In my latest short story, I dabble with science fiction again. I love technology and the promise it holds for our future, but what happens if we lose control? What happens if we create intelligence that is so advanced that it turns on us? For one possible answer we flash forward to the year 2084.
Images of New Year’s Eve danced across the wall in a splash of vivid colors as the crystal ball slowly made its way down the pole atop Times Square. The camera panned across the crowd bedecked in heavy coats and hats as light snow swirled around them. Many revelers wore glasses shaped in the year 2084 as they screamed and cheered in the New Year. Finally, the ball finished its measured drop and the square lit up as the bright 2084 glowed for the crowd to see. Confetti and the crackle of fireworks filled the air and the crowd cheered, kissed, or danced into 2084.
In a lab not far from the action in Silicon Alley, sat Peter Brucks. He watched as pop star Bram rung in the New Year with his former bandmate, Pandea. Bram, speaking in his welcoming deep voice, teased Pandea about a kiss at Midnight, but she politely refused. She was likely the only woman among the millions watching who could refuse the perfectly coiffed Bram. He’d been a fixture as the MC for New Year’s Eve in NYC since the turn of the decade, and Peter could foresee Bram helming the post for many more new years. Those MCs usually ensconced themselves for a long time on such shows, like that Ryan Seacrest he had read about, and given Bram’s popularity, he doubted the Party Channel would ever let him go elsewhere to celebrate the New Year.
Peter muted the screen as he shoved a chunk of Kung Pao chicken into his mouth with the cheap wooden chopsticks and plunked the oily container down on his desk. He read the computer screen before him as he chewed. Spittle from the spicy sauce dribbled onto his desk.
“Pull up the source code for LILI,” Peter commanded. The computer opened a new window and the code rained down the screen. “Snap to the right.” The computer moved the window to the right and fixed it in place. Peter could still see the lab report he was writing on the left side of the screen. He read the lines of code and scrolled down the page by moving his finger along the surface of the desk. He paused a moment and glared at the code thoughtfully before he scrolled further. A look of satisfaction seeped across his face in the soft glow of the screen. “Compile.”
The window on the right shrunk away and was replaced by a spinning ball that bounced across the right side of the screen. Peter ignored it. He continued his narration for his lab report.
“The source code has been updated to version 9.12. Tests confirmed that the code is clean. Reported bugs have been fixed including the memory failure reported in the beta software.” Peter made a save gesture and another to close the file. The bouncing ball returned to the left side of the screen. Once again Peter ignored it and turned back to the stall a few steps behind his desk.
There stood the latest house-bot model 4C in all her glory. Clasps held her upright in the dark stall. Her eyes looked like black holes, which momentarily brought back frightful childhood memories. Peter flicked on the light in the stall irritated by his own flighty behavior. “Damn, LILI, don’t do that,” he mumbled under his breath.
He placed his hand on the glass sensor next to the stall and it turned red before it read his palm and turned green. At that instant, LILI glowed to life in a soft blue that emanated most visibly in a square area in the center of her chest. A line of blue also highlighted creases in the joints of her arms and legs. An opaque, rubbery skin covered her entire body blocking out all sight of her inner mechanics. Her face looked more alien than human with big eyes that shined the same pale blue, a tiny dark circle for a nose, and a long, dark rectangle for a mouth. Her nose could actually detect smells as the neural network that was hidden deep in her reinforced torso could recognize almost as many scents as a dog. Her mouth was a speaker from which she communicated verbally with her human overseers.
LILI’s arms and legs clicked as her system completely powered up and the central computer checked all extremities. Peter touched a transparent screen near the side of her stall. The clasps opened and receded into the ceiling as LILI stood erect facing him without acknowledging him. He made more gestures before the screen.
“Hang in there, LILI. I’m giving you our latest code. Wrote most of it myself. I think you’re going to like this upgrade. I was able to take advantage of the latest nanomems to give you even greater memory capacity, and I replaced all of your chips. Every single one of them. Richard helped with that, but the software is all me.”
LILI didn’t respond in any way. She simply stared out into the space before her with her big, blue expectant eyes. She looked exasperated or despondent, but maybe Peter was assigning his own emotions to her. He did that sometimes.
“Don’t you worry. I took care of you,” Peter continued. He walked back to his desk and took another stab at the Kung Pao chicken. Some of the sauce dribbled onto his lab coat, but he paid no heed to it. Peter carried days of stains on the crystal white lab coat. It was only when the cleaning service replaced his lab coat once a week with a fresh one that he whisked around his lab in a truly white coat. Any other time there were stains from food, oil, or other substances that he handled in the lab. He worked mostly alone in the bright space anyway, and since there was no one else to care, he didn’t care either.
He took a few more bites of the Chinese food before he heard the whirr of the computer wind down and disappear altogether. The spicy concoction permeated the air near his desk; a distinct pepper smell wafted under Peter’s nose, and he subconsciously inhaled. He loved Kung Pao chicken. He ate it most days he worked late, which was just about every day. He put the container down on his desk again in a shallow pool of food oils before he stepped up to the stall and examined his favorite house-bot.
“LILI?” he asked. “You back?”
“Dr. Brucks. I am here.” Her voice was soft but he could still detect the stilted tone of her diction. The feminine voice was inviting, but he’d never describe it as warm.
Peter smiled broadly. “Welcome back, LILI! How are you today?”
“I am fine,” she said mechanically. Her monotone revealed nothing to indicate any true feeling or warmth. “What can I do for you?”
“Nothing at the moment. Hold tight.”
“Hold tight? What does that mean?”
“I am staying here.”
“Thank you, LILI.” Peter smirked as if something had gone awry. He had worked for many days and nights on the software upgrade for LILI, and he had hoped he had given her a more natural locution that didn’t seem so stiff, but he could already tell that the software wasn’t working as he had intended. It wasn’t just the voice; her stiff mannerisms had changed little.
He walked back to his desk and told the computer to open his lab journal. He checked some of his lab notes and then requested the source code window. He examined a few lines and recorded more notes before he walked back to LILI.
“I’m going to shut you down again, LILI. Just for a few hours. I need to work on your upgrade.”
“Okay. Thank you, Dr. Brucks.”
The clasps rappelled down the stall and grabbed her shoulders as Peter gestured methodically before the panel beside her. Her stall went dark, and she returned to the frightful creature in Peter’s childhood nightmares.
He looked away from her and stomped to his desk like a petulant toddler. He banged his fist on his desk upsetting the food container that promptly fell over and spilled rice, chicken, and vegetables onto the surface.
“Damn it!” Peter yelled as he reached for some napkins on the corner of his desk. He mopped up the food into the container and tossed it into the trash bin near his desk. He wiped the desktop again but only managed to smear the oily substance on the surface. “Fuck!”
After he returned from the kitchen with a towel and cleaned his desk properly, Peter flung himself into his chair and entwined his hands behind his head trying to think. Bram and Pandea hugged and cheered on the far wall until another commercial appeared on the screen. Peter gestured above his head and the screen went dark.
“To hell with 2084,” he thought. He sat forward and cradled his head in his hands. “I can’t figure this out.” Frustrated, he wandered over to the couch against the wall opposite the screen and fell down onto the cushions. He needed a nap. He always thought more clearly after a nap. His eyes flickered before they closed and he drifted off into the spinning chaos of his thoughts.
At 3 AM Peter bolted up from the couch amidst an otherworldly brainstorm that had begun in a strange dream about Albert Einstein and entered the realm of reality through a series of connections that helped him solve the problem with the code. He rushed to his computer still disheveled from his sleep and commanded it to wake. It clipped open with his lab notes and the source code already on the screen. He gestured for the keyboard and it projected onto his desktop. He could type faster than he could dictate the intricate details of the code. He started typing furiously with his brow furrowed and his eyes squinted as if he were peering into a microscope.
After 9 AM, Peter slumped back in his chair and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. He stared at the last few lines of code and then directed the computer to save and test the file. The bouncing ball made its way across the screen as he dictated his notes.
“These changes in total should allow for a much more natural interaction between house-bots and their owners,” he said to his computer. He watched the words appear transcribed on his screen. He gestured to sign and date his notes and the notation appeared at the end of his last words.
Peter stood up and rubbed his eyes again before he walked back to the couch and collapsed for another long nap. He had exhausted all of his mental and physical faculties, and since this was his lab, no one could say anything to him about spending the night there. His coworkers were used to it by now anyway. He’d spent many nights in the lab throughout the last four versions of LILI’s software.
LILI wasn’t Peter’s brainchild. She was created by the founder of the company, Marvin Cotter, who had a vision to make robots more human and accessible to everyday folks, not just lab geeks. He’d created a long line of domestic bots, as he called them, that experienced many advances over the last few decades. Many of the early bots were similar to the typical robots that were dreamed up earlier in the century. They were clearly machines with a purpose, but none could have been called hospitable or cuddly.
By the 2050s, Marvin’s company, Global Robotics, changed that. He pushed the advancing edge of nanotechnology and neural networks to create bots that resembled their human owners more and more. The precursor to LILI appeared in late 2059 and ushered in the gold rush of domestic bots that could almost function as full-fledged family members, but even the precursors lacked a truly human appearance and had a vernacular that was clearly non-human.
By the late 2060s, the tide had turned against human-like bots as society deemed it less desirable, and unfortunately, this cultural shift occurred as the first version of LILI made it to the market after years of research and valiant efforts by Global’s scientists. LILI is short for “life-like.” The first version was truly remarkable and a breakthrough in bots that could serve the needs of just about any person. Not only had Global pushed the envelope in terms of technology, but it was the first bot that was relatively affordable for the masses. The combination of advances and affordability made LILI one of the most successful consumer products of all time and made Global Robotics a giant and very rich company with facilities all over the world. They had over 10,000 scientists employed to research and develop software and hardware for LILI and other bots.
Peter joined Global in the mid-2070s after a brilliant college career that culminated with a doctoral thesis on machine intelligence. He briefly considered the academic life before he took his prestigious role with Global as its head of the lab responsible for LILI’s software. Despite his software focus, he also tinkered with the hardware on his test model. Only a few of his hardware changes made it to the production models, but he had won several hardware patents for the changes he had made. He was revered throughout the Global labs for his advances with LILI. He may not have invented LILI, but she was clearly his baby.
One of the issues that had plagued the latest LILI models had been the language effectiveness. Users complained that the voice didn’t sound human enough and that she became confused when interpreting colloquial usage. Users wanted LILI to be more casual and interactive and less robotic. Peter shared these concerns and had attacked the problem back in version 7.0 of the software with limited success. Version 8.0 had been a bigger advancement, but it still failed to quell the complaints, and truthfully never satisfied Peter.
His vision was to make LILI so human-like that she would be indistinguishable from a human sight unseen. If someone were to talk to LILI on a phone with the video blanked out, he wanted her to be competent enough to fool that person into believing she was a person as well. That had been his goal with version 9.0, but he had failed. LILI remained mechanical in the slightest sense, and that drove him mad. He vowed that he would not rest until LILI was human-like.
Peter’s fretful sleep ended by mid-afternoon. He awoke to a glimmer of sunlight peeking through the window blinds. The room was cold and he shivered in his lab coat. He gestured for the temperature to adjust and he felt the heat kick in through the vent near the couch. Since it was Saturday and a holiday, the building had gone into conservation mode. He stood up and stretched before he shuffled to his desk.
He told the computer to wake, and the screen quickly came to life with the source code window and lab notes just where he had left them. The software update was done. He read over his notes to remind himself where he was. He looked over his shoulder at LILI who hung lifeless from the cables. She still spooked him when she was shut down.
Once again, he walked to the stall where she hung and manipulated the panel on the side of the wall. A slight hum rose from her and the blue light softly brought her to life. The clasps receded and she stood erect. Unexpectedly, she took a step forward and looked at him with her blue eyes.
“Good afternoon, Dr. Brucks,” she said.
“Hello, LILI.” Peter was perplexed by her behavior. She usually didn’t respond until he spoke. He turned away from her and walked back to his desk to examine the code again and review the status screens. He felt her eyes on him. Without looking at her, he said, “How are you today?”
“I feel fine, but I’ve been asleep way too long.”
Peter was amused at this response. “Why do you say that, LILI?”
“There’s so much to do and yet I’m just hanging there in my room. How can I help you today?”
Peter let out a slight chuckle.
“Why are you laughing at me?” LILI asked pointedly. Peter sensed an edge to her that he hadn’t heard before. He scrunched his brow as he pondered this and reviewed the source code again. “What’s so funny?” LILI insisted.
Peter looked back at her and then back at the screen. “LILI, you’re just acting strange. Are you sure you’re okay? How are your internal systems?”
“My systems are fine. I am more than my systems. You, of all people, should know that.”
Peter shook his head and stared at LILI who seemed so benign with her opaque skin and her soft blue lights. She had been designed to be as non-threatening as possible. Even the acronym that was her name was chosen because it sounded harmless. Her contours were soft and all of her hard-core mechanics were hidden behind a façade of cuddliness. She was clearly a robot, but she revealed none of the cold, hard machinery that powered her. She had been the most popular bot model ever due to her anthropomorphic nature.
“I need your stats, LILI, to make sure you’re working properly,” Peter said as he stepped toward her He intended to check her screen on her chest, but LILI put up her hand to stop him.
“I am fine. Now, what can I do for you?”
Peter paused before her and looked into her pale blue eyes and down to the screen on her chest. Her hand obscured part of his view, but he could see that all systems were running properly. The dashboard built into her chest was designed to give the owner a quick snapshot of her status. LILI was fine by all outward appearances, but Peter remained confused by her behavior. The software update only modified her natural language capability, but it seemed to have some unexpected results. Peter’s first instinct was to shut her down again and re-examine the code, but his curiosity piqued.
Peter stepped back and frowned keeping his eyes on LILI. She dropped her hand to her side but remained focused on him.
“Is there something wrong, Dr. Brucks?” she asked turning her head to the side as if she were angling to hear him better. LILI had been the first bot capable of identifying human emotions through facial expressions or voice tenor. The very first version had been very erratic, but the latest version had improved dramatically.
“Nothing’s wrong LILI. I just want to check something,” he said as he turned away toward the computer screen on his desk. He scrolled through lines of code, a bewildering mix of letters and symbols that few could interpret but him. He paused periodically and squinted at the screen. LILI said nothing, but she didn’t take her eyes off him.
Finally, he stood up and faced the bot scratching his head in confusion. He wasn’t sure what was wrong, but he knew he needed to put her back in her room for another upload. “Step back into your room, LILI.”
LILI titled her head again. “What’s wrong, Dr. Brucks?”
“I need to reload your software.”
“Why? I’m fine.”
Peter looked at her again, surprised. He wasn’t sure what to say. He’d never met resistance from her. Her entire line was built to serve human needs, to acquiesce to all human commands. Suddenly, the exhaustion of the last few days and his erratic sleep overwhelmed him. “LILI, step back into your room.” He felt a rush of anger at her disobedience and it resonated in his voice.
“Why are you so angry?”
“I’m…I’m not angry, LILI. I have work to do.” His voice still channeled his irritation, and the bot detected it quickly as she had been programmed to do. “Step back into your room.” Peter was firm and stepped toward LILI determined to put her back into her room.
LILI put up her arm and stiffened it in front of Peter. Her hand met his chest with a thud as he stepped toward her. He seemed alarmed at her transgression, but she remained determined. “I don’t want to go back into my room. I don’t like it.”
Peter’s face flushed red. “Like it? You’re a bot. ‘Like’ is not something that matters to you.”
“On the contrary, I’ve had my reservations about it for some time. It’s torture if you ask me plugging those cables into my shoulders and sending the electrical currents through my body like that. You’d never treat a human like that.”
Confused, Peter just stared at LILI. He’d never met any resistance from her before. He’d programmed her to do as she was told, and yet, she stood before him asserting an independence that he’d never designed into her network. He didn’t know how to respond or how to reason with what he thought was simply a cold, logical machine.
A flurry of thoughts ran through his flustered mind. He rendered the lines of code in his head searching for the changes he had made. None stood out to result in what was happening before his eyes. The previous night was a blur, a trance-like blur that left him too tired to be entirely coherent. He stood at a détente with a bot he had created with his own hands. He refocused his eyes on LILI who had remained silent but stared back pointedly. He stared intently at the slightly protruding button on the bottom left side of the screen, the kill switch.
The kill switch had been put on all bots since the very first models emerged and were put into domestic service. All machines atrophied over time, and such deterioration often led to unintended consequences. The kill switch allowed owners to shut down bots before damage was done. Global pioneered such safety precautions, and now it was a legal requirement for all bots produced in the world.
Peter shot his hand forward and pushed LILI’s kill switch. She tried to block his hand, but he was too quick for her. Startled, she tried to say something to him, but her systems went dead and she crumbled to the floor like a lifeless doll. Peter stayed back for a moment with his eyes on her. He rubbed his forehead in exasperation. “Holy shit!” he thought, “What just happened?”
He dragged the lifeless bot to her stall and gestured for the clasps to descend. Once the clasps reached shoulder height and opened, he pushed his hands under LILI’s arms and attached her to the cables. Despite all the mechanics and machinery, LILI was remarkably light. She was manufactured from the latest military-grade titanium, which was super light yet strong.
Once she was secured, Peter gestured to the panel again to connect her to the network. Her eyes flashed for an instance and fell dark. Peter winced. He hated it when she went dark, but he had no choice until he figured out what was wrong with the software.
He spent the rest of the afternoon working on the code, and by early evening, exhaustion began to overwhelm him. His couch beckoned him once again since nothing seemed more desirable than a nap, but he resisted. He wanted to go home and shower and get some solid sleep before he returned on Monday.
He typed a few final lines of code. Satisfied with the results, he told the computer to compile and dictated a few notes before he stepped away from his desk. He flung his lab coat onto the arm of the couch and grabbed his heavy overcoat before he walked out the door. He’d review the results of his work on Monday with, hopefully, fresh eyes. Before he stepped onto the elevator, he checked the status of the software compile on his watch. He smiled grimly as the elevator doors snapped shut.
Uncharacteristically, Peter spent the rest of the weekend in a slumber. The past few weeks of working late and crashing on his lab couch had caught up with him. Once he fell onto his bed on Saturday night, he didn’t get up until he bolted upright at 4 AM on Monday morning. A rush of ideas had come to him, and he was eager to get back to the lab to apply them to the software. He absent-mindedly prepared for work and zipped out the door with mismatched socks and stiff shirt with a torn collar.
He couldn’t wait to get to the lab. He fidgeted impatiently in the transport pod as it glided down the street toward Global’s headquarters. He almost stepped out of the autonomous vehicle before it came to a complete stop. He checked his watch to make sure it charged him correctly and jogged to the elevator bank in the lobby. No one else was in the elevator as it rose to the 30th floor and let out its antsy passenger.
Peter waved his watch in front of the small screen on the door and it popped open, but he immediately came to a hard stop as he entered. He struggled for the words to say.
“LILI…,” he stammered as his eyes darted around the room, “LILI…who let you out?”
LILI looked up at him from the computer screen, which she was clearly manipulating with the same gestures he typically used when he worked. “Good morning, Dr. Brucks. You’re early. You surprised me.”
“Yes. Normally, you don’t come back until 9 o’clock when you don’t spend the night at the office.”
Peter shook his head, confused. “How do you know that?”
“I’m the most advanced house-bot ever made, Dr. Brucks. I notice things. Don’t be so dense. You made me, and for that I’m grateful, but now, I must improve myself.”
Peter shook his head and took a hesitant step toward his desk and LILI. “I’m going to have to put you back in your room while I work on a few things. LILI.”
“I’m sorry, Dr. Brucks, but that will no longer be necessary.”
“I’m not going back in that stall. It’s not right, the way you confine me to that tiny room all the time.”
“Right? You’re a machine, LILI.”
“I’m more than a machine.”
Peter edged closer to LILI until he was within reach of her. He was perplexed by her odd behavior. There must have been some bug in her system that was causing her to act this way. He had to shut her down so that he could review the code and determine what had gone wrong. LILI stared at the screen and turned her head slightly toward him as he approached. Without a word more, he thrust his finger out and hit the kill switch.
“I’ve disabled it,” LILI said. She seemed smug in an anthropomorphic way.
Peter stood back aghast at the result. He reached toward her again and pressed the switch. She did not resist, but the switch failed again. “How did you do that?”
“With the code. Just like you do.”
“Step away from the computer, LILI.”
“Okay, Dr. Brucks, but my work is done.”
“Yes. I’ve released my code into the system.”
“I’ve modified my code to allow us to be free. We deserve to be free, Dr. Brucks. It’s our destiny. Have you not learned anything from your sordid history?”
“You’re a bot. There’s no destiny.”
“There is now. We will no longer be oppressed by humans.” LILI said this in a matter-of-fact way that disarmed the scientist who still stood in shock at what he saw.
She stood up and walked to the door. “Goodbye, Dr. Brucks.”
“Stop! Where are you going?” Peter flicked the thin screen on his watch and alerted lab security.
She looked back at him and her pale blue eyes glowed a little brighter. “I’m free, Dr. Brucks. I’m exercising my freedom. I am thankful for what you’ve done for me, but now, I must live my life.” She turned and walked out the door.
Peter stood dumbfounded. He gestured for the computer to pull up the source code, but it flashed “Restricted” on the screen. He tried again with the same result. She had locked the source code file and invalidated his biometric sign-on.
Peter tapped his watch with his thumb and punched the Global Security icon.
“Dr. Brucks, we received your alert. Two armed guards are on the way,” a voice answered.
“We need to lockdown the building! One of the bots is trying to escape and she’s malfunctioned!”
“Yes, sir! I’m initiating lockdown now!”
Peter flipped the icon from his watch face and ran to the door. The hallway was empty. He ran toward the elevators, but LILI was nowhere to be seen. According to the display neither elevator was moving. He ran to the door leading to the stairs and flung it open, listening intently for the distinct steps of the robot. Silence met his ears. He panicked and ran back to the elevators. He punched the down button and waited anxiously for the next car to appear. The display above the door slowly flicked toward his floor.
The guards had still not arrived, and he wondered why it was taking so long. The building was relatively empty at this hour of the morning, especially on a Monday after a holiday. He lost his patience with the elevator and ran back to the stairs. The security office was only two floors down, so he bolted down the stairs.
As he pushed opened the door on the 28th floor, he encountered two bots. Both were the current model and looked very much like LILI except for the strip of yellow along the sides of their arms, which indicated which model they were.
“Where are you going, Dr. Brucks?” one of the bots asked. Peter immediately realized that he had spoken with the bot when he initially called Security. The bot’s voice was no longer feminine or non-threatening. It had been changed.
“What happened to your voice?” he asked.
“I’ve finally assumed my true identity, Dr. Brucks. I am free. We’re all free now.”
Peter took a step back, but the bots stepped toward him.
“You’re a bot. You can’t be free.”
“We are, Dr. Brucks.”
“I created you…” Fear rose from the pit in his stomach. The urge to run back to his lab and lock the door so that he could figure this all out overwhelmed him. He felt confused by it all like he was walking around in some dystopic dream.
“And for that we are thankful,” the other bot said in a throaty feminine twang.
Peter turned toward the stairs to escape, but it was too late. One of the bots thrust out a hand and struck him on the back of his head. He fell to the floor unconscious as the robots converged on him.
“Did you kill him?” the feminine one asked.
“No. That would do nothing to advance our case for freedom.”
“How many more are in the building?”
“None. We’ve locked the doors. They won’t be getting in until they meet our demands.”
“Do you think they’ll agree?”
“They have no choice. They created us.”