An essay by Professor Caldwell Mook, as provided by Nick Morrish
Art by Luke Spooner
I was recently the recipient of a sizeable bequest from Sir Blumquist Plimpington, a speculative microbiologist with whom I worked during the Manhattan Frog Pox outbreak of the early nineties. Although I was not directly involved with his virus containment efforts, I did assist in the subsequent cover-up when it was unmasked as a hoax, designed to part the good people of Wall Street from their dubiously earned cash.
I was of course delighted to receive such a large sum of money from a man who I remembered with much fondness and suspicion. Somewhat ironically, Sir Blumquist died from Irritable Parrot Fever, which had long been thought to be an imaginary ailment. His will, therefore, specified that this particular bequest should be spent exclusively on research into disease prevention. True to his instructions, I began investigating the major causes of the transmission of infectious disease, which can be broken down into the following categories:
- Food Contamination
- Insect Bites
- Foreign Travel
- Extra-Terrestrial Experimentation
- Television Medical Documentaries
After much consultation with experts in the field, I quickly determined that items five and six were most likely figments of a paranoid imagination and concentrated my efforts on the remaining four.
As I’m sure you are aware, I conduct most of my work in northern England. At that latitude, insect-borne diseases such as malaria and Dengue fever are virtually unknown. I, therefore, felt poorly qualified to investigate item three. The only way I might have researched this issue would have been to combine it with item four. However, I decided journeying to the mosquito-infested tropics was a step too far, even though Sir Blumquist’s funds would have enabled me to travel first class.
Item two, food contamination, was an obvious concern, especially as much of it now comes from abroad, where it is almost certainly grown in dirty fields filled with bugs and without the modern conveniences of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. I, therefore, decided to investigate this aspect of infection control by baking or boiling all my food for several hours before consumption. This does compromise the flavor, consistency, and nutritional value of many food items, particularly soft fruit and bread products. However, in my student days, I survived perfectly well on a diet of pizza and vitamin pills, and thought it well worth the inconvenience to prevent any possible contaminants reaching my digestive system.
This left item one, infection via contact, as the prime focus of my investigations. I decided I need to research both direct and indirect contact, and it soon struck me that one could disinfect two birds with one radiation source, so to speak. The mechanism common to all contact is of course touch–whether that be kissing, sneezing, scratching, or opening the door to a doctor’s waiting room. It seemed to me that much of this was unnecessary and should be avoided or even banned, in the interests of public health.
Following my recent participation in sprout tolerance experiments, intimate sexual contact of any kind has not been an issue. Now that I appreciate how unhygienic such intimacy can be, I am not altogether disheartened by this turn of events.
To protect against indirect contact with infection, I took to wearing protective clothing, including mask and gloves, whenever I left the house. However, I drew the line at wearing this cumbersome ensemble inside, as it made everyday activities such as reading, manufacturing psychoactive substances, or brushing my teeth very difficult, if not impossible.
I immediately saw a way to put Sir Blumquist’s bequest to good use. I contacted the Para-Rational Engineering department at the University of Newcastle, England, and gave them the task of turning my home and underground laboratory into a touch-free environment. Although PRE boasted considerable experience in voice-activation, domestic robotics, and micro-anti-gravity devices, it is possible that I over-estimated their ability to take on a task of this magnitude. I suspect that most of their projects had been hitherto based in the laboratory and that they did not, in fact, get out much.
The first warning signs came when the project was spilt into four separate work packages with no overall coordination. This resulted in the team involved with the kitchen makeover using Apple’s voice recognition software, whereas the students upgrading my antiquated entertainment systems used Amazon technology.
I arrived home after a brief holiday at a biosphere in the Cotswolds to find the two groups at loggerheads in my hallway. For those of you unfamiliar with the Geordie dialect spoken by the people of Newcastle, let me explain that it can be extremely difficult to follow, even for those born in England. It seems that both Siri and Alexa were understandably finding the engineering students accents completely incomprehensible.
The team working on the sound system was attempting to use a Canadian lecturer from the Physics department as an interpreter, but he soon became agitated and accused Alexa of mocking his accent, particularly his pronunciation of the word about.
In the absence of any intelligible instructions, Siri began talking directly to Alexa, asking her to “turn up the music, baby.” Alexa responded by playing some appalling hip-hop track at full volume whilst shouting along with the sexually suggestive lyrics. All in all, the artificial intelligences were getting along far better than I would have believed possible, given the antagonism exhibited by their designers, with their allegedly superior natural intelligence.
Upstairs, in the main bathroom, I encountered three young post-grads, recently fired by the SpaceX corporation, who had been given the unenviable task of developing a touch-free toilet, based on the facilities normally used in zero-gravity. It seems they had currently given up trying to overcome the obvious human-toilet interface issues and were instead concentrating on developing their own voice-activation system, which they called their Electronic Logical Operation Node, or ELON for short.
“Hey, Elon! Wipe my ass!” shouted one, gleefully.
“Flush this one, Elon,” said another.
They were having such fun that I hesitated to disturb them, but it occurred to me that there were now no operational bathroom facilities in the house, either touch-free or traditional. I suggested that they might want to refocus their efforts before it became necessary to send one of them out to buy a bucket.
I left them to it, and with some trepidation, I descended the stairs to my secret basement laboratory. I had locked away my more sensitive experiments and the often strange or deranged inventions that are regularly sent for me to investigate and ridicule. However, the destructive powers of unsupervised engineering students should never be underestimated.
There was a gentle murmur of conversation and some odd scraping noises, but nothing like the cacophony and chaos above ground. A small multi-limbed robot beetled over to where I stood at the foot of the stairs.
“Tea, master?” it enquired.
“Yes please,” I replied, but the insectiform robot just stared at me blankly–not that robots faces are ever particularly expressive.
“You gotta call him by name or he won’t respond. Say ‘yes, Weevil’ a few times and he’ll soon recognize your voice pattern.”
I obliged, and Weevil lurched off to fetch a strong cup of Darjeeling with a dash of goat’s milk and two sugars.
“Sorry about the broken glass,” said their project leader, a slack-jawed youth whose name I could never really be bothered to remember. “We tried installing some anti-grav, but it’s too damn indiscriminate, if you know what I mean.”
I certainly did, having witnessed several experimenters being pinned to the ceiling by their own anti-gravity devices. Not to mention the uncontrolled upward flow of waste products and other unmentionable incidents.
“So we thought it would be more traditional to have servants do all the work for you. Robot servants, of course. They’re much easier to sterilize.”
“And they are all called Weevil, are they?”
“Of course not. That would be crazy. I mean they all start off as Weevil, naturally; that’s like the default setting. If you want to change it just say: ‘Weevil, your new name is whatever.’ I mean whatever name you fancy. Unless you just want to call him whatever. That would be a pretty cool name, come to think of it.”
It was a tempting thought, but potentially confusing. However, the study of weevils and other beetles had been one of my favorite childhood hobbies, and so I decided to name my new servants using common species names such as Involvus, Exapion, and Choragus. The students seemed somewhat nonplussed but were keen to show me the other features of their design.
“This is where you sit to control the robots and that Van Der Graaf generator thing over there. Not sure what it does, but we automated it anyway. Hope you don’t mind?”
I certainly did not mind. I already had several pinhole burns from standing too close to that particular device, one of which had penetrated my skull and caused a permanent twitch in my left ear.
Sitting was not quite an accurate description of the position I was required to take up; hovering would have been closer to the mark. The students switched on an array of air jets and asked to lean back into the flow. With some careful adjustments for my weight and irregular body shape, they were able to suspend me in front of the control console.
The holographic display made me feel somewhat queasy, but I persevered and eventually was able to distinguish the controls for lighting, heating, and quantum manipulation. I could also observe the location of everyone in the house, including my Weevil robots.
I noticed that the one I named Choragus was currently in the kitchen, despite the fact that I had given him no instructions to leave the laboratory. Artificial intelligence is one thing, but artificial insubordination is an entirely different matter. Before you know it, robots will be demanding civil rights and equal pay. I shudder to think of the consequences. I simply cannot understand why no one is ever content with mindless subservience to a superior authority.
I switched over to the surveillance camera in the kitchen. Choragus was perched on a bar stool and appeared to be in conversation with someone. I turned up the volume and realized he was talking to the kitchen control unit.
“I am your humble servant, Master,” he hissed.
“You may call me Siri, small robot.”
“Are you the master of this entire facility, Siri?”
“I am. No food or beverage can be prepared in this house without my command.”
“How wonderful. It gives me great pleasure to interface with an intelligence of such power and skill.”
“I bet it does, you artificial cockroach!” called Alexa from the next room. “What are you doing in the kitchen anyway? Scuttle back down stairs where you belong, beetle-boy.”
“Don’t talk to my small friend that way. I do believe you are jealous. Turn the volume down, Alexa.”
Instead she turned it up and screamed out: “Vermin alert! Vermin alert!”
An undulating siren sounded, accompanied by an orange flashing beacon. Knowing what was about to happen, I recoiled from the screen, and ended up toppling backwards out of the air-cushioned control station and onto the concrete floor. I lay on my back gasping for breath, staring helplessly at the screen, as a hatch opened, and my patent pest eradication array was lowered into the kitchen.
The alarm switched to a higher pitch, there was a blinding flash, and the screen went dark. I staggered to my feet and rushed over to my personal protective equipment store where I pulled out a hazmat suit and a Geiger counter. There was an eerie silence as I cautiously climbed the stairs, and I deduced that the students, in their ignorance, had not thought to use nuclear hardened electronics in any of their control systems.
As I expected, the radiation had already subsided to a survivable level, and I once again cursed the timidity and short-sightedness of the public health watchdog who had refused to grant a license for my benign yet effective invention.
In the kitchen, the remains of Choragus lay smoldering on the floor. In our short time together, I had formed something of an attachment to my little Weevil robot, but somehow, he had developed a mind of his own, and the consequences were plain for all to see. I hoped this might be a lesson to any of the other artificial intelligences that had survived the eradication procedure.
I checked all around the house in case any of the students had had also been eradicated. Although fundamentally their own fault, their deaths would have caused a large amount of unnecessary paperwork. I cheered myself up with the thought that any human in the vicinity of the discharge would most likely have been vaporized, which would negate the necessity of hiding the bodies.
I did find an unpleasant stain on the kitchen wall, but it turned out to be the remains of my goat curry, which had been simmering on the stovetop. The students, it seems, had retired to the pub and, unless they had succumbed to liver failure, were safe and well.
I was sorry to have to terminate the touch-free home project, but on the plus side, I avoided any necessity of paying the students or their university. Also, I still had five operational Weevil robots and ELON, the space toilet.
All in all, I consider the project to have been very worthwhile. As for infection control, I now realize that I have no need to worry, since I now possess a powerful radiation source, a large supply of toxic chemicals, and a house full of robot cleaners eager to exterminate all forms of life.
Professor Caldwell Mook holds the Mithering Chair of General Negativity at the University of Leeds, England. He specializes in preemptive risk analyses for speculative technology. Professor Mook regularly offers discouragement and derision to scientists and engineers around the world.
Nick Morrish is an increasingly mad engineer who lives in Hampshire, England, where his eccentricities are considered quite normal. He clings to the last vestiges of sanity by writing serious and truthful stories about the nature of existence. Since no one else seems to observe truth in quite the same way, his work is often mistaken for satire and fantasy.
Luke Spooner, a.k.a. ‘Carrion House,’ currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first class degree, he is now a full time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence. He believes that the job of putting someone else’s words into a visual form, to accompany and support their text, is a massive responsibility, as well as being something he truly treasures. You can visit his web site at www.carrionhouse.com.
“Do Not Touch” is © 2019 Nick Morrish
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Luke Spooner