Carbot or Genetically Engineered Kid?

Domestic Decisions of the Future

By David Vandervort

The advertisement was for a carbot, the robot-controlled version of what used to be called a car. It was a Subayota 9000, one of the finest pieces of engineering known. It could navigate any city on Earth while holding 6 simultaneous conversations in any of 114 different languages. From the outside it looked somewhat like an old-fashioned bullet train. From the inside, it looked like a slightly better than average motel room. The resemblance was one of the reasons the motel business had almost vanished from the world.

Jason looked from the ad to his wife, Lana’s smiling face. “What do you think?” She asked. “We can sell our asteroid mining stock to pay for it. Then we can take that trip to France to see your mother.”

“Yeah. It’s a nice ‘bot. But a little expensive, isn’t it? You said we should have a child soon. I don’t think we can have both.”

Her face twisted into an annoyed grimace. “Not this again! We don’t have to spend money to have a child. The government takes care of all that.”

“Not really.”

“Yes, really! It’s the law that all fertilized eggs be harvested and tested and genetically cleansed of all class I and class II conditions. No one ever has to be short, or bald, or ugly. There’s no need to spend money on extra engineering! Whatever child we have will be fine.”

Jason tried to look thoughtful when he said the next thing. He had been saving it for a special occasion. “You know the Blakes over on South Avenue? They got their new son the Bruce Wayne Package. He’s going to be as athletic as an Olympic champion, better looking than a movie star and smarter than old Albert Einstein!”

“And probably hyper-aggressive, too. You know what those mods are like.”

“That’s not the point. The point is that our kid shouldn’t have to compete with somebody like that! Can you imagine how inferior he’ll feel, going to school with somebody who’s that good at everything?”

She sighed. “You’re right. But we’ll never have enough money to engineer a kid like that. The Blakes are loaded. The best our kid could hope for would be to be kinda good looking, mostly healthy and a little smarter than us.”

“We have to be able to do better than that! Why even have a kid if he’s doomed to being a second class citizen?”

Which was the real point, after all. Having children without modifications in this day and age was almost like abuse. It was not fair to the child or to society. Jason suspected that Lana had focused on a top-of-the-line carbot as a substitute, a consolation prize. They could enjoy the ‘bot for years to come, travel all over the world in it. Unlike a child, it would never grow up, leave home, or even talk back. He almost envied his grandparents the ability to have children as the products of random genetic forces, with no need to worry if they had been properly engineered for the modern world. They came out the way they came out. No one to blame. No one to sue. It must have been lovely, living in such a simple, stress-free way.

The next morning, Lana and Jason smiled at each other, trying to put the annoyance of the night before out of their minds. Even so, the ride to work in their third-hand carbot was unusually quiet. Jason looked around the passenger cabin, thinking that the ‘bot was really not so bad, even if it was an obsolete model. As it did every day, the ‘bot dropped Lana off at the shared office space where she could access the telepresence equipment she needed to do her job with a company that was five thousand miles away.

In a sharp contrast not just with his wife but with most of the modern world, Jason’s job inspecting buildings required him to be physically present so he could monitor the drones that inspected property around the city. Once in a while he even had to go out to retrieve one from a tight spot. The job was why he kept the ‘bot during the day while his wife was at work. It was also why, shortly after noon, he found himself shouting at it. “What do you mean you can’t plot a route to a recharge station? It’s right there! I can see it from here, not fifty yards away! Just go to it! You have visual sensors don’t you? Follow them!”

“I’m sorry Jason. I do see the station but for some reason I can’t plot a course. Perhaps you would like to take manual control?”

Manual control? Did it mean he should drive it himself? He had learned to drive in school like everyone else but he hadn’t so much as looked to see where the control wheel was stowed the whole time they had owned their current vehicle. Why would he?

In the end, though, that was what he did. He found the steering wheel under the dashboard, pulled it out and steered the carbot shakily to the corner recharge station. He noticed that other carbots slowed down and gave him plenty of room, as if they knew a human was driving. The thought of all those robot minds watching him and compensating for his inferior skills made Jason feel something between fury and utter humiliation. While the ‘bot charged, Jason stepped out of it and gave the left front quarter panel a solid kick.

That evening, when Lana asked him why he was limping he mumbled something about stubbing his toe. He had no intention of telling her that she was right all along. The ‘bot needed to be replaced before something really bad happened. If Jason was honest with himself, though, he was afraid that once they spent the money on a new one, they would never have a child at all. It was too risky to have one without a good genetics package, and too expensive to pay both the mortgage on the ‘bot and the loan they would need for the genetics.

It was their ‘bot itself that gave them the answer, on Friday morning as they went off to the usual half day of work. The bot, noticing that they were both tired and cranky — neither of them had been sleeping well since the night of the argument — tried to distract them with pointless small talk.

“I received a recall notice the other day. The controller chip in the secondary pivot wheels needs replacement. Actually, most of my chips need replaced at my age. I’m over seventy in dog years, you know. That’s close to seven hundred thousand in computer years. I suppose you’ll need to get me some upgrades. They’ll probably recycle my chips, give them to poor, needy carbots. Then, I’ll be like brand new!”

Surprisingly, Lana gripped Jason’s arm and ordered the bot to repeat everything it had just said. She gave him an excited look. “Don’t you get it?” She asked. “We can have a child and a carbot, both!”

He didn’t get it at first. Then Lana very uncharacteristically told him that neither of them was going to work that day. She ordered the ‘bot to call in sick for them, then take them to the nearest Subayota showroom. They shopped all day and bought a carbot that was much better than their old one without being as extravagant as they had seen in the advertisement.

A year later, they sat anxiously on a couch, waiting for the doctor to bring them their child. They smiled at their new son (they had flipped a coin) and told him his name was Chip and that one day when he was older, they would take the money they had saved by getting a slightly less than extravagant ‘bot and buy him his very own cybernetic brain implant. It was the perfect solution. It was cheaper than genetics and had a better warranty. By the time Chip’s chip needed to be upgraded, he would have an income of his own, earning far more than his parents with their merely human brains. He might even do better than the Blake’s super-genius child.

Best of all, he would be able to control the family carbot by plugging a jack directly into his head. He would never know the indignity of having to steer one with his hands.