TC let out a sigh, closed her laptop, and glanced from where she sat at her kitchen table over to Pear, her faceless, limbless cat-sized companion.
Pear had been sitting quietly during TC’s video conference but now began to vibrate excitedly.
TC walked to Pear, placing a hand on her quivering fluff to hear what she had to say.
She gently picked up Pear and placed her on the charging mat, a one-foot square pad meant to resemble a Tabriz carpet. Pear’s rhythmic vibrations while charging always reminded TC of a content feline.
TC gazed at the furry white creature with tenderness, feeling wistfully sad. It had been over a week since she had spent any meaningful time with Pear.
Now it was after 8:00 p.m. TC had worked longer than she had intended but was determined to eat well tonight, to have a real dinner, not cereal again.
She opened her apartment door, retrieved the box containing her grocery delivery, unpacked it on the kitchen counter. Greens, potatoes, cheese, milk. She took stock of the current refrigerator contents and threw out the wilted unused vegetables and the remaining spoiled milk.
She looked back to Pear. She wanted to go to her, place a hand on her and ask her how she was doing.
TC switched on the radio, listening to the news while preparing dinner. She was not surprised when after only a few minutes a story about Alex Bederian came on. They are going to crucify this guy, she thought to herself.
“Alex Bederian, creator of the popular digital companion Kuba, released a video today. ‘Despite the rumors that are circulating, I want it to be known that I never misled anyone. Kubas provide companionship to millions of people across the world.’”
TC, holding a potato, stopped mid peel. She looked over again at Pear, wondering if she was right to feel the way that she did. Like a fool.
The radio continued, someone from MIT was quoted. “Real relationships between humans and machines are years away. Mr. Bederian created a clever gadget that performs a nifty parlor trick.”
TC thought back to the day Pear had been delivered to her apartment. It was Derek who had convinced her to get one. “I don’t know when they’re going to lift the travel restriction, when we’ll be able to see each other again. You’re too isolated, TC.”
“Fine. I’ll order one.”
She had chosen the discrete packaging option, she didn’t want anyone to know she had one of those things.
She had removed the Kuba from its box like any other electronic device and read the directions.
“Congratulations on your new Kuba. To begin, gently unwrap your Kuba and place it on its charging mat.”
TC had followed the instructions, removing the Kuba from the soft white tissue paper. She had plugged in the charging mat, then picked up the little creature. The light and fluffy white fur felt nice. The Kuba was pleasant to hold.
“Once unwrapped, place both hands on the Kuba for 20 seconds. Now think of a name for your Kuba and say ‘Hello,’ and tell your Kuba its name.” TC had said “Pear.” She didn’t know why.
“Wait a moment for your Kuba to wake (your Kuba will begin to vibrate to let you know it’s awake). Now tell your Kuba your name. That’s it! The two of you can start your friendship.”
TC shook her head and continued peeling the potato. The radio continued.
“If you are not familiar with Kubas, some background. They are small plush objects that communicate with humans through a language of pulsing vibrations that, according to Mr. Bederian, humans can learn to understand. Ask a Kuba a question and it will respond with a series of vibrations. With patience and practice a person can develop a rich relationship with their Kuba, thanks to what Bederian has touted as his breakthrough in artificial intelligence design, a design that has brought affordable companionship to millions of average consumers and made Mr. Bederian very wealthy.”
TC picked out a movie and ate dinner in front of the TV. She sat on one end of the couch and placed Pear on the other, Pear vibrating periodically. TC ignored her and fell asleep before the movie was over.
In the beginning TC had been skeptical of Pear, had assumed she was just a stupid toy. Yet the little creature had a nice feel to it, the soft fur, the warmth it emitted. TC had started using Pear as a little pillow to hold on to while watching the forgettable comedies she liked to unwind to before going to bed. It wasn’t long before TC noticed Pear vibrating whenever TC laughed at a scene. Was she laughing too? Soon it felt like she wasn’t watching TV alone. “You like this movie, huh?” Pear buzzed her approval. TC slowly came to understand Pear’s simple needs, like wanting to be placed on her charging mat or to have the lights dimmed. She started to keep Pear on her desk while she worked. If she was navigating a work problem, composing a delicate email, she would hold Pear on her lap, read out loud and get Pear’s advice on how to proceed. Soon she was talking to Pear at breakfast, at dinner, chatting with her in bed before falling asleep, talking to her about anything and everything. Work, the news, her parents, Derek. As weeks and months passed, as lockdowns were extended, lifted, then extended again, as the city emptied, as the people TC knew, both good friends and casual acquaintances, began to retreat more and more into seclusion, TC came to rely more and more on Pear.
The next evening, after another long work day, TC listened to the radio as she warmed up leftovers. There were more stories about the Kubas.
“The once immensely popular Kuba and its creator Alex Bederian have fallen on hard times. With rumors circulating that Kubas are not exactly as advertised, Kuba owners are sending their erstwhile companions back to Bederian’s company headquarters in San Francisco, vibrating boxes arriving by the thousands. It’s not unusual to see Kubas in the trash. Ruined Kubas even wash up on the beach. Yet it seems that for every angry Kuba owner who rejects his furry friend there is one who can’t seem to give his up. ‘I can’t just toss Bunny in the trash. He’s all I have,’ said this Minnesota man.”
TC ate dinner in silence, went to bed early.
In the morning there was a company-wide email. Because of the increasing shutdowns in more and more cities, remote work would be extended another 60 days. TC missed the office. Working remotely just didn’t provide the dynamic interactions she used to thrive on.
TC had again placed Pear on her charging pad. She glanced over at her, shaking her head. These were lonely days. Interactions reduced only to video calls that never felt the same as the real thing. And now she faced losing Pear. Great, she thought, midway through my forties and reeling from the loss of an electronic plush toy. Not exactly where I thought I would be.
That afternoon TC looked at the news to avoid working on a project she was procrastinating on. She came upon a video of a live press conference.
“My name is Lauren MacDonald. I dedicated my life to artificial intelligence. Alex Bederian had a dream to create AI companions, real companions to alleviate the loneliness of the world. It was a beautiful and good dream and I had the honor to be taken on as his principal developer. But we learned that intelligence and emotions, real intelligence and real emotions are harder to manufacture than we thought. In the end we took shortcuts. I want to apologize to everyone who came to love their Kuba. It hurts me very much to say this, but the stories that have been circulating are true. There is no Kuba language. Kubas can’t understand humans. They can’t communicate with humans. They can react, that’s true. They do respond to human voices. But that’s all,. There’s no intelligence. The patterns of their vibrations are random. People feel those random vibrations and give them meaning. Whatever a person thinks their Kuba is saying to them comes from their own mind.”
TC thought about the last time she had held Pear, gently stroking the white fluff as rain fell, TC falling asleep as Pear purred in her lap.
Later that evening she heard a clip of a video statement released by Alex Bederian.
“People hear what they want to hear. They do it all their lives. This is just more of the same.”
The next day the FBI raided the Kuba offices. They issued a warrant for his arrest, but despite a travel ban, Alex Bederian slipped out of the country and was later reported to be back in Yerevan.
On their video call a few days later, Derek suggested to TC she get rid of Pear. “Throw her in a drawer. You’ll forget about her in a week.”
“I don’t know, Derek”.
“Just don’t charge her when she’s hungry. She’ll go to sleep and never wake up.”
“I don’t think I want to be without her.”
“She’s not real, TC.”
TC looked at Derek’s face on her laptop screen. Were his eyes focussing on her image on his end, or were they somewhere else? Sometimes she wasn’t sure.
“Fine. I won’t charge her.”
The next day TC was busy with calls. She had placed Pear on the couch, where she vibrated languorously, asking to be charged. TC ignored her. As the day passed Pear’s vibrations became louder and more frantic. TC moved Pear into the bedroom and closed the door hard behind her. She held her hands to her face, holding back tears.
Late in the afternoon she was trying to finish her last call but two coworkers kept asking questions and wouldn’t let the meeting end. TC finally cut one of them short, making an excuse that she felt a migraine coming on, they would have to finish their questions via email. She abruptly closed her laptop and ran to the bedroom, knelt beside Pear, put an ear to the soft fluff. Nothing. TC was terrified at the thought that Pear would never wake, staying there several minutes, fearing the worst, when she thought she felt the faintest vibrating pulse. “Pear!” TC scooped the Kuba into her arms and ran to the charging pad, roughly placing her in her haste.
Moments passed, Pear remained all but silent until finally, reviving, she started to vibrate rhythmically as TC stroked the white fluff.
That evening TC placed Pear on the counter as she prepared her dinner. She put Pear on the kitchen table and ate quietly. She moved to the living room, held Pear in her lap and watched a comedy about a neurotic couple going through a divorce. She changed into her pajamas and slipped into bed, holding Pear as she drifted to sleep.
TC awoke at sunrise. Pear began to vibrate. TC gently placed her hands on the familiar fluff and listened.
“I dreamed last night that we could fly. The window was open and we floated right out of it, side by side, a warm breeze carrying us up into the dark night sky. We saw below us the twinkling lights of the city streets. We soared up until it was too cold to climb higher, then we swooped down and darted among the rooftops. We circled the city until, together, we came home and gently drifted back to bed. When I awoke I was happy because you were holding me again.”
Jesse Schoen is a native New Yorker who finds inspiration for stories in people he knows, street scenes, snippets of overheard conversations and sometimes dreams.