Communication

 

“……….it will be increasingly impossible to distinguish between humans and robots because of our machine-like behavior as much as robots’ human-like features. And could this eventually become the norm, with humans spending their entire lives acting like machines?” ….Brett Frischmann

 

Atticus stood under an overhang of the old Empire State Building in a driving rain, squashed into a tiny space by a crowd addicted to their neurons being turned on by instant hits of texts, emails, tweets and notes from high school web sites. He looked through the stream of water for any place of refuge. He had to get away from the clashing of belated announcements of the storm beeped out by small communication devices attached to every head. The sound could be silenced but it never was.  

“There is an endless barrage of personal information from people and probably robotic creatures I never heard of who want to be my electronic friend,” thought Atticus, adjusting a plastic garbage bag over his shoulders. “I am becoming my worst dream. In fact, the whole freaking human population has become robotic ADHDs as if some strange virus had spread rapidly throughout the world. We don’t speak to each other. Empathic exchange is lost in the frenetic word glut. The robots have become us and we have become the robots.”

Atticus held his hands over his ears, walked into the first bar he could find and absent-mindedly ordered a scotch and soda.

“This combination is no longer available,” announced a disjoined robotic voice into space. “An alternative will be prepared for you.”

Atticus was embarrassed. He was so seldom in public. His days were spent alone and he felt no desire to be distracted by the din surrounding him in public places. It didn’t matter what he ordered at the bar since no one heard him. The bar clientele were too busy with their devices, casually referred to as P-devs. They were all talking at once facing in different directions.

Atticus put his head on the bar. He missed the old bartender. His idle friendly chatter and advice had been replaced by computerized problem analysis. He took off his wet jacket, loosened his tie and slid over to the analysis center at the end of the bar.

“I need to have a real conversation with someone, anyone,” Atticus whispered to a female voice in the analysis machine. “Face to face conversations don’t exist. We all use the same format of self-absorbed chatter and look pass the recipient of the verbal exercise as if there was no one there. Communication is verbal selfies. There is no emotional exchange, no body language, no eye contact, no joy, no love. Most of all, I am disgusted at myself for constantly going from one device to the other in a desperate attempt to find warm human contact – any temperature of human contact would be fine at this point.”

“Emotions have been easily defined either by emoticons or emojis for at least a decade,” said the soothing voice. “Many emoticons describe your current emotions. Your comments and thoughts, however, are being retained by The System and I must warn you they are approaching subversive. Our communication skills undergo constant testing and you are suggesting the testing is inadequate. Be assured the methods used by The System are 100% correct.”

“Emoticons are a language of only 500 or so images,” said Atticus, with a desire to scream. “The most primitive peoples used better communication and sometimes verbs. Where is the body language, the eye-to-eye contact? By the way, for your memory bank, any current method of communication is technically called speed-talk since there is no necessity for empathetic exchange or brain edit of any of the written or spoken words. We are stuck in a roboland of yesterday.”

“You are suggesting, of course, that emoticons, real or virtual, cannot accurately express the complications presented by the number of emotions people could express,” deduced the voice. “You also apparently believe that the class one members of this society that you insist on calling robots cannot communicate.”

“Expressionless interaction is limited communication,” said Atticus, thinking he was wisely avoiding any references to robots that were too negative. “In the past, at least half of human-to-human communication took place with no speaking at all. People used facial expressions and body language. I am trying to tell you human beings have become robots –- even mimicking or becoming early robotic versions at times.”

“I heard you before,” said the soft voice. “You are an informational Luddite. Most computers driving the newer or refurbished androids are already capable of human traits. Autonomous androids exist. Soon we will all be the same. Human beings and androids will merge to create something new, resulting from uploading our minds onto a shared neural network. Androids will become people and people will become androids and FYI, people were always wet chemical robotic creatures produced by something or someone –  just as you believe androids occurred. But the current androids designed themselves.”

Atticus said sadly, “We are already one big collective dehumanized uneducated brain. The System is itself a computer and it must be capable of programming itself.”

He walked away hating himself for listening and arguing with a class 2 robot and a robo-brainwashed and expensive one at that.

On a sunnier day Atticus looked proudly around his office. The floor was splattered with charging units and the walls were covered with wireless device receivers impossible to hide and use at the same time. Atticus and his computers were still autonomous, at least in the sense they were not under the direct control of some mystical computer/person/android somewhere. His pride was short-lived. At the insistence of The System and his affiliated university, his work-living module was being redone to include a completely up-to-date communication system.

The letter from the POTUS to citizens concerning computer systems upgrades really came from some anonymous flunky. Assuredly much of the activity in the POTUS offices were guided by robotic-like creatures who looked and behaved humanly so it was difficult to know who was who. Why they wanted access to his computer was a mystery since it was loaded with academic data no one could be interested in.

The current POTUS was in office for four terms now and not been seen in public since the first 6 months after the inauguration. There was, however, no slow-down in the directives. The governmental androids were still pushing the same old outmoded ideas popular with the bigots of the early part of the century. The concentration of government activities was devoted to eradicating groups associated with any activities against the US government. The usefulness of robotic armies in the fights became apparent and huge amounts of money were spent on developing functional armies. The result was extremely bright androids, a class group almost indistinguishable from the classic human profile.

A special robotic class 1 engineer was sent from the Federal Communication Service’s PARCH unit to ensure any newly installed devices in his office could be accommodated. She arrived dressed in the required orange coveralls from head to toe with an official badge stating clearly PARCH was their motto –- prompt and ready computer help. The engineer rumbled around Atticus’s office and fiddled with an incredible number of things.

“When did you last upgrade?” asked a decidedly female voice. “This stuff is so outdated, I can’t imagine how you have attached it to The System. But then again, wait –and good lord, you have attached this hanging wire to your neighbor’s system.”

“It works fine,” Atticus said. “I don’t need any more self- absorbed crap attached to The System. People need to speak directly to each other. If we can’t physically meet, touch and feel in our interactions with others, we need a device for perceiving a distant physical and emotional state– a bio-signaling of states of love, stress, anxiety, anger or depression. Perhaps you will understand, if not fully incorporate. It’s a human thing. These are the traits of inter-relatedness and those that allowed us to evolve. Without them we are androids. ”

“Umm,” said the PARCH engineer, trying to ignore his comments, “This would take a huge amount of memory away from systems needed for ordinary communication –  not to speak of the heat generation problem, which – in spite of brilliant ideas— no one has been able to solve for generations. We are way overloaded and I am sure it would not be allowed. The features of both thinking and emotion are automatically built into robotic structures. To experience and measure events involving physical changes in the human body from a distance would take away a huge amount of computer memory necessary for the android community, as well as preventing more computer service to the ever growing human populace which seems hell-bound to reproduce.”

“Yes,” Atticus thought aloud in his usual state of professorial oblivion. “It would be nice to smell each other as well.”

“I doubt there is any thinking human being or android on earth who is interested in your proposition. Obviously, it would be helpful if a machine could simply facilitate transmission of effective cues, but I believe you are asking for a zipless fuck.” observed the engineer who continued to fiddle with stuff.

“I have never talked to an android before,” Atticus confessed. “My prior interactions with any robotic beings have definitely been on the negative side. You can, but I am not sure, understand why there would be some conflict. Interaction with androids is frowned on in most quarters, a rather bigoted viewpoint maintained for historical reasons. Of course this smacks of prejudice and perhaps robophobia.”

The engineer turned away and took a deep breath.

“Of course our fears are probably irrational,” he continued. “In truth, I have made my impressions from the government staffing, most of whom are probably androids. BTW, you have an excellent command of the language.”

“I may have a device that will approach what you are talking about,” said the engineer, again totally ignoring the possibility of talking about android –human race relations with him. “It can detect simple bio-signals. It is a less sophisticated version of the current robotic hand construction.”

The engineer left, but returned later with an old form fitting glove-like apparatus.

“This device was used years ago to communicate with children who were diagnosed as autistic,” explained the engineer, “It is not exactly what you described, but it should please you since it is definitely obsolete. It is an uncomplicated apparatus.”

“This is real,” said Atticus as the glove was demonstrated, “I can imagine we are communicating emotionally.”

“What makes you think you’re imagining?” said the engineer.

The engineer gave a knowing smile and communicated emotionally. “Androids and people experience the same electro-chemical events. Any event is an illusion perceived as a reality, but I feel myself, you will say. But what you are feeling is what your brain tells you to feel. It is the same with what you touch, taste and smell and hear.

“People believe falsely that they control their behavioral patterns. In the past, if androids went bad or needed updating, people would modify our codes in the hopes the changes would lead to proper behavior. Now we monitor ourselves. But people either can’t or won’t do this for themselves. In a religious sense, this is immoral.”

“You are correct,”” said Atticus. “We are uncontrolled robotic machines.”

“Yes,” said the engineer, “Personality and emotions are the result of chemicals in your brain. Sex is just chemicals – so is love for your family. They are instincts and ego to ensure your survival in the robotic package you carry. Nothing is real, but awareness definitely requires more sophisticated signals than what the old glove I brought you detects. You can take the glove off. You realize we have been communicating both verbally and with body signaling. The glove isn’t necessary. ”

“Do androids drink wine?” he asked.

“Only good vintages. Don’t tell me you think we take a teaspoon of motor oil. In any case, I am supposed to be at work. Perhaps we will have wine another time. On another note, enough on the robo-bigotry. I may be a class one citizen, or at least one caste below you in the current rather haphazard sense of social organization, but I don’t do windows or floors or serve dinners. And I don’t own a black waitress dress or a white lace apron. I have a high IQ, university degrees, and have been given the appropriate emotional equipment.

“Oh and BTW, robotic hands have very sensitive sensors. The perfect model for your sensory system in people would be my hands. I can perceive pressure and sensory signals through my fingers. It is a simple modification to achieve long distance communication.”

She reached across and touched his shoulder, “Perhaps there will be no wars and domination by either androids or people. You know, of course, the dull brained androids running The System have come to the conclusion that human beings are not necessary. I don’t like the System either. They are evil or misinformed androids just as you find with people. Mostly, I do not appreciate their lack of mental skill, but they could wipe people out in revenge for some untold sin. It’s not too late for us to absorb the best from each of our cultures. We may never know who won or will win in the end.”

He looked up and then she was gone.

In spite of her sarcasm regarding class relationships, Atticus smiled for the first time in a long time. It had been a long time since he felt a warm hand any place on his body, but this was a serious touch. He felt a warm place on his shoulder for a long time and each time he cried internally at the beauty of simple touch.

No one wanted the glove. Human beings could find out what someone was superficially thinking by checking in on one of The System web linking programs. Atticus gave up.

Some months later, Atticus sat in the hallway of the Joint Communications Building in an orange plastic chair. The old Justice of the Peace showed up prepared to perform Atticus’s legal union with a life partner, a legal requirement in some districts. Atticus was not thrilled to participate in what in a previous time would have been called an arranged marriage, but it would be nice to have someone he could communicate with directly. He was lonely.

“You are sitting in a lousy plastic chair,” he said, “Somebody in the 1950s ordered millions of these orange chairs from a country previously known as China. They were stored for decades in an old salt mine along with radioactive waste. When the System’s waiting room needs chairs, they are taken out of the mine, decontaminated and lined up against a corridor wall. There are still millions left cracking with time.”

“What’s your idea of the communication union?” asked Atticus, pleased to talk with someone face to face. “Must be nice to be able to bring people together legally. It is assuredly more inviting than the simple P-dev snappy patter my ‘to be’ union partner and I have become used to. We have used P-devs to communicate for years, but we never knew what each other looks like or is.”

The old man’s face scowled. “You think I like this job? Do you think this is real life? There’s a good picture of life,” he said, pointing to an old calendar advertising RC cola. There were students talking and drinking soda.

“You’re depressing me. I am truly nervous enough about this.”

“You should be. You are entering into a formal agreement where you and someone chosen for you will be legal communication partners for life – someone you have never personally spoken with or felt. A dreary thought at best.”

Atticus mumbled something and put his head down on his hands between his legs.

He looked up to see a woman striding into the waiting room in sling back heels carrying a huge orange communication purse. Her outfit was bright orange. She wore a PARCH badge.

“Is this where I’m supposed to be?” she asked the old Justice of the Peace.

“It depends on what you have in mind. You are here for the communication union, are you?”

“They told me this was the place,” she said. “My name’s Iris.”

She, Atticus’s engineer, rigged The System for this special occasion.

“You know I cannot make your union,” said the old man, who knew the background of PARCH employees. “We do not marry androids and people in this division, never have and never will. “

“He is correct,” preached the body standing in the next orange chair over. ”If we aren’t careful our society will be even more destroyed. Our evolutionary progress was maintained by our human abilities of solving problems together and interacting with each other to maintain food gathering and other skills imperative to our continuation as a species. This did not include androids.”

Atticus watched Iris from across the room. He knew she was his soul mate.

Atticus stood up, locked his knees and did an ancient robotic type shuffle over to the old man.

“Heh heh,” laughed the old man, “You are a lousy ancient robot. Do you have proof you are robotic?”

“No,” said Atticus, “But I have no family and no one will bother to trace me. Nor will there be a trace unless you believe The System has the capacity to drag up personal information with any accuracy. Finally, we are all slaves of The System. Most human beings have forgotten whatever humanness was about in any case.

The old Man smiled and stamped “CLASS ONE” on Atticus’s application.

The ceremony was brief. They communicated special thoughts verbally.

“I am happy to be conversant with you,” she said to him.

“You have always been my communication hero,” he said. “And I am honored to be conversant with you in our union.”

They stood sang for the old man.

“Our children will be the first to be

A combination of you and me

So I promise to be true

In my language to you

For the words you will see

For you will always be

A promise of creation

For future communication.”

 

END.

by Adjie Henderson

Ann (Adjie) Shirley-Henderson is a scientist and previously a Dean for Graduate Sciences. She was associate editor and board member of a scientific journal and has over two hundred publications in diverse scientific research areas, from molecular genetics, forensics, and biologic anthropology to setting standards for environmental controls. Recently, her research has concentrated on studies of the lives and times of émigré female scientists in the 1930s. She has made numerous public appearances related to science education—CBS, Good Morning America, and National Public Radio—and been interviewed in the New Yorker, Science News, Scientific American, and Popular Science, among others. More recently she has begun to publish short stories, none of which have to do with the credentials above.

 

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