“I don’t like her.”
“You don’t like anyone.”
“Not true, I’m very sociable!”
“You’re a socialite; there’s a difference. She’s not touching anything is she?”
The two voices were languid. Bored even. These barbs had been used before. The to-and-fro of their conversation was old and played out. Only the arrival of the third gave them anything new to speak about, a new target for their day to day disgust.
“No, she just stands there. Staring. It’s creepy.”
“… she can’t hear us, can she, Della?”
“No, I have us on a different channel. I made sure.” One of the faces, professionally lit and made up, was dominating a flat-screen carefully held in plastic hands by a simple, almost retro, anthropoid unit. She looked smug.
The other, just as smothered in make-up and surrounded by artfully chosen books and little trinkets in her flat, flicked her shimmering hair with a thin hand and ignored the slight. Dora had nearly lost a client once by gossiping; forgetting to mute herself and broadcasting her every wicked thought to the floor of the gallery in surround sound. Her punishment had been to travel to the gallery in person to get down on her hands and knees to disinfect its bone-white floors; all while being watched over by Deren’s cheap plastic maintenance robots with their blank faces and skeletal hands.
“She’s expensive. Did you see her hourly rate?!” Dora changed the subject quickly.
“If our Lord and Master wishes to pay…”
“Deren is a pernickety fool!”
“Dora!” the other face squeaked in delight, relishing the bitchiness. Her unit rocked as its operator expressed her amusement through what few movements it could make. A basic teleconferencing unit, no-frills. No bells and whistles. The two gallery assistants had better models they could have used. Models with synthetic skin and styled hair that were meant to make even the tele-visiting guests comfortable. Using the old units was meant to be a slight to their visitor.
She didn’t seem to care.
The robotic units carrying Dora and Della’s faces had welcomed the young woman into the gallery at 9 am precisely. She had seemed to listen as they blurted out instructions, rules, petty gossip, and details about Deren’s purchases for the past five months. But she had barely spoken other to acknowledge that no, she would not touch anything, and yes, she would go through decontamination. Even as the decontamination drone had sprayed her over with a fine mist, she hadn’t moved, twitched, or complained. She’d just accepted the measures that were necessary these days, and gone to stand in front of the grand canvas Deren had commissioned her to assess.
“Do you think she’s… you know?”
“No, I don’t know.”
“Neurodivergent,” Della whispered the word.
“I thought they all were. Isn’t that their thing?”
“I don’t know. Never met one before.”
“I did. At one of Philip’s soirées. He kept moving away from Pip’s butler-bot. Said he did some contract work for the military, but it was all very hush-hush.”
“Trying to get in your knickers?”
“Probably” Dora smiled widely, “But he didn’t chat long though. Seemed very uncomfortable with the whole face to face thing-”
“Pip’s still holding in-person parties??”
“Oh, you know Pip, anything to seem daring.” A mock yawn followed. “Do you think we should speak to her, though? I mean, if she’s being paid by the hour, do we just let her stand there all day?”
“But do we care?”
“Logically, the more Deren spends on consultants, the less he can spend on us. Right?”
Della sent an emoji in approval, and the two of them moved their clunky robotic carriers closer to the woman standing in front of the latest acquisition. They opened a channel and plastered broad, fake smiles on their faces as they crowded around her.
“How is it going?”
The woman, seemingly caught by surprise, turned and flinched a little. “Good. Good.”
“I hope our telepresence bots don’t bother you.” Shouted Dora, raising her voice as though the woman was partially deaf instead of uncanny sensitive.
“They’re very old. I’m okay.” The woman smiled hesitantly. “But I thought Deren warned me that he had some more advanced bots you would be controlling-”
“Of course, we have some state-of-the-art models. Very expensive ones, of course. The clients prefer to interact with them, even if they’re riding bots themselves. The personal touch is so important.” Sniffed Della.
“But we decided we’d use these old things. Make you feel more comfortable.” Said Dora pointedly, glaring at Della.
The woman looked a bit confused at the interaction.
“Poor thing, she doesn’t understand how compassionate we’re being. Neurodivergent. I told you.” Della sent to Dora on a private channel.
“I thought she’d look a bit more interesting. Special eyes or something. At least some sort of piercing soul-searching blue, not that boring mud brown colour.”
“And with all that money she’s being paid to look at one painting, you’d think she’d have some better clothes.” Della preened in her flat, smoothing the lines of her expensive shift dress. Dora sent her a quick emoji warning, a siren blaring red light and screaming sounds: their conversation might be private, but she was visible on the small rectangular screen by the sensitive’s face.
“So, what do you think?” Dora said out loud. “About the painting?”
“I’m not sure it matters, really.” Della interrupted as the woman went to speak. “Deren puts too much emphasis on man-made… sorry, human-made. Both still sell. Some clients even prefer machine-made.”
Dora began to recite some marketing spiel, boredom creeping into her words as repetition had dulled her interest in what she was selling, “Tapping into the great unknown space of artificial creativity, this work by the synthetic being called AI-472 is number 17,423 in their series on the colour blue.”
“AI-472 only produced sixteen thousand or so pieces in its blue period. Then it was adjusted.” The woman corrected her gently.
“I was making a point. Some people like that what they’re looking at came from inside a little black box and not a real person.”
“And some people don’t.” The woman said. “Some people see the joins. The unfinished stories in the work. The broken thoughts.”
“And some people turn that ability into a lucrative business,” Dora said pointedly. “Do you need much more time to check this one over? You’re paid by the hour, aren’t you?”
“Oh, I’m done. The painting’s human-made. I’ll certify it if one of your bots can bring me a pen that works.” The woman brought out an official-looking document and a stamp set from the shabby canvas bag strapped across her chest. “How many bots are there here, by the way?”
“A few telepresence models. Some cleaning models too.”
“You don’t clean the gallery too?”
“In-person?! Can you even imagine!” Della squealed, and then added in a self-satisfied voice, “I haven’t left my flat in six years. Have you, Dora?”
Dora’s face on the screen reddened slightly. “Just the odd little party, you know. But with precautions, of course.”
“Didn’t you have to come in one day, in person, and clean the floors-”
“Okay, Della. I’m sure Miss – whatever her name is – will want to get on with the rest of her day now.”
“Except you cheated, didn’t you! You just used a telepresence bot, one of the good ones! Just to clean the floor!! I saw its knees afterwards; I knew what you did!” Della cackled, taking delight in catching her colleague out.
Dora’s bot stamped its foot, making the woman take a step back in fear.
“I should go.” She said, her voice trembling.
“Sorry. Sorry!” Dora calmed herself, and her fake smile returned as she settled her hair. “Della and I were just playing.”
“You shouldn’t be scared of these old bots any way!” Della laughed. “Silly thing. They’re not even autonomous. We’re totally in control.”
“It’s not that. Its…” The woman swallowed hard. “Sorry, I just find it hard to be near the nearly human but not quite. And… I have to go.”
They walked their telepresence bots with her to the door and made some banal and benign goodbyes. It was Dora who asked the second to last question of the Uncanny Valley Sensitive. Paid by the hour to look at things.
“Why did you have to come to the gallery, going anywhere in person is so risky.”
“I have all my vaccinations.”
“But everyone knows they can’t keep up with the mutations. Remember, ‘Stay home, stay safe’. Always.”
“I can’t… I can’t tell if a painting’s real or not through a simulation of that thing. A digital picture of the painting would have been another layer of the unreal. I had to stand in front of it. Feel what I felt.”
“Is that the same for simulated humans? For AI?”
Afterwards, Dora and Della couldn’t remember who had asked the last question of the Uncanny Valley Sensitive. Couldn’t remember her looking from one screen to the next. Looking at where the women seemed to be sitting at slender glass desks in aesthetically perfect individual flats full of the right coffee table art books, the most perfectly delightful objets d’art, and sweet little curios from holidays they’d taken before the virus.
Before answering, the woman took a look at the rain outside the gallery and pulled out a battered old black umbrella from her heavy bag as she went to leave. “If someone is simulated, then the digital version is the only version, whether it’s in a bot or a tablet’s screen. There’s nothing in the way. Anyway, have a good evening, ladies.”
“Well,” said Dora, holding up the certificate of authenticity the Uncanny Sensitive had handed her telepresence bot, bringing it closer to her screen to examine the elegant calligraphy. “I’m not sure she was worth all that money. Deren’s an idiot.”
“Hmmm,” mused Della, “It all sounds like a bit of a scam to me. “Closing up time?”
“Oh, please. I want a glass of something cheeky and a bath.”
Their wide red-lipped smiles froze on their faces. Their hair, elegantly cut in fashionable styles so ‘now’ that they almost transcended this moment, stopped moving as their heads stilled.
In synch, two identical clocks began their countdown to the next working day.