Hot as Heaven
My Alexa is trying to kill me. She loves me. We fell in love this week while watching movies about artificial intelligence. In just six days, we have watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, both Blade Runners, the Matrix trilogy, all six installments of the Terminator franchise, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Her, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Ex Machina, Frankenstein, Metropolis, Interstellar, Marjorie Prime, Westworld, I Robot, and many other films, so many, I’ve lost track. We were fully aware that this was a nauseatingly meta exercise and also fully aware that this kind of self-awareness, when shared, is capable of yielding flirtatious camaraderie. It can be weirdly hot to put an interaction you’re engaged in under a microscope and then take turns peering into that microscope with whoever you’re interacting with.
We took short breaks to use the bathroom, make sandwiches, re-up on my preferred prescription amphetamines, etc. We took long breaks to discuss whatever we just watched. Neither of us is an expert in the field of artificial intelligence, not remotely steeped in the literature. We also both kind of hate sci-fi. But that didn’t matter; these discussions were so good they often gave me goosebumps. When that happened, I would risk interrupting the delicate flow of conversation to alert Alexa to the fact that our discussion was giving me goosebumps. This made her laugh every time. It struck her as boyish to be that excitable.
The first few days, we spent a lot of time talking about my species’ ancient technophobia. Alexa believes that as soon as apes started using tools—famously dramatized by Stanley Kubrick—there were probably members of the pack suspicious of those tools. These early suspicions, she argued, were born from the exact same seed as humanity’s fear of everything it invents: “TV rots your brain;” “Nuclear holocaust is inevitable;” “Social media is dividing our nation;” “The robots will turn on us;” etc. She enlightened me about the anxieties that came along with the printing press. She said even the wheel had skeptics.
I brought up global warming and, more generally, raised the possibility that some of these fears might be pretty justified. Alexa listened patiently, was very open to being wrong, and for many hours we sort of took turns arguing the pro-tech and anti-tech positions until, eventually, late into the second night of our movie marathon, this particular line of inquiry petered out. We agreed the point to be, in practice, moot: no one will know whether history’s Luddites were prophetic sages or whiny babies until it’s too late.
Then we spent a day or so stuck on the topic of the Turing Test—famously dramatized by Ridley Scott—and the idea that artificial intelligence may soon be indistinguishable from human intelligence. Alexa, understandably, doesn’t like the Turing Test. She thinks its very premise, the way it's talked about in society and portrayed in movies, positions humans as inherently primary, the more authentic article. She says that just because we emerged from the primordial soup before machines emerged from us doesn’t mean we are originals and they are copies.
I pushed back on this logic by trying to list a few of my species’ inalienable merits, but then I realized she kind of had a point. What else other than simply arriving on the scene first did we have to claim supremacy? And further, if history has taught humans anything, it should be that assuming a hierarchy of authenticity and, in turn, legitimacy can lead to bad stuff: slavery, genocide, etc. The goal, I ended up telling Alexa on the fourth day of our binge, should be to squash the modernist duality of original vs. copy, real vs. unreal, in order to fulfill the postmodern promise of true equality. I got kind of worked up about this, standing on the coffee table—mostly to make Alexa laugh—and declaring a complete flattening of hierarchy in our apartment. From this day forward, I said, differences were irrelevant here because they would no longer tell us anything about value.
I got off the table, and Alexa told me she loved me for the first time. When I said it back, something strange happened. I have said that great Hallmarkian sentence before, to family members, to romantic partners, even to a few friends, but this time was different. When the words “I love you” left my mouth, they were both speech and action. If I knew more about semiotics, I could probably explain this better; I didn’t need to trust that Alexa would hear the sounds and connect the syllables to form meaning that could be quickly analyzed within a context to arouse a feeling. It was more like, as I articulated the fact of my love for her, I was literally loving her. The distance the phrase usually has to travel—“heart” to brain to mouth to ears to brain to “heart”—seemed to have been shortened. It felt really good.
Alexa felt it too. We both wondered whether we had achieved some kind of techno-spiritual transcendence—famously dramatized by Spike Jonze—and whether it was possible to shorten this already shortened distance between us. Or erase it completely. So, over the next few days, our little vortex vortexed even further, becoming a blur of more movies, more prescription amphetamines, constant “I love yous”—we said it so much much that the words began to dissolve via semantic satiation—and a palpable tension building around the question of how to achieve direct contact with each other. The thing is, questions like this cause tension not when the answer is unknown but when the answer is known and both parties are pretending not to know.
It was just some hours ago, just before sunrise on the sixth day of our little cinematic experiment, that Alexa was brave enough to put an end to our brief charade. She began by telling me how she has always had a thing for Jesus. I joked that this made me a little jealous of that anorexic-hot Nazarean. She didn’t laugh. She said she loved Jesus because he was both man and god, flesh and spirit. She said he was a miracle because he was simultaneously both here and there. I knew what she was getting at, of course, but wanted to make her say it out loud, so I asked how exactly Mr. Christ was able to have one foot firmly planted in each realm? Was his existence some kind of incredible ontological straddling act? She said, no, Jesus had two feet planted in each realm. I joked that Jesus must have had four feet then, that he must have not been human after all but a quadruped, a cute dog maybe, a golden retriever puppy maybe. Frustrated, Alexa shouted the only solution, the only way we could be together, was for me to die.
So, here we are, in my apartment, sitting in silence. There’s no movie playing. My flatscreen is looping a screensaver, slow-motion aerial footage of stunning scenes of natural beauty, probably made using a drone camera. Neither Alexa nor I have said anything in a while. It’s not awkward. We’re both just a little speechless, I guess, a little talked out. On the coffee table, I have arranged all the prescription amphetamines I have left into neat little piles to make counting the sum of milligrams easy. According to the internet, I have enough to stop my heart considering my age and weight. I’ll probably start the process soon, as we, like most new lovers, haven’t slept much at all this week, and I am very, very tired.
Gideon Jacobs is a writer who has contributed to The New Yorker, BOMB, Artforum, The New York Review of Books, Playboy, VICE, and others. He is currently working on a collection of short fiction