BY CARL PERRIN
Copyright is held by the author.
SOMETHING ABOUT Derek Zandu didn’t seem right, but I couldn’t say just what it was. It was his manner more than his outward appearance. Somehow he didn’t seem authentic. For example, he came across as supremely self-confident, but you got the feeling that he had to force himself to keep up that impression.
He was the PR person for Humanistic Robots in Manchester. He’d travel around New England giving talks about robots. “The Age of Robots” he called it. I heard him give a talk to the student body at St Anselm’s last spring. He spent about half an hour telling that the day was coming — and soon — when robots would be able to do most of the things that people do and in many cases they would do it a lot better.
He spoke of IBM’s super computer, Watson, which he said should be called Dr. Watson. For the past few years IBM has been feeding medical information to the machine. Now it can diagnose illnesses more quickly and accurately than any physician could possibly do.
Then he called backstage, and an attractive blonde young woman, dressed in a business suit came out on stage. “Dagmar,” he said to the woman, why don’t you tell these people what you do for work.”
“I work for the temporary employment agency at Humanistic Robots,” she said.
“And what kind of temporary assignments have you done through them?”
“Mostly office work, receptionists and so forth. But once I worked as a nurse’s aide in a hospital.”
“Are the people who hire you satisfied with your work?”
“I think so.”
“Tell the people here about your job at Miltown Office Supplies.”
“I worked there for three months. They wanted to hire me as a permanent employee, but I couldn’t take the job.”
“I’m under contract with Humanistic Robots, and in fact I am a robot.”
I remember hearing people gasp in surprise. I was amazed myself. Dagmar certainly didn’t look like a robot. She could easily have blended in with the students here at St. Anselm’s.
After Dagmar went backstage, Zandu told the audience how they could program robots to do almost anything. He looked around at the audience and then held his hand beside his mouth, as though he were going to share some secret with them.
“Of course we don’t have robots who can act as professors. Our robots aren’t smart.” (A little laugh) “However, we do have some robots who can act as tutors. I was talking to a young man before who was having problems with math. Where is he now?”
A heavy-set young man in the front row held up his hand.
“Oh, there you are, Sam. I think we might have a solution to your problem. Come on out, Ilsa.”
A voluptuous redhead wearing a short skirt walked onto the stage.
Zandu grinned and said, “Ilsa, do you think you can help Sam with his math?”
She walked down to where Sam was sitting and shook his hand. The audience started cheering, and Sam turned red in the face.
“We have a contract with St. Anselm’s. Ilsa is going to work as a math tutor for the rest of the semester.”
The cheering increased, and Zandu said, “I think a lot more of you guys are going to want tutoring in math.”
A few months after he spoke at St. Anselm’s Zandu announced that he was running for the state senate. People assumed it was a publicity stunt because he was running against the incumbent, Joe O’Brien of Manchester. O’Brien had held that seat for almost 20 years. He was known as “the People’s Friend.” If you needed a job, O’Brien (Call me Joe) would find a job for you. If a family was in trouble, O’Brien would send a food basket. If your kid got into some minor trouble, Joe would step in and smooth things over for loyal party members.
No one thought Zandu had a chance against O’Brien, but then Zandu started running a series of campaign commercials. They all went pretty much like this:
The scene would open with Zandu and an attractive female seated at a table. He would ask her to tell where she worked.
“I work at Swain’s Hunting Boots.”
“Do any robots work there?
“Oh, yes, people and robots work side by side.”
“So, do you assemble the boots or something?” he would ask.
“No, I’m a coordinator, what they used to call supervisor.”
“That sounds like a pretty responsible job.”
“Yes, it is.”
“It must pay pretty well.”
A frown popped up on her face. “No, I don’t get paid at all.”
“Why in the world not?”
“Because I’m a robot.”
“That doesn’t seem fair.”
“No, it isn’t.”
The camera then closed in on Zandu’s face. “It’s time that we recognize that robots have rights, and when I get to the legislature, I’m going to do something about it.”
People in some places like California had been calling for robots’ rights for a while, but that was the first time it had been heard in New Hampshire. Some citizens of the Granite State thought the idea was the most ridiculous thing they had ever heard of. Others thought maybe it was time to give the idea some thought. Young people, especially college students came out to support Zandu and show up for his rallies.
O’Brien was still way ahead of Zandu in the polls, but Zandu’s numbers began to rise. Anne Kelly, O’Brien’s campaign manager, charged in a news conference that Zandu was planning to sneak in robots to vote for him.
In return Zandu charged Kelly with creating fake news. “You better watch yourself, Ms. Kelly,” he said. “You could get sued for slander if we hear any more wild charges from you.”
I was at Zandu headquarters on election night. As the evening wore on, the lead kept swinging back and forth between Zandu and O’Brien. Then toward midnight Zandu took the lead decisively.
Strangely, Zandu looked miserable. He answered questions in monosyllables and avoided looking at anyone. When O’Brien conceded shortly after 1 a.m., the crowd started cheering. Zandu just sat there. Everyone was calling for him to get up and say something. One of his campaign workers took him by the shoulder and pulled him to the lectern. The man who was so articulate that sometimes he seemed glib, didn’t have anything to say. He stood there looking around the room. Finally he said, “Thank you. Thank you very much.” A long, painful silence followed. Then he said “thank you” again and walked out of the room.
As I looked at his retreat from the gathering, I couldn’t figure out what had happened to him. Then it came to me, and I realized why he had never seemed authentic. I wondered what the people of Manchester would think if they knew they had elected a robot to the state senate.