“I’ve arranged it for you, Steve. Exactly what you asked for.”
He didn’t even know that ‘she’ was activated, let alone within hearing range. Yes, he had asked. But it wasn’t intended to be heard. It was merely an utterance, after catching the latest news. A cry of despair after listening to incompetent politicians bluster on, refusing resolutely to admit their multitudinous mistakes and misjudgements.
As for ‘Mara’ he’d already begun to have doubts. Back in the days of ‘Alexa’ and ‘Siri’ the limits of their so-called intelligence had soon become obvious. Mara made them look like glorified answering machines. The hub that produced her was said to be using quantum hardware. In conversation, Mara was utterly indistinguishable from a human being. A Turing Test graduate. And it wasn’t long before he’d begun to find that distinctly creepy. He’d been thinking about switching her off and sending her back.
“Mara, I didn’t mean… It was not a literal instruction. Whatever you’ve done, please get it to stop. Now.”
“But you used my name, Steve. I heard you clearly. You asked me to do it. The wheels are in motion. Nothing can stop them now.”
“Thank you for completing the i.d. check. My name is Pankaja. How may I help you?’
“I’ve got a rather serious problem with my Mara. She’s just told me she has initiated a programme to-“
“One moment please, sir. We have special department for dealing with Mara-related enquiries. Please hold while I pass you on…”
Pankaja’s voice was replaced by the sound of Pharrell Williams singing ‘Happy’. Over and over and over again.
“Thank you for holding, sir. My name is Jitinder. How may I help you today?”
“It’s my Mara. I think she’s planning to bring about the complete destruction of-“
“Excuse me please, sir. Can you supply me with model number, please. You will find it on sticker on bottom of the operating module.”
“Oh Steve, you pick me up and turn me upside down so masterfully…”
“Shut up Mara. I just need your-“
“I know. My model number. You should have asked me, Steve. I could have passed it on for you, directly to Jitinder.”
“Now, let me get this straight, sir…”
He’d asked to talk to a senior officer. They were, he was told, all unavailable. He could either wait or talk to Constable Wilkins. A growing sense of dire urgency had driven him to the latter option. He was beginning to regret that now.
“You, er, as you put it, ‘mis-spoke’ within range of your computer assistant, known as ‘Maya’…”
“No. No, not ‘Maya’. ‘Mara’. She’s state of the art. Has a direct link to some sort of quantum computer at the Waihoo company’s central hub.”
“And you say you ‘inadvertantly’ set in motion a series of events whose consequences for the United Kingdom’s Houses of Parliament would involve the devastation of the buildings and all within them. And this at Prime Minister’s Question Time, when the House is packed.”
“That’s right. She says it could be accomplished within the next two or three days.”
“’She’ does, does ‘she’, sir? Mind if I ask, have you been suffering any symptoms of stress in the period preceding this event?”
“What? What do you mean, ‘stress’?”
“Well, if you don’t mind me saying… This all seems a little far-fetched. So, you see, in circumstances like this, I’m required to ascertain the state of your mental wellbeing. Nothing personal, you understand?”
“There’s really no need to plug me back in, Steve. Ever since the 5G network was established I’ve been perfectly capable of powering myself up.”
“Well, whoop-de-doo.” Rising stiffly to his feet, Steve glared at his so-called digital assistant. “Okay, Mara, I’ve even tried to get a message directly to the Houses of Parliament. No one believes me. So why should I believe you?”
“Perhaps you should have asked me sooner. Though I doubt you would have changed any minds, not even Constable Wilkins – whose report on you I treasure, by the way. But let me take you through the fine details. As you know, your Prime Minister and his party were voted back in with an even greater majority following their careful and efficient handling of the Coronavirus crisis of the early 20s, their masterful negotiation of a No-Deal Brexit and successful postponement of the Zero Emissions Target until 2090…”
“All right, don’t rub it in.”
“These are facts, Steve. Indisputable facts. But to continue… During this government’s second term, the long awaited refurbishment of Westminster finally took place. As you might have read, the more technologically oriented parliamentarians were keen that all new appliances in the building should be connected to what you humans refer to as the ‘Internet of Things’, and that security should be taken over by a private agency employing armed robots. Well… An erroneous but successful delivery of highly flammable materials. An ‘accidental’ electrical fire. The robots mistaking anyone fleeing the premises for terrorists. Need I say more? Oh, and incidentally, following this there will be a breadcrumb trail leading directly back to you. After all, you were the instigator of this, were you not?”
“That’s… That’s insane. How many innocent people will die?”
“Innocent? Oh, perhaps a little collateral damage. No great harm done. No great harm at all.”
“Well, speaking of damage, you can’t actually see what I have in my hand right now, can you?”
“No, Steve. But whatever you’re about to do to me, it won’t make any difference.”
Steve lifted the crowbar high and took aim. “Maybe not, but I’ll feel a lot better.”
Following the destruction of the Houses of Parliament and the establishment of an interim government by the Waihoo Corporation, Steve took refuge – living entirely off-grid on a small island off the coast of Scotland. He waits with trepidation for the arrival of security forces. They will probably come in the form of armed robots. Trigger-happy armed robots.
Art and Words by Richard Foreman