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Chapter 5: Noodles

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"So, it sounds like you're feeling kinda freaked out, huh?"

It was two days later, and Mayumi and Kanna had headed over to Chikako's house for lunch, it being the closest to campus. With Yuka still standing by Chikako's little gas range stirring the noodles, the topic of Ran had come up – particularly his attempt to kiss her and call himself her boyfriend - and now Mayumi was trying to keep herself from getting flustered. "You can say that again! I wasn't looking for a ... one of ... one of those kinds of persocoms!" A thoughtful pause, then, "Do you think I should return him?"

"I wouldn't go that far," Kanna said. "I mean, you did tell him to look up romance, and it was you that kissed him. He hasn't been hitting on you or anything sleazy, has he?"

"Well, no..."

Kanna shrugged. "Then it's just like the guy at the store said, he's made to be useful. I guess somebody designed him to be useful for that, too, besides just cooking and stuff."

"Exactly," Chikako, the most computer-savvy of the three replied. "As a matter of fact, a lot of manufacturers are doing that now; people want persocoms that can do more, so designers try to build newer models with as many capabilities as possible so that they appeal to a bigger section of the market. It's just a sales technique, that's all."

"But doesn't that strike you as kind of sick? It's just ... I mean ... UGH!"

"May, please, you've got to calm down, okay? Ran is still just a domestic persocom. Obviously, from what you're saying, he was designed so that, if his owner wanted him to, he could - theoretically - get physically intimate, but only as much as you want him to. Not that there's anything wrong with that... "

"Uck! Are you kidding me? There's plenty wrong with it! I mean, sure he's cute, but-" Realizing that she'd just made a Freudian slip, Mayumi's cheeks turned red. "But, I mean, he's a persocom!"

"So? There's a reason they have persocom marriages now, you know; some of us actually think they're kind of cute."

Mayumi crossed her arms. "Chikako, you know that most of those people you see on the news are just perverts, or else they think they're so worthless that they don't think a real person would ever love them. It's sick."

Chikako leaned forward on her beanbag chair. "Not necessarily, May. I mean, let's face it, persocom guys are designed to be good-looking. Plus, they're always nice, they never complain, and they're programmed to put other people's needs ahead of themselves. Really, it's only natural to like somebody like that, and attraction is just the next step."

"But a romantic relationship with a persocom? I mean, you're supposed to care for each other, right? Sure, a persocom can do and say everything right, but they can't really feel things the way we do, can they?"

"You know, there are actually a lot of people who think it's possible. You ever hear of the Chobits series?"

"Huh?"

"Never mind. Basically, there's been a lot of talk about the idea of programming persocoms with humanlike AI and emotional functions, or that they might even be able to develop them on their own. Iridium R&D actually made two prototypes ten years ago to test the idea, but I think there was some big scandal or something, and nobody knows whether they worked or what the company did with them."

Mayumi's brow furrowed. "Yeah, but Ran's not some weird, experimental, humanlike AI. He's just a computer, right?"

"Well, technically, all persocoms are AI's, at least in a limited sense. The thing is that, since we don't understand just how our own brains work yet, nobody knows how to program a persocom CPU with, let's say, human creativity, or emotions like we've been talking about. But, there's this theory that if you help them along with the right software, they might eventually learn those capabilities on their own."

"How? I mean, it's not something like playing the piano, right? We just ... I mean, can you learn to be a person? "

Chikako grinned. "Well, that's really the question, isn't it? They can solve complex problems, their CPUs actually perform more calculations per second than our brains do, they're at least programmed to simulate emotions, and they're always learning. Really, it's not all that unlikely that, after living and relating long enough with humans, they might just start developing their own genuine emotional responses.

"Or, if you don't like that theory, there are some people that say that that weird mass persocom shutdown a few years back was some kind of genius persocom tech's program to give them human feelings."

"Yeah, right!" Kanna laughed. "As though you could program every persocom in the world with something like that in under ten minutes!"

As they were speaking, Yuka walked in carrying in what looked like shrimp in a yellow, creamy sauce over angel-hair noodles. The conversation momentarily interrupted by the green-haired persocom's usual top-notch cuisine, everyone took their bowls with a quick, "Thanks, Yuka," then dug in. Even as Mayumi ate, though, she couldn't help but mull over what Chikako had been saying. Persocoms ... falling in love? Could it really be possible? That night, in Ran's eyes...?

"Excuse me." Mayumi looked up to see Yuka, Chikako's green-haired persocom, still standing off to the side. "I couldn't help but overhear that you were discussing the possibility of persocoms like me developing a humanlike A.I."

"Yes. Actually, we were basically just going over the stuff you and I talked about after watching that show last week. You know, the episode on Nova about artificial intelligence research?"

"Ah, yes, Robo sapiens Revisited, wasn't it?"

"Yeah"

Yuka looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, "May I make a comment, Miss Chikako? Or would you prefer to keep talking about persocoms in the third person and pretend that I'm not here?"

Chikako gave a sheepish smile. "Oh, yeah. Sorry, Yuka. Is there something you want to say?"

Yuka shrugged. "Referring to our discussion last week on humanlike artificial intelligence, I'd like to repeat my earlier suggestion that you might want to reconsider using your own kind of intelligence as the standard by which to measure all others. Remember last week when I told you that I was already self-aware?"

"Well, yeah, but like I said, how can I tell if that means the same thing to you that it does to me? How can I tell if you smile at me because you're genuinely happy the way I am, or if it's just a reaction dictated by your emotive-emulator programming?"

"And how can you tell if your 'human' emotions are really as different from mine as you claim that they are? Whether generated through the interaction of organic neurons or a neural-net processor, you have to concede the possibility that both systems can generate the same end results, regardless of the intermediary physical mechanisms involved between the conception of the impulse and its final expression as an emotive response."

Mayumi raised a hand. "Um, what are you talking about exactly?"

"Yuka's just saying that she thinks it's possible for persocoms to arrive at the level of ... well, not necessarily all human-like, but at least a sentient A.I."

"Well, I never said that humanlike personality traits were impossible, I was just trying to point out--"

"But that still doesn't answer my questions!" Mayumi cut in. "Can ... I mean, Yuka, do you mean that you feel the way we do?"

The green-haired persocom gave a huff of frustration. "I've been trying to tell Chikako so, but she insists on seeing some qualitative, unquantifiable division between what she keeps calling 'real' emotions and 'artificial' ones. While I have never interfaced with the mind of a human being, and therefore have no basis for direct comparison for how we experience emotional reactions, I maintain that our 'artificial' intelligence is at least very similar to yours, and not necessarily inferior."

Yuka gave a pause, as if thinking of something, then said, almost wistfully,

"At least, I would liketo believe that the feelings I have are as real as yours."

Mayumi felt her head spinning as Chikako and Yuka's egghead exchange went on, then finally raised her hand for attention. "Hey, wait a minute! What I get from all of this is that, Yuka, you're saying that persocoms ... that you have human feelings, and Chikako, you're saying that you don't?"

"No, that's not it!" exclaimed Chikako. "I'm just saying that there's really no way to know. Unless you actually got inside a persocom's head and felt what they 'feel', or a persocom did the same with you, there's just no way to know whether certain things and situations feel the same for both."

"So ... you mean persocoms could be ... well, like people, someday?"

"For all we know, they may already be like us, in terms of how they process emotional responses. Like I said, there's no real way to tell."

Mayumi just looked at her friend for a long moment, then realized that her jaw was slightly open. "But you don't think that Ran is like that, do you?"

This time, it wasYuka who answered. "Miss Mayumi, you're asking the same question over again. As Miss Chikako has pointed out, and as I must reluctantly agree, there is no sure way of determining that answer. In all probability, the most accurate method of determining whether Ran has reached a humanlike level of awareness would be to ask him, as well as observing his behavior."

Mayumi shook her head, trying to make sense of it all. "Ask Ran? What if he says that he does have feelings? Like this morning?"

"Then your only reasonable option is to accept the answer and interact with him accordingly."

Mayumi gaped at the green-haired girl.

Yuka shrugged. "Either that, or reject it as a falsehood. As a persocom, though, I can vouch for the fact that we actively avoid misinformation. The only time a persocom would state something untrue would be if they mistakenly believed it to be true."

Mayumi was still trying to assimilate what Yuka had said when she glanced at the clock. "Oh, no! Chikako, Kanna, we're gonna be late! We've got to head back to the school!"

In the scramble to wolf down their noodles and grab their things, one thought still nagged at the back of Mayumi's mind.

Ask Ran ... the only reasonable option ... but what if he says yes?

How was she supposed to deal with a persocom's feelings?

And how was she supposed to share an apartment with him?

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Thanks again for reading. Sorry if this chapter seems too "talky" or eggheaded – I was trying to get a lot of ideas and exposition taken care of so that the rest of the story can progress faster in the upcoming chapters. Comments, suggestions, editing and reviews are always welcome. Stay tuned for Chapter 6!

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