Robots With Feelings

Entry by: Alobear

4th March 2015
Robots With Feelings

I remember so clearly the day they sent all the factory workers home. My father, the site foreman, stormed into the house in the middle of the afternoon, making me and my mother jump by slamming the door. He stomped across the kitchen and threw his hat and gloves on the table, along with a crumpled pamphlet.

“Robots!” he fumed. “What the hell makes them think robots can do our jobs better than we can?”

Not yet aware of the meaning of ‘rhetorical’, I settled my gaze on the creased paper that had landed in front of me, and read aloud, stumbling a little over the unfamiliar words.

“Faster, more acc-urate, more con-sis-tent. Increase your pro-duc-tion and lower your costs. Robots can help put your com-pany back on the map!”

My father snatched the pamphlet from me and tore it to shreds, scattering the pieces all over the floor. Then he grabbed my arm and shook me hard.

“Think this is funny, do you?” he snarled. “We’ll see how funny you think it is when there’s no food on the table.”

His fingers digging into my flesh were painful, but I was more hurt by the fact that I didn’t know why he was so angry with me. I turned imploring eyes on my mother.

She stepped forwards and said, a little hesitantly, “Leave the child alone, Ed. She doesn’t understand.”

He released me and rounded on her. “She’ll understand well enough when we’re out on the street.”

“Oh, Ed.” My mother tried to placate him, though she moved backwards a step or two as she spoke. “It’s not that bad, is it? You’ll find something else.”

“Will I?” he demanded. “Tell me where I can get another job, Marissa, and I’ll go right now. None of the other factories are hiring – they’ve all either got too many workers already, or they’re installing the damn robots as we speak. And what else can I do? All the major trucking companies have replaced their drivers with computerised cabs. Construction is being taken over by the machines, too. Warehouses all have automated systems, now. Offices are self-cleaning. The robots are everywhere! And there are thousands of schmucks like me, scrabbling around for whatever jobs are left over.” He slumped down into a chair, his anger giving way to despair. “They’ve no use for people like me any more. It’s all automation this, and efficiency that. No consideration for the lives of the workers they’re replacing. Oh no, the bigwigs are just as cold and unfeeling as the robots they’re employing in our place.”

He was right, of course, and the continued progression of the robot takeover was inevitable. Anyone running a company would prefer reliable, speedy machinery over humans prone to mistakes and absences. Why support an employee who was too sick to work, when you could easily replace him with a machine that would do twice the work in half the time and never miss a beat? Machines were clean and predictable.

But, as I learned over the weeks and months that followed, humans are predictable, too. My father’s behaviour fell into a pattern; brief flashes of rage, followed by long periods of deep depression and drinking. My mother and I did our best to stay out of his way, trying never to set him off or give him an excuse to lash out. We were desperately predictable in our own way, becoming shadows, leaving as little imprint as we could in the house.

My mother actually managed to find work, selling her needlework skills to those people who still valued individuality and craftsmanship in the things they bought. There wasn’t much demand, but those who wanted such things were willing to pay dearly for them, so it kept us from losing our house, though it also provided my father with enough money to fuel his drinking habit.

It shouldn’t have surprised us that my mother’s new-found success, though modest and necessary to our survival, engendered no pride or gratitude in my father. We should have realised that it would only deepen his own sense of worthlessness, highlighting as it did that he was incapable of providing for his family. He went out less and less, not wanting to encounter anyone he knew who might ridicule him for relying on his wife to put food on the table. Not that that was likely – all his old acquaintances had their own painful, predictable lives to worry about, and most were far worse off than we were.

The inevitable day came, when my father was on his way home from a trip to the self-service, automated supermarket, drinking deeply from the bottle had had just obtained. It was a bitter, winter’s night and there was snow on the ground, but he hadn’t dressed for the weather and was hurrying to get back to the warmth of the house. One misstep and he tipped into the icy river; he didn’t last long in the frigid water, and his frozen body was found the next day, half a mile downstream.

My mother and I cried when we were given the news, as was expected of us under the circumstances. But, as soon as the well-wishers and busybodies were gone, we packed away our emotions and carried on with our usual routine, both secretly relieved at our release from our burden.

The bigwigs might prefer the predictability of robots, but we humans aren’t so different when it comes right down to it.

At the end of the day, we’re all just robots with feelings.