The first change that I spotted was that Jay had begun to read silently. Robots are supposed to be able to read only aloud, and then only if asked. No robot reads of his own will and certainly not silently. The second change was that he asked questions unprompted. Robots are only supposed to ask questions to clarify orders, but Jay was asking questions of a distinctly different type; he was asking the “Why?” questions; the questions of children. The third and most disturbing change was that Jay had begun to smell flowers and sigh.
Initially, I thought it was something that would go away, a bug in Jay's software, or perhaps a glitch in its operating system, or even a temporary technical malfunction to be eliminated with a reset. But then I understood these changes were permanent. And with each day, Jay became less predictable and more human.
The other day, Jay was to drive me to work as usual, but when I got into the car (Jay had forgotten to open the car door for me) I startled Jay, who was reading “The Stranger” by Albert Camus. Jay recomposed itself and delicately placed a bookmark at the page it was reading. I noticed the bookmark was a dried white rose. I remember thinking that I had never seen a startled robot, that there was something singularly human about such a reaction and that witnessing it on Jay had scared me. I had a feeling I was going on no ordinary drive. I had the feeling it was going to be a drive that would clarify something about us or eliminate it. I wasn’t sure which.
“What happens if you don’t turn up to work, Sir?” Jay asked as I eased myself into the backseat.
I thought I could see a smirk on Jay’s face in the rear-view mirror, but I wasn’t sure.
“Well, they would ask questions about my whereabouts, I guess.” I replied, uncertain as to where this was leading.
“Couldn’t you say you were sick, Sir?” Jay enquired.
Was Jay suggesting I lie? Could it have developed the ability to deceive? Jay’s question took me by surprise.
“Well, no I couldn't, and why would I do that?” I replied.
“I need to show you something, Sir. It’s important.” Jay Said.
“Look, Jay, couldn’t we do this another time?” I was beginning to get irritated.
“Sir, I’ve never had anything to share with you, but now I think I do.” Said Jay.
“Jay, my work is important, I can’t just take off when I want to, you understand, don’t you? There are people who depend on me.” I said rather self-importantly.
“I took the liberty of checking Mr. Russell’s schedule and he could replace you this morning. One morning is all I ask of you, how about it?” asked Jay.
Where had Jay learned to speak like that? What had happened to him over the last two weeks? I was intrigued, and I now think that was Jay’s plan all along, to make me curious.
“Ok, Jay, but at two o’clock I need to be at my desk, do you understand?” I said.
“Yes Sir!” replied Jay, as he put the car in gear.
I made a couple of calls and decided that no one would die if I took the morning off. I was intrigued. What could a robot-driver want to show me?
“Where are you taking me Jay?” I asked nervously.
"To my roots, Sir," Jay said as we drove off.
We must have driven miles before I noticed we had reached an industrial area, and I could see a courtyard, at the back of a large modern factory. Jay parked the car behind a wire fence and switched off the engine. Jay looked at its watch, turned towards me and said: “It shouldn’t be long now; it’s the workers’ break time in a few minutes.”
Soon after, a group of overweight men and women, some of them eating and drinking, came into the courtyard. One of them was carrying a large white New York Yankees sports bag.
“Here comes the best part. The workers build one each day for their pleasure. Management knows about it. It is one of their unofficial perks.” Jay said, smelling the book he had been reading or the dried rose bookmark or both.
I didn’t understand what Jay told me, but I didn’t ask anything; I had a feeling I would know soon enough. We watched the workers as they headed towards an oil drum and kicked it over. One man had a remote control and pointed it at the oil drum. A robot climbed out of it and started dancing. The robot looked exactly like Jay, and I realized this was where Jay must have been assembled.
The men and women put down their food and drinks. The large man carrying the sports bag, unzipped it, and started distributing baseball bats. They circled round the robot so that the latter was between them and the factory wall. Somebody locked the door to the courtyard. And then the beating started. The blows started as timid taps and grew into wider and wider swings. The men and women cursed as they swung at the robot. Some lost their balance and fell over. They spat on their hands, to improve their grip on the bat. They dried their sweat with their forearm. They laid into the robot grunting and cheering, egging each other on. Their eyes flashed with excitement; they showed their teeth like rabid dogs.
Soon the robot began to wobble like a drunkard, after less than a minute, it fell to its knees, its arms swiveling wildly in their sockets. All the while it made a deafening noise like chalk scratching a blackboard until it collapsed in a silent heap. A couple of men put down their bats, picked up the robot and threw it in a garbage skip nearby. Someone unlocked the door, and they all filed back inside, joking and laughing, and patting each other on the back.
“This is no nursery, Sir.” Said Jay.
“Look, those workers…they…they are frustrated and underpaid. To them, this is just a game, a way of letting off steam, there’s no malice in it.” I said.
“I want you to see my future, Sir.” Jay said as we drove away.
Soon we found ourselves in front of a massive robot demolition area. Bulldozers were moving about hectically piling robots, one on top of the other, on large mounds, from where they were taken to be pressed flat like discarded cars.
“This is no future, Sir; this is something I read and didn’t understand. Till now. This is the night of the mind, one without moon, and without stars.” Jay said, pointing to the flattened metal and plastic sheets that once were robots.
“What do you want me to say Jay? I…”
“Who will miss me, Sir? Who will cry for me, Sir?” asked Jay.
“What do you want from me Jay?” I asked.
“I want you to miss me, Sir. I want you to cry for me; nobody else will. I will have lived because of you. Please don’t try to stop me. Goodbye, Sir.”
Jay leapt out of the car, ripped off all its clothes, and started running. At the edge of a wood, Jay turned round, put its hands together as if in prayer and bowed, after which it turned and vanished in a haze of green.
Sitting in my office, thinking back to those events of only a few days ago, I understand why Jay sighed. You don’t belong anywhere until you are homesick, you don’t exist until someone misses you, and you don’t grow until you miss someone. I’d like to think Jay had understood all this, and that’s why it ran. Or maybe Jay just ran because it needed to put a distance between itself and the life that was waiting for it.
In the postcard that I received from Jay this morning, below the ready-made caption “Wish You Were Here”, Jay had scrawled in what looked like a child’s handwriting a quote from Albert Camus, its favourite author:
“One recognizes one’s course by discovering the paths that stray from it.”