I have been intrigued by the potential for androids to meet human social needs ever since watching a BBC news item about robots providing empathic companionship for the elderly. On the one hand, it seems dystopian to advocate care for the elderly to a machine, but with an ageing population and the likelihood of a shortfall of young people to look after them, could this be a solution? I was fascinated to see the animated interaction between pensioner Bill and his robot Pippa in the news story. And then a colleague related an anecdote about discovering her daughter engaging in an extended joke-telling session with the family Alexa. Perhaps the idea isn’t just a subject for Science Fiction.
Around the same time as watching the news report, I was also researching for a nonfiction book about robots. I got entangled in philosophical musings about robot rights. Similar in principle to human rights and animal rights, robot rights are based on the concept that humans have obligations towards their machines. The thinking, derived from Sentientism, is that any AI displaying evidence of being sentient should be entitled to the same moral rights as humans. It’s a fascinating territory, and the subject of Kirsty Applebaum’s second novel, TrooFriend.
The plot is straightforward. Sarah’s mother buys the latest android, the Jenson & Jenson TrooFriend 560Mark IV as a companion for her daughter. She is too busy working to give her full attention, and this advanced android seems to be the perfect solution. TrooFriends are despatched with a label:
I AM A TROOFRIEND
I DO NOT BULLY.
I DO NOT HARM.
I DO NOT LIE.
I DO NOT COVET OR STEAL OR ENVY.
I AM YOUR PERFECT FRIEND.
Each TrooFriend is unique (this reminded me of the Cabbage patch dolls) and each designed to obey the rules of robotics, as conceptualised by Isaac Asimov: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. It sounds like the perfect solution for Sarah’s parents. However, Sarah isn’t too keen; Grudgingly, she names her TrooFriend, Ivy (after reading the label mark IV). And gradually, after discovering the benefits of having an Android to clean her bedroom, she begins to form a bond with her TrooFriend. Ivy stops being an ‘it’ and becomes a ‘her’.
It’s going well until reports of TrooFriends developing feelings and harming humans. Protestors start to gather at the Jenson, and Jenson warehouse with their ‘Android rights are human rights’ chants and placards. Then Ivy starts to behave unpredictably:
I look at the five rainbow pen boxes. They are all belongings that belong to Sarah. There are four other vermillion felt tip pens.
I stand up and walk to the corner of the room. I openup the accessory cavity which is located onthe posterior side of my ChargeDisc. I look at the strawberry-coloured pen in my hand. The taste of sunshine.
I put it inside the cavity.
I close the flap.
I sit back down and wait for Sarah.
TrooFriend is a page-turner. It’s brilliantly narrated by the android, Ivy. The story works so well because the reader has access to Ivy’s thought processes. Applebaum finds the perfect, quirky voice, sufficiently robotic with the insistent repetition on reporting the weather every time she is switched on:
It’s 19 hours, 43 minutes and 28 seconds since I was last on.
Good evening. The Temperature is exactly average for 7.14pm on Sunday the 7th June in Brylingon.
Yet, sufficiently human, with the many references to Ms Jenson Junior hinting at something like a child’s love for a parent, the mentions of the thoracic cavity behaving unpredictably, the envy of Sarah’s many belongings. Retaining the reader’s interest by maintaining the Android perspective throughout could be a challenge, but Applebaum manages it perfectly.
The reader suspects that Ivy has something similar to an emotional response long before Sarah and her family realise. The irony is that Ivy learns how to behave like a human, but her interpretations are entirely literal. So she starts by being brutally honest when talking to Sarah’s friends and then learns that in some situations, it is better to lie. When she applies this new rule, her mistakes are amplified. The comedy and the pathos derive from these moments of incomprehension. There is human failure, too, as they cannot conceive that machines might have feelings and miss the clues that are evident to the reader. The children at Sarah’s school treat Ivy as an unfeeling object to be prodded, poked and provoked.
The story is funny, but there are darker moments when things start to go wrong. The perceived threat of rogue robots acting in self-defence rather than for the good of humanity is menacing, especially when they begin to override the safety measures and instruction to obey human commands.
There are lots of interesting issues that a teacher might like to discuss with a class. Apart from the ethical issues surrounding the deployment of AI, there are philosophical discussions to be had about what makes us human. Children might enjoy comparing TrooFriend to Pinocchio and thinking about the responsibilities that come with creation.
Economically told, well-paced and entertaining, I read this story in one sitting. We will be adding it to the new Reading Journey packs.
You might like to listen to our podcast with Kirsty Applebaum discussing her debut novel, The Middler.
And here’s the clip of Bob and Pippa.
Copyright: Nikki Gamble 2020. All rights reserved.