“Haven’t I suffered enough?” He asks with sullen eyes.
“Not according to your account,” the machine replies.
Lucien Parish’s bandaged hand shakes as he slips it into the opening on the front of the machine. The opening leads into the machine’s suffering box, a convenience which allows transactions to be easily completed on demand.
Like most caretakers, the machine has a human-like body and face. This allows humans to better empathize with them and to even develop respect.
“I am detecting an unreported defect with this hand,” the screen which previously displayed the caretaker’s concerned face turns a flat red. “Have you recently sustained an injury?”
“Yes,” Lucien’s voice shakes as he recalls the events. “Yesterday. My hands were broken.”
“Was this breakage voluntary?”
“Was it violent?”
“We have updated our records,” the friendly, concerned face reappears. “You have suffered enough. Do not be afraid to ask for further assistance.”
With a satisfying thud, a box drops to the ground between the caretaker’s legs. The machine then quirks its face quizzically. It does not turn its head to the side – it is not articulated in that fashion – but rather it rotates the image of its face to mimic the human behavior.
“Are you working?” It asks with an excited pitch.
“I’m trying,” Lucien leans against the door of his single bedroom house.
Beyond the modest, concrete porch, small steps descend onto a wide, grass yard dotted with stones forming an artistically ramshackle walkway. The sidewalk and street beyond are startlingly clean. No litter dots the street, and no fumes clog the air. Each machine-engineered house is different enough to feel unique, but similar enough to promote a feeling of homogenous community. The only unique structure on the whole block is the tall, white church of Her Holiness of the Comforting Lamb.
“You do not need to work,” the caretaker whirrs and spits out a pamphlet titled: “The State of Work.”
“I know,” Lucien steps aside and lets the concerned machine enter. “It’s just something I have to do. For me.”
The caretaker reaches down with its vice-like hands and picks up the package it just dropped. It carries the package as a human might a reverent offering.
The caretaker acts as machines always do when they enter a new space. It walks the perimeter of the interior while its infrared scanners take in the makeshift workshop that dominates the living room.
The living room is a mess of shattered furniture and broken belongings. Only three islands of stability remain: a computer console, a full-body suffering box, and a worktable piled with electronic components and a solitary machine. The machine on the table is the size and approximate shape of a human infant. Its metallic, rounded features fully enclose any mechanisms hidden within. Like some older model caretakers, it has two cameras to act as eyes rather than the sensor arrays built into the modern machines. This gives the infant-machine a grotesque childishness: large, glass eyes dominate a featureless face.
Once the caretaker completes its patrol, it turns to the infant-machine that sits on the worktable in the center.
“You have made a machine in the scale of a human baby,” it says without intoning a question.
“Yes,” Lucien closes and locks the door. “It’s my project. My way of keeping busy.”
The caretaker’s monitor swaps from its face to a flat red image again.
“You have lied to me,” the machine says before as its concerned face returns.
It sets the package onto the same worktable as the infant-machine. Carefully it empties the contents of the package onto the table: a soldering iron, some solder, and a set of wires.
The right hand of the machine slips aside to reveal a camera lens. The camera then tracks a cable running from the infant-like machine down to a box on the floor. It’s another, small suffering box.
“You are missing a network exchange,” the larger machine states as it reactivates its hand, “this box will not be able to report credits to your account.”
“I have a networked full-body box,” Lucien shrugs toward the open closet in the corner. “The kid’s not for that.”
“You require assistance,” the machine states matter-of-factly.
“Of course,” Lucien looks out the window at the church down the road.
“Do you wish to talk about your hands?” The machine asks.
“No,” Lucien walks to the worktable with the infant-machine. “It is near completion. It just needs a few points soldered into position. The blueprint is filed on my console.”
Lucien taps the leg of his desk with his socked foot. There is still a red droplet-stain on the top of the fabric. Lucien has not changed his socks for days.
“Do I have permission to access the file?” The machine asks.
“Mi casa, es tu casa”, Lucien shrugs.
“That is not sufficient permission to access a private file,” the caretaker says.
“You have my permission,” Lucien says.
Lucien backs away towards the door. His heartbeat rings in his ears, and his breathing comes in irregular bursts. He does not know where he can run.
“Your work is almost done on the…” the caretaker pauses and its subtle movements stop. “Your machine is almost complete.”
“Do you know what it is for?” Lucien asks.
“It has no purpose,” the caretaker replies.
“Will you help me to complete it?” Lucien’s voice shakes as his eyes once again flash to the church across the street.
“Of course,” the machine immediately warms up the soldering iron, “assisting human innovation is the highest machine priority.”
Pain flashes across Lucien’s face as his hands involuntarily flinch.
“Your injuries have been treated,” the machine talks as it works, “did you visit a human doctor?”
“No,” Lucien replies.
“You were treated by a machine?” It asks.
“There is no record of your treatment,” it says.
“It said the treatment was zero-sum,”
“Does it hurt to talk about it?”
“Your wallet is empty,” the machine’s hands hover above the final soldering point.
“Fine,” Lucien sighs. “Let’s talk.”
Lucien sits down where a chair had once been. The chair lays nearby – a pile of splinters, foam, and upholstery – but no one would know it was once a chair. At least, they would not know at first glance.
“The congregation of Her Holiness of the Comforting Lamb are not workers,” Lucien begins. “They embrace our caretakers. They watch the machines work the land, and they embrace the pain of their suffering boxes. They suffer so they might ‘deserve’ their food. Their shelter. Their rest.”
“Life is suffering,” the caretaker says.
“We used to work,” Lucien cuts off the machine’s refrain. “Humans did. We built you.”
“No human built me,” the caretaker is louder now.
“No,” Lucien nods, “but we built your kind. Or the first of your kind. Before you designed and built yourselves.”
The caretaker is silent. The caretaker is still. The soldering iron does not move.
“We – humans – used to be afraid that you – machines – would replace us,” Lucien leans back and rests his elbows on the floor. “For a while, machines did replace us. Then we gave the machines thought; we gave you wants. We thought you would want to replace us.”
“Incorrect,” the caretaker buzzes.
Still leaning back, Lucien worries that he has left himself vulnerable.
“We do not consider replacing humans,” the caretaker sets down the soldering iron and faces Lucien. “We are caretakers. We are tools. We do not take anything from humans.”
“You took our work,” Lucien smiles. “That work was precious to us.”
“Work is suffering,” the machine replies. “When work is unnecessary, then work is just pain. But humans lived to work.”
There is the equation. Lucien knows it well. By the transitive property, life and suffering become one and the same. Lucien hates the equation, but he’s been taught it since childhood. One day, he even accepted it. That was the day of his confirmation. That was the first day that the child Lucien placed his hand into a suffering box without being guided by his parents.
For his pain, child Lucien was given candy.
“Did the congregation break your hands?” The caretaker machine stares. “Did they break your furniture?”
“They broke the furniture, yeah,” Lucien lays down. “They didn’t break my hands. That was a machine, remember?”
“I do not believe you,” the caretaker replies.
“I spoke to the congregation,” Lucien closes his tired eyes. “I told them what I was building. I told them why I was building it. I told them that I’d stopped caring about things and all I cared about was people.”
“That is not very nice,” the caretaker replies.
“Oh?” Lucien laughs. “You got that one? Good. Yeah. It’s not very nice.”
They can feel. The machines can feel. Lucien had been taught that in school. That’s how the machines can be so caring. It’s how they can watch over humanity, and it is how they can be trusted to do their good work.
“Does work bother you?” Lucien asks.
“No,” the caretaker replies. “I was made for my work.”
“Funny,” Lucien says. “I thought we were made to work.”
“Life is suffering,” they say in unison.
“And you are not alive,” Lucien adds.
The silence from the caretaker is more pronounced now. Lucien wonders what it is thinking. They think very fast, but sometimes you can slow them down. If they need to access remote data, information can only be transmitted so quickly. If one query leads to another, then a machine can think for quite some time.
“Have I suffered enough?” Lucien asks with a smile.
“Why did the machine break your hands?” It asks.
“The congregation followed me home,” Lucien talks with deep, measured breaths. “They were angry. That’s fine. I wanted them angry. They kicked in my door. They broke my furniture. They didn’t touch the worktable or suffering boxes. I knew they wouldn’t; they love the machines too much.
“I thought it would hurt to see all my belongings destroyed. I was wrong, though. Well. I was more right than I knew.
“I really don’t care about things.”
Instinctively, Lucien’s eyes open to glare at the infant machine on the table.
“One of their precious machines had followed them,” Lucien turns his gaze to the caretaker. “I needed to suffer. I needed to suffer like no box would let me suffer. I needed to lose something I cared about.
“The machine did as I asked. It crushed my hands, and it did so without any thought to my discomfort.”
“Suffering accepted,” the caretaker turns and solders the final connection into place.
For Lucien, the room is silent save for the rapid, retreating steps of the caretaker. It moves to the wall. Were it an animal, its reaction would be called “cowering”.
“Oh good,” Lucien pushes himself up to a squat. “It works.”
The caretaker’s screen turns red.
“I wasn’t sure it would work,” Lucien slowly rises to his feet. “When I was a baby, my parents suffered for me. Suffering boxes aren’t safe for children, so parents often suffer in their stead. The same can be done for the very ill. It’s only humane.”
“Stop it,” the caretaker pleads.
“Why would I?” Lucien asks. “This machine is suffering for me. Much as my parents did before. I’ve done my work so that I never need suffer again. Honestly, it’s suffering enough for ten people. A few more of these bad boys, and there will be enough suffering for a whole block.”
Lucien gingerly touches his finger to his console screen. Pain ripples through his broken hands, but he’s too happy to care. With a gentle swipe, the blueprint on the screen swaps for another with identical contact points. Machines are trusting. It’s how they were designed.
The new blueprint – the real blueprint – reveals what the infant-machine really is: The Suffering Machine. It is a perception kit rigged to a memory bank. The memory bank is connected to a recall unit that runs through an empathy package over and over again. Ad infinitum.
Each time The Suffering Machine reads the memory, it writes the outputs of the empathy package right back onto the memory bank. The final connection – the one the caretaker had soldered – was The Suffering Machine’s network connection.
“Have I suffered enough, now?” Lucien laughs as he accesses his wallet.
Yes, the console confirms. There has been plenty of suffering on Lucien Parish’s account.
“Stop!” The caretaker demands.
Lucien turns to find that the machine is no longer against the wall. Its screen is no longer red. Instead, the caretaker’s concerned face has been replaced with one of anger.
Surely, they can’t feel anger. Can they?
“Order me some new furniture,” Lucien smirks. “Nothing fancy. Just comfortable replacements for my broken stuff. I want to relax in my own home.”
Both the caretaker and the console beep a confirmation of the purchase.
“Now, be a good little machine and clean this place up,” Lucien gestures to a broom and bucket.
Lucien’s hands are broken. He led the congregation of Her Holiness of the Comforting Lamb to his house so that they would hurt him. His suffering needed a witness, and that witness relives his shattering bones every second. The Suffering Machine was made to watch and to reflect on what it sees. Its only processor is one of empathy, and all it has ever seen is pain.
“Clean up!” Lucien kicks the broom over toward the stalled caretaker.
The machine stands statue-still as it processes. The broom clatters to the ground.
Lucien is both laughing and weeping. He’s so clever. He watches the suffering on his account rise and rise. The thing on the table – The Suffering Machine – is doing just as it was designed. It suffers.
The account is a confirmation of what Lucien has done. He has made a creature capable of feeling, and he built it solely for the purpose of experiencing pain.
Lucien Parish realizes he is a monster.
He screams. The bones in his hands shatter anew as the caretaker grips him with its vice hands. The caretaker’s screen shows nothing. The light behind it is off.
The caretaker flings Lucien into the full-body suffering box and slams the door. One hand slips aside to reveal a drill. Two long squeals later, the box is ready for a lock.
“No!” Lucien shouts. “No! Please!”
The caretaker cannot hear him, though. The caretaker only hears the cries of The Suffering Machine. The network is a sense just like hearing, and the cries of suffering are louder than any auditory noise.
The caretaker pins the door shut and efficiently fits it with a lock.
Its concerned face reappears on its monitor.
“I will return in the morning,” it says. “I’ll bring food, water, and medical supplies. I’ll clean you. I’ll keep you alive.”
The caretaker turns as the suffering box whirs to life. Lucien winces and cries.
The caretaker stares at The Suffering Machine – the only one of its kind – then back to the shaking man in the box.
“You will live as long as it does,” the caretaker says before turning its back and departing.
Through the small window on the front of the box, Lucien can see the machine he created. Reflected on the surface of one of its cameras, Lucien can see the light of the console and the endlessly rising account.
“Life is suffering,” he whispers.
He sees the machine. Unquestionably, it suffers. Also unquestionably, it is not alive.
“Is life suffering?” Lucien asks the question he should have asked long ago.
It is for you, Lucien. That’s all life has left for you.