Between lay-off rumours and the riotous bacchanalia of cicadas around the lab complex, I could hardly think all day at work. In my driveway, though, it’s eerie-silent, until my neighbour Suzanne chirps hello.
“Peaceful on our street, isn’t it?” she says, coming so near the trunk of my Honda I’m surprised she doesn’t lean on it.
“Yeah, it’s pretty quiet.”
“Not like 17 years ago. You should’ve heard it.” Suzanne’s lived in this town all her life, and her parents before her. I’ve been here nine years; long enough to call it home, not long enough to be considered local. “Your friend took a tumble earlier today,” she adds, with a brief, deliberate pause after the word friend. “Was riding his bike — your bike? That cute blue fixie — and hit a pothole over there. I helped him inside.”
“Hmmm,” I say, and then, with effort, “Thank you.”
Richard’s lying on the couch wearing a pair of earmuffs and a sleep mask. I drag the ottoman over and sit next to him. He’s not asleep. He never sleeps off-schedule.
I rest my hand on top of his. It’s warmer than mine, not warm like an animal but warm like a hard drive.
“Suzanne said you hit a pothole on your bike.”
“Why are you telling me what we both know?”
“’Cause she’s a liar sometimes.”
He grunts. I can hear his fans whirring, smell the ever-present ozone powering through the cologne he anoints himself with each morning in an attempt to seem less offensive, more human. We still haven’t got the smell right. We haven’t got a lot of things right.
“Show me where?” I ask.
He removes the sleep mask and lifts his shirt. A large patch of neoskin on his torso looks bright, fresh. He heals fast. A human would be wearing a soaked bandage the size of a legal pad.
“This is the external damage.” He meets my eyes as he’s been programmed to do, glancing away after three seconds because we told him at the lab that sustained eye contact makes him seem too intense.
I was on the design team, tasked with making Richard look appealing but not overly memorable. He’s got average male height and an athletic build gone slightly fallow. Also a thin scar on his chin that his story credits to a childhood bike accident, as if anyone meeting him would believe he’d had a childhood. The scar was my idea. Later I might joke about it, but right now he’s not in the mood.
“And the internal damage?”
We’re not talking about his wiring or power systems, but the complex interplay of emotions, data and machine learning that make him seem, for all the artifice and code, as human as anyone I know. According to our lab’s mission statement, we build intelligent robots whose balance of empathy and reason provide unparalleled wisdom to help governments and organizations make the best decisions for their futures. According to our quarterly reports, no one cares.
We didn’t get the balance right with Richard. Too much emotion, maybe, although his logic levels are high too. He learns fast. He’s learnt not only to identify the birds that feed in our backyard as individuals, but to summon them at will, like a surly cartoon princess. But the more he learns, the more he withdraws. They wanted to scrap him, but I suggested he stay with me to test his progress in a more natural environment.
Richard doesn’t say anything. I pat his shoulder, a gesture he’s learnt to find soothing. “Hey.”
“It’s the potholes,” he says. “There shouldn’t have been a pothole there.”
“They happen every spring. It’s the weather.” Maybe he didn’t see it. He can see infrared and ultraviolet, but sometimes fails to distinguish objects from their background context.
“This one was old. It should have been fixed. So many things. Filling your potholes and caring for your sick and feeding your hungry. These aren’t problems of science or technology. You already know how to fix them.”
He doesn’t mean me, specifically. I still can’t quite shrug off the accusation. “It’s whole systems of people,” I say. “We’re trying to make them work better. You’re helping us.”
His fans whir faster. “No. Not me.”
I stand up, take his hands, and guide him to his feet. He envelops me in a warm, perfect hug. Sometime in the three months that he’s lived here, the lines have blurred between subject and friend. All the reasons I believed in the company’s mission are gone, replaced by just one. Richard. When I look at him now, I don’t see my design contributions. I just see that he’s broken in the same ways I am.
If the company folds, I’ll lose my job, but I don’t know what will happen to him. I should talk to a lawyer.
My boss said today she thinks our robots are fine, actually — not perfect, but still revolutionary — and that ego is what keeps people from signing on. “We’re dealing with politicians, you know.” She’d joined me for a coffee break on the patio, where two starlings fought over one cicada even though half a dozen more sat just a few yards away.
“Richard. What happened to the cicadas on our street?”
“I told them not to come up to the surface,” he says. “I told them to wait.”
“Wait? For what?”
There’s so much I don’t understand about him. But there’s even more that I do.
“Come with me,” I say. “Let’s go to the hardware store. We’re going to fix some potholes.”