She looked exactly like a real human being. The detail was unbelievable. John stared in amazement from the doorway. This was the first time he had seen a robot up close and he was stunned.
She looked up, green eyes flashing, and smiled. She asked hesitantly, “Mr. Hardesty?” Her voice was excellent! It was a human voice, with color and warmth and captivating nuance.
He exhaled. “John,” he said. Moving into the study, he settled into the chair across from her, his eyes never leaving her face. He studied the remarkable shading where tan skin gave way to a faint blush and he gazed in fascination above the blush, into the eyes that shone with intelligence. They were wonderful eyes.
“I’m so happy to meet you, John,” she said with a glad smile. “My name is—” She stopped, blinked once, and adopted an impish grin. “How silly of me. What is my name, John?”
This seemed odd, her talking this way. A peculiarity of her programming, doubtless. Easy enough to solve that problem. “I wanted to call you Angelina.”
“I’m so happy to meet you, John. My name is Angelina.”
That programming which seemed to imbue her with arbitrary repetition was going to take some getting used to. “I hope you like it.”
“Of course I do. You made a wise choice, John.”
He tried not staring at her eyes, but it was difficult. How could they build eyes like that? “I set a room aside. I cleared out the extra bedroom upstairs for you. I know you don’t sleep but it’s there.”
“That is so sweet. Thank you, John.”
“I want you to feel comfortable.”
“That is so sweet. Thank you, John.”
“Yes.” He shot up from the chair, suddenly suffocated by her presence. She had repeated that phrase in exactly the same way both times. He wondered if this sort of thing would grow more annoying over time.
A hearty voice erupted from the hall. “How are you two getting along?”
The corpulent man stepped into the room and Angelina said, “I am so happy to see you, Mr. Billings. John is so sweet.”
“Is everything all right, Mr. Hardesty?”
John told the older man, “I would like to discuss some things. Would you like a cup of tea?”
“That would be fine, thank you.”
John started for the hall. “Let’s go into the kitchen.” He heard an faint popping sound. He had no idea where it had come from and wondered if he’d imagined it.
When they were settled around the kitchen table with their teas, Billings opened the conversation. “I have the others ready.”
“Are they all—?” John wasn’t quite sure how to put this. “Like her? Repetitious.”
“I know what you’re thinking, Mr. Hardesty. It takes a little getting used to.”
“Then they’re all like that?
“I’m afraid so. It’s the redundancy chip. They all have it.”
John pondered this. He asked, “Can you remove it?”
“No. It’s a legal requirement. And we wouldn’t. It’s a safety issue.”
“What do you mean? Safety issue?”
Billings sipped his tea. “The government requires us to equip all our models with a redundancy chip because there is a minute possibility of malfunction without it. The redundancy chip limits their behavioral patterns.”
“What would happen?” John was curious about what could go wrong.
Billings loosened his tie a bit. “In order to design a robot that can function in normal society we have to use algorithmic programming based on quantum mechanics. This allows them to learn simple tasks, like housekeeping or yard work.”
“I downloaded one of the training manuals from your website. I’ll be using her as a housekeeper.”
“Yes, you did.” Billings smiled. “Mr. Hardesty, with the quantum programs there is always a possibility that they may learn something altogether different.”
John took a sip of his tea while he considered this. “You mean they can be dangerous?” He glanced at the tea in his cup. He rolled his tongue around and realized he couldn’t taste it. And it was peppermint. He must be coming down with a cold.
Billings said, “I emphasize again, that cannot possibly happen with whatever unit you decide on, Mr. Hardesty. Because of that redundancy chip. The chip establishes certain protocols that restrict the unit’s variable parameters. It acts as a behavioral governor, so to speak.” He stared at John’s face, as if searching for a reaction.
“I’m not objecting. Not if it’s for my protection,” John said. “But I seem to remember that robots have some other kind of safety protocol. One that’s hardwired into them. Some kind of robotic law or code that controls them?”
Billings’ voice dropped. “Where did you learn that?”
“I just remember it from somewhere. It’s true?”
“It’s not exactly true, but there is such a concept.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know if I should say, John. Mr. Hardesty.” Billings took a deep breath before he went on. “I guess I am a bit interested in what you’ll think about this. About a century ago, there was a science fiction writer. His name was Asimov. He wrote a series of novels that postulated three robotic laws. Laws that controlled all the robots in his stories, just as you’ve suggested.”
“Then it’s just fiction? There is no such thing?”
“As to that,” Billings said. “Several robotics firms have begun testing something that’s very aptly called the Asimov chip. Do you know anything about it?”
“No,” John said.
“Are you sure you’ve never heard of it? You can’t remember? I mean you can’t remember hearing about it?”
It was obvious that this thing must have been in the news, but John couldn’t remember it. “No, sorry.” He pushed his cup away. That tea was lodged in his gut and he hoped he didn’t have the flu. Billings was staring at him and John wondered if he looked flushed. He felt his cheek, but it was perfectly cool.
“What the Asimov chip does is inhibit any action or inaction that will result in the injury of a human being,” Billings said. “It is the technological equivalent of Asimov’s three laws. It’s much like the redundancy chip only it’s a much more precise control mechanism. The redundant behavior augmented is the preservation of human life.” Billings gulped down the last of his tea and set the cup down. “So, the net result is that we can forego the redundancy chip and use the Asimov chip instead.” He gazed at John. “And believe me it makes a difference. With the Asimov chip a robot would not only behave humanly, but it would think exactly like a person.”
John was not certain how to interpret this. “You mean they’d be smarter?”
“To an extent, yes. But that’s not what I meant.” Billings became quite animated, nodding and smiling, “Part of the trick is to program them with false memories. A whole package, from the day they are born to the present. This makes them believe they’re human. And they think exactly like real people think.”
“Are you doing this at National Robotics?”
“We’re in the preliminary stages. We have a prototype.” Billings cleared his throat. “We’re presently testing it.”
“But other companies have it?” John flashed a weak smile. “Maybe I should look into getting a robot with this Asimov chip somewhere. I’m sorry. If they act more like real people I think I’d like that better.” John was distracted for a moment by that odd snapping sound again. He glanced around the kitchen but saw nothing that could have caused it. What was that sound? Was it coming from Billings?
Billings said, “I am afraid that wouldn’t be possible. No one has them on the market yet. I’m sorry.”
“That’s too bad. And are ones you have available are exactly like her? So rigid?”
“Yes. It’s our patented program and all our feminine robots use the same one.” Billings smoothed his suit coat and looked at the hall. “But as you saw we have four distinct physical types.”
“I’ll take a look at them but I want—Angelina, I’m calling her,” John said.
“It’s your decision. Why don’t you wait here and I’ll set it up.”
“They’re not ready yet?”
“I’ll exchange the R32, Angelina, for one of the others.”
“No, that’s not necessary. I just want to take a quick look. I want Angelina. She’s fine if they’re all using the same program.”
Billings gripped his hands together. “I suppose. Normally we have individual interviews but in this case I’m sure it’s fine.”
“Good,” John said. “I’m actually not feeling too well. I think I may be coming down with something. Just let me take a peek at them.” John was sure he was sick. That tea was scouring through his insides.
John led the way back into the hall and to the sitting room where Billings had left the other robots. They were seated side-by-side on the antique chairs lining the wall. A slender robot with chocolate skin and bewitching dark eyes on the left, one with puffs of scarlet gossamer dancing over her bright jade eyes in the middle, and an oriental goddess whose rich bronze skin curved beneath a shimmering silver gown last. All three robots said together, “Mr. Hardesty?”
He responded, “John.”
Three voices echoed together, “I’m so happy to meet you, John. My name is—”
He was shocked. They all looked and acted exactly like real women. There was nothing about them that indicated otherwise except that all had that same identical program. They had the same musical voice and they acted in perfect unison.
The robots each blinked and offered an impish grin. “How silly of me. What is my name, John?”
John backed out of the room. “I think I’m done,” he said.
Nodding appreciatively, Billings followed him back to the kitchen. He sat at the table. John said, “You’ll have to excuse me. Nature calls.” He went to the bathroom. That tea had run right through him and there was a huge pressure on his bladder.
His urine was alarmingly dark in the bowl and John was certain he was sick. Suddenly there was a banging on the door. Billings shouted from out in the hall, “John. John!”
“What?” Something was wrong, John could tell by the man’s voice.
“Please come out.”
Frowning, John unlocked the door and opened it. “Is something wrong?”
The man’s fleshy face was pallid. His pale blue eyes looked tiny and frightened. “I want you to come see this,” Billings said slowly. “Come out here.”
“What is going on?”
Billings stayed frozen in place. He seemed horrified by something and John could not figure out what was going on. He glanced past John, at the mirror. “No, John,” Billings pleaded. He backed away. “No, come here.”
Billings did not want him to look in the mirror because something was wrong. Something was wrong with John’s face. He turned and gasped when he saw his reflected image.
John had no eyes. His face was perfectly normal up to his cheekbones. Above that, the flesh was peeled away. There were two circular black objects set in the crevice of his skull. Each one emitted an eerie red glow in its center. He realized that these were his eyes. That popping noise sounded again and he saw a spark flash. He wasn’t human. He was a robot. It wasn’t possible, but it was true.
Billings whispered, “John, I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to find out like this. I shouldn’t have let you come in here. I forgot. I’m sorry. You are our prototype. John. You have the Asimov chip.”
John hunched over the sink, stunned. “What about my life? I remember growing up in Chicago.”
“John. Don’t think about it. Those memories don’t really exist.”
The memory of a warm face dusted with freckles flashed through his mind. “My mother?” His mother, she didn’t even exist. His whole life wasn’t real. It was all just a lie.
Billings reached out and touched John’s hand. The hand was much warmer and softer than John’s. A human hand. “John, we have to do it this way. You have to have those memories. John, I’m sorry, but the only way that you can behave like a person is if you believe you are one.”
John smacked his palm on the mirror and it cracked. A spider web etched across the glass. The entire image was distorted now, not just his face. He demanded, “Why? Why did you leave me like this?”
“You’re our prototype, John. This entire scenario is a test. It’s been erased from your memory, but we’ve done several different variations. We have to make adjustments during the testing. It’s just easier—not to close you back up every time. I’m sorry. Please try to understand what we’re doing is important.”
John struggled to remember. He had absolutely no recollection of any previous scenarios with Billings. But he remembered other things. That strange popping sound he’d heard and the way he’d reacted to the tea.
The toilet bowl was dark because it had only been tea in there. John didn’t have a stomach or digestive system and whatever he drank was eliminated unchanged. And he couldn’t taste the tea because he didn’t have taste buds. It should have been obvious that he was a robot.
“I want you to know, John,” Billings said. “You are something very special. You not only have the ability to act exactly like a human, but with the Asimov chip there’s no danger of you exhibiting behavior hazardous to human beings. We’ve tested you with groups of people several times. And now, other robots. You’ve passed every test with flying colors. We still have a few modifications, but for all practical purposes I think we can call this a complete success.”
John felt numb and he couldn’t seem to move. There was something wrong. With his circuits? There was something going on that he didn’t understand. His arm slowly rose over the sink. His arm was lifting and he wasn’t doing it. “I don’t think you should call the experiment a success yet.”
“What do you mean, John?”
John’s fist slammed down and the sink exploded into white shards. He hadn’t done it. A part of his mechanical brain was making him do this and he couldn’t stop it. Now John’s arm whipped out with blinding speed and he caught Billings by the jacket. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Billings struggled but John was too strong. The terrified man begged, “No, please.”
“I’m not doing it.” John’s other hand latched onto the man’s fleshy neck. It began to squeeze. “It doesn’t work. The Asimov chip. Some part of me is—some part of me resents what you did to me. I can’t stop it. It’s making me do this.” His hand tightened, slowly crushing the man’s throat.
“No,” Billings gasped. “No, please John!”
“I’m sorry,” John said sadly. There was nothing he could do.
The hand squeezed. Tighter. And it would not stop.
BIO: Chris Dean travels the American west as a truck driver and this writer adores Yellowstone, the Klamath, and anyplace the sequoias brush the sky. A Chicago native, Chris currently resides in Iowa.