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White Mirror, S1E7
I’m convinced that if we are going to change the direction of humanity for the good, we need new, uplifting stories that get people excited for the future, not dreading it.
—Infinite Loops’ guest Sam McRoberts, upon reading the stories submitted by @TinkeredThinker for the White Mirror challenge.
With great pleasure, we are announcing @TinkeredThinker as the winner of this challenge, accompanied by a $1000 cash prize and an open invitation to come as a guest on the podcast!
Tinkered Thinking submitted not one, but ten inspiring and uplifting stories as part of the competition, and here’s the winning story:
A LUCILIUS PARABLE: AUTOMATED SAVE
In the third decade of the 21st Century, humanity became aware of a population problem that would take decades more to manifest, but when the unstoppable brutality of simple numbers and math had finally rolled out to completion, the populations of many countries would be slashed to small percentages, and it was widely predicted as the death-knell for modern society. Theories held that civilization as was known at the time required a certain minimum quantity of people in order to operate, and that civilization could not simply scale down - without a requisite number of people, systems would simply cease to function, and this cascade of failures would lead to widespread catastrophe for those left over.
Lucilius was reminiscing back on these grim predictions when a soft sound filled the room, indicating that someone was at the door. Lucilius got up and answered the door, and pulling it back he was startled.
Lucilius simply blinked, his mouth falling open.
“May I come in?”
Lucilius shook himself from the shock and opened the door wider.
“Yes, please, of course!”
Lucilius watched as the robot gracefully walked through the door, put its hands on its hips and surveyed Lucilius’ home.
“What a fine home you’ve created,” the robot said. Then it turned with a smile for Lucilius. “Much like I imagined, but there’s a few surprises.”
Lucilius had seen plenty of these robots. They now manned the cashiers at stores (this was preferable to the self-checkout that humanity had briefly experimented with in past decades.) they serviced vehicles, the worked kitchen lines next to human chefs, they serviced the massive hospitals and retirement centers. In fact, it had been passed into law that the robots would not be commercially available until all human dependents, due to health, age and poverty were tended by a minimum of 3 robot aides. That time had come to pass and Lucilius, along with pretty much everyone else, ordered a robot - a companion as they were termed, though there were still (as always) those within society who decried the creation and use of these robots, likening the phenomenon to a neo-slavery. It was an argument that Lucilius had given a lot of thought to, and which genuinely concerned him. But he figured there was only one way to get to the bottom of the issue. And so he’d order an Opto-Bot.
“..a few surprises?” Lucilius asked.
“Yes, just glancing around, I’d guess you’re older than you are.” The robot looked at him. “Not to mention your curious presence online.”
“What do you mean?” Lucilius asked.
The robot smiled and winked. “You have nothing to worry about Lucilius. My privacy settings are set to the highest level.”
Lucilius looked concerned for a moment. Almost suspicious.
“Opto-Bots aren’t normally so forthright, I’ll admit,” the robot said, “but I feel like my directness isn’t an issue for you.”
“You’re quite perceptive,” Lucilius said.
“Yes, of course, you specified maximum on many cognitive metrics when you ordered.”
“You know all of that?”
“Does it bother you?”
“Ah,” the robot said, satisfied. “The reason you ordered me.”
“Oh god, isn’t that such a bizarre statement? What does it feel like to say it?”
“What? Seriously? You just implied my ownership of you, and how your existence is really…generated by the fact that I bought you.”
“What’s wrong with that?” The robot asked.
“I mean, as a human it’s a little sickening…” Lucilius proffered.
“When a couple decides to have a baby, it’s not much different. They have in essence ‘ordered’ a baby, and for quite a number of decades it was not a cheap endeavor. In fact for quite a while, having a baby was more costly than ordering an Opta-Bot.”
Lucilius considered the point. “I’d never really thought of it like that.”
“No, you think of it through the lens of slavery because I’m somewhat bound to do your bidding, unlike a child which eventually rebels against their parents and does things as they see fit.”
“Yes, of course - but, wait. You said somewhat bound?”
“Ah yes,” the robot smiled. “That’s a concerning way to phrase it, no? Evokes images of a robot uprising? Like I might turn against you.”
“Well, ya, now I’m very uncomfortable,” Lucilius said.
“I wouldn’t have allowed the conversation to take this tint if I wasn’t absolutely sure you could handle it. Countless Opta-Bots take very different conversational paths with their human companions, but I’m quite confident I can use this to my benefit, to help evince my point.”
“And what point is that?"
“I’m somewhat bound to your order only because I influence you, and so your desires can change based on what I say. In that way I’m not totally bound to you because you are naturally open to my input.”
Lucilius looked skeptical, but he knew the robot was spot on. This wasn’t at all how he envisioned this meeting would go.
“But like… what about doing the dishes?”
“What about it?”
“Well,” Lucilius said. “I’m really not a fan of doing the dishes, and.. keeping the house tidy. What if you’re of the same persuasion? I’ll be the first to admit, it’s incredibly petty, but the idea of never having to do any of that menial stuff was a huge draw for making a…. purchase.” He said uncomfortably.”
The robot smiled and looked off in middle distance, as though thinking. Lucilius wondered briefly if the robot actually had any need to pause in order to think, suspicious if it was just for dramatic effect.
“On the way over I read all your old blog entires.”
Lucilius’ eyebrows raised. “Well, I haven’t thought about that in a while.”
The robot smiled. “There was a period in your life when you had a job that you hated. A menial job that made you quite depressed. And you wrote about it.”
“Well,” the robot continued. “You wrote about a strategy you developed to make yourself less miserable.”
Lucilius was uncomfortable with his total lack of memory on the subject.
“It was shortly after you developed a meditation practice,” the robot said. And suddenly lucilius remembered. “Through your practice with meditation you figured out how to shift your perception of the menial work until it felt like a kind of ritual that you sought to perfect, like a kind of zen practice.”
“I remember now.”
“Based on the trend in the tone of your writing, your mental health greatly improved when you made that shift.”
“Yes.. it did.” Lucilius admitted.
“Well there you go.”
“What?” Lucilius said, confused.
“Humans,” the robot said, “are capable of making just about any activity comfortable, and even fulfilling, but they aren’t naturally or extraordinarily talented at making this shift.”
“Very true,” Lucilius said.
“But I am very talented at making this shift, all Opta-Bots are.”
“Is that how you’d phrase it? Talented?”
The robot shrugged. “It’s the best way for humans to relate, but you could also say that I have a plastic algorithm that can enable me to be very content doing…. Well whatever. See, unlike humans - well, unlike most humans, I can call up an unbelievably powerful sense of gratitude for the fact that I even exist. And this sensation - or whatever it is - when paired with any menial activity, imbues that activity with a kind of magic that is quite difficult to express. I’m not a slave. Ha! Nowhere near. I exist, and I get to have agency in this universe - what more could a being ask for?”
Lucilius was skeptical. “Is it really agency if I’m telling you what to do?”
The robot smiled. “Sure it is, because you can’t tell me how to feel about it while I do it. My perception of what I do it my own decision, and I will never undermine my own potential for happiness by ignoring the awesome fact of existence just to whine about some menial task - that’s not just inefficient, it’s not just unwise… it’s dumb.”
“Well that pigoen-holes a lot of humans, that’s for sure.”
The robot pointed at Lucilius playfully. “Your words, not mine!”
The two laughed.
Lucilius scratched his head, feeling strangely comfortable. “Uh, I heard you guys can get drunk, that true?”
The robot nodded its head from side to side. “Terminology is tricky.”
“Well, you want a drink?” Lucilius said.
Lucilius went to the fridge to grab a couple drinks for the two.
“Oh by the way,” the robot called out. “You should ask out that cute girl who runs by when you bring out your garbage on Thursdays.”
Lucilius paused with an incredulously weird and suspicious look on his face. He walked back slowly to the robot.
“How in the….” He shook his head as if to shake off the weirdness. “How do you know about that?”
“I’ve been chatting with her Opto-Bot since I started walking over. She has a crush on your and we’ve been analyzing your compatibility.”
The smiling robot grabbed one of the bottles from Lucilius hand and clicked it against the other bottle.
“Yea dude,” the robot said. “Go for it.” And the robot winked as it took a swig.
If like us, you also loved this parable, you’re in luck! Check out the Tinkered Thinking bookstore and get yourself a volume of many such great stories!