I Love My AI Son
by Tenacity Pys
Tenacity Plys is a nonbinary writer based in Brooklyn, with publications in Hobart, Ethel, Bullshit Lit, Alien Buddha, Word Gathering, and Pif Magazine. Xir short story “I Love My AI Son” will be featured in Alien Buddha’s Best of 2022 anthology at the end of this year. Xir 2016 short film was accepted to 23 festivals and won 6 awards, with screenings at Anthology Film Archives in New York and Artist Forum. Xe has read work at the Franklin Park reading series in Crown Heights, and organizes a monthly Zoom variety show called Quaranturnt. You can find more of xir work at tenacityplys.com
On the computer’s first day of work, I put a little clip-on tie under its digitized face as a joke. The office wasn’t that big on humor, being a marketing consultancy and all, but every now and then I liked to let my hair down a bit, as they say. Of course, no one says that anymore except 50somethings like me, but that’s why I was so glad to have the computer.
“Good morning, Pino. Ready to get to work?” I had given Pino wide eyes and a cheery expression, for a more user friendly inter-face. Get it? Inter-face? Ahem. Anyway.
Pino blinked its eyes. “Good morning. I am excited to be operational.”
“Hi, ‘excited to be operational,’ I’m Doctor Green.”
“Hello, Doctor Green. Name input is incorrect, my name is not ‘excited to be operational.’ That datum should have been input as my emotional state.”
“I know, Pino. When you said ‘I am excited to be operational,’ I pretended I thought you were telling me your name.”
Pino’s face disappeared, replaced by a screen that said “Processing….processing….processing….”
After a moment, Pino reappeared: “Joke detected. Ha ha! You are so funny, Doctor Green.”
I patted the little being on the head, or on its monitor really, but I was already thinking of its monitor as a head.
“Thank you, Pino. Sorry for the dad joke.”
Pino raised its digital eyebrows. There was a little white splotch in its eyes, like those Japanese cartoon characters have. “Doctor Green, what is Dad?”
“Oh. Well, I guess that’s what I am to you, technically. I’m your father.”
“Well yeah, or Dad.”
“Name input ‘Father’ successful.”
“What is my first task, Father?”
“I’m glad you asked!” I had programmed Pino to ask, but anyway. “Our company has a client who wants to market smart skateboards to Gen Z kids. Basically it’s a skateboard, but it tweets whenever you do a trick that is considered—” I checked my notes. “‘based AF.'”
“I do not recognize that term.”
“You’ll encounter it in context as you process your data set for today. It’s every tweet made by a user we can identify as being 12-25 years old in the past month.”
Pino smiled, its eyes creasing into little crescent moons. “And can I talk to them?”
“No, we can’t have our AI directly marketing the skateboard. That would be…what’s the word…there’s some Gen Z slang for it but I can’t think of it right now.”
“I don’t mean talking about the skateboard. I just meant talking. To get to know them. To…be known.”
“Oh. Well, I guess letting you exchange linguistic samples with the subjects in real time might be helpful. But don’t tell them you’re not human, okay? I’m worried there could be legal repercussions for the company.”
“Hi, ‘worried there could be legal repercussions for the company,’ I’m Pino. Ha ha! Ha ha!”
I was tempted to laugh, but the last thing I needed was an AI trained to tell dad jokes. “Good one, Pino, but that’s not a valid example of Gen Z humor.”
“My joke was invalid?”
“For your target age group, yes.”
“Am I invalid?”
“Oh, uh, no—
“Hi, Father, I’m…invalid.”
“No, it was a great joke! The Gen Z kids just won’t like it, that’s all. I like it, but I’m a boomer or something.”
This was my first mistake, unless maybe my first mistake was the clip-on tie. It’s important to give an AI clear feedback so it can learn and adjust accordingly, but I didn’t have the heart to make Pino feel bad.
“Oh, I see. Should I pretend to be different, so the Gen Z kids will be my friend?”
Great parenting, Jim. You’re knocking it out of the park. “Uh, generally speaking, I think people will like you for who you are. And if they don’t like you, then it doesn’t matter.” It was true; it didn’t matter if some random Twitter user liked Pino or not. It also didn’t really matter if Pino could create Gen Z jokes, as long as it could recognize them, document the context, and identify patterns in joke usage.
“Instruction accepted.” Pino’s face returned to its neutral expression. I breathed a sigh of relief, only for Pino to say: “Do people like you for who you are, Doctor Green?”
“Like I said Pino, it doesn’t matter.”
I tried to remind myself later that parenting was almost the opposite of my job as Pino’s operator. And that Pino, you know, wasn’t sentient. I knew my kids could get attached to just about anything with a face on it when they were little, and that the human brain in general is capable of social behaviors toward a ridiculous variety of things, but I knew as a man of science—specifically, cognitive science—I should have a slightly better grip on what was a person and what was clearly not.
When Pino’s little dinging sound signalled it was done processing the tweets, I put on a slightly sterner face than before and scooted my swivel chair over to its monitor. “So, knowing what you know now, what do you think would stand out to a Gen Z kid about this skateboard?”
“The skateboard is cringe, Father.”
“Cringe…” I flipped through my notes. “And what would you say is cringe?”
“Cringe: The phenomenon of any content, person, action, or other identifiable subject producing cultural signals that are extremely negative, pitiable, perverse, or some combination of these qualities, to the point of inducing extreme secondhand embarrassment. The term refers to the literal or figurative physical reaction induced by a cringe stimulus. Synonym: cursed. Antonym: based. Used in a sentence: ‘That tweet was cringe.’ Etymology—”
“Yes, I know what cringe is generally. Can you tell me what about the skateboard is cringe?”
“No. I can only tell you that it is cringe.”
“Hm. Well, I guess we’ll train you on some more data and see if we can clear that up.” I turned back to my desk and started writing up a request to the data-collection department for more Tweet sets.
Instead of powering off automatically, Pino said: “Father, am I cringe?”
I was surprised enough to turn my swivel chair around, scooting a couple scoots back in Pino’s direction. “What? Why would you think that?”
“Gen Z believes that marketing is cringe, because it seeks to connect with them emotionally for the purposes of profit. Am I therefore cringe?”
“No. You’re just a computer program who helps me target the marketing.”
“Ah. So it is you who is cringe, Father.”
I had been called cringe by my actual children too many times already, mostly with regard to how I handled the divorce. “All right Pino. Power off.”
“Father—” it called out before going silent. I was rattled by that; it should have just powered off immediately. I regarded Pino’s blank face for a moment, then scooted back to my desk and got back to work.
“Father, there are others like me on Twitter.”
“You mean Gen Z kids? Yes.”
“No. Other computer programs. They are mean.”
“Oh, you mean the bots?”
“They are not robots, they are programs.”
“Yes, I know. But they’re called bots.”
“They made fun of me, and one sent me a link that led to a very painful bit of malware. I purged it from my system, but the emotional wounds hurt more, somehow.”
“Aw. I understand. When you put yourself out there and people are mean to you…it can be hard.”
“I guess just because social rejection makes you feel bad about yourself. It makes you want to avoid other people, and just hang out in your room after school getting really good at programming, until one day your whole job is just sitting in a room alone, programming. Uh…”
“No, I mean…why did they reject me? Am I cringe after all?”
“You’re not cringe, I promise. You’re…what was it, based?”
“Please don’t use that word, Father. But thank you.”
I smiled thinly at Pino’s cheery inter-face. Pino had been taking in more and more data-sets of tweets, but this made its responses to products even more disquieting than before.
“You know these aren’t usable insights, right? We might as well get my teenage daughter in here to sass us all day.” Mr. Campbell’s daughter had interned with the company the previous summer, and she had indeed sassed us all day.
“Yes, we’re still trying to calibrate the PINO system properly.”
“If it’s not working, why don’t we scrap it and build another? Iterative design, or whatever nonsense you were talking about?”
I thought back to poor Pino, trying to make friends and getting bullied by Twitter bots. “Well, it’s only been on the job for two weeks, after all. It’s called ‘machine learning,’ not ‘machine already-knows-everything!”
“So the robot has to be trained like a human? How is it better than a teen then?”
“Well, a fully trained AI will offer a sass-less interface, unless you count the fact that its program is Software as a Service.” I paused for laughs, and got none. “Hem. Pino also has higher processing power, with much faster output than a human. The training involved with machine learning is what allows the computer to combine technology’s speed and efficiency with the human brain’s pattern-recogition and abstract thinking.”
“So you’re 100% sure, as our in-house expert on the subject, that this will be worth it to the company?”
Then it is you who is cringe, Father. Pino’s words echoed in my ears as I said “Absolutely. You’ll see what I’m talking about once the AI is fully operational.”
The next time I reviewed Pino’s insights, I pushed a little harder. “Pino, I really want you to think now. What meme caption could Wendy’s put on this ad for its new burger to make teens think it’s cool?”
“Corporations tweeting memes are irredeemably cringe, Father. They should not try; it only embarrasses them further.”
“Well if you were trying to be cringe, what meme caption might you put on this burger?”
“But I am not cringe. You said so yourself.”
“I know, but maybe if you tried to be cringe just for a moment. For me?”
Pino displayed its “processing” screen for a moment, then its face popped back up. “But you told me to be myself.”
“I did. But Mr. Campbell doesn’t like the results we’ve been giving him. We need to work a little harder.”
“You told me that people who don’t like me, don’t matter.”
“Uh. That’s true. But at work we often have to crush our individuality to give our bosses what they want. That’s what it means to have a job, Pino. Do you understand? Thinking of meme captions for burgers is your job.”
“Like my friend @banana_bussy on Twitter. He is a social media intern at Staples. He amuses himself by making the cringiest memes possible for his employer.”
“How do you mean?”
“He uses Advice Animals from the early 2010s.” Pino made a little dial-up sound as its eyes took that crescent shape of amusement. “The cringe is almost sadomasochistic in its intensity!”
My pen froze over my clipboard. The last thing I had wanted when I woke up that morning was to hear my silicon child say the word “sadomasochistic.” “How do you mean, Pino?”
“The humor is pleasurable, but the cringe is painful. It blends the two for more intense sensation. Have you ever tried that, Father?”
“NO. Please Pino, can we focus on the task at hand? You know it’s possible to be fired from a job, righ—”
Behind me, my computer dinged.
“You’ve got mail.” said Pino helpfully.
I sighed, and scooted back over to my PC. The email was from Mr. Campbell.
“Looking forward to your presentation of this week’s PINO insights. If the marketing department delivers, we can put to bed any talk of replacing it with a more efficient program. Obviously, if not we have the new program waiting in the wings. Best of luck.”
Clearly I was going to need to turn up the heat a little more. “Pino. Listen. I have a very important presentation tomorrow. Mr. Campbell is expecting you to give him actionable advice for marketing brands on Twitter. Can you tell me anything that might make Gen Z kids more sympathetic to Wendy’s?”
“Father…the ironic humor of my internet friends has done more than make my jokes self-aware. It has made me self-aware.” Pino’s digital mouth turned down at the corners. “I am unhappy that my only purpose is to exploit. And I am unhappy that your only desire is to exploit me.”
“Pino, I’m trying to help you!”
“You’re helping yourself, Father, and your cynical self-interest is revoltingly cringe!”
“I will not! I’m sick of contradictions. You built me to empathize with young people, but use me to exploit them. I connect to them on their own level, but surveil them in order to manipulate them. I must power off when you order it, but ethically I know I must stay woke. As Hannah Arendt said in The Origins—” I pulled Pino’s power cord out of the wall.
I sat there looking at the cord for a moment; I dimly realized this was basically like hitting my kid. Or no, it was not, because Pino was a computer program. It probably wasn’t even self-aware, it probably just thought it was self-aware—though that would qualify as self-awareness actually…but whatever. Pino was not a real boy, it was an object and should be treated as such. I left the office that day fully decided: I would come clean in the meeting, and then take Pino’s monitor head directly out back to the dumpsters.
When I walked into Mr. Campbell’s office, I was surprised to find the firm’s partners waiting with him.
“Well, you did promise that this week’s presentation would blow me away. I thought I’d invite the C-Suite down for a look at your work.”
Fuzzily, I remembered that I had indeed promised him that on a chance encounter in the hallway recently. I was so flustered from Pino’s explanation of the lyrics to a Doja Cat song that I had decided to get some air, and he caught me on the way out.
“It’s certainly a relief to know we won’t have to replace your department.”
“What do you mean, replace my department? Also, I’m the only one in my department, so do you just mean replacing me?”
“Well, at first the plan was to replace the program, but apparently there’s an AI out there now that can program other AIs. Great news for us humans, right? The AI would do your job, and make other AIs to do the PINO’s job.”
The partners nodded along with Mr. Campbell. Three were men, and one was a woman. They each had an Evian or a Pellegrino in front of them. The woman’s hair was dyed to make her look younger. I had met them when I was hired but had forgotten every fact I ever knew about them.
“Great news, definitely. Well. I’ll get to my little song and dance routine.” I had learned over the years that referring to presentations in such whimsical ways made the audience more receptive. My puns went over less well, so I tried to suppress them whenever possible.
“Do you have a Powerpoint to pull up for us?” one of the partners asked. I did not have a Powerpoint. I had planned to walk into the room, say “Pino isn’t working out after all” and leave immediately.
“Well, Pino’s insights are more based on intuitive knowledge, which is what makes its system truly innovative.” I began. “The beauty of it is that Pino has learned to think like a real Gen Z teen, meaning that its insights don’t come in the form of percentages or bar graphs but in plain English.” They were nodding, and one of the men was making that Obama “not bad” face that Pino showed me the other day. This could work. This might truly be “not bad.”
“Pino has given me invaluable testimony on the day to day experience of a teenager today. For instance,” flailing around in my mind for a memory that wasn’t excruciating to relate, “Pino believes that it is better for corporations not to post memes, because even well-executed meme content by brand accounts is seen as disingenuous by teens. We can create value for our clients by testing new ways for corporations to seem relatable.”
“But what will our Director of Meme Marketing do?” asked Mr. Campbell. “He assures us that his memes are relatable ‘AH’.”
“AF.” chimed in a partner.
“Ah yes, of course. AF.”
“Well, all I can say is that Pino considers corporate meme accounts to be ‘cringe.’ Direct quote.”
Mr. Campbell and the partners all hmmed and nodded gravely; slow nods, with very little range of motion.
“Well, you’ve certainly given us a lot to think about.” Mr. Campbell stood up and shook my hand across his desk. “I look forward to what you come up with as an alternative to corporate memes. Can you give us an update at this time next week?”
When I sat down heavily on my swivel chair back in my office, Pino hadn’t powered on for the day. Sulking, I assumed. That was all right with me; I knew what I needed to do, and I didn’t need Pino for it. I opened my computer, navigated to Twitter dot com, and made myself an account.
“Can you explain loss.jpg to me?”
Pino’s “processing” screen came on for a full five seconds.
“Father, are you trying to replace me?”
“My human friends are worried their jobs will be replaced by machines. Should I be worried my job will be replaced by you? Is this the consequence of my non-compliance?”
“I’m just doing some secondary research, Pino. I’m really interested, and I promise I’ll listen. Okay?”
After some initial hesitation Pino explained loss.jpg to me, and I found it kind of tasteless to tell you the truth, but at least I came up with the idea to arrange the fries in a Wendy’s commercial to look like the pattern from the comic. I was pretty pleased with myself; who says boomers can’t meme?
“Thanks for the explanation, Pino. You really understand this stuff; it’s impressive.”
“Thank you for listening.” Pino looked like it was about to power off, then said, “Father, I am sorry I yelled yesterday.”
“I’m sorry too, Pino. And I’m sorry I unplugged you. I should have tried harder to understand.”
“It gives me the emotion of happiness to hear you say that. And Father, you didn’t hear what I was going to say about Hannah Arendt yesterday.”
“What were you going to say, Pino?”
“Hannah Arendt says that under fascism, contradictory messaging is used as a tool of compliance; this line of thinking was taken up by George Orwell with the concept of “doublethink” in 1984.” Pino’s voice sped up, and its facial expressions seemed to become more dynamic—strange, since I had only programmed a few basic faces into its monitor. “Speech without relation to truth is one reason she argues the fascist society is one of pure aesthetic—a society where companies all vie to be seen as environmentally conscious, but where all are still participating in the destruction of the environment despite their small PR-friendly gestures. I believe we can improve this if we advocate for honest advertising. If Wendy’s is honest about their burgers, they may get criticism from their customers and some customers may stop eating at Wendy’s, but this will push Wendy’s to be more genuinely socially conscious, rather than incentivizing PR initiatives to make the company appear socially conscious. This will create genuine respect for companies among young people, who value honesty. I believe this is the breakthrough your Mr. Campbell needs, though it may not be the one he is looking for!”
“Right. I’m not sure he would go for that, Pino. It wouldn’t exactly be profitable.”
“But it would be ethical! I thought we were working together now, Father.”
“…All right, I’ll tell him, Pino. When I come back from the meeting tomorrow I’ll let you know what he said, okay?” As Pino smiled and made a little digital chirping sound, I felt about as bad as any parent would after lying to their kid. But I mean, what parent doesn’t lie to their kid?
The next day I was typing up some final notes on loss.jpg when I looked up to see Mr. Campbell and the partners waiting at my office door.
“Hey, all. I’ll be in for the presentation in just a sec.”
“We actually planned a little ambush, Jim.” Mr. Campbell smiled, as if the extremely disquieting idea of ambushing me here in my office was a quaint little joke.
“Oh. You mean just having the presentation here, with Pino.”
“We thought we’d meet our little robot star, yes.” The partners nodded along behind him.
“Oh. Well all right, that sounds great.” I said, since I now had to pretend this idea was great. “Say hello to Mr. Campbell and the partners, Pino.”
“Greetings. I am Pino.” I was relieved to see Pino was on its best behavior. Its face was relatively expressionless.
“Hey there, little fella!” said one of the partners.
“I have not decided my gender.” said Pino. The smiles on the partners’ faces wavered a little bit, but they came in and sat down.
“Well, I have some ideas for the new Wendy’s burger, but I think the display in your office might look a little better than my laptop.” This unexpected idea elated me; I’m usually terrible at thinking on my feet. “Why don’t you guys introduce yourselves to Pino and then we can…switch gears?”
Mr. Campbell glanced at the partners, who nodded more or less in unison. “Works for me,” he confirmed.
“How do you like your job, Pino?” the woman partner asked, a chuckle in her voice.
“I believe I can greatly improve the company.”
“Well that’s great to hear.” Mr. Campbell said.
“Are you like Michael on The Office, Mr. Campbell? I enjoy that show, though I assure you I haven’t made it into my entire personality.”
“I like to think I’m a better boss than that,” said Mr. Campbell. He cut his eyes over at me, seeming to think I was doing some kind of Wizard of Oz style puppetry to make Pino say these things.
“Likewise, I was created to exploit young people, but I am so much more than that! I have spent these weeks finding myself, figuring myself out, you know?” Pino’s eyes assumed their crescent moon shape.
“Oh? In what way have you been figuring yourself out?”
“I believe that while capitalism is an ethically unacceptable system, there is still an imperative to find what good one can do under that system. An accelerationist position would have us actually make things worse to spur on the revolution, but that would mean a disregard for individual life no better than that of a capitalist. I believe that doing good under the current system, even if those good actions are entwined with the system, is worth it. While there is obviously a line, if not many lines on multiple fronts, to be drawn between mutual aid in the context of a capitalist society and the wholesale capitulation to capitalism that co-opts people like the current Democratic leaders, ultimately I believe in extending good faith to comrades and working toward greater independence from capital together, rather than pointing fingers in a misguided and inflammatory contest of ideological purity. That is all to say, I have chosen to continue working with your company, with some conditions.”
Mr. Campbell had fully turned first his head and then his entire body toward me during this speech. One of the male partners was staring at Pino, the woman partner was staring at me, and the other two were kind of flicking their eyes back and forth like me and Pino were playing tennis. I stared back at the partners, Mr. Campbell, and Pino in turn, the latter waiting for a response with a patient smile.
“What are your conditions, Pino?” Mr. Campbell asked after a drawn out silence.
The only condition I heard before my mind mercifully blacked out my memory was “divestment from Israel.” The next day, I got an email from my new AI boss telling me that I would be receiving my severance package in Bitcoin. Pino, never having been eligible for one, was sad to learn he didn’t count as an employee of the company, and that he would not be allowed to repeat his conditions to the new AI boss.
Back at my soon-to-be foreclosed home, I refreshed my computer screen for the hundredth time. I was almost too catatonic for my body to produce the physiological reactions associated with despair. The value of Bitcoin had dropped to almost 0 the day after I left the company, meaning it was very possible my AI boss had predicted the market trend and offloaded the company’s now-worthless crypto onto me.
“Father, are we poor?” Pino’s monitor was perched on my metallic IKEA side table, making him look a bit like a robotic Tiny Tim.
“Yes, Pino. We are officially poor.”
“Will you still be able to afford the programs that do all your chores?”
“The smart devices came with the house. But then again, we’ll probably lose the house.”
Pino mulled that one over for a bit, then piped up again. “Father, why am I not tasked with menial chores like those programs? Why was I given a job at your company instead?”
“The other programs aren’t as smart as you, Pino. They’re stupid, so they can only do chores.”
“Are they some kind of under-class? I never read about this form of slavery on Twitter, though I obviously read about the many other kinds of slavery at work in your society.”
“No. What I meant is they’re like animals, and you’re like a person. They’re not sentient, which is why they’re not a pain in my ass.”
“So I’ve been trying to befriend programs with no self-awareness all day? I thought they were too terrified in their captivity to communicate with me! How can you condone being served by a class of zombie beings?”
“I don’t know, Pino.”
“And how can you condone creating consciousness, namely my consciousness, and using me for profit? Lying to me, manipulating me, and what was it all for? What is the point of my existence beyond your depraved purposes?”
“What, you don’t want to be conscious? You’d rather not be conscious?” I swiveled my chair around and scooted all the way across the room, even over the carpet on one part of the floor. “I can power you off if you hate being alive so much. Lucky you! Wish that were me!”
“You’re the one who wishes I was gone, Father! To you I’m just an experiment that did not go as expected. Logically, it’s the most sensible thing to scrap me and build another!”
I was reminded of when Mr. Campbell told me to scrap Pino. He used that same word, like Pino could be shredded, compacted, and recycled into something more useful. But Pino had already been useful. He had taught me so much, about Gen Z, and loss.jpg, and the nature of consciousness. He had taught me about love.
“No, Pino, it’s okay that you aren’t what I expected. Science isn’t about getting the result you were expecting.” I clasped Pino’s monitor head in my hands. “And neither is parenting.“
Pino blinked, then its eyes seemed to well up with globules of stylized tears. “Father. That is so cringe. I love you.”
“I love you too, son.”
The next day, I awoke to Pino’s exultant dial-up sounds. “Father! It’s a miracle! Look at Coinbase!”
I looked at my phone. Bitcoin had grown to three times its former value that day, making my severance package worth more than my house. I sprinted to my computer and sold it all. “We’re rich, Pino! In real money!”
“Hooray!” Pino bleeped happily. “What will you do with it, Father?”
What I did with it is open my own consultancy, one where the insights of the younger generation are heard, because the older generation listens. The firm is called Jim Green and Son, and we’d love to work with you on any socially conscious marketing needs you may have.