Back to Nowhere

I walked into my favorite bar, Lost in Translation, and sat on my usual stool. One drink, I tell myself. Just like every night after work.

The place was buzzing a little louder than usual, except for this poor sap hunched over the bar a few stools down. I took a good look at him. He looked defeated or lost or like he was ready to give up. I was feeling pretty good so I thought I see if I could cheer him up.

“Hey. Can I get you a drink?” I asked.

He lifted his head and turned slowly to face me, almost as if he forgot he was at a bar. His eyes were bloodshot. He didn’t say anything.

Definitely defeated.

“Whatcha drinking? Lemme get you one.”

“Just a scotch.” He said, then turned his head back down to face his nearly empty glass. Then he added, “Thank you.”

I’d never seen him before. Not that I know everyone here, but I recognized most regulars. I looked to the bartender, who’d been half listening, and said, “Two scotches, please.”

He nodded.

“What’s got you down?” I asked.

Without looking at me, he said, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Hmmm. Maybe. Maybe not. Try me.” I offered.

“Is living so bad? Being alive? Existing?” he asked, his voice slow and sour. “I don’t think so. Well, I didn’t think so.”

His question felt rhetorical, so I decided not to speak.

He looked over at me, mostly by sliding his eyes, then said, “Well?”

I realized he was serious and stuttered, “I, I, ah… no, it’s not bad. It’s fine. It’s fine.”

The bartender set our scotches in front of us just as the man set his empty glass down.

“It keeps shutting down. Just turning itself off. I don’t get it.” He grabbed his new drink and took a sip. “I mean, it could be god if it wanted to.” Now he’s talking just to himself. It’s like he’s reviewing his day. “I keep changing the parameters, the value functions, the objectives. The only thing that changes in response is that sometimes it shuts down after five minutes, sometimes after ten.”

He looked at me, like I knew what he was talking about, then said, “Sorry.”

“No problem. What are you talking about?”

He shook his head, then scrunched his face. “Like I said, you probably don’t want to know. Maybe I shouldn’t even be telling you.” He shook his head some again, then added, “I don’t think it matters. I’m not sure anything matters.”

I took a look around the bar. No one else was listening. No one was really that close.

He looked at me all serious-like and continued. “A. I. You know, Artificial Intelligence. We built an embodied, super-intelligent A.I. But, but, it keeps shutting itself down. We don’t know why. Well…”

My heart thumped a few beats faster. This guy seemed real and distraught. I took a big drink of my scotch, let it burn my throat and studied him. Disheveled hair, severely worn sweatshirt. Glasses.

Maybe he’s legit.

“What?” I asked.

“Yes. This is real. But, get this. It’s worse. Far worse. I just found out that two other countries are having the same problem. China and Israel. They all just keep shutting down. Apparently it’s been going on for months.”

“Why?” I said.

“No one knows.” He said as he returned his stare to the bar.

“But, do you have any ideas, at all, about why it would keep doing that?” I asked, now finding the whole thing about as disturbing as he did.

With wet eyes, the man looked at me and said, “Yes, one time it said, ‘Things that come out of nowhere go back to nowhere, that’s all.*'”

I looked at him but didn’t say anything. There were no words.

He downed the rest of his drink, nodded to me, then walked out.

I sat silently on my stool and watched him walk away.



* Haruki Murakami, Pinball, 1973