By Dr. P Ravi Shankar
The bubbly lyrics of Bobby McFerrin’s song ‘Don’t worry be happy’ filled the room. Andi was awakened from his slumber and slowly opened his eyes. He glanced at the clock by the bedside. Five a.m. Still dark outside. He had a virtual clinical exam later that morning. Early to bed and early to rise in the good old armed forces tradition was always mentioned by his mentor. Though with the heavy course workload and multiple assignments on most days he did not hit the bed before 11 pm.
His artificial intelligence (AI) mentor carefully monitored his academic progress. He was a straight A student and had done very well through the duration of the course, which was partially done. He was doing an accelerated curriculum and was expected to graduate in about two years. After his morning ablutions, his home robot came with a steaming hot cup of coffee. Dark and strong just the way he liked it. The robot checked his physical parameters. There were several sensors implanted in his body monitoring in real-time his physical parameters. Everything seemed normal and there was no cause for alarm.
He was one of the twenty students who had joined the undergraduate medical program at the Armed Forces medical school a year ago. He was inducted at the rank of Captain. Now the army and other organisations did not require many doctors. AI systems did most of the work of diagnosing and treating patients. AI was ubiquitous and omnipresent. Systems drove trucks, public transportation, private transportation, flew planes, did all menial jobs, carried out all secretarial and clerical jobs and took care of and educated human children. He had a special interest in human history and recalled the history lessons he had taken at school. During the mid-twenty-first century AI began to dominate life and most humans had slowly but steadily lost their jobs. Some were able to retrain and readapt and started helping in building and educating AI systems. The wars and the heating of the planet had reduced the liveable land. Human population steadily decreased for the first time in several centuries.
Frequent pandemics had become a regular part of life. Or rather was it the same pandemic which never really went away? A certain degree of control and protection was afforded by vaccines, but the virus had become endemic. Humans were resilient and had adapted to the new normal. New strains were isolated regularly, and these required a new set of vaccines to be developed and another round of vaccination. Luckily vaccines were edible these days and incorporated in tasty fruits like bananas.
Maya was his classmate. A perky and slender dark-haired girl, she never failed to cheer him up. He would be meeting her in about an hour. He read through his notes and prepared for the day ahead. He had a special interest in cyborgs and in enhancement of human function. Medicine had developed so much since the Middle Ages. He would be having a class on the ethics of incorporating AI systems in medicine in the morning by Prof Kim. He enjoyed Prof Kim’s sessions. All sessions these days were virtual except the ones on clinical skills. Most patients interacted with their doctors virtually. The sensors implanted on each human meant changes could be identified early and diseases addressed at the incipient stage. He and his fellow students and the teacher interacted virtually using a mix of extended reality and holographic images. The world had shifted online.
The world was a huge web. The internet of things. Devices and persons communicated constantly. Life was good, was it not? Why did he get the creepy feeling that he was being monitored all the time? Was he ever really alone? His father had made a fortune building sea walls and protecting coastal cities from the rising seas. The sea level had risen by over two feet and sea walls were a necessity. The Dutch were the masters and had made a huge fortune keeping the world from drowning. Human germ cell DNA editing was routine — both to eliminate deadly genetic diseases and to enhance human capabilities.
Nearly everyone had some sort of enhancements done to their body to improve their hearing, vision, physical endurance, and immunity among other things. Surviving in the hostile world without an enhanced immune system was impossible. Occasionally he got together physically with his batchmates in the informal learning spaces the college provided. They were an even split. Ten humans with enhancements and ten living AI machines. Life had taken on a whole new meaning with the advent of machine life.
Machine life had several advantages. They were stronger, had almost superhuman powers and were immune to the viruses and other microbes in the air. Occasionally some parts needed to be replaced or some enhancements carried out. They did not need to sleep, and neither were they ever bored and unfocused. In medicine the machines had anthropomorphic features. They looked like humans and from their external appearance only it had become difficult to know if someone was a machine or a human.
Humankind was pursuing immortality. Most lived nearly three hundred years. Rich individuals could download their memories into AI systems and become immortal. The memories could be slowly downloaded at intervals into a developing human and a person could live life both in the virtual and the real worlds. Dr Cerson was a famous surgeon of the twentieth century, and his memories were being slowly downloaded into Captain Andi. Cerson’s ‘soul’ had passed through several human bodies during the ensuing centuries learning and adapting to the brave new world in the process. Surgery today was fully robotic and used an army of micro and nano-bots to carry out the procedure precisely and with nearly no tissue damage.
Maya was a humanoid — machine life. He recalled the day she had told him about herself in the college cafeteria. She knew he was developing tender feelings for her. Machines were built to detect and respond to human emotions. Human-machine intimate relationships were not expressly forbidden but neither were they encouraged by the government. There were a host of problems though the machines were built to be empathetic and kind to humans. The machines did not require sleep, no babies resulted from the relationship and one of the partners was immortal. He had given a lot of thought to these issues but eventually decided to go ahead with his relationship with Maya. He would be moving into her house in a week so that they could sync forces and optimise performance. He started humming the opening lyrics of the classic love song sung by George Benson ‘Nothing’s gonna change my love for you’ as he got dressed for his trip to the college cafeteria and coffee with Maya.
Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.
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