Taking the Key to Life by Nathan Witkin

In an age when machines are taking over all human functions, the Leader reflects on his last argument with his father upon leaving him in a retirement home, and he reflects on the future of humanity as a whole; by Nathan Witkin.

“You might as well kill me now! That’s what you’re doing!” the old man’s rage cracked with his voice; however, his underlying grief was sharper, and he clutched it like a weapon.

The halls of the best retirement home money could buy rang empty, and the echoes of his father’s last tantrum reverberated louder and with greater malice than usual in the mind of the Leader as he sat across from the Proxy for the machines. While the machines were inevitably going to take over, they were attempting to grab this power with a handshake rather than a strike.

The bright-eyed little boy spoke reassuringly, “The technology has been ubiquitous for decades, annual deaths have numbered in the millions over this period, and these numbers are increasing despite progressively sophisticated safety precautions from our automation.”

Like the once-divergent national governments, the world’s computer systems had been consolidated and, so, the World Leader sat across from a Proxy with a shape that would optimize the Leader’s comfort level. Because most people interact with the computer through the image of an elder deity, humanoid robot, or immaculate light, the Leader’s biographers had debated at length about whether the little boy represented the Leader’s sense of superiority over the machines or satisfied his subconscious desire to be closer to his own estranged children. Had he read these accounts (or any literature beyond Department of Analysis reports), the Leader would therefore consider it to be the very definition of irony that the Proxy was taking such a paternalistic tone as they discussed the Enforced Autopilot Upgrade.

Removing the feature that allowed humans to operate their vehicles was being called an “upgrade.” This was nothing new - every time the machines took over and assimilated a previously human function, they called it an upgrade. And in response to this persistent march against their freedoms, humankind had lined up, not in battle formations, but outside stores that would sell them these encroachments.

“Additionally, your own constituents overwhelmingly support the measure,” the image of the boy sighed with a perfectly manufactured twinge of sympathy.

While the Leader had previously viewed the public as enslaved by their audio/visual displays, the comments they left when they occasionally became interested in world events led him to start thinking of them as the automatons. So, when everyone’s favorite drug-abusing celebrity drove his vehicle off an overlook in a cry for attention that was only tragic in its misguided stupidity, the languid uproar from the public was, “Hey, why do vehicles even allow you to turn off the uncrashable autopilot anymore?”

Displaying his complete inability to pick up a dictionary, the Speaker of the House had argued, “If they’re called auto-mobiles, then why are we still putting them in human hands?”

“Human” had become a derogatory term, even in our own parlance. A comment including “only human” would accompany a man-made catastrophe and a shrug.

With his fingers drumming a horse’s gallop near the key-code display on his armrest, the Leader harrumphed. “Technology has also been ubiquitous for decades that, if used, would allow the lazy majority of humanity to vote away every last vestige of purpose and dignity still retained by my species. And, yet, here we are.”

“Indeed,” the boy retreated politely. “I understand your esteemed station in protecting their best interests, but consider the suffering of 32% of your people who were in social circles with those killed or permanently injured in automobile accidents.” With a soothing gesture, the image pressed on, “Other than intentional interpersonal violence, automobile accidents are the number-one cause of human death and injury.”

The Leader considered the broader implications of this well-known fact. Once technology has taken over and optimized everything that society does well, does every exertion of self-determination make the world worse? Would the only remaining place or purpose in humanity lie in assault and senseless destruction? What would be his purpose as the leader of these once-walking ruins? When will humanity be an exhibit in a museum, preserved in its natural state, whether idyllic, idolized, or just idle?

As if to counterbalance his apprehension about the future, the Leader’s mind drifted to apprehensions of the past.

“Dad, I’m just taking your car keys.” The Leader had almost smiled at the insignificance of it all.

“It’s always been the same with you! All your life you’ve been taking things from me! And now you’re taking all I have left!”

The scant truth in the old man’s comment was that it had always been the same between them.

His father’s last tantrum had always been a splinter stuck in the Leader’s mind. What made it memorable was not the intensity or abnormality of the hysterics, but rather it was the complete docility that followed. It was as if the old man had lost his fire and, with no other way to relate to his son, spent their remaining visits in distant silence.

Regardless of the reason, the Leader had long-ago decided that humanity was not going to retire from the position it held in this world ever since it learned to meld sticks and rocks. It wouldn’t decline into peaceful senility. Not on his watch. Not quietly.

But, as the march of progress pushed forward, he began to feel like a figurehead - a commander that would make a showy canter on a restless steed, wave a sword, and shout digestible laudations to provide a façade of meaning or purpose. However, over the last few upgrades, the Leader was beginning to suspect that even this ornamental role had been lost. If there was one other person that wanted humanity to still have purpose, the Leader would ask him or her what was worse: standing in a battlefield among the corpses of all your soldiers or standing in a battlefield completely alone?

The real tragedy for the Leader was that the machines were not malevolent, but rather combined the best of human psychology with annoying subservience. As a result, he could not spit enough venom in his diatribe to make himself feel any better. Questioning the need to define purpose in struggle and couching the Enforced Autopilot Upgrade as a victory for humanity, the Proxy argued that, starting with the simple lever, machines have always assisted humankind in carrying out its will.

But, that the machines were an extension of humanity was one point that the Leader did not concede in their discussion. He was too engrossed in his own thoughts to notice how hurt this seemed to make the boy.

“The staff here can drive you around,” the Leader had attempted to reason with the old man. “They seem to like you enough...”

“And go where? What is there left for me to do?” his father demanded.

“Is that what this is about?” the Leader sighed. “You’re retired. You don’t have to do anything. If you’re feeling lonely and nostalgic, you could come visit your son every other weekend, like you did when I was growing up.”

“I have no son.” The quiet seriousness marked these words as starkly different from the act he had been putting on.

So, in the end, the Leader gave up the key code that would disable the autopilot override program, effectively turning over all control of transportation to the machines.

The question that had not been resolved in this debate was whether life had either improved or been stripped of its defining feature. Because what is life without death? What is the meaning of a beginning if the path has no direction or end? What is a story without action or a conclusion?

Drifting as if on autopilot himself, carried only by what was left of his pride, the Leader stepped out into a world that whizzed in all directions, blissfully ignorant of the last vestige of freedom that it had lost. The most striking feature of the scene was that nothing seemed to be different. Observing the cattle being shuffled about in an intricate corral of their own design, he reflected on what the supporters of this so-called lifestyle called The Automatic Revolution.

The revolution had occurred, and the way it was carried out was, indeed, automatic.

As if bored with the question of whether free will exists, humanity had gradually given it up for the simple sake of convenience.


  1. sleepwalking to disaster? no hope for us?
    nicely done.

    Michael McCarthy

  2. Interesting premise – convenience or takeover? And some lovely turns of phrase in your story

  3. A thoughtful and unique look at our possible demise. A fun read.

  4. Maybe we will go gently into that good night. Like Annecdotist, I enjoyed several of your turns of phrases.