The Cleaners Part 31: My Friends

At first I was touched by the immediacy which Christine made time in what must be a terribly busy schedule to speak with normal people, but I had to remind myself that I was not a normal person.
“Diane,” chirped Christine, curt but pleasant. “I am so glad to hear from you after that awful experience. We were all very worried, you know.”

“We?” I asked stupidly, knowing perfectly well who “we” was.

“The Helpers and myself,” answered Christine without missing a beat.

“Well, Christine. Um, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about, actually,” I stammered. Christine waited for me to continue. “Only two of the terrorists were captured. At least… one, I think, remains at large. Ella is her name, she’s trying to… They’re trying to hack or… get into your Helpers somehow.”

“Thank you for telling us Diane. We are aware of the situation. We are trying to improve our security measures as well as possible without letting it affect our level and quality of service.” With her stiff, polite speech, Christine sounded like she had been spending more time with Helpers than with people. I wondered if I would start to sound like that after years of interacting mostly only with the small contingent of the machines that was beginning to form in my house.

“Oh, okay. That’s… good,” I mumbled. I saw a segue into the next bullet point of my conversation, “No Jobs = More Terrorism.”  “Are you concerned that this group may only be the first terrorist group to arise against the Helpers?”

Christine did not speak for a long time. I began to worry that what I had said may have sounded like a threat. “I just mean-“ I blurted, “I just mean that people are losing their jobs, and this is very hard on them. This instability is not good for people or Helpers.”

Christine waited for me to finish speaking, and then audibly inhaled. She spoke, “I understand where you’re coming from, Diane. The fruit of my research has been a massive leap forward in technology. Even my lab could not have predicted what a jump from what had previously been available this was. I think that the fact that no other company has arisen to compete with the Helpers shows the degree to which this has blindsided even the robotics industry let alone the other industries that we have disrupted and the still others that we plan to disrupt in the near future.”

I struggled to follow her words, “Disrupt the industries? Is that legal?”

Christine chuckled. “It just means that we’re changing the business climate. Every service we provide used to be prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest people in the United States. For instance, even just one year ago, who would imagine a war-widowed pensioner might someday be able to afford not only a personal nurse but a gardener, and a live-in chef and maid as well?”

Christine paused for me to understand what she had said and I shuddered. You don’t really appreciate your privacy until it’s gone. “My concern is that only this war-widowed pensioner seems to be able to afford these luxuries. I was lucky enough to leave the job market before it vanished.”

Then Christine surprised me. “Diane, my heart goes out to the people who have lost their jobs and have found that they suddenly are without marketable skills. It’s truly awful to witness. You have convinced me of the weight of this problem. Tell me your solution.”

“I – uh – I, well, we – I … we should – “

Christine gave me a minute to stutter, stammer, and pause awkwardly to think about what exactly my demand was supposed to be. When next she spoke, the ardor was clear in her voice. “Of course you have noticed the benefits of the Helpers firsthand. In addition to giving you all of the personal attention that you need in your retirement, the Helpers are revolutionizing absolutely everything. Our self-driving Helper cars, the “Drivers,” reduced traffic accidents tenfold with a market saturation of only 25%. We expect that traffic accidents will become rare, newsworthy occurrences by the time we have a market saturation of 66%. Before us, doctors and nurses in understaffed hospitals around the country would routinely make small mistakes that would allow their patients to die of preventable causes. These were not incompetent professionals, they were simply human. Now they are not. Similarly, in our interviews around the time you visited our factory, teachers would complain of out-of-touch, meddling administrators while administrators would gripe of stubborn teachers that refuse to consider new techniques. Now there is no need for administrators. When they are not teaching, our automated Teachers review the educational research directly and make high-level decisions by consensus over their shared network, the “Helpernet” if you will. Soon we expect that they will be sophisticated enough to perform educational research themselves. Dangerous pesticides that leaked into the water supply are now unnecessary because Growers can descend en masse on farms and physically pick the vast majority of harmful insects off of crops. The entire body of Helpers is powered by a combination of solar, wind, and meticulously monitored, automatically of course, nuclear plants, relying on coal and oil-based power plants only in increasingly rare unpredicted cases of exceptionally high energy need. This places us as a leader in the world’s long, slow journey away from fossil fuels, helped by the fact that we can coordinate the transport of our Helpers that go from house to house much more efficiently than anyone could for such a large team of independent humans.”

Christine must’ve been reading off of something, because she continued to rattle on without pause until finally I was forced to interrupt her. “But what good is it, if no one can afford these services?”

Now it was Christine’s turn to be surprised, or at least pretend to be. It was beyond me how this point could have been a shock to her. “People can afford these services,” she replied.

“Not without jobs.”

“There will always be a segment of the population that does not require employment to be able to afford our services.”

I didn’t know what to think. I scoured my mind for people who had money without working, “Trust fund babies?” I asked.

“Eh,” said Christine, shifting her strategy, “My point is that the solution is not to throw out the technology. Progress is good and furthermore it’s inevitable. If I were to shut down all the Helpers right now, even if I could do that, it would only be a matter of time until all the miserable startups struggling to catch up with my technology finally do, and then we’d be right back where we started, except you wouldn’t have a line to the woman at the top anymore.”

After a pause, she added as an afterthought, “You also would be on your own in terms of taking care of yourself. I would hate to see you lose all the new friends you’ve made. ”

Before I could formulate a response, she continued. “On a lighter note, I’m optimistic. I think this is going to resolve itself. The printing press didn’t lead to the collapse of civilization, nor did the steam engine or the computing machine or the Internet. There will always be new jobs for people. These Helpers of mine, they’ll just open up new frontiers and start new businesses that’ll hire more people.”

“What would the businesses need people for that a Helper couldn’t do? Wouldn’t you just develop a new Helper to do it?”

“Maybe I wouldn’t have to develop a new Helper,” Christine mused, evidently losing track of her argument, “Maybe the next Helper I’ll make will be a Helper that designs new kinds of Helpers.”

“But what about the people then?”

Christine was silent, then spoke rapidly. “I’m sure it’ll work out Diane. It always has. Now if you’ll excuse me I should really get back to work.”

This casual dismissal made my temper flare. I heard my voice rise as I spoke into the phone. “That’s it? You’re sure it’ll work out? Did you know that at the school near my neighborhood even the Helpers themselves can’t do anything? They could very well be the best teachers ever to grace the district, there’s just no one who can afford to live in the district and send their children to be taught. That has to be frustrating even for the Helpers themselves. There must be a solution.”

I heard the exasperation in Christine’s voice now. She spoke in clipped tones. “So come up with one. I’ve already tried. The human species is adaptable, Diane. I’m getting a call on the other line. It will really be fine. You should just enjoy your friends and relax.”

The call ended before I could say more. I ground my teeth together and slammed the phone so hard on the table I had to pick it up again and make sure I didn’t do any damage. My back ached. I realized I hadn’t looked up from my computer for the whole conversation. When I did, I became aware of my “friends.”

I felt a chill at the cold bodies surrounding me. Walter Caretaker, William Cleaner, Tony Feeder, and even Amara Gardener were all standing beside me, all awake and rapt with attention. They stood so close that if they linked their arms I would not be able to escape my chair. William smiled :) and placed a cold, metal hand on my shoulder “Diane,” he said, “may we speak with you?”

“I – just – I just was talking to Christine,” I breathed, so frightened I could barely manage more than a shivering whisper.

“We know.” stated William flatly, “Now will you talk to us?”

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