By Snow McNaughton
The air was crisp this early spring morning. Kathy watched the bees move amongst the flowers in the planter boxes which lined the edge of the patio area acting as a visual barrier to the woods surrounding the house. Each with their own assortment of flowers to add color to the brown wood of the patio. Near the house, a small creek was running and the birds singing. She and her late husband, Rog, had picked a perfect spot for their home. The house was the new Tudor style that was popular in the late 2030’s. It was a custom house nestled in the woods. They had put so much love into it.
She was enjoying breakfast out on her patio. The weather was warm enough to allow for this now that most of the winter cold and storms had dissipated with the turn into spring. Her breakfast was already cleared from her plate, but she wasn’t feeling any need to rush today. Maybe she would have a lazy day working a crossword puzzle after doing the dishes.
After watching and listening to various birds around the patio, she got up and went inside to clean up the kitchen from breakfast. Only a few pans and dishes needed to be cleaned so the task didn’t take very long. Once dishes were in the dishwasher, she picked up a crossword puzzle book and a pencil. She went back outside again. The morning had gotten a little warmer but the day would continue to be a cool Washington spring morning. She opened the book. This one was puzzles that had appeared in the old defunct New York Times many years ago when the newspaper was a major news source. Now, like many of other newspapers organizations, it was no longer operating but had given way to citizen news sites, news for the people by the people. Basically, companies which allowed anyone to post a story and the truth of the story was based on how many voted it up or down. Her son swore the People’s Path, one such site, was the most reliable and held the truest information. She doubted that, but what did she know, she was just an old woman living in the country who liked to garden, do puzzles, and grew up reading the Post and New York Times.
The clue was “The younger of two english roses fighting”. British history was not her strong point. She put the puzzle down to watch a wren hop from one branch to another. In the distance, jays down the road started to make alarm calls. Many times she knew a visitor was coming from the jays along the road. In time, she could hear the whine of a motor and mechanical steps that went with it. She savored the last moments of freedom before another helper arrived. After speaking to the polite youngster from the Elder’s Community Support (ECS) program, who had contacted her saying that the last one had gone missing, she knew it was a matter of time when another one would arrived. The ECS representative said she shouldn’t worry, they would find it and in the meantime send another one to help her.
While the robots were helpful for carrying heavy loads, moving items around, and other tasks her elderly body no longer did well, she resented having a mechanical “babysitter” assigned to her because society had deemed it necessary that anyone over 75 needed a “helper”. Her son was all for it, because it meant he didn’t have to come up here to check on her. She was never sure who she should be more annoyed with – her son or an overbearing society.
The robot stopped in front of the house. She wondered how long it would take for it to come to the back patio. This one was smart she thought. It didn’t take it long for it to move towards the side of the house and walk to the patio. It stopped at the bottom of the patio steps and looked up at her. “Hello, Mrs. Gibbens. I’m Roger, your new helper.”
She looked him over. Roger was a typical service robot – bi-petal, two arms with five finger hands, and a face with basic human features like a mouth, nose, and two eyes. The mouth didn’t move when he spoke, nor did the eyes show any expression. Just two yellow disks looking back at her. He reminded her of that gold robot from that old science fiction movie franchise her son and grandchildren were fascinated about. Resigned to her position, “Hello, Roger. Please call me Kathy”.
“Yes, Kathy.” he said as he came up the stairs. “It’s cool out here. Should I get you a jacket or throw blanket?”
She was wearing a sweater with a turtleneck under it. She was plenty warm. “I’m comfortable, Roger. I don’t need any additional layers. Thank you for your consideration.” She asks, “Why don’t you have a seat?” as she pointed to a chair on the other side of the table. Roger sat down and asked, “What are your plans for today? Do you have any errands that need to be run? It must have been hard for you these last couple of months with no helper. Especially with the storms this area recently had”.
She smiles. “No, I was fine. The house is warm and easy to take care of. If I need food or supplies I don’t have on hand, I can have something delivered via an Amazon drone.” The drones can get up here during the snow storms. The robots and the autocars have trouble with the old fire roads when covered in many feet of snow. The autocars have trouble even when the fire roads are passable. The onboard navigation units don’t do well with the lack of reliable net access up here. The expectation that machines would have an constant connection to the internet is a flaw in the designer’s thinking. The topography affects the signals to the autocars which results in many getting lost or going in circles. She suspects the county ISP didn’t build out the infrastructure in this area because of the low population. Why do a large outlay of money for so few people? She was happy they didn’t make the effort.
She went back to her crossword while Roger just sat there. She was tempted to ask him about the rose clue, but decided it wasn’t that important.
The next day, Roger made Kathy breakfast then they did some gardening. She and Roger weeded a bit. She directed him to add soil from an old compost pile and aged manure stored behind the shed. After gardening in the morning, Roger made her lunch. As is typical of a helper robot, he was attentive and asked her how she was doing about every half hour. She tried not to let it get to her. He didn’t know any better and was just following the algorithms that made up his mind. He would ask questions about the puzzles she worked and if she needed any help. She would usually give him short answers and didn’t bother to ask any questions of her own. His programming didn’t allow him to be offended by the brush off she gave him, just get the latest task done. One of those tasks was making sure her well being was good. Unfortunately, the robot designers didn’t consider how annoying this could be.
Later in the day, they will go for a walk along the fire roads. When she was younger, she would walk the animal trails. These days the fire roads are more than enough for her old spirit to be one with the land. Given the topography, many of the fire roads have steep parts. She managed as best as she could and took it slow. Roger didn’t mind which is one good thing about him. She didn’t feel rushed like she would with her son. On the walks, she would stop and ask him questions about certain plants. He would access the Net to get the answers for her. On some parts of the walk, he would not be able to make a connection to the Net. This seem to trouble him, but she told him not to worry. They would be heading back soon to the house and he could run a diagnostic then.
With spring arriving, her bridge group would meet up regularly again. This was one of the few times she really needed to go into town. She would meet the girls as they like to call themselves at a local cafe and play cards. Usually bridge, but if one of them had a grandchild in tow, they would play goldfish. So instead of gardening today, Roger and she headed into town.
Her truck was almost as old as she was. It was a manual drive vehicle which meant a person needed to drive it. But unlike the autocars, it was reliable up here in the winter. Roger insisted on driving given his better reflexes and vision. Kathy didn’t mind. It allowed her to look at the landscape and town as they drove along. He told her they should go to a dealership and get a modern vehicle because if this one broke down who would fix it. She told him she would just order parts off of Amazon and she would tell him how to fix the truck. She added if they didn’t know how to fix it, then they could just do a search on the Net, because everything and anything to know was on the Net. This seemed to quiet him, but she wasn’t sure if he was really convinced.
The town was a typical small town in the pacific northwest with a main street where most of the businesses were located. The cafe was off the main street down a side street. Roger parked the truck with little effort. Kathy was kind of jealous. Even when she was younger, parallel parking had always been difficult for her. She was being jealous of a machine she thought, laughing at herself. She sometimes wondered why she even wasted emotions on them. The machines never understood no matter how complicated their algorithms were.
They made their way to the cafe where her friends were. She sat down at the table Susie and Beth had already grabbed. Roger waited at the counter to get her coffee. He had already ordered it while they walked over to the cafe. It arrived and he brought it over to her. He then went and sat down in a chair along a wall where other helper robots waited for their owners.
“Well, it looks you got a new one, too? He’s sitting down next to my new one, too”, says Beth.
Kathy turned to look at Roger sitting down next to another robot. It was hard to tell them apart. The only difference was the id code on their chest and the small print under the id saying the robot’s name and owner. In Roger’s case, his said “Roger – Kathy Gibbens”. She noticed Beth’s robot.
She turns around to face Beth and Susie again. “I have a girl this time.”, Beth informed them. They all three smile given that the robots were not that different. The makers of them didn’t bother making the robot’s anatomy or personalities different, just the voices. But there were differences in the robot’s personalities, people noticed over time. Some were easy going and others prone to anxiety. Susie lived in town so her helper was the same from last year. Town living was easier on the robots was the general feeling. Susie said she liked the piece of mind of having the same one year after year. She didn’t have to retrain one every year or so. A fourth woman, Diana, joined them and the card game began.
As days turned into weeks and the seasons turned, they developed a routine. Most days they would garden, go for walks, and she would work a puzzle or read. Occasionally they would go into town for various reasons. Roger would need to do more diagnostics with each passing week. Kathy didn’t think much about it. His programming was sophisticated and it made sense for him to make sure he was in the best condition possible given his role as a human helper. It would be unthinkable for him to fail. What would happen to her? She smiled to herself at this thought.
One evening while making dinner for her, Roger noticed a list of names on the frig – Douglas, Kittie, Kelly, Jon, Jane, and Jack. He asked who they were. Kathy told him they were people she knew at some point, but didn’t go into deals. He didn’t press for more information because his programming let him know humans could get upset when talking about friends who have died or no longer in a human’s life.
He went back to making dinner for her. His cooking was good but lacked something. She decided a long time ago that robots couldn’t cook as well as humans because cooking was an art to some degree. While AI could compose amazing music, it hadn’t conquered the art of cooking. She would like to do the cooking herself, but the people at ECS told her again and again it would be best to let the helper cook given her age.
Fall this year had been mild without much rain. The weather service kept saying winter will be harsh. With this prediction, Roger insist on getting the house ready for winter with a list of tasks directed as winterizing the house. Kathy doesn’t think much needed to be done, but it kept him busy and the controllers at the ECS are happy when helpers are busy. One morning she walked outside to find Roger frozen while clearing out the gutters. She said his name a number of times. After a few minutes, he seemed to come back online. She asked how much more needed to be done on cleaning the gutters. He told her that he would be done very soon. She went back inside, made tea, and watched him from a window. He completed the task without any additional issues.
The next day he was stacking the firewood delivery. Previously the task took him 30 to 45 minutes, but now seemed to drag on as his central processing unit kept resetting itself. Past days, he would do 5 or 6 tasks from his list in a day. Now, he would spend most of the day doing one task and running diagnostics. The youngsters at ECS would call and reassured her Roger would be fine. He’s system just needed to fully download the lasted control programs and he would be as good as new. She never understood why one of them didn’t come here to fix him or insist that they go to the center, but she didn’t ask either. She figured that they assumed he would have a constant Net connection at some point and the matter would be solved.
Weeks later, Kathy asked Roger to make tea and bring it out to the porch. This day was most likely going to be one of the last days for her to spend time out on the porch since the days were getting colder. With the firewood in order, she wasn’t worried about being warm this winter. Roger stepped out from the back door onto the porch carrying a tray with a tea set. His movements were not as a fluid as before. As he poured the tea, his hand shook showing his software was not controlling motor control. She took the tea from the tray and sipped it. She thought to herself that today is the day. “Roger”, she said, “I wonder if you can help me with something later”.
Roger replied, “Yes, Kathy. That is why I’m here.”
Kathy smiled, “Yes, it is”.
She watched him a bit. Feeling a little melancholy, she put down the tea. “Let’s go do the errand.”
He looked at the cup which still had tea in it, “But you haav no..t fin..is..hed your tea?” he asked.
“It will be here when I get back.” Yes, it is time she thought.
They got up and Roger followed Kathy to a path behind the porch. Roger had never been to this part of the property before. They followed a path down a bit to a flat area with a bench on it. On the back of the bench was a sign that said, “Rog and Kat forever”. It wasn’t very visible anymore with the passage of time.
Kathy stopped at the edge of the flat area and pointed to a ball resting in a tree down the hill. She turned to Roger, “Can you get the ball for me?”
“Yes”, he said as he moved down the hill. At some point, he tripped and tumbled down the hill. She watched him land next to a tree, not far from Douglas and Jane. As she watched him down the hill, she felt sad this time. His motor control is not sufficient for him to get up and he can’t access the Net from down there. Unlike the others, there was something child like about Roger. Maybe the programmers are getting better at humanizing the robots or maybe she was finally getting use to them. She sat there on the bench and listened to his motor whine. It struggled more and more. Finally, it was silent.
She sat in silence for a while thinking about Roger down there. Like the others, the weather and seasons will bury him. In the spring, ECS would apologize and send a new helper.