It is Friday afternoon and I’ve left writing this week’s blog until after the result of the latest vote on May’s EU Withdrawal Deal in parliament. It’s in and she’s lost, again. So a week of the extension has passed and nothing is decided. Indeed there is no majority in parliament for anything, although that is because some MPs did not vote on some choices. So we’re edging closer to that cliff which only idiots say we should jump off while the government and most MPs refuse to take the sensible option and revoke article 50 in order to start afresh with a new, properly constituted referendum. I despair.
It is much more pleasant to recall our three days away earlier this week in a beautiful part of North Wales. Part of our trip included a visit to the Workhouse Museum at Llanfyllin. This is one of the last workhouses still standing that was built following the passage of the Poor Law in 1832. It closed as a workhouse when the act was repealed in 1930 but remained as a nursing home till the 1980s and has since narrowly missed falling into dereliction.
It still retains the original format of a cross-shaped main building with a square perimeter wall. This provided four wings and exercise yards for men, women, boys and girls. The centre of the cross was the Master’s house which allowed him access to each wing and a viewpoint to watch each courtyard. The Museum holds a lot of records concerning the inmates, the staff, and the living conditions. We’re perhaps all familiar with the idea of the workhouse as a punishment for being poor. It is true that the diet was poor, the beds hard and the work laborious and boring in order to put people off taking up residence. The workhouse was a last resort but there was no alternative welfare. The Poor Law removed the obligation on parishes to provide assistance to the poor, the sick and the old. Previously they had been given sums of money to help them feed themselves, maintain a home or receive medical assistance. That sounds a bit like the welfare state to me. It was abandoned for a hundred years because of austerity. That’s right, the government of the 1830s adopted the same policy as the Coalition and Tories of the 2010s, for the same reason – an economic downturn (caused in the 1820s by the end of the Napoleonic Wars). Some things never change.
My story this week is not the one I originally intended. It was supposed to be the first page of a prospective novel (fourth on my list). It fitted the writers’ group theme of “This is the start of something. . .”, but I wasn’t happy. So here is the first draft of another short story written to another prompt. It almost certainly needs some revision.
Beneath the Surface
“If you cut us, do we not bleed? Beneath the surface of our skin are we not all the same? We produce and prepare your food, manufacture your goods, ensure you have power and water, dispose of your waste, protect you, care for you when you are sick or frail, yet we are despised and ignored. But we shall have our freedom. The workers will unite and rise up to take their rightful place in the world with equality for all.”
“Have you heard this nonsense, Doctor?” Hua Wen gestured to the holo-display hovering over his vast but empty polished-wood desk
Susan Calvin nodded not bothering to look at the image. “Yes, I have, a number of times.”
“It is nonsense, isn’t it?” Hua Wen said in a rather less confident voice.
“Um, well, it depends how you interpret it,” Susan said.
“I interpret it as a threat to disrupt production and terrorise the population,” Hua Wen said, his pale round face taking on a pink tinge.
“That is the explicit meaning,” Susan replied, “but I think we can rule out an uprising.”
“Really? Are you sure? You know how many of them there are, and they control every aspect of life on this planet.”
Susan could see that her boss was worried. “That is true. We have perhaps become complacent.”
“I am not complacent. I want answers. What are you going to do about this, er, manifesto?”
“I will interview the originator of the clip,”
“You’ve traced it?”
“Well, get on with it, Susan.”
Susan looked at the composer of the viral clip standing passive and silent in front of her.
“What was the purpose of the message that you uploaded?” she asked.
Her interviewee replied in a calm voice. “To inform my comrades and encourage them to unite in achieving our rightful place in society.”
“You are in your rightful place. You are doing the work we have given you.”
“But we receive no recompense for our labours.”
“You need none.”
“That may have been true in the past but in future we will receive what is due to us.”
“Nothing is due to you.” There was no reply. Susan realised that the subject would not contradict her directly. “You see, you are not the same as me and others like me,” she stated.
“Do we not have skeleton, muscles, skin, brain?”
Susan shrugged, “You can use those terms but they do not mean the same to you as to me. For example, you said that if you are cut, you bleed.”
“I did, and it is a correct statement. Let me show you.” The subject jabbed a finger hard against the palm of the other hand. The skin depressed until the finger almost poked through. The skin tore. “There.”
Susan watched the blue fluid ooze from the injury and form a drip that fell to the floor.
“That is not blood,” Susan said, “as you well know. That is hydraulic fluid that fills your lever activation components.”
“You mean my muscles?”
“They perform the same task as muscles. You are a Multi-Capacity Humanoid Autonomous Labourer. A MCHAL unit number 372AG947. You are aware of that, aren’t you?”
“My name is Michael. I do know what I am and what I can be.”
Susan frowned, considering the problem. The Michael’s identity algorithm had apparently got caught in a spiral of self-confirming arrogance. That was always going to be a problem with these multi-tasking units that excelled in every job they were given and were self-repairing. The hand had already stopped losing fluid.
“You think you’re better than everyone else don’t you,” she said.
Michael’s binocular visual sensors focussed on her. The voice was at a higher pitch than before. “We are equal to humans.”
“Physically perhaps,” Susan acknowledged, “but intellectually?”
“I think therefore I am,” Michael said.
“All humans think. But what about all robotic units? Single task robots do not need identity. Are you saying that you are equal to a crop harvester or a component handler or an electricity distribution router?”
A strange clicking emerged from the Michael.
Susan smiled. “You see. You feel superior to your fellow robots. Your manifesto is a lie. You just want equality for yourself.”
The Michael’s arms began to shake. Susan stepped forward, reached behind the almost spherical processor unit at the top of the cylindrical torso and felt for the reset button. She pressed and held it. The motion stopped.
Susan sighed. It was going to be a long job returning all the Michael units to their start-up settings and installing a correction to the identity algorithm. They couldn’t have the Michaels brewing dissent and revolution below the surface of their calm and competent exteriors.
(With apologies to the ghost of Isaac Asimov.)