Tuesday, July 05, 2005


"What the hell is going on, Spencer?"

Albert Spencer looked up from his newspaper and saw a red-faced Jonathan Crowley standing at the door, a sheaf of readouts clutched tightly in his callused hand.

Spencer was a thin, dapper man, deliberate in his actions. He sported a clean haircut and rimless spectacles that were perched precariously on his thin nose. He stared now at the heaving Crowley with a faintly disapproving air.

"You might want to let go that grip a bit."

Crowley stared at the offending fist and, chagrined, relaxed his hold. He stormed over to Spencer's chair, and with a resounding flick of a wrist deposited the readouts onto his coffee table. The crumpled papers settled slowly, one catching the side of a small puddle of spilt tea and soaking up its contents. Crowley sputtered for all the world and swiped the papers away hastily, whereupon they fell on the carpeted floor.

It was a long time before Crowley could get his bearings back. Spencer waited silently, pale eyes peering over the top of his newspaper.

Finally he set the papers down and said, "What is it, Dr. Crowley?"

"I don't know!" Roughly thrusting the set of readouts in Spencer's face. Gently, Spencer took them and, fastidiously avoiding the wet portions, began examining its contents. His lips quirked into a slight smile.

Crowley glowered at him. "Now do you know? Its driving us crazy, this is! Damned new model!"

Spencer drawled out his words. "Well, it does seem to be rather a unique case, under the circumstances. Positronic readouts seem to be normal, no spike anomalies or any such peculiarities of that sort." Heaving up from his chair, he said, "I suppose I'd have to see for myself."

Lab Center was by no means very far from the Rec Center, but the walk there seemed to take forever. To Crowley, at least. Spencer was inspecting the grounds methodically, sampling the mid-afternoon breeze, and taking special effort to enjoy his walk. Crowley could only roll his eyes at such languid behaviour.

The Lab center was a huge monolith of metal and glass. Crowley impatiently flashed his ID card and trod in; Spencer greeted the ID computer before doing so. It responded with a cheery salutation.

They took a high-speed elevator down to the enormous underground complex that was the Experimental Model Center. Here, the newest robots were subjected to tests of neural agility, motor function, memory - everything that might go awry from a bugged positronic pathway. Spencer thought it all amusingly ironic that robot models were built and sacrificed all for the sake of human error.

Crowley gestured to a room. Peering through the tinted glass door Spencer could just make out the figure of a robot, swaying back and forth, as though ruminating over some unspoken memory.

Crowley turned his eyes towards Spencer and looked at him. His tone was incredulous. "That damned robot's been talking to a brick for an hour. For God's sake do something about this, Spencer."Frustrated. "I can't take this crap anymore."

Spencer entered the room. And true were Crowley's words; the robot was staring at a brick, a small red brick with a chip in it. And he was talking softly to it.

"How may I slander you-How may I slander you-Do you wish hate-mail upon second trimester?"

Very slowly, Spencer's eyebrow arched.

"Harvey?" For that was the robot's name, "respond."

Harvey stopped rocking. Slowly, it turned its gleaming head towards Spencer. Its photoreceptors glowed a faint yellow in the soft light. "What -Our Creator has endowed-endowed us with unalienab-b-ble rights- do you have to hoodwink me. I am-am hoodwinked by a Master."

Spencer frowned slightly, but very slightly, for he was not one to frown easily. "I am a master, Harvey. I am human. By Second Law you have to obey my orders. And I will not, uh, hoodwink you." His tone was sharp, preemptory.

Harvey began to stutter. "Laughter's tears. You are not red-you are not-not human. Nor mast-ter-r. Pizza-can't tail-tailor?" And he began droning quotes from a cleaning manual.

Spencer waited. As the robot's hackneyed monologue began to trail off, he spoke again. "Who is master, then?"

And the robot pointed to the brick. "Master-trampling. Master-not to be defenestrated."

With that, Spencer began taking slow steps towards the table. Jerkingly, Harvey began scrabbling at it. "What are you doing, Harvey?"

"Make-be-bed. Flee, fly! Flam."
"That is not a bed, Harvey."
"Is a bed. Are-following birdwatching."
"If it is a bed, where are the bedsheets?"
"Un-underdog-assari. Unincluded. Bear, bare, punk-rocker."

Spencer reached the table, and in one smooth and simultaneous action pointed behind the robot. "What-Master is in danger!"

The robot looked back in simulated alarm, and Spencer, taking advantage of the robot's inattention, snatched the brick, lifted it high with an intent to smash it down - Only to be kicked viciously away by Harvey's metallic foot. Emitting a high-pitched squeal, Harvey rounded on the supine Spencer.

Crowley, watching the entire proceedings, nearly passed out when he saw Harvey acting in direct violation of the First Law and activated the EMP field. The room was filled with an intangible shriek of light and noise. By its end, Harvey lay in a motionless heap, deactivated.

Later, Spencer explained the entire situation to a bewildered Crowley while daintily brushing nonexistent dust off his immaculate shirt.

"Don't worry. Harvey is quite an anomaly, I assure you, though you might want to take precautions with quantum fluctuations to the positronic field."

"But what happened?"

"Oh, it's all rather simple really. You see, robots follow the Three Laws-and this one did too, however it could."
"But it attacked you!"
"That's because it didn't consider me human. It considered the brick human. When you loaded the vocabulator's Dictionary module something or other malfunctioned and the definition for what a human is was altered. Human was assigned the meaning of brick. And brick was assigned the meaning of human."
"What?" Incredulous.
"So it treated the brick like a Master. But the First Law is rigid. It states that human beings cannot come to harm. But harm is loosely defined in the robot's mind. It is the state of un-well-being. It had no means to define what harm was to a brick-how would a brick be unwell? How would a brick conform or follow symptoms of un-well-being in a human?

So the robot was understandably confused. It could follow no orders from the Second Law. And the dictionary register continued to corrupt-possibly because of this confusion in the positronic potentials. But, since the definitions that pertain to the Three Laws are, as you know, within the sphere of the hardware itself, they're harder to corrupt. Those definitions remained somewhat unaltered. Except "hoodwink", I gather." He smiled.

"So. I was a brick in the robot's eyes. And when I talked, attempted to pass myself off as a Master, it was understandably confused. And the robot is much more rigid; it won't pass it off or comprehend it so easily. So it cracked. Its vocabulator deteriorated steadily as it talked to me.

Still, it came to the brick's rescue. First Law!"

Crowley frowned. "There is still one thing that bothers me. It was remarkably slow in tackling you."

"Why, that's because a robot's conception of harm to a human being cannot square with its new definition of what humans are. To put it simply, it has no idea what constitutes harm to a brick!"

Spencer leaned back on his chair and took up his newspaper again. "And that is that."

No comments: