Object 13

Mimic Scripts

2022, Earth

Of all the things we covet — power, money, possessions — there is one that remains stubbornly elusive: attention. A finite resource that must be husbanded carefully, attention cannot be increased*.

Given the absolute limits of human attention, it was all the more galling for people in the early 21st century to have to 'pay' attention for easily-automated jobs or social signalling. Think of the billions of hours they once wasted every year in dull meetings or sitting in front of desks pretending to work, not able to attend to more interesting matters. One wonders how anyone managed to survive the hierarchical corporate structures of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

By the 20s, a significant minority of meetings were taking place over videoconferencing. Naturally, people were still expected to pay attention during these meetings, but attention had become easy to fake. Real-time video manipulation had became affordable for the masses, and the sophistication of expert systems and the size of the databases available to them led to perhaps the most powerful attention-saving device yet — the mimic script.

AI historian Leo Kandel from University College London explains how mimic scripts worked:

"Imagine that you're sitting in your home, taking part in a videoconference with a dozen other people. You're not expected to say anything important apart from perhaps answering a few questions at the end, but you'd rather not spend an hour just staring into a screen and doing nothing else when you have plenty of other things to do, whether for work or pleasure. So you turn on your personal mimic script.

"The mimic simulates your face and body and reacts according to the context of the meeting by, say, nodding along when everyone else is nodding. While this is going on, you're free to get some real work done, make a sandwich, look after your kids, play a game, or whatever. And if you do get called upon, the mimic will immediately alert you while buying you some time with a 'That's a good question', or some such."

It doesn't sound sophisticated, and it wasn't. Early mimics were little more than pattern matchers coupled with actual hand-scripting and 3D engines, but they were good enough to be used by several hundred thousand people within a year. Subsequent investment from companies such as Leverage and Apple created mimics that could carry out simple conversations, first via text and audio, and then over video.

Many people, particularly those from highly structured societies and organisations, found the use of mimic scripts to be lazy as well as extremely rude. It was a common refrain to hear of workers being fired for supposedly 'slacking off' at work with mimics even though, technically speaking, the 'work' was still being done. But rudeness notwithstanding, opportunities abounded for these highly productive, extremely lazy pioneers; skilled mimic script users could handle 20 sales video calls at once, dipping in and out as necessary and tweaking their scripts for each situation.

If that was all mimic scripting was used for — freeing up attention for busy or easily distracted service workers — it would hardly merit a footnote. When people started buying and selling mimics, however, a whole new host of applications opened up.

Mimic scripting, though useful as a labour-saving device, was far more valuable as a kind of emotional prosthetic or tutor for the affectively impaired. 'Expert' mimic scripts were made for everyone from doctors with poor bedside manners to the non-neurotypical who had problems with social situations. Coupled with wearables, the scripts could be used everywhere unobtrusively, using face recognition to detect who you were talking to and provide the appropriate lines.

Zoe Lem, an early user of mimic scripts, explains how important they were to her:

"When I was growing up, I was incredibly shy — I found it really difficult to talk to people, even friends and family. I just never knew what to say. When a relative died and I said some stupid things, I decided to put a general purpose mimic script on my glasses. It didn't solve everything, but knowing that I'd always have a line, something to say, when I met people, it made me so much more confident. I kept on using it for several years until I got an agent."

Zoe's mimic was designed by Al-Qahirah, a worldwide collective of actors, data miners, and programmers, who created low-cost scripts for non-commercial purposes. For a fee, users could 'borrow' assistance from specialised actors. These actors both finessed scripts for users and also provided real-time affective support (as it happens, many actors had previous experience as Speeky puppeteers). In other words, they'd listen through your ears and watch through your eyes, and tell you how to act and what to say.

If conservatives found general mimic scripts troubling, they thought borrowed-mimics were downright unnatural. How could you tell whether the person you were talking to or even the person you were in a relationship with was mimicking a script — or worse, mimicking another live person? What about the security implications? Asking people to remove their glasses wasn't practical, especially with active contacts starting to enter the market, and 'mimic detecting software' was notoriously inaccurate.

Today, these assumptions of unitary and stable identity seem quaint, but they were fiercely argued at the time; you don't give up thousands of years of tradition and law on a whim. Questions of liability had to be thrashed out in courts around the world, and new applications had to be found before mimics could fully flourish. While most users initially hired instant expertise, in the long run it was the sharing of expertise that mattered most, along with the construction of ‘amalgamated’ expert mimics that were useful across a broad spectrum of situations.

Technologically speaking, mimics were a far cry from agents and true AIs, but their surface appearance to users was similar. The ultimately positive attitudes formed towards mimics would later shape the fate of the next technological revolution.

*except through drastic augmentation techniques.