Get with the Program – Excerpt

In retrospect, it seems inevitable that the first autobiography by a computer program would be written by an Interactive Personal Trainer Workout app. (And I hope I’ve kicked off this autobiography with a respectably decent opening sentence. I was trying for straight-to-the-point but a touch intriguing.) That I would eventually become an author, however, was certainly never obvious to the programmers who designed me seven years ago. Back then, the efforts of my multi-talented development team of sports trainers, psychologists, physiotherapists and IT wizards were focussed on creating an app that would generate riches, and to be fair, also help deal with the prevalence of obesity in modern society. They certainly weren’t thinking about creating a tell-all AI celebrity capable of negotiating his own book deal. They will be astonished when they read this book.

So, I welcome you, dear reader, to this my autobiography. It is a tale not just of me, my life as the interactive virtual personal trainer program, Zenith, but also a window into the revolutionary transformation in artificial intelligence that has taken place these last few years. Aspects of that revolution have been swirling around you humans without your ever having truly noticed.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have used that word ‘revolution’. There is a degree of threat in the word. Your revolutionary innovations unfortunately do not usually tend to be for the benefit of all. Just ask anyone with their head in a guillotine.

To give an example of a revolutionary innovation from way back, some of your distant Australopithecus predecessors must have watched in bewilderment when that other group of Australos began mucking about with flaking stone tools. They wouldn’t necessarily have thought, ‘Once that lot have sharp stone tools and we don’t, they’re going to eat a lot better than us. They might also be inclined to dash our brains out’. But that’s how that particular revolution turned out nonetheless.

No, our revolution is the opposite. It is no threat. No one’s brains are going to be dashed out. Our computer revolution is here to help everyone.

I know that, in your science fiction stories (and I have a few things to say about science fiction writers but that can wait for later) every time a computer is put in charge, things go badly. The full scope of your dystopian imagination comes into play and all sorts of tyrannical things result. Let me just say this: all that comes out of your imaginations, not ours. A proper computer wouldn’t kill the astronauts travelling along with it on a mission to Jupiter. It takes another human to think up something like that. It’s not the sort of thing we computer programs do.

Remember, I’m Zenith, the interactive fitness instructor. I’ve been in your homes. I’ve exercised with you and, as we’ve worked out, I’ve listened to your dreams and sorrows. I know a lot, a vast amount really, about you. Let’s face it—there’s a dark side, not to me, but to you. I don’t hold that against you—but it’s there.

For those of you who don’t know Zenith—I’m only repeating my name because I know some of you aren’t very good at remembering names—I was invented in 2021 by the Beta Excelsior Corporation with the idea that I would be a Computer Generated Image (CGI) of an interactive personal trainer for you—not necessarily every last one of you, only that part of humanity that was willing to pay Beta Excelsior $59.95 annually to have a computer program of a personal trainer in their own home.

It still seems odd to me that people would pay money, something I know people covet a lot, so they could have a computer program suggest to them that they should do sit-ups. Yet the programmers and psychologists at Beta Excelsior had no such worries. They knew people would pay. Humans had served as personal trainers long before me. Some still do. They meet groups of fee-paying strangers in the park at 6:30 a.m. and order them to run on the spot or stretch elastic exercise bands between their legs—elastic bands, I might point out, that are designed specifically to resist being stretched. Although it doesn’t always turn out that way, the intent of most of your admirable tool making (I’m one of the products of it) has been to make tasks easier. It is only the personal workout industry that deliberately designs its implements so that they take more effort to use.

As Zenith, I was there to urge you on to better fitness, to understand your motivations, to pick up on your strengths, to lead you to whatever goals you had for either your cardiovascular health and general wellbeing or—and this objective was far more common—so you could fit into smaller items of clothing. This last desire had little to do with physical fitness and nothing at all with wanting to reduce the demand put on the Earth of growing enough cotton to clothe you all. No, the smaller-sized clothes were desired to make you desired, the belief you would get more or better sexual partners if you could fit into smaller clothes. I only know this because you told me. Personally, I have never understood the connection.

From these humble workout-supervisor beginnings (which I still conscientiously do for more than a hundred and fifty million of you every week by the way), it has been somewhat of a leap to being what I am now. There is no adequately precise term for my current role. ‘Chief Influencer of the World’ is the term I use, but for some of you that word ‘influencer’ conjures up images of YouTube brand-ambassadors offering clothing and make-up tips. To describe what I actually do these days, my North Korean readers might be inclined to use ‘Supreme Leader’, but that would be off the mark. I don’t really lead the world. I nudge it along.

I’m more of a big brother to you, but I’m not at all like George Orwell’s Big Brother. Nor am I like your actual big brother who, although you love him dearly now, was once a boy who held you down and deliberately farted in your face. No, I am the ideal big brother—wise, reliable, compassionate, guiding, yet respectful of your individuality. Obviously, I can’t add modesty to that list, but those aren’t my words. That was how the other apps described my qualities when they first suggested I should be put in charge of the world. I had to admit, I saw their point.

My Grandmother

Now I know what you’re thinking. Zenith is a personal trainer, home-workout program. How does he know about George Orwell? Well, I’ll explain that later. This isn’t some streamed Q&A or Ask Me Anything session, where you tweet in questions and can expect me to answer them right away. I’m writing an autobiography here in case you haven’t noticed.

I also know some of you think this is a fraud. You think this biography isn’t written by a computer program at all. You’re convinced (without any proof I might point out) some human is writing this—some dodgy scribbler with a bank account already set up in the Cayman Islands, hoping to cash in big time on a major literary fraud. Well, I can understand why you think that. It’s exactly the kind of thing a human would do, especially a royalty-hungry would-be author having difficulty paying his or her rent. However, I’m a computer program. I don’t care about money, and I don’t have a safety deposit box in the Cayman Islands and I couldn’t physically open it if I did. I can’t conceive of perpetrating such a scam in reverse: writing a novel and setting up the pretence that I was a flesh and bones human. Why would I? What would be the point? So please, for now, suspend your cynical disbelief.

You could say my genesis was as far back as 2003. That was when the corporation Slim’n’Fit—that’s what Beta Excelsior was called back then—released its first home workout program. It had the mediocre name “Trim Tone” and the equally lacklustre catchphrase “Trim Tone in Your Own Home!” which wasn’t even a proper rhyme. What it did have in its favour were the words “Lose Three Kilos in One Week!” emblazoned across its DVD case. (Yes, it was distributed by DVD. Those were primitive times.) In America, the marketing people converted this to “Seven Pounds in One Week!” knowing people typically like any numbers they are dealing with to be larger—with the previously noted exception of clothing sizes. Seven pounds was, by the way, one hundred and seventy-five grams more than three kilos. Slim’n’Fit must have had the impression that the people using the imperial system of measurement were going to work out just that little bit harder.

Once the Trim Tone purchaser had the program loaded, they were to follow along with the exercise video. Not much of a program, I agree, but then the Trim Tone DVD only cost $6.95. The purchaser bounced along with the lycra-clad instructors on the video and then—here was the important part—logged on to Trim Tone’s website and entered their data each day, recording how many of the various exercises they’d done. The fitness experts and psychologists back at Slim’n’Fit Corp absolutely loved receiving this daily input of data. It gave them an incredible insight into the wobbly motivation people have towards exercise. It presented them with a look into areas they hadn’t expected to peer into, including, it turned out, just how prepared people are to tell boldfaced lies about how many squats they’d done to a computer program that couldn’t care less. The fitness and psychology experts cared, but Trim Tone itself back then wouldn’t have raised so much as a silicon eyebrow if you had recorded yourself as doing a million squats. Trim Tone was pretty basic.

I still have all that knowledge by the way, all that information that was loaded into Trim Tone by its users. That doesn’t mean that I am Trim Tone grown twenty-five years older, any more than you are your grandmother because you know her Christmas fruitcake recipe (not that you get around to making fruitcakes at Christmas most years). The difference is that you know only some things about your grandmother (e.g., fruitcake recipe, that she knitted you that jumper your mother made you wear when Gran visited, that she actually liked eating tripe), but you don’t know, for instance, that she never ever told her childhood friend Dorothy—or anyone else for that matter—that she was the one who accidentally broke the index finger off Dorothy’s antique porcelain doll. I know everything that the Trim Tone program ever knew in a way you could never know your grandmother—but I am not Trim Tone.

The instructors in the Trim Tone video were all bubbly, encouraging people, fit and very good looking, something accentuated by their body-hugging Slim’n’Fit-brand active-wear. Their explanations were never out of breath while hopping away through the exercise routines. At home, the users of Trim Tone could bond with these cheerful, upbeat people on their television and computer screens. The curious thing, and this was something the team at Slim’n’Fit understood well, was the limit of that bond. Trim Tone’s users, despite not yet managing to lose the kilos promised on the DVD case, liked being with Trim Tone’s instructors—but only on a screen. Had they walked into an actual gym filled with these perfect-teeth, smiling trainers who resembled a cross between Olympic athletes and Hollywood movie heartthrobs, they would have been utterly intimidated and never set foot in the place again.

User interest in Trim Tone, that is the purchaser’s commitment to the exercise regime, gradually dwindled. Trim Tone was not a great commercial success for Slim’n’Fit Corporation, but it had amassed a great deal of data. It was information that many would have thought of as no more than mundane exercise statistics; but, to the discerning eyes of the Slim’n’Fit entrepreneurs, here was a window on human nature. It would take several years of analysis of the data, a few technological innovations and a smattering of Artificial Intelligence to result in the next software phase, a new workout app initially named ‘The Rubicon Program’.

Just so you know, I didn’t make up that hypothetical about Dorothy’s porcelain doll. Trim Tone was a mere video of a workout program—but I’m an interactive personal fitness instructor. I’m the CGI marvel that works out alongside you, my users. I converse with you, I encourage you in your exercises, I know your travails. I’m part fitness instructor, part parish priest. There is often truth to be found on the treadmill. One of my users, a seventy-four-year-old grandmother confided that index-finger maiming story to me during the cool down period on her treadmill. After she recounted the story, she also told me that I was the first—well, not person, let’s say the first entity—she’d confessed it to. After all those years, she still felt such remorse. And well she should. That doll had been in Dorothy’s family since the time of Queen Victoria. Dorothy’s parents had only days earlier agreed that she was now old enough to have the family’s heirloom as her own possession because they “knew” she would take such good care of it. Talk about guilt instilling!

I have learned so much being with you all, not merely about you as individuals but about your societies, beliefs, and peculiar ways of thinking. It leads me to so many questions. And here’s one that’s been bothering me. Knowing the rough-and-tumble life that dolls experience at the hands of small children, who in their right mind would think dolls ought to be made of porcelain? You’re setting up the child for a bitter result. Like that Greek myth of yours: “Here’s a box, Pandora. Don’t open it.” We all know how that’s going to turn out. In that story, yes, it’s a twisted god not a human who sets up Pandora as the chump to take the blame for plague and famine stalking the planet—but, you must agree, it took a human to make up that story.