Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Flash Fiction Friday: "What A Man Does"

Flash Fiction Friday has a challenge this week involving a computer as a character. I call this "What A Man Does".

My father started working with computers when they took up whole rooms, clanking, whirring beasts that read data off of magnetic tape and had to be constantly monitored. "Computers never make mistakes. They do exactly and precisely what they are told. People, on the other hand, are often faulty," he used to say. That was the way he was. He was always more comfortable with the yes/no, if/then world of digital computing than the messy, uncertain world of human beings. It made him frustrating to live with, but people can't help being the way they are, so in the end, I didn't fault him for it.

Growing up in such a house, it would be understandable if I had become a Luddite, a rebel against all things silicon and logical, a computerphobe who insisted on the ancient verities of bank tellers, paper books, and silver coins. I did insist upon a few of the old ways, but I used a computer as well as the next person, opting for a middle ground between outright hatred and total immersion. Like most people, I didn't follow exactly the path that was laid out for me. Given a choice between 0 and 1, I chose to slide in around 0.24.

So I met developments in artificial intelligence with some skepticism. I stuck to my handwritten letters and paper checks longer than most people, but I wasn't unaware of what was going on in the wider world. When they announced that Japanese researchers had passed the Turing test, I smiled and wondered what my long dead father would think of that. When I read about Asimov's Laws being encoded on a chip, and about motion becoming more and more precise, and about advances in computing power enabling more and more intelligent machines, I wondered where we were headed, but never really gave it a second thought.

I wasn't that old, but I certainly had lost a few ticks on the fastball when Sophia, my son's elegant young wife, fluttered her eyelashes at me and asked me to please allow him to place a digital assistant in my home. I grumbled and groaned, but just like every other pretty girl I've ever met, she eventually got her way. They unboxed it bright and early on a Monday morning, assured me that its learning software would pick up on my routines almost instantly. All I had to do was talk to it, and it would do the rest. It was about 6 feet tall, clad in average looking clothes and shoes with a realistic looking skin underneath, and a pleasant, though fake, plastic face. I named it Data, after a character on a long forgotten TV show.

It was the perfect butler. It remembered where I left my glasses, reminded me to take my pills, told me about anniversaries I had forgotten, and most of all, it just stayed quiet when I wanted to read a book. As much as I had resisted, I secretly was glad Sophia had insisted I give in. On a Thursday morning, I swung my feet onto the floor after a particularly vivid dream. I sat there, getting my bearings, when I felt Data come into the room. I knew it was scanning my vital signs, waiting for instructions. The one rule I had made clear to it was that, generally speaking, I didn't want it to speak until I spoke to it first. I reached for my glasses and looked outside. It was raining and grey.

"What do I have scheduled today, Data?," I said.

"Your heart rate is elevated," it said calmly. The voice was pitched evenly, with perfect cadence and diction. The only way you could tell it was human was that it was so perfect. "Are you feeling well?"

"I'm fine," I said. "I had a bad dream."

"Would you like to talk about it?"

"No," I said firmly. It was about Lisa, the first girl I ever loved, and the one I let get away, all those years ago. She was in danger, and I had to get through some sort of glass wall to get to her. "What's on the list today?," I repeated.

"It is your grandson Joseph's 4th birthday," he said. "I have already arranged for a gift to be shipped to him, but Sophia suggests a call might be appropriate. I have scheduled it for after he has completed soccer practice. You have an overdue book, "The Letters of Eudora Welty," from the public library. I could return it for you. You will be charged a $2.50 fine. Your doctor would like a blood sample, but that can be done at any time today."

"That's fine, all except the library book. I'll take that back."

"It's not necessary," the robot began. "Sophia-"

"No, I'll do it," I said a little too roughly. "Sophia may love my son, but she doesn't understand a lot about men. Sometimes I have to do things myself. It's what men do."

"Other men allow-," it began again.

"No, no," I said. "It's not a statistical argument. It's a feel thing. I don't feel alive if I don't have things to do. I'm thankful that you're here, and you're very helpful. But I need to feel useful. My wife has been gone almost 25 years now, and I still need to have things to do every day. Men have to do things, not have them done for them. It helps me feel functional, like life is worth living."

"When will you return?," it asked.

"When I feel like it," I said, taking the pile of clothes it had gathered and walking into the bathroom. The day I can't run my own errands is the day you put me in the ground, I thought.


  1. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, except for the things he lets the robot do for him.

    Michael, I enjoyed your story. It is clear that you have a great deal of "natural" intelligence.
    I share your reluctance to let automation dominate every aspect of my life.

  2. I liked this very much... That's kind of the way I'd like to grow old actually. Still useful for something and not relying on Data too much. I like your storytelling voice very much.

  3. Very well done, Michael... I really enjoyed the narrative. I can empathize with the man. I don't think I would ever want another being, human or artificial, to do everything for me. It's a basic human need... we have to keep a certain independence... we have to feel needed.

    Good story... thank you!

  4. Mr. Mike! I log into your blog and get a warning that it might contain offensive material . . . . snicker. I find this highly amusing.


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