Nature magazine runs a feature called ‘Futures’. For a while I subscribed to the magazine before I became more specialised and found lesser known journals to spend the university’s money on. I always enjoyed ‘Futures’, a small fiction section where scientists submit a little speculative fiction piece. Once, I even sent them a story I’d concocted, but it didn’t get published. Not that anything I write will ever be published in Nature.
As I said, I don’t read Nature any more, so I missed this. Womanspace. What a good thing I did. I consider myself a pretty ardent feminist, and I get enraged by trite stereotypes as much as the next sentient being. The Contemplative Mammoth has rounded up plenty of take downs. Now I have several deadlines looming and I’ve just wrapped up a workshop this week, so this female is going to beg off decrying Rybicki any further.
Instead, here’s one story Nature declined to publish. I’ll not comment on why. Presumably, Rybicki’s story was not sitting on the editor’s desk at the same time, but that would have been a lovely little piece of pathos, no?
The Royal Society for Robotic Reprogramming – by The Evil Scientist
The multiple lenses of the cameras whirred in unison as Holland stepped out of her van for the third time. This time, her passenger, the show’s host, managed to undo his seat belt, step around the van’s bonnet, and present his lines to camera. Satisfied, the director bade him to continue. He turned to Holland with a bright smile, clasping his hands together. “What do we have today?”
“Well, Dick.” Holland tugged on the brim of her baseball cap, acutely aware of the camera. No doubt they could pick up every raised hair on her neck. She tried to smile at the vacuous idiot she had been partnered with. “We’ve had reports of a violent bot somewhere around here so we’ll have a look around.”
Is that a danger to the public?” Dick asked, earnestly.
“Any stray bot can pose a danger, that’s why I carry a stun gun.”
“What could cause a bot to act up?” Dick asked, with the exact same inflection in his voice.
“There’s a variety of reasons. That’s partly what makes the job so hard.”
“Stop there,” the director intervened. “Let’s move on, we’re going to lose the light if we don’t get this bot quickly.”
Holland took the opportunity to leave the film crew while Dick asked to see the playback. She explored the fringes of the children’s play park, one hand on her stun gun. The director was right to move with the light. As the sun began to set she knew it would become more difficult to search. Not that she would give up. Why this silly bot had targeted a play area she had no idea. She wouldn’t be able to leave until she’d neutralised the threat a malfunctioning robot might pose. She crouched under a waxy leaved rhododendron and aimed her flash light into the mud. A gleam of silver caught her eye and she tilted her head to the side, listening intently. She was rewarded by a soft whir of rotors and the rhododendron quivered. “Authority override,” she cooed. “Come out from under there and shut down.”
The bot squeaked at her, angrily.
She sighed. “Master shut down.” And she clicked her fingers three times.
Another squeak and non compliance.
Rising to her feet, she took a few strides backwards and waved to the camera crew. “He’s here. If you guys could stand there you’ll probably block off his escape route.” The camera operators ran to where she pointed, the director issuing instructions to Dick.
He came to her side and wrung his hands together while the more robust camera was shoved under the bush. The leaves quivered and shook, a little oil slicking the flowers as the camera operator retreated. “We’ve got some shots,” the operator assured the director.
Dick started speaking the moment the high definition camera focussed on him. “What could possibly be wrong with this little guy?” he demanded.
Holland blinked a few times, still watching the leaves that were bouncing up and down as the bot thrashed inside the bush. “Looks like a pretty malicious piece of spyware,” she said. “Some viruses make them turn on humans. Someone’s idea of a joke. Everything they were ever programmed to like, they hurt. The owners probably dumped it rather than get it repaired.”
“Remember folks,” Dick faced the camera. “It may seem like an inconvenience to you but proper maintenance of your robots can spare folks in the RSRR a lot of grief.” He nodded to Holland, waiting for her to continue. As she floundered, the director stepped in.
“Give us a brief piece about what you’re going to do next. Dick, that was good, definitely on message. My instincts are saying we’re going to reprogram it, am I right, Holland?”
She folded her arms. “I’ll do my best not to let it happen.”
“Yeah,” the director nodded. “Sad face, Dick, sad face.” She cued them once more.
“What’s the worst case scenario here?” Dick asked, his tone dripping honey.
Holland grimaced. “It looks damaged. I’ve seen some oil on the plant there. Usually spyware keeps their self preservation instincts intact. Maybe some kids found it. You graduate from pulling legs of insects to pulling rotors off bots.” She crouched down, heedless of the camera’s scrambling to reposition. “Hold this.” She shoved the torch to Dick and dove into the muck, stun gun in one hand and magnet loop in the other. She could hear the camera crew shouting at each other for shots of her rear end. The little bot was resting beside a gnarly branch, one of its legs broken in half. Its lights glowed when it saw her, revealing a crack in its touch sensitive interface. She slipped the loop over it and it abruptly relaxed, allowing her to pull it back out into the twilight.
“Oh,” Dick said, he paused for the cameras to catch up. “Oh,” he said again. “This poor bot’s badly damaged.” Silently, Holland plugged her PDA into the bot’s port. She stroked the soft interface and was surprised when it glowed pink. “Some of its programming is still intact. It still has a cute reflex. Part of how this model bonds with their owners,” she said to Dick.
“Why is that?”
“The designers want you to bond with it, want you to love it so much you’ll buy the accessories and upgrade the hardware.” She held her PDA’s screen up to the camera. “I’m going to have to wipe this guy, I’m afraid. His code is too badly damaged.”
“Say that again,” the director told her. “But sound sadder. The viewers think of this as killing them.”