Friday, May 6, 2016

Artificial by Celia Coyne

Ageing, bedridden Daisy is in awe of the artificially intelligent robot that cares for her; by Celia Coyne.

Have you ever seen a dead AI? Ever wondered what one would look like? There's not much to see, really, if it has simply been decommissioned or 'switched off'. The eyes close and everything stops. But suppose one has been beaten around the head with a blunt object - that's a different story. You'll see wires, of course; they still have them. But there is also a lot of jelly-like matter - neural networks and stuff - which just oozes everywhere. Then there is a kind of milky white fluid, a bit like blood, that runs between the neurones and brain centres, keeping everything going. Smash an AI's head in and there will be a lot of this white fluid; it will splatter everywhere.

The saddest thing is that even when you are bashing them in, they will not retaliate. Cave in the face and whack the central processing unit and they just stand there and take it. And they won't even try to keep themselves going. They just give up the ghost and die.

Now I know what you're thinking. You're thinking about that old chestnut that AIs cannot die because they've never been 'alive' in the first place. Well I would beg to differ.



'Good morning Daisy,' was the first thing she said to me, 'my name is Aerial and I'll be your carer and companion for the foreseeable future.'

Foreseeable future - what a quaint turn of phrase, what a coverall. We both knew that there wasn't really very much of that left for me. But I suppose it sounded better - more hopeful - than saying 'for the next few months'.

'Good morning,' I replied. And that was how it began.

She reminded me of my sister, Rose. But her hands were so much warmer when she slid them under my shoulder and hips and moved me up the bed. I'm heavy, I know I am, but she moved me easily and then propped me up with pillows until I was perfectly comfortable. My eyesight is not what it was, but as she leant in I could see her face was a smooth oval and her eyes large and child-like. She was a brunette, like Rose, but her eyes were hazel, while Rose's eyes were as black as Spanish olives.

After my first breakdown and subsequent collapse, there was no one willing to look after me, so I naturally turned to Rose. She obliged, but it was obvious that the whole deal didn't really suit her. Even though she was a trained nurse she could never bring it home, so to speak. She didn't let me suffer any pain, of course. I was exercised, cleaned and fed. But she never spent any time with me - and performed all my care routines with mechanical detachment.

I can't blame her for that. There was nothing to tie us together except in name. And being fourteen years older I felt as though I was from a different world. Then one day Rose came home with Aerial. She said Aerial wanted to help, which was very convenient for Rose, who promptly went back to Australia and the hideously wealthy family who employed her. Before I could blink Rose was right back in the hub of their household, ferrying their son to and from school and cooking their meals. Oh, it was vital work. How could I dream of detaining her?

And as it turned out I was very happy with Aerial. In fact, those last few months were some of the happiest I have spent. She was everything you could want in a companion. She turned me every two hours, regular as clockwork. She didn't have to, but she knew I liked it like that. She knew when to be with me and she knew when to leave me alone. And she would talk to me for hours. We discussed everything from gardening to nuclear physics - there was nothing we didn't converse on. Our days would begin at breakfast, when she would prop me up and then tell me the news.

We called it breakfast, although I was hooked up to a machine for all my nutritional needs. It had been regulated to give me just enough energy to get by, but I didn't need much - I wasn't going to be running any marathons, was I?

One morning she came in bright and early, as she always did. Smiling, as she always did. And the first thing she asked me, as she always did, was:

'How did you sleep?'

'Like a baby,' I replied.

That was a lie because ever since I had been bedridden I wasn't having much 'down time' at all. Perhaps it was because my body was incarcerated in the bed, but my mind wandered freely at night. I was quite content with this, of course. I liked to think; to cogitate. I pondered all sorts of things in the quiet of the night. Like Aerial, for instance. She never ceased to amaze me. She had a quality that I could not put my finger on. It was her 'realness' I think. She was just so genuine. I had never known her to tell a lie. But she was not at all brutal with the truth either. She said things in such a compassionate way. It was as though she really cared. I wondered if she could really care for me? I pondered that question for many hours.

That morning, after contenting herself that I had slept well, Aerial said that she had picked up something in the news that might be of interest to me.

'Go on,' I said.

'It was in New Scientist. Researchers in Switzerland have finally cracked the rejection problem on genetically cultivated body parts. They reckon that within the next 10 years the technology will exist to enable people to extend their lives pretty much indefinitely. They will simply grow the parts as and when they wear out. Isn't that remarkable?'

'Yes, but it's hardly of any use to me,' I snapped. I didn't mean to be sharp with her, but I couldn't help myself.

Aerial's face immediately changed: 'Oh I'm sorry,' she said. 'What was I thinking...'

She was clearly in distress, but so was I.

'No - you didn't think at all,' I said. 'How can you possibly know what it is like to be in my position? Lingering on in this twilight. In fact, I think it is probably about time I was put out of this misery entirely.'

A look of shock flashed across Aerial's perfectly proportioned face.

'What?' she said.

'You heard. I'm obsolete anyway - a burden to society.'

'You are not a burden. You are special, unique,' she said.

'But what use am I now? I just lie here...'

'Yes but we talk, don't we? I have learned so much from you.'

Her compliment stopped me in my tracks for a moment. She must actually care about me. It was ironic, but it did not deter me.

'It is very kind of you to say such things,' I said. 'But the truth is I should have bitten the bullet years ago. Too afraid to die, you see. Too cowardly. All I'm doing now is using up resources. I'm a laughing stock.'

'No one is laughing at you Daisy. What's wrong with wanting to live? There's no shame in that. And at your age, you have earned respect.'

I was intrigued. How very endearing she was. I was fascinated by her genuine sympathy for my plight. She turned her face away.

'I'm sorry I upset you,' she said meekly to the wall opposite.

When she turned back a single tear had made its way down her cheek.

I stared at it in complete awe. Of all the advances in cybernetics over the years this had been the one thing that had eluded the scientists. To make a tear that was like a human's; to make an AI cry. It was the holy grail of android manufacturing. It's not just about getting the formula right - a tear is more than salt and water. It is hormones; it is emotions.

I spoke softly in an attempt to comfort her. 'Please don't cry. I'm sorry, but I just think it's time. You know it's true.'

With a swift movement of her hand, she wiped the tear away, smoothed her hair and resumed her placid composure.

'Who should I call?' she said calmly.

'There is no one,' I said.

'What about Rose?'

Rose the 'younger model'. How I so sincerely didn't want to see her at my deathbed.

'No she'll be too busy,' I said. But Aerial had other ideas.



And so it was that the day of my demise was set. Fortunately society has made enough progress to allow individuals the right to determine when they 'sign out'. Aerial made the final arrangements for me. There were legal documents to sign and a witness needed. But the rest was pretty much the flick of a switch.

So we were all set up. The papers signed; the witness, a nurse from the local hospital, installed. And then who should walk in but Rose.

It was as though the room was a frozen frame of a movie. We all watched motionless as she came right up to my bedside. This was Aerial's doing, I knew.

Rose put her face right close to mine and snarled in my ear: 'I wouldn't miss this for the world.'

I was shocked and angry and upset and terrified and tearful - all at the same time. That's probably why my circuits malfunctioned and I lashed out at her.

I had forgotten how strong I was. With arms built to lift the weight of a car - for rescue purposes, of course - I only had to hit her once. Her face caved in and, like I said before, she just stood there and took it. Aerial put her hands to her face and sucked in a breath. The witness just stared - and witnessed the whole gruesome event.

But it was all over in a second. Jelly-like goo trickled out of Rose's face and milky fluid splashed all over my bed. Rose - Mark 18 in the Flower Series of companion AIs - was gone.

And little old Daisy - a mere Mark 4 - remained. It was a crazy act on my part. But I have no regrets. They'll be switching me off any minute, and I'm glad. They can make all the improvements they want to AIs like me. Over the years I've seen them do it numerous times. Personality chips, emotion programmes, interactive response routines, but they keep coming up against one thing. All of us, we are just so 'artificial'. I never quite understood this until I met Aerial - now she was the genuine article.

5 comments:

  1. Great opening - much humor and heart throughout. It's amazing what technology can do. Brilliant!

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  2. Between dystopia and utopia is cybertopia? As we abandon our humanity do they acquire theirs? That is the question ..................
    Well done,
    Ceinwen

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  3. Thanks for reading my story - and your comments. Hee hee, I had to prove I wasn't a robot to post a reply!

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  4. Thanks, nicely written and caught me out with the ending! Makes me wonder where the limits to the robots are - are the 'they' who'll switch 'me' off also robots? Just wonder about the jelly stuff and white fluid - any technological basis for that? I've written a couple of robot nurse stories myself, and this helps with the perspective (just hope I get a Mark 18 when my time comes...).

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  5. It was indeed an interesting and creative tale with a unique and unexpected twist at the end. It did make one think about AI's and how much right we would have to terminate them. I was however a bit perplexed as to why an AI would be bedridden and also why they would not have Asimov's code or ethics so that the would do no harm? Yes, it was a robot against a robot (ai) but still why not such a program?

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