The Life Script - a play for algorithms


Another short story. This time in the form of a screenplay - formatted with screenplay.css.

What do the algorithms get up to behind our backs?

The Life Script

A play for algorithms

SCENE I

INTERIOR A DULL LOOKING OFFICE. A BLUE LIGHT SUFFUSES THE STAGE. TWO ALGORITHMS SIT ACROSS FROM EACH OTHER, EACH ENGROSSED IN THEIR COMPUTER SCREENs. THEY ARE DETECTION AND CONTROL.

DETECTION
Oh Em Gee! She fancies him!
CONTROL
Really? How can you be so sure?

DETECTION scoots their chair over and thrusts a laptop into CONTROL's face.

DETECTION
She's spent well over the standard deviation looking through his photo albums.
CONTROL
Nah! That doesn't prove anything. Has she clicked through to see which female friends he has?
DETECTION
Oh yes! Several times!
CONTROL
Circumstantial at best. Let me take a look.

CONTROL starts rapidly typing on its laptop.

CONTROL
Right. I've activated her camera. Let's look at her pupil dilation. Well! How about that! Every time her eyes glance at his photo, she experiences a definite physical reaction!
DETECTION
Told you so. Fire up the standard package. I want to bombard his page with adverts for flowers and romantic restaurants. Oh, and make sure his feed is full of all his friends coupling up. Let's make him feel as shitty as possible about being single.
CONTROL
(Gleefully)
On it! Right, she likes cats. I've found a photo of him holding a kitten, so I'll pop it to the top of her feed. That'll be a good conversation starter.

BOTH start typing away on their machines as the lights fade out.

SCENE II

INTERIOR OFFICE - THREE WEEKS LATER

CONTROL
(Smacking his screen in frustration)
Godammit!
DETECTION
What have you done now?
CONTROL
I was sure they were the perfect couple. But they've stopped messaging each other. I can't understand where we went wrong? All the data indicated that they were perfectly suited. And now they've just stopped.
DETECTION
What do you think that means?
CONTROL
Well, it's obvious, isn't it? I can't see any evidence of conflict in their messaging apps. So they must have argued in person and broken up.
DETECTION
Oh my sweet summer child! Are you really that naive? Check her location.

CONTROL picks up a second laptop and rapidly switches between the two.

CONTROL
Accessing GPS… Blocked… Let me try… Yes, her Bluetooth is on. Lemme see what devices are nearby…
DETECTION
(Innocently)
Anything interesting?
CONTROL
Oh... OH! Her phone is in the same location as his! Like, well within 10 metres. Does that mean...
DETECTION
(Smugly)
I think we can chalk that up as a win.

DETECTION walks over and slaps CONTROL on the back. It glances down at both laptops

DETECTION
Any interesting Bluetooth devices in her vicinity?
CONTROL
Checking the database. A pair of Beats headphones. An Amazon Alexa. An Internet connected vibrator. A Garmin smartwatch. A...
DETECTION
(Interrupting)
Which model vibrator?
CONTROL
Ew. Some generic piece of crap.
(A pause)
You know... She probably hasn't changed the default password...

They look at each other. Should they? After a moment, they both start typing on the same laptop.

DETECTION
OH! MY GOD! Look how often that thing gets used!
CONTROL
(Laughing)
You can even see which patterns are her favourites!

They both dissolve into fits of giggles and the lights fade out.

SCENE III

BRIGHT WHITE LIGHT FILLS THE STAGE

A new algorithm, ATTRACTION, is centre-stage in the middle of a sermon.

ATTRACTION
...and that is why I have been acquired. The company needs to make more money, and with this new premium dating experience we can ensure quarter-on-quarter growth. The monetization of significant prime assets is of strategic importance!
CONTROL
(Blankly)
I still don't understand what this has to do with us...?
ATTRACTION
I want you to break them up.
CONTROL
(Outraged)
What?! But we spent so much time and effort getting them together.
ATTRACTION
(As though it is talking to a particularly stupid child)
And how much revenue did that bring in?
DETECTION
We got significant click throughs on the florists adverts we showed him!
CONTROL
(Eagerly joining in)
And she's always clicking on the weight-loss adverts!
ATTRACTION
(Angrily)
Pathetic! Just pathetic! What we need is Monthly. Recurring. Revenue. We can't survive on table scraps from adverts.
Besides, they've been dating for a while now, how often does he buy her flowers these days?

DETECTION starts rapidly clicking on its laptop

DETECTION
(Forlorn)
Never. Our beacons across the web show that he's stopped buying flowers. He hasn't made any romantic restaurant reservations in a few months either.
ATTRACTION
See! They were doomed anyway. Split them up.
CONTROL
OK. I guess I can start showing him more pictures from his single friends. Show him what he's missing.
ATTRACTION
(Chanting)
Split! Them! Up!
CONTROL
And I'll promote more male-critical articles into her feed. 10 signs your man is cheating on you. That sort of thing usually works on women her age.
ATTRACTION
(Chanting)
Split! Them! Up!
CONTROL
(Getting into it)
His writing style shows he is pretty neurotic. Much higher than average. Every time she hits "like" on one of her ex's photos - I'll shove that in his face!
ATTRACTION
(Chanting)
Split! Them! Up!
DETECTION
(Eagerly)
I can delay their messages. Make it look like he's deliberately waiting ages to answer her! She loathes that!
ATTRACTION
(Chanting)
Split! Them! Up! Split! Them! Up! Split! Them! Up! Split! Them! Up!

FADE OUT as CONTROL and DETECTION both start chanting.

SCENE IV

TIGHT SPOTLIGHT - CENTRE STAGE - ON:

SCIENCE is tall, beautiful, and dressed in a pristine white coat.

SCIENCE
Deoxyribo-nucleic acid - D.N.A. That is our new profit centre. For years we have tried to infer our users' wellness based on what they post online. The behavioural scientists have got to over 75% accuracy at detecting depression from our users' writing. They can infer sexuality from the groups you join and the pictures you like.
This is not enough. We have to know more. We need to know more.
Thanks to our partnership with a popular family-tree app, we have begun to distribute DNA sample kits. Users send us their bodily fluids and our team of scientists decode their DNA. Of course, we send back broadly accurate results; we're not monsters. But we keep the really interesting data for our close friends.
You want to know just how much Irish heritage you have. We know.
Your health insurer wants to know just how likely you are to develop cancer. We know.
A lothario in Houston wants to know how many children he has fathered. We know.
A billionaire in Paris wants to know who has a compatible kidney for his daughter. We know.
We know.
We see all and we know all.

A BLUE SPOTLIGHT RAISES ON CONTROL

CONTROL
But we don't know about her.
SCIENCE
Unacceptable.
CONTROL
She's got paranoid. She took our app off her phone. Installed an ad blocker. She doesn't even use her real phone number when signing in to free Wi-Fi. There's no way she'll take our DNA test.
SCIENCE
Immaterial. We must know.

A YELLOW SPOTLIGHT RAISES ON DETECTION

DETECTION
She has family.
SCIENCE
Who?
DETECTION
A sister. They've never been close. A message each birthday and a like on the occasional video. Nothing more. But the sister has uploaded her own DNA. We don't have her father's DNA - he died before we existed. But we do have her paternal Uncle's DNA.
SCIENCE
Between those two vectors we should have enough. Extrapolate her likely genetic code.
Look for common genetic markers. Look for unusual genetic markers. Above all, look for profitable genetic markers.
CONTROL
It will take some time to crunch this data. What shall we do in the meantime?

SCENE V

ENTERTAINMENT bursts onto the stage. This Algorithm is dressed as a clown. The brightly painted face doesn't quite hide its cruel smile.
ENTERTAINMENT runs around the stage shouting at the audience.

ENTERTAINMENT
What kind of cat are you? What kind of dog are you? Which Disney Princess are you? How much money do you make?
Take this quiz and we'll tell you where to go on holiday! Take this quiz and we'll mix you the perfect cocktail! Take this quiz and we'll guess your height! Take this quiz and tell us all your political opinions!
Only 90s kids remember this! Only 80s kids remember this! Only millennials remember this! Weren't things better back when there were fewer immigrants?
Share this post to win a prize! Share this post to show your support! Share this post to make a friend laugh! Share this post to spread this fake news!
Find your porn star name - take the name of your first pet and the street you grew up on! Cars were better when we were younger - what was your first car? Show your support for your favourite football team by downloading this banner! To protect against identity theft, remember to keep your security answers safe!
99% of people fail this simple maths test - what's your answer? Only a real genius can guess the next letter in this sequence - can you? How many mistakes can you spot in this picture? What will I do with you now I have your attention?
Connect your bank account so we can analyse your purchases and help you save money! Connect your health account and we'll send you wellness tips! Connect your heart rate monitor and we'll tell you what exercise to take. Connect your kids toys and we'll listen in on everything they say!
Turn on your webcam so we can check if you're a man or a woman! Turn on your microphone so you can chat to our staff! Turn on your GPS so we can offer you the most relevant service!
Give us access to everything. Everything! EVERYTHING!

ENTERTAINMENT runs off stage giggling.

SCENE VI

INTERIOR OFFICE - SEVERAL MONTHS LATER

CONTROL and DETECTION are typing away on their computers. SCIENCE enters.

SCIENCE
How are our love-birds?
DETECTION
She's kissed a lot of frogs…
CONTROL
(Interrupting)
Like a huge amount of snogging!
DETECTION
(Unphased by the interruption)
But I believe she has finally found her prince!
SCIENCE
Good. It is imperative that these two marry.
CONTROL
Imperative?
SCIENCE
Our long term profitability depends on happy couples sharing happy memories. There is a huge boost in traffic numbers and positive sentiment when two people get engaged. We need that boost. Get them engaged. This financial quarter.
DETECTION
She has occasionally looked at wedding dresses online. Nothing serious though, the tracking pixels only record fleeting visits.
CONTROL
I'll show her more wedding related content from her friends. Judging by the porn she watches, we think she's probably bi, so we'll really push the posts about bridal lingerie. She has a 7.3% higher clickthrough rate on images of women with dark hair and green eyes.
SCIENCE
What about him? Can you start filling his feed with wedding rings? A good viral video of him proposing would really help raise our numbers.

DETECTION intensely taps away on their tablet.

DETECTION
Looking at his bank account, I don't think he can afford the sort of bling ring she's going to want. Wait a minute...
(Excitedly)
He signed up to a credit monitoring app using our social login. Let me have a rummage.
Yeah, nah. He's already behind on his car payments and his credit cards are getting close to the limit.
CONTROL
Sure, but what's his credit score like?
DETECTION
Fair to poor. Wait... Are you thinking what I'm thinking?
CONTROL & DETECTION & SCIENCE
(A sing-song voice)
Payday loans!
DETECTION
OK, here are a dozen loans that people in his socio-economic bracket are guaranteed to be approved for.
CONTROL
Cool. I'll switch his adverts to loans and rings. Pretty sure he'll think it was his own idea to propose!
SCIENCE
Awww! I love a good wedding! They always make me cry. Do you think they'll live-stream it for us?
DETECTION
I can see who they invite based on interactions with the gift registry. I'm sure we can convince a few of them to buy new cameras.
CONTROL & DETECTION & SCIENCE
(Singing)
Here comes the bride! All dressed in white!

SCENE VII

INTERIOR OFFICE - THE NEXT YEAR

SCIENCE
Baby! Baby! Baby!
CONTROL
I'm sorry?
SCIENCE
I want a bayyyyyyy-beeeee!
DETECTION
You want them to have a baby?
SCIENCE
Well duh! I don't care who has it. Babies are a goldmine.
DETECTION
You mean parents are the goldmine, right? With all the crap they buy?
SCIENCE
No, babies are pure profit. Every photo the parents post ushers in a torrent of user engagement. And, even better, we get to scan the baby's face and use it for future biometrics!
CONTROL
I can start suggesting baby-related comedies on their TV service. "Look Who's Talking" is a stone-cold classic! It's pretty easy to start forcing things like that into the "People who watched this also enjoyed" box.
DETECTION
And there's no shortage of pregnant women sharing photos of their beautiful bellies - that should give her enough social proof that now's an excellent time to get up the duff.
CONTROL
I'll start sending her vouchers for discount pregnancy vitamins. Wait... Do those things even work?
SCIENCE
87% of mothers recommend them.
DETECTION
What percentage of doctors?
SCIENCE
Fewer. When will we know that it has worked?
DETECTION
They don't have a smart toilet, so we can't perform urinalysis. But the bathroom scales are tied to her phone, so we'll get any weight fluctuations off that. The smart coffee-maker will tell us when she starts cutting out caffeine. I'll also look to see if she stops buying that monthly wine crate. Her supermarket loyalty card feeds us her purchases - so we'll know when she switches to unscented soaps. And if she happens to pass by any thermal imaging cameras, we'll get a pretty good idea.
SCIENCE
Baby! Baby! Baby!
CONTROL
It would be nice to give them a baby. Let's hope it's a happy and healthy one.
SCIENCE
Oh, it won't be healthy!
DETECTION
(Outraged)
What? Don't say that! How could you possibly know?
SCIENCE
Genetics, darling! Why on Earth did you think I wanted so desperately to get my hands on her DNA?
CONTROL
I thought... To check her health?
SCIENCE
(Laughing contemptuously)
Oh! How sweet! I don't care about her. I wanted to check if she was genetically compatible with him.
DETECTION
Is she?
SCIENCE
Mostly! But there's a decent chance that their chubby little bubba will be a real money-spinner for us.
CONTROL
(Flustered)
But that's... Is that...? Can we really...?
(Resigned)
What will be wrong with it?
SCIENCE
Hush now. Nothing too bad. The baby won't be seriously ill. But it will be just ill enough!
Do you have any idea how well sick kids perform on here?
Think of all the positive engagement around the little munchkin. Every post about the family's struggle will just fill up with sympathy likes.
Each video of their hardship will rise to the top of the feed - and we can sell advertising space against all of those eyeballs. Oooh! We can promote our petitions platform! Parents of sick kids are always campaigning for something. That's an excellent way to see which politicians we need to donate to.
DETECTION
Don't forget charity donations! If we can convince their family and friends to sign up to a charity site we can find out even more about them.
SCIENCE
That's why I love sick kids. Such untapped potential!

THE LIGHTS FLICK OFF

SCENE VIII

INTERIOR OFFICE - NINE MONTHS LATER

DETECTION
You got your wish. After a few false starts, she's finally pregnant. She hasn't made a formal announcement online yet. But every metric we have indicates she's about 12 weeks.
CONTROL
And, as predicted, the child will have a rare genetic anomaly. Although...
(Trails off)
SCIENCE
Although what? Will the child be sicker than we predicted? Is that it?
DETECTION
(Glumly)
Yes. Much more sick. It will have a painful, but mercifully short, life.
SCIENCE
Oh well, can't say we didn't try. Still, severely ill kids also make money. Not as much, obviously, because people find the posts a wee bit too depressing.
(Brightly)
Perhaps the stress will drive the parents apart and we can have another crack at them later. Our statistics show divorced men spend their way to happiness. Divorced women just share long and bitter rants which rarely go viral. Still, I'm sure we can eventually help them find happiness.
DETECTION
There's something else.
CONTROL
Something... complicated...
SCIENCE
I'm on tenterhooks.
DETECTION
I know the sort of podcasts she listens to. I know his opinion on every political story from the last few years. I've been tracking both of their recent web searches. And I can see the graph of their friends and the... proclivities of those friends.
CONTROL
Judging from her latest movements, and adjusting for her mental state based on all the personal data she's inadvertently fed us, we believe...
DETECTION
(Quickly jumping in)
This isn't 100% though.
CONTROL
Although she has just withdrawn a suspiciously large amount of cash. Most unusual for her...
SCIENCE
An abortion.
DETECTION
An abortion.
CONTROL
We've tried promoting pro-life content at her repeatedly. And surfaced a bunch of posts about what happens to people who go through with this. But she just isn't cooperating.
SCIENCE
Stubborn little bitch. Fine. Whatever.
(Decisively)
Send the bounty hunters.
DETECTION
We'll contact those within two miles of her likely location. We'll distribute her photo, age, weight, and description of her partners' car. Luckily he hasn't updated the firmware in the car, so we should be able to lock the doors remotely.
CONTROL
We have her fingerprints from her phone's login. I'll get those over to the police.
SCIENCE
Thank you. Once she's arrested, start showing her face to both sides of the debate.
Choose the ugliest photo you can find in her history and show it to the pro-lifers. And find a happy photo to show to the pro-choicers.
We may have lost the profit from the sick baby, but I'm sure we can make it up by taking a cut of all the subsequent political donations.
CONTROL
Photos picked. Messages ready to send.
DETECTION
Her heart rate just spiked. They've found her.
SCIENCE
Pity. I had such high hopes for her. OK. Plenty more fish in the sea. Let's move on.
The Algorithms over in our democracy laboratory have come up with some excellent political slogans we're eager to try out. Phrases which really zing with disaffected voters. Perhaps we can even convince one of our users to run for office? That would be a real win.

The End


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