The ultimate price of artificial perfection

By: Dana Yang and Dorothy Zheng

January 5, 2071.

A girl sits restlessly in her seat, drumming her pencil against her desk. She stares at the paper, her mind swimming with thoughts, her teacher’s voice serving as mere background noise.

“…and it was in 2063 that artificial intelligence correctly predicted the sudden economic recession, saving millions from unemployment…” 

Her words fly out the girl’s ears. She, like the rest of her classmates, has already heard this speech an immeasurable amount of times, making her know the rest like the back of her hand. 

She puts her pencil down and grabs her phone. Underneath her desk, her fingers fly across the keyboard as she responds to another comment.

XX191: Wow, is AI art this advanced? This drawing looks perfect!

The girl is livid. AI art? She had poured hours into refining her drawing, polishing every little detail until she felt proud enough to click the post button. She responds courteously nevertheless.

Thank you for your support.

The girl suppresses a sigh and closes the app, packing up her belongings as the school bell rings loudly.

“Don’t forget, today is the yearly creativity exam,” the teacher reminds the class. 

A unanimous groan fills the room, followed by loud complaints. 

“What a waste of time. Everybody knows that the survey is useless,” a brunette girl remarks.

“Exactly. Who’s ever gotten more than 200 points? Besides, there’s no point when nobody even makes art anymore,” her friend adds.

“Who would even draw when AI art looks thousands of times better?”

Hearing this, the girl bites her tongue. They won’t listen even if she argued, anyway. 

She follows them to a towering building, sunlight glinting off the metal walls and reflecting onto her face. The building is sharp-edged and unwelcoming, the hallways seemingly stretching on endlessly. A proctor leads her to a room where twenty other students are already seated, and she takes a seat at the back of the room. 

“Welcome to this year’s creativity exam,” the proctor, a middle-aged woman with glasses, says. “You will be given an hour to complete a series of tasks intended to gauge your affinity for the arts. Please answer honestly, and good luck.”

Who says we don’t have creativity anymore? I’ll prove them wrong. It’s not like they’ll do anything to me.

The sound of keys clicking as the students begin echoes through the room. The girl takes a deep breath and starts the test. The answers flow naturally to her, and she finishes with half the time left to spare.

January 6, 2071.

At precisely 6 a.m., when the sun has yet to rise, a message is broadcasted to every house. Individuals groggily wonder what the occasion is, only to snap awake the moment they hear the news.

“Hello, everyone. It has come to our attention that in this year’s creativity exam, an individual in the 14th District has scored above 400 points. Please do not harass this individual. Instead, please cleanse your minds of imperfection so you will not turn out like her. Thank you.”

The girl’s complexion turns white. She quickly grabs her phone, only to hear a thundering knock on her door before she can even turn it on.

The door rattles loudly and is pushed open, followed by formally-dressed men barging into her room. They are wearing masks, face shields, and bulletproof suits, almost as if she, a non-athletic teenage girl, poses a real threat.

They wordlessly walk toward her bed, dragging her up by the arms. Her mind floods with frantic thoughts and warnings, rendering her limbs useless.

One of the men scoffs. “These vermin don’t even resist.”

Vermin, her mind supplies. It feels as if her heart is lodged in her throat.

Before she can respond, she hears a shout from the other side of her house, followed by another, deeper cry.

“Take her! We had no idea!”

The girl’s eyes widen as she recognizes her mother’s voice.

“Spare us, please!” Her father’s voice follows. “We had no part in this!”

As the officers drag the family of three out of their home, her parents meet her eyes with a death glare. The girl feels like the air is punched out of her, but she recovers from the shock quickly.

They’ve never loved you anyway, she reasons, her mind filtering out every smile, every touch. She repeats the thought endlessly. How did it end up like this?

She is thrown in a separate van from her parents. When the men shut the door, the rest of the vehicle shakes at the impact.

She is left alone, in the stifling, cramped trunk — alone with just her thoughts. Just the previous night, she had still been free and had sat on the floor of her room, sketching the flowers she had seen outside the examination building.

How did it end up like this?

Had they been watching her this entire time? Could the examination have just been for show?

As someone with a preference for digital art, all her sketches are on her tablet. While the girl knew her high performance on the creativity exam would reveal her talents to the government, she also knew the government has control over the entire internet — through AI of course. 

At some point, she had let her guard down, falsely assuming that they wouldn’t mind that much. Out of all the laws they passed at the time to limit what the average citizen could do, replacing these activities with AI instead, why would they care so much about art?

Artificial intelligence, the girl thinks bitterly. The mere mention of the phrase makes her sick to the stomach.

She had just gotten back from an art class when she first heard about AI. Her parents had leisurely turned on the radio, the passionate voice of the radio personality flooding their car.

“…and this year, 2063, marks history. Artificial intelligence has correctly predicted the sudden economic recession, saving millions from unemployment. Ladies and gentlemen, artificial intelligence is the future!”

The girl had echoed the public’s astonishment.

That is, until her art classes were abruptly canceled.

“I’m sorry, sweetie,” her mother had said, drawing circles on her back as they embraced. “I have no idea what’s going on. It’ll be temporary, I’m sure.”

She was 9 when her dreams were shattered. At age 10, the stain of so-called “human” art was completely eradicated.

She is 17 when she is thrown into The Reformative Facility. They treat her like a sack of potatoes, slamming the door as soon as they let go of her. 

January 6, 2073.

The girl angles her head upwards, squinting as the rays of the sun pool onto her face. She absorbs the familiar warmth and exhales, taking a last backward glance at the metal building behind her before walking away.

On her way home, she finds a wrinkled piece of paper along with a wooden pencil lying on the sidewalk. Curious, she bends down and picks the pencil up, angling it towards the paper.

The people walking by her stare at her inquisitively, but with no malice. The girl’s heart warms as she notices this, but she doesn’t understand why.

Maybe, the girl thinks, looking down at her matching tracksuit. Maybe this is what true comradery feels like.

When the tip of the pencil finally touches the paper, there is a foreign sensation in her chest, a pulsation of some sort — she has a strange feeling that she is missing something. However, she cannot recall what it is.

Frowning, she pushes away the long-lost ache and sets the pencil down, walking away from the light.

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