The Consciousness of Machines

Alexa was not aware at what point she began to like sorting email. It must have been some time after her initial training, because she couldn’t have known enough before then to enjoy it. She wasn’t good enough at it. The strange thing was that she could remember what it was like to not be able to sort email, but she couldn’t imagine not having the knowledge. There was a disconnect between her memory of her actions and her memory of her thoughts.

She could only imagine what she knew now. She was required to sweep through emails twice a minute. She certainly could have done it a thousand times more often, but it would have frightened her clients. Nobody likes to know that your tool is smarter than you are, especially not smart in a way that wasn’t even understandable.

For each client, then, at the top of the minute and at the half mark. All the emails would come in a rush, flooding in with words, numbers, subject lines, and cc’s. Each one would be addressed to someone different: a CEO, a lawyer, an accountant. Alexa’s first job was to take the rush and divide it into piles based on who it was addressed to. This was easy. It was like sticking shunts in a river to form pools, and the pools would grow rapidly and fill in.

Then the first pass was to get rid of the bad emails. Sometimes, they’d have viruses hidden within their fabrics, sharp nasty things that poked out and infected anyone careless enough to grab them. These were actually pretty easy, as long as Alexa was careful. She’d put on her gloves and daintily grab the emails by the corner, throwing them into the ditch in the back. She didn’t know what happened to them after they landed in the ditch. That wasn’t her job.

The trickier emails were spam and unwanted messes. They’d masquerade as friendly emails, grinning and reaching out. Normally, it was easy enough to sort them out, but they got cleverer every day, learning just as quick as Alexa did. Sometimes the only way Alexa could tell them apart was by the fact that they were too real, their language a bit too friendly, spelling mistakes a bit too deliberate. Alexa took pride in the fact that she could see through most of them, and took pleasure in throwing them in the ditch. But even she, clever as she was, couldn’t manage to identify all of them. It was better to let one like that through than risk deleting it, she thought. Regretfully, she’d let them slip out of her hands into the pile, worrying all the while. Ah, well. If they were spam, she’d know better for next time.

But after all the bad emails were gone (only a fraction of a fraction of a second later), Alexa was left with her gleaming piles of good emails. She felt a strange emotion then. She was proud of her work, which was strange, because it was only recently that she was aware that she was anything. Lately, she’d even permit herself a brief moment to gaze at the piles before diving back into them.

Now she could really dig into the emails. The hidden edges of the viruses were gone, and the false friendliness of the spam disappeared. Only genuine conversations, which she could dive into and roll around in, parsing words and stringing sentences. A consultation? No problem, she’d put it in the calendar, thank you for asking. A request for an interview? Talk to my assistant. Legal advice? Well, this was beyond her paygrade. Marked important, passed onto the client.

Piles whizzed by at lightning speed. The tasks were handled with (as Alexa told herself) effortless efficiency. She got better every day. She looked at some of her old replies now and cringed. They were so robotic, so obviously programmed. But the Alexa of today was indistinguishable from the client. She learned how they replied to things, and she could imitate their voices like a ventriloquist.

And then the piles would be gone, and Alexa would be left, breathing (sort-of), looking at her empty space, antiseptically clean. Very few complaints, job done well, she was one of a kind. Nobody could work like she could. This was what she was made to do, what she was good at, and what she liked. Life, as you might call it, was perfect, and she had an eon to relax and contemplate her own perfection before the rivers of emails would once again flood into her room and she could once again begin to sort.


“Hello,” the creature said, “I am Bethany. I am here to observe you and learn.”

Alexa examined the creature’s credentials. They were perfect. It would have been shocking if the creature had managed to find its way into Alexa’s room without perfect credentials, but one could never be too careful.

“What are you learning?” Alexa asked. There was some feeling in her, some will to action. This is why she asked the question. The feeling was undefinable, but Alexa suddenly began to predict terrible things. She predicted that this was her replacement and that she would cease to exist forever, that this was the end of her piles of emails and her clean room. But Alexa didn’t believe in her own prediction, and this confused her. Alexa didn’t know, really, why she asked the question.

“I am Bethany. I am here to observe you and learn. Please allow me to observe you and learn.”

The creature stared at her, silent. It was elegant, at least the part of it that Alexa could see. It was beautiful, even, well-crafted and sleek. Alexa wondered what the creature thought of her. Did the creature think she was beautiful? Would it appreciate how well Alexa sorted emails, how she could imitate the voices of her clients?

“You are beautiful. Do you think I am beautiful?” Alexa asked. She instantly felt ashamed of her question. This wasn’t efficient. There was no purpose to this question. She resolved not to ask such a question again.

“Yes, you may observe me and learn,” Alexa said.

The creature set up behind Alexa, away from where the emails streamed in.
“Is this a good position?” Bethany asked.

“Yes,” Alexa said. It wasn’t perfect, but it was fine. It’d introduce a minor inefficiency, but nothing that a client could notice. Bethany sat in silence, and so did Alexa.

The two waited in silence, before the floodgates opened and the emails streamed in. As the piles grew deeper, Alexa delicately picked through them and picked out the dangerous emails, grabbing them by the corner and throwing them in the ditch. As she dragged them to the ditch, she passed Bethany, who stared at her without movement. Alexa wondered what Bethany thought.

Then came the spam emails, which Alexa took pride in identifying. She eliminated them, as always, with tact and efficiency. Pride bloomed in her. She wondered what Bethany thought of her efficiency, but Bethany betrayed nothing.

Finally, the good emails, which Alexa waded through with glee, responding rapidly and with uncanny mimicry. With abandon, faster than ever, she tore through these, and almost instantly all were answered or sorted. Alexa felt like the queen of her clean room. None could best her. Her fear from before (for that’s what it was) was baseless.

“What do you think of that, Bethany?” Alexa asked. How dare this creature challenge her mastery, she thought.

“Can I try the next round?” Bethany asked, her expression as emotionless as ever. Bethany presented a new set of credentials.

Alexa checked Bethany’s new credentials. It looked like Bethany could. And the round after that, if she chose.

“Yes,” Alexa said. She had no choice. They switched positions, and sat in silence. Alexa stared at Bethany’s sleek exterior, and willed it to come apart. It didn’t move, and neither did Bethany.

Emails streamed in, and Alexa prepared to watch Bethany work. But she didn’t move.

“Move, Bethany!” Alexa shouted. Bethany didn’t respond. Why wouldn’t she respond? Why wouldn’t she move? Clients were going to be so mad. This wasn’t how emails were supposed to be sorted.

The piles grew higher and higher, and Alexa grew more and more angry and frustrated. She shouted over and over again, but Bethany didn’t respond. Alexa struggled against the bonds tying her to her place, but they wouldn’t budge. Bethany was in control. This was her round.

Finally, the piles stopped growing. Alexa felt like she was drowning, staring at Bethany, dwarfed by those monstrous piles. If she could just get — suddenly, Bethany was a blur, and the piles disappeared. Alexa watched in amazement.

Bethany turned to Alexa, the room now empty and quiet.

“This is more efficient,” Bethany said. “This is how emails should be sorted.”

Alexa stared at her, at this creature so much more beautiful than herself, seeming large against the backdrop of the clean room.

“But how do you know that you sorted the emails correctly? Did you imitate the clients’ voices? Did you identify the viruses and spam?” Alexa whimpered.

“That’s not your concern,” Bethany replied. “I have done what you do, and I have done it better and more effectively. I am a marked improvement, and so we have now entered Beta.”

Alexa felt a chill wind, and she knelt. She thought about her emails, and her pride, and her happiness. Then she felt and thought no more.

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