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Author Topic: EP354: The Caretaker  (Read 3330 times)
eytanz
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« on: July 20, 2012, 05:26:33 PM »

EP354: The Caretaker

By Ken Liu

Read by Tom Rockwell

Originally appeared in Digital Science Fiction Volume 1 (2011)
---

Motors whining, the machine squats down next to the bed, holding its arms out parallel to the ground. The metal fingers ball up into fist-shaped handholds. The robot has transformed into something like a wheelchair with treads, its lap the seat where my backside is supposed to fit.

A swiveling, flexible metal neck rises over the back of the chair, at the end of which are a pair of camera lenses with lens hood flaps on top like tilted eyebrows. There’s a speaker below the cameras, covered by metal lips. The effect is a cartoonish imitation of a face.

“It’s ugly,” I say. I try to come up with more, but that’s the only thing I can think of.

Lying on the bed with my back and neck propped up by all these pillows reminds me of long-ago Saturday mornings, when I used to sit up like this in bed, trying to catch up on grading while Peggy was still asleep next to me. Suddenly, Tom and Ellen would burst through the bedroom door without knocking and jump into the bed, landing on top of us in a heap, smelling of warm blankets and clamoring for breakfast.

Except now my left leg is a useless weight, anchoring me to the mattress. The space next to me is empty. And Tom and Ellen, standing behind the robot, have children of their own.

“It’s reliable,” Tom says. Then he seems to have run out of things to say, too. My son is like me, awkward with words when the emotions get complicated.

After a few seconds of silence, his sister steps forward and stands next to the robot. Gently, she bends down to put a hand on my shoulder. “Dad, Tom is running out of vacation days. And I can’t take any more time off either because I need to be with my husband and kids. We think this is best. It’s a lot cheaper than a live-in aide.”


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!

(Edited to fix typo)
« Last Edit: July 25, 2012, 04:16:56 PM by eytanz » Logged
Pirvonen
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« Reply #1 on: July 22, 2012, 02:24:10 PM »

Bittersweet. Evocative. Poignant.

I liked.
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HueItzcoatl
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« Reply #2 on: July 23, 2012, 10:32:51 AM »

Just finished listening to story here at work and I find the story bittersweet. I think that the ending was a great one, the old man got someone human, albeit through a machine, to take care of him.

I have to admit that I couldn't hold back the tears when Manuela related her story. While my parents were fortunate enough to be able to immigrate into the United States legally and I never had to fear that I would be forced to live in a country I knew nothing about. ((I was born in the US)) As she spoke I could not help but think about those friends that I had to say goodbye to because of the decisions there parents had made.


I also found myself thinking about my parents, while they still have many, many years of independent and healthy living, I can't help but wonder if I can provide them with the personal care that they provided there parents or will I be forced to place them in the care of strangers, something that I cannot help but feel sad and remorseful about even though it has yet to happen.

I think that it's always the mark of a great story when it makes you feel something be it sadness, or fear, or a smile that hurts your face.

Had a great time listening to this.
« Last Edit: July 23, 2012, 10:35:02 AM by HueItzcoatl » Logged

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« Reply #3 on: July 23, 2012, 03:54:54 PM »

I think Mr. Liu is encroaching on Mike Resnick's territory. Smiley
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« Reply #4 on: July 24, 2012, 08:36:32 AM »

Great story, great reading.

I spent the first two-thirds of this taking notes in my head. Being a programmer at heart, true artificial intelligence is something that I think I will never personally be able to program, but mimicking the actions and reactions of AI? That's easy. All it takes is knowing what we, as intelligences expect from other intelligences.
When the plot twist came, I loved it. Absolutely perfect. It was a bit of a let-down, but it was also enticing. Because AI is something of the holy grail to programmers. And keeping it just out of reach, while at the same time giving the feeling that it can be reached is what we need to actually do it.

The human interactions in this story were nice too. Poignant, bittersweet... believable. An excellent story.
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« Reply #5 on: July 24, 2012, 09:42:52 AM »

I think Mr. Liu is encroaching on Mike Resnick's territory. Smiley
Exactly what I was thinking: This feels like a Resnick tale. So kudos there, Mr. Liu.

I have no beefs with this story. Well written, well read, overall enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed Mr. Church's constant cynicism and assumptions that all of the Caretaker's actions, responses and motives were nothing but pre-programmed algorithms, only to find out that they were actually the choices of Manuela, a real person who does truly care.

This story didn't move me to tears by any means--as the reveal was developing I was hoping for something a little more conspiratorial than the simple fact that the robot was controlled by an outsourced human being--but it was pleasing to discover that Mr. Church was not going to have to live his life alone, and at the same time, knowing that things would be a little easier on Manuela, not just because of the money Mr. Church sent, but also because if she needs a bathroom break or something, she can just signal Mr. Church now and he'll let her have it.

In all, a satisfying tale.
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« Reply #6 on: July 24, 2012, 10:35:49 AM »

Great story, great reading.

Thanks! 

...on the reading part.  I can't take credit for the story.  Smiley

I enjoyed this one quite a bit.  Especially going back and listening to it after it was posted.  Even though that was the third or fourth time I had heard the recording I wasn't listening to it to analyze the audio.  I could just walk on my lunch break like I normally do and enjoy the story.  I think it's great.

->Later.....Spice
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InfiniteMonkey
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« Reply #7 on: July 24, 2012, 12:23:23 PM »

Well, first of all, yes, good story, good reading.

But, lordy, the beginning was depressing (and the rest of the story's not exactly peppy either). Maybe it's just my personal space, but I thought "Gee, what's next, a kitten and puppy bouillabaisse?"

I'm glad to see you aren't getting slagged (yet, anyway) for the clear political stance of the story. I'm a little divided on this on this, not because of the content, but because of the form. I tend to like my political statements a little more veiled or allegorical. Liu did a good job of this, though, it was (IMHO) just short of being whacked over the head. And it was entirely believable. Unfortunately.
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« Reply #8 on: July 25, 2012, 07:31:01 AM »

Pretty much all of the above, except the reveal which I found clumsy. Ken Liu writes some wonderful, absorbing and layered stories but this one seemed somehow to get trapped at the wrong length. Shorter, and the deluge of information in the email might have been condensed to more subtle hints. Longer, and Manuela's story might have been exposed more gradually. The stage virtual and remote activity is at the moment predicts this kind of technology and so I was pretty sure that's where the story was going. It was lovely to be right, I just didn't like the manner of the arrival so much.
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« Reply #9 on: July 25, 2012, 07:48:59 AM »

Speaking of the direction things are heading, I think the most flagrant error in this may be the assumption that Mexicans will be working for Americans in ten years when our government seems so determined to turn us into a third world country...

. o O (come on, self...this is why we stopped listening to the news...)

Beyond that, I very much enjoyed the story and while it's no secret that I have great man-love for DevoSpice I thought his reading was excellent if not completely fitting considering http://www.thefump.com/fump.php?id=99

The political statement may have been heavy-handed, but I refuse to be upset by it because it was completely fitting in terms of the story. It's not like it was jammed in there, and the concept of remote Mexican labor is far less offensive than what the US does with drones over foreign and domestic soil every day.

. o O (can't -- hold -- it...)

Good story, good reading, I'm leaving.
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Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #10 on: July 25, 2012, 08:08:40 AM »

The political statement didn't bother me in the least.
It's an alternate reality, people. Like most fiction, characters and events exist solely in the author's imagination. Any likeness to people and events in the real world is purely coincidental.
It's true that fiction, and particularly science fiction, is often used as a mirror to hold up to society. It can be use as a mockery, as a warning, as a prophecy.... many things. But it should in no way be seen as the author's, reader's or anybody else's point of view.
Unless of course specifically stated.
And since in this case it wasn't specifically stated, I see no room for discussion on that matter.
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« Reply #11 on: July 25, 2012, 09:00:57 AM »

This was a really good story, though I was expecting something more to happen after the reveal.  I'm a programmer, and I was thinking about all the little details that one would explicitly have to put into a program to make it seem humanlike.  It had seemed in the early stages of the story that the programmers who made Sandy were basing it on the Turing Test for determining if something is an AI, which is an incredibly flawed concept in that it does not test the intelligence of the subject but of its ability to mimic humanity, with all of its inherent flaws.  To pass the Turing Test, a machine would typically have to simulate human thinking lag, would have to refuse to do too difficult math problems, would simulate lack of knowledge, and simulate emotions that would make it irrational.

Some of Sandy's flaws seemed very humanlike, but to a point that was well beyond acceptable bounds for its situation, which really made me wonder who had designed the damned thing, and had gone to so much effort to simulate humanlike behavior even at the detriment of functionality.

Then the jig was really up when Sandy passed the image rotation test.  It's not inconceivable for an AI to eventually be able to solve that, but the fact that that was the way in which the society in this story is able to shut out bots from their systems implies that this is not trivial.  At that point I was wondering if Liu had screwed up and not considered this idea, or whether the AI developers had surpassed the verification developers so that they had no currently workable system. 

So the reveal was very satisfying when it suddenly all came together.  Manuela presumably has the Internet at her hands, so she can quickly look up trivial information very quickly, like when they were watching baseball.  But although she could quickly look up the rules to chess, that does not mean that she could instantly LEARN how to play chess like an AI presumably could.  The mistakes she makes, the sleeping on the job, it all makes sense.

It also all makes economic sense in the context of how this situation could come together.  This company will make a killing selling these robots as the pinnacle of technology, taking a huge portion of the market share.  All you need to do this is fine motor control of the robot, a motion capture system for control, and a telecomm system able to handle the load.  It will do so very cheaply, and probably before true AI technology has been fully developed.  If they play their cards well, their secret may take a while to get out.  Maybe they're developing AI on the side, or maybe they're just skipping the R&D expense since they have a solution in place already.  At the same time, the company is taking a big risk in that they will at some point have their pants sued off when one of their workers messes up and kills someone.  Our protagonist is right that a waiver wouldn't protect the company from a legal battle if the robot ducked into traffic.

One way that the company's scheme might be revealed is if they enter some area that doesn't get a wireless signal, either someplace rural or underground.  Since the robot is controlled remotely, it would just stop at some point.

Another way they might be caught is by running afoul of the FCC.  Any consumer product that uses wireless communication has to pass certification by the FCC.  If they are not admitting that these are remote controlled, then maybe they don't point out the wireless signals they send (if they did, how could they justify a sustained signal?). 

I think Mr. Liu is encroaching on Mike Resnick's territory. Smiley

Lately Resnick's stories have seemed, to me, to have such an effect.  I can just see too clearly when he's trying to manipulate my emotions.  I can see the man behind the curtain too clearly.  I find that Liu is much more effective at this, at least for me, considering stories like this one and The Paper Menagerie.  So if there were such a thing as claiming emotional territory, I'd say that it's Liu's territory already.  Smiley
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« Reply #12 on: July 25, 2012, 12:21:18 PM »

I enjoyed the internal dialogue of the main character, but I was just getting to the question of "why does this story exist" when the twist came. Very well timed, well written, and a very good commentary on the politics and economics of the home care industry of the near future.
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InfiniteMonkey
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« Reply #13 on: July 25, 2012, 04:36:05 PM »

It's an alternate reality, people.

Did I miss something? Because to my ears it sounded like the future.
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Kaa
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« Reply #14 on: July 25, 2012, 04:45:08 PM »

It's an alternate reality, people.

Did I miss something? Because to my ears it sounded like the future.

Seems to me any story that postulates a possible, projected future is an alternate reality. Look at 1984 or Brave New World, after all.
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Andy C
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« Reply #15 on: July 25, 2012, 04:49:30 PM »

Yeah, I liked this one and that's after all I've said elsewhere about prefering and missing Space Opera.

It was a tender story, but I think it avoided cheesy sentimentality which was good. THe narration was a good job as well.

So well done EP on this one!

Andy
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Cattfish
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« Reply #16 on: July 25, 2012, 08:03:01 PM »

I liked this story but I didn't like the end reveal very much. 
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Listener
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« Reply #17 on: July 26, 2012, 05:22:43 AM »

I fully expected this ending after the first few paragraphs of Mr Church and Sandy interacting, so it wasn't much of a twist to me. However, even when there's no twist, I still need the ending to be a little more. I realize Mr Church is an invalid who suffered from a stroke and therefore can't go out and be an ACTION HERO!!!!1111!!one, but after Manuela's letter (which seemed to go on a bit long, for an audio story), the ending kind of left me empty.

It's not the author's or editor's fault, but this story ran concurrently with an ARC I'm reading about an "immigrants are bad so let's throw them all out and build a wall" future, so maybe I'm a bit burned out on it. The thing is, there is a political component to stories like this, and unfortunately, I've found it really difficult to get right without being preachy. Well, this story (and the ARC I'm reading) got a bit too preachy.

I think that, up until Manuela's letter started being read, the story was quite well-written. However, after that, I sort of lost interest because everything was being revealed to me in a way that didn't make me have to think. And that was a tad disappointing.
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Devoted135
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« Reply #18 on: July 26, 2012, 09:12:47 AM »

About halfway through this story I really thought that this was going to be a Ken Liu-turned-Mike Resnick story. But if that were the case then Sandy would have turned out to be a miraculously unique AI that was gaining sentience and she and the narrator would have spent the last 15 minutes discussing philosophy and whether he should now feel embarrassed being naked in front of her. Thankfully, this was not that story!

Overall, I really enjoyed this story, and the reading was very well done. Luckily for me, I've never lived in an area where immigration was a big issue so I wasn't bothered by the political message. However, does 60 strike anyone else as a bit young for this guy? I mean, strokes can certainly hit anyone, but most stroke victims are in their 70's or at least mid-60's.
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HueItzcoatl
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« Reply #19 on: July 26, 2012, 09:47:15 AM »

However, does 60 strike anyone else as a bit young for this guy? I mean, strokes can certainly hit anyone, but most stroke victims are in their 70's or at least mid-60's.

I'm far from an expert on the subject but I've had family and friends suffer strokes at much younger ages than 60. I don't think strokes are as "older person" oriented as heart attacks.
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