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Better Than Human
There was a time when cars had nothing to say. In those days they just sat there until needed, quietly and without complaint, leaking oil onto your driveway. My 2007 Civic is of a different breed.

Among other things, it is deeply concerned about whether I have fastened my seatbelt. When I have not, it lets me know with an unpleasant noise: seven too-loud beeps, followed by fifteen seconds of silence, then the beeps again. The sequence continues until I comply with its wishes or until the car is turned off. It has other, different warning sounds as well — about headlights left on, emergency brakes unreleased, and doors ajar. Those noises are equally insistent and annoying.

I don’t want to seem ungrateful that my vehicle cares so much about me. After all, any one of my oversights might result in a severe inconvenience…or even my death. I am not yet ready to say that I can no longer take care of myself, but these conveniences spare me the need to try. That’s a good thing, right?

My only complaint about the Civic is the harsh, slightly judgmental tenor of its reminders. I don’t like being crabbed at, even if it’s for my own good. I suppose the unpleasantness is meant to make me act, if only to end the pain. I can honestly say that I would respond anyway. Even without the crabbing. Probably.

My kitchen appliances are also full of helpful hints and reminders. They are more considerate of my feelings, though. My microwave, which is about the same age as the Civic, can be a bit abrupt, but my new washing machine is a model of politeness. It signals that my wash is done with a lovely chimed rendition of “Clock Town Day.” Hearing it, I find myself looking forward to the rewards of a properly folded basket of laundry.

Come to think of it, the younger generation of machines (unlike their human counterparts) are noticeably better mannered than their elders. Some of them — the ones endowed with a capacity for spoken language — are disarmingly gracious. My Waze app (I’ve chosen the voice of a British woman named Natalie) is unfailingly positive. There are never any recriminations for a wrong turn or a piece of advice unheeded. She simply moves on to the next turn.

Natalie isn’t a nice person in the normal sense, of course. Neither are Siri, Alexa, Watson, or any of their ilk. They act nice (albeit a tad robotically), and I like that. Someday, with the proper programming, they might be able to simulate genuine niceness. I can even imagine them becoming likable, especially when if they lose their stiffness. Newer versions may come to possess an enhanced sensitivity to my needs, my desires, even my moods. In fact, they could someday be preferable to actual human beings.

You heard me. Better than human beings. Better conversationalists, better confidantes, better companions. And the drawbacks of actual humans would be absent. There would be no fights, no falling outs, no estrangements. And they would do exactly as they are told, always and without question.

Come to think of it, though, that might be a problem — that there would be no problems. No eccentricities to put up with, no flaws to forgive. Real friendship carries with it the willingness to accept the other in spite of the warts. Even if we could program our robot buddies to have a few flaws, I don’t think we would put up with them that way. We couldn’t resist the temptation to remove the warts and save ourselves the trouble.

I think I would tire of a perfect companion. Even if the likeness to a sensitive, interesting friend were seamless, it would be hollow. I would be entertained, perhaps, but essentially alone. In that world, I might even find myself longing for the company of my old Civic. It's crabby, annoying, and a terrible conversationalist, but loyal and thoughtful. To a fault, is all.

Please Note: Tim Eagan will read your comments but he is currently not publishing them.

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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee