Playing God

asimo

“This is an exciting day, Miss Fitzgerald. Your vision will open hundreds of opportunities for us to help others like your father.”

Marisa Fitzgerald smiled tightly, her lined face stretched taut. At sixty, she was the oldest of billionaire Henry Fitzgerald’s three children. A tiny, slim woman, she had never married. Her face was a mask of self-sufficiency that turned men away, a mask perfected in youth. The smile she gave the scientist was a product of age. Only recently had she begun to allow the expression of emotions. She wore them like ill-fitted clothes, or as a child first wears a suit and tie.

“I want the best for my father. He was not always a kind man, but he was a fair man. He deserves comfort during his last days.”

Men unloaded a short, humanoid robot from the van. Child-sized so that adults would more easily accept it, the robot could walk and traverse stairs, and it obeyed commands like a sophisticated alarm clock or an imbecile servant. This was the first commercial unit, designed to help shut-ins and the handicapped.

Marisa looked steadily at Dr. Zimmers. After a moment, she said: “My brothers are in the house. There may be a scene.”

“I understand.” Dr. Zimmers activated the robot. “Ready, Miss Fitzgerald?”

She led him to the door, and the little robot followed like a dog. In the foyer waited Arthur Fitzgerald. His wild beard gave him a savage look as he sat on the third step of the main staircase. He jumped to his feet at the sight of the robot. If one met Arthur in the mountains, one might think him a man of power, but among the china and delicate artistry of the mansion’s interior, he looked powerfully mad.

“I will not allow that work of devilry in this house!”

“Arthur,” the scientist said soothingly. “What has the devil to do with this piece of machinery?”

“It’s the old sin of mankind,” Arthur replied, eyes flaming. “Eat the fruit and you will be like God. He made us in his image, and we make machines in ours. What blasphemy is next? When will our pride destroy us?”

The argument wasn’t just old; it was cliché. Dr. Zimmers explained in calm, rational words that the robot was no more than a set of programs. It contained no artificial personality, no moral decision mechanism, no ability to adapt. It was no more than voice recognition, preprogrammed commands, and complex movement simulations. This last was the great leap of science: man had walked on the moon before machine had walked on earth. Humanity took for granted the miracle of upright motion — controlled falling. Billions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours had replicated it. That was science’s triumph: to take one step. The rest was mad fantasy and science fiction.

Arthur did not hear his words. Science was blasphemy; it lifted man higher and higher. The robot was a demon of Babel, a Nephilim born of the intermarriage of men and evil spirits. “Pride!” screamed Arthur. “You men of intellect, humble yourselves! The wrath of God is not long in coming. He will not spare the stubborn-hearted. Stop leading men astray and turn to your Maker.”

“Arthur,” Marisa said sternly. “Father has given me authority to act during his illness. I do not want to call the police, but I will.”

“Call them!” he cried. “They can do nothing to me. I am only dispatching the task entrusted me. Why do you always try to play God? Be men. Accept your lowly place. God is in his heaven, we are on earth, so let your words — and your works, Dr. Zimmers — be few.”

Marisa did call the police, and after they dragged Arthur away, she and Dr. Zimmers continued down the hall to the room where Henry Fitzgerald lay. James, the youngest of the three, looked at them as they entered. He spoon-fed his father, who stared dumbly at him, chewing with the absent pleasure of senility.

“Arthur always believed the worst of everything,” James said softly. He didn’t take his eyes from his father. “Marisa, I’m sorry it took me so long to return. It’s never easy, between customs and the travel arrangements.”

“You know about the robot, James?”

“Yes.”

“Will you stop us?”

“You can bring the robot, but it must remain in the corner.”

“It’s only a machine,” Dr. Zimmers began again. “It is only an advancement of science. We wish to make the world better. Thousands of elderly men and women, like your father, cannot tend themselves. Our robot can help. It is an humanitarian advance.”

“Arthur had it wrong. We must not keep our lowly place. Put the robot in the corner.”

“James, it’s supposed to interact with father. Dad needs to get used to it.”

James looked at Marisa with a fierce, stubborn expression. Marisa, in her ignorance, thought it similar to the heat of physical passion in a husband’s eye.

“James…”

“Mary, you can tell me to leave. You have the right. I can’t stop you. You can use that tool in my place. But let me serve my father. Arthur had it wrong—we have no pride. If I see a man starving, do I give him a spade and say, ‘Go, dig and plant!’ or do I give him food? Nowadays, it is proper to give him a spade and go about my business. You know what I do overseas, Mary. My God washed my feet. If that’s worthy of him, I dare not forfeit such an opportunity. Pride? I am very near God at this moment, wiping dribble from my father’s chin. What purpose does this robot have but to tempt us to turn away from one another?”

Four months later, the billionaire left the room and was buried in the earth. That marvel of mechanics stood still in the corner, covered in cobwebs.

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