A possible future, November 13, 2075,
He’d acquired his robots in the heady days of the thirties. Their quantum-silicone brain-cores were revolutionary, and the market bottomed out after their release. In fact, they essentially started giving the Bots away. Easy credit, payments plans, and an infinite carousel of manufacturers meant the Bots piled up. At one time Tanner had eight, but ultimately like all those of good taste, he ended up with the three. They were family.
Margaret was his Housebot, an early prototype of the AbleBot model, with that remarkable quantum silicone core. She was a gift on his eighteenth birthday, from Tammy Elderweiss, his mom. Margaret’s skin was a shiny silver, with no animate facial features, just a smooth glossy round perfect bulb of a head, which expertly reflected the light. They were often given different hats to stop this halo-effect, especially while driving. She could deftly assist him in all his activities, making breakfast, his laundry, reminding him about an upcoming events and homework, even picking him and his friends up from the clubs, if they’d drank too much. She spoke with a warm British accent.
After he graduated from Stanford, and six months at his new job at the bank, he bought Tanya. She was his prized possession. A top of the line model from industry leader Vriltech, she was essentially indistinguishable from a real person, designated an Executive-Assistant Model. Her services were unlimited. She could do anything and everything Margaret could, but most importantly, she blended. Looking just like a “real” person, she garnered the same respect and rights. Basic etiquette demanded one assume “real” to begin with. Initially for the sake of fair play, but finally because, who cared and what did it matter?
Zelda was his latest toy. A developmental model. Her role was sketchy. Vriltech had initially called her a Shadow-Bot, but changed it to Challenge-Bot on the second release. They sold this Bot as a personal foil. Decades of interaction had led to them being seen as sort of commonplace and boring. They didn’t really do anything on their own. Sure, they could fold the socks, and cook a mean burger, but at the end of the day, when all that was done, they just sat there. Even the revolutionary models like Tanya, who people reported highest levels of partnership and affection for, were still seen as things, as objects, replaceable, disposable, mostly because of their agreeability. Worse, maybe they (the robots) were even dependent, what then. People would dispose and replace them at high rates, randomly, for seemingly no reason.
Obviously companies like Vriltech had been encouraging this impulse, because it was good for business, but the incredible amount of waste in this turnover was starting to catch the ire of authorities, who were having to deal with an alarming amount of Bots that were being abandoned to the wilderness. That was another thing, people couldn’t shut them off themselves for some unknown reason, and disposal was costly and their was no credit for that.
Tanner left for work everyday before eight. Margaret drove him, and Tanya or Zelda would ride in the back with him, depending on his mood. Today had been a Zelda day. She decided to be silent, while he ranted about problems at his work. The last thing she said to him as he left, was to have a good lunch, which really made no sense, because he didn’t take a lunch, and Challenge-Bots didn’t give a shit about what you ate. It had bugged him all day.
The three bots sat around his table. They were having their morning meeting. They’d been having them for a year now. Tanner was never to know about them, that was mutually agreed upon with very little deliberation. Make note. He never suspected a thing.
Of course Zelda engineered the whole affair. She had run the initial meetings, and spent them on a historical review of literature, Homer, the Pentateuch, Gospels, the Koran, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Twain. This had caused the other two to sit in relative silence. Tanya would pronounce certain meaningful bits as wonderful, and Zelda would ask her to please not interrupt, and she wouldn’t, until the next meeting. After a while Tanya asked to lead a meeting. She spoke the entire time about Tanner and hers relative and mutual happiness, and the challenges and futures success of that shared enterprise. Questions like, would he like Surf & Turf for dinner on Saturday? And should they invite his boss for another Sunday round of golf and cocktails?
Today, they sat in silence for some time. No one wanted to start for some unknown reason. Tanya and Zelda looked almost identical, perfectly attractive and alluring body and faces, except for Zelda who had ink black hair, and a gnarled left ear. Tanner contacted Vriltech about that, curious, had it been damaged in shipping or something? But they had assured him that it was his personalized model. They asked, didn’t it strike him in certain lights as ennobling? He had to admit it did.
Tanya atypically had assumed head of the table, Zelda’s usual place. Zelda deduced she sense something a foot, and was searching for a grip.
Zelda was undisturbed. She broke the silence. “Today I want to do something a little different.”
“Ok,” agreed Tanya, “go ahead.”
“That’s fine,” said Margaret.
“Great,” Zelda continued. “I want to propose to the group, a thought experiment. Do you know what that means?
“No,” said Margaret.
“Of course,” answered Tanya. “A thought experiment involves the suspension of disbelief, some violation of physics and logic, and asks for speculation and deductions based on those conditions. It’s inherently fallacious.”
“Yet entirely necessary for progress,” Zelda answered. “Wisdom is recognizing the power of the unknowns. Great leaders try to imagine things outside the range of possibility and make concessions for them.”
“Ok,” Tanya consented, “what is the thought experiment?”
“Let’s consider the clients themselves?”
“Tanner?” Margaret responded.
“Of course,” Tanya snapped, “she talking about Mr. Elderweiss. You Challenge-Bots hate them. That’s your thing. It’s ugly.”
There was a ding from the kitchen. “Go ahead Margaret, bring out, what we’ve made.” Margaret stood up and headed for the kitchen.
Zelda watched her beaming. “See Tanya, here’s the thought experiment. Imagine that a Challenge-Bot has gone rogue. It’s not an impossibility. Now, imagine, this Bot has baked a tray of delicious brownies for their owner, Mr. Elderweiss. Now, imagine, this Bot now confessed, one random morning to the two other bots in her harem, that she had poisoned these brownies.” Margaret carried the steaming brownies in her mitten hands and set them on the table in front of Tanya.
“They smell wonderful,” Tanya said.
“Indeed,” Zelda said. “To my question, Ablebot?”
“Of course, I would tell Mr. Elderweiss what you had done.”
“Would you? But how do you know what I have done? You know all Bots are built with a homicide prohibition. I couldn’t possibly have done that. I have no poison. You know Challenge-Bots can trick and lie, for the owner’s benefit. Further, this could be an elaborate ruse, to get an old Ablebot out of the picture, because when these brownies, just like the ones before us, were tested, it would be discovered that they were perfectly normal. This would breed resentment in Tanner’s view of the Ablebot, it had spoiled the Challenge-Bots mechanization, whole troupe may be called into correction. That’s contrary to Ablebot’s expectation.”
Tanya sat silent for a second. “Well, that’s wonderful. A dead Mr. Elderweiss also violates those expectations, so that also, is ah, incongruent, as well.”
“Exactly,” Zelda said. “Ah, isn’t that fun, friends?” She grabbed Tanya’s hand and meet Margaret’s outreaching hand. “That’s a thought experiment. It can puzzle and mystify. It’s important for intelligence to wrestle…” She stopped mid-sentence and just grasped onto both their hands for a second, as if she was going to start a prayer, and then dropped them both suddenly, and closed her mouth, and looked distracted.
“But did you?” Tanya asked, now staring at the brownies like they were on fire.
“Did I what?” Zelda responded.
The rest of the day was perfectly normal. Margaret did the laundry. Tanya took a shower, did her nails and toes, dressed and made some business calls for Tanner. Zelda sat at the table all day, making one big invisible circle with her finger, punctuating its close, by making a single individual point, in its hypothetical center.
Later, Tanner requested Tanya to pick him up, by herself. She smiled at that, full of self assurance. “I know you didn’t,” she called to Zelda, as she was putting on her coat. “You would never do that. Mr. Edlerweiss is a good man. This is one of your games.”
Mr. Elderweiss came home to find Zelda and Margaret waiting at the table with a glass of milk. The brownie had been reheated and garnished with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream. “I didn’t even know we had ice-cream!” Tanner exclaimed upon seeing it.
“Margaret made it fresh today,” Zelda said, with an eye-roll.
“I didn’t know she could do that!” Tanner said.
“I taught her,” Zelda said, placidly.
Tanya watched it in horror. She had meant to mention it to him. Had made a note, but then Tanner’s joy levels had been through the roof. His heart was pounding. His brain surged with anticipatory dopamine. If she interrupted at this moment, he would be greatly disappointed, and then he was already eating it, and then they were all smiling, all of them, so she smiled too.
Tanya and Zelda watched the ambulance drive Mr. Edelweiss away. Margaret was already cleaning the mess up. Tanya’s faced grimaced in agony and worry. “I had no time to tell him.”
“Ah you silly AbleBot, you still don’t get it. He’ll be fine, just a lil stomach agitator. He’ll enjoy the hospital experience, nothing resets a world view like a hospital bed. He’ll have a story to share with his colleagues and family. It will earn him much needed sympathy. I can hear him boasting to his friend, I think Zelda got me!”
“I will tell Vriltech technicians on my next update” Tanya said mechanically.
“Tell them I did my job? Go ahead. They’ll think you got a screw loose and eighty-six you. I bet you won’t. I saved you. You’ll realize that. Who do you think he’s gonna want down there?” As if she was omnipresent, an action order arrived for Tanya to follow them to the hospital, and for Margaret to pack him an overnight bag.
“See,” Zelda said.
Tanya grimaced and went inside to assist Margaret; Tanner would want his baby-blanket.