by Francis Levy
No one paid attention to me. I was invisible. I was just one of those guys who spend their life filling out forms, paying bills, filing taxes on time for fear of being imprisoned, and dealing with the next minor emergency—the dead car battery, the leaking radiator that seemed to define the passage of my days.
I tried SSRI’s but that didn’t help. So one day I decided I finally had to end it. I subscribed to the Hemlock Society newsletter, but I didn’t have the courage to take a bunch of sedatives and pull a plastic bag over my head.
Finally I saw an obscure ad at the back of a copy of JAMA, advertising “Roboplasty.” It was then that I decided to give my body over to cybernetics and become a robot.
Even pets display volition, but robots are an example of Buddha mind, in that they subscribe to the notion that “desire is but the beginning of suffering.”
It might seem like an impossible thing to do, to turn a complex product of nature back into a series of rational components or building blocks that comprise none of the emotional attributes of intelligence. But that’s exactly what happens. Once you’re plugged-in, your synapses, the axons and dendrites, are turned into microprocessors. It’s all initiated with a little blue pill that looks like Viagra and that you take 12 hours before the conversion. That’s all that’s required to shut off the ANS, the autonomic nervous system.
The transformation was done in an abandoned Hillary Clinton campaign headquarters, which still had old posters of our first female major party nominee for president on the wall. It was an Eastern European Shop on Main Street storefront in the old Hungarian section on Second Avenue, only a few blocks over from Weill Cornell—with a bell that jingled when you pushed open the front door.
I didn’t flinch. Yes, I was going to have to give up some so-called pleasures, but that went with the territory.
There was the typical waiting room with the magazines and goldfish bowl. I had to fill in forms with the usual list of procedures you’ve had, previous illnesses, primary care physician, along with insurance information and emergency contacts including my wife, Jane, who was calling me on my cell just as I entered. I didn’t answer. Once I’d signed in, I listened to the voice mail which was simply “why aren’t you picking up, Leon?”
“I’m going to have a roboplasty,” I texted back.
“Ha!” was her only response.
After you filled out your medical history, you prepared to relinquish that aspect of the self that made you human. Call it soul or consciousness or mind. The whole thing is simpler than it sounds. It’s what happens during a storm, when a building begins to run on a generator instead of the grid that has gone down.
Let’s call it a post-frontal lobotomy. Then you were simply running on a program that operated your brain and allowed you to continue all your cogito ergo summing.
What were they going to say to my next of kin? Your husband, father or son has been turned into a robot?
The procedure was completed when I entered a machine that’s like one of those full-body scanners at the airport. Lo and behold, I’d given up my humanity and my pain. I won’t say that a weight was lifted from my shoulders since when I emerged I was basically no longer not just the person I’d been, but no person at all. There was nothing to compare myself to, since I was no longer the worrier, nor was I contrite about the loss of my past life, which, by the way, was totally saved in my stored memory.
It was a hot afternoon and there were certainly many lovely half-dressed women gracing the sidewalks, but while I could register the fact of their attributes, I wasn’t the least stimulated. I didn’t have any desire for a cold beer, though I could tell you what that meant and I wasn’t hungry, nor did I feel particularly unappreciated for my efforts— whatever they were— or for some quality about myself that was not receiving validation.
Food was a “sticky” issue. Since I was a robot, I didn’t need to eat, but I could experience a phantom hunger. I’d been programmed to walk into several fast food outlets so I could appear to eat robotically like everyone else, with their take-out bags that always smelled of French fries.
So I found myself ordering in turn the Wendy’s Baconator and a box of McNuggets, though the question of what I would do with them was not computing.
All in all the procedure was successful. Back in the old life Jane had criticized me for acting like a robot so this was allowing me to become more full-fledged.
I’d always been a glutton when it came to data. However now I was a regular quant. The census was like porn and I loved the consumer price index, the monthly reports of the Bureau of Labor Statistics on job gains or losses and any and all tabulations concerning recessions, depressions and inflation which dealt with the economy. I didn’t experience anything more than mnemonic code, but I was increasingly able to register the retrievable data in my both my internal and external drives. Robots like me work on quantum processors that are capable of digesting and analyzing billions of bytes before storing them in the cloud.
Jane had always been exasperated with me for not being in touch with my feelings. Now that I didn’t have any I had the perfect excuse.
However, I was late getting home for dinner and I knew it was Thursday, the night we usually have sex. I wasn’t worried about anything since I was now a computer. Even before I’d converted I was completely able to have meaningless sex. Not only was I able, in fact, but it was precisely the kind of sex I preferred, as I acted out the same fantasy scenarios again and again. Now I had an autonomous penis that didn’t even require my input.
As for other activities it was simply SOS with the exception that I no longer had any choice in the matter. When I looked at my wife I’d see something like “female, 55, high IQ and strung, sensitive and easily annoyed”—or some such rubric that enabled robots to interface with human behavior.
When I walked into the lobby of my building I’d say “good evening” to the doorman, Tony, as I always did, asking how he was without waiting for an answer and then mechanically responding to his equally mechanical if somewhat belated response. We were out of sync as usual. The fact that I was now a robot made no difference as far as that exchange was concerned.
I proceeded to enter the elevator where my system wasn’t at all taxed when a fellow shareholder asked, “How are you?” No longer finding myself adverse to small talk, I responded “Fine” and then asked “How are you?” correctly anticipating the 53% likelihood of the affirmative response, “Fine.”
All in all I have to say that the absence of emotion was not becoming a quality of life issue, at least in the first hours of the roboplasty. Yes, I immediately noted that I didn’t feel things like love so I could no longer rightly say that I loved my life or experienced those little moments when you look at a person and feel enamored of all the things about them that you could also hate, if you were in a different mood.
Since I didn’t possess consciousness (except in its lower A.I. form), I can’t say I was aware of anything, I was only able to respond in this computerized way and state that there were a large number of expletives emerging from my wife’s mouth when I came through the door—all relating to what she called self-destructive behavior.
“I can’t believe you did this. You fucking asshole. You don’t have a brain in your head.”
“That’s absolutely right,” I calmly intoned. “I told you what I was doing and you just replied ‘Ha!’”
“What the fuck!” The key here is that she became the vehicle for perceiving myself. It was through her that I pretended to have the remnants of a conscious mind. I registered, “mid-life, female, grieving and enraged.” I didn’t experience regrets so I had none, but I still needed a guide when it came to emotions and dealing with a world of people like her who were filled with them.
For once she was right, I had deleted my worst part.
“Your statistics were actually texted to me, since in case you didn’t know you’re now not a husband but a product.”
Apparently there’s some kind of statute that makes it incumbent on manufacturers to inform next of kin when you’re turned into a robot. It was a safety thing. People who behaved robotically would not possess the kinds of intuitive traits that enabled them to perceive danger.
“We’re having dinner at the Winstons on the 21st,” she said. She always needed to make sure that our social calendars jibed. It was a mess when we double-booked and had to make excuses to get out of some engagement.
“That’s a Sunday,” I immediately replied. She laughed fiendishly and I knew what she was getting at. Being a computer I had dates and times at my fingertips. I wouldn’t be needing any more colonoscopies myself, but I knew that she was due to have one five years from last June 30th which was a Tuesday and one of the days when our GI guy did procedures.
“Well I guess we don’t have to remind them about the fact that you’re lactose intolerant anymore.”
“Oh I think it’s a good idea that we keep up pretenses,” was my computerized response.
“What are you going to do when people realize that you’re not eating what’s on your plate?”
“Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.” My program is a later generation of Siri so it’s very quick on the draw.
Dinner was one thing but we hadn’t dealt with going to bed and the intimacy involved in carrying on a relationship. It’s not exactly like we were this hot couple who couldn’t keep our hands off each other. However, we walked around naked, bathed, showered and even went to the bathroom—something I would no longer be doing—without any need for privacy.
Jane was the one with all the appetites and the waste that they produced and I couldn’t even get into the tub without shorting something. That was the one drawback of being a robot when it came to longevity. In theory you could live forever, but if your components got wet you were out of business.
I think Jane actually felt shy in front of me as she undressed. Even though I theoretically had no desires, I was still a new person and certainly not the man she’d married. My robotic self was a doppleganger who shared the same memory bank, but the difference lay in the fact that I was a passive receptacle for knowledge. “Capgras Syndrome,” neurological disorder where a person believes a friend a relative is an imposter.
Jane liked to talk and she had a perfect listener. She’d always hated it when I interrupted her, but it was even worse now that I patiently took things in and popped out with memes that were nothing more than old-fashioned homilies which came out of my file of “passive-aggressive behaviors.”
For instance, one day she barked, “You’re just a yes man. There’s no meaning in any of your words.”
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” I replied.
“You’re such an asshole!”
“Where gold speaks every tongue is silent,” I rejoined.
“Please stop!” she cried.
“We aim to please. Will you aim too, please!”
“God help me,” she pleaded.
She mistakenly thought there was a vengeance to my aphorizing and obviously took it personally. However, perseveration was just the way my kind of A.I. worked. As she turned red in the face, I poured out all kinds of sayings like a steam engine bilging smoke. It was all I was capable of doing. I was a lighthouse standing in the midst of an increasingly turbulent sea. My beam spread out over her swells of irritation.
I had always been afraid of being left and lived in dread of precisely the call I got one Friday afternoon in November. With winter approaching it’d started to get darker earlier. I’d put my key in the lock and had gotten to the phone that was ringing in the shadows of our Upper West Side apartment with its banging radiator, just in time.
There was a silence. I could hear heavy breathing on the other end of the line.
“I want to end the relationship.”
“It’s a marriage,” I corrected. She had obviously called while she was out of the house since she didn’t want to confront me directly and we continued to go back in forth about whether it was a relationship or marriage until there was silence.
The next day we both agreed we needed help and made an appointment with our old marriage counselor, Greg. We hadn’t seen him in years. However, this was a life-changing situation and something whose repercussions we both needed to talk about.
He was a dapper character with trimmed beard and a penchant for elegant cordovan loafers, preppy looking pink button down collar shirts and bow ties. He nodded sagely as we told our tale. One of his techniques had always been to make really horrible situations appear to be commonplace and it seemed to be hard for him to get the idea Jane’s flesh and blood partner no longer existed.
At one point in the discussion he turned to her and asked, “Didn’t you always find something appealing in the matter-of-fact way in which he dealt with reality?”
He pointed his hand dramatically in my direction like a conductor.
This was the moment at which the strings needed to chime in.
“If you had been attracted to the kind of man who lingered over meals, you would have been impatient.” He looked over at Jane for a confirmation that didn’t seem to be forthcoming.
“I beg to disagree. There’s a difference. Now he really doesn’t treat me like a human being. His intelligence is truly artificial.”
“The trouble is,” I interjected in a world-weary tone that was exacerbated by the lack of affect that characterizes all robotic voice simulation. “We aren’t enjoying any of the things that’d brought us together. I no longer share her feeling of inferiority and the fact that we’re never going to hit it big. I also no longer share the feeling that life is a profoundly depressing and disappointing experience.”
“I hear you,” Greg said touching his fingers together in front of his face. “And I know as a robot this is hard for you to process. But now Jane’s problems are compounded. The one thing you two had in common—your mutual empathy for a shared plight—is gone.”
“Jane have you ever considered joining a support group for people whose partners have had this kind of procedure?”
“This is all just an intellectual idea for him. The last time I got upset, he texted me the links to a bunch of on-line papers about dystonic emotions and which parts of the brain they emanated from.”
Robots don’t have minds of their own and because of that they’re even better than pets, who display their wants and needs. Our old bickering was blissfully gone. I wanted to draw on my archive of neuroscience to further this point with Greg.
Truth be told, I was beginning to experience a robotic form of thinking in which I was having an awareness of my own being.
I was “happy” for a robot. I couldn’t have changed back, but I wouldn’t have wanted to, if I could. So I intentionally played dumb.
“It’s time to take your pill,” I reminded her when we walked out of the session. She took Wellbutrin for her depression. It made her chatty and even a bit manic.
Did she really want me to exert the will I no longer possessed? If she were honest she would have to admit there was something nice about being married to someone who no longer had the craving for Chinese food on Sunday nights. Even a robot like me got that.
“Why don’t you tell me what you want to do?” she demanded in one last futile and compulsive attempt to turn back the clock and get something she no longer even wanted.
She should have been exultant. My screen registered: “Female, 55, high IQ and strung, desires pacified.”
I didn’t have an answer. So I simply put her on “mute.” I’d let her time out.
Francis Levy is the author of the comic novels Erotomania: A Romance, Seven Days in Rio, and Tombstone: Not a Western. He blogs at the TheScreamingPope.com.