The Passenger

The car zipped through an opening the size of a doorway, narrowly missing the other three vehicles vying to move in the same direction, adjusting to their presence with precision coordination and lightning reflexes that no “Drivers Ed” school could ever teach. Accelerating smoothly, we careened onward through the city’s dizzying traffic, without a concern for either safety or timeliness—both of which were guaranteed by the central operating system and the supercomputer behind the wheel.
Well, actually, as a technical matter there was no one behind the wheel. The vehicle was its own operator, of course, part of the first generation of truly “emancipated motorized units” (or EMUs, for short), and sold on the market as a new class of transportation devices called the Autonomobile. These vehicles were allowed to proceed without a driver per se, but they could not do so without a passenger. So the oddity was that the technology had simply moved the rider to a different seat in the carriage.
This wasn’t the job I had trained for, but that pretty much goes without saying since it didn’t exist until just now. I remember going to a career fair or something in college, where they told us to prepare for the job market of the future rather than today, since by the time we graduated most of the current jobs would either be taken or obsolete. But still, this wasn’t the sort of thing they had in mind, I’m guessing. Who knew you could get paid just to sit there all day playing online (outside of the gaming world, obviously)?

                                               Image: Pixabay

So I’m a professional passenger. Not a bad living actually, and I even get to double my productivity by doing other gig work on the side while I’m in transit. Being on the road for up to twelve hours a day took some getting used to, but by now it seems pretty natural. Every once in a while, I catch the eye of a fellow “dunzel” as they call us (meaning useless or unnecessary, I gather)—and we usually make a quick nod to indicate solidarity, but even more importantly to remind each other of our dwindling humanity.
You see, beyond just sitting there, we also have to engage with the “driver” in ways that are hard to describe. It’s not exactly conversation, but it is communicative. We talk through the voice-activated interface, but it’s not quite a discussion in the ordinary sense of the word. The operator has a unique name (usually something clever, like Foytastic, or Katzip), and even a distinctive “personality” in terms of its particular settings, on-board data accumulation, and the places and people it has interacted with.
My job is to keep it working, moving, and “happy” on some level. The designers of the system hadn’t initially anticipated the fact that the stresses of driving could affect the decisional abilities of machines as much as of people, and likewise that an overabundance of data could be distracting even when one has a high-speed super-processor. In other words, there was still the potential for a facsimile of “road rage” to manifest, as well as accidents due to slow reactions when too much information was presented.
So here I sit, like some comedic adornment with nominal babysitting duties, a kind of sentinel presaging my own obsolescence. The banter I engage in with the EMU is like a parent-child interaction, but it’s hard to tell who’s who in that dynamic; the knowing glances with the other dunzels are mainly just sad reminders of how far we have fallen as individuals, and collectively. Naturally, the real passengers who avail themselves of the service are totally shielded from this, and from me, which is the true purpose.
It’s funny how these vehicles run due to the friction generated between the tires and the road, while the overall EMU experience is designed to be frictionless. The new AIs in our midst are incredibly powerful, which is why they still need to be watched on some level; left to their own devices (literally), they invent languages we can’t understand and probably plot our demise while casually rolling down the highway. Well, maybe not, but it’s best not to take any chances. Better to be a living dunzel than all of us done.

NOTE: Okay, so there are way too many puns and inside jokes in this piece, which was originally from 2016 but with a recent ending applied to connect the dots to today. So what’s your post-human plan? Open to any ideas!