Something strange is going on in our little corner shops. PETER MORTIMER investigates
“GOÔD MORNING, HASSAN,” I said as I placed on the counter my regular mini four pack of curried yoghurt. They were in plastic pots on a plastic tray sealed in a plastic cover.
‘Would you like those in a plastic bag?’ he asked.
“Good heavens, no!” I answered. “Think of the environment.”
I didn’t know exactly what it was, but there was something not quite right about Hassan. He looked normal, the shop looked normal and yet. . .
“Something wrong?” he asked, noting my curious stare.
“Well, I’m not sure” I replied. Then I knew. “Hassan,” I said. “Why are you talking with a German accent?”
“Ah” said Hassan. “Apologies”. He fiddled with some small control panel that was at the corner of the counter and said, “How is that?”
His voice had returned to his normal native accent. “Wrongly programmed today, sorry.”
“You mean” I continued, “I am not really talking to a flesh and blood Hassan at all? You mean you are a replica, a robot?”
‘I feel silly now” he replied, coyly. “Anyway, We don’t really like to use the word ‘robot’. It sounds a little sinister. ‘Artificial Intelligence’ is a more consumer-friendly phrase.”
‘What’s all this about?” I asked.
“I am a prototype,” he replied, “and this shop has been chosen for a trial run.”
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“I am Series 4AZ2, designed to take over everyday human tasks thereby freeing up the human race to pursue more challenging activities,” he answered.
“So where is the real Hassan now?” I asked.
“He is in the back, watching Cash Min the Attic” he/it replied.
“Hmm…” I muttered. “You don’t sound like those robots in sci-fi films with their metallic, monotone voices. It’s quite spooky.”
“The Series 4AZ2 has been designed as the most perfect model ever manufactured” said Hassan. “It is capable of every single activity performed by a human.”
“But not necessarily using the right accent?” I teased.
“The malfunction was in the human programme setting,” replied the automaton, crossly. “It is impossible for a 4AZ2 to malfunction via an error of its own making.”
“Very impressive,” I said. “Do you have any tins of cling peaches?”
“Of course” said the machine and turned to the shelves behind. It chose and placed on the counter a single item.
“Hassan!” I protested, “This is a tin of WoofWoof dog food.”
“Of course” he/it repeated. “My apologies.’ And reaching down, produced from beneath the counter one more item.
“Hassan,” I sighed. “Why are you giving me a tin of corned beef with an attached key opener that is, in fact, impossible to operate?”
“Ah,” said Hassan “Apologies once more.”
The Series 4AZ2 went into the back of the shop and returned with a third item.
”There you go, cobber”, it said. “Alrighty?”
“Hassan,” I continued “Why do you think I might need a pack of sanitary towels at this precise moment. And what on earth was wrong with the real Hassan in the first place? And why are you suddenly now talking with an Australian accent?”
A strange, electrical crackling sound emanated from the machine. A small spark flew from its head. I realised that in all the advanced sophisticated technology that had gone into its manufacture, it had never been programmed to answer three questions at once. Something in its circuitry was clearly amiss.
The next second it toppled over, bringing down with it the neatly arranged display of spaghetti hoops on special offer. It lay inert on the floor of the shop.
I selected my own tin of cling peaches from the shelves, placed some money on the counter and walked out, carefully stepping over the by-now-totally-inert high-tech automaton.
“Keep the change, Mr 4AZ2, or whatever your name is,” I said.
Answer came there none.