Listen and Learn

Photo by Beth McCallum

Photo by Beth McCallum

When my little sister pretends to be on the phone, she holds her hand flat to her head.

Naturally she has a smartphone of her own, and it cost our Mum an arm and a leg, but purely because she knows that it's made for children, Emma wants nothing to do with it. Whenever she is given it to play with, she grumbles and complains that she can't do anything cool with it: no Wi-Fi, no messaging, no grown-up apps or games. She doesn't understand just at how much she is at risk of being targeted by the other side of the internet, how filming herself for the web to see or talking to strangers online could get her killed, kidnapped, anything. She's eight. I'm thirty. As she spies me “playing” the “grown-up-app” of telling my smartphone exactly what ingredients went into my lunch, Emma clamours to take my phone from me. The smudge of her fingers on the screen activates Sonia, who lights up between our hands.

The latest mission of AI on most modern smartphones is to gain an understanding of human emotion and, to an unnerving extent, learn to react to it and guide us toward positive ones. Sonia's voice is smooth and likeable, but there is enough pause between key-words that those of us born in the age of technology know that the voice belongs to a program. It's the robot accent; the struggle to pronounce Scottish town names, the inability to differentiate “six” from “sex”, the repetition, the repetition.

"How are you feeling, Elaine?"

My sister answers in my stead.

"She's feeling hungry!"

"Hungry? Ha-ha."

Sonia's laughter is tinned, measured. She doesn't understand, but she is learning more all the time. She takes context clues from Emma's response to discern that her question has not been answered.

"How are you feeling, Elaine?"

"Worried, Sonia."

A bleep. Sonia has noted the emotion, and the context, and the room temperature.

"Worried? What are you worried about?"

I pick up my sandwich, elbows on the table. My sister starts, but I cut in.


"About the fact that you think I sound like Emma, mostly."

Emma pouts at me. Her thumbs prod the screen, and I try to hide the sudden irrational feeling of fear as I watch the screen like a hawk. Emma's accidentally called people before. She's accidentally called the police before. She's intentionally called my ex before.

"I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that."

I make a grunt of frustration and try to finish my mouthful. Sonia has gone quiet, clearly listening.

"Sorry, I didn't quite-- Opening Photos."

I know for a fact I have no incriminating photographs, but the panic is there anyway. I swallow and bark,

"Emma, put that down!"

"Why? I want to see your girlfriend!"

"Sonia, lock."

"Phone locked."

"Sonia, unlock!" Emma mimics my stern tone.

"Phone unlocked. How are you feeling, Elaine?"

I screech in surprise, "Emma!"

"She's angry Sonia!"

"I'm horrified!"

"Horrified? What are you horrified about, Elaine?"

The little monster herself speaks in my stead, and I rise from my seat.

"That yooouuu think IIIIII sound like Emma!"

"You're going to confuse her, Emma! I don't want to have to reset her!"

"Sonia, reset!"

In the stopped heartbeat that Sonia does not respond, I snatch my phone from my sister's hands. I'm old enough to be her mother. We're mistaken as such all the time. Thanks to advances in fertilisation technologies, my 50-year-old mother is now struggling to understand why one child's childhood can be so vastly different from the other, especially considering that we're technically twins.

We were found in the same Petri dish, apparently with a gene that makes us both eager to take hold. Mum selected myself for birth, and the scientists, for want of a better word, put Emma on the back burner. My sister's hair is kept in a braid in a bid to make her childhood photographs markedly different from mine, but it's hard not to see her as my clone. I can see the beginnings of all my future in how she plays, with a bizarre sense of deja vu.

“Sonia, reset!” squeals my sister at my waist, giving me... That bizarre sense of deja vu.

"You can't just tell her to reset, it doesn't work like that!"

My mother emerges from the back garden, tying her hair back, revealing those flabs of tanned skin on her arms. She sees our haphazard state – me hoisting up Sonia in the air as Emma's hands flail past my chin - and tuts.

"You two and your phones. I remember back--"

"Back in the olden days, when phones were bricks and fire was witchcraft?" I ask as I return Sonia to my pocket. I wonder if Sonia will pick up on sarcasm soon, if not sooner than Emma will.

Mum huffs at me and steals my sandwich in response. Then, she drags out a kitchen chair and pats her youngest on the back, directing her.

"Emma, sit down."

Sonia bleeps in my back pocket.

She didn't quite catch that.

Emma bursts out laughing at first, and then my mother turns in shock as both the little eavesdropper and the little clone chime together: "How are you feeling, Elaine?"

Tanisha Catt recently surprised herself by graduating from the University of Strathclyde with a first class honours in Journalism, Creative Writing and English. Her strength can be found in proofreading and creating interactive fiction, while her weakness is battenberg cake.