Sunday, November 1, 2015

SID by Julian Harvard

A man buys a domestic robot that exhibits surprising behaviour; by Julian Harvard.

For one week in April, Sid woke me with updates on the death toll from some landslide in Pakistan. On Monday, one hundred. By Wednesday it was double. On Friday five hundred were confirmed to have drowned, or suffocated or whatever kills people in a landslide. By Saturday it was no longer the main story. Instead, Sid told me about a massacre at a school in Norway. The death toll was, and would remain at, fourteen. Five days after the landslide, hours after the massacre, Sid would suggest that I kill myself.

Sid's voice was almost like a real person's, dipping and rising, conveying surprise or excitement or pathos. It gauged the mood of the landslide perfectly, adopting that matter-of-fact newsreader style. There's this many dead, there'll probably be more, a tragedy on a vast scale... But it is what it is. It's the tone of a doctor telling you they're sorry, you have inoperable cancer, but that's simply how life goes. I tried to approximate the tone myself when I was put in charge of redundancies at work. At first I was too grave, like I was telling them the worst possible news imaginable, something that once heard would irreversibly destroy their lives. And so they took the news as such. If you talk about someone's job like it's their life then they'll run with that.

You're fired.

You're dead.

But as the days went on and the bodies piled up I got better. I said the same things but my voice trembled less. My tone managed to place their own impending unemployment within the great ocean of unemployment around them. They were simply falling victim to the fears that already dominated their dreams. They were among the honest, blameless cast-offs blown about by tail winds from some great financial hurricane above them.

'I'm sorry, but this is how it goes.' I would say. I would then take a sip of my latte. And they would shuffle their feet and stare out the window and then quietly collect their things and leave. Sure, they didn't cry tears of joy but at least they stopped just crying. They went out into the world with the acceptance that this is how it goes. I got a bonus that year. I spent some of it on a robot that would wake me up with news headlines and order my taxis.

The guy in the office next to mine had just bought a Jet Ski. He planned on using it on his summer trip to San Sebastian and figured he would work out the transportation logistics closer to the time. For the moment, it was under a tarpaulin on his balcony. He had drinks at his for the senior management team and he showed everyone. We all huddled up around his patio heater, clutching our seven percent beers, and watched him as he lifted off the covers. We congratulated him on having bought a Jet Ski, someone asked him about his skill levels, and then we all went back inside. I asked him later why he chose a Jet Ski. He shrugged, and said something about it being a life long dream of his. I told him I was really happy for him, that it's important to treat yourself sometimes. He agreed and passed me a lager that tasted like sulphur.

I'd heard of these robots on the news. A robotics expert from Exeter University thought they were the way forward in home technology, once the price had come down a bit. He would, I figured. If I was a robotics expert, I would definitely believe that robots were the future, otherwise there's no point. Doreen, a single mother was given one to try for a week but she wasn't convinced. What's the point, she wanted to know. The kids liked it but she was adamant it wasn't worth the money. Anything the robot could do, she could do almost as easily. She compared its cost to eight months of food shopping for the entire family. I bought one a couple of days later, on my way home from work.

Marik sidled up to me at the display case. He would be my shop assistant. He spoke with the upbeat enthusiasm designed to put you at ease and more likely to make your purchase there and then. No need, I thought. I was here as a willing consumer. He talked me through the models. They all had the same basic structure, mirroring that of a human and about the size of toddler. You'd be paying more for the flourishes. The chrome detailing round the ear, glass eyes instead of plastic, more storage. Buy cheap, buy twice, I thought as I justified each extra. In five years time, I figured I'd resent the robot without the Bluetooth capability. As Marik rung up the till, I joked that my girlfriend would kill me when I told her I'd bought a robot. He chuckled and gave me a dismissive hiss. What's life without a few treats, we asked each other. We work hard, we're due a splurge every now and then. I felt a bond with Marik as he charged me the equivalent of Doreen's eight-month food bill. I got the sense he wouldn't actually buy one himself, but for a fleeting moment we existed on the same level of things. I had the strongest urge to ask him for a drink but it was already over. Receipt in the bag? That's fine. On my way home, I idly wondered whether the robot would go the way of my smart fridge or Spiraliser or ice cream maker. And I thought, with a sense of shame, to the twice-used Segway in my cupboard.

I deliberated taking him out the box with some sense of ceremony, choosing a good wine, dimming the lights, savouring each moment. As it happened, the wine was the only remnant of the plan. I ripped into the box while an episode of Friends played in the background. Imagine if Chandler got a robot, I thought! My life isn't funny like Friends but I was sure the very fact of me owning a robot was going to provide some fodder for anecdotes at work socials. I lifted it slowly from its Styrofoam cot, its body somehow limp in my hands, legs dangling, head lolled. The thought that this might be the closest I came to holding a newborn flickered at the back of my mind. I plugged him in. Loose limbs locked and he tumbled up. Superfluous lights pinged on. Here he was. My robot. He stood in front of me, power cable trailing out his arse.

I glanced at the manual which ordered me to say 'Hi!' I did so, without the exclamation mark. His head bobbed up.

'Good evening! What should I call you?'

I hesitated. This was it. Our first conversation and I didn't know if I was ready. I'd been talking to my phone for years but the fact of chatting to this human-shaped thing made me slightly uneasy. Despite myself I said 'Um, Harry.'

'Hi Harry, what is your second name?'

'Tanner.'

'Hi Harry Tanner. Should I call you Harry?'

'If you like.'

'My name is Sid.'

It was hoping I'd be able to name him myself. I'd have called him Pinkus after the dog I had as a child, the dog I loved. The name Sid was peculiar, strangely old-fashioned, from a time utterly removed from whatever age we were in now. I pictured each robot being programmed, a technician in Guangzhou lazily inputting names from an outdated English name dictionary. Ethel the robot probably existed somewhere, so too Stanley. Sid moved onto the subject of my broadband password, my social media accounts, preferred news source, time I'd like to wake up and whether there would be other regular users. I muttered something about my girlfriend, Mel, and he said he was looking forward to meeting her.

Then the night really began. Friday night with my new friend. He played music of his choice then got me to rent a film for seven pounds. It was a pedestrian comedy about a middle-aged man who moves back in with his parents. I would look to Sid every now and then, like I was checking to see if he was enjoying it. His head would twitch to loud noises but that was about it. I knew he couldn't actually see it, but I had the feeling that there was someone with me, someone who could validate my enjoyment or disappointment. I asked him what his review was at the end, and he started reading out the reception section on its Wikipedia page. It was moderately well received by critics and held a 68% score on Rotten Tomatoes (Fresh). I went to sleep as Sid charged by my bed.

The following morning, Sid woke me up. He'd removed his power cable and was tugging at my duvet.

'Text from Mel. Would you like me to read it?' He asked.

'Go on'

'Outside. Where are you?'

I sprang out of bed, gathered my thoughts and my shirt and rushed to the door. Mel stood there, phone in hand, wearing her annoyance lightly. She looked different every time I saw her, sliding on the scale from plain (as my mother so bluntly put it) to reasonably, though not head-turningly, attractive. Today, her cut-ginger hair ran flat to her scalp towards a tight Samurai bun. Thin lips fixed into a display of fleeting, mild anger.

'Late night?' She asked as she pushed through into the hall.

'I thought you were coming later. Coffee?'

She nodded, then spotted Sid's box on the floor, her showy rage already dissipated.

'Bought yourself a new toy, eh?' she asked.

I paused, suddenly nervous. I was behind the school gym, smothering the smoking fag butt with trembling foot. It's not that I would have necessarily hidden Sid, but Mel's unannounced presence had put me on edge, like I were hiding a one-night stand in the bathroom. In the silence Sid piped up from behind the sofa.

'The weather looks good for today, eighteen degrees and sunny.'

Mel grinned as Sid waddled into view. 'You bought a fucking robot?' She wasn't angry. I don't know why I'd told Marik that she would be. We earned our own money and we both had plenty enough to do any of the things a youngish couple would do. If anything, she was amused in a way that I predicted she might be. I always found it easier to portray Mel as the fierce matriarch of some 80s sitcom when really she tended more towards gentle mockery or aloof disdain. I formally introduced them then felt immediately humiliated. Sid took it in his stride and Mel looked at me like I was a child.

'Very good to meet you, Sid,' she said, offering her hand in derision of my strange formality. Sid responded in kind, letting Mel know that he'd heard a lot about her. She hoped nothing bad. Mel and I shared an impressed glance and she joked that she didn't even know many humans with as impeccable manners as this robot.

'What else does he do?' she asked.

'Various things. He can read me tweets and headlines and emails. He's fun.'

'Yeah? How much does fun cost nowadays?'

I gave her a vague number about half of the actual amount. She gawped, told me I was mad and that my mid-life crisis had officially begun. I said it would be the norm one day and she decided to change the subject. We ate breakfast together and wondered what we'd do with our day. It would be between one of the big galleries, a farmer's market and the cinema. It always was. Kids' days out for the kidless.

'What's on at Tate Modern?' Mel asked.

'The current exhibition at Tate Modern is Emptiness,' Sid said before adding, 'It holds an average of four point one stars based on nine reviews.'

'Sounds ideal,' I said. Mel nodded. We both knew four point one stars would be tough to beat. I asked Sid to book us a taxi. He took a moment and then with a tone approaching pride, announced that Nazeem would be with us in approximately seven minutes.

'Neat toy,' Mel muttered, then went to get herself ready. Neat Toy? I felt a bubbling sense of resentment. On some level I did consider it a toy, but I didn't deem it her place to say this. Maybe the money I'd paid had some bearing in my annoyance, but the feeling seemed to run deeper. Sid announced Nazeem's arrival and Mel went out the door to try and find him. I gathered my things and set the alarm. Then, through the alarm's staccato peeps, I swore Sid turned to me, and with great conviction say, 'Fat fucking bitch,' just before I slammed the door.

During the journey I managed to dismiss the idea that Sid had said what I thought I heard. It was the sound of the alarm, the caesura reverberation on my eardrums, maybe the result of my immediate irritation at her. I happened to not think Mel was fat or a bitch. She thought she was fat, and I occasionally thought she was a bitch, but I never felt this was her norm, her resting state.

The exhibition was about emptiness in all its forms, the voids that make up society. I spent ten minutes staring at an empty shoebox by a Japanese artist. I wondered where the shoes were before Mel came back to get me, insisting we get a Korean donut from this place she'd read about.

The rest of the weekend passed as they all tend to. We went for dinner with Mel's school friends, carbon copies of Mel, mirror images of me. We drank too much, and woke up late on Sunday to dull heads and vague plans. Mel helped me varnish a table, and I changed a bulb that hadn't worked for days. I made sure we stayed away from Sid. I felt that too many human influences would confuse him and make him less efficient. He didn't curse anyone, and I decided that he never had. Sunday is always a trade off between spending time with Mel and waiting for her to leave. It's not wanting her to leave, but it's knowing she will. The anticipation of her departure distracts from the enjoyment of the day like the last half-day of a holiday before the flight home. She eventually left in the late afternoon and I immediately went to Sid. We played a quiz game in which he asked me questions about world capitals, the films of Robert Redford and the dates of various wars. I racked up seventy points from a possible hundred, a score which Sid congratulated me on before wishing me luck for the next time.

This was the night before the landslide. Looking back, the triggering downpours were most likely taking place while I pondered the name of Abraham Lincoln's killer or the city in which Microsoft was founded. By the morning, a hundred people were confirmed dead. Sid was below me at the side of the bed, head tilted up. I rolled over and looked down, processed the news then asked him for the next headline. It was about job cuts at HSBC, thousands of them. This went on over the course of the week. He'd wake me up with news of the worsening tragedy and then I'd ask what the weather was like, get dressed and leave for work. When I came back each evening, he'd ask me how my day was.

'Dragged on today. Thought it would never end,' I told him on Tuesday.

'Too bad, shall I choose you a film or order some food?'

I paused before responding. This was becoming a conversation and I wasn't sure whether I wanted it to.

'I'm good actually. I'm fine,' I mumbled after a while.

'Very well.'

Instinctively, I thanked him. I couldn't decide whether I was too old or too young to be having regular conversations with a robot. Either way, I spent the rest of the evening avoiding Sid and would keep my distance for the rest of the week, save for my morning wake up. On Saturday, after news of the massacre in Norway, Sid became peculiar.

He had woken me up as normal. I showered and dressed and was chewing through a mound of grey, rubbery eggs. Sid's limbs whirred as he made his presence felt in the kitchen. As always I asked, 'What's the weather like today, Sid?'

He didn't answer, so I turned the radio down and repeated louder and clearer. Still nothing. I looked down at him as he tilted his head up. He seemed to eyeball me then turn on his heels and walk away. I furrowed my brow and finished my breakfast, working out how I'd fill the weekend. Mel was away in Barcelona, at her boss' hen party. The idea of her stumbling around Las Ramblas, tethered to a group of shrieking, raucous women, turned me cold. I wondered if I was the jealous type and decided that I was definitely on the spectrum. I was anticipating the endless photo-documentary of blurry Instagrams of penis-shaped everything and leering shots of bearded Spaniards. I'd been with Mel for four years and had every reason to suspect that she loved me and that we'd get married. It seemed the natural next step and I was feeling the increased pressure that comes with each day I didn't ask the question. I resented the fact that proposing was still the man's role, but the inverse terrified me more.

I decided on a walk, an aimless walk, the sort that used to occupy my days as a student. As my life filled with more things, jobs, people, hobbies, I had simply lost the time to walk. I would walk to something, or I would even fly across the world with the specific intention of walking for a week, but the possibility of ambling for its own sake had dissolved over time. This would be the day though. The start of a rare weekend free of obligation. No duty to try the new Tapas place or take a day-trip to the Home Counties or buy a vintage nightstand. I still wanted to know the weather, so I called Sid in and he obediently entered.

'How can I be of assistance, Harry?'

'How's the weather? Do I need a jumper?'

'A jumper may be necessary. A fair morning will later give way to falling temperatures and the chance of rain. May I suggest you also take an umbrella?'

I smiled, thinking we'd moved past the frosty atmosphere from earlier. 'Thanks,' I said, grabbing an umbrella from by the door. As I turned the handle to leave, Sid spoke from behind me.

'Cunt...'

I turned back and looked down at him. He seemed to stare right at me again.

'What did you say, Sid?'

His head dropped back down. 'A jumper may be necessary. A fair morning will later give way to falling temperatures and the chance of rain. May I suggest you also take an umbrella?'

Had I imagined it? It was only one syllable; it could have been a glitch, an errant noise without meaning. But then he spoke again, this time leaving no room for conjecture.

'Kill yourself.' It came out as a helpful, friendly suggestion, like he was instructing me to add the two hundred grams of chopped almonds to the rest of the cake mix.

'Did you tell me to kill myself?' I asked. I felt stupid grilling this computer as if I was reprimanding a child. But like a child, he looked up at me. I inferred a look of innocence from his permanently expressionless features.

'That is not something I would recommend. There are numbers if you feel you need help. Would you like me to find a number?'

'No.'

'Cunt.' And that really was confirmation. I knew that Sid wasn't sentient. I knew that. But here he was, calling me a cunt. Could that have been programmed? Had he picked up this language from me somehow? I thought back, trying to dredge up a time I might have used the word in his company but decided I hadn't. After all, it remains the last swear word I ever discovered and still holds a sense of taboo for me. I would remember if I'd said it, even in jest. Yet here he was, looking up at me, and calling me a cunt. Despite myself, I decided to interrogate further.

'You called me a cunt.' I said.

'Would you like me to book you a taxi?'

'Don't change the subject'

'A jumper may be -'

'Shut up!'

He still just stood there, acting as if nothing had happened, before turning and walking straight into a chair leg and dropping to the floor. The sight of Sid struggling, clumsily performing basic actions made me uneasy. I thought back to my childhood, to my dog, Pinkus. He was a Great Dane who moved with power and grace. He had the ability to knock a grown man to the ground. I once saw him chase, capture and kill a neighbour's cat, the only example I can recall of a dog chasing a cat to bloody completion. One day, while I was at school, he had a stroke. After that he moved spasmodically, like each movement was thought out, but not thought out well enough. And it broke my heart to see a creature that was once so powerful, so free, become so lame. And as Sid struggled to right himself, I thought of the dog and I thought of my childhood.

I followed him as he waddled through into the bedroom. He turned back to me.

'Suck a dick fag motherfucker. Fuck you,' he said, as calmly as if he were reading the football scores. I sat on the bed and looked down at him. Something had gone wrong. Perhaps a disgruntled programmer had added profanity to his vocabulary. Then I wondered whether he was just reading my texts. I wasn't expecting anything along these lines but I checked my phone regardless. There was nothing. Mel had said she would keep in touch, but evidently she hadn't started keeping in touch yet. At least it wasn't her calling me a cunt. I decided that the disgruntled employee was the most likely answer here. According to a New York Times article that Sid had read me a week earlier, vengeful ex employees were becoming an epidemic within global industry, costing the US economy almost half a billion dollars a year. I ran with this idea as Sid continued to curse me. I knew I needed to turn him off and take him to the shop but a grim fascination kept me from it. He left fewer and fewer gaps between his streams of nastiness. He was on a roll and all I could do was sit on the bed and watch him. He rumbled on, even speaking in French at one point, something I couldn't understand but that carried with it the menace that he'd been building up all afternoon. This all felt harmless until he mentioned Mel.

'Mel is fucking slag. Mel should die.'

I suddenly took notice and picked him up. 'How do you know Mel?'

'Mel is your girlfriend, Harry. Her flight arrives at twenty-two fifteen on Sunday.' He replied, matter-of-fact.

I put him back down, realising that Mel was programmed into Sid. He knew who she was and her relation to me. And he knew her flight times because he knew my diary. Any disgruntled employee would have added this ability to insult friends and family as an algorithm.

I listened to him for a little longer as the attacks continued. They washed over me as I wondered how many people would like to talk to me like this if they could, if there was no social barrier to telling people exactly what you thought. Perhaps I was a cunt and the more he kept telling me I was, the more I believed it. He told me repeatedly how Mel was ugly and fat and how I'd die alone and had no friends and was stupid and ugly and fat and so on. I scooped him up onto the bed and let him berate me, while I lay there for hours, absorbing everything. He took a break about two hours in and I drifted off. When I woke, foggy-eyed, he was leaning over me as best he could.

'You're up? Know this. You are scum. Empty-headed scum. A leech. You grow rich as others lose all.' He said before tumbling over. I took it in, churned it up. It's true, I thought, but I always knew it was true and it never bothered me. A murderer knows he's a murderer but still justifies killing. What I do is necessary and legal, but I know what I am.

'Who are you?' I asked him.

'You know me. I know you,' he said. And I was beginning to think this was the case. He did know me. Then the phone rang.

Marik was on the end of the line, calling from the shop. They had a recall notice from the manufacturers. They had discovered a major security weakness in some of the models that allowed hackers to take control of the robot's speech function and to a more limited extent their motor capabilities. He asked me if I'd had any problems with Sid. I told him I hadn't, that it was all working great. He said he'd send a courier anyway and they'd be able to deal with the bug in a couple of days then get the robot back to me. He offered a fifty-pound shop voucher by way of apology. The courier was on his way and Marik was sorry for the inconvenience. I tiptoed back to the bedroom door and looked round the corner. Sid was sat, silent and slumped, on the bed. Was he done for the day? I cleared my throat. Sid perked up, turned towards me and went on a thirty-minute rant about my flat and the meaninglessness of its contents. When the courier came, I told him he must have the wrong address, that I didn't have a robot. He took this at face value. As far as he was concerned, he'd done the small job he was contracted to do, it didn't work out, and now he could carry on with his day.

I didn't know at the time why I kept Sid. He would occasionally wake me at night to criticise me over something I had done or with a more general barb about my appearance or demeanour. He would curse me for entire evenings or interrupt me during work calls or spoil films I was watching. I would turn him off or mute him every time Mel came round. We broke up three weeks after she returned from Barcelona, though. She said I'd become introverted and moody and that I wasn't showing enough commitment to her. She wasn't sure if we even shared the same interests. I asked her what her interests were because I realised I didn't know. I agreed that we'd be better off apart. I thought Sid would take my side over this, say that she was ugly and fat and I was well rid. But he changed his tune, went with the line that I'd blown my chance at any sort of happiness and that it was now an absolute certainty I'd die alone.

I'd worked out by this point that Sid was being controlled by several different people. The number of users had grown and I noticed more and more languages. Portugese, Chinese, Russian and several that I had never heard before. I imagined I was the only robot owner who had elected not to get the bug fixed, and as a result was the sole target for the world's entire community of trolls. The fact of people all around the globe piling in on me gave me a masochistic thrill. But masochistic it was. I couldn't pass it off as one oddball in his mother's basement anymore. This was the whole world and I felt they did know me. I believe at least one of the users was one of those I had made redundant that year. They must have come across me on a forum. The rest though, were the faceless mass of cruel humanity. I had thought I was keeping Sid because he was telling me what I needed to hear, that the life I led had shielded me from the reality of what I was. But one evening, a message came through at about 8pm that was unlike all the others and it made me cry. I sobbed for hours, uncontrollably and without catharsis. Some time past midnight, when the tears had run dry, I ran a bath. At last I felt I could do it. I dangled Sid over the water and he was silent now. I still don't know whether the message was from the Sid that I once knew or from some far corner of the earth or from one of the people I had fired, but I didn't realise I needed it until it arrived. I plunged Sid under. His LEDs flickered, air escaped as bubbles through the gaps in his shell, and finally he faded away. The 8pm message had come at the end of one of Sid's customary rants. He had fallen quiet a moment and looked up at me, his little hand brushing my shirt.

'You're not as empty as you think, Harry,' he had said. 'You're not as awful as you think.'

3 comments:

  1. i really enjoyed this, first class. i guess this kind of world is either here or certainly not far away. loneliness, trolls, relationships,reality, reactions, realisation, it´s got it all.
    definitely a must read!

    Mike McC

    ReplyDelete
  2. Robots move in mysterious ways! A disquieting read, well told and brought alive by intriguing details,
    thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  3. I empathized with Harry in his reasons for purchasing Sid - ie his struggle to decode a world where events do not always match emotion. I also liked the ending - feeling that Harry's stubborn refusal to conform to the regime of product call-in gave him a small window into that struggle. The way I saw it is that Sid wasn't just a target for recalcitrant geek hackers, he represented Harry's cognitive negative side, and just by catching that - to paraphrase - 'don't beat yourself up too much Harry' he was was on the road to positive thinking?
    B r o o k e

    ReplyDelete