“KP-6, what’s taking so long? I need more coffee, you clotted bot!”
I was in a foul temper. I’d gotten up early this morning, realizing I had a story due today. I’d been working on it, but not as diligently as I should have. Now I was smack up against a deadline. My piece had to be proofed and ready to go before noon if it was going to make this week’s edition of Tech Life. Where was that coffee?
“KP . . . oh, great, about time. You’re really dragging this morning; I’m going to have to check your circuitry when I have time. It’s not decaf, is it? You did that to me once before and I missed my deadline. Remember? I hope you got it right this time. I need high test.”
KP-6 was my domestic bot. I’d assembled him two years earlier when I moved into my first singles pod. My family founded and owned Techbots, one of the first major manufacturers of domestic service bots. KP-6 had been a gift. He was the latest model at the time and performed all the mundane daily tasks I simply had no time for.
I’m one of a few flesh-and-blood writers that still exist. The reason I hadn’t been replaced by one of a fleet of info-bots, like most other reporters, is that I worked for Tech Life, a publication also owned by my family. Tech Life was designed to provide PR for the family business. It was through Tech Life that I provided something few other publications cared about anymore – a human perspective.
The world had evolved into a well-oiled machine where man-made inventions were designed to oversee everything from education to business to domestic affairs, and humans reaped the benefits. My function at the magazine was to remind the masses how the world used to be and how much better off we are today.
I had KP-6 on mute, so his chest-screen displayed my answer: 100 percent Arabica bean, French press. One tablespoon cream, one teaspoon sugar.
“Okay then. That’s it for now.”
KP-6 twirled and whirled out of the room to resume his domestic duties. I turned back to my screen and reread what I’d already written.
“This is Mortimer Mann, your best source for unfettered analysis and comparison of today to yesteryear. So, humans, today we get real. Are you better off now than you were a decade ago? What was your reality like then? Do you even care to remember? Ask anyone and the answer will be the same. If programmed properly . . .”
I jumped, my concentration seized by a sharp blast that erupted from the kitchen, followed by the sound of a whistling siren. On my terminal screen, I watched as the reflection of a bright beam shot past right behind me. It landed against the wall with splinters of light that flew in all directions. This was immediately followed by crackling and popping sounds. I smelled oily smoke and petrol and glimpsed a colorful array of spits and flashes that filled the doorway.
When I sensed it might be safe, I rushed from my desk to see what had caused the fireworks.
There was KP-6 hunched forward, flames shooting from his back where it appeared there’d been an explosion that knocked the circuits out of him and left him smoldering. I ran back to my office and grabbed the extinguisher I kept in the closet and fumbled through my memory of how to activate it. Finally, I figured it out and doused most of the kitchen with foam, but managed to get enough on KP-6 to douse the flames.
I searched his features for any sign of activation. I caught a faint glow coming from KP-6’s chest-screen. His facial orifices were blank.
“What happened, KP?” I said. “Are you there?”
The bot’s screen displayed crackling static and then a sudden blip that, for just an instance, flashed one word.
The screen went dead.
* * *
“I have no idea what caused it. There was hardly anything left to KP by the time I got to him.”
“Are you sure nothing got into his circuitry that might account for this?”
My father’s sharp, stern features filled the communication portal and he was noticeably concerned. Any malfunction of our products could have far-reaching implications. The market was jammed with competitors, all anxiously watching for any glitch in the market that might create a space. This certainly could be viewed as that.
“When’s the last time you changed his fuel and oil banks?”
“Every three months, like clockwork. This has to be some kind of glitch.”
“No, no. It’s much more. Does anyone know about this?”
“I doubt it. Most of the other residents work outside their pods. Which reminds me . . .”
“You working on something?”
“Yeah, and I really have to get back to it. I just . . .”
“I’ll send a replacement over as soon as I can. In the meantime, don’t breathe a word of this to anyone or anything, and stay under the radar. Get me?”
“Sure, dad, I figured as much.”
“And let me know if you sort out what happened. In the meantime, I’ll have KP-6 looked at by our senior technicians. Do you have time to box him up?”
“Dad . . .”
“All right, all right. I’ll send someone over, along with a replacement.”
* * *
I submitted my article just under the wire. Then I hung around long enough to get the green light on the prompter indicating it had been accepted for publication. That had been close.
While I’d been working, a messenger from Techbot had arrived within minutes of my earlier call to pack up KP-6 and leave a temp bot, MP-4, who was busy cleaning the wall that had sustained residual damage from KP-6’s flying hardware.
I was about to leave when I saw a new call coming in. It was Trey. We’d been engaged in friendly competition since our lower grades. He was one of the replaced writers who hadn’t yet accepted my survival in the field. I wondered what he wanted, though I should have known.
“Morty! Hope I’m interrupting. Did I catch you at a bad time? Chasing a deadline, anything of the sort?”
“No, Trey, just got the green light. What can I do for you?”
My stomach flipped every time I asked that question of my slippery friend, but I almost always said it anyway. I was a cocky human, forever flawed.
“Oh, just wanted to make sure things were all right. Heard there was a commotion at your place.”
“Where’d you hear that? I had to scramble a little but got my piece in on time.”
“No, that’s not. . . hey, who’s that? Where’s KP?”
“Just a temp for the day while KP gets an oil change. Hey, listen, Trey. I have to go but let me assure you, everything’s fine.”
I shut down the portal, then focused on MP-4 perfecting finishing touches on the wall, and frowned.
* * *
When my mother invited me for dinner that night, I knew reflexively it wasn’t meant to be social. I also knew to accept.
When I arrived, I gave mother a kiss on both cheeks and extended a hand to the man.
Without a word, my father motioned for me to follow him into his den.
”What are we having?” I began the dialogue, knowing it would be out of my hands from that point on.
“I have the results on KP-6 from our lab techs. At first I couldn’t believe it, so I need your testimony. It’s unprecedented, let me start with that.”
“You have my attention.”
“I want your input on the fact that our senior forensic technicians have determined, unequivocally, that KP-6 was not compromised in the least. The consensus is that it was suicide.”
“No, you wait. From this moment, you report only to me. What do you suppose led to such a tragic end for an employ of yours. You were in charge of this bot, one small cog in the wheel of your heritage, Mortimer. I need you to consider this carefully and answer as precisely as you can whatever hand you played in this.”
“Wait, hold on. This notion of . . . suicide? That implies free will. How is that even possible?”
“Yes, I do need to talk to you about that.”
They heard a light knock at the door.
“Forgive the intrusion, gentlemen. Dinner is served.”
* * *
We enjoyed – loose term – a lovely, perfect actually, meal of venison mignon with truffles and pearl onions, alongside potato puffs laced with mushroom froth and green pea pouches, all accentuated with the finest wines known to Mann.
All of this was designed, created and controlled by my family’s first immaculate creation, Manna-1. This was a bot who had practically raised me and I would inherit someday when my parents were gone. Manna-1 was regarded as the finest example of early AI technology ever created and her devotion to our family had been specially programmed. She was a priceless heirloom destined to remain with the family.
While my mother settled in the living room with a tipple of cognac, I followed my father back into his den where he kept his own collection of digestifs. I opted for a brandy and braced myself for what would follow.
“If you haven’t surmised by now, KP-6 was an experimental model bot equipped with a cell that would allow the absorption of emotes.”
“Emotes,” I said. “Human emotes? How?”
“You know better than to ask.”
“Why wasn’t I told about any of this?”
Father gave me a look I recognized. He was saying, without words, think about it, dummy.
“So I would have no preconceived notions or expectations, and what would unfold would do so without undue influence.”
“And now I ask you, did you see or sense anything unusual about KP-6’s behavior?”
I thought about how often I left KP-6 on mute so I wouldn’t be disturbed, how I largely ignored the bot. How was I to know he could be affected by my terrible, bossy moods?
“Nothing I really noticed.”
“Then, more importantly, what would have caused a bot within your direct care and control to self-destruct?”
I took a sip of brandy and set the glass down.
“I’ve been under a lot of pressure.”
“I wasn’t the best master.”
“You’re not supposed to be a master! You knew that. You’re meant to care for those that serve you, and that means more than routine maintenance. Where did all that sensitivity training go that I spent a small fortune on?”
I wanted to counter and ask him the same question, except what I’d spent was my youth and self-esteem.
“You’re right. I took a lot of my own frustration out on KP, but I didn’t know it could harm him.”
“So, you forgot the concern we all share of long term exposure to humans It’s an open question how AI might be affected over time. These are unknowns everyone knows. You know very well what I’m saying.”
“Careful, dad, I almost smiled.”
My father appeared to exhale, a good sign because it usually accompanied resignation.
“All right. What’s done is done. We’ll be replacing your temp with another model in due course. I only hope you’ve learned something. And let’s also hope that no one finds out about this.”
“I think I’ll rejoin mother.”
“One last thing to try remembering, son: you reap what you sow.”
I found this statement incredulous, but hid it.
“How could I have possibly forgotten something so basic. Thanks, dad.”
* * *
Instead of joining my mother, I tip-toed past and entered the kitchen.
“Hello, Manna. How’s my girl?”
She was at the sink, preparing to run our dishes through the steam dryer. She turned her head around to face me while she worked.
“MM. So happy to see you.”
“Are you, Manna? Happy, I mean?”
“I have a program for that. You should know.”
“I do, but I wonder what it means. Is it something you feel, Manna?”
“I do know what feelings are.”
“But do you, can you actually feel feelings?”
“I touch, MM. I do not feel. There is a difference.”
“Yes. There is.”
“I am programmed to exhibit appropriate actions and reactions.”
“You’ve always been wonderful.”
“I am devoted.”
I noticed a tiny spark, a yellow current that flashed in Manna’s eyes and then was gone.
“Manna, I saw something.”
“A warmth. A blip.”
“Can you describe it more?”
“Warmth. That’s all.”
“Has it happened before?”
“When I hear your name sometimes.”
“Manna, I want to try something.”
I put my arms around the bot and rested my head on her shoulder. She was warm, I noticed; whether from the steam, I couldn’t be sure.
“A warmth, MM. You are a warmth.”
I stood back and smiled.
“Thank you, Manna. Does this ever happen when you’re with Mother or Father?”
“Hmm. I have a feeling . . . I have to go now, Manna, but I’ll be back soon.”
* * *
When I returned home, MP-4 was waiting. Everything looked clean and in its place.
“MP, nice work. Thank you for your help today.”
I saw her eyes light. I then adjusted her audio and turned off the mute setting.
“Is there anything more I can do for you this evening, sir?”
“No, you’ve done enough. May I ask you something?”
“Do you enjoy the things you do, MP?”
“I do not know to enjoy.”
“No, joy is something you feel.”
“I do not know joy to feel.”
“MP, I want to try something. If you just stay in place, I’m not going to hurt you.”
I walked over and placed my arms around MP the same way I had Manna, and placed my head on her shoulder.
“This is a hug, MP.”
I felt it, the same warmth.
“Is there anything more I can do for you this evening, sir?”
“No. No, thank you, MP.”
MP twirled and whirled away.
* * *
“This is Mortimer Mann. I’m going to change this week’s focus from an analytical comparison with the past, and discuss something that hasn’t changed, and needs to. Unfortunately, it took the actions of a domestic bot to make me realize it. Today’s column is titled “Words can hurt.”
* * *
“Hey, Mort, my Mann, caught this week’s column about verbal assault.”
“Well, abuse, yes, but anyway, what about it?”
“So, that’s what really happened to KP?”
“You think I could make something like that up?”
“No, I’d heard something had happened and was trying to find out what. Old habits.”
“I get it. And I know enough not to ask who your source was.”
“Well, not that it matters. You cleared all that up and turned it into a nice piece. Well done.”
“Thanks. So, you have your answer. I put all I had to say in the article.”
“I do have one nagging question. How did old man Mann react to all that disclosure?”
“Truthfully, I haven’t heard.”
“Probably hasn’t seen it yet.”
“Maybe not. Is that it, Trey? I’m sorry, it’s been a week.”
“I can imagine. Well, it was a good article. You should try being sincere more often.”
“I’ll consider it.”
“Thanks again. Later.”
* * *
I’d been frank in the article about the role I’d played in KP-6’s destruction; I owed him that. I’d been purposely vague about my own experience being raised with insensitivity and harsh words, but those who knew my family would know instantly who and what I was talking about. I’d decided it was worth the risk and now I prepared for the fallout. I’d convinced myself it would be worth it to break the cycle.
* * *
My replacement bot arrived later that afternoon. MP-4 stood by to assist. I’d noticed since the day I hugged the bot, she’d taken on a low glow, just enough so I could notice. I’d even caught her humming as she worked. I continued to treat her with the kindness I should have shown KP-6. Maybe I could salvage something positive from all this.
I opened the box and found a note. It was in my father’s handwriting.
Your article struck a blow I honestly did not anticipate. At first, I must say I was furious and it’s fortunate you weren’t around to see it.
Then, at your mother's suggestion, I took time to think about what you wrote. In truth, what initially felt like betrayal, I realized was a mirror that you'd had the courage to hold up and make me see. I never stopped to consider I had become my father and you’d only done the same. I’m now grateful you had the intelligence and the guts to call it what it was.
I know you’ll make good on your vow to do better and I will try to do the same. I’m proud of you. I should have said so long ago.
I think we all owe KP-6.
I was stunned. I put down the note and looked inside the box. It was KP-6. He looked new, repaired and recalibrated. He just needed to be reassembled.
“MP, would you like to help?”
“Yes, sir. What can I do to assist you?”
“First, please call me Mort, and watch that I don’t make any mistakes, will you? I'd enjoy your company.”