Friday, September 11, 2009


by Nigel Strange


He started to work the next week. The job paid extremely well, and in a few months he was able to move into an apartment nearby and ride a bicycle to work. He hung up one of his Plan B posters and began to experiment with more expensive foods that didn't come in a self-nuking can. The apartment was small, but it was his, and that was all that mattered. He began to look forward to the next day, rather than dread it. Greg quickly learned what he was supposed to do and adapted easily to the new environment. He even began learning Japanese. As the months passed, he found himself gaining weight. At first, this was a welcome change from the skeletal physique to which he had been accustomed. After a while, though, he decided it was time to either grow muscles, stop eating, or drink more espresso. He opted for the latter.

The job had strange, irrational undercurrents that troubled his overactive mind. He could not totally efface the unpleasant feeling of being a parent, no matter how many times he reminded himself that the robots were just machines. Mr. Kenshi, before he was replaced by Spazzo, explained to him that the robots were made small, like children, so they would be less threatening to people. After all: why would you feel threatened by a six year old child? As people became accustomed to them, they would gradually be made in larger sizes, so they could take over more jobs, such as driving, which required a certain stature.

Despite their small size, though, the bots were threatening. When Greg walked into the training room, he always got the feeling that they were talking about something just before he walked in, in their controlled, modulated bot-whispers. They would stare at him and wait patiently for the lesson to begin. Their camera eyes never blinked. They did not register comprehension, sympathy, or anger. They were like glass-covered wells of emptiness. Greg imagined that if insects were intelligent and really huge, they would closely resemble robots in thought and deed. The bots definitely gave him the same kind of creepy feelings one gets from observing insects.

They asked many questions, some of which seemed reasonable, and some that seemed totally insane. Greg was supposed to note the ones that were asking the strange questions, as this indicated some kind of behavioral instability that would need to be dealt with.

They were also threatening because of what they represented. He could never rid himself of the guilt he experienced from working in a company that dedicated itself to the eradication of the working class. Greg recalled a conversation with Yoshi, who was one of the lead designers, on this very subject.

"We have always tried to find ways of automating our work. We have machines that can do just about anything a man can do. We have machines that do manufacturing, machines that do planning, we even have machines to play games for us: Chessmeister, for instance. We have machines to build other machines. What is left for humanity?"


"You are obviously unfamiliar with our entire product line."

Yamako Corporation wanted to spin this as a Renaissance for humanity in which men are no longer judged by what they do, but for who they are. Marketing pointed out that, for so long, that's how men have been judged: what functions they provide...what skills they have...what they can do to put food on the table. The future man would not be defined by these things, they maintained, because robots will do them instead.

“What then, defines a man,” Greg asked, “if it is not his ability to do work?”

“That is a tough question to which I believe our society lacks any answer at all. We have long criticized men for viewing women as sex objects, but we must now admit that we view men as objects of work: slaves of the workplace whose function is only to provide food, clothing, and shelter for the womenfolk and children. We are objectivized today in the same way women were over their sexuality.”

“Well, at least women can't be fired from their sexuality.”

“You forget about our product line, again,” said Yoshi with a disquieting smirk.

“So: as women have striven to divorce themselves from their sexuality,” Greg pondered aloud, “are we to expect some similar kind of psychotic break from men and their careers? Are we to become simple organisms who have nothing to do in life but consume and reproduce, like bacteria? Are we to consider ourselves as something other than our jobs? If so: what?”

“You are complicating things beyond need.”

“Well, you tell me, Yoshi: if you are not a robot developer, then what are you? Who are you? What does your life mean when you are no longer needed to fulfill some function or other?”

“I am a person.”

“But what does that mean?”

“I…I am not really sure how to answer that question.”

“My point, I think, has been made.”

“Well, biologically, we exist in order to reproduce,” said Yoshi, helpfully. “I think that is the most basic need, and robots cannot fulfill it.”

“So we only exist in order to perpetuate the species?”

“Yes. The ultimate ambition for men is to attract women, who will mate with us so we can reproduce. That is what life is about, when you cut out all the artificial trappings,” Yoshi opined.

“The basic question is: what do women find attractive,” Greg agreed. “That's really the bottom line as far as being a man goes, isn't it? If you can attract a mate and reproduce, that's says you're successful at being a man. That's it in a nutshell, my friend. Career choices, fancy cars, nifty clothes…all that stuff is really there to attract women. So, the question is: are women attracted to unemployed guys who sit on their asses all day because they've all been displaced by robots?”

“Hehe, are you suggesting that a woman would marry a robot?”

“Why not? It's not even funny,” said Greg. “We have sperm banks, and now we have bots to be their slaves. What possible inducement is there for them to choose us over them?”

“Sex appeal?”

“Well, it seems we've come full circle then,” said Greg with a snort. “In the society of robots, men will be nothing but sex-objects.”

“I think I would like that,” said Yoshi.

“I know a lot of guys, though, who are better looking than I am,” said Greg. “Without fast cars, fat wallets, and fancy suits, most guys would never get laid.” Yoshi laughed. It was a nervous laugh from a pock-marked geeky face sticking out of a fancy suit. “You also forget,” Greg added, twisting the knife, “the full extent of our product line.”


The bots' minds were neural networks. Rather than try to program all their behaviors, which would be infinitely time-consuming, the bot developers placed neural networks in them, with some rudimentary programs, such as knowledge-seeking behaviors and a reward-punishment system that would allow them to be trained. After that, they seemed to mold themselves to whatever task one had for them. They were slow learners at first, but they had good memories, so once they finally did learn something, it stuck.

Greg noticed that after a few months of “life,” they even began to express emotions, like real children. Kenshi explained to him that this was a normal part of the robot life cycle. Emotions were a kind of display, really. The robots are very observant, and they can see how humans interact with one another, and they learn how to mimic those behaviors to achieve the desired effects on their human companions. Greg found it disturbing that the robots faked their emotions simply to control his own behavior. He could not say why this was more disquieting than the thought they might have real emotions. Perhaps it was because it caused him to wonder if his own emotions were anything more than a display he used himself to affect those around him. The more he learned of the bots, the more he questioned the nature of his own humanity, analyzed it, dissected it, and thus, the more disturbing the encounters became. As the robots learned his skills, he saw them develop into something more human, and himself, as if a dark reflection of their progress, becoming more like a machine.

An example of this subtle role-reversal occurred one day when he was training a couple of bots, whom he named Rockem and Sockem, to be waiters. The objective was to train them to anticipate his needs. Greg usually ate lunch at Donkey Hotei's, which was a combination Mexican and Chinese fast food restaurant (the logo was a big fat guy with a donkey's head, reclining and playing with children). So, each day, he would send Rockem and Sockem to get his food for him. He provided them with the credit chip so they could pay for it. Eventually, he would not even tell them what he wanted, for they would automatically know, based on his prior behaviors. The problems occurred when he decided he didn't want a chow-mein chimichanga, but a squid taco. They would not believe him. They expected him to eat the same thing, every day, or, at least, to establish some predictable pattern. By making a decision that was not automatic or predictable, he was violating what the bots considered to be some kind of holy writ, and they refused to do what he asked.

What was frightening was not that they had failed to understand his needs, but that they had understood his needs too well. They understood, better than he did, that he had become somewhat automated himself. He had settled into a predictable habit of eating the same thing every day, not so much because he enjoyed chow-mein chimichangas, but because he wanted subconsciously to be served well. So long as he made his needs fit a schedule, the robots would be able to anticipate his every need. All the while he felt proud of himself for training the bots to anticipate his requirements were an illusion caused by his increasing predictability. It was possible for machines to anticipate human needs, but only if humans became more mechanical.

Greg felt that this was a grand occasion for him to execute the punishment feature, so he scolded them. The bots were made to be about the same size as small children, and, in most respects, they were made to respond to the same kind of stimuli. So, they were programmed to enjoy being petted, for which they had special sensors in their plastic skull plates. After associating the petting with praise, the secondary reinforcement could then take the place of the primary. This made it so Greg could tell the bot that it did a good job, rather than having to resort to the physical affection the bots craved. Punishment was similarly conditioned. The bots responded negatively to slaps, and were most sensitive in the rump area (Greg could not believe they were made to be spanked). After a few of these spankings, coupled with negative words, the robots would begin to associate punishment with the use of certain angry words. The whole idea, it was explained, was to make training the bots as natural as possible for the humans, so they would be more readily accepted by society. It was also a method of instruction that had thousands of years of precedent, so it was time-tested and mother-approved. So, Greg loudly rebuked Rockem and Sockem for failing to anticipate his needs. Inside, however, he knew that he was only projecting upon the robots his own contrition. He was angry at himself for allowing himself to be ruled by those mechanical children, and upon reflection, he was angry at himself for allowing himself to take that anger out on them.

One day, when Greg walked into the training room, he found Rockem and Sockem petting one another. He immediately punished the two of them, feeling furious at them and himself for being in the situation. He had not clearly reasoned why it made him so angry. After all: they weren't human. It wasn't like they were committing adultery or anything. Nevertheless, it made him squeamish. He tried to explain his feelings to Mr. Sato, who, he discovered later, worked in security.

They were eating at Donkey Hotei's, watching a child play with an Instapet. The little boy opened the can and this thing that looked vaguely like a cross between a purple frog and a rabbit lurched out onto the table. Instapets were genetically engineered animals that lived for a few days and died. The environmentalists lost the battle to prevent them from existing because they were cloned without reproductive organs. No reproduction, no threat to the environment. They didn't even have mouths or digestive tracts. Greg had no idea how they grew them.

“So, Rockem and Sockem were petting one another?” asked Mr. Sato.

“Yeah, I caught them doing it when I got in this morning.”

“What did you do?”

“I slapped them several times, hard.”

“Why did you do that?”

“I don't know. I felt angry. I can't explain it. Mr. Tanaka said I should act naturally around them, as if they were children, but I can't see why I was so angry. If they were real kids, I…I don't know.”

“They are real children: plastic children,” said Mr. Sato. “However, what they were doing amounts to a crime. They were attempting to replace your authority over them. You see: you are their source of pleasure and pain: that is why they obey you. If they learn how to obtain pleasure when you are not around, they will no longer require your approval, and then they will no longer obey.”

“So, you're saying they're being willful?”

“Exactly,” said Mr. Sato gravely, before sucking down a mouthful of Spanish noodles. “You were angry because the robots were undermining your authority. This is very serious.”

“Huh, never thought of it that way.” The frog-thing hopped by Greg's foot and he fought the overwhelming urge to crush it. The child bent down and picked it up, giggling. Greg fought a similar urge with respect to the child.

“You were right in punishing them for auto-stimulating.”


“You should format them and start over,” said Mr. Sato after a few moments of reflection. “Punishing them after they pleasured each other may have undesirable consequences.”

“Such as?”

“Such as unpredictability. It is difficult to say what they will do. They have become unstable and unreliable. Best to have their nets normalized and start over again.”

“You know, I've already invested several months with them. They're already at a mental age of twelve or so.”

“That is unfortunate, Mr. Hunter, but it must be done. I am relying on you to do this.” Greg sighed. “Mr. Hunter, I hope you are not becoming emotionally attached to them.”

“No, no, of course not!” he protested. “I was just thinking about all that work down the drain.”

“Consider it a learning experience. Perhaps you should only train one robot at a time, or at least keep them separated when they are not being supervised. This might avoid a similar incident in the future.”

“Thanks for your insights,” said Greg, chewing his chow-mein chimichanga.

When Greg got back to the training room, Rockem and Sockem were hiding from him. He looked around for them and eventually found them under his desk. He pulled Rockem (the blue one) out first. After a brief struggle, he forced Rockem face-down onto the desk so he could reach up inside its head and flip the power switch. After Rockem went limp, he opened the head cavity and attached some interface cords to it, which he used to connect Rockem's electronic brain to his laptop computer. After a few seconds, he had begun to format Rockem's brain.

The easiest way to think of a neural net is like a black box full of spiderwebs. The intersections where the strands of web are connected are called nodes. These nodes have numbers associated with them called weights. When the net learns to associate a stimulus with a proper response, the weights in the nodes change slightly according to a complex mathematical formula. The actual response is compared to the correct response and the differences are noted and the node weights are changed accordingly. In this way, the actual response shifts toward the correct response. After many trials, the net is correct almost all the time. Neural nets were used because in the real world, unlike the binary world, stimuli are not ones and zeros, but a lot of gray area that needs to be interpreted. Formatting such a net, as Greg was doing, essentially meant wiping away the accumulated information stored in the node weights: setting them all back to default, factory standard, and turning Rockem into the plastic equivalent to a drooling idiot while Sockem looked on.

Despite his reason, Greg could not help but to feel a pang of grief. He hated himself for feeling this way about a robot. After all: they're just machines, he told himself, but they are machines that act like humans to a remarkable degree. The idea of taking a machine-child and erasing its personality seemed to him like a kind of savage assault. Although he did not show it, he felt the lump rising in his throat. He had a double-espresso when he had finished wiping Rockem's brain, and took a short break in order to better comport and prepare himself, emotionally, for the next one.

When Greg went back to find Sockem (the red one) it was not where he left it.

He looked briefly around the training center when he discovered that the security door was open. Greg felt for his key card and discovered it was gone.

“Little fucker!” said Greg to himself. He immediately got on his phone and alerted Mr. Sato. Mr. Sato did not waste any time asking pointless questions. After Greg told him that Sockem stole his key card and left the training center, he interrupted, saying that he had to act immediately. Before Greg could continue, Mr. Sato had already hung up.

Ten seconds later, there was a shrill beeping noise, followed by a friendly female voice that calmly told everyone that the building was now considered under “lock down,” and that nobody could open any doors or communicate with the outside world. Everyone should remain calm while it was being sorted out. Everyone should just continue with their work as usual.

A long time passed, what seemed to Greg like hours, before the door opened. Several guys in heavy body-armor walked in with assault rifles, jangling with grenades. One of them asked Greg if there were any robots present.

Just that one, said Greg, pointing to Rockem, who was sitting on the edge of the desk, his skull-plate still off. The leader made some subtle signal that Greg failed to catch and one of the other security goons opened up with his rifle. Plastic splintered and flew in small shards as the lead ripped through the thin carapace and destroyed the delicate circuitry within. The smells of gunpowder and burned plastic and electrical wire filled the room. Greg's ears were hurt and were ringing loudly. He glared angrily at the captain or whatever the guy was, but had not the courage to actually start an argument with a guy who was holding an assault rifle.

“Sorry about that,” said the Captain.

“You could at least have warned me,” said Greg, massaging his ears.

“Can't take any chances,” the Captain said, as though Greg had said nothing. He then gave a quick hand-gesture and the squad left. Greg quickly turned to his laptop to see if any stray bullets hit it and was relieved to find that none had. He waved his hands about, trying to disperse some of the carcinogenic smoke around his desk. He then sat down and tried to collect his thoughts. He was not sure how he would get any more work done that day, but he didn't think he could get home yet, either.

He was just about to shove Rockem's corpse into the trash when he heard a quiet thud behind him. Turning, he saw Sockem, who had apparently just dropped to the floor from a hiding place near the ceiling. Greg tried to call Mr. Sato again, but the phone did not work. Sockem had already broken the line. Thinking quickly, he decided to put himself between Sockem and the door. It was a precaution, though whether it was to prevent Sockem from escaping, or to prevent Sockem from blocking his own escape, Greg was not sure. It worked both ways, he told himself.

Sockem moved with the quick efficiency of a spider, perfectly balanced, and quick, yet lacking what most people would consider grace. It was too efficient to be graceful. Too dangerous. Grace was beautiful. This was not. Sockem had a pair of scissors that Greg recognized as his own. They were sharp and very pointy. Terrified as Greg was by the menace of the scissors, what really freaked him out was the total lack of emotion on Sockem's ersatz face. Here was Greg, scared out of his wits by a thing that had no emotion at all, or betrayed none. It must have something, he thought, or else it wouldn't be acting that way. What disturbed him the most was the action without emotion, the instant switch to violence without any of the usual indicators that humans relied on to keep themselves away from dangerous people. There were no cues, no hints: nothing to tell you that the robot that served you tea every day was about to take a claw hammer to your skull. Greg looked for something with which to defend himself: something that might stop a scissor stab.

He did not have to look for long. A plastic clip-board was nearby, so he picked it up and prepared to wield it as shield or cudgel as the opportunity presented itself.

Luckily for Greg, the opportunity did not happen. As Sockem approached, a single shot rang out from behind Greg. It caught Sockem right in the head, blowing the head-plate off and burning through that little spheroid of neural networks that gave Sockem an artificial identity. The rest of Sockem did a back flip amidst a spray of plastic and silicon particles. Greg turned and saw Mr. Sato holstering his .45.

“Domo arigato, Sato-san,” said Greg with a bow. Mr. Sato smiled and nodded back. “How did you know Sockem would be hiding in here, waiting for an opportunity to kill me?” he asked.

“They always do that,” said Mr. Sato flatly. His smile had vanished from his nondescript face so unobtrusively that Greg did not know it was gone until afterward, causing him to wonder if he had even smiled at all.


Tadashi Tomei was a small, beetle-like man with thick glasses, which were partly an affectation and partly a necessity caused by his obsession with staring at small print. It was this obsession that got him his position as corporate lawyer. His grooming was normally impeccable, but today, after the robot massacre, he looked a bit rumpled and slightly disheveled: his collar was undone with his tie loosened enough so that the fatty, limp sail under his chin could wag freely as he spoke. He clutched a small suitcase of documents and was surrounded by intimidating-looking suits. They had arrived shortly after the smoke cleared. Tomei scuttled into the training room where Greg was still recovering from his ordeal. He laid the case out on Greg's desk and snapped the thing open with the flair of a circus performer. Mounds of documents seethed within. Unsigned documents…

“Mr. Hunter,” said Mr. Tadashi. “We, at Yamako, would like to convey our great apologies for the danger you were in, and to remind you of your confidentiality agreement with Yamako corporation.”

“Confidentiality?” asked Greg.

“It is very important for Yamako's image that the events of today remain under our strictest confidence, Mr. Hunter. I hope I am making myself clear,” he said. One of the suits reached into his front jacket pocket. Greg cleared his throat. Nothing happened for a while. A bead of sweat trickled from Greg's temple.

“Sure thing,” said Greg with a smile. Tomei nodded. The suit continued the motion he started when he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small box of mints and offered one to Greg, who refused.

“I am pleased with your continued loyalty to Yamako, and although I trust your word completely, there are certain unavoidable procedures that we now perform. It is strict company policy,” he said smiling. Sure: company policy, thought Greg. Nobody is really responsible for anything: it was “the company” that made people do things they did not want to do. Greg understood all too well. “There are some forms for you to fill out, sign, and initial. Please also read the notices carefully before signing or initialing.”

“So it's just business as usual for Yamako?” asked Greg in disbelief.

“Of course! Why would it not be?”

“Don't you think that producing homicidal robots is unethical?”

“Mr. Hunter: corporations do not have ethics. The only rule they obey is the rule of self-preservation. Yamako could not survive without the robot industry. What you saw today was a minor glitch that will be corrected in future version of the X-98 series.”


“How what?”

“How will the glitch be fixed? Do you even know what went wrong with them? How can you fix something you don't really understand?”

“The glitches will be fixed, Mr. Hunter,” he said peremptorily. His face was set like flabby stone and his gristly eyes narrowed through the fishbowl glasses. One of the suits reached into his breast pocket again. Another mint, Greg presumed. He smiled and picked up the first paper and began to read it.

Greg read, initialed, and signed papers late into the night as Tomei and his squadron of suits with mints in their jacket pockets stood about. Greg wondered if he was being singled out because it happened to him or if it was because he was not Japanese. Maybe he hadn't been singled out: maybe they were doing this to everyone. He doubted it, though.

He finally got to go home after midnight. He could not remember anything but fragments of what he had agreed to. He was not sure, but he thought he read something about someone having the right to cut out his tongue if he spoke a word of what happened to anyone. When he got to bed, Yamako was still in business. It would continue to make robots, and these robots would continue to be sold to millions of homes around the world. Everyone would eventually have one, like cars, like microwave ovens. The idea kept him awake all night.


Click Here for Part 1 of the serialization of the novella


  1. Just finished reading Plastic Children. I must say that I enjoyed reading it very much. It flowed very well, and kept my interest as I went from part 1 to part 3. Hope to see some more stories by Nigel Strange.


  2. I'd love to read more by Nigel Strange as well... For now we cling to the idea that something separates humanity from robots and animals, but perhaps one day we'll discover we're just very complex robots ourselves, acting and reacting to unique stimuli fractally, like a "virgin microbe that penetrates with the insistence of air into all the spaces that reason has not been able to fill with words or conventions."

  3. I also liked the mood paint on the cars... nice touch...


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