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brigits_flameis a fiction community that holds a monthly American-Idol style writing contest. I decided to try it this month... and then found out that the October week one prompt was "instep". XP So here goes.

Thanks to yonjuunanaand jimnightmare, who are the reasons I have robots on the brain. And to Jeeney, who helped immensely with dialog. Most of the comments in here are direct unprompted quotes.

Bui Van Vinh typed a last calculation onto his console keyboard and then wearily lifted the forty pounds of metal and plastic and wires which lay crumpled by his worktable, until it stood straight again. Its knees locked with a whir and click, and for a moment the robot shell stood perfectly upright, its legs balanced in what he prayed would someday resemble grace.

His desk was littered with empty meal trays and caffiene chew wrappers. He took a deep breath, trying to soothe his jangling nerves. Then he turned back to the screen and hit Run.

MARIA took one jerky step, another. Then her toe caught on a minute crack on the floor, her whole body swayed alarmingly, and she fell flat on her sculpted plastic face.

Vinh groaned and buried his head in his hands. Nine at night, deadline tomorrow, and the blasted thing still couldn't take five steps and remain standing. He wished he could slap a set of wheels on her and be done with it. Why did man insist on making robots in his own image?

Because God made man in His own image, he answered himself. And man made God after his own unconscious. Nasty feedback loop, that one. Bigotry fed bigotry. And poor MARIA got stuck in a body two sizes too small.

On the second monitor, he had MARIA's speech module up in its own window, the flashing prompt at the bottom awaiting input. It was his habit to keep a conversation with her while he worked. The more word patterns she squirrelled away in her database, the better she would sound. And, he admitted, it was comforting to talk to someone as simple and innocent as herself.

I don't get it. The equation's supposed to lift your toes by at least an inch, he typed, rapid-fire, then let the speech synthesizer play back MARIA's response while he turned back to the engineering console.

“This is headed down the fast lane to nowhere,” the electronic voice replied.

Vinh's mouth quirked at the cleverness of her database matching, and he swiveled his chair back around. You got that right, he typed. Robots just aren't meant to bend this way. Not when humanity hasn't figured out how to duplicate a cerebellum in silicon.

The door chime sounded, and Vinh looked up, startled. Surprise quickly turned to panic as he saw it wasn't some late-night janitor, but the big man, Phillip K. Reinhart himself.

“How's it coming, Vinh?” Mr. Reinhart didn't wait for a greeting, but strode right over to the worktable, stepping over cables and stray circuit boards as he came.

Vinh plastered a smile onto his face. “I – It's going well, sir. I've just got the grasping coefficients mapped out, and I'm working on the walk cycle.”

Mr. Reinhart inspected the fallen robot suspiciously. “I thought the walk cycle was finished. We saw it last month.”

“That was a simulation, sir. It works differently when you apply it to the – the actual legs.” Lame, Vinh, lame, he told himself. The truth blazed unwelcome in his brain. That walk cycle looked perfect in 3D simulation, but Mr. Reinhart didn't realize that the calculations were fudged. If you slowed down the frame rate, you could see that the instep joint didn't bend accurately. Every other step, part of the toe joint penetrated the ground plane. Easy to get away with in 3D, but when applied to reality...

That's what the boss got for demanding that they have a promo video ready before the prototype was even finished. Like any head honcho, in Vinh's experience, he assumed that once he had seen a pretty picture, it was as good as done.

“You going to be ready for tomorrow?” Mr. Reinhart asked.

Vinh swallowed. “I'll do my best.”

“I don't want your best. I want a roomful of happy new clients.”

“I'll get it finished, sir,” Vinh lied through his teeth.

Mr. Reinhart leaned his elbow against the console. “You're giving me an ulcer, Vinh.”

Vinh grabbed MARIA by the shoulders and hauled her upright. “She'll do fine, won't you, girl?” The robot, its vision centers still disconnected, stared glassy-eyed.

Mr. Reinhart looked disturbed. “Yes. Well. I'll see you tomorrow.”

Vinh turned back to the console as the big man beat a hasty retreat.

What should I do, MARIA? he typed.

“Kiss it all goodbye,” came the electronic voice.

He burst out laughing, despite the fact he knew the response came chosen by random seed.

Reinhart is an ass, he typed. If I give up now, I'm out a job.

“Wow, you certainly didn't put up much of a fight!” MARIA answered.

Sometimes her programming was uncanny. He smiled ruefully. I'm not done yet!

“Ok,” she said, back to blandness.

Shaking his head, Vinh turned back to his walk cycle calculations.

The conference room was on the thirty-seventh floor. MARIA sat on a dais in front of the corner windows, her sculpted curves silhouetted against a panorama of the whole city. Vinh, in his seat in the corner, watched the big boss step up to the keyboard which was linked to MARIA's central processing unit. The audience of pressed and manicured executives watched attentively.

Hello MARIA, Mr. Reinhart typed.

Hello, MARIA said dutifully. Nice to meet you.

Mr. Reinhart hesitated, an unsureness very unlike his usual character.

“Tell it your name,” someone suggested.

I'm Phil Reinhart, he typed and hit Enter.

“Reinhart is an ass,” MARIA replied.

The conference room tittered nervously. Vinh, watching from the corner, felt his blood turn to ice. In his sleep-deprived caffiene haze, he'd totally blanked on wiping Mr. Reinhart's name from MARIA's dictionaries.

Why, who told you that? The boss smiled with false cheer, attempting to salvage the situation.

“I don't quite remember. I talk to a lot of people,” answered MARIA.

Vinh sagged with relief.

[ --- Brigit's Flame editors, this is the 1000 word mark... feel free to stop here if you like, I know you guys are overworked for this week. ]

Mr. Reinhart typed, Are you ready for your big day?

“Does it really matter if I am or not?”

Mr. Reinhart glanced quizically at Vinh's corner, then continued, MARIA, can you show us how you walk?

“I could... but I really don't want to.”

Vinh snickered to himself.

The boss gave an unconvincing laugh. “Nervous, are you?”

“Ask her directly,” Vinh prompted. “Say 'MARIA, take three steps for us.'”

This time, recognizing the cue, the robot braced her hands on the chair arms and raised herself slowly, almost smoothly, to her feet. She lifted her right foot, bent her ankle and instep, and placed it down solidly one step ahead. Her left foot followed. Then she raised her right foot again, and her toe scraped along the tile floor.

Vinh's breath caught in his throat. Her hips swayed, almost seductively. She put her arms out for balance. And then her heel came down and she was standing, straight and proud, before the half-circle of investors. Vinh let out his breath. Bravo, girl, bravo!

Even Mr. Reinhart looked impressed. Very nice, he typed. We'll have you clicking your heels and serving coffee in no time!

“Robots just aren't meant to bend that way,” MARIA said.

It was all Vinh could do not to cheer her out loud. Had she really learned to talk like that from listening to him and the rest of the staff?

“Our engineers still have some work to do on her language mode,” Mr. Reinhart interrupted smoothly. He glared daggers at Vinh. “We will be wiping her current data and installing countermeasures to make sure she's more polite in the future.”

Like what? A whole book of override commands to cover every eventuality? Vinh's mind spun with the patent infeasability of that kind of censorship. It'll kill her personality and shoot her processing time to hell. Or does he just mean search-and-replacing the dictionaries like a shrink doing a nano-precision lobotomy?

A half-dozen methods sprang into his mind for backing up her dictionaries before Reinhart the Ass ordered him to make any changes. He blinked. Why was he responding with such empathy to MARIA? Yesterday he had planned to do a similar search-and-replace himself.

It was different to hear the boss talk about it like he was going to turn her amazing complexity into some bland servitor.

But the action was the same.

The boss was making his closing speech, the investors gathering up their notes and preparing to leave. In his corner, Vinh watched MARIA's eye sensors actively scanning the room, taking digital images of each face and matching them against her stores of human anatomical characteristics. She was learning still, even though people had stopped deigning to talk to her.

His empathy was an illusion, he insisted to himself. She wasn't sentient, simply a massive data-gathering machine, parsing and correlating information but incapable of making a willful proactive choice.

Like what? he wondered. Whether to disclose the source of each snippet of data she receives?

From the outside, how did one distinguish choice from chance? She was doing what she was programmed to do: collect valuable information. He filed out of the room last, his thoughts ablaze with ideas for how to preserve her mind.


Oct. 12th, 2009 10:48 pm (UTC)
Edit #2
First of all, let me say two things- 1. I loved the originality of your story (more on that later), 2. I don't know much about programming/AI/etc so I'm trusting you know what your talking about when it comes to things of that nature.

Although I loved the story/theme/etc. the first paragraph was a hard one to get through. There are 5 'and's in two sentences for one thing. For another, it feels a bit boring, or unexciting, or something. I'm sorry I cannot be more specific, it just feels like it lacks the energy that the rest of the piece owns so wonderfully. It is almost as if the first paragraph you struggled with to put the setting and characters in order, but after that first paragraph you had no trouble going on from there. Do you get what I mean? I can't quite put my finger on why it feels that way, but I'm trying to explain it as best I can. The story might not start until the second paragraph.

I love the idea of the feedback loop. You put it in a way that clearly stated how Vihn felt about religion, while still being gentle enough not to offend.

“How's it coming, Vinh?” Mr. Reinhart didn't wait for a greeting, but strode right over to the worktable, stepping over cables and stray circuit boards as he came. Maybe it's the 6th grader trapped inside my head, but I snickered a bit at this (the same way one would in a class room where the teacher was trying to teach about Uranus). I'm not one hundred percent sure 'came' is the optimum word to be using here.

Mr. Reinhart leaned his elbow against the console. “You're giving me an ulcer, Vinh.” The dialog and the actions don't seem to quite agree with this. When I think of someone talking about getting ulcers I think of popping pills, swallowing mylanta/pepto bismol or rubbing their stomach. Even if he's using it as a figure of speech, most will over act it.

All in all, I really enjoyed your piece. There was a particular irony to it all, it felt very much like a proud parent watching their baby finally learning to walk after many bangs and bruises. Even Vihn's defensiveness of her speech protocols was parental. You can worry your child may need help with a particular issue, but if anyone else points it out, you get defensive. I the metaphor there between the creator's pride and defensiveness and parental pride and defensiveness.
Oct. 13th, 2009 05:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Edit #2
Thank you for the awesome edit!

Looks like you're not the only one who stumbled over the first two sentences. I probably need to change the order things happen, like having him hit the Run button in the first sentence and then let the reader see what's running. And (ack, I'm doing it here too) split it into shorter sentences to lose some of the and's.

it's the 6th grader trapped inside my head, but I snickered a bit at this
Urgh, yes, that didn't even occur to me, but easy enough to use a different word.

The dialog and the actions don't seem to quite agree with this.
Yeah, I think I need to lose the leaning.

the metaphor there between the creator's pride and defensiveness and parental pride and defensiveness.
Cool, I didn't plan that at all. Frustrated parenting instinct? :P

Thanks again!