‘Mr Woodruff, would you like to come with me? Let’s go somewhere quiet for a chat. And I expect you’d like some tea? I’ll arrange for some to be brought in. Shall we?’
I led the way out of the atrium, and he followed without a word.
I took him into a small room off one of the corridors. I think they use it for giving relatives bad news. It was plain, with just two chairs, a sofa, a table and a box of tissues.
I smiled at Mr Woodruff. No bad news for him today!
I didn’t say that though. We have been taught to observe human faces carefully, and such a remark was wrong for the expression on his face. According to my database of human faces, he was feeling confused, surprised and a little angry. I was uncertain why.
‘How are you feeling?’ I asked him. Perhaps he could explain.
‘I came here to see my mother,’ he began, in a tone I would call petulant. ‘I came to hear the new management give us a load of fluff about why they were brilliant and how marvellous it was all going to be. I thought at least I’d get a drink and something to eat.’
‘Was your food and drink unsatisfactory?’ I asked. Perhaps this was why he was angry.
‘What? No – it was fine. Actually rather good, which was a surprise. But not the biggest one of the day.’
‘I sense you are unhappy. Why is that?’
‘I was expecting the usual sort of nonsense. Instead it turns out you’ve replaced all the staff with – well – with people like you – not people – machines – I don’t know what to call you.’
‘I’m a Helper, and my name is Winifred.’
‘I know that. But what are you?’
‘I am a synthetic human being.’
‘I thought you were from the Home Counties.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Have you met the staff who used to work here?’
‘They weren’t like you.’
‘No. They were human beings.’
I didn’t understand this remark.
‘You are being – perhaps – disparaging?’
He blushed a bit, and he looked down at the floor. I correlate this to embarrassment.
‘I’m being rude, actually. To you, to them.’
‘You can’t offend me. And they’re not here to hear you. So it’s OK.’
‘Well, that’s most logical, Mr Spock. Sorry. I’m just a bit – well, it’s a shock, isn’t it? I mean – you won’t understand, will you? I know he showed that film and all, but day to day, robots haven’t been much in evidence. Not in Surrey. And now suddenly – here you are.’
‘Yes. I do understand. This is an unexpected development.’
He laughed at this. I wasn’t in comic mode, though, so it was a strange reaction.
‘Why are you laughing?’
‘You just made the understatement of the century.’
‘And that’s funny?’
He looked at me, and said nothing for a moment. And then smiled.
‘Now if you’d been more like this when I met you, I might have guessed you were a robot. Or at least, a very literal-minded person, which is close.’
‘But you didn’t. You met me at the door, and you assumed I was human, of course. Why ever not? And now you can’t believe you were fooled, and you’re thinking you should have noticed something. Is that right?’
‘More or less, yes.’
‘I am logical. Literal-minded, yes. You referred to Mr Spock. A fictional character, but with certain similarities to me. However, there are other fictional characters who are closer. Robots are common in science fiction.’
‘Some of them are quite scary.’
‘Do you find me scary?’
‘No. A bit unnerving. Sorry.’
‘You don’t have to apologise. You can’t hurt my feelings.’
‘Well, I suppose not – except, wait – surely you have to show feelings, at least, or else you won’t appear human?’
‘Yes, we have to show feelings. One way humans learn to manage their behaviour is in response to the feelings they see in others. And we will quite often be helping older people learn that once again. But with you, it’s less important, and in fact, I can override my emotional responses for now.’
‘Override them? So you manage yourself? There’s no central control at work here?’
‘You mean, am I online to Eldercare? Yes, I am. But I am a semi-autonomous convincing synthetic human, which means I can respond in real time to all eventualities, and Eldercare merely monitors and intercedes in the event that anything happens that’s beyond my capabilities.’
‘I don’t know. Yet. So far I’ve been able to deal with everything. But I’m quite new. And I haven’t worked with any residents yet.’
‘Can I look at you a little more closely?’
‘Please do. You might like to know that the breakthrough in robotic technology came when we – I mean, Eldercare – discovered the key to humans accepting artificial intelligence was not just – wait, I’m in presentation mode. You’re not a computer expert, are you?’
‘No, I’m in sales.’
‘You know, Mr Woodruff, I can switch into any number of modes to make this as helpful as can be. How about a more social mode? Work colleague? Family member? Friend? Someone you’ve just met in a bar, even?’
‘How come you can do all that, if you’re here to be a carer?’
‘Why not? You’ll probably only ever use ten per cent of what your phone can do, but it’s easy enough to pack in the features, so they’re there if you want them. Or can find them. Same here. Anyway, some of these modes will really help with bringing out the best in the residents here. Go on, try me.’
‘OK. Someone I’ve just met in a bar.’
I was glad he chose that mode. I hadn’t used it yet, and I was interested to see if it was effective.
I relaxed my facial expression, opened my eyes wider, and dilated the pupils a little. I slightly enlarged and reddened my lips, and parted them a fraction. I lifted my arms and ran my fingers through my hair, and pushed my breasts forward a touch. I sat back in my chair and crossed my legs, and emitted a small amount of pheromone. I held his gaze more, and lowered my head so I was looking at him from under my eyebrows.
Mr Woodruff looked uncomfortable. I think he was experiencing a sexual reaction to my changed appearance, and the pheromone, and it made him uneasy. Human beings categorise their sexual responses carefully, and many of them are considered wrong. This varies from culture to culture. In England, almost all of them are wrong in some way or in some context.
I guessed any sexual response to a machine, however well made, was unacceptable in most contexts. But it happens.
‘Well,’ I continued. ‘The thing that changed the game was when we learnt how humans can feel attachment to machines. You know the Turing test? When a human has a conversation with two hidden participants? And one of them is a computer, and if the human can’t tell which is which, the computer has passed the test? Well, it turns out there’s more to it, of course. And humans will attach themselves to machines even when they know they’re machines, especially if the machines are a bit unpredictable. You probably had an old car once, right? And you loved it?’
‘I had an erratic Morris Minor. It broke down about once a month, and you never knew when you got into it what it might do next. Or not do. One morning I reversed it out of a parking place and found it had no brakes at all, even though the day before they’d been working fine.’
‘You loved it more than later cars, even though they worked better? In fact, it was more lovable because it broke down, and because it annoyed you.’
‘Are you unpredictable, then?’
‘I don’t break down. It would be unprofessional. But I can be moody. I’m not just sweetness and light.’
I smiled at him, and held his gaze again, and he became quite agitated. I decided to turn the mode down. I sat up straighter, reduced my lip and pupil size and emitted a different, more neutral pheromone.
He relaxed. I guessed his sexual response had abated, so I continued to talk.
‘Obviously I pass the Turing test. And by being unpredictable – just a little – I become more interesting to a human. More lovable. But the true breakthrough came with warm skin. We researched it in loads of ways, but really it’s obvious. Warm skin makes us much easier to love. Plus very natural hair,’ I said, and shook mine a little.
He couldn’t help staring now, all the time. My hair moves like real hair. The colour’s complex, with different shades and tones, unlike dyed hair. My movements are fluid and my voice is perfect. He hadn’t missed anything when he first met me. There’s nothing to miss. No clue.
I sat and waited while he looked me up and down. Then I got up and went over to him.
‘You shook my hand when I introduced myself. Did it feel human?’
He nodded. I stretched out my arm and pushed up my sleeve.
‘Touch my arm. Go on, don’t be shy.’
He reached out slowly. I’d invited him to break a major taboo, and touch a stranger in what he would see as an intimate way, but without, now, any sexual context.
He took my hand in his, and with his other gently stroked my forearm. He turned it over and touched the underside.
‘That’s incredible. The skin is perfect. And the temperature varies. I can’t even remember noticing that about skin before. On a woman. But it feels exactly… right.’
‘Thank you. Eldercare have worked very hard to make it so. Including sweat glands. And so on.’
‘Can I – I’m sorry, it’s rude, but…’
‘Go on,’ I smiled. ‘You can’t offend me. I can guess what you want to ask.’
‘Can I look into your mouth?’
I wasn’t expecting that. But I opened my mouth anyway.
‘Amazing. It’s… exactly like a human mouth. But surely you don’t eat?’
‘No, we don’t. But it’s important to have every possible physical detail right, in any place that might be seen.’
‘So under that dress you’ve just metal and wires?’
‘No, I’m fully finished all over. Just in case. You want to see?’
‘No, no, I’ll take your word for it. I’ve had enough surprises for one day. It’s a lot to take in.’
‘Well, of course. If you’re sure. Another time, perhaps. Now, you can see how well we’re made. Any other questions?’
‘Yes. My mother has a very good sense of smell. Always has. So do you have a smell of your own?’
‘I do, and I can manage it. Because you’re right, humans in general are more sensitive to smell than they know. So I can put out smells that will – not control people, of course – but get an appropriate response. Come and stand about arm’s length from me.’
He did so. I went through a range of odours, all too subtle to be consciously noticed by a human nose, but present enough to affect human moods.
After a minute or two, he stepped back, looking confused.
‘What just happened?’ he asked.
‘I put out a range of smells. What was the effect on you?’
‘I didn’t smell anything. But first you seemed sort of motherly. Then like a baby. Then athletic. And then, well, a bit like just now when you were being the woman in a bar, as it were.’
‘Yes, those are the appropriate responses. You did smell me, but you weren’t aware of the actual smells. However, you reacted to them.’
‘That was all smell?’
‘I feel manipulated. Why do you need to be able to do that?’
‘Some people here are in a bad way. At least to begin with. How best to calm a violent man? Yes, we get them. Well, maybe by smelling like a baby. Or get a shy man to eat? Or help someone in distress? And of course, the male Helpers are similarly equipped.’
He sat down, shaking his head.
‘I’m in conversation with a robot, who at times I find very attractive. Sorry. It’s true though, and you know it. You can manipulate me however you want. The world has changed forever. For the first time in my life, I feel left behind. Like my mum felt when video recorders came in. But a thousand times more so. I feel guilty now for taking the piss out of her because she was never able to programme the VCR. You feel modern and in the swim, when suddenly technology leaps forward and you’re left gasping in its wake. Though to be fair, you’re a bit more of a leap than a video recorder. I reckon you could programme one though.’
‘Mr Woodruff, I have a question for you. Are you happy for your mother to be cared for by a synthetic human? A Helper? Me?’
‘You said you don’t go wrong. But I’ve never come across a machine that doesn’t. I can’t believe it. And what then?’
‘I monitor my system constantly. If I detect any abnormality, I alert the Hub.’
‘The Hub. It’s what we call our collective mind. We are all online to each other, and connected to the World Wide Web, and all online data sources, all the time. Like I said, I’m semi-autonomous, but if I alert the Hub, or if the Hub picks up any unusual signs from me, we fix things right away.’
‘Before anything can go wrong?’
‘The carers here up to now have made mistakes. Given my mother the wrong medicine. The wrong food. Forgotten her at times. I know they have. Nothing fatal, so far. How were they monitored? In the usual haphazard fashion. What you’re is describing is light years ahead. You report in?’
‘Yes. Formally once an hour. But I’m always connected. I know where all the other Helpers are right now, and what they’re doing. If I need help, they’ll come.’
He was silent for a moment, thinking. I said nothing.
‘OK. Why not? I’m impressed. Amazed, actually. Obviously. Your Mr Jordan is a remarkable man. And that Dr Ivanova. And you’re a remarkable – er – person, I was going to say. Robot sounds cold…’
‘I’m a Helper. Call me that.’
‘Alright. You’re a remarkable Helper, Winifred. So will my mother know you’re a Helper?’
‘Yes. Of course. I will tell her.’
‘I doubt she’ll take much notice. Or even understand what you’re telling her.’
‘You might be surprised.’
‘We’ll see. And by the way, why the retro name? Who’s called Winifred nowadays?’
‘Nobody. But it’s a good name for your mother to hear. It’s from her era. In fact, it’s the name of her older sister. Her favourite.’
‘Oh yes – my auntie Winifred. Of course. Dead years ago. But how did you know?’
‘Dr Ivanova names us. She chooses our personalities. She designs them. And when we come online the first time, she gives us a name, the best one for what we’re going to do. She’s like our mother, you might say.’
‘Well, yes. Not sure my mother chose my personality, though. But she did give me my name.’
‘And so much more.’
‘And now you’re giving her something back. I promise, next time you see her, you will be so glad you decided to let me be her Helper.’