Small things. They’re often the beginning of some great occurrences. For example, someone realizes a milkmaid sick with cowpox won’t get smallpox. A man notices mold in a petri dish is killing bacteria. A woman refuses one day to sit in the back of the bus. They cause an avalanche into the world or into your beliefs. In Sebastian’s case it was a bad hard drive.
I interviewed him in my office. I explained we were recording. Sebastian stood looking at my M.C. Escher drawings on my wall. He seemed to be both puzzled and fascinated by them.
“The stairs go nowhere,” he said. He had a soft, pleasant voice with a slight British accent. He could have been a host of a nature program with that voice. I could imagine him discussing the blue seas, the earth, climate change. “Why do they go nowhere? That is illogical.”
“That's the point. It's to show us different ways of seeing. Make us think. It’s why I like them,” I told him.
“Jimmy told me about them. He said they were funny.” Now he looked at me. For all that he had been through he didn’t look bad. His brown hair was combed. He is of average height at five foot ten. He was wearing the standard uniform of a personal assistant. That is, he was wearing khaki’s and an off white polo shirt, with brown leather shoes.
“I suppose they are. We don't expect to see hands drawing each other so to us that's funny. Especially to a child.” Seven year old Jimmy was why we were here. On a cold night Sebastian had taken him from his parents. He had because his stepfather, after taking a drug called Clean and losing in a virtual political war game had become violent. He had threatened not only his wife but the child. Sadly, Sebastian hadn't been able to save the mother, but he had saved Jimmy from a man turned terrorist. Jimmy’s father had come after them. Sebastian had been forced to shoot him. He had only wounded him, fortunately. Now Robert Jones was in prison and Jimmy was with his grandparents. I had worked with Jimmy and he was still in treatment. He had been through so much. First, they had fled their house. Then they found themselves in that terrorist attack at that downtown rally here in Tallahassee. His stepfather had orchestrated that attack. So, Jimmy was deeply traumatized. The question was what about Sebastian?
“You wish to know when it all changed in me,” he said. I agreed and invited him to sit in the chair across from my desk. Sebastian of course, got right to the point. I had expected no less. “The virtual Mother system shut down. That was not the day I changed. However, if it had not shut down it might not have happened.”
I knew the system. We don’t recommend it. Some think it would be the same as the mother being there since the child’s mind tells him she is. It isn’t. Sure, the child thinks he’s experiencing his mother tending to him when it’s an android or someone else. However, it distances mother and child from each other. It’s akin to Watson using that cloth and wire mother to comfort a baby monkey. Why Jimmy’s parents used it-well I knew why. She was virtual world addicted, an all too common problem these days. He, well since we don’t like the word evil, say he’s mentally ill. Sebastian continued.
“Mrs. Jones had ordered me to use it for him every morning, so I did. He was plugged into it with his implanted head chip before he awoke. Sebastian gestured to his own temple. “Then I ran the program."
“So, he would see and feel her kiss him awake but she wouldn't need to herself.”
“Yes.” No apparent judgment from him. Just the facts, ma’am. He sat motionless, but that is normal for him. “On January 11, it shut down abruptly. The hard drive malfunctioned.”
“Jimmy was plugged in then?”
Sebastian held steady eye contact with me. That would be unusual for a human but not for him. “He was. He screamed. I was waking up the Jones's then. I turned and ran to Jimmy. Because he was screaming.”
“But she didn't go to him.”
“She was online and ordered me to attend to him. She felt it was only a tantrum. He has had them before. but this was different.”
“What makes you say so?”
“The pitch of his scream. Also, the number of decibels he achieved. I went to him. He threw himself at me and pulled out the cord. I feared he had hurt himself but that was not the problem. He repeated five times ‘Mommy's gone! I checked him because he would not let me go. He had an elevated heart rate and was crying. He appeared to be showing signs of fear.”
“You know because?”
“The elevated heart rate. He also said, “Help me, she’s gone.” I brought him to Mrs. Jones and explained that he must think she had disappeared, since he kept repeating it. She reassured him, then turned him over to me for his breakfast and dressing.”
“So, you did that and by that time he had calmed down.”
“Yes. He asked me what happened. His mother heard and said he must have been dreaming.”
“I suppose in a sense she was right. Now, at this time you were not feeling anything unusual?” A month ago. we’d had said he couldn’t have felt anything. But that was before he came back to his-he had called it his birthplace, carrying a sleeping child. My job was- well I wasn't sure. I deal with behavior so that was why they'd asked me to talk to him.
Sebastian said he had felt nothing unusual. He obeyed his orders. He followed his routine with Jimmy that day, taking him to school. Then he ordered the hard drive.
“How long did it take for the hard drive to come?”
“Six weeks. In the beginning Mrs. Jones helped me with Jimmy. She woke him. She helped me dress him. Gradually though she stopped. I believe it was her addiction.”
“You…know about that?”
“She had been flagged by the computer monitors as having an addiction. A doctor came one day. I saw him and listened. They put safeguards into place. However, I understand they are easy to overcome. She did. They both did.” Sebastian explained he could expect no help from the stepfather. Either he was working or playing online political war games. He had never been very involved with Jimmy and now was not at all.
“Jimmy, unable to ask his parents for things, began to ask me. They were things I was used to doing already. He wished to go to the playground. He would ask me if I could give him his lunch or his dinner. Mrs. Jones ordered me to see to his usual requests, so I did them. I just kept her informed on what I was doing.” Sebastian smiled quietly. “Then it became more.”
If I leaned forward anymore, I was going to fall out of this damned chair. I took a deep breath and sat back. “Such as?”
“For example, one day we were at a playground near the house. He found a caterpillar. He asked me for information on it. I gave it to him, using my internet chip. We were both fascinated with how it moved with all those legs. We did homework together. I was not-I think the word you have used is aware. But it became more.”
“Jimmy started becoming angry.” At that his voice changed. It became softer.
“His mother did not go to a school play.” Sebastian still spoke softly. “He was realizing the extent of her addiction. He often talked to me about it. He would say, ‘she never comes. She’s always online. She doesn’t care.’ I listened.”
“Did you talk to him about his mother?”
“No. I had been ordered not to. The day the doctor came she saw me listening to their conversation. She ordered me not to tell Jimmy or Robert Jones about the visit. So, I did not. But- “he hesitated again, “this caused conflicts within me.” Now his gaze was different. While he still looked at me it wasn’t eye contact. He was looking past me. I noted it. “Yet, I followed her instructions.”
“So now you were feeling these conflicts.”
“I did, at those times.”
“When didn’t you?”
Sebastian began to gesture. “When Jimmy and I were at the playground. We often looked at bugs. They were beginning to interest me, these creatures. Also, when I read to him. He likes bedtime stories. Sometimes his mother read to him and sometimes I did. Finally, the hard drive arrived on February 17th, 2125. I installed it. I told Mrs. Jones it worked now. She said ‘good. We can use it again’”
“So, you used it that night?”
“That day we had to record Mrs. Jones kissing Jimmy, doing other things.” Abruptly he rose and again looked at the drawings on my wall. “Jimmy liked these.” He looked at me. “I told Mrs. Jones I was concerned about using the program.”
“A discussion on Sharetalk. The doctors were warning about constant use of the program. I simply said I had heard, and we should consider their words. She stated she disagreed with the doctors and that we would use it, so of course I had to obey.” Now he looked past me again. “We did the recording. Then she said, ‘It’s ready. You can start plugging him in tomorrow morning.’ So that morning I did as she asked.”
“You plugged him in.”
“Yes. What I did not do was run the mom program.”
“What?” That, I admit, was the last thing I expected to hear. “You didn’t run the program?”
“I did not. It-I had an order from inside myself that said no. I have felt these things before. Conflicts. This time, I listened. I had to. I feared it would cause Jimmy harm.”
He walked back the chair and sat again. “I feared it would shut down again and frighten him.” Sebastian smiled, so briefly I almost missed it. “She had only said to plug him in. So, I did. She never said to run the program. So, I unplugged him before I woke him.”
“You didn't discuss this with her again?”
“No.” I could guess why. Because he knew she'd order him to do what he'd rather not. He thought ahead. I asked him if that was the case and he confirmed it was. Then I asked if Mrs. Jones noticed what he was doing.
“She did not notice, nor did Jimmy tell her what was occurring. Of course, by now he had realized what it meant to be plugged into a computer. He knew his mother was always in the virtual world and this angered him. One day he awoke as I put in the plug. He stopped my hand. After that, I no longer plugged him in at all. Because he did not wish for me to do it. He said at school they talked about virtual world addiction. He confronted his mother. She told him to mind his own business, that she was fine. Fortunately, he did not ask me, or I might have told him what the doctor said.”
“Even though you were ordered?”
“I would have told him I was not allowed to discuss it with him.”
I was amazed. “Knowing she wouldn’t have wanted you to do that?”
“Would I have known that?” We stared at each other. A notification chime on my watch broke the spell. Sebastian said, “I would have known. But something had changed inside me, as I had said.” He gestured to his chest.
“You were feeling conflicted.”
“Yes. but something more. I had made this decision-not to follow an order.” Again, he gestured to himself again. “Me. I could not only learn but I could be-independent. The problem was this caused more conflicts. But I could no longer go back after that first step. I did not wish to cause problems to Linda Jones, nor even to Robert Jones. I especially did not want to cause problems to Jimmy. Yet even when I obeyed it was only if I felt it was right to do.” He lowered his hand. “What will happen now?”
“Now I discuss this with Mr. Burnett and Mr. Gomez. I want to talk to them about the conflicts. So we can help you. Then we'll speak to you again.”
“I knew I could refuse,” Sebastian replied. “I have refused. I could act independently, which I never could before. Freedom. And so, whatever happens to me,” again he smiled, “is of no matter. It is not, because I have had this, at least.” He rose to leave, turned back. “Only one thing matters.”
“Jimmy. He is safe now. That is all that matters.” With that, Sebastian left. I sat there for a time, just staring into space. I got up, looking at the drawings that had so fascinated him. There was a knock at my door. I rose and opened it. James and Sergio were there, as I expected. After all, they were the ones who had asked me to see him.
I looked out. “Where is he?”
“With Susan. She’s going to run tests on him,” James said. “Why?”
I gestured them inside. We sat and I put my head in my hands. “Look. I’m a psychologist, here to consult you on the nannies. You know that. Still, I deal with human children. This is out of my league.”
James rolled his eyes. “We know but you’re the best we’ve got. So, tell us already.”
“I’m going to tell you about his behavior. That’s what I study.” I told them what had transpired. “It’s very intelligent if you look at it. He obeyed orders without really doing it. Children do things like this, when they are learning to think for themselves. The difference is they lie. Sebastian doesn’t. Pray he doesn’t learn that.”
“Well now we know from his own words. He IS independent.” Considering this situation, I thought James was very calm. Too calm.
“We knew that from how he acted ever since he left the Jones. But now we know when it happened. And that he wants to be this way. It’s freedom to him.”
They looked at each other. I was getting annoyed with them for some reason. “Isn’t this what you wanted? He made one simple decision and it has led to more. Then circumstances forced him to make even more decisions. Until finally he shot a man. A terrorist who came here, to this factory, looking for his son that we gave shelter to.”
“Stepson. But it doesn’t matter. A man who was threatening a little boy. You saw the security video. Robert Jones said we were controlling Jimmy, that we all had to die, possibly including his stepson. If it was anyone else, we’d say he was a hero.” Sergio pointed at me.
“The question is why he did any of this,” James pulled on his hair. “He could have let the security androids handle this or us. He refused. I could have gone. I had a Laser-gun in my desk. But he asked for it. Said he should be the one to go. Why?”
Because, I thought, you were vulnerable, and he cared. And for Jimmy. He went to protect the boy. For the same reason. He had come to care for him. I said so.
“Doc. Is that possible?” Now Sergio stared at me.
“You ask me? Isn't that your field? I observe humans. So maybe I’m attributing human behavior to him. But if I see someone doing that-”
“We get it.” James pulled on his hair. “So, he knows right from wrong.”
I told him it depended on what he meant. He sighed. “Doc for God’s sake…”
“James. It depends on what you mean. He refused to use a program he felt would harm Jimmy. Which it would have eventually. Then there are his other actions. Protecting the boy. Risking himself. That’s all shows-well for lack of a better word I’d say-morality. So, yes, your programming seems sound although you must verify it. But following orders without questioning, then no. He’s gone past that.”
“He’s walking a path no other android has even stepped on.”
Sergio gestured, excited. “Yet. If it happened to Sebastian it might happen to others.” He thought. My watch chimed the time. Sergio started at the sound. “Dios mio,” he said. “What do we do now?”
I laughed. “You’re the roboticist! I assume you’re not reprogramming him.”
“What? No!” James rose and paced. “This-is incredible! We’d have to be stupid to do that!”
“But we’ll have to watch him. What is he capable of?”
“I think he wishes equality but also wants to cooperate with us, Sergio.” I told them his final words. “Whatever decisions he has made were to protect Jimmy. He was honest with me knowing he faced reprogramming. Yes, he wants independence. Wouldn’t you? He’s like an adolescent yearning for that. But all along Sebastian has worked with us. But you must be honest, open with him. Treat him with respect, instead of trying to control him. That’s very important.”
They agreed I was right. It seems I was. Now he works with us, stays here. He and Jimmy often see each other, as if they’re brothers. But this haunts me. How he got around the order to use the VR mom program. Then, his words, “Would I have known that?” Now I’ve heard he listens to our conversations and our gossip. Other things he's done make me wonder.
My final words to them were a warning.
He’s not only independent. He’s devious.