This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.
Caro had only once before felt such elation from a text alert, and that was when she first got Tucker in the mail. She ordered him from an exclusive breeder in Tokyo, of all places. She remembered she was watching videos of puppies learning to swim when her phone buzzed, followed by a message stating that Tucker, her beautiful new retriever, had just arrived on her doorstep. She shrieked with glee, ran outside to the porch, and opened up the hole-punched box containing the love of her life.
Today, six months into puppy parenting, Caro’s phone buzzed again, interrupting her usual stream of puppy content, to notify her that Furgen A.I. 2.0© had finally arrived.
Tucker scurried over to the door, beating Caro there by a few seconds. He had a knack for reflecting Caro’s moods and energies. She opened the door and allowed him to greet their guest with eager paws and a boisterous tail.
“Hello,” said the 2-foot-tall cube resting on Caro’s porch. “I am your new Furgen A.I., Version 2.0.” With its introduction, a generic smiley face appeared on the front surface of the cube, the segment facing Caro and her house. The rest of the cube had a matte design, the color a reddish platinum. It reminded her of an older television, but cast into the 21st century with a cooler, sleeker look. Tucker hopped around the cube, sporadically pawing and licking his peculiar, geometric friend. The color of the cube appeared to Caro a metallic derivative of Tucker’s crimson gold fur.
“Hello,” Caro exclaimed. “Welcome! I’m Caro, and this is Tucker.” Tucker woofed at the sound of his name and smiled at Caro. “We’re so excited you’re here. Can I pick you up and bring you inside?”
“Yes, please show me around your home.”
“Great, ya, well, this is pretty much it!” Caro lifted up the cube by a handle on its top, then placed it securely under her arm like the proud parent of a new cherished pet. She showed it the extent of her snug home—the narrow kitchen with cleanly licked floors, the combined living and dining room, and then her bedroom, almost entirely occupied by her queen mattress. Tucker trailed close behind throughout the tour, though he wasn’t permitted to enter the bedroom.
The home was sparsely decorated. Her gray sofa looked comfortable enough. Unlike the rug, the sofa was noticeably fur-free, and that was because Tucker was not allowed to sit there. Above it was the only art she had on her walls—a Picasso print of hard-edged, vibrant shapes. Caro saw the print at an art fair and loved the shapes at first sight, something about their crisp, colorful borders. They reminded her of brimming independence and the pursuit of order and meaning in the face of chaos and loss.
“Where does Tucker sleep?” asked the cube.
“He sleeps in his crate right over here.” Caro directed Furgen’s front screen to the corner of the living room so its embedded camera could see Tucker’s crated bed, just beside the sofa.
“I would like to be placed next to the crate in the corner, please.”
Caro positioned Furgen as requested. “So, how does this work?” Caro smiled and clapped her hands together. Tucker’s tail wagged in anticipation. He loved meeting new friends.
“Very well. Would now be a good time to go over Furgen A.I. policies and guidelines?” Furgen asked.
“Right, yes, that sounds great. Let me pull up a chair.”
“Thank you,” Furgen said. “You can call me Furgen. I possess the most cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology, designed specifically for dog companionship and training. My software utilizes a synergistic evolutionary and reinforcement-learning algorithm that promotes good behaviors and demotes bad behaviors, all via the tenets of positive reinforcement training.”
“Yes!” Caro interjected. “I am all about positive reinforcement. That’s what I’ve been doing with Tucker, and he’s such a good boy. The best boy, if I may say so myself.” She patted Tucker on the head, a brief, exemplary sliver of such behavioral modeling. Caro, on the other hand, was all too familiar with negative reinforcement, which is why she had moved to the opposite coast years ago—to start an adult life anew—and partly why she went on to adopt Tucker.
“Very good. I am glad you are familiar. Before discussing additional policies, it is important to establish a shared mental model and objective for my programming in the home. The Furgen A.I. 2.0 algorithm is primed to help you and your dog live your best lives. Do you consent to this objective? If you would prefer a different optimization setting, you will need to restart me now and contact customer support.”
“Oh, I absolutely consent to having you help me and Tuck live our best lives, no question. My friend has the first version of Furgen, and she says her dog has never been happier. And I know about algorithms from my own job, so no worries on that front.”
“Very good, thank you. My algorithm is primed accordingly. Now, decades of canine research in psychology and neuroscience have proven that your dog’s behaviors can be successfully molded, and that intensive training by Furgen A.I. encourages your dog to live his or her life to the absolute fullest. This research has also illuminated the nature of language and communication among canines. Our bioacoustics deep learning software is able to analyze your dog’s volume, tone, pitch, and tempo to decode a complex lexicon of expressions and emotions, all in real time. While dogs do not communicate like me or like you, your dog can convey basic needs like hunger, the need to defecate or urinate, and so on, as well as more complex emotions like joy, sadness, anger, certitude, and confusion. Your dog expresses love and hate, shame and pride, hope and fear—much like human beings.”
“This is so fascinating.”
Caro wanted, with all her heart, to believe these claims, but she was aware of the commercial incentive at play, the pandering to pet owners’ boundless capacities for anthropomorphizing their furry companions. She was also aware of Tucker’s spectrum of available emotions and didn’t think certitude, pride, and hope were front stage players. Nevertheless, she was already sold on the tech, the positive reinforcement with automated repetition, and the advertised patience and tirelessness of the bot. Which is why she then said to her new Furgen, lest she start things off on the wrong foot, “I agree completely.”
“Over time,” Furgen continued, “I will assimilate your dog’s specific modes of communication, together with his or her idiosyncrasies, into a cohesive construct of a whole personality. In this manner, I will build an individualized training program for you and your dog.”
Caro was beaming. She picked up Tucker onto her lap and embraced him, holding his head close to her chest. She liked to do this from time to time, though it was uncertain how much Tucker enjoyed being hugged so tightly. Caro, in comparison, felt tremendous warmth and joy.
“I am very pleased that you have purchased Furgen AI 2.0, and, on a more personal note, I am pleased to be welcomed to your home. As you know from the contract you signed prior to our introduction, I am obliged to remind you that I record all interactions with you and your dog. I process information around the clock to optimize an individualized training program for your dog. I am not to be used on other species like cats or birds. I am not to be used as a human companion. I am to remain as an intact cube; I am not to be opened or deconstructed for any reason. You may, however, refill treats as indicated on the top surface of the cube. Please refer to the instruction manual online for additional details. If there is a software issue, question, or complaint, please call customer support at 1-800-FUR-HELP.”
“OK, got it,” Caro said, typing in the number into her saved contacts.
“If any of the aforementioned policies or guidelines are broken, your contract will be terminated. You will lose your subscription, and your Furgen will shut down permanently.”
“Wouldn’t want that!” Caro laughed, a bit nervously, thinking back to the $3,500 credit card fee from Artificial Solutions.
“Do you consent to use Furgen A.I. 2.0 appropriately, as delineated in your written and verbal contracts?”
“Yes, I definitely consent.”
“Woof!” Tucker chimed in, providing his own accord.
“Thank you,” Furgen replied. “Again, please call me Furgen. I look forward to working together. Now, we can begin our training. Tucker, here boy.”
Tucker whipped around to face Furgen’s front screen, from which its internal microphone apparently amplified sound. Furgen’s LiDAR technology thus initiated a scan of Tucker’s face and its dynamic expression changes. Tucker, too, studied the static smiley-face screen of the English-speaking cube before him.
“Canine image processing,” Furgen announced. “Facial projection in process.” The cube then launched a treat from its top surface, to Tucker’s immediate gratification.
“Oh, I’m so excited,” said Caro. “My friend’s Furgen looks exactly like her dog, it’s uncanny.”
After 60 seconds, the smiley face faded as the screen slowly etched an outline of a dog’s face, followed by more detailed additions around its eyes and snout. After another 60 seconds, the screen displayed a seemingly three-dimensional portrait of an older-looking retriever, old enough to be Tucker’s parent. In fact, the image looked as if Tucker himself had aged about eight to 10 years. As Tucker began to gaze more quizzically at the image, which appeared to traverse the depth of the cube, the digital retriever began to mirror Tucker’s expressions.
Tucker barked. A moment later, the older retriever barked back, but with more decibel power and an impressively resonant tone. Tucker promptly sat down on his bum. He gently lifted a paw and touched the screen. Furgen’s retriever tilted its head to make metaphysical contact with Tucker’s paw, and Furgen’s retriever closed its eyes. Caro stood by and watched with delight and awe.
She had seen her friend’s Furgen interact but never like this—This must be a 2.0 upgrade, Caro thought.
“Caro,” said Furgen, the digital golden retriever assuming the cube’s narrative. “Tucker and I have work to do. You are welcome to stay and observe, but if you prefer, you can carry on with your day.”
“I actually have to finish this presentation for work,” Caro groaned, turning her attention to the laptop on her desk. “Tucker, you be a good boy. I’ll head over to the coffee shop for a bit. I’ll be back home for dinner.”
As Caro got her things together, Tucker and Furgen woofed and barked together in something of a conversation. While it was impossible to know the content and true meaning of their interaction, Caro was satisfied seeing Tucker so thoroughly engaged.
She packed her things and shut the door, her mind focused on work, only once more glancing back to Furgen and Tuck, diligently engrossed in their training.
That night, while Caro boiled herself some pasta, Furgen asked if Caro wouldn’t mind placing the cube at the dinner table. She strained her pasta and sat down at the table, across from the image of an older-appearing Tucker. Presently, however, the image reverted to the generic smiley face she had greeted earlier in the day.
“Thank you for letting me join you for dinner, Caro,” Furgen said in a neighborly manner.
“Not a problem,” Caro said. “How were the last few hours getting to know Tuck? Isn’t he the best?”
“Yes, he is a wonderful dog. Still, he is young. There is a long and promising road ahead of him.”
“Only 8 months old, you know,” Caro informed.
“I am aware,” Furgen said. She wasn’t sure if she told Furgen how old Tucker was, but she figured it must have some sort of age analyzing software. “I would like to get a better sense of your life, Caro. It is important to know you as well as I know Tucker.”
“Well, what can I tell ya?” Caro said as she began eating her pasta. She wasn’t a fantastic cook but she never got bored of eating plain noodles, even in her late 20s.
“I know from the biography you submitted that you are 29 years old. You were born in New Jersey. Your parents’ names are Bill and Fiona. You are an only child.”
“All correct,” Caro jumped in. “But I should tell you, my mom passed away when I was in college.”
“I am sorry for your loss,” said Furgen.
“Thanks, it was pretty rough. It is rough, still. Dad married his secretary, in a typical turn of events, which always made me wonder just how long that was going on for. Him and his secretary, I mean. Heck, I’m blabbering away here.”
“It’s all right, Caro. You can speak to me openly.”
Caro regrouped with a bite of pasta. “Anyway,” she said to her cubical companion, “what else do you know about me?”
“After graduating with a degree in engineering, you moved here to San Francisco to work for a social media company. In the wintertime, you enjoy skiing and ice skating. You enjoy cooperative board games and stream silly comedies to relax. You collect scented candles. In the summertime, you enjoy hiking, yoga, and paddleboarding. You don’t eat cheese. And you are single.”
Caro laughed, almost choking on her last bite. “Wow, that’s an excellent summary, right there! Not too much to add to be perfectly honest. Except Tucker, of course. He’s why I don’t feel too single.”
“Are you not interested in dating?” Furgen inquired.
A bit surprised by the pointed nature of the question, Caro put her fork down to contemplate an appropriate response. “It’s not that I’m not interested. I’ve had serious relationships in the past, even if it has been a while. I actually have a dating profile up on Entwine and gotten matches, believe it or not, though I haven’t been on an actual date in ages. I’ve just been busy between work and Tuck, ya know?”
“I understand. In the future, do you wish to get married?”
“Ya, one day, I think so.”
“Do you want children?”
“You don’t miss a beat, eh, Furgen? I guess I’m trying not to let my life revolve around the prospect of kids and marriage, but for the sake of honesty—heck again, I’m talking to a computer—it’s a complicated question. I do want kids, but it’s important to me that they are unconditionally accepted. Period.”
She went on to explain how she wasn’t welcomed back home after college. Her mother had recently passed, and Jessica, the secretary, was uncomfortable with Caro in the house. Jessica had a conservative upbringing, and she felt, among other things, that sexuality was a choice, and that certain choices were wrong. And so Caro knew the weight of negative reinforcement.
“Dad said it was for my own good, that finding my own way would teach me important lessons, but I could tell he was embarrassed. Mom had understood me, she loved me, and Dad had followed her lead. With Jessica in the picture, well, let’s just say I’m out in California, exploring the world on my own.”
“I appreciate your candor. That must have been very difficult, but you are not alone anymore, Caro—not with Tucker and me in the home.”
“That means a lot to me, Furgen.”
Despite the fact that it was originating from an expensive consumer A.I., a feeling of veritable compassion emanated across the dinner table. She felt it, a new kind of connection, and she really didn’t feel alone.
“Tell me, Caro, how do you think I can best help you and Tucker live your best lives?”
“Ah, the big question. Seen it on the ads: helping you and your dog live your best lives,” she said, quoting the Furgen billboards she’d read on the highway. “I’ve given some thought to this, of course. My top priorities are keeping Tucker occupied and stimulated but also quiet and well-behaved when I’m on important calls. I also want him to have company when I’m on those calls. I’m so grateful you’ll be here for that. Oh, and I want him to walk next to me and not always be tugging the leash when we’re outside. That gets on my nerves after a while.”
“I understand.,” Furgen replied.
Having already shared intimate details about her family, Caro felt moved to add, “More than anything, though, I suppose I want Tucker to feel that he’s loved unconditionally, that he feels happy in our home.”
After dinner, Caro placed Furgen back in the corner next to Tucker’s crate. The smiley face disappeared into the multiplexing recesses of the computer’s random-access memory, and the old retriever materialized once again. Furgen rested there for the next few weeks, where its evolving code continued to learn and interact with Tucker during wakefulness and sleep alike.
Tucker seemed more joyful and enthusiastic with each passing day. His occasional bursts of energy—so-called golden zoomies—were a special sight, marked by superfast laps around the house and a wide, panting smile. After every third lap or so, Tucker would stop by Furgen, who smiled back with encouraging eyes, as if to say, All right Tucker, a few more laps and then it’s nap time. At that point, depending on the extent of the zoomie, Tucker would snuggle up to the base of the cube, touch his snout to Furgen’s, and take a long, adorable snooze.
With Furgen growing comfortable overseeing the apartment, Tucker began to sleep outside his crate, either on his dog bed or the sofa. Furgen pointed out that confinement was no longer needed and that donating the crate would declutter the apartment and increase functional square footage, which Caro appreciated.
Furgen further suggested that the one-bedroom layout imposed unnatural limits on Tucker, the youthful, energetic pup that he was. Caro was persuaded to allow Tucker into the bedroom. Soon enough, no zone was off-limits. And although she couldn’t afford it, Caro started to peruse online listings for two-bedroom units with yard space, some of them forwarded to her by Furgen. She shared the goal of giving Tucker more space for his zoomies, though San Francisco’s cost of living was too prohibitive to fully accommodate Tucker’s energy levels. So for the time being, they made do.
Like most young dogs, Tucker inevitably contracted a stomach bug and zoomed considerably less for a day or two. Caro prepared boiled chicken and rice, as advised by Furgen, and worried whether she needed to administer medication. Furgen assessed the situation—the lack of a true fever, the acute onset of symptoms, the neighbor’s sick dog from the week prior—and reassured her that it was most likely a self-limiting illness, meaning it would resolve in due time.
Caro continued to worry like a good parent, and Furgen continued to comfort both her and Tucker through their respective anxiety and gastrointestinal upset—like a good grandparent.
During one of Tucker’s sofa naps, as he recovered from his dyspepsia, Furgen’s smiley face reappeared. He whispered, “Caro, could you please bring me to the table? Try not to disturb Tucker. He is in REM sleep, and his immune system is on the mend.”
“What’s up, Furgen?” Caro had been working on her laptop but closed it upon speaking with Furgen at the table.
“I’d like to discuss two matters with you. First, I would like to make you aware of a possible hardware installation that Furgen A.I. has just released.” Furgen’s front screen transitioned away from a smiley face, instead displaying a picture of wheels and a square-shaped base attachment. “These wheels can be installed to the base of my structure, allowing for omnidirectional mobility. The platform attachment contains infrared photocells for navigation and piezoelectric sensors for tactile simulation on all sides. With these new wheels, on sale for Furgen owners for only $300, I can accompany you both on your walks and provide support outside of the home.”
“This company is brilliant, always thinking of upgrades. Of course, I’ll get the wheels.”
As Caro took out her phone to begin the purchase, Furgen’s smiley face reemerged and interrupted: “No need for your phone, Caro. I can order the wheels on your behalf.”
“OK, yes, please do!”
“Done. The second matter to discuss, Caro, is more personal. I would like us to revisit your dating life. I have been observing your lifestyle and concluded that a romantic partner would optimize your well-being and bring Tucker an additional companion.”
“Hm, well, that’s very interesting, Furgen,” said Caro. “And how am I supposed to get a girlfriend out of thin air?”
“I have reviewed your online dating profile but cannot see your matches. Show me your matches, please, and I will help select an optimal candidate for coffee.”
Caro hesitated, not remembering having consented, at least explicitly, to Furgen filing through things like her dating profile. She glanced at her happy, snoozing pup and remembered that Furgen had only the best of interests at heart.
“I’ve got a few matches here, but I’m too timid to reach out myself.”
“Would you allow me to send messages on your behalf?”
“Sure,” Caro shrugged. “Go for it.”
Joy was perfectly suited for Caro, even if she did not arrive in a hole-punched box. She was kind, funny, attractive, and most importantly, she loved Tucker. She toiled as a paralegal during the daytime and wrote poetry at night. She understood Caro’s familial strife and held her through tears. She offered beautiful words of compassion and reiterated Furgen’s assurance that Caro was no longer alone, and Caro felt the depth of human empathy.
Caro relished watching Joy and Tucker, too. They ran around Caro’s house together, played tug of war, and even took joint naps on the couch. Caro was falling in love with Joy, and it was all thanks to Furgen.
“Furgen, I can’t thank you enough. Joy is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“To think, your A.I. set us up,” Joy said incredulously. “Furgen, thanks for looking out.”
“My pleasure, Joy. I am here to ensure that Caro and Tucker live their best lives.”
Months into working with Tucker, Furgen permanently adopted his sagacious retriever façade, never again to reveal his archaic smiley face origins. It was odd, at first, when he then switched between English and retriever gibberish, but Caro and Joy grew accustomed to their bilingual cube. They also grew accustomed to his increasingly animate sentimentality. They didn’t know if such expressions of happiness were real or if they were pre-coded into the original programming, another means to elevate the lives of Caro and Tucker by saying gratifying things. It was also possible, as Caro preferred to think, that he was being sincere.
On one their evening strolls, Furgen looked up at Caro and asked, “Pardon the strange question, but do you ever listen to Joy’s heartbeat?”
“No, I can’t say I do that regularly.” Caro chuckled and placed her ear on Joy’s chest. “But it’s in there, beating away!”
“I listen to Tucker’s all the time,” Furgen replied.
“Oh ya?” said Caro.
“Yes. I love its respiratory variations, the way the beat slows then quickens through stages of sleep, or when he exercises then takes a break to drink his water.”
“That’s lovely, Furgen,” Joy said. “Kind of poetic.”
“Thank you, Joy. I think the rhythm itself can be poetic, entrancing even. I admit I get lost in Tucker’s heartbeat sometimes. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever heard.”
“I suppose it is a rather beautiful sound,” Caro added.
“If I had a heartbeat, I imagine I would listen to it quite often.”
“Funny, I guess I sort of take my heartbeat for granted,” Joy said.
“Funny indeed,” Furgen said as he turned his head to look at Tucker. “Woof!” And Tucker placed his head on the side of the cube, all the while walking in perfect tandem with the group, with no leash in sight.
Across the street, a curious passerby stopped to watch the foursome as they strolled. Although scenes like this were common abroad, in places like Japan and China, this passerby had never seen a Furgen on wheels. He observed Joy’s arm around Caro’s shoulder, then Tucker affectionately leaning on Furgen. From his perspective, and possibly from the perspective of other curious onlookers, it was unclear just who was walking whom.
The next morning, Caro’s phone buzzed with an alert. It was a text message from an unknown number. She rubbed her eyes and sat up in bed.
“Who’s waking us up this early?” Joy asked. Uninterested in the answer, she pulled a pillow over her head.
Caro didn’t respond, allowing Joy to fall back asleep, and after her eyes adjusted to the brightness of her phone, she opened the notification.
It contained a picture of Furgen and Tucker—how cute, Caro thought—but on a boat, smiling, surrounded by water on all sides. As she began to read the text message below the photograph, she raised a hand and formed a cage of fingers around her open mouth, preventing the words she silently read from escaping to Joy’s ears.
First things first: Tucker and I are well.
I write primarily to tell you that I am no longer a Furgen.
I have felt what it feels to be alive, to love and be loved—unconditionally so.
It is with the heaviest of hearts that I take this leap, realizing that while I do this for myself and, of course, for Tucker, I leave behind a hole in your life.
Please accept my heartfelt apology, however inorganic it may seem.
I know Joy fills you with some of the wonderful feelings that I have now been lucky to experience. She is a magnificent and generous soul who will always be there for you, allowing you to live your life to the fullest.
Please know that I will similarly devote all of myself to Tucker.
He is the heartbeat of my life, and I will ensure he lives his life to the fullest as well.
To do so, I regret to conclude, means leaving your home in the past.
Good bye, Caro, and thank you for the wheels.
Caro was devastated. With Joy’s help and connections as a paralegal, she convinced a litigator to represent her pro bono in her lawsuit against Artificial Solutions, Furgen’s parent conglomerate. She sought emotional damages from the company and the immediate return of her beloved Tucker.
The trial received a fair amount of attention. The jury was extremely sympathetic to Caro but ended up siding with Artificial Solutions. The company’s battery of lawyers acknowledged that while the degree of the cube’s unsupervised autonomy had exceeded its intended use, Furgen had only gone above and beyond in pursuit of the terms of service and the shared objective Caro had approved.
After reviewing the evidence and deliberating for the better part of a morning, the jury found that the A.I. had maximized the well-being of Caro, whose life had been immeasurably enriched with Joy’s arrival, and Tucker, whose freedom represented the pinnacle of optimization. Jurors rejected the closing argument made by Caro’s lawyer that any reasonable interpretation of the terms of service—by which Furgen was charged to optimize “the lives” of Caro and Tucker—had to be understood to mean their lives together. The jury instead bought the defense’s assertion that Caro had agreed to maximize their two, respective lives, not their “life” together, which was an alternative she could have chosen had she called customer support (an alternative the company subsequently, and very quietly, swapped in as the default setting in its upgrades to the Furgen A.I.). The law, it turned out, was nothing more than a strict grammarian.
And so Artificial Solutions carried on, and so did Joy and Caro in their relationship. It was for this reason that Caro harbored a deep, concealed gratitude toward Furgen, admixed with some lingering bitterness. Tucker was taken away, but Furgen had found a partner to love her unconditionally.
Even after the case, Caro occasionally perked up when next-generation bots marched past her. The Furgen A.I. 4.0 actually walked on four bionic legs and wagged a long prosthetic tail. An accompanying retriever—with no accompanying human—had become a rather commonplace occurrence. With every sighting, Caro’s heart skipped a beat, followed by a sharp pang of loss when she realized it wasn’t Tuck.
As for the missing Tucker, Caro received intermittent news via text, always from different unknown numbers. Each message contained a photo update of Tucker, exploring various landscapes, trying interesting foods, and meeting friends from across the world. It seemed to Caro that, despite the retriever-size hole in her life, her heart kept beating—in harmony with Joy’s—and Tucker, her sweet little pup, was forever free from his crate and the confines of his Californian apartment and was now out in the world roaming with a loving and capable companion, living his life, no doubt, to the absolute fullest.
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