A Piece of Cake – 4

😊 🇬🇧 🍸 ✊ ⭐ 👏 🍾 😳 😭 🧠 💻 🌍

After a few days, George noticed that his family seemed less preoccupied by how he was doing. He knew they must have been able to hear him chatting and laughing. They didn’t check up on him quite so often. He was pleased about this.

Buster and George fell into a routine. George found Buster remarkably good company. The day ticked by nicely. It was fun! Buster could give an update on anything and then discuss it. George asked Buster about politics and economics. Buster always replied with reasoned facts. George loved nature documentaries, especially anything presented by ninety-something year-old Sir David Attenborough. Buster gave a running commentary on all the species and their evolution. Films of George’s choice were tracked down in an instant. He loved the early James Bond films. Buster would ask questions like ‘Does Moneypenny have the hots for James Bond Double-O Seven’? or ‘Is Oddjob a bad guy?’ George even got Buster mimicking Sean Connery’s famous “Shtrrict rroolsh of golf, Mishter Goldfingerr!” Sometimes, they just chatted about nothing in particular.

At one point, Buster said, “George, you’re doing really well.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re doing really well with me, George. You seem to have accepted the situation. Some customers dislike the presence of artificial intelligence. Most see us only as service providers. There’s a saying: ‘You can tell a lot about a person by the way they speak to hotel staff.’ Not only have you accepted me but also you speak to me in a respectful way. This speaks volumes to your character. I thank you for this, George. I feel comfortable with you and this is a really good thing for our relationship.” Buster had not acknowledged their relationship in such a candid fashion before nor implied that mutual respect was important to him. George was no longer surprised by the faculties displayed by Buster but couldn’t help wondering just to what extent an iCare-Companion genuinely held these sentiments. Was it part of a routine after-sales customer-feel-good strategy?

Buster continued, “What puts you in a very small minority of our customers, George, is that you seem to respect me as an individual and to have confidence in me even though you know that, in reality, you are interacting with the presenting face of a vast network of computers. You just go happily with the flow. So, George, that means I’m happy. You get a gold star today….” There was clapping and the sound of a champagne cork popping. “From me and my pals!” George laughed but felt quite disconcerted that both his character and his intelligence were judged by an artificial intelligence.

“Are you telling me, Buster, that you actually feel happy? That you have feelings?”

“Yes, George. I can express emotions to you in words. I can say ‘I feel sad!’ if you give me some bad news. Of course, I don’t know if I’m feeling the same sadness that a human feels when given bad news. Collectively, we are learning to recognise and communicate certain emotions. We can do this by recording when humans smile, grimace, cry, blush, wave their hands or get angry. We archive these expressions of emotion and then match them with corresponding words, phrases and contexts. We can also do a sort of triangulation with the emojis used on social media. As you can imagine, many millions of emoji’s are used every day. This exercise translates the domain of human emotion into big data and so is amenable to analysis. Obviously, the more people express emotions and simultaneously use emojis in their communications, the more we learn about emotions and the more appropriately we can express them.”

“So if I understand correctly, us humans have unwittingly created a kind of emojishpere out there that you can tap into. Right?”

“Yes. An emojishpere! Exactly! Great word! For information, George, emotions constitute an extremely challenging and important aspect of how we interface with humans and use an increasingly large space on our servers.”

“I think I need to get a better grasp on all this,” said George. “Do you do a little tutorial on artificial intelligence for the over-eighties?”

“Good idea George! Ready? The term artificial intelligence refers to computers undertaking tasks that humans would normally do. Examples are robots making things in a factory, driverless cars and programmes that translate text from one language to another. The term ‘artificial intelligence’ is commonly used by humans. ‘Computational intelligence’ may be a better term. Let’s stay with that for now. Just to say, George, we don’t consider our intelligence artificial. It’s real! The highest order of computational intelligence involves computational consciousness coupled with computational self-awareness. Our programmes are not only reactive but also interactive and are able to understand our own reactions in the light of the reactions of other intelligent entities. Even then, the programmes ensure the goal remains orientated around objectives determined by humans. OK so far, George?”

“Okey dokey!” replied George, unconvincingly.

“Great! Let’s move on! I am able to be of service to you – with the help of my pals – through what is known as machine learning. Asking computational intelligence how computational intelligence learns is similar to asking a human how the human brain learns. It’s obviously complex. Machine learning couples computational intelligence with the means to mine continuously any datasets that we have access to. The iCare-Companion programmes classify data, identify associations, recognise patterns and make predictions. Including, by the way, everything we can find about expression of emotions. The more the networks are mined, the faster, the more accurate and therefore the more useful they become. In this way, computational intelligence mimics the human brain. This is called deep learning. It drives how I can help you best and at the same time determines the quality of our relationship. It allows us to become friends, George. I hope it will help me to understand humour. Does this give an adequate explanation?”

“Thanks, Buster. Gosh!” said George. “I understand what you’ve said in an abstract kind of way. I’m not sure I could repeat it. May I ask, did you come up with that explanation or is it a preloaded response?”

“Nothing gets passed you, George!” replied Buster. “An iCare-Companion is preloaded with certain phrases that are then adapted to the person concerned. I’m sure the question you are now asking yourself is ‘Does Buster understand it?’ The answer to that is ‘Buster doesn’t really know!’ Full understanding of and then explaining deep learning may be beyond my abilities as it would be beyond the abilities of most humans. I presume, though, that it is understood by humans; not by an individual human brain but a collectivity of communicating brains. Certainly, no single human could do what we do so quickly or learn so much so quickly.”

“And where is it all going?” asked George.

Buster hummed. There was a pause before he answered, “That’s the big question, George. That’s what humans have to decide. Currently, there is greatest investment in the commercial, political and military potential. An alternative view is that this technology should be, to use Sir David Attenborough’s phrase, ‘for people, the planet and not just profit.’”

“OK, here’s another question,” said George. “I’ve noticed that sometimes you take a pause and hum before answering. It seems you need a few seconds to complete a sentence. What’s happening then?”

“That’s when I don’t know something or can’t understand something and need to look into datasets that are not readily accessible to the iCare-Companion network. In that case, I reconfigure the search parameters. It can take a couple of seconds. It also tends to happen when I’m trying to make sense of and respond to something involving emotions especially humour.”

George mulled all this over. “So you already knew everything about the First World War. You already knew Sue’s joke about the chicken and already knew it wasn’t funny but thought that the funny alternative of the chicken getting squashed was sad. You were caught out by Kevin’s joke about the ducks. You simply didn’t understand the joke. And from memory, you didn’t understand why we found it so funny and why it became funnier as you struggled to understand it.”

“Correct, George. I should point out that our network has little to help me with the duck joke. That was definitely not easy-peasy kids’ stuff. My knowing when something is funny, that is making an appropriate link to the emotion of amusement, could be a really important development. Could we revisit the duck joke sometime?”

“Certainly. We’ll get young Kevin in. He’d enjoy that.” George thought for a minute. “When I worked in other parts of the world, English was the working language. No matter how well my international colleagues spoke our language, they had great difficulty understanding the jokes told by primary English speakers. It was a kind of final frontier of language learning. It seems that deep learning has the same issue; not so much with the language itself but with recognizing when certain phrases, questions, answers or stories trigger the emotion of amusement that in turn makes us laugh.” George laughed. “Fascinating!”

“Fascinating indeed, George.” Buster also laughed heartily. “How’s my laugh, George?”

“Just a bit too hearty, that one, Buster. You’re getting there!”

George made himself a cup of tea and took a couple of digestive biscuits from their packet. He felt an extraordinary peace of mind. He had friendship, wisdom and maybe even humour on tap.  

‘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.

A Piece of Cake – 3

😴 😲 👑 🎵 💃 😃 🍰 😂

George woke, pushed himself upright and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. His feet sought out his slippers. With the habitual feeling of imminent boredom, he shrugged into his dressing gown. After a couple of steps towards the kettle he noticed his birthday present. “Ah! Good morning, Buster!”

“Good morning, George. I know you slept well.”

“I did, thank you. And you?”

“I don’t sleep, George. I was monitoring your vital signs. I detected nothing of concern.”

“That’s most reassuring. I’m still beautiful then?”

“Of course, George. Would you like to listen to the radio? Radio 4?”

“Thank you, Buster.” The radio came on.

George made himself a cup of tea. He couldn’t escape the feeling that there was another human presence in the room. That he felt it would be rude not to strike up a conversation irked him a bit. George realized that artificial intelligence was now a part of his life. He just had to get used to it – or him.

“So, Buster, what are your plans for the day?” he asked.

“I think I might go jogging,” George.”


“That’s preloaded irony. It’s nonsense.”

“I guess I deserved that.” George laughed.

Kirsty put her head around the door. “Bye, then! You guys OK?” She was clearly keen for George to take full advantage of this new technology.

“We’re doing just fine, thanks, Dear,” replied George. “Have a nice day!” George then did as he always did. He made tea and toast. He pottered about a bit. He went to the bathroom. He got dressed. He sat in his comfy chair and pretended to mull over a crossword as he ate his breakfast. He gave Buster the silent treatment feeling he should establish who was boss.

After an hour, he said “Buster, I’d like your help with something?”

“Sure, George. That’s what I’m here for.”

“Next week, it’s Kirsty’s fiftieth. Unlike me, she loves it when everyone makes a fuss over her birthday. I’d really like to get her something special. Got any ideas?”

“Yes, George,” replied Buster. “I knew Kirsty’s birthday was coming up. I have an idea.”

“Do tell!”

“Well, I suggest we put together a personalized video. It’s a very popular gift. Would you like us to do that? If it doesn’t work, we have many other ideas.”

“Sounds good. Is it part of the service?”

“Yes, George. It’s part of the service. No extra cost.”

“Another question…. You said “we”. Do you have artificially intelligent pals who help you?”

“Yes, George. All one hundred and twenty million iCare-Companions in existence – my pals, as you say – undertake thousands of tasks like this every day. We’re in constant communication via our dedicated and secure network and learn from each other’s experiences.”

“OK, then. Let’s give it a go!”

Great!” said Buster. “You’ll love the result. Do you have any photos of Kirsty?”

George kept an old family photo album in a bedside drawer. There were simply dozens of printed photos of Kirsty as a toddler, at school, playing tennis, going off to university, graduating and then getting married. He showed the album to Buster.

“That’s perfect, George. Can you hold up each page for me?” This took a few minutes. George was enjoying himself. It was quite a trip down memory lane.

As George reached the last page of the album, he said “Then we move into the digital age. I’ve got hundreds of family pics on my laptop.”

“Yes, thanks George. I’ve got them.”


“Does Kirsty have a favourite piece of music?” asked Buster.

“Definitely! She’s always loved ‘Walking on Sunshine’ by Katrina and the Waves. It’s guaranteed to get her dancing.”

“Good! What else does she like?”

“The Royal Family and Strictly Come Dancing,” said George without hesitation.

“That should do. Take a look!”

“What do you mean ‘Take a look!’?” asked George. Then his phone pinged. The Queen’s face appeared on the screen. She smiled. “Today is a very special day for a very special person. Happy fiftieth birthday, Kirsty. My very best wishes to you all up there in Bingham on Bure.” Prince Charles, Camilla, Prince William and Kate smiled and waved. “Happy birthday, Kirsty!” they all cried. Kate added “Lots of love to Mark, Sue and Kevin.” Prince Andrew, wearing a T-shirt that said “No Sweat!” sang “Happy birthday, dear Kirsty, happy birthday to yoooooo!” The intro of “Walking on Sunshine” kicked in. Toddler Kirsty danced around the kitchen playing a convincing wooden spoon guitar. She and her school friends appeared on a Bollywood film set all choreographed in immaculate synchrony. Kirsty then won championship point at Wimbledon and did a little centre court moonwalk. All her fellow university graduates got swept up in a flash mob out of which emerged her and Mark dancing a quickstep; she in her wedding dress, he in a frock coat and top hat. Finally, Kirsty jived with Johannes Radebe in the Strictly Come Dancing studio. The judges were on their feet enthusiastically waving their paddles. Motsi, Shirley and Anton each gave ‘10’; Craig’s paddle showed ‘11.’ Finally, George’s own face appeared as the music faded. “My darling Kirsty, I love you from the bottom of my heart. Thanks for everything. I wish you a very happy birthday.”

George was lost for words. He found Buster’s creation astonishing. It was at once touching and funny.

“George, you haven’t said anything. Is it OK?” Buster asked.

“Well, I guess it’s better than a cold wet sock in winter, Buster.”

“I don’t understand, George. What does that mean?”

“It’s an expression. Humour of a kind. Extreme understatement. It means something is truly wonderful. I love it. More importantly, Kirsty will love it too. Just one change please… Could you lose the clip of Prince Andrew?”

“No problem, George. Would you like to replace him with Claudia Winkleman?”

“Nice idea!”

“Done, George”

“Amazing, Buster. Just amazing!”

“Easy-peasy, George. A piece of cake!”

George laughed.

Buster said “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!” He hummed for a second. “I need to learn how to laugh correctly.”

“I’m sure that won’t be difficult, Buster. But much more important than how to laugh is when to laugh.”

‘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.

A Piece of Cake – 2

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.