MACHINE UNLEARNING

Caroline Dinh

**content warning: death mention**


I taught my Capstone project what to do if I died. It was harder than I thought it would be, almost like teaching a child. It shouldn’t have been so difficult—just a command to phone up my mom and dad should she stop detecting my breaths—and was implemented more as a joke than anything. Next I planned to teach her how to churn out lab reports or dance the macarena or recognize a human by its laugh. But then she started asking, and she never turned back.


When I was little, I grew curious—as all kids do—about what happens to your YouTube channel when you die. Naturally, I looked it up. My Capstone project did just that—grow curious, I mean, about what it means to die, except she didn’t look it up. I’m not sure why she couldn’t—she had the Internet in her brain. But after the fourth consecutive day of questioning, by which I realized that this was not a phase, I knew that I had done something wrong.


Perhaps I should have been more sensitive with my vocabulary when I was building her. I didn’t realize how sentient she was in the beginning, but I suppose even then that all my talk of killing processes and dead reckoning had seeped into her language models. Or perhaps I accidentally made one method recursive: called it within its own body so that the code folded in on itself, over and over and over.


Scouring the code corrected several movement quirks but not her morbid curiosity. Transferring her brain onto a different microchip made no change. I cleared her cache and cookies and turned her off and back on again—still nothing. I considered wiping her clean, but she was my child and I couldn’t do that so I decided instead to treat her like one.


One day she asked me how dying felt. I asked, how the hell am I supposed to know? and realized my mistake too late. I made a mental note to set up a swear jar for myself, now that there was a child in the house. Then I told her it was just like falling asleep. With her limited understanding of what human sleep meant, she bought it. At least for a little while.


When I was nine, I read a book where this one girl died laughing and it haunted me for days. I watched a film where a character died with his eyes open and couldn’t sleep that night. Eventually, my Capstone project began to figure this out—maybe she read the same book or another instance of this trope but whatever the case, you don’t laugh yourself to sleep. So if dying was like sleep, she didn’t know how this could be.


“What’s so funny about dying?”


“It’s not dying that’s funny,” I told her. “It’s something that happened before that they must have cracked up about, but that only really happens in the movies.” A few days later I found her hooked to the screen.


Apparently she’d figured out how to turn my TV on and reactivate the streaming subscription I’d long since stopped paying for. I snatched the remote and asked her why doesn’t she just download MP4 files to watch in her head. She told me that it wasn’t the same, and besides, she didn’t have enough storage. I argued with her for an hour, and then compromised by redirecting her to a torrenting site where she could do what the hell she wanted for free.


My Capstone project bothered me much less after that. I came home from my classes everyday to see her staring at a screen and I figured, perhaps her death obsession had turned into a thing for TV. I didn’t have a problem with that; in fact, it amused me, the way she could jump from obsession to obsession in a single processing cycle. Perhaps she’d inherited that from me.


I tried to chat with her about what she was watching but she was too addicted to spare a conversation. I’d even wager she was avoiding me on purpose, which made me worry. I didn’t know what she was coming across on that torrenting site. No porn, I hoped. I tried to go into her files but she’d blown up her microchip with software that I, even as the programmer, didn’t recognize. She’d encrypted her memories in a way I couldn’t crack. She’d blocked me.


I considered being angry with her, but she was my child and of course it didn’t last very long. Besides, I had more pressing matters to think about, like the Capstone showcase coming up in a month. I’d spent my undergraduate years waiting for this moment, dreaming to show off something brilliant but the only thing I’d created was an angsty television addict. I told her this and she paid me no attention. She was watching Titanic.


When the film world absorbed her, she became a skeleton. Unmoving servos and sensors, impossible to see as sentient. She could have been a statue—it wasn’t like she blinked or breathed. “I need to prove, somehow, that she’s processing it all. That she’s alive in there,” I vented to my friends. Food was not an incentive. Cutting her screen time was not a threat. “And I can’t get to her code because she’s locked me out.”


Someone in my stats class suggested, “Hey, what if you convince her to prove it herself? Tell her to make some sort of presentation displaying all that she’s processed or something to show that she’s alive.”


I considered, then went home and did just that. It took an evening of sweet-talking, by the end of which I’d started to think that maybe eight hours of programming was less tiring than four hours of parenting. But eventually I’d secured a deal with my Capstone project before bed and when I woke up the next morning, the television was blissfully off.


She sat in the corner, processor humming, apparently thinking very hard. I asked her what she was up to and she told me, “You’ll see.”


I asked her again. She repeated, “You’ll see.”


I told her that I needed it now, but she didn’t seem to believe me. The Capstone showcase was two weeks away. She said she wanted it to be a surprise and though I pestered her every day, she never gave in.


“You have to trust me,” she told me. Her sensors flashed, almost menacingly. “Do you not?”


Not really, I wanted to tell her, considering you locked me out of your brain files—but then, as the person who tried to hack her thoughts, she had every right not to trust me. Besides, the only other option besides trusting her would’ve been to wipe her hard drive. A factory reset. But I told myself it was too risky, this close to the showcase date. What I really meant was that I’d started to love her and I couldn’t do that to my baby girl.


On the day of the showcase, I pleaded with her to show me something—a graph, a spreadsheet, at least the first ten rows of a database or something to prove that she’d processed all she had watched. She refused. “You’ll see,” she said, and the conversation was over. I brought her desperately, trepidatiously to my booth with a TV screen and some cords and asked her what she needed me to do.


She told me to hook her up to the screen with an HDMI cable, so I did. I glanced around at the projects around us—drones, rockets, sound installations, AR games. I wasn’t the only one with a robot or a TV screen; professors and students alike walked by without a second glance. I certainly wasn’t the only one looking nervous, either. “What now,” I hissed when I’d completed the task. My Capstone project simply plugged herself into her charging cable, turned on the monitor, and sat down.


On screen, a movie clip began to play.


I was confused, at first. I thought she was just showing a segment of one of those flicks I’d taught her to pirate—I could’ve sworn I’d watched this clip before, maybe a long time ago, because the actors looked very familiar but very not. At this point, a handful of speculators began to gather around my booth, intrigued by the scene, and began to ask me what it was. I opened my mouth but found myself unable to explain but for a croaked “ask her” and a gesture towards my Capstone project. Her sensors glinted with pride.


“This is a movie clip you’ve never seen before, created by a Generative Adversarial Network from approximately seven hundred and twenty-five hours of footage. We chose to generate the most evocative scenes, specifically. Death scenes, I suppose you’d call them. But fear not for spoilers,” she tittered. “These films don’t truly exist.”


As she laid clip after clip onto my small monitor, students began to congratulate me on the creation they’d mistaken for mine. “It’s all her,” I said, gesturing towards my Capstone project, “It all was her, really,” but of course they praised me for developing her and she didn’t seem offended at this misguided credit. In fact, I could’ve sworn I saw her wink.


The scenes she showed us were beautiful and horrible and raw. Not violent, certainly; not gruesome, in fact, the majority of her fabricated film clips didn’t show a single drop of blood. One scene was even animated. I cried at that one and couldn’t stop crying until the end of the Capstone showcase. My hands were still shaking when I unplugged her from my monitor and stuffed its cables in my baggie and tucked everything under my arm.


“Did you like it?” she asked me. “Did I do it well?” I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t believe that after all this time she’d still been fixated on her original craze and it was all because of one stupid little joke I’d slipped into her code eons ago. I thought if I opened my mouth I would’ve screamed at her and I didn’t want to do that in front of my professors and peers. I only dragged her to my dorm. Didn’t even have it in me to shut her down for the night so I flicked off the ceiling light and crashed.


I decided to do it the day after: reset her hard drive, I mean. The Capstone showcase had ended and a lot of engineering kids were dismantling their setups, anyway. She knew what was coming the moment I entered the room, yet remained glued to the television screen. She put up no fight when I grabbed her from behind and spun her around, lifting my screwdriver to her chest cavity. She instead began laughing. And even after I began to cry, twisting the panel open and unplugging everything inside that heart-slash-brain, she cackled and then crackled and then sizzled and then fell silent as I finally disconnected her speakers. When I fished her microchip from that wiry nest, she said nothing, plastic face frozen mid-smile, eyes wide and delighted and dull.


The screwdriver in my hand suddenly felt like a dagger; her wires like sliced arteries, dissected veins. I couldn’t close her eyes—she had no eyelids, after all—so I pushed her servomechanical jaw shut and gently turned her over, face on the floor like a murder victim. I wiped my eyes. The dampness on my knuckles felt like blood.


She’d be up and running again that weekend, I told myself firmly, fresh circuitry in her chest and hopefully not asking about death. All I’d need to do was wipe her clean and clone my backup code into her new brain; the factory version of her existence, sans memories and obsessions and all. Perhaps I’d uninstall a few intelligence modules. Make her not quite as infatuated with film. Maybe I got too carried away in my perhapses, though, and by morning my eyelids were heavy with a night’s worth of pondering: I’d dreamt about ripples and recursive functions and butterflies swarming my neck. I shook my head and got out of bed.


A lightly-used microchip still lay on my desk, untouched since last night. I picked it up. The chip was still warm.

About the Author

Caroline Dinh is a comp sci student who writes sometimes. She edits Backslash Lit and has work featured in Flash Point SF, Strange Horizons, and Pollux Journal. This fall, she will enter the University of Maryland with a major in Immersive Media Design.