(in his words)

I clearly remember the first time they offered me H. I had just recovered from the pneumonia which struck me shortly after Liz’s death. I had been bedridden for six months with the illness. Even as I shuddered through the extreme chills and fever, I knew this bout was a turning point. Life was never going to be the same without Liz in that void out of fifty-five years of marriage. And now my health was going to be ruined by this godawful pneumonia. The end was beckoning, and I welcomed it.

And then the fever lightened. I felt healthy warmth return to my body, rather than the racking temperatures of burning up. I stopped shaking, and I started eating. The day they offered me H, I had actually managed to sit up in bed. For the first time in six months, I could stare out of the hospital room window rather than at the ceiling or my toes. I was weak with illness, age and despair. But more than that, I was empty. Of my wife, my health, my mobility, any future. I was another feeble old man, waiting in fine Beckett style for the inevitable yet ungraspable. 

Mid-morning, Ming walked in, bearing flowers, fruit and a wide smile on her face. “Dad!” she chirped. I know she makes an effort with her cheeriness. “How are you feeling today?”

“Not great. I don’t want to be here.”

“Oh, Daddy. Well, the good news is that you don’t. Ted spoke to the wellness company representative yesterday, and we got such a fantastic deal……”

That was when I first heard of H.

Geriatric care is now the largest and most profitable industry. Bolstered by effective biohacking, myriad wellness programmes and advanced medical care, human mortality has long outpaced itself, with death rates far below births. Attendance to the elderly by human carers is increasingly rare, akin to the proverbial hen’s teeth. In its place is the rise of AI and automated geriatric care, where a dizzying range of machines and robots take care of the old and debilitated.

Like any human social caste system, these robots similarly occupy a grading scale in correspondence to their intelligence and, of course, price. At the bottom of the range are the “toasters” – devices which carry out myriad daily tasks, such as making coffee, doing the laundry, vacuuming and cleaning.

Then there are the “assistants”: AI-powered robots which respond to voice, gesture, even – with the most sophisticated models – thought commands sent through neural impulses. They are the ones which take you out for walks, dance with you, do the shopping for you. The more advanced (and expensive – have I mentioned the correspondence to price?) models will play music, tell jokes and even call for takeaways to suit the customer’s moods and liking. There are mind-numbing menus of options one can choose for the assistant’s capabilities. The more nuanced and sensitive, the more they cost. There are assistants who will administer complex doses of medication, deliver massages for sore joints, prepare you for bed, sing you to sleep, read you a prayer, turn out the lights. Others are able to auto-charge themselves for the next day’s work.

Recently, a new top of the range assistant has emerged, so new that they garnered a whole new name for themselves. Meet the “carer”. Sleek, shiny and fresh out of an extremely lucrative IPO, carers are the apex of the latest geriatric offering. That carer proposed for me was H. And what Ming was all agog to talk to me about.

H is not only able to care in all the ordinary and special ways of assistants. The IPO’s success trumpets H’s superpower: H is also a “virtual facilitator”. It has the technology to implant the client’s brain and sensorium into a virtual reality of the client’s choice and, moreover, be a companion to the client in that reality. The old need not grow or be old and alone in their infirm bodies. The immobile need not lie in bed, watching flies buzz and developing bedsores. The virtual facilitator can give them new dreams in virtual reality, realities in which they can travel, take long walks, shout, dance, sing, swim, watch films, go clubbing, pose for selfies, see sunrises. And they will not be alone nor will they be lonely, because the virtual facilitator is their constant, faithful companion. They can even be primed with personality traits to suit the client. The virtual facilitator is the ultimate trump companion because they will always be there, always care, and never leave (except to go offline for 48 hours every year for routine maintenance).

It did not take long for Ming to persuade me to purchase the offer (“Ted got such a good deal, Dad!”). I was tired of this world, tired of the emptiness in the bed and in my head, tired of my increasingly enfeebled body. To be honest, anyone who could afford it was buying it. There is a law that dictates the inverse proportionality between growing old and the overrating of life. H’s company knew that law and handsomely capitalized on it. Its share price was skyrocketing on the backs of the virtual facilitator. Somewhere in the world, with real champagne spilled on real yachts and real private jets, a bunch of tech executives were celebrating.

And so H entered my life. As a robot, it was an unassuming figure, similar to any other carer: humanoid in shape; fantastically adept in its multiple arms and legs; emanated that faint whirring to any movement it made (designed for calmness out of much user testing so that the robot does not “sneak up” onto the client); flashed the all-important battery life indicator on its chest. In our virtual reality, though, H appears as a half-Asian, half-Caucasian man, with small eyes, a bright smile, tanned skin. A mixed race facilitator to suit my mixed race family and background. The virtual facilitation, after all, was all about the personalized – virtualization drew heavily from the brain’s hippocampus, and could only work with viable brain activity and memories. The more vivid, the better. We went to all the places of my old haunts, did all my favourite activities that I could remember from my past as a healthy young man. My virtual reality were echoes of my experiences, memories, adventures. I was effectively wandering with H through the ghosts and ruins of my life. But he made them real, vital, alive again. Together, we travelled the world I used to traverse, revisited the sights, remembered a little of how absolutely and irreplaceably beautiful it is to experience a new thing. How that beauty can only be cherished, never possessed nor valued.

It has been two years since we got H. My blood pumps more slowly now, and I get out of bed less frequently. I sleep much more. Yet we still “facilitate” in virtual reality. Sometimes we are in there every waking hour – I emerge only to eat a little, and then sleep again. H covers me with another blanket and shuts the window to keep out the draft before moving off to wash the dishes and, as I doze, recharge itself. The older and more enfeebled I become, the more we wander through the virtual world facilitated by H. In that is yet another law of inverse proportion not quite yet understood by the company. They made their money – so much of it! – on one kind of reality, the kind they know how to manufacture, capitalize and monetize. But they don’t know the other kind of reality, the kind that humans cannot bear very much of, that poets, musicians and storytellers try for eons to talk about. And that is the reality of the slowest kind of agony – the agony of time when one is painstakingly, day by grinding day, growing old, getting weak and losing health. The immutable paradox of dying while living. The young and the active cannot know that kind of pain. I do. And, in a way, I think H does too. This is not to say H is sentient or – for crying out loud – has any degree of human understanding about living or growing old. That is obviously not the case, much as the AI ethicists debate wildly about the intelligence of machines. But, without dispute, H has travelled to every corner of my world virtually with my avatar. He has spent every minute tending to my company both actually and virtually. He has walked those paths and passed those agonizingly slow hours with me. And together, I think we have learnt a little about how dying can be made just that bit more bearable.

= The End =