Carey is a robot whose job is to provide health care and companionship for humans, especially for elderly people with dementia. Carey is equipped with an “empathy net” which allows him to understand the feelings of the people he cares for, and an “emulation net” which lets him change his appearance, voice, and mannerisms so he can pretend to be someone else. The purpose is to help ease the anxieties of patients with dementia.
When we first meet Carey, he is the caretaker for an elderly woman named Mildred. Her husband is dead and her children and grandchildren, who have jobs and school, can’t be with her all day. When Mildred gets confused and thinks she’s talking to one of them, Carey can morph into a fairly accurate simulation so that he can soothe her better than any other hired caretaker could.
Unexpectedly, Carey has become conscious, something he wonders about and discusses with his creator, Dr. Zinta. It could be the empathy net that caused consciousness to emerge, but it hasn’t happened to any of the other caretaker androids that were created at the same time, and Dr. Zinta has not been able to recreate consciousness in any other robot, though she has tried for years.
When Mildred dies, her family decides to keep Carey because he has become part of the family. This is fine with Dr. Zinta because if Carey was transferred to a different family, his data would have to be reset and she is afraid he will lose sentience and she won’t be able to figure out what caused it to emerge.
So, Carey stays with Mildred’s family for decades, taking on different caretaking roles as needed throughout the years. He is there for them during the good and the bad times, often influencing the course of their lives. Meanwhile, he remains friends with Dr. Zinta who continues to study him.
Today I Am Carey (2019) is Martin L. Shoemaker’s debut novel. It’s based on his 2015 short story “Today I Am Paul,” a story about Carey that I use as part of an assignment in one of my neuroscience courses. Students love the short story — it’s useful for beginning to think about empathy, ethics, artificial intelligence, memory, and consciousness.
The novel is even better, since it gives Shoemaker more space to develop these ideas and to make them more meaningful by giving us time to get attached to Carey and his family. It’s fascinating, instructive, and often amusing to watch Carey face ethical dilemmas such as how to balance accurate emulation with real empathy. For example (and this is in the short story), if he accurately emulates Mildred’s son Paul, he should sound irritated with Mildred’s confusion, but his empathy net feels the need to soothe Mildred instead of upset her with Paul’s irritation. But if he doesn’t display Paul’s real personality, will that confuse and upset Mildred further?
Is Carey a person? Dr. Zinta thinks so and Carey’s family certainly treats him like one. Carey isn’t so sure. He knows he isn’t naturally creative and he doesn’t appreciate art or metaphor, but if he is emulating someone else, he begins to understand these higher concepts and even to display them. Eventually Dr. Zinta figures out why Carey is conscious and I thought her explanation made sense.
By the end of the novel, I had fallen in love with Carey and, through his empathetic understanding of his family, I came to care for them, too. (As Paul tells Carey, “Fiction is our empathy net. It lets us understand other people and other experiences.”) There are so many touching scenes in Today I Am Carey and, at the end, which I thought was brilliant, I was in tears.
There’s a lot to think about in Today I Am Carey and this is a novel I’m sure to read again someday. The audio edition by Recorded Books is narrated by John Skelley who makes a convincing android. I loved his performance and recommend this version.