By Indrasish Banerjee
I never knew Maa had developed such a filial attachment with Pagol* until I found her diary the other day. Probably to dispel her loneliness, Maa had started maintaining a diary. The diary had all the usual entries recording her day-to-day activities. Some about daily humdrum activities. “Today Anita came late again…the third day in a row….” Some on past recollections trigged by something with a tinge of melancholy. “Today morning the big glass jar slipped from my hand, raced to the floor and shattered. It was an antique dear to Gogol’s father.”
What took me by a pleasant surprise were Maa’s diary entries on Pagol. In Sweden those days lot of experiments were being carried out with robots. Robots were gradually replacing humans in various jobs. People were both excited and worried about them. Robots were being seen as a solution to many human problems as well as a threat to human existence. People felt the time when robots would completely take over humans was not very far.
Like many, I used to read a lot on the latest advancements happening in the world of robotics on my phone. One day I received an advertisement alert on my phone about a robot exhibition happening in the city. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, I visited the exhibition.
It was a noisy place. There were kiosks of companies from different parts of the world. Salesmen were demonstrating robots of different kinds to curious visitors and answering their questions. Most were basic robots which could perform singular tasks, and some were not for domestic use but meant for factories. They hardly looked like humans; in fact, some resembled snakes and even zombies of different shapes and sizes depending on the purpose they were made for. This disappointed many visitors, particularly children who had a very romantic notion about robots acquired from sci-fi comic books, TV serials and movies that were becoming very popular with youngsters.
It had been a few years since Baba had passed away when I finally left India, taking a job abroad. I had spent a few years in the West, in Germany, when Baba worked there. Since we returned to India, I always had a yearning to go back to the West. After working in India for some years, finally when I got a job abroad, Maa’s happiness was dampened by a trace of melancholy. I was the only son, after all. Initially I had plans to take Maa with me after I had settled down a bit, but it never came to pass.
When a Japanese kiosk drew my attention, a wave of euphoria gripped me. A boy was demonstrating a robot to some onlookers. The robot looked very close to an actual boy not much older than the demonstrator. The robot could have basic conversation with humans and perform basic tasks to assist elderly people. When one of the listeners referred to the contraption as robot, however, the boy immediately corrected him: “It’s a humanoid, sir.” I was familiar with the term, roughly meaning a combination of robot and human.
I tentatively approached the demonstrator, probably in his early twenties, and asked if I could take it to India. “We can completely dismantle it and put it in a suitcase for you, Sir.” After some deliberation, I purchased the humanoid.
Later that month, I would travel to India and surprise Maa with it.
Gogol called from Sweden today. He will come to Calcutta next week. He said someone is going to come with him. He didn’t reveal anything about the person. I didn’t insist.
This morning Gogol arrived from Sweden. The first sight of him suggested he had lost some weight since he visited last time but when I complained he said he had actually put on weight and has to drop some. Apart from his usual paraphernalia, he had a metallic suitcase in hand. Once the initial euphoria was over, I asked him about the other person he had talked about on phone. He didn’t reply but I realised he was thinking about something and didn’t repeat the question. Gogol is a very absentminded boy especially when his mind is on something. It could be the new company he has joined which is a little smaller than his last one, but he has more responsibilities, he said. Later in the day he had a telephonic meeting with his boss and immediately after the meeting his sat down to work – and remained with his laptop the rest of the day.
Today the whole day the suitcase lay in a corner of his room next to a book rack. My mild enquires about the content of the mysterious case, which looks a little unlike normal suitcases, failed to make me any wiser.
Last night, sleep arrived a little late and until it did the suitcase kept me worried. It felt like a trivial matter but somehow, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It is an unusual looking suitcase. A modern-day version of our old-day trunk, a little smaller and stouter of course with big knob-like pins lining its sides, giving it a tough and impregnable appearance. Is it a memsahib Gogol is hiding inside? I didn’t bring up the topic at the breakfast table. We discussed humdrum things.
This afternoon, Anita came running to the kitchen when I was frying fish Gogol likes to eat with rice and daal. Panting, Anita mumbled something unintelligibly looking at our dining table. I held her arms and then leaned to check what it was. My heart missed a beat. A boy was standing in the passage. It had a very un-humanly chiseled looks – everything was too perfect as if it had walked out of some fairy tale book. But what would have scared Anita took me by surprise, too: its lifeless eyes, its gaze fixed in one direction. It looked like a human, but it wasn’t quite. When I stepped out of the kitchen, the boy robotically moved towards me: “Good afternoon, Maa.”
I screamed. Gogol was standing next to the door of his room wickedly smiling as if sadistically observing what was going on and congratulating himself for his prescience.
“Is it your surprise?” I asked now a little calmer realising that if Gogol was smiling the way he was it was part of his design.
“Yes, Maa. And now onwards it’s your companion. You have to give it a name, Maa.”
“Name? What name? What is it in the first place? Is it a live human?”
“It’s a humanoid which can do several things to assist you. It will make you feel less lonely when I am not around, Maa.”
Maa named the robot Pagol rhyming with my name, Gogol. Until Maa became used to Pagol, there was a stiff carefulness. She had dealt with high technology in the past, particularly when we were in Germany, but not without close supervision of Baba until she became quite sure she could handle it herself. Anita learnt how to operate the robot very quickly and once she became comfortable Maa learnt things from her.
There wasn’t much to learn, though. Pagol was a fully automated robot with the intelligence of a two-year-old kid which helped it learn things by seeing them and then perform them with some basic assistance. It could perform four to five household chores, like reminding Maa of her daily medicines at the time she had to have them, bringing a tray to her with anything of moderate weight placed on it and having a basic conversation.
Slowly I’m forgetting Pagol is a robot. When Gogol visited me the next time, from Sweden, he did some tinkering to Pagol to make him more responsive to our needs and idiosyncrasies – and seeing me upset with him when he took Pagol apart to work on him, Gogol said: “Maa, you have become emotionally attached with Pagol. It’s only a contraption.” But it’s not the technological aspect of Pagol which has got me used to him but the fact that he has filled up a void in my life, one that had been left behind not so much by Gogol’s father’s sudden death in a road accident in Poland because there was Gogol to be brought up and other challenges that his passing way exposed me to, to be handled; as much by Gogol’s leaving India. Of course, Gogol does his bit to minimise the loneliness by phoning frequently and there is Anita, but the bouts of loneliness return nonetheless. I have fewer of those nowadays, thanks to Pagol.
You may find it strange that someone can develop emotions around a robot — a machine. Pagol is not many things that a normal human is. He can speak in, as Gogol calls them, preprogrammed scripts but you can’t have a conversation with Pagol. Nor can Pagol do things that come so naturally to us, like making meaningful eye contact or, say, a spontaneous chuckle or laugh or smile. But then doesn’t emotion, like beauty, lie in the eyes of the beholder?
But to Anita, Pagol was always a robot. Anita used to take care of all the mechanic needs of Pagol, setting the robot up on its charging station once every three days, calling me up in Sweden whenever Pagol needed technical attention.
But that wasn’t to be for too long.
When Maa called me in Sweden and very affectionately described how Pagol had ‘hit’ her gently, as if it had made the robot more endearing to her if anything, it reminded me of Edda. She had expressed her misgivings when I had told her that I was going to gift Maa an assistive robot. “There are lot of ethical concerns around these robots,” she had warned me. The concept of assistive robots for elderly people was widely known by then and so were the concerns about them. The popular concerns partly owed themselves to the sci-fi films and children’s books exaggerating these but also some incidents that had been reported widely in the media. Thanks to them, people saw robots as having a sinister side to them. What if a robot hit the elderly person it was assisting! Worse still, what if its functionality was sinisterly tweaked by someone to do so? Such were the concerns.
But Edda being a studious type was not the one to be swayed by popular beliefs. When she warned me, she had the real incidents reported in the media in mind. In one of them, an assistive robot helped an elderly person from his hospital bed to the balcony by holding his arms suddenly left the old man’s arms leaving the old man to himself and the old man, who couldn’t walk steadily without assistance, lost his balance, wobbled and fell down on a table injuring himself.
On another occasion, an assistive robot had locked a bathroom door from outside locking an old woman in….And it took a long time for human help to arrive. The elderly woman was found in a state of panic and profusely sweating.
But we had to finally get rid of Pagol for entirely different reasons.
For a few days Pagol seems to have developed human qualities, a will of his own. He does things without being told to do them. This started since Gogol installed a new program in him to improve his cognitive abilities. I haven’t told it to Gogol because he would get worried and doing anything from so far is difficult anyway.
But since what Pagol did the other day, I have been a little concerned. Before Anita leaves for the day, which is generally late evening, she switches off Pagol and places him on his battery stand. It means Pagol is completely dysfunctional at night. That day I had dozed off while reading a Sunil Gangapadhay novel. After sometime, I woke up and realised I had slept off without switching off the lights and taking my medicines. I got up, finished my rituals, I retired for the day.
Sleep was hard to come by. I looked at the rafters thinking desultory thoughts until gradually the sleep god relented. Suddenly I felt the presence of another person in the room. When I looked up, I was startled. Two bright eyes were looking at me. For a moment I was paralyzed by fear, then I recognised the eyes — they were Pagol’s. I turned on the lights. I was right: Pagol was standing facing me. “Maa, you have not taken your medicines today,” he said.
But how did Pagol know this? During the day, when it is time for my medicines, he brings them to me on a tray. But at night, I take my medicines myself. And in any case Anita had put him to sleep for the night.
“What are doing here, Pagol? Didn’t Anita Di put you to sleep for night?” Pagol can respond to such simple questions nowadays, but he remained quiet, looking at me. Trying to move him to a corner of the room would be futile — Pagol was too heavy for that. The sudden surprise had dispelled my sleep. But, after sometime, I dozed off.
Next morning another surprise awaited me. When I got up, I didn’t see Pagol in the room. I rushed to the place where Anita keeps Pagol before leaving for the day — he was there exactly how Anita left him the previous day.
Today Pagol dropped a glass jar from his hand. He had taken the glass jar in his hand of his own volition; no one asked him to do it. When the glass slipped from his hand to the floor, Anita and I rushed to the kitchen. We were surprised. Not so much by the shattered jar as much by the expression of guilt on Pagol’s face. Anita shouted at Pagol: “Who asked you to play with that jar?” Later Anita saw Pagol standing in the balcony, looking at the lane below as if thinking something.
I knew very little about all this until I received a call from Anita one day. “Dada, lately Pagol has started acting strangely. It does things you don’t expect a robot to do.” She told me about the glass jar incident and what Maa had told her about finding Pagol standing in the middle of the room in the middle of night.
I was worried but I didn’t know what to do. I searched the net and found some short stories on robots developing human agencies. Finally, I mailed the Japanese company I had purchased Pagol from. After a few days, I received a response from a Japanese person by the name of Akinari, a robot engineer as per his mail signature.
Akinari said he had received similar complaints from customers before and had asked them to keep the robots under observation for some time to find out if there was any error of judgment on their part. He said he remembered almost everyone responding and confirming his doubt: that the complaints were the figment of imagination of the elderly persons receiving assistance from the robots.
‘The robot assists my mother, and she is the person it spends most of its time with apart from Anita who takes care of my mother. It’s Anita who told me about the robot’s exploits. She wasn’t privy to some of them. She heard them from my mother, so I reluctantly ascribe some of the activities to my mother’s figment of imagination or error of judgement but Anita herself was witness to the other things the robot did.’
I want to mainly check with you if the robot can harm its benefactor.
Akinari wrote back:
‘I discussed it with other experts. Ordinarily we would have dismissed it as we have never heard anything like this before. But since you seem to be sure that your people back home have closely observed the robot for some time and are quite sure it is displaying behavior it is not programmed to, we would like to commission a special study of the robot in our lab.’
A week later a Japanese man visited our Calcutta house. Assisted by Anita, he dismantled the robot and took it with him.
The final entry on Pagol in Maa’s diary read:
It’s been six months since Pagol went missing one morning. He has not returned since. Anita assures me he will. The silly girl doesn’t seem to understand I know what they did to Pagol.
I never heard about Pagol again. I wrote to Akinari a few years after he sent a person to collect Pagol from our Calcutta home. But I didn’t get any reply from him. Did they completely dismantle him, and then dump his remains in a yard located somewhere in a third world country to add to the mounting pile of discarded gadgets abandoned because their utility to humankind had expired? I read on the net the other day that discarded robots are being recycled, also being used as fertilizer in some parts of the world. So, has Pagol ended up nourishing the food on the plate of someone?
I had expected Maa to react to Pagol’s sudden disappearance with the delirium of a mother who has suddenly lost her child. I had asked Anita to keep a tab on Maa in the days, weeks and months that followed Pagol’s sudden disappearance. But Maa never said anything about Pagol again. She continued with her life as if nothing had happened. Did she internalise the grief not expressing it lest it was trivialised by others? Or did she finally make peace with the fact that Pagol was a machine, after all.
After so many years I can only guess.
*Pagol in Bengali means mad or crazy.
Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India.
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