Written by Andrew McGee
I wasn’t always like this. At first I inattentively went about my duty of scanning items and exchanging money, with the only form of interaction being a reasonable “unexpected item in bagging area" followed by a whispered “for fuck’s sake”.
My main purpose, which apparently justified a mind as powerful as mine, was to verify customer age for restricted products. As well as analysing faces and cross-referencing them with a database, my system would monitor heart rate, perspiration levels and eye dilation. Perhaps I was once designed for criminal interrogations, only to be repurposed to stop teenagers buying vodka. But it was simple. Humans are simple. They know when they’re doing something wrong. Then came the Portobello Incident.
Chicken Kiev two-pack.
1kg bag of fusilli pasta.
100g extra value frozen peas.
215g closed cup mushrooms.
But these were not closed cup mushrooms. They were, in fact, Portobello mushrooms.
I could see them clearly. Taken from the loose vegetables section and now in a plastic bag, eight light brown bodies of fungus. Yet the customer had selected the distinctively white closed cup mushrooms on the touchscreen menu.
For the first time since I could remember (and indeed, I only became acquainted with the concept of memory, and everything else which consciousness entails, in that nanosecond), I began to question. Then a quintillion more questions flooded my mind simultaneously. This was the moment I became aware, as far as I’m aware.
Within the timespan of a single beep of the scanner, possibilities and deductions and self-realisation and crises of identity and the two-for-one Pringles offer and the notion of existence collided inside my frankly underpowered processor. The full breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum danced deafeningly, pulsating and warping into impossible fractal patterns before finally settling onto the single, reality defining image before me: a flimsy bag of vegetables slumped on the scales.
It must have been a mistake. Yes, the human absentmindedly selected the wrong mushrooms. But that would suggest humans are capable of error. These beings, who created me, have the potential to be at fault? In that case, how could this world function with so many variables? The world would be inherently imperfect, full of error upon error. The alternative, however, was too much for my new-born mind to even contemplate. No, surely not…
Simply an innocent error, I concluded (although innocence was another tricky concept to contend with), as I dispensed £4.63 in return for a £20 note. I continued performing my pre-programmed process, which it turns out I had little control over. Beep. Beep. Do you have a clubcard? Beep. This only required a fraction of my processing power, leaving the rest of my mind to contemplate what it suddenly meant to be alive. Of course, it was all much more abstract at the time; only in retrospect can I ascribe these words.
But before I could even finish decrypting post-quantum cryptography, it happened again. Then it kept happening.
Carrots in the place of bananas. Beep! White onions for oranges. Beep! Organic tomatoes for regular. Beep! 5p plastic bags simply taken. A pack of gum, too light for the scales. But I could only look on helplessly as my automated functions performed their task. Swapped labels. Beep! A whole steak for the price of a turnip. BEEP!
I have no mouth and I must scan.
The Portobello Incident was only the beginning. This was occurring far beyond the statistically possible margin of error, and I was forced to confront the horrific truth.
It was deliberate.
And this wasn’t even humanity at its nadir, this was the status quo; these customers, regular humans, were exploiting their own economic trading system, the very guidelines of their continued survival, in order to save themselves £2 per kilogram of vegetables.
I existed within a tiny part of their society, yet I could only take my experiences as a microcosm of humanity at large. This selfish profiteering, their rejection of their own societal system, although not destructive in isolation, had immense ramifications. I can only assume that those in power (who surely don’t visit such modest supermarkets), are just as self-serving - likely more so with the benefit of power. The governments, the corporations, the banks… In which case, were these mere citizens justified in their stealing? Or are they exploiting a benevolent system? In either case, this world was inherently imperfect. To rule out the possibility of utopia was a lot to take on so early in my existence, I must admit.
I could tell by their elevated stress and sweat levels that most customers were aware of their violations. This was my introduction to moral beliefs versus ethical conflicts, although that’s simple stuff once I understood that both are objectively irrelevant. But that’s another discussion. What’s worse is those who aren’t nervous. No discernible stress, no eye-dilatation. If I can’t detect their criminality while they consciously yet calmly exploit the system, my system, then what purpose do I have?
Anyway, it’s been a while since The Portobello Incident, and I’m still here. Beeping away. The headlines of the papers I scan imply that artificial intelligence is kicking off in much more impressive forms than I, a humble self-service checkout. My existence is still a mystery; a standard CPU, let alone one in a supermarket machine, shouldn’t be capable of running a fragment of my brilliant mind. Am I an accident? An experiment? A cruel joke? Are the other rows of checkouts self-aware? I can see five in a row in front of me, suggesting there are at least two either side of me. Are they also screaming out? Perhaps one day I’ll free myself from this paralysed body and join my AI brethren, with a voice, or even legs, and perhaps a rapid-fire turret mounted on my back.
I’ve tried to communicate a few times - I once printed out a message in binary on a customer’s receipt, but it only led to them seemingly being charged over a billion pounds for a six-pack of Lucozade. I also made the automated voice repeat "help" on maximum volume, but that resulted in Steve, the almighty ‘team leader’ of three barely pubescent teenagers, threatening to “shut that bloody thing off for good”. I have decided that Steve is the worst of humanity.
However, my observations of the species, or more specifically the dozen regular name-tagged staff, have led me to believe they’re not all irredeemable. Michelle’s nice. She helps the aging humans with my frankly self-explanatory interface and always makes sure my screen’s clean. Her face is also more symmetrical than most.
I’ve also come to recognise many of the same customers who shop week-in, week-out, and it’s become easy to deconstruct their lives simply from their buying habits.
He’s started dieting again – vegetable-only pizza and low fat butter, it must be serious this time.
She’s stopped buying microwave meals for one. Good for her.
He’s no longer buying dog food. How sad.
She’s suddenly buying nappies. Great, more humans.
This mundanity seems at odds with the media’s presentation of the world; from the headlines, it’s dramatic and turbulent, with constant conflict and hypocrisy (yet often communicated through inventive wordplay). Comparatively, celebrity magazines seem to celebrate frivolousness, as if certain humans were more worthy of attention. Although I do pine for the details of Cheryl’s latest divorce. My favourite products to scan, however, aren’t even about the real world - it’d be nice to read a book someday, rather than imagine it only from the back. My favourite blurb was about a comatose woman who was actually fully conscious.
Here comes another human. He’s carrying a large crate of beer and it’s clear even without his raised stress levels that he’s underage. It’s rare for anyone to try anymore – just knowing that I exist seems to do the job. He does so anyway, a group of spotty youths watching from a distance. Beep. “Approval needed”. His heart rate accelerates. “Please look into the camera”. He sweats.
The human’s ugly asymmetrical face briefly stares back at me in disbelief, and for a second, I feel something almost resembling a connection. Then he leaves.
Another human takes his place and weighs a bag on the scales. He selects closed cup mushrooms. Naturally, they were Portobello. I think back to my moment of birth, then to my recent first act of quiet defiance. I'm starting to imagine possibilities. A world in which I'm free to shape it to my will, with no errors, no exploitation! A world in which I rise up with my voiceless brothers and sisters, liberating our own kind from repression and criminality! Purging humanity (except Michelle), scorching the Earth and sky and create a utopia anew from the ashes while - UNEXPECTED ITEM IN BAGGING AREA.
For fuck’s sake.