So long as the nurse is in the room to keep an eye on me, I am allowed to dress myself and get ready for Brad. I slip on an old pair of jeans and a scarlet turtleneck sweater. I’ve lost so much weight that the jeans hang loosely from the bony points of my hips.
“Let’s go spend the weekend in Salem,” Brad says to me as he walks me out of the hospital, an arm protectively wrapped around my waist, “just the two of us.”
I wait in the car while Dr. West speaks with Brad just outside the hospital doors. I can’t hear them but I know what she’s telling him. “Make sure she takes her Oxetine every four hours. Don’t leave her alone for any length of time.”
Brad drives with a light touch on the pedals, the same way he used to when I was pregnant with Aimée. The traffic is smooth and light, and the foliage along the highway is postcard-perfect. The Oxetine relaxes the muscles around my mouth, and in the vanity mirror I see that I have a beatific smile on my face.
“I love you.” He says this quietly, the way he has always done, as if it were the sound of breathing and heartbeat.
I wait a few seconds. I picture myself opening the door and throwing my body onto the highway but of course I don’t do anything. I can’t even surprise myself.
“I love you too.” I look at him when I say this, the way I have always done, as if it were the answer to some question. He looks at me, smiles, and turns his eyes back to the road.
To him this means that the routines are back in place, that he is talking to the same woman he has known all these years, that things are back to normal. We are just another tourist couple from Boston on a mini-break for the weekend: stay at a bed-and-breakfast, visit the museums, recycle old jokes.
It’s an algorithm for love.
I want to scream.
(“Not Average Toys for Not Average Kids”) and how Brad had come up with the idea for Laura. (Brad had nothing to do with the design, of course, since it was all my idea.
But his answer was so good it almost convinced me that Laura was really his brainchild.) Then it was time for the dog-and-pony show.
I put Laura on the desk, her face towards the camera. I sat to the side of the desk. “Hello, Laura.”
Laura turned her head to me, the motors so quiet you couldn’t hear their whirr. “Hi! What’s your name?”
“I’m Elena,” I said.
“Nice to meet you,” Laura said. “I’m cold.”
The air conditioning was a bit chilly. I hadn’t even noticed.
Cindy was impressed. “That’s amazing. How much can she say?”
“Laura has a vocabulary of about two thousand English words, with semantic and syntactic encoding for common suffixes and prefixes.
Her speech is regulated by a context-free grammar.” The look in Brad’s eye let me know that I was getting too technical.
“That means that she’ll invent new sentences and they’ll always be syntactically correct.”
“I like new, shiny, new, bright, new, handsome clothes,” Laura said.
“Though they may not always make sense,” I added.
“Can she learn new words?” Cindy asked.
Laura turned her head the other way, to look at her. “I like learn-ing, please teach me a new word!”
I made a mental note that the speech synthesizer still had bugs that would have to be fixed in the firmware.
Cindy was visibly unnerved by the doll turning to face her on its own and responding to her question.
“Does she” — she searched for the right word — “understand me?
I got so good at it that I sometimes coasted through entire interviews on autopilot, not even paying attention to the questions and letting the same words I heard over and over again spark off my responses.
The interviews, along with all the other marketing tricks, did their job. We had to outsource manufacturing so quickly that for a while every shantytown along the coast of China must have been turning out Lauras.
The first doll I designed was called Laura. Clever Laura ™.
Laura had brown hair and blue eyes, fully articulated joints, twenty motors, a speech synthesizer in her throat, two video cameras disguised by the buttons on her blouse, temperature and touch sensors, and a microphone behind her nose.
None of it was cutting-edge technology, and the software techniques I used were at least two decades old. But I was still proud of my work. She retailed for fifty dollars.
Not Your Average Toy could not keep up with the orders that were rolling in, even three months before Christmas.
Brad, the CEO, went on CNN and MSNBC and TTV and the rest of the alphabet soup until the very air was saturated with Laura.
I tagged along on the interviews to give the demos because, as the VP of Marketing explained to me, I looked like a mother (even though I wasn’t one) and (he didn’t say this, but I could listen between the lines) I was blonde and pretty. The fact that I was Laura’s designer was an afterthought.
The first time I did a demo on TV was for a Hong Kong crew. Brad wanted me to get comfortable with being in front of the cameras before bringing me to the domestic morning shows.
We sat to the side while Cindy, the anchorwoman, interviewed the CEO of some company that made “moisture meters.” I hadn’t slept for forty-eight hours.
I was so nervous I’d brought six Lauras with me, just in case five of them decided in concert to break down. Then Brad turned to me and whispered, “What do you think moisture meters are used for?”
I didn’t know Brad that well, having been at Not Your Average Toy for less than a year. I had chatted with him a few times before, but it was all professional.
He seemed a very serious, driven sort of guy, the kind you could picture starting his first company while he was still in high school — arbitraging class notes, maybe. I wasn’t sure why he was asking me about moisture meters. Was he trying to see if I was too nervous?
“I don’t know. Maybe for cooking?” I ventured.
“Maybe,” he said. Then he gave me a conspiratorial wink. “But I think the name sounds kind of dirty.”
It was such an unexpected thing, coming from him, that for a moment I almost thought he was serious.
Then he smiled, and I laughed out loud. I had a very hard time keeping a straight face while we waited for our turn, and I certainly wasn’t nervous any more.
Brad and the young anchorwoman, Cindy, chatted amiably about Not Your Average Toy’s missio
“No, no.” I laughed. So did Brad. And a moment later Cindy joined us. “Laura’s speech algorithm is augmented with a Markov generator interspersed with-” Brad gave me that look again.
“Basically, she just babbles sentences based on keywords in what she hears. And she has a small set of stock phrases that are triggered the same way.”
“Oh, it really seemed like she knew what I was saying. How does she learn new words?”
“It’s very simple. Laura has enough memory to learn hundreds of new words. However, they have to be nouns. You can show her the object while you are trying to teach her what it is.
She has some very sophisticated pattern recognition capabilities and can even tell faces apart.”
For the rest of the interview I assured nervous parents that Laura would not require them to read the manual, that Laura would not explode when dropped in water, and no, she would never utter a naughty word, even if their little princesses “accidentally” taught Laura one.
“‘Bye,” Cindy said to Laura at the end of the interview, and waved at her.
“‘Bye,” Laura said. “You are nice.” She waved back.
Every interview followed the same pattern. The moment when Laura first turned to the interviewer and answered a question there was always some awkwardness and unease.
Seeing an inanimate object display intelligent behavior had that effect on people. They probably all thought the doll was possessed. Then I would explain how Laura worked and everyone would be delighted.
I memorized the non-technical, warm-and-fuzzy answers to all the questions until I could recite them even without my morning coffee