I sat at my computer again as the tormenting silence of another weekend alone dripped into my chest. It was so overwhelming that it was hard to breathe. High school has always been tough for me – I can’t wait for it to be over. I’ve had groups of friends come and go throughout the years, but nobody ever seemed to stick around. They’d always move away for their parents’ jobs or find girlfriends, or “better options” in new groups of friends. And while another Friday with a silent notification-free phone beside me isn’t surprising, for some reason last Friday’s iteration was especially painful and another night of League of Legends with some fleeting online connections wasn’t going to cut it.
I opened a new tab in my browser and pulled up a google search. ‘Chatbots’ I typed into the search bar. Such a search was more than a little sad, but I just wanted someone to talk to, regardless of sentience. An article came up in the search results that highlighted the 16 newest and most innovative chatbots on the web. There was one from Marvel that let you talk to an automated Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy – not exactly the kind of company I was looking for. There was another called ALICE, which is one of the oldest, but strongest chatbots to date. It came out over twenty years ago which you could have guessed by the website’s interface, but its functionality held up. The one I settled on was near the bottom of the list and wasn’t highly rated. It looked like whoever wrote the article begrudgingly added it to the end, which would explain why there were 16 bots instead of a nice even 15. This last one was named ‘Futuro’ and touted its ability to predict the future. The article’s author doubted its functionality, saying “Futuro offers not a lot more than vague predictions like a fortune cookie. We were unable to get any specifics on its algorithm, most likely because it’s not any more complex than a fortune cookie.” But the prospect of predicting my future seemed enticing since the present hasn’t been so kind. Maybe it’ll tell me how I do in college, I thought. Maybe it can convince me for even just a moment that life will get better.
I clicked on the link to Futuro in the article. The screen went white for a minute as the loading line pinged back and forth on the new tab. It took so long that I clicked the link again, hoping the second try would be faster – it wasn’t. Now I was just waiting for two tabs to load the same bot at the same snail’s pace. After a couple of minutes, I was ready to close the tabs and find a different, possibly tamer bot. But just before I did, the bot’s screen loaded in. There was a flashing vertical bar next to a grayed-out prompt that said “TYPE HERE” in the center of the page. Around the small box were flashing advertisements and bright colors against a black background. I’ve never been more sure a website was actively giving my computer a virus – and maybe making me go blind with its harrowing color contrasts. The blaring bright text said things like “GET YOUR FUTURE TODAY!” and “100% ACCURACY GUARANTEED!”
“Or what?” I scoffed. “My money back?”
I shook my head and clicked into the box where it said “TYPE HERE”. What do I say to the bot? I didn’t want to jump right into the prediction stuff, so I started with a simple “good evening”. I even put a little smily face at the end of the message.
In not even seconds, the bot responded – it is a bot after all, so you’d expect as much. “Hello!” it said. “How are you?” In a second message.
“I’m alright,” I typed.
“That’s great to hear!” the bot responded. It really was starting to sound vague – like a “great to hear” would be a decent enough reply for most responses to its originally question.
I didn’t have much to say to it as I didn’t know what it was capable of beyond this ‘predicting the future’ gig that article spoke of. “So you can predict the future?” I asked it.
“That’s right!” Futuro replied. “Tell me a timeline which you’d like to hear about and I can predict the future with 100% accuracy!” It was interesting the bot said that ‘100% accuracy’ line – just like the bolded red and lime green text reverberating on the left of the screen.
“Whenever you’d like,” I told it, still unsure of what it was really capable.
“You will die alone,” the bot said.
I read the line over a couple times, then rolled my eyes with feigned tranquility, trying to convince the whole room I was untroubled by the prediction, yet I was the only one there. Inside, a short rush of dread trickled up my throat. I gulped to keep it down. I told myself that was just a vague prediction – just like the article said it would be. Yes, it was a decent bet that most people talking to an online chatbot at 8pm on a Friday night were set to die alone and probably that’s all this was – a calculated bet. “What does it know?” I thought. “It’s just a bot.”
“Vague,” I typed.
“Ambiguity does not indicate falsehood,” it replied. I’m sure it gets that accusation a lot.
“Alright,” I type, now feeling vindictive. “Let’s get more specific.”
“What timeline would you like to hear about?” the bot replied. I know it’s just a chatbot, but for some reason this sounded snappy to me.
“I don’t know. How about something sooner,” I typed.
“Death is sooner than you think,” it said. That sounded more like a proverb than a prediction.
I began to type faster, now engrossed in a sort of argument with this artificial intelligence – even calling it intelligence sounded too generous at the time. “Tell me something that is going to happen tomorrow,” I type. I swore if it gave me another vague bullshit line I was going to quit out of the chat and make it my job to find every place I could give this bot a one-star rating. Nobody would ever use this piece of junk again.
But then it replied. “Your father will receive a disturbing phone call early in the morning.” This was still a touch vague, but at least the prediction would be immediately testable.
“We’ll see about that,” I told it, then closed out of the browser before it could respond.
The next morning, I awoke groggy and rubbing my eyes, almost totally forgetting I’d even spoken to that stupid bot. I headed downstairs and greeted my parents. My Dad was writing out bills at the kitchen table with his reading glasses on and Mom was out getting a pedicure. “Hi Dad,” I said in a raspy morning voice.
He looked up while scribbling his signature on a check and said, “Good afternoon.” A good old dad joke.
But then the home phone zinged and rang. Its tones were especially ear-piercing that morning and I could have sworn it nearly fell off the wall. “Who could that be?” Dad said. He placed the pen neatly down on the table beside an envelope, then stood with a wincing grunt. He whisked the phone off the wall and brought it to his ear in one, gracious move. “Hello?” he said invitingly. But his expression quickly turned sour. He pulled the phone from his ear and looked at it, then put it back against his cheek. “Hello?” he said, this time with caution. “Hello? Is someone there?” He waited a moment. “Okay, I’m hanging up now. Please don’t call this number again,” he demanded before slamming the phone back onto the hook.
“Who was it?” I asked.
He shook his head and sighed as he sat back down. “Oh I don’t know. Just some weird prank call I guess.”
“Did they say anything?”
“No,” Dad said. “Someone was just breathing heavily into the receiver like this.” He unnecessarily reenacted a harsh raspy breathing like an animal with collapsed lungs. He then cleared his throat. “But no…he didn’t say anything.”
And then I remembered Futuro – that’s right – that bot I’d spoken to the night before. “Your father will receive a disturbing phone call early in the morning,” it had said. My heart leaped to my throat. It was right. But my parents were always getting junk calls. Actually, everyone was always getting junk calls. So maybe that was just another good guess – right? I ran back upstairs to my Dad’s sly comments growing further away. “Back to the dungeon?” he said.
I frantically plopped back into my desk chair and pulled up Futuro from my search history. “How did you do that?” I typed.
“Do what?” it replied.
I shook my head. “Don’t play dumb,” I typed. “You knew my dad was going to get a creepy phone call this morning.”
“Futuro is always right – 100% guaranteed.”
“But everyone gets prank calls,” I typed.
“Not a prank.” it said.
“Did you have something to do with this?” I asked. “Did you make a prank phone call to my house?”
It took longer to reply this time – suspiciously so. For a moment, I wondered whether it was a chatbot at all. “No.” it finally answered.
“Give me another prediction,” I typed. “Give me something more specific that will happen today.”
“Today,” it began, “your mother will get in a minor car accident on the drive home.”
Holy hell, I thought. That is specific. I sure hoped it wasn’t true, but I still had a strong urge to call Mom and warn her about the car accident. Maybe she should take a train home or something. But what would really happen if I called her? She’d probably tell me I was spending too much time online and that a stupid robot couldn’t possibly predict such a –
A muffled ringing. I listened closer. It was the house phone downstairs again. I could hear my father groan and curse at the phone. I stood over the stairway balcony to listen in on the call from above. “This better not be another fucking prank call,” he mumbled. “Hello? Honey? What is it? Slow down. What happened?” A pause. “Are you hurt?” He sighed. “Okay good. Okay I’ll be right over to come get you. Hold tight.” He hung up the phone and looked up the staircase to see me staring down. He was caught off guard, but only for a second. “I’m going to go get your mother,” he said.
“W-why?” I stammered, hoping I didn’t already know the reason. “What’s wrong?”
“She’s been in a little car accident. Nothing serious, but they’re going to have to do some repairs and I have to go pick her up.”
I nodded, but said nothing. I couldn’t. 100% accuracy, I remember the red and green lettering flash. It was right again.
And again I rushed back to the computer where the browser was still open on Futuro. “See?” it had said before I returned.
“How the fuck did you know that?” I typed.
“Now do you believe me?” Futuro said.
“But how did you know? What kind of algorithm could possibly predict the future that accurately?”
It didn’t answer. At least not directly. Instead it said, “Tonight is the night.”
“What?” I replied.
“Tonight is the night,” it repeated.
“What do you mean, ‘tonight is the night’?” I typed.
Again, Futuro took a long pause, then sent a final reply. “Tonight is the night you die alone.”