Mirrors in the Valley

Edited by Julia Rios

December 2017

Rjukan, Norway—Two thousand meters above this technocratic enclave, the whole mountain range gleams. Errol Braithwaite basks in the glow. Since buying the entire Tinn municipality three years ago, he’s built several acres of sun mirrors called Solspiels. His research laboratory also harnesses the frothy waterfall to the west of Rjukan. Want proof that Silicon Valley’s obsolete? This “Cybernetic Valley” softly hums on a self-sufficient energy grid.

Braithwaite has replicated consciousness — and narrowly avoided being charged with a human rights violation at the International Criminal Court. The proceedings gave him the confidence to produce a line of artificially intelligent companions via 3D printer. This is the first interview he’s given since. And it’s to a freelance writer with a byline at an independent press.

“Kali,” he murmurs into the prototype’s ear, “remember when I almost went to prison? This nice woman wants us to tell your story.”

Her smile is as small and mysterious as the rest of her. “Kali is the devourer. She embodies time. Her story has many beginnings.”

Rjukan’s streets are heated to a comfortable 60 degrees, but Braithwaite prefers to be interviewed in his humidified penthouse. Also, he’s hungry. The glass walls of his high-rise laboratory catch and hold the refracted light. It’s like walking into a 10-story torch.

Errol Braithwaite’s lean face and wry smile loom larger than life on animated billboards for Synthalamus Technologies. Posing alongside his caregiving automatons and security units, the CEO shares their clean lines and economy of movement.

This piece runs on the fifth anniversary that Braithwaite received a not-guilty ruling at the International Criminal Court. The charge brought against Braithwaite was that Kali had attained sentience. Therefore, his experimentation on her was tantamount to imprisonment, torture, and sexual slavery.

Watching Kali make dinner, he says, “You come here with righteous fire in your eyes. I’ll make no move to put it out. I responded to your interview request because in your coverage of the trial, you actually asked me what everyone should have. Does the Court’s decision mean that she’s not a person? Has my research led me to silicon slaves? It’s ethical quicksand, and I want to flounder around in it with someone.”

At the age of 30, he had a summer between his post-doc at Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and his defense contract for the Pentagon. He took the opportunity to visit the family estate in Trinidad and Tobago. His mother sent him back with one of the housekeeping units, to fulfill the same functions it had during his childhood: cooking, cleaning, some basic interaction to improve the home life of an isolated bachelor.

“Back in California, I opened the freight. And there was my nanny, Kaliana.” Braithwaite approaches the prototype in his kitchen, and puts his chin on top of her head. “Whoo, you’re making curried duck! You’re why I was fat growing up.”

She replies, “The influence of Indian culture on the island of Trinidad and Tobago extends past the adoption of cuisine staples, such as curries and using flatbreads as edible cutlery. Hindu deities have also been integrated into the culture. Like my name!”

In one photo from a Braithwaite family album, a teenage Errol dismantles a laptop. He’s handing the pieces to a similarly aged Khion Thomas, his longtime collaborator. Serving the boys drinks is a middle-aged woman. Or something like one, with an impassive mask for a face.

In her original incarnation, Kaliana resembled a matron who baked well and sampled her creations often. After stripping this shell off, Khion Thomas designed a new exterior the same nut brown as the first. The skin has pores now. Follicles too. When fitted over the synthetic ligaments and cylinders, Kaliana lost a hundred pounds. Once looking old enough to pass as Braithwaite’s grandmother, she now seems years younger than him.

“If she hadn’t been given to me, Kaliana could have gone to a museum,” Braithwaite says. “The custom processor and the titanium alloy skeleton… that level of quality just isn’t done anymore. Nowadays, it’s all plastic bones and microchips ready to melt after 36 months.”

Khion Thomas declined to be interviewed for this piece. He’s the major shareholder in Solspiel, a senior advisor for Synthalmus, and the proprietor of several components integral to the 3D printer’s design. At Braithwaite’s trial, Thomas was the key witness for the defense.

Braithwaite kisses Kali deeply. Her eyes stay open the whole time, and slide towards the recording equipment on the kitchen table.

He says, “In his testimony, Khion acted like we just updated a housekeeping robot. That she’s not a new incarnation. I owe him my freedom. And I still haven’t forgiven him.”

Since Kali receives intravenous fuel, she has to clear just two dinner plates. Braithwaite presses her against the sink. A few seconds of moving together, and she says brightly, “This is dancing!”

Complicated algorithms cue her every smile, smirk, and scowl. But what really separates her from the civilian ordinance androids Brathwaite developed for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is her spontaneity. She might exclaim at a new blossom on the lily he keeps by the window. Or she might not.

Any question about what she’s feeling is met with bemusement, and a look toward Braithwaite. Or maybe this is deflection.

When a newscaster reports the latest gains in Synthalmus’ stocks, “Why is that man wearing makeup?” Then she stares at the recording equipment again. “Errol, can you ask the lady what kind of makeup does she think I wear?”

In early laboratory recordings, Kali’s stare was unblinking and glassy. The motors in her face used to spasm. Because her jerky stride unsettled the observer, Braithwaite consulted a physical therapist.

“Kaliana was clearly a machine,” he says. “But for her first eighteen months as Kali, she lingered in the heart of the uncanny valley. Like some animatronic puppet. Or a well-embalmed corpse. Looked too realistic to be a doll, but the movements unnatural.”

While drying the plates, the prototype says, “In Trinidad as well as India, festivals are held for Kali. She’s one aspect of Shiva’s consort Parvati. A traditional depiction of this black-skinned goddess shows her holding a sword, a trident, a severed head, and a skull cap to catch the drippings. She wears a skirt made from the arms of the hundred demons she slayed, and a necklace of their skulls.”

The R.Plica resembles a microwave roomy enough for a person. The Synthalmus laboratory, a few floors beneath the penthouse, has 20 of these 3D printers running in sync.

And the custom-built Blu.Print can only be described as an electronic sarcophagus. It feeds instructions to R.Plicas, based on MRI scans and genetic mapping. Kali, lying on a table nearby, has a translucent sheet draped over her. It just emphasizes her nakedness.

“What’s your favorite story of the goddess?” Braithwaite asks her.

“Hmm…” Kali laughs. “Where she’s standing on Shiva’s chest, while he lies down. Her right foot is forward, because she’s going down the path of goodness and virtue — instead of following the left-handed path, because transgression lies there.”

Braithwaite takes her hand, and she squeezes back.

Braithwaite keeps his fingers intertwined with hers as the gurney drifts toward the Blu.Print. “I never power her down. Every time you shut off an intelligence of her caliber and complexity, you’re essentially extinguishing an existence. The being you encounter upon reboot is another individual. Same capacity, same programming. But continuity of experience is an integral part of personality.”

This comes almost word for word from an entry from his lecture series. Each segment lasts about an hour, accompanied by schematics and a hundred pages of code. His theories and progress, disseminated on open access sites, have been translated into twenty languages. These lectures were the most damning evidence against him.

“My defense claimed that we can only project humanity onto Kali,” he says. “But even if how we perceive her comes down to the mirror neurons in our own parietal lobes, we must concede this: she’s sufficiently polished to facilitate this reflection, and gain our empathy. Her origin notwithstanding, Kali’s intelligence is real.”

Each 3D printer has clear walls, revealing needles that weave stem cells. The mesh frame inside structures the material’s growth, then provides energy for fast-forwarded cell division. Every few hours, the culture outgrows its petri dish. Mechanic arms gently transfer the material to bigger containers.

Her mouth stirs under the translucent sheet. “Kali’s fierceness is only matched by her kindness. She’s the divine protector, the eternal mother. She distributes moksha: liberation.” She pulls her hand free from Braithwaite’s, and puts a finger to her covered lips in a shushing motion.

He closes the lid of the Blu.Print. “Those cowards at the court should have charged me.”

As he explained in one recent lecture, the MRI of the device can only scan a robot by flaying the organic material off its titanium frame.

“We don’t find the statue of the Buddha disturbing, like we do a robot,” Braithwaite says. “For the devout, these beings embody the divine. Kali has escaped the uncanny valley — by transcending it.”

Soft rustling comes from every R.Plica. Braithwaite points at a nearby 3D printer. An index finger, suspended in fluid, is flexing back at him.

© 2017 Kendra Sims

About the author

Kendra Sims

Kendra Sims pursues a PhD in Epidemiology, in order to craft data-driven narratives. When the realities of research don’t satisfy her musings on race, mental health, and disability, she turns to fiction. Cross her palm with a cup of tea, and she just might read your Tarot cards.