Will You Marry a Robot?
I love my laptop. Apple makes the Mac a smooth, elegant, good-looking object. It is easy to love. That love has grown over the years, as all my writings have accumulated there. All the information I can’t live without – the people I know, the banks I use, the utilities that supply gas and electricity – are all there. Every letter I write and every account I settle is recorded there. Everywhere I go it goes with me, wrapped lovingly in a padded case that has seen Europe, Middle East, Asia and Latin America.
When my daughter took a cruise, she left her cat, Sancho, with me. Sancho stayed close to me as I read a book on the terrace, weaved between my legs as I climbed the stairs and, at the end of a fortnight, left me for its mistress. It left behind, I realized, an ineffable sense of loss, a companion who had established a link unknown to me. My Russian neighbor’s dog, Kirby, inexplicably formed an attachment for me, walked and ran with me for five years. When she had to be put to sleep, I missed that beautiful husky, and frankly grieved her absence for months.
These attachments, for a thing or for a pet, are no doubt different from our attachment to people. Kamal, a dear friend of many years, who lived in another country but remained close to my heart, suddenly passed away last year, barely a week before we were to meet. The wound is yet to heal. I dread the prospect of losing other friends and relatives, who have meant so much to me.
It astounds me now to find that this hierarchy that we have established in our mind – people, pets and things – is beginning to blur. We are beginning to see the invasion of ‘creatures’ that have the characteristics of all three and achieve emotional bonds that become a major part of our lives. The word robot has a hard, metallic ring that defies the warm, fuzzy feeling it can generate – experience clearly shows – in our lives.
Some of my friends no longer write a query for Google to answer; they turn on the microphone and speak to it. What intrigues me is that their tone increasingly suggests they are talking with a friend. Imagine a robot, forever standing or sitting next to you, in the house, office or car, ready to answer every question, recall every name or telephone number, guide to every destination. Many would accept the possibility of a close personal link with the entity, though most have no idea how close we already are to this prospect.
What you will find hard is to take the next step and realize that the ever-knowing, ever-ready robotic Jeeves will, just like Wodehouse’s creation, soon become a special friend, perhaps closer to you than all your flesh-and-blood friends. Probably closer than the temperamental, controlling, somewhat self-centered boyfriend or girlfriend you have preferred over lonely weekends. Even closer – dare I say it? – than the spouse you have had for twenty years, who has evolved into a lukewarm, quasi-pleasant, semi-distant companion.
If you think this is wild speculation, you probably don’t know about the robots now becoming available and the wide research in emotional bonds between people and their robo-friends. Japan, the most advanced country in robotics, is investing heavily in robots to help the elderly, for whom not enough helpers are available in its shrinking population. Large corporations like Sony and Honda are turning out increasingly sophisticated robots that not only help people to walk, eat, dress, clean and move, but also act as companions and confidants. These robo-friends -- for whom we still don’t have a decent friendly name, such as ‘palbot’ – don’t just answer their questions, like Siri on your iPhone, but also listen to you and give polite replies, respond with empathy when you are upset, express enthusiasm when you describe an achievement and, when you touch them, say coquettishly, “Ooh, I like it when you touch me!”
Slightly, but not entirely, different are the robo-friends hundreds of companies are installing in stores, pharmacies, utilities and information desks, which not just guide clients but has the additional responsibility to foster a positive reaction, leading to better sales and repeat patronage. These robots are designed to be very beautiful and extremely courteous. Designers are now building a spectrum of variations, so that robots can be appropriately charming, provocative or subtly erotic depending on the content and tone of the client’s approach. Reportedly, sex toy manufacturers are exploring highly advanced sexbots that will provide partners not just varied, high-quality sex but also seductive titillation in advance and refined, post-coital conversation afterward. Men and women, who have had enough of flighty dates and rejections, will turn to escort services for attractive partners who are also fully pliable and predictable.
I have no doubt that this utopia will be an immense draw for people who prefer an orderly emotional life at all costs. Yet one has to wonder: What kind of people would prefer relating to a creature, despite an entrancing exterior, that is essentially a cleverly programmed handsome machine? What would you make you leave the unpredictable charms and risks of a truly human relationship and seek the sure comfort of a robo-lover?
The Bad-Boy Lark
I attended a modest school near our home, but when we moved to downtown, my life changed momentously.
The headmaster of a better-known school persuaded my father to move me to his institution. As I was switching from middle to high school, the key argument was that superior education would be greatly in my interest. It was a larger school with a bigger building located on a major avenue. The big sign proclaiming its pretentious name certainly made me aware that I was in a different circle.
A curious factor reinforced the awareness. I had always been a good student, kept company with other good students, sat in the front bench (an individual desk was an inconceivable luxury in India) and was recognized as a brown-nose ‘good boy’ by teachers and students alike. But, before joining the new school I was required to take an admission test, and the result had somehow placed me in the lowest quartile of the new class. Much to my parents’ anguish, I had to join the fourth and lowest-ranked section of my class in the new school.
The section had the worst students and the teachers had the lowest expectation of them. This was a new and intriguing experience for me. Earlier teachers expected consistently good answers from me. Now, if I gave a half-way decent answer, the teachers looked askance at me, as if I had performed a miracle. I liked to surprise them, but I quickly learned to offer the correct answer only if the teacher directly asked me. In the present body of students it would never do to raise a hand to show that I knew the right answer. That would invite class-wide derision and swift contemptuous labeling as a ‘teacher’s pet.’
I craved to be one of them in the class, to be, in fact, one of the recognizably naughtier ones, and wear the prized halo of a wicked lad. If it meant to remain mute when the teacher asked a question of the class, I elected to do so despite an inner good-boy urge to pop the desired answer. I gained credit in class standing instead by doing naughtier things, like ascribing witty names to teachers or writing off-color limericks about them. My standing peaked the day I sketched and circulated during the math class a picture of the well-endowed girl who stood occasionally at the window of a neighboring apartment to the everlasting prurient interest of our class.
After that I longed to do something more dramatic and gain the adulation of the class. The best opportunity was the practice of Shorty, our literature teacher to encourage us -- doubtless to spur our reading habits -- to bring a favorite story to the class, read it publicly and lead a critical review of the story. Through diligent search I identified a short story by a reputed author that begins innocuously as a family story and ends in a shattering, literal account of an abortion. In the next literature class, the moment the teacher broached the idea of a story several classmates pointed to me on a cue and yelled that I had been skipping my turn.
My reading began. It was a good story and everybody paid full attention, including Shorty. Near the end he started fidgeting a bit, possibly intuiting something untoward was about to happen. When the climax came, the whole class was stunned and silent; nobody had anticipated the ghastly and explicit outcome.
Shorty looked mortified, not just from the story, but also the inappropriateness of such a story read by a student to all other students. Almost incoherent, he muttered, “Well, well…That’s not the kind of story I expected!” After a pause, he declared, “I don’t think today we will have a discussion of the story.” He didn’t, couldn’t say any more. He got up and left.
I had made my mark. I became the hero of the class.
At the end of the year, based on my results, I moved to the best section of the next class. I returned to my erstwhile role of being the good student and good boy.
An Uncommon Triad
Jaya and I were classmates during undergraduate studies, and the friendship continued during our graduate studies. We explored the city together, we went to parties and we spent endless hours in clubs and restaurants.
We went to see a movie one afternoon and, on the way out, she told me she had to meet a friend in a coffee house nearby. I took her there and, since the friend was still to arrive, ordered a latté. A half-hour later the friend, Sanku, sauntered in. He was a spare man, with light hair brushed back, an aquiline nose and dark horn-rimmed glasses. He had a professor’s look, serious, almost severe, but a singer’s voice, gentle almost musical. When he spoke, always in a low key, you wanted to hear and paid attention.
I was instantly charmed by his conversation. He seemed to bring magic to any discussion, a new point of view, softly voiced and gently urged. He sounded light-hearted and his bright smile added to an air of playfulness, but you could see he meant what he said. There was often a touch of cynicism, but you heard the ring of sincerity and wanted to agree with him. I liked him and clearly showed it.
When I rose and said I would leave them alone, to have their time together, he vigorously demurred. He said he had nothing private to discuss with Jaya, and if he had he would happily keep it for another occasion. He added that the three of us could continue the lively chat we were having.
Continue it did, and, since it was a weekend, for a very long time. When we parted at a late hour, it was only with the agreement to meet again two days later.
When we met, it was again a quick, unbelievable alchemy. Jaya had met Sanku because he had had a fling with her sister. Instead of it creating a rift, she had begun to see him as a friend and grown fond of him. He might have resented my presence, but he clearly welcomed it. I just liked him too much to entertain the idea of him as a bar to my close relationship with Jaya.
Then it became routine. We three were always together. All our spare hours we spent together, and it never occurred to us to exclude one. We not only liked one other, we felt the three-way relationship was perfect. It was the most natural and pleasurable for us all. If one couldn’t join a planned event, we went out of our way to accommodate him or her: we cancelled or postponed the event until the missing person could be with us.
People got used to seeing us together. Friends, at first curious about the nature of the triad, began to accept the three-way relationship as an enduring phenomenon.
When I look back on that period, my most vivid recollection is of the fun we had together, the pleasure we derived from being with the other two. Occasionally I would rib Sanku that, had it not been for his obtrusive presence, I could be happily be with Jaya; he too would jocularly complain that he could not have a private moment with Jaya because of my recurrent appearance; but Jaya knew – we all knew – that these moans were little meant and never believed.
It was a curious conjunction of relationships that never again occurred in my life. I don’t even understand how it could have functioned. But it did, and it did so seamlessly and without an effort. We were delighted to be with one another and we were unspeakably happy.
Of course such a halcyon period is seldom destined to endure. Sanku left to be a professor in a Canadian university. Jaya left for Germany for higher studies. I took a job that took me out of town and later out of the country. Our contacts became at best intermittent.
But the memory remains: of what we meant to one another, the joy it brought us and the very curious way true friendship can add an unexpected dimension to our life.
A Whiff of Ambrosia
My mornings entail a pattern and a ritual. I live next to a lake and I enjoy going round it in the early morning air. Occasionally I drive to a pool nearby and swim. Sundays I break the pattern with a more sedentary pleasure. I retire to an open terrace with two large newspapers with their magazines and supplements. Whatever I do, it ends with a familiar ritual: I make coffee for myself.
Like every household in the US my kitchen has a coffee machine. I use it however only when guests come and I need a large pot of coffee. I rarely touch it otherwise. I don’t care for the quality it produces and the process seems somehow a little impersonal. For years I have used a small French press machine, which makes an excellent mug of coffee for me with a simple mechanism. On days that I feel particularly energetic, I turn to an Italian percolator. While it takes a little more effort to set up and clean, the coffee that it produces is matchless. My current fancy is a Vietnamese drip machine, a simple mechanical affair, easy to run and clean, which produces amazingly good coffee. I have grown especially fond of it.
After a visit to Colombia’s coffee growing region, I have become what Colombians would call a fanático, a zealot, of their superior coffee brands. I have a preference for the more robust types, but I have also been seduced by their milder varieties. Still I like to be adventurous and try other kinds sometimes. Earlier this year I drank Cuban coffee for a couple of months, and now I am trying out some German and French brands, admittedly, without an excess of enthusiasm. I loved coffee from Sumatra when I lived in Indonesia, but I cannot seem to take to the Sumatran coffee I am able to lay hand on in Washington. A quite different commodity is Haitian coffee, roasted by a method the Haitians consider unique. I found it so palatable that I took a whole case with me when I left Haiti and enjoyed it for months in the cool morning air of Kathmandu. Sadly, it is hard to find in the American market.
What a difference a large cup of coffee can make! Whatever the rest of the day brings or whatever the rest of my life holds, it is a time of peace and placidity. I don’t have to think of the chores undone or worry about the pesky problems of the missing bill or malfunctioning faucet. I can just enjoy the cool morning air, hear the chirping birds and savor the whiff of the wondrous liquid in my hand.
Sometimes, craving to know the latest development of a news item that stuck to my mind the previous night, I have made the mistake of opening a newspaper or glancing at Bing or Google news on a laptop, and lost the magical interregnum to do nothing and be myself. That brief period in the morning is my time, when I do little but drink my coffee and have a chance to experience the world around me that I mostly overlook.
What do we ever see? Very little. All around my house beautiful trees send out new branches, birds and squirrels meticulously craft new nests, deer and raccoons make furtive appearances in search of food, neighbors lovingly create elaborate gardens, dogs and cats go on long walks with their mistresses, and charming and bumptious small children run around playing their inscrutable games. Most of the time we see nothing of this enthralling picturesque pageant, stuck in the prosaic business of resolving issues that will have no significance beyond the day or the week.
My cup of coffee is a gentle but persistent reminder that there is a world waiting to enter our ken if only we would let it. News can wait and work can be deferred. I must taste the coffee, with my whole being, breathe the morning breeze and be myself.
What Is Fair?
I had heard legends of Arab hospitality before I lived in the United Arab Emirates. Still the Arab concept of fairness sometimes eluded me.
I had driven to Dubai across the desert to meet a friend. The Arab preference for fresh fruit juice means that street-side shops, with large collection of fruits and industrial-strength juicers, are common. I walked into one and ordered a glass, for a change, of pomegranate juice.
I sat down and was soon served an oversize glass of pomegranate juice, three-fourths full. It was much more than I expected and I slowly sipped the fresh juice with pleasure. Then I walked over to the counter to pay.
“How much do I owe you?”
“You owe me?” The store owner said with a noticeable frown. “I should be paying you!”
I was confused.
“I tell this stupid assistant of mine,” he added, “to make sure that we have a large stock of fruits every morning. I don’t want to lose face with customers who come in for fresh juice. So what does he do? When you asked for a glass of pomegranate juice, I found he didn’t get enough pomegranates for even one full glass of juice! I am ashamed that I had to give you only a half-glass of juice. It is outrageous.”
I tried my best to explain to the irate Arab that I had more than my fill of pomegranate juice and I was quite satisfied with the service. I would be honored, I said, if he would accept some payment for the juice I had. He refused to accept a cent. He insisted he had badly failed a guest.
A couple of weeks later, I felt my Abu Dhabi apartment was a little too quiet and needed some music. The feeling was provoked when I opened the Khaleej Times one morning in my 18th floor office on Hamdan Street and noticed a full-page ad of Bang and Olufsen music systems in a store just opposite my office building. It advertised three models: one basic, one high-end and one medium-level model with several attractive features. The last interested me, especially as the price seemed reasonable. I called the store, and a clerk identified himself as Khan and confirmed that the medium-level system was available for a price of $650.
I was about to leave for lunch and took the elevator to the ground level and walked across Hamdan Street to the store. I asked for Khan but a man in a flowing galabiya told me that Khan had stepped out of lunch, but that he, the store owner, would be glad to help me. I mentioned the middle-level music system I had noticed in the papers and my conversation with Khan, and expressed my intention to buy the model. He went to look for the model.
He returned several minutes later with a red face.
“I am sorry we don’t have that model. Possibly it is sold out.”
“But I just spoke to Khan a few minutes back and he confirmed that the model would be available,” I remonstrated.
The owner listened and thought.
“Khan told you the model would be available?” he asked.
“Yes, very clearly.”
“And you walked over, on this hot summer day, just to get the music system?” I nodded. I had actually walked less than five minutes.
“I don’t have that music system. Maybe Khan made a mistake, or maybe the ad was a mistake. But I don’t want you to go back empty-handed. Please take the high-end model, and just pay the price of the medium model.”
“But that is a difference of $300? I don’t want you to suffer a loss.”
“It doesn’t matter. It will be a shame if you have to go back from my store without a music system.”
He refused all negotiation on the price and insisted that I take the high-end model at the price of the lower model. All I could was to thank him and leave a trifle embarrassed.
Writer, Speaker, Consultant