Two things prompted today’s post: First, recent conversations, including the Democratic debate conducted last night, have brought up the topic of replacement of humans in the workplace by robots and artificial intelligence. Second, I’m still gathering information for the sequel to my upcoming sci-fi novel, Ezekiel’s Brain, which is about a future with AIs in control of earth and the Solar System. Both of these things reminded me of a short story I wrote several years ago, published in Lost Coast Review, about a future with robots. Here it is for your reading.
The Man Who Became God
On December 3rd, 2018 Ephraim Smith became God. Or maybe it was on December 3rd, 2050. That was the day he arrived in the future, which he found bleak.
As time machines go, Ephraim’s wasn’t very fancy. It tended to shake and occasionally a part would fall off, swirling away in time to appear mysteriously somewhere in history as an unexplained miracle; like when his horn (which he hadn’t really expected to need, considering he was unlikely to run into other traffic) fell off and ended up in the hands of one of Joshua’s priests outside of the walls of Jericho. Being a horn from the future, it only took one blast from the amazed priest who found it to blow down every solid structure in sight, city walls included. And then the time machine had an upper limit of 80 years round trip on one battery charge – only 40 years each way! Ephraim was frustrated, but he reminded himself that his was the only time machine in existence so he shouldn’t be fussy.
What really frustrated him was what he found, or more accurately, what he didn’t find, when he arrived in 2050. Take fashion. Where were the one-piece spandex outfits he’d seen on Star Trek? Where were the flying cars, the elevated trains, the dinners in the form of a pill? They weren’t. And that was what was disappointing. People were still wearing Levis and Calvin Klein designer gear. The cars were smaller and most of them were electric. The trains all ran underground and everybody ate fast food, like in a Sylvester Stallone movie he vaguely remembered.
One thing was different. Robots. There were robots everywhere. Robots cooking the food, robots driving the busses, robots cleaning the streets, robots basically doing everything humans didn’t want to do. Humans shopped. Humans went to movies. Humans sat in bars and drank alcoholic drinks served by robot waiters. Human kids didn’t go to school. They watched TV and chatted on sophisticated electronic devices the size of a thumbnail, which Ephraim had no clue how to operate. He was alarmed that children weren’t going to school.
Ephraim had never been a good student… not one who got good grades or praise from his teachers on his report cards. But that hadn’t meant that he’d disliked learning, or even school for that matter. He’d just always wanted to determine his own course of study. He fiddled, he tinkered, he learned mechanics and jet propulsion from his father’s engineering journals when he was ten and he did mathematical brain teasers under his bedcovers until the early hours of the morning. He read novels and pulp science fiction magazines instead of his school textbooks. And he played lots and lots of video games. He knew he was a little odd. He’d never even had a girlfriend. It didn’t help that he’d developed a habit of picking his nose. It was like a nervous tic. He couldn’t help it. Only rarely did his digging around in his nostrils yield anything, but it certainly kept his social life to a minimum.
But what was wrong with these future kids? What was wrong with their parents? What would this generation’s future be like with no education?
Three prepubescent boys were sitting on the stoop of an apartment building, each playing a video game on a small hand held instrument. Ephraim was interested. He tried to interrupt them.
“Not now,” the biggest of the three said. He was dressed in Levis and a fluorescent shirt, the purple of which matched a streak down the middle of his spiked hair. He didn’t look up from his game.
“Why aren’t you in school?” Ephraim repeated his question.
“This is a mini-tournament, man,” the eleven year old whined. “The winner gets to go to the neighborhood finals. You’re screwing up our game. Go ask a robopedia if you’ve got a question.”
“Robopedia?” Ephraim asked.
“We don’t go to school – we ask,” one of the other boys answered, not looking up from his game, either.
The third boy looked up at him, a disdainful sneer on his face. He was dressed almost identically to the other two, but he looked about a year younger. “Duh… the robopedias.” The boy stared at Ephraim. “Ooh gross. He’s picking his nose!”
Ephraim turned and left. He passed a storefront filled with books. Great way to catch up on the future, he thought. He entered the book store. “I’d like a book that would tell me about today’s society,” he told the clerk, who was a studious looking young lady, with her hair in a bun and thick glasses on her face. Her dress could have been made a hundred years before Ephraim was born, judging from its style.
She put her pencil behind her ear and gazed at him. “What color?” she asked.
“Color? Why would I care about the color?” He gazed around the shop and saw that it was filled with every reading accoutrement he could think of – book shelves, magazine racks, reading lamps, overstuffed easy chairs, coffee mugs, sitting pillows to put on a bed so you could sit up and read. Most of them were arranged in small displays as if a customer might buy the whole set lock, stock, and barrel.
“What are you trying to match it to?” the bookish looking woman asked.
“I’m not trying to match it to anything,” he answered. “I want to read it.”
She looked confused. “Why?”
“I want to learn something.”
“But why don’t you ask a robopedia?” she asked, still sounding confused. She looked around the shop. “These are decorations… antique decorations.”
“You mean no one reads?” he asked.
“Of course not,” she snapped back. “Why would they?”
“Can they?” he asked.
She still looked perplexed. “Can they what?”
“Can people read?”
“The older ones can, but most don’t. You know the kids, though. They won’t read anything more than three short words and mostly they just use abbreviations. They all know the alphabet. It’s not like anyone’s illiterate.”
He left the store. Maybe he’d arrived at a weird section of the city, he thought. Everyone here was white. Maybe that was it. White kids never had been into learning. He bet the Jewish kids still read. Or at least the Asian kids still did math. The whole world couldn’t have gotten dumbed down in thirty short years, could it?
“Take me to your leader,” he told a cop… well, a robocop.
The robot pointed at a building across the street that said Hall of Administration.
The robot at the front desk had a vaguely feminine quality. She was polishing her nails.
“I want to see whoever runs the city,” he said.
“Humans have to wait,” the robot answered. She was like the three kids playing video games. She didn’t stop doing her nails. Unlike the kids, though, she could look at him at the same time and not miss a stroke with her nail polish. He was beginning to see the advantage of robots.
“I live in the past,” he tried to explain to her.
“All humans do. We don’t like to mention it,” she answered. If a robot could look embarrassed, she did.
“I mean I actually come from the past – 30 years ago. I was born last century.” he said.
She stared at him. He saw that her eyes were all pupil. He could see the iris getting larger.
“You don’t show your age,” she said. Then she winked one eye.
He gave up explaining. “When can I get in to see whoever is in charge?”
She didn’t even have to consult a calendar. He guessed it was programmed into her machinery… another reason to admire her. She was still polishing her nails, too. “Two months from today. Ten, a.m.”
He signed his name on a registration form. “I’ll be back,” he said. Two months was a heartbeat in his time machine.
Two months later he entered the Hall of Administration and walked up to what looked like the same receptionist. But how could he really know; she was a robot. She probably went by a serial number instead of a name. Her nails were bright red and she was talking on a cell phone.
“Right on time, Mr. Smith,” she said, without even looking up.
He was impressed. He had a momentary thought about asking her for a date, and then remembered she was a robot. “Can I go in and talk to the guy in charge now?” he asked.
“He’s expecting you,” she said, pointing one shiny finger toward a doorway to his left. She turned back to him and winked, just as she had before. She wasn’t bad looking, he thought to himself – for a machine.
He entered a room that looked like the office of an executive of a large corporation. In the center was a large desk, behind which sat a robot wearing a striped business suit. A cigar was burning in an ashtray.
The robot motioned for him to sit down in one of the two chairs in front of the desk.
“Robots run the whole city?” Ephraim asked.
“Of course,” the robot answered, nodding his head. “Just like everything else.”
He started to feel a sense of dread. “Everything else… like what?”
“What do you mean,” the robot asked. He picked up the cigar and started to take a puff, then stopped. “I’m sorry; I hope this cigar smoke doesn’t bother you.”
“Why do you smoke a cigar…you’re a robot?” Ephraim asked.
“I’m a politician,” the robot answered. He looked inquiringly and when Ephraim just looked back blankly, the robot took a long pull on the cigar then blew the smoke out in a thin stream.
“How much of the world do robots control?” Ephraim asked.
“We’re in charge of all of it.”
“Everything? The whole country? Every country? The UN?”
“The whole shooting match,” the robot answered, nodding. He took another long pull on the cigar, and then let out what sounded like a satisfied sigh.
“When did that happen?” Ephraim asked.
“You’re too young to remember, I guess,” the robot answered. “Back in 2020, after Granger invented the first fully self-organizing robot and your Middle Eastern war was in its 19th year. The army sent the robots over to clean up Afghanistan and they did such a bang-up job, the UN decided to use them to do all kinds of things – fix the roads, rebuild the houses, manufacture goods. They used them in Africa to do the same thing. Pretty soon the third world was passing the developed countries in terms of prosperity and so every country turned itself over to us.” The robot took another puff of the cigar. “Now all the humans are fat and happy.”
“And robots do everything. Who tells you what to do?” Ephraim asked. “Who programs you?”
The robot looked at him like he might be retarded. “Self organizing? Duh. Look it up.” The robot chortled. “I mean ask a robopedia,” he said.
Ephraim stumbled from the Hall of Administration and back to where he’d parked his time machine. He sat down in the driver’s seat and slowly closed the door. In a daze he punched the button that said Home.
“I know about the project Professor Granger is working on,” Ephraim said. He’d used every bit of influence he’d had to worm his way into an interview with the President. Being a world famous scientist and inventor had helped. He’d had to give an autograph to the President to give to his oldest daughter who was “seriously into science” according to her father and wanted to go to MIT after she finished junior college.
The President’s jaw dropped. “Nobody knows about the Granger project.”
“I do. I also know you’re going to use it in Afghanistan and it will be successful.”
“We haven’t made a decision with regard to implementation yet. Dr. Granger says his product is still a couple of years away from being operational.”
“It will work. Better than any of you ever imagined. After Afghanistan you’ll use it in Central Africa.”
“Nobody knew I was thinking of that except me,” the President said, his eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“I know a lot of things.” Ephraim said. As he said it, he realized that if he let his voice drift off at the end of his sentence it sounded very mysterious.
The President’s demeanor had gone from suspicious to puzzled. “Who are you?”
“Let’s say I’m someone who knows how every human action will unfold… and what the consequence will be.” His voice trailed off at the end of his sentence.
“How do you know that?” the President asked, a note of awe creeping into his voice.
‘Nothing happens in this world without my knowledge,” Ephraim said, “If you let me act through you, I can change the course of history.”
The President fell to his knees. “I knew I was your instrument,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for this day to come.” He bowed his head.
When the President looked up, Ephraim was picking his nose.
“What are you doing?” the President asked.
“Nothing.” Ephraim rubbed his fingers together to be sure there was nothing stuck to them.
The President’s look became more skeptical. “What else do you know?”
Ephraim had done his homework. He had taken a number of short time excursions and he was well prepared to be tested. “Tomorrow there will be a major terrorist attack in Kabul. The leaders of the current government will all be killed. You will announce a complete U.S. takeover of the machinery of government in Afghanistan and you will call Dr. Granger on the telephone and ask him how soon he can have his robots ready. Dr. Granger will tell you that it will still be another three years before even a prototype is ready. He will be being too cautious. He can have an entire cadre of his robots ready by 2020. ” He stood up. “I will come back tomorrow night and we can talk.”
He didn’t even watch the news the next day. He knew that everything would happen exactly as he had predicted.
The President greeted him with hands clasped in prayer. “What do you want me to do?” he asked.
“Cancel the Granger project,” Ephraim told him.
The President looked alarmed. “But it may be our only hope. The terrorists are winning.”
“It’s time for a new strategy,” Ephraim said. “You can’t win this war. You need to negotiate with your enemies.”
The look on the President’s face went from alarm to terror. “Negotiate with the terrorists? I can’t. The country won’t let me. They’ll run me out of office.”
“You must tell them I have spoken to you. If need be, I can convince them myself.” If he could convince the President with a few simple predictions he could sure convince the great unwashed masses.
“You’ll appear in front of the people?” the President asked.
There were people from high school and college who’d remember him – not favorably either. His parents would probably disown him. “It’s better that I don’t appear. I can give you some predictions.”
“Of course. Nothing is a mystery to you,” the President said. “You know everything before it happens.”
“The Vikings are going to win the Superbowl,” Ephraim said.
“Amazing,” the President murmured.
As Ephraim predicted, the country got behind the President. A few easy prognostications and the idea that the President had a direct pipeline to God was accepted wholeheartedly. Ephraim didn’t actually know that much, so he had to keep his predictions to a minimum – a couple of third world political assassinations, a Dancing with the Stars winner. It didn’t take much to convince the electorate. Anyway, Ephraim had been having trouble with his time machine. He’d had to curtail any more trips for awhile and he didn’t have that much information about the future to go on.
At least, he thought to himself, I’ve avoided the 2050 scenario with the robots running the world. And he was being treated like a God. He practiced speaking in a lower voice and tried to get over the habit of picking his nose – at least in public. He considered growing a mustache. Then he could pretend to be smoothing his mustache and no one would know about the nose thing. But his attempt at a mustache produced nothing but a wisp of stringy hair. And it itched, causing him to scratch his nose, which in turn brought on an irresistible urge to stick his finger in his nostril.
He was lonely. He might be God but he was a still a social disaster. He spent 90% of his time alone, trying to fix his time machine or fiddling with new inventions. Even the President had gotten bored with consulting him. His evening phone call had become repetitive and perfunctory, the President’s mind obviously elsewhere as he repeated the same appreciative phrases and pleas for help over and over each evening before he went to bed.
Then Ephraim had a thought. He’d found one person who didn’t seem to mind his bad habits, one person who’d even winked at him. And she was smart, could multi-task and, he only remembered her vaguely, but he thought she’d been attractive. She had great nails.
One phone call and he had Granger’s abandoned plans for a self-organizing robot. Ephraim had an advantage over Granger because Ephraim had seen the final product in action. Granger was still trying out ideas, unsure which one was the one that would work. Ephraim knew the answer to that question.
He put in a call for some equipment and electronic gadgetry and went to work. He ordered a bottle of ruby nail polish and had it ready for his creation the moment he turned her on.
She was perfect.
“Can you cook?” he asked.
“Of course,” the robot replied, with a wink.
More than perfect. He’d underestimated Granger. Maybe he’d make a few more robots.
Enjoy reading my stories? Here are links to a couple of my novels: the most recent and an earlier sci-fi novel.