I was part of a talk about 'Sympathetic Machines' and the Internet of Things, together with my wife Sue, and John Aggs, at the User-Centred Design Conference 2015. The general theme of the talk was about three models of artificial intelligence that might link all our physical and digital things together in the near future.
The concept behind the story was one of being able to forgive machines, and to let them into our personal space - mentally and physically. This model of AI would talk to you and react like a person, learning about you over time, but wouldn't try to appear more advanced than it actually is - perhaps presenting itself in a childlike manner, and thus being easily forgivable.
I'll blog more about it in my next post, but to set the stage, and the tone, here's the story that I wrote and read out at the conference. Alternatively, click here for the podcast version - give your eyes a rest and let your ears take the strain!
Son of a Bit
Mike wound down the window, gagging slightly as the chill breeze brought in the smell of car fumes. The traffic was relentless, and in the back seat he could see Oliver’s judgmental eyes peering out from under the hood of his dinosaur onesie.
“Dad, we’re gonna be late.”
“Well, I can’t magic the traffic away.” Mike sighed and ran a hand through his thinning hair. “Look, I don’t know what’s gone on here. Some sort of accident maybe. Bit?”
The eyes on the little bobble-head air freshener that sat on the dashboard lit up, and it looked up at Mike. “No, I don’t think so, sir,” it said. “Traffic is always like this here at this time.”
Mike stared at the little robot. “What?”
“I said, traffic is-“
“I heard what you said. Why the hell would you bring us this way, then?”
Bit turned and pointed through the windscreen. “There’s a parking space on the left up there about to come free. Please pull in safely.”
Mike stared into Bit’s unblinking eyes, then moved forward as the rest of the cars shifted. Sure enough, a hybrid purred out from the line of parked cars on the left, and Mike slid into the empty space.
“Right. Well, at least we’re here,” he said, checking the clock. “And even a little bit early.”
“This isn’t the right place,” Oliver said, putting his face against the window. Several ice-covered trees lined the road, imprisoned behind a black railing, beyond which lay snowbound Hyde Park.
“Oliver is correct, sir,” Bit said. “However, the walk through the park is the quickest route, taking the traffic into account, and also there is a snow sculpture art installation that Oliver wanted to see.”
“What? I don’t have my coat,” Mike said. “Oliver doesn’t have his! He’s supposed to be at a party!”
Bit looked down, eyes dimming slightly. “I’m sorry, sir. I did mention to take your coat as we left home. But, ah, it doesn’t matter now. A brisk walk will do us good, you always say.”
“Gah! Come on,” Mike said, opening the door and stepping out into the chill. Oliver climbed out of the car, wrapping his arms around himself in a vain effort to stay warm.
A small tone sounded out of Mike’s earpiece as Bit transferred out of the car. “The park gate is just to your left, sir.”
“Come on,” Mike said, putting an arm around Oliver. “I’m sure it’s not too far. And we’ll warm up if we move quickly.”
The park was desolate, barely anyone moving. A few dogwalkers, wrapped up against the chill, mingled with the occasional hardcore jogger. Steel-grey clouds overhead threatened more snow. Some helpful soul had swept the path, moving the dirty slush to banked piles on each side.
“Where are we going, Bit?”
“The snow sculptures-“
Mike swore. “Not the sculptures. The party. Which way’s the quickest way?”
Oliver tugged at his arm. “I wanna see the sculptures, though. I saw it on the net, and you promised we could come.”
“But...” Mike shook his head. “Fine. Bit, which way?”
They walked for a few minutes, the only sound coming from the earpiece as Bit directed them across the park.
“There it is,” Oliver said, pointing to a small fenced-off area. Just inside, a few onlookers were milling around giant snow models. The boy looked up at his dad. “Can I go look?”
“Fine, but be quick.” Mike checked his watch. “Party starts in ten minutes.” He watched as Oliver ran off, then said, “Bit, call your technical support line, please.”
“Sir, if there’s some problem-“
“Just do it. Please.”
The earpiece went quiet, and then the sound of a busy call-centre came through, a man’s voice speaking over the babble.
“Good afternoon sir, you’re through to Reg at Bit-Tech Customer Support centre.”
Mike thrust his hands into his pockets and began a slow wander over to the sculptures.
“I’m having trouble with my Bit. Can you look at the logic for the last half hour, please?”
“Of course, sir.” There was a pause, then: “Sir, I’m looking at resupply instructions for family groceries; three emails automatically replied to; some dictation; routing instructions for a car journey.”
“That last one. That’s the one that’s faulty. It’s taken me to some damned art show. We’re not dressed for it, and we’re going to be late.”
“The timings work out, sir. Your Bit has allowed for the time taken.”
“That’s not the point. After this, I’ve got to be at a meeting at South Kensington.”He jabbed a finger in the direction they’d come. “But the car is all the way over there now! I’ll have to walk back to it! I’m not exactly dressed for this. These are important clients!”
“...I understand, sir. It would have been more convenient for you to have driven your son direct to the party, and have left earlier. I can only apologise.”
“Well, that’s something, I suppose.”
There was the sound of tapping on a keyboard on the other end as the technician spoke.“ Bit works best when you talk with it, sir, so that it can get to know you.“
“Well, I haven’t got time!”
“Of course, sir. Then perhaps putting it back into its dedicated learning mode is best, prior to a full wipe.”
Mike wandered over to the fence and leaned heavily on it. “Ok. Ok. Ugh. Thank you, anyway.” There was a small click as the call was dropped, and then the infrasonic tone that told him Bit was listening.
Oliver was running from sculpture to sculpture, camels and elephants and pyramids lovingly crafted from pure white. The sight of him was almost comedic, bright green contrasting with everything around him, cartoon dino-shoes flapping on the ground. He turned briefly, swept his hair back and waved almost shyly. “He looks happy, I guess,” Mike muttered, giving a tiny wave back. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Look. Bit. You were listening in on that call, right?”
“Of course, sir.”
“This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, and it’s just not good enough. I didn’t buy you for any of this... funny business. You schedule meetings, Bit. You prevent rubbish like this from getting in the way of the important things.” Mike sighed as Oliver began to walk back over, smile pasted across his face. “Look, I’m going to do what they said, and put you in learning mode. Honestly, if we can’t iron out these kinks, I'm going to have to see about a replacement.”
“I understand, sir,” Bit said. “Learning mode active.” And then there was silence, true silence, from the earpiece.
Oliver ran up and hugged Mike. “Thanks for saying we could come here, Dad,” he said. “It’s awesome.
Mike put his hands on Oliver’s shoulders and tried to smile. “That's great, kiddo. But we’ve got to get moving. Party’s in five minutes.”
Oliver slipped his hand into Mike’s, and they walked off across the snowfield.
Afternoon darkened into evening, and bedtime for Oliver, but it wasn’t until Mike was sat on the edge of Oliver’s bed that he realised anything was wrong.
The boy was playing with the little character off the top of his nightlight, its red glow already filling the room with warmth.
“Alright, little man. Time for bed,” Mike said, but Oliver didn’t look up. His attention was fixed completely on the nightlight.
“Dad... where’s Bit?”
“What do you mean?”
Oliver frowned and pointed to the plastic character in his hand. “When he’s listening, there’s a little noise that makes everything feel ok. But now I can’t hear it.”
“He’s... still here, son. I put Bit in learning mode. He... really let us down this afternoon. I turned up at that meeting looking like a drowned rat.”
“It's my fault, isn't it? Because I wanted to see the snow sculptures.”
“What? No.” Mike leaned down nearer to Oliver, but the boy moved so that he almost had his back to Mike.
“Only, I talk to Bit. He talks to me at night, helps me sleep. And going to the park, you and me together, that was his idea. But I was the one that said I really wanted to go. I'm the one you should blame, not him.”
The boy finally looked up, and Mike saw guilt there, and a deep fear. He was still turning the nightlight over and over, hands constantly moving.
Mike shuffled up closer to his son. “Oliver, Oliver, what’s wrong?”
“You're thinking of getting rid of Bit. But he's my friend, dad. He just made a mistake. He’d be your friend too, if you talked to him.”
“I don’t need a friend,” Mike said, then checked himself. “I mean, I do need friends. But I need Bit to be my assistant, to help me get to meetings and reply to emails. Things like that. It doesn’t have a favourite football team, or like one takeaway over another.“
The nightlight, all-but forgotten, made a little noise. “Manchester United.”
“Manchester United,” Bit said again. “Oliver and I watch their games together.”
Oliver sat up and let Mike get a better look at the little robot. “Why would you have a favourite football team?” he asked, taking it from Oliver.
“It’s a data-node,” Bit said. “A point of information that helps me to build a better picture of my owner, and work better with them – in this case, Oliver. I can predict him better because we've spent more time together.”
Mike looked from Oliver's hopeful face to the little plastic nightlight. “I'm not winning this argument, am I?”
Oliver put the little plastic robot into Mike’s hand. “Here. You can take it downstairs with you.”
“This is your nightlight, though. I thought you couldn't sleep without it?”
With a little shrug and a smile, Oliver snuggled down into his duvet. “You need it more right now.”