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Are You Real

Ian E Gonzales is a writer of fiction. He has earned multiple awards, most notably First Place in Genre Fiction in the Writer's Digest 89th Annual Writing Competition, as well as Semi-Finalist from the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest, and First Place in the Write on the Sound Fiction Contest. He has been published in Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, and on Writer's Digest's website. He currently resides in the Pacific Northwest, where he strives to live by the simple maxim of never taking anything so seriously that he can't love it. To see more of his material, including links to his published works, visit his website at iiianegonzales.com.
Sneaking another glance at the woman working the bar, Bobby asked himself The Question: Is she real?
She looked like a dream to him, with her long red hair, her small, perfectly formed features, and creamy white skin that showed just a hint of freckles. But she might be a robot. After all, so many of them had worked in the services industry before the Ruling, and most of them had kept on afterwards.
"What do you think?" he asked his friends. "Is she, or isn't she?"
"You're still on this?" Michelle replied.
"You've been thinking about it all night"
Bobby shrugged. "Not all night."
"Just since you came in, right?" Evan gave a dramatic sigh. "Just go ask her."
Bobby reached for his beer. "You're not supposed to anymore."
Not since the government declared, in a controversial case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, that humanoid androids were officially people, granted all the rights and responsibilities that went with the appellation. Now they were surrounded by laws and the cushion of political correctness, the center of fierce debate. As for what the androids thought about it, no one had actually asked them.
"It's downright rude," Michelle said. "She's a person; it doesn't matter if she came from a natural womb or a manufacturing plant."
"Of course it matters," Evan said. "Michelle, if she's an android, she's not human. She's a device, like a phone."
Bobby found that he was staring at the woman again and forced himself to look away. "She doesn't look like any phone I've ever seen."
"That's a gross oversimplification," Michelle shot back. "Androids can do a lot more than any single device."
"But that's by design. They can only do what they're programmed to do."
"And it's not that way with humans?" Michelle arched an eyebrow. "No one's born with the ability to, say, fix a car."
"We can choose to learn to fix a car," Evan said, shaking his head. "An android has to be told what to do; they can't decide for themselves."
Bobby watched the bartender chatting with a customer, a smile on her face as she mixed a cocktail. Her gaze caught Bobby's, and he looked away quickly.
"Not so. They won't do anything illegal, anything that harms another person. That requires a decision."
"No, it doesn't," Evan said. "Androids have a compiled index of data; when they're presented with a choice, they review it for the appropriate response."
"Oh, come on. That's how everyone makes a decision. We all have an 'index of data,' formed over our lives. We wouldn't know what an appropriate response is without it."
"Okay, what about spontaneity?" Even growled. "Creativity? Imagination? Show me the android that can come up with something new and intuitive."
Michelle pursed her lips. "A lot of what we call creativity is simply making a connection between two ideas that don't have an obvious link. Computers have been doing that for a long time, from chess-playing programs on up. So, rationally, androids are capable of creativity."
Once again, Bobby found himself half-listening, his eyes following the bartender as she worked, a sparkle of amusement in her eyes as she laughed at something.
"That's the problem: rationality," Evan said "Androids are just rational machines. They can't feel, they can't empathize. Only real humans can do that."
Michelle glowered at Evan, finally at a loss. "Seems to me that some humans aren't capable of empathy, either."
A smug grin was Evan's only response.
Bobby pushed his chair back and stood up.
"Where are you going?" Michelle asked.
"To ask her if she's real."
He moved quickly, while he still had the nerve. Then he was at the bar, and she was there in front of him.
"Hey, there," she said, giving him a smile. "What can I get you?"
Bobby couldn't speak; he was lost, staring into her eyes. Then he tore his gaze away. "Another beer. Please."
"Comin' right up." She spun a way in a swirl of soft red hair and a whiff of perfume, snatched a bottle off the shelf, and spun back towards him, all in one motion. The beer landed on the bar with a snick. And she paused, staring at him, something expectant in her gaze. "So?"
"So what?"
"Are you gonna ask me?"
"Huh?"
"If I'm real or not." Her smile turned mischievous. "I saw you and your friends having The Discussion over there."
Bobby went red. "Look, I'm sorry--"
She put a hand on his arm, shutting him up instantly. "Hey, I get it all the time. A lot of androids worked bars before the Ruling, and still do. So?"
Bobby's mouthed worked silently for a moment, but he couldn't get the question out.
"Let me guess," she said. "The argument ended on the 'they can't feel' line, right?"
"Um, yeah," he mumbled.
She nodded. "That's usually what gets 'em. I mean, who's ever seen a phone," she gave him a wink "that can empathize with its owner? Androids are machines. They can't feel what humans feel, right?"
Bobby still couldn't ask. He was no longer afraid the question would hurt her; he was afraid that his having to ask would only hurt him.
"I'll help you out; I'll ask it for you." She put on a serious expression. "Am I real?"
Bobby looked down, no longer able to meet her gaze. What did it matter if she was real or not? He liked her, liked how she looked, and especially liked the way she was meeting his stupidity head-on. He suddenly found that he wanted to ask her a different question.
"I'll answer you the same way I answer everyone else," she said. Reaching out, she cupped his chin and raised his head until he was staring into her eyes again. "If the ability to feel what others feel is the only thing that separates humans from androids, tell me... are you real?"
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 16th, 2021


I've heard so many arguments about what separates human intelligence from artificial intelligence, and it often comes down to the ability to empathize. These days, we use the words "I, me, my" a lot. So many of us are so concerned with getting what we want, that we don't think about other people enough. We're losing our ability to empathize, to see things from any perspective other than our own. So, I wondered, if we can't empathize with other people, are we becoming more like machines than we think?

- Ian E Gonzales
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