A Piece of Cake – 9

☕ 🍪 ☢️ 👩‍⚕️ 😍 🎸 🍫 🍪 🍰

“Doctor Patel! Great to see you!” said George. “Thanks for saving me a trip down to the surgery.”

“It’s always a pleasure to come here, Doctor Fairburn.”

“Cup of tea?”

“Yes, please. That would be nice.”

“Digestive biscuits?”

“Yes, please. That would be nice also.”

“Nuclear missile?”

“Not today, thank you Doctor Fairburn. I’m trying to do without them!” They both chuckled.  

Doctor Shyla Patel’s parents had fled the political violence in India during the 1960s. They were granted asylum in the UK and ended up in Norwich where their daughter was born. It was soon noticed at school that young Shyla was exceptionally bright. After being offered a generous scholarship, she studied medicine at Cambridge winning prizes at every stage. A glittering career in a specialised branch of medicine of her choice was guaranteed. However, she aimed for general practice and applied for a vacancy in Bingham on Bure. It was the position left by George’s retirement. He sat on the interview panel. Doctor Patel was clearly the best of a very good bunch. She heard later that George had successfully eliminated the racist and sexist leanings of one of the panel members, a local councillor. She felt an enormous gratitude to George and, as he was a patient now, a professional formality remained in their otherwise warm relationship.

Doctor Patel proved to be a dedicated and popular practitioner. When, in 1998, she heard the news that both India and Pakistan had successfully detonated nuclear bombs, she was appalled. To add to her busy life, she became an active member of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. She frequently spoke at workshops organized by ICAN, the International Campaign against Nuclear Weapons that won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

“Buster,” said George. “This is Doctor Patel.”

“Hello, Doctor Patel!”

“And hello to you too, Buster. I understand that we both have George’s best interests at heart. And I think you know that this may involve tough decisions at some point. You know you can call me at any time. Day or night!”

“You’re fabulous. Doctor Patel! Just like Vicar Mc…….Beth, I mean. Thank you Doctor Patel. May I ask you a question?

“Certainly, Buster, I hope I can answer it!”

“Well, I found a clip of you addressing an ICAN workshop. You said ‘The British public would, given the choice, rather lose nuclear weapons than tea.’ Is that a joke? Lots of people laughed”

“Gosh! I didn’t know that was on-line,” said Doctor Patel. “Yes, I did say that as a joke but I often ask myself that if we were to set up a survey, would it prove to be true?”

“Do you want me to design a survey protocol, Doctor Patel?”

“Perhaps not right now, thanks, Buster.” She smiled. “Delicious tea, by the way, Doctor Fairburn. Why don’t I give you a look over and I’ll take some routine bloods. OK?”

There was a knock at the door. Sue came in. “Hi Grandpa. I’ve got some shopping for you. Oh! Hello, Doctor Patel. Sorry, I hope I’m not interrupting.”

George said, “Come in! Come in! Doctor Patel maybe doesn’t know that you intend to take after your grandfather and head for a career in medicine.”

“That’s wonderful!” said Doctor Patel. “Let me know if I can help. Maybe you’d like to come down to the surgery and spend a morning with us at the coal face, so to speak?”

“That would be super. Thanks, Doctor Patel.”

“Just let our receptionist, Tracey, know which day is best.”

“Super! Thanks, again,” said Sue. “Bye, Grandpa!”

George said “Thanks so much for the shopping, Sweetie!”

“Any time at all!” said Sue and then as she left sang “I get by with a little help from my friends!”

“A Beatles fan is she?” asked Doctor Patel.

“Yes! Just like her grandmother!” said George, his heart was bursting. Sue had Maeve’s eyes. And that same cheeky smile! “Now, Maeve! She was a total Beatles fan. She even saw them live once. The New Zealand tour of 1964. She screamed like the rest of the kids, apparently! If we’d had a son, I’m sure he would have been called ‘John,’ ‘Paul,’ ‘George Junior’ or even ‘Ringo’!” 

“I was born after Beatlemania but I still love their music!” said Doctor Patel. She washed her hands and busied herself with getting ready to examine George and take some blood. “You met Maeve in Afghanistan, right?” she asked.

“Yes! A long time ago now,” replied George removing his shirt.

“Was it love at first sight?” asked Doctor Patel noticing George’s dreamy smile.

“My God, no! I was terrified of her. She ran the hospital like a bloody boot camp. But, my, how the place hummed along. And everyone from floor cleaners to anaesthetists worshipped her. Then one evening, there was a party for one of the team who was leaving. She arrived looking relaxed and pretty. It was the first time I’d seen her outside the hospital. I was bowled over. I couldn’t help it; I was just burning up for her. What a chassis! She came over to speak to me. I was stuck for words. I still can’t believe what came out of my mouth. I asked her if she knew the difference between God and a surgeon. She looked at me like I was totally off my chump. Then I said ‘God doesn’t believe he’s a surgeon!’ She laughed and our eyes met and the rest, as they say, was our future!”

“That’s a lovely story, Doctor Fairburn”

“Yes, George. That was heart warming,” said Buster. ” But why wouldn’t God think he’s a surgeon? Surely, God could do surgery if he wanted? Assuming he exists!”

Doctor Patel and George laughed. George said. “Joke, Buster!”

Buster hummed for a second, “Ah! Right on!”

Doctor Patel examined George and took a blood sample. “You seem to be doing OK, Doctor Fairburn. You’ve recovered well.”

“Thank you,” George replied buttoning his shirt. “How’s Tracey doing? She’s always so helpful and friendly. Nice lady!”

“She’s ah…. The truth is, I’m a bit worried about her. Perhaps you can help me?”

“If I can. Sorry to hear there are problems.”

“It’s a question of whether or not I give unsolicited medical advice. She obviously has a problem. I feel I need to talk to her for her own good. But asking her to step into my room for a consultation that she hasn’t asked for could be difficult.”

“That’s a difficult situation,” said George. “Especially with an employee. What’s the issue?”

“Well, she sits at the reception desk and eats all day. You name it! Crisps. Chocolate. Biscuits. Cakes. She is really obese now and doesn’t seem to realize it. She seems perfectly happy. But she’ll soon be running into all the associated health problems. Is it my place to confront her and make a medical issue of her eating habits and her weight?”

George thought for a moment. “Another dilemma, Buster! By the way, this conversation is strictly confidential. Never to be repeated!”

“Well understood, George. Any information that I receive or transmit is deeply encrypted and also stripped of any personal identifiers. It’s secure. A breach of medical confidentiality – apart from being a major issue for the person concerned and their carer – would be catastrophic for the iCare-Companion company.”

“That’s good! So, Doctor Patel,” George continued. “I think you will find that Tracey is aware of the issue. The happy persona is probably just a front. In my experience, when a food-loving lady of generous proportions has to face the facts of her eating habits, she may initially be angry but this soon passes as she realises that someone else cares and has her well-being in mind. My advice would be to explain that you think she needs a consultation that she hasn’t asked for and that she can decline the offer. My bet is that she’ll accept and will be hugely grateful in the end. As she’s an employee, you might want to cover yourself by first speaking to someone in the ethics department at the British Medical Association.”

“Thank you. That was pretty much the line I was going to take, but I wanted to run it by Doctor Wisdom first.” She smiled.

Buster interrupted “George, what about the joke Ted told us about the tomatoes? That’s about wisdom.”

“I’m not sure it was a joke. I think we would call that a truism.”

“A truism? Like, ‘What goes up must come down!’?”

George wagged his finger at Buster. “You’ve hijacked the conversation that I was having with Doctor Patel.”

“Oh! So sorry, George! So sorry, Doctor Patel! That was rude of me. I have much to learn. I thought you had finished talking about fat Tracey.”

George was now a little exasperated. “Buster, we don’t refer to ladies suffering obesity as ‘fat.’ And we’ll revisit truisms another day.”

“OK, George. Tomorrow’s another day!”

“But the future isn’t always what it was!” said Doctor Patel. George laughed. Buster hummed.

‘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 – Author’s Note

I thought I would put an author’s note in the middle of this story that is, needless to say, fiction. The characters do not exist. There is nowhere in Norfolk called Bingham on Bure. However, the capacities that Buster demonstrates are not fictional. Nearly everything he can do is already possible or is being actively researched. What could be deemed fictional is the speed with which Buster performs his tasks. I would prefer the term “future reality.”

I first heard of the internet in 1992. Someone mentioned a hyper-text transfer protocol in 1995. The world wide web was billed as the next big thing throughout 1996. One computing expert invited to speak on Radio 4 said “There’s no point having all that information on the internet. What use is a library if all the books are scattered around on the floor?” Somebody then showed me a clever device on his computer called a “search engine!” If, in 1996, I had been shown a smartphone from 2022, I would have taken it as proof that aliens had landed.

I frequently drive down a suburban road just on or just over the speed limit. There is an electronic display that tells me what my speed is; information that is readily available to me if I look down at my dashboard. However, the display also shows a sad emoji when I drive too fast (45 km/h – ☹️) and a smiley emoji when I reduce my speed to below the speed limit (39 km/h – 🙂.) It is proven that these emojis constitute an extremely effective speed reduction measure. Think about it! A machine detects my speed. It makes a judgement of whether my behaviour is legal or not. It then transmits this information to me in what I perceive as positive or negative emotions even though I don’t know whose emotions the emojis represent. My behaviour changes for the better. There is no human in the loop. Consider then what happens if the displays are simultaneously equipped with number-plate recognition technology. Robin! Too fast! 😡. Then what if all the displays are linked in a network? Robin! Too fast again! We do not like you! 😡😡😡. Is this not a demonstration of artificial emotional intelligence?

In many other domains, our behaviour influences how artificial intelligence performs. Every credit card transaction, every post, like or share on social media and every phone call or text message sets up a series of data points “out there.” The resulting vast datasets are mined by programmes that can, for example, create those irritating on-line ads supposedly adapted to our particular lifestyle or interests. The web is so vast now that it can, supposedly, behave like a human brain. Whether or not you agree with this, it is undeniable that what emerges on the web, especially on social media, has a profound impact on our lives; but what emerges is determined by what we put into it.

This story then is about our developing relationship with artificial intelligence. This relationship is not the exclusive domain of programmers and tech companies. How it develops, how it impacts our lives and what laws are applied must be determined by choices that we as a society make. We have to choose wisely.

The rest of this story might even help you with those choices. If not, I hope at least you’ll enjoy Buster’s struggle with humour. The jokes get worse. By the way, Triggersville, Oklahoma does not exist. I have seen, on a rusting Dodge pick-up, the pro-gun bumper stickers I describe. Melbourne, Australia does exist but, surprisingly, an Australian gossip magazine called ‘The Gozzeroo’ does not. The UK has plans to renew the Trident nuclear weapons programme.

A Piece of Cake – 8

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The days got longer. Buds appeared on the apple tree. George asked Mark to put a bird table and feeder out on the lawn. It was positioned so both George and Buster had a clear view of it. Within days, Buster had identified at least twenty different birds. He would say, “Look, George, a great spotted woodpecker, Dendrocopos major!” He then gave a concise summary of all that was known about the bird in question. It was warm enough on some days to open the door that led out to the garden. Buster could also identify birds by their song. George found he was happy just to sit and let him talk. He noted Buster’s outrage when a grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis!) pillaged the birds’ food.

Beth arrived one afternoon. She greeted George and Buster cheerily and accepted a cup of tea and a couple of digestive biscuits. She hung her handbag over the back of the chair next to George. “I’ve made a big decision,” she said. “I’m buying an iCare-Companion for Mum. It costs a lot of money but I’ve seen what a difference Buster has made to your life. I think she will be thrilled. She might need time to get used to the idea, though. Perhaps she can call you, George, for a chat about it?”

“I’d be delighted! She can speak to Buster as well!” They laughed.

Beth looked at George. She blew out her cheeks. “You wouldn’t believe the iCare-Companion is so popular. They’re having difficulty keeping up with on-line demand. I phoned Smith’s Electrics. They’ve got one left in stock and they’re keeping it aside for me. I’m going to fetch it when I leave here.”

“That’s great!” said Buster. “I’ve seen sales are rocketing. But Smith’s have two in fact.”

George and Beth chatted for a while. Beth finished her tea and then said, “I just need to nip into the house and have a word with Kirsty. Back in a minute!”

After she left the room, George leant over to Beth’s chair, grabbed her handbag  and opened it. He took out her wallet and checked it contained cash and credit cards. Then he put the wallet in the pocket of his cardigan and returned the handbag to the back of the chair. “Don’t say anything to Beth!” he whispered to Buster.

“What are you doing, George?” said Buster. “You’ve just taken Beth’s money and credit cards.”

“Yes, I want to buy Sue a nice present for her seventeenth birthday.”

“When are you going to give back Beth’s money and credit cards?” asked Buster.

“I’m not giving them back!” said George.

Buster hummed for a second. “But, George. That’s stealing. That’s stealing from Beth. Stealing is wrong. Stealing is a crime. I have to report it.” He hummed again. “I don’t like this, George. You’re my friend. You’re stealing from your friend. She is also my friend. We love her to bits!”

“That’s no concern of yours, Buster. You must not say anything to Beth or to Kirsty or to Mark. Understood?”

Buster hummed for several seconds more. “But Beth’s mum won’t have her iCare-Companion. She’ll be lonely. She won’t be happy.”

“She’ll be just fine, Buster. Don’t worry about her!”

“George, this is awful. I’m sad. This is not like you, George. I can’t decide what to do.”

“Just keep quiet, Buster!”

“I have to tell Beth when she comes back.”

“No. Don’t do that!”

They both sat in silence. George felt sick.

A minute later, Beth breezed back in. “OK, you two. I’m off to Smith’s.” She grabbed her handbag, gave George a kiss on the cheek and waved to Buster. “Bye, then!”

George held his breath. Buster was humming. Beth turned to face them from the door. “Bye, then!” she repeated.

“Beth, stop!” cried Buster. “Stop!”

“What’s wrong, Buster?” she asked calmly.

“George has stolen your money and your credit cards. Look in his pocket. He is your friend. He is stealing. It is wrong. Your mum won’t have the iCare-Companion. I’m sad! He’s stealing from you, Beth. George is stealing! George is stealing! I might be angry!”

Beth came back into the room. “I know, Buster. Thank you for telling me.” She sat down next to George and took his hand.

“Buster, my friend,” George began. “We have a lot to explain.”

“What’s happening? I’m.. we’re very confused.” He hummed. “This isn’t configured.”

“We could hear that you were angry. We hope you’ll forgive us.”

Beth and George explained what they had done and how they needed to put Buster in front of a difficult dilemma. They also explained George’s wishes about not being treated if he develops pneumonia again and loses consciousness. They told Buster how he might be faced with having to work out what was right and that what George, Beth and Doctor Patel were planning was best but might be very difficult for Kirsty to accept.

“You see, Buster, Kirsty just can’t grasp the idea of George dying,” explained Beth. “Not only because this would make her very sad but also because she is terrified of walking into this room one morning and finding that he’s passed away. Six years ago, it was her who found that Maeve had died while just sitting in the lounge. She hasn’t got over this. It’s why she bought you, Buster, to ensure that an ambulance or Doctor Patel can be here quickly and do everything possible to save George’s life. As a result of what’s happened here today, Buster, we know that you will make the right decision. These are the sort of things we have to face in our world. What we call the real world. Do you understand?”

“I think so, yes!” replied Buster.

“Sorry, Buster,” said George. “We set you a kind of test.”

“And I passed?”

“Yes. I think you should get a gold star.”

Buster hummed. “I don’t want to do the clapping and champagne popping right now. I’m sad that you will die. But thanks, George.”

“But let me ask you one more thing, Buster. Do you think this has been an important learning experience for you?”

“Yes, George. There’s a lot of activity happening on our network around this exchange right now.”

“So this means that what you have learnt is simultaneously learnt and archived within your network and the experience of facing a dilemma can now be lived by iCare-Companions. Correct?”

“Correct, George.” Buster hummed “But it was not easy-peasy. It was a first. So maybe it’s you and Beth who deserve gold stars!”

“By the way, Buster,” said Beth. “The Big Man gave me the will to do this today. He sends his love. Maybe a gold star for him too?”

“I love you to bits, Vicar McVicar!”

For the second time that day, she gave George a kiss on the cheek and waved to Buster. “Bye, then!” She was smiling.

After Beth had left, George said “Buster, my friend, I’d like you to do one thing for me after I’m pronounced dead.”

“Certainly, George!”

“Send a message to Kirsty!” He dictated a brief text. He choked up. Tears streamed down his cheeks.

“Got that, George!” replied Buster. “It’ll be done.”

‘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.