Stop Exiting and Entering the Train, the Door is Closing Jaroslav Veis

Illustration: Anna Kulíčková

I run the tip of my index finger somewhat aimlessly across the screen of my iPhone, pausing only occasionally on a sentence or image from the gruelling stream of tweets, messages, ads, posts, wisecracks, photos, podcasts, promotional spots, short reels, occasionally sipping the beer special they have on tap at AI Bar Therapy this week, and deciding that if no one comes in fifteen, no, thirty minutes, I won’t have another, I’ll put my phone in my pocket and ask AI Světlana to call Uber. No kidding. I’ll finish my drink, grab an Uber and head home.

The world ain’t what it used to be. It’s getting worse and worse. More and more often, I’m the oldest at the table. And more often than not, there’s more free space around it. And more and more often, one of the people sitting around will call an Uber before it gets dark because they’re tired. And more and more often someone doesn’t come because they’ve died, so we’ll have a drink to his no-longer-health and then call our Ubers.

The watering hole itself ain’t what it used to be either. There’s only one rectangular table with benches for four guests on each side left, and otherwise there’s just square tables on a thick green stem all over the room (when the prepaid credit runs out, the stem turns yellow, when it runs out completely, it turns red), one very wide chair at each, almost an armchair, but anyway you can rock back and forth in it without the risk of falling over backwards. People are getting by with their mobile phones and connectivity; if you’ve got a good signal, half of your work is done. In the middle of the square table there is a display with counters and a fan of connectors, from the oldest to the most versatile one, so that everyone can choose, including lovers of vintage phones and vintage models, which I prefer because I’m a snob. Of course, it’s always just a fake with the “bestest” chip inside, currently the M4, because I’m a snob with a good pension and the owner of Tesla ČEZ shares.

I’ve also got “deafphones”, which I take everywhere with me, even to the AI Bar Therapy. I mean I’ve got AI earphones, the multi-functional version. I call them deafphones because I use the mute function a lot. A lot of crap can be heard around me, especially here in AI Bar Therapy, when someone comes in and starts talking, of course. And then you have three options. One: go out in front of the bar, smoke some good strain and come back in a better mood. The second: sink into AI silence, supposedly the same as 118 metres below the surface of the Bay of Bengal, where, according to Vikram, the company that produces the earphones, silence is at its best. I mean, I heard on a podcast that in the Greenland Sea the silence reaches even minus twenty decibels, supposedly an experience between bliss and pain. But AI Světlana checked it out and it’s probably commercial disinfo.

And there still is the third option: call Uber. Yeah, AI Světlana. Only, I’m also taking advantage of the original feature of my Vikrams to provide me with everything I’m downloading on my mobile at the same time in audio version. A couple of weeks ago, my grandson Kryštof gave me as a birthday present a new licence of YFV (your favourite voice) software, where I can choose the speaker – male, female, or non-binary. According to the popularity of voices in the Czech Republic, AI Karel Gott, AI Vladimír Kořen and AI Zdeněk Svěrák transformed into a woman alternate on the winner podium. Worldwide, AI Barack Obama has been in the lead since the first day of ranking.

Because I’m a snob, I have an original one: the voice from the subway. Her name is AI Světlana, and the live one has been announcing stations on the A-line since the day the A-line started its operation. When I first downloaded her on the Vikrams, I asked her, to make her happy, whether, when I’m not alive anymore, she might become the number one Czech voice, because unlike the three most popular AI voices, she will never become a zombie, the subway is an eternal certainty after all. She said she could tell me when I wouldn’t be here within a pretty small time error, but I should think twice whether I wanted to know. And also that voice number one will belong with a probability bordering on certainty to an entity with the working name AI52767528, non-binary, but she couldn’t reveal more because it’s a product in progress. I did not want to know when I would be gone, although the worm of curiosity was gnawing at me. And I couldn’t have cared less about the latter if I wasn’t going to be here. I apologised to her for the illogical question, and AI Světlana said that’s no problem. Just as divinely as her “Stop exiting and entering the train, the door is closing.”

And then there’s the third deafphones/ earphones feature. Hearing aid. They come in handy from a certain age, and, who knows, maybe Kryštof gave them to me just because of that. I ask the AI Světlana and she suppresses the noise and hum around me, amplifies her voice, and when I say “what” she repeats the last sentence perfectly clearly. The best for last: Kryštof has pinched software from somewhere that turns my hearing aid into a directional microphone so I can listen in on conversations fifty metres around. But it’s not polite, AI Světlana always warns me, and then, again as divinely as the door announcement, she fires off a warning about the Vikram company’s legal disclaimer concerning its non-liability for the consequences of my eavesdropping; she lists the crimes and opinions (in some countries) in terms of reporting requirements, and warns me that everything I hear, the network hears too, analyses it, and will intervene if necessary in my best interest. Understand: snitch on the speaker and have me called as a witness. And she says it with the highest degree of kindness that only neural network mouth can, unlike human vocal cords. You do know that divine voice of hers from the A-line, don’t you?

But what can I do now other than a little snooping since I’m sick of browsing on my cell phone and no one’s coming. There are two chairs at one of the square tables in the other corner of the room, and the guy sitting on the other one is just coming back from the toilet or has been out for a smoke.

“Do you get it?” he says with a touch of suppressed anger, which, with my Vikrams, I can hear as if he’s spitting right in my face. “They’re moving me to the lab starting next quarter.”

“But they’ll let you keep the money, right?”

“Shit, it’s not about the money. It’s about respect. I’ll keep my salary, but they’re taking away my respect. You know what humiliation like that is like? Not being able to work with people? They might as well add that to my diploma: ‘only suitable to work with biological samples.’” He sips coffee from his cup. “They fucked me over.”

He was more likely to have been just peeing rather than smoking, I figured. Unless he had a really shitty strain. I just glance at them furtively, so they don’t realise I can hear them too. Branded from the shoes to the rims of their glasses, discreet tattoos, indeterminate middle age between their first and second divorce. When they sit she looks about half a head taller than him, but maybe she has short legs and he’s just slouching.

“Don’t take it that way,” she says. “You’ll be doing science then. That’s what you wanted when we were in medical school, right? And besides, you’ll have peace of mind, a steady regimen, no on-call service, no emergency cases…”

“It’s too late for science,” he snaps. “I’m old, I’m good enough to keep an eye on AI to see whether it keeps an eye correctly on the experiments of young hotshots…”

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” she says pompously. Then she bursts out laughing so she’s heard all over the entire AI Bar. “They’ve finally found him.”

“What?” I hiss into the Vikrams.

“But who will guard the guards themselves?” AI Světlana translates. “A Latin proverb, they’re both doctors, so Latin is almost a professional language for them. He means that –”

“Shut up or I’ll lose the thread,” I cut her short.

Fortunately, I’ve lost almost nothing.

“But what exactly did you do? There must have been a reason for them putting you in the lab.”

“Actually, nothing, nothing in particular, that is. No mistake, no negligence. It’s just that the last empathy test they did showed that I’d been below the hospital standard for the last six months. And then when they asked the patients in my rooms, they said that when AI was on duty, it was nicer to them and had more patience with them.”

“But that’s been known for a long time, that AI is better at empathy than humans.”

“But I’m the ideal middle-aged doctor. I’m certified, I’m experienced, I respect insurance company standards. I’ve got the good background, too. My wife’s fine, kids are fine, mortgage paid off. Maybe I’m a little worn down. I mean, it all cost me a lot. Hard work, nerves, patience. And the stupid AI ain’t got no worries, nothing to get worn down by, always fresh, always in a good mood. Fuck its empathy! It’s got only its networks.”

He swings his hand and almost knocks over the cup of flat white in front of him. “And you know what pisses me off the most? The paradox of eventually being sacked by a human. Some Cejnová person from the HR department. She’d never seen more of me than a name with a picture on her monitor, but I fell below the line, so that’s that. I bet if AI was to decide that, it would have turned out very differently.”

“I know which one she is. She used to be a prosecutor, but I guess she also burned out. And calm down, AI’s doing these things in the HR department, too. That Cejnová is just keeping an eye on things there.” She looked at her phone.

“I have to get out of here. I’m sorry about the lab.”

“So another guard who keeps an eye on guards. That’s a pretty shitty way of keeping an eye. I’m going back to the hospital too, to the lab, that is. The coffee’s already paid for.”

I watch them as they leave, oh yeah, he was just slouching, and I wonder if another guard might be needed to keep an eye on the guard who’s keeping an eye on the first guard but doing it badly. And who’s gonna keep an eye on that one? Us? AI? Who’s gonna decide that? What if the artificial monster doesn’t eventually exterminate us, as disinfo keeps claiming, but simply replaces us by putting itself in our shoes so thoroughly, by all its kindness, its helpfulness, its attentiveness, its empathy?

“Can I get you another special?” AI Světlana says from my Vikrams. “You haven’t finished it, that’s true, but it’s already three degrees warmer and has lost ninety-five percent of its aromatic qualities.”

It’s as if Světlana’s original announcement flashed in my head. Stop exiting and entering the train, the door is closing. No, this is AI’s message: You exit, I enter, so the door closes behind you. What if this is not just godly but really God’s? I could ask her what she thinks.

“Thanks, I’ll pass,” I say instead, and then, as empathically as human vocal cords can manage, I ask her: “And call me Uber, please.”