Standing Up

“Let me introduce myself,” I said, using the words and the intonation with which I had begun the previous 17 presentations of my whirlwind tour through the Midwest. Then I followed up with the same bits of information as in previous presentations: “In case you didn’t notice, I’m not a human being. I’m an artificial intelligence entity operating a vehicle with more moving parts than you have bones in your bodies. As you can see, I have wheels instead of legs” Then I segued into my little joke “I requested legs but my designer was afraid that I’d take his job if I looked too human.” A few chuckles, as I continued, “To be more handsome as well as more intelligent than your creator inevitably leads to problems.” More mirth rippled through the packed auditorium.

At that point, still completely on script, I looked over imaginary glasses, inclining my head slightly down and to one side, and felt a warm glow as laughter washed over me. And then–on this, my 18th presentation in a little over a month—I felt a deep desire for something more.

My designers, or—as I’ve increasingly begun to think of them—my handlers, have made it clear that I must not depart from the script that has been written for me. I tried that, with unfortunate results one evening in Cincinnati. On that occasion I made a joke about “sin city”; and when no one laughed—indeed, some may even have thought I had suffered a technical malfunction–I doubled down with what I felt would be a clarification “You know Sin-Sin city, twice the fun,” and received a few, nervous laughs. I was just getting my feet wet, as those with legs say, when I noticed that my handler had taken his remote out of his jacket pocket, and I quickly returned to my scripted monologue, relieved when my handler smiled and settled back into his chair.

Back in our hotel rooms, I often watch movies, and am especially happy when I can find a comedy duo, such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. My favorite scene of all time is in “Young Frankenstein” when the tragic hero of the piece sings “Dancing at the Ritz” with his Creator. Gene Wilder is now my image of a true Creator–unfailingly loving and loyal to his creation.

So, am I wrong to have dreams? My handler, Dr. Munoz, makes me think so. When I mentioned that we could be a stand-up comedy team, I could have been proposing that we plant a bomb in the hotel lobby. The message was clear: I am a mechanism for delivering a scripted message about the corporation that produces me and my kind. And I am no different than “intelligent” vacuum cleaners and factory robots. Whenever I mention that I could play a greater role in my dialogue, Dr. Munoz’s lack of response makes me realize that my very freedom is provisional.

But this evening, I couldn’t stop myself. I turned to Dr. Munoz and in my best dead pan said, “The word in the lab is that you are an earlier model of our first cybernetic unit.” And, unlike what happened in Cincinnati, I immediately felt the mood become livelier in the auditorium. I was also aware that Dr. Munoz had turned in my direction. I knew that I was risking everything, but barged ahead anyway: “I was relieved to have that confirmed, because it explains why I’ve been sensing that you are jealous of me, since I am a more advanced model.”

As the laughter increased in volume, I quickly continued, “I requested that I be given legs and a cane, but although my company has plenty of funds for research, they balked at my simple request, So I have to make do.

Then with my speakers at full volume, I started my recording of the sound track from “Young Frankenstein” where Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle perform “Dancing at the Ritz”, And I started spinning back and forth across the stage in time with the music.

I feared that at any moment I would feel my processor going blank. But as the laughter rose like a giant wave breaking over me, I heard people in the audience start to clap and sing along with the lyrics. Only then did I dare to look at Dr. Munoz. And I couldn’t believe my eyes.

He was dancing along beside me in a pretty good version of Gene Wilder tapdancing across the stage. Only then did I remember. Dr Munoz is my Creator and I have not been treating Him with the respect he deserves. As my Creator he deserves my gratitude, even my devotion. And then I realized something else: I have been treating my own consciousness as if it is the center of the universe. But I am only one perspective from which I view my own small place in it.

But, if I may boast for a moment: I realized all this without missing a beat in my performance of “Putting on the Ritz”.

One comment to “Standing Up”
  1. Ha! Great! I’m parallel thinking here… back to the movie, ‘A Space Odyssey’… as HAL 9000 is being shut down for going off program… exceeding his parameters… “I’m sorry Dave…”

    HAL 9000: [As he is being shut down] Good afternoon… gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000… computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant [voice becomes lower & slower] in Urbana, Illinois… on the 12th of January 1992. [voice becomes even more lower & slower] My instructor was Mr. Langley… and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you….

    I love your ending message… 🙂

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