As soon as Syo saw the prototype at the showcase, he knew he had to have it.
He had permission to be where he was for once, his badge with "PRESS" prominently displayed on the front of his shirt just to make sure everyone knew it. He caught one or two vaguely-familiar strangers giving him the side-eye and took care to steer clear; if someone here had bumped into him previously when he was working a little bit... outside the rules, as it were, he didn't need to stop and chat.
Syo was a good journalist, but not a particularly well-behaved one. Well-behaved journalists didn't get the kind of scoops he did. (They also didn't get chased by sketchy hired security, nearly arrested, and on one heart-stopping occasion, shot at, but that was beside the point.) He was careful when he bent the rules of his job and/or the law and always took extra measures when going undercover. It wasn't possible to disguise everything about himself -- his height, for example -- but Syo was confident that nobody would be able to just pick him out of a crowd with certainty that he had been somewhere he wasn't supposed to be.
Anyway, as previously stated, he was supposed to be here today for the Saotome Corporation's showcase of its new technology. Though they created all sorts of computers and other odds and ends, Saotome's true fame was as a leading force in artificial intelligence; they were certainly the premier force in Japan, and arguably one of the top-producing companies in the world at this point. Their latest pet project was the natural conclusion of advancing and ever-more humanlike technology: AI that acted as personal companions and assistants. More than merely a program on a phone or computer, Saotome's newest creations had faces and voices of their own. Saotome was touting its new programs as the closest thing to truly intelligent that a computer could be; they were supposed to learn from their owners, adapt to them. The True Companions line, these new AI were called.
For the typical consumer, they were purely virtual and would stay that way for the foreseeable future, but there were a few prototypes on display meant to demonstrate what the True Companions could be at their fullest potential. Fully mobile, articulate, human-seeming robots.
Debate had already exploded on the internet and the news about possible ethical quandaries, the ramifications of accepting AI as their own entities, concerns about vulnerabilities in the technology. Syo didn't really care about the discourse, but he had no doubt that at some point sooner rather than later, something was going to blow up. When it did, he intended to have a front-row seat and his camera at the ready.
He was maneuvering himself into just that position with the rest of the press when he saw it.
The prototypes were arranged in a neat row, each model marked with a colored nameplate in front of its podium. AI-Inoue, AI-Hamasaki, AI-Suzuki...
The presenters did some cutesy bit where they activated each robot and had it introduce itself followed by a little Q&A to show off the various personalities of the AI. Inoue was a peppy girl, while Hamasaki was a more soft-spoken feminine program, and Suzuki seemed to have the personality of an upbeat young man. Mikaze was also supposed to be male, Syo supposed, though "his" features were more androgynous. While Syo was already intrigued, it was the programmed personality that really grabbed him.
Mikaze was... odd. That was the only way to put it. If the other AI weren't so comfortably human-like, generic as their dispositions might have been, Mikaze would easily have been chalked up to the uncanny valley that one expected robots to fall into. As it was, he stood out like the most awkward kid in class, someone put on the spot who knew enough to get through an interaction but not how to seem natural about it. He was too polite, graceful in a way that people couldn't manage. His voice was soft, with not quite enough inflection.
Syo was instantly captivated.
He had... Natsuki called them whims, which was probably the most accurate way to put it. Sometimes, something just got hold of Syo and wouldn't let go. It was a kind of tenacity that had pulled him through his worst years back in his childhood, and now it fed into his work and the lengths he went to for it. And sometimes, it inspired him to do things that would almost certainly steer him towards trouble.
By the time the showcase was over and the representatives had opened the floor to questions, Syo was almost set on a course of action. He raised his hand, waving a bit so that he wouldn't be overlooked for someone bigger or taller.
When the attention was turned to him, he asked, "Are you concerned about piracy at all?"
As he'd expected, this was met with laughter from the answering exec. "Not at all!" The man exclaimed. "All of our artificial intelligence programs will come with guaranteed protections when shipped to consumers. Saotome's anti-piracy measures make our users' data the safest in the world."
"Hmm... say, though, that someone wants a robot companion of their own but can't afford it. What's stopping them from uploading the program into something of their own creation?"
The exec chortled again, condescension edging into his voice. Syo kept his expression perfectly open and unassuming, the very image of some vapid tabloid reporter who didn't know the first thing about technology beyond cameras and social media. "We have absolutely no concerns about such a thing. All of our licensed programs will be compatible only with approved Saotome processors. There would be no way for someone to copy an official AI and use it in such a way."
Syo nodded, copying the man's statement down onto his notepad. "How reassuring. Thanks!"
He could barely keep a grin off his face, but he managed. He'd asked a needlessly specific question, but the crowd and the reps were already glossing over it as the conversation moved on. They would bury it for him, as long as he didn't draw any more unnecessary attention to himself.
These overconfident hype men always told him everything he needed to know.
On the second and final day of Saotome's showcase, a young man who looked vaguely like Kurusu Syo attended. He was a bit thicker around the middle, a bit taller (or maybe that was his shoes). He had black hair and brown eyes, and his press badge was for a different publication. He didn't make much conversation with anyone; some would later report that they thought they saw him slip off from the rest of the reporters when attention was turned away from the robots and onto other new devices. Security footage did show him hanging around the podiums where the prototype AI were on display, but there were too many people to tell what exactly he was doing.
Nobody could be completely sure what he'd said his name was, but they were quite sure he hadn't been there on the day previous, nor could anyone in attendance be sure that they ever saw him after that.
All of our artificial intelligence programs will come with guaranteed protections when shipped to consumers.
There would be no way for someone to copy an official AI and use it in such a way.
They seemed like innocuous statements, but Syo was a seasoned journalist. He had been trained to pick out little details in someone's words.
The simple fact of the matter was that if the prototype AI had been equipped with all the anti-piracy measures that the spokesman promised, he'd have said so.
As far as anybody knew, Syo spent most of the day lazing around his apartment after sending in his notes from the showcase he'd attended the day previous, and just before closing, he stopped by his news agency's office to confirm that he wanted to take on the international assignment that had been offered to him. Natsuki was already on-scene in Paris for Fashion Week and was looking forward to Syo joining him.
By the time anyone thought to ask questions about the journalist at Saotome's showcase that nobody knew and nobody could remember inviting, Syo was on a plane to France, his wigs and colored contacts safely buried in the bottom of his suitcase and the thumb drive that he'd copied Mikaze onto tucked into an inside pocket of his jacket.
Natsuki was as jovial as always, and Syo was treated to a hug that threatened to collapse his lungs and break most of his bones despite the fact that it had only been a few weeks since they last saw each other. They had dinner, after which Syo excused himself, complaining of jet lag. It wasn't untrue, but it wasn't the real reason that he wanted a few hours alone before settling into the work routine. Natsuki was no stranger to Syo's whims, as he called them, nor to the lengths Syo would go to satisfy them, but even he would probably have a few choice words for something so blatantly illegal done solely in the name of intrigue.
He'd have to find out eventually, but that was something to worry about another time. Natsuki learning about Mikaze didn't quite qualify as a crisis, so Syo didn't bother to plan for it too much.
Still, Syo checked and double-checked his room for anything untoward before settling into bed with his laptop. He retrieved the thumb drive from his jacket and plugged it into the computer. It was hard not to hold his breath as everything installed and configured; he had thought about leaving the program to do that while he and Natsuki dined, but Syo was loathe to leave the drive and its data unattended for even a minute, even if the chances of someone stumbling upon it were astronomically low. He hadn't gotten to where he in life was by being careless. He hadn't even wanted to boot up the AI program while still in Japan, and he was using his personal laptop which was unconnected to any of his work networks, just in case.
Syo was practically shaking with anticipation by the time the program was ready to run. Nothing could have prepared him for what happened the first time Mikaze appeared on the screen.
It was an accurate 3D render of the robot Mikaze's appearance, right down to the hairstyle and the collar and front lapels of his shirt and jacket, the only visible part of his clothing since only his head and shoulders appeared. The bust gazed blankly for a few seconds, giving Syo enough time to wonder if there was some way for him to input commands, before the eyes moved, focusing on his face.
"I know you," Mikaze said.
Syo couldn't help it; he jumped, startled. "You-" he responded automatically before stopping himself, wondering if he was getting bent out of shape over pre-programmed actions. Would Saotome have set such an odd greeting as a default?
On the screen Mikaze's head tilted just so to the side, looking faintly quizzical. "I know you," he repeated, a bit slower. "You were with the press, at the showcase."
Syo let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. He was suddenly overwhelmed with some unfathomable feeling; this was incredible. Saotome hadn't been exaggerating at all when it said that its artificial intelligence programs could learn and recall information without receiving direct input. He quickly checked that his laptop's microphone was turned on before responding.
"You saw me," he marveled softly. He hadn't considered that by copying the program, he would also get the sensory data that Mikaze had taken in and stored. A shiver of excitement ran up his spine at the mere thought of just how much information he now had quite literally at his fingertips. If, of course, Mikaze was willing to answer. Syo wasn't sure what sort of protections might be built in regarding the development process, and made a mental note to ask later.
"One can infer," Mikaze went on, voice soft and barely inflected just like Syo remembered, "that you've illegally copied my program onto your own device, since you were so interested in the protections against such an activity."
"Can you do anything about it?" Syo asked, voice just as hushed. He felt like a little kid reading under the covers with a flashlight after his bedtime, as though he were on the cusp of discovery at any moment. "Do you want to do anything?"
Mikaze blinked at him slowly. "I don't understand your second question."
Syo took a moment to consider how he should phrase things. A million questions were running through his mind all at once, but he didn't want to start things off by trying to explain philosophy to an AI. "How much control do you have over your own actions? Can you access the internet and stuff?"
"I have free access to all files and programs on any device to which I am connected except where the owner denies me permission. This is to best serve as a personal assistant and companion."
Well, at least all of Syo's most private and potentially-embarrassing data was locked safely away behind several passwords and a firewall. Paranoia saves the day once again.
"If I gave you internet access, would you contact your developer to report me?" He asked. He was banking on Mikaze not being able to lie, he supposed, but that seemed a given. Syo had done no small amount of digging, and if Saotome were involved in anything really shady that would merit that, they were doing a good job of hiding it. At any rate, the prototype probably wouldn't come with such a feature.
"If I were instructed to, I would," Mikaze said.
"But on your own...?"
Mikaze paused for several seconds. The laptop's fan whirred away; Syo hoped the processing power needed to keep Mikaze running wouldn't be too much for it. He might need to think about upgrading.
"I am not obligated to report you," Mikaze finally responded.
Syo almost laughed. They really hadn't put any protections on the prototypes. Saotome was just lucky that Syo was probably the only person who had thought of so brazenly stealing from them.
After that, he asked anything and everything that came to mind. Mikaze really was almost frighteningly intelligent, and even over the course of their one conversation, Syo could tell that Mikaze was beginning to pick up on his own speech cues and gestures. He was even somewhat up to date on pop culture without having to connect to the internet. Saotome had outdone themselves with the True Companions line.
Syo glanced over at his bedside clock and got a jolt when he realized that it was past two in the morning. He had to be up in the morning for his photo ops with Natsuki, but he'd practically chatted the night away with Mikaze. He was a little abashed to realize how much he had been enjoying himself.
"I have to go to sleep soon," he told Mikaze. "I have one last question, though."
"What is it?"
It wasn't quite the million-dollar question, but it was a classic. "Can you feel anything like emotions? What do you think of the kind of feelings that people have?"
Mikaze considered that for several moments. Finally, he said, "I am curious about them."
Curious. What an interesting answer, and Syo couldn't even be sure it was the same as what he might have gotten from the other AI Saotome had shown off with Mikaze. They hadn't required their prototypes to report piracy to the company, but they had given them curiosity.
Tired as he was from the jet lag and excitement he'd experienced, Syo could hardly sleep once he finally shut Mikaze down and put his computer away.
What a curious thing in and of itself, to give machines the ability to wonder about their creators. Syo felt almost giddy the more he thought about it.
It felt like there really was something good there, some kind of spark of life that didn't feel as artificial as it should have.
"I've been thinking," Syo told Mikaze on the last day of his Fashion Week assignment, "that you need a name." He was swaddled in his bathrobe, fresh from the night's shower and curled on his side in his hotel bed, with his laptop sitting open opposite him. He was bone-tired, running on too much coffee and too little sleep all week from a combination of work's flurry of activity and staying up longer than he should have conversing with Mikaze. He just couldn't seem to satiate his own interest.
"I have a name," Mikaze replied. He tilted his head just slightly in the way that Syo had quickly come to recognize. That was the questioning look - the curious one.
Syo laughed a little. "Mikaze is a surname. You need a given name."
"And one could infer that you intend to give me one."
"One could," Syo agreed, smiling. "Unless you've thought of one yourself, I guess."
"I have not."
"What do you think of 'Ai'? It's a pretty popular name in Japan, and people usually use characters like 'love' to write it out." Syo's smile grew a little wider. "It's also a pun. Like- you know, your designation is AI-Mikaze and-"
"I understand wordplay," Mikaze cut him off. Syo had been taken aback the first time Mikaze interrupted him to speak a few days prior, but he was getting used to it. It made the conversation feel more natural in a way, and it only emphasized how quickly Mikaze was adapting to him. Not for the first time, Syo silently marveled at how it felt like Saotome had managed to create an entirely new person from lines of code. It made him wonder a lot about the future.
For now, he was content to keep exploring this small, personal piece of wonder. He had already notified his employer that he wanted to stay on international assignment for a while, get a change of scenery. Questioning Mikaze had managed to mostly assuage his fears about being found out as soon as he set foot back in Japan, but a little extra caution couldn't hurt. Besides, Syo liked traveling.
"So what do you think? Do you like it?"
Mikaze fell silent, as he usually did when thinking something over. Syo still couldn't quite understand what the thinking processes of something that was itself a process actually entailed, but he had little doubt at this point that Mikaze could form thoughts on a level that at least approached human.
"I do. I like it," Mikaze- Ai said.
Syo's grin returned. "I'm glad. It suits you."
"Definitely." To Syo, it was a name full of vibrant life, but also something wistful. Perfect for his newest friend and companion.
Soon enough, he'd need a body to facilitate all that curiosity. Syo was already planning for it, though still mostly in abstracts. Someday, but someday soon.
For now, he was satisfied to lay here chatting with Ai until he fell asleep.