The inaugural lecture of Susan Schilling, Professor of Cybernetic History at University College London, delivered on the 14th of February 2210.
We can summarise twenty-first century man in just four words: he threw things away.
He threw away plastic bags, and drink cans, and bottles. He threw away food. He threw away money. And – worst of all - he threw away machines. Not for him the make-do-and-mend of his fathers and grandfathers: no, the smallest, most fixable flaw would be reason enough for him to junk the whole thing. His mobile phone, his laptop, his car: all would face summary execution the minute they were less than a hundred percent perfect. Often the machine didn’t even need to be broken. It just needed to be old, and by old I mean months old, sometimes less. Everything had to be the latest.
It couldn’t last forever. Very soon, the time was ripe for the coming of the Love Machines.
Of course, some electronic devices were held in very high esteem before the invention of the Love Machines. My PhD was on the subject of these proto-Love Machines, which were adored and prized by their owners: they had names like ‘BlackBerry’, ‘iPhone’, and ‘Rampant Rabbit’. Nevertheless, even these treasured items would eventually be traded in for more up-to-date models.
It’s obvious to us now that the planet couldn’t sustain this level of consumption; I think it was obvious to them then. Still, they kept at it, throwing things away until there was almost nothing left.
It was therefore in a state of emergency that the greatest scientists, engineers and software designers met at the Reykjavik Conference to decide the way forward. Nobody is sure exactly who came up with the idea, but it was so ingenious, so beautiful in its simplicity, that it caught on straight away.
People needed to fall in love with their machines, and their machines needed to love them back.
It was something of a technical challenge, but not an insurmountable one. After all, machines had been built that could fight and kill; surely it wasn’t such a massive leap to design machines that could love?
Still, think about how novel it must have seemed to the average person. For example, instead of buying a mobile phone based on its price, or its size, or its technical features, you would simply walk into the shop and look at a display cabinet of winking, cooing handsets until one caught your eye. You would approach it, perhaps offer a few compliments, see if it was interested. It may well reject your advances; it may be holding out for Mister or Ms Right; or it may already be promised to another.
But maybe, just maybe, you would find The One. It would vibrate with pleasure as you picked it up; its display would light up in an explosion of hearts and flowers, and it would emit a ringtone like harps and heavenly angels singing. You would never be parted. If it broke, you would fix it. If it got lost, you would roam the streets calling its name until you were reunited.
Most importantly, you would never want to buy another mobile phone, ever again.
The first Love Machines proved astonishingly popular and successful, and within six months all electronic devices came fitted with the capacity to love and be loved as standard.
There were, needless to say, some unforeseen complications. There will always be individuals who enjoy toying with the affections of others, and it turned out that certain Love Machines were similarly inclined. Some people, for example, were heartbroken to discover themselves the owners of promiscuous cars, which would be secretly entertaining a variety of owners, concealing their infidelity with careful timetabling and a scrupulous valet service.
It also didn’t occur to anyone in those early days that if machines could fall in love with humans, they could easily fall in love with each other. Some found their kitchens became places of simmering sexual tension, the kettle, toaster and oven constantly exchanging meaningful glances and flirtatious remarks.
Overall, however, the benefits far outweighed the disadvantages. The Love Machines made everyone more open-minded. Once people knew that they could love and be loved by machines, all of the previous barriers of sexual prejudice fell away. If you lived in a comfortable ménage with your various items of electronic equipment, how could you say it was ‘wrong’ or ‘unnatural’ for man to love man, or woman woman? Or, for that matter, both? Or, indeed, both at the same time?
Another unexpected but welcome side effect was the end to all war. Inevitably, Love Machine technology found its way by accident into military computers. Spy satellites began to fall in love with each other and started sharing secrets. Missiles fired at installations they loved would detonate themselves in mid-air rather than destroy their targets.
Pretty soon, war became impracticable. And, apart from a few people who still hit each other with sticks from time to time, that is how it remains to this day.
Love Machine technology became, like most successful technologies, invisible and taken for granted. So when CATIE was built, it was natural that she should, amongst other things, be a Love Machine.
CATIE, our Computer-Aided Technology Interface with Extraterrestrials, has been around for just over a hundred years, sitting at the top of the building once known as the Post Office Tower in London, beaming radio signals to distant planets and listening in to the stars in the hope of discovering intelligent life. And here we come to the point of my lecture.
It was, you will remember, a couple of weeks ago that CATIE began to act strangely. She stopped writing reports on her latest findings, and did not respond to attempts to communicate with her. From time to time, her tower would glow brightly in a blaze of red and white lights; she would tremble, and emit a high, trilling note of pleasure.
There is, I think, only one explanation for this behaviour. Think about it: the only reason humans have survived this long is because of the Love Machines. So if another species many light years away has lasted long enough to communicate with us, it is highly likely that it, too, has invented Love Machines.
I see that some of you understand what I’m getting at. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I believe that CATIE has made contact with an extra-terrestrial computer very similar to herself. And she is in love.
The vital question of course is this: if CATIE is in love, is the feeling mutual? I am afraid that we will not find out the answer, not in our lifetimes. CATIE is a self-maintaining machine. She can survive for hundreds of years, perhaps thousands. She has all the time she needs for the lengthy business of beaming radio signals back and forth across the vast distances of space.
We live for a century and half at the most, so we can only witness the beginning of her affair. Who knows? Perhaps by the time it blossoms, humans will be long gone, and Love Machines like CATIE will be the sole intelligent beings on the planet.
Twenty-first century man frequently asked: ‘What will survive of us?’ Will it be television broadcasts, leaking out of the atmosphere and on to an endless journey across the cosmos? Will it be landfill rubbish dumps, filled with things we didn’t want to buy in the first place? Or perhaps it will be nothing: nothing but a cloud of radioactive dust.
We now know the answer to this question. Twenty-first century man himself knew it, but he paid no attention, possibly because it was a poet who said it: What will survive of us is love.
The love machines by Niall Boyce was read by Sarah Feathers at the Liars' League Love & Marriage event at The Phoenix, Cavendish Sq., London on Tuesday 9 February 2010
Niall Boyce lives and works in London. His work has appeared in magazines, online, and on placemats. His stories are gathered at http://strange-powers.blogspot.com.
Sarah Feathers trained at East 15. Theatre work includes Country Magic (The Steam Industry at the Finborough Theatre), All You Ever Needed (Hampstead Theatre), A Hard Day’s Month (Rose Theatre, Kingston), 26 (BAC), Moll Flanders (Southwark Playhouse) and The Winter’s Tale (The Steam Industry at the Courtyard Theatre). Film includes Coulda Woulda Shoulda, Feeling Lucky and More Than Words. Television includes The Real King Herod.