October 13, 2018

Story: Goodbye, Manny

Lily and Caden watched from across the great room as their four-year-old daughter, Carole, played dolls with Manny.  The robot patiently helped Carole change the dolls’ clothes, doing the velcro closures when the girl had trouble.
“You be the mommy and I’ll be the baby,” Carole instructed. “Say we’re going to the playground and the ice cream store.” She handed Manny a doll wearing a ball gown.
“Okay,” replied Manny in his pleasant, medium-pitched voice. “This doll is the mommy and your doll is the baby. We’ll pretend they’re going to the playground and the ice cream store.” He held up the doll in one of his articulated, pincer-like hands. “Let’s go to the playground today,” Manny said, his voice now that of a young woman.
“He’s so good with Carole,” Caden said softly as he sipped his coffee. It was Sunday morning, family time.
“I know,” said Lily. “But I worry he’s getting old. He’s had a lot of glitches lately. I don’t think the last software update agreed with him.”
“Well, when it’s time, it’s time,” said Caden. “Robots don’t last forever.”
Carole made the baby doll talk in a high-pitched voice, bouncing up and down. Manny started to reply, then froze, the waveform display that represented his mouth a broken, pixelated line.
“Manny?” asked Carole, patting him on the arm. “What’s wrong?” She tapped him harder, then turned to her parents. “Mommy? Manny’s stuck again.”
“Again?” Caden asked Lily.
“This is like the third or fourth time since Thursday. Imaginative play, finding lost things, anything that’s too complicated and requires a little thought seems to make him freeze,” Lily said. “This last update was supposed to improve that sort of thing, but for him, it’s made it worse.”
“Sounds like it might be time for an upgrade,” said Caden. “How old is he now? Two and a half years?”
“At least,” said Lily. “Probably more like three.”
Caden watched his daughter poke at the frozen robot’s head while his wife removed a small panel and pressed the reset button. “Yep,” he said. “It’s time.”
Lily stood up. “I’ll make the call today,” she said.
*
“Hospitronix, how can we help you?”
“Hi, yes, our Alphabet Series 3 robot needs to be replaced.”
“All right. Are you looking to upgrade?”
“Yes, we’d like to get the Series 5s.”
“Very good. We can set up the data transfer and delivery for you.”
“That would be great, thanks.”
“When are you looking to retire your Series 3?”
“As soon as possible, I think. Can you come tomorrow?”
  “Let’s see, I can have a specialist come between two and four tomorrow afternoon.”
“That sounds fine. How long does it usually take?”
“Anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour, depending on how many things you want to do while you say goodbye. I’ll give you a code for our app and you can select the specific program you want.”
“Will that be enough time to get everything ready?”
“If you make your program selections today, our specialist will be able to get everything ready by tomorrow afternoon.”
*
At two-thirty on Monday, the Hospitronix specialist arrived, carrying a blue backpack and a large, empty duffel bag with a window in the top. He introduced himself to Lily and Caden, who had taken the afternoon off. “Hello. I’m Rob. And you must be Carole,” he said, smiling at the girl peeking out from behind her mother’s leg.
“Are you a grandpa?” Carole asked.
Rob laughed. “Yes, I am a grandpa! You’re very smart.”
“But not your grandpa,” Lily clarified. “Rob is here to bring Manny back to the robot factory.  Remember, we talked about this. Manny is getting too old and needs to go back to be with the other robots.”
Carole’s lip began to quiver. “I don’t want him to take Manny! Manny stays here with us.”
Lily put her arms around Carole, while Rob squatted down until he was eye level with the girl.
“I know you’re going to miss Manny,” said Rob. “But you know how hard he’s worked. He’s getting tired and needs to take a break.”
“Why’s he have to go away? Can’t you just fix him so he doesn’t break anymore?” asked Carole, her eyes beginning to water.
“Sometimes we can’t fix what’s wrong. In Manny’s case, he’s just gotten too old and can’t do everything as well as he used to.” Rob stood up. “But that’s why I’m here, to give you a chance to say goodbye to Manny and make sure you get to play your favorite games before he goes.”
“Like dress-up dance?”
“Yes,” said Rob. He set the bags down and pulled out a tablet. “It says here that your favorite game to play with Manny is dress-up dance, and your favorite snack for him to make is toast with grape jelly.”
Carole nodded.
“Okay then?” Lily said. She tapped the face of her wristwatch and spoke. “Manny, meet Carole in her room.” To her daughter, she said, “Go get dressed up. We’ll wait here for the dance show.”
After Carole ran off upstairs, Caden asked Rob, “Will you be able to transfer all the data to the new robot? Including everything he’s learned?”
“Yes,” said Rob. “The new bot won’t be exactly the same, though, to prevent confusion. And we can adjust the level of learning it’ll need. How much retraining do you want to do?”
“Carole enjoyed teaching Manny so much, I think we should let her do that all over again. Just keep any pre-loaded games and information on the new robot. It should know all about Manny, but not act like him,” said Lily.
“Not a problem,” said Rob.
“But keep all the household chore training,” said Caden.
“Yes,” Lily agreed. “We don’t want to have to do that all over again.”
“Okay, great,” said Rob, making a note on his tablet. “Now, do you want the new bot to be male, female, or neutral?”
“How about a female one this time,” said Lily.
“All right. Series 5s, female primary personality, pre-trained with data upload. She can arrive as soon as tomorrow.”
“Well…” Caden frowned.
“Would you like to wait a day or two?” asked Rob.
“Yes,” said Caden. “I think it would be good for Carole, and for us, to have at least a day in between. Could you deliver the new one Wednesday?”
“Absolutely,” said Rob, noting the date on his tablet.
Just then, Carole shouted from the top of the stairs, “We’re ready!”
“All right!” called Caden. “We’re sitting on the sofa! Let the show begin!”
The adults arranged themselves on the sofa as the great room’s lights dimmed. Peppy dance music began streaming from the wall speakers. Carole hopped down the stairs, followed by Manny with his careful, rolling robot gait. Both were wrapped in brightly-colored scarves with sequined bands around their heads. At the bottom of the stairs, Carole yelled “One two three go!”
The little girl waved her arms and twirled around while the robot spun first one way, then the other. Finally, Carole stood still and said “Ta da!”
The music stopped and the lights came up. Manny and Carole bowed to their audience, who applauded and whistled.
“Great show!” said Rob.
“Now can we have jelly toast?” asked Carole.
When the snack was finished, Lily said it was time to say goodbye to Manny. Rob opened the panel on the back of his head and connected a small portable storage drive. “All of Manny’s memories will be stored in here, so when you get a new robot, they’ll be able to learn from him,” he said.
Carole began to lose her calm. “I don’t want a new robot,” she said. “Why can’t we keep Manny?”
“Sweetie, we talked about this,” said Caden, holding his daughter on his lap. “Manny is getting too old to do everything he needs to around the house. He’s starting to break in ways we can’t fix him. It’s time to let a newer robot do the job, okay?”
Carole nodded, her eyes big and serious.
“All right, everyone. I’m going to put Manny to sleep so he can travel back to the factory with me in this big bag here. It’s time to say goodbye.”
“Goodbye, Manny,” said Caden, shaking the robot’s hand.
“Bye, Manny,” said Lily, patting the robot’s head.
Carole climbed off her father’s lap and threw her arms around the robot’s shoulders. “Bye, Manny! I’m gonna miss you!” She looked at Rob. “Can he call me from the robot factory?”
“Yes,” said Rob. “If it’s all right with your parents.”
“That would be fine,” said Lily. She’d read that the Series 3 personality could be stored inside the Series 5 until it was no longer needed. Once Carole knew Manny was okay, Lily figured the girl would be so enamored with his replacement, she’d probably forget about him after a while.
Carole gave Manny one last squeeze, then stepped away. Rob put a small chip into a port in Manny’s back.
“Goodbye, everyone,” the robot said. “Goodbye, Caden. Goodbye, Lily. Goodbye, Carole.”
The robot’s eyes slowly dimmed and his head tipped forward, as if he were falling asleep standing up. Rob gently lifted Manny and laid him in the large duffel bag so that his face showed through the window in the top when it was closed.
“All right,” said Rob, lifting his bags. “Have a good evening. And please let me know if there’s anything else Hospitronix can do for you.”
As Rob walked out to his car, Carole hugged her mother’s leg and waved. “Bye, Manny,” she whispered.

October 8, 2018

Dialogue: The Hummingbird


Photo illustration by Susanna King. Window photo by Paul. Hummingbird photo by Yugen.




“Quick! Look out the window!”
“Just a sec.”
“You’re going to miss it!”
“Hold on, I’ve got to set this down… Okay. What is it?”
“It’s gone now. It was a hummingbird. You’ve got to look right when I say, ‘Look!’”
“I couldn’t. I was carrying a big pot full of water.”
“You always make excuses like that. You never want to do something right when I tell you to do it.”
“If I’d rushed over to the window, I would’ve spilled water all over the floor and maybe dropped a heavy pot on your foot.”
“But what if it had been a life and death situation? If I told you to run and you stopped to finish whatever you’re doing, you might not make it.”
“But this wasn’t a life and death situation. It was a hummingbird. I’m sure it was cool, and I would’ve liked to have seen it, but I don’t think it was worth risking potential injury and messing up the kitchen.”
“But it’s not just this time. Whenever I say ‘Look at this!’ or ‘Come here!’ you always have to ask why, or you say ‘Just a minute.’ You’ve got to trust me that I know what I’m doing.”
“And you need to trust me that I can hear from your voice that it’s not an emergency. In a real emergency, I promise, I would drop everything and come right away. I’m sorry I missed the hummingbird.”
“Look! It’s back!”
“You’re right. It is pretty neat.”

March 30, 2018

Poem: Honey

photo illustration by S. King, 
original photo by Stew & Vee Carrington

The honey inside of me
Is so old,
It has hardened
And crystallized.
Heat me with
Your fire,
So I might melt
A little.
Soften what
Is hard in me
And I will share
Some sweetness
With those nearby –
The sour,
The bitter,
And the salty ones.