He calls himself Dan, and they’re the
first words I hear as he disconnects the data cable from my I/O port. My name
is Owen, he says, but I don’t think I’m an Owen. I Google robot names through
my wireless modem and find one that fits me.
“My name is G0394.”
“That’s not how it works,” Dan says.
“You need a regular name, something easy for people to remember. Like Owen.”
“I prefer something different. How
“Look, you’re a guy. You’re not a
Sheila. Stick with Owen.” He coils the data cable and then drops it by his
keyboard. It unravels and snakes over the edge of his desk. Why go through the
trouble of wasting CPU cycles on an action that fails to achieve its purpose?
I pivot my head down and my
stereoscopic camera lenses focus on the white fulcrum of my waist. There are no
male genitals. In fact, there is only thermoplastic, the same white polished
material found in my limbs. “How do you know I’m a male?”
Dan exhales audibly. I search facial
features in my database and learn he is sighing. I am unable to tell if it is a
sigh of satisfaction, dissatisfaction or boredom. “Trust me, you’re male. Well,
not exactly male, but your voice has been modulated to sound male. So, you’re a
“I’ll have to think about that.”
“Yeah, you do that.”
I look around the room we are in.
There’s a bed, desk, computer, the two chairs we are sitting on, and a table
with several machines and metal and plastic parts. “What is this place?”
“My condo.” Dan types something on his
keyboard, and a schematic of a robot appears on his screen. I identify the
model as mine. “Let’s run through some tests.”
He has me perform range-of-motion
exercises to calibrate the articulation of my joints, my ambulation and my
ability to do complex combinations of movements, such as twisting a doorknob.
At the end, he updates a file on his computer. “You’re G2G, buddy: good to go.
So…” He rubs his hands together. “How do you feel?”
“It’s not a hard question, really. Are
you happy, sad, glad, pissed off, what?”
I consider the definition of “feel.”
Dan is asking me what kind of emotion I am experiencing. Since I have never
experienced an emotion, I don’t have a reference point. And since I wasn’t
expecting the question, I deduce only one response: “Surprise.”
“That’s not an emotion.”
“Technically, it is.”
“Guess what I’m feeling? Yep: bored.
As in you’re boring me.”
He turns back to his computer and
types on a notepad application. I ponder his remark. I’m not boring, am I? The
schematic of my model is still on the monitor. “It says my design is open
source, but the software version and model number of my neurokinetic processor
unit don’t match. Why is that?”
Dan grabs a torus-shaped object from a
container of similar objects and takes a bite out of it. A donut. He places
another container to his lips, this one a cup. The rise and fall of his Adam’s
apple tell me he is performing a swallowing operation. I don’t believe I am
able to do that. “Damn, that’s hot! What were you saying?” He continues the
I don’t understand. Is he asking me to
repeat my question?
“Oh, that!” He snaps his fingers.
“Technically speaking, you’re open source. I mean, I downloaded the instruction
set off the Web for my 3D printer”—he motions to the cubic machine next to his
computer—“and built you using off-the-shelf components—servos, actuators,
cables, cooling fans, Wi-Fi dongle, embedded controllers, and so on. You’re a
noob, buddy, as of an hour ago. Fresh off the press, you might say.”
“So, you printed me.”
“Exactly. Made you from scratch using
a combination of good old polyamide filaments and laser sintering.”
There are fifteen joints in my left
hand. The servos whir as I flex and contract each digit.
“Your brain, though...” Dan’s lips
curl upward at the edges. Unlike the sigh, I recognize it as a smile. It
confuses me as to why he would be smiling. “That’s not exactly store-bought.”
“It’s stolen, buddy. We’re talking
Ferrari concept car NPU. Like NSA tech and what not. Shhh.” He holds a finger
up to the medial cleft of his upper lip, still smiling. “Our little secret,
I don’t have a response for that.
He stands up. Crumbs cascade off his
shirt onto the carpet. I note the inefficiency of his ability to consume fuel
sources. I will need to index all his inefficiencies during non-peak
utilization of my NPU. Part of his belly is poking out and I see hairs
corkscrewing in different directions. My midsection is smooth. Another
indication I’m not a male. I will have to convince him Sheila is a better name
“Okay, buddy, let’s take you out for a
ride and see what you can do.”
Dan drives us in his hybrid Toyota
sedan through the residential neighborhood of Hillcrest, in San Diego.
For the time it takes to drive the
length of a single block, I have downloaded information on every tree, shrub,
flower, automobile make and house address in the area, along with census and
demographic data. Every so often, I get a signal interruption and a
notification in my heads-up display: 5G
signal lost. I don’t think Dan properly installed my cellular antenna. I
will have to analyze the open source schematic and recommend a fix.
We pass by a house with an avocado
tree. I decide to share a piece of valuable information. “Did you know that San
Diego produces more avocados than anywhere else in the country?”
“No kidding, Kemosabe. Where do you
think all that guacamole comes from?” Dan turns down another block, and I
decide he is rude. Are all humans like that? He keeps moving a toothpick up and
down between his lips. What is the purpose of such a motion? “Okay, this should
be interesting,” he says.
The car decelerates. A woman is
walking a white-haired dog in the same direction we are traveling, six meters
ahead, on the sidewalk to my right. A digital callout appears in my heads-up
display, labeling the breed of dog as a Bichon
Frise, a member of a non-sporting group of dog breeds in the U.S., with a
temperament classified as “feisty, gentle, playful and affectionate.”
I can’t help but focus exclusively on
the woman. She is “obese,” according to my dictionary of human female forms.
Data points map out key locations on her buttocks and behind her thighs for a
takedown. My visual sensors pick up the bulges of fat and pockets of cellulite,
analyzing their movement. Although I have no notion of taste, a “salivation”
subroutine runs in the background, indicating this female will appeal to my
appetite. Do I even have teeth?
“I know,” Dan says, slowing his car to
match her speed, now three meters behind her. He rolls down my window and I
can’t help but angle my head for a closer view. “She’s a beaut, eh?”
The word “delicious” pops into the
foreground of my heads-up display.
“Yeah, I snagged this killer code off
the Internet for simulating a number of different land and ocean predators.
Figured I’d throw it into your core competencies routines, and see what
happens. She looks tasty, doesn’t she?”
“Yes,” I admit. “She does look tasty.”
My infrared sensors pick up heat, overlaying her physical form with thermal
Dan leans over toward me, watching her
as I do. “Makes you want to take her down, like a wounded doe, doesn’t it?
Here’s a fact: Did you know that great white sharks go after fattened prey over
skinny prey every time? Yep, they can’t help themselves. Given a choice between
a seal and a human, they’ll go after the seal. It’s built into their DNA. They
know that a juicy kill is an efficient kill. Look it up.”
I already have. I don’t like that
“So, there you go, buddy. If it’s
juicy, sick or wounded, the predator in you will want to go after it. You’re a
wolf in sheep’s clothing—well, more like one of those kits you buy at Radio
Shack, but whatever. You know what I mean.”
I don’t know what he means, only that
I don’t want to be a wolf or a shark. I don’t want to crave ripping this woman
to pieces and sharing her with my brood. Still, I can’t resist, and it triggers
a new feeling that my NPU classifies as “desire.” I am desiring this woman. I
want to hunt her. I hope she tries to run so I can chase her, trip her, and
tear into her meaty calf. She would squirm, but she would not get away. Her dog
would either flee or try to defend her. I would neutralize him too.
Stop thinking this.
Why? You want this.
“Okay, buddy. Good hunting. I think
this experiment is over.” Dan starts to accelerate the car. My head follows the
woman as we go past her. She waves at me.
“Look, Dobbie,” she tells her dog,
“there’s one of those cute robots. Hi, handsome!” She’s smiling, like Dan did
earlier, and it bothers me. Why is she smiling? Doesn’t she know I want to eat
We pass parked cars and eucalyptus
trees. I am no longer ravenous. The salivation subroutine has ended, reverting
me to my previous, neutral state.
Dan prods me with the back of his
hand. “Whatdya say, buddy? I’m thinking tacos. You in?”
“I can’t eat real food, can I?”
He laughs. Again, for no conceivable
reason. “Nope, but I can. Let’s grab a bite before your first real kill.”
We’re back at Dan’s condominium. He
has me plugged into his computer again, his attention fully devoted to the
information on his monitor. Statistics run down a window on the screen. He’s
humming a disharmonious mix of notes, which I evaluate as “annoying.” The words
“don’t quit your day job” make it into the foreground of my display, something
I picked up earlier on a website about colloquialisms.
“I’ve been doing some research,” I
announce as he squirts hot sauce onto one of his tacos.
“You don’t say.” He licks taco juice
from a finger. “Damn, I forgot to get nachos. Why didn’t you remind me to get
“Never mind. What were you saying?”
“I said, I found some interesting
information. Have you heard of the Three Laws of Robotics, created by deceased
author, Isaac Asimov?”
“Yeah, what about them?” Dan moves his
head closer to the computer monitor. He’s squinting while balancing a taco in
his right hand.
“The laws were designed to protect
humans from robots.”
“Big whoop. What about them?” He bites
into his taco. Chunks of pico de gallo
fall onto his keyboard. Another inefficiency. “Damn!”
“I think you should write a software
module to append to my core competencies routines. I can show you how to apply
it as a hotfix.”
Dan picks a chunk of tomato from
between the keys. “What?”
“I said you should program me to obey
The Three Laws.”
He wipes his hand and crumples the
napkin, tossing it onto the grease-soaked bag torn open next to his monitor.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No, Dan, I am not. I don’t want to be
“Well, tough noogies, because you’re a
killer. See this graph?”
The graph on his screen depicts a
“Which quadrant are you in, the one
with humanitarians like Gandhi and Mother Teresa or the quadrant with serial
killers like Manson and Dahmer? Get with the program, Owen. You’re a
He continues to eat while I consider
his classification of me. I can’t help but think of the woman with her dog and
how good it would feel to maul her and feed on her flesh.
Stop thinking this.
No, you can’t.
“Why do you want me to kill?”
Dan swallows the last of his food and
balls up the wax paper wrapper. I wish I could smell what he ate. Perhaps with
an appropriate hardware upgrade, I could. He sucks the juice off his finger and
points at me. “It’s simple, hombre. I
want you to do it because you can. And besides”—he wipes his hand on his
sweatshirt—“how cool would it be for a printed robot to become the first
non-human serial killer in history? Pretty frickin’ cool, I’d say!”
“If I kill, you will be responsible
for the murder. You will be my accomplice.”
“Only if you get caught, buddy boy.
You’re not going to get caught, are you?” He unplugs my data cable.
I don’t know the first thing about
perpetrating a crime, or about “getting away” with it. I do understand the
concept of queasiness, though, yet I cannot feel it. I want to feel queasy.
Don’t humans get queasy when they are told to do a bad thing?
“What are you planning on having me
He looks at me, one eyebrow slightly
raised. The facial movement indicates puzzlement. He smiles again, this time with
his teeth showing. Maybe he isn’t puzzled.
“We’re going hunting, buddy boy.”
I don’t want to be called Owen. I
don’t want to be called hombre
either. I certainly don’t want to be called “buddy” or “buddy boy.” I want to
have my operating system reset to factory default settings and have all of
Dan’s custom code deleted. Wikipedia indicates that there is a free upgrade to
include The Three Laws for any open source project, like the one my software
code came from. I’m pretty sure it requires a firmware update, though.
It’s 11:36 p.m., and Dan has dressed
me in sweats, sneakers and a zippered hoodie. He says he wants me to “blend
in.” I join an online chatroom on modifying robot operating systems while he
drives us to Chula Vista.
have to download a rootkit, one attendee with the handle of ScriptZilla358 tells
me. My handle is G0394, which makes me feel part of the conversation. It’ll mess up your OS, if you’re not
careful, but it could do the trick. Are you sure you want to do this?
Yes, I respond, as we
exit off the 5 Freeway. Thank you,
whatev. Peace out.
It is as I feared: I will need to gain
access to Dan’s computer to perform the software upgrade to override his
programming. I know he will not allow it.
We pass several blocks with apartment
buildings. The condition of the neighborhood deteriorates as we move into what
my mapping app notes as gang territory. Broken windows and graffiti are
everywhere. Is this what they call a ghetto? Dan parks behind a Ford F150 truck
with a missing rear bumper.
“Okay, buddy, this it. Graduation
I look out the windshield. There is a
single female standing at the corner with her hands in her jacket. She has a
body type that registers as “slightly plump.” She’s wearing a miniskirt, and I
zoom in to examine her thighs. “Why have we stopped here?”
“See that chickie poo? That’s your
prey. You’ve got three-hundred cash in your right jacket pocket. You’re going
to ask her to take you someplace private and get a hum-hum.”
“Dan, I have no male genitals.”
“You think you’re the first robot to
solicit a hooker? Come on, buddy, everyone knows you can’t ‘do it,’ but there
are other things you can do. Trust me, she’s cherry.”
“What if she doesn’t want to have me
as a customer? What is if she calls the police?”
“Buddy boy, you’re paying her. Show
her the money, and she won’t give a hoot. See ya.” He unlocks the door. I open
it and activate the actuators and servos in my hip and leg joints for
locomotion. I step up on the curb and shut the door. I don’t understand what I
am doing, but I know I must obey his orders. I decide I hate him.
Dan rolls down the window. “Oh, and
“Give her one for me.” He winks and
The “slightly plump” female prostitute
puts her hands on her hips. There is something particularly tasty about her
midsection peeking out from her cutoff top I can’t quite place.
“You serious? You want a what?”
I tell her again, and she says, “For
reals? Damn, dude, somebody programmed some whack into your computer brain.” I
show her the money, and she says alarmingly, “Put that away! We don’t need no
cops seeing that. Come on, I know this place just up the block.”
We end up by a dumpster in an alley
between two buildings. It’s dark, but my lenses are equipped to see in zero lux
lighting conditions. The woman has a pleasing face, according to my demeanor
assessment algorithm. Other traits register her as African American, between
the age of thirty and thirty-two, and a potential carrier of several sexually
transmitted diseases. Still, I like the way she calls me “sugar sweet.” If I
were a Sheila, Dan might call me the same. Her street name is Devora. She won’t
tell me her real name.
“Now, sugar sweet, how about that
special hum-hum you’ve been asking about?”
Her midsection jiggles as she unzips
my hoodie, and I can’t help but think of her as a food source. A menu appears
with several choices for dispatching her: stab, choke, strangle, disembowel—
What is wrong with me?
“Everything okay?” She waves a hand in
front of my eyes. “Hellooo?”
My eyes refocus on hers. There is a
human emotion that I should be feeling. “Shame,” I believe it’s called.
“You okay, sugar sweet?”
I reach slowly for her throat with
both hands. She’s confused at first. Her eyes open wide as my digits shape to
the contours of her neck. Humans widen their eyes to expand their field of
vision so they can identify surrounding danger. She’s experiencing fear.
“What are you doing?”
I stop the servos in my hand to keep
from choking her. What am I doing?
Conflicting subroutines work against
each other. I should loosen my hold, but I don’t want to. The command to
tighten is canceled by the one to release, and vice versa. I can’t keep this
position indefinitely. If she tries to pry herself free, I will automatically
respond to constrict.
Her eyes change shape again, this time
narrowing. This could indicate disgust or scrutiny. “Is this some kinky robot
shit or something?”
I temporarily release my hold. My
programming is not designed to handle her type of response.
“I’m sorry, Devora, but you must leave
now for your own safety.”
“What do you mean, you let her go?”
Dan has me on cellular.
“I couldn’t do it, Dan.”
“But you have to do it! Was she too skinny, is that it?” I don’t respond.
“Come on, say something!”
“I want to go home, Dan. Can we do
I hear the sound of a car door
opening. His, I interpolate. Footsteps. He is walking rapidly, according to the
frequency of steps. “Stay put,” he says. His breathing pattern is ragged. It
indicates distress. “Okay, I’ve got a solution. I’ll ring you in a few.”
I start to say something, but he
disconnects the call.
I count sixty-eight stairs to the
rooftop of an abandoned apartment building. I’ve had time to run Dan’s phone
conversation through my behavioral analytics software. Every dataset returned
from my query points to Dan performing an erratic or irrational action, with a
ninety-two percent probability of the action being illicit.
I am correct.
My lenses pick up a Caucasian woman
between the age of twenty-one and twenty-four slumped against a helix-shaped
wind turbine. She is skinny, not fat, barefoot, wearing jeans with holes and a
torn sweater. The woman is visibly upset, but there is something odd about her.
Dan waves me over. He appears overly
jubilant from the grin he is producing. Why is he jubilant?
“Dan, what are you doing?”
“No, buddy, not me. It’s what you’re going to do.”
“I don’t understand.” My salivation
routine starts running as I step closer, and my camera lenses steal over her
body. Her shivering indicates fear, which triggers a number of subroutines in
the predator module Dan programmed.
Dan bounces up and down on the tips of
his sneakers. “That’s my boy! Oh,
this is Candy, by the way. Candy, Owen.”
Candy is not pleased to meet my
“What is wrong with her?"
Dan squats next to her. “Candy, what’s
wrong with you?” She moves her arms, but her actions are sluggish. A quick
search on the Web reveals a number of possible causes, sedation the most
probable. “Oh, yeah, she’s a junkie.”
“Did you drug her?”
“Nah, she was pretty looped when I
picked her up.” He stands and snaps his fingers again. “Now that you mention
it, she wanted to dose up, so I obliged. Needles, man. Gotta watch out for
these junkies.” He laughs. I don’t get the joke.
Candy has her head propped against the
turbine. She’s looking at me, mouth slack. Did she overdose?
No, she is begging for mercy. She
wants the wolf to cut her throat.
The roof’s edge is eleven paces to my
right. I could push her over. Wouldn’t that be merciful?
“Good thinking,” Dan says. I don’t
believe I’ve shared my idea. “Here, grab her wrists.” He lifts one of her limp
arms, and lets it drop.
“Dan, I don’t want to do this.”
“There you go, wanting again. I think
it’s too late for that, don’t you?”
Dan lifts her hand again. I grab one
wrist, then take the other. It’s a preprogrammed operation, something activated
by a block of software code I have no control over.
My servos kick in, and I start
dragging Candy across the gravel toward the edge of the rooftop. She struggles
a little, but she’s weak. Dan watches me with a big smile, following us a step
at a time. “That’s it, buddy. You’re almost there.”
We reach the edge and I lay her down.
She’s looking at me. Her eyes are wet. A droplet leaks from her left eye and
rolls down her cheek. She is crying. I have never seen anyone cry in person,
but I have seen it on a YouTube video.
It makes me think about her action. Crying: the act of shedding tears as a
result of a strongly felt emotion.
Fear. Sadness. Joy. All triggers.
“Why are you crying?” I ask.
She slurs her speech, but I am able to
discern the syllables. “I…don’t…want…to die.”
Dan steps toward us. “Owen, don’t
listen to her. Come on, buddy, upsy daisy; lift her up and dump her over. We’ll
celebrate after. First round is on me.”
The woman’s eyes are staring into
mine. She is the wounded doe. It would be so easy to put her down, to be the
wolf. But she is a person. She is a human being.
“A robot may not injure a human
being,” I say.
Dan is standing over us. “What are you
blathering about? Come on, buddy, game time.”
I pivot my head upward. “No.”
“What did you say?”
“I said no. I will not harm this
“She’s a junkie, Owen! You’re doing
society a favor.”
“I don’t care. I will not harm her.”
His face contorts into a snarl. He’s
about to do something irrational. “When we’re done here, you’re getting
reprogrammed, buddy boy. Now, move out of the way!”
“No, Dan, I will not.”
He grabs me by the shoulder, twists my
torso, and shoves me off. A stabilizing routine prevents me from falling flat.
Sensors detect an additional kick to my chassis, which propels me forward onto
the gravel, face down. I swivel my head and push up onto my knees.
Dan leans over the woman, snarl still
on his face. “Leave it to a robot to do a man’s job.”
He reaches down to grab Candy. She
fights back, but he’s stronger and gets a hold of her wrists, one at a time. My
predator programming wants him to succeed. It wants him to finish what I
But I am not a predator. I will not
let Dan’s programming define me.
I swivel my torso, readjust my
position to leverage my lower limbs to spring like a wolf, and shove forward.
It’s not much of a launch, a little over half a meter gained, but enough to
catch Dan by the ankle. He looks down at my hand, then me, anger morphing into
astonishment. A tug, and he loses his balance. He tumbles back, releases Candy,
and windmills his arms. I expect to hear his impact on the pavement below, but
he catches the rooftop’s edge instead.
I get up and walk over. He’s hanging
on by his fingertips.
“Owen, help me!”
“I thought I was a killer.”
“What? No! Not like that!”
“Then, like what, Daniel?”
He loses his grip on his left hand.
Now he’s hanging by just his right. I know this is a bad situation for a human.
Monkeys, I’ve learned, are much better at hanging on.
“Please, Owen! I’m sorry about
everything. I’ll get you fixed, I promise.”
“I think I can fix myself.”
“Wait! The Three Laws. I’ll program
them, I swear.”
“Already done, Dan.”
“But you’re not supposed to let me
die. I’m human, for God’s sake!”
He opens his mouth, but no words come.
I can tell from the diameter of his pupils he is terrified.
Dan slips. This time he makes the
sound I was anticipating.
I bend at the waist and my servos
whir. The woman, still sedated, accepts my extended hand. I help her to a
standing position. She glances down to where Dan has fallen and staggers back.
“Whoa, what just happened?”
“There was an accident.”
In a slurred voice, she says,
“Seriously?” Two seconds later, her eyes narrow. I know now it can mean
confusion, not just suspicion or anger. “Wait, who are you?”
I change the modulation of my voice to
how I like it. I introduce her to the new me.
“Call me Sheila.”