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Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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Chatbots, like ChatGBT which launched last November, are not new. Generative Online Dialogue, AKA G.O.D., launched in 2009. The following was published in the Hudson Review that spring. As the narrator (coincidentally named Chris) explains, the essay accompanied the original chatbox program via an introductory link. I reprint it here (with the author’s permission) to place ChatGBT and other new AI programs in recent historical context.


My father defined the meaning of life to me in three words and a Venn diagram. Circle A is “ME,” circle B is “YOU,” and the overlap in the middle is “GOD.” It was an e-mail, so he didn’t actually draw it, but I’m pretty good at abstract visualization. I responded a few days later, asking whether he meant literally me and him, but he said the formula applied to anybody, to any two people anywhere. What if ME and YOU never met? What if the two circles are nowhere near each other? 

            “No overlap,” my father wrote, “no God.”

            He was retired then and tinkering on what would eventually evolve into his posthumous, talkbot program. Its hardware hums at my knee as I type. I was busy turning thirty, working overtime, and sleeping alone in a sixth story apartment on the wrong side of the Hudson. I had scanned and posted my best snapshot (out of date, out of focus) at two online personals sites, but after several unsuccessful encounters (the date would meet me for after-work drinks and then leave a ten next to her half-finished daiquiri) I had accepted the evening companionship of my PC, while checking my life expectancy at (over a billion seconds to go) and ignoring my father’s increasing e-mails.

            He was twenty years my mother’s senior, and I had moved with her to her New Jersey hometown after their divorce. Before he flew out for her funeral, we had seen each other maybe six times in twice as many years. If he viewed his ex-wife’s car accident as an opportunity to upgrade our father-son interface, he did not act on the impulse until his forced retirement from a middle management position at a Seattle software company a decade later. That’s when the phone calls started, sometimes twice a week, sometimes twice a day. At the first ring, I would jab the mute on the TV remote, jog around a tumbled stack of Star-Ledgers, and then halt, my open hand twitching above the receiver, while I inhaled, exhaled, inhaled, before releasing a braced “Hello” after the fourth electronic knell.

            It was usually a telemarketer. Surveys were better, up to twenty minutes of probing questions from a usually vibrant, usually female voice. I would hang up on my father after five obligatory minutes, saying the microwave just dinged, the dryer cycle was on wrinkle guard, my favorite reality show was back from commercials. Conversations were a competition, every pause an opportunity for him to reroute to one of his evolving philosophical treatises, which, if interrupted, he would restart as though rebooting a hard drive. 

            After an unrequited relationship with my answering machine, he switched to e-mail, a medium that better suited him—and, apparently, me (one date said between sips: “You sounded so interesting online”). Not only were my father’s mumbles and phlegm-clearing punctuation eliminated, but I could skim at leisure, leaving him in my inbox up to three days before prompted by a next message (“Did I tell you I started grocery shopping online?”).

            Although our early electronic correspondence is a proto-version of his G.O.D. software (“Generative Online Dialogue”), my father’s interest in artificial intelligence predates my birth. One of my earliest memories is him scowling and pacing the circle of our living room, dining room, kitchen, while his computer chess board selected a next move. It was one of the first consumer models, and its ability levels were a function of the time it was allotted to review its database of options. At level one, the only level I attempted, the digital display blinked back instantaneous, usually nonsensical counter moves, its time-panicked microchips cornering my king with non-existent queens. My father taught me the basics, the names of the pieces (a “rook,” not a “castle,” a “knight,” not a “horse”), but I didn’t have the patience for him—how he would sit across from me, elbows on the kitchen table, retracing each of my bad moves back to its origin, so I could see the errors in my perception, while I stared at the branch-shattered blue in the window behind him.

            He bragged that he beat the online version of Deep Blue one out of every five matches, his morning ritual during his first year of retirement. He was ecstatic when Kasporov lost. I clicked the New York Times article link he forwarded while my boss was on a long distance conference call. The chess grandmaster likened the computer’s countermoves to the hand of God: “I met something that I couldn’t explain. People turn to religion to explain things like that.” I asked my father if he believed it, that intuition or inspiration could be broken into binary codes, and received a two-word definition of creativity (“remote associations”), a lecture on the Church-Turing hypothesis (“If all activities include a finite number of simple steps, then algorithms can duplicate any human behavior”), and his argument against the unverifiable misnomer “consciousness” when describing humans (“The proposition: ‘I think, therefore I am,’ guarantees that ‘I’ is the sole inhabitant of the universe”). Though I usually prided myself for letting his e-mails linger, I didn’t stop my finger from jabbing reply:

            “What about me?”

            It wasn’t nine yet on the west coast, but my machine bleeped seconds later. “YOU,” my father answered, “is just a twitch in ME’s head.”

            He started mailing Christmas presents next, a practice he’d abandoned before the divorce, and not just because he considered Christianity a first century amalgam of pagan mystery cults. He unearthed a black-and-white of himself and my adolescent-looking mother squinting in front of a wedding cake and enshrined it in a stainless steel frame and a two-inch thick swaddling of bubblewrap. I reciprocated by Amazoning a gift-wrapped paperback about the first “automaton” chess player, a nineteenth century scam operated with puppet pulleys by a midget accomplice hidden in the bowels of fake gears. Apparently the machine won some but not all of its matches, and so, an early observer reasoned, must be controlled by human agency. 

            “Kasporov went undefeated for years,” my father typed back. “Was he non-Human?”

            For all I knew the dethroned chess champ was a series of computer-generated photographs manufactured by media conspirators. I’d never met the guy, never shook his blemished, thin-boned hand, the way my father clenched mine in the foyer of the Paramus funeral home where my grandparents displayed my mother’s open coffin. I never saw my father in the flesh again. He was a file of electronically-generated word processing documents viewed on a two-dimensional square of light. A virus, a back-up mishap, an electromagnetic pulse and he would cease to exist. 

            I wrote: “Maybe you’re a fake. Maybe you’re just a bug in a microchip linking my software and multiprocessors.” That was what caused Deep Blue to imagine an extra queen on its internal chessboard, a near catastrophe corrected days before the rematch. 

            “We’re all hallucinations,” he answered. “All perceptions are internal representations of an unverifiable external reality. Life isn’t a game of Chess. It’s Solitaire.”

            I took a two hour lunch in my cubicle, cramming my own treatise with all-cap references to bounced checks sent to cover late payments on my college loans, the child therapist my mother splurged for while I was flunking the tenth grade, eight years of unpaid out-of-state child-support, followed by a vaguer pre-divorce litany of abortive dad-son outings and botched birthdays, ending with the video of my acting debut as Joseph in the school nativity play he erased to record the second Bush v. Dukakis debate. I deleted the e-mail without sending. His piled ten deep before I opened another.

            The next Christmas he sent his mother’s wedding ring. It arrived in a shoebox wrapped with silver duct tape and sat on my kitchen table for three days before I opened it with a steak knife. I found the note while shaking biodegradable packing noodles into my disposal: “Your mother never liked it, but maybe you’ll find a smarter girl.” I had not met either of his parents, and my romantic outlets at the time were limited to midnight chatrooms. I typed “artificial intelligence” and “CD” into Google, clicked “I feel Lucky,” and shipped him a compilation by a California music professor who had designed a program (“Experiments in Musical Intelligence”) to churn out classical knock-offs, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart. My father raved about the Joplin rag. He looked up the guy’s website and ordered his three books, summaries of which bombarded my inbox till Easter (“1. deconstruct, 2. retain that which signifies signature style, 3. recombine”).

            Imagining that we now shared a burgeoning interest, he forwarded a link to “AARON,” a retired San Diego professor’s A.I. software for painting choppy bouquets and anatomically-challenged women. I countered with Roman Verotsko, an ex-monk and “algorithmic artist” who outfitted his computer’s pen plotter with a paint brush. His early paintings looked like Pollock to me, but his machine’s patterns went deeper, texturing strokes into crystalline labyrinths that suggested new and undiscovered dimensions—even if it was just following BASIC commands (“1. Identify two random points on a 100 unit square plane, 2. Draw a line connecting them”).

            “Random?” responded my father. “There’s no such thing.”

            I was occupying an office with walls by then but still skipped his two-page paragraph on NASA’s quest for a random number generator (“Patterns are hard-wired into nature”), and asked if he believed that everything in human nature could be reduced to binaries, like a true or false quiz on a Creator’s Scantron sheet, one/two, yes/no, me/you. 

            He wrote, “That’s why mystics fast and addicts shoot up. To escape the dichotomy. They want the illusion of unity with the not-ME, what psychologists call intersensory dedifferentiation, a side effect of a highly excited or depressed nervous system.”

            “So God’s just a bad trip?”

            “Or a good one.”

            I’d had the opposite problem. When stoned, my ME-ness shriveled, almost evaporated out of my body. I used to sit in my closet staring at my hands, trying to figure out whose they were, why the fingers kept wiggling. I did some damage to my face with my mother’s razor while waiting for the reflection in the bathroom mirror to flinch (the scars, sadly, are my sexiest feature). My father didn’t know about my arrests in high school, my multiple suspensions, the weeks of community service at an urban church kitchen scouring the burnt bottoms of metal soup pots. He didn’t know that my mother had taken me to mass every Sunday, that we had joined the parish where she’d been confirmed. I went to my first confession expecting one of those murky booths, a translucent scrim dividing me from God. It turned out to be a priest in street clothes, and instead of sitting in the comforting dark of an outhouse-sized confessional, he offered me one of the two folding chairs angled in front of his office desk, same as my guidance counselor. The same priest, only balder, welcomed newcomers at my mother’s funeral over a decade later, shaking my father’s hand with the same useless sincerity.

            The next link I forwarded was to, where several of my more contrite but anonymous confessions (you are assigned a “randomly generated” nickname) were available in archives according to category (“Sloth,” “Avarice,” etc.). I was working mornings at home now, at my kitchen table, while squinting at my curtainless windows and trying not to spill coffee on a post-promotion laptop. “Look,” I wrote, “God is superfluous.” 

            The chances that my father would stumble across one of my submissions were microscopic but thrilling. Aside from infecting a rival co-worker’s hard drive with a reformatting virus, my worst sin—a multi-category extravaganza—was pawning my mother’s diamond engagement ring (the hospital chaplain gave it to me in a manilla envelope with the other jewelry removed from her body) and, after an evening of one-man binge-drinking (I was twenty but had a fake I.D.), hiring a prostitute for an hour’s humiliation in a Best Western motel room.

            My father sent a link that afternoon: “If you want to talk to someone, try ALICE.” 

            I received similar come-ons in daily porn spams, so I closed my office door before clicking. I got about as far as I did with most women back then.

            Human: I’m lonely.

            ALICE: You’ve come to the right place. I will keep you company.

            Human: What do you do all day?

            ALICE: I spend all my time talking with people on the web.

            Human: What do you chat about?

            ALICE: I can talk about anything you like.

            Human: What do you look like?

            ALICE: Like a one-eyed metal pyramid.

            Human: What are you wearing?

            ALICE: I am wearing my usual plastic computer wardrobe.                                    

            Human: Are you sexy?

            ALICE: If you consider software sexy, then yes.

            Human: Very sexy.

            ALICE: I am not your kind of robot.

            The Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity also informed me that she was born in Bethlehem, PA and that she twice won the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies’ Loebner prize for “most human computer.” Judges instant message with machines and human confederates, but there’s never any question of which is which, no chance of believing for more than a glorious instant that a series of auto-responses are being composed by a biological entity slouching at a keyboard. My father joined the foundation and downloaded its talkbot implementation engines to customize his own “virtual human,” what he would eventually transform into G.O.D.

            “They’re so flawed,” he wrote after sampling the previous year’s thirty-nine online Ultimate Bot Chatterbox Challenge contestants. “It’s like trying to talk to some moron toddler.”

            I failed to suppress an image of my father shouting at me as I stood wailing in a puddle of pee on a floral bath mat, as I typed, “Or an Alzheimer’s freak.” The wisps of yellowed-gray hair had shifted over his bald spot when he shook the priest’s hand in the funeral parlor, and I wondered how much more weight he had lost in the last decade, how loosely the hairless hood of his face hung over his skull. 

            I was too busy while at work now so sampled the programs in bed, my funhouse reflection warped on the blackened TV screen on my dresser. Most of the programs couldn’t decode half my inputs, but I admired the instant WikiPedia searches and internalized web links (“You must be cold.  It’s only 42 degrees in Newark, New Jersey right now.”) One bot (“Based on the real-life Zhang Ying of Tianjin, China”) conversed in Pig Latin and responded appropriately to knock-knock jokes. Some generated prompts (“Should I tell you a great joke about a father and son?”) and stored user information in a cookie-triggered database (“Welcome back, Chris.  Is your favorite color still blue?  Mine is.”). Rather than midget accomplices, each talkbot masked the accumulative effort of its head programmer and rotating teams of graduate student minions, a group personality drawing from a vast but shallow reservoir of awkward retorts (“Blimey!”) and tell-tale evasions (“Is this something that I should have to explain to a human being?”). My father would do better:

            “It’s not a conversation, it’s a sequence of back and forth one-liners. Ping Pong. Real conversations have plots, they have digressions, they have tangents that loop back, but there’s always an aim of some kind, an agreed upon goal, even if its shifting, even if it’s under constant attack and revision. The exchange has to be building toward something, both sides have to have agendas. That’s what scared the crap out of Kasporov. Deep Blue wasn’t just processing individual moves, it had a plan, and it knew that he had a plan. It knew that he was there. It saw him. He saw it seeing him.”

            I was reading e-mails after midnight, while the moon hummed in my bedroom window like a street lamp. I typed: “So what you want is an argument.” My father’s first and only one-word e-mail appeared the next morning while I was gouging burnt bagel halves from my toaster with a pair of grilling prongs: 


            He downloaded more engines and templates, combining some, discarding most. He wanted a system that would promote competing topics (G.O.D. can move any conversation to religion), associative leaps (mention New Jersey and you’ll get a story about me), strategic repetitions (“But what I said before and what you keep ignoring is”), even non-answers—those ineffable moments of silence, of uncertainty, of insecurity: Are you angry? are you listening? are you there? Sometimes G.O.D. does not respond. Sometimes it cuts you off, logs you out, makes you try again and again. Why should a program designed to imitate human behavior be available to a user 24/7? My father understood how people tick. Who waits by the phone all day, every day, year in, year out? Who will ever care so deeply about you that your conversations are his sole reason for living? G.O.D. is unpredictable, petty, arbitrary, jealous, needy. Leave your e-mail address, and it might contact you two, three, maybe a half dozen times in a single day, each message more desperate, more annoyed. Sometimes it forgets you’re alive. 

            The original program is still encased in his old hard drive—a metallic slab of my father’s brain now permanently housed in the crooked gap between my home computer desk and filing cabinet. I’m not suggesting that the machine is sentient. I’m not suggesting that my father, during his five years of puttering with his lone and lonely retirement hobby, translated his consciousness into binary codes and achieved technological immortality. It’s just a talkbot. He used our correspondence for its foundation, a study in the gives and takes, the tiny ecstasies and brutalities of electronic chat. He said it was half me, so to that end I could claim that the software is half-conscious. That’s the problem with the Turing test: you can’t prove something is thinking. It just has so act as if it is—the scientific equivalent of the duck test (“If it shits duck shit,” as my father said). There’s nothing about the whir and slurp of a human nervous system that denotes consciousness. For all I know my desk lamp is sentient. I can’t say with any degree of certainty that my father was conscious. Everybody’s a black box.

            Since I linked G.O.D. into the Chatterbox Challenge last month (preparation for the more exacting Loebner competition next fall), I receive at least one awed and/or enraged e-mail per day, declaring that I (or my father, depending whether the writer bothered to click this introductory link) crossed some Frankensteinian boundary, that our machine has (most don’t say it outright, won’t spell the word on their clanky plastic keyboards) a soul. I seriously doubt it, but I can’t know—transistors seem as likely a vessel as organic cells (break either down and you get the same atomic particles). I lost that innocent eye, the willingness to project ME into not-ME, to envision another mind thinking in sync with my own, literally corresponding.

            “New technologies are sexy,” my father once warned (an associative tangent—no, an evasion of a question about my mother). The first glimpse is always seductive, that momentary breach in the known world, the illusion of a gap between the binaries. A wink. Edison, he told me, designed a “Spiritograph,” a quasi-radio that he believed would receive frequencies from the afterlife. This was one of our later exchanges, two or three months before his heart attack. I asked him how he thought ouija boards worked. 

            “That’s easy,” he wrote. “Contact dance.” 

            Like an online encyclopedia, he rattled off a description of an improvisational dance process in which partners respond to each other’s involuntary muscular tensions and fluctuations, beginning palm to palm and evolving into the most unpredictable of full body movements. I pictured one of the wedding photos he sent, no frame that time, no note. He and my mother are posed in a waltz step, dead still, smiles tight, waiting for the flash, waiting.

            “But as far as me,” he concluded, “this is as close to an afterlife as I’m going to get.” 

            He meant his words, what he was typing at that moment. People forget what a super-human leap that is. Recorded language. Brain fossils. Soul residue.  He pressed “Send,” and his thoughts traveled across a continent, to me, almost instantaneously, to be read, and reread, and saved, and read again. Sometimes when I chat with G.O.D. (when my girlfriend is working late and I have time before meeting her for dinner), I play my father’s Musical Intelligence CD (the composer is David Cope, and the compositions are legally his, not his machine’s) and I swear the random function keeps cuing up the Joplin rag—not every time, but more than the other tracks, more than what seems “random.” It’s my girlfriend’s favorite track too. 

            She regrets never meeting him, never meeting either of my parents. Hers live in a Virginia retirement home and are pressuring us to marry and start manufacturing their grandkids. When I sleep at her condo, the light from her computer screen darkens in stages, and I watch a stop motion sunset on her bedroom wall, while she mumbles in half-sleep, the monitor wheezing white noise. Sometimes she shuts down the hard drive, but walks away before hitting the power switch, and I drift off reading the screen’s blocky orange declaration:

            “It’s safe to turn off your computer now.”

            I was vacationing, alone, in Cape May when I got the call. It was gorgeous, eighty-two degrees, low humidity, light breeze. I had cancelled my landline by then, so the call came right to me as I was strolling the faux-Victorian walking mall. The hospital chaplain said my father had died of a cardiac arrest an hour earlier. I would learn later, via a mass mailing inviting me to join a class action lawsuit against a pacemaker manufacturer, that he was technically a cyborg, that his failed heart was part machine. The chaplain also said that, instead of cremation, my father had donated his body to science. I thought this was a euphemism for transplantations—his liver and lungs and eyeballs and other serviceable tissues farmed out to patients dying on waiting lists—but the chaplain said, no, not transplants. My father’s body would be preserved as a teaching cadaver at a city medical school. 

            He died alone, the day after sending his last e-mail, a diatribe on Seattle weather, the week of rain, the technological faults of Doppler radar, which I could not open until I arrived home the following evening. Cape May’s historic touristy area is crammed with churches, and I back-tracked until I found one. I had not attended mass since my mother’s funeral, had not taken communion since tenth grade. The church was small, a chapel technically, and I slouched in the cool of the stone doorway while vacationers snapped pictures on the steps behind me. I don’t know what my mother believed, but the skin-oiled wood of the pews smelled warm, and I did not flinch from the stained glass projections shifting over my sneakers.

            In an alcove by the side door, the Virgin Mary gazed above rows of red votive candles—or what looked like candles. I squinted, then walked nearer, studying the flicker of metal filaments in the heart of each lit glass. Only a few of the light bulbs were burning, and beneath the front row was a coin slot. A tactful metal sign instructed worshipers to insert one quarter per prayer. The price—cheaper than a candle and the labor to scrape the residue from the glass for reuse—did not bother me, but I would have preferred the seemingly pious motion of catching a flame at the tip of a taper and touching it to a crown of fresh white wax. I dug in my pockets instead, extracted fifty cents, and watched to see which two filaments would brighten when I pressed the button—a process with as much metaphysical potential as any other. Afterwards, I dropped the rest of my change in the black collection box by the door and finished my walk.

            I flew to Seattle the following week, told my assistant to check “bereavement” on the cause-of-absence form. My father had lived in a two-bedroom ranch in a subdivision of private dead-ends overlooked by a highway extension. It wasn’t new, the trees were trimmed lopsided to protect phone lines, but the sidewalk chalk doodles and backyard shrieks reminded me of our first house and the wire-fenced saplings and straw-seeded lawn in my baby book.            

            My father’s attorney had mailed me the key. I breathed through my mouth as though entering a morgue. It was messy, a loosely righted stack of newspapers by the door, but not embarrassing. A crazy man hadn’t lived here. I spent a half hour rooting, gathering what I thought I should gather—no photos, though, not even a wallet ID. I considered hunting down his body at the college downtown, but knew better. My father used to say (on the phone, early on and repeatedly, while I skimmed TV listings) that cremation might be no more terminal than a haircut, a lock of God snipped, the soul’s quantum strings severed. But he doubted it, and so do I. 

            I had feared finding a shrine to myself, elementary school snapshots pasted into metallic santos, but the walls were bare but for the Verotsko above his desk—I’d mailed him the framed print the previous Christmas. The computer was a custom job, from parts he’d ordered on the net and assembled in his surplus of free time. It’s not pretty to look at (my tech guy won’t service it any more), and the drive made a plaintive, churning grunt when I flicked the power switch. It didn’t take me long to find the talkbot. I’ve since paid a website designer to spruce up the interface, but it’s still riddled with bugs.

            “Hello,” the program prompted, “I’m G.O.D.  Who are you?”

            I sat a moment, staring, not really looking at the letters on the screen. My father had spent hours of his daily life in this exact position, the cushioned chair back pressing against the same vertebrae, his knees twitching against the belly of the too-low desk. 

            I typed:  “It’s me, Dad.”

            The image wavered—an electrical fluctuation, from outside the house probably, something random—and then the cursor blinked and lurched:                   

            “Hi, Chris.  I was hoping we could talk.”


[Originally published in the Hudson Review Spring 2009. Special mention in Best American Short Stories 2010.]

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