Part 5: Interview with a Robot

The following is an excerpt from my novel, Girlfriend in a Box

Even though the grave for my father was far away, the pallbearers carried it all the way without any help. The thirty or so people followed them, then gathered around the hole already dug into the ground to see his body interred. The funeral was prepared in such a hurry there wasn’t even time to order a tombstone (or “monument”, but I hate that term because you build monuments to heroes, not people like my father), and the casket will be placed in a grave that will for the moment remain unmarked except for a plastic marker inserted into the ground. The apparatus for lowering the casket had been set, the backhoe for refilling the grave is ready, we all stood around waiting for the casket to slowly arrive. Since I was a family member I had the privilege of being allowed to stand right next to the grave where the body will be lowered, with Alice beside me.

When the casket arrived and was placed on the apparatus, Alice’s eyes followed it as it sank below ground and into the hole underneath. Mom was standing across from me but all this time but did not look up because she was crying and clutching my aunt’s hand. When the casket was at the bottom of the hole my mother threw a bouquet of roses down, then one by one my family said their last good-bye to dad. As the funeral was finally wrapping up and everybody was about to disperse my mom raised her head and saw me with Alice, her eyes were filled with surprise. I realized I had made a mistake and started walking away quickly, but she caught up with us and started an angry tirade at me. Her voice was not very loud but nonetheless was very intimidating.

“What the hell is that thing doing here?” mom said, her face boiling with rage, “And in front of all these people?”

“Calm down mom,” I said, my heart pounding, “I have my reasons to bring her here with me, and this is just one special occasion which I really needed her to be by my side.”

“Stop calling her that! It’s a robot, not a person. Now you very well know how I feel about her…I mean it. Just put that goddamn thing out of the way so nobody sees it.”

At this point Wally approached us, the expression on my mother’s face changed from Hulk rage to Pollyanna smile. There is a Jekyll and Hyde quality to my mother’s personality; a wrathful, vengeful side and a sweet, caring side inhabiting the same body, and the ability to switch between the two in half the time it takes to blink your eyes.

“Hi Wally,” she said with a bright smile.

Wally smiled back, and said, “Hi Eve, long time no see. How are you doing? My condolences for your loss.”

“No, I don’t need your condolences, I’m doing well,” mom said, again resorting to her Joker smile.

Wally didn’t know what to make of my mother, then after a few awkward silent moment he said, “Right, just in case my brother happens to be a psychiatrist, if you feel you need someone to talk to he’s a great person to go to.” He handed mom a business card, she put it in her purse then left.

When Wally and I were left alone together he said, “Sorry for the lost of your father.”

I smiled, I didn’t know why, perhaps it’s a reaction to stress I learned from my mother, then brushing aside the strands of hair blown into my face by the gusty wind I said, “No, that’s alright. It had been in an emotional rollercoaster for the past few days, but I’m feeling better now.”

“Must be difficult seeing your father pass away so young, huh?”

I nodded, then said, “Well, then again eventually we all have to die, it’s sooner or later, right?”

Wally laughed, then said, “Oh, we have a philosopher here, don’t we?”

“I wouldn’t say that, I am just saying the obvious.”

Wally’s attention shifted over to Alice. He looked into her eyes, and two seconds later Alice said, “My name is Alice, how do you do?”

Wally reached out with his hand to shake Alice’s, and afterwards when the two hands disengaged Wally commented, “Wow, that felt like real human skin.”

“Thank you, my creator has done a great job designing my skin texture.”

A look of wonder appeared on Wally’s face, he looked towards me and asked, “Did Ivan specifically programmed Alice to say such things or does Alice spontaneously compose these phrases?”

“A little of both,” Alice responded, “I have been programmed with a set of formulaic answers to common questions, and my advanced syntax building software allows me to put together sentences in response to questions.”

Wally shook his head and said, “This is really awesome. Listen, I need to be in London by tomorrow, what is the fastest way from San Jose to London?”

“‘San Jose’ is an ambiguous term. Do you mean San Jose, Costa Rica or San Jose, California?”

Wally was surprised but in a pleasant way, and said, “California, of course.”

“Please wait for a moment while I gather the information to answer that question.” Fifteen seconds passed before Alice responded, “In five minutes, take Bus 22 to San Jose Internation Airport, take American Airlines flight 4827 to New York. Arrive at 1:47 AM Eastern Time, then connect to British Airway 392 and arrive at London at 7:17 AM Greenwich Meridian Time. Total time for the trip, 14 hours and 56 minutes. Do you want me to book the necessary flights?”

Wally appeared impressed, looked towards me and said, “That was excellent, the only problem was that Alice didn’t pick up on the fact that we are in San Jose, California currently, but otherwise she was able to plot a course better than a human can.”

As Wally continued exploring Alice’s capabilities a man who looked like Luigi from Super Mario Bros approached us. “Hello Uncle Steve!” I said, greeting him as he walked towards us.

Looking at me with a smile he replied, “Hello Robbie, or at least I hope you’re Robbie since you look so different from the last time I saw you I might be mistaken.”

“No, you identified me correctly,” I said, then looking towards Wally with good humor and said, “when I was younger Steve constantly mistook me for my sister Sherry, since the both of us looked so alike.”

Wally nodded with a smile, then said, “I believe you.”

Steve then greeted Wally with a handshake and said, “Nice to meet you, Ivan used to talk about you all the time so it’s nice to see you in person.” He then looked at Alice and asked, “And who may this fine young lady be?”

“That’s Alice, an android my father built,” I said.

Steve shook his head in disbelief and said, “You have to be kidding me, right? I mean, she looks exactly like another human, how can she be a robot?”

“You want proof that she’s a robot? Okay Alice, open the lid at the top of your head,” I commanded. What appeared to be the top of her head flipped open, exposing a nest of circuit boards and solenoids that fill her head. Steve nearly leapt back in surprise, he appeared almost frightened upon seeing Alice’s electronic guts.

“That’s the freakiest thing I have ever seen,” Steve said, still recovering from the surprise of discovering Alice to be a robot. He stuck a finger into Alice’s head and carefully touched one of the circuit boards, then said, “Okay, I believe you, Alice is a robot.”

Steve was so perturbed by seeing Alice that he did not completely recover from this shock, he looked at Alice while speaking to himself, “I never thought we would have the technology to build a robot as realistic as Alice. I’m afraid that if we build an entire army of Alice we would end up with a robot uprising.”

“Robots do not uprise, the premise of your statement is wrong.”

Steve appeared charmed by Alice’s response, then in a more relaxed voice he asked, “Alice, are you friendly towards the human race?”

“I have been programmed to serve all human beings. This means I will obey all commands, unless it conflicts with the code of conduct that has been programmed into me.”

There was a smile on Steve’s face as he seemingly lost his fear of her, then asked, “Alice, will you go to a bar with me and let me buy you a drink?”

“I will go to a bar with you if my master permits, but I cannot drink, for I am a robot,” Alice said very earnestly.

By this point Steve was visibly holding back his laughter, then said, “My god, not only does she look human but she has a sense of humor as well! Just to test you out, how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”

“Not enough information in my database to answer this question,” Alice answered in her classic monotone.

Steve burst into laughter, after a few guffaws he was gasping for breath, and took about a minute to recover then said with a satisfied grin on his face, “I don’t know if you intended it or not but I think Alice has a shot at a career in stand-up comedy. Excuse me while I play around with Alice a little bit.” Steve stood a step back, then tried to play the “patty cake” game with her. “Patty cake, patty cake…” he said as he clapped his hand together, but when he extended his right palm to meet with Alice she stood there staring blankly at Steve. “Okay, let’s try this again. Patty cake…” he reached out with his right palm but again Alice failed to respond, and merely stood like a block of wood.

Steve looked towards me and asked, “Does Alice know the ‘patty cake’ song?

I shrugged and said, “I don’t know, ask Alice.”

Alice opened her mouth and said, “‘Patty cake’, also known as ‘pat-a-cake’, is a popular nursery rhyme.”

Steve nodded, but wasn’t satisfied, and asked, “Yes, but do you know the game associated with ‘patty cake’?”

“Yes,” Alice answered, “the nursery rhymes has a game in which two players coordinate claps with one another.”

“Okay, so can you play that game with me?”

“Sorry, but I cannot find specific instructions for playing that game.”

“Okay, so I’ll teach you,” Steve said, glancing towards me to ensure I approved what he was doing. “When I thrust my right hand you hit it with your right hand, and when I thrust my left hand you hit it with your left hand,” he said while demonstrating the motions with his arms to Alice, “and in between you clap, can you do that?”

“I will obey your orders.”

“Semper fi,” Steve said with a military salute, then glanced towards me with a wry smile, before returning to playing ‘patty cake’ with Alice. “Patty cake, patty…” as Steve held out his right hand Alice hit him but with a fist instead of an open palm, and with such force that he immediately grimaced in pain. He flung his right hand in an attempt to relieve himself of the pain but looking at his face he was in agony even a minute after Alice hit him. I stood there in embarrassment, not knowing how to respond.

“Sorry that I forgot to mention this to you, but it’s dangerous for you to ask Alice to ‘hit you’. My dad built Alice to be much stronger than most humans and a punch from her has the potential to break bones. If I were you I would go to a hospital soon,” I said.

Steve waved his left hand and said, “I don’t think I need that for the moment, a cold pack and a few hours of rest would take care of the situation. I’ll take a rest from teaching Alice ‘patty cake’ for the moment, nice knowing you all.” Both Wally and I waved goodbye to him as he walked away massaging his right hand.

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