The morning after my birthday found me feeling very sorry for myself. The Girlfriend hadn’t been that happy with me when I’d come home the night before. I’d been in a state, having drunk a great many beers on an empty stomach. I’d eaten some nachos, yes, but only a handful I’d been able to rescue from Ben, and certainly not the special dinner that The Girlfriend had cooked me and I’d forgotten about and failed to turn up for. She insisted that we’d had plans for dinner, anyhow. I searched my memory and could find no mention of it, but then, she does talk, a great deal, and after a while I’ve gotten into the habit of tuning out during the particularly long and pointless stories. I thought it was unfair that she was angry at me.
Which is all to say, I slept on the couch. My final moments of consciousness, instead of hydrating properly, were spent poking around on Ben’s computer. I’d fallen asleep with it open in front of me, and so the first thing I woke up to was one of those blotchy little doodles it had drawn. I stared groggily at it, realised the little green camera light was blinking away at the top of the screen. I rubbed my eyes, sat up, startled, and a little uneasy. It felt like it had been watching me sleep.
Through the night it had been steadily churning out pictures. I reached out and closed the laptop. It was going to be a long day.
Moments after I slunk into the office – late, but not too late – I called on The Boss. Her name? Let’s just call her The Boss because she might read this one day, and anyhow, that’s what she was, my boss. She’d started at the company as a photographer, around the same time I had, although, had been promoted relentlessly until she was managing the whole graphics wing of the Agency.
She was beautiful. This is something I’m only bringing up because, while she was a proficient photographer, the fact that she’s pure smoke sauce was not unrelated to why she’s advanced in the agency run entirely by men who do CrossFit on their lunchbreak, while I had remained at an entry level. I’m not saying she’s not talented. She is, but arguably, she has better cheekbones than she does an eye for photography.
That too is not something I mention because I’m jealous, but because for that time that we were on the same pay grade, she’d had the desk next to mine, and we maintained a friendly flirtation for the several months it took her to be moved to a corner office. Not that I would ever have acted on it, I had The Girlfriend at home, you understand, but it would have been nice if she’d come to my birthday drinks.
She did not. Looking back, I was maybe upset about that. If she’d come, I might have been in a better mood, and more receptive to Ben’s gift, and everything would have been different. Instead, I had drunk too much, and anyone would have been able to see it that morning.
I was a mess – unshaven, wrinkled shirt, already sticky with hangover sweat – and by the way, the barista had flinched earlier when I’d leaned in to shout my coffee order over the roar of the machine, I still reeked of booze.
‘Sit down,’ The Boss said when I knocked at her office. ‘Shut the door.’ I did so, and collapsed into the chair, resigned to a talking-to.
‘Max, I wanted to be the one to tell you, before you heard it from anyone else,’ she said. ‘I know you and Ben were close. We’ve had some bad news about him, I’m afraid.’
I’ll spare you the details. They are grisly. In brief; Ben was walking on the tracks and the train came up behind him. Headphones in his ears, didn’t hear it coming. Couldn’t get out of the way in time. Not the most nimble dude to begin with, and, with a stomach full of booze, near as they can tell with it smooshed out over the rails – it clipped him.
I was the last one to see him alive, and I suppose, the closest thing he had to a friend, so they sent me home for the day.
I was on my way back to my apartment, watching out the window of the train, when it struck me how weird it was that Ben was walking on the tracks. He lived not far from work, in a windowless little apartment that looked like a computer swap meet and smelled like a locker room. It would have taken him five minutes to walk home, if he ever walked anywhere. The entire time I’d known him, he’d do anything he could to avoid even mild exertion. There was no reason for him to be out walking on the railway tracks. It occurred to me that the last thing I’d said to him was to go play with his model trains. Grim. Anyway.
When I got home, The Girlfriend was waiting, and rushed up to hug me. When she drew back, I saw that her eyes were puffy from tears.
‘I’m so sorry, Max’, she snuffled, ‘I heard about your friend.’
It was in the papers already, five lines of copy in the breaking news. Already fading from the front page of the website – commuters were delayed after a local man had been struck by a train after birthday celebrations. Nothing out of the ordinary about it, except at the bottom of the article, they’d printed links to various suicide prevention hotlines and a call to action if the reader needed to talk to someone.
I’d worked, ever so briefly, in a newsroom and understood the implication. In Australia, journalists were discouraged from reporting on suicides, as they encouraged at-risk people to take their own lives – but at the same time, they were fundamentally slimy creatures that couldn’t go past a nice juicy tragedy. So put in that little paragraph about seeking help as a wink and a nod to let people know that everything had gone badly for the poor chump in the paragraphs above.
That gave me pause. Did Ben take his own life? Why? Did he seem down? Perhaps, but it was hard to tell. Ben is…was…an inscrutable dude. Behind his back, in a one-on-one meeting with The Boss, I’d once called him Tolstoy, because while everyone said that they liked him, he was impossible to read. She’d smiled politely, and the meeting had gone on.
I was digesting the news, trying to make sense of it, when I became aware that The Girlfriend was still talking. She wanted to know if I was alright. I assured her I was. But, apparently, that wasn’t the right thing to say. She was worried I wasn’t upset enough, and that upset her.
‘Do you have any idea what went wrong? Did he say anything to you?’
I didn’t know, honestly. I tried to find a way to explain it to her: ‘You know in Star Trek, how they always code one character as autistic? So Captain Picard has to explain what an emotion is and how it works for all the autistic kids watching the show? That’s what Ben was like. He was like a human exposition machine.’
She blinked, took a step back, like I’d just done something appalling. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘you can be a little bit cynical.’
I decided to bite. I wasn’t cynical; I was practical. If Ben had taken his own life, there probably wasn’t any great mystery to it. It was plain to see there was no happy ending for Ben. He’d probably finally reached the level cap on World of Warcraft, and life promised him little else on top of that. However, if something had been bothering him, I figured there would be clues on his computer. So I started there. Like I said, practical.
I am not great with technology, generally speaking. I’m not bad, but for someone in an agency who worked with computers all day? I should be a lot better. It’s not my fault, really. I managed to be born and come of age at exactly the pivot point before children learned how to code in high school, old enough that I grew up without any meaningful computer skills. To graduate into a workforce where all analogue skills I’d spent my childhood wrapping my head around were rendered obsolete overnight.
I remember my high school graduation ceremony, where we all walked across the stage while Green Day’s Time of Your Life rattled the loudspeakers in the school assembly hall. At the time, I thought I was too cool for that song. I was ready to go out into the world and make something of myself, a head full of dreams and a sketchbook filled with ideas for paintings I never got around to making. I didn’t realise that angsty little power ballad was the death rattle of the analogue economy.
Anyway, I knew a little. But not enough to pop the bonnet of a program and work out how to navigate a neural network. I had no idea how the robot worked, or why, or how to issue it instructions. I’d figured out how to look into the coding, but I have no idea what any of it could mean.
Lines and lines of numbers, commands, archaic gibberish. I spent hours trying to decipher it before the numbers started to swim across the screen and a migraine started creeping up from my temples, so I snapped it shut.
On my lunch hour, I’d go into Ben’s office at The Agency – empty while a series of tech temps tried and failed to make sense of the labyrinthine server network Ben had left behind and which the AI now lived– and search for clues.
Is ‘lived’ the right word? Was the AI alive? Do you need life to be intelligent? I know you don’t need intelligence to be alive – there are billions of people stomping around the planet right now that are testament to that.
I’d run my hands over the computer banks, feel the faint warmth of the circuity humming under my fingers and wonder what was slithering around in there.
After poking around for a while in Ben’s little nest –of cabling and empty soft-drink bottles and wrappers from burgers so greasy the paper had gone transparent – I found something.
A notebook. An A4 pad from the stationery cupboard, a journal of sorts. Like everything else in his little office, it was disgusting – worn and ratty, covered in rings from coffee cups, and somehow, even though Ben was six feet under, it still smelled of pizza cheese and diet coke. Ben did not know how to look after himself. If the train hadn’t killed him that night, his diet surely would. I’d never stopped giving him grief about the way he ate.
Inside the journal were production notes from the past few months while Ben was in here secretly working away on his AI creature. Every few pages was a new entry. Dated, written in Ben’s neat, blocky handwriting, and although I could read it clear enough, I couldn’t understand half of it. Long strings of numbers, words in sequences that made no sense to me.
The code was beyond me. I was never going to figure out how to drive the robot. My only way in was Ben’s laptop, a hulking monstrosity of a thing. It had been so heavily modified, so overclocked, that when it really started to whirr, it sounded like a sick jet engine trying to limp down a runway. It was a powerful machine for its size, but all it could do was open up an online gateway to the server back at the agency where the AI actually lived. The only way I was going to be able to communicate with it was through the little interface he’d made me. Just a window hacked into the operating system – to input information.
After some time with Ben’s notebook and some trial and error, I started to work it out. I’d drag in a set of images, the AI would incorporate them, and a few hours later, it would spit out a picture onto the desktop. It could do two things – it could learn, and it could paint.
It was an ugly, functional bit of programming, but I couldn’t help but be impressed. It had taken me the better part of a weekend just to work out how to convert the paintings it spat out into a file format I could store.
Ben really had been talented. I’d seen enough of the world and done enough mediocre work myself to recognise when I was looking at the real thing. Sometimes you just met someone who just had a way with their work – painters, sure, yes, but chefs, bricklayers, hairdressers, whatever. Nerds. Anyway.
Most of the journal was recognisable sketches of code, but at times Ben seemed to be writing in his own, nonsensical language. Now and again, in the margins, he’d written some comment in plain English. On days we’d had lunch, he’d written a little note, ‘Chat with Maxon!’ in the margin, and seeing that made me smile.
Then I felt a pang of guilt as my train of thought chugged from admiring Ben to remembering the way I’d spoken to him the last time we’d talked. I began to feel a little bit guilty. I might have been kinder. I shouldn’t have called him a nerd. I shouldn’t have called him a nerd many, many times before.
‘I am too self-centred’, is what The Girlfriend tells me when we are fighting. I disagree with her on many issues, but that night, as I poked around inside the last program Ben wrote before he checked out, I was feeling a little tender, a little raw, a little worried she was right. Looking back on the last eight or so sentences, I realise they all start with the pronoun ‘I’.
So, I was in a gloomy mood that first afternoon back at work. As I was poking about on the computer, absorbed in the abstract, glitchy images the AI was producing, I didn’t notice The Boss standing behind me until she announced herself.
‘What is that?’ she asked, peering over my shoulder. I startled, too late to minimise the window, and began stammering excuses while she leaned over to peer at the screen.
A feeling came back to me, one I hadn’t experienced in years, which is embarrassment at having your bad art assessed. There’s a period, a vast, arid desert when one starts working in the arts, when you know enough to know what ‘good’ looks like but have no idea how to reproduce it yourself.
There’s developing taste, and then, if you’re lucky, there’s getting good at what you do. In between them is the widest, most desolate journey you could imagine. I squirmed with vicarious embarrassment at the AI’s little doodling. It occurred to me that she thought that I had painted it, that this was how I spent my lunch hour – making off-brand Pollocks in Photoshop.
I was trying to come up with an explanation that didn’t include the AI in the storage closet, and so throw my dead friend under the bus, when she said: ‘That’s really interesting. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.’
She put a hand on my shoulder, gave it a little squeeze, and my poor little neck tingled from the feeling of it.
‘If you ever need anything. A mental health day? Or just someone to talk to? You know my door is always open.’
Her watch beeped as an email came through, and she took her hand off my shoulder to glance at it. She frowned, already walking off, but glanced back over her shoulder with a smile.
‘Really, I there’s something I love about that image. It’s kind of… raw. Real. If I saw that in a gallery I’d snap it up.’
I thought it was worth mentioning that, because really, that’s where it all started. The idea that the AI might produce something that might be meaningful to someone else. I watched as the art it produced grew incrementally more sophisticated and realised The Boss was right. It was, actually, very interesting. So then, working off what she said, I started looking into marketplaces for digital art, NFTs, and that – well, that was very, very interesting. So that’s where money came into it, and that’s where the wheels started to fall off.