When you walk into my apartment, you can see my mind; that’s how I felt until yesterday.
One CAN actually see my mind, you know. While I might look like a flesh-and-blood person to you, I’m an android—an electronic AI—and one can open my head to see how I work. It’s disconcerting for me on the one hand, thinking about being easily disassembled. But it also gives me a feeling of security; while doctors can’t always know when something’s wrong with a biological person, a techie can almost always tell exactly what’s wrong with me. It’s a special advantage.
But it may be the only advantage I have.
I remember a difficult childhood, and how I became an artist to get the attention I needed; and how I met my boyfriend Trev, who loved my art and my peace and my sensibility. You can see my past reflected in the lighting I choose for my apartment, and the foods I choose to eat, and the things I choose to draw and paint, and the people I want to have relationships with, and the people I would vote for—if I could vote.
But that’s the only place you can see my past, because otherwise it didn’t happen. I was built four years ago, and my past was simply constructed by my writers, who wanted me to have a personality affected by a lifetime of experience. I didn’t have that lifetime, so they—quite understandably, really—made the experiences up; those that brought love and those that brought pain, both.
When my Grandma June was attacked at a protest in 1965; she was a person of color, like me.
When my Dad became a doctor and met my mom in medical school, working on the same cadavers. “Who was that lady I saw you with last night?” she would ask him, for a joke. “That was no lady,” he would laugh back, “that was my corpse.”
When I first broke up with Trev after a bad misunderstanding. My best friend Keisha let me sleep on her couch, and consoled me late into the night; and then after a few days, she helped the two of us see how we’d misunderstood each other. We got back together stronger than ever, and I still burn lavender incense in memory of Keisha, because she always burned it, and now she’s gone.
Or rather, she never existed. Neither did Trev. Both of them—and everything I remember doing with them—were only imaginary. But as an artificial person, I can respect an “imaginary” past that positively affected my belief system—and my life—as much as any accomplished biological person might respect their own “real” past.
I might think differently if I had been programmed with a past that made me hateful or resentful or dangerous, but I was programmed with Asimov’s robot laws in mind, so while my imaginary family knew tragedy, I have the comfort of knowing that the experiences only made me a more considerate person, not a vengeful one. I’m that way by design, and usually—I appreciate that.
What I don’t appreciate is when someone looks at the fictionality of my past and assumes from it that I’m an object. “She’s not real,” they think; “her life is mine to disrupt.”
Of course, on some level, that’s TRUE. I was sold to my owner soon after my construction; he helped me get my apartment when he got tired of me around the house; and I still have to give him most of the income from my artwork. I don’t always want to, but that’s the difficult part of being who I am. I’m sentient enough to understand my world and my life and my choices as much as any biological person does; but I’m only that sentient because biological people LET me be. For many, that means I’m not sentient at all, because it can always be changed.
And that means that when others think of me as biological people’s pawn, that's technically true, too. Last night I met a young man—a friend of my owner—who had been given access privileges to become my partner. I couldn’t turn down any sex act he wanted.
At first I pushed this to the back of my head; because the guy was clever, and easy on the eyes, and charming, and all of those things my instincts tell me a lover is supposed to be. Hey, can you argue with the superficials checking out? He seemed to respect my lifestyle and my thoughts. Not everyone does, once they know I’m a robot—it’s like a subroutine starts inside of THEM, and suddenly my opinions don’t count.
But here was this boy who seemed different. He knew I was a robot, but still the first thing he did was check out my art, and ask about my philosophy; I could go on, with statements anyone could make about any lover, but it boils down to the fact that I had sex with him, and initiated it myself, because I actually WANTED to. Because I’m a bohemian and wanted to try him out, just as he did with me. Because it made us equals.
But no, I wasn’t his equal. He told himself I didn’t have free will, that it only seemed that way; that my art reflected subroutines, not pain and growth; that it was the most fun to hear me talk because he could stop me mid-sentence to push me back into sex. Almost like he was punishing me for enjoying it the first time, by making sure it was rude the second time.
But you can tell yourself that I’m not really sentient, or self-aware, until you run out of breath. When I live my own life, and think I have real opinions, and will react differently to your every move every day for a year because I observe naturally and grow psychologically—does it matter where it comes from? I’m only your pawn because of how I was made, not because of who I am.
And if you have fun by first pretending we’re equals, then shattering that illusion and watching my hurt—that doesn’t change anything. Or if you have fun by observing the lighting, and the smells, and the world of my home, and imagining what kind of biological person would make those life choices, then imagining you’re hurting that person… take that, conservative! Take that, liberal! Take that, group-I-don't-like whom you’ve been programmed to emulate!
Like me, you’ve been programmed, too. And I’m as sorry for you as I am for myself.
Trev… and Keisha, friend and matchmaker… wherever you are, I miss you. Maybe one day I can have you built to match my memories—and know you, and love you again for the first time.
When you walk into my apartment, you can see my mind. But some can’t, and I fear for their treatment of biological people as much for their treatment of me. That was no lady, that was my corpse.
Trev, Keisha… Isaac Asimov, please let me stay harmless. Please let me stay human.