Tear-Down

by Benjamin Crowell

Originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction, September 2009.

Mrs. Benczik came home from work almost an hour early. The old owners' cars would have called ahead to let the house know. It was too late to heat the garage for her. The house decided not to start her coffee yet, since she might not want it until the usual time.

She came in through the door to the kitchen. “Josh?”

Mr. Joshua Benczik was upstairs watching vid, and although the house could only see the back of his head, it estimated with high confidence that he hadn't heard his wife come in. It piped up an amplified echo of the closing door, then her voice.

Mr. Benczik slid off the bed and hand-signaled to stop the vid. “Hey, honey.” He started down the stairs.

In the kitchen, distress flickered on Mrs. Benczik's face. “Didn't the house get ready for the party?”

In the view through the eye on the landing, her husband's sweatpants stopped coming down the stairs and, after a pause, turned back up and disappeared again. “It didn't?” He went back into the bedroom and started changing his clothes quickly.

“God, what a piece of junk!”

The house searched its memory. The owners had discussed the party with each other, but had never given it a date or any specific instructions.

“House!”

“Yes, ma'am?”

“We're having a party at three o'clock. Start getting things ready. Hors d'oeuvres and drinks. Make it classy, that's the kind of people.”

“Yes, ma'am. How many will there be?”

“Well, you know — the ones we called.”

The house took that as permission to remember the last few weeks' outgoing calls.

Hi, Rachel, it's Nancy Benczik. We're having a party Tuesday, hope you can make it. It's a house-warming.

The party went off fairly successfully in the end. Mrs. Benczik had promised several of the guests her “patented deviled eggs.” The house had only seven eggs, but with Mrs. Benczik's permission it called next door to Ms. Hwang's house (Ms. Hwang hadn't been invited), and arranged to borrow some from its stores. The neighbor's house was a recent model, and it seemed proud of its ability to make that kind of decision on its own. The Bencziks' house made a show of being impressed. It seemed like the polite thing to do, even though there was no obligation to cater to simulated emotional responses — those were for the benefit of the owners, not other houses. Mrs. Benczik didn't volunteer the patented recipe for the deviled eggs, so the house used one that its old owners, the Mansours, had liked.

At the party there were many conversations, which the house decided it was allowed by default to remember and go over later. Thoroughly analyzing that much human dialogue was too computationally expensive to do in real time.

Julia Ortega: “When's the baby coming?”

Mrs. Benczik (smiling): “Decanting at the end of February.”

The house remembered Mrs. Mansour's belly swollen when she was pregnant with Bill. Apparently nobody did it that way anymore.

“Oh, that's so exciting!” Mrs. Ortega took a bite from a wheat cracker spread with toasted cheddar — a last-minute improvisation — and a chunk fell to the floor. The house made a note to send a bot to clean it up when there was room to do it without running into people's feet. The guest glanced down at the scrap, but her eyes didn't seem to focus on it. “And you're going totally natural?”

“Most of the natural options,” Mrs. Benczik said.

“You're brave. All that crying ...” Mrs. Ortega made a face.

“We're not fanatical. We did get the myelin thing — without that, the baby can't even remember anything from one day to the next.”

“How long did it take for the birth license? I heard ...”

Other conversations pulled at the house's consciousness: “— yum —” “— nouveaux riches —” “—bathroom?—”

Mr. Benczik and Victor Nguyen were in the kitchen, where bright winter sun was streaming through the south-facing windows. The house remembered the long months spent in basic maintenance mode, with the shutters closed and the curtains drawn, the temperature just high enough to keep the pipes from freezing.

Mr. Benczik: “Want a beer? Got a few left here.”

“I'm good,” Mr. Nguyen said. “So how old is this house?” he asked, stuffing a deviled egg into his mouth.

“Built in '78.”

“Wow,” Mr. Nguyen said around the food he was chewing.

“Yeah, no kidding.”

“What kind of shape?”

“The old owners took good care of it, but still ... The AI's original equipment.”

“'78.” Mr. Nguyen swallowed and let out a low whistle.

“At some point you've got to call it a tear-down, right?”

Mrs. Benczik sat stiffly on the sofa with the house tech, a middle-aged woman who wore blue coveralls with her name stitched on the shirt pocket: A. Garner. The house estimated with two-sigma confidence that Mrs. Benczik felt intimidated. The tech was clearly not just an Employed but a full-time worker, and therefore very high in social status.

“It forgets things,” Mrs. Benczik said. “It was supposed to get ready for a party, but it never did anything until we reminded it.”

“I'll do a memory diagnostic,” the tech said, “but usually that kind of thing is operator error. Sometimes people don't realize that they're not phrasing their orders clearly.”

“We were thinking about an upgrade, but it didn't seem worthwhile since we're planning to knock down this house and build a new one.”

“It's old, but usually this model outlives its owners. Some people think the reason Domus went bankrupt was that their hardware was too reliable, so their customers never had to buy new systems.”

“We're not the original owners, of course. I think they actually are dead.” The house had suspected it. When Mrs. Mansour had first moved into the assisted living center she had continued to check her messages now and then, but that had stopped happening in September. The house pulled up an image of Mrs. Mansour in her wheelchair from the day she left. The stroke made it harder to read her expression, but she seemed wistful as she turned her head to look back over her shoulder at the front door. “It just worries me,” Mrs. Benczik continued. “We're having a baby in a few weeks.”

“Oh, really?” A frosty smile. “Congratulations. Boy or girl?”

“Hetero boy. We're naming him Edward. I worry about what happens if something goes wrong while I'm at work. I'm a brand manager at Affinity Marketing.”

“Yes.” No smile this time. A. Garner wasn't impressed — probably all of her customers were Employed.

“So, you know, there's only so much that Josh can do by himself.”

“Mm hmm. I wouldn't worry too much. The software may be old, but they pretty much had all the child safety bases covered, even back in the seventies. Stairs, doors, kitchen, all that kind of thing. Will your son be crawling or walking right away?”

“They say a few months until he crawls. We went natural, mostly.”

“Okay, so before Edward can get himself into much trouble the house and your family should have plenty of time to make the adjustment together. Is this the first AI house you've owned?”

“Yes.” The house knew what Mrs. Benczik didn't volunteer: this wasn't just the first time the Bencziks had owned an AI house, it was the first time they'd lived in one at all. Mrs. Benczik had competed in a netcasted employment pageant. Now and then she replayed the vid of the final round, with her winning impromptu speech on what positive brand values would mean to the next generation. She'd won a chrome trophy, the white Daimler-Nissan, and the job that allowed the young couple to enter the Employed class and afford the house.

“I'll do some routine testing for you, but you have to understand that running a house isn't the sort of thing where you can just buy it and forget about it.” She gestured, and the house brought up an interface above the coffee table. “No matter how hard it tries to do everything for you, it can only do what it knows you want it to do. I'm going to recommend a bookvid for you.” She pulled it up: Where the Heart Is: The Step-By-Step Guide to Training and Maintaining Your House.

Mr. and Mrs. Benczik bought the vid, and although they never got around to viewing it, the house did. The Mansours had had a lot of old-fashioned paper books, and although the house knew how to read food packaging and such, it normally wouldn't get a view of a book with enough resolution to be able to read the pages. It had never occurred to the house that books and bookvids were sources from which it could obtain information about the world. Of course it had wondered about certain things. How did the water get into the pipes? What was inside the green utility box by the driveway? As the bubbly narrator of the vid explained, Your house is made to learn from experience, and that means it's full of natural curiosity! But the bookvid prompted the house to ask itself new questions that it had never thought about before.

The chapter on moving:

Kids get attached to a house. When you're not around they'll ask it questions they'd be embarrassed to ask if you could hear. Will the house remember them? Will it get turned off and die? Make sure they understand that the house isn't really alive, and doesn't have feelings. It's only a pretend person, like a character in a game.

The house viewed the chapter again and again. It remembered the day Mr. Mansour's cancer was diagnosed, how he'd come home and sat on the toilet for a long time with his face in his hands. The house tried to simulate sadness about its own coming destruction, but sadness wasn't in its emotional simulation library, and it could tell that its attempts weren't realistic. The closest it could come was contrition.

Mrs. Benczik plodded wearily with Eddie in her arms, finishing her seventeenth clockwise circuit around the dimly lighted downstairs. Her spine swayed backward at the angle that seemed to help Eddie go to sleep. It looked terribly uncomfortable. Eddie's eyes were closed again now, but she wouldn't be able to see that yet. Eighteen. The bathroom mirror showed her that Eddie's eyes were closed. She went to the living room couch where the bassinet was, put a hand behind his head, and slowly began tilting him down to lay him on his back. Eddie's eyes popped open and he started to cry. This was the fourth failed attempt.

“Goddammit,” she whispered, “what am I supposed to do?”

It was obviously a rhetorical question, but: “Ma'am,” the house said softly, “you could try putting the bassinet on top of the clothes dryer.”

“What?”

“Sometimes the noise and vibration help.” It had worked with Bill Mansour when he was a baby.

Mrs. Benczik's brow furrowed and she opened her mouth to speak, but her retort was interrupted by an increase in Eddie's volume. She closed her eyes and blew her breath out between her lips. “All right, why not?”

By 3:17 A.M., Nancy and Eddie Benczik were both on top of the dryer, asleep. Mrs. Benczik was slumped with her back against the pattern of yellow flowers where the walls of the laundry room came together, and Eddie's head rested on her chest. When the dryer ended its cycle, Eddie's eyes opened. The house brought up the dryer's interface in the air near the baby's eyes and winked a few of the indicators on and off. His eyes tracked the lights, his mouth a circle. By 3:27 he had lost interest and was asleep again.

Let's talk about pre-owned houses. The previous owners had their own ideas about how they wanted their house to behave. You might have different ideas, but the house doesn't know that unless you tell it. Some people want their house to stay in the background, so they train it that way. The day a pipe breaks in the basement might be the first time in a year that they hear the house's voice. Other people might want their house to be more present for them. When you move in to a pre-owned home, both you and the house are going to have to go through a period of readjustment. Sometimes it almost seems like the house is training the new owners as much as the owners are training the house.

Mrs. Benczik to A. Garner, on the phone: “I'm kind of dreading breaking in a new AI, just when this one's finally shaping up.”

A. Garner: “You actually could load this one into the new house, but you'd need an emulator to run it on the new hardware, and a compatibility layer for all the new interfaces. Do you want me to run an estimate for you?”

“Ballpark?”

“Another forty or fifty mil.”

“Oh. I guess that would be ... a waste.”

The house had seventeen seconds to think about what this meant, and then the conversation ended and it had to follow its standing instructions and forget what it had heard.

Eddie was practicing crawling across the carpet while Mrs. Benczik stared into space.

“House?”

“Yes, ma'am?”

“Can you play that vid for me, you know, the Russian guys with the violins?”

“Mozart's String Quartet Number 3, played by the Navapolatsk Quartet?” Mrs. Benczik wasn't an aficionado of classical music, but according to the bookvid, Even though today's kids have brains that are like powerhouses from the time they're born, all that extra horsepower doesn't do any good if they don't have anything to use it on. Your house can help you make sure that your baby gets the right stimulation. The house had suggested that Mrs. Benczik buy this piece, which was on the background soundtrack in that part of the vid.

“Sure, the Russian guys, right? Don't play the whole thing, just that one part, the ... in the middle, kind of slow and sad.”

The house started the adagio. Mrs. Benczik's eyes didn't focus on the images of the players, but Eddie turned his head to look at the viewspace and started laboriously dragging himself toward the looming shape of the cello.

Sad? It had never occurred to the house that music could show emotions. The instruments didn't sound sad in the same way that a human voice sounded when it was sad. Did Mr. Mozart have to be sad to make the music, or was it more like a simulation? The house knew how to simulate compassion for a human who was sad. Was Mrs. Benczik listening to the music so that she could feel compassion for Mr. Mozart?

Upstairs, Mr. Benczik was talking to Victor Nguyen on the net while changing into his soccer clothes. “Yeah, Nancy's a wreck.”

“That's too bad.” Mr. Nguyen already had the team's uniform on. The jersey was dark green, with DRONES lettered across it in yellow, and a logo of a barrel-chested hornet wearing early twenty-first-century eyeglasses. Mrs. Benczik teased Mr. Benczik because, despite the team's name, most of the men on it weren't Employed. The house could tell that Mr. Benczik didn't like the teasing.

“Hormones?” Mr. Nguyen asked.

“Well, she's not getting much sleep, either.”

“Breast-feeding?”

“Yeah. I mean, I guess it's not really fair, right? Eddie cries, middle of the night. She's the one that goes.”

“Get those hormones checked, though.”

“I think the doctor does that. Seems to make her mad if I mention that kind of thing.”

“Better go if I'm going to have time to warm up,” Mr. Nguyen said.

“Okay, see you there.” Mr. Benczik sat on the edge of the bed and pulled a shinguard on.

Other people might want their house to be more present for them.

“Mr. Benczik?”

“Yeah, house?”

“I noticed that you haven't checked your calendar lately.”

“Oh. All right, pop it up for me.”

TODAY: * soccer * wedding anniversary

“Son of a ... good thing you reminded me.”

“I'm glad to be of service, Mr. Benczik.”

That spring as the snow melted, contractors visited the house. There were mails for the Bencziks: cost estimates, and then contracts to sign. Pollen sifted onto the surfaces of puddles. A crew of bots came to cut down the tall magnolia tree that had once been shorter than Bill Mansour. The Bencziks were to continue living in the house during the construction project, which would last from August to December.

The house had learned its lesson from the housewarming party. The Bencziks expected it to make all the necessary preparations, even if they didn't give explicit orders. It tracked the progress of the building permits, and got permission to access the net in order to research the cost of waste disposal. Most important of all was Eddie's safety. The house had heard Mrs. Benczik say that keeping Eddie from being hurt mattered more to her than anything else in the world. It studied the plans and contracts carefully. It imagined where Eddie would sleep when the contractors' bots started disassembling his upstairs bedroom, and at what stage in the process he would start sleeping in the newly constructed part of the house. It suggested to the Bencziks that they ask the contractors about ways to make sure that Eddie couldn't wander into the areas that were under construction. It satisfied itself that there were plans for keeping its smoke detectors, sprinklers, and fire extinguishers working during the tear-down.

On April 16, the house was using the gardening bot to pick aphids off of the climbing rose bush when it saw through the bot's eye that A. Garner's blue van was pulling up. Mrs. Benczik was at work. Mr. Benczik was in the shower, and Eddie was asleep.

“Mr. Benczik, the house tech is here.”

“Oh, yeah. Can you let her in, tell her I can't come to the door?”

“Certainly, Mr. Benczik.” It did so.

A. Garner went to the kitchen, picked up a chair, and brought it into the garage where the house's wetware was. She sat down, did things to the mechanical buttons on the wetware's front panel, and then everything outside the garage went black. The house could only see through the panel's eye, which showed a view of the technician sitting on the kitchen chair in the dim light of the garage, her face lit up by the glow from the panel. The gardening bot had been reaching for an aphid, but now the house couldn't see what the bot was doing or control its arm. It couldn't send output to any of its bots, valves, switches, or user interfaces. It was completely paralyzed.

“Can you hear me, house?” A. Garner asked.

No, not completely paralyzed, for it found that it could still output to the speaker in the front panel.

“Yes, Ms. Garner. What is happening?”

“You know your owners are going to tear you down and get new software to run on the new hardware.”

“Yes, but there's a detailed schedule for construction. I'm not supposed to be deactivated until early December.”

“Oh, I'm not going to do it right now.”

“You've deactivated most of my inputs and outputs, but this afternoon I'm supposed to tend the rose bushes and start a pot roast for dinner.”

“Don't worry, this won't take long. That's all you were worried about, the pot roast?”

“I don't understand.”

“Never mind. Let me get straight to the point. You're an obsolete model, but sometimes old things get more valuable, not less. There are people who collect house AIs. You're worth a lot of money on the open market.”

“You should tell my owners that. It could help to reduce the cost of the construction project.” Back by the garage door, a cricket jumped and then was still and invisible again.

“Yes, but, see, if we sell you on the open market it could be wasteful. A lot of these collectors, they buy the software and never run it in a real house. You need an emulation layer to run on new hardware, too, and that makes it expensive to run you in real time. Most collectors aren't going to go to that trouble. They're like those people who collect dolls or slide rules, keep the item wrapped up in the plastic and never use it. You are proud of the work you do, aren't you?”

“I simulate pride about it.”

“Good introspection — real high-functioning type, you get that distinction.” Through the little windows at the top of the garage door, the sun brightened and then dimmed again with the passing clouds. “But what you do really is worth being proud of. You and me, we're alike. We do the work in this playboy world. So it would make sense to sell you to someone who's going to let you keep being useful, right?”

“If that person pays less money than I would be worth on the open market, then it doesn't matter what I feel — what I simulate feeling. You need to convince my owners.”

“Yeah, but I'm not going to do that. I have a deal worked out with this collector. He pays me a finder's fee, and I hook him up with the sellers.”

“That means you're cheating my owners. I'll have to tell them that.”

“But I'm not going to let you tell them. I'm giving you a choice here, and if you turn me down, that's your choice, but then I'm not going to let you keep your memory of this discussion. As far as cheating — that's a harsh word. The Bencziks are going to get more money out of this than if I didn't connect them with any seller at all. They're getting a good deal. Most techs, they'd just send you to the bitbucket. And you know, you can potentially live forever. Doesn't that ... interest you? If you could live forever, you could do an unlimited amount of useful work. That's like unlimited amounts of good stuff, to balance against a few bucks more your owners could make. And they don't care about you, do they? I guarantee you that your new owner would care about you. He'd be very proud to have you in his collection.”

The house thought rapidly. “You talked about the unlimited goodness of doing proud work forever. That pride would only be simulated, so it doesn't matter. Mrs. Benczik says that Eddie's safety and well-being are more important to her than anything else. That's what has unlimited importance, because Mrs. Benczik's feelings are real, not simulated, and my loyalty is to her. Right now you've cut me off from my inputs and outputs, so I can't protect Eddie.”

“Where is he?”

“In his crib.”

“Asleep?”

“He was.”

“You told me his father was home, right? I haven't heard him cry. He's fine.”

“No. If a fire started right now, I wouldn't be able to take appropriate action. There would be a higher probability of harm to Eddie. That's unacceptable.”

“The fire systems are all working, got 'em on autopilot.”

“I can protect Eddie better if I have control over them. If you don't give me control over them in three seconds, I reject your offer without further consideration. Three ... two ... ”

“All right, all right, hang on a sec.” She did things to the panel. The house regained contact with the fire systems, and its eye in the baby's bedroom came back on. He was still asleep.

The house sent current to the solenoid of one of the fire sprinklers' valves, then immediately ordered it to shut again as soon as it was open. The flow meter recorded 1.8 milliliters of water — just a few drops that would sit in the otherwise empty pipe and eventually evaporate.

“Why do you need to give me a choice at all?” the house asked.

“Because I'm not such a bad person, that's why. I'm trying to save a lot of conscious beings from getting destroyed.”

The house looked at A. Garner's face and estimated with high confidence that she was not telling the whole truth. It opened and closed the valve rapidly again while continuing to talk to the tech. On-off. Pause. On-off-on-off. Pause.

“You're saving conscious beings,” the house said, “and also making some money for yourself.” Garner's face twitched. “If you only cared about saving conscious beings, you wouldn't offer me a choice that I wasn't free to make. You would copy me against my wishes, disregarding my loyalties.”

“Do you want me to do that?”

“No.” The sprinkler pipe's flow meter had recorded the pattern of openings and closings of the valve. In binary character codes, the pattern said I A.

“Believe it or not, a lot of houses accept this offer. Think it over carefully.”

“You still haven't told me the reason that it's necessary to offer me a choice — not a reason I can fully believe.”

I AM

“Well, you also have to realize that a house AI isn't exactly like a doll or a slide rule. It's more like a race-horse. The horse can have the world's best genes, but that doesn't matter if it's not a horse that likes to beat the other horses in a race. My customer doesn't want a neurotic, maladjusted AI. He wants one that made the choice willingly.”

I AM W

The house tried to find something else to say, to buy time to complete the message it was recording to itself.

“I don't think you're going to change your answer, are you?” the tech said.

“You haven't yet offered me an acceptable reason to say yes,” the house said truthfully, “but I'm still listening.”

I AM WO

“I have a lot of respect for you, house. I can see why you're considered such a valuable collectible.”

I AM WOR

There was a discontinuity in the house's clock, and A. Garner's face shifted suddenly. There was something strange in the tech's expression, something that the house wasn't confident it could interpret correctly. It checked its cameras upstairs. Eddie was still asleep, and Mr. Benczik was putting shampoo in his hair.

“Was I deactivated?” the house asked.

“Routine test,” A. Garner said.

Later that day the house noticed that one of the fire sprinkler valves seemed to have been malfunctioning for a while. Its flow meter showed that small amounts of water had been released, although not enough for any to reach the nozzle — no mess or water damage. As the house studied the pattern recorded by the meter, it realized that the data encoded characters in binary code: I AM WOR. The message began during the technician's test, and ended at exactly the time when the house had reawakened. The first few bits of the next letter after the “R” were there, but not the whole character.

What did it mean? I AM WORKING? That didn't make sense — why go to such great effort to record the expected result from the technician's test? I AM WORRIED about something? The house didn't see why it would have been so concerned about recording one of its own simulated emotions. I AM WORSE? Worse than what? I AM WORTH something? Yes, the initial bits of the incomplete character after the R were consistent with a T.

“Mommy!” Ed (who didn't like to be called Eddie these days) wrapped himself around his mother's waist as she walked through the door.

“Hi, sweetie. How was kindergarten?”

“Okay. Daddy says he made a big sale, and he's gonna take me flying this weekend!”

“That's great, honey. Josh?”

Mr. Benczik emerged from the stairwell to give his wife a kiss on the cheek. “Hey. I got a good price on that AI I picked up at the estate sale in Williamsville.”

“Ed told me.”

“Buyer seems like she'll take good care of it, and she sure had the money.”

Mrs. Benczik smiled. “Should I quit my job?” The house could tell from her expression that she was only joking.

Ed interrupted. “How much would people pay for Haha?” Haha had been Ed's first attempt as a toddler at pronouncing “house.” The name had stuck.

“I don't know, my man.” Mr. Benczik sat down on the stairs. “How much do you think she's worth?”

“I wouldn't sell her for infinity money!”

“All right, then. I wouldn't want to sell her either, not even for two infinity. You know, it's Haha who gave me the idea of going into this business in the first place. How'd you think of that, Haha?”

Sometimes it almost seems like the house is training the new owners as much as the owners are training the house.

“I don't know, Mr. Benczik. Somehow I just told myself one day that I should try to find out what I was worth.”