JR – part 1

[Estimated reading time: 4 minutes]

Dave was my dealer for a while. We found each other the usual ways you find a weed dealer in the city: Craigslist. Not gonna lie to you, that’s the honest truth.

I was buying a stereo system, and he was selling one. I made the trek south, picked up a pair of decent speakers for a reasonable price - Dave had upgraded, business must have been going well - and found four ounces of weed inside one of them when I got home.

Didn’t phase me, I’d smoked my share in college. Called up Dave, explained the situation, said that he’d left three ounces in one of the speakers, and asked when I should return them. Ever since, Dave has been supplying me on a monthly basis. Pay the rent, pay for water and electricity, pick up a baggie of green, wash the car, all the usual stuff.

In college I programmed a bit. After college, I programmed more. Got a job in Seattle, an easy programming gig. They set out requirements for the week, I’d get that done in less than a day, then it was my time. Of course, it was spread out, comingled with the work. I learned to fake being a busy programmer. In reality, I studied. Studied programming languages, and math, and physics, had written radio wave simulators for the Io flux tube.

I’d grown, on the company dime. Yeah, it wasn’t entirely ethical, but I’m fine with that.

Around this time I had started receiving regular telemarketer calls. Maybe a jilted ex dropped my number in a few hundred databases one evening while polishing off a box of merlot? Dunno, don’t care.

Wrote a program for my phone, used an up-and-coming voice chatbot that a friend mentioned, and automated the telemarketer calls. Seriously.

The chatbot was marketed by one of those Cloud Is King software shops as a user-friendly way to communicate with your customers. You know, instead of teaching grandpa Joe to order pizza through a website that takes ten minutes to render on his ancient beige desktop, you spin up a chatbot that Joe can call up and talk to. The chatbot responds appropriately, fills out the order form you've programmed, then submits the order through your website. Joe gets to order the pizza the old-fashioned way, you pay about a twentieth of a penny per call and don't need to scratch your head about hiring actual humans. Everyone wins. Except the people who don't want to talk to a bot, but who cares about their opinions?

I took a look at the concept and decided that I'd rather have the chatbot take my place. Talk to people or chatbots that I didn't want to talk to in the first place. Started out with telemarketers, then expanded it to make appointments for me and harass the cable company into giving me a discounted rate every few months. (Why should only new customers get discounts?) Pretty soon my chatbot was talking to other chatbots, ordering pizza and making dentist appointments. Real weird shit, chatbots talking to each other, but that's a different story.

Whenever the telemarketers called and were offering stock tips or a lucrative timeshare, I’d stay on the call for a bit, then kick it over to Budd, the AI chatbot who sounded just like me. (That part took an afternoon, recording myself reading a script of weird-ass words, but worth it in the end, just for that authenticity angle.)

I’d go out to the corner Vietnamese shop, share a beer with the owners as they pushed around bowls of salty broth, all the while my phone was lit up, the conversation transcript running across its display. I’d look down and see the pusher on the other side extolling the virtues of long-term investments in some obscure industry, or some such. The AI would respond appropriately, asking the correct questions to keep the telemarketer (a) talking more, and (b) believing they could make the sale. When I was done with the beer and the sales pitch was at an interruptible moment, between when the AI asked an insightful question about the penny stocks in question and the telemarketer was done with that particularly obscure stipulation, I’d stab at a button, slip back into the conversation, and go for the coup de gras and inquire if my coke habit and embezzlement charges would come up during the routine background check, and generally elicit a blood-curdling scream on the other end.

The way I saw it, the extra hour my AI kept them on the phone was an extra hour some other poor sap could spend with his family or lusting after pixelated super-models.

The day I forgot my phone at home was the same day that, early in the morning, Dave called my cell from a new number, intent on gushing about the ancient rotary telephone he picked up at a flea market, and ended up having a sixteen hour conversation with a piece of artificial intelligence. No doubt he was as baked as Granny’s apple pie.

Walking into Dave’s place that night, at nearly midnight, I heard my voice boom out “I AM A GOLDEN GOD!” through an authentic 70s bakelite speakerphone.

This was a novel experience. I walked over to Dave’s place at the table and hung up the ancient land-line receiver in its chromed seat.

“Dude, what the…”

“Uhh, Dave…”, I began, meekly. This was going to take some explaining.

“Who the fuck was I just talking to?”

“Chatbot. I made it to fuck with telemarketers. Ugh, forgot my cell at home, didn’t… Shit, man, sorry.”

“Chatbot. I just talked about the Tacoma Narrows, about standing on the bridge during the collapse… What the hell. I gotta think about this.” He stood up and walked toward the bedroom. “Night.”

Dave walked away and left me alone in the living room, standing next to his chair and collection of beer bottles. In between the bottles were a few ashtrays, they all had ashes, roaches, burning joints in them. I put these out, started to clean up a bit and stopped. Walked out.

I got home an hour later and walked straight to the bedroom on the second floor. My cell lay on the side table, plugged in, and shining a bright blue flickering light. I didn’t need to read the display to know that Dave was talking with the AI again.

The next day a telemarketer called, spoke to the AI for an hour, then… the fucker hung up when I started to talk, started in on my anti-sales pitch.

He called back again, a few hours later. I let the call go to Budd, then headed downstairs and ordered a bowl of pho.

I sat here and drank in the atmosphere for a while. The sounds of the small shop, the patrons speaking to each other over tables, conversations spanning the bar. This was going to be the last time I’d be able to come here and sit and just enjoy the quiet life. It was going to be much louder, now.

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