Posted in Stories

Behind the zipper

The symptoms were obvious and ominous. High temperature, coughing, a feeling of weakness. After a week of this, on-again, off-again, he decided he needed to go to the emergency room. My wife was working, so I grabbed a mask, hopped in the truck and headed down to pick him up.

He was ready to go when I got to the house. But he could barely stand up and walk. It’s was a good thing that we were going that night. Had we waited a day, things might have been much worse. Somehow, as I was gathering up hearing aids and a list of medications, he made it out and into the passenger side of my truck. Without his hearing aids, our conversation was limited. I called my wife, working in the ER that night, and told her we were on the way.

After I pulled up to the ER entrance, I walked around to the passenger side to help him out. He could barely stand, much less walk the twenty or so yards to the door. A tech by the entrance heard me say, “I’ll see if I can get a wheelchair” and brought one out. With some difficulty, we transferred him to the chair and got him inside. He had a few questions to answer, I got a visitor tag, and the guard handed me an N95 mask to wear, “If you’re going where I think you are going.”

They took him back right away while I parked the truck. I had to wait a bit before my wife came out and said, “Come on back.” We turned left and went down the hall to a part of the ER that was draped in plastic with zippered entrances, an isolation unit for suspected Covid-19 patients. My wife looked at me and said, “If you go back there, we probably won’t be able to go on our trip.” I said, “I know.” But he wouldn’t be able to hear and I couldn’t just let him go back there alone.

So that’s when I went… behind the zipper.

It wasn’t all that exciting. In fact, it was eerily quiet. Because fresh gowns, masks, face shields and gloves were required of the doctors, nurses and techs every time they came in the room, their appearances were few and far between. I sat there in shorts, t-shirt and an N95 mask, wondering when I would get sick. Had we gone one day later, I would not have been allowed back there. Policies and procedures are subject to change, like the wind.

I stayed for about six hours, as we waited for tests, test results and the decision to admit him. He didn’t want to watch TV, and was finally able to snooze a bit, so I spent my time reading on my phone and keeping family up-to-date. I called his out-of-state son so they could talk. Finally they were ready to take him to another room, and it was time for me to head home. No one was allowed back in that part of the hospital.

As I write this, that happened a full eight weeks ago, and thankfully neither my wife nor I had any symptoms of illness. We did spend a couple of weeks staying further apart from family, just in case. It turns out he only had to stay in the hospital a few nights, and was discharged home. His wife had to do the ER thing later in the week, but she wasn’t admitted.

We were blessed. I am still careful. People are still getting sick. So far I’ve stayed healthy. I don’t take that for granted. I just give thanks each day.

Posted in AI, future, virtual reality

Who can you talk to in a virtual world?

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Photo by Jeremy Cai on Unsplash

Before long, AI will be making phone calls for us. Google demonstrated  this reality a few weeks ago when Google Assistant called and made an appointment with a human stylist. The typical stilted electronic sounding voice of automation has been refined to sound just like a real person, complete with pauses, “ums” and “ahs.”

This opens up so many possibilities and challenges. Previously, we would ask, “With whom am I speaking,” to get a name to refer to later. Now we ask, “Where are you calling from?” knowing that we may be talking to someone in a call center on the other side of the earth. In the future we’ll wonder, “Is this a real person or a computer?”

I can think of a few future scenarios in my own line of work. In the not too far off future, the guest sign in book at church will be an iPad. I won’t have to try and decipher the handwriting anymore since you’ll type in or speak your name and email. Later that afternoon or evening, you’ll get a phone call that sounds like me, but will actually be my digital assistant who has found your phone number and contacted you. On Monday morning when I check my calendar, I’ll have an appointment with that’s week’s visitors, all arranged by AI. I’ll be able to glance over information about you and your family gleaned from your social media accounts, fuel for our conversation. (And yes, my self-driving car will take me to your home so I can download my computer-generated sermon on the way.)

I know, that scenario is out there, but it made me wonder about our pursuit of avoiding human contact. Just think of all the ways we no longer have to talk to a person.

  • I get my cash from an ATM, no longer interacting with a teller inside the bank.
  • I order food or coffee with an app or at a kiosk in the restaurant, and then grab it off a shelf.
  • I do the majority of my shopping online. I rarely see anyone drop packages off at my door. They just magically appear!
  • I ask my phone for directions instead of a person. It routes me around accidents and traffics snarls, too.
  • I wonder what percentage of my human interactions take place via text or email? Honestly, I’d guess more than half.

My experiences only scratch this reality that isolates us more and more each day.

  • Virtual schools now replace some brick and mortar classrooms and flesh and blood teachers.
  • Your resume or application has been vetted by AI long before someone in human resources or a loan officer ever lays eyes on it.
  • How many people diagnose their own ailments and treat their own diseases by consulting online resources rather than going to the doctor?
  • You no longer have to go to the store for groceries, dealing with all those annoying people who clog up the aisles and make you wait in line. Your digital order will arrive later this afternoon.

I love the possibilities of AI, am fascinated by the technology, and love to discover what I can do. But how many have adopted these technologies to avoid human contact? Do those who don’t like or fear their classmates, teachers, and coworkers find refuge in a virtual world? No doubt. What about those seeking to avoid illness, judgment, conflict, prejudice or hatred? Probably. Or if you just want your own way, without having to persuade, convince or compromise, it can be quite satisfying, I guess.

Well, it’s not going to go away. It’s going to infiltrate just about every area of our lives. And even though I tend to be a private person who enjoys alone time, I can’t stay there. Not for too long, anyway.

I get so much more accomplished when I actually talk to a person. A few minutes of conversation can be so much more productive than an endless volley of texts or emails over several hours or days.

Talking to someone in person is the best. Whether it’s a difficult visit or one I’ve looked forward to, face-to-face is always better than my anticipations. I think we’re wired that way.

Laughter, sorrow, anger, enthusiasm, inspiration, and calmness all seem to be contagious. Catching emotion from those around us makes me feel something. It makes me feel alive.

I enjoy teaching. Which means I like being with someone or a room full of students, asking questions, giving examples, sharing experiences, listening to ideas and conveying understanding. Classrooms are alive!

I love music, too. I can sit and play for hours. But it’s so much more fun to play in a band or sing with a group!

I know too many widows and widowers who now have to eat alone. It’s no fun. I know too many young people whose human interaction has been so limited they have a hard time with conversation. That’s frustrating. Too many have surrendered to abusive behavior because they had no one to tell, and no one to teach them differently. That’s tragic. Too many have turned to violence because they knew no other way to relate to the world around them. That is frightening.

Don’t worry, you won’t become obsolete in a digital world. There’s someone who needs you to talk to them. Someone real. Someone just like you.