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••• The International Writers Magazine:Lifestyles

Beware Of The Toasters, Because I’m Sure They’re Going To Get You, Yeah!
• Joe Swain
The first time I took a hammer to a machine, it was one of those big Xerox photocopiers with an A3-sized glass slab under its hood and an attitude to suit.

Toaster dog

It was my first office job, in the early days of the technological revolution, and the fat guy with the purple face wanted me to copy something, and fast. It was a tall order, involving unbinding, fanning out the dog-eared pages, splitting into manageable portions, multiple copying and then binding.

I knew it would require the perfect application of all my newly acquired Office Troll skills, and I might just have made it if it hadn't been for that damn machine.

It started okay. Seven copies of the first two portions lay neatly in collecting trays, the sun streaming through the tiny, high-level window and my plastic cup of coffee doing its stuff on my hangover.

But then the friendly fire started. Every Tom, Dick and Sharon wandered in, doing the old, “mind if I nip in with a quick one-pager” routine. I should have just growled like a guard dog and stood my ground, but I was young. I wanted to be the most popular photocopier the office had ever seen, and I particularly wanted the man with the purple face to like me because he was the one paying for my hangovers.

With my deadline looming, I could only pray that the machine would sense the urgency of my predicament, roll up its sleeves and help. So I frantically stuffed larger and larger piles into its feeder.

“Don’t let me down now machine,” I muttered, all the time imagining myself as a young Gordon Gekko manfully shoveling the coal of hope into the steam engine of unfulfilled dreams.

But then of course fate raised its ugly head, ushered in stage left by Sod’s Law, and the machine suddenly ground to a halt.

More like a trainee vet than an office junior, I lay on the floor with my arms buried deep in its innards desperately twiddling dials and flapping levers in a last-gasp attempt to induce delivery.

But the machine simply sniggered to itself and bombarded me with messages ranging from 'paper jam' and ‘sorter misfeed’, to 'call tech support you half-wit'.

The purple-faced man buzzed around me as a cordon of tutting staff formed at the door, edging me closer and closer to a calamitous meltdown. Colleagues peppered me with useful questions. "Do you at least know where the original is?" and "I suppose you realise I'm going to be late for my meeting now?"

Buzz, buzz, buzz!

Someone edged in just a fraction too close and the precariously balanced piles of copying fell to the floor.

Buzz, buzz, buzz.

The machine emitted a deathly metallic scraping noise and then belched a final plume of grey smoke.

“Oh no, look what you’ve done now,” moaned one of the tutters at the door.

It was the final straw. I snapped.

I rose from my hands and knees, dusted down the remains of my self-respect, and with as much calm as I could muster went to fetch a hammer. The drop jaw look on faces as I systematically smashed and pummeled the photocopier into a mangled wreck of twisted polycarbons was somewhere between shock and fear, and the purple-faced man, far from blowing a fuse and sacking me on the spot, proclaimed admiration for my forthright sense of self-expression, gave me the nickname 'Mad Dog' and then stood back in awe as I went on to become one of the most ruthless and admired business tycoons of my generation.

I wish. In truth I never made it up off my knees. My colleagues tutted themselves into a frenzy of self-flagellation and the purple-faced man had to go to his meeting armed with just a few well-shuffled sections of his report.

It did however teach me a very important lesson about machines. That once you get past their glossy sheen of usefulness, they are essentially evil. And that one day, if we’re not careful, they’re going to gang up on us and take over the world.

And it would seem, if the findings of an eminent authority on the subject, Louis Del Monte, physicist, entrepreneur, and author of "The Artificial Intelligence Revolution" are anything to go by, that the day of reckoning (or ‘singularity’ as he prefers to call it) might soon be upon us.

"Today there's no legislation regarding how much intelligence a machine can have, how interconnected it can be,” he recently told Business Insider magazine. “If that continues, look at the exponential trend. We will reach singularity by 2045 and from that point on the top species will no longer be humans, but machines."

Del Monte doesn’t think the takeover will come in the shape of a ‘Terminator’ style war, so much as a marriage which eventually goes wrong. That humans will willingly allow themselves to be turned into cyborgs [part human, part tech or machine] – a trend we are already seeing with faulty limbs being replaced with artificial parts, and computer controlled pacemakers - and that by the end of this century, most of the human race will have become cyborgs. The allure being immortality.

But eventually of course the machines will view us as an unpredictable and dangerous species. A species that creates wars, has enough weapons to wipe out the world twice over and which makes computer viruses. Hardly an ideal spouse.

Indeed a 2013 experiment at the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems in the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale of Lausanne, Switzerland designed and built some robots with the specific purpose of cooperating with each other in finding beneficial resources like energy, while avoiding hazardous ones. Shockingly, the robots learned to lie to each other in an attempt to hoard the beneficial resources for themselves.

"The implication is that they're also learning self-preservation," Del Monte concludes, "Whether or not they're conscious is a moot point."

As worrying as this might sound, if my own conclusions from the photocopier incident are correct, we’ll be perfectly safe, unless the machines start ‘ganging up on us’.

Uh oh, that reminds me. Have you heard of something called the ‘internet of things’? The toasters are apparently talking to the washing machines, the life support units are chatting to the electricity meters, and the traffic lights are colluding with the driverless cars.

All of which equates I think to ‘ganging up’.

Which means there is only one course of action remaining. I must devote the rest of my life to inventing a time machine and then take a leaf from Arnie’s book and travel back in time to that fateful day in the photocopying room. Only this time I must not shirk from my task, but find that hammer and do the job properly, exactly as I once imagined.

That act alone will galvanise the human race to rise up and reject the inevitability of mechanical servitude. Which means of course that this computer I am using now will never exist. So, if you never get to see this article, you can rest easy in the knowledge that I was successful, that my actions inspired a powerful human backlash and that the takeover by machines was averted.

If however, you’re reading it now…

Buzz, buzz, buzz.

© Joe Swain April 6th 2016

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