Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Automated Nursing Home.

I worked much of my life as a Registered Nurse, mostly in Nursing Homes, quite experienced at Palliative Care, helping those who were dying to die in comfort and dignity, without pain. I was very good at my job, knowing exactly what to do for each individual, according to their needs and disposition. Nobody lay ill or died without my caring attendance, and my clients assured me they greatly appreciated my wise, humane touch.

Nurses were supposed to remain detached, not get emotional, as it would be too great a strain on the nerves when the client grew more ill and eventually died. To me it was a great honor to attend to the last great stage in human life. And I cared very much, gave of my best and did indeed get attached to many of the residents. Some of them were sweet, smart, even cute in their dotage and it was a pleasure for me to attend them, feed, wash and change their bed-sheets, rolling them over gently, talking kind assurances into their feeble ears.

Having worked in the one Nursing Home for 7 years I was quite attached to the environment also, knowing the routines and every square inch of it backwards. I had been promoted to Nursing Unit Manager, only one person above me, the Director of Nursing, who I didn’t get on with particularly well. He was overly officious, always worried about cutting costs in the name of efficiency, which in reality meant maximizing profits for the owners of the establishment. He was somewhat cold and aloof, rarely venturing out into the wards to get his hands dirty or speak a consoling word to the dying, always holed up in his office going over the accounts obsessively.

The 21st Century broke upon us like a tsunami, sweeping humanity before it, and money-saving technology was the new god who had to be obeyed. Suddenly introduced were not only computers with algorithms that could run every function of the Nursing Home from a centralized command center but also robots that could do all the duties that nurses previously did, from feeding, changing, bathing, lifting, medicating, exercising and entertaining. Most of these functions were performed by a new-fangled contraption built into the beds, with robotic arms, pelican-belt lifters, massaging cushions and read-outs that gave temperature, pulse, blood pressure, blood-oxygen levels, blood-sugar levels and delivering medications, all from tubes and wires that snaked out and attached themselves automatically.

The floors were washed and polished, the sheets laundered, the food prepared, trundled and spoon fed to the patients each according to their special requirements, all by robots, There was even an entertainment-bot shaped like a metallic clown moving in and out of the beds with a TV for a head, flicking through countless soaps, never settling on anything, and singing “Daisy daisy how does your garden grow...” in a flat monotone voice, all the while attempting a stilted tap-dance that was beyond ridiculous, actually creepy.

There was no need for any more nursing staff, except for one Director running the whole show with the computers in the control center. After six months each robot would pay for itself as there was no need for wages, overtime, sick leave, holiday pay, never sleeping or taking a tea-break, only needing occasional maintenance, (included in the package was a maintenance robot kept in a closet that could deal with any break-down.)  

And no need for me it seems.  I was offered a redundancy package but was terribly distraught at the thought of leaving a place where I had been a perfect fit, and abandoning the residents I’d grown so fond of disturbed me greatly.

There was only one other job for a human available in the joint and that was as a glorified kitchen-hand, getting the foodstuffs from the trucks and depositing them into their various bins and machines for the robots to prepare into specialized dietary needs. I decided to apply for it and stay a bit longer to make sure that all went well with the automation and the clients got their needs catered to, especially that they would be treated well under machines, for I was a bit skeptical, thinking nursing was one of the last jobs left that still needed the human touch.

As the weeks drifted by I kept a keen eye on the functioning of the Nursing Home, the robots seemed to be handling things reasonably well though the patients looked miserable surrounded by machines poking and prying at them, tubes sprouting from their every orifice till they all looked like crazed daddy-long-leg spiders. When I knew one was dying I still sneaked in and sat with them, holding their hand, whispering soothing words but the DON would spy me through the surveillance cameras and order me back to the kitchen. After a poor soul died a doctor-robot made sure death was final, issuing a death certificate from a slot in its crotch. There was even a religioun-bot that would trundle out from a chapel like closet with seven alternate choices selected by the DON from medical records, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian and atheist. It would wave the appropriate paraphernalia over the body and mumble liturgical prayers, a video screen depicting the regalia of the specific priest. Then it would carry the corpse to a make-shift morgue and ship it down a chute to a waiting hearse, all done with no fuss and total functionality. (If they had family they would find their loved one at an Undertakers, all laid-out by robots of course.)

Sometimes I would hover outside the command center with my ears pricked and I often heard the DON raving to himself about profit margins, everything costing too much, the robotic functions being too slow and the residents taking too long to die, and if only the turn-over could be greater more money could be made. Stuck in the kitchen I couldn’t actually see what was going on in the residents’ rooms, the slow devolution of the mechanisms, the gradual altering of the gauges, the increases in speeds and volumes, all at the tap of a keyboard here, the twist of a knob there, the manic pressing of buttons all over the control-board.

Under the demand for greater and greater profits the DON went mad, and his cruelty and stupidity took over. While I was running about the kitchen trying to control the robots which had begun throwing the foodstuffs willy-nilly into their specific slots, unknown to me, the mechanized beds’ actions had been sped up.

I watched as the kitchen bots ran amok with the dinner preparations, vegetables were chopped with maniac speed into thousands of tiny pieces until they were mush; flour was flung all over till it resembled a snow-storm; powdered milk, mock cream, lumps of Spam and cans of baked beans were squashed onto every surface till the kitchen was a muddy quagmire. Above the squelching of the food and the whir and shriek of the machines I could hear the screaming and cries for help from the nursing home and, risking all I decided to investigate. To make it out of the kitchen I had to duck the robotic arms reaching out for me, scalpel-sharp knives for fingers trying to cut me open as if I were the Sunday roast.

I made it to the door, dripping dinnertime muck, and out into the corridor. Floor-polishing beetles charged at me threatening to amputate my toes but I managed to kick each one like a football to smash it into pieces against the wall. I ran to every room and stood aghast at the doorways as there seemed no hope of rescue. The residents were being torn to shreds or were splattered into offal upon the furniture, most dead, the rest on their way to oblivion amid much groaning and whimpering

The robots had gone haywire, spoon feeding the poor residents at an alarming, fast rate, shoving great gobs of muck into their already overstuffed gullets till they were choking, the slops running down their chests and flying about the room. The arms delivering medication had gone crazy, jabbing the geriatric flesh with huge needles over and over, overdosing them on morphine and insulin, anti-psychotics and anti-depressants, tearing skin, puncturing muscles, bloating organs till the poor sods looked like drowned corpses. The massaging mechanisms in the mattresses had gone berserk, tossing and bucking the helpless patients like rodeo horses; the pelican-belts were lifting them up and whizzing them giddily around, entangling them and stringing them up as if they were criminals hung upon a gallows.

Those being bathed were wheeled under piping-hot water and scalded till their skin hung off in shreds, their shrieks deafening and ghastly to hear. The robots’ arms that dealt with rolling patients over and wiping their shitty butts tossed them to and fro, ripping buttocks apart and inserting steel instruments far into their rectums till the poor old dears screamed with agony as steel claws popped from their yowling jaws. The religious bot had smashed down the door of its closet, rushed out and was banging the invalids upon their already bruised flesh with censors, crucifixes, staffs and holy books then scorching them with mini flame-throwers.

And the fabulous entertainment robots, built to simulate metal clowns, had their favorite soap heroes blown up big on the TV screen as if it were the clown's own grinning visage while each one tap tap tap danced erratically, bearing down upon a hapless resident. As a horrid song of yesteryear wailed repetitively to burst ear-drums, the clowns gave electric blasts to the oldies brows with electrodes they'd ripped out of their innards and now used for mock shock therapy. “Co co come to me me me me my mel mel mel mel melancholy baaabbbyyyyyyyyyy!!!” “Squawk, shtizzzzzzzzzzz, shloop buzzzzz!”

When I tried to enter a room the machines turned their attention upon me, considering me an absconding patient. I turned and ran, the wheeled machines trundling after me, robotic arms snapping and slicing the air in front of them. I ran towards the central control room where I hoped to somehow get my hands on the computers and stop the mayhem. When I got there the wild-eyed Don stood in my way, chattering, “It’s the kindest thing we can do for the miserable old and disabled, the poor dears, to put them out of their misery. And it’ll speed the dying process up, beds will now be available for more paying guests and greater profits can be made. Think about ittttt!”

I punched him hard in the mouth and shoved him aside, staggered into the control booth and hammered blindly at the various key-boards, not having much of a clue where the central off-switch was. As I floundered about, ripping out wires and pulling out plugs I could hear the machines getting closer and the DON babbling louder with psychotic nonsense. He’d possibly been sampling the Home’s pain-killers for he seemed insensible to the horrific reality tearing his work-place to bits around him.

Just as I spotted a computer with an icon for radio control glowing at the bottom of the screen I heard a piercing shriek issue from the deformed mouth of the DON and turned to witness the nightmare at the room’s entrance. A squad of out-of-control robots had grabbed a hold of the DON, and while he was still shouting justification for his cruel efficiency drive, they started slicing him open, disemboweling him. I watched in horror as he gurgled and vomited blood, then with a robot tugging on each of his limbs his arms and legs were torn from his much abused torso, finally his head was ripped off by giant steel pincers and sent bouncing towards me across the floor.

Then the machine skulls revolved and the robotic eyes pulsed with my image as their focal point. As a single united mechanism they wheeled towards me. I directed the screen’s cursor to the radio icon and clicked upon it. A window popped up with many names of the contraptions in a list, the words “stop” and “start” next to slide-bars which had all been pushed to maximum speed. As robotic pincers, whirring hedge-trimmers and scalpel slicers reached out to me, with my hands shaking, I raced down the list, turning off each apparatus one by one, but not finding the specific devices that were about to chop me into hamburger meat.

Sweat flew from my brow, but I kept my cool and continued to turn off machines, and first one of my attackers and then another stopped dead in its tracks until there was one last machine that continued its threat, scalpel fingers slicing the thin air in front of my face. Ducking and weaving my head about I continued clicking the “off” icons and finally that last Terminator-like terror froze with a last snap of its razor-sharp fingers.

Covered in blood, I fell back against the DON’s desk with a sigh of relief, the battle and massacre were over, for now. I rang for the police, ambulances and television reporters. From then on I had another full-time job, to lobby and protest against the advent of the machines taking over too much of the human workforce. While this catastrophe was man-made, considering the over-zealous, profit oriented and efficiency-driven mania of the DON, when Artificial Intelligence eventually operated the central control room it might not be so easy to turn the automatons off.

The other battle to be fought would be the establishing of a Universal Income, i.e. a living wage for everybody in the world as robots take over more and more jobs leaving very little for us humans to earn a living by. While it would be wonderful to not have to do all that dirty or boring labor that most employment in this exploitative world entails, it would need a Socialist revolution to share the bounty of mass robotic production equally among humanity, not allowing the elite owners of the factories to keep it all. Thus High Capitalism will have to be done away with and a true Socialist Democracy put in it's place. To achieve equal distribution of wealth is almost impossible, then there's the problem with democracy: how to avoid "rule of the mob", especially considering the human condition with its propensity to fall for greed, power, celebrity, cruelty, stupidity and brainwash.

All our new free time will not only have to be used indulging in our hobbies of art, music, sports and community but making sure the revolution happens and is sustained, and homo sap sap sapiens evolves to a new paradigm of fairness and love. If only...

Actually, all those machines, robots and artificial intelligent algorithms  belong to everybody equally, they were invented by people for people, the accruing wealth not sequestered by the rich few for their benefit alone.With robots doing most jobs those who wanted to do other things than work, work, work could do so. Robots should be a boon. What a terrible shame that the first and biggest use for them will be as war machines, killing callously.

The makers of robots should follow Isaac Asimov's rules, program fixedly so that they can do no harm to humans and always help a human when they are in trouble. But that brings us back to struggling for a social revolution and a more equal, humane, caring, rational, just society. Sigh...

If you enjoyed this story please go to the WEB address above and consider buying my book of tales about growing up anarcho-queer, rock and roll punter and mystic adventurer in Australia and India of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.