“Hey! My name is Ria, and I'm ready to help you shop with Glit­ter and Grace. If you need any­thing, just ask! ”

Idealog - - RIDE ON - a story by Sarah Dunn

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?”

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