If you want the truth, it happened because Anji was feeling lazy. Her AI class wasn’t all that interesting, nor was it a field she wanted a career in, so there wasn’t any reason she could see for trying especially hard. So she came up with a project that didn’t look like too much work, and she picked what looked like the easiest way of doing it. Things just got a little out of hand, after that.
Anji’s AI class was taught by a grad student who seemed as bored as her students. It was a graduation requirement for programmers, even though everyone knew AIs, as a field, weren’t going anywhere much. In seventy years of computing nobody yet had designed an AI that passed the Turing test, let alone did anything really interesting. No matter the computing power behind them, AIs just couldn’t be as complex as a human brain; everyone knew that. Anji and her classmates still needed to know how to use the little crippleware bots that ran traffic lights and production lines, though, and that meant knowing the basics of AI programming. At least well enough to pass the final.
So Anji decided to pick the easiest-looking project off the list of options: Design an AI that mimics the behavior of a public domain character. There was a list of characters to choose from, mostly stuff she’d never heard of. She picked Kermit the Frog because, she figured, there was a ton of footage of Kermit, even if it was mostly fifty years old, and she could just feed old TV shows to a bot until it started acting enough like Kermit to get her a passing grade.
Only it wasn’t that easy. For one thing, the bot was too stupid to understand that it was meant to be Kermit. Anji used off-the-shelf open-source language- and image-parsing software, so the bot would understand what it what watching, but she had to write a program to key the bot to Kermit in particular. It took forever. It was actually a pretty good challenge, writing a program to convince the bot that it was Kermit the Frog, that the little fuzzy green thing in the old video was itself—that it had a self, for that matter. She ended up using concepts and bits of code from the other classes she was taking, pulling a few all-nighters at the library with books on AI design, and just plain making stuff up in a few places. Her code wasn’t anything like elegant, but Anji found herself liking the project a lot more than she’d expected to, even as it got harder.
She also found herself liking Kermit a lot more than she’d expected to. Anji had never really watched the Muppets before; her parents, like most parents she knew, had treated TV as only slightly less corrupting an influence than refined sugar and gendered toys. But The Muppet Show was really funny—strange, and kind of hokey, but charming all the same. She ended up watching way more of it than she needed just for the project.
Then her friend Brian, who was really into robotics, got wind of what she was doing, and demanded the chance to participate. Apparently he had weird, nostalgic parents who’d actually allowed him to watch TV as a kid, and what he’d mostly watched was Sesame Street and the Muppets, so the chance to make a real live AI-powered Kermitbot was too good to pass up.
Of course, that made more work for Anji. She had finally gotten the bot keyed to Kermit properly, so it didn’t get confused every time there was another Muppet on screen that looked vaguely froggy or was voiced by Jim Henson, and it was sucking down footage at a pretty good clip—luckily there was so much to feed it, on top of the movies: hours and hours of TV specials and commercials and interviews and even outtakes, all of it in character. But now she had to write a whole new suite of programs so the little AI could operate a robot body. Anji started to worry about finishing the project by the due date. For that matter, she was getting behind in her other classes, and it would be downright embarrassing to do poorly in them because AI design, of all things, was taking up her time.
The thing was, her little AI was getting kind of interesting. It had started writing its own code about the time she’d gotten it keyed to Kermit properly, which was one of the project requirements, but Anji hadn’t expected much more than a few badly parsed lines. Nobody else in her class was getting more than that, but Anji’s AI was producing more code all the time. And weird code, too. Anji couldn’t really make sense of it, but it was working, apparently: the bot hadn’t frozen up or crashed, and it wasn’t having any trouble parsing the footage Anji fed it.
Brian finished his robot a couple of days after Anji got through the last of the footage. He presented it to her proudly, like a cat gives you something really good it’s killed and expects your praise for it. “Good, isn’t he?” Brian asked, beaming at her, and Anji had to admit it was convincing. Brian had really gone all out: the little robot was fully articulated (“Enough to play the banjo!” Brian pointed out), and perfectly accurate, with plenty of internal memory built in, and a wireless charger. It didn’t even need to be plugged in to upload Anji’s code. Not that most of it was really Anji’s, anymore. She was starting to wonder if this project wasn’t getting away from her a little.
The one change Brian had made, in designing his robot, was to give it eyelids. He said it was creepy without them. So when Anji hit the key that uploaded her code, the first sign she had that it had worked was when Kermit gave a couple of slow, sleepy blinks. “Oh,” he said, sitting up (Anji was glad to see she’d done a good job with the movement programs), “hello there.”
“Hi, Kermit!” Brian said, all dorkily excited. “I’m Brian. It’s really nice to meet you.”
He elbowed Anji. “Uh, hi,” she said. “I’m Anjali. Anji, really.”
“Hello, Anji,” Kermit said. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Kermit the Frog,” and hey, that sounded exactly right. Anji was totally getting an A.
Anji let Brian keep talking to Kermit, and went to check her computer to make sure everything had uploaded okay. It looked fine: everything running smooth. Only the bot was still writing new code, even as it chatted with Brian. Huh. Anji looked back over at them; Kermit had said something that was making Brian laugh really, really hard. Bots weren’t supposed to be very god at telling jokes, were they? They’d covered that in class: how AIs never really seemed to get how jokes worked, and even AIs designed to tell them mostly just produced a sort of unfunny word salad. Maybe Kermit was just quoting the jokes from the footage she’d fed him. AIs could mimic like that, although if she’d built a bot that could mimic good comic timing she deserved more than just an A.
In the weeks that followed, it got harder to treat Kermit like a school project. He spent a lot of his time with Brian, who claimed to need to do a bunch of unspecified adjustments to the robot, although this mostly seemed to entail Kermit being shown off to all Brian’s friends. Anji didn’t mind it too much, though, because it gave her more time to try and puzzle out Kermit’s code, and also it meant that Kermit acquired a very small banjo and several sets of little clothes from Muppet fans among Brian’s friends. And that seemed to make Kermit happy.
That was the freaky thing: Anji had designed a bot that could seem to be happy. She wasn’t supposed to be able to do that. She was way, way outside the parameters of her project now, into territory that people who studied AI for a living hadn’t covered anywhere Anji could find. Because Kermit could, in fact, make jokes—and if he was mimicking them, the originals weren’t in the footage Anji had fed him—and he could noodle around on the banjo in a way that sounded nothing like the precision of music-playing AIs Anji had heard. And he could also do things that freaked Anji out on a deep and meaningful personal level, like the afternoon when Kermit, perched on the edge of the bed in Anji’s dorm, stopped strumming his banjo and sighed wistfully.
“You know, I sure do miss Fozzie,” he announced, and Anji stopped typing mid-keystroke.
“What did you say?” Anji asked, trying not to sound as startled as she felt.
“Oh, it’s not that I don’t like it here, Anji. You and Brian are awfully nice. But Fozzie’s my best friend, you know? After a while, you get to miss things. The squeak of a rubber chicken. The smell of custard pie on fur. Little things like that.”
He sighed again, and went back to strumming his banjo. Anji waited five minutes, excused herself, and ran full-tilt across campus to Brian’s dorm.
He answered the door, looking concerned. Well, Anji had been hammering on it pretty hard. “What’s the matter? Is Kermit okay?”
“Brian, I think we invented sentient AI.” Anji tried not to sound like she was panicking. She totally was, though. “We weren’t supposed to invent sentient AI! I was just supposed to get a passing grade! Now there’s an artificial life-form in my dorm room who plays the banjo!”
“Whoa. Calm down. Why are you freaking out now? Kermit hasn’t gotten any more sentient than he was last week, has he? And why is it such a big deal if he is?”
“People have been trying to build a sentient AI for like seventy years, Brian. And I knocked one together out of spare parts for a freshman project in a class I didn’t even want to take!” Anji wasn’t sure how people were going to react, but she didn’t think it would be good. The grad student who taught her class would probably be pissed. “No one’s going to believe I actually programmed him, or that he’s really sentient. But he just told me he misses his friend and made a couple of novel jokes that made sense, so I’m pretty sure I’ve created life. And I bet I’m going to get in trouble for it.”
Brian, damn him, thought she was overreacting. Worse, he thought she was mostly worried about her grade. They ended up fighting over it, getting into a yelling match that drew Brian’s RA in to tell them they were damaging the rest of the floor’s calm. Anji really didn’t like Brian’s RA.
Anji trudged back across campus to her dorm that night in a gloomy frame of mind. Sure, it was pretty cool that she had created sentient AI, but she was afraid it would cause more problems than she really knew how to handle. There was the issue of convincing people Kermit was really sentient, just for starters, and then what was he supposed to do with himself, if people ever believed he was for real? He was just a little frog in a big world, when you got down to it.
Lost in her own thoughts, Anji didn’t hear the music until she was nearly back to her dorm. When the sound finally made its way through her thick skull, she paused outside her door, and just listened for a minute. Kermit was singing a song.
It wasn’t anything Anji had heard before. The lyrics were sweet and simple, all about looking towards the future, and how it was always just a day away. “I won’t miss yesterday,” Kermit sang, “because I can see—tomorrow is waiting for me.” He strummed a few more chords on the banjo, and fell silent.
Anji pushed the door open. “I liked your song, Kermit,” she said.
“Thanks, Anji,” Kermit said. “It just kinda came to me, you know? That’s why I like singing.”
“Yeah,” Anji said. She though about her project deadline, three days away, and the other homework she wasn’t getting done. Then she sat down at her desk and called up a fresh copy of the generic AI, the same blank template she’d started from with Kermit, and got to work keying it to Fozzie.
She wasn’t anything like done, three days later, when it was time to present her project, but she’d gotten a lot of good practice with Kermit, and she thought she could have Fozzie up and running inside of two weeks. Kermit walked with her to class, carrying his banjo slung across his back, and Anji ignored the funny looks they got from the other students passing them. She was busy with a sudden, unexpected flurry of guilt: what right, she thought, did she have to show Kermit off to her class like—like some kind of show frog? If he was sentient, he deserved better. Just because he didn’t seem to mind—was, in fact, excited to be performing for an audience—didn’t mean that Anji was doing the right thing.
But right or wrong, if she didn’t show up with something to show for a semester’s worth of work, her GPA would be toast. Anji felt guilty, but that didn’t stop her from being practical. And she could hope for allies among her classmates, maybe. Once they saw Kermit, they might understand.
Or she could get in a lot of trouble. That was the thought at the top of her mind as Anji came into the classroom, and nervously eyed Malika, the grad student waiting at the front of the room. A few other students had already arrived, most of them carrying the tablets or laptops they’d demonstrate their own projects with. A few had robots, but theirs were little bug-like creatures or wheeled rovers.
To her surprise, Malika brightened as soon as she saw Kermit, and came over to talk to Anji. “You did Kermit?” she said, sounding delighted. “Wow, he looks really great. Just like the real thing. Who built him?”
“Um,” Anji said, already embarrassed to be talking like Kermit wasn’t there. “There’s something I’d like to talk to you about, actually. In private?”
“Sure, sure, after class,” Malika said. “I can’t wait to see your presentation!”
Somehow, it was worse than if Malika hadn’t been interested at all. Kermit looked up at her, concern showing on his small green face. “Are you all right, Anji?”
She hadn’t known how to talk to Kermit about the problem. And now it seemed like it was too late. “Just nervous, that’s all,” she lied.
“You don’t have to be nervous,” Kermit said. “I mean, sharing something with an audience for the first time is always a little scary, but I’ve got lots of practice. You don’t need to worry about me.”
Yes, I do, Anji thought, but she didn’t say it.
Kermit didn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that the other presentations were all about code and AIs and made frequent mention of bots and programming. Anji wished she’d gotten up the nerve to talk to him about what, exactly, he thought he was—if he knew he was a robot, if he understood he was a sentient AI, if he even got what any of that meant. But she’d been too scared to do it, and Brian had been too excited about his new little green friend. She felt miserably like she’d betrayed Kermit’s trust.
When Kermit’s—when Anji’s turn came, Kermit strolled down to the front of the room and hopped easily onto Malika’s desk, settling his banjo on his lap. “Hi-ho everyone,” he began. “Kermit the Frog here. My friend Anji asked me to put on a show for you. I haven’t got the backup I usually have—and anyway, I don’t think there’s room in here for a chicken chorus, or a penguin orchestra, or a cannon—but I thought I might sing you a song. I hope you all like it.”
The class, who had giggled a little at Kermit’s joke, fell quiet as he began to sing. It was the same song Anji had heard him working on before, but he’d changed some of the lyrics, and the arrangement wasn’t quite the same. The new version was a little better, actually, to Anji’s ear. She looked anxiously at her classmates’ faces, at Malika, as Kermit sang the chorus again. He played a little flourish on his banjo, sang “Tomorrow is waiting for me” one last time, and strummed a final chord.
There was silence in the classroom, for a long moment. Then someone started clapping, and the rest of the class joined in, and Anji smiled with relief until she saw that Malika wasn’t clapping. She looked serious, and thoughtful.
After class, in the empty lecture hall, Malika still looked grave. “Anji, you’ve put me in kind of a difficult position,” she said. “You’re obviously a talented programmer, but the project requirements were pretty clear. You weren’t supposed to program a performance, you were supposed to get some novel behavior out of your AI.”
“Um,” said Anji. “This is what I wanted to talk to you about before class, actually. I was kind of afraid of this. See, I didn’t program that.”
“Then who did?”
“No one did! Kermit came up with it on his own. I’m tone-deaf, anyway; I can’t write music.”
“Aw, I wouldn’t say tone-deaf, Anji,” Kermit said. “I’ve heard you humming along a few times. Tone-confused, maybe, but I bet with a little practice you could get better.”
Malika stared at Kermit. Then she said, “Anji, can I have a minute alone with your—with Kermit?”
Anji looked anxiously down at him. “She just wants to ask you a few questions, I think,” she said. “Is that okay?”
“No problem,” said Kermit. “I interview well.”
Anji sat with her back to the wall outside the classroom, the minutes stretching out like taffy. She watched the other students passing by, and wondered if any of them had ever managed to get themselves into a fix like this.
Well, no. Probably not. None of them had invented sentient AI, after all. That was pretty much a one-time thing, unless she got Fozzie off the ground.
Finally, the door opened, and Malika leaned out into the hall. She looked puzzled, like she’d just eaten something and wasn’t sure yet if she liked the taste. “Okay, either you’ve spent the last three months doing nothing but program in responses to every conceivable question, or he’s as close to sentient as any AI I’ve seen. Either way, you must have been seriously slacking off at the beginning of the semester, because your early assignments don’t reflect this level of dedication. How the hell did you do it?”
“It was an accident!” Anji said weakly. “I just kept feeding him footage of Kermit, until he kind of was Kermit. I can show you my notes?”
“I think you’d better,” Malika said, and stood aside so Anji could come back into the lecture hall.
The next few weeks were confusing, but in a good way. Anji had a truly terrifying meeting with her AI professor, which was mitigated a little by Malika going to bat for her. Her professor didn’t come around as easily—apparently he wasn’t a Muppet fan—but Anji’s code made his eyebrows go up in a promising way, and when they left his office he was already emailing some other AI experts.
Meanwhile, Kermit was becoming something of a star on campus. People were always excited to meet him—some because they were meeting what might be a sentient AI, and other just because they were meeting Kermit the Frog. Brian started working on the bot for Fozzie, and Anji hit the stage where her Fozzie program started writing its own code. This time it was a lot better-documented, with Malika practically peering over her shoulder as the first lines appeared.
Some friends of Brian’s at another school got in touch with her, asking if they could use her keying programs to bring Gonzo to life; they apparently had a build team ready to go. Anji said yes. That set off a wave of Internet chatter. Up to now, there hadn’t really been any media attention—her professor wanted to wait until enough experts had met with Kermit and agreed that he was sentient. Or “close enough to sentient to fool me,” which was his begrudging way of putting it.
But Brian’s friends were blogging the whole build process, and the attention they drew eventually found its way back to Anji. For the first time, she found herself fielding interview requests, and a local news team actually came out in person to film her and Kermit talking to their reporter.
Kermit took the whole thing in stride. Well, he would be used to media attention, Anji figured; he had lots of experience dealing with famous people and reporters. When they weren’t being interviewed, Kermit spent his time playing music, writing in a little notebook, walking around campus with Anji and talking to people, hanging out with Brian and his friends. He seemed happy, especially when Anji told him Fozzie would be joining them soon. But part of Anji wasn’t convinced that everything was okay.
Finally, she got up the nerve to talk about it. “Kermit,” she asked, “what—exactly what are you?”
He looked up from the sheet of musical notations he was doodling on. “What do you mean, Anji? I’m a frog.”
“Right, but—frogs look like this.” She called up a picture on her laptop, of a real frog. It was brownish, and a little slimy-looking.
“Well, obviously, I’m not that kind of frog.”
“Then—what kind of frog are you?”
This gave Kermit pause. He didn’t say anything for a while, looking down at his small green hands, then tipping his head to one side thoughtfully. “Well,” he said, “I know I used to be a puppet frog, and now I’m a robot frog, but I think I’m still a real frog. I think I always was.”
Something inside Anji, some taut string that had been vibrating for weeks, suddenly relaxed. “You know what, Kermit?” she said. “That’s what I think, too.”
“I’m glad, Anji,” Kermit said. “Hey, do you want to hear my new song?”
“I’d love to,” Anji said.
In the end, it wasn’t as bad as Anji thought it would be. There was a fair amount of controversy, but most of it was restricted to the realm of very important people who thought about AI for a living. Plenty of people were willing to believe that Kermit was sentient, and plenty of people thought he was a cleverly programmed hoax. Anji got an offer from Disney World to buy him, which she turned down, and Fozzie and Gonzo went live without a hitch. She made her keying programs public, so other people could give the rest of the Muppets a chance to be real.
That summer, all the build teams got together for the first time. It was a little chaotic, with the programmers talking and laughing and comparing notes, Scooter looking harried as he wandered around with a clipboard, trying to check everyone in, the penguins tuning their instruments, Sweetums carrying an armload of chickens and Gonzo, five minutes later, in frantic search of Camilla. Kermit was at the center of it all, Piggy on his arm, and for the first time he looked completely happy.
“Hey Anji!” Kermit called when he caught sight of her. He and Piggy had been talking to a man Anji vaguely recognized, an AI expert from a school in the Midwest who’d led the build team for Rowlf. He’d been circling the room with a tablet in hand, talking to people, for most of the afternoon.
“What’s up, Kermit?” Anji asked. She shot a questioning glance at the AI expert—she thought his name might be Andrew.
“Well, my friend Andrew here says he’s got a line on an old theater that’s for sale. He thinks we can raise the money to buy it and fix it up by putting on a show! Isn’t that great?”
Andrew looked nervously at her, as if he wanted her approval. A lot of the other builders treated her that way, although she’d explained time and again that the whole thing had really been an accident. People still acted like she had some strange power to confer sentience on computer programs, and possibly also could shoot lightning from her eyes.
But she wasn’t planning on striking anyone down with thunderbolts today. “I think that’s an awesome idea,” she said, and Andrew relaxed.
And really, it was. She could see how happy the thought of having a theater again made Kermit, and in her head she saw the future unspooling out in front of her: their own theater, a new show every night, too many jokes and songs and unprogrammed answers to ever be faked. People would believe then, she was pretty sure. They’d just have to come and see.
Anji hummed to herself as she left Kermit and Andrew to their conversation. “I won’t miss yesterday, because I can see,” she sang, only a little off-key. “Tomorrow is waiting for me.”