Unless you are unplugged — today’s version of “head in the sand” — you may becoming increasingly aware of the latest technology leaps impacting life as we know it. Here I’m speaking of fintech, smart cars, and digital health, each a sign of disruptive innovation in complex economic, transportation and medical systems. Framed as innovations grounded on artificial intelligence, the topic of AI has ignited the passions of tech gurus arguing for and against the speeding up or slowing down of our present race in automation.
Whether you side with the cautious Elon Musk or the optimistic Mark Zuckerberg who recently butt heads on social media, your feelings about adopting and adapting to AI will be entered into the neural annals of your own imagination and perhaps shared with others. In the case of writer Mark Onspaugh, future AI systems are imagined in his futurist anthology TALES FROM TOMORROW — a 2014 published collection of sixteen short stories. We asked him to share one of the tales and he sent over “Taubex.” So read on with pleasure for a glimpse of the near future….[Editor’s note: We’ve taken the liberty publishing the story in two parts. Follow up next week for the next installment.]
Tau 34abx-1111125678665498990 entered the little house that stood just north of the last debris field. He was careful to wipe his feet on the doormat before doing so, though the nanobots assigned to his lower quadrant had assiduously removed all dust and foreign matter before any such might compromise his systems.
The synthetic rubber soles attached to his feet allowed him to move across the hardwood floor in silence, and so he came upon Martin Jacobs asleep in the ratty, overstuffed chair he refused to discard.
The last man on Earth.
Taubex (as Martin called him) had once written that phrase out for Martin when the mech was learning the finer points of cursive writing.
The old man had objected to Taubex capitalizing the “l” and “m” of “last man.”
“I’m just a man, Taubex, I don’t want a title.”
“But Martin, we have scanned all of Earth and its outer colonies, and you are indeed…”
Martin often interrupted him. He said the robots had no grasp of what was important in a story, that they did not “cut to the chase.”
Martin had tried to explain that idiom to him, but, in the absence of film, cars and mounted cowboys, the nuances were lost on Taubex.
The old man stirred and looked at him.
“Didn’t hear you come in,” he said, licking his parched lips.
“I upgraded my servos and the lubricant in my limbs, as well as creating a mech version of what you call ‘sneakers’.” He held up one foot for Martin to see, and the old man smiled.
“Now all you need is jeans, tee shirt and a baseball cap, and you’ll look like my friends and I did when we were kids.”
“I have no need of clothes, and they would impair motion, as well as collect…”
“It was a joke, Taubex.”
“Ah… Could you please specify the type of humor so I may catalog and cross-reference?”
Taubex inclined his head slightly, a gesture Martin often made in assent or gratitude.
The old man stretched, and Taubex heard his bones creak. His sensors automatically registered the old man’s respiration, heart rate, brain activity, synaptic efficiency, digestive processes, along with a thousand other measurements pertaining to human health.
Martin got up, and made his way to the front door. He opened it and waited for Taubex to follow.
“Where are you going, Martin?”
“You said there was a field of poppies near here. I want to see them.”
“The location of that area is approximately eight kilometers from this dwelling. My readings show this may cause undue stress on your biological systems.”
“Let’s go, Taubex.”
“I can provide you with a holo-representation of the field, complete with auditory and olfactory stimuli present, in real-time with slightly enhanced color and clarity to compensate for your…”
Martin walked outside. He whistled, and Heinz, a tiny little mongrel, scurried after him, yipping in excitement.
Taubex hurried after them, his gleaming metal body making no sound.
Martin was walking away from the house, in the wrong direction.
“Martin!” Taubex called, “The flowers are in the opposite direction!”
The mech waited silently for the human to catch up to him, then they proceeded.
Taubex checked their surroundings. “It is five degrees cooler here than inside your home… Perhaps I should retrieve your sweater or jacket.”
“Cool air feels good, Tau. C’mon you lazy bucket of bolts, quit stalling.”
Taubex had known Martin long enough to know he was not being literal, he knew very well Taubex’s form was neither bucket-like or bolted.
Taubex pointed the way, and they set off, Heinz running ahead to look for the rabbits and voles that had not existed on the planet for two hundred years.
Initially, the mechs of Klystra IV thought Earth was uninhabited, save for the flora and fauna that made up its more remote (by human standards) ecosystems. Those creatures showed little ability to communicate, and there was no mech life present, save some primitive AI that had been destroyed in the last global conflict.
Martin had been found cryogenically frozen in a facility near what had been Bakersfield, California. Of the fifty corpses and seventy-five frozen heads, most had been damaged in the final conflict, the preservative action of the canisters maintaining the contents as a collection of bones suspended in a gelatinous sludge. The mechs had ignored the heads, not having the requisite bodies to attach them to, nor an interest in trying to clone new bodies for said heads.
The mechs attempted to revive nine frozen bodies. Six remained completely inert. One, a woman who had edited Beyond Magazine, regained consciousness and began shrieking. She died quickly but noisily.
The mechs had been able to revive Martin and a woman named Nancy. The mechs cured their respective pancreatic and lung cancer, and explained to them that the Earth and its neighboring planets had been found devoid of sentient life.
The mechs then restored a street of craftsman-style homes with the hope that Martin and Nancy might repopulate the Earth. All scans showed them to be fertile.
Unfortunately, Nancy took an instant dislike to Martin. She also refused to be a surrogate mother for any fetuses that might be developed, or artificially inseminated by any sperm samples yet to be discovered.
The truth was, she didn’t like people and liked children even less.
Martin hoped they might at least be friends. It would be nice to play cards with someone, and have someone to talk to.
Nancy was not unsympathetic, but neither was she a generous soul.
A few days later, they found she was gone.
The mechs tracked her heading north, but left her alone. They were not a race who forced their will on others. Any of those old movies about computers or robots taking over the world would have puzzled them, and they would rightfully have concluded that such fables were more indicative of human fears than any realistic potential for machine malevolence.
Initially, the mechs had revived Martin and Nancy to learn about humans, but then found there was a wealth of information on Homo sapiens, more than any other creature on Earth. By cross-referencing science, religion and the arts with statistical data and a wealth of minutiae (menus, receipts, tax forms, subscription notices, amusement park tickets, snapshots, recipes, scrapbooks, newspapers and lottery numbers), the mechs had what they felt was a fairly complete picture of humanity.
The mechs, having surmised that most of the imbalance in the planet’s ecosystems had stemmed from humans and their excesses, had wisely decided the Earth might do better without them.
Practical but benevolent, they provided Martin with all the necessities of life, including an antiquated DVD player with the entire inventory of the Library of Congress and Netflix.
After forty years, Taubex presented Martin with a gift, a mongrel dog (cloned from several species). Martin named him Heinz after an old joke, the roots of which were too obscure for Taubex to grasp.
Martin continued to live alone, his only company the dog and an occasional visit from Taubex.
Truth to tell, Taubex could have used any one of a dozen sophisticated monitoring devices or drones to keep apprised of Martin’s health, but he knew that the old man enjoyed their visits.
And Taubex realized it would be difficult to schedule non-Martin routines into his programming once the old man was gone.
One day, Taubex came with the news that Nancy had died.
Martin found that news of the demise of the Last Woman on Earth did not make feel one way or the other, and that realization made him sad…..
Mark Onspaugh is a California native and the author of over fifty published short stories. Like many writers, he is perpetually curious, having studied psychology at UCLA, exotic animals at Moorpark College’s EATM program, improv comedy with the Groundlings and special effects makeup with Thomas R. Burman, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin. Mark has also written for film and television including the 2007 cult favorite FLIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Mark currently lives in Morro Bay, California with his wife, writer Tobey Crockett and two tricksters who take the form of cats.