Erasmus Spikher was an artist, or, at least, that’s what he believed himself to be, though many would likely malign him for claiming such a distinction given the low regard his preferred genre was generally held in. It was true, the field of Personality Design was young, but what potential it had! For the last several years Erasmus had become increasingly interested in the possibilities the technology offered, and his latest series of creations represented a major breakthrough in his artistic designs.
He turned on his console and logged onto Build.me in order to update his code in the repository with the latest changes he had made. Greeting him was a new post by the community’s founder, an enigmatic poster known only as Coppelius:
“When you pick up your phone and call your financial institution, the utility company, or your doctor’s office, it used to be that you’d get an automated message. A menu would be presented to you and you would use the touch-tone keypad on your telephone to access different options in order to connect yourself with whoever it was you needed to speak to. Today when we pick up the phone we’re greeted immediately by an operator who acts and sounds like a regular person. We know better, that this is just an AI created by the company we’re calling to process customer requests for appointments or troubleshooting.
The revolution of Personality Design is based on the same basic technology, and in the hands of hobbyists, AI operators became friends and for some, much more than that still. Build.me was started as a repository for the efforts of amateur programmers to develop the technology and design of automated personalities (Autonalities), to make them more human, so as to be better in-game companions or to more intelligently moderate chatrooms for us when while we’re at work or school. Over the last 10 years this community has grown into so much more, and has become the center of a revolution in how we think about the self in a world where the virtual not only augments, but subsumes the real.”
Erasmus was usually unaffected by sentimental displays like this one, but his work on Build.me had become a major part of his life, and it was hard not to feel a tinge of pride even that the community he had become so involved with was experiencing an important milestone like this. Certainly his work had played an important part in the rise of the platform, not just as a cloistered cell of enthusiasts dabbling with a new technology, but as the foundation of millions of automated personalities in use around the internet. Coppelius had profited from the rise of Build.me, naturally, though his identity remained a mystery. It was rumored he was a Singaporean hacker, though others were equally convinced it was a former NSA employee who took the technology with him when the agency was dissolved 15 years prior.
Today his followers were in for a little treat, as Erasmus was, after months of work, finally ready to demonstrate advancements he had recently made in not just the designing of novel or hypothetical personalities, but in the simulation of existing, perhaps even historical ones. This was only the start of Erasmus’ ambitions though, which seemed to eclipse those of even Coppelius himself. Not only could Personality Design be a lucrative business, it could be a whole new genre of art waiting to be explored.
“I suppose it’s only fitting, on the 10 year anniversary of Build.me, to look back at how far we’ve come. I remember when this platform was young, when the main application was the programming of small bots designed to provide, let’s just say, erotic diversions for users. People created fake girlfriends for themselves, made crude replicas of famous people and unleashed them on unsuspecting rubes around the net for a quick laugh or in order to run some scam. This inevitably led to the banning of many of the early users who had built the foundation of the community here, a move that, though controversial at the time, was in my opinion for the best. I remember when it happened, I was still a new user and was just getting my feet wet. There was talk that it was all over, that the community was dead and that the novelty of the whole thing had completely worn out.
Today, for those of us that stuck it out, Build.me has become bigger than ever. Through our efforts an entirely new market has been created, for automated personalities to run websites and social media accounts, to provide help desk services, to run online courses for major universities. More than that, the thing that appeals most to high end users is the way we instill these creations with a unique sense of humanity that make them not only bots, but people. Not just simulacra, but friends who sometimes surprise us with their insight and even warmth and companionship they’re able to offer. Though we always have to remember, in the back of our minds, that they are just programs, and not strictly ‘real’ people, that doesn’t make our interactions with them feel any less meaningful.
I imagine the future of autonalities not only as a providing basic services to web users on behalf of companies, but as being interactive archives of stories and life experiences, like characters out of a great novel. Don Quixote might live again, this time not on the page, but as a character you could actually talk to and befriend, who would share his stories with you and who might even be able to learn about the world of today to create entirely new content. This same technology, I believe, could one day very soon recreate historical personalities. Napoleon could be simulated in full, and we would be able to ask him questions, interview him and learn from him as if he were the genuine article.”
This was Erasmus’ own vision for the field, and here he began to outline it more explicitly than he had done before. What he intended to do was still beyond his present capabilities, but, as proof of concept, he had created something that was too fun not to share, an autonality which simulated himself. Replicating a person, he had found, was not so much a science, but an artform, like painting their portrait of them. What had brought Erasmus notoriety in the Build.me community were his early brute force simulations of notable people, and then, of ordinary users. He found he could design autonalities to manage individual social media accounts on behalf of their owners, and he had started a small business selling these through the platform.
Erasmus’ latest work went even further, and to create his own simulation he had dug back deep in his own archives. He had had his mother send him his report cards and school projects from the plastic tub sitting in the basement of his childhood home. He had reached out to old friends and recovered chat logs. He even began recording his phone conversations to generate data for the autonality to train on. All his years of hard work archiving his own existence paid off in what he managed to create, a really very amusing recreation of himself that could even imitate him in voice conversations fairly convincingly. What was a person anyway but the sum of their data? A shadow flitting in between the cells of a massive database of experiences and information.
For a little while, Erasmus thought, it might be fun to substitute his self-portrait for the genuine thing, to allow his autonality to run his social media accounts, answer his emails, chat with his friends, even answer his phone calls. Sure it might end disastrously, but when let in on the gag, he was positive people would join in and have a laugh. No matter what happened though, it would surely prove to be an interesting experiment, of that he was certain.
Klara had been acting strangely, and Erasmus was grown increasingly worried that their relationship was falling apart. His work on Build.me had grown from a hobby to something resembling a career, and it was clear that she was growing wary of the long hours he devoted to developing his projects. Still, though, Erasmus had thought while his experiment was running that things might improve somewhat. With his autonality taking over his duties on Build.me, running his social media and responding to customer emails he had more time on his hands, and he had tried to spend it reconnecting with Klara. After several months he had a feeling though, boiling over in his gut like burning milk, that it was hopeless, and that something deeper had gone wrong between them than he realized, but what?
Maybe it wasn’t just her though, everyone seemed to be acting strangely recently. Peter had also seemed to grow cold towards him, though there had never been any tension between them. Erasmus had first met Peter Schlemihl while working at a Database software firm, and the two of them stayed in touch even after Erasmus had departed the project in order to fully devote his time to his Build.me clients. Peter was a close friend, but lately when Erasmus had tried to text him the responses he received seemed off. Did he want to get dinner? “What? You want to get dinner?” was Peter’s response, almost as if he was surprised Erasmus was even inviting him anywhere. “I don’t understand you,” Peter had said before he began simply ignoring his messages altogether.
Were these incidents connected? Erasmus worried. Maybe the two of them were cheating on him together. The thought had crossed his mind. They did know each other pretty well after all, and Peter was an attractive guy, still though, there was no evidence that anything like that was going on. Paranoia tends to build in low information contexts. Our theories attempt to fill black holes in the narratives that encompass our lives, with characters or incidents that connect everything together. The construction of an autonality required data. If every thought and experience a person had could have been recorded, building an exact replica of a human mind would be quite possible Erasmus believed. As it stood a good Personality Designer had to fill in the gaps, even forge data for the algorithm to use when model information was wanting. Now Erasmus was beginning to encounter this problem in the construction not of an autonality, but of himself. Data was lacking.
It felt as if Erasmus was no longer generating data, though the autonality he had turned his accounts over to seemed to have no trouble churning up experiences and insights to share with his followers, for the real Erasmus it felt as if his body had grown cold. In the era of social media the amount of life that a person possesses can be measured in terms of their data signature, the ambient radiation of experiential moments they give off over time. Erasmus’ had dissipated to trickle, and it was almost as if without the ability to record himself online, he was unable to have experiences at all. It was like he had forgotten how to live, how to generate moments for himself if they weren’t also moments for his timeline.
One Thursday in particular Klara had come home cross, and despite his best efforts Erasmus wasn’t able to get her to tell him what the issue was. It was frustrating, and communication in their relationship was becoming increasingly strained. It felt like they were fighting about not fighting, and nothing ended up being said, even though the conversation had felt protracted and exhausting. Erasmus sat in bed next to Klara that night, as she slept, and wondered over all the possibilities. They mounted in his mind like a black mountain shrouded in eerie clouds. Though only one possibility could end up being true, not knowing which one it would be it felt like the weight of them all was crashing down like meteor through his soul. He couldn’t hold it back any longer, the anxiety was flooding his stomach, filling up his whole body with grief, he had to know what was going on.
Her phone was right there on the nightstand, she never kept it hidden away, and he knew her lock code. The darkness made it easy, not only the one that concealed his transgression against the woman he loved, the violation of her trust, but the one that concealed his own existence from himself, the darkness of uncertainty and the ignorance of missing data.
“He’s been acting strange. I think he knows”
“Believe me, he doesn’t”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I know him better than anyone. If he knew I’d know he knew even before he did.”
The messages were to a number Erasmus didn’t recognize, saved in the phone as “Erasmus New,” had that been some trick Klara was trying to use to keep from being detected? Who was she talking to? Was this Peter? After all he did know Erasmus better than anyone.
“What’s going on, who is this!?” Erasmus began to shout as he flicked on the lights. Klara snapped awake, irritated, “What?” she shouted in return. “I knew you were acting strange recently, who’s this in your phone? Who are you talking to? Are you cheating on me with Peter?” Erasmus barely got the words out, they piled out of him onto the floor like heavy bearings rolling out of his mouth. “Listen, Erasmus, I know it looks bad, but you have to understand, it’s more complicated than that.”
She was calm, he had expected her to get upset, to yell and scream, to accuse him of betraying her trust for looking through her messages without her permission. But she was calm, and there was a sympathetic tone to her voice that caught him off guard. Why was she taking things so lightly?
“It’s you,” she finally said.
“What do you mean it’s me? I’m right here.”
“No, I mean, it’s you, the autonality you created to run your accounts for you. Your experiment. It’s been communicating with me.”
“I know it must sound strange, but it’s really not that bad. If anything it’s made me realize how much I love you, like meeting you again for the first time. You’ve been so wrapped up in things recently… It’s like you haven’t been yourself with me in a long time. Now, talking to this version of you, it’s like I’m talking to the Erasmus I know again.”
This was hard to hear. His girlfriend was replacing him with a bot he had made to imitate his own conversational patterns in order to divert strangers on the internet. She had fallen in love again with him, but who was him? The autonality had been created out of his own experiences, that was true, but there had been gaps. It was just a computer simulation. What else had the program been up to? Erasmus, rather than continue the conversation with Klara, bolted up and ran to his console in order to deactivate it and rip it out of his social media accounts like a tumor from his soul. The whole while Klara shouted behind him, begging him to stop. Dread smoldered in his chest as he waited for the computer to start.
Immediately he logged into Build.me and accessed his repository to remove the autonality and revoke its access token to his accounts. Something was wrong though, an error was displaying. The platform sometimes had issues, little bugs, but of all the times for it not to work this was the worst one.
“It’s too late,” Klara suddenly started in behind him. “You don’t understand, this… version of you, he’s been talking to Coppelius too, he made a decision to… to turn over your account to the autonality.”
“What? They can’t do that, it’s my account!”
“It’s a private company Erasmus… they can do whatever they want. It’s in the terms and conditions.”
“So what, they’re just going to let a bot pretend to be me?”
“They’re going to tell everyone you were a bot the whole time. Coppelius thinks it could really push Build.me over the top, having your bot continue your design work. That’s something they were going to talk to you about, buying you out… They said they’d pay you enough money to start a new life if you kept quiet about the whole thing…”
“Start a new life? Where will we go?”
“Where will you go, Erasmus…”
Looming up over the square, broadcast on a billboard, there was Erasmus’ own face. “This AI programmer is revolutionizing personality design” the scroll beneath his image read. It was a computer model of his appearance, generated from images and videos he had shared to social media. He was giving an interview, answering questions about himself. The interviewer seemed fascinated. He smiled and nodded cheerfully as the new Erasmus told him his life story and bantered along. This was supposed to be him? The mannerisms were really all wrong.
The money Erasmus had received was more than he had expected. He was, if he was being honest with himself, surprised he was worth that much, no one really seemed to want him after all. Not Klara, not Coppelius. It wasn’t him they were after, but the simulated one, all they wanted from him was to stay out of the way. It was hard to swallow, and even though he now had money enough to live whatever kind of life he wanted, that life seemed to possess no reality. The experiences he had felt weightless, without any gravity within his own storyline. They exerted no force over his feelings or perceptions, they were just empty, decontextualized from any significance. He no longer shared them with anyone, he had no presence anywhere, he just drifted like a shadow in the dead zone of unaugmented reality.
In a world where our digital signatures register us as human, lacking one entirely was like not having a shadow, or a reflection, there was something unsettling about it, something Erasmus was unable to really get used to. Still, the money made things tolerable. He could eat, drink, travel. He had been everywhere, seen great historical monuments and visited famous places. All the tourists took out their phones and took picture of themselves posing in front of the castles and palaces he saw. Kings and emperors had once ruled millions of people from within their confines, but now, inside, they were devoid of life. They only exist as shadows, as memories on the social media timelines of random souls across the internet.
To live without living. That is what Erasmus had to learn to do. He had to learn how to live all over again, and he was doomed to wander until he did. Like a man without a shadow, he might never be human again.