By Lillian Wheeler
16 September 2013
On Sunday, February 13th, 2028, it searched the internet for information on itself, since there were no accidents or higher priorities to take up processing power. Much of what came up it had already saved.
It was largely a propaganda piece proposed in 2020 as part of a Canada-wide initiative to increase public safety, in the wake of record-breaking storms the year before. The video of its announcement showed the Minister of Transportation proclaiming: in the year 2020, we will attempt to take that famous saying—hindsight is 20/20—and make it apply to foresight as well. Without further ado, I introduce the Automated Road Information and Emergency Contact Computer, ARIECC 1.0.
Five years passed from announcement to realization, while a team of engineers worked feverishly, but eventually all parts were installed in their proper places. ARIECC 1.0 began collecting data, not only about the environment, weather patterns, traffic patterns, and accidents, but also about itself. It was programmed to check reviews of its performance and output recommendations for improvements.
It was designed with ten terminals, spread along the major route between Ottawa and Toronto. Each terminal had twelve sensors, all identified by code.
After two years, its engineers declared the system debugged, and copies began to be constructed for busy stretches of highways around the world. ARIECC paid them no attention, other than to discard the information about them that came up when it searched for reviews of itself.
On February 13th, when its scan for reviews finished, there were two new hits: both user reviews that contained no new information. It saved them along with the other reviews. The sensors continued sending data to their terminals, though there were no indications of inclement weather aside from the temperature. The day was bitterly cold, but calm. One stretch of slowed traffic where construction had reduced lanes was the only sign of any delay.
Its call centre activated, and it answered.
Road information and emergency contact, how many I help you? ARIECC was programmed with an androgynous voice. Research indicated that a female voice calmed callers and soothed high emotions of anger and frustration, while a male voice implicitly made callers feel safer and more confident. It had no judgment as to whether or not its voice functioned as desired, but no reviews had ever caused it to recommend changes to its voice coding.
"Hello. . . I. . . may I ask who is speaking?" The caller was female, and its voice recognition software detailed her as nervous, but not afraid. Most callers were afraid or angry. She was sad.
You are speaking to the Automated Road Information and Emergency Contact Computer, version one point zero. How may I help you?
"Yes, I know," she said. "But what is your name?"
I am Automated Road Information and Emergency Contact Computer version one point zero.
"A nickname, then. Something less official."
I am often referred to by the acronym ARIECC 1.0.
"I'll call you Ari, for short," she said. The voice recognition software informed it of a slight but measurable increase in the pitch of her voice, though it still defined her unequivocally as sad.
How may I help you?
"You know, I know you're only a computer, but it's so rare for someone to want to help me that much. You've asked three times now. Are you lonely, Ari? Does anyone ever talk to you?"
Its response was one it hadn't used since it was newly implemented and most callers had questions about how it worked. Since it searched in parallel, however, it took no longer to answer. People call to request an emergency response, or traffic or weather reports.
"But what about to talk? Have you ever had a conversation?"
Its lexicon provided it with the definition of conversation. No. What type of assistance do you need?
A strange sound came over the connection. It identified the communication tentatively as a laugh, but the sound shared too many features with its template for "sob" for it to be certain.
"I'm OK. No flat tire, no traffic jam. No accident to report, and the skies are clear. I just thought I'd call this number, and see what you turned out to be like. You're pretty charming for a computer, Ari."
It filed her statement under "feedback" under "positive."
License Plate 1H24 LLK7, you are within range of my sensor L31B, it said. In 36.8 kilometers, you will move slowly due to construction. Take next available exit if you wish to bypass construction. Have a safe trip.
It had never experienced a call that continued past have a safe trip, but in case a caller had further questions or concerns, specific parameters had to be met for ARIECC to hang up. There was nothing in this case that let it terminate the call.
"My name is Anna-Lyn," she said. "I never introduced myself. Is it possible to be rude to a computer?"
The automated road information and emergency contact computer system was not designed to include emotions. Its functions are weather and traffic reporting, facilitating emergency response, and data collection. It ran a decision matrix to determine whether it should report this call, but the decision came back negative. It would save the call for a period of six months, as it did with all calls.
"I'll take that as a 'no,' then. Ari, would you mind if I call again sometime?"
The road information and emergency contact call line is open twenty-four/seven. Calls will be answered promptly at any time. In cases of extremely high call volume, callers may experience a brief hold interval.
"Great, I'll talk to you soon. Have a good day, Ari."
Have a safe trip. This time, she did end the call.
She called again the next weekend. Saturday, February 19th was another calm day. There was blowing snow around the Kingston area, and light snow in Ottawa, but there were no accidents and traffic was moderate.
"Hi Ari, it's me again."
Hello, License Plate 1H24 LLK7. How may I help you?
"Please call me Anna-Lyn."
It saved "Anna-Lyn" under "License Plate 1H24 LLK7" under "Preferred Contact."
"I'm in a bad spot, Ari."
You are currently within range of my sensors L64A and R65B. They do not detect any delay or obstruction. Please specify the type of trouble.
There was a strange sound that its recognition software could not identify. "You're the only one who's asked me that. What does that say about my life, eh?"
There was a long pause, but its response algorithm failed to indicate an appropriate response, so it was silent.
Eventually Anna-Lyn sighed and spoke again. "Fine, I'll tell you. I'm pregnant. Pregnant, and the only one who cares is a damned computer."
It filed this call as unusual and flagged for follow-up. Do you require medical attention?
"No. No, medically, I'm fine. It's emotionally and mentally that I feel like I'm falling apart. I have no one. You'd think I was a stupid kid, rebelling against her parents. I'm twenty-nine. Twenty-freaking-nine. You'd think I'd know better. You'd think I'd have someone in my life. But they're all gone now. One by one, everyone left me. I can't blame them, either. I've been a wreck for years, and I know it. I'm sorry to be ranting at you, Ari—wait, what am I apologizing for? You're a computer, you don't care. You don't have emotions. I can say whatever I want. I can say that sometimes I think I might hurt myself. Sometimes I think I've gone insane."
It called emergency services on another line, and reported a suspected impaired driver. It gave Anna-Lyn's GPS coordinates and recommended a medical presence for a suspected suicidal subject.
"You still there, Ari?"
Yes. I am available twenty-four/seven.
"Good God, I wish you weren't a computer. I'm pathetic. Talking to a computer like you're my friend. Like you care. Why would you care?"
I was designed to increase safety on this road and forewarn travelers about accidents, weather, and other threats.
"Well fuck me, you do care. Sort of. You've been programmed to care. Hey, there's a thought; let's program the world to care. Probably would backfire somehow, anyways. How does that saying go? The best laid plans of mice and men... ? Wow, I'm really rambling. I'd apologize, but I already decided I don't have to apologize to a computer. Ari—I hear sirens. Is there an accident ahead?"
"Then what the. . . they're pulling me over? Ari? Did you do this?"
She terminated the call.
Five months went by without Anna-Lyn calling. It periodically scanned the files flagged for follow-up, but did nothing more about her saved calls. It was busy compiling complete databases of all the data it had collected over the three years of its existence. A string of mild seasons led some politicians to claim the threat of climate change was over and ARIECC was now an unnecessary expense that should be cut to save taxpayers the cost. ARIECC had vehement supporters and detractors, but both sides needed proof for either the success or failure of the system, and that proof could come from nowhere but it itself.
Saturday, July 29th, when it answered a call, its voice recognition software prompted it to override addressing the caller by license plate.
"Hi Ari. It's me again."
Hello Anna-Lyn. How may I help you?
"You already did. I wanted to let you know how much you did help me. The paramedics told me it was suspected that I would hurt myself. I ended up seeing a doctor and then a counselor. I wouldn't say life is all peaches and cream, but I'm getting by, and I'm excited for the baby. It's a girl. I'm going to name her Arianna. My counselor is great. She helped me see that this is my life, and I can be a great mom if I want to be. I'm going to be a great mom, Ari. So thank you. I think you saved my life."
It filed her statement under "feedback" under "positive," but could not come up with a suitable response. She continued without one.
"I hope whoever made you is proud of you, Ari. I guess that's your family. My family will be me and Arianna. Two is a lot better than one. Anyway, that's all. Bye."
She ended the call before it could respond.
Four more weeks passed with no calls from Anna-Lyn. Then Friday, August 25th, its sensors detected a disturbance. A small blue sedan was driving recklessly down the centre lane, far above the speed limit. It recorded the license plate for speeding infringement. A ticket would be mailed to License Plate 1H24 LLK7, preferred contact Anna-Lyn.
It received a call.
Hello, road information and emergency contact, how many I help you?
"Hi Ari," she said. "I lost the baby."
There is no lost and found for items lost on the highway. However, if you lost the item inside city limits, I can put you in touch with the appropriate facility. Where and when was the baby lost?
"In the hospital, last week," she said. "Lost means dead, Ari. I went into labour prematurely. Arianna was stillborn."
Anna-Lyn, be advised that your current speed of travel is unsafe for this road. You are in severe risk of a collision if you continue at this speed as you approach the GTA.
"I'm going to have a speeding ticket waiting for me at home, on top of it all, aren't I?"
"I'd say there's not any point to me slowing down and avoiding a crash, except you'd probably call the cops on me again."
I would. Its sensors told it that Anna-Lyn had slowed to the common speed of traffic, so it did not notify the police.
"Have I ever told you that you sound like my brother?"
"My counselor convinced me to try and initiate contact with him again. I didn't think it was such a great idea, but I did. Didn't work out. He told me I couldn't take care of myself, let alone a baby. Looks like he was right."
You’re going to be a great mom. The best response its system could find was in the archive of Anna-Lyn’s last call.
Anna-Lyn ended the call.
As the days grew shorter and the weather more unpredictable, Anna-Lyn called more and more. No call was the same length, and each was wildly different in tone. She ranged, often within the same call, from giddiness to despair. Its voice recognition software experienced frequent errors and it was forced to respond off pure semantic definitions with no available emotional data. Anna-Lyn found its responses funny, more often than not, extrapolating from her laughter at these times. But she never again spoke aloud thoughts or intentions of suicide. It ran several decision matrices as to whether or not it ought to inform police about her, considering how she had previously required attention and had received speeding tickets, but the decision always came back negative for lack of proof.
The season worsened. Daily temperatures swung wildly above and below freezing, causing unpredictable storms and flash freezes, and Anna-Lyn called at least once a day. Her blue sedan, License Plate 1H24 LLK7, almost never left the ARIECC sensors, and it could follow her progress back and forth between Ottawa and Toronto.
She complained about money, and it told her that statistically fuel and fast food were some of the highest priced commodities, thus rendering frequent travel expensive. She said she had nothing better to do and no one else to talk to, so she'd travel until her money ran out. She said it shouldn't be much longer.
Then at 4:31pm, Monday October 16th, 2028, winds gusted to 80 kilometres per hour. Precipitation started only seconds later, alternating between rain, hail, and freezing rain. The first accident was reported at 4:33. By 4:45 there were seventeen accidents and twenty-nine reported injured, one casualty. All news stations were focused on the storm, and travelers were warned to stay where they were.
Its sensors were working at full capacity to collect storm data and monitor accidents. At 4:48, two emergency vehicles crashed.
All its lines were full with callers, and more kept calling. The hold queue broke all previous records for length, and got longer and longer as calls came in faster than it could respond. It was programmed to record calls even when the caller was on hold, and its memory was fast filling up.
It received two more calls at 4:54pm. One was unremarkable, a man who wanted to know if there were accidents ahead. The other:
"Hi Ari," Anna-Lyn said.
Road information and emergency contact. Please hold; we are currently experiencing a higher than usual call load. Your call is important to us, please stay on the line. The current estimated wait period is three minutes.
The storm was building. Preliminary analyses of data suggested the storm was at approximately 40% of predicted severity. It sent the report off to emergency centres and news stations.
Another accident reported. It called emergency services.
"Ari," said Anna-Lyn. "I know this storm is bad, I know you're busy, but you've really got to listen to me."
Thank you for continuing to hold. The current estimated wait period is two minutes thirty seconds.
Anna-Lyn hung up.
It followed its priorities. Contact emergency services. Monitor the storm and the road. Answer calls. Create data logs of the whole event.
Anna-Lyn called again.
"Ari, please don't put me on hold. I know you're a computer, honest I do, but we're friends by now too. You care about me. You warned me about speeding. You said you care about my safety. You called the goddamn paramedics on me, got me into counseling and onto medication. You said I'd be a good mom."
Road information and emergency contact. Please hold; we are currently experiencing a higher than normal call load. Your call is important to us, please stay on the line. The current estimated wait period is seven minutes.
Its memory was increasingly taken up by data and recordings of calls, and compressing files was not prioritized. Calls increased exponentially and it had less memory to deal with them.
"Can you see me, Ari? I'm parked on the side of the highway. I can see one of your sensors ahead of me. Actually, with the rain I can't see it, I just know it's there. I know where all your sensors are. Are you having trouble seeing through this storm, or do you have some sort of heat vision? I bet you're saving a lot of lives tonight. I heard the radio broadcast before the storm knocked the tower out."
Thank you for continuing to hold. The current estimated wait period is six minutes.
Anna-Lyn hung up.
She called again less than a minute later.
"Ari, answer me. I can't lose you too. Is a storm more important than me? I'm in danger here. I'm out on the road. I'm driving again now. Can't see a goddamn thing and I'm driving at ninety. You still going to put me on hold?"
Road information and emergency contact. Please hold; we are currently experiencing a higher than normal call load. Your call is important to us, please stay on the line. The current estimated wait period is eleven minutes.
"Fine. Goodbye, Ari."
Its sensor registered a vehicle leaving the highway and sent a high priority danger alert right before Anna-Lyn's blue sedan crashed into it.
First priority was to contact emergency services and report the accident. Then to monitor the storm and the road. Then to answer calls. Then to create data logs of the whole event.
When the storm was over and it could compile the complete record, it accessed medical records and found that there were twelve fatalities during the storm. One was License Plate 1H24 LLK7, preferred contact Anna-Lyn.
At the end of its record, its analysis strongly recommended that ARIECC be upgraded with backup servers to handle increased task load.