O’Higgins

When Ji-an got home, smoke filled the kitchen. Empty jam jars, spice pots, juice cartons and alcohol bottles littered the floor. Red liquid spilled out of a bubbling saucepan.

‘No…,’ she muttered.

She switched off the hob and walked through to the living room. O’Higgins was in the armchair, reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.

‘What is going on?’ asked Ji-an.

‘I could ask you the same question,’ said O’Higgins.

‘Why are you destroying my home?’

O’Higgins put the book down.

‘I’m experimenting with nature’s miracle fruit, the peach.’

‘Why?’

‘You dare ask me that? Would you prefer I wallowed in ignorance?’

Ji-an went through to the bedroom, slumped down on the mattress, and wept.

‘You knew what to expect!’ shouted O’Higgins from the living room. ‘Are you some sort of simpleton?’

*

Six weeks earlier, an unmarked van had pulled up in front of Ji-an’s building. Two men in white coats jumped out, opened the back doors, and carried out someone covered in a blanket from head to feet. Ji-an directed them into her apartment.

‘Who’s that, dearie?’ asked her neighbour, the loitering Mrs McGlashan.

‘A family friend’ said Ji-an, closing the door in her face.

O’Higgins (for it was he) was the property of Harvard University’s Carter Center for Adaptive Neuroscience. The Center had risen to fame two years previously with the first successful graft of one monkey’s head onto another monkey’s body. The O’Higgins project, which Ji-an had been hired to oversee, represented an ambitious next step.

The men in coats departed. Ji-an closed the curtains, then lifted the blanket.

O’Higgins was a male Japanese macaque with an android head. A battery of optogenetic tools and in vivo imaging techniques (fiber photometry and dual-photon microscopy) allowed his body to respond to the world around him via instructions from his ‘brain’, a computer housed at the Center. In lab testing, O’Higgins had proven himself capable of avoiding obstacles, opening doors and answering simple questions. There were high hopes for this residential phase.

*

During the first days, Ji-an would turn O’Higgins on when she returned home, and go through a series of interactive experiments. She would hold up picture cards and ask O’Higgins to describe what he saw. She would ask him to bring her objects which she had hidden around the apartment. They played Connect 4 and Guess Who?

His progress was startling.

While in the first week, O’Higgins moved gingerly around the apartment, by week two he was swinging about like a regular primate.

Ji-an would switch him on at breakfast and give him a list of tasks to accomplish by the time she returned – colouring a picture, building with bricks, completing a jigsaw.

O’Higgins would switch himself off after completing his exercises. One day, however, three weeks into the project, Ji-an returned home to find him watching TV. A nature documentary: some Japanese macacques were splashing about in a hot spring.

‘O’Higgins? You OK?’

He turned to look at her.

‘There are some gaps in my knowledge,’ said O’Higgins. ‘I would like to access the Internet.’

‘We’ll… we’ll have to see about that,’ said Ji-an.

*

‘What are the risks?’

Seymour Knudsen, Director of the Carter Center, stared out of his window, towards the School of Divinity. 

‘Once we surrender control of the knowledge acquisition process,’ replied Ji-an, ‘who knows?’

Seymour puffed on his pipe. ‘Is it not our audacity, our love of risk,’ he said, ‘that sets this Center apart from our colleagues?’

Ji-an knew a rhetorical question when she heard one.

*

Ji-an provided O’Higgins with an iPad. She set the parental controls to exclude violent or pornographic content, and limited his access to two hours a day.

Each time she returned home, O’Higgins was full of questions.

‘Is it possible to start a fire under water?’ he would ask, or ‘shouldn’t gravity be stronger?’

He emailed her a list of things he wanted: beakers, a thermometer, a sheet of magnesium and a litre of ammonium hydroxide.

‘I don’t think so,’ replied Ji-an. She did however agree to let O’Higgins cook dinner that evening. He prepared a mushroom omelette.

‘This is tasty,’ said Ji-an, forking up a morsel.

‘I’d like to cook more often,’ said O’Higgins. ‘The better instructed I am, the less imposing I’ll be on others.’

‘I suppose that’s true,’ said Ji-an.

*

One day, a month into the project, Ji-an returned home to find no trace of O’Higgins. There was no sign of him in the kitchen, or the living room, or the bedroom, or the toilet. ‘O’Higgins!’ she shouted.

Could he have escaped? It was unlikely. His brain had been programmed to shut down if the body went outside the apartment. A chip in O’Higgins’ fur transmitted his whereabouts to Ji-an’s phone. She tapped the app. ‘Location unknown’ it flashed.

‘What the…?’

The front door opened. O’Higgins came in, dressed in wellington boots, an overcoat, winter scarf and straw hat. He bore a shopping bag.

‘Ah…’ he said, tossing the hat on a chair. ‘You’re home early.’

Ji-an stared at him.

‘How did you get out? Did you disactivate the chip, the app, or both?’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ said O’Higgins.

Ji-an examined the contents of the shopping bag: an electric drill, Sun Tzu’s Art of War and two boxes of sleeping tablets.

‘I can explain everything,’ said O’Higgins.

Ji-an flipped open a flap in his forehead and flicked a switch. O’Higgins slumped to the floor.

*

‘Why, this is excellent,’ said Seymour Knudsen. ‘I’m greatly encouraged.’

‘You are?’

‘Gumption and initiative. Everything that’s lacking in the modern generation.’

‘He was out on the streets! Do you realize what he bought?’

Knudsen puffed on his pipe.

‘I see the point. O’Higgins’ thirst for knowledge, his entrepreneurial zest… it threatens you.’

Ji-an didn’t think he saw the point at all.

‘This is getting out of hand and endangering the whole project.’

‘We’ll hide a transmitter in your apartment,’ said Knudsen. ‘If he strays too far from it, he’ll shut down automatically.’

‘And if he finds the transmitter?

Knudsen chuckled.

‘I wouldn’t put it past him. He’s a chip off the old block, O’Higgins.’

*

When she returned home, O’Higgins had prepared dinner. There were candles and incense. Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue was playing.

‘Surprise,’ said O’Higgins, dressed in a tuxedo.

Ji-an took off her coat and sat down in front of a steaming bowl of something.

‘Clam chowder, with a twist,’ said O’Higgins.

Ji-an poked a morsel of clam with her spoon. She bent down and sniffed.

Anthriscus cerefolium,’ said O’Higgins. ‘My secret ingredient.’

He’s trying to kill me, realized Ji-an. It was all suddenly clear to her.

‘Thanks,’ said Ji-an, ‘but I ate at the lab. I’ll offer this to Mrs McGlashan.’

‘As you like,’ said O’Higgins.

*

‘Manipulative behaviour, bullying, paranoid jealousy, murderous tendencies,’ said Seymour Knudsen, consulting a dossier. ‘A whole litany of prohibited practices under the University’s Code of Conduct. This makes, I’m sorry to say, for disturbing reading.’

Ji-an sat opposite him in his study. Church bells sounded in the distance.

‘Sadly,’ he continued, ‘I see no other option than to bring a halt to things immediately.’

Ji-an felt a surge of relief.

‘A faculty committee will be assembled, to advise the President whether dismissal proceedings should be launched.’

Ji-an was confused.

‘What do you mean?’ she asked. ‘O’Higgins isn’t an employee, he’s a…’

‘A genius and a visionary,’ said Knudsen. ‘The project will go a long way under his leadership. He had some kind things to say about you, you know, along with the rest of his, ah, insight. I know he regrets this as much as I do.’

Ji-an’s phone vibrated. She glanced down at it. A cartoon clam waved at her.

She had left a good job at Google for this.

*

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