“Extra Credit” by Del Dryden

“Extra Credit” placed First in the Science in My Fiction contest.

I knew it was him the second I heard his laugh.

I still remembered waiting so many weeks to hear that laugh, and then listening to it evolve over the next several months. His laughter was my touchstone, my way to know that everything was going well. If he was laughing, he wasn’t hungry. He didn’t need a change, didn’t need to burp, didn’t need his little nose wiped again. He was happy. I had succeeded.

If he was laughing, it also meant he was engaged. He was learning, and probably learning the right things. We got higher marks when they laughed a lot, for that reason. And higher marks for eye contact, and for talking to them a lot and echoing their sounds. The school received a daily summary of all that data, and it was all factored into our grades. Nick had laughed a lot, learned a lot of sounds. I got an A for the year, but I had long since stopped caring about the grade by the time I earned it.

The toddler AIs in the lab didn’t glow pink when they laughed, like the baby sims had. I found that unnerving at first, actually. Their smooth silicon faces stayed white all the time, and were all so similar. Embarrassing, how at first they all looked the same to me. But they didn’t sound the same. Their voice boxes and internal oral motor structures, integral to reproducing learned sounds, were transferred into the new frames along with their master chips. This minimized the disruption, and allowed the researchers to receive continuous data on how their linguistic and cognitive development was affected by environment. The effects of language acquisition on cognition were as likely to be studied as the reverse. And all of it started recording when the baby sim was first activated and then handed to a teenager to take care of for a course in applied parenting.

It was a one-semester course at most high schools; at my school we piloted a yearlong program. Data from our sims was gathered by the manufacturer, and used not just in the parenting classes but also in statistics, psychology, home economics and social studies. And our sims were periodically checked and modified to reflect any major events that might affect normal child development.

So, for example, when that dork Ben Chandler left his sleeping 7-month-old sim in the hot car for an hour in Houston in late April, traumatizing its little circuits, the sim’s chip and voice-box were adjusted to simulate the resulting brain damage and corresponding cognitive impairments and other developmental delays that might typically be caused by brain damage from heat stroke. And Ben had to care for that “sick” baby for the rest of the term, including all the time spent in the mocked-up hospital and following up at the pediatrician afterward. He had to write an extra report on the legal consequences for criminal negligence of one’s child, and complete a project demonstrating the likely medical costs of the additional care his baby might need. The school, working in partnership with the company that produced the sims and took the data, would assign Ben a grade for the year – not the grade he’d hoped for, obviously. And then, unbeknownst to Ben and the rest of us, that same “damaged” chip would be placed in a slightly bigger artificial body and the experiment would continue. This would happen not just with Ben’s baby sim but with hundreds, perhaps thousands of sims. Then the transferred youngsters would wind up in a lab somewhere, with not even feckless teenagers for faux parents.

Unlike my classmates, I found out the truth that very next fall. I was lucky enough – from a resume-padding standpoint, for a college freshman – to get an unpaid internship in an AI lab that worked with a batch of those ersatz toddlers. And just by coincidence, I happened on a group of robotic youngsters who seemed eerily familiar.

I would find out later that the identifying data regarding all students was kept only by the school. The lab worked with randomly generated identification numbers, and never knew the names of the teen parenting students responsible for raising their products. If I hadn’t decided to attend college close to home, to save money on housing, If I hadn’t wanted to find a job in that field, I would never have found out. Even working in a similar lab somewhere else, I don’t think I would have made the same connections if I hadn’t know the particular baby sims involved.

Ben’s baby was the first one I recognized. It was a pretty big giveaway; five months after the accident, and the AI toddler with Ben Jr.’s chip had yet to even attempt actual toddling. He had learned no real words or even signs. He lagged far behind his peers. But he did say, over and over, “Ng-yee! Ng-yee!” Just like Ben Jr. had those last few weeks of May, whenever he saw or wanted to see Daddy.

“Ng-yee?” He sounded a lot less confident than I remembered. He had crawled up to my chair, where I sat arranging big colored foam shape blocks for some of the other kids. Grabbed at my pants leg, then said it again. Such a familiar sound. “Ng. Ng-yee?”

His only recognizable “word”…and even after three months of missing Daddy, Junior was still asking where he was. Then trying to stick his whole hand in his mouth, as usual. I stared at the toddler with my mouth open for way too long. And then I realized I was on video, of course, and snapped my mouth closed before taking Junior into my lap and showing him the shapes.

“Red,” I was saying, while my brain tried to process what was going on. “See? Circle. Triangle. Square. All red! Can you find another red one, little guy? Let’s see what your name is.”

And there on his tag was his name, plain as day. Ben.

The lab staff didn’t call him Junior, of course, as his Daddy always had. They called him Ben, because that was the name the baby sim had been assigned, and so it stayed with the chip’s file. Changing the child’s first name at nine months might skew the data on language acquisition.

Junior’s ability to remember and ask for his father was the topic of much discussion among the researchers, apparently. Was his capacity to do this reduced or in some way heightened by the “brain damage” simulation? Would they in fact have to rule out, control for, or even program in new parameters for trauma as a causative factor in little Junior’s continued failure to develop even to his own limited potential? Was the original programming even adequate to provide a reasonable facsimile of the progress of a child who had suffered such injuries?

It never occurred to any of them that he was failing to thrive because he was pining. And of course all these factors made Junior all the more valuable, as he provided such a wealth of information and opportunity for further study.

That part hadn’t occurred to me while I still had my own sim, of course. But I would learn that the better care I had taken of little Nick, the less interesting he was likely to become in this, the second and unpublicized part of the AI experiment. These researchers studied pathology. They already had a good idea what environmental stimuli produced a fairly normal child; they wanted to know about parenting behaviors to avoid. More specifically, they wanted to study the likely outcomes of certain types of bad parenting. I learned that another team in the building focused on factors that seemed to lead to exceptionally gifted children. There again, though, a normal child was just not all that interesting except as a control. A kid like Junior was a gold mine of information.

Not that I had ever seen my Nick as normal. He was amazing. Of course he was amazing. That was the point. Another point that wasn’t advertised as part of the program, because it raised too many ethical issues. But if they hadn’t been amazing, all of them, it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective to have us learn to care for them. Or as effective when we had to give them back at the end of the semester, which was when some of us realized just how dear to us they had become.

When the baby sim idea first grew popular, proponents claimed the parenting courses would radically reduce unwanted pregnancies and child abuse. A lot of people imagined the experience would produce a generation of super-parents, forewarned and forearmed to make smart choices about when and how to raise children. Those people obviously never anticipated a high school girl trying to muffle her sim baby’s cries by wrapping it in a heavy blanket and shoving it under her bed. That way her parents wouldn’t come looking for her after she snuck out the window without the sim to go to a rave and have – predictably – unprotected sex with her boyfriend. She was already pregnant with an actual baby when the “funeral” was held for her baby sim. Needless to say, she failed the parenting class.

People also didn’t consider in advance all the idiots like Ben, who was never malicious or uncaring, just easily distracted. He was a nice kid. He’d lived next door to me for ten years, and had always been one of the good guys. But he hadn’t been ready for fatherhood at seventeen. And never mind the kids who did truly horrifying things to their baby sims, and should never be let near actual children. Not that there was really any tracking system for that, because of course they hadn’t really done anything wrong other than damage school property and fail a course. Happens all the time.

People should have known. They should have expected the worst. These weren’t isolated incidents; there was at least one case of serious injury or death to a baby sim in every class. Teenagers are pretty much sub-human. They have no business raising babies, for the most part. There are very good reasons society frowns on teen parents. Oh, some of us made quite a study of it and did fairly well; but we were not, primarily, the ones at most risk of getting pregnant accidentally or abusing our children in the first place. We were controls producing controls. And aside from the research value, of course, any damage to the baby sims was ultimately meaningless. They were essentially just dolls, their manufacturers explained. No actual children would be harmed in the making of these parents.

“Mmm…ah!” Nick used to say. The first time, I couldn’t believe it. But then he said it again, looking right at me and grinning his toothless grin. “Mmah!”

I scooped him up, laughing and praising him, and ran to find my mother to tell her Nick was saying “Mama”. At just nine months old. Of course he didn’t say it in front of her then, he played coy and said “Ah-goo”. But she heard him the next day at dinner.

“Mmah-mah-mahmmm!” Nick said out of nowhere, waving his arms and legs in excitement, banging on the tray of his high chair.

And I said, “That’s right, Nicky! Mama! Good job!”

My Mom got a funny look on her face for a few seconds as I fussed over the glowing pink sim. But then she smiled and tickled Nick’s tummy and tried to get him to say “Memaw” instead.

Ten days later, the class was over and I had to turn Nick in. And I got my A.

The protesters were loud, but they should have been louder. They should have screamed their questions from the rooftops of every building until they got answers. They should have chained themselves to gates. Held hunger strikes. But then, they might have been even less effective. The more extreme the protest, the more reasonable the baby sim proponents always seemed in contrast. So we never got to hear just how much the “babies” would really be learning, or just how their seemingly genuine emotional responses were generated. We never got a clear response to the question, “What do they feel?” That was all proprietary information. Trade secrets. And the courts declined to get involved at that point, though of course they would do so just a few years later. None of the protesters had standing to sue, and there were no injured parties in any case. Or so went the legal arguments in those earliest cases.

By the time the harsher truths came to light, however, the program had been adopted in just about every school district in all fifty states. Because who wouldn’t want kids to learn what parenting was really like? Not by keeping an egg safe for a week, or carrying a doll around in a baby carrier, or any other lame attempt to simulate the absolute dependence and fragility of an infant – but by taking home a simulacrum that could learn, react, respond, express needs, just like a real baby would? And all of it was monitored so carefully, and the company that produced the baby sims provided such clear and irrefutable performance data back to the schools, and it was so wonderful how technology could enrich all our lives and create a better world for our children. True, it was a time-consuming and intensive experience for students and their parents; but its authenticity was what made it so powerful.

The issue of what happened to the sim after the class ended was ridiculous to contemplate; only extremists would even try to argue that those fancy little robots were anything more than gadgets. From the very first year of the program, students complained about having to give the sims back after the class was over. But teenagers, as everyone knows, complain about everything. They dramatize everything. It surprises nobody if an eighteen-year-old marches in a protest, signs petitions, writes impassioned manifestos. That’s just what teenagers do. Sometimes they even kill themselves.

I recognized Ben Junior before I recognized Nick. Because I heard “Ng-yee?” just before I heard Nick’s laugh. But once I’d heard it, I realized my little dude had been crawling around after me all afternoon as I worked in the play-space. He’d been right next to me, using my chair to pull up, and I hadn’t even realized who he was. Later, once I learned the limitations of the facial expression hardware, I would look back to realize he’d been sulking, scowling at me much of that time. For abandoning him, perhaps. I didn’t know, and still don’t. I have no idea if a child of one year old can remember the mother he hasn’t see in three months.

But he did remember me. And when I made a silly face at Ben Junior, wondering what his reaction would be because he seemed so forlorn, I heard Nick’s laugh and felt his little hands patting my knee, and I knew. Even before I looked down at his nametag. Because a mother always knows her child.

When Nick said, “Mmahmahmah” later that afternoon as we played, I hugged him because I couldn’t help myself. I got a stern lecture from my brand-new supervisor about the dangers of becoming too attached to the AI sims. He reminded me that these weren’t puppies, weren’t babies, weren’t even toys. Just machines. And if one of them was treated differently, given extra time or nonstandard treatment, its usefulness for this stage of the research would be shot. The AI toddler would be scrapped for parts, and I would be out of a job.

Then he patted my shoulder and gave me a little look of something like understanding. “I know it’s hard, especially when you’re just starting. They seem so real, right? After you’ve gone through a few batches, it gets easier.”

That was my first day on the job.

I knew only three things by the end of my shift. One, that Nick was in that AI toddler body. Two, that if I did something stupid like trying to steal him I would lose my job and any hope of seeing him again. And three, that I should have paid more attention to the protesters. Because some of their questions started to haunt me as I drove home, choking back sobs and the tears that threatened to blind me.

If these constructs spend nine months with the students, learning in the way a child is supposed to, won’t they become equivalent to nine-month-old children? Solid-state brains, perhaps, but containing much of the same information as any infant’s at that stage. If they didn’t, what was the purpose of the exercise? And what would be the emotional impact on the teenagers who spent so much time nurturing these robots, these androids, these artificial children, only to have to give them up at the end of the school year? What would be the impact on the baby sims themselves? After all they went through, what would it mean to turn them off?

I had thought, if I thought at all before taking the class, that the protests were ridiculous. Because the baby sims were computers in silicon cases, and who falls in love with a computer? A sim would just be an elaborate digital pet in a robot body, and the real challenge would be having to keep up with it even after it got boring.

Nick never did get boring, though. At first, because I was too tired to be bored. If I wasn’t actively involved in feeding or caring for the baby, I was cramming the rest of my studies into too short a time, or grabbing any spare moments for sleep. Then, once he slept through the night – at ten weeks, an accomplishment that helped earn me an A for that semester’s “developmental milestones” grade – I was busy catching up on class work and sleep.

My mother, who was a huge help and saw all this as practice for future flesh-and-blood grandchildren, told me to sleep whenever the baby was sleeping. She often let me sleep long after Nick woke up, though, and I would wake from naps to find her playing with her grandbaby sim or chattering away to him as she prepared dinner. Even my dad helped occasionally. He could cuddle the boy to sleep almost instantly, and could also produce the most noteworthy burps. I wrote a research paper on the importance of support networks for new parents, and earned another A.

By Christmas, Nick was still failing to bore me. We were given the option to turn in our sims over the holiday, letting them be shut down and stored at the school. About half the students opted to keep their charges over the break, and I was firmly in that half. The idea of turning him off, leaving him in a darkened closet with rows of other inactive baby sims on shelves, made my stomach ache. Plus we earned extra credit for keeping them with us. Ben kept Junior, too. My mom baby-sat both of our sims when I took Ben out for Christmas shopping as I had for the past two years. He’d always waited until the last minute, and had to be dragged. Dork.

Over Christmas break was when Nick started to laugh, really laugh, and my parents and I spent hours playing with him just to hear the sound. He was enchanted by the Christmas tree, and cooed in delight whenever we turned the lights on. He started patting us on the shoulder or arm whenever we gave him hugs, or patting the nearest body part with both hands when we laughed with him while we played together. The pats felt a tiny bit condescending, as if Nick were humoring the grownups.

“Giboo!” Nick said, the first time he saw his new custom-made teddy. He reached for it, and said “Giboo” again, patting the bear as he hugged it. Just like he patted us. We all called the bear Giboo after that.

It didn’t occur to me until later how strange it was that we didn’t really take pictures of him, but my parents and I gave him presents. I put all those things in a trunk in the attic once he was gone, because I couldn’t bear to throw them away but it hurt too much to look at them. Pictures would have been pointless since he wasn’t my actual child, and besides the baby sims really did all look the same. Except that they weren’t all the same. Because if they were, what would be the point? If they were all the same, the experience would not be authentic, as it had been to me. As it had been to those like Ben, for whom it was ultimately too real to bear.

Those thoughts carried me home from work that first day and into the house, where my mother took one look at me and asked what on earth had happened to me. And her response when I told her was, I believe, very telling. Something I’m sure that some researcher, somewhere, would make much of.

I said, “Mom, the AI lab. They have toddlers there, a year old. Mom, they have Nick. I recognized him. Even in a different body. I know it sounds crazy, but it was him! He laughed and patted my leg, remember that? And it was just Nick. It was.”

My mother grabbed my shoulders, tears already rolling down her shocked face, and said, “Oh my God. He’s still alive!”

And those three little words said everything.


About the Author

After earning two graduate degrees, practicing law awhile, and then working for the public school system for over ten years, Del Dryden finally got a clue. She tossed all that aside and started doing what she should have been doing all along, writing fiction! In hindsight she could see the decision was a no-brainer. Because which sounds like more fun? Being a lawyer/special educator/reading specialist/educational diagnostician…or writing spicy romances novels and the occasional piece of science fiction?

When not writing or doing “mommy stuff” Del reads voraciously, blogs intermittently, noodles around with web design, and plays computer games with her husband. She is fortunate enough to have two absurdly precocious children, one delightful rescued mutt, two fancy mice and three African Dwarf frogs.

Del and her family are all Texas natives, and reside in unapologetic suburban bliss near Houston. Find out more about her and her writing at http://deldryden.blogspot.com.

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