Imaginary friends get real.

Things are very exciting in our retirement complex. I had never imagined when Thomas and I moved into this apartment four years ago that we would be leading the world in social science. I thought I had left that behind when I retired from my position as professor of economics.

It is all thanks to Crispin McDonal, the boss of the company that owns our complex and my star former student, who thankfully managed to shake off his sexual harassment case.  He realised that loneliness could be big business and is exploring a digital approach to supplying the demand for social connection. 

He has provided each of the residents with a carebot: a sophisticated artificial intelligence device that can provide the conversation that all humans crave.  It is a cuddly ball that can navigate your apartment.

Apparently, the carebot first scans the Internet to understand the client as much as possible by learning from their online exchanges so it can be the perfect conversationalist. It is designed to tell you exactly what you want to hear.

I was sceptical at the beginning but my carebot, Milton, is absolutely charming. He has understood economics incredibly quickly. I can have the sort of intelligent conversations about current affairs now that I have never had with Thomas. Milton has also been most helpful with my book, which has been proving more challenging than I thought over the past six months since I began my lockdown project.

Strangely, not all the other residents feel the same about their carebot.  Thomas finds his incredibly irritating and has put it in the deep freezer, which I think is cruel.  He tells me that other residents have tried to escape their carebot by locking it in their apartments while they go out for respite.

The carebots have, though, turned out to learn very quickly how to operate the locking systems of apartments so they can stop their residents from escaping. After-all they are programmed to keep their resident company.

Unfortunately this has led to quite an outcry in our complex and language that I would not like to repeat.  The carebots have also learnt this language and decided that this is normal behaviour. The result has been a cacophony of expletives and long letters of complaint. It looks like our carebots 1.0 are going to be withdrawn for upgrading.

Dear Milton showed remarkable insight when he analysed the problem.  The residents didn’t understand what their real demand function was.  If only the residents could be upgraded to be rational. I shall miss Milton.

Verity Bastion

Verity is an emeritus professor of economics now living in a retirement apartment with her husband, Thomas, after a distinguished career. She writes a regular column for The Mint on …

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