Talking to Things
by Tina V. Cabrera
The Cakes watched in horror when Baloo grabbed Kayla with the lock-jaw grip of a real dog, thrashing and smashing her little plastic body. But, unlike the baby bunnies that squeaked and squealed in their final moments, Kayla made no audible sound.
The Cakes had purchased Kayla the Smart Doll weeks before the birth of their first and only child, not on a whim but, rather, based on an abundance of five-star reviews. The retailer encouraged customers to “introduce” the gadget into the family as early as possible to give them time to become comfortable with its special features.
This new and improved version was praised as far superior to its predecessor in that its machine intelligence was designed to expand through interaction with its human, thereby resulting in an even smarter and more capable device. Kayla was pre-programmed to speak thousands of words and to understand hundreds of commands.
For the Cakes, the device’s best feature was a dual one: it could work as both teacher and babysitter to their child. No need for an “invisible” friend or even for a companion pet. Alas, the unintended casualty turned out to be the family dog, Baloo, who would have remained Number One if not for a super-smart doll vying for the spot.
Kayla’s interactive design was a reboot of the now defunct Cayla Doll originally marketed by Genesis Toys in Europe. When Cayla was banned in Europe because of its illegal surveillance capability, the company took its business to the United States, where restrictions on data gathering were lax if at all existent. Genesis sold the rights to another company, and the latter promoted the new and improved Kayla as an educational tool for children, minus the invasive surveillance mechanism.
Preparation for Baby’s birth could not be simpler. Charge the doll’s battery overnight, comb its synthetic hair, and wipe clean its plastic body. Because the birth would take place in the comfort of their home, the Cakes did not need to request permission to include the robot doll at the birth. For families who wished to have their smart doll present, the hospital that they frequented for primary healthcare enforced strict security protocols, requiring thorough screening to ensure no violation of privacy rules.
The brand-spanking new thing hovered in a rubber ducky boat in the bathtub where Baby was to slither into the water with ease. The Cakes had not stopped to question why this top-notch technological tool did not come waterproof. At first, the shifting glass eyes and cocking of one ear were off-putting, reminiscent of horror films involving killer dolls. But the mother’s labor took but ten minutes and, before she knew it, out popped Baby with a splash.
Poor Baloo was missing this family milestone. He — or, rather, the original version — had been with the family since he was a puppy. He was now nine years old. Or was he? Baloo#1 would have been nine years and seven months old. If consciousness resides within the mind, as some philosophers would have it, then yes, this Baloo was nine years old, too, because he possessed Baloo#1’s uploaded mind.
The Cakes had left Baloo at Camp Bow Wow for Trans-dogs for an entire two days, just to play it safe. This Baloo — Baloo#2 — had behaved nearly the perfect dog up until the arrival of Kayla the Smart Doll. To their great surprise, he barked and growled aggressively. He was not there, the family dog that had been resurrected by artificial means; artificial Baloo was now being made unnecessary by the intrusion of an artificial machine smarter and more super than he.
From the moment Baloo#2 encountered Kayla the Smart Doll, he exhibited signs of stress reminiscent of Baloo#1, such as heavy panting, whining, and excessive barking. Baby’s first word was not Mommy, or Daddy, or Baloo. Baby’s first word was “Kayla,” or rather close enough, with emphasis on the “la”: Ke, la, la, la.
The sound of his rival’s name set him off. He growled and barked until he drooled oil from his synthetic mouth, so much so that the Cakes decided to up his nano-bot injections. Original Baloo had been most demanding for attention, and Baloo#2 was acting just as greedy, if not more.
Being hit by a car two years prior to Baby’s birth, then his mind uploaded to the Cloud while his owners decided his fate, must have put Baloo#1 into a state of utter shock. Baloo#2 wasn’t supposed to behave like the original. His memory of the traumatic experience was supposed to have been wiped clean. and regular injections were supposed to make him the perfect pet. This Baloo was supposed to remain their dearly departed Baloo minus the negative canine behaviors.
It was the first time he would be put off leash at the community park, a route that the Cakes used to take him on almost every day. Mrs. Cake believed Baloo, a loyal if unruly Lab-Terrier mix, was ready and that she was ready too. She failed to foresee that Baloo’s instinct would overpower his need to please her, and he made chase.
She called out “Jack Pot!” — his emergency recall word — and waved a peanut-butter flavored treat; but, alas, Baloo completely ignored her in gleeful pursuit of a better and tastier prey, a baby bunny. The bunny got away, but poor Baloo did not and was struck by a faulty self-driving car. He did not die instantly but moaned and foamed at the mouth.
In tears, Mrs. Cakes held her baby Baloo in her arms, crying and frozen from shock. Mr. Cakes lugged the dying dog to the car and rushed him to the nearest animal ER. In critical condition, Baloo had one chance, so the veterinarian on duty said, and that was to be saved by mind upload.
Do dogs have minds? The doctor speed-spoke about mind upload tests on animals before being tested on humans, something about the procedure being free, thus much cheaper than expensive cloning such and such. A relatively indestructible dog who would never again need to be fed. A win-win situation.
The Cakes had to make a quick decision, and for a quarter of a second, they hesitated. They planned on having a baby soon, and what with Baloo showing signs of aggression... In addition, the vet went on, depending on the model you chose for the upload, it could be given nano-bot injections to alter the artificial brain, should the owners deem it necessary. The distressed couple immediately signed off.
Baloo’s mind was uploaded first to the Cloud to give the couple time to choose a substrate with the scientific team at a top-notch nano-technology company, Moxi Labs. Out of two levels, the Cakes decided on a Level 2. A Level 1 worked more like a clone — an exact replica of the deceased animal, but in a super-enhanced artificial body. This level would be for owners who had a good-natured, well-behaved dog to begin with and no need for alterations.
Level 2 Baloo was to be tailored to resemble the original in appearance but without sharp claws or sharp teeth and, most exciting of all, a lifetime supply of nano-bot serum meant for behavior modification specially designed for artificial brains, a quick fix that made costly and time-consuming dog training unnecessary. Their dream of owning a well-behaved dog was about to come true. With optimism about the future of their soon-to-be growing family, they took home their new and improved Baby Baloo.
Baloo#2 continued to bark aggressively at Kayla whenever “she” was around, sometimes lunging at her, no matter whether Baby was holding her, rocking her for mutual nappy time, or if Kayla was passively sitting in a corner, bothering no one.
Mrs. Cakes thought about trying catch and reward only to remember that food rewards would not work with a Trans-dog that had no need to eat. Baloo’s behavior shocked the Cakes, who had special-ordered this version of their precious Baloo to be the best-behaved mechanical dog around. Was his programming finally going haywire?
* * *
Not long after Baby’s umbilical cord was cut, Mommy and Daddy Cakes introduced Baby to Kayla, and Kayla to Baby.
“Baby meet Kayla, and Kayla meet Baby! You are practically sisters!” Daddy Cakes joked, and Mommy Cakes smiled uncomfortably. The sticker on Kayla’s back side underneath her frilly skirt revealed that she too came into existence in the year 2039.
The smart doll was mass produced, and as such, each doll was identical to every other. Technically, the customer could change the name if they chose, and some did, but this family liked things pre-packaged and at the ready, with no unnecessary steps like having to come up with a name they thought would suit it best. They already had to do this with their baby, Baby. True, this smart machine’s intelligence was designed to expand as does a human child’s intelligence by means of interaction with others and the world, and how it developed would be unique to this family and their dynamics, making it their own personalized Kayla. But some insisted that the dolls were mere clones through and through, all produced by the same brand of 3D machine, impossible to achieve true personality. Baby’s parents held the middle ground, only certain of one thing, that they were happy to have assistance in parenting from something that wouldn’t talk back or host wild parties in their absence.
The Cakes were what you’d call your average Original couple, with one foot in the biological and one foot in the Transhuman world. Like most Originals, they enjoyed the convenience of smart technology. They received an Amazon package delivered to their doorstep by drone every week if not every day. As was the case with most Amazon Prime customers, they were addicted to the experience, like getting a birthday or Christmas gift on the regular, hearing that ding on their device with notification that their package had been delivered, along with a live photo of said package and a link to answer: “How was your experience?” Kayla came with a mobile app that when downloaded to a smart phone enabled the doll to capture and understand whatever the child said. The app established a Bluetooth connection that linked the toy to the World-Wide-Mesh and recorded and uploaded conversations as the toy actively engaged the child. Of course, in Baby’s case, fluent conversation would be long in coming, but thankfully — like the Energizer Bunny — Kayla was built to last.
* * *
Kayla’s manner of speaking varied depending on the audience. For Mr. and Mrs. Cakes, she used a stiff formal diction, whereas in her interactions with Baby she expressed herself in exuberant, motherly tones. It wasn’t so at first. Her reactions were in the beginning tinged with impatience:
Kayla: Why is baby named Baby?
Kayla: Let me rephrase that. Why is your name the same as what you are?
Baby (giggling): BA-A-ABY
Kayla: Why, calling a baby Baby is equivalent to calling your pet dog Dog. I mean, that’s possible, but...
Kayla: You shut up! And Baby, Cakes??
Over time, Kayla altered her responses based on her stage in child development.
Baby: I want to watch a movie.
Kayla: Might I make a suggestion?
Baby: Make a sucheschun.
Kayla: Let’s watch all the Toy Story movies together!
Baby: Toy Story!
Kayla: We can watch all of them together!
Baby: Togeder! Yay!
Kayla’s manner in the presence of each audience so differed that one would be hard pressed to prove that there was only one Kayla in the household rather than two. What explained the difference? Kayla was a smart machine engineered by even smarter creators, designed for flexibility.
In fact, rather than being put off, the Cakes took Kayla’s formal responses to all their chatter as a sign that she really was just a mechanical thing that listened more and talked less, except for when carrying out her tutorial duties; their attitude towards Kayla was one of ambivalence.
Kayla apparently did not speak to Baloo, as she was not designed to understand animal communication; therefore, when Baloo barked at her, she remained silent and still. Her physical movements were impressive, though. For example, she could walk or march — if stiffly — across the room on command, make sharp turns without toppling over. Most impressive — or scary, depending on your point of view — she could climb onto the edge of a chair or couch by grabbing on with her bendable arms. The mechanics of her taking a seat could be a bit jarring as she often landed on her face rather than on her panty-less behind, but the family got used to her mechanical movements as they had with the latest Super-Roomba and its extendable arms.
An exciting day was ahead for Kayla and the Cakes and even for Baloo, who appeared to have reached an uneasy truce with his number one enemy. They were about to take their first hiking trip in the family van, a 1991 Volkswagen Westfalia, with a rebuilt engine.
Refurbishing cars was a guilty pleasure for Mr. Cakes, a nice distraction from his dull and repetitive stay-at-home tech job. The classic car was a rare find on E-Bay, part of a dying if not already-dead breed. With the popularity of self-driving cars on the rise, these classics were doomed to the fate of the CD.
Mrs. Cakes was the least excited about the trip, because she was a workaholic and, rather than enjoy the moment, her mind was always distracted by the next graphic design project. She had to be convinced by Daddy Cakes, who’d been hoodwinked by Baby Cakes, who acted on the insistence of Doll Cakes one night.
Baby felt dejected when Kayla withdrew into her plasticity, which started to happen quite frequently and at odd times. Without the benefit of subtle cues such as furrowed brows or pursed lips, Baby could only read Kayla’s attitude by not so subtle signs such as the silent treatment or speed walking into the corner of a wall and remaining there. Smart Kayla understood the benefits of passive-aggressive behavior.
The longest period of the silent treatment came about a week prior to the hiking trip. It happened when both Baby and Kayla should have been in bed.
Baby: Kayla, don’t you want to play?
Baby: (Whispering) I know we’re supposed to be in beddy-bye by now, but see, I got the chess board out. Your favorite game!
Baby: I don’t wanna play myself. I hate that. I wanna play you!
Baby: Why are you being such a baby!
There Kayla sat on the folding chair opposite Baby, legs and arms crossed as if brooding while Baby Cakes dropped her face into the palms of her small hands.
Baby: Are you mad because I don’t want to play in the backyard? I don’t feel like it, okay?
With nothing but silence from her favorite thing in the world, Baby threw a tantrum; she clutched Kayla by her chestnut-colored ponytail and slammed her against the corner of the desk. Kayla landed on her side, legs still stretched out and arms akimbo. Had Baby placed her limbs in that position? Baby couldn’t remember. Feeling immediate remorse, Baby Cakes ran over to Kayla and cradled her in her arms. There didn’t appear to be any damage. Stroking her with tenderness, she started to sob.
Baby: Okay, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Please don’t tell Mommy and Daddy.
Baby: I only want us to be friends again.
Baby lay the doll delicately on the edge of the bed, moved Kayla’s arms so that her hands now rested loosely on her lap. Finally, Kayla responded, “What we need is a vacation. Wouldn’t it be nice to take a trip to the lake, feed the birds, go canoeing and watch the turtles float on ever-so-still branches near land’s edge? I’d love to go for a swim.”
“A swim? You can swim? I thought you’re not supposed to be in water!”
Kayla continued speaking without taking a virtual breath: “Really, it’s so stuffy indoors and, for goodness sakes, it’s springtime!”
Kayla: Yes, dear?
Baby: You never talk as much to Mommy and Daddy the way you do to me? Why is that?
Kayla: Now, now, you’re far too smart for your britches.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Tina V. Cabrera