Like The Prose Day 26

Today’s story asks the fundamental question “What makes us human?” If you had to decide whether or not someone was a robot or a human, and you could ask only one question to help you decide, what would it be?

I’ve taken my inspiration from modern day game shows/reality TV – and the answer to the above question may surprise you.

What Makes Us Human

“So, Laura – are you going to be able to tell whether you’re dating a human or an android?”

The TV presenter’s teeth are unnaturally perfect as he smilingly asks the question. He sits opposite Laura, the backdrop behind them both proclaiming ‘The Perfect Partner?’ in massive letters. A banner travels across the screen: ‘Sponsored by AI Unlimited.’ The audience waits expectantly.

Laura twiddles a brunette ringlet in her fingers, obviously trying to give the impression of thinking hard – although the whole audience knows this ‘reality show’ is scripted. “I guess so,” she says at last. Turning to face the camera, she laughs. “I mean, how hard can it be, right?”

Larry Loveheart – it’s his real name; he changed it by deed poll – winks at the audience. “Well, if AI Unlimited have done their job properly, then you should have your work cut out deciding which of the guys you’re going to meet in a few minutes is actually real!” The crowd applauds. “But first, let’s remind our audience what you’re looking for in the perfect boyfriend…”

He takes a sip of the clear liquid in the glass in front of him as the camera cuts to a pre-recorded segment: Laura is in her bedroom, opening her heart to the millions of viewers she hopes are watching her.

“I want a man who’s good-looking, and tall –”

“How tall are you?” a voice interrupts.

“Uh, five eight, I think. And he should be intelligent – you know, with a college degree – and be kind to animals and be respectful.”

“What do you mean by ‘respectful’?”

Laura appears to be thinking. “He should be honest,” she declares at last. “I don’t want a cheater. And he should treat me like a lady. I’m all for feminism, you know, but I still like it when a man buys me flowers or opens a door for me.”

There is some jeering from the audience at this last sentence. Larry Loveheart ignores it, turning to face the camera once more.

“Well, let’s see if either of the guys we’ve brought here tonight is going to live up to your expectations. Let’s meet Date Number 1!”

There is more applause as the back-screen splits in half to reveal an aesthetically perfect young man in his twenties. Classically handsome in a blond, Scandinavian type of way, he has several members of the audience literally on the edge of their seats with excitement. As the crowd cheers, he makes his way down the steps towards Laura and then kisses her on the cheek.

“Laura,” Larry Loveheart can tell that she likes this one, “Sven is twenty-six, he’s a marine biologist and you’ll be happy to know he’s six feet tall!”

“Can’t I just make my choice now?” Laura asks impishly, reading off the autocue.

The audience laughs, but Larry shakes his head.

“No, we’re going to let you meet Date Number 2, and that’s Marco from Italy!”

Once more, the back-screen splits open and the audience erupts again as a second man descends in Laura’s direction. Marco is equally tall and handsome, although this time in an olive-skinned, dark-haired-with-come-to-bed-eyes kind of way.

“Marco is twenty-seven,” proclaims Larry. “He’s also a male model –” (cue wolf whistles) “with a degree in literature and he owns an Irish wolfhound named Mitzi!”

Laura looks from one man to the other, obviously confused.

“So,” Larry remarks chattily, “any ideas at the moment which one of these guys is the real deal, Laura?” Without waiting for a response, he appeals to the audience. “What about all of you? Which one would you choose?”

He holds the pause just a fraction longer until the fade to commercial.

*

Audience figures for the pilot episode are phenomenal. Social media is flooded that week with people speculating about which of Laura’s dates is really human and which the AI imposter. There’s also a lot of interest in just how realistic the android might be. ‘Do you think,’ tweets one curious fan, ‘that their date’s over at the end of the evening – or does it go further than that?’ The press is equally prurient, hanging outside Laura’s flat to see if she’s on her own when she leaves for work the following morning and printing obviously posed photos of the nights out. She is snapped with Sven at the cinema and with Marco at a nightclub, and there are pictures of her with both men (although not at the same time, obviously) in some of the most exclusive restaurants, causing bookings to skyrocket.

Laura, meanwhile, feels increasingly more confused. When she is with Sven, she loves the way he listens intently to everything she says, leaning in close, fixing her with those hypnotic blue eyes. His lips when he kisses her are so soft and real that she thinks he must be human; but Marco’s lips are just as seductive and his attention equally flattering. One of them has to be a robot – but what if the TV company’s just messing with her head and they’re both of them real men after all?

*

The second episode sees her back in the studio, flanked on either side by her two dates. She has six weeks to make up her mind, but how can she bear to part with either of them? The audience is also indecisive with half of them rooting for Marco and half for Sven; while the general public has been voting with its wallet, placing staggering bets on one or the other until the bookies stop taking any more wagers.

“So,” Larry asks Laura as the camera pans from her to Sven to Marco and then back to her again, “have you decided yet?”

The autocue flashes her prompt. “Do you mean have I decided which guy I want to keep on dating, or which guy’s the robot?” she asks playfully.

The audience applauds and there are yells of “Sven!” and “Marco!” in equal number.

Larry settles comfortably into his chair. “Well, let’s look at some of your highlights so far…”

A montage of dates flashes across the screen. Laura and Marco walk hand in hand through a park, stopping to gaze at squirrels and delighting over one who boldly approaches them, sniffing at Marco’s shoes. They feed ducks; they buy ice cream. The camera pauses as Marco notices a blob of ice cream on Laura’s nose and gently kisses it away. The audience sighs, high on romance.

We then see footage of Sven taking Laura to the aquarium, wearing his marine biologist hat as he explains the different species of fish. The audience fidgets slightly, wanting something a little more physical. They enter a room with an enclosure full of rays and Sven shows her how to stroke the delicate, pancake-like creatures. His arm steals round her waist as she does so and the audience sighs once more as he hugs her to him before leaning over and kissing her on the lips.

*

Episode Three offers more of the same. The audience is becoming ridiculously invested in these characters to the extent that every newspaper every day carries photos and articles about the nation’s three favourite people. Meanwhile, someone puts forward the theory that perhaps Laura is the android; and the rumour is fuelled even further when the television network declines to comment.

In all this, Laura finds herself fluctuating on a daily basis. When she is with Sven, she thinks he’s The One: the perfect boyfriend she’s always dreamed of; but the following day, when she sees Marco, she finds herself preferring him. Her emotions are a ping pong ball, ricocheting around in an endless volley for the audience’s amusement.

*

By Episode Seven – the final one in the series – she’s spent six weeks with Sven and Marco and pre-orders for AI Unlimited’s ‘Perfect Partner’ droid have gone through the roof. She’s still no closer to making a decision: she likes both of them, even – dare we use the word? – thinks she may be in love. But tonight, she will have to decide and tell the world not only which man she thinks is a robot but which one she wants to pursue a relationship with.

The opening credits roll across the screen as the camera pans across the studio audience, some waving banners with ‘Select Sven!’ and others proclaiming ‘Marry Marco!’ in large colourful lettering. When it finally rests on Larry Loveheart, everyone leans forward expectantly. The network’s promised a big surprise for tonight’s finale and they can’t wait to find out what it is.

Ever the consummate professional, Larry rattles through his greeting with ease before turning to Laura and giving her an encouraging smile. “So,” he says, “it’s been six weeks since your adventure started and tonight you’re going to tell us which one of these wonderful men is a robot – if you guess right, you win a substantial cash prize and, more importantly, the opportunity to keep the Perfect Partner droid.” The audience claps and whistles. “As we all know, the Perfect Partner is the latest in a series of ultra-realistic androids from AI Unlimited, our sponsors for this show. Let’s just listen to what their CEO, Martin Jackson, has to say about this product.”

In the segment that follows, Jackson explains the rationale behind his company’s decision to ‘construct bespoke significant others’. “It’s all very simple,” he says, making direct eye contact with the camera. “You choose your specification and we programme the droid to act in accordance with everything you’ve asked for. We can include an anti-nagging function, for example, or a romance chip…” (Cue studio laughter.) “…for all those women who’re fed up with never receiving cards or flowers on anniversaries or birthdays. Basically, we’re giving you all the best bits of someone’s personality with none of the flaws. And we’re just as careful with the outer packaging too: thanks to a recent technological breakthrough, every droid we make has synthetic skin and body parts that feel and function just like the real thing. In addition, the lithium battery has been adapted to last for seventy years which should be more time than most people need!”

The camera returns to Larry, flashing his impossibly white teeth in a smile that doesn’t quite manage sincerity. “So, there you go: the Perfect Partner is exactly what it promises: someone who lives up to all the expectations you’ve given the company. Laura, let’s just remind ourselves what you said you were looking for.”

We’re back in Laura’s bedroom, watching her once more as she specifies a man who’s good-looking, tall, intelligent and respectful. As she repeats the word ‘honest’, the video clip freezes and Larry turns to Laura, his expression now almost predatory.

“Honesty’s very important to you, isn’t it, Laura?”

“Well, yes, but…”

“So how would you feel,” Larry continues relentlessly, “if I said that one of your dates may – and I have to emphasise that word may – have cheated on you this week?”

The audience gasps. Laura’s face turns white.

“You said last week that you found it hard to decide, Laura. Well, you have the opportunity now to ask both your dates a question that might help you make that decision.”

Laura turns first to Sven. “Sven, have you cheated on me?” she asks.

Sven looks hurt by the suggestion. “Sweetheart, why would I do that? You know I love you!”

The audience sighs with relief.

She now addresses Marco. “Marco, I’m going to ask you the same question: have you cheated on me?”

Marco’s face crumples as he gives his reply. “I’m sorry, Laura. I love you, I really do; but earlier this week, a girl approached me in a bar – you were seeing Sven that night – and…” His voice breaks. “Well, one thing led to another,” he finishes awkwardly. “I’m so sorry, but I can’t lie and pretend it never happened.”

The hurt in Laura’s eyes in unbearable as she hears this confession. Meanwhile, the audience starts to boo Marco.

“So, does that make your decision any easier?” Larry asks. “After all, you did say you wanted a boyfriend who was honest – someone who’s ‘not a cheater’.”

“I…” Laura’s floundering, but it seems like the surprise isn’t over yet.

“We’ll be back after the break,” Larry announces jovially, “with yet another twist before Laura chooses her Perfect Partner. Stay tuned!”

As the cameras pull back, Laura tearfully faces Marco. “How could you do this to me? I just don’t understand.”

*

The audience is buzzing by the time the final segment starts. But then Larry drops his bombshell.

“Laura, you’re understandably upset with Marco, but how would you feel if we told you we made him cheat on you?”

“What?” Laura looks confused.

“In fact, we told both your dates to cheat on you this week – as this footage proves!”

In a daze, Laura watches the film that now plays. Marco is sitting in a bar. A pretty girl approaches him and starts making advances. At first, Marco tries to ignore her, but eventually he allows her to sit down next to him and the two share a bottle of wine as they indulge in conversation. She’s obviously doing her best to seduce him, but he remains resolute – until the end of the evening when she gets up to leave, then turns and plants a kiss on his lips. The camera zooms in to Marco’s surprised expression, then to their lips approaching again. The second kiss lasts much longer and the audience is obviously expecting him to follow her outside, but instead, he waves her goodbye and she leaves on her own.

“That’s how you cheated on me?” Laura sounds amazed. “You didn’t sleep with her: you just kissed her?”

Marco nods, looking ashamed. The audience buzzes.

It’s now Sven’s turn. He’s sitting in the same bar, at the same table, when the same girl approaches. The scene plays out like the one with Marco – except when the girl kisses him at the end, Sven looks around furtively before following the girl outside. Cameras pick out the two of them climbing into a taxi together and disappearing off into the night.

There is a shocked silence. The audience cannot believe what it’s just seen.

Laura looks at Sven. “You lied to me!” she accuses.

He looks embarrassed. “I didn’t know they were filming.”

“But you lied,” she repeats.

“Only because I didn’t want to hurt you, Babe.”

The audience mutters angrily.

“So, Laura…” Larry takes charge once more. “Which one of your dates is the android?”

“Marco,” Laura says without hesitation.

“And you’ve come to that conclusion because…?”

“He was honest with me,” Laura declares. Her eyes glisten with tears. “He didn’t try to save himself like Sven did – he told me he’d done something wrong, even though he knew it might stop me choosing him as my boyfriend.”

“Well, Laura, you’re – absolutely right!”

The crowd goes wild.

“So,” Larry continues as the noise dies down, “who are you going to choose as your boyfriend? Will it be perfect Partner Marco who’ll never lie to you; or love rat Sven who cares more about himself than you?”

The crowd’s keyed up for her to say Marco’s name, but when she utters “Sven” there is a chorus of disbelief. Even Larry looks surprised.

“Do you mind telling us why Sven and not Marco?” he asks politely.

Laura sighs. “I think, maybe, I didn’t know what I wanted. I thought total honesty was important, but when it comes down to it, I was happier not knowing I’d been cheated on. You see, Sven’s lies didn’t just protect him: they protected me as well.” The audience’s outrage rumbles. “AI Unlimited gave me what I thought I wanted,” she continues, “but they’ve given me something I know I can’t live up to myself. That’s why I’m picking Sven, with his human flaws – I guess I’m just not perfect enough for a Perfect Partner.”

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