Schwartz Circuit #3: The Classifier
What are we, if not our opinions?
I decided to put numbers at the top so that these emails are a bit easier to find.
It’s a beautiful day in San Francisco and I’m glad I finally finished this story for you.
I hope you’re healthy and happy!
Mr. Exeter lived on the 379th floor. When they gave me his address, I remember wondering if there was a mistake, though I’m sure I never asked my supervisor about it. I didn't even complain when I got assigned to that account. I thought I'd be training robots for the disabled, but instead I got one of the new wealthy customers that were buying a robot for their personal needs.
Arriving in the city on an early winter morning, I lost my way in the long, deep shadows of all those towers that punctured the sky. Finally I found Mr. Exeter’s building, a black monolith of solid glass.
There was a security screen at the entrance, so tastefully blended into the wall that it took me a few minutes to find. Hoping I wasn't too late, I put on my best smile and made sure my “Bromi trainer” badge was close to the camera. Mr. Exeter appeared. If he knew I could see and hear him, he didn’t give any indication. He scrutinized me and then said with a kind of sudden excitement, “Yep!”
The door clicked, and I dragged my suitcase and the heavy sensor backpack into the lobby. The elevator was open, waiting with the impatient attitude of an open elevator, and I reluctantly went inside. As it lifted off, I steeled my stomach, but to my surprise I felt hardly anything, just a force like a gentle magnet pulling me towards the floor while I watched the numbers go up 50 at a time.
The hallway I stepped out onto seemed more like a ledge, with just one closed door in front of me. A tiny window to my left shone bright, bright gray and I flinched away from it, where to my right I caught myself in a mirror, for a moment as a passing bird might have seen me. I was a small, pale, unsure creature. I was twenty-two.
As I went to fix my hair, suddenly Mr. Exeter’s face appeared to overlap with mine in the glass, and I realized the mirror was another fancy security screen.
At last Mr. Exeter appeared at the door in person and welcomed me into his apartment; mostly he welcomed my sensor backpack. “I’m very excited,” he kept repeating, until he started to sound almost cynical.
He had a sharp nose and wore cat-eye glasses, giving his face a flighty, preening look. He was of an age indeterminate to me then: younger than my parents, but still old, and his restless energy impressed me. His apartment was modern, sparse even, and he flitted between its perches like a bird in a beautiful cage. The first thing he did was offer me about ten different things to drink, and he looked suspicious when I chose water.
“So,” he said, sipping an espresso, “We have a lot to get started on. You’ll be living here, what, a month?”
I told him it was two weeks.
“During this time,” I said, launching into the speech I'd practiced with my supervisor, “You should pretend that I’m Bromi, the perfect robot assistant. I’ll wear the sensors here to collect data that will personalize Bromi to your needs. Everything I practice doing, Bromi will come to your door ready to handle. It's good to have me try a variety of things.”
I looked around the place for ideas, finding only smooth surfaces, hard corners, and art.
“Cooking your favorite meals,” I said. “Odd jobs like hanging paintings. Help with your work or hobbies. Just show me exactly what you’d want a robot to do. By performing these tasks, I’ll be gathering what’s called training data. When your Bromi arrives in a few weeks —”
“Yes, yes.” Mr. Exeter set his cup down on the counter and dabbed at his lips with a napkin. “I get it. They told me all this when I signed up. The thing is,” he leaned in, “I don’t need a robot for cooking and cleaning.”
Mr. Exeter’s bright, black eyes were fixed on me intently. I felt my chest tighten as I remembered what my dad said before I left: that he could think of just one reason a man would pay two hundred grand for a robot. Then out of the blue Mr. Exeter asked, “What’s your dream?”
“Yes, what do you want to do with your life?”
I was so surprised that I laughed. It had probably been a decade since anyone asked me that. “I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I wanted to move here, to the city.”
“And after that? Do you intend to train robots long term?”
I told him I wasn't sure. I hadn't thought much beyond trying to earn enough money working for Bromi so I could find a place to live.
Pursing his lips, Mr. Exeter turned and walked into the living room, and I trailed behind, wondering where all this was headed.
“To survive in this city,” he told me, “you have to know what you want.” He pointed to a huge canvas of red and black shapes that seemed to undulate before my eyes. “What do you think of this painting? Be honest.”
“I don't really know about art,” I said.
“But in your gut, you either love it or you hate it. Doesn't matter why. You can't help it. The way I think about it is 'friend’ or ‘foe.’ What’s this painting for you, a friend or a foe?”
I wanted to say I didn't care one way or the other. But from the moment I'd looked at the painting, I realized there had been a small inside voice telling me exactly what I felt. I was afraid to let the voice out. But finally I said it, I hated the painting. It was a foe. The words felt strange and also exciting.
Mr. Exeter clapped his hands. “Excellent! You have a heartbeat after all. You have blood in your veins.”
He didn't say any more about the painting, but instead began explaining what he'd learned about the Bromi technology. Some of it was new even to me. The sensor backpack was calibrated to reproduce 80% of a trainer’s brainwaves. With their thoughts alone, a trainer could define labels for over a billion common objects. As he talked, he paced in front of the window. The city below him was outlined with stark detail in the cold light. It did seem like a place that could swallow me, lose me like I'd been lost in the shadows of the towers.
It became clear that Mr. Exeter already had a plan for Bromi, which he'd developed long before I arrived. He intended to spend the two weeks enumerating his personal opinions. He'd give everything he saw or touched a label: either friend or foe. And I would follow him, wearing the sensor backpack. I'd look, listen, and confirm each label internally, thus creating a set of opinion data that would be built into Bromi.
“Really try to feel the opinion in your gut,” he told me. “Otherwise the label might not take.”
I felt a question surging up and this time I didn't bottle it down, I asked him: why were we doing this?
“Good question,” Mr. Exeter said with a smile. “From this data, Bromi will organically develop a personality. His behaviors will come naturally. And they will be perfectly suited to me, because he and I will already agree on everything. What are we if not our opinions?”
I wasn’t sure. But I was intrigued, and this task seemed much easier than most of the ones I'd been prepared to do.
I put on the sensor backpack, and Mr. Exeter started to move around the living room. First he stood by a lamp in the corner, made of paper-thin glass. “Friend,” he said. I repeated the label to myself, making sure the lamp had ample time in front of the optic sensors. Next, Mr. Exeter patted a concrete table: “Friend.” Then he pulled at the arm of his sweater. “I forgot how much this itches. Foe.”
He thought the objects in the house would just take a day to classify, since they were mostly familiar friends. Instead it took us five days. At the end of that, we’d amassed a collection of foes that had been hiding in plain sight: a table that had always been the wrong size, a stack of books about business strategy, a pile of clothes that was probably worth double my paycheck.￼
Mr. Exeter seemed to get more decisive by the hour. “This is such a great exercise,” he kept telling me. “I’m learning a lot about myself.” I watched as he realized that he hated some of his art, with a sudden vehemence that would turn sad.
After we finished in the house, we went online and classified everything from types of cheese (we easily spent 40 hours on food) to romantic comedies. Whenever we would finish a category, he’d think of two new ones.
Strangely, as I listened over and over to Mr. Exeter’s gut reactions, my own inner voice started to chime in louder, like a child who keeps being ignored by the adults. Sometimes it added its vote in agreement. When it disagreed, I silenced it.
All the labeling was exhausting. We ordered food every night and only left the apartment to do what Mr. Exeter called live samples. At the end of the day he’d start looking haggard, and tell me he was old and needed to go to bed. One night, about halfway through our time together, he went to leave but said I should keep going. We were on fabrics. “You know how I feel about velvet and linen,” he said. “You can extrapolate.” I found it so easy to sense for his opinions that I couldn't help but be proud.
We finished our last day together with a classification of countries and cities. At one point, we stood at the window, looking at the sparkling lights, and after a long moment he said this place was an old friend. “But I'll be glad to leave,” he told me. He wouldn't say where he was going.
There was still so much to do, and we parted with a frustrated, unfinished feeling. But at the same time, I think we were both relieved. Neither of us could bear the project for much longer. Mr. Exeter was looking grayer by the day, and I was hearing his voice in my dreams. As I left his apartment for the last time, I hardly recognized myself in the reflection of the security screen.
I walked straight to the nearest hotel I could afford, called up my supervisor — a foe — and quit. I didn't know why, but I knew I had to do it. For months, as I hustled to get my first job in marketing, I heard Mr. Exeter's voice everywhere I went in the city. I realized he had inadvertently taught me a lot of things to watch out for, the days we had roamed the streets with him pointing: Friend. Friend. Foe.
I never saw Mr. Exeter again. But I heard from him a few weeks before he died, which happened shortly after our time together. He wanted me to know his Bromi had arrived. “It can't cook at all,” he told me with a laugh. “But it knows what it wants.” He said the robot reminded him a little bit of me, but that it was a good thing. He told me about the cancer. He’d be sending the robot to live with his mother. “So that I'll still be telling her what I think even when she doesn't want to hear it,” he said. I realized that had been his plan all along.
Bromi went bankrupt a few years later. I never found out if Mr. Exeter’s robot — our robot, I guess — was able to stick around. Personal assistant robots are, if anything, even more popular than before. I'll often see a kid on the street, trailing someone in a suit, wearing a different company's version of a sensor backpack. The backpacks are so much smaller now, and I think there are a lot more rules involved. Of course, now they also have much more straightforward ways to customize robots with your preferences: just upload data from your TV, your browsing history, your shopping account.
I'm known for my strong opinions, my quick decisions. It's an asset. I've often told the story of how lucky I was to meet Mr. Exeter, how he set my life on its course — but the details always seem a bit too strange to share. It’s like I want to label him a friend, but my inside voice stays silent on this subject.
Sometimes when I ride the elevator up to my apartment on the 181st floor, I find myself thinking. I know what I want now. But what if I would have wanted something else?