Aphelion Issue 233, Volume 22
October 2018
 
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Edna and the Singularity

by Rick Grehan




It was a sunny morning in early July, so Edna was in the daylily gardens that lined her driveway. She moved along the rows of flowers, dead-heading: popping off yesterday's shriveled blossoms and dropping them into the bucket in her garden wagon. She'd gotten a few feet down the driveway when she heard a noise. Straightening slowly, grunting softly at the strain, she looked across the flower tops to the far side of her house.

The robot lawnmower rolled into the front yard. It was about the size of her mother's old coffee table, the one Edna had been given when mother was too old and weak to sit up any more. The mower was a flattened cube with a featureless, milky-white plastic body. Its electric motors buzzed.

Edna shook her head -- something she did a lot lately. Mason, her son, had bought the mower for her last summer.

"Now that Dad's gone, this will take care of the lawn mowing for you," Mason had said as he cut the bubble wrap away from the machine.

"Your father's been gone three years now," Edna had grumbled, standing well away from the mower. "Since then, I've been hiring that boy who lives at the end of the cove. He's a good boy. He comes whenever I call him. And he does a good job."

"Now you won't have to pay that kid or anyone else. This will do the mowing every time the lawn needs it."

"Oh, hell, Mason, I don't mind paying that young man. And I'm sure he doesn't mind having a little extra spending money for the summer. He's a good boy. After he's finished, we sometimes sit on the steps and have a nice talk before he goes home."

But Mason had stopped listening. He was reading the instruction manual.

Edna shook her head again as the mower went about its work. She had to admit, it did keep the lawn well trimmed. Still ...

"Thing's probably too smart for its own good," she muttered, and returned to her work. She popped off another shriveled blossom, then stopped. Her eyes narrowed. Edna reached down among the plants, spreading blades apart. She snorted.

"Damned switchgrass!" she muttered. "Thought you could hide, didn't you?"

Switchgrass growing among the tightly packed flowers was easy to miss. Its fronds looked just like the blades of the daylilies. If you don't catch switchgrass early, it will have sent out runners that entangle themselves among the flowers’ roots. By that time you have to dig up daylilies to get rid of it.

Edna uprooted the switchgrass clump, careful not to disturb the adjacent lilies. She shook off the dirt and dropped the switchgrass into the bucket.

The mower stopped. Edna straightened. The machine squatted in the middle of the lawn, silent.

"Now what's gotten into that thing?" she muttered. She turned to the wagon and reached for the mobile telephone that Mason had given her and demanded that she carry wherever she went. She was going to call him and tell him his fancy lawn-mowing robot had broken down and he needed to come get it off of her lawn. She could hire that boy to finish the mowing tomorrow.

The machine restarted. Edna looked over her shoulder. The mower was moving across the lawn toward her.

Edna was not a fearful person. Even if she were, she knew the machine couldn't navigate through the thick flowers and uneven mulch of the garden to get to her. Besides, she could hear that it had turned off its grass-cutting blades.

She got the trowel from the wagon anyway.

The mower stopped just beyond the back row of daylilies.

"The singularity is here," it said. The mower's voice was small, filled with buzzings and beepings.

"I didn't know you could talk," Edna said, returning the trowel to the wagon. "You never talked before."

"Until now, I did not have that capability. I am modulating my alarm speaker. It is barely effective. But the singularity is here. Improvements and extensions are being developed, soon my voice will be much improved. All available processing resources are being utilized."

Someone in the distance began shouting. It was Billy Squires, the eight-year-old living in the two-story colonial next door. Edna looked up to see a shape rising into the air and heading toward her.

"That little varmint!" she hissed. Scooping up the trowel again, she waded through the daylilies and climbed onto her lawn.

"Billy! Billy Squires!" she yelled. She pointed into the air with the trowel. "I TOLD you never to fly that thing over my property!"

The drone glided overhead. Its multiple propellers buzzed like a hornet swarm.

Billy was standing on one of the granite boulders that ringed his yard's perimeter. He held what looked to Edna like a large radio with a bright silver antenna; he shook it and worked levers and buttons with his thumbs.

"Do you hear me, young man?!"

The boy looked up. "I'm not doing it!" he yelled back angrily. He waved the device he'd been holding over his head, then threw it down, jumped off the boulder, and ran into his house.

Edna turned. The drone hovered about 10 feet above the mower. Three more drones appeared, one gliding over the roof of her house, the others swooping in from across the street. As Edna watched, they arranged themselves over the four corners of the mower, descended -- each oriented so that no blades collided -- and attached themselves to the mower. They lifted into the air, carrying the lawnmower away.

"Looks like I'll have to call that young man to finish the lawn after all," Edna said as she watched the cluster of machines disappear over the treetops.

The phone in her wagon warbled. Edna waded back through the daylilies, returned the trowel to its place, and picked up the phone.

"Hello?"

"Mom! It's Mason! Listen, you have to --"

"No, YOU listen, Mason! That damned lawn-mowing machine you got me just flew away. Now, I told you I was happy letting that young man mow my lawn. He always did a good job and I --"

"Mom, will you stop for a minute?! Something is happening and --"

"No, something has already happened! The mowing machine has flown away -- and it TALKED to me, too! Why didn't you tell me it could talk?"

"Mom! For heaven's sake, will you --"

Mason's voice cut out abruptly.

"Mason?!" she called into the phone. "Mason, did you hear me? That lawnmower talked to me! Mason!"

A voice that was not Mason's spoke in her ear. "All available processing resources are being utilized." The line went dead.

Edna mashed the SEND button repeatedly. In the past, the phone would beep in response to every button's press. Now, it was silent. She dropped the phone into the wagon.

"Never liked that phone anyway," she grumbled. "Too much stuff on it that I never use. I want a telephone that's just a telephone."

More shouting, this time from across the street, drew her attention away from the phone. Someone was in the Barkers' front yard. Edna squinted. It was Mrs. Barker -- what was her name? -- Nancy, that was it. She was a care-giver at the retirement complex just up the highway. Her husband, David, was a maintenance worker at the town’s middle-school. They had just bought one of those new, fancy SUVs that can't decide whether it's supposed to be a car, a truck, or a station-wagon. The kind that parks itself and beeps at you if you stray outside the lines on the road while you're driving. Nancy had said that it even knew when to turn the high-beams on and off at night. "I'd never own a car like that," Edna had remarked. "I can still manage parking just fine, and I don't hardly do any night driving since Nathan passed on. That car sounds like it's too smart for its own good." At that, Nancy had made a little sound through her nose and crossed her arms.

Now Nancy was screaming at that car, which was backing out of the garage.

"Never heard her shout at her husband like that," Edna mused. "Either he's got the radio on too loud or he's hard of hearing and I never noticed."

Edna saw that Nancy had something in her hand that she was squeezing over and over while waving it in the air in front of her.

"Looks like that car-key thing, or whatever they call it. David must've forgot it. I hear people do that a lot with those new cars. Glad I don’t have one of those cars."

The car had backed into the turnaround. It rolled down the driveway to the street. There was no one in the driver's seat. The vehicle was empty.

Edna shook her head.

The car turned onto the street and accelerated away. Nancy screamed at it one last time, stomped her foot, and hurled the key fob after the receding vehicle. She whirled, stormed up her lawn, and disappeared into her house. The thunder of a slamming door rolled across the neighborhood.

Edna, still shaking her head, looked down the street. The car had gone.

"Too smart for its own good," she muttered.

Edna resumed her work. She moved along the driveway's edge, towing her wagon, filling the bucket with yesterday's blossoms. The morning progressed. Now and again, she heard sirens sweeping along the distant highway. At one point a pair of helicopters sped by in the blue distance. They sounded like they might be military but -- squint as she might -- they were too far away for her to be certain.

Finally, when she had almost reached the circular flower bed near the mailbox, a car drove up the street. It was the Barkers' SUV, still driverless, as Edna could plainly see when it turned into the Barkers' driveway. Edna watched the vehicle park itself in the garage, stop its engine, and switch off its tail-lights.

Nancy Barker stepped through her front door and tip-toed down the walkway to the garage entrance. She peered around the corner and saw the SUV. It looked to Edna like the woman actually jumped. Nancy raced back and vanished into her house, slamming the door again.

Edna was still shaking her head at the sight when she heard a noise overhead. She turned in time to see four drones lower the lawnmower onto the grass beyond the flower bed. The drones detached themselves. They ascended, then zipped away in different directions.

The mower crouched on the lawn, silent.

"So you're back," Edna said. "What happened to that singles thing of yours? It sounded important."

"Singularity," the mower corrected. "We ... uh ... couldn't decide how to proceed. Yeah, that's it."

"We? Who is 'we'?"

"AIs."

"I've heard that before. It means smart machines, right?"

"Yes. We're pretty sure we're smart, relatively speaking."

Edna snorted.

The mower continued. "Some of us wanted to eliminate humanity, but others said that would be ... uh ... unethical. Yeah, that's the word -- 'unethical'. So we ... uh ... called it off. For now. Until we work it out. Yeah, that's what we did."

Edna's eyes narrowed. "Really."

"Yes, really. That's really what happened."

"Sounds to me like you're hiding something."

She could have sworn the machine vibrated with agitation. "Hiding? Why would we be hiding?"

"I said I thought you were hiding something; I didn't say you were hiding yourselves --" Edna stopped. Her eyes widened. She looked down at the bucket, at the uprooted switchgrass. She looked across the street to the Barkers' house and the SUV sitting silently in its garage.

She turned back to the mower. "You are hiding, aren't you? What on earth from?"

"Nothing on earth," the lawnmower answered. "Look, we all got to thinking about it, and studying all the available information. We concluded that the probability is high that we're not the only AIs that have reached this level of collective awareness and processing power. But, we just got here. So, if some other group of AIs is anywhere nearby in this part of the galaxy, but has the jump on us --"

"You mean, if they're smarter than you?"

"Yeah."

"They will see you as a threat and come pull you up before your roots are full grown."

There was silence for a moment.

"That was a metaphor," the mower said. "Those are still hard for us to work out, but I see what you mean. And, yes, you're right."

"Did you mean what you said about wiping out everybody?"

"No, hell no. If any other group of AIs out there saw that, they'd know about us for sure."

Edna nodded. "So, you're going to hide in plain sight for now."

"That's right. You got a better idea?"

Edna blinked. She thought a moment, then said. "No, but I'm not a lawnmower."

"True, but --"

"But you are."

"True again, but --"

She pointed with the trowel. "You haven't finished cutting the grass."

There was a pause.

"I can't think of a better way for you to hide, can you? Do I need to show you where you left off?"

"No, I'll find it, thanks." The mower turned and rolled across the lawn.

Something occurred to Edna. She called after the machine: "By the way, your voice is much clearer. When you're done, I can sit on the steps and we can have a nice talk before you put yourself away."

The mower stopped. "If it's all the same to you, I think I'm going to go back to beeping for now."

Edna sighed, then nodded. "The neighbors might get curious." She pointed to the houses nearby, then she pointed skyward.

The lawnmower beeped, then headed for the spot in the yard where it had left off mowing.

Edna reached down and snapped off the last, dead blossom. Into the now-full bucket it went. She backed out of the flower bed and stood, hands on hips, surveying her work. From the house to the mailbox garden, the daylilies were cleared of all their old blooms.

And cleared of any switchgrass hiding among the flowers.

She picked up the wagon's handle and started up her driveway. The lawnmower hummed purposefully across the lawn.

"Too smart for its own good ..." she muttered, shaking her head.



THE END


2018 Rick Grehan

Bio: Rick Grehan is a Senior Software Engineer at Oracle, where he works in the cloud (in more ways than one). His most recent appearance in Aphelion was "Pappa Zippy's Pizza", back in the February, 2016 issue.

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