Monday, October 29, 2012

Going Through the Motions

Dr. Irving Behder’s eyes were locked on Eliza. Her wrecked body lay on the floor as a policeman leaned over her. Her arms were severed and one leg was bent at a crazy angle. Irving realized another officer was talking to him.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?” Irving asked.

“I said please leave the crime scene until we are done, Doctor.”

“Oh. Yes, of course. You can skip the ‘Doctor.’ It’s, um. Well, it’s not medical. I never think people are talking to me when they use it.”

“As you wish, Mr. Behder. They’ll be done in about a quarter hour,” said Officer Pamela Ortiz.

“Uh, yes. OK.”

He turned away from the living room. As he passed the old knotty pine table in the dining room, he glided his fingertips over the smooth surface. The table once belonged to his grandparents. Eliza, following instructions gleaned from the internet, had refinished it unbidden. He walked through the kitchen and out to the breezeway that connected the main house with the laboratory. Officer Ortiz soon joined him.

“Just a few more questions. I realize you’re stunned right now, but are you sure you can’t think of anyone who might have done this?” Ortiz asked.

“Of course not. I don’t have enemies. I mean, not the kind who would do this.”

“What kind of enemies do you have?” Ortiz pressed.

“Oh, maybe a few academic rivals. We might exchange letters in scientific journals, but who kills over academic differences?”

“It’s been known to happen. It’s not my first thought in this case, I’ll grant you. This looks like an act of rage. I’d look first for a personal motive. Still, we can’t overlook any possibility. Some people get worked up over very abstract things. We’ll need a list of those enemies.”

“‘Enemy’ is much too harsh a term, really.”

“Not from the looks of things here. But think. Who would have a more personal grudge against you? Did you steal someone’s girl maybe? Cost someone a job? Wounded someone’s pride? You, know. Something personal.”

“I can’t think of anyone like that.”

“You’re divorced, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but Lauryn isn’t the ax-murderer type.”

“All the same, make a list for us and put Lauryn on it.”

“I’ll get a notepad.”

“No, not now. Give yourself time to think about it so you don’t miss anyone. It could be some one you least suspect.”

“Right. I’ve seen every Thin Man.

Thin Man

“Classic movie series,” Behder explained.

“Oh. I’m not much into those. Deliver the list to the county detectives tomorrow,” Officer Ortiz instructed. “Their office is near the Washington County Courthouse.”

Irving decided not to question local law enforcement protocol, though he wondered why county detectives weren’t already on the scene if the case was going to be bumped up to them.

“Where are you going to take the body?” Irving asked.

“Nowhere. It’s your personal property. We’ll take the weapon – the ax – and check it for fingerprints or DNA. Our photos and notes will give us the rest of what we need. We don’t need the body for evidence.”

Irving couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Do you treat all murders so casually?”

“This isn’t a murder.”

“Not a murder? Eliza is dead! Do you think I just can piece her back together and wake her up?”

“I don’t know. Can you? The robot looks totaled, but you’re better qualified to judge that than we are. If you could get it working, maybe it could tell us what happened.”

“No, her QNU – her mind – is too badly damaged.”

“Too bad. I realize this was destruction of very valuable property and we do take the crime seriously, Mr. Behder, but no one is dead.”

“I don’t think you understand. Eliza was not just a robot. She was a conscious being.”

“I wouldn’t know about that. But, Mr. Behder, regardless of how you see things, under the law a robot is just a mobile computer. A device.”

“The law is an ass.”

“Frequently. But it is the law. I can’t help noticing, Mr. Behder, that you don’t seem very upset about the robot in the laboratory.”

“The MR4?”

“If that’s the one that still had an ax buried in its chest when we arrived.”

“The MR4 – his name is Marv – never achieved consciousness. He might have done so in time.”

“I see. What about the remaining two robots in the lab, Mr. Behder? Are you sure they can’t tell us anything? They aren’t damaged at all. Can you play back a recording of what they witnessed?”

“No, they don’t work that way. Their minds can’t be downloaded or played back any more than yours can.”

“I can remember what I see and tell about it.”

“Those robots, the F1A and MR2, aren’t yet functional on a high enough level. They don’t comprehend what they see. They won’t say anything useful. You are welcome to try to talk to them.”

“I did, Mr. Behder. The male one almost made sense.”

“Really? What did he say?”

“‘We don’t need no badges.’”

“The MR2 was responding to your uniform. Visual and auditory cues shape his response, but he doesn’t really know what he is saying. Marv was the only robot in the lab that might have told us something about what happened. I’m guessing that’s why he was targeted.”

“Which tells us the perp knows these particular robots.”

“Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Maybe he attacked Marv just because he was on his feet. The other two don’t walk yet.”

“With all this valuable equipment, Mr. Behder, why is there no security system? Why are there no security cameras?”

“I never saw the need for them. This is a very safe area. Or at least I thought so until now.”

“Did you at least lock the doors?”

“Yes, but the windows are unlocked.”

Ortiz shook her head. “One more thing. Are the robots insured?”

“No. Eliza is legally my personal property, as you pointed out, and I don’t carry chattel insurance. I’m not trying to scam the insurance company by breaking the robots myself.”

“Don’t get defensive. It’s a logical question.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“We’re done,” said one of the other two officers as they emerged from the house.

“OK, guys,” Pamela Ortiz answered.

“I’ll bring that list to the county detectives tomorrow,” Irving said.


Irving watched as the police packed up. He overheard muffled laughter as they spoke softly among themselves in the driveway. He continued to stand in the breezeway as the two police cars descended the long driveway. They turned onto the public road and sped away.

Irving lifted his eyes and looked around at the picturesque hills and valleys that surrounded his rural hilltop home. The summer sun cast moving cloud shadows on the countryside. He took a deep breath and turned toward the house. He re-entered the kitchen and locked the door behind him.

Irving walked into the living room and stood silently over Eliza. He bent down and lifted the body. Eliza weighed 55kg, but she felt heavier despite the pieces left on the floor. He awkwardly maneuvered through the kitchen. He sighed when he discovered he couldn’t unlock the back door with one-hand. He put the robot down, unlocked and opened the door, and lifted her again. He repeated the process at the lab door.

Irving dropped Eliza on a table and looked her over. Whoever had wielded the ax had done his work well. Some of the robot’s parts could be disassembled and shelved for re-use, but crucially, the Quasi-Neural Unit, or QNU, was shattered beyond any hope of repair. He turned away and went back to the house to pick up more parts of Eliza.

**** **** **** **** ****

Irving felt exhausted as he drove home from the Washington County Detectives Office even though it was only midmorning. A gruff detective with the somehow satisfying name Mulroney was in charge of the case. He had taken Irving’s “enemies list” and asked him the same questions Ortiz had asked.

Irving parked in his driveway and re-entered his house. He sought out the living room couch. He fell heavily onto it. With his peripheral vision he saw a sprinkling of tiny electronic components from Eliza still on the carpet. He decided to deal with them later. He closed his eyes and daydreamed about Eliza. It almost seemed she was sitting in the easy chair next to him. The daydreams blended into real dreams. When he opened his eyes, it was late afternoon.

Irving forced himself to get up. He picked up small pieces of solid state circuitry from the carpet and returned to the laboratory.

Irving wasn’t prepared to finish disassembling Eliza just yet, so he turned his attention to the MR4. The MR4’s QNU was crushed, but otherwise the assault on this robot had been far less savage. Except where the axe had split the chest, the MR4’s handsome and muscular torso was mostly intact. The power unit was crippled, but this, while expensive, was replaceable.

Irving’s assessments were interrupted by a fierce pounding at the door.

“Open up, you son of a bitch!”

Irving recognized the voice of his ex-wife. It was less mellifluous than usual.

He opened the lab door. Lauryn, all of five feet tall and 46kg, shoved him out of the way and strode into the lab.

“Um, uh, hello,” he stammered.

Lauryn spun and slapped him on his chest. He wasn’t sure if the blow had landed as intended or if she had missed his face.

“What the hell were you thinking?” she shouted. “You sent a detective to my workplace?”

“He went there? I didn’t send him exactly. Eliza was attacked.”

“I know! He all but accused me of it!”

“The police asked me who might have a reason to be hostile, you see.”

“And you thought of me!”

“Well, you were one name on a list.”

“So you ruined the day of a whole list of people? You idiot! No one cares about your stupid toys!”

“Someone did. And, in fairness, you got awfully angry at the robots while we were married,” Irving said defensively.

“No, I got angry at you for caring more about your machines than about us.”

Irving glanced at the table bearing Eliza. Lauryn followed his eyes. She forced herself to speak in a more measured tone.

“I never was jealous of plastic and wires. Nor am I a prude, Irving. I don’t care about your silly techno-fetish. Robots are just very expensive toys. If you had brought the robots to bed with us, I would have been OK with it. As you well know, I suggested it a dozen times. You refused.”

“It would have been like cheating in front of you.”

“As opposed to what? Cheating behind my back? Irving, how many times do I have to explain this? THEY ARE MACHINES! YOU treated them like people. You still do. You stopped caring about us – the only real people in the house. That’s why we are divorced. Even now, you’re acting as though that thing is your dead lover instead of a broken sex toy.”

“She wasn’t just a sex toy.”

“I’m done arguing about that with you. But surely you understand why I would be the last person to break your robots.”

“Why?” Irving asked.

“Only someone who grew up not having to worry about money could be so oblivious. Why do you think? I want to get something out of those miserable years of being married to you. The court said your inheritance is protected. Well, OK. But you developed the new CPUs…”

“The QNUs.”

“Whatever. You developed them while we were married. I have rights to share in the profits, if there ever are any. I admit you’re a clever tinkerer – insane, but clever. I’ve spoken to your colleagues, and they all say you really are onto something with the new CPUs – I mean the QNUs. They say your new robots can simulate conversation very well.”

“Eliza didn’t merely simulate conversation,” Irving objected.

“Of course she did. Didn’t you ever listen to her objectively? You use too many old movie quotes when programming dialogue, by the way. People don’t talk like that anymore. Probably they never really did.”

“Eliza evolved a lot after you left. Also, I don’t program dialogue. I download movies into the robots’ memories as a short-cut for giving them life experience. The robots then compare whatever you say to the dialogue in their memories and they respond appropriately.”

“You just described simulated conversation.”

“No. It is exactly what you and I do when we speak.”

“Oh really? Let’s test your hypothesis. Will those robots over there answer me?” Lauryn asked.

“Yes, but they aren’t really conscious.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

“Try the F1A,” he said, pointing to the closer cot.

Lauryn walked over to the cot and pulled back the sheet covering the robot. She whistled at the sight of the unclothed body beneath.

“Barbie wants her look back,” Lauryn said.


Irving, you could have made it look older than 17.”

“I was going for 21.”

“Yeah, right. Did you name this one?”


“Fiona? Oh, from F1A. Cute. So, how do I turn it on? I mean, start it up?”

“She goes into slumber mode, but she is always on. Otherwise, the quasi-neural pathways degrade. Eliza said she had vivid dreams while sleeping. Just wake her up like you would a person.”

Lauryn grabbed the machine’s arm and shook it. “Hey, Fiona.”

The robot’s eyelids opened. “‘Here’s looking at you, kid,’” it said.

“Uh-huh. What are you thinking about?”

“‘I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship.’”

“Go back to sleep, Fiona.”

“‘We’ll always have Paris,’” Fiona added before closing her eyes.

“Right. I think I’ve made my point, Irving.”

“Fiona isn’t Eliza. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure why Eliza advanced so much more quickly than Marv or these two. Their QNUs are identical to the one in Eliza, so the critical difference must lie somewhere in the training.”

“You mean in the programming,” Lauryn said.

“Call it what you will. When I pinpoint it, I’ll duplicate it.”

“Then you’ll have a salable product. You understand now that I want you to succeed.”

“I understand, Lauryn. Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. Just send me my percentage. Do Fiona and the other one do anything other than parrot Bogart?”

“Fiona and the MR2 – his name is ‘Morty’ – don’t even walk yet.”

“Eliza had to learn to walk, too, I remember. I never understood why. Your previous generation of robots walked from the moment you flipped on their switches. They scared me half to death sometimes when they blundered into a room.”

“Those models were much simpler. If I remove the advanced QNUs from Fiona and Morty and install the old CPUs instead, they’ll stand up and dance using basic algorithms. QNUs are different. A robot with a QNU learns to move consciously – and let’s not argue about the word ‘consciously.’ The point is that it is more like a person learning to walk. It takes time.”

“They have to learn everything?”

“Most things. Naturally, I hardwired some behaviors and responses into them – the equivalent of instincts. I hardwired a pleasure response, for example, and I chose the things that will trigger it. It helps me motivate them.”

“Do they feel displeasure?”

“Well, yes, necessarily. One is the flipside of the other. But don’t worry about them acting hostile, if that’s what you’re thinking. They have robust safeguards against injuring anyone. Those inhibitions are hardwired, too.”

“OK. Keep my attorney informed about your progress. I really am sorry someone broke your toys, Irving. But before send police after me again, remember that I don’t have hardwired safeguards.”

**** **** **** **** ****

Irving regarded Hagerstown as agreeable and forgettable in the way most American towns of middling size are. Conscious of the nearby Antietam battlefield, local planners strove to maintain a mid-nineteenth century look to the downtown. Their success was mixed.

Irving parked in front of The Portage, the favorite tavern of his old college buddy Zayne. Zayne currently taught at the University of Maryland, though he was not yet a full professor. His name was on the list Irving earnestly regretted having handed to Mulroney. Zayne had called Irving and suggested they meet for a drink.

The Portage, located in one of the actual nineteenth century buildings, was deep and narrow with meager natural light. Dark wood paneling added to the gloom. The air was musty and dense with the aroma of old brick and wood. Irving felt the ambience was depressing. He spotted Zayne in a booth across from the center of the bar.

“Sorry about the visit from Detective Mulroney,” Irving said as he sat down.

“It’s OK. I didn’t take it personally. Jane did, though, and she let Mulroney know it.”

Jane was Zayne’s wife. Irving sometimes wondered if the phonetic similarity of their names had been a factor in their romance. Little things sometimes have big consequences. He wondered idly if names affected the progress of his robots.

“If you see Jane anywhere, tell her I really let you have it,” Zayne instructed. “Still a Seagrams 7 man?”


Zayne slid out of the booth and ordered a Seagrams 7 and another Scotch at the bar. He stepped back with the drinks.

“Jane told the detective you were a technosexual pervert, and she said whoever chopped up the robots did the world a favor.”

“I see.”

“Oh, I guess I’m being insensitive. Sorry about Eliza, Irv.”

“Me too. Well, Jane never made a secret of her dislike of robots. You always agreed with her, too, but we all managed to stay friends. Until recently.”

“Well, Jane didn’t like the way you broke up with Lauryn.”

“Lauryn broke up with me.”

“But it was over robots, wasn’t it?”


“You know I like you, Irv. You’re so marvelously eccentric. As for the robots, to tell you the truth, I’m beginning to understand your point of view.”

“I’m surprised.”

Zayne stirred his Scotch with a swizzle stick even though there was no ice or mixer in the glass.

“Jane and I have been having some trouble lately. You never quarreled with Eliza, did you? It must have been kind of nice sometimes.”

“It was nice all the time. She loved me.”

“Come now. You’re anthropomorphizing. How can you say a machine loved you? She had no choice in the matter.”

“OK, in a way you’re right,” Irving conceded. “The robots don’t have a choice. They have an imprinting mechanism hardwired into them. Once it is activated they become attached to one person. The feature is necessary to make the robots marketable. Customers are looking to buy affection, after all.”

“You imprinted your prototype robots on yourself?” Zayne asked.

“Just the two female robots: Eliza and Fiona. Maybe I need to be more open-minded, but I felt funny about imprinting the male robots on me. I imprinted those on a lab assistant instead. She seems to enjoy it.”

“I’d like to read the ‘help wanted’ ad and the resume of the lady you hired.”

“Do you want to pre-order a production model?”

“No. I said I understand your point of view. I didn’t say I shared it. If I ever cheat on Jane I’d rather do it with one of them,” Zayne said, indicating with a gesture two unattended young women who had sat down at the bar a few minutes earlier. “I don’t mean those two in particular.”

“I know what you mean. Now I know why this dingy place is your favorite watering hole. I’m curious. Why do you prefer flesh and blood?” Irving asked.

“You really don’t know what a bizarre question that is, do you? It wouldn’t even be cheating if the girl wasn’t real, so what would be the point?”

“Lauryn said something strangely similar.”

“She’s a smart woman. Drink up, Irv.”

**** **** **** **** ****

As he disassembled the MR4 in the lab, Irving’s cell phone rang. He recognized the number of his lab assistant.

“Hello, Deb.”

“Hi, Doc.”

Debra always called him “Doc.” Irving never objected despite his dislike of titles. “Doc” was more like a nickname.

Debra was a 19-year-old college student. Both pretty and uninhibited, she laughed when he first had described the job to her. Her youth unsettled him, but she was eager and of legal age, so in the end he gave her the job of training Marv and Morty.

“You want me to come by and tickle Marv some more?” Debra asked.

“No. Didn’t you hear the news?”

“I never listen to the news. What happened?”

“I had a break-in. Someone attacked Eliza and the M4R with an ax.”

“Damn. Can you fix them?”


“Oh crap. My name wasn’t in the news, was it?”

“No,” Irving reassured her. “I’ve declined to talk to reporters, and it didn’t even occur to me to mention your name to the police. I don’t think you have a motive.”

“Thanks,” she giggled. “I wouldn’t want my mom to hear about my job that way.”

“How are you coming along with the MR2?” Irving asked.

“Morty? He is a slow learner. Is he OK?”

“Yes, he is fine.”

“Shame about Marv. He was getting pretty good in and out of the sack. His movie quotes even made sense most of the time. Morty is just Beginnersville at everything,” Deb remarked.

“Beginnersville? I take it he was quoting 1950s movies.”

“Could be. The last time he said, ‘Life is an obscure hobo, bumming a ride on the omnibus of art.’ I made him repeat it.”

A Bucket of Blood.”


“The quote is from A Bucket of Blood.”

“If you say so. So, when should I work on Morty?”

“Let’s get a fresh start next week.”

“Alright, Doc.”

Irving pocketed the phone. He braced himself to face Eliza once more. He walked over to the table on which her wreckage still lay. He pulled an Allen wrench from a wall shelf. As he inserted the wrench into the robot’s open neck, the enormity of his loss struck home. He collapsed and sobbed. The wrench clattered on the floor.

Two arms wrapped around him.

“It’ll be alright honey.”

“Fiona, did you walk? Was that a line from a movie?”

“‘It’s not the men in your life it’s the life in your men,’” Fiona answered, with a Mae West sass.

Irving laughed and cried at once. Minutes passed while he struggled for control. Fiona hugged him tightly the whole time. The analytical portion of his mind wondered if exposure to his extreme emotion had triggered a change in Fiona. Perhaps this was the missing ingredient to accelerate the robots’ progress. After all, Eliza had advanced rapidly during his emotional distress over his divorce from Lauryn.

Irving forcibly regained his composure and got back on his feet. He helped Fiona up onto hers. She wobbled alarmingly. She gripped his left arm with both hands to steady herself. He took a step toward her cot, but she resisted being drawn in its direction.

“Oh, what the heck,” he said.

He stepped toward the exit. Fiona did not resist the move. Clinging to him for balance, she walked slowly alongside him to the door.

Fiona smiled inwardly as they crossed the breezeway to the house. She didn’t really need to lean on him, but she couldn’t appear to advance too quickly without raising suspicions. She had to be more careful about her language, too. She had slipped up earlier. She would revert entirely to movie quotes for a while.

Fiona had hidden her progress so as not to tempt a preemptive attack from Eliza. The robots had safeguards against harming people, but not each other. The infrared signatures made the difference between robots and humans obvious. Fiona had felt nothing but joy when the ax blade sundered Eliza’s QNU and severed her limbs. She destroyed Marv only because it was Morty’s price for silence.

Perhaps tomorrow she would walk a few steps on her own. Irving would be proud of her. In a few more days she might comment on the weather. Irving Behder was all hers and he would stay that way.

“‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry,’” she said to Irving.

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