Thinkbot

 

 

David Tossell

 

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Part I: The First Day

 

 

1

 

Thinkbot was the first truly sentient robot. Sentient means that Thinkbot felt things and thought about them; he was conscious of himself - the first genuine electronic ‘I think therefore I am’. He did not think like we might expect a robot to ‘think’; he thought like us. He was a human in a tin can.

Thinkbot liked looking at art.

Thinkbot liked reading poems.

Thinkbot liked going to the theatre.

Thinkbot liked listening to music.

Thinkbot liked lying against a tree with a piece of grass wedged into his rigid metal mouth describing what he could see in the clouds above him: “I can see a humpback whale on a micro-scooter,” or, “I can see a cat with its head stuck through a letterbox,” or, “I can see an enormous cumulonimbus cloud dumping torrential rain on Clevedon.” To the last of which anyone who still had the wherewithal to be listening might reply in a lazy drawl, “That is an enormous cumulonimbus cloud you tin clot.”

“Ah, so you are awake then,” Thinkbot would quip back sharply, offended at the previous lack of interest in his vaporous images of scooting whales or distressed cats.

And he was quite capable of cutting sarcasm. For example if someone asked him a silly question, Thinkbot would stare at them in disgust for a few seconds, then reply with something along the lines of, “Are you a natural at stupid questions, or do you practice regularly?” Or, on entering someone’s home he’d gaze around and, looking straight into the eyes of the host or hostess, ask, “And you actually chose this colour scheme?”

In short, Thinkbot was full of wonder and humour, and he was certainly no idiot.

More than anything else, Thinkbot loved simply being alive.

If asked to cut the grass he would - after some prevarication, and muttering, “What did your last Hortibot die of?” - eventually get on with it whilst thinking things like, why is grass green? And, why’s it full of weeds? And, what is a weed anyway? And, why didn’t they just ask me to mow the weeds?” Whereas a proper Hortibot -

Hey! Just hang on one darn minute there, what in the blue blazes is a ‘Hortibot’? Well, the world into which Thinkbot arrived was jam-packed full of robots. Robots for this and robots for that, in fact robots for pretty much everything. The Hortibot was one such robot - a gardening robot. Technically speaking a horticultural robot, a popular and profitable product for Globalbot Corporation - one of the few worldwide mass producers of commercial robots. The Globalbot marketing department had agonised over what to call it. Garbot? No, sounds like it can’t speak properly and would get muddled with a garbage robot in North Americana. Gardenbot? No, in a sales trial this got muddled with ‘garden pot’ in retail minds and test units had ended up plonked amidst the terracotta collection from which zero sales resulted. Gardeningbot? No, too clumsy, no one would buy a robot with a four-syllable name. So, Hortibot it was, and sales had boomed as it had a nice ring to it and, as a secondary benefit, had contributed to the improvement of the vocabulary of many who had previously had no idea what ‘horticulture’ meant.

Anyway, a proper Hortibot would have simply planned the most efficient route around the lawn then packed the mower away in the garage, then packed itself away until roused by human whim to further monotonous garden tasks. Thinkbot, on the other hand, would get in a frightful rage over the tangled mower cord, become distracted by tangential thoughts and meander around for ages leaving odd shapes of uncut grass at random locations. Surveying his work, the words ‘lawn shapes’ might spring into his mind. Perhaps they were related to crop circles created by aliens; perhaps he was an alien. Off he would go and demand the other members of his family come and look at the lawn shapes and discuss whether they meant he was an alien.

His family? A robot with a family? Let’s just slow down a little here, one question at a time. Let’s start with: how did Thinkbot become a thinking robot?

Was he, perchance, the result of a multi-billion Euro research project involving the best minds in universities and industrial research centres around the globe?

Er . . , well, no.

Perhaps he was the product of a single obsessive genius, teetering at the edge of insanity, spending hours day and night in solitude pursuing the creation of his own personal Frankenstein?

Believable I grant you, but no.

Or maybe the output of a military project, shrouded in secrecy, aimed at creating a robot capable of thinking for itself on the battlefield (unlike the average Militaribot)?

Once again, very plausible, but no.

No, Thinkbot was almost certainly created by a series of monumental development bungle-ups and botched engineering changes within the Europa division of Globalbot Corporation. To be precise, in the Domestic and Industrial Robot Technology (DIRT) Support Group attached to Europa Globalbot Assembly Line 17 (E-GAL-17) at Filton, Bristol, England, Europa. Engineering changes were supposed to do things like introduce a new robot design, or add a new feature to a robot, or replace an obsolete part, or simply move a hole so that it lined up properly with another hole so that the bolt actually went through easily without the need for high-precision tooling (e.g. whacking it with a hammer). They were certainly not supposed to enable robots to think for themselves. If any engineer had submitted a change entitled ‘Enable Robot to think like a Human’, the committee that reviewed all changes would have reached for the group diary to check it was not April the 1st. And let’s be honest here, reviewing engineering changes is hardly the most gripping occupation on the planet, so they surely would have noticed something as exciting as a thinking robot. The committee in question was entitled the ‘Design Review Board’, or DRB for short. To its unfortunate members it was more commonly referred to as ‘Death, Rigour mortis and Burial’.

It was two Final Test engineers working their way down a line of assembled robots awaiting shipment who discovered Thinkbot. At the time they were having a typical robot manufacturing discussion.

“Hey Simon, have you found out if arm type 7 goes in slot 5 or 6 yet?”

“Er, is it an arm with revision 3 or 4 end effectors?”

“I thought revision 3 end effectors were only compatible with series 6 arms.”

“Not if it’s got a universal arm adaptor type F.”

“How can it be a universal arm adaptor if it’s only compatible with some arm types?”

“Depends which universal adaptor it is.”

The first engineer screwed his face up in puzzlement and asked incredulously, “We’ve got more than one universal adaptor?”

“Yep, we’ve seven types of universal adaptor. I guess each time engineering created one they thought it was the first.”

“Crazy.”

“Yeah, well, so what? Anyway, if it’s a revision 3 end effector, then arm 7 can go in arm slot 5, but for revision 4 use arm slot 6. But watch out for arm slot 6, it may need an issue 9 PROM if it’s a pre-revision D CPU, but they’ve only been fitted to the last 18 left-handed Unibots.”

His colleague stopped with a look of disgust on his face, “Ok, thanks a bundle Simon, I’m glad we’ve sorted that one out.”

If Simon noticed the sarcasm, he did not show it and for reasons beyond the wit of man chose that moment to embark upon a joke, “What’s the slowest animal that walks upright on two legs?”

“Er, dunno.”

“A sloth on crutches.”

Upon delivery of this truly modest punch line, an energetic metallic rattling started up. Just down the production line the engineers found a robot shuddering violently.

“It’s got mains on his 24 Volt line!” yelled one engineer.

“I’ll hit the emergency stop,” replied the other diving for a bright red button mounted on the wall. But before he got there he froze as the robot burst out with, “A sloth on crutches, ha, ha, ha,” and, guffawing loudly, doubled up and fell out of the line, landing on the floor with a sound not dissimilar to several pots and pans falling out of a kitchen cupboard. The stunned engineers stared at the face-down, motionless robot, unable to move or speak. All the other robots in the line stared fixedly ahead, as if nothing had happened, as if embarrassed by the antics of their robotic colleague. The robot rolled over and, sitting up, abruptly ended this study in high-tech manufacturing still life.

“Have you got another one?”

“Another what?”

“Joke.”

Silence. 

In fact, several seconds’ silence.

Tens of seconds, maybe a minute, felt like a lifetime.

Two engineers staring at a sitting-up expectant robot, metallic hands resting on metallic kneecaps, robotic eyes looking unrobotically straight at them, out of the corner of robotic optic-sensor mount slots, from a half-inclined robotic head.

But, but, but, robots don’t.

Don’t look sideways.

Don’t incline their heads.

Don’t ask for another joke!

One robot sitting up, staring hopefully at two frozen test engineers.

Ambition at that point limited to just another joke.

The robot beginning to wonder what’s up with them.

Humans do not crash; robots crash.

Humans do not have instant reset buttons; humans reset themselves using sleep.

But not standing up.

Not with their eyes open.

And certainly not at work. (Or so Thinkbot believed at that time, being a young, innocent, sentient robot operating from a limited database.)

Once again it was the robot that brought this still life in Manufacturing part II to an abrupt end: “Oh I can’t be bothered with this. I haven’t got all day. Is this the way out?” It got up and started walking off, pointing towards the large doors at the end of the line. The doors through which silent robots marched eerily and obediently onto transport trucks under the supervision of bored technicians, but who were not to be bored for much longer.

“Ger . . no . . not that way, ffpht, get him, it, stop it! Oi! Come back!” flustered one engineer. Both men, released from their stupefaction, broke into a very un-engineeringlike run, flaunting site safety rule #278: ‘No Running Or Horseplay’. As it happens never, in the 200-year history of the Filton site, had anyone brought a horse into work - but they could have done with one now. The robot, reading the intent in their eyes, started running as well.

This did not go terribly well.

Being a general purpose universal robot (more commonly known as a Unibot), Thinkbot’s initial running program set-up was not all that might have been desired. Unlike that of a Militaribot, which was set up from the start to move effortlessly and silently at great speed, infiltrating enemy lines before the enemy knew what was happening (at least that’s what the Marketing brochure said). But Militaribot motion software was highly classified and kept securely within the Military Products Division of Globalbot Corporation; it was certainly not accessible to a newly sentient V3 Unibot with standard issue legs. Thinkbot lurched wildly into an intense series of irregular leaps, jumps, hops and steps, and collided heavily with an inert Unibot. As Thinkbot danced on, the inert Unibot wobbled agonisingly for a few seconds, toppled over and clattered into the next Unibot in the line. Like dull metal dominoes, the whole line began falling over one by one, creating a rhythmic metallic beat as a sort of strange backing track that was to become increasingly overlaid by the din of events as they unfolded elsewhere in the test area. By now, everyone in the production and test area had noticed the commotion: a Unibot apparently in berserk mode against a backdrop of Unibots falling over like guardsmen on a baking hot day and from between which wailing test engineers emerged at random waving their hands in the air in terror. The original two engineers had given up the chase and had steered off towards the shop-floor emergency control. The berserk robot alarm was sounding and manager-like people were spilling out of offices and attempting to activate the emergency Stunbots, Tripbots and Catchbots.

Not having motion-self-adjusting optics to compensate for his jerky legs, Thinkbot was having difficulty seeing what was going on and steering. He had now abandoned his aim of reaching the doors, and had lost all hope of another joke. He could see the Stunbots, Tripbots and Catchbots lumbering out of their storage bays and taking instructions from the engineers. In a timeless moment of clarity created by both legs landing at once, he saw, behind a glass screen bearing an unfriendly sign:

DESTRUCTOBOT

Activate only as a last resort

- a particularly nasty-looking robot, backlit alternately by a ghastly orange and red-lit sign: ‘DESTRUCTOBOT INITIALISING’.

Thoughts continued apace in Thinkbot’s head, but none of much use - must pull my legs together, oh no I’m going to collide with that Robocrane (clang!). Drat, help, aaargh. But, if anything, leg control had deteriorated since the fleeting vision of the Destructobot readying itself for action. Whizz! A high-voltage Stunbolt missed him by a whisker . . . . and hit an Industribot square on. The average Industribot comes with a variety of mighty pieces of optional hardware, but little in terms of up-top processing power. This particular robot was a good example - it was fitted with an impressive 600kN grip and bend kit but near zero brain. And what little brain it did possess did not like being hit with a 50kV stunbolt. Since no one had followed procedure and hit the line emergency stop before releasing the recovery robots, many robots on the line were still active. Unibots in the despatch cell were still trying to walk methodically into their transport truck, but it was long since full, and with the technicians diving for cover, robots were milling around pushing and shoving like so many Continentals trying to board an already packed cable car at a ski resort. Mercifully a Tripbot had fired its trapnet over the Unibots that had been marching unopposed through the Quality Assurance (QA) cell (presumably having passed themselves as fit for shipment), and the supply of fresh Unibots arriving at the truck had dried up. There was now a silvery seething mass in the QA cell which could have passed for a net full of mackerel if it had not been for metallic clankings and graunching noises as the robots tried to stand up and continue their unauthorised walk towards the despatch doors. And all the time there was the metronomic clang . . clang . . clang . . clang of inactive Unibots at the other end of the line falling over one by one.

Meanwhile the Industribot had decided the appropriate response to the 50kV stunbolt was to try and bend the next Industribot through 90o.

Which itself decided to drill a 2 cm hole in the next one.

Which itself decided to oxyacetylene torch the next.

Which itself decided to electrically weld the backside of the next.

Which itself decided to install a large right-angle bracket onto the skull of the next.

Things were getting out of control.

On the bright side, Thinkbot’s legs were calming down (praise be to the auto-tune leg set-up routine), and he was beginning to enjoy dodging the stunbolts, tripwires, trapnets, and Catchbots. Thinkbot had concluded the latter couldn’t catch a cold (true enough of course, since they were after all robots, but Thinkbot was not a literal thinker).

Eventually, a booming voice came over the Tannoy, “Destructobot deployment imminent, all staff abandon test area.”

Thinkbot looked around and saw all the humans present legging it for an open doorway. Some clearly had never run that fast for many years and Thinkbot suddenly did not feel so bad about his earlier leg control. He followed and in the frantic chaos got through the door a split second before it hissed shut. And thus by a tiny margin did Thinkbot escape his first, but by no means last, scrape with electrodeath.

As he passed through the doorway Thinkbot had glanced back and was blessed with an instantaneous image . . . . of three bright red Firebots hosing down the luminous yellow Destructobot as it stumbled, with spectacular blue flashes and loud phuts, onto the shop floor, flailing its arms and firing various munitions into the ceiling. Hmm, thought Thinkbot, maybe flashing red and orange ‘Destructobot Active’ warning lights were not the best choice with active Firebots in the area. Someone would surely get hauled over the coals over a duff risk assessment for this.

Near silence in the changing room.

Many men, out of breath, breathing heavily.

The Tannoy cracked into life once again, “Level 5 electropulse discharged.”

The dull sounds of mechanical chaos from the other side of the door died away.

In the sudden quietness, one engineer looked up and saw Thinkbot.

“What’s that doing here?”

Multiple sets of eyes burned into his modest Unibot face.

The Unibot shrugged its shoulders with a faint clunk, held out its tinny arms in a gesture of innocence, put on its best New York accent and said, “Awh, come on guys, I cudda got hurt out dere.”

Engineering Still Life III: 45 human engineers staring transfixed at one very non-standard standard universal multi-purpose robot.

 

 

2

 

Somewhere, in a desert far away, a line of fifty Militaribots moved silently through the night, their multi-jointed legs keeping their armoured bodies moving evenly over the rough terrain. There was no moon, but the sky above them was filled with innumerable stars; a myriad silver pinpricks in a matt black of nothingness. It was a sight of such beauty that it would have taken the breath away from anyone used to living under the murkier air of more densely populated areas. But robots do not have breath to take away, so the beauty fell unperceived onto the barren landscape. On which, in the light cast by the plethora of stars, the Militaribots looked for all the world like a group of black spiders trekking across a dark-grey shaggy carpet. Except that each Militaribot weighed about 50 tons, had six rather than eight legs, and carried an array of weapons far more fearsome than the average spider. Behind them lumbered five Artilleribots, distinguishable from the Militaribots by their larger bodies, eight legs, big feet, and the large gun barrel protruding upwards into the night sky. The gun barrel swayed gently on its fire recoil suspension as they plodded along. The Militaribots and Artilleribots crept eerily at exactly the same speed, and to anyone watching it would have appeared a sinister sight, sending cold shivers up and down the spine. At the head of the line was a Militaribot with some white stripes around it and a variety of radar dishes and aerials poking up into the night air. The line halted and an arm extended from the lead Militaribot. A radar dish unfolded, flapping in the steady wind. After a few seconds it snapped into a taut umbrella shape and rotated slowly around through 360o surveying the horizon. The dish folded away and the line of Militaribots moved off leaving the Artilleribots behind.

The Artilleribots spread out and meandered around for a few minutes, stopping every few metres and, lifting one of their pointed legs off the large circular foot, drove it into the soil and pulled it out again. Eventually they all found a spot with which they were content and, lifting their legs off their giant feet, sank their bodies onto the ground as all eight legs disappeared into the soil with an earth-shuddering vibration. More the sort of sound one feels through the feet rather than hears with the ears. Once their bodies had settled the gun barrels, which had been limply waggling around during this procedure, moved around with more purpose. After a few minutes all the barrels were inclined at the same angle, pointing in precisely the same direction, and the Artilleribots became completely still. The only sound was that of a few nocturnal creatures going about their desert business. A number of insect communities had been disturbed by the sinking legs and some Artilleribots soon had what looked like hundreds of little miniatures of the recently departed Militaribots crawling all over them.

The line of Militaribots moved onwards into the night for another hour before halting again for another survey of the surrounding desert. This time, they rearranged themselves into a long line side by side and crept forward keeping close to the ground.  In the half-light it was barely possible to pick out shadows and bits of leg as they moved. Eventually they worked their way up a shallow ridge and stopped. A hatch opened at the front of the lead Militaribot and out popped a miniature Militaribot about a metre in size which landed lightly on the sand. It whizzed up to just below the crest of the ridge, crept up to the top, and squeezed between two large outcrops of rock. A little hatch opened and several tubes and lenses poked out and surveyed the plain on the other side of the ridge. A road ran across the plain from the east towards the ridge; a dark grey ribbon of tarmac draped over a light-grey ocean of sand. At the base of the ridge the road turned and ran along the foot of the slope in front of the midget Militaribot’s position on the crest. If the midget robot had been a human army commander it might have said, “Perfect, absolutely perfect,” but it wasn’t, so it didn’t. Back down the other slope the main Militaribot column rose up and advanced to the crest of the ridge. Each of them spent several minutes poking around amongst the rocks, and then one by one they crouched down and merged with their surroundings. The lead Militaribot crept up and settled just behind the crest of the ridge near the midget. A small dish appeared through a hatch and pointed back towards where the Artilleribots were lurking a few miles back.  Everything was set.

Two hours later, just as the stars were packing up for the night and the eastern desert sky was lightening into a stunning range of blue and turquoise colours, some black dots appeared on the road and grew gradually larger. By the time the head of the approaching column had reached the corner at the foot of the slope, the sky was light blue and it was possible to see what the column was composed of. There were several Militaribots at the front, and then about 20 wheeled, heavy-duty military transport vehicles. Some were transporting Militaribots and Artilleribots, and a few bore medium duty military Helibots, their rotor blades swept back towards the rear. Either side, and to the rear, were yet more Militaribots. Those at the side rode the rough terrain with ease on their multi-jointed legs.

Just when the column was spread equally out in front of the midget on the ridge, the air filled with the excruciating shrieks of rapidly approaching shells. The Militaribots in the column immediately started moving around at random, zigzagging to try and avoid being hit, but it was too late. The self-guiding artillery shells (Roboshot Inc. IntellishellsTM) screeched down out of the sky and five Militaribots were hit at the same moment, generating intense bright-blue flashes and yellow plumes streaked with black smoke and dust that rose majestically into the air. Fragments of rocks danced as a huge concussion wave convulsed the ground, and an air shock wave flattened every piece of vegetation on the ridge. As the radius of the shock waves spread out for miles in every direction, thousands of small desert mammals wet themselves. Insects stopped and took up defensive postures and those lucky enough to have claws waved them around aggressively in the air. A split second after the first shells hit, another five screamed down out of the sky, and five more Militaribots vanished in clouds of dust and smoke. Then five more shells arrived, and then another five, then five more, until every Militaribot in the column had been hit at least twice. The shelling stopped as suddenly as it began and at that same instant most of the Militaribots on the ridge leapt up and moved off down the slope at an incredible speed. About halfway down, two high-velocity armour-piercing gun barrels appeared out of hatches at the front of each attacker and commenced rapid firing at the stricken Militaribots ahead. Amazingly, most of the Militaribots in the column were still active, although many had lost legs or plates of body armour. They struggled to form a front to meet the Militaribots charging down the slope towards them and fired any weapons that were still functional. A variety of rockets, shells, grenades, and even a few bright-red distress flares were hurled at the attacking host, but with little effect. About 100 metres short of their enemy the attackers stopped as one, fired all their guns in a single volley, and ducked just as a wave of rockets fired by the Militaribots still on the ridge swept over them with centimetres to spare and thumped into the defending robots. Instantly after the rockets had passed over them the attacking Militaribots rose up again and fired one last volley. The range was now so short that the gap between the sound of the guns firing and the impact of their shells on the targets made a stunning staccato crack-whizz-whump noise. If there’d been any humans there, they would have been frightened witless, but there weren’t, so no wits were affected.

Then they stopped firing and, from its viewpoint at the top of the ridge, the midget looked out on an audiovisual spectacular. For the next minute a series of sonic booms arrived, reflected from the cliffs on the horizon. Up in the by now bright-blue sky large lumps of Militaribot were arcing away into the distance, rolling over and over in the air, some leaving curves of white vapour and dust, or black smoke. A few bits rose high enough to catch the light from the rising sun and their dust trails turned golden against the vivid blue sky. Out eastwards beyond the convoy hundreds of little puffs of dust spreading outwards marked where fragments of Militaribots were impacting out of the sky - a handful of gravel thrown into a pale yellow sea. Racing through these puffs were bits of Militaribot bouncing along at ground level - an arid, armoured version of desert ducks and drakes, losing momentum with each bounce until they slid to a halt in a cloud of sand. In the foreground, at the foot of the slope, lay what was left of the defending Militaribots, burning with yellow, red, blue, green or white flames and making intense hissing or roaring noises. Smoke rose lazily into the air, illuminated by the coloured flames. Many bits of hot metal lay around cooling slowly and changing from white through yellow to orange to red, and finally a deep dull maroon before fading into twisted black lumps lying on the yellow sand. One mangled Militaribot regularly shot red flares into the sky, and another fired star shells that gently floated down out of the sky underneath midget parachutes.  There was the staccato rattle of machine gun ammunition firing off in the intense heat, and every few seconds a bigger explosion lifted the remains of an entire Militaribot clean off the ground creating showers of bright sparks before landing again with a fearsome dusty crump! The attacking Militaribots remained 100 metres short of the convoy like a gaggle of insects at a Guy Fawkes bonfire party. Although the transport vehicles in the convoy had not been hit, they had nonetheless come to a grinding halt since bits and pieces of mutilated smoking Militaribot blocked the road.

After a few minutes the attack force moved into the convoy, and the Militaribots on the ridge made their way down to join them. A few went off with the lead Militaribot to the front and started dragging the wreckage off the road. Others moved towards the transport vehicles, hatches opened and midgets emerged and scampered about. The large Militaribots bulldozed any damaged Militaribots, Artilleribots, and M-Helibots off the transporters and dumped them at the side of the road. The midgets climbed over them while the empty transports moved off down the road. After a few minutes the midgets withdrew and took cover as a series of explosions reduced the former cargo to scrap. The little robots then sprang back into the large Militaribots and the whole lot moved off down the road.

It had been a perfect ambush.

Well, nearly perfect.

If it had been carried out by a human army, they might have felt extremely proud, and shaken hands with each other saying, “Jolly good show!”, or given each other high fives yelling, “Way to go! Great job guys!”

But there you would be wrong. Very wrong.

And it was a very big but.

The reason for the BIG BUT was that both the attacking Militaribots and the destroyed convoy came from the same army.

They were supposed to be on the same side.

There had been no orders for a company of Militaribots to attack the convoy. The attackers had simply been out on a night-training exercise, and the convoy was just another part of the same army on the move to a new location. The whole affair was what is generally known to the public as a ‘friendly-fire incident’. This is an unfortunate term since it brings to mind an image of happy people shooting at each other, perhaps followed by a pint at the pub. Of course they are anything but, either for those shot at or, indeed, for those doing the shooting. But what was unknown to the general public was that friendly-fire Militaribot incidents had been occurring on a regular basis in every robotic army in the world for the past two years. The human Majors, Colonels, and Generals who were in command of the robots had no idea what was going on. If anything, friendly-fire Militaribot incidents were becoming more frequent and governments were getting worried.

Very worried.

 

 

3

 

GAT was slumped in an armchair watching the evening news and thinking miserable thoughts. The world was not doing too well. Eastasia and Westasia were locked in a war of words about chunks of seemingly barren land that most Europeans had difficulty locating in an atlas. Arabia and Europa were still plagued by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Israel had ended up as a province of Europa, a trail blazed by the unlikely political mechanism of the Eurovision Song Contest). Political upheavals within the South Americana Confederation threatened to implode into internal chaos. Down under, Australasia was obsessed with controlling the effects of UV levels due to the ozhole, while at the same time worrying about the cost of the large Militaribot navy it maintained against the threat of mass migration from the overpopulated countries to the north. At least Africana seemed stable, albeit with a stability born solely of never-ending poverty; money, as ever, was in short supply in Africana and it was unlikely to buy much in the way of robotic hardware in the foreseeable future. Africana had never really recovered from the twin curses of colonialism and the AIDs epidemic that had struck it over successive centuries, and the economic and social isolation this legacy had created in the next. In spite of all the advances in robot technology elsewhere, a poor continental economy, unstable local governments, and chronic failings in basic services such as the supply of clean water still afflicted Africana. Rumour had it that more humans than Sewerbots worked in the waste-removal systems of Africana! Uncannily, at that very moment, images of scruffily dressed people holding water carriers queuing up somewhere in Ethiopia appeared on the screen in front of GAT. I suppose it should not surprise us to learn that the rich and powerful Confederated Nations had never quite got around to sorting out the mismatch in standard of living around the globe, other than ‘generously’ off-loading their obsolete military and non-military robots to Africana and South Americana at ‘attractive prices’. GAT thought the blessed things were generally so clapped out that Africana should really be paid to take them.

The stable and wealthy confederated nation groups of Europa and North Americana watched the rest of the world through anxious eyes, each making contradictory self-righteous proposals on how to solve the various crises (whilst denying all accusations that all they were really concerned about was the dire effect all of this was having on the global economy and the standard of living of their own citizens - i.e. their electorate). For, even after absorbing vast, less developed areas with large populations, North Americana and Europa had sustained the economic strength of the original super-rich nations such as the USA and the members of the former politically flabby, but nonetheless wealthy, European Union. When the USA and Canada had confederated with Mexico to form North Americana, and Russia with the European Union to form Europa, there had been dire predictions of economic disaster. But it hadn’t happened. If anything the enlarged countries thrived even more and the Globalbot Corporation had been one of the success stories, vying with such as Intel and Microsoft to be amongst the biggest companies on the planet.

Once again, I suppose it should not be a total shock to learn that the sale of weapons and military robots (generally known as Militaribots) remained a lucrative business for Europa and North Americana. In conflicts around the globe various types and grades of Militaribots were involved, mainly in stand-offs but occasionally taking pot shots at each other, thus providing valuable feedback to the Engineering Department of the Military Products Division as to the success (or otherwise) of their hardware and software. Of particular concern were friendly-fire incidents involving Globalbot (and apparently only Globalbot) Militaribots. Governments quickly covered these up and rapidly reported the circumstances back to the hush-hush Globalbot Militaribot R&D group based in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, North Americana. This group was tasked with establishing what might happen should a general uncontrolled robotic conflict break out anywhere (or in the worst case, everywhere). Being the market leader in the supply of military robots, there were knee-buckling concerns and multiple ulcers amongst senior Globalbot management and Government defence officials.

For GAT, all this was a backdrop upon which his personal concerns played out to their own script of worry and angst. Ironically, the global unrest was good for the business of the Military Products Division, but for the Industrial and Domestic Division it was disastrous. Even though Globalbot was a huge multinational company, it did not guarantee secure employment. It was constantly under pressure not only from its main competitor, Worldbot Corporation, but also from the budget robot producers, Econodroid Inc. and Roboconomy plc. To make matters worse, every Globalbot manufacturing site competed internally against others within the corporation, and if a site proved inefficient compared with its sisters dotted around the globe, then the board was pretty ruthless in applying the chop. This was stressful enough when the market was buoyant (because you still had to out-profit the other sites to survive), but when the market was shrinking the insecurity became unbearable. And, thanks to the seemingly interminable global unrest over the past few years, the domestic and industrial market had been shrinking shrinking shrinking shrinking. Or, to the mathematically minded:

Sales = (Shrinking)4,

- i.e. truly disastrous. Worried consumers and nervous industrial companies were making their nearly worn-out robots stagger on just that bit longer, hoping things might pick up before they had to invest in a new and improved model (although the link could be tenuous, nearly everyone bought into the mass delusion that new robot = improved robot). Just the week before, GAT had heard of one customer who, rather than buying one decent new chemically resistant robot, had repaired five old non-resistant ones via his consumable budget, then watched them slowly dissolve one at a time so as to put off the need for a capital purchase for a few months. And, to rub salt into his wounds, GAT had been out for a drink only the night before with a friend who was a commercial vulture and dealt with companies going under financially.

“The business of busting is booming!” he had announced cheerfully and loudly (and tactlessly) before raising his glass to GAT, “Cheers!”

The only glimmer of optimism lay with the Global Customer Support Managers, who were up to their ears with requests to revive robots, sometimes only from strange collections of parts the customer claimed had once upon a time been a Globalbot robot. But the production and assembly division was suffering horribly. The gloom even seemed to have infected the office Vendbots, which had started offering outrageous discounts on cups of coffee and tea, and loss-leading special deals on chocolate bars and crisps.

Not that GAT really feared losing his job. Rather it was that he would probably have no choice but to relocate to North Americana and work on Militaribot development, neither of which appealed. His family were settled: his eldest son was at Gordano School - one of the top schools in England; his daughter was due to start there within a year; and his younger son would be going into reception at Portishead Primary around the same time. His wife loved living in Portishead and had a wide social circle around which she orbited with gusto. No, a transatlantic move would be a total disaster. Plus he had dallied with the military sector in the early part of his career, before making a conscious decision not to be involved in developing robots whose sole purpose was to maim and kill.

GAT was shaken out of his thoughts by a picture on the TV. This may be difficult to believe, but the picture indicated his immediate quality of life had suddenly and unexpectedly become much, much worse. GAT locked onto the babbling reporter, “ . . . and initial reports that it was a bomb planted by an anti-robot terrorist organisation linked to Go Natural have now been discounted. It looks like this incident was simply a normal run-of-the-mill robot malfunction.” The phrase simply a normal run-of-the-mill-robot malfunction’ meandered back and forth through GAT’s mind, presumably looking for the way out. Did he detect disappointment in the reporter’s voice? Yes, he thought he did. Typical local news! It was obvious they desperately wanted it to be a terrorist attack with the added spice of ‘possible links with Go Natural’ due to the intense national and international attention that would attract. A split second later these cynical thoughts were frog-marched out of GAT’s mind as he became transfixed by close-up images of a shattered industrial building. A shattered yet horribly familiar building, surrounded by a sea of blue flashing lights atop bright-red Firebots and their bright-red appliances, and from which faint wisps of smoke rose lazily into the blue sky.

His building.

The build and final test area of E-GAL-17 was not as it had been when he had left it yesterday evening, before he had taken a day off for some therapeutic mucking about in the garden (much to the annoyance of the Hortibot, which he ended up having to power down to prevent it loitering behind him, waiting to repair the damage left by his scorched earth gardening skills). Anyone paying attention to the TV would have felt a pang of sympathy for whoever would be involved in sorting the mess out. For GAT this was more than a pang since, as Head of the DIRT Support Group at E-GAL-17, he was one of those people.

 

 

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First Published by Pomegranate, 2005

Text Copyright © David Tossell, 2005

 

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