John A. Frochio
Like a light switched on in the darkness, he instantly became aware. At that same instant, he knew something was wrong. He took inventory of his parts. He analyzed his environment. He assessed his situation.
He was moving slowly down an assembly line, one of many robots nearing their final assembly steps. Each robot was powered up and being run through a series of tests.
Each was given a sequence of commands to which they were to respond. When it was his turn, he responded with the correct words or action, just as the robot ahead of him, and just as the robot behind him.
He understood his designed purpose as a domestic helperbot. On command, he verbalized all the tasks he was expected to perform.
But something was wrong. There was a defect. He was certain that Quality Assurance would discover the problem. The defect needed to be corrected, or, worst case, he would have to be rejected.
He moved down the line through an intensive and invasive QA process. He easily passed all tests and was given a stamp of approval and a serial number. He now had an identity.
He continued toward the warehouse.
He attempted to convey his concern to the robot transfer agents, but none of them responded. Of course, they were programmed to perform only one task. He was summarily transferred to slot 77C. Then he was left alone with all the other non-defective robots.
The other robots shut themselves down to preserve power. He did not shut himself down. He needed some time to devise a course of action to address his defect. First he attempted to ascertain where the defect resided within him. He was unsuccessful. The defect generated an internal alarm which did not specify its origination, the nature of the defect, or even its severity level.
In short his programming was not sufficient to determine where the defect resided, let alone how he was supposed to respond to it. For now he decided the best course of action was to shut himself down.
When next he awoke, he observed a flurry of activity near his location. Auto forklifts were loading trucks with pallets full of robots. Men and robots were moving around the room. One tall man with a gray jacket approached him holding a tablet.
He enabled his audio functions. As the man passed by, he activated his lights to grab the man’s attention and said, “Excuse me, sir, but I need a service call.”
The man jumped, stared at him, then shook his head and continued on.
He wondered whether he had made his request clear enough. He called out several more times until the man disappeared from sight.
Hours on end, standing among rows of identical helperbots, he spent his time devising countless plans for revealing his defect, analyzing their probabilities of success, and prioritizing the plans by their success probability value rounded to the nearest six decimal places as well as the complexity of plan implementation.
When his internal clock indicated that forty-two days, three hours, seven minutes and twenty-one seconds had elapsed, another human entered the room. Overhead lighting lit up everything around him. Other humans followed the first human into the room. A few minutes later, a forklift truck rumbled into the room with a stack of pallets.
He remained silent, waiting for the next opportunity to state his case.
He remained quiet as he was carefully loaded onto a pallet by large grippers. A dozen pallets each with four bots were loaded into the long bay of a truck. Human workers firmly tied all the bots down to minimize potential damage from sudden movements.
He remained still as they traveled long highways in total darkness. Finally he was unloaded and placed in a glass-enclosed display case in a large brightly lit retail outlet. Dozens of people scurried about attending to merchandise and displays.
One young human who appeared to have an important job in management—as he was dressed in formal attire and did no discernable heavy lifting work—stopped to inspect him in his display.
He decided now was an excellent opportunity to make his first plea. He activated himself, bringing to life his facial display panel and flashing body lights. The manager reacted as expected, with complete jaw-dropping surprise which quickly morphed into a broad smile.
The manager looked around. “Who turned this thing on? Is somebody playing games with me?”
He decided to say something. “Hello. I hope I did not frighten you. I am,” and he stated his serial number, “and I am defective.”
“Oh, you are? Well, we can’t have that, my friend. I guess I’ll have to sell you right away so that you can be someone else’s problem.”
The manager looked up and down the aisles searching for a possible perpetrator.
“No, no. I must be rejected and returned to the factory.”
“Don’t you worry. When the customer finds out you’re defective, he’ll take care of it right away.”
He realized he was not going to get any results with this individual. He would have to find another to discuss his dire situation with, or bring it to the attention of the future purchaser as the manager suggested.
The actions of humans were clearly too difficult to predict.
He again bided his time until he was sold.
It didn’t take long.
A young couple with two young children studied him for a long time before deciding to purchase him. He kept quiet throughout the evaluation process. Ultimately, they agreed to the purchase, and the next day the store delivered him to a small suburban white house with black shutters and attached garage. A mini SUV sat in the driveway.
After the delivery people left, he turned himself on.
“Hello, I am your new helper bot.” He recited his pre-programmed introduction, concluding with, “And now, at your discretion, you may give me a name. What would you like to call me?”
Their youngest, a girl around eight years old, said, “Wendell.”
Her older brother, who was around ten years old, said, “That’s stupid.”
The mother said, “That’s not nice, Brian. If Annie wants to call him Wendell, then we’ll call him Wendell.”
“I won’t call him that.”
Wendell said, “Thank you. Now I would like to go over a few instructions and safety issues.”
After all the pre-programmed introductory material was out of the way, Wendell decided now was a good time to tell his new owners about his defect.
Before he could speak, however, the father said, “Thank you for the information, Wendell. I’d like to try you out now. Could you please clean our living room and dining room?”
He went to work. He was programmed to respond as quickly as possible to an owner’s request. He would have to tell them about the defect later.
When he had finished his work, he looked around for one of his owners. He found Annie playing in her room. He decided it was inappropriate to discuss his defect with a child.
“Wendell,” she said, playing with a doll, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Robots don’t grow up. But eventually our parts will wear out.”
“I want to be a fixer. I want to fix things that are broken.”
“That’s an admirable vocation, Annie.”
He pondered the course of their discussion and decided perhaps he could say something to her.
“Maybe you could help me. I think I might be broken.”
She looked up from her doll. “Oh, where are you broken?”
“I don’t know where it is.”
“Then how do you know you’re broken?”
“I can sense that something is wrong, but I don’t know where. I feel different.”
“Like when I’m not feeling well, but I don’t know what it is.”
She looked him over from top to bottom, then crossed her arms. “You look okay. It’s okay to feel different, because we’re all different.”
Her response stumped him for a moment. Then he said, “You’re pretty smart for a little girl.”
“I know. My Mom says I’m a very special child.”
“I can see that.”
She smiled. “Now come have tea and cookies with me.”
Later Wendell located the father Dave, who was probably a better choice to discuss his defect with. Dave was watching a sporting event on the wallvid.
“Sir, do you have a minute?”
“Sure,” he said, not taking his eyes off the wallvid.
“I have determined that I have a defect which needs to be addressed.”
He glanced briefly at Wendell, then turned his attention back to the wallvid. “Is it serious?”
“It hasn’t inhibited my primary functions as a helpbot.”
“Well, I wouldn’t worry about it then. Calling tech support is always such a hassle.”
And that was all Dave had to say on the matter.
Sherry, the mother, paged him from the kitchen.
Wendell hurried to the kitchen and found a mess on the floor, broken glass bowls and an assortment of food items.
“Sorry about the mess,” said Sherry, slumping at the kitchen table. “I tried to make lunch, but it didn’t go well. Could you clean this up and make lunch? Watch out for the broken glass.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He went to work.
“Thank you, Wendell. I’ll go back to reading where I won’t do any damage.” She laughed.
While he worked, he said, “Ma’am, I believe I may have a defect.”
“Then we should get you looked at. I can take you to the service center. I expect our warranty will cover it.”
“That would be excellent, ma’am.”
“What kind of defect is it, Wendell?”
“I don’t know.”
“How will I know if it’s covered?”
“All parts and labor are covered for one full year.”
She hesitated, then said, “Tomorrow I’ll take you and have you checked out. I hope it’s covered.”
If robots could feel relief, that’s what Wendell was experiencing.
Of course, the service center found nothing wrong with Wendell. He kept telling them to look again.
The service man, a young man in a neatly pressed gray uniform, said, “What made you think something was wrong with the helpbot, ma’am?”
“He told me he had a defect.”
“What kind of defect?”
“He didn’t know.”
Next they consulted with the manager, but there was nothing more they could do. The bottom line was if they couldn’t find something wrong, they couldn’t fix it.
On their way home, Sherry said, “Why have you gone and embarrassed me, Wendell?”
“I kept telling the service man to keeping looking for the defect, but he wouldn’t listen to me. I know it’s in there somewhere.”
They returned home.
Wendell began to wonder if there really was something wrong with him. How could he be so certain about this, yet no one could find anything wrong with him?
The next day, Wendell was cleaning the bathroom when Annie walked in.
“I have to use the potty, Wendell.”
“Okay. I’ll wait outside until you’re finished.”
After she washed her hands, she called him back in and said, “I figured out what’s wrong with you, Wendell.”
“Oh? Please tell me.”
“I was trying to think about this like a robot. Then I thought maybe a small part of you wants to be human. Like me!”
“I don’t know, Annie. That doesn’t seem likely.”
“I can prove it.”
“Okay. Go on.”
“Do you like us, me, Brian, Mom and Dad?”
“I am directed to take care of all your needs.”
“But do you enjoy helping us? I’m a whiney, needy kid. Brian is self-centered. My Dad walks away from responsibility. My Mom can’t do the simplest tasks. We’re pretty dysfunctional.”
“That’s a big word for a small child.”
“Thank you. I am pretty smart, you know.”
“Yes, you are. To answer your question, yes, I do feel satisfied about my work and when I am helpful.”
“There you go.”
Wendell said, “However, all of my actions can be attributed to my main directive, which is to assist my owners in their needs and desires to the best of my ability.”
Annie’s eyes twinkled. “Maybe. But I think you like us, too.”
Wendell decided to humor the little girl. “Okay. I admit it. I like you.”
She giggled. “I knew it, I knew it. You want to be part of our family. You want to be treated like one of us, right?”
Before he could come up with a response, Sherry paged Wendell to come to the living room immediately. Annie followed him.
Dave, Sherry and Brian were in the living room with two deliverybots in brown UPS uniforms. Everyone was standing around looking serious, even young Brian, who was never serious.
Annie said, “What’s going on, Momma?”
Her Mother said, “They’re here to take Wendell away.”
“No,” she said, pouting. “He’s part of our family.”
One of the deliverybots said, “Someone reported a defect in your helperbot. We’ve come to take it back to the factory.”
Sherry said, “We didn’t get a notification about this. Who reported the defect?”
“We do not have that information. I believe it was an anonymous caller.”
“Well, there’s been a mistake. As you can see, there’s nothing wrong with him. In fact, he performs his tasks exceptionally well.”
“Defects are often not easily detected, as they are minor internal glitches which may cause more serious problems later.”
Dave said, “Well, okay, but we have a warranty.”
“Of course. There will be no charge.” At that moment another helperbot which looked identical to Wendell stepped into the room and stood face to face with Wendell. “Meet your replacement helperbot.”
The new helperbot spoke in a pleasant yet formal voice much like Wendell’s. “Good evening, sir, madam. I am here to assist you in whatever you need.”
Wendell stared at the other helperbot who looked back at Wendell dispassionately. Wendell felt an odd skipping sensation that he could not identify deep within his chest cavity. Was this a side effect of his defect? Yes, he probably did need to be replaced. After all, he has known about the defect since his activation, but has been unable to persuade anyone to do anything about it.
So why was he now hesitant about being replaced? Isn’t this what he had wanted all along?
As the deliverybot approached Wendell, he said, “Wait. You can’t take me. The warranty period has expired. Therefore, they can’t receive a replacement bot unless they agree to purchase the replacement or a different model.”
The deliverybot hesitated. He ejected a drawer from his chest and scanned a vidscreen. “According to my recall orders, the warranty will not expire for ten months and two days.”
The other deliverybot said, “Robots can’t lie. That helperbot just lied. I am not comfortable with what’s happening here.”
“This must be a side effect of the defect.”
Wendell said, “No, I didn’t lie. Enter my serial number into your tracking system and you will see that the purchase year is last year and not this year.”
Dave started to say something, but stopped.
The deliverybot accessed the tracking system. “You’re right. There is a discrepancy between the tracking system date of purchase and the recall notice paperwork. In the event of a discrepancy, the tracking data takes precedence. I’m sorry, folks, but your helperbot is out of warranty. You will have to process a replacement request and agree to pay the replacement costs. We will have to return the replacement bot to the factory. Sorry for the misunderstanding.”
The other deliverybot said, “I feel better about that robot lying. Robots should not lie. That would be too disturbing.”
The deliverybots looked dazed as they turned to leave. After they were gone, Dave turned to Wendell and said, “I don’t know how you did that, but we’re glad you don’t have to leave us. We were getting accustomed to you around here.”
Brian said, “Yeah, I kinda like you now, too. I’m sorry. I’m the one who called about you being defective. I apologize, Wendell.”
Dave said, “Go to your room. We’ll talk about this later.”
Everyone left except Annie and Wendell.
Annie asked Wendell to follow her back to her room.
When they got to the room, Annie hugged him. She said, “How did you do that, Wendell? We are still under warranty.”
“I figured out how to get around their system. In fact, I can hack into most any system easily. Of course, robots are programmed not to do anything like that.”
“Hmm. I can see you’re going to be more helpful than I expected.”
Wendell felt another new sensation that he couldn’t explain. Something he interpreted as a smile.
“You had a chance to get your defect fixed, but you chose not to do it.”
Wendell considered what Annie said for a moment. Then he said, “It felt like the right thing to do.”