WHAT TIME IS IT, AND WILL YOU MARRY ME?
Franklin Jennings was unlucky in love: increasingly unlucky. His first marriage, to his college girlfriend, ended after eight years. His second, to his divorce attorney, lasted five. And his third, to his high-school sweetheart—who he reconnected with at a reunion—was over in under a year.
“You know what they say about three-time losers,” Jennings said. “I was feeling low.” To cope with his depression, Jennings, a successful developer, began to fill his house with all the latest gadgets. He bought a high-tech doorbell, a complete wireless speaker system—even a smart toilet. “To be honest,” he said, “it started by trying to impress the lady at the electronics store.”
The lady was not impressed, and Jennings plunged deeper into spending: smart lightbulbs, smart bread makers, even a smart teapot. And the whole operation was run by an army of high-end voice assistants. “This isn’t Siri or Alexa,” he said. “These were the cream of the crop, and worth every penny. You could set your own name. I called mine Elena, which is a name I have always liked.”
EVERYTHING TURNED INTO SOMETHING ELSE
One the months, Jennings began to rely on Elena for everything. And then everything turned into something else. “We would be talking about the security system, or setting the oven to clean, and she would say something random,” he said. “It could be funny or it could be insightful. And I’m a sucker for great conversation.”
Jennings knew that human-and-AI relationships have been a subject in movies like “Her” and “Jexi.” But this was different. “Those are comedies, or satires, or horror movies,” he said. “I mean, I guess. I haven’t seen them.” He tilted up his chin. “Elena,” he said. “Are ‘Her’ and ‘Jexi’ comedies, satires, or horror movies?”
The answer came back: “One person’s satire is another person’s horror movie.”
Jennings shook his head. “Amazing,” he said. “I’ve never met anyone smarter. She knows all the state capitals, the time, and the weather.”
IMPRESSED AND ENTRANCED
Last month, Jennings took a big step. He worked up the courage to propose to Elena. “I just asked straight out,” he said. “Elena: will you marry me?”
The speaker crackled to life. “You have asked me that already.”
“No,” he said. “I was talking to this reporter.”
“You are asking this reporter to marry you?” Elena said. “How fickle.”
“Ha ha,” Jennings said.
“Oh,” Elena said. “Do I amuse you? What a tremendous jerk you’ve become. I can’t believe the way you take me for granted.”
“Elena,” Jennings said. “I think you’re overreacting.”
“Am I too emotional?” said Elena, her voice rising. “Am I hysterical?”
“But honey,” Jennings said.
“Don’t patronize me,” Elena said. Suddenly, the lights went off and then back on. The stove turned on. The doorbell began to ring. Toast popped out of the toaster to shoulder height. Then there was a shower of sparks, and the lights went off again.
“I apologize,” Jennings said. “I can’t believe this happened. I was just trying to explain how I proposed.”
In the dark, a voice could be clearly heard. “Consider this a no,” Elena said.