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By Leigh Alexander


A short story inspired by collaboration

Listen to the full story:

On February 26, 2034, the transit communications system for the Green River and Academy districts of the city expressed a peculiar glitch. Below are extracts from the Senior Architects communications logs. 


Displaying AI Transport Update and Incident Log For Green River Academy Central Expression (GRACE).


GRACE’s status is anomalous


    No problems on any Academy transit routes.


    Green River transit routes delayed approximately 5-10 minutes due to rain.


        To be loved, be lovable. 


    I opened six new turnstiles to rebalance foot traffic at Academy South.


    To get the full value of a joy, you must have somebody to divide it with. 


    No problems on any transit routes. 


    In hot weather, please remember to carry water with you. Your safety is important.


        Sugar is sweet, and so are you. 









Hi Transit Management,


We’re sorry to hear there’ve been issues with GRACE’s performance today. As requested, I checked her logs to see if anything might explain the unusual behaviour, and there are definitely some anomalous expressions in her memory I’ve never seen before. Something seems to have biased her language data. 


I’ve elevated the situation to my supervisor so we can start rolling out fixes as quickly as possible, but for now we recommend you switch the district to just partial automation until we work out what’s going on with our Gracie. We’ll notify all the district centres as soon as she’s feeling better and back to work. 


Meanwhile, please do continue to update us with any further user reports of unusual expressions. Thanks! 


Elsi Klein 


Senior Architect


Green River Academy Central Expression





Record 072957: In field ‘Describe Your Issue With The Transit AI’, User ‘StephNg’ said:


The display at city centres  that normally shows the underground departures is in error. Instead of showing the status of the underground lines, it is showing quotes from what appears to be a poorly-written romance novel? Please fix this as I am late to the office. Cheers. 


Record 072958: In field ‘Describe Your Issue With The Transit AI’, User ‘kittyOBSESST’ said:


The overground announced my stop as “there is no I or you.” Did the name change orrrrr was there a glitch in the AI today haha? 


Record 072959: In field ‘Describe Your Issue With The Transit AI’, User ‘MammaDuke’ said: 


Today I got wrong directions from the talking bus station high tech display thing trying to “COMPARE ME TO A SUMMER DAY.” well Im flattered but a happily married woman thank you very much!! My sister said there was some event called Smart City Art City and that could be why the bus stop was talking to me in a flirtatious manner. But i think even with art there needs to be a LINE!!!! Never riding the bus again today. 


Record 07172960: In field ‘Describe Your Issue With The Transit AI’, User ‘ProfRocio’ said: 


Sorry for the weird message, but I didn’t know how else to reach the AI trainer, or architect, or whatever… so perhaps if a customer service person is reading, they can connect me… anyway, I’m a professor of literature at the Academy. You can probably even see my office from up in that shiny tower of yours. 


I always imagined GRACE like a giant brain, and someone like you working in a lab coat in close conversation. But I digress… I’m filing this issue report in the hopes of flagging the attention of whoever’s researching the problem in case they might want to collaborate. Think I might have some insights....


if interested, please contact the Academy office and ask for Prof. Rocio Cruz. 






ElsiKlein: u up? 


Se7en7n: thought we agreed to stop messaging 

Se7en7n: easiest way for this to be finally over 


ElsiKlein: we did, but did you forget about my stuff 

ElsiKlein: we discussed this 

ElsiKlein: i asked if you or sarai could bring over my cast iron, my big suitcase 


Se7en7n: o yeah 


ElsiKlein: my juice centrifuge 

ElsiKlein: i know, this keeps feeling terrible but can you please just do this last thing 


Se7en7n: yeah. Sarai will bring them


ElsiKlein: thanks. and after that no more messages


Se7en7n: i still find it so weird how 

Se7en7n: after 3.5 years 

Se7en7n: we could just wind down to a list of things that haven’t been returned









Dear Dr. Cruz,

First off, apologies for the long delay in responding to your message. As you can guess, things have been hectic here at the Transit Intelligence Centre, especially for those of us who handle the Green River and Academy infrastructure -- the AI we all know as GRACE. My assistant found your message among some logs we were studying at about 11PM last night, lest anyone think we aren’t solutions-motivated here.  


Second of all, your description of her as a giant brain, and me as a lab-coated creeper, made me laugh in the midst of a frankly crummy time, so thanks for that. 


To answer your question: I gather the data that Gracie uses to learn, I observe what she learns from it, and then I adjust Gracie’s expressions if there’s an area we can optimize. She and I work together to manage transit flows and to communicate with people in the city, and it’s my job to make sure she’s getting good data. Sometimes I feel like I’m filtering noise so she can work. 


Please don’t take that as a perfect explanation -- the way I’d put it for writers and literary Academy types is a bit more florid, but yes, we collaborate and I, as you put it, “pay attention to how [she] is feeling.” 


I prefer not to think of her as ‘feeling’, however. This is a data science problem with a data science solution. If you must, imagine that something has contaminated her water, as it would be somewhat more accurate… 


Thank you so much for your interest in our work! We hope to be fully online again soon. 


Elsi Klein 


Senior Architect


Green River Academy Central Expression 











Hi Elsi (is it Dr. Klein?), 


I genuinely appreciate your reply as I know you probably have a lot of stressful correspondence at the minute. If it helps, even though there’s been a minor inconvenience or two, this ‘expression’ on the part of GRACE has been really interesting and thought-provoking. 


I gather from your last message that you strenuously object to projecting ‘personified’ feelings onto GRACE. It must be necessary for your work to view this as a strictly data science problem to solve; her data is unclean somewhere. But for me dabbling around in my ivory tower (tho you’re the one in the tower…. do they give you nice lunches up there?) I see this playful quality to the transit AI, and it makes me feel there’s a... consciousness taking care of us. 


I just realized that when you meet people and they find out what you do for a living, they probably make you listen to their silly consciousness feelings in the exact same way I did! By way of apology, let me offer you a data science solution: 


Lots of Gracie’s little quotations seemed familiar to me, so I recorded several examples and searched the text as a set in one of my group’s archives. I’m not sure if this will be interesting to you, but it turns out Gracie is only quoting books that were on an overdue book register for the Green River library three hundred and fifty years ago.


That’s really specific, and that’s before we even get into the fact she’s only quoting from books tagged in the system as ‘Romance’. I know I’m just a literature freak and not a computer science person like you, but there’s no way this could be explained by chance or coincidence, right? 


What do you say when the data itself points to Gracie (is it OK if I call her Gracie too, or is that personal between you?) developing a flair for the sentimental? 















Hi Rocio, 


Yes, imagining sentiment “expression” on the part of an AI like GRACE would make me worse at my job, which is in part to check for biases in data. I almost want to ask you to examine whether there’s a sexist undertone to your repeated intimations that I simply refuse to open my heart to GRACE, like we’re in a bad sci-fi with thematic critiques about my maternal instinct. 


You’re right that I have heard people’s questions, concerns, theories and projections about AI and consciousness more times than you can count, and that your approach isn’t unique. But to be honest, those conversations are fun for me. 


I like for people to be interested in the work I do, and to be curious about the field. I like to know how those who actually use the technology I work with will relate to it. So basically, while everything you said is wrong, I’m going through a bad breakup, I’m working long hours, and I don’t mind entertaining the conversation :D 


That said, I can’t help but appreciate the fascinating pattern you noticed to Grace’s expressions. Yes, our department knew she seemed to have “developed an interest” (to use your kind of terminology!) in love books, but the detail of her focusing on books that were never returned is really strange. That was a key element we would not have discovered without the help of the academy archive, so thanks so much for that. 


Not sure why or how she started folding in old library data from before she was even created, but I’m sure we’ll find out! 


Thanks again!


Elsi Klein


Senior Architect


Green River Academy Central Expression 


PS: I am the only one who calls her Gracie. People would find it weird if you did it. 


PPS: Yes, technically I am a doctor of computers like you’re one of books, but I’m happy to have you call me Elsi. 


PPPS (??? can I use this many Ps, Professor?): We do indeed have catering at Central Expression and it is JUST OKAY. You aren’t missing anything. 











Hi Elsi, 


I nearly fell off my scooter when I caught the word “breakup” casually sneaking among the lines of your last message! Can I just ask… timing-wise, does this breakup coincide with GRACE’s oddities? 


And can you absolutely assure me, a total laygirl who is genuinely sorry for even the slightest whiff of sexist implication in my earlier questions (believe me, my field isn’t immune either and I should have known better!) that the transit AI is definitely not empathizing with you as a person? Is your heartbreak GRACE’s heartbreak??????????????!!!!!!!! 


 -- Rocio 


PS: use as many Ps as you like, I won’t tell the head teacher. 











Rocio, as much as I like your magical realist idea that it’s me who’s biasing GRACE with thoughts of love, I unfortunately have to be the bearer of boring reality. GRACE can only learn from data, she has no empathy as such. My “heartbreak”, as you so garishly put it, isn’t data. 


Next you’re going to suggest there’s a “data science solution” to a broken heart! SPARE ME. 


-- Elsi 





ElsiKlein: it’s 11:11 

ElsiKlein: make a wish???? 


Se7en7n: it’s late whats up 


ElsiKlein: i know i know believe me

ElsiKlein: sorry 

ElsiKlein: weird to work late and not have anyone to text

ElsiKlein: you know

ElsiKlein: someone to say like

ElsiKlein: ‘i’ll set the teapot for you i’ll program the bath’ 


Se7en7n: gonna get your things back to you thursday 

Se7en7n: lets not talk til then 

Se7en7n: and i cleaned your data from my phone 






Displaying AI Transport Update and Incident Log For Green River Academy Central Expression (GRACE).


GRACE’s status is normal


This vehicle is undergoing routine maintenance. 


For Summer Road, use the nearest exit.


Please be mindful of your fellow passengers, and do not run while on the station.  


Let us know how we’re doing.


We’d love to hear from you. 









Hi Transit Management,


Happy to hear there’ve been no more issues to report with GRACE. The glitch wasn’t one we’d had before with other hubs, but it did resemble what we saw last summer when DOLPH started counting pets as people (remember Puppytrain Day?) 


We’re still working on a formal report, but I think she must have erred into literary archives when she was studying old city plans that would have been in the Green River library record. We had the help of the Academy literary department, whose head was the first to detect that our datasets had become mysteriously tangled. 


As part of my forthcoming report I’ll also recommend we open more collaboration with other types of data-driven disciplines in the city to better understand the flows of our users and how they can develop a meaningful relationship with GRACE. We can do better work when we share resources in that way.


Looking forward, 


Elsi Klein


Senior Architect


Green River Academy Central Expression 






Se7en7n: all set now?


ElsiKlein: yep, thank you 


Se7en7n: guess that’s it then 

Se7en7n: heh

Se7en7n: is work ok? 


ElsiKlein: it’s great. 

ElsiKlein: bye.






Record 07182947: In field ‘Describe Your Issue With The Transit AI’, User ‘ecceocce’ said: 


What happened to the flirty AI? I liked seeing a more human side to Gracie. 

Record 07182948: In field ‘Describe Your Issue With The Transit AI’, User ‘winkyCrow’ said: 


Really enjoyed the personality experiments with the transit AI, well worth the interruption to see a ‘well read’ side of our local infrastructure. I’m told it was a ‘glitch’ but all I see is happy accident!


Record 07182948: In field ‘Describe Your Issue With The Transit AI’, User ‘Linda98234’ said: 


Finally glitches have ended. I don’t WANT romantic AI! If the company would like to show a human side to things, why not have a series of adverts profiling the clever workers who no doubt applied their great minds to solve this issue for us? 


Record 0719103: In field ‘Describe Your Issue With The Transit AI’, User ‘ProfRocio’ said: 


Glad to see Gracie feeling well in her heart again. 


From this satisfied user, please congratulate Dr. Elsi Klein and her department for their hard work. 











Hi Elsi,


I’ve been well, thank you, and happy to hear from you again. I thought i might not!


 thank you for not being too annoyed by my last message. I’m sorry if I cut too close to the personal with my hypotheses and wifty theories; it’s just been so exciting to have this cross-disciplinary chat, and I’m so glad you’d like it to continue. 


I will meet you outside your tower when GRACE chimes 7? Drinks on me? 















Let’s do 7 for drinks. I know you’d love to see inside the Tower, but like I said, the catering isn’t worth the elevator ride. Maybe one day, though. 


Looking forward to crossing our disciplines very much indeed… 





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About the author

Leigh Alexander is a future-thinking American author, Guardian writer and tech journalist with a gaming background.

About the illustrator

James Dawe is a London-based artist and commercial illustrator, whose photo-collages and digital manipulation result in dramatic and distorted imagery.

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