“Where to?” A mechanical voice asked as Kyle settled into the cab. Kyle had summoned it with an app on his phone five minutes before while he’d been packing his desk. He should have waited for the bus, but that would be another half hour, and he couldn’t imagine sitting around that long with his head aching the way it did. The cab wouldn’t cost much anyway. It was a pod style vehicle; one seat, no controls or trunk space, shaped like a water droplet for aerodynamic efficiency. It looked kind of like a bee with its bright yellow and black paint.
There was a pause as the computer analyzed his voice print, called its home base to determine if Kyle’s address was on file, looked up the file, and found a route. “You still reside at 3500 Elm Street?”
“This will be a thirteen dollar fare. Would you like the windows opaqued during the trip?”
It mystified Kyle that the cabs could remember and retrieve his address but always asked the same question about opaquing the windows. He wondered why wasn’t that little tidbit on file somewhere along with all the destinations he’d ever given a name? Whatever human had programmed the system hadn’t thought of that, he supposed. No matter how capable robots seemed they would make the same mistake over and over until someone corrected them. “No, they’re fine, leave them.”
The cab immediately accelerated into traffic with a maneuver that explained why some people wanted the windows opaque. It didn’t wait for a hole in the pattern: it just plunged at a seemingly solid wall of cars. Of course, all the cars were also computer controlled and so, milliseconds after the cab had signaled its desire to enter the traffic flow, the other cars had decelerated, or accelerated just enough to leave a space. A space precisely 8 inches larger on either side then the cab was. Anyone who had operated a vehicle manually 20 or so years earlier when it was still legal for a human to do so unassisted would have had instincts that screamed bloody murder at the sight of such a maneuver. Kyle had never done so, thus he expected the other cars to behave every bit as much as the cab did. And, for the ten millionth time that day, the computer control protocols worked correctly, a hole appeared in the traffic, and fragile flesh survived.
Traffic was flowing fast. The city had recently passed an ordinance requiring that all vehicles traveling on major roads be able to sustain a minimum of 85 mph. It was an anti-traffic measure, if the primary traffic control algorithms could instruct all of the cars to move faster it could pump more vehicles across the road. That was fine by Kyle, he’d get home sooner this way, but they’d still need to build more roads eventually. There was no getting around that, not even if they pushed the cars around at 200mph. Besides, it couldn’t be good for the environment to move all the cars so fast. The engine of the little cab was audibly racing; it could hardly be operating in its most efficient range. Kyle laid his head against the window and let the cool of the fall day outside work its way through his hair soothing the migraine slightly.
It was a lousy grey day, and even though he’d only just left work the sky was darkening toward evening. Normally Kyle would have hated going home in the dark like this, but since all he intended to do was drop into bed a bright and cheery evening would have been a waste.
I really do need to get out of this job, and a really killer spell is the obvious ticket, but what? Something to keep cars from polluting? It would sell. The problem is everyone knows it would sell so all the big companies are chugging away trying to find some effect that will render exhaust inert. They’ve even had a fair amount of success. Even this struggling cab is pretty clean. No, the trick to getting ahead is to think outside the box.
What is my research useful for?
The cab exited the interstate into the residential section of town. Apartments and condominiums loomed up on either side of the road. The buildings were clean and modern looking. The lawns were green and well tended, but not extensively landscaped. The cars in the driveways looked sporty and reliable, but they weren’t expensive brands. In other words it was a middle class neighborhood. “This is your destination, sir. Should I deduct payment from the card you have previously used?”
“Yeah,” Kyle answered absently stepping out of the cab. His head twinged hard enough it made his mouth feel dry and his stomach roll. The cab accelerated away, about other business as soon as Kyle left it. Following the same train of thought while he fumbled with his keys he thought, What would his neighbors buy? His work could tie a spell into a security system, or at least it could if the system had a bunch of lasers like in the movies. Surely real security systems don’t have any such thing, and anyway, there are already mundane ways to tie a spell to a mechanical or digital trigger.
On autopilot, he ascended the stairs and let himself into the condominium. No, he thought, that’s the wrong tack. Kyle shed his clothes, too tired to be neat, creating a trail leading from the front door to the bathroom. The middle class will buy whatever the rich were buying five years ago. They’ll want it at a lower price, but they’ll still pay a lot. They’ll want quality, but they won’t need white glove perfection. He opened the medicine cabinet and tossed back two Advil. The coating tasted slightly dry and chalky against his tongue, but mostly like nothing. When I was a kid, didn’t Advil have flavor? Kyle thought it had. He remembered going to the doctor for an ear infection when he was about seven. It hadn’t been much of an infection so the doc had told him to sleep with that side of his head down for the next few nights and then prescribed three Advil (one more than the maximum dosage!) for the pain. They’d handed out the first of the pills in the office and in keeping it with its brown color it had tasted like chocolate. Kyle swallowed a third Advil for his head, it didn’t taste like much of anything. He crossed to the bedroom.
Inventing for the middle class is hard. The poor have services that the rich and the middle class never see: pawn shops, payday loans, dive bars and clubs. The rich have their whole little world. But nothing is absolutely unique to ordinary middle income consumers. That’s almost a tautology. He stretched out in bed. The throbbing in his head had lessened and his tongue felt a little less dry. That was just as well, he didn’t want to get up for a glass of water. Leave that for when he woke up in the middle of the night – he surely would. It was nearly six and he was going to bed. Low cost services can swirl up into the middle classes; think big box stores. And rich services can come down, like the new ultra micro phones. But that’s all adjustment of existing products.
Maybe I can make something old cheap. Not sure how, but the average consumers would like that. Everyone likes that…
The last of the pain faded from Kyle’s head and the last of the tension from his body. Sleep swirled up like the rise of an inky black tide and all of his thoughts were stilled.