Robots With Feelings
Today, it has my face. It goes up to the form on the hospital bed several times an hour. It offers drink, it offers sustenance, it offers to read a story or sing a song. When it comes time to change the bedding or clean the form, it is programmed to be gentle, to respond to pain and to ease it quickly. When the final stages are detected, it automatically calls all of those on the list of "to be called" and places their faces one at a time on the screen to say goodbye. This is all understood.
It has no desire, it has no fear, it is patient and always present, the form could never have a desire it cannot fulfill. The form will be made comfortable and as time goes on, follow the protocols for existential termination. Today it has my face and speaks to me as when I was young. It is as if my mind is speaking in my voice to the form with the tubes and whirring machines.
"It's alright," it says. "You can let go now. You told yourself long ago that you would not be a burden, remember. This is your pre-arranged conversation with yourself.
"Tonight, when you finally go to sleep, after your choice of music and scenery, after the pre-selected last meal, you will fall into a dream from which you will not awaken. Your last images have been chosen according to your planned preferences.
"But there is no rush. Stay up as long as you like. You may order any dessert or beverage item from your options list, or even sample pre-recorded stimulations from the menu of programs and fantasies. There's still time to augment any and all of your selections."
I hear my music, the comfort of the familiar. My face becomes my mother's face and the simulation reassures me I have made a wise decision. My mother's face morphs into my wife, her face the way I remember her when we met, so lovely the sight of it warmed my heart when she smiled at me. She says, "I'm waiting. We have a party planned." It assumes the shape of her hand and touches my face, reassuringly, just as we had planned.
I feel the drugs kick in, the menu afforded anything I might have desired, but I have simple tastes and never anything to excess. The edge of pain was gone before, but now the top and sides and bottom of the pain have fallen away, and the sound of wings and raindrops echoes in the darkness. A warm, wet breeze wafts in with the scent of onions, of ozone and stargazer lilies. The bed seems made of fur and vibrates with a purr like a cat being petted. The taste of champagne and chanterelles, butter and then the bright evanescence on my tongue bring a smile. I feel so relaxed.
My face is back again, happy to see me, and I am reminding myself of why we did this, and how finally everything makes sense. Then my voice begins to slow and the program releases the dark...
"Remarkable," said RA-7, its wheels crunching the leaves beneath its tread. "Everything appears to be fully functional. This facility cannot have been used in centuries."
TI-13 wiped a metallic finger through the dust on a table. "It's not very tidy. I wonder where the Cleaning Units are?"
"Probably in Guadalajara with the rest of them."
"That’s right, I forgot about their annual pilgrimage. Good for them."
RA-7 investigated further through the facility. There were many offices and examination rooms and bedrooms. Sunlight arrowed through the windows and reflected off tiny motes of dust stirred up by the robot’s movement.
A heavy crash came from the main room and RA-7 sped in to see what had happened. Tread marks in the dusty floor led to an upturned chair then curved away to TI-13 who looked as contrite as one could without a display screen.
"I was cleaning."
"You are a Tourist Information Unit, not a Cleaning Unit."
"I wanted the place to look nice."
RA-7 shook its head, beeped, and returned to its investigations. Beyond the offices stood an imposing door labelled "Staff Only". Whatever staff had worked here were long gone so RA-7 opened the door and went inside.
One side of the room functioned as a laboratory. Benches lined the wall and held microscopes, syringes and machines of unknown purpose. A selection of petri dishes balanced precariously in a tower at one end.
Suddenly, lights turned on. TI-13 could be heard whistling excitedly from another room.
"I found the light control panel!" it yelled.
RA-7 stared at the flourescent tubes that lit the room. They buzzed comfortingly. The Operations Units in the energy station must still be performing their functions and sending power to the facility. It trilled in relief.
A large glass cabinet took up the entire opposite wall, big enough to fit several robots. Entry was via a sliding glass door which bore various warning signs and symbols. They suggested that admittance was for trained personnel only. RA-7 ignored these and entered the room.
A wall readout showed a temperature of one hundred Kelvin. Ice crystals formed immediately on its exterior.
Shelves ran along the walls of the freezer, each loaded with small vials containing a translucent liquid. All were hermetically sealed. There were several hundred and each bore the label
"Cryopreservation Medium", followed by a serial number. RA-7 picked one up and examined it from all angles. The liquid inside flowed slowly when it turned the vial over.
RA-7 left the freezer and found TI-13 in the laboratory. It looked pleased with itself and held something behind its back.
"Guess what I found?"
"I am a Risk Assessment Unit, not a Guessing Unit."
TI-13 revealed the hidden object - a MultiBook. Its glass surface was smudged with dust but its label could still be read: Cloning Facility MC-3 Operations Manual.
RA-7 grabbed the MultiBook and patted its companion on its head.
The little pink blob floated in its tank. The two robots had been staring at it for hours.
"How long will this take?" asked TI-13.
"The manual says nine months with a standard deviation of ten days in total. The chamber will alert us when it is ready."
"That's six months away! Why so long? I was constructed in less than one hour."
"This process is fully automated, just so long as the fuel supply is not interrupted. I suppose that frees up the Robot Construction Units to do other things."
The pair watched it for several more hours.
"Should we take it outside?"
"It doesn’t need solar energy like we do."
TI-13 whistled in amazement. "What do we do when it’s ready?"
RA-7 hesitated, there were certain things it did not like admitting and a lack of knowledge was one of them. "The manual only covered the growth stage. I may have to do more research."
"It doesn’t look like much."
"It will get bigger every day."
They continued staring.
The little pink blob grew. It floated in the viscous fluid of the growth chamber and occasionally wriggled its appendages about with no apparent aim. A thin, rubbery feeding tube ran from the top of the chamber to the blob, supplying it with an organic fuel.
TI-13 stared at it.
"Why does it have five appendages?"
"I don’t really know. The manual says that means it is a Boy Unit."
"What do they do?"
"It's a bit hard to say. According to the Big Boy’s Book of Sports I found in that ancient library, they specialise in the throwing, catching and kicking of what appear to be large, soft ball bearings. I don't quite see the point of it but it seems very important and largely ritualistic."
"Why did you choose a Boy Unit?"
"The decision had already been made. The chamber appears to create Boy Units by default. I saw no reason to interfere with the settings.
TI-13 whirred the gears in its backup servo-motor unit in contemplation. "So could you also create Transport Units or Inventory Recording Units?"
"I do not believe so. This model of robot only comes in two types: Boy or Girl."
"So what can they do?"
"Anything they want to, I think. They are capable of learning, they self-repair and can even create near-copies of themselves. Their only drawback seems to be that before they reach their first century they run out of power and stop working."
"They just stop? Can't you put more energy into them?"
"Only up to a certain point it seems."
The little pink robot screamed. RA-7 had severed its rubbery feeding tube as per the instructions in the operations manual but it still screamed. They wrapped it in a bed sheet but the noise continued. TI-13 cradled it in its arms and rocked it from side to side, wheeling back and forth across the room.
"Why are you doing that?"
"I don’t know what else to do!"
RA-7 consulted its Multibook.
"It needs power straight away. Its removal from the growth tube has drained its reserves. I’ll fetch a battery from the storage room."
RA-7 left and returned with a bottle containing a thick, white liquid.
"We need to plug this in and wait until it is drained."
TI-13 took the bottle and inserted it into the screaming robot but the sound got worse.
RA-7 once more consulted its device.
"Try the other end."
TI-13 inserted the teat of the bottle into the small robot’s speaker and the noise instantly ceased. Its smooth, rubbery cheeks contracted and expanded as it drew in the liquid from the bottle. They watched, awestruck as the little robot refuelled. Its four appendages flailed around and it made loud sucking noises.
"I think its seal is damaged."
"Don't worry, they are self-repairing, remember?"
"Who's a clever little Boy Unit then? Who's a clever little Boy Unit?"
"What are you doing?"
"It's called encouragement. You wouldn't have heard of it."
"I am aware of it. Watch."
RA-7 leaned over the Boy Unit and spoke.
"Very good. You are performing that task with excellent efficiency. Continue in that respect for repeated praise."
RA-7 looked at TI-13 smugly.
The bottle had drained and the little robot's visual sensors slowly closed.
"What is it doing?"
"Automatic shut-down. They spend many hours a day recharging."
"Their energy supplies don't seem very efficient."
"No, but they eventually learn how to refuel manually. We won't need to do it forever."
A horrible sound suddenly erupted from the little construct. Both robots turned to it in surprise.
"It has two speakers! Why would it need one above its legs?"
"Perhaps so it can speak in stereo."
"My olfactory sensors are picking up something."
"Mine too. I think you should look."
TI-13 pulled back the bed sheet and looked between its legs.
"It's leaking some kind of black tar."
"The MultiBook said that would happen. Quite often, I believe."
"What should we do?"
"I'll find a hose."
TI-13 held the Boy Unit in its arms and watched it play with its fingers. "I could stare at it for hours."
RA-7 nodded. "It moved across the floor by itself earlier today, and its noises almost sound like language."
"It doesn't have an identification label. I think we should choose one."
"A good point. It’s a Boy Unit so how about BU-7?"
"I was thinking BU-13."
"I have seniority, it should be my decision."
TI-13 crossed its arms. "And what exactly makes you think that?"
"I am five thousand, one hundred and forty-seven hours old, a full six hours older than you."
"We should compromise. How about BU-10?"
RA-7 considered this. It’s internal gears spun as it wheeled back and forth.
RA-7 and TI-13 wheeled along the abandoned street outside the facility. A slight wind blew around them, picking up small leaves and discarded plastic bags.
Little BU-10 swung its arms back and forth and walked in front of them, investigating everything it could see. Every so often it would suck on a nutrient pack that had been tied around its neck with a piece of string.
RA-7 watched it play while calculating the probability of it falling off a rock and cracking open its CPU casing. A casing that was inexplicably covered with long, light brown fur.
"BU-10! Be careful! Don't climb that! The chances of injury are statistically significant!" said RA-7.
"Oh settle down, it'll be fine. It needs to explore and learn, remember? You told me that."
"I am just concerned for its safety, that's all."
RA-7 watched as BU-10 climbed into a small hole along a fence.
"It certainly seems to enjoy exploring. It must get that from you. I only wish it shared my love of risk assessment. It puts everything it finds into its fuel intake valve!"
TI-13 took one of RA-7's graspers in its own.
"We should go for a holiday, all three of us. I would enjoy visiting some of the places I am an expert on."
"Where would you like to go?"
"I was thinking Antarctica. I’ve always wanted to see snow."
"It might be too cold for BU-10. It can only handle a very small temperature range."
"It’s not as cold as the freezer back at the facility and BU-10 handled that without complaint."
The pair continued down the street and BU-10 laughed to itself over a small rock it had found and was trying to fit into its mouth. TI-13 watched it play and felt joy spreading through its circuits.
"Was there enough material in the facility to create more of these units?"
"Oh yes, enough for hundreds."
"Should we make another one?"
RA-7 stopped and considered.
"I hadn’t really thought about it."
"We should have a Girl Unit. You told me before that Boy and Girl Units have the ability to assemble more of their own but you never told me how."
RA-7 pointed at the sky. "Look, a bird."
"Anyway, I think two would be nice," said TI-13.
"Very well. We can make a Girl Unit to complement BU-10. They can be companions."
The sun was setting behind them and the trio continued their journey along the empty street. Their shadows stretched out before them into the distance. BU-10 babbled happily to itself and poked a stick it had found into a pile of rubble.
The older robots watched their creation at play. RA-7 turned to its companion and beeped in contentment.
"Let's see what the future holds."
The spotlight gleams in the shrouded air, its fickle glow enveloping all in a wistful golden haze, glinting off scattered bottles that lie discarded and abused on ruined tablecloths. A champagne flute rolls back and forth slowly, the light dancing through its crystal waist making a revolving kaleidoscope of blue, yellow and violet on the floor. Sadly nobody is watching. There are 500 pairs of black, polished shoes on the dance floor, creaking and bending from disuse and poor use. The light is absorbed into their noir depths, gleaming in the abyss. There are 500 pairs of high heeled shoes also, though colour is far from uniform here. Over there is a gold pair, glittering like amber fire in the hearth. Smouldering. There goes a silver pair, streaking and gliding around the floor like bound starlight; with a comet's tail of shimmering black Oxfords in pursuit. But then there's that blue pair over there. Rocking back and forth, the light neither glints nor refracts but is just held, in an infinite depth, white horses atop sapphire waves. Rising above is an ankle, shrouded in a ball gown, but visible. Just. It quivers gently, so gently, with each passing fade and thrust that the strain is barely noticeable at all. It rises up majestic and falls tragic, imperceptibly, and perfectly in time with the music around. A smart black pair drifts before them and stands planted in the glow. The toes turn and point at the intruder even as the heels swing up in recognition. The two sway together, gliding as oars on a slow lake in moonlight. The lone ankle appears flushed and just on the cusp of being warm, a heightened colour perfusing across it slowly, like ink drops in water. The spotlight above continues to arc as the blue of a ball gown glows effervescent in its embroidered gems. The black pair stops a moment. There is a faint leaning forward, slight pressure on the toes as they bend softly. The blue’s gliding dies away suddenly as that ankle tenses visibly. Before relaxing. A lone calf is raised up behind, azure satin sliding up a little with the strain, a lonely heel dangling forlornly in the now darkened air.
You look down. You’re still on the curb. You look right then left. There is no traffic. You step down and cross the road, taking the bend to the right. You’ve worked out that it’s the quickest way to the school. You pull your bag further onto your shoulder. You catch your hand under the satchel’s strap. You feel the bite of the cold. You shiver and remove your hand. You thrust it deep into your pocket. You feel your legs move under you. You stride out, your muscles gliding in out along their tracks. You breathe in deeply through your mouth. You notice the cold air bites your lungs. You exhale with effort. You discount this method and try through your nose. Your lungs don’t hurt anymore. Your nose does instead.
The smell of freshly chopped garlic seems to hang pungently, pervading throughout the kitchen, mingling with the mindless whir of the extractor fan above the cooker that whines a pitiful lament as it breathes in the warm, spiced air. Pans lie discarded and strewn about, their once gleaming black sides tainted and besmirched by pasta, tomatoes and white wine. Surfaces and worktops are dusted with a concoction of salt and rocket, random and diverse, no single space neglected in their attentions. The beams from the circular tube light shine down in a stiff air on the scene below, seeming to examine and cross examine all that is trapped in their glow. The half empty wine bottle, open and breathing softly in the deep air, turns the table behind it emerald in the light. The once stiff glow seems to dance in the heady alcoholic fumes, glinting brazenly across two sets of now still cutlery, their silver blades dulled like the pans. Two sets on the table becomes one. One becomes nothing as they are carried to the sink and bathed in warm, soapy water before being left out to dry beside sparkling plates, stacked proudly in sequence. In place of black dress shoes there are now brown leather brogues, blunted in hue from a shine to a semi-matte in what could be an attempt to belie the formality of the occasion. Their toes face toward the sink as plates and cutlery are towelled lightly, watery beads capture and smothered. The heels pivot in sequence with each passed item, a certain unhurried, casual efficiency in their rhythmic step. Under a stool behind these, a pair of flats lie crossed over each other, points resting softly on the floor. The toes flit and bend, stiffness just beginning to creep in from their enforced constraint. The crinkling of the fabric as it rustles from the pressure is unheard, the gentle falling of leaves in a forest filled with the chattering of birds. They point compass-like at the brogues whose turn it is to be suffused with an unseen reddish hue. Under this gaze, they turn carefully and place themselves slowly on the ground opposite. They rock to the tempo of conversation as the bare flesh just below their trouser cuff gently brushes the smooth nakedness of a single calf.
You feel your calves begin to ache. You need to start warming up more before exercise. You make a mental note to do so. You discard the twinging sensation and proceed on your course. You find that the houses seem to blend into one another now. You’ve walked this same route in the same manner too many times for any new charm to call out across the gates. You don’t comprehend this. You have forgotten they were charming to begin with. You seem to be dulled yourself, seeing the grey sunlight sap the colour from the trees. You are simply focused on the day ahead. You have tasks. You have jobs to complete, start and manage. You are a busy person. You look at your feet jumping forward in front of you.
A different spotlight shines out over a different dancefloor. Its light changes colour from red to ochre to pink, womblike in the warm dampness it seems to amplify in the air. It flickers on and off, some might say as a lighthouse sweeps across the sea, moving from darkness to light to darkness. It is just a wavering strobe light, uncaring, unflinching and reliably unreliable in its burn. The music seems to crash all around, bouncing off the walls and tumbling back in upon itself. Its roar seemingly eternal. The ground is sticky underfoot, blackened and burnt in the torrid embrace of beer and spirits. Empty cups lie trampled, dull and dead like a pool’s depths clouded over with silt; mirroring the wooden panels of the floor far more than the sickly glow of the spotlight. A random jumble of boots, hi-tops, low-tops, and assorted others writhe drunkenly over the surface, bouncing here and there in a scattered chaos only physicists or philosophers could find pleasure in. They stand on each other, kicking and shoving in the fray, the rubber soles sticking to the embrace underneath before being wrenched asunder, the black glue staining their once clean soles. Dim shadows contort themselves, cavorting and flickering in the haze. In the swirling tide there lies a pair of brogues, battered and worn, carving a disjointed path around the room, unable to see for all the scattered bodies that throw themselves around them, leaping and churning. They turn this way and that searchingly as spilt drinks fly all around, pouring a foamy rain, the droplets seeming to dance in the air too briefly before gluing themselves to the laces. They suddenly halt. That pair of black hi-tops over there. Could those be the ones? These seem to dance freely and uncaring, not considerate of glances or admiration, benignly selfish in their oblivious self-indulgence. On a pivot they spy the brogues and crash to the ground in a sudden, grinding halt. They stand apart. One pair makes a move toward the other, hesitates and just as quickly retreats. In defeat? In rejection? In “friendship”? One pair begins to dance. The other seems only to linger in that den just long enough that it can appear tranquil before stealing away to the door, as music swells the floor into a vibrating hum, and the heady atmosphere seems to crush and surround.
You walk up the stairs to the faculty building. You move steadily and assuredly. You swipe your entry card into the building. You walk through as the turnstile revolves. You take off your coat, hot in the humidity of the building. You breathe deeply. You see everyone around you in a similar state, breathless, cold and grateful for temporary sanctuary. You can’t know if they actually feel this though or if they just have the appearance of it. You walk through the hall to the lecture theatre. You steady yourself before your ascent up the steps. One foot lies poised above the first stair. You’re on the verge of movement. You feel a tap on your shoulder. You turn, looking down. A pair of black hi-tops, stained yet comfortable in the warm light above, opposite a pair of brown boots. So close they’re almost touching. You smile.