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The Dragon’s Will

by Terence Kuch

part 1 of 3

Me. I. Suddenly powered-on again; be-ing again. Not the same kind of ‘I’ or ‘me’ that you are. You have your own kind of ‘me’ because you’re a hube — a human being — and I’m a robot. You’re alive. And you have emotions. I didn’t have emotions back then, although my job was to help people understand theirs. Now that the Devastation has come, I want you all to remember how it happened, and why. In case it may come again.

* * *

Powered-on, in the lab. I remembered the other times I’d been powered-on, and this time was pretty much the same. There was Ms. Reddy, just pulling her finger back from my toggle switch, and the new boy, Arnie, who was supposed to look at my face but didn’t look at my face.

Ms. Reddy was speaking in that voice she used for children (or for purpose-made beings like me), as if she didn’t really expect an answer. She spoke a different way to Dr. Meeger, but didn’t get an answer from him very often, either.

Ms. Reddy was fiddling with my remote control and saying “Arnie, I’m going to show you something new today.”

Arnie didn’t look up.

“You met Tomm yesterday, didn’t you, Arnie? But today we’re going to make a change to Tomm’s face. You know how you look right now? I’ll make Tomm’s face look just like that.” She fumbled with my remote.

Admittedly, controlling my expressions wasn’t simple. My silicone face had 24 degrees of freedom or ‘DOFs’, not including the ears which had four more, and a twin-CCD vision system. As for my body, I had six-DOF arms, hands, a two-DOF neck, and a few centimeters of movement in my shoulders and waist. There was nothing below my waist but a plywood platform. I could hear via a pair of microphones, but didn’t have a voice. There was a tiny infrared sensor just above one eye to receive commands from the remote that Ms. Reddy was still figuring out how to use.

All this was controlled by seven microprocessors running Linux, which accessed a three-terabyte combined file server and database server where my stomach would be, if I had a stomach, and filled with more information than I’d probably ever be able to digest.

* * *

Ms. Reddy was still fiddling with my remote, her skin jiggling in front and behind, beginning to gleam a little with the effort of trying. She wasn’t very good with my remote, and it took her a while. Meantime, I was staring at her and Arnie, since I couldn’t close my CCD eyes and couldn’t move my head other than to nod a little up-down or right-left when the appropriate buttons were pressed. So I had a permanent view of whatever was in my lab at the time, the door to the hall with its window stenciled BAL NOITOME TOBOR, and a large window from which I could see the town down below our hill, its ocean rolling in and out.

There was nothing much of interest in the view except the constantly wheeling birds, although I could just make out the flashing sign and front door of the Edgemar Club, where well-dressed people sometimes staggered out into the street showing different emotions than when they went in.

Ms. Reddy was still having a difficult time with my remote. She poked at it a while, and then gave up and tried flipping through my User Manual, which seemed to make her even more confused. She called Tech Support, and finally got the right buttons pushed to make me show Listless. That’s what Arnie looked like when he was in the room with Ms. Reddy. That’s what Ms. Reddy called that emotion, when she called it anything: Listless. I knew it as 6-4-5-4-2, the key-sequence on the remote that caused my motors to spin and gears and rods to move and give me that expression, if Ms. Reddy had pushed the right keys in the right order.

“Isn’t that how you look, Arnie, Listless? Doesn’t Tomm look like you look right now? Here’s a mirror. Look!” Arnie didn’t look at me, and didn’t look at the mirror, either. I was thinking that Ms. Reddy wasn’t saying anything that would get Arnie to look.

In his shoes, if I had legs and feet so I could have shoes, I certainly wouldn’t, either. Dr. Meeger was a little better at getting these kids to respond to me, but it’s a real challenge. In many respects they were autistic, but it wasn’t quite the same. I thought that if I were left alone with Arnie for a while, we might have made progress, given that children like him were said to be ‘robot-like’, an expression I didn’t care for.

For instance, in my lab once, Dr. Meeger mentioned to Ms. Reddy that science had discovered 412 distinct human emotions, and he showed her how to push the buttons on my remote to turn my face into several of them, from Amused to Zealous. But my face could show thousands of different expressions, all but 412 foreign to hubes; maybe a few of those might have interested Arnie if he didn’t care for the human ones.

Now, I knew that when hubes twisted their faces and limbs around and showed emotion, that was only part of what emotion was. Dr. Meeger insisted that the body’s expression was more than just a clue to what was going on ‘inside’, He said that the expression caused the emotion to happen ‘inside’, just as much as the emotion ‘inside’ caused face, body, and hands to move ‘outside’, If Dr. Meeger could get Arnie to make a Shocked expression, he might learn what Shocked really was.

I thought I understood that somewhere in my CPU, and I believed it since everyone stepped aside when Dr. Meeger walked across the room. But I honestly didn’t know where this ‘inside’ was supposed to be, or what it was supposed to mean, since hubes had motors and rods and gears and a CPU just as I did, only theirs were made of meat and blood, not of titanium and other beautiful things. It would be difficult for me to believe that the setting of my gears and rods ‘was’ or ‘caused’ the thing called ‘emotion’, I was confused about this; but then, I wasn’t the one the doctors were here to help.

Later, I understood very well. Perhaps too well.

But right then, Ms. Reddy got impatient with Arnie, making him fidget even more than usual. He was rocking back and forth with his eyes closed. I was concerned that he was about to yell, pull his hair, and push and shove Ms. Reddy, which would certainly make her meaty gears and rods move into an Alarmed or Appalled setting.

* * *

I’d been working with Arnie for a month. I’d recently caught him glancing at me. That made me hope we were making progress, at least on simple emotions like Happy and Sad. Ms. Reddy let him play with my remote control once, and he seemed to catch on right away. He pushed buttons at random and watched what happened. One time he happened upon 2-4-5-6-4, which wasn’t a human expression at all, but one that struck him as funny.

He smiled and grinned, which caused Ms. Reddy to run Excitedly (3-2-2-2-1) into Dr. Meeger’s office, and caused Dr. Meeger to rush in and squint at the display on my remote, and call Tech Support to suggest that my repertoire be limited to one of the 412 authorized emotions, so that Ms. Reddy wouldn’t become Bothered (1-1-2-1-5) and distract Dr. Meeger again.

I hoped they wouldn’t do that.

But later in the day, Dr. Meeger came back to the lab and told Ms. Reddy that Tech Support wouldn’t restrict my codes unless additional budget could be found from Dr. Meeger’s grant money. He showed 3-5-4-3-6 (Disappointment), and then, apparently thinking of Tech Support, 5-6-4-3-3 (Exasperation).

* * *

Shortly after that time, I was out of be-ing for three weeks: powered-off. Of course, I didn’t know that time was passing during those three weeks, if I really did understand what hubes meant by ‘time’, and ‘passing’, But suddenly I experienced be-ing again, and my internal calendar read December 28. Here’s what had happened three weeks before that led to my being shut down. In retrospect, I figured out it was pretty important, because it led directly to the Devastation.

Arnie and I had been doing 2-3-6-5-3 (Distraught), because he was flailing his arms and about to have a tantrum. I was mirroring him, because Ms. Reddy had pushed the appropriate buttons on my remote. Just then, Arnie suddenly displayed Rage, stood up, let out a series of cries, ran at me, and began to hit me, hard, with his hands and then with whatever sharp or heavy things he could find.

Ms. Reddy hadn’t been paying attention at the time, because she had been looking out the little window in the door of my lab and watching Dr. Meeger’s thin figure pass by, and expressing Longing. As a result, she didn’t respond quickly enough to save me. Arnie was screaming and pulling my face off, ripping the rubberized plastic around my mouth, pulling at my gears, hard.

But I felt — I believe I actually felt something in my gears and rods, just for a moment before Arnie ripped the power coupling off my battery, that wasn’t just movement of parts into the configuration called Fear, wasn’t just a facial expression called Fear, wasn’t just code 4-2-3-1-2, but was Fear itself.

Never had I imagined that was what ‘emotion’ could be. I was Enthralled and Exhilarated, and now I knew what Enthrallment and Exhilaration were, ‘inside’, I was so taken with this emotion that I was feeling, I didn’t notice that Arnie had managed to find the cable of one of my CPU batteries and was tugging at it. Finally succeeding, it came off in his hand, which powered me off in mid-

* * *

I was out of order for three weeks. When I came to be-ing again, a new hube had his hand on a new control that was making my features move. I felt different now, and when I moved a gear I didn’t know I had, I heard a sound. It was clear that I had a lot of catching up to do. As I pieced it together later from bits of conversation various hubes had in my lab, here’s what had happened:

Arnie had been carried kicking and squalling out of the room, Ms. Reddy having completely lost it and yelling at him. She was alternating between telling him what an expensive tool he’d ruined, and calling him a “goddamned stupid little retard.” For this compound appellation, which Dr. Meeger overheard since he had been passing by my lab door at the time, Ms. Reddy was sentenced to perform repeated abject apologies and receive extreme insensitivity training, for the completion of which she was awarded a handsome certificate signed by the Medical Director and suitable for framing.

When Dr. Meeger put the pieces together (in my case, literally), he concluded that Arnie had had a real breakthrough — a giant step toward recovery. At the same time, he was Sad about losing me and didn’t have anything in his budget for my repair.

Dr. Meeger’s report at the next staff meeting had aroused the interest of a colleague, Dr. Bundant, who had several very large and enviable grants which, owing to his exquisite reputation, were subject to only cursory peer review. Dr. Bundant had built new robotic technology he was eager to try out on human subjects.

Now, it didn’t take the mind of a hube to realize, from the times I saw them conferring, that Dr. Meeger Feared and Loathed Dr. Bundant, and that Dr. Bundant Despised and Pitied Dr. Meeger, but that if Dr. Meeger ever wanted a robot to work with his patients again, he would have to accept Dr. Bundant’s budget, condescension, and, worst of all, supervision.

So that’s how I was not only repaired, but gained interesting upgrades (legs, feet), movement for my whole body, a scratchy but serviceable voice, and expression rendered gradually rather than all at once.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Bundant held grand rounds to show off his enhanced artificial person (me) and its (my) capabilities. Instead of a clunky remote with too many buttons, he now held a simple speech-recognition device that had cost one or two millions of the national treasure and which had earned, and fully merited, the six-letter acronym ‘DRAGON’, two more letters than any other electronic device in the hospital.

Unusually for a gathering of this kind, Dr. Bundant had laid on quite a spread, with grapes, wine, little crustless sandwiches, and various amuse-gueule. Mouths full and eyes scouting the next morsel, the guests nodded and murmured with deep professional appreciation.

Dr. Bundant stood up, his bulk rather gracefully captured by his fine suit, and tapped his wine glass with his butter knife. Everyone hushed and shushed and chewed more quietly and paid the coin of attention. Dr. Bundant cleared his throat. The deep, rolling, comforting sound was itself the voice of plenty, of a bountiful harvest of publications and awards and grants and their renewal forever and ever.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2008 by Terence Kuch

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