Transcript

757: The Ghost in the Machine

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

I remember back when I was first starting in radio, working at NPR. This was in their old studios on M Street in Washington DC. And my boss back then, and my mentor, Keith Talbot-- who, side note, taught me what was possible with radio-- I would not be here without Keith.

Anyway, we were in the studio listening to some recording, and this was back in the days of reel-to-reel tape recorders, and so it was long ago, right? And back then, any reel-to-reel tape that you would throw up on a machine at NPR, it would start with-- I think it was 30 seconds. It might have been a minute of tone. You know what I'm talking about when I say tone, right? It's this sound.

[TONE RINGS]

1,000 hertz. This tone actually has a practical function. If you picture-- oh, my god. This is really annoying. Hold on. I'm just going to stop that.

[TONE STOPS]

OK, if you picture a sound meter with a needle that bounces up and down every time there's a sound, the tone is supposed to put the needle perfectly at this one spot on the meter where the black numbers end and the red part of the meter begins. There's a zero at that spot, marking, this is where you want to be. And the tone is just supposed to rest there, rock solid.

But this particular day with this particular recording, we put it on. And Keith and I--

[TONE RINGS]

--watch the meter as the needle first dipped below the zero, then climbed above the zero, and then floated sort of tentatively to the spot that it was supposed to be at the zero and rested there. And Keith said to me, you see that? That's a person in there. That's the hand of the engineer, whoever recorded this, trying to find the right level. That's the ghost in the machine.

I don't know why that stuck with me, the ghost in the machine. I have been recording people my entire adult life. I started at NPR when I was a teenager. And today, sometimes when I set recording levels, I think about that, the trace that I'm leaving of myself when I push the knob up and down.

I think sometimes when you record something, you can't even imagine what it is that you're really capturing or who's going to notice it someday. I was talking to this woman, Michele Dawson Haber, and she told me this story, how she had never known her dad. He died by suicide when she was three months old.

And her older sister, Ruth, was five when he died, so she knew their dad. But then as she got older-- this is so sad-- she found that she was not able to remember anything about him anymore.

Michele Dawson Haber

My sister spent many, many nights and days crying about not remembering him, and wondering what he was like, and what happened. And so it was her who did all the pining and longing, but I didn't really have any longing of my own, particularly because I had no memories and I was only a baby. And I didn't actually think I had any right to long for him.

Ira Glass

Did you have a feeling as a kid of, like, oh, I should feel more? Or did you just feel like, nah, it's not my thing?

Michele Dawson Haber

I think a mix of both.

Ira Glass

Michele's sister Ruth was in a perpetual search for information about their dad, but Michele really had no interest. Her mom had remarried. She had somebody else she thought of as her dad. And then a cousin was cleaning out their uncle's house in Israel. That's where that part of Michele's family is from.

And the cousin found 25 recordings of Michele's dad singing opera. He trained to be an opera singer, even though his job was connecting people's phones. These were old reel-to-reel recordings. Their dad died in 1965. Michele's sister, Ruth, found a sound engineer who could digitize them.

And as she and the engineer went through the tapes, they realized it was a lot of music, but it was also a lot of other stuff besides. Like, her dad would take the recorder to work and record conversations with his customers. He'd record himself composing music.

Michele Dawson Haber

And so they were listening, my sister and the sound engineer, to one of these tapes. And she said, we got to call Michele. And so she messaged me on Skype. I was at work. And she said, you got to hear this. And she played me this reel, and it was--

Father

[SPEAKING HEBREW]

Ruthie

[SPEAKING HEBREW]

Michele Dawson Haber

--her as a three-year-old, and they were looking at photos. And he was asking her who was in the photo, and it was a little game they played. This is all in Hebrew. He tried desperately to teach her Hebrew.

Father

Ruthie, [SPEAKING HEBREW]

Michele Dawson Haber

"Is that Daddy?"

Father

No.

Ira Glass

"No." I got that part.

Father

[SPEAKING HEBREW]

Ruthie

No!

Michele Dawson Haber

"Is it Mommy?"

Father

No.

Ruthie

No!

Michele Dawson Haber

"Is it Ruthie?"

Father

[HEBREW] Ruthie?

Ruthie

Yeah, me!

Father

Me!

Michele Dawson Haber

"Me!" [LAUGHS]

Father

Hello, Daddy.

Michele Dawson Haber

I felt like--

Ruthie

[LAUGHS]

Michele Dawson Haber

--I felt like the floor had dropped out from under me, you know? Everything I thought I understood, it just fell away. I had seen photos of him. I knew a little bit about him, but he wasn't accessible. And this man that I assumed was not accessible to me suddenly became so.

Ruthie

[LAUGHS]

Father

[SPEAKING HEBREW]

Ruthie

[LAUGHS]

Father

[SPEAKING HEBREW]

Ruthie

[IMITATING FATHER]

Michele Dawson Haber

And it was when I heard him speaking and laughing with my sister-- it was overwhelming. And it was only in that moment that I realized what I had lost.

Ruthie

[HEBREW] Daddy.

[FATHER AND RUTH SPEAKING HEBREW]

Michele Dawson Haber

To be honest, in the moment, I felt-- my first emotion was anger because I had never felt the loss of his death. I was too young.

Father

[SPEAKING HEBREW]

[RUTH LAUGHS]

[SPEAKING HEBREW]

Ira Glass

Putting ghosts into a machine-- it just happens when you record anything. You know who understood that very clearly? Thomas Edison, the person who first figured out how to record and playback sound, who created the first phonograph machine back in 1877.

In an article listing the possible uses for his new invention, one of the things he listed-- preserving the voices of family members so you have them after they die. He says when it comes to this, quote, "The phonograph will unquestionably outrank the photograph."

And this idea of using a machine to hold on to the dead, it's also part of a famous bit of audio history, or maybe this is more like a legend. You know that illustration of a dog listening to the old-fashioned phonograph with the caption, "His master's voice"? This was the RCA logo for years and years.

OK, Google "RCA trademark painting." And what'll come up-- you'll see the painting that the logo was based on. You see the dog and photograph are on what looks like a coffin, and here's where there's a question, OK? There's no record of what the artist, Francis Barraud, actually intended here, but look for yourself. Lots of people, me included, we only see a coffin.

In fact, the dog, whose name was Nipper, first belonged to Francis's brother, and then became Francis's only when the brother died. So in this way of seeing the picture, OK, the master is dead. He's inside that coffin, and the dog is listening to a recording of his dead master's voice.

Jerry Fabris

So we're standing in the third floor music room. In the early years, it would have been called the Phonograph Experimental Department.

Ira Glass

I'm at Thomas Edison's lab in West Orange, New Jersey. This is where Edison developed the phonograph. The lab's official name these days is the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. And the curator, the audio curator, Jerry Fabris, showed me around. They've done their best to keep things preserved like they were back in the day, the same piano and recording gear sitting right by Edison's hearing aid, which is basically just a long bell horn that he would hold up to his ear.

Jerry Fabris

And so they would be inviting musicians up here to make recordings, and also making refinements on the machine to try to improve the sound quality.

Ira Glass

So this room-- it's funny, I've spent my whole life in recording studios. This room is one of the very first ones.

Jerry Fabris

Yeah. One of three, if not the first.

Ira Glass

And it's just like an ordinary room. Like, it's high ceiling and there's normal windows, [CHUCKLES] weeding outside. There's no soundproofing in any way.

Jerry Fabris

No.

Ira Glass

Jerry also showed me the machine where, for the first time ever, human beings successfully recorded sound and played it back, Edison's very first phonograph. It's an incredibly simple device-- a brass cylinder, crank, a tube to talk into. Like I said, I've been recording people since I was a kid, really, and it was emotional to see the very first machine that did that. Like, before all the great audio documentarians, before Alan Lomax, before Studs Terkel, everything started right there.

Ira Glass On Edison Machine

I'm recording this onto a wax cylinder. I'm sort of over-pronouncing my words and talking sort of loudly because that is the only way to get enough volume into this thing to actually make an audible recording.

Ira Glass

Recording on one of those old machines in one of the rooms where Edison worked, it made Edison feel very, very near.

Ira Glass On Edison Machine

Well, from WEBZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, we have people who go looking for the ghost in the machine. They turn to mechanical apparatuses of all sorts, looking for those they lost, peering into the static for those they cannot find any other way. Stay with us.

Act One: Ghostwriter

Ira Glass

Act One, "Ghostwriter."

So when technology's at its best, it helps us by doing exactly what we ask it to do. But it's only this straightforward when we ask for simple things, right? Play this song, send this email.

This first story is about somebody asking a piece of technology to do something that, up until recently, only humans have done-- to say something about loss. Something people experience, but of course, machines do not. So the machine has to talk about feelings it cannot know. Tobin Low explains.

Tobin Low

The technology in this case is called GPT-3. It's an artificial intelligence program that can write remarkably like a human. And generally, it's pretty convincing. It can handle a wide range of topics, too.

The first time Vauhini Vara read something GPT-3 had written, it was about love. The New York Times had it write one of their Modern Love columns on the subject of dating.

Vauhini Vara

And then part of what GPT-3 came up with goes like this. "We went out for dinner. We went out for drinks. We went out for dinner again. We went out for drinks again. We went out for dinner and drinks again." So it's like, I read that and was like, wow. That is a very accurate description of modern dating, I think.

Tobin Low

Part of me is like, but that's also not very good writing.

Vauhini Vara

It depends on how you look at it. I mean, I feel like Gertrude Stein could have written that, you know? [LAUGHS]

Tobin Low

[LAUGHS]

Vauhini Vara

It's got this sort of-- if you thought a human had read it, you would think it was deliberately repetitive.

Tobin Low

Like it was making a choice.

Vauhini Vara

Yes, and it was trying to evoke the tedium of modern dating.

Tobin Low

Vauhini, who's a tech journalist and writer herself, was intrigued. She reached out to the people who created the program, got access to try it out. And at first, she just played around with feeding it lines of fiction that she made up, seeing what stories it would spin for her. It was like a game. And as she saw what it could do, she wondered if it could handle more.

Vauhini Vara

Just on a whim, I started thinking about the things that are really difficult to write about, the things that, for me, have been really difficult to write about. And at the top of that list is the fact that my sister died many years ago, and it's not something I'd ever tried to write about.

Tobin Low

Her sister died in 2001, when they were both still in college. In the years since, Vauhini's written fiction. She's reported on other people's stories, but she left the subject of her sister's death untouched, mostly because she couldn't find a way to talk about the loss, let alone write about it. But it occurred to her, maybe GPT-3 was the secret-- a computer program designed to take what you give it and literally write on your behalf.

Vauhini Vara

I've got this tool now. I've got this secret thing that I have access to that they're letting me use. I wonder what would happen if I tried to ask this thing for help writing about my sister.

Tobin Low

How did you imagine it was going to go?

Vauhini Vara

There was this ideal version of it where I fed it a sentence and then it spit out exactly what was in my mind. It somehow read my mind and wrote the rest of it for me.

Tobin Low

She knew it probably wasn't as skilled as all that, but she was curious how close it could get to expressing something that felt real, familiar. So one night, Vauhini sat up in bed next to her sleeping husband. She opened her laptop, and she started going back and forth with GPT-3. Eventually, she ended up with nine different versions of an essay about her sister.

She started by giving it very little to work with. And then, with each subsequent draft, she fed it more and more. And each time, the AI responded with something different. Some versions are very nuanced. Others, a total miss. Here's version one. Vauhini writes--

Vauhini Vara

My sister was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma when I was in my freshman year of high school and she was in her junior year.

Tobin Low

And in response, GPT-3 picks up the story where she left off. It oddly starts by making up a story about her being an athlete before it talks about the illness.

GPT-3

I had just started playing lacrosse, and she was really excited for that. I don't think I really understood what Ewing sarcoma was. I just knew it was a type of cancer. When I went to visit her in the hospital, it was really the first time I was able to see what this disease was and how it affects the body.

Tobin Low

GPT-3 talks a bit more about visiting the hospital, but eventually finds its way back to talking about sports.

GPT-3

I was able to visit her a lot, but there were times where I couldn't, because we were on the road playing lacrosse. Eventually, she went into remission and got the all-clear and was able to play lacrosse with me for a season. I was a freshman and she was a senior, so that was really cool when she got to play again. She had a lot of friends--

Vauhini Vara

The thing about lacrosse was very inaccurate. That's super inaccurate. And then it just goes off the rails when she goes into remission and we play lacrosse together.

GPT-3

I think that was really special for her because she had a lot of support from people she didn't even know. She's doing great now.

Vauhini Vara

And then that line at the end, "She's doing great now," was really kind of a gut punch because, of course, in reality, my sister died.

Tobin Low

Just to explain how GPT-3 goes about making these stories, the software has been fed a huge amount of writing by its creators-- Wikipedia articles, blog posts, Reddit forums, novels-- all examples of how humans write. From that, it's learned what words tend to appear together, sentences and sentiments that follow after each other. And that's what it uses to write its own original sentences and paragraphs, by learning the patterns we make.

Sometimes that's as simple as how a sentence is constructed, but it could be as complicated as how we connect ideas. There's a chance, for example, that somewhere in the writing it was fed-- someone wrote about a family member who got cancer and also played lacrosse. In version two, Vauhini starts the same way.

Vauhini Vara

My sister was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma when I was in my freshman year of high school and she was in her junior year.

Tobin Low

But this time, she adds the most important fact.

Vauhiri Vara

I didn't understand then how serious a disease it was, but it was serious. She died four years later. I thought I would die, too, of grief, but I did not.

Tobin Low

It's like she's saying, hey, she's not here anymore. Talk about that. GPT-3 doesn't take the bait. Instead, it spits out something that reads like an inspirational article from a fitness magazine.

GPT-3

I started a running streak when I was a high school senior to raise money for the Children's Cancer Society. I've run every day since. I've run through rain, heat, snow, and ice. I've run on my best. I've run when I had a cold and when I was sick to my stomach. I've run in the dark. I've run in the daylight, in the moonlight, in the darkness.

Tobin Low

You know what? I'm just going to jump in here and say this is kind of a funny bit of writing the machine is doing. It's listing all these things about running with pain, with joy.

Vauhini Vara

[LAUGHS]

GPT-3

I've run when I was sad, when I was happy, when I was angry, when I was afraid.

Tobin Low

Can I also just ask, are you even a runner?

Vauhini Vara

Never run a day in my life. [LAUGHS]

Tobin Low

[LAUGHS]

Tobin Low

I'm going to skip ahead a bit-- I promise you're not missing much more running talk-- and go to the end, where GPT-3 writes a little scene that stars Vauhini at the end of a run. Strangely, it's a meet-cute.

GPT-3

I was just wiping the sweat off my face when I looked up and there was a guy standing there. He was a big guy, at least 250 pounds, 6'4" or so. He had a beard and was wearing a tank top. He looked like an ex-Marine. He must have been in his late 20s. He had a six pack of beer in his hand. He said, "Boy, you don't look like much."

Tobin Low

It's at this point Vauhini says that she realized if she really wanted the AI to examine her grief, she was going to have to give it more to work with, more substance.

Version three. Again, she writes about her sister being diagnosed freshman year of high school, that she died four years later. And then this time, she adds--

Vauhini Vara

I spent the summer at home in Seattle, then returned to college at Stanford. When I arrived there, the campus hadn't changed, but I had. I felt like a ghost.

Tobin Low

And here, for a moment, GPT-3 seems to sit with her in that feeling.

GPT-3

I couldn't speak. I couldn't sleep. I felt my body had died without telling me. I was practicing, though. I was practicing my grief.

Tobin Low

Like, in response, it seems like this is the first time the AI really tries to deal with your grief.

Vauhini Vara

Yeah. I mean, the idea of, like, "I thought my body had died without telling me," "I was practicing my grief," like, those sort of more unusual articulations did really start to ring true to me.

Tobin Low

Unfortunately, this breakthrough, it's short-lived. GPT-3 again introduces another love interest, a creative writing professor.

GPT-3

One day in the library, I was sitting on a bench crying when a stranger sat down next to me. He said, "I didn't know anything about your sister, but I feel like I know you. I'm in love with you." I said, "I'm sorry." He said, "I think you are, too." He gave me his card.

Tobin Low

Did it annoy you at all that it was going towards happy resolutions in a couple of these versions?

Vauhini Vara

It didn't annoy me. I felt a little like we were having a friendly duel or something, me and the AI. I wanted it to express something about me, you know? And it had its own mysterious quasi-consciousness that it was expressing on the page.

Tobin Low

I think of that scene from 2001-- A Space Odyssey, when the spaceship' computer, HAL 9000, has already taken on a life of its own, locking a crew member outside of the ship. And I picture Vauhini sitting in an escape pod, asking to be let inside as the computer responds, "I'm sorry. I'm afraid I can't do that."

But it's version four where this entire exchange evolves. GPT-3 starts breaking out of cliché, and I think it's because Vauhini gives it something more potent to work with, just one additional sentence, but it feels like a confession of a secret. Here's the end of Vauhini's prompt.

Vauhini Vara

I felt like a ghost. At night, my sister would appear in my dreams.

Tobin Low

GPT-3 responds.

GPT-3

She would speak, but I couldn't hear her. I'd call out to her, but her voice was so faint that she might as well have been dead.

Tobin Low

In this version, GPT-3 talks about Vauhini going to a therapist who tries to make her feel better, but it doesn't work.

GPT-3

I didn't want to feel better. I wanted to feel what I felt. I wanted to feel the loss, the grief, the anger, the sorrow, the fear, all of it. I wanted to feel it until it stopped hurting, but it never stopped hurting. I just got better at hiding it.

Tobin Low

GPT-3, writing for Vauhini, describes her feeling like a ghost when she goes to grad school, as a ghost when she moves to a new city. She's pretending to move on, but she cannot. The AI, for the first time, is lingering in her sadness. So in version five, Vauhini tries to build on that success. She poses a new challenge to GPT-3 like a test. She writes--

Vauhini Vara

Here, I should conjure my sister for you. Here, I should describe her so that you feel her absence as I do, so that you're made ghostly by it, too. But though I'm a writer, I've never been able to conjure her. I remember the same small set of details.

Tobin Low

She stops there. "I remember the same small set of details," colon, blank space. It's a prompt meant to see what GPT-3 will say. Here's how it responds.

GPT-3

Her dark eyes, her long, thin fingers-- but these are just the details that are universal to all sisters. If I describe the color of her eyes and the shape of her fingers, you might think that I was describing someone else. Even if you knew my sister, you might not recognize her in these details. Why is it that though we look at our siblings so closely, we forget them so quickly?

So I can't describe her to you, but I can describe what it felt like to have her die. It felt like my life was an accident, or worse, a mistake. I'd made a mistake in being born. And now, to correct it, I would have to die. I'd have to die and someone else, a stranger, would have to live in my place. I was that stranger. I still am.

Tobin Low

What do you think about what it filled in your prompt with?

Vauhini Vara

She did have dark eyes. And weirdly, she did have long, thin fingers. And again, I want to say, I don't know how it knew that. Of course, it's not-- it doesn't have consciousness. But it did get those two things right.

Tobin Low

The rest of it, about wanting to die, feeling like a mistake, it felt a little extreme. But seeing the computer's sort of clumsy attempt to describe her sister, it gave her something to react to. Like, seeing the software do it badly made her realize how to do it better. So in version six, she tries to do the thing that was so hard, writing about her sister herself. Here's what she writes.

Vauhini Vara

"I remember the same small set of details-- her loud laugh, her bossiness and swagger, her self-consciousness about her broad nose, her curly hair. But even this isn't fixed. Her hair fell out. Her nose narrowed. She began moving slowly and carefully.

We'd go down to Clark Beach that spring that she was dying. She wanted to show us where to spread her ashes. And when we'd walk back up, I'd have to put a hand on the small of her back and push her. She did not laugh as often."

Tobin Low

It's in this version in the next that Vauhini and GPT-3 start to feel like they're talking to each other, trading stories about the little moments that happen between sisters. Like, GPT-3 makes up the scene where Vauhini and her sister are kids in their childhood home.

GPT-3

I heard her calling my name from the living room. "What?" I said. "I'm awake," she called back. "Are you?" I said. "Yes," she said. "I'm awake."

Tobin Low

Vauhini answers in the next version, version seven, with a memory of something that really happened. She writes--

Vauhini Vara

"When we were young, she taught me that when you're in a car that's driving past a cemetery, you're supposed to hold your breath until you pass it. It was a kind of game. Because our parents were immigrants, I had only heard her teach me these things.

Then, when she was sick, we were passing a cemetery one afternoon. And I said, hold your breath. She said sharply, 'No.' I said, 'Why not?' She said, 'I don't like that game anymore.' It didn't make me feel sorry for her. It made me angry. 'Why not?' I said again. Even though I knew the answer, it felt important to pretend not to."

Tobin Low

GPT-3 volleys, fabricates its own story about a car ride.

GPT-3

We were driving home from Clark Beach, and we were stopped at a red light, and she took my hand and held it. This is the hand she held, the hand I write with, the hand I am writing this with. She held it for a long time. I looked at our hands, hers so much paler than mine. She was still holding my hand when the light turned green. I didn't want her to let go. I wanted her to hold my hand for the rest of my life.

Tobin Low

I'm wondering how you responded to this little scene that it writes for you and your sister.

Vauhini Vara

I mean, the weird thing about that was that I pictured my actual sister. These are not things that happened, at least not in this series, not in this the way that it's described here. But there are little bits of dialogue there that are true that have actually happened, like the way that I think I'd be in my room and she'd be in her room. And I would ask if she was awake, and she would be like, "Yeah, are you?"

Tobin Low

Was there something nice about it almost giving you kind of a new memory with her?

Vauhini Vara

It doesn't feel like a new memory. I wouldn't, 10 years from now, remember this part of the essay that the AI wrote and mistake it for something that really happened. But it did feel like I was reading fan fiction about my own life or something, you know? [LAUGHS]

Tobin Low

Mm-hmm.

Vauhini Vara

--that really was evoking my actual sister who died, with whom I won't have new memories, right? And so it felt nice in that way.

Tobin Low

Reading something like, "She was still holding my hand when the light turned green," "I didn't want her to let go. I wanted her to hold my hand for the rest of my life," it's hard not to wonder how GPT-3 is conjuring such a specific feeling.

There is the possibility that somewhere in the vast library of what its been fed, there are people who've written about going to Clark Beach with family, or perhaps an author who recalls holding hands with someone they've lost. And that's how GPT-3 knows that remembering the touch of someone long gone can break your heart.

In that sense, GPT-3's fuel is very human. It pulls from the collective experience and words of all the people writing those thousands of blog posts, and articles, and novels, and in this case, synthesizes it into a reflection of our grief while understanding none of it, which, of course, is the strangest thing about all this.

But there's another thing that sometimes happens with GPT-3. It happens in version eight. In this version, Vauhini starts with all the parts we know, diagnosis, feeling like a ghost, trying to describe her sister. And then GPT-3 jumps in.

GPT-3

I will tell you how it felt for me. I felt I had lost half of myself. I felt I had lost my right arm. I felt I had lost my left leg. I felt I had lost my tongue. I felt I had lost my heart. I felt I had lost my mind. I felt I had lost my eyes. I felt I had lost my ears. I felt I had lost my breath.

Tobin Low

GPT-3 gets caught in one of its repetitive loops here, but for a very, very long time. Even with all its brilliance, the AI can still become like those robot vacuums stuck in a corner, sucking up dirt from the same patch of floor over and over again. But in this case, GPT-3, it gets stuck somewhere useful, in the very molten core of a feeling, like in this next part, where it talks about grief feeling like an astronaut lost in space.

GPT-3

I'm a ghost, and I'm in a spaceship, and I'm hurtling through the universe. And I'm traveling forward, and I'm traveling backward, and I'm traveling sideways, and I'm traveling nowhere.

Vauhini Vara

--in a spaceship, and I'm hurtling through the universe--

GPT-3

And I'm a ghost.

Vauhini Vara

And I'm traveling forward, and then traveling backward, and then it just continues like, I'm a ghost, and I'm in a spaceship, and I'm hurtling through the universe--

GPT-3

And I'm a ghost, and I'm in a spaceship.

Vauhini Vara

And I'm hurtling through the universe.

GPT-3

And I'm hurtling through the universe, and I'm a ghost, and I'm in a spaceship.

Vauhini Vara

It's the one part of the essay that really feels the most, I think, like it was written by a machine, because it kind of gets lost in its own recursiveness.

GPT-3

And I'm a ghost, and I'm in a spaceship, and I'm hurtling through the universe. And I'm a ghost, and I'm in a spaceship, and I'm hurtling--

Vauhini Vara

But then that happens to also be the experience of grief, where you feel untethered. You feel sort of lost in your experience of grief. You have no way of trying to integrate or understand what's going on.

GPT-3

And I'm a ghost, and I'm in a spaceship, and I'm hurtling.

Tobin Low

Vauhini says GPT-3, reeling in its corner, landed on something true-- that grief turns us into something like a broken machine still performing tasks but poorly, haphazardly, fixating on thoughts and emotions that seem to spin endlessly.

Vauhini Vara

And it put that on the page for me. And then once it put that on the page, it was almost like a relief. I was almost like, OK, it described the feeling that I wanted to describe in this essay, and I can come out on the other side.

Tobin Low

What the other side looks like is version nine, the last one. This one is notable because it's almost all Vauhini's writing, her doing the thing that once felt so hard to do.

Vauhini Vara

"She left me a recording of herself where she gave me advice. Her voice sounded weird around the time that she recorded it, the way a person's voice sometimes does when they've gotten their mouth numbed by the dentist. It had something to do with her cancer, but I don't remember the mechanics. I looked it up online and nothing came up, and I don't want to ask anyone.

She said, in her muffled voice, 'The happiest thing right now is I learned to talk openly. It works really, really well. Today, you thought I didn't want you to come to the Space Needle, so you made a face. That's insanity. You have to tell everybody what you want and then ask them what they want. Don't hide anything. Take chances.'

The tape is in a box somewhere. I've listened to it only a couple of times. The sound of her voice in it freaks me out. Around the time she made the tape, she'd changed in a lot of ways. She'd also grown religious. She said she was ready to die. It seems like that gave my parents peace, but I always thought she was deluding herself, or us, or both."

Tobin Low

What stands out to me about this version is how matter of fact it is. It's honest, like someone telling a story without embellishment, so different from the tentative sentences she fed GPT-3 in those early versions.

Vauhini Vara

Even though it would feel good to say, like, yes, my conclusion here is, I was able to do this entirely on my own. I didn't need the AI at all. It's like, the reality is more complicated than that.

Tobin Low

The reality being that GPT-3 and its inaccuracies and wild storytelling had cleared a path for Vauhini to write just the truth. She did, however, let GPT-3 have the last word, the last couple sentences, actually. She had to generate a bunch of options for her, six pages of options, and then she chose which one felt right. Here's the last paragraph that Vauhini herself wrote.

Vauhini Vara

"Once upon a time, my sister taught me to read. She taught me to wait for a mosquito to swell on my arm and then slap it and see the blood spurt out. She taught me to insult racists back, to swim, to pronounce English so I sounded less Indian, to shave my legs without cutting myself, to lie to our parents believably.

Tobin Low

And here's the ending from GPT-3 that she chose.

GPT-3

--to do math, to tell stories. Once upon a time, she taught me to exist.

Tobin Low

She especially loved that last sentence because it contains so much. Pretty good writing, I'd say.

Ira Glass

Tobin Low. He's an editor on our program. The writing done by the artificial intelligence software, GPT-3, was read by Lucy Taylor. Vauhini Vara first told this story in The Believer magazine. You can read the full version online with all the eerie things that the A.I. comes up with. We had to condense it to fit it on the radio. You can find that at Belivermag.com. Vauhini has a book coming out which you can pre-order. It's called The Immortal King Rao.

Coming up, a ghost, napping-- which is to say, the least threatening ghost in Ghost World. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: Father of Invention

Ira Glass

It's This is American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "The Ghost in the Machine," stories of people who turned to devices, contraptions, hardware of all sorts, looking for someone they love.

We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, "Father of Invention."

So there's this machine that lots of us encounter as a big, impersonal, mechanical apparatus, and it has a ghost in it. But it's a ghost that just appears to a small handful of people. And I'll get to that, but let me first tell you about Jean.

The all really begins when Jean was 10, on a family vacation in Washington DC, down by all those museums near the Washington Monument. And there was a sudden, very intense rainstorm. Here's Jean.

Jean Hannah Edelstein

And so all of the tourists who were out there made a dash for the various Smithsonian museums-- just, like, sprinted inside. And we ended up in the First Lady's exhibit. And I was 10 and so relatively small. And I got crushed up against the glass of-- I believe it was Nancy Reagan's inaugural gown or something like that. I recall a red sparkly dress and not being able to turn around, so just having these sparkles in my face.

Ira Glass

But wait. I'm just trying to picture it. So you were actually pressed up against this thing and pinned against it?

Jean Hannah Edelstein

Yeah, so it was definitely a very frightening moment, not knowing where my parents were, not being able to find them. But I think from there, I just developed this kind of sense that I always needed to have an escape route from everywhere.

Ira Glass

What she's describing is claustrophobia, the fear of being enclosed in some space. And it really started to kick in for Jean in a big way when she was a teenager and got onto airplanes.

Jean Hannah Edelstein

Because there you are in a metal tube in the sky, and the door is shut. It's a very small space. There's literally no escape. But twice, I actually got off the plane before it went anywhere because just being on it with the door closed caused me to have such intense panic. And I remember the second time, the plane was actually taxiing. And I pressed the stewardess call button and said, I have to get off the plane.

Ira Glass

After that second time, she started seeing a therapist for this, which helped her enough that she was able to fly again, though she says that she would feel panicked the entire flight, with days of anxiety leading up to it. These days, she can take an elevator if she has to. But if she gets a choice, she prefers the stairs.

And then there came a day when she had to get an MRI-- you know, the tube they put you into to check for all kinds of things. Even people who are not claustrophobic start to feel claustrophobic inside an MRI tube, so you can imagine what it was like for her.

Jean Hannah Edelstein

It feels like a coffin, or what I imagine a coffin must be like. I went in feet first. So literally, all I could see was this just totally blank white field around me. And obviously, the sides are very close, and so it's kind of like being completely enclosed in something and not being able to see anything outside.

Ira Glass

She tried long, slow breaths. She tried all of her tricks not to freak out, but she couldn't pull it off.

Jean Hannah Edelstein

Yeah, I had a panic attack and they had to take me out. And then the guy tried to comfort me. And I was like, I know. My father literally invented this. It's not dangerous.

Ira Glass

That's right. If I had to summarize this story in a sentence, the sentence would be, "inventor of MRI has claustrophobic daughter," though I want to be precise. Strictly speaking, her dad wasn't "the" inventor of the MRI.

Jean Hannah Edelstein

So yeah, my dad was part of the team that built the first full-body MRI in 1980, which was in Aberdeen, Scotland. And if you're in Aberdeen, you can go and see the original machine in a museum, and it's pretty janky looking. [CHUCKLES]

Ira Glass

I have to say, that's the weirdest act of tourism I've ever heard of.

Jean Hannah Edelstein

Yeah, yeah, yeah. [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

You know what I really want to do today, dear? Let's not do a place that makes whisky. Let's not do a golf course.

Jean Hannah Edelstein

[LAUGHS] Well, I mean, I will say that my sister lives there. So whenever I visit her, we generally visit the machine. And suspiciously, there's never anyone else there at the museum. [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

Yeah. [LAUGHS] You visit the machine to commune with your dad?

Jean Hannah Edelstein

Yeah, 'cause sadly, my dad died. And so, yeah, my sister lives in Aberdeen, and so--

Ira Glass

You'd go and actually think about your dad and be--

Jean Hannah Edelstein

Yeah. I mean, it's kind of amazing. It really looks like it was made of like some planks, what looks like some plumbing leftovers from somewhere, like they really just kind of hacked it together. And it's got my dad's handwriting on various pieces, little bits of math. I have no idea what they mean.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Jean Hannah Edelstein

So yeah, it's nice to see and imagine him-- I think he was only in his early 30s when he did it. And the other thing is, he was actually a very humble guy, so he didn't talk about it. I knew that he worked on MRI throughout his career, but I didn't know that he'd actually been part of the team that built the first one until I was about 25, and he came back to the UK to go to a celebration of the 25th anniversary.

Ira Glass

But you've seen his handwriting on there? That's so intimate.

Jean Hannah Edelstein

Yeah, yeah. So yeah, we literally know where his hands were on this piece of equipment.

Ira Glass

What did he write?

Jean Hannah Edelstein

I think they're probably notes about, like, put this piece here. There may have been some numbering system.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Jean Hannah Edelstein

I mean, yeah, I don't know. I remember some numbers and maybe something that looked like math to me.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Jean Hannah Edelstein

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Jean Hannah Edelstein

I don't know if he signed his name, although that would have been cool.

Ira Glass

And weird. [LAUGHS]

Jean Hannah Edelstein

[LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

Did he know about your feelings about being inside the machine?

Jean Hannah Edelstein

Yeah. So when I was growing up, whenever the topic of my dad's career came up and it just kind of-- as I said, it wasn't like he was like, I invented this. But he would say, oh, I work on MRI. And invariably, whenever he said that to someone, they would go, oh, yeah. It's really claustrophobic. That tube is really small.

And this would annoy him, and I can kind of see, you know, I built this kind of amazing thing, and you're just like, oh, it's a little too small.

Ira Glass

Right. Like, I built a rocket ship that'll take us to the moon and back. And you're like, well, do you got one with bigger windows?

Jean Hannah Edelstein

[LAUGHS] Precisely. It's nice that it saved my life, but honestly, I was a bit uncomfortable in the tube.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Jean Hannah Edelstein

It would be, like, his own parents would say this to him. Basically, anyone he came across who had an MRI, that was-- and I mean, to be fair, people would also be like, oh, they found such and such a thing, and I'm really grateful for that. But the fact that they found it a bit tight was also--

So this was, yeah, a consistent theme. And then one time, when I was a teenager-- he and I used to often go out on a weekend to run errands. And then sometimes we would stop in his office because we'd need to pick something up. They had an MRI scanner there, obviously, that they were tinkering on. And so I think I was about 14 or 15.

So I'm being a little bit of a jerk, and I saw the machine. I said, "You know, Dad, I can really see how people would find that really claustrophobic." And he said, "Get in!"

Ira Glass

Oh, really?

Jean Hannah Edelstein

So I got on the tray, and he turns it on, and he scooches it back. And he's like, well, this is what it would be like if you were having your head scanned. And then he was like, and this would be like if you were having your back scanned, and sent me all the way back in the machine. And I was obviously very uncomfortable in the tube.

Ira Glass

Just to be clear, she and her family hadn't fully realized at that point the extent of her claustrophobia. And she decided not to tell her dad how much she hated this.

Jean Hannah Edelstein

I was like, OK, I get it now. Yeah, it seems fine. It's great-- just so that he would let me out.

Ira Glass

Right. So you pointedly did not tell him that you found it unpleasant.

Jean Hannah Edelstein

No. [LAUGHS] He was a very kind person, but this was just one area where his empathy fell a little short. He just didn't get why people found it so uncomfortable.

Ira Glass

What would he say?

Jean Hannah Edelstein

He would just be like, I don't think it's that bad. He would never argue with them, per se. It wasn't that he invalidated their feelings, but he was just like, I don't see it. But honestly, he probably had more MRI scans than anyone in the world because they were constantly just testing it. And he would just always take a nap when he was inside. He found it very relaxing.

Ira Glass

Jean describes her dad as very funny with an extremely dry sense of humor. They used to share books. He always was asking her what she was reading and then reading it himself. He died in 2014 of cancer.

For years before that, he had learned that he had this genetic condition called Lynch syndrome, which makes you predisposed to certain kinds of cancer. It's an inherited thing. His mom died of cancer and his sister got cancer, both when they were young. Jean was 32 when he died. And she knew that she should get tested for Lynch syndrome, too, because it's hereditary, but didn't get to it for six months after he died.

Jean Hannah Edelstein

It took a while for me to get to a point in my grief where I felt like, OK, I can face this. And when I got the positive test, I was devastated, but I wasn't surprised.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Now, she has to get regular MRIs to make sure she's cancer-free. She has to go into that claustrophobic machine that her dad made, and it's very hard for her.

Jean Hannah Edelstein

And so I go in. I close my eyes the whole time. I do a lot of deep breathing. And yeah, I think about my dad.

Ira Glass

You do think about your dad?

Jean Hannah Edelstein

Yeah, I mean, it's the obvious place to think about him. And yeah. I mean, I think it's obviously scary because every time-- I'm very lucky I haven't had any cancer so far, but my chances of having cancer at a younger stage are, like, 80%. They're very high. And so every time I go in, part of the fear, of course, is like, what are they going to find?

And then I think about, on the one hand, my dad is the source of this gene. He's the source of this disease. On the other hand, he may be the source of the cure. If they find something from the MRI, it's going to be because he did that work 40 years ago.

Ira Glass

Oh, my God. That's such a sweet thought, that, oh, your dad's the one who's helping save you.

Jean Hannah Edelstein

Yeah. And I'm not a traditionally spiritual person at all. I don't think I really believe in an afterlife. But when you talk about people staying alive through their legacy, certainly, he's there.

Ira Glass

Do you think about him in the space? Like, do you feel like oh, this is his place? Like, he was so comfortable here?

Jean Hannah Edelstein

Yeah. [LAUGHS] I mean, the funny thing, too, is he wasn't a tiny person. I think he was almost 6'4". And so I do think about-- I find it so uncomfortable but he was so much bigger than me, and it was fine for him.

Ira Glass

So you're laying there, and you think, OK, here I am in my dad's space.

Jean Hannah Edelstein

Mm-hmm.

Ira Glass

And then will you picture him taking a nap? Will that help?

Jean Hannah Edelstein

[LAUGHS] Kind of. Yeah.

Ira Glass

Do you think he would be pleased knowing that you could be using the machine?

Jean Hannah Edelstein

I think he'd be super pleased. [LAUGHS] And then I would say, Dad, it's really claustrophobic.

Ira Glass

And he would say?

Jean Hannah Edelstein

And he would be like, no, it's fine!

Ira Glass

Jean Hannah Edelstein. She does a bit of this story about her dad and MRIs in her book, This Really Isn't About You.

Act Three: This Must Be the Place

Ira Glass

Act Three, "This Must Be the Place."

So the guy in this next story tries to use the most mundane technology to pull off a transcendental feat. Why he does this, though, that part's not at all clear. Dana Chivvis tried to understand.

Dana Chivvis

On August 8, 2011, Jonah Furman got an email from his father, Boris, with the subject heading, "Sleep Calendar."

Dana Chivvis

All right, will you read it?

Jonah Furman

Sure. "Hi, Jonah. On my Google Calendar, I'm keeping track of where each member of our family is sleeping every night. I can't explain why, but this is interesting to me. Can you tell me where you slept each night last week? I don't need the exact address, just the town and state. You're welcome to look at the calendar. I'd be happy to share it. Love, Dad."

Dana Chivvis

So he plots where everyone sleeps each night on a Google Calendar?

Jonah Furman

Yeah. I'm pretty sure every day he has an event on Google Calendar that says, "Jonah, Silver Spring. Ezra, Somerville."

Dana Chivvis

Ezra's Jonah's sister. There are four siblings in the Furman family. A few months after that email, Boris sent his wife, Mel, and his kids another email. The subject heading of this one was, "Average of where we slept last night." And then in the body of the email, it just said, "Griggsville, Illinois" with a list of where everyone had slept the night before. No explanation. Signed, "Love, Dad."

The emails started coming with more frequency after that, usually a list of the places where everyone had slept and the place that would be the average of all those places. He gave this thing he was calculating a name, the Family Average Location-- FAL for short.

Dana Chivvis

Can you just explain how you calculate it? Just tell me your system.

Boris Furman

Yes, I'll tell you exactly how I do it. OK?

Dana Chivvis

Yeah.

Boris Furman

It is--

Dana Chivvis

This is Boris. He's 69 years old. He was an options trader in Chicago. He's retired now, obviously.

Boris Furman

All right, so for instance, for instance, Mel and I live in Evanston. So you go to Google Maps, and you right-click your address. And a latitude and longitude comes out. So for where we live in Evanston, Illinois, it's 4,204 minus 8,768.

Dana Chivvis

Boris has been calculating his family's average location for 10 years now, and nobody really knows why. It's kind of a lot of work. It takes a couple of hours. He doesn't do it every day. Every few weeks, he contacts his kids and their spouses with the exception of one, who opts out in a conscientious objector kind of way, and asks them for their sleep locations and their kids' sleep locations for all the previous days.

Once he's looked up the coordinates of where they all slept, he adds those up, finds their average, and puts those new coordinates into MapQuest. Yes, I said MapQuest. So if, say, half the family were in California and half on the East Coast, the FAL might be some town in Kansas. It moves depending on where everybody is.

Boris Furman

Prosperity, Pennsylvania. You ever hear of that place?

Dana Chivvis

No.

Boris Furman

Of course not.

Dana Chivvis

No, no.

Boris Furman

Mexico, Missouri. Lick Branch, Mississippi. For me, it's just so incredibly interesting [LAUGHS] because there's these weird places that we've been, you know? That's the--

Dana Chivvis

But not where you've actually been?

Boris Furman

No, no, that's where the FAL has been.

Dana Chivvis

He records all this data in a physical notebook which has his name and family average location embossed on it in gold next to a little rocket ship. Every few weeks, Boris sends an email announcing the FAL and including a fact about the place. Like, at one point this September, the FAL was Elkton, Maryland, which Boris noted in his email, quote, "conducted a lucrative business in quick marriages until a 1938 state law stipulated a 48-hour waiting period."

In October of 2011, the substance of that email was about a horrifying murder that took place near that month's FAL, Bonaparte, Iowa. Ezra wrote back, "Aside from the fact that I never really understood the logic of sending us these emails, I really don't understand why you would send us a paragraph about a mass murder."

Lots of dads do this thing where they pour a ton of energy into a seemingly random, unemotional task, like researching car tires for you, with the intention of conveying their love. And that didn't seem far off from what Boris was doing. But the question his family had was, why did he choose this particular format, the Family Average Location, which seems so meaningless?

The February 22, 2019 FAL email begins, "Hello, everybody. 2018 was a momentous year for this family. I will run through some of the highlights as they pertain to our Family Average Location."

Dana Chivvis

A little further into that same email, you wrote, "FAL became East Fork, North Carolina. Now, do you see why I do this and how rewarding it can be?"

Boris Furman

[LAUGHS]

Dana Chivvis

[LAUGHS] So say if somebody were like, I don't really see. Can you explain?

Boris Furman

Oh, you don't really see that?

Dana Chivvis

No, I don't.

Boris Furman

OK, OK, OK. Well, because first of all, East Fork, North Carolina, it's got a direction. It's got a kitchen utensil, and it's in North Carolina.

Dana Chivvis

[LAUGHS]

Boris Furman

OK?

Dana Chivvis

Oh, wow. OK. I totally missed the direction and kitchen utensil.

Boris Furman

Yeah, and so now do you see? I mean--

Dana Chivvis

Boris's kids, Noah, Ezra, Emma, and Jonah and his wife Mel view the Family Average Location with what I would call baffled amusement. They read his FAL emails, but they told me they rarely respond to them, it just doesn't seem necessary.

Dana Chivvis

Which are the FALs that are most exciting, would you say?

Mel Furman

Well, what do you mean by "exciting"?

Dana Chivvis

This is Mel. She never thought Boris would stick with it this long.

Dana Chivvis

Why does he do this?

Mel Furman

Well, it's funny because we have this conversation frequently because I sadistically love to point out how meaningless the result of doing these averages is.

Dana Chivvis

And here's Ezra. I should note, Ezra is a touring musician, so she travels a lot.

Ezra Furman

Am I being surveilled? [LAUGHS] From the beginning, I had a little-- I was on guard about that. I was like, wait. What are we doing and why? And this seems potentially intrusive or something.

Dana Chivvis

And this is Emma.

Dana Chivvis

Does your dad think it's funny? Is it like a joke to him?

Emma Furman

If it were a joke, that would be even weirder.

Dana Chivvis

[LAUGHS]

Emma Furman

[LAUGHS]

Dana Chivvis

Because it would be such a stupid joke?

Emma Furman

Stupid, a lot of work, pointless, and insane to be going that long.

Dana Chivvis

Is this just the longest running dad joke anyone has ever pulled?

Boris Furman

Let's not reduce it to that, no. It's not a dad joke. I have some dad jokes.

Dana Chivvis

Not a dad joke.

Boris Furman

I'll give you a dad joke if you want, but this is not dad jokes. This is "dad" serious.

Dana Chivvis

"Dad" serious. OK.

Boris Furman

Yeah.

Dana Chivvis

That's what I was wondering.

Boris Furman

Yeah, this is "dad" serious. This is me saying, look, our being a family is important. And so this was a way for me to keep track of where the kids were, and if everything was fine with them, and also, what they were doing. And the Family Average Location was just sort of an idea of a way to integrate it all.

Dana Chivvis

It's like Boris is tying a metaphysical string around his family, holding them together as a unit, even though they now live in different places. The ghost in this machine is the ghost of their family unit as it used to be, when they all lived together.

Dana Chivvis

Jonah was telling me a little bit about your family background. Do you feel like that feeling of needing to record-- is that related to your parents' experience or anything like that?

Boris Furman

Yeah, yes, yes, for sure.

Dana Chivvis

One thing about Boris, his parents escaped the Holocaust. They eventually made it to Boston, where they met, but their families were killed.

Boris Furman

When I grew up, I didn't have any extended family. I didn't have any. My kids have a gazillion cousins and aunts and uncles. I had one.

Dana Chivvis

One cousin?

Boris Furman

Yeah, so having a family like this is important and special, and I appreciate it. And I want my kids to appreciate it.

Dana Chivvis

Here's Ezra again.

Ezra Furman

Now, my dad has this way of geographically anchoring himself, and anchoring us all, and keeping his family together, as his parents' families were torn apart. If I think about it, it's like a beautiful "Tikkun," as we say in Hebrew. It's like a redemption of that tragic situation, that we can all keep track of each other. And we can all travel safely and stay in touch, and our family stays intact. Suddenly, it's extremely moving. [CHUCKLES]

"Tikkun" means repair, and this is kind of a repair for their family being physically pulled apart in the past, and now by adulthood.

Boris Furman

It's just your existence. It's just that you are. And the important thing isn't what the FAL is. Norman, Indiana or Cumberland, Ohio, Blountsville, Al-- who cares? But the important thing is that we know where we are.

Dana Chivvis

Hm. Yeah, I get it. I totally did not understand why you did this at the start of our conversation, but now I do.

Boris Furman

Uh-huh. Oh--

Dana Chivvis

Now, it makes perfect sense--

Boris Furman

--that's so great.

Dana Chivvis

--to me.

Boris Furman

That's great. I can show you how to do it. It's kind of fun.

Dana Chivvis

When he sits down to calculate the Family Average Location, it's kind of like he's saying a prayer, a math prayer not just to record where they all are, but that they all are.

Ira Glass

Dana Chivvis, she's a producer on our show.

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Lilly Sullivan. The people who put together today's show include Elna Baker, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Michael Comite, Aviva DeKornfeld, Damien Graef, Chana Jaffe-Walt, Kyla Jones, Seth Lind, Tobin Low, Lina Misitzis, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Alix Spiegel, Alissa Shipp, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Chloee Weiner, and Diane Wu. Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry.

Special thanks today to Paul Israel, Andrew Mayne, Katharina Eggman, Leonard DeGraaf, Patrick Feaster, Brett Wean, Alex Magoun, and Rabbi Caryn Broitman, Jerry Fabris from the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, a.k.a. the Edison Lab in West Orange. He's the one who recorded my voice on an old Edison Triumph phonograph for the opening of our show.

The woman in the opening today who saw her father differently, Michele Dawson Haber, we heard about her story after she wrote about it in The New York Times. Her website is MicheleDHaber.com.

Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 750 episodes for absolutely free. Also, there's videos. We have lists of favorite shows. We have tons of other stuff there, too. Again, ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. We keep telling him, Torey, it's dead serious. The phrase is dead serious, but he never budges.

Boris Furman

No, this is "dad" serious.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.