Two old friends meet in the park and watch the world go by. But for Molly, the world with all its strange new inventions may be going by a little too fast.
It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, and the park was full of people lounging in the sunshine, reading books, enjoying themselves by the lake. Molly ambled happily along the path until she arrived at her favourite spot, a bench in the shade of an old, broad-leafed tree. Dappled sunlight covered the ground and she eased herself down before lying back and closing her eyes, enjoying the warmth on her face. She remained like that for a little while, just listening and feeling, letting the world move around her, until she became aware of a shadow falling across her. She opened one eye slowly and looked up at the man who loomed over her.
“Well hello,” she said.
“Hello, my dear.” George smiled and took his accustomed place by her side. He moved as slowly as she did, visibly wincing at the creak in his knees as he sat down. “You know,” he said, “for a second there, I thought you were gone.”
“Oh yes.” His shiny head bobbed up and down. There was a playful spark in his eyes as he spoke. “Gone to meet your maker.”
“Oh, I’m not on the scrapheap yet, George.” Molly stretched out her arms. She felt almost as creaky as her friend. “I was just recharging my batteries.”
“Ah. I understand.” He leant back on the bench beside her and they both watched the other people in the park in companionable silence. For the last few years, they’d met here almost every day at the same time. It had been by chance at first, but over a period of weeks or months they’d both begun, unspoken, to come to the same spot deliberately. They were both about the same age, had lived similar lives, and had a lot in common. George was more of a placid sort of model though – a gentle giant who just let the world get on with its business. Molly, she could admit to herself, was a little hothead. Or at least she had been once, before someone had kindly repaired that little fault for her some years ago. He was long gone now, but she remained, watching the world like George, albeit with a little less calm resignation. Not that things were all bad, but times were changing, and not always in ways she approved of.
“Would you like to read my paper?” George asked. He always said that. Molly didn’t think he even read it himself any more, not with his eyesight failing as she knew it was. He still asked her though, because he was a gentleman, and that was one of the reasons she liked spending time with him here, on their bench in the park.
She took the paper from him wordlessly, politely ignoring the crisp, unthumbed pages, and perused the stories. Little of it pleased her, but she knew George didn’t like to talk about politics. It would ruin the atmosphere, especially on a day like this. She turned the page and came to a garish, vulgar full-page advertisement. She frowned at it and couldn’t help herself from passing comment. “Oh look at this nonsense…”
“Hm?” George leaned over to her. His hearing wasn’t that good either.
“Look.” She held the page open for him. “These contemptible things!”
George reached up and adjusted his lenses slightly to get a better look. He squinted at the advertisement. “‘Here come the robots!'” he read aloud. “Well, so what?”
“Robots! Infernal things!”
George laughed. “Goodness me, Molly, I didn’t know you were so outdated as that!”
“I’m as future-proof as the next girl,” she sniffed, “I just don’t see what the world needs with robots. Especially this kind.”
“You’re not future-proof: you’re barely backwards compatible. Where would be without robots, eh?”
“We’d be a lot better off! They’re silly, modern nonsense. I don’t care if they pick up litter or…or work in factories or what have you. Where’s the decency in it? They’re not even real people.”
“These new ones are almost real people,” George said.
She gave him an arch look. “Oh? And what do you know about it?”
He looked a little defensive. “I know someone who works in robotics.”
“You’ve never mentioned that before.” She actually felt a little betrayed.
“Well why should I? Anyway, I like robots.”
“Do you own one?”
“Oh no. I couldn’t afford that.”
“Not even one of the little ones?”
“Not even one of the little ones,” he chuckled. “And especially not these new types.”
“They’re the worst of all,” Molly said, looking down at the photo in the advertisement with distaste. “Look at them – walking upright, two arms, two legs, a head. They look like us.”
“That’s kind of the idea…”
“Their eyes though…like ours, but not quite…it’s uncanny…” She shuddered.
“They can do amazing things though.” He held up a hand. “Grip like us. Speak. Even think.”
“A robot that can think? Now where’s the sense in that?”
“Very useful. They can solve problems themselves. Some of the newest models, why, they’re almost as intelligent as us!”
Molly’s snort made it clear what she thought of that. “Well, they wear out fast. My next door neighbour had one of the smaller ones, a very advanced one too with all the…” she waggled her fingers at George, “…the appendages, and a very clever ‘brain’ too I’m sure, and the poor thing got squashed under her tyre and just spilt its insides all over the place. It made the most awful noise too.”
“The new ones can self-repair.”
“Oh yes. Remarkable it is. Or so I’m told.”
Molly pointed at the picture in the advertisement. It showed both of the models of new robot available. “Their casing doesn’t look very resilient to me. They look quite cheap, if I’m honest.”
“Well trust me, it’s amazing stuff. Flexible, sort of spongy to the touch, quite waterproof. And, as I say, self-repairing.”
“Hmph. I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“Oh you’ll see it all right! It’s progress, Molly! These things will be everywhere soon.”
“If anyone can afford them – look at the cost of them!”
“It’ll come down, especially when there’s more of them.”
“Why would they make more if they don’t sell?”
“Ah,” George said with that twinkle in his eyes again, “that’s the beauty of it. Not just self-repairing these fellows: self-replicating too!”
“What?!” Molly couldn’t believe her ears. “How does that work?”
“Well,” George said, scratching his head, “I can’t say I understand it all, but it’s something to do with the two different models. See the bits in the middle there?”
Molly looked where he was pointing at the mid-section of the larger of the grinning robots. “What’s that?”
“It’s a sort of waste port, but it does something else too. Apparently, when you get two different models together they sort of…rub each other…get very excited and…well, it’s very complicated. But, eventually, they make a new robot.”
“How? They go to the factory together?”
“No. The other kind is the factory. The new robot sort of…grows…inside it.”
“I said the same thing, but my friend’s very involved in this sort of thing. Very involved.”
“How can a whole robot grow inside another robot?” Molly asked. “It’d burst it apart!”
“Ah, that’s the trick – the new robots are much smaller.”
“What’s the point of that? You’d get smaller and smaller robots each time. They’d be microscopic in a few generations.”
“No, it starts small, then gets bigger.”
Molly laughed. “Oh now I’ve heard it all. How can a robot do all that? And, more to the point, what crazy person would design it?”
“I’d have thought you’d see how useful they’d be…”
“Oh yes, useful I’m sure. Until they get out of control, of course. Until we’re overwhelmed by these spongy, squishy things with their strange fluids inside them, just wandering around the place self-replicating willy-nilly. Then what, eh? How do we control them?”
“They’re only robots,” George protested, “what can they do against us?” He patted a hand against his chest and made a reassuring metallic sound. “They’re squishy, as you say. If worse comes to worse, we can flatten them all under your neighbour’s tyres.”
“Ho ho! Easy to say now, George. Easy to say now.” She looked out across the park, at all the people whirring back and forth, gleaming in the sun, careful to avoid getting splashed by the water in the lake in case of a short circuit. She imagined robots in their place, wandering around dumbly, perhaps with a crowd of their little offspring in tow. No, she didn’t trust them at all. It didn’t matter how many colours they came in, or how polite and friendly they were programmed to be.
“They’re designed to be loyal to us,” George said, as if reading her thoughts.
“Yes, now. But what can replicate can change. And if they can repair and rebuild faster than us, what then? I hope for all our sake’s they don’t get out of control, George, or it might be the end of us. And who’ll even remember what was here before?” The sky seemed to have clouded over a little. Molly got up with a whine of gears and, giving George a small smile, clanked off back towards the city, her pistons feeling a lot better for time spent relaxing in the sun.