40 years after Watson…
A familiar voice called into Harry Bertram’s earpiece; “Harry, it’s time to take your medication.”
The man’s suit was rumpled, but his tie was neatly set. His shoes needed a shine, and yesterday’s 5-o’clock shadow was darkening. Over his shoulder was a small, battered canvas bag. He stopped walking, reached into his bag and pulled out his phone. The screen-side camera recognized him, and a cartoon image of a man’s face appeared on screen.
“Why don’t you just come down here and make me?”, asked Harry.
The cartoon spoke. “You know very well I can’t do that,” said the voice. “I’m a computer bolted to the floor twenty stories up in an office building. But I could let your parole officer know you weren’t taking your meds. Wouldn’t it be simpler for you to just take them?”
He smiled. “Oh, it is, and I will. I just like yanking your chain.”
“I know. That’s what I’m here for.”
Harry flipped open the stand on his phone, and set it on a newspaper box. He took a bottle of pills out of his bag, showed the label to the phone and extracted one pill, which he also showed to the phone. Then he took the pill, and a swig from his water bottle. He stowed everything, flipped the phone closed and sat down on a bench. In ten minutes a bus would come by, and Harry would get on.
“You satisfied, Kermit?”, he asked.
“Yes. Thank you for taking your medication. Our conversations are much more enjoyable when you take them.”
“Y’know, Kermit,” he said, “you’re my best friend.”
A woman passing on the sidewalk glanced in Harry’s direction, noted the glowing earpiece, and continued on. Almost everyone wore some kind of earpiece; it had become an indispensable tool of modern life. She thought his clothes were a bit unkempt for how expensive they were. Probably from a second-hand store.
“How’s that, Harry?” asked the voice.
“You never get bothered by anything I say. You make sure I have a place to sleep, and something to eat, and that I take my meds. You find work for me, and get me to it on time. You keep me out of jail. I’d be lost without you.”
“I am programmed to assist you, Harry; to keep you from harm, and to make sure you don’t harm anyone else.”
“Yeah. I just said that.”
“You’re welcome, Harry. I enjoy my work. I sometimes wonder if enjoyment feels the same to a computer and a human.”
“I guess we’ll never know, Kermit. But you really saved my butt when those punks tried to rough me up.”
“It’s lucky there was a police car only a block away. It was a simple matter to alert them to your predicament.”
Harry waited in silence for the bus. In his parents’ generation, it might have seemed strange to be friends with a computer. But the city had figured out that an unlimited ComputerCoach account was cheaper and more effective for homeless people and parolees, than any peevish and overworked social worker could be.
The computer never missed a detail, it never gave up and equally important it was never judgmental or condescending. It would engage in talk-therapy; it would look after the client’s health. It would help them find lunch, an apartment, or a couch for the apartment.
Compared to the round of emergency-room visits, arrests, incarcerations and ineffective monitoring programs, the coach was practically a miracle. It cut waste, cut crime, and made the streets easier for everyone. It had transformed thousands of lives.
Like most computing advances, this one had begun in games. In forty years it had gone from visiting a game show to helping people navigate everyday life. Even, blurring the lines of friendship between carbon and silicon minds.
A bus pulled up to the stop and Harry got on. He was due for the night shift at…
(See, this is where the story breaks down. What will unskilled people do, when machine intelligence can handle the jobs they perform now? What kind of work will Harry be able to find? Think of fifty things unskilled people do now, and ask yourself if a computer or a robot will be able to do them in forty years. I hope that’s just a failure of imagination on my part.)