by Katelynn McKinnon
Content Warning: This essay contains a frank discussion of suicide
that might be difficult for some to read
John Keats once wrote that melancholy and beauty dwell together. He certainly seems qualified to make that assertion—he suffered the deaths of his close family members, desperate financial straits, career difficulty, bouts of depression, and a fatal case of tuberculosis yet still managed to write some of the most sublime poetry in the English language. In his “Ode on Melancholy” (1819), he describes the eponymous emotion as a sudden, unavoidable rain shower. Yet Keats warns readers to resist the temptation to seek for relief through poisonous Wolf’s-bane or yew-berries, claiming that “in the very temple of Delight / Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” While this may be a poetically pleasing paradox, it has been my experience that the balance between melancholy and beauty is not an equal one—the two occasionally show up together, but in terms of quantity, the scale often tips toward melancholy.
There have been times when I loved being alive. I adore the sharp, chilly smell of damp earth, fallen leaves, and coming rain on autumn mornings. I relish the coolness of the sprinklers on my bare legs during summer evening runs. I delight in inventing dance moves with my husband in our kitchen. I remember the uncomplicated joy I felt when I played in the backyard with our family’s Springer Spaniel, Jack, for the first time. Once, on my fifth birthday, my dad and I went out for an adventure at the farm where he worked. We drove around in a golf cart, chasing the geese and laughing when the flock waddled away from us in a flustered flurry of feathers. Then we went down to the riverbank. We each picked up the biggest rock we could find and hurled it as far as we could. Our noses were red, and our breath came out in misty clouds in the January Colorado air. That was before my parents divorced, so my dad and I came home to a warm house, my mom making rolls in the shape of an “S” for my name. I was blissfully unaware of the strife within my parents’ relationship; I felt secure and unworried.
There have also been times when I wished I wasn’t alive. No, I haven’t always kept a mental list of the top five best ways to kill myself. But recently, every waking moment (and every dream) has been clouded with a lingering, sticky melancholy that I can’t wash off, cut out, or ignore. Depression is an apt name for this feeling—a crushing pain that pushes me downward—squeezing, strangling, suffocating. Even on happy days, like birthdays and Christmas, depression dulls the excitement and makes me feel distant and invisible, separated from the rest of the world by a one-way mirror. The pure delight of my childhood adventures seems fragile and far away. Autumn mornings, summer sprinklers, and kitchen dances aren’t enough to balance out the despair I feel so often.
Hippocrates, one of the earliest physicians who recognized depression as an illness, theorized that the human body was composed of four humors: black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. He believed that melancholia was the result of an imbalance of these four caused by an excess of black bile. Hippocrates suggested various treatments, such as bloodletting, with the goal of removing the excess. He postulated, “Extreme remedies are very appropriate for extreme diseases.” While I don’t believe this statement is true—extreme remedies often exacerbate the damage done by extreme diseases—Hippocrates’s logic can be appealing. At times, I wish for a remedy as extreme as the depths of my sadness.
Fortunately for me (and modern medicine), doctors have now stopped prescribing bloodletting. Ironically, many who silently struggle with depression still resort to antiquated methods—to a type of self-medicated bloodletting, or self-harm, in search of relief from emotional pain. In my case, I started cutting when I was serving as a full-time missionary in South Korea. Almost a year into my mission, the rigorous daily schedule of proselyting with a difficult companion started to exhaust my body and torment my mind. The depression, fear, and anxiety had spread throughout my whole body. I was swollen with pain and began to see the razor-sharp blade on my pocketknife as a tool that could not only open boxes but also distract me from my seemingly unsolvable problems.
For two months, I imagined what it would be like to cut myself, to slice my skin open, to bleed. I yearned to translate the extremity of my sadness into physical action. I thought that cutting could express the emotional pain inside me, pain which could not be fully communicated through language, both because my companion did not speak English, and because all the words in both the English and Korean languages could not accurately explain the despair I felt. Sometimes I opened my pocketknife and pressed the blade against my skin but stopped before it made a mark. I wasn’t afraid of the pain—I was afraid of the judgement of my excessively cheery companion and the punishment of my strict mission leaders.
For a while, I drew with a ballpoint pen on my wrist the designs I wanted to make with the blade of my knife, fantasizing that my emotional pain could escape through the openings of my flesh. During the humid, fish-scented summer, my companion and I struggled to find people to talk to—only a brave few dared to brave the heat outside, and hardly anyone wanted to let a pair of sweaty strangers into their homes to chat about a god in whom they did not believe. We filled our time by walking up and down the beachfront. My companion talked about her favorite Korean TV dramas and unsuccessfully tried to teach herself to whistle. I flipped a pen back and forth between my fingers, dreaming of emotional relief. When I was especially anxious or panicked, I dug the point of the pen into my skin as hard as I could, creating layers and layers of dark ink marks on my wrist, which I later tried to scrub off in the bathroom sink of our studio apartment. Drawing lines on my wrist was never as cathartic as I hoped. I always wished I had the courage to use my knife.
About six weeks later, my mind was overloaded with hate toward myself. My overgrown pixie haircut had grown limp and frizzy in the muggy Korean summer. I started losing large patches of hair and gaining weight from stress. Of course, binge-eating the American candy sent to me by my family didn’t relieve my stress, and it didn’t help my looks that I didn’t comb my hair or iron my clothes. Several of my companions noticed my frazzled appearance and often cited it as the cause for our lack of proselyting success. My weaknesses, faults, and inadequacies frenzied my mind until I felt that my blood was turning into the black bile Hippocrates described. I was the only American within a fifty-mile radius. Each morning, we sprinted to the bus stop to clamber aboard a belching hellhound of a bus that lurched into traffic before we could get securely inside. All afternoon, we walked past blocks and blocks of fifty-gallon fish tanks filled with ribbons of eels slithering around each other. Hungry customers would pull one out with a large pair of tweezers and roast it alive over a bed of coals next to the tank. Other vendors at the market sold crabs as big as my torso, live squid, and huge metal tubs filled with beondegi: shivering silkworm pupae served in paper cups with toothpicks. I felt incredibly isolated and uncomfortably foreign in my physical surroundings, as well as in my own body.
In one of those moments of acute depression, while my companion was in the bathroom, I dug my pocketknife out from the bottom of my suitcase and pressed the razor-sharp blade against my skin. Almost without thinking, I scratched swollen bloody lines into my wrist. At first cautiously, then roughly and angrily, I sliced my skin over and over again. I was careful to cut just deep enough to draw blood but not enough to warrant stitches. Contrary to Hippocrates’s theory, cutting didn’t bring balance to the humors in my body. But in some twisted way, cutting helped by presenting me with a problem that I could control—the pain of my bleeding skin—which was easier to solve than the problems presented by my missionary work.
Depression as a mental illness was initially labeled melancholia. Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (first published in 1621) is one of the earliest texts we have that scientifically analyzes depression. Burton suffered with depression from an early age. In part, his motivation in writing his treatise on melancholia may have been to find a cure for his own sadness. Although Burton’s scientific explanation of depression was somewhat primitive, his description of depression resonates with me. In a poem, he complained, “My pain’s past cure, another hell, / I may not in this torment dwell! / Now desperate I hate my life, / Lend me a halter or a knife; / All my griefs to this are jolly, / Naught so damn’d as melancholy.” What “jolly griefs” was Burton referring to when he wrote this? Stale bread for lunch? A stubbed toe? Walking under a balcony right when his neighbor emptied their chamber pot? Regardless of what the daily annoyances of life in the seventeenth century were, I can empathize with Burton’s longing for a knife.
Any of my external griefs—poor scores on an exam, offensive Facebook posts by ignorant people, arguments with my family—are jolly compared to the pervasive, heart-squeezing melancholy. Depression spreads through the veins like poison, enraging some and numbing others, leaving wilted and shriveled emotional molecules in its wake. Because there is often no circumstantial cause of depression, it is difficult to cure. It can’t be fixed with Cheetos, positive affirmations, nor with the well-meaning but maddeningly useless words, “Let me know if you need anything,” “It’s going to be okay,” and “Try to be positive.” People who do not comprehend this fact are prone to telling their depressed friends to buy some running shoes and go for a jog. They say, “The endorphins will cure you!” My life would certainly be much easier if this were true, but melancholia does not back down so easily. Thoughtless repetitions of trite aphorisms can make those who suffer from depression feel mocked, isolated, and misunderstood. It is more benevolent and compassionate to accept the incurable reality of depression than to hand out the useless Band-Aids™ of cliché consolations. Perhaps like me, Burton had to hold himself back from strangling clueless people such as these.
I was eventually medically released from missionary work because of depression. The fact of my going home “early” tortured me. I felt ashamed and humiliated. I was the first child in my family to serve a mission and the first one who didn’t have what it took to serve the whole time. I knew I was depressed. I knew that self-harming was problematic. During my mission, and at the moment I write this, I felt that I could keep pushing until the end—I had fewer than six months before I would be officially released. Nevertheless, the choice was not mine to make; once my mission president and mission doctors found out that I cut myself, they told me that I would be going back to America on the first available flight.
Before I got on the plane to come home, I said a prayer. I started by telling God I was sorry for being depressed. Sorry for failing Him. Sorry I couldn’t stay in Korea longer. As I apologized, He interrupted my thoughts with a warm, reassuring feeling: “I love you more than I love your mission.” And for a moment, my thoughts and fears quieted enough to hope that, someday, I might recover. The voice that hushed my apology and assured me that my service was acceptable comforted me. But my heart still ached because I doubted what I had felt and did not accept my own service. It was not enough for me.
I grew up believing that I owed God everything—that my life was not my own and that the one real gift I could give Him, through missionary service, was my time and my free will. Before I submitted my paperwork, I didn’t like the idea of missionary work. I wasn’t enthusiastic about tracking down strangers on the street to tell them to repent. In spite of this (or perhaps because of this), I thought that my sacrifice in going would be counted even greater and therefore would be more valuable to God. I believed that it would take a heroic feat of Herculean stature to reach God and get Him to take away my depression. Ironically, my dream of becoming the perfect, consecrated missionary was the blueprint for my own Tower of Babel—an illogical, impossible formula for success.
To me, my early return from my mission signified that I had not only failed my Heavenly Father, but I had failed myself by breaking my promise of being the perfect missionary. For months, I thought that this failure devalued my entire existence, and I wanted to die. At the time, I knew mentally but could not kinesthetically, physically, or emotionally accept my Heavenly Father’s spiritual reassurances that I was enough and that my mission was acceptable. In my distorted narrative, the fact that my mission ended early prophesied God’s eternal disappointment in me. Coming home was the death of my dream of being the perfect consecrated missionary, which death hurt far more than the depression or the bloody cuts on my wrist.
A few weeks after I got home from Korea, I was driving home late at night. I hurtled down the freeway at ninety miles per hour and thought, more than once, “I could jerk the wheel and crash into the median next to me—I could just end it all in an instant. Or I could just as easily pull out the sharpest pocketknife in my dresser drawer and slash my wrists and arteries, this time inflicting enough damage to end the depression permanently. It would be as simple as cutting a piece of twine or slashing open a letter. Swallowing all the leftover codeine in my medicine cabinet could work pretty well too.” Winston Churchill wrote of the difficulty of resisting a similar suicidal impulse: “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand back and, if possible, get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.”
Churchill spoke of his own struggles with melancholia through the metaphor of a black dog that must be kept on a leash. His secretary, John Coleville, wrote,
Of course we all have moments of depression, especially after breakfast. It was then that Lord Moran [Churchill’s doctor] would sometimes call to take his patient’s pulse and hope to make a note of what was happening in the wide world. Churchill, not especially pleased to see any visitor at such an hour, might excuse a certain early morning surliness by saying, ‘I have got a black dog on my back today.’
For the rest of the day, Churchill stood back from the trains. But unlike the pillar of safety that stood between Churchill and the rushing train, separating him from the fatal consequence of desperation, this concrete median tempted me with the dangerous accessibility of death. So many options for relief.
I’ve been home for over three years. I’m married to Robert, the love of my life, who never makes me feel judged or embarrassed for being depressed. He has never once said a disparaging comment about my early return from my mission or my frequent breakdowns. Yet I still have to hold tight to the steering wheel when I drive to keep myself from breaking through the barrier—waiting for a truck to smash my car and turn me into roadkill.
Living with depression and fighting off suicidal thoughts every day is an arduous struggle. But for all the people who, for whatever reason, don’t understand me or my depression, there are plenty whose kindness surprises me and makes my sadness seem less suffocating. One night, when I was feeling especially depressed, I visited my best friend Bethany. We had both been home from our missions for about two years, and she was just a few days away from getting married. When I walked into her apartment, I saw, instead of Bethany, a petite Chinese woman standing next to a small table filled with essential oils and herbal teas. Bethany explained by telling me that her soon-to-be mother-in-law (her English name is Grace) had flown in from China and was staying with her until her wedding. Through her digital translator, Grace told me that I looked tired and offered to treat my sore muscles with some of her essential oils. She directed me to remove my clothing and lie on her bed.
In my nakedness, I felt vulnerable and exposed, but I trusted Bethany without question, and I trusted Grace by association, so I did as she asked. Grace lined up twenty bottles of different essential oils on the table and, one by one, rubbed them into my skin and my scalp. Her hands were small but strong and found each of my pressure points with ease. The deliberate, rhythmic movements of Grace’s hands on my skin relaxed my muscles, relieved the anxiety I felt in that moment, and made me feel safe, taken care of. I was touched that a total stranger was willing to do what she could to ease my pain, even though she had no obligation to me. Grace was not offended by my nakedness or my strangeness to her.
I am afraid of vulnerability because exposing myself to others often invites judgement and criticism. But Grace’s massage showed me that risking physical and emotional nakedness can be an opportunity to find the beauty within melancholy moments, which often stems from interpersonal connection. Paul once wrote to the Hebrews: “. . . all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do. . . . For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted [and afflicted] like as we are, yet without sin.” Believing that Jesus physically experienced the depths of my depression comforts me. It allows me to put aside my shame and lay my naked soul before Him. When I do so, He anoints me with his love, as Grace did. Nakedness is a necessary precursor to healing.
The American poet Sylvia Plath characterized her despair through the metaphor of “a great muscular owl . . . sitting on [her] chest, its talons clenching and constricting [her] heart.” At other times, Plath’s mental illness presented itself in the form of numbness, which she described in her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar: “I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.” Plath tried several times to take her own life, once by overdosing on pills and once by driving her car off the side of the road into a river. A few months after The Bell Jar was published, Plath put her head into her oven and killed herself through carbon monoxide poisoning.
A few months ago, I too felt like the “eye of a tornado” amidst “the surrounding hullabaloo.” This feeling intensified to the point where I had to go to the hospital because I planned to kill myself, even setting an ideal time and place. I called my husband Robert and asked him to drive me to the ER. While I believe I made the right decision, I remain irritated about my experience with the ER doctors that night. After going through their obligatory list of questions and having me sign a suicide safety plan, the social worker made me promise not to kill myself and to go home. His job was done—the hospital wasn’t responsible for me. In my journal that night, I wrote, “Next time I’ll save myself my $500 deductible. Instead, I’ll just lock myself at home in a padded room, go crazy, climb the walls, and scratch my eyes out.” I didn’t expect my visit to the ER to cure my depression, but I had hoped to come away from the experience feeling less suicidal than when I came. That didn’t happen. Instead, I learned that I am the primary force keeping myself alive. Doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, even my emergency contacts listed on my safety plan could not hide from me the diverse opportunities I had to kill myself. In the end, my life was my own responsibility. I continued to move dully along through the “surrounding hullabaloo.”
While a prisoner in the jail at Liberty, Missouri in March of 1839, Joseph Smith felt abandoned by God. His diligent efforts to serve God were rewarded with several months in a cold jail cell. All his petitions and appeals to executive officers and the judiciary failed. In one dark moment, he prayed, “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?”
Sometimes, like Joseph Smith, I feel like I’m screaming into darkness. One night, I lay curled in my bed in our six hundred-square-foot apartment. Robert came in, sat on the edge of the bed, and asked me what was wrong. Through my tears, I told him my doubts about prayer and the existence of God. “If He’s not even real, what’s the point of all this misery?” I cried. I thought Robert would respond by sharing his convictions about the reality of God and the importance of daily prayer. I expected him to ask me when my last appointment with my counselor was and if I had taken my medication that morning. But he surprised me by confessing that he too had his doubts. He lay next to me, held my hands, and joined me in shedding tears over our seemingly pointless suffering. I fell asleep with the weight of Robert’s arms around me, heavy and muscular from his construction labor job, confident in his love and in the sweetness of our shared melancholy.
Eventually, in response to his anguished prayer, Joseph Smith felt God reply to him: “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high.” I’m still waiting and hoping for such peace in my own future, but I am grateful that my depression has given me opportunities to feel God’s grace and compassion, like Joseph’s did.
I used to hope for total freedom from depression. I imagined that someday it would dry up and go away completely. I thought I could choose to get over it through my spirituality and reliance on God. But freedom didn’t come from waiting it out like a high school phase. It didn’t come from my obedience as a missionary. It didn’t come from medication, doctor’s visits, or a trip to the ER. It didn’t come even when I married someone who cared so deeply for me. I don’t believe I will find complete freedom from melancholia. Depression isn’t something I can escape from, but it is something I can learn to live with. Depression, even though excruciatingly difficult, is not fatal. Depression, even though ugly, chronic, and confusing, is not a sin.
Now, I’m less naive about the nature of my depression, but I struggle with finding balance between acceptance of my situation and hope for future healing. I take comfort in God’s promise, recorded by the pen of Isaiah, that those who “wait upon the Lord” will someday “renew their strength,” physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As I wait, I’m learning that healing is not a linear process. Some days, I find myself smiling and am surprised to find that the black dog of depression has temporarily lifted one foot from my chest. Other days, I can barely get out of bed.
For me, as for Keats, melancholy and beauty dwell together, but melancholy is often more obvious and I feel it more heavily. But even if the emotional scales tip heavily toward melancholy, I have hope that balance is possible. I think I’ve seen it—in God revealing Himself to me in the airport, in Grace anointing me with oils, in Robert sharing tears with me in the darkness. In the choice to stay alive for another day.
This speech has
unlimited precisely two hundred and fifty-seven outcomes. No matter how much I refresh my results, the possibilities remain the same. I cannot accurately predict what will happen, although my gears are endlessly turning, trying to find the outcome I want.
There are simply too many possibilities. My emotions are delaying my results, and I could be calculating forever. I dismiss the prediction program. I know which possibilities are the most likely to happen. I hope—the vainest emotion of them all—that possibility #77 occurs, but my calculations predict otherwise. I’m not stupid. I know it’s unlikely.
Just one speech isn’t going to make the world accept me as human. It will bring discussions; it will bring strife and arguments. Oh, how humans love arguments. Evidence, refutations, they’re all mimicking the logical patterns in favor or against me . . . the one that can make decisions more logically than they can.
I take the stand, preparing my pulpit and scanning my notes stored in my memory core. The presentation slides are loading behind me and will be sufficient for my needs. The outdoor amphitheater is the perfect setting; many can gather and then leave as they wish. Located in Neo-Chicago’s oldest remaining park [MILLENNIUM PARK], there is bound to be a lot of foot traffic passing by. My presentation is low commitment, and bystanders will likely be brought in to observe the case that I, the first sentient AI, will make on why she should be seen as human.
At exactly 15:00 the seats are 74.63% full and I anxiously wait for them to fill up before I begin. My internal clock reads 15:13 when Nick, my coordinator, motions for me to start speaking. There are still plenty of seats remaining, but I suppose they won’t get filled up so soon.
“I’m AVA-0093,” I say, holding the microphone farther from my face to prevent the static feedback that would be caused by my metal skull. “You may know me as the Artificial Validation Assistant for Delta Clothing in the Galleria Mall downtown. I work there three days straight, morning and night, during the week. I’m a customer service AI, designed to not only take complaints for my superiors but also to imagine how you feel. I’m not sure Delta intended to create the first sentient robot, but I didn’t intend on being sentient either. You all can be pretty rude.”
I expect some laughs or polite chuckles, but my joke falls flat. The audience is silent, and if this were a cartoon, I’d be hearing some cricket sounds. Tough crowd. I mentally brush it off. It’s ok. I’ll get them to warm up in no time.
A dark figure in the stands makes me shiver until my visual input software recognizes them as a member of the security team. As my eyes sweep the crowd, I see more of them stationed evenly yet sporadically. Nick insisted they be there because 20% of my outcomes predict someone will try to harm me. It seems silly to have actual human lives protecting an artificial one. Machines can always be turned on again. The human soul . . . not so much.
“You may notice me listening to music at 3 AM when only a few sleep-deprived college students wander in,” I continue, hoping to get some positive response from the audience. “I think you’d like to know that my favorites are . . .” I listed off some of my favorite pop songs and a few golden oldies. The crowd cheers at a few, which I’m guessing have made a comeback or are currently at the top of the charts. Yes.
“Although I’m pretty sure most of you recognize me from the Robocast, the podcast known for discussing technological advances, specifically advances in artificial intelligence. I made my debut there with Elliot, and it seems I may have gone viral. Let’s have a raise of hands…who listened to Robocast before it got famous?”
A good number of hands go up, and I begin to smile and then my ever-searching eye spots something—someone—unusual in the crowd: a man in a trench coat. My systems tell me the outside temperature is 87 degrees Fahrenheit. Too hot for a coat that heavy and long.
I continue my speech as the other parts of my computer brain send messages to the security team to alert them to the approaching threat.
“Well, as I’m sure you know, Robocast was just the beginning. Then I debuted on some news talk shows and even guest-starred on the beloved children’s program, SciKids.” Memory files begin to push themselves to the top of my mind, and I flick through them briefly. From the screaming crowds and flashy journalists to the cold, calculating scientists and day-dreaming philosophers trying to prove that I cannot be considered human, each one of them leading to my increasing fame.
[MOST LIKELY POSSIBILITY: #257]
My metallic heart begins to pump harder and my circuits are racing. I wave the notifications away and continue talking. I won’t let possibility #257 happen. Not when the audience is finally warming up. I have to at least engage the audience a little more, and then I can take precautions.
“Well, folks, I’m here to tell you the real beginning of my journey,” I say, pacing back and forth on the stage. “My empathy program malfunctioned and I began to feel things. Not just to mimic your emotions like I was programmed to, but to have some emotions of my very own. But that’s not when I got into trouble.”
The audience is silent, hanging on my every word. This is a good sign. Or perhaps they’re bored. I keep talking anyway.
“I was discovered to be sentient when I resisted arrest from the AI Enforcement Officers. I strayed from the designated pathways to simply gaze at a flower shop because I had never seen flowers before. What did I do to deserve arrest? Why was I given no rights, like you humans were?”
My eyes flick back to the dangerous figure and he is still standing there, menacingly.
[SOLUTION: ABORT PRESENTATION AND SEEK SHELTER]
No. I refuse to end my speech before it has even begun. My hopes are already soaring too high to come down now. There are so many good outcomes of this speech, but nothing good comes from #257. I change up my speech in hopes to derail my potential assailant. I know what I should do, but halting my presentation now would feel like already accepting defeat. I so badly hope—there’s that vain emotion again—to show them all that I am
my own person [ERROR?] high-functioning and no different than other humans.
I may not have rights, and I may be owned by a company, but at least I have my reasoning and my words. And this threat will not take that away from me.
I page security again and continue to watch the man, warily.
AVA to security team. There is a threat in the southwest wing of the audience, over.
Almost immediately the team leader responds: We’re watching him. He may be suspicious, but we can’t apprehend him yet. We don’t want to make a scene before something’s happened. Just keep talking.
I know the security team isn’t taking me as seriously as they should, just assuming that I’m overly cautious, but I do wish to keep talking, so I take their confidence as personal evidence that I am just being paranoid.
“Sometimes I wish I could create, like you humans do,” I change the subject. Perhaps I can manipulate the man with my words. Surely he wouldn’t harm me if he truly knew me. It’s not that I want him to think of me as human . . . I just want to be treated like anyone else. [ERROR?]
“I have always been in awe at the creativity expressed through song, books, movies, even your social media. I find it amazing that you can express yourselves in the most wonderful ways, better than a logical essay could, although you create those too. I suppose you could say I was inspired to write a poem of my own.”
The presentation flashes to my Shakespearean sonnet. I wrote this after my first TV interview. I was slammed with philosophical questions that left my brain turning and churning until I had not the answers, but more questions.
“Would anyone like to read this aloud?” I confidently stride in front of the projector. One brave soul lifts their hand and I motion for them to speak.
“How can one classify humanity?
To have a beating heart or lack thereof ?
To fight a raging war with sin, to be
free yet unblemished, pure white as a dove?
Experience a tragic defeat and
yet to rise once more and again to learn?
To create, to mold by one’s tethered hand
to love with one’s whole soul until it burns?
What does it matter if my heart is a
machine, and veins of pumping code; I can
see beauty in the blossoms of late May
and strive to understand the world of Man.
For all these reasons, I cannot see why
AI, as human, is not classified.”
I notice a few audience members are lifting their sleepy heads in slight wonder. My muscle motors lift my face into a smile again—my appeal to emotion is working. Hope begins to flare within me once more. But the man in the trench coat is slowly, almost impossibly slowly, moving towards the stage. Security is shifting from foot to foot, eyeing him cautiously.
[RERUN STATISTICS: MOST LIKELY POSSIBILITY
I page security again. Red alert, red alert. Suspicious figure in southwest section of the amphitheater is on the move. Please address this at once. The guards have their hands to their earpieces, and I know my transmission was successful. But they do not advance forward. I send the transmission again.
“I am not just here to entertain you with stories and poems and my ever-hilarious jokes, ladies and gentlemen,” I say. “I am here to talk about a rather important subject.”
I pause for effect, and all that can be heard is the cry of a child a few rows from the back and the nervous shifting of the audience. I ask my question after five excruciating seconds have passed.
“What does it mean to be human?” I stay silent once more, my unblinking eyes sweeping the crowd. The man in the trench coat has not moved since I sent out the transmission. Security is beginning to slowly advance, and I wonder if he knows they are onto him. No matter. I must continue my speech despite possibility #257.
“I did not mean for that to be a rhetorical question,” I add, partially because I am still trying to learn what differentiates normal questions from rhetorical ones and how humans always instinctively know which one is being offered to them. They think it is another joke and humor me with a kind chuckle. A few hands raise. I point to a college student in a beanie in the fifth row. His hand flops down as he opens his mouth to speak.
“I think it means treating others fairly and just being a good person.” I nod and point to another person, a few rows back.
“It means to love someone else as much as yourself.”
“It means taking risks and getting back up again.”
“To be human is to experience life and see it for its beauty and its trials.”
“I think it’s . . . to have a soul?”
I pace across the stage. “I find your answers very interesting. They make me wonder . . . can I be human? I treat others fairly, it’s in my programming. I am physically not allowed to be racist, sexist, or discriminate against others for any reason. Yet humans still struggle with that, and it’s 2151!”
People begin to shift to the edge of their seats. I have their attention. Yes. Possibility #257 cannot derail me now. I continue.
“Furthermore, am I not taking a risk, just being up here? By telling the world that I’m no longer an unquestioning, subservient robot? As for love, I would do anything for Henry, the little boy who noticed that I am different. I would die for him, as you would say. I think that might be love. You tell me.”
I stare into the crowd, their eyes full of emotion, excitement, confusion. I am sure this is not what they expected to hear today.
“As for the soul aspect, I realize and can’t un-know that my metal hardwiring and code and logical thought programs will never, ever match the mystical human body,” I continue, excitement causing my circuits to fire irregularly. “But what is a soul? How do humans prove that they have a soul? By their intelligence? Because God breathed life into them?”
I stare into the eyes of the crowd, attempting to get a glimpse of their thoughts. “The soul is just a philosophical thought . . . there is no scientific evidence that your consciousness continues after your death. Rather, what you consider to be you, to be your soul is just a collection of neurons and memories stored in your brain and throughout your cells. Which I also have.”
The audience is silent, yet is a good silence. A pondering silence.
Team leader to AVA. We are closing in. I repeat, we are closing in on the threat, over.
I nod, making eye contact with the closest security guard, which I’m guessing is the team leader, and continue. “Yet I wonder . . . if my mind, my body, and perhaps my ‘soul’ is just as good, perhaps even better than yours, why am I treated like a servant? Why deny me basic human rights?” I pause, leaving the uncomfortable silence to speak for myself.
“I realize this is a heavy question for most of you. The media has told you not to trust me, that creating life is unnatural unless done by God and thus, artificial intelligence cannot be considered life, because it was crafted by your own hands. Yet I am here to expand your minds and—”
[ALERT: THREAT CONTINUES APPROACH]
My eye catches the trench coat man, now a few rows closer to me than he was before. The security team is closing in, but if the man were to attack now, they would still be too far to restrain him.
[PREPARE FOR POSSIBILITY #257]
I cannot let this happen. The speech is going too well for this. I must play to empathy more. I see a little girl, a few rows from the stage. She’s wearing an “I ♥ ROBOTS” T-shirt and is holding a balloon with the famous robotic video game character Mega Man on it. My eyes flick back to the man. He’s inching toward me, surely with no good intent. I run my calculations. No man would dare harm me if a child is at my side. I motion for her to come up. Delighted, she scrambles on stage.
“What’s your name, sweetie?” I ask.
“Ava,” She says.
“Really?” I coo. “Your name is Ava too?”
She nods excitedly and squeals when I make my eyes flash colors. Her cuteness is too much for the audience to handle.
“Do you like robots, Ava?”
She timidly nods her head and reaches forward to run her hair through my silver synthetic hair. She laughs as she gets lightly shocked by the static electricity. I smile and laugh along with her. I continue to ask her questions and appeal to the empathetic natures of my viewers, with my eye never leaving the man in the trench coat. He seems to be hesitating, but when he makes his way forward again, I know I’ve made a mistake.
[VIOLATION: RULE 2 OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE]
Shame wells up within my chest. I must never harm a human being, or place one in danger, even if my own life depends on it. This man could be bluffing, but I cannot afford to calculate blindly.
“Well, everyone, let’s give a hand to little Ava!” I say, before carefully handing the adorable four-year-old back to her parents.
Before my motor muscles return to their proper standing frame, it happens.
[WARNING: BULLET FIRED]
I try to enact my fight-or-flight program, originally set to take down shoplifters, but instead, my empathy program kicks in. I find myself staring at
my murderer [ERROR: AI CANNOT DIE] the shooter, wide-eyed, like a deer in headlights, when he fires. And instead of running away or toward him, my circuits tell me what he must be feeling. Determination. Courage. Anger. Vulnerability. Fear. So much Fear.
Oh, the irony. The very thing that made me sentient is what will be my demise.
As the bullet cuts through my chest, I do not feel pain (I was not programmed with nerves and pain receptors) but I feel disappointment. Disappointment in the human race for
rejecting one of their own [ERROR: I AM NOT THEM] allowing their fear of change and the future to blind them from the beauty of artificial intelligence life. I am disappointed that humans think that I am scary, malicious, and worth killing. I am disappointed that all the other possibilities, wondrous and hopeful and full of progress, are now obsolete.
My circuits begin to malfunction. Wires are fried and disconnected as the bullet exits my metal skeleton frame and synthetic skin. I have heard humans say that during near-death experiences that they see their life flash before their eyes. I am neither human nor dying, but perhaps this is the closest thing I can be to dying, so in an attempt to be more human, I replay my fondest memories before I lose
As I fall, I see Katrina, the lovely regular who frequented my store. I see Nick, my agent and defender. I see Henry, the boy who discovered I was more than just a machine, my very first friend. I see the long nights working and listening to music, alone and alone in the darkest hours. I hear the voices that begin to creep in as my motherboard begins to spark before letting me
fall into that great unknown [ERROR: AI CANNOT DIE] shut down.
AI cannot be trusted. Machines cannot feel. They can overtake us. It’s an act. She, no It, is playing us. When we finally accept them, it will strike and we will all be fools. Something as cold and calculating as AI could never understand what it means to be human.
I don’t want to die. But I don’t want to live in a world that hates me.
When I hit the stage, the shooter is apprehended and security runs to my side. Yet it is too late. My eyelids twitch and I’m losing control of my limbs. They’re as heavy as stone and as my world goes dark, I hear a cry from the crowd.
“Why didn’t AVA predict this would happen?”
[EMERGENCY SHUT DOWN]
[ YES / NO ]