It’s so funny how things happen. Last week, I wrapped up a long serial and convinced myself that I was going to write a couple of short stories before I dove headfirst into another serial.
To paraphrase, writers plan and muses laugh. This story had been rattling around in my head for a while. I read Dan Brown’s latest book, Origin, recently and it dabbles with artificial intelligence and somewhat predicts future fusion of humans and technology.
I decided to take that idea and go in a different direction. This story has a basis in something that I actually witnessed in real life. We have an acquaintance that became pregnant with a child and was then diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. She made the selfless decision to forego treatment so she could deliver a healthy child. As a result, she was debilitated by the cancer and could not care for her child once it was delivered. She has since passed away.
This ultimate sacrifice of a parent for a child is a compelling story, but my writer’s mind drifted to the thoughts I assume she would have had during her pregnancy. Things like, Will my child know who I am? What would I want to tell my child if I could? Writing letters or recording videos can work for something like this, but what if one could use artificial intelligence to take it one step further.
Come along with me on this journey to see where this story takes us.
Memories of Rachel – Part 1
It had been four months since Rachel died. It was a long, slow period where Ben had watched her go from being a vibrant, athletic woman to a frail shell with skin barely covering bones. The onset of the cancer had been sudden and aggressive. She lasted for eight months. She might have survived if she had allowed treatment, but treatment would have killed the baby. Beautiful baby Erin would never have entered this world if her self-sacrificing mom had not refused aggressive chemotherapy.
Ben agonized over his wife’s decision. He assured her they could have more children if she would just save herself. He remembered the conversation.
“Please. Go through the treatment. You can get pregnant again,” Ben pleaded. “I…I just can’t live without you.”
“The treatment will kill the baby. I just can’t do that. Parents are supposed to protect their children. Besides, there’s a good chance the treatment will do so much damage to my body that I won’t be able to get pregnant again. You heard the doctor.”
Rachel had a roller coaster of a month. It ranged from the happiest day of her life, the day she found out that, after three years of trying, she was finally pregnant. Then, four weeks later, eight weeks into her pregnancy, what should have been a joyous day turned out to be one of unimaginable confusion and chaos. It was at the appointment for her first sonogram that the technician noticed something unusual. It turned out to be a shadow on the screen. The doctor was called into the room and he saved several views of the image and scurried off to his office.
They had done their best not to alarm Ben and Rachel, but the technician and doctor could not totally mask their concern. Once Rachel had dressed, she and Ben insisted on talking to the doctor. After he completed his phone call, which Rachel assumed was about her, he ushered the couple into his office.
“First,” the doctor began. “I want to assure you that the baby is right where it should be at this point in your pregnancy.”
Rachel was never one for the sandwich approach to delivering bad news. She liked to hear and evaluate what she was dealing with upfront.
“I hear a big ‘but’ coming, doctor,” she said with impatience, “What are you not telling me?”
“We saw something on the sonogram. I’m not 100% sure what it might be. I’m consulting with a colleague and we think…”
“What kind of colleague?” Ben said, cutting off the doctor.
“Well, it’s an oncologist.”
“Oncologist?” Rachel asked, stunned.
“Just a precaution,” the doctor said. “He’s right in the same medical plaza and he wants to see you today so we can see what we’re dealing with. You can go right over.”
Ben and Rachel went from the obstetrician directly to the oncologist.
Talk about the circle of life, Ben thought to himself once they viewed the patients in various form of decay in the waiting room.
“Ben, I’m scared,” Rachel said.
This was the first time Ben’s confident wife had admitted being scared. He would find out, over the next seven months, it wouldn’t be the last. Not by a long shot.
“Let’s hear what the doctor has to say first, before we jump to conclusions.”
That was Ben’s response. He was trying to convince himself as much as he was trying to comfort his wife. Even though he was feigning calm, his heart was performing Olympic-quality gymnastics in his chest. Rachel was his rock. She was his North Star. He wasn’t sure how he would deal with any bad news about their future.
Once the receptionist took their names, they barely had settled into the molded plastic chairs when her name was called to go back and see the doctor.
There was no sitting in an exam room. Rachel and Ben were directed immediately to Dr. Kaplan’s office. The décor in his office was sparse. It didn’t have the usual motivational or cheerful pictures or mementos. It was almost sterile with only his diplomas and hospital affiliations on display. He was a man who was likely in his 50s but looked like he was in his 60s. Ben imagined that Kaplan’s job was a stressful one where delivering bad news far outweighed the positive.
Kaplan settled into his well-worn chair behind his sparse desk. He turned the large computer monitor so that Ben and Rachel could see it. Ben wondered what they were going to see. He didn’t realize at the time that it would change their lives forever.
“As you were having your sonogram, the technician noticed a…um, an anomaly.”
“What kind of anomaly?” Rachel asked.
“Well, it was a mass. It appears to be attached to your liver.”
“So, what do we do to treat it?” Ben asked anxiously.
“We have a few options. We need to assess the tumor and, if it’s cancerous, how advanced it is and if it’s spread to other areas of the body,” Doctor Kaplan explained. “Then, we can discuss treatment options.”
“What about the baby?” Rachel asked.
“The baby, um, yes. Your pregnancy is only about eight weeks in. The surgery and the resulting treatment would likely cause you to abort spontaneously.”
“Abort spontaneously? You mean a miscarriage?” Rachel asked.
“Well, yes. That is the common term for it.”
“But she will be able to get pregnant again, right?” Ben asked.
The doctor leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head which caused his brow to furrow. He was silent for a moment and then seemed to carefully weigh his next words.
“There are still many aspects of this that we can’t be sure about. The tumor could be benign and might just need to be removed. If it is cancerous, it may not have metastasized to other parts of Rachel’s body. If it has, the treatment might be fairly aggressive and could damage the uterus and ovaries making pregnancy difficult if not unlikely. This is all conjecture, however. I don’t want to scare you into drastic action, but, with that said, we need to move quickly to rule out those worst-case scenarios.”
As it turned out, all of the worst-case scenarios were confirmed. Rachel had cancerous tumors, not only her liver, but in her lungs and there was evidence that it had metastasized in her brain. She and Ben were devastated. The most aggressive treatment would possibly prolong her life, but not cure her. It would also end the life of their unborn child. This was not acceptable to Rachel. This drove her to the decision to forego treatment and concentrate on delivering a healthy baby. She more than exceeded this goal.
It took Ben nearly a month to return to the office after Rachel’s death. He had to find the right nanny for Erin. He couldn’t replace Rachel, but he had to provide Erin with the best care possible. He had continued to work, however, during this period. Rachel’s death made him obsessive in achieving advances in his area of artificial intelligence. It might be his only way of preserving her in some way. His job at Kongo-AI gave him the ability to fuse his work with his grief and her impending death. When he wasn’t by her side holding her hand as she weakened with each month, he was in his makeshift home lab working long days with little or no sleep.
The idea came to him as he and Rachel were talking about the baby. Rachel would cry uncharacteristically and Ben would do his best to help her through these depressive periods.
“What is it?” he asked early on, assuming that she was scared of her impending fate.
“I’m afraid, Ben.”
“I understand. I’m afraid too. I don’t want to lose you.”
“It’s not that. I don’t want her to forget me. I’m not sure how long I’ll last after she’s born. I don’t want her to forget that I was her mother. I don’t want to lose the chance to share things with her.”
That was when Ben came up with the idea to record Rachel. He wanted to record her memories, her emotions, her personality, etc. He didn’t want to just record her voice, he wanted to record her consciousness.
An MIT grad with a major in Artificial Intelligence, or AI, Ben landed a plum job at the emerging arm of the Kongo empire. Kongo.com, the parent organization, had diversified into many other divisions. Kongo-AI was its newest and the company was pouring millions into research and development using this technology. Ben rose through the ranks quickly and was one of the lead scientists in his division. At the present time, his team was working on using advanced technology to mimic the personalities of human beings. It actually wasn’t simple mimicry, however, they were on the cusp of creating sentient computers that could learn, react and even emote in certain situations. Once Ben accepted that his wife was not going to be around to grow old with him or to raise their child, his life’s work became more of an obsession than ever.
For whatever reason, and to the astonishment of her obstetrician and oncologist, Rachel’s body seemed to devote itself to producing a healthy baby. Every milestone in the child’s gestation was on target. She forced herself to eat even when her illness made it painful just to chew and swallow. Ben would grind up food in the blender just so she could take it in.
Ben had gone to his company’s leadership immediately after Rachel’s prognosis. They had given him a generous leave option so that he could care for his wife. When he approached them again with his idea of using her as a subject for their new AI technology, they were skeptical.
“Ben, I know you and Rachel are going through a tough time,” Franklin Parker said as he leaned back in his executive chair behind his spacious glass and chrome desk. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Rachel and I have talked about it. She needs to do this and I want to help her.”
Parker was silent for a minute as he contemplated Ben’s request. He was in his late 40s with a deep tan and hair that approximated his natural color and masked the gray. The skin on his face was smooth and stretched to such a degree that most agreed that he had both chemical and surgical assistance to achieve this look. He wore expensive jeans that cost top dollar to look like they were old and worn along with a black silk shirt. He was the head of the AI division and fairly new to the Kongo organization. There had been a shake-up a year or so earlier when the fitness division experienced an issue with its experimental nanotechnology. He didn’t want to repeat something similar in his own division.
“Ben, you have a proven track record with Kongo AI. I have faith in you that the technology is ready for something like this. Are you absolutely certain that you are making this request intellectually as well as emotionally?”
Ben pondered the question. His emotions were certainly raw, but he and Rachel had gone through all of the relevant points. The risk to her and the baby was minimal. The cognitive side of the process could actually benefit her by taking her mind away from her impending fate. They were both intelligent people that kept their emotions in check. He did not see a downside to using her as the first advanced subject for the AI that his team had developed…at least, not until it was too late.