Heart Too Hard

by Bill Bowler

part 1 of 2


Robbie’s chrome-steel arms (capable of bending a bar of steel two inches in diameter into a pretzel) wound about the little girl gently and lovingly...” — Isaac Asimov, I, Robot

On May 5, 2058, as ND33 rolled off the assembly line, a quality control officer at the General Robotics plant in Pittsburgh asked the final question on the standard release protocol check list,

“Are your core processing circuits fully functional?”

“Yes, they are, thank you.” ND33 had replied. “And yours?”

The ND series was programmed to obey commands, not to ask questions. The android generated question was anomalous and reported to plant management. Production was temporarily halted. ND31, 2, and 4 were tested but checked out normal and failed to exhibit the capacity for posing questions that ND33 had demonstrated. Production was resumed, but ND33 was pulled and turned over to tech support for de-bugging.

The ND’s were not much to look at. They were dull gray, clunky and clumsy, modeled on the basic, generic human form, but with no attention to detail or aesthetics, no soft plasto-derm coating or synthetic hair. The eyes were glowing red laser scanners; the mouth was an oblong audio speaker and the voice, an electronic monotone.

The ND’s weren’t fast and streamlined, like the A-85 sports models, nor sleek and stylish, like the glamorous A-69 female escort androids. Designed for humble domestic applications like dishwashing, house cleaning, cooking, laundry, childcare, and light home maintenance and repair, the ND’s were ungainly and homely mechanical servants, robots in the old sense of the word.

However, because of the complex system requirements for the domestic android childcare applications, the ND’s were fitted with more advanced and powerful CPUs than the sports and escort models. More computing power was needed to run the elaborate childcare software which included coding for mathematical models of patience and generosity, and non-Boolean “anti-logic” algorithms, to deal with childish behavior.

The ND’s were also equipped with the recently developed on-chip new code generator which enabled a unit’s central processing core to write and self-install additional program code and re-allocate system resources “on the run,” based on input loads.

Metro Robots tech support was able to diagnose the problem: in the process of assembly, ND33 had slipped into auto-run and begun to write new code prematurely, prior to packaging and sale. However, no further anomalies were found. ND33 was now functioning normally and was shipped to Metropolitan Robots’ main outlet. Nine months later, when the NDxt enhanced series came out, the ND’s were discontinued and ND33 was discounted and sold as a slightly used showroom model.

Hanako’s dad brought ND33 home as a surprise when Hanako was seven. Her mom was not pleased. It looked like some industrial machine in the middle of their beautiful living room. It seemed about to crush the furniture or rip the carpet as it shuffled clumsily around the room. She could not imagine what her husband had been thinking and wished he would at least consult with her before making impulse purchases.

“Where are we going to keep it?” she challenged him.

“Well...” He hadn’t really thought about it.

“It’s so ugly,” she said. “It clashes with everything. It’s an awful, boring gray. Didn’t they have a smaller one, in blue?”

He had no answer. He had not even thought about it.

“But I love it!” cried Hanako. “It’s beautiful! Can we keep it, pleee-ase!”

That settled it.

Hanako’s mom and dad both had successful careers. Her dad was a businessman at a big company and her mom was a real estate agent with growing clientele. Neither one got home before nine and Hanako spent her after school and early evening hours with ND. As the weeks and months passed, she naturally grew attached to it, her combination nanny, playmate and teddy bear, although her parents frowned and insisted it was just a machine.

“Watch,” said her father. “How much is 2,795 times 4,287?”

“11,982,165,” droned ND in a humming monotone.

“And what is the square root of 5?”

“2.23606798.”

“But how do you feel today?”

“Insufficient data to reply. If you mean, is my system in equilibrium, then the answer is yes, thank you.”

“Do you like music?”

“Unknown referent. I can receive and process audio wavelengths and frequencies but no further data is transmitted. There appears to be no content.”

Hanako’s father turned to her triumphantly, “You see?!”

“No I don’t!” she pouted and hugged the android. “Don’t you listen to him, Andy.” That was the name she had given it.

Andy’s childcare software package included a number of pre-installed games. He showed Hanako how to play cards. They started with Go Fish and Slap Jacks, but when he taught her poker, that became her favorite. They played with piles of chips and she wanted more than anything to clean him out and have the last laugh. In one hand, she had two pairs and thought that might be enough to win. She bet three red chips, but Andy, his face impassive, pushed a huge stack of blue ones into the pot and droned in a humming monotone,

“I-raise-you-one thousand.”

Hanako’s heart fell and she threw her cards down,

“I fold! It’s yours!”

“Ha-ha-ha,” droned Andy and showed his cards. He had nothing. “I-was-bluffing.”

“That’s not fair!!” cried Hanako, but actually, she knew it was. Andy had taught her the rules.

When she opened her cards on the next hand and saw five spades, her heart began to race. She pushed all her chips into the pot and glared at Andy. He sat impassively, looking at his cards.

“Hurry up!” said Hanako, fidgeting with excitement.

Andy slowly pushed the rest of his chips into the center, “I call. What do you have?”

“Flush!” she cried and threw her cards down.

Andy slowly put his cards on the table, “You win.”

“Yippee!” she cried and raked in the pile of chips. Andy sat impassively, his crude mechanical face incapable of expression. If Hanako had known he had deliberately let her win, she would have been very disappointed.

The nannies twittered in amusement when ND33 lumbered up to the bus stop in the afternoon to meet the school bus but Hanako beamed with pride when she saw his hulking frame. She would wrap her hand around his steel index finger as they crossed the street.

He would bring her home, assemble a sandwich for her and, after her snack, he would stay and “listen” while Hanako practiced the piano. As she struggled through her scales and exercises and played her pieces over and over, he stood still and quiet, with all the appearance of an attentive audience. His blank face gave no clue, but the complex patterns of shifting frequencies and wavelengths, the sequence of tones and rhythms, had triggered his CPU to write additional code to process the audio input.

There came a day when Hanako, practicing “Go Tell Aunt Rhodie,” played a wrong note and Andy spoke, “The third to last frequency diverged from expected pattern.”

She stopped and looked at the music, “Oh, you’re right. I forgot that note’s supposed to be flat.”

She played it again, with the flat this time, and, as she continued she heard Andy, in his low drone, humming along with the melody.

Hanako’s dad brought papers home in his briefcase and worked late into the night. Her mom’s phone was always ringing and she had to take the calls at all hours or risk losing a sale. It fell to Andy to put Hanako to bed most nights. Once she washed her face and brushed her teeth and climbed in, Andy read her bedtime stories. She snuggled under the covers and he stood next to her bed. His twin laser scanners glowed dimly like nightlights and his voice droned in a soft, humming monotone that lulled her to sleep.

She would ask him questions about the stories, some of which were not entirely clear. “How could the bears talk? Bears can’t talk.”

Andy computed data for a moment. “That’s true,” he droned. “In real life, bears can’t talk, but in stories they can.”

“But aren’t stories supposed to be true?”

Andy processed the additional input. “A story can be unreal and still be true.”

Hanako had to think about that.

Her mother came into the room. “Time to put your things away, dear. Lights out.”

She leaned over Hanako and gave her a kiss, then turned to ND33, “That’s enough. Come with me.”

The robot followed her out. She took it through the pantry door out into the garage and parked it next to the lawn mower. She set its clock for 7:00 AM the next morning, switched it into power save mode, turned out the light and shut the garage door, leaving ND33 dormant in the dark garage for the night.

Since her mom and dad were so busy, Andy was responsible for cooking Hanako’s dinner. He had come with a culinary program installed in his basic software package. Hanako watched as he turned on the stove, poured olive oil into a frying pan, and started mashing garlic on a cutting board.

When he added the garlic to the hot olive oil, Hanako smelled a delicious, mouth watering aroma. “Mmmmm. That smells good, Andy!”

Andy stirred the garlic with a wooden spoon, “I detect a gaseous emission from the heated substance. It pleases you?”

“Oh, yes! I’m starving!”


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by Bill Bowler

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