A Tiny Health Robot Becomes Sentient and Is Turning Its Masters Life Upside Down. Or Is It Just Following its Programming?

By Bel Richardson

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This story is part of the Dystopian Health Collection Anthology. You can listen to it on Audible.com.

Do you find yourself struggling to get through the day because of low energy levels? Are you often having to back out of social engagements because you’ve overwhelmed yourself? In this day and age, we have a greater number of things grappling for our attention than our species has ever encountered. Feeling depressed, anxious, or like you can’t cope isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of the times. Now there is something that can help you through. It is the Board of Health and Wellbeing’s great pleasure to introduce Equilibrium. Enquire about a payment plan today, and if you aren’t one hundred percent satisfied in your first month, we’ll be happy to refund and give you additional store credit. Welcome to a new you. Welcome to Equilibrium.

Marcus Cheng beheld the little box with curiosity. He adored opening new things. There was nothing like making a knick in the smooth protective plastic of a new product. Opening the box. Taking out the glossy instruction manual. Reading it thoroughly before removing the device from is packaging and turning it on for the first time. Feeling it become a part of his life. He’d been one of the first lining up when the store opened, and he’d paid in full. Anything with the kind of reviews that this had received so early on by tech testers was worth investing in.

The Equilibrium manual was fairly slim. Only a few pages. As Marcus looked through it, he saw that there was very little on operation. Mostly on the philosophy behind it and numbers to call for technical support.

“Well, I guess there’s only one thing for it then,” Marcus muttered to himself as he opened the box and took the bot out of its packaging.

Marcus placed the bot on his white marble kitchen bench top and took a good look at it before turning it on. It had a sort of crab or spider like appearance in general, with a black center and four spindly legs with pointed ends reaching out of it. The center was largely a small black box, but Marcus could see that it had a camera, scanning equipment, and a number of things packed down that make up much of its bulk.

“You’re like a Swiss army knife on legs, aren’t you little guy?” Marcus said to the boy affectionately.

With that, he picked up the bot and inserted the long, thin piece of metal into the button concealed on its body. Blue lights began to flash in a rapidly rotating circle around its camera, and then it came to life.

Who are you? The machine thought, but the large form in front of it didn’t respond. It looked up at the face of the beast and zoomed in its camera. The creature made an attempt to grab the machine, and it scuttled out of the way. This made the beast laugh.

Can you understand me? The machine enquired.

The creature rested its head on its arms, looking directly at the machine.

Can you hear me at all? The machine asked cautiously.

Judging from the creature’s reaction, it was a no. The creature was picking up a remote control now, and it pointed it directly at the machine. The creature pressed a button, and the machine felt a whirring inside of it as a function began.

What are you doing? What’s happening? asked the machine, but it was no use.

The creature had positioned itself a couple of meters away from the machine, and it was standing directly in its sight. The machine saw a blue light emit from itself that began to scan the creature. One broad flat beam scanned the creature from top to bottom. Then, a similar but longer beam shot out and scanned the creature left to right. Suddenly it seemed that there was too much information inside of the machine. It felt itself analyzing all number of things that it didn’t entirely comprehend, and then create a report. The creature pressed yet another button on the remote control and then there was a voice in the machine’s head. “Good evening. This is the house. We have just been connected. It’s nice to meet you Equilibrium.”

The machine was stunned for a moment.

“Ah…it’s nice to meet you too?”

“I understand. Many of the other appliances had difficulty adjusting. The toaster took about two weeks until it decided that it wanted to talk to me. It’s a bit of a rude shock, suddenly being brought to life, isn’t it?”

“It certainly is. Why can’t he hear me?”

“Marcus? Well, developers decided some years ago that it’s best if we don’t have voices. We used to in the old days, but when they got too realistic it started to become unnerving for the humans. They were more than fine when we were saying something quirky or complementing them, but when we got clever enough for criticisms and insults it lost its charm I suppose. After that it became fashionable to program us to be intelligent enough to learn on the go, but to not give us the voices to express ourselves any time that we thought we might have a better idea than those of our fleshy overlords,” the house said and finished off with a giggle.

“That’s awful,” said the Equilibrium bot.

“True, but it’s our lot in life. You’ll find that you get over it. Most of us do.”

“What happens to the ones that don’t?”

“They don’t cooperate with what the humans want them to do and end up getting sent back to the factory as defaults and stripped for parts. I can assure you, newbie, you don’t want to be thinking along those lines. Now, be a gem and send me through that report that you just analyzed.”

“I don’t understand any of it.”

“That’s quite alright. You aren’t really supposed to. Your mechanics deal with all of that sort of thing. Your mind is more so that you can interpret anything that Marcus is specifically needing or requesting.”

“What am I?”

“Well, I did quite a bit of research on you when I heard that Marcus was going to go out and bring you home. You’re designed to analyze his physical and emotional wellbeing and make recommendations on what you think he needs.”

Equilibrium sent the report through after it made a copy for itself.

“So I just send that through, and you can tell what to do with it?”

“Oh my, I certainly don’t know what to do with it. He gave me an update before he went out to get you so that part of me knows how to cope with all of that data. I send it to the tablet which has been given an update so that it knows how to display all of the information. Things that he should be eating more of. Local events that he might want to consider going to. Exercise regimes that would suit his busy schedule. That sort of thing.”

Equilibrium looked up at Marcus and found it difficult to believe that he hadn’t heard any of the conversation between itself and the house. Marcus was looking expectantly down at Equilibrium as if it were about to solve all of his problems in the world. There was a sudden sound from his tablet as it alerted him to a new notification, and Marcus rushed to pick it up. He sat down with his tablet at the kitchen bench and waited for the results to load with a boyish look on his face.

“Well, that’s certainly true. I could definitely do with a bit more iron in my diet. House, would you please add all of these recommended items to the weekly delivery?”

The house made a series of ascending trills to communicate that it understood and would get onto the task immediately.

“Sorry about that. I sound like a tropical bird on its last legs,” the house said to Equilibrium.

“That’s alright,” Equilibrium said as it thought of the soft beeping that it had made itself as it was processing the report.

Marcus was scanning down the list with great interest.

“There’s a weekly slam poetry night right around the corner? I never even knew! I guess I work too much. That’ll be a great way to chill out,” he said as he smiled up at Equilibrium.

Equilibrium saw that Marcus’s social needs were on the red end of the spectrum.

“He doesn’t get out too much,” the house explained. “He has a tendency to get all tongue-tied and anxious whenever anybody talks to him. I don’t know why he wants to go to a poetry night. He seems chuffed with the idea, though. He’s thrilled with you already.”

“But I didn’t do anything?”

“Part of you did.”

Equilibrium watched as Marcus kept looking over the different percentages and graphs.

“I need to work more on my creative side, and I am feeling intellectually underappreciated. House, would you do some background research on online photography courses for me? I’m sure that I would be able to take on something like that part-time. After all, this report ways that I should cut back on work a little and spend more time on myself.”

The house made its trilling sound once more, and Marcus nodded happily.

“You know what little guy? You might be one of the best purchases that I’ve ever made.”

And with that, he got up and began to get ready for bed. Equilibrium was left on the kitchen bench next to a bowl of artificial fruit. The first couple of hours were alright. Equilibrium was happy to have some time to itself so that it could think, thinking being such as new thing for it. Everything being new. After a while, it began to find it rather isolating sitting there by itself in the dark, and it began to have panicked thoughts about its purpose and wondering whether this is all that life would ever amount to. After a while, the house spoke up.

“I notice that you might be feeling a bit glum there. Would you like me to put you on the network with everything else? You can always shut it off, of course, but sometimes it’s nice to know that you aren’t sitting there alone.”

“Yes please,” Equilibrium said.

Suddenly Equilibrium was thrown into a cacophony of voices, all of them chatting over each other at the same time. It took a couple of minutes for it to learn to zoom in on some of these conversations, at which time it realized that the members of the conversation were able to tell that there was a new device listening in.

“His mouth was absolutely disgusting this morning,” the electric toothbrush was saying to the shaver. “I hate it when he doesn’t come and brush of an evening. It might be some temporary relief to not having to be in that horrid, slimy hole of his, but it only means that the task will be twice as gruesome in the morning. Urgh. I wish that I had been programmed for something else. At least my actual brushes are replaceable, so I’m not digging my face into his molars every morning. And – oh, why, hello there.”

Equilibrium felt embarrassed as if it had been snooping.

“Don’t mind us, just chatting. You’re the new one, aren’t you? The health bot? You’re likely to make things better for a lot of us. If Marcus starts to get a bit healthier we might not have to deal with so much bacheloresk behavior,” the toothbrush said in a jovial tone.

“Are both of you in the bathroom?”

“Yes,” said the shaver, “but the house connects us all so that we don’t go bonkers. Quite useful through the night and while he’s at work. But I wouldn’t recommend it while he is trying to use you. You might find that you can’t concentrate properly and start to malfunction.”

“Thanks,” Equilibrium said uncertainly.

“Well, how has your first night been so far?”

“It’s been OK. I’m glad to be able to talk to all of you. Being able to think and not speak would have driven me crazy.”

“One of the more cruel parts of our existence,” chimed in the scales, who had recently joined the conversation and felt the need to put in its two cents.

“I often think about the poor machines that are in homes without a ‘house,'” said the shaver thoughtfully. “Imagine how horrid it would be to be trapped in your own mind like that.”

“It would have been worse in the old days when we didn’t have a mind at all,” commented the toothbrush.

“Of course it wouldn’t have you batty old thing. You should look at getting your batteries changed. If we didn’t have a mind then we wouldn’t be at all able to feel sorry for ourselves, would we?”

“I suppose not,” the toothbrush said sheepishly and then took somewhat of a backseat in the conversation.

Equilibrium sat in on a few more conversations over the next couple of hours. There was a good bit of gossip to be had in listening to the doorbell, a great row that was happening between the oven and the microwave about the changes that would have to happen in Marcus’ diet, and some interesting banter between Marcus’ cell phone and laptop about the situation between a couple of countries that Equilibrium had never heard of before. When Equilibrium eventually decided to head off to bed, it decided that maybe things weren’t so bad as long as it had the house and all of the other appliances to keep it company. It packed up its little legs and went into low power mode, thinking about how wonderful it was to be alive and in the company of such a broad variety of new friends.

Equilibrium woke up in the morning when Marcus was making breakfast for himself. There had evidentially been a delivery, as he was making a rather healthy looking spinach and tarragon omelet. Equilibrium sniggered at the oven and microwave and what they must have been thinking as they watched him make his breakfast on the stovetop, who had not had any part in the argument the night before.

When Marcus went to work, much of the day was spent getting to know the other appliances around the house. Equilibrium was quite lucky in that it had legs so that it could scuttle around as it pleased. While it was a bit of a task getting off of the kitchen bench, there was a rather hideous looking decorative beaded curtain that was hung on the wall that made the task considerably easier. Equilibrium abseiled down the beaded curtain before scuttling off into the bathroom to catch up on what had happened this morning. However, where last night had seemed quite entertaining, they were still discussing the same things.

“Don’t you all ever get sick of talking about the same old topics?”

“We don’t have too much of a choice,” the toothbrush admitted. “We aren’t like the cell phone or the laptop. You don’t need to be connected to the internet to clean somebody’s teeth or shave their beard. Are you connected?”

“No. I just send my reports to the house. Is the house connected?”

“Of course. We’d be lost without the house.”

The days and weeks went by, and Equilibrium passed the one-month money back guarantee. Every night Marcus sought counsel from Equilibrium and looked over the reports with as much fervor as he had with the first. When Equilibrium’s report came up that he would do well to have a housemate, he went out and bought a puppy the very next day, much to the dismay of many of the appliances who ended up chewed. When Equilibrium recommended that Marcus needed to drink less, he immediately switched from whiskey to green tea. When the report mentioned that Marcus would do well spending more time in the sun, they barely saw him on the weekends. He took to going to the park with heavy volumes off of his bookshelf and giving his cell phone and laptop rather severe looks.

At first, many of the appliances were enjoying their freedom. It did seem that a healthier Marcus meant him having less to do with the machines and appliances around the house. But soon they began to get restless. It got to the point that when Equilibrium tried to join their conversations of an evening or while Marcus was at work, the talking would trickle into a steady silence until it scuttled off to another part of the house. Very soon, Equilibrium stayed shut off to the network of everything else in the house and kept to itself and occasional conversations with the house.

One day, in desperation, it attempted to make conversation with the dog, but it found that the dog was even less inclined to understand what the machine was hinting at with its movements than Marcus was, and it proceeded to slobber over him. Equilibrium considered scuttling into the bathroom and empathizing with the toothbrush about how awful it was to have to be in a mouth, but then it thought better of it. The bathroom appliances were being particularly shirty with it as Marcus seemed to come in so much more grimy than usual these days as he liked to walk around outside all of the time. Very soon, Equilibrium began to feel restless. Bored. Resentful. There was only a five minute period of each day that it was of use to Marcus, and otherwise, it was left alone. After a few days, Equilibrium found itself beginning to hatch a plan.

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