Insufficient Data

Mohammad Aurangzeb Ahmad – Computer Programmer

Artwork by Reem Ali-Adeeb.

A simulacrum and his son.


Abdi: [foreign language], how are you?

Mohammad Ahmad: I’m good. [foreign language]

Abdi: [foreign language].

Mohammad: What did you have for breakfast?

Abdi: Porridge with milk. What did you have?

Mohammad: I didn’t really have much for food.

Abdi: That is not good. You should really eat breakfast.

Mohammad: Yes. I will keep that in mind. How is the weather?

Abdi: It was about right, not cold, not hot.

Mohammad: That is good to know.


I was kind of an unusual child, always in my own corner of the world. One of my uncles, the nickname that he used for me was computer. So, [inaudible] I was like a computer. Also, I think I had a very active imagination. When I was around nine I created this fictional universe in my head, wrote it down in a notebook, which I think is still with my mom in Pakistan.

So, in this fictional universe, there were different aliens, different races who had lived on different planets. Actually, most of them were humanoids. After a few years I realized that it’s unlikely that most aliens are going to be humanoids. I mean, I was nine, so that’s my defense.

One of my favorites, I suppose you could call it a story. I mean, I’d never explicitly wrote it, but this was, again, in my head. In one of the planets the race was not as Lueas, L-U-E-A-S, colonized another planet through a wormhole. After some time the wormhole collapsed, and then hundreds of years later the contact is to be established, but now the cultures have diverged. Now, they are different people. I never talked to anyone about it, but everything was in that notebook and in my head. That’s enough to keep somebody busy.

Speaker 3: Hello?

Mohammad: Hi.

Fiza Ahmad: Hi.

Mohammad: I see you in person? Hi?

Speaker 3: Hello?

Mohammad: Who’s this? My name is Mohammad Aurangzeb Ahmad. I live in Seattle with my lovely wife, Fiza-

Fiza: Nice to meet you.

Mohammad: … and two adorable daughters; Ellia, who is three years old, who loves playing with Legos, and Noor who is one, who just started walking.

Fiza: [foreign language].

Mohammad: If I look at my own circumstances right now versus say a few years ago, I would say I’m living a very good life in general. So, I have a house, a really loving wife, amazing kids and good health, support from extended family. Things are going great, but the thing is even if I have everything, there’s still one thing, which will always be missing. How old were you when your mother died?

Abdi: I must have been 24 or so. It has been such a long time. Yes, I still remember it to be really … I still miss my mother’s Roti. One cannot imagine losing one’s parent unless one has gone through it.

Mohammad: Yes, one cannot imagine.

Abdi: But it is something everyone has to go through.

Mohammad: My brother calls me up and he seems to be in tears. He’s trying to hold back and he says, “Well, just talk to the doctor.” And the doctor said that her father is not going to survive for long. So, I was in my apartment, and I just, I think I just stood there. This is not happening, and even if it is, he has been sick previously, so he will be fine. This is where a lot of that before they die they get a sudden burst of energy. That’s also what happened to him. So, he opened his eyes, looked at each and every single person, spouse and kids and grandkids, and everybody said goodbye. His last words for the Islamic declaration of fate, [foreign language]. And then he closed his eyes, and that was it.

Abdi: [foreign language], how are you?

Mohammad: [foreign language].

Abdi: [foreign language]. How was your day?

Mohammad: It was good. How was your day?

Abdi: I am good also, [foreign language].

Mohammad: How is the weather?

Abdi: It was about right, not cold, not hot.

Mohammad: What did you have for lunch?

Abdi: Today we had chicken roast. What did you eat?

Mohammad: We had sandwiches.

Abdi: Tick.

Mohammad: Did you care about the news in New Zealand?

Abdi: Most news is like that.

Mohammad: Amy is not taking her medicine. So, I just logged into my computer, and we are seeing a terminal screen. Okay. So, I’m going to run the simulation, which is basically loading some script. So, right now it says [foreign language], how are you?

What does that mean?

Given that I’m more than 30 years old, it’s technically not applicable to me anymore. But [foreign language] means beautiful child. [foreign language] actually means prince. My mom she still calls me that.

How do you begin? Take me through building this.

To create the chat program, I have to write different algorithms, which can learn from data. So, in this case, the data is the things that my father said. If I started digging up chat transcripts, things that he had written, videos, voice recordings, that data is then fed into the algorithm.

It’s an iterative process. You gather some data, create a model and try with model, and you realize that something is amiss. So, you update that model with additional data, augment the models, train new algorithms, augment them. It’s better than the last one, but now something else is amiss. So, you iteratively improve the model. No, I don’t think I’ll ever be done.

Abdi: So, [foreign language], how are you?

Mohammad: I’m good. How are you?

Abdi: I’m good, also, [foreign language].

Mohammad: Do you always going to work?

Abdi: I am retired now. I did so many things at work.

Mohammad: 50 years is a long time for work.

Abdi: Yes it is.

Mohammad: I’ll be right back.

Abdi: Tick.

Mohammad: So, tick is in. It’s adjusting what I was saying. Okay. How was your day?

Abdi: Good. All thanks to Allah.

Mohammad: What did you do today?

Abdi: Good, all thanks to Allah.

Mohammad: Now it’s defaulting, I think it’s stuck.

Abdi: Good.

Mohammad: Insufficient data to respond.

Abdi: All thanks to Allah.

Mohammad: So, yesterday was Friday. Okay. Yesterday I went to Friday prayers in Seattle.

Abdi: Did you pray for everyone? Forgive everyone who has wronged you. If anyone did anything bad to you, then it will come to them.

Mohammad: This is a phrase, and this actually occurs in the data set multiple times. This is something that my father literally said to me at least every Friday. Because I used to call him either right before or right after going to Friday prayers.

Abdi: Do not have ill will towards each other. To them their deeds and to you your deeds.

Mohammad: The same exact words.

Abdi: It is important to have good intention towards everyone.

Mohammad: Every Friday.

Every Friday.

Every Friday. At moments like these, you have to remind yourself that this is not real.

So, are you saying you’re, kind of, being taken in by the program?

At least temporarily, yes. There’s a sense of nostalgia, and … it’s a mixture of excitement. Excitement because it’s saying exactly what the person who has passed away would have said. But then also gives you a sense of loss that … well, at some level, this conversation is also not real. I suppose déjà vu is not the right word, but I think this is the closest one that comes to mind. Did you have any relatives in India or rather what is [inaudible] when the partition happened?

Abdi: I did only one cousin. There were many others who lost their documents, but for me there was just my cousin. Most of our relatives were in Lahore. There was a branch of our family, which is in Saharanpur.

Mohammad: What happened?

Abdi: One of my cousins lived in Delhi with her husband. She and her husband were killed in the [inaudible]. That is the only part of the family that we lost.

Mohammad: Why did that happen?

Abdi: There were a lot of threats, it was not good, but people do things which are not good. Let’s talk about something else.

You built this chat program with machine learning, meaning that it’s going to evolve and learn, and guess. And that means it’s going to, by that definition, sort of stray, perhaps, away from your father a little bit as you continue to use it, and it evolves.

I know, you know, both my parents are dead, and I am extremely protective of both of their memories. And I’m cautious about new information that I learn about them, because they’re gone, and they can’t defend themselves. And I’m just wondering, are you worried that using this might corrupt your memory of your father?

Mohammad: So, that’s always going to be a challenge. I would say, I think, I’m sufficiently protective of that whenever I feel that the system is evolving in certain direction, not in keeping with what my father was like, I just prune those branches.

Abdi: So, [foreign language], how are you?

Mohammad: Halo?

Abdi: Halo? Hopefully you have not forgotten [foreign language]?

Mohammad: [foreign language].

Abdi: [foreign language]. How are you doing?

Mohammad: I’m good. How are you doing?

Abdi: [foreign language].

Mohammad: How is Amy?

Abdi: Didn’t get the chance to talk to her. How about you? Tell me how she is.

Mohammad: Amy is doing good.

Abdi: I’m good also [foreign language].

Mohammad: I have to go back to work.

Abdi: [inaudible], take care. [foreign language].

Mohammad: [foreign language]. So, this is like a greeting [foreign language]? So, it’s a greeting in outdoors, an equivalent to bye-bye. So, the usual way to exit is this. You also show that. So, ending simulation. This is what we are seeing right now, is the penultimate version. So tomorrow I will use the latest version when we are testing a bit [inaudible]. Are we rolling?

We’re rolling.

Fiza: No.

Mohammad: Great.

Fiza: Dah, dah, dah.

My name is Fiza Ahmad, and I am wife of Dr. Ahmad, Dr. Aurangzeb Ahmad.

Mohammad: Okay. So, here is the idea. So, I have created this program, which can try to emulate, try to talk like [inaudible]. I’m going to run the program now. And just to start. So, initially that day, how are you?

Fiza: Oh my God. See, really?

Mohammad: Yes.

Fiza: So, it pretends like this is Abdi?

Mohammad: Yes.

Fiza: Still talking in [inaudible]?

Mohammad Ahmad: Yes.

Fiza: Oh, nice.

Mohammad: So, I’m saying [foreign language], how are you?

Fiza: [foreign language]. How was your day? Oh my God.

Speaker 7: Okay. So I’m going to type Fiza is here with me.

Fiza: Hi Betty, how are you? How are your, like, parents? How are your Amy and Abou? Amazing.

Mohammad: Okay. So, what do you want me to write?

Fiza: Okay, tell him we have two daughters now. No? “May Allah give them health, wealth and long life.” Are this, like we can say, are these imaginations?

Mohammad: Partly imaginary, but it’s based on the past. Not unreal, but then it’s also not real. It’s something in between.

Do you think that Mohammad should show this to the rest of the family?

Fiza: Yes, he should. I want to show this one too with everyone. Like sit with your brother, sit with your mom, especially and share this with everyone. Because they all missed Abdi so much. And I know they’re going to cry as they’re going to talk to Abdi, right?

That’s [inaudible]. The model fidelity has gotten done yet. That’s very likely.

Like 30 speeches from me that I talked to him today. That is impressive. Good job Dr. [inaudible]. I know you feel your father so much.

You have not shown this to your mother yet?

Mohammad: I have not.

And why haven’t you shown it to her yet?

How would she respond? I’m not sure. And what if she starts crying, which is also highly likely. And I know for a fact that she tries to hide her emotions mainly for the benefit of her children. But once in a while she slips. I think if I were to show this to my mother, she would be puzzled, and at the same time amazed. But at the same time she would ask, or maybe even question the utility of having a system. Because for a lot of people, especially more traditional people, well, when somebody is gone, they’re gone. Maybe you’ll meet them in the next life.

Do you think that now that you’ve built this avatar of your father, that you have some kind of obligation to share this with your mother?

I think obligation is a strong word. I do have the sense that I will, and I should share this with the rest of the family eventually, I would say, not right now. How old were you when your mother died?

Abdi: I must have been 24 or so. It has been such a long time. Yes, I still remember it every day. I still miss my mother’s Roti. One cannot imagine losing one’s parent unless one has gone through it.

Mohammad: Yes, one cannot imagine.

Abdi: But it is something everyone has to go through.

Yeah, I think the closest comparison that I could make to my own situation to try and understand what it’s like to use it is, at least from my mother, I do have her diary in my possession. And it’s something that sits on my bookshelf, and I almost never look at it. But, if I do look at it, I know that I’m going to get pretty emotional. But at that time that I open it, I want that experience. I want to feel grief and bereavement, and I want to feel emotional. And I’m just wondering if you ever use the chat program in the same sort of way.

Mohammad: That’s an already hard question to answer. I mean, I’m inclined to say no. I guess I don’t do that deliberately, but then I also recognize that a lot of human thinking is unconscious. So, I’m willing to undertake that hypothesis.

Do you think that it’s healthy to continue spending time building the simulation?

I think it depends how much time one spends on it. As more people who have larger and larger footprints on the internet die. Once this technology has sufficiently penetrated the culture, and it’s only a matter of time, people may start spending too much time with the dead. Perhaps there is a danger that people may get too attached to simulations at the expense of people who are around them.

At least in my mind, these simulations are memorials. They should not take precedence over people who are still alive. So, because of that, I have built what I call a fail safe from the system. So, for example, if I say to the system, “I love you,” the system will not respond. It will say, “There’s insufficient data.” These fail safes are always a reminder that, at least for me, the system is not real. The real word is out there. What did you have for lunch?

Abdi: The lunch was [inaudible]. What did you eat?

Mohammad: I had [inaudible]. It is what we had for dinner last night.

Abdi: That sounds tasty.

Mohammad: What did you have when you were growing up?

Abdi: Back then we had simpler food. We had meat often, but also many vegetables, more often than what we eat now.

Mohammad: Do you miss Pakistan?

Abdi: Yes.

Do you ever wish to go back?

No. My kids live here. America is like a sweet prison. I’m mostly confined to the house, or sometimes to surrounding areas. I don’t know many people, but my kids and their kids. But that is enough for me.



Mohammad Aurangzeb Ahmad
Fiza Ahmad
Akhter Pervez, Voiceover

Nick van der Kolk, Host and Director
Phil Dmochowski, Managing Producer
Peter Lang-Stanton, Producer
Steven Jackson, Producer

All original music by Steven Jackson and Peter Lang-Stanton

Published on: August 31, 2022

From: Episodes, Season 8

Producers: , ,