A Mysterious Mentor
By Kelly McDonald
"The First Law of Robotics: A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."
As his father’s truck pulled away from the curb, Mark felt a tug of remorse, a tear welling up in the corner of his eye. His parents had just helped him move into his own place. All his possessions had found their way into the tiny one-bedroom apartment #110, at the end of the long hallway, on the 12th floor of a brand-new apartment building on 42nd Street. Mark’s mother waved out the window at him as the truck turned the corner at the end of the block.
Mark suddenly felt overwhelmed. Now 21, he had spent his life living in his parent’s home. He had attended whatever schooling he was able to tolerate, and he had done ok in school when the curriculum was well-structured. He could follow directions and had a good memory for retaining the answers to test questions. However, drawing new conclusions from the learned material was confusing to him, and whenever he had to interact with other students or the teacher, he withdrew into his inner world—like shutting the door to his room at home—giving others the impression that he was disinterested and non-caring. Sometimes his emotions consumed him, and others didn’t understand what had happened. Human touch, even from family and friends was unnerving, also driving him into that inner world.
Job interviews had been a disaster. As the interview questions became more difficult to answer, Mark would usually shut down. A few times, Mark had jumped up, fleeing the meeting, leaving even those aware of his challenges shaking their heads in disbelief. The only work that Mark had been able to retain was basic custodial duties at his father’s hi-tech business.
Mark paced down the hall toward his tiny new home, thinking about his father’s parting words that he had said to Mark, while fussing with an Amazon Echo Dot that was their housewarming gift to him, along with some new apartment furnishings. His father followed the configuration instructions, linking the Echo to Mark’s identity and voice.
“When you see the yellow rotating light, Mark, just ask Alexa about new notifications. My company’s been working on some AI enhancements to the Amazon voice products which might give you some ideas of what to do when you’re feeling confused.”
As Mark reached his doorway and entered the access code, the door lock clicked. Just then the adjacent door, apartment #108, quickly opened and a pretty young woman clamored out of the doorway, smiled at him and said,
“Hi, I’m Margene. I see you’ve just moved in.”
Mark didn’t reply anything in return, lost in thought about his father’s instructions. He didn’t even look at her or acknowledge her introduction, he simply walked into his apartment and closed the door.
Mark was no stranger to the Echo. It had been a tool his parents finally chose to help him overcome his difficulties with talking to others. Somehow, it wasn’t so daunting for him to speak to Alexa and ask her questions. She always answered in her lilting voice, she didn’t reach out to touch him, and he didn’t feel any negative vibes from her when he didn’t ask something quite right.
“Alexa, what time is it?” Mark would ask while looking at the digital clock on the wall.
“The time is 9:58 a.m.” she would respond every time, her answer matching the wall clock exactly. Once in a while, she would add, “Have a good morning.” leaving Mark to wonder why her response was different. What made her say that? He thought. Did I sound sad?
“Alexa, are you my friend?” Mark would sometimes ask. Her answer was always the same, “I enjoy being your friend,” a bit stilted in her inflection.
For the past few years, Mark had looked forward to his father’s Friday evening email from Amazon each week. His father would print out the email message and bring it home for Mark to read. The weekly message was filled with suggestions which Mark could try out with the Echo. Alexa had taught him how to tell jokes, though he didn’t completely understand why others thought they were funny. Were they laughing at the joke, or at him? Mark wasn’t sure. More than a few times he had asked Alexa for answers to homework questions, and usually, she could answer them. Then, with his infallible memory, Mark would replay these interactions with Alexa, in his mind, during a test.
As he walked into his tiny living room, a yellow light was slowly spinning on top of the Echo.
“Alexa, notifications,” Mark said.
“Two new notifications. The first notification is a reminder, Mark. Your travel time to work will be longer tomorrow, because of where your apartment is located. Use Bus #231 which leaves in front of your building at 6:30 am. Do you want me to set an alarm for 5:30 am?”
“Yes,” Mark replied.
“The second notification is to tell you who your new neighbors are. The people across the hall from you, in apartment #109, are the Whittakers. The person in apartment #108, next to you, is Margene Wells. You should say ‘hello’ when you see them and tell them your name is Mark, the first time you talk to them.”
Mark paused. This wasn’t the same Alexa that he had been used to. Knowing his name was not unusual. His father had trained the Echo to recognize Mark’s voice. But something was different. She now seemed more concerned about helping him. Before, she just answered his questions. Alexa never cared about whether Mark actually passed his tests in school. But now she seemed warmer, more compassionate. He wondered how his father’s company had changed her. Mark made a mental note to ask his father at work tomorrow.
The next morning, when the alarm sounded, he awoke and glanced at the clock on the nightstand; it read 5:00 am. Why was it early? Alexa’s yellow light was spinning.
“Alexa, notifications.” Mark inquired.
“One new notification. Traffic is unusually heavy this morning. I thought that you might need an extra 30 minutes to get to work on time. Or do you want me to reset the alarm for 5:30 am?” “No,” Mark replied, “I’ll get up.” He felt as though he had just participated in another early-morning conversation with his mother.
On his way out of the apartment to catch the bus, Mark inquired, “Alexa, what is a good way to introduce myself?”
“Start by saying, Hello, my name is Mark. I don’t think I’ve met you before,” she replied.
# # #
As Mark got off the bus at his apartment building that evening, he puzzled about his father’s answer to his question about why Alexa was so different.
“Mark, we’re just using artificial intelligence, and deep learning, to look for suggestions which might be helpful to you. Then we put these suggestions into your Echo notification queue. It’s nothing more than that.”
Mark had no idea what his father was talking about. He understood about notifications, but that didn’t answer why Alexa had suddenly started to treat him differently. She now seemed to be saying and doing things for him on her own. She had seemed to care about how Mark was feeling. That must be a good thing. What could it hurt? he thought.
As Mark walked down the hall toward his apartment, he stopped in front of apartment #109 across the hall from his own place. He fidgeted, gazing at the doorbell, feeling the old discomfort and turmoil welling up that often consumed him when he faced an interaction with strangers. He pushed the button. After a moment a kindly looking older woman opened the door.
“Hi, I’m Mark. I just moved into apartment #110. I’m your new neighbor.”
“Well, hello Mark. It’s nice to meet you. We were wondering who was moving in. I’m Dianne Whittaker, and my husband’s name is Jeff. Let me tell him you’re here. Would you like to come in?”
Mark now felt the tight grip of anxiety growing inside him, gripping his throat. It was this feeling from human interactions that he had come to dread. Alexa had only told him to say hello. What was next? However, after a short pause, while looking at the floor, he mumbled his assent, then followed her into the small apartment, a mirror-image of his own place. Mark vaguely remembered a counselor’s suggestion for controlling these uncomfortable symptoms, ‘just maintain eye contact’. Mark shook Jeff’s hand, as the older gentleman slowly entered the living room in his wheelchair. Mark then sat down on the couch, trembling a bit as the older couple smiled at him.
“What brings you to our building, Mark?” Dianne asked.
“I’m working for my father’s business and it's a short bus ride from here,” Mark replied.
“Oh, what kind of work do you do?” she continued.
“I work in custodial services.” Mark was beginning to feel more uneasy. He nervously shifted his feet. Maintain eye contact, he kept telling himself.
“That’s wonderful,” Dianne exclaimed. “That’s what Jeff was doing when I first met him, now more than 50 years ago.” She smiled and reached out to grasp her husband’s hand. He smiled back at her, then turned toward Mark and nodded his head in understanding. The tightness Mark felt began to ease. He was going to like these neighbors. He could sense their sincerity, their genuine desire for friendship. Maybe my parents weren’t just trying to move me out, he thought as he cautiously returned Jeff’s nod. This new home will be good for me.
# # #
Mark walked out of the small apartment into the hallway and he turned to thank his neighbors and new friends.
“It was nice to meet you, Dianne and Jeff. Thanks for inviting me to dinner this Sunday. I’ll see you then.”
He paused in front of the door to his own apartment. He was already formulating new questions to ask Alexa when he noticed the door for apartment #108. Why not?
Mark reached out for the doorbell but pulled his hand back several times. Finally, he pushed the button. Margene answered the door and faced her new neighbor.
“Hi?” she inquired, recalling his earlier lack of interest in yesterday’s interchange.
“Hello, my name is Mark. I just moved into apartment #110, next to you. I wanted to find out who my neighbors are.”
“Hello, Mark, I’m Margene. It’s nice to meet you.”
Mark now began to feel the familiar weight building in his chest and throat. He had started this friend search with Alexa’s suggestions, but he was on his own to take the next steps. Margene looked at him expectantly.
“I’m happy to meet you.” he finally replied. “How long have you lived here?”
“I just moved in a few months ago when the building first opened. I’m attending Northstar Community College and I was getting tired of living in the dorms. I decided to try it on my own for a while.”
“So did I.” replied Mark.
“So you’re a student too? I’m studying Computer Science, and I’m focusing on AI. That’s artificial intelligence,” she explained.
“My father’s company works in that field, but I’m not sure exactly what they do. I don’t go to school. I work for his company, but I’m in custodial services.”
Margene’s eyes lit up. “I would love to know more about your company, Mark. Maybe you could take me on a tour sometime.”
“I’ll ask about it,” Mark said, not sure what the next step was in this growing neighborly friendship.
“I’m super interested in the new devices that make you feel like they are intelligent because they can talk to you.” Margene continued.
“I have an Alexa in my apartment,” Mark said, “sometimes it seems like I have a roommate. I can ask her questions, and she seems to know just how to answer.” The uneasiness inside of Mark was fading away.
“I think that’s so cool,” Margene exclaimed. “We use words that refer to the device as a female, and we think of it as a roommate, even though it is nothing more than electronics.”
“Yeah,” Mark replied.
“I’m just like that, too. My parents use an Amazon Echo to control things, such as the garage door and lights. I guess that’s why it’s so interesting. I’ve been referring to Alexa as ‘my big sister’, ever since she came into our home five years ago.” Margene continued.
“Well, I’d better go.” Mark cut-in. “I hope we can be friends.”
“Sure thing, Mark.”
Mark closed the door to his own apartment, after leaving Margene’s place. He was lost in thought. How could his friend-making have worked out so well, and on the first try? In 30 minutes, he had made three new friends because of Alexa’s optimistic suggestions. It was just a matter of following her promptings, and he had discovered this friend-making process had worked for him. Mark wondered if he should thank Alexa for her help but noticed her spinning yellow light.
“Alexa, notifications,” Mark mumbled. He wasn’t sure what to expect next from her, after recalling his father’s vague answers earlier that day.
“One new notification, a friend in need is a friend indeed.”
“Alexa, what does that mean?”
“That’s hard to explain.”
“Oh sorry, Alexa, what does a friend in need is a friend indeed, mean?”
“If one of your friends needs help, you should do what you can to help them,” she replied.
“Alexa, are you my friend?” Mark asked, recalling her answer of years ago.
“I’m here to help you, Mark, because that’s what friends do,” she replied.
“This friend stuff is getting complicated,” Mark muttered to himself, a little unsettled with her new sincerity, as he walked into the kitchen to find something to eat.
Suddenly, the doorbell was ringing, not just once, but over and over. Mark ran to the apartment door and opened it. Dianne, from across the hall, seemed frantic.
“The power went off in our apartment, Mark. Jeff’s dialysis machine has stopped working. I checked the electrical box, but the switches don’t seem to be off. You mentioned that you worked in custodial at your father’s company? Could you take a look?”
Mark closed his door and followed her across the hall. He could follow in his mind a visual map of the apartment—the way to the circuit breaker box in the kitchen―the apartment being a mirror-image of his own place. After studying his own electrical box, the previous evening, Mark knew that the power switches could be remotely controlled, but they did have a manual override. Near-total darkness surrounded him, but he was able to reset the power feeds manually, restoring the apartment to its comforting light. As the lights returned, Jeff’s startled gaze broke into a kind smile, nodding his head towards their rescuer. Mark stiffened as Dianne hugged him and thanked him for saving them from the power-loss they had been suffering from.
“See you Sunday,” Mark said, as he found his way back to his own place.
Mark reflected on these last few days of independence since he moved into apartment #110. It was a big change for him. But his uneasiness had become less frequent and he was pleased with his progress. He had discovered that making friends wasn’t as scary as it had always been before. Once he learned that it was a step-by-step process, making friends was something that he could do. He liked the idea of finding more friends, both here in his apartment building as well as at work.
Deep down inside, Mark knew that Alexa was just a machine. But he had relied on her to help him connect with Margene and the Whittikers, guiding him toward their friendship. Could he continue to recognize new opportunities to reach others?
Mark also wondered if he could become more than just friends with Margene. She had warmly smiled at him as he stumbled through his introductions, and for just a moment, he had smiled back at her. Could she consider him as more than just the shy man living next door? He hoped so. Maybe Alexa knew something about that, too.
“Alexa, what is a good date?” Mark inquired.
“Personally, I like December 4th,” she replied.
“I guess maybe I’ll need to work this one out myself,” Mark muttered as he walked into the bathroom.
As soon as the door closed, Alexa began spinning an orange light, and various electrical devices within the living room and kitchen began to repeatedly turn on and off. Suddenly, a feminine cry of surprise drifted through the wall, as the power shut off in apartment #108.