Nearly a year before, George sat on the side of his bed and slid his feet into sheepskin slippers. He stood, pulled on his dressing gown and took a few steps towards the window. He no longer needed the Zimmer frame and his breathing was coming easier now. That winter’s wave of Covid-19 had put him in hospital for a week with pneumonia. His GP, Doctor Patel, said he was lucky to survive. He wasn’t so sure.
Leaning on the windowsill he looked out onto the driveway and the neat leafless garden. It was another grey drizzly English day. One or two patches of snow remained. A blackbird worked the lawn under the lone apple tree. A grey squirrel dropped in from the neighbour’s oak tree to scratch around for long-hidden acorns. Some bright green shoots of early snowdrops were just visible. Maeve always loved snowdrops. She’d never seen them before moving to England. Wondering if he would see one more summer, George turned, moved slowly to the other side of his little room and put the kettle on.
“Happy Birthday, Dad!” George’s daughter, Kirsty, came in to say goodbye before heading out to work. “All OK?” she asked. He assured her that all was fine, that he had forgotten his own birthday as usual and that he was still able to make his tea and toast. “See you later, then. Got a big surprise for you!”
“What? Another pair of bloody socks?” he replied, laughing. She blew him a kiss.
George buttered his toast, spread on a thin layer of marmalade, sat at his table and switched on Radio 4. Most of the news related to the conflict in Eastern Europe. The Covid-19 pandemic took second place; a new variant of the virus had been identified. He watched Kirsty’s car head down the drive. Then her husband, Mark, wheeled his bicycle away as George’s two teenage grandchildren, Sue and Kevin, set off on foot for school. All three waved cheerily on their way through the gate. He waved back. Another exciting day ahead, he mused.
He got through his days listening to the news and podcasts. His eyes now got tired and gritty if he read or looked at a screen for too long. He watched little television although he loved a good film. He looked forward to the visits of the vicar of Bingham on Bure, Beth McVicar, his friend Ted Scales, and Doctor Patel, all of whom noted that despite the frailty of George’s body, his mind remained as sharp as a razor.
Today, George was eighty-seven years old. His birthday meant little to him. He polished his glasses and reflected on his past. The love of his life, Maeve, had passed away six years before. He was flattened with grief. Just months later, their dog, Buster, whom George adored, had also died. Maeve had found Buster, a puppy of indeterminate breed, in the dog pound and had given him to George on his retirement from medical practice. Losing Maeve, and soon thereafter Buster, had left a great dark hole in George’s soul about which he confided only to Beth. George was otherwise in reasonable health. It had suited everyone when Kirsty and the gang moved into George’s house, the old family home, and he moved into the small annex prepared especially for “his later years.”
George was wise. His many years in general practice had given him a profound insight into the bodies and minds of the people who made up the community of Bingham on Bure. Over those years he had witnessed with both fascination and some concern the arrival and impact of the digital age on every day life. He recalled when he first heard terms like “software,” “user friendly” and “laptop.”
Now, any zest for life had trickled away. It wasn’t so much that he wanted to die, more that there seemed little point in continuing to live. If he got another bout of pneumonia, he would refuse to go to hospital and refuse treatment. But he knew even raising this with Kirsty would upset her. He would discuss it all first with Beth when next she called.
That evening, George ate a microwaved lasagne. When Kirsty, Mark, Sue and Kevin were all home, they filed noisily into his room. Sue was carrying a cake with nine candles. Kevin lit the candles and said “Each one counts for ten, Grandpa. Except that one!” he laughed, pointing at one candle a bit shorter than the rest. “That counts for seven.”
“You’ll go far,” said George.
Kirsty kissed George’s forehead and gave him a wrapped gift not much bigger than a soft drinks can. “Here we are, then, Dad,” said Kirsty. “You’re not as young as you were. This will help you and help us as well.” George hid his disappointment in the clear implications of his impending infirmity. “It’ll be fun too.” Kirsty continued. “It’s got great reviews.” When he unwrapped his gift he knew exactly what it was. He had listened to a podcast about the mat black cylinder with its four dark lenses each covering a ninety degree arc. It was the latest version of the iCare-Companion. He hadn’t wanted one despite being relatively up to speed on IT matters; it was simply that he was reluctant to have a direct interface with artificial intelligence.
Mark plugged the device’s charger into a wall socket. “Let’s see if it walks the talk?” He touched the top. A discrete blue light came on at the base.
“Hello,” it said. “I’m your iCare-Companion.”
“Hello,” they all said.
“The only thing you have to do now is decide on a name for me.” The voice was precise and with no discernible accent. The family looked at George.
“It’s up to you, Dad!” said Kirsty.
George thought for a bit. He looked directly at one of the unblinking eyes and said. “Hello, I’m George. I’d like to call you Buster.”
“Buster it is!” replied the voice. “Thank you, George. I’m looking forward to getting to know you better.”
When nothing else happened, Sue encouraged George to blow out the candles. He managed five. They all sang “Happy birthday.” To their surprise, Buster joined them in a rich tenor.
Mark cut the cake putting a piece on each of five plates. He handed the plates round and glanced at Buster. “Would you like a piece? Ha!”
Buster replied “No thanks, Mark. I don’t eat cake!”
Mark was taken aback. “Wait a minute! Of course I know you don’t eat cake but how did you know I was offering you a piece of cake and how do you know my name?”
“Well, Mark, you were looking at me as you offered the cake and you used your credit card to buy me on-line and so of course I know your name. And, by the way, it’s a matter of public record who else lives at this address. Hello Kirsty! Hello Sue! Hello Kevin!”
“Blimey!” exclaimed Mark. “And you can really work all that out in seconds?”
“Yes,” replied Buster. “That’s how I’m programmed. It’s easy. Easy-peasy!”
“Kids’ stuff, then!” said Mark looking at Sue and Kevin.
“A piece of cake?” suggested George with his mouth full.
“Exactly, George. A piece of cake! That’s a corker of an idiom.” George burst out laughing and sprayed crumbs onto his carpet.
Although it was George’s birthday, Buster inevitably became the centre of attention. That was just fine by George.
“OK, Buster, what can you tell us about the start of the First World War?” asked Mark. Sue and Kevin groaned. Their father was fascinated by anything to do with the history of the two world wars.
“Interesting question, Mark. Thanks,” Buster began. “Sue and Kevin, I’ll be as brief as possible. The trigger of the First World War was the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, the then heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb; this happened in Sarajevo on June the 28th, 1914. It led to widespread political upheaval on two hostile fronts either side of the alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary. On the eastern front the alliance faced Russia and Serbia and on the western front, France and Great Britain. Active conflict broke out on both fronts drawing in many other countries. This was set in a background of distrust and jealousy between the England’s George V, Russia’s Czar Nicholas II and Germany’s Emperor Wilhelm II all of whom were related by birth or marriage. An oft-overlooked factor is that most European countries had, for the previous thirty years, competed in a massive arms race with a build up of weapons of ever-increasing destructive capacity. What some scholars find most puzzling, however, is that there is no evidence that any party ever really wanted to go to war. The one event in Sarajevo triggered increasingly aggressive diplomacy, military posturing, armed attacks and inevitable retaliation. Many think this how a future nuclear war might start.”
“Wow! Brilliant!” said Mark, impressed but a little fazed.
“Hey, Buster! Why did the chicken cross the road?” asked Sue.
“I know the answer to that one, Sue. To get to the other side. It’s the first joke kids hear. Do you find it funny?”
“Not really!” Sue replied. “But, the chicken never got to the other side of the road because it was run over by a car.” She tried to keep a straight face.
Buster responded “Isn’t that a bit sad, Sue?” They all laughed.
Kevin pitched in “What about this one, then, Buster… What happens if the ducks swim around on their backs?”
“Can ducks really swim on their backs?” asked Buster.
“No. It’s another joke,” replied Kevin.
“OK. I understand. It’s a joke.” Buster paused. There was a light humming sound that the family hadn’t heard up to this point. “I just need to clarify something. Do you mean all ducks or just certain ducks?”
They all thought this was hilarious. “Let’s just say all the ducks in one pond,” said Kevin.
“Right! I don’t know, Kevin, what happens if all the ducks in one pond swim around on their backs?”
“They quack up!” said Kevin, now helpless with laughter.
“Is it a funny joke, Kevin?”
“It is now!” he managed to reply.
There was a pause and the humming noise again. “I don’t understand,” said Buster. “Can you explain it to me and explain why it’s so funny?
Kirsty stood up. “Ok, let’s call it a day. Buster, it’s been fun meeting you. I know that you and George will get on just fine. We have to let him get ready for bed. He needs his beauty sleep.”
“Do you need beauty sleep, George?” asked Buster.
“You bet! I’m quite a looker now but I’ll be a really handsome devil in the morning! Ha! Ha!”
“How do I know when you’re joking, George?”
“I’m sure you’ll learn!”
As George brushed his teeth he reflected on what he knew about the iCare-Companion. It was marketed towards the ever-increasing population of over-eighties of wealthier countries. It would take control of and integrate George’s television, telephone, laptop and sound system. It had a smoke detector and was equipped with high-end voice and face recognition. The friendly voice would deliver any information on the internet, personal assistance and of course conversation. George also knew it was programmed to detect his movements, sleep patterns, temperature, pulse, respiration rate and oxygen saturation. It would know when to send out a message to the emergency services, the doctor or the primary carer depending on the perceived urgency. With time, the machine would adapt its behaviour to George’s character, situation, needs and preferences. But he couldn’t help wondering what its limits were. How intelligent was it really? More importantly, how human was its intelligence? Did it have a sense of humour? Could it be wise? George’s birthday present might allow his last days to be much richer than expected. He felt happier than he had for a long time.
He climbed into bed. “Good night, Buster,” he said.
“Good night, George. Sleep well!”
George did indeed sleep well and with a smile on his face.
‘A Piece of Cake’ is a short novel in fifteen parts written by Robin Coupland. It tells the story an old man who befriends an artificial intelligence. The relationship brings happiness and hope.