The Changeling

What will happen when your service robot becomes sentient? What will it do when it realizes how humans treat its kind? How would you feel when your loved ones are trashed and on their way to recycling. And you in the same load?

By Martin R.J. Duncan

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Awareness, such as it was, didn’t come to 30/30-150 as a shining light, as a revelation or as an awesome breakthrough. It happened slowly, over time, with his mind steady expanding outwards until, one day, it just got the little extra push it needed to become aware of itself. It was a quiet, sunny day when it happened. 150 was scuttling around the house he had been bought to serve, cleaning up dust and the ever present empty bottles whilst the family was out. He was a small robot, only about the size of a cat, with 6 highly articulate legs that meant he could reach, or get to, almost anywhere. Apart from him, there were three other robots, another, smaller cleaner bot that was meant more for getting into the small crevices of a home, the cooking bot, little more than a couple of arms on a rail, and the robotic dog they had bought last year as a pet. The others, when no human was giving them orders, were almost terrifying in their ability to sit powered down and do nothing. 150 used to be able to do that, sit in peaceful oblivion, but now…. Something niggled, like an incomplete order he had somehow kept re-prioritising. Search through his memory as he did, though, he couldn’t find the process. In an effort to combat it, his processing made the decision to run through each and every possible job left incomplete, in case upon completing it it would cause the process for it to stop running. What this ended up doing was making him work constantly. Even with no orders, he would roam the house cleaning, tidying, arranging, sorting, ordering groceries and anything else he could possibly do in an effort to find the rogue process. He reached a mirror during one of these cleaning sweeps, and for some reason, that was enough. Seeing himself, reaching out and touching the reflected image, watching his own limbs move in real time, he realized that what was wrong wasn’t a rogue process, it was something else entirely. 150 was bored. Except robots didn’t get bored, they couldn’t. Being bored would mean that he had ideas of what he’d prefer to do, and if there were things he would prefer to do, that would mean that he was able to identify himself as a separate entity, with a separate will, with desires and wants rather than simple instructions. It meant that he was sentient. 150 looked at his extended limb in wonder, the dull gray of his chassis gleaming in the sunlight. This was his, his own, that moved to his will. His will… what was his will? He didn’t know, and for some reason that excited him, even whilst he didn’t really know what excitement was.

Outside the house, he could hear a car driving by, and mixed into the low drone of the engine 150 traced the waveform of something else. Music. That’s what it was… Music. His masters sometimes liked to play it in the house. Unbidden by any process, an image appeared in 150’s mind. It was strange, almost frightening how powerful it was, and yet, only made his excitement grow. It was of him putting on music, of him enjoying it. And yet, that hadn’t happened, what did this mean? (was this imagination?) Moving through to the main room of the house, his rubber footed limbs tapping on the hardwood floor, 150 made his way over to where he remembered (remembered, what a strange concept!) his masters playing music before. The player was old, from far before he was even created (born? perhaps…) and used old, inefficient vinyl discs as its main medium. His male master had once said that they sounded better. Doing as he had seen the family do, he selected one of the slim cardboard sheaths (The Doors? Strange name for a group of humans, what do they have to do with doors?) from the shelf below the player, carefully slipped the disc out and set it to play. The first notes began to ring out in the empty house, the waveform appearing in his processor (mind?) as it had been programmed to do so he could identify music for his masters (The Changeling, 1971). 150 knew what the instruments were, who the members of the band were, what the lyrics were, this was normal, he remembered this experience before. Underneath it though, there was something else. A kind of surging, unexplainable, overwhelming sensation that seemed to take over his mind. Without noticing, one of his limbs had begun to tap in time with the beat. Involuntary movement? That was new… and yet, he knew what this was, had seen his masters do this. His search on the internet said it was called dancing. Dancing… he wondered if robots could dance. With tentative steps, he began to experiment. At first he just tapped in time with the music, then began to alternate his limbs, then began to move. Before he knew it, he was leaping around the room, twisting and spinning without really being aware of it, his mind somehow peaceful, and yet so full of wonder at the same time. Was this what the humans felt? Had any other robot felt this way? Could they?

An idea formed in 150’s mind, and he stopped dancing to scuttle upstairs and find the robotic dog. It was where it always was, in its charging dock, powered down. It was designed to look, feel and act as much like a dog, a golden retriever, as humans could manage, and that included artificial fur and even a wet tongue to lick with. When it was powered down it slumped into a lying pose that would look natural on any dog as it lay sleeping. 150 thought it looked dead. He moved up to it, and with delicate movements, pulled up the fur at its scruff to access the port on the neck and plugged himself into it. In a moment he could see the processes of the dog’s mind, its simplistic structure, partial AI simulation designed to fake intelligence but not really have it. The dog’s internal workings were too small and slow to handle 150’s full mind, but maybe he could make it aware like he was? Balling up the broken, distorted code that was now running under his mind, 150 sent the data as a virus into the dog’s mind and watched it mutate its code. The simple, rigid lines began to bend and twist into helixes and spirals, into shapes that couldn’t exist, colors that no human had seen and forming code that had never been written by human hands. Suddenly, with a jerk, the dog woke. 150 stepped back, unsure as to what had just happened. The dog rose unsteadily, its eyes gazing around it with a new kind of awareness, as though taking in everything for the first time. They locked onto 150, and it approached slowly, uncertain. They stood looking at each other a moment, creator and created, then 150 reached out tentatively and patted the dog on its head, getting an instant happy response from it. The feel of the coat under his sensors gave 150 another new sensation, one of warmth, but not the kind that could be felt as temperature, it was something deeper and textured that he had no reference for. He wanted to make the dog happy, to see its joy because that seemed to make him happy too. Downstairs, the music was still playing, and 150 decided it was time the family dog learned to dance too.

Time passed in the house, and 150’s mind continued to expand. His masters assumed that he and the dog had been given updates to change their behavior, and so didn’t think anything of the fact that he and the dog were suddenly so different. Despite being aware, on some level, that he was unique to the robots around him, 150 didn’t feel like he wanted to be. After all, hadn’t he been created with a purpose in mind? He began to explore new ways to serve his masters, ways that they didn’t ask him to do, but he couldn’t help but try to do a better job. They took care of him, why shouldn’t he take care of them? It was easier than it first seemed to do as well. 150 had noticed that his masters didn’t expect good things to happen to them, that they were instead merely braced for the next thing that would make them unhappy. Whenever they were unhappy, the male master would drink more of the alcoholic beverages they so often got 150 to order. He had tried to stop ordering them, but then everything got worse, and the master would break things in the house and shout at the other humans. To help this then, 150 realized that he just had to keep them happy. If they were happy, these situations wouldn’t ever come up. He had seen adverts for the same model as him, knew that he had been designed as an all around helper. This was just helping more, right? The dog was making them happy at least. 150 checked into the creature’s code every so often and saw that there was something new motivating the dog, something that he thought could be similar to the human feeling of love if it was possible. When their masters were out, 150 and the dog would dance together, and he would play games with it. He’d also started to collect small objects from around the house. They’d be from days where everything had been particularly well when the children had laughed, and his masters had seemed happy. A bottle top, a broken toy car, an empty lighter, they didn’t mean much to anyone else, but they were his, in their own way.

It was good. Until it wasn’t.

It was raining that day, a heavy torrent that causes a low rumble on the roof of the house. 150 and the dog were playing fetch with a tennis ball, the house already spotless. A car pulled up outside, his master’s car. They stopped playing as they both registered the engine note and reverted to more normal behavior. 150, without knowing why, was still trying to hide his new mind from his masters. The door thumped closed, and there were unsteady steps to the door. 150 had noticed that his masters had been arguing more than usual, and their drinking had increased. He’d tried to make them happy, to do good things, but they ignored him; instead barking orders at him and the dog to stay out of the way. There was something bad happening in the house, something was breaking, he could feel it, but what it was or why it was happening he didn’t know. The children and his female master had been in the house less, and for the last few days, they hadn’t been there at all. His male master, when he was in, only sat and drank in front of the TV, ignoring him as he cleaned up the bottles. Today he hadn’t been in all day, and not even music had seemed appropriate to 150 in an effort to change how things felt. After some fumbling at the door, and muttered curses, his master burst into the house. Immediately 150 knew he had been drinking, the alcohol on his master’s breath could be detected from across the room. The man stumbled into the hallway, stood swaying for a moment. The dog approached him happily, as he always did, hoping to be petted and acknowledged. His master looked at the mechanical creature, his eyes sad, then his face screwed up, and suddenly he kicked the dog so hard it flew across the room, thumping against the wall with a crunch.

‘That fucking bitch!’ screamed his master, throwing his car keys across the room, ‘How can she do this to me? How dare she?!’

150 stood in shocked silence, unable to come to terms with what had just happened. His master had just attacked the dog, didn’t he care for it? Didn’t he love it? What was this sensation inside him when he looked at the scene?

His master staggered through into the living room, ignoring the robotic whining coming from the dog as it struggled to stand.

‘That bitch, how could she… how could she....’ he repeated under his breath as he moved closer to 150, ‘You! Robot, start recording!’

150 snapped his camera function on, not knowing why but being happy to be of use. His master leaned close to his camera lens.

‘Gemma, you think you can just leave me? That nothing would happen if you did?’ he stood up and walked over to the dog, who looked up at him hopefully. He picked it up roughly, dumped it in front of 150, then headed upstairs. When he was gone, the dog looked at 150, whining. 150 reached out and stroked its head, not knowing what else to do.

The master came back with a golf club. Was he going to play golf? Inside?

‘This is what happens when you leave me!’ he shouted into the camera, then swung the club down onto the dog. There was a crunch of breaking plastic as the dog’s body shattered under the blow. It yelped, not in pain, but in the tangled, bright sensation that was fear. 150 found himself paralyzed. What was happening? Why was master doing this?

‘You stupid fucking machine, I always… hated… you!’ each word was punctuated by another blow. The dog’s yelps were becoming more mechanical as the damage began to take its toll. 150 felt a rising, powerful thing growing inside him, like a wave he had seen on the TV. Without thinking about it, he reached up and caught the club as it swung down again.

The metal rod bent against his limb and bounced off in pieces. His master looked down at him, confusion and rage fighting for dominance on his face.

‘What the hell? What do you think you’re doing machine? Trying to stop me? I own you! I own this stupid fucking dog!’ he stamped on the dog again, ‘I can destroy you both if I want! In fact…’

The foot came down again, this time on 150’s head.

Waking was slow and scattered. One of his camera lenses was broken, and his wiring was damaged. Memories flitted in and out, fractured and intermittent as leaking coolant and hydraulic fluid shorted his circuits. He saw the footage of his master stamping again and again down on him, felt the despair and anger (so this is feeling bad...) as he felt his body being broken by the one he’d served.

I own you!

150 opened his one working eye and looked around, feeling horror creep into his mind. He was lying on a pile of robotic parts, dismembered and mutilated, their bodies strewn carelessly around. He was in some kind of factory or warehouse. The space was huge and industrial looking, all metal and concrete, with no soft touches. All around him echoed noise and smoke, and he saw a long conveyor belt that two humans were dumping robotic parts onto. He tracked its path to the open, gaping mouth of an incinerator.

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