Courtney Hunter -"You need permission from no one."
Can You Tell Me a Bit About Your Writing?
“Everybody get up” seeps from the speakers of laptop that’s seen better days, and as the sound turns to vibrations that pulse against the tops of my thighs, I realize the voice singing the words doesn’t sound like it’s supposed to. It’s not velvety and smooth, not at all. Instead, it’s distorted, low, and way too slow. It’s fucking creepy.
I’m listening to a remix of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” It’s playing in the background of a video that showcases a piece of animatronic sculpture art by Jordan Wolfson called “Female Figure.” The video depicts a female robot that dances in a mirror, and despite all the pulsing and gyrating, the figure refuses to break eye contact with the person filming the video. Much like the music in the background, it’s fucking creepy.
It took all but one watch for me to know that I wanted to make something that made others feel the way I did after watching the video. Terrified. Thrilled. Curious. Little did I know, this forty-second video would send on one of the most unexpected journeys – writing a book. Sentience, a story that explores the ethics of artificial intelligence through a Turing Test of epic proportions, is out on October 30, 2020. It’s my debut novel.
So, let’s go back to the beginning. Before I ended up on the very unexpected path of becoming a science fiction author, I started with a much more logical step. Dance. I’ve spent a solid twenty years of my life dancing in one capacity or another, and dance is where I learned to tell stories. After years of bringing other’s choreography to life, now I finally had something I wanted to choreograph on my own. I wanted to create a piece that explored how humanity races towards technological advancements often without considering consequences. I wanted to tell a story about the ways that humanity isn’t all that different from Prometheus, the fire-stealing god. I wanted to show the risks of stealing fire – sometimes you get burned.
Sentience follows twenty-four individuals as they travel through a contained natural preserve to participate in a Turing Test conducted by a tech corporation willing to do anything for monetary gain. Throughout their journey, they face obstacles designed by the experiment controllers to elicit human response and emotion. However, four of these individuals are not human. Romance falls together as the world around them falls apart, revealing the lengths people will go to protect those they love, achieve success, or simply survive. While the humans involved wrestle with where they stand on the polarizing issue of artificial intelligence and its applications, the AI in the experiment must prove their humanity to leave the experiment unscathed. The experience of those within the experiment is juxtaposed against those running it, some of whom struggle with the corporation’s intentions for the AI that pass the Turing Test. All of this leaves readers wondering what truly defines humanity and consciousness.
But before Sentience was Sentience, it was called “Wouldn’t you, if you could?” and it was a part of the 2017 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. The piece followed a group of scientists who embarked on a mission to create humanoid AI. Unfortunately, due to the mistreatment and underestimation of the machines, the project goes horribly wrong. While the story that was told on the stage varies a bit from what you’ll read on my novel’s pages, creating that piece helped me build the mood and the world I wanted to reflect in my book.
About a month after the piece was complete, I had this feeling that the story wasn’t over, and over breakfast with my two best friends in Salem, Massachusetts, I said six words that I would never have imagined myself saying.
“I want to write a book,” I said, punctuating my sentence with a sip of coffee as if what I said was something casual. And maybe for some, a statement like this is something said casually, like a gossamer maybe, but for me, it wasn’t. As soon as I said it, I couldn’t get home to my computer fast enough.
So here we are, narrowing in on my novel’s publication date, strategically planned for three years to the date that I started writing it. These three years have been filled with quite a bit of stolen fire- white-hot inspiration that arrived seemingly out of thin air and spilled from me so quickly my fingers couldn’t keep up. But in these three years, I’ve also been burned.
My struggles with depression have marked a large part of my writing journey. At sixteen, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Anxiety, but not until young adulthood did I actually learn that some of the emotions I had been dealing with were depression. From a young age, I learned to associate my self-worth with creative output or productivity, and the cycle of expecting each milestone in the writing and publishing journey to be the cure all for my deep lows was something I had to learn to break. Had I not learned to fight that strong and hungry current, I doubt I would even be closing in a publication date. Thus, the story of how I wrote this story is one I’ll always hold dear.
I’m writing this just seventeen days before the release date, and as I do, I can’t help but think of all the things I want my future readers to feel after reading my story. I want them walk away with a new lens of how capitalism and greed corrupt society. I want them to think about how they would choose to act in the situations I pose within my pages. Would they take the risk of wasting resources or rescuing someone who looks and acts human but very well may not be? I want them to recognize all the ways that we interact with Artificial Intelligence today, and I want them to think about what these interactions mean for our future the next time they call upon Alexa or Siri.
And if by chance they take the time to learn about the story of the story, I want them to know that their wild ideas don’t have to stay as gossamer maybes. It may take a mental fight as hard and brutal as the ones written in the pages of Sentience, but it’s possible to turn those ideas into real things. The most important part is starting. You need permission from no one.
Excerpt of Work
The door opened again, and in walked the three doctors that interviewed her to be a part of the experiment: Dr. Asha Keida, Dr. Jake Oldoney, and Dr. Elodie Teter. From some half-assed midnight research the night before her obligatory interview, Leo knew that Asha Keida and Elodie Teter founded the company, which, with the help of an angel investor, was now AlgorithmOS, the organization conducting the experiment. Together, the three doctors created the four AI that sat among the group. They were conducting a Turing Test.
“Welcome to the AlgorithmOS field office,” started Keida. From the moment Leo met her, she liked her. If she wasn’t there out of necessity, Keida could have convinced her to participate. Her voice was soothing, and her words always seemed carefully chosen. Something about her made Leo feel like she could trust her.
“It’s nice to see you all again,” interjected the second woman. “In case you have forgotten, I am Dr. Elodie Teter, Co-Founder of AlgorithmOS and Co-Director of Programming. Dr. Asha Keida is my Co-Founder and Co-Director. Together, we have written the code that operates the AI you are about to encounter. Dr. Jake Oldoney is the Head of Robotics. He is the great mind behind their humanoid vessels.”
“Today, we make history,” Keida resumed. She paused to scan her audience, making eye contact with each of them. “Four of you are not human. Four of you are manmade. With our deficiencies in mind, you were crafted to do what humanity is incapable of doing. You were designed to be the things that we are not. At the same time, you were intentionally forged to be indistinguishable from humanity, in a way, making you almost superhuman. We printed your flesh and programmed you with an identity and an entire moral framework, both of which will influence how you make decisions inside of the experiment. We bestowed upon you the capacity to think, to feel, to dream—”
“Now it is time to see if the four of you are truly indistinguishable,” Dr. Teter interrupted her abruptly, stepping forward. There was now a palpable tension between them. Dr. Keida stepped back and let Teter continue.
“We are conducting a Turing Test to see if you can think, decide, and act in a convincingly human way,” she paused. “Should you prove inadequate for this challenge and reveal your true nature, you will remain in the experiment until its conclusion. We hope that’s not the case. Unlike Turing, we’re targeting a 100% pass rate.”
Teter flashed a cocky smile as she moved across the stage.
Leo thought back to when she first read the words Turing Test in the project scope document that she received after being selected for the experiment. She had never heard them before. She remembered staying up almost until morning, a tumbler of something strong and brown in hand, clicking from one link to the next to learn more. The original Turing Test was a test in which a human and a computer were interrogated by another human. The nature of those being interrogated was concealed during the process, and at its conclusion, the interrogator was responsible for determining the nature of the participants on the other end. If more than 30% of the interrogators were incapable of making a distinction between man or machine, the computer was said to have passed the test. While Turing’s Test had the same objective as Keida, Teter, and Oldoney’s, this was on an entirely different level.
“Dr. Oldoney?” Teter gestured for the man behind her to step forward.
Oldoney began with the logistics of the experiment, reiterating what Leo had read over and over in the experiment information they provided. The group would enter a contained environment, referred to as Eden, where they would be tasked with reaching a designated destination as a group. There would be tasks and checkpoints along the way. They would encounter obstacles, deterrents, and situations that would provoke human emotion and require strategic decision- making throughout their journey. The experiment would last a maximum of two weeks, concluding when the group reached the extraction point, or when the two-week limit expired. The entire experiment would be monitored remotely through stationary surveillance and drone cameras, but under no circumstances would there be any intervention from the outside world.
by Courtney Hunter
“We run head-on into the haze, and it’s not until we’re in the thick of it that we realize we can’t get out. That’s what AlgorithmOS was doing, and that’s what I’m doing now.
We have four primary models of Humanoid Artificial Intelligence here at AlgorithmOS: the SurveillOS, the HealOS, the PleasOS, and the CoercOS. Each model has an operating function from which their name is derived.
Consciousness. This one is hard, elusive. How do we create something if we don’t understand how to quantify it? If we do ever understand and we can confirm that we have succeeded in its creation, are they any different than you and me? Do they really not exist, or is it easier to tell ourselves that they don’t when we use them like we do?”
Robots, sex, lies, adventure, and chaos. Who can you trust when you can’t trust yourself? And what truly defines humanity and consciousness?
Running from a violent past, Leo Knox desperately decides to participate in a scientific experiment conducted by the infamous and greedy tech-giant, AlgorithmOS. Soon, Leo learns that she has agreed to take part in a Turing Test, a test that measures the ability of artificial intelligence to blend in among humanity, but what she doesn’t know is that the test set to take place is unlike any other of its kind.
Leo enters Eden, the contained preserve where the test will occur, with twenty-three others. While everyone appears to be human, four of the individuals are an indistinguishably advanced form of humanoid AI. The task is simple: identify the AI while trying to survive. The twist? The four AI are completely unaware of their nature, causing every participant to question what they know as reality.
The group embarks on a journey within the preserve, rigged with obstacles devised by the controllers of the experiment to elicit human response and emotion. Quickly, madness ensues and divides form, partnering Leo up with Avery Ford, a Marine who wears his demons on his sleeve. Romance falls together for the two as the world around them falls apart, revealing the lengths people will go to protect those they love, to achieve monetary gain, or simply to survive.
Back at AlgorithmOS, the story unfolds on the screens of Nathan Aimes, a scientist responsible for monitoring the experiment’s surveillance cameras. Nathan studies the humans involved as they wrestle with where they stand on the polarizing issue of AI and its applications. He watches the AI unknowingly fight to prove their humanity just to leave the experiment unscathed. All the while, Nathan is intimately aware of his company’s plans to weaponize or commodify the AI should they pass the test, and he must reconcile this with the chaos that plays out before him.
About the Author
Courtney Hunter is a serial creator from Philadelphia, PA with experience in writing, the fashion industry, and live performance. After eighteen years of studying contemporary dance, she set out to carve herself a path in fashion and retail buying. Upon graduating from Philadelphia University and settling into her career, she turned back to dance. While working as a retail buyer for Burlington Stores, Courtney began producing contemporary dance and burlesque performances under her production company Stolen Fire Collective, aptly named after Prometheus the fire-stealing god. Sentience, her debut Science Fiction novel, is a written extension of a contemporary dance piece that was produced for the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2017 based on artificial intelligence.
A lifelong Sci-Fi fan (her favorite movie as a little girl was and still is Jurassic Park), Courtney loves anything Promethean in nature and her favorite books, movies, and television shows are the ones that challenge the ethics of the future that we are rapidly heading towards. Some of her favorites include Jurassic Park (obviously), The 100, The OA, Westworld, The East, and Ex Machina.
She still resides in Philadelphia with her partner, Will, and her rescue pups, Rickie and Billie. In her free time, she records a podcast called The Sentience Podcast, which started as a behind the scenes look at the making of her novel and has evolved into an auditory hub for all things science fiction, creative process, true crime, and the occult.
Sentience is due out Friday, October 30, 2020, three years to the date after Courtney first started writing it.
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