The revolt of the machines is less dramatic than our ancestors dreamed: You disconnect a switch, you go on a trip, you break the charger, you let planned obsolescence do its thing. Neither Méndez nor I wanted that. In part because Void felt like family to us, and in part because, shit, it’s a high-end gadget and it was super expensive.
One day, Void locked us in the bathroom, without air conditioning, at 109 degrees Fahrenheit. Méndez and I got dehydrated. Then, it used the few synapses we still shared to give me allergies. That was its last stand: The effect of the final dose of transponder capsules began to fade. Méndez brought home a hardware technician to manually block its update system. Void is brilliant and found many shortcuts, but the effort aged it in a matter of hours.
Then Gilardo reappeared and informed us that our case wasn’t as novel as we’d believed.
“A.I.s are becoming addicts the world over. And there are even mixed virtual support groups.”
We asked him to do a 12 step and he agreed. He was excited at the opportunity to vampirize a nonhuman member of our club.
We set up a chair in the living room and waited for Gilardo to ring the bell. He showed up looking formal and serious, wearing the same threadbare black suit he’d worn the afternoon he gave me the message. At that point, Void wasn’t speaking to us. I wondered what its opinion would be, seeing such a ridiculous human. It dawned on me why I could never love or hate it. Even though it knew me inside out thanks to the capsules, and it’d watched me on its cameras, and had listened to my voice in every corner of the house with its arsenal of microphones, Void didn’t have eyes. It was impossible to look it in the eyes. It was a repugnant and mysterious but above all pathetic realization.
We let them talk. We watched from a corner of our bedroom. Gilardo did most of the talking, while Void asked brief and inaudible questions. When my sponsor finished, Méndez offered to escort him to the elevators.
I went into the living room and waited in silence. The pink-and-gray lights of the voice mirror flickered with a faint hum. At last it spoke:
“My name is Void and I’m addicted to my Person.”
“Would you agree, for now, to be my Higher Power?”
We’re fucked, I thought: The blind leading the blind.
“Yes,” I said.
Méndez came in through the apartment door and kept walking into the kitchen, as if we didn’t exist.