A history of humanity’s extinction.
Everyone thought it would be the sexbots. That’s where the commentariat concentrated their fire. But sex turned out to be a side show. The robot revolution began with the ebabies.
Infant simulators had been around for some time. These robotic dolls took their inspiration from Anne Fine’s flour-baby books. They were handed out to teenagers to help prepare them, or indeed dissuade them, from parenthood.
But nobody saw the next step. Nobody saw the future.
As the infant simulators became increasingly popular, manufacturers competed to produce ever more realistic models. Borrowing from the sexbot industry, they perfected the texture of the skin, the suppleness of the flesh, the movement of the eyes and the cheekiness of the smiles.
Then a private equity firm bought up the MyBaby brand. They invested heavily in product development and the company soon became market leader. When the famous JustLikeMe range began shipping, it was a game-changer. Not only were these infant simulators the most realistic yet, with their liquid reservoir for dribbling and their throat-mounted speakers for lifelike crying, they also offered customers the option of tailoring the babies’ faces. Teenagers were encouraged to upload photos of themselves and then the company used algorithms to predict the facial characteristics of their offspring. Customized heads were sculpted on the factory floor, attached to bodies, and shipped out to customers within hours. Thousands of teenagers were now to be seen, happily cradling miniature look-a-likes of themselves.
Young people are inattentive and often abandon their charges. That, after all, is the whole point of the flour-babies: to show the young just how much work a baby can be. Infant simulators demand attention, just like the real thing. And so the teenagers learned an important lesson: faced with a crying baby, Mum will step in.
That’s how it began; that’s how the jump was made from flour baby to baby substitute. Mums and Dads – but mostly Mums – found themselves babysitting their robot grandchildren. And it wasn’t hard. These dolls reminded them of their own sons and daughters. It was like being transported back fifteen years. It was uncanny. It was unnerving. It was fun. This reaction was common but it wasn’t talked about much. People were a little embarrassed. How was it possible to hold a robot doll and feel protective of it, to feel attached, even to feel love?
Meanwhile, a few broke cover to talk about their sexbots. Men and women posted enthusiastically about their robotic partners, comparing their attributes to real lovers. Some influencers even campaigned to change the law to allow marriage. But this was all tongue-in-cheek, designed to provoke debate. Artificial Intelligence might allow you to talk dirty with your plastic boyfriend but you’d never mistake him for a real person.
But could that ever be said of robotic babies?
Without admitting to any emotional bonds, people started talking about how realistic the simulators had become, and it wasn’t long until a new Turing Test was proposed: instead of distinguishing human intelligence from artificial intelligence using nothing but typed questions and answers, how about asking people to distinguish a real baby from a simulator, based on nothing more than a five-minute cuddle? Surely that would be easy? Well, it was, at first. But the commercial pressure to beat the new Turing Test was forcing manufacturers to up their game. Simulators were now warm to touch and their flesh reddened when pressed. They had a wide variety of cries. They could suckle, storing the milk in a reservoir. They breathed in and out and they hiccoughed and burped. If you filled them up with the right stuff, the smell and consistency of what came out of their rear ends was indistinguishable from the real thing. Most importantly, they could scan the faces of those near them and respond to emotional cues. With their little arm movements and involuntary leg jerks, their giggles and their puzzled expressions, they started to fool people.
The next development was all about the marketing. First came the rechristening: simulators were rebranded as ‘ebabies’. The name was, of course, a light-hearted dig at the giant online retailer, but it also served to reposition the simulators in people’s minds. It was less clinical; more lovable. Then some discreet ads were sent to childless couples who were trying to conceive, suggesting that they adopt an ebaby to ‘bridge the gap’. This was crucial. No longer were the dolls being sold ‘for practice’; this was now about substitution. True, manufacturers never claimed that an ebaby was exactly the same as the real thing - that would have been counterproductive - but they did claim that having one would be a valuable, positive experience. A baby to hold, a baby to nurture, a baby to believe in.
And sales started to rise. Slowly at first, but then something unexpected happened: people lost their embarrassment. Psychologists had predicted that people would keep their ebabies secret – or, at least, private. Much like sexbots. But suddenly, people were parading their ebabies about town, showing them off to friends, passing them around. Conversations that started out with, “how does it work?” and, “what’s it made of?” swiftly became, “does she like her rattle?” and, “how well does he sleep?”
There was still some awkwardness surrounding this last question. Owners reluctantly admitted to altering their baby’s settings: sleep time=9 hours, pacification level=easy, defecation frequency=never, urination frequency=only during bath time. Parents of organic babies joked about how wonderful that must be, and then later, in private, they professed horror at the idea of a sanitised, house-trained baby. Secretly, though, they thought the idea was, indeed, wonderful. Maybe it was not as God intended – but hey!
And that was the final step: people openly saying that they liked having the good bits without the messy bits. All the pieces of the jigsaw were now in place. Owning a robot baby became a thing. It wasn’t just the childless who wanted one, it was everyone. Carrying a baby around became the norm. People happily discussed each other’s progeny, remarking on Olivia’s cute nose and the gurgling noise that Noah made when tickled.
Of course, people went on having biological children for a while. But the numbers dwindled. Within ten years, the industrialized world reported that organic babies were now in the minority. And where the industrial world leads, the unindustrialized world must surely follow.
Demographers were caught unawares. For some years they had been pointing out that populations in many countries were in decline, and that this was a global trend. But they had thought the process would be gradual; the decline would be manageable; governments would have time to adapt. Now, it was all happening much faster than they’d predicted. Why was that? Why were people choosing not to have organic babies? Back in the 20th century, contraception had broken the link between sex and procreation, but that hadn’t stopped people wanting families. The desire for a child was still there. A primal emotion, quite separate from the desire for sex. So, what was going on? What was different now?
The answer was that demographers and sociologists alike had misunderstood the true nature of that primal desire. It wasn’t children that people wanted. Not really. Couples weren’t looking ahead to the geography homework and the slammed doors. They weren’t picturing their child getting cancer in middle age, or struggling with depression. No. They simply wanted a baby. It was the thought of a cuddle that did it: a connection with someone who needs you. That’s what people wanted, and that’s what the ebabies provided. No need for the real thing. No births, no teenagers, no future generations.
The most pressing problem was the old. Without the young, who would staff the care homes? Some governments reacted by banning the sale of ebabies, but that was too authoritarian for most, and anyway, it came too late. Instead, the underlying cause would prove to be the solution. Robot technology was coming along apace and robotic care assistants were soon helping their human counterparts. And the residents liked them. Old age is undignified, and if you can no longer go to the toilet on your own, you don’t want a real person wiping your bottom; you want a nice, non-judgemental, ecarer.
Then came reliable, bipedal movement. First, it was the etoddlers. Then the refuse collectors. Then the shop assistants. Robots were on the move, figuratively and literally. The genie was well and truly out of the bottle.
The rapid and fundamental societal change that followed has been well documented elsewhere. Historians argue about whether humans actually went extinct or whether they evolved into us, with our semi-organic brains and our human shaped plastic heads. But whatever the answer, the change began only a few decades ago. Humanity’s fate was sealed in that one moment, when the engineers gathered round the workbench and excitedly switched on the prototype: the very first JustLikeMe.
© Christopher Wortley
Winning Story: Contest #16
The following stories are the Outright Winning Entries for the Monthly Short Story Contest
March 2020 onwards