Today was the worst day of Bob’s life.
The only consolation to be drawn from that, was the fact that it also happened to be the last day of Bob’s life. Although, in a typical moment of bitter resentment, Bob would probably have claimed he had never really lived at all.
If someone from the late 20th to early 21st century had met Bob the day before all this happened, and particularly if they had met him at home, they would scarcely have believed he had anything to complain about. This was because, on a materialistic level, Bob had everything. His home would have had a Feng Shui expert clapping their hands in approval. Every object, every piece of furniture, every home appliance, was not just superbly functional but also uncannily tuned to fit in with his lifestyle. You would have thought anybody would be mightily content to be in Bob’s situation and, to be honest, just about everybody else was. But not Bob. Only Bob could see through the materialistic cornucopia and identify the spiritual void that lay beneath.
He knew what others seemingly did not know (or maybe knew but could not be bothered to care). None of this was for his benefit. No matter what short-term pleasure he got from his latest purchase, he was not really shopping because he wanted to, but because he HAD to. He was compelled to. They demanded it.
The day before all this happened, Bob had been staring out of the window in his luxurious apartment at the bustling street below. If someone from the early 21st century had been at his side, the street probably would not have conformed to expectations. They would have looked for Them (in Bob’s mind ‘They’ were always spelled with a captial ‘T’) and seen no evidence of their existence. They would have seen people going to and fro, maybe walking down the street, maybe travelling by car. Happy people, walking into department stores and walking out clutching the latest must-have accessories. But they would not have seen any robots. No humanoid robots, that is. But, looking closer they may have noticed nobody was actually driving the vehicles. They may have noticed some strange, autonomous contraption cleaning windows, pruning hedges. You had to look very closely t o notice the robots. They were like the creatures who live in rainforests. Hundreds of species every few feet, but so superbly integrated into their natural habitat that you could walk past them and not know they were there.
They had spread gradually. Semi-autonomous machines gave way to fully-autonomous machines that could do some narrow task as well as a person. Only, these machines required a one-off payment. The company paid money to buy the machine, and thereafter it demanded no paycheque, no holiday entitlement, no sick leave. It worked tirelessly 24/7. And so, inevitably, the humans who were employed in that particular area walked into work one day to find they were employed no longer. But that was OK. There were other jobs. But, then the tide of automation rose steadily higher and more jobs were lost. An increasing percentage of out-of-work people were chasing a decreasing percentage of jobs that still required human beings.
Those were supposedly the black days. People back then had to contend with the fact that- in employment terms at least- they were truly useless. The entire concept that linked pay with work was obsolete, but for a while this obvious fact was ignored. People were forced out to look for jobs that no longer existed, paid a pittence in job-seekers allowance and made to feel guilty if they were not ‘out there’ always looking for work.
And then, it happened. A few people had become very rich, because they owned stock in trusts that owned automated industries. They lived very comfortably off their stock incomes. They were like the capitalist landowners of Feudal times, and the robots played the role of slaves or serfs. People who were not shareholders in automated industries were simply unnecessary. All very hunky-dory until the intelligent agents that took care of accounts realised money was being squandered. It was better to reinvest everything in productive operations and development, rather than pay an income to these shareholders. And so, some robotic companies became fully automated at every level. Just as humans had been pushed out of labour markets by cheaper and better robotic manual workers, now the same thing was happening to owners- pushed aside by cheaper and more effective robotic decision makers.
However, the ultimate dystopian scenario in which humans were squeezed out of existence by superior competitors never came about. Humans still made the laws, and they reworked the laws in their favour. Corporate taxes and all Corporate laws were set in their own self-interest. In a nutshell, it worked like this. The robotic industries were heavily taxed, and the money generated was used to give every person social security from birth. From day one, you were retired and you had a healthy pension. The robots, meanwhile, competed mightily among themselves to produce goods which those social-security-rich humans would want to buy. The companies that could not sell products could not pay their taxes. They disappeared. Those that survived had to contend with rivals and they strived to outperform each other.
Artificial intelligences emerged that were experts in human psychology, particularly in areas concerned with how the brain filtered information and perceived value. And what they did with that knowledge was make advertisements. Advertisements that got into your head and made this or that item the absolute must-have accessory. And when you bought this item, the short-term spike of happiness was akin to a drug fix. It was as if your life had been infused with new meaning. It did not last, however, and inevitably within days the high had worn off. And, as sure as night follows day, soon yet another advert was working its way into the mind, gently whispering seductive promises of personal fulfilment and back to the shop you went, store card in hand.
The automated industries were constantly churning out products, all of them with built-in obsolescence. Waste was not a problem; atomically-precise manufacturing ensured every product which was no longer fashionable could be completely recycled. Each and every person lived in a perpetual state of anticipation that bliss was one more purchase away. It was a golden age of materialistic wealth and shop therapy, and most people were very content. But not Bob. Bob was suckered by those marketing campaigns like everyone else, and dutifully spent his money like everyone else. But, unlike everyone else he had seen through the superficial value and realised what a sham his so-called ‘life’ was.
There was no denying the fact that the robots had become extraordinarily good at manufacturing products people wanted to buy. There was also no denying the fact that their marketing campaigns showed brilliant insight into human psychology. All of which made the so-called ’Last Obstacle’ all the more mysterious. Basically, there was still no AI that could pass the imitation test. They just could not converse in natural language and convince a person that they were talking to a fellow human being. This was not for lack of trying. Bob knew just about every prior failure; it gave him some sense of satisfaction to know those damned machines were still inferior, if only in this one narrow sense. One approach had been ’whole brain emulation’. The brain had been reverse-engineered at the cellular level and this had helped crack the problem of machine vision, but nothing like conversational ability had been achieved. Then the brain was scanned at the molecular level. All that did was produce robots who were paranoid. Bob was not sure what happened to those robots, forever locked in a mental world in which everything seemed bad and frankly, he did not care. He had too many of his own problems to spare much thought for some faulty imitation person. But apparently, other people did care. The machines had considered going for the level at which quantum physics had to be taken into account- scanning the brain at the atomic level. But the stories of conscious minds locked in a mental prison of psychosis proved too much. Whole-brain emulation was forbidden by law.
Bob knew, though, that the robots had not given up on the goal of cracking this one remaining obstacle. He followed their progress obsessively, and every day he breathed a sigh of relief at their failure. But, then he heard about the ’checkout girl’. The marketing campaign had touted it as the best thing since sliced bread. No longer would people walk through automated and impersonal checkout lines. Now, a friendly personality would be there to greet them and converse with them as human to human.
Could it really be true? Was this prototype humanoid robot capable of acting fully like a human? Bob closed his eyes and recited, as if in prayer, ’don’t let it be true’. He put a revolver into his pocket and headed for the store that was demonstrating the first prototype. Damned machine, if it passed the imitation test, he was going to terminate it. He did not know what good that would do; he just knew he would have tremendous satisfaction in blowing its circuits to kingdom come.
And so Bob ended up joining the queue of people eager to have the opportunity to interact with this ‘checkout girl’. He had some notion that this throng of people was peculiar. There was excitement in the air, as if they were waiting in line to get an autograph from some celebrity. Bob had never really known a time when people actually did jobs like the one ‘checkout girl’ was now doing. That was way before his time. But he knew enough history to understand that such people were hardly considered to be rock stars. In fact, he had read that people barely registered the existence of the likes of ‘checkout girl’. She was just part of the process that enabled them to purchase material goods. Conversation might extend to a muttered ‘hello’ and maybe ‘thanks’, but there was certainly none of the ongoing chin-wagging that each person was indulging in, as ‘checkout girl’ greeted each person and ran up their bill while talking away.
Bob had a feeling that, if this were the old days when most people had a real job to go to, such lengthy chats would not have been tolerated. Back then, time was a precious resource and the growing queues would have sent out mighty vibes of bad attitude. People would have hurried along, paid for their goods and gotten the hell out of the way. But now things were different. Everybody was retired; no need to rush. And besides, the marketing campaign had woven its message into people’s minds until coming to this store and being served by ‘checkout girl’- with friendly natural language conversation for those who wanted it- had taken on the significance of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Bob could hardly make it out at first, because he was at the back of a large throng of folk. But gradually the queue went down and it came into view. As Bob drew steadily closer to the prototype robot his heart sunk, but at the same time he had to grudgingly admire the artistry of this creation. Take all of your preconceptions of robots with stiff movements and plastic skin and throw them away. This robot was nothing like that. It was a perfect imitation of a human being- organic in appearance and movement. As he drew closer still, Bob could see that she displayed micro expressions that were brilliantly lifelike. ‘She’? Damn it!, already this thing had fooled him into treating it like a human being. He tried hard to see this person as the fake it really was, but the illusion of a living, breathing human persisted, solid and absolute.
Finally, it was Bob who put his purchases down on the checkout line and faced ‘checkout girl’. Apparently, she (it….IT!) had a name. ‘Alice’. That was all the name tag said. No surname, just ‘Alice’. And Alice had a smile. Bob had looked up from her nametag and that smile…it made him feel good. It made him feel as though every time he had passed through an automated checkout line, something essential had been missing. Something that was embodied in this friendly face which now addressed him.
“Hiya. Wow, I feel like a star or something”.
Feeling good did not make Bob feel good. It made him feel confused. In his pocket he could feel the weight of the gun and it reminded him of his purpose today. He was here to destroy this final insult to human superiority, not to smile back and converse with it as he would a real person. And yet, there he was, chatting away with ‘Alice’. She did not show any signs of the faults in natural language capability that had plagued all previous attempts to beat the imitation test. He liked her, but somehow that made him angry inside. They were winning! They were winning the war against humans without firing a shot! Hey, you lot are utterly irrelevant now. We have replaced you in every possible way. Your credit card is the only thing that matters to us. You are a life-support system for money. Spend! Spend! Spend!.
Bob shook the illusion out of his head. This was no friendly girl, this was the enemy. With hardened resolve he took the gun out of his pocket and, before anyone or anything could prevent it, aimed the revolver at the robot’s head and pulled the trigger.
And at that precise moment Bob realised he had made a catastrophic error.
A sizeable chunk of Alice’s head was blown off by the bullet and what sprayed out in every direction was not micro circuitry but blood and brain tissue. Alice’s body slumped over the cash register and Bob hardly heard the screams of the people around him. The robots had not succeeded in creating an artificial person at all. Instead, they had simply come to the recognition that there was already such an intelligence in existence. Alice was just another human being.
Bob looked down at his gun, still smoking away. A smoking gun, the signature of murder. That was what he was- a murderer. Bob took the gun and placed the barrel into his mouth. He fired one round and it blew his head to pieces. The force of the gunshot threw Bob onto his back but it did not kill him. Bob was still conscious, somehow able to look up at the ceiling of the department store. Great, he could not even accomplish something as simple as a suicide.
Then, he noticed a monitor displaying CTV footage. Evidently, somewhere close by, a camera was tracking into his position. On the screen he saw his own feet, then his legs, then his torso. He desperately wanted to look away before the screen showed the gory mess that was left of his head, but his gaze was transfixed. And when his head finally came into view- or what was left of it- Bob laughed. It was the laugh of a maniac, the laugh of someone who has realised their entire worldview has just come crashing down.
Because, what the footage showed, was not blood and gore but the most sophisticated micro circuitry Bob had ever beheld.
He was a robot. Suddenly, his paranoia over robots made perfect sense. Of course he was paranoid- that was the defining feature of robots created through whole-brain emulation. He did not spend any time trying to work out how he had gotten out into the community. He did not bother with any existential angst over false memories and the notion that his childhood never really happened. Instead he just put the gun to the remains of his neuromorphic ‘brain’ and blew it to smithereens.
It was not suicide, it was merely termination of defective product.