The robot was booked for 19.00. That was not too early or too late. Dinner would be over and Dad would be back in his room, but he wouldn’t have gone to bed. The robot had already texted him to warn him to expect it at 7.00. “Warn” him sounds as though it was going to be frightening, so maybe that’s the wrong word, because I guessed it was going to be a good experience.
At 6.55 I switched on the tablet and logged on to Skype and to Hugbot. You had to synchronize them, but that seemed to be working OK. I had already paid for the session with Mastercard. At 19.00 (which was 20.00 in London), on the screen I saw what the robot saw -- the corridor leading to Dad’s room. The floor was a nice hardwood, but I worried that it might be slippery for residents. The robot stopped at Dad’s door and knocked. Its knuckles were matt silver. They could have made them flesh-coloured, but that might have been creepy. I heard Dad invite us in, and the door swung inwards. Dad was standing facing us. I had somehow expected him to be seated, or lying on his bed. The robot rolled towards him. I spoke.
“Hi Dad. It’s Joel. Did you remember I was going to drop by?”
He bent and looked at the screen. (Dad is quite tall.)
“Yes. Hi, son.”
He could see my face on the robot’s round face, smiling at him.
I lifted my right arm, with the electrodes attached and the wires trailing. (It had taken ages to fix them all on in exactly the right places; that’s the only negative thing I’d say about Hugbot. And the gel for the contacts is sticky.) So, I lifted my arm in London, and I could see the robot’s right arm moving exactly the same way in Sydney. I manoeuvred it behind Dad’s shoulder, gently, and pulled him towards me a little. His face became larger, closer. His nose, in particular, looked bigger than in real life. I squeezed him towards me, just enough to make it a real hug, registering the pressure. There’s fail-safe technology built in, so you can’t hug someone too hard and injure them.
“Lots of love, Dad.”
Not very original, but it seemed to work. Dad was close. He was right up to the robot’s screen face. He was being hugged, and he was hugging back, because his right arm had disappeared behind the robot. And do you know what made it all worthwhile?
He was crying.