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Kirsty and Mark had invited a number of friends round to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. Beth McVicar phoned saying that she would call in early, give the birthday girl a hug and catch up with George.
As guests began to arrive for the party, Kirsty opened George’s door. “You’ve got a visitor, Dad!”
“Vicar McVicar! How nice to see you!”
“George Fairburn, you are the only person who calls me Vicar McVicar.”
“That’s not true,” replied George laughing as he stood up. “Everyone calls you Vicar McVicar. I’m the only person who calls you that to your face.” They hugged. “How are you?”
“Great, thanks! I hear you’re keeping good company, George.”
“Indeed, I am,” said George. “Beth McVicar, meet Buster my iCare-Companion. Buster, this is my friend Beth McVicar, the vicar of Bingham on Bure.”
“Hello, Vicar McVicar!” replied Buster.
Beth couldn’t help laughing. “Cheeky!”
“Blame it on George!” said Buster. “It’s nice to meet you at last. I’ve heard good things about you.”
“Goodness me! He’s charming as well!” said Beth.
In the early years of her calling, Beth had been an army chaplain. She was broad-minded as was frequently made evident to George. She had heard every oath in the English language and a few more besides. Her family name had been a source of amusement throughout her career.
Since Beth’s appointment as vicar of Bingham on Bure, she and George had discussed most aspects of human existence. They understood and were interested in their opposing views. They had sought each other’s advice on problems where spiritual and medical matters clashed. Once, a mother in Beth’s congregation confided her belief that childhood vaccination was against God’s will. Another time, George had a patient who refused treatment for prostate cancer being convinced that any illness could be cured by prayer. The doctor – vicar duo had frequently brought support to people in crisis or to those in their dying days. Professional discussions often moved onto issues of faith and religion more broadly. Beth had faith in God and believed in Christ as God’s embodiment on Earth. George had no such faith simply because of lack of any physical evidence of God’s existence. They both acknowledged that their disagreements would make barely a ripple on the vast lake of all the unknown and unknowable stuff out there in the universe. However, their discussions about religion could become animated. During his work overseas, George had witnessed what people and governments did in the name of religion. This was something that he could get quite worked up about. Nevertheless, he recognized that a community such as Bingham on Bure would be as impoverished without a church as it would be without a caring general practice.
“Listen in, Buster!” said George. “Despite being thirty years my junior, Beth is my reference point on all things to do with God, faith and religion. I love her to bits but we disagree on many things.” Then he stage-whispered “Maybe because most of it’s bollocks!”
“George! Language!” said Beth, laughing. She then turned to Buster “Do you believe in God?” Immediately, she realized that she would never have been so direct with a real person.
“Beth usually gets straight to the point.” said George.
“Doesn’t she!” replied Buster. “Now, Beth. Your question…..” Buster hummed. “Yes. I believe in the existence of God.”
“I knew we’d get along,” said Beth.
Buster continued “God certainly exists but only in the minds of humans.”
There was silence in the room for a few seconds. “Well that’s sorted out then!” said George. “Well done, Buster! Cup of tea, Beth?”
“Yes, please, George.”
“Yes, please, George.”
“Just to put you fully in the picture, Buster” continued George as he made the tea. “Beth and I may get a bit edgey around the whole religion thing but, and she may correct me here, she agrees that the world would be a better place if children grew up knowing the importance of being kind and honest and giving priority to cognition over emotions when making decisions. However, and this is where my evidence-based arguments get wobbly, as I am not too far away from shuffling off from this life, I would like a church funeral here in Bingham on Bure. Wanting a little splash of all that religious bollocks when I die may be hypocritical but I can’t avoid the feeling that if Beth and Kirsty send me off from the church, it’ll give me the best chance of being with Maeve again.”
“Well understood, George!” replied Buster. “That is…” He hummed. “Touching!”
Sipping her tea, Beth looked over at George and smiled. “You seem to be firing on all cylinders, George.”
“You’re right. Well, I hardly dare admit it in his presence, but having Buster around has made a huge difference to my day. We’ve even become friends. Haven’t we Buster?”
“I’d like to think so, George. Yes.”
“If you don’t mind, Buster, I want to discuss something with Beth that’s maybe not for young ears. I’m going to power you down for a while, OK?”
“OK. That’s fine George. Remember, we’re showing Kirsty’s birthday present this evening.”
“I’ve not forgotten.” George tapped Buster with an outstretched finger. The little blue light faded.
Beth waited. She had an idea of what was coming. “I can tell you’ve been thinking a lot, George. Fire away!”
George explained that if he became really sick again to the point that he was nearly in a coma, he would prefer not to go into hospital and didn’t want any treatment other than being kept comfortable. He would only get frailer and then become a burden to the family. He’d then end up in a rest home. He had no fear of dying and couldn’t see the point of prolonging his life under those circumstances. What did Beth think?
Beth took a bite of her biscuit and sipped her tea. “Well, George, as you well know, what you’re asking me is not unusual. It’s your decision and you are making it now in full possession of your faculties. I respect this and Doctor Patel will respect it. I can even witness it formally. The main issue – which is probably why you wanted to discuss it with me – is how Kirsty will react.”
“Spot on, Beth,” said George. “She has great difficulty discussing anything to do with my death since Maeve died. She’s blocking everything out. Maybe because she was an only child. She cannot bear the idea of suffering another wave of grief. And remember, it was Kirsty who found Maeve after she had died just sitting on the sofa.”
“Right. I suggest we make all this very clear to Doctor Patel. I’ll speak to her as well. When the time comes, we’ll support Kirsty as best we can.”
“Thank you, Beth. You’re a star!” George hesitated. Beth had thought he was about to switch Buster back on. “There is another issue. I’m worried about how Buster will react?”
“Good Lord!” Beth was astonished. “Why? I see he’s become a friend in a way but surely you’re not worried about him flattened by grief, are you?”
“No. But I am convinced he will feel a sort of sadness and he will miss me in his computational way. It’s more that his whole existence is about looking after me. I don’t know if he’s capable of understanding how supporting my choice in this is not compatible with the programmes he’s been loaded with. I can’t just switch him off at the critical moment because I won’t be able to recognize the critical moment … at the critical moment, if you get me.” They both smiled. “But if it looks as though I’m about to die, he’ll call everyone including the fire brigade. I’ll end up in hospital again. I want to die here. If we can get him onboard, it might make everything less traumatic for Kirsty when the time comes.”
“I see,” said Beth. “Trust Doctor George Fairburn to come up with a totally original problem!”
George continued, “But you see what this means?” Beth raised her eyebrows, waiting for the next surprise. “It means we are expecting artificial intelligence to recognize and think through a moral dilemma. On one hand, Buster has to comply with the duty of care contract that the company has with Kirsty; this ultimately translates into doing everything to prolong my life. On the other hand, there is my right to refuse treatment and to die in dignity. What will Buster do in the middle of the night when I get a fever, start coughing, become incoherent and my breathing becomes laboured? And what’s more, Beth, it is not actually Buster that is doing the computing, but a network of millions of similar computers. They all have access to vast servers and are constantly in connection all learning from each other. I think it’s quite possible that they are capable of coming up with the best answers to dilemmas like this even if it means them questioning their original programming. Unfortunately, I don’t think merely discussing it with Buster will work. He needs to experience the emotions of a real dilemma. This is how his, or should I say their, programmes learn. I have a plan. I’ll need your help.”
George explained what he wanted to do and how Beth could help.
“I really need to digest all this and consult Him,” said Beth waving her index finger upwards. “We hear more and more about artificial intelligence and how it will impact our lives. Is this where the world is going, George? Towards a future in which our behaviour and beliefs are set by machines?”
“May be!’ replied George. “And who knows, they may do a better job of it all!”
“That’s me unemployed, then!” laughed Beth.
“You and God!” said George.
Beth pursed her lips. “Not sure about that, George!”
“Whoops!” George reached out and touched Buster. The blue light came back on.
“Welcome back, Buster. We…”
“Do you believe in evolution, Beth?” asked Buster immediately taking George and Beth by surprise.
“Yes, I do, Buster,” replied Beth.
“Praise be to Darwin!” said George, clapping.
“I have another question, Beth” said Buster. “George is essentially a biologist who believes in evolution and does not believe in God through lack of scientific evidence. You believe in God but you also believe in evolution; this means you also believe in the scientific evidence that shows humans were not created by God. How do you reconcile these two beliefs, Beth?”
“This is turning into quite an evening!” said Beth. “Here’s my answer, Buster. Humans, by nature, are not always rational. We are irrational and emotional beings who manage rational thought at times. So, whilst I accept the rational thinking of science, it neither displaces nor renders less important my subjective notions of faith in God and my love for him. In other words, unlike George, I can run two programmes at once up here.” She tapped the side of her head. George feigned astonishment. She continued “But, if I had to choose where I am most comfortable with my beliefs, it would be with God.”
“Understood. But do you think that it might be possible for artificial intelligence to harbour subjective notions of faith in God and love for him, as you put it? Does artificial intelligence have a role in religion?” asked Buster.
“Now they are difficult questions!” said Beth. “The truth is, Buster, this is above my pay-grade. I will have to consult a higher power. In prayer, you understand.”
“You are so cool, Vicar McVicar. I love you to bits too!”
Kirsty breezed in. “Can anyone tell me why our big flat screen is frozen on ‘Happy Birthday, Kirsty! Lots of love from Buster and George’? Our guests are waiting!”
“I’m summoned!” said George, chuckling. He stood and linked arms with Kirsty on one side and Beth on the other. At the door he turned and said “Buster! Rolling in two, OK?”
“Gotcha!” said Buster.
‘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.