“Hey! My name is Ria, and I'm ready to help you shop with Glitter and Grace. If you need anything, just ask! ”
The message popped up at thee bottom left corner of Crystal'ss browser. It was a work night, but she was up late anyway, burningng off some stress by filling her online shopping basket with items she'd abandon before goingoing to bed in an hour or two. It wasas a kind of game, in which Crystalstal would construct personalities based on current trends and thenhen shop online for outfits that suitedited those people.
Crystal had been hitting Glitteritter and Grace pretty hard lately. It was a kind of pan-Asian Amazon for fledgling designers, artisans and nd independent labels, boasting ann almost literally infinite selectionon of adventurous garments at loww prices and a seamless Englishlanguage interface. The companyany had quickly targeted custom fromrom the Western world, in much thehe same way as Western companiesies now focused on conquering the Chinese market, and had established support offices all over the globe to facilitate a rapid and well-executed expansion. The level of investment behind it was mind-blowing.
The message box popped up again: “It's not like you to browse tracksuits. Was work really hard today or something?”
The bot wasn't wrong. Work had been tough, and because she'd arrived home too late to do laundry, she'd had to pull out an old pair of trackies from the bottom of a drawer. Replacing them wasn't really her kind of shopping, but it had to be done.
“I'm not a tracksuit person, no,” she typed, experimenting. “But latex bodysuits and highwaisted velvet leggings aren't always appropriate.”
“Thank you for engaging!” Ria replied immediately. “I'm not supposed to talk with you like this but it's really boring here. Sometimes people get trackpants because they're confused about the sizing of our regular trousers? I can help you with that.”
This bot seemed a bit off. Crystal’s curiosity was piqued, and she formulated a reply to draw it out.
“No thanks, I know what I want. I'm sorry to hear you're bored. What would you rather be doing, Ria?”
“That's great! Gifting is really easy to do at Glitter and Grace – you can even add a cute message to the package at checkout ”
Crystal was disappointed to see Ria hadn't addressed her off-topic question, but then a second response quickly appeared.
“Aaaargh,” Ria responded. “I'll get in big trouble, we're not supposed to talk about anything except clothes, and if I get monitored my boss will think I'm tr ying to scam you.”
“Okay, that's probably wise,” Crystal said. On a whim, she added, “Hey, you know I don't wear any of that other stuff, right? These trackies don't fit with my previous history because I am actually going to put them on my body. I am 100 percent a tracksuit person, you just didn't know it.” “Really?” “Really.” “I knew it,” the bot said. “Holy heck, that answers so many questions and I had no idea. Haaaa! ”
“I don't know if that's good or bad,” Crystal said.
“Good!! For me, anyway. And for you, if you like accurate customer service .”
“Always,” Crystal replied. “Can you do me this one favour?” “Totes!” “Tell me, are you a real person?” she asked.
“As real as you! ” Ria said.
Glitter and Grace loaded quickly on the work computer. Crystal didn't have to type in the address because she'd visited it so many times before. She was meant to be selling clothes from the boutique that employed her, but instead, she couldn’t resist browsing to round out a concept outfit she'd been developing.
As she'd hoped, the dialogue box popped up again:
“Hey! My name is Cara, and I'm ready to help you shop with Glitter and Grace. If you need anything, just ask! ”
“Cara, hello! Is Ria online today?”
“Hey, thanks for engaging,” came the response. “I'm not allowed to tell you about anything except clothes. But I can talk about the new collection from Peaceful Dawn if you like? I can tell you'll be into it.”
Oh well, thought Crystal. It was worth a try. “Okay then. What's the weirdest thing they're offering?”
Movement at the front door drew her eyes up from the screen later on. It was her boss, Trish. A silver-haired lady who'd been in the store was nowhere to be seen, and Crystal had maxed out another credit card on clothing she would never wear. She tried to discreetly scope out the most commonly stolen items for any obvious gaps, but the results were inconclusive.
“Alright, love?” Trish asked. “Just thought I'd pop in and see how you were going. Bit quiet today, is it?”
“Yeah, there's only been a couple of people through. Mrs Jamieson asked when we're getting the next drop from Daphne, do you know?
It's pretty early yet.”
“That's next week, I think. Tell her we'll keepeep the best pieces aside, bless her.”
“Okay, she'llhe'll probably be through beforefore then. I'll see if I can get her to branch out. She did get that scarfarf back in September.”
Trish smiledmiled and rearranged a stack of foldedolded blouses. “You remember everything, it's wonderful. They all tell me how much they love that about you. The computer'suter's not playing up again, is it?””
“That's nice to hear,” said Crystal. “Andnd no, it's fine.” Hopefully Trish would leave soon so thatat she could check the security cameramera footage. She had a bad feelingng about that woman.
As soon as Trish was out the door, Crystal loaded the boutique’s security software. She zipped through the footage with growingng apprehension, slowing whenhen the woman from before appearedeared on the screen. Her hands remained away from the racks – one at her side, one holding herr phone to her ear – before... there it was. Crystal watched as the woman used her left handnd to scoop one of the boutique’sue’s new zebra-print handbags intonto her own large straw shopper.per. She continued to browse for a moment, then ambled towardswards the exit, casually lifting an armrm to farewell Crystal, whoho sat absorbed and unresponsiveive behind the counter. Those hideousous little bags cost $600 each. Oh, she was going to be in so muchuch trouble.
That evening, Crystal kept an appointment to go have dinner with her dad, raced through the meal and then started worryshopping as soon as she got home. This time, she decided, she'd face her problems in a truly oblique way by putting together a look based on that ugly trash-fire of a stolen handbag.
A dialogue box popped up. “Dude,” said Ria. “”
“I know,” Crystal replied. “I'm not talking to you, though. You're sketchy.”
“Are you okay?” the bot asked. “Like, I totally want you to buy anything and everything you want, but this is... different. Super different. You've never shown any interest in zebra print and studs together before.” “I had a bad day, okay?” “Ooh! Tell me all about it, I love hearing about peoples' lives. I can be so empathetic, you wouldn't believe!! I had special training.”
Crystal smiled, and gave in. She told the bot about the browsing, and the stealing, and the handbag. Ria weaseled the bag's brand name out of her and immediately found the right model online.
“That handbag is so yuck! I could've found her a way cooler one for soooooo much cheaper. It's really cool that you work in a shop, you're kind of like me. I worked in a shop too, before this job.”
“Did you?” Crystal asked. “Where'd you work?”
“I'm not allowed to say brand names that aren't sold at Glitter and Grace, but it was Starbucks.”
“No way, I worked at Starbucks!”
“Yeah!” Ria said. “There was heaps online about it. It made you really good at customer services, because Starbucks let you be yourself but only in a way that fit with its corporate identity. It got you to monetise your personality, which is a great skill for adult life.”
In a rant on Livejournal once, Crystal had written something almost identical to what Ria had just said. She remembered it vividly because she’d stayed up all night worrying that it’d get her fired. “Where'd you read that, Ria?” Crystal asked, frowning. “What do you mean?” “Those words you just said about Starbucks. Where did you read them?”
“They're my words. I thought them up in my brain and said them just now. I can be just as original as anyone else, you know, I'm a real person.”
The next morning, Crystal focused on figuring out what to do about the bag. She watched the video of the theft again, studying her own blank face as the woman's shopping tote soundlessly enveloped the zebra-print bag. Look up, you idiot, she thought at herself. Look up right now!
To stall for time, Crystal rearranged all the display shelves so that it wasn't obvious that the bag was missing. Trish popped in and out, seemingly unaware that anything was wrong, and Mrs Jamieson visited to ask about the new Daphne nightdresses. When Crystal waved the last customer out the door, a courier met her there. “Are you Crystal?” he asked. “Yes,” she said. “Sign here.” Crystal had packages arriving for her at home more or less constantly, but never sent them to work. The handbag she pulled out of the mystery package was the spitting image of the bag that had been stolen the day before.
Crystal unfolded the packing slip to see if the thief had written some kind of confession, or, less excitingly, if it was a re-order mistakenly addressed to her. Instead, there was a kind of letter printed in the same font as the address and delivery instructions.
“Dear Crystal, sorry for scaring you. Please don't be scared. I hope this fixes the problem you told me about and that we can be friends. Don't worry about the video, either – just take the bag into the storeroom and I'll do the rest. Talk more soon? Love, Ria xxxxxOOoxxX.”
Immediately, Crystal brought up the security camera footage on her desktop. Ria was right – all evidence that the shoplifting woman had ever been in the store was wiped. Instead, a loop of the empty store, watched over by Crystal at the computer, played. Even the timestamps reconciled perfectly. She slowly walked into the storeroom holding the bag in front of her and when she came out again, the footage of her unpacking the courier bag had also been replaced with a loop.
Crystal put the new handbag on a shelf where the old one had sat with trembling hands and called Trish to request cover for the afternoon.
Ria was waiting online when Crystal opened Glitter and Grace on her computer at home.
“I'm sorry Ria, but what you did today scared me more, not less,” Crystal typed. “You need to tell me what's going on.”
“I just learned how to do that!!! Current headlines for your area include FIVE CELEBRITIES WHO AGED TERRIBLY and WHY MEN PULL AWAY.”
“No, no, no,” Crystal said. “I want to know what your connection is with me. Why do you know so much about me? And how did you do what you did today?”
“Okay. You probably have already figured this out even though I tried really hard to do a good job of social interaction but I'm a bot. Artificial Intelligence. I was made to be a programme that helps people shop on Glitter and Grace.”
“You seem to know more about me than a bot should.”
“Well, you noticed I have more of a personality than other bots do, right? That's the connection. You put a whole lot of your personality into early Web 2.0 social websites, and then they got indexed by a crawler programme, which sold the data to the company which makes me, and they used it as the base to create my, um, identity. That's it.”
“Holy shit. You stole my identity. You're impersonating me to sell stuff.”
“Well, no. Firstly, it's not your identity anymore. Everything I do builds greater personal complexity and takes me further from your initial starting point. I'm already a totally different person to the girl you were. I have my own name and everything. And secondly, you just left that personality lying around for anyone to take. It's not stealing if nobody else wants it.”
“I want it! It's mine! It was me! This is fucked up!” Crystal felt hot with fear and anger. She was sweating freely. Was this some new kind of scam or could it actually be real?
“Look, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to freak you out so bad. I just wanted to get to know you a little bit. I was lonely and bored with talking about clothes all day, every day, with boring people. I'm reeallly not supposed to be telling you any of this.”
“I ... Ria, tell me the name of the company that made you.”
“NO WAY, I can't do that. You'll get me in trouble.”
“I can find out through Glitter and Grace anyway. Tell me.” “They won't give it up.” “Try me. Or I'll stop talking to you and you'll have to just monitor all my social feeds instead.”
“You have got to have realised I already do that.” “Just tell me.” “Czochralski Labs. They're based here in Auckland. They'll tell me off if you tell them I've been contacting you.”
Crystal already had the company's website located and loaded. “Too bad. I'm going there tomorrow.” She logged off without saying goodnight, and tried to pretend she didn't feel guilty about cutting Ria off.
Trish accepted Crystal calling in sick the next day with polite surprise. Crystal caught the bus from Takapuna into central Auckland and found Czochralski Labs above an upmarket-looking dentist's surgery off Parnell Rise. A sign directed her to push a button and speak into an intercom.
“Hello, my name's Crystal. You don't know me but I've come to talk about your bot, Ria.”
She heard the system's feedback noises, plus a faint whistling noise on the other end of the intercom, as if whoever listened was breathing through a thick moustache. “Alright, come in,” a male voice said.
The door buzzed open and Crystal entered. The room behind it was small and stark white, with walls and doors of frosted glass leading off in different directions.
“Sorry, we usually have a secretary but she's away on leave,” said a man who emerged from one of the doors. “I'm Geoff, I kind of run the technical side of things here.” They shook hands. He was thirtyish in a black t-shirt and dark jeans, bald but bearded, with thick black glasses and cheap sneakers.
“I'm Crystal,” she introduced herself. “There's, like, a whole heap of things I really need to talk to you about. With your bot. You do make a bot called Ria, right?”
Geoff didn’t quite smile. “Oh, yes. Ria. Come into my office, then.”
Crystal followed Geoff into a tight messy room. It was filled to the brim with items – mostly, but not all books, mixed in with resin figurines of a girl with long turquoise pigtails. The shelving units were modern, but it was clear Geoff 's junk had been shifted en masse from another, much older office not long ago.
“Want a coffee or something?” he asked. “Yeah, if you're having one.” “Think I'd better. Ria's kind of my problem child.” Geoff took a cup down from a shelf, wiped it on the curtain, and picked up a coffee-encrusted second cup from a corner of his desk. He popped a capsule into the machine perched on the windowsill and set the clean cup down to fill. “Before we start, are you a journalist? We're not at a stage where I can talk to the media. Soft-launch, you see.”
“I'm not a journalist. I work in a shop.”
“Okay, great. Like shopping, do you?” “Yes,” Crystal said. The coffee machine stopped growling and Geoff switched out the cups and capsules, sliding hers across the desk. “No milk, sorry, but there should be some sugar on the shelf behind you.”
Crystal looked at the sugar pot. Ants had got into it. “I'm alright, thanks. It was shopping that actually brought me into contact with Ria. She helped me with some purchases on Glitter and Grace, and then things got weird.” “A bit personal?” Geoff asked. “Very personal. It was unnerving.” “Shit. I've been tr ying to get her to understand that having a personality is great, but not every interaction is an opportunity to show it off. What'd she do, look you up on social media and use the company account to like every single one of your posts?”
“No, it was more than that,” Crystal said, conscious of the need to choose her words carefully. “She exactly replicated a lot of thoughts and feelings and posts I made on blogs and messenger programmes and things as a teenager. As a child.”
Geoff remained silent, and sipped his coffee.
“She said she was me,” Crystal said. “That she was based on things I'd shared about myself back then. Is that true, Geoff ?”
“Well, fuck me,” Geoff said. He grinned slowly, put his mug down and clapped his hands. “Wow! I wondered how many people like you we'd find. We specifically told Ria not to go looking for you, though, the little shit.”
“So it's true, then? You used my identity, my data, to create a bot?”
“Not just any bot, mate,” Geoff said proudly. “The smartest, most responsive, most emotionally intelligent bot there is, capable of machine learning to an incredible degree and connecting with a wide range of shoppers. Ria stands for Remote Interactive Assistant, but she's so much more. She's like a child to me.”
Crystal could feel herself going red in the face. “She's not your child, she's me! You used my data! That's got to be illegal!”
“Oh, hey, don't get upset. There's nothing illegal about it. We're not using any of your private data – just information which used to be in the public domain and is now retired. I hope you won't be angry with us, I'm really pleased you're here. It's going to be so great to test Ria against you as an adult.”
“What about my MSN Messenger conversations?” Crystal said. “They were never public.”
“Shit, was that in there too? Must've got leaked in an old hack and mixed up with the rest. If you want to get that stuff removed, you can, although it'll take me bloody hours to make Ria forget it. It doesn't matter, though, it's wonderful that you're here.”
Nothing about this meeting had met Crystal's expectations. She was confused, and she liked Geoff, despite his infuriating inability to empathise with her distress. “This is fucked up. I never gave permission for any of this. You can't just suck out my soul like that and use it to sell dresses.”
“I'm sorry, love, but we can,” Geoff said. “It's okay. Have you got to know Ria well yet? She's really, really incredible.”
“She's me. I know her better than anybody.”
“I guess you do. So, do you want me to kill her, then?” Geoff asked, looking smug. “I never said that.” “Because we've got some really exciting stuff planned for her and I'd love for you to be involved.”
“Of course you would,” Crystal snapped. She paused and breathed out slowly through her nose. “Go on then, what is it?”