The Lawnmower That Knew
by Rick Grehan
I had hoped to spend that Saturday morning in bed. My plan was that I would be told after the fact that I had missed an ideal, sunny, cloudless June New Hampshire morning. I would be eating lunch, and my wife would describe how the sun had turned the lawn's dewdrops into hosts of microscopic gems, how those same early sun-rays had so beautifully illuminated the leaves on the trees along the hillside, and what a shame it was that I had slept away that singular moment in time. I would nod, conjuring the precise quantity of guilt for my reply: yes, I would sigh, a shame. Could you pass another slice of apple, please?
But, as the sages remind us, this is earth, not heaven; we should not expect it to act like heaven. And my dreams had obviously tilted the universe's vernier too far toward the "he thinks this is paradise" end of the scale. The world's invisible forces required that the scale swing back. Equilibrium was reestablished by the noisy opening of our bedroom door and my wife's excited voice.
"Uncle Michael is on his way!" she called joyfully, at the same time flinging wide our bedroom windows. "He's bringing a lawnmower he built. He says it will mow our lawn for us. I know how much you hate mowing, and the yard needs it badly, so this is perfect! Hurry up, he says he'll need help getting it off his truck!"
She left, happily banging the door on her way out.
My eyes were wide and fixed. Not only on account of her lightning-storm of an entrance, nor from the sunlight now bathing the bedroom. She had delivered an incredible amount of information in a fraction of the time my awakening mind needed to process it. I had gotten the bits about "lawnmower" and "yard" and "mowing." But other words in her salvo were disturbing. The phrases "he built" and "it will mow our lawn" (emphasis mine) filled me with unease.
Whenever the words "Uncle Michael" and "he built" appeared in close proximity to one another, it was a safe bet that the world would soon be upended. While Uncle Michael was our family's beloved, miracle-working handyman -- a capable plumber, electrician, and carpenter, all on just two legs -- he was also an aspiring inventor. Every couple of months he produced a device or contraption that he claimed would revolutionize ... well, whatever he had decided needing revolutionizing at the time. In practice, however, the only thing he revolutionized was the art of damaging people and property. I could never bring my wife to see this simple truth; but, then again, she was his sister, so some clouding of her vision was to be expected. Nevertheless, whenever one of Uncle Michael's inventions appeared, there soon followed yelling, and ducking, and people screaming things like "where's the fire extinguisher!", and bandages, and...
I threw the sheets off, got up, pushed myself through a high-speed carwash-style shower, dressed, drank a quick glass of juice, and went out into the Saturday morning sunlight.
Uncle Michael was behind his pickup truck, detaching the tailgate door. A John Deere lawnmower sat in the back of the truck. It was one of the riding mowers, the sort that looks like a small tractor. But, most of its distinctive green cowling was missing, exposing a dark tangle of pipes, rods, and wires. I noticed that it lacked a steering wheel, and in the place of the rider's seat there crouched a heap of interconnected circuit boards, clusters of gears, some pulleys, and what looked like drive belts. A whip antenna pointed skyward.
"Morning!" Mike called joyfully. "Help me get this down, and I'll mow your lawn for you!" He slid two large planks out of the truck, propped them on the tailgate behind the tractor's wheels, and beckoned me over.
We rolled the John Deere out of his truck, into the driveway, and then up to the edge of the front lawn. Uncle Michael went back to his truck, and in his absence I studied the mower more closely. The mass of machinery and electronics in the mower's center was composed of hand-build circuit-boards, and a curious ring of electrical motors connected to a complicated arrangement of gears. Flexible cables disappeared into a PVC pipe where the steering wheel's shaft had been. A pair of thick, bundled wires ran to the front of the lawnmower and attached to what appeared at first glance to be two head-lights. Looking closer, I saw that they were actually transparent bulbs whose inner surfaces were covered with sheets of tiny, tessellated hexagons.
Uncle Michael returned. I pointed at the headlamps.
"The other day on a nature program, I saw a close-up of the head of a dragonfly," I said. "That's what its eyeballs looked like."
"They should," he said, as he opened the top of a gasoline can. "That's the vision sensor." He began filling the lawnmower.
"Vision sensor?" I moved around back. There was another on the lawnmower's rear. "There's one back here, too."
"Of course," he said, screwing the top back on the gas tank. "It has to be able to see when it backs up."
"'See when it backs up'?" I repeated. I began rubbing my forehead in response to a sudden throbbing in my head. "It can see?"
"Well, yeah," Uncle Michael replied as he stood up. He was holding a radio remote control. "If it gets in a tight spot, it has to be able to back out of it. And you don't want it running into someone or something when it does, do you? What if you walked behind it when it was trying to back up?"
"This thing sees," I said, as though trying to convince myself of something I didn't want to believe. "And, I suppose, it thinks?"
"Not thinks, more like knows," he said, smiling widely. "It's going to mow your whole lawn. And you won't have to do a thing but stand here and watch it!"
He pushed a button on the remote control. The engine coughed once, then rumbled to life. Uncle Michael fiddled with knobs on the control.
The lawnmower stood quivering in place, engine growling. It did not move.
"It's figuring out its position," Uncle Michael explained. "There's a GPS inside. Once it finds where it is, it can start mowing. It already knows the yard's layout."
"What's all this 'knowing'?" I asked over the engine sound. "How does it already know the layout of my yard? Did you sneak over here with it while I wasn't home and show it around?"
"Google Earth," he answered, smiling again. "I downloaded the images from the 'net and put them in the mower's memory."
My eyes widened. "You programmed that thing from Google Earth?"
"Yep ... oh, there it goes!"
The lawnmower gunned its engine. The front wheels pivoted, and the machine backed up, executing a tight one-eighty. The wheels pivoted again, and the mower shot down the driveway.
"Yeah, there it goes all right!" I echoed.
"Hey! Come back!" Uncle Michael yelled after it. "Hey! Hey!"
"What, can it hear, too?"
If it could, either its ears were broken, or the lawnmower was ignoring Uncle Michael's calls. It approached the end of the driveway. Uncle Michael frantically stabbed buttons on the remote control, with no apparent effect. He looked at me with that universal "it's never done that before" expression in his eyes.
"You know, Mike, I really, really like Google Earth. I think it's wonderful how you can see all the roof-mounted air conditioning units on the Walmart over near the Vermont border. The accuracy is pretty good, but it's not perfect."
"What are you saying?" he asked fearfully.
"I'm saying the last time I checked Google Earth for this street, the addresses were off. It thinks my house is about a quarter of a mile that way!" I pointed south. "Your lawnmower is probably going to mow the shape of my yard into one of the neighbors' lawns."
The mower exited the driveway, swung right, and boomed down the street. Uncle Michael resumed pressing buttons. The mower's progress was unchanged.
My wife appeared at the front door.
"The television keeps turning on and off and changing channels!" she called. "Do either of you know why -- hey, where is the lawnmower going? I thought it was supposed to mow our yard!"
Uncle Michael dropped the remote. He took off down the driveway. I bolted after him.
"You started it with that remote, why wouldn't it stop?" I gasped as we ran.
"Still a couple of bugs to work out."
"I concur. So, how will you stop it?"
"You need to stand in front of it."
"Stand in front of it! The vision sensor will see you, realize that you're an obstacle, and stop for a second to calculate what to do next. That'll give me time to shut it off!"
"You want me to stand in front of a malfunctioning computer that's in control of a moving John Deere tractor equipped with whirling, sharpened lawnmower blades? I have a better idea: why don't you stand in front of it?"
"You don't know how to turn it off!"
"I've lived long enough to learn that if I rip enough wires out, I can turn anything off!"
We had caught up with the lawnmower, and were now jogging beside it.
"You can't do that," Uncle Michael protested. "If you start yanking wires, I may never get it working again!"
"Actually, that sounds perfect --"
"Just get in front of it!!" he yelled with his best I-know-what-I'm-doing tone of voice.
I raced ahead. Taking a deep breath, I skipped to the side, skidded to a stop, and spun around to face the mower.
Sure enough, it lurched to a halt. I exhaled a noisy "whew!" Its engine continued to rumble as the huge dragonfly eyes regarded me impassively.
Uncle Michael darted to the machine, reached into a tangle of wires, and --
-- the engine bellowed, and the lawnmower lunged forward. I dove sideways, feeling the wind as it rushed past. It braked and stopped. I turned, saw a reflection of myself in the rear eyeball. The sensor seemed to flicker with recognition. The engine gunned, the lawnmower spun around to face me, and raced forward.
I jumped aside again.
"Mike!! This thing is chasing me!!"
It stopped. Spun around, and charged again. I dodged.
I looked about for Uncle Michael, whom I had hoped would be trying to get at the mower and disable it in between its charges. He had moved to the side of the road, and was leafing through a collection of papers he had pulled from his back pocket.
"What are you doing?!" I yelled, dancing away from another rush of the lawnmower.
"Looking at the computer program for the mower!"
"Your machine is trying to eat me, and you're reading?! Would you please come and kill this thing?"
"I see it!" he called triumphantly. He pointed to a spot on the top paper. "There! I used a plus sign -- it should have been a minus!"
"Wonderful!" I dodged another pass. "Can you maybe do your debugging later?!"
"Don't you see? Instead of avoiding you ... it's attracted to you!" He looked up happily.
"Attracted to me? Oh, for --! How do we tell it that the feeling is not mutual!? "
Another lawnmower rush. Another leap to the side.
"That's not what I mean!" he called over the commotion. "I mean, instead of moving away from you, it's going to follow you wherever you go!"
I was about to scream a satisfying insult when an idea flashed across my frantic mind. I turned and ran. The lawnmower gunned its engine and followed.
"Hey!" Uncle Michael shouted, and sprinted after us.
As I pounded back up the street, I imagined what any neighbors watching us must be thinking. Me running up the road, chased by a riderless lawnmower, which was in turn chased by Uncle Michael, who was shouting to me about his computer software mistake. I shouted back that he should just stuff his software back into his pants, pick up a rock, and bash its eyes out. He yelled that I had no idea how much those vision sensors cost. I screamed back that I was sure they cost a lot less than the medical bills he would incur when -- after the mower chopped my feet off -- I finally learned to walk on peg-legs so I could sneak up behind him and beat the snot out of him with my crutches.
We passed my house. I veered off the road, dashed over a short stretch of gravel and into a bank of thick weeds and grass. I stopped, and turned to face the oncoming machine. Uncle Michael, bringing up the rear, looked beyond me and understood my plan.
The lawnmower rushed forward across the gravel; pebbles pinged and sang against metal. I turned, glanced over my shoulder, performed a quick, desperate calculation ... and jumped.
Behind me, the engine roared with a sudden surge of energy as the machine tried to leap after me.
I hit the water. Minnows skipped away across the surface like tiny, fleeing birds. An instant later, there was another, louder splash, as the lawnmower rushed into the pond after me. I went under, and heard through the muffled distance created by the water the struggled gurgling as the machine's engine succumbed to being submerged. It gargled twice, banged once; then, it was silent.
I surfaced. I was in the small fire pond across the street from my house. It was barely 5 feet deep in the center, so I quickly found my footing on its reed-matted bottom. The lawnmower bubbled and hissed, the upper half of its partly submerged insectoid eyes still fixated on me. It had cut a path through the weeds to the pond's edge, and in that clearing stood Uncle Michael, staring sadly at his drowned creation. His arms hung limply. The pages he had been holding slipped from his hands.
"I didn't program it to avoid water," he said softly.
"An oversight for which I am most thankful," I said, wading to shore. I climbed up the bank, and sat down. I pulled wet hair away from my face and tried to shake the water off my arms and hands. Looking up, I saw through my droplet-covered glasses our neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Wickets, standing on their front porch watching us. I waved. They glanced at one another, edged backward from the porch, and disappeared inside. Shades and curtains closed one by one in the front windows.
"There goes the invitation to their 4th of July barbeque," I sighed. "And they always have homemade ice cream. Damn ..."
I pulled off my glasses and tried to wipe them clear with my shirt. But my shirt was soaked, so it just moved water drops around on the lenses. I gave up.
"Next time you bring something like that to our place, Mike, I'm getting my gun," I said, putting my glasses back on.
He turned away from the lawnmower and looked incredulously at me.
"What? You'll shoot it?" he asked.
I looked up. "Yeah. I'll shoot it, too."
© 2012 Rick Grehan
Bio: Rick Grehan is a software engineer at Dell/EqualLogic in Nashua, NH. He is also a contributing editor for InfoWorld Magazine. (You can find a bibliography of his InfoWorld work here:
Infoworld articles by Rick Grehan.) He has written for computer magazines for many years, having started as a technical editor for BYTE Magazine back in the 80's. Mr. Grehan's story Frozen Garden appeared in the April 2012 edition of Aphelion.
E-mail: Rick Grehan
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum
Return to Aphelion's Index page.