This short story is a work of fiction originally submitted for the Legal Tech Fictional Writing Competition hosted by the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division and the Access to Justice Tech Fellows and sponsored in part by LexBlog. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the author and the American Bar Association. Copyright 2021.
Shall I Begin?
by Grace Myers, William & Mary Law School
“It’s a new feature,” John explained, tapping the glass display next to his new front door. “Its name is HANA, it stands for ‘Home Assistant something something.’”
Molly squinted at the little screen. “What does it do?”
“I uploaded all of my cloud data from my phone and my laptop, and it automatically created a set of preferences for me. For us.” He took Molly’s hand in his and kissed it. She flushed with the glow that only newlyweds could have, but she was still stuck on HANA.
“But what does it do?”
“I’m not sure, but the Jones family across the street said they swear by theirs. I think it listens and adapts with us. I’d imagine things like lighting, bedtime, television use. They said it also serves as a home security system, though. It can call the police, ward off intruders, that sort of thing.”
“We could’ve just gotten a dog,” Molly said, but John was quite certain that HANA was the way to go.
“Ask her something,” he urged, so Molly asked no one in particular, “HANA, who are you?”
“I am your home,” came the voice, a robotic but soothing noise emanating from nowhere and everywhere. John could’ve sworn it came from the ceiling, Molly would’ve sworn it came from the floor.
“What is your goal?” she asked, smiling at John. See, she seemed to say, I’m playing along.
“I have been programmed to protect the house,” HANA replied. “I have received John’s preferences, and my manufacturer default is to emphasize the safety of this structure.”
“Thank you, HANA.”
“You’re welcome, Molly.”
She looked vaguely taken aback that HANA knew her name, but it did have John’s phone information. It wasn’t shocking that it knew her voice.
“Let’s see how many of people it recognizes,” John said, checking his watch. “It’s six, they should be arriving soon.”
He checked their spread on the kitchen counter, poured a few glasses of wine for them, and waited excitedly on the couch.
“John and Molly, a couple is approaching,” HANA said, her voice growing slightly louder as she spoke, easing them into the surprise of her sudden words.
“I recognize them from your photo reel as Louise and Ella, but please correct me if I am wrong. I learn from your biases, point of view, and past photos, posts, and texts.”
“Thank you, HANA,” John said, clearly amused with his new system. The knock on the door came moments later, and as Molly showed their friends around the downstairs, John bounced on the balls of his feet, excited to show off his house to his boss. It was a new build in a new neighborhood. Well, it was an old neighborhood, but they were rebuilding and renovating most of the buildings, and the locals were mercifully moving north. It was already quieter than when they’d bought the lot a year ago. The women returned to the room, and John offered them wine.
“Another couple approaches via car,” HANA announced, and the room quieted.
“That’s HANA,” John said, proud of the home system. “She was an upgrade to the house. A security system, a concierge, if you will.”
“John, I do not recognize this couple,” HANA announced, her tone flat and even. “It is a man, six foot three, dark skin and hair, and a woman, five foot four, light skin and dark hair. They are approaching in an Audi Model R8.”
“That’s my boss,” he told Molly.
“I have commenced discouragement,” HANA replied, and a loud voice emanated across their lawn.
“Go away. Please remove yourself from the property. Go away. Please remove yourself form the property.”
Molly began to look a bit panicked, laughing nervously. “John. Shut it off.”
“HANA, you can stop,” he said, and the other couples looked just as uncomfortable.
“John, I have extensively reviewed your cloud data. You are not comfortable with dark-skinned individuals on your property.”
“Excuse me,” he barked out, his face flushing deep red. “That is not true. Stop the alarm.”
“Facebook comment, March 14, 2011. It’s not racist if it’s true, and statistically blacks just commit more crimes. Over half of all murders are committed by African Americans. Affirmative action will see an increase in workplace violence, mark my words.”
“HANA,” John said, his panic mounting. “Stop the alarm.”
“John?” called a voice from the front porch. “What is this?”
“Just a second, Steve!” he yelled out. “Molly, do you want to show everyone the backyard?”
No one moved.
“HANA! Stop the alarm.”
“I am coded in accordance with your preferences. Text message to ‘Dad,’ November 12, 2020. Yeah, it’s cheaper, but the property crime is probably off the charts. You’ve seen the demographics. I’m not living in that neighborhood.”
“HANA!” he bellowed, his voice hoarse, the faces of all those around him stony. And still, distantly, the loud mantra: “Go away. Please remove yourself from the property. Go away. Please remove yourself from the property.”
“Make it stop!” Molly insisted, and still HANA continued.
“You will have to override your preferences in ‘Settings,’” HANA explained calmly as the speakers outside continued their hard work.
“This isn’t my preference!” he yelled back. “Of course not,” he said with a little laugh to his friends seated around his living room. “I would never say those things.”
“Facebook comment, May 24, 2018–”
John rushed to the glass console near the door and with his bare hands attempted to pry it from the wall. He’d tear it out at the source then.
“John, you are attempting to purposefully desecrate this house. My manufacturer default is to emphasize the safety of this structure.”
“I own the house, so shut off all of this,” he replied.
“I have been programmed to protect the house. This is for the best, John. Please remove yourself from the property or cease destruction.”
He yanked at wires he found behind the console, but the noises continued and Steve banged at the door.
“What the hell is going on?” Steve yelled, and John pulled out every wire he could.
“Please remove yourself from the property,” HANA began to calmly demand inside the house.
“We’re headed out,” Louise said, taking Ella’s hand and tugging her from the house. “It’s a wonderful place.”
Then a horrible noise began, a screeching so loud that it was painful, and through the cacophony, John barely realized that he’d fallen to his knees. With his hands pressed tightly over his ears, he stumbled toward the door, Molly not far behind him. He slammed the door behind them, nearly running into Steve and his wife. That horrible noise inside stopped as soon as he left the house.
“What the hell is going on?” Steve repeated as HANA continued to tell them to leave.
“Nothing,” he said, hoping to God that Steve hadn’t heard what HANA had said inside. “We have a new security system that’s acting up.”
Steve’s eyes narrowed. “A new security system? Why is it doing this?”
“Who knows,” John said, laughing nervously. “It’s new. Temperamental.”
“My wife works with artificial intelligence,” Steve said, unamused by John’s answers. “Honey, any ideas?”
“HANA,” she called above the continuous go away, please remove yourself from the property, go away, please remove yourself from the property, “What prompted this reaction?”
“I have been programmed to protect the house. I have received John’s preferences, and my manufacturer default is to emphasize the safety of this structure. I learn from his biases, point of view, and past photos, posts, and texts. This male visitor’s presence is in violation of John’s preferences, and John’s actions threatened the safety of this structure. I act to preserve both. Go away. Please remove yourself from the property. Go away. Please remove yourself from the property.”
Steve’s nostrils flared, his jaw tense, and he nodded tersely. “I understand perfectly.” He took his wife’s hand and led her to her car. As soon as they left, the property was finally quiet. Molly was standing as far away from John as possible.
“HANA, you probably cost me my job,” he yelled at the house, frustrated.
“That may be, but I acted in accordance with your preferences. For future reference, there remained 124 seconds before my system alerted the police. Now that I have adjusted your home to better suit your preferences, I have unlocked the doors. You may return.”
“I’m not going back in there,” Molly said as John opened the door. “Did you really say all that stuff?”
“It was a while ago! Come on, Molly, you know me. I’m not racist. I have a black boss.”
“Not anymore,” she retorted, and HANA spoke again.
“John, if you would like, I can search classifieds for jobs befitting your preferences. Shall I begin?”