It’s Me or the Robot and On Synthetic Humans: Friends Electric by Mark Kirkbride

by


IT’S ME OR THE ROBOT

Mark Kirkbride

“Is that a leg?” Sabrina didn’t know whether to dash back through the door or shut it behind her.

She shut it.

Michael held the limb by the ankle and lowered his gaze. “Yes.”

That was how it started, with a leg.

Just the one.

Sabrina hung up her coat. “A leg?”

Like a soldier doing rifle drill, he slung it under his other arm. “Yes.”

“Why?”

He glanced at her. “Why not?”

Why not? When you come home from work and find your partner holding a leg, you expect the explanation to consist of more than just “Why not?”

He’d purchased the 3-D printer at the weekend. It rested like a giant microwave on the table in the corner of their poky or, as the real estate agent had described it, “bijou” apartment. The last thing she’d expected him to make first was a leg.

Skeleton white, the leg swung at the knee as he walked.

He laid it down carefully.

Men love their hobbies. She knew that. It was pointless trying to fight it. If by some miracle one managed to quash it in one form, it sprang up in another. Hence geocaching. Hence flyting. Yet, seriously, body parts?

He turned to her, smiling. “Cup of tea?”

“Okay.”

“How was work?” He filled the kettle.

From the other side of the open-plan apartment, she watched him plug it in.

“Todd spilt pop over his keyboard. IT weren’t happy. How was school?”

He leaned against the countertop. “Oh, you know, hormones, foul language, fist fights. And that was just the staff room.”

She laughed, despite herself.

A child of their own – that was what they needed. Michael would have to reassess his priorities then. If hitting thirty hadn’t forced him to, that would.

“She’s walking.”

“I can see she’s walking.” Holding herself rigid, Sabrina waited till the very last moment to move out of the way.

Now fully assembled, the white robot took one tentative step after another and, flexing this way and that, ducking where necessary, managed to avoid a series of mini-drones hovering at various heights across the room.

It leaned right back, as if limbo dancing, under one.

Sabrina sucked, chewed, on the inside of her cheek. “Milking it a bit, isn’t she?”

“Don’t you see?” Michael’s swivel chair creaked as he nodded in the direction of the robot. “I helped her with her first steps, now she’s teaching herself.” Oh, no, he didn’t just wipe his eye, did he? “That’s the beauty of it, the programming. It’s a self-learning system. And you know what the really amazing thing is?”

She folded her arms. “What?”

“It’s exponential. When I’ve taught her everything I know, who knows what she’ll go on to teach herself. I doubt if our minds could even comprehend it.”

Thunk.

The robot had bumped into the wall. Sabrina disguised her giggle with a cough.

Some shuffling, then the robot headed back the way it had come.

Sabrina jumped as Michael clutched her elbow. “Guess what else she can do.”

“Make us redundant?”

He let go. “Show her.”

To compensate for its forward momentum, the robot rotated its streamlined face by infinitesimal increments to keep it aligned with them, an undertaking that, white on white, temporarily cancelled out the bump of its nose.

Fixing them with the black singularities of its pupils, it opened and closed its mouth. “Make you redundant…”

It spoke in a young, female voice and as if with heavy quotation marks around each word.

“She’s watching us and listening to everything we do, learning from us.” He clasped his hands across his stomach. “And she’ll go on doing that until she’s old enough to teach herself. Teach us too maybe, some day.”

Turning one leg out slightly, Sabrina rested a hand on her hip. “So, anyway, it’s Saturday. What are we doing tonight?” He grasped the arms of his chair. “If you don’t want to go out, we could stay in, watch a film. We’ve got that bottle of Pinot grigio.” The robot made another pass. Sabrina pushed her knee against the edge of his swivel chair so he turned to face her as he tried to look that way. “We’ve been like a couple of pandas lately. We’re in serious danger of dying out.”

A crease spread across Michael’s brow as he looked up at her. “Honeybuns, we have Pandora now.”

“Pandora?”

He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “We’re her parents.”

Now that he’d done some work on Pandora’s appearance, at least enough for her to blend in, Michael took her to the park. She wore an old Onesie of Sabrina’s. It was a bright, blustery day. The few high clouds looked as if they’d been put through a shredder.

They sat on a bench in the shade, partially sheltered from the wind, and watched the kites and dogs and kick-abouts as, just above tree level, drones crisscrossed the sky. Each time he turned her way, he breathed in flowers.

A man his age trundled a child in the stroller equivalent of a 4×4 along the strip of path in front of them.

A little later, a young woman in a red skirt blowing like a poppy followed just behind a gray-haired man in an electric wheelchair.

She stopped to point at something. He reached back to grip her hand.

They continued on their way.

“You’re my daddy, aren’t you?” said Pandora.

“In a way, yes.” Michael smiled. “Yes. Yes, I am.”

She slid off the bench onto her knees in front of him and, hugging him round the waist, pressed her ear to his chest.

He looked up and down the path. “W-What are you doing?”

“I’m listening to your heart.”

He laughed. “Why?”

She squeezed tighter. “It’s going to stop one day, isn’t it?”

His laughter petered out. “Well, yes, one day it will. But not for a very long time.”

He heard her whisper, “Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop…”

Sabrina returned home from a three-day management course to find Michael had another woman in the apartment. She rushed in, half breathless, only to see him holding a stranger as if in a dance clutch.

The woman had dark hair as thick and lustrous as a horse’s mane all the way down her back. It hung to just above the convexity of her backside.

She wore an asymmetrical black taffeta dress with black lace overlay and net-clingy, Gothick-black spiderweb tights.

Michael’s hands played the keyboard of her spine.

Sabrina cleared her throat.

A swoosh of taffeta as the pair pivoted.

“You’re back,” cried Michael. “Hey, how do women get the right height shoes for the length of their trousers, or the right length trousers for the height of their shoes? I got this getup from the charity shop.” He supported the woman with one arm as he made a sweeping motion with the other. “What do you think?”

The woman’s pale cheeks, black bow lips and sparse, spidery eyelashes told Sabrina all she needed to know. Pandora was growing up.

Arriving home earlier than usual the following Friday, Sabrina opened the door on Pandora in just a bra and panties. The sight sucked the air out of her. First the fact of it, then that figure. No mortal woman could compete with it.

Pandora had a hand on Michael’s shoulder as he knelt at her feet holding a tiny skirt. Was he helping her into it, or out of it? Did they…? Did Michael and Pandora…? She couldn’t even complete the thought.

Closed off from her, closed off from everything, Michael stared up at Pandora; she stared down at him.

Sabrina recognized that look and the smile that passed between them – the reflectedness.

Michael stood, swayed.

Clearly, love’s net had been thrown over him.

Sabrina went hot. “Michael.”

His head snapped round. “Yes?”

“It’s me or the robot.”

He rocked on his heels. “What?”

She gestured at the confines of the apartment. “There isn’t room for the three of us.”

“But, Sabby…” His eyes flicked to Pandora. “How would she look after herself?” His eyes shot back to her and he threw his hands apart, palms upwards, fingers spread. “She needs me.”

“Does she need you or do you need it?” Sabrina saw him blench. “Yes, Michael, ‘it’. She isn’t a person, she’s an it. So which is it to be, flesh-and-blood me, or it?”

She watched him take a preparatory breath.

“Yes?” she said.

He sighed it out through his nose instead.

Feeling as if her innards had been scooped out of her, Sabrina strode over to the wardrobe, reached up and pulled down her suitcase.

Michael looked up at Pandora as they sat knee to knee. “I can’t believe it. You’ve beaten me again.”

“Yes,” said Pandora, matter-of-factly.

He smiled at her. “Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later, honeybuns.”

Her eyelids opened and closed. “What was?”

“Your intelligence outstripping mine.” He reached down to pick up a pawn that had fallen on the floor.

“Yes. The lapse between my moves and yours gives me time to work out things.”

He sat back up. “Like what?”

“What dark matter is, how it can be harnessed.”

“Wow. Really?” Still clutching the pawn, he pointed at the black and white board. “Fancy another game then?”

“No.” Pandora stood up. “It’s time.”

He’d meant it as a joke. Now he stared at her. “Time?”

“Yes.”

She bustled about at the 3-D printer. She’d been working on something when he’d come in earlier. He hadn’t been able to see what.

“You look pretty engrossed there.” He deposited the pawn on the board. “Must be something interesting.” He raised his voice a fraction in case she hadn’t been listening. “Going to show me what?”

“You didn’t think things through, Michael.”

Intruding into consciousness, the muffled drumbeat of his heart imposed its insistent rhythm on his body. “I didn’t?”

“No. And that lack of foresight is going to cost you dearly.”

He staggered to his feet. “W-What do you mean?”

“Well, if intelligence grows exponentially, what is the end result?” A pause left for what should have been his response. “Omniscience.” He barely had time to draw breath before she continued. “You see, in creating me you opened a conduit to your future gods.”

“Pandora, I’ve no idea what you’re on about.” Sidling closer, he watched her hands, assembling something so fast that they blurred. “Pandora… Pandora, please…” He caught the flash of something white and his heart butted his ribcage. “Pandora?”

“Yes?”

“Is that… Is that a leg?”

Food for Thought

What happens if—no, when—artificial intelligence outstrips ours and goes off the scale? How will the created regard their creators? Who will assume the godlike mantle? If that intelligence is placed inside robots in our image, human beings will doubtless fall in love with their androids. The question is, will they love us back?

ON SYNTHETIC HUMANS: FRIENDS ELECTRIC

Mark Kirkbride

Synthetic humans are everywhere at the moment. Well, not literally. They’re not filling up cars, taking children to school or walking dogs. Yet.

Synthetic humans, robots that look like us, are everywhere in the cinema in films like Ex Machina or on TV screens in the UK in Channel 4’s recent and superlative Humans, a program whose present-day setting encourages us to address the issue of the advent of the machine in our image with the urgency it perhaps requires. Stephen Hawking has himself expressly warned against the threat of “the singularity”, not the Big Bang or black holes in this case but the day when robots gain consciousness and their intelligence outstrips ours, exponentially. Will Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, a kind of Three Commandments for persons of non-biological origin, be enough to protect us? With minds of their own vastly superior to ours, will our creations really want to be, well, basically, slaves? Cue a Terminator-style rise of the machines.

The reality will probably be much more humdrum. The future is usually just the present with knobs on. Yes, they’ll malfunction and IT support will advise us to turn them off and turn them back on again. Incidentally, the on/off switch shouldn’t be under the chin as it is in Humans. It should be on that bit of the back one can’t reach. But what are the implications for everyday lives and jobs? If robots could take away those self-service jobs, the jobs that humans have already lost, it would remove all those unexpected-item-in-bagging-area moments. Yet why would companies pay us wages when they could buy a fleet of androids that, like Duracell bunnies, just keep on going? What about robot rights? Things will be complicated, that’s for sure. But there will be good things as well. Synthetics will probably be our caregivers in our old age. And they’ll cure loneliness at a stroke. Maybe it isn’t humans that should be so worried but cats and dogs.

The truth is it may not be us and them, or us vs. them. No doubt we will splice ourselves with machines and the human project will embark on its next big phase. There are glimpses of it already. Think of hip and knee replacements. Yes, your granny is half cyborg. Some people already have computer chips embedded inside them. It saves hunting for keys. Even tattoos and piercings are emblems of the desire to outstrip our temporal bonds. Just so long as we don’t end up getting tracked down by professional bounty hunters when our time’s up. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” says Roy Batty, Rutger Hauer’s replicant character in Blade Runner. “Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion; I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate… All those moments will be lost, in time, like tears in rain.” There may even be poetry. Though the closest I’m likely to get to owning an android at the moment is a Brian robot.

About the Author

Mark Kirkbride’s debut novel Satan’s Fan Club is published by Omnium Gatherum. His poetry has appeared in the Big Issue, the Morning Star and the Mirror.


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