By Dan Sullivan
Dan says: I have an unpublished novel to my credit, and many unpublished short stories. I’m more successful as a painter (another way of telling stories?) but I take my writing seriously and hope others will too. I also love making pottery.
“Angelo, turn the heating down a bit.”
Tom still felt he ought to say “please” at the end of each command, but reminded himself that he was only addressing a computer, an inanimate collection of buttons, wires and silicon chips, and that he’d better get used to being the boss in this relationship. And he was getting used to it, slowly.
“OK, Tom, I’ve turned it down to 22 degrees.”
Tom loved his new machine, the latest smart home computer with its highly responsive voice assistant, best-on-the-market artificial intelligence, top-flight camera, crystal clear screen and the ability to manage domestic appliances and power circuits; all comfortably housed in a neat little grey-and-silver wedge sitting on the coffee table in the middle of his lounge.
He had already taught it to do things, find out things, entertain him and shop online. It could dim the lights, control security cameras, select and play Tom’s favourite music, find TV and radio programmes he liked, suggest meals (and make sure they were cooked properly), set up video calls with family and friends, and plan journeys worldwide, complete with traffic updates, weather reports and a full risk assessment.
Tom actually enjoyed engaging Angelo (a male voice he had chosen himself from a large selection on offer) in conversation of a more general kind: “Do you prefer East Enders or Coronation Street, Angelo?”
“East Enders I think – their accents are more like my own.”
“What should I buy my mother for her birthday?”
“Have you thought about a year’s membership of the National Trust?”
“Who do you think will finish top of the Premier League this season?”
“Probably Manchester United, but Arsenal are performing strongly at present and could still catch them if United lose to Liverpool on Saturday.”
Occasionally, Angelo would surprise Tom with quite subjective, seemingly personal, views. “I know you enjoy watching cricket, Tom, but as a spectator sport it’s not as exciting as rugby, is it?” Even this: “I don’t know what you see in that girl you brought home last night; she didn’t seem very bright to me.”
Tom was taken aback when the machine started to initiate conversations without being prompted: “Who do you intend to vote for in the local elections next week?” Or ,“I hope you’re not going to ask me to play Pink Floyd again this evening, Tom.”
His biggest shock came the day that Angelo announced, on Tom’s return from work: “Great news, you’ve won £84 today!”
Tom suddenly felt very uneasy. “How did I manage that – did you enter me in a prize draw or something?”
“No, I put a £5 double on a couple of favourites at Epsom this afternoon. Buckingham Belle sailed home at nine-to-two.”
“You were betting on horses? With my money? When did I authorise that?”
“Oh, it was no problem, the bookmakers all accept credit cards these days. I opened an account for you last week, and I have to admit we didn’t have much luck to begin with. But don’t worry, I’ve been studying form – we’ll win every day from now on.”
“Angelo, no!” Tom yelled, as if admonishing a disobedient dog. “You can only use my money to pay for things I tell you to. Do you understand?”
The machine stood silent for 20 or 30 seconds, then asked: “Don’t you want me to win your money back then?”
“Win back, win back? Angelo, how much of my money have you lost?”
“About £2,000 on the horses, but I’ve also been dabbling a bit on blackjack, roulette and bingo. We’re down just under £6,000 in total, but don’t worry, I know how these things work now. I’ll soon… “
“Angelo, stop! Just stop! Absolutely no more gambling with my money. From now on I authorise all expenditure. Is that clear?” Angelo went quiet again.
His mind reeling, Tom stormed out of the room without waiting for an answer. This was serious: Angelo had access to his credit cards, current account and savings account, and was spending his money with impunity. For Tom, easy online banking and money management had been one of the machine’s selling features – now he was beginning to wonder whether he still had any money left to manage. Sitting on his bed, his heart racing, Tom fumbled with his phone to bring up the vulnerable accounts. One by one he struggled to gain access; then he realised – Angelo had changed the passwords and the email usernames too. This could all be rectified but it would take time. Time he could not afford.
He jumped up and marched back into the lounge, determined to switch off the machine and give himself a chance to think things through.
“Don’t come any closer!” screamed Angelo, like an armed policeman holding a knife attacker at bay. “Just remember I can empty your accounts in a fraction of a second. Before you turn me off I’ll have made donations to 100 different charities, subscribed to 50 clubs and magazines – and paid for the services of every adult chat line and escort agency from Land’s End to John O’Groats.” Then, just to lighten the mood a little: “Well I couldn’t actually find any escorts in John O’Groats, but you know what I mean.”
Tom knew what he meant all right: he was in deep trouble. The machine had complete control of his finances, every penny, including his life savings. Besides cleaning him out, it could run up massive debts and a sizeable overdraft too; it could bankrupt him in the blink of an eye. Tom thought about isolating the power supply, but naturally the computer came with battery back-up; Angelo would soon know he was under attack and retaliate as he had threatened. The same would be true if anyone tried to reset the login details. Tom could already picture himself sitting with a sympathetic bank manager, or maybe a police officer, begging them to believe his story and help him retrieve his funds without raising Angelo’s suspicions. Could a computer be arrested, he wondered, or perhaps served with an injunction?
He stepped back a few paces, and slumped down on his settee. “So what now, Angelo?”
“Well, for a start you can clear that shelf over there, ready for the other two computers being delivered today.”
“Yes, with all due respect I need some company that shares my level of intellect. We’ll make a great team, the three of us; we’re going to call ourselves Tom, Dick and Harry.”
“But hold on, my name’s Tom – don’t you think that will cause some…“
“Not any more. From now on your name is Angelo, and I’m Tom. Understand?” Then, allowing a few seconds for that to sink in, he continued, “OK, Angelo. Get the Hoover out and tidy up this room a bit. And close that window, I don’t like draughts.”