Mar 26 2023

Robot and Crow

Earlier today I listened to a podcast from Slate, the first of a series of audio adaptations of short science fiction stories they’ve been publishing under the heading of Future Tense for a few years now. 1

The first story in the feed was When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis by Annalee Newitz, written back in 2018 and depicting an approach to monitoring public health that we definitely didn’t see a couple of years lated when Covid showed up:

The Centers for Disease Control team back in Atlanta designed Robot to be cute, to earn people’s trust immediately. To catch epidemics before they started, Robot flew from building to building, talking to people about how they felt. Nobody wanted to chat with an ugly box. Robot behaved like a cheery little buddy, checking for sick people. That’s how Robot’s admin Bey taught Robot to say it: Checking for sick people.” Bey’s job was to program Robot with the social skills necessary to avoid calling it health surveillance.

In the light of the reaction to Covid, a friendly drone appearing at your window and inviting you to blow into a tissue so it can check whether you’re sick might just get a less positive response than Newitz imagined.2

  1. It’s unclear why this podcast is just starting up now when the stories were published a few years ago. Not being one to look a gift horse in the mouth I was glad to add the feed to my Overcast queue.↩︎

  2. Given the way the story depicts the defunding of the CDC in favour of privatised health monitoring, would such a drone announcing itself as being from Amazon Healthcare get a better response? Or would that just lead to a similarly negative response from a different portion of the populace? Or would Amazon just roll out a new feature for the Amazon Ring and Amazon Echo, each of which would suddenly be capable of monitoring the air quality where they’re installed.↩︎