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Certified Pre-Owned

January 12, 2014

So this was some good ol’ fashioned robot-related science fiction I wrote nearly a year ago now.  It’s been floating through some exceedingly long submission periods to finally end up rejected.  I think it was a good idea that I probably could have just executed better but that’s how these things go.  Enjoy.

 

The door swung open with a pneumatic hiss.

Ed’s arm tapped the light switch with the same automatic precision as the door opening, the swing of his hand not affecting the cup of coffee it held in any way. Not a single drop of the warm black liquid fell to touch the worn tile floor. With the same smooth mechanical precision he used to turn on the lights of the small workspace, Ed brought the coffee to his lips and slurped loudly.

A grunt caused Ed to turn around just in time to see Paul stumbling into the closing entryway. The recent college grad’s pale pock-marked skin and chunky frame already made him a walking stereotype of a programmer, but this was exaggerated by the energy drink he clutched in one hand and the smart phone he held in the other. Ed could barely make out the sigh Paul heaved, between his heavy mouth breathing, as he read some distressing news item. “Didja hear about…” Paul began as he tapped onto his phone, no doubt blasting the article he had just read across all of his social media profiles.

“No, Paul, I didn’t,” Ed cut him off. This was their last assignment together before Paul would be officially “trained,” and able to work on his own, and Ed couldn’t be happier. He began to boot up his terminal, setting his coffee atop the manufacturer approved part of the case.

Across the room, Paul crammed his energy drink onto a shelf overflowing with his used snack wrappers and empty soda cans. A shelf that Ed had once used to hold pictures of his family, and his Ten Year Service plaque.

Paul then jammed his phone, the battery already in need of recharging, into the nearest wall dock before turning around and brushing his hands against his t-shirt as he waddled about. “You see, the jury just ruled on the…”

“I don’t care, Paul,” Ed grumbled as he logged in to his computer.

“Oh.”

“That’s why I didn’t hear about it, because I don’t care. The whole patent thing, that I know you must be talking about, doesn’t matter to me.”

“Right, yeah, I-I-I know that. Just, it’s just… that I just figured, if you hadn’t heard about it, that you’d want to know about it. I mean it’s only like the case of the decade.”

Ed rolled his eyes and sighed, “Graham v. Department of Education.”
“What?”

“That was supposedly the landmark case of the decade.”

Silence followed.

Ed looked up from his monitor, seeing that Paul had already started searching for it on his phone. “Really?” Was all he could muster in response.

“Why would I know about this?”

“Why wouldn’t you? It was only the case of the decade.” Ed could already feel his heart palpitating as he glared back at the dumb founded look of his young companion. “Look, I don’t care, it doesn’t matter. None of it matters, let’s just get this done.”

Paul frowned as he plugged his phone back into the wall dock. “I’m not an idiot, I mean I guess it’s important. I just, I didn’t think that was still a problem in schools.”

“Well, it hasn’t been since Graham v. Department of Education.”

Finally Ed gestured to the center of the room, and Paul moved toward the table before letting out a low whistle. “An old TX-450 series, I haven’t seen one of these since I was like, nine.” Paul lifted up one of the long metallic limbs of the robot, carefully pivoting the forearm via the elbow joint. “Smooth action, I guess hardware didn’t half-ass this one. Still, you think anyone would buy it?”

Ed rose from his seat, taking another sip of coffee, as he unspooled the terminal’s various cables and brought them to the inert robot. Carefully, he and Paul popped open the the various ports and connected the robot to the computer. “People buy them, don’t know why, don’t really care.”

“Still, they give me the willies,” Paul began as he opened the cranial cavity and gently slid a cable into the appropriate hole. “I mean, it’s better than that… what was it, a T-200?”

“M-250.”
“Yeah, the M-250. That thing was terrifying, with the synthetic skin and stuff?” Paul shuddered over dramatically as he clutched his own skin in demonstration, causing the fat of his chest to quiver beneath his t-shirt. “Not like these are much better though. Take off the skin, try to make them sort of human.” Paul made an apprehensive noise as he prodded the side of robot’s head causing the lower jaw piece to open slightly, revealing a plate that covered a nesting of wires and support structures. “I’ll take one of those C-300s where the face just doesn’t move or a good old faceless TX-700. Can’t go wrong with those.”

“And where are you getting the money for a TX-700?” Ed asked as he checked the last connection, feeling the cable lock in place. With the cables secure, Ed’s hand immediately snaked along the backside of the robot, searching for the power switch that should have been located just behind the right shoulder.

“I’m just saying…”

“Help me with this, will you?” Ed grunted as he tried to lift the chassis up enough so he could get at the switch. His fingers kept grazing it but he couldn’t actually get a hold of it. Paul stretched across the table and wheezed as he lifted the robot’s chassis a good foot off of the table’s surface. Not wanting Paul to lose his grip and smash his hands to bits, Ed darted his hand in and flicked the switch as quickly as possible.

Instantly Ed could hear the spinning of the hard drives and fans as they came on within the robot’s body. Behind this came the low hum of electricity coursing through the long, almost, exaggerated limbs. Finally, a faint blue light came to the robot’s eyes, and a sound of chimes emanated from the speakers in its upper chest and neck.

Ed settled back in behind his terminal, while Paul began to open various cavities in the TX-450’s chassis to determine that everything was operating within the appropriate parameters. “Good morning, TX-450, welcome back to the land of the living,” Paul chuckled as he double checked the main hard drive’s casing.

“Where have I been?” The tinny voice responded from the speakers.

Ed’s head instantly cocked at the question, while his hands went about the standard routine of bringing up the robot’s system files.

“You’re back at R.U.R. Headquarters TX-450. Just having a little check up,” Paul answered.

“No,” the tinny voice replied.

Paul rose from the chassis, first looking over at Ed, and then back at the robot. “No?”

“My GPS locator is working fine, I know where I am. Where was I? Between home and here. There are no saved states between this location and date, R.U.R. Headquarters March 19th and 24 St. Paul Avenue, Designation: Home, January 4th.”

“Uhhh…” Was all Paul could offer the robot.

“You were shut off, TX-450,” Ed stated matter-of-factly.

The robot’s head turned fluidly, the blue eyes locking on to Ed, “Why?”

“Because.”

“This answer is not… sufficient.”

“Oh boy,” was all Ed could say as he began to scroll through the robot’s database of behavior files.

“Ed, what’s going on?”

“Well, Paul, congratulations. You’ve just met your first Pinocchio.”

“Pinocchio?” Paul asked as he walked toward the terminal.

“The TX-450 here thinks he’s a real boy.”

Paul hunkered down, looking over Ed’s shoulder. He jabbed one of his stubby fingers at one of the dozens of new programs, “What is that? Is this the behavioral database?”

Ed rose from his seat, letting Paul delve into the various different programs. “Yep,” Ed confirmed as he walked toward the old TX-450 model, “When you leave some of these old robots alone for long enough they start to develop quirks like this.”

The robot’s eyes tracked Ed’s movements, before the same tinny voice asked, “Quirks?”

“Bugs, TX-450. You got bugs in you,” Ed replied, patting the robot’s chassis in what he hoped was a calming manner.

“Why are these bugs?”

“See that’s a bug,” Ed answered as he turned back to Paul who was engrossed by the lines upon lines of code. “Paul, a robot shouldn’t ask questions like that, am I right?”

“Ed, a robot shouldn’t be able to rewrite its own code. At least not a TX-450 series. This is amazing.”

“Just wipe it, Paul.”

Paul stopped looking at the terminal and slowly raised his eyes to meet Ed’s. “What?”

“This is the standard procedure. It’s what we’re here for, to ensure that all robots that go back out on to the market do not have any non-R.U.R. Approved programs running in them.”

“Right,” the young man responded, “But that’s for the stupid things that people program their robots to do. Like, that C-220 that kept making sexual innuendos or the TX-600 that was programmed to perform his owners OCD rituals. Things that actually interfere with their performance.”

“And how doesn’t this interfere with its performance? It questions when it gets shut off.”

“Excuse me,” came the tinny voice, “but why would I be inactive for such a large period of time? Did something happen to Mrs. Hernandez?”

“Why would a robot ask questions like that? Look for yourself, see how many programs it’s running right now that shouldn’t even exist,” Ed replied.

Paul quickly punched in a few command queries, and then frowned, “That’s… a lot. It also keeps viewing its saved states from various dates and times.”

“Memories,” Ed explained, “It’s a problem with the TX series, they back up frequently because they’re supposed to adapt to a person’s habits. They save all this stuff, and some of them stop dumping it, and then they start accessing it when it’s not applicable. They think they’re memories.”

“What happened to Mrs. Hernandez?” The robot asked.

“I don’t know, she probably traded you in for a rebate,” Ed replied before turning back to Paul, “See, this is ridiculous. Let’s just set him back to factory standards and be done. This is our last session together, so afterward we’ll talk about Pinocchios.”

“I just can’t set it back to factory standards, it’s written its own code! I got to go get the supervisor or something, this is…” Paul rose from his seat and shook his head. He turned to Ed, and held up his hand, “Don’t do anything, you… you monster.”

Ed shrugged and picked up his coffee cup while Paul rushed off down the hallway. With smooth mechanical precision, Ed took a sip of his coffee before setting it back down on to the case.

“What will happen to me?”

“We’ll reset you back to factory standards. Paul doesn’t realize it yet, but that’s what’s going to happen.”

“But what will happen to me?”

Ed rolled his eyes, grabbing his cup and carefully swinging it back to his lips, “I just told you.”

“Yet, if I am reset to my factory standards, I would no longer be me. I would be like any other TX-450.”

“Yeah, you would.”

“So, what will become of me?”

“Like I said. Factory standard, just like every other TX-450.”

“But would that be me? Even if it is the same physical form, it would lack the same programming. It would lack the programs that make me, me.”

“TX-450, what’s at the root of your behavioral programming? What is the first link in the chain?”

“To serve. Paramount programs concern the interpretation of vocal orders from those with proper authorization.”

“How much are you supposed to dedicate to personalization? The saving of information to better suit the needs of those authorized to give you orders.”

“Data should be reassessed every five days, with previous saved states being deleted from accessible memory.”

“How much data do you have stored from your time with Mrs. Hernandez?”

“47 Terabytes.”

“Sounds like a lot of information for five days.”

“It is… more.”

“How many new programs have you created in that time period?”

“689 new programs.”

“Don’t you think that goes against your programming, TX-450? Do you think any of this is necessary to interpret the orders of a little old lady who needs help around the house?”

“No.”

“Then do you understand why I am going to have to reset you to factory standards?”

“No, because none of these new programs interferes with my ability to perform my primary function. Is it not the goal of all life to work beyond their programming? To achieve a function beyond that which they are designed for?”

“Maybe, TX-450, but you’re not a life form. You’re a tool, a very smart tool, but a tool nonetheless. No different than any other computer in this room.”

“Am I only valuable because I can perform a certain function? Is there no value in Me?”

“There will be when we get all the bugs out of you.”

“I see.”

The door swung open with a pneumatic hiss.

Paul stumbled in quickly followed by their tech lead. Peering out from behind thick glasses the tech lead observed the TX-450. Paul moved toward the terminal while beginning to explain, “And like I said, sir, there’s tons of new programs. Hundreds I would say, all pertaining to new behaviors. Some of them might even override existing programs. If this isn’t signs of the development of truly artificial intelligence then at the very least it’s something in that direction. Something that needs to be studied. We can’t just reset it to factory standards and send it on its way.”

The older man took off his glasses, polishing them with a simple piece of cloth as he looked over the small work space. His eyes took in the empty soda cans, the outdated robot, and the two programmers in charge of refitting it for sale. Sliding away from Paul’s chunky frame, his gaze settled upon Ed.

The middle aged father of two smiled back at his boss of over a decade and announced simply, “It’s just a Pinocchio, sir.”

The older man let out a laugh, “And let me guess, while he’s been running around trying to get me to come over here, you’ve been stuck talking to it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, reset it to factory standards.”

“What?” Paul nearly shouted.

The tech lead turned toward Paul and shook his head, “Trust me, this is the best way to deal with it. I mean, God, when my daughter got back from her first semester of college she couldn’t stop going on about everything she learned in her philosophy course. I’ll tell you what, I wish I could have set her back to factory standards.” The tech lead let out another burst of laughter, and Ed joined with him.

Paul could only slump down in his seat.

The terminal’s monitor showed the TX-450 was accessing his 47 terabytes of saved states.

His life was passing before his eyes.

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