When I was young and a good listener, a man told me he had lost his soul.
We sat on a strip of flattened grass outside the gas station I’d cranked my junker car into. I was waiting for a tow truck, which wasn’t going to get to this rural place for an hour or more. The man, somewhere in his mid-twenties, had come out to sit with me. He wore blue mechanic’s overalls, oil graying them here and there, and had the sort of dark-mooned fingernails that will never quite come clean. He had a child’s snub nose and soft features, a baby face, with worn cheeks and a tight, dented jaw.
“I lost my soul,” he told me twice, or maybe the second time he said I’ve. As he said this, he looked down toward his knees. It wasn’t a look of shame exactly, but a look of thought.
I sat cross-legged at the edge of the grass, pointlessly trying to push the dirt off my jeans. After sitting down next to me, the man had offered me a Camel and asked how I was doing, not in a hitting-on-me way; he reeked of exhaustion. I’m not sure how the rest of our conversation started, except that the direction of it came from him. He mentioned Vietnam, and I must have asked him in some way what it was like.
Then he told me, “I lost my soul,” his body bunched up into itself.
A few years before I met this man, I worked in a typing pool, in a financial firm in lower Manhattan. I made a close friend, Maria, who lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. This was the early 1970s, and Williamsburg was still poor. Her apartment stood at the edge of a large Hasidic enclave, but outside of the Hasidim, Williamsburg had mostly immigrants and addicts. This mash-up led to sights like a black-suited Hasid, a junkie with pierced arms, and a woman in a head scarf muttering Slavic all following each other, as if each wanted to tap the one in front on the shoulder.
Maria’s mother had immigrated here from Poland. Nobody in her family talked about a father. The Wozniaks paid their bills erratically and lived without heat most of the time. They heated the apartment by keeping the oven cranked up with its door open. The household consisted of Maria, a sister I forget the name of, and the mother. The family language, and the mother’s only one, was Polish. A three-year-old boy named Kenny also lived there, so the open oven door was a risky operation. Most of the times I visited, someone—usually the mother—chased a blur of Kenny through the apartment to keep him away from it.
Or keep the clothes on him that little Kenny constantly stripped off. The sisters called his nakedness being in Paradise. They yelled Kenny’s in Paradise! all the time to each other, to their mother. They rarely did anything about it themselves. Even in that small apartment the sisters left most of Kenny’s care to their mother. She was always some mixture of resigned and highly irritated, yelling in Polish, chasing Kenny, adjusting the oven door back and forth—a small woman of roundnesses caught in the middle by a tight apron.
Kenny’s mother was Maria’s third sister, Jean, who’d been murdered by her husband, who was a cop. He justified shooting her with the excuse that he was cleaning his gun. It went off accidentally, he said, and shot her in the head. Nothing ever happened to him, though he’d been threatening before her death to kill her. The precinct investigation exonerated him.
In spite of Jean’s death, the two remaining sisters (in spite of? because of? who can understand these things?) dated only cops. (I call them cops because that’s the word we used then.) When I knew her, Maria didn’t have a steady blue boyfriend but at any given time dated at least one cop. When we rode the L train or walked around Brooklyn, any appearance of a cop drew her away so quickly I often kept talking until I realized I was talking to air. For all the time I spent with Maria and her family, I only recall one Polish phrase, pronounced something like patowy mi dupa, meaning kiss my ass.
“If he doesn’t call, he can patowy mi dupa,” Maria said of her cops.
Maria had long blond hair, was slender, and had a pretty face that in its taut cheeks and carved-in nose had a touch of something rough about it, something Dickens called a touch of the nutmeg-grater. You could tell it would develop as she grew older—it called up a younger version of her mother. The grater I imagine being grief, unpaid bills, boredom with her life, and trying to keep such a contraption of a household together. Maria had a way of acting exaggeratedly upbeat, fast walk with chopping arms and a barrage of random conversation—about cops and what you could buy at those huge Duane Reade drugstores and sloe gin fizzes and the many who should be patowy-ing. It felt like she looked through some window at happy people and jerkily tried to do what they did.
I worked in the typing pool at eighteen, three years after dropping out of high school. The pool consisted of an enormous room with desks close together, populated by clacking women. The typing was of forms—secretaries had a much higher rank than we did and typed letters—and the forms were so foreign, so dull, and so full of numbers that I can’t say anymore what they were. Whatever, it was the era of Selectric typewriters, carbon paper for copies, and Wite-Out that smelled like something you’d huff in a high-school bathroom.
With all the random numbers, and pressure not to mess up, and Wite-Out required not just on the form but also on the carbon duplicates, this typing was a miserable labor. We had an hour for lunch and two fifteen-minute breaks in an eight-hour day. These were supposed to accommodate all personal business, including toilet runs.
We made minimum wage, $1.60 an hour. That equals $8.70 in today’s money. New York City operated in near-bankruptcy then—nobody felt they had the right to ask for anything. Like many people who shared jobs that are a bore and a burden, we typists got close and had a bond that seems hard to believe, looking back. We talked about everything in those breaks and lunches. We called ourselves girls and even now, that word seems accurate, so I’ll stick to it.
A girl named Iris narrated to us every day at lunch where she and her boyfriend had had sex the night before: sex on somebody else’s sofa, sex in one of New Jersey’s many little parks, oral sex on the train, anal sex behind a bush in a backyard.
“I love anal,” she said. “Kent loves anal.”
“Don’t you hand over your paychecks,” a woman named Millie told us every day, which was good advice, as many girls did. Many also tolerated being hit. One day an Italian-American girl, beautiful with long black hair, told us her boyfriend had thrown a chair at her the night before, barely missing her face. When she said he just loves me too much it came out proudly.
A woman who came from Colombia, Carmen, dyed her hair so it looked like a fluff of red cotton candy. She was in her thirties. She told us how on her trips home she smuggled back cocaine. “I just put it inside a Kotex,” she said. “Nobody looks.”
It seems hard to believe, now, that you’d share with people you don’t know that well not only when and where and how you had sex, but also your techniques and time frames for smuggling drugs. Carmen made multiple trips to Colombia while I knew her. Any of us could have busted her; there would probably have been rewards.
We listened. Other than Millie, who had acquired the status to do this, we never offered advice. I wouldn’t have thought to. Or to repeat anything I heard.
Maria and I, being friends outside of work, didn’t always keep up that conversational intensity. We could spend evenings talking about stuff like the cheap stores on Canal Street, Barbra Streisand, cops in various precincts. The exception to the lighter conversations was Maria’s sister Jean. Maria talked about her constantly, not the death so much as things Jean said, how she looked in a certain skirt, how she liked rum and Coke, not sloe gin fizzes. Cops she dated before she met the husband who shot her. This presentness made it feel like Jean had just wandered out of the apartment for a while and was probably on the subway coming home.
I wonder now what little Kenny knew about his mother’s death, if he’d been old enough at the time of the murder to realize she was gone. I expect for that, children are born old enough. I wonder too if his sisters and grandmother told him a story about it. You would have to retell and retell.
Back then I never thought to ask things like these about Kenny. I was young, self-centered. And I accepted the world as it was handed to me. We had one murder and one near-murder in my old druggie group, for reasons I don’t recall and may not have known. Many men in my family talked about hitting women. My father did not hit my mother, and was opposed in general, but didn’t balk when he heard about it. Once at a holiday gathering my cousin Carlo said he’d hit his wife for not changing the channel fast enough. I think he was just bragging.
One of my friends before the typing pool was a narcotics detective who sold the merchandise he busted from other users and dealers. He checked it into the evidence locker and then snuck it out. One morning someone shot up the rear window of his car. I saw the car not long after it happened. Bullet holes in glass look like cracking holes made with a very insistent pointer finger.
I could categorize violence—regular, rare, someone’s necessity—but I did not question. I did not consider endpoints.
I’ve never forgotten the whole sticky mass of that time—typing pool, Maria, Kenny, mechanic—but until a few days ago I hadn’t recalled it much either. I don’t remember with much clarity that version of myself, the porous one who took in and never questioned. Then one day my husband, Bruce, and I were lurching around in yet another ailing car, and Bruce said, remember how gas stations once had mechanics, dammit, for a time like this? And there my mechanic was, full on: confessing, then heading off to sink his hands into pistons and gears. There were Maria, Kenny, the typing pool, the telling, everything.
The image I couldn’t shake, though, was little Kenny barreling toward me, naked, looping blond curls in his eyes. He didn’t run to me or run to anything, just launched himself from one end of the small apartment to the other. He raced, stripped down, against the space he was in. It was a race I believe my mechanic had run too.
Kenny nestled in with another child in my head, one who lives in an image stored in my computer. This infant floats in a gray fog with legs curled up, one arm resting on a knee, the other held out in a papal gesture. CyberChild has a pointy head and ears, and surprising pencil-eraser nipples. The designer or engineer of CyberChild messed up when doing the cheeks—they look middle-aged, jowly, one side pouchier than the other. Otherwise, he’s clearly baby. He has articulated joints like a doll’s, which is odd, as you make a doll with articulated joints so you can move its limbs around, and CyberChild is a computer simulation. Presumably you can move him any way you want. His digestive organs show, even through his diaper.
CyberChild is an experiment in consciousness and starvation. He has a basic, Artificial Intelligence–driven neural network with crude ganglia and the senses of sound and touch. He feels—if we can use this word—hunger and discomfort. In order to get his simulated milk, which comes in a bottle the baby can raise to his mouth, or to get his diaper changed (he pees), CyberChild must do the computer equivalent of whimpering.
CyberChild’s programming is incredibly complex, but the outcomes are simple. CyberChild has to work his neural nets to become sentient enough to whimper his needs. He has to acquire “novel reflexes,” reflexes not in his initial programming. He must become at least slightly conscious. If he can’t cry and get his milk and maintain his simulated blood glucose level, he dies.
An AI researcher named Rodney Cotterill created CyberChild. People in the sciences worried about this experiment when Cotterill shared it. No one feared an infant Terminator, a computer simulation growing malevolently smart. They feared the opposite, worrying that CyberChild’s low-level consciousness, if it came, could turn on him. That he could suffer, maybe was suffering. The listening for CyberChild’s cries was an implicated listening.
In Vietnam, the mechanic who’d lost his soul said he’d piloted an attack helicopter and kept flying it lower and lower because he wanted to watch the faces of men as he killed them. He would kill American soldiers if he could, excusing it as friendly fire. His need was not related to enemies or difference. It was just that: faces, death. This is what he said, as he sat with his cigarette, talking and not dragging on it for a while. He had watched those faces go in all their individuality. He didn’t have to say this.
I was shocked by his words, but in a weird way, not surprised. It was like I had come across something terrible in the world and felt I should have known about it already.
“I got to where my helicopter was practically on the ground,” he said. When he said I lost my soul it was the opposite of the way Maria talked about her sister. His soul had left the apartment and would never again step onto that subway home.
“When I got back,” he said, “all I could do was play Elvis Presley’s gospel records.” He said this over and over: how beautiful Elvis Presley’s gospel singing was, how he just put a record on, and when it ended, he picked up the needle and started it again. If the gospel music meant he had found God, that didn’t come across, only a sense of dulling repetition. It occurred to me he might still want to cause dying so he could watch people’s faces and Elvis might be his way around that. I couldn’t tell. I only know for certain he didn’t want to hurt me. His voice took on an Elvis-y quality when he talked about this music: a lower tone and a sh sound to his s’s.
As he went on, he watched my face a little more. He didn’t seem to want to shock me but just see his words absorb into someone else. Someone who couldn’t be harmed by them, as if he were shooting me with weakened little pain-arrows.
I know it would be hard to convince even someone who knows me, much less you out there, that I knew he wasn’t lying. But he wasn’t lying. When my tow truck came, the man with the young face stood up and brushed his rear to get the dirt and grass off the loose blue uniform. Then he said goodbye and disappeared into the shop.
I’m sure this man’s confession had something to do with the fact that he didn’t know me—I was a recorder that would essentially be erased. I would not ask him questions, like who else might have been in that helicopter, probably a pilot, maybe another gunner. I gave him freedom to speak, the way we in the typing pool gave that freedom to each other. And as with that group, part of this was proximity. Part of it I think was his intuition that I might hurt for him in his soul-loss but would not go further, suggest anything he could or should do about it.
One of the people most concerned about CyberChild was a man named Anders Sandberg, who works out of the Future of Humanity Institute at University of Oxford. Sandberg has many concerns about virtual life. He describes himself as haunted when he turns off his computer at the end of the day, at the thought that he may have committed murder, killed some real running thing in there.
And CyberChild? The infant floating in its gray amnio needs food, can cry and flail its arms. It dies. It is intended to be conscious. But a conscious CyberChild would have, as Sandberg puts it, an “impoverished existence.” Reaching for its simulated milk, crying for a diaper change, as a full one causes it virtual discomfort. Capable of doing this forever. A repetitive life that leaves far behind the boredom of my typing pool.
CyberChild fails as an AI experiment if he doesn’t live. If he does live, that papal arm reaches out in accusation. How do you slice open its circuitry to make it a better CyberChild? How do you turn it off? Sandberg never considers the other option—that a life of simplicity and needs you can get met and met and met may be the happiest life.
Sandberg wants to invent virtual painkillers for programs that may be conscious, though he adds that these “virtual analgesics” could only address the pain researchers know through their understanding of their own work. Novel systems might have novel suffering. Sandberg notes a possible out to this dilemma coming from philosopher Daniel Dennett: the premise that as we can’t define pain, we can’t identify it and won’t need to react. If we come to define it, Dennett warns, we will have to change.
Before the last few days, as I said, Maria and my typing pool friends and the mechanic have not had much of a place in my consciousness. You could say I’d unplugged them. And I’ve never tried to recover these people from my earlier life, no googling, no Facebook searches. A lot of the girls would be the kind to embrace Facebook—post their wedding photos, babies, new haircuts. I never learned the name of that mechanic, so I couldn’t search for him. Kenny has an unusual enough name to be findable. But I don’t want to turn him into a CyberChild.
It’s too easy to say about these stories that humans give their empathy dollars to strange merchants: little to actual violence or war, but lots to a computer simulation. It’s not that simple. Possibly CyberChild is an atomic particle of empathy—a tiny concern in itself, but a necessary building block for more. I don’t know how to explain who I was then. Dennett’s premise about undefined pain being no pain may have been the premise of my life.
New information about the CyberChild experiment ends in the early 2000s. Probably it failed and stopped, whatever that would mean for a child who exists in code. Perhaps CyberChild lies neglected in an old hard drive. Or perhaps Sandberg’s logic prevailed and it’s still out there: milk diaper milk diaper milk diaper.