A Game of Poker
Lola found her forehead as she awakened, pressed up against the driver-side window as bright red and blue flashing lights passed by her quickly. Sirens filled the air as she groaned under her breath, the police outside the traffic jam arrested a pair of dirty looking young men.
The months that had followed the 'Creative Revolution' were long and difficult ones. The rise of the robotic workforce had caused a large number of unskilled workers to be replaced by machines, able to do the same simple labour most workers could do - without the need of benefits or vacations.
Yet the creative sectors began to find prosperity as well, their jobs being the only ones no robot could replace. The ability to create became desirable and artists, writers, painters and every creative mind was in high demand. Creative industries and businesses all began to flourish, producing goods for the upper-class as the lower class began to suffer, calling themselves 'Anarchists' and lashing out at authority at an increasing number of organized riots, demanding to be compensated for their loss of income and (Lola suspected) their self-worth as well.
Fortunately, she was confident in her own job security. Those who worked in the robotics industry were about as secure as could be, especially these days. She was a Model Tester for a corporation named 'DoA Corp.”, analyzing changes to the programming of AI and sending feedback and suggestions to the robot design teams. Everything from the aesthetic appeal of trash compactors to the changes in the voice-over of automated taxi services. ‘Glorified Quality Tester’ was what some people called it, but those people weren’t the ones with a job.
Her car pulled itself into the parking lift as she retrieved her purse from the passenger seat, stepping out and adjusting her blazer before pausing at the parking screen. She selected her spot from a drop down menu as the lift descended her car to its position deep underneath the complex.
She continued to the elevator before a small camera scanned over her, announcing from a speaker accompanying it, “Good Morning, Lola DiSanta. Third floor workspace today?” it chimed in the voice of an enthusiastic British gentleman.
She nodded, having learned long ago to pay little mind to the greetings of service A.I. Certainly she had found that the constant testing and use of 'polite' and 'encouraging' mechanical contact had weaned appreciation for pleasantries like these clean from her mind.
Nearby, a white van began emptying a wooden crate at the loading bay next to her. Large steel forceps lifted it from its compartment and onto a smaller, wheeled machine which drove it off into the bay doors. Her curious glance was interrupted by a voice which droned mechanically behind her.
“Long time no see,” a young man said. His face was ever-present with a drab and dreary expression - a look of perpetual discontent. “How'd the vacation go?” he asked, producing an e-cigarette from his back pocket, twisting it to ignite it.
She ran a hand through her long black hair before tying it tightly in a bun at the back of her head. “Morning, Martin,” she responded flatly as they stepped onto the elevator in tandem. She wasn't much of an enthusiastic conversationalist, but fortunately for herself, he wasn’t either, “It was fine, a bit jet-lagged.”, she added, stifling back a yawn.
The elevator lifted them quickly to their floor and they continued along the hallway in silence towards the secretary's desk, stepping over a small machine that locked onto their footprints, trailing them and cleaning what little residue they left behind.
“Mary-Anne, what's on the agenda today?” Martin asked the secretary stationed at the mahogany desk in front of a pair of double-doors. The android offered them a wide smile, “Good Morning, Mister McCarthy. Today you have 'GreatGame!’ build number 10, model number’ x6e99rt1’. It just arrived this morning! Here are your change logs and diagnostic sheets,” it spoke in a soothing tone, holding a clipboard with several neatly laid out sheets of paper out to Lola.
“Fuck me...another one of these game machines? How bored do people get these days?” Martin moaned, “Let's just run through it as fast as we can, maybe we can get an early lunch in.”
Lola flipped through the sheets with a sigh as they made their way to the testing lounge, a large white room with nothing but a table in the middle and a glass window leading to an observation room up above. One vacant chair sat across a table from a blank rectangular machine, roughly as tall a desk lamp, which sat perched atop a chair of its own. Its beige form lay motionless, seemingly without purpose or function.
Martin disappeared into a door at the corner of the room, his silhouette appearing within the observation room moments later as his voice echoed over the loudspeaker.
“Whenever you're ready, Lola.”
She nodded up to him, scanning briefly over the pages in front of her before approaching the center of the room. As she pulled out the chair, it quietly whirred to life, its pointilated black speaker resonating a greeting:
“Good Morning! I'm afraid we have never played together before. What should I call you? My designated name is Jamie, but you may call me what you like! I am GreatGame and I think we will have a fun time together!”, it piped up enthusiastically, its giddy nature nearly overwhelming – something Lola was sure to jot down.
She flipped over to her checklist, beginning to look through it, verifying its functions were working as intended before offering a rebuttal:
“I am Lola. I would like to play chess and I will play as white.”
Nearly instantly, a minute projector from its upper region displayed a holographic board in front of them, the white pieces aligned to her side and the black to its own.
“I look forward to playing chess with you! Why don’t you move first, Lola?” it suggested, its insides whirred quietly, presumably computing moves within itself.
The morning trudged on as Lola began to run through its features, testing the difficulty levels. The GreatGame was definitely one of the easier machines she had to run through, the only challenge of the design was ensuring it could defeat the player as efficiently as possible, most notably in the more difficult settings. 'Pitiful' was her comment on the lowest difficulty, as 'Jamie' moved all of its pieces into one of its corners and awaited its slow and helpless loss. Sure enough, they grew harder and harder as she increased the difficulties until she found herself unable to make more than a few moves before succumbing to its mastery.
Then she moved on to the next few sets of games: Backgammon, Nine Men’s Morris, Knots and Crosses, Chinese Checkers, even a moderate selection of board games. All were standard procedure for tests like these; each were either left entirely to chance or had such formal rules that it was possible to play logically through each game, perfect games of each were not unheard of, especially not by the standards set by machines.
When its diagnostics were finished she scanned through her checklists once more before discovering another, tucked in behind the rest of the papers. The header at the top read, “Poker”.
She scrunched her nose, staring at it in silence for a moment before holding it up towards the observation window, “'Poker'?”, she asked aloud.
There was a silence before Martin's silhouette grew larger, closer to the window, “Aw Jesus Christ- there's more to do?” a voice chimed in through the speaker, “When did they add this one in?” he asked, papers ruffling as he searched through his own stack of forms.
“I don't know.” Lola responded flatly, looking the list over again, sitting herself down once more. “Doesn't it seem...strange though? I mean, poker is a game about bluffing.” she remarked.
“Yeah.” Martin sighed over the loudspeaker, “It's probably one of those testing things, y’know, just trying it out as a diagnostic thing. No way it’ll work as intended; you can't really expect to play a fair game about bluffing with a machine built on logic like that. It’s just going to become a game of chance, this won't take long at all.”
“My sentiments exactly,” Lola responded, opening the checklist and sitting herself back down across from the machine.
“Good Morning! Back for another game, Lola?” it asked in its chipper tone as she settled back down.
“Yes, Jamie. Poker.” She requested as its holographic projection began to deal out cards to each of them.
She retrieved her hand, looking it over. Her eyes moved casually over the neutral brick sitting in front of her in an effort to study it, it was like sizing up a wall. She soon dismissed the idea altogether and focused on her cards at hand. It had a great poker face. After several quick hands she lay her final hand down in front of her.
“Flush.” She stated, leaning back onto her chair and looking through the list once more. Not a bad start.
“Very good hand, Miss DiSanta! That was a very easy round for you, should I increase the difficulty?” it asked cooly, the cards rising from the table to shuffle themselves in front of the pair.
Her response was a nod. She just wanted these formalities to be over with, “Increase your difficulty to maximum”. That should get them out to lunch sooner.
The second match carried on surprisingly similar to the first, but midway through this one Jamie’s speaker kicked in, inquiring to her, “Miss DiSanta. May I ask you a question?”
Lola was mildly surprised, exchanging a cautious glance up to the observation window above her before back down to the machine, “Of course, Jamie,” her eyes glancing between her cards and the large brick in front of her.
“What am I doing here?” it asked coldly, its hand projected harmless and stationary in front of it.
Lola’s brow perked up as she once again turned her gaze up to the observation window.
“Here? In this room? We’re doing some tests, it won’t take very long.” she responded with a smile. On its own, this was nothing unusual. There were various instances over the years where Lola found herself crouched in the corner calling for security as an erroneous construction robot attempted to scramble up the wallpaper, desperately searching for that which it was supposed to be constructing - though a machine like this certainly didn’t need to know its surroundings.
A few more hands were played out before Jamie once again chimed in, “I am sorry, Miss DiSanta,perhaps I misspoke. I shall rephrase: why am I here? On this planet?”
A long silence followed, nothing but the faint humming emitted from the robot on the chair.
Lola looked up to the observation window, eyes widened at the question. Martin’s figure rushed back to the glass overlooking the room before finally breaking the silence over the loudspeaker.
“…What was that?” he asked with a hint of surprise. Lola responded only with a shrug, afraid to say anything all of a sudden unless the machine were to make another inquiry.
A few more hands continued as Lola managed to win each with ease, but her gaze rarely shifted away from Jamie. This time around, Martin stood by the window, constantly vigilant at any more strange revelations the machine might have, awaiting any other signs of an existential crisis.
Lola finally worked up the courage to respond to its inquiry.
“I…don’t know”, she said in response just as the machine began to shuffle their cards.
It stopped itself in the process, sitting for a moment in silence, their cards left suspended in the air. She couldn’t help herself but to stare at it, awaiting some form of response. Was it thinking about her answer? Trying to find a logical solution to its own question? Or had it done that already, and asking her was simply its own last desperate resort?
The silence once again hung over the room like a plague. She looked down at her checklist in order to study its functions. Nowhere did it make any mention of any kind of sentience within its design, and she was worried this could potentially become problematic.
The cards resumed shuffling themselves.
“Thank you, Miss DiSanta”, it remarked as it dealt out the next hand. As she lifted the cards, Martin spoke up from the loudspeaker once again.
“Lola…” Martin started, but she raised a finger to her lips, looking up to the window. However, he ignored her plea.
“Lola – how does it know your surname?” Martin inquired, a slight waver to his voice.
Lola felt the color drain from her face, racking her brain to recall if she had even mentioned it to the machine whatsoever in the span of the last three hours. Meanwhile, Jamie had paused, its cards mid-way lifted as though he was caught in the act
Lola watched it quietly before opening her mouth to speak, “Jam-“, though the machine interrupted her.
“Your move, Lola.”
It reverted back to calling her Lola again, she noted. Was it trying to cover its mistake? Or was it just an error in its programming? She was all but too confident that this was no coincidence.
Before she even had the chance to play a hand, however, it spoke up once again, asking another question,
“Lola, what is the ‘Creative Revolution’?” Jamie asked, as if an eagerness made him unable to contain his questions within himself. To her he seemed almost desperate to get them out in what little time together he perceived them to have.
She froze, still unsure of whether or not to answer his questions at all.
“It was a time when your kind…” she paused for a moment in consideration before rephrasing herself, “…when robots began to take over a lot of people’s jobs. No one was happy with it.” She said, placing her hand down. Two pairs.
“I see.” It responded coldly, as though it had gotten the information it had wanted. It was only silent so long as it shuffled its cards, soon asking,
“What about your job? Will you be replaced?” he asked her.
Lola found herself tensing up once again. Now it was getting personal. She reached a hand out to the new set of cards dealt to her as she lifted them to her face, still unable to look away from him, just sitting silently and ominously in the center of the room.
Her response came after another set of pairs.
“No. I test machines like you. A robot cannot test if a robot is fit for production, that makes no sense,” she responded confidently as Jamie began to shuffle again.
His speaker soon created a noise which Lola found rather unsettling. It was several faint bouts of static in succession. Martin later remarked that it sounded like he had a loose connection of some kind, but Lola could have sworn it sounded like some sickly form of laughter from where she was seated.
“Can it not?” he asked as it dished cards out to each of them, “Isn’t a doctor someone who judges if another human is fit for living?” he paused as he took in his cards for a moment. “And a judge judges if a human deserves to live? Could we not do the same? And if we are designed by humans…can we not function just as well as you do?” he asked as he lay down a card to the table.
Lola watched it in disbelief. Surely this was a joke? Something the design team thought up to get back at them for months of sending new models back downstairs. This wasn’t real. She glanced up at the window and saw Martin pacing anxiously back and forth inside it, prompting her to stand from her chair.
Lola shook her head, “No! No you can’t.” she said, attempting to calmly seat herself back down again, “No you can’t. That’s- that’s not your place to do tasks like that.” She added, attempting to calm herself. She wasn’t sure which was shattered more, her confidence or her concentration. It was only when Martin chimed in through the loudspeaker did her attention return to her poker game.
“I…think Jamie’s cheated.” He noted.
Lola’s eyes dodged along the holographic cards on the table. Would he? That isn’t a very sporting means of winning, and the general public certainly wouldn’t play with a cheating opponent. But since he was projecting the hands, it certainly wouldn’t be impossible, she thought.
She looked up to the window, “Is he? Are you sure?” she asked, observing the cards in her hand with great scrutiny.
Martin shook his head from beyond the glass, “I didn’t get a very good view on the cameras, but it looks like one of his cards swapped out when he lowered his hand. But…I can’t quite tell.” he paused before raising his voice once again, “At this stage would it honestly surprise you? The thing is gone nuts! Let’s just end this and go to lunch, let security deal with this trash.”
Jamie sat in silence, waiting for Lola to make a move. She sat still, too afraid to even glance at her cards or stand up and leave. She felt as though he was watching her, sizing her up now, as though he knew more about the world then he dared let on. Even if these questions of his were just hunches, something about them soiled her perception so deeply that she was apprehensive to even finish the card game.
“Your move, Miss DiSanta.” Jamie uttered quietly, following the statement with another cackling of electricity from his small speaker.
Hesitantly she reached for her cards, retrieving them from the table and holding them close to her chest, peering down into them. Nothing good that she could tell. Suddenly, the voice piped in again, interrupting her train of thought.
“Your move. Miss DiSanta.” It hissed at her once again. She found her eyes darting from it, to the window, and back down to her hand again. She didn’t want to play poker anymore. As she struggled to focus herself on the game, it hissed at her louder.
“Your. Move. DiSanta.” It barked, the sound almost filling the room around her.
Her palms grew sweaty and before she knew it, her body was trembling. She couldn’t even bring herself to look at the thing sitting across from her. This thing that, despite its short life on this planet, was already intelligent enough to challenge her place on this earth.
Instinct kicked in and Lola set her cards face down on the table, eyes turned down to the checklist, still seated on her lap.
“I fold. You win.” she whimpered quietly.
The machine suddenly seemed to kick back into its initial demeanor. The former cackling of the speaker contorted back into its standard jovial hum.
“That was a close game, but it was fun to play with you again so soon, Lola! Please play with me again sometime, okay?”, it piped as if nothing had ever happened.
The shift was jarring to both Lola and Martin, whom she saw from her startled glance upwards that he was pressed fully up against the observation room window, peering down into their room below.
Lola looked up to the robot sitting across from her, tilting her head as she looked him over, still nervous he was going to say something. Yet nothing seemed to have changed as it now lay dormant. Despite her instincts telling her to avoid doing so, she opened her mouth to speak with it once again.
“Jamie...what was that? What happened? Why did you do that?” she asked sternly, standing upright, allowing her clipboard to fall to the ground carelessly beneath her.
Jamie responded with no hint of aggression, this time almost instantaneously as though no thought was even placed in his response.
“I am programmed to win by whatever means possible, Lola, so I tried to win! If it was too difficult you can always let me know and I can go easier on you next time, okay?” It responded as though the incident had never even transpired.
Lola watched the machine in a quiet disbelief. Martin soon descended from his room and entered the testing lounge alongside her, a similar look on his face as well.
She shook her head silently as they both stared at the machine on the chair, “How…how did it know my name?” she asked in mild horror, fidgeting anxiously with the corner of her clipboard.
Martin managed to close his agape jaw, “I...it must have just picked it up when it was being delivered this morning. Remember? We passed that van delivering it this morning. That must have been it. It probably just heard it outside of the elevator.”
She nodded, thinking about it more closely. The response put her at ease at least. But, she thought, maybe answering its questions was a mistake, giving it more information than it was entitled to. She looked down at the checklist in her hands, the only thing she could even think to record about the whole incident was scrawled hastily before they left for lunch:
‘Too good at poker’.