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Future Tense: The Near Cloud

Future Tense, one of the revolving features on this page, presents stories and essays from the intersection of computational science and technological speculation, their boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what will and could be.

Wish I never pulled the plug...
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The Near Cloud, illustration

"Johnsonville breakfast sausage has the variety to satisfy all your taste preference needs," says a small plastic face, its black camera eyes peeking over my bedspread.

Groaning, I blindly shove the robot away. The child-size humanoid stumbles and falls softly to the carpet, then rolls clumsily onto its chest, unharmed. There isn’t much to this robot. Just a bunch of actuators and sensors and a radio. It’s durable and light and always getting smarter because it doesn’t do its own thinking. Its robot brain is out there somewhere. Nowhere.

In the Google Cloud.

Pushing it down isn’t the worst I’ve done to it, not by far. But, as usual, its bleached white casing provides protection. It’s like a little white knight in dull plastic armor.

That’s why I call him Whitey.

"Shall I run to the store for a pack of Vermont Maple Breakfast Sausage Links?" he intones, speaker muffled on my freshly vacuumed beige carpet. "Or perhaps Wisconsin Cheddar Breakfast—"

My pillow lands on Whitey, and he cuts it out. Every morning he hits me with the advertising. Always for the opposite of whatever he’s found rummaging around in my refrigerator, bathroom, closet.

I’m not scared of the government; it’s the ads that are killing me.

Johnsonville sausage, really? Whitey knows I’m a Jimmy Dean man.

I’ve finally had it. The Google corporation gave me Whitey five years ago. Today, I’m gonna jailbreak him and set us both free.

The robot is sitting on my coffee table between empty soda cans and old magazines. My smartphone has the jailbreak software loaded and ready to go. I’ve decided to keep my data here in the house from now on. It’s time to get Whitey’s head out of the Cloud.

And not just because of the spying.

Whitey isn’t a narc. Sure, his records could be subpoenaed. But the government is welcome to peek into my crummy apartment and watch me play video games while Whitey folds towels. The ads are right; if you’ve got nothing to hide, then you’ve got nothing to worry about. Right?

I’m not scared of the government; it’s the ads that are killing me.

Whitey has this compulsive need to peek into every drawer, pick things up and stare at them until he scans the brand name or UPC code or whatever he’s been programmed to look for. He’s built a brand catalogue of all the crap in my house. And trust me, most of it is crap.

Then he blurts out these ads for competing products, walking up to me real slow and solemn, like he has a secret, laying out a sales pitch in his quiet synthesized voice. I guess it’s how Google makes its money. Whitey didn’t cost me anything, but he sure annoys me sometimes.

Also, the constant searching can be pretty distracting.

Last month, my ex-girlfriend was over and we were getting along for once. At a certain point, I reached into my bedside drawer only to find old Whitey standing there pawing through my junk, taking inventory while me and my girl were two feet away in a delicate position. Trust me, it was a real mood killer.

Google says it’s a feature.

In this one old ad, a guy even Googles for his car keys. Bull. I’ve never Googled my keys once. I’d never even bother to ask Whitey. It’s way quicker to just look around. I’ve got eyes and ears, for God’s sake.

That’s why I bought a Near Cloud from Intel.

It’s a smooth beige box that sits in my closet. Full of processors. It’s got routines to help Whitey walk and pick things up and make the bed and stuff. The difference is my Near Cloud isn’t talking to anybody out there. It’s not reporting the location of every product in my house to a multinational company that desperately wants me to buy, buy, buy.

The difference is my Near Cloud isn’t talking to anybody out there.

Anyway, enough complaining.

I pry off Whitey’s back casing with a nail file. Pull out his little SIM card. Plug in the cord from my phone and start running the jailbreak program.

Simple as that.

Whitey is gone. Sort of. Things are different on the Near Cloud.

If I wasn’t so lazy, I’d have saved up and got a real Japanese-made local domestic robot years ago. Like the Honda Pro-Asimo. Built-in personality. Onboard computation. No Far Cloud. No Near Cloud. No ads. No spying. And those things are quality, made of real metal and carbon fiber.

Maybe someday.

In the meantime, Whitey has gone quiet. Operating on the Near Cloud, he doesn’t hit me up with ads anymore. Doesn’t do that slow ceremonial approach right before trying to sell me a new kind of toothpaste.

Weird to say, but I kind of miss it.

This morning, I woke up and realized something. I’m getting pretty tired of Jimmy Dean sausages. With the old Whitey gone, I guess I’m starting to wonder what other kinds of breakfast sausage are out there.

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