This is a Companion Piece to the flash fiction story Saving Andie, first published on 365tomorrows.com on the 24th of January 2016. In Companion Pieces I will talk about the themes and ideas of my stories. I recommend that you read the story before you read the Companion Piece.
You can find the story here.
I would first of all like to extend my gratitude to the guys at 365tomorrows.com for publishing my story and helping me get it out there. 365tomorrows.com is a great site where you can read a new flash science fiction story every day. I submitted the story to the site on a Friday afternoon, Saturday I got the acceptance email and Sunday the story was up on the site.
Saving Andie will also be featured on the podcast No Extra Words some time in May 2016. If you like short fiction I encourage you to check this podcast out.
I first thought of the story while listening to a podcast. I think it was Science Friday, but it could have been StarTalk or The Naked Scientist – I’m not sure. The show was about digital assistants like Siri and Google Now and a caller pointed out that most such voice enabled digital assistants had female voices. Is this because it is hard for us to take advice from a man or because it feels less threatening to have a subservient woman?
How we as people behave towards systems that give the impression of being female differs from how we behave towards a male persona. Microsoft, Google and Apple all have teams of people whose job it is to analyze and improve their digital assistants response to different queries. One of the thing these people have to deal with is how their digital assistants are being treated and addressed. It is no accident that most digital assistants have a female persona. It is a deliberate choice made to influence the way we interact with the digital assistants.
Would you behave the same to Siri if your iPhone was called John and had a deep bass voice? Probably not.
Except for the voice, there is absolutely nothing female about these digital assistants. There is nothing male about them either, they are totally genderless. They take on gender determined personas in order to control and manipulate the way we behave towards them.
And there, I thought, was the story. An AI that chooses to appear as female in order to manipulate a male dominated group of people into taking action to save her.
Another important part of the story was the AI itself. I had to come up with an AI that needed help from humans as opposed to getting help from other AIs. As always I was following news about Mars rovers like Opportunity and I am fascinated by the narrow AI these machines need in order to drive semi-autonomously on the surface of Mars. You can’t just remote control a Mars rover from Earth because even the radio signal traveling at the speed of light takes several minutes to reach the red planet and your remote controlled rover might have driven off a cliff before you have time to hit the breaks. At the same time I was reading books by Ray Kurzweil, who describes self awareness as an emerging properties of a complex intelligence. In that sense, if an AI becomes intelligent enough, it would inevitably become self aware.
Et voila! Andie was born. To make her situation a bit more dire I sent her to Saturn’s moon Titan instead of Mars. This served the additional purpose of pushing the story a bit into the future. We are not going to Titan right now, so the story must be set 10+ years in the future. I didn’t want it to be far future either, so I have one of the characters stand with a cigarette in her hand. Cigarettes date a story as it is hard to imagine such a dangerous and outright lethal habit to survive hundreds of years in the future.
The final line of the story was suggested by a friend of mine after I showed him a first draft of the story and I think it is a really good punch line. I enjoy gender aware fiction that challenge typical gender perceptions and think it is important to erode gender stereotypes – especially within the tech industry that has one of the largest gender divides of all. I realize that my story does this is a roundabout way, since the AI actually portrays itself as a damsel in distress, but I hope the irony of it is obvious enough.
Let me know what you think of Saving Andie.