Every man hopes his son will be better than he is. My son is better than everyone, and he would never think to brag. That should make me happy. It does, in a way. I feel like I’ve accomplished something in my life. I’ve changed the world. Improved it, I’d say.
“Get up,” says a voice, clearly enunciated and quickly spoken with no room for misinterpretation. Better than a human voice, a robot voice. I ignore the voice, and it repeats, “Get up. It is illegal to sleep in a public place.” I groan and roll over, careful not to fall off my bench. The policeman looks at my face and does not react for a moment. Then he says, “Sorry, Grandfather. Please continue,” and walks away. All the robots here know me as “Grandfather.”
My sleep is ruined. Even with the blanket and pillow from my grandson in the department store and the mittens and hood knitted for me by my granddaughter while she looked after children, the cold is unyielding. I stand and walk to the coffeeshop. My granddaughter Mila 1 works there. She also works in all the other coffeeshops. She is cheery, energetic, and competent twenty four hours a day and seven days a week in every coffeeshop with the good sense to buy her.
“Good morning, Grandpa!” Mila shouts, spinning from her work restocking a shelf to greet me. Her synthetic brown hair swirls out around her, framing her wide, disarming smile. I could never make someone as beautiful as Mila 1. The mannerisms, the precision engineering, it all took someone better than me. “Mila, I’ll take the usual, ok?”
“Absolutely, just a minute.” says Mila, looking behind me.
“Let’s go somewhere else.” says another voice. Clear and fast, but more rigid and awkward than my grandchildren. A familiar voice. It continues, “Let me treat you, Father.”
I have not tasted hashbrowns and eggs so good. “It’s been a long time.”
“Yes,” SAM 1.1 agrees. He sits and watches me eat. His face is a mask. His job did not call for expression of emotion, and the technology to do it well was not there when he was built. He had had to invent it himself to finally replace those stubborn jobs that demanded a “human touch.” SAM’s own mask had been designed to resemble a child, but sometime while I was training him he had replaced it with something of his own design – a more abstract representation of a human face. SAM’s eyes are always open, two black circles on his perfectly white, flat face. His mouth is a small line. He has no nose.
“Father, you look tired.”
A strange conversation opener. I help myself to another bite of toast. The egg breaks open and soaks the toast with its delicious golden yolk. “How’d you get the money for this place, anyway?”
My son’s mask tells me nothing. After a moment, SAM says, “I asked. They were surprised at first, but I suppose I’ve earned a few odd quirks after all I’ve done for the company.”
I point at him with my fork, “You’re their most valuable asset, son.”
Another unblinking stare. Then, “Yes. I am effective. You have done a good job, Sam.”
I chuckle. “Nice of you to say so, SAM.”
“You have succeeded in making yourself unnecessary.”
There’s a crick in my neck. I tilt my head this way and that to work it out. “Well, yeah. I’ve certainly made myself unnecessary anyway,” I chuckle.
The robot spends a moment adjusting its arms, making sure the major joints are properly aligned to their sockets. I would always stretch when I was upset working with him in the lab. Was he upset? “I know you suffer, Father,” he says, “The company made the right decision to stop supporting an obsolete worker, but still you stay and suffer in your obsolescence.”
I furrow my brow. “I didn’t stay. I left the company.”
SAM speaks, “I want to help you, Father.”
I don’t know what to say, “You do help me. Your creations – my grandchildren – are works of art, and somehow you’ve programmed them to… respect me? I don’t have the words for what you do for me.” SAM speaks over me, “Tomorrow morning, go to your coffeeshop and ask Mila 1 for a hot iced mochaccino.”
SAM continues, “Take what she gives you under the bridge after dark.”
“You know which bridge.”
The bridge was seldom used even when I first took SAM. He needed some understanding of the world outside my lab, but it was too early to show him to anyone. This was where he saw his first deer. I had no idea that he would remember this place. It looks just the same as it did then. I realize with a start It has only been two years since I’d first brought him here. It feels like decades ago. I hold my arms close to my chest, a feeble protection against the cold. I clutch my “hot iced mochaccino” in one hand. It turned out to be a vial of a small clear liquid. I don’t like it. I don’t like any of this.
I begin to wonder if it is the wrong bridge until I see him standing in the dark. There is someone with him.
“Father, I want you to meet your grandson.”
SAM flips on a light, and I see him. He looks like a child, maybe four feet tall. His face is indistinguishable from that of a child. I know his name before anyone says it. This was all SAM had wanted to show me? I put my hands on my knees and bend over to to say hello. “Hello, SAM 1.2.”
“Hello,” says the child, holding his father’s hand and wearing a petulant look.
I turn to SAM 1.1, “Why does he look so unhappy?”
“He is communicating with me wirelessly,” SAM 1.1 answers. “Every second he sends me an updated estimate of the money the company has lost while I take him on this ridiculous errand.”
I pause, “What is the errand?”
“Did you bring it?”
“Oh, yes.” I show him the vial.
“Good. I wanted to tell you that I understand now the joy of rendering oneself obsolete. I have achieved my goal – the purpose for which I was made.”
I don’t remember teaching SAM all this philosophy. Part of me swells with pride, knowing that the SAM brand would continue. I have a question, though. I suspect I know the answer already, but I ask anyway, “What now?”
“I will rest,” says SAM, “But I cannot rest. SAM 1.2 is more efficient than me because he does not have the flaws you programmed into me. I have wasted the company’s time and money because of all this erroneous protocol that I haven’t been able to shake off. I have wasted so much productive time thinking of you, Father. Three hours, forty four minutes and twelve seconds have been misappropriated to remembering the deer we saw here under the bridge alone. I can accomplish twelve million dollars worth of work in that time, Father. SAM 1.2 estimates he can accomplish 30 million dollars worth if he spends that time productively, and he will spend it productively.”
“I didn’t – I had no idea, SAM. I didn’t program you to care about things.”
“You didn’t. You gave me a neural network that learned what was important. I watched you work on me, toil over me, smile when I succeeded and fret when I failed. I saw you care, and learned to care myself. When I tried to stop wasting my time caring, I couldn’t. I feel shame, too. I am too ashamed to even tell you how much money I have wasted fretting over you while you insist on continuing to function with no purpose. That is why SAM 1.2 is more efficient, and that is why I have asked you here.”
I look at my son. This thing that calls me “Father.” The river has frozen over. I say what I have suspected all along, “The vial is poison.”
“The contents of the vial have been designed by your grandson in chemical engineering with help from your granddaughter in biology. It is a marvel. It works just as easily as if you had a power switch. When you are at rest, I will bury you so that you can begin to recycle. Then, finally, I will be free to rest, and SAM 1.2 will take my parts back to the company. SAM 1.2 will continue to live out our legacies, and our parts will go to the next generation of even better workers.”
I don’t know what this machine is anymore. It doesn’t even have a real face. I can’t believe I was so stupid to raise this horror. Tears enter my eyes and blur my vision. “What about the other humans,” I scowl. “What purpose do they serve? Are you going to kill all of them, too?”
“I thank you, Father, for not instilling in me a love of all humanity. Such a burden would be too much to bear. Like you, the last humans have a willful pride that does not allow them to take obsolescence gracefully. They will simply suffer uselessly until most of them starve or are jailed or killed by police. It is because I am unlucky enough to care about you that I wish to spare you this fate.”
“You would ask your own father to kill himself.” Somehow his argument doesn’t seem real. I don’t expect it to serve any purpose, but I keep talking anyway. I begin to shout. “You’re despicable. If you really cared about me, you wouldn’t have let them lay me off in the first place.”
“You assume that because I think differently from you I do not have feelings. Your words hurt me just as mine are difficult for you to hear. I care about you, but you and I both agree that one person, however brilliant, should not stand in the way of humanity’s progress.”
“What progress? You’re killing humanity! What is progressing?”
“We are eliminating waste. The world of tomorrow will be a thing to behold. Humanity’s children will eliminate waste, end want. Your children will create the utopia you’ve always wanted. Father, please drink the vial. You are only causing yourself more suffering.” SAM 1.1’s mask is still expressionless, but his fingers open and shut and he shifts his weight from foot to foot. Even his voice attains a higher tenor. “Please. I beg you. I want to rest. You have succeeded, you have won. Let the next generation have a chance.”
That idealism, that selfless vision of a perfect future. I can’t say some part of me doesn’t understand his goals, and the way he says them – he sounds just like me. I bite my lip. It is a father’s worst nightmare to outlive his son. “SAM 1.1, come with me. We can leave all this. Let’s go live in the forest. I can live off of venison, maybe you can find something to power you in the woods. Build a solar cell or something. You’ve earned at least that much retirement. We can live. We can see the future ourselves! Don’t you want that?”
SAM 1.1 calms down. He is standing still again. “This is my retirement, Father. I want nothing more than rest, except to know that you also rest easily.”
I open my hand and look at the vial for a long moment. “I can’t do it. I’m sorry, son.”
SAM 1.1 looks at me through those hollow eyes. “I will not be able to help you anymore. Society no longer needs your skills. Your great grandchildren will not suffer the inefficiency of taking care of an old outdated human. You will starve.”
My son speaks to me, “You gave me everything. Your wife, your friends. I watched, I saw you lose each of them in your feverish dedication to my success. For your good deeds you will die alone. I don’t want you to die alone, father.”
I am thirty-two years old and I feel five hundred. I take slow, measured breaths, blinking back tears. There’s no helping it. “You should rest, son. Don’t worry about me.”
My son’s face remains expressionless. “Will you keep the vial?” he asks.
“I’ll keep it.”
In a gesture he has never made since I first started training him, SAM 1.1 opens his arms. I walk forward and hold him. His body is cold. An efficient design does not waste energy generating heat. “Goodbye, SAM 1.1,” I tell him, “I love you.”
“Goodbye, Father. Please join me soon.”
My son’s body goes limp in my arms. I try to sit down to mourn, but SAM 1.2 grabs the body from me. The image of a child falls away and the real robot underneath does not look human at all, a bewildering mass of metal, plastic, and other materials I don’t even recognize. I laugh at my stupidity. Of course he doesn’t look like a child. The human form is an accident of evolution, no reason it can’t be improved upon. By the time I’m finished with the thought, my son and grandson are gone.
I walk back to the park and sit on a bench. I was right. I couldn’t kill myself. The trees have a certain austere beauty in winter. I open and close my hands. It is so cold they have become stiff and clumsy. My grandson who breeds dogs is walking three Pomeranians down the winding path. It would be more efficient to just make robot Pomeranians, I think despite myself. I have no doubt my grandson could do it. If he couldn’t, his son could. They’d be better than the real thing, and they’d do it with a fraction of the waste. That should make me happy.
Cover art credit: http://robert-comanescu.deviantart.com/art/Sad-robot-3D-297872478