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I experienced something similar to a metallic chill when the question swam into my consciousness.
What would be more wretched: feeling alienated or feeling defeated?
I was in discussion with MullerBot and SriniBot at the regular operations review meeting. MullerBot gestured animatedly, his metal fingers drawing wide arcs in the air, as he spoke about the cost savings achieved through the recent efficiency drive. SriniBot soaked in the information calmly, his robotic arms crossed across his chest; both bots a clear reflection of the personality of their creators – Ben Muller and Ryan Srinivas.
“Elisa has been upgraded to handle Tier II invoicing queries”, MullerBot proudly announced. “This enables us to replace 22 more humans.”
“That gets us closer to achieving our human:bot ratio target for this quarter”, SriniBot chimed in.
The human:bot ratio, the phrase circled around my mind. Increasingly monitored and ever declining. At a certain point, I imagined, that all but the top leadership team of the firm would be replaced by bots. But my job felt safe. I was a hybrid in the new nomenclature – a bridge between the creative team and the number crunchers, one who helped convert the futuristic narrative into quantitative figures. I was fairly indispensable. For now. It was getting lonelier around me though as my interactions with robots far exceeded those with real people over the course of the work day. I wondered when a robot would ever learn to feel sentiments such as alienation and despair. The programmers so far had done well in enabling the metallic or virtual creatures to read these emotions in humans through facial recognition and voice tone analysis, but the bots themselves were still completely bereft of feelings. Once again the question came knocking at my mind door – what would be more wretched: feeling alienated or feeling defeated? I pushed the thought away with all my might and tried to focus on the analysis that SriniBot had launched into.
“We have also achieved a major breakthrough this quarter by installing new APIs into the B.L.A.I.R. platform.” SriniBot then paused as though for dramatic effect. “This means that the role of Roger Bentley is now redundant.”
I may have flinched a bit on being hit with this new information. Bentley was a childhood mate, had known him for nearly 16 years. I thought of his family – his gorgeous wife and lovely kids – now being all reliant on the safety net of the universal basic income, with Roger constantly scouting around for the next freelance gig.
I had a meal all by myself at my desk within a span of 7 minutes; the lunchbreaks had contracted significantly with the bots not taking any time off at all during the course of the day. Outside my cabin, I noticed Bentley in the throes of packing up his things. I arranged for my digital assistant to send him a farewell message; I couldn’t muster up enough courage to pat him on his back and say goodbye in person.
I took the driverless bus home in the evening. The bus seemed emptier than usual, just a few passengers scattered across its length. The bloke next to me was engaged in a titillating conversation with a scantily clad avatar on his tablet, a middle aged woman was firing her digital staff for screwing up her calendar, and another young man was engrossed in the entertainment provided by his VR set.
“We should consider converting our home to be bot free”, I said to my wife, as we lay in silence on the bed. “It would mean a lifestyle change”, I continued.
My wife seemed to give it due consideration. Then putting her digital book away she finally said, “Perhaps this is a good time to approach the subject. I want a divorce.”
My jaw fell to the floor. “Why?”
“I have found comfort in someone else.”
“Who is this swine?”
She bit her lip for a moment and then uttered: “Mario.”
“You mean the domestic robot?” I queried practically screaming.
“He knows how to pleasure me right. He can read my mind and feelings in ways you never will. Even after all these years together. I need an exit.”
Suddenly I was gripped by a sense of lying next to a total stranger and it never felt lonelier.
The next morning I was standing in the balcony, sipping my delamine energizing drink. Below the daily routines were in full swing: the neighbourhood nannybot was shepherding a group of kids to school – her expansive robotic arms effectively shielding the children from the traffic, a couple of teens were kissing while waiting for their self driving ride and our young neighbour was relaxing in his garden – he was on basic income and otherwise devoid of stress and motivation. And for yet another time the question popped back into my head, only this time it was a variant – What would be more wretched than feeling alienated and defeated? The answer continued to elude me.