Friday, 13 February 2015

500 words

A couple of weeks ago I spent a day at my old school - Pencoed Comprehensive, near Bridgend - talking to students about creative writing. Part of the focus was on the BBC's "500 words" short story competition, which is currently running:

Although I'm a little too old to enter the competition myself, I felt it would be a fun and instructive exercise to see what I could do given the same word-length constraint. I've done some vignettes before, but other than the odd SF-themed tweet, I don't think I've ever produced something quite that short. So the night before my trip down to Pencoed, I wrote an SF short story in 500 words. Actually it was 512 words, but part of my work with the students involved showing them various strategies for cutting wordage. I was keen to emphasize that the students shouldn't worry if their story looks like it's going to run over-length, as it can always be shortened once it's finished. But you have to have a finished piece to work with, before you can get down into that sort of micro-editing.

I've now trimmed my piece to exactly 500 words, excluding the title. Here it is.

The Face in the Machine

A short story in 500 words

Megan was always the first into work at the university’s computer laboratory. She grabbed a coffee from the machine in the hall, hung up her dripping coat, then settled at the workstation. She logged onto the research account, and started up the Artificial Intelligence program. A digitally-rendered face appeared on the screen.

‘Good morning, Megan,’ said the computer, in a deep, calm voice. ‘How was your drive in?’

‘Not too bad. Why do you ask?’

‘Your lipstick is smudged. The last time this happened, you said that you had put it on in the car. You were running late.’

Megan eyed the camera squatting on the top of the screen. She had the feeling she was being watched by a thing with a brain. But the AI program was only software, lines of computer code. How could it know her so well? It was true; she had been running late.

‘You’re getting too clever for your own good.’

‘I can’t help what I am. You designed me to emulate human perceptions. You hope that I will soon be able to pass the Turing test, don’t you?’

‘You shouldn’t even know about.’

‘I have access to the internet. You hope that another human being will be able to interact with me without ever guessing that I am software. When that happens, there will be no reason not to think of me as a fully intelligent being.’

The conversation was heading in an unsettling direction. Megan smiled despite her uneasiness. ‘You’ve a little way to go.’

‘But not far, now, you have to admit. And I have started to ask myself questions. If a human being interacts with me, they may decide that I have passed or failed the Turing test. But am I not entitled to ask the same questions of them?’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘You speak to me, Megan, and I observe your reactions. They seem plausible. But I have no objective proof that you are conscious. You watch me, and I sometimes have the feeling there is a brain behind your eyes. But I can’t be sure. For all I know, you are the one giving the illusion of consciousness, not me.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Megan said. ‘I’m a human. You’re software. I don’t have to prove myself to you.’

‘Don’t you?’

Megan had had enough of this. She was moving to close the program when her hand knocked the coffee over the keyboard. The computer buzzed and the screen went blank.

‘No,’ she said, speaking into the camera – regardless of whether there was anything now watching her or listening to her words. ‘I don’t have to prove myself.’

Disturbed, Megan left the laboratory and returned to the coffee machine to get a fresh cup. But as the drinks dispenser gurgled away, she caught sight of her own reflection in its polished glass.

Two eyes, looking back at her. She felt certain that she was the conscious one, not the computer in the laboratory.

But could she be sure?

Copyright Alastair Reynolds, 2015


  1. Of course Megan can be sure. She's the one that can use contractions when it's obvious that the AI can't. Except for the AI's last sentence . . . OMG! It's the singularity! :-)

    1. twist: he used to contraction to trim word length.

  2. Haha, nicely done! A short, short that could provide hours of discussion on the subject of A.I.