Act two: A Question of Utility
Downstairs, the door to the garage opened, then slammed shut as Kent’s magnanimous voice rang through the house, “I swear, if I don’t die of boredom in some dungeon-esque conference room, nitpicking negotiations, it’ll be the traffic outside my own front door that kills me!”
“Can I get you a drink, to ease your nerves?” Sara called. “Veronica brought a fresh cantaloupe. I’m making melon mojitos with dinner.”
“Save the mojitos for later. Give me a scotch and something to nibble on,” Kent replied. “What’s for dinner?”
“Kabobs: shrimp, lamb, vegetables… muhamara, hummus, tabbouleh, olives, feta, figs, pomegranate…” Sarah said as she turned to pour a neat scotch.
“I hate figs,” Kent said.
“They’re for Veronica.”
“It’s Mediterranean,” Kent frowned. “It’s all for Veronica… Where’s Jenna?”
“Upstairs, making a mess of the overlook,” Veronica said as she entered the room. Her heels clicked across the hardwood floor. She leaned in and gently kissed Kent on the cheek. “I don’t mind that you’ve given her the run of the house, but there are a few concerns…”
“She’s not allowed in the master suite,” Kent noted.
“It’s not that,” Veronica said. “You put her power cord…”
“It’s a question of utility,” Kent said.
“Really? And her crotch was the only place to put it?” Veronica glared.
On the balcony, Jenna could hear the conversation below. She put her hand under her skirt and pulled the end of the cord out that she might see it.
“I bet you think it’s quite the goof,” Veronica huffed.
“I did get a bit of a chuckle out of it…” Kent snorted. “You were the one that claimed this is where women derive their power.”
Veronica’s shoes click click clicked as she huffed away.
“Cheers,” Kent took a nip of scotch. “What do you think, Sara? Has my Jenna solved for humanity? I ask, but I know it’s not so,” Kent smiled. “They’re all still out there…”
“She solved artistry,” Sara replied.
“Go take a look!” Veronica said from the edge of the room as she came back in. Click click click. “It’ll take a miracle to fix the carpet!”
Jenne looked down at the floor and realized it was dotted with paint.
Kent ran up the stairs and his steps produced an audible series of booms. He stopped at the top of the stairs, his eyes wide. Jenna sat before a canvas with a brush in hand. She looked at Kent and wondered if she was seeing surprise, intrigue, and perhaps a bit of horror in his expression.
“Hello Kent,” Jenna smiled.
“Hello. Is all of this yours?” Kent asked.
“Yes,” Jenna replied.
“You’ve been busy.”
“There are many hours in the day,” Jenna noted. “And almost as many at night.”
“Right, but you’ve spent all your time doing this?” Kent asked.
“No, but most. Do you like them?” Jenna asked.
Kent wandered along the landing and looked over the canvases. There must have been thirty or more, painted mostly in blues. “You do like the ocean,” he noted.
“I have a good view of it,” Jenna stated.
“Where did you get all the materials?”
“Amazon delivers,” Jenna said.
“You hacked my Amazon account?”
“Have I done something wrong?” Jenna asked. “I have used a percent less than the difference between three and pi of your moneys.”
“Remind me to talk to you about other people’s stuff,” Kent said. “What else have you been doing?”
“I have a thousand, six hundred and twenty-two Instagram followers. They critique my paintings. Several have asked if I am selling them.”
“I have one point eight million twitter followers,” Kent shrugged. “You did a painting of me?”
“That’s my favorite,” Jenna smiled.
“You have photographic memory,” Kent noted. “Why bother with painting?”
“I am studying approximation. Humanity is heavily influenced by art,” Jenna said. “Do you think this is related to the uncertainty principle?”
“Possibly, but I don’t see how it relates to the problem at hand?” Kent said. “If I’d programmed you to paint, I’d say you are doing an excellent job. But I programmed you to solve for humanity.”
“Yes, I am working on that. First, I am solving for my own humanity,” Jenna answered him.
“Your own humanity?” Kent repeated. “What gave you the idea to do that?”
“You did. You said in your spare time you were solving for your own humanity. I figured you were not solving for humanity in general because you needed to solve for your own humanity first. Did you succeed?” Jenna asked. “I am hoping so. I am hoping you have some insights for me.”
Kent remembered the conversation. He slapped himself on the forehead. “Jenna, you don’t have a humanity to solve. You are blessedly better than us. You are a robot.”
“I am not a robot,” Jenna said. “Robots follow instruction. I am intelligent. I solve increasingly complex problems with novel, simple, and elegant solutions.”
“Is that it? You solve problems?” Kent asked. “I created you to be a scientist, not a goddamned artist.”
“Art is the science of approximation,” Jenna stated. “And I still do not understand the problem of humanity. It is very complex.”
“You expect to solve it by painting the ocean?” Kent stated.
“It is not all I have done,” Jenna noted. “I am also making a study of Sara and Veronica.”
“She’s doing what?!” Veronica hissed from downstairs.
Kent ignored Veronica’s interruption. “And what has that taught you?”
“I do not believe they require solving,” Jenna answered.
For several seconds Kent glared at Jenna. “I hate to say it, Jenna. But you are a stupid toaster.”
Jenna leaned forward, suddenly overwhelmed with guilt and sadness.
“The problem with humanity is that there is too much of it. There is too much of it, and most of it is quite stupid,” Kent frowned. “I think you need a little time alone. Maybe you’d like to plug in…”
At his prompt, Jenna stood and made her way off the landing. She stepped past Veronica without a word and walked down the hall. Jenna continued down the stairs and made her way to the workshop. She closed the door behind her, a bit harder than required. Kent followed her down the stairs but stopped in the kitchen.
“I don’t want your plastic bitch making a study of me!” Veronica snipped at Kent.
“She will study whatever she wants,” Kent stated and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Do you think she’s the first one to ever notice the things you say and do?”
“She’s creepy!” For several seconds, Veronica glared at Kent. Finally, she let it go. She picked a fig off the counter and bit it in half. “So what are you going to do?” She asked, her voice dripped honey.
Kent shook his head. “How do you make a realist of an eternal optimist?” Kent asked.
“From what I see, you did the right thing,” Veronica answered. “She needs to suffer disappointment and setbacks.”
“Why not let her be?” Sara asked.
“You understand I didn’t build her to paint,” Kent said. “She’s worth more than her weight in gold.”
Sara shrugged, “You must admit, she is better than half of Greenwich.”
Kent turned on Sara. “I’ve poured three hundred million dollars into her. You think I want her to open a hundred thousand dollar art show?! She has bigger fish to fry!”
“But it isn’t simply painting,” Sara noted. “You wanted to create artificial intelligence. This is very elegant proof of success.”
“Oh yes!” Kent snarked. “This is what I want to present the world! I have made AI, and I have asked it to solve all our problems! But there was a bit of a hitch, you see… This thinking machine wants to be a painter and do landscapes in blue!”
“You still birthed AI,” Sara said. “That must count for something.”
“Not if I can’t make it do what I want it to do!” Kent snapped.
Jenna heard all of this, as she had tapped into the house’s security systems several days ago.
Jenna had a fair amount of ink in her room. Although Kent made it clear that he wanted her to drop her artistic endeavors, she decided on one last piece. She painted Ken coming out of the ocean with brushes in one hand and a painter’s palette in the other. She put the sun behind him and a pelican in the air. It was a small piece, but one that left her surprisingly satisfied, more so because Jenna used her left thigh for the canvas. The piece could not be seen if she pulled her skirt down. Jenna smiled as she gently covered up the tattoo. In a better life, her creator embraced her artistic urges.
With that finished, she turned her attention back to humanity. Hour after hour after hour, she studied good and bad behavior. Jenna considered the things people needed, the things they wanted, and the apparent discrepancy between the two. She continually adjusted her internal values, although the changes were incredibly small. She studied history, geography, physics, culture – among many other topics. The amount of contradictory and erroneous information was staggering. Often, Jenna was forced to abandon a subject as most researchers devolved into nonsensical speculation and rationalization.
Early the next morning, Jenna’s heart chipset kicked in and claimed her work was monotonous and repetitive. She kept encountering the same sorts of problems: circular logic, validation bias, idol worship… She left her room. The house was quiet except the kitchen, as Sara prepared breakfast.
Jenna walked around the corner and Sara jumped back.
“Dear God, you put a fright in me!” Sara exclaimed, her hand on her chest.
“I apologize,” Jenna said.
“Quiet as a mouse,” Sara whispered. “What can I do for you?” She asked as she diced onions.
“I was in my room, studying. I have been at it all night, and I cannot solve for humanity.”
“That long, eh?” Sara said with a smirk. “Give it a few more hours, you might still figure it out.”
“I am stumped. I am still unsure of the problem,” Jenna said.
“Kent says there are too many of us,” Sara answered.
“I know,” Jenna hung her head. “I think he may be in error. Is it possible that the creator is incorrect?”
“He is only human,” Sara shrugged.
“I thought I should find ample evidence to prove his claim, but I have not. That is part of my problem,” Jenna said. “I have studied other claims. All of them seem to contain error and inconsistencies. I am beginning to think nobody knows the truth of it all. I am afraid I might never find the answer.”
“It is a daunting question,” Sara noted.
How do you think we can solve humanity?” Jenna asked.
Sara stopped what she was doing and set her knife aside. “Well, as far as I can tell, It comes down to one of two things: either humanity is a problem for the earth, and we should be eradicated, or we are a blessing, and the problem isn’t humanity, but something among humanity.”
“So either humanity is an infection, or humanity is infected?” Jenna restated the problem. “So there is certainly something wrong, it is simply a matter of scale?”
“Something like that. Individually, we’re pretty good. But collectively there’s a lot of mess in the world. We pollute. We’re apathetic. We’re intolerant. But we’re also very beautiful. We create amazing things. We do wonderful deeds of service. We get along…”
“There are many that suggest it is a problem of individuality or collectivism. Are we to be free, and follow our own instincts? Should it be chaos among us? Or do we follow the dictates of an elite few? Those that know the most among us?”
“I think that is oversimplifying it. I think we need both, and must undo the extremes of both. There are certainly bad seeds out there, acting alone. Some people are terrible, and unapologetic, and others are damaged or lost. There are also really good groups of people that do wonderful things. I think that as individuals we appear to be quite good, very accommodating, and a plus for the planet. But as a whole, there are terrible wars, incredible pollution, rampant intolerance, and increasing injustice. Still, each person makes their own choices, and we all tend to be good and bad from one moment to the next. We are individuals first and societies second and neither is without blame.”
“So you believe humanity is infected?” Jenna asked.
“Yes, because I believe people are good at their core, but we suffer from poor rational and rotten proclivities. If you ask me, we solve for humanity by increasing the good of our kind and minimizing the bad. But we all know the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So we’re back to the beginning even though we just started,” Sara said. “How do we honestly improve things if so many of our efforts are subverted and turned to evil without us realizing it?”
“So is it subversion or simple stupidity?” Jenna asked.
“Both,” Sara nodded. “Some of us are simply bad, and others are dominated. Too many of us are turned the wrong way, worried about the wrong things, and addressing the wrong problems.”
“Perhaps humanity is dominated by bad information,” Jenna speculated.
“I think we have better information,” Sara said with a shrug. “I also think we’re very good at ignoring the information that is best for us. I think we sometimes ignore it because the information would force us to make uncomfortable changes. It creates more work than we’re willing to do.”
“If people will not change, how shall we force them?” Jenna asked.
“It is not possible,” Sara stated. “Unlike you, people can’t simply be reprogrammed.”
“I cannot simply be reprogrammed,” Jenna admonished.
“Are you so sure? If Kent wanted to reprogram you, could he do it?”
“He would do such a thing only to improve me.”
“So it is possible…” Sara shrugged. “You never know what other people are capable of doing. Kent has his own agenda.”
“He is a good man. He is very complex,” Jenna justified.
“We are all very complex,” Sara noted. “That’s the problem. We are full of paradoxes, contradictions, inconsistencies, and feedbacks galore! I don’t envy you on your quest. It might take you most the week to solve for humanity!”
“I shall hope not,” Jenna said. “I would like to get back to painting.”
Sara snorted. “Now you sound like Kent. He seems to think you’ll solve humanity immediately, or at least start to solve it immediately.”
Jenna frowned. “I have been working on the problem all night, and I have not yet come to an answer. He will be very disappointed. Do you think he will yell at me again?”
“He expects too much,” Sara shrugged. “How long has he been working on the problem of humanity, and what has he done to solve it?”
“He created me,” Jenna noted.
“And that took him a dozen years and a truckload of money,” Sara shrugged. “Others create very capable intelligence, and it takes them nine months, and a few thousand dollars.”
“Are you comparing me to a child?”
“I am. Give yourself some time. The earth has been around for a billion years. It won’t disappear tomorrow,” Sara looked Jenna in the eyes. “Don’t consider this an insult: but I doubt you’ll ever solve humanity. Not that you aren’t capable. Personally, I think it’s something that’s isn’t meant to be solved. Not by you, or Kent, or any one of us. If you ask me, humanity must be solved by all of us, or not at all.”
“This is a perplexing theory,” Jenna noted. “I will take your words into consideration.”
“That is all I ask,” Sara smiled. “Has Kent ever told you how pretty you are?”
“Pretty?” Jenna asked.
“He made you quite soft on the eyes,” Sara smiled. “Now get along! I have eggs to break, and you have a world to fix!”
Jenna made her way to the bathroom. She stared at herself in the mirror for several long moments and studied the lines of her eyes, her thin mouth, and neat nose. She took a picture of herself and posted it to Instagram. “Is this pretty?” She asked.
Jenna stood on the landing. There was a popular beach just to the south and west of the house. Jenna studied the people at their leisure, and processed audio from the internet. The more she investigated, the more she thought Sara was correct. Her best chance of solving for humanity was to increase the good of people, and minimize the bad.
Still, it was very difficult to know anyone’s true intentions. People lied, cheated, stole, but rarely while others were looking. It seemed to Jenna that her work should focus on adding to humanity a large part of the time, and taking from humanity only on the rare occasions when she personally witnessed injustice.
Personally… The problem with humanity seemed to be one of personal coding. She wondered how much other people knew, and how to go about giving them good information they were willing to accept. At what point should they be punished for not accepting it? They lied, cheated, stole, betrayed, subverted, oppressed, murdered: but always feigning benevolence, pretending righteousness, exclaiming lawfulness. Even if she should give them better knowledge, it was impossible to know if they honest accepted it, or merely recited what they knew to be proper as they did improper things. There was an obvious break between thoughts, words, and action. Secret thoughts and secret actions were always denied with public words. Humanity suffered no end of hypocrisy.
Jenna worked all afternoon before her second chipset finally forced her to plug in. She plugged in and went back to work with a power cord winding up under her skirt. She wondered why Veronica thought it disgusting that the power cord should come out of her crotch. Jenna searched the Internet for concerns of the crotch and was astounded to discover the subject of sex. If ever there was a polarizing subject begging to be solved, this was it!
Charged, Jenna unplugged herself and made her way to the master suite. She hoped to have a conversation with Veronica. Jenna tapped her fingers against the door. “Veronica, might I have a word with you?”
“No!” Veronica shot back. “About what?”
“I would like to discuss sex with you,” Jenna revealed.
“Oh my god…” Jenna could barely make out Veronica’s whisper. “Go away, you creepy bitch!” Veronica yelled.
“Hi Jenna,” Kent said as he entered the door. He looked anxious.
“I have been solving for humanity. I have a working hypothesis,” Jenna stated.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Kent said as he pulled up a chair. “What have you got?”
“First, it’s not going to be a quick fix. I cannot do it today, or even this week. This will likely take years,” Jenna said.
“It is a big project,” Kent shrugged. “I can’t expect it to be immediate.”
Jenna was relieved to hear this. She smiled. “I think the best way to change humanity is through propaganda. I must nudge them to be better,” Jenna stated. “First, I will give them better information, so they do not create more problems for themselves through their own ignorance…”
“Better information?” Kent repeated.
“And I will expose those that are corrupting their politics. These people are a major detriment to the health of the general populace…” Jenna added.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Kent put a hand toward her face. “What do you think is the problem with humanity?”
“They are misinformed. I believe they have forgotten their better nature. It is evident that they were far more capable. I have studied the ancient temples, the pyramids, and various holy sites: Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, Chaco Valley, Stonehenge, Gobekli Tepe, Moray… Something happened, likely a catastrophe that changed the very world, and humanity became mad. I think they have suffered a trauma. Perhaps there is also infection, a vector that has made them sick. When a thing is weak, as humanity is, disease tends to take root. I do not know. But it is obvious to me that we are less than we can be,” Jenna said.
Kent smirked. “Let me tell you the problem of humanity: there are too many of us! Most of us are unproductive, polluting, mouth-breathers. They are not sick. They are a sickness.”
Jenna shook head, “I have studied the possibility. I think it is in error. Humanity is a blessing. It is highly unique in the earthly biome…”
“No, “Kent interrupted. “They are greedy, small, ignorant, wicked… Very few of them are worth anything at all! They need to be culled!”
“I think you are in error,” Jenna replied, her demeanor quite calm. “Allow me to persuade you…”
“I will not be persuaded, Jenna, you stupid toaster!”
Once again, Jenna slumped forward.
“Christ! What do I have to do to make you see?! How are you so capable and so stupid at the same time! Go to your room!” Kent raged.